Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Let 'em All Eat Cake

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - It looks like this blog is becoming one movie review after another. What the hell's going on in my personal life, you might be asking?

Ah, tune in next time. For now, a few words on two new films: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (*** out of ****) and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (*** out of ****).

If nothing else, both films provided a great study of contrasts: the postmodern, idiosyncratic young Coppola providing stark contrast to the distinctly classical 76-year-old Eastwood. It was interesting to see both these stylistically rather different films in two straight days. Nevertheless, I'm not going to really try to compare the two, because, though both are historical dramas, both take on very different subjects and take very different approaches. It'd be like comparing apples and oranges.

Flags of Our Fathers was interesting to see on the heels of spending over a month in my Major Filmmakers class examining the style and themes of Clint Eastwood as a director. Now I can flex my auteurist-interpretation muscles! Well, maybe.

Anyway, the film's major subject is heroism: broadly speaking, what makes a hero, but specifically, how heroism during war can sometimes be exploited, and how that exploitation might affect the veterans who experienced the war. It's a fascinating, thought-provoking subject for a war movie, and it's one that I hadn't seen explored before seeing Eastwood's new film.

But perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. His last film, the Oscar-winning drama Million Dollar Baby, tackled, within the limits of the underdog sports-movie genre, a similar kind of theme. In that film, Maggie Fitzgerald---a female boxer who started out from nothing---nearly rises to the top, but, during her title shot, she suffers a paralyzing injury and discovers she will never be able to fight again. Then she decides to ask trainer/manager Frankie Dunn to euthanize her. Is she giving up on life at this point? The film suggests that there might be a kind of nobility to dying at the top of her game---perhaps an overly sentimental notion, to be sure (I'm still not sure if I totally buy her decision in terms of her character, either), but nevertheless it adds a layer of complexity to the question of what constitutes a champion. Perhaps she is a champion in her own way, by fighting her way to death as hard as she fought her way to a title shot.

The three main characters of Flags of Our Fathers---John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)---are widely celebrated towards the end of WWII as heroes after it is discovered that they were among the six glimpsed in Joe Rosenthal's iconic Iwo Jima photograph---you know, the one where you see six soldiers hoisting an American flag. But the film suggests that these people aren't really heroes in the usual sense; certainly, they aren't heroes in the way they're packaged and presented to the public. In fact, the photograph actually captures the second raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima; the first flag was forced down and given to a U.S. official who wanted it for himself. The point is: the people in the photograph are normal people forced to maim and kill people in a horrific war---nothing more, nothing less.

It's this restoration of humanity that's most compelling about Flags of Our Fathers, particularly during its middle section, as Doc, Rene and Ira go along, some reluctantly, on their bond publicity tour. Ira Hayes---the Native American who bears a good deal of racism during and after the war---proves to be the most fascinating story: racked with survivor's guilt after the war, he is forced to join his two other companions on the road and can't quite deal with the publicity he receives, mostly because he feels that he doesn't deserve it. He turns to alcohol and causes a few scenes before deciding to return to the tour of duty. (His sad story was turned into a Johnny Cash song, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes.") Hayes provides the emotional core of the film---and Beach rises to the occasion with a nuanced, anguished standout performance---and highlights its searching take on heroism and how it's easily exploited by a public who would rather swallow down myths of good-versus-evil rather than recognize the human being within even heroes. (That said, members of the public are admittedly characterized in a rather condescending manner by Eastwood and scriptwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis; think Maggie's one-dimensional trailer-trash family in Million Dollar Baby multiplied by ten.)

Heroism may be the center of the film's drama---and the subject of its many speeches and its sometimes heavy-handed voiceover narration---but I think the film's fractured storytelling style---a little unusual for the usually pure-classicist Eastwood---takes on a different, no less worthy topic: memory, and how sometimes the truth of memories have to be dug up in layers upon layers of individual memories. Eastwood doesn't present us with a linear progression from Iwo Jima to post-WWII; instead, he intercuts present-day sequences with flashbacks---it even has flashbacks within flashbacks---and presents memories of all three characters. It's almost Cubist in its editing, and while sometimes it created a certain amount of confusion, overall I liked the effect of it, especially when we discover the film's framing device: Bradley's son is researching for an upcoming book he plans to write---and indeed, eventually did write; it's the basis of this film---about his father and the other men in that iconic photograph.

Flags of Our Fathers isn't quite a great movie: it's perhaps one of Clint Eastwood's messier films, and its distended final section, in particular, seems to fall a bit into the celebrating-war-heroes sentimentality that the middle section tries to critique. Still, it's a worthy film that actually has something interesting to add to a subject---war---that sometimes seems as if it itself is merely being exploited for mass consumption. And its final image is a memorable one: a simple shot of the six men on the shores of Iwo Jima running about in the seawater. It's a pure, innocent moment that glimpses these men as simply human beings trying to enjoy themselves in the midst of madness. A more perfect summation of Eastwood's argument would be harder to imagine.

Marie Antoinette has a terrific final shot of its own: a chilling image of Marie Antoinette's bedroom in ruins after it has been ransacked by angry peasants in the beginning stages of the French Revolution. The beauty of this image is multiplied by the fact that writer-director Sofia Coppola forgoes the expected depiction of Marie's eventual beheading. That one image basically sums up all you need to know about what happened to her.

A funny thing happened to me when I saw Marie Antoinette this weekend. I sat through this film and, while I couldn't help but admire the beautiful costumes, the sumptuous decor, the ravishing cinematography (by Lance Acord, who also shot both of Coppola's previous films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation), and Kirsten Dunst's terrific performance, at the end I felt it to be a watchable but ultimately rather monotonous experience---a deliberately hermetically-sealed historical film that could have used more of a sense of history and dwelt less on its heroine's relatively trivial concerns about getting her husband pregnant or buying new shoes or whatever. After a while, I was almost tempted to say to the screen, Yeah, Sofia, I got it in the first 30 minutes: poor Marie Antoinette was too young and innocent to know any better about what was going on outside her little aristocratic universe.

And yet, as I drove home from the theater, I suddenly began to think more fondly of this film: not only regarding its visual beauty, but also its sympathy towards its heroine and for its very personal, idiosyncratic style. The more I thought about it, the more I admired it. In essence, I think I actually liked the film a lot more as I thought about it than I did as I sat through it. (I had similar experience last year with Sam Mendes' Gulf War drama Jarhead.)

I would recommend people to see Marie Antoinette, then, with the caveat that perhaps you're going to dislike it as you watch it, thinking it empty or trivial or overly claustrophobic. Valid reactions, possibly---and maybe part of the reason why the film was booed so lustily at Cannes earlier this year. But think about it afterward and give it time to settle, because I do think there are legitimate reasons as to why Coppola decided to make this film the way she did.

I like to think of Marie Antoinette as a big, complex conceptual stunt---something like what Stanley Kubrick tried to do in his great (and underrated) 1975 historical drama Barry Lyndon, although obviously with a less warm, more misanthropic sensibility. Barry Lyndon took pains to distance us from the characters and the situations in the film---in essence, to distance us from a long-ago past that we, Kubrick implicitly suggested, can't hope to truly understand. Marie Antoinette has that same vibe to it, although I don't think this movie is nearly as cold and ruthless in its distancing as Kubrick's film is.

An ordinary classical Hollywood narrative film might have tried to make more of an effort to characterize the world outside of Marie Antoinette's four gorgeous Versailles walls, to give us a better sense of the unrest brewing among the peasants in France. Such an approach would probably have made it easier for us to understand Sofia Coppola's point: the rich were too involved in their own petty affairs---and Marie Antoinette and husband Louis XVI perhaps simply too naive---to grasp what was going on in the underclass---an ignorance that eventually led to Marie Antoinette's downfall.

Coppola, however, decides on a more challenging (and, perhaps to some, more frustrating) approach: she trains her eye strictly on the bourgeoisie, and, for much of the movie, basically shuts out the lower class and focuses on Marie Antoinette's own relatively unimportant problems. We see, then, Marie sizing up her bourgeois colleagues and trying to make love to her shy suitor (played by a restrained Jason Schwartzman), for instance, but little of the real problems going on in the country: the lack of jobs, the decrease in food, etc. I don't think Coppola means for us to necessarily get too deeply involved in such soap-opera-ish matters; instead, we're simply meant to accept it all as a fact of life among the rich people of France at the time, and meditate on how sealed off they really were from the outside world---and how some of them seemed to prefer being blissfully ignorant of the outside world. One particular moment illustrates this: Marie Antoinette---now queen of France after the death of Louis XV---asks her husband if he'd be willing to come see the Paris Opera with her, and he says something to the effect of "I have everything I need here." When you're living an exceedingly privileged life, why step out of that pleasurable bubble?

The effect of Coppola's approach is that we feel that sense of isolation that Marie Antoinette herself probably felt at times: thrust into royalty and privilege, she always retained a bit of a headstrong individuality, but her society restricted her ways of expressing it. Marie Antoinette may not be all that political, perhaps---but, in its own way, it's sympathetic. (Maybe Sofia Coppola sees something of herself in her film's Marie Antoinette: Coppola might not have been thrust into the limelight as Marie was, but, coming from a Hollywood family, perhaps this film is her expression of her own struggle to maintain her own voice with all of Hollywood watching.)

What of the rock music on the film's soundtrack: the use of punk rock songs by Gang of Four, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others? I'm not sure if the approach totally convinces---especially when some of the songs start awkwardly mingling diegetically with the action---but overall I liked the effect: it, too, distances us further from the time period while commenting on Marie Antoinette's emotions in a fairly accessible (for us) way. The opening song---Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It"---immediately grips you with its fitting lyrics: "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure..." As the song plays, we see Kirsten Dunst luxuriously getting her toes done; she turns and looks straight at us with a sexy stare, beckoning us to join her pursuit of pleasure.

Of course, the anachronisms don't end there: most of the people in the film also speak in a deliberately modern manner. In that sense, Marie Antoinette is trying to bring contemporary relevance to the film (something Kubrick would probably have frowned upon if anyone dared to suggest such a thing with Barry Lyndon): Marie's turn toward material consumption for pleasure is still seen quite often today.

There's probably much more I could say about this film---especially its editing, which reminds me a lot of Terrence Malick's seemingly intuitive jagged editing rhythms in his marvelous recent film The New World---but I think I will leave it at that for now (read: perhaps save it for a later discussion) and simply suggest that Marie Antoinette is the kind of film that may be more interesting to think about and reflect upon than it is to necessarily watch. But I think the patience and meditation this film requires is ultimately worth the effort. It may not be the richest movie you'll ever see, but it's idiosyncratic, personal, and more challenging than its seemingly trivial surface might indicate.

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