Half Nelson (2006) (E)

IMDb / Cale / Sragow
Written by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden
Directed by Ryan Fleck

Traditionally, drug addicts in the movies are dealers or unemployed: figures on the margins of society physically and intellectually. They are certainly not people in positions of authority or importance. The protagonist of Half Nelson is Daniel Dunne, an inner-city high school teacher who smokes crack in the bathroom after coaching his basketball team after school. As such, this film offers the most mature depiction of drug addiction I’ve seen in movies. Dan is a real person, with real strengths and failings. He knows how his drug problem limits him, but he can’t be bothered to do something about it – or perhaps he doesn’t know how.

The film focuses on Dan’s relationship with Drey, a girl in his class who catches him slumped inside a toilet cubicle one afternoon at school. Drey lives with her single mother, a paramedic who works long hours, so Drey spends a lot of time hanging out with Frank, a drug dealer who consequently is wealthier than most of the community they live in. Frank has sold to Dan, and when Dan sees how Frank is taking Drey under his wing, he moves to intervene despite being in no real position to tell someone to stay away from drugs. It gives nothing away to say that she does eventually spurn Frank’s enterprise, and that this is a direct result of Dan’s actions, but certainly not in the way you’d expect.

This is typical of a film that doesn’t reach for anything beyond telling simple truths about normal people. Lofty ideas such as the current state of drug abuse in America, the battle between teachers and high school students of different races, or the problems of middle American families are avoided, but in the course of telling its story the film touches on all of these in some way or another. Instead of delving in and searching for answers, it succinctly shows what’s going on and leaves you to think about it. What I’d give to be offered such rich opportunities for thought every time I watch a movie, to have spoonfeeding struck from Hollywood conventions… some hope.

For example, we do get to kind of see where Dan’s problem stems from in a five minute sequence covering a night back home having dinner with his family. It only hints at the difficult familial relationships Dan has, and the escape drugs will have given him, but most of it is given over to contemplation on the viewer’s part. The movie is about the impact of his problem, not its origin. Fleck has said he was influenced by Altman, and it shows in these scenes in which people may be talking, but what they say isn’t really important: it’s the way the move, the way they sit, the looks on their faces that tell you everything. There’s no proselytizing – it leaves all the thinking up to you.

And you will think. Throughout the film, there are several of these wonderful periods of silence during which there’s so much going on even though nothing of consequence is said or done. It takes great skill to make scenes like these work. You have to make the audience forget they’re watching a movie and get them to live in the characters’ minds for the duration, and Fleck does it like he’s made a hundred movies (this is in fact his first). He achieves this not just through a great script, but by shooting the right thing in each scene to make sure its dramatic intent is understood. Like when Drey is having burgers with Frank, and Frank gets up and does the chicken walk, but the camera stays with Drey and her reaction. It’s another small moment that just works because we understand that Drey is what matters here.

Frank is the antagonist, I suppose, but he isn’t a bully or a thief, which is yet another of the film’s pleasant surprises. He’s a bad influence on Drey, but only in terms of the path he’s leading her down, not really in attitude. It’s a socially unacceptable path that could lead to hurt, and Dan feels that he must do something about it because he’s probably the only one who can, but how do you do that when your weekly budget includes $50 for crack & coke? There’s an incredible scene in which Dan confronts Frank without any real plan of attack, and what ensues will surprise any viewer.

Ryan Gosling plays Dan. He was nominated for an Oscar, and he probably should’ve won (though haven’t yet seen Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland). His is a performance of outstanding skill: subtle, understated, deeply felt and understood. He spends a lot of time brooding, but offers several moments of delight in his interactions with the kids. Then there’s newcomer Shareeka Epps as Drey, who is stunning in a role that calls for her to seem strongly independent yet vulnerable at the same time. Special mention should go to Anthony Mackie as Frank, who avoids caricature and gives us one of the most convincing opposing forces in recent history. Yeah, the whole cast is great, from these lead players to the smallest, single-line role. The set must have been a relaxed place of much laughter and creativity.

I’ve run out of steam. Just see it. I’ve watched it three times in a week, and I’ll probably watch it a couple more times before moving on to something else. It has everything I ask for from a film. (Except explosions. I’ll hopefully get those from Transformers and The Bourne Ultimatum.)

Two Great Films About World War Two

Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004) (E)
IMDb/ Ebert / Hoberman
Written by Bernd Eichinger
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Idi i Smotri (Come and See) (1985) (E)
IMDb / Tobias / Reichert / Danks
Written by Ales Adamovich
Directed by Elem Klimov

Downfall and Come and See are not really all that similar, formally at least. However, they are the last two films about World War Two that I watched and, better than any other war films I’ve seen, they show the horror, the insanity and the hopelessness of war. I decided to write about them together because of this link, and to try a slightly different format. Both films offer a viewpoint we are not really accustomed to, whatever we know about the war, and neither becomes jingoistic or clichéd.

Downfall follows the last day or two of the Third Reich before the Russians take Berlin and end Hitler’s mission. To begin with, it is notable for being a German film that takes a point of view inside Hitler’s bunker – that of his secretary, Traudl Junge. Junge died in 2002, having offered an intimate account of those last days in both a book and a documentary film (which I have not seen). Downfall is based on her book, as well as on Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest. It amalgamates these two reliable sources into a definitive film on the subject, a film that is masterful in every aspect.

Technically, it is magnificent. One feels truly transported to the real scenes as they occurred, like in so few other films (especially war films). Clearly, the crew have meticulously researched the necessary details to come up with a realistic setting. It is director Hirschbiegel’s task to make this setting cinematic, and he does so without ever resorting to cheap camera or editing tricks. He allows the inherent fascination of the subject to come through, shooting it in a variety of ways to maximise its effect. Shots down long rooms are memorable, but so are wide shots of Berlin being bombed, and tight closeups on an actor’s face. He never puts a foot wrong.

With that out of the way, I can focus on the people. Junge is portrayed as extremely vulnerable, perhaps only halfway aware of the grand situation but acutely aware of the danger of remaining in the bunker. Lara, the actor, is so pretty it’s easy for her to tug at our heartstrings, but she doesn’t fall back only on that. Her dialogue is delivered directly, nervously, but always warmly, and one cannot help but wish dearly that she will survive. Of course, we already know that she does – spoken comments from the real Junge bookend the film – but one becomes so immersed in the experience, you more or less forget what you knew beforehand.

Junge is the only person who can bring out vulnerability in Hitler, as evidenced by the shot above. He is often warm and friendly, but we only see weakness in him when he looks into Junge’s eyes, and they are great moments. We do also see him becoming angry and irrational, and Ganz’s work in these scenes is absurdly good. His performance as a whole is the high watermark of a glittering career that has seen him work with Schaffner, Herzog and Wenders. Any doubts you might have about an actor being able to convincingly portray Hitler are quashed as soon as he appears on screen.

Eva Braun seems in denial of the whole thing. She insists that the dancing continue at a party that is being bombed and, in yet another image burned into my brain, applies lipstick in the mirror and half-smiles. Half of her fights to believe that there is still hope against the other half which knows, very practically, that the end is very close indeed. It’s horrible to imagine that struggle of faith – how would you cope if the tanks were bearing down but you husband insisted on remaining to the last?

Possibly the most distressing scene in the film concerns Frau Goebbels and her children; even if you know what happens, it is incredibly affecting to watch. She is the most unshakeable character in the film, the most brainwashed, heavily influenced as she is by her husband (who, in one scene, shows himself to be of very weak will as he waits outside a particular bunker). Nearly everyone retains some semblance of faith in the Fuhrer and the Fatherland, but they are all without hope. The practicality of the resolution of many – suicide – is jarringly insane, but clearly the only way they see to end the conflict. There is so much death, it is overwhelming but never desensitizing. I nearly bawled my eyes out in several places. And when genuine hope finally appears, it is as though a great weight has been lifted.

The immersive realism of Downfall is in direct contrast to the atmosphere and occasional beauty of Come and See. It is more like a collaboration between Kubrick and Herzog on a brutal, unflinching war film. Produced by the Soviet Union government to commemorate 40 years of the war having ended, it focuses on how Bielorussia (now independent as Belarus) was caught between Moscow and Berlin and was more or less completely sacked.

We follow a boy of 12, Florya, as he joins the army in the crusade against the Evil Hun. Very quickly, his illusions of glory in Stalin’s service are shattered – his company leaves him behind to guard the camp, which is subsequently bombed to oblivion. Thus begins a series of episodes as Florya attempts to gain a foothold in the war, something, somewhere, anything to give his life meaning beyond continued survival.

Downfall illustrates the hopelessness of war on a personal level; Come and See illustrates it for the many, forcing you to appreciate the unbelievable horror of it all. There are burned bodies still breathing and talking; entire towns incinerated; captured soldiers pleading for their lives. I foolishly ate a sandwich as I watched, and countless times I would get it within an inch of my mouth before being frozen in horror at what I was seeing. It is a relentless stream of remarkably shocking images, tied together through the plight of this young, no longer innocent boy.

The images are depraved, but there is a poetry about them all. A cow’s rolling eyeball is mesmerizing, as is a human face laughing rapturously as it looks upon intensely evil deeds. In a way, much of this film is quite beautiful, conveying an ethereality of war that most films eschew in favour of gritty realism. This doesn’t diminish its impact; in fact, it hits even harder when you are made aware that none of this is a dream. It really happened, probably much like this. It would have been difficult to believe, at any stage, and always horrifying. I must also make note of the sound design, which is amongst the most impressive in all the films I have seen. It goes some way towards immersing us in the hellish, bewildering environment of war.

Aleksei Kravchenko gives one of the great child performances as Florya. For the second half of the film, he rarely speaks, but his face ages visibly – not just with the makeup. Starting out a fresh-faced, smiling, hopeful boy, his facial expression becomes flatter and more hopeless as time wears on. Finally he becomes angry, and in a completely against-the-grain (but certainly effective) montage he unleashes all his aggression, signalling a new focus in his life. He has found a reason to march with the army, and the necessary will to be taken seriously. Like the will of the characters in Downfall, his drive is profoundly affecting in its insanity.

This was director Klimov’s last film, though he lived for a further eighteen years. I can understand why one might end their career with a film as stunning as this. It isn’t as complete a film as Downfall, particularly in its one-sidedness, but its unflinching eye hits you harder. I warn you, do not watch these two films on a double-bill – the effects could be dire. Do watch them both, though, if you can and feel you’re up to it. I haven’t seen two better films about war, ever, nor have I seen two films which so conclusively argue against there being any more war.

Well, this turned out to be more like two reviews back-to-back than a comparison piece. Oh well. I am still learning.

Spellbound (2002) (E)

IMDb / Ebert / Lieberman
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz

The more movies I watch, the more I tend to think documentaries offer the best hit-rate in cinema. (Herzog would take issue with me here and say that documentaries should not be categorised apart from fiction – to him, they are all films, and while I agree with this I am separating them to make my rather simplistic point.) There’s plenty of pap, of course, but then there are films as sublime as Spellbound, films which find great stories in the everyday and present them in a way that captivates and extends far beyond their seemingly limited focus. I laughed, I thought deeply, and I was brought to the verge of tears twice – once in sympathy, once in elation.

The spelling bee is an American tradition that hasn’t really affected the rest of the world, kind of like baseball. It’s huge there, but we don’t give it a second thought. Each year, around 10 million kids up to the age of 14 take part in school spelling bees; of these, some go to the city and county competition. 249 winners will eventually take part in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, the holy grail of spelling. Jeff Blitz chose 8 kids from very different backgrounds and went to their homes to interview them and their family, then followed their progress in the national competition. His film shows that the simplest ideas and methods are often best, especially in film – tell the story straight, and if it’s good, people will listen.

Of the eight, three are the children of immigrants. Angela is the daughter of a Mexican couple who speak no English; Neil is the son of a wealthy, extremely driven Indian couple; Dupur the daughter of a relaxed Indian couple, almost a direct contrast to Neil’s parents. These three families epitomise the American Dream. They came to America with the express purpose of finding a better environment for their children to grow up in, and, in different ways, they all feel they succeeded. The American Dream is usually talked about in terms of opportunity for wealth and success for the individual, but Spellbound showed that it has much more to do with one’s legacy. Families move there simply because it has more to offer their kids than their home country.

One gets the feeling that Neil and his father would have succeeded in any environment because they are so ruthlessly driven – Rajesh (his father) and his brother built his second house themselves, brick by brick, and the way he walks around his neighbourhood, it’s like he owns the whole street. Still, he is at pains to point out the difference between their current position and where they were, how it is immeasurably better here. Most poignant is Angela’s dad, who earns barely more than the paltry pay he used to get in Mexico, but he is happy that he has done well because his children are happy and advantaged. The kids of each of these families are very much Americans, and their parents couldn’t be happier.

The American kids are equally diverse, from a hyperactive, incredibly annoying boy to a black girl from a poor Washington, D. C. neighbourhood who just loves words. While the kids themselves are quite fascinating, it’s the interviews with their families that are most illuminating. They offer insight into the incredible strength of the family bond, the importance of hard work, the sometimes anti-intellectual attitude of many Americans (including children), and a lot more which I’ve forgotten – indeed, it seemed like every time one of the parents said something, I immediately started thinking hard about the implications of what they had to say. It’s not earth-shattering stuff, but it is broad and affects pretty much all of us.

Quite apart from being an endlessly intriguing document of Americana, Spellbound is, in its final half hour, filled with tension. Even though you’ve only spent about ten minutes in the company of each of these children and their families, you really feel like you know them, so when you see them get up on that stage it becomes almost unbearable. Up to this point, Blitz’s editing work has been impressive, but it is during the rounds of the spelling bee that it achieves greatness. He cuts between the child on stage and more interview footage from before and after the event – kind of like a reality TV show, except good, and you actually care for the outcome. Many times I gritted my teeth and gripped my head in my hands, wishing aloud that they would spell the word correctly. My hat is off to you, Mr. Blitz, for making me care so much about a child getting a string of letters right.

It becomes clear by the end of the film that all the people in the film are very similar. They have had vastly different life experiences, but they share many similar philosophies. A lesser film would have placed the differences at the centre of our attention, because it’s easier to extract drama that way; instead, Blitz somehow finds common goodness in virtually everyone. He’s taken a simple idea and chosen a simple structure to present it in, and the result is a success on every level. There is no manipulation, no artificiality. He gets everything out of the material without ever making his presence felt. It’s all about the people, and despite whatever first impressions one might make, they are shown to be amazing, important people. This is how movies should be made.

Caché (2005) (E)

English title: ‘Hidden’
IMDb / Ebert / Cale / Calder / Crawford
Written and Directed by Michael Haneke

I’m not really one for Bazin, Truffaut et al’s so-called auteur theory – it’s my opinion that most films are very much collaborative efforts that no one person can take all credit for – but if there’s one director alive who fits it, it’s Michael Haneke. The two films of his that I’ve seen, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) and now Caché, offer director-as-star filmmaking in its purest, most fascinating form. His films are cold, clinical, detached, and disquieting, all in a good way. Like Gaspar Noé, he actively intends to manipulate the audience, but unlike that director he eschews visual trickery. He draws your emotions out slowly, then pulls them wherever he wants, and after the film is over leaves you to wrestle with them on your own.

After Caché, I thought of calling his directorial style ‘minimalist’, but that wouldn’t be true. The camera is often static, and when it moves it’s usually slowly and carefully; the sound design is simply functional, using only incidental sound with no music or effects. However, what happens within the frame is intricately choreographed, particularly in many long-range shots – you get the feeling that every shot (even when it only contains one or two people) has more going on than you could possibly take in, either at a physical or metaphysical level. In other words, it’s the content, not the process of filming it, that provides incredible depth and mindblowing detail. In this respect he is very much an actor’s director, but upon reflection, his restrained, cold technical style is impressive and suits the material well.

And what material. As in La Pianiste, Caché is concerned with real-life situations, scenes that you can easily imagine being played out in the real world. Every person who moves across the screen gives the impression of a life being lived, which is a testament to the actors but also to Haneke’s writing – get your central figures totally believable, and it’s that much easier to trust the rest of the film’s universe. On the face of it, Caché is a standard-issue thriller: the Laurents (father Georges, mother Anne, son Pierrot) receive a series of videotapes which contain footage pertaining to their lives – two hours at a time of the action outside their front door, Georges’ childhood home, a seemingly unfamiliar suburban street corner. They are often accompanied by disturbing, childlike drawings. However, traditional thriller elements rarely surface, and are replaced by an exploration of familial trust, honesty and guilt – the stuff that many of us deal with in our daily lives.

Watching the interactions between husband and wife, father and son, mother and son is as difficult as anything in the film, because they seem real people talking about real problems. I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way: Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, luminaries of French cinema, are near definitive of the profession in their performances, but they are almost upstaged by Lester Makedonsky, who plays their son. If you can understand any French, pay close attention to the way characters speak in this film, especially in the family: words are mumbled and missed in the way that only people very familiar are capable of doing. It is almost voyeuristic, which is no surprise given Haneke’s earlier films. The scenes between Auteuil and Binoche are charged with massive amounts of suppressed resentment, anger, and resignation, and are an education in screen acting. For me, though, the kid Makedonsky’s line delivery and reactions are note-perfect every single time he appears – it’s a remarkable child performance that is so good it deserves academic study.

Back to Haneke. As the film progresses, subtle aesthetic choices are made to mix things up and unsettle. For example, a particularly significant hallway is shot the same way three times, but the fourth time it is shot from the opposite angle. I don’t really know what to say about things like this, other than that they blow my mind when I think about them – how did he come up with such a simple and effective way of chilling me right to my bones? And if you haven’t deduced as much from the censor’s classification, there are disturbing images (one in particular) that are so shocking as to be burned into your memory forever. It’s the familiar images (of which there are many) that haunt the most, though, because of the different action that takes place within them each time we see them.

There’s so much artifice on display here, but so little artificiality. Haneke manipulates, questions and even threatens you, but he does it without striking any jarringly out-of-place notes. Caché will eat at me as my brain remembers and uncovers more, until I see it again, which I undoubtedly will (one viewing is not nearly enough to come to a coherent understanding of a film like this). I suspected beforehand that it might be the best film of the year, and so it was proved. It’s only April, but I’d be surprised if I see anything in cinemas better than this in 2006.

3 Women (1977) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written and Directed by Robert Altman

2006: the year I discovered Robert Altman. It’s not that I was unfamilar with his work – I knew of his high status, and had seen Short Cuts and Gosford Park, considering the former to be greatly impressive. I think I was just too young for any of it to really stick with me, or to motivate me to seek out more. Well, after Nashville, I really wanted more, and decided I might as well start with one I’d read virtually nothing about. 3 Women is an extraordinary film, one that washes over you and stuns you, lingering in the mind long after viewing it, daring you to forget it.

At first it seems more about two women than three: Shelley Duvall’s Millie, a woman so enveloped in her own trendiness that she doesn’t notice that everyone is laughing at her, and Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, so childlike as to appear utterly dependent on Millie’s guidance (at work, at home, and down the pub). Here, it’s extremely tempting to simply discuss the narrative of the film, because it so closely resembles a dream; there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else one can go when discussing it. Indeed, it came to Altman fully-formed in a dream, and that doesn’t surprise given that it progresses exactly as a dream would – strange, bewildering, sometimes completely illogical, but always feeling natural. You know how you only realise how strange that dream was after you wake up? That’s what it’s like after watching this movie.

I’m not going to do that, though. I came to it untainted by any kind of plot summary, so I’m going to avoid that from now on. Like in Nashville, the characters are defined mostly by their flaws. Millie is often painful to watch, walking just behind other pairs, talking constantly but never being listened to. She sincerely believes that all the men desire her, but before she is even up the steps they ridicule her. Pinky is the exact opposite, a blank slate who approaches every aspect of adult life as though it was for the first time. She believes Millie is helping her, educating her well, which is even more painful because her mentor couldn’t be more misguided. The third woman of the title, pregnant Willie, is usually seen painting disturbing, pained figures on the pool walls and floor. She seems alienated, or alien, out of step with her surroundings. We don’t follow her the way we follow Millie and Pinky, but we often feel her presence in the background, watching over proceedings like a… something.

The music is the first clue. To begin with, it doesn’t seem to fit at all, but it steadily becomes more and more appropriate until it goes perfectly with the images and tone. And it’s not just a case of becoming used to it – the film actually changes into something different, a clear but not incongruous shift. Just like a dream. Then there’s the impeccable film technique, timing every shot just right, and in a few notable cases surprising us with anomalies such as double reflections and a wavy fluid that sometimes partially obscures the image. It’s very strange, and dreamlike. You get it, I’m sure.

Again, Altman captures the potential of the form without resorting to lazy hoodwinks or clichés. The notions that could lead to disappointment are there, but they are executed perfectly. You don’t necessarily understand it – and quite likely, you shouldn’t – but it doesn’t feel wrong, or a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Mulholland Dr., but I kind of feel like Lynch pulled the wool over our eyes. Nothing wrong with that per se, but with Altman there are no smoke and mirrors, and no pretensions. He shows us some stuff, and leaves the rest up to us. A genius and a giant of cinema.

Ran (1985) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni & Masato Ide
Based on ‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

I was first introduced to King Lear at age 15 (I think) when the Pumphouse Theatre in Takapuna put it on. I remember thinking it was a great story, awesomely tragic and powerful, but I wondered if all productions of it were so disjointed and confused. A fuller understanding of the play came at age 17 when we studied it in Mrs. Keith’s 7th form English class, and I enjoyed it very much. Mrs. Keith made sure to let us know that she’d never seen it performed well, and wondered if it was possible for it to be done; she wondered aloud about a Japanese film from the 80s that supposedly did a good job of it, but she hadn’t seen it, so she couldn’t say.

Ran is the film she was referring to, but it wasn’t just her mention of it that led me to eventually see it. Recently I was exposed to the above image, and was so captivated by it that I immediately went to the library and put a request in for the DVD. Having now seen it, I can say that it lives up to all the hype. It is a particularly fine Lear adaptation, conveying the madness and eventual tragedy of the Lord, the treachery of two of his offspring, and the nobleness of the third. It is also visually a remarkable film filled with such extraordinary images as the one above; indeed, that shot is only one part of an extraordinary battle sequence, surely the one of the most incredible ever filmed, and there is another at the end of the film which rivals it.

It’s the scale of it all that astonishes me. You look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the battle scenes are amazing, but 70-80% of them is created solely on a computer, and there’s plenty of cutting that makes it easier for them to convey chaos. Ran, on the other hand, is all real, except for the blood. Those are real people charging around, falling off horses and being trampled, shooting vast numbers of arrows into the enemy’s ranks. Virtually all of it is shot from a reasonable distance, so you can always see what’s going on, and you can marvel better at the audacity of it all. Look again at that above image: that’s a real castle (built especially for the film) burning to the ground, so they only had one shot at getting it – and they got it.

The carnage only comes in brief bursts, though. Ran focuses more on the human elements of the story, cutting to the heart of Shakespeare’s themes and displaying them clearly through the characters. As Lord Hidetora, the film’s Lear figure, Tatsuya Nakadai offers a remarkable range of facial expressions that one feels Western cinema could never pull off without seeming overly broad; they are somewhat over the top, but they do a better job of getting us inside the character’s head than any subtle underplaying would. The rest of the cast also performs well, particularly Mieko Harada in a Lady Macbeth-type role; her icy words are chilling, and her eventual fate is superbly handled.

This is my fourth Kurosawa film, after (in this order) Shichinin no samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon. They have been phenonemal works, clearly showing a director very much in total command of the art form. Rashomon is probably still my favourite, but only just; in any case, I plan to own them all one day, and I plan to see all of Kurosawa’s films before too long. If you haven’t seen any, what’s the deal? Get on it. This guy really does deserve his reputation as one of the top few film directors ever. An interesting fact: as he was a trained painter, his storyboards for all his films were full paintings. It shows. There is a perfection to his images, a clarity of purpose, a genuine cinematic beauty. Even Herzog only manages it a few times per film; with Kurosawa, it’s present in nearly every frame.

Nashville (1975) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written by Joan Tewkesbury
Directed by Robert Altman

The ensemble drama has been particularly popular in recent American film. Primary exponents are Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) and Paul Haggis (Crash). However, the king of the genre is undoubtedly Robert Altman. These more recent examples offer distinct worlds that are easy to be drawn into, with fascinating characters that we do care about; the difference with Altman’s films is that every person on screen – from the part with the most dialogue, to the guy with a mullet and goatee standing in a huge crowd – comes across as a real person. The others I have seen are Short Cuts and Gosford Park, and it’s that attention to the smallest roles that sets him apart, placing him among the greatest American filmmakers.

Nashville, I would suggest, is his finest hour. (Without having seen MASH or The Player I’m not really in any position to judge, but too bad.) No better film chronicle of Americana exists that I’ve seen. All the required elements are present and correct: country music, NASCAR racing, and most of all, the sorts of interpersonal relationships that could only happen like this in America. Husbands and wives in difficulty, for various reasons (extramarital affairs, career overtaking love etc.); groups of friends in disarray; outsiders regarding the environment with fascination and ignorance, whilst being regarded with (much of the time) utter disdain. I say again, not for a second does any of it seem contrived, not even the famous climax that we know is coming but we still don’t believe will really happen.

If for no other reason, it’s all real because it’s unusually unromanticised. I expected Nashville to be a celebration of the American Dream, and in a way it is, but it is deeply critical of it; from the start it has characters singing about peace, love and understanding, then as soon as the song ends they settle back into their bitter, disagreeable, and troubled persona. Dreams don’t crumble in this film so much as they are denied outright. Everybody wants for more – that great reconciliation, that deserved recognition, that wider success – but it’s always out of reach. Some realise this and some don’t, and it is heartbreaking to watch those in both camps as they either deal with a crushing realisation, or continue to delude themselves.

I make it sound like there’s no hope in this story, but there is, and it’s summed up by the fact that the one character who really takes advantage of her big break only gets it through the extreme misfortune of another. That’s to say, outright hope doesn’t necessarily exist: through narrow-mindedness we ignore the flip side of the coin, but it is there, and it might make itself known at the least opportune time. Still, Altman sees the humanity in everyone, and they all come across as sympathetic characters in one way or another. We aren’t perfect! Nobody is! But a lot of us, deep down, have the right things at heart. A simple old message, but rarely better illustrated than it is here.

I really liked the way much of this film was shot in medium to long shot – it was another good way of making everyone seem on equal footing. The music is great, too, particularly Haven Hamilton’s opener ‘200 Years’. The acting is excellent across the board, and it would be pointless to pick a standout because there are literally dozens of good performances here. The only slightly troublesome element was that there were so many plot strands that it did get a little bit confusing sometimes… but hey, that’s what second viewings are for.

P. T. Anderson, the pretender to Altman’s throne, got Henry Gibson (Haven Hamilton in this film) to play a small role in Magnolia, and that surely is his way of recognising his roots. I imagine there are hundreds of young filmmakers in America and around the world who would cite Altman as an influence. This is another legendary director who has never won an Oscar, and as such he will receive a ‘We Fucked Up‘ one this year. He’s a pioneer, an innovator, a true cinema artist, and those unfamiliar with his work should certainly start with Nashville.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) (E)

IMDB / Ebert / Schulte
Directed by Werner Herzog

Here I am trying to write about a Herzog film again, despite the knowledge that the written word cannot do his films justice. I’ll take something of a different approach. The story: Dieter Dengler migrated to the United States from Germany, 18 and penniless, hoping for the chance to fulfil his dream of flying. He ended up going to Vietnam and getting shot down on one of his earliest missions; he then suffered torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and bore witness to some truly horrific incidents. He eventually escaped and, after several days hallucinating in the jungle, was rescued by an American pilot.

It’s an extraordinary tale, and as always in a Herzog film, it works on both levels: while we never lose sight of the man’s story and his incredible feat, wider truths are revealed about humans, nature and the universe. Much of the film is simply Dengler telling his story in (roughly) the locations where it happened, and as such is totally mesmerizing – in my opinion even more than if it was re-enacted in full. I love cinema more than anything else, but it has nothing on imagination, and Herzog exploits that exceptionally well, yet he does it in a way that is wonderfully cinematic and beautiful: there are re-enactments of a sort, but they are explicitly ‘just for the movie’ and only involve Dengler being put in similar positions to what he was back then.

There’s one particular scene, akin to the bear attack audio scene in Grizzly Man, where we follow Dengler (with his hands bound) and a collection of Vietnamese running through the jungle. Dengler’s voiceover tells us that if we could see his face, we’d see that he was uncomfortable with the memories the experience was bringing back. But we can’t see his face, so we have to just believe it; fortunately, trust is something you are happy to offer to Werner Herzog, so it isn’t a problem. Scenes like this really does break through being merely a film, they touch the most deeply inherent feelings we have within us. I find it impossible to explain, just as I thought I would, but maybe if you see the film you’ll understand me a little bit.

As always, there are moments of rare beauty, the likes of which can only be found in a Herzog film. One is where they are walking through the forest, and the sunlight streams through the trees above in discrete rays. Another is the final shot, from a helicopter, of Dieter surrounded by hundreds of planes at a massive airfield. My favourite, though, was just after Dieter told the story of the North Vietnamese getting his finger chopped off, he put his arm around the Vietnamese gentleman standing next to him and said gently “Don’t worry, it’s just for a movie.” As he says this, the man looks down and then up at Herzog behind the camera, and half smiles. Herzog’s camera lingers, closing in on the man, then moves past him to another man cooking rice in another part of the hut. It is just fucking beautiful. It filled my heart with warmth, sent several shivers down my spine, and left me totally speechless. There is so much in that one shot, so much ‘ecstatic truth’ as Herzog calls it – I’d go as far as to say it’s one of my favourite moments in movies.

As I suspected, I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about rather a little. Doesn’t matter. If it makes you see it, I’m glad. Herzog is currently making it into a feature film with Christian Bale as Dengler, and while I have no doubt that it will be an excellent film, I question why it is necessary – how could it be any better than (or add something more to) Little Dieter Needs to Fly? Because it is Herzog, I’m more excited than apprehensive about finding out. Oh, and the last paragraph of Ebert’s review is infinitely better than anything I wrote here – it’s truly illuminating.