Todd Solondz’ new movie often feels like it is little more than a mash-up of his previous films. It even opens with a scene that is lifted almost wholesale from Happiness (1998). And, just like they did in virtually everything he has done before, pedophiles and other “perverts”, unhappy middle class white people, sexually confused children, and a generally mocking tone abound. At his best, Solondz is a real auteur, a singular observer of an alienated America, of an America filled with weirdos and lonely souls, longing for comfort and finding little. Certainly, the characters he explores in his latest represent some of the darkest he has yet drawn up: an incestuous father fresh out of jail (Ciarán Hinds), a lonely drug-addicted mother (a startlingly good Allison Janney), a curious and desperate dork of a kid (Dylan Riley Snyder), a pathetic barfly searching for escape through sex (a startling Charlotte Rampling), and a mousy woman (Shirley Henderson) who’s haunted by the men she has driven to suicide (Michael K. Williams, Paul Reubens). But, at his worst, Solondz relies on mockery, poking fun at these unfortunate characters without ever allowing us to fall in love with them. With each passing minute in this frightening little film, one finds oneself disliking the characters more and more, and finding the script to be uninterested in changing our view. This has the bizarre effect of leaving little reason for us to try to make sense of their predicaments, or to empathize with their despair. Throughout, the ostensible theme of forgiveness runs through everything like a bulldozer: can we forgive a terrorist, or a pedophile? Should we? And even if we do, can we/should we ever forget? Solondz may be a lot of things, but he is never subtle. This should have been enough to work with, but he muddies the waters with a hamfisted attempt to connect this “forgive and forget” theme to the issue of US troop withdrawal from Iraq, confusingly suggesting that if you do a bad thing and then steal away (“cut and run”) you make things worse. Well, maybe. But, really?
Life During Wartime (dir. Todd Solondz, 2009)
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (dir. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 2009)
“It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side – we were the wrong side.” Thus was the conclusion reached by Daniel Ellsberg, the man who famously leaked classified documents to the media in 1971, a move which led, fairly precipitously, to Watergate and the eventual resignation of Nixon. This singular act of bravery – he would face well over 100 years in prison for this crime – was designed to alert the public to the myriad ways they had been manipulated into giving up their blood and treasure for nearly two decades in Vietnam. Why was he surprised when so few people seemed to want to know what he was telling them? The American war in Vietnam was indeed a travesty, and had no historical justification – this was, more than anything else, what the Pentagon Papers would expose. But, even in the face of the evidence that the American presence in this impoverished country was never about democracy, never about freedom, never about self-determination, the majority of Americans didn’t seem to care. They would re-elect Nixon a few months later in the biggest landslide in American history. The parallels between this story and the present American war in Iraq – a war which has perhaps even less going for it in the way of justification – are obvious and striking. This documentary, which is narrated by Ellsberg himself, and featuring a wide array of reasoned commentators – goes a long way toward demonstrating just how little Americans have learned in the decades since that debacle in Indochina. The willingness of the American people to follow their leaders into a one-sided conflict with an unthreatening sovereign nation is just as apparent today as it was in the ‘60s. Perhaps the only difference is that today, we had hundreds of Daniel Ellsbergs, and we paid them even less mind. The U.S. is still in Iraq, still fighting and killing, and it’s been almost four years since we’ve known for certain that the whole thing was based on carefully orchestrated lies. This straightforward, no frills documentary should be seen as widely as possible.
The Road (dir. John Hillcoat, 2009)
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is one of the best books I’ve read in a decade – a shockingly violent yet blazingly beautiful novel about love and humanity in a land that seems to have abandoned both concepts. Alternately touching and horrifying in its evocative portrayal of a stark, post-apocalyptic world, McCarthy’s novel is a difficult, but deeply rewarding study of a father and son struggling to wade through a landscape in which there is no such thing as “living”, only surviving. But, while this made for an astonishing reading experience, wow, does it ever make for an extremely uncomfortable film. Though it is faithful to the book in every major way (save one: the constant rain of ashes isn’t here), this is one of those great books that should never have been made into a movie, no matter how exact the transfer from page to screen. Virtually unrelenting in its bleakness, and rife with set pieces (especially those involving cannibalism and/or suicide lessons) that don’t offer much in the way of reward upon their viewing, John Hillcoat’s direction is perhaps too shatteringly true to the tone of the book. Viggo Mortensen is excellent (as always, right?) as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee is heartbreaking as the boy, which is good news because the film is basically just them. Charlize Theron is largely wasted in a thankless role as the mother (who, like in the book, is a mere abstraction, a fading memory rather than a flesh-and-blood character), and Robert Duvall is wonderful as a very McCarthy-esque wise old man (think of Barry Corbin’s turn in No Country For Old Men). As most of us in the Press and Industry screening were aware, this film was completed as early as this time last year, which has of course led to rampant speculation as to the problem. But, since the movie is likely to be seen by most people as a near faultless adaptation, a virtually perfect transfer of the book onto the screen, my guess is that the reason it’s been sitting on the shelf for so long was economy-related. Who, in the midst of last fall’s economic splatterfest, wanted to sit down for two hours of searing, unremitting nightmare? Are we even ready yet?
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (dir. Werner Herzog, 2009)
Werner Herzog, one of cinema’s most exciting auteurs, is also one of its most exasperating. Armed with an astute eye for detail, a fascination with oddballs and outliers, and the critical mind of a philosopher, Herzog is at his best when seeking out subjects tangled up in contradiction. And, in the awkwardly titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, one of two films he has in this festival, contradiction abounds. His subject is a superb Nicholas Cage as the titular antihero, adrift in a post-Katrina wasteland of crime, drugs, and despair, as he attempts to break an horrific case whilst stumblingly stoned on everything from heroin to coke to crack. (Though reminiscent of the Harvey Keitel film of the early ‘90s, by the way, this is no remake – apparently the franchise-suggesting title was a “studio decision”.) With Cage flanked by his girlfriend (a luminous Eva Mendes) and a partner who seems worse off than even he (a bloated Val Kilmer), and chasing down a drug kingpin (rapper Xzibit), this is Herzog’s most star-studded event movie. And yet it is in every way an art house film, opening with an establishing shot of a snake sliding through black floodwater, returning throughout to shaky hand held shots of iguanas, and demonstrating a general disdain for the rhythm and grammar of conventional film. I loved it. But, I can also enumerate at least a few instances of nonsensical plot developments, confusing dialogue, and downright unlikely events. In the hands of most directors, these would indicate a bad movie – somehow, Herzog’s trick is to convince us that every one of these things was done for a reason. In the press notes, he literally dares “academics” to attack his work, taunting them as “losers”. Maybe that’s how he won us over: Intimidation?