Monday, November 29, 2010


Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky is built around a peculiar and extraordinary character, the 30-year-old school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a woman who is forcefully, unbelievably enthused about life and, seemingly, everything in it. In the opening minutes of the film, she encounters a reticent book store clerk who responds to her peppy greetings with glowering silence and confusion, as though he doesn't understand why this woman is wandering through his store, asking him questions and smiling and laughing for no apparent reason. But this is just how Poppy lives her life, with an attitude of openness and cheerfulness that can seem, to the people she encounters and at times to the film's audience, like absurd naiveté or even lunacy. Poppy is a person of boundless optimism and good will, and her final question to the store clerk provides a subtle glimpse of her worldview. She asks the man if he's having a bad day, and this finally shakes him out of his stony silence, at least long enough to answer with a simple "no." The unspoken question, then, is why he seemed so rude, so closed off, so unwilling to interact. When Poppy encounters this kind of attitude, she assumes that something must be wrong, because she doesn't realize that for a lot of people — even most people — the default setting for getting through the day is not boundless cheer but resignation or, at best, neutrality. Most people are not like Poppy, greeting every day with laughter no matter what happens. When she leaves the store, she realizes that her bike has been stolen, and even that she responds to with bemused laughter rather than anger; she's a little sad only that she didn't have a chance to say goodbye.

As a character, Poppy perhaps strains credibility — and in certain scenes shatters it altogether — but that's part of the point. She's almost artificially, supernaturally happy, very unlike the poor, downtrodden, miserable characters who often populate Leigh's films about the British working class. Poppy presents an alternative to that misery, an alternative to the attitude of constant complaining, an alternative to the attitude that the world is out to get us and that the best thing to do is snarl back. When Poppy encounters the small adversities of everyday life, she muddles through as best she can and tries to make it as enjoyable as she can. At one point, she injures her back while trampolining, and winces her way to the chiropractor, although she also exclaims that her back pains make her laugh — which is not surprising, since everything makes her laugh. While she sees the doctor, her friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) waits outside, trying to chat up another back pain sufferer, and Leigh not too subtly points out how outrageous Poppy's attitude is. While the man in the waiting room cringes and glowers at everyone around him, and Zoe points out that back pain affects everything, including one's attitude, Poppy is giggling and smiling through her pain, joking with the doctor. Back pain doesn't alter her attitude, and neither does almost anything else. Leigh stages the scene in a strikingly intimate, even sensual way, with Poppy stretched out on the examining table in a pink bra and bright orange panties beneath black net stockings. As the big hands of the doctor probe her body, Leigh almost makes the examination seem sexual, flirtatious, but really Poppy is just doing what she always does, which is to remain open to other people and to her own pleasure even when things aren't going so great.

This attitude encounters its greatest challenge in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's driving instructor. Scott is an obvious bundle of (barely) repressed rage and disdain for other people. He is a Christian of a particular type — he says that Satanists and the Pope amount to the same thing — and also a conspiracy theorist and a racist. The openness of Poppy and Zoe to the black chiropractor — who they find attractive and kind — is contrasted against Scott's instinctual reaction to lock the car doors when two young black men go innocently riding by on bicycles. Scott is nasty and perpetually angry, always complaining about his driving students, about the inconsideration of other drivers, and especially about Poppy's cheerful attitude. Leigh relies a lot on closeups throughout this film, probing closeups that establish an at times uncomfortable intimacy with his characters' exaggerated emotions and the way those emotions are scrawled across their faces. There could not be more distance between the ready smile and bright eyes of Poppy and the constricted, taut face of Scott, who's always snarling and spitting from between clenched teeth, his face threatening to turn red with anger, his eyes scrunched up into angry slits. The two actors are each exaggerating, each projecting their feelings in the broadest possible ways, and Leigh purposefully sets these two caricatures against one another, letting the sparks fly simply by placing them in the same car together.

Of course, it's wildly entertaining and exciting, but the surprising thing is that it winds up being more than that, more than just an over-the-top acting exercise in which two broad types clash. Because even though Poppy and Scott are each extreme incarnations of opposite personality types, there's something poignant about this meeting of the avatar of good cheer and the personification of Christian repression and rage. The tension between the two explodes during the final act, when Scott unleashes, in a torrent of startling hostility, exactly how he feels about Poppy and exactly how he sees her. It's a vision of Poppy strikingly different both from how Poppy sees herself and how the audience has likely seen her up until that point. And Poppy looks at him with a dawning sadness on her face, an expression of true despair as she realizes how badly he has misunderstood her and her intentions, how different his whole way of looking at the world is from hers. It's such a bracing moment because it gets to the heart of the film's study of Poppy, who remains so outwardly happy through everything that one is forced to wonder if it's an act, if she's really happy or if she's nursing a deeper loneliness or depression beneath the surface.

That would be the conventional understanding of such boundless cheerfulness. The usual idea is that anyone who responds to everything with a laugh or a joke is adopting a defensive posture against the world, but that refreshingly doesn't seem to be the case with Poppy. She is thirty years old and has no boyfriend for most of the film, and several times her friends delicately probe how she feels about this situation, asking if she's lonely or if she wants a baby or if she's unhappy with her life, but Poppy shrugs off such concerns. She's OK with her life, with her friends, with her job, and she doesn't feel the need to dwell on the things she doesn't have. People keep telling her to be a grown-up, but Poppy certainly has a more mature attitude than Scott, who tells her to grow up but is implicitly compared by Leigh to a schoolyard bully in Poppy's class, a troubled boy taking out his anger on his classmates. And just as Poppy tries to draw out that boy, to get to the root of his troubles, she tries to do the same thing with Scott, though his grievances have had longer to fester, his angry worldview has had time to solidify, and his troubled childhood has lasted well into his outward adulthood.

What's interesting about Happy-Go-Lucky is that, although Leigh obviously admires his heroine's pluck and joy, there are certainly times where Poppy must become aggravating even to a sympathetic audience. Her openness to everything leads her, at one point, to wander into an abandoned construction site late one night, following the crazed ranting of a bum. This is surely the scene where Leigh goes too far in portraying Poppy as a kind of holy fool, as she interacts with this obviously mentally damaged man with the same innocence and good cheer she displays with everyone else. The scene has a sense of danger running throughout it, an uncertainty about whether this man is dangerous, whether he's going to assault Poppy. Poppy isn't oblivious to the danger — she's not that stupid — but she traipses on anyway, trying to do... well, what? She offers the man some change, which he refuses, and she asks if he's cold, though she wouldn't have any obvious remedy for that if he had said yes, but mostly she just seems to be trying to connect, to talk to him, to see what he wants or needs.

At moments like this, though, Poppy seems less cheery and optimistic than suicidal, or at least willfully blithe with risk, naivé about the dangers of the world. The scene seem like a fantasy diversion from reality. In other scenes, one even sympathizes with Scott as Poppy, unable to keep a straight face for more than a minute, makes light of the dangers of driving and turns her lessons into jokes. It's hard not to agree with the otherwise unsympathetic Scott that driving is a responsibility to be taken seriously or else people will get hurt. Leigh intends for us to just keep laughing along with Poppy, to see her perpetual teasing of Scott and her casualness with driving as a joke, but in some ways he sets this up so that he can pull the rug out from under us with Scott's final enraged speech to Poppy. Because although Scott ultimately reveals himself as even more pathetic and distasteful than he'd first appeared, Leigh doesn't flinch away from the fact that Poppy's carefree, always-happy attitude led her to this place. And Poppy, of course, has reason to be happy: she has good friends, a job she loves, in the end she even finds a boyfriend. The worst thing that happens to her in the film is Scott telling her off. One wonders if her attitude could survive a change of context, or how she would cope with real tragedy, if she could cope at all. The film's final image of Poppy and Zoe rowing together on a lake — Poppy and Zoe go boating? — is a peaceful and cheerful one, but lingering questions remain, like whether Zoe hides a twinge of resentment now that her friend has a man and she doesn't, and whether Poppy would even realize such things. She's happy, but is she aware? And does it matter?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Conversations #22 (part 1): Darren Aronofsky

My latest conversation with Jason Bellamy has now been posted at the House Next Door. With the release of director Darren Aronofsky's fifth feature, Black Swan, due in early December, we have taken the opportunity to discuss Aronofsky's first four films: his debut feature Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler. We talk about the direction Aronofsky's career has gone, what unifies his oeuvre and what distinguishes his in some ways very different films from one another. It's a lengthy conversation that tries to get to the center of Aronofsky as a filmmaker while also considering the aesthetics and themes of the individual films.

This is, as the title suggests, the first part of a two-part consideration of Aronofsky. Once Black Swan comes out, Jason and I will be returning with a second piece about that film, tentatively scheduled to be posted at the House around December 13. In the meantime, please check out part I and comment to join the conversation.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Les destinées

Olivier Assayas is a director with a real sense for how the massed forces — social, religious, political, economic — surrounding an individual can direct and shape that person's life. It's thus not surprising that Les destinées, a period piece that spans several decades from the early 1900s to the years between the World Wars, traces the impact of worldwide seismic shifts in culture and economics in the context of a single family and a single romance. This three-hour historical epic is thus both a departure for Assayas, who is otherwise a thoroughly modern filmmaker and thinker, and a natural fit for his detail-oriented sensibility. The film concerns the wealthy Barnery family, industrialists who run a prosperous porcelain factory that caters to wealthy tastes with extravagant, handcrafted, exquisitely designed china. This factory serves as a barometer for transformations in the world, tracing the progress towards a global economy where specialists like the Barnerys are eclipsed by more modern factories churning out mass-produced products. In the factory, tensions develop between the workers, living in poverty, and their wealthy bosses, who live lives of luxury and ease, totally isolated from the filthy conditions and meager earnings of the working class, whose troubles barely touch the Barnerys and thus barely touch the film. Assayas carefully recreates this world of luxury, allowing hints of outside struggle and outside misery to touch upon these upper-class lives in only the most incidental ways. These people are aware of poverty and aware of real suffering, but they speak of it only very rarely, and it almost never enters the film directly, only by word of mouth, as an abstract concept.

What's interesting about the film, though, is that Assayas does not demonize these prosperous industrialists. Assayas is an assiduously fair filmmaker, and he recognizes that context and culture dictate the choices available to an individual, that all of us are limited in how far we can see outside of our own circumstances. This is the case for the minister Jean Barnery (Charles Berling), who is unhappily married to the severe, intractable Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), whose idea of marital fidelity and devotion makes marriage into a miserable bond of responsibility and obligation, with little room for love or joy. Barnery responds in kind with jealousy and moralistic preaching, until his growing affection for the young Pauline (Emmanuelle Béart), the niece of his friend Pommerel (Olivier Perrier) precipitates a decision. He divorces Nathalie, resigns from the clergy, and eventually retreats into exile in Switzerland to marry Pauline. This too is an opportunity for Assayas to probe the changing world of the turn of the century, as the stoic, religious traditionalism of the past begins to crack apart in the face of modern values and modern ideas. Late in the film, several representatives of the old school lament Jean's indecisiveness in life, his failure to maintain the façade of respectability and devotion that had been expected of him. A woman says, and her husband sagely agrees, that marriage is meant to be difficult, perhaps even unhappy, and that dissatisfaction is no reason for a divorce. What Jean and Pauline represent, in their youthful love, is the rejection of the old morality, embracing the idea that happiness and pleasure are more important than appearances or tradition.

If Jean sometimes feels twinges of guilt at his choices, Pauline, a thoroughly modern woman of the kind Assayas so obviously admires, is not so encumbered. She is blithely un-religious, unconcerned with what people think of her. She follows her emotions and her ideals, doing what she wants. She enters the film as a mystery, and at her first onscreen encounters with Jean, she seems already to have a rich history with him: the film wisely never clarifies if this is the case, or if their immediate familiarity with one another is simply a result of natural chemistry and attraction. Assayas loves this mystery, and loves actresses who can convey it: Béart, like Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, is an enigma, a woman with rich depths of feeling behind her sweetly shy smile and big, vulnerable eyes. Assayas, one senses, never quite figures her out, and if the film has a fault it's that Pauline's enduring love for Jean, through everything, is mysterious in less satisfying ways as well. The film is weakest, in general, when it's ruminating on platitudes about love, which is spoken of in abstract terms by the overly analytical Jean and the romantic Pauline alike.

Their love for one another — and the film's broader points about finding pleasure in the muddle of life — is communicated more powerfully in Assayas' sensual, lush imagery. The couple's idyll in the Swiss mountains is captured in a lovely collage of brief scenes and sensual moments: swimming in the lake, walking through the forests, running and playing in the nude like children, enjoying the splendor of nature and the pleasure of one another's company. Another moment, later in the film and later in the characters' lives, is even more mysterious in its sensual beauty, suggesting that the moments that mean the most to us, the moments that linger in the memory in the midst of a cluttered and busy life, are sometimes the ones that seem the most prosaic and simple. It's a day when Jean, who has become embroiled in his family porcelain business and consumed by work, unexpectedly comes home from work early and sits in the garden, reading a novel and watching his wife as she picks cherries from a nearby tree. Assayas films Pauline through a screen of out-of-focus branches, as she turns her head and smiles with surprise at seeing her husband home. It's such a simple scene, but Assayas treats it poetically, respecting its emotional impact on the two aging lovers. Still later, Jean remembers this day nostalgically, remembers the voyeuristic pleasure of watching his wife without her knowing, similar to the way that she had once watched him through windows at a ball at the very beginning of the film.

Although the love story between Jean and Pauline — sometimes joyous, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes quietly bittersweet as the couple ages — remains at the center of the film for the bulk of its length, Assayas touches on many other characters and stories along the way, in the process suggesting the sweep of the grand transformations that shook the early 20th Century. The Barnery family's struggles with its constantly striking workers reflect the battles between workers and bosses that began to tear apart the old ways of doing business around this time. Socialist idealism suggests that the Barnerys, catering only to the richest of the upper classes, are obsolete, but ironically so does the advance of global capitalism. The globalizing world, with the competition for massive foreign markets and speedy ways of mass-producing tremendous amounts of foreign goods, ushers in the collapse of the elitist business model of the Barnerys, built on old ideas about privilege and status as inalienable and unchanging constants. As Pauline tells Jean at one point, after his divorce, he may have lost his fortune, but he is still rich, because he still has his family name and the social status that goes with it. Indeed, he is able to continue living as though he was rich: even with no money, his world is still completely separate from the extreme poverty of his family's factory employees.

Modernity doesn't eliminate this condition, but it does shake things up. Aline, Jean's daughter with Nathalie, grows up under Nathalie's depressive, self-centered oversight, and when she appears as a young woman (played by Mia Hansen-Løve) she's wild and unfettered. She goes out to clubs to drink and be with men, not because it's fun but because it's something to do, some freedom from the oppressive home of her mother. Assayas touches on Aline's story only briefly, but it's poignant nonetheless. She meets and, in a scene that pays visual homage to Ingmar Bergman's Persona, seemingly falls in love with another young woman who's had a hard life, her old school friend Dominique (Sophie Aubry). Assays picks up Aline's story again years later, after more tragedy and more rebirth. The way the minor characters skip in and out of the film, eliding long periods that seem rich with incident and change, reflects the way life itself seems to skip by in cycles of despair and joy, incident and stasis, mistakes and recoveries. The film attempts to capture the pace and the breadth of life, the way years seem to fly by, dramas playing out before the status quo resumes, and all the love, joy, sadness, loss, nostalgia, work, war, and change that fills a life.

In this respect, Bergman seems like a reference point for the opening act of the film as well, particularly the raucous family drama of Fanny and Alexander. Like that film, Assayas' epic early on concerns itself with a bright, vibrant society party. Assayas' lively camera twirls around waltzing dancers, capturing the spinning motion, like human tops, and the shushing rustle of long dresses as they sweep across the dance floor. The partygoers all join hands and form a chain running through the house and around the grounds, just as the family had done in Bergman's film, and just as in Bergman's film, strict religious morality and asceticism serves as a contrast to all this joie de vivre. In this case, though, it's the minister who winds up fleeing the Protestant inflexibility of his moralistic wife, choosing a life in which pleasure and joy, however fleeting they wind up being, matter more than empty principles and joyless responsibility. If Jean, in the end, winds up chained instead to a very different form of responsibility — the capitalist's slavery to profits over morality — he stills lives a full and varied life. Ultimately, he wonders how, in spite of everything, there still seems to be some hope at the core of life; this line, with its implication that happiness lies in a searching, open-minded sensibility, seems like a key to Assayas' rich, ambitious and complex social drama.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Conversations #21: An Autumn Afternoon

Jason Bellamy and I have a busy month lined up for our Conversations series, and following quickly on the heels of our concert film discussion, we've posted our second piece this month, a consideration of Yasujiro Ozu's final film, An Autumn Afternoon. We talk about this film from many different angles — aesthetics, acting, themes, humor — and relate it to Ozu's career as a whole. As usual, our conversation also touches on meta topics, like the very big question of the possible gap between what a shot is intended to represent and what could be read into it. It's a lively discussion with a lot of back-and-forth debate. As usual, we invite our readers to join the conversation in the comments, so follow the link below to the House Next Door and check it out.

Also, keep an eye out later this month for our discussion of the films of Darren Aronofsky, a career overview that will be followed by a piece about his new film Black Swan.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thursday's Track: David Sylvian "Small Metal Gods"

In this new semi-regular series, I write about tracks that particularly move and impress me. Take a listen and join the conversation!

On his 2003 album Blemish, one-time Japan vocalist David Sylvian collaborated with experimental musicians Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz to create a stark, low-key accompaniment to his warm, florid vocals. His subsequent album, Manafon, released just last year, takes this approach even further, collaborating with a whole host of avant-garde musicians and improvisers to create a stripped-down, nearly bare sonic setting for Sylvian's voice. The lead-off track, "Small Metal Gods," opens with the spinning clatter of Otomo Yoshihide's record-less turntable and the hissing static of Toshimaru Nakamura's no-input mixing board, "empty" instruments that spit out abstract sheets of noise. These hesitant introductory scratches are soon joined by the spacious, reverberating notes of Burkhard Stangl's acoustic guitar and the quiet scrape of Michael Moser's cello, and then Sylvian's voice, over-ripe and thick with emotion as ever, pours into this unsettled, sizzling atmosphere. Sylvian's vocals — "it's the farthest place I've ever been/ it's a new frontier for me" are his first lines, suggesting his embrace of innovation here — are always front and center, with his collaborators filling in the niches and hollow spaces between his words. Their spare, minimalist accompaniment creates a powerful tension between foreground and background, as whenever Sylvian's voice drops out, it creates a sensation of profound absence, of negative space in which the music's scrape-and-sizzle minimalism only pricks lightly against the silence. This is music with a real sense of drama, even melodrama, akin to Scott Walker's art songs but without the bombast; Sylvian's music is resolutely dark and introspective.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Plastic Bag

Ramin Bahrani's Plastic Bag is a deceptively simple short film that achieves an emotionally cathartic and poetically beautiful effect through a story that might, on its surface, seem like little more than a gimmick. The film charts the "life" of a plastic bag from its "first breath" — being born in a supermarket when it's pulled from its rack to be filled with groceries — to its long exile from the woman it comes to think of as its maker. The film's narration, relayed by the distinctive, unmistakable voice of Werner Herzog, concerns this bag's journey through the world, a journey that is at first tangible and physical, a quest to be reunited with this woman, but eventually becomes metaphysical and philosophical, a journey to discover the purpose of this life, the purpose of the world through which the bag drifts, carried along by wind and currents. Over the course of this journey, the bag's progress through the world becomes an obvious allegory for life itself: not knowing its intended purpose, not understanding its true place in the world, the bag tries to find happiness and struggles to divine its purpose in a world where it seems so inconsequential. The bag is happiest when it feels useful, when it knows that it is needed. The woman uses the bag for her lunch, to hold her tennis balls, to hold ice to soothe her injured ankle, and the bag is content, not really understanding anything but happy to know that it fulfills some purpose.

But when it's discarded, used a final time to clean up a dog turd and then thrown out to be taken to a trash heap, the bag loses that happiness. Its subsequent progress mirrors the casting-about of humans in a world that we, too, can't fully understand, a world whose purpose we only pretend to know. The bag drives itself onward at first in search of its former owner, its "creator," but eventually finds a new religion in the search for "the vortex," an ocean whirlpool where bags and other detritus are twirled happily around by the currents. The bag finds fleeting moments of joy, in a midair dance with a bright red bag, beautifully filmed by Bahrani, and later in the sensation of being carried along in the circular currents of the water. But in the final moments of the film, the bag wonders why these moments of happiness are so brief, why it has been unable to find others who had a use for it the way its first owner did, why it still hasn't figured out the workings of the world in which it floats. As a metaphor for the human experience of the world, it is heartbreaking and strangely affecting, especially as delivered by Herzog's blunt, fatalistic cadences.

Herzog is in many ways a perfect choice to deliver the film's narration, since his bleak worldview is such a natural fit for the bag's pointless and aimless journey. The bag fundamentally misunderstands its true place in this world, believing itself to be more important than it is, and this idea is implicitly applied to humans as well: we give ourselves central roles in the dramas of the universe, but in all likelihood we're as irrelevant to the real cosmic stories as this bag is to its "creator" and the rest of the world. But what's striking about this film is the streak of perverse hope and beauty that Bahrani finds in this seemingly dispiriting perspective. The bag, set adrift in a world whose scope dwarfs it, revels in the beauty all around it, and Bahrani's camera does as well: even as Herzog's voiceover insists that enjoying a beautiful sunset is not enough, the images belie this dismal philosophy, finding beauty and satisfaction everywhere within the world. The bag drifts through a world that seems destroyed and empty, dominated by ruined and abandoned houses, by seemingly closed factories and office buildings, by landfills and waters polluted with trash. But even in the midst of devastation and environmental catastrophe, there is beauty, both the pure beauty of nature — the white-hot glow of the sun, the verdant greens of meadows and trees — and the manufactured beauty of man's constructions, which are beautiful almost in spite of themselves as seen through Bahrani's lens.

Plastic Bag is quite a powerful and thought-provoking film, even if on its surface it occasionally seems as simple as an expansion of American Beauty's famous video tape of a drifting bag. That's an obvious but shallow comparison, in the end. The floating bag in American Beauty was about aesthetics, about finding the beauty even in prosaic man-made objects, in trash. Plastic Bag is about ideas — it finds beauty less in things than in the idea that life is aimless and pointless and ultimately incomprehensible, and that it can nevertheless be joyous, and fulfilling, and poignant. It's about accepting the insignificance of a single life and at the same time exalting that life's beauty and resilience in the face of an indifferent, alienating universe whose purpose we can only guess at lamely. It's a film whose unassuming greatness lies in its discovery of profound ideas in the most unlikely of places.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Conversations #20: Rock Concert Films

Jason Bellamy and I have completed another of our dialogues about films, this one focusing on the aesthetics of the rock n' roll concert film. We chose five concert films that we thought reflected the breadth of this genre: Woodstock, Gimme Shelter (the Rolling Stones), Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads), Rattle and Hum (U2) and Instrument (Fugazi). Our conversation touches on the experience and mythology of the rock concert and its cinematic representations, on aesthetics, on authenticity, on performance and acting. It's a fun conversation, so take a look at the link below and, as usual, comment. We always say that we like our exchanges to be only the start of the conversation.

Continue reading at The House Next Door