Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Directed by Aisling Walsh, starring Sally Hawkins as Maudie and Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis
Midway through MAUDIE, while the little lady known as Maudie bends to her paintings, she absently closes the door on her husband, who lingers outside. It’s a tiny glimpse into the shifting polarities of their relationship as wife and husband. When she had first come to his tiny little home, she had been only a humble housekeeper, paintings disdained and rejected. But as they began to sell to customers passing by, she assumed an equal role in the household as breadwinner, while he was consigned to the cleaning and cooking. Both grow into their roles.
Thus does MAUDIE track these dual trajectories with one of a series of finely observed moments. It’s a quiet film but it makes a great sound. And as widely-heralded as Sally Hawkins is in the role of this arthritically-disabled woman, with her hunched posture, downturned head, and sly grin, we should give equal time to Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of the stoic, gruff, and not very likeable husband. Hawkins has already made her distinctive mark in several Mike Leigh films, including Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky; and here she continues her chameleon-like gallery of roles. To be sure, the Ethan Hawke of HAMLET and Great Expectations has already proved his acting chops, but here, as the barely-literate Nova Scotia fisherman, he demonstrates how to say so much about his life and emotions with such finely-observed detail.
Pair MAUDIE with another portrait drawn from real life of a so-called “primitive” painter, Martin Provost’s Seraphine (2008), one of my very favorite films. In that powerhouse drama, we see another drab and emotionally-disabled domestic-cum-celebrated painter. In likewise humbling circumstances, she too attracts attention far beyond her circumstances. But in a marked departure from MAUDIE, Seraphine falls victim to exploitation in the art market. Worse, she succumbs to a mental deterioration and spends her last days in a mental institution.
Beyond their exterior likenesses, both films blossom into color with the paintings of both women. Maudie captures the stark simplicity of flowers and scenes from local life. Seraphine paints the flowers of the region and arranges them into intricate patterns. The paintings in both instances are produced through hardscrabble living conditions and with the most modest of tools. Despite their unlikely origins, the paintings provoke us with great power and poignancy.
Praise be to both films, not just portraits of two strong women who forged highly idiosyncratic images that both captured and transcended their worlds.
MAUDIE, unlike Seraphine, ends with a note of personal triumph. While Seraphine is consigned to an institution and sits alone, abandoned, at the foot of a great tree, Maudie graces her dying breath with her last words to her attentive husband, “I am loved. I am loved.” That is the triumph of both her and her husband. Like her paintings, is a starkly simple expression.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Directed by William Oldroyd and starring Florence Pugh as Katherine, Cosmo Jarvis as the groomsman, and Naomi Ackier as the maid
While the carnal lusts and vicious murders in LADY MACBETH left me disturbed, the reviews on the placard in the theater lobby left me confused and not a little irritated. “A Feminist Parable,” screamed the headlines. Really? How did this portrait of a Lady betrayed and abused turn into a Lady vengeful and murderous? And how does this constitute a feminist statement?
The “Lady” of the title is Katherine, newly married and the mistress of a rural farm house in mid-19th-century England. When first seen, her face is chastely concealed by a white bridal veil; when last seen, her prolonged stare into the camera is an implacable, if enigmatic, challenge to the viewer. Another contrast is between her appalling wedding night as a new bride ordered to undress and stand naked against the wall, while her impotent husband abuses himself offscreen; and the penultimate slaughter of said husband (and his horse, too). What transpires in between are the increasing neglect and abandonment by her husband, her torrid affair with the groomsman, and her executions of husband and father-in-law. A complication to all this is the late appearance of a woman demanding redress for the illegitimate baby fathered by Katherine’s errant husband. What is our Lady to do? Bent on removing this unwonted intrusion into her domestic bliss, if that is what it is, she methodically suffocates the child with a pillow. She does her best to cover it all up, while the local authorities grow increasingly suspicious. Terrified at all this, the hapless groomsman escapes into the forest. And Katherine sits down on her couch, glares at us, and—what?
As I said, those inclined to view this as a feminist statement wreak their own violence on this dismal portrait of isolation, sexual frustration, and destruction. It seems to me what we have here is the kind of “feminism” ascribed to the icon of the savage Lilith of the Apocrypha. Books like Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s classic The Madwoman in the Attic, Ann Jones’s Women Who Kill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” all present portraits of women who protest their repression and marginalization through lust, madness, and murder. The “Angel in the House” becomes the “Monster in the House.” Studies like this seem to verge more on pathology than feminism. Putting it another way, feminist resistance, as we have come to know it through the rhetoric over several centuries, from Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 1790s to Camille Paglia and Betty Friedan in our present day, is twisted into a lame justification for a murderous anti-male bias.
I wonder, does this not commit an injustice of its own on the ideal of the feminist drive for dignity and equality?
No question, Katherine is a Victorian Lilith. Her crimes, including the almost casual shooting of her husband’s horse and her methodical suffocation of the innocent step-son are scenes carefully and graphically staged, difficult to watch and even more difficult to justify on any terms other than her own selfishness and bloodlust. Best consider LADY MACBETH as an indictment of Victorian society and as a psycho-pathological study of a woman wronged beyond endurance, which is truly terrifying and disturbing on its own terms, rather than as a feminist statement. The latter interpretation, I submit, is more disturbing than anything in the film.
Directed by David Lowery, and starring Rooney Mara as “M” and Casey Affleck as her husband, “C”
[NOTE: I ordinarily don’t just reprint a movie review by somebody else, but I have to admit this review, posted on the Roger Ebert Reviews web site, seems very insightful. I would simply add that this film does at least two things commonly ascribed to the traditions and tropes of ghost stories, namely, (1. it teases us with the possibility of an after-life, whether we want it or not; and (2. It examines how ghosts are assigned a place, or location, from which they may not stray. This in itself may symbolize how stubbornly we cling to our mortality, reluctant to leave it behind. The sheeted figure in A GHOST STORY is a silent witness to both. Both themes are interrelated, of course. On the other hand, A GHOST STORY violates one of the most cherished aspects of ghosting, the frisson of fear and trembling. This alone may put off many viewers, lured into the theater by the title and the emblem of the sheeted figure. If the movie is enigmatic about its meanings, we are left to ponder them on our own, just as we keep starring at that sheeted figure, into the blank depth of the eye-holes, wondering as we watch, after awhile, if they change expression from scene to scene, teasing us with their “Rorschach” aspect. I would also add that the long monologue midway through concerns Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and how it has become part of our public and cultural consciousness over the centuries, and how it may, ultimately, and inevitably, suffer a mortality of its own. Finally, I have to admit I was more intrigued conceptually than involved emotionally with the story. Its longeurs, including extremely long and static takes, tend to wear you down... rather like time itself, inexorable, which claims all of us in the end.]
I rarely see a movie so original that I want to tell people to just see it without reading any reviews beforehand, including my own. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is one of those movies. So I’m urging you in the first paragraph of this review to just see it and save this review for later. If you want more information, read on. There are no spoiler warnings after this because as far as I’m concerned, everything I could say about this film would constitute a spoiler.
This tale of a man who dies young and lingers around the property where he and his wife once lived is bound to be one of the most divisive films of the year. I didn’t know anything about it going in, except that its main character was a person who dies and spends the rest of the movie walking around mute, wearing a white sheet with eyeholes cut out of it. The film is a ghost story, in the sense that there’s a ghost in it, but it’s also many other things: a love story, a science fiction-inflected story about time travel and time loops, and a story about loneliness and denial, and the ephemeral nature of the flesh, and the anxiousness that comes from contemplating the end of consciousness (provided there’s no life after death—and what if there isn’t?).
The characters are so archetypal that they don’t have names, just initials. C (played by Casey Affleck) is a musician who lives with his wife M (Rooney Mara) in a small house surrounded by undeveloped property somewhere the vast flatness of Texas. C dies in a car crash early in the story but continues to linger on as a ghost, silent observing his wife’s grief and her eventual exit from the home they once shared. He stays in the house as new tenants move in, including a single mother (Liz Franke) and her two children (Carlos Bermudez and Yasmina Guiterrez) and some presumably young, single people who throw parties with lots of bohemian artist-types. Time keeps moving forward, and at a certain point the house gets leveled and replaced by a gigantic luxury condo-hotel type of development. C stays rooted to the spot where he died, as if he’s still stuck in the “denial” phase of the grieving process.
The movie’s two most fascinating formal traits are its decision to keep C under the sheet for much of the film’s running time, and the way it moves its story along with hard cuts instead of dissolves, fades to black or other signifiers that a lot of time has passed. The sheet denies the film’s leading man most of the tools he’d normally use to communicate emotion; he must instead approach the character as if he were onstage in a play where gestures were more important than words, and try to convey surprise, sadness or anger simply by holding his head and shoulders in a particular way, or turning quickly instead of slowly to look at something.
But this opens up a different kind of relationship between character and viewer: we’re projecting ourselves onto C as we might as children playing with dolls or stuffed animals. Simple, powerful emotions can be summoned that way, and it’s those sorts of emotions that are this movie’s specialty. There were many stretches where I was reminded of European art cinema classics like “Stalker” and “The Passenger,” which derive much of their power from asking you to commit to staring at the images the film has put in front of you, and think about what they might mean and how you feel about them. There are other times when the film is reminiscent of “Groundhog Day,” in its ability to weave guilt, karma, and fear of change into a story that might otherwise have played as a light diversion.
The hard cuts that move us through the story convey the idea that C perceives time differently than we do. In a scene that involves decay, which I won’t describe in too much detail here because it occurs in a context I didn’t expect to encounter, a body becomes a skeleton in a series of cuts that last about 30 seconds. The deeper we get into C’s story, the more Lowery teases our perceptions of time, until by the end he’s got us questioning the idea of singular, linear experience. (“A Ghost Story” would make a great double feature with Shane Carruth’s “Primer” or Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” two other Texas films about the perception and experience of time.)
“A Ghost Story” feels bracingly, at times alienatingly new. It’s a movie you can’t be quite sure how to take. There are moments where the movie seems to be handing you keys to interpretation, but I’d caution viewers against looking at such scenes for answers, because they have a rope-a-dope quality—as if they're designed to bait and trap those who would sneer at this kind of movie. In any event, this is a film that's more inclined to ask questions than answer them, much less give life advice. A long monologue by a party guest (Will Oldham) about humanity’s doomed attempts to leave traces that last, especially through art, would seem to suggest that a song C writes for M will outlast him, but we have no evidence of that. The film’s presentation of ghosthood as a purgatorial in-between state, inhabited by individuals who refuse to let go of the life they can no longer have, jibes with many Western religions’ ideas about the afterlife, but I don’t think the resolution of C’s story gives us any hope of Heaven; to me it seemed more like a warning to be at peace with the possibility that we may never know the answers to the big questions.
I should admit here that any take I can offer is provisional. I need to see the film a second time to sweep away preconceived notions that might’ve been lingering in my mind during my first viewing of “A Ghost Story.” The movie is so simple in its storytelling and its situations are observed so patiently that the result has a disarming purity, as if Lowery jammed a tap into his subconscious and recorded one of his dreams directly to film. It’s probably the closest that a lot of people are going to get to seeing a late-period silent movie on a big screen—a melodrama that deals in big ideas and obvious symbols, and that puts across fantastical concepts, such a ghost haunting the landscape over a period of decades, by putting a sheet over its leading man and having him walk around slowly and stare blankly at stuff. (Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo shoots the movie in the old-fashioned, square-ish “Academy” ratio, letting us see the rounded edges of the frame; this has a constricting effect, so that we seem to be spying through a keyhole at someone else’s life.)
People either seem to love “A Ghost Story” or hate it, with no in-between. It got mostly very positive notices during festival screenings, but on the eve of its commercial release I’ve found myself arguing with colleagues who think it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes and find it too precious, too sentimental, too much of a one-joke movie, or not enough of one thing or another thing. I loved everything about it, including the scenes I wasn’t sure how to take. I recommend seeing it in a theater because it’s a movie that has as much to say about our perception of time and permanence as it does about love and death. Much of the impact that it has, positive or negative, comes from having to sit there and watch it without interruptions and think about what it’s showing you, and how.