Given that our nation’s critics (almost all of whom are center-right in their reacting) failed to champion Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, and Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it is scarcely a wonder that the three most engaging films of ‘09 were Oscar shut-outs (save for Imaginarium’s nods in costume design and art direction). Demetri Martin, Larry David, and Christopher Plummer all should be in the running for Best Actor, instead of the current crop of granite-faced milquetoasts thrust on parade.
Several of the decade’s most beguiling cinematic risk-takers flew well under the radar. Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, warmly received in its native Britain, has yet to cross the Atlantic, although the writer-director’s perceptive gaze at a mature woman’s summertime fancy toward a young hedonist has “art-house hit!” stamped all over its passport. Other expectation-defying films were openly jeered (Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, Woody Allen’s Anything Else) or were held captive by archaic copyright laws (Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues).
But of all the masterworks denied their rightful place in the noonday sun of mainstream recognition, the one dearest to me is Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose.
What makes Rob Marshall’s Nine so peculiarly bad is its sheer self-congratulation. We’re incessantly told how important, how fascinating the director Guido Contini must be, and we as viewers are expected to take this on faith, but never once does Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) do or say anything even remotely intriguing. The movie has no real subject; it’s proudly about nothing. Not the arid nothingness of a Van Sant movie, but a boring sort of Condé Nast nothingness. If the real-life Federico Fellini had been as dull and as mopey as his fictional counterpart Contini, no one would have ever staged a Broadway musical [loosely] inspired by the autobiographical 8-1/2 in the first place, which means we could have been spared this present debacle that masquerades as entertainment.
Day-Lewis gamely tries to personify a song-and-dance man, yet his integrity as a performer works against him in a Rob Marshall movie. When Day-Lewis, in his first solo number, climbs the spiraling soundstage staircase that rises into the dark, it ought to be an iconic moment, but there’s magic neither in Marshall’s airless staging nor in his unimaginative camera work.
But back to that nothingness: It’s vitally important to Nine, because that’s all there is.
The famed right-wing critic Terry Teachout once thundered, “Politics makes artists stupid,” from his perch at the Wall Street Journal, on panning the pro-Palestinian play My Name is Rachel Corrie. Teachout, a conservative flag-waver first and a critic second, has just published his first new book in five years, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and while the author’s flame-throwing antics don’t take center-stage, they’re present here all the same, boxing their way out of the margins.
Teachout intends this biography to be a populist celebration of the trumpeter/vocalist, yet he can’t resist sneaking in broadsides at Armstrong’s “enemies”—almost all of whom, in Teachout’s view, are other critics.
There’s a brief sequence somewhere along the middle of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works that is just about the most perfect scene imaginable in a film comedy. In it, a professor of philosophy at Columbia (played by the Irish actor Conleth Hill, flawlessly impersonating a New Yorker) and a Southern-fried matron named Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, in the ripest, most delectable role she has had onscreen to date) have gotten together at his place for drinks. Earlier, the auburn-curled, hot pink-clad, Mississippi-accented Marietta, bursting into the movie like a parody of William Inge archetypes, has announced that, in response to her husband’s infidelity, “I turned to Jesus in a deeper way than I ever have!” She clutches, as proof, a copy of the Holy Bible in one hand and a glass of darkly stained hard liquor in the other. Marietta might caricature a certain flower of Southern womanhood, yet as Allen conceives it and as Clarkson portrays her, the send-up is absolutely spot-on. At a subsequent lunch with her errant daughter Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), Marietta preaches her deeply held beliefs (“Abortion is murder!”) yet manages to magnetize the salt-and-pepper lion-maned Leo (Hill) all the same. He admires her breasts, her long legs, and acting on the notion that “a woman is easier to get in bed if she’s a member of the National Rifle Association,” he asks her out.
Listening to the Stan Getz recording of Jobim’s “Desafinado” in Leo’s apartment, Marietta shows him her Kodak snapshots of Melodie as a child. To her, the objects are one thing: cute pix of her daughter as a darlin’ baby girl. To Leo, they’re something else entirely. He praises the texture and composition of Marietta’s photographic eye; he speaks, to his guest’s bemused wonder, of the images’ “haunting quality,” which she, in turn, quietly regards as “a gift the good Lord Jesus gave me.”
Dumb comedy and spiritual uplift are not ingredients that readily mix. We’ve seen this at least once already this year with The Soloist, a movie that strove to blend reverence for classical music with pathos interspersed by sneak attacks of grim slapstick. Departures, the recent upset winner for best foreign film at the Oscars, triumphing over the highly praised yet convoluted Waltz with Bashir, pursues this odd route as well; the results this time are no less awkward.
Departures begins with an almost abstract shot of gray mist and snow. Slowly, headlights emerge, as a car wends it way through the forbidding winter weather. The two passengers in black suits are encoffiners, en route to a funeral that turns out to be for an attractive young woman. The senior of the two men, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), informs his novice associate that the girl was a “suicide by charcoal” and that her body had been found soon after her death. The younger man asks how he can tell. “No agony,” the elder replies. He encourages Daigo (a handsome Masahiro Motoki) to take the lead in the encoffination process, and so the assistant addresses the gathered bereaved at the ceremony, talking them through his steps “to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.” He smoothes his hands over her face; he molds her hands into a prayer-like pose, and a woman chimes a bell; he wraps the body within a gray and black cloth. The scene, up to this point, has treated its tricky topic (caring for a dead body) respectfully enough, yet because the screenwriter Kundo Koyama and the director Yojiro Takita insist that the film be a comedy, the movie lapses into the bizarre. While sterilizing the corpse, Daigo reaches a certain region of the anatomy, and he can’t go any further. At first, I thought he’d been aroused by the act of running a cloth along the length of the young body, on whose beauty he had earlier remarked, but it’s revealed that the deceased was trans-gender. A delicate dilemma (should the corpse be made-up as a man or a woman?) and the ensuing squabbles amongst the relatives are played for uneasy laughter—laughter that just isn’t there.
There was a brief spell in the late 1980s when Michelle Pfeiffer had me completely enamored. Granted, our romance lasted only two films, Married to the Mob and The Fabulous Baker Boys, but that is longer than some romances last, whether onscreen or in life.
I haven’t seen either movie for well over ten years; I’ve no idea if I would recognize in them now what spoke to me so clearly then, but in the summer of ’88, seeing Married to the Mob, what would prove to be Jonathan Demme’s last film of pure delight before he turned falsely serious, became almost a weekly ritual, with me slipping into matinees six or seven times. In retrospect, it may have been the animus between Mercedes Ruehl and Dean Stockwell that kept me coming back for more, and most of what gave Mob its kick—its subliminal weirdness, such as the Chris Isaak robbery sequence—had nothing to do with Pfeiffer. Nonetheless, the actress stopped being merely pretty when she worked with Demme and later with Steve Kloves in his valentine to jazz obscurity: she became interesting, too, and . . .