Thursday, May 29, 2014

The English Patient died...and saved my life

By Steve Evans

I have seen "The English Patient" many, many times, including a press screening in advance of its original theatrical release 18 years ago. I have many smart friends who tell me this Best Picture Oscar winner is overlong, contrived in its emotional manipulation, and deviates from the source novel (as if it is the only film ever to have done so). I respect my friends, though not always their opinions. The English Patient remains on my annual rotation of must-see motion pictures. That means I am coming up on at least my 19th viewing.

Perhaps it's the music, especially Mahler's concertos for piano, that I find so enchanting. Or maybe it's Kristen Scott Thomas and her smoldering carnality. More likely, it's the essential gentle goodness of Juliet Binoche, ripe and erotic, who won an Oscar for her performance as a compassionate nurse whose smile might very well be the cure for cancer. Maybe I relate to the blind arrogance and eventual sad regret of Ralph Fienne's Count Laszlo de Almásy, the English Patient of the title, even though this is a misnomer and he is Hungarian by birth. Or perhaps it's the performance of Colin Firth, in an early role, who plays a grieving, vengeful lover who sets the sorrowful plot in motion.

Whatever alchemy this film may weave over devotees of literate drama, I know only that I have been overwhelmed by the cinematography every time I have viewed the picture. That the blend of images, story and performance moves me to tears every time, even though the film is as familiar to me as a beloved piece of classical music. The notes progress as they must, in precise sequence, moving inexorably to a coda already known.

And still I am moved by The English Patient. It pierces deep into the recesses of my mind, into the places I share with no one. It lives there, now, in my heart. There are moments in this film when I will cry, as if on cue, and I am powerless to stop the emotion. I know this story. I know what's coming. It is the sheer brilliance of the cinematic execution in the telling of the tale that pulls me under its spell. I am powerless to resist the allure of this picture. I could no more look away or deny the power of the film than laugh off the claims of an anesthesiologist who told me to count backwards from 10 and soon I would fall unconscious.

Director Anthony Minghella's greatest film (he left this mortal plane too soon) evokes a precise time and place, and sets in motion a romantic tragedy so profound, that I will throw my cards to the table and say it is the equal of anything I have read by Sophocles, Shakespeare, or even my own impassioned (and not half-bad) gibberish to my soon-to-be ex-wife.

The English Patient is a cautionary tale of choices and consequences. We can still choose to move forward without letting our past mistakes dictate our future decisions, without letting external factors like crazed pilots guide their planes like missiles toward us, determining our fate.

Scar tissue awaits us all, whether from the heat of burning flame on the surface, or the searing heat of emotional anguish within.

The English Patient ends on an epiphany and that devastating, bittersweet smile on the face of Juliet Binoche. If my dear readers may indulge my interpretation of her smile, it is this:

So long as we may live, there is hope. There is now; this very moment, to pause and reflect and decide what next to do. And with every continued breath, there is the possibility of tomorrow, a new day perhaps a little less painful than the night we endured before.

And that's enough.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Wolf" barks, seldom bites

By Steve Evans

Finally finished viewing Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" over three evenings separated by three weeks. My reaction is complex and not a little confused. I salute a 70-year-old director for producing a stylish and rambunctious motion picture that sustains the most unchecked debauchery (three relentless hours of it) that I can recall in a movie, yet tells the story in such farcical terms that I cannot decide whether to be offended or laugh, or more likely, both. Hence, my ambivalent reaction to the film. Maybe the only way to present such repellent material is to treat it as comedy so it becomes more accessible to a mass audience that can buy sufficient tickets for a $100 million film to become profitable (it did). Or maybe I am just old-fashioned. Maybe my conscience influences my thoughts about situations I find offensive yet are beyond my control. Perhaps I am more conventional than I once believed. Or more anarchic than I could ever have imagined.

"Wolf" traces the true story of Jordan Belfort, a charismatic penny-stock broker whose taste for wealth, women and drugs seems obvious after the first three minutes of the film, then continues for hours. His appetites accelerate in ways that only a film with a hard-R rating can explore. Belfort ultimately got busted, ending up serving a couple years in a federal prison for fraud and securities-exchange violations. He avoided a 20-year sentence by ratting out his accomplices. Today he is a motivational speaker.

Less than 30 seconds of research on the web reveals he was paid $1 million by the producers of this film for the rights to tell his sordid tale.

Belfort's brokerage was a boiler room where "pump-and-dump" stock schemes involved pushing cheap, worthless investments on rubes throughout the United States who were convinced by slick salesmen to buy paper that would never pay off. When the stock reached a plateau, Belfort and his cronies sold off, leaving the core investors to suffer the aftermath of junk gone bust.

In his pursuit of the American Dream, Belfort exploited the people most susceptible to the vaporous elusiveness of that dream. As portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, Belfort never gave a damn about the harm he caused. If the film is at all accurate, Belfort was too fucked up on drugs and intoxicated by pussy to comprehend his own behaviors. Even in fleeting moments of lucidity he just doesn't care.

The essential lesson of "Wolf" is that obsessive pursuit of anything (money and sex in this instance), comes at the cost of the soul. This is no epiphany. It is not insightful, beyond the relief that a thoroughly corrupt human being ultimately got his comeuppance, but still finagled a sweet deal with the law and emerged chastened, if relatively unscathed.

In absolute terms, the immorality of the protagonist is never in question: He is a scumbag. While Scorsese is ever-reliable in his flash-bam-pow cinematic style (this movie positively sizzles with energy and bizarre comedy), the story is familiar to anyone who follows the news and the theme seems self-evident to anyone who knows anything about Wall Street.

If the film is to be believed, Belfort enjoyed hiring hookers to shove lighted candles in his ass while dripping melted wax on his bare back. He tossed $100 bills at FBI agents who were investigating his company. He inhaled coke like most people enjoy breathing. He ingested so many Quaaludes that he had to crawl out of a country club. His schemes were so broad and complex that even distant relatives were recruited to launder his money through Swiss banks.

So why should we care? Step back for a second and think on Scorsese's career.

To oversimplify just a bit, "Wolf" is "GoodFellas" substituting guns for Mont Blanc pens. The films explore different worlds, but the motivation within them is still the same as every great Scorsese picture: money, power, sex, drugs, guilt, the hope for redemption. This time the only unconvincing aspect of a Scorsese picture is whether the protagonist truly feels guilt, much less seeks redemption.

Scorsese in his finest hours has been as obsessed and fascinated by these themes as any of his characters who have wallowed gleefully in decadence, madness and self-destruction. Scorsese himself came frightfully close to death in 1979, when a nightmarish addiction to cocaine nearly took his life. Robert De Niro brought to him the project that would become Raging Bull, and Scorsese devoted himself to that film as if it might be his last artistic statement in this life.

Like a moth to a flame, I believe Scorsese is more than just intrigued by these themes that imbue his films. Perhaps he even envies them, but in the case of "Wolf," at least, he cannot commit to a moral position. Still, narrative film is not journalism, in which some notion of objectivity is expected. Narrative film is art, and as an artist, Scorsese until now has always made his stance clear.It is his ambiguity over "Wolf" that makes my own ambivalence more troubling. I just don't believe Scorsese fully understands what he has created. The film was cut multiple times and the release delayed to get the running time under three hours. Maybe commercial considerations tainted the finished product.

Or maybe I expect too much from Scorsese, given his track record of excellence (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, The Departed -- even Casino -- come to mind). I was entertained by "Wolf," often extremely so. But I was not enlightened.

For me, transformation is the essence of great drama. Maybe the intent was to slay me with irony. The protagonist of "Wolf" is a degenerate prick and remains so throughout the picture. If that was Scorsese's goal, to show a man fundamentally incapable of change, then I need to think long and hard about the bleakness of that world view. It is not my vision. I believe people are capable of change. At least those who are not sociopaths.

Is sociopathy the key to success in relationships with people (at least short term)? Is an embrace of this ethical wasteland a crucial component of amassing wealth? Is the ability to prey upon people's weaknesses the path to winning? And if so, what has actually been won? Scorsese's film seems to suggest the answers to these four questions are "yes," "yes," "yes" and, "who cares?"

If these are the answers, my friends, that may be cause to reevaluate my response to modern American cinema. If "The Wolf of Wall Street" is intended as a reflection of the world we live in, a hyper-stylized mirror image of the reality that drives the 1 percent of Americans, then I may be ready to talk a little treason. To tear down the walls.

Truth be told, I am an anarchist at heart. In my most calm and calculated moments, this movie made me want to swing the action end of a Louisville Slugger savagely into the faces of several characters. I was revolted. I wanted to do...something. Perversion, selfishness and utter self-absorption should have no place in a world where people ought to love one another. Does that sound precious? Think that at your peril.

Taken in that light, perhaps Scorsese's bloated look at privileged American decadence may prove its value yet.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Finally finishing the foreign film book

By Steve Evans

After several false starts it's time to finish my book on great foreign films and why watching international cinema can help us better understand the world views of other people -- and consequently expand our own awareness of what it means to be alive. Many experiences in our lives are universal; obviously birth and death, but also love, joy, pain and perhaps, if we are fortunate, we may experience illumination in-betwe
en those milestones. How we perceive these things and respond to them all depends on where we're coming from, our culture, the uniqueness of our individual worlds.

Viewing international cinema is one way to unfurl the canvas of life much wider, allowing us to paint right into the very corners of existence. From this, I believe with all my heart, it becomes possible to cultivate a greater appreciation for our lives by understanding how other people live and perceive their world. Not just for the duration of a film, but long after. My intent with this book is to use the medium of film as an inspiration for pursuing a better life today, in this very moment, and to reconcile our bittersweet acknowledgment of the fleeting hours ahead.

And on that note, I encourage you to watch this three-minute clip from a 1977 Italian film, Allegro non Troppo, a particular favorite of mine. It speaks to the quest for individualism in a world of conformity and emulation. The clip also says quite a lot about self-absorption. Music by the incomparable Antonín Dvořák.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.