Tuesday 27 October 2009

Jane Campion's Bright Star

British audiences have become so used to seeing dumbed-down, sexed-up treatments of the lives of writers and artists that Bright Star - Jane Campion’s film about John Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne - may come as something of a shock. At once austere and lush, Campion’s sensitive and intelligent movie functions as an antidote to brash and banal TV programmes such as Desperate Romantics (2009): its dialogue is mostly believable; it has committed, uncaricatured performances (especially from Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as Keats and Fanny); it delicately evokes nature and the changing seasons; and it gracefully works in a fair number of Keats’s poems. It is, as reviewers have consistently been pointing out, a “beautiful” work.

But if the good news is that Campion has avoided some of the crasser tendencies of the TV and film biopic with Bright Star, the bad news is that, in doing so, she’s produced her most conventional movie to date. As Bright Star progressed, I found myself longing for some of the idiosyncratic touches that have enlivened and sometimes even irritated me in her earlier films: the inspired Buñuel parody that turns up in the middle of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), for example. Campion has spent six years away from the film world since In the Cut (2003), and she seems to have returned to it a much more cautious artist. The movie begins by presenting Brawne in a way that jibes with Campion's earlier constructions of "difficult" heroines. But there are, sadly, no stylistic quirks in Bright Star to distinguish it in any way as a Jane Campion film. Thus the movie, though admirable in many ways, is never very exciting.

There’s another slight problem: the movie’s insistence on creating what feels like a highly contrived kind of conflict. Contemporary biographies and biopics alike specialise in offering reductive versions of people, and here Keats’s great friend and collaborator Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) comes to function as Bright Star’s villian, as Campion engages him in a tussle with Fanny over Keats’s mortal soul. It’s not even a fair fight: Campion is so clearly on Fanny’s side that the silly scenes in which Brown attempts to intercept the lovers' communication come off like rehashed, under-heated bits of The Piano (1993) - with Brown placed in the Sam Neill role. (Schnieder’s over-emphatic, erratically-accented performance also stacks the odds against his character from the start.) Not every movie requires an antagonist; Bright Star, certainly, would have been better off without one.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

“The complexity of things - the things within things - just seems to be endless” (Alice Munro)

It’s both a great pleasure and something of a surprise to find yourself with a new book by Alice Munro in your hands. A pleasure because Munro’s stories (recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize for overall contribution to literature) are invariably such an addictive, immersive treat; a surprise because Munro had more or less announced that her collection The View From Castle Rock (2006) would be her last. Sad as that news was, that book felt like an appropriate end to Munro’s career, revisiting as it did a number of her previous stories from a more overtly auto/biographical perspective. But three years on Too Much Happiness has appeared, and I seem to remember Munro being quoted as saying that her 2004 collection Runaway (my favourite book of hers, alongside The Beggar Maid [1978]) was also to be her last. Like so many of her protagonists, Munro, it seems, cannot easily give up the urge to story-telling. For this we should be thankful.

I confess, though, that Munro’s stories have begun to scare me a little. Not just because they are so devastatingly good, but also because their author has latterly become, in Jonathan Franzen’s phrase, “a master of suspense.” The temporal loopings and fractures that have increasingly characterised her stories are sharper and more pointed now so that, as readers, we’re often caught up in the emotional fall-out of an event before we bear witness to the event itself. The first story in Too Much Happiness, “Dimensions,” must rank as one of the most disturbing things that Munro has yet written; the story works up to the most unspeakable of events through incremental details. And yet the revelation of that event in no way constitutes the whole story. Munro often chooses to end her stories on moments of reversal or "supplement" far too complex in their ramifications to be described as "twists." Here, the knowledge disseminated by a perpetrator of violence comes to save a life in the end.

A later story, “Free Radicals,” is practically Munro’s Funny Games, a face-off between an intruder and a terminally ill woman that strikes terror with the simple sentence “Look what I gone and done now.” Unlike Haneke’s puppet-pawn protagonists, however, Munro permits her character agency: the construction of narrative here saves one life (in a way that seems much more believable than the absurd “Dover Beach” recitation in McEwan’s Saturday). An accident - typically, for Munro - quickly finishes another.

With the stories pivoting around incidents of violence and swerving in and out of the thriller genre, by the time you get to a story entitled “Child’s Play” you’re almost expecting an appearance from Chucky the devil-doll. (Sadly not, though the story is properly unsettling, offering an analysis of girlhood treachery that surpasses Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.) Some stories explore familiar Munrovian themes from a fresh perspective. Taking its title from the Houseman poem that the protagonist is coerced into reciting (under very particular circumstances), “Wenlock Edge” confronts the incongruity of a couple viewed from outside, and turns on a truly satisfying moment of retribution. The superb “Fiction” continues Munro’s examination of the use writers make of real experience (and other people) in their work; Munro’s protagonist here undergoes the experience of finding a version of herself presented in someone else’s fiction; her “confrontation” with the author at a book-signing is a classic scene: funny, deep and brilliantly observed.

Notwithstanding the collection's overall brilliance, a couple of the stories didn’t quite work for me, at least not on a first reading. “Deep-Holes” feels like a companion piece to 21st century absent-child narratives including Shields’s Unless (2002), Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage (2004) and the unforgettable "Chance-Soon-Silence" sequence in Munro’s own Runaway, but, despite a dynamic opening, it adds little to any of these. Though intriguing, “Face” doesn’t quite convince me, and I have a feeling that Munro’s (rare and not entirely successful) use of a male narrator is one of the story’s problems. (There’s a study to be written on Munro’s male characters who seem, unfortunately, to be getting nastier with each collection.) The final, title story is something new for Munro, a text based around a historical figure, in this case the 19th Century Russian novelist and mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. Its full of detail and insight, and is a marvel of sympathetic, felt research. Yet “Too Much Happiness” ultimately strikes me as a story to stand back and admire rather than one to truly love and inhabit.

It’s become commonplace to praise the “fullness” of Munro’s short stories. But reading a new collection by her you’re struck yet again by the ways she finds to make the form so breathtakingly, ballooningly expansive. Starting in one mode and ending in another, swerving unpredictably then guided by a steady hand, Munro’s stories can encompass the trajectory of a life in all its complexity, its fractured experiences gesturing towards connection. Too Much Happiness would be a fine swan-song to her career. But I sense that this writer still has more stories to tell, more of life’s mystery and mundanity to untangle and examine.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Atom Egoyan's Chloe

The winsome Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) gets up to all kinds of things that ABBA never wrote a song about in Atom Egoyan’s latest movie. Adapted by Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson from Anne Fontaine’s 2003 film Nathalie, Chloe turns out to be yet another movie spiced up with a little lipstick lesbianism, in this case a fairly explicit tryst between Seyfried and Julianne Moore. Sadly, the sex scene dissipates the rather intriguing, almost Regarde la Mer-ish tension between the leads and precedes the film’s arthritic stagger into Single White Female mode. Chloe is, by some margin, Egoyan’s trashiest movie to date; it’s as if this radiantly intelligent Canadian auteur had decided that it might be fun to be Paul Verhoeven for the night. Even so, there remains a vague whiff of pretension about Chloe, as if Egoyan was still labouring under the delusion that he was saying something significant about re-lay-shun-ships in this movie. Something. Ah, but what? “The difference in personal interpretation isn’t as ontological [in Chloe] as it is in my other movies," Egoyan has admitted. Umm, right.

Well, ontologically, in Chloe, Moore plays Catherine, a gynaecologist who begins to suspect that her lecturer husband David (Liam Neeson) is having an affair. In order to test his fidelity, Catherine recruits prostitute Chloe (Seyfried) to approach him, and report back on their meetings. The twist is that Chloe, apparently seeking a combination of Mommy and Lover, becomes fixated on Catherine, not David, and morphs into an unholy amalgam of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Terence Stamp in Theorem.

Focusing initially on the seductive power of language, of sexual acts described but not seen, Chloe stays mildly intriguing for its first half, but falls apart as its revelations pile up. That said, the spectacle of Julianne Moore under duress is always a captivating one, and with her great physical and vocal eloquence, this prodigious actress gives the movie the few emotionally resonant moments that it has. She’s slumming it, though, and can do little with a truly humiliating late scene in which her character basically has to apologise to Neeson for her unattractiveness. (Neeson himself - perhaps unsurprisingly given the woeful personal circumstances under which the film was made for him - hardly registers. The “charm” of his character is demonstrated in one of those movie-lecture scenes in which the doting students break into hysterics at every mild witticism he utters.) Seyfried is game and Max Thieriot has a couple of amusing moments as Catherine and David's randy son. But as with Secretary there’s an insidious quality to Chloe's sexual politics, and the film’s surface transgressiveness masks an unappealing conservative streak.

With no Arsinee Khanjian on hand and not so much as a Canadian accent to be heard (despite the allegedly distinctive Toronto settings we’re clearly in homogenised North America territory here), Chloe really feels like an Atom Egoyan movie in name only. For viewers who’ve found his previous films clunky and pretentious this may be welcome news, but for those of us who’ve grown to cherish the mix of fluidity and portentousness that characterises his style, the new movie feels like something of a sell-out. Even at their most deadly and extreme, Egoyan’s previous films have mostly made a virtue of restraint, of allowing the viewer to piece together the puzzles, to fill in the many gaps. Here he reveals too much, and the results are risible.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Beautiful Star: The Songs of Odetta

It's a pleasure to announce the release of the Wears the Trousers-curated benefit compilation album Beautiful Star: The Songs of Odetta. It's out on November 30th on download and limited edition CD. I've had a preview already and it really is stunningly good. The track-list goes as follows:

01 Linda Draper, ‘Sail Away Ladies’
02 Ane Brun, ‘If I Had A Ribbon Bow’
03 Gemma Ray, ‘900 Miles'
04 Anaïs Mitchell, ‘All My Trials’
05 Haunted Stereo, ‘Santy Anno’
06 Madam, ‘Waterboy’
07 Sandy Dillon, ‘Can’t Afford To Lose My Man’
08 Ora Cogan, ‘Motherless Child’
09 Josephine Oniyama, ‘The Gallows Pole’
10 Pepi Ginsberg, ‘Beautiful Star’
11 Society Of Imaginary Friends, ‘Another Man Done Gone’
12 Marissa Nadler, ‘All My Trials’
13 Kelli Ali, ‘All The Pretty Little Horses’
14 Katey Brooks, ‘What A Friend We Have’
15 Liz Durrett, ‘Chilly Winds’
16 Arborea, ‘This Little Light Of Mine’

Saturday 10 October 2009

Pret a Potter: The Thrill of Rage

Sally Potter comes up with such innovative, original concepts for movies, but I've invariably found myself a little disappointed in the end results. Despite its splendours, her well-regarded adaptation of Orlando (1992) seemed to me to fail to find an equivalent for Woolf's spry wit and humour, particularly in its heavy-handed ending. The Tango Lesson (1997) mired its exhilarating dance scenes in a tepid love story, The Man Who Cried (2000) was visually stunning yet emotionally inert, while Yes (2005) failed to fully capitalise on its intriguing premise: an exploration of post-9/11 East/West relations via the affair between an Armenian-Lebanese doctor and an American woman, spoken entirely in verse. Even so, there are enough interesting and arresting elements in all of these movies to make me excited every time a new film by Potter gets released. (I look forward, too, to seeing her 1983 movie, The Gold Diggers, out on DVD in December after years of being unavailable in any format.)

Potter's latest film, Rage, is one of her most fascinating and most well-sustained works. As usual, the movie's premise has a touch of genius about it: a school-kid named Michelangelo gets backstage at a New York fashion show and interviews the various participants - including the designer, Merlin (Simon Abkarian, the "He" of Yes), a critic (Judi Dench), two models (Jude Law and Lily Cole), a seamstress (Adriana Barraza), a pizza delivery boy (Riz Ahmed) and a financier (Eddie Izzard) - on his mobile phone. The film presents itself as a series of talking-heads testimonies by these protagonists as they reflect upon their role in the show and, increasingly, the wider social, cultural and politcal contexts in which those roles are implicated.

The literal-minded have critiqued the film's premise as fanciful, and its targets as obvious. But Rage is that rarity: a singular film experience. (Potter's distribution strategies for the movie have been similarly unorthodox: the film has had a simultaneous cinema, DVD and Internet release, meaning that you can watch it - officially and (guilt-)free - here, right now http://www.babelgum.com/rage Do so!)

For me Rage succeeds on multiple levels, not least in its skewering of a number of contemporary madnesses. It's a work about many things: about visibility and invisibility; about a society in which the camera, for many, has become the confessional; about a culture in which celebrity and big business reign, and in which people have been turned - indeed, insist on turning themselves - into commodities. Despite its modest, minimalist means, it's a visually (and aurally) stimulating movie, fluid and sensuous, and its sensitivity to language is crucial to that sensuality. (The movie is also a "thriller" of a very particular kind - all its "action" happens off-screen/stage, the violence suggested by the film's brilliant use of sound, and filled in by the viewer's imagination.)

"M" - the perfume being launched at the fashion show - is the movie's shifting signifier, standing, variously, for "Mystery," "Mortality," "Murder," and "motherfucker," depending on which charcter is speaking. (It stands for a few other words too - media, misogyny, money, marketing - all equally central to the film's thematics, and issues which are intricately linked for Potter here.) It also stands for Michelangelo, the movie's interloctor, silent and invisible (to us) - at least until the film's stunning final moments.

Part of the thrill of Rage's rebuttal to our isolating, media-fucked age is that its such a humane movie, an ode to the expressive capacities of the human face, the human voice. The range of performance styles is dynamic and diverse, encompassing the intelligently ripe turns of Abkarian and David Oyelowo (as a Shakespeare-quoting detective!) and the subtler characterisations of Dench and Dianne Wiest. (As the fashion house manageress whose family originally owned the business, Wiest has perhaps the movie's most fascinating character arc, while the shot of the regal Dench lighting a joint has to be one of the year's coolest images.) The film is no simple polemic: rather its multivocal approach allows for a bracing range of viewpoints to be expressed. It's a tapestry, a mosaic, and the interplay of voices and faces adds up to something visceral, urgent, and profound in its inclusivity. The opposite of an alienating experience, Rage is a vibrant and engrossing movie that connects the viewer to the world.