Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Last Chance Harvey: Thompson's Do-Over?

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it should be a truth generally acknowledged that Emma Thompson can Do No Wrong. Whether hidden under layers of disfiguring make-up in Nanny McPhee, or beneath a ridiculous mop of hair in one of the Harry Potter movies, or even as a thinly-veiled Hilary Clinton in Primary Colors, Thompson always produces a subtle and nuanced performance. The quiet intelligence of her acting elevates the mundane to the meaningful, and turns any meaningful scene into a truly remarkable work of art.

Thompson’s performance in Last Chance Harvey is no exception. But what does it mean that, in an early scene—in which Kate cries in a pub bathroom—is a near-duplicate of a scene in another Thompson movie: Love Actually? Does Our Em have feet of clay? Has she taken a shortcut and copied earlier work in a kind of self-plagiarism? Or has she tapped into something fundamentally true about a woman crying, and is her do-over just a repetition of that truth?

The bathroom scene occurs fairly early on in the film, before she meets Dustin Hoffman’s Harvey Shine whose last chance—and surely best—she is. Thompson’s Kate Walker is suffering through a double date gone wrong: the other couple has left her with a man younger enough than Kate to seem from another generation. He runs into friends at the pub and, over the next few moments, during which Kate answers another one of her mother’s frequent telephone calls, he gradually pairs up with one of the women, leaving Kate politely and quietly alone. She escapes to the bathroom and begins to cry—or, rather, not to cry. She holds it together just in time, and then reaches over to tinker with the toilet-paper roll, setting it straight. Then she gathers herself further. All the while, you can see the struggle in this woman between her awareness that she has unintentionally been made a fool of, and the pride that won’t allow her to acknowledge that fact. It is the kind of moment that only the best can pull off with such transparency.

The killer is that gesture with the toilet paper. It’s that momentary concern with order—as if one’s life is not going down the toilet—that gives Thompson away as a copier of her own earlier work (and suggests that what she brings to the screen has little to do with whoever is directing her—in this case, Joel Hopkins). In Love Actually, the relevant scene appears towards the end of the film, when Thompson unwraps a Christmas gift from her husband (Alan Rickman) only to realize that it is not the gold bracelet she knows he has bought. Rickman has bought the bracelet for another woman, but he has given Thompson something genuinely thoughtful and kind: a cd of Joni Mitchell, “the woman” Thompson says earlier “who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

She escapes to her bedroom, puts the cd on, and tries to hold herself together. It’s a beautiful scene. Mitchell’s smoke-and-wisdom deepened voice (another do-over, with an orchestra replacing the young Mitchell’s steel-string guitar) is the perfect score for Thompson’s suppressed emotional collapse. And it turns this moment in Richard Curtis’ music-laden movie into a kind of opera.

But, as in Last Chance Harvey, once again Thompson’s character has been unintentionally made a fool of, and she struggles with pain and pride and simple grief. Once again, as she pulls herself together, her attention goes to setting things in order: she bends down and straightens the blanket on the bed before suppressing the new wave of sadness that the domestic gesture evokes in her.

Does this doing over make the scene in Last Chance Harvey a kind of actor’s cheating? Is it unfair for Thompson to mimic her previous performance if both iterations make perfect emotional sense? What do you think?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscars Oscars

Some new award categories!

Best Pavlovian parenting moment: Mr. Winslet's instant response to his daughter's plea for a signal.(watch from 1:30 on)
Best Singing Performance: Anne Hathaway, beating out Beyonce and Queen Latifah
Best Bored Face: the redhead sitting in front of all the Slumdog people (he turned out to be part of Melissa Leo's posse)
Most Sincere Reading of Scripted Lines: Shirley MacLaine praising Anne Hathaway
Best Tux (Besides Daniel Craig): Zac Ephron (sue me, I liked the clean look)
Best Dress: Marisa Tomei, and Taraji P. Henson tied with Amy Adams
Most Mystifying Dress: Sophia Loren, who seems to have missed the memo that she is culturally obligated to be stylish

What else? Got any other awards? Disagree with some of the winners here?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Two Kates: a Winslet v. Winslet Smackdown

Some tricky maneuvering allowed Kate Winslet to win in both categories at the Golden Globes, creating a 1-1 tie between her performances in The Reader and Revolutionary Road. As a tie-breaker, I have developed the TIBT Acting Rating System (TIBTARS). The TIBTARS rates actors in four categories, as follows:

Transparency: (10 points max.) actor's ability to convey emotion clearly
Invisibility: (10 points max.) actor's ability to disappear into the role
Bravery: (8 points max.) risk-taking (ie. playing ugly or unappealing people)
Transformation: (7 points max.) (ie. weight gain or loss, bulking up)

Here are Winslet's and Winslet's scores:

As you can see, if you are reading this blog with a magnifying glass, the winner is Winslet! Holocaust Kate beats Suburban-Angst Kate, 30-28!

The Reader: Everyone’s a Critic

A rare moment of levity in Stephen Daldy’s Oscar-nominated The Reader appears on screen so quickly we might miss it. Learning to read and write by listening to Ralph Fiennes’ recordings of books from his library, Kate Winslet’s Hanna Schmitz writes him a note, commenting on his latest delivery: “Schiller needs a woman.” Barely a reader, she’s already a critic—and it is one of the few likeable things we see her do in this generally ponderous and mystifying film.

What we know about The Reader is this: Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, and the young German actor David Kross put in fine performances in this adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel. But there is so much here that we don’t know. What motivates Fiennes’ Michael Berg, at a particular moment among all others, to begin remembering his youthful affair with a tram conductor nearly twenty years his senior? What motivates Winslet’s Hanna to begin the affair? And what are the odds that this particular horny teenager, played by Kross, and this particular needing-contact-in-some-obscure-way older woman would be equally amenable to the affair in the first place? These people start out unknown and unknowable, and unfortunately are no clearer to us when the film ends.

Daldry and his screenwriter David Hare are less interested in character than they are in the Large Issues of the holocaust: responsibility, the possibility of absolution, the limits of understanding. They explore the ways in which the war folded innocence and guilt over on themselves—and not only in the odd morality of obedient Nazis. Here, a shower is both the murderous ruse from the concentration camps and a means of seduction between a young man and a former Nazi guard. Reading is both foreplay and lesson. Hanna’s relationship with Michael, whom she calls Kid, flickers between the maternal and the sexual.

Then there is the reading itself. The film plays with the idea of Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights who won herself a stay of execution every night by telling the sultan a story. Here, Michael is the Scheherazade. But while the original Scheherazade tells stories to stay alive, we sense that Hanna makes Michael tell stories because she is alive and others are not. Or does she? It seems more likely that she is slightly unhinged and utterly criminal. At her trial, we learn that she has forced prisoners to read to her before selecting them to be sent to death. Telling stories has not saved them.

But the film implies that reading stories has saved Hanna. The Reader has an uncomfortable way of reminding us of an Oprah story (which the novel once was, many years ago), complete with a Woman’s Triumph Against Adversity. But before we make plans to give Hanna Schmitz posthumous membership in Oprah’s Book Club, let’s consider that this is an Auschwitz guard whose empowerment we’re asked to consider. Daldry emphasizes this point, in case we missed it, when Hanna almost literally hoists herself by her own petard, climbing on a pile of the books she can now read, as she prepares to commit suicide before her release from prison.

In the end, as in the beginning, it’s not clear what Daldry wants us to make of his characters. Should we feel sympathy for Hanna because she kills herself? Does she kill herself out of remorse, or because she’s afraid to live outside the prison? Or (and this is not impossible) because she no longer has an excuse to receive Michael’s tapes? Now there’s a twist on Scheherazade: the listener kills herself when the stories run out. There are more questions. When Hanna refuses to admit that she is illiterate, does she do this out of a sense of shame? Or out of responsibility, knowing she is giving up the chance to exonerate herself? Does she even feel guilt?

When she answers Michael’s question about whether she learned anything from her time in prison, she answers, as if it should be obvious, “I learned to read.” Lena Olin’s Auschwitz survivor says virtually the same thing at the end of the film, in different words, telling Michael that “The camps weren’t therapy.” Nothing came from the camps, she says; you can’t learn anything from the camps. So, if there is no Big Emotional Payoff from the camps, is learning to read the only thing you can do? Should we admire Hanna for her honesty?

If there is nothing to be learned from the camps, what does it mean that we have just sat in a movie theater to watch and learn from a movie with a Holocaust theme? I doubt that Daldry and Hare telling us to stick it. Perhaps they’re implying that they’ve caught us being voyeurs. Now that would be a truly interesting thing for The Reader. Because who doesn’t feel a bit the voyeur watching the camera lovingly follow every curve of Kross and Winslet’s bodies? It’s a provocative notion—though not a new one. Still, I can’t believe that that’s what the film has all been about. The notion is offensive—to think one would use the Holocaust as a vehicle to say we can learn nothing from the Holocaust, but why not watch some nude bodies for a while.

As for the other possibility, that nude bodies in a Holocaust film must always remind us of the dead of the camps, and tell us that our world is perpetually corrupted by the fact that such evil existed—well, if that’s what Daldry wanted to say, he should have done a better job saying it.

[For other views on The Reader, click here.]

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Title Change!

Yes, the old title of "First-Person: Limited" is gone. Why? For starters, because there is no such point of view as first-person limited. There is third-person limited, but that doesn't quite have the right ring, does it? (Isn't the first person always, by definition, limited, anyway?) Even my addition of a face-saving colon could not hide the fact that I was making up a quasi-literary term. This Language Curmudgeon couldn't bear the thought of being subjected to one of her own Language Rants.

And so: The View Finder. Because a large part of this blog concerns itself with narrative viewed through a viewfinder at some point in its creation. And because readers can come to this blog to find views on current and older movies, on books and writers, and on language.

Read on, and enjoy it!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Revolutionary Road: Going Nowhere

It’s usually the action-filled movies that leave us humming a few measures of their theme music as we walk through the multiplex parking lot. Movies like Superman, with John Williams’ soaring brass, or Pirates of the Caribbean, with a melody so distinctive that it just might start a new genre: Pirate Music. Then there is Revolutionary Road. Sure, there is action in Sam Mendes’ film: a husband clears a dresser-top in fury, he slams his fist into the roof of a car; a wife runs into the woods across the street, she whirls like a bacchante on a dance floor. But the fundamental condition of April and Frank Wheeler—and of all the other suburban women and their men who come and go on Westchester trains—is restlessness. And perhaps the best evocation of their trapped lives is Thomas Newman’s score. (listen here)

Two days after I walked out of the movie theater, I am still hearing in my head the simple, open piano chords that sound at numerous moments during the film. I will leave it to others who know more about music to analyze and explain exactly what is going on. Suffice it to say that, with its restless movement and the elusive resolution of its chords, Newman’s score captures what Kate Winslet’s April says to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank: “I can’t stay and I can’t go.”

April says this in a discussion of whether to abort the child that might keep the Wheelers from escaping to Paris. But she might as well be talking about every aspect of a woman’s life in Mendes’ and Richard Yates’ 1950s suburbs. After an argument in one of the film’s early scenes—an argument in which Frank almost hits her—April gets back into the car’s passenger seat. She likely can’t drive, and she certainly doesn’t even consider taking responsibility for her own motion. Mendes’ camera work emphasizes this idea. Nearly every time we see April outside either her home or the home of a neighbor, she is filmed alone, in tight close-up. Even in the American Express office as she prepares for their trip, the camera frames her tightly enough that we can barely make out the map behind her.

Frank is no better off, though the men in this movie have the advantage of getting out of their houses and into shots with a wider frame than those that depict the women. Still, though Mendes gives them two elegantly filmed set pieces, the men’s movement is lemming-like—on train platforms, on the steps in Grand Central. Like the music, they move while not seeming to move at all. The grandness of these scenes underscores the self-delusion of both characters who are, as April says in a moment of clarity, no different from anybody else.

What is a shame about Revolutionary Road is that Newman’s music outshines Kate Winslet’s intense but ultimately disappointing performance. While she utters the line that expresses the Wheelers’ emotional situation, her acting doesn’t quite access the depth of April’s despair. The performance is a very stylized one, as clearly articulated and unnatural as Winslet’s thorough American diction. (This makes sense from the stage director whose first foray into film was the highly stylized American Beauty.) While I am willing to grant Winslet and Mendes the possibility that this was what they were after—the mid-century American woman so desperate that she either rages grandly or bites her emotions back into a surreal calm—this approach doesn’t mesh with the much more naturalistic performance of DiCaprio. If there is an Oscar performance in this film, it is his. (Coming soon: The Two Kates, a comparative review of the two Winslets on current screens.)

One of the watchwords for Revolutionary Road among movie-goers is: don’t go see it if you’re in any way familiar with a bad marriage. In an odd way, I wish this had been true. This movie should be devastating, not just upsetting (and make no mistake, it is certainly upsetting). Still:  go see Revolutionary Road. You’ll admire its technique and its craft; you’ll feel deeply sorry for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank. And I’m guessing you’ll come out of the theater trying to remember how exactly that music goes.

Language Rant 2

I admit it: I sometimes watch America's Next Top Model--but of course only if it's already on when I walk into the room. In the ritual that concludes each show, Tyra Banks stands solemnly before the dwindling (in number; they've already dwindled in size as far as they can go) contestants and intones: "The next name I'm going to call is Gloriellana"--or some equally unusual moniker. And that's it. The woman in question steps up and receives Tyra's wisdom and then falls back into line.

But Tyra still hasn't called the woman's name! When is she going to? I'm still waiting.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine Special: One Woman Walking

When men walk in movies, they are searching, exploring, striving. Think of the rather martial strides of Jason Bourne and the latest James Bond. Or of Ralph Fiennes’ determined staggering in The English Patient. Or perhaps best of all in recent cinema, James McAvoy’s five-minute walk through the destruction of Dunkirk, led, for almost all of that five minutes, by Joe Wright’s single tracking shot in Atonement.

But when women walk in movies, they are most often doing one of two things: showing off clothes, as in various montages in The Devil Wears Prada, or walking down the aisle, for which there are too many examples to list here. Every now and then, walking women are simply being passionate. Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility gives us a scene of Kate Winslet as the soulful young woman striding through nature, alone and wild. But for this scene, in which Marianne wanders a hillside in a storm, Lee is drawing on an old literary convention that connects the unpredictability of nature with the force of vague and unnamed emotions. Winslet’s Marianne does not desire anything or anyone in particular (she is seconds away from meeting Willoughby, when desire will commence on schedule). She is simply Being Emotional.

Very rarely, and quite strikingly, a woman walking in a movie appears purely as an emblem of female desire—specific, targeted desire for someone. The clearest example I have seen of this is a scene from Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s a tracking shot of Sigourney Weaver’s Jill Bryant walking slowly, eyes cast down. The camera leads her, in medium-angle, through a Jakarta market until she reaches the door of Guy Hamilton’s office. She knocks on the door, steps back, and, when Hamilton emerges from the room, pulls him back against the opposite wall and begins a slow, passionate kiss. (Hamilton is played by Mel Gibson in his heart-stoppingly blue-eyed and handsome days—as good a reason as any for a passionate kiss.) The scene cross-fades to Weaver in a post-coital bed, and takes us quickly back to the 1960s Indonesian political crisis that forms the subject matter for the film.

The kiss takes nearly a minute. But Weaver’s walk accounts for fully half of the scene’s duration, and for all of its passion. Why? Because, unlike the women of the clothing montages we’re used to seeing, Jill is oblivious to an observer as she makes her way through the crowd. It’s not about what her body looks like, not about her clothes. It’s not really even about the man we come to realize she’s walking towards. It’s about her sexual desire.

Weir overlays this scene with a Vangelis-written melody that serves as the leitmotif in this opera-filled film. (Linda Hunt’s character, the photographer Billy Kwan, listens to Kiri Te Kanawa, among other things.) We hear it a bit earlier in the film, in A Scene of Kissing Dangerously, as Jill and Guy drive away from an embassy party, through a roadblock, presumably to bed. When the music starts up again, as Weaver looks up from her work, and the camera cuts to the tracking shot in the market, we know what to expect.

I admit that The Year of Living Dangerously forms the basis for my theory because I have seen the film so many times. Fascinated by it and by Weir’s direction, and intrigued by the films coming out of Australia in the 80s, I made a point of returning to it once a year for more than a decade after first seeing it in the theater. It became a kind of It’s a Wonderful Life for me, minus the ill-timed holiday grimness.

But surely there are other examples of the Walking Woman. In the near-final scene of Wright’s Bronte-ized Pride and Prejudice, Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden lope towards each other across a dawn field, clearly with one object in mind. Still, the scene is a different animal. Cross-cuts to Macfayden’s Darcy give Elizabeth Bennet’s desire a specific target, and dilute the woman-centered nature of the emotions on display. No, Weir’s scene stands alone.

Or does it?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Language Rant 1

Every curmudgeon, even the Friendly Curmudgeon of this blog, needs a rant. And so I offer you the first in a series of Language Rants. From time to time, when I encounter a crime against the English language that is so glaring—or just so persistent—that muttering at the offending television, radio, or newspaper is not enough, I’ll post a brief commentary here.

Today's criminal is a phrase we have probably all heard many times before: Paula Cole, in "I Don't Want to Wait," singing "So open up your morning light/And say a little prayer for I." It pains me even to write it. Sure, Cole was going for the rhyme of "light" with "I". But when we all know it should be "say a little prayer for me," rhyme is the least of our concerns. (And really: who opens up a light? My parents used to say “open the light,” but they had the excuse of being non-native English speakers.) I ask you: couldn't Cole have revised the line to come up with something that would not be the grammatical equivalent of nails on a blackboard?

I invite suggestions. How would you rewrite the line to keep the gods of grammar happy?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Problem of Benjamin Button

Virtually all the press about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button presents the film as a story of triumph and uplift. As reviewers and advertisements would have it, the film offers us the satisfyingly chastening reminder that love can transcend time—and, more importantly, can overcome the normal and gradual aging of the human body. Of course, we say. How shallow we have been to forget this truth (or, god forbid, not to believe it). How lucky that David Fincher has come along to remind us of it.

The problem with Benjamin Button—and there are several—is that the film that Fincher has put together does exactly the opposite of what he has set out to convince us of. Rather than show us how the mind and heart can defy the limitations of the body, Benjamin Button suggests that the body determines and defines us.

The poignancy of Benjamin Button’s situation is supposed to come from the dissonance between his chronological and physical age. He is a child who cannot walk or run, then a young man whose back and knees ache, and then an elderly man with the smooth face of a boy. But besides a fairly workmanlike voice-over, we never see Benjamin’s thoughts, except for one lovely moment that shows that Brad Pitt is a better actor than anyone has ever asked him to be (about which more later). We are left with a story of looks—and here is the trouble.

When Brad Pitt looks twenty, dancing the twist in a 60s apartment, we should be aware that he possesses the wisdom of a seventy-year-old man. It’s an interesting conundrum: what would you do if you had all that knowledge and the body that allowed you to act on it? But we look at the young man and can’t help but notice that the woman he loves has crow’s feet and a pre-Botox-era forehead. Scene after scene—on the motorcycle, on the sailboat—Fincher shoots Pitt in glamour poses bathed with golden light. Pitt’s youth is what we long for, not Benjamin Button’s wisdom. The film reinforces such a typical Hollywood fantasy that it almost seems unfair to point it out.

I went to see Benjamin Button with my eighty-four-year old mother—a woman who is in amazing shape for her age, but who would trade experience and wisdom in a heartbeat for the chance to look twenty. As the film began, with the unnecessary frame narrative of Julia Ormond reading Benjamin Button’s diary to her dying mother, I could hear my own mother grumbling about the unpleasantness of the scene. She would watch Ormond, but kept turning away from the sight of Cate Blanchett made up to look old (but still blessed with high cheekbones). I was sure my mother would ask me to take her home, but I needn’t have worried. She turned out to be the perfect audience for the film, audibly sighing with relief when Brad Pitt appeared at his youngest incarnation, late in the movie.

Granted, who can blame an old woman for longing for the time when her skin was unlined and her body was at its most vigorous? And surely, at her age and widowed for five years, the sight of a death-bed can only remind her of my father’s time in one. But if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had done its job, my mother and I would both have walked out of the theater reassured that the body is just the vehicle for the far more valuable thoughts and feelings it contains.

There is some triumph in the movie, all the same—and it’s in Tilda Swinton’s too-brief appearance, and in Fincher’s technical abilities. But most of all, it’s in that scene that shows what Brad Pitt can do as an actor. Blanchett’s Daisy lies in a hospital bed with a body broken from a car crash when Benjamin comes to see her, looking roughly like a forty-year-old. “God, you’re perfect,” she says to him, with a tinge of spite. He doesn’t respond, but the look on Pitt’s face—or, rather, the series of looks—says it all. It conveys all the sadness, isolation, pleasure, and wistfulness of a life in which the mind and the body have never been at peace. That is something to make a movie out of.

Watching The Wrestler: or How I Learned to Stop Cringing and Love Mickey Rourke

More uplift. In this case, it’s not the story of Randy Ramzinski, the aging wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s eponymous movie, but the story of Mickey Rourke. Here is a man whose promising career descended so low that he shared a category with Jerry Lewis (American Performers Most Loved By The French), and now he has won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and may go on to win more.

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I had the impression that The Wrestler was a superb movie with a story that somehow told you everything would be all right. I was only half-correct. The Wrestler is indeed a superb movie, but it makes you want to watch hours of Winnie-the-Pooh afterwards to cancel out its bleakness.

What’s bleak can be itemized quickly enough: the trailer home with the power cut off; the beaten-up body; the dingy strip club that passes for community; the tiny audiences; the autograph-signings that look like bingo at the nursing home. What’s superb requires a longer list. Aronofsky’s movie does everything right—from the script, to the un-annoying hand-held camera, to the portrayal of its two main characters, Randy the Ram whose real name is Robin, and Marisa Tomei’s Cassidy whose real name is Pam.

The similarity of their names is no accident. These two are through-the-looking-glass versions of each other, and each is a distorted mirror-image of him or her self. Both of them are performers, selling their bodies for a simulacrum of attraction and acceptance, and, in the case of Randy, confusing the simulacrum with the real. Pam understands all this, muttering her real name as she leaves the club for good, as if it were the password to a new life. But for Robin Ramzinski, the persona of the Ram is a trap he does not want to get out of—or considers himself undeserving to escape.

Perhaps the saddest scene in this very sad film takes place in neither of the two main spheres of its story (club and ring), but in a bar near the second-hand store where Randy meets Pam to buy a gift for his daughter. (Even here, there’s the hint of self-delusion: Pam’s “vintage” store is another person’s thrift shop.) When old-fashioned rock and roll comes on the bar’s speakers, both characters glory in the music, and Randy dances for Pam in a neat reversal of their usual roles. But their usual roles make Pam and Randy utterly out of place in the daytime bar. After they kiss, Pam hurries to get out of there—and we should thank Aronofsky for that. In one of the movie’s saddest scenes, he gives us the first sign that at least Pam gets it: you can’t live the role in the real world. Get out or die trying.

No spoilers here, so I leave it at that. Except to say that the people making Benjamin Button need have looked no further than The Wrestler if they wanted to talk about bodies that defy old age. Rourke is in surprising shape and Tomei looks like a twenty-five-year old, except for her realistically and beautifully expressive face.

As for Rourke? I cringed twice during The Wrestler (not counting the horribly violent wrestling scenes and the bloodletting Mel Gibson would be proud of). Once during a close-up shot of Rourke’s butt, and once during the heartbreaking scene in the bar. The rest of the time, I was marveling at Rourke’s creation of such a vivid, sad, and moving character.