Comics & Biopics: Recent Movie Rundown

A few short reviews of recent movies that aren't a part of my 1001 Movies project:

"Walk the Line"

I have never watched a biopic that really impressed me, but I find the phenomenon of their popularity really fascinating. It seems to me (and to a number of other commentators) that it speaks to some basic cultural assumptions about mimesis, art, and the craft of acting. Our acclaim for biopics and the actors who impersonate the living or recently deceased implies that the highest achievement of acting is in exact imitation of a model, a reality effect that seeks to ellide the difference between imitation and original but in fact (like the wax models of Madame Tussaud's) only makes us realize that the original is just as plastic and constructed as the fake.

Thus biopics manage to be incredibly effective at the sort of emotional manipulations that many of us seek from film, while somehow making the events seem totally improbable (as in the case of famous, and apparently true-to-life, scene from "Walk the Line" in which Cash proposes to Carter in front of a concert audience). We know that life doesn't obey the laws of narrative progression and closure, which is why there is always so much to be unsatisfactorily summed up in brief textual bursts before the credits can roll. It is incredibly difficult to contain a life within the narrative strictures of Freytag's Pyramid, that famous structure of rising action, climax, falling action and resolution that defined both the well-made play and the melodrama and continues to define mainstream cinema. Lives don't have climaxes, generally speaking, and there is no point of absolute closure. Our lives are so intertwined with other people's continuing narratives, so unrepentant in their rejection of any dramatic unity of action, that even death does not mark the end of most of our life stories. So the biopic is almost always (I can't think of a single exception right now, but perhaps there is one) doomed to either narrative bagginess or the sheen of falsehood and romanticization.

Despite belonging to the genre, and to the equally meandering subgenre of the concert-tour movie (so much less satisfying than its more rebellious cousin, the road trip movie), "Walk the Line" manages to be a very entertaining film, skilled at the emotional manipulations I mentioned earlier. Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter both do (as has been proclaimed throughout the land) uncanny impersonations. I choose that adjective carefully, both because there is something inherently uncanny about the doubling of impersonation (the idea that someone's self can be captured and replicated entirely in the superficial trappings of voice, gesture, clothing), and because there is something oddly ritual or even macabre about resurrecting these two and bolstering their myths in the immediate aftermath of their deaths (the uncanniness of which is not lessened by the fact that both Carter and Cash were apparently intimately involved with the planning of the film and the casting of their doppelgangers).

dir. James Mangold


"Sin City"

There appears to be a little bit of a trend right now (ok, "Sin City" and "A History of VIolence" don't make a trend, just a pair) for translating hyperviolent comics to the screen. This trend distinguishes itself (although without the normal positive connotations of that word) by developing a specific mode of hyperbolic acting that is meant to match the iconic image that the original graphic, paper representations convey so well in the stillness of a single frame. Now, many have objected to the excessive, or rather extreme violence in these two films, and I want to make it clear that my frustrated reaction to them had nothing to do with the violence. In fact, I was glad when a violent scene came along, because it provided a break from the consciously atrocious acting. These films gave me the gift of knowing what stereotypical men feel like when they are dragged to romance flicks by their stereotypical girlfriends - I was often DESPERATE for the action to begin. What is remarkable about the bad acting, since it was clearly an aesthetic choice on the part of the directors of both films, is how unironized it was for so many of the actors, particularly since so many of the characters should be conscious of their double lives (Viggo in "A History of Violence," on the one hand, or Michael Madsen in "Sin City," among many others). The aesthetic of "Sin City" was new, indeed, but its unholy fusion of Tim Burton and the noir tradition was hard to laud unreservedly because the actual content of the film contained none of the complexities of noir, its thorny hedge of impassable plot development that evokes the moral confusion of its characters. Morality, for the most part, is disappointing clear in "Sin City." It should even be possible to utter that sentence, but there you have it.

dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, with a little soupcon of gory goodness from Quentin Taratino



I'm telling you, allegory is hot right now. "Lost" is dominating the smallscreen, expressionism is having a minor renaissance in museums and theatres, and message boards all over the internet are devoted to reading every trace of our culture with a eye to deep meaning. Into this allegory-hungry world, a world fed on abstract filterings of the news that emphasize the epic battle being waged between good and evil and the impossibility of gray area in between, comes Michael Hanneke's "Cache," a psychological allegory exploring French intellectual guilt about their relationship to Algeria and (more importantly) the Algerians "hidden" in their midst, never fully acknowledged and thus never fully enfranchised. It begins with a mystery: Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) receive a series of videotapes of the outside of their home, and gradually of other familiar, emotionally charged locations. These tapes are accompanied by gory children's drawings, but otherwise no threat is made and no motivation is stated. They are mystified and alarmed, and at this point Haneke focuses on something film has always done well, from "Peeping Tom" to "Blow Up": meditate on the creepiness of its own processes and force the spectator in the dual awkwardness of voyeurism and consciousness of the persistent surveillance which characterizes our culture. Nothing about you is hidden, the tapes say. Nothing can be.

As the film goes on, a new set of concerns emerges, the concerns of political and psychic allegory: Georges becomes convinced that the tapes are coming from an Algerian man (Majid, played by Maurice Benichou) whom, decades before, his parents had tried to adopt. His response to Majid is so disproportionate to the perceived threat (and we remain far from convinced that Majid is responsible for the tapes) that it is clear that Georges is both responding to some larger psychic event and standing in symbolically for a wider cultural phenomenon. "Cache" consciously takes as its subject the twisted workings of social and racial anxiety that "Birth of a Nation" unconsciously represented (in, for instance, its deluded/deluding insistence that black Southerners were keeping whites from voting at the polls). It pays particular attention to the paradoxes that this anxiety creates, the ways in which an oppressive class can convince itself that it is the persecuted, the oppressed, the threatened, as a way both of avoiding guilt and maintaining the status quo.

Though the details of the guilt are specific to France, the workings of social anxiety are obviously relevant to a much wider range of societies at the moment. It can serve as an allegory for any nation using a cult of fear and threat to disguise its own acts of violence and disenfranchisement. This is obviously a complex and timely topic. There is a great deal to be said about it, and I can only wish that Haneke had said more. His film is evocative and blessedly open-ended, but a greater degree of subtlety and complexity in teasing out the layers of allegory would only have enhanced its virtues.

dir. Michael Haneke


"The Phantom of Liberty"

Descriptions of Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" tend to make it sound lofty and intellectually distant: a surrealist masterpiece of non-linearity, it emerged from the idea of a narrative structure that would set up a series of more or less framed and interconnected stories, each of which would be interrupted by its successor just at the moment when it threatened to become really interesting. In fact, this is a tremendously accessible film, in part because we are already familiar with so many of its structures of illogic and satire from Monty Python (whose work "The Phantom of Liberty" closely resembles at times in aesthetic as well as tone) and the less realist ventures of Woody Allen. The two most famous scenes from the film are indeed iconic, hilarious, and disturbing. In one, a professor lectures on subject of pliable, relativistic morality to a class of police officers, giving as an example a dinner party in which the guests sit on toilets while they make idle conversation with one another, occasionally excusing themselves to hurry off to a tiny room where they can surreptitiously wolf down a meal in absolute privacy. In the other, perhaps even more well known, a little girl is pronounced lost by her school and parents, even though she insists that she is standing right there. Shush, they tell her, don't interrupt while the adults are talking. These are the narratives of dreams, held together by a loose but suggestive structure of dream logic, in which narratives dissolve into tangents just at the moment of greatest import, and the symbolic workings of the mind are both overt and complex.

dir. Luis Bunuel

2 Responses so far.

  1. I just can't let a mention of doppelgangers (doppelgangeren?) go by without mentioning Poe's William Wilson. Those of you who have read it know how unsettling it is.

  2. Anonymous says:

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