Saturday, March 25, 2017

Personal Shopper

Swedish painter Hilma af Klint

Director Olivier Assayas at Cannes

PERSONAL SHOPPER                    B+                  
France  Germany  (105 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Olivier Assayas           Official site

It’s important to remember that Assayas was a painter before he became a filmmaker, where the remarkable fluidity of his film style may be attributed to his ability to visualize ahead of time the exact look he wants onscreen, where a rush of images resemble an improvisatory style of painting, perhaps accentuating the spontaneity of the moment, using a contemplative, stream-of-conscious narrative that comprises a radically modernist film style, at times somber and reflective, while at other times feeling like an assault to the senses.  Here he resorts to an old-fashioned, haunted house genre, conjuring up dead spirits and ghosts from the past, which at times is amusing, like an homage to Hitchcock, a filmmaker having fun and playing with the art of his craft, yet also delves into the horror genre, where fear and existential angst create an absorbing interior dread.  At the center of the picture, and in nearly every shot, is the young protagonist Maureen (Kristen Stewart, who seems to inhabit the role), an American in Paris, a psychic medium who believes she is capable of communicating with a spirit world.  Some in the audience will giggle, constantly whisper amongst themselves, and simply never get past this point, as they will find the premise too preposterous, too far-fetched and unbelievable, especially the use of cheesy CGI effects in an otherwise realistic film.  While the film was booed at Cannes, this is largely because a prominent French filmmaker made a film starring a tabloid celebrated American actress where the predominate language spoken is English, yet others, to be sure, are among this camp of ardent disbelievers.  Assayas, however, has always been on the cutting edge of new technology, prominently featuring an iPhone as a secondary character, where the narrative is advanced by rapid text conversations from someone identified as “Unknown,” which gives the film something instantly recognizable, while also adding an element of mystery and intrigue.  Using a film-within-a-film device, Maureen becomes riveted by watching a documentary piece on her phone about Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944), (Hilma af Klint - A Pioneer of Abstraction (eng.sub) - YouTube, 22:01), who claimed to be a clairvoyant, who was told by spirit voices to paint “on the astral plane,” whose work is derived from mysticism and the awareness of higher levels of consciousness, an aspect that is currently being marginalized in an increasingly materialistic world.  Af Klint is another psychic believer who conducted séances with other artists, whose occult-inspired paintings were among the first representations of abstract art, so she refused to publicly show these paintings during her lifetime, knowing they would not be understood, as they were believed to be decades before their time, released twenty years after her death, as stipulated by her will, where in an interesting parallel, the creativity behind these paintings was inspired by “unknown” forces.  

Like the last Assayas film, 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria, the director’s first collaboration with Stewart, she plays another disaffected assistant to an overbearing star.  While she played a secondary role in the earlier film, here she is the centerpiece, where we see everything through her eyes.  While the film is comprised with on-the-street, cinéma vérité moments of Kristen Stewart zipping around Paris and London on a moped picking out ultra chic designer outfits and Cartier jewelry for an haut couture fashion model star who is rarely ever seen, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), whose domineering reputation precedes her, where the selfish conceits of her narcissistic boss are unnerving, making her a pain to work for, placing her in a fully subservient and demeaning role, yet the idea of having the freedom to work with designers, choosing their latest creations, and having them at your beck and call, as her boss is too busy and too recognizable to perform these duties herself, offers a kind of titillating luxury most of us will never know, flittering in and out of the high life, dropping off accessories, having access to often empty upscale apartments where she’s free to imagine herself in a parallel existence leading a life of pampered indulgence.  But the film is not about class difference, though in stark contrast, Maureen runs around in jeans, T-shirts and old sweaters, instead one of the visceral thrills she gets is secretly trying on her boss’s clothes, something she’s explicitly forbidden to do, but operating completely on her own, almost never running into her boss, she sets her own boundaries.  With occasional skype calls from a boyfriend abroad (Ty Olwin), who is consumed by a high tech security instillation in Oman, Maureen makes frequent visits to her sister Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who seems to keep her grounded.  When not shopping for Kyra, she spends her free time communing with the dead, hoping for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother, Lewis, as both share the same congenital heart condition, which caused his sudden death, and both are psychic mediums, having made a pact that the first one to die would send a recognizable sign.  This aspect of the film has sinister implications, especially when the wrong spirits show up, as they are often angry and incensed at finding themselves summoned by strangers, where the idea of wandering endlessly in the spirit world does not sound inviting.  Because she is a medium, however, she’s able to understand these mix-ups, a skill viewers may not share, leaving them perplexed by the cinematic trickery involved, where the baffling weirdness of ghosts onscreen is still relatively shocking in arthouse cinema. 

Assayas shared the Best Direction prize at Cannes with Romanian director Christian Mungiu for Graduation (Bacalaureat) (2015), two very different styles of film, yet both are eerily distinctive at tapping into modern era anxieties and discontent, where Maureen is not only trying to come to terms with her brother’s death, exposing herself to phantoms of the spirit world, but leads such a detached existence, disconnected from her own employer, always missing each other, instead leaving each other notes, rarely having any contact, she is also targeted by an unknown caller on her smartphone, all but contaminating an indispensable part of her existence, who seems intimately familiar with her every move, initially suspecting it was her brother from beyond the grave, but it leads to more menacing implications, as if someone is stalking her and watching her every move, where an unsettling relationship, of sorts, develops over a prolonged sequence of text messages that leads to a great deal of confusion and fear, feeling completely exposed, even ashamed, where there are dangerous forces on the loose.  This powerful sense of emptiness and loss follows her everywhere, which may be associated with her enveloping grief, but is further exacerbated by her entry into the supernatural, where all the forces align in painting a complex portrait of contemporary unease, becoming a meditation on loss, but also jealousy, identity, and desire, where Maureen loses all sense of herself.  One of the more bizarre sequences finds Maureen alone in Kyra’s apartment, as she is away on business, allowing her to try on various outfits, changing places with her employer, perhaps reminiscent of Jean Genet’s The Maids, yet the eerie music on the soundtrack is Marlene Dietrich singing a bleak Viennese folksong about how Death doesn’t differentiate, as it cuts down the rich and poor alike, Marlene Dietrich "Das Hobellied" 1952 (Feathers 2/2). - YouTube (2:02), which opens the door to darker, more ominous forces that creep ever closer, brilliantly conveyed by a series of unread texts unraveling in waves, that develop a more threatening tone with every new line, instantly filling her with dread, feeling exposed, as if she is on the precipice of the abyss.  With the phone itself becoming an instrument of horror, violence ensues, though not as one might suspect, as technology is a tool that seems to have robbed our souls of greater meaning in life, leaving us even more disconnected and alone, a vulnerable and precarious position, to be sure.  Caught in a labyrinth of fear, she makes her escape, scampering off to Oman, where the specifics of her detailed instructions out into the hinterlands lead her farther and farther away from any recognizable signs of civilization, where she may as well be in an altogether different universe, like a portal to the unknown (where there is probably no cellphone connection).  Maureen continually places herself in haunted space, contemplating her experience afterwards, though by the end whether she is liberated or not remains an open question, yet there are inevitably lingering doubts, larger existential questions that go unanswered, but viewers are likely to be caught off-guard while the film searches for answers about the unknown mysteries of the modern world, including a driving, often irrational need to fill a void of emptiness in our human existence.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dying Laughing

DYING LAUGHING                        B-                   
Great Britain  (89 mi)  2016  d:  Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood

Comedy is purely a result of your ability to withstand self-torture.  That’s where you get great comedy.  Your ability to suffer and go, ‘That damn thing still doesn’t work.  I’m gonna write it again; I’m gonna try it again.’ And If you’re willing to do that, 85 times for a stupid joke, over the course of many years, great jokes get written.
—Jerry Seinfeld 

A British documentary on the art of stand-up comedy, viewed through the lens of current British and American comedians speaking about their craft, interviewing more than 50 comedians overall, though the film refuses to show actual clips of them performing their routines.  While it only superficially examines the surface, the basic premise explores a comedian’s first moments onstage, how it’s not at all what one expects, as it’s rarely a laugh riot, instead it’s a brutally harsh environment where judgmental behavior can instantly go awry, leaving you exiting the stage in a cold sweat, swearing you’ll never try that again, as it’s such a personal rebuke of who you are as a human being.  Unlike other industries or mediums, there is no filter in this profession, where it’s about as personal as it gets, with nothing to protect you from drunken hecklers or a vehemently disinterested audience that simply refuses to laugh at your material and instead calls for you to get off the stage.  The personal nature of the rejection, cries of “you stink” coming from the audience, pierce through a comedian’s armor with often devastating results.  These are painful moments in the life of every starting comedian, yet that wall of negativity is what must be overcome if you wish to remain in the profession.  According to Jerry Seinfeld, “The first time you go on stage, you don’t realize how harsh of an environment it actually is.  When you watch comedians, when you don’t know anything about the context, it seems like the audience is kind of having a good time anyway. That’s not what’s happening at all.  What’s happening is nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  It’s dead, solid quiet from a room of unhappy people…and you have to start from that.”  You must experience the silent indifference and epic emptiness of the low moments before you can rise to greater heights, rewriting and reworking your material, being better prepared next time, intentionally targeting that wall of silence.  Shot in black and white, with cameras pointed at a series of comedians who each answer one at a time, recalling their worst experience onstage.  While most have the ability to keep it light and funny, others are visibly hurt by the extent of the personalized pain, suggesting that is something that never goes away.  While there is a long list of mostly recognizable figures including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Jamie Foxx, Cedrick the Entertainer, Steve Coogan, and even Jerry Lewis, among others, including some unfamiliar British faces, the personalized nature of their experiences makes this uniquely interesting and hilariously funny at times, but the material grows thin after a while and loses its cutting edge, continually repeating itself, where you get the feeling it’s drifting, never really going anywhere.

While several of the remarks are profoundly moving, offering a sense of tragedy, the filmmakers never follow up to explore more deeply, content at providing a generalized overall view, while the film may actually be a self-help guide or an instructional kit for what to expect when you embark on your new career as a comedian.  We do get a sense that many comics start by copying others, doing imitations, stealing each other’s jokes, but that the best laughs come by telling true stories, something that is authentically your own, as this is something that’s never been heard before.  Chris Rock claims “Only poetry comes up to the same level.  We’re the last philosophers,” claiming they are the last remaining group that is totally allowed unconditionally to speak freely.  “Everybody now that talks is reading from a preapproved script.  Even our alleged ‘smart people’ are corporately controlled.  So there’s only one group of people that kinda say what they want to say.”  Without delving into the art of comedy or what makes something funny, the film is actually more interested in the painful moments, where each is asked to relive the most brutally painful experience they’ve ever had onstage, including when they’ve bombed, where there’s a large segment devoted to hecklers, where some face them head on, refusing to allow others to wrest the power from their microphones, while others recall racially tinged hecklers that simply stopped the show altogether, forcing them off the stage, never to return to that location ever again.  There seems to be a difference in American and British comedians, as Americans have a tradition of going “on the road,” indicating a willingness to accept a certain amount of rural desolation, far from anyplace recognizable, where they’re booked into an endless series of nights in small towns along barren highways with bad food and no name motels, where the isolation is crushing, far from your family and everything you’re familiar with, completely alone, not knowing anyone in town, yet you’re supposed to be funny in a room full of strangers, with some reporting the audience is the first conversation they’ve had with anybody else all day.  British comedians usually play in large metropolitan towns, where there’s no sense of the utter isolation that Americans are forced to experience.  Sometimes you perform in bars, where they turn off the TV when you begin your act, but some patrons are personally invested in whatever sporting event was being shown, screaming for the TV to be turned back on, getting pissed off and angry, but then the comedian is supposed to fill the room with laughs. 

The film never revisits history, but traditionally, in the old vaudeville halls, comedians were used to entertain the crowd before the dancing girls came onstage, where they were routinely booed off the stage or stopped in mid act to bring on what the audience came to see.  Similarly, Keenan Ivory Wayans remembers playing a set in the remote wilds of Alaska, where the venue was a strip club, with an audience full of men packing guns who’d been working out in the wilderness for the last six months, who had no interest in his jokes, as they hadn’t seen a naked woman in several months. Unfortunately, there is too much unnecessary filler material, comments from people we don’t know or like, who are basically echoing sentiments we’ve already heard earlier in the film by somebody else.  While the British comedians probably play well in England, and the Americans in the United States, only a few are popular on both continents, which means audiences from both nations will be expected to hear unfamiliar voices that may affect one’s appreciation for the film.  Ultimately what stands out is that the career of comedians is hardly glamorous, and more often grueling and disorientating, especially being in unfamiliar places, where black female comedian Cocoa Brown reveals, “It’s lonely.  You know, I can be onstage in front of 5,000 people, get a standing ovation and go to my hotel room to complete silence.  And I’m looking at the money on the bed, and the room service I just ordered, but I have no one to call.”  According to Amy Schumer, she felt lucky if there was free yogurt and orange juice offered in the lobby in the morning, while Royale Watkins is reduced to tears recalling his worst show happened with Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson in the audience, making it even more excruciatingly painful, as in those moments you don’t get a second chance, so despite hundreds of successful shows, this is the one that sticks with you.  While searching for that magic to click onstage, something Jerry Lewis describes as “the hallelujah moment,” the film seems to fixate on the dark underbelly of the profession, recalling heartbreaking moments onstage, where depression also follows you in the utter isolation of being on the road, forced to confront hostile and indifferent crowds, where all it takes is one inebriated heckler to ruin it for everybody else.  Following the recent suicide of Robin Williams (two years ago), it reminds us of the unseen psychological toll that follows these comedians throughout their careers, even after considerable success, where a part of their emotional world always feels damaged, leading to increased anxiety, insecurity, and in some cases substance abuse.  Dedicated to Gary Shandling, who also died less than a year ago, the film is a testament to what it takes to survive.