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Archive for April, 2013

A trip down memory lane in more ways than one, Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa (2012) is an engaging but awfully familiar coming of age story about a teenage girl and her deeply flawed father. Set in the early 1960s, the story centers on an aspiring poet, Ginger (Elle Fanning), whose bohemian dad (Alessandro Nivola) has a Peter Pan complex and whose best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), is looking for a father figure: It’s a disaster waiting to happen — one that the movie strains to liken to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Both girls attend Ban the Bomb meetings where Ginger develops a crush on a goateed activist (Andrew Hawley), who’s basically a younger version of her father, and in one scene, she reads from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) while her dad boinks Rosa in the next room. In short, the film is about a feeling of learned helplessness that comes from dwelling on problems that one is powerless to affect, and the story builds to a powerful climax in which Ginger suffers a nervous breakdown after failing to save the world or keep her dad from diddling her best friend. Nevertheless, it’s a bit dispiriting to see Potter, who has a reputation for zany experimentation, produce such a predictable movie.

As all right-minded people instinctively know, silent films aren’t “missing” color and sound because black-and-white photography and silence have their own artistic strengths. In particular, textures are more pronounced in black-and-white, and although few silent movies are meant to be watched in silence, the absence of dialogue puts a greater emphasis on an actor’s expressions and gestures (as opposed to their delivery). However, in the case of Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves (also 2012), that emphasis is largely superfluous as the director shoots the movie like a TV show with lots of close-ups, even though the deliberately broad acting doesn’t call out for such an intimate style. Of course, I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the movie had a story that was worth telling, but unfortunately, Berger appears to have started with the idea of making a silent film and then worked backwards from there.

Accordingly, adhering to a particular style — rather than narrative — becomes the movie’s guiding artistic principle. Specifically, the decision to set the film in Seville in the 1920s, as that just happened to be the last decade of silent cinema, seems arbitrary rather than inevitable. As for the story itself, which is loosely based upon the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White, the movie is so casual about motivation that it never bothers to explain why the wicked stepmother (Maribel Verdú) waits so many years before deciding to bump off both the heroine, Carmencita (played as an adult by Macarena García), and her father (Daniel Giménez Cacho); and at the film’s climax, she just happens to have a poisoned apple on hand, even though she’s under the impression that Carmencita is long dead. To be sure, the cinematography and period decor are nice to look at, and I enjoyed listening to the score, but the movie lacks a coherent artistic vision that would make these things meaningful or even just a story that I can believe in.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) is a curious piece of work. The story is about an alcoholic sailor, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who gets out of the navy and then struggles to find a place in postwar American society before getting involved with a kind of religious movement called the Cause whose leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), claims that people’s personal problems stem from traumas in their past lives (sometimes dating back trillions of years) and can be alleviated through a form of past life regression he calls Processing.¹ But while the plot is fairly straightforward (at least, for the most part), the film’s meanings are obscure enough to accommodate a wide range of interpretations.

As David Bordwell has already pointed out, the movie is primarily a character study², and its portrayal of Freddie as a drunken misfit helps to unify the episodic plot. When the Surrender of Japan is announced, Freddie celebrates by getting wasted on torpedo fuel, and after leaving the navy, he lands a job as a portrait photographer in a department store where he makes moonshine in the darkroom. Freddie’s boozing ultimately proves fatal to his relationship with a salesgirl (Amy Ferguson) who drops him after he passes out during a dinner date, and he subsequently loses his job for freaking out in the middle of the store. He then goes to work on a farm picking vegetables but has to leave suddenly in the middle of the night when an old farmhand dies after drinking one of his concoctions. And when he’s discovered aboard Lancaster’s ship, Freddie ingratiates himself to the big man by fixing him a drink from whatever ingredients are on hand (including a splash of paint thinner).

But while the plot isn’t particularly complicated, the movie presents some events in a deliberately elliptical manner. At a party, Lancaster is confronted by a skeptic (Christopher Even Welch) who challenges him on some of his claims — notably, that Processing can cure certain types of leukemia — and later that evening, Freddie forces his way into the man’s apartment and assaults him. However, as the attack takes place offscreen, when Freddie reports back to Lancaster that he doesn’t need to worry about the man asking any more questions, it’s not clear if Freddie’s killed him or not. Consequently, it’s impossible to gauge the appropriateness of Lancaster’s reaction. (Although he scolds Freddie for being a naughty boy, he doesn’t seem to think that his actions are all that serious.)

At times, it’s even unclear if certain events are really happening or if Freddie is imagining them. In one particularly puzzling sequence, Lancaster sings for his followers accompanied by a woman performing on a bass fiddle.

As Lancaster moves into an adjoining room, the camera tracks right to reveal his pregnant wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), sitting in a chair.

The film then cuts to Freddie sitting alone in a corner, looking vaguely hammered. However, as we don’t see him drinking anything, it’s not clear if he’s inebriated.

In the next shot, Lancaster continues to sing and dance but now all the women in the room are suddenly nude.

As it seems unlikely that the women could have all disrobed in a matter of seconds (especially Peggy and the woman at the bass fiddle, despite a brief pause in the music), and as their clothes seem to have vanished into thin air, it’s reasonable to infer that Freddie is imagining this. However, rather than making this point unequivocally by presenting Freddie’s erotic reverie in an expressionistic manner, the movie’s poker-faced treatment of this scene leaves open the more intriguing possibility that this is all really happening.³

As these two sequences suggest, the film’s treatment of Lancaster — and by extension the Cause — is deeply ambivalent. In the scene where he’s confronted by the skeptic, Lancaster’s explosion of rage might be taken as evidence of his having an authoritarian personality. However, in view of the man’s aggressive and persistent line of questioning, it’s not hard to empathize with Lancaster’s exasperation. Furthermore, although Lancaster’s own son (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie that his father is making it up as he goes along, at no point does Lancaster drop the facade; he’s always in character, even in private. Eventually, Freddie becomes disenchanted with Lancaster when the latter is arrested for embezzlement, but when Peggy asks him to sever ties with Freddie, Lancaster replies that, if he were to do that, it would be who had failed Freddie and not the other way around, suggesting he’s sincere about wanting to cure Freddie’s alcoholism. In other words, one can’t say definitively if Lancaster truly believes in his own claims or if he’s primarily interested in money and power, especially as the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Accordingly, the film is open to numerous interpretations. At the end of the movie, after breaking decisively with Lancaster, Freddie picks up a woman in a pub, and while having sex, he asks her the same questions that Lancaster posed to him in his first Processing session — during which Freddie recalled how, after coming home from the war, he abruptly broke off his relationship with his sweetheart (Madison Beaty) without giving her any explanation. The film’s final shot is a brief flashback to Freddie lying on a beach in the South Pacific, implicitly comparing the sequence with the woman from the pub with the movie’s opening scenes, which show Freddie and his fellow seamen going out of their minds with sexual frustration. (At one point, they mould a statue out of sand in the shape of a woman and Freddie mimes having sex with it.) There’s an obvious pattern of development here, moving from impotence to consummation, but if Freddie has in fact conquered his personal demons, thus making it possible for him to have intercourse with a woman (verbally as well as physically), then what brought about this sudden transformation: Was it Lancaster’s treatment or Freddie’s decision to leave the Cause? The more I think about the movie, the less I know.

Notes:
1. In case you haven’t heard, Lancaster is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

2. Bordwell’s blog entry addressing the film can be found on his website.

3. In a rave review of the film in Cinema-Scope no. 52, Gabe Klinger takes this sequence at face value (“It’s the suggestions of Dodd’s influence on his environment in certain enigmatic scenes that reverberate chillingly. An orgy hosted by Master […] is something like the salacious height of [the film’s] abstruse portrayal of the Cause”), while in a mixed review for the Chicago Sun-Times, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “Freddie drifts in and out of reality, imagining rooms where the women have suddenly become unclothed.” Personally, I think they’re both right.

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