Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Familial lament: Rachel Getting Married

With his 1975 film, Nashville, director Robert Altman located a connectedness in people's disconnectedness. He created fluidity out of chaos. Seemingly without regard, the film moved from one place in town to another, following characters with no apparent relation or connection to one another. Nashville instead captured the spirit of something much larger. Altman was also obsessed with details and atmospheres; with people filling a space and living in it. He was not after some great message. He didn't "use" narrative as a vehicle for overlying perspectives or ideas. He was after the motion of life, using one geographical destination as a lens through which to observe it. Narrative emerged from movements, actions, and moments.

It's no wonder that Altman is given special thanks in the end credits of Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, a film made very much in the spirit of that intangible Altman sensibility. The plot focuses the affairs of a family as it prepares for a wedding over the course of a couple of days. Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt) is due to marry Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and the family gathers to organize final preparations for the ceremony and celebration at their house. Although the event for which crowds gather is altogether different, Demme's naturalistic approach to character and tone enables him to paint an intimate portrait of a real family. Where a lesser film would center itself aesthetically and tonally on the conflicts of the main characters, Rachel Getting Married is all about the "small" details --the exchanges between new acquaintances, former spouses, and everyone else. There is a sense that we're looking through the lens of our own eyes as we wander around this house, listening to conversations, gauging facial expressions, and surveying reactions.

The key role in the film is Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), who is greeted with an uneasy sense of enthusiasm and overwhelming trepidation by her family. The small talk is accompanied by the expected smiles, hugs, and kisses, but is painfully and obviously hollow. At the same time, Rachel, a psychiatrist with all the right things to say, appears genuinely happy to see her sister, as do some others. But, as we learn, there are deep-ridden problems sustaining and bolstering the conflicts between family members. Kym's drug addiction is revealed to be the white elephant clouding every exchange and and encounter within the family.

The treasure of this film is not in the gradual unveiling of plot details, but in the intimate and intensely relatable portrayals of familial relationships. Demme is not attempting to represent "the American family." The core of this film is instead its dynamic observations of one particular family and the confluence of both similar and clashing ideals, perspectives, and backgrounds. Rachel Getting Married is not about anything more than the immediate and complex emotions it conjures. It is compelling in the purest sense of medium; connecting the viewer affectively and cerebrally to action on screen.

In many ways, taking part in this movie is as much a pleasure as it is demanding. This is a tricky relationship, but the best of movies involve you in an experience that is both external and internal. All viewers, those of us with and without families, can fundamentally relate to the conflicts of these characters. We see all their shortcomings, but we also feel those inexplicable and transient highs from just being with people and sharing something with them. The only flaws rest in the occasional insistence on significant dramatic moments, e.g. the lost brother plotline, Kym's relationship with her mother. The movie is at its best in moments between the drama, when quiet fills the air.

While a direct comparison to Nashville wouldn't be appropriate, both movies are propelled by keen observations of people in motion around an event. The players are different, all with different tasks, concerns, and wishes, but in both films the event is both lived and not; it becomes idea, or an ideal. The country festival of Nashville embodied deeper ideals and fleeting ideologies, and although the event here is shared among a more intimate group of people, the motions and feelings are nearly the same. That these actions are framed through a wedding, and in "real-time," i.e. without formalistic or narrative thematic threads guiding the viewer's perception and comprehension, every nuance and flaw can be experienced both in the moment and as a broader examination of relationships to which any viewer can relate.

The film ends with a wedding celebration so intoxicating and hopeful in its own right that, ironically, actually expands the distance between Kym, Rachel, and everyone else in the now-larger family. Rachel Getting Married culminates in a moment of sad beauty, lamenting the inherent void in human connection while finding hope in the transient moments when people come together.

Monday, November 10, 2008

On The Dark Knight (again) and other things

It's been a tough scene for film blogging lately, at least from where I'm sitting. There are so many film and media blogs on the web that I couldn't possibly try to surmise an overall state of blogging. But from my perspective, at least, there has been a minor lull in the past few months likely due to a combination of factors. Outside the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals, it hasn't been a particularly exciting time for new releases. Moreover, a number of writers have probably been so attached to Presidential politics (myself included) that movies have taken a back seat to other concerns. Even a film as politically inflammatory as Oliver Stone's W. couldn't shake things up in film coverage. Then again, the idea of W. is more inflammatory than the film itself, which rather well sums up the state of movies in the last few months.

It's worth noting that I have done nothing to help the situation, as I have taken my longest hiatus from The Cinematic Art since I started it in January 2007. My reasons for doing this ranged from the aforementioned waning interest in films by film culture at large, strange as that sounds. This coupled with my fervent, almost obsessive interest in the election and the media coverage of it made finding time and inspiration to write about movies difficult.

In all fairness, the election was just one of a couple of things to occupy the majority of my time. The Philadelphia Phillies' unlikely journey to a World Series title was another. As a lifelong fan, hearing those words "And the Phillies are World Series Champions!" was one of those perfect and surreal moments. While elections and baseball championships make for great times (especially since the outcomes of both were as unexpected as they were joyous for me), nothing compares to what I experienced just six weeks ago, when my son was born. I can say without exaggeration that moment was the most humbling and illuminating of my short life, and it now lives in my memory as well as in my everyday experiences.

All of these things have contributed to my absence. I've had some time here and there to watch movies, among which Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married stands out. I'll have more on these films in coming posts. But I don't want to stress myself out with writing full-out reviews at this juncture. It took me about four weeks without posting to actually feel content with not posting. Ironically, this has enabled me to begin writing again, stress free. I'll have some collected thoughts on movies again (and on blogging) soon, but for now I want to get my feet again, take it easy, and remember why I began doing this in the first place.

As I attempt to regain focus, it's only appropriate that the article I'll be commenting on was written by another blogger who has taken some time off and only recently re-emerged into the film blogosphere. Ali Arikan, whose Indiana Jones blog-a-thon yielded some nice analyses on the Indy pictures, has written his first post in several months, offering his reflections on the film event of the summer: The Dark Knight. His post is refreshing for a number of reasons; first, because after an influx of discussion about the film before, during, and immediately after its release, interest has dropped off. It's as if critics and bloggers collectively decided that we are all on Dark Knight overload for a while and balanced it out by abruptly cutting off major discussion about it.

Given the context, it makes sense that Ali decided to write about this film for his return from blogging hiatus. But it's what he has to say about the film that's most interesting. He acknowledges the power of Christopher Nolan's juggernaut of a movie, but his implicit observation about the homogenized tone of the critical dialogue about the film is especially intriguing. In short, he's not buying the movie one bit, and for very different reasons than those presented by the film's detractors. He says:

"The Dark Knight is not a sequel to Batman Begins. The actors are the same, sure, and, thus, the characters, but they inhabit two completely different universes. A shadowy organisation of ninjas (none of them diminutive, alas) called The League of Shadows, run by a foppish Frenchman, and intent on razing Gotham, would feel completely out of place in the latter film. The Dark Knight doesn't just have a different tone, it plays a totally different instrument.

Gotham, too, looks different between the two films. In the first one, it has a reddish orange hue; it’s claustrophobic, and, even though I don’t want to use the word, gothic. In the second film, it just looks like Chicago. I know the first film was mainly shot on a soundstage, and that a big deal was made of the second film’s use of Chicago, but still, one would expect some sort of consistency.

Batman Begins is a superhero film that pushes its boundaries to the extreme. The Dark Knight is a film that obliterates those limits in the hopes of becoming a crime noir. And that would be a laudable intention, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still a film about a guy who dresses up as a fucking bat and fights crime. It is because of its very essence that the film is inherently unable to make that leap towards serious crime drama. Batman Begins succeeds by remaining a superhero movie, The Dark Knight flounders by trying to abandon its roots.[5] And it’s not a pleasant sight."

In my original post on the film, I made a similar argument about the atmosphere and overall presentation of The Dark Knight. Where my thesis was buried in a sea of arguments, Ali directly critiques the movie for its almost complete lack of resemblance to the Batman Begins. Where Begins found a balance between the hero myth and a gritty cynicism. The film blended two very different sensibilities into an ambiguous tone that actually achieved both. The Dark Knight is just about the reverse of that. Thematically, its covering some similar territory, but the movie could not be any different from Begins from an aesthetic point of view. Moreover, that it almost completely shuns the cloudy tones of the first film is jarring.

I have only seen the film once, and I look forward to seeing it again. But on first viewing, the movie failed as both a crime saga and a representation of the hero myth. It failed to build upon anything established in the first film. As Ali notes, we're listening to a different instrument altogether. Equally important as that fact is how little it has figured into the greater discussion about the film. Although a number of critics / bloggers have grown tired of talking about The Dark Knight, we've really only just begun to comprehend its relevance as both a cultural artifact and a piece of cinema.