Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Is There an Editor in the House?

I really shouldn't have attempted to watch Heaven's Gate, The Turin Horse, and This Is Not a Film all in the same weekend.  It basically meant I spent over seven hours watching nothing happening.  I'm starting to forget what it's like to watch a movie in which there's stuff going on.

Maybe that's a little unfair.  Things do happen in Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's notorious 1980 career-destroying flop; it just takes a while to get it going.  First it has to give us 20 minutes of the protagonist, James Averill (played by Kris Kristofferson), graduating from Harvard, which really has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and which mainly consists of John Hurt (looking way too old to be graduating from college even with the makeup artist and hair stylist's efforts to de-age him) giving an esoteric and essentially meaningless speech, followed by the graduates dancing around in circles.  Literally.  Indeed, most of the 219-minute movie is just people dancing around in circles, both literally and metaphorically.  That, and screaming at each other in various European languages.

I really want to believe that the circle motif represents something more than simply the circular nature of life, the way that everything occurs in an endless and ineffectual loop, but the evidence doesn't suggest that there's anything more to it than that.  The whole plot of the film is just a thin clothes line from which to hang these flimsy metaphors (about as flimsy as the metaphor I just wrote, in fact).

Anyway, after the Harvard sequence, we get about 40 more minutes of introductory material, as the story jumps ahead 20 years, to the 1890s, and the film's true setting (Wyoming) and characters are established.  So, we're a full hour into the movie, and it feels like it's just starting.

After another hour, I still felt like I had no true idea of who these characters were.  Kristofferson isn't much of an actor, or much of a movie star, so he gives the already vague character he portrays an extra layer of vagueness.  Christopher Walken and Jeff Bridges wander around the film without much to do, John Hurt's purpose is completely mystifying, and Sam Waterston puts in an appearance every once in a while to remind us that the film has a villain.  Only Isabelle Huppert, as the hooker with a heart of gold, really exists as flesh and blood, although she plays the character with such giddy girlishness that it borders on creepy, considering her profession (incidentally, the film also marked the debuts of both Willem Dafoe, as an extra, and Lost's Terry O'Quinn, in a minor role, as well as an early performance by a very young-looking Mickey Rourke).

Cimino's original cut was reportedly almost five and a half hours long.  I can't imagine what was cut out, when the 3.5-hour version already feels bloated and aimless.  If you're going to ask your audience to invest this much time in a film, then surely you should be offering something in return, like engaging characters or an interesting story.  All we really get is Vilmos Zsigmond's magnificent tawny-toned cinematography, but that's hardly sufficient remuneration for 219 butt-numbing minutes of our lives.

But at least it's a bona fide movie.  Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film (now in theaters) is certainly aptly named, because it's really not a film at all.  It's literally a home movie, shot on a video camera (and, at one point, an iPhone) entirely in Panahi's apartment over the course of a single day.  If this sounds absurd, you have to remember that Panahi is the Iranian filmmaker who was arrested and banned from making films for 20 years.  So This Is Not a Film represents a protest, of sorts.  The story behind it is already becoming the stuff of legend, how the footage was smuggled out of Iran in a birthday cake by associates of Panahi's who must remain anonymous or face a prison sentence.  So, you know, it's all very noble and worthy.

But come on.  I mean, let's get real here.  It's not a movie.  It's 75 minutes of Panahi moping around his apartment, taking phone calls from friends, family, and business associates, and reading excerpts from a screenplay he was not allowed by law to film.  It's actually not as boring as it sounds, and in fact it's occasionally quite interesting, particularly when Panahi makes digressions to discuss his previous films (using his DVD copies as visual aids).  But it's of interest only to people who have been wondering what Panahi has been up to since his arrest.  And the answer is: well, not a whole hell of a lot.

I know Iran has been in the news a lot lately.  I know it's a place that 99.9% of Americans will never visit, so it's, you know, exotic and foreign and shit.  And I know the political regime sucks.  But this is not a film!  It's barely even a protest.  Even Panahi himself seems doubtful of its value as a movie, though he seems to be aware that it does raise some interesting questions about truth and art.

So if it's not a movie, what is it?  A political statement?  Maybe.  Panahi does try to adhere to the letter of the law if not the spirit, so he has friends and family members work the camera for him (or simply leave it running on a table).  Eventually, though, he gives up this pointless charade and picks up the camera himself, even venturing outside with it.  It's essentially Panahi waving his middle finger at the government, the equivalent of a child testing his parents to see what he can get away with... but does that constitute art?  I remain doubtful.  Regardless of the circumstances, I don't think the act of picking up a camera should automatically be worthy of praise (or our money), if what is actually onscreen is irrelevant.

Both Heaven's Gate and This Is Not a Film represent, at least for me, cinematic excess and superfluity, and both raise questions concerning whether or not everything that can be put on film should be shown.  But if there were a king of cinematic excess and superfluity, that crown would surely go to Bela Tarr, who has had a chronic case of diarrhea of the camera for about three decades now.  This is best exemplified by Satantango, his 7.5-hour magnum opus, a film that could have easily shaved off four hours by simply cutting every shot in half, and nothing would have been lost.  Indeed, it would have been the same movie, just less of it.  Tarr is a man who really loves to film the shit out of things.

The Turin Horse (also now in theaters) is allegedly his final film, for which we can all be thankful.  It clocks in at a mere two hours and 26 minutes, and yet it still feels like it's never going to end, like the world has ended and this movie is all that remains.  Which might very well be the point.  It certainly appears as though the world is ending for the characters, an old farmer and his daughter, who are trapped in a windstorm that lasts six days, and trapped in their lives, which are mercilessly interminable.

Nobody's ever going to ask, "What's your favorite part of The Turin Horse?"   Unless they're joking, and they're looking for a response like, "The part where the old man eats the potato."  Or, "The part where the girl eats the potato."  Or, "The part where the old man looks out the window."  Or, "The part where the girl looks out the window."  Yes, this is the movie.  It's like a parody of every unfair preconception that an average American has about European films.

Now, I can handle slow films.  My favorite filmmaker is Andrei Tarkovsky, who wasn't exactly known for speeding things along.  I'm also a fan of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a three-hour plus film in which the title character performs the same mundane routine, over and over again.  The difference is that Jeanne Dielman's deliberate tedium has a specific point to make (heck, with Delphine Seyrig's intense performance and Akerman's exquisite sense of camera placement, it's not even tedious at all), and it all built to something.  Tarr's point could have been made just as well without the tedious repetition.

But what really bugged me about the film was its aestheticism.  Tarr's camera fetishizes poverty.  He shoots, as per his idiom, in grim black and white that makes everyone and everything look bleakly beautiful, like a perfume ad for the post-apocalyptic consumer.  In its way, what is actually onscreen becomes almost as irrelevant as in This is Not a Film.  Tarr is so in love with textures and shapes and shades that the actors just seem to get in the way.  His camera lingers on objects -- a drinking glass, a lamp, and, most laughably, a sheet hanging over the field of view -- with such portentous significance as to suggest that he includes things like story and characters merely begrudgingly, so that we'll stick around to look at his pretty still lifes.  As the characters gradually give up on life in a world of despair brought upon by the debasement of man, or whatever (honestly, Bela, what the hell is the matter with you, dude?), it has all the resonance of a painting.

What, then, are we to learn from this?  That every film needs a merciless, jackbooted, take-no-prisoners editor to keep the director honest?  When you make a film, there is an unspoken compact established with the audience.  We give you our money and our attention, and in return we expect to see things that have significance to ourselves.  I'm reminded of Steve Martin's speech to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  "Not everything is an anecdote.  You have to discriminate.  You pick things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting."  That's true of films as well as anecdotes.  Just because you want to film something, it doesn't mean it should be filmed, or that we want to see it.  A little self-restraint is all I'm asking for here.