Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madame Tussaud School of Film

A film like Nowhere Boy (2010), the John Lennon portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man film requires the viewer to bring a picture of the artist to the film with them: the filmmakers haven't time for that. But the question is never resolved, and barely even raised as to what the crisis depicted in the film means to the artist and his body of work, which in turn raises the question of the purpose of the film.

In essence, Nowhere Boy is a lower-middle-class kitchen sink family drama of the type Britain started producing in the era of Lennon's young adulthood, the late 50s and early 60s. It is the battle between two sisters about how to live one's life, how to raise a child and how to show love. John's mother Julia is what might euphemistically be called a "free spirit" who was not committed to parenting when he was born. It has fallen to her older, conventional, "responsible" older sister Mimi to raise the boy. Then, in a scene reminiscent of the opening of Kazan's East of Eden, John is invited to walk a few blocks to meet his mother.

The rest of the film settles into a sort-of triangle with John's devotion to rock and roll pushed into the spiritual background. And that is the tug-of-war that pulls this film apart, both from itself and from the audience. Because we want the Beatles. To want to see a film about John Lennon is to want to spend a little more time with the Beatles. But neither the screenwriters have figured how to integrate the development of the Quarrymen with John's choices between freedom and safety as represented by his mother and his aunt, even though such a conflict would seem to be easily extended. In time Paul and George would become as formidable rivals to Mimi as Julia had been, but Nowhere Boy never goes down that road, and the Beatles remain a sideshow in a story which should have pointed to them inevitably.

Curiously, the film does not even attempt to limn the spirit-crushing grey dullness of the rations-and-rubble world of post-war England, as contrasted with, say An Education, in which the heroine's bad choices are driven as much by the constrictions of the greater world of England as by her own family's misplaced priorities. Thus, we miss what a big thing it is for John to attend a private school, to receive a guitar, and then a better one, given the general tightness of money and resources. (His fellow Beatles always scoffed at John's pretensions to working class status, albeit this film demonstrates that the middle class is just as proficient at forging broken families.)

Given that he never has to portray the well-known public John Lennon, Aaron Johnson is free to just be a conflicted and troubled teenager. Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen have no such flexibility as the respective title characters of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2010), a film no more imaginative than its generic title. Despite a promising opening depicting the famous riot at the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," Stravinsky and Chanel are quickly covered in wax by the filmmakers, and we not only don't get a sense of their personalities, it becomes dubious that they even have personalities. Chanel seems to be "about" being cool and unflappable. Stravinsky seems to have acquired a wife and many many children without his knowledge and participation, and has no relationship with them whatsoever. Chanel and Stravinsky are naked at the same time and appear to be having sex although they do not seem to have a relationship other than hostess and houseguest. It is as if the film was made by off-world aliens who observed that humans enjoy proximity but had not bothered to observe why. It is true that Chanel and Stravinsky are known to history as fairly cold characters, but this entire film is an iceberg itself, concealing whatever potential drama there might have been under a ton of costumes, locations and production design. I can't imagine who the intended audience is for Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky; perhaps robots taking an art appreciation course.

I suppose I should offer some observations or analysis of the technique of the film, or perhaps some interesting moment in it, but at this moment, a few days after seeing the film I can remember literally nothing about it to observe. So let's move on, shall we?

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