Saturday, January 9, 2010

Three Winter Films

Supposing you had a hankering to see an off-beat film, maybe at an art-house theater, on a cold winter night when things were looking sort of glum. Your best bet, I think, or at least a very good one, would be Me and Orson Welles. New York theater life circa 1937, with a pleasantly yellowed but still colorful cinematography, one or two romances, and the young Orson Welles at the center of it all, as seen through the eyes of a high school kid who inadvertently lands a part in the Mercury Theatre’s landmark production of Julius Caesar.

Back when I was a kid, Orson Welles was just a name we heard now and again, and wondered why. Then his face began to appear in Gallo wine commercials. When I asked my parents who he was, they described him as an over-rated has-been, a failed talent, and I got the impression they considered him more than a little disreputable, maybe because he was so fat. Nevertheless I was intrigued, and not long afterward, while I was thumbing through an Everest Records catalog, I spotted two LPs that piqued my curiosity. One was of Welles doing his famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and the other had his recitation of selections from Leaves of Grass. I bought them both. Great stuff! I can’t imagine anyone doing Whitman’s exuberant expansiveness greater justice. (I’d put the disc on right now if I had a turntable hooked up.)

I saw Citizen Kane for the first time a few years later in stifling summer heat on a folding chair in the basement of a church in Dinkytown—a 16 mm showing sponsored by the Zanadu Film Society. Though the conditions were not ideal, and the film seemed rather brittle emotionally, it also struck me a powerhouse of narrative ingenuity, and from there was on to lesser delights such as Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai. I came eventually to the conclusion that Welles’s finest films, apart from Kane, were his low-budget versions of Othello and Chimes at Midnight.

Welles was an ass and a ham, and he knew it. His films depict people of a similar stripe who get their comeuppance in one way or another, after they’ve been showing off on stage or screen for an hour or two. This same appealing and unbearable swagger has been captured in Me and Orson Welles by Christian McKay, who also happens to look a lot like the young Welles. But the film has a broader focus than Welles himself, and when you get right down to it, it’s a better film than most of Welles’s own productions. Nothing overly intense or melodramatic, but it keeps on flowing from start to finish. And Zak Efron, who plays the kid, succeeds in acting mature enough to command the attention of his theatrical colleagues while making it clear to us that he knows he’s in a little over his head.

And speaking of coming-of-age films, how about An Education, which follows a few months on the life of a middle-class English high school girl circa 1960 who’s pinned her hopes on scoring well in exams and going to Oxford? Well, in fact her father has been drilling that aspiration into her for years, and she doesn’t really buy it. Through a series of coincidences she forms an attachment with a man quite a bit older than she is, and he introduces her to all kinds of exciting things, from art auctions and jazz clubs to West End concerts at which they play Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro”—harp music, no less! Carey Mulligan, in the role of the young woman, is flawlessly intelligent, cocky, and naïve, and Peter Sarsgaard, as her suitor, is no less successful at conveying the type of artless gentlemanliness that would win someone like her over. Alfred Molina, as the domineering dad, offers a less nuanced performance, which is too bad. (I think back to the dad in Bend It Like Beckam, a much more believable and sympathetic character.) But the center of the piece holds, more than a little weird and mysterious, as the “boyfriend” seems to be involved in a lot of shady business transactions and it’s hard to imagine that anything good will come out of the relationship.

It may be worth noting, matters of romance and disappointment aside, that both of these films remind us that some young people simply love literature, music, art, theater, refined emotion, and all the rest…and find it hard to see where (and why) their elders have lost sight of it all.

Yet both films are period pieces, straight-ahead narratives, wonderfully presented though altogether “conventional” in design. If you’re looking for something more contemporary (and farther from the mainstream) you may be tempted by the new Almadóvar film, Broken Embraces.

Yet it seems that Almadóvar has settled into his own “mainstream.” If you like his earlier films, you’ll probably like this one, though it’s his weakest since Live Flesh (1997). It has all the beautiful women, drugs, homosexuals and/or transvestites, and veneer of cheerful normalcy that we’ve come to expect from him, but it has few of the inspired visual or thematic quirks that add a final touch of absurdity and carry us to the next level. The revelations are not terribly shocking and the emotional valences are sheer “soap.” Penelope Cruz may be the most voluptuous and “watchable” foreign actress of our time but it’s hard to make out much depth of character beneath her lovely expression. (Whatever happened to the riveting sternness of Franke Potenta?) And Lluís Homar, in the role of the screenwriter, is really kind of wooden—even in the flashbacks, when he isn’t blind. Then again, a few of the plot elements remain inexplicable. For example, who ripped up those photographs? Who crashed into that car?

Though it seems that the “La Movida” has finally stopped moving, I must say that even as I describe this film, I start to feel like seeing it again.

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