Thursday, December 18, 2008

The passion of Jean-Claude

I really liked JCVD. So what? In part, I place emphasis on this evaluation because, first, it's a flawed film my affection for which, I freely admit, might not outweigh its failings; and second, I have no particular interest in Jean-Claude Van Damme as either actor or celebrity persona, or in the action films he made in the 1980s or 1990s. A very odd metafilm, JCVD tells the story of a frustrated Van Damme, at the end of his tether with flagging movie offers and a child custody case stemming from his divorce (both of these have parallels with the star's actual life). This dash of realism is countered with a healthy offering of movie fantasy: Jean-Claude, in Belgium in order, apparently, "to get back to his roots," needs to wire money back to his lawyers in Los Angeles so the custody case can proceed. Thus he ends up in a bank; more improbably, he ends up in the center of a bank heist. (The cops think he's the one orchestrating it, and the real robbers use this misconception to their advantage).

As a critique of celebrity culture, JCVD has some apt, if slightly obvious, observations (one of the police chiefs sees himself as a supporting star in a Van Damme vehicle; in countering the action genre's tendency to represent Arabs as terrorists, the Arab characters - who comment upon this stereotype in the film - could not be further from villainy). In most hands, these ideas are simply platitudes, but the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, includes them with a touch light enough to allow them to register emotionally. More affecting, however, is his style in relation to Van Damme himself. Of these, the most remarkable is the film's opening sequence, which begins with an exquisite long take depicting the filming of a Van Damme action sequence, paired on the soundtrack with Curtis Mayfield's 70s classic Hard Times. No shot like this exists in any Van Damme film that I am aware of: unlike the fantasies of action cinema, which depict their attractions and stunts through the kind of invisible editing that hides the reality of their construction, and their dependence on real human bodies, El Mechri hear lets us see Van Damme as that very real body, at times comically unable to perform, at 47 years of age, the ridiculous feats his (largely disinterested) diegetic director is asking him to perform. The shot, for me, in summing up what turned out to be the major theme of the film, was incredibly moving, moreso than any of the younger Van Damme's "feats" likely would have been.

In some respects, this opening long take is the best thing in the movie. Perhaps this is because it sums up poetically what the rest of film sometimes communicates through a more prosaic rhetoric. In fact, at one point Van Damme himself becomes a rhetor. In a temps mort during the robbery, Van Damme sits with the other hostages. Suddenly, a crane, with the camera attached, raises Van Damme into the air, and the viewer, is reminded (if indeed it has been forgotten in such a reflexive film) that this is a movie, and Van Damme is a movie star. What follows is more surprising: a seven-minute sequence in which "Van Damme himself"addresses the audience, and pours out his heart on a variety of topics (stardom, obviously, but also America, his movies, violence, mortality, among other things). As Van Damme himself has suggested in a press conference about JCVD:

The movie is in French, so I don't know if it's going to be that big. It is going to be subtitled, so the German people or the American people or the Japanese people will not see the same...but they'll see the feeling! They'll see a feeling, because when I talk up there it doesn't make too much sense except in my crazy head. In it, this is something real. (Qtd. in Christoph Huber, "Time & The Hour: For the Melancholy Mastery of Jean-Claude Van Damme," in Cinemascope 36, Fall 2008, 37).

El Mechri clearly loves Van Damme's films. Even though I do not share the same love, I understand what he, and Van Damme in this quote, seem to be getting at. The narrative sense of films like Van Damme has made are not the reasons they are beloved by audiences. (Are they even beloved by audiences? El Mechri seems to think so, and perhaps they are in Belgium. Certainly films like them are beloved nearly everywhere). This is a film which mounts its appreciation of Van Damme through a critique of the star culture which has apparently sold him short, and, further, does this through a feeling rather than a narrative sense (it has a narrative, of course, but it's less compelling than the film's remarkable attractions, two of which are the opening long take and the soliloquy I've already mentioned). At one point in the film Van Damme's action pictures are defended as "pure," and this, I think, is not a defense of their stories, but rather of their spectacular stunts and attractions (surely one of the attractions of Van Damme is the fact that he did his own stunts), of the authentic display of the body which lies buried in the visual sleights of these films. JCVD has merit because it locates in the arduous physicality of these attractions a genuine desire to connect with audiences; it is thus no mistake that Van Damme's seven-minute oratory is capped with the "Muscles from Brussels" showcasing his spectacular physique for the camera. But at the same time the film is aware that such gestures turn Van Damme into an object: the film constantly places the Muscles into situations that call for his action persona to kick into high gear (indeed, many of the sequences in the bank feature Van Damme "practicing" his famous high kick for the hostages and one of the robbers) and then denies us the attraction it would seem to promise. The film, and the star, seem to be asking us to understand the idea of the action attraction before giving into it again: to pair heart with head.

In turn, JCVD's own flaws can be measured through the extent to which it pairs, and at times fails to match, its obvious heart for Van Damme with a head. In other words, not everything is thought through: the inclusion of Mayfield's Hard Times, for example, while a great aesthetic pairing to the groovy opening sequence, opens up questions about the link between Van Damme's travails and the trials of African-Americans in the 1970s that nothing which follows answers (it goes without saying that I don't think this parallel holds any water anyway; I think El Mechri is just riffing off of Tarantino's po-mo love for similar music from the period). More appropriate, aesthetically and thematically, is Marie Mazziotti's cover of David Bowie's 80s hit "Modern Love," which plays over the film's closing credits. Like Mazziotti's cover of Bowie's over-polished, but deeply felt, original, JCVD finds real heart in what at first seemed to be empty artifice.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Desplechin's births and deaths

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale recently opened in the United States after a celebrated premiere at Cannes. To my mind, it falls just short of the exhilaration I felt after experiencing Descplechin's deft weaving of interlocking narratives in Kings and Queen (2005). A Christmas Tale, by contrast, is often more exhausting than exhilarating, and at times more tiring (given how much story and cinematic texture he has packed into the film) than moving. But it has left me with just as much to chew on, and will no doubt justify repeat viewings.

A Christmas Tale winds its way around different narrative trajectories all centered around the bourgeois Vuillard family. The family's matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is dying of cancer, and much of the story is about her search for a bone marrow match within her family. The most promising match turns out to be Henri (the always wonderful Mathieu Almaric), her troubled son who has been estranged from the family's daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) for some time. Patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillion) organizes a family get-together that will finally bring all of the siblings together again for the first time in years. The family remains haunted by the death of a younger sibling, Joseph, who is seen only in photographs, his life arrested in a still image within a film so rich with movement and variety.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, A Christmas Tale would easily become another piece of Hollywood holiday detritus, in which everything is resolved at the end as familial disturbances are ironed out. The possibility of continued disturbance remains vitally alive at the end of Desplechin's film, however, although it does achieve some measure of resolution. In large part, I would say the film is about the founding myths we use to make sense of our past experience (which in the story involves, of course, the past experience of the family itself). A passage from Irving Signer's recent book Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy and Film gets at what I mean:

As we all know, many examples of superb mythmaking occur in operas between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Film goes further: it transfers the mythological representation out of the theater and into the realm of nature and society, where it still takes place aesthetically but can now be observed as if it duplicated what we might encounter in our commonplace immersion in the everyday world of sight and sound. (Singer, Cinematic Mythmaking, 7)

Singer's book is about those stories we immediately recognize as myths: Pygmalion, Orpheus. A Christmas Tale is more about the myths we create to endure our more prosaic, everyday experience, and Desplechin shows how such mythmaking emerges "in the everyday world of sight and sound" of the Vuillards (without ever allowing their bourgeois haunt to become "naturalized" through any kind of classical filmmaking strategy). Death hangs over all of the characters; it is a part of the family's history, and in this way young Joseph becomes a kind of founding myth, explaining the family's tribulations and disappointments. Family history haunts characters in other ways, too: Elizabeth's son Paul (Emile Berling) has recently been institutionalized for a mental disturbance, and he sees parallels with both Henri and the other Vuillard brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who suffered a mental breakdown at Paul's age. But as Elizabeth affirms in the film's final scene, the film is ultimately about the search for new familial myths through which to explain experience, once the old ones become oppressive and stifling. Desplechin makes this clear enough through some of the films he cites (films that, at various moments in film history, breathed new poetic life into old stories): the poster for The New World appears late in the film, prior to the final scene; and The Ten Commandments, viewed on the family's television during Christmas Eve, becomes less about the link between Judaism and Christianity and more about the family finding its own sense of rebirth and rejuvenation, and discovering that their family could be otherwise.

Desplechin's play with the fragments of cinema's past suggests a larger meaning at work. I don't want to burden such a delicate film as A Christmas Tale with heavy allegorical significance (although J. Hoberman is right when he calls the director a "maximalist": despite Desplechin's craft-like attention to detail, this is a film that is dense enough to call for sweeping interpretations, too, some kind of frame which might make sense of its richness). But it is, alas, on some level about the birth, death, and rebirth of cinema. Deneuve herself is, of course, a glowing sign of the cinematic history Desplechin both honors and inflects here, and like other Desplechin characters she, in one scene, self-reflexively acknowledges the presence of the audience. In one sequence she literally glows: as a doctor samples her bone marrow, Desplechin bathes Deneuve in white light, as if regarding her, and the related New Wave history the film so lovingly builds upon, as very nearly sacred. In a corresponding moment, in the film's penultimate sequence, Almaric's Henri gives the bone marrow which might save Junon's life, and he is lit in a similar glow. Is Desplechin suggesting that Almaric's star will eventually be passed from Deneuve's, thus carrying on the history of cinema that so many have presumed dead?

Obviously, this question, at least for Desplechin, is answered from the start: no director and no film this vitally alive could even entertain the question of cinema being "dead." Such are the pleasures of this delicate, finely observed film that nonetheless allows its characters to talk to the audience and refer to themselves metacinematically as "shadows." It is to Desplechin's enormous credit that this meditation on film and life never feels forced or pretentious, but utterly organic. Kings and Queen may ultimately be the more enduring film, the one I turn to to explain to neophytes what Desplechin's all about, but this is still one of the best films of the year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A time for history

Two films I saw over the long Thanksgiving weekend - Australia and Milk - are linked by an interest in history, although the approach of each is distinct. In part this is because of the divergent styles of the two auteurs involved. Baz Luhrmann's Australia is a postmodern spectacle trafficking in the star personas of his charismatic leads (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman), while Gus Van Sant's Milk dramatizes the life of the gay activist Harvey Milk and bases that dramatization upon Milk's own words about his life. Both are suprisingly conventional genre entries (the historical melodrama and the biopic, respectively) from two unconventional filmmakers, but Milk, to my mind, succeeds much more than Luhrmann's film and for reasons directly pertaining to its approach to its subject matter.

Australia is the first of Luhrmann's films to be situated within a discrete moment in history. (One could argue that Strictly Ballroom is somehow a depiction of 1980s Australia, although I think it is less interested in that period in and of itself and more in using elements of that period for its own pastiche). Titles appearing before and after the narrative clearly indicate Luhrmann's intention to say something relatively objective (and only objective relative to his previous films) about the situation of Aboriginals in Australia before and during World War II. Treated as little more than slaves, aboriginal children, whose mixed race threw into confusion the nation's self-identity, were removed from their homes and placed in shelters so as to guarantee that they would not procreate with members of the white race. The film is narrated by the half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and titles which frame the story suggest the extent to which the film is interested in establishing its drama as a historically valid representation of the Aboriginal experience. That the balance of the film is mostly concerned with the Kidman/Jackman romance, however, should come as no surprise. What links Australia more closely with Luhrmann's previous films, however, is its insistence that we can use pop culture as different ways of responding to our experiences: at repeated intervals in the film Nullah whistles the theme to The Wizard of Oz, and when he is later depicted watching the film in an open-air theater in the outback, it suggests that the young boy is using American popular culture as a means to articulate his desire for an existence free of oppression. More globally, what Luhrmann seems to be suggesting is that our tendency to communicate through our understanding of the popular forms we know best is in fact a means of storytelling that can convey our own cultural histories. There's not anything terribly revealing about this idea, as anyone who has taken a Cultural Studies course in the last ten years can tell you. What's so strange about Australia, though, is that this young boy's joy in poaching popular culture is not echoed by Luhrmann in the making of the film itself: usually quick to invigorating, emotionally invested pastiche, in Australia Luhrmann, rather than delighting in the play with style so evident in Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, is content to use the template of the historical melodrama rather straightforwardly and conventionally. The film feels as if Luhrmann simply watched Titantic and then wanted to remake it, albeit in a slightly different register. This is part of the reason I never felt Nullah's delight in storytelling as I was watching the film.

Milk is more successful. The film mixes documentary images of San Francisco in the 1970s with a fictional account of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay activist who rose to prominence as city supervisor near the end of the decade. While the film builds inexorably to the moment of Milk's assassination, Van Sant, to his credit, does not allow the film to end on this note. Instead, the film ends with the words of Milk himself, as spoken by Penn, allowing Van Sant's effort to end on a note of optimism (one which is made automatically more ambivalent given the film's release at a time when civil rights have been revoked from gays in California during the most recent election). Certain images - such as the film's opening montage of photographs of gays and lesbians holding their hands in front of their face in order not to be photographed - suggests that the histories of these individuals have not yet been told through images, but rather policed through them. This is one of the reasons why Van Sant's carefully crafted biopic feels so revelatory and liberating; it invests a traditional form (the political biopic, let's call it) with emotional and thematic significance it has not historically been given (enhanced further by the fact that Milk's own account of the events depicted serves as the film's structural lynchpin). Further, Van Sant delights in showing us how Milk's followers use images to advance their own agenda (as with My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant is as intereted in photography as he is in cinema). This is in contrast to the superficially playful Australia, which insists on the ability of different peoples to use culture to their advantage within a film stodgily replicating a tired, traditional form of mainstream culture.