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Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at RogerEbert.com. If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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Three Film Masters

My latest film criticism is available now at Bright Lights Film Journal. “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience” addresses the question, as the tag line has it: “Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?

It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”

“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”

I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?

An excerpt:

The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.

Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.

While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.

Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.

Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.

Read the rest here.

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Hemingway & Gellhorn’s Follies d’Amour

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Do you do politics, but live for art? Do art, but live for politics? Don’t tell me. Share it with your confessor. Or your bartender.

We saw the Kennedy Center & Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Follies, minus Bernadette Peters, at the Ahmanson on Sunday. Theater tickets were still costing more than an ounce of Acapulco Gold when the original production premiered in 1971 – or was it that the Gold lasted longer? – so I missed that one. I had the original cast recoring in my possession not long after, but I didn’t see a full staging until an uninspired 2001 Broadway revival starring Blythe Danner and Treat Williams. What showed in the high concept musical, then, was an oft commented upon lack of cohesion because of that highness of concept. Not this time. As fully realized a production as the play is likely to receive, the concept is this time fully borne out to it musical comedy, hysterical and haunting conclusion. Two middle aged couples, one-time Follies performers, relive in reunion the follies of their mismatched love lives, finally performing them to a despairing fall in a closing, actual Follies review.  The daring of this theatrical vision relatively early in the monumental Sondheim career, and even forty years later, reminds just how great that career has been. Sondheim is one of the world’s greatest living artists in any medium, still, at 82, towering above everyone else in his field, with nary a pretender in sight.

Whatever the achievements of this production, though, and despite the prodigious theatrical talent of Bernadette Peters, no performance, I think, will match the searing, soaring pain of Dorothy Collins, from the original cast, performing that contender for greatest torch song ever, “Losing My Mind.”

Then word out of Cannes that Michael Haneke had won his second Palme d’Or, for Amour, a film about old age and euthanaisa starring Emmanuelle Riva and  Jean-Louis Trintignant.

In accepting the award, Mr. Haneke shared the stage with the movie’s two actors, who both were accompanied to the stage. Ms. Riva, born in 1927, was last at Cannes officially in 1959 with that classic of the French New Wave, Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Both Ms. Riva and Mr. Trintignant spoke briefly after Mr. Haneke did. The visibly frail Mr. Trintignant (born in 1930), whose astonishing career includes some of the most famous European films of the past half-century —“A Man and a Woman,” “Z,” “My Night at Maud’s,” “The Conformist” — said that, for him, Mr. Haneke was the greatest director working today.

The two careers span an approximately twenty-year period in European film that is one of the high points in the history of any art.

Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Trintignant in The Conformist.

The two in Amour.

Last night on  HBO, Philip Kaufmann’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. The film has many of the difficulties of bio pics, which with very rare exceptions feel constrained by the shape, or dramatic shapelessness, of a whole life, and thus fail to provide the form of an artist’s enveloping vision. Still, in the film’s strongest section, the Spanish Civil War captures what was the short-lived attraction between the two – engagement in daring, vivid lives of action, commitment and writing. While Gellhorn comes off best, no one fares well, least of all John Dos Passos, who must hate Hemingway again from grave to grave for being portrayed the smallest whiny wuss as ever bleated naively for a cause. Gellhorn seems less to find meaning in the cause of engagé journalism than to be incapable of living more personally and deeply. Hemingway, if possible, is played a grander preening bag of juvenile bluster than usual. There is something about that long Civil War section, focused on the filming of the famous documentary, The Spanish Earth, that makes all that celebrity volunteer coverage of a foreign war appear too much a search for personal significance in other people’s blood.

Still, there is one deeply affecting moment that captures the best inarticulable essence to the Hemingway life of bravado, that almost redeems it, if he didn’t seem otherwise so awful. He and Gellhorn are at the front line observing a firefight when they see a Republican soldier shot to death very near them. Hemingway runs to him, to take up the fighter’s head and whisper some last words – Gellhorn knew not what they were – in the man’s ears in his final moments before death. Enraged, Hemingway then picks up the fallen man’s rifle and joins the charge into battle. Gellhorn says in the voice over that it was at the instant of Hemingway’s private, whispered words to the dying man that she knew she was in love.

At that moment, for a few moments, I almost loved him, too. But I suspect that was the way it was for everyone with Hemingway.

AJA

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