A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

In Elena, Family Becomes Nexus of Class Warfare in Putin’s Russia

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a wonderfully shot, perfectly acted Russian drama, Dostoevskian in its moral poles and Chekhovian in its refusal to resolve them. Placing the viewer smack in the middle of the two classes of Putin’s Russia—the sleek rich and the crumbling poor, with nary a middle class between them—the film embodies with play-like economy the competition between forces of greed and the bonds of family, a struggle the latter can’t even hope to win.

Elena is a middle-aged former nurse who, late in life, has married up to a wealthy businessman she once cared for and now lives with in his modern condo; she dotes after him, he does a bit of ordering around, but they have a couple of scenes together that convey, if not the romance of a first marriage, the genuine affection of a second. But Elena’s family did not rise out of poverty with her; she brings them money in their slot of an apartment, stacked somewhere in a dilapidated building that looks like it might one day fall like Communism. Elena’s son has had two children of his own, accidentally, and the eldest is in danger of being sent to the army or prison if someone doesn’t pay for he and his woeful grades to go to college.

Elena and her husband Vladimir argue continually over whether he is expected to support her deadbeat relatives, but nothing is decided before Vlad has a heart attack. Rather than see the benevolent light and come around to Elena’s family, he instead gets a visit from his decadent daughter, Katya, a lissome animal who’s lived off his wealth her entire life while cultivating a bored appreciation of what Vladimir calls “the pleasures of life.” She tells Elena she doesn’t “give a flying fuck” that her father nearly died, but once in his presence the two reconnect over an essentially capitalist worldview of which both, in their own ways, are virtuosos: he has relentlessly earned money at the neglect of all else, while she has luxuriated in his profits long enough to know that money is all that matters, however much she faults him for believing that to the point of having ignored her. Father and daughter do not like each other, but they are of a piece: they have mastered Putin’s Russia while Elena and her kind have not, and this Darwinian verdict overtakes all else.

At home, Elena is reduced back to her servant role, preparing Vladimir’s meals and medications, but when Vladimir begins to compose his will, his decision about who gets all his money, his wife or his daughter, has already been made. Indeed, it was never really in question in this post-Communist society. Elena is ultimately a film about how class divisions—which Russia had tried, in name at least, more than any other country to eradicate—re-form in what Marx called the “reproductions of the means of production”: the family and all its tiny dramas. For all that Marx presented wide-lensed histories of dialectical materialism, he knew well that capitalism perpetuated itself every night in the home as much as it did across centuries in the factories. And if class divisions could be found at home, so too could class warfare, something Vladimir should have thought more about as he yelled his wife’s name across the house to bring him more coffee or close the blinds. When Elena warns him that one day “the first shall be last,” Vladimir, his will half-written at his side, rolls his eyes at the tired Biblicism, not knowing it will be one of the last movements he makes.

This is all executed without a moment of didacticism, though the characters do stand around having existentially-bare discussions about class and the pointlessness of breeding and that old standby, What It Means To Be Russian. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin’s taut script, in which not a word is wasted, can take partial credit for this, as can the patient, confident cinematography. Yes, this is the type of film in which the camera lingers on a twig or chair or a table corner for > 10 seconds, and if you need “Top Chef”-esque jump cuts or else you break into apoplexy, this film may not be for you. The slow shots exude pretension at first, but they frame the action well, establishing us in the still, quiet world of day-to-day life so thoroughly that we feel trauma’s interruption as intensely as the characters do.

But within this narrowly-staged drama, the onus is ultimately put on the actors to convey the emotional complexity of their characters, and both Nadezhda Markina as Elena and Elena Lyadova as Katerina achieve this with aplomb. Lyadova portrays with relish the feisty intelligence lurking just beneath her sleepy, trust-fund facade, often through nothing more than a knowing look as she curves her supine self over the shape of a couch.

But Markina is so committed to her character that she seems at times to even surprise herself. As Elena prepares herself for her cataclysmic crime, Markina walks across the house she’s been living in for the past two years and nearly trips on a step. Elena would have known that step was there—she’s not only lived in the house but cared for it, and no doubt could draw a blueprint of it with her eyes closed. But the character, about to commit an horrendous action, is in unprecedented territory, and the step that she’s probably made one million times before suddenly trips her up. Little moments like these make the studied cinematography go down more smoothly, which is pretty much the definition of an actor carrying a film.

Elena is not perfect. It ends abruptly, both in Chekhov-like ambivalence and before the story feels complete. It’s also a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism: the flame of a candle Elena lights for a saint while praying for Vladimir to recover is repeated later in a sinister, guilty glow when she burns an important document; the power goes out in her family’s apartment, and a scene later her grandson, the one who so needs into college, starts a fight with and then gets pummeled by some thugs in front of the very power plant that cut off his family’s electricity. These symbolic rhymes make the film cohere, but too heavy a reliance on them undercuts the verisimilitude of such moments as when Elena strikes a match to burn the documents and misses on the first match. (What a great detail: doesn’t every first match go out before you light what you need to light?)

But these are minor quibbles. Elena so wonderfully throws us into a moral miasma, at once headline-specific and timelessly allegorical, that not only are the miniature faults forgiven but forgotten as the drama unspools itself. In the last shot, we see an entirely new family forming in Vladimir’s old living room, and indeed the dialectic of Vladimir’s wealth and Elena’s poverty do seem to have created something new. But, as Marx would tell you, this is hardly the end. In fact, he would say the violence of a few minutes before more likely marks what’s in store for Russia as it transitions into a rigged, atavistic brand of capitalism, one that will bring increasing strife between classes until crimes like Elena’s will seem less a private shock than history acting itself out.

Linklater’s Bernie Turns A Fascinating Murder Story Into A Shallow Romp

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

Bernie, Richard Linklater’s newest film, is an odd, disjointed, always fascinating but ultimately shallow movie about Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a mortician and town vivant in Carthage, Texas, who inexplicably takes up with a nasty widow twice his age and then just as inexplicably murders her. The film is based off a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth (who shares screenwriting credit here), and has all the elements of drama except the drama itself.

Two enigmas swirl about the film, the first Black’s Tiede, an eccentric, gregarious, Christian and possibly gay assistant funeral director for whom the entire town of Carthage swoons. He sings like an angel at church, dispenses tax advice to his blue collar buddies, and goes above and beyond for the widows whose husbands he prepares for the afterlife.

Bernie meets his biggest challenge in Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a modern-day Faulkner figure who terrorizes Carthage as the tight-fisted owner of the town’s central bank. Bernie refuses to be rebuffed by the widow, and before long he draws her out of her house, and then is taking trips and cruises on her dime. But as Bernie is accepted into her home and purse, he finds her complex of dominance intractable: no sooner is he in her will than he’s also in her command. Being Marjorie’s servant is too much even for the cherubic Bernie: he puts four bullets in her back and hides her in her freezer, preserving her body until he can give it the burial he, as a professional mortician, knows it deserves.

Bernie is as fascinating a protagonist as one could hope for, but we never get any insight into why he so doggedly pursues the widow, especially once his Christian generosity succeeds in overcoming her crusty facade. Black is a poor choice for the lead; everything that makes him a gifted comic actor—that incessantly mugging face, his ironic knowingness—destroys him as a dramatic one, something that’s been on display ever since he spun like a top through the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Here he plays Bernie like John Waters’ vintage store owner in theSimpsons, as if he just can’t get over how dang quirky his own self is, and it layers a patina of self-awareness onto Bernie the man couldn’t possibly have possessed. Even when Black, a talented vocalist, takes the mic at church, there’s an element of Tenacious D-level ham that makes us doubt the sincerity of the character whose sincerity is the very point of the film.

Shirley MacLaine does a much better job as Marjorie, but is restrained by her underwritten character. Marjorie Nugent is the second enigma of the film, as much a screen for the projection of the town’s suspicions and prejudices as the shut-in of Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” But the film refuses to plumb her depths as well. We don’t know why she’s mean; why don’t know why she’s estranged from her family; we don’t know what leads her to treat Bernie the way she does, either when she makes him the first person she allows into her life in years, or when she makes him pay dearly for that allowance. There’s a wonderful scene in which Bernie pleads for Marjorie to stop chewing her food so much, the one pet peeve of a soul who, as a bit character puts it, just doesn’t know how to tell someone to “piss off.” The mischievous joy in MacLaine’s face as she continues to chew the bite and pointlessly torture Bernie is the best moment in the whole film, its one true investigation into the nature of power and cruelty that the rest of the movie merely references.

As for the rest of the movie, it strikes an hokey tone more in key with Black’s mobile eyebrows than MacLaine’s wily intelligence. Wacky banjo music plays under the townspeople’s more-Texas-than-Texas aphorisms, and as much fun as the film truly has in exploring small town idiosyncrasies (one man says Texas is really five states, then goes on to list seven examples), this rompish feel makes for a disjointed tone most reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s uber-strange The Informant!. That film was more interested in participating in its hero’s solipsism than exploring it, and the result was an uneven match of tone and subject, a lighthearted jape that undercut the tragedy of its delusional protagonist. “Isn’t this so much fun?” the movie seemed to be saying, even as lives quietly dissipated.

The same problem haunts Bernie. The entire drama is taken as a quirky escapade; the movie ends on such a note of whimsy that you leave the theater without completely understanding that a sincere and generous person has been put in prison for the rest of his life after betraying his faith and morality by shooting another human being.

Texas Monthly is supremely adept at striking the right balance between their state’s big-haired baroqueness and the gruesome crimes that unfold there. But film adaptations have had trouble capturing the combination. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s The Client List began life as a Texas Monthly article; Jim Carrey’s character in the excruciating I Love You, Phillip Morris was a regular feature in the magazine’s Bum Steers list. Both of those films failed in greater degree than Bernie, but for much the same reason. Everybody is having a zany good time—and Skip Hollandsworth, whom I’ve seen describe stories in editorial meetings, always has a zany good time telling them—but they seem to be taking the drama for granted. Bernie turns Bernie Tiede’s tragedy into a sort of adventure, and in doing so deprives him of the dignity he so righteously showed his corpses. The last time someone treated him that way, he shot her dead. Shouldn’t we take that seriously?

Damsels In Distress Needs To Be Saved From Itself

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

“Nobody talks in real life the way they do in your novels,” the psychologist William James once said to his novelist brother Henry, who promptly responded, “Perhaps they should.”

Nobody in real life talks as they do in Whit Stillman’s world, either, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to make James’ recommendation that they should. If that seems an overly literary reference for Damsels in Distress, a light collegiate comedy, you’ve never seen a Whit Stillman movie: in his debut Metropolitan, a tightly-wound satire of UES preppies, two characters have a sustained argument over Lionel Trilling’s reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. This is Stillman’s level, and at his best his movies are whimsically cerebral.

Damsels in Distress, unfortunately, is neither. The film is set at the fictional-but-steretypical Seven Oaks College, somewhere on the eastern seaboard, and follows Violet (Greta Gerwig), a Miss Manners throwback who finds the smell of frat boys insufferable, treats depressed students at the Suicide Prevention Center with tap dancing, and berates the sanctimonious editor of the school paper for his faux-rebelliousness.

Violet has an entourage, though it’s never clear why they follow her. This entourage, as cliques in Heathers-style movies will do, picks a new member from the incoming class, though it’s never clear why they need a new member or why they pick Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a lithe, innocent transfer student whose primary skill is being skinny. Lily thinks she’s found that eccentric group of friends that college has always promised, but soon finds they’re more constricting than interesting, and longs to escape their retrograde morality.

Some quality friction could arise from such a premise, but Stillman is entirely uninterested in developing it, as he seems uninterested in developing any narrative arc whatsoever. Pacing and tone have never been Stillman’s strong suit, but he seems especially unsure of himself in this film, which seemed to have been more conceptualized than written.

Violet, for instance, would be an intriguing character, if she were a character at all. Instead, she’s more an assemblage of Stillman’s kooky ideas, some of which cohere, many of which don’t. She’s obsessed with proper conduct, yet her goal in life is to start a dance craze, more the aim of a reference-heavy hipster in an American Apparel hoodie than a woman besotted by vestigial morals and wrapped in vintage dresses. We find out (there’s no spoiler alert here) that her name’s not Violet, and her personality has been constructed in response to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what could have been an interesting disquisition on the artificiality of moral codes—to what degree is our conception of right and wrong formed by our desires for our own selves?—is dropped before it’s started. Rather, we get a plot resolution involving a bar of soap that seems almost insultingly frivolous.

Violet’s patronization carries so far as to not so much infect as comprise her emotions: she dates a dullard named Frank solely because he’s a dullard and she wants to help him, though she’s never in fact shown to do so. This relationship forms a prime part of the film, but it makes no sense: Violet claims, over and over again, that she’s in love with Frank, but we never see a single meaningful moment of them together, and he continually exchanges her for her hot friends with no repercussions. I tried putting it all together, to fill in the commentary that Stillman wanted me to get from this, before giving up: Gerwig’s character is an entirely intellectual construct, made up of boutique moral choices, not personal ones, and by an hour into the film you no longer care what happens to her, or even understand it.

In fact, by an hour into the film, it’s fallen apart altogether. Entire scenes in this movie seem out of place, not as in morally anachronistic, but as if they were literally edited in the wrong order. Characters act one way in one scene, another way in the next. The girls exchange lovers not out of the confusions and paradoxes of desire—as in The Importance of Being Earnest, which this film clearly aspires to be—but in response to some off-screen logic, to the point that who’s dating whom seems arbitrary. Nobody maintains an emotion for longer than scene; anybody who feels hurt or betrayed gets over it in time for the next comedy piece. Lily and Violet begin a discussion that should form the emotional climax of the film, but it is interrupted after two lines by a running gag of a frat boy who’s so dumb he doesn’t know his colors; when we next see Lily and Violet, they’ve resolved their issues, whatever they were. Actually, we get more of the frat boy who doesn’t understand his colors than we do of any of the main emotional storylines, which tells you everything you need to know about the haphazard and confused approach Stillman brought to his first film in fourteen years.

If there is any reason to sit through Damsels In Distress, it’s Stillman’s rapid, self-aware dialogue, which hints of the smart complexity this movie could have attained. Alas, dialogue can only be as good as the film around it, and Stillman’s erratic approach to his craft often means his lines are left hanging pithily in the ether. In Metropolitan, Taylor Nichols’ constant intellectual digressions were obnoxiously pedantic, but they introduced a defense of the bourgeois as standard bearers of Western tradition, the exact effect that was operating on the film’s proletarian protagonist. In short, the dialogue wasn’t just knowing and twee, but served thematic purpose; nobody, in fact, talks like Nichols’ character, but his point was perhaps they should. But in Damsels In Distress, there is no thematic purpose, and all the sharp Stillman-esque rejoinders in the world can’t recommend it.

The New ‘Romantic’ Adaptation of 1984 Isn’t Even Based on the Book

by evanmcmurry

There are a million reasons to pre-hate the upcoming “romantic” adaptation of 1984 starring Kristen Stewart, but let’s start with this one:

Equals is an adaptation of the 1956 film 1984, which itself was based on George Orwell’s classic novel about rebellion in a futuristic society.

File this away with Amazon’s aggressively ironic deletion of 1984 from Kindles over a copyright violation. It’s a race to see who can best embody the novel’s memory hole in real time.