Friday, January 15, 2010

Portraits of An Artist, A Hack and a Drunk

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Just knocking off a few reviews here, which should bring me up to date as far as films seen in theaters go.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008; Dir.: Agnès Varda)
Nine (2009; Dir.: Rob Marshall)
Crazy Heart (2009; Dir.: Scott Cooper)

How you respond to a first-person memoir documentary like The Beaches of Agnès will, I suspect, depend on how invested you are in the life and thoughts of the film's maker, French New Wave legend Agnès Varda. Cards on the table, then: as of now, I'm basically unfamiliar with Varda's work—I've seen none of her stuff outside of that brief movie-within-a-movie with Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina featured in her Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). So while I marveled at the creative energy and moving introspection Varda offers on her life as a filmmaker and wife/mother (when I finally caught up with this film at the Museum of Modern Art late in December), I also felt a bit detached from the whole thing—leaving me wondering whether my indifference to some of Varda's musings stemmed mostly from not knowing much about her art in advance, or whether I just naturally tune out of these kinds of deeply personal projects. (For what it's worth, its most poignant moments, for me, come from Varda's reflections on the way she dealt with husband Jacques Demy's impending death from AIDS; she, as most artists are wont to do, turned the experience into her own handcrafted art.) I had much the same reaction with another first-person cinematic memoir released last year, Terence Davies's Of Time and the City: I found a lot of it beautiful in the moment, but I can't say I remember much from the experience now beyond respecting Davies's zeal to documents his own memories and impressions on film. However, I haven't caught up with Davies's earlier work either, so again, that may have influenced my reaction.

Could it be that films like The Beaches of Agnès and Of Time and the City are so inherently tied into their respective auteurs' personal experiences that they risk leaving audiences not already invested in their art in a state of distant admiration? And if that's indeed the case, does it necessarily matter? Whatever you may think of films like these, they show directors working in their own creative zones, dealing with their personal obsessions and leaving the audience at sea in trying to determine whether there's anything to take away from the viewing experience. Generally, I admire filmmakers who work in such an uncompromised vein; on the other hand, the result can sometimes feel like you're on the outside looking in. (In Varda's case, though, it means looking into a house with celluloid walls—a closing image that truly inspired this particular cinephile.)

To a certain extent, that's a feeling I've always felt while watching Federico Fellini's much-celebrated —not a documentary (obviously), but a grand phantasmagoria borne out of the same kind of deeply personal impulses as The Beaches of Agnès and Of Time and the City. Having seen the film numerous times over the years, I've come to appreciate not just Fellini's endless imagination and creativity, but also the extent of his brutal candor and his heartfelt belief in cinema as the perfect medium for self-analysis. (When, towards the end of the film, Guido implores his long-suffering wife Luisa to "accept me as I am," it feels less like a narcissistic rationalization of his faults than it does a purifying expression of the kind of awareness of human foible that marks the greatest of film directors.) But, if you're not receptive to Fellini's self-examination, could come off as insufferably masturbatory stuff.

Better that kind of introspection, though, than the kind of prestige-pic impersonality exemplified by Rob Marshall's Nine. Now, maybe we should be fair to this film and take it on its own terms: as an adaptation of a Broadway musical inspired by the Fellini classic rather than a reworking of itself. That still leaves us with bland music, even worse (read: inelegant and inexpressive) lyrics, TV-style cutting, and an emotional void at its center. Granted, there are some moments of impressive musical bravura (Fergie does a pretty impressive Saraghina in tackling "Be Italian") and even instances of genuine dramatic emotion (most of the scenes with Marion Cotillard, playing the constantly cheated-on wife). But nowhere in Nine is there a sense of an artist feverishly expressing his passions onscreen, however self-involved those passions may be. Instead, generic, fashion-spread, stage-bound slickness rules. Has Marshall actually seen any movie from the so-called "Cinema Italiano" (the name of the film's worst number, by the way) other than ? But then, I can't tell that Maury Yeston, the composer-lyricist of the musical, has done so either. None of this is actively offensive, mind you—at least if you don't mind the film's choreography-obscuring cutting. But a movie that is supposedly about an artist's creative block arguably shouldn't feel as soulless as it does here. , for all its self-indulgence, certainly didn't.

Self-indulgent? Jeff Bridges? Never! But narcissistic? I would have never thought Bridges was capable of narcissism in a performance...and then comes Crazy Heart. Writer/director Scott Cooper's film is another portrait of an artist: Bad Blake, a 57-year-old former country sensation who is now frittering away his songwriting talent in small-town shows and heavy booze. The film follows a predictable thematic trajectory: Bad Blake aims to make a comeback, but of course it's a tough road, what with his alcoholism and a frayed father-son relationship that he tries to make up for with a single mother/aspiring reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her kid. A bastard son of The Wrestler (2008) and Tender Mercies (1983), Crazy Heart is a notable mostly for how unsurprising it is throughout; only toward the very end does Cooper, adapting a novel by Thomas Cobb, throw in one or two calculated curves to Bad Blake's road to redemption.

Much more disappointing than the story's infestation of clichés, however, is Cooper's near-worshipful stance toward the main character—or, more accurately, to Jeff Bridges. Women eagerly prostitute themselves to him; his younger rival Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) stands in awe of him, even as Blake trashes him to his manager; and of course there's that Bridges/Gyllenhaal May-December romance, which gives us an opportunity to see that, yeah, he's a family man, too, when he's sober. Notwithstanding one unfortunate incident, in which he nearly loses the kid in a shopping mall when he takes him to a bar so he can grab a drink, Crazy Heart feels, more than anything else, like an endless love-in for its lead actor, with rarely anything at stake other than the threat that, gasp, we might actually see his character in something approaching a genuinely negative light. Could Bad Blake be the cuddliest alcoholic ever seen in an American movie? Even when the film approaches toughness—with one shot in particular, of Blake collapsing on a bed in a depressed, drunken stupor, that somewhat recalls the closing shot of Kirk Douglas collapsing right in front of Billy Wilder's camera in his Ace in the Hole (1951)—Cooper consistently pulls back to reassure us that, no, Blake will indeed see the light soon thereafter.

I'd like to believe that Bridges—certainly a great actor who has earned the right to a showcase of this kind, and who, to be fair, is fine enough here—was totally innocent, trying his damnedest to give, within this pandering Oscar-bait vehicle, as honest and gritty a performance as possible given such undistinguished material. But when I see his name listed as an executive producer of this dreck...well, I really have to wonder.

But at least the T-Bone Burnett/Stephen Bruton songs are generally quite good, and Bridges's performances of them show the kind of emotional honesty otherwise smothered by Cooper's stars in his eyes. Buy the soundtrack; skip the movie.

(The Beaches of Agnès will be released on DVD March 2; Nine and Crazy Heart are currently playing in theaters across the country.)


odienator said...

Perhaps you found Agnes Varda an incredible bore, and that's why you were indifferent to her rambling on and on. You don't need to be familiar with a person to enjoy a documentary about them; the entire point of a good documentary is to familiarize you with whatever its subject is. If the person as an individual is not interesting to you, they just aren't.

Example: I can't stand Terrence Davies' movies. I had to actually leave before he showed up onstage after The Neon Bible at the NYFF because I wanted to choke him for wasting my time. But I liked Of Time and the City simply because I found HIM interesting. It had nothing to do with his movies which, to repeat myself, I despise. My knowledge of Davies' themes in his pictures served little purpose.

Ebert is always quoting Siskel's question about whether a documentary about the actors having lunch would be more interesting than the movie they made. I don't think knowing the history of the actors' dietary habits would figure into Gene's question.

8-1/2 is my favorite Fellini, and it inspired a movie I love even more than 8-1/2, All That Jazz. Rob Marshall loves Bob Fosse more than is healthy (as a former dancer, so do I) but even in Chicago (which I admit I loved), he can't compete with Fosse's technique of editing to the dance. Watch the Peter Allen-scored dance sequence in All That Jazz for a perfect example of the concept at work. Even before Marshall touched it, Nine was a terrible musical. I saw it on Broadway with Raul Julia, and I can't see how it won the Tony for score. Tommy Tune's direction, and Julia's performance, almost saved it.

The cinematic Nine is without both of those, though it has a few surprises in unexpected places. It supported my claim in my There Will Be Blood review that Daniel Day-Lewis is turning into your generation's version of the late-career, scenery chewing Laurence Olivier. I could finally watch a Marion Cotillard performance without wanting to peel off all my skin. And Fergie, who sings the worst song in the history of pop music (My Humps), actually sounded good here. If I were Gene Shalit, I'd say "Say Nein to Nine!" I'd also be scared of my own mustache and terrified of "gay sexual predator" Jack Twist, so I'm glad I'm not Gene Shalit.

Crazy Heart is terrible. I just wish somebody had the balls to come out and say it. We get it! He's a singing drunk! Bridges IS good (when is he NOT) but this is not a challenge for him at all. He's The Dude on The Devil's Brew instead of The Devil's Weed. The screenplay isn't dramatically compelling at all; you can tick off everything that's going to happen well before it does. I can live with predictable results if the journey to them is fun and compelling, but this just lays there. One of the biggest dramatic flaws in the direction comes when Bridges loses the kid. The film can't even sustain any suspense or anger for Bad Blake. This should have been an uncomfortable sequence--children in peril almost always beget discomfort--but it's not. Bad Blake is the sweetest alky since Arthur.

The T-Bone Burnett songs are excellent, and sung well by the cast. I left the theater singing one of them, and I'm no fan of country. He's amazing at producing this kind of music; I play my O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack all the time.

As a producer, Bridges threw himself a nice slow one down the middle and across the plate. This may be the easiest Oscar any actor has ever earned. He certainly deserves an Oscar, but like Newman's and Pacino's, this charity one will be tainted by the ghosts of better performances past.

Kenji Fujishima said...


I pretty much agree with everything you said about Crazy Heart. If Bridges indeed wins an Oscar for his performance here, it'll probably be more for his body of work rather than for this particular performance—the Paul Newman/Color of Money kinda win, in other words.

Re: Nine: okay, I will now have to put All That Jazz on my Netflix queue, since I've been hearing so much about it recently (you've mentioned it to me a few times, and Matt Seitz had that piece about it for the New York Times)! As for Day-Lewis: I was fine with his performance in There Will Be Blood (even if the movie itself has, I have to admit, lessened in my estimation), because his brand of scenery-chewing there seemed, at the very least, of a piece with Paul Thomas Anderson's visual & aural extravagance. In Nine, though, he just seems lost, unsure of what character he has to play. So all he really has left is his rather goofy Italian accent.

And as for Agnès Varda: I didn't find her boring; actually, I found her as a person quite charming. I guess what I'm saying is, I found little to latch onto personally as she ruminated about her own life experiences throughout The Beaches of Agnès. I'm impressed and sometimes moved by her seemingly unflagging creative energy and generosity of spirit in exploring some of those memories that mean so much to her; I'm just not sure it means a whole lot to me upon reflection. For what it's worth.

odienator said...

Matt and I share a love of All That Jazz (remember, I wrote a piece about it at the House Next Door some time back). I own a copy of it, and it's perhaps the first non-linear movie I ever saw. I got to see it on the big screen in 1979, as well as Apocalypse Now that year. Ah, to be alive when crazy ass movies that drove people nuts came out! Even if it does make you as decrepit old as I am.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Ah, to be alive when crazy ass movies that drove people nuts came out!

Yeah...these days, sometimes it seems as if, most of the time, you can only find those kinds of movies in art houses. We need more craziness in the cinema!