Monday, October 17, 2011


Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 100 min.
Verdict: The pleasures of it are immense. And The Driver’s nomination into the Hall of Coolness has been rejected.
Genre: Action, Drama

(Note: My observations are drawn from both the leaked work-print version and the theatrical version. I have taken the liberty of choosing the best of both to be archived in my memory.)

        Tom Stall is a restaurant owner in a small town. He has a wife and two kids, a son and a daughter. He is also one of the great characters at the movies, specifically the action movies, representing not merely the complicated psychosexual desires of its most potent characters, but of the genre itself. A History of Violence is in some ways a history of the action picture, and by borrowing the narrative structure of Unforgiven it automatically assumes an apologetic stance, seeking a “revision” of the genre and confessing its perverse pleasures. Mr. Refn’s Drive works as some kind of a revision of that revision, an effort to restore the mythology of the action hero despite this awareness, and when The Driver (Mr. Gosling) always ensures to be neatly packed in a satin jacket one cannot help but wonder about Patrick Bateman and Mary Harron’s American Psycho, another film seeking the perverse cultural pleasures of the 80s. Some of the genre’s coolest characters never ever worried about their dress(exception: Le Samourai and his fedora, but is it really?), and although their respective films lent them a wardrobe worth spending a million bucks for, the camera’s and in turn the character’s scant regard conveyed a rather old-school ranch-grown masculinity.
        A rather salient feature of the archetypical cool guy at the movies has been is his predominantly “practical” disposition, his respect for both money and personal safety, which in essence makes him a “businessman” (right now, I can’t help but remember Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton), and into which the filmmaker sneaks in the feminine – a little girl or a full-blown woman – or the masculine – honor, a betrayal’s payback – via the mechanics of the genre/plot. A filmmaker like Michael Mann often contrasts these two, even attempts to undermine the former through the latter, and draws a whole career out of it. Mr. Refn introduces us to The Driver through a map, an empty room and a bag. It is a life of acute minimalism, and when we overhear The Driver laying out his rules about the 5-minute window, an image morphed out of all the monks in action film history starts condensing within us. And yet, there’s a strange tension within this pan and the way its gaze follows. The Driver is looking through the window, and our vantage point is able to see his reflection better than the world outside. Who, or what is he looking at? More specifically, what is Mr. Refn looking at? Let us have a look at two of the calmer, considerably less conflicted images the movies have thrown at us, or more specifically two images I’ve been in love with for a considerable period of my adult life.

        Here, there is the satin jacket with a golden scorpion staring at us, elevating the artifact to an attribute, and one might even wonder if The Driver is appraising himself in the mirror. They come thick and fast, these reflections, through rear view mirrors and car windows, elevating themselves to one of the film’s prime motifs. Mr. Refn, I believe, cannot stop staring. Neither can he stop worshipping. And although he is working with metaphors just about as slippery as Mr. Aronofsky’s (say, masks, which doubles as a neat movie reference when teamed with a cliff and overhead lights), he sure as hell is not nearly as obvious and suffocating, and in The Driver, through Mr. Gosling, he is working with something of a “black” scorpion himself, or in other words an archetype. The framework is all there, with the satin jacket, with those gloves, with that toothpick, with that hammer, all attributes and without which The Driver might as well be anybody, you or me. The effort here is then, as in many such films, to attach specificity to these attributes, to maybe understand who Tom Stall might’ve been, to somehow identify him through the choices he makes, or let us say the turns he takes, a motif that doubles as a metaphor. Mr. Refn lays down this metaphor with a simple cut, a jarring one that intentionally calls attention to itself, where he links, through a reverse-shot, The Driver driving to him walking through the alleys of a superstore. Mr. Refn seldom lays out the geography of his territory, and his camera is more intent on watching The Driver than everything around. It is his gaze that it follows, it is through his windshield that the world around opens up, like for instance the superstore, or a car-park where a space opens up within the film, both literally and figuratively, with no prior establishment.
        The thing is, because of this satin jacket, because of this toothpick, because of these gloves, because of this navel-gazing the self-righteousness within the film’s perspective might as well be read as Travis Bickle’s world. That Mr. Refn and Mr. Gosling are aware of this – the former’s editing choices and the latter’s performance are sufficiently post-modern in this regard to lend the film the benefit of the doubt – shouldn’t take us away from the fact that they are indeed reveling in that awareness. Mr. Gosling sits in the café like Travis did years ago, and in an interesting reveal about his rather devious traits he questions Irene about her husband’s well-being knowing fully well the situation at hand. He is so laconic his blinks take a complete second, and yet in a moment of crisis that seemed to have not merely betrayed the archetype the film has built but almost destroy the illusion of his performance The Driver is agitated enough to be completely animated and even grabs his boss’s collar. Mr. Refn, in turn, edits (an exceptional use of dissolve that reminds us of David Lynch) this sequence with The Driver essentially driving and calming himself, and slowly regaining his cool-performance. A second viewing helped me immensely, especially that it comes right after an elevator sequence where an almost constipated Driver is drawing heavy deep breaths, and it occurred to me that his closest cousin had to be Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman. Where the latter’s film (belonging to the slasher genre) is probably running within him, the former’s film (most definitely belonging to the superhero kind) is running around him. Consider Wolverine and Sabretooth, or say Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
        Mr. Refn highlights this in an amusing manner, with music playing in an apartment nearby filling The Driver’s room so much so that it is playing within him. As is the case with some of us, The Driver was drove into the movie of his life. He is the hero of it, and a hero always demands of himself to not merely be under control, but be in control. Controlling the steering wheel and driving anywhere he wants to and taking any turn he chooses to. Mr. Refn’s command of montage here, to highlight The Driver’s desire to be in control, is quite exceptional here. Twice he foreshadows events, suggesting The Driver anticipating and planning, and once, through the lone moment where The Driver is agitated, he allows him to reflect, suggesting a loss of control. The only other place where the driver seems to have lost control over proceedings is during the shoot-out and failed heist. The violence then lies in the manner in which he retaliates to gain control. Mr. Refn reveals this retaliation, or this violent streak, in gears – a dolly and a verbal destruction of a potential threat, a surprising almost shocking slapping of a woman complete with a fellatio-position (this is probably the moment of revelation), and the complete physical destruction of an insurgent – after which the Driver smashes into the enemy territory.
        It is in those final moments where I benefitted from seeking the theatrical version, and where my relation with The Driver was completely and utterly destroyed. There’s a bag full of money in question and as the Driver drives away in the work-print version, I had assumed (because the trunk is never opened and the bag never makes an appearance) that he has finally learnt to be all about business, or at least was cool enough to align them with his personal desires, as Porter did for his 70 grand. I was satisfied. And the theatrical version destroyed that satisfaction. The bag does make an appearance and The Driver leaves it behind. Maybe he was wiser than me. Maybe he learnt that he ought not to touch the mob’s money. Maybe he shall learn from here and never again lose control. But until then his election into the Hall of Coolness shall have to wait.

Note: Consider the work-print as a different “studio-approved” version, and the theatrical release as the director’s cut. A list of some of the differences could be found here

Friday, October 07, 2011


Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Lars Von Trier
Runtime: 130 min.
Verdict: This is not Mr. Von Trier saying I have been depressed. This is him saying I know f***in everything.
Genre: Drama, Sci-fi

        Mr. Von Trier’s episode in Cannes shall forever be the stuff of legend. So shall be the ridiculous interrogation by the French police the day before yesterday regarding a possible violation of prohibition in French law against “justification of war crimes”, as a result of which the filmmaker has declared a self-imposed exile from the media. Which is fair enough, considering the fact that Mr. Von Trier doesn’t really need the mike all that much to express his distastes, if any. I mean, there’s a horse here called Abraham, utterly innocent and totally defiant, and it receives a rather fine beating from his mistress Justine (Ms. Dunst). The cause of the defiance here is a little bridge, which Abraham refuses to cross, and the bridge seems to have a forest on the other side. Neither her sister Claire (Ms. Gainsbourg) nor Claire’s horse seem to have any of those problems while riding their way onto the other side, only to stop and look behind Justine and Abraham struggle it out. One might remember Ms. Gainsbourg’s She running across the bridge in fear and into the forest where evil nature was waiting to completely possess her. That Claire, and Justine, and Abraham, and Melancholia do not get sucked in, and instead struggle it out within their “own” world is probably a reflection of Mr. Von Trier’s attempt to discover the “significance” of humanity amidst the kitschy demonstrations of it, rather than merely bitching as he did in Antichrist. One might be reminded of Doc Manhattan from Watchmen, his general disinterest in the ways of humanity, his fractured perspective of time, and his great respect for everything cosmic. That these attempts tend to sprinkle around kitsch themselves is not merely ironic but revealing in that they feel, in a lot of ways, incredibly heartfelt.
        And yet, everything in Melancholia is carefully calibrated, so precisely that questions and criticisms trying to raise their arms are quickly supplied an answer, or an argument, only moments later. Melancholia’s formal choices might reveal, to a viewer, motivations of a Nietzschian kind (Doc Manhattan), and through its editing, which here happens to be Mr. Von Trier’s primary and most significant tool of expression (calibration), he doesn’t merely destroy time but makes us lose any interest we’ve in the passage of it. And by removing that passage, Mr. Von Trier seems to suggest how contradictory and flawed and predictable and thereby uninteresting most people and their actions are. In a moment displaying supreme skill, and revealing flat-out condescension, Mr. Von Trier destroys, in three cuts, all that Claire stands for. Consider Claire the quintessential person-in-control, or for reference sakes, let us hurt me by recalling Rachel (Rachel Getting Married) here. She’s concerned that the house butler has not checked in for work, upon which Justine, sitting behind the table, remarks this is the time he probably needs to be with his family. The talk of doomsday is everywhere (off-screen), and this casual remark causes Melancholia to catch Claire in a close-up, reflecting on the implications, and her movement towards the table suggests she might want to convince her sister and be the one in control. The film cuts through that movement, and finds her, head pushed forward, in a persuasive stance, claiming Melancholia, the planet, is going to pass us by. Mr. Von Trier doesn’t cut to Justine and instead stays on Claire for a moment, as if raising his eyebrow, and the next cut has Claire framed from a different angle doubting herself. She is exposed, naked, and her hitherto calm façade revealed to be merely a performance, not a character trait. Justine is calm on the other side, growing progressively calmer. The sequence goes on to completely destroy our perception of these characters, and just when we start to question Justine’s transformation from that of a helpless medical condition to one who seems to be remarkably strong and in control, Mr. Von Trier draws leverage from a piece of information that had been branded trivial earlier (thereby revealing it to be, in a curious way, not trivial at all), and elevates her to the status of a prophet. He ties every piece of information and stray sensation we’ve gathered until now – right from the illustrated books on the shelf to those super-slow images of destruction upfront – to Justine, thereby reining in an amazing level of narrativization and commentary to the proceedings, and probably robs the opening of its purity. Claire, realizing the impending doom, seeks to have a little party on the terrace, to hold hands while Melancholia embraces earth, and it is Mr. Von Trier’s further condescending on these bourgeoisie values, the same ones that seem to inspire such alarm at his Cannes’ comments.
        Nevertheless, the opening is one of the more remarkable pieces of filmmaking doing the rounds, and there’s a shot here that portents the finitude of our earth with an angle of view and lighting that probably has never been committed to us before. I ask of you, dear reader, to summon your memories of Last Year at Marienbad and the second monolith on the moon in 2001. Remember the lighting and the angle, and what we have here is this.

        It is a remarkable shot, and for some reason (the knowledge of the film’s premise?) this angle that is always committed in science fiction to render the boundaries of the moon, where we can clearly see the space beyond, is probably never used for Earth, which to the naked eye feels infinite. Maybe we’ve seen its cousin in The Mummy Returns, and my memory isn’t serving me well here, but the shots of a clear sky during the night from the sea (Titanic) do provide for a cosmic perspective. This shot, by making the earth seem flat, with definite edges, sort of like a shore, or an overhead shot of a stadium surrounded by darkness, provides for a similar feel, and by providing two invisible light sources Mr. Von Trier quite stealthily reins in the duality that is at the heart of his film. The duality that Justine and Claire stand for, the duality the presence of our moon (familiarity, complacence, infinitude) and a planet (stranger, finitude) causes within us, the duality of the optimist and the pessimist (who is more or less used interchangeably with the cynic). Quite remarkably, the duality of St. Elmo’s fire, whose mythology has been so thoroughly destroyed by a simple scientific explanation, exemplifies Mr. Von Trier’s stance, and where we view it as a supernatural phenomenon in those opening moments, the blunt facts of the closing images destroy any such optimism. What destroys The Hunters in the Snow destroys Melancholia. Any meaning we’ve attached, any significance we’ve learnt is pretty much meaningless. The painting is less a mood and more an artifact, an object, and Mr. Von Trier, by narrativizing, renders everything trivial. One might even say Mr. Von Trier (Justine) has answered Mr. Terence Malick (Claire).
        The film begins on a surprising promise of humanity, though, with Justine’s very face glowing with optimism. She tries to maneuver a stretched limo through a narrow turn, seeking adventure in life’s tiniest moments. It is the evening of her wedding, and as she arrives with her groom Michael (Mr. Alexander Skarsgård) she runs to the stable to greet Abraham. Mr. Von Trier uses the handheld camera aesthetic, at first to feel everybody around and finding meaning (humanity) in the most banal of actions, like a man playing naughty with spoons. It is him indulging in the specifics. The speeches come, they feel perfunctory, since every wedding movie ever made has one, and yet because of the dynamics around the table, and because of interesting actors, we’re still feeling the evening. And then we have the speech from the mother, and it feels as if the filmmaker inserted there himself through her, and shakes Justine off her little illusion. The very aesthetic Mr. Von Trier has been employing to find some meaning is now used to distance us, and he cuts right between actions, reflecting Justine’s wandering attention. Events become more and more uninteresting, and Justine meanders along unmotivated. To her the people around feel like characters out of a television soap, walking meaninglessly and trying to find meaning to their little worlds. A tired Justine tries to loosen her gown and Michael hurriedly undresses himself, scarcely caring for her emotional state and more interested in impressing her and getting some sex. It is an amusing moment; she excuses herself, and gives it to a guest on the golf course. Nothing here feels worth investing, and no person seems any less than evil, most of all Justine. Mr. Von Trier is implicates everybody, and everything.
        Into this unmotivated world of hers Mr. Von Trier introduces Melancholia. It becomes the only thing that matters, the only object that hold Justine’s attention. Oh that, and Claire’s little kid Leo (Mr. Spurr). Unlike Antichrist, where he sucked the kid out of the world, he leaves him here, in this world, and time and again, Justine finds humanity through him. Does Mr. Von Trier believe that mankind’s purest moment is its innocence, its nascence? As the moment arrives, a panic-stricken Claire picks her kid and despite Justine warning her not to she tries to ride the golf cart into the village, only to meet the godforsaken bridge and hail. It is a terrific moment of discipline and borderline coldness, when Mr. Von Trier’s gaze doesn’t even for a moment wander off Claire and onto the kid, who feels like an inanimate object. No close-up. And she returns, only to find Justine sitting on top of a wall, the prophet she is. We might’ve raised a little objection for the kid’s sake, and Mr. Von Trier most promptly discovers the purity of emotion through him. What I find amusing is Justine indulging herself in a stick cave for Leo, after having completely shitted Claire’s plans to display “control” on the terrace. The three sit together, hand-in-hand, and as Melancholia approached for its warm embrace, I couldn’t help but wonder about Leo, and if he would open his eyes look at Justine (or towards the camera) and remark – “You know what I think of this stick cave? It’s a piece of shit.” That there would’ve been a masterpiece, or my kind of masterpiece.