Two of the films I was most looking forward to in this year's NYFF program were Bela Tarr's THE MAN FROM LONDON and Todd Haynes' I'M NOT THERE. I couldn't be a bigger admirer of Tarr's SATANTANGO and WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, which are just awesomely out of this world for me. So I walked into the Walter Reade at 1:50pm last Friday like a high school kid who was about to see his favorite band for the first time. Fortunately, I’d been reading almost consistently underwhelming reviews, so I had been working for days to lower my bar. But with the knowledge that the time had finally come to watch it with my very own eyes, I couldn’t help but get excited.
And then it began. For the first thirty minutes, I was completely enthralled. The film's set-up, one that would take about three minutes in a typical thriller--a night watchman witnesses a murder, then discovers a suitcase with a lot of money in it--was captured in only three shots, but those three shots took at least twenty minutes. But that is what I loved about it. The opening shot alone, a creepy, slow crawl up the bow of a giant ship, set to a Mihaly Vig musical piece that echoed the haunting opening strains of MULHOLLAND DRIVE, had me wondering what all the negative talk had been about.
But gradually, I understood what people had meant. While the film never felt to me like it ventured into that terrible land of self-parody, there are still some glaring differences between it and Tarr’s previous masterworks. The biggest reason it didn’t transcend has a lot to do with its almost complete lack of humor. The only time I laughed was a moment that I wasn’t sure I should have been laughing at. In the local café, our hero Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) sits down with the owner, and they break out a game board. One of them prepares to dump the objects onto the table, and it is impossible for a viewer not to think with frantic desperation, “Please let it be checkers and not chess!” This had to be a wink at the audience by Tarr--it was chess, after all--who granted us mercy by moving away from the game in order to settle on a nearby customer, a sad old man (are there any other types of men in Bela Tarr’s cinematic universe?) who was morbidly eating bread and soup.
The most glaring example of this differentiation between THE MAN FROM LONDON and those two films also takes place in that very same café. At one point, Maloin leaves and Tarr’s camera settles on an incredibly tame scene of patrons dancing. It’s just a woman playing the accordion, a man balancing a pool ball on his nose, and a man holding up a chair as he’s dancing around. Compared to the bar scene in SATANTANGO, this is like elementary school. It doesn’t feel complete, somehow.
That isn’t to say that I hated this thing, because I didn’t. There were very many shots that took my breath away. I decided something about halfway through the film. Much in the same way we make mix CDs of our favorite band’s songs, I think it might actually be appropriate to do this sort of thing with Tarr, to simply collect the best shots (which are scenes and short films unto themselves) and slap them together onto one DVD. For example, the first shot in SATANTANGO, as well as the hospital scene in WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES. This film has, to my memory, at least two shots that attain greatness. The first is when Maloin gets ready for bed after getting home from work in the morning. His wife (Tilda Swinton) comes into the bedroom and swings closed two shutters to fill the room with darkness. The second is a slow, slow, slow move through the café to settle on the heartbroken face of the wife (Agi Szirtes) of Brown (Janos Derzsi), who is responsible for the film’s opening murder. Neither of these sounds eventful when I write them down matter-of-factly, but Tarr’s execution of these moments is a wonder to behold. If I can ever manage to figure out technology, I plan to create my own mix-movie that contains his most incredible moments. And that will be one of my favorite films ever.
As for I’M NOT THERE, here’s my one-sentence review:
“FORREST GUMP for art school nerds.”
(Sorry, Ryan Werner. Will you still be my friend???)
Seriously, would someone please explain to me the concept of blatantly ripping off scenes from other movies and putting them in yours? While I’m sure I missed a ton of them in I’M NOT THERE, I caught a lot. But there was one that stood out and made me very angry. It’s one of my favorite scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s MASCULIN-FEMININ, when the kids are in the movie theater and the voice-over explains that they wanted to see the movie of their dreams, not this movie. Todd Haynes doesn’t just ‘pay homage’ to this moment. He rips it off completely! Now, my question is, why would a filmmaker do this? For the viewer’s pleasure? To make them say, “I’ve seen that before. That’s from MASCULIN-FEMININ. That was such a great moment!” Or does he hope viewers won’t catch the reference and will simply think these are great new ideas? Or is he doing what Dylan did, subverting previously established forms to make something that feels completely new? But I don’t buy that with regards to the blatant references in this film, much in the way I didn’t buy the allusions in VELVET GOLDMINE. They felt lazy to me. (Don’t get me wrong, though, I love the shit out of SAFE and really admire FAR FROM HEAVEN--so I’m not an outright Todd Haynes hater!)
When I’m watching a movie and I see an especially great moment, my immediate thought is, “Shit, I wish I’d thought of that, but now I’ll never be able to use it because they did it first.” It’s not, “Hey, that’s great. I gotta use that in my next film!” I feel like there are a lot of filmmakers out there who blatantly steal from other films. Wes Anderson did it in RUSHMORE, jacking Frederick Wiseman’s HIGH SCHOOL when Max is on the telephone in the school hallway and getting harassed by a teacher. I haven’t confirmed this, but I feel like Brian De Palma directly jacked a moment for his horrifically inexcusable REDACTED from OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND. When the soldiers raid the house for the first time, I felt like I was hearing exact dialogue from that brilliant documentary. Is it just my oversensitive self or does this seem totally unethical and wrong? I understand being inspired by something, but to outright steal it, I just don’t see the fun in that. An example of a filmmaker who I think uses cinematic inspirations to create something completely distinct and original is Ronald Bronstein. His FROWNLAND is a marvel of influences that don’t appear unless one really dissects the situation. Take the character of Laura, for example, whose scrunched up face recalls a grimier, American version of one of the daughters/sisters from a Mike Leigh film. But she doesn't recite dialogue from HIGH HOPES. Or how about director AJ Schnack (shame on you, Manohla!), who uses the inspiration of KOYAANISQATSI to deliver a truly original biopic.
Two things cannot be denied with I’M NOT THERE, however. The first is Edward Lachman’s cinematography, which will be remembered come awards season. It is truly impressive. The second is the impossibly great Cate Blanchett, who once again portrays a hugely recognizable figure and delivers a performance that is just about perfect. Somehow she avoids outright mimicry and yet still inhabits the character and has the ability to make a viewer think they’re watching Bob Dylan. Words can’t describe how gifted this woman is.
The rest of the performances are solid, and with the exception of the Richard Gere story, I actually think all of it was fine. But almost everything else pared in comparison to the Cate Blanchett chapter (although the appearance of David Cross distracted me completely). I know this defeats Haynes’ entire purpose, but I wish I’d seen a 90-minute movie that focused on Blanchett's character instead of all the others.
(THE MAN FROM LONDON screens on SUN SEP 30 at 1pm and WED OCT 3 at 6pm; I'M NOT THERE screens on THU OCT 4 at 8:30pm and SAT OCT 6 at 10am)