Monthly Archives: January 2010

LAUREL CANYON (2002)

We all know Christian Bale has many personae, but given the recent dominance of his Hoarse Whisperer persona as seen in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation (occasionally punctuated by threats to crash one’s lights of course), I had begun to forget his true facility as an actor.

Laurel Canyon is therefore a pleasant reminder that Bale used to be “one of our finest actors.” American Psycho is still probably his best comedic performance, but Laurel Canyon might be his best serious role, unadorned by any of the physical feats that potentially distract from some of his other roles (e.g. The Machinist).

Frances McDormand is the only character to play her own nationality: along with Bale, Kate Beckinsale also plays an American (with glasses that make her look cuter than usual), while her fellow Englishwoman Natascha McElhone plays an Israeli immigrant, and Yankee Alessandro Nivola finally trades on his Chris-Martin-lookalike status to play the lead singer of a Coldplay clone.

The plot shares many similarities with Ozon’s Swimming Pool, but for once the American picture has the prior claim to these themes. Although their general release was roughly contemporary, depending on the country, Cholodenko’s film apparently premiered a year prior to its French counterpart.

Much of the tone should be credited to photographer Wally Pfister (making Bale a more frequent collaborator of Pfister than of Nolan), who films a cross-table conversation with his camera peeking over the edge of the dinner table. The final shot perhaps owes something to the end of Ralph Lombreglia’s Men Under Water, but the sequence leading up to it is so well-timed that it earned a deserved laugh from me. It ends on a note of absurdity nearly comparable to that of Fight Club, but achieves in a much more understated, and difficult to articulate, way.

Avatar’s Confused Sexual Politics

Christopher Faris’s reflections on Avatar and its cross-species relationship between the human and Navi characters got me thinking about the film’s other psycho-sexual pathologies.

Like Chris, I too found the inter-species romance disturbing, mostly because of the allegory’s reverse-implication that Native Americans are tantamount to a different species than Europeans. I just had to keep reminding myself that since the 1960s, Star Trek has made non-human aliens the official surrogates for non-white ethnicities in sci-fi. In most cases, therefore, I have to accept it as a genre convention. (Speaking of surrogates, Bruce Willis’s movie Surrogate did more interesting things with the same concept, like men using female surrogate bodies to be non-op transexuals.)

In Avatar, however, the cross-species intercourse cannot be excused as just an allegorical necessity because of the emphasis on the Navi hooking up (literally) with Pandoran animals of other species. Lest the audience be allowed to insist that these pony-tail USB ports are non-sexual interfaces, Sigourney Weaver jokes that playing with them is akin to masturbation.

The protagonist is also told that, unlike with Pandora’s equivalent of horses, his flying dragon will be his partner for life, whom he will identify by a combination of love at first sight and an aggressive mating ritual. Furthermore, he is told, his lifelong relationship with this animal must be monogamous. (Never mind that he trades up before film’s end.) When they do finally reach complete union, the struggling animal’s whole body tenses for a moment, then suddenly relaxes, exhausted but peaceful.

The sexual shorthand is obvious enough, but the rapey connotations make it all the more disturbing, like James Bond’s conquest of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, a lesbian who struggles against Bond’s attempt to rape her, but once conquered, is converted to the virtues of heterosexuality and thankful for Bond’s insistence on enlightening her.

A movie subtler than Avatar might be suggesting that any taming of animals by humans for their use is a kind of exploitation if not rape, but this film’s portrayal of it in terms of the circle of life and mutual respect between species makes the other messages of the film all the more confused. Cameron’s peculiar interpretation of the motto Make Love Not War seems to be: If you want something from an uncooperative species, Penetrate Them Not Kill Them.

NINE

In Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of a stage adaptation of Fellini’s 8 1/2, Marion Cotillard is operating on a higher order of performance than the other six actresses who stake their claim on the life of the directagonist played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Cotillard’s songs — she’s the only participant besides Day-Lewis to have two musical numbers — are the only ones performed with evident emotion, as if she is acting for a film and not just a matinee performance of a stage musical like the rest of her co-stars.

If the singing abilities she displayed in La Vie en Rose were somewhat overshadowed (understandably enough) by the impressiveness of her simultaneous impersonation of Edith Piaf, then here Cotillard is able to express a character musically without the distractions of hunched back and heavy make-up — although her eyebrows and bangs in Nine are distinctly modelled on Audrey Hepburn.

Despite the allusion in the title, Nine is two muses short of a full complement. As the film’s only verbally acknowledged one, Nicole Kidman is no Claudia Cardinale. Fellini’s audience never has to wonder why Mastroianni idolizes Cardinale, is never required to suspend disbelief to accept her effect on him. But Marshall’s audience must take it on faith that Day-Lewis has never taken Kidman off the pedestal because she tells us so (literally).

In her role Kidman is no doubt statuesque, but she invests the description with negative connotations, her plastic surgeries maintaining her attractiveness in only the most abstract of senses. In Fellini’s film, by contrast, Cardinale looked like the personification of beauty incarnated into truly tactile matter — in flesh and blood and skin and hair. The only actress to approach the same qualities in Nine is Marion Cotillard, and the movie is almost worth it for her performance alone.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD

What is advertised — in both the trailers and the first ten minutes of the film itself — as a clash of the titans turns out to provide only a few minutes of footage in what turns out to be a traditional documentary about three subjects treated very separately.

The concept is fantastic: take three practitioners of the electric guitar from different generations and have them interview each other. The benefits of this approach are immediately obvious: the questions would be just as interesting as the answers, instead of having the subjects respond to generic questions from an earnest but jejune interviewer or anecdote-prompter.

Unfortunately, director David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) decided to cut out most of the interaction between the guitarists and replace it instead with independent threads on each subject. Jimmy Page shows the most contempt for his off-screen interlocutor’s banal questions, reminding us how much more interesting the proceedings would have been if the director had the guts to roll tape of the actual meeting between the professionals and trust the audience to follow along.

Loosely structured into thematic segments, the transitions between guitarists’ individual stories are badly chosen, often cutting away just when something was becoming interesting. Still, the raw material is often compelling enough to make the production feel worth it, such as Edge going through a box of old demos and listening to them for the first time since he made them, while the viewer is left to contemplate: is it possible that those now iconic riffs could ever have exist in alternative forms? I felt a little bit like Charles Lamb when he saw a manuscript of Milton’s early poems in the poet’s own hand:

I had thought of the ‘Lycidas’ as a full-grown beauty — as springing up with all its parts absolute — till, in an evil hour, I was shown the original copy of it, together with the other minor poems of the author, in the library of Trinity, kept like some treasure to be proud of. I wish they had thrown them in the Cam, or sent them after the latter Cantos of Spenser, into the Irish Channel!

How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! as if inspiration were made up of parts, and these fluctuating, successive, indifferent! I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again.

Another strength of the documentary is the generosity of recorded performances, both audio and video, of the musicians most influential to the three guitarists. Their choices are as idiosyncratic as could be hoped, and as an eclectic anthology of blues and early rock n roll the film is enjoyable enough.