Wednesday, April 23, 2014
You Missed It At Cinema Village: Soft In The Head/ The Spectacle: India Song
No great acting, no great dialogue, no insights, no comedy, no nice shots. Cringing drama, muddled editting and pacing, a lack of any recognizable setting, a lack of questions, answers, ambiguities other than those produced by the failings of the script and continuity editing.
Soft In The Head is about an self-destructive alcoholic, Natalie, who leaves an abusive boyfriend and ends up on the street. She's taken in by a Christian man who runs a halfway house out of his apartment. The other residents are inarticulate men who struggle to make sense of one another and take each other's neurosis seriously (perhaps inspired by the author's experience sharing an apartment with other New Talkie filmmakers?) Nathan is an emotional cripple who lives with his overbearing Jewish parents. He falls in love with Natalie, who is his sister, Hannah's, friend. Natalie brings chaos into all of these relationships and settings.
That almost sounds like a story worth telling - millennial losers whose challenge, at the end of their drama, is how they can tell their story, which is seemingly so unrelatable and unsympathetic. Nathan Silver's failure to formulate such a narrative underlies the weight of the issue he took on as a filmmaker. The more one squints, the more the project seems worthwhile. One does have to admit Silver has some courage. It does have the merit of being a movie, of having been made and exhibited. This courage should not be ignored. Kickstarter made this movie, and at the end of the day we can say Kickstarter made a movie, a movie that plays by its own rules, that invests itself in its own concerns with its own resources and its own ideas about what a film should be.
...no one is doing Nathan Silver a service by feeding him praise for the slight charms of his films (judging by where I've started and where I might finish, with this, his 6th film). His better friends would be doing him a favor by telling him this isn't working out, that his movies suck. Such an inability to recognize bad work even in and especially in the independent film community (the cult of NoBudge, Filmmaker Magazine, et al) invites bad behavior, invites authors who are only making work to push and test one sensibility and that's the patience of their small audiences. There is more to art cinema to this. To test an audience's patience you should be offering them something profound in return and not just quotidian stories about your desperation or your boredom without the craft to make that story art.
My double feature yesterday included a Marguerita Duras's India Song at The Spectacle on the way home. I'm hesitant to write about this film. I need to see it again (somehow, The Spectacle apparently had some of her films translated itself for these screenings) but I will say that it was one of the most painful viewership experiences I ever sat through and every single second of it was worth it. It was like what well-meaning, casual cineastes are told Bela Tarr is. Duras likewise demands patience, demands all of the best faculties of dedicated, involved viewership - but with a payoff Tarr can't manage. Tarr just has the empty spell of his ceremonial gait. Duras is the real deal.
I've never seen a movie this slow in my life. The character wander through every scene at the pace one watches the sunset change color (as we do in the opening shot). The camera wanders just as slowly over vistas of the Ganges and the beautiful mansions and hotels French colonialists set up there. The monumental aspect of great paintings, the weight of the strokes that you only really see in a gallery in front of a Whistler, a Klee, or a Jospeh Albers is here in this movie as these characters move through the hell of the jungle heat that weighs on every step, every gesture. The movie didn't buy me, I paid for it for the whole 112 minutes. What I bought was a movie that lingered for a day afterwards.
After a Bresson marathon, one starts watching people's backs and hands for maybe an hour afterwards before life in the city resets its own rhythm. After India Song I felt like I had won some decisive victory over that time made with all the gears city life turns against you - the sidwalk pace, the velocipedicidal taxis, the cold, sterile pop music everywhere and all the time. Duras likewise uses the pain of ceremony, the boredom of church, the acrid incense and the Latin, but in return for a life for images that could have life nowhere else in this world, for the real miracle.
Duras spends much of the film meditating on nudity, necessitated by the heat as much as the passions of the characters. A bare hand on a bare back exposed by a backless dress, the dancing couple turn and we the fan she holds on his back, it rhymes the negative space of her clothes that exposes her, but negligibly. In another scene three characters slowly find their places in a tableaux vivant: the three are fanned out, the woman on the floor with one breast exposed, a man propped up on his side with peck and nipple exposed through his shirt, and then a third man who has taken off his shirt sits beside them: a woman's passion in her own flesh, the lack of its mirror in the man she loves, and the pathetic desire of a man who both wants to play the game (a liberal attitude toward the heat) but who pushes it too far because he loves too much. He provides something for the female gaze that the middle man denies, but that denial is his power over her. A third man comes who I think is her husband and then he starts crying (I'm a little fuzzy on this part, which is why I need to see it again).
America's experience with The Criterion Collection and American film schools has left American film fans (and filmmakers!) with this perspective on cinema's experience across time and cultures: that if you can sit through a boring movie, there's something worthwhile about you. If you can make a boring movie, even better.
If the content of Nathan Silver's film had been removed, like a MadLib, the story of the films author, it's production, and distribution would be a hopeful one: someone wants to make challenging movies, some people want to help fund them, and some theaters still want to show them. When we remember the content of the film, though, we see that we still have a long way to go before we grow up as filmmakers and cineastes in America.
I don't think we need our Marguerita Duras necessarily, but if we want a vital cinema when need to know who she was and what she did. Filmmaking is so much like magic - cheap, dinner theater magic. How a great scene is really made needs a certain kind of study, a certain initiation, an understanding of inside jokes, an ability to talk to and about other films...
The opportunity is here, but people like Nathan Silver have to start doing their homework and they have to find something to care about, even something simple, but something cinematic. Hitchcock made movies about the vague menace of bourgeois furniture, Sternberg made movies about beautiful dresses covered in sequins. Wes Anderson is carrying the craft of filmmaking into the 21st Century but he makes films for man and womanchilds, young adults that measure their worth by the great books on their shelves but who've regressed precisely because of what they've read in them, for the ideas they've touched. Only comedy thrives in America. Like a drunk, we have a hard time pulling off sober. Our independent cinema has wilted to regressive pretensions, boring filmmaking with clinical, stenographic depictions of the malfunctions of their authors. No Parting Glances, Faces, Killer of Sheep, Poison, She's Gotta Have It, or Out of The Blue's here.
Not all films have to ask the same question, but if we asked the question, "Is life worth living?" even the darkest dramas of any list of great films could answer affirmatively. Only boring films struggle with this question. Life is still worth living after The Mother And The Whore if only for the scene when Jean-Pierre Leaud tells his story about walking into a cafe full of crying young people: tear gas used on protestors during the 1968 student rebellion. Life is worth living after Blue Velvet if only for the musical numbers - Isabella Rossellini's "Blue Velvet," Dean Stockwell's "In Dreams," and Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern slow dancing to David Lynch/Angelo Badementini/Julee Cruise's "Mysteries of Love." India Song fits this criteria, Soft In The Head does not. It could, and that's it's crime.