I love it when one’s lack of any particular expectations about something result in a wonderful surprise. I just had the pleasure of watching a delightful film (streaming on Netflix) recommended to me by friends. It is a French film called “Les Noms des Gens” that they have badly translated as “The Names of Love“. It is more appropriate to call it by it’s original title (which means “People’s Names”) as the movie has a lot to do with naming, and how we see ourselves through the lenses of our names. It is also about how society views us by our names, how we look, and our perceived cultures. In a nutshell, the film tells the story of a politically left wing woman who sleeps around with as many very conservative men as she can find, in order to convert them from their right wing beliefs. The film is a farce, a smart screwball political comedy, and a love story all rolled into one. It was a total treat and I highly recommend it. The only caveat I have is that some of the humor plays off of the specifics of French political culture, so some things may have less than their full punch or meaning to someone not familiar with French politics.
I went to see a new film yesterday called (appropriately) “Weekend“. As you might imagine, the entire story takes place over a single weekend, and deals in a no frills, intimate way with the beginning of a relationship. It explores what happens when two people meet and get to know each other, coming to terms with their differing outlooks and perspectives. The film for me was definitely more than the sum of its parts, even though it was the parts I focused on. The almost always close in camera shots. The use of sound and more importantly overlaid sounds that obscured the dialog to great effect. The honesty about gay sex and how it is portrayed inside (to the gay community) and outside (to the straight world), even though the sex acts themselves were highly abbreviated. The simple moments of kindness. The honest, messy back and forth of getting to know someone. The simple ways drugs and alcohol can affect how people interact with each other. In short, the film was highly naturalistic, with a vulnerable tenderness that well conveys what connecting with someone is really like.
The title of this post comes from a line in a film I just saw for the first time, “Shortbus“. I had heard about it years ago, and had always meant to see it, but for some reason never did until very recently. The film is all about sex, with the actors and extras participating in un-simulated sex acts all though the movie. And yet, the film wasn’t about sex at all, it was about the human condition, especially as it relates to longing, fitting in, finding meaning and connection with the rest of the world. Although uneven in parts, I would still rank it as one of the most engaging films I have ever seen. It is the best example on film I have ever seen presenting sexual activity as the natural part of the world that it is, unified and central to our life stories. Most regular films (and porn for that matter) act as if sex is in one world and the rest of human activity is in another. “Shortbus” refuses to engage with this binary opposition, and presents us the sweetest themes about the variability of human experience, and the acceptance and connection to others we all strive for.
This seems to be my week for movie reviews, although this one could hardly be considered timely. Fabian, Craig and I watched “Exit Through the Gift Shop” last night, and I thought it was fantastic, not least of all for the way it skewered the consumption of art in modern (that is to say capitalist) society. It is meant to be a documentary (or at least presents itself that way) about a guy, Thierry, who fell in with a bunch of people in the street art scene due to his relentless filming of everything, everywhere. Supposedly he then hooks up with Banksy, follows him for a bit documenting his art, then presents his edited work about the art scene, which turns out to be a mess. In a reversal of layers and roles, Banksy takes all the footage and decides to make the film about the guy who was making the film about him, and tells the guy to go back to LA. Apparently inspired by Banksy, the guy sells everything he owns and starts making (highly derivative but silly fun) art himself. He then wrangles himself a bunch of publicity, some public accolades by Banksy and another street artist, Shepard Fairey, and ultimately an LA Weekly article about him and his upcoming show. The buzz thus generated, the show does exceedingly well and establishes Thierry (now called, if you can believe this, “Mr. Brainwash”) as a major new force in the art world (specifically those interested in street art/graffiti). Along the way are some fascinating mini interviews from people at the show (ostensibly interested in art) commenting on the brilliance of Mr. Brainwash’s work, and one supposes cementing themselves as part of the vanguard of cool.
It was pretty obvious that almost the entire film is a brilliant prank, but some people believe Mr Brainwash to be genuine. The sequence of “documentary” footage alone makes it obvious that one would never have the ability to recreate his story after the fact. But I love the way this film messes with people. It forces all kinds of questions into the light of day. Questions about the nature of art and most particularly the nature of art in a consumption obsessed society like ours. I personally believe that true art can’t be for sale, at least not by the artist who made it with the intent to make a living off of it. People can make all manner of beautiful, clever item with varying functional purpose, but as soon as the primary goal of making it is to sell it, it loses whatever critical value (in our society) that it could possibly have. It has been co-opted by the very system it seeks to critique. But then, this is my definition of art, you may have another. And let’s face it, it is particularly grotesque that a form of art which is also a form of vandalism (street art) should be subsumed by a ravenous consumer culture, ever on the lookout for the next new thing.
And just to be clear, I am in no way disparaging or discounting all manner of beautiful or thoughtful or skillful thing that are routinely offered up for sale. The world would be a much sadder place without these things (although the definitions of these likewise vary wildly). It is just to say that in order to fully critique the society in which we live, one can not then turn around and give oneself up to, bend over for, or bask in the very thing we are criticizing, can we?
Last night a few friends and I went to see a new animated film called The Illusionist (by Sylvian Chomet, based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati). It basically tells the story of a sadsack magician trying to make his way in a world that has less and less appreciation for his talents. He moves from town to (ever more remote) town playing small gigs and barely making a living. After showing kindness to a girl in a particularly remote part of Scotland, she follows him, moves in with him, and makes a lot of financial demands on his life. The animation is this film is amazing, especially in the play of light and movement, but also with regard to the caricatured movements of human beings. And there are numerous funny sight gags delivered with great subtlety and finesse.
The plot, however, is another matter entirely. This story was supposedly dedicated to Jacques Tati’s first child, whom he abandoned. When you hear that, you think it might be some sort of touching apologia, but really the character of the young girl in the film is a horrid stereotype of modern consumer (one of Tati’s obsessions) mixed in with the using personality type of a heroin addict. She takes the sad magician for all he is worth with an ever growing set of things she demands that he buy for her. In the end he sets his rabbit free, and leaves her with a sad note about magicians not existing in the world. The note might as well have said “the gravy train is over”. The girl then finds her way into the arms of a young man she will coax into buying her things and taking care of her. It was a pretty sexist representation of women, dressed up in the mores of another era (the late 50s). Trying to decode this film as either Tati’s excuse for the shittiness of abandoning his daughter or even just taking the story at face value makes no difference. This is a misanthropic, depressing picture of the world. Reviewers seem to love it, lauding it as “touching”. I suppose it is touching, in the same way that watching someone be tortured is touching.
Just got back from seeing the new movie “The Kids Are All Right” with Julianne Moore and Annette Benning and Marc Ruffalo. I wasn’t expecting much and was blown away by the acting, directing and editing touches. Treated with less finesse, this could have been an extremely dull film, but it didn’t shy away from the subtle messiness of life, ego and desire set against a backdrop of rather plain domesticity. It tells the story of a family with two kids headed by a lesbian couple and the meeting of the sperm donor by the kids. The introduction of this character reveals all kinds of fault lines in an otherwise normal quotidian existence. I am not sure if it is supposed to be “edgy” that the main couple is a same-sex one, but to me it mattered not very much except for the light underlying personality touches that could only have been related to a lesbian couple. For that matter, a film like this could have mined the particular psychology of any couple of any stripe, this one just happened to be gay. It was particularly around the editing choices that this film really stood out, as when one of the characters finds out a secret about the other and the entire world fades into the background and we are held in an uncomfortable, tense quiet as the truth sinks in. There were also some very nicely done asides having to do with the nature of sexual desire and suspicion. This is a film very much about the interior of people, and in less talented acting hands it could have been very thin, but the entire cast was restrained yet powerful. This was a film in which very little actually happened, but it was intensely moving and one of the finer films I have seen. Highly recommended.
In an effort to get a little distance from my funk over my friend’s passing, I met my friend Jonathan last night for a late night drink and movie. We went to go see “Sex and the City 2”. I was prepared to really detest it. I absolutely hated the first one (even though I loved the series) and after all the scathing reviews (some of them hysterically funny), I was sure that this one would be an even bigger disaster than the first one. Yet I loved the series (I am a gay man after all), so I held my nose and went anyway. And while all of the critiques having to do with cultural insensitivity, conspicuous consumption, and entitlement were in evidence and somewhat repulsive, the humor was much better than I expected at many points. I think my expectations were so low that it turned into an enjoyable escape for me. In any event it was far more like the series than the first movie, and left me smiling and laughing much more than I expected. And somewhere I needed to laugh, so that obviously helped things.
I was developing a bit of a cold and didn’t feel like going out, so I rented and watched the movie “Synecdoche, New York” last night. It is both one of the most incredible and saddest films I have ever seen. The film follows the life of the main character of theater director Caden (played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who after winning a MacArthur grant, begins work on his magnum opus. It also details his loves and inevitable losses and essential loneliness in the face of other people. The film skips through time and one is never sure if the events are happening in the past or present or in some dystopian dreamworld. His masterpiece is essentially a recreation of the minutiae and scenes of his own life, and throughout the film he spends many many years on it as it becomes more and more unwieldy and self referential. In addition, he keeps seeing parts of his body break down with multiple trips to various doctors. This film is a meditation on the inevitability of death and the futility of holding on to things and people too tightly. There are many scenes pregnant with dark humour and metaphor, and the film could (and probably should) be watched multiple times, trying to integrate all of the chaos. There was something heart-achingly true and precise about the film, and I would be lying if I said it was uplifting in any way. But through this deep sadness is a sort of cautionary tale about our own ego and illusion of control. We are far better off to let go a little and enjoy the ride without always needing to steer.
Tonight my friends Fabien, Craig and I rented Inglourious Basterds, the latest Quentin Tarantino film. Although I am somewhat a fan of Tarantino and could appreciate many elements in the film, overall I found the premise to be repulsive. What is it about this Tarantino film that bothers me so much more than others? I suppose that the violence in his other films is more cartoon like, not based in history, and easier to accept as comic book. This film is set in a kind of alternate reality version of WWII, in occupied France. It tells the story of a Jewish advance strike force that kills (and scalps) Nazis, striking terror into them (supposedly the same terror struck by the Nazis into others). While it might be an emotionally satisfying movie for teenage boys or those that feel intense impotence in the face of the atrocities of history, I found its glorification of violent vengeance to be repugnant. Call me a pacifist, but I do believe that violence only leads to more violence. I do believe that adopting the worst atrocities and actions of one’s enemies only makes one like them. I’m sure those that condone torture and capital punishment thought this film was just a stitch. Wallowing in this kind of revenge fantasy, even while knowing it is a fantasy, encourages the worst, basest elements in human nature. It cheapens the true horrors that happen all over the world, and mocks decency.
Last night I met up with some friends to go see the movie “Precious“. I had heard a lot of generic hype about this movie and wasn’t exactly sure what I was expecting, other than a gritty portrayal of the heartbreak of equal parts broken homes, poverty and urban life. The film was so much more than that. The story was intense and disturbing on many levels, but ultimately hopeful and full of transcendence. The acting was top notch by just about everyone involved, especially the main character, Precious (played by Gabourey Sidibe) and her mother (played by Mo’Nique). But the thing that surprised me the most about the film was the aesthetics involving the incredible directing, cinematography, and editing. The camera gets us uncomfortably close to several of the characters, especially Precious, to the point that the viewer feels as trapped in her body and circumstances and she does, to great effect.
With all the piling on of horrors, I can see why some people accuse this of being “poverty porn”. Much the same was said of Slumdog Millionaire last year. And yet for me, the film was all about transcendence and the presence of living and being in the world, and these themes are universal. Within many scenes in the film, when a particular violence or horror is visited upon Precious, the scene cuts away to a fantasy life she imagines for herself, one of glamour and success and love. This is part of her coping mechanism in a world too horrible to contemplate. It was thus one of the most moving scenes for me in the film when Precious is starting to attend a new school, and speaks for one of the first times in her life in front of others. She is woefully uncomfortable, but exhilarated at the same time. The teacher asks her how it makes her feel to speak in front of everyone (and in plain view).
And Precious responds: “Here….it makes me feel…here.”