[Just in time for the Ides of March 2013, I present the final piece of my alphabetical, capsule-dosed survey of all the films I watched — both in and out of theaters — in 2011. Expect Capsule Review Extravaganza ‘12 to hit these shores any day now. And then, after that, I’ll almost be caught up to the present day…!]
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) —- directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; released 1975 (seen in fulll-on multiple-essay-adorned Criterion luxury) —- Prefaced with an on-screen bibliography and filled with excruciating acts of sexual, corporeal and psychological sadism, Salò is an unsettling hybrid of intellectual chill and unmediated human pain. This befits the film’s ostensible purpose, which is to expose how the abstractions of culture can be used to distort and dehumanize. Citing a poem or discussing philosophy — as the film’s four Fascist ringleaders frequently do — can provide the conceptual grounds for the inflicting of suffering on levels political and individual. The naked bodies of the Fascists’ kidnapped victims lose any association with pleasure or mystery or even agency, while the nihilistically victimized souls trapped inside those bodies try and fail to hold onto humanity or love, in the face of the abstracted yet bloodily implacable march of loveless inhumanity. So basically a pretty pessimistic film, a deliberately unaesthetic film (in that, on the whole, beauty is not an aim, even though certain compositions or rituals do end up being shallowly beautiful in passing), a film meant to warn us of our worst natures.
The Shadow —- directed by Russell Mulcahy; released 1994 —- What is this? Camp? Outright mediocrity? Mediocre camp? Damned if I know; I was high as the Swiss Alps when I saw this film (notice that I didn’t say ‘the Himalayas’ — I wasn’t that high.) I vaguely remember the vibrations of entertainment rippling through my sedate flesh, though hardly the salutary vibes of formal invention or intellectual rigor. But that’s no surprise. This is a movie that can support no analysis, which is why I’m meta-reviewing rather than actually reviewing the film — which, if you really care to know, happens to focus on a pulpy noir hero played by none other than Alec “Seriously-Comical-or-Comically-Serious” Baldwin, endowed with supernatural powers and dispatched to fight some Khan, of either the Genghis or Kublai variety, or possibly neither.
Shame —- directed by Steve McQueen; released 2011 (seen in the New York City winter with walkingspanish; it was an unsettlingly intense experience for both of us, and after leaving the theater, we walked around Manhattan in an unspokenly agreed-upon total silence, burdened with some sort of knotty emotional pall) —- Shame seems an odd title for this film, since it’s less about recrimination/humiliation/the whole Judeo-Christian sexual what-not, and more about the raw aloneness we suffer when our desires become compulsions, when agony colonizes the province of pleasure. I can say nothing new about McQueen’s visual virtuosity (occasionally overcooked, but stately nonetheless) or Michael Fassbender’s devastating pathos (priapism and self-loathing inextricably bound) or the sharp melodrama of Carey Mulligan (brittle, sardonic and soft.) But I will admit that seeing the movie trapped me for 45 minutes afterwards in a deep well of silence, a queasy place presided over by the tortured rictus of involuted pain.
Sherlock, Jr. —- directed by and starring Buster Keaton; released 1924 (seen for class, and then excitedly shown off to my friend Ben in our apartment on some desolate baked evening) —- Thresholds crossed and tripped over, delightfully ‘meta’ editing, uproarious set-pieces, the tentative bloom of romance, virtuoso stunt-work, worlds within worlds, the cinema as church and schoolyard — this film has it all, packed into just 45 minutes. But most of all, it has Buster Keaton, the Wittgenstein of deadpan, a true world-historical genius. Watching him sit and shift and stare and move is a pleasure both guileless and anthropologically rich. Sherlock, Jr. is shockingly hilarious, but also — more than any comedy I have ever seen — formally experimental, inventing new modes of vision and movement while commenting in real time on the seductive potential of the new art of cinema.
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) —- directed by Pedro Almodóvar; released 2011 —- A bracingly transgressive, immaculately stylish reimagining of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, among other things, this film sees Almodóvar edging into psychological-horror territory while remaining firmly planted in the sensually-dense melodrama that has been his specialty. The film stars a fantastic, ardent Antonio Banderas as a brilliant but amoral surgeon driven to bioethical extremes by his bitter sorrow following scarring family tragedies. Wading into uncharted excesses of human behavior is often a recipe for either hyperbolic abstraction or extravagance, but Almodóvar maintains perfect tonal poise, creating a sardonic thriller that is legitimately twisted, exuberantly entertaining and sociopolitically suggestive.
The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) —- directed by Catherine Breillat; released 2010 —- Breillat’s latest deconstruction of the narrative/sexual tropes of fairy tales is an odd picaresque that remains blurry in my memory, perhaps because watching it is to experience a destabilizing sense of vagueness. In the first two thirds especially, no strand emerges insistently enough into focus to really ground the film, but little meaning-impressions flit constantly in and and out of view in a way that perhaps legitimately evokes the eye of childhood. In the film’s final third, all the fantastical trappings of monsters and fairies disappear, and that childhood subjectivity is fractured and reshaped into the incipiently sexual adolescent self, with all the surreal shock that that implies.
Somewhere —- directed by Sofia Coppola; released 2010 (seen in theaters in a bittersweet trance, alongside a friend who was not as impressed as I was) —- Like a more sentimental (in the positive sense) and less abstract (not that there’s anything wrong with that) Antonioni, the junior Coppola excavates the existential emptiness (the giant zero where an identity should be) that gnaws inconspicuously but insistently beneath the mask of fame. She follows a sports-car-driving movie star (played with great patience by Stephen Dorff), a man so weary of his lifestyle that he falls asleep while going down on one of his various blank conquests. That lifestyle does have its perks, though, like being able to take his somewhat-estranged daughter (an exquisitely fragile and wry Elle Fanning) to Italian awards shows and the like. But is a lifestyle enough to build a life? Therein lies the film’s tragic scope.
Straw Dogs (remake) —- directed by Rod Lurie; released 2011 (seen with my four-person ‘Writing About Film’ class and our wonderful professor Linda DeLibero and a small audience that disturbingly guffawed through the worst violence without seeming to understand the irony of embodying red-blooded/red-stated American cruelty in order to enjoy to a film that gets off on building up our moral disgust at red-blooded/red-stated American cruelty) —- It’s a solid part of film-criticism lore that Pauline Kael deplored the original Peckinpah Straw Dogs as (paraphrase alert) the first piece of genuinely fascist American art (though I find that ‘first’ part rather hard to believe), thereby setting off murky waves of apologetics and counter-apologetics. I haven’t seen that ‘controversial’ film, so my answers to the usual questions (e.g. Does the film endorse or rather problematize violent liberal revenge?) will have to wait. But I did see the remake with a film class in a crowded theater, and there’s little doubt about this film’s crassly hypocritical fascist bona fides. My queasy realization, though, was that a film’s fascism is incomplete without a jeering, laughing, bloodthirsty audience hungry to complete the trick.
Take Shelter —- directed by Jeff Nichols; released 2011 (seen either the night before or the night after The Skin I Live In, either with or without movie-concurrent sangria) —- Like a blue-collar American version of Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this film sees Michael Shannon (yay, Michael Shannon!) playing a good-hearted family man trying to make ends meet while experiencing increasingly unsettling visions of imminent environmental disaster. His erratic behavior and family history of schizophrenia leave many, including his movie-wife(/my future real-life-wife) Jessica Chastain doubting his sanity. Rooted in Shannon’s subjectivity but not afraid to call it into question, the film wrings some genuinely wounding pathos out of a third-act catharsis, only to squander it with a twisty epilogue that — although defended by others — struck me as reductively tidy.
The Tree of Life —- directed by Terrence Malick; released 2011 (seen with mother and one sister at the Embarcadero) —- Formally audacious and spiritually conservative, The Tree of Life (a midcentury-Texas-set investigation into the molding of life, the dawn of consciousness, the formation/fraying of society and the entropic mutability of the universe) abandons the very idea of cinema as filmed theater, rejecting the conventions of mise-en-scène (which substitute the frame for the stage) and obliterating the editing-room syntax to which we have become habituated (a syntax that segments the filmed world into discrete shots and angles.) Instead, Malick breaks time into infinitesimal luminous/numinous subjective pieces separated by jump cuts and matched to music, and renders space permeable and fluid with a constantly roving handheld camera. The Kino-eye becomes — both literally and metaphorically — the imagination of God.
True Grit —- directed by the Coen brothers; released 2010 —- While effective as a comic study of three different archetypes brought together by circumstance, and while nothing to sneeze at as a straight Western either, this film nevertheless pales in comparison to the high points of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. There is a dim conventionality to the story beats, and none of the borderline-nihilistic skepticism that ironically/complexly generated much of their earlier films’ oblique humanism. Instead, we have hearty American humanism delivered head-on, and there’s something vaguely disappointing about that. Needless to say, the performances from Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld are highly competent, but I missed the Coens’ roiling doubt and existential discomfort…
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ) —- directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; released 2010 (seen with a friend in the middle of a very bright sunny day, which somehow made the experience all the more transporting; also, I remember feeling unwashed and cigarette-smelling in the time prior to said viewing, but this was a feeling the film made me quickly forget) —- A mystical sojourn in a jungle filled with errant cattle, rueful ghosts, saturnine monkey-gods, poised princesses and lascivious catfish and enveloped in a vegetal canopy that almost whispers sighs of bittersweet nostalgia as it flutters in the breeze, Uncle Boonmee is a film that approaches the transition into the next world with a calm composure, a wry humor and a moving respect for the poignant smallness (and simultaneous grandeur) of human life. The title character — a genial man with a troubling past of political warfare — retreats to his tamarind farm to die, and there the fabric of reality — diaphanous to begin with — eerily splits open at the seams.
Vincere —- directed by Marco Bellocchio; released 2009 (although I saw a few excerpts of this whilst visiting a friend at Columbia and sitting in on a class of hers on Italian Fascism’s representations in culture, I was only able to follow through on my interest in those excerpts a couple years later thanks to the good graces of Netflix) —- A melodrama about Mussolini’s spurned first wife Ida Dalser, Vincere is also a literalist sexual allegory for Italy’s seduction and subsequent mistreatment at the hands of the man Mussolini and the yoked macho fantasy of Il Duce. Although at times a bit too much comfortable righteous outrage is wrung out of Dalser’s suffering, the film’s brashest sequences nevertheless achieve an operatic, visceral grandeur: Mussolini’s deranged toothless bastard (The Double Hour's Filipo Timi, who — crucially — also plays the main role of the young Mussolini himself) searingly recites one of his father's speeches in an asylum; intertitles flash across the screen against archival footage of Milan; Mussolini stands naked on his balcony and imagines Piazza Venezia filled with the adoring crowds that will greet him decades later; all this, and more, lots more.
Wristcutters: A Love Story —- directed by Goran Dukić; released 2006 (Netflix Instant) —- A breezy road-trip movie set in a drab afterlife populated solely by suicides, Wristcutters does its best to humanize and color in its grand speculative premise. And for most of the movie, it works. There is something fantastically witty in the idea of a postmortem world identical to our own, only “slightly worse,” and as the trio of main characters sets off to find the People In Charge of their strange existential summer-camp, there is a surge of momentum, a bolstering of camaraderie and a fluttering of beauty. But as we get closer to the answers — and as the requisite conflicts get thrown in less by circumstance than by plot — the whole thing begins to feel schematic and lightweight. But I enjoyed it, all in all.