Saturday, January 26, 2013

Twist and Churn: Rian Johnson's Looper

Looper certainly lives up to its title. It's a twisty time-travel extravaganza that moves swiftly while tying the viewer in knots as we try to puzzle it out. Director Rian Johnson hasn't taken much time to make sense out of this existential SF noir, but I will say that it has more of a pulse than his 2005 debut Brick (which was about as thick as one); and it's less irritating than his hyper-antic The Brothers Bloom (2008) which had a bad case of the tics. Nevertheless, having a motor still doesn't guarantee a fun ride. People will tell you that sometimes, with movies like Looper, you need to just suspend your disbelief. But how can you suspend disbelief if you don't believe in what you're seeing to begin with?

The action takes place largely in Kansas City in the year 2044 where the city seems to be completely run by hoodlums. (As usual with these tech-noirs, nobody feels any great need to tell us why.) Joseph (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young gangster who works for the 'company' as a 'looper' (essentially a staff employed hit-man). In the future, time-travel has been invented but it is illegal. So the criminal empire, which by 2074 is run from Shanghai, sends its victims back to Kansas City in 2044, to be shot and killed by the 'loopers' as a way to dispose of the evidence. The 'loopers' are then paid with bars of silver providing that their victim does not escape. (Are the Shanghai investigators of organized crime in 2074 really that dense that they never figure out the mob's little scheme?) Furthermore, when the Shanghai 'company' wants to 'close the loop,' they inform Abe (Jeff Daniels), an avuncular Don in Kansas City who believes in literally driving his points home with a ball-peen hammer, who then has the 'looper' kill the older version of himself when he is sent back. (Are the criminals as dense as the authorities? Why would you get the younger 'looper' to snuff out the older version of himself? Wouldn't he be the least likely candidate to hire? Or is this what Rian Johnson considers an expression of his character's existential angst?) Of course, Joseph ends up getting his 'loop' closed, but when he meets his older self (Bruce Willis), he turns out to be craftier than his younger counterpart and he escapes. Apparently, in the future Shanghai, Joseph is happily married until the mob boss, the Rainmaker, decides to close his 'loop' and murder his wife. The older Joseph comes back to the past to find the younger Rainmaker – a mere child – to kill him and then change the outcome of his future.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sometimes, There Are Happy Endings – Sylvie Simmons' I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

A very happy Leonard Cohen performing on stage in 2009

The news that novelist Philip Roth has retired seems to have shocked everyone. Late last fall, in the French culture magazine Inrockuptibles, he said he’d had enough of reading and writing fiction and felt he’d said everything he had to say within the pages of a book. Thus, Nemesis, his fifth novella in an unofficial series looking back at various aspects of American society, was, Roth insisted, his last book – ever! The problem with this is not Roth’s decision – why can’t he retire at nearly 80 years of age? – but the assumption that artists, unlike regular folk, don’t ever retire from their professions. Of course many don’t. The majority of writers seem to write until the end and many filmmakers, from Robert Altman to Sidney Lumet, Satyajit Ray to Eric Rohmer, regularly made movies until their deaths. But others do hang up their cameras. The great Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Three Brothers) hasn’t shot a movie since 1997’s (underwhelming) The Truce and he’s still alive at age 90. And talented Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Robin and Marion) stopped making films in 1991. And let’s not forget actor Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Under Fire) who, citing the strains of getting up really early for film shoots, decided to chuck it all in 2004 only to change careers and become a writer.

And then there’s the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who as Sylvie Simmons makes evident in her entertaining, breezy and very comprehensive Cohen biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart), not only didn’t retire but upped the ante, going out on tour from 2008-2010 and keeping to a lengthy, rigorous schedule far more onerous than the tours he had done in his relative youth in the late 80s and early 90s. Not only that but he seems to have found only joy in writing songs and performing very late in life, beginning in his late sixties after a nearly six-year continuous stint in a Buddhist monastery (1993-99). Simmons’ very well written book covers the gamut, from Cohen’s birth in 1934 in the milieu of upper class Montreal through to his youthful Greek years of creativity on the island of Hydra to his sojourns in New York and L.A. Though Simmons answers pretty much any question you’ve ever had about the man, she could probably have delved into Leonard Cohen a little more vigorously and probingly than she actually does.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Night Music: The Quay Brothers at MOMA

Timothy and Stephen Quay shooting The Street of Crocodiles, 1985

The recent exhibition at MOMA dedicated to the work of the Quay Brothers (On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets) can be seen as Timothy and Stephen Quay’s official induction into the late-modernist pantheon. It comes a little late; the brothers – twins – are 65 and have been making films for more than thirty years. Though they were both in Pennsylvania, the Quays have been based in London for most of their professional lives, and they’ve drawn on a wide range of European influences, ranging from Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Robert Walser to the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer and the Russian puppeteer Wladyslaw Starewicz. But their most important influence may be composers, such as Leos Janacek, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and their frequent collaborator, Leszek Jankowski. Whatever ideas the Quays may bring to a project, they only begin filming once they have the score in place, and that helps to account for the way their films all bear visual similarities to each other but flow to their own rhythms – sometimes jagged sometimes antic, often eerie, sometimes weirdly sensual and romantic. In the catalog for their show, the Quays say that their films “obey musical laws” as opposed to “dramaturgical ones.” They’re makers of visual music – a common aim of non-narrative film-makers and one that usually yields soporific results. The Quays’ work isn’t soporific, but it is dreamlike, and it doesn’t seem to be taking place now. It’s as if someone uncorked a treasure trove of dreams from a earlier century.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Big Screen Tales of Big Business Targeting Little People: Local Hero and Promised Land

Frances McDormand and Matt Damon in Promised Land

A lone red telephone booth on the outskirts of a Scottish fishing village. Skype in a Pennsylvania farming town. Those diverse means of communication for the protagonists are among the distinctions between, respectively, 1983’s offbeat Local Hero and the more formulaic Promised Land now in theaters. But the two films have quite a lot in common. In both, corporate America descends on small, insular communities in hopes of reaping the riches that lie within the good earth. Some folks are seduced by the promise of easy money, especially in hardscrabble times; others want to protect the land and their homegrown traditions.

Three decades ago, writer-director Bill Forsyth set Local Hero the west coast of his native Scotland and hired the great cinematographer Chris Menges to do it justice. In the fictitious hamlet of Ferness, life goes on much as it ever has until the arrival of Macintyre or “Mac” (Peter Riegert) and Danny (Peter Capaldi), advance men for a Texas oil company called Knox. Their boss (Burt Lancaster) has instructed them to buy up all the real estate so he can build a refinery. Although many people are happy to sell, an old coot (Fulton Mackay) who owns the valuable beachfront property refuses to budge. Promised Land – coauthored by two of its stars, Matt Damon and John Krasinski – had Gus Van Sant at the helm. In rural McKinley, the advance team for a natural gas conglomerate called Global is comprised of Steve (Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand). Their boss (Terry Kinney) has instructed them to buy up all the real estate so he can begin to drill, using a controversial process known as fracking. Although many citizens are happy to sell, an old coot (Hal Holbrook) makes a persuasive case against the takeover.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Polite Roar: John Cale at BAM (January 19, 2013)

John Cale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

Though I’m a John Cale fan, and have a special fondness for his detours from contemporary classical and avant-rock exploration into melody and assonance, I’ve always found the “masterwork” attributes of Paris 1919  his third solo album, from 1973 – elusive.The record is mostly harmonious and lush.The lyrics, perversely cryptic if taken line by line, altogether comprise a dream voyage through foreign lands and bygone eras, the romance of the far-distant against fading memories of home. I ought to love it. Yet most of Paris 1919 goes through me like water. Cale’s voice – so harsh and commanding, yet with reserves of grave tenderness – comes from a muffled distance; pillowy production cushions the edges and angles that are so essential to his dynamic language. And the songs themselves don’t stick to me – save for “The Endless Plain of Fortune,” that powerfully orchestrated yet modestly worded epic of man and war, desert and bones which, to complicate matters, happens to be my favorite Cale song. So last Saturday night, when Cale played the second of two shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and devoted the first half to performing Paris 1919 in toto, it was mainly – only – “Endless Plain” that I looked forward to hearing. And it was indeed the highlight of the first act. The star was supported by a Brooklyn-based group of classically trained horn and string players called the Wordless Music Orchestra, as well as by the three-piece rock combo that is Cale’s longtime touring band; all did justice to the song’s epic climaxes and stirring sturm und drang. Yet even here, something was undeniably missing.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ellison’s Invisible Man on Stage

Teagle F. Bougere and members of the cast of Invisible Man (Photo by Astrid Reiken)

No one has tried to make a movie of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and until now – an adaptation by Oren Jacoby, directed by Christopher McElroen, is currently playing at Boston’s Huntington Theatre – no one, to my knowledge, has tried to put it on the stage either. It’s easy to see why. The staggering 1952 novel is as dense and highly conceptual as a Kafka story, its tone is satirical and its style is surrealistic. It imagines the radicalization of a bright, sensitive young black man (the nameless narrator), who wins a scholarship to a Negro college, as they were then called, by making a valedictory speech at his high school that enthusiastically promotes compliance as a means of bettering the position of the black race. The club that sponsors him is made up of prominent white men who first require him and other promising young African Americans to box blindfolded for the entertainment of the membership. At college, he idolizes the president, Bledsoe, who assigns him the job of chauffeuring an aging white benefactor. At the request of the curious guest, the narrator takes him off the grounds to a nearby black neighborhood, with disastrous results. Bledsoe suspends the narrator, sending him to New York with letters that he says will recommend him to various white members of the college’s board for jobs; having earned his fees for the fall, he’ll be allowed to return to school. The truth, as the narrator learns, is that he’s been expelled, and the letters are condemnatory. He finds work at a symbolic white paint factory, but an explosion sends him to the hospital. He rents a room in Harlem, where he observes an eviction that brings out the orator in him once again. His impromptu speech is so rousing that he finds himself picked up by socialists who give him a generous salary to make use of his talents. Their opposite number is a black extremist named Ras the Destroyer who preaches complete segregation of the races and targets the narrator for his special disdain. The book is a flashback: when it begins, the narrator has finally reached the conclusion that as a black man he’s invisible in white society and that the only way he can live in it (and not be wrecked by it) is to embrace his invisibility.

Author Ralph Ellison
The novel is one of the signal achievements in twentieth-century American literature – it may be the greatest American book of the mid-century – but its tortuous narrative is a catalogue of ideas about race. It lacks dramatic shape – not a problem for a book but certainly a challenge for a dramatist. Honestly, I’m not sure how the hell you’d turn it into a workable play, but Jacoby hasn’t really tried. Invisible Man at the Huntington is a Reader’s Theatre version of the classic text. The Invisible Man (played by a young actor of tremendous stamina, Teagle F. Bougere) is still the narrator, and he recites massive, unwieldy chunks of Ellison’s prose while around him nine other earnest performers in a variety of supporting roles reproduce episode after episode, almost exactly as each appears in the book. Jacoby has transferred almost every major development onto the stage. (Perhaps the only significant omission is the one in which the Invisible Man dons shades and is confused by a number of Harlem residents for a notorious local pimp who is juggling as many identities simultaneously as the narrator has tried on sequentially.) Clocking in at nearly three hours, including two intermissions, the production is recitation, not dramatization.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pulped Fiction: William Friedkin's Killer Joe

There's no written rule on what makes the best film noir. But you could say that its enduring appeal isn't simply in watching the downward spiral of desperate characters. Its attraction also lies in sharing the horror of that trip down the road to perdition. For all of Fred McMurray's tough-guy assertions in Double Indemnity (1944), for instance, we develop some empathy for him when we see that he's essentially the sap that Barbara Stanwyck takes him for. In The Grifters (1990), when Anjelica Huston chooses the money over the life of her own son, we understand in our bones her primal need to make that choice (while getting the cold shakes from knowing the death rattle chill she will forever carry within her). The darkness in film noir always works best when we can first see the light that's being snuffed out. If we can't perceive something of ourselves in its doomed characters then the genre simply becomes an empty exercise in nastiness.

William Friedkin's Killer Joe (which recently came out on DVD) is a perfect example of that kind of emptiness. This particularly vicious noir, an adaptation of Tracy Letts's celebrated 1991 play, and elegantly shot by Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion), takes a particular glee in rubbing our nose in nastiness. (There are quite a few pretty good noirs that have a similar nasty and sadistic tinge, like Mike Figgis's 1990 Internal Affairs, but Killer Joe has no interest in psychological nuance and dramatic colour like Figgis's work which cleverly employs the theme of jealousy in Othello.) To compensate for the emotional distance Friedkin creates here, the director provides a hip and ironic comic tone that diffuses the power of the violence in the drama. Friedkin (who made his career with brutally basic entertainments like The French Connection and The Exorcist) adopts a clever pose instead, one that makes us feel superior to the people on the screen. In doing so, he invites us to enjoy the sadism when it gets predictably turned on them. Speaking as bluntly as the action itself: he makes them too dumb to live.