Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Greenberg (2010) – story by Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, written and directed by Noah Baumbach

(I was thinking about “Greenberg” a few days ago while sitting on a dock watching a lot of jet skis go by. Most of the jet skis towed large children behind them on inner tubes. It really gave this sense of momentous movement while really, no one was actually moving. It made me feel like everything was a little bit wrong. I was also trying to remember if jet ski accidents involve mostly people on jet skis – or people under them who happen to be swimming in the water. This is when I thought of the movie “Greenberg” because “Greenberg” is about a man who complains a lot. I then jumped into the water. I had watched “Greenberg” a few months ago with my friends Sholem Krishtalka and Jon Davies and my boyfriend Misha Glouberman. I remember that we all took a cab home because it was raining – and how warm it felt in the cab as compared to the cinema.)

The main character in “Greenberg” is named Greenberg. Greenberg is a lonely man who complains a lot and doesn’t offer very much. We know that he had an early life as an almost-famous rock star. That was followed by a long period of wandering capped by a short stay in a mental health centre. His main creative output now consists of writing letters of complaint to the government, media agencies and corporations. The movie begins with his return to Los Angeles to stay at his brother’s house while his brother and family are out of town. He takes care of the dog, tries to build a dog house, begins to date the woman who is employed as a kind of servant to his brother’s family, sees old friends and meets the younger generation. The whole process is totally unpleasant. One feels quite a lot for the people who have to talk to him, one worries for the woman who is starting to date him, and one is charmed by the younger generation’s sympathetic/ bemused expressions while Greenberg deconstructs them after taking some drugs.

I always feel a little bit hesitant about giving the characters in Noah Baumbach’s movies so much of my attention. They are often culturally rich, unquestioning of their entitlement and hoard the scraps of love, attention and kindness that come their way like intensely hungry but confusingly plump children. The “Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” had pleasure, intelligence and humour but the rapt attention on such ungenerous characters makes me a little baffled and I’m never quite sure what it is that we are hunting for in there. “Greenberg”, however, I could totally understand.

We see versions of Greenberg all the time in movies. Intelligently critical people who know things are all wrong and crappy – who feel compelled to complain because they have a clear perspective on the people who are making the world a worse place. Though often filled with insecurity and discomfort, these figures are often remarkably unselfconscious about their own negative contributions. Pleasure in their characters or empathy for their positions come when we see them effectively change their environments, or listen to their moving songs, or laugh at their good jokes.

The very interesting and unusual thing about “Greenberg” is that Baumbach takes away this complainer’s status and his poetry. Greenberg is still an artist, but his only output are the often petty letters of complaint to Starbucks, the state of California and The New York Times. Baumbach has taken the sexy out of the asshole - he has taken the moral weight away from the complainer. It makes this kind of character easier to deconstruct. It makes Greenberg’s journey so unpleasant to witness that the movie begs for a narrative change.

The sliver of narrative change, and the best part of the movie, comes near the end when Greenberg finally asks one of his few remaining friends to give him an outsider opinion on his person. The question seems to slow time, lower the volume on the music – it makes us lean in. It is night, on the edges of a pool party. His tall, patient friend hesitates but then offers some constructive criticism of Greenberg-the-person. This question and the answer felt as though a giant crack had opened up on the screen letting a vertical flood of light in. The moment, realistically, only lasts for a half second before Greenberg’s unfruitful defense-mechanisms take over, flip out and shut out any of the information – but the great question has been asked and life has been stirred. And we are reminded that self-consciousness is a necessary virtue.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mind Game (2004) - written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa, based on the comic by Robin Nishi

(I watched this animated movie at home with my boyfriend. We were going to go to the movies, but decided to stay home and watch a DVD and make popcorn. I didn’t know anything about it other than a probability website estimated that we would both like it 90% and that it played at the MOMA. Also, I liked the title “Mind Game”. I liked that it wasn’t pluralized, that it promised just one game.)

A young man, who doesn’t have enough courage to try to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart or to become a great comic book artist, gets shot in the anus by an angry gangster.

It happens at his childhood sweetheart’s family restaurant. He’s there with her by chance (she is now a beautiful young woman). The young woman’s new fiancé (stronger and more handsome than our man), her father (a no-good womanizing drunk), and her older sister (who runs the restaurant) are also there when a tired gangster and an angry gangster walk into the restaurant looking for the drunk father. The father quickly slips under the bar to hide. The beautiful young woman stands up to the angry gangster, and is then knocked down by him. The strong fiancé goes after the angry gangster but gets knocked unconscious. Our young man cowers in the corner on all fours. The angry gangster returns to the beautiful young woman, suddenly interested in raping her. Our young man makes a fearful noise from the corner. The sound distracts the angry gangster and he moves towards our whimpering man. He rests his gun against the young man’s anus. As the young man tries to get out a sentence, the angry gangster pulls the trigger.

As the bullet leaves our young man’s head, he goes to heaven. God (a radically shifting form) is getting ready for a date and explains to our man, with a great deal of distraction and irritation, what is happening and tells the young man to walk over there (God points somewhere to the right), towards his disappearance. The man begins walking to the right, but then he suddenly turns and runs the other way – back towards the world. God, now a tiger, tries to catch him, but can’t keep up with the young man’s sudden burst of courage. As the young man falls to earth, God watches from above, now admiring, and says quietly, I’m on your side. The young man arrives back in the world in the moments before he is shot. This time, things will be different.

This time, he saves the day and himself, killing the angry gangster. He flees the bar with the two women and leaves the drunk father and the tired gangster to each other. More heroics and panics ensue until the three young people end up in the belly of a whale with an old man. There, they have no other choice but to love, live, laugh and pursue the culinary, comic book and performing arts. Eventually, they attempt an escape through the whale’s mouth.

Before all this, the movie begins with a sequence of brief scenes. Some of it is familiar, but most is not. We can make out some “old footage” of westerners arriving from the sky with Astro Boy there to confront them. There is also a familiar 70 disco scene, a little boy getting a watch for a present, a beautiful young woman racing for the subway. Watching these scenes move by so quickly makes you feel a little bit like a confused and passive observer - observing things you don't yet understand.

After the main story, we see this sequence again. Now we are familiar with most of the footage, the unfamiliar parts were from the story, some representing the characters’ earlier choices. There is also some new footage of the many possible futures for the characters.

I think the movie can be understood in lots of different ways. But for me, it told one of my favourite stories: The story about how maybe a person can slip back into the recent past and stop a terrible thing from happening - only to then learn that time is real and the past can't be changed.

I’m not sure if this is an old story (told repeatedly by humans to themselves as they see some terrible event of their present turn into unchangeable history) or one that grows specifically out of the meaningless tragedies, missing gods and the puzzling physics of the (mostly) 20th century.

Here, in the beautiful “Mind Game”, it’s a video game fantasy of trying to stop something terrible from happening that has already happened. The movie contains literally shifting perspectives, subjective confusion, jokes about perceptual misunderstandings, a character wondering aloud if video games can be real - if this mind game can be real. It explores the path of being as heroic as you want to be, of saving the day (even a day that has already been written), of winning your love with patience and courage, and even of learning how to be an artist while killing time in the belly of a whale.

The heartbreaking thing about this movie is that it almost seems true.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Company (2003) - directed by Robert Altman, written by Robert Altman and Neve Campbell

(I watched this with my friend Sheila Heti late at night in a cabin in the woods. We projected it onto a wall with our make-shift entertainment system. We were under the shared assumption that it was possibly the most entertaining movie that we brought with us. Every 25 minutes or so Sheila would say, “I think maybe I’ve seen this before.”)

There is a ballet company. The Company is in Chicago. The director wears a yellow scarf. He calls people “baby” or sometimes “genius.” A “genius” comes from Canada to choreograph a new ballet, “The Blue Snake.” There is not enough money to make “The Blue Snake,” but the director (easy and charming) says he will find it. The dancers continue to practice and perform, sometimes in a mirrored studio and sometimes to an audience in the rain. Sometimes new dancers arrive, sometimes dancers quit. Some of the dancers live together in a crowded apartment because maybe they don’t get paid a lot. Ryan is one of the dancers. Ryan lives in a big apartment all alone, maybe because she works a night job as a waitress. One night after her nightshift, she plays pool by herself in a bar. James Franco watches her. He has come to the bar after his nightshift as a chef. He goes back to her apartment with her and makes her an omelet in the morning. Ryan’s family comes out to a lot of her performances. They are clearly supportive if not greatly responsible for her career as a dancer. No one talks much. Sometimes the dancers get injured. When one is injured, another ballet dancer takes his or her place. Ryan is in the spotlight after a few others have suffered injuries. Her spotlight is brief, injuring herself while dancing “The Blue Snake.” She’s okay about it, even smiling, and James Franco crosses the stage awkwardly to give her flowers, while the dancers bow after the performance is done. In the last scene, the dancers come out of the mouth of a giant head and dance around. The head looks wrathful and also a little bit like the company’s director.

The best part of the movie was during The Company’s “Christmas Roast” when the dancers, on a make-shift stage, dress as different members of The Company and act out skits representing scenarios that we have already seen. Although the skits were literal representations, they were loose and playful. It was kind of nice to remember that the dancers, like us, have witnessed the scenarios they were part of. Now they are making fun of one of the romantic dances that happened in a thunderstorm. Now they are making fun of the “genius from Canadia.” It made the rest of the movie seem even more starkly like real life – lacking in poetry and even in .. “representation.”

It’s pretty interesting when a movie doesn’t work – when the poetry seems absent, the metaphors don’t resonate, when the art seems missing. It makes the movies that work seem like miracles. It’s especially interesting when a movie like this doesn’t work – a movie where the skill and craft and the director’s experience are all clearly on display.

Failure always seems to be an interesting part of good art. I guess it is easier to fall on your face if you happen to be reaching out far. Some failures are super interesting or easier to forgive than others, like: the bountiful missteps of Marlon Brando; the masterpieces of David Cronenberg that are aiming for the multiplex but end up at the cineforum; the David Lynch-like silence that sometimes follows David Lynch movies; the ambition in Sofia Coppola’s awkwardly revealing “Marie Antoinette” (though to be fair, I didn’t see the end because in the cinema in which I was watching it, the film caught on fire);the incaution in Woody Allen’s one-movie-a-year output (also often awkwardly revealing). Groping and searching and hubris always seem more generous than an immaculate career – more like contributions.

Nothing horrible is revealed in “The Company” other than the fact that it didn’t really work. I am guessing that a movie about an art system is a bigger challenge than a movie about a love affair. I guess at the end of “The Company” we are meant to see the giant head on stage as perhaps the art itself – spitting out dancers with broken bodies or failed or briefly glorious careers. It didn’t really resonate as it was supposed to, but I could see what the movie was maybe going for: art is as a merciless god, barely paying attention to the participants who offer their lives to it — some failing, some falling, some shining.

It’s okay, I think, as I gaze at the hand-painted ballet set, at the wrathful god’s wide-open mouth, projected onto the cottage wall (my friend half asleep beside me): It is only a god of the humans’ creation.