Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Up in the Air (2009) - Directed by Jason Reitman, based on a book of the same name by Walter Kirn

This movie is about people who are adrift in the world. On one side are people who choose to fly away from the banality and pain of real life by avoiding complicated feelings and confining situations. On the other side are those people who are pushed off cliffs by someone who is whispering "fly! fly!" behind them.

Our main man who chooses to fly is played by George Clooney, star employee of a "We'll Fire Your Employees For You!" company. He is the one pushing the adrift but-not-by-choice people off the cliff.

Our man, who chooses to fly around in the air and not to be tied to a small piece of ground, still wants some good things from all over the ground – like dinner, a bit of respect, sex. To acquire those things, he does have to work for his ground money. Also, it helps that he looks like a grown-up. And though the thrills for him are pretty standardized, the living is good. The only real down side is that if one is safe from the pettiness of life (and the pettiness of other people's lives), one also tends to be safe from its surprises. So though our man travels all over America to fire people, we always feel like we're in the same place.

In a more obviously Hollywood movie, The George Clooney character would learn (with the help of a *very* special woman) to brave the treacherous and banal earthly ground for its sweet, sweet fruit.

But in this movie, there is a surprising and poetic turn of events. George Clooney's character turns out to be really, really good at flying around America and pushing people off of cliffs while whispering "fly! fly!" behind them. He's good at it because he kind-of means it. He kind-of believes there is always something better around the next corner, even for these people who look so sad. To these people he says - Why humbly tie ourselves to these small sections of the ground when we might become these great people around the next corner?

Real life tempts our man only once. When this happens he is tempted to rethink his philosophy. At this point, the firing sessions become almost unbearable to watch. With real life clouding his fantasies, he can only offer empathy for these people (who might possibly be having the worst day of their lives) and not very much of that special other-worldly-optimism.

The firings represented in "Up in the Air" are painfully realistic. Having non-actors talk about their real and recent lay off troubles while opposite a movie star (known for his "up in the air" quality) creates a very quiet but heartbreaking fairytale loop. The two different kinds of "adrift" continuously work unsuccessfully to resolve themselves or understand each other. They form a kind of American wrestling match in the air - either going up or going down (mostly going down). Some of the movie is heavy handed, but this part is interesting and beautiful.

After our man is tempted by real life, and then, after real life disappoints, he returns to his original star employee position at "We'll Fire People For You!". The last scene shows him alone, a little worse for wear, looking up at the departure board at an airport.

We're not sure if he still believes in flying - if he will still be able to make the lost people's worst days a little easier or at least a little more surreal with his other-worldly optimism that his faith in flying helps to ensure - but we know he still has to fly because he doesn't really know what else to do. Because we know this, we are kind of hoping that he is saying something crazily optimistic and reassuring to himself while he stands there alone at the gates of his familiar and well-worn home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Dirty Shame (2004) - Written and Directed by John Waters

(Though I’m less lonely in the world because John Waters exists, and though I am crazy about his movies, I have avoided watching his “A Dirty Shame.” The cover image is of Selma Blair sporting the largest fake breasts one could prosthetically attach to a living person. Whenever I spot the dvd cover, something inside my body flinches. But recently, a short spell of serious men and their very serious work that I was supposed to be taking very seriously, drew me directly to this very same “A Dirty Shame” bright pink dvd cover at the video store – a cover that suddenly looked refreshing, good-natured and fun. I watched it early in the morning at my friend Sheila Heti’s house while she was out of town. She has the tiniest tv I have ever seen. I watched it with the volume on low hoping to not wake up the downstairs neighbors with anticipated comical sex noises.)

John Waters is not a boring man.

Also: John Waters is a genius at grounding complicated ideas in hilariously (and deceptively) simple concoctions of people, places, things and actions. This movie is about a zombiesque war between the “Neuters” and the “Sex Addicts”. Of course, this war is fought out on one street, Harford Road and primarily between the members of one family, the Stickles. The Neuters headquarters are at the local Quickymart, and are led by the matriarch of the Stickles family who is named “Big Ethel”. You can tell who the lead Neuters are when they are out on the street because they have their eggplant coloured Quickymart uniforms on. The Sex Addicts headquarters are at the Ray Ray’s Garage, you can tell who the Sex Addicts are because they are often sticking out their tongues. Ray Ray himself is a prophet who makes love to nature. Nature loves it. You can tell nature loves it because, after he does it with nature, nature immediately grows more flowers at a miraculous speed. And it’s clear that he’s a prophet because, very early on, he brings back to life a squirrel that he accidentally ran over with his Garage truck. Sex Addicts are made when they accidentally receive a concussion to the head. They can be “unmade” if they are accidentally knocked in the head again. The Sex Addicts are anxious for a prophesied invention of a new sex act. The Neuters just want to go home.

As you can see, there are pleasurable and solid answers for any question one might have about the plot of this movie. It made me think of my friend Kerry Barber (a filmmaker from the Yukon), of her 5 minute documentary “My Indian Bum” – a movie that also contains pleasurable and effortless answers. She asks people in her “Indian” community questions about their bums: Are Indian bum’s flat? Do you like flat bums? Why are Indian’s bums flat? People do their best to give concrete answers – for instance, one man answers this last question with, “I think they are flat because we are sitting down a lot."

I love nothing more than an unqualified answer. Why not provide the most reasonable answer with the information at hand? Why not assume the innate subjectivity (or fallibility) of any answer without the redundancy of qualification? Why not let the answers fall out of your mouth like solid objects – or at least to catch them on video that way? Why not understand that storytelling happens continuously in real life.

And in documentaries, the answers (that in life are flexible and wavering) do often become the concrete, unwavering bones of whatever large or small beast the documentary comes to form. One of the benefits of documentaries is that you are likely to build a functional (possibly even wonderfully absurd) animal if you begin with life. Because in life, there are a lot of reasonable, grounded and interesting answers.

One of the primary pleasures (and difficulties) with fiction is that you often need to know from the beginning what the answers are – what kind of beast it is that you are making. The more absurd the plot, the more concrete and grounded the bones need to be. John Waters’ bones are often hilarious and absurdly logical. His strangely shaped but functional beasts are perfectly engineered to roam freely with speed, freakish grace, and harmony through our real world. If there is a question about the beast or its skeleton, John Waters has the answer. He makes it look easy because he’s a gentleman (and also maybe too, because he is probably having a really good time).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Beau Travail (1999) - directed by Claire Denis

I had first seen this without subtitles. It’s an unusual kind of beautiful and quiet, and involves all kinds of foreigners so it’s not so crazy to watch it as a foreigner – not understanding the words so well. The movie is about a unit of the French Foreign Legion that consists of French nationals (most of whom have different cultural backgrounds) commanded by an old school French officer. The unit is stationed in Djibouti, Africa. There is no war or combat. The men move together in loosely choreographed unison during their military training exercises and in their play. The feeling of watching it is almost a refreshing relief - the camera focuses on a landscape of moving bodies functioning harmoniously within a group and not on the lonely landscape of one person’s emoting face.

It reminded me of my time at Bible camp - somewhere north in the Appalachia Mountains. A time that involved being woken up with a bugle, circling around a flag with others to sing the national anthem at sunrise, washing and folding your clothes military style at the age of seven, racing each other all day across the lake or up the hills, abstractly practicing being at war while a literal enemy is never mentioned.

It reminded me of the feeling of being in a group - one that you are a member of without too much thought, a group that has no need for fights because there is a sense that the fight is somewhere outside of this place. It is a gentle animal kind of intimacy that happens with others when logical argument is not needed or wanted and no one thinks that there is anything new to be learned from talking. The peacefulness of the group can make you forget that you are the ones training to be the soldiers - a utopic and ironic vacation from trouble.

I saw "Beau Travail" again recently with English subtitles. Though a similar experience, the underlying Melville story of "Billy Budd" emerges more clearly. The commanding officer (the old school French Legionnaire) develops a jealous hatred for a lower ranking but better-loved soldier. The soldier has a beautiful, open face and was orphaned at a young age without knowledge of his heritage. Melville’s original story is an epic one of good verses evil, but here the battle between these two men is so quiet and so small. The troubling injustice that unfolds between them is but a tiny blip in this seductive but menacing landscape of unison. How could it be otherwise?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Whale Rider (2002), Directed by Niki Caro, Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

(I watched Whale Rider at home on my TV while I was darning a burnt-out spot in a woven blanket. I didn't know very much about the movie. I mainly was thinking: "Whales".)

“Whale Rider” is about a young girl who, though having exhibited potential to be a great leader for her people during a time when a leader is desperately needed, is rejected by the rulers of the community because of her gender. These hints of her leadership are deemed sinister by the community leader who feels his people have already paid a heavy price for going against tradition - tradition dictates that a young boy will exhibit this potential.

I am used to the story of the runaway - the kid who finds relief and acceptance in a new place. Usually the kid has a talent that is not recognized by their community – or a talent that the community finds threatening or burdensome. Like a young boy from a small mining town whose traits hint that he is a possible ballet genius during a time of the town’s economically devastating strike.

But “Whale Rider” is a less familiar story for me: the disrespected and rejected kid who stays home. It seems like a harder story and a harder one to win. Pai, the young girl, stays where she is because her talents are in direct relation to her small shoreline community. Without her community, she is not a leader. She cannot go to the city to fulfill this specific potential.

So she keeps pressing in. She turns down a chance for easy escape. She secretly learns the specialized rituals and ways of her people (the same ways that are used to reject her). She circles around her domain and gets close when she can. She is continuously persistent, continuously hurt, and continuously forgiving.

The most uncomfortable part for me was not the main elder’s repeated rejection of Pai - but the image of them reconciled. It was hard to see this little girl sitting next to an old man who had thrown her out so many times. It is the best case scenario, and an important one, but I am still new to this story.

Pai narrates the movie, explaining sympathetically why her grandfather thought she was of no use when she was born, why some people saw her as a curse, why she was lonely. For me, the best thing about "Whale Rider" is that Pai’s narration subtly turns from the voice of a strangely sympathetic outsider into the voice of a sympathetic leader without her situation having yet changed in any way. A brave step either towards insanity or heroic leadership - but certainly the best and most reasonable action to take if there is nowhere else to go.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Meetin' WA (1986) - Jean-Luc Godard

(I wrote about this video dialogue between Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard here for Ryeberg Curated Video site in a piece called "Meetin' WA and God'R in the Fute'R". )

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Avatar (2010)

(I went to see this with my friend Julia Rosenberg who is an independent film producer. She was game and looked pretty great in the 3d glasses. I tried to take our picture with my cell phone but you could only see 2 small white dots on a black screen. We saw it on a Friday nigh in one of the biggest movie houses in downtown Toronto. We saw it with maybe about 400 other people in an IMAX theatre.)

The first time I saw a movie at an IMAX theatre, I was nine. It was Christmas and it was Texas and I was with a lot of adults. I had on sneakers and a purple mini skirt. The adults bought tickets for a visual spectacle called “Earth” maybe, or something like that. We sat up close. The movie was about how we as humans were polluting the planet.

They showed images taken from above the earth to show how factories changed the colour of lakes and rivers. They showed images taken from ground to show how the sky was changing from everyday pollution. They showed people at work throwing their lunch waste in bins and then they followed their lunch waste to the dumps. They showed property development, clear cutting, forest fires, animals fleeing, deserts being created and rivers running dry. I remember there was a narrator with a soothing female voice. Half way through, I vomited. I was cleaned up in a bathroom by one of the adults and then taken back in to the horror. As I watched the rest of the movie, shivering, everything changed.

For me, the movie was an emergency newscast. But of course, when the lights came up, the adults around me (who had more experience with emergency newscasts) had to decide what we were going to have for dinner. This confusion is always part of our lives. After that movie, I always remembered how we didn’t go to war that day, how sunsets looked a little more sinister to me, and how much was my fault.

If I had, instead, seen "Avatar" in an IMAX theatre when I was nine, I think I probably would not have thrown up. I probably would have been excited about all the other 3D movies to come, and relaxed in knowing that there were seriously bad intentioned bad guys out there who weren’t me or my people. All we had to do was stop them, or maybe even they would have the good sense to stop themselves after watching this movie, and then we would get the flying horses back.

The moment “Avatar” ended and the credits started to roll, laughter sprung quietly from various corners of the huge audience. There was no applause, but also no booing. We had to give our glasses back on our way out. Mine had become filthy somehow by the end of the movie. The next day, I had no feeling about any of it but I did start to wonder when white men will begin to openly complain, along with the rest of us, about having to play stereotypes of themselves in fiction.