Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bad Educations

Perhaps to atone for the enduring myth of the “casting couch,” Hollywood often returns to the theme of young people being corrupted by conniving elders. From Hitchcock’s damsels in distress to Rosemary’s Baby to Taxi Driver and Mulholland Drive, a long history of movies suggests that youth isn’t wasted on the young, but snatched out from under them.

Raymond Warner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends is an unorthodox entry in the genre by dint of its gay characters and unwavering cynicism. Fassbinder never really graduated from being the enfant terrible of German cinema (he overdosed at 37, having already directed 40 feature length films). So it’s unsurprising that this story of Fox, a working-class circus performer (played by Fassbinder) picked up, taken in and swindled by a group of “prissy, posh” sophisticates is bleak through to the end.

The most intriguing thing about Fox and Friends is its peripheral treatment of homosexuality. It’s a testament to Fassbinder that his 1974 movie outpaces many being made in today’s professedly liberal and liberated Hollywood. It’s a “gay movie” that is neither PSA nor a minstrel show. The film is largely confined to places where its characters could live quietly and without tension—gay bars and boutiques, cruising areas and their own apartments. But even casual acquaintances and family members don’t bat an eye.

Fassbinder was a libertine, but any salaciousness in Fox and Friends is muted by the film’s classical composition. There is no fancy camerawork, jumbled chronology or postmodern trickery to distract from the barebones plot. But the static medium shots frame unusual activities, like naked bathhouse patrons and businessmen tentatively picking up hustlers in public bathrooms. Fassbinder’s measured technique is more effective at establishing this subculture than showy frenetic devices could be. It lets these people and places, and not the cinematographer, expose themselves.

Besides, Fassbinder hasn’t made gay underworld expose, but an indictment of money and its ruinous effects on individuals and their relationships. Eugen tries to cultivate Fox, but it’s a selfish effort. He teaches him how to order off of a French menu, which wine goes with which course and what clothes to wear. But he imparts all of this wisdom to spare himself any embarrassment. The irony is that Fox funds all of Eugen’s sophistication with his rapidly dwindling lotto winnings.

Eventually, Eugen and his family dupe Fox into saving their bankrupt business. It’s a damning critique of the capitalist system—a somewhat dim prole who falls into chance money keeping an industrialist family’s fortune afloat. But the confidence trick has an even more cynical take on the power dynamic that, no matter how buried, is inherent to all relationships: each partner provides something the other needs. It’s refreshing to see the naïve, young buck end up the (accidental) breadwinner and not just a hood ornament. But Fox, needy, clueless and attracted to Eugen’s classy façade, still draws the short end of the stick.

Fox and His Friends is a very German movie. The distrust of capitalism is grounded in the personal. But the movie’s quiet efficiency tempers plot developments (and some fantastically kitschy settings) that would otherwise veer toward melodrama. There’s also a sense of somewhat wearily looking beyond national borders for enlightenment (whether through posh French restaurants, American johns or an ill-fated trip to Marrakech), only to stay bound by the same old personal and cultural handicaps.

Jenny (Carry Mulligan) is another babe in the woods battling social constrictions in An Education. Unlike Fox, Jenny’s got the brains to match her effortless charm. She also benefits from her supportive if overbearing mom and dad (Alfred Molina, ranging from funny to stern without becoming a movie dad cliché) to steer her in the right direction (which in this case leads straight to Oxford). But she still falls for a duplicitous would-be mentor, David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose displays of fleeting glamour nearly derail Jenny’s straight march to self-made success.

Jenny is the most promising student at her starchy girls prep school. She’s one of those students whose middle-class parents did not enroll her in private school for etiquette lessons, but to see her study through the night and unlock the Pandora’s Box of potential that admission to elite universities suggests to this day.

Life hasn’t hardened Jenny yet. Naiveté is the only chink her in her cardigan-heavy armor. (An Education pours her endearing cluelessness on a bit thick.) She dreams of a life in Paris where she’ll “eat in good restaurants, smoke lots of cigarettes and watch great films.” David spots her and her giant cello seeking shelter from a downpour and drives her to her modest two-family home. He drops the names of some jazz greats and smokes a cigarette (she turns one down for fear of her parents smelling the residue). She is smitten.

After charming Jenny’s parents (they’re biggest objection is not his age—a dozen years older than Jenny—but his Jewishness) with wit and cultural references, David takes her out on the town for a…chamber music concert. She meets Danny (Dominick Cooper), a dapper friend of David’s, and his affable ditz of a girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike, who like Cooper is engaging and underused). After nodding off at the recital, the crew heads to a smoky jazz club. Jenny’s downfall is underway.

As the relationship progresses and Jenny’s grades freefall, David grows sinister and Jenny reluctant. Sarsgaard nails David’s seductiveness, but is a bit one-note. That’s due more to the character’s limitations than the actor’s. David is a small-time crook with some shady real estate dealings (he basically moves black people into white neighborhoods, a subplot that mirrors the movie’s commentary on Britain’s stubborn class divisions). But, unlike Eugen fleecing Fox, his motives for wooing Cassie remain vague.

Mulligan nails it, alternating between levelheaded intelligence, vulnerability and suspicion as David’s well-crafted front begins to crumble. In the wake of her suitor’s betrayal and the opportunities it endangers, she avoids the easy histrionics that lesser actors might employ in favor of quietly picking up the pieces.

It’s a good thing that Jenny’s alternative “education” took place before Swinging London kicked into psychedelic full gear. Otherwise she might have been lost for good. The setting in 1964 also mercifully confines Jenny’s struggles to her character (mostly) instead of mooring them to the decade’s burgeoning feminist movement. She is able to handle her problems on her own, without the sort of social pedagogy movies always make shrill or reductive.

As An Education concludes, Jenny grasps the implications of her tumultuous year, saying she “feel[s] old. But not very wise.” Fox and His Friends and An Education are two sturdy entries in a canon of movies that provide that wisdom.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Trash Humpers and Antichrist

Is a movie a success if you’re still thinking about it days after viewing? This was the case with Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, two entries in the New York Film Festival that I very nearly walked out on, whose endings could not arrive soon enough, that made me question the credibility, if not sanity, of the selection committee. But the imagery in both was indelible. These are flawed, irritating provocations. And both are worthwhile.

Korine shot Trash Humpers on VHS and wanted the no-budget movie to resemble “found footage” salvaged from a dumpster (likely assaulted by one of the film’s demented participants). You can’t accuse the man of taking himself too seriously. In a Q&A after the movie, he said he wanted to make the “shittiest looking movie possible.” Fair enough, but you might ask why often snooty festival selection committees the world over consistently fall for his half-baked experiments.

Trash Humpers is not a complete wash. As cheap as it looks, the VHS film lends a bleached, fuzzy feel to the movie that often heightens its beauty. Twilight and nighttime scenes are especially affective. In one early sequence, the camera focuses away from its horny subjects doing God knows what in a big box parking lot to linger on a magnificent magenta sunset. In a complimentary shot, Korine takes a break from the manic cuts for a long, soft-focus gaze at a streetlamp against the darkness. There’s also the time the lens sticks on the female humper as she sits forlornly on the curb and watches her cohorts screw some bushes. (It’s one of the only times where a characters recognizes, or at least wonders, what the hell is going on and hangs her head in shamed confusion.)

Moments like these don’t just impress because they’re surrounded by, well, garbage. They stand on their own. If only Trash Humpers had more of them. Instead, Korine assaults us with more and more of the titular visual gag (it gets old about 30 seconds into the movie).

There is also the matter of sound: Trash Humpers is the most aurally unpleasant movie I have ever seen. Its characters rarely speak; they bray, howl and guffaw. Think of a cross between South Park’s Mr. Hanky and Jim Carry’s “Most Annoying Sound in the World” in Dumb and Dumber for an idea of the torture your ears are about to endure.

Trash Humper’s sonic endurance test is all the more unsettling for being unexpected. The first few minutes are nearly silent. When dialogue arrives, the content is either self-consciously base (lots of gay jokes) or comically pretentious. There are two coherent monologues: a frilly contemplation delivered by a poet and a colloquial digression on modern ennui as the gang drives through a barren suburb (“I can smell their sadness in the trees,” says the driver.) They struck a chord with me, but bomb with the characters (who actually kill the poet, for kicks, after his screed). Funny enough, but the dismissal robs the audience of any sustained reprieve from the gutter.

With Trash Humpers, Korine reaches for a combination of David Lynch’s ironic absurdity (a few moments explicitly recall Elephant Man) and Jon Waters’ anarchic, white trash bonhomie. But he lacks Lynch’s coal-black humor and formal control and Waters’ madcap glee. As Trash Humpers grinded on, the audience was less given to courtesy laughs and started to seem perplexed more than anything else. But maybe they weren’t confused at all. They could have just realized Korine’s joke was on them.

Antichrist, unlike Trash Humpers, takes itself very seriously. And if Korine’s audience feigned laughter, Von Trier’s must have repressed it, because Antichrist often feels like a parody of art house pretension. Trash Humpers hints at redemption through children as one character cradles her new, albeit kidnapped, baby. Antichrist wallows in misery as a couple torture each other after the death of theirs.

The movie begins with the gorgeous cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle) that sustains the rest of the film. A couple, unnamed beyond He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), ravage each other over every conceivable surface of their well-appointed home. (There’s a penetration shot thrown in, presumably to ruffle MPAA feathers.) While husband and wife are in heat, their baby boy escapes from his crib, catches a glimpse of the action and falls out an open window to his death. (He falls alongside a teddybear he clutches; the bear’s plunge is shown in extended slow-mo.)

He is a psychotherapist of some kind, and misguidedly dedicates himself to curing his wrecked wife with obtuse psychobabble. She takes to smashing her head repeatedly against a toilet bowl. In a sign of things to come (and few people watching Antichrist’s are unaware of what’s to come), she initiates sex, he demurs and she bites his nipple until the skin breaks.

What better time to go on a country retreat? And so they head up to their wood cabin, subtly called Eden, arriving only after She complains that the ground burns her feet and He spots a deer bloodily carrying a stillborn (or maybe half-born) fawn.

For all its heavy-handed foreboding and willfully dull shrink talk, the first two-thirds of Antichrist is intriguing to watch. Dafoe excels once again at playing an insufferable ass; if there’s one voice you don’t mind hearing in monotone, it’s his. And his off-kilter features are softened here—he actually looks classically handsome in certain scenes—which tempers the storm clouds Von Trier hangs over the rest of the film. Gainsbourg nails every conceivable shade of distress, treating viewers to something resembling the Kubler-Ross model on meth. As impressive as the two leads (in fact, the movie’s only two actors) are individually, they never betray much chemistry (actually, they don’t appear in the same frame that often). But I guess that’s the point.

Antichrist’s main asset is Mantle’s camerawork. From the pristine black and white of the prologue to the abstract flourishes (a beating pulse, a slow-motion silhouetted walk through the woods) to the slate-toned nature scenes, this is a great looking movie.

Unfortunately, Von Trier wants viewers to avert their eyes. After building to a slow burn (the woman in front of me was out cold after 15 minutes), Antichrist explodes first into a ludicrous jumble of mystical/psychological/astrological/paranormalsociological/feminist phooey. Then, I guess to relieve the actors’ and the audience’s confusion, She smashes a wood log into His balls. (This is when the lady in front of me woke up.)

What follows is a flat-out slasher movie, with some talking animals thrown in for good measure. (“Chaos Reigns,” as uttered by a disemboweled fox, has become the movie’s catchphrase, though I’m not sure how Von Trier would take the cackling that swept the audience following its delivery). The denouement of Antichrist sees a horde of faceless women climbing up a hill toward Him. It’s Von Trier’s last attempt to hammer home a thesis, but the bludgeoning on display throughout will leave most people searching for an exit rather than a resolution.

Arthouse films often pride themselves on the sort of subtlety that withholds graphic details, sexual and violent, from their supposedly evolved audiences. But surprisingly it is the cerebral, stylized Antichrist and not the subversively lowbrow Trash Humpers that threatens to become a cynical exploitation flick. Von Trier’s expensive therapy session—he couldn’t hold the camera during film because his “hands shook with depression”—shabbily deconstructs little more than a marriage. Risqué sex and violence aside, Antichrist sticks to genre conventions; Trash Humpers discards genre altogether.

Both directors sought visceral reactions with these incendiary movies. They’re masturbatory works. And despite their merits, it’s the audience that ultimately gets jerked around.