Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EIFF: Day Five

When I can, I like to find a unifying thread between all the films I'm watching, and today I have a handy theme: things I'm ignorant about. In particular, today I'm talking about Chinese cinema and Pedro Almodovar. So let's blunder through this together, you and I, faithful reader, and see if we can't crack these nuts.

Getting Home

My experience of contemporary Chinese filmmaking is limited mostly to art-house fare like Zhang Ke Jia, so I was quite curious to see Getting Home, a more mainstream example of the Chinese cinema. Director Zhang Yang does a solid job balancing the sadness and humour in the story of Zhao, a construction worker carrying the body of a dead friend to be buried near his family home at the Three Gorges. It's a charming film, but not without some serious problems.

The plot takes on an episodic shape, with Zhao encountering various figures along his journey who are moved by his plight to help him. Some episodes veer a bit too much into tear-jerking terrain—a fact not helped by the obnoxious score, which underlines each emotion and then adds five exclamation marks in case we missed the point—but others have a nicely understated droll whimsy to them, such as the scene where Zhao fakes mourning at a funeral in order to get a free meal, only to be joined at his table by the man from the coffin. Other comedic moments carry on that tone of low-key weirdness, such as a nice bit of underplayed physical comedy when Zhao tries to commit suicide by knocking his head against a tree.

The problems with the film are deeper than structure or performance, and have more to do with its treatment of the Three Gorges Dam, which has caused environmental devastation and lead to the relocation of over a million people. The unspoken intention of the film seems to be turning these larger issues into minor and ultimately harmless inconveniences. By the time a kindly police officer takes Zhao under his wing, the film had lost me. Getting Home ends as nothing more than a paean to the benign, all-knowing state apparatus in China; Zhao's biggest error is his foolish attempt at self-reliance. The implication is that he should have simply given himself over to the wisdom of the authorities, who will care for all Chinese citizens like a dutiful parent.

Oh, horseshit. Maybe films like Zhang Ke Jia's Still Life and The World don't represent the mainstream of Chinese culture, but at least they don't swallow the government agenda with uncritical loyalty. Give me some intelligent, idiosyncratic filmmaking instead of obsequious nationalist propaganda any day of the week.

Broken Embraces

I must shamefully confess that Pedro Almodovar is a major blind spot for me. Yes, I'm aware this man is one of the major figures in the Spanish cinema at the moment, much lauded for a body of work stretching over thirty years. And yet, I just can't find the motivation to dig into his work, and what little I have seen has only spurred on my galloping indifference. What can I say? It's carried me this far, so I haven't had a reason to stop.

But I found myself enjoying Broken Embraces, his latest collaboration with Penelope Cruz, which makes me wonder if it's time to start digging deeper into Almodovar's work. Strangely, most critics so far seem to have yawned through this one as it makes the rounds on the festival circuit, and I'm not sure what to make of that. Does that mean I too would be bored by this film if I was actually familiar with Almodovar's work? Or is this merely an indication that a good director on familiar terrain can't really excite jaded critics who crave something new, not just another solid film from a well-known director? Your guess is as good as mine, and I won't bother trying to fathom the mysteries of the professional film critic's mind.

In all fairness to the lukewarm reviews so far, I should be clear that this is not a flawless film by any means. For the work of such an experienced director, Broken Embraces is surprisingly clumsy at times as it jumps between different time periods while trying to build up a somewhat overstuffed plot. There comes a point when plot twists start to feel gratuitous, as if Almodovar was throwing in surprises that are justified by the film's themes, but which only provide more unnecessary clutter to the narrative itself. And the ending is a bit limp, with people explaining away the convoluted story instead of allowing events to unfold before our eyes.

So, there are weaknesses. But there's also a lot to enjoy in this weirdly referential comedy-melodrama-noir mash-up, even if it lacks the expected grace of an old master exploring his craft. In fact, the sheer amount of things going on in this film may be its biggest charm.

I'm not even sure I can summarize the film. We begin with a blind writer named Harry Caine, who was once a director by the name of Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), and then go deeper into his past, into a passionate, doomed love affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), the lead actress in one of his films. But Lena is the mistress of the film's producer, a controlling old business man who instructs his son to follow Lena around, filming her every move on set in order to watch for any potential infidelity.

From there, I'm not sure if I can explain much more without giving away the whole game, but suffice it to say, there is a mess of double identities, secret relationships, and so many movie references I can't even begin to process the elaborate conversation Almodovar seems to be having with the entire history of film. In fact, the easiest way to pick apart this film might be to figure out all of its references. There are telling allusions to Vertigo and Peeping Tom, and a glimpse of one of Ingrid Bergman's collaborations with Roberto Rossellini, a real life example of a leading woman in an affair with her director. I can only imagine how much more I'm missing.

Perhaps that's the source of some people's dissatisfaction with this film. It seems like a minor pleasure, and yet it is still so dense that it feels like much of it passes by the viewer at first. Still, the incidental charms of this film are often enough to satisfy, whether it be hilarious glimpses of Girls With Suitcases, the farce Mateo is making with Lena, or the eerie sight of Lena's sugar daddy watching the soundless video of his lover leaving him while she stands behind him, reciting the words she spoke in the video (it makes sense when you see it, honest). Despite the frustrations and the flaws of the film, it's hard not to like a work brimming full with so many striking ideas and images, rich with poignant performances and broad comic turns, often from the same actor.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

EIFF: Days Three and Four

Okay, two things: first, I'm sort of cheating in the title to this post. I didn't actually go to see anything at the film festival on day three, but I felt weird jumping from day two to four, hence why I threw it in there.

Second, I've decided to skip the usual orgy of verbiage that I seem to require whenever writing one of these things. No, I've resolved to keep my words chaste from now on. More films, less chatter. My promise to you.


Kirby Dick is clearly pissed off, and rightly so, in this documentary about gay Conservative politicians who hide in the closet while pursuing an anti-LGBT agenda. The film begins with an astounding audio recording of Larry Craig's police interrogation after his failed bathroom tryst with an undercover officer, begging the question: is Craig seriously in such deep denial that he believes having sex with other men doesn't make him a homosexual? Or is he simply that dedicated a liar and hypocrite?

Sadly, we'll probably never know. Dick obviously can't get direct interviews with people like Craig or his wife (who I am sure would have some whopper stories to tell if she cared to talk), but he does get some insights from formerly closeted politicians like Barney Frank and Jim McGreevey. He also follows the work of people like Michael Rogers, who runs BlogActive, which is dedicated to outing gay politicians. And while some people might feel uncomfortable with this sort of prying into the private lives of public figures, Dick's film makes a persuasive case that the self-deception required by living a double life often leads to a dangerously homophobic legislative agenda. Many of these closeted politicians seem to adhere more closely to an anti-gay agenda simply for fear of being associated with their own denied identity.

What's especially chilling is seeing someone like Charlie Crist, current governor of Florida, who has left behind a fairly impressive trail of evidence for his own homosexuality, but continues to deny his sexual orientation, even to the point of getting married—seemingly just to help his chances at a VP slot on the McCain 2008 ticket.

The film's most significant flaw might be its occasional lapse into conspiracy thinking. A note at the beginning of the film declares this to be a "brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy," which is perhaps a slight overstatement. There's no real deep organization behind this history of lies, but rather just a large group of powerful men who have internalized years of homophobia and turned it into a corrupt lifestyle. When Dick starts trying to suggest that the mainstream media is complicit in some sort of conspiracy to hide the truth, I think he starts to overreach. Yes, the mainstream press ignores many of these outing controversies until they blow up to Larry Craig proportions, but more than anything else that seems to be a function of the same homophobic discomfort that informs the politicians in the scandals.

There are times when Dick panders to paranoia when some good hard-nosed documentary filmmaking is really just required. The worst example of this is when he points out an episode of Larry King Live was edited after its first airing to remove a comment from Bill Maher outing Ken Mehlman, chairman of the RNC and crony of Dubya.

The film leaves the incident suggestively open, as if it were sign of a conspiratorial censorship. Is it not plausible that a major news corporation would not have the guts to stand behind a potentially libelous offhand remark offered without backing evidence? This is surely the same kind of self-censorship that keeps people like Ken Mehlman in the closet, but there's no real proof that it is somehow directed by the halls of power instead of ass-covering legal departments. Even more troubling, the film gives no indication that Dick bothered to interview anyone involved in the incident in order to uncover what actually happened—suggestive possibilities being better here than facts, apparently. The righteous rage and sense of purpose Dick brings to this documentary is vital and necessary, but unfounded conspiracy-mongering isn't really needed. The simple truth is frightening enough.

Tales From the Golden Age

It just wouldn't be a film festival without something from Romania, would it? And so we have Tales From the Golden Age, an omnibus film consisting of five different stories set during the twilight of Ceausescu's rule. That's right, an omnibus film—the Romanian New Wave is all grown up now.

The film benefits from being solely written by Cristian Mungiu, who directs one of the stories while handing over the reins to four other directors for the rest. None of the directors veer too far from the same deadpan style Mungiu effects, and the whole film maintains a consistency of purpose and general quality that is rare in these types of films. Admittedly, it's a minor work when compared to Mungiu's last film—the brutally powerful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—but still quite enjoyable.

In fact, I like Tales From the Golden Age as a sort of complement to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In that film, set during the late Ceausescu era like this latest one, Mungiu depicted a young woman's attempt to get an abortion as a cold-sweat nightmare. It was intense and immediate, narrowing the widespread political repression of the Communist regime into personal bodily subjugation.

By contrast, this latest film takes a more detached, absurdly humorous approach. Each of the five tales is treated as an urban legend of life under a repressive regime, all told with a dryly mocking tone. In one story, a student decides to earn some extra money by scamming people out of their empty bottles and getting the deposits for herself. With her partner in crime, she goes through apartment buildings posing as a member of the Ministry of Chemistry taking air samples to measure pollution from nearby industrial factories. The plan sounds ridiculous, but it works—largely because every person they talk to admits to having filed numerous complaints about the stench. Indeed, most people are surprisingly easy to scam. They're just happy to see someone from the bureaucracy doing something.

The rest of the stories maintain a similar balance between the absurd and the bleak. People create little black market enterprises to get by, while others struggle to hide the occasional bit of good fortune lest it be taken away (one of the funniest sequences in the film involves a policeman and his family trying to figure out how to silently slaughter a pig so that none of their neighbours find out they have meat). The film very nicely captures the farce of living under a crumbling dictatorship while not covering up the tragedy of the situation. In short, a worthy example of police-state humour.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

EIFF: Day Two

I may never understand the pitfalls of celebrity. Save for one unfortunate brush with small-town fame—when I was eight years old I won a giant four-foot tall stuffed rabbit from a grocery store, which resulted in my picture running in the local paper—I've managed to remain thankfully obscured from the public eye. Granted, should I ever become a Pynchonesque media-shy author, this grainy, faded picture of my young moppet self squeezing a giant bunny might come back to haunt me, but I remain hopeful that this image has buried by history, just as the rabbit itself has long since been lost.

In fact, I've even managed to achieve a certain anonymity in my everyday life. Co-workers have mistakenly confused me with the following people: Robert, Bryan, Ryan, and Hey You. Best of all, a woman who had worked with me for months inexplicably took to calling me Mark for almost three weeks—a mistake I encouraged, as it allowed me to hide from her dithering ineptitude. "Where's Mark?" she would ask, only to receive a chorus of confused shrugs, finally wandering off, her dazed, wide-eyed look resembling nothing so much as a deer caught in a world of headlights. I was rather disappointed when my supervisor finally corrected her. How liberating it was to be a Mark and throw off all the baggage of my old name, even if only for a few weeks.

There's a point to all of this, I assure you. Some fortuitous scheduling at the festival allowed me to take in two complimentary documentaries that deal with the perils of unwanted celebrity, and both films feature people confronting past embarrassments. In Best Worst Movie, this fame comes from the shame of appearing in Troll 2, which was once listed as the worst movie ever on IMDB (it has since relinquished the crown to Pocket Ninjas). In Winnebago Man, it is the questionable notoriety of a viral video phenom. But in both cases, people find their pasts coming back not just to haunt them, but to drag them into the spotlight. And oh, how that brightness burns...

Winnebago Man

Nearly twenty years ago, a video of outtakes from a shoot for a Winnebago promotional film began circling among people who trade these sort of underground tapes. The appeal of the "Winnebago Man" video, as it was called, lied in the foul-mouthed star of the film, who flubbed lines, cussed out the intern, and said baffling things like, "I want no more bullshit from anyone—and that includes me." It was viral video before the concept even existed.

Of course, when YouTube took off, the tape was uploaded and found an even larger audience. For most people, it was just a cathartic bit of fun—look at this guy having a terrible day and simply letting that vitriol fly. But documentary director Ben Steinbauer was obsessed with discovering the man behind the video, and began a search for the "Winnebago Man" that would result in this film.

The man in the video is named Jack Rebney, and it turns out the tape was created by the disgruntled crew in order to get him fired. Their plan worked, and Rebney seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth while the tape began its second life in underground tape-trading circles before graduating to the dubious distinction of an Internet video phenomenon.

Now 76 years old, the man lives alone in a secluded cabin on a mountain in California with only his dog Buddha for company. At first, he seems polite and modest, disinterested in the documentary but amiable nonetheless. But as he warms to Steinbauer (and perhaps realizes the documentary offers a chance to redeem himself after his Internet humiliation), Rebney begins to drop his guard and reveal the full force of his opinions and personality on film.

It's bracing, to say the least. He's very much the definition of a crotchety old man, but also absolutely charming despite (or perhaps because of) his obvious crustiness. He's rightly wary of the new fame Steinbauer wants to bring to him—this is a man whose fame rests on a tape specifically designed to humiliate him, remember. But he's also possessed by a restless, talkative demeanor, and he can't help but pour out a torrent of words the instant he's prodded. There are times when you want to roll your eyes—he's working on a book called "Jousting With the Myth," which is apparently a "heretical analysis" of politics, sex, and religion, whatever that means—but the man is also sharp-witted and quite endearing. As one fan in the film notes, "He's everyone's angry grandpa."

In fact, one of the highlights of the festival so far had to be the post-screening q-and-a with Steinbauer and co-writer/producer Malcolm Pullinger. In response to one question from the audience about Rebney's book, Steinbauer offered to call the man himself. Speaking through a cellphone, Rebney regaled the audience with his own mix of eloquent charm and cussedness. Steinbauer barely had to say anything and the man was off and running—praising Canada, thanking us for our generosity, complimenting his director, describing his swearing as "Anglo-Saxonese," making jokes about lutefisk, and just generally saying whatever occurred to him.

It was funny and ridiculous, but it also makes clear why this simple film is so engaging. Steinbauer never really quite deciphers the mysteries of viral video or Internet fame; quite naturally, the film evolves into a character portrait of Rebney himself, and Steinbauer contents himself to get lost in the strange and fascinating personality of this sweetly embittered old man. By the end, Rebney finds his redemption as a man willing to speak his mind, letting loose with anger, gratitude, or simply whatever curious thought happens to be drifting by at the moment. We should all be so uninhibited.

Best Worst Movie

I suppose there are worse fates than having a picture of your chubby-cheeked cherubic little self squeezing a plush rabbit printed in a small-town newspaper. For instance, as a child you could be cast in a film called Troll 2, only to realize your hope of becoming an actor has been forever destroyed because you just appeared in what will come to be known as the worst movie ever.

That's the fate of Michael Stephenson, who starred in the famously awful Troll 2 and also directed this film, Best Worst Movie, chronicling the growing cult legend of that legendary bit of crap cinema. After years of running from that dire credit (one of his costars who has continued with acting admits she never puts the film on her resume), Stephenson has decided to embrace it with this film, and turn that liability into a bit of camp celebrity.

He rounds up the bulk of the cast, although the film mostly focuses on George Hardy, a gregarious small-town dentist who also once harbored dreams of acting, only to have them dashed by Troll 2. The film follows the reunited cast as they attend enthusiastic fan screenings, re-enacting scenes from the movie to giddy applause and hysterical laughter. As the film enters its second life as a cult object, the cast—Hardy and Stephenson in particular—struggle to turn this embarrassment into something redemptive, like a second shot at fame.

Best Worst Movie has its charms, but I found myself liking it less than I thought I would. Of course, there's a fair bit of humour to be found in excerpts from the brilliantly awful Troll 2, just as there's some enjoyment in seeing the grown actors replay the most bizarre scenes or reminisce about the difficult, confused shoot (the crew was Italian, and the ensuing language barrier meant the cast had only the frantic hand gestures of the director to explain what was required of them).

At the same time, there are some more ambivalent strains in Stephenson's film that he seems unable or unwilling to address. There is the disturbed Margo Prey, female lead in the film and a clearly troubled, lonely woman whose life seems a shambles. There's the self-deluding Claudio Fragasso, volatile Italian director of Troll 2, who defends the worth of the film while twisting himself into knots rationalizing the mocking adoration of his film (at one point we see his patience finally break as he berates the cast for making fun of the film, calling them "dog actors").

Finally, there is George Hardy himself, who—while clearly charismatic and goodhearted—is something of a narcissist finding his ego fed by this dubious celebrity. It's simultaneously funny and painful to watch him foist his awful movie appearance on clients at his dental clinic, and there are points where you can't quite tell if Stephenson is simply mocking this poor guy. It brings to mind a point in Winnebago Man where Steinbauer muses over the wisdom of putting Rebney in front of a camera again, especially if it only provides new humiliation for the man.

Stephenson, who seems to be a less nuanced director than Steinbauer, doesn't even really pause to consider this possibility. For that matter, he might be too complicit in this story to really pick apart the Troll 2 experience with any real insight beyond his own bemusement. I was amused for a while, but the film itself never really becomes genuinely compelling. And by the end, it becomes clear Stephenson intends his film to serve as a sweet conclusion to a bitter memory, which unfortunately requires the film to gloss over its more contrary elements.

However, I should note that I've never seen Troll 2, so I don't really fit into the group of devotees who would most likely lap up a film like this (myself, I'm holding out for a Gymkata revival). For those of us outside of the cult, Best Worst Movie is at most a minor pleasure and mild curiosity, and little more.

But there are still valuable lessons to be learned here. Like this: there is no sense in running from notoriety. Hiding from your past doesn't necessarily stop it from finding you. Embrace it; only when it is close can you get your hands around its throat. Also, Italian directors are crazy. And according to Jack Rebney, Karl Rove deserves to have a hot poker stuck up his ass. Amen.

Now, I believe there is a four-foot-tall plush rabbit I need to find, lest I be on my deathbed calling out in a weathered croak, "Foo-foo Bunny," and then dropping my cherished snow globe.

Keep on truckin',

Saturday, September 26, 2009

EIFF: Day One

Another autumn in Edmonton. After outrageously record-breaking heat earlier this week, you can start to feel the chill setting in as we prepare to dive into months of snowy hell. The leaves, feeling a heart-sinking terror at the coming cold, leap to death rather than face the agonies of frost. The cracks in the asphalt are fairly panting with anticipation for the ice to come and pry open their maws, turning the Edmonton streets into a giant car-eating beast. It hungers. You hear its stomach growl as the weather begins to change.

And just as we feel our spirits sagging with the weight of the coming winter, the Edmonton International Film Festival (23rd edition) comes along offering some sort of shelter from the dismal spectacle of nature committing hari-kari en masse before first snowfall. Yes, let us seek comfort in the antiseptic environs of City Centre Mall (speaking of dead things) and warm ourselves beneath the glowing lights of the cinema.

But is there enough combined friction in this slate of films to even generate the heat needed to offset the chilly blast of the theatre's air conditioning? Will we all freeze to death sitting before some middlebrow mediocrity so devoid of spark you could lock it in a room full of dry tinder and not lose a wink of sleep? We shall see.

Cooking With Stella

The beginning film sets the tone, as festival producer Kerrie Long noted in her introduction to this year's opening gala. In that case, what does Dilip Mehta's Cooking With Stella presage for the rest of the week? It's not a terrible film, but certainly a bit of a clunker. Set in New Delhi, the film focuses on a Canadian family new to India: Maya, a Canadian diplomat (Lisa Ray), and Michael, her chef husband (Don McKellar, who answered questions with Mehta after the screening), along with a young baby. They're greeted by Stella (Seema Biswas), a cook and household servant who has served visiting diplomats for thirty years.

For years, Stella has conned her employers with little scams, overcharging for laundry and food and earning commissions from the complicit shop owners. She also steals the duty-free western groceries and sells them on the black market, and even, on occasion, simply swipes jewelry. But when Lisa and Michael hire a nanny for their baby, Stella finds her cash cow under threat by an honest outsider.

Mehta plays this mostly as a comedy, and while the quality cast helps in this regard, I'm not sure if the film really works. The director said after the screening that he wanted the audience to laugh and then feel a "pinch," as he called it, when they considered what they were laughing at. His real intention, he made clear, was to make a comedy about the economic disparity between the servants and their employers. Certainly, that element is there, but the humour is often too broad to really connect with the actual themes of the film, and the plot requires far too much credulity on the part of the audience to really hold together.

Mehta might be the film's main weakness. Primarily a photojournalist, he confirms my (potentially unfair, I admit) bias against photographers-turned-filmmakers. For every Stanley Kubrick, there are ten Dilip Mehtas—directors who possess a fine understanding of light and composition, and yet do not seem to have a clear grasp on how to make good cinema. The film, at first glance, does not seem ugly, but it is certainly flat and inert, possessing an aesthetic with the depth of a made-for-television movie.

Scenes in a crowded Indian marketplace, for example, feel as if they were filmed in a studio with twenty extras. Most likely, these scenes were actually on location (the film was made in New Delhi), but Mehta hits a barrier here where his abilities as a photographer cannot help him as a director. He does not lead us into his images, but rather cuts right to the primary information in the shot. There is no sense of the scope of the marketplace—no establishing shots, no stray details of the bustle and vitality of the crowded place—just Michael walking through it, close to the camera. Mehta's frame makes the world smaller, less real. And this from a director who claimed his editor needed to work in New Delhi in order to take in the flavour of India.

Not Quite Hollywood

EIFF has a particular fondness for documentaries about crap cinema and figures on the margin of the film industry, which makes Not Quite Hollywood a good fit for the festival. Mark Hartley's energetic documentary chronicles the heyday of Australian exploitation cinema in the 1970s and '80s (or Ozploitation, if you prefer), when a flurry of low-budget filmmaking in that country produced a series of violent, sexed-up cheap thrillers that have grown in cult popularity over the years.

The tone of Not Quite Hollywood is celebratory, although for a bit of variety Hartley also talks to a couple of film critics who mostly sniff disdainfully at the parade of vulgarities relished by the film. There are some interesting little movies that Hartley puts under the spotlight, like Roadgames (Rear Window set in a truck on the highway, apparently) and Long Weekend (obnoxious couple go camping and are attacked by vengeful nature, from plants to weather to animals), but mostly there is just a lengthy parade of cheesy gore and sex.

It's entertaining, if a bit tiring at times—those montages of naked women or over-the-top murders start to get a bit monotous, you know—but when Hartley focuses his attention on a single picture the film gets more interesting. Tales of Dennis Hopper's debauched adventures during the filming of Mad Dog Morgan are particularly enjoyable, as are anecdotes of the difficult Chinese action star Jimmy Wang Yu. The film also makes a fair point in how genre cinema often serves as a necessary foundation to more respectable filmmaking (which echoes the development of the Canadian film industry in the 1970s in some ways), but mostly, this is just a celebration of using naked women as living hood ornaments and the art of setting actors on fire.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


“His anger boiled up against these people who would not understand. How gladly would he have made them a present of his fat salary if he could have had their tough hide and could have copulated like them, easy come, easy go! Why couldn’t he sit them at this table and stuff them with his pheasant, while he went off fornicating behind the hedges, laying girls without bothering about who had done so before. He would have given up everything—education, comfort, luxurious life and his powerful position as manager—if just for one day he could have been the humblest of these poor devils under him and be free with his own body and be oafish enough to beat his wife and take his pleasure with the wives of his neighbours. He found himself wishing he were dying of starvation too, and that his empty belly were twisted with pains that made his brain reel, for perhaps that might deaden this relentless grief! Oh to live like a brute, possessing nothing but freedom to roam in the cornfields with the ugliest and most revolting haulage girl and possess her!” —from Germinal by Emile Zola, inveterate lover of minor-key American satires (and big Mila Kunis fan)

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Fall

Beautiful and boring, imaginative and yet still somehow so dull, Tarsem Singh’s daffy opus is mostly lauded on the basis of its delirious imagery—billowing sheets turning blood red and so forth—but its style is mostly cribbed from better filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Sergei Parajanov, both of whom do this mythic exoticism with more intelligence and bravura. (That’s not even mentioning a left-field homage to the Quay brothers that I’m still trying to process.) Presumably, there’s a kind of story buried in this mess of images somewhere. Perhaps an ode to the art of the anonymous stuntmen from the days of silent film, or maybe just a simple tale of innocence lost. But who can be bothered to excavate that story from beneath the rubble of this film, which collapses in on itself under the weight of a thousand good ideas, all half-developed and completely useless? I’d sooner watch The Color of Pomegranates. Hell, I’d sooner watch Fando and Lis, and that’s not even a good movie.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bad Day at Black Rock

A one-armed man gets off a train in Black Rock, a little town in the American west that seems to have fallen off the twentieth century somewhere before the New Deal. It’s 1945, the war is over, and the man—John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy, slouching and with his hand in his pocket, which sounds like bad manners but is actually acting)—is looking for a Japanese farmer named Komoko.

The townspeople eye this one-armed stranger distrustfully, circling him endlessly and peppering him with passive-aggressive questions about what he wants, why would he even stop there, when is he leaving, and so on. They say Komoko was taken away when the government interned Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor—a startling detail, to hear a 1955 film address an often ignored blot on history—but Macreedy senses something is wrong and digs deeper.

Macreedy finds himself marked as an outsider the instant he steps off that train, every dusty eye on him as he gapes uncomprehendingly at the inexplicable hostility that greets him everywhere. He finds himself headed down the same path Komoko must have walked before him, heading into the same blind spot in collective memory that hides the fate of the farmer. Small-town bigotry follows the same pattern regardless of its target.

Bad Day at Black Rock could easily have been unbearable, but director John Sturges wisely focuses his energy on emphasizing the thriller aspects of story while letting the racial commentary stand on its own. Indeed, aside from a few chunky, obvious lines of dialogue (“I’m consumed by apathy!”) and an unnecessary third-act revelation about Komoko’s son being a decorated American war hero, the film rarely tips its hand. Putting the wide-open spaces of CinemaScope to good use, Sturges simply gives the audience room to breathe in deep the poison atmosphere of this decayed little town.

Spencer Tracy plays Macreedy with reticent charisma. You get the impression he’d rather be somewhere else the instant he sets foot in Black Rock, and that diffidence helps prevent the film from sliding into pious sermonizing. With his harrumphing, beleaguered quality, you half-expect Macreedy to give up and skip out on this quest before uncovering the truth, rather than face the trouble it would bring. In fact, he even does try to escape once, but no luck—he can’t find a car to carry him away.

Aside from Tracy’s fine lead turn, there are a lot of incidental pleasures to be found in the supporting cast. The film benefits greatly from a well-chosen collection of stalwart Hollywood second bananas, all playing to their specialties—Robert Ryan is a controlling sociopath, Walter Brennan a jittery wash-out, and Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin menacing thugs (I call them Sneery and Scowly). No one stretches too far out of his comfort zone, but there’s a certain joy in watching the old pros going through their paces.

Sturges brings similar workmanlike grit to the proceedings. He rarely gets much mention these days, even though some of his films—notably The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape—have achieved a measure of posterity. He’s really more of a craftsman than your typical auteur material, one of the many dependable if unspectacular journeymen directors who worked their way through the Hollywood studio system.

And that’s okay. If he felt himself to be one of those higher-calling artist types who believe in the social responsibility of art and all that jazz, Bad Day at Black Rock could very quickly have devolved into an orgy of self-regarding guilt instead of the taut, thoughtful thriller we have instead. Like any good journeyman director in 1950’s Hollywood, Sturges focuses his energy on creating a tense, compelling story—which only adds depth and complexity to the film’s treatment of racism. This is no earnest “message” picture—just a simple, smart movie—and thank goodness for that.