Sunday, October 28, 2012

You Oughta Be in Pictures (Argo)

The most haunting moment I've ever seen Ben Affleck deliver as an actor comes at the end of Chasing Amy: his back to the camera, having parted ways with Joey Lauren Adams, there's something about his hunched-over, defeated body language in that moment that's surprisingly moving. It has since occurred to me that most of Affleck's best moments in front of the camera have been with women, and his near-deferential air with actresses (and not just J-Lo, who has always demanded deference) has become his best quality behind it.

With Amy Ryan and Michelle Monaghan in Gone Baby Gone, then Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively in The Town, Affleck is the rare male director attuned to the nuances of his female performers without a hint of sadism or masochism. Argo doesn't have quite the same level of memorable female characters - it's more of a guy's picture, with Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin heading the cast - yet it still offers the best role for Clea Duvall in eons. She plays one of six Americans who in 1979 managed to flee the takeover of the embassy in Tehran and eventually escaped the country. I haven't seen Duvall in a movie since her memorable bit part as the prison witness who offers a key lead near the end of Zodiac, yet as always, she plays her character with total conviction. There's also an impressively tremulous performance from the strawberry-blonde Kerry Bishe as another of the escapees, and a good scene with the poker-faced Sheila Vand as an Iranian servant who may or may not reveal to the authorities that her employer, the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), is harboring the six. Even with extras, like the terrified woman who is captured at the embassy, Affleck never lingers on the moment with anything resembling the Male Gaze. He attempts to treat everybody with respect.

I wish I could say the rest of the movie was as refreshing. Looking back at my review of The Town, I see that I praised the film in spite of its being "a compendium of cliches,"so why am I panning Argo for offering more of the same? Maybe it's because a true-to-life story brings out my bullshit detector, makes me less inclined to grade on a curve. Although I am not overly literal with historical facts, and I understand that movies need drama, conflict and tension to hold our interest, there is still a difference between a film that develops these elements plausibly and organically and a film that blatantly tacks them on. The preposterous third-act of Argo begins with CIA operative Tony Mendez (Senor Affleck) having a Dark Night of the Soul, because the weenie bureaucrats back home in the States have pulled the plug on his crackpot plan to whisk the American Six out of Iran under the guise of being a Canadian film crew. Following a long, drunken evening where Mendez tours the city to the stirring tune "Freedom Isn't Free," and an awkward rendition of "Pearl Harbor Sucked, and I Miss You," Gentle Ben in the morning calls his boss (Bryan Cranston) and tells him that by golly they're going for it anyway. On the way to the airport, he explains to the Six that the Tehran Airport will be just like a Ron Howard movie, a hackneyed situation at every turn: no reservations for their flight the first time they're checked, then suddenly they're in the system the second; the obstacles placed in front of Hollywood movie-people John Chambers (Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Arkin) on the way to a ringing telephone; the wimpiest hostage who comes through with a convincing description of the movie to the Revolutionary Guard at the final checkpoint; the stalled clutch on the airport shuttle on the way to the plane; and a climactic chase on the runway so madcap it lacks only the army of monkeys from Crystal Skull.

That movie buffs are familiar with these cliches only adds to their admiration, however, the more reality-based, practical-minded of them comparing Argo to 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. While Affleck is clearly fond of those films, he, unlike Pollack and Pakula, is gun-shy about truly hurting his characters or troubling the audience. Argo is comparably fair-minded about the Middle East to other contemporary movies, blaming the U.S. for its handling of the Shah, yet nests this perspective in a chase narrative so textbook an exec like Griffin Mill would approve. ("Political doesn't scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.") Argo co-opts Alan Rudolph's pitch at the beginning of The Player down to a 'T': Affleck has made a movie that is "politely politically radical, but it's funny...and it has a heart in the right spot. It's a funny political thing. And it's a thriller too, all at once." Argo also departs from 70s cinema by emphasizing American ineffectualism and self-interest over conspiracy. I do believe that that view is closer to how it all went down; but it's also why I part ways with the comparison.

Ever since Adaptation, the more extreme cinephiles have eagerly plunged down the rabbit-hole with "meta" readings of movies like Argo that are, even peripherally, about movies. For them, Argo resorts to cliches because Affleck deliberately aims to turn an important historical event into a B-thriller - a more charitable way of saying that he made the movie "bad on purpose." (The question that's always left dangling: Wouldn't that intent be a tad reductive?) Spike Jonze, of course, did make the third act of Adaptation intentionally terrible; pumping up the melodrama was Charlie Kaufman's way out of his own dilemma (the real Kaufman's and Cage's version) of adapting an "unfilmmable" book. We're talking about Iran here, not orchids, of course; so what's Affleck's excuse? Probably the fact that the real escape somehow made it through the airport without incident. I get that an easy flight home wouldn't be too compelling onscreen. But Affleck strikes me as far too earnest a klutz to be fully conscious of his own effects, much less that he's presenting them as any kind of wily ironic commentary.

Although I enjoyed Hugo and Inglourious Basterds, I would like to humbly suggest a lengthy moratorium on movies that are "Love Letters to Movies," or ringing endorsements of "The Power of Cinema." Both qualities have been somewhat mystifyingly attributed to Argo because, I guess, it weaves a bad Star Wars ripoff into its plot - nostalgic satire being rather toothless, yet still wish-fulfillment for fans of Affleck's buddy Kevin Smith who appreciate that Affleck, unlike Smith, can operate a camera. Yet because it has come to our attention - ad nauseum on Twitter and elsewhere - that the term "overrated" offends the delicate sensibilities of the Word Police, I will instead offer Argo the backhanded compliment that in its own boneheaded way I think it's kind of brilliant. Mainstream audiences don't give a damn about love letters to movies; they understandably want the hearts and flowers delivered solely to themselves. Argo provides this and more to casual moviegoers. It conjures a memory in a way that is relevant to the present, yet with a greeting-card-like sentiment that goes down easy for liberals and conservatives alike. It's a movie that knows how to push our buttons. I'm not a fan of the practice, but I have to half-respect a filmmaker who is aware that they're there, waiting to be pushed.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Town and Country (Neighboring Sounds and Liberal Arts)

Kleber Mendonca Filho, the director of Neighboring Sounds (2012), is intensely quiet in person, with a manner that suggests he isn't sizing you up so much as taking you in, like a refracting telescope. I met him a few weeks ago on a research visit where I work, which I mention not to name-drop (because we all know of no critics who do that), but to convey how the pleasures of his debut film capture the essence of the filmmaker behind it. Neighboring Sounds covers a few days in a neighborhood of Recife, Brazil, and it's the kind of ensemble picture that shines light on a particular character or group of characters before focusing on the next. A respectable businessman named Joao (Gustavo Jahn) negotiates with his thief cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda) for a CD-player pinched from the car of his new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), only to get another stolen player back instead. Both are related to a powerful patriarch (W. J. Solha) whose casual sovereignty over the neighborhood must be entreated by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), head of a security team that begins patrolling the area for shady customers. Mendonca Filho is interested in all of these people as well as the hangers-on around them, like the group of tenants at a meeting voting whether or not to can a security guard sleeping on duty. He has a good ear for idle talk and a keen eye for authenticity, as when a housewife down the block (Maeve Jinkings) lies down on the couch, exhausted from a howling dog keeping her up all night, as her children give her a vigorous massage.

There aren't as many characters in Neighboring Sounds as there are in films like Nashville or Short Cuts, yet the movie sustains a sophisticated visual and aural technique (plenty of panning zooms, or zooming pans) that envelopes you the way Altman's films often did. It doesn't resonate as much as those movies - or films like Inarritu's Amores Perros and Haneke's Cache, both of which Mendonca Filho also appears to reference - but Neighboring Sounds still offers a fascinating glimpse of a foreign culture filled with a few sparks of recognition.

Liberal Arts (2012), the deeply likeable new comedy from writer-director-star Josh Radnor, showed me a slice of life I know all too well. (I caught it - as you may - on On Demand.) Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a 35-year-old admissions officer at a university in New York who returns to his alma mater in rural Ohio to commemorate the retirement of his mentor (played by Richard Jenkins). The Ohio institution is never named but take my word for it that it is Kenyon College, located in Gambier, about an hour into cow country northeast of Columbus. I taught there for a couple of summers and recognized every square inch (all twenty-seven of them) of that tiny, beguiling campus; (I also have reason to suspect that the Jenkins character is based on a recently retired former colleague, but I need to confirm that.) Radnor knows it even better. He went to school there, and both his his camera and his script are lovingly attenuated to the details of campus life: the way you can feel lonely at a party yet comfortable by yourself at a bookstore or neighborhood bar.

Jesse strikes up a friendship - and, later, when he returns to New York, an epistolary correspondence - with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old theater major whose name suggests the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl that the character, as written and played, thankfully belies. She's a real person, not a fantasy; and Radnor navigates all the traps deftly, aware of the obstacles in such a relationship but also not automatically nullifying the possibility of its working. Liberal Arts could have been a Doc Hollywood kind of comedy, where the protagonist finds happiness in a utopia far away from the big city. But if New York bewilders Jesse at times, he sees beauty and potential there too.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Best of Both Worlds (Paris, Texas)

Paris, Texas: It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch the double-meaning of the title. An actual town in an actual state, certainly - somewhere that means something to the vagabond main character throughout all his wanderings. But the comma can also be read as Paris AND Texas, specifically the international/psychological space that the movie inhabits. Palme d'Or winner of the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, the film is a resplendent journey through the American southwest. Written by a buckaroo yet directed by a Teuton, Paris, Texas depicts this country, at a simultaneously particular yet universal time and place, with an insider's voice and an outsider's view. 

In his (mixed) review of Taxi Driver, Jonathan Rosenbaum called that landmark work the product of "four auteurs": director Martin Scorsese; screenwriter Paul Schrader; actor Robert De Niro; and composer Bernard Herrmann. If they don't register quite the same sex appeal, a distinctive quartet of talent and personality comes together nevertheless similarly in Paris, Texas. Director Wim Wenders earned his "German New Wave" credentials via films like Kings of the Road (1976) and The American Friend (1977), the latter a crossover thriller starring Dennis Hopper and adapted from Tom Ripley novelist Patricia Highsmith. (Wenders peaked in the 1980s with Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire [1987], then appeared to lose his creative mojo before semi-reinventing himself as a Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker with 1999's Buena Vista Social Club and last year's Pina.) Writer Sam Shepard was, at the time, best known for screen performances such as the ostensibly ill yet incongruously virile farmer in Days of Heaven and especially cowboy-pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff; on the New York stage, he earned acclaim as the playwright of Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), and Fool for Love (1983).

Actor Harry Dean Stanton, possessing "one of those faces" audiences recognized without knowing, had established an active career in movies and TV shows that were as varied (B-movies and Oscar-winners) as the characters were not: like Dennis Hopper, he specialized in nefarious types, before Shepard and Wenders offered him the role of Travis in Paris, Texas, "a name that still had sinister resonance" eight years after Taxi Driver's Bickle (as reminded by Nick Roddick in his wonderful Criterion essay), but a character that this time proved a showcase for Stanton's range. (That same year, of course, Stanton played what remains his most indelible scumbag, car-repossessor Bud in Alex Cox's Repo Man). Composer Ry Cooder was a virtuoso slide guitarist already with one memorable score to his name (Walter Hill's The Long Riders) before contributing to Paris, Texas an equally evocative sound. (As a screen presence, in Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder comes across as an irksome narcissist; as a contributor of music, he is sublime.) Add a notable trio from behind the scenes - assistant director Claire Denis, production assistant Alison Anders, and "adapter"/script-refiner L.M. Kit Carson - and it's even easier to see why Paris, Texas is a remarkable achievement, each scene like lightning in a bottle that keeps on striking.


The movie begins with a potentially groan-inducing element - a man (Stanton's Travis) who can't or won't talk, and can't or won't remember who he is or what has happened to him - and keeps walking the tightrope of pretension without stumbling all the way to the end. The sad fact that much of Wenders' body of work since the 80s conveys a degree of ostentatious irrelevance suggests that in Paris, Texas he was in full command of his craft or else his craft found the perfect balance with the naturalism of his collaborators. Filtered through what is, in my opinion, some of the most amazing cinematography ever to reach the screen (by Robby Muller, favorite DP of filmmakers as diverse as Jim Jarmusch and Lars Von Trier, as well as the man behind the camera for Repo Man), the movie's opening aerial shot of the Mojave Desert, followed by tight close-up of a face as ragged and haunted as the mountains looming behind it, paints the kind of portrait of America a European connoisseur of Americana like Milos Forman could paint if Forman had anything approaching Wenders' ecstatic eye. (With amusing accuracy, Charles Taylor once described the Larry Flynt director's movies as looking like dirty dishwater.)

Paris, Texas also leavens its narrative with subtle humor: after Travis faints with a mouth full of ice in a nearly barren cantina, a mercenary physician (German actor-director Bernhard Wicki, looking appropriately out-of-place) restores him to health before pawning him off to Travis's younger brother Walt (Dean Stockwell, exuding touching reserves of decency and patience). As Walt drives Travis from south Texas to L.A., the movie, for a while, looks like it's going to be a road-picture along the lines of late-80s films like Rain Man and Midnight Run, even sharing with those films what is, in retrospect, a stereotypical scene where a character freaks out on an airplane. (The version of this scene here, at least, transpires offscreen, as Travis and Walt are allowed off the plane with a tongue-lashing from the stewardess but no reprisals, a reminder of air travel's quainter days.) Travis also insists that he and Walt drive back in the exact same rental-car, a rather unnecessary character trait that never comes up again (and which Rain Man would also seem to crib a few years later in the conception of Raymond Babbitt), except as a plot device to forge the relationship between the brothers. For this, it succeeds beautifully. By the time they hit L.A., the movie has established its unhurried rhythms, and Travis's memory returns.

In an interview on the Criterion disc, Claire Denis reports that Paris, Texas was shot chronologically, with an unfinished screenplay. I'm unclear if the script's incompleteness occurred before the second act, at Walt's home in Los Angeles, where Travis bonds with his French sister-in-law Anne (Aurore Clement) and the eight-year-old child he abandoned that Walt and Anne have come to raise as their own (Hunter Carson, son of L.M Kit); or the final act, in Houston, where Travis reunites his son with his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski, rounding out the remarkable Euro-American cast). Regardless, Denis implies that production delays - the result of everything from depleted funds to uncooperative Teamsters - gave Wenders & Co. time to think the story through. In so doing, they avoided the melodramatic trappings of their own worst impulses (e.g., aborting a planned violent climax between Travis and Anne) and attained something different, something true.

While the L.A. interlude has an array of lovely moments - Travis encountering a hollering homeless man along an interstate (the kind of man he was perilously close to becoming), Travis donning his brother's fancy suit to impress his son after school (an understated display of physical comedy for Stanton) - it is in Houston where the film flirts with cringeworthiness only to reach transcendence. Travis and Hunter track down Jane at a peep-show-for-the-soul, where she and other women act out scenarios for lonely men behind a one-way mirror. Has there ever been a more unexpected great performance in all of cinema than Kinski's? (Is that hyperbole? So be it.) Previously window dressing for a Roman Polanski period piece (Tess), with a more recent string of fiascos to her credit (The Moon in the Gutter and The Hotel New Hampshire, ill-advised remakes of Cat People and Unfaithfully Yours), Kinski, sporting a convincingly unfussy southern accent, shares two crucial scenes with Stanton in the concluding section of Paris, Texas. During the first, which at the time seems fairly long (five minutes or so), Travis, speaking to Jane via telephone, establishes a tenuous connection with her behind the mirror. ("I don't mind listening, I do it all the time," Kinski tells him touchingly, looking straight into the camera, a visual motif straight out of the Jonathan Demme/Tak Fujimoto playbook.) But it's in their second scene, an astonishing twenty-minute sequence, where Travis lays his cards on the table. Stanton monologues, Kinski monologues, in between they dialogue, and the authenticity of the emotions overcome what could have been stagey schematics in lesser hands.

As Paris, Texas comes to its extraordinary close (and I defy you to name a more unsentimental movie that earns so many tears), the palette for the film undergoes a change. In south Texas and L.A., Travis is associated primarily with the color green; in Houston, Jane drives a red sports car, nearly always wears red. In the last act, Travis and Hunter wear red as well. Then, in the final scene, Jane and her son reunite, each wearing vernal colors; while Travis drives away, the darkened highway tinted crimson. Visually this could mean anything or nothing - had things ended bloody, as originally planned, the symbolism would have been obvious. As it stands, I like to think that the switch of colors are meant to show the lingering effect that the characters, separated once more, now have on each other. A mother and child are back together. A man comes out of the desert only to return to the unknown, yet thirsts no more.