Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Book of Life

THE BOOK OF LIFE            A                    
USA  France  (63 mi)  1998  d:  Hal Hartley

I could never get used to that part of the job.  The power and the glory.  The threat of divine vengeance.  But I persevered.  I was about my Father’s business.  It was the morning of December 31st, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead.  Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts.
─Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan)

Following on the heels of the immensely enjoyable Henry Fool (1997), Hartley continues to play it fast and loose with this little one-hour gem, a romp in the park, a witty, entirely imaginative scenario facing the dreaded new millennium, all taking place 12-31-99 in New York City as the Y2K Apocalypse is fast approaching where all hell is supposed to break loose, only this time it’s the real deal.  Jesus Christ, the quiet, suave, yet troubled Martin Donovan lands at JFK airport in a clean cut, blue suit to meet with God’s lawyers, Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon & Greene to settle this whole Apocalypse thing and carry out the will of God.  Following close behind is the über-female, PJ Harvey as Magdalena, carrying a backpack with all the necessary paperwork, including a Mac laptop containing the seven seals in the Book of Life, three of which have yet to be opened, also including the names of the 144,000 souls that will be spared eternal damnation.  They check into a sleek, modern Manhattan hotel room.  On the way in, they catch a glimpse of Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool), who gazes, and holds his attention, as if recognizing someone familiar.

Ryan shows up in a coffee shop with Dave Simonds, a down-on-his-luck, compulsive gambler named Dave, and with a devilishly smooth sales pitch offers him a guaranteed winning lottery ticket.  “What’s the catch?”  “No catch.”  “I’ll have to think about it.”  As it turns out, Ryan is actually a sleazy, compulsively bad-news Satan, with a black eye and a bandaged cut on his face, called “Mr. Chuckles” by Dave, who recognizes that spew of venom and hopeless negativity about the end of the world coming out of his mouth because he’s been living it.  But then Satan turns on the screws, pulling into the game that sweet little waitress behind the counter Edie, played by Hartley’s gorgeous wife Mihi Nikaido, the one who’s been giving him free coffee and pretending not to notice, described by Satan as “terminally good.”  Would Dave surrender her soul in exchange for the winning lottery ticket?  Meanwhile we get a steady dose of William S. Burroughs on the radio as an apocalyptic preacher describing how doom and damnation will arrive no sooner than tonight.  When Dave asks Edie why she listens to that crap, she responds, “I like the hymns.” Edie, by the way, is so sweet and low key, she makes a terrific foil to the more manic and world weary Satan.  A compulsive gambler however can’t resist for long and eventually accepts the deal, and when the ticket hits, Edie decides she wants to spend her time serving homemade soup to the homeless, while Dave turns his attention to Christ “Can you help me?  I think I’ve just lost my girlfriend’s immortal soul for a long shot.”    

An extremely stylish film that’s obviously been Wong Kar-wai-icized, featuring a nonstop whir of colorful blurred images that seem to represent life passing by at the speed of light, where all of history moves in a passing instant, where each person, each soul, is a speck in the landscape. The dialogue is quick, fresh, occasionally brilliant, spoken with that precise comic timing of Hartley deadpan humor that is like no other.  From the opening, the fast talking, wise-cracking Satan has all the best lines, countered by the almost angelic good moods of Edie, but one of the better scenes is a meeting in a bar between Satan and Jesus where they toss back a few drinks together, where the Son of God must proceed with the business at hand which is about to get messy.  But Jesus gets cold feet and starts wavering, feeling uneasy about implementing the totality of a Final Judgment.  Satan reminds him He has no choice, that it’s all been prophesied in Revelations.  Speaking of those prophets, “I really never liked those guys anyway” Jesus laments, claiming He may have to break with His Father on this one, refusing to carry it out, as He’s always had His doubts about all that vengeance and wrath of God.  After all, He lived as a human once, and He’s grown fond of them.  Satan is fascinated by the startling developments and starts feeling a little brotherly towards Jesus, as both are now permanently exiled from God.

Well, of course, improbable things happen when Word gets out, including Mormons in a shoot out at God’s law firm, Satan finding a live microphone set up on the street where he offers a few choice comments, or PJ Harvey making a visit to a Tower record store where she sings a smokin’ version of “To Sir With Love,” PJ Harvey sings ''To Sir With Love'' - YouTube (1:16), with a dissonant screeching guitar in the background.  The music and sound design have an edgy subterranean groove that matches the feeling of a world on its edge, about to tilt on its axis, usually shot with oblique angles.  The provocative and colorful storyline always has a playful, yet dour mood happening simultaneously, where the free wheeling twists and turns are off the wall funny, including Yo La Tengo as a Salvation Army Band.  Hartley was one of the dozen international directors selected to make short films that dealt with the theme of the new millennium, commissioned by French TV’s 2000 Seen By film project, another of whom was Tsai Ming-liang’s THE HOLE, which was lengthened to a feature length film.  The film’s shorter length actually works here, as it has the feel of a concise, well-written short story with nothing extra tagged on, where the incredibly fast pace of urban life in New York City moves at near breakneck speed, almost like a 1930’s screwball sci-fi comedy.     

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Henry Fool

HENRY FOOL       A                       
USA  (137 mi)  1997  d:  Hal Hartley

Written, directed, produced, and music written by and performed by the director in a truly amazing display of offbeat hilarity and intelligence, winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, this superbly directed film has a flair for imaginative visual imagery.  An immensely enjoyable film featuring stellar acting, James Urbaniak plays Simon Grim as a dour and humorless garbage man who is quiet, nonverbal, and totally nerdy, a lonely outcast living in a dysfunctional family that includes his more exhibitionist, nymphomaniac sister Fay, the always alluring Parker Posey, who never ceases to amaze with her electrifying performances.  While Posey is simply sensational, she’s quite a contrast to their depressed and mentally unstable mother (Maria Porter) who requires a heavy dose of looking after, and even heavier doses of medicine.  Into their lives walks Henry Fool, Thomas Jay Ryan in a stunning movie debut, who simply inhabits the role of a lifetime as a beer-guzzling, chain-smoking, fast-talking con man, a colossal egomaniac and self-styled intellectual whose motto is “An honest man is always in trouble.”  Preoccupied with writing his memoirs, Henry carries around with him a bundle of handwritten notebooks, a multiple volume “Confession” that he claims will “blow a hole in the literary establishment,” describing his manifesto in painstaking detail, “It’s a philosophy.  A poetics.  A politics, if you will.  A literature of protest.  A novel of ideas.  A pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions.  It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be.  And when I’m through with it it’s going to blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself.”  Among other things, Henry is an overly pompous, hedonistic sham, but also a lecherous man who was recently released from prison after serving 7-years for having sex with a minor, is always on the run from his parole officer, and takes up residence in Simon’s basement apartment in Queens. 

In a story partially inspired by the real-life friendship between Irish novelist James Joyce and his younger disciple Samuel Beckett, Henry, a true instigator of dreams, encourages Simon to overcome his exceedingly low self-esteem and take up writing, inspiring him to write “the great American novel.”  Unbelievably, Simon writes a bombshell, an epic poem denounced as obscene and pornographic by the local school board, but hailed as a visionary work.  At first recognized only by Henry, who convinces Simon to publish, he is rejected at every turn until Henry comes up with the idea of putting the poem on the Internet, causing a worldwide groundswell of attention, literally changing the lives of all who read it, making Simon the equivalent of a rock star, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, while Henry’s work is denounced as inept and pretentious, causing him to utter such self-congratulatory remarks as “A prophet is seldom heeded in his own land.”  While this change of fate creates a certain degree of friction, matching the twists and turns in the storyline, each more improbable than the last, however the tender relationship between Simon and Henry is highly developed and truly unique, two improbable lost souls locked together in a bleak, but disturbingly absurdist world, perhaps perfectly captured by the strange cast of characters inhabiting the “World of Donuts” down the block, a convenience store that seems to be a neighborhood conduit to which everything else in this film is connected in some strange way.

As we follow the rhythm of life in deadpan faces, oblique angles, and clipped phrases, distinguishing characteristics present in all Hal Hartley films, here the donut shop becomes a meeting place people come and go, where it’s impossible not to notice the owner’s sister singing softly when she first reads Simon’s poem, but also the irritating politics of pretense represented by a losing reactionary congressional candidate who props himself up with the support of a neighborhood bully, but then makes his own assessment of Simon’s poem on television, calling it a disgusting outrage to the moral fabric of the country.  It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Henry’s life sinks to the bottom, consisting of hanging around in depraved, low-life bars spouting his own self-styled philosophy like, “You need to do something to be ashamed of every once in a while,”or “You can’t put a fence around a man’s soul, we think and feel where and when we think and feel.  We are servants of our muse and we toil where she commands,” while rationalizing a life avoiding responsibility and work of any kind, complaining, “I can’t work for a living, Simon, it’s impossible.  I’ve tried once.  My genius will be wasted trying to make ends meet.  This is how great men topple.”  But he finds time to impregnate Fay, where we witness the neverending flow of Budweiser, a wonderful dance scene at Henry’s wedding, and *the* memorable bathroom scene that leads up to the wedding.  Henry is always chasing his own shadow, turning darker, elusive, and more troubling with each passing year, but he continually searches for his humanity, his moment of glory in a world dulled by doomed romances and dead-end lives.  Epic, and yet small and intimate, the clever intensity of the dialogue makes every word matter as the film challenges the worth and meaning of art, the random and elusive nature of success, while exploring the evershifting role of an artist in the modern world.  While exploring the entire dynamic of artistic expression, the ultimate irony is pouring your heart and soul into a work that is largely ignored by the viewing public, the curse of the low-budget, independent film movement, where in a business that prefers to finance and celebrate films that make the most noise, those devoted cineaste followers of lesser known, more outlandishly original films are a dying breed.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Samuel Boidin (left), Adélaïde Leroux, and director Bruno Dumont at Cannes 2006


FLANDRES                  B+                  
aka:  Flanders
France  (91 mi)  2006  ‘Scope  d:  Bruno Dumont

Location, location, location is everything in Bruno Dumont films, opening this film in familiar territory, as he has done in all three of his films shot in France, conjuring up his home town of Bailleul in Flanders near the Belgium border, with an almost SATANTANGO-like opening, hearing only the natural sounds of a rural farm as the camera peeks around corners of a barn or stares off into the distant horizon past a vast landscape of well ploughed farmland, where as far as the eye can see is the faint outline of a town with church steeples rising high above anything else.  The pillars of morality are a constant reminder looming off in the distance.  But what we are witness to here is anything but moral, as a promiscuous young girl Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) sneaks off into the woods or into the barn for 30 second fucks with a strangely Neanderthal, nearly non-verbal guy, André Demester (Samuel Boidin, who was also in THE LIFE OF JESUS), neither showing any affection or satisfaction of any kind, instead it’s just a break in a stifling routine of boredom in her case or chores in his, as he otherwise spends all day ploughing the fields or shoveling pig manure.  Perhaps because she can, a new guy is invited to enter the picture, and Barbe becomes infatuated with hanging out with them both, but she displays more overt affection for the new guy, which leads to an internalized slow burn of jealousy and resentment in Demester of an almost biblical proportion.  Everything is filmed with Dumont’s ominously slow pace where every foreshadowing scene feels like grim foreboding.  

Once more, using the Bressonian template, it’s not about the acting, as Dumont is known for his brilliant use of offscreen sounds and for using non-professionals, whose silent expressionless gazes could be interchangeable throughout his films.  The opening fifteen minutes is all about the sounds of feet walking through the mud, or trampling down a country road or through the brush, allowing the camera to dwell on shots of feet, slowly building a rhythm of bleak monotony.  Oblique reference is made to a letter Demester received, which instructs him to report for military duty to fight in a war he knows nothing about, not even where it is, but it’s his letter of introduction to join the war on terror.  Strangely, Barbe’s other friend will join him as they are both ushered into a foreign country of unknown origins that features Arabic speaking, dark skinned people, a stand in for Afghanistan or Iraq (shot in Tunisia).  Immediately we witness fisticuffs between black and white soldiers on the same side, with the white man asserting his dominance, which is the new world order, the pre-condition for 21st century wars fought by highly developed industrialized nations against impoverished third world countries.  The white dominated nations always establish their military strength with a brazen display of superior sophisticated weaponry (shock and awe), but it doesn’t help them much, as they are fighting a war against an unseen enemy.  Exquisitely shot by Yves Cape, there’s a gorgeous John Ford-like panoramic shot across a vast desert expanse with low lying mountains dotting the landscape, utterly beautiful, with six heavily armed men crawling across this emptiness on horses, reduced to just barely seen dots on the screen.  When we move in close, all we see is the movement of the horse’s hooves.

What follows is a breakdown in moral order, where murder and rape are acceptable conditions of war, perpetrated by the men in Demester’s unit in which he is a willing participant.  But the intensity of war is brilliantly demonstrated in short order as we are witnessing the slaughter of men by unseen forces, very similar to the searingly intense scenes in FULL METAL JACKET (1987), perhaps intentionally so, using that same kind of austere filmmaking style of Kubrick, where everything in the frame is surgically precise, exactly where it's supposed to be.  An abrupt tonal shift in battle confidence takes place from being top cock on the block to instantly being the hunted, dehumanized, shamed, and brutalized in retaliation for the horrors they themselves inflicted without so much as batting an eye.  The overriding mood is one of insane fear, as the inexplicable reality of death hovers over every man, even the ones who survive.  The brutality of war is shown on dual fronts, both home and abroad, shifting abruptly between continents and even psychological wavelengths to establish how externalized violence gets internalized like secondhand smoke, the kind of devastating anguish that may linger around for years to come or even for the rest of your life, while the actual bomb blast or rifle shot takes place in mere seconds.  It’s a shocking depiction of how we are all implicated and harmed, no one is spared, not even in this sleepy rural farmland, the site of some of the worst fighting in WWI, but where decades of uninterrupted peace seem like light years from the traumatic horrors that inhabit the front lines of war.  The film lacks the unique insight or originality of his earlier films, but does a much better job implicating the everyday, ordinary citizens into what has become the overriding world condition, the war on terror, perhaps leading us to a place where we’ve already been, but through a different path we've never taken before.