Friday, February 10, 2006


LAST DAYS Directed by Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant’s Gerry set two characters (both referred to as Gerry, played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) on a hypnotically minimalist road to discovery, the thing discovered being their ultimate existential (and physical) dead-end. The troubled, troubling Elephant followed in Gerry’s path, revealing the former to be not a warm-up for the latter Cannes prizewinner, but a stylistically important piece in its own right, and one free of the societal baggage of Elephant’s hot-button subject matter—the murderous impulses lying just below the placid surface of a Portland, Oregon high school-- that ultimately informed and effected that film’s similarly unblinking, long-take style.

In the final piece in Van Sant’s triptych of death, Last Days, shot, as were the other two, by brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides (who is also responsible for the cinematography on display in Birth), there is no movement toward death (Gerry) or examining the environments in which it dwells, sleeping (Elephant). Instead, in chronicling the last days of an irredeemably disconnected rock star (based, obviously enough, on Kurt Cobain), Van Sant makes it clear from the beginning that death’s blanket has already been tossed over the head of his muttering protagonist (Michael Witt), suffocation being not a matter of if but of when. It’s a strategy that at times seems heartbreakingly honest—there is some strange, cold comfort to be had in seeing the musician shuffling about his wooded mansion environs with no appreciable place to go, as if he were swimming freely, and for the first time in his life with some perverse satisfaction, in the churning waters of his own disorientation and muffled sensory perception.

But for all of Van Sant’s haunted tableaux and penetratingly askew sound design (mirroring and mutating the creative impulses soon to be tamped into submission inside the musician’s soul), Last Days ultimately seems the least satisfying of the three aurally-visually experimental features. It substitutes the forward thrust (is “thrust” too strong a word for the languid movement of these films?) of Elephant and Gerry, and Gerry’s openness to the texture and beauty and terror of environment, and to a streak of very dry gallows humor as well, for a very restricted sense of movement—there is no wandering the desert or the halls of a high school here and despite a very tactile and satisfying dive into a nearby creek to lead off the film, Van Sant’s Cobain stand-in has, before the film’s first frame, already been closed off to natural joy or outside influence. He’s incapable of meaningful, or even meaningless connection with other human beings-- there’s a shiveringly funny sequence in which he engages in-- or rather submits to—a presentation by a phone book ad salesman who seems either unaware of unconcerned with just how gone his potential customer really is. He sits across from the salesman in a silk nightgown and tattered fur housecoat, muttering rote responses, not even nodding, until the salesman lets himself out, finally convinced there’s nothing to be gained by continuing the pitch.

But rather than lend sorrow or depth to his last days, the film comes to resemble watching a dying rat as it meanders about in its cage, waiting for it to draw its last breath. There’s perverse interest in that, to be sure, but just as perversely Van Sant has ensured that it does not resonate meaningfully. The director has surrendered to this deadpan observation much of what made the far richer Gerry (a masterpiece) and the flawed, fascinating Elephant interesting, even if taken only as a simple stylistic exercises—the recognizably human element. Last Days is a spectacle of waiting death, with a chipmunk wrapped in night clothes and a furry shroud at its ethereal, hushed center.

CAPOTE Directed by Bennett Miller

Philip Seymour Hoffman embodies the tic-ridden, ready for TV-panel personality of journalist-author Truman Capote probably better than could ever be expected, and the performance, more successful even than Jamie Foxx’s much lauded embodiment of Ray Charles, moves beyond mere impersonation because Capote isn’t yoked to the first act (humble beginnings)-second act (rise to fame)-third act (crumbling life)-epilogue (set back on the road to redemption) structure of the more routine and typical Ray or this year’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. In fact, though it has been characterized as one by a press looking for readily acceptable generalizations which with to fuel endless Sunday think pieces, Capote isn’t really a biopic at all. When it begins, Capote, fresh off Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is already enjoying and exploiting his celebrity, holding captive audiences at cocktail parties in sway to his seductively funny, culturally condescending raconteur act. The greatest success of Hoffman’s performance may be that the actor eventually transcends the severe self-consciousness of having to affect that voice and those exaggerated mannerisms, that after a span of about 10 minutes, after only one round of alcohol-spiked anecdotes and wry observations, he forces us to get beyond our own discomfort with that voice and those mannerisms, to fight our natural inclination, so many years after the author’s enshrinement on the talk-show circuit and his death, to look at Capote as anything but a cartoon, a David Frye sketch-in-waiting.

The use to which Capote puts its titular subject, however, is, in its own way, just as routine as those of a biopic’s. The film chronicles Capote’s growing interest (with the help of voice-of-conscience Harper Lee, essayed with equal, far less showy brilliance, by Catherine Keener) in the murders of a Kansas family, the Clutters, and, eventually, in the two drifters, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who come to be held, tried and put on death row for those murders. As Capote begins to befriend (and perhaps fall in love with) Smith (subtly, powerfully played by Cliftons Collins), he also initiates writing the “nonfiction novel” account of the case and the killers’ fates which becomes In Cold Blood. He quickly realizes that in order for his book to be completed, Smith and his partner must die. But Capote’s celebrity status and closeness to his subjects may also be contributing to the killers’ repeated stays of execution. Left with a choice of supporting Smith or painfully distancing himself from the killer and (tacitly) refusing to help him with outside legal representation, Capote, with much gnashing of teeth and inner turmoil made readily visible for the art house audience, chooses what’s good for his art and (it is implied) pays with his soul—we’re informed that after finishing In Cold Blood, Capote would never finish another book. Capote is well-written and constructed (by Dan Futterman) and tastefully, if none-too-imaginatively directed (by Bennett Miller), but never with enough of Capote’s true tartness or bitchiness as a personality, or his relentless probing intelligence as a writer to truly elevate the proceedings. We’re left with an entertaining, somewhat overly modulated “true-life” wrinkle on the same kinds of journalistic ethical questions covered many times before, sometimes with much more savvy and sharpness (The Front Page and, especially, His Girl Friday), sometimes with much less (Absence of Malice). I ended up looking at Capote in much the same way I ended up looking at Hoffman’s Capote—with much respect and appreciation, but little enduring spark of interest and investigation, and with few of the kinds of questions that might be inspired by a work of genuine, lasting depth.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK Directed by George Clooney

Another historical drama, George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Good Night, and Good Luck, chronicling the clash between seminal television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and anti-communist zealot Senator Joseph McCarthy (himself, courtesy of kinescope recordings), is a far more satisfying film, visually and narratively. The screenplay (written by Clooney and Heslov, and directed by Clooney, who also plays CBS News head honcho Fred Friendly) chronicles a chapter in American journalism which has been widely documented, its heroes (Murrow and many others) widely celebrated, its villains (McCarthy, crony Roy Cohn and others) duly vilified. And, strangely, the movie itself is being celebrated in some circles (perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is one of them) for its bravery in “taking on” McCarthyism, as if it were some virulent new political phenomenon. Actually, while dramatically compelling, if the movie were only “about” Murrow and McCarthy, or about the legacy of a broadcasting system that has fallen far from anything resembling the high-mindedness of Murrow’s concerns, it would, at least to me, be still satisfying, simply less so.

Clooney’s facility with the camera (assisted by ace director of photography Robert Elswit, who has rendered the movie all silken black and white and the infinity of shades in between, through a constant haze of cigarette smoke and fluorescent light) and with staging that sometimes approach the Altmanesque is something to be reckoned with-- the nuts and bolts of what happened to lay the groundwork for these two towering figures of recent American history coming to figurative blows is, after all, riveting stuff and Clooney's craft is well applied to it. But on the surface the movie might be just a little too self-contained; while it never really indulges in it to a degree approaching irritation, there is a whiff of self-satisfaction about this group of filmmakers who would seek cultural applause for “taking on” the House Un-American Activities Committee. What really makes Clooney’s movie fly, however, is his admirable insistence on the parallels between McCarthy’s government of political suppression, of guilt by association, of bulldozing machismo aggression, all gilded by a “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” sensibility, and the current administration’s swaggering truck with all of the above. It is one thing for a history lesson to ultimately say that, without vigilance, history may end up repeating itself. Clooney girds his fascinating dramatic entertainment by asserting that history has repeated itself, and wondering aloud whether there’s anyone, in broadcasting or in the general citizenry, willing to try to shake the foundations of an administration ostensibly constructed on moral certitude that has since revealed its own self-righteous belligerence and disregard for simple truth. The hopefulness, and the weariness, of Murrow’s signature “Good night, and good luck” thus becomes a haunting refrain indeed.

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