Friday, September 09, 2005

sublime sarandon

Day 2. (Part 2) Those who know and remember Lars von Trier’s provocative Dogville will do well to have that film under their belts as the threshold for sustaining his even more controversial Manderlay. An equally astonishing film, it would be easy to be fooled into thinking that it was “just like” Dogville, since it shares the same theatricalized soundstage setting, rudimentary set,lighting and props. But it isn’t really the same at all. If Dogville was satirical, Manderlay is downright subversive, a word that used to mean ‘undermining’ but in today’s world has come to mean ‘looking for truth’. In order to be truly subversive, you must love that which you also hate or criticize, for only in the tension of those two opposing views will the truth prevail. Manderlay,like its predecessor, portrays the beauty in America’s idealism, the pursuit of democracy, the desire for equality and union, while simultaneously casting these virtues as leading only to despotism and ruin when applied indiscriminately. The film’s politic revolves around racial and cultural clashes and nation building, iconically represented by slavery in the deep south. Parts of it are so achingly relevant they are almost impossible to watch, such as the sequence in which a duststorm lays waste the entire community, leaving behind spoiled food and uninhabitable domains that no one thought imaginable. Convert the dust to water and the southern accents worn by the characters will take you to New Orleans in a blink. The inability of a nation to cope with its own catastrophes becomes stark and tragic. With strong performances by the ensemble company and a more highly stylized set environment (less stencilled outlines and labels, more highly suggestive set pieces) Von Trier has never been more on his game.

Someone still learning the game is filmmaker Dionysius Zervos, whose The Shore is the beginning of a trilogy he hopes to make, loosely influenced by Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (see L’Enfer below). There are ‘quotations’ from Kieslowski’s Blue in this film, particularly when his young mother character tries to drown herself in a swimming pool at night. Set in New Jersey, and loosely revolving around the impact on a family of a child’s disappearance while on the beach, The Shore is a great example of how movies can work even when they don’t work. Scene for scene, the film is lacking essential scenes and coverage and a more considered way of evolving its emotional lines so that we experience a journey and not a haphazard collection of moments of being. And yet, despite its failings, The Shore stays with you. Lesley Ann Warren (and where has she been?) turns in a performance as the momentarily negligent grandmother that sneaks up on you and bites you at the film’s finale. Her face registers everything the film is trying to express. It is a beautifully controlled performance, even when dealing with overwritten cliches and unnatural time gaps and jumps. Her changing face plunges us to the film’s heart and floats it to us right to the end.

And speaking of actresses who save movies, there is no other way to talk about the luminous Susan Sarandon and the glowing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe’s commercial American feature due for release later this fall. A publicist explained to the industry gathered at today’s screening that the film was still “in progress”. It is a rare privilege to see a movie in a polished state of “almost”. (Too bad that wasn’t the case with Shopgirl!) The film is indeed rambling as it currently stands, allowing its lead characters to fall in love over the phone (literally) and sporting a road trip from Kentucky to Oregon that feels like it runs in real time. Elizabethtown takes its rabble-scrabble rough visioning and allows it to embody all the film wanted to be. And although it is not ready for release, there is a beauty in all the chaos. While Shopgirl used quirky character bits to entertain us, the zaniness of a young woman here is used to reveal her deeper inner life, which she has shared with few people. And where the two leads in Shopgirl jumped into bed together, Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) and Claire (Kirsten Dunst) come more slowly to how deeply they feel. The superficial they know, the deeper they cannot allow themselves to face - though they are hypnotically drawn whenever they are together.

That said, the movie is completely stolen by Sarandon, whose capacity to grade a performance to reach a certain place, no matter how much screen time she has or what kind of movie she’s in, is unparallelled in my opinion. Essentially a supporting role, her Hollie Baylor, grieving the death of her husband, sails through a series of avoidance life-affirming hobbies culminating in a stand-up comedy routine at her husband’s memorial, followed by a tap dance that is emotionally glorious. Its warmth and quiet essential truth, once again, captures everything the movie wants to say in its long romantic sequences between the leads. Her quiet shuffle to “Blue Moon” across a bare stage is one of the emotional high points of my festival so far. (As is Minnelli’s “Yes”)

But a word to the folks at Paramount: never tell a bunch of industry professionals that a film is a work in progress. Before the tail credits are even underway, everyone knows what’s wrong.
The road trip has got to go.
Oh that cell phone sequence — way too long!
You have to end the funeral at the tap dance. Why go further?
End the movie at the tap dance!
A papier mache bird that catches fire –?? Come on!

As I sat trying to read the scrolling names, my ears were aflame with mini-Eberts, ready to assess the failings. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert himself, quietly ducked out.

Tonight’s dreams will be about dancing. Like Eve in yesterday’s Eve and the Firehorse, dancing in the arms of Jesus and Buddha, my dreams will have me hoofing it with Liza and Sarandon - and really, what more could a gal dream for!?

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