Month: May 2012
Sex Addiction and the City: Shame
Different kinds of addiction have been portrayed numerous times on screen, from heroine to cocaine, from meth to even the addiction to one’s ego. But artist turned director Steve McQueen’s Shame marks the first time that sex addiction has been handled on so hauntingly and superbly on the screen. Michael Fassbender’s sympathetic Brandon is more the ghost of a human, just as the film is more a ghost of an actual story, rather than something as fulfilling as it wishes to be.
Artist turned director Steve McQueen made his first mark on art cinema with 2008’s Hunger, a semi-biopic starring Michael Fassbender depicting Billy Sands, the IRA, and the ensuing hunger strike that Sands would put himself to. The film was an equally cold exploration of the damage and harm that, in a masochistic sense, a person could subject themselves to and how that affected the people around them. Shame follows the same kind of thematic link, with Fassbender’s Brandon a man whose sexual appetites cannot be satisfied. Both are unflinching looks at the subject matter at hand. But McQueen’s precise directing and unsympathetic look at the character separate and distance the audience form making a true emotional connection with Brandon. Not because his problem is one that few audience member will identify with, but because McQueen, by himself, gives the audience little reason to sympathize with him in the first place.
It is no doubt, however, that it is Michael Fassbender who makes Brandon as sympathetic as he can be. Brandon is a man to be pitied, but through the frigid and naked lens that McQueen shoots with, it is Fassbender’s job to make sure that the film is not so cold that it becomes unbearable or repellent. Fassbender imbues his character with the nuance it needs to make the story believable, but even then, it remains more of a skeletal outline of a story than a true one. Nevertheless, the pained looks, the melancholy, and helplessness of such a deviant make what emotion the film does have palpable. Shame, more than Hunger, gives Fassbender the opportunity to play a man who must present himself as the stereotypical metropolitan yuppie who must hide under that successful façade and shelter the deviant and insidious sex addict underneath. Brandon is constantly having sex or masturbating or watching porn. He is insatiable.
As powerful as Fassbender’s performance is, it is not enough to carry the film on its own. Enter Carey Mulligan’s obnoxious Sissy, Brandon’s equally damaged younger sister. Mulligan plays the annoying well enough, and her rendition of “New York, New York” is absolutely heartbreaking. It is what her character reveals in Brandon that makes the film more human that it would have been originally. We are presented with two people who are escaping their pasts, two people whose early life was so damaged that both Brandon and Sissy find ways of manifesting their pain through questionable acts. Sissy can barely hold a relationship together and then starts sleeping with Brandon’s boss; Brandon is addicted to sex. AT every moment of the film, one of the two is self-sabotaging in one way or another, unable to truly find any solace or comfort in anything (or anyone) they do.
Both Brandon and Sissy are unable to escape the demons that are incessantly pursuing them, and they both reach low points that inevitably destroy the other. The relationship between Fassbender and Mulligan is completely believable, and the pain they cause one another is just as convincing. When Brandon runs, he is not only running away from the moans of pleasure of his sister with his boss, he is running away from her completely, as she is a reminder of the past he is trying to avoid and destroy. He may not destroy his past, but he destroys himself, with the drama aided by a chilling classical score by Harry Escot.
It is here where we run into the problem. As chilling and hauntingly beautiful as the film can be, it is just… cold. I have used that adjective several times throughout this review, but there does not seem to be a better way to describe the distance that McQueen creates between the film and its audience, between Brandon and the viewer, and between the damaged sibling relationship and, again, the viewer. Thus, were it not for Fassbender’s excruciatingly powerful performance, the film would be so unbearably sterile that one could barely get through it. The exploration into the human urges and sexual appetites of one man suffering from a debilitating addiction is fine, but the storyline is thin and, at the end, one asks themselves, “Well, that was great, but… what was the point?” For a director whose first project was the big, sinister Hunger, a film that imbued every cold image with some meaning and solace, often rooted in the political activism that Billy Sands was involved in or some religious imagery, Shame, in comparison, seems like it wants to do the same thing, but lack the material to articulate that kind of meaning. It hardly seems the kind of film to speak about all men and women who are sexually addicted, for such a statement in this kind of film would be rather grandiose and pretentious. One often runs into that kind of problem when trying to define or portray a group of people. However, it is equally troubling when you take the film as face value, where you only have Brandon and Sissy and their demons. It lacks the depth that one would expect from this kind of controversial art house film.
Regardless of this, Steve McQueen’s film is immaculate in the technical sense. Even with Brandon’s downfall, every frame perfectly epitomizes that cold, sterile feeling of the film. Brandon’s apartment is surprisingly tidy, its monochromatic textures revealing nary a detail about the man. There is a sense of minimalism to the production, where the color scheme is ice blue at times, and every building that Brandon inhabits or enters is decorated in a scant sense. Only the streets reveal the dirt underneath Brandon’s fingers, as well as the subway. The cinematography is impressive, and the editing style occasionally tiptoes around flashbacks and stream of consciousness. The explicit content of the film is really hardly anything worse one would see on any HBO show, but, it is no secret that the MPAA is an arbitrary system that often has bias against sexuality anyways.
Steve McQueen’s Shame artfully shows the damage that a sexual addict inflicts upon himself and the manifestation of personal demons through the addiction. Michael Fassbender gives a stunning performance, one that deserved more recognition by a certain organization. And while McQueen accomplishes creating a chilling and haunting film, he fails on a human level, never letting his audience really connect with Brandon. The film’s coldness distances the audience, and you after the film, you get the sense that there was something else there, but you don’t know, and are left contemplating the point of the whole thing. Just like the sexual addict in the film, in the end, you’re left a little unsatisfied and wanting a whole lot more.
Carey Mulligan’s heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York”
Never Let Them Go: Everything Must Go
As one of the few people I know who will forever admire Will Ferrell’s dramatic work in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, I was very pleased to hear that the actor, comedian, and recent recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, would be returning to some dramatic work in the indie dramedy Everything Must Go. If you are one of the scattered admirers of what wonderful Fiction Ferrell brought to the screen previously, his performance in Everything Must Go is just as good, if not better. Granted, this film is far sadder and generally more depressing, but no less powerful.
Based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, Everything Must Go is about a man whose life manages to spiral completely downwards in a period of about two days. On the first day, Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is fired from his job, at which he has worked for sixteen years. Apparently, his alcoholism got in the way of things from time to time. Upon returning home, freshly let go, he find all of his belongings on his front lawn, with the locks changed, no access to the house, and a note from his wife, notifying that she is leaving him and wants him out of her life. Essentially, every piece of life that Nick wants or could care about is strewn on his front lawn, and he does what any person in that situation would do: he gives up completely.
Lounging in his chair, he befriends a young boy named Kenny, played by Christopher CJ Wallace (aka The Notorious BIG’s son), and befriends his pretty neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and with them, he goes on a path of redemption! No, not really. Amongst the several things this film does correctly, everything Must Go first and foremost avoids cliché. With such a sad sack protagonist and a depressing, worthy of redemption storyline, it could have easily fallen prey to being your usual sappy drama. While it isn’t as cynical or dark as Young Adult, it does treat its protagonist in a similar way by not letting its protagonist escape from their flaws and mistakes, and instead uses them as an opportunity to see the character develop in their bizarrely stunted ways. Nor does the film allow to overdevelop and thus give way to extreme sappiness and cliché.
The performance that Will Ferrell gives in the film is of utter nuance. The character of Nick is not one of your typical slackers, usually played for comedy, but instead a legitimate depressive alcoholic, someone whom you would initially want to have sympathy for, but any sense of that is driven away by the character’s cynicism. Though, this is not completely true. Ferrell’s nature charm on the screen, almost in a Tom Hanks way, where you know that he must be a nice guy despite that these bad things are happening to a relatively good person, lets the audience have a certain amount of sympathy for him without making the audience regret having that sympathy for a generally unlikable character. Is it because the audience feels a connection with someone who is going through a midlife crisis? Or rather, a person whose midlife crisis has simply crashed down on that person? Why does this character inspire so much emotional response from the audience? What makes the portrayal so tender, so beautiful at times, and so worthy of a watch and, even at times, a tear? It is all thanks to Ferrell, who hones his dramatic skills not only as an actor, but as a performer. One never gets the sense that Ferrell is not taking his role seriously. Rather than a well-known comedian playing a sad sack, Ferrell, who has played the same kind of character for laughs before, inhabits that character and becomes him. That is, essentially, the best an actor can do. That is what acting should be. There is no discernible façade between Will Ferrell the comedian and Nick Halsey the man who is sleeping on his lawn.
It is lucky that one gets such a superb performance from Ferrell, as the story, while just as depressing as listening to Nick’s life story on audiotape, could have presented itself as something rife with genre tropes. There seems to be something around every corner that could have jumped out and made the film a “recovery movie” or a “redemption movie”, usually the province of cable TV. The film’s unsympathetic, un-cynical, and un-cliché look at Nick’s world affords itself a strange realism. If anything, the film presents very human characters whose responses are often irrational, unjustified, but still worthy of our attention.
The supporting cast is excellent, with Christopher CJ Wallace as the kid neighbor who indirectly inspires Nick to get off his ass. Yes, Kenny’s mother works, and yes, we kind of feel bad for him, but, again, the audience is not guilted into any of these emotions or responses; they just seem to happen naturally. The same can be said of Rebecca Hall’s “new in town, married woman next door”. Her husband works and she is there alone while pregnant, but there is enough distance for the audience to relate on their own without being forced to. It is this naturalism that writer and director Dan Rush imbues the story with, devoid of overt pessimism or optimism.
While most of the film is dramatic, and fairly depressing, there are light strokes of comedy brushed in that are definitely amusing. The style and sense of humor is not dark or black, per se, but balances the film out so that the drama and comedy juxtapose one another in terms of the tone in the film. Nor does it feel out of the blue or random in anyway. I guess the key word one could use to describe how good this film is is “natural”. Everything about it just comes together in a neat package, with the right rhythm and cadence.
Dan Rush’s dramedy is placidly paced and naturalistic in every way, from its story to its characters. Although it sometimes teeters on the edge of making the audience want to weep for a thousand years with a pint of ice cream at their side, it balances the sad story with mildly uplifting scenarios and amusing moments of humor. However, it is Will Ferrell’s excellent, almost perfect performance that makes the film worth seeing. Much like Ferrell’s previous venture into dramatic work in, this film that sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction. Also, more depressing.
This Land is Your Land: A Look at Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” and “Manderlay”
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Provocateur Lars von Trier’s films have always been, more or less, well, provocative. His films, often depicting a strangely gruesome truth in a very human reality, like Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, or Antichrist, have always been extremely divisive. Yet, most of his loyal fans have been able to come up with a defense for him, especially regarding technical mastery and artistic integrity. However, there was a change in the air when his three hour, “Let’s Piss Off the Americans” parable was released. Why was this? Supposedly, his film, Dogville, was a harsh criticism of a country he had never been to. That’s quite obvious. Its follow up, Manderlay, continued that thesis. But why did these two films manage to ruffle so many feathers? And what did it all mean? Even if the answers are muddled and indiscernible, both films, particularly the former, are masterworks of satire and social commentary. Originally conceived as a trilogy, called “USA – Land of Opportunity”, the two films that have been made so far are an undeniably infuriating, honest, and stylish look at America’s hypocrisy.
While I was in middle school, I was subjected (yes, subjected) to reading and watching Our Town, a play that, to me, was inexplicably acclaimed and vastly overrated. My view has changed slightly since then, but the personal look at a small town and all the innocuous details of day to day life simply bored me to death at the time. Thornton Wilder seemed to want to blend the realism of everyday life with the distinctly imaginative use of minimal sets and almost no props. Seeing it live was like watching a naked stage. I would like to thank my middle school English teachers, however, for putting me through the experience, twice. Without that, I would not appreciate Lars von Trier’s own witty, poisonous take on American life.
In brief, Grace, played by the lovely Nicole Kidman, and her alabaster hands have stumbled upon the town of Dogville, escaping from fairly intimidating men in black cars. Thomas (Paul Bettany, and you can see him cry in the doc Dogville Confessions), the town’s philosopher, suggests to the townspeople that they take her in and protect her. In return, Grace agrees to help each member of the town every day with little tasks. Little by little, as Grace proves more dangerous to the town, Dogville begins to “bare its teeth”.
Were it not for John Hurt’s wry narration, Dogville would look almost exactly like Wilder’s Our Town, but appropriated in the Midwest. We are told that the town’s buildings are fairly ramshackle and almost dilapidated, something the mind can compare to a ghetto of sorts. The imagery, what we see on the screen though, is pure starkness and minimalism. With props here and there, von Trier places more focus and importance on the characters themselves, for they will put his conceit into motion. The minimalist set design is a curious opportunity for pure mise-en-scene, and despite von Trier’s Dogme 95 rooted handheld camerawork, scene construction still works in a fascinatingly naturalistic way.
But rather than approach these films in my typical, sterile way, why not get down to some analysis? What exactly does it all mean? The auteur made this film to make Americans angry 9which he did), but what could have made them so angry?
Nicole Kidman’s character has a name which, for the bulk of the film, epitomizes her personality. She is kind, helpful, she does not complain. Even in moments where she should complain or accuse, she opts not to. She always sees the good in people. She is Liberty. She is the overeager, almost “be the hero” tendencies of the United States, the Good Samaritan of the world who is willing to do anything, feigning humbleness, but just as much in need of recognition and praise. A young child in the film walks up to Grace and says, “I know why you’re here. You want people to like you. You want to fit in.” This sounds almost like a statement that the United Nations or NATO could give out, if they had the guts. The constant remarks from the narrator about Grace’s alabaster hands leads one to believe that she, Liberty, has never really worked. That her naiveté and newness has never forced her to put in some elbow grease. But upon seeing an opportunity of helping a community less fortunate than herself, which you could substitute for any country or any disaster prone town, she then puts in all the hard work she could muster. There does not seem to be anything terribly wrong with this criticism, as history has shown that, regardless of whether “we” are supposed to or not, “we” like helping people. And “we” always think they need or want our help. While the town of Dogville is at first hesitant on letting Grace in so far into their lives, even helping with day to day tasks (the pedestrian feel accentuates the satirical turn of Our Town), they seem to give in, either begrudgingly or because they actually need some assistance. Do the countries the United States really need help or does the United States simply act completely innocent and somehow nose its way into the lives of others? It is this kind of question that von Trier forces the audience to ask itself, and there are far more.
The Town of Dogville, USA, while being any other ghetto or country you can think of can also represent the United States itself. Despite its rather derelict state, Dogville is a proud town and represents the Heart of America, to some extent. And at the heart and core of America is a generous and kind façade, one that has consequently influenced much of American history, especially when that mask has been unceremoniously ripped off. The townspeople seem nice, although slightly helpless, but generally full of good will. Though, the town of Dogville has sharp teeth to bear when it needs to. Grace and Dogville are to allegories about America as Janus is to Roman mythology. They are two faces of the same coin, and one could argue that Dogville is Janus all on its own, the duplicitous two-faced god, one face looking forward in favor of exploration and advancement and the other looking back, stubborn and obstinate, wishing for things to remain the way they always have. Thomas Edison Jr.’s philosophically inclined character seems to represent the pseudointellectual vein in America that leads us absolutely nowhere but pondering in our rooms answering no real “worthwhile” questions. Dogville begins to bare its teeth when keeping Grace becomes more of a risk. They want more help. Soon, Dogville’s acts become slightly more unethical. They require Grace to work more with less pay (sound familiar?) On the far end of the spectrum, after all the brainless accusations and Grace’s naïve refusal to say anything else on the matter and after Grace attempts to escape Dogville, they require her to wear a device that is like an anchor with a bell around her neck. While this may be interesting, undoubtedly, and a terrible refection of the United States’ questionable history (as compared to its small town, “we accept everything and everyone” façade), there is one scene that rings perhaps the most disturbing regarding the town of Dogville. Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard, who seems to be in nearly everything von Trier has ever made) sexually assaults Grace, but Grace says nothing. Could von Trier be commenting, criticizing a society which has somehow taught its people that when someone is raped, it is the victim’s fault? That they are to blame for whatever situation they “put themselves in”? And despite the fact that Chuck’s wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson, disturbingly brilliant… or brilliantly disturbing) learns afterwards that it was not Grace who made the advances, as her husband had told her, but Chuck, she is meaner than ever. The men of Dogville pay visits to Grace often, and the kids almost celebrate gleefully by tolling the bell. Is he commenting on a society that glorifies sex at the expense of the woman? Whatever von Trier is doing, his portrait of small town America is cutting and, even worse, accurate.
At the end of the film, we learn that Grace was being angsty and was running away from her father. Her father is a gangster, with a slew of followers. When he comes by Dogville to rescue his daughter, essentially, their chat inside the car is as revealing about von Trier’s purpose as anything. James Caan, who it may be noted was in The Godfather, speaks of his daughter’s arrogance. “Arrogance”. It is an important part to this entire three hour opus that some critics have called “anti-American”. Grace’s generous, “think the way I think” contrasted against the town’s intolerance is a naked look at America’s both xenophobic tendencies as wells as its tendency to think less of others, but skew it in a way where we pity them. Grace’s father takes it a step further, almost acting like the trigger happy military and government the United States is known to have, and burns down the town of Dogville, shooting all of its inhabitants. This is just as powerful of an idea, but what matters more is the wakeup call he gives to his daughter about her “arrogance”, her judgment, and her condescension of others.
This is what von Trier is trying to say, trying to prove throughout the entire film. It is a biting commentary he provides, but the worst part is arguably the fact that he is, essentially, correct. Harsh though he may be, he is not wrong in evaluating the United States as a country that tries to present itself as more than willing to be helpful, but is at heart intolerant and xenophobic. He, like Jean-Luc Godard in Pierrot le Fou, has seen the United States bare its teeth.
Admittedly, Manderlay is most definitely the weaker of the two films, but this is probably due more to Bryce Dallas Howard’s unsatisfying performance as Grace more than a lot of the film’s flaws. (I bet Nicole Kidman regrets taking on that remake of The Stepford Wives, doesn’t she?) Another problem the film has is that it does not have nearly as much depth to it as Dogville had. At first, the allegory behind the parable sticks out like an eyesore, but nevertheless, Lars von Trier’s theatrical staging and stellar cast make it almost as entrancing of an experience.
After burning down the town of Dogville, Grace and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe, who would return in von Trier’s controversial Antichrist) happen upon a plantation in Alabama called Manderlay. Inside, slavery still persists, as rampant as ever, despite the year being 1933. When the matriarch dies (Lauren Bacall, who was also in Dogville), Grace takes it upon herself to free the slaves, give them contracts, and completely reform their society.
Again, sound a little familiar? Grace’s condescension reaches a new height, but the proselytizing that she does resembles a different aspect of the United States. This is the United States who goes to other countries, speaks of Democracy, and forces them to adhere to it whether they like it or not, whether they think democracy works for that society or not.
Grace does indeed take over, in a somewhat Orwellian, Animal Farm-esque way, forcing the ex-slaves to conform to her school of thought. There is also a book of rules, the Bible of the plantation called Mam’s Law, in which everything to run a plantation successfully is detailed. Unsurprisingly, Grace is disgusted at the things within the book. It also details how certain slaves fall into certain psychological states of mind. They can be clowns, proud, suck ups, etc.
Grace’s white guilt at the slavery whites subjected African Americans to is hardly new. They make films about that all the time! Remember The Help? Here, though, the white guilt is not used in the same manipulative way that the Help used it, to gain some semblance of sympathy of the “oh, I was wrong” sort. It is used to pint out how ridiculous it is that some people within the society should act, without much guilt of their own, holier than thou.
One could say that Manderlay might be a happier (well, no) or more merciful story or execution of similar ideas and themes in comparison to Dogville, because, again in comparison, there does not seem to be as much to talk about. There still is, regardless, it just does not overflow with ideas the way its predecessor did.
There is some curious talk of the death penalty, although in a very subtle way. I honestly was not expecting that from von Trier but I do not know why I was particularly surprised by it. While one little girl was sick with pneumonia and not eating, although to everyone else it appeared she was, an old lady had been taking the food from the young girl’s plate at night when no one was watching. When the girl dies, they find that the old woman had taken the food and there is a debate as to whether they should kill the woman or not. For Grace, who had been holding meetings as a demonstration of “the ballot” had taught them that she wants justice for them as much as anyone. Hence, the Death Penalty talk. The ethics of not only the supposed crime are discussed, but also as to whether the justice would actually be justice or simply pure revenge.
And in the end, von Trier’s slightly lesser Manderlay successfully leaves an impression on the viewer. For Mam’s Law, which had all the ghastly ordinances of the plantation set in stone, was not written by Mam at all, but the wise, patriarchal slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover). He called it the “lesser of two evils” and explained that maintaining slavery was the safer bet as he did not think that, after the Proclamation Declaration, America would be ready for blacks. Mam’s Law guaranteed certain rights and safety, etc. Obviously, this kind of commentary would strike a nerve in audiences. This is 1933 and it would still be another two and a half decades before the Civil Rights Era would fall upon the United States, where intolerance would still be just as rampant as ever.
Von Trier makes very powerful statements about race in this film, also using the theme of tolerance, or lack thereof, which was prevalent in Dogville. The film is dry, cutting, and fascinating and eerily accurate once again. Once again, he pushes the button of America evoking a stunning response.
Both of these films have been described as “anti-American”, which they are. And why shouldn’t they be? Americans have had their way with portraying other countries in less than favorable lights, and probably to an extent that is more obvious and hyperbolic than even von Trier. What von trier does in both of these films is not only criticize the United States harshly, but he actually holds up a mirror the United States and makes them realize what they do and what they have done, “our” hypocrisies. It is more than potent with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” playing over pictures of poverty stricken people (in Dogville) and scenes of violence from the Civil Rights Era (in Manderlay). Rather than take the perspective of “How dare a Danish director who has never been to our country criticize us!” it would be more fruitful to think of why he is making these criticisms. The nationalism gives way to our history of sweeping our country’s flaws under the rug to jumping to arbitrary defenses. As I said, Americans are just as guilty of never going to another country and then criticizing it. With its simple staging accentuating the character relationships and turning Thornton Wilder’s American classic of small town life on its head, its vicious commentary is all the more intriguing. Lars von Trier’s imaginative, challenging, and inventive style has quickly made him one of my favorite directors of all time.
Trailer for Dogville
Trailer for Manderlay
This entry was posted in drama, Take One and tagged Antichrist, black comedy, Breaking the Waves, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chloe Sevigny, commentary, Dancer in the Dark, Danny Glover, Dogville, drama, Lars von Trier, Lauren Bacall, Manderlay, Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, satire, The Idiots, Udo Kier.