At the close of the Latino film festival last month, I used one festival film in particular (representative of several) as a club to beat up American filmmakers for their incapacity to treat serious, intimate, interpersonal subjects without injecting some journalistic juice: homicide, rape, pedophilia, child abuse, domestic violence, hate crime, something to add extraordinary “interest” to ordinary lives. But doesn’t Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, the new film by the maker of The Station Agent, give me what I was missing? Deep absorption, for a start, in the enclosed world of a dour Connecticut college professor, the classroom, the private office, the school cafeteria, the empty hours at home where, to fill the void left by his late wife, a concert pianist, he tries desultorily to master the instrument himself, late in life. (“And remember,” instructs the newest in a line of unsatisfactory piano teachers, “fingers curved like a tunnel.”) Then a reluctant change of scene, when he is forced out of his orbit, under departmental orders, to attend a Developing Nations Conference in New York City, where he finds his unused apartment occupied by two squatters, a musician from Syria and a jewelry designer from Senegal, husband and wife. The initial shock gives way to starchy hospitality (he never shows as much curiosity as the viewer might wish about the identity of the mysterious “Ivan” who rented out the apartment), and the walls of his world expand little by little, exposing the touching and amusing spectacle of an introverted man opening up, taking a stab at warmth, attempting something new, discovering that the African drum (which gets his head moving like a bobblehead doll) is more his instrument than the classical piano.
Isn’t this the sort of thing I wanted? Well, yes and no. Yes, there is no murder, rape, pedophilia, etc., such as could claim space in the daily paper. But then again, not quite. I deliberately neglected to mention that the unthreatening squatters are Muslim, and that the film takes a dire turn before the halfway point with an illustration of Racial Profiling and the incarceration of the happy-go-lucky street musician in a detention center for illegals. A bit of hot topicality to give the story Relevance, Significance, Importance. People alone seldom seem to suffice. “Character-driven” though the story is, it could still find a place in the newspaper: the human-interest piece below the fold on the front page. All the same, I recommend the film highly. It presents just one, small, personal story of the post-9/11 world, not a Big Sweeping Statement. For all its liberal sentimentality, it indulges in no outsized emoting. And it offers a meaty role to Richard Jenkins, an able character actor, never the lead, who nibbles at the meat with proper restraint, hiding his avidness and gratitude. (With an eye on the most modest box-office, and with but a minor cost to integrity, the role could have been offered to more of a household name, a Richard Gere, a Kevin Kline.) Haaz Sleiman as the blissfully unguarded drummer, Danai Gurira as his fearfully guarded mate, and Hiam Abbass as his dignified and elegant mother, in from Michigan to stand vigil outside the austere United Correctional Corporation, complete the ensemble, a dissonant quartet, resolving into sweetness. All four of them in their separate ways are painfully affecting. The outcome, although far from happy, could more plausibly have been a lot farther from it. A statement is made after all, if only a quiet one.
The Life before Her Eyes is very much more the other sort of American intimism I was talking about. From a novel by Laura Kasischke, directed by the House of Sand and Fog man, Vadim Perelman (blood on his hands in that one, too), and sharply photographed by Pawel Edelman, it frames its parallel plotlines inside a machine-gun high-school massacre, unveiling in flashback the events leading up to it as well as jumping ahead fifteen years to reveal the life of a guilty survivor, now a teacher herself at the school, with a husband and daughter at home. Uma Thurman might be acceptable as a later stage of Evan Rachel Wood (blond hair, blue eyes, a nose, a mouth), but acceptance gets tested when we switch continually back and forth between them. And the opening massacre makes the backwards and forwards mundanities more, not less, boring, especially once we’ve been teased with a Sophie’s Choice dilemma in the girls’ restroom and, returning to it time and again, we await and await its result. The trick ending is a revelation of nothing so much as teenage pessimism and perhaps lack of imagination. This trick may well be a legitimate and interesting rhetorical device, but it’s always a bad idea for a movie to save up its interest for the very end.
The first American film of Wong Kar-wai and the acting debut of pop singer Norah Jones, My Blueberry Nights, proves to be an event less than momentous. The Hong Kong director has no doubt brought along a vision, confined as it largely is to café, diner, bar, and casino, dressed up with sufficient surface activity (coarse grain, incandescent color, reflected light, lettered windows, signage, slow-motion, uneven focus, and so forth) to mark him as an heir to Josef von Sternberg: the film image as jungle, a luxuriant visual field through which to wend, weave, and hack your way. So thick the imagery, so thin the story: the ten-month, cross-country odyssey of a jilted young woman, mutating en route from Elizabeth to Lizzie to Betty to Beth. (We see next to nothing of the open road, but are always within beckoning earshot of a passing train.) Jones, a figure of unintimidating comeliness, particularly as a romantic possibility for a slumming, hash-slinging Jude Law, brings little of her vocal stylings into her line delivery: no Julie London or Lena Horne is she, much less a Crosby or Sinatra. (Chan Marshall, alias Cat Power, brings a lot more into a little cameo as Law’s ex.) Even so, her feeble chirps and twitters sound pretty natural alongside the brassy white-trash accents of Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman.
88 Minutes, on my watch, is 102 minutes minus closing credits. A famous forensic psychiatrist (a puffy-haired Al Pacino), on the scheduled day of execution of a sadistic killer against whom he testified, receives a distorted-voice cellphone threat, “You have 88 minutes to live.” Once the countdown begins, not a single minute is remotely credible. How could the plotter count on the doctor returning to his car, after a wild-goose chase in pursuit of a suspicious leather jacket, just in time to read “72 Minutes” scrawled in the coat of dust? How could the plotter be sure the doctor wouldn’t be blown up too soon by the car bomb or cut down by the sprayed bullets? And if the purpose of the plotter is to secure a stay of execution, wouldn’t it have been advisable to spring the plot a tad earlier? The full foolishness of the thing can’t be appreciated till the final ah-ha. (Heh-heh, more like it.) Even in the ashen photography, Alicia Witt and Amy Brenneman, as two of the doctor’s acolytes, are recognizable as among the most eye-appealing American actresses today. To my eye anyway. (Why don’t I see more of them?) True, the creaseless wax-museum visage of the former might, in other company, give a bit of a chill. But not in the company of the almost airbrushed Leelee Sobieski. Like everything else, waxiness is relative.
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This year’s Cinema under the Stars season in Mission Hills opens on May Day and continues through Halloween. I notice some personal favorites (Bell, Book and Candle, The Big Clock, The Big Lebowski, The Birds, to confine myself to the B’s) in the grab bag of “American classic films.” Punch out topspresents.com or 619-295-4221 for the complete schedule. And looking ahead a season, the upcoming one of the Cinema Society of San Diego, starting in September, will be number twenty-five (repeat, two-five) under the nurturing leadership of Andy Friedenberg, a staggering run. Sign up anytime at cinemasociety.com or 619-280-1600.