Sunday, March 30, 2014


You've changed. You're always thinking.”

It's ten minutes into The Great Beauty that Jep appears, almost as of he is but an incidental player in the narrative. Yet, it is his story, and his birthday party when he is revealed; the man is everything and nothing. As he is introduced, an aging television presenter long past her prime, the number 65 decorating her breasts, making her a grotesque combination of birthday cake and New Year's Baby, shouts, "Happy birthday, Jep! Happy birthday, Rome!"

Because Jep and his city are one and the same. The seasoned author, Jep Gambardella (played suavely and with great interior depth by Toni Servillo), is the chronicler of these tales, a watcher of all things Roman, his life and work and his society being both what he seeks and all that lends The Great Beauty its name. On Earth, he is Marcello Mastroianni from La dolce vita; as omniscient observer, he is the angels from Wings of Desire [review], careening through our collective existence, whispering in our ear. Half of those early 10 minutes are spent looking at the Roman dead while Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo [review] establishes his visual style. The camera is continually moving. It pans, zooms, recedes, never lingering, building a kinetic memory board, as much Terrence Malick as Fellini and Wenders. The reverent journey gives way to a dance...literally. Both the gravesite and the conga are monuments to life and living, and with the author as narrator, only Jep has the ability to slow either. He first speaks to us smoking a cigarette while his celebrating guests form a chorus line on either side of him.

A writer's life is reflection, even as he is busy living it. A vapid actress at Jep's party says she is retiring to write her Proustian novel; an equally empty-headed actor pretends to know what she means. It's an ironic commentary. The novelist known for his books on memory is only remembered as such, just as Jep's legacy is largely built on his earliest accomplishments. He is more than happy to remain in that moment as a creator. It gives him all the more room to enjoy the current moment. He's not chasing the past so much as he's living in a continual present, time taking on the elastic Vonnegut quality of happening for him all at once.

But then, what happens when he stops moving? When the camera settles and the editor puts down his scissors? I suppose that's what the people around him wonder, and what they insist on provoking him to ask about himself. Where they fail, the milestone of 65 and the unexpected passing of his first love succeed. Jep’s book, revered as a masterwork of Italian literature, is called The Human Apparatus. It seems the fundamental question is, “How does this all work?” It’s a question Jep has never answered, as life is as fluid as the reasons he gives for never writing another novel.

And as an audience, we must be fluid with him. Impressions of both the main character and of Sorrentino’s movie change from episode to episode. Though Jep may see all of his history as a straight line, The Great Beauty’s narrative track doesn’t really follow one. Rome is full of random encounters. Everywhere Jep goes, he knows someone, be it a friend from three decades hence or an actress he remembers from her movies (a brief, lovely cameo by the luminous Fanny Ardant). It’s now that time and his own mortality are weighing on him that Jep is trying to put these moments together. He fears there are no answers, and even says as much in a rather brittle scene with a Catholic cardinal (Aldo Ralli). More than that, though, I would argue that what Jep really fears is missing anything.

A key scene is another where Jep assassinates a few characters. He’s an expert at eviscerating unworthy opponents. At one party, he dismisses a poet for having written the line “Up with life, down with reminiscence.” It’s is a line that offends him. What is life but the accumulated nostalgia? This is why his first love, the one that got away, is so important. Jep despises artists who demonstrate no insight, and people who stand for nothing. Yet, these people, these friends, labor at their pursuits, their empty politics and bad stageplays...and he just lives amongst their nothingness. His own comeuppance arrives later, when on one of his walks through a Roman relic, he stares into a metaphorical abyss to have a very real youth tell him, "You're nobody." Sorrentino frames the scene so as to isolate his man: we are down, looking up, the child ourselves, faceless even when our identity is revealed later, the lens panning down from the man, past the mother, to her daughter. There is much we can infer from these three levels, as really there are many levels to every shot in The Great Beauty. In one interpretation, we have a construct of age; in another, we have a religious trinity. As it is above, so it is below.

Two essential figures enter Jep’s mid-life to shake things up, and both bring death with them. First, there’s the one he doesn't take seriously, the troubled young man (Giorgio Pasotti) prone to dramatic gestures and quoting other writers, including Proust, about mortality. Jep’s dismissal of the boy’s difficulties and preoccupations proves to be tragic. By implication, the boy takes drastic measures in part because Jep ignored the pleas from the young man's mother (Pamela Villoresi) and gave neither of them the help they required. By the time of his funeral, when Jep tells the mother she can count on him, the hollowness of the words prove inescapable. Despite his insistence that attending the funeral is akin to performance, one where you must measure your own grief so as to not upstage the suffering family, true feeling overwhelms Jep here, and he breaks.

The second essential figure is also the only one to know Jep’s stoic intentions and thus how true his display of emotion is Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a fortysomething exotic dancer whom Jep has taken on as a lover. The daughter of one of his oldest friends, and a woman who has seen much herself and thus earned her cynicism and distrust, Ramona represents the individuality that the rest of Jep’s social circle could be seen as lacking. Of course, then, Jep’s affair with her is branded a "disappointment" by his old crowd. The somewhat younger woman is someone who has pursued her own path with no compulsion to explain; yet the cost of this is that, despite how she presents herself, she is fragile. Not in the “tough lady is really a wilting flower” sense, but her body just refuses to cope.

Still, in their time together, we get to see truly genuine affection between two people. Sorrentino creates a remarkable juxtaposition when the two leave a modern art party and are granted a clandestine late-night tour of one of Rome’s most beautiful art collections. At the soiree, ironically, a little girl who is being billed as a brilliant modern artist angrily throws paint against a giant canvas as the partygoers stand agog, cooing and gasping at what they see as a gimmick, failing to see that it’s their demands and their reactions that are causing the child to lash out in this way. Her act of creation is the only genuine thing in a contrived situation. Jep and Ramona leave this gathering and, once away from prying eyes, share their own true and private artistic experience. They are ushered into a secret pocket, a place of trust.

There is much in The Great Beauty that speaks to these alternating impulses, between honest expression and indulgent mollycoddling (and given Sorrentino’s extravagant style, he risks being labelled as the latter himself). Take, for instance, the two different photography projects that Jep is witness too. Both photographers take self-portraits, and both do so daily. The first is by a woman whom Jep has a one-night stand with, and she snaps the self-portraits in service to vanity, to study her fading beauty and fish for Facebook compliments. The second is done by a man carrying on a tradition begun when he is a child, a photo a day to remember, to observe, and to create and commemorate that continual timeline. Jep can’t even bring himself to look at the woman’s, but he is deeply moved by the man’s.

Which is indicative of where our author eventually swings. For all the disappointments and con artists, the moments of truth win out. “The future is a marvelous thing,” Jep tells the Marxist writer Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), sharing a warm reconciliation after a vicious falling out. This is not a man who has resigned himself to the past, but is still open to the miracles of life--including a genuine miracle awaiting him just a few scenes after.

What lies beyond, lies beyond, it is not my concern,” Jep tells us as The Great Beauty concludes. It’s the beginning of the new story he has developed, the hypothetical second novel that will fill us in on all the wisdom and emotion he has accumulated in the forty years since The Human Apparatus. That novel ended with his protagonist giving up on love and thus life; fittingly, in the movie of his own existence, then, Jep Gambardella’s final word is “Yes.” The older man lays claim to what his younger self could not.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

REPO MAN - #654

"There ain't no difference between a flying saucer and a time machine," says one character in Repo Man, Alex Cox's 1984 punk rock comedy.

"I don't want no commies in my car. No Christians either!" declares another.

The nouns are different, but the sentiments are the same. One crazy concept deserves another. When man has gone this nuts, all nutty ideas are created equal.

It's too bad that Criterion couldn't release Repo Man to the collection just after Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, and then maybe followed it with Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, giving us three consecutive spine numbers with mysterious glowing objects under the lid, each representing some kind of metaphor for man's dissatisfaction with the current state of being. Well, okay, I'm not sure we can take the briefcase in Tarantino's film that far, but he clearly watched Alex Cox movies back at the video store. In Repo Man, there are alien corpses thawing out in the back of a Chevy Malibu, incinerating all who look upon them. In Aldrich, our doom was the nuclear bomb mankind created to obliterate himself; in Tarantino, it's possibly the manifestation of spirituality and evil, hence the 666 combination lock; for Cox, it's the doom from beyond, a higher form come to show us what a pathetic race of meatbags we really are.

Emilio Estevez stars as Otto, a punker in Los Angeles who doesn't fit into the generic culture that permeates 1980s America. At the start of the picture, he works in a grocery store that deals exclusively in generic, plain-wrap food. It's a good sight gag but also one based in reality. At the time, the Ralph's supermarket chain had its own brand that was just white packaging with a blue stripe and the name of the product printed on top. Public Image Limited lampooned it with their album that was, well, called Album if you bought the record, and Cassette if you bought the tape. It had the hit song "Rise," about a social misfit who can't take it anymore. "Anger is an energy," John Lydon chants--and it could have just as easily been a motto for Otto. He gets fired from his job for refusing to stack the plain cans spaced equally apart. Uniformity is treason.

It's on his way home after being canned that Otto meets Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a repo man who tricks Otto into helping him repossess a car. As payment, Bud takes the kid under his wing and teaches him the rules of the game. It's not so much a veteran of the system taking in the disaffected youth and corrupting him into selling out, but rather a veteran outlaw who himself exists somewhere outside the system while helping perpetuate and enforce it. The repo men are a little bit like the gang that couldn't shoot straight, and Cox's film has its roots in the western as much as anything else, even if there is some rejection of the tradition, i.e. "John Wayne is a fag." But that's anarchy for you. The cowboy frontier was about establishing your own code of conduct because civilization's laws were too stifling.

So it is here. Otto can continue to pursue nihilism for no good purpose, or he can find one. Given the way life was going under Reagan, that purpose is selfish at first, but the deeper Otto gets into this new life, he becomes exposed to the true extremes of society. One one hand, there is the CIA looking to squash radical ideas; on the other hand, the trio of mohawked, shaved-head crooks robbing liquor stores. At some point all these forces want the same thing: the Chevy Malibu and the secrets locked inside.

Repo Man's crazy theories are an amalgamation of the weirdness of the 1980s. Stagnant culture forced people to go searching for solutions that were beyond the norm. Whether it was believing in aliens or Scientology (here parodied as "Diaretics"), or jumping into a musical subculture, or living by a code in a secret society, everyone was looking for something. Cox's credo about UFOs and time machines, communists and Christians, was his dismissal of all such pursuits as being one and the same. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In this case, literally, he's the lobotomized driver trafficking in extraterrestrial corpses. Sure, he's got some wacky ideas. So does Miller (Tracey Walter), the one who equates spaceships and time travel. Considering where they both end up, they prove that just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not after you.

Though he goes with Miller in the end, Otto doesn't so much join the crazies as he rejects the ways of thinking that make him a part of the herd. The key scene is really in the shoot-out at the liquor store, the showdown between three aspects of Otto's life. In a standoff that must have given a young Q.T. many a good idea, it's a three-way battle between Otto's straight life (the security guard that escorted him out of the grocery store), his punk roots (the robbers, his former friends), and his newer career (Bud). Not only is he the only one who really walks away, but he does so by drawing an individualistic line in the sand. As his old buddy dies, he says, "Society made me who I am," to which Otto replies, "No, it didn't. You're a white suburban punk. Just like me." It's a defiant rejection of anything that would otherwise attempt to define you. Otto is his own man, and like Pablo Picasso, no one calls him an asshole.

By all accounts, so is Alex Cox, and Repo Man is certainly its own movie. In all honesty, for as much meaning as I could sift out of it, I didn't find it to be an entirely satisfying viewing experience, not the way I did when I saw it all the way back in high school. The gonzo, anything-goes quality of the narrative that made it feel fresh and uninhibited thirty years ago just seems messy now. Cox doesn't quite know how to resolve all the criss-crossing story lines, instead letting the episodic storytelling pile on itself in one massive jumble. He also never finds a consistent tone for the humor. The biting satire gives way to ridiculous slapstick and an occasional meanness.

Still, Estevez and Stanton both give excellent performances, and the music is pretty good. Plus, you have to admire any film that dares to give a two-finger homage to Grease, stealing the musical's ending for its own purposes. Of all the punk rock stylings Cox adopts, that may be the most punk of all.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


When one comes to understand the theory of an ever-expanding, unending universe, one also comes to understand how small a part one plays in a large cosmic drama. Getting to know the man who developed that theory, Stephen Hawking, only proves to make one feel smaller. If he can explore the vastness of space despite being confined to a wheelchair, unable to talk or move most of the muscles in his body, what exactly are we doing with our lives?

Making the viewer feel small, of course, is not the goal of Errol Morris' 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time. Quite the opposite, in fact. Based on Hawking's book of the same name, as well as his similarly titled memoir A Brief History, Morris' film is a concise and fascinating biography of the brilliant astrophysicist that engages with the man's life by accepting that the product of his work is as essential to his story as any of the life events that led to him becoming who he is. You can be told what Albert Einstein had for breakfast every day, but you're still going to want to spend some time hearing about the Theory of Relativity.

Hawking is virtually a household name, but I'd wager quite a lot of people don't really know all that much about him or what exactly it is he has accomplished. Most know that he speaks through a complex computer set-up where he uses a clicker to find the words he wants to say, which are then voiced by a robotic voice. (It's a far more sophisticated version of the manual selection process used by Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, [review] but as we learn in A Brief History of Time, based on the same principle.) Personally, however, I'd never really known about the neurological disorder that led to Hawking's body breaking down, nor the years it took for his functions to fail him. Morris juxtaposes the active and often lazy boy that Hawking was with the focused, dedicated man he became, divining the essential details from family, friends, colleagues, and Hawking himself.

What emerges is a compelling portrait of a unique individual who refused to give in to his disease, and by some ironic happenstance, benefitted from it. (As his mother says, no one would call his affliction anything but bad luck, but Stephen did more with it than most.) It's hard to say how many of Hawking's discoveries would still be waiting to be found were he not bound by circumstance to spend his every waking moment living the life of the mind. In fact, as Morris explains the different ideas and theories that define Hawking's essential work, it becomes clear that his exploration of the origins of the universe and his quest to see where life is heading is more than a little defined by his predicament. One of the central discoveries that Hawking made was to realize that black holes aren't entirely black, and that what enters a black hole is, after a fashion, returned to the universe, albeit in a different form. Does it not make sense that a man with Stephen Hawking's condition would seek a way to explain and conquer oblivion?

Errol Morris' technique was well defined by A Brief History of Time. He adeptly blends interviews with archival images, animated graphics, and specially photographed sequences to lead the audience through all aspects of his subject. The way he brings to life the various theories from Hawking's book is particularly impressive, turning somewhat abstract concepts into recognizable sequences by using Hawking's own metaphors in a more literal fashion. It's fitting, actually, since Hawking himself apparently began to think in terms of pictures as a way to communicate more effectively when language began to fail him. Cinema, as it turns out, is an ideal medium. The world's most popular art form is surprisingly agile when it comes to realizing the theoretical scientist's goal of explaining the fundamentals of the universe to every person existing within it.

And with that, we can feel larger. Access to the keys to the universe means we can take some part in driving where it goes. The new version of the TV show Cosmos, as hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, has a similar mission. The more that we know as a collective people, the more we will be able to discover, and the fewer boundaries we will have left to conquer.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.