Saturday, March 22, 2014

Tim's Vermeer



There's a kind of cliche in the uninitiated looking at a work of modern art, perhaps a seemingly simplistic piece of conceptual art, and saying, "I could do that."  True perhaps, but would it have ever occurred to you to do so, oh skeptical one?  Such might be the case with a creation like Picasso's "Bull's Head."  Where most would simply see an old bicycle seat and handlebars, the Spanish artist saw something else entirely.  He saw a bull, his homeland's passion for corrida, no doubt a factor, consciously or not.  And the rest is art history.

Rather less likely would such a "I could do that" pronouncement occur before the work of an old master, someone like Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.  With Vermeer, there would not only be the matter of equaling the mastery of form, the very distinctive use of color, the extraordinary attention to detail.  With the Dutch artist, there is also the uncanny presentation of light, captured with an almost photographic clarity.  How did he do that, even the learned have asked? Who in their right mind would say "I could do that?"

Enter Tim Jenison.  As the documentary Tim's Vermeer proceeds and we see the inventor with virtually no painting experience attempt to replicate the magic of the Dutch painter, he's not above questioning his own soundness of mind in taking up the seemingly impossible challenge.  Years into the project, an endless series of days into the actual painting and nearly driven out of his wits in capturing the extraordinary physical details of textile and decoration within the work, he is asked if he would continue if not being filmed.  "If we weren't makin' a film would I quit?  Yeah...I would definitely find something else to do right now."

While not a great artist, nor even an amateur painter, Mr. Jenison is something of a genius, a not so old master in his own right.  So his history of invention and innovation in electronics and computer hardware and software would seem to indicate.  So too says his long-time friend, Penn Jillette.  When Jillette heard that Jenison was going to attempt to paint Vermeer's "The Music Lesson," he decided to document the process.  Jillette's partner in illusion, entertainment and all-purpose debunking, Teller, directed the film, with his larger and more audible partner providing narration.  The duo hired a very able crew, including composer Conrad Pope, and otherwise, judiciously stayed out of way, training the camera on Jenison and let him go about his work.

That work, a painstaking construction of the room used for "The Music Lesson,"as well as the almost maddeningly detailed brush strokes required, make Tim's Vermeer nothing less than a meditation on the nature of art, on the meaning of genius.

Being a man of technology, Jenison was drawn to the incredibly ambitious project by the theory that the Dutch painter might have used a camera obscura to produce his vivid work.  X-rays of Vermeer's paintings reveal no lines of tracing beneath paint.  Similarly, no written documents survive to provide clues as to his process.

In his quest to determine how Vermeer might have produced that nearly photographic clarity in his work, Jenison was preceded, at least theoretically, by two men.

Professor Philip Steadman caused quite a stir in the art world when he published his book Vermeer’s Camera in 2001.  Steadman investigated the theory that the artist had used an optical device (the camera obscura) that could project the image of sunlit objects placed before it with extraordinary detail. Steadman’s experiment used a technique known as “reverse perspective” which produced results not easily dismissed.  He found that six of the Vermeer paintings he analyzed depicted the same room, the painter’s studio in Delft, and the geometry of the six was consistent with their being projected on to the back wall of the room using a lens and then traced.


For his part, English artist David Hockney participated in a  television program in which he also posited that the old masters used camera obscura techniques, arguing that this method migrated gradually to Italy and most of Europe, and is the reason for the photographic quality of painting we see in the Renaissance and later periods of art.  He published his conclusions in the 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which was revised in 2006.  Artists, says Hockney, were intrigued with his conclusions.  Art historians were rather less excited.  So too, presumably, museum officials whose lofty positions are predicated on marketable objects deemed the product of artistic genius.

To truly replicate Vermeer's process, Jenison not only constructed a replica of the very space and objects depicted in "The Music Room," but used the technology of the 16th century in the painting of the canvas, including the grinding of pigments for paint and the production of lenses for the camera obscura.

Jenison discovered early on that the camera obscura could only take him only so far in in completing the projected image.  Much as outlines could be traced, the wall projections rejected, in a sense, the matching of color, however much he might adjust the lens being used to transmit the painting's subject into the dark box of the camera obscura.  In a discovery probably typical only of minds as supple and obsessive as those of Jenison, he realized in bed one night that the solution lay in a projection of the image through the lens to a mirror held above the canvas, allowing for a near-exact matching of color and form.  He kept the lens but lost the dark box.

There came also the realization over time that the that gradations of light in Vermeer's paintings - light from a partially shaded window brighter closer to its point of entry in the room; darkening almost indiscernibly as the beam extends away from that point of entry - could not be perceived by the naked eye.  This confirmed by former Oxford don Colin Blakemore, an expert in neurology and optics.  Yet more proof, it would seem, of the lens and mirror method, catching almost impossible detail in the virginal (the richly decorated keyboard in the Vermeer painting) and floor rug, as well as those gradations of sunlight across the top of the wall.

Documentaries live or die by the nature, the potential fascination of their premises, not to mention that of their human subject(s).  Tim's Vermeer manages to succeed on both counts.  The results of Jenison's years-long quest are history altering, if not mind altering.  And the man himself has an unassuming authority, a compelling and often amusing mix of a dogged adherence to detail a surprising penchant to simply wing it at other junctures.  The  genius and the everyman seem to exist comfortably within the same practical clothing.

Jenison has the professorial bearing of one of his former vocations.  He also seems an appropriate figure to be scrutinizing the old masters, as he wouldn't look so out of place in a portrait by the likes of Frans Hals, draped in period dress, ruff encircling his neck beneath the dignified swath of white beard, perhaps primed with a few pints of beer to redden the cheeks.  The Texan also looks very much at home with a viol da gamba propped against one knee and bow in hand, but tests the instruments with a few notes of"Smoke on the Water" (in younger days, he played keyboard in a rock band).  The man's brilliance is evident, not only in solving mysteries about Vermeer's work that have existed for hundreds of years, but in adapting to painting, woodworking and the other skills necessary to recreate the music room, then somehow painting it with the precision of one of those old masters ("It took me about a half an hour to learn to operate a paintbrush" he says, to actor and long-time painter Martin Mull.  "Congratulations, it took me forty years," deadpans Mull).  And yet, with an enormous effort of research and construction behind him and the exacting days of painting ahead, he expresses a sentiment with which anyone could identify, "...this better fucking work."    



The painting itself is incredibly exacting, all 130 days of it.  At one moment of confession to the camera, Jenison notes, without irony, "this is like watching paint dry."  This particularly the case with the decoration of the virginal and the ruthless detailing of the rug, in which Jenison ruefully realizes that seemingly every knot of fabric is rendered in the Vermeer painting.  Days follow of what Jenison calls "painting dots," enthusiasm for the project a dubious memory, weary face falling into the palm of his hand.

Jillette imposes himself just enough to break up the potential monotony (of the documentary; the painter's monotony is real and all-too-obviously painful).  When Jenison's daughter is home for spring break, she is recruited to portray the "little Dutch girl" in the painting.  This she is able to do to an almost uncanny extent her father feels.  But the model's work too is hard, forced to be still for long intervals, head sometimes held in place with a kind of clamp.  Jillette notes in voiceover that no kid has ever been so happy to go back to school.  Teller for his part (presumably) allows the camera some mobility, observing the girl's fingers rolling to fight off the tedium, or even better, hoisting a can of not-terribly-historically-accurate Diet Coke during a down moment, an amusing token of the convergence of worlds and eras.

Perhaps the greatest moment of comic relief in Tim's Vermeer occurs with Jenison explains how he had brought some exterior space heaters to warm up the converted San Antonio warehouse space where his "music room" was constructed.  A little Internet research revealed that the heaters were perhaps not intended for internal use.  But Jenison decided to go ahead, one of the man's occasional "fuck it" moments so at odds with the general meticulousness of mind with which he goes about his work.   Sure enough, both he and friend helping with the project started to feel the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Time to step outside, he wisely decided.


Jenison also describes a last, almost shocking "fuck it" moment.  When the painting is at last complete, he begins to important last step of applying varnish.  After beginning the coating with the care typical of the 130 days of painting, the weary Jenison quickly decided to start "sloshing" the varnish over the picture.  This is perhaps an exaggeration - Jenison's sloshing is probably another man's careful application - but none-the-less-surprising.

Fortunately, the "sloshed" varnish produced the desired effect.  It provided a kind of crescendo to the painting, producing the clarity and brilliance so reminiscent of the master Vermeer.  Jenison weeps at the result, presumably as much for the completion of years of work as the beauty of the object before him.  It certainly does seem an amazing accomplishment.

Jenison takes his finished work to England to show to Hockney and Steadman.  "I think it might disturb quite a lot of people," notes Hockney.  In examining Jenison's canvas, he even points to a bit of detail and exclaims that it's better than Vermeer.

What does this all mean?  It's eminently clear that - artist or not - Tim Jenison is an exceptional and compelling human being.  But what of his apparent replication of Vermeer?  Jenison says that he has come to feel a greater kinship with Johannes Vemeer as a fellow tinkerer, perhaps as much a 17th-century technologist as an artist.   Probably not a characterization of the artist with which gallery and museum curators are comfortable.

Tim's Vermeer does nothing to debunk the vision of the old master, his finding something eternal in the arrangement of everyday objects and the color and light in which they are rendered. What Tim Jenison would seem to demonstrate is that a significant part of the equation - perhaps the greater part - of what is deemed artistic genius may simply be the will to complete what others cannot see or wouldn't dream to take on.

In this, one is reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's “ten-thousand-hour rule,” delineated in Outliers:  "No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent...achievement is talent plus preparation. But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play."  Or as Buddy Glass notes in J.D. Salinger's Seymour:  An Introduction, "A good amount of sheer physical stamina is required to get through a first class poem."

Tim's Vermeer reminds us that the geniuses, the masters among us separate themselves not only in what they see:  countless moves ahead on the static chessboard; poetry where others see merely the banal; glorious inventions where most can only see barriers.  The Vermeers and even perhaps the Jenisons among us have to render what they envision, regardless the effort and thousands of hours necessary to realize that vision.  Little wonder that so many go mad.  Mr. Jenison seems to have survived his latest bout of obsession quite well, if Tim's Vermeer is any indication.  And his wall now is home to the work of a recent master.    


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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Museum Hours



The quiet of a museum lends itself to all manner of pondering.  What is this painting about?  What WAS the artist thinking?  For that matter, what is the museum guard thinking, stationed on the periphery of the room, Sphinx-like or perhaps merely bored?  One might even pause to reflect upon the very idea of a museum, the rooms teeming with paintings and sculpture.  Is this the only way to present art?  Does it exist exclusively, or mainly within the respectable box of the institution?  If you happen to find yourself in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, you may wonder what the appreciation of art has to do with gallop and shriek of hordes of Italian schoolchildren tearing through the rooms, oblivious to poor Botticelli, Leonardo and the rest.  But that's a consideration for another time and place.

It is in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum that the pondering begins in Jem Cohen's Museum Hours.  There we meet museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) and visitor Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a couple of quiet misfits who strike up a brief friendship while the visitor is in the Austrian capital to attend upon a cousin lying comatose in a city hospital.  Johann can tell that Anne is floundering a bit, unfamiliar with the language and layout of his city.  He first helps her to decipher a map, but ultimately plays unconventional tour guide, sensitive to her financial limitations.  Johann's efforts to find memorable but inexpensive sights for Anne take them to vistas and precincts unknown to the average tourist.  This turn of story reflects writer and director Jem Cohen's intention to take us all over the city for our museum hours.  It's not simply a matter of examining some great work by Breughel or Rembrandt on the walls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  It also a little-known waterway cutting through the city, a partially-crushed beer can on the ground, birds perched on wires, or the tracks of a single bird crossing human bootprints in the snow.  This and much more.

The relative silence of the museum has not always been the rule with Johann, now in his sixth year as a guard.  In voiceover, he explains that he had in younger years managed a band and subsequently worked in a vocational school where the whine of the saw could frequently be heard.  "I had my share of loud.  Now I have my share of quiet," he says, as we see images of the museum's art, or Johann sitting or wandering about one of his rooms.

This drift of the camera away from a first image seen when the voiceover begins, or away from the figures of Johann or Anne as they speak is frequently the case in Museum Hours.  It is as if the film itself has a consciousness away from its ostensible subjects.  This drifting consciousness does not seem a matter of a short attention span, nor even restlessness, but reflects a tendency to be encompassing or inclusive.  And that without being indiscriminate in presenting its images; a graceful balance that Museum Hours maintains throughout.

In their first conversation, as Johann tries to help Anne get her bearings with a map of Vienna, he also offers to be of what help he can (he had already told us as much about himself; a simple tenet of the gentle man's philosophy), whether that entails further directions, or playing translator for Anne with her relation's German-speaking doctor.  Johann admits (to us) that he offers to speak to the doctor partially to make sure the stranger's story is true.

Anne does subsequently ask Johann to speak to a doctor on the phone and even accompany her to the hospital.  "Why not," he says, the easy-going assent essentially another simple expression of his outlook.  As the two are enveloped in the silence of the hospital room, their brief relationship is granted a kind of accelerated intimacy.  Before they leave the room, Anne asks Johann to talk about some of the paintings in the museum to the comatose woman.  After he speaks of Rembrandt, she asks him to talk about a painting that has Christ as a subject.  "That might get a rise out of her," she says.  By the time we see them sitting elsewhere in the hospital, the relative strangers seem like old friends, their ease expressed in the slouch of their weary bodies against a wall and toward one another.

Even before Johann begins to lead Anne on their unconventional sightseeing, the tone is set with the visitor's arrival quietly heralded by the tower of the Vienna airport in a pool of water speckled with bits of rubbish. Both the drift and inclusiveness of Cohen's film is also signaled early on as Johann speaks of his attention to seemingly innocuous objects in paintings, "...discarded playing cards, a bone, a broken egg, a cigarette butt, a folded note, a lost glove, a beer can..."  Seamlessly, we're taken from a museum gallery to a frigid bit of Vienna ground;  the first three items at the base of a painting hung in the museum, the list proceeding with objects observed outdoors.  


Very little of tourist Vienna is seen head on.  There's a brief glance at the Graben, the pedestrian zone and shopping promenade in the city center.  But even then the camera's fleeting attention is more focused on the tracing of the patterned, unillumined lights above the street and crowds.  A direct look at the neo-Gothic Votive Church is partially obscured by a Coca-Cola billboard (or scaffolding covered with the advertisement).

Mr. Cohen shows a particular fondness for the sight and movements of birds.  A painting of a winter scene, blackbirds on bare branches against a cobalt sky gives to a one outdoors, a similarly dark-feathered bird atop a rusty metal pole, foregrounded by the fine, stiff veins of a tree bared of leaves.

Cohen's  penchant to document the seemingly non-scenic, to at least avoid the easy beauty of the Austrian capital, as well as the almost unwavering gray canvas of the winter skies, might well come across an arch move in a film less open, less generous in its outlook.  But there is little about Museum Hours which smacks of facile punk gesture.  No flowers cast conspicuously in the sludge of dirt and melted snow.


The drift of Museum Hours extends beyond visual milieu of Vienna to the social, remnants of its sometimes unsavory past which echo into the present.  Consistent with the tone throughout, this occurs gently, elliptically, through the calm voice of Johann.  He brings Ann to the blocky Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial and says,  "It was very controversial when they built it....The spines of the books are all turned away.  And to me the pages are like the Jews that were killed."  As the two converse in a bar, we hear without segue,  "Nowadays it's like the whole country is shifted towards the right.  And so it's much more serious in a way...it's like...the young people are voting right."  When Anne later asks Johann to explain the spears she has observed placed before numerous shops, he first makes up a story about shopkeepers defending the city from the threat of invading Turks in the 17th century.  After Anne facetiously thanks him for the history lesson, Johann adds, "Apart from that, you know, there's still many people who are a little too worried about Turkish invasions here."

But Museum Hours does not define itself in negative terms.  As counterpoint to the more regrettable chapters of its history, past or being written, one of the bars to which Johann takes Anne operates on the same inclusive terms as the film.  One of the bar's patrons, who looks like he might well be a Turk himself, explains, "And on Sundays, for example, there's an immigrant's party here that we love...."



The comparison of art objects within the museum to seemingly mundane objects without extends to museum visitors, at times as much on display as the paintings and sculpture.  Johann and Anne talk about two essentially nude portraits and Anne recalls a young boyfriend who wore his nudity "like a tuxedo."  Cohen then intermingles some external images before brining us back inside the museum.   A museum guard and a few visitors in a room, looking at art, standing about, slouched on a settee, examining a map.  We observe them all, then return to the one looking at a painting  - a very slender woman with long black hair who looks like she might have stepped out of some historical scene - who is revealed to be naked as the camera pans down.  The standing man and sitting woman are also revealed in all their fleshy imperfection.  


During their earliest scenes together, both Sommer and O'Hara actually seem like non-professional actors.  This is neither far from the truth nor a detriment to Museum Hours.  Sommer's only previous experience on film was as a reader (apparently) in Cohen's Evening's Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008).  O'Hara has done some acting over the years, mainly in short films.  The lack of polish or fluidity only serves to lend a sense of reality to the feeling out of their first exchanges.  The halting conversation (particularly that of O'Hara) suits the awkwardness of the early encounters as a friendship is established between Anne and Johann.    

Ms. O'Hara is several scenes into Museum Hours before seen facing the camera.  Cohen often shoots her at an angle, or from behind, as is the case the first time we see her, making a phone call to her sister to announce the trip to Austria and borrow money.  Anne herself is the sister of Catherine O'Hara.  While the hair - usually piled atop her head and streaming down a bit rebelliously - is brunette to Catherine's blonde, the faces (heart-shaped, full cheeks, deep-set almond eyes) and particularly the voices are of a set - voices expressed through such a distinctive, broken and alluring cadence.

Before Museum Hours, Anne O'Hara was better known as a singer and songwriter.  Cohen makes use of that unique talent, though like much else, this occurs gradually, without fanfare.  We do hear Anne singing to her comatose cousin on a couple of occasions in the hospital.  But it is near film's end, when Anne is in her small hotel room, that we really hear her break into song (a very apt figure of speech for this particular voice).  This occurs just before she quits the sterile hotel and the city, her cousin having finally died.  Shot mainly from behind in the dark room, framed by a window that gives only to a bleak building back of blotchy cement and a few metal-framed windows, O'Hara sings her own, "Dark Dear Heart."  When she carries notes, as with the line, "Why in the darkness do I see so clearly," that  "so" becomes a kind of plaintive warble.  It's a moving moment, all the more so for the emotional restraint which defines so much of Museum Hours.  O'Hara becomes another darkly-plumed bird for Cohen's collection.


For all its drift away from the art on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, there's no lack of reverence for the great works.  Again, there is none of the punk gesture - or in terms of film history, the childish trashing of most all earlier French film by Nouvelle Vague auteurs - of dismissing everything that has come before to make space for one's insecure self or vision.  Mr. Cohen's point does not seem to be that all objects are equally beautiful, that the crumpled beer can is as valuable as the late-Rembrandt, but that we should simply feast our eyes both within and beyond the frames towards which they are usually directed.  

This point is made within the context of appreciating some of the very recognizable art on the museum's walls,  These in Johann's favorite room, full of works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  A museum guide (Ela Piplits) tries, without complete success, to get her group to consider that the title and ostensible subject of the paintings might not actually be Brueghel's focus.  

Not surprisingly, there is no tearful goodbye for Anne and Johann.  At least none to which we are privy.  The last we see of them together is after the news of the death of Anne's cousin, enjoying the fellowship of that friendly, aforementioned bar, presumably on a Sunday night with the "immigrant's party" in full swing.    

Cohen concludes his film by making explicit a point he has made with subtlelty throughout.  It's hardly necessary, but consistent with a work that for all its quiet, all its apparent restraint, presents its themes in such an inclusive, openhearted manner.  Johann narrates a scene as if describing one of those Bruegel paintings.  But we're no longer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  We observe a seemingly banal scene as an old woman walks up a sidewalk and out of sight as oblivious traffic flows to the left.  As has often been the case, this it not tourist Vienna, not a part of the city a visitor is likely to regard once, much less twice.  And yet, we see it as a painting come to life, full of possible interpretation and pathos,    not to mention "...the bright red taillights of the cars on the left, which seem impossibly red and even beautiful."  The point made explicit?  Museum hours occur everywhere, all the time.  Look about you.     



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Monday, January 27, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis


So, you want to be an artist?  Let Inside Llewyn Davis be a lesson to you.  Are you ready to watch lesser talents succeed where you fail?  Ready to watch the money cascade on the seemingly undeserving while you can barely pay your bills (or can't at all)?  More daunting yet, you might find out that for all your commitment, your integrity, for all the deep feeling you have for that art at which you toil, you simply aren't talented enough to succeed, to produce the great work.  And if things are going particularly badly, you might be haunted by an orange tabby cat, as is the case with struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).

This is not the first time that Joel and Ethan Coen have touched upon themes of art versus commerce, of cultural divides, as they have ranged around in location, subject and genre during their thirty years of filmmaking.  Nor is this their first period piece grounded in American roots music.  What is different at this point in two-headed career of the Brothers Coen is the focus, the depth of feeling and the respect for character as well as subject matter that distinguish Inside Llewyn Davis from the likes of Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou? 


There's a kind of a kind of hopeless circle of plot with Inside Llewyn Davis, which if nothing else reflects the going nowhere career of the folk singer.  Once part of the duo Timlin and Davis, Llewyn is a solo artist as the film begins, singing the standard, "Hang me, oh hang me" at a the Gaslight Cafe, the Greenwich Village club owned by Pappi Corsicato (Max Cassella).  After finishing the song and making his exit with the line, "If it was never new and never gets old, it's a folk song," Llewyn is told that a friend is waiting for him in the alley.  This a man who emerges out of the darkness, mutters a few words and sucker punches the stunned singer.  At film's end, essentially the same thing occurs - except that an up-and-coming folk singer by the name of Bob Dylan takes the stage after Llewyn to sing his "Farewell"  - though the angry out-of-towner's words are more clear and we know the source of his grievance.

Between the two versions of the incident in the alley, there is a week or so in the life of the folk singer, discursive and profitless in every way though it may be.

From the first scene of Inside Llewyn Davis in the hushed Gaslight Lounge, there's an indication of how different the film will be from  the Coen's other blend of Americana and roots music (not to mention Homerian epic) O Brother Where Out Thou.  This is not simply a matter of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," being heard in its entirety, as will be the case with most all of the folk songs performed in the film.  We hear the affecting, the quite passable voice of Oscar Isaac singing the song.  All of the actors - including Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake - lend their voices to song as well as dialog.  This both roots Inside Llewyn Davis in character and gives the performances of these folk standards a level of feeling that would not otherwise be achieved.

T. Bone Burnett plays curator to "Lleywn Davis'" array of folk tunes, as he did with the roots music selected for O Brother Where Art Thou.  In both cases, Burnett and the Coens have introduced to relatively mainstream audiences a rich batch of songs, little known.  There was little quarrel to be had with the selection of voices for the "O Brother" soundtrack - either original vocals like that from Harry McClincock singing "Big Rock Candy Mountain," or contemporary artists like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch (who wouldn't be lured to their demise by such sirens?).  But there was something decidedly cartoonish about George Clooney's lip-syncing of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" in a recording studio that was consistent with a film merely passing through a culture, a music and even a set of characters to satisfying its touristic ends, vivid though the trip may have been.

 Like many a struggling musician before and after, Llewyn's time is occupied trying to find work and determining where he is going to sleep on a given night.  Try as he might the patience of friends and family, Llewyn can depend on Upper West Side friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) to  provide a meal and bed whenever needed.  It's in the Gorfein's apartment that we see Llewyn wake up to the sight of the couple's orange tabby cat on his chest, a Coenesque perspective shot which is repeated when the singer later returns to the Gorfein's, nearly out of options.  There's more of the cat's-eye-view when Llewyn is forced to haul the escaped pet downtown, the tabby sitting on the man's shoulder and observing those lovely ceramic Heins & LaFarge (I believe) station signs as the train proceeds toward Greenwich Village.

Much has been made of the recurrence of the orange tabby in "Llewyn Davis."  Is the cat Llewyn?  Is Llewyn the cat, goo goo goo joob?  The singer loses the feline before he can return it to the Gorfein's, thinks he finds it on a Village street, but is later told by Lillian Gorfein that he has returned the wrong cat, its lack of male...accessories being a giveaway.  Later, driving back from Chicago, he swerves on the highway to avoid yet another cat.  That last visit to the Gorfein's brings the surprise that the wandering tabby, appropriately named Odysseus, has made its way home.



Mitch Gorfein's secretary, mishearing Llewyn's message to her boss, does say "Llewyn is the cat," (instead of "...Llewyn has the cat," the message he was attempting to convey).   This the smoking gun, perhaps?  More likely the Coens having a bit of fun.  Joel Coen has remarked that they "threw in the cat" to give their film a semblance of plot.  What the travails of the cats do is add some charming structure, or fur, without distracting us too much from the film's focus.  The subplot, be it that of feline doppelganger or not, finds its summation when Llewyn stops to look at a movie poster for the film The Incredible Journey being screened at a theater he's passing.

Inside Llewyn Davis, as the title rather conveniently points out, isn't really a matter of plot, but character. Llewyn, for his part, would love to see some personal plot development.   Success would be his first choice. But a visit to his agent, Mel Novikoff (the late Jerry Grayson), brings the news that there are no royalties awaiting him, as his solo album (from which the film's title is derived) isn't selling.

Weary of his hand to mouth New York existence and estranged even from the Gorfein's, Llewyn accepts an offer to ride to Chicago with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund).  It's a chance to get out of town and also make an unsolicited visit to music impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, playing a character based on Albert Grossman) at his Chicago Gate of Plenty club (an homage to the legendary folk venue at Dearborn and Chicago Avenue).  Grossman agrees to hear one of the tunes from Llewyn's record, the traditional (lyrics at least) "Death of Queen Jane."  The singer offers a lovely reading of the song to which Grossman responds, "I don't see a lot of money here."  He recommends that Llewyn reunite with his former partner.  "That's good advice," says Llewyn, his resignation instead of anger at the slammed door of a statement a sign of growing weariness.

Back to New York the singer goes, completing another empty circle, apparently driving the entire distance himself while the car's owner sleeps through whatever occurs on the road.  These road trips west and back east, pointless as they prove to be for scuffling folk singer, are at least opportunities for the art direction and cinematography of "Llewyn Davis" to make some of their strongest impressions.


Among their stops along the road, where Roland Turner usually sees to that habit so identified with jazz musicians, is a sleek highway restaurant that looks like something Mies Van Der Rohe might have designed, with its black metal framing, white globe light fixtures and red chairs.  Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, muted as it might be from film shooting to digital projection, has some of its finest moments in these road scenes, especially when the trio is heading toward Chicago and pulled over by the police.  We see a sinuous stretch of highway, swept by waves of fog in the chill night.  Altogether, a ghostly, forlorn air appropriate to Johhny Five's arrest and Llewyn's abandonment of the car, the jazz singer and  - most reluctantly - the cat.

There's nowhere Llewyn can go to reunite with the other half of his former duo, as Mike Timlin had long since thrown himself from the George Washington Bridge.  This unorthodox suicide launching point is but one of a few points on which Turner taunts Llewyn on the road trip to Chicago, the inferiority of folk music and Llewyn's feline traveling companion also tagged by the scattergun of Turner's deep-voiced scorn.  "George Washington Bridge.  Who does that?," he asks rhetorically, the barely enunciated words belched derisively from the depths of his vocal chords.


The jazz singer is another in John Goodman's collection of eccentric characters brought to life - chiefly by the supple instrument of that voice -  in Coen Brothers' films, the first since O Brother Where Art Thou (his Big Dan Teague essentially the cyclops in that particular Odyssey).  Roland Turner is essentially of a piece - in girth and personality always a big piece - with the other wisecracking characters that have helped color Coen films from Raising Arizona through Inside Llewyn Davis.  As ever, he's a conduit for some of the brothers' most comic dialog.  However, there is a pathos about the jazz singer that was not really present with those of Goodman characters in earlier Coen films.  After an interval of Tuner's verbal scorn - "In jazz, we play all the notes, not three chords on a ooka-lele" -  and cane poking at Llewyn from the back seat, his later abandonment might seem justified, even satisfying. But when it does finally occur on that lonely highway, there's something abject about the man passed out in the back seat.  We've seen him struggle to take a few steps across the floor of  that sleek roadside roadside restaurant and subsequently passed out on the bathroom floor of the same after shooting up.  

Like Roland Turner, Lillian Gorfein is introduced as something of a Coen stock character.  While the jazz singer comes on as a dispenser of wit and derision, the kindly Mrs. Gorfein seems destined to be the object of Llewyn's scorn and, indirectly, that of the Coens.  At their worst, the brothers through earlier films were like tourists traveling through both the history and space of our culture; boys in a souvenir shop having an easy laugh at the people who produce and sell all the kitsch, snickering at the people behind the counter and tourists alike.  They were often funny, but sometimes shallow and unkind.

"I can tell this is one of those things where I keep saying no and you just thinkin' I'm askin' you to beg more...Look, I'm not a trained poodle," says Llewyn, at a dinner table with the Garfeins and two of their invited guests.  This after Mitch offers to pull out his Silvertone guitar and his wife assumes for her part that their folk-singing friend wants to favor them with a song:  "I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul."  Llewyn reluctantly sets out on "Fare Thee Well," - essentially the theme song of both Timlin and Davis as well as the film - but stops angrily when when Lillian Gorfein begins to harmonize, singing the part of Llewyn's former partner.  "What are you doing?  Don't do that." "It's Mike's part," Lillian says. "I know.  Don't do that."  The gentle Lillian is hurt and leaves the room, only to return with the discovery that the cat Llewyn returned is not theirs.  

In an earlier film, that's all we might have seen of Lillian Gorfein, more or less less mocked for her Upper West Side liberalism and do-gooding tendencies.  But Llewyn's return to the house when he has almost nowhere else to go, emphasizes the kindness of the Gorfeins, particularly Lillian, who bears no grudge for all that happened at their last meeting.

Inside Llewyn Davis eschews the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-plotting of earlier films like Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou?  Instead, there is a writer's devotion to character beyond what was usually the case in their first dozen or so features.  The Coens have always been clever, energetic writers.  They have not always been particularly good ones.  But with the rendering of shades in Llewyn Davis - like the look of the film, most of these are muted, working without the benefit of much light - the brothers set forth a mediation on art and worldly success.  As the story goes for Llewyn is goes for many - a sad, but resonant story of unrequited love that stays with one like a piercing song carried by a unshakeable tune, like the best drawn from the pool common to American folk, country and blues music.    

A painterly example of the desaturated color of  Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography in "Llewyn Davis."  
This all comes off thanks to the performance - the singing as well as acting  - of Oscar Isaac.  Mr. Isaac certainly has both film and music experience, but the casting of this relative unknown attests to the strong position held by Joel and Ethan in their own battles in the war of art versus commerce.  The keenest wit, the teeth of "Llewyn Davis'" script are expressed through its main character.  As Llewyn watches what he considers to be a lesser artist of the stage of the Gaslight, he says, "Does he have a higher purpose?"  Later, as an Irish Trio perform, Papi Coriscato asks Llyewn what he thinks.  "I like their sweaters," he answers.  These barbs are as sharp as most any for which the Coens are known, but they exist not merely as an exercise of wit, but as a natural expression of a character well drawn.

Mr. Issac, amid a face and head of curly, dark hair, is a weary, often impatient presence throughout.  He illuminates those many shades that are Llewyn Davis, but with a very soft light.  One of the most touching examples of all that Isaaac brings to "Lewyn Davis" occurs when he sings for his father just before (so he thinks) he is to return to the Merchant Marine.  His father is hospitalized and non-response (except to foul himself toward the end of his son's visit, we later find out).  Llewyn sings him "The Storms Are on the Ocean," a seaman's song of which the elder Davis has always been fond.  There is no blatant expression of emotion between the father and son, but Isaac invests in the performance something both generous and egocentric.  It's a loving gesture that's not completely free of the performer's vanity.  All the more moving for both.  

Llewyn Davis as played by Oscar Isaac has in him the hustler that is contained in most successful artists, but seems to the lack the ability to compromise that puts so many ahead in the world.  But the depth of character written by the Coens and given expression by Isaac doesn't quite stop there.  There is always just beneath the surface of one or another expressions on the part of Llewyn a contempt for those who have indeed compromised to sell a few more (or a lot more) records.  But ultimately, both we and the folk singer are left to contemplate the possibility that some do not sell out merely because the market place wants nothing that they have to sell.    

Round and round goes the story for Llewyn Davis, an illusion of motion that leaves him right where he began. Round and round like an old thirty three and a third record, the kind he can't sell.  This latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen is like a great old piece of vinyl, an analog recording rich in its depth of field, all the better for the imperfections it captures.  Ironically, The Coens have said that "Llewyn Davis" may be the last film that they shoot on actual film stock.  Something may be lost visually if that is the case, but the Coens have proved through most of their last half dozen films - dare one say their mature period? -  that a richness of characterization, a depth of feeling is still likely to emerge and persist.  


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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Her



Love is all around us:  Droid love, Galaxy love, iPhone love; lots and lots of iPhone love.  These relationships have given rise to a particular kind of 21st-century double date you may have observed at coffee shops, bars and restaurants.  On one side of the table, a man, let us say.  Opposite him a woman, or another man.  The two human beings are ostensibly out together.  But really, it's the little screen, the beloved device clutched in the palm of one hand that commands the unwavering gaze and attention of each person.  A man and his phone, a woman and her phone:  Ah, L'amour....

With his latest feature, Her, Spike Jonze brings us another sort of love story between man and machine.  And much as we see early examples of technology - for all its power and ubiquity - mainly highlighting the isolation of the film's main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), Her transcends a mere critique of the dubious uses of technology to explore the very nature of love, identity and consciousness.  All of this with an originality and assurance that few but Spike Jonze could match. 

Her might sound like another felicitious collaboration between director Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  It seems of a piece with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, stories created by Kaufman that phosphoresce with originality,wit and a good bit of daring, all realized visually by Jonze with an equally fresh perspective.  But one of the great revelations in Her is Spike Jonze the writer.  Not to belittle the Faulknerian verbiage of the Jackass television show or films - Jonze was a co-creator and has been an occasional writer and director - nor the film shorts he has written, but the screenplay for Her is the first feature-length effort in which the talented director has gone it alone (he did co-write Where The Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers).


We find Theodore Twombly reciting a letter as Her begins.  It would seem to be heartfelt, replete with emotion and not without skill.  When he is finished, Theodore tells his very smart computer to print the letter, which it does in a font that looks like neatly-rendered human script.  A letter to the object of the writer's romantic affection?  No, Theodore is an esteemed employee of "Beautifully Handwritten Letters Dot Com,"where he serves as a kind of on-line Cyrano for those who lack the time or ability to craft letters of their own.  At least someone is writing letters in this future or parallel world; there is in Her a quiet reverence for language spoken and written.  We later learn that Theodore writes missives for the same individuals for years, coming to know intimate details and in-jokes which lend the letters a further air of verisimilitude.

Though he is able to bring the written love for others, Theodore's emotions are otherwise about as subdued as the generally muted colors of his (and other characters) wardrobe in Her.  These would seem to be togs bought at some shop for unthreatening, bookish types in a Los Angeles of the not too distant future, stocked with lots of high-waisted pants and banded collar shirts, colored in diffident  browns and shades mostly on the soft side of red.  Theodore's lethargy is owing to a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara),  a painful process protracted by his refusal to sign the final papers.


So, it's a kind of tastefully decorated and appareled purgatory in which Theodore goes about his days.  He works, occasionally visits with good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband, and otherwise leans upon technology to fill in the gaps in his loneliness.  Like much about Her, the technology is familiar enough to avoid the prospect of distracting science fiction, but just different enough to help round out the well-conceived world of the film.  Theodore checks his e-mail via voice-recognition software (an earplug almost constantly housed in his left ear) on the way home from work and later plays a video game in his living room that is simply projected in 3-D before him without need of a screen.  This game is one of Her's more humorous manifestations of slightly advanced technology (if not animation), not only in the manner in which the "Alien Child" interacts with Theodore, but even simultaneously with the voice of his operating system once it comes to life.  Spike Jonze voiced the Alien Child, which is a teal, globular-headed cutie.  Until it opens its mouth, at which point it sounds a bit like a character from The Sopranos.


But technology giveth and technology taketh away.  Unable to sleep, Theodore logs in by voice to a chat room and finds an auditory come hither from "Sexy Kitten" (Kristen Wiig) to which he responds.  Ms. Kitten quickly answers back in turn and the game is on.  This virtual sex is going about as well as such things can until Theodore's partner implores him to do something a bit out of the ordinary to send her into orgasm.  Theodore half-heartedly plays along, but there's clearly no satisfaction for him this night.  The coup de grace for which Sexy Kitten so implores Theodore:  to be strangled with the dead cat at her bedside. I think we all know what a turnoff that can be.    

Our lonesome hero is intrigued to see an advertisement for OS1, supposedly the world's first Artificial Intelligence-based operating system, able not only to organize one's documents and other worldly affairs, but do so with a kind of companionship. Of course, Theodore can't resist. 

When the operating system is activated with its warm, orange screen and logo redolent of the infinity symbol, Theodore is asked two questions: "Are you social or anti-social? How would you describe your relationship with your mother? This a bit like speed Freudian analysis. Theodore's hesitation in responding to the second question is taken as an answer and voila, he is introduced to his new, personalized operating system - Samantha.


The operating system was given voice by Samantha Morton early in the production; hence, presumably, its name.  Instead, it is the voice of Scarlett Johannssn that we hear as Samantha.  Ms. Johannsson's performance is certainly one of the year's more interesting and arguably one if its better turns, non-corporeal though it may be.  Voice work has become a common and relatively easy way for Hollywood stars to earn a good paycheck, much as some of this voice work is quite accomplished and affecting.  But Johannsson, in a sense, works naked throughout Her, no cute animated character to enhance the appeal of her performance or distract us from any flaws.  It's partly a matter of Spike Jonze's imagination in creating this character who develops a consciousness before our ears, evolving into something part machine and seemingly part human. But's it's also Scarlett Johannsson making us believe that these things are happening, with a deft mixture of innocence, vivacity, seductiveness and empathy, all expressed by voice alone.  A concentrated and impressive feat of acting.   

The affection between Thedore and Samantha develops almost as quickly as the consciousness of the operating system.  When a night-time conversation develops into another foray into voice sex for Theodore, the experience is quite different than that with "Sexy Kitten" earlier.  Significantly, as the virtual action heats up, the screen goes black.  It's just two voices in the darkness and we might well be watching, in a sense, two bodies in a conventional sex scene with the lights turned off.  In this there is every chance for Her to become ridiculous, but it does not.  The actors have the trust of their director, who equalizes them in a way that is at once simple and profound.  Two beings looking for connection in the dark.   

Her in so many ways finds a balance between stylistic excess and establishing itself as something original, distinct.  This extends beyond the director and actors to those responsible for art direction, wardrobe and even hair.  The Los Angeles of Her is a bit future perfect, with no indications of poverty, pollution, or crime.  As Theodore frolics about with Samantha in his front pocket - the red smart-phone-like device with a peep hole through which Samantha can view the world tucked into the opening which seems specially designed for it - one worries that some ne're-do-well will essentially pluck her from Theodore's shirt and be off (much as she clearly does not reside in the device).  But urban realism is hardly the point.  A place that is something other while still familiar enough to resonate is the objective achieved.  In addition to the real Los Angeles, locations in Shanghai were utilized to add images of sleek modernity to this other city.  

With its take on technology, its visual consistency and the bold and ultimately brave arc of the story, it is Spike Jonze who sets the tone in Her, particularly in the manner in which those elements are orchestrated. With regard to the machines, there's no overreaching attempt at  prescience.  There is, however, just enough of such speculation to serve the story and provide some wit besides.  While Theodore is commuting, he instructs his phone to "Play a melancholy song."  When the first offering is a bit too dreary, he says "Play a different melancholy song." It's wry touch, with regard to both character and story, but also a request to which the entire film seems an eloquent response.  


In lesser hands, the temptation in rendering Theodore Twombly would be to make him some sort of shut-in, an emotionally stunted, if ultimately lovable eccentric.  But much as we find Theodore with heart largely in eclipse as Her begins, this is a man with feeling, both in terms of empathy and expression.  There's a reason he's so good at penning those letters for others.  And as we see when he's nudged out on an ill-fated blind date - the entire flow and painful ebb of which is one of the film's strongest sequences, from halting dialog to perspective visuals - he can charm a beautiful and intelligent woman.  None-the-less, he has to ultimately own that he allowed his capacity for emotional expression to go to seed during his marriage.  And much as Theodore is more effusive about the relationship that develops with Samantha, his very human weaknesses - jealousy, insecurity, perhaps a bit of ego-centrism - rear at difficult moments.  Travel all you want to other relationships, you still have to take yourself with you.  This complexity, the contradiction of feeling much but expressing little, is all too human.  Not usually the stuff of romantic comedies (or any work trying to hard to please), but it speaks of a character well written.   

Above all, perhaps, Her excels in its storytelling.  There is first the feat of making the premise work at all, making us believe that a relationship develops between this lonely man and the sweetly-voiced computer operating system, much less the notin of these disparate beings having sex.  From there, Spike Jonze charts out a coupling which plays out with elements of the universal: the near-bliss when all is new and right; uncertainty, jealousy, the ever tilting scales that indicate who is most invested, who is pursuing whom; the growing pains and the growing apart.  We can see in much of what takes between Theodore and Samantha echoes of ourselves and our own relationships.  But all of this within a romance which is inherently unique.  

There is a period of relative bliss enjoyed by Theodore and Samantha.  Reconciled after a first misunderstanding, they take a vacation of snowy escape.  Had the closing credits arrived after the early stages of this getaway, Her would have concluded with a simple, happy ending that it well enough earned.
What most distinguishes Spike Jonze's film, the writing even more than direction, is the brave manner in which the story, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, inexorably proceeds out from this high point.  While at the rural cabin, Theodore finds out that Samantha has struck up a friendship with an OS based on British philosopher Alan Watts (Brian Cox).  Evolving rapidly, Samantha must later admit that she's simultaneously speaking 8316 to others while in conversation with Theodore.  Worse yet, shes' in love with 641 of them.  A devastated Theodore can't question Samantha's candor any more than he can comprehend the numbers.     

As Samantha and Theodore experience their ups and downs, the dialog is of a piece with the story, the look and the acting in Her - simple, precise, affecting.  Yet for all the universality, it's difficult to find many gestures by Jonze the writer or director - perhaps the boiling tea kettle as Theodore's anxiety grows; a kind of confessional shot of him in the shower with water streaming down from his head - that approach cliche.  This is all the more impressive for the relative simplicity of those gestures.  In terms of dialog, we hear statements like "I don't like myself right now," "I'm yours and I'm not yours" and Theodore's speculation, "Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel, and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt."  This before the romance with Samantha ensues.  



Theodore's friend Amy, after breaking up with her husband, also develops an intense relationship with an OS left behind, this one platonic (even that notion bears some scrutiny her Her).  When Theodore first admits his relationship with an OS, he half expects Amy to belittle the notion.  Quite the contrary, she essentially says why not.  Here, some of Her's central questions:  what is being? what is consciosness? just what is a relationship? love?  These questions emerge without being swept back into easy conclusions or turns of story.  Her is bold enough to show these lonely souls finding companionship with an Artificial Intelligence, then brave enough to follow the hard logic a step farther.  

There are dozens and dozens of muscles in the human face.  Model types wield many of these muscles with precision.  Actors, for their part(s), do much the same, unconscious though the contractions may be.  Amy Adams produces an expression in Her that might be unique to her body of work.  At least I do not recall the kind of  homely, crooked-faced look of acceptance she summons when talking to Theodore about their their strange but satisfying relationships with the operating systems.  Here, as with her work in American Hustle, Amy Adams continues to reveal the breadth of her abilities.  That face is but one of the moving parts which makes the machine of Her so hum with life.  


With Her, Joaquin Phoenix has again starred in one of the best American films of the year.  In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, no such qualification was necessary; it was peerless among those released in 2012.  In both cases, we have men adrift, even if Thedore Twombly does not run to the same extremes of near-madness and alcoholism as does Freddie Quell in The Master.  Both films offer not so much a conclusion as honest, if ambiguous continuance.  The message to both characters is quite similar, whether enunciated as such or not:  be brave, go forth, be thine own master.  Find love, go mad, but mere distractions or instruction from without won't suffice.  How very contrary to our age and culture so heaving with elaborate means of escape.    

Mr. Phoenix has to work within a more confined space of character in Her, both physically and emotionally. He does, in a sense, demonstrate his range by going a bit smaller.  The hair, like the wardrobe in Her, is fairly-low key across the central cast:  brown, unassuming, maybe a bit of curl.  Even Theodore's mustache, which might seem a hipster affectation in another context, takes the exotic edge off of Phoenix's countenance by covering that birth mark above the lip.  It makes Theodore look more like the everyman he's  supposed to be.  

There's no thrashing around jail cells or banging into walls for Theodore Twombly in Her, but Joaquin Phoenix meets the complexity written into his character with all the gentle assurance with which the film  resonates in general.  To have seen both The Master and Her, to consider the casting of the films' protagonists, one can only say, "of course."  Who better to these demonstrate these characters' vulnerabilities, their abundant if bruised humanity?  

 As for the film at hand, we have in Her a work in which all involve contribute to love story which makes us consider the very nature of the emotion, of consciousness, of identity.  It offers a story in which machines first possess the intelligence to make us more fully human and then develop the further intelligence, perhaps even the wisdom to leave us to ourselves.  Visionary stuff.


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Saturday, January 4, 2014

American Hustle


As has become a dubious trend in the past year or so, films use a vintage studio logo (the recent Nebraska), a period title font, or both (Argo), to signify the work as something of substance, timelessness, or at least one belonging to another era.  David O. Russell's American Hustle also employs a vintage font to spell out its opening titles.  But among the film's late-70's trappings, deep as the deepest shag, American Hustle uses what has become cinema's most blaring indicator of the past:  HAIR.  Hair permed, hair curled, hair affixed... hair that is incontrovertibly bad.

We see con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) going about his coiffure as American Hustle begins.  Irving has to work harder than most, try as he does to cover the largely bare top of his head.  So he combs up hair from behind, borrows from a side wall, as it were, to help patch the roof.  A small toupee is affixed to the crown of the head and the reserves of natural stuff are swept over and patted into place before a sealing coat of hair spray is applied.  Bale, ever one to get deep into character, looks like he practiced this routine hundreds of times.

More significant than the all the amusing hair to be found in American Hustle is the fact that Mr. Bale,  like the film in general, succeeds in finding something real amidst the ample potential for period caricature. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) musses that meticulous if not terribly convincing hairdo before commencing a scam with Irving and his partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) , the response is not histrionics from Irving, but seething inaction.  He's hurt and Sydney proceeds to smooth his hair and rumpled ego before they go to work.


Among its disco era flourishes of decoration, wardrobe and hair, not to mention its intrigues of plot, American Hustle also attaches itself to something real in terms of American history.  Or as those retro opening titles tell us, "Some of this actually happened."   This being AMSCAM, the FBI sting operation that ultimately brought down a U.S. senator, six members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the mayor of Camden New Jersey, among dozens of other East Coast politicians.

As with the actual AMBSCAM, the FBI as portrayed in American Hustle, mainly in the form of the ambitious agent DiMaso, uses criminals to get at other criminals; little fish to lure the big ones.  And just as the actual sting evolved into something more sweeping than first intended, so does the eager fisherman DiMaso in American Hustle cast a bar bigger net than first imagined.  Cooper is quite at home with these gung-ho types, when the gleam in his blue eyes speaks of energy a bit manic or worse.  Such was also the case with his convincing work in Wedding Crashers and Silver Linings Playbook.  For his contribution to period hair, Cooper's was daily rolled into 110 curlers and dried, a ritual we see in American Hustle when we get a glimpse into the agent's less-than-glamorous home life.


Forced into service to further Agent DiMaso's career, if not the interests of their country, the skilled con man and woman must bring all their skill to bear.  Not only does the focus and scope of the operation change regardless of their misgivings, Irving and Sydney must manage relationships beyond their own strained partnership.  The latter must play the FBI agent, drawing him close but not too close,  so she and Irving can survive the caper with their lives and freedom.  The married Rosenfeld's task is even more daunting, keeping his loose cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) from ruining the caper, when he's not trying to prevent her from burning down the house.

Like her partner from Silver Linings Playbook, Ms. Lawrence in the one of the troublesome secondary players in American Hustle.  Even more than Cooper's Agent DiMaso, Lawrence's character is a live wire who veers toward the insane at her worst moments, a threat to home appliances and her husband's existence alike.  Rosalyn Rosenfeld is a character not a great deal more subtle than her hair and wardrobe, or as rendered by the script of Russell and Eric Singer.  Jennifer Lawrence also keeps the strokes relatively broad, not that her performance suffers from any lack of conviction, energy, or vulnerability.  Like some wailing tune heard from a radio station wavering out of range, her New York accent comes and goes, but the emotion makes it through.

The rather offbeat attempts at homemaking by Rosalyn Rosenfeld provide some of the biggest laughs in American Hustle, much as her story line is where the film comes closest to losing its focus.  With one fire already to her credit, Rosalyn ignores the admonition that comes with the new technology of the microwave oven - "Don't put metal in the science oven!," Irving warns - and promptly starts another kitchen blaze. "Another fire!," exclaims her young son, reaching for an extinguisher.  "No Danny," says Rosalyn,  "not that one.  That one's empty.  We gotta use the big one."

If history has taught us nothing else, we have learned that putting metal in the science oven is a very bad idea.   Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  

Later, when the first notes and words of "Live And Let Die" are heard, one of the more obvious salvos from the film's soundtrack, we see Rosayln lip syncing Paul McCartney's intro lyrics.  When the orchestra kicks in, Rosalyn's big blonde hair hair is set in motion  lock a rodeo bronco freed from its chute into freedom. This is entertaining, and a bold enough move to have a character sing along to the soundtrack, much like an character directly addressing a camera.  Lawrence, as usual is all in.  Giving the scene a slightly deranged edge, Mrs. Feldman is actually dusting (well, sort of)  with rubber gloves while Danny witnesses the manic performance, probably not the strangest thing he has witnessed from mom.  Amusing though all of this may be, its the one clear instance when writer and director gets carried away in American Hustle, gets a bit drunk with style to the detriment of the substance of the story.  













HAIR!  A few examples of the long, dark night of the coiffure in American Hustle.  

There is certainly enough happening at the center of American Hustle without any dance parties breaking out on the periphery.  The original scam, involving Irving, Syndney, and the further entrapment of Camden, New Jersey Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner beneath a veritable carport of a pompadour) expands to sweep up some of the nation's biggest fish, legitimate and otherwise.  Irving's idea is to produce a money man in the form of an Arab (hence the acronym for the sting operation) sheikh.  Never mind that the FBI doesn't use Irving's friend from Queens, but an agent who happens to be Hispanic.  Such is America's ethnocentrism that nobody seems to notice this detail...until a mob boss (an uncredited Robert DeNiro) who happens to speak Arabic nearly catches the agent out.   

Christian Bale does indeed achieve the  feat of locating a human being, some human dignity, beneath the fooling nobody hair, the shady glasses, gaudy jewelry and accent.  It's also a matter of the role as written by Russell and Singer.  The con man becomes the unlikely conscience of the story, as he sees the sting operation as more hurtful than helpful to a still wounded, post-Watergate country.  Particularly troublesome to Irving is harm done to his new friend, Carmine Polito.  The Camden mayor in American Hustle is a hard-working political realist who lives and breathes the well being of his community.  

Among its flourishes of style, American Hustle occasionally offers voice-over narration from Irving and Sydney.  Thus we learn how the two met at a Long Island Party, bonding over Duke Ellington's "Jeeps Blues." No fool, Syndey says she was neither taken in by Irving's elaborate attempts to conceal his baldness, nor blind to his prominent gut (Bale, the world champion of weight gain and loss for the sake of roles, put on 40 pounds to play the rounded Feldman).  But the confidence of the dry cleaning entrepreneur and con man wins her over.    

Like Irving, Syndey is prepared to do what it takes to make her way in New York of the late 70's, whether that means a clerical job at Cosmopolitan or pole dancing at a strip club.  Once she and Irving add business to their romantic partnership, Sydney assumes the alias of Lady Edith Greensley, to better separate fools from their money, with the promise of ties to London banking.  


Ms. Adams' own wavering English to American accent seems more a matter of design.  At the very least, it suits a woman working multiple identities.  Who better to play the striving and surprisingly versatile Sydney Prosser at this moment than Amy Adams?  She proved through her early breakthrough roles in films like Junebug, Enchanted and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day that she could compellingly ground light as air characters.  Since playing fiercely against type in The Fighter, we have come to see the toughness and intelligence that she can provide in equal counterpoint to the sweetness and vulnerability that marked that early work.    

In its sympathy for the little fishes of the world, regardless of of crookedly they might swim, along with its wariness at governmental power run amok, there is in American Hustle a kinship with 1970's American Cinema.  Compare this to last year's Argo, in which Ben Affleck had CIA agents practically high-fiving one another at film's end, before the prodigal agent Tony Mendez is seen embracing his wife with an American flag waving in the background.  American Hustle is smarter than that, far more frank about the human toll of of the various games people and governments play.  Much as there is a happy ending ending of sorts to all the shenanigans in American Hustle (more so than than the best of 1970's film tended to provide) the film comes by it honestly enough.  


The brisk, entertaining 138 minutes of American Hustle is a return to form for writer and director David O. Russell.  The balance of entertainment with a depth of characterization is much more consistent with  smart, earlier work like Spanking The Monkey, Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings.  These as opposed to Silver Linings Playbook, a film that set out to be something relatively brave and frank in regard to characters struggling on the frontiers of their sanity before dancing right back into the heart of Hollywood.  

Perhaps American Hustle proves that enough time has passed since the late-1970's that we can now amend the old maxim about storytelling:  tragically bad hair + time = comedy.  American Hustle is that and more.  


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