Picks: Best Films
Rachel Getting Married. Dir. Jonathan Demme. I saw this film before I saw the French film, I’ve Loved You So Long—but in many respects, they are the same film. An estranged sister returns home—one because of her alcoholism (in this film), and the other because of what in legal terms is an error in her judgment (in the French film). The impact of both films is based upon the way the way the dynamics of the family are changed by the insertion of what was the “missing sister.” Both films are powerful portrayals of the sustaining nature of familial love. And yet both films illustrate the difficulties of accepting the “returning member of the family,” despite her best efforts to become reintegrated into the family routine. Of course, in the case of Rachel Getting Married, the insertion of the sister is fraught with the attendant tensions of a high-pressure situation—her sister’s marriage. Now in the case of this film, film technique is something one must adapt to and/or cope with, depending upon your familiarity with the documentary style known as cinema verité or direct cinema: where the use of handheld cameras is meant to simulate the on-the-fly coverage of a cameraman and his sound man—both of whom are trying to capture life unfiltered, unrehearsed, and thus not manipulated. The direct cinema style of documentary was often tied to specific dramatic events, such as sporting contests; but other events have that necessary compression of anxiety, tension, and high expectations: such as a holiday dinner, a bar mitzvah, or a wedding. So in the case of this film it is Kym that arrives a day or two before the wedding, and in a few moments the black-hole of the wedding preparations sucks all of the people away from her and she is ALONE—and more than desperate. In a film like this, technique is a way to realize the atmosphere of the family dynamics. Everything in the lives of these people is HIGH DRAMA. These people are successful in business and management and the arts. They are literati. They all have impeccable Eastern-seaboard breeding, and they all have private-school educations from K-12 through the university levels. They are rich, they are successful, and they are all high-energy folks. The screenwriter, first-timer Jenny Lumet, knows these people and realizes their lifestyle in the screenplay. I was awed by her ability to particularize the characters and to illustrate in numerous ways the level of high drama that drives them in every way. When I say high drama, I mean it. One of the funniest and saddest scenes of all is the one where Kym’s father competes with a wedding guest to see who can load the dishwasher with more skill and speed. The entire scene is fraught with operatic adventure and self-inflated importance. Nothing these people do is uninteresting—to them! Their stories are all fascinating—or at least, they think so—or perhaps their egos have been stroked so often over the years that they cannot expect anything less of themselves. At the same time, understand that these are intelligent and perceptive and articulate and sensitive people—for the most part. They are talented, amazingly talented. They have CONTROL over their lives (they think). They are music makers, and most of the film is overflowing with music of all kinds. One of the running gags in the film is a small band, hired by the family, that never seems to stop playing In one scene, Kym screams at them to “shut up!” Another sub-theme is that food is everywhere in every scene. Abundance is the theme here, just as creativity is a theme. So: after greeting her sister Rachel, both sisters revert, temporarily, to teenaged behaviors. But Kym is distracted, because she is required to submit a mandatory drug test and to attend an Al-Anon meeting. And her father won’t let her drive the car, and you have to ask, “What’s the big deal?” She’s an adult. Why can’t she drive? Why does her father treat her as if she were a piece of fragile china? Kym completes her errands, and she is shocked to see the Best Man at the Al-Anon meeting, and he speaks eloquently about his sobriety. Back at the Long Island estate, the two make mad passionate sex, and that action made so much sense in the context of what we had already seen from Kym. She was alone. She was desperate. She was on the edge of oblivion. And she despises Rachel’s Maid of Honor and wants to replace that woman in that important wedding role. So: why isn’t Kim Rachel’s Maid of Honor? What is it that the family is tip-toeing around when it comes to Kym? And talk about high drama! At the first dinner, suddenly Rachel and Kym’s mother makes a grand entrance! We have learned by now that Rachel and Kym’s father is divorced, and he has remarried a wonderful woman. But this first wife! Why does she deserve such an entrance? She sucks all of the oxygen out of the room when she walks in. Then I realized: this is Debra Winger! Where has Debra Winger been the last 15 years? In 1993 she played Joy Grisham in Shadowlands. And then she disappeared. And here she is, and she is a towering character, a fearful character to everyone around her. She is Mother! She is a Force! Stand aside! Then everyone begins toasting the future bride and groom, and these toasts are as innately competitive as everything else in these people’s lives. Then the realization: everything in their lives is competitive. That’s how they became so creative and successful. They competed and they won, time and again. So now they imbue everything with that innate sense of competition in order to maintain their position in life, their calling, and their profundity. As I watched this scene, I also saw the mother as nervous, anxious, and ill-suited for her role. What was her problem? And Kym has one of the last toasts, and then another realization: I have spent the first 30-40 minutes of the film feeling alienated from Kym because everyone has been telling me, “It’s all about Kym!” And suddenly I am feeling that I have been hoodwinked by these brilliant people. They don’t want Kym here because it makes them uncomfortable, and yet they don’t know how to deal with that anxiety. Suddenly another revelation: In the next scene Rachel announces that she is happily pregnant, and Kym’s response is, “That’s not fair!” Wait a minute! But her parents (the original Mother, by the way, has long made her exit from the estate) are delighted, and then there is the reference to one of the missing singers, Ethan, and you ask, “Who’s Ethan? What’s going on here? Will somebody tell me what’s really going on here?” Later, we see Kym at another Al-Anon meeting, and she tells her story articulately and yet painfully: when she was 16, she was high on drugs, and she drove the family car off a bridge, and her younger brother, Ethan, also in the car with her, drowned. Now we have a story to sink our teeth into. Back to the full house of wedding guests. Every last one of them is self-absorbed—and yet creative and interesting and memorable and frustrating. And in one scene, when Ethan’s memory is raised, by accident, that memory stops everyone in his or her tracks. Talk about dysfunction. I began viewing the film watching one woman’s dysfunction, and now I am watching an entire family of dysfunction. Where did it all begin? Where will it end? Slowly the family dynamics begins to unravel with Rachel arguing with Kym, and then Kym disappears and drives to see her mother, the first wife of her father. That scene was a turning point for me because it gave me the information I needed to understand what had happened to Kym in the first place. She faced horrible ordeals in her childhood and adolescence. Here she was, raised in the temple of affluence and creativity and education and self-importance—and yet she was perfectly vulnerable to forces that were beyond her control. This film began to remind me of Ordinary People because of the revelation of the secret lives people lead—especially the lives of people that on the surface appear to have everything. That meeting with her mother was perfectly realized, and it told me that Kym was going to be okay. She was going to be a survivor. Almost as an afterthought, or at least a calmer time, we have the wedding and the vows and the utter creativity and affluence of it all. Then it’s time to party, and bring out more food, and keep the music coming, and the half-naked Caribbean singer, and then the rock singer, and I have to wonder how many hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent on this wedding! It was all too much! But that’s the point. Then it’s time to say good-bye, and the Mother, the Mother, has to leave early because she cannot stand being called upon to show affection or commitment! There is a big hug scene, but all I could see was that there was NO LOVE HERE. At this moment in the film Kym and Rachel were at the same level—and yet the film does not end there. There is the next morning, the musicians that won’t shut up, the bride and groom affectionate and another hug—a real hug this time—and then it’s time to go.
The Reader. Dir. Stephen Daldry. In one of the first reviews I wrote this year (for the German film, The Counterfeiters), I asked, “How many more films will come out on the subject of the Holocaust?” And then a darker question, “When will the last Holocaust film be made?” All I can say, after viewing this film, is that the answer to the second question is yet to be determined. Another film on the Holocaust, and it is brilliant. The first issue I need to dispense with is the question of the sexual relationship between Hanna (Kate Winslett) and Michael (David Kross). Their first meeting was perfect: he sits in an entryway, vomiting, and she appears out of nowhere and suddenly becomes fiercely maternal. She attacks his condition as if to dispense once and for all with all of its nastiness. She cleans him up and walks him home. And when he returns, after recovering from his illness, the director emphasizes the young man’s POV as he enters her small apartment. He is ripe for seduction, and she does not disappoint. Every adolescent male, at one time or the other, has the fantasy of being seduced by an older woman, one with sexual experience, who will initiate him into the finer qualities of life. In this film, the young man’s fantasy is realized—and therein lies the rub. Everything that follows in this film is based upon an evaluation of the impact of this seduction on both the older woman and the 15-year-old boy. Why did she do it? What did that affair come to mean to the boy as he aged? Of course, everything about this relationship—in the context of our modern values—is sexual abuse and/or sexual exploitation. But then the context is important here—a story that really begins in Germany in 1958, only one generation after the end of WWII. Suddenly the boy has a big secret—and later, when he hears in a high-school literature class that much of the great literature of the world is based upon characters with big secrets, then you just know that this kid is a goner. He has arrived—not at maturity—but at knowledge, sexual knowledge. And from that land he will never return the same man as the boy who went forth—and found that knowledge. H tells her later, “I didn’t think I was good at anything.” But that was before their sexual affair began; now he has a masterful self-confidence based solely on their sexual routine.
And then comes the inevitable minor rift in their relationship and a renewal of that affair that comes with a marvelous bit of acting by Kate Winslett when she agrees to forgive him and affirms her love for him. That expression on her face conveys such ambivalence. What is this woman doing to this young man? But once she gives him what he wants, she exacts what appears to be a simple request—to reverse the order of their routine: she wants him to read to her first and then they will have sexual intercourse. What is going on here? At the very least, a woman poorly educated as a child is given a great education. He reads her the classics. She is moved by the great literature. (I was reminded of the fate of the reader in Eveyln Waugh’s classic A Handful of Dust—and I worried about his fate under her control.) But their relationship only deepens during that first year—and soon he bursts out of the routine by suggesting a visit to the country. The young man sells this stamp collection—a boy’s hobby—to underwrite the biking holiday. Young Michael is in love—he is very much in love—he is desperately in love! But in this change of routine and change of environment there is the first sign of unease. Surrounded by school children, Hanna seems uncomfortable. They take rest at a church, and inside she listens to a mixed choir singing angelically, and he stands at the doorway and watches her—she cries openly, unashamedly, and yet I knew (but did not understand why yet) that he did not understand why she was crying. That scene was for us, the viewer, to begin to grasp the eventual sundering of this relationship.
The film actually begins in 1995 in Berlin, and young Michael is an accomplished lawyer with a long list of physical conquests (and yet you know that there is no love among those conquests—and I was reminded of the terrible fate of Salvatore in Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1989). Oh, to fall in love so deeply and never recover from that love. How many times has that been a central theme in literature and film! And after the holiday trip between the two in 1958, the film returns to 1995, and we learn that adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes—perfect for the role because of his perpetually melancholic expression) has a daughter (more of that later), and then back again to 1958 and suddenly there is a new character on the horizon, and that is Sophie, another adolescent, and obviously infatuated with the mysterious Michael who seems to have that edge of experience that other boys his age do not have. And yet poor Sophie can only yearn for our young hero. Still—what is clear at this point in the film is that Sophie stands for the ending of the sexual affair between Hanna and Michael, because when Michael turns 16 you have to know that it’s all over—just a matter of when. Thus, on his 16 th birthday he argues with Hanna because she does not seem to grasp the significance of this day in his life—and yet I wrote in my notes, “Boy, is this kid ever trapped!” She takes his War and Peace out of his satchel and orders him to begin reading it to her—all 1400 pages of it—and then bathes him, scrubbing away as if she were a worker at a spa and was being paid for how much of his epidermis she could strip off! Then I realized that this film is the dark side of Summer of 42 (1971), another film whose context is World War II.
What do you need to know about the Michael of 1995, the one we see visiting his daughter in the next scene. He tells us, “I’m not open with anyone.” Of course he isn’t—because that’s the cost of what has happened to him in his life. And we don’t know the half of it yet. But in this scene there is a glimmer of hope regarding the renewal of his relationship with his daughter.
Cut to 1966 and Heidelberg Law School, and there is our Michael, now a brave young lad of 23 and a serious student of law under a wonderful professor (played in typically relaxed and ironic mode by Bruno Ganz). And the next thing you know is that Michael steps on a land mine; that is, he walks into a trial (a kind of class trip planned by his professor) and there sits Hanna as one of several concentration camp guards that are the defendants in a trial. Hanna is now 43, and we learned that she joined the SS as a means of finding better and higher-paying work during WWII. And now the film kicks into high gear because everything we knew about Hanna and Michael has now been turned upside down and inside out. Now the Holocaust has entered Michael’s world and our world in ways we have never expected. Everything from this scene until the end of the film was compelling and completed pieces of a puzzle that had been established by that strange seduction back in 1958. Hanna is guilty, guilty at least of being an SS guard and dispatching numbers of victims to the gas chambers during their tenure at Auschwitz. When Hanna is challenged directly by the judge, she replies, “What would you have done?” And there is no answer. We learn along the way that she had favorites among her charges—children who read to her (by her request) and probably received extra food rations. But then she dispatched them as she did others. She is guilty. There is no doubt she is guilty. And Hanna’s fate, as well as the fate of the other SS guards on trial, becomes fodder for the law school class. Students debate the legal and moral ramifications of the Holocaust, and their responses are a kind of Rorschach test of moral intelligence. And then comes another bombshell, and this time Hanna’s response to the new charges is central to everything else that happens in the film. What she decides upon ironically seals her fate at the same time that it fosters a revelation in Michael’s mind—because now he knows something about Hanna that no one else knows. He talks to his professor about what he should do with this information, although he does disclose the information to his professor. We know what it is, because a brief flashback reveals an essential truth about Hanna’s life. So Michael has this burden, and what does he do with it? This revelation could affect the outcome of Hanna’s sentence, and yet Michael does nothing with that information only he is privy to. In other words, he is culpable, too, in a way. Life exacts its toll upon us—and now Michael knows that truth in the deepest way. That woman in front of the judges and in front of the world, that woman was the first great love of his life, and yet he finds out the unthinkable—that this woman played a hideous role in the Holocaust. Is this young man ever trapped! What does he do? Two things: first he makes a surreptitious visit to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. We follow his POV as he walks through the living quarters and then through one of the gas chambers and a crematorium. Such simple and elegant images that speak volumes about what the Holocaust means. And second, Michael arranges to see Hanna, to visit her in jail before her sentence of life imprisonment is carried out. She awaits his arrival, and yet he cannot follow through on the visit. He leaves, and that reaction shot of Kate Winslett—did she know it was Michael who had planned to visit her? But in not seeing her, Michael is unable to escape her. She is part of his life, part of his essence, and so the next scenes are simple crosscuts of Michael preparing for the day of the sentencing, and Hanna dressing for her final appearance before the judge. Although the two do not meet, they are brought together through the editing.
The film moves to 1976, and Michael, now married with a five-year-old daughter, returns home for a long-delayed visit, rummages around in his old room (again I couldn’t help but think of a similar scene of Salvatore revisiting his bedroom—preserved like a museum by his mother—in Cinema Paradiso) and leafs through some of the books he read to Hannah when he was 15 years old. And what he does next is extraordinary, and it is at once a kind of gift and a kind of reparation or forgiveness—or perhaps even a grace—that sustains him and reconnects him to Hannah, who is serving her life sentence in a German prison. What amazed me was that the film seemed to have several endings. I could have imagined that scene would have been ending. There he stands in his old room leafing through The Odyssey, and the scene fades to black and the credits begin. This film keeps on ending—scene after scene—and each new ending adds another layer to what came before.
Now we follow Hanna’s life again, and we see a woman who gains a measure of redemption for what she did earlier in life. I was amazed at this plot twist, and yet I understood it easily. But there is always a part of Michael that will not yield forgiveness and certainly not love. Fast forward to 1988, and now Hanna has served the minimum 20 years of her life sentence and can be paroled from prison. And who does the prison parole officer call? She calls Michael, Hanna’s one contact, and asks him to provide some support upon Hanna’s release (finding her an apartment, finding her a job). Then we have their reunion—and again, it is an amazing scene to see Michael, 43, sitting across from the 63-year-old woman Hanna, his one true love, and you wonder what is supposed to happen here. Is there anything left of their former relationship? When you see that scene, it will be clear what she thinks about that question and what he thinks about that question. That scene is brilliantly conceived and acted by both Winslett and Fiennes. When she says, “You’ve grown up, kiddo,” you practically melt as a viewer. Then she lays it on him: “It doesn’t matter what I think, what I feel. The dead are still dead.” And so Michael leaves, after explaining what help he will provide for her in the outside world. And there is more! And one especially heartfelt scene is the one where Michael visits a Holocaust survivor (who spoke at Hanna’s trial back in 1966), and he tells this stranger more about the details of his life than he has told anyone else. Her response: “Don’t go to the camps for catharsis!” Poor Michael. The acting of Lena Olin in this scene was another miracle of acting in this film. Now Michael is on his own again, a man of 52, and what does he do with himself? He takes his adult daughter, once estranged from him, on a trip, a kind of sentimental journey. And he starts to tell her a story. And at the end of this film you realize that the real journey he has needed to take was a journey toward redemption, because what happened to him at the age of 15, as momentous as it was, was also an unfortunate, misunderstood act that he never came to understand or fully integrate into his character—and thus the need for his own redemption is at the center of this film.
Reprise. Dir. Joachim Trier. ( Norway, 2006). What a high-energy experience. I loved the fast-paced scene structure both at the beginning and the ending of this film, the story of two good friends, both writers, whose attempts to become published writers lead them down separate paths. Philip and Erik are the best of friends, and I think the film is partly about the fragile fabric of any great friendship, especially when both are talented and competitive. Along with this fragility, however, is a greater source of pain: and that is how young men hang with the pack and follow the alpha male dog because loyalty to the pack is all. In other words, this film has a strong component of outright and nasty sexism, blasted away by the alpha male that heads this pack of friends. The real victim of this attitude is Erik, who is being pulled in two directions: in one he tries to care for Peter, the successful author, who has been overcome with a serious psychosis, precipitated in part because of his obsessive love for a young woman; in the other, he hangs out with this negative group of friends and takes their abuse and even fritters away his relationship with his own lover partly because he is too loyal to the pack. This film is an extraordinary well-observed and well-documented study of the perils of this tenuous friendship—and it succeeds, in great measure, because we believe in the bonds of love between these friends. I relished the characterizations of Peter and Erik. I loved the off-beat relationship struck up between Erik and an author both men had practically worshipped. I was less impressed with the somewhat forced resolutions that occurred after climactic scenes that led to a series of resolutions. The entire film was set up to suggest there would be no resolutions: often the film was extraordinary tense. But despite the way the film shifted direction at the end, I still valued the story that was told and the characters that were realized. This is a fine joint effort by a young director and by young actors.
Tell No One. Dir. Guillaume Canet. ( France, 2006). First things first: I need to see this film one more time in order to savor the characterizations and the plot twists. I was lost several times early in the film with respect to who was whom and what was what—and although it all becomes clear at the end of the film, I would love to see it again and revel in the way the film was structured. What a story, what acting, what direction. This film comes out of the gate at full speed and in no time you are hooked. It begins with a simple dinner scene with happy and prosperous people and then a second scene with a brutal murder of a man’s wife. Then: eight years later. Our hero is a good doctor who cares for his patients, and yet he still carries the flame for his late wife. I had one partially negative reaction to the use of American pop songs to carry the various montages in the film. What is it about the American songs? Why not French pop music? But that complaint is minor when compared to the rest of the film. What is it about a film like this that draws us in and enthralls us with its suspense and mystery? Francois Cluzet, the main character, is a good place to start. He reminds me of a middle-aged Dustin Hoffman, perhaps 25 years removed from Mrs. Robinson’s entanglements. His dialogue, gestures, reactions shots, movements of his body—all work together to create a character. In an early scene he is sent a video through an anonymous source: we watch the video with him, a great use of technology-within-technology, and we see him looking at a woman on the screen who is staring into a video surveillance camera outside the Metro and she has the face of doom upon her. Could it be his wife? That video sets in motion his quest to resolve the mystery. After all, when his wife was murdered, he was knocked unconscious and fell off of a dock into the water. He didn’t drown because someone pulled him out. But who? And why? This film is all about the subtleties of psychological realism. The director employs lots of quick flashbacks of the wife from the hero’s point of view. We even see flashbacks of the hero and his girlfriend (later his wife) at the age of 9-10, standing on the edge of the same dock in the same lake where she was murdered eight years earlier). Why? What are we to believe? So the film becomes a crazy-quilt of quixotic odysseys (the main one on the part of the hero trying to figure out if his wife is alive and sending him a message with that video), another of the police trying to figure out if he actually murdered his wife 8 years ago, and another of a strange group of bad guys (or are they undercover cops?) trying to track something down as well. Sometimes I got confused and wondered, who are these guys? What are they really up to? And what about that police detective? What’s going through his mind half the time? I was reminded of the type of story Agatha Christie wrote so well. Of all of the suspects, which one could have known all and done all and why did that person act in that manner? You will find out at the end of the film, and it will shock you. In one of the best scenes the doctor jumps out the back window of his clinic, moments before he is to be arrested, and he escapes the police by crossing a busy freeway. It’s a nail-biting scene, and when he crosses the second set of lanes, there is an unexpected accident that is brilliantly filmed and makes you thank your lucky stars that there is such a thing as stunt doubles. But you see the point: a film like this is about your allegiance to the hero. You are willing to invest your emotions on behalf or his welfare, even in the face of deep suspicions, because you believe in that person and believe that justice eventually will be done. And when it comes, it comes from one of the most unexpected corners imaginable, and I can tell you, it’s a great feeling to know that when you do someone a good turn, sometimes that’s the right person to come back and do a good turn for you. The ending of this film: I was reminded of the ending of A Very Long Engagement (2004) and reminded that every once in a while, if you believe in something, the truth will out.
WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Pixar Animation rules the world! Every year these people bring out a hit. And the films just keep getting better and better. And now this one. The little robot in this film captured my heart. The first 20 minutes has all the qualities of a classic silent film. In this context the audience is shown, rather than told, what to think. Here’s the deal: the little robot compacts trash. For a while, we don’t really understand the scope of its work. Other similar compactors seem to have ceased functioning. Only this keeps moving. I could see the mountains of trash everywhere, but I did not connect the mountains of trash to the movements of the little robot until near the beginning of the second sequence—showing him at work on a second day. There it was—WALL-E laying out one cube of trash next to another cube of trash and building a large square on the flat ground. Then it hit me! This little guy (like the ones before him before they failed) is building these humungous pyramids of trash that look exactly like the great skyscrapers of Manhattan. The first key moment was when we return to his humble abode, the insides of a large immobilized machine, and we see that on all of the racks in the interior of the machine WALL-E has stored little gadgets and keepsakes that he finds on his daily grind of trash-compacting. That moment when we understand how the little robot thinks—that he values beauty, and finds it in pieces of junk—is when we begin to empathize with WALL-E as if he were human. These first sequences in the film gave us a three-dimensional character, an insight into his values, and especially an insight into his undying belief in beauty. WALL-E did whatever he could not to be alone. He surrounded himself with his gewgaws and his version of objets d’art, and he even had a sidekick (a humble cockroach). He was as real as any character could be. He had an existence. And he had a problem. Despite his sidekick, he knew he was alone and he was lonely. So how to make that problem go away? He has come up with one means of appeasing the loneliness: he views and reviews an old videotape of Hello, Dolly! He loves one scene where the young couple reaches out and takes each other’s hand. WALL-E imagines that moment as the moment when he will become complete. (If you ask me, that sounds just like the rest of us.) The plot thickens when a spaceship lands nearby and drops off a probe, something that looks like a rounded I-Pod. Did you notice that the first thing the probe did was to fly around the planet—just for the joy of flying around the planet? Then it got to work. File that in your memory. Why would a robot delay getting to work? Of course, the point is that our WALL-E is smitten with this probe (Eve), and the rest of the film unfolds toward an inevitable union of the two characters. Critics have complained about the creation of a dessicated and brown landscape early in the film—too depressing for kids, you say? I give kids a lot of credit, and the audience I was in had lots of kids, and I got the impression that the kids grasped the significance of the dreadful environmental damage done by humankind and understood exactly WALL-E’s values and motives. I think the film bogged down just a bit when it shifted to the spaceship and all of the people living the couch life day after day. And although I enjoyed the comedy of the rogue robots on the spaceship, almost none of those characters was really individuated in those scenes. The dystopia theme aboard the spaceship was handled beautifully. One of the most beautiful moments in the film was the dance between WALL-E and Eve out in space after the former’s near-death experience (shades of what happened to Dave in the pod in 2001: A Space Odyssey). That dance was the dance of love and joy: and those two words are the key words for the overall film. Love and joy. If you have the capacity for love and the capacity for joy, then you are truly alive. I think the kids got that, and I think the adults got that. And in another nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most humorous moments was when the memorable chords from the film’s opening scene were played over the animated captain’s attempts to stand up on the deck of the spaceship’s bridge. And who was the captain’s nemesis? A robot that reminded me (even to the red eye) of HAL from the Kubrick classic. These allusions to the Kubrick film may have been missed by the younger audience, but that’s one of the hallmarks of the Pixar tradition: you can make a great animated film even though the kids will miss some of the details: but the older members of the audience will understand it all. That works for me.
The Wrestler. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Welcome to another 1970s film—and I mean that as a real compliment. What we have here are characters living on the fringe of society—a broken-down professional wrestler who spends his weeks man-hauling boxes from trucks at a local grocery; and an estranged daughter that in the 1980s would have been Queen of the Punk; and a pole dancer at a local club who is doing that work so that she can raise a kid and pay the rent. Three characters, all on the fringe, and all of them closely observed by the camera and their characters revealed—like a cinematic x-ray—with all the warts included. Randy the Ram! He’s a loser! But he has a good heart. Now that latter point may have made the character more palatable; but at the same time he is most real to me when he screws up. The screenwriter got the core of this guy’s character right. He is not a bad man—he is simply a man with a narrow field of focus. He is poorly educated, he comes from lower-class stock, he has spent a career as a pro wrestler (a type of ham actor), and he has allowed his identity to become synonymous with this work. He doesn’t have the mental or emotional equipment to see another horizon beyond that one. The woman he falls for, the pole dancer and stripper, is faced with a similar dilemma. The brutality of her work is based upon the rule that strippers never fraternize with customers. Men are customers—sources of income. The rules of the lap dance apply: the male customer cannot touch the dancer. So you keep your emotional life intact and yet pay the price of keeping everyone at a distance by objectifying them. There is a kind of pretend life in the pro wrestling world that parallels that of the pole dancer. The pro wrestlers want their customers to believe that what they see is real—that all of the blood and punches and falls and all the pins are based upon one man dealing out punishment and taking punishment and overcoming his sworn enemy—his opponent. There is a kind of morality play at work in the ring: the good guy usually wins, and thus the customers feel good about paying for their tickets because at least once a week the good guy (them) does not screwed over by society. I grew up thinking pro wrestling was the real thing. Vern Gagne was one of my heroes when I was a kid. But in my late adolescence I learned that it was all performance and not a test of strength and wills. This film gets the wrestling right, even to the detail of the camaraderie that exists between all of the performers. People may be on the fringe of society; but they still create a micro-society in which each of them plays an important role and is respected for it. Here Randy the Ram finds honor; he is known to have endured years of broken bones, cracked ribs, torn ligaments—you name it. He is the consummate performer. He is the Laurence Olivier of the wrestling troupe—but now he is fading into the realm of former glory. He is even on the fringe of his own fringe.
This film begins with a great credits sequence showing posters from the many years in which Randy the Ram dominated pro wrestling as one of its biggest stars (or in their words, champions), and then the director cuts to a great shot—the old Randy sitting in a chair in a long shot, and coughing like an old man with emphysema. In one shot Aronofsky shows the change from former glory to present hackdom. For the rest of the scene the camera follows Randy’s POV, a great technique, as he walks here and there, and then sits in the dark, and the thing Aronofsky is doing is that he is not showing the actor’s face yet. He withholds that look at this old star, a longtime has-been actor, Mickey Rourke, and when we finally see his face, it is bathed in warm light to humanize him and make us warm to him as a character.
You have to know people like Randy the Ram. You know they are multi-talented. You know they have potential. But you also know they are consistent. Sooner or later they are going to fail—they are going to disappoint you. But this film delivers a rich portrait of such a character. He does become real, and Rourke’s acting contributes to this realization of character. But Aronofsky uses Rourke wisely, too—he uses his battered face, his beefy arms and barrel chest, and those penetrating eyes. The film often is unsparing in its lack of vanity with regards to the portrayal of Randy the Ram. He wears hearing aids. He uses glasses for reading. He does look rough; he does look worked-over; he is his worst enemy. Aronofsky hands Rourke what for many would be the role of a lifetime. This role is a cousin to Jake LaMotta, self-destructive to the core, and yet appealing because of that parallel inner drive to find love and make it the new focus of his life. I was so impressed with Aronofsky’s fluid direction. He knew where to place the camera, how to make the right cut to convey the right metaphor, when to use camera movement or character movement and when to use static shots, when to combine noisy scenes with quiet ones—he had the rhythms of this film in the palm of his hand. There is so much here that looks like basic stuff; but it looks that way because Aronofsky knows how to simplify the order and content of scenes. To me it felt like an intuitive approach to filmmaking. He was making the film on the cheap, and perhaps that freed him to align his imagination with his material and just let it go.
There are so many good scenes here: the first time we see him enter the wrestling ring and have that first match, the staples scene, the deli scene where he began to find his voice as King of the Deli, the autograph scene (sad and pathetic, but believable), the scene at the bar with Cassidy, the scene where he sits and talks seriously with his daughter (what dialogue), the scene comparing his entry of the ring with his entry at the back of the deli counter, the meat slicer scene, Cassidy’s last conversation with him, scenes of him making phone calls from a rusty pay phone in the middle of nowhere, his speech to his fans at the last match, the Bruce Sprinsteen song at the end of the film. There is so much joy and energy poured into this film. It is by no means a lament; it is more like a celebration—or perhaps a eulogy.
In the film Randy makes some progress with the relationship with his estranged daughter, and he sweet talks the pole dancer, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) to break some of her rules about contact with the customers, and there is just enough of a flirtation with change and redemption to keep our attention lingering until the bitter end—and you know the end has to be bitter. I’m sorry, but it has to be bitter. But there is a kind of redemption for this character in the only way he could be redeeming: standing atop the ropes at the corner of the ring, balancing himself precariously as he plans for the Randy Leap that all of his fans come to see him for—a good performer knows that you have to satisfy your fans, and if you can kill two birds with one stone, then so be it.
Young at Heart. Dir. Stephen Walker. My teaching and research has focused on literary gerontology, or films that recreate the experience of aging. This documentary is one of the best films that have come along in a long time that addresses the experience of aging fearlessly and honestly. The key ingredients for a great documentary: great direct cinema scenes (uncontrolled documentary), a clear and relevant structure to the overall film, and revelations of the characters of the people featured in the documentary. Let’s take the first category: in this film there are numerous scenes of the senior choir members in rehearsal. Sometimes they have a terrible time learning the lyrics of classic and contemporary songs—most of which I never heard of either! You can’t fake direct cinema, and scenes like the rehearsals or the informal conversations between choir members or the harsh advice hurled their way by their picky director, and finally the climactic scenes of a prison concert and then their final concert—well, what can I say? These scenes are wonderfully presented and are easy to enjoy. Then take the structure of the film: you have the obvious rehearsal to final performance structure, and that works well throughout the film. You also have another structure associated with the aging process: the everpresent reality of mortality associated with old age. Third, you have enough scenes devoted to characterizing individual choir members. We come to know and Fred and Bob and Joe and Helen and Eileen! The director gives them time so that he can meet them and relate to them and them empathize with them. They get under our skin. We care about them. We don’t want to lose any of them! Then we have the director, Bob Cilman, who never patronizes these old people. He treats them with respect and expects them to produce good work. This is a refreshing film that reminds me of documentaries on aging that came out 20 years ago. Did I say that the prison performance, and then the climactic opening night performance, were a linchpin to this film’s success? The quality of the music, and the earnestness of the performances, spoke volumes about the creativity and hardihood of those elders. I was reminded again of how music, like the other arts, overwhelms us with beauty and meaning. And this film had plenty of both.