23 June 2006

Sublime Austerities and Same Old Songs

M. Emmet Walsh    Wound up the other night renting a trio of flicks: Something's Gotta Give, March of the Penguins and the Coen Brothers' early masterpiece Blood Simple.  Last, of course, is brilliant, though I had not seen it in many years, and its ending remains one of the few truly unforgettable endings in modern moviedom.  (Even though the movie's more than 20 years old now, I won't spoil it for those of you that still haven't seen it; I will say, though, that it remains for me the gold standard of macabre humour.)  Plus, you've got to love a movie that lets M. Emmet Walsh do that slimy, snarly menace that he does probably better than anyone else in the business.  There's no need to qualify or to equivocate here: Walsh simply is one of the best character actors in Hollywood, and it was Blood Simple that finally made everyone take notice of him.  The movie's a minor classic, and it features most of the trademark Coen Bros elements bolted together in a movie of stunning economy. 
Penguins in love    March of the Penguins (or "pengweenies," as an ex used to say, as if they were Italian pastas), I have to say, caught me entirely off-guard, despite the terrific word-of-mouth it received (and, as usual, the Not-So-Good Doctor was probably the last person in North America to see it).  Like Blood Simple, the movie depends heavily on stark imagery, though to a very different end, namely a strikingly sad affirmation of special persistence.  The film presents itself not as a documentary but as a love story (its own words), and despite whatever churlish charges of anthropomorphism that might hurled at the film for doing so, it succeeds.  It succeeds, in fact, astonishingly.  Some of its sequences are as touching as any in more typical love stories: the coupling penguins nestling each other with their beaks, their heads cast downward in a kind of sombriety, is as tender an image as you'll ever see, a quiet celebration of that basic instinct that opposes death so nobly and sometimes so vainly.  That the penguins themselves waddle as they do in their march provides a poignant counter-image:  their black backs seeming to lope so sadly through the antarctic wilderness, they look like mourners in a ceremonial death march, even if the whole point of their march is not death but life.  If this seems a sensitive reading, that's because it probably is.  The film reads its subjects with such lyrical sensitivity that it's all but impossible not to follow its lead.  There's a sublime austerity to its sadness, as plaintiveness responds against severity with a greater determination than defiance could provide.  That's where the movie's poetry lies, and I think only the most viciously cynical could fail to be moved by it, at least partially. 

    Something's Gotta Give, however, proved to be a deeply awkward experience.  I expected little from it, and only really rented it because of Jack Nicholson, whose recent films have taken to parodying his own image--- and, dare I add, flashing his sexagenarian ass, which is reason enough to contradict one's original logic for watching anything with him in it.  The real star of the movie, though, is Diane Keaton, and she's terrific.  Even at moments, and there were plenty of them, when I was groaning at the stupidities of the script, she managed still to elicit laughter despite my scoffing.  Too bad, though, that the movie otherwise sucks tightened donkey balls. 
    The script is wretched, an onanistic cougar fantasy in which a playwright who merely steals her dialogue verbatim from life around her is heralded as "major," and romance itself just a convenient series of cheap contrivances as convincing as  a presidential con-job.  The movie is so sickeningly self-aggrandizing that it undermines completely the charms that Nicholson and Keaton provide--- and then dares to go even further in its smug self-congratulation.  After all, we're supposed to believe that Keaton's eventual manic-depression is supposed to be a liberation, her (Gawd help me...) freedom to feel again, rather than a cloying and chuckleless excuse for Keaton to laugh and cry in clambersome successions.  If I were a woman, I'd be especially offended by this characterization that suggests that a woman's path to happiness is all about allowing herself to be as neurotic and unstable, and even vindictive, as she wants to be; after all, the cad will reform himself, creativity will just miraculously come straight out of life itself (word for word!), and romantic resolution will come as glibly and as consequence-free as one could possibly fathom. 
Diane Keaton    Until then, though, the characters can indulge in grotesquely cynical platitudes and whinges, the latter from Keaton, the former from the wonderful Frances McDormand, who is utterly wasted, save to deliver a pompous prognostication about sexist double standards and then vanish all-but-completely.  The supporting cast really gets short-shrift here, especially Keanu Reeves, and you know things are bad when I start feeling sorry for Keanu Reeves.  Here's he stuck in what they used to call the Ralph Bellamy role, as the decent chap who's finally gonna get screwed over simply because he's not the romantic lead.  (It's now called the Bill Pullman role, and it remains as thankless as ever.)  What's most putrefying about the movie, however, is that it's finally just a public exercise in art as therapy, writer-director Nancy Meyers clearly overidentifying with her heroine to the point that self-flattery becomes personal sanctification, especially as we're supposed to realize how wonderful her heroine is for deigning to receive at last her rakish and repentant suitor, of course against the cliched backdrop of Paris in winter.  You see, we're supposed to think she's perfect because she accepts her age and life with someone her own age, a gesture of such supposed romantic munificence as to suggest its inevitability as an ending.  After all, every woman in her late 50s would choose Jack Nicholson over Keanu Reeves, even if Keanu's a strapping young doctor in the Hamptons who loves her work and thinks the sun shines out of her surprisingly still-shapely ass.  Any self-respecting feminist that doesn't recognize by this point that Meyers is just composing a cinematic paean to herself should probably just apron herself and beginning looking through Barbara Billingsley's boudoir for her bedtime wear.  Even Keaton's estimable radiance can't compensate for this vomitously invidious vanity-project: her vivaciousness isn't quite enough to counteract the movie's fundamental vacuousness and its offensively-vituperative inclinations. 
    Ironically, I find myself returning where I began.  Blood Simple makes brilliant use of the Four Tops' "It's The Same Old Song," but it's Something's Gotta Give that feels like the same old song, an insipid and ultimately aggravating one that's neither as observant or as amusing as it thinks it is.  Then again, "Something's Gotta Give" is a song by the McGuire Sisters, isn't it?  Hmmmm.  Think I'd rather end up like M. Emmet Walsh's detective than watch that movie again--- especially when penguins seem to offer so much more insight, and elicit so much more feeling.

No comments:

Blog Archive