Thursday, January 19, 2012


Dearest Tree Housers of Life:

Great to be back with Dennis, Sheila and Jason -- and to welcome new pledges Boone and Simon. (No Animal House hazing, Dennis!) I'd forgotten how great the view is from up here. Why, you can see all the way to early 2011! Or is that Catalina?

Let me start off by saying that never before in my 40-or-so years of professional and non-professional year-end movie-list-making can I recall so little of interest from the major Hollywood studios. While several of my favorites were produced or distributed by (semi-)autonomous "dependents" (Focus Features, a division of NBC Universal; Fox Searchlight, a division of 20th Century-Fox; Sony Classics, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment), when the year was up I had only one serious studio candidate for my top films of the year, and that was the Columbia Pictures release Moneyball. (And if you've read about how that one eventually got made, it was more like an indie directed by Bennett Miller and protected from executive interference by the star/producer clout of Brad Pitt. Some of Soderbergh's planned, but studio-vetoed, improvisational freshness remains.)

Regarding Boone's and Jason's comments about A----- W----, the self-publicist whose name I long ago stopped mentioning in public because 1) getting mentioned is his only reason for writing; 2) he has nothing to say; and 3) there's no reason for anyone beyond the insignificant number of people who already know who he is to know who he is: I'll just let one item from his recent facile "better-than" list speak for itself: "Film Socialisme > The Tree of Life: Godard pinpoints outmoded media and politics, defying Terrence Malick’s arty navel-gazing. Relevance vs. Irrelevance." Think what you will about Godard's or Malick's latest, you'll get nothing of substance about them from AW. As you can see, language has no meaning here, because AW has no desire to marshall evidence, to persuade or to be understood, merely to assert the imagined supremacy of his own specious, knee-jerk careerism/contrarianism.

As Boone says, a company that peddles crap like Transformers: Dark of the Moon should indeed be considered "as unconscionable a polluter and exploiter as Walmart." And, I would add, self-proclaimed reviewers who debase critical standards and language itself the way MichaelBayJerryBruckheimer debase cinematic language are equally culpable. AW is just Ben Lyons with a contemptuous following that consists almost entirely of New York critics and bloggers who like to snicker at him and feel superior to his incessant, defensive claims of superiority over everyone else.

Oh dear. Did I just waste two paragraphs on this antiquated vaudevillian comedy act? Sorry. Moving on…

Sheila, I fell in love with all the actors in Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed Margaret, which I was fortunate enough to see even though it never played Seattle. (UPDATE: Margaret is now scheduled to open at SIFF's Uptown Theatre January 27, 2012! #teammargaret) Surely, no movie has ever loved its actors more than Margaret (and I'm not calling you "Shirley") -- not surprising, coming from playwright (This is Our Youth) and screenwriter/director (You Can Count On Me) Lonergan. He gives them so much to play in every single scene -- the volleying for control, the efforts to be understood (or willingness to be misunderstood as a form of aggression). Hardly anybody comes out and says what they mean, and even when they try, the more specific they attempt to get, the more elusive and ambivalent their real feelings and desires become. We all know the movie was shot in 2005 (when the lead, Anna Paquin, still looked like a teenager), and got mired in post-production and contractual disputes until 2011 (they're still not resolved). But of the new theatrical releases I saw this last year, I'd put Paquin at the top for (as they say at SAG) "Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role," and Jeannie Berlin for "Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role," followed by Allison Janney and J. Smith-Cameron.

For "Outstanding Performance by a Cast," it would be a tough call indeed (a tie!) between the fiery Margaret and the cool, underplayed (but equally subtle), male-dominated cast of Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I fell in love with Alfredson's movie because of the way it looks, and the precision and imagination with which it is directed and designed. What I didn't expect was how deeply the performances would move me: Gary Oldman (his finest mature work ever?), John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, David Dencik (look for him as the young cop in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Kathy Burke ("My boys. My beautiful boys…"), Amanda Fairbank-Hynes…

Tinker Tailor is my choice (and many of my film-critic friends' for best English language movie of the year -- a movie that demands and rewards close study (espionage is, in essence, the study of human behavior as if under a microscope), since that's what it's about. (I like to imagine it on a double-bill with another impeccable epistemological period thriller, Zodiac.) Jason has a beautiful appreciation of it here that gets to the heart of the movie: "The complexities of the plot are reason enough to see the movie (at least) twice, but there’s also this: Among other things, Tinker Tailor is actually about the act of reexamination, the discovery of new details through a second look at the familiar." Beautifully said.

As for The Tree of Life, I'm afraid it did not stick with me. When I saw it a second time, it seemed a much less mysterious and open-ended experience. The prayerful voiceovers refer fairly directly (even literally) to what's on-screen (it's just that the first time through you don't know who's who), and the white-light-on-the-beach ending feels like an embarrassment of cliches. As a scholarly cinephiliac friend said, in horror: "It was like going to church!" And not in a liberating way, but in a punishing, stifling way. Yes, I love the Waco passages in the middle, and I'm not arguing that the movie should have been more conventional; I'm saying I think it stumbles when it is most conventional (or stale, trite) -- as in the portrayal of the dinosaurs and the adult Jack's wanderings in the wasteland, both urban and (super-)natural.

Is Tree of Life a skillfully ambiguous, create-your-own-meaning movie? Or just a mess? (I'd say it has less justification for flying apart at the end than Margaret, the last hour of which at least reflects its teenage protagonist's frenzied state of mind.) I'd love to get your responses to this particular, much-discussed moment between dinosaurs. I wrote about it here, but I'd like to know what you make of it:

Oh, and, for the record, my favorite (these are, to paraphrase Bill Haydon) emotional preferences as much as aesthetic ones) theatrical releases of 2011, because they gave me the most joy, are, in rough order of preference: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy; Asgar Farhadi's A Separation; Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff; Lars von Trier's Melancholia; Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret; Lee Chang-dong's Poetry; Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross; David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method...


Jim Emerson is a film critic whose work can be found at MSN as well as many other outlets, in print and online. He is also the Web master for Roger and presides over his own filmic domain, the influential and excellent blog Scanners.









Joel Bocko said...

Honest to God, at first I thought A----- W---- referred to Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The paragraph makes much more sense once you count the blank spots...

Joel Bocko said...

Now, that said, I think White's contrarianism actually serves a purpose, and the sample you highlight demonstrates this. It's less useful as a response to the film itself (the way he frames issues gets White attention but also undermines the better aspects of his argument) than as a response to the praise surrounding it. More than once, I've heard the film celebrated as some kind of grand artistic breakthrough, a 2001 for a new generation. As an avant-garde achievement, I think it falls flat. It has interesting moments and ideas, overall I liked the film, but it did not take me to new levels of consciousness - and I didn't see it attempting anything aesthetically or technologically that would even attempt to do so. I haven't seen Film Socialisme yet, but I've just been watching the R1 release of Histoires du cinema and even that, from 20 years ago, seems more provocative and exciting as cinematic experimentation than Tree of Life. Heck, Days of Heaven, with its more conventional narrative seems more artistically groundbreaking and viscerally effective than Tree of Life.

Not saying White doesn't need to expand on his point or excise the snark, just that I think I see where he's coming from. (In other words, this comment is less about White than Tree of Life.)

Joel Bocko said...

P.S. as for the dinosaurs - I enjoyed it, and it was a nicely eccentric touch offsetting some of the more conventional stuff. Overall the sequence seemed to be a remake-with-an-uplifting-twist of Fantasia. Funny to think Disney's vision was far more subversive (well, depending on your view; I suppose Malick is subverting our notions of a merciless and cruel physical universe, but his notions of natural grace and mercy seem more a philosophical regression than a progression, for better or worse).