Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wittgenstein

Derek Jarman is one of the best known figures in contemporary British cinema. Often, he has been one of the most controversial. His production of such films as The Tempest, Caravaggio, The Last of England, War Requiem, and Edward II have been a wild mix of radical politics, gay issues, stunning visuals, and fractured narratives. Along the way, he has been generally acclaimed as the definitive filmmaker of post-punk England.

Jarman is now dying. He has AIDS and is rapidly becoming blind. He admits that Wittgenstein is his last
feature film. These facts beg the obvious question: why a movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Granted, Wittgenstein is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. His work was, in part, a critically scathing repudiation of the main currents of modern philosophy. Much of modern philosophy has involved the rigorous defining of terms, entrenched in the belief that philosophic disputes were based on a confusion about language. For Wittgenstein, there was no confusion about language. Instead, language itself was a virtually impenetrable mystery and philosophy was merely a confused byproduct.

Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein did not view philosophy as a special means toward discovering truth. That was the job of poetry and art. Most of all, Wittgenstein loved movies. When he taught at Cambridge, it was not unusual to find him at the local cinema watching either musicals or Westerns.

Which brings us back to the movie Wittgenstein. In a way, it is as much about Jarman as it is about Ludwig. The film is strongly reminiscent of Caravaggio. Scene after scene is presented as an abstract tableau framed against a black backdrop. The adult Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson) repeatedly crosses paths with himself as a boy (Clancy Chassay). Wittgenstein's academic colleagues — specifically Bertrand Russell (Michael Gough) and Maynard Keynes (John Quentin) — are presented as virtual caricatures who seem to only exist in relationship to Ludwig. The entire Bloomsbury Group is summed up by a baroque and snotty Lady Ottoline Morrell (Tilda Swinton) — a performance defined more by hats than by acting.

And yes, Wittgenstein does deal with the long kept secret that he was gay. As presented in the film, Wittgenstein's homosexuality was one of the more human and sympathetic qualities of a man who was otherwise notorious for his arrogant treatment of students.

At its best, Wittgenstein succeeds in balancing the abstract and the humane. It is one of Jarman's best films. Tragically, it is destined to be his last.

(Ed. Note: Jarman died in 1994.  This review was written in 1993.  Jarman did manage to do one last film, the experimental production of Blue, even though he was blind by that time.)

Malice

Let's review some of the basic lessons of the modern thriller: 1) Don't have sex with anyone you don't know. 2) Don't have sex with anyone you do know. 3) Don't rent out rooms. 4) Don't rent to doctors. 5) Run a thorough security check on your spouse.

Take these guidelines with you when you see Malice. They'll help you navigate some of the more convoluted plot points.

Actually, it's not that bad, as thrillers go — even though the story doesn't hold together. The movie has some
nice plot twists, but they don't make much sense when you stop to think about them seriously. And the biggest twist is the easiest to second guess. After all, it happens halfway through the movie, and we know
they've got to kill the remaining footage somehow.

Malice is set in one of those quaint New England college towns where — according to the movies — anything can happen. In this case, a serial rapist is at large. Strangely enough, this subplot has nothing to do with the movie.

Bill Pullman plays a college dean whose, main jobs seem to be lecturing tardy students and complaining to the college police about the campus crime wave. Bebe Neuwirth plays the college police force (well, we don't actually see any other officers). Despite their testy relationship, there's a faint hint of some nerdy spark. This subplot has a little to do with the film.

Nicole Kidman plays Pullman's wife. She seems preposterously sweet, baking cookies and running a day-care center at the local hospital. She must have a lot to do with the movie, because she must be up to something.

Alec Baldwin plays a brilliant, but arrogant, surgeon, who thinks that "god complex" was a med school requirement. He rents a room in Pullman's house and spends his free time chasing naked nurses around
the attic. Mixed into this story are Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott, who play respected, but aging, character actors who really need jobs. They, too, seem to have little to do with the plot.

These are the loosely cemented building blocks of Malice, which weaves an erratic course between a slasher film and several old Barbara Stanwyck flicks. The really amazing thing about it is that, despite its
obviousness, the movie manages to be surprising on occasion.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Did you ever fantasize about being naked while watching Masterpiece Theatre? Or was it more than simply fantasy? Either way, Wide Sargasso Sea might just be your cup of tea.

Based on the novel by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea is a loose "prequel" to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. (Since some of you may have been lucky enough to nap during English Lit, I'll try to fill in the gap.)

The connection rests upon the identity of a mysterious mad woman who is kept locked up in a room at the estate where Jane Eyre is employed as a governess. This unusual fact doesn't faze Jane as much as you would expect, since she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester. Mr. Rochester (until this film, I thought his first name was "mister") has a strong tendency toward brooding and regularly exhibits a distinct S&M streak.  How can a girl say no?

On their wedding day, however, Jane discovers that this woman is actually Mr. Rochester's first wife. And they're not exactly divorced. Everything looks pretty grim, until the first Mrs. Rochester gets herself killed while torching the house. Everyone — except the insurance adjusters — discovers happiness.

Keep this in mind during the last 15 minutes of Wide Sargasso Sea. The film doesn't explain much, and the concluding blaze is left as an ambiguous freeze frame.

As for the rest of Wide Sargasso Sea, it's an attractive, but occasionally ponderous, romp in the Jamaican sun. Its deconstruction of Jane Eyre is meant to expose the crossroads among racism, European colonialism and sexuality. It ends up, however, playing like a James Ivory remake of Mandingo.

The first Mrs. Rochester is Antoinette Cosway, a West Indian heiress whose family manor is burned by their exslaves (she has a problem with fires). Her mother goes mad, and her English step-father deserts the family, but he does arrange a marriage for her with the young Edward Rochester (okay, so his first name isn't "mister").

Rochester arrives in Jamaica as a dutiful, but insipid, Brit, whose sexual inhibitions become obvious when he
stares fixedly at a pair of slimy eels. (He also consummates his marriage while still wearing suspenders.) But the West Indian warmth of his new bride thaws his chilly English exterior.

Despite its nudity, sex scenes and NC-17 rating, Wide Sargasso Sea is actually too tasteful for its own good. The film could have used Fassbinder's stylistic flair and gall. Instead, it receives the David Lean treatment.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a respectable adaptation — but not particularly daring or insightful.

La Vie de Boheme

Aki Kaurismaki is the hottest filmmaker to emerge out of Finland. Granted, the competition isn't too stiff. Finland has infinitely more reindeer than directors, and the Finnish cinema has been pressed to average more than two films every five years.

Kaurismaki has raced past this national production average with such off-beat comedies as Leningrad Cowboys Go America and La Vie de Boheme. He has also become a favorite at film festivals and with
international critics. But one question remains: can Kaurismaki find an audience?

La Vie de Boheme may or may not answer that question. Its quirky narrative and meandering pace are engaging, but many of its joke are so elusive that the film practically requires footnotes.

Loosely based on the same novel that was the inspiration for Puccini's opera La Boheme, the film plays
as a set of insider gags on the French New Wave of the 1960s. The gritty black-and-white photography of La Vie de Boheme recalls Godard and Truffaut's early films. Kaurismaki's film has odd cameo appearances
bv such New Wave icons as Jean-Pierre Leaud (Truffaut's favorite actor) and director Louis Malle.  Even Sam Fuller — France's favorite American B-movie director — gets screen time.

But the spirit of La Vie de Boheme is closer to such "No-Wave" filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch. To put it bluntly, nothing much happens in La Vie de Boheme. That's part of the joke — and the viewer either clicks
with it or doesn't.

The three main characters of La Vie de  Boheme are would-be artists whose common bond is a lack of
money. Marcel is the author of a 21-act play that no one wants to produce. Rodolfo is a sour-faced Albanian painter whose work resembles German Expressionism on a bad day. Schaunard is an avant-garde composer whose orchestrations involve police sirens, bull horns and the random banging of piano keys.

Not surprisingly, they are appreciated only by the women who fall in love with them. And even that doesn't
last for long.

Added to this state of artistic alienation is the mish-mash of the film's soundtrack — a crazed mix of French and Finnish that occasionally even seems to baffle the characters.

La Vie de Boheme is kinda slow, sorta funny and truly off-beat. You have to be in the mood for it, however — whatever that mood may be. Like its characters, the film is part pose and part talent.

Leolo

The Canadian cinema has long been plagued by an identity problem. It lives in the shadow of its big brother to the south — Hollywood — and rarely succeeds in breaking away from the dominance of the Los Angeles dream factories. Too often, the English language cinema in Canada ends up being a haven for tax-shelter productions and skid-row genre flicks.

But the French-Canadian cinema has a very different — and more dynamic — legacy. Strangely enough, however, the French-Canadian cinema is fueled by an even more massive identity crisis. The intense cultural and linguistic isolation of the French-Canadians is just one of several dozen reference points that lurk deep
beneath the surface of Leolo. In its invocation of childhood memories,  Leolo bears a misleading resemblance to Fellini, but its spirit is more bitter, and its memories are painfully absurd and brilliantly
nightmarish. Leolo rejects nostalgia. Instead, it offers a descent into the genuinely schizophrenic realms of the imagination.

Leolo is a 12-year-old boy growing up in a poverty-ridden section of Montreal at the start of the 1960s. His real name is Leo, but he insists upon using an Italianized version. A dream convinced him that his real father
is a Sicilian who masturbated on a crate of tomatoes that were then shipped to Montreal, where they impregnated his mother. This dream of Sicily is Leolo's hallucinatory escape from his grotesque family. His mother is obsessed with bowel movements, handing out laxatives as if they were communion wafers. His dull-witted older brother has pumped himself up into a muscle-bound figure of verbal rage. One sister
is totally passive. The other is only happy when she reigns over her realm of insects.

Then there is grandfather, who tries to kill Leolo. Grandfather is mad. But then, so is the whole family. They are routinely institutionalized.

At the narrative level, the film's excessive levels of alienation play like a bad Freudian joke. But visually, Leolo turns Jungian: the savage and extremely disturbing subject matter is repeatedly offset by images of
unique — even haunting — beauty. There is a mythic quality to Leolo's flawed attempt at establishing his fictional identity. The story is almost an insane ramble, but the visuals connect at an authentic and highly
charged surrealistic level.

Leolo was directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon, a young director whose work has already been the center of much controversy. His only other feature is the oddball thriller Night Zoo. Appropriately, Leolo has something in it to offend almost everyone.

It also has a sense of humanity that is rich, deep and real.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Orlando

The Kinks once musically suggested that "boys will be girls and girls will be boys."  In Orlando, British director Sally Potter takes the idea just a bit further: the boy Orlando eventually becomes a woman.  Even odder, Orlando is immortal, and it takes several centuries for anyone to notice the change.

Contradictions are at the heart of Potter's brilliant and slyly funny adaptation of Virginia Woolf's bold fantasy tale.  The novel was originally written as a satiric pseudo-history of Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.

Since the book's first publication in 1928, a film version of Orlando has been one of those elusive projects that never quite got off the ground.  The gender-bending nature of the story was one obstacle.  Another drawback was the casual manner in which the novel trips through nearly 400 years of history.

But Potter makes the film work.  Even more amazing - given that Orlando is definitely an "art film" - it's a reamrkably straightforward and accessible movie.  It's as if the avant-garde has just discovered entertainment.

Orlando begins in 1600, as the youthful lord (Tilda Swinson) becomes the court favorite of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp).  Elizabeth bestows an estate on the androgenous-looking lad; eternal life and youth just happen to be part of the gift.  (It's a fantasy, remember).

Orlando's sex change, meanwhile, takes place with barely a raised eyebrow.  During a battle in the 18th century, he's shocked by the sight of a violent death.  After fainting (the male Orlando is a good fainter), and a protracted sleep, he awakens to a brand-new biological destiny.

Even Orlando her/himself doesn't comment upon the change until the 1990s, finally saying, "Because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice."

But issues of sexual identity are only one aspect of the film.  Orlando also offers a delicious romp through English society.  Orlando remains a constant (despite the gender shift), while the culture surrounding her/him becomes battier with each passing year.  (So do the costumes.  By the end of the 1700s, Orlando begins looking like a Monty Python revue.)  Aside from the film's deft handling of its subject, Orlando has an opulent look.

Orlando is a project that Potter has been dedicated to for some time.  Working with "only" a $4 million budget ($4 million would barely pass for lunch money in Hollywood), she's spent the last four years acquiring a large cast, detailed sets and permission for extensive location filming in England, Russia and Uzbekhistan.

Not bad for an experimental filmmaker whose previous credits consist of a few shorts and the quirky feature The Gold Diggers.  With Orlando, Potter has placed herself at the forefront of the new British cinema, along with Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman.

But she's not tried-and-true yet - Potter is hoping that her film version of Woolf's eccentric homage to her lover will find a wide audience.  The chances of this happening are excellent.  Orlando is one of the most original and engaging visions of the summer.  And you don't have to be afraid of the big, bad Woolf to enjoy it.

Survivor's Guilt

Survivors Guilt, the latest effort by Columbus-based filmmaker Sheldon Gleisser, has provoked responses ranging from enthusiastic approval to hostile denunciation. The film is barely 13 minutes long, but its strident attack on theories that the Holocaust never happened has stirred up a tempest of criticisms and memories.


"One of the oddest events was when I screened it (earlier this year) at the Cultural Arts Center," says Gleisser, "Afterwards, two guys came up to me and started to get into an argument with each other. They were both old enough to have been in World War Two, and one of them was sort of hedging around about 'Who knows? Maybe it never happened.'


"Then the other guy just cut loose. He said that he had served in an American unit that liberated a death camp. 'We were
shocked,' he said. 'We just rounded up every Swastika-wearing S.O.B. we could find and shot them.' "



The literal and figurative battlelines of history are only part of the controversy generated by Survivor's Guilt. Set at an unnamed Midwestern university, the film begins with a student newspaper editor (Erika Hewitt) choosing to print an anti-Holocaust editorial in the name of freedom of speech. In protest, an elderly Jewish man (local actor Harold M. Eisenstein) takes her hostage at gunpoint and takes her hostage at gunpoint and forces her through a re-enactment of his own first day at a concentration camp.


Survivor's Guilt has been praised by some actual death camp survivors, and it's in the process of being acquired for inclusion in the collection at the American Holocaust  Museum in Washington.  But the film has also been attacked for everything from alleged naivete about the freedom of the press, to its negative presentation of women.


"When I showed the movie up in Delaware a while back," recalls Gleisser, "I got criticized for presenting a stereotypic view of a violence-prone Jew. Personally, I didn't even know that there was such a stereotype."

That criticism may have stemmed from a crucial misassumption on the writer's part: he may have assumed that Gleisser wasn't Jewish. But despite Gleisser's thoroughly Midwestern, white-bread looks, he is Jewish. Survivor's Guilt was his attempt to deal with his Jewish heritage. Ironically, his recent trip to Dresden, Germany — where the movie was invited to a competition screening at the Dresden International Film Festival — reminded Gleisser of just how Midwestern he is.


"All they eat is sausage and bread, and everyone was dressed in black," says Gleisser. "By the second day, I thought I was
trapped in a Saturday Night Live routine. But I've got to admit, you haven't seen Star Trek until you've heard Worf speak in German."



Unfortunately, Gleisser didn't bring an award home from Dresden, but he did receive surprisingly strong verbal support
from some of the independent European filmmakers who attended the festival.



One impression of Dresden that struck home for Gleisser was a photo he found at the railroad station. It was taken during the aftermath of the 1945 firebombing of Dresden. In one night, this picturesque city was reduced to charred rubble in one of the greatest massacres of civilians in modern warfare. The photo simply showed a long row of burnt bodies stacked nine-feet high along the railroad tracks.


"See that shot of the railroad station..." said Gleisser, shaking his head as he trailed off into momentary silence.  "These people didn't deserve that.  But the persecution of the Jews started earlier.  The fire-bombing of Dresden was awful, but it was nothing like the Holocaust."