Driving Down the Road to Nowhere Interesting

Drive05

Drive was one of the best-reviewed movies of last year, both a critical darling and a cult hit. When I finally watched it, I reacted as I suspected I would – a state that can best be described as underwhelmed admiration. It’s certainly stylish, though I thought its brand of cool was of the “forced and self-conscious” variety. With the pervasive synthesizer, the flamingo-pink credits, the LA-noir aerial shots, that scorpion jacket, the cerebral car chases, Nicolas Winding Refn has created a film in which substance only exists as a vehicle for style. Unfortunately, that particular vehicle has nowhere to go, and for evidence we need look no further than Ryan Gosling’s central performance, which is the very embodiment of the phrase “all style and no substance”.

As Tom Shone described it, this film busies itself with “a) staring at a moody Ryan Gosling, b) being stared at moodily by Ryan Gosling, and c) staring moodily at Ryan Gosling while he takes you in staring at him, moodily. Boy is this film in love with its star.” That, essentially, is what animates the film. There’s a shallowness to the whole production, and Gosling masks the shallowness with his impassive glare – it’s intentional, surely, that he emotes just as capably when his head is beneath a large rubber mask as when his sharply angled face is filling the frame.

All of this would be acceptable if not for the fact that the character, and the plot, hinges on the relationship Gosling’s Driver develops with Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her son Benicio. Like the rest of the film, this relationship is as shallow as the pools of blood that begin to form with alarming regularity as the story progresses. The Driver veers from nearly mute introvert to ferocious seeker of vengeance due to the intense depth of his feelings for Irene, and for that to work, for the audience to buy into that, it needs to be one hell of a connection.

But the film is uninterested, or incapable, of depicting how those feelings developed except in the most cliched manner imaginable – a nice day trip and a largely silent date is the extent of their romance. Instead, we must believe in their love because of Hollywood’s immutable Law of the Attractive Couple – if two good-looking characters make eye contact and smile, they are destined for a love so intense us plain mortals can’t possibly understand it. Ideally, this sort of lame narrative convention would be relegated to shameless crowd-pleasers such as Avatar or Slumdog Millionaire, but Drive suggests critical darlings can get away with it too.

All of this left me with thinking the obvious – Drive is considered a serious movie because of its demeanour rather than its content. It is essentially a slowed-down Jason Statham flick, with about as much intelligence. Attempts to depict it as a “thinking person’s action movie” suggests that what thinking people want is ponderous pacing.

Which explains, I believe, why the film is so acclaimed – not unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I moaned about here, the film signals its seriousness by its deliberate slowness, the cinematic characteristic most at odds with mainstream crowd-pleasers. And as a result, and like I said about TTSS, it’s the sort of film that allows critics to signal their sophistication. 
But while TTSS was merely baffling, Drive is actually quite unpleasant. As a pseudo high-brow Jason Statham actioner, it can’t afford to be flippant about violence, like most Hollywood action movies – what Winding Refn provides instead is deeply gratuituous and shocking. Which would be disagreeable enough, without the hint of glee the film seems to take in the stomping of heads and slitting of arteries. This isn’t a gritty exploration of the lengths a man will go to protect the one he loves, or some other trite excuse for violent content; Drive evidently gets its rocks off by exploding skulls and hammering hands.

Drive is pared back, for sure, and pulses with self-confidence, and I guess there’s plenty of room for stylish, deliberate, empty thrillers – hell, some of my favourite movies fit that description. But we should not mistake it for serious art. At least Jason Statham knows he’s making trash, and the audience certainly knows they’re watching it. I’m not so sure if Refn is so honest, and it seems a large part of the audience isn’t so aware either.

Koyaanisqatsi out of balance

Taking a graceful, meditative, enlightening 90-minute masterpiece of visual cinema and compressing it to a mere five minutes might seem like some sort of vandalism. And replacing the majestic Philip Glass score is undoubtedly an assault. But Wyatt Hodgson’s Balance Out of Life dares to butcher of one of my favourite films, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, and ends up being a worthwhile experiment. The slowly unfurling sweeps of “narrative” now rush urgently into one another; the serenity of the Grand Canyon and the depressing dereliction of the notorious Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St Louis now serve as more obvious counterpoints; sequences on urbanisation and industrialisation and militarisation and consumerism more obviously self-contained.

Of course, introducing obviousness to Koyaanisqatsi rather undermines the magic of the film, but it succeeds in affording us an interesting new perspective on the film. My best takeaway from this version? As far as I could tell, we only see one smile in the whole film, a fleeting glimpse of a woman passing the camera at 4.21. Everyone else is suffering the effects of a life out of balance.

(Via Kottke)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Why?

TinkerTailorSoldierSpy

The merits of ambiguity and the limits of confusion
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the sort of movie I should really love – cerebral, labyrinthine, slow-paced, gorgeously restrained, characterised by a refusal to signpost twists or dumb down a complex plot. But here’s a twist I probably should have seen coming – instead of adoring its muted palette and intricate plot, I found myself exasperated, bored and, worst of all, completely baffled.  
Certainly, the performances were, for the most part, masterclasses in restraint; the production design exquisitely textured; the composition of the shots so very artful – but the plot was so furtively and intentionally obscured it undermined the entire production. 
There’s a line somewhere between intentional complexity and poor storytelling, and director Tomas Alfredson tramples all over that line. In an early example, it is established that John Hurt’s recently deposed MI6 leader is dead in a single shot that lasts less than a second, and which shows him slumped in a hospital bed from the other side of the room. You practically need binoculars to be sure it was him, and what the hell was he doing in hospital anyway – he was only forced out of the Circus a few moments ago.
Alfredson continues in this vain for most of the movie, muffling dialogue and keeping a pronounced distance from the action – a laudable if forced attempt to make the audience feel like we are spying on events. Just when you think the film has managed to bring all its unruly plot strands under control and finally shift the pace from glacial to pulsing, Alfredson botches it with a terribly executed climax. 
In the search for a mole at the top of MI6 (it could be any of them – surely the fact that they all seem plausible traitors rather defeats the point), Gary Oldman’s stoney-faced George Smiley and Benedict Cumberbatch’s lively Peter Guillam have located a safehouse where the senior MI6 members exchange information with a Russian “diplomat”. Guillam takes a surveillance spot outside, Smiley prepares himself for the arrival of the mole. As we await the meeting, the tension rises, Smiley sucks on a mint, prepares a gun, tiptoes across the floorboards, the trap is about to be sprung, and then…
Then Guillam comes running up the stairs, hears some Russian being spoken, the diplomat walks past him, and he enters the meeting room to find Smiley pointing a gun at the mole – tada, the trap has snapped shut off-screen, for some reason. The climax of the entire investigation, the entire film, is so clumsily revealed they might as well have cut it out entirely; at least it would have been in keeping with the muddled narrative. 
How did such a pivotal scene get so badly botched? There are the practical elements that make no sense, such as how did the mole get past Guillam – isn’t that what he was supposed to be doing keeping watch outside? But most critically, why not show the moment when Smiley confronts the mole and the Russian? Why switch perspective from Smiley to Guillam at this point, after focusing on Smiley for the entire build-up? What effect is this deliberate “not showing” supposed to engender other than confusion among the audience?
And it struck me – throughout the film, Alfredson is repeatedly feeding us confusion instead of ambiguity, and while the two can be fruitfully related, they’re not the same. Ambiguity is allowing the audience to determine why certain characters have behaved in a certain way, confusion is leaving them wondering what they have done in the first place. Ambiguity is leaving room for interpretation, confusion is forcing the audience to fill in holes in the plot. Ambiguity is a sign of textual richness, confusion a sign that the text is incomplete. Ambiguity can thrive when “meanings” and “morals” are deliberately withheld, confusion thrives when “plot” and “narrative” is deliberately withheld.
I can understand the rave reviews – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feels like a serious, mature piece of film-making, the sort of production that allows critics to signal their sophistication. But it’s one of those films that is more fascinating for its inexplicable flaws than its many obvious strengths.

Hollywood says hello to confusion

We keep hearing that Hollywood is dumbing down, but with Inception being just the latest mindbending blockbuster to beat the box office is an era of smart storytelling on the rise?