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Cannes Film Festival 2008: Changeling, Delta, The Headless Woman, & Che

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Cannes Film Festival 2008: Changeling, Delta, The Headless Woman, & Che

Changeling (Clint Eastwood). Few things over the past week have been more baffling to me than when the solid but deeply flawed Changeling began racking up the most positive reviews of the fest. I’m not sure whether it’s the international press’ tendency to praise Eastwood for anything he does, or whether I was simply too exhausted to recognize that it is, in fact, a near-masterpiece, but there has yet to be another film on which my opinion and the reviews have differed so strongly.

In the first line of his Variety review, Todd McCarthy favorably compares the film to the overwrought Mystic River, which might, despite my inability to see what the hell thematic similarities the films have, help to explain my reservations. Because despite his typically graceful and lovely directorial hand, Eastwood seems, with Changeling, to have embraced his melodramatic side whole-heartedly. Some of the film is beautiful and moving. The rest tends toward the unbelievable and shrill.

The reason for this may be that Changeling is one of Eastwood’s angriest films. The target here is institutional corruption, embodied by the Los Angeles Police Department. Based on actual events, Changeling recounts the story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a 1920s housewife whose child, Walter, is abducted from their home while Collins is at work. After a five-month search, the L.A.P.D. return a child to Collins who they claim to be Walter. Problem is, the child is clearly not her son, and when she complains, the cops send her to an insane asylum in order to get rid of her.

Eastwood is a masterful director, but he loses control of his picture’s tone. For about an hour, he seems to be in top form, but Changeling goes off the rails once Collins is committed. The scenes in the asylum are straight out of a bad horror movie or Girl, Interrupted. Once Collins is released, the film turns into, alternately, a crime procedural and a courtroom drama. Eastwood has proven his adeptness at genre deconstruction before in his anti-western masterpiece Unforgiven, so it is possible that he is executing a similar experiment with melodrama in Changeling. But his overwrought excesses don’t cohere into anything like satire or analysis; they seem instead like the work of a man too passionate about his material to realize that so much of it feels so very false.

Delta (Kornel Mundruczo). I hit a festival wall during the screening of Delta, a Hungarian drama about two long-separated siblings who start an incestuous relationship, dozing off repeatedly throughout its running time. I was awake for enough to get the gist of the narrative trajectory and themes, but certainly not enough to write any sort of real review. So I’ll just say that it’s lovely but very, very slow, and that the relationship between the brother and sister, which draws the ire of their fellow townspeople, seems to function as some sort of allegory for the downtroddens’ resentment of the wealthy. Make of that what you will.

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel). The spare, emotionally distant style that defined Martel’s previous films is stretched to the breaking point in The Headless Woman, which is visually striking but almost entirely unaffecting. Martel’s presentation of her story, about a woman who seems to suffer from some sort of amnesia after striking something or someone in her car, is so bare-bones that the audience is left with hardly any idea what the protagonist’s relationship to the other characters is. Martel’s rigorous formalism remains sharp, but the emotional cohesion of The Holy Girl is all but gone, as is any sense of narrative momentum. It’s hard to care about a character when you know nothing about her, and when nearly every scene of the movie focuses on that character, the result is stifling. The Headless Woman is a look into the psyche of a cipher. What, exactly, is the point of that?

CheChe (Steven Soderbergh). Quite possibly the most anticipated premiere at the festival, Soderbergh’s 268-minute epic biopic is, whatever its flaws, one of the most ambitious and important films from an American director of the past several years. As much an event as a single movie, the still-unfinished version of Che that screened at Cannes was made up of the two individual films that will be released separately in the States.

The first film, The Argentine, covers the successful Cuban rebellion led by Fidel Castro, for whom Che Guevara was a crucial lieutenant. The film cuts between the battle for Cuba and Che’s time as an important member of the Castro government. Controversially, Soderbergh neglects to include—or at least ends before—Che’s work as Fidel’s prosecutor and executor, but the film has little interest in political messages. Rather, it is a rigorous, if somewhat dramatically shapeless document of a social movement and its impact. After a while, the seemingly endless string of similar battle sequences gets repetitive, but Soderbergh’s formal mastery—his preternatural sense of composition, his experimentation with film stocks and other optical tricks—keeps things interesting through the siege of Santa Clara, one of the most thrilling war sequences of recent cinema.

As an account of a successful war effort, The Argentine is structured, both narratively and formally, as a traditional war movie. The images are bright and clear and the presentation of Che the military leader borders on the heroic; it feels like a Hollywood movie, albeit an uncommonly formally accomplished one. On the other hand, Guerrilla, the second film in the diptych, which focuses on the failed Bolivian revolutionary campaign that ended in Che’s death, has its own unique formal qualities. Shot mainly on trembling hand-held camera with a poetic sense for the natural world, it feels at times like a Malickian tone-poem, a depressive funereal dirge for its fallen protagonist. Where The Argentine’s camera is often gods-eye and triumphant, Guerrilla’s is more subjective, more inclined to get up close with the characters as they trudge slowly toward inevitable failure. At Che’s death, we get the first point-of-view shot of the film, as the camera falls to the floor and fades to white.

I’m not sure what I think of that choice, but at least it is one. Che is a messy, challenging, sometimes unfocused work of popular art. It has and will continue to provoke argument, discussion, thought. I’m not sure it’s a great film—for one, I saw both pieces together, where each part reflects and strengthens the other; individually, Guerrilla is the more successful work—but it is a crucial one, from an artist I wasn’t sure would ever do work like this again. Welcome home, Steve. It’s good to have you back.

Since the Festival decided to end the Competition screenings with its worst film (I’m convinced that even Serbis, which I walked out of, is the much more interesting work), that does it for me at Cannes. It was a great but exhausting experience, and I want to thank Matt and Keith for giving me the chance to share it with you. Also, thanks to all the readers and commentators who followed me on this journey. As an aspiring film writer, I feel like a dwarf among giants, a no-name sharing print with some of the finest writers on the web. I hope I held my own okay, and if not, oh well. At least I had fun.

Once more, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.

Matt Noller lives and studies film and journalism in Athens, Georgia. You can also read him at Uh, movies.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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