Sunday, October 28, 2007

Away From Her

Forget the hype about Sofia Coppola: Sarah Polley, the 28-year-old writer-director of Away From Her, is the real deal. Sure, Coppola has a precocious sense of style, but her gaze never travels far from the general vicinity of her bellybutton. Her movies all have the same non-plot: Pretty young things nearly drown in ennui, trapped in a world that Just Doesn’t Get It.

Like Coppola, Polley comes from an artistic family and has been acting since childhood and directing since she was a young adult, starting with short films (Away From Her is her first feature). But Polley’s saucer eyes soak in everything around her. For this movie, the actress chose to adapt a short story by fellow Canadian Alice Munro about a couple who have been married for 50 years, whose relationship changes drastically after the wife develops Alzheimer’s disease.

Away From Her is the kind of quiet character study that generally gets shouldered aside by flashier stuff, so it’s no surprise that it didn’t stay long in theaters this spring. But it’s one of the best movies I saw this year, so it’s worth adding to your Netflix queue if you missed it the first time around.

Polley was not yet married when she first read Munro’s story, but an apparently rich capacity for empathy – not to mention what filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who directed her in The Sweet Hereafter, has referred to as her “alarming maturity” – drew her to the story. "I think we have a really hard time culturally with what happens to love after the first year [of marriage]," she told the New York Times. “It is difficult and it is painful and it is a letdown. It was interesting to me to make a film about what love looked like after life had gotten in the way, and what remained."

In Munro’s story, Grant, a retired professor, must adjust to playing a severely diminished role in the life of his wife, Fiona, after she moves into an Alzheimer’s facility. Within a month, Fiona has forgotten virtually everything about Grant and bonded with a man in the facility, tending to him as if he were her husband and Grant a curiously persistent suitor who can’t take a hint. Polley captures Fiona’s elusive grace, Grant’s sorrow and regret, their potent love for one another, and the increasing delicacy with which they treat each other, falling back on manners when all else fails.

She’s aided by a brilliant cast. Polley says she saw Julie Christie in the part from the time she first read the story, and it’s easy to see why, though it took months for her to persuade the reluctant actress to play the part. Christie’s soulful beauty and her sense of perpetually keeping something of herself in reserve embody Fiona, whose husband describes her as “direct and vague … sweet and ironic.”

Christie is matched by Gordon Pinsent, a renowned Canadian actor whose Grant is dignified and devoted, still trailing whiffs of the charm he once exuded but dulled down a bit by age and sadness. The rest of the cast is also fine, especially Michael Murphy as Aubrey, Fiona’s wordless yet demanding new love; Olympia Dukakis as his bitter, brusque wife; and Kristen Thomson as Kristy, the sympathetic young nurse who helps Grant come to terms with the changes in Fiona.

Polley augments the story to fill out two hours of film. She fleshes out the daily life of the facility, adding an officious administrator and further exploring the character of Kristy. She also shows Fiona thinking about Grant’s decades-old affairs, though those memories haunt only Grant in the story. Polley’s wry sense of humor and eye for idiosyncratic behavior rhyme with Munro’s, making the new material blend in seamlessly.

Cinematographer Luc Montpellier gives the story a steely beauty that matches both the tone of Fiona and Grant’s long marriage and the feel of the Canadian winter, “to bathe Fiona’s and Grant’s relationship with cool winter source light and stay away from warm, romantic clichés,” as he puts it.

In one recurring image, Fiona leaves Grant and their home on her cross-country skis, heading out on a blue winter evening. Christie’s bright eyes, still-sharp cheekbones, silver hair and athletic body are lovely to watch against the trackless snow, but this is more than just a pretty picture. It’s a haunting image, vibrant with significance, that contains the whole ache and arc of Fiona and Grant’s near-lifelong partnership.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

Allan Loeb is one of those screenwriters who’s famous within the industry for a movie nobody has seen. An as-yet unproduced script titled The Only Living Boy in New York has gotten passed around and buzzed about in Hollywood for years, burnishing his reputation though his only credits, until now, were a handful of TV scripts.

But if Only Living Boy is really that good, why is Things We Lost in the Fire, Loeb’s first feature to make it to the screen, such a cliché-ridden, lugubrious misfire?

The fault is surely in the script, since Danish director Susanne Bier’s other work is all about the unpredictability and intensity of human emotions. Take Brothers, Bier’s film about the effect of the war in Afghanistan on a soldier and the family he left behind. When the tension that’s been building erupts in a fight, it’s genuinely scary: The sparring starts suddenly and proceeds messily, building up to a charged standoff that could easily go either way.

There’s nothing approaching that raw naturalism in this prefab construction. Instead, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make up for what’s lacking in the overdetermined script, we get close-ups so uncomfortably extreme that part of one giant eyeball sometimes fills an entire quarter of the screen. In the right context, zooming in that close on a stranger’s body parts could be revealing, especially when it’s Benicio Del Toro’s shifty eye and pale, puffy eyelid you’re anatomizing, but the effect here is more opthalmalogical than psychological. The same happens in the editing room during a big breakdown. The scene should be an emotional climax, but it goes on so long and makes so many pointless shifts in camera angle that it starts to lose its impact, feeling more like a screen test than a genuine experience.

Loeb’s fashionably fractured narrative jumps back and forth in time and includes a lot of patly packaged moments. It also features a juicy, Oscar-bait female lead. Audrey is a sexy wife, a fiercely protective mother, and a bereft widow, and she gets several big emotional scenes, plus the speech that gives the film its title. No wonder the part “drew the attention of just about every female movie star from Julia Roberts down,” according to the LA Times.

Berry acquits herself with dignity, handling Audrey’s anger particularly well, but the film is stolen by the magnificently unpredictable Del Toro, who plays Jerry, the junkie who was the best friend of Audrey’s deceased husband, Brian (David Duchovny).

De Toro's Jerry vibrates with energy even when he’s nodding out. The intelligence and soul the actor brings to the part singlehandedly make Jerry’s instant chemistry with Audrey’s kids one of the most believable and charming parts of the story, even though the adorably curly-headed actors who play the kids are a bit guarded and self-conscious.

Audrey, who resented Brian’s friendship with Jerry while he was alive, moves his friend into their garage after her husband’s death (this is a better deal than it sounds like, since their house is so swanky that even the garage looks like it was lit by Hurrell.) It’s not clear even to her why she does this, but once she does, Jerry’s relationship to her family becomes the core of the story.

It’s a relief that Jerry and Audrey never hook up romantically, and that the sexual tension between them is acknowledged in a scene where they almost make out and regret it instantly. But everything else that happens after Jerry moves into the garage follows so deep a rut that only Del Toro’s prodigious talent keeps the movie from bogging down completely.

A dull sense of familiarity sets in as Jerry gets clean, get his life back on track, and bonds with Audrey, her kids, and their neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch). Look, there’s Audrey picking a fight with Jerry and kicking him out. There’s Jerry’s relapse, and Audrey tracking him down in a bad part of town. And yup, there’s Jerry, with the blankets and the thrashing and the puking and the sweat, going cold turkey in Audrey’s garage.

The supporting characters are ciphers. all Howard is played strictly for comic relief, his rotten marriage sketched in as lightly as an image traced in steam on a bathroom mirror. Audrey’s mother (or is she her sister?) has even less heft, popping in and out of a couple of scenes without leaving a trace. And Loeb fails to develop either the character of Kelly, a charming girl who falls in love with Jerry in Narcotics Anonymous, or her relationship with Jerry.

A would-be realistic, character-driven drama that lacks the unpredictability and rough texture of real life, Things We Lost in the Fire relies on its stars' personal magnetism and talent, magnified by melodramatic camerawork and editing, to appeal to our emotions. It succeeds now and then, but in the end it's just the emotional equivalent of empty calories, one more piece of processed Hollywood cheese.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ernie Gehr: Exploring the Senses

Central Jersey film lovers have a rare opportunity to see works by a distinguished director of short “avant-garde” films when Ernie Gehr screens several of his movies in Princeton.

Gehr, who has been making movies since the 1960s, is widely recognized as one of the best living experimental filmmakers. In the words of the copy for an exhibit of his work that’s currently running at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, his films “create a sense of wonder with their unfailingly lush, sensual image quality and minute attention to contrast and framing.“

His most famous, Serene Velocity, a hypnotic study of a hallway in which he switches between long shots and close-ups at regular intervals, adjusting the focal length just a bit with each shot to create the illusion of movement, is preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. But none of his two dozen or so movies is available on DVD or video, so chances are you’ve never seen one of his eye-opening meditations on light, color, composition, and film as a medium, which function as a kind of wakeup call to our overtaxed, generally half shut-down senses.

Well, a few have popped up on the Internet, but Gehr advises against watching them there. “They look terrible,” he says. “The one on YouTube is even at the wrong speed. They’re totally misleading.”

Gehr’s November program will consist of recent work on digital video, including some films shown at this year’s New York Film Festival. Next week, he’ll kick off his showings with five older works on 16mm film: Serene Velocity, Wait, Rear Window, Passage, and Side/Walk/Shuttle. The last, which shows aerial views of San Francisco shot from a glass elevator as it floats up and down, was named one of the 10 best movies of 1992 by three of the Village Voice’s contentious critics.

Gehr began making movies after moving to New York and discovering filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ Filmmakers Cinemateque. The film series showed movies by people working outside the Hollywood tradition, including Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Mekas himself. “My education took place by going to see these films, again and again, and seeing the possibilities – that filmmaking wasn’t locked into a certain narrow direction,” says Gehr. “I was also looking at paintings and reading contemporary fiction by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and so on. These films seemed to echo that same tradition of exploring the possibilities of the medium.

“I was interested in cinema, but I didn’t think I would be able to make films,” he adds. “I didn’t have the personality, the connections, or the money to work in Hollywood. I’m a relatively shy person – or was. So when I was finally able to pick up a camera, and to find places where there were other people who would look at this work, it was very exciting. It really opened up opportunities for expressing myself.”

Gehr’s voice sounds a lot like Peter Lorre’s: quietly intense and lightly dusted with the Germanic accent of his youth. His parents were German Jews who survived WWII in Europe, moving their family to this country in the late ‘50s when Gehr was a teen. The family settled in Milwaukee, and Gehr has spent nearly all of his adult life in either San Francisco or New York City.

“I’ve lived in cities all my life,” he says. “Occasionally I would visit a friend in the country and stay overnight, hear the sounds of the crickets, but I don’t know what living in the country is like. I’m drawn to the city. It’s where human history is made, the environment that shapes us in so many ways.”

Perhaps that’s why city life is an integral part of much of his work -- even the main subject of some more recent films. Critic Tom Gunning has called Gehr’s films “a discovery of, and vivid response to, a range of visual phenomenon available in the modern urban environment,” saying they show the city as “a circulatory system, a channeling of flows.”

His work is also an exploration of the characteristics, strengths, and limitations of film itself, so switching to digital video at the turn of the new century was a significant change for Gehr. He did it with considerable trepidation, initially more for financial than artistic reasons.

“I make films, most of the time, with my own savings,” he says. “I do apply for grants, but I’m not very good at that, and since the NEA stopped giving grants to individuals in the mid-90s, it’s been difficult to find support. I make a living teaching rather than from the work itself.

“The problem with working with film now is the labs. To get a print that looks the way you want it to look, sometimes you have to ask for three or four additional prints, and you have to pay for every one. Before, they would just do it over if they didn’t get it quite right the first time.”

Gehr likes the control he gets from “processing” his own digital images in the computer, adjusting colors and so on. He also prefers digital sound quality to the compromised sound you get from converting 16mm magnetic tape to the optical sound used by virtually all U.S. projectors. But there are also things he prefers about film, which he still uses on occasion. “Video is not as dramatic as film,” he says. “The colors are more controllable in film. The image is sharper. The light is more intense. The fact that you have a flicker in the projector makes the image more tactile, more physical. Also, the image in film has the illusion of being more dimensional.

“One of the [digital] pieces that I’ll be showing in November in Princeton, Glider, accentuates that flatness of image,” he adds. “I bring it out rather than trying to hide the quality of video.”

In other words, the details may change in Gehr’s work, but the fundamental things remain the same. And perhaps most fundamental of all is what he calls “a certain responsiveness to the formal characteristics of the medium -- trying to bring them to the foreground and make them tactile, so they can be experienced pleasurably, as something with intrinsic aesthetic value and not just as an idea.”