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Monday Movies Scares Me; Life Means Nothing to Him.

The European strain of leftist terrorism in the 1970’s is fundamentally mysterious to me. It intersects with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Cold War, the U.S. anti-war movement and the global anti-imperial struggle, but feels necessary to understanding none of those. I didn’t really know anything about it until I saw Gerhard Richter’s haunting paintings of the Baader-Meinhof prisoners dead in their cells at Stammheim, and that made me eager to see The Baader-Meinhof Complex (previously Mondayed here) during its brief theatrical run. It still feels fundamentally foreign to me — there’s a level on which my cultural references contain the Weather Underground but not the Red Army Faction.

Carlos the Jackal was another major figure of that era, and Olivier Assayas’s Carlos (good Flash site here), originally directed for television, works best as a TV-scaled intimate portrait of him. In its full length, it runs almost six hours over three episodes, and Edgar Ramirez as Carlos (no relation) is on screen for almost all of it, from magnetic youth to fat, grey decline. Its first one hundred sixty minutes fly by, as Carlos establishes himself as a capable military operative despite a number of operational hiccups. He has a serene sense of himself as an ideological soldier, plainly informing a Saudi oil minister that though he will kill him, he knows that he won’t take it personally, because they are all players in a great game. In that fashion, Carlos likes to tell people who they are to him or to the world — he only reads the rules off the back of the box top. A flicker of doubt may flash across his face as a body falls by his hand, but he will quickly regain his composure. He likes women, of course, almond-eyed brunettes mostly, and the parade of sultry, not-too-Hollywood beauties gives the beginning a nice Jet Age of Terror erotic frisson.

At the midpoint of the second episode, an operation concludes as Carlos leaves a runway via motorcade, window down for the press photographers’ benefit. The rock music kicks in as the flashbulbs pop: Carlos is a celebrity. Unfortunately, the film stays in its intimate-portrait mode, leaving only a hint of how, with his fame, Carlos has begun to simultaneously terrorize and tantalize the continent. The spectacular operations go by the wayside as Carlos sets about running a weapons network across Europe. We never see any of his customers’ carnage. The times pass him by; it’s possible to feel a little sorry for him as the Berlin Wall tumbles, especially when we know that an operation far more spectacular than anything he ever imagined looms on the horizon, just around the millennial corner.

This is a chronicle of his rise and fall, but his fall includes no Tony Montana binges, and the filmmaking shows the same exhaustion as his career. Scenes fade out abruptly over and over, as if Assayas has given up on pacing his story much as Carlos will clearly never again conduct a major attack.  When I saw The Aviator, I developed a rule of thumb for biopics: tell the story of how the world changed. At this, Carlos fails. The Baader-Meinhof Complex was more successful — it suggested that the convulsions of the militants were an awakening to the incomplete reconciliation of Nuremberg, that the dawn of liberal Europe depended on the repression of ongoing nightmares.

Having buckled in Saturday night and given it a go, with Thai delivery and pee breaks at the end of each episode, I would give this qualified endorsement: see the first half of the uncut version. Stop at 0:57 of episode two. It won’t feel exactly like an ending, but it will feel good.

After a musical break, two more.

Play: Stammheim by The Human Hearts

***

Terrence Malick is known for weaving nature’s longueurs in with his human stories. I don’t think he means to minimize human drama, only to offer it alongside other kinds of events that somehow beggar human description: the plagues of insects and weather in Days of Heaven, the pulsing tropics in The Thin Red Line, and now, in The Tree of Life, more or less all of creation.

I vowed, going into the movie, to try to still my mind and just fall into its flow, and I mostly failed. Mentally organizing the film as I watched, I misinterpreted critical information, and spent most of the film mistakenly thinking that the guitar-playing middle child grew up to be the adult played by Sean Penn, and that the boy whose death is reported in the opening scene was the oldest brother, Jack, with the film spends the most time. Whoops.

“There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” This opening epigram sounds like the key to the film, though it’s still hard for me to say exactly how. The way in for me was through the camera work — it swoops, weaves, and dodges, running around through the three young brothers like an animating spirit of boyhood, pulling them through their youth in 1950s Waco. Through it, Grace and nature, mother and father, control and desire war in young Jack. Brad Pitt’s performance as Jack’s father contains a whole epic of quashed dreams and lost hope — it’s at once fully realized and off to the sidelines. (He valorizes Toscanini; he holds 65 patents; you must never call him Dad, only Father.) And the first half of the film surrenders a good twenty minutes to a full Earthly creation, from colorful cosmic fluids to hot magma to CGI dinosaurs to hammerhead sharks.

I’ve deliberately held off reading other reviews until after I wrote about it, even though my thoughts still feel halting and incomplete. At the end, there is a simple fantasy sequence of people walking on a beach, uniting old Jack (Sean Penn) with the family of his youth, and I felt sobs swell in my chest. Maybe it was the week I had, but that was where it took me. Then I was ready for another hour, and The Tree of Life was over.

***

Easy A, like many teen-girl comedies that come on all hot and dumb, is intelligent and hilarious. The setup is all explained in the trailer: Olive lets guys pretend she slept with them, and consequently suffers a Hester Prynne-sized reputation. Her parents, played by Patricia Clarkson (there is no one I want to write for more) and Stanley Tucci, are witty and easygoing, and as Olive begins to feel the teeth of her trap more and more, the film handles their blithe acceptance with a very light touch. There’s no comeuppance or punishment, but if you’re paying attention, you want to shake them and say being cool is not enough. I admired this. There’s also something contradictory about the social milieu of Olive’s high school in crunchy Ojai — her best friend has nudist hippies for parents, and you’d think it would be the kind of place with a thriving Gay-Straight Alliance, but Olive performs her initial coitus fictus to save a gay boy from cruel harassment, and huffy evangelicals bay at her defiance. I resolved the contradiction by thinking, it was America.

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May 30, 2011 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 Comments

  1. This week I cleared out my Netflix queue for the first time in a while. All told, this past week I watched The American Friend, 21 Grams, Somewhere, Amores Perros, and La Jetée. The American Friend had its moments, but it was fundamentally incomprehensible in the way of 70s movies — and casting Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley was a terrible decision. Somewhere was forgettable. I watched the two Iñárritu movies as “preparation” for Biutiful; 21 Grams had some good performances, but I’m not sure the out of order story telling had any value-add; Amores Perros was much better, I thought, though The Girlfriend didn’t like all the dogfighting.

    As for La Jetée, there’s probably not much new to say about it — except that it made me think that perhaps Americans are lacking whatever gene makes the French so obsessed with “Love.”

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | May 30, 2011

  2. Amores Perros is one of my all-time favorites, and 21 Grams one of my all time least favorites. After seeing Babel I was worried that I was just a sucker for subtitles, although I haven’t revised my opinion. My favorite moment in 21 Grams is when Naomi Watts first tells Sean Penn she wants revenge, he hugs her and over her shoulder he makes this great, “whaaaa?” face.

    Babel‘s sequence of the deaf girls in the nightclub is a small great thing.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | May 30, 2011

  3. For the first time in months I actually managed to make it through three DVDs in a single weekend. Didn’t even have to resort to the holiday Monday! Only two movies in the mix, though, and both were from the ’40s. Hangover Square and This Gun for Hire. I enjoyed both. Gun had a much better story and interesting characters, but Hangover Square was impressively ambitious in terms of its art direction and music. Plus, the high-points of the latter — the burning of a corpse on a Guy Fawkes pyre and finishing a concerto while an inferno blazes all around — were considerably higher than those of Gun.

    Comment by Brad Johnson | May 30, 2011

  4. I saw The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but not in 3D.

    Comment by Hill | May 30, 2011

  5. After watching 21 Grams, I am firmly convinced that Naomi Watts needs to be the go-to actress for characters who totally lose their shit. She’s almost like a female Nicholas Cage.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | May 30, 2011

  6. All-time favorite whats, preludes to a suicide attempt?

    Comment by ben | May 30, 2011

  7. Loved all of Amores Perros and the Del Toro part of 21 Grams. BMG was fine, and agree with the review of Carlos except for some scenes with lower soldiers in the forest in Pt 3, unless that was in Baader-Meinhof. Saw them both in the same week. But I watched the whole things. PS:For some reason, I seem to think Munich made 70s terrorism more attractive and sympathetic.

    I lost my cable and internet for four days this week, so had extra time:

    5/23/11 – Tokyo Godfathers – Kon Satoshi 2003
    5/25/11 – The Pornographers – Imamura 1966
    5/25/11 – Le Plaisir – Ophuls 1952
    5/26/11 – Yama no anata – Ishii 2008
    5/27/11 – A Tale of Archery – Naruse 1945
    5/28/11 – Samurai Assassin – Okamoto 1965
    5/29/11 – Five Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu – Kiarostomi 2003

    These are all simply great. The Naruse, like many Japanese movies made during the war, is subtly subversive:one hero’s name is “Kuratsu Kenbei” which could allude to the Shimabara Rebellion.

    The Ishii is almost a shot-for-shot line-for-line remake of a 1938 Shimizu classic (like Psycho) in this case I could appreciate the differences, like acting.

    Samurai Assassin, produced as a labor of love by Mifune Toshiro at his powerpeak, is about the politics of the historical Sakuradamon Incident;nihilism at the end of Tokugawa…stunning stuff.

    Godfathers is a Xmas/New Years holiday anime with the homeless and an abandoned baby;one of three leads is a drag queen. I cried. Way too coarse and violent for an American child audience, I suspect the protectors would think.

    That’s enough or too much. I will leave the Ophuls and Kiarostomi up to you to google.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | May 30, 2011

  8. Oh heck, PS.

    “Anata” means “you, but is seldom used except very formally, or affectionately from a wife to a husband. “Oh, you.” if you could guess the tone and inflections.

    Yama no anata was translated My Darling of the Mountain

    Comment by bob mcmanus | May 30, 2011


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