Film Review:- The Safety of Objects (2001)

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Dir:- Rose Troche

Starr:- Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Olyphant, Joshua Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Mary Kay Place

AM Homes is one of the most daring, innovative and skilled contemporary American writers. Her 1990 short story collection The Safety of Objects featured a uniquely surreal, sensuous and serene take on the suburban American experience, that ostensibly dealt with the different degrees of disconnection people need to feel to make their way through a ‘normal’ life. Remarkably it pinpointed ‘ownership’ as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle in many of the character’s lives. Attachment to things, the desire to possess and own, the obsessive need to have, these are the superficial drivers of most of the characters featured within the ten stories. Yet the things that they fixate upon are invariably the things which stunt their inner lives, haunt their waking moments, or prove stubbornly elusive. From a guy called Frank who desperately desires the SUV that is being given away as part of a ridiculous competition in a mall, to a mother of a comatosed son whose desperate need for him to live has blinded her to the toll his miserable existence has taken on her family, these are seemingly ‘normal’ people, who have become reliant on external totems to keep themselves functioning.

The 2001 film based on these stories, isn’t so much an adaptation as a skewered reimagining. Rose Troche, the director of cult lesbian romance Go Fish, takes Robert Altman’s lead and condenses some of the main thematic concerns and characters from Homes’ short stories forming a single, unified narrative arc, of overlapping family concerns. Directly importing some of the characters from Homes’ stories and embellishing on them a little, Troche establishes an insular suburban enclave, a bland island within a bland ocean, occupied by four families (the Golds, the Jenningses, the Trains and the Christianson’s). In an impressive intro sequence Troche presents us with a series of blank white dolls houses, from out of which parade an equally blank and white assortment of dolls. These are representations of each of the families that feature heavily within the story, as well as the gardener and friend of these families, Randy. Three out of the four families are directly connected by an event that has taken place in the past, with tragic consequences for the future. Only the Trains, new arrivals to the neighbourhood, are unaware of what ties the other families together.

Fans of Homes’ stories will recognise elements of plot from each of them, but Troche has done her very best to integrate them so that they adhere to a steady narrative arc, even when, as in the case of the car contest, they appear at their most episodic. Unlike with Altman’s Short Cuts, which had the whole of Los Angeles to play out its interconnected narrative elisions and expansions, The Safety of Objects has far less space to shoehorn all of its disparate stories into. As a result large parts of the film feel overly abstracted, or incredibly forced, mining either Homes’ surrealistic narrative fantasy, or her impressive eye for details that cut to the existential core of a character, but never both of them harmoniously together.

In a bravura twenty-minute opening section Troche cuts between the various different units of the families at a truly dizzying pace, which has the effect of highlighting strongly poetic juxtapositions, such as the exhaling of an orgasm with the inhaling of cigarette smoke, or the reluctant exercise undertaken by one young boy and the inability to move experienced by a comatosed teenager. So much character information rushes past the camera in these opening moments, that it can seem to swamp the viewer down in a chaotic and incomprehensible normality, which is almost certainly what Troche intends. A side effect of this beautifully constructed cinematographic flurry is that the viewer begins to feel their way into the story far more intuitively as the relationships between people become clearer and more apparent. The one family that is awkward in this regard is Dermot Mulroney’s Train family, particularly as Jim’s (Mulroney) wife Susan (Moira Kelly) seems to be a little underdeveloped, as does their daughter Emily (Carly Chalom). By comparison, Jim and Jake (Alex House) are three-dimensional, if highly unusual human specimens. Yet Jake’s piggy-backing on the doll story, although interestingly rendered by the use of an imaginary voiceover and some close puppet work, is nowhere near as satisfying as the genuinely unsettling events of ‘A Real Doll’ – which seem to take their cue from a Roxy Music song. Whilst Jim’s full-blown crisis of confidence manifests itself in the utterly inscrutable coaching of Glenn Close’s Esther Gold, as she tries to win the SUV competition (once again seeking solace in the potential ownership of objects).

These problems of characterisation extend to issues of dialogue, where much of the elegance and élan of Homes’ tightly constructed prose is lost in Troche’s haste to sermonise and explicate her ideas about consumerism and what it means to suburban America. At other points the plot fails to cohere, so that certain characters seemed to be merely gesturing at ideas and motifs (such as Howard Gold’s inability to spend time in the presence of his son, or Bobby Christianson’s bizarre role in the shooting of Jim at the mall). Things often appear messy in the movie, not because the character’s lives are particularly messy, but because the extraneous elements of plot and character haven’t been suitably assimilated and processed. An example of this involves the Gold’s daughter Julie (well-played by Jessica Campbell in an awkward role), who is clearly seen imagining being embraced by her comatosed brother, whilst masturbating on a sun lounger. This is a profound and powerful sequence and yet Julie’s complex relationship with her mother and brother, as illustrated in the fight over possession of the beloved guitar, is never allowed to fully blossom, as perhaps it should.

Although impressively filmed and featuring an excellent cast The Safety of Objects is yet another entry into the increasingly unsatisfying sub-genre of American drama that fixates upon the hidden eccentricities of suburbia, usually as a means to a narrative end. This genre has roots in movies like Mike Nicholl’s The Graduate and Frank Perry’s Burt Lancaster-vehicle The Swimmer. Perhaps the most effective recent entry was Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s superb novel (many of these films have literary sources) The Ice Storm. Whereas that movie managed to play out the incestuous relations between a tight-knit, but cold, group of middle-class American families with a degree of authenticity and poignancy, The Safety of Objects feels much more like the failed attempts at mundane lyricism evidenced in last years 3 Backyards, or the Oscar-friendly Little Children. As a result performances as subtle and restrained as Glenn Close’s get lost in the aimless confusion of the film’s middle section.

A final brief mention must be made for one of the more eccentric choices that Troche makes. In one of Homes’ stories called ‘Looking for Johnny’, a character kidnaps a young 9 year-old boy to stand in for his lost kid brother. This plot is squeezed into the role of Randy (played by Timothy Olyphant) and the kidnapping becomes that of Sam Jennings (a debut performance from a tomboyish Kristen Stewart). Despite the film’s many failures to meaningfully explore some of the dark and sensuous sexuality of Homes’ prose, it manages to do something particularly odd with this plot strand, which as a result of the ambiguous sexual identity of Sam, creates a weird dynamic that doesn’t really exist in the original story, but comes closest to approximating the feel of Homes’ writing. Unfortunately, as with the film as a whole, this interlude quickly comes up against problems of plausibility and, more importantly, a sense of fidelity to what has been revealed of these characters, thus far. Overly ambitious, attempting to both capture the vitality of a very good work of fiction and add layers of emotional depth and insight, Troche’s film sporadically achieves its lofty aims, only for them to somehow break free and prove as elusive as the peace of mind these entrapped characters seek.

Film Review:- Griff the Invisible (2010)

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Dir:- Leon Ford

Starr:- Ryan Kwanten, Maeve Dermody, Patrick Brammall, Toby Schmitz

This charming little Australian comedy-drama from the actor-director who played Edward ‘Hillbilly’ Jones in The Pacific, succeeds by investing its slight and saccharine plot with a stubbornly pragmatic realism. Shot in and around Sydney the film looks at once quirkily surreal and grittily unpretentious. This is a trick that Aussie cinema has been pulling off since Peter Weir sent his cars out to eat Paris, but it’s nonetheless a trick that bears repeating.

Ryan Kwanten, of True Blood celebrity, plays the eponymous title character. When playing Jason Stackhouse, Kwanten is a sinewy, muscled ball of unthinking sexual energy, so it comes as quite a surprise to see him so absurdly restrained, introverted and mannered, as Griff. Working in a dead-end call-centre job by day, Griff spends his nights imagining himself as Sydney’s very own dark avenger. His older brother Tim (neatly portrayed by Patrick Brammall) has had to come back from Adelaide to try to help Griff get his delusions under control. Whilst out at a restaurant one evening Tim meets Melody (played by the arrestingly beautiful Maeve Dermody), a frankly odd young woman, who quickly manages to worm her way inscrutably into Tim’s affections. Whereas Tim is a fairly rational, down-to-earth kind of guy, Melody is a troubled woman who talks in scientific abstractions, still lives with her parents and has the belief that if she concentrates hard enough she can align the spaces between the atoms in a wall with the spaces between the atoms in her body, allowing her to walk through the wall. From the moment then that Melody is revealed to be Tim’s girlfriend it seems unlikely that she is going to end up with anyone other than Griff.

The movie bears more than a passing resemblance to the Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson romantic comedy Benny & Joon. As with that movie the two protagonists of Griff the Invisible are adult-children who are having intense difficulties keeping a handle upon reality. Likewise the relationship between Griff and Melody has the potential to trivialise the rather  more serious problems of mental illness. The mildly predictable nature of the action is, however, almost inconsequential here, as the film is not really about the originality of its plot, but rather the entirely unique detailing of Griff and Melody’s relationship.

During the day Griff works in a dull open-plan, cubicled office, making and answering sales calls, whilst being generally harassed by the office bully Tony (played to odious perfection by Toby Schmitz). His work colleagues see him as being a bit of a ‘weirdo’, whilst his middle-aged boss, Gary (David Webb), tries to give him tips on fitting in (basically, chat more). Ford does a good job of depicting the workplace as a dull, soulless, life-sapping, colour-drained place. In fact throughout the film the use of location and the attention to colour is superb. Sydney emerges as a grimy, post-industrial metropolis, with the constrictive feel of a small-town. Whilst the colours tend toward the bland end of the spectrum, except for those moments when Griff and Melody are engaging in some kind of fantasy play, at which point Ford introduces radiant, bold elements of primary colour (such as Griff’s strikingly yellow rain Mack).

Griff’s home space is likewise muted and worn, although he imagines himself the proud possessor of a hi-tech miniature Bat-cave. Ford does a good job of shifting seamlessly between the alternate planes of reality created by the imaginations of his central characters. Initially the film has the feel of a cheap, knock-off Kick-Ass derivative, until the point where Griff creates an invisibility suit for himself using lemons and baking soda. When the ‘reality’ that is at the centre of the movie so clearly resists indulging Griff’s fantastical delusions, it makes for some absurdly funny sequences (Griff’s being caught breaking into his workplace), interposed between some crushingly harsh reality-checks (the bluntness of the Police Officer’s assessment). Although the film strays frequently into overtly twee terrain, it always leaves itself the capacity to pull back from the brink of all-out-slush, and usually does just that.

The perfect storm that’s created by Griff and Melody’s coming together, forms the crux of the story. Separately they are two oddball individuals struggling to make sense of the world on their own terms. Together they are a deluded force for change, that at times seems capable of redefining reality. During one of their first encounters Melody tells Griff of her theory about people happening to exist upon multiple planes of consciousness. Later on she demonstrates to Griff her commitment to her particular take on existence, by telling him about how she does surveys about surveys and protests against protests. These self-contained little assaults on ‘normal’ behaviour, or upon the mundanity of life’s possible options, strike a chord with Griff, who, more than anything, requires a sense of an audience to make his fantasies a more plausible ‘reality’. Despite the narrowness of the film’s concerns, it does actually raise some thoughtful points about when normalcy becomes mundanity, and how ‘normal’ can become an almost totalitarian term of confinement, restriction and limitation.

To some degree Leon Ford succeeds in making Griff the Invisible just about strange enough to justify its main themes. He is aided and abetted in this task by the gently, goggle-eyed scattishness of Dermody’s performance and the utterly convincing turn by Kwanten, who never quite lets the audience accept he’s just a loon. Alongside these strongly textured central performances there are  some wonderfully dead-pan supporting turns, which is where the movie derives much of its quiet power in the final third. Ford is still capable of the occasional misstep, using that tired old whore of a cinematic cliché, which is the visual representation of a character’s thoughts of violent rampage. However, overall this is a downbeat, quirky and wilfully obscure little offering that might well develop a suitable cult following in years to come, particularly amongst like-minded “experimentalists”.

Film Review:- Public Speaking (2010)


Dir:- Martin Scorsese

Feat:- Fran Lebowitz, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Serge Gainsbourg

Having finally won his Best Director Oscar, Martin Scorsese could be forgiven for sitting back and surveying the cinematic scene, assured of his place as the grand old master of American film. It is intriguing then to see that now Marty literally has nothing left to prove, he is proving insanely busy, particularly in the documentary form.

As far back as 1974 Scorsese had taken to the cinematic medium of documentary with an unbridled joy in photographing conversationalists doing what they do best. Italianamerican, one of Scorsese’s best films, was a 50 minute short feature that examined the home life of Scorsese’s parents Catherine and Charles. It’s an excellent film because it is a deeply personal trawl through Scorsese’s heritage, that focuses on the oral present and the infectious chatterbox personality of Catherine. It also manages to clearly demonstrate where Marty developed that machine-gun, staccato delivery that has served him so well in his histories of American and Italian film.

In terms of documentary style Scorsese has given over a lot of time to conversation in his movies. Aside from the concert films that he has made, the large majority of his documentaries are simple talking head set ups, that embrace a raconteur, or gifted storyteller and find a comfortable setting in which to wring every last anecdote, or bon mot, from them. All the way from his 1978 encounter with road manager and yarn-spinner Steve Prince (American Boy: A Profile of Steve Prince), which took place in a hot-tub, through to yet another personal exploration of a cinematic icon in his archive-footage assembled Letter to Elia, Scorsese has been obsessed with finding people who are excellent verbal communicators and allowing the camera to be seduced by their every word.

It seems odd to think of Scorsese in such terms, given how visual a filmmaker he clearly is, but of all the modern American cinema auteurs Scorsese is perhaps the most beholden to the power of the word. In fact when even considering Scorsese’s features some of his strongest sequences have been predicated on the verbal (think of Steven Prince’s cameo as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver, or Catherine O’Hara’s bizarre neighbourhood watch turn in After Hours, not to mention Joe Pesci’s schtick in Goodfellas). Furthermore, there is a pattern within Scorsese’s films of an anti-hero whose major failing is often an awful inability to verbally articulate their frustrations (Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Travis Bickle – particularly during the embarrassing diner conversation with Betsy – in Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy).

It is clear then that Scorsese holds the art of engaging conversation in particularly high regard, which is why his latest documentary is a real gem. Picking writer and raconteur Fran Lebowitz as a subject would seem rather an unusual thing for any filmmaker to do. Lebowitz is notoriously the writer who has become America’s most famous non-writer. Having published two highly successful collections of satirical essays, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), by the age of 31, Lebowitz has since published only the occasional piece of copy and a children’s book entitled Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994). Yet what has kept Lebowitz floating around in the public consciousness is her non-stop round of interviews, on television or in public institutions, where she exercises her razor-sharp wit and her monumental ability for crafting the sneering put-down.

The centrepiece of Public Speaking is a lengthy interview carried out in Lebowitz’s favourite NY haunt, Ye Waverly Inn. This interview focuses entirely upon Lebowitz, with only occasional acknowledgement that both Martin Scorsese and, most likely, Theodore Bouloukos are engaged in a conversation with the writer. Scorsese then splices in archive footage of various influential individuals (Picasso, James Baldwin, James Thurber), as well as old interviews of Lebowitz and background footage of a public interview hosted by Lebowitz’s friend, the Nobel-prize winning author, Toni Morrison. As with many of Scorses’s previous documentaries there are a few carefully constructed inserts, such as the footage of Lebowitz driving her subtly shaded ‘pearl grey’ Checker car, which references, both musically and visually, Taxi Driver.

Being a New Yorker by choice, having originally come from small-town New Jersey, Lebowitz is also the perfect subject around which Scorsese can continue his own cinematic love affair with the city. The closing shot of Lebowitz wandering out of the Inn and down the street toward the heart of Manhattan allows a breathtaking pull-back view of the bustling modern metropolis, without too many obvious signs of that tourist-culture which Lebowitz has blamed for, in some way, ruining the city. Lebowitz proves an engaging raconteur, someone who has mastered that ability of speaking intimately about inconsequential things, as if they are letting you in on the most scandalous of secrets. Her conversations range across discussions on: artistic creation, genius, consumerism, racism, homosexuality, the gentrification of Manhattan, manners, celebrity, new technology, smoking and laziness. Deliberately adopting a forthright manner of addressing issues, and appearing to utilise the comic timing of a particularly shrewd late-night stand-up, Lebowitz says things like, AIDS wiped out all the interesting people in New York leaving us with fourth-rate thinkers and artists, and manages to get away with it. Her default setting tends toward the outrageously flippant, yet rather uncomfortably astute. At many points throughout the film she reduces Scorsese to tears of laughter, with the director occasionally allowing his head to rock forward into the shot convulsively. Not only does she do this to Scorsese, but her urbane wit has a similar effect upon her public audience, be it at a grad school session, or on a television interview spot. The quips and anecdotes literally roll off of her tongue (which is frequently circumnavigating the edges of her sizable mouth, as if she herself can’t quite believe what tasty tidbit she’s going to drop next) to the extent that by the end of the film they must easily be counted in triple figures.

Like the best of Scorses’s work the film is stylish, but with sufficient substance and depth. As Lebowitz roves over her encounters with Warhol (who she blames for making ‘fame famous’), the influence of Baldwin and Thurber on her work, her experience of the gay scene in 1970’s NY and the creation of Time Square as a mecca of hollow ‘spectacle’ tourism, the viewer is being given an education in the popular and intellectual culture of the very recent American past. One of Lebowitz’s pet peeves is with the overreach of ‘Democracy’ in American public life, which seems to insinuate itself into culture as a destructive levelling force and a vituperative anti-intellectualism. For Lebowitz elitism within culture is a perfectly valid thing, as long as it adheres to an elitism of ability. Democracy should be utilised as a governing principle, but that should be the extent of its influence, else, it is assumed, art ends up becoming artless, discussed with a benign relativism, in which all endeavour is treated equally. When Lebowitz lets fly like this it is hard to disagree with her, particularly when she is fixing you with those mischievously beady eyes. However, certain subjects she chooses to discuss are a little less obviously amenable, such as her assertion that second-hand smoking is most likely a fallacy. Although her ideas about the modern demonisation of smoking are valid, her assumptions about the harm of second-hand smoking seem a little too vested in her own self-interests (something so very Randian in her and in fact so very acceptable, by and large).

Lebowitz is notoriously reluctant to share herself with an audience. Whilst more than happy to talk at length about almost any topic under the sun, she noticeably blanches at giving any significant details about her own life. Yet Scorsese, as a director, knows that he needs to find some point of access to the person. Masterfully Scorsese, by allowing the camera to document everything and then by making certain subtle jump-cuts in editing, manages to elicit more about Lebowitz than it might at first be realised. Early on Lebowitz shares a few select comic gobbets about herself: how she wanted to be a Cellist but ditched that ambition soon after she realised she could never be the best; how she realises that her personality conforms with the negative associations attached to being an only child, because people are always asking her if she was an only child; how her preferred mode of discourse is to tell, rather than to talk. These help to form a picture of Lebowitz, as Lebowitz would like to be seen.

Her domination of the conversation suggests she is happiest when projecting. Scorsese knows this about his subject and he studiously underscores her assertions of self with little sequences that allow the viewer to penetrate the protective carapace of conversation that permanently and animatedly surrounds her. Two excellent examples of this technique are, firstly, when Lebowitz talks about the coldness that wit requires and, secondly, when she talks about the need for the writer to know something. In the first instance Scorsese later inserts a piece of archive footage where Truman Capote talks about the need to apply a certain coldness to something you have felt to be either funny or painful, to enable you to write about the experience, so that others might feel it. This casts some light upon the issues of why Lebowitz may have chosen wit as her particular forte and why she has failed to produce anything of real substance in the aftermath of the AIDS-epidemic. In the second instance Scorsese jumps between the Morrison interview and his own interview seamlessly, with Lebowitz in mid-conversation. This highlights what is often forgotten about someone like Lebowitz, namely the strongly rehearsed nature of their performance. Life and art have been so fully integrated in Lebowitz that she bizarrely comes across as an even more hollowed out husk of a person than the fifteen-minute celebrities that Warhol’s idea factory has spawned.

As incredibly entertaining as her conversations are, it is this slightly bleak note, that Scorsese strikes most often via visual references in the feature, that proves most memorable. The capacious emptiness of Lebowitz’s old-fashioned vehicle seems to accentuate a certain isolation, that is beyond the intrepid posturing of Serge Gainsbourg in his New York USA video. The peripheral positioning of Lebowitz in the Ye Waverly Inn mural, close to an escape route, only adds to this sense of her remoteness being what goes unsaid. At the movies end all Lebowitz wit, style and urbane charm cannot mask the manner in which she ultimately dissolves into the New York street scene, a figure perhaps destined to only ever be of the moment, but never fully in the moment.