I’ve seen a number of very fine movies recently, all made with supreme skill and confidence. But the technique in three of the four movies cuts into any type of moral or message, overwhelming the movie’s ideas. It’s a weird trend, the directing acumen outshining the writing, but here we have three excellent movies that are, on close inspection, missing something essential. Or at least, they seem to be.
Whiplash—The film follows a music student at a top New York music school. He falls under the tutelage of a verbally abusive teacher, and the two wage a psychological war. The music is excellent, and the director knows how to pace a film; there isn’t an inch of fat. Whiplash offers three dynamite performances—Miles Teller and J.K Simmons, of course, but also a very fine minor role for Paul Reiser. I didn’t just like it, I loved it, I had a great time watching it, and the tension is close to unbearable. The movie feels alive in a way that many movies don’t. But the teacher, played by J.K. Simmons is tyrannical, insulting, dismissive, punishing and utterly unredeemable. Okay, fine, yet the movie seems to side with him near the end. It’s a disconcerting and discomfiting movie, for the message seems to be arguing for the asshole school of artistry—an artist has to be driven, talented, and lucky as well as selfish and cruel to have any chance at greatness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Assured ambience and atmosphere, stunning lighting and acting, unforgettable set pieces—the film is festooning with technique—but what is the movie saying? Is art bad?
Hard To Be a God—is dripping and oozing film technique of a different kind, a hybrid of Bergman and Tarkovsky and Cassavetes and Burroughs and some Euro-trash fantasy knockoff from the 1980s. And more than a little of Orson Welles’s The Trial. So, before I say anything else, let’s be clear: Hard To Be a God is tasteless, crass, revolting, repugnant, often nonsensical, hinting at profundity but never achieving it. It’s also utterly compelling, stunningly executed, and beautifully photographed. The director seems to be rehashing the same territory as The Man Who Fell To Earth (itself quite a an overrated clunker), that people lose track of their self-purpose through hedonism. Life is cheap. Man is a runty animal. And, I don’t know, without modern sewage removal our dwellings would smell bad.
The conceit is astonishing: scientists in the future discover a planet just like ours, on the cusp of the Enlightenment. The scientists ingratiate themselves in the local populace to study and record the coming advances, only the enlightenment never happens. It’s just the grindhouse of the middle ages, religious persecutions, plagues, riots, holy wars, purges and horrid sanitation.
Hard To Be a God offers little exposition outside the first few minutes. I think the scientists have installed themselves as the ruling class, including Rumata, who has set himself up as the son of a god. Rumata’s quest is to drag the humanoid alien race into modernity without interfering too much. He tries, in vain, to save poets and scientists and interesting people from the various pitfalls but the world is such disarray around him he spends much of the movie wandering in a drunken daze. Another human, Reba, has set himself up as a kind of Colonel Kurtz for the entire world. Rumata projects violence, always claiming to cut off ears for fun, but when he’s attacked he works hard not to hurt anyone. But the crumbling society he is trapped in has such cheap notions of life that his ideals aren’t just tested, they’re proven completely and utterly false. He sees disemboweling, defenestration. He witnesses people being scalped, beheaded, raped, hung, burned at the stake, ripped apart by medieval devices. But he spends most of the movie sniffing various garments.
The movie unfolds with long, uninterrupted tracking shots. The sets and the art design are unfathomable; the movie feels like you are wandering lost in some god-forsaken outpost of a dying world. The sound and the actor’s blocking are unparalleled. But much of the movie is crowded with excess, with clunky backgrounds stuffed with hanging innards, quivering buttocks, pig heads and blunt spears and all manner of rusting metal. It’s beautiful to look at, yet unflaggingly ugly. A neat trick in and of itself, I suppose. But the movie is three hours long.
I’m glad I watched this movie, but it’s a far cry from the great films of Bergman (Wild Strawberries) or Goddard (Alphaville!) or Tarkovsky (I would watch Andre Rubilev five more times before I watched this again) or Fellini (La Dolce Vita forever!) or any of the other great directors. It’s exquisite filmmaking in service to a boorish and abhorrent worldview. That. Is. Utterly. False. People are always striving to build things. Our own middle ages produced Milton, Boccaccio, Dante, the Celestina and so many other grand cathedrals and works of art. Here, the human animal has never been so goddamn repellant.
Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—Yet a third astonishing, bravura technical accomplishment, the entire film appearing to be one extended take (a la Russian Ark, which actually was one take), the passage of time and the warp of physical space more elaborate than the fabled early stage performances of “The Alchemist.” Stunning tracking shots and a delirious lead performance from Michael Keaton—you can’t take your eyes off of him—combine with a weird mashup of Raymond Carver and magical realism and Hollywood blockbuster and 1930s screwball comedy. And it all works. Mostly.
But, again, what is the movie saying? There’s an angry critic and an existential teenager and a pretentious method actor and the backstage machinery of a play. It’s funny and thrilling and anxiety-inducing. It’s a thunderous experience—I loved watching it, I could hardly breathe with anticipation—but the reverberating echoes make less sense as I gain distance. One critic called it a faux art film. This seems harsh and weirdly unfair. But, the movie’s cynicism near the end cuts into much of what I was watching. (I won’t give it away, in case you haven’t seen it, but the narrative breaks down in a tremendous manner.) It’s the third movie that overpowers you with a brash and awesome spectacle of cinema. But it feels disconnected and divorced from the reality it’s supposed to be mirroring. Work hard and you can be sort of rich? Acting is a punishing and often facile profession? Hollywood is vacuous, money-driven place?
The Drop—Which brings me to my favorite of the bunch, the least conspicuously artful, yet the most measured, the most patient and probably the best of this esteemed little list. (An opinion that will certainly rankle my fellow cinephiles.) The Drop is a little crime movie following two cousins, James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy, who run a little dive bar that holds money for the mob. They are robbed, there’s twists and turns and some dead bodies, but I won’t give any of the plot mechanics away. The Drop has courage, however, to attempt real human emotion against a noir caper plot; you care about the characters and you understand them. The acting is superb; Tom Hardy gives a nuanced, subtle and heart-breaking turn as the not-too-capable bagman in a lonely, violent world. The lighting is top-notch. And the movie has intimations of a sinister creepiness, the twilight zone invading a semi-normal life. Only, here, it’s believable. These are people living with one foot in a netherworld and violence is stalking them. The film’s argument—in this world, you can be decent, you just cannot be weak—is laid out in a clear, unnerving manner, and the surprise ending reveals itself to have been the inevitable conclusion of the story, you just didn’t see it coming. I cannot recommend it highly enough.