52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

ROBERTSON DAVIES

The story of Fifth Business is, in the most literal sense possible, a snowball effect. In the first chapter, the narrator, Dunstable Ramsay, recalls the moment as a kid when he dodged a snowball chucked at him—with a cruel, game humor not uncommon in kids—by his friend/rival Percy Boyd Staunton, which ended up striking Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of a Baptist reverend. In the classic style of chaos theory, the whole novel, which is to say the whole of Ramsay’s life, stems very cleanly from this moment. This is how the novel was advertised to me—by one of my high school freshman year English teachers, the enigmatic Mr. Donegan, almost a decade before now when I have at last gotten around to reading it—and this is how I advertise it to you, with just the tease and as few spoilers as possible. I deeply enjoyed this read, as I was particularly affected by the social-cum-economic inequality between Ramsay and Staunton, and how it plays out ironically in light of their effect on the lives of Mary and her child, Paul. Staunton suppresses his memory of the incident and takes no responsibility for its consequences, and becomes an affluent huckster of sweets and a notable political figure in his native Ontario. Ramsay takes up the burden of devoting himself to the Dempster family and, as a direct result, pursues a modest living as a scholar of religious saints—that after losing a limb in World War One. Such is usually (not always, but usually) the case in life: the inertial go-getters disregard those whom they harm along the way, while those with a conscience only consider it moral that their accidents subsume and chemically change them. The narrative is an intellectual feast, abounding with provocative discourse on religion and faith, miracles and magic, historicism and fiction, as well as with irony and diversion. For instance: Ramsay promises not to go into too much detail on the two World Wars, when in execution, he spends a great portion of the novel discussing them and the ripples thereafter (he freakin’ got a leg blown off in the first one, after all). Robertson Davies’ weakness with female characters must be mentioned and do prevent this from being an outright masterpiece. The archetypes are familiar and tiresome: Staunton’s wife Leola is a wealth-chasing trophy; Diana Marfleet is a British nurse who exists mainly to fulfill Ramsay’s (read: Davies’) sexual fantasies after his service in the war; Ramsay’s mother is a disciplinarian shrew; and Mary Dempster is a simple mind made to suffer for her sexual proclivities. Only Liesl—the German-Swiss companion of the adult magician Paul Dempster, who calls Ramsay out for his instabilities late in the narrative—is granted any agency, and even then, the prose’s depiction of her as ugly and tragically masculine is needless. Fifth Business is the first volume in Davies’ Deptford trilogy; I hope to read the other two, and I hope the women of those tomes are more authentic.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

Should film exist? Is film an antithesis—if not a destruction—of art? It has threatened painting, theatre and literature with obsolescence, just as recording technology has dragged us away from classical music towards the (I admit) less refined genres of rock, pop, etc. Some would argue that film democratizes art, that it allows for an exchange of perspectives across space and time without the barriers of discipline, privilege and well-educated condescension; others, that film preserves what ought not be preserved. Theatre has shown essential disdain for filming technology because it is meant to be a life experience among actors and audience—ethereal, singular, unrepeatable, not entirely memorable, what Mikhail Bakhtin called a “once-occurrent Being-as-event.” The late great playwright Sarah Kane proclaimed, “Theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts.” By contrast, cinema is memory—perhaps a memory too perfect for man. It makes history laughably easy; it has turned actors from skilled laborers into celebrities. If we contrast “existence” with “essence” (never mind whether one precedes the other), then film may purport to be an “essential” art in the sense that it is man’s greatest opportunity to be immortal, to attain the height of nature, yet film may as well be a mockery of nature, a conceit, a cheat. Theatre stabilizes narrative in one place and time, and there you have to be to view it. You can see a filmed narrative anywhere at anytime, but at what cost?

The life, work and philosophy of Glenn Gould are indispensable hand grenades to this discussion. Gould (1932-82) was a Canadian pianist best known for his Bach interpretations. In April 1964, he made the still-controversial decision to retire from concert performances for good and distribute his music only through recordings. Overtime, he expanded on this practice, limiting his communication with fans of his music entirely to the media—film, print, radio, telephone. He was a recluse, but not to the extent of shunning the masses as Salinger did and as Pynchon does. In fact, his rapport with the media was voluminous. He was candid and sincere about his approach to music, he demonstrated a broad academic mind in a brainy but relatable way, and he showed a wry self-awareness towards his unusual work ethic. The fifth of François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould shows two Goulds; the pianist Gould fields questions from the interviewer Gould. (This is based on a real-life self-catechism that he wrote for High Fidelity in 1974.) In this soliloquy, he justifies the most critical decision of his career thusly: “The ideal audience-to-artist relationship is a one-to-zero relationship. […] The artist should be granted anonymity. He should be permitted to operate in secret, as it were, unconcerned with or better still unaware of the marketplace’s demands, which […] given enough indifference on the part of enough artists will simply disappear. Given that disappearance, the artist will then abandon his false sense of public responsibility, and his audience or ‘public’ will relinquish its role of servile dependency. […] They’ll make contact, but on a much more meaningful level.”

That’s a dynamic bit of writing, and it takes talent and cojones for a filmmaker and an actor to translate it to filmic dialogue—and translated as brilliantly as it is here, it’s fraught with meaning and deserves scrutiny time and again. Where most artists have seen technology as a threat, Gould embraced it. (It’s a shame he didn’t lived to see the Internet; it would’ve fascinated him to no end.) It would be plenty to say that he saw recorded sound as the equalizing force by which mentor and protégé, old and young, rich and poor, and giver and receiver could “make contact” on the same “level,” yet the film goes further than that. The soliloquy suggests, with much chutzpah, that the ways in which technology is often suspected of ruining art are not abuses of art inasmuch as they are abuses of technology—that tech not only has the potential but is meant to defy arbitrary standards of marketability, not to facilitate them. In characterizing the media—and hence the film—as “zero” (viz. zero-dimensional), it confesses the solipsism inherent in having a man interview himself, yet that alone hints at that man’s willingness to question every one of his own beliefs, to butt heads with his own alter ego, to cancel himself out and make that “zero” feel authentic. I’ve seen few films confront the paradox of their medium—the tricks of the eye; the defiance of history, memory and their decay; the ability to do the impossible and reflect nature in all of its zero-like intangibility—as meaningfully as this film does. The genre of the biopic has not produced that many good films—as life is often too broad and complex to perfectly fit the focus and commerciality of cinema—and 32SFAGG is often brought up as an example of how to do a biopic, and rightly so. This is how Gould would’ve wanted to be depicted: in cinema, told without convention. Look at how proudly the film wears its cinematic badge in its title. It earns all of that pride.

The film is exactly what its title says: thirty-two vignettes in the life of its subject. It never tries to cohere as one uniform narrative because the rhythm of life does not work that way. The structure is a riff on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which there are thirty, bookended by two arias. Indeed, the film is keen on fleshing out cinema as a corollary of audio editing, on which Gould was able to (re)construct his piano interpretations to his liking—in a way, to mime reality and temporality, to copy God’s essential-natural creation, not just in His apparent perfection but also in His (let’s face it) random, arbitrary lunacy. (I’d add that Gould and God are only two letters apart, but that’d be a stretch.) In the sixteenth episode, “Truck Stop,” Gould listens to three mundane conversations at once at the title location, his ears rearranging the voices into a Bach-like cantus firmus. By the next episode, he has developed this concept into his radio documentary, The Idea of North, which juxtaposes nostalgic Northern Canadian voices into similar polyphonies; this was a prelude to musique concrète and thus to electronic music. Language here is not as important as the innate musicality of human voice—the basic, unreadable God-like beauty of sound. Robert Altman is considered the forerunner of melding voices in cinema, yet I’ve always found his hodgepodges of dialogue shallow and self-indulgent, even patronizing, rushed in their execution, jam-packing too many half-baked characters and plots, expecting the audience to follow them all and insulting its intelligence in the process. Girard’s (read: Gould’s) use of this method is far superior: he eases us in with one voice, lets it carry on for a while, then adds another, then a third, and he makes their words casual enough to be poetic yet ethereal; they can afford the mishmash. Bear in mind, too, that this is all in the service of not the speakers but rather the one silent figure—the listener, the conductor, the musician. It uses language but does not depend on it, as its focus is on the music.

Colm Feore’s performance as Gould, in my book, is arguably cinema’s greatest portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome, which Gould is speculated to have had, and which I’m convinced he had. I have Asperger’s and have studied it, so I know what I’m talking about. The depiction of those on the autism spectrum in film at large has most of the same horrendous issues as its depiction of all minorities. Chiefly, films tend to define our identities entirely within the prism of our being autistic; stereotype us as socially inept geniuses; and view the central experience of autism as essentially tragic, marked by bullying and doomed to seclusion, if not redeemed by an all-too-easy Hollywood happy ending. Rubbish. Having said all that, please forgive me for branching out to portraits of potential Asperger’s—to work on which the lens of autism theory can be extrapolated—and risking a misdiagnosis. The fact is: I connect with Feore in this. One of the most common misconceptions of Asperger’s is that us Aspies don’t understand social behavior. We do; it’s how we behave in response to it that makes us different. We don’t often jibe with the tacit social rules that people rely on to act, react and interact. This attitude has its pros and cons. Feore’s work proves that Gould truly knew the role that music and sound took in society—namely, the way people interacted with their aural selves—and he reveals this in long, circuitous, literary passages of mono- and dialogue (of which the above is a useful example) that he makes accessible and riveting. His line deliveries are firm, forthright, rapid, verbose, a little aloof—as is natural with Asperger’s—yet also inflected with enough mystery, stoicism, and (when appropriate) playfulness to hold the audience’s attention, even if not everything is grasped. Such work demands and rewards multiple viewings.

The challenges of playing Gould are formidable. How can one evoke so much intellectual passion from such Aspergerian rigidity and peculiarity? Feore accomplishes it through old-fashioned acting—through the deployment of his entire body and his absolute commitment to the role. The third chapter, “Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair,” is just that: a forty-five-second slow zoom in on Gould sitting in a chair, his posture perfect for a pianist, while an excerpt of his recording plays on the soundtrack. Curiously, Feore is not seen playing piano once in the film, which makes sense: who could command a piano like Gould? As it is, Feore doesn’t need that embellishment. In that one take, we can feel him conjuring the exact mood of Gould at the piano. All that’s lacking, really, is his fingers on the keys, but we can imagine that, and the brief scene—pointless in lesser hands—is made gripping by the inconspicuous force of its lead actor. 32SFAGG embraces its fragmentation, its perception of life in separate spheres as opposed to in wholes. In chapter nine, “The L.A. Concert,” we see Gould backstage preparing for what will be his final public appearance, soaking his arms in scalding hot water (as he did in life), and we trust that Feore made sure the water was that hot during filming. It’s only in the remainder of the chapter that we realize—in seeing Gould interacting with some fans, weirdly but with enough steadiness to demand esteem—that in those seconds cleansing himself, he silently reached his decision to shun concerts. The image and the thought, what is seen and heard, are often detached if not disharmonious in this film. The poignant tenth chapter, “CD318,” shows us the inside bridges of Gould’s Steinway as he plays his onstage swansong on it, and there’s an uncanny sense that we could add this visual neatly to that of him sitting ramrod in the chair from before. The film is a puzzle, made for us to solve.

It may be bizarre for me to use the word “disharmonious” in praise of a film about music, but Girard made his film that way to underscore the extent to which music and infinite other things are spliced up and reorganized in the media. The eighteenth segment, “Questions with No Answers,” is a series of shots, mostly from Gould’s point of view, in which interviewers ask him the banal inquiries of the easily digestible pop entertainment industry. Gould is off-camera; we of course don’t hear his answers, but the questions are so banal that we can assume he can’t answer the questions in any way that would appease the narrow-minded pop media he faces. The questions provide enough—plenty, even—for a narrative progression, which sees the interrogators getting increasingly frustrated and befuddled with their subject’s tenacity, to the point where one of them asks upfront, “Are you homosexual?” Multiple segments after show Gould on his own, answering unheard questions on his own terms, but generously. Question and answer don’t depend on but rather complement each other, and their clichéd structure is jazzed up and given new life. There’s something else, though: the audience here sees private moments that no one in the world really ever saw, of the pianist alone in his home or in one of many nondescript phone booths, as secluded as he wished to be, bundled up in his cap, jacket and gloves. It feels like we’re watching something sacred—a genius mentally at work—but it doesn’t once feel like we’re intruding because the film and Feore are so warm, so inviting, always intriguing—and because what is seen does not matter as much as how it all stems from and complements what is heard. With Gould gone, all that remains of him are his sounds and ideas, and some images, which I’m guessing are not as valuable as the sounds. The research that Feore must have done for this role is baffling, and it pays off because of how much trust he and Girard place in the voice, music and oral wisdom of Gould to blossom into cinema.

There’s much more—so much more that I was considering reviewing each one of these thirty-two short films as sovereign standalone works and may yet still do that. There are vivid, appropriately abstract animations—including one that depicts, succinctly and hauntingly, Gould’s growing dependence on prescription drugs; a mystical death announcement; moving reifications of Gould’s dream to see the Arctic; a vibrant reading of a personal ad; a startling, out-of-left-field mini-stock market drama involving a Saudi oil tycoon that Gould gets mixed up in by accident; and documentary recollections from those who knew Gould in real life, of which this is my favorite: “Today, I had a customer phone me up and say, ‘Can you come tomorrow to tune my piano?’ Glenn Gould used to give me two or three months notice, and I respected that. And I’m very thankful for knowing him.” The film concludes with Feore’s voice-over stating that the Voyager Golden Record, which NASA sent into outer space in 1977 to communicate the existence of Earth and humans to potential outsiders, includes Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by none other than Gould. It’s a fitting honor for one of music history’s greatest men and most inspirational Aspergerians—to be able to connect, through recording, to life forms we may not yet know of; to make them an audience and an equal to man; to communicate what earthly life and nature are like in all of their imperfections and colliding fragments. And if we make another record like that, this film better be on it.

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”

When a people, a culture, a world enters the film industry for the first time, I welcome it gladly—and part of that welcoming is a critique of that culture’s inaugural film as a film in and of itself, equal to all others, no better or worse for its foreign novelty. The Fast Runner is the first-ever Inuit film—by which I say, the first film made entirely on Inuit terms, in their language, Inuktitut—and I think that some critics were quick to hail it as a masterpiece for this reason, a tendency that indicates to me a sort of racial condescension. “Oh look!” the attitude seems to be. “The Eskimos have discovered the cinema!” I am not so easily won over and not so enamored. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Runner adapts an ancient Inuit parable in which the titular athlete beds a woman betrothed to a rival clan’s prodigal son, ends up being framed for his older brother’s murder, and flees the premises. As an ethnography, of course, this is beyond criticism. The fur coats and tattoos; the construction of igloos; the way marine meat is prepared with a hammer; the openness towards sex; the treatment of sled dogs; the migration from snow to grass and river; the way life is lived—not just survived—in such a barren perpetual winter—these are all sights to behold. Critically, the Inuit culture values sport and physical strength, as one must be Spartan and horse-like to spend one’s life in the tundra of northern Canada. There are contests that routinely test such mind-blowing corporeal skills as kicking one’s feet up to knock down a pole and trying to use the back of one’s head to maneuver an elastic band off another’s hand. Similar contests—punching and mouth-pulling matches and such—serve as set pieces here. The scene in which the Fast Runner runs away from his brother’s slaughter, barefoot and nude, pecker literally in the wind, across snow and ice and stream in freezing weather, is marvelous, and one gains an immense trust and appreciation that the actors performed all their own stunts, with no stunt doubles (those jarring, albeit sometimes necessary, blemishes on agency and performance). Yet, as with most debut films, there are novice errors. The mise en scène is often lazy and generic; the actors often stand around like middle-school kids loitering in a park after hours smoking pot. Nearly three hours of that, where there could have been two, is hard to let pass. This is mainly a fault of the direction, though I do feel that the non-professional actors are overall better at small scenes between two or three people, for which their minimalism is more fit, than larger crowd scenes, which demand more incentive and animation. There are two pivotal scenes—a love scene in a crowded tent, and a coup d’état by stabbing—that are so absurd and so badly staged, I could not buy them, try as I might, and they nearly lost me. But they didn’t; The Fast Runner’s story is plenty gripping to recommend.

Grade: B

************

In Dogville, the title village is constructed on a soundstage. The streets and the buildings’ floor plans are labeled in chalk. There are no ceilings, no walls, no windows, just some furniture—though the ensemble, in the tradition of theatre and by extension of cinema, acts like what’s missing is there, in character throughout. The existence of doors is mimed with action and sound effect, with no irony. We see the entire village population going about their day, performing quotidian tasks, within their walls, unaware of what’s going on beyond them—though we are. The camera may close in on action in one house and capture mundane movement in others, as if by accident, yet the actors on the periphery never let their guard drop. An entire culture is on display; we’re even allowed into these characters’ private thoughts, via John Hurt’s faux-literary narration. It goes to support what I wrote a few weeks back in my review of In Vanda’s Room: interiors are fallacious. Walls are not structures insomuch as they are concepts, secrets, barriers from knowledge, spheres of influence. More to the point, I don’t think this is a conceit (as some critics have said) but rather a different, more multi-dimensional way of perceiving life and action. The director, Lars von Trier, has given us access to see through walls as time travel would let us break those boundaries, to be omniscient. This—in tandem with the numerous shots looking straight down on the soundstage, depicting the actors’ heads as roving Pac-Man dots—convinces me that von Trier, in another of his endless controversial moves, wants us to play God, to exercise power, to judge these characters, to decide for ourselves between justice and mercy. It’s amusing how small, even petty, actors of the stature of Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany can look through the machinations and dissections of von Trier’s ruthless eye.

Dogville is an epic set in the American West during the Great Depression. Von Trier hates America. He’s never been to America, though I’m not yet sure whether that’s because he hates it or because he’s afraid of flying (maybe both). Dogville has been called anti-American—not that there’s anything wrong with that by itself, but some have thought it a narrow position to take, and a naïve one when the lack of time spent studying the location in person is considered. To this, I advise you to bear in mind: Shakespeare never visited any of the exotic European locales he wrote about. Also: the film is kept bound within its tiny, nondescript village isolated in the Rockies to the point where I bought it. It’s an allegory of America, and it can afford to be inaccurate and even a little trite, and von Trier can get away with using it as a cathartic dumping ground for his various spites against the nation (you can get much relief out of doing that) because he is a sophisticated artist. The story he tells—like most of his stories—is simple, even when the canvas is broad and the ensemble vast. He sets his narrative up as a game, with rules and goals built to focus and challenge their characters, rules and goals that are constantly shifting but always clear. Grace (Kidman), running from the mob, hides in Dogville. She befriends the deliberately named Tom Edison (Bettany), the town’s writer—hence an inventor, so to speak, of tales and ideas—who persuades the close-knit-to-a-fault town to let her take sanctuary there, provided that she serves each of them with labor. She educates the kids, does the laundry, tends to the gooseberry bushes, acts as a surrogate to fill in the townspeople’s many disabilities and dysfunctions. She labors to survive. Who hasn’t? The whole plot jumps from there.

Von Trier is not for everyone. Not every actor wants to work with him. He is unafraid to disturb, upset, provoke, in the name of his art. On the other side of that penny, he can be soapy. Yet even the worst soap opera can be rescued by good performances (Cf. Shakespeare), and Dogville’s broad motley cast is fascinating to watch. Where else can you watch something like Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson as the ultimate mismatched couple, the husband a philandering boor and the wife a tight-assed, prudish spinster who puts up with seven kids and schools Grace on Stoicism? Not to mention Lauren Bacall as the old miser mooching off the townsfolk with her beauty products and figurines and crafting a ludicrous etiquette to observe around her gooseberry bushes? And James Caan as the mob boss with a surprising connection to Grace? Add to that Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, etc., and you have all sorts of acting styles and archetypes clashing in such fashions that one has to applaud von Trier for having the imagination and chutzpah to put it all together, and the ensemble for putting up with him. I hesitate to give away anything else about the story. I will say, though, that while the other two von Trier films I’ve seen (Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac) stumbled if not fumbled on their endings, Dogville’s denouement is a success. It is brutal, maddening, but well-earned and inevitable. Von Trier may be insane, but he has a point and he makes it well: the village’s poverty does not excuse its crimes. Grace’s ultimate actions against Dogville may horrify us, but would we judge the town differently?

Grade: A

Tomorrow: Reviews for Aguirre, and Bicycle Thieves, which I watched instead of Lore due to timing issues.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Fifteen and Sixteen: “The Fast Runner” | “Dogville”

31 Days of Cinema, Day Eight: “Atlantic City”

Of the four Louis Malle films I’ve seen—the other three being Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir Les EnfantsAtlantic City is the weakest, and though it is not a bad film, I found it disappointing considering how long I’ve wanted to see it and how thrilling I expected it to be. Malle was a fine crafter of war films, which is to say of urban and rural malaise in wartime, but the crime film is a different breed and I don’t think it was Malle’s strength. The narrative is of a classic mold: an aged ex-gangster, in this case Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), looks back on his glory days—to the extent that he had any glory days to begin with and isn’t deluding himself—and longs for one last chance to flex his muscles, and gets it. There’s nothing wrong with putting out your own take on a traditional story such as this, but you’ve either got to stick to its tragic, inevitable outcome (Le Samouraï, not a film about aging but still a great classicist example) or put a spin on it (Sexy Beast). Atlantic City does neither. It has a third act rife with potential for crisis and explosion—with a double murder, a guy bragging about it to everyone, a stolen car and a stolen stash of money—yet the characters walk away from the pigsty scot-free. What an unbelievable copout.

I could write that this occurs because the film has a European tone, which relies more on consistency and patience and less on notions of rising and falling actions than American cinema, but which doesn’t seem like the most proper filter for an American crime story. But that wouldn’t be a fair criticism. The script is by playwright John Guare, and the characterizations and dialogue thus come with quirks, elaborations and slices of exposition that would be fine for theatre but that don’t always work on film. At the story’s center is Lou’s friendship with Grace Pinza (Kate Reid), a widowed, bedridden, shrill hypochondriac living in a garish apartment with medicine-pink walls and the tawdriest gewgaws, whom Lou does favors for at his own expense. It’s a character you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect in a crime story, and it depends on Reid’s talents to sell it, which she does. Then, there’s Joseph (Michel Piccoli, the painter in La Belle Noiseuse, one of my favorite French films), the boss of the casino where Lou’s neighbor and love interest, the much younger Sally (Susan Sarandon), works at the oyster bar and trains as a baccarat dealer. He teaches Sally some French and tries to convince her to become a courtesan. He is a thoroughly unnecessary creation, a pathetic foil to Lou, and cannot be saved even by Piccoli’s immense stature. At other times, the acting doesn’t even bother to save the dialogue. Hollis McLaren, as Sally’s sister Chrissie, is a clichéd country girl with pigtails to boot, Robert Joy, as Sally’s estranged husband Dave, is stodgy and awkward. Fortunately, he is dispatched early on, in a deft action sequence set in a car elevator. The cocaine he stole from the Philadelphia mob—an entity represented here by a beefcake thug and a gunman in fedora and trench coat, two more clichés—ends up in Lou’s hands, setting the mob on Lou and Sally’s trail and giving the plot its thrust.

The plot is low-stakes; the script makes Dave out to be rather boorish, so his death doesn’t have much emotional impact on the ensemble, and the ending makes all that came before it look like good, clean fun. What’s more, the love story between Lou and Sally has not dated well. Oedipus complex aside, it hinges on Lou spying on Sally, through the window, going topless and exfoliating herself with lemon juice. This leads to some nifty cinematography (from Richard Ciupka), such as the opening shot that starts as a close-up on the lemons and ends in Lou’s apartment, but today, Lou comes off as a senile creeper, and the scene where Lou confesses his lust to Sally and Sally is moved to disrobe is seen for what it is: an implausible fantasy, barely rescued by Lancaster’s charisma and Sarandon’s emoting. What Malle and Guare leave us with is a jumbling of disparate genres and archetypes that don’t quite jive with each other, but that are by themselves mostly curious and well-acted enough to merit interest. So I’ll recommend this, though I’ve spent a lot of this review focused on the flaws, because I know Malle better than this. Now go watch Murmur of the Heart, and keep an open mind about the ending.

Grade: B-

Tomorrow: Another film that I have high hopes for, and that I am more confident will be a masterpiece: Marketa Lazarová.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Eight: “Atlantic City”

Review: “eXistenZ”

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is one in a long line of meta-films that uses its Russian-doll texture to dissect cinema as an art form, revealing its conceits and forcing viewers to reckon with what it means to sit down and watch a movie. Building its story around a network of video-game virtual realities, eXistenZ depicts the traditional filmic narrative as a technology in itself, and in that respect, it has a point. The clichés and formulas that go into constructing the plots, scripts and characters of too much of what we see today can be and have been read—rather glibly, I will admit—as “machines,” and it is not difficult to criticize Hollywood in its current incarnation as a “factory,” or an “assembly line.” One of the goals of eXistenZ is to satirize this idea by reconceiving bad films as technology gone awry; shallow characters, absurd genre tropes, clunky dialogue, deer-in-the-headlights non-reactions and preposterous accents are all given a computer-glitch veneer. This is clever, but what the film often forgets is that there’s a human element to art. What it means to look like a riff on bad acting and storytelling comes off as laziness and a lack of inspiration that uses its badness as an excuse to nudge the audience into reflecting on cinema as a construction.

The film opens in an old church, where a Greek chorus of twelve volunteers get in a semicircle onstage to test out eXistenZ, the hot new console from shy, reclusive gaming wunderkind Allegra Gellar (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh). I take “Allegra” to be the feminine of allegro, the Italian tempo marking for “lively,” somewhat fast compositions; the name here is a misnomer. Cronenberg moves his stories along at a slow, methodical, deep-rumbling pace, and with this material, he is hampered by it. As the introduction proceeds, a would-be assassin rises screaming “Death to the demoness!”, shoots her in the shoulder and gets dispatched by security guards while chaos consumes the place. At the lumbering pace it goes, it’s hardly convincing; in real life, one imagines, the assassin would be taken down before getting the word “demoness” out of his mouth, and the audience would be even more frantic (Cf. Malcolm X’s death in the Spike Lee biopic). All the actors look stiff-jointed, as if they’re swimming in Drano.

Allegra is rescued by officer Ted Pikul (the usually reliable Jude Law), who takes out the bullet and hides her in a motel. Filmed in rural parts of Ontario on a $15-million budget, eXistenZ does not quite achieve a plausible science-fiction environment, limiting itself as it does to the church, cheap motels, a skiing chalet, a trout farm, a mall that looks obviously in-studio, a dated van, and a dated gas station/garage—and when I say “dated,” I mean dated even by present standards. Yes, I get that the future will still have its undeveloped backwoods, and yes, I get that Allegra, with the fatwa on her head, would want to hold demo sessions far removed from urban metropolises. Even then, the mismatch is jarring, and I was left wondering how the hell such a vibrant gaming culture found its way into north Ontario (Cf. the way Kubrick suggested the future with just some judicious location choices in A Clockwork Orange). There’s still some gnarly world-building to make up for that, thankfully: the two-headed reptiles, the guns made of bones (with teeth for bullets), the pulsing fleshy gaming pods, and of course the vaginal bio-ports (a classic Cronenberg motif) inserted just above the tailbone, into which the pods’ umbilical cords go.

Allegra needs to enter her game to make sure it survived the assassination attempt, and she needs Ted to join her. Much fuss is spent on how Ted is a hesitant gaming virgin who needs his bio-port installed. The two head to a gas station attendant (Willem Dafoe, a rare breed of actor who will do pretty much anything) who installs pods on the side with what looks like an uber-industrial gas canister. He seems to worship Allegra, then turns on her. The film takes way too long to get us into the eXistenZ universe, and when it does, that’s when the acting starts getting very deliberately ham-fisted. Exhibit A: the scene in which Allegra and Ted discover that their characters share an intense sexual attraction. It is beside the point that this ruins the male-female friendship that is so often ruined in movies when the filmmakers give in to the temptation to have their lead actor and actress shag each other. Notice how Law and Leigh go back and forth between two modes of acting—them figuring out their characters, and their characters walking the walk to first base. A more authentic situation would have a liminal phase in between, in which the boundaries between personas are tested and muddled, but the actors, talented as I know they are, don’t bother with this. Exhibit B: in a Chinese restaurant, Law eats a cooked twin reptile and builds a gun out of its skeleton. He claims that it tastes disgusting and that he’s fighting his character’s urge to eat it and construct the gun but he’s failing poorly. Law’s poor acting shows no evidence of a genuine struggle, though; the whole time, we watch him merely tearing reptile flesh off the bone as if it were a tasty buffalo wing, and talking casually about the horror of it.

I could go on, and if I started now about the parts where the characters turn into frozen bodies shouting icy-venomous villainous platitudes, I wouldn’t stop. Granted, there are some strong performances on the sidelines: Ian Holm as a Russian surgeon focused on fixing diseased and wounded pods; Callum Keith Rennie, juggling multiple roles as seamlessly as one would expect Law and Leigh to; Oscar Hsu, doing all he can as a stereotyped Chinese waiter; and Sarah Polley, doing all she can in her very limited screen time. But that’s not enough to push this film above water. At the point when it ought to be devolving into disturbing incoherence, the story instead devolves into a somewhat straightforward shoot-‘em-up, ending with an inexplicable betrayal, followed by an absolute cop-out of a twist that negates the whole film, which itself turns out to be a lame false ending. Making a meta-film that lampoons cinema is not an excuse for subpar acting and a subpar story; there are great meta-films (Bergman’s Persona, for one) that have stripped cinema bare while retaining great performances and refusing to toss story to the wind. I’m on a downward trajectory with Cronenberg. First, I watched A History of Violence, which is a masterpiece; then Eastern Promises, which is fine; then Dead Ringers, which is masterful right up until its lackluster ending; then this, which is a disappointment. Someone please tell me which of his I should watch next.

Grade: C

Review: “eXistenZ”