Saturday, February 23, 2008

Showing and Not Telling: Oscars, 4 Months, and "The Wire"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I didn't really do as much reading and music-listening as I would have liked this week; mostly I was writing.

Last week, I went to New York for a press screening of Chop Shop, a new film from Ramin Bahrani, a young Iranian-American director who, in both this new feature and his previous film, Man Push Cart (2005), likes to apply an Italian-neorealist aesthetic onto Robert Bresson-like character studies of flawed working-class characters struggling through the daily grind to try to eventually make better lives for themselves---and often finding the harsh realities of life hitting them in the face. I liked Man Push Cart, and I like Chop Shop too, although Bahrani's films---as apolitical and uncommitted to social criticism as they are---can seem rather slight compared to those more ambitious Italian-neroealist touchstones of old. Anyway, my review of it will be forthcoming at The House Next Door (it starts a two-week run at the Film Forum on Wednesday.)


The Oscars, of course, are tomorrow, and for the first time in a long time I'll actually have something of a personal stake in this year's contest (however lacking in glamour it may be because of the recently ended writer's strike). No, it's not because I'm passionately invested in seeing a particular movie win a lot of prizes...or, actually, maybe I do. Because, for the first time ever, I am participating in an Oscar pool at the place I work---which is, of course, The Wall Street Journal. (See? Who says the people there are all business?) So I guess I will have a stake in who wins---just for the possibility of winning some money.

Of course, I'm probably going to pick No Country for Old Men as the pic to take home the big prize. But if the Academy shocked everyone and gave There Will Be Blood the big statuette of the night, you won't see me complaining. AMPAS would have drunk all of our milkshakes with such a move, but for a good reason, I'd say. Even after checking No Country for a second time in a movie theater recently and actually admiring it even more than I did before, I still find myself more haunted by Daniel Plainview's physical and spiritual disintegration than by Anton Chigurh's murderous, coin-flipping "freedom."

(Coincidentally enough, that milkshake would have cost me $5---the amount of money I have to put into the pool. Oh Pulp Fiction...)

As long as those two dark pieces of work don't cancel each other out and allow that annoyingly overhyped flick Juno---pleasant and occasionally touching, I'll admit, but not nearly clever or intelligent enough to bear up to the weight of its Roger Ebert-led praise---to sneak in and pull an upset in the Best Picture category, I'll be happy.


Speaking of the Oscars, there was a lot of controversy over the official batch of nominees for this year's foreign-language film race. First, the highly acclaimed Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ended up not even making the shortlist (after it had received a Golden Globe nomination); then another critically acclaimed film, an Israeli movie called The Band's Visit, got ignored by the Academy because about half of its scenes featured English dialogue.

I don't really have much to say about those two mini-controversies. They may or may not point to some kind of excessive rigidity and/or conservatism on the part of AMPAS---but then, they've been pretty conservative---and, dare I say it, political?---in their picks for years (just look at their Best Picture choices over the years, especially in light of the acknowledged masterpieces they snubbed---I'm looking at you, Dances With Wolves). Surely the quality of a movie will surely outlast whatever awards and/or nominations come their way. I'm not being too idealistic there, am I?

I haven't seen The Band's Visit yet, but this past Sunday, I finally caught up with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and I have to say: boy, what a flub, snubbing this one. This is quite an experience, folks---2 hours in which my heart felt like it was in my throat right from the get-go.

For those who haven't heard much about this film: it's set during the Ceauşescu regime in Bucharest sometime during the 1980s, and it details the increasingly desperate and emotionally draining efforts by two college roommates to procure an illegal abortion. These are two richly drawn and compellingly acted characters: Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), the pregnant one, is innocent and seemingly incapable of taking any responsibility for her own actions, while Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is, by comparison, more assertive and self-sufficient. Even richer, however, is the gloomy sense of place this movie evokes: Romanian society during this time has apparently become so demoralized and downtrodden that many individuals' sense of humanity seems to have leeched away. You see this not only in some of Otilia's negotiations with insensitive hotel clerks, but also simply in the film's dank visual texture---director Cristian Mungiu isn't afraid to rub our noses in the bleakness and messiness of his settings and situations with his extreme, insinuating long takes. In this kind of environment, a character like Otilia---a loyal friend, willing to go to any lengths to help someone who probably doesn't deserve it---seems like a beacon of humanity in a cesspool of rot.

Sounds depressing, right? And yet, somehow, I found myself exhilarated as much as I was terrified throughout. It's so temporally sensitive in its minimalist technique, and that technique is married to a devastating vision---one that doesn't shy away from moral quandaries, especially when Otilia poses to her boyfriend, during a particularly testy exchange, the question of what he, a staunch anti-abortionist, would do if she became pregnant. But really, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days isn't a gaseous political or philosophical tract. It just sits back (literally---I wouldn't be surprised if the average of all the shot lengths in this film was something in the vicinity of five minutes) and observes events in sadness and horror (or, at the very least, gives a convincing impression of doing so).


On another, totally unrelated front: I've been gradually working my way through the first season of the soon-to-be-concluded HBO series The Wire on DVD. I'm enjoying it immensely so far---I like the characters, I like its realism and its moral gray areas, and I like how it doesn't make a big show of, or congratulate itself for, blowing the lid off the ugliness of life in the Baltimore projects or the corruption and self-interest running rampant in the city police force (in other words, no sensationalized American Gangster crap in creator David Simon's baby).

But there is a sequence in its fourth episode that strikes me as so damn brilliant that I just wanted to share it with all of you who aren't familiar with it. In one scene, Detectives McNulty (the magnetic Dominic West) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce) go to a crime scene (one that McNulty isn't particularly interested in, but one which does relate to an anecdote recounted earlier in that episode by D'Angelo Barksdale, one of the people McNulty and others are investigating) and proceed to piece together a shooting death. The genius of this scene is in its lack of...well, I was going to say "lack of dialogue," but that's not exactly true. There is dialogue coming out of this couple's mouths, but it pretty much consists of "fuck" and all sorts of variations of that word ("motherfucker," "fuckity fuck fuck fuck," "fuckin' A"---you get the idea). Otherwise, they pretty much figure it all out without a word of explanation.

You might as well turn the sound off, although hearing only those primitive words coming out of their mouths during this scene is itself a delicious satire of lurid cop street language.

In some ways, this sequence is an apotheosis of the "show don't tell" philosophy that some consider the highest forms of cinema (recently exemplified, of course, by the first 15 minutes or so of There Will Be Blood, which relate a whole host of important character and plot developments with only maybe one line of dialogue throughout). That I discovered this particular marvel of acting, writing and directing in a TV episode is proof that these days, the best cinema really can sometimes be found on television.

Don't believe me? Check it out below:


Simon Hsu said...

For my work's pool two years ago, my gut said Crash, but all evidence pointed to Brokeback (I'm a scientist, what am I to do?). Add the fact that no part of me, even on a minute level, wanted to hope for Crash's victory, I went w/ Brokeback. Doh. This year though, my gut tells me Juno, primarily because TWBB will vote-steal from NCfOM. I don't despise Juno as much as some vociferous haters, but can you imagine the uttering the phrase "Best Picture Juno!" in 5-10 years? I hope I am wrong.

What I love most about 4 months is its complete lack of flash. No calculated, cinema-verite-wannabe camera jerks (Cloverfield, Bourne 3), are used to arrive at realism. Mingiu shows us what matters to him from the get-go, without hubris or self-consciousness (some of the complaints leveled against him). My other year-end favorite (yours too), No Country et al, also relies on a spare setup of still camerawork and soundscapes, but that movie was definitely more stylized (an observation). 4 Months stillness is hypnotic and beautiful, similar in quality to the works of Jia Zhang-ke and Hou Hsiao Hsien, both of whom have also never received an AA nom. The academy is wholly unequipped to discern between the good and the bad in the foreign department, a category that loses more value each year.

On the Wire: All us Wire-heads are so glad you're watching this. Better late than never right? Upon finishing season 1 early last year, I remember thinking "how can this show get any better?" The scope expands to such proportions that even calling it "epic" would cheapen its accomplishments. On a cinematic level, it's much more filmic than standard television, and it's lack of flare bears some comparison with 4 months imo. The payoff(s) you will receive in the coming seasons are possibly the most cinematically rewarding you will experience, a bold claim if there ever was one but damn if isn't true.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Thanks, Simon.

What I love most about 4 months is its complete lack of flash. No calculated, cinema-verite-wannabe camera jerks (Cloverfield, Bourne 3), are used to arrive at realism.

Yeah I've never quite understood where people get the idea that all that camera shakiness in films like The Bourne Ultimatum is somehow inherently more "realistic" and/or "documentary-style." Sometimes it just seems unsteady. Maybe it just depends on how such an aesthetic is used. (I just saw Rossellini's Open City for the first time this past weekend, and I was startled by a few camera jiggles at one point that actually seemed like something out of old newsreel footage rather than just a director's affected attempt at faux-realism.)

And thankfully, the "right" movie---basically, anything but Juno (which I stress, again, is actually quite affecting for what it is---it's just that what it is, to me, isn't nearly as mature or profound as its boosters claim)---won last night. I probably wouldn't have broken out into a conniption fit if it had or anything, though; I probably would have done the same thing I did with the Crash victory two years ago and just quietly said "Boo."