I think the largest question left looming for me after seeing Elena is something like, “Does the Philip Glass score make sense?” This question is probably inappropriate or indiscreet, since several big questions linger in the wake of the film’s abrupt, apocalyptic ending. And yet the question of the appropriateness of Glass’s score is central to my sorting through the film.
It is a Philip Glass score that sounds like Philip Glass. (In fact, his third symphony is cited in the end credits, so perhaps this “original score” isn’t quite original.) It blasts and heaves and sparkles when it appears, abruptly, usually in traveling scenes (Elena riding here, Vladimir driving there). The soundtrack for the rest of the film is a peppering of fabric moving, dishes clacking, infants spitting, black birds. So when the Glass shows up, it feels like an intrusion, alarm-triggering. “Wake up,” it yells. “Art!”
This is a cynical reading of Glass’s score. The interpretation bluntly intended for us, I think, based on a blurb I saw that describes the score as “Hitchcockian,” is that we read the score as “building tension.” A third reading jumps from here: the score misleads us into believing that the film is about the obvious tension (that which exists between Elena and Vladimir over his material wealth) in order for the ending to shock us more distinctly. The final twenty minutes throw us into confusion: the surveilled death of a white horse, darkness, violent children playing precious games.
It’s been a long time since I was trapped in a dark room with groups of loud dirty-mouthed teenage boys. But I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy myself either. That’s part of the pleasure of Seth MacFarlane’s first feature film Ted, or at least the pleasure of sitting in a fully packed movie theater, on a Friday night, with an audience as excited to see the creator of “Family Guy” make a stuffed bear sing songs and smoke pot as any art house crowd anticipating a new 35 mm print of Godard’s Weekend. No, that’s wrong. These Bros were way, way more pumped.[i] So enthused that their pre-screening chatter of summer high-school gossip mash-uped with smart phone updates of the evening baseball scores, peppered with jeers at their classmates entering the theater and choosing seats was only further kindled when the lights went out and the first bright-green preview screen appeared with a room full of cheers and clapping. Then came the Dark Knight Rises trailer, which received boisterous “oh yeahs” for its locally-filmed Pittsburgh production and a single muffled sssh from one of the two middle-aged couples in the theater. Read more
Chico and Rita wants a subtle tone of human warmth. Nothing big happens: the idea is to get a sense that the titular couple needs to be together, just from their chemistry, and from the slow burn of longing in the years they spend apart. The film focuses on quiet moments more at home in a Wong Kar-Wai film than in a piece of animation: sunlight hitting morning-after lovers through a cloud-thin curtain, the effortlessness of virtuoso fingers at a piano. Such a tone requires highly skilled drawing that expresses a lot by doing very little. Unfortunately, the drawings in Chico and Rita simply do very little. The film is afraid of caricaturing any gesture for looking too “cartoony,” and the result is a curiously flat expressionlessness across all the characters. When Rita dances, her form has fluid contours, but the angles and curves need more elasticity; there’s no snap to the motions. When characters slump or sulk, their body parts don’t quite fit into a unified pose. Faces are almost unreadable: at one point Rita tells Chico to wipe a smirk off his face, but his mouth is totally blank. When Rita breaks down in tears later on, the impression is similarly cold: there’s no change in her face to suggest the weight of time that she’s supposed to be feeling. The experiment in animated subtlety is bold, but the animation needed to be bolder.
David L. Eng, in The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (2010), writes about Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) that the film “garnered well-deserved critical acclaim, yet few reviewers or scholarly critics have focused on the sexual politics of its queer diaspora” (76). He continues, “Indeed, many commentators eschew issues of sexuality altogether, describing Wong’s portrayal of homosexuality as incidental to the film’s central emphasis on emotional deadlock” (76). I think of this in the context of Weekend (2011) for a couple of reasons. One, Happy Together and Weekend share a tape recorder, and both films feature the recorder as a reminder of a charged moment once shared, now lost. Second, I wonder if it’s even a remote possibility to really set aside homosexuality in any sort of discussion about Weekend (or its tape recorder). For one thing, it seems that the spatial tensions that structure the film—indoor/outdoor, quiet/pulsing, work/leisure, private/public—are arranged along a certain timbre of gay sexuality. At one point in the film, Russell (Tom Cullen), one of the film’s two central characters, remarks that he feels fine about his sexual interactions with other men when he’s in his apartment; it’s when he goes outside that he feels otherwise—unsure in some way, unsafe. The serenity of a courtyard, empty and bright, becomes marked as dangerous, inhospitable. Inside, in bed, in the morning, after sex: “I’m more proud of you than if you were the first man to walk on the moon.”
I will say that I do not like The Help (2011). It is safe, tucked away in the past with its infuriating villains and wisdom-bearing heroes. It is musically obvious–Johnny Cash/June Carter, Bob Dylan. And it cannot even stand to continue its final take through all of the credits: the black screen with its descending white letters baits Oscars more comfortably.
I will also say that I must defend The Help against all dismissive critiques and mindless bombardments (my own included). It has many cars colored with the brightest red. One drove by in clarity behind the bus, and I was sure it was a sign, like a fire engine. Its presence, flying loudly, an interruption. It shows the sheer obstructive ridiculous of white girl hair, the way it takes up a third of the screen. Shot-reverse shot becomes insane when all there is is strands of the stuff (one-third of screen space = 95% of mind). And it makes me wonder what is buried in white boxes in my own backyard. What sorts of bloody bodies? What sorts of passionless dismissals?
The following post is the first in a series I’m calling Shown in Pittsburgh. The entries in this series are meant to examine in 250 words or fewer various films I’ve seen in the greater Pittsburgh area. Each is meant to be frustratingly partial. Miranda July’s The Future (2011) taps into some of the stranger frequencies buzzing around the lives of grown-up children. More specifically, July seems interested in exploring the fantastical possibilities related to the prolonged adolescence of many American adults. Perhaps it’s old hat to bring up the fact that The Future features a talking cat, a talking moon, and a character able to manipulate time. But what is surprising is that these become purposeful and sustained artistic decisions, weirdly suited to the insipid and breathtaking dilemmas of being just under over-the-hill. The scene in The Future that both demonstrates this suitability and remains tangential to fantasy is that in which Sophie ensconces herself in an oversized t-shirt for the sake of performing some expressive dance. Previous to this point, the shirt has acted as a blankie for Sophie (she holds it to herself) and as a living creature, squirming down the street toward Sophie’s new and adulterous abode. Eventually the t-shirt makes its way inside and to a spare room bathed in yellow light, where Sophie—computer in tow, iTunes set to the same Beach House song Sophie tried to dance along with earlier—puts her legs through the sleeves and takes on the shirt as a costume, a creaturely disguise, and furls/unfurls her body to the song’s rhythms. This performance, captured for the most part in a single take, is both the expression of Sophie’s inmost desire and her complete disappearance. She moves in material as another being. C’est la nuit.