Sunday, May 25, 2014

Movies with high demands

The cowboy life Flanders-style
"When I go to the movies, I don't want to think.  I just want to be taken out of myself," I hear.   And I think there will be many, many years to not think when you're dead.  Mindless entertainment makes me restless and bored, and too much of it physically nauseates me, especially since it's often built on lies.  Shoot me, but I like a movie or a play to actually be about something more than bringing me 100 minutes closer to my death.

Broken Circle Breakdown (2013-USA) is a tough and a tough-minded movie.  At first sight, it is exhiliaratingly free-sprited and wild, about the careless romance between a sometime phlegmatic Flemish bluegrass musician (he and his pals sing in perfect American English) and a whilring dervish of a tattoo artist, a romance interrupted by pregnancy.  That pregnancy brings joy, then heartache, all reflected through the music in a way that recalls the Irish film Once more than the structure a conventional stage musical.  Tough as that all becomes, the film then ventures into darker areas than you ever thought -- not pessimism or morbidity, but the absolute truth about the way married people can talk to each other and the stupid unthought things they can say.  And the pain that becomes more poignant as there is little or no time to take back the words.

This clip gives you some small sense of how the music plays with and against the image and just how good Belgians can be singing country music.  (Well, Flemish people anyway-- I'm prejudiced, as the Lockharts purportedly emigrated from Flanders to Scotland...)  By the way, the end of this clip is by no means the hardest part of this movie.

But if you like to be challenged, if you appreciate the echo of real life instead of the recycled BS of our commercial myth-machines, you will like this film.  Downer as it is -- and I wept through the last four minutes of the film -- I felt better for having seen it.

One side note:  the most unbelievable thing about this movie is that it has been adapted from a play by the playwright and the film's director.  I cannot see the fingerprints of theater anywhere in this movie-- not in the scenes, the language, the structure, the performances, the music, nothing.  I've never seen the whiff of the footlights so thoroughly eradicated in any other such adaptation.

So often actors think that good acting is theater acting.  Meryl Streep, formerly a fine artist, is spiralling down into a maelstrom of twitches, sniffs, shrugs and counter-intuitive line readings, trying desperately to help the poor crippled script across the street, when in fact plays like DOUBT and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY need no such help, and in fact are marred by Streep's determined eccentricity.

Irene still remembers she loves Craig
She could take a lesson from the clear-eyed, economical and completely true performance of James Cromwell in Still Mine (2012), a film that is Canadian not only in terms of financial resources, but has the kind of unpretentiousness, directness and plain common sense one associates with Canadians.

Based on a true story, it tells of a farmer in his 80s who sees his wife sinking into dementia or worse and decides a smaller, more manageable house for them to live on, on his own property, using wood from timber he owns himself.  The "A story" as they say in television is about Craig's legal battle to build his house his own way, despite laws and regulations designed to protect the unknowing from the unscrupulous, but in this case, barring a man from living his life his own way on his own land on his own terms.  But that A-story is driven by the B-story, the fierce cleaving-together of this unsentimental, but very-much-in-love couple as she drifts away from him.  Fans of independent film might be reminded of Away From Her or the more light-hearted The Castle.  But this film has a clear-sky clarity like the New Brunswick skies it was shot under.

And at the heart of that clarity is the model performance of James Cromwell, playing his first leading role in his early 70s.  Never once do you catch him "acting."  There is no big speech, no big moment in this movie; just a lot of real true human behavior (something you could also say about Broken Circle Breakdown).

Cromwell reminds me of Spencer Tracy here, and his acting is, if anything, even more invisible.  It doesn't get fake-folksy, nor fake-eloquent, but treads that narrow in-between ground of smart but not over-educated people talking about what they truly know.  When Cromwell as Craig Morrison tells what his father, a shipwright, taught him about wood and about building --well, he never uses the word "spiritual" or "soul" but there is a profound, mystical religious quality about Craig's faith in what he has learned and what he can do that links him both to the earth and to the dozens of generations before him.  It is a master class.

There's nothing wrong with stupid movies in their place and time.  But you can't live on marshmallow, and if you'd like some good strong fibre of human life in your movie diet, check out these films.

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