Family Dramas: The 45th Annual New York Film Festival, Part 1

Michael Buening
The Flight of the Red Balloon

The most noticeable feature of this year's New York Film Festival is the preponderance of American pictures.

The most noticeable feature of this year's New York Film Festival is the preponderance of American pictures. Of the 28 features, 11 were produced in the U.S. and one was a French/American co-production. In addition, 11 films are French productions or co-productions, and most of the movies I've seen thus far have not offered any "breakthrough" moments.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir. Julian Schnabel)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Julian Schnabel's third feature and his third biography about an artist who died young. Each of his films is better than the one before in melding an original visual style to match the subject and story. This film's first act is told primarily from the point of view of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a superficial editor from French Elle who was paralyzed from head to toe after a stroke at age 43 and diagnosed with "locked-in" syndrome. With the help of two cute nurses (Marie-Jose Croze and Olatz Lopez Garmendia), the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), and a transcriptionist (Anne Consigny), he takes refuge in his imagination and memory, his "butterfly," and learns to communicate by blinking out "yes" or "no" as they read the alphabet to him. With painstaking patience, he writes the book on which the movie is based.

Schnabel and DP Janusz Kaminski use a swing and tilt lens, combined with fading and focus techniques enhanced by digital effects, to approximate the searching and swirling effect of seeing out of his one good eye, as he is trapped within his solitary diving bell. The camera shows "longing" by lingering on the inside of a woman's leg, protruding wide angles suggest annoyance, and a soft watercolor palate depression.

Schnabel's movies tend to fall short of the excellence they promise early on. In certain respects this is an advantage to The Diving Bell, tempering the story's inherent pathos and respecting Bauby's unsentimental view of his condition. However, the film also creates a schism between audience identification with Baudy and his portrayal from without that is never resolved, even as he's dying. Lacking this conceptual oomph, the film is a familiar awards season saga of redemption graced with arty presentation.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet)

Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of the Festival's several unremarkable but not terrible efforts by notable American directors. This thriller could have been a lithe heist-gone-bad flick, but it's both too harebrained. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an aggressively smarmy real estate broker, convinces his aimless little brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help him rob their parents' jewelry store. The narrative is needlessly nonlinear, following Andy, Hank, and their father (Albert Finney) through the robbery and its aftermath (punctuated by freeze frames flipping back and forth in an effect cribbed from '70s TV). As the brothers' errors pile up, the film lapses into tortured logic, stylistic misjudgments, and comically overbearing theme music. Quirky characters like a louche gay drug dealer in Chinese silk robes and a thug who insists on calling Hank "Chico" are not helped by the film's long takes, which have the improvisatory feel of an acting class exercise.

Though the film maintains a primal intensity, drawn fro Cain and Abel and Oedipus, this is squandered in tragic clichés. Hoffman, with help from Finney, mines the vein deeply, burrowing past all the plot holes, exposing Andy's spiritual drift and underlining the destructive competition between father and sons. A two-second close-up before Andy shoots a random man shows a shifting expression, as he realizes his victim looks like him, he's going to have to kill him, and that he is a hollow dead shell -- it was so horrifying, I heard audience members gasp before the gun went off.

The Darjeeling Limited (dir. Wes Anderson)

Sibling rivalry is also explored in The Darjeeling Limited. The three pajama-clad Whitman brothers, led by Francis (Owen Wilson), take a train trip through India in search of spiritual and familial enlightenment. They are the typical monstrously self-centered, overeducated, moody boy-men of Anderson's previous films. Middle brother Peter (Adrien Brody) has abandoned his wife six weeks before she's scheduled to give birth, without telling her where he's going. Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is pouty and selfish, demonstrated in the prequel short, "Hotel Chevalier" (withdrawn from theatrical release but available for free download on iTunes), when his ex (Natalie Portman) pleads, "If we fuck, I'm going to feel like shit tomorrow." His reply: "That's okay."

Jack manipulates the world to suit his emotions through reading, positioning his iPod portable speakers, and reshaping his past as short stories. ("It's fiction!" he insists.) Francis forces life to into elaborate day-to-day itineraries and plays father to his brothers. Virtually abandoned by their parents and drowning in jet-set materialism, all three look for comfort in exotic Hindu rituals.

In Jack's artfully arranged hotel room, Bruce Chatwin features prominently, and Anderson similarly distorts his travelogue scenery for his own purposes. For the first hour, the brothers' interrelationships are funny and believable, the visual ostentation is motivated by the characters, and Anderson has a talent for male vulnerability, no matter how exasperating. But after a crucial funeral scene and the flashback within it, the film veers off. The atrociously literal shedding of the brothers' baggage appears to signal a rebirth, but they seem locked in their delusions, just the same.

Married Life (dir. Ira Sachs)

Married Life

The well-acted but slight Married Life appears to be an excuse for lousy marriage jokes. Harry (Chris Cooper) tries poisoning his sex-hungry wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) so he can marry his girlfriend Kay (Rachel McAdams). The film is set in 1949, with Plymouths, Doris Day songs, and McAdams' Kim Novak-like platinum helmet, as well as a noirish tone laid over the melodrama. Director Ira Sachs' previous film, Forty Shades of Blue, was a finely wrought character study. Married Life is too, but this strength is overshadowed by a hokey plot and a labored attention to period artifice. Pierce Brosnan tries to sort this stylistic puzzle, narrating while playing Harry's playboy friend Richard. He navigates his scenes with a breezy confidence the other performers lack. Richard wonders whether we build our happiness on the misery of others, and the film hints that the ideal married couple is as self-centered as any scheming bachelor. I'm not sure if Married Life is supposed to be a nasty joke or a sweet one.

The Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao Hsien)

In The Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao Hsien expands on the themes of companionship, longing, and loss that suffused the classic children's short, The Red Balloon. Young Simon (Simon Iteanu) idles around Paris, accompanied by his Chinese nanny Song (Song Fang), a film student who is also making an updated version of Albert Lamorisse's movie starring the boy. The red balloon comes to represent everyday heartache, captured like "spirit photography" in the dramas enacted by Simon and his frazzled mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) in their cramped apartment. The movie ponders the melancholy nature of our loves, for people, homes, and cultures. If the story is simple, it is extraordinarily well told. Hou's interior scenes, shot in his signature style -- from a fixed point and largely improvised by the actors -- are infused with "bleeding" light sources. They have the exquisite emotional precision of the classical piano music on the soundtrack. And the film is wholly worthy of the Festival's tradition of quality and innovation. At last.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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