Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Remarkable Polymath: The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom

Director Michael Winterbottom
It may be because he’s so prolific, putting out at least one film most years and sometimes more; or maybe because he has no discernable visual style (Bringing Up Baby’s director Howard Hawks didn't either); or simply because he rarely makes a film in the same genre twice in a row; but for whatever reason, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom may be the most unheralded director around. He’s also one of the most interesting ones, too, which makes his below-the-radar state somewhat unjust.

Since he began making TV films in 1989 through to his recently completed film Trishna, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, but set in India, which will be released next year, Winterbottom has amassed 25 credits in just 22 years, most of those being feature films. He’s also tackled virtually every genre under the sun (except for horror) from domestic dramas (Family, 1994; Wonderland, 1999) to literary adaptations (Jude, 1996; A Cock and Bull Story, 2006), from westerns (The Claim, 2003) to science fiction movies (Code 46, 2006), film noir (I Want You,1998), to comedy/dramas (24 Hour Party People, 2002), even a unique love story interspersed with hardcore, genuine sex scenes and live concert scenes (9 Songs, 2004). That wide-ranging interest in disparate subject matter and characters might, in a minor filmmaker, result in a lot of diverse movies that didn’t necessarily succeed as art/entertainment. But except for a few duds (the overwrought psychological thriller Butterfly Kiss, 1995; his simplistic fact-based post 9/11 drama The Road to Guatanamo, 2006), most of his output stands out, particularly his very fine topical dramas which centre on war (Welcome to Sarajevo, 1997) and displaced peoples (In This World, 2003), and his more offbeat offerings (Code 46, 24 Hour Party People, 9 Songs). The other fact you need to know about his movies is that many of them don’t often play commercially in North America or in limited release at best. (I wouldn’t have seen some of his earliest films, such as I Want You and With or Without You, 1999, if they hadn't been featured at a now-defunct British film festival in Toronto which showcased Winterbottom’s movies as its centrepiece.) More likely they’ll pop up at various film festivals before heading straight to pay-TV and DVD.  The Killer Inside Me (which had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. but never played in Canada) was released on DVD last year and recently premiered on The Movie Network in Canada, as did A Summer in Genoa. Both premiered on TV at almost the same time as one of Winterbtottom's rarer commercial releases in Canada, The Trip. Remarkably, The Trip has hung on since it opened earlier this summer. The trio offers a chance for film-goers to gain a perspective on the director and his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker.

Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me
The first strike against The Killer Inside Me (2010), a film noir adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel of the same name, is that it stars Casey Affleck, one of those dreadful actors – Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and Jonah Hill (Get Him to the Greek) are others – who make me want to run the other way when their name appears in the credits of a movie. But he is only one of the myriad problems in this wretched and vile film, one which fails on every possible level.

Affleck plays a deputy sheriff named Lou Ford in a 1950s Texas town, the comic book sounding Century City, who is involved with local prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba). He’s also a child rapist, and a sociopath, incapable of feeling others’ pain, and when he commits a heinous crime, his life begins to unravel as more and more of the townspeople begin to suspect him of the dirty deed. I suppose The Killer Inside Me might have worked as a movie it bears some similarities to another Thompson film adaptation, Coup de Torchon (1981), which was well directed by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier if John Curran’s screenplay wasn’t so lazy and flat, if the film had been better cast and if Winterbottom actually gave a damn about the material. But his direction is so lackadaisical and plodding that the movie never, not for even one second, builds up a head of steam. It doesn’t even feel authentic: Century City comes across as a particularly fake-looking movie set and Winterbottom’s direction displays not the slightest iota of convincing period atmosphere. This may be a result of Winterbottom’s failure at evoking the effective tropes of film noir. I Want You, his 1998 British noir, which starred Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivola, the latter playing an ex-con still obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, was pretty heavy-handed and ineffective. Perhaps as that genre is as much about archetypes as it is about characterization, Winterbottom’s strongest suit, it doesn’t excite him as much as other genres do.

The Killer Inside Me has been bruited about for various actors in the past including Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and was also previously filmed in 1976 with Stacy Keach as Ford, but no one could be as bad in the part as Affleck, an actor who never varies his expression and always looks like he’s suffering from constipation. He also cannot for the life of him suggest even a glimmer of  a man who is battling inner demons, so his Lou Ford pretty much registers as a lying, smug murderer from the outset, certainly not what Curran and Winterbottom could have been intending. Alba, for her part, is the least believable femme fatale imaginable, and Kate Hudson (as Ford’s ‘square’ girlfriend) personifies blandness as she often does in film. Most offensive is that her character, and Alba’s, get off on being beaten by Ford as did his mother, who used to involve him in her kinky sex play (presumably that’s why he turned out as he did, though that’s dubious psychology at best). When both your female leads like being treated as dirt by the man in their life, the film’s misogyny becomes hard to hide, even more so when Winterbottom directs some pretty horrifying and completely unnecessary scenes of brutal and extremely graphic violence utilized against them. (Compare the depiction of strong, if evil, women in another film adaptation of Thompson's work, Stephen Frears’ excellent The Grifters (1990), to see how his noir can be done right.) Misfire doesn’t begin to describe The Killer Inside Me. It’s easily the worst film in Winterbottom’s résumé.

Colin Firth in A Summer in Genoa
A Summer in Genoa (2008), originally released theatrically as Genova, by contrast, is one of his best. The movie, which only made it to DVD in North America in April 2011, two years after its festival run, would have benefited, I suspect, if Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning A King’s Speech and Oscar-nominated A Single Man had come out first. But Genova preceded both those movies, which likely is one reason it never got the international attention and distribution it deserved. It doesn’t help that the film has been renamed A Summer in Genoa, a likely sop to a public that might otherwise not realize that Genova was a place and not a person or not known that the city of Genoa, as non-Italians generally know it, is actually named Genova by its inhabitants. The new title makes the film sound like a travelogue, which it decidedly is not.

A Summer in Genoa is actually of a piece with Winterbottom’s other global movies, revolving around different ethnicities and cultures trying to find their way in a multicultural world, or at least to understand it. The Western journalists covering the Balkan wars in Winterbottom’s powerful Welcome to Sarajevo and the Afghanis desperate to escape to London in his incisive drama In This World are representative of what writer/essayist Pico Iyer called The Global Soul, and so is A Summer in Genoa’s Joe, an English college professor (Colin Firth) who takes his two traumatized American daughters to Italy after their mother (Hope Davis) dies in a horrendous car accident. But Winterbottom is never one to succumb to sentiment, so what happens in that lovely Italian city never plays out conventionally or obviously but always humanely. (He's like fellow British filmmaker Mike Leigh in that regard but with a temperament and interests that range even further afield.)

Colin Firth and Perla Haney-Jardine
Supported by Barbara (Catherine Keener), an old American friend from Harvard who harbours feelings for him, Joe tries to bond with and parent his children – the increasingly rebellious 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) and the sensitive ten-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine). Mary is especially scarred by the accident that killed her mother for reasons which I will not divulge here. Meanwhile, Joe tries to acclimatize to his new country of residence, cope with his own painful memories of his late wife and tentatively move towards a relationship with one of his comely students. Winterbottom, who co-wrote the film with Joe Coriat, guides the potentially clichéd story with grace and subtlety, concealing as much information as he imparts. It’s suggested that Joe has been something of an absentee father, which is why he cannot really confront his children when they misbehave or disobey his parental instructions. At least three times during the movie it appeared that Joe was going to have it out with Kelly, who is having an illicit relationship with an Italian boy, and each time that fight never materialized. We also never find out if Joe and Barbara had a relationship while at school together, though it’s implied that they have. Most significantly, the film’s big secret is never dealt with as it would have been in most other films.

A Summer in Genoa is an impactful, moving tale of avoidance within families, the presence of love (and hate) in its bosom, and the ameliorating power of architectural beauty, nature and good food (and good company) on a battered, grieving constitution that needs sustenance and relief. Nothing is overtly made of the fact that the kids are Americans and Joe a Brit, except in a bit of amusing banter with his students about his stiff upper lip, nor is the ancient power of Genoa (Genova) itself actually alluded to, though it is clear that beginning again in this lovely city has its beneficial effects on Joe and his kids. (This is one film I wish I had seen on the big screen if only to better appreciate Genoa’s numerous charms.) Even the use of Joe’s late wife as a ghostly apparition visibly only to Mary, surprisingly, works as a concept without ever seeming ridiculous. The performances too are spot on. Firth, like Richard Gere, is one of those seemingly lightweight actors who's gained in gravitas as he's aged, and the actresses playing the girls are among the most believable kids I’ve ever seen. Keener, in what is arguably a thinner role, still manages to make an indelible impression as an unhappy woman who sees in front of her a family to which she would dearly like to belong. On one level not that much actually happens in the movie – in pure storytelling, plot driven terms – but in many ways, everything does. Understated in its presentation, A Summer in Genoa is an emotionally overwhelming powerhouse of a film that you won’t soon forget.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip
The Trip (2010), which is now playing at a theatre near you, is slighter than A Summer in Genoa, but it’s an entertaining lark of a movie nonetheless. It's a low budget, partly improvised road trip (there is no screenplay credit in the movie) that’s essentially a two-hander for its stars, Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play fictionalized versions of themselves, roles they also essayed in Winterbottom's creatively loopy A Cock and Bull Story (known across the pond as Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story). Its premise is simplicity itself: two old buddies take a trip through northern England, engage in verbal jousting, sample gourmet food and try to make peace with their status in life. From that basic skein, Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon have fashioned a pleasingly ramshackle, very funny and cutting satire of insecure performers, city versus country folk, and the influence of pop culture on everyday life, or at least on the existences of the culturally obsessed personas Coogan and Brydon assume.

One of the best jokes in the movie, bolstered by lingering shots of all the specially prepared dishes Coogan and Brydon partake, is that neither man is actually a gourmand. Coogan only took a gig to review the edibles at quaint English inns for The Observer newspaper because he was depressed that his American girlfriend Mischa, the foodie of the two, had called a time out on their relationship. Inviting Brydon to come along is thus an act of desperation and something of a punishment, too, because the two have an unhealthy need to compete with each other in virtually every way, from impressing any attractive woman they encounter to one upping each other with their impressions of singers and movie stars. Brydon, being Welsh-born (from Swansea, also the setting of the comedy movie Submarine), is also a bit of a cultural chauvinist, insisting on constantly doing impressions of famous Welshmen, including Tom Jones, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. His favourite one though is not Welsh but London-born actor Michael Caine, whom Coogan also likes to impersonate. Watching those two do their duelling Caine impressions, with lines from Blame it on Rio, no less (a bad Caine movie that’s one of my guilty pleasures) is hysterical as is the verbal jousting the duo engage in between bites and quaffs of beer and wine. (FYI, Brydon’s Caine riff is the superior one, though Coogan’s is not half bad.) American comedy may be in the doldrums, but the British still know how to do funny.

Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People
What’s especially neat about The Trip is that the humour comes almost solely from verbal dexterity, as did the recent equally low key and smart British anti-war satire In the Loop (2009). Also impressive is that, for a change, it’s not Coogan who’s the most irritating character in the movie, as he was assuming the role of real life Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson in Winterbottom’s hilarious 24 Hour Party People, but Brydon. He’s the bloke who wears Coogan, and the film going audience, out with his need to be always be ‘on,’ even though he’s ostensibly the happily married and more balanced of the two men. The bittersweet part of The Trip is resident in Coogan’s persona, a lonely comic who doesn’t know how to relate to people, even though he’s appealing enough to regularly get women into bed. The scene where he takes Brydon to meet his folks, an indecently quick visit meant more to impress Brydon than actually make human contact with his parents, is sad. The moments with him on the phone long distance with Mischa, or with his son from a previous marriage, betray the lonely interior life of the comic and unveil the serious side to The Trip. Juxtaposing comedy and drama is a difficult balancing act that Winterbottom pulls off perfectly here.

The Trip is 107 minutes long and was actually boiled down from six 30 minute TV episodes, for which Coogan won a Best Male Comedy Performance. However, I don’t know if I could have taken three hours of these frequently obnoxious guys. On the other hand, cursory aspects of the movie, such as Coogan’s successful womanizing, which still seems inexplicable to me, might have been fleshed out more successfully in the television version. Overall, this Trip is worth taking and yet more evidence of the polymathic abilities of Michael Winterbottom.

By the time Trishna is released next year, Winterbottom will have finished shooting his latest movie, Bailout, about a man who loses his job in the financial sector and must support his family by becoming a pot dealer. After that he is set to work with Coogan yet again – a cinematic relationship that is quickly becoming as fascinating and satisfying as the one Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar had with Carmen Maura – in Paul Raymond’s Wonderful World of Erotica, with Coogan playing a real life pornographer. Wait there’s more. Winterbottom is also set to direct a political thriller starring Colin Firth called The Promised Land, set in 1930/40s Palestine; and he may also adapt Martin Amis’s thriller London Fields. He’s also been shooting a special project,  called Seven Days, scheduled to be finished in 2012, about a man (Life on Mar’s John Simm) who has to adjust to civilian life after a five year prison stretch. That movie has been filmed a few weeks at a time since 2007 so Simm’s five years in jail will be reflected in real time, too. Clearly at age 50, Winterbottom gives no sign of slowing down. At this remarkably quick rate if he works into his 80s – there is no reason he can't – he will have quite an oeuvre to offer us, including an eventual horror flick, I'm sure. And judging by his copious output and track record, most of his upcoming movies will be trips well worth taking too.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute and in September will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also in the fall, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto .

1 comment:

  1. The Genova comments are insightful and well-stated. I have to wonder, however, about tagging Colin Firth as a light-weight actor who is growing as he ages. See some of his early work for powerful (and unromantic) performances, such as Tumbledown, Apartment Zero, his first film Another Country and A Month in the Country. The popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones, etc. perhaps retarded (at least in the US) the appreciation of his acting due to his romantic allure. Finally, he seems to be appreciated for both.