Saturday, November 26, 2005

Day 57: Shopgirl

Worthwhile, though far too mawkish at times, Shopgirl's a sweet, affecting movie about a young woman living in L.A. She's kind-of an artist, works at Saks, and can barely afford the minimum payment toward her student loans. The movie focuses on two relationships in her life, one with a scattered, aimless young man and the other with a wealthy, classy older man. The movie indulges in too many saccharine-laced montages, or too much awkwardly used slow motion when it should be getting deeper into the nitty gritty of its characters (something it does well otherwise) and narration is used in an inconsistent, clumsy way to fill in details. However, it's quite thoughtful and exceedingly sincere, and for all its sappiness, it's this sincerity that saves it from ruin.

Claire Danes is wonderful as the main character, nuanced and realistic. It's a well-observed performance, one that seems tailor made for her skills as an actor. Unfortunately, in the role of the older man, Steve Martin, while not exactly bad, seems more aloof and embarrassed than his character warrants; his is a shy performance, one that at times is fantastic, but at others feels far too shallow or reserved. His work as an off-screen narrator is great, though, and this is no surprise since he wrote the book the movie's based on. Playing the young man, Jason Schwartzman is a scream, though he's playing the part a lot more broadly than the other two so, at times, he feels as if he's from a different movie. (This feeling is enhanced by the fact that Schwartzman is often framed in a shot by himself, talking to or reacting to someone off camera, lending the feeling that he's doing a one-man show that happened to be inserted into the film).

I was quite impressed with the way the movie used clothes. It's not that clothes play a very prominent role in the diegesis of the film, but the way they were used to define and develop character was compelling. It's interesting that both men are drawn to Danes in clothing-based environments (Schwartzman at the Laundromat, Martin at Saks) and, as her relationship with Martin inspires a new kind of happiness in Danes, the outfits she wears (outfits he can afford to buy for her) are presented as the most prominent evidence of this change (not to dismiss Danes's performance in the role; in fact, it's also due to how she wore the changing outfits that I noticed this aspect of the film at all). Wardrobe is something I usually pay the least amount of attention to in a movie, and this felt like a nice primer in how it can be used to reveal, develop, and enhance a character.

The movie takes too many of the moments mentioned in the first paragraph to give it an unqualified rave, and yet its tone is compelling. I enjoyed the way it veered from the lunacy of Schwartzman's character to the quietude of Martin's and I liked how Danes's problems (which, really, don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world and all that) were dealt with seriously, though never indulging in histrionics (she's not going to kill herself over either of these guys, she just wants to be happier). And I loved the set decoration here too; it was just right in all cases. Danes and Schwartzman live in very similar apartments, but what they choose to do with the space reveals more than thirty minutes of dialogue between the two could. It lacked only a little more dramatic "oomph*" to push it from being a movie I liked a lot to a movie I loved.

*dramatic oomph: Aristotle called this the finest of all things, though he could never quantify it with words, really. He just told me once that the thing he liked most about drama was its oomph. I nodded politely and sipped my tea, waiting for him to leave so I could go to bed, but he wound up talking for 2 more hours about the nature of dramatic "flat-itude" and how it led to a lack of "dramatic oomph." Eventually he left because he had to feed his goldfish and I vowed never to invite him to one of my parties ever again.

Day 56: The Time of the Wolf

A lot of apocalypse movies focus on "survivors," people who size up the situation and find that there's benefit to be found in the destruction of society.  Watching these industrious folk take advantage of the freshly wiped societal slate to build their version of a utopia (Dawn of the Dead) or maybe survive through brute force and manipulation (Mad Max 2 & Beyond Thunderdome) is always pleasurable.  It allows one to project themselves into the scenario and conjure up a wistful world where survival seems, for some reason, simpler than a world where you have to go through endless loops to achieve the means to convince the guy at the store that he benefits by giving you a bag of marshmallows (this is usually done with currency, a form of communication that allows us to buy CDs without dragging a prize cow into the store).

The Time of the Wolf is an apocalypse film of a different flavor, though it contains many of the same trappings of other films of the (sub?)genre.  It reminded me of Testament at times (a movie I saw at the height of a delirious fascination with nuclear weapons and one that I could subtitle for myself: how I learned to start worrying about the bomb) with its bleak and unrelenting outlook on how humans behave as society crumbles.  And yet, though the movie contains familiar plot devices like the characters not knowing exactly what is going on, the struggle for resources, or the paradox that the safety found in numbers can be, at times, a perilous one, the movie jettisons the familiar concept surrounding "survivors" in the face of danger and instead features a group of social animals known to some as "humans."

It's well written, insightful, and naturalistic throughout, so much so, that any degree of familiarity I might have felt was replaced with anxiety.  The movie's an anxiety-laden endeavor, never ebbing enough to make one feel comfortable (and any time you might think that it's about to, it ratchets up the intensity).  This is the case from the beginning to the end.  It opens with a nuclear family arriving at a home in the country, starting to unpack the car only to be held at gunpoint by another desperate family and ends with the little boy from this family about to jump into a raging fire.  It's not, exactly, a pleasant experience, but then, in retrospect, because it's so spot-on in its observations, this is one of the few apocalypse movies I've seen that actually gives me hope for my own survival.  

The novelty of the movie is that it presents an argument that, in the absence of all the security we're used to, there is safety to be found in numbers, though it comes with a price.  Certain notions of justice and retribution must be either discarded or dealt with differently than we're used to.  Two scenes in the movie feature a person in the group of survivors (note the lack of quotes to protect myself from charges of contradiction) accused of committing a crime, a crime that offers up no external proofs and are quickly reduced to "he said/she said" argumentation.  The group, which has no de facto leaders (though some people do step into that role when they feel it's needed), decides there's nothing that can be done about these perceived crimes.  The matter is dropped out of necessity: punishment would only increase tensions, thus making it harder to complete what's needed to survive.

As more people get involved, the group of survivors evolve a social structure that reminded me of the social habits of chimpanzees (or, to be fair, my idea of the social habits of chimpanzees; I'm only glancingly familiar with chimp life).  Conflict breaks out between them, is resolved through the most resource efficient means, and on they go… busying themselves with their day-to-day necessities.  When a young boy is rightfully accused of stealing, he's ostracized.  Though the boy is given a chance at redemption, he knows he can never fit into the group again, stigmatized as he is.  And yet, he still hangs around, stealing from the main group when he has a chance because they're his only reliable source for survival.

Technically, this is a first class operation all the way.  A scene where the main characters are plunged into darkness and lit only by the quick flame of a lighter or by burning hay is particularly resonant.  And all aspects of the movie are geared toward a type of naturalism that gives it a welcome legitimacy.  The realism only adds to the underlying tension in the movie's plot, a tension so great, at times I felt like I might vomit.  And yet, the tension, the uncomfortable anxiety… they exist because of the accuracy in depicting human behavior and it's in this accuracy that the movie's hope lies.  So, even with the near-vomiting feeling, The Time of the Wolf is the most heartening, comforting movie I've ever encountered about the destruction of everything that keeps us safe from one another.