Grappling With Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH

‘What was most important was what was missing,’ writes Lanzmann in The Patagonian Hare, which was ‘death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report. The day I realized that this was what was missing, I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself, death rather than survival.’ It was the impossible, the great unknown, ‘the presence of an absence,’ in the words of Jewish philosopher and Mauthausen survivor Emil Fackenheim, which could be neither avoided nor dramatized, only endlessly approached.” — Kent Jones, Approaching Shoah

I just finished The Criterion Collection’s awe-inspiring Blu-ray edition of Shoah over the course of a few evenings and wanted to put down a few thoughts here. I want to try and capture my feelings about this film in a way that is completely authentic to my own experience of thinking about it. Apologies if this is incoherent to others; merely an attempt to get my head around an absolute masterpiece.

As you probably know if you are taking the time to read this, Shoah is a non-fiction recounting of the terrible details of the Holocaust, filmed in the 1970’s, looking backward to the 1940’s through the veil of modern, physical context. The film prowls through then-contemporary space to capture what remains, using the immediacy of primary sources– survivors, witnesses and perpetrators– to underscore the importance of making the document itself. The extermination program against the Jews of Europe organized and perpetrated by the German government was a secret, forged on a terrifying combination of efficiency and antiquated technology, and great lengths were taken to erase evidence. Lanzmann’s project is a reclamation of the process of murder and death, “the how,” combing through every available detail to create a cinematic experience; as trains click along through empty forests toward genocidal factories, it is impossible not to hold one’s breath. The steam of the engines, the empty spaces that populate the ruins of the camps, the film presents a visual outline of its narration and, like so much of great cinema, the mind fills in the blanks.

Today, we are another 28 years removed from Shoah’s 1985 premiere, and the world, in all of its physical and sociological manifestations, has shifted and, in so many cases, retreated even further away from the immediacy that Shoah is able to present. In 1985, and when I first saw it in the early 1990’s, time and space served as a palimpsest in the film; change and the passing of time continue to write over the top of the past, the text of now and then intermingling in Lanzmann’s spaces which, overwhelmingly, are quotidian features that served a brutal purpose in accommodating atrocity. Train tracks enabled trains, trees and forests hid camps from sight, roads enabled vans, etc etc.

All of this has inevitably moved even further from the time at which Shoah was completed, and our modern condition– the battle for authority in the age of the internet, domestic and international battles against state and non-state violence, internet surveillance and intelligence gathering, and the democratic, immediate, global access to technology as a way to create and consume information in real time– makes a genocide of steam trains, gas engines, rudimentary gas chambers, brutally antiquated crematoria, and a global (and sometimes willful) contemporary ignorance seem even more incomprehensible. In this way, Shoah has grown in stature and importance, not only as the preeminent cinematic document of the detailed process for the extermination of the Jews of Europe, but as a fundamental reminder that state violence remains a constant, and even more dangerous, threat. And even in that context, one need only look to Rwanda nine years ago (already?) to see how efficient brutality can be in its most analog, terrible forms.

Perhaps most of all, Shoah’s reclamation project feels eternally vital because so many of its voices, the passionate survivors and witnesses (even perpetrators) are no longer with us:

Richard Glazar, who survived Treblinka.

Raul Hilberg, whose book The Destruction of The European Jews remains one of the most important scholarly documentations of the Holocaust.

Jan Karski, who, as a delegate of the Polish Resistance, reported to Allied governments about the Nazi extermination programs and the Warsaw ghetto and was essentially ignored.

Simon Srebnik, who is one of seven reported survivors of Chelmno extermination camp (at which between 150,000-340,000 victims were said to have been murdered in gas vans).

Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz-Birkenau and reported on conditions in the camps.

They are gone now, along with so many others who appear in the film.

And those spaces in the film, where monuments now stand? As Lazmann says at the beginning of his film Sobibor, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures (which is one of three subsequent films crafted from the original Shoah interviews that are included in the Criterion edition):

“…museums and monuments instill forgetfulness as well as remembrance.”

The physical reality of the Holocaust continues to fade into the distance of time. As long as there is an audience to pay attention, Shoah makes certain that what could be excavated, memories and spaces from the 1940‘s crafted into a detailed, profoundly evocative cinematic form in the 1970‘s, will never be forgotten. Kent Jones, in the brilliant essay I have quoted above, is right; this material, this subject, and this film can only be endlessly approached. We just have to be sure that we keep wrestling with it. I know that I won’t be able to stop.


The Train Path, Bending Toward Treblinka

THE LONELIEST PLANET

A quick re-post of this review, which ran in conjunction with the 2011 New York Film Festival. The Lonliest Planet opens in theaters and VOD this week.

The relationship of the individual to the physical world is one of the (my?) great modern dilemmas; how we move in the world, how we find solitude and contemplative space in the age of the internet, how we find the room to unpack what is inside of us– these are questions that plague me on a regular basis. Part of it is clearly my character, but I’ve never been able to clear the decks and find a comfortable balance between my deepest inner desire (the ability to find quiet and just think and be, as obnoxiously self-serving as that sounds) and the pleasure of social stimuli (which, family and friends aside, finds me tracking the ideas, opinions, activities and lives of hundreds of people using social media). If anything, cinema has become my compromise, a form that allows me both a sense of social and critical engagement while also allowing me the chance to retreat within myself and explore my feelings through the dramatic power of movies.

I find the dissonance between my “real” and my “cinematic” selves to be deeply troubling, if only because in my own imagination, the person I think I am and want to be, is more likely the person sitting in a dark room, staring at a screen, mind racing and heart pounding, than it is the man who is working through his days in the service of his tangible loves and obligations. I have not wholly retreated into a fantasy world, and I take great pleasure in so much of my life, but if I am true to myself, my deep affinity for movies is tethered to the fact that they offer me the space to be who I want to be with myself, they allow my mind the space to move between thoughts and feelings, responses and desires and they never ask me what I am thinking or feeling; engaging with movies allows me to just be. That said, maybe I am not who I think I am.

Julia Loktev’s brilliant The Lonliest Planet focuses on the act of walking, of setting out and moving, to create a transformative space. That the film does so while creating a deeply cinematic experience for the viewer only doubles its power for me.

The Lonliest Planet begins with a rhythmic sound– resembling old, battered bed springs under the stress of violent coitus– against a black screen before revealing the naked torso of Nica (Hani Furstenberg), freezing and soapy, standing erect in a rustic shower, awaiting a rinse which soon arrives at the hands of her fiancée, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal). A general sense of disorientation continues as we slowly learn that Nica and Alex are traveling together, walking from place to place, before landing a guide named Dato (Bidzina Gudjabidze) to escort them through the Caucasus mountains of Georgia. But as the group walks further and further from Dato’s village, Loktev cultivates a sense of dread and vulnerability before a terrifying moment brings about an unexpected reaction from Nica and Alex, transforming not only their relationship but the viewer’s position in relation to the film itself.


The Lonliest Planet

Loktev is a filmmaker of great gifts, using the frame to establish the dynamics of emotion and power (in the interpersonal sense) with an elegant sense of geometry; during their long, often silent hike, the characters are presented in varying degrees of focus, close-up and bokeh, pulling the viewer toward one character and away from another, giving one primacy on the screen while another defers, always against the staggeringly beautiful backdrop of the grass-covered mountains and valleys. Nature serves neither to humble nor augment the emotional give and take of the film, but rather to establish a figurative grid through which the characters walk. It is through the act of walking through space, together and alone, that the drama of the film plays itself out, every gesture and expression the natural result of a quiet, introspective journey that gets fleshed out once the movement stops and the characters set up camp for the night.

In one of my favorite shots in the film, Nica is wrapped in a foil blanket and warming herself next to the campfire. Just behind her, Dato’s pup tent echoes the triangular shape of her seated body, while further back, a remorseful Alex offers another geometric rhyme, smaller, less meaningful, but still present. I was reminded (coincidentally?) of Cézanne’s painting Bathers at Rest, where the angular positions and shapes of the bodies and the features of the landscape become rhymes, full of weight, depth and light. So too with The Lonliest Planet , which uses composition in the service of relationships and unspoken emotions. Loktev’s film is thrilling because of the way she portrays introspection, but also how the faces, bodies and gestures of her characters convey so much more than words ever could. I found the film to be one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen in a long time; a rigorously constructed story of the way love can accidentally fall apart before reassembling itself in a new, diminished way, told without a single false note being struck and with a thrilling simplicity, utilizing the cinema in the service of the sublime.

The 2012 New York Film Festival | Review: HOLY MOTORS

Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is a deeply personal film, the first film of the 21st century to tear apart the modern conditions of filmmaking and expose their ultimate superficiality. I think the film is a masterpiece and will stand as a vital document that describes the challenges and problems facing filmmakers who confront an industry that continues to spiral away from authentic human experience toward a completely artificial, isolated world driven by money, surface and condescension. Not only is this painful realization at the heart of Carax’s film, it is literally its narrative subject; written by Carax in a “rage for being unable to get a film made,” Holy Motors is an incendiary, often hilarious, manifesto in favor of putting human feeling back into the movies.

The film begins with a snippet of a silent film of a human body in motion, which cuts, eventually, to a packed cinema filled with patrons who are sound asleep, dead to the magic of the cinematic image but sitting face to face with the viewer. We soon seen Carax himself waking from a dream (or waking into one) and entering the balcony of a cinema through a secret door. A naked child runs through the aisle, a younger self, the one inside of us of which Carax hopes we are aware, the one he asks we bring to the experience of watching the film, and he is chased by a giant, menacing black dog. This opening is vital to Carax’s point that the cinema has been stripped of its revelatory power, of its history, of being alive to the simple complexity of human experience and action. Carax is trying to restore the magic of the image, to bring a childlike sense of wonder to the proceedings.

Soon, we meet Oscar (Denis Lavant, in a performance for the ages), a businessman who slides into the back of a white stretch limousine and begins to check on the day’s appointments. Suddenly, Oscar begins to transform himself into an old beggar woman, one of many roles he will play during this long day. Oscar panhandles on the streets of Paris and the point is clear that the situation Carax is describing is not the condition of the actor or the condition of cinema, but the condition of the director, the auteur, in the modern business of filmmaking. Here, the artist begins his day by begging for money which, not unlike Carax’s own frustrations with fundraising to make his own films, is a baffling, humiliating process, a “role” that the filmmaker must play in order to continue his work.


M. Oscar

As the film moves along, and as Oscar finds himself in new role playing situations, Carax sets up spaces of action that at once echo the current conditions for filmmaking while, simultaneously, offer a biting critique of their result on filmmaking itself. Take, for example, two of the film’s most memorable juxtapositions– the motion capture sequence and the fashion shoot in the cemetery. In the motion capture sequence, Carax is proposing that filming the very human act of motion capture itself is far more interesting for its physicality and action than the animations and artificiality that result from the process. He is right; in a sequence that pulsates with erotic power, watching Lavant and Zlata Contortionist writhe in unison is absolutely unforgettable.


Motion Capture

In an appointment that soon follows, Oscar arrives at the Pére Lachaise cemetery as a wild grotesque (think Quasimodo) and, alert to the staged, exploitative ridiculousness of a fashion shoot taking place amidst the tombstones (which, hilariously, offer URLs for the websites of the deceased), kidnaps the model Kay-M (Eva Mendes) and steals her away into the sewers of Paris, where he rearranges her clothes into a burka before releasing her back into the world. Never has celebrity and the artificiality of desire been so wonderfully neutered. And what more to say about the moment when Oscar stops the limo and, in an improvised moment of clarity, plays the role of the art terrorist who puts a bullet in the brain of a banker found dining al fresco in a café? This being the artificial world of the film business, Oscar survives death without a scratch, and carries on to his next role. The film continues forward with the momentum of a wildfire, each situation connected to the last by Oscar’s place in it and its relationship to Carax’s central argument about the roles the artist must play within his own life in order to work and live.


Fashion

There is more; Oscar meets Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) who, like he, operates in the world of role playing and artificiality. She is on her own assignment (a stewardess at the end of a love affair) and as Oscar talks with her, their shared feeling is expressed in song and in dialogue. It is clear that this is Eva Grace’s final assignment and, when Oscar departs the abandoned department store where they have had their rendez-vous, he finds her and her lover splattered on the sidewalk. The suicidal act, seemingly her only escape route, sends Oscar screaming back into the limousine, his self-recoginition in this brutal end too much to bear.


Eva Grace

In the film’s most moving sequence, Oscar plays the role of l’mourant and meets a young woman in a hotel chamber where the two discuss their secrets. This scene is the deathbed conversation between Ralph and Isabel lifted directly from Henry James Portrait Of A Lady, and in it we get a glimpse of true feeling between characters on the big screen. But it is important to remember the conditions taking place in this reference; Ralph has known all along that Isabel’s husband didn’t love her, that he married her for the money and here, as Ralph lay dying, Isabel finally sees it too. In the novel, Ralph is the observer who sees the truth, a man whose illness prevents him fully participating in the joys of life but allows him access to understanding that others do not have. Isabel’s exploitation finds its opposite in the love the cousins share with one another, but it saves neither of them from their ultimate doom; money, exploitation, disease and obligation win out. But here, in this one moment, there is the simple comfort of acknowledgement, of saying aloud and finally hearing the truth, which is exactly the comfort that Holy Motors itself provides. At last, the truth is spoken and nothing will ever be the same.


Let My Baby Ride… 3! 12! Merde!

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Is Sith An Anagram? (2005)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, which is a truly anomalous post for my blog. First, it is a negative review, which I go out of my way to avoid; movies usually have it hard enough and I don’t like wasting my energy as a writer on negativity. Second, this is perhaps the most reviled post I’ve ever written. When indieWIRE migrated blog engines in the years following this piece, this post lost all of the comments that were left by fans of the series. Needless to say, this post received more comments than anything I’ve ever written. I don’t think one of them was positive. A badge of honor? No. I felt like a curmudgeon for even posting this. That said, I was telling my story in truthful way, explaining my relationship to this film and to the Star Wars franchise. Speaking truth to power… *ha*

The original date of publication was May 27, 2005.

__________________________________

Is Sith An Anagram?

Review | Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith

In the summer of 1977, as a six-year-old boy in Mt. Pleasant, MI, my dad took me to the Cinema Twin on Mission Street (now a Walgreen’s Pharmacy*) to see the movie that had kids across the Mid-Michigan area lining up in hyperactive droves. Of course, the movie was Star Wars. I can’t be sure anymore whether I had begged to be taken or if my father had suggested it; those were different times and I am not sure how media savvy I was or how much about movies I would have known. What I do remember is the film itself, which captured my imagination like no film before it had; a seemingly perfect blend of action, drama, and fantasy that created a moral universe of right and wrong, good and evil, that could be easily accommodated by my six-year-old brain. I probably saw the film five times that summer and, because of my younger brother’s addiction to the series, innumerable times in the years after its theatrical release. Star Wars (now officially called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is a touchstone for my generation, the first and greatest blockbuster to inspire a slave-like devotion to a movie series and a brand name whose sequels were guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Of course, the idea of fantasy cliffhangers and sequels started long before Star Wars with the wonderfully camp serials of the 1940′s and 50′s that provided Writer/Director George Lucas with the inspiration for the series. My dad was a fan of the serials himself, and I am certain part of his attraction to the film was its direct aesthetic relationship to the movies of his youth; the crazy wipe transitions, over the top plotting and unambiguous heroes and villains. While my six-year-old attentions and those of like-minded fans were drawn in by the stunning special effects (the glowing hum of light sabers, the laser beam screams of the fighter ships battling one another in space), I am sure my dad experienced the aesthetics of the movie serial as a nostalgic trip down memory lane, spruced up by state of the art filmmaking techniques.

Interesting, then, my own experience when attending a recent screening of the latest and thankfully last film in Lucas’s six-film box office behemoth, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of the Sith. I am now roughly my father’s age when he saw the original Star Wars and I went to the film hoping to experience my own sense of nostalgia; the unique brand of escapism that only a Star Wars film could deliver. Heartened by great word of mouth and the promise of a return to form, I optimistically walked into the theater and took a seat. As soon as the movie started, however, I experienced another kind of déja-vu altogether. Just as I had at the two preceding films, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, I left savagely disappointed in not only this movie but also the entire series. It’s sad but true; the last three films have completely ruined my previous admiration for and memory of Star Wars.


Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of the Sith

Numbers, however, don’t lie. The Star Wars franchise is a cultural phenomenon. But like most things franchised and obscenely popular, it is a turgid but empty shell offering little in the way of quality or craftsmanship. Instead, the entire endeavor smells like good business. Despite Revenge of the Sith‘s claims to the moral complexity and character motivation that have been missing from a George Lucas film since 1973′s American Graffiti, Revenge of the Sith is perhaps the most wooden, ludicrous, and awful movie to hit the American multiplex since Attack of The Clones. There are so many problems with the film itself that it barely seems worth running down the plot, but at this point, the entire planet has seen the movie, so why not indulge ourselves?

Revenge of the Sith details the final machinations of Senator Palpatine’s Machiavellian campaign to overthrow the Republic and turn the universe into a Sith empire, ruled exclusively by himself and his evil lackeys, the Sith Lords. Apparently, there is a deep shortage of these Lords, so the Senator decides to recruit one from the ranks of the freedom loving Jedi Knights and he chooses our sullen protagonist himself, Anakin Skywalker. Having seen a vision of his pregnant girlfriend Padme’s death during childbirth, Anakin is bamboozled into believing that by giving in to the seductive ways of the Senator’s ‘Dark Side of The Force’ he can save his lover and simultaneously rule the universe at the side of the scenery chewing Palpatine. Obi Wan Kenobi has other ideas, and chops off all of Anakin’s limbs, but the newly elected Emperor Palpatine saves Anakin and turns him into a black suited Frankenstein named Darth Vader. The Emperor consolidates his power by killing off the Jedi in a sequence that hilariously echoes the final baptism sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. This forces the remaining Jedi into hiding. Padme has died despite the promise of Vader’s ‘dark side’ conversion, but she has given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who are put into hiding by the Jedi in the hopes that they may one day prove to be the prophetic saviors of the Republic.

I wish I were joking, but that’s the plot.

The film itself is a stunningly gorgeous example of the impact of computer animation on the art of filmmaking and features amazing landscapes and architecture. Of course, when inanimate objects do the best acting in your film, you generally have a problem. It is clear that Lucas’s attentions to the awesome detail of the computer imagery has pulled his attentions away from traditional Director’s duties like working with actors, creating a coherent story and making sure that shots match. There is an incredible sequence in the middle of the film, when Anakin and his lover, Padme, stand on what appear to be opposing balconies and seem to be thinking of one another with great longing. At least I assume this is what they are doing, since the editing of the sequence itself provides not a single clue as to where either character is located, what they are thinking, or why this montage is included in the story. But this is just a minor example of Lucas’s disastrous decision to literalize every single dichotomy in the plot by cutting between two individual stories, underlining the narrative relationship between the film’s moments with a thick stroke of his pen.

There are numerous examples of this cinematic bludgeoning; The battle between Yoda and Palpatine intercut with the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, the absolutely unnecessary battle on the Wookie planet (which seems nothing more than a clumsy way to introduce the character of Chewbacca) juxtaposed with Obi-Wan’s battle against Count Dooku. All of these sequences are visually compelling, but by cutting back and forth between them, Lucas loses the narrative steam and moral energy of the scenes themselves. This film might be the apotheosis of the Attention Deficit Disorder generation. Wielding every single screen wipe known to man with the subtlety of an amateur iMovie enthusiast, Lucas jumps across the universe so quickly that the film loses track of its own sense of time. It takes Anakin longer to get across town to visit his friends than it does the Emperor to cross the universe and save him from an almost certain death.

Of course, the jump cut machinations of the overly complicated plot could be forgiven if the story itself had any real emotion behind it. Billed as Lucas’s darkest film, Revenge of the Sith is really a straw man made up of loose ends carelessly tied together, a way of creating moral opposites where more complex relations should exist.

In discussing the Star Wars series with journalists, Lucas said that the films were originally intended to be a way of responding to the war in Vietnam. In our War in Iraq era, Revenge of the Sith has already caused a stir with its critique of political and moral absolutism (literally verbalized in the film’s climactic battle). If only things were that simple. I am not sure which is more upsetting, the fact that Lucas could compare the complexities of the Vietnam war to the moral universe of Star Wars or that people on Capitol Hill were actually concerned enough to take the time to comment on a Star Wars movie. Where are we as a society when Star Wars dominates the public debate about public leadership? I have used this space to argue for a society that takes art seriously, but maybe I was asking for too much in assuming that we could discern the wheat from the chaff.

Regardless, there is not much behind any of this bluster. Like the serials that inspired them, the Star Wars films are simple morality tales best suited for a child’s wide-eyed Saturday afternoon popcorn munching. But in trying to raise the stakes and provide a deeper, darker connection to real world issues, the already laughable plot and dialogue become something even worse; an oversimplification that reduces real life concerns into the stuff of fantasy. I don’t mean to sound a moralist; there is nothing wrong with escapism at the movies, and no harm in good clean fun. Unfortunately, the film’s wooden, nonsensical approach to storytelling provides neither. My inner six-year-old is sad that it had to end this way, but after seeing Revenge of the Sith, the adult I am today is just glad its all over.

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | In Vino Veritas: SIDEWAYS (2004)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a review of a film that I still love dearly and one which I revisited recently. Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants is coming in a few weeks, and a look back at his body of work brought me to Sideways, which remains my favorite of Payne’s films (sorry, George Clooney). I stand by this review; I still think this is one of the movies of the decade. Fun side note: the “local movie theaters” referenced in the first paragraph had their links removed (they are dead now), but feel free to visit your favorite online movie ticketing site to see how little the multiplex has changed…

The original date of publication was December 5, 2004.

__________________________________

While other critics and film writers prepare their ‘Best of the Year’ lists, priming the Oscar pump and launching the 2005 awards season, I have decided instead to hold off on a general list of 2004′s best movies until January and take some time for an in depth exploration of what I consider to be this year’s finest film, Alexander Payne’s Sideways. For those who have not yet had the chance to see the film, I can only assume that the oncoming tsunami of award nominations and wins for this film will propel it into wider release, where it deserves to be seen by a broad audience. So, hang in there America. While Christmas With The Kranks and National Treasure currently occupy 10 screens at the local movie theater, I’m sure someone at the multiplex will wake up and realize that perhaps one or two screens might better be dedicated to showing the best movie of the year.

Alexander Payne is an intensely gifted filmmaker, and Sideways is the best film he has ever made.


Sideways

To watch each Payne film in chronological order (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and now Sideways) is to witness the development of a master filmmaker who would be a perfect match for Hollywood, if only the studios could learn how to build for the future. Instead of spending $140 million dollars on the latest Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay or (insert ego-maniacal baby boomer male filmmaker’s name here) fiasco, studios could make 4 to 5 smaller, quality films that truly deliver on the tradition of the true masters of the Hollywood form. Instead of creating another Pearl Harbor, perhaps the studios should spend their time trying to create the next Billy Wilder or George Cukor and fulfill the true promise of the Hollywood film, a promise I so desperately miss; Warm, humanist movies that tell great stories and speak to the current generation of adults who are looking to find their own lives represented on the big screen.

Sideways is, in every way, the fulfillment of this promise. Essentially an updating of the classic “buddies on a road trip” genre, the film tells the story of Miles (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring writer and gourmand trapped in the body of a middle school English teacher, and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former soap opera actor turned hunky voice over talent who is on the way to the altar. The two friends drive from Los Angeles to the wine country of Santa Barbara County in order to celebrate the last week of Jack’s bachelorhood by enjoying the good things in life; delicious food, a few games of golf, and some of the best wine in California. Actually, a lot of the best wine in California. At their first dinner stop in wine country, Miles’ insecurities are made manifest by a beautiful waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) who expresses an interest in his unpublished novel. Miles’ ineptitude in matters of the heart is matched only by the raging charisma of Jack, whose womanizing ways remain unimpeded by his pending wedding.

As the bachelors’ week unfolds on the screen, so too does a wonderfully authentic portrait of male friendship and a sun-drenched tour of longing, hope, and regret that is an exquisite, universally recognizable representation of adult relationships. At the center of the film is Paul Giamatti’s performance as the deeply flawed Miles. Giamatti is perhaps the most under-appreciated actor in American movies, and after his recent turns in American Splendor and Sideways, one can only hope that somehow, his greatness can be recognized and utilized properly by a film industry built on the perfectly chiseled features of young, toothless eye-candy. There is a moment in the middle of the film that is transcendent, and it is one of those moments in the movies when a director and an actor are working at the height of their powers, creating something that feels like true magic. Miles and Jack meet Maya and her sexy friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh) for dinner for the first time, and Miles gets drunk, then more drunk, and then more. In the hands of any other director, the lens would blur, speech would be slurred, a glass of water might be spilled. Payne and Giamatti instead deliver a beautiful montage of dinner conversation, the drinking of wine, the passing of wine bottles, and a pivotal drunk dial, all scored to the melancholy strains of timeless jazz. The scene feels like a note-perfect memory of every rousing, tipsy dinner party you’ve ever been involved in.

Like all great filmmakers, Payne understands the magic of the movies and in scenes like the dinner montage or the wonderful exchange between Miles and Maya about the rationale for their oenophilia that simply bristles with sexual tension (and features the best movie monologue in recent memory) shows that the essential dramatic concern of a great film is not so much action, but the human possibilities of finely drawn characters. Sideways is soaked in the possibility of inertia and the character’s potential inability to do what they so desperately want to do with their lives. The film flows not from a series of clichéd plot devices or pre-determined destinations, but from the examination of life undertaken by the characters that leads them to rediscover their own agency, and thereby, the ability to pursue their goals and their own ideals with dignity. The real story of Sideways is less the story of two male friends arriving at a fork in the road of their lives and choosing divergent paths, but more the story of two men who come to realize they have a choice in determining what is valuable, and thereby possible, in their own lives.

Like any good explorer charting the interior landscape of his characters, Payne makes certain that the visuals of the film provide a wonderful subtext and, at times, counterpoint to the dramatic action that unfolds. Watching the warm, earthy landscape of wine country roll by as Miles and Jack travel from vineyard to vineyard on a wine tasting tour, it seems impossible that the oncoming existential crises of the characters are on the horizon. The film looks and feels like a memory, the memory of a road trip taken in the 1970′s; all sunshine, winding roads, and the discovery of true love. Never before has the good life looked so good. When Miles learns of his ex-wife’s recent re-marriage, he runs down a hillside, wine bottle at his lips, as Jack pursues him into a vineyard. After running himself into exhaustion, Miles tosses the bottle aside and grabs his knees, only to be confronted by a bunch of grapes on the vine. He extends a hand and touches them with an aching tenderness; we learn all we need to know about Miles’ capacity for love in a single gesture. The film is full of wonderful, unexpected resolutions like this, and these moments, coupled with the seemingly psychic comic chemistry of Church and Giamatti, create a mood of wistful melancholy that sweeps you off of your feet.

If About Schmidt hadn’t already done so, Sideways assures that Alexander Payne, who has long been associated with the bratty, wise-ass filmmaking generation of directors like Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, and Paul Thomas Anderson (I am a fan of all of them), has broken away from the pack and established himself as a truly masterful filmmaker. There have been few films this year that are worthy candidates for recognition, let alone the price of a movie ticket, but Sideways would stand above the crowd in any year. A glance at the movie listings at any multiplex tells you all you need to know about the state of American movies; we live in the era when in-your-face, big-budget event films have become so ubiquitous, there is literally no room for the smaller, thoughtful drama in a movie theater. As television becomes more and more driven by the staged interactions of competing non-professionals on reality shows and Hollywood continues to generate enormous, $150 million spectacles (with equally massive marketing campaigns) geared toward international profitability (thanks James Cameron!), what is left for the rest of us who long for quiet, thought-provoking stories that, through the beauty of well-written drama, show us something of ourselves we might not otherwise have found? Sideways is a simple revolt against big Hollywood; a welcome reminder that the best thing a story can do is to show us the truth about who we are and who we might aspire to become. If only more of us were looking.

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Kings And Queen (2004)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a piece that is very important to me; my first piece of writing about the work of Arnaud Desplechin. There will be more of Desplechin in the days ahead; no other filmmaker thrills and moves me so deeply. I have had the chance to talk with him a few times and I’ll be reproducing those interviews here as well, but for today, a chance to revisit my initial reaction to what remains one of my favorite films, a chance to revisit the story of my discovery of Desplechin’s work. Today is a rainy day in October, 15 years (ouch) after I first saw My Sex Life on another rainy, blustery October day in another city in, seemingly, another life time. A perfect time to revisit this post…

The original date of publication was September 16, 2004.

__________________________________

Toronto 2004 REVIEW | Rois et Reine (Kings and Queen)

Transformation is a powerful thing. The first time I ever saw a film by Arnaud Desplechin was one of the cinematic moments that changed my life. Close your eyes with me. Imagine that feeling of walking into a movie theater unaware and walking out a new person. It’s 1996, I’m 25 years old and living on poverty wages in Washington, D.C. spending my days in an exhausting government job and my nights hopping from one movie theater to the next. My favorite of the bunch, The Biograph, had closed and been replaced by a CVS pharmacy. All that remained, aside from the relatively mainstream fare, was the snobby Kennedy Center and The Key Theater on Wisconsin Ave., one block north of M Street (it is now a Banana Republic, a fact which makes it hard for me to walk though the doors of that particular chain store.) The theater was well kept, and I slid in, dripping wet from the rain on the streets, grabbed a seat near the back and watched what has become one of the cornerstone films of my life; My Sex Life…or How I Got Into An Argument. There are moments you never forget at the movies, and I can remember almost every detail of that night; the smell of the space (popcorn and expensive perfume), the shape of the head of the person in front of me, the texture of the floor beneath my feet, the lumpy contours of the cushion in my seat. The epic scope of the film, the honest exploration of real and complicated feelings, those messy interactions of people my own age; it was literally transformative. Matthieu Amalric’s performance as Paul Dedalus, so flawed, selfish, egotistical, manipulative, and so very alive, resonated with me in a powerful way, but so too did Emanuelle Devos as the heartbroken Esther and Jeanne Balibar as the manipulative Valérie. Every character in the film feels like a part of me. The jilted lover, the lothario, the confused student, the rival– all of them share something of me, and the impression they made on me in my mid-20′s, was profound. The cast in the film has gone on to become the face of contemporary French cinema, and seeing them perform in other films (particularly Devos in Read My Lips, Balibar in Va Savoir? and Amalric in another favorite, Late August/Early September) feels like spending time with old friends whom I miss dearly. I have since seen every film Desplechin has ever made (save for Love Without Pity, which I have been unable to track down), and when I saw that his latest feature, Rois et Reine was rescheduled for a new screening time at Toronto, I jumped at the chance to spend my night with my favorite director. I have literally seen over 22 films since the week began, many of them excellent, but no film has moved me as powerfully as Rois et Reine.


Kings and Queen

Rois et Reine reunites Devos and Amalric on-screen as Nora and Ismaël (yes, the literary puns certainly apply), former lovers whose lives have diverged onto two very different paths. As Nora confronts the death of her father, Ismaël is forced into a psychiatric hospital in order to prevent him from hurting himself with his erratic behavior. The two story lines could not be more divergent at first; the gravity of watching a beloved daughter handle the death of her elderly father played against the hilarity of Ismaël ‘s own confrontation with his anxieties, his unhelpful therapist, and his drugged up lawyer. But the thematic overlaps become clear as soon as Nora’s father checks into the hospital and we start to see the institution at work– the doctors are unable to save his life, much like they are unable to free Ismaël from his neuroses. Similarly, the dysfunction of Ismaël’s family life is played against the strength of Nora’s character and her devotion to her familial responsibilities, a strength that comes into question when Nora makes a profound discovery after her father’s death (to give away more would ruin the experience of the film.) And so, Desplechin juggles rhymes and themes much like the poets and philosphers his characters constantly quote. Life is comedy and tragedy, illness and vitality, love and death, cruelty and compassion, crime and charity. All of these qualities are reflected in both Nora and Ismaël’s experiences, and if in the beginning our sympathies lie with Nora’s grief at the expense of fully empathizing with Ismaël’s pleas for freedom, by the end of the film both characters have been so thoroughly changed and made equivocal by their actions, we come to find worth and humanity in both of their experiences.

Desplechin has once again taken the epic approach to intense personal experiences, but his confidence and ability as a director to illuminate life through the power of small details shines as brightly as it ever has. The use of music in the film ALONE could warrant a 5 page review. Desplechin uses music like no other director working today. The choices he makes sometimes literally underscore specific emotions. Other times, music is a tool to rhyme situations and characters. This affords him a powerful weapon in his creative arsenal, allowing him to use sound to add layer upon layer of meaning in his films. I am surprised that more filmmakers have not picked up on his technique and utilized it. On top of his incredibly intelligent presentation of the rhythms of the personal moment (the director’s signature jump cuts within a shot are deployed to great effect) Desplechin proves that he is as profoundly talented a comedic director as he is a dramatic one. Amalric’s performance is as good as you are likely to see in any comedy this year, and the visions of him break-dancing to a French rap song during a group therapy session and crashing a college party in a theatrical cape will forever bring me pleasure. But once again, much like her powerhouse turn in La femme de Gilles, the movie is practically posessed by the subtle beauty of Devos’ performance as Nora. Her portrayal of a woman trying to keep it all together while being engulfed by loss is exceptional (Devos is a world class crier), and the work I have seen from her in the past two years alone has launched her into my personal pantheon of great actresses. I could simply watch her forever. Desplechin is a great actor’s director, and Rois et Reine is all the proof anyone should require. I was moved so deeply by the character’s choices, became so invested in their lives, I truly wished the movie never ended and I could spend more time with them.

This time, however, I was certainly more experienced as a fan of Desplechin’s work and as a moviegoer. Despite my own fatigue after days of endless screenings, I felt so alive in that theater, was so actively engaged in the story, the filmmaking, the performances, I was literally vibrating when I walked out into the night, alone with my thoughts. I clutched my bag against the dark night and let my experiences of Desplechin’s work echo down the empty streets of downtown Toronto, a feeling that filled me with that rainy night on Wisconsin Avenue back in 1996. Transformed again, as new and as alive as the first time.


Kings and Queen

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,254 other followers