Saturday, January 15, 2022

THE WOODMANS - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.

 


The question of why an artist is chosen to create and how he or she divines ideas from the ether is one that will never be answered to any real satisfaction. That is the mystery of artistic expression; if we knew how to nail it down, everyone would be artists. Likewise, we aren't really sure why one person might be born with skills that allow him or her to cope in the face of any adversity, and why some find life to be a brittle, fragile, depressing endeavor. Sure, there is the chemistry of the body and other medical explanations, but the ephemeral question remains: why can't I be like you? Why am I automatically sad while you maintain and stay happy?


These are questions that, in some way, drive C. Scott Willis' documentary The Woodmans, whether they are asked outright or not. This sensitive, intensely empathetic portrait of an artistic family is all tangled up in the whys and wherefores of expression and the unknowable impulses of depression. The Woodmans are an artistic family cursed equally by talent and tragedy. Father George is a painter, and mother Betty creates pottery and ceramics. Their eldest child, Charlie, is an accomplished multimedia artist working with video projection and music. Their youngest child, Francesca, was an influential photographer and is by far the most famous of the Woodman clan. She also killed herself in 1981, an event that will never be separated from the rest of the family's story, regardless of what they do.


Despite the heavy draw of the more sensational aspects of the tale--even Francesca's work is the most magnetic of anything we see in The Woodmans--Willis endeavors to create a level playing field. His movie is as much about how a family like this functions, and the fascinating reality that, though all were drawn to different disciplines, all four Woodmans had a desire to create. What effect did the artistic environment have on Charlie and Francesca? What about the fact that their family spent every summer in Italy? Is it important that Charlie's diabetes caused his early life to be regimented, while Francesca enjoyed added freedoms? These are all avenues that Willis goes down, and he uses whatever he finds there to build as comprehensive a portrait as he can before pursuing the largest elephant down the most troubling side road.



There could be a whole sidebar here about what it means to create a portrait of a person that is not around to speak for herself. It even comes up as part of the documentary's narrative. George and Betty can give their impressions of their daughter, while her friends can tell us about the Francesca they knew--a woman who is often at odds with the perception her parents had of her--but who she really was is as open to interpretation as her art. Willis gives us her perspective where he can, quoting generously from her journals and showing her own videos of her process, but even these things are curated by the director. They aren't the same as if, say, we sat and read Francesca Woodman's journals front to back. Then again, wouldn't that too be an experience beholden to our subjective interpretation?


This is something that Willis grapples with in The Woodmans. George and Betty both wish that their daughter's extraordinary photographs could exist without the tragedy of her life being a part of the dialogue. Betty even goes so far as to try to reject the notion that the photos, many of which are self-portraits and expressive compositions that feature the photographer in the nude, are in any way autobiographical. This is a statement that she barely even seems to stand by when she makes it, though we also get the sense that she pushes back just as hard at applying any analysis to her own process. All Willis can do is show us the photographs themselves, which he does in copious amounts. I was not familiar with Francesca Woodman prior to firing up this film, but I now feel I have a pretty good grasp of her central motifs and her technique.



In trying to show us the artists behind the art, however, Willis transcends even these accomplishments and gets at something that is more meaningful and far deeper than a lot of documentaries are willing to go after. The final third of The Woodmans is an intense exploration of the effect that Francesca's suicide had on her family. Her first suicide attempt was in 1980, and she succeeded in 1981. In many ways, she has created a void that her family has never been able to close. Charlie has largely stepped away from it, determined to make his own mark, but the very act of rejecting his sister's biography and her impact on the art world (at the time of her death, photography was still struggling to be accepted as a fine art) must have its own defining quality. Both father and mother saw their own means of expression change via their grief. George, who was closest to Francesca, has basically picked up where she left off, moving from abstract painting to photographing subjects that carry on the tradition of what his daughter was doing (although he is seemingly reluctant to accept this). For her part, Betty stopped making practical pottery and instead has started making abstract installations. In a sense, she has taken over what George had been doing previously.


The most heartbreaking statement in The Woodmans is not any of the many anguished quotes that come out of Francesca's diaries, but the extended silence that follows Betty repeating the question, "How did I deal with the guilt?" Her answer eventually is that she did not, that she only dealt with the pain. One gets the sense from watching Willis' documentary that, above all else, this is the lasting legacy of how Francesca ultimately chose to express herself. Her family will never really understand why and will probably never get past the worry that there was something more they could have done. This ongoing reverberation of mourning is something that Willis appears acutely sensitive to, and it colors how delicately he handles the whole film. The Woodmans is a deeply moving piece of cinema, one that fearlessly tries to understand the conflicting impulses of creation and eradication, something that many artists wrestle with, and that I think has more far-reaching applications in other walks of life, moreso than most would care to admit.




Friday, January 14, 2022

RADIO ON - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2007.



Christopher Petit's 1979 independent feature, Radio On, is a brittle portrait of the despair and ennui of 1970s Britain. Rather than indulge in chronicling any particular scene from the time or resort to the usual ripped-from-the-headlines tactics, Petit instead chooses to follow one man over the course of a few days as a portrayal of the feelings of hopelessness many were experiencing. With bleak black-and-white cinematography by Martin Schäfer, who regularly worked with Wim Wenders (one of the producers on the film), Radio On offers a Britain that is perpetually gray. Come, Armageddon, come.


Robert (David Beames) is an all-night DJ in a factory who spends his own boring nights trying to alleviate the tedium of workers on the graveyard shift. He sets aside their banal requests and plays his own choices in hopes of giving them "something better." When his brother mysteriously dies, Robert goes on a road trip to Bristol in search of answers about what happened. Only those aren't the answers he really wants. The questions that loom over him are more existential. Though he never says so out loud, Robert is really searching for some kind of meaning in his dull existence.



Along the way, he meets other people who have been set adrift. There is the Scottish soldier (Andrew Byatt) whose pain at losing his friend on a tour of duty in Ireland has left him emotionally crippled and defensive. Then there is the pair of German women, one who hates all men and the other who is trying to find her ex-husband and reclaim custody of their daughter. Like Robert, these people feel that something has been taken from them, that their life is absurd and pointless. As the grieving mother explains, she feels homesick in England, stranded in a world where no one speaks the language she was born into. For her it may be a literal language barrier, but she might as well be speaking metaphorically. Robert borrows her phrase book and tries out different sayings in both English and German, and she kindly corrects his pronunciation. It doesn't matter that they are saying the same things, the sound of it will never match up.


If there is anything that provides comfort in Radio On, it's music. The DVD box quite loudly trumpets the soundtrack, listing the bands and the songs featured. The tracks are so important, Petit even lists them in the opening credits, rather than sticking them at the end like we're used to. The chosen cuts fit perfectly, the disaffected tones of the music emerging from the ashes of punk echoing the disaffection of Petit's script. Featured here are David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich, Devo, and more. Regardless of what Robert is doing, he always returns to the music, turning on the radio in the car or playing a jukebox in a diner. It comforts him, acts as a friend when he has no one else to share the moment with.



At the same time, music also provides a bridge between people. The last message Robert received from his brother was a birthday present of an envelope full of Kraftwerk tapes. On the road, when he meets Just Like Eddie (Sting) at a gas station, they find common ground by singing Eddie Cochran songs, whereas when the soldier rejects what Robert puts on the stereo, you know their relationship will quickly end.


Petit builds Radio On out of lengthy, languorous shots, letting the landscape pass without comment, the periods of time where there is no dialogue stretching as far as the patches of road traversed. Schäfer keeps his camera at a distance rather than going in for the traditional close-ups, favoring two-person shots over cutting back and forth in the rare conversations. The viewer is kept far enough away as to feel that he or she is on the outside looking in, not unlike how Robert feels. We're the foreigners in his existence. Robert may not be engaged in what is happening, but there is turmoil, poverty, and moral decay all around him. The same radio that provides him with music also delivers the news of society's ills. These problems don't touch him, but they contribute to the dread that permeates the air.



By the end of Radio On, Robert has driven as far as he can go--quite literally. Parked on the edge of a deep hole, his car dies. Rather than fight against it, he opens his car doors and cranks up the Kraftwerk, the last gift from his brother and the DJ's last gift to the world he knew. He walks away from the site and starts walking back toward civilization. What he will find there is the Rorschach test Petit gives to his audience. What do you see in the ill-defined shapes of Robert's future? Has he rediscovered hope, or does the final shot of a train departing mean it's too late, any chance for humanity has already left the station?




Thursday, January 13, 2022

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING - CRITERION CHANNEL

 A rare case where I was able to re-examine a movie, and where I changed my mind.



ORIGINAL THEATRICAL REVIEW - NOVEMBER 2007 [source]


Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding is another dysfunctional, comical family dramas of the kind the writer/director does so well. Though maybe not as good as his breakout 2005 hit The Squid and the Whale, Margot is of the same ilk: smart, literate, and self-deflating.


Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a popular author of high-brow family dramas, probably not entirely dissimilar to the one she currently finds herself occupying. In fact, given some of the resentment her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) expresses in regards to her personal life being fodder for past fiction, it's safe to say Margot writes her stories exactly like the life she and her family live. The strain of these resentments, as well as the shared memory of an abusive father, has divided the sisters, who haven't talked in several months. They have a third, unseen sibling named Becky who apparently got the brunt of their upbringing. Her problems are the only things Margot and Pauline can truly agree on, reserving their most judgmental tones and cruel giggles for conversations about everything that's wrong with Becky.


A temporary reconciliation has been reached between Margot and Pauline in light of Pauline's approaching marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black). This will be the second marriage for Pauline, the first one having fallen apart when Margot exposed its darkest guts in a New Yorker short story. Pauline has one child from the old marriage, a pre-pubescent girl named Ingrid (Flora Cross). Margot has two children, one of whom she brings with her. Claude (Zane Pais) is her favorite son, a mama's boy who is reaching that age where strange smells are emerging from his armpits and girls' breasts capture his attention. Not exactly the best time for being in a family crisis, but little does Claude know, he's got one coming. Margot hasn't decided to visit her baby sis for wholly selfless reasons, oh no.


Noah Baumbach is amused by intellectual phonies, and he loves to let the air out of their tires. In his college drama Kicking and Screaming [review], he portrayed young people in transition, having to face up to the real world where the pretentious theories of the classroom neither paid the rent nor got them over snares in romance. The father in The Squid and the Whale, played with convincing self-delusion by Jeff Daniels, likes to pretend that growing up means never having to stop quoting Breathless [review] in the original French. When he does so, Baumbach's sleight of hand is clear: he can pull the pin on these toy hand grenades because he knows that the difference between the real and the plastic is very slim. The only separation between himself and the misguided characters he writes about is that he's holding the pen.



Margot may be Baumbach's most conflicted character yet. We meet her at that crossroads where her illusions about her safe little world are very near shattering. She prides herself on being able to diagnose what ails others, and she has no fear telling those people exactly what she thinks is wrong with them. Yet, her assessments are capricious, and she doesn't always stick with one opinion for long. She is also deathly afraid of confessing her own problems, hence leaving Claude in the dark about the impending divorce of his parents. Margot is the kind of role that Nicole Kidman does like no one else. She's frail and trembling, yet also intimidating. She's often the smartest in the room, the most good looking, even the tallest, and she uses that to her advantage just as much as she uses a glass of white wine with an ice cube to maintain her icy distance.


Even so, Kidman conjures a persistent ache for Margot. Her eye for illness is just as turned inward as it is out. Her obsession borders on hypochondria. Despite her maddening changes of tune and comical theories on everything from mothering to relationship politics, when her full vulnerability comes through, we still manage to feel for her. In one of the movie's best scenes, Margot gets thrown under a bus at a public appearance at a bookstore, and she ends up tearfully revealing how much living has started to scare her. The compulsions that drive her to pick life apart are also picking apart her own. The scene also gives Jennifer Jason Leigh a chance to show her sensitive side. Both actresses are very good in this movie and well cast as siblings.



The relationship between Pauline and Malcolm gives Margot ample opportunity to dole out criticism. The more she focuses on the problems she perceives between them, the further she can push back her own issues. Margot tells Claude that Pauline is crazy, one of the many indiscretions that betrays the sister's trust, but Pauline seems ridiculously together by comparison. Malcolm is also an easy scapegoat for Margot's ire: a jobless musician turned painter who spends more time writing pointless letters to magazines than he does wielding a brush. Normally, Jack Black's preening performances are enough to make me stay away from a movie, but Noah Baumbach is just the right director for the comedian. The austere tone of Margot at the Wedding cages the performer, and Baumbach lets him out for well-timed outbursts. What's great, though, is there is more going on here than just quick temper tantrums. Malcolm is riddled with doubt, and his breakdowns push Jack Black to go deeper with it rather than just relying on his usual bag of tricks. It's his best role since High Fidelity, kind of like Barry has grown up and discovered what a loser he really is.



For Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach adopts a more cinema verite style, letting the overcast skies of the coastline where Pauline lives cast a gray pall over everything. Cinematographer Harris Savides shot the movie using older lenses and mostly natural light, and the jerky camera movements and quick cuts give Margot at the Wedding a spontaneous and intimate atmosphere. Given how often the plot is advanced by someone peeking through holes in walls or listening to a conversation from outside a door, the movie gives the viewer the impression that he or she is spying in on something they weren't actually invited to witness.


The only downside of Margot at the Wedding is that at times it may be too smart for its own good. Though Baumbach doesn't make too much of the metaphor of the family tree that needs to be cut down despite denials that it's really rotting or even make his set-ups for later plot devices too obvious, he does lose his way in the labyrinth of lies once or twice. Luckily for him, he always has a dry, sardonic joke waiting to put the train back on track, and luckily for us, he isn't so bitter with cynicism that he forgets to have a heart. Making things fall apart is easy, but Noah Baumbach has enough going on, he is ultimately able to put Margot at the Wedding back together in ways that are both unexpected and satisfying.



DVD REVIEW - FEBRUARY 2008 [source]


If fictional accounts of literary lives are to be believed, the pursuit of stories and greater academic discoveries is an existence cancerous with disdain. Life can't just happen, every event must have meaning, contributing to a larger metaphor. The story of your life is grist for the story on the page, and not only can people not trust you to refrain from twisting what happened to them into some greater fiction, but if they are in the same profession as you, they might also twist yours. If they are not writers themselves, then the writer runs the risk of the people around them twisting their intent, or even seeing images of themselves in the creations even when the images aren't really there.

As a novelist, I can't entirely dispute this. Part of what made the caustic Margot at the Wedding so painful to watch the first time (my original review got plenty wrong) was the fear that maybe the damage being done was damage I would encounter all on my own. Don't get me wrong, I really liked the movie, but I wasn't going to immediately rush back and see it again.

At least not when I could wait for DVD.


Margot at the Wedding is the latest film from Noah Baumbach, co-writer of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [review] and the man behind The Squid and the Whale, both of which are also about literary lives (though Zissou hides behind the mask of adventure). In this one, Baumbach turns his lens on a pair of sisters. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is a Manhattan-based writer who is traveling to the coast with the eldest of her two boys, Claude (Zane Pais), to attend the wedding of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Margot had originally RSVP'd a "no" for the event, not wanting to support what she sees as a bad decision on Pauline's part. The younger sister has only known her fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), for a very short time, and Margot's sibling judgment is fierce.

The change of heart on Margot's part is not the act of kindness she outwardly portrays, but more selfish. She is running away from her failing marriage, hiding out in a familiar place to avoid the reality of her situation. Pauline lives in the house they grew up in, and just so happens to be near Dick Koosman (Ciaran Hinds), another writer that Margot has been having an affair with. (Has there ever been a more perfect douchebag name than "Dick Koosman"?) These and many other secrets begin to emerge as Margot reunites with her sister and starts stirring things up. There is an abusive father in the girls' past, as well as a third sister. Pauline is pregnant. The two younger sisters resent their elder sibling for using their lives in fictions. Malcolm resents everyone who does anything because he really does nothing. Much of this comes to light in strange ways, with Baumbach using the secret code of sisters as an effective tool for digging toward the emotional heart of a given scene.

It would have been easy for Noah Baumbach to sculpt a self-important drama of the erudite and academic (Pauline is a teacher, but that rarely comes up, because when Margot is around, everything is about Margot), but he avoids the preciousness and self-defensiveness that often arises when intellectuals write about their own kind. Not only did I find Margot at the Wedding funnier (though still in a mean way) the second time around, I appreciated more how Baumbach was willing to hang back and let his actors have the space to move and live and be. Shooting with mostly natural lighting, eschewing a traditional musical score, and using handheld cameras to get in close and move on his feet, the director sets up the locale and lets the drama unfold without forcing it to fit strict literary lines. He does toy with metaphor, most obviously the central family tree that stands tall in the backyard and that outsiders say is rotting, but he doesn't spend a lot of time pushing any greater meaning on his audience than what they might decide to pick up on their own.


Likewise, when the situation overloads and events hit critical mass, it sneaks up on the viewer rather than feeling inevitable--even though it is inevitable, because everything that goes wrong has been pushed into position by Margot's meddling. Nicole Kidman is fearless as the extremely unlikable lead character, who seems capable of diagnosing everyone's problems but her own. It's a bit of an overstatement to call her the lead, though; it's just that her character's name is in the title. It's really an ensemble piece. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a quiet treasure that doesn't get put to use nearly enough anymore, and Jack Black has never been this good. He plays the same kind of emotionally stunted know-it-all that garnered so much notice in High Fidelity, but after life has kicked him a few times. The smug irony has been bled right out of the performance.

Everything in Margot at the Wedding is done smartly, right up to the ending. Be warned, the final sequence comes quick, but back it up and watch closely. The snap decision is all in the action, in the simple business of leaving everything behind and moving forward. Also consider the last scene in relation to the first, the thing that Claude mistakenly thinks he found on the train is now there with him on the bus. Though it happens abruptly, it's vitally important.



Wednesday, January 12, 2022

NIAGARA - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.



Marilyn Monroe was rarely cast as anything but the sympathetic or comedic love interest, but based on the evidence in Niagara, she could have had a whole other career as a femme fatale. In fact, her performance here stands alongside another of her off-model films, Roy Ward Baker's Don't Bother to Knock, released a year prior, as two of her most interesting. If for nothing else, because the frightened, twitchy woman she becomes in each is unlike the persona she came to develop immediately after in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. Whereas her nervous condition in Knock has more mystery--part of the film's main plot is finding out why she is the way she is--Niagara provides her with more of an arc. She goes from confident and devious to hunted and afraid. I'd be curious as to how differently her work might have played sixty years ago, when there was at least still a smidgen of an unknown quantity to the actress; now, Marilyn is so intrinsic to pop culture, we forgive and forget even as she commits her crimes, meaning we feel sorry for her despite the fact that she's getting what she deserves.


For Niagara, Marilyn plays Rose Loomis, who has gone to the famous water resort on a second honeymoon with her husband George (Joseph Cotten, Shadow of a Doubt). He has just been discharged from an army hospital, where he was sent for battle fatigue. His mental maladies are still with him, however; Niagara opens with him wandering in the mist by the falls in the early morning. When he returns home, his wife pretends to be asleep. She has had enough of George and is making plans to get rid of him. He suspects this to be the case, though given his neurotic manner, most think it's just paranoia.



The story of the Loomises is juxtaposed with that of the Cutlers, a couple on their first honeymoon, albeit a belated one. Ray (Max Showalter, Sixteen Candles [review]) has gotten a job in the shredded wheat factory on the American side of the falls; he has taken his wife to the Canadian side to celebrate. Whereas Ray is all golly-gee enthusiasm, Polly (Jean Peters, Pickup on South Street [review]) is more calm and reserved. Through a combination of nosey snooping and empathy, Polly becomes embroiled with the Loomis drama. She also gets the movie's best lines, revealing a sense of humor that can equally be aimed at others ("She sure got herself an armful of groceries") and at herself ("For a dress like that, you've got to start laying plans when you're about thirteen").


Niagara is directed by Henry Hathaway, who was known early on for westerns and then later, particularly in the years before Niagara, for directing definitive film noir like Kiss of Death and The Dark Corner. Though often lumped in the noir category, Niagara is something slightly different. Its setting and intense romantic storyline have much in common with gothic romance, while its colorful artifice has an element of the women's melodrama, looking not dissimilar to Leave Her to Heaven [review], but also being in line with the soap operas of Douglas Sirk and Jean Negulesco.



Cotten makes for a convincing brooder, and his dark passions only become more exaggerated and desperate as the movie progresses. He and Monroe are emotional counterweights. When she is up, Cotten is down, and vice versa. This leaves Peters to be the center. Her suspicions regularly give way to complicity, but she never gives in to her more scandalous impulses. Hathaway uses the setting as an environmental engine, the constant beating of the water churning up all the extreme feelings, driving both character and plot. It's fitting that the movie's most violent action is committed higher up. When Rose Loomis flees from her husband, and effectively her own errors in judgment, she runs up a bell tower, as if trying to climb away from the big hole in the earth and the torrents of water that would otherwise drive them under. Hathaway and director of photography Joseph MacDonald (Bigger Than Life [review]) set the camera up high, peering down from the uppermost point in the tower, the shadows of husband and wife exaggerated like they are posing for a Saul Bass poster. It's the most artful shot in the movie, fueled by the inherent grotesqueness of the incident it portrays.


There is, of course, only one direction George Loomis can go after that. The film can only end in the falls, George can only be ground down by irresistible urges. It makes for a nail-biting finale, one that is surprisingly cynical, but that admirably stays true to the dark places where Niagara began.