Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Piece of Blue Sky

Phoenix and Hoffman defend the faith in The Master.

««« The Master. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 

That there’s never been a major Hollywood movie about L. Ron Hubbard is not an accident. As detailed in Jon Atack’s scary expose A Piece of Blue Sky, Hubbard and the Church of Scientology have been persistent, aggressive, and shameless in their use of the courts to intimidate their critics. Even the IRS has been in the organization’s cross-hairs at one point: a strategy that, as Bill Clinton has said in another context, “takes brass.” To take on that particular story too directly is to run the risk of nuisance suits, petty harassment, and even death threats. Hubbard himself wrote in 1960: “If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace.”
            But the rise of Hubbard from failed naval officer to Grade Z science fiction writer to prophet of his own religion is also a quintessentially American story. All at once, it reflects the popular myth of the entrepreneur, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and the particularly American trait of innovating religious “technologies” as ingenious as any of the creature comforts of modernity. Whether we are speaking of Scientology or Mormonism or any of the other peculiarly American “faiths”, the distinction between inspiration and hucksterism can look awfully subtle. Declared Hubbard, “Writing science fiction for about a penny a word is no way to make a living. If you really want to make a million, the quickest way is to start your own religion.” By some accounts, he even wagered Robert Heinlein (or is it Isaac Asimov?) that he could—out of whole cloth. It might be said that Hubbard officially won when the IRS granted tax-exempt status to the Church of Scientology in 1993.
            This landscape of big American myths is familiar territory to Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). His towering There Will Be Blood (2007) first mythologized, then deconstructed the kind of industrial titan (otherwise known as “job creator”) beloved of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan. Religion figured in that story too, in the person of Daniel Day-Lewis’ nemesis, the boy-preacher played by Paul Dano. But Anderson takes on the cross-pollination of commerce and religion more directly in his latest, The Master.
            Observing the better part of valor, Anderson has prudently avoided making his film about Hubbard himself. But the veil is thin: like Hubbard, his “Lancaster Dodd” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds fertile ground for converts among men and women adrift in the wake of World War II. Instead of Hubbard’s Dianetics, Dodd has invented a science of psychobabble he calls the Method which, like Hubbard’s, involves a series of structured interviews (“auditing” in Scientology, “processing” here). Like his inspiration, Dodd is can be smart, charming, and even self-effacing. But he is also, like Hubbard, desperately thin-skinned, to the point of full-blown paranoia. If anything, Hoffman plays this crypto-Hubbard too sympathetically, never stooping to out-and-out contempt for the people he cajoles into signing “billion-year contracts” for all their money.
            Yet Anderson doesn’t think the key to understanding this story really lies with Lancaster Dodd. Instead, The Master is really about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy wash-out and devoted alcoholic who drifts from job to job until he impulsively climbs aboard Dodd’s flagship. From there, he simultaneously becomes the Master’s enforcer and persistent critic—he knows very well that Dodd is making up his religion as he goes along, but the privilege of “belonging”, even to an elaborate con, is too seductive to walk away from.
            Phoenix is terrific in this role. Not unlike the persona he adopted for Walk the Line, his Johnny Cash bio-pic, Phoenix fashions Freddie Quell by an almost sculptural twisting and rending of—well—himself. You’re never quite sure this is a plausible human being here, but Phoenix plays him, and Anderson shoots him in such searching, unflinching long takes, that it doesn’t matter.
            By making Phoenix’s character the touchstone of his movie, Anderson is saying that an “origin story” of a thing like Scientology (or indeed, any religion) misses the point. What gives the thing its power is not where it comes from, but how it is perceived, and by whom. Lancaster Dodd, though impressive and expansive and ingenious, is less important to the success of his endeavor than his smaller, meaner followers, like Freddie Quell. In this, Anderson undercuts the myth of the master entrepreneur as deftly as he did in There Will Be Blood.
            Plausible as all that is, it leaves a void in the center of The Master that dissatisfies. I like to think this was intentional—the narrative equivalent of the empty room in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the less sophisticated imagined the Holy of Holies would lie. But there’s no escaping the suspicion that Anderson has pulled his punches here, for obvious reasons. Some sacred cows kick, and they kick hard.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Extreme Impersonating

Papoulia performs a service in Lanthimos' Alps

««« Alps. Written and directed by Giorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou.  Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos. Coming soon to Netflix.

In some cultures it is customary to hire professional mourners at funerals. Nor is it unusual for living people to personify the dead in certain ceremonies, such as ritual dances. But Giorgos Lanthimos’ Alps takes the whole “playing the dead guy” idea to an interesting extreme. In the script by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, a secretive business hires people out to take the place of the deceased for customers who have lost relatives. In a decaying economy such as Greece’s, it’s an unlikely but brilliant idea: a service job as recession-proof as death itself.
            The company calls itself the "Alps” because, as leader “Mt. Blanc” (Aris Servetalis) explains, the Alps are the archetypal mountain range, impressive enough to “stand in” for any other (this is nonsense, of course). But Blanc’s stable of impersonators indeed have the skills to play anybody’s dead wife, husband, daughter or son. And Lanthimos’ movie has a tone that is strange enough to perfectly match its premise.
             The ace of Blanc’s staff is Monte Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia), a hospital orderly who confidently steps into the shoes of the wife of a lighting salesman. But her skill at shedding and taking on other identities has a cost, as she becomes obsessed with a teenage tennis player who dies after a car accident. She takes on the role of the dead girl on a freelance basis, not telling the strict (and occasionally violent) Blanc about the job. Her deep devotion to her work—call it “extreme impersonation”—becomes a problem in itself, as Rosa’s desire to resurrect the dead comes to overshadow her duty to assuage the family’s grief.
             In tone, Alps resembles some of Werner Herzog’s early films, such as Heart of Glass (1976), where all the actors were filmed in a state of hypnosis. Papoulia, in particular, is frightening in the way that “haunted crazy” can be more scary than “frantic crazy”. Working with a languorous, almost submarine deliberateness, she and Lanthimos find a zone where the usual rules of human interaction seem to be thrust into question. Under normal circumstances, there is indeed no reason to expect that anybody’s grief would be lessened by hiring a “stand in” for a loved one—but that’s a judgment rooted in our current practices. There have been weirder customs observed around the world.

             Alps opened in the US last year on two screens, and closed two weeks later. It’s not exactly joyous material, but it is quite possibly topical, considering the current state of the Greek nation. Modern Greece itself was always a kind of “stand in” for the ancient version that northern Europeans idealize. Arguably, Greece was let into the European Union more on the basis of its past glory than its present state. As Papoulia demonstrates here, there can be risks to allowing impersonators into the family.

© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dream Weaver

Issova is animated in Surviving Life.

«««1/2  Surviving Life (Theory and Practice). Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer. Coming soon; visit the film microsite at
Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's bizarre and wonderful Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) starts with a rare thing: a director apologizing for his film. The movie you are about to see, he explains, is a "psychoanalytic comedy", though he grants there's not much funny about it. It was made using a painstaking process of stop-motion animation of still photos, but not so much for the surreal effect as because "we had no money, and it saved us on catering for the actors." And then the skin splits off Svankmajer's skull, and his cranium rolls off his shoulders and into a manhole.
            That's how it goes in the wide, weird world of Svankmajer (Alice, Little Otik), who surely has one of the unique sensibilities in world cinema. After starting off in the tradition of live puppetry in Prague, Svankmajer has gone on to produce a body of surreal visions that have beguiled audiences and influenced such talents as the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam. But where the Quays (who disavow Svankmajer's direct inspiration) tend to be goth and ghastly, there's always a gently whimsical element to Svankmajer's work. And where Gilliam aims for the droll, Svankmajer seems determined to make you think as much as laugh.
            His "psychoanalytic comedy" is the story of Eugene (Vaclav Helsus), a middle-aged office worker who is having recurring dreams about a beautiful young lover (Klara Issova). The dreams make him feel unfaithful to his plain, crabby wife Milada (Zuzana Kronerova), but he doesn't actually want them to stop--he only wants to control them, to make his subconscious love affair into a manageable thing. But Milada is on to his subconscious wanderings, and is determined to end them any way she can.
            On a visual level, Surviving Life uses two-dimensional "cut-out" animation to conjure up an interior world that is both quaint and grotesque. As his shrink (Daniela Bakerova) quizzes Eugene on the couch, portraits of Freud and Jung face off on the wall, pumping their fists when the analysis goes in a proper Freudian or Jungian direction, slugging each other when occasion provokes. Giant apples and orchid-vulvas and naked women with chicken heads march through Svankmajer's dream cityscape, which is like the London of Yellow Submarine's "Eleanor Rigby" sequence, but stranger. Prague's peculiar combination of baroque riches and east-bloc penury is as much a character as the actors here, a rich compost-heap of thwarted lives and dreams that, together, makes this something you've never quite seen before--and yet, somehow, you suspect you have.
            It is true that under the expressionistic surface is a fairly dated understanding of psychoanalysis, as if Svankmajer's reading on the subject ended sixty years ago. But Svankmajer's object here is satire, not some exposition of the latest trends in psychoanalytic theory.  And indeed, in its counter-intuitive, chaotic glory, the sardonic Life has more truth in it than the self-serious, pseudo-profound Inception, which envisioned the subconscious as nothing more than an elaborate first-person shooter game. Svankmajer knows this territory better, knows it is sticky and dangerous and more a bestiary than a computer program. There, anything is likely to happen except what Hollywood trades in--the expected. Surviving Life is Inception for smart people. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Willis and Gordon-Levitt tie themselves in loops.

««« ½  Looper. Written & directed by Rian Johnson.
All things being equal, this writer is suspicious of time travel stories. Drama, after all, requires causality, that actions have consequences. But when you can always just travel back to the moment before some fateful event and undo it, an infinite number of times if need be, then no act really has consequences. Time travel is just the more sciency brother of the "relax, it was all just a dream" trick, where the hero wakes up and realizes all he just suffered through never happened. Though we justifiably groan at the latter, we tend not to at time travel—possibly because of the pseudo-science element.
            But all things aren't equal in Rian Johnson's slick, absorbing Looper. You've heard the premise already: sometime late in the 21st century time travel into the past is invented. But instead of using it for cool things like exploring history, stalking dinosaurs, or killing the boy Hitler, the time travelers of the future are mainly just gangsters. To kill people in the future, they send them thirty years into the past, to the year 2045, where "loopers" like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) blow them away as soon as they arrive. That way, there are no bodies to dispose of in 2075, and dead guy in 2045 may not even be born yet. Stands to reason, right?
            Of course not, because this is the kind of idea that seems great when the screenwriter pitches it to some studio suit over too many mojitos, but actually makes no sense. (For starters: if you can make a live wise guy disappear in 2075 by sending him back in time, why not just kill him in 2075 and dump his dead body back in, say, 50,000 BC? And if you have a time machine, why bother with dangerous criminal pursuits like drugs and prostitution at all? Why not just go back seven business days with some cash and stock market records, and make a perfectly legitimate bundle beating Wall Street?)
            Johnson, the young gun behind the likeable Brothers Bloom, tries to preempt such criticism by having Bruce Willis admit, "If we start thinking about this time travel stuff, we'll all be sitting here forever making diagrams with straws." True enough. And indeed, when you get on Looper's wavelength, it's easy to forget about causality and straw diagrams, because it's got that much raw momentum. The key twist in Johnson's script is that a looper's career ends with a very special assignment: in exchange for a generous pay-out and thirty years' retirement, he must kill his future self. (Yeah, that sounds like an invitation to trouble to me, too—why not delegate some other looper kill the future version of yourself? But never mind...)
            Here Gordon-Levitt has to kill Willis, the future Joe, who has a good reason not to go quietly. Watching the two versions of Joe face off is perversely fascinating, like the coming intergenerational war over Social Security made literal ("You've had your life. Why don't you do what old guys do, and die," the wage-earning Joe tells his retired self.) The anachronistic styles of the actors give it an added kick. Willis is sweaty and frantic like the '80's Die Hard hero he is, but Gordon-Levitt  channels icons from generations earlier, looking a bit like the young Connery combined with the whip-crack physical presence of Cagney. Together they really do make Looper feel like a story where the laws of common sense are suspended.
            There's a sub-plot here with Emily Blunt as the mother of the future criminal kingpin, whom future-Joe wants to kill before he grows up to kill him. (Or something like that.) This actually feels like that famous Twilight Zone episode ("It's a Good Life", 1961) with Billy Mumy as a vindictive kid with telekinetic powers who keeps the population of a small town in terror. The premise actually not as compellingly handled in Looper, but the fact that this added element of fantasy works at all in the context of all the other time-travel nonsense is a pretty neat trick. For keeping that many balls in the air, Johnson has made himself a juggler to watch. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Start the Revolution Without Me

Panahi and friend kill time.

««««  This Is Not a Film. Neither written nor directed by Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Coming Soon.

This is Not a Film is fittingly described in the credits not as a film, but as "an effort" by Jafar Panahi.  The title sounds clever in a po-mo way, like one of those playful Magritte paintings of a hat with a caption, "this is not a hat". But this is serious business.
            For Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle) is not just another punning intellectual, but a persecuted master of Iranian neo-realism. Based partly on his outspokenness in the wake of the disputed "re-election" of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and official unease over the criticism of the regime implicit in his films, Panahi and his entire family were arrested in 2010. The filmmaker is currently facing a six-year prison sentence and a twenty-year ban from making movies, writing scripts, giving interviews, or travelling abroad. His conviction, fully intended to be a death sentence for his creative life, has been called a calamity for the arts in Iran.
             This Is Not is a documentary of Panahi's house arrest as he awaited the result of his appeal. Given the charges against him, just making this film, any film, was a crime in the eyes of the Iranian regime. And getting it seen abroad was a heroic act, accomplished by loading the finished product on a thumb drive and smuggling it out of Iran--no kidding--concealed in a cake. It was  screened as a surprise entry at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
            Panahi hadn't yet begun serving his prison term when he made this "effort", but he might as well have been. Here we see the filmmaker trapped in forced idleness, puttering around his Tehran apartment, eating breakfast, surfing the (censored) web, chatting with his lawyer on the phone. And when his inspiration gets the better of him, he calls up his friend, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and asks him to come over and shoot some footage of him "explaining" the screenplay to his last film--the one he'll never get to make. "Is shooting me describing a film the same as making a film?" Panahi wonders. In happier circumstances, questions of the nature of authorship, of what being a "director" of something really means, would make for some interesting parlor discussion. Here, of course, Panahi's feigned non-authorship has very practical implications.
            Without a doubt, This Is Not a Film is excruciating because it's about a guy doing nothing. As Mirtahmasb shoots Panahi with his professional camera and Panahi shoots him back with his phone, both seem slightly bemused by their predicament--two grown men who just want to make movies, reduced to this because of the criminal insecurity of men in power. And yet the drama implicit here, in the risks they run just by showing their faces onscreen, resonates as deeply as any of Panahi's Tehran street stories. Whatever other motives they share, Panahi and Mirtahmasb love film. They love it in the kind of hopeless, total way that dares risk imprisonment and torture. It's a love of the art for its own sake that is inconceivable, not only among both the ayatollahs, but the hacks and cynics who run Hollywood too.
            The political subtext isn't very subtle. As Panahi plays with his iPhone and chats up the fellow who collects his garbage, we hear the sounds of explosions outside the apartment. It turns out that there's an unofficial public holiday underway, "Fireworks Day", that the regime isn't too pleased about because of its anti-establishment atmosphere. The explosions are firecrackers--but only for now. As the mullahs crack down on peaceful irritants like Panahi, they invite the kind of protest that won't be contained by any court decision.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro