Mike Leigh's Odyssey

Johnny (David Thewlis) in Naked.

Watching Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) I think it makes sense to see the film as a kind of modern-day epic, an ironic or degraded rewriting of Homer’s Odyssey to stand alongside such related works as Contempt and Ulysses.  Johnny (David Thewlis), Naked’s “peripatetic” (his word) anti-hero, spends about five days’ time wandering through the streets of London; in lieu of sirens, monsters, and sorceresses he encounters vagabonds, bureaucrats, and disaffected proletarians.  In the fallen world of Leigh’s film, heroic action seems impossible (it’s unclear what, if anything, Johnny wants to do); home is difficult to identify, let alone reach (does he want to be in Manchester or London, or some other place?); and the end of the world is nigh (he believes that the world will end in 1999, as predicted by Nostradamus, and he quotes liberally from the book of Revelation).

Johnny as Odyssean wanderer.

The Ithaca in this squalid tale is represented by the cramped three-bedroom flat shared by Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharpe) and two female roommates.  If Louise is the film’s Penelope figure, than the figure of the invading suitor is represented by the predatory “landlord from hell” Jeremy, a rapist and a prig who uses the power of his class and gender to lay claim to the space of the flat as well as the women who live there—a form of territory marking.  The women are stymied; they realize they’re powerless to kick him out.  After all, he owns the place.  The women contemplate calling the police, but realize that “they’re gonna take one look at him in his suit, look at us, and who do you think they’re gonna believe?”

Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell) with Louise and Sophie in the kitchen.

It’s typical of Leigh’s Marxist irony that, in the end, no one ejects Jeremy.  He eventually saunters out of the flat of his own accord (though Louise, brandishing a carving knife, has threatened to cut off his penis if he doesn’t leave her alone—a remark that must have seemed even more jolting in 1993, the year of the Lorena Bobbitt case, than it does today).  In any case, the capitalist monster at the heart of Naked retreats but is never really defeated, certainly not by Johnny, who returns to the flat bruised and battered, having been set upon by a gang of marauding hooligans.  This is an Ithaca still very much overrun with usurpers.  Or is Manchester, the town where Johnny and Louise once lived together, the film’s analog to Ithaca?  They make plans to return there at the end of the film, though it’s unclear whether they will actually go; even if they do, their future there seems hardly brighter than the one that awaits them in London.  “Take me back to Manchester when it’s raining,” they sing. “I want to feel the soot get in me hair…”  (More Leigh irony.)   

"Take me back to Manchester": Johnny with Louise.

The film explicitly drops Homer’s name when Johnny follows a sullen barmaid (Gina McKee) back to the flat she’s subletting from a pair of homosexual classicists.  Taking a look around at their living room, appointed with statues of Roman soldiers and Olympian athletes, Johnny slips into wisecracking—his standard mode of discourse.  “I find all this a bit sad,” he says.  “I don’t mean that to sound Homer-phobic.  I mean, I like The Iliad and The Odyssey.”  He looks at the girl, hoping for some sort of reaction.  She just stares back at him dumbly.  “Did you get that?” he asks.  Negative.  He picks up a copy of The Odyssey from the bookshelf.  “Do you get it now?”  Blank stare from the girl.  “Do you know this?”  A small shake of the head.  “I bet you do.  You’ve most likely done it at school.  You just can’t remember.”  But there’s nothing in blankness of her gaze to suggest that she has—no flicker of recognition.  It’s one of the film’s many moments of quiet despair, registered by Johnny and shared by us, a vision of the contemporary world as vacuous and dead.  Passive, frail, mute, the barmaid is the opposite side of Jeremy’s coin: they are twins in their lack of depth and their incapacity for reflection.  Empty and soulless, they resemble the office building over which the security guard Brian (Peter Wight) keeps watch every night: the lights are on, but there’s nothing there.         

The blank stare of the barmaid--and Johnny's disappointed reaction.


The Films of 2016: A top ten list

New blood.  We got more good films in 2016 than we deserved, and more than I had expected: aside from Martin Scorsese (whose Silence is pictured above), Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kelly Reichardt, and Jim Jarmusch, most of the top-shelf filmmakers were off this year, which meant that the fate of the year in cinema was left in the hands of less familiar auteurs.  But the absence of the big-leaguers allowed talented new voices to emerge.  Several of the year’s best films came from directors who hadn’t put anything out in seven or eight years, and so while Moonlight and Toni Erdmann are not technically debut features for Barry Jenkins and Maren Ade they felt like they came out of nowhere.    

Black lives, women’s lives.  A cynical person would interpret the flood of new films this year by and about black Americans as a calculated response to 2015’s (and 2014’s) Oscars-so-white debacle.  But it’s hard to say why certain trends arise at certain moments.  A nexus of forces and factors—some of them political, some of them cultural—coincided in such a way that we got not only Moonlight and Fences and O.J. but also 13th and I Am Not Your Negro and Hidden Figures and Keanu and Birth of a Nation (these last four unseen by me) and The Fits and Loving.  And we saw a bumper crop of high-profile films by women: Chantal Akerman, Anna Rose Holmer, Kirsten Johnson, Ava Duvernay, Kelly Reichardt, Anna Biller, Mia Hanson-Løve, Julia Hart, Maren Ade.  Not all of them were masterpieces, but they represent a healthy diversity of voices that bodes well for the future of the medium.     

Ensembles.  The overwhelming number of ensemble-driven films this year made it hard to single out individual performances.  How to pick a favorite performance from Moonlight?  From Certain Women?  From Fences?  From 20th Century Women?  And yet my favorite film of 2016, a documentary, had no performances at all—unless you count Ezra Edelman’s direction, a virtuosic turn in its own right. 

The top ten (click each title for more details):

1. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

  2. Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade)

3. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

4. Certain Women (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

5. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

  6. Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain)

7. Fences (dir. Denzel Washington)

  8. Cemetery of Splendor (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi)

10. Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies)

Honorable mentionsLa La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle), Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan), Aquarius (dir. Klebel Mendoça Filho), Blue Jay (dir. Alex Lehmann), Things To Come (dir. Mia Hanson-Løve). 

Great performances.  Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson in Fences. Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann.  Lily Gladstone, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Jared Harris in Certain Women.  Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning in 20th Century WomenSarah Paulson in Blue Jay.

Looking ahead.  2017 could bring an even more impressive batch of films than the one we got this year.  I look forward to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread; Michael Haneke’s Happy End; Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck; Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled; Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete; Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper; Dee Rees’ Mudbound; Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris; Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion; Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick; and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name.  Cautiously optimistic about Noah Baumbach’s Yeh Din Ka Kissa (that title!) and Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (that title!).  Curious about Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits, Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, and Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night.  Quietly terrified for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.  And not expecting much from—but intrigued by—Andres Muschetti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It.  

See you at the movies.


Of boys and men: On Enzo Staiola in "The Bicycle Thieves" (1948)


Enzo Staiola gives one of the great child performances in the movies in The Bicycle Thieves (dir. Vittorio de Sica, 1948), playing Bruno, the young son of the beleaguered Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani).  When Ricci’s much-prized bicycle is stolen and he takes to the streets of Rome in hopes of recovering it, Bruno is charged with helping his father, assuming the role of sidekick, deputy, co-pilot, buddy.  In the world of this film, where the children of the poor grow up fast, there is no condescending to Bruno on account of his age—not by Ricci, and not by de Sica. 

They’re roles that Bruno approaches with the seriousness of a grown-up; much of the film’s humor derives from the gravity with which he takes on the responsibility of helping out with this most important mission.  The first time he appears in the film, we’re invited to laugh at how much this three-foot-tall kid (Staiola was seven years old when the film was shot) behaves like a grown man, affecting a masculine swagger that we can only assume he has picked up by observing the men around him.  When he notices that the bicycle has been dented while it was in the pawnshop, he voices outrage over the pawnbroker’s carelessness: “who knows how they care for them?  They don’t pay for the repairs!”  His affectation of a grown-up’s bravado comes off as clownish.  But it also bespeaks a toughness, a strength of will that reoccurs throughout the film.  More than just a clown: a boy of opinions and decisions, wise beyond his years (aged prematurely, perhaps, by the harshness of his own experience, working as a shine boy to help support his impoverished family).  As he prepares to leave with his father for the day, he smiles at his infant sibling sleeping on the bed and closes the window in a gesture of benevolence and protection.               

Playing the grown-up.

Later: the trattoria.  A reconciliation between father and son after an argument.  The father has lost the son’s respect by treating him like a subordinate where once they were equals, slapping his face and reprimanding him.  Now the father repairs the bond by treating him like a fellow man again.  “Let’s get drunk,” he says.  The wine they drink comes in a carafe.  “If your mother could see us!”  They bond over this shared secret.  Bruno trying (and failing) to cut his food with a knife and a fork like his father, made self-conscious by the withering gaze of the rich boy at the next table.  Never mind any of that.  He is with his father: two men sharing in the communion of a meal.  The moment is golden.  They are equals again.

At the trattoria.

The Bicycle Thieves: Bruno’s story or his father’s?  That ending is so profoundly moving because their roles have shifted yet again.  The father, shamed for his cowardice, made to cringe from the shocked and horrified gaze of his child.  The child made to see his father for the first time not as a god but as a man, fallible and desperate.  It is a moment of tremendous power for Bruno.  He has the power to comfort and forgive.  Taking his father’s hand in his, he says: I see you and I forgive you.  Ricci’s story is that of a man bent by his circumstances to the point of breaking; Bruno’s story is that of a child falling out of innocence into knowledge about what men are.  He has gone from aping the mannerisms of a grown-up in the first scene to behaving with an adult knowledge in the last.

Grown up for real.


The Films of 2016: Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was optioned for a Hollywood remake several weeks ago, even before it has finished expanding its limited release here.  (The German film premiered at Cannes last spring, where it received raves, and is currently an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film.)  I’ll be curious to see how an American filmmaker handles this material, because I can think of very few who would be capable of doing so with the same deftness: it’s hard to imagine even a simpatico filmmaker like Alexander Payne managing it with such ease.  By virtue of Ade’s formidable talents as a writer and director (and those of a uniformly excellent cast), this ingenious film is at once a sly and touching family drama, an outrageous screwball farce, a keen-eyed satire of corporate culture, and an off-hand social-problem picture about the costs of globalization.  You’d probably have to go back to the 1930s to find another example of a comedy that seamlessly weaves together so many tones and ideas, and that wears them so lightly.      


The Films of 2016: Short takes (III)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi) – This absolutely delightful all-ages film is a big-hearted adventure story set in rural New Zealand, where a troubled kid (Julian Dennison) and his irascible foster dad (Sam Neill) head for the bush in an attempt to elude the social services agents trying to separate them.  Sharp and smart without ever resorting to cheap irony, it has a wonky charm that Wes Anderson could only dream of.  Worth seeing for Neill’s performance alone—though it also sports one of the year’s funniest screenplays.     

Blue Jay (dir. Alex Lehmann) – Not all of the emotional beats land right in this intimate two-hander—a micro-indie so micro it makes something like Miss Stevens look like The Lord of the Rings—in which a pair of former high-school sweethearts (Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson) spend a day and a night drinking, reminiscing, and imagining what might have been if they hadn’t broken up some twenty years before.  That is to say that it doesn’t quite unfold as organically as Before Sunrise or Weekend, to name two of the film’s most obvious influences.  Nevertheless it’s peerlessly acted by Paulson, playing a woman whose outwardly calm demeanor masks quiet, nagging discontent.  It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by her big, dark eyes, which by the end of the film have come to look like bottomless pools of sadness.  Duplass is good, too, doing his familiar awkward-dude shtick, though he fumbles a key scene.  Recommended.          

Thunder Road (dir. Jim Cummings) – The director of this Sundance-acclaimed short film, shot in a single fourteen-minute take, was an associate producer on Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, and it has a similar vibe: it’s a squirmy, uncomfortable-funny character study in which a grieving son (played by Cummings) performs a tribute to his late mother to the accompaniment of the titular Bruce Springsteen song.  Like Shults, Cummings shows promise as a filmmaker adept at capturing moments of raw humanity.  But (also like Shults) he doesn’t yet seem to know where to go with them, and at times Thunder Road’s uneasy mix of pathos and comedy threatens to run it off the rails.  It’s not just that we’re unsure whether we should laugh or cry: Cummings seems unsure about which he wants us to do, and that’s a problem.     

The Exquisite Corpus (dir. Peter Tscherkassky) – The work of experimental filmmaker Tscherkassky involves the recombination and recontextualization of existing film footage to surreal and hypnotic effect.  His best known film, Outer Space (2001), transforms a few minutes of the 1981 horror film The Entity into something even scarier than it was in its original form.  The Exquisite Corpus is a collage of fragments taken from various stag and nudie films, heavily overlaid and looped, creating a kaleidoscope of sexual images that is more phantasmagorical than arousing.  It’s a mysterious and eerie nineteen-minute-long blur of a movie set in the dream space of the pornographic imagination.

Hanging fire

Back in the saddle again: Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood.

Men have a hard time pulling triggers in Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1992).  That’s something I noticed upon re-watching the film last weekend.  It happens to Ned (Morgan Freeman) at the very moment when he and the other members of his posse (the reformed gunslinger Will Munny, played by Clint Eastwood, and the swaggering, cocksure Schofield Kid, played by Jaimz Wolvett) have their targets in their sights.  “I can’t do it, Will,” Ned says apologetically and with some surprise at himself.  It also happens to Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), the nebbishy man of letters who, much to his own surprise, is handed a gun by the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), and invited to shoot him.  But Beauchamp is too lily-livered, even if shooting Little Bill would mean freeing himself along with his patron, English Bob (Richard Harris), locked up in Little Bill’s jail.  (Beauchamp tries to hand the gun over to Bob instead, but Bob doesn’t dare take it for fear that he’s being tricked by Little Bill.)  Lastly, at the very end of the film, immediately after Will has succeeded in finishing off Little Bill, a couple of Bill’s cronies consider picking off Will as he rides out of town.  They can’t do it either. 

The anxiety around the act of killing is, of course, one of the major themes of Unforgiven and of Eastwood’s late films generally, in which he has symbolically attempted to atone with an almost religious fervor for the ultraviolence of his past.  (Will Munny, too, is atoning for a litany of sins committed in the days before his wife Claudia, now deceased, made an honest man out of him.)  Another way of putting this would be to say that Eastwood’s films from Unforgiven on are almost always about the anxiety over pulling triggers and an equally strong anxiety over not pulling them.  Will Munny, like Jimmy Markum in Mystic River and Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, understands the sinful weight of killing.  But killing is also a foregone conclusion for these men: there is no other way.  (Only Walt Kowalski manages to devise a way around this impasse in Gran Torino.  He gets his revenge without pulling a trigger, though doing so also means his own martyrdom.)  The films rehearse the weight of violence and the counterweight of its inevitability, dual burdens that Eastwood’s men are made to shoulder.  It’s one of the many tensions that make Eastwood’s films, especially the late works, so richly compelling.


Having fun

One of my favorite numbers in Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) is “Moses Supposes,” the one where Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are at the office of Kelly’s character’s diction coach and start riffing on a tongue twister (“Moses supposes his toes are roses but Moses supposes erroneously…”), which inspires them to break into a fiendish tap routine.  It’s not necessarily the best number in the movie (it’s hardly the best loved), nor is it set to the best song.  In fact it could be called a throwaway—a diversionary number that does nothing to advance the plot or reveal character.  And yet, perhaps better than any other scene in the film, it seems to capture the basic spirit of classic movie musicals, in which the simplest gimmick can become a line on which to hang a number.  Or, to put it differently, it’s a scene in which the whole mechanism of the musical genre is rendered transparent: we’re made to see how obvious and dumb the set ups are, and how exhilarating the pay offs.  “Moses Supposes” has absolutely nothing to do with diction coaches or tongue twisters or the nonsense that Kelly and O’Connor are singing about, and has everything to do with watching their bodies in spectacular, frenetic motion.  They tap on desks, hop on and off chairs, slap the table, tear up the room, and it’s electrifying.

The more elaborate “Broadway Melody” sequence—the film’s eleven-o’clock-number—is similarly “pointless”: it serves as little narrative purpose within Singin’ in the Rain as it does within the film-within-the-film The Dancing Cavalier.  Like “Moses Supposes,” its function is perhaps to dissolve narrative altogether, to get us lost in pure spectacle.  But as spectacular as the sets, costumes, and scale of the fourteen-minute-long “Broadway Melody” may be, it arguably packs a less visceral punch than little numbers like “Moses” do.  Such little numbers remind us that, given the right performers, we can be as easily wowed by a throwaway routine set in an office as by a glittering neon set piece.  

Is more less?: Kelly and dancers in the "Broadway Melody" number.


The Films of 2016: Short takes (II)

Miss Stevens (dir. Julia Hart) – This charming micro-indie is primarily a showcase for the talents of Lily Rabe, who plays a high school English teacher acting as a chaperone for three of her students during a weekend-long drama competition.  But it’s also perceptive and mostly clear-eyed about issues of mental health, depression, mania, etc. as experienced by kids and grown-ups alike, and about the often tricky navigation of boundaries that can happen when teachers and students go out of the classroom and into the real world together. 

Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie) – I wasn’t really a fan of No Country for Old Men—a film to which this neo-noir Western bears some generic resemblance—and I can’t say I found Hell or High Water to be any more noteworthy, smart and lean as it may be.  That is to say that I don’t completely understand the love for this film beyond its sporting a fine, hammy performance by Jeff Bridges in full-on irascible Rooster-Cogburn mode as a casually racist Texas Ranger on the trail of two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster). 

Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross) – If you press on this quirky indie dramedy too hard a lot of it doesn’t really hold together…so I made up my mind not to press on it, because it’s mostly winsome and likable, and because it’s a reminder of how immensely appealing Viggo Mortensen (he plays a left-wing survivalist raising his kids off the grid) can be.

Indignation (dir. James Schamus) – There’s a passage in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound that’s as true an account of what it feels like to be a young male college student as any I’ve ever read, and though I’m not familiar with the Roth novel on which Indignation is based it’s equally as smart in capturing what is now sometimes called “the first-year experience.”  This elegantly wrought film is ostensibly about the attempt by precocious and feisty Jewish freshman Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) to settle into life at an Ohio liberal arts college in the early 1950s, and about his being flummoxed by the mere existence of girls like Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who wears pastel cardigan sweaters and looks like Eva Marie Saint and also gives blow jobs on first dates and has a history of suicide attempts.  It’s also about the subtle persecution Marcus faces as one of the only Jewish students on campus, a persecution which is revealed to have its roots in the administration of the college itself, as represented by a smug and passive-aggressive dean played brilliantly by Tracy Letts.  But over the course of the film the two plots end up becoming the same plot, as Roth (and Schamus) suggest that the persecution of Jewish boys like Marcus and that of sexually active girls like Olivia are two parts of the same problem, and that said problem is more than just an issue of college administrators being meddlesome and stodgy and punitive.  It may be that I’m also re-reading (and loving) Roth’s American Pastoral right now, but I was impressed with this, even if it gets a bit too heavy for its own good at the end.