In Search of a Midnight Kiss with Vicky Cristina Barcelona

mk_vcb1Midnight smoker: Sara Simmonds huffs & puffs In Search of a Midnight Kiss (IFC)

Five years ago, the writer-director (and sometimes actor) Alex Holdridge unveiled the romantic comedy Sexless, which I thought to be the best Woody Allen movie ever made by someone other than Woody Allen. The carrot-topped Holdridge unabashedly failed to conceal his chief influence; part of the thrill of watching Sexless came from its fusion of Allen homage with slacker ethos. Here were the jaunty rhythms of Sleeper, the neurotic badinage of Manhattan, but transplanted to the dusty, sun-scorched climate of Austin, Texas. As it happens, I lived in Austin, off and on, between 1996-2000, and it was a tonic to see Holdridge’s characters traipse along the same streets I half-recalled wandering. In one of the daylight exterior shots, someone drives down a highway west of Austin, the kind of open road bordered on one side by a towering cliff wall of jagged earth—the terrain you’d pass en route to the Hill Country—and my heart surely skipped a beat to see this landscape again, after so many years’ “exile” in the Northwest. The strong sense of place, bound with Holdridge’s wit and keenly perceived romantic tensions between young couples, made Sexless feel alive to me in a way that Richard Linklater’s early works do not.

Equally significant, Holdridge nailed the Allen trademarks, the use of jazz swing on the soundtrack being one of them, yet rendered these signatures as his own. It seemed to me then—and you must recall that after the horrendous Sweet and Lowdown I boycotted Allen films for half a decade—Holdridge’s movie was a substantial improvement over anything Allen had done in a long while: the imitation was more fully realized than the thing being imitated.

(Since then, I’ve caught up with the Allens I skipped. As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, the Darius Khondji-photographed Anything Else is as close to a masterpiece as Allen has come post-Husbands and Wives. The vigorously panned Hollywood Ending turned out to be a surprisingly inspired farce, with Allen and Téa Leoni unexpectedly perfect comic foils. On the down side, the unwatchable Curse of the Jade Scorpion, an abysmally miscast picture, has surfaced as Allen’s all-time low, surpassing even the Sean Penn vehicle; and as for everything from Melinda and Melinda on, well, readers have only to trawl the archives to know.)

Holdridge’s multi-varied achievements in Sexless went largely unheralded outside his south Texas stomping grounds. He dared to give this light wisp of a comedy a brooding, unhappy ending. The hero loses the girl, and for this fidelity to realism, the hero did not win a distribution deal either. (Yes, even our indies must be sugarcoated.) As of this writing, Sexless remains unavailable in any video format; I managed to catch the movie only because it turned up at the Port Townsend Film Festival in ’03.

Now, by some whimsy of the calendar, both Holdridge and Allen have new works opening in the same month, once again inviting comparison. Only there is very little to compare this time around. All In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Vicky Cristina Barcelona have in common is that neither succeeds.

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As one of the few critics to champion Allen’s previous movie Cassandra’s Dream—and I do mean few—the fraternity consists of three: Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, James Verniere in the Boston Herald, and myself, then writing in Willamette Week. Unlike Dargis and Verniere, who got to expound at length their enthusiastic defenses, I had to stay within the confines of a 200-word capsule. Even so, I’m prouder of that capsule than of anything else I published during my 13-month tenure as a WW freelancer. Because of my endorsement, I like to think, Cassandra’s Dream stayed afloat in Portland theatres somewhere in the neighborhood of four weeks, not bad for a small picture that was almost universally reviled. This was after a year in which I’d kicked the crap out of La Vie en Rose, The Savages, Away From Her, and any number of similarly overrated bombs. An endorsement from me, rare as it was in WW’s pages, had, conceivably, come to mean something.

Similar in plot yet vastly superior in design to the tawdry Match Point, Woody Allen’s latest London-set foray into the crime thriller genre emerges out of left field as a sustained, tension-filled piece of work. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell brilliantly play off each other as squabbling, working-class brothers whose increasingly expensive tastes lead them to accept a murderous business proposal from their wealthy uncle (a suavely amoral Tom Wilkinson). The movie’s first half feels like Woody’s variation on John Osborne’s kitchen-sink realist dramas of the late ‘50s. Perhaps because of this, Cassandra’s Dream has a moral gravity (however out of style that may be) that was missing from Match Point. It’s possible to care about these blokes, their struggles with debt and depression (Farrell) or with pretending to be rich to impress a girl (McGregor, swooning over Hayley Atwell). But then Woody’s writing here is substantially better than his last three films, and McGregor has an energetic way of making even the unlikeliest lines sing. As the story grows darker, Farrell, embodying a uniquely male kind of vulnerability, shows us the fear caused by violence—a state of being rarely depicted on screen with as much truth as this. (January 16, 2008)

So, to resume, on the heels of that film, I allowed myself high hopes for the deliciously titled Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The upward lilt of those repeated vowel sounds, buttressed by rapidly reoccurring hard-c consonants in the first two words, followed by the throaty, low notes of the city’s name after the women’s, felt indicative of a frolicsome, festive spirit. Yet what pervades Allen’s first film to be shot in Spain is a spirit of churlishness. It isn’t an ode to the death of romance so much as it is a peevish lockdown, a wholesale annihilation of the romantic impulse. Despite being well acted—Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are as extraordinary as they are beautiful, and even Scarlett Johansson, a performer of limited means, through evincing a giddier, more relaxed persona than usual, rises to the occasion that might have been—Vicky Cristina is a candidate for the city dump. The movie showcases the laziest misdirection of Allen’s career. The light-filled, summertime Spanish settings seem to have cast a spell over everyone, everyone except Allen, that is, who responds to the pansexual conjuring of his players by slapping voice-over narration over their every move. And not just any innocuous voice-over: If Allen were reading these stage directions himself, his patented Brooklynese whine might have lent this imprisonment device a comic gilt. As is, there’s only guilt, and it’s all his. Allen inexplicably hired Christopher Evan Welch to over-enunciate, in a booming tone of voice, actions and thoughts that could very well be conveyed simply by letting the viewers watch and letting the actors act. A cut from an interior scene to a shot of a sailboat in a harbor doesn’t need to be accompanied by some schmuck telling us, “And so they all went sailing on Mark’s boat that afternoon.” Vicky Cristina Barcelona is rife with this kind of idiocy: “Lunch was served on the terrace,” or “During the course of conversation, an awkward moment occurred.” It’s as if Allen considers us too stupid to grasp transitions. And while Welch isn’t exactly shouting, his relentless intonations stampede like a Mack truck splaying its tire tracks.

Some of this appalling narration merits closer scrutiny. When Bardem and Johansson (visually, these two pair splendidly, especially in their kitchen floor lovemaking that’s reflected by an oven’s chrome surface) enter a café, Welch numbingly informs us, “He took her to lunch with his friends who were poets and artists. Cristina held her own quite well.” A quick cutaway prevents us from seeing this for ourselves. Allen, in his third picture with Johansson, might be saying that he has no faith in her acting, therefore he negates the scene before it’s even begun, although, of their three collaborations, this is the first role that’s been right for her range. But the real crux, I think, is that Allen has only the most infantile notions of what poets and artists are supposed to be (the insipid banter of the bistro framing device in Melinda and Melinda supports this theory), and so he backs out of the scene to spare himself ever greater embarrassment. He cuts to an exterior shot of Bardem’s courtly romantic Juan Antonio in front of a Gaudí building with Rebecca Hall’s Vicky (shrill and strident, she’s playing the Woody surrogate). Bardem, so buff and handsome in black short sleeves and a beard of stubble, could transform the landscape of VCB’s tepid psychological agenda, yet Allen can’t even find joy or wonder in the Gaudí architecture. Although the director parades his cast from postcard locale to locale, he misses the flavor; Susan Seidelman used Barcelona to infinitely richer effect in Gaudí Afternoon.

mk_vcb3If the voice-overs were merely intrusions, that would be one thing. As the movie turns increasingly contemptuous (of us, of the characters), the lines Welch reads carry a sneering, scolding, smugly puritanical quality. Of Patricia Clarkson’s unhappily married matron, we’re told that Spanish guitar music “never failed to move Judy in some magical way.” Or as a segue to sightseeing with Juan Antonio, “He took them to the sculpture that was so meaningful to him.” These observations have the air of someone peering down long spectacles or at lab slides through a microscope. They reek of snottily inhuman posturing, except that, in all likelihood, it might not be a posture: this is what Allen has become in old age.

Worse still, there are whiffs of xenophobia wafting off this poisonous romp. The sheltered Allen treats the Spaniards as if they were exotic toys, objects meant to be fussed over, then placed back on the shelf once the hegemonic Americans have moved on. Which is insane, in addition to racist. Bardem and Cruz, playing husband and wife action painters at war with each other, are the most commanding figures on screen. They infuse an element of fire into Allen’s caricatures that could not possibly have been there on the page. And so when Allen shucks them off, the director goes beyond misanthropy—he’s a fool. Couldn’t Allen see the gravitas Bardem and Cruz bring to his thin picture and couldn’t he have expanded his gnarled worldview into something less ungenerous than trivializing them with a gunfight? It’s revealing that when Allen packs two characters off to a movie, he sends them to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. What this particular choice says about Allen isn’t good. Though in the context of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he might just as well have had his moviegoers take in a matinee of Dogville.

Regarding Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s status as a comedy, it has a grand total of one humorous exchange. As the Bardem-Johansson coupling merges into a ménage-à-trois with Cruz, the three struggle with the language barrier over lunch. Cristina speaks no Spanish; Cruz’s Maria Elena at first refuses to converse in English, then reluctantly concedes. When asked if she has any facility with foreign tongues, Cristina pertly deadpans, “I studied Chinese. I thought it sounded pretty.” The disbelieving Maria Elena urges the younger woman to demonstrate her knowledge, and Cristina mutters a few words of unaccented Mandarin so poorly she seems to have had the lounge-singing cruise director in Up The Yangtze for a teacher. (A friend who was at the same screening swears that Johansson and Cruz must have improvised this, that Allen is now so beyond being funny as to be incapable of it.)

Cruz, as the suicidal/homicidal Maria Elena, wears witch-like expressions and sports wildly tousled hair. Her half-smoked cigarettes are tightly clenched. Even as Maria Elena thaws toward Cristina, Cruz delves further along into Maria Elena’s damaged interior. In the movie’s best scene, the women observe Juan Antonio at work on a canvas, and Maria Elena quietly clues Cristina in as to where the painter’s confident ideas, style, and vision came from.

Both the dark bloom of this moment and the overall cloddishness of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, however, indicate the same thing: that Allen hasn’t shaken off the fatalism of Cassandra’s Dream and Match Point. Earlier, when Juan Antonio introduces Vicky to his elderly, reclusive father, he tells her that his father writes poetry, yet refuses to publish, in the belief that, “In two thousand years, civilization hasn’t learned how to love,” and thus he’s “punishing” the world by withholding his beautiful poems from it. After the movie ended, forcefully over-narrated down to its final frame, I thought—is Vicky Cristina Barcelona how Allen punishes the world? Not by withholding beauty, but by insisting that nothing is beautiful?

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Holdridge, writing and directing yet remaining off-camera for In Search of a Midnight Kiss, still believes, refreshingly enough, in the necessity of what Allen discards. Shooting in black-and-white, Holdridge opens his film with a montage of couples kissing—at a Laundromat, in the pouring rain, or positioned in the lower right of a wide angle as graffiti proclaiming “No War” looms large on the frame’s upper left. It’s dazzlingly evocative of the opening montage in Allen’s Manhattan. A guitar and violin strum along on the soundtrack, imbuing a Hot Club vibe to the imagery. And there’s narration, too, although Scoot McNairy, the movie’s lead, reads in such a flat voice that he’s instantly forgettable.

Holdridge soon declares his independence from Allen by having McNairy create porn via Photoshop and masturbate to it in his living room. Caught by his housemate Jacob (a splendid Brian McGuire), protestations of embarrassment versus “it’s only natural” ensue; what becomes clear only minutes in is that Midnight Kiss doesn’t have the same level of wobbly assurance as Sexless. The stagy household banter between roomies over whether the morose, hirsute Wilson (McNairy) should post a personals ad on Craigslist, so that he can scrounge up a date for later that night, which just happens to be New Year’s Eve, feels too much like explication.

The pacing, for the rest of the movie, runs the gamut from sluggish to dreary. And although McGuire exudes considerable charm and lanky confidence in the best friend role (he’s as effortlessly convincing here as he was as the slightly withdrawn, on-the-wagon alcoholic in Sexless) the leads played by McNairy and Sara Simmonds, as Vivian, the shrieking harridan Wilson unearths in the personals, leave everything to be desired.

Cutting to the chase: As a study in contemporary urban loneliness, Midnight Kiss is very nearly a complete failure. After more than an hour of screen time spent bickering and squabbling (the movie does capture a sense of the dislocation inherent to walking and talking with someone whom you otherwise wouldn’t have met except under outré circumstances, but what of it?), Wilson and Vivian are sitting (on the floor, if I remember) in his living room listening to his answering machine play messages. The voice of Wilson’s ex-girlfriend, back home in Texas, wishing him well, becomes a presence in the space. The makeshift New Year’s Eve companions, with nothing in common besides their own desperation, take it all in silently. A teardrop falls down Wilson’s face. The sadness he feels isn’t entirely for his former lover; he also misses who he was when he was with her—an earlier version of himself he prefers to the way he is now, transplanted from Austin to LA, and not making it as a screenwriter. The silence of Simmonds and McNairy is more eloquent than any of the lines they speak.

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Holdridge’s problem here, besides the casting, stems from wanting to have comedy both ways—to be sophisticated and witty and at the same time pandering and vulgar. It doesn’t work. His depiction of a dumb, crude Texas stereotype (a psychotic Bubba on Vivian’s trail) feels altogether out of place. Although Holdridge’s writing falters, his visual intuitions are spot-on. Midnight Kiss’s chief accomplishment lies in showing us sides of Los Angeles that movies seldom show. The camera lovingly glides across downtown LA’s Art Deco architecture or pans upwards, as the characters continue chattering unseen, at ledges, friezes, sculptures, ancient marquees, the textured ceiling inside the Orpheum Theatre, and other historical delights above eye level. A morning-after montage of sunlight filtering through the pre-dawn chiaroscuro over the hills may be the cinematographer Robert Murphy’s loveliest contribution.

I would be interested to see what Holdridge came up with, if he ever decided to make a movie without people in it, or with people simply as figures in a landscape, while ornate buildings, flashing signs, tall trees, and spray-painted boxcars assume their rightful places.

Finally, about Scoot McNairy, and I write this with some reluctance: in profile shots, he has hideous teeth. His face and lips seem to be the result of implants or reconstructive surgeries that were botched, yet he carries himself in a manner suggestive of unattractive men who imagine themselves to be unassumingly hot. When he’s lying in bed, the camera pulls in for a close shot of his mouth and gums, as he’s saying, “Yeah, he’s a stallion,” in reference to the loud lovemaking of the couple on the other side of their thin apartment walls. What the camera’s emphasis on McNairy’s mouth tells me is this: this is one actor who could play the Joker sans make-up. – NPT

August 9, 2008

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