Sunday, April 8, 2018

Before the Fest

The last few days have been cold and amazing. The sun is fairly high—more than halfway to its zenith—and the ground will never give off more reflected light than it's doing now. In the summer the sun beats down more fiercely but the vegetation-covered landscape gives nothing back and there's far more humidity in the air. Last week's brightness will be hard to beat.

I was out for a few hours recently, in the midst of that splendor, delivering programs in Robbinsdale for the upcoming international film festival. My first stop was Video Universe, one of the few remaining high quality video stories in the Twin Cities. The young man behind the counter is the same one who was working there ten years ago, and even today he doesn't look to be over seventeen.

"Sure, you can put those fliers in the rack. The Camden Times doesn't own it."

We discussed last year's films as I scrutinized the new video releases displayed on the front shelf: Dunkirk; I, Tonya; Lady Bird.

"Three Billboards just arrived," he said.

"I don't know. I'm not keen on revenge movies," I said. " I hear it's sort of crass."

"Well, nearly everyone I've talked to has liked it."

From there I drove a few blocks over to West Broadway, parked, and walked into the darkened, cavernous hall of the Wicked Wort Brewery, where a young couple was sitting in a booth with a laptop, apparently going over the books.

"Sure, I'll take a few fliers," the man said.

At the sunny café across the street, I said, "What's that smell?"

"Food," the woman behind the counter replied with a smile. She let me put a stack of tabloid-sized programs on the broad sunny sill under the front windows.

At nearby Woellet's Bakery the young woman behind the counter let me put some flyers in the rack. "How can you work here amid such wonderful aromas?" I said.

"You get sick of it real quick," she replied.

At Beyerly's Big Bowl café in the Spring Brook shopping center I worked my way up to the assistant manager, a friendly fellow who was happy to take a few of the tabloid-size schedules. Then I was off to "downtown" Golden Valley, a glorified strip mall with a circular pedestrian arcade leading nowhere and a few benches overlooking a well-landscaped drainage ditch along Highway 55. But they also have a Starbucks and a D'Amico and Sons. Then off to Triple Espresso (right across the street), Mort's Deli (why is the chicken liver $17.99 a pound?) and finally the Golden Valley Public Library, where the librarian seemed eager but hesitant.

"Are there fees involved?" she asked.

"Well, you do have to pay to get into the movies."

"But I suppose it's cultural..."

"It's the greatest cultural event of the year!" I tried to keep my voice down.

Yes, the greatest cultural event of the year hereabouts. But on my way home I got to thinking of the big-time Hollywood film year just past, and how good and varied it was. Everyone is sick of hearing about the Oscar contenders, no doubt, but it's interesting to reflect on how solid, but also how different, are such films as Lady Bird, The Phantom Thread, and The Shape of Water.  

I can now add Three Billboards to the list. I saw it just the other day—a Nexflix DVD that was diverted to us from Hilary's parents on its way back to the post office. I was prepared to dislike it, based on reviews. As I mentioned, I tend to avoid revenge movies and "angry" movies, and I think Frances McDormand is at her best in supporting roles—for example, the mother in Almost Famous or the professor's wife in Wonder Boys.

The gratuitous swearing in Three Billboards took some getting used to; it isn't funny and nobody really talks like that. But as the story developed I found myself being drawn into this odd mixture of soap opera, psychodrama, and morality play, where no one is absolutely right or wrong and we begin to see beyond the logic (or not) of the plot into the crippled dynamic of individual lives. It's a film about grief and loss and guilt and bigotry and bad luck, and forgiveness, and it could have collapsed into absurdity at several turns of the path. Somehow, it kept getting better.

By way of contrast, The Phantom Thread is an exquisite film in which every scene is like a well-constructed and beautiful movement from a string quartet, leading—nowhere.

I was playing racquetball with a friend the other day and The Phantom Thread came up. "What did you think of it?" he asked, with a pained and anxious look on his face. I shrugged indifferently.

"I know," he said. "Why did he make that film?"

Yet The Phantom Thread lingers; it stays with you a little. I wouldn't mind seeing it again. It's less of a romance than a film about mothers (dead) and sons and craft and "the legacy of the past." It shows us a certain kind of life and attentiveness that has always been rare, but was nevertheless further undermined by the arrival of "chic." The New York Times called it the best "food movie" in ages.

Having mentioned how much I dislike angry movies, it strikes me as very odd that the most powerful film I saw last year was The Clash, an Egyptian work that's full of shouting from beginning to end. The entire film takes place inside the confines of a police paddy wagon in Cairo during the unraveling of the Arab Spring.   

We might compare The Phantom Thread to another recent but less well known film, Things to Come.

Both films are dominated by an actor of unimpeachable credentials playing a character of unorthodox interests. Daniel Day Lewis is a dressmaker; Isabelle Hubert is a high school philosophy teacher. Lewis lets nothing encroach on his craft; Hubert, having spent a good part of her career reading Spinoza and Pascal, seems to have developed such a dispassionate approach to life that her husband, early on in the film, announces that he's leaving her for a young Spanish woman. She's not too happy about this, though it seems she's mostly disappointed that she'll no longer be able to tend the lovely garden she created on her husband's estate in Brittany. 

Hubert has been described as "prickly" and "aloof," but she's adept at projecting a variety of emotions at once: distain, confusion, determination, disappointment. Frances McDormand (switching comparisons here) is numbed and jaded by grief and rage; Hubert seems to be adjusting to a new situation with the inscrutable aplomb of a Buddha, though she also has her weepy moments, and most of the time it's hard to tell how she's getting on. 

In the midst of this unsettling situation, her batty mother's health is deteriorating, and  further disappointments await at a meeting with her publisher where she's informed that her anthology of philosophical extracts is going to be redesigned in garish colors for a new generation of students, and her monograph on Theodor Adorno is in danger of being dropped.

Yet the most moving scene in Things to Come takes place near the end of the film in a hospital where Hubert's daughter has just given birth. Both parents are present. When Hubert's ex finally quits cooing at the infant and departs, Hubert says, "I thought he'd never leave," and her daughter bursts into tears.

In all the hoopla surrounding Huppert's performance in another film of 2016, Elle, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, Things to Come got swallowed up. Or maybe it was just that, like The Phantom Thread, it leaves the viewer feeling ... what?   

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