21 February 2009

King Salmon

When the big studios fail you, you have to go independent, or if not independent the dusky tracking shot of the Pacific Northwest that brings you into Wendy and Lucy.

All fans of Old Joy mention that the film depicts an awkwardly realistic male friendship, which we rarely see onscreen. People praise the "quiet" (I most liked the left wing radio through line). So I was attracted to the purported similarity between Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy. But I quickly came to realize that Kelly Reichardt has essentially replaced Will Oldham with a dog (ohmigosh did you know Lucy is actually Reichardt's dog in real life?!?). And the entire narrative is structured around this dog, whose rescue is Wendy's sole purpose, until she is found and promptly abandoned to the obese man (who must be okay because he drives a Prius). For that reason alone I dismissed the film.

I wonder how much of the praise for Wendy and Lucy is motivated by the present financial situation in America--it's a movie about the tough choices of poverty, choices that many more Americans might be facing soon. But I don't think current events excuse stylistic blandness or lend some kind of special gravity to Wendy's plight. The security guard's lines "You have to have a job to get a job. You have to have an address to get an address," strain too hard and lay out the director's motivations too clearly. I say you can still have fun at a recession picture--take Dinner at Eight, for example. That film is witty, sad, fast-paced, unconventionally structured and 75 years old. The only moment of levity I can recall in Wendy and Lucy is the security guard covertly handing Wendy what appears to be $16.

I think Reichardt's biggest asset as a director might be that Will Oldham is apparently willing to work on all her projects. Just the way he barks, "king salmon" blows me away. Next time, could we have the Bonnie "Prince" talk extemporaneously for 80 minutes on any topic of his choosing? Or give a Matewan-style sermon in the woods? 


WTT Top 5 Ways to Make Wendy and Lucy More Interesting:

1. Create a shocking backstory (e.g. Wendy killed the Old Joy dude with the power of her wounded glare and stole his dog)

2. Have Will Oldham rescue Wendy by telling the creepy forest vagrant a tale about wayward heavy machinery

3. Show Wendy's bus passing a car rental agency, so her failure to visit one is all the more baffling

4. Put in more symbolic graffiti (a la the "Goner" tag that Wendy passes)--perhaps a George Bush "Obey" piece

5. Conclude the film by having the black Bob Dylan kid from I'm Not There pop out in the boxcar and play Wendy a blues

All Wendy and Lucy fans can rest assured though--I saw a far worse 2008 film this week: Redbelt. You watch it and tell me if you believe "There Is Always an Escape."

Where many directors decline into mediocrity as they age, David Mamet has chosen to dive directly off a cliff into incoherent drivel. It's one thing if the direction on the action shots is hard to follow--it's another when the dialogue is so terse it becomes nonsense. I can't remember an film that combined more wooden acting with more wooden dialogue. Hearing Alice Braga's peanut butter-mouthed Brazilian pronunciation of Mamet's words was like having an old Band-Aid pulled off my skin as slowly as possible. Emily Mortimer didn't act so much as squinch her eyes in disgust at the script. I would reserve my highest praise for Chiwetel Ejiofor and say that, in brief flashes, he appeared to be sentient. Even if Mamet's characters in House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner were merely grim vessels for writerly bile, at least those films are competent. When you reach the hasty climax of Redbelt (featuring a red belt!) you will only be ashamed that you held out for as long as you did.

On the plus side, Redbelt does confirm that Tim Allen is still alive (not to mention Rebecca Pidgeon, Ricky Jay, et al).

07 February 2009

The Killers

As part of my continuing project to relive the happy days of film year 2007, I rewatched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this week. I still found the bizarre, folksy narration unnecessary but appreciated the way Andrew Dominik (IMDB shows a career arc that couldn't be more promising--Chopper to The Assassination to Cities of the Plain in 2012) built from a badass opening sequence and sustained an unbearable, paranoid tension for a good 90 minutes of the film. Never have trigger cocks been so excruciating. And, as always, I was swept off my feet by Paul Schneider, as Dick Liddil (spelled with d's not t's), sharing the wisdom that "poetry don't work on whores."

And, thanks to Criterion Collection's Eclipse series, I was able to follow up The Assassination with Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (we see how that name has always carried weight). I imagine 1949 film must have been hamstrung by a tiny budget because there are almost no set pieces, little action--it's more of a talking picture than anything else. Jesse James is killed off before he can even cut the heads off of any live snakes.

The two films are similar nonetheless because their focus is on the twisted psychology of Bob Ford. In the 60 years between the films, however, our ideas on why Bob Ford was so fucked up have changed drastically. John Ireland is the quiver-lipped assassin in Fuller's film, and he is told over and over (by Jesse James, Zee James, his "girl" Cynthy, and even a barman) that he just needs to get a plot of land and become a farmer. It is his unwillingness to "settle down" (the way a person was supposed to the 1880's or 1949) that gets him killed, but we are to believe in some semblance of a good heart inside him.

We see no such light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel potential in Casey Affleck's Ford. His inky head and sneering mouth emerge into the 2000's celebrity stalker culture. He saves cowboy novels about the James boys just as one would clip tabloid articles on the shenanigans of their favorite Hollywood stars. He doesn't kill Jesse for money to buy his lover a ring--he kills to be famous, to bag the reward, to rub shoulders with bigwigs. In 2009, he would be signed immediately to a primetime FOX reality show.

But in the 1880's, newly minted celebrities could only take to the stage.

Both films render reenactments of Jesse's killing but split decisively on Ford's reaction. In I Shot Jesse James, Ford can't pull the trigger onstage, even if it's only a blank. Ireland looks ill and haunted as he shuffles away without having fired. Affleck's Ford has no such compunction--he blazes away with a rouge on his cheeks and a demonic glint in his eyes (it is his brother Charley, playing Jesse, who finds the show unbearable). The Assassination is committed to a leading player that, with every ell-like move, will make us queasy, if not downright ill.

Given his oeuvre, it feels strange to cast Fuller as a filmmaker imposing traditional values with I Shot Jesse James. But probably he had no control over the studio's script and perhaps he had yet to find his way as a maverick director. There's no doubt that The Assassination is a truly damning mirror of contemporary culture, with more insight on how we live now than, say, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which I just streamed online and is meaningless Forrest Gump-level dreck--but congratulations to David Fincher for finding Julia Ormond alive and casting her in a major motion picture).