Saturday, February 4, 2017

Manchester by the Sea

"Aw, fuck this." A succinct expression from the aggrieved Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) that serves as both a venting a moment's exasperation and a more lingering, existential state of the man address.  The frustration at hand is bad enough, attending to the dire errands that follow the death of his beloved brother in a Manchester-by-the-Sea hospital, which occurred while he was on the road from Quincy.  But we already have a sense by this time that Lee Chandler's despondency and occasional flares of rage have a greater source than his brother's demise.  There's a kind of iceberg of grief dominating this man's consciousness, the dimension and impossible edges of which writer and director Kenneth Lonergan will make us powerfully aware as Manchester by the Sea proceeds.    

Manchester by the Sea is getting its share of attention as the generally-dubious reflection continues on the best films of 2016, not to mention a nod or two from that slow-moving old cyclops, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  There seems, at least, a consensus that this a serious, affecting, well-made piece of cinema.  True enough.  But Manchester by the Sea is arguably great, and deceptively so.

In Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan utilizes what is a common enough story structure, wherein the person who has withdrawn from life is drawn back in, knocked back into human orbit by some unexpected collision of character, circumstance, or both.  Lonergan both operates masterfully within the familiar framework and then casts aside the pat ending, that most familiar and beloved extension of the creaky framework to American audiences.  This leaves his main character standing stage left at story's end, a bit like Jacques in As You Like It, unwilling to participate in the  marriage ritual that so define the comedies.  But Jacques was merely melancholy.  Regarding the life about him, Lee Chandler  will take a much deeper and shadowy place in the wings.

Whatever has occurred in Lee Chandler's past, it's evident that his reputation has preceded him to Manchester.  After the grim business of identifying the body of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee has to find his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Before he can do so, the second of Manchester by the Sea's series of flashbacks occur.  The past tends to creep at Kenneth Lonergan's characters like a rip current.  On this occasion, the sweep of memory is insidiously happy, as we see good times aboard the Claudia Marie, Joe Chandler's fishing boat.  The older brother steers the craft, looks back bemusedly and occasionally interposes himself in the horseplay between Lee and the eight-year-old Patrick.

As Lee tries to track down his nephew, he speaks first to the boy's assistant principal, who tells him that Patrick is with his hockey team in Gloucester.  After the brief and slightly fitful conversation ends, the assistant principal speaks to his assistant:

"Who was that on the phone?"

"That was Lee Chandler."

"Lee Chandler?"

"The very one."

Lee's presence elicits a similar response from Patrick's hockey coach, with more spoken italics:  That's Lee Chandler?  The Lee Chandler?  The reaction is much more severe when Lee later inquires about a job at the Manchester boatyard office.  After an awkward, if amiable conversation with a man Lee clearly knows, he leaves.  After he exits the office, the woman who had sat at a nearby desk listening to the conversation, presumably the man's boss, emerges and says, "I don't wanna see him in here again."  

We don't know what provokes this chorus wariness and disapproval.  As we see Lee Chandler through the early scenes of Manchester by the Sea, he works as a custodian, doing vital and shit work alike at a Quincy apartment building.  He responds to the lust and scorn of two female tenants with similar indifference.  A woman who spills a beer on him for the sake of striking up a conversation in a bar gets no further.  Only that same bar night, when the hinges of his anger have been adequately lubricated, do we see Lee take an interest in his fellow man.  This a fistfight with two business types, who have made the mistake of sitting opposite the sullen man.  Otherwise, there are just the lonely tasks of this solitary man, for whom repeated rounds of snow shoveling take on a Sisyphusian prospect.  

There are women suffering in Manchester by the Sea, specifically the ex-wives of both of the Chandler brothers.  But most of the film's time is devoted to the relationship of Lee Chandler and his nephew - generally gruff, but with its oblique moments of tenderness.  The young man and the not-so-old man, each with his grief.  Men both, neither adept at expressing emotions, neither able to escape what plagues them, much as the uncle faces the far more daunting prospect.

As for Patrick Chandler, there is no obvious and immediate breakdown.  We first see him, after a little action, involved in  a fight on the rink.  This, perhaps, an indication of a troubled teenager who's going to act out far more dramatically once his uncle shares the terrible news.  But neither Kenneth Lonergan's writing nor the emotions of young men necessarily veer toward obvious expression.  Though clearly affected, Patrick doesn't break down.  After some indecision - "What does he look like?" he responds when Lee asks him if he wants to see his father - Patrick makes his visit to the hospital morgue.  It's a brief visit:  barely in the door, he casts glance in the direction of his father's corpse and says, "Okay, thank you."

At the hockey rink, Lonergan's story and direction had provided an even more telegraphic and touching demonstration of young men and their emotions. When it's obvious that he's received bad news about this father, two of Patrick's friends skate over to console him. You'll rarely see a better metaphor of halting tenderness than when the goalie, still in full pads, offers his friend an awkward hug.

As feelings are shared, or not shared, as the case may be in Manchester by the Sea, there is also the matter of regional if not cultural difference when it comes to such matters. Here, the sometimes brusque, amusingly bellicose nature of conversation between Northeasterners. At the reception following Joe Chandler's funeral, Lee is hawked by family friend, George (C.J. Wilson):

"...You get some food?"

"I had some cheese." 

"You had some cheese.  Asshole."  

"I'll get you something.  Hey JANINE!" (this from George to his wife)

"Seriously, I'm not hungry."  

"Never mind!  Skip it!  I said forget it!"  (George to Janine)


So goes the polite, post-burial discourse at this Massachusetts gathering.  There is also the more terse, understated form of this verbal sparring, as when Patrick inquires after his uncle's bandaged hand.  

"What happened to your hand?"

"I cut it." 

"Oh.  For a minute there I didn't know what happened."     

Kenneth Lonergan has a writer's eye for detail, especially those that glare in contradiction.  This applies to those slightly incongruous shouts across a funeral reception, as well as the eddies of absurdity amid the flows of utmost gravity.  After identifying his brother's body, Lee's departure is delayed while hospital staff look for the plastic bag containing Joe Chandler's belongings.  Right along the margins of "Manchester's" central tragedy, there is the faltering attempts of EMS workers, repeatedly banging the florescent yellow legs of a stretcher against the back of an ambulance, so they can get an overcome Randi Chandler into the vehicle.  So it goes, these seemingly cruel juxtapositions, as the brilliant blue sky that presides over that tragedy's morning after. 

There's nothing flashy, nothing of the auteur about Mr. Lonergan's direction.  There is instead a quiet sense of authority.  Even what seem to be rote establishing shots, as with the several looks we get of Manchester from the vantage point of the sea are given a power they don't usually bear because of their context.  As with the story's structure, Lonergan directs with the precision of a craftsman, investing long-established forms with unusual strength and insight.                 

Lee and Patrick Chandler enjoy a hard-earned bit of respite in Manchester by the Sea. After much argument about where Lee (made Patrick's guardian by his brother's will) and his nephew might reside, as well as the fate of the Claudia Maria, which Patrick hopes to keep despite the financial realities of the craft's maintenance, there is a relatively carefree cruise out on the cold waters.  On this occasion it is Lee Chandler observing Patrick, crowding the wheel with one of his girlfriends.  This while a few bars, a few warm rays of sun are felt from the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald's version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light."  

For Lee Chandler, the going is mainly rough in Manchester by the Sea.  As if the man didn't have enough to face, the writer and director appears in the flesh to taunt him.  Making a cameo as "Manchester pedestrian," Lonergan happens upon Lee and Patrick in the middle of one of many arguments:

"Patty, I swear to God I'm gonna knock your fuckin' block off!"

"Great parenting."   

"Mind your own fuckin' business!"

Patrick Chandler seems to possess a good measure of the emotional resiliency of youth.  For Lee, there seems less hope.  This he tries to explain to his ex-wife, Randi, during another chance encounter about Manchester.  As she tries to apologize for harsh things she said during that darkest time in their life, as she expresses her love for Lee and her desire to have some semblance of a relationship, he can only offer the verbal equivalent of backing sadly away:  "It's not that...I can't...I'm happy for you and I want...But - there's nothin' there....You don't understand."  He manages to state the case with more clarity and finality to his nephew when he explains the arrangements for Patrick to stay in Manchester and be adopted by George:

"I know.  I mean, they're great....But why can't you stay"  (Patrick)

" Come on, Patty...I can’t beat it.  I can’t beat it. I’m sorry."

By the time the difficult conversations between Lee, his ex-wife and nephew take place, we've long been aware of the scope, the depth of his pain, just what it was that left him the man he is.  This Kenneth Lonergan illustrates by a series of flashbacks while Lee is at the lawyer's office, where he's trying to come to terms with the news that he's been made his nephew's guardian and is expected to relocate to Manchester. 
There is first a party scene with Lee, Joe and a large group of friends, having a very good time until the wee hours of the particular winter's night until they're interrupted by an irate Randi.  The gathering breaks up, if very loudly, oblivious to Randi, the children and anyone else who might be within earshot.  

    So, perhaps we're finding out that Lee Chandler was just "a fuckin' asshole," one of several deserved expletives that Randi hurls at her husband and his fellow merry makers that night.  A further flashback shows Lee walking to a party store.  We don't initially know the context for this late-night beer run.  More curiuosly, it occurs to the accompaniment of Albinoni's "Adagio Per Archi E Organo In Sol Minore."  Why this funereal piece of music paired with the mundane, if slightly unseemly act?  But then, but then...a further flashback provides the horrible explanation and equally grave aftermath.   

Kenneith Lonergan apparently tried to write the screenplay for Manchester by the Sea without flashbacks, but found that "It just seemed like a pointless march of misery."  It's not such an unusual device these days, the flashback, the invasion of the past into the present of the narrative.  It can certainly be a gimmick in the wrong hands.  Rarely has it been employed with such power as it is in Manchester by the Sea.  With this flood of the past there is performed by Kenneth Lonergan and Casey Affleck a kind of harrowing papier mache, revealing not so much the shape of the man but the impossible holes that remain.     


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt does not go easy on her characters.  Or her actors, for that matter.   Audiences, accustomed to much more in terms of plot, resolution and the blatantly obvious, might well count themselves among the ill-used after sitting through one of Ms. Reichardt's half dozen feature films.  All the same, the uncompromising Reichardt continues to solidify her place among the best American writers and directors.  The three main characters in her latest film, the certain women in question, must take their small satisfactions where they can find them.  For those of us watching the proceedings, there is 107 minutes of beauty and subtlety, the like of which one could hardly find elsewhere.  I could have watched this film had it extended hours beyond its appointed running time.    

As she is wont to do,  Kelly Reichardt expanded upon short stories in creating her latest film, Certain Woman.  The stories in this case drawn from collections by Montana native Maile Meloy.  The three stories adapted for Certain Women are from Meloy's Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (2009),  titles whose ambivalence strike a harmony with most of Reichardt's work.  Or perhaps a common discord.  Either way, Reichardt found herself a kindred spirit in the Montana native.

The natural world is usually not far from Ms. Reichardt's restless characters and lean stories.  In this case, the Montana landscape itself presides impassively in its otherworldly beauty.  It also has every potential to isolate, as it does for one of  those main characters, Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young ranch hand working through a lonely winter job seeing to horses in the eastern extreme of the vast state.  

Much as we are never long removed from the Montana landscape, by day or night in Certain Women, the director gave herself the task of working more on interior shooting.  The most striking example occurs in the film's first scene (of action).  A woman and a man are dressing after a lunchtime tryst.  We see the legs of the woman, Laura Wells (Laura Dern) still in bed, working panties back in place (have there been many more expressive sets of legs in film history than the long, skinny limbs of Laura Dern?).  Simultaneously, to her right, separated by a rather meaningful section of wall, we see a man, Ryan Lewis, (James LeGros) standing, pulling a long john top over his head.  There's little sense of romance or even excited (sated) lust in this aftermath, but our friend with the great, wiry growth of gray beard makes sure there's no air left in the the balloon when he says, "I thought you had to be back at work."

The pleasures are fleeting for the trio of women featured in Certain Women.  There's always the tug of practicality, the call of a job.  In the case of Laura Wells, that job is of local lawyer.  When she returns to her office after the non-lunch lunch, she's met by the client that won't end, William Fuller (Jared Harris).

Fuller has been out of work for months after a construction accident left him, with among other disabilities, compromised vision ("the lines are all squiggly" he says in response to Laura's wearied advice to "...go to the library.  Read a book." after Fuller admits that his wife wants him out of the house).  The former construction worker has no claim against his former employer since he accepted a small settlement after the accident.  This a clear-cut legal opinion that the aggrieved man will in no way accept from Laura.   When she arranges for a second opinion with a personal injury lawyer in Billings and he confirms her appraisal, Fuller accepts it with a resigned "Okay."  "It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man and I could explain the law and people would listen and say okay," Laura says into her cell phone from a mall parking lot in Billings.

The person at the other end of the virtual wire is Mr. Lewis, he of the lunchtime roll in the hay.  Laura's attempt to find some consolation is cut short by her indifferent lover, deciding that he needs to end the affair.  Typical of Reichardt, this occurs not amidst the bang of recriminations, but with a whimper.  "I just think maybe, I have my hands full," the man says.  "Um look, I've gotta go," says Laura, hardly devastated.  Or perhaps she's just distracted.  Her personal albatross, Fuller, is homing toward her car after being unceremoniously ejected from his wife's vehicle.  All of this our beleaguered lawyer faces by midday.  And yet, the day and night ahead hold more absurdity and thankless work for the put-upon woman.  

It's when Certain Women's roundabout arrives at the third of its lonely or longing women that it finds its most mesmerizing portrait. This the aforementioned Jamie, the young woman laboring through a solitary winter's job, attending to horses at a rural barn and living in a spare room at the facility. Her loneliness sends her off into the expansive darkness one night in a pickup truck. In the nearest town, she sees a few cars pulling into a school parking lot. Lacking anything more satisfying to do, she follows a small group into the building and takes a seat at the back of a classroom. This, she finds out, is some sort of course in educational law taught by an unsure, not at all thrilled to be there recent law school graduate by the name of Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart). Jamie, on the other hand, is very pleased that Beth is there. It's immediately obvious she's smitten with the reluctant teacher.

The second time we see the young lawyer, she does the rounds in her modest classroom in a gold sweater vest over a white long-sleeved top.  There's such an unfashionable eloquence in this ensemble that it's as close as Certain Women gets to overstatement.  Beth later expands upon her still tenuous financial position, actual or merely perceived, when explaining to Jamie in a local diner after class why she is making the almost impossible four-hour commute twice a week, which leaves little time for sleep on the class nights:  "I was so afraid I would get out of law school and be sellin' shoes. My mom works in a school cafeteria, my sister in a hospital laundry. So, selling shoes is the nicest job a girl in my family is supposed to get."

The few evening classes where Jamie gets to see Beth - and it's quite clear the object of her affection could be expounding upon educational law, Euclidean geometry, or the practical uses of cow manure without any loss of interest on the part of the rapt woman at the back of the classroom - are oases in her otherwise arid existence.   

With Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone above, examples
of the work of two painters that influenced Kelly Reichardt
in the making of Certain Women: Milton Avery
(Walker By The Sea, left) and Alice Neel
(The Whistling Girl, right).
With repeated instead of protracted scenes, Reichardt demonstrates the routines that are Jamie's life.  Several times we see the barn door whisked open of a morning.  On each occasion, there is a grand Montana peak in the background, the opening a kind of curtain rising, something of a revelation.   Jamie's charges are usually waiting for that barn door to slide open, as is the furry Roomba of a dog that follows her, particularly as she rides a tractor across a snowy pasture to distribute bales of hay.  At one unveiling of the day, we see a dark-hided horse approach the entry, snow upon its back.  The detail, the grain of the snow is discernible against the black skin, as are the subtle variations in color of the landscape beyond, because Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt chose to photograph Certain Women in 16mm, not on digital film as originally planned.  Too much detail would be lost, the director realized not long into pre-production.  A typically uncompromising decision on the part of Kelly Reichardt.        

Surprisingly, the slightest of three lives observed in Certain Women is that of Gina Lewis.  Whether this is simply a matter of time devoted to the character or the fact that there's not a great deal to reveal isn't immediately obvious.  The surprise is that Gina is played by a seemingly underutilized Michelle Williams, who starred in Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek's Cutoff (2010).  It might be the case that this is the character Reichardt was least interested in exploring, revealing.  But even in this most elliptical of the three interspersed segments in Certain Women, the writer and director refuses to resort to a pat characterization.  

We don't know Gina's profession, much as she is the main source of income in her family.  This much is owned by husband Ryan, while speaking to their disaffected teenage daughter while Gina is out of earshot:
"Listen.  Let's you and I make an effort today.  We're gonna be nice to your mom today, okay?  Let's cut her some slack."

"Why?  Is she sick or something."  (This the indifferent Guthrie Lewis)

"No, she isn't sick....Because neither one of us would do very well without her."    

The husband is the same man we saw in the the earlier scene, obviously finishing an affair with Laura Wells.  This, along with Jamie's later appearance at Laura's law office, searching for Beth, the only common threads in the otherwise loose weave of Certain Women. 

Much as Laura Wells and Beth Travis are lawyers, Gina Lewis, regardless of profession, is the odd woman out in the story and on the Montana landscape.  We first see her in a navy jacket and Lyrca pants, hair neatly and obediently pulled back, an elfin alien pacing through the sere winter grass and scrub brush.  She's very well put together for someone who just finished a run, but a somewhat guilty cigarette reveals that her communing with nature didn't dispel all the anxiety of a life of ambition.  One of Beth's ambitions is to build a house on the site where she and her family are camping.  Toward that end, she hopes to acquire a load of sandstone that rests on and in the land of the solitary Albert (Rene Auberjonois). 

Gina and Ryan's visit to Albert expresses much more than the pathos of a man living alone at the end of his life, attention and memory coming and going.  Both in Albert's home and in the couple's subsequent drive home, we see some of the good and bad in both Gina and Ryan, not to mention the obvious fissures in their relationship.  When Ryan fails to finesse Albert toward agreeing to sell or give them outright the sandstone, at least to Gina's satisfaction, she shares her frustration when they're back on the road:  "God, you really weren't helping me at all."   

Gina gets the coveted sandstone.  It could well be a symbol by which a storyteller, a director, mocks the woman, dismissing her as yuppie striving for an authenticity about which she has no idea, to which she has no right.  But slight as both this character and portion of Certain Women would seem to be, both Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams are interested in expressing or at least suggesting all the humanity present.  We last see Gina, drinking a cup of coffee and regarding the pile of relocated stone.  This might be about as good as it gets for the driven woman, but there's enough repose to suggest a soul where a less compassionate view would suggest none.    


Kelly Reichard's films are full of moments of repose, of revelation.  They are not, however, replete with laughter.  Like the five features that preceded it, Certain Women will not be mistaken for a comedy of any sort.  And yet, there are small moments of absurdity, especially in the travails of Laura.  After he gets confirmation that he has no claim against his former employer, Fuller breaks into an office building where his case files are housed and takes a security guard hostage.  Haunting her even into her sleep, Fuller's exploits drag Laura from her bed when the police call her to the scene.  Before she quite knows what's going on, she's on her way into the building to reason with her client.  The fleeting moment of disbelief we see Laura Dern's face as she fits her clothes over a Kevlar vest perfectly express the absurdity of the situation and her relationship with Fuller.  A quieter moment of incongruity had occurred earlier in the day, when Laura was eating lunch in a mall food court to escape her ubiquitous client, waiting in the car.  She looks with an expression somewhere between bemusement and confusion as a Native American in full ceremonial costume waits in line at an Asian buffet. 

The Native American presence in Certain Women is subtle, but perhaps not without significance.  Aside from her first feature, River of Grass, all of Kelly Reichardt's films have been set in the west, mainly the Pacific Northwest, Meek's Cutoff, the most blatantly "Western" of them all.  There emerged, perhaps by the second or third wave of Westerns in film history, a theme of the disappearing West, as if the American West was the first West, a kind of lost or vanishing Eden.  One sees this in the films of Sam Peckinpah, among many others.  It's usually white men leading this mourning.  But peer through the scrim of encroached-upon wide-open spaces, and behind it's usually Sam or whomever else they mourn for.

Kelly Reichardt notions of place, of West, are more subtle, more complex.  There's almost no stridency in her work, but the film's nearly static first scene would seem to bear its messages.  At first there is simply a Montana landscape, of such dimension and almost infinite shadings of beauty that it appears to be a painted backdrop.  The first sound heard is a Native American rattle (echoed in that mall where Laura eventually sees why the person in ceremonial dress is present).  In time, a train whistle is heard and a freight crosses the frame right to left.  Again, nothing obvious, nothing strident.  But possibly an expression of the impassive, presiding natural world and man's transience.  Something too perhaps about an order of arrival.  

Certain Women's most arresting human presence is Lily Gladstone, herself of Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage.  Ms. Gladstone's simple, luminous beauty is the sort that would likely send Vermeer scrambling for his brushes could the two somehow meet in time and space.  Jamie's lineage is not addressed in the film beyond  mention of a sister and a childhood spent among horses.  The major barrier between the young ranch hand and restive lawyer seems to be neither ethnic background, nor class, but merely desire.  

Jamie is allowed one moment of contentment, even joy with Beth.  It's also a small moment of rapture for Certain Women.  After their second class together, Jamie says that she has a surprise for her teacher.  She's come to school on horseback.  Beth is offered a ride to the diner and is so nonplussed that she accepts.  Here, another moment of absurdity as the clap of hooves is heard on the asphalt of a Montana road and these two women are carried by horseback through the night.  But this absurdity of the most lovely and unexpected nature.  And very possibly one of the great moments in Jamie's young life.  Alas, the would-be romance plays out as the lawyer's reticence has hinted that it will.  When Beth finally gives up the class, Jamie makes the four-hour pilgrimage to where she works and lives.  Once Beth's place of employment is determined, a parking lot conversation ensues, about as awkward and futile for Jamie as we might expect.  

As ever, the weary woman must return to her work, in Jamie's case the the ranch and horses.  When she begins to nod off on the interstate, it appears that a much more severe misfortune might be at hand.  But this is a Kelly Reichardt film.  There's no manufactured drama.  Jamie's truck simply veers off the highway, levels a couple of fence posts and slows into the embrace of a field and its dried and browned vegetation, typical of the cold comforts that tend to await these certain women.   At the same time, Jamie's unceremonious slide into unconsciousness and the waiting field is met by one of the rare occasions when Certain Women's score (by Jeff Grace) really manifests itself.  As if to say, here too is a life of significance.  

Maile Meloy's Half in Love is a title consistent with Kelly Reichardt's embrace of ambiguity.  It's also very much in the spirit of the give and take of the relationships in Certain Women.  In each case  - Laura and Ryan; Gina and Ryan; Jamie and Beth - one person seems more interested than the other.  One does more of the pursuit while the other seems to have one foot out the door.  So it tends to go.  

The longing, the loneliness, the sense of dislocation (especially on the part of Jamie) in Certain Women is of a piece with the previous films of Kelly Reichardt, who tends to leave her characters in one sort of limbo or another.  There's ample insight and empathy in her stories of Americans past and present.  Usually these characters reside beyond the interest of marketers and politicians, but that's not always the case.  It might be two men on a strange road trip, as is the case in Old Joy (2006).  A vulnerable woman and her dog trying to get to Alaska, as we witness in Wendy in Lucy.  A man and woman on the lam in Florida, when they're not really being pursued by anyone (Reichardt referred to it as “a love story without the love, a murder mystery without the murder, a road movie that never gets on the road.”), in the director's first feature, River of Grass (1994).         
 There is almost always movement in the films of Kelly Reichardt:  characters drift toward and away from each other; unsurely in the direction of a goal; or just aimlessly on.  The movement itself an expression of our ever unresolved longing.   As rendered in the glimpses into the lives of these certain women, there's something deeply satisfying in the identification, in the clear-eyed appraisal.  And there is the hush, the images of the land, the valuing of the lives at hand. 

You want to go on following the lives of the characters in Certain Women, especially Jamie. Coming back to this beautiful, reflective film will have to suffice. As for the writer and director, you regard the work of this woman and you think, all of that intelligence and subtlety is going to get you absolutely nowhere.  And for heaven's sake, don't stop.

Do you know this woman?  You should know this woman.
Director Kelly Reichardt.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

La La Land

There's a moment in Damien Chazelle's La La Land in which Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) strolls out along the Hermosa Pier by dusk and sings what may be the film's signature number, "City of Stars."  The fact that the jazz purist Wilder shows up in Hermosa Beach, just as he and his struggling actress paramour Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) magically pop up all over the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, is a bit of geographic chicanery one will readily enough grant the filmmaker.  This clearly is the stuff of fantasy.  The film is called La La Land after all (significantly, it's also more of a  tourist or media moniker than one a native Angelino or anyone who really understands and loves the city would tend to employ), and Mr. Chazelle would seem to feel that he's produced an homage, if not a scion to the Hollywood musicals of yesteryear.

What's interesting about the brief pier interval and the tune, carried on Mr. Gosling's limited and yet distinctive baritone, is that it hints at a depth and a darkness into which La La Land only rarely dangles its reluctant toes.  As the song begins, it actually sounds like something the actor - and not the soundtrack's composer, Justin Hurwitz - might have composed for the film himself.  Mr. Gosling, along with Zach Shields (and the Silverlake Conservatory Children's Choir, reminiscent of those eager young North London choristers who abetted Pink Floyd with "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2") produced the self-titled Dead Man's Bones in 2009.  The slightly haunting rise and fall of "City of Stars'" melody isn't so removed from the dark sonic carnival of Dead Man's Bones, but the music is by Mr. Hurwitz.   The solid and reasonably nimble tunes (not so much the lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are about the only aspect of La La Land that lingers as one scene replaces the next, after the closing credits proceed.

Hey everybody, there's a sale at The Gap!  Surprisingly happy commuters in Damien Chazelle's La La Land

 Mr. Chazelle does not lack for energy or exuberance.  We're introduced to the film's charming leads, as well as group of very limber commuters at the outset, which is clearly supposed to be a great, colorful opening fanfare, announcing a big film with a bang.  There is a bang but it turns out to be a resounding blank.  What's most impressive about this scene, which involved two days of shooting on a closed-down section of the 105/110 interchange in Los Angeles, as with The Blues Brothers and their pursuers running amok in Chicago, is the degree to which the film production is able to have its way with the traffic of a major city.  Not so much the forgettable if energetic action we get on screen.

Before all of the stranded and very colorfully-clad commuters exit their vehicles and begin to dance, car surf and even skateboard with abandon,  there is a proud, throwback announcement that what we're about to see will be presented in Cinemascope.  A grand old tool it is, but you have to know how to wield it, how to fill that broad frame.  There are stills from the two days of shooting (especially one with bodies aloft above cars and seemingly the vast city) that hint at the potential.  Very little that happens in the real time of the scene registers in any memorable way.  Mainly, it's a kind of happy, multi-cultural throwdown, the mere premise of which is supposed to thrill.

Elsewhere, Chazelle does better with foreground dancing and singing against the almost infinite Los Angeles basin backdrop.  There are judicious long takes of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling doing their own dancing and singing, demonstrating a real chemistry, a pleasure at what they're doing and with each other.  The limitations of the two leads with regard to the songs or fancy steps (particularly the often thin voice of Ms. Stone when it is plaintively on the verge of breaking) is actually a strength, something quite real amid all the make believe.  


Elsewhere, and too often, Damien Chazelle continues to be a director without a strong sense of how to direct.  This is true of relative throw-away moments as when we get intense point of view closeups of coffee making (Mia is a barista on what is supposed to be the Warner Brothers lot).  We certainly are made aware that coffee is being made, but in La La Land, these are only empty gimmicks, rote 21st-century flourishes.  Compare these moments to those of a far more original director, Edgar Wright.  When the lads in The World's End (2013) queue up at one of bars along their epic pub crawl, we get seemingly similar shots of lager whooshing into glasses.  But there, the procession of pints actually tells us something about the ill-advised single-mindedness of the endeavor, the excess.  And there's even wit, as when flow of beer gives way to a prim stream of water for the teetotaler of the group.  There's a sense that the director has actually thought about what he's doing.  There's a point.

More significant than the capturing of coffee making, there is the filming of musical performance. For a man whose films scream, "I love jazz!," Damien Chazelle demonstrates no ability to film it with any style or insight.  There's yet more of the herky-jerk, over-stimulated spectator at a tennis match point of view that so plagued Whiplash (2014).  Fortunately, there's less of this manic camera swiveling in La La Land, but Chazelle's two directorial settings seem to be swing wildly or stare intently.  Neither give us much feeling for the music in the apparent spotlight.

Whether the perspective is broad or close, the direction of Mr. Chazelle's first three features is rife with borrowed gestures, misdirected energy and little that resonates longer than a firework in the night sky.

What is true of direction also, alas, applies to script:  nuance is clearly not a defining characteristic of Damien Chazelle's work.

There's more pontificating here about jazz purity, more nuggets of supposed jazz history offered up by the pianist Wilder.  But before you swallow those morsels whole, be aware that the anecdote of which Chazelle and his characters made such hay in Whiplash - Charlie Parker nearly being decapitated by a cymbal thrown by drummer Jo Jones because his playing that wasn't up to snuff - was largely fabricated.

The view jazz we get in Mr. Chazelle's last two films, beyond their dubious presentation, is largely conservative and reductive.  A crowd-pleasing enough proclivity, but hardly doing justice to an art form the director references and exploits to such lengths.  There's a conversation between Wilder and a musical colleague, Keith (John Legend), in which the latter tells Wilder he's too much of a traditionalist, that jazz has stayed vital precisely because the greats broke with tradition.  It's a good point, but offered by a character who we eventually see involving the keyboardist in a kind of carnival of musical schmaltz, with several watered-down genres at play, complete with superfluous dancers.  An exacting discourse on the definition and progression of the genre is hardly required in such a piece of entertainment.  But if Mr. Chazelle wants to keep expounding on the sanctity and definition of jazz, he should probably demonstrate a less superficial understanding of the art form.

Please, tell me more about this jazz music.  Ryan Gosling and
Emma Stone in La La Land
Fortunately, the handsome and affable chagrin that is Ryan Gosling is not always taken up with these jazz-lite lectures.  Despite the actor's somewhat mask-like good looks, something in the frequently waning gibbous of those ever-gleaming blue eyes has always been able to suggest hurt, disquiet, melancholy (never more so than in excellent Half Nelson (2006).  The sun might be shining bright, but you get sense the clouds are never far away.  All of which abets Gosling's (and Sebastian Wilder's) easy charm and adds at least a little needed depth the character as drawn sorely lacks.  Already a musician, Gosling practiced for hour each day to be able to perform the demanding  keyboard runs required of him in La La Land.  Because, you know the jazz - it's fast, fast, fast, man!  Go daddy-o!  Uh, yeah.

Chazelle does well with his leads and he certainly can't go too wrong as long as his camera is trained on Emma Stone.  Ms. Stone's performances have sometimes swung with the quality of her roles and films.  There were early and strong indications of her particular charm in Superbad (2007) and Zombieland (2009).  Served one of those sophisticated decades beyond her teen years roles in Easy A (2010), she handled it with zest and intelligence.  In Birdman (2014), we found out she can hit pretty hard if given the weight with which to swing.  With the lesser gravity of Mia Dolan in La La Land - why, the poor woman and her equally buoyant fella positively float into the night sky of the Griffith Park Observatory! - Emma Stone makes you wonder what a pleasure it might well be to observe her mature on screen.  

La La Land is obviously a film for which place looms large.  If one were given to such flourishes, one might even say that Los Angeles is something of a character in the film.  Alas, it's not a character whose remarkable complexity and breadth La La Land begins to suggest.  If your knowledge of the city was confined to images of Hollywood Boulevard, Rodeo Drive and maybe some grand old joint like the Grauman's Chinese Theater, the film's use of locations like Griffith Park Observatory, the Watts Tower and the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena might give you the idea you've gotten around the city a good bit. True, enough, but only in the most narrow sense.

For a film that seems to want, among other things, to be about a place, there's just no hint of the darkness, as well as the teeming vitality, diversity (something at which La La Land makes conspicuous but fairly shallow stabs), even joy, that makes Los Angeles the extraordinary place it is.  Even if you don't care to explore the desert darkness which has always been a part of the city ( and much as your time would be vastly better spent watching David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) or Inland Empire (2006), reading Joan Didion's dispatches from and about the place), a film like last year's wonderful, even feel-good documentary City of Gold, about the food writer Jonathan Gold, will tell you more about the elusive metropolis than a hundred such films as La La Land.

Tourist time in La La Land:  The Angel's Flight funicular, Colorado
Street Bridge and Griffith Park Observatory

Mr. Chazelle is apparently a fan of the great Jacques Demy.  This is evident in the film's color and exuberance, particularly that first freeway scene.  Demy's wonderful musicals - The Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrella's of Cherbourg, 1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967) most well-known among them - draw rather nakedly on Hollywood Golden Age musicals and jazz, among many other influences.  And yet, for all the goofy jazz of "Young Girls, " for all the nearly laughable lyrics, for the intensely colorful near-opera that is "Umbrellas," there is something that connects, something that lingers.  Something which La La Land tends to la la lack.  With Mr. Chazelle there is simply a lot of sound and fantasia which signify nothing.  One can't but help wonder if all the critics gushing about La La Land will remember a thing about the film in a year's time, in six moths.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
For all their brightness, their seeming innocence, Demy's most famous musicals are all the more affecting for the emotional undertow, the darkness or melancholy chasing those characters (especially in "Umbrellas").  The director also made musicals that touch upon decidedly un-Hollywood subjects like labor rights, even incest.

Model Shop (1969)
Among Jacques Demy's  non-musical films, there is the little seen Model Shop (1969).  As he tended to do, Demy let a character from an earlier film (the main character from Lola (1960)) drift into another of his stories.  But by the time we see Lola relocated to Los Angeles about a decade later, the relative optimism of the previous film is gone.  There's actually a great, very brief scene in season seven of Mad Men in which we see Don Draper sitting alone in a movie theater, watching Model Shop.  It's a fairly brilliant reference, not only of time and place, but one to a film whose mood of disenchantment is so consistent with the character watching it.  Anyone who's watched Mad Men knows how seamlessly creator Matthew Weiner and his talented cast and crew combined seductive aesthetics with story lines that tended toward the dark side of American life.  For his part, in his brief visit to Los Angeles (even if he did succumb to the cliche of his main character living adjacent to an oil derrick) Jacques Demy's glimpse of the city, 45-years-old though it may be, rings with more truth about the city and its main industry of make believe than La La Land.

La La Land does at least represent a kind of progress for Damien Chazelle - it's not a very bad film; it's just not very good.  It's vastly better than the director's first dancing and singing affair, the execrable Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009).  Even with its fantasy and flights of fancy, La La Land is certainly less ridiculous than the director's 2014 Whiplash (your average Planet of the Apes film is a good deal less ridiculous than Whiplash).  One has to assume that all of these expressions of love, however uninspired - for singing, dancing and especially for jazz - are sincere.  Unfortunately, all that love smacks of  the mile wide and inch deep variety.  Perhaps, to adapt the words of another jazz aficionado and shoveler of cheese, if you love something, you should set it free?

If La La Land leads a few people to watch or watch again The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or The Young Girls of Rochefort, it will have done some good.  Check out those Demy films if you haven't yet had the pleasure.  And while we (culturally) are supposedly discussing the best films of 2016, it seems quite criminal that we speak of the likes of La La Land and nary a word is being uttered about a film like Yorgos Lanthimos The Lobster.  The Lobster's deadpan style, muted colors and lack of resolution might seem like so many teaspoons of castor oil compared to La La Land's veritable box of sweets.  But with it's audacious plotting, it's wit and the feat of making a film in the 21st century about our unquenchable yearning for love that is bracingly original, The Lobster soars, for film and audience alike, even as its character remain decidedly earthbound.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Lobster

It's a jungle out there, lonelyhearts.  Or at least a forest.  Which seems better than the hotel.  But is it?  And the city - it's a cold, cold place.  But we all knew that, right?  The options are daunting for the lonely in search of real connection, those who don't necessarily want to go it alone and for whom couplehood, as it so often presented, seems the least appealing choice of all.  So goes the old story, rendered almost unrecognizably new by director Yorgos Lanthimos in The Lobster.

The Lobster is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos' first film in English, the first produced outside of his native Greece.  Like his earlier Dogtooth and Alps (as well as Attenberg, by his colleague Athina Rachel Tsangari, a film in which Lanthimos deadpans his way through a secondary role), The Lobster sees human relationships stripped down to their basic truths and conflicts and given absurd projection, a kind of psychological caricature.  The Lobster is what you could call a European production, co-produced by principals from five nations.  Given that the United Kingdom is one of those contributors, one is reminded of another recent, absurd exercise in coupling and uncoupling.  Oppressively careworn as it has become, Brexit sounds a bit like a Yorgos Lanthimos film.  Alas, reality proves rather less entertaining and edifying.  And beyond the control of rewind.

Mr. Lanthimos' fiction has lost nothing in its translation to English and its move to more liberally-funded international production.  You'll read in some capsule reviews that The Lobster is a dystopian comedy.  Given the generally impassive trudge of characters through the early stages of The Lobster, the muted mood and look of the film, the labels are understandable enough, if a bit facile.  But really, there is a genre into which The Lobster more neatly fits.  It happens to be a genre called The Films of Yorgos Lanthimos.  The themes are relatively timeless, the dilemmas all too universal.  And yet they find expression in a paled, parallel world that the Greek filmmaker continues to build for himself. 

Our main character, our unhero, trudging through The Lobster is David (Colin Farrell).  The somber David is escorted (through a generic urban landscape that is slightly reminiscent of Jacques Tati; only Playtime has now become Depressedtime) to a seaside hotel where color has apparently also retired to die a slow death.  This while the body of his former relationship is still warm. In tow is a genial shepherd by the name of Bob (father and son pooches Jaro and Ryac, for the record), whom we find out is David's brother and a former visitor at the very unusual hotel.  Meet your mate during your stay at this hotel and back to the city you go, into the connubial sunset. Fail to do so within 45 days and you are transformed into the animal of your choosing.  Bob had made the obvious choice, as the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) informs David.  His designated animal , on the other hand, a lobster - which he selects for lifespan, blue blood and unending fertility - meets with the approval of the manager:  "I must congratulate you, the first thing most people think is a dog...which is why the world is so full of dogs."  Thus begins, among numerous other accomplishments, The Lobster's disregard for all cute little human companions, canine and child alike.  

Like those inducted into the military or getting serious attention in a hospital, new guests are stripped of their individual garments and left to slouch in relative undress after checkin.  So sits David amongst a batch of new arrivals, including "Biscuit Woman" (Ashley Jensen, even more affecting and downtrodden than she was as Ricky Gervais' pal in Extras) and "Man With Limp" (Ben Whishaw).  Mr. Farrell looks a kind of Groucho Marx negative with his glasses and jet, questioning eyebrows.  David's slouch only exaggerates his paunch.  One imagines Mr. Farrell having a very good time acquiring the extra weight.  

With us from the start of the film is narration provided by a character later to appear in the film (she intimates that David will eventually join her group), "Short Sighted Woman."  This Rachel Weisz,  speaking in kind of third-person flat.  It's a tribute to Mr Lanthimos' rigor and Weisz's commitment to character that even this narration is consistent with the film's sometimes droll, generally saturnine tone.  

The Lobster's international cast, its matter-of-fact narrator and other characters, don't necessarily speak as if English is a second language.  Consistent with the earlier work of Mr. Lanthimos, characters utter uncertain words and abortive sentences as if human communication itself were a foreign tongue.  A particular scintillating dance floor exchange between David and Nosebleed Woman after the latter has realized that she has bled on his white shirt "
I'm sorry, I got the blood on your shirtBut don't worry, there are many ways to remove blood stain from clothing.  One way is to wring the clothes to cold water, then rub in sea saltAnother way is to scrape the stain with cotton ball dip in ammonia...."  More such verbal foreplay ensues.  There are amusing if very dry exchanges in Lanthimos' Dogtooth in which the nearly adult children speciously name objects like the most hapless of language students, their ignorance reinforced by a father who keeps his wife and children confined to the well-appointed suburban compound.       

Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou grant the directors of the hotel no more grace with words, much as they demonstrate - completely oblivious to themselves  - sarcasm.  When two of the young hotel guests, Man With Limp and "Nosebleed Woman" (Jessica Barden) unite (Man With Limp pretends to be Man With Nosebleed), they are recognized at a hotel gathering prior to graduating to yachts moored in nearby water, the honeymoon quarters for those who successfully couple.  Their benediction from the hotel manager seems a valentine to the consciously (and sometimes contemptuously) childless in the audience:  "The course of your relationship will be monitored our staffs and me personally.  If you encounter any problems, any tensions, any arguing that you can't resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children.  That usually helps a lot."   

Amplifying the irony which Mr. Lanthimos allows certain of his characters to render with admirable deadpan consistency is a soundtrack whose greatest feat of irony, much like the film itself, is a mix of audacity and precision which at key moments coalesces to actual, deeply-felt sincerity.  There is an abundance of fraught string quartet music (Shnitke, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Shostakovich) usually accompanying the most mundane of acts:  the putting on of clothes, plying the aisle of a supermarket.  When we see the hotel guests go on their first "hunt," stalking the renegade loners in the nearby forest, the darkly-clad hunters emerge from the bottom of the frame in slow motion to the opening glissandos of  "Apo Mesa Pethamnos" (sung by Danai).  To this graceful, swaying old Greek lament we see the slowed, awkward flight and pursuit, faces juddering ghastly as bodies stumble and careen, silent screams and mouths agape at falls.  We see "Heartless Woman" (Angeliki Papoulia) exultant he she rifle-butts a loner to the forest floor and then deliver a right cross to her already bloodied face.   

Blunt as the violence is as delivered by Heartless Woman, this is certainly not Brett Easton Ellis (nor May Haron in the film version), serving us a course of sociopathic homicide to a pairing of Huey Lewis and the News, as is the case in American Psycho.  No, Mr. Lanthimos speaks (and sings) irony with the delicacy and fluency of a native.  

Occasionally, the director does indeed allow concord between image and sound,  those insistent strings slowing from ironic adagio to sincere lento or moderato pastorale.  Such is the case during the unconventional, sub rosa courtship of David and Short Sighted Woman, one that takes place in a kind of beautifully absurd semaphore amongst the other loners, fingers, hands and swiveling heads serving as flags:  "When we turn our heads to the left, it means 'I love you more than anything in the world.' When we turn our heads to the right, it means 'Watch out, we're in danger.' We had to be very careful in the beginning not to mix up 'I love you more than anything in the world' with 'Watch out, we're danger.'" 

Even during the moments of obvious irony in The Lobster -  image to sound, sound to image -  there is something clutchingly universal in the absurd or mundane acts  which resonate beneath the obvious incongruity of the music that accompanies the action.  So it is with the flight of loners from those desperate to couple (each bagged loner wins the hunter an extra day at the hotel to stave off transformation to an animal).  Who among us who has spent any significant portion of their adult life single has not felt oneself a threat to and occasional target of the nervous herd of the paired-off?  Who has not felt anxiety amidst the plenty of the super market?   

Prior to his sylvan romance with Short Sighted Woman, David manages to woo the seemingly unwooable Heartless Woman at the hotel with skillful indifference.  The first salvo of cold disregard occurs at the expense of poor Biscuit Woman, sprawled on the bricks beneath the hotel, her second floor suicide leap having resulted not in instant death but unbearable pain (and presumably later death).  This a promised jump after her attempts to attract David fail, blood and a telltale, forlorn atoll of biscuits about the woman's head to confirm what her screams indicate to everyone in earshot.  David's commentary to Heartless Woman?  A veritable love poem:  "I just hope her pathetic screams can't be heard from my room.  Because I was thinking about have a lie down and I need peace and quiet.  I was playing golf and I'm quite tired.  The last thing I need is some woman dying slowly and loudly."  The canny David then seals the dubious deal by refusing to act when Heartless Woman later seems to be choking to death in a hot tub next to him.  The Heimlich maneuver being for saps. 

But they don't call her Heartless Woman for nothing.  After a brief, heady romance consisting of alienating sex and frigid arm and arm walks (during which David further endears himself to his bride-to-be by kicking the shin of Mrs. & Mr. Nosebleed's little cherub of a conversation starter), David awakens one morning to find that the heartless one has dispatched his furry brother Bob from their lives with a brutality surprising even for her.  When he finally betrays sadness, Heartless Woman not only calls off the relationship but takes him by the ear to the Hotel Director's office, causing him to flee and seek asylum among the loners.   

Lanthimos has his share of fun with directors and would-be couples at the hotel.  Guests are edified with a pantomime of a woman menaced by man when walking alone and then moving in triumphant safety in the arm of a partner - "Woman walks alone; woman walks with man."  There is the matter of the ridiculous focus on the "defining characteristic," thus desperate Man With Limp occasionally having to bash his face against a hard surface so he and his paramour can bleed, nose by nose.  And, of course, there is the use of those rifles mounted to each hotel room wall, with the allotment of 20 tranquilizer darts, which is detailed though not initially explained as Short Sighted Woman runs down contents of David's room.

Yes, there's a kind of dour hilarity in the simple-minded direction offered up to the hapless hotel guests.  But Lanthimos really has fun with the loners, drilled with military rigor by Loner Leader (Lea Seydoux).  In his initial briefing, David is told that he is welcome to take a place among the loners, but there are rules to follow.  Talking is allowed, but no flirting. Dancing is okay, but..."We only dance by ourselves.  That's why we only electronic music."  That might be the joke of the year.   All the more so when we later get the visual echo, the loners, together alone,  thrusting their pale limbs into the night after a successful raid on the complacency of the hotel.  Here,  judicious silence to accompany the solo dancers, each moving in a solo dance club sanctioned by individual ear buds.  More wit and pathos in this joke and reiteration than is be found in the whole of the ostensibly comedic and vastly overrated Don't Think Twice, currently improvising its way through the art house circuit.  

Lanthimos drollery extends to other bits of visual deadpan, as when incongruous animals wander into the frame -  here a  Shetland pony, there a pink flamingo.  The transformed and released former hotel guests enjoy arguably the most pleasant fate in The Lobster.  

Better a drifting llama or peacock in the forest where human beings are the most sought after game.  The hunting parties from the hotel are no bargain.  Neither the emotional winter of the loners.  When Loner Leader begins to perceive the burgeoning romance in her midst, she chastens David by reminding him that he needs to find a suitable spot for his grave.  "Don't expect anyone else to dig your grave for you or to carry your corpse."  One's fellow loners might toss some dirt over you, but that' about it.  Ah, the single life.   
Don't get too nostalgic for your single days.  Colin Farrell practices burying
himself in The Lobster.  
Mr. Lanthimos is pretty rigorous himself, if ultimately more forgiving and - in his way - more fun.  The Lobster could have contented itself with its fish in a barrel shooting party that is life at the hotel.  But the writer and director illuminates and lampoons most every dark corner of our attempts to couple, be alone, simply be.  
Short Sighted Woman  suffers the wrath of the Loner Leader.  Ultimately David and his rather more than Short Sighted Woman flee the forest for the city.  Will David make a kind of leap, a desperate act and join the trusting woman, expectant at a restaurant table?  Traffic slides in the background almost hypnotically.  Two dump trucks would seem to move toward a kind of embrace as the screen goes dark.

We moviegoers are not so unlike Short Sighted Woman.  Sitting in the dark, hoping for the best.  Likely prepared for worse.  This world, of course, is so full of dogs.  But occasionally, we get a Lobster.