Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: A DANGEROUS METHOD: "Jung and easily froidened."

A young woman is taken kicking, screaming and laughing demoniacally into an ornate old building. It's 1906. She's not possessed. She's hysterical, according to the newborn science of psychoanalysis. A little later, twitching in a chair in a sunlit room she receives a visitor. He's young and pleasant mannered. "I'm Dr Jung," he says. "I thought we might just talk today."

So begins a triangle first professional intrigue and then ethics-breaching sexual compulsion as Jung nuts it out with the paternal Freud and Sabine the hopeful future doctor and mix it up like it's Saturday night. Jung becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the Moses of Vienna and wants to explore the imperceptible. Moses supposes neuroses are gnoses and knowses that the nascent science's already fragile hold on acceptance will only be weakened by such apparent charlatanry. The big splitteroo looms and happens. Psychoanalysis grows branches.

This is a film of threads rather than acts and while supported by sumptuous visuals is really all talk. Well, mostly talk. The mainstream sheen of this and the more recent Cronenberg films belies the treasures beyond the surface; it's subtle rather than bland.

Much of this must be conveyed by performances and we have a wealth of them. The progressively impressive Michael Fassbender brings the light to the eyes of Dr Jung that glows beneath the calm exterior of  his training as a respectable Swiss bourgeois. Viggo Mortensen, unrecognisable to the eye and ear, is Dr Freud of the LAW who feels the vulnerability of his age against the younger man's recklessness. Kiera Knightley lights up every scene she's in with the black flame of danger as her personal power increases.

She is also the deliverer of the sole typical Cronenberg moment in the film in the early scenes of Sabine's therapy. Whenever a memory approaches the pain threshold and she can't speak it her lower jaw shoots out transporting her from delicate beauty to eel-like ugliness. It's an extraordinary transformation achieved with no more than facial muscle but it expresses a kind of intimidating self-disgust and panic impossible to render in dialogue.

Two other performances I'll mention as a pair for they serve to illustrate the contrary forces tearing at Jung. Sarah Gadon (an ice and gold beauty so pale she's almost transparent) provides a Frau Jung whose external fragility belies the knowledge of her husband's wilfulness. Vincent Cassell is both unsettling and funny as the nihilistic libertine who says an effortless yes to every temptation. Anima and animus? Sure but also the rising western woman and man of the coming century.

So this is a good review, isn't it? Well, not entirely. Having established itself comfortably as a talky movie A Dangerous Method makes no scruple of talking well beyond its initial interest. The first of its one and a half hours transcends the natter fest by keeping everything we are witnessing intriguing. There's even a scene with a home made polygraph which looks so much like a Rube Goldberg contraption that I kept looking for a plastic mouse to fall into a bucket that dropped on to a scale that lifted a switch that ....  My problem is that, having established its points it just keeps them centre frame and replays them.

And then it ends. And then we get something I always wince at in films like this, a series of title cards revealing what happened to each character afterwards.

So, is this a good film? If the director's name were taken off the credits I wouldn't pick it but I'd think it was several notches above the average Hollywood biopic. We're asked to examine rather than be shocked at the sadomasochistic scenes. The performances are restrained rather than flat. There is a soggy lawn where most of the third act would be but there are indications that the creative team behind this movie wanted to do much more than play out the lives of historical figures. Still with the muddle of themes on screen father/son, science/esoterica, sex as both procreation and compulsion, etc etc, it's hard to discern the point.

There is no danger of this in the director's earlier work which was so steady and signature that his surname became an adjective for cinema of challenging ideas, mostly about human potential. Even when your old tv started going off and switching to noisy white static you could talk about a Cronenbergian experience you had the other day. These films endure because the ideas they contain have become surprisingly persistent over decades to the extent that they transcend any of the very early lapses in production standards or acting proficiency or anything deemed sneerworthy as low budget.

But since M. Butterfly, a blind spot in the career for even ardent fans, Cronenberg is perceived to have softened, lost flavour, joined the bottle of white you've had in the fridge for a week in going all watery. While Spider or Crash are roundly celebrated as real points of progress in Cronenberg's development towards subtlety, other films like Butterfly, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises almost universally disappoint. A Dangerous Method disappointed me but should it have? Should I really have been surprised by what I initially saw as a wasted opportunity of a powerfully visionary filmmaker to tackle psychoanalysis with his singular conceptual courage?

Let's look at a little context. I described the Cronenberg moment in this film a few pars up. It's extraordinary and  very few other directors would have allowed it through. Lynch, yes, but he wouldn't have allowed it the depth it gets to here. It's not just a weird moment with a facial contortion, it forces us to think about the character's past.

Wind back to the 70s film that no one wants to admit is Cronenberg's, Fast Company. It's a standard drive-in movie about formula one racers and their battle against the forces of evil big business. I used to give up even on reading the synopses of it as nothing among those spare words interested me. (I bought a copy finally as it was a two disc set which featured a pair of hitherto inaccessible early features: Stereo and Crimes of the Future.) But Fast Company has two moments in it that demand a place for the whole film alongside Shivers, Rabid, Scanners etc. The "funny cars" revving up with roars and screeches are like a small herd of terrifying alien animals, not machines. A group sex scene gets to the point of introducing thick black engine oil, not as a lube but as a kind of ritual ointment. Those are in the middle of a petrol-head movie.

The most mainstream early Cronenberg piece is also often overlooked: Dead Zone. It's an intriguing piece but very difficult to distinguish from any other early 80s sci-fi or horror. And yet there's that suicide scene with the scissors. No gore or violence on screen; it's just disturbingly ugly. And there's the sauna scene in Eastern Promises. The sex scenes in M. Butterfly and its Genet-like finale which pull it far from the conventional piece it otherwise is.

There's always Cronenberg in a Cronenberg film. By contrast, it can be a real challenge finding the director of Taxi Driver in almost any Scorsese film since Goodfellas. The only filmmaker Cronenberg feared to meet (it was mutual, btw), the cinematic infuser of Dante and Dostoyevsky with a Little Italy accent took the devil's shilling and the rest is just nuts and bolts craftsmanship. But a few seconds of undiluted Cronenberg to tell you he's still here, can lift even the soft descent of A Dangerous Method from a pure fall and give it a few momentary thrilling seconds of anti-gravity. Down but not out, he has his byline on another release this year, Cosmopolis. I'll be in line.

Monday, April 9, 2012


I can't dance to save my life. Once upon a time, as a protest, when everyone else hit the floor I'd do this one legged jig, just lift my foot off the floor a little and swing it around. It was funny the first time.

While the art of dance eludes me I do admire anyone who is able to speak through it. Still, when a friend of mine pressed tickets for a docco about a choreographer I hmmed and haahed. Then she sent me to the page and I said I'd see her at the Nova.

Tanja Liedtke was only twenty-nine when she won the top spot at the Sydney Dance Company, succeeding living legend Graeme Murphy who had reigned o'er the SDC from 1976 as a kind of nimble Czar. You could call that history making. Liedtke was about self expression from the word go. When this urge took wing as the choice to use movement she launched and took off: dance and theatre studies in Madrid, ballet school in London, touring with the Australian Dance Theatre, productions for Channel 4 in Britain, fellowships, awards, notice, praise and finally, Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company before she hit thirty. Can you say GO? Then she was run over by a garbage truck and was no more. STOP! You couldn't write that as fiction (unless you were Samuel Beckett). STOP! A great lightless void where there had been a dynamic and seemingly unstoppable force.

We see that force in a processed image of Liedtke executing one of her complex moves in what looks like an old magic lantern image. The body is twisted copied several times across the screen. Beneath it a nocturnal landscape speeds by. Then we're in the movie.

The film is built of a small number of blocks that begin looking like something quite quickly which becomes the story of the piece. One is Liedtke's video record; private sketches and tests on home video, video from school days. Another is the cast she left behind when she died, reconstructing the show they were working on in a delicately balanced mutual direction. Then there are the documents; news footage, stage videos, everything that testifies to the truth of the story. Finally, there is testimony; her family, colleagues and friends between them build a portrait of her life, career, psyche and creativity.

Touchingly, it is this last element that provides the most sag in this portrait. Not because the interviews are unconvincing but because the intrigue created by everything else, the rush of impressions, seems to say much more about Liedtke than the shared memories of her nearest and dearest. I'm going to consider this a compliment to the film as the craft involved in the scrapbook of stills and moving images is impressive, especially images of Liedtke herself almost frighteningly intense as she jams on a gesture, channels something strange and shrill as a schoolgirl or in one extraordinary sequence in close up when she repeatedly slaps herself, hisses "pull yourself together", and twists her face into solid panic.

Thing is we do need the talking heads. We need the gaps filled in the timeline and the other ones left by those intimate videos. The dual themes of this biography are right there: intimacy and creativity. Liedtke was on with a  high voltage charge in creative mode and sweet, quiet and personable when the switch was flipped.

But there's a problem with these interviews and it has to do with the decision made by the filmmakers to remove the coverage of the accident that killed her. What we get visually, instead of this, is pretty good. A series of tyre-level tracks around the streets of inner city Sydney in the very early morning (when it happened) accompanied by a series of memories of how her intimates found out about her death. On the one hand we expect this. We've already shared some important and illuminating time with these people who were so inspired by Liedtke that we do need some indication of how her demise hit them. On the other hand there is so much of it it falls easily into repetition and makes a few minutes of screen time seem like half and hour. Then, at the very end (can't see how this is a spoiler) there is a moment of the cast of the show acknowledging Liedtke's life and inspiration that carries almost no words but says much more.

The posthumous piece, Twelfth Floor, is taken to her birthplace in Stutgaart. It is a triumph. Backstage the dancers toast Liedtke with champagne. All of them are gently tearful. The camera performs a slow searching pan. Here one towels her face. There another avoids the gaze of the lens and looks away. It's not choreographed but it is movement charged with a quiet understanding of survival. Cutting into this we see again the magic lantern image of Liedtke against the night time landscape rolling by. Is this her entry into the afterlife? Afterlives only need memory. That's what we now, movingly and by genuine cinema, see. My one-legged dance is now no more and will never be again.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Catch-up Review: Blue Valentine: the turn on a microscope slide

I once went out with a girl who was perfect for me. Beautiful, outgoing, intelligent, widely-read and eager to strengthen her contract with the world around her. An expert joke and story teller, there wasn't a moment I spent with her that didn't leave me feeling enriched. It was lived in the predawn: wintry closing-time cafes, streets silver with street light, blankets, alcohol, candlelight, personal ghost tales, crescent moons in the window, secondhand books and the big black night. And then it ended. Not all at once, that never happens, but the energy drained like bathwater and suddenly it was over and every conversation was like murmurs at an autopsy, each one taking a long time to repeat the verdict: it's dead now. As in every case, for breakups are never mutual (despite the quavering lies ex couples tell), one party shuts all communication down as though the other is in genuine physical quarrantine. Well, all's fair....

But before that happened she gave me one indicator that should have been more visible in real time than I allowed it to be. This is the kind of thing we always say. "If only I'd paid attention to that when it was happening..." The fact is that we're usually so blinded by fear and self-absorption that we never notice anything that doesn't either flatter us or deliver sheer terror in the form of jealousy. What we don't get is the saddening and often eerie transformation of someone we have loved turning themself into a stranger.

One thing this girl started doing did worry me and I was right to be worried but too vain to examine it. In the lull of a conversation she would look away and say in a kind of resigned cartoon voice:

"You know so much and I know so little."

This stopped me. Every time. It gave me the creeps.

She didn't believe it to be true. It shocked me to think it was how she saw me. There was nothing I could come back with. She was neither doubting her own intelligence nor praising mine. The phrase was the first in a series of full stops that she came to use to build a barrier between us and signal that she was ready to extract herself from a mistake. She was turning herself into a stranger.

It's that moment, more than the point of definite rejection (which is, at least, a relief), that hurts the most in any failed relationship. When you witness it, even if you don't admit that you have, you understand that nothing you do or say is going to alter the silent decision that is at that moment being formed never to change. Because this can only feel like rejection (and is never admitted to be so) the perrennial suggestion by ther person doing it that you remodel the relationship as friendship is a loathsome one that I never allow to the table. This causes offence. It's meant to. It's a childish but highly satisfying response to an unfair offer. Anyway ...

The film Blue Valentine is centred on this moment. Because it keeps its eye unflinchingly upon this process the timeline-shaking progress of the narrative is not just permissible but impressive. The two lovers are visited in memory by everything they think is significant from their time together.Taken by itself, each series of recollections tells a story increasingly divergent from the other. The momentum created by this leads us to the alarming certainty that their time was really only a series of bad decisions and their pain is a result of a solid sense of self-betrayal, the type that hurts the most.

Dean and Cindy are played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams respectively who bring every item of evidence that they are among their generation's finest. Scenes that were improvised feel natural rather than workshopped and the faces they present to us in moments like the ones I describe above are forged by experience.

While some of the dialogue and action were improvised, the director instructed his actors variously to attempt to leave the scene of an argument or try persuasion to resolve it. This has a genuinely unsettling effect and at the point where Dean holds Cindy to the floor he whispers a steadily more pathetic plea for affection for all he has done for her. Her response is to peel her knickers off and fling them to one side. It's not an invitation. It's a disruption. He backs off and frees her. This happens during an arranged dirty weekend together which is shown in fragmented form as a kind of centrepiece to the film. It is the moment when Cindy makes herself a stranger.

The visual cue to telling the difference between flashback and current time is given by different stock. The warmer moments of courtship are shot on film and the disintegration is examined in plain gelid video. Dean's hairline changes between now and then, also. Overall, things look more uncomfortably real as the certainty of the divide progresses.

That's pretty much the whole movie but if it sounds like swallowing a smog cloud then be aware that although this is a serious examination of a grim subject it's treasures lie in the candour of its performances and the sure hand at the helm. It is serious rather than earnest. It is cinema, not transposed grim tv. The elements are from a filmmaker's palette and the result even stands outside of its ethnic origins : this piece could as easily have come from Seoul or Copenhagen as New York.

After the dirty weekend gone wrong goes wrong Dean confronts Cindy in her workplace which ends disastrously and messily. I did a milder version of this with the girl I was talking about before. There was none of the violence of the scene in the movie but the effect was the same. However lightly, I had cornered her and she responded the only way she could in final rejection.

We shared our social life and there was no question of dividing friends up and that wasn't even attempted. But it meant that we still went to the same parties and nights out. I spent too long moping until the mist of it cleared and it did when I started seeing how much of a narcissistic goose she was. She would easily have thought about the same of me. It'd had only been a couple of months but we were young and that kind of thing needs to hurt when you're young. So it did and then it didn't.

There's a shot in the movie of the couple moving backwards and holding a sign that reads: IS THIS YOU?

Yeah. Well, it was.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review: THE RUM DIARY: ugly Americana in paradise

Phil Kemp, a lost writer, travels to Puerto Rico in 1960 to find his voice through some solid hack work on a local paper. He soaks up local colour, is courted by big and dodgy money to soap up a crooked land deal, falls in love with the bad guy's girl and observes his world with dry accuracy. And then it ends.

Bruce Robinson, whose Withnail and I is justly celebrated for its comedy with conscience, has assembled promise on a plate for this film. Johnny Depp intriguingly plays the younger version of a character he played as an older man when he, Depp, was younger (the bastard hasn't aged an hour since 1998!) Michael Rispoli transcends his gangster stereotype effortlessly in the role of the Virgil-like Sala. Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as the bad guy in chief, ugly American as earthly Apollo. Giovanni Ribisi plays an eccentric whacko with none of the self-defeating directionlessness that Jeremy Davies has wasted his career pursuing. Robinson's cover version of Hunter S. Thompson's alien with a thesaurus style is note perfect. So, why is The Rum Diary so .... ordinary?

Well, to say it's too long is really to say that it continue with the smart comedy it hints at from the opening shot of a light plane dragging a sky banner welcoming Union Carbide to Puerto Rico. And even if the comedy spills from rather than tightens the film it is welcome when it does appear. And if the ugly American subplot is trowelled on it is at least performed with some elegance and study by Eckhart and co and if they are stereotypes they aren't too far here from their literary origins. You get the idea, no single element stands up and takes the helm when either of those threads would work well supported by the other.

Support really is the problem here. Withnail and I works so well because all of its uproarious comedy stems from the solid living trunk of its theme of knowing when to exit youth, stage left. It works so well that said theme isn't evident until the end when it becomes quietly impossible to ignore. Rum Diary's proposal that it takes a shock to find your conscience and so your voice is a fine one but the bricks of adversity hurled at Kemp's head are so chunky and heavy that there is really no danger that he will make the decision we all know he will make.

This is why The Rum Diary feels like it's going to be too long about halfway through. Take the proverbial half hour from this two hour piece and you'll have a tight feature film but you'll also have a flatter one that hits its marks and speaks its lines and then ends. You'd kill the style and voice of Robinson himself but it is the inability of that voice to bring the herd in that makes it so frustrating. Almost every thread is allowed to fray and waste.

That's it. That's what I think about this film: it's a waste. It fails pretty much everything it tries. Rather than put it next to Withnail on the shelf I think it would be more comfortable next to Men Who Stare at Goats or I Love You Phillip Morris. The worst I can say of this, though, is that it isn't even a disappointment. Anyone who has seen the film Robinson made just after Withnail, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, cannot be surprised at the misses of this one and perhaps be kinder on Bruce Robinson for bringing us a single genuine immortal classic. That's still more than 90% of people who make movies can claim.

Here I'll point out that the following is the sole mention of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.