On this edition of the podcast, we catch up with twelve films that are in theaters now or will be on DVD soon.
3:29 The Savages (Jenkins)
12:26 I'm Not There (Haynes)
24:25 My Kid Could Paint That (Bar-Lev)
38:19 The Red Balloon (Lamorisse)
41:06 White Mane (Lamorisse)
44:50 Lions for Lambs (Redford)
47:53 Rendition (Hood)
51:45 Juno (Reitman)
55:45 There Will Be Blood (Anderson)
58:28 Youth Without Youth (Coppola)
62:09 Redacted (De Palma)
63:36 Margot at the Wedding (Baumbach)
66:43 Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Lumet)
Coming Up: Our 2007 year-in-review, to be issued before the end of 2008, which makes it timely.
As always, a rewarding and interesting discussion, Rob (and J. Robert, if you happen to be reading this). I'd thought I'd respond with some thoughts about "I'm Not There," which I really loved -- despite having seen it in pretty much the worst second-run theater in California: the screen was actually slanted to the left; the projection didn't fit the screen properly; I could hear the audio from the next theater; and it was so dark I could barely see the seats. Thank God admission was only 2 bucks. At any rate ...
I agree that the film doesn't really hang together that well, and that anyone with little knowledge of Dylan's career (and this includes me) might be hard pressed to figure out what insights the film really offers. But I think I was so moved and impressed by the film's form and its suggestion of the multiple lives we all live that I ended up forgiving it for its weaknesses. I really dislike conventional biopics, so this was almost revolutionary in a way, particularly as it totally de-centered Dylan's life and yet (to me) still maintained an overall coherence. And though Haynes' use of film stocks and color seemed (as J. Robert points out) a bit random, I loved the look as well.
I thought it was interesting that, despite my relative lack of knowledge of Dylan's life, I was still really drawn into the film, largely as a riff on the sides of a personality -- I call this a "pluralistic" film in this regard. And I particularly liked the way Haynes tied in these various sides with points in American history and culture. What I do know of Dylan tells me that any film about him would make these tie-ins, but I loved Haynes' methods as much as the content.
And, J. Robert, I totally agree -- this really is a post-modern film. Before it even came out, I kept thinking how the modern, conventional bio-pic needs a post-modern, abstract moment, so I think that's one more reason why I liked it so much. And Blanchett's performance -- to me, it wasn't so much the mannerisms, the look, or the voice -- it was the expressions in her eyes, which seemed truthful beyond what they might reveal about Dylan in particular -- again, more about the sides of personality in general.
Anyway, sorry for going on too long. I enjoyed the film a lot, as well as your discussion about it. Thanks. :)
J. Robert, one of your last comments about I'm Not There was that you found yourself bringing other contexts to the film rather than taking it "on its own terms." What I so love about the film (it was my favorite of 2007) was that "postmodernism" is its terms. While listening to the podcast, I kept saying to you (out loud, much to my coworkers' amusement), "But why is that a bad thing?"
I've gotten in the lazy habit of saying that I'm Not There is as much about Godard as it is about Dylan. I know just enough about Dylan to know that Haynes is making obscure allusions to his life and work -- allusions that I would be able to decode if I chose to go buy a few more CDs and read a bio. The same could be said of the film's many allusions to other films of the '60s and '70s, hence the use of various stocks and formal approaches. Haynes is "having fun," but he's having fun with cinematic language in the same playful but deliberate way that Barthelme, Coover, Ishmael Reed, Doctorow, Pynchon, and the other historical metafiction gurus did during their prime.
I see Dylan and Godard as useful icons of a specific historical moment -- roughly from Kennedy's campaign in 1960 to the end of America's involvement in Vietnam (notice the film doesn't deal with Dylan's entire life, but just that segment of it) -- and I think Haynes' film is much more about that moment than about Dylan, specifically. (The closest analogy I've come up with for this film is Libra, Delillo's book about Lee Harvey Oswald.) That period saw, for lack of a better expression, the birth of postmodernism, which, in this context, I'm using to describe that weird slippage between image, meaning, and real political power. Dylan and Godard recognized, maybe better than anyone at the time, how important a shift was taking place.
I'm rambling and really need to get back to work, but I hope you'll both give this film a second shot when it hits DVD. I'm looking forward to writing something more coherent about it then.
Guys, thanks for taking the time to write such thoughtful reactions. I was hoping that we'd hear from people who like I'm Not There because I want to enjoy the film more than I do.
I will revisit it when it's out on DVD.
Darren, you mention that it doesn't cover Dylan's entire life, but it does touch on his current (or at least relatively current) life via the Richard Gere segments. Oh Mercy is another record in my collection, so I recognized "The Man in the Long Black Coat," which introduces the Western. This isn't a fault, necessarily, but it did contribute to my feeling that Haynes had taken a shotgun approach with nothing to connect the scattered images. I love to connect things on my own, but I think I expect a little finesse to encourage me toward certain connections. Godard did that. Still does, actually. And Barthelme is a giant in my world, but I see this as closer to Coover in Public Burning mode, which is just as huge to me, but Coover was able to connect a pile of era-specific Americana and find stunning resonance -- between the biographies of Richard Nixon and Julius Rosenberg, for example -- that made my head spin. I'd love for Haynes to do that sort of thing. Does he?
One thing I'd like to keep in mind when I watch it again -- aside from the cultural context that you've both mentioned -- is that I may have been expecting Haynes to be Godard commenting on Dylan, so to speak, but I hadn't expected Haynes to comment on Godard and Dylan. That's an interesting way to look at it.
Now what might he say about Godard?
The scene where Cate Blanchett says, "Do your older stuff" still makes me smile, and it even feels like an important facet, Dylan's bristling at the lofty image he's been given, of a piece with the press conference, even though it's about 3 seconds long. That's the kind of flash of brilliance that I love about the movie and wish it had more of.
Michael, let me link to you your post about I'm Not There.
Rob, thanks for linking to my post. I wrote that up in a flash just after seeing it, and I'm still in the midst of thinking the film through, though you and Darren in your subsequent comments (and you and J. Robert in the podcast) have given me a lot of food for thought. I keep thinking about those similarities with Godard -- Darren's really onto something, about how the film is about Godard and that specific historical moment, but I think, Rob, you're right to say as well that Haynes is Godard commenting on Dylan. In other words, I'm Not There seems to be about Godard's process (in addition to other things), and so the references become more than just references, but an implicit comment on the act of filmmaking, which in turns becomes a comment on culture. Darren, I'm hoping you'll write more when the DVD arrives, because I'm really intrigued by this idea about "slippage" that you mention.
And I'd agree with Darren that post-modern, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing, anymore than modernist or traditional or some other mode is.
You know what I found interesting in terms of my own experience? I had a preconception of the film's concept and form, and admired the film on that level, but for me the film had pathos as well, which I didn't necessarily expect. The scenes with Ledger and Gainsbourg were the most moving and poignant (partly because this was the first Ledger performance I've seen since his death), and I think the choice of color and film stock greatly added to the effect. But I'd say almost the same for the segments with Blanchett and Gere, surprising in the first because Blanchett's segment is very playful, almost academic, surprising in the second because, well, I never thought anything with Gere would inspire pathos. :)
At any rate, just more developing thoughts ... thanks for allowing me to share them here.
This came up in the podcast, but I didn't see it this way until now (until your "Godard's process" comment, Michael): if we suppose that Far From Heaven is Haynes adopting the style of Douglas Sirk to tell a story that Sirk could not have, because of the limits of what was openly discussed back then, here's Haynes adopting the style of 60's Godard to tell the story of Bob Dylan. It's kind of obvious, but I hadn't seen it quite that way. And to be true to that style, it's naturally self-reflexive.
Godard, of course, still makes movies, but not of this type, and Weekend may have marked the end of the brand of cinema that Haynes is recreating. (Coincidentally, I just saw Weekend this past weekend, filling a major hole in my Godard viewing. Still processing...)
And to J. Robert's point about Haynes' interest in just recreating things, I disagree. I think he recreates with purpose, whether it's Sirk or Godard. But the flip side of this is that he may have adopted the highly appropriate style of Godard to tell parts of Dylan's story (does he skip the portions between the motorcycle accident and the elderly outlaw simply because they're unremarkable?) ... without finding anything particularly insightful to say about either.
I think it's fitting that extra-textual gunk seeps into a viewing of-- well, any film, but especially this film. Knowledge of Dylan's career, Ledger's death (I saw the film before he died), and a pile of movies (Gainsbourg had me flashing back to The Science of Sleep, speaking of unexpected pathos) are bound to have a kinetic effect in your head.
Rob, that's a good point about the similarity between Haynes' approach/methods in Far From Heaven and I'm Not There. To add -- given that very Godard film is a comment on the act of filmmaking, I suspect that Haynes' film serves a similar purpose. The extra-textual stuff is more difficult to dispense with when viewing films that are conscious about the filmmaking process in this way.
I'd tend to agree that Godard's earlier brand of filmmaking likely ended with Weekend, if it didn't end before.
Thanks, Michael and Darren, for offering such helpful responses. Unfortunately, I'm in the middle of a couple heavy days of grading, so I don't even have time to listen to the podcast (to remember what I said), much less offer a thoughtful response.
But maybe I can throw out a few questions that I know will help me...
Michael and Darren, do Haynes's experiments with form add up to anything more than postmodern "play"? If so, what did you take away from it? And I agree that he's riffing on Dylan's intentionally multiple personalities, but to what "affect"?
For me, Godard's experiments with form were both much funnier but also still grounded in a deeply socio-political context, and the same is certainly true of Pynchon and Doctorow (I'm not as familiar with the other authors you cited, Darren). And Dylan himself has always had a strong, political subtext to his personalities. But Haynes just seems to be playing to me. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but I found it a bit too abstract and off-putting to fully embrace the obvious formal control.
Rob, how is Haynes doing more than just re-creating? Why go to so much trouble to re-create all those album covers but with the movie's stars in them? Why create a simulacrum ("the identical copy for which no original has never existed") of a '60s living room that's clearly meant to impress in its ability to mimic our perception of what the '60s were like? Why this obsession with surface and so little depth? And if there is depth, then help me out. Btw, I find this even more true in Far from Heaven, a film I like a lot more but still have fundamental problems with.
And a quotation from Frederic Jameson on postmodernism that I find particularly apt. I'll try to expand on this when I get a bit more time, but you guys can probably guess where I'm going with it:
"This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call 'historicism,' namely the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the 'neo' .... The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project has meanwhile itself beocme a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord's powerful slogan is now even more apt for the 'prehistory' of a society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a dusty set of spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as 'referent' finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts."
Great podcast guys! I love the discussion it sparked for I'm Not There. From the perspective of a non-Dylan fan (passively, not actively), I still felt I 'got' the film. I was aware of the format going in and could sense that certain shots/interviews/concerts were likely well known but I just relaxed and let the pieces fall into place. Overall I thought it worked quite well although a bit long, and I wasn't particularly fond of the Richard Gere second.
How serendipidious that you reviewed The Red Balloon! I just watched it this weekend and how delightful it was. It's so refreshing to see a film with such a sense of wonder
I also want to say kudo's for the format and the chapters. I loved that for the quick draw reviews I could listen to the ones for the films I've seen (I'm very spoiler sensitive), and leave the others til after I've seen them. I really appreciate it!
I always look forward to the next installment.
J. Robert, first, let me say I sympathize with the grading. I just finished going through 190 midterms. Sheesh, that was brutal. At any rate, to respond to your questions:
Yeah, playing with form can be an end unto itself, but I do hear what you're getting at when you wonder to what "affect" and whether or not Haynes' experiment ends up being more than just play. I don't know if my relative lack of knowledge about Dylan hinders or helps me in this case, but I walked away feeling as if there was a larger intellectual and visceral coherence to this abstract approach than I usually do walking away from conventional approaches. The sides of personality are one, but the dimensions to Dylan's struggles are there as well -- sort of like noticing the dimensions of a Cubist painting, stepping back, and seeing the whole thing. The depth is something I could feel more than explain, the result of those abstract sides hitting me with impressions more than fully concrete ideas. I think this kind of effect on the viewer (intuitive, more than readily explicit) is as valid a filmic experience as any other (and I'm not trying to imply that you're suggesting it's not), and so I'm Not There struck a chord in that respect. I thought (or more precisely, felt) that he was telling a particularly humanist story, affixed to suggested changes in American culture and history. But, again, it's more difficult to explain in purely concrete terms, though I might be able to do more of that once I revisit the film.
You know, there was another surprise (to add to the ones I mentioned earlier) -- I thought the film might be interesting simply on a conceptual level, but I wasn't sure if for me, a Dylan Luddite (is there such a term?), I'd connect with the human story. I'm Not There now really has me wanting to learn more about Dylan's entire life. :)
Hey, Shannon. I'm glad you're enjoying the podcast and making good use of the chapter stops. The silver lining of our tardiness is that we were mysteriously able to sync up with your viewing of The Red Balloon. :-) But, really, is there ever a bad time to talk about that film?
"Rob, how is Haynes doing more than just re-creating?"
Well, in Far From Heaven, as I mentioned in the podcast, he's recreating Douglas Sirk, so the attention to decor and sets is important because it was important to Sirk. And why recreate Sirk? I think it's actually quite interesting to imagine a Sirk film with one jarring change, the discussion of a character's homosexuality, a change that reveals when the film was made, despite all efforts to reconstruct the past. On one level I guess it's just an exercise, but on another it's a remarkable way to compare eras, mark our progress, and probably comment on cinema as well.
In the case of I'm Not There, I conditionally agreed with you in the podcast (J. Robert's revealing how long ago we recorded this chat ;-) ) that if Haynes is just congratulating the audience on arcane knowledge or trying to impress us with mimicry, then it's pretty shallow.
However ... let's see if there's more going on (and I think the fact that we're discussing this with people who aren't Dylanexperts is reason enough to assume there is).
Haynes could have made a similar film out of existing documentary footage, a film that presents Dylan's life non-linearly so as to juxtapose his personae (and therefore popular culture's obsessions), reflecting the content in the form of the film, kind of like that deconstructed documentary about Derrida from a few years ago, in spirit.
If he were then to lift Dylan out of the found footage and replace him with an actor -- another layer of representation -- I think he'd further comment on how Dylan has done that with his life and on how we recall and reshape our own history. It brings to mind Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life (or even the new Michel Gondry film, Be Kind Rewind) where recreation via film is a way of merging memories.
Which brings me to one final thought. I recently talked with Gus Van Sant for an article in Paste, and I don't remember if this made it into the (relatively short) piece or not, but we talked a bit about the non-linear structure of his recent films, especially Paranoid Park, and he said this:
There's a lot of non-linear storytelling present in our modern cinema, but I think that a lot of times stories, just ordinary stories told at the dinner table, will often be told out of order because somebody will start the story and leave something out, and the other person -- you know, if it's a couple, for instance -- will say, "No let me go back." And listeners will go, "Oh now I see, you went to Hawaii because, you know, your mother..." There might even be interjections later on after a story is done that will fit in....
I think [the non-linear structure is] a natural kind of extension of how we hear stories, anyway. You know, it's not a post-modern invention so much as it is reacting to the way we actually listen to stories.
I mention this because it just occurred to me as I'm reading the responses of everyone here who admits no thorough knowledge of Dylan's biography that I'm Not There in some ways mirrors the way those of us under the age of 45 came to know Dylan at all: after the fact, in hiccups and fragments, the young Elvis distinct from the Vegas Elvis. And the same is true of my understanding of the 1960's, which I've pieced together in my head from bits of political and cultural history gathered over time.
Does recreating familiar scenes with one important difference -- that they are created, that they are peopled with actors -- somehow dovetail with all of this? And how does this relate to Godard? His process of analyzing cinema involves using cinema itself, involves film grammar, the juxtaposition of ideas as if they were shots, but -- like the Van Sant quote or my feeling about how I came to know Dylan -- that approach is not so much an invention as a reaction to what he and his cohorts hanging out at the Cinematheque Francaise were perhaps predisposed to, having grown up in the age of cinema.
I'm going to be very disappointed if this is not the longest comment I've ever posted to a blog. I shall check the record books. Night night.
Rob, perhaps a lengthy comment, but in my view a great one, too. :) You've really hit on something when you write above about knowing things through hiccups and fragments -- one of the things I like about non-linear films that focus on past events, recall, memory, the lives of individuals or even cultures is because these films actually seem truer to me (early Resnais is a good example). It's like what Van Sant says about the naturalness of this approach, or what you say about your own learning of Dylan and the 60s. I would still call this approach post-modern (or, in the case of Godard and Resnais, actually modernist) because of its differentiation from previous, more traditional, narrative methods, but I'd also say it's "natural" as well, even "truthful."
Yeah, I wouldn't quibble with the name. Seems post-modern to me, but I like what he's getting at.
I'd like to expand a little on what I said about My Kid Could Paint That. I didn't go into detail in the podcast because I think this exceeds the "moderate spoiler" warning. This is a full-on spoiler.
Most reviewers, whether they like the film or not, are taking the director's stated uncertainty about the authenticity of the girl's paintings at face value, but the reason I don't, and the reason I consider it the film's weakest point, is because it diverts from and in some ways undermines the film's more subtle critique.
This movie begins with many layers of commentary -- mystery upon mystery -- but eventually crystalizes around a couple of clear stories: a girl genius creates amazing paintings vs. the girl was assisted by her father in what amounts to a hoax. Which is the truth?
But director Amir Bar-lev knows that the truth is far more complex than this simple dichotomy. He knows it and explores it, and his most interesting observation is that the desire to have simple stories creates a certain myopia, a selection bias, that prevents alternate stories from entering the mix.
There are scenes in which Marla claims that her little brother painted one of the paintings, but she's ignored, as babbling children often are, by busy adults. (Bar-lev makes sure we hear her -- he subtitles her speech.)
There's a scene in which Marla and her brother are painting in the yard and Marla says "but his painting won't be in the gallery" and her father chuckles and says no, it won't. Because no, it won't. That's understood. That's a story we've all assumed is not viable, therefore it's lopped off.
The parents say that no one has touched any paint to her canvas or told her what colors to use, but (thanks to Bar-lev's seemingly casual shot choices) we've seen them do that, not in a conscious way, but in the way that parents do -- you're driving me crazy, just use the green you already have.
There's the story of the family friend, an artist and art dealer whose gallery exhibits Marla's paintings. He's a photo-realistic painter. He says he never really "got" abstract art, so we suspect that promoting Marla may be his way of taking part in a game from which he's so far been excluded -- and if Marla ultimately fails it becomes a way to thumb his nose at that ridiculous game, by sneaking a 4-year-old into the line-up.
So to me, when Bar-lev chooses to take part in the simple Marla vs. Skeptics debate, by confessing ambivalence to his camera and confronting the family for answers, he's undermining the film's statement and perhaps being disingenuous*, since he demonstrates throughout that he knows the answer is more complicated than his question allows.
I believe (as J. Robert says) that he takes that role because it's a way for him to walk a thin and narrow line that keeps him close to the family and close to the film's intended audience. The simple story is easiest, even if it creates an awkward situation with the family. It's a gamble.
Despite this dip, when the multiple tracks of this film seem reduced to one overly simple one, I think this is a great movie and I mentioned it among the documentaries in my year-end list. And in some ways I think that what Bar-lev has done has just given me more to think about. J. Robert and I agree on how good this film is, so it's interesting to me to think about how and why we differ on a few points. More on this later, perhaps.
* Of course just because the film has presented the complexity doesn't mean Bar-lev knew it at the time he talked to his camera or confronted the family. He may have discovered these telling bits while looking at footage later. Still, he leaves the confrontation in the film.
Rob / Robert: I’m so glad I’m your favorite listener. I was sensing that, inbetween the pausing and unpausing; but, of course, felt it was out of place to toot my own horn. Now that it’s a secret all over the block, I feel surprisingly relieved. Like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Or at least a deathly pressure from my toes. Having survived a near-fatal car crash, I can assure you this is an important moment for me. Thank you for … well, talking. Would you like to play yourselves in my biopic? Please make up your minds soon. I’ve had to instruct my secretary to stop taking calls from Sean Penn who is drooling to play you, Rob, and—as for you Robert—Phillip Seymour feels compelled to return a favor. Please say yes.
Speaking of Phil and with regard to The Savages, I couldn’t disagree more that the film is not a comedy. Not a laugh track sitcom, sure, no prat falls (though Linney on the exercise machine is one of the funniest bits I’ve seen in years); funny, perhaps, not for what they say or what they do, but for who they are. Linney’s inauthenticity alone—as you’ve pointed out, Rob—merits more than one wry chuckle. I guess I find the film funny in the guise of gallows humor. Even in that recent clunker where Sally Fields dies from spitting up shit, the script’s best moments were the sibling wisecracks, the comic adlibs to serious events that help a family get through such trauma. It’s a specific type of necessary humor, not only to get through such events, but necessary (I think) to remind people that it’s okay to—not only rail—but crack irreverence against the dying of the light.
I am in agreement with most of what’s been said about I’m Not There and—as much as I adore Tilda and dark horse upsets—really feel Cate’s Dylan made this film and ranks as the best supporting female performance of the year. Then again, maybe all this genderfuck is too confusing. After Linda Hunt, they really should have created a new Oscar category: Best Supporting Actress in a Male Role. I’m Not There’s slick surface, its obsession with detail and design, is precisely why there’s nothing to hold onto. The past, when picture perfect, is as slippery as formica kitchen counters. In retrospect, Cate’s performance and the—at the time distracting—relationship between Heath and Charlotte proves to have lasted with me the longest. I’m heartened to read Michael agrees there, though I caught the film in Toronto when Heath was still alive so that sad resonance didn’t factor in. In some ways, the postmodern play with Dylan’s life is the frame around the story of Heath and Charlotte, which I’ve come to feel is the film’s true focus and where its main emotional affect is contained. I look forward to watching the film again to pay more attention to their particular story, which at first didn’t seem to me that it should be there. What is iconicity’s main challenge? Postmodern presumption.
Hi Michael G. Thanks for the comments. I'll have to ask you to keep a lid on the favorite listener thing so as not to make the other perfectly fine but not quite as beloved listeners jealous. (You know how they can get.)
We may be talking about gradations along a continuum here, comedy to tragedy. I agree that there are funny moments in The Savages, like when Hoffman scoots his snack back onto the snack table at the back of the group meeting that he and Linney joined late. I chuckled at little throwaway moments like that, and yet I don't think there are enough of them for me to consider this a comedy.
I don't mind, of course. I just think the movie is very different in tone from the trailer, with its cute score and Big Punch Lines. (And about half of the film's humor is what I called "David Lynch light" in the podcast -- Sun City, Arizona is like a Lynchian suburb with darkness underneath, but not nearly as dark.)
You could probably say the same for Year of the Dog -- that its trailer doesn't reveal the film's sadness -- except that enough of the movie is intended to be funny that it's a little closer to that end of the scale than The Savages, although I know from browsing comments online that many average moviegoers hated hated hated how deeply it was willing to plunge into pathos, presumably duped by an inaccurate marketing campaign.
I saw I'm Not There before Ledger's death, as well, so I'm not sure how that would have affected my reaction.
As for Tilda, I thought she was great in Michael Clayton, even though she was playing a character that I didn't care for at all. As a villain, she's much too wispy, which undercuts (somewhat) the big moment when George Clooney knocks her down. Best Supporting Actress in a Clichéd Female Role? You know, I've always thought it was curious that the Oscars are one of the last official institutions to keep the word "actress" alive. James Lipton is careful to say "actor" for every guest, male or female, (the complete phrase is "wonderful, luminous actor"), but the Academy Awards, as always, have dug a deep trench.