Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This is For Your Eyes

In his essay “The Immortal Tramp” that accompanies the new Blu-ray and DVD release of City Lights by Criterion, Gary Giddins describes the unusual and ambitious nature of Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1931 film:

Chaplin’s new art was a form of storytelling combining burlesque comedy and dreadful pathos, each tuned to a pitch so high that the audience is jolted from one physical response to another: laughter and tears, the two faces of Comedy and not Tragedy but rather the melodramatic concession of Pathos, looking straight at each other. Familiar territory today, but it smacked of radical egotism then. No one had brought it off before, and Chaplin – the orphaned music hall clown who became, through movies, the most popular comedian the world had ever known – defied his partners’ warning that his ambition would cost him his audience.

And now look at us. Comedy as a means to achieving pathos, or at least as something that is inextricably bound up in it, almost defines the form over the last half century. There are certainly exceptions, and in fact currently there is a strong tide of absurdity in comedy that may be the result of a conscious choice by some comics to pull ridiculousness, the good kind, the Monty Python kind, away from those who abuse the relationship between comedy and pathos, of which there are a great many. But without Chaplin, and without City Lights, would Albert Brooks have ever thought to include in his masterpiece Modern Romance the short scene of the old man in the phone booth desperately trying, and failing, to save or rekindle a romance that ended badly? It’s a sad moment that illuminates what’s driving Brooks’s character more sharply and succinctly than any of the (truly great) comedy. Woody Allen, meanwhile, for about the first third of his career seemed intent on illustrating the history of American film comedy up to that point, beginning with complete absurdity in films like Take the Money and Run and Love and Death before moving on to (my deep love for comedic absurdity forbids me from saying something like “graduating to”) the more emotional films like Annie Hall and Manhattan that caused everyone to decide that he must be a major filmmaker. Allen has always cited Bob Hope as a primary influence on his comedy, and the shape and cadence of his jokes bear this out, but Allen has nevertheless worked hard to put the most Hope-like of his films behind him. Never the greatest fan of his own work, Allen would undoubtedly be appalled by the suggestion that his early films were even a patch on Hope’s best, but Allen is fundamentally a comedic filmmaker and much of his aesthetic owes more to Chaplin and City Lights than to The Road to Utopia (or Bergman, for that matter, though, like Hope, Bergman is still there).

So how did Chaplin do it? The key to the success of City Lights, even more important than Chaplin’s exquisite craftsmanship, is his performance. Watching the film again last night, Chaplin struck me as perhaps the supreme silent film actor, the man who understood how to exploit the limitations, or “limitations,” of the form better than anybody else, which obviously has something to do with why he was still making silent films in 1931. When bad comedians want to spoof silent movies, they tend to triple-down on the burlesque Giddins describes and force contemporary actors to mug in a way you’d rarely actually see, and which, in any case, you’d never see from Chaplin, a frequent target of bad spoofs. Chaplin is immune to this, though, because he knew exactly how to calibrate his performances, and in City Lights you see an actor who knows how to play to the rafters just enough to either sell the joke, or, in his tender scenes with Virginia Cherrell as the sweet blind girl who believes Chaplin’s penniless tramp to be her wealthy savior, to overcome the restrictions of silent films – which Chaplin evidently didn’t consider restrictions even after technological progress had removed them – through expression that is not, in my view, heightened much beyond what you might see in a good sound production of the same story. By which I mean, the idea behind silent film acting, as with live theater acting, is to go big so that, in the theater, the back seats can pick up what you’re doing, and in silent films the audience can understand what words would normally, but can’t or in the case of City Lights, won’t, convey (and incidentally, City Lights doesn’t have a lot of intertitles; it has enough, I suppose, and you probably shouldn’t listen to me since I’m no expert on this cinematic era, and in this regard it’s certainly no Warning Shadows, but still). But as an actor Chaplin seems to operate on the theory that if you just act the emotion as directly as possible, audiences can’t help but understand. Look at the tramp’s first encounter with the blind girl, and the way Chaplin plays the moment he picks up on her disability – there’s nothing showy about the moment, there’s no close-up; it’s all performance and, crucially, context. Chaplin was very good at, and very smart about, letting his story do a good bit of the acting for him.

I wonder, too, if City Lights would be as funny as it is without the pathos, and watching it again after many years I laughed a whole lot. Again, this is a question of context, and maybe it’s a matter of the kinds of laughs Chaplin is getting rather than whether or not he’d be getting them at all. The film’s biggest laugh for me comes at the very beginning, as the tramp struggles to stand at attention for the National Anthem while off-balance due to his pants being skewered by a statue (long story), all of this being before there’s any context at all. And I’m going to get off track here, but this is – and maybe not only this, but this kind of thing -- is the apex of physical comedy, for lots of reasons but mainly, I think, because Chaplin knows when to call it quits. If you read about comedy, or listen to comedians talk about it, especially today when one can go and pay money and ostensibly be taught how to be funny, you’ll hear a lot about escalation being a vital element to the form, and so now as a result (of that and probably a host of other things it would be too complicated to go into here) when a comedian deigns to do slapstick they typically get their laughs by never pulling back and pushing forward until every possible laugh has trailed off. Chaplin, though, knows when to stop, and knows it’s funnier to simply let it be. The scene I just described, or the slapstick within the scene, probably doesn’t even last a minute, and what’s funny is the performance, the seriousness of the tramp, rather than seeing how far he’ll go. Later, the tramp, drunk, walks across a dance floor and slips, to put it simply. It’s a terrific and hilarious pratfall that Chaplin does precisely one time, and while it’s exaggerated, this being a pratfall and everything, Chaplin also uses speed-ramping to make it go by quicker. Which, okay, that’s not why he used speed-ramping, but one of the results is, he gets his laugh and moves on – he doesn’t belabor anything. The only comedic sequence that goes on for a considerable length of time is the boxing match, but that’s a piece of elaborate choreography that wouldn’t work as well if he moved through it too fast. I could probably argue that it’s still too long, but I don’t want to because I don’t especially care. And see, too, the early bit with the street elevator. That scene not only doesn’t escalate – it’s funny precisely because it never escalates. It overturns not only this supposed rule of comedy, but it overturns while simultaneously using Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, that being the audience knowing something the character doesn’t. Chaplin does exactly this, but unlike Hitchcock never pays it off. And he makes this, somehow, funny.

So anyway, context, and pathos. There’s something about the gentleness that is at the heart of City Lights that makes everything funnier, not just the slapstick but the tramp’s occasional, and useless, attempts at being stern with others. This is no doubt at least in part a retroactive effect brought about by the film’s famous last shot of the tramp’s anxious but gleefully hopeful face, all the film’s emotion gathered up and concentrated into that one image. I was about to say that the upshot of all this is that it makes it possible to not think we’ve been laughing at the tramp, but of course that’s nonsense – we certainly haven’t been laughing with him, and anyway, that’s what comedy is: laughing at people. And of course the blind girl, her sight having been restored by the time the final scene rolls around, is shown laughing at the tramp before she realizes who he is. So she’s like us – it’s not that she’s “no better” than us, she’s just like us, and Chaplin isn’t asking “Why were you laughing at this man?” or judging us for doing so. He’s simply saying, and this is the pathos of his comedy, “Laugh all you want, because it’s funny. It’s just that it’s not only funny.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Damn the Man That's Standin' in His Way

Tomorrow, Kino Lorber is releasing to Blu-ray and DVD a film called Shoot the Sun Down, a Western from 1978 co-written (with Richard Rothstein) and directed by David Leeds. This is the only film Leeds ever made, and upon learning this I automatically assumed that something terrible had happened to him, but thankfully that's not the case. Why he left the film business I don't know, but now he's a sculptor, painter, and poet -- he's doing just fine! Don't worry! I would still very much like to know why he left films behind, though, and I'd like to know the story behind the making of Shoot the Sun Down, because I'm sure there must be one. All the Blu-ray offers is an alternate title sequence that features an original song written and performed by Kinky Friedman. What else was going on, I haven't a clue.

By this I don't mean to imply that I think Shoot the Sun Down is a bad movie. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. It's a modest version of the sort of ambitious bleak Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven's Gate that we all remember with great fondness/outrage from the 70s and just barely into the 80s. David Leeds, on the basis of this one film, strikes me as more Monte Hellman than Michael Cimino, an entirely wonderful thing to be. This film, Shoot the Sun Down, is about a quiet gunfighter, but not one looking for trouble, named Rainbow(!) played by Christopher Walken who wanders into a situation that hitches him against his will to a group of characters who are mostly no good. Most of the characters outside of Rainbow don't have names, but filling out the core group is The Captain (Bo Brundin) who is seeking gold and a British woman who was sold to him as basically a maid, or, in this particular case, "slave" (Margot Kidder), and lastly another man seeking gold, and Indian scalps, played by Geoffrey Lewis. Over the course of the film, the characters played by Brundin and Lewis will form an uneasy alliance to find Montezuma's Gold, and the woman and Rainbow will form a bond, partly romantic but primarily based on her desire to be free of the Captain and Rainbow's desire to free her.

There is some element of politics in Shoot the Sun Down, of a "this nation was built on blood" variety, though I believe Kino's description of it plays that up a bit too much. More than anything, the film is a standard, and solid, dark drama of violence, most of it, the worst of it, pending, and inevitable. If these four characters are fated to meet up, that most or all of them will die is inevitable. The performances are all very good -- Walken doesn't have to do much but sit back and calculate and softly call the two villains on their shit, which he's of course very good at. Brundin and Lewis play flipsides of villainy, Brundin being somewhat in denial about what he is, Lewis fully conscious and pleased about his own awfulness. Though it's not a scenery-chewing performance, Lewis, a good actor who I've rarely seen in a role this major, actually strikes me here as a little bit of an Elmore Leonard bad guy -- smarter than most people, yet grimy, aware of how smart Rainbow is but maybe thinking that knowledge is enough to win, this comfort being his weakness. Brundin, meanwhile, since I'm thinking of this, is very much like one of Leonard's subvillains -- arrogant, announcing himself morally justified but not able to convince anybody including himself, not worldly, only avaricious. And so on. This is the sort of thing that makes the film work. Helping things along, even if she is only playing "the woman," is Margot Kidder, not an actress I would have thought capable of pulling off a convincing British accent, but she does. Oh, she lets "New Orleans" trip her up, but otherwise quite solid, as is her work overall -- the character is an archetype, maybe, the flinty-yet-vulnerable woman of the frontier, but Kidder's performance doesn't stick a flag in the ground and make a big show about Women in the West; she's just the person, and it's easy to root for her freedom.

Now. But. So. Shoot the Sun Down is a curious film, though, because in the midst of all that's good about is a lot that seems wrong, like something happened during shooting or post-production or something. Time and again, scenes suddenly end, either with a sharp cut or even with a fade-out, long before it seems all the information the scene might have to offer has been given. This isn't to suggest the film is confusing, but there's a rhythm to scenes in your standard narrative film that David Leeds is either flouting without any sense of why he's doing it or how to do it, or something was forced on him. It's not that scenes end right after a character says "And another thing!"; it's more that they end just before a character says "And another thing!" Awkward, too, is the violence, which is a mix between the old Hollywood style of "get shot, grab your chest, sink to the ground" and the blunter, more visceral kind ushered in by films like The Wild Bunch. But since Shoot the Sun Down is rated PG, the visceral stuff in the film is harsh only up to a point, and the death of one character, as Leeds appears to have looked for a way around blatant gore and into a zone of implied horror, is particularly absurd.

This same half-reticence regarding violence pays off on one very important occasion, or two closely related occasions, which I won't spoil, but it works because gallons of blood isn't necessary to get across the trauma. Even this is weirdly edited, and it's not until minutes after this violence occurs that we even know what happened. It all works out in the end, though, and Shoot the Sun Down ends on an up-note, in terms of quality. It's fitting for the whole film, too, since from the beginning David Leeds' only film is about 90 minutes of strong writing and acting held back by genuinely baffling editing. It alternates throughout, and, as a matter of fact, the very beginning is one of the film's lamest scenes. It's only right and fair that it should end strong.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In the Tomb of That Darkened Room, We Both Sat Down to Play

Today Kino Lorber is releasing two films to DVD, one of which is of major importance to myself and the other one of the major independent releases of the year. If you don't mind, I would like to offer an opinion on each.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (d. Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein) - This is the one that is of great importance to myself -- I will try not to bore you explaining why that is. "I really like magic and I really like Ricky Jay" will probably suffice, though I should note that at this point in my life I still have not had the pleasure of seeing Jay live. I've been stuck with as many TV appearances and YouTube clips as I can scrounge up, a sporadic reading of his books, such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women and Jay's Journal of Anomalies, and his work as an actor, which I've enjoyed but which isn't really the same thing, in films such as Boogie Nights, House of Games, and the like. In those films, Jay is working as an actor, but not in his natural role as a performer. To see a performance from him that better represents why Ricky Jay is a suitable subject for a documentary, and one that is also, one might argue, a more genuine piece of acting than anything he's done for Paul Thomas Anderson or David Mamet (his most frequent filmmaking collaborators), check out the clip below:

That's taken from an old BBC special about Jay called Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pransters, Jokers, and Ricky Jay, an irritatingly cumbersome title that is nevertheless excused due to the inclusion under its umbrella of the above magnificence. That special also allowed Ricky Jay to cross paths with a reporter for The Guardian named Suzie McKenzie. McKenzie appears in this new documentary Deceptive Practice and tells a key story about trying to smooth Jay's feathers -- he can be prickly, as is the case with most geniuses -- after a heated disagreement with the BBC director over a trick they wanted him to perform. It's a trick devised by Max Malini, and which Jay himself describes in the film. It involves spontaneity and a block of ice, is all I'll say about it, and Jay did it for McKenzie. The way McKenzie recounts this incident in her life, when Ricky Jay performed this mind-boggling trick just for her many, many years ago, makes it abundantly clear that this was something of a life-altering experience for her, something she still hasn't quite gotten over, or, to put a more positive spin on it as it's obvious she's grateful it happened, hasn't yet chosen to let go of. It was wonderful precisely because she can't understand it.

Deceptive Practice is a wonderful film, and the McKenzie story is one of its strongest bits. While directors Alan Edelstein and Molly Bernstein have made a film about Ricky Jay, and you do learn a good amount about his life and career, he is crucially left mysterious, not least because his art depends on an audiences inability to understand it. I think it's a safe generalization to say that most true fans of magic, unless they're interested in developing their own skills in the field, don't actually want to know how the best tricks are done -- they'll wonder about it, and puzzle about it, but I know that I don't want to be told. And to ask? In the film, David Mamet, an old friend of Jay's who has directed him not only on film but has directed several of his stage shows, talks about asking Jay how a particular trick was done. Jay said, I'll tell you, if you agree to go home and practice and practice and practice until you can do the trick as well as anybody has ever done it, then I'll tell you another one. Mamet says that at that moment he realized that to ask the question as he'd done was "a desecration." The mystery of Jay, and others like him (such as his assistant, Michael Weber, who is shown late in the film performing some pretty jaw-dropping tricks himself) comes through in the film when we learn about his devotion, and state of mind while simply handling a deck of cards. He says nothing makes him happier than simply shuffling cards, which he can do for hours when he needs to think about something, and it's easy to believe him, and to imagine him sitting in a chair, shuffling cards, possibly forever. 

I read one review of Deceptive Practice that complained that it should have been more directly about Jay. It's a curious think to moan about, not only because I walked away from the film knowing a lot more about the man than I did before, but because the focus of it is far more rich. It's there in the subtitle: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. So we learn about Max Malini and Dai Vernon, Al Flosso, Charlie Miller, and a host of other magicians of the sort that simply no longer exist, and we are poorer for it. Without Ricky Jay, and without Deceptive Practice, they might be gone, as in gone gone. The film is a biography and a history, and I'm biased but I love it.
Computer Chess (d. Andrew Bujalski) - Now this one, on the other hand... Okay, look. Mumblecore's this thing we all have to put up with now. I'd say "for the time being," with my characteristically optimistic lilt, but when something like Computer Chess is embraced not just on comedic grounds -- it is essentially a comedy, and sometimes a funny one -- but on aesthetic ones, I have to wonder if the boot of intentionally (I'm making a charitable assumption here) cheap and clumsy affectation will ever be removed from our necks. I'll admit that since I'm not obligated to see everything, I am therefore not obligated to see things that don't interest me, which includes (I'm tempted to say "almost exclusively") the films that constitute the mumblecore base, such as most of Joe Swanberg's stuff (I've seen Uncle Kent and some of his short horror films), the early Duplass brothers movies, Aaron Katz movies that aren't Cold Weather (I saw that one, and I liked it), and so on. So who am I to say, etc. But almost every time I get pulled towards a movie that is either a part of mumblecore or -- are we already at this point? -- "post-mumblecore," a movie like, say, The Color Wheel or The Comedy, or now Computer Chess, I'm repelled by the smugness or a defiant lack of craft. This doesn't apply across the board, necessarily, but the overriding philosophy seems to be "This looks like shit, let's roll camera."

And few look more like shit than Computer Chess, but of course it's not simply enough to say "This looks like shit." It looks like shit because why? It's not a matter of giving Bujalski the benefit of the doubt that he intended the film to look like the interior scenes of the earliest episodes of Doctor Who. He shot it, and not, I don't think, by accident, with a Sony AVC 3260, which I'm told first came out in 1968 (so just a little bit after Doctor Who -- point taken, Andrew Bujalski). The film is set in 1980, and the action revolves around a group of computer programmers and software engineers who have gathered together for a tournament pitting their various chess-playing computers against each other, and ultimately against a human chess master in attendance. An early panel discussion scene would seem to justify the film's aesthetic, as this scene, which introduces the main characters -- such as Wiley Wiggins as Martin Beuscher and Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton, whose malfunctioning chess computer is central to the whole movie -- looks pretty much exactly like you'd imagine such a panel discussion held in a hotel conference room in 1980 would look, using the extant technology to film it and show to classes later and what have you. But I personally see no benefit in applying that same aesthetic, or conscious lack of aesthetic, to the rest of the film. Bujalski's imagination is such that it only seems like a good idea to him to change things up in a late scene when a couple of characters are high. 

So it's visually off-putting but this isn't even my biggest gripe. The two films Computer Chess most reminds me of are Randy Moore's recent disastorously underthought Escape From Tomorrow, a film whose creative thrust seems to be to go crazy because when anything can happen how great is that?, and an odd 1996 film by director D. W. Harper and writer/actor Stephen Grant called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I last saw that movie a long time ago, and my memory is sketchy, but it's a film set in Austin, TX (and Wiley Wiggins is an Austin, TX-based actor; it's all coming together before my eyes), though shot in North Carolina, that attempts to combine Walt Whitman, Charles Whitman's murder spree, theater groups, college life, something about astronauts I think, and things of this nature. The "Walt Whitman/Charles Whitman!!!" concept is about what you'd expect from a film made by college kids, but I remember liking the nutty ambition of The Delicate Art of the Rifle at the time. Computer Chess, which eventually ropes in references, as opposed to ideas, to artificial intelligence, the singularity, and the insidious shadow of the military over everything (I initially thought this last bit was a joke, a bit of satire similar to later stuff in the film about New Age free-love-type hippies, but now I think, no, this is in fact Computer Chess's Big Idea), pretends to have an ambition similar to The Delicate Art of the Rifle, but can never commit to anything. When things get weird, and they eventually get very weird, the motivation is simply to be weird just for the shit of it. "Art for art's sake," you might say, and which I'm all for, but I'd rather there be something like Nabokov's "aesthetic bliss" involved, as opposed to an underimagined scramble to justify an expansion of the ridiculous self-imposed visual restrictions by the drug use of a couple of tedious minor characters. So back to that part again, which I clearly didn't like. But what more is there to hold on to? A shockingly large number of the jokes are based on how older things look old to us now. The jokes about hippies -- again, something I'm all for -- are all, essentially, "Can you believe these hippies?" And computer nerds? Oftentimes, they have trouble with ladies. The funniest character in the film is the chess master, played by non-actor Gerald Perry. Perry is very good, and there's some attempt in the writing of his character to give his language anedge. Not "edge" as in, like, cuss words, but "edge" as in a quirk or bent to the words that make them funny. Nobody else really has that to work with (though Chris Doubek, as one of the hippies, does make the most of his line "Oh wow! Whoa!", and I'm actually being serious).

So anyway. I didn't like it. There's an ambition to this sort of thing that strikes me as curiously ambitionless.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

When the Axe Comes Through the Door

Andrew O'Hehir's review of The Counselor appears, as depressing as this is to say, to be the big one. But when you, or someone else on the staff tasked with this job but who is pulling directly from your review, slaps on a title like "Meet the Worst Movie Ever Made," you're going to enjoy a fair amount of traffic. Is it possible that O'Hehir could have possibly anticipated such a thing beforehand? Could that, now wait I'm just thinking this out here, have possibly motivated him to write such absurdities as those that litter his review, a review that, given the content of it, might have more accurately been titled "I'm Going To Use The Phrase 'The Devil's Candy' Something Like Six Times'?" Since O'Hehir happily -- gleefully, even -- imagines all sorts of cynical self-satisfaction blackening the hearts of The Counselor's principal creative forces -- director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, for example -- I'm going to go ahead and say "He absolutely fucking did." It's a terrible, infuriating review, badly written and devoid of an argument about what the film is, and constantly falling back on boilerplate critic-speak so that he might better fail to describe what his objections are. Here's a key passage, or as "key" as it's ever going to get, from the review:

[T]he narrative of the film is almost entirely discursive, and largely consists of the Counselor sitting around with his obviously crooked associates —Pitt in a dingy white suit, stringy hair and a black eye; Bardem in hilariously ugly designer duds, accessorized with girly cocktails — having stilted, stylized conversations about women and money and snuff films and the meaning of life that don’t go anywhere. It’s like a mumblecore movie about a bunch of Sarah Lawrence philosophy majors, made by coked-up rich people for 100 bajillion dollars.

Well, hold the phone, if I'd known the dialogue was going to be stylized I daresay I would never have bothered! O'Hehir also calls the dialogue "stilted," which is at least a pejorative, but as with anybody who has ever used that word in a review, he believes that since "stilted" has a definition his work is now done, and providing examples and arguing his case would therefore be redundant: I said it was bad, which is my evidence that it is bad. As it happens, I rather liked McCarthy's dialogue, and tend to favor his writing in general, and furthermore thought The Counselor in general was pretty fantastic, about which more later. But right at the moment my head is full of this nonsense that I have to use as my launching point.

Except, no, I should reel this in. I would hate to be discursive, which The Counselor isn't, and which anyway, once again, isn't a pejorative unless you then go ahead and describe in what way the film under discussion falters as a result of this discursiveness, which O'Hehir doesn't do. And so, the plot! Michael Fassbender plays the titular character (we're never told his name) a very successful defense attorney who is deeply in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz), a sweet and beautiful woman with whom the counselor is about to forge what would appear to be a perfect life. However, we learn that the counselor is rather lackadaisically attempting to enter into the world of drug trafficking. He's being helped along in this endeavor by one of his clients, a flamboyant nightclub owner named Rainer (Javier Bardem) who is not entirely unfamiliar with the world of the Mexican drug cartels. Because of this familiarity, Rainer never stops warning the counselor about what kind of men are being dealt with, the kind of men being dealt with kind of being the core of the entire film. Why, precisely, the counselor thinks it's a wise move, or an okay thing to do, to go into business with a drug cartel, even at some remove, is never explained (this kind of withholding also bothers O'Hehir); all we know is that at one point he says that his back is against the wall, and we also know that he's arrogant enough to think he can handle it. "You can't," is what Rainer tells him, and "You absolutely can't" is what Westray (Brad Pitt), another link in the chain of clients and shady associates the counselor uses for his drug deal, says. But he does, and because he's naive, and because he's arrogant, he doesn't realize that someone, Rainer's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz, who is not very good, I'll go ahead and agree with O'Hehir about that) is working against him -- or not him, specifically, but certainly against his best interests -- and leaving him vulnerable to an angry cartel.

And an angry cartel is unlike anything else. This, you see, is the "point," if I must be forced to use that word. Westray's short speech about snuff films is not in the least "discursive", and it certainly goes somewhere -- where it goes could not be plainer. It functions, first, to illustrate what the cartels are capable of, how their violence is so very different from most people would imagine it to be. Horrible violence to most people is shooting someone in the head. Violence to the cartels is a snuff film, or a bag full of severed heads, or death by bolito, a weapon described in the film that I will leave to you to learn about. I'm paraphrasing here, but Westray follows up his bit about snuff films by saying something like "If you ever thought there is something these people are not capable of, there isn't." So that's where it goes, first, and then? Well, it provides information that pays off very clearly later on. If O'Hehir can't be bothered to pay attention to the film unspooling in front him, then why should I pay attention to him when he writes things like "This having Alice Waters and Mario Batali labor in the kitchen for a while and then serve you a gray-green burger on Wonder Bread, with what looks like somebody’s pubic hair stuck to it" and believe it to be anything other than a child's idea of wit? He's not just wrong, he can't even be funny about it. This is unforgivable.

But I'm being discursive again. Elsewhere, I've seen Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote the script for The Counselor, pilloried for having gone off the deep end with this one. "Cormac McCarthy," goes the cry, "You are so great! Why have you written something so verbose and crazy and violent!? Your very first novel ever, The Road, wasn't like that! WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU!?" I might be paraphrasing again, but the idea many are expressing that The Counselor is somehow unlike the McCarthy works we all, as a people, have enjoyed in the past, appears to have dug its claws in to the point that the response by others has been "Yeah, what's the deal with that, Cormac McCarthy?" And I'm reminded of one thing, as I always am when the subject turns to questions of Cormac McCarthy's writing style, and what I'm reminded of is this:

It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo’s clamor.

That's Cormac McCarthy describing the cry of a baby in his novel Outer Dark, which, now that you mention it, why didn't The Counselor have any palsied jawhasps or witless paracletes?? The gist being, The Counselor is pure McCarthy, or, rather, no -- in terms of the films preoccupations and use of violence, and the types of violence used, its Biblical morality, and almost pathological unwillingness to offer the viewer a shred of hope, in all these ways, yes, it's pure Cormac McCarthy. However, the language used -- the English language, not cinematic language -- is more like the comparatively straightforward No Country for Old Men, a novel and film with which The Counselor shares more than a few similarities. But the speeches in this new film should not be sticking in so many craws. They're quite excellent, in my view, and if they aim for profundity, whether or not they reach it doesn't mean they don't achieve poetry. Pitt has some terrific ones as Westray, but his are mostly fairly plainspoken. Ruben Blades, on the other hand, has something of a showstopper of a speech late in the film, his character being perhaps the last person to gently but in no uncertain terms explain to the counselor what a fool he's been. In the speech, he says, among much else, that the counselor wants to return to where he was, but "life won't accept you back." I fear this is not exact, and I would very much like it to be, but it's at least close. And, as a way to express the damage done not only spiritually but in practical and hellishly moral ways, when a certain moral line is crossed, it's clear and precise in its language; you cannot be the Prodigal Son, it says, because you've gone too far. What will happen has, for all intents and purposes, already happened.

Hey, but quit being so discursive! And don't cost any money at all to make, either. O'Hehir -- who spends at least a third of his review describing how he thinks The Counselor will one day be regarded (hint: it will be regarded as something that rhymes with "pevil's bandy," and it rhymes with "pevil's bandy" five time) -- gets pretty hung up on the fact that The Counselor was made by a Hollywood studio and therefore had some money behind it. In the bit from his review quoted above, O'Hehir says "100 bajillion dollars" but you guys don't think he could have literally meant that, do you?? Wait, I just checked -- the film cost $25 million, so pretty modest as these things go nowadays. But for fuck's sake, O'Hehir might as well have screamed, if you're going to make a film whose budget ends in "-illion," at least have the decency to not have so much talking in it. And yes, I wish O'Hehir had come clean and just fucking said that, since it's plain as day that's what he was thinking. If you're bored and confused -- that he was confused has been proved -- then just say so. Don't mask it with some vague economics-based self righteousness.

I think The Counselor is a terrific film, which I hope I've made clear. Fassbender is wonderful, even if his accent is sketchy -- watch him coming apart in a late face-to-face conversation with Pitt. His posture, his eyes, his voice, express the feeling that the counselor's life has now changed into something unimaginable. Cruz is heartbreaking, effortlessly sweet -- her face when she sees her engagement ring is about as on the money as I've ever seen that oft-dramatized scenario played -- and Bardem plays the flamboyance of a somewhat unlikable person as something that could easily exist and function on this earth. In fact, Bardem saves one of the film's missteps, which is the already-infamous "car-fucking" scene. The mistake there, in my view, was to go to the flashback at all, unless Ridley Scott was going to shoot it so that it, if such a thing is even possible, looked like it belonged with the rest of the film. He didn't, and it doesn't, but that scene exists prior to the film's main action, and the story is being told by Bardem's Rainer to the counselor, and as Bardem plays it (and as McCarthy writes it), Rainer is still utterly thunderstruck by what he witnessed, even disturbed in a way he can't really define. What comes through most is Rainer's confusion. But even this, for all its absurdity, much of it ill-advised, isn't "discursive" or "beside the point"; it may not work, but it leads to a realization. It's not the product of McCarthy or Scott saying "Hey everybody, let's put this stupid goofball shit in our 100 bajillion dollar movie!" Then everybody else goes "Hooray!"

I must be blunt about this: if you're going to trash a film in the way O'Hehir did, you must understand what you're trashing and you must then make your case. It's simply not enough to say that Cormac McCarthy's script is "labored," as O'Hehir does, because what in the world does that mean? It can mean something specific if you put it in your review, but if you don't then I guess you'd better say the film you're trashing might be the worst film ever made, because at least in that case you might go viral.

Friday, November 1, 2013