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My Dinner with Andre (1981, Louis Malle) second viewing
yes (#8 for 1981 between CUTTER'S WAY and THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS)
The Squid and the Whale (2005, Noah Baumbach)
Cards on the table: divorce is something that I know well, having grown up in a divorced household and having recently experienced the dissolution of my own marriage. Therefore the subject of Baumbach's third feature, a semi-autobiographical account of his own family's dissolution and misadventures in joint custody, can't help but be as personal for me as it is for Baumbach. And so, how does one critique what's on screen without making it a critique of a person's ability to make art of their life traumas? I can think of few things more nerve-wracking, for those on both sides of this dilemma.
The best thing perhaps is to get right at the issues and articulate them, but then to also reflect on what these observations imply about me and my experience as much as they may about Baumbach. For me the best things about the film are its impeccable attention to period and setting; as someone who lives only a few blocks from Prospect Park, I can say that Baumbach evokes an '80s version of the neighborhood and its denizens perfectly.
Scene after scene, Baumbach demonstrates how a couple of not-quite-grown up parents spread their neuroses to their children; all four family members share comparable levels of self-unawareness and sexual frustration like some kind of backwoods Brooklyn inbred disorder. He gets a big assist from an excellent cast. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney excel as the disintegrating parents, he a writer getting by on past glories while she is in the midst of breaking out with her own first novel. To compensate for his insecurities, Daniels' father wields his cultural erudition to domineer his family, ceaselessly offering aesthetic critiques of everyone and everything he comes into contact with. You have to hand it for Daniels for making this pompous son of a bitch watchable for 80 minutes while never winking or bowing to the audience with an ingratiating comic gesture. In her own quiet way, Linney manages to depict a woman coming into her own while still trying to uphold her role as mother. The adult performances are equalled by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as the two sons, who are called upon to display extreme levels of adolescent confusion and discomfort, including the spreading of semen on school hallway lockers -- for all their rawness, the emotional center of the film rests between them.
So why don't I like this movie more than these comments would suggest? Maybe because such an unpleasantly genuine experience is captured by this film that the experience of watching it is genuinely unpleasant? There may be a shock of recognition factor in seeing the monsters and a--holes onscreen reflected in one's personal memories and having to face up to them. But if that's the case, I do have reason to fault this film after all -- not for bringing me back to a realm of authentic human shame, but for not doing it enough. For this flaw, I call attention to the film's questionable use of rhythm and its god-awful editing. Clocking in at a mere 80 minutes, the film feels rushed, with numerous awkward scene transitions and abrupt endings of scenes. At certain moments I wondered if this jagged editing job may just be an appropriate reflection of a family in disarray. But for the most part, the staccato rhythm of the dialogue, the delivery of key lines as if they were punch-lines ripe for the trailer -- well who knows if this kind of speech is genuine to Baumbach's world, but it also feels like one extended stand-up routine. Treating such unpleasant subject matter in this manner may make it easier to dispense for a mass audience, but it also makes it easier to dispose.
It may not be I who am most uncomfortable with this story after all - it is as if Baumbach & Co. were tentative about taking this story to its darkest depths, opting instead for a trimmed down highlight reel. We're out of any given scene before we really have time to let it sink in, and it's on to another scene, another cleverly constructed moment. This feeling is not dissimiliar with recent films by Wes Anderson (who co-produced this film and collaborated with Baumbach for the script of THE LIFE AQUATIC). What it tells me is that the feelings evoked by this experience still haven't been worked through enough so that they can be allowed to exist in a perfectly uncomfortable silence. What we're given instead is a therapeutic "conquering the demons" happy ending that's way too slight for its own good and effectively lowers the stakes, settling for a momentary victory in an overwhelming sea of irresolution. But even as I find this film unsatisfyingly unresolved as a whole, I can't but help empathizing with that irresolution, and just the very thought of how difficult it must be to get a handle on longstanding family wounds, and to be attempt to articulate them in an artistic way, and to find oneself caught between the desire to polish it into something presentable and the immutable fact of its rawness. Maybe another time I'll see this again and find it utterly brilliant. But for now I prefer to believe that it could be so much better.
Capote (2005, Bennett Miller)
An absorbing account of how Truman Capote wrote his most famous book, IN COLD BLOOD, and exercised questionable ethics as both a journalist and human being in doing so. Philip Seymour Hoffman pretty much runs the show as Capote -- it must be an actor's wet dream to play an egomaniac -- and gets to showcase a wide range of emotions behind a rigid veneer of gay chic and squeaky voice. In public, he puts on the charm with New York socialites and Kansas housewives alike; in private, he expresses self-pitying self-doubt in a virtual vacuum, emotionally accessible to no one. That vacuum is considerable given that he seems to be surrounded by so many warm and well-meaning people, namely Harper Lee (an underutilized Catherine Keener) as his research assistant, his gay partner (Bruce Greenwood in the suffering wife role, and an awfully generic one at that), and even killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., who's no Robert Blake). There's a lot of telling through dialogue about how excited Hoffman is about Smith and the book he will write about him, and how it will make him famous, and how it will damage key relationships he has, but there's still something not quite present in terms of genuine human relationships throughout the entire film. This is especially apparent with his relationship with Perry Smith, in which the script goes from zero to intimacy in the space of two scenes, and still without conveying a genuine rapport between Smith and Capote. Apparently Capote identified with Smith through similarities in their upbringing, which allowed Capote to infuse his book with a rare empathy for his murderous subject. Again, most of this is told through dialogue rather than actually shown in their interactions; the prevailing mood is that Capote is out to exploit this "gold mine" of a subject for all he's worth. Still, even within the solipsistic realm of Truman Capote's ego, the film wages a fascinating moral battle. Capote intervenes in the case, hiring lawyers to help with Smith's appeal (and also to bide time for interviewing and writing), only to pull away when he feels too absorbed in the project and is ready to write his ending. Overall the film comes across as a devastating portrait of a man whose powers to charm and manipulate were so formidable that he essentially manipulated himself and others into a moral quagmire where none could reach him. Such a condemnation amounts to a cruel irony in light of viewers who will walk away from this film still captivated by Hoffman's evocation of the Capote mystique.
A Tale of Cinema (2005, Hong Sang-soo)
I have only seen two Hong Sang-soo films, but both this and A VIRGIN STRIPPED BARE BY HER BACHELORS, have much in common: a rhyming two-part narrative structure and a lot of foolhardy male ego exacted on women-as-vessels of sexual fulfillment and shame. Having said that, I much preferred this film, because it seems far more stylistically audacious, employing a vibrant color palette, confident and purposeful use of cheesy 70s-era zooms, and most startling of all, a film-within-a-film structure that took me a long time to figure out. I'll keep my comments at a minimum to resist spoiling the structural blindside that occurs in the middel of the narrative, but I will say that it gave a fun and refreshing twist on Hong's cinematic fixations on male ego (I still wonder just how much preferrable he is to Kim Ki-Duk, just because he happens to be more self-conscious). A very fascinating -- and even flippant -- entry into the eternal theme of life imitating art.
yes (#17 for new films seen in 2005 between TONY TAKITANI and KUNG FU HUSTLE)
Sauve qui peut (la vie) - Every Man for Himself
(1980, Jean-Luc Godard)
TSPDT project #790
yes (#5 for 1980 between THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and AIRPLANE!)
The 47 Ronin (1941, Kenji Mizoguchi)
TSPDT project #791
yes (#10 for 1941 between THE MALTESE FALCOLN and THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER)
The Sacrifice (1986, Andrei Tarkovsky)
TSPDT project #792
yes (#6 for 1986 between THE OLD WELL and RUTHLESS PEOPLE)
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960, Mikio Naruse)
YES (#5 for 1960 between BREATHLESS and THE LADY WITH THE DOG)
Cheng the Fruit Seller (1922, Zhang Shichuan)
yes (#9 for 1922 between ONCE UPON A TIME and COPS)
The Pearl Necklace (1925, Li Zeyuen)
not listed on IMDb
Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)
TSPDT project #793
YES (#8 for 1951 between AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and FIXED BAYONETS)
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