Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Certified Copy

Three men and a camera

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Bill Cunningham

What does it mean to be an uncompromising artist? Over the last two weeks, we’ve lost three very different men whose careers feel like a series of case studies in how to approach that unanswerable question. One was Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer whom I once described as possibly the sanest man alive, and who maintained his creative and personal freedom for decades by paring his life down to the essentials in the heart of New York City. Another was the director Michael Cimino, who helped establish the Hollywood auteur era of the seventies with The Deer Hunter, and then singlehandedly destroyed it with Heaven’s Gate. The third was Abbas Kiarostami, who managed to do innovative work for more than thirty years in his homeland after the Iranian Revolution, in large part by being so persistently odd and original that his government didn’t know what to do with him. Each man is worth scrutinizing closely, either as a role model or as a cautionary tale, and for all their surface dissimilarities, they all tried, in their own ways, to crack the urgent problem of how an artist is expected to live in the world. (Because of the timing of their obituaries, I’ve been especially struck by the parallels between Cunningham and Cimino, who might otherwise seem to have nothing in common. Both were products of the Ivy League whose backgrounds remain shrouded in mystery, and both guarded their private lives so obsessively that they were asked pointed questions about their sexuality in interviews, which they both dodged, rightly, as irrelevant to the issue at hand.)

And none of them ever quite conformed to the expectations of their admirers. One of the recurring themes in the loving tributes to Cunningham that filled the New York Times over the weekend was that he was a gentle, generous man who could also be a huge pain to work with. Here are a few excerpts from the oral history:

The best thing you could do with Bill Cunningham was to get out of his way…He was a control freak to a large degree, but in a very unusual way. He was just all about the work…The assistants that the art department assigned Bill to do his pages—he went through a long string of people, and it was a love-hate toward Bill. John [Kurdewan] was one of the more long-suffering people in that role. Protecting his pages was very important to him.

Kurdewan himself remembers: “Art directors were dealing with Bill, and because it was so complicated they were complaining. It was ‘Just have John do it.’ I said to the art director, ‘What do I do?’ They said, ‘Whatever he wants.’” This might all seem slightly out of tune with the way we remember and think about Cunningham, but in fact, it’s perfectly consistent. The best reason to simplify your existence, declare your independence from money, and rigorously efface yourself is that it allows you to refuse to compromise when it truly matters. And Bill Cunningham understood this better than anyone.

Abbas Kiarostami

This isn’t an approach, to put it mildly, that would have made sense to Michael Cimino, who seems to have confronted every challenge with one of my favorite lines of dialogue from any movie, which he wrote for The Deer Hunter: “I’m gonna will us out of here.” And his career is less interesting for its ultimate failure than for the fact that he got away with it for as long as he did. The debacle of Heaven’s Gate, which lost $40 million and destroyed the old United Artists studio, has been told elsewhere, most notably in Steven Bach’s classic book Final Cut. Yet it’s worth remembering that it became a paradigmatic example of excess not because it lost money—plenty of films have lost more—but because Cimino was so scandalously willing to place his vision above the concerns of the executives whose careers he ruined. He was punished, not for directing a flop, but for daring to expose the helplessness of the systems that had been designed to prevent such an implosion from occurring. (Which isn’t to say that his critics weren’t right. The Deer Hunter strikes me today as an ethically problematic movie saved only by its sheer technical facility, both from Cimino and from his extraordinary cast, who seem to have spun their characters out of nothing. Heaven’s Gate is every bit the waste of resources that its reputation suggests. And the only movie by Cimino that I’d watch again today is Year of the Dragon, which suffers from the same racial obliviousness as The Deer Hunter, but at least takes the trouble to create an exciting story with a worthy antagonist. Cimino is hard to admire, much less to like, but he was far from a talentless or uninteresting director.)

Yet it’s Kiarostami whom I’ve found myself thinking about the most. I’ve only seen a few of his films, but it seems safe to say that his artistic evolution—from realism to audacious formal experimentation—was a reaction to the political climate in which he was forced to spend most of his career. Of his reception by the Iranian regime, Kiarostami said: “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past ten years. I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them from being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.” It’s a particularly bittersweet kind of success, but he still threaded that needle for longer than anyone could have thought possible. Kiarostami was sometimes criticized as apolitical, but he molded his audience in profoundly radical ways. As he once observed:

In my films, I try to give people as little information as possible, which is still much more than what they get in real life. I feel that they should be grateful for the little bit of information I give them. If they were as inquisitive when they come to watch my films as they are in real life, they’d make my life easier.

His movies are training grounds for empathy and the imagination, even when he deliberately frustrates any attempt at interpretation, as he does in Certified Copy, which is one of my ten favorite films of the decade. The problem of survival in the world also lacks a single definitive answer, as the lives of these three men suggest. But the first step, it seems, is to do whatever it takes to ensure that nothing comes between you and the camera.

The Best Movies of 2011, Part 2

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5. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. A personal triumph for Tom Cruise the producer, if not the actor: when he isn’t hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa, his presence onscreen is strangely detached, and much less interesting than that of Paula Patton, the movie’s real human star. Yet there’s no doubt that Cruise himself willed this movie into existence, assembling a creative team, headed by director Brad Bird, that delivered a film that comes close to the ideal modern blockbuster: sleek, totally impersonal, but so expertly crafted that it brushes our objections aside. The year’s most purely satisfying entertainment, and the ultimate advertising reel for IMAX.

4. The Descendants. Watching this film makes me wish all the more that Alexander Payne had been making an annual movie for the past ten years: this is a beguiling family drama, shot through with moments of high and low comedy, and blessed with great local color and a sly supporting cast. As usual, Payne gives us characters who seem like caricatures and then edges them back toward humanity, but his touch has rarely been more assured than it is here, and he coaxes fine work from George Clooney (in his most moving performance), Shailene Woodley, and Judy Greer, whose expression of surprise at a crucial moment is one of my favorite movie memories of the year.

3. The Tree of Life. One of the strangest movies ever made, and certainly one of the most ambitious, The Tree of Life isn’t a complete success, but it’s hard to imagine how it could have done more: it’s one of those rare films whose reach exceeds its grasp only because of the grandeur of a great director’s dreams. Terrence Malick wants nothing less than to present us with a symphonic essay on man’s place in the universe, as seen through the lens of one family’s experience—and while the sequences in outer space, as conceived by the legendary Douglas Trumbull, are stunning, it’s in the evocation of a Texas childhood, anchored by Brad Pitt’s forbidding father, that the movie finally achieves the poetry it works so urgently to create.

2. Moneyball. A thrilling baseball movie with hardly any baseball, a heroic presentation of statistical analysis, and a great film starring Jonah Hill: the wonder isn’t so much that Moneyball achieves the impossible, but that it makes it look so easy. I wasn’t a fan of Bennett Miller’s Capote, which was so subdued that it almost faded from the screen as you watched it, but he emerges here as a director of considerable wit and intelligence, with a more relaxed and engaging way with actors and story, aided immeasurably by the work of Michael Lewis and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. At the center, again, is Brad Pitt, this time with his stardom on full display: more than any actor in the world right now, he’s playing a grown man’s game.

1. Certified Copy. It’s beautiful and infuriating, frustrating and seductive, and although it initially looks like a more cerebral version of Before Sunrise, it’s really a work of stealth science fiction. The more I think about it, the more I doubt that there’s any one “solution” to the puzzle it presents, and I no longer care whether the characters played by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche are strangers, married, estranged, or living out one or more possibilities in converging timelines: all I know is that I like spending time with them in Tuscany, and that the problem that Abbas Kiarostami poses to us is less important than the picture of a marriage it creates. A modest, but hugely important, reminder of film’s possibilities.

Honorable Mention: Among the other films I wrote about at length this year, I also enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Tabloid; Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and parts of Hugo, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Source Code, and Captain America, although my most memorable experience at the movies, as well as the longest, was the twenty-fifth anniversary release of Shoah.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2012 at 10:01 am

Radical ambiguity: A Separation and Certified Copy

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As the movie awards season winds to a close, I’ve been working to catch up on recent releases, in preparation for writing up my annual top ten list. Making such a list is always a pleasure, and I’ve done this every year for as long as I can remember, whether I’ve had anyone interested in reading it or not. One of the small pleasures of making this list is seeing patterns that might not have been otherwise obvious. This year, for instance, I’m a little surprised to discover that my two favorite American movies both starred Brad Pitt—which may not seem so surprising at first, but he’s so different in Moneyball and The Tree of Life that it’s hard to regard them as the work of the same actor, much less one of the world’s biggest movie stars. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve discovered that my two favorite foreign films this year were both made by directors from Iran, which is so striking a fact that it seems worthwhile to drill deeper.

On the surface, the two movies couldn’t feel more different. The first, the extraordinary Certified Copy, which I’ve written about here before, looks like a glossy international production, with director Abbas Kiarostami working in Tuscany with a cast that includes William Shimell and Juliette Binoche. While it’s certainly engaging, it’s also intensely cerebral, a puzzle box designed to frustrate the viewer’s expectations. The second film, A Separation, which I finally saw this weekend, is rooted in the culture of contemporary Iran, and draws more on the tradition of melodrama, presented with a scrupulous realism that sucks the audience in immediately. Yet both films have, at their core, a similar ambiguity, a refusal to provide easy answers, and a fascination with the complexities of our most intimate human relationships.

Of the two, A Separation is by far the more accessible, a layered, expertly paced story that spins alarming complications out of the seemingly simple decision of a married couple, played by Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, to separate. The screenplay, by director Asghar Farhadi, is beautifully constructed, integrating a large cast in a web of misunderstanding that never seems contrived, even in its pointedly open ending. It’s one of the hardest kinds of stories to tell in any language: one in which there are no villains, and in which everyone’s motives are basically sound, but which nonetheless leads to tragedy. And while the story is universal, much of its interest for foreign audiences—who have made it the most critically acclaimed movie of the year—certainly lies in the view it affords of the particulars of its characters’ lives. (The glimpses we get of the Iranian legal system, as embodied by a harried but essentially fair judge played by Babak Karimi, are especially fascinating.)

It’s no secret that for a director in the Iranian film industry to make movies for an international audience requires uncanny degrees of skill, ingenuity, and good fortune, as well as a temperament that finds the silver lining in unwanted constraints. Farhadi is manifestly a writer and director of considerable talent, and in A Separation, he takes a story that is intensely focused, perhaps by necessity, on the sphere of domestic life and makes it feel remarkably expansive, taking in countless small stories on the margins without ever losing track of the main thread. Like many artists who have worked under similar circumstances, both he and Kiarostami finally plant their standards in the realm of ambiguity, in the insistence on seeing past normal ethical or narrative distinctions, which in itself can seem like a radical act. If Kiarostami does this mostly from the head, Farhadi does it from the heart—but clearly these two directors have a lot of both.

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2012 at 10:16 am

Certified Copy and the pleasures of ambiguity

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On Tuesday, my wife and I went with a few friends to see Certified Copy at the Siskel Center in Chicago. It was my first trip to the Siskel Center since my marathon ten-hour viewing of Shoah earlier this year, and while this was a far less daunting outing, the prospect was still somewhat intimidating. Certified Copy is the latest film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry—the only other film of his I’ve seen—is impressive but famously difficult. As a result, I was expecting a challenging night at the movies, which I got. What I wasn’t expecting was that Certified Copy turned out to be perhaps the best movie I’ve seen all year, and an early contender for one of the top films of the decade, with its many surface pleasures layered over a deeper level of tantalizing ambiguity.

Let’s begin with those surface pleasures, which are considerable. At first glance, the story seems simple enough: a French single mother (Juliette Binoche) meets a British author and academic (William Shimell) at a reading in Italy, and after hitting it off, the two of them spend the day visiting a nearby village, deep in conversation. What we have, then, initially seems like a more mature version of Before Sunrise, and it gives us plenty of time to reflect on the delights of Tuscany, expert cinematography, and movie star charisma. Binoche has always been a resourceful and lovely actress, and here she switches between English, French, and Italian—as well as between petulance and charm—with Christoph Waltz levels of versatility. Shimell, an opera singer making his movie debut, looks and sounds great, and perfectly personifies the older, charming, but cynical European male, who, along with Danish director Jørgen Leth, embodies the kind of aging man of the world I’ve always wanted to become, but probably never will.

And yet there are deeper currents here. Halfway through the film—and this is a considerable spoiler—there’s a curious shift in mood: after pausing at a coffee shop, Binoche and Shimell abruptly begin to talk as if they’ve been married for years, with a young son, and have just had their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Their dialogue also switches from predominantly English to French. No explanation is given for this change, which persists until the end of the film, leaving us with a number of unsatisfying possibilities. Either Binoche and Shimell are, in fact, married but estranged—Binoche’s son doesn’t seem to recognize Shimell as his father—and were playacting their earlier encounter; they have, in fact, just met, and have mutually decided to pretend to be married for the rest of the day; or, and perhaps most likely, something else entirely is going on.

The inescapable conclusion, to quote David Denby, is that “In the end, neither possible ‘reading’ of their relationship…can be maintained with any consistency.” This isn’t a movie like Inception, which, despite its ambiguous ending, allowed viewers to construct reasonably consistent arguments for their own interpretations. Here, whatever reading you adopt, there are always a few pieces that don’t fit. Certified Copy is designed to frustrate, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in its ambiguity, as long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is. You can think of it as an essay or allegory clothed in realistic trappings, or as a sort of playful game; you can analyze it deeply or leave it alone, content to dwell on its beautiful surfaces and performances. Whatever your response, though, to reduce it to a single reading would take away its peculiar magic, which lures the viewer into an ongoing process of engagement with the story itself. It’s a remarkably seductive film. And, by the end, you feel as if you’re married to it.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

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