Thursday, December 16, 2010


The "auteur" theory is over a half century old now, and relatively discredited at the level it was once held.

The only filmmakers who are the true "authors" of their films are the ones who write and direct them, and often produce and do other work on them as well (Charlie Chaplin the most obvious and maybe original—writing, starring, directing, producing and composing the soundtrack!).

But many directors obviously do have the main impact on a movie—of all those involved in the collaborative art—shaping performances and interpreting scripts so that it's often possible to recognize their style even when their movies hop from genre to genre and writer to writer.

Sofia Coppola is mostly the former, a writer/director, and producer, of most of her films, all of which bear her imprint indelibly. Darren Aronofsky is mostly the latter, just directing, taking other people's ideas and screenplays and turning them into his particular brand of filmmaking.

I admire them both, for different things. Like the old arguments when I was a young writer over Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald, or Beckett vs. Joyce, Coppola and Aronofsky define pretty clearly two distinct approaches to their art.

Coppola compares to Hemingway or Beckett in that the distinctiveness of their art owes a lot to their spareness, what they leave out. Whereas Aronofksy's films display the kind of saturation leave-nothing-out-or-to-the-imagination (or give that impression) of F. Scott and James J.

Not that I'm ranking anyone as equals, just talking about their approaches to making the art they create, for the most part (they all have some exceptions, like Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY in which he proved to himself and the rest of us he could beat Hemingway at his own game).

Sofia Coppola's courageous willingness to hold a shot—and often one where seemingly nothing's going on—longer than contemporary audiences are used to or seem to want, gives her films the quality of old style "foreign" films from a half century ago. She loves to linger and let the scene—the setting and the actor(s) involved—reveal deeper resonances just from being observed. It's almost Warholian.

Sometimes this works beautifully, as in her masterpiece, to my mind, LOST IN TRANSLATION. Sometimes it just leaves the audience, or at least me, wanting to shout: "I get it! I get it! Now what?!" as in many of the scenes in her latest film, SOMEWHERE, including the opening. It's daring to shoot a car driving in circles time after time, disappearing out of the frame on each side as it makes its loops, leaving only the sound of its engine revving, in a flat desert landscape that leaves little else to focus on, but it only takes a time or two to get that this is about someone going around in circles and getting nowhere (which the film had me at times thinking should have been the title: NOWHERE).

There are scenes and bits of dialogue and editing jumps and acting and cinema verite sequences that pretty well capture the life of a movie celebrity as I've witnessed it and obviously Coppola has. But Stephen Dorff doesn't have enough screen presence to make the ordeal of extended scenes of his ennui (I assume meant to read as more than that) work. Elle Fanning (Dakota's little sister) does, and she's been getting a lot of well-deserved critical attention. But in the end I'd wait and catch this one on cable.

BLACK SWAN is like an antidote to SOMEWHERE that the director packs the film with to such an exorbitant extent that it made me feel he was trying to cause a kind of mass o.d. for the audience. The extremes he makes Natalie Portman go to in the lead role, and the way she pulls that off, make me think she's got the Oscar locked. I'm not a big fan of her movies once she grew up, or of her, from what I've read in interviews. But she kills in this movie, in every way.

But the film and its story are so over the top, it makes most movies seem like cheek kisses compared to BLACK SWAN's personalized nuclear bomb. The casting is almost diabolical. [I mean particularly in having a current and a faded and a fading movie star playing a current and a faded and fading ballerinas...sort of forcing us, and them, to recognize their lost prominence and success—Ryder found the parallels "cool"!]

Barbara Hershy as the controlling stage mom remakes the archetype into something out of DAWN OF THE LIVING STAGE MOTHER DEAD. This aging actress—who resembles the Barbara Seagull some of us once had crushes on but in a way that is at times startlingly dismaying—is cast as the over-the-hill missed-her-chance harridan while Winona Ryder plays the slightly over-the-hill star ballerina Portman's character is doomed to replace, I mean trying to replace.

(Ryder's presence and talent seemed wasted in her relatively small role, and Mila Kunis as the seductress from hell outshone her in a more meaty and bigger role as Portman's character's nemesis, I think, though they're all nemesises (!) in ways that are so frustratingly confusing it took me hours to sort most of it out later in conversation with a friend I saw it with and then in my own head and there are still parts I'm not sure about.)

I noticed that all the credits, except for production design and costumer, at least the ones I stayed to watch, were all men. And I wondered if that had anything to do with there being no woman in the movie you, or at least I, could feel any real empathy for.

There is some brilliant movie making going on, and there's no denying that the movie has an impact, it's still dominating my brain over twenty-four hours since I saw it. Some of the early dance sequences with close-ups of ballerina's feet balancing on their toes as they whirl and spin and go up and down from flat on the floor to on their toes is excruciatingly beautiful, almost painful to watch.

Other scenes were just plain painful to watch, some of them meant as metaphors for the obsessive body consciousness of dancers, not just ballerinas (I went with a dancer once and hung out with some of her friends and they were all constantly distorting their bodies into odd shapes, their form of stretching, or asking you to pull their arm out etc.) and some as metaphors for much deeper troubles and for compulsive addictive self-destructive behavior of all kinds. Only BLACK SWAN seems a backhanded attempt to justify that, or maybe justify the director's obsession with the extremes of self-destruction as a path to some sort of negative glory.

At times the melodrama of BLACK SWAN was so extreme I felt like I was watching an updated version of the kind of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? histrionics of the aging Bette Davis and Joan Crawford parodying their younger selves. Only in this case, two of the main actresses, Ryder and Portman, are still young and doing the same kind of scenery munching.

But, and it's a big but, Aronofsky, like Coppola, is, at least for my taste, an incredible filmmaker (though I had caveats about THE WRESTLER as well), and there is much to admire and even be impressed by in BLACK SWAN technically, and performance and direction-wise. But it made me feel like I wanted to leave the theater before it was over or jut shoot myself when it finally did end. Not because it was so disappointing, but because it was so disturbing. And his previous most pull-out-the-stops dark adventure, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM didn't bother me at all. Phew!

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