When I spoke to Olson after the screening, she told me how overwhelming it was to visit the set, to listen to Milk’s voice, and to know that it was here — right here — that he contemplated his imminent murder. She’s translated that experience well to her film, which is ghostly and deeply moving. But, of course, it wasn’t right here that Milk made his tape. This is a meticulously dressed set.
American “regional” cinema (again with the ironic scare quotes), especially that of the indie variety, has an unfortunate tendency to come off like tourism, in the sense that the camera is too often set up in front of objects that only reinforce our preexisting sense of the place. “The South,” for example, is often reduced to a now-vacant and picturesque block of what was once a small town’s main street before the interstate and Wal-Mart moved in.
Along with simply being a tremendous pleasure to watch, The Iron Horse offers a fascinating peek into the evolution of the Hollywood film style. By 1924 — and with four dozen films under his belt — Ford already understood the mechanics of what would eventually be called standard continuity editing, and so, for me, the most interesting moments in the early films are when something breaks, as in the following sequence.
In the foreground sits Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman), a young radical who only the night before was beaten and arrested by the police for, as his mother explains it, “making Communist speeches.” He sits here with George Simon (John Barrymore), a high-powered attorney whose office overlooks Manhattan from atop the Empire State Building.
It’s rare these days when I find myself identifying with a character in the same way that, say, the 7-year-old version of me identified with Charlie Bucket or the 15-year-old version of me identified with Holden Caulfield. But Dan Dunne, the crack-addicted, idealistic History teacher played by Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, is more like me than any other character I’ve met in quite some time.
To watch the body of Abel Ferrara’s films, as I’ve tried my best to do over the last month and a half, is to see a man wrestling obsessively — sadomasochistically, even — with the Irrational. The stylized violence, the scenery-chewing performances, the gratuitous and exploitative female nudity — all are window dressing. What’s at stake here is nothing less than the very possibility of grace.
But the adaptation of a written text to film also necessarily foregrounds the authority of images, imposing specificity on what an author might have chosen to describe more generally. I was surprised, for example, to find myself suddenly moved by an image of the small boxes in which Faunia stores the ashes of her dead children. In the novel, surprisingly little emphasis is placed on the ashes; Roth does not make of them an excuse for one of his patented ten-page diversions.
What she whispers to him is less important than the unexpected moment of silent intimacy shared between these two lovers in a crowded, noisy room. The whole film is in that image — Dix bowing his head to her as a gesture of trust; Laurel closing her eyes in hope of love, then opening them to the sight of a detective entering the room.
In the opening shot, Zahedi addresses the camera directly, introduces himself as Caveh, and tells us that for many years he was a sex addict. His film is a frank, neatly-plotted, and curiously moving recreation of those years. It’s also incredibly transgressive and very, very funny. Quite a balancing act.
How would the tone of the film change, for example, had she included reports from the crime scene or interviews with his wife’s surviving family? Instead, we are offered only one quick glance at a photo of the woman who later would be brutally murdered, and a few fond remembrances of her from Harvey’s friends.
Journals is at its best, I think, when Rappaport intertwines the lives and loves of Seberg, Jane Fonda, and Vanessa Redgrave. All are of the same age, all made films directed by their husbands (another of the film’s more interesting concerns), and all participated actively in radical political movements.
John Cassevetes is my latest obsession. On a whim, I recently picked up a used copy of Faces, the story of Dicky and Maria Forst’s disastrous attempts to find peace and companionship outside of their loveless marriage. Shot entirely in stark, high-contrast black-and-white, and featuring Cassevetes’s trademark dialogue, Faces feels at times like a documentary — voyeuristic, discomforting, and brutally real.
The problems of irony, particularly when of the postmodern bent, are on mind-numbing display in Adaptation, a film that collapses under its own self-referential weight so many times that, at some point — and I think it was right about the time that Meryl Streep started humping Chris Cooper — I stopped watching the film and began waiting for it to end.