Friday, August 10, 2007

Indie film round-up: 'Once' and 'Away From Her'

My blog entries are usually long-winded and analytical, so I'll take an ever so brief break from that and just mention two incredibly touching films that I've seen in the past few weeks. Movies are so rarely affecting without resorting to tired and familiar conventions that it seems important to mention them.

The first is 'Once', which you might vaguely know as the Irish musical that stars two musicians with one previous film role between them. The back-story is charming enough in and of itself: a modest production with a $1.5 million budget, they lost their funding when Cillian Murphy - who was going to play the lead - dropped out. (Apparently because he didn't want to act opposite a teenager with no acting experience or sing in the high range that the songs demanded.) Putting together a new budget at one-tenth the original size, the director filled the role with the Glen Hansard - his friend and former band-mate, but also the singer who wrote the music. Explains the director, "Though I was initially thinking of using a good actor who could half sing, I quickly realized I should do it the other way around and get a good singer who could half act."

I could go on about the movie itself, I suppose - about the way in which Hansard and Irglova are often shot from a distance in crowded streets to make it seem as if we're passersby or voyeurs who have stumbled onto their awkward conversations, about how raw and immediate the music is, and mostly about how unbelievably complicated their lives and relationships are so as to make the expected 'happy' ending utterly impossible - but I think it's enough that I simply say that much. There's a cute, if initially confusing, scene about halfway through the film where the two take a scooter ride to the country and Hansard's character asks whether Irglova's is still in love with her husband, who she's separated from. She says something in Czech, smiles, and walks away. That sort of ambiguity, of feelings left unsaid or implicit, gives us a bit of credit as smart viewers - which is always a good thing, and is always more satisfying. (It turns out that she said precisely what we want to believe she said: 'No, I love you.')

The second film is 'Away From Her', which is, shockingly, Sarah Polley's feature-length directorial (and screenwriting) debut. I say shockingly, first of all, because I never would have though that anyone would choose a love story about Alzheimer's to launch their career as a director, much less that she would do it so beautifully. There are the sort of writing hiccups that you would expect of a first-timer - all of the bit players are a too self-conscious and intelligent, saying exactly what Gordon Pinsent's character needs to hear at exactly the right moment - but I honestly can't identify anything in the pacing or framing of the narrative that struck me as wrong. Julie Christie is incredible as the wife, blurring the line between playfulness and deception in those scenes where her character (seems to?) forget something or (pretends to?) surprise us with the recounting of a memory. She's so ridiculously regal and charismatic that we're sucked in when she's toys with Pinsent early in the film and want to believe, as he wants to, that she's continuing to play with him - even as when she's clearly no longer capable of it.

Christie's been getting all the rave reviews, it seems, but I also want to call attention to the much more subdued performance that Pinsent gives. He has much less to work with, given that his character seems to be stoic and repressed, a proud man who carries a lot of guilt and wants only to do right by his wife this last time, at least. And the lengths he'll go to in order to do so are both surprising and wholly, if not problematically, logical. Polley invests a lot of long shots on his face, and in capturing the distant but pained looks that fill his eyes - something about it recalls Richard Farnsworth in 'The Straight Story' for me. And the ending of the film? I'll simply say that it's inevitable but catches you off-guard nonetheless. It's a heart-wrenchingly ambivalent moment, somehow provoking a powerful response that isn't wholly sad or happy or identifiably anything at all, for that matter. It's so overwhelming that the particular emotional chord(s) it pulls at don't much matter.

1 comment:

Jason Powell said...

Neil,

I read the X-Men essay. Really loved it -- I think it's spot-on. I finally got my brains together long enough to formulate some kind of reply.

Your essay got me thinking -- and I wanted to know if you had thoughts on this -- about where Claremont took the X-Men in years after the Morlock material that you discussed.

After all, it didn't take long after their first appearance for the Morlocks to transform from adversaries to allies. Magneto too, and even the Hellfire club, sort of. In other words, a lot of people that the X-Men fought against in their roles as a "counter-revolutionary" force eventually became their allies, and typically it was in response to a growing sense that anti-mutant prejudice was becoming too powerful a force for the X-Men to stand against alone.

It gets me wondering if maybe Claremont was starting to become aware of some of the hypocrisies of the X-Men premise -- particularly the place of privilege that the "heroes" occupied and the fact that they often fought against underprivileged and/or revolutionary factions of the mutant "minority" -- and was trying to realign the book to make the X-Men seem more like victims? Or perhaps Claremont just felt there would be more drama/melodrama in the comic if the X-Men became the underdogs, and the political implications were not really a conscious concern.

In any case, by the time you reach the era of the Mutant Massacre (Uncanny 210-213), there has been a very deliberate shift. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- a revolutionary group that the X-Men fought to protect humans from (making the X-Men "counter-revolutionary" as per your Julian Darius quote) -- has, by this point in the series, of "Uncanny," become government flunkies whose assignment is to arrest any "unregistered" mutants -- which includes the X-Men. Circa issues 206-210, the X-Men have been hounded several times by the Brotherhood (now hypocritically called "Freedom Force," presumably because they're fighting for humans' freedom from mutants?) and are forced to take shelter in the sewers with the Morlocks.

So there are at least three factions who have been realigned. The Morlocks -- who used to be presented as villains "as a direct result of their refusal to conform to non-mutant norms," are now presented as allies of the heroes. The heroes themselves, the X-Men, who in their earliest incarnation allied themselves with the US government to take down a pro-mutant terrorist -- are now victims of that self-same government. And the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are now government lackeys, selling out their fellow mutants in order to get in the US government's good graces (essentially portrayed as villains for doing exactly what the X-Men used to do!).

It's interesting to me that Claremont -- whether deliberately or just as a by-product of his soap-opera-style plotting -- went to some lengths to alleviate some of the X-Men's problematic politics. Which is not to say he didn't solve all the comic's problems or clear it of some of its more insidious and subtle difficulties. (For example, the team continued to consist of "beautiful people" even when appearing in stories like the apartheid allegory from Uncanny 235-238 -- a favorite of mine, by the way.)

Still, I wonder if Claremont would have taken things further in that more pro-revolutionary direction had Marvel Editorial not tightened the reins and forced Claremont and his collaborators to return the X-Men to their iconic, Silver Age status. (If he hadn't, would the X-Men still be living a simplistic existence in shacks in the Australian outback rather than having returned to their ridiculously large and luxurious mansion housing their "exclusive private school"?)