Monday, November 30, 2009

We Own the Night

The first time I saw James Gray's elegant genre effort We Own the Night  (2007), I thought it was functional, but derivative. The second time - shortly after seeing, and loving, Gray's 2000 effort The Yards - I was moved by the performances in We Own the Night, and even more struck by Gray's nimble classicism, a quality rivaled only in the films of Clint Eastwood (particularly Million Dollar Baby) in the last ten years.

Since I've written on Gray elsewhere on this blog, I won't crank out too many more words here. Instead, I'll point you in the direction of two other online sources on the underrated American auteur. First, an insightful interview with Ryan Stewart over at Slant Magazine. Then, a piece on We Own the Night by the blogger Oggs Cruz. Not everyone is convinced of Gray's talent - David Bordwell essentially dismissed it as something like a routine Warner Bros. cop film from the 30s, just with more sex and violence - but I'm looking forward to seeing where Gray goes from here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A History of Violence

Early in his career, David Cronenberg described his films as if they were shot from the perspective of a parasite. If his earlier works - Shivers (1975), Scanners (1981), and Video Drome (1983) - burrow inside the skin of their subjects to reveal the horrifying interiors lying underneath, his more recent A History of Violence (2005) finds its disturbing vision entirely on the play and exchange of surfaces. I don't think I've ever seen another genre film made for the U.S. film industry remain so stubbornly on the exterior of its characters, to the point that it suggests that no such interiority exists. The film is about apparently mild-mannered Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who owns a diner in a small midwestern town in Indiana, with an apparently normal wife and apparently normal kids. It turns out he has a past life he's been keeping from them, one that begins to creep back into his existence after he kills, in barely believable film-heroic fashion, two would-be killers who place the life of his employees in jeopardy during a robbery. It's an event covered by the news media, and soon an ominous Philadelphia gangster played by Ed Harris comes calling, complete with a scarred face and eye that Stall's former proclivity for violence - it's suggested he was once a member of the same criminal organization - would seem to be responsible for. Or, I should say, that Joey Cusack is responsible for, this being the name of Stall's former self, the figure he's been trying to repress in his quiet Midwestern life. The return of Fogarty prompts Stall/Cusack to confront the violent past he's been trying to hide, including a return to Philly and a confrontation with his antagonistic criminal brother, Richie Cusack (William Hurt, in a performance that was nominated for an Oscar, somewhat surprisingly in retrospect).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Serious Man

During my formative film-watching years, the Coen Brothers loomed high. Films like Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski struck me as idiosyncratic, personal visions. These were the kind of movies that led me to understand how the film image was not simply a transparent vehicle for comforting narrative information and identification with heroic protagonists, but a shaping of perspective, moral, emotional, aesthetic, and otherwise. Ultimately, I think these movies don't really deserve that much credit: they, alongside many others, inspired me to pick up Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, but they ultimately don't hold up when seen in the light of the sharpest concepts of those critics. Whatever their achievement as filmmakers, looking back, I think I just liked the Coens at that age because they made me feel smart. Before words and phrases like mise-en-scène and diegesis entered my vocabulary, before I really knew how to burrow into films, the Coens intellectualized the surface (and it was all surface, then) of my film-going experience through their quasi-cerebral attitude. And this was easy enough (and, in retrospect, not really intellectual at all), because nearly every character they filmed was a priori inferior to them, thus making their "vision" (really not a matter of  mise-en-scène, but just a product of their insufferable God complex) the only thing left to appreciate after we were through laughing at the poor saps played by Frances McDormand, Tim Robbins, and Jeff Bridges, affable performers who looked like they were having an awful lot of fun playing morons. But when I did start to think through films as something more than illustrated picture-books, the "vision" of the Coen Brothers began to look more like that of de-robed Emperors than canon-worthy film-makers.