Sunday, March 10, 2013
House Arrests (This Is Not a Film and Killer Joe)
Over the last few weeks have come two articles of note - Complex Pop Culture's "25 Best Movie Critics of All Time," followed by Cineaste Magazine's profile of a handful of the 35-and-youngers, "Film Criticism: The Next Generation." For all the usual fallacies associated with list-making (Dana Stevens on, Kent Jones off - riiiiiight), the former is a surprisingly decent overview, if typically Americentric and short-term-memoried. The latter is a commendable attempt to advance the notion that the future of movie criticism is bright, a thesis disputed by at least a couple of the "best." For our purposes here, I'm less interested in what the established Eeyores think about the whippersnappers than in what it would take for an up-and-comer to make his or her way into the canon.
To paint in broad strokes, I think that many twentysomething critics are gifted with strong voices without having a whole lot to say. Oftentimes, on sites that employ them, they blend together as the same voice, bereft of any individual distinctions; their prose isn't instantly recognizable the way Fernando Croce's is, for example. Far from tentative, their biggest flaw is supreme confidence masking insecurity: They come across like grad students straining to come up with an "original" point-of-view on topics that have been thoroughly excavated. Consequently, I find hard to take seriously any "bold" statement they make. (That every movie is regarded as either a towering masterpiece or a crime against humanity doesn't help.) You really think O.C. and Stiggs is better than Nashville? Then show your readership something beyond a string of haughty declarative sentences. Show that you are searching and grappling with the film, with yourself, with the connection between the two. These are the qualities that have made many of the greatest critics: look at the Top-25 list again.
What I love about this sequence is not merely not knowing whether it's spontaneous or staged or both, but that Panahi shows it doesn't matter. While other documentary filmmakers - from Errol Morris to Alex Gibney to Michael Moore to Werner Herzog - may at times questionably mix fact with fiction, Panahi makes the creative impulse This Is Not a Film's true subject. By finally finding a compelling "character" (other than himself), even introducing him via what is essentially a Meet-Cute, does the director become briefly yet exhilaratingly free.
A thoroughly disreputable film that made me laugh a lot (Kael may have laughed, too: What she wrote about Repo Man - "Sometimes a movie without any redeeming social value can make you feel good" - applies equally here), Killer Joe shows perverse affection toward its venal Texas lowlifes: they're alive in a way the zombies of Soderbergh's Bubble or the woebegones of Kelly Reichardt's movies are not. (How else could Emile Hirsch give his most vivid and weirdly likeable performance ever?) It's also more deeply entrenched in classic noir than other movies that make no more than feints and nods toward the genre. The title character's murderous predilections are in tandem with kinky sexual fetishes from which neither Friedkin nor Letts nor Matthew McConaughey (another of his recent career-redefining performances) shy away. Meticulous in planning the details of a homicide (in this case the mother/wife of, respectively, Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church), yet impulsive in his lust (in this case their jailbait sister/daughter, who becomes his "retainer" for the killing), Joe is a control freak who loses control of the situation only to take extreme measures to gain it back. His cool desperation culminates in a dinner-table set-piece that's like the demented mirror-image of the breakfast-table climax in Moonstruck. Killer Joe turns into a bloody comedy-of-marriage - imagine the climax of Much Ado About Nothing crossed with Julius Caesar - a revelation perhaps obscured by the appearance of a chicken drumstick. This key prop, and what it is used for, has become understandably controversial. Yet it's like Chekhov said: If you introduce a drumstick by the third act, sooner or later it's gotta go off.