Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Timecrimes begins in a state of tranquil domesticity, soon to be disturbed: middle-aged Hector sits on his lawn chair, staring into the distance with binoculars to pass the time while his wife heads out grocery shopping. This peaceful scene is upended by the sight of a beautiful young woman taking off her shirt, which lures the curious Hector into the woods. From there, everything falls apart quickly: the woman, now completely naked, lies unconscious or dead, and a man swathed in pink bandages attacks Hector with a pair of scissors.

After a frantic chase in the woods, Hector seeks refuge in a nearby house where—keep in mind, this is a B-movie and we’ll have to forgive a few contrivances for the sake of our fun—a scientist is working on a time machine. Unaware of what he is stepping into, Hector hides in the machine and is transported back in time one hour, where his desire to restore his life to normal forces him into a series of increasingly brutal acts that threaten to destroy any hope of returning to his life as it was. But does he have a choice? Is it all simply fate, or is the man’s hapless slide into violence a sign of this paunchy, placid husband’s own hidden dark nature?

The pleasure of watching such a curious pretzel-plot unravel is often the main reward of these sorts of mind-fucks, and Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo throws in a few horror-movie style jolts for good measure (Mr. Crazy Pink Bandage Man initially seems to have wandered in off the set of a nearby cheap slasher flick). The film is compelling from end to end, but the twisting plot suggests a moral weight the film isn’t strong enough to carry. At its most unsettling, the film shows Hector stage-managing the events surrounding his entrance into the time machine, creating new tragedies as he attempts to reverse old ones. There are a lot of ways to look at what happens here—the dangers of voyeurism, the folly of fighting fate, the violence buried in mundane lives—but none are completely satisfying, and all of these ideas find only tentative realization in the film itself.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of enjoyment to be found in the way the film replays the baffling events in the woods from new angles, each time unveiling a new layer to Hector’s complicity in his own fate. It’s a clever structure, but Vigalondo is ultimately disinterested in teasing out the nuances of his premise or exploring the mysteries of these characters, preferring to play with this rather elaborate toy he has found instead of figuring out what makes it run. Which is really a shame when you consider the intriguing marital anxiety underlining the action: Hector only falls into this horrible trap after following the young woman into the woods, and then spends the rest of the film imperiling both the woman and his own wife in an attempt to put his life back in order. Is this all just the self-fulfilling prophecy of masculine guilt run amuck? The somewhat dissatisfying ending overlooks a lot of these thornier moral issues, but it leaves us with a parody of the connubial bliss of the film's beginning, suggesting the crimes which this stability is built upon.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

A conventional film about an unconventional man, Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Works of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson plays like a greatest hits package—it’s everything you would expect of a film about Thompson, with most of the attention focused on his well-documented creative peak in the 1960s and early ‘70s. And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with crafting an introductory documentary on a subject, when a two-hour feature film can’t even match the depth and insight of a Wikipedia entry, I think it’s fair to say someone’s time has been wasted.

One would think Thompson is an ideal documentary subject. Anyone with even a glancing familiarity with the man already knows some of the most outrageous and fascinating anecdotes that litter his life story, and the film dutifully trots out these requisite highlights—talking football with Richard Nixon, running for Sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, the drugged-up road trip with Oscar Acosta that inspired Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney enlivens the film where he can with some nice archival footage and intriguing home videos, and the sometimes-surprising range of interview subjects reflects the disparate circles Thompson ran in during the course of his journalistic career. Sonny Barger, Jimmy Carter, and Pat Buchanan all make appearances to reminisce (sometimes critically) about the man and his writing.

As Gibney shuffles through these colourful stories from Thompson’s heyday, he is mostly intent on just hitting his marks. He accepts the basic narrative of Thompson’s life—that the man created a new style of journalism, succumbed to the pressures of drugs, booze, and fame, and slowly faded into irrelevance—without really caring to interrogate any of its details. Thus, we get Tom Wolfe lauding Thompson’s gonzo journalism, but very little consideration of the concept beyond generic praise. Does gonzo exist beyond Thompson? What made it such a significant innovation in the first place, and did it actually have a lasting effect on journalism? Was it just a cultural dead-end, resulting in a singular body of work but otherwise unfeasible as a method for others? With “gonzo” getting first mention in the title, you would think the film might actually show a bit of curiosity here.

There’s introductory and then there’s just plain shallow. Gibney’s film takes a rather superficial interest in Thompson and the tone often lapses into reductive glibness, relying on techniques so banal they verge on ridiculous. When Sandi, Thompson’s first wife, talks about a party at Ken Kesey’s compound notable for the presence of both the Hell’s Angels and LSD, Gibney sets the mood by blaring fuzzed-out guitar jams on the soundtrack and flashing stock psychedelic imagery of film negatives and lava-lamp globs.

Aside from being glaringly ugly, this sort of technique also seems a little obtuse and insensitive considering Thompson’s harrowing description of a woman involved in a gangbang with the bikers at that same party. Later, when one of Thompson’s editors from Rolling Stone comments on the pioneering way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas explored the darker, more uncontrolled aspects of the hallucinogenic drug experience, it only highlights the infantile nature of the film’s own sniggering approach to the topic.

Such cheekiness aside, Gibney’s film is almost too reverent to Thompson. The man’s flaws are acknowledged and then discreetly passed by—every opportunity to complicate Thompson as a subject is ignored for the safe path of the well-worn story of his life. When Juan, Hunter’s son, speaks of wishing his father had been around more as a child, the film ignores the possibility of exploring the effects of fame on his family and lets the remark drop without comment. The creatively fallow 1980s and ‘90s are all but ignored, barely acknowledging Thompson’s life between the late 1970s and his suicide in 2005. There are few details of his youth or pre-fame days (an early run-in with the law is one of the few things Gibney feels worthy of mention). Is it too much to ask for a bit of spade work on these neglected areas, if only to create a richer and more subtly shaded portrait of the film’s subject?

In a BBC documentary following Thompson and cartoonist cohort Ralph Steadman to Las Vegas (which Gibney excerpts here; the entire documentary is found on Criterion’s DVD of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Thompson laments the pressure to live up to his myth, complaining that when he appears in public he no longer knows if they expect Thompson or Duke, his fictionalized wild-man persona. The BBC interviewer points out that the personal impression of Thompson largely matches up to the public profile—a charge that makes Thompson livid, even though he seems unable to refute it. Made in 1978, the BBC documentary shows Thompson already beginning to realize the pitfalls of his celebrity status; sadly, Gibney’s documentary eagerly and uncritically jumps into that same hole.

It’s the myth of the liberated man—the wild, outrageous rebel who can do any drug, hold enough booze for ten men, and shout the truths everyone knows but lacks the courage to even whisper in private. It’s the Edge he describes in Hell’s Angels, a place where limits are tested and greatness is revealed. And in Gibney’s film—scored, unsurprisingly, with all your favourite hits of the 1960s and ‘70s, including Dylan, the Stones, and CCR—it's the source of one giant boomer nostalgia trip for a lost era of rebellion and freedom.

“[T]hey are acting out the day-dreams of millions of losers who don’t wear any defiant insignia and who don’t know how to be outlaws,” Thompson wrote of the Hell’s Angels, unwittingly creating an epitaph for his own career at the same time. His greatest writing still carries an acid wit and stinging candor, but the main attraction now is his personality—his dissent commodified, his caustic observations about American life packaged as the amusing but harmless outbursts of a drugged-out, boozed-up walking party of a man. Gibney does make a creditable attempt to bring the writing (or at least some of it) back into the spotlight, but he finally settles for perpetuating the same worn-out myths. There’s something seductive in that personality—so many people readily identify with Thompson's defiance of social constraints in pursuit of his own particular dream of freedom. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson referred to this kind of identification as “psychic masturbation”—a term which quite eloquently summarizes the chief appeal of Gonzo.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Necessities of Life

The initial scenes of The Necessities of Life paint a troubling picture of cultural dislocation. In 1952, Tiivii, an Inuk on Baffin Island, takes his family to a visiting medical ship. Told that he is ill with tuberculosis and cannot leave the ship with the rest of his family, the man is ripped from his home in an instant. Three months later, Tiivii reaches the sanatorium in Quebec City that will become his home for possibly years—or the rest of his life should the disease overtake him. Somewhat ominously, a painter is working on a mural of the Virgin Mary as Tiivii enters the hospital. He looks at it blankly as he walks by, not quite comprehending this strange, new environment.

Unable to speak French, the isolated Tiivii struggles with life in the sanatorium. He spends his time drawing animals, unable to communicate with the other patients or staff. In his loneliness and frustration, as well as fear at the thought of spending years in the hospital away from his family, he runs away one cold night and hides out in an empty shack. Too ill to escape very far, he is eventually discovered and brought back, but he refuses to eat—not out of protest, but simply because he no longer has the will to carry on living in such complete isolation and with so little hope of ever seeing his family again.

Notably, the filmmakers (director Benoit Pilon and writer Bernard Emond) refuse to cast anyone as villains in this situation. In a nuanced and moving performance by Natar Ungalaaq (most famous for his eponymous role in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), Tiivii is a desperately lonely figure but also a proud one, ambivalent about the foreign culture he treats with a mixture of wariness and bemusement. The staff and patients at the hospital occasionally betray their own discomfort around a completely alien culture, but the film never slips into broad caricatures of callous bigots. That sort of shorthand characterization is a handy tool for creating some quick drama and buying some sympathy for the protagonist, but it also undermines any serious attempt to deal with cultural conflict.

The closest the film comes to this pitfall is with the obese man who sleeps opposite Tiivii. With a smug smile and mocking demeanor, the man seems the perfect image of a bully, but the film’s approach to the character typifies its thoughtfully empathetic tone: his late-night escape on a drunken bender inspires Tiivii’s similarly self-destructive escape, just as the man’s late-night lonely crying jag echoes Tiivii’s tears in the cabin. Like Tiivii, the man is just another poor soul far away from home and suffering for it, and the film allows this character’s plight to enrich our understanding of the Inuit man’s own sorrow.

There is perhaps no cure for this despair of dislocation, but Carole, the nurse responsible for Tiivii’s welfare, at least manages to pull Tiivii out of his suicide spiral by providing another Inuk patient for companionship—an orphaned boy named Kaki. At this crucial juncture, the film’s tone shifts and its world begins to soften and grow more hospitable. By contrast, early scenes of Tiivii in the sanitarium are almost stultifying in their loneliness and encroaching gloom as the man gets sicker and sicker, slowly relinquishing his grip on life.

But in the presence of Kaki, Tiivii steadily brightens. He becomes more vibrant, showing signs of improving health and making connections with other patients. In what could be considered a quintessentially Quebecois theme, culture and language are seen as necessities of life, and assimilation a kind of death. The process of passing on his culture becomes Tiivii’s way of bringing himself back into the world of the living, and he sees it as Kaki’s only hope for survival as well.

The man is determined to bring the boy—who has spent much of his life away from his people—back into the world of Inuit culture. He carves, explains how to hunt, and tells stories—beautiful, haunting folk tales about boys playing games with demons and invisible men murdered by their wives. Contrasted with the pale, listless Tiivii of the earlier scenes, the lively Tiivii of these storytelling sessions quite vividly illustrates the film’s theme of culture as lifeblood. Not only does Tiivii’s native culture bring him back from the dead, but it also breathes life into this generous and humane film.