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.
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.
We fall for those who have power over us. Those whose approval we long for. Those who know how to dangle that approval in front of our eyes, whose body language and conversation knit some suggestion of sexual prize awaiting us just around the corner of the next glance, the next casual touch or accidental innuendo, if only we can respond to it quickly or cleverly enough, and with decisive enough action—a daring first kiss mid-conversation, a wine-fueled invitation to bed, a tearful declaration of love in the middle of traffic—offering ourselves to them, dangling our own approval in front of them at the carefully selected moment, to finally equalize things, to ring in a new era, to balance the scales of power in one dramatic swipe. They will see in the purity of our desire that we too are beautiful and good. Then they will finally love us the way we love them—adoringly, madly, desperately, happily—but they never do. The only thing they have ever wanted is for us to want them—and the last thing they would ever want is to want us. We make our pathetic move, and that is the last we ever see of them. They disappear into the crowd of clones like us who love them for their power, and we are discarded. We walk away, off the grand stage love has built under our feet, and step carefully down the side stairs, back into the maze of tedious, unlit passageways that tunnel the rest of our lives.
Heartbeats almost gets at this, but the movie loves the outfits and accoutrements of youth more than the truth of desire. Like a rooster loosely fastened to its weathervane, the story spins in the ambitious direction of the inexperienced point of view that yielded it. For those who read contemporary poetry, these are bellwether gales. Two things authenticate any trope. First is the style with which it is presented, and second is the context into which it is thrust. Writer-director-star Xavier Dolan, brave in the former, remains afraid in the latter. The moment the ‘beats’ love triangle escapes its vapid playground of Québécois chic houseparties, botiques, and cafés, the action quickly sinks into the forced. Or when the mother of the blond adonis magnetizing the trio is introduced as destabilizer, she quickly succumbs to Eurotrash cartoon. Our otherwise convincing ménage à trois is never convincingly pierced by the outside world; dramatic stakes deescalate to aesthetic exercise where they should be elevating to life. Acting, music, some documentary genre-bending, and the fact that in several scenes we feel Dolan studying desire’s distortion upon our perception of time, however, contribute to Heartbeats‘ surprising charm. The ending made this wry old poet smile. A moment when the deep and simple poetry of human behavior coalesced with the shallow and complicated poetry of human fashion. A union all too rare in this film, as elsewhere.
I had menstrual cramps during Another Year. And popcorn-for-dinner made them worse. I was really stressed out on account of having all these student essays to grade, and feeling like I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it right now, and too why should I worry about writing poems anyway, is there a more useless and banal activity out there for a woman of my age and class and ethnicity to be doing; I ended up buying Mark both a drink before and a ticket to the movie because I suddenly felt awkward while he was in the restroom and solved that awkwardness, as I am wont to do, by purchasing something; I also drove him home despite my cramps, and the popcorn, and the stress about all the stuff I have to do and am not doing; and then I thought about writing this review and how I would have to adopt the goddamned “we” again and turn whatever dumb argument I had been losing with him in the car about character and realism, and how the movie failed to convince me of the “realness” of its characters because it hewed too closely to the codes by which we all understand ourselves to be “real,” following, in fact, the conventions of “realism” into the deep morass of its inevitable anti-category, “dullness,” into something profound and how I am stupidly sensible, and conventional in my aesthetics, and have become the “straight man” by tacit consensus; and then I went home and took a shower and washed my hair which I have started to hate doing because it is long and becoming pelt-like and like a pelt sheds everywhere—just today I lent someone my pen, only to notice with horror a clump of strands wrapped around its cap—
and then I got up early and wrote some biographies and graded some essays and gave a presentation on “clear classroom instruction” to my fellow TAs that probably made me look super-lame and prepared; then I came home and started trying to think about what I will say in seminar tomorrow, but then remembered I had this review to write and wrote my two paragraphs in which I said things like, “There can be no such thing as a “real character”—really. There can be degrees of realness, approximations in fiction to life, but no exact equivalence. We like ‘characters’ because, unlike ourselves or our friends, they are discrete” and “It asks us to see its characters as just as infinite and complex and ‘real’ as we ourselves actually are, and in doing so it cedes its claim to our attention and becomes a product of its excellent craft—‘art,’” before I grew so disgusted with it, and bored with it, and almost angry with myself, and the ways in which I feint and hide and puff myself and my opinions up with plural singulars, and large words, and knowing attitudes when really I know nothing at all, that I started writing this, looking out the window and thinking I am just so tired of winter and now terribly frightened at what I am writing, and what Mark might post, and if you have ever felt the terror of starting something and not knowing will you be able to stop it, you know what I am feeling, and you are alive and exist, and should probably go see Another Year because I’ve written myself into a change of opinion and now I kind of like it (though I still think the main character’s “unlikeability” could have been more attractively fulfilled).
In each scene of Another Year, the camera finds each character’s most subtle reactions. That the faces are older than the usual youthful Hollywood fare deepens director Mike Leigh’s exploration of how much more expressive those timeworn surfaces can be by virtue of restraint. Age, in a large sense, is the process of learning to express more with less. Poetry is not glowing language, but the voice of context coalescing around it; through the cracks between the lines it speaks; a jiggle of the jowl, the color of crooked teeth; the way we clutch a cigarette, how our eyes keep trying to sing a song our wrinkles and slouches unsing—and how these forms agree and disagree with one another—Leigh knows how to let the camera let them speak. Then zooming out one level from scene—sequence—a chain of these scenes—as if the architecture of the story were a camera of cameras; Leigh points it as sharply. In the outermost valences of narrative, electrons are bent to shed light on a nucleus, which we see fresh, bent itself to point at subatomic particles, which are bent to point at interior strings, dark matter, etc. Until we glimpse the inner, churning and mysterious thing which Hopkins named inscape and Merton equated to sanctity. That being said, I understand how some might dismiss the movie as being “only” about one, stationary atom.
Perhaps that metaphor got beyond me; thankfully Shakespeare proved the path to greatness is paved with metaphorical excess. Like a great poet himself, Mike Leigh takes the most seemingly lifeless materials—old people who don’t change; the two main characters remain as boringly virtuous as their friends remain doomed—and by attention to detail, which is a less bombastic synonym for formal virtuosity, we see the life, the change, the seven levels of pride and shame and oceans of delusion and ice-thin epiphanies that flutter through our eyes when we feel our own dreams were broken long ago on the sharp rocks of youth and we try as hard as we can not to know it—not yet—because we’re still alive. Leslie Manville’s portrayal of Mary, a hapless alcoholic speeding past her prime in a spree of pathetic desperation, makes Melissa Leo’s best supporting actress Oscar for The Fighter look like an attendance certificate. Wrapped around Manville’s wiles, Leigh’s wise silence resounds—the boringness of happiness, the sniping judgments of piety, the abyss of self-absorption, the resignation love demands, the arrogance of our spurning of it, the indifference of death, the tragedy of self-awareness that blooms too late, the slightly comic tragedy of self-awareness that blooms at all, beauty’s hatred of that blooming, the gravitational gales familial expectations exert upon the starships of our egos—if not real enough, or too real, Leigh shows it is possible to make art reverent in life’s direction.
Remember the old days when movies about Europe were elegant, attractive, generally beguiling affairs? Someone rode a bicycle down a lane framed with trees, or sat in a sun-lit café sipping espresso. A short but handsome man gesticulated with abandon as a thin woman looked on in a beautiful pout; deep kisses were both given and received on street corners, under caryatids beaming with benevolence. That Europe was like last Friday—when we jumped puddles and drank deep of the grape in a vernal dusk. Then we went to see Biutiful and then we went to see Unknown. And we realized two things: Europe is no longer viable as the charming reservoir from which a million ex-pats fish their hazy projections, catching dreams of improbable glamor; also, it’s not spring yet. How can we even begin to connect these two movies—the unrelenting importance of stunning Javier Bardem facing down death in Buitiful’s grungy Barcelona to the equally yet inversely unrelenting inconsequence of Liam Neeson searching, with his usual arthritic-histrionic version of “acting,” for his identity in the snowy streets of Unknown’s Berlin? As with doing a lot of anything (reading poetry, or solving complex math problems, or attending church), going to see all these movies all the time has made us aware of certain relations, or trends, or even patterns—not so much in the movies themselves, but in what we look for as we watch them. What we notice. What we decide is important to notice.
Unknown is thoroughly dull except for two things: it has a great car chase scene in which the inherently balletic nature of the form is realized in glorious bumper-nudging detail, and enough scenes of the “new Europe”—a continent of demoralized and marginalized immigrants, surveillance, and brutality—to allow us to connect it to Biutiful, which we saw the night before. Biutiful is not dull, but while it’s beautifully shot and acted, lovingly-drawn, and thoroughly sad, it still drags, stretching its runs of horrifically bad luck to marathon mileage. By the movie’s end, when the compromised Chinese factory boss has had to murder his gay lover and poor Javier Bardem pee blood for the camera a second time, we were antsy for something, even a little something, good to happen. Unknown left us antsy in a different way, its tedium borne of near-constant exposition of events we had just witnessed, and the stiff avuncularity Liam Neeson always acts with—though he was outshone in this regard by the icily vapid January Jones. Though as far apart in terms of purpose, audience, and form as movies might go, both B and U ask us to rest our interest on middle-aged men as they search frantically for meaning; both also pretend to flash us scenes of secret underbellies, exposing Europe as the tawdry, crumbling, self-destroying mosaic it is. There are only a handful of stories to tell; the thoughts are few, the forms many, Emerson says. Hard lessons we learned this weekend: go see at least one movie where the actors can act. Don’t go to Europe. Don’t be an immigrant. Everything is relateable through the prism of self. It’s a winter’s winter.
Remember how cool 1999 was? High school was almost over, or college just starting. It was about to be a new millennium! One could still wear “ironic” vintage tees with neither the scare quotes nor the worry that they had actually come from Urban Outfitters. Also in 1999, Fight Club was coming out. Edward Norton was a barrel of unleaded gasoline going for 99 cents a gallon, little realizing that in a dozen years he’d be less than the corn-rowed fumes of his former greatness in the moneyless miasma of Stone. Fight Club is kind of painful to watch now. It’s so earnest. All that “we are not our possessions!” sloganeering; all that “self-consciousness.” But the 90s were also when movie-makers realized that people not doing anything was just as cool as Brad Pitt rubbing his shaved head with maniacal glee while buildings exploded portentously. The haul of these non-event movies has been with us for over a decade now. They feature a certain brand of “realism” that can be seen in all the arts—fiction, poetry, whatever. The art of the quirk. The reign of the dull. People stand around and talk, or don’t talk. The sky darkens, or lightens. A bus passes. A car stops. There is wistful music accompanying the patter of rain. Miranda July roller-skates by. A Dickman twin lights a cigarette.
Mark asks us: When does what’s cool change? We hazard to say, in indie-art terms, an increment or so almost every baker’s dozen years. Cold Weather is supposedly a non-event movie with a difference: half-way through the rain-streaked camera shots and winsome soundtrack, it emerges that this poignant silence of a film is harboring both a plot and a genre-wish. As the main character (who works in an ice factory in Portland; lives and stammers with his sister in a gorgeously muted apartment; enjoys whale-watching excursions; etc) lies sleeping on his nubby retro couch for a good five minutes of the film, we could almost hear Aaron Katz’s idea go off: there could be, like, a mystery to be solved! In this movie! Having blown his wad on that brilliant idea, unfortunately, Katz seems to have fallen immediately into a post-coital stupor. The lead actor, Cris Lankenau, goes about his detective tasks like an unsuccessfully autistic Encyclopedia Brown; the mystery itself is never allowed to gestate in the womb of the plot and so any suspense is effectively stillborn. We can’t remember a single character’s name, except for one—Carlos, the best thing about this movie, though he, unforgivably, disappears halfway through. The highly touted “slow-moving car chase” scene was an especial disappointment. But still. We think this movie bodes well. For even if initial hybrids turn out to be formless, sterile, or otherwise meandering exercises in ego, they pave the way for the truly great, ultimately cool-changing products of our time, like the Toyota Prius. Or Splice.