New York Film Festival 2008: James Benning’s RR and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky works because the outlines are banal but the performances are phenomenally lived-in.

New York Film Festival 2008: RR and Happy-Go-Lucky
Photo: Miramax

Hello. My name is Vadim Rizov, and when we hit October I’ll be celebrating six months of full-time free-lancing; the post-grad malaise is lurking somewhere, no doubt, but has yet to announce itself. This is kind of a minor miracle, given the well-publicized woes of the critical world, and even though I’m way below the poverty line and living more-or-less subsistence level, I’m perfectly happy to have made it so far. And so, for the first time since I’ve arrived in New York, I’m both fully accredited for the New York Film Festival and able to attend the press screenings without skipping class. Alas, I have to skip out for a week to go on a road trip, but otherwise I hope to be shooting back more-or-less coherent daily dispatches as a kind of personal victory lap. The NYFF press screenings—which began this past Friday and continue well into the festival—almost constitute a weird, parallel festival. It’s great fun if you know fellow attendees, just like every other festival, so forgive me if the dispatches don’t reflect the atmosphere of NYFF public screenings in all their harried and formal glory.

James Benning’s RR is part of the avant-garde sidebar rather than the festival proper. My experiences with the a-g are a mixed bag; Benning is one of the few whose work I can definitely say I get. Here’s a litmus test: if you can groove without problem on Béla Tarr, you’re already 3/4 of the way there. Just get ready to forgo plot entirely and live entirely on staggering framing. Even more a-g averse types have grudgingly endorsed him. I’ve only seen one other of his films (2001’s Los, which lurks on that year’s top 10 list even above Gosford Park), in part because Benning, fearing lousy transfers, only lets his 16mm films be screened in 16mm. RR is his last foray into the medium: increasing costs mean he hopes to soon be working in HD. What a way to go.

RR is 43 static shots of trains crossing through the frame: with a few pointed exceptions, shot duration is determined by the time it takes the train to enter and leave. Shot #2: a procession of white and orange cars crossing a scrubby landscape, like a color card test writ large. #3: a train crossing a bridge over the Tennessee River, so tiny it becomes irrelevant to contemplating the water: ripples that come and go, reflections your eye can only gradually pick up on. #4: a railway crossing through a suburban neighborhood, the passing train reflecting on the house that takes up most of the frame as a bored driver fidgets, waiting to cross. #5: a train crossing through the desert, gradually stopping to become an immovable wall. #8: just as you begin to get a feel for a small town’s deserted layout, a train obstructs your view; you can’t see what’s going on for the industry, though blank trains that should be carrying autos provide both glimpses and moving frames to view the town through.

The stills in the link above can’t really convey the majesty of what happens: Benning is easily one of the ten best visual thinkers working today, period. There’s not a single redundant frame in the entire film: every shot finds a different angle/distance/composition. Sometimes scale is majestic; sometimes the train rushes up close in an epileptic blur of flashing colors; sometimes two trains overlap with such interlocking precision that, as ludicrous as it sounds, it’s a Mamet-level shock. Sound is key: sometimes trains disappear into the vanishing point, with the noise an unreliable indicator of how far away it is exactly. A brief speck crossing the sky at one point isn’t grain: it’s a bird, and it’s so close to beyond the focal point that it takes incredible concentration to keep up with it before it literally disappears in thin air. There’s a lot of deserted landscapes reminiscent of There Will Be Blood, and RR actually has the scale to be sporadically almost as overwhelming.

Part of what’s going on here is similar to the feeling I get watching Playtime: the longer you’re forced to stare at a frame initially taken for granted, it becomes clear that there’s a great deal going on in even the blurriest corner. RR points out your fundamental inadequacy at processing visual information (and, of course, if you can’t even process static shots, how in the world can we take in daily life?). Worse yet, it’s impossible for the first few seconds of any shot to tell how much time you have: will a train come in and wipe out half of what you want to see? Will the shot end before it’s even really started? Benning makes you pick and choose your visual priorities. It’s exhilarating, and as engaging as any narrative.

I’m not as crazy about RR as Los, mostly because Benning’s politics are amped way up here. “Subtleness is key to his cinema,” per Mark Peranson, but even if “Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land,” including a verse about private property that Benning notes was “mysteriously dropped,” speaks volumes,” it’s still Woody Guthrie singing a song about private property. The final shot is an all too clear statement—one I happen to agree with, as a matter of fact, but which ups the didacticism. Benning has long been noted as a committed political thinker, but I can only just keep up with him visually; the message seems leaden alongside. And yet: I can’t help but suspect that this may well be better than at least half of the festival slate. If you’ve never seen a Benning film and you’re patient, this seems a good place to start.

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky hasn’t screened yet, but I’m going to dispatch it now to save myself trouble later (it’s the only pre-festival screening I caught, more fool I). I’m hardly an authority on Leigh (I’ve seen three other films: the TV-film of Abigail’s Party, which is brilliant, Four Days In July, which is not, and Vera Drake, the widespread love for which I found largely inexplicable), so I don’t know how this stacks up in his canon, nor whether the much-debated issue of Leigh’s penchant for slipping into caricature (which he of course denies) is aggravated or remains constant here. Let’s be clear: this is every bit as schematic in conception and execution as its detractors say, introducing a seemingly unbearable character—Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a cheery sort who chats up and badgers everyone she meets with blithe disregard for their willingness to engage—then systematically makes us admire her more and more for two hours.

It’s a blunt lesson in humanism, giving her an incredible foe in xenophobic, paranoid and generally nutty Scott (Eddie Marsan), the kind of guy who over here would go down and patrol the border with the Minutemen while babbling about strong militias and white pride. It’s like pitting a Nick Hornby heroine against a straight sociopath and watching what happens. It’s, in short, tempting to cover my endorsement with a bunch of caveats and deprecations. But I don’t think that’s necessary: for all its surface innocuousness, Happy-Go-Lucky builds to a climax that’s at once utterly predictable and deeply moving. It kind of ruined my day.

It works because the outlines are banal but the performances are phenomenally lived-in: Poppy initially comes off autistic, but by the end of the film she’s actually relatable. Bantering with girlfriends and family, Leigh sketches out all the connections of Poppy’s life without ever spelling it out, building to an emotional intensity and grim reality that both Poppy and the film seem initially incapable of confronting or acknowledging. This is arguably the first post-7/7 film: if Poppy is the kind of blithering Brit that made Bill Bryson’s ignorant fortune (the kind of self-congratulatory, oh-we’re-so-lovably eccentric crap that doesn’t remotely begin to address contemporary UK life), Scott’s not so far from the xenophobic skinheads of My Beautiful Laundrette. Their reactions do more to acknowledge problems of cultural assimilation and conflict in the UK than anything in recent memory—but one-on-one, so deftly it may not even register. There’s not much to summarize: Leigh’s tour of London and outlying suburbs (aside from a stagy confrontation with a homeless schizo, seemingly imported from an allegorical student film) has nary a false note, even as it delivers all its humanist revelations on schedule.

The New York Film Festival runs from September 26—October 12.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Vadim Rizov

Vadim Rizov's writing has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Time Out, Sight & Sound, The Village Voice, The A.V. Club, Reverse Shot, Little White Lies, and other publications.

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