Archive

Monthly Archives: February 2014

First published here.

Leonardo DiCaprio is The Wolf of Wall Street’s brash, frenzied centre, the generator of its deadening, relentless storm of light and heat and noise as he attempts to turn his character—stock market fraudster Jordan Belfort—inside-out in fruitless search of something worth pursuing onscreen for three hours. But despite all of DiCaprio’s desperate clamour, there is another, more arresting actor who, in a quiet, under-utilised role, holds the key to Scorsese’s latest in his series of movies about American organised crime and fraud, a series that takes in Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006).

Anyone who’s seen the television series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) should understand that Kyle Chandler is an actor of considerable power. And although as FBI agent Patrick Denham he isn’t given a great deal to do in a fairly marginal role, Denham’s meeting with Belfort aboard the latter’s 170-foot yacht gives The Wolf of Wall Street most of its few moments of effective drama, as the two men try to take each other’s measure, slowly stripping back or cutting through their respective façades until they hit raw, exposed nerves.

Chandler’s talent in his brief appearances throughout the movie is to somehow convey Denham as a man who lives within the hard, austere shell of FBI power (which, one critic has suggested, equates him with Belfort), but who nevertheless projects from within a simmering need to be part of something larger than himself. It’s something like Denham’s (perhaps unconscious) desire to connect his FBI investigation of stock manipulation to his everyday commute on the subway, a routine Belfort mocks and Scorsese depicts (rightly) in an ambivalent image of being both alienated from, but in common with, strangers. What Chandler evokes, in other words, is an attempt to commit oneself to the difficult work of being part of a shared public world, the community of which is partly built by that very commitment.

In conjuring such a capacious interiority without defining its limits, Chandler as Denham exercises a far stronger grip on the imagination than DiCaprio’s total evacuation of Belfort’s inner self (a shallow, quickly drained swamp) possibly can. This then raises the question: why is Scorsese so fascinated by Belfort, and what is the meaning of the form that fascination takes, as a repetition of his long-held obsession with a certain type of American criminal? So it’s as an alternative point of focus that Chandler’s presence holds the key to The Wolf of Wall Street, prompting us to question where, how, and why Scorsese chooses to invest his energies as a director. It is, sadly, a choice that results in this movie’s awful failure, which is of such magnitude that, like a harsh critical awakening, it’s shaken my positive judgement of both Goodfellas andCasino, movies I once strongly admired, movies with which The Wolf of Wall Street makes gestures of kinship.

Scorsese begins Belfort’s story by interrupting with a freeze-frame his depiction of a dwarf-tossing competition Belfort has arranged. Scorsese’s seizure of the image allows Belfort’s voiceover to take charge, in the same way the comically unexpected stabbing that opens Goodfellas is interrupted so that Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill can tell us: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” Is Scorsese’s point in linking the two men and their stories in this way that stock market manipulators and fraudsters like Belfort are nothing but gangsters with trading licences?

There’s definitely a resonance, in that both types of men enrich themselves by stealing from others, and impoverishing society at large as a result. But if that is what Scorsese means, then the meaning is a minor one, and blunt. So why, then, does he make such a massive investment in Belfort’s tale, and ask the same of us? The size of the investment he makes is clear in the movie’s massive incarnation of excess in all dimensions, above all in its desperate need for a kind of energy that can somehow be constantly released without at all dissipating. The investment it demands from us is to be found in the way Scorsese, and his character, Belfort, seek constantly to recruit us to the structures of the movie’s attempts at comedy, which seek our assent to Belfort’s view of things. This is nowhere clearer than the scene in which Belfort allows his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) to be the subject of a humiliating sexual exposure on camera.

Wolf_Wall_Street2Maybe, though, as I’ve heard it suggested, all of the movie’s relentless frat-boy shenanigans and more depraved immoralities are its own clever little fraud, a ploy to reveal our weakly veiled desire to partake and invest in a worldview like Belfort’s, only for the payoff to leave us empty-handed, exposed to our own hypocrisy, our superiority now shattered on the rocks of susceptibility to the promise of untrammelled greed and power that Belfort represents. From this view, the scene during Belfort’s unravelling in which he punches Naomi in the stomach is Scorsese’s empty return on our preparedness to be ‘in on the joke’ of the earlier scene in which Belfort allows Naomi to unwittingly masturbate in full view of a security camera being monitored by his hired thugs. But in comparison to, say, Michael shockingly striking Diane Keaton in The Godfather, Part Two (Francis Ford Coppola 1974), this attack of a husband on his wife feels like Scorsese extending Belfort’s own instrumentalisation of the women in the movie’s world—about whom there seems no attempt to know anything. Naomi, and Margot Robbie, both seem present so they can be used merely as props around which to amp up Belford’s unrestrained depravity.

The idea that The Wolf of Wall Street carries a sophisticated ‘trap’ for its audience who glory in Belfort’s exploits might find its strongest evidence in the final scene, in which Belfort begins to give one of his sales psychology seminars to an audience of hopefuls assembled in an Auckland hotel conference room. The movie’s last shot is from Belfort’s point of view, and shows a room of slack-jawed acolytes, hanging in suspense for the words from Belfort’s mouth that will unlock their capacity to talk and walk and live like he does. As Richard Brody writes in his second piece of advocacy for the movie, “The shot shows not just an audience, but the audience: Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves, charges us with compensating for our lack of imagination and fatal ambition through contact with the wiles of a master manipulator.”

Is Scorsese’s point throughout The Wolf of Wall Street that we all, at heart, lust after men like Belfort, or at least after the image of a life lived like the one Scorsese realises onscreen? Precisely replicating the contemptuous logic of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Richard Brody thinks so: “Scorsese, in depicting with great exuberance a sinner who, for his part, also describes his sins exuberantly, brings to light the mighty unconscious of humanity. The difference between Belfort and his victims—and between the fictionalised Belfort and his victims—is that he does what we would do but don’t, he says what we think and feel but suppress.” We of course can’t hold a filmmaker responsible for his critics, but if this kind of impoverished moral imagination is truly what Scorsese finds at the bottom of the lives of American crime and fraud he depicts here (and it seems the most likely defence of how he depicts them), then he illuminates little, shining only a cynical, juvenile, and facile light, one too weak to cut very far into anything like the inner depths of the human soul.

The charge supposedly levelled by the final shot, one that can be found elsewhere in the movie, is a weak one that fails to stick, the shot instead backfiring, becoming not a mirror of the audience in front of the screen but a projection and indictment of the sadly diminished man behind the camera. It should be our consolation, then, that The Wolf of Wall Street has arrived at the same time as David O. Russell’s movie about fraud, crime, and FBI investigation, American Hustle, the rich fullness and generosity of which can more than compensate us for Wall Street’s desiccation of human spirit.

Advertisements

First published here.

Over three years, filmmakers Lynn-Maree Milburn, Andrew De Groot, and Richard Lowenstein covered the struggle to overturn Father Bob Maguire’s forced retirement as parish priest of South Melbourne. He had held the position for four decades, becoming a moral fixture of his community, and a troubling dissident within the Church because of various stances that always placed an overriding care for other human beings above any and all doctrine upon which the power and authority of religious institutions rest.

v1GV697Jukm0hwRDYH69dw

Absolutely crucial to the significance of this documentary is its sense of improvisation. This flows mainly from the fact it was cobbled together on the run across those three years, which lends the movie an abiding quality ofroughness. The exceptions to this are the extraordinary opening montage that covers the historical development of Christianity and the Catholic Church, and odd punctuations that, in a seemingly trivial fashion, re-imagine The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman 1957) with Father Bob as the knight against John Safran as a weak-voiced Death.

These moments aside, most of the material here is captured and put together without polish: lit and composed without flair or fuss, and edited with an almost casual disregard for easy coherence of players, events, and chronology. This reflects the filmmakers’ refusal to make these players and events ‘sit still’ for a more attractive and easily grasped portrait. What we see instead are people as they figure out how to live their lives in response to each other, and to changing events and places, on a timescale of moments, weeks, years, and, in one deeply upsetting passage, lifetimes.

What this reveals is the movie’s knowledge that the improvised and unpredictable human everyday is crucial to the worth of Father Bob and his community with others. This is ranged against the values of the Church, which are characterised by paralysing bureaucratic fixity, and the morally bereft language of market rationality. In capturing Father Bob’s struggles against these forces, the movie devastatingly reveals a contemporary life hostile to the kind of generous faith in humanity that can sustain belief in the idea of religion not as a calcified sacrament, but a vitalised and revitalising bond between people in the everyday struggle against suffering and despair; in Father Bob’s inspiring words, a “ligament” for humanity.

This is seen in the fascinating centre of the best documentary filmmaking: the small details of the world, and of human inhabitation of it, as they pass by. Compare the wearing of wood on church pews as testament to years of communal tradition and participation against the hygienic demand for compartmentalised purity, the worship of the ‘new’ and the ‘now’, in the stainless steel and acid-etched glass of the Church’s headquarters. Note Father Bob’s energising unpredictability of movement, speech, gesture, thought; hold this against the codification and ritual cant of prescribed Church ceremony.

The contemporary world is one in which the language and forms of bureaucracy and market rationality are so ingrained their presence and force on our lives is often internalised without our noticing, desiccating our more human capacities to attend to each other and our world. It is a world that makes the film’s references to The Seventh Seal more than just knowing pop-culture nods, but deeply grave evocations of the crisis we confront in “the silence of God,” a crisis most contemporary Atheists lack the stomach to face.

In this context, In Bob We Trust is a vital and urgent movie. It reminds us of what is at stake in our every action. It is nothing less than the sustenance or suffocation of a properly and more fully human world, what Bob calls the life of “immanence” we all inhabit, “the kingdom of heaven” on Earth.

First published here.

This brutally lean story about a drug deal gone wrong on the US-Mexican border has been greeted almost uniformly by scorn. The astonishingly poor reception reveals less about Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott’s quite extraordinary movie than about the mood in which much film reviewing must apparently take place.

The Counselor so obviously invites sustained consideration that its immediate and doubtless dismissal by so many critics can’t help but betray their general lack of self-confidence. This lack can be seen in their apparent need to hold on with white knuckles to a pre-determined position of critical superiority, one from which they must insist against all odds that they know better than the movie, and therefore have the grave responsibility of instructing the film in its nature and failings, which are measured against an implicit normalised ideal that the filmmakers in question have been too blindly incompetent to properly realise.

Although some people seem to think McCarthy’s script is wilfully obtuse, the story is simple enough. We begin with a burgeoning romance between a successful El Paso lawyer, the unnamed Counselor (Michael Fassbender), and a beautiful woman (Penélope Cruz). Alongside this romance, we quickly learn that the Counselor is already involved in a risky business plan with a rich and exotic associate, Reiner (Javier Bardem), who relaxes with his lover (Cameron Diaz) by watching their pet cheetahs chase down rabbits in the desert.

Working with a shadowy middleman (Pitt, a luxury cowboy), the Counselor will fund a scheme to smuggle $20 million worth of cocaine from Juárez to Chicago. The shipment is hijacked, and the drugs go missing. Inevitably, the cartel blame the newest and least well-known link in their chain, and seek to exact the kind of baroque revenge that is now sadly familiar from the appalling headlines of the Mexican drug wars.

Despite the straightforwardness of its caper-gone-wrong, ‘one last job’ storyline, The Counselor turns out to be very strange in many ways. But rather than being its fault, the movie’s multi-faceted eccentricity makes it a unique, beguiling thing that deserves to be wondered about.

What’s immediately worth noticing is how McCarthy and Scott are both clearly uninterested in the potentially suspenseful and mysterious intrigues of betrayal that power their story. This deliberate disinterest in the more pulse-driving aspects of the material is worth noticing because it’s led to some of the more pathetically blind and unforgivably dull judgments against the movie, for its failure to meet the criteria of a theme park ride; that is to say, its sin of being a ‘thriller that doesn’t thrill.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to such writers that this suggests the movie is therefore not trying to be a thriller at all.

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 1.16.38 pm

What we get instead is magnificent richness of place, architecture, voice, language, texture, sound, light, and the compelling being of a wonderful roster of actors and people in all parts, everything seemingly organised around the tension between smooth sheens and filth, within which the movie negotiates what a wasteland can look and feel like, and the different ways we can find to live in one, or to escape it by, in the telling words of one character, “living in the world without being in it.” The movie finds more at stake here than ‘who fucked-over who’ by handling its pulp to give a transcendent cosmic dimension to human affairs that are at once ordinary (merely commercial) and extreme (ruthlessly murderous).

The compelling centres of it all are the conversations. They are an often-terrifying delight, flirting dangerously with our credulity, while allowing us to admire the meeting of McCarthy’s genius for writing words with the talent these actors possess for giving them voice. None soar higher than the Counselor’s long phone call with an elegant cartel heavyweight, played by Rubén Blades, his cadences and rhythms perfectly patient in outlining metaphysical inevitability to a man who won’t face it.

So we should take this as notice that McCarthy and Scott are fascinated less by getting our pulses up (with the exception of two horrifying sequences as the cards start to fall), and more by images of people talking to each other, conversations that of course take place in, and part of their meaning from, meticulously selected, framed, and presented architectures and spaces.

the-counselor-michael-fassbender

The wonder here is in language and its handling. There is obsessive repetition of certain words, phrases: around remembering, forgetting, writing things down, keeping them in your head, knowing, not knowing, wilfully refusing to know (facts, other people, yourself). The Counselor is constantly referred to by that title alone, which highlights the further obviousness that he is the one character never in a position to provide counsel. Instead he is the one repeatedly told that he cannot be given advice, because he won’t listen or will refuse to understand. The most pointed Fassbender’s character ever gets with language is making a humiliating joke of an imprisoned woman. He is everywhere else oblivious to his use of words and the world it builds for him to live in. Notice two small occasions, without any other point, in which by someone else’s trick of syntax he unwittingly refers to the woman he claims to love as “it.”

It’s from words like these that the tracks are laid to what Diaz’s character calls, in a hint not only to her near-satanic capacity for foresight but also to the movie’s apocalyptic cosmic vision, “the slaughter to come.”

First published here.

One notable thing about Sarah Polley’s first documentary, her third feature, is how difficult it is to give a straightforward account of what it’s about. Or at least it’s difficult to do so without fatally compromising the power of the slowly unfolding mysteries and kaleidoscopic truths of Polley’s collection of ‘stories’ about the loving but troubled and secretive life of her now-deceased mother, Diane. These stories are told to the camera by her five siblings, her father, Michael, and a scattering of her mother’s acquaintances and friends, some more intimate with the multitudinous aspects of Diane’s life than others.

I think, though, that the opening moments give us enough to go on, and also, in their own way, reveal what’s so compelling about the movie beyond the actual matter of Diane and Michael’s marriage itself.

The movie opens in two ‘bits.’ The first is something like a brief prelude: over some 8mm home movie footage, we hear a man with a dulcet south London accent (think a gentler and warmer Alan Ford) speak these words: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” An onscreen title then attributes the passage not to our male narrator but to Margaret Atwood, from her novel Alias Grace (1996), the film adaptation of which, not coincidentally, Polley has announced as her next project.

Following this, accompanied by the searching, plaintive yearning and loss of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” is a longer sequence in which Polley assembles what she will come to call her ‘storytellers,’ principally her siblings, each of whom we see sat before a camera to be questioned onscreen and off by Polley over the course of the movie. This questioning will be intertwined with bits and pieces of home movies, photographs, and a ‘spine’ made from footage of Michael recording the movie’s narration in a sound booth, complete with frequent re-takes to polish the occasional roughness of his on-the-spot delivery more to the shape, speed, and sound of Polley’s liking.

As Polley’s witnesses try to settle into some comfort before the camera, she asks each one individually, in an almost rhythmic repetition, to tell her the story of the marriage of Michael and Diane, from as early as they can remember to this present moment, and in turn we see each equally bemused and confronted by the weight of this seemingly straightforward narrative task.

stories_we_tell_still_05_lrg_nfbI found these moments strangely wonderful. It’s something to do with the instinctive, human grip of the irreducible distinctiveness and uniqueness of these voices and faces, and their peculiarresonance with each other, for instance the tortured yearning of the singing finding a strange harmony with the ordinary small talk as two people sit down and prepare to examine their shared past and its losses. We feel such resonance through the way Polley starts with these quick juxtapositions of each individual’s different but shared response to the same question about two intertwined lives.

Each speaker holds their different ideas, understandings and truths about what happened in and to those lives, and what those happenings and their effects mean now or meant once, but Polley will wed them all into something like a unified story, the unity of which is not found in anything like linear cohesion but more like a multi-faceted mosaic. Polley’s stories form a prism which she turns in the light captured by the camera, showing onscreen her own tentative wonder at the way her relatively gathered, tidied-up stories refract the same source image into a fractured flow of different views and colours, like those scattered memories of childhood (did that happen, or did I make it up?) that come to us as adults, blown back into the present of our lives by winds cast up from the depths of our pasts.

The movie is extraordinary and I hope to return to it again in gratitude for the searching generosity it displays towards the lives of each person onscreen. There is a risk in this kind of thing that we might be falling into the trap of a contemporary, narcissistic theatricalising of privacy and intimacy that works only to destroy our sense of the meaning and value of those qualities so crucial to interpersonal life. Indeed, Polley has to confront this head-on when her brothers and sisters want to know the point of making the private histories of their family so searingly public.

The point is that the images and sounds of this history, as told through the verbal recollections and the visual artefacts that Polley collects around Diane and Michael’s marriage, put us in poignant contact with the wonderful fascination of human faces and voices joined through intimate conversation. These are images and sounds of the traces left by human lives when they’re over, but their stories are not finished, and so they are not truly gone.