Thursday, September 29, 2011

Film Appreciation: Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices

(Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices/ZDF 1995)
        Hardly anybody would call Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995) one of Werner Herzog’s best films, but it is for this reason that we should try to examine it from each side, like Herzog tries to examine the engraved stone that turned the composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), already a madman, in to an insomniac.  The film was made during Herzog’s gray period, a period which began immediately after Klaus Kinski failed to pull the boat ashore at the end of Cobra Verde (1987) and ended upon his move to America in the mid-90’s. Death for Five Voices may have been the end of this period in Herzog’s career and what it most emphatically expresses—sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally—is the feeling of being washed up. Of nomadically scrambling around a continent, not knowing what nation you belong in. Of being driven past insanity after murdering your wife and her lover. Of loving music deeply, but having not a clue as to what it means about life and death. Of not knowing what to make of the complex madrigals and wild harmonies of a man who lived prior to every successive great of classical music. Of loving narratives and loving documents, but no longer being certain about how they collide.
            Saying Herzog identified with Carlo Gesualdo is too much of a conjecture. That said, Gesualdo does fit squarely in to the same picture that Don Lope de Aguirre, Walter Steiner, Kaspar Hauser, et. al had all joined. He was certainly an eccentric, certainly rejected any expectation society foisted on him (the expectations of a prince), someone who gradually distanced himself from all the other characters in his story until he became a solitary block of creativity, unseen and unheard except in music. The main difference between Gesualdo and any of Herzog’s other subjects is that he is long dead at the time of the film, and so are all the other players. This creates opportunities, seized often enough, to structure the film as an investigation of insanity in hindsight. Shots of decaying castle rooms, music eerily ringing out from somewhere, are sequestered with interviews with historians, conductors, musicians, and a few busybodies just hanging around the castle, on the circumstances surrounding Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover. He was born of royalty, grew up composing furiously and with discipline. His wife began an affair without his knowledge, ending in her husband’s discovery and rage. Gesualdo descended in to a paranoia regarding his biological relation to his young son and killed him by swinging him to death, while a chorus sang. These descriptions are accompanied by choral music, and yet more disturbingly, cut to scenes inside a (invented?) mental home for children where one is strapped to a horse and rides it in circles, while fake-soothing words are spoken to him. The ghost of Gesualdo’s wife appears, running down the castle stairs with a tape player, pursued by the camera. Scenes such as these are odd and creepy not just for their juxtaposition, but because it feels that Herzog may be becoming the madman himself, finally. This has always been the real reason to see his best documentaries. 
(Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices/ ZDF 1995)

Then, why—especially for a filmmaker who purportedly hates “mere facts”—do these scenes give way to an overbearing choral director from Michigan, an English historian who sits in the same place for too long, and various items and points of interest that are shown, then dropped? One gets the feeling that, contrary to his love of fabrication, Herzog was trying to cram in all the facts he could get his subjects to utter. And when there are no words, one gets the feeling that Herzog is simply interested in too much in this castle where Gesualdo lived to assemble in to the narrative. Statues, stones, dusty rooms interest this filmmaker; they would interest us more if they were placed in a different film.
True, we must consider that Herzog shot this film for television. Its running time is only one hour, and with all its unevenness, we want it to be longer. The Italian locations are beautiful, but even they hurry past. Herzog knew he wanted to get somewhere at this point in his career, but at the time of Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, he was still pursuing that horizon. Some of the collaborators on the film, such as the cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, have stuck it out as Herzog’s late-period side men. But at this time, Herzog was able to turn out a long-winded, intermittently fascinating documentary that feels throughout like it expects to be underappreciated. Just like Carlo Gesualdo. Just like that mysterious stone that gave him insomnia. That may be another fabrication.
(Portrait of Carlo Gesualdo)

Sunday, September 25, 2011


(Brad Pitt/Moneyball, 2011)
          All you need to make a baseball movie is a ball, a bat and statistics. Those are, in fact, the principles Brad Pitt’s character Billy Bean operates on in Moneyball, and apparently the principles actual baseball operates on, to boot.  This isn’t even a case of art acting as a simile for reality, either, because Billy Bean is a real man—a baseball player turned one-time manager of the Oakland Athletics—and, as we all know from the many baseball movies that have been thrown at us, and from being in America, the idea that baseball might even be a mere slice of existence is absurd. Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game, Angels in the Outfield all said the same thing: Baseball is existence.
            Fine, so it’s the grandest of all metaphors. But even taking a game as some kind of sacrosanct truth means not simply fawning over it—it means getting down and dirty with each pitch, each glove, each bench-press and each character. In the latter category, at least, Moneyball does do its best. Billy Bean is trying to start a team on a tiny budget of $39 million. In the first skip of shots—director Bennett Miller somehow gets his film to skip across the screen—Billy is on the phone in seemingly every other one. He’s trying to hire players, make bargains, get cheap trades. He’s piecing his team together like any businessman would. He encounters a young scout at an early meeting named Peter Brand and, impressed with Brand’s diplomatic skills, hires him. Together they develop a statistical system of hiring players who perhaps don’t have great batting averages, but can nonetheless make it on base well enough, ultimately leading to more runs. And with a little thrift and lots of practice, any team can be a success, right? At first it seems, no way. Bean runs up against his fair share of insider opposition. Art Howe (the wonderful Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a seasoned Athletic’s coach who does not particularly care for Bean’s game-altering ambitions and tells him so. Commentator after commentator says the same thing; Bean doesn’t have it. His experiment is failing. They are only backed up by a prolonged losing streak that frames the first half of the film. And in the film, even if most of the games look green-screened, even if there is an overabundance of slow-motion and archival footage to cover for not much actual shot footage, there is always Brad Pitt—his head in his hands, his daughter looking concerned as they eat dessert—to show us the plausible essence of a baseball character: nervy, fast, in mid-leap in the training room, smirking in the office, head in hands when the other team is cheering. It was never even a metaphor for this snappy, easily bruised man.
(Jonah Hill/Moneyball, 2011)

            The most obvious criticism one could direct at Moneyball—that it’s a movie only fully understood by baseball fans—is, to be fair, not a good one. The pace at which the narrative moves, the craft of the whole piece (particularly the montages, which feel like echoes in a stadium) is too solid for the non-fan to walk out on. The deeper problem is the deeper problem with all sports movies, at least all American sports movies. Since sports are life to so many of us, then a sports movie is really a big, booming piece about everything we could possibly love. Moneyball first thinks it’s a hard-nosed walk-through course in team management, then it thinks it’s the same story we, as Americans, love to hear every single day. A story about individualism and refusing to cave in, and being right when everybody around us is wrong, and moving as fast and as physically and as literally as possible so that even when we fail, we still succeeded at something. This story, as played out in sports movies, is a more pragmatic version of Atlas Shrugged. Yet there are times when Moneyball actually seems to doubt its own protagonist. Whenever Philip Seymour Hoffman appears, slouching in a dugout, or hobbling around in an office, we immediately want to hear his side of the story. At one or two points, Miller and the screenwriters make us think we will hear it, but then it’s moving on, nothing to see here. There are scenes with distraught or confused players, questioning why Bean does not even fly with them, leading the viewer to believe Bean may learn one of those tear-jerker lessons about being more of a comrade and less of a cold fish. Nothing of the sort ever happens. The set up is that the individual knows what he’s doing and will succeed, the development is that the individual still knows what he’s doing and it’s exactly the same thing, the payoff is the individual has done that same thing to the ends of the earth and succeeded. Where is the subversion in this story? The movie sometimes plays as if it wants to be seen by businessmen more than sports fans, as some kind of manual for the rugged individual. The problem with this narrative is that it excludes too many viewers. Not just the skeptical and the sentimentality-averse will turn their heads; so will the discerning sports fan. 

            When it isn’t an individual-triumphs over all story, Moneyball is comfortable with being a regular baseball movie. At the risk of veering in to another obvious criticism, this means it willfully turns in to the sort of movie we’ve all seen before. Brad Pitt throws things and points fingers at people in desperation. An older, confident player learns to be a “role model” to a younger, less confident player. The soundtrack goes silent as a ball speeds in slow-motion towards a batter, wincing against the stadium lights that represent all eyes and expectations. A semi-militaristic, semi-gatorade-ad type score underlies all the crucial scenes. It’s the  dead images of the sports movie that still look technically beautiful, but lifeless by every other standard. Yet it is doubtful Hollywood will give up this formula any time soon. It will keep churning out these movies in which sports are so much more than just sports. But these are curveballs that no longer fly.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Motion Studies: Antarctica

(9 Songs/2004)

        Michael Winterbottom is a director who gives one the sense that he likes the feeling of operating a camera or making an edit more than images and stories. So it is that in 9 Songs (2004), the images shut off almost as soon as they start; a boy and girl frolic naked on a bed in a hotel, cut; they begin making love, cut; the girl lies face down and reads descriptions from a book on Antarctica to the man—cut. But this could describe a great number of scenes in the film. These images are willfully indistinct. They are images of sex, beds, shot on grainy digital video, made jagged by cuts. But there is one difference. As the girl reads, shots of Antarctica—such a pivotal metaphor!—flash on to the screen. These are far prettier than anything else that’s happening. That may be because the space within the frame is vast and clear, the sun is setting on perfect chunks of ice and snow—but it is also due to a shot of a distant iceberg breaking off from a larger glacier and gliding through the sea as the horizon turns orange. This is one bit of motion Winterbottom pulled off. Not just because it’s one of the few surprising bits of motion in the scene, period. Also because its one shot Winterbottom didn’t have any fun with; he didn’t cut the iceberg up. The iceberg looks like it is breaking away of its own volition. It is an image that approaches serenity, and it gets us to believe in the film’s corny metaphor, finally.  Then back to mere screwing, etc. Cut.
(9 Songs/2004)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tales of Telluride

One of this nation's more idiosyncratic film festivals? The Cannes of America? Here's a comprehensive article implying that it may be both or neither. But whichever it is, there's something...utopian hidden in those Colorado mountains.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Guard

(The Guard/2011)

“Go to America, to your appropriate fucking Barack Obama.”
            These are “The Guard” Gerry Boyle’s (Brendan Gleeson) words to a young cop as they uncover a dead body in a cabin by the side of the road, and as the young cop suggests that Gerry’s methods may be…inappropriate. So begins The Guard, writer-director John Michel McDonagh’s riff on the police procedural buddy-comedy. The problems with Seargent Boyle, a curmudgeonly cop with a sense of humor on the Mickey Spillane side of political correctness, only stack up from there: his Mother is dying, he’s slouching on his duties, he drinks too much, and he’s a bit fond of call girls. But the larger problem is not with him, it is with McDonagh, who can’t seem to decide what riff he’s trying to do, or what a true buddy comedy entails.
            Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) from the FBI soon enters, unintentionally offering Boyle a chance to get some real work done.  He has tracked a group of cocaine smugglers to the Irish coast and needs the cooperation of the local police force. Boyle is more interested in cracking racist jokes in Everett’s presence and sitting in the local pub drinking himself away than actually helping solve the case. But like it or not, he gets dragged in to it, mainly by virtue of having discovered a presumed-living member of the group dead before anybody else. He doesn’t quite know what to make of the highly professional Everett, but neither Everett, nor we, know what to make of Boyle the whole time. Is he an actual racist, or just a nutty subversive? Does he really not give a damn about tracking down hoodlums, or does he simply give a damn in his own, strangely methodical way? As Everett sums it up, is he incredibly smart, or incredibly stupid?
            McDonagh leaves us to decide these answers for ourselves and instead homes in on the theme of American attitudes versus the attitudes of the Irish. Everett is can-do and spirited, while Boyle is cynical and complacent. Everett is polite and censored while the two concepts don’t quite occur to Boyle. But if this is meant to be a broad satire of two cultures—or maybe just one—it doesn’t have solid enough groundwork. McDonagh simply doesn’t appear to have a thorough understanding of his chosen genre, or even what that genre is. The actual police procedural—the sleuthing, the clues, the suspenseful pursuits—are given far too little time, either because McDonagh hasn’t watched enough cop movies or because he believes farcical humor alone justifies a farce (Or is it a satire? Or a buddy picture?) As such, there are laughs, but as a writer, McDonagh does not appear to have much talent beyond one-liners. And his mistake of turning every character that pops up in to a sort of grand, Swiftian comic icon eventually wears on the viewer. These icons include a young boy with a pink bicycle who won’t stay out of the road, an opportunistic photographer and an eastern European woman named Gabriela (Katarina Kas, an old-fashioned beauty), grieving for her cop husband who mysteriously vanished. Each of these people are forced to serve the comic tone of the film so heavily, that The Guard starts to look like some post-apocalyptic movie about an Ireland where humanity has been reduced to bitter, redundant humor.
(Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in The Guard/2011)
            Sure, there are laughs. And there’s plenty going on in The Guard to distract us from whatever we don’t agree with. There’s commentary on rural Irish disdain for the cities, semi-serious introductions of death and depression, and striking vistas of the Irish coast; clumps of the greenest green layered in fog. But we’ll need another filmmaker to revisit this same territory with a sharper comedic balance, and a greater understanding of how to tell a story loudly and well. Could the seldom heard-from Bruce Robinson show up here sometime? Or the American Christopher Guest? Never mind; for tht time being, let’s go back to our appropriate fucking Barack Obama.