So one of my New Years Resolutions that I sort of actually want to keep was to write on this here tumblr about every movie I saw. I kind of fell apart on that with travel and post-travel depression, unless I had a lot to say about something specific, so this is part 1 of a mass-post about movies I’ve seen and not yet written about in my “movies I saw in 2012" tag.
- Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000): I saw this in preparation for The Hunger Games, which, more later. The political world isn’t as well developed and it mostly reads as an excuse for just really exploitative alternating teen violence and sentimentality. Which is actually great.
- A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011): So good. Such a great movie. This movie is an amazing rejoinder to anyone who ever questions the idea that the personal is political. But you know, it’s actually political. It’s about an upper middle class Iranian couple who’ve filed for divorce, because the woman wants to emigrate and the man doesn’t, and they can’t agree which parent their daughter should live with. It starts in court, with the couple talking to the camera in place of the judge. This is basically like a signal for you, the viewer, that you’re going to try to be in the position of the judge, sorting through the truth of a situation you’re watching unfold. There’s a lot more time in court, as the woman that the man’s hired to care for his ailing father accuses him of pushing her, causing her to miscarry her baby, but the movie holds back from giving you a lot of final answers; by the time you’ve seen the way things move through the system you’re not sure that the truth really matters so much. I mean, the movie doesn’t lie to you about some of the questions – did the man know she was pregnant when he pushed her out of the house? Can the woman be sure that this fall caused her miscarriage? – but adding information doesn’t make it any more clear what the “just” solution to the situation is. Or whether there can be one, at all. I really should’ve written more at the time, I could talk about this for so long.
- A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011): I am still not really sure if I liked this or not. There were some bits that were very good and some bits that were less good. Fassbender’s performance was great - his screen presence seemed so coiled and repressed and kind of painfully neat - and I liked the way in the early scenes the camera struggled to keep both Carl and Sabina in focus, and also the class awkwardness between Freud and Jung. I didn’t like Knightley’s performance as much. I know they wanted it to be big and awkward but it didn’t sit with the rest of the movie. The real thing it wanted, given the subject matter, was something more visceral. Cronenberg’s great at visceral - but for some reason he decided to go the “letter writing and awkward spanking” storytelling route.
- Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011): So this really wasn’t very good, huh? It was weird seeing it so soon after A Dangerous Method, because it really convinced me that Michael Fassbender is at his best playing containment (or androids). He’s really good at conveying control and struggle and a kind of coiled underlying sexuality – his whole persona seems so neat and polite but simultaneously tense and dangerous. But in this one it falls off when he’s meant to lose control and really fall apart. It still felt, for me, like he was holding back. I liked Carey Mulligan in it, and I liked the cinematography but it just felt really empty. Like critique without a real object, if that makes sense.
- Beginners (Mike Mills, 2011): I liked this way more than I expected to. I kind of wished the story was more Christopher Plummer oriented because those parts were great. I don’t have a lot to say about it, I liked it, I thought it was sweet, I liked that the story itself was explicitly political and set during “the Bush era” without being a Bush Era Movie.
- Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011): I pretty much don’t have anything to say about this. I don’t know how to talk about dance, or dance films. It was an amazing experience, just lots of strong bodies doing amazing things and interacting in funny, warm, beautiful, new-seeming ways. You should see it.
- Friends With Kids (Jennifer Westfeldt, 2012): [This is basically some notes I wrote up at the time the movie came out that I never published for some reason but I stand by all of it.] OKAY so first off: I don’t care about Jennifer Westfeldt’s face. Yes, she’s obviously “had work done” (that’s a phrase full of stuff) - and doesn’t look a lot like she did in Kissing Jessica Stein. And I get it, faces are part of acting. But like, I, whatever. Deal with her face, everyone. Deal with her lack of realness.
Otherwise, the movie, it was fine. It was a laidback movie for adults about adult problems. I like a lot of the actors – really, I can watch Jon Hamm play a jerk forever, he is so good at it, plus I basically can’t stop thinking about how great Maya Rudolph is at all times – but this was never going to get nominated for 100 Oscars. It’s a nice romantic comedy about some people who make some unconventional choices and try to make up a story for themselves about how their choices will work because they’re so different from everyone else, and in the end the story they tell themselves doesn’t quite work, because feelings don’t work that way exactly. The result, as with all these romantic comedies where people try to remake sex/friendship/family in a way that works better for them, is still fundamentally conservative, which is a disappointment because it seems for a minute like it maybe won’t be.
I know complaining about the ideology of romantic comedies is tedious – this is why I don’t usually watch them, because I always want to complain about their ideologies – but bear with me! There’s a real thing here. After the leads tell their friends about their plan (to have a baby together without actually being a couple and kind of avoid the disasters), Maya Rudolph’s character tells her husband that it’s “offensive to our way of life.” Her husband makes fun of her and at the time, you’re like, what is she talking about. But she turns out to be right, in that the whole arrangement does kind of wind up being a mess. And “offensive to our way of life” is, if not the kind of thing someone would say about friends trying out an unconventional family arrangement, it is the kind of thing social conservatives still say about same sex marriage.
- The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (Marie Losier, 2011): Ugh, I wish I’d written about this at the time. It’s about the marriage of Genesis P-orridge and her wife Lady Jaye. Genesis was born a man and had a pretty important career as an artist and musician before falling in love with Lady Jaye. They embarked on a project to get plastic surgery to make themselves a single, pandrogynous identity. You notice Genesis always uses “We” not “I” as her pronoun. Lady Jaye unexpectedly died in 2007, but long before that the couple had invited Losier into their lives to film them and document their work. The whole thing is beautiful, if a bit unsettling. I spent the first 15 minutes waiting for the sound to really sync up before I realized it never would. I kind of clued into what was happening when Genesis started talking about how important cut-ups had been to her artistically. The effect is pretty important, I think, to the subject because it’s a way of presenting things that’s not ordinary or comfortable or easy but it’s still, like, a thing.
- The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012): I am pretty sure that every possible aspect of The Hunger Games has been thoroughly covered by the internet, but, re Katniss’s race, I wouldn’t minded if they’d cast a woman of colour as Katniss but I feel like her being white is a totally fair reading of the book and if they were going to cast a white girl, that Jennifer Lawrence was a perfect white girl to cast. I read the books right before I saw the movie, which probably coloured the way I watched the film. I thought a lot of the ways they changed it from the book worked well — in terms of adding some of the outside political drama that would be revealed in the sequels, in terms of making the game master a bit more of a character. But I think the biggest loss in stepping out of just Katniss’s perspective was that great way that the books portrayed her relationship with Peeta, in her uncertainty about how much of their “romance” was her performing for the cameras for her literal survival and how much of it was her actual feelings. I know that the Hunger Games type of story isn’t new (The Running Man, Battle Royale, etc. etc.) but the way that Collins told it is, I think, essentially new, because it’s about having to live in public to survive, and how awful it is to be socially and economically rewarded for just playing into the role they want, for being the girl who loves a boy instead of the girl who was on fire, for spinning in your dress and laughing. I feel like that kind of confusion, it’s not limited to dystopian societies where teenage bloodsport is televised. It’s kind of how we all live.
- Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Duplass bros, 2011): Okay, I kind of loved this movie. It starts with a totally stoned Jason Segel making a recording for himself recounting the plot of Signs (the M Night Shyamalan film) in total awe. I love that. Signs is kind of a terrible movie, but I love that awe. Segel and Helms were both great - it was nice to see comedians doing a movie that stretched them beyond the usual Apatow mode without actually sacrificing what’s good about them both. And just now I was thinking about how their mom winds up Thelma and Louise-ing it with a lady from her office and then I remembered that their mom was Susan Sarandon and I was like whoa. Signs-like awe.
- Tales of Hoffman (Powell/Pressburger, 1951): We rented this right after we saw the Canadian Opera Company production of Hoffman. I like Tales of Hoffman a lot, as an opera, because of the ways it kind of seems obsessed with working through 19th century anxieties about female independence and what the coming modernity meant to romantic male genius. The whole thing is this poet getting drunk and telling the bar full of people about 3 women he knows, while he waits for a fourth, his lover, an opera singer, to finish her performance. The first, Olympia, is an actual mechanical girl that he gets fooled into falling in love with. She sings with consummate, virtuosic skill, but then she likes dancing too much and basically musics herself apart, which is more or less sexualized depending on how it’s staged. The second, Giulietta (this one is actually last in the stage version we saw but is second in the movie, apparently it was never performed in Offenbach’s lifetime and the order’s somewhat disputed), is a prostitute who seduces Hoffman and steals his reflection (capturing and owning his image like a camera, kind of). The fact that she’s basically herself a commodity too, and ends up by just selling herself to someone else is probably a thing as well, the idea that love isn’t love, that muses aren’t muses. (There is actually a muse, disguised as his friend, who follows him through all this, but she mostly just rolls her eyes at his dumb bullshit.) The last one, Antonia is the most interesting. The deal with Antonia is that her mom was a brilliant opera singer who died from some disease, which Antonia now has, so her father has forbidden her to sing without telling her why. Hoffman wants to marry her and figures out what’s up so he says basically when they get married she can’t sing anymore. But this sorcerer comes and basically is like “Why should you give up your genius for domesticity?” and seduces her into singing again, which of course kills her in a made blaze of musical glory. It’s pretty fantastic. The Archers version feels very stagebound — it was made in postwar Britain, a time when there were probably also lots of anxieties about female independence — really emphasizing the artificial, using puppets, obviously dubbing Moira Shearer’s singing.