Of course, I fully intended to make a nice, long blog entry during my much-too-short holiday break; however, I can’t claim to feel too guilty, as any potential writing time was spent traveling to and fro for various holiday festivities with family and friends, catching as many movies as I could handle, etc. The stuff of life came first, in other words, though I’d like to consider my little penchant for writing part of the stuff of my life. I have learned some ways of limiting my commitments during the holidays, but my “me time” and/or me-and-Jason time still feels insufficient. How to protect that precious do-nothing, lie-low time without being a grinch and blowing off those important interactions that keep familial and filial bonds cemented? Stay tuned holiday season ’08 for strategy updates. Maintenant je recommence mes études à l’université, mon cinquième trimester de français compris, mais j’essaie d’écrire une dernière fois avant le commencement de la partie pressée du trimestre.

Meanwhile, some notes 'n scribbles about the fulfillment of some of the cultural-consumption desires expressed in previous posts:

I saw Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution on its opening weekend, and I adored it. Lee suffers from the same misperceptions that have always dogged Merchant-Ivory (whose œuvre, while not the equal of Lee’s, has certainly underrated in our post-Tarantino world). The fastidious visual/period detail with which his pictures are replete must signify a certain stuffiness or cerebral quality that drains the life from the pictures’ stories, goes the conventional wisdom in certain tastemaking quarters. The implication of this line of criticism, it seems to me, is an insult to the inimitable visual properties of the cinema, but it also seems to betray a lack of responsiveness to the power of the visual to convey, for lack of a better term, “information” about the characters and the story. The conflict between the main character’s sensuous, materialistic self and her ideological one is played out in great part by her changes in appearance—her different “disguises”—and the differences between her various environments. We see these things and are allowed better to understand what’s going on the film (without a lot of burdensome expository dialogue) because they are presented to us in such an indelible way.

What finally appears on the cinema screen (at least in the case of an auteur director like Lee, and probably in the majority of other contexts, as well) is the consequence of much hard work by a very large creative team, but the final decisions are made by the director, and what we see is therefore the result of his or her eye—the director’s vision. The result, in the case of Lust, Caution, is something very, very elegant, to be sure. It reminded me of the kind of lovely, enrapturing, but always engaging and unpretentious sort of Warner Bros. melodrama that Michael Curtiz or Irving Rapper made in the 1940s; the combination of visual, sonic, and narrative elements is worthy of Mildred Pierce or The Letter. But this elegance does not mean a sort of paralyzed, overly formal lifelessness attributed to the likes of Lee by those aforementioned critics. Quite the opposite, in fact; the formable attributes are part and parcel of the storytelling, and Lee’s meticulous yet restrained visual sense is just as equal to, for example, the desperate dealings of young Chinese radicals as it is to the social upper crust they infiltrate—and it is also the prime shaper of the film’s much-discussed sex scenes, which are equal parts disturbing and erotic. Lust, Caution could never be called “realistic.” It couldn’t be further from cinéma verité; and the fourth wall remains firmly intact, and its visual vitality, its use of color, light, and shadow to shape the tone, is of a different sort than that found in, say, the films of Pedro Almodovar. Lee’s film has a heavier, slower-beating heart, pumping blood less hot than coolly languorous. But vital it remains; months after my ravishing first experience with it on opening weekend, I find myself eager to revisit it.

Sidney Lumet returned to form (his remake of Cassavetes’s Gloria starring Sharon Stone, anyone?) with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a contemporary noir that ultimately pulls none of its grim punches. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers; Marisa Tomei is a sort of moll figure; and Albert Finney is the patriarch of a family whose dysfunction is all the more frightening for its ordinary-seeming sublimations. A heist gone wrong blows the lid off, and we wonder if that wasn’t the intention of its mastermind (Hoffman’s character) all along.

The film’s opening sex scene with Hoffman and Tomei has caused some unwarranted controversy; more than one person with whom I’ve discussed the film—people who generally have a high opinion of it—have expressed discomfort over this scene, supposedly because of its explicitness. I read a review commenting on the disproportionate attractiveness of the two actors, making the quite reasonable point that the equivalent but reversed match-up (using as an example Kathy Bates and Brad Pitt) would have caused a sexist outcry. I think this is true, but it doesn’t prove any sexism on the part of the filmmakers.

Disproportionate audience reactions, either to the posited Bate/Pitts reverse image or to the sexuality of the Hoffman/Tomei scene, is much more indicative of something about our apparently unstoppable, widespread squeamishness about sex than it is about the film. Sans cette inquiétude, pourtant, the scene is the perfect opener for the film: it is the representation, in the mind of Hoffman’s character, of the life he wants but does not really have, and that supplies us with ample understanding of what motives the sometimes awful actions of a complex character. It’s a marriage that’s troubled, to say the least, and sex with his wife is normally not good; they seem only to be good together when they’re on an expensive vacation in Brazil, the situation in which the scene occurs. In other words, the scene couldn’t be less gratuitous or exploitative. What it represents is actually something more moving than exploitative; it’s a vision of unsustainable marital bliss that drives our protagonist(?) like a mirage along his tortuous, amoral path. I was much more disquieted by some of the film’s tense, point-blank violence than I was by the frankness of its nonviolent sexuality.

Not being the world’s biggest Bob Dylan fan, I had my anxieties about this one. But I loved I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s tapestry of vibrant, imaginative variations on the theme of Bob Dylan’s varied personae. I mean it as a compliment to this film when I say it’s unusually difficult to describe in words. It details the lives and times of six different Dylan figures, which range from Cate Blanchett’s “classic” Dylan to Christian Bale’s “early” and, later, “burnt-out Christian” Dylan. (Not even the extra-handsome Christian Bale can forestall the turn-off effect of his early-eighties perm in what turns out to be an unexpectedly affecting scene wherein the famous pop-music artist, shipwrecked in Stockton, delivers a sermon and a song that still deliver some of his former passion.) Elsewhere, the tragically late Heath Ledger plays an actor who played Dylan, Charlotte Gainsbourg portrays the actor’s muse and artistic better half, and Ben Whishaw is a cocky young gent who personifies Dylan touchstone Arthur Rimbaud (is it Dylan as Rimbaud as Dylan?). In a spooky and touching, Altmanesque segment that seems to be set in a place completely outside of time, Richard Gere is Billy-the-Kid-Dylan, called out from his self-imposed exile to aid where he’s needed. Bruce Greenwood and Julianne Moore turn in very memorable supporting turns, and the young Marcus Carl Franklin is fantastic as a young Dylan who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” (named after another Dylan touchstone but played to a strikingly different effect than Whishaw’s Rimbaud).

If this all sounds like the personae of I’m Not There are a bit Barbie-like (Malibu Barbie! Hollywood Barbie! New York Barbie! etc.), it’s worth remembering that Haynes’s first film is the truly underground (banned for copyright violation) Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which that singer’s sad life and tragic end were played out, to devastating effect, with puppeteered Barbie dolls. This is not to say that Haynes subscribes to Hitchcock’s “actors are cattle” maxim; his films, for all their intellectualism, rarely go as cool as most of Hitchcock. Rather, Haynes accepts from the outset the artificiality of any character, and the malleability of our own identities as "real" people; on these terms, human beings may be represented onscreen by plastic figures and still earn our emotional involvement.

(It still rankles with me a bit, however, that Haynes’s similarly inclined Velvet Goldmine was more often ignored or beaten up on by much of the same critical press that currently, rightly venerates I’m Not There. I suspect that it’s because Bob Dylan’s genius is prescribed and presumed, while Bowie’s genius, which to my mind was the greater, is not really so universally acknowledged in the world outside the music press, especially in the United States.)

The release of Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his not-so-much-violent-as-violently-disturbing Funny Games is now set for sometime later this month. The poster is, I think, gorgeously designed, befitting the film perfectly:

...and I will be there for it. Will I be able to bear seeing the great Naomi Watts endure the psychological/emotional torture with which the film is so disconsolately replete? I’m sure I’ll be scarred, just as I was by the original, but that’s really the point. During his commentary on the Boogie Nights disc, director Paul Thomas Anderson describes the satisfaction (and relief) he felt when a preview audience cheered the William H. Macy character's murder of his promiscuous porn-star wife and one of her lovers, only to fall silent and aghast when said murderous character proceeds to off himself in the next moment. If one were to make a whole movie with the goal of evoking that feeling--of devastating away such shallow, complacent cultural-consumer bloodlust--you might have something like Funny Games. It’s an understandable reaction to be upset and angry after the genuinely disturbing experience Funny Games insists upon putting us through. But regardless of how each of us ends up answering it, the film is ingeniously constructed so as to leave us with no escape from its confrontational question: Is Haneke the sadist? Or are we, the audience, the guilty party?

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