Saturday, July 24, 2010

Toute la memoire du monde

One might think a short film about a library could only be dry, but you should never discount the fertile imagination of Alain Resnais. Toute la memoire du monde, a 1956 short from Resnais, turns France’s Bibliotheque Nationale into a filmmaker’s playground of corridors and shadows, littered with impassive statues watching over little anonymous people who scuttle about like beetles. The institution—made into something enchantingly unreal by Resnais’ prowling camera—is alternately fortress, prison, hospital, and hive, filled with “paper-crunching pseudo-insects” (the film's charming description of readers). The collective memory of mankind is regarded with awe and even a touch of dread. There's a tone of droll wonder that is nicely accentuated by Maurice Jarre’s playfully sinister score and Remo Forlani’s witty script. The seeds of the feature-length masterpieces Resnais would make a few years later are found here, but this spryly intelligent short is more than a dry run for Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. It is a startling piece of work in its own right, bursting with humour and insight, dropping small gems of lyrical wit along the way (the card left behind when a book is checked out is “its ghost,” the syringe used to squirt glue into damaged volumes “inoculates” the book). Does the secret of happiness lie buried within one of these haunted tomes, as the film suggests? Perhaps—or perhaps you need look no farther than this intensely pleasurable little film, which dexterously excavates the mystical from the mundane.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Lo and behold, it’s the last original idea in Hollywood—tread carefully, lest this rare beast become startled and disappear back into the smog from whence it came. As a rare big-budget film that is neither a sequel nor based upon an old television show, Inception earns a lot of good will right from the start. True, Christopher Nolan’s story of dream thieves trying to plant an idea in the mind of the heir to a giant business empire is completely convoluted, but I’m just happy to see a blockbuster that taxes my brain and not just my senses. Too bad the film totally squanders charismatic performers like Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on expository sidekick roles and features Leo DiCaprio doing his typical sad-sack tortured husband routine (better than Shutter Island, for what little that’s worth). It’s an intriguing dream, yet it fades too quickly once you wake up.

Only a supremely disciplined and organized mind could hold together Inception’s complex dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream narrative, but rationality can be a bit of a liability when dealing with the subconscious. Save for a few bursts of ostentatious special effects—a street folds on top of itself, a series of Parisian shops explode in slow motion—the dreamscapes are mostly just generic action-movie set pieces, each feeling like another level in some videogame (I’m pretty sure I already played this snow level in Modern Warfare 2). The film’s excuse is that these are collective dreams, designed by an architect and then dreamt by another. They’re meant to be generic, because anything too unique or weird draws the attention of the dreamer’s subconscious—here represented by an impersonal horde of everyday people that descend upon intruders with the implacable violence of a zombie mob. Show a bit of ingenuity and the crowd is likely to turn on you. Too much personality, too much creativity is dangerous in these blockbuster dreams. And if that is Nolan’s view of the audience and his role as an architect of dreams, is it really surprising that he should build such an elaborate labyrinth of a film to hide within?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Project Grizzly

If I were to encounter a grizzly bear—and somehow live to tell the tale—I suspect I would be changed by the experience, and probably not for the better. Most likely, I would become some sort of paranoiac anti-wilderness freak, never daring to set foot near anything that remotely resembles teeming, uncontrolled nature. City parks would reduce me to an irrational, sniveling terror. Friends would turn away in disgust as I preached the virtues of clear-cutting and forest fires. Teddy bears would send me into a rage with their vile pro-ursine propaganda.

But when Troy Hurtubise encounters a bear and is mysteriously spared, he is changed in a far different manner (though one could still debate whether or not for the better). Instead of recoiling from nature, Troy faces it head on, dedicating his life to building a suit that can withstand the assault of a grizzly. Now, as Troy lumbers about in a nearly 200-pound shell of titanium and chain mail, all I could think is one thing—what the hell is the point of this lunacy? Is he planning to walk up to a bear and punch it in the nose?

Project Grizzly dedicates itself to chronicling this baffling quest in all its absurd yet compelling glory. The film employs a somewhat cheeky tone at times, courtesy of director Peter Lynch, who seems bemused as much as he is fascinated with this man’s zealous project. When Troy and company ride into the Rocky Mountains to field-test the suit, the score turns martial, gently mocking the men’s pretense to wage war against the natural world. Nature, of course, remains completely indifferent to the petty games of men, and the group spends a week in the mountains without spotting a single bear. Only as they leave does a grizzly finally appear, but by then the suit is abandoned under a blanket of snow and playtime is over.

Lynch doesn’t try to overanalyze Troy’s obsessions, although he does allow for some tantalizing explanations. The paternal relationship is trotted out as one possibility, as the film reveals Troy’s father spent three years building a full-size re-creation of an Iroquois village (maybe monomania is genetic?). The father-son dynamic that Lynch emphasizes is almost mythic: a son seeking approval from his now-departed father. Beneath the idolization of the father there are hints of tension, and it’s hard to tell if Troy is driven by a need to live up to his father’s example or simply surpass him entirely. Notably, Troy’s nickname for the bear that almost killed him is “The Old Man.” His relationship to the animal is a mixture of awe and antagonism—a tender anger that mirrors his own relationship to his father.

If this sort of Freudian stuff doesn’t light your cigar, there’s always the adrenalin junky angle. Much talk is heard of “the edge,” the potency of adrenalin, and the need to return to that same rush first felt during some life-threatening experience. During the mountain expedition, one of the men—a Vietnam War vet, if you can believe it—talks about a game called “Outrun the Grenade” that he used to play with fellow soldiers during dull moments between battles. It’s basically what you think it is.

How else to explain cringe-inducing but often hilarious footage of Troy testing different incarnations of the suit by submitting himself to all sorts of punishment? He is rammed by a truck, battered by a log, and thrown down the Niagara Escarpment. At one point, he invites several burly bikers to beat him up with their bludgeons of choice. After their baseball bats splinter apart, he takes off his helmet and does a merry little jig to celebrate. When the log knocks him flat, he tells everyone he feels fine—better than he did before the log hit him, in fact, since his arm had fallen asleep but is now awake again.

So Troy is clearly a bit of a nut, if a charming one. These sort of charismatic monomaniacs are the bread-and-butter of the documentary form (see Man on Wire for another good example of this type of film): voluble types, somewhat self-absorbed but capable of an intense passion most people will never know. During the mountain expedition, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of Troy’s personality. As a raconteur, he’s first-class. His retelling of the bear encounter that changed his life is pure theatrics. He relives the memory as he recounts it, even throwing himself on his back when he describes how the bear knocked him down. At another point, he goes on a lengthy rant about the two knives he carries, explaining how they are necessary for protection from animals of the two-legged—as opposed to four-legged—variety. There are some real crazy folks up in the mountains, he tells us (yeah, no kidding). He then shows us how one knife is better for stabbing, while the other is for throwing.

Of course, you know that he has never had to stab a deranged mountain dweller—it’s not like there are scores of violent survivalists hiding in Banff National Park, for god’s sake—and most likely never will. This is all a lot of bluff and preparation for a threat that only really exists in his head, much as the suit is preparation for an encounter with a bear that will never come. His ambition and drive are impressive, but it’s disturbing to consider that this life-path borders so close to self-destruction (a cursory online search reveals he has already been bankrupted once by this project).

Still, there’s no denying that the suit is an incredible piece of work. Troy may be a mad mountain-man Ahab hunting his land-bound Moby Dick, but that doesn’t mean he can’t achieve great things, right? This film is pure charm, but it also illustrates the simultaneously creative and destruction power of obsession, which threatens to ruin this man’s life even as it drives him to great lengths of ingenuity. Even if reality never obliges him with the flesh-and-fur foe he craves, Troy will soldier on. Perhaps we should just be grateful that someone out there is willing to put so much effort into handling the ursine threat. After all, while he tinkers with his suit, who knows what the grizzlies are planning?

Just consider this: bears with chainsaws.

So who’s the crazy one now?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Please Give

Most of the problems with Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give—a dyspeptic comedy-drama with little flair for either—can be summed up with a single scene. Kate (Catherine Keener), a vintage-furniture dealer riddled with guilt over her privileged lifestyle, returns a gaudy vase to its original owner because she discovers it is worth far more than expected. The man is startled by the gesture, thanks her profusely, and shuts the door. She walks away fairly glowing. Dimly on the soundtrack, we hear him shatter the vase, calling it junk.

There are two possibilities here. First, that the man is doing something utterly baffling and ridiculous—shattering a valuable vase in his living room just because it’s ugly—simply because Holofcener needs to score points against her characters. Second, that these people are aliens and this bizarre ritual would be perfectly understandable if only we could also breathe their rarified Martian air. Mundane reality, when portrayed so ineptly, becomes science fiction.

The modest premise of the film is that Kate and her husband Alex are upper-middleclass vultures, waiting for their elderly neighbour Andra to die so that they can knock out a wall and expand their apartment. While Kate’s guilt drives her to weird gestures like the vase incident, Alex is more pragmatic about his place in the food chain. Unfortunately, Holofcener tries to develop this schematic set-up (emotional woman versus rational man) with poorly realized complications, like Alex’s fling with one of Andra’s granddaughters. May the movies never again see so passionless and pointless an affair, which will neither echo through the ages nor ever besmirch my DVD player.

So I’ll break it down for you, nice and neat: the cold pragmatist learns to feel, and the sensitive type learns to not, which means everyone learns something, yay for learning (yay!). I’ve learned that it’s a horrible burden to be wealthy, successful, and happy (thank god I’ve dodged that bullet so far, whew), and I’ve learned that the best way to make such an asinine moral palatable is to resort to a lot of weepy, tinkly-piano scenes of characters hugging and telling each other that they’re good people.

I suppose there is some value to pointing out that aimless guilt does little to improve either the world or your own life. But why does a film supposedly hewn so close to life have to spend its last twenty or so minutes wallowing in pure Hollywood la-la-land nonsense? Everyone gets what they want. Kate finds release from her guilt in the joy of others. Alex’s affair ends as effortlessly and painlessly as it began. Finally, the pair buy their daughter some expensive jeans and smile beatifically in a glowing light that suggests they’re about to beam up to their spaceship and return to the planet from which they came. Farewell, friendly aliens! Enjoy your souvenirs!