May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 11, 2010
This is a difficult assignment. I cannot access most of these films on DVD yet, so I cannot analyze my favorite scenes to describe why they worked so effectively. But here are a few memorable moments that leap to mind:
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS
I’m going to need to see Terry Gilliam’s latest film a few times before I can decide whether it’s a work of genius or a chaotic mess, or somewhere in between. The first time I saw it (at a Seattle press screening), the image was somewhat out of focus for the duration. It gave me a headache. But in spite of the technical difficulties, the film had a strange, haunted quality, as the late Heath Ledger’s feverish performance kept reminding us that we were seeing him during his final days among us.
Watching how Ledger threw himself into the deranged and desperate character named Tony, and then considering how he played this part right after the ferocious turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of toll it took on him. These were not ordinary performances; they were mad, inspired, rigorous, and taxing. Watching him here was a bittersweet experience.
Most startling of all is his first appearance in the film: We see him dangling from a noose beneath a bridge during a downpour. Another character, wearing an angel costume, is lowered from the bridge on a tether, soaring in to embrace him and pull him to safety. We in the audience sat awestruck as this played out.
I don’t know about the others, but what I felt was loss and a sudden stab of longing… a hope that somehow, in some way, Ledger knew the embrace of grace in his final moments.
Gommora, released this year in a two-disc Criterion edition, is full of scenes that introduce us into the environment and activities of poor laborers in a housing project in Naples. But as we watch each scenario, the pricking in our thumbs spreads. We learn that even the most mundane transactions and conversations are poisoned by the ploys of the Cammora, Italy’s dominant crime network. And then, its style – almost cinema verite – becomes something more like an X-ray, exposing a chilly image of malignant crime and corruption as it spread throughout the body of a culture.
Then, the doctor, director Matteo Garrone, pans back to show you that the disease has spread beyond Italy’s body. It’s contagious. It’s global.
I could point to the brilliance of any number of scenes that illustrate this. Let’s take two:
An old peasant woman carries a crate of peaches to the toxic waste management specialist visiting her neighborhood in southern Italy. He accepts them graciously, and then drives away, only to ask his young assistant Roberto to throw the peaches out.
At first this seems cruel and wasteful. Roberto, heartsick, looks down at the peaches lying in the gutter. And we realize that this isn’t a case of disrespecting the old woman’s gift. No, it’s far worse than that. The peaches have probably been poisoned by the toxic waste dumped in the neighborhood landfill, and they, like the Camorra’s slaves – willing and unwilling – will go on suffering and dying from exposure to their crimes.
The sight of those beautiful, throwaway peaches is one of the film’s few poetic flourishes; everything else is depicted with clinical objectivity. But at that point in the film, a bit of poetry is a welcome pause. We’ve seen so much corruption. And at last we’re allowed, for a moment, to mourn.
In another unforgettable moment, a humble tailor who goes on doing his best despite his corrupt context and inescapable criminal connections glances up at the television and smiles. With pride, he sees that Scarlett Johansson is wearing a dress from his new line as she walks the red carpet. And with that, Garrone quietly daggers us with the revelation that we, watching and celebrating Italian fashions as we celebrate our celebrity culture, are not so innocent of this criminal underworld as we’d like to believe.
Of course, he’s already shown how American media has contributed to this underworld. In more than one scene, brutal youths quote Scarface’s Tony Montana and act out his maniacal machine-gun spray, as if they understand Montana to be some kind of role model. The difference between Garrone’s film and the American depictions of the Italian mafia? Nobody will ever mimic these youngsters’ buffoonish antics. They’ve been shown in the cold, punishing light of truth, and what comes to them is not a mansion and a Michelle Pfeiffer lookalike, but the wages of sin, unglamorized.
THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX
The raised fist of solidarity between a not-so-civilized fox and the wild beast that he fears.
The marriage montage. Another triumph of wordless storytelling for Pixar’s animators.
John Dillinger escapes captivity with a cellmate’s help. He rips off a fast car and gets past the soldiers that have surrounded the jail without being recognized. At the end of the street, the light turns red. On the corner, soldiers are talking with one another… very close to Dillinger’s car. That red light is so very, very red. One of the soldiers glances toward Dillinger. It seems he’ll recognize him. He doesn’t. Dillinger’s gun is at the ready, but he maintains his composure, as do the sweating co-conspirators in the car. Should he run the red light and blow their undiscovered escape? Or do they wait and risk being recognized? It’s such a simple situation, but oh, this scene is a textbook example of great suspense. You’ll hold your breath.
Three scenes: A mother, overjoyed to have her prodigal son back home, makes a meal for him and feeds him. Two boys, whose backgrounds make their friendship unlikely, work together to repair a stone wall, and the tensions come to the surface. And, as Mike Hertenstein noted earlier, the long poem – a moment with documentary truth breaks through the filmmakers’ fiction.
A SERIOUS MAN
During a bar mitzvah, a rabbi lifts the Torah scroll. But his arms are trembling at the weight of the law. As the burden becomes too much, he loses his balance and utters an exasperated wheeze: “Jesus Christ!”
The mouse circus – easily my favorite 3D moment of the year, including all of Avatar. But the moment when the night garden comes alive with beautiful, luminous dangers is just as enthralling as anything on Pandora.
Robert Duvall’s performance as the old man was the highlight of the film for me. “When I saw that child, I thought he was an angel.” I love Cormac McCarthy’s book, but I wanted to follow this character on his journey instead of continuing on with the father and the boy. The makeup artists gave Duvall the face of a man who has truly seen the end of the world. What a magnificent ruin.
Lorna and her husband Claudy enjoy a fleeting minute of childlike play, as he circles her on his bicycle. For a short while, they are truly free. It’s one of the most unexpectedly spirited and delightful moments in the Dardennes’ grim catalogue.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
In a moment of overwhelming Freudian implications, the wild thing called KW (Lauren Ambrose) protects young Max the only way she knows how: She swallows him whole. As he huddles in his womb-like hideout, KW argues with the raging wild thing called Carol, the one whose friendship has turned to fury. Suddenly, I was gripped with the realization that Max might be coping with painful memories of his father who has been missing from the film. Did his mother stand between him and a dangerous, abusive man? Does this have something to do with why he is so glad to see his mother again at the end of the film?
In one scene, Keats tells Brawne how to read poetry. He says, “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
It’s a very rare occasion that a movie soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery. This one does.
United in spirit, John Keats and Fanny Brawne are drawn back from a romantic stroll by Fanny’s younger sister Toots. As Toots leads them, the child seems tense and strangely giddy, as if she’s dutifully drawing the lovers back from some inappropriate dalliance, but also overjoyed by her discovery. And every time she looks back at John and Fanny, they freeze in mid-stride and pretend to be statues. She walks a little farther, then glances back, hoping to catch them, but again they freeze.
It would seem like a throwaway moment for filmmakers with a contemporary sense of urgency, but by taking her time and swimming around in the beautiful space of her story, director Jane Campion finds moments that bring this love story to life and make us fall in love with these tragic romantics. The movie’s full of small wonders like this.
I may have to come back and add more as I think back through the year…
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.