Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Third Man

Whenever and however I finally pack it in—the smart money’s on decapitation by the side mirror of a passing city bus, by the way—can I have The Third Man played at my funeral in lieu of a eulogy? No, it doesn’t sum up my life in any meaningful way. I never smuggled penicillin in post-war Vienna, wrote dime-store westerns nor, save for several magical weeks one long-lost summer, played female lead in a Germanic powdered-wig farce.

But is there any greater film about the art of saying—or not saying—goodbye? How many tickets out of town do you need before you finally leave? How many times must you bury your best friend before he finally stays dead? Is there really any such thing as a foolproof coffin? Somehow, the dead always find a way to get out and sneak back into our lives. Spiritually, The Third Man is the ancestor of every zombie film ever made.

The dead may rise, but as Orson Welles via Harry Lime says, they were probably happier dead anyway. And looking at the scarred Vienna captured so masterfully by Carol Reed, he might be right. You might not be able to leave once you arrive—as Harry’s friend Holly so comically discovers—but you certainly wouldn’t want to return once you escaped, whether it be by train, plane, or hearse. This city is a broken place, the kind of place where morality is a form of betrayal and even the children are willing to sell you out to the lynch mob. It’s a paranoid place, enlivened only by the occasional black comedy of Graham Greene’s hardboiled dialogue, which is so flinty it strikes sparks (“You were born to be murdered,” one character quips, summing up the general mood quite nicely). Yet somewhere between the canted angles and the zither score—jaunty, romantic and entirely sinister—a strange alchemy takes place. Having your heart crushed by this film again and again is an altogether intoxicating experience.

Just look into those eyes and try to resist. Any pair of eyes will do, for this is a film of faces. There are the famous ones, of course: Holly’s face (Joseph Cotton), weary and stupefied at the discovery of his friend’s crimes; or Anna’s (Valli), buried in her hands, tears rolling down her cheek as she clutches at the ghost in her heart. And when the shadows peel back, Harry’s face, carrying that simple, bemused smile at all of this misery. But there are also the faces of the people of Vienna, wizened and worn by years of war and hunger and terror. Reed returns to these faces repeatedly, punctuating scenes with their accusing eyes—the conscience of the film. Sad faces. Angry faces. Confused, numbed, stricken faces. “Look at yourself,” Anna says to Holly, “They have a name for faces like that.”

Er, is it Harry? At one point, Anna accidentally refers to Holly by his missing friend’s name, excusing her mistake with another insult. “Holly—what a silly name.” Not that Holly fares any better with names, constantly referring to the British officer Halloway as Hallohan (“I’m not Irish,” the man sniffs in reply). Is it a sign of the fundamental dishonesty of the place that no one seems able to master the simple act of direct reference? Or is the fact that no one seems to have bothered to learn any else’s name merely another side effect of the carelessness with which these people treat each other? If I don’t care whether you live or die, do I really care however the hell you pronounce “Winkel”?

That callousness informs the film from Harry’s rationalization of his crimes right down to that immortal final shot where Anna refuses to grant Holly the small comfort of acknowledgement, never mind forgiveness. She just walks down a lane that seemingly stretches into infinity, finally stepping out of sight behind the camera, where a better—if surely less beautiful—world must exist. She says not a word, allowing the headless trees and falling leaves to speak for her. But what use is goodbye? That’s why this film would serve as such a fine eulogy. When the time comes to truly part, irrevocably and eternally separate, the word means nothing. So no goodbyes, please. Give me a good movie and that’ll be enough. Just don’t forget to seal that coffin tight.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Midnight in Paris

The first night I was in Paris, I got lost.

I suppose I am partly to blame for this. I was one of those naïve tourists who insist on walking everywhere, in the process discovering that when you say you will walk everywhere in Paris, the city takes you at your word and forces you to walk EVERYWHERE. The maddening asymmetrical layout of the city practically demands it. I doubt there is a street in the first eight arrondissements that I did not walk, whether I intended to or not, during my stay there.

But getting lost in Paris really is wonderful, and Woody Allen captures something of that pleasure in his latest, Midnight in Paris. Being lost on a deserted Parisian street at night is lonely and frightening, and highly recommended. What fun it is to walk those empty streets, so busy during the day, now populated only by the glowing orange street lights and whatever ghosts history wishes to conjure up each night. The novelty, I’m sure, must wear rather thin for the natives who just want to walk their dogs before bedtime.

However, tourists like Allen and myself are still easily seduced by these sorts of charms, and Midnight in Paris is a true tourist movie, with all the good and bad that implies. It opens with postcard-perfect shots of all the major sights, carefully avoiding the dreary lineups and crass commercialism that are part of the experience (tourist movies always find a way to avoid everything miserable about being a tourist). President Sarkozy’s wife even shows up in a supporting role, adding to the sneaking suspicion that this is not actually a new Woody Allen movie, but instead a very sophisticated French tourism ad. The camera has an uncanny—some might say ridiculous—tendency to find the Eiffel Tower in the background of seemingly each shot.

Drifting through these postcards is Gil Pender, Allen’s latest doubting hero (superbly played here by Owen Wilson, whose easygoing demeanour has always hinted at the sadness shown here). He’s come to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdam, poorly applied) to vacation with her parents, but also to scrounge for inspiration. As a hack screenwriter, he’s struggling to write his first novel about a man working in a nostalgia shop. So where better to tap into the literary spirit than Paris, once host to literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who brooded in the cafes of the 1920s?

The playful conceit at the centre of Midnight in Paris is that this era comes to life every night. When the clock strikes midnight, an old car shows up to whisk Gil away to join his lost-generation heroes. Every night, he retreats from the dreary present into this legendary past, enchanted not just by the great artists but also an unknown woman named Adriana, who seems as lost as himself.

Yet it is not the woman who seduces him so much as the city itself. “Can any work of art compete with the beauty of a great city?” Gil asks of her, and he has a point. The voices on the street can become a kind of music, each boulevard a painting of incredible detail and depth with more mysteries than the eyes can behold. Every new street you walk down is another novel. The years have layered story upon story. So how can any mere film compete with that?

More specifically, how can a mere Woody Allen film compete with that? For all the seductive charms of this film—and trust me, there are many—there are just as many clumsy moments and missed opportunities. Most of the supporting characters are little more than a single searing note held for nearly two hours. Inez, her parents, her pedantic friend Paul: all are flat, dull, mean-spirited people, and in the case of Inez’s father, Republican to boot (just in case you mistakenly think you're supposed to like these awful, awful people). The real fantasy of the film is not that Gil journeys back in time to 1920s Paris every night, but rather that he would choose to join himself with this pathetic group in the first place. Time travel, I’ll buy, but that other stuff—really, Woody, come on.

And yet the film still succeeds—due to, not despite, its flaws. After all, can you ever make a truly satisfying film about disappointment? That is what lies at the heart of the film, and gives the film's lighter moments a melancholy undertone. As Gil burrows deeper into his dream version of Paris, he comes up against the false promises of that dream—a disappointment that Allen, an eternally flawed yet relentless filmmaker, knows all too well. Every fantasy world, no matter how well constructed, betrays its flaws in time. All you can do is will yourself not to look for the cracks in the foundation. It’s a feeble happiness, but an honest one, and all that Allen allows.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Early on in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock uses the phrase “in perpetuity forever,” only to be chastised for being redundant. But the director just laughs it off. “I’m a redundant guy,” he says.

Does it even have to be said? Of course not, which is exactly why he says it anyway. After all, this is the man best known for Super Size Me, the movie that taught the world that eating at McDonald’s every day for a month makes you fat. Now he’s returned to tell us that advertising is everywhere, and gosh, isn’t that annoying? God save the truth tellers.

This might come as a shock to you, but—brace yourself—advertising has pervaded the very core of our society. Why, it might even be in your very own home. Right under your nose. And you don’t even know it. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only more horrible because it’s real and doesn’t star Donald Sutherland. But at least Spurlock is here to alert us to the threat by courting advertisers (excuse me, “brand partners”) to sponsor his documentary about putting ads in movies. And then the scourge of advertising is defeated, and our hero moves to the country, and all is well, in perpetuity forever. That’s basically the ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, right?

But before that point, we can count on Spurlock to at least find some humour in the material, whether it be the weirdness of pitching for Mane 'n Tail Shampoo or the wink-wink naughtiness of slipping product placement into interviews (he even gets Ralph Nader to help shill for a pair of shoes). The director is a genial host, which is both his best asset and greatest liability. Unlike someone like Michael Moore, Spurlock defers to his subjects, preferring to make himself the butt of the joke most of the time. But his aw-shucks narration quickly grows tiresome. Imagine an entire documentary narrated by Kenneth the Page and you have some idea of how obnoxious this faux-innocence can be.

The film’s breezy, jocose tone ensures you’re rarely bored, but also rarely engaged. Spurlock, ever skilled at turning the obvious into the trivial, passes by every occasion to dig deeper into his subject matter. He only briefly delves into the unnerving practice of neuromarketing, in which MRI scans are used to shape movie trailers. He runs himself through the process, cracks a few jokes, and then zips off to the next setup. A discussion with a class of high school students suggests that the kids have thought more about the effect of advertising on their lives than Spurlock has. Making us aware of these things is not without value, but that’s a pretty weak peg to hang an entire film on.

Look, I won’t deny that the man’s intentions are honourable here. Much like in Super Size Me, he takes on the role of guinea pig for the social good, subjecting himself to an unnatural process so that we don’t have to (as if we ever would). He also wrestles with issues of art and commerce in the process, but that only results in the embarrassing sight of a middling artist contemplating his own integrity. It’s a bit like a gold fish discovering the little tree is plastic yet never realizing that he’s in a bowl. Spurlock’s world is already so limited—does it really matter if it also turns out to be fake?

But perhaps that’s unfair. Even lousy art has its own integrity. The problem is that Spurlock’s approach to the material is so relentlessly banal that there isn’t really anything to compromise. The film amounts to little more than a few abbreviated talking-head interviews, a couple of modestly amusing sketches, and the occasional generic montages (plus commercial breaks!). What’s he saying that might be jeopardized by the interference of commerce? Far too toothless to be a polemic, the film amounts to little more than, “Advertising is everywhere, it sucks, whattaya gonna do about it?” Spurlock settles for a nice walk in the woods. Well, bully for him.