Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar hoo-hah: Black Swan and True Grit

About as far as I'm willing to go with these glorified Golden Doorstops--a pair of articles:

With a side of ham

Joel and Ethan Coen's movies are such regulars now and greeted with so much anticipation it's almost impossible not to feel let-down or bewildered or defensive or have some kind of startled reaction when you do finally watch the finished product--in this case, a second adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same name.

It's the Coen's most straightforward work yet--a story told simply and faithfully, with minimum snickering and little sideways commentary on the stupidity of the various characters. There's also little of the Coen's usual visual pyrotechnics, or their narrative tricks, or the little side jokes they like to insert into their pictures (one of my favorite being their claim that O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was based on Homer's The Odyssey (it's about as faithful an adaptation as Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) was of George Orwell's 1984--in effect, very loosely).

It tells the story of one Mattie Foster (part-Filipino actress Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was shot by one of his workers, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in a role first played by John Wayne in 1969) to hunt Chaney down; a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBeouf (Matt Dillon) later joins the oddball posse.

The Henry Hathaway version was a vehicle for The Duke, and it worked; Wayne won his first and only golden doorstop for Best Actor. The Coens in actually reading the Portis novel (there's doubt that they ever cracked open a volume of The Odyssey) give the narrative reins back to Mattie, where it belongs, and this version benefits from her sepia-tinted reading--like hearing a scratchy audio recording of the last remaining survivor of the Civil War.

That's the key to enjoying this film, I think--the novel's leisurely, singular voice. You get some indications of it in Hathaway's film, mostly from Kim Darby (Wayne, of course, was Wayne--rambling, easygoing, indisputably sui generis), but the Coens turn it into a symphony of Southern voices, from LeBeouf's Texas drawl to Mattie's rural Arkansas, with the old Mattie's voice coming out clearest. It's the voice of a true Presbyterian, whose language is spoken with the precision of a speaker long practiced in the rhythm and intonations of the Old Testament, and whose syntax seems to grow out of a 19th century translation of the Hebrew text. More than the sets or the clothes or Roger Deakin's magnificent cinematography, Mattie's old-school style of talking drives home the remoteness of the time period from which she speaks.

That syntax is also key to Mattie's character. Hailee Steinfeld plays her not as an angry child wishing revenge for the death of her father or as some smart-aleck prodigy flexing her hyperintelligent muscles but as a rural bible-thumper, steeped in the morality of Abraham and Moses, demanding an eye for an eye--no more, no less--and implacable in her determination to accomplish this, come what may. Mattie's frankly unsettling will is what sets her apart from the rest; she's aware of this and anyone who comes into contact with her is quickly made aware of this; Cogburn is at first amused by it, then gradually learns to respect it; LeBeouf is initially affronted, then gradually attracted. Character is all in this particular Coen film (the brothers often allow their actors to slip into caricature), and from this sense of character comes much of the film's comedy, warmth, and eventual high drama.

Yes, the film is told straight; no, this isn't the first time the Coens have tried playing it straight. They did it once before, and once before they have reaped Oscar gold, with a crucial difference: No Country for Old Men, from Cormac McCarthy's novel, feels almost top-heavy with its gloomy tone and endless meditations on mortality and meaninglessness (that's not entirely the Coen's fault; McCarthy's novel has this heaped high and just about falling over); Portis seems to acknowledge the violence and bleakness of his characters' lives without denying them the near-defiant humor that sustains them through all that hardscrabble. The Coens bring that tone, bleakness and dry wit and all, to the big screen, and locates most of it in Steinfeld's performance and Elizabeth Marvel's (as the forty year old Mattie) voiceover.

Jeff Bridges to his credit plays Cogburn with no hint of fear or intimidation; given that he has more to play with than Wayne did opposite his Mattie, he manages to step up admirably, and make of himself a suitable foil, drunken long-windedness and all. Damon is amusing as the vain LeBeouf; and Brolin as Chaney eventually reveals himself to be a weak-willed slug whose main faults are his bad luck and lack of self-control.

I'd mentioned Deakin's camerawork. He'd done westerns before, capturing the vast horizons of the Texas-Mexico border, but this film is set in Arkansas (or as close to Arkansas as the brothers could manage) and it's full of grasslands, high hills, and chilly winter forests--a somewhat unexpected but still distinctive, still memorable look.

The climactic rescue is fascinating--much closer to the book, definitely, but (please skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the film) Cogburn's long ride to take the injured Mattie to safety has the stylized, fairy-tale nightmare feel of the latter half of Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955)--why, I'm not sure. Partly I think it's cementing the link between Mattie and Cogburn; partly it's establishing Cogburn's stature in Mattie's fevered mind--he's saving her life, and he's already killed a horse to do so. It sets up the mournful tone of the final sequences and it adds to the film's magnified feel. Which brings us to the final irony in this film made by filmmakers known for their sense of irony--in doing their most straightforward work, the Coens may have taken their surest shot yet, and possibly hit the bulls' eye.

Release your inner swan!

YES! FOR 24.99 PLUS TAX AND DELIVERY YOU CAN OWN YOUR VERY OWN COPY OF DARREN ARONOFSKY'S THE BLACK SWAN! GUARANTEED TO HAVE YOU PULLING ON A TUTU AND SPROUTING YOUR OWN FEATHERS OR YOUR MONEY BACK! Results may vary; do not watch while operating heavy machinery; do not take alcohol or other controlled substances while viewing; may cause hallucinations, skin rash, and extreme eye redness. Pretty much the impression Aronofsky's latest slasher gave me when I saw it on the big screen.

Oh, it isn't a serial-killer movie? Could have fooled me. Aronofsky's everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking has him swinging the aforementioned plumbing fixture over his head in a threatening manner from the very start; the camera plunges forward and we see dewy-fresh, virginal Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman's), every pore in gigantic close-up, and already you note (that's her entire face stretched all over the big screen, how can you not fail to note?) that she's trembling, sweat popping out on her forehead, capillaries swelling across the whites of her eyeballs (a little sex might go a long way to relaxing her, you think, and of course Aronofsky reads your mind and makes you thoroughly regret that stray idea). We are talking grab-the-straitjacket-get-me-25-cc-Thorazine-stet-bugout-crazy here, and she hasn't even really started to crack up; that comes later.

Not even talking about the movie's real crazy: Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother Erica Sayer is an unholy mashup of Rosalind Russell's Rose Hovick and Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford, only instead of wielding wire hangers this stage mother flashes nail scissors. In perhaps the movie's one truly frightening scene, Hershey spots ugly scratch marks on Portman's shoulder, accuses her of causing them with her overlong fingernails, snatches Portman's hand, picks up a pair of nail scissors, and to the refrain of Portman's anguished gasps starts snipping away--far too closely cut, of course. Fade to black, a rare moment of restraint on Aronofsky's part, though hardly original (Roman Polanski did a similar flinch-inducing scene in his 1965 film Repulsion, from which Aronofsky stole a mere truckload of ideas).

Yes, the plot--there is one, though again, you could have fooled me. Nina's been picked to play the Swan Queen in brilliant ballet director Thomas Leroy's new production of Swan Lake, his choice over aging prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who hysterically accuses poor Nina of sleeping with the director, then promptly does a high jete in front of an onrushing car. Beth spends the rest of the picture recovering from her shattered limbs in a hospital, when she isn't popping up here and there in an attempt (hysterical, of course) to scare Nina to death.

But that's just the menace of the old; Nina's feels even more threatened by the new, represented by Lila (Mila Kunis), an equally young, equally promising ballerina from San Francisco who apparently isn't as sexually repressed, who manages to get along with the other dancers better, who apparently is sleeping with Thomas. Then there's the suggestion that Nina's having hallucinations, that she's cracking under the strain, that she is literally turning into a swan, complete with red eyes, black feathers, and goose-pimply skin. Michael Powell meet David Cronenberg; let's have naked lunch sometime.

There's been much talk and praise for Portman in this picture, that she trained to do most of her ballet steps herself. Wonderful dedication but in my book largely misplaced, since Aronofsky with every frame makes sure we don't notice her dancing so much as we notice her eye-twitching, lip-smacking, scenery-chewing intensity. Perhaps the movie's most impressive effect is Aronofsky having Portman stay over-the-top lunatic for a full hundred minutes, to the point that when the skin on her bare shoulder starts to sprout feathers, you don't even bat an eye; you've been rendered numb to that effect, no matter how well done, about twenty minutes before (that said, there was one unintended result: her goose-pimply shoulder so resembles the gleaming sheen of a Chinese restaurant's roasted goose-skin it made my mouth water--a little hoisin sauce on the side and I might have dove straight at the big screen).

Hershey's Erica doesn't help; she's a fright wig and kitchen knife shy of stalking her apartment rooms, calling out "Nina? Nina?" Aronofsky in his 2000 picture Requiem for a Dream proved he can take some of the finest actresses out there--Ellen Burstyn, who was wonderful in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and even James Gray's The Yards (1999)--and reduce them to a screaming, throbbing, shrieking pile of shameless exhibitionism. He takes the hint of menace Ryder suggested in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993)--that superb scene where she approaches her husband like a vampire its prey--and draws out a full-blown psychopath stalker, complete with nail-file dagger and the magic ability to pop out at the most inconvenient moments. Only Vincent Cassel as Thomas seems to have escaped Aronofsky's clutches, walking insouciantly away with the picture tucked firmly in his pocket (Thomas has great fun tormenting Nina, not to mention getting to squeeze her pork buns).

I'm tempted to call Aronofsky a destroyer of careers, only he seems to have revived Mickey Rourke's (again)--his The Wrestler (2008) for all its excesses is his most relatively restrained, and hence most easily likable. Rourke displays a mileage no amount of makeup can simulate, and there's a magnificence to his doomed trajectory that even Aronofsky can't seem to spoil, no matter how hard he tries (virgins scared of sex on the other hand only make me giggle).

Might as well put out the fairly well-known fact that Aronofsky's director of photography Matthew Libatique is a Filipino-American, and what I've seen of his work in Aronofsky's films it's impressive--he's not afraid to work with digital special effects, and while the results might not totally redeem the digitized nature of the effects (to be honest I really can't think of a cinematographer or filmmaker able to do this), you can see the attempt to bring lyricism to a binary-based viewpoint. I did love his work when little or no digital effects are involved--the dark, claustrophobic look of Spike Lee's Inside Man (2005) comes to mind--and wish I could appreciate more, but Aronofsky has this tendency to cut the life out of the footage he works with. Difficult to appreciate camerawork when the editing snips everything into visual mush.

I mentioned Cronenberg; I mentioned Polanski; I really should mention Michael Powell, only the incongruity of naming him in the same breath as Aronofsky keeps laying me low with fits of laughter. Cronenberg knows how to film horror; he does so with the calm thoroughness of a pornographer shooting a couple's genitals--you want the camera steady and lighting clinically bright, to capture all the details. More, you want the tone of dispassionate professionalism, the better to freak your audience out with. His films are like his onscreen bedside manner (Cronenberg has played surgeons before): scalpel upraised, gray eyes looking straight at you, calm voice murmuring "This won't hurt a bit." It's the incongruity between his reassuring manner and the less-than-reassuring images that Aronofsky needs, badly.

I mentioned Polanski's Repulsion as a direct influence--Polanski was smart enough to know that it's difficult to create a sense of encroaching insanity when your heroine's life is too busy (too many people watching), so he isolated his in an apartment, where she could crack up at her leisure. It's a masterpiece of its kind, though I thought Polanski did himself one better with Rosemary's Baby (1968) where the heroine is confined or limited not by some kind of arbitrary schizophrenia but by the swelling fact of her pregnancy--her increasing paranoia and sense of isolation enhanced not by a self-enforced isolation, but by deliberate conspiracy, or her suspicions of one. If Aronofsky wanted to suggest madness he needed not more shrieks, but more silence.

Finally, Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (1948). Brilliant ballet movie--not just the filmmaking, but the way it captures a ballet company's group dynamics (the camaraderie, the backstage love affairs, the tantrums and petty jealousies). In his staging of the eponymous ballet Powell gets at the delirium great art can sometimes induce, the stage bursting its boundaries to become something more than a stage, the ballet taking flight to become something more than a ballet. In his direction of Moira Shearer's Vicky he gets under her skin (without being so all-out literal as to actually dive subcutaneously) and shows us what both the aforementioned delirium and the prospect of life with the man she loves mean to her, exactly. When she's confronted with a decision to make (Anton Walbrook's Boris Lermontov at her side, whispering; "Sorrow will pass, believe me; life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before!") you know enough to realize just what she's going through, just what she's giving up if she chooses one over the other. You're in her shoes, in effect, the anguish tearing you apart.

Again, what Aronofsky needs--not so much the morphing effects of ballet (roasted gooseskin!), but its allure, its capacity for transcendence, such that you understand how an artist is tempted to sacrifice his or her life on this particular altar, to this particular god. Black Swan is fun, I enjoyed it; I laughed throughout much of it. Can't say I respect it though, and I certainly don't consider it a work of art.


rico said...

Nice one with SWAN, Noel. Just when you hear whispers in local quarters that the young dudes are nipping at your cleats, you "throwdown" with this piece and show why you're perennially the lead runner in the critical relay race, he, he. I think I'm on the same page with you on this film. Though I throughly enjoyed it, talking about it in the same breath as the greats seems premature. Based on his oeuvre, Aronofsky comes across as a nice, sensitive guy with good taste-- and, in this case at least, those attributes might have held him back in creating something truly demented and visionary (and for the times!), say, on the level of Cronenberg or Polanski. But that might be expecting too much in this day and age, he, he. Some will say Portman won the dang Oscar, so shut up already(!). That's them talking...

Noel Vera said...

I don't know about nice--word is he's a real butthole--but he is in my book oversensitive and badly in need of a Quaalude, maybe a whole bottle. Suddenly I wonder if it's Portman's character that needs to get laid.

Thanks for the input. One thing I think that distinguishes these wannabes from the greats: there's a greater sense of control. Maybe not full control, maybe not consistent control, but they've got a better handle on their material. Probably bullshit observation, but that's my gut reaction.