Lacombe, Lucien (Malle, 1974)

The cinema of Louis Malle is a fascinating, layered place, full of ambiguities about humanity and ideology. I contributed a long review of Lacombe, Lucien to Not Coming to a Theater Near You’s excellent retrospective currently in progress. Please check out all of the wonderfully written pieces.

Hereafter (Eastwood, 2010)

Hereafter suffers from a devastating split personality, a crippling conflict between modes of storytelling competing for attention. Director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern, master builders of shadowy interior spaces, construct a fascinating infrastructure of corridors and walls drenched in mood and contrasting light. Matt Damon’s psychic, so thoroughly conflicted by his desire to lead a normal existence, is often framed in brilliant medium shots with multiple layers of texture. Eastwood and Stern put an emphasis on static faces looking out windows, longing for what’s just out of reach. The comfort of reflection is rarely available, and this establishes the loneliness streaming through every scene. Yet the segment with Cecile de France, who plays a French reporter and survivor of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, contains a very different visual approach, one defined by bright sunlight, glare, and glean. Hers is a conflict about clarity, and the visual aesthetic matches up perfectly within glossy hotel rooms, posh restaurants, and clean corporate meeting rooms.

Yet Peter Morgen’s insufferable screenplay, most notably the entire thread in England, undermines basically every formal flourish the film has to offer. Even worse, the script ignores its own best elements, belittling the dynamic tension between mainstream discussions about the afterlife and personal experiences with death. The character’s blunt emotional words don’t allow for any subtext, any thought processes beyond the surface melodrama. The use of recent tragedies like the tsunami and the London bombings of 2005 isn’t intrinsically insulting, but the way Morgen manipulates the characters within those events is certainly heinous. The script hinders Eastwood and Stern’s formalism from ever transcending the haunting levels of imagery on the screen, keeping the mysteries of Hereafter hidden in plain sight. This is a film aesthetically obsessed with the humility and innocence of the modern world, a very refreshing approach in our current cinema landscape. But Morgen’s flimsy, suffocating narrative is unwilling to position these elements within an incomplete vision of fledgling humanity. In short, everything gets spelled out for easy consumption. This catch-22 makes Hereafter simultaneously enthralling and reprehensible, a strange combination that will haunt Eastwood fans forever.

Winnebago Man (Steinbauer, 2009)

Winnebago Man searches for and finds the incomplete elements of humanity behind the artifice of Internet sensationalism, then puts them on display in all their nasty, hilarious, sad, and reflective glory. The artifact in question is Jack Rebney, a former television news director turned salesman who became a viral video star after his angry tirades from a 1989 industrial video became iconic pop culture.

The filmmakers feel intrinsically tied to Rebney’s arc, as if they were family instead of outsiders, and this closeness, this proximity of feeling sets Winnebago Man apart from most documentaries. There’s a deep longing to understand Rebney’s strange tangents and about faces, a need to give this once humiliated man a second chance at refreshing his public persona. But does Rebney want such an opportunity? This question remains at the forefront of this superb non-fiction piece, and it’s to the filmmakers credit they always respect their subject’s sometimes shifty, manipulative, and worrisome outlook on the filmmaking process.

Ultimately, director Ben Steinbauer follows Rebney’s wishes to keep his childhood and adult life primarily secret, instead illuminating the day-to-day musings of a man immersed in the contradictions of modern social structures. The final tracking shot away from Rebney and his loving dog Buddha, perfectly framed by their isolated log cabin, clearly reflects the filmmakers have had a sublime impact on “the angriest salesman in the world.” At least on the surface, things are better than they were.

AFI FEST 2010 (Updated, 11/18)

Here are links to my complete coverage of AFI FEST 2010 over at The House Next Door.

#1: Introduction, Certified Copy
#2: Aardvark, Rubber, The Human Resources Manager
#3: Hahaha, Okie’s Movie
#4: Blue Valentine
#5: Outrage, The Housemaid (2010), Littlerock
#6: Amigo
#7: Heartbeats
#8: 13 Assassins

– Thanks to Ed Gonzalez and Slant Magazine for making this coverage possible.

Links Galore

The House Next Door
SDAFF 2010 #1: Intro/Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
SDAFF 2010 #2: Macho Like Me/Bodyguards and Assassins/ Alien vs. Ninja
SDAFF 2010 #3: City of Life and Death/71: Into the Fire
SDAFF 2010 #4: House of Suh/Tibet in Song

Slant Magazine
Seven Samurai (Blu)
Red Hill
Smash His Camera (DVD)
Searchers 2.0 (DVD)

The American

Thoughts to come on Uncle Boonmee, Winter’s Bone, and Certified Copy before I embark on my journey up to the AFI Film Festival. Thanks for being patient.