Thursday, September 29, 2011
New York Film Festival 2011: Four More
["Why is the Siren writing up new films?" a few of you have asked. Have the rebels taken over the radio station? Is someone threatening to torch the Siren’s Warner Archive discs unless she cooperates? No, it is far more prosaic: The New York Film Festival is having press screenings, and they said the Siren could come, as long as she sits up straight and doesn’t spill her coffee. And the Siren thought it would be fun to run a newspaper. But nobody asked her, so she decided that writing short takes on new films also would be fun. That’s it. The Siren is still watching TCM. These capsules are not being filed by a robot Siren in a long dress.]
Melancholia (2011) This latest from Lars von Trier, or Prince Motormouth as the Siren now calls him, was unexpectedly marvelous. Divided like Gaul into three parts: a magnificently surreal flash-forward to the apocalypse that is about to hit in the form of a planet colliding with our own; a midsection showing the slow-motion cataclysm that is the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard); and a finale focusing on Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, as the end approaches and the extravagantly depressed Justine drifts around uttering downers like the bad fairy at a christening. Despite its plot and preoccupations, Melancholia merits adjectives that the Siren had not previously associated with von Trier: subtle, charming, sympathetic. Some subtlety shows early, as Dunst seems like a normal, albeit disorganized bride--but small things tell us something is terribly wrong with this beauty, until (this is von Trier, after all) the party goes south in a very, very big way. The charm is largely from Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg’s husband, a deeply practical man trying to cope with situations in which practicality is of no use whatever. And the sympathy comes from Gainsbourg as Claire, a caretaker personality par excellence. Justine tells Claire, with ferocious relish, that the world is evil and no one will miss it, but Claire responds to doomsday with, “Where will my child grow up?” The liveliest movie about clinical depression that the Siren can imagine, and do not mistake that for faint praise.
The Turin Horse (2011), which Bela Tarr has said will be his final film, begins with a narrated anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche's breakdown, which was occasioned by seeing the driver of a hansom cab beat his horse. After the story is told over a black screen, the film follows the elderly driver home. He and his daughter put the horse in the stable, and for days the two endure a windstorm as savage, and as exquisitely photographed, as that in Victor Seastrom's The Wind. The drudgery of their lives is shown in relentless detail, from the daughter dressing and undressing the old man, to the way they both eat boiled potatoes with their bare hands.
It is not boring, exactly, despite the long takes that show much of this in real time and despite the resolute lack of extended dialogue. There is plenty of opportunity to think about the despair of poverty, and matters such as: The absence of beauty or ornament in the house, save a glimpse of what could be a photograph of the woman's mother. The lack of books, until a band of gypsies brings one by. How mere cleanliness must seem a dream of luxury, as the daughter rinses the dishes and her face and never uses soap. Why showing kindness to your work animals might also be a luxury. Why a horse might want to commit suicide.
In the background plays the stringed dirge that constitutes the score, as mercilessly repetitive as a music box. The score does switch off from time to time, such as when a neighboring blowhard stomps in, asks for some local hooch, says the end may be nigh and delivers a rant about the debasement of modern society. At other times you hear the wind, whose shrieks and whistles reminded the Siren of the Apaches in Stagecoach. After a second or two spent forlornly hoping some equivalent of marauding Apaches might show up, the Siren began to contemplate why she felt so unmoved by this famed director's swan song, which is so far the only Tarr she has seen.
This high-styled, proudly austere movie presents its bullet points as plainly as many a melodrama--poverty, humanity, mortality, futility. In order to find The Turin Horse great, the Siren would have to believe that Tarr's refusal to give an inch to an audience's desire for characters and a story is a virtue in itself. And/or she would have to believe that through 146 minutes of well water, boiled potatoes and a horse on hunger strike, Tarr had given her insights about people, or behavior, or our place on this earth that are as valuable as those to be had, for instance, from some passengers on a stagecoach to Lordsburg. And the Siren believes neither.
Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo) The Siren has been seeing some NYFF films as close to cold as one gets in the digital age. All she had read about this selection from Mexico was that it concerned a beauty-pageant contestant who gets caught up with drug gangs. That sounded as though it might be a thriller. Um, no. Miss Bala is an extraordinarily bleak social drama that happens to feature suspense and a great deal of violence. Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero, whose simple goal of winning a beauty pageant drags her into the drug wars. Visually and thematically the film recalls Traffic, but the indictment of global folly is even stronger in Miss Bala, which after the first quarter-hour shows not a single moment of social order. The U.S. DEA agents, when they appear, are as brutal to Laura as anyone else. While it has the propulsive drive that comes from outrage, Miss Bala is what they call a hard sit. Events wipe out the heroine’s courage and even her personality, until she focuses on survival and nothing more. This is what swathes of Mexico have become, the film says; and this is what we’ve all signed up for.
Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski) When the Siren watches Supernanny with her husband, he often winds up muttering, “It’s about the parents, this show. It’s always about the parents.” Carnage is a supercharged Supernanny episode, in which the kids have been sent to have lunch in the trailer, while the adults expose their warts via the cut-glass complete sentences of playwright and co-screenwriter Yasmina Reza. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of a boy who just had two teeth knocked out by a stick-wielding peer. The parents of the perpetrator, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), visit Michael and Penelope’s boringly tasteful Brooklyn apartment to settle things in amicable fashion. How well that goes may be judged from the title. The fun--and the movie had the house rocking with laughter at many points--comes from watching four intrepid performers rage around the set like a wrecking crew sent to knock down the Actors’ Studio. The Siren was hanging on Waltz’s every smirk, and transfixed by Foster’s choice to have her character’s body language get tighter and tenser even as Penelope comes further unglued. The whole effect is highly artificial, but not stagey in the least. The Siren just read Glenn Kenny--"a potential masterclass in staging, blocking, camera angle, shot selection, shot length, pacing in terms of both rhythm of actual cutting and duration of shot”--and seconds the motion. Carnage is smart about class differences; the couples’ exchanges about careers and accomplishments are often more wounding than the open hostilities over the children. The film doesn’t offer much on the topic of parenting. But it’s clear why: The episodes that bracket Carnage tell us that children are acting in their own play. Mom and Dad may storm and stress, but they’re audience members, not directors.