Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good vs. Good and God Against All

Hatami and Maadi have differences in A Separation.

* * * 1/2  A Separation. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. In Farsi. 

I’ve been seeing a lot of Anthony Bourdain on TV lately, which has naturally inspired analogies between food and film criticism. No surprise that much of what you get at the multiplex is like the stuff they serve at the snack counter: sugary or fatty confections that offer up little more than a superficial head-rush. Indeed, watching movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, like eating Ring Dings, will not only yield zero nutritional benefit, but kill you slowly and make you cruel to small animals.  Yet some of the fare served up at the “art house” isn’t much better—The Descendants, for instance, is like a nouvelle cuisine experience that is heavy on premise and eye-appeal but light on the plate. On my way home from that film, I was still hungry for some drama, and ended up eating some Ring Dings anyway.
            Say what you will about Iranian movies, but they are always full meals. Regardless of their actual running times, films by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry), Dariush Mehrjui (Leila) or Mohammad Rasoulof (The White Meadows) tend to be long, deliberate affairs, with each finely wrought course brought out in its own time and not a second faster. Like many a heavy meal, they can leave you sleepy. But there’s no questioning their authenticity, their full, sustaining themes, or the pungency of their ingredients.
            The latest Persian entrée (and winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) is Asghar Farhadi’s searing family drama A Separation. It opens with estranged couple Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) directing their appeals straight into the camera, which stands in for an unseen (and none too sympathetic) judge.  Simin has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad, and wants Nader and their daughter Termeh (Sarina Fadhadi) to go with her. Nader has no particular objection to this, but can’t abandon his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is completely dependent on him for his care.  At what seems like the end of a long, fruitless argument, Simin demands—quite unreasonably—“What’s worse, leaving an old man or abandoning your daughter?” To which Nader asks (equally unreasonably) “What kind of wife asks that of a man?” In despair, Simin demands a divorce, which still qualifies as a drastic measure in the Islamic republic. And to her sorrow, Nader has no particular objection to splitting up either. It’s the judge who refuses to end their marriage, calling their impasse “a little problem.” The rest of Farhadi’s script seems designed to show just how wrong he is.
            In the fashion of classical tragedy, the couple’s discord is the seminal transgression that sends ripples of disaster through everyone they know. Simin leaves to stay with her parents, forcing Nader to entrust his father to a marginally competent bumpkin (Sareh Bayat). She, in turn, is afraid her hot-headed husband (Shahab Hosseini) will find out she’s secretly taken a job caring for a physically incontinent male. The arrangement ends in a disaster that unfolds with the soul-scorching slowness of a car crash with you, dear viewer, at the center.
            Farhadi shows striking discipline with his camera, shooting hand-held in a way that reflects and abets the growing tension. Nor are there any weaknesses among the performances: Maadi is constantly compelling as Nader, a man too close to the end of his rope to worry much about little things like integrity or how badly he appears in his daughter’s eyes. The lovely Hatami, already a veteran player at forty, plays her role with the steely resolve of a Persian Irene Papas. But the film’s soul is invested with young Sarina Farhadi, portraying the only child of the warring couple (and, in fact, the director’s own daughter). Keeping up her studies and her loyalties to both parents, she’s hanging on by her fingernails here, and we feel the rending of her heart with every tear.
            This is powerful stuff, and if there’s any objecting to it, it’s by mere implication. Like tragedies from Antigone to Medea to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, this one is rooted in a woman’s insistence on justice. This is not Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan—in Iran, women’s legal rights are far more likely to be recognized—but there can be no doubt where even a moderately conservative mind would place the blame here. In a dispute between a husband who wants only to care for his dying father and a wife who yearns for personal fulfillment abroad, the verdict would likely be the same in Tacoma as in Tehran: for the sake of her husband and daughter, she should put her dreams on hold. It’s an implication that won’t sit well in some circles. 
            In Farhadi’s defense, it is perhaps our own progressivist naivete that insists that all liberal developments—such as respecting women’s right to pursue happiness outside the home—are “win wins” for everybody. By the dignity in which he invests Hatami’s character in A Separation, Farhadi seems to be no reactionary in matters of gender. But there’s also a coldness there, a pitilessness that is its own kind of violence. In an interview, Farhadi has observed “In a classic tragedy, there is a war between good and evil, but in modern tragedies, the war is between good and good… you don’t know which character you want to win, which one you want to lose, and you’re probably not going to feel good about either.”
           In suggesting there are really no “win wins” in human affairs, Farhadi may indeed be a reactionary. Or just too honest for everyone’s comfort.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dance Me to the End of Love

Wim Wenders takes us to the river in Pina.

* * * Pina.  Written and directed by Wim Wenders. In English, German, and French.

Inside the world of modern dance, the profile of German choreographer Pina Bausch was as high as Bill T. Jones, Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham and other, more recognizable names. This will likely change for the rest of us with the arrival of Wim (Wings of Desire, Paris Texas) Wenders’ film tribute, Pina. Though it has been nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year, calling Wenders’ film a “documentary” arguably stretches the term too far. What Pina “documents” is a truly visionary imagination whose productions could be as surpassingly strange as any fiction.
            Like the works of many of her contemporaries, Bausch created original dance pieces that elude easy description. Through the 1970’s and ‘80’s, her Tanztheatre Wuppertal was renowned for surreal, evocative productions combining intense, elemental emotions with equally elemental stage settings. Her dancers didn’t just glide over a stage—they cavorted with dirt, water, rocks, even ice. Bausch’s method could be as ineffable as her themes; one dancer interviewed by Wenders recalls the only direction she received in twenty years under her was “Get crazier.” (Other, equally Delphic pronouncements included “Go on searching” and “Dance for love.”) However she did it, in classic pieces like Rite of Spring (1975) and Café Müller (1978) Bausch went places that don’t have names, dancing on the edge of a razor between exaltation and chaos.
            Film and dance have a long history together, but the marriage is not necessarily a natural one. A movie can record an impression of movement, but at the cost of the physicality that gives a live performance its scale, its special electricity. Wenders made Pina to be seen in 3D, but I saw it sans glasses, and didn’t really miss it. His most effective move, rather, lies in breaking Bausch’s work loose from the confines of the theatre, taking it out into forests, tunnels, trams, factories, escalators and other ordinary locations. By making the “where” as interesting here as the “what”, Wenders renders Pina into a true collaboration.
            Alas, the collaboration turned out to only one-way: two days before filming was set to begin in 2009, Bausch died suddenly at the age of 68. The shock of that sudden loss inflects everything in the film. Most obviously, it makes Pina into a valedictory in which her genius is showcased, but her humanity is obscured. Nobody could have produced works of such demanding precision without stepping on a few toe-shoes—to “get crazier” necessarily must have led her to some dark places. Wenders is understandably loathe to suggest ill of the dead, but a real documentary should not have been. A bit too much of this film has her former collaborators sitting in dejected silence, unable to fathom that she is gone.
            Indeed, there were quite a few moments in Pina when I was perplexed or bored. If dance on film can never get any deeper for you than the “When You’re a Jet” number in West Side Story, this may not be the trip for you. But there are also many passages of ravishing, oblique beauty, like the bastard spawn of Julie Taymor and Tarsim Singh. Bausch’s personal search may be over, but at least we still have the snapshots she sent back.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dude Looks Like a Lady

Mia Wasikowska and Glenn Close promenade in Albert Nobbs

* * 1/2  Albert Nobbs.  Written by Glenn Close, John Banville  & Gabriella Prekop, based on a short story by George Moore. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

Next to The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep convincingly plays a woman pretending to be a man, this year’s gender-bending honors go to Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs.  From The Year of Living Dangerously to Tootsie to Boys Don’t Cry, Oscar loves cross-dressing—maybe as much as it loves disabilities. It is perhaps understandable, then, that we approach Nobbs with a certain amount of cynicism.
            The eponymous Nobbs (Glenn Close) is a mousy, fastidious creature who works as a waiter in a second-tier Dublin hotel sometime early in the last century. Such establishments were like the heavily-staffed “great houses” beloved of BBC period dramas— places that operated under a working truce between upstairs and backstairs. Nobbs, a model employee, is so good at seeming unexceptional in both worlds that he’s under the radar before radar was even invented.  The script (written in collaboration with Close herself) isn’t coy long about why: “Mister” Nobbs is a woman on the run from a bitter past as an orphan, who tolerates years of scurrying like a rat in hopes of achieving her dream of one day owning her own tobacco-shop.
            The prerequisite here lies in playing a woman who masquerades as a man so well she fools her colleagues for years. Close lends Nobbs a certain physical dignity by giving him a lack of flexibility in his neck and shoulders, as if a man is just a woman with fewer working joints, and speaks in a whatever is the opposite of a falsetto but sounds equally phony.  Poor Nobbs is somehow hairless as a gecko at a time when facial hair on men was de rigeur, has no discernible Adam’s apple, and works long hours at the hotel but never shows a hint of five o’clock shadow.  In this, Close’s performance is more admirable than convincing.
            None of these problems are fatal, though. Nobbs’ real ambition, after all, is not to be a man but to be invisible. Though some might take this movie to be about the freedom to express one’s inner sexual identity—to mistake it for transgender empowerment or some equally absurd anachronism—the script is emphatically not about any of that. Nobbs is pretending for economic reasons, just as the hotel’s cut-throat owner (Pauline Collins) selectively plays the hapless ninny and local handyman (Aaron Johnson) pretends to be a expert boiler mechanic when he isn’t. As hinted at by the hotel’s carousing nobles (The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in a strangely abortive role), true gender-bending has always been with us, but only as the prerogative of the leisure classes.
            Amid the general drabness, the film presents one bright spot in Janet McTeer’s deft performance as Hubert, a housepainter with a secret much like Nobbs’. Where Close comes off as a skilled actress working hard to play a man, McTeer just seems mannish without any of the artifice or fuss. Hubert walks around with a bust bigger than Dolly Parton’s, yet nobody would dare accuse this hulking, man-breasted dude of being a lady—and we just believe it. Whatever McTeer is playing, she finds some element of joy in an otherwise dreary story. Let Oscar take notice.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A History of My Analysis

Sigmund Freud's (Viggo Mortensen's) head appears to swell in A Dangerous Method.

* * * A Dangerous Method. Written by Christopher Hampton, based on a play by Christopher Hampton and book by John Kerr. Directed by David Cronenberg.

Q: So, anything new this week?
A: In our last session, I said movies about great Dead White Males still get made, but only if they steer clear of much intellectual content.  It took just one week for an exception to arrive to this confident generalization. David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is indeed about a couple of post-Victorian eminences—Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. And notwithstanding the way it is sold as a love triangle, the script by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) is very much about the intellectual conflict that animated and eventually destroyed the relationship between these two giants. Now what would Freud have made a critic who is compelled to highlight an exception to his own rule?
Q: Hmm, what do you think?
A: I guess I’d say I’m conflicted—perhaps on some level deeply, deeply angry—that Cronenberg’s has chosen to abandon the overt horrors he used to make (e.g. Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers) for mainstream dramas like Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. True, the latter are well-wrought, undeniably more edgy products than most multiplex fare. But compared to the ambitious contemplations of mortality in the best of his horror films, the new Cronenberg seems content to settle for far, far less. He’s like a slugger in baseball who used to hit booming home runs but also strike out a lot, who decides to turn himself into a specialist in slap singles.
            Being a fairly sumptuous period drama, A Dangerous Method would seem to fit this pattern of diminished expectations. It is, after all, about the genesis of psychoanalysis, otherwise known as “the talking cure”, which was in essence the antidote to the neglect, confinements and beatings—in short, the Cronenbergian horrors—inflicted on mentally ill people until well into the 20th century. 
            And indeed, being based on a play based on a book, much of the film is comprises people in tweed and linen, talking in paneled rooms. Jung (Michael Fassbender) is an independent Swiss psychologist who decides to apply Freud’s newfangled ideas to the treatment of the beautiful, tormented Sabina (Keira Knightley). As imagined here, Jung’s relationship with Freud himself began only after he had begun to delve into the wellsprings of Sabina’s sadomasochism. In the continuous 13-hour long conversation that touches off their friendship, Freud (Viggo Mortensen) insists the root of her illness as sexual, as he more or less did for every problem. Jung, though flattered to be seen as the old man’s heir apparent, suspects that there are more monsters in the subconscious bestiary than just psychosexual ones…
Q: Yes, go on.
A: A Dangerous Game isn’t In Therapy or some similar confessional drama. Hampton’s script seems largely disinterested in the particulars of Sabina’s case. Instead, it dwells on how her influence—much like Geneviève Bujold’s in Dead Ringers—widened the seams that were already dividing the men. Freud was a Jew of relatively modest means who perceived his theories, and of course himself, as dangerously exposed to ridicule in pre-fascist Austria. Jung, as an “Aryan” married to a rich woman (Sarah Gadon), quite literally had the luxury to take risks as he adapted and deepened what Freud had begun. Class tensions between them, and the inevitable jockeying for supremacy between master and apprentice, counted more than poor Sabina, who seems even more crazy once Jung nominally “cures” her of her hysteria.
Q: Shall we do some free association about the cast?
A: OK.
Q: Keira Knightley.
A: Teeth.
Q: Viggo Mortensen.
A: Pipeweed.
Q: Michael Fassbender.
A: Shame.
Q: Keira Knightley.
A: Eyebrows.
Q: So how does all that make you feel?
A: In the end, this movie is more tragedy than horror—the tragedy of a conflict where the rivals are doomed to play their parts, no matter how self-conscious and insightful they might begin. How does this make me feel? Insofar as the best of Cronenberg’s old horror films verged on tragedy, this is something of his old promise redeemed. As outcomes go, that’s not bad.
Q: I see we’re out of time. Pick up again next week?
A: OK. Take a check this time?
Q: Sorry, I still prefer cash.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Sorrows of Young Johann

Stein and Fehling do the ordinary thing in Young Goethe in Love

***  Young Goethe in Love. Written by Alexander Dydyna, Christoph Müller & Philipp Stölzl . Directed by Philipp Stölzl. In German. Available from Netflix.

Though we live in an anti-intellectual age, bio-pics about elite Dead White Males are not quite extinct. The condition is that the emphasis must never be on their genius or any particular ideas they might have espoused. Instead, in films like Amadeus, Immortal Beloved, and Shakespeare in Love we see great minds doing ordinary, non-elite things, such as being young, getting hammered, getting sued, and falling in love. In other words, we like our geniuses to be just like the rest of us—only more so.
            In Philipp Stölzl’s Young Goethe in Love, we meet the progenitor of German romanticism, one of the towering polymaths of any age, in his salad days as a legal apprentice. More specifically, we see him being young, getting hammered, and falling in love. How much does this movie want to bring this Ur-genius down to earth? Perhaps allowing for the possibility of a blockbuster Disney musical down the road, its original title was Goethe!
            As played here by Alexander Fehling, young Goethe (say Gew-ta) is a good-natured scamp, a law-school washout and a disappointment to his father (Henry Hübchen).  Sent to clerk in the backwater town of Wetzlar, Goethe soon finds trouble in the form of a local mädchen (Miriam Stein) whom the script declines to call by her full name—Charlotte—but by the suggestively Bond-girlish “Lotte Buff”. A soloist in the church choir, Lotte has a corresponding artistic temperament, and best of all appreciates Goethe’s brand of poetry, which eschews the classical allusions popular at the time in favor of a certain immediacy of feeling. Trouble is, Goethe’s boss (Moritz Bleibtreu) has also set his powdered wig in Lotte’s direction.
            How does it turn out? Goethe’s real Wetzlar misadventures formed the basis of his first literary success, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774),  an epistolary novel about a young law student driven to despair by love. The book has been credited as the first popular best-seller in the history of modern fiction, and the foundational work of the Romantic movement. It also led to a wave of actual suicides by lovelorn young men in Europe.
            Goethe was a heavyweight, but Young Goethe has a pleasant, feather-light feel that is (as one character quips) more Sturm und Drunk than Sturm und Drang. Though the script is full of coincidences and “did I happen to mention?” moments typical of the bodice-and-culottes genre, it boasts strong performances that make it work anyway. There’s real chemistry between Fehling and Stein, whose pairing suggests a young Heath Ledger travelling back two decades to co-star with an emerging Sean Young.  The latter looks like she might have stepped out of a Gainsborough painting, yet—charmingly—she doesn’t seem to own a comb.  Even Bleibtreu, as Goethe’s plodding bourgeois rival, earns his share of pathos here. The combination of pretty faces, appealing performances, and ravishing production design makes this feel less like a European production than Hollywood at its most entertainingly middlebrow.
            The real Goethe went on not only to become a literary lion, but to contribute meaningfully to natural sciences like botany and physics, and play a part in setting the context for Darwin’s insights into evolution.  He also loomed large as a cultural influence, both by reputation, by active research in history and folklore, and by his inspiration of musicians like Mozart and Beethoven, and thinkers such as Hegel, Jung, and Nietzche. Nor was his affair with Lotta Buff the be-all and end-all of his romantic career—he had several momentous loves before her, and had an affair later with Christiane Vulpius that, after a brush with death during the Napoleonic Wars, became a long and mutually fulfilling marriage. In short, the months covered in the film is perhaps the least interesting of Goethe’s life and afterlife. But if Goethe! gets us thinking more about of the seminal figures of modernity, then what’s a few tipped tankards and unlaced bodices in the process? 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro