Say you shave your legs. That razor burn around your pubic area is like Young Adult. It’s pretty ugly and painful, right? I mean, muff-burn is fundamentally unattractive: red, pimply, polka-dotted with in-grown or -growing stubble—there is no section of my corporeal sack I am less pleased with, and yet I cannot stay away. I keep shaving it. It seems worse—to my person, to the world—to not shave, though it be vexatious, though I grimace at the razor’s swipe. Going to see Young Adult is painful in the way shaving, or not shaving, or shaving when your groin’s not really ready to be shaved again, is: unpleasant, compulsive, and, if you think about it too much, pretty self-indicting. But then again—not too self-indicting, since Young Adult, like the decision to shave your legs or not, and how far up to go, and whether shaving cream or just soap, and bar soap or Dr. Bronner’s, and which kind of razor, isn’t something that actually warrants much consideration in 2011, almost 12. I mean, Young Adult’s themes, topi, and attitudes feel similarly sophomoric; its points about culture, narcissism, females, ennui, nostalgia—the large existential points it strenuously tries to make—the stuff of college personal essays. High school sucks. Pretty girls in high school suck. Life after high school also sucks. Everything is kind of sad.
Believe it or not, these are actually realizations I will pay money to see unfold onscreen again and again. But Young Adult manages to stall its own gold mine as soon as the awesomely accurate opening sequence is over. Super hot-shit only a few years ago, Diablo Cody, like a box of Stoned Wheat Thins, has gone stale almost immediately upon opening. Young Adult actually includes chunks of dialogue that go something like: Patton Oswalt: “You’re a piece of work.” Charlize Theron: “You’re a piece of shit.” The movie can’t graduate to real analysis because Cody keeps her characters ensconced in a Big Food caf in which such ice cream scoop-shaped slop is slung. Left to wander the towns & parking lots that bloat and line America’s highways like neon whales, YA’s camera says its thousand words; Theron’s alabaster scowl, picking at her scalp and lining the golden hairs up one by one in a Hampton Inn while the TV spits out reality TV hysterics, its ten thousand more. This movie is disagreeable, which I don’t take issue with. But it’s also not challenging in any real way to watch Theron’s character stumble and embarrass herself—she is so broadly bitchified, so lacking in nuance save for the occasional whiffs of social commentary Cody’s screenplay emits like flatulence, that I only felt: gloatful. As though my own 16 year old self had finally delivered some comeuppance she’d totally forgotten she ever wanted. Which she hadn’t, and she didn’t. Go see this movie if you “hated high school” lol.
Hugo brought lots of other movies to mind—Amelie, Ratatouille, Kontrol… I mean, upon exiting Hugo with the rest of the unwitting Thanksgiving-weekend throng, I wished to see another movie immediately so that I might wipe the dull taste of Hugo from the mouth of my poor movie brain, Hugo being like a chocolate-flavored rice cake: containing a necessary trace of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a kind of passable color-flavor combination, but underneath pure tasteless healthy.
The other movies it brought to mind—two set in the same accordion-soaked Paris as Hugo; one in a similar train-station conceit—were far superior if only because their directors showed a defter hand than old Scorsese with the construction of world—construction of viable, idiosyncratic worlds being the only thing any movie, nay work of art, is responsible for—Ratatouille was good because that little rat knew his way around the kitchen in explicitly unknowable ways, his rat-ness driving both story and scenery; Hugo, alas, is neither animated nor particular savvy about its ostensible locale: the eponymous child actor seems barely able to navigate the obvious back-lot he’s found himself on—at one point hiding from the station inspector by crouching in front of some stacked-up chairs.
I mean come on! He’s supposed to live in the station! Know all the crannies! Take us on a mind-whizzing tour—in Kontrol, the main character knew his labyrinth so well he could even sleep there, avoiding the security camera’s gaze, and didn’t Amelie understand the sightlines in her little apartment complex well enough to set up some seriously adorable hi-jinx?
Yet there are so many things wrong with Hugo, it seems unfair to linger on just that one: besides its sins of worldlessness, Hugo falls flat in an NPR-kind of way. The New Yorker, mine old frenemy, declares, “Hugo is superbly playful,” and yet the kind of blitheness Hugo achieves is distinctly pat, almost platitudinous: art is the arena in which the most trivial kinds of redemption are looped in endless reels of feel good puffery. Everyone ends up smug and satiated in Hugo,including Sasha Baron Cohen’s maimed Station Inspector, who seems to have wandered in from the set of a much funnier, more interesting movie. Had Hugo simply played the old movies it tries to celebrate, with some Ali G commentary to boot, I would have been totally and completely satisfied, my movie mouth full of cavities like it should be.
Melancholia, on the other hand, wants to have its empathy and shove it down your pitiful, tiny throat too. Its characters are less despicable than they are dull—because the movie happens exclusively in a hermetically sealed metaphor (It’s a castle! That’s a hotel! That’s also a golf course! That’s about to explode!), the characters are allowed to reap nothing of context, nothing of reference: we watch them behave badly toward one another and are never asked to care why. Kirsten Dunst is some kind of arch saint for snobby girls, her big boobs a silent rebuke to all those who do not take her depression seriously: she’s seriously depressed guys!
Melancholia: rich people acting shitty and then the world explodes—the final act, in which Dunst gets to tell off Gainsborough for wanting to make the world’s end “nice,” but goes and builds the movie’s kid actor a teepee to sit in as the planet smashes to smithereens anyway, betrays Von Trier’s basic misunderstanding of the human condition. Take Shelter: even in ending-less form, so pervasively empathic as to let us see anew the thin line we all walk in the stories we tell, or try to tell, each other and ourselves.
What a gift life is. What a gentle wind it is. What a strange radiation it gives off. What a feat of engineering it is. What a cypress it is. What a lovely, ruffled farce it is. What frigid heat it has. What faces. What invisible languages. How slowly fast. How it rolls over every morning. How it offices. How it houses. How much like a branch anchored to the molecules of air by its leaves it behaves. How little like itself it sounds. How steep its walls. What fights its boats put up against its awesome squalls. How beautiful are the consonant masts and the vowelled sails. What a mess it is. What teeth it has. What sleek sleep it seeks. The bizarre and pointless gardens it extends and tends. What rains are nourished in reverse by its great versed vegetables. What weird, coiled weeds. What cheap cameras and expensive expertises. What belltowers it raises like flowers of sound to the eary sky. How sad it is it has to die. What finality. What a face. What a can of dreams. What a cavern of a movie. Echoing happiness. All good art begins pretending to be about art and ends up being about love.
What an actress Juliette Binoche is. What ample, living gnocchi. What intimacy Abbas Kiarostami knits with his direction. What forgotten nuances of human love nest just around the corner in the novel placement of a camera. A placement that articulates not only the point of view of the character on the screen, but of the unseen character’s perception of the psychology of the seen, tiptoeing up a twizzled stairway, stomping out of a church. What sweet originality burgeons in the careful observation of the fringes of an omnipotent genre. Who let the dogs of a dialogue about art and perception twist into a bleakly beautiful duet about love out? Kiarostrami’s magnanimous eye. How lovely realism is. How honeycombed and bee-protected are its sticky mysteries. How forever I want to live. Film! Bright dungeon! Spring! Drown me in your ocean of Binochean dreams. If I were a quiet, green hill barely visible in the distance from the balcony of her Italian villa, from which she sipped a cappuccino and stared out at the sun painting the morning, and her brown eyes briefly fell on me, I would be weightless in their grace.
Perhaps the occasional surprise is the best life has to offer—the milder, the better. For having one’s expectations gently overturned whilst simultaneously being thrust upward is surely the closest we humans actually ever come to anything like divinity. We provide ourselves with the tiniest of tinseled miracles; and the fact that they tarnish easily, smudge and vanish as quickly as chalk in rain, only allows for their quiet reoccurrence to press that much more insistently into the blinding momentary flash in which we only ever consciously live. To think things will go the way you think they will, and to be positive in your thinking so, to clutch your certitude sweatily in the palm of your point of view, and then to find—suddenly and almost inexplicably in the midst of the experience itself—that in truth the thing is going much better, that you are enjoying yourself much more, and in fact surprising yourself with the level of enjoyment you are experiencing—for you had quite forgotten that you were a person capable of unfettered enjoyment, of unconscious experiential glee—is to ride the random, miniscule rollercoaster of the critical act.
And so we found ourselves last night at the 9:45 showing of Barney’s Version, a movie at whose preview we had harrumphed so frequently, and with such vehemence, that it had gradually gained syntax, and vocabulary—curdling like Bailey’s in Jameson in Guinness into a diatribe against Paul Giamatti, narratives featuring middle-aged men and their sexual peccadilloes, mid-century American novels, and baby-boomer aesthetics as a whole. “Who wants to watch another unappealing bourgeoisie male sleep with a slew of beautiful women, mess up, be forgiven, crack some semi-entertaining jokes, and die?” we’d ask whoever would listen, stage-whispering in agitation, the tips of our braids flicking popcorn from the top of the bag with every emphatic jerk of our head. “This movie looks hideous.” Not for the first time, we confront the mystery of expectation. Had we believed the opposite, that BV was going to initiate our personal constellation of 2011’s poignant character-studies, to be the first disarming and honest cinematic daffodil to sprout in the humus of early spring, we probably would have been profoundly disappointed. There are some dull moments in this movie, as there probably were in the Mordecai Richler novel from which BV was unmistakably yanked: the amount of whiskey, and cigars, and bad behavior on display is yawningly retro. But overall we were charmed. We were pulled in. There were moments of actual tension we squirmed through, remembering with horror similar scenes in which we had unluckily been participants. For the chance to revisit your own disgraces through the aestheticized prism of art, to view what you once endured, is another instance where we are granted god-likeness. As it must be for god, watching our own dilemmas of soul re-cast and externalized is at once heightening and nullifying. It’s also the only occasional surprise we ask of art. Go see this movie if you used to have time to read books.