Saturday, August 16, 2008

All Talk: Profit Motive, The Dark Knight, The X-Files

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - First things first: I recently dipped my feet back into writing movie reviews for The House Next Door, and my latest review---of Claude Chabrol's latest, A Girl Cut in Two---is up today! Check it out here.


I'm still in my classical-music near-obsessive phase right now (I recently purchased---online, of course---Herbert von Karajan's complete set of Bruckner symphonies, and one re-hearing of the trumpets-blazing coda of the first movement of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony has pretty much gotten me hooked on that piece again), but it's been a while since I blogged about some of the recent movies I've seen. So let's go back into my mental archives...


The most notable new film I've seen in the past few weeks is...well, it ain't The Dark Knight, I'll say that much. (More on that anon.) Instead, it's a documentary entitled Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind: an abstract, experimental hour-long work that tries to essentially illustrate the socialistic version of American history explicated in Howard Zinn's classic People's History of the United States by visiting the tombstones and site markers of the various people and events chronicled in Zinn's book and shooting these structures and their surrounding environments---pastoral landscapes, graveyards, mundane highways, etc. And when I say "shooting these structures," that is exactly what director John Gianvito does: he points a camera head-on at a tombstone or site marker and shoots them---sometimes in interesting angles, sometimes moving the camera up and down. He times each shot so that we in the audience have enough time to read the writing etched on these rocks and take in the suggested meaning of them all. Because Gianvito relies on these sites to tell the story, he eschews voice-over narration and talking-heads interviews, letting the images do the heavy lifting.

The result of this method of filming might sound repetitive, dry or static. On the contrary: it may be the most enthralling demonstration of living history I've come across in any movie, fiction or nonfiction, a fascinating, inspiring work that opens one's eyes toward the ghosts of our nation's past that reside everywhere you look, whether you are conscious of it or not. Profit Motive certainly has an interesting take on American history and the forces that shaped our country and continue to do so---but I'm guessing that much of that take is taken from Zinn's book (I haven't yet read it, to be honest, but the film makes me desperately want to give it a careful read). Its more lasting achievement in broader in scope, and harder to put into words: by the end of its 58 minutes, one's awareness of vast historical and societal forces working underneath the surface of everyday sights and sounds is gloriously reinforced. (The film is no longer playing at the Anthology Film Archives, so, if I've piqued your curiosity, you'll most likely have to wait for a DVD release.)


While Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind operates through blissful, thought-provoking imagery, The Dark Knight operates almost entirely through talk---and pretty mind-numbingly heavy-handed talk at that. Obviously, I am really late to the discussion of what has become a box-office juggernaut that may well run Titanic very close financially speaking during its initial theatrical run. Many friends I respect seem to love it immensely, and I really wish I could share their enthusiasm. I mean, I really do respect Christopher Nolan's ambitions to try to bring more intellectual and moral seriousness and shades of gray (amidst the requisite action fireworks, of course) into the comic-book superhero genre; if a category of films ever needed an infusion of that kind of adult sensibility, the comic-book category is certainly it (although I don't think even this summer's other much-lauded superhero flick, the overpraised Iron Man, provided that sensibility). But I say, what's the use of all that over-intellectualizing over good-versus-evil, order-versus-anarchy, and heroism-versus-vigilantism if there are no human beings to relate to onscreen? Funny how a narration-free documentary seems infinitely more alive than a big-budget action spectacle.

Just about every single character in The Dark Knight remains glued to their preconceived allegorical roots, and nearly every plot twist seems predetermined by the director's philosophical game plan rather than emerging from a sense of exploration and life. Nolan's apparently lack of empathy for his characters as flesh-and-blood people is so deadening that I found it difficult to even feel much for Harvey Dent's eventual corruption into reckless murderous vigilantism. First of all, his penchant for coin-flipping---supposedly espousing a relying-on-chance worldview that the Joker seizes upon in order to seduce him to the dark side---seems so much of a deliberately placed literary conceit that it sucks out all interest in the character himself (despite Aaron Eckhart's valiant efforts to bring emotional credibility to the role) when his moral descent finally, predictably, happens. And the way the film is constructed, if you can't empathize with Dent, the whole movie's sunk, really. He's supposed to be the emotional fulcrum in this theoretical tug of war between the ambiguous hero Batman and the unambiguous villain Joker, one creepy and mysterious but working for the good of Gotham, the other creepy and mysterious and working to bring down its destruction (just for laughs, I guess, although Heath Ledger's conception of the Joker---admirably controlled even when he goes off the rails, which is pretty much throughout the entire movie---doesn't make much room for the funny). Unfortunately, Dent/Two-Face remains...well, a fulcrum. No more, no less.

I should probably qualify all this by admitting that I'm not a huge comics fan and that my only experience with Batman is through the previous feature films (the Tim Burton ones and the earlier Joel Schumacher flick) and glimpses of episodes of the old 1960s TV series. So who knows, maybe this doesn't make me fit to speak with any authority on the fascination of the DC Comics icon. Whatever. Tim Burton, in his two Batman films, was able to wring genuine mystery out of the character; but in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan attempted to demystify Batman's origins, and did so in an often thuddingly literal manner (its worries about the thin line between revenge and heroism was more verbalized than imaginatively demonstrated) with incoherently edited action sequences to boot. Though Nolan has become a smoother action director in this second go-round---he thankfully settles on long takes filled with action rather than MTV-style cutting to simulate a visceral blur---he goes further with the bloodless literalness: the whole movie has become an abstraction, with obvious allegory substituting for human drama. It's way too easy to pick out all the emblems and post-9/11 metaphors, because Nolan lays it all out for you like an analyst laying out a bunch of stock options. Sure, you could say there's something more on its mind than the usual summer blockbuster. But aside from some impressive action sequences (particularly its opening bank heist, with its shades of Heat), a few dryly funny line readings from Michael Caine (as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred) and a climactic sequence that engineers some impressive morally inflected suspense (before ending it in all-too-comfortable box-office tastefulness---really, you think a big blockbuster like this one is doing to risk upsetting the masses by having one boatload of innocents actually go through killing the other boatload?), there's no beating heart to it, or at least no genuinely felt emotions to latch onto. It's a cold, lifeless Philosophy 101 lecture conceptualized in comic-book-movie form; it talks about darkness a lot more than it actually lives and breathes it.


The X-Files: I Want to Believe is actually a vastly more humane and affecting movie, even if it, too, relies on dialogue rather than searing images to explore its themes. But at least the dialogue---written by director Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz---is often a lot more eloquent and poetic than The Dark Knight's comic-book balloons; non-fans might find lines like "I can't peer into the darkness with you" too high-flown, but fans---myself included---should be attuned to its distinctive cadences.

Sure, the movie is basically one long super-sized episode, and yeah, its central plot---despite intimations of homosexuality, pedophilia and other assorted taboos---is disappointingly mundane and draggy compared to some of the wilder inventions of the TV series (the Flukeman, Tooms, Donnie Pfaster, Pusher---hell, I'd even throw the online-preying fat-sucker 2Shy on that list). But how many of its episodes essentially used plot as merely an excuse for deeper, more character-based examinations? In I Want to Believe, Scully is faced---as she often was throughout the series' nine-year run---with the question of deciding whether to go ahead with a risky treatment for a boy with cerebral palsy, or to follow the disapproving glances of her Catholic superiors, who find it better for the boy to simply leave things with God. That dilemma right there is The X-Files in a microcosm: the conflict between faith and rationality, the intersection between following a religion while maintaining a scientific mindset. It was the series' richest theme---and in hindsight, I think even the frustratingly convoluted alien mythology explored that theme in its own operatic ways---and I Want to Believe, for the most part, does right by it, creating involving human drama out of Scully's vacillations, daringly distancing us from Mulder's obsessiveness, and creating a surprising amount of creepy atmosphere out of its Vancouver-shot locations. It's hardly a masterpiece, and I'm not entirely sure what X-Files newbies would really get out of it if they haven't followed the series in depth. But it's considerably better than you've heard. (Were critics really that disappointed that they got this intimate character study instead of another freaky creature feature? Few of the writers I read regularly---with a welcome exception in Roger Ebert, bless him---touched on its religious and moral complexities, or were apparently too jaded to take those complexities seriously. Their loss.)


Also worth checking out, if it's still playing in a theater near you: the French hit thriller Tell No One, with a doozy of a Hitchcockian plot---in which a doctor-husband finds out that his wife may not be as long-dead as he had initially thought---a dazzling foot-chase sequence, a few killer plot twists, some beautiful French (and, in the case of Kristin Scott Thomas, English) women (clothed or unclothed), and some great French actor-legends (like Jean Rochefort and André Dussollier) delivering loads of explanatory dialogue. Who cares if it doesn't totally add up? Tell No One draws you into its wild conspiracy plot while never forgetting to maintain its emphasis on the human beings involved. It's quite entertaining---so entertaining that I bet Hollywood will try to remake this in a couple of years and fuck up its memory. Or is one already in the works...?

Movies I'm interesting in seeing in the theater soon: the hit documentary Man on Wire, Eric Rohmer's supposed valedictory film The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and yes, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.

And to bring this post full circle, let me put in a good word for one of Claude Chabrol's lesser-known masterworks from the late '60s, This Man Must Die, a revenge thriller that develops into a deliciously macabre but fundamentally serious meditation on the cost of hollowing out one's life and humanity for the sake of pursuing vengeance. Its final, breathtakingly poetic image---that of an ordinary man so unsettled by the evil inside him that he literally sails away from the rest of society---puts both the numbly literal vengeance-minded quandaries of both of Nolan's Batman movies and also the over-the-top Greek tragedy of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy to shame (though that doesn't mean I don't still like Oldboy, although maybe not as much as Park's earlier and more harrowing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). It's available on DVD in a watchable non-anamorphic transfer---no matter; its psychological acuity and formal precision still communicate forcefully.

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