Norwegian Cinema

December 21, 2005

A Luminous Century: Celebrating Norwegian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre (November 12-29, 2005) is built around the happy coincidence that movies and Norway are both roughly a hundred years old. With titles dating back to 1921, a year after the first Norwegian feature, the series includes films from every subsequent decade, right up to this year’s Next Door and An Enemy of the People.

Like the country, Norwegian films are marked both by an inferiority complex and by otherworldly landscapes. The former often leads to muted stories about thwarted characters: a doctor who quits her practice, a journalist who quits his channel, a young girl who runs away from home. Many of the films in the series share a restrained, almost stoic style that is as pessimistic as their Swedish counterparts. The Betrayal, a 1981 coming-of-age story directed by Vibeke Lokkeberg, wallows in the sort of close-up misery perfected decades ago by Ingmar Bergman. Set in Bergen during World War II, it has something to do with collaborators, failed marriages, a cobbler, a baker, and forty thousand kroner, but all you’re likely to remember are glimpses of the remarkable fjords outside the city.

Many of the directors here shy away from depicting landscapes, fully aware that the average Norwegian background is so majestic that it will drain attention away from almost any story. In his clever updating of An Enemy of the People, director Erik Skjoldbjaerg lets mountainsides, waterfalls, farms, rivers, and the incredible Arctic sunlight nearly upstage his actors. Skjoldbjaerg sets the Ibsen play in a world of reckless television reporters, instant polls, and reality TV, and it makes surprisingly good sense. The original’s Tomas Stockman becomes a media celebrity who hopes to rescue his remote hometown by turning its bottled water into a national brand. Skjoldbjaerg was summoned to Hollywood after the success of his Insomnia, only to become a victim of the Miramax machine with his next film, an adaptation of Prozac Nation. It’s hard to resist reading this film as a metaphor for his career, but is his curt, graceless, extremely smart film directed at us or Norway?

Pal Sletaune was part of a new wave almost a decade ago of Norwegian directors that included Skjoldbjaerg. Junk Mail, a shaggy-dog slacker tale about a mailman who tossed his mail into the garbage rather than delivering it, had a low-key charm. Sletaune formed a production company that helped finance Lars Van Trier’s Dogville. His dank creepfest Next Door veers into the same psychological territory exploited by J-horror.

The older features in the series share a sort of dogged intensity that can be endearing or off-putting, depending on your tolerance for tight-lipped heroes and long-suffering women. The 1921 The Growth of the Soil, based on a the novel by Knut Hamsun, spins out a saga of a farmer and his offspring with a primitive forcefulness. Hamsun, the patron saint of Norwegian literature until he collaborated with the Nazis, perfected a combination of bitter self-loathing and mordant humor echoed by Edvard Munch, as well as by contemporary filmmakers. While the film can’t do justice to the novel’s layers of ambiguity, it is a startling achievement, and again offers unparalleled locations.

More emblematic of the series is Nine Lives, a harrowing survival tale based on David Howarth’s book We Die Alone. It details the amazing if grueling true story of Jan Baalsrud, a WWII resistance fighter pursued across the northern mountains by Nazis. Filmed on the same locations where the story took place, the film, directed by Arne Skouen, holds up remarkably well. The snowy mountains, harsh weather, and unforgiving fjords have a bleak beauty that’s matched by the actors’ stoic restraint. No one mentions the danger posed by Nazi patrols, or why people disappear, or the consequences of one false step, one misplaced trust. Even so, the film answers questions you may not want to know about self-amputation and the intricacies of hallucinations.

The series suffers from its share of clinkers. Betrayal is personal filmmaking of the worst sort. The Ice Palace proves only that Sapphic love can exist in Nordic climes, and of course the pernicious effect of Hollywood on impressionable youngsters who feel compelled to plaster photos of sexpots on their bedroom walls. It’s adroitly filmed, heavily scored, soft-core pornography that poses as an examination of childhood friendships, complete with a subjective camera that gazes fixedly on chairs, sinks, and faces frozen in grief.

Too Much Norway is a genial compendium of archival footage that purports to give a social history of the country. Just about anybody could come up with a similar film by rifling through national archives. The musty political speeches, dated sports achievements, quaint ethnic costumes, old folk dances, and eugenics propaganda exist in too many museums. But only a Norwegian would turn it into a disquisition on the inadequacies of Norway itself.


God bless Andrew Sarris…

December 21, 2005

…but would you review Brokeback Mountain by citing A Hard Day’s Night? (From the December 19, 2005 New York Observer, a paysite)

Other films referred to:
The Boys in the Band
The Gay Desperado
Red River
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Citizen Kane
Back Street
(1932 and 1941)
Love Affair
An Affair to Remember
Brief Encounter
The Ice Storm
The Last Picture Show
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Match Point

December 20, 2005

…or Hitchcock without the suspense and intellecutal rigor. Critics have been overpraising this stiff, often improbable thriller, perhaps relieved that it’s not about Woody Allen dating Dakota Fanning. But Patricia Highsmith used to knock off this kind of story twice a year, with far more intriguing characters and better plot twists.

One thing Allen does get is the irresistible appeal of luxury, and since this is set in London and its wealthy environs, he has a chance to explore something more than the Upper East Side/Upper West Side world that has made many of his recent films interchangeable. But don’t kid yourself. It’s a thin, slow story with a weak ending.

Allen doesn’t seem all that interested in the trappings of thrillers, and by the last half-hour has lost interest in his main characters as well, switching the focus of the story to the police investigating the case (and providing more Hitchcock quotes, this time from Frenzy). Allen drops even this angle to ponder various philosophical issues as “when good things happen to bad people.” It’s this veneer of intellectualism that has fooled many of his admirers in the past. Watch how many will give it a break simply because it doesn’t reek as badly as Deconstructing Harry.

Pixar at MoMA

December 20, 2005

The immediate critical reaction to Pixar: 20 Years of Animation at the Museum of Modern Art has ranged from haughty to dismissive. Lance Esplund in The New York Sun complained that Pixar didn’t deserve a MoMA show–an honor previously reserved for vampire movies, slutty Italian film posters, and endless permutations of neo-realist coming-of-age sagas from eastern European film schools. Roberta Smith in The New York Times criticizes the show for “a certain deadness,” and says that its biggest disappointment is “the lack of a serious catalogue,” presumably one filled with the likes of her writing. (One hopes her fantasy catalogue wouldn’t include such mistakes as misidentifying Edna in The Incredibles; she was voiced by Brad Bird, not “Linda Hunt.” [Ms. Smith has subsequently corrected her mistake.])

The real problem critics have with Pixar is the enormous success of its films, at the box office and with DVD sales. For better or worse, Pixar has completely reshaped the animation industry. It has brought Disney to its knees, contributed to the forced sale of DreamWorks, and paradoxically brought new attention to the likes of Hayao Miyazaki. Their films, including Toy Story 1 and 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, will be shown in new 35mm archival prints during the course of the exhibition. The museum remains one of the best places in the world to view them.

True, the show does fill galleries on four floors with hundreds of sketches, storyboards, color samples, and sculptures that will fetch ridiculous sums when they are auctioned off twenty years from now. But the same was true for the various Disney and Warner Brothers animation shows the museum has hosted. There’s no question that there is a dead feel to a lot of this art, which after all is meant to be moving.

But in the Yohsio and Akio Morita Media Gallery on the second floor, Pixar has installed two new pieces–Toy Story Zoetrope and Artscape–that show the past and future of animation in terms so clear, so technologically advanced, that they make all the models and drawings superfluous.

Like it or not, Artscape, directed by Andrew Jimenez and designed in part by Alex Stahl, is the future of cinema: a fifty-foot wide TV screen with 6.1 Dolby surround stereo and four projectors throwing the highest resolution images ever attempted. Like the original Cinerama, Artscape is an immersive experience that extends beyond the normal range of vision to envelop the viewer. In an eleven-minute piece, animators pick and choose among various frame sizes and drawing techniques to provide a tour through the studio’s seven feature films, including Cars, the latest. It’s a chance for artists to stretch out and explore the settings and backgrounds to stories, and, by citing everyone from Chuck Jones to Joan Mitchell, another bid for the merit of the Pixar school.

Is it “cloying,” as Roberta Smith thinks? Or a vision of a near-future in which consumers will pick and choose among feeds, channels, angles, versions, zooming in and out of whatever interests them, one step closer to participating in the creative process, one step further removed from the communal experience of film?

The zoetrope directly opposite Artscape is really the highpoint of the show. Like a Penn & Teller gag, or some self-reflexive McSweeney piece, it deconstructs animation to its most basic elements–eighteen frames of art per second. (Yes, sound film is twenty-four frames, but as animator Warren Trezevant said, the explanation is both too technical and simple to bother with; besides, many silent films were shot at 18 fps.)

In this case, the art is models of characters from the two Toy Story movies, arrayed in circles on a large platter centered within a box with plexiglass windows. When the platter spins, the models blur into lines of pure color. Then a strobe light kicks in, and suddenly the models are moving with the dreamlike precision of a cartoon. Buzz Lightyear balances atop a spinning rubber ball, Woody rides his bucking Bullseye, and Wheezy the Penguin hops onto a see-saw, propelling the creepy, three-eyed arcade alien into a somersault, after which he is swallowed up by a hole in the ground. In the center, wave after wave of toy soldiers flow out of their container, parachute into the air, and disappear before your very eyes.

The zoetrope periodically slows down and speeds up again, revealing just how simple it is to animate something, and how complexly, rigorously, and obsessively the piece has been constructed. It is the most compelling piece of kinetic art in the city.

When pushed, Pixar co-founder John Lasseter makes all the right noises about his studio’s work. “Our goal is first to entertain, to tell stories that will keep you on the edge of your seat, to make you fall in love with the characters. But we also want to make it beautiful because, why not? Why not make it as beautiful as we can?” Lasseter advises aspiring animators to take basic art courses and study the grammar of film. “Technology changes. We can’t tell what will become obsolete. But the basics will always be important.”

But the Pixar formula is much more interesting than an attention to detail and a knowledge of history. Pixar’s films are ostensibly aimed towards children, and they do function that way, with stories, characters, and gags that involve youngsters and immature adults. But they are set in an idealized past that coincides with the time their parents were young. The kids love the pratfalls, while the adults are appreciating the perfectly realized clothes, cars, appliances, songs, even color schemes.

It’s a lesson lost on Disney and DreamWorks, who keep trying to capture adult viewers by satirizing contemporary culture, or by constructing mini-Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. As a co-producer, Disney almost pulled the plug on the original Toy Story, after offering script notes that turned an early version of the film into a stale parody filled with snide characters. With their seamless, retro style and modestly family-affirming stories, Pixar films have opened up a new world of animation.