I made myself a lot of promises when I started writing this blog a month or so ago. And one of them was to offer some thoughts about a crop of recently released movies, most of which I saw when I was in New York on my December theatre binge. Best get to it.
One much overlooked little piece of delightful escapism is The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. I had a ball with it. Mind you, I also thought it was completely mindless entertainment. But nothing in contemporary films has so completely captured the charm of those wonderful Cary Grant/Gregory Peck/Sophia Loren/Audrey Hepburn capers back in the 50’s and 60’s. Here, Johnny and Angelina can completely hold their own in competition with those earlier Hollywood greats, and of course a caper film set in Venice provides a superb background for their nonsense. No one with as much admiration for Johnny Depp as I have would ever be surprised by the plot twists of the movie. He simply wouldn’t bother to be in the film if they weren’t there. So it all gets pretty predictable. But who cares? Hollywood screenwriters don’t have to make sense of their plots these days, and lets face it, they never did. I think of Hitchcock’s fine North by Northwest, for instance, which hooked me for life while never making much sense at all. The Tourist is in the same family, along with Charade, Arabesque, Mirage, and To Catch a Thief. Dapper Depp is as fascinating an enigma as ever, and Angelina, who apparently took charm lessons to play her role, has never been easier to look at. What’s more, she can act!
ART & INDEPENDENT MOVIES
I frequently wail over the state of independent movies these days. I may be prejudiced, or course, because I have worked with friends in two small film companies to make two small movies in two tiny roles. If you wanted to look (fast), you could find me as a bartender in Kingdom County Productions’ Disappearances (2006) and as a butcher in Cavalier Films’ Familiar Strangers (2008), both available on Netflix. (Shameless self-promotion, I know! … but they’re both worth a watch even without me in them.) Good small movies are rare. With Hollywood and the wider audiences obsessed with expensive spectacle and violence, huge commercial success is essential. It’s all about the money, naturally. Meanwhile, the path to making really good small-budget, human-interest films has gotten more and more difficult. Sure, it may now be much easier to pick up a cheap video camera and shoot a movie, and then even to launch it on the internet. But theatrical distribution? Ah, that’s a different story. Getting your work seen once it’s made is the all-but-impossible last step in the process. The only reason the above two films have ever made it out of the closet is the blood, sweat and tears their producers put into carting them around to art houses.
All the more wondrous then that once a year or so, too often in the crowded release calendar around Christmas time, comes a crop of fine “little movies” that manages to grab some attention despite the millions spent on selling the spectacles and star vehicles. In the theatre, I have to remember that I am lucky enough to be seeing such a film only because it was somebody’s labor of love. Somebody, against all odds, was obsessed with the thing’s potential to tell a unique unique story that truthfully reveals some facet of the human condition, and had the determination to get it done.
It strikes me that any act of creativity derives from an obsession, or at least a passion, which is a kinder word. I suppose there are good and bad obsessions, or rather I should say “constructive” and “destructive” obsessions? Who would ever go to the trouble of making a painting, learning to sing a song, playing a role, unless we felt an obsession to “do it right”? Nobody ever gets too motivated by a desire to create something mediocre, or hackneyed, or trite unless that’s their goal. Art is just too damn much work, and involves us way too much at the personal core level, to settle for being dismissed as so-so. Of course for the time being I’m ignoring that other larger compulsion – to be commercially successful and financially rewarding. But I don’t really believe an artist’s true initial motive is to be “successful,” commercially or otherwise. It may and usually does come to that, but for the most part the first inkling of making art comes from deep inside us, the need to explore what we see around us, what we think is vital to understanding ourselves and our place in the universe, and then, maybe at all costs, to share our observations. We don’t do that casually. We are driven to it. And at least two of the films I’ve recently experienced focused on just such a theme: How obsession drives us to make “art.”
THE BLACK SWAN
The first and most obvious is The Black Swan. It has certainly generated the kind of buzz that marketing people would pay for. And I understand that for this one they did pay dearly. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard Writer/Director Aronovsky had a hell of a time getting it made. But he scraped up the support, secured a wonderful cast, and did it. Only then did the big studios, convinced they had a money-maker on their hands, cough up the big bucks for a hugely successful marketing campaign. No movie I have seen recently caused so many people to ask me “What did you think of it?” Everybody wants to talk about it.
Reactions are ambivalent, of course, as was intended. Mine was not: It made me mad! By now, everyone recognizes it as a horror film, but that wasn’t true in its first week of release. I knew it had a dark side, and the previews suggested it might have supernatural elements, or that it was about Satanic possession, or that it was paranoid, or that there was an arch villain involved. I can imagine Aronovsky going “Yes! Yes! Yes! He’d love that most of us might find the movie indefinable. But for me that ambivalence undercuts the humanity of the movie, which could have been at core about obsession with art and how it can destroy us at the same time it fulfills us. That must have been what originally motivated him: the black and white swans within us. That must have been what drew Natalie Portman to the role, for which she trained rigorously and endured considerable pain. Well I agree, she was superb, and yes the dance photography was painfully beautiful (literally!) But when all was said and done, I resented the story’s manipulations rather than thrilled to them. And the movie turns out to be about nothing much after all. It’s a mind game, a potentially intriguing story of progressive, obsessive-compulsive, self-destructive madness, distorted to play with the audience’s expectations. Great horror films do that all the time, of course, and while it is not a genre I usually seek out, I can be thrilled by them. That this one spent so much time and used up so many clichés pretending to be something else both disappointed and annoyed me.
Maybe I should see it again! … Next up: The Fighter, and The Company Men.