Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two films

C.S. Lewis remarked somewhere (I think in The Discarded Image) that real art always gives too much or too little information for the average viewer/reader. Now of course this is pretty smug--gosh we know better than the plebes--and it's also dead-wrong unless you're a true elitist, but still it's something worth considering. Many artists do in fact give us too much, high modernists such as Joyce, Pound, Proust, etc being prime examples. Others keep it spare, Beckett, Glass or possibly Chekhov. And then there are some such as Shakespeare who in their time were perfectly transparent but today are too much. The point that I take from Lewis is more a general approach rather than absolutes - in other words many people have trouble with this type of art because they don't know how to deal with the abundance or the lack. After all somebody who can plow through enormous fantasy trilogies or for that matter the Aubery/Maturin series certainly has the stamina for Proust; it's the mindset that's a different issue.

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch 2009) - For the first 10, 15 minutes I thought Jarmusch had made a completely tedious clunker. Then the film's unique narrative (there really isn't much of one) and texture (repetition, blankness, calmness) started to take over and if by the end I wasn't 100% convinced it still stands as a pretty remarkable work. In the solid, verite-esque making-of doc on the DVD Jarmusch remarks that he's made his big-budget action film with fights, schemes, hot babes, exotic locations, etc and the odd thing is that he's completely right except for the "big budget" part. The catch? The Limits of Control is sort of the film that's left when you take all the stuff we usually see in an action thriller out, leaving us with walking, waiting, driving, sleeping. It's not a Warhol film because there actually are secret meetings, coded messages, an action sequence, clandestine activities, identity changes, it's just that in Jarmusch's world we're watching a pattern not pretending to delve into psychology or causation. And very little of this is ever explained. Why does the protagonist always order two espressos? Personal preference? (We only ever see him drink one.) A flag for his contacts? For part of the film I thought Jarmusch had made Dead Man II and that we'd get the same revelation as there or maybe as De Palma's Femme Fatale. In fact there are a few moments that are completely inexplicable such as a film poster portraying an event that the artist couldn't possibly have witnessed. And in the film's most audacious moment, the protagonist is confronted with the task of entering a building that appears utterly secure and fully monitored. His explanation of how it was accomplished more or less sums up the film and honors the thriller convention of its main character's ingenuity while otherwise utterly violating not just thriller conventions but those of most any form of film. That the moment works shows how much Jarmusch is in control or maybe just willing to trust a lack of control. This is a film that I suspect will improve on a second viewing.

La mujer sin cabeza / The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel 2008) - Another film that withholds or at least doesn't bother with certain information but one centered around a never-resolved mystery that suggests Blow-Up or L'Avventura. A woman on a remote road hits something - was it a dog or the boy whose body is found nearby several days later? The first section effectively creates a sense of anomie and directionless tension as the woman wanders through a hospital, her job and her home in what seems to be a kind of vauge shock. Martel presents much of this in an oblique method. The incident, for instance, is shot with a camera on the passenger's seat pointed at the driver and with one exception there are no edits or camera movements. Even when she pulls the car over to get out we can only see her in corners of the image or sections of the car window. Now the one exception is an unmotivated cutaway (meaning it's clearly not meant to be anything the woman sees) where we see the object in the road behind. It looks mostly like a dog but is in extreme longshot so you can't really tell - other sections of the film support the dog idea but it's clear after a while that resolving what happened isn't in any way the point of the film. In fact after a while I'm not sure what the point was meant to be and I don't mean that in a good way. Many reviewers claim it's an expose of privileged class but that's a difficult argument to make. Yes, the woman is a dentist and obviously pretty well off, and yes she does employ clearly not well-off Indians to garden or clean but that's hardly anything newsworthy, hardly even an observation. In one sequence where the woman drives a worker home the film even resorts to that idea that the lower classes may be poor but they have more fun, they're more open and more alive (or at least have better music). Martel's way of presenting a (non)story through stray bits of dialogue, glancing moments, apparently motiveless actions is one that normally I would love but here just leaves me cold. (And I feel like pointing out that some reviews have over-played the ambiguity - Hoberman says a "ghostly" handprint on the car window suggests the boy was hit but the print was there before the incident, while another reviewer says we're never shown how the woman gets to the hospital which for one thing doesn't really matter but more importantly there's a fairly long shot showing her being driven, a shot that's replicated later in the film. My pointing out thus endeth.)