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November 25, 2003

Downbeat Update: "21 Grams" and "The Barbarian Invasions"

Dear Friedrich --

The Wife and I set out to the movie theaters this afternoon hoping to have a nice time indulging our taste for downbeat movies.


Have you caught 21 Grams? Rave reviews for it from every which direction and nothing if not downbeat. But it's also overbleak and overwrought at the same time -- blue, grainy, handheld -- and we couldn't sit through it. It's one seriously annoying movie, although I suppose if you think the only alternative to it is shiney, committee-driven special-effects films it might look strong, realistic and uncompromising. To my mind, it was like the most dismal of the stories in Soderburgh's "Traffic" turned into an epic of loser-ness. As well as thrown into a blender: it's all scrambled up, with lots of cross-cutting and so many flashforwards and flashbacks presented in such odd ways that ... Well, something conceptual must be going on. The film is ... nonlinear.

For those who like their reality raw

Question for the day: Why does nonlinearity strike so many people as a necessarily brilliant thing? It's as though today's filmgoers don't realize that good writers and directors long ago figured out how to make motifs and themes interrelate in nonlinear ways, as well as how to do so in parallel to a linear story surface. Now all the back-and-forthing and all the zigzagging is right out there on the surface -- but now we also have to make do without the pleasures of a straightforward story binding it together. And this is supposed to be an advance?

I hate conceptual feature films. How do you react to them? I wasn't a fan 'way back of Woody Allen's "Zelig": I zzzzz'd through most of "The Blair Witch Project"; I thought "Being John Malkovich" ran out of gas entirely once the concept had become clear; and I had about five minutes' worth of interest in "Memento." "Whoa, it's, like, replicating onscreen what's going on in his mind!" -- snoozola, man. Any idea why conceptual ideas of this sort seem to strike many otherwise perfectly intelligent people as brilliant? Is it because the world is awash in people who think there's something wrong with conventional ways of telling stories, and who think that what movies need is to throw out the storytelling rulebook? That's depressing; I love the conventions and traditions of storytelling.

My own theory about this is a two-parter. 1) These people aren't aware that narrative experiments of this kind aren't new, they're old; they were done regularly 'way back at the beginning of film history. They don't represent an advance; they represent a regression. And 2) People whose usual diet consists of videogames, rock videos, and TV ads may have lost the taste for narrative. What they're used to instead is audiovisual entertainment that consists of a concept fleshed out. They're thrilled when they see that approach put on the big screen and stretched out to 90 minutes; it's a great big version of what they're used to. Plus they seem to expect the snap, the moment when you "get" the concept -- they have a po-mo version of the taste unsophisticated short story readers used to have for the O. Henry ending.

I'm usually a fan of watching actors chew the hell out of material, but I found the lower-depths acting here a complete drag. Naomi Watts fascinates me; she's talented but she's also physically as anonymously pretty as Sharon Stone. That's the quality -- that perky, airline-stewardess look crossed with real drive and talent -- that David Lynch saw in Watts, and why his use of her in "Mulholland Drive" was so effective. She doesn't look like the kind of person who could have any erotic secrets, let alone much to give -- but she does. Here, though, she's photographed unflatteringly and she isn't used cannily; it's a performance that might have come from any number of actresses.

Are you as overwhelmed by the genius and charisma of Benicio del Toro as many critics seem to be? (And as Benicio himself seems to be?) Del Toro is unquestionably a presence, but I have a lot of questions about whether he's the kind of presence I want to spend much time with; an actor who thinks he's being commanding and intense when he swings his arms around like a fighter and pushes his fleshy face into the camera isn't my idea of good company. I haven't seen many of Sean Penn's recent performances, so it's possible that he hasn't completely lost his touch. But his performance here reminded me of DeNiro during the lost years. For one thing, Penn, like DeNiro, seems to be doing most of his acting these days with his forehead creases, at least when he's not making a tedious production number out of dragging on a cigarette. De Niro pulled part way out of his creative doldrums when he started doing self-parody. I wonder if the time has come for Penn to follow suit.


So The Wife and I were able to enjoy a leisurely dinner before heading off to see the French-Canadian writer/director Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions. It's a sequel to his 1986 "The Decline of the American Empire." Did you catch the earlier film? I loved it. (Hey, here's a review of "Decline" I can pretty much get with.) A group of '60s-era academics and intellectuals gathers at a lakeside house for a weekend; secrets and resentments start to boil up ... It's sophisticated, satirical, and precise, like a chamber-music version of "The Big Chill," and full of observations, sex, and ideas.

Elegant roundelay of death

In "The Barbarian Invasions," the same group gathers, only this time because one of them is dying. And that's the whole problem with the movie: what a stupid idea for a movie. The film is beautifully done in almost every way. Arcand dramatizes his ideas and observations simply and concisely. (He diagrams his films out in a way I adore.) The film is written, staged, shot and edited in an informal/formal, dreamily elegant style. It's fascinating in its view of its characters, Boomer lefties whom it presents straightforwardly as having lived for self-fulfillment and as responsible for a general social collapse in the present.

The film's title seems meant to refer to immigration, to 9/11, to cancer ... These '68ers opened society up -- but for what? For the sake of realizing their own fantasies and feeding their own senses -- a pursuit they talked themselves into believing would lead to beneficial political and social change. Instead, their kids hate them and society's going to hell. The film's first 20 minutes, which are set in an overcrowded, corrupt, inefficient and inhumane Canadian hospital, should give pause to those who think that Canada's health system is something to envy. The dying protagonist is lucky enough to have a rich son who's fast with a bribe; he gets his pop a better room, as well as treatments across the border in Vermont.

But, like I say, what a dumb idea for a movie. For all the film's many virtues -- and The Wife and I sat all the way through in order to enjoy them -- the film is really nothing but one long death scene. It's often embroidered upon very beautifully. But finally what you're watching is one not very fascinating guy's long, drawn-out death.

Arcand's an odd case. He's unquestionably supertalented at the nuanced, classical-avant-garde-intimiste thing; he's got confidence and taste; he even gives evidence of having some brains. He's a genuine auteur, and he's got gifts that many better-known filmmakers lack. But he seems to be missing the great big dumb gift some less sophisticated, less talented filmmakers sometimes do have, which is a crude sense of the subjects and stories audiences might want to watch.

Not a minor failing, alas. Having seen a half a dozen of his movies, and despite the fact that all of them were beautifully done, the only one I'd recommend is "Decline of the American Empire." Some of my friends enjoyed "Jesus of Montreal," and I was dazzled by an early cut of "Love and Human Remains" that had some daringly cynical, far-out sexual scenes. But I've been told that five minutes of the more extreme sexual material was cut before the movie was released.


What watching the two films really made me think about, though, is what I often blog about here, which is the way traditional film language seems to be dying while something else is taking its place. What a contrast these two movies made. "The Barbarian Invasions" is sumptuously beautiful in a measured and quiet way that I find instantly compehensible. I know why an image is being shown to us from the angle the director has chosen. I know why we've cut to a closeup. I understand why we're looking at something the way we are. The flashbacks are clearly flashbacks, and the subjective passages are clearly subjective passages. I observe the elements fall in place; I watch the experience build up. I'm happy; I'm in the hands of an art form I like.

"21 Grams"? It's jittery, twitchy -- it's all exhausted, overcaffeintated emptiness. Or that's how I'd read it if I felt sure that what's on screen was intended to be comprehensible in a traditional way. In fact, the handheld cameras, the graininess, the blue color cast, and the twitching here-and-there editing aren't intended to be read traditionally at all. Why's this moment in closeup? Why is the flow of the scene being interrupted in this way? There's no real answer to such questions. It's all just part of the look and feel, that's all. Scenes, shots and moments don't convey meaning or insight; they don't take their place in a larger scheme of meaning either. Instead, they're indicators; they're telling us how to take the movie. We understand only -- and we're asked only to understand -- that what we're being given is downbeat and intense: these are hunks of reality so hot and raw that they were just barely caught and brought back alive. That's how we're meant to interpret the gestalt. (Of course the look of "21 Grams" is every bit as created, thought out and fussed over as the look of "The Barbarian Invasionis.") Aside from that? Like I say: Nonlinear, dude! Conceptual too! Whoa! And me? I'd rather be anyplace else.

Hey, am I the only person who watches a jiggly, twitching, handheld film like "21 Grams" and thinks, You mean, a big-budget movie like this one, with stars and a crew, and they couldn't find the money and time for a tripod, or for a dolly and some tracks?



posted by Michael at November 25, 2003


Actually it's Love and Human Remains, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: James Russell on November 26, 2003 12:04 AM

Mais oui, thanks. I was recalling the title of the play it's based on. Going in and correcting right now. Did you catch the film? How'd you react?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2003 12:51 AM

Haven't seen it. Actually, haven't seen any of Arcand's films. I keep thinking I should at least check out Jesus of Montreal but I never quite get around to doing so...

Posted by: James Russell on November 26, 2003 1:19 AM

MRr. Blowhard

Nonlinear or "conceptual" films are a nice break. I liked all the ones you mentioned, but don't think any of them are "brillant"....and are at best a refreshing break from classic structure, but not be hailed at the Nxt Big Thing


Posted by: jleavitt on November 26, 2003 1:19 AM

Many filmmakers make the mistake of believing that the nonlinear plot necessarily enriches their movies. They fail to realize that, because it's just another device, they must use it judiciously, not build entire works on it as though it were required for success. To be sure, it can sometimes add style. But, to borrow from Virginia Postrel, style isn't always substance in this instance.

Additionally, as I suggested in this short post, many artists today refuse to accept the challenge of creating masterpieces through simplicity. They strive to be complex, because complexity makes them appear thoughtful and bold when, in fact, it often just reflects their weaknesses.

Posted by: Robert Tagorda on November 26, 2003 2:04 AM

I enjoyed the The Barbarian Invasions as well. It's quite well done.

But here's something curious I noticed: the poster for the American version has one significant difference from the poster I saw in France.

Posted by: PF on November 26, 2003 2:50 AM

I laughed at your comment about Sean Penn making an entire production number out of dragging on a cigarette. The only problem with Sean Penn getting out of his doldrums by doing self parody is that he (unlike De Niro, or Pacino, for that matter) simply hasn't had enough famous performances to parody. He'd just have to go back to doing "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" for anybody to realize he was parodying himself. Which might actually be quite entertaining, but I think he would see it as "beneath" him, terribly serious actor that he is.

Posted by: annette on November 26, 2003 3:33 AM

"For one thing, Penn, like DeNiro, seems to be doing most of his acting these days with his forehead creases"

Good one. Reminds me of an old review of The Bodyguard by (I think) Elvis Mitchell, in which he noted that “Ms. Houston does most of her acting with her neck.”

Posted by: Maureen on November 26, 2003 7:21 AM

"Hey, am I the only person who watches a jiggly, twitching, handheld film like "21 Grams" and thinks, You mean, a big-budget movie like this one, with stars and a crew, and they couldn't find the money and time for a tripod, or for a dolly and some tracks?"

And, no, you're not the only one who feels that way. I find TV shows and movies like this exhausting and irritating after about 10 minutes. But what I am struck by is how similar your description here is to how you describe twentysomethings. Maybe this is really how the world feels and seems to them. Maybe its possible the world seemed like a more ordered place to us, and therefore movies that "make more sense" just feel more like the way we actually process the world. To our parents' generation, Betty Grable musicals felt like storytelling they were comfortable with, and Scorsese or Polanski seemed almost profane.

Posted by: annette on November 26, 2003 7:52 AM

Benicio del Toro has a tremendous yum factor. I simply cannot get past the fact that he looks like he really knows how to have a good time. This is my cross...

Uh... Did I miss something? "Blair Witch" and "Memento" are nonlinear? Seriously. Really. Is that what people think? "Blair Witch" has some "Lady or the Tiger" tricks, but I wouldn't call it nonlinear. Is it just me?

Frankly, I think the current shooting style comes from the urge to be new and, sadly, the number of directors who went to film school and studied theory in a fruity way but don't know a freaking thing about how to put a film together. Oh, maybe they know one thing: that they don't know how to frame a scene and they need to obscure that.

McG, where are you storyboards???

Going way off topic, I sometimes think that action/Kung Fooey films are popular because shots and scenes are structured.

Do you think the world seemed bright and impossibly fast to musical fans of the 50s? Why do these hyped-up 20-somethings enjoy the long, slow stretches of LOR and the Matrix?

Posted by: j.c. on November 26, 2003 10:08 AM


I caught 21 GRAMS at Arclight in L.A. last week--it so upset my best friend's (a cinematographer) stomach, that he had to leave about 2/3 of the way through it. (I stayed b/c I thought Naomi Watts was giving an amazing performance). When I exited the theater, he was waiting for me outside and remarked, "What the fuck is with all this handheld camera nowadays?" To be fair, I think this style of camerawork can be brilliantly effective (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, OUT OF SIGHT). But I'm tired of sitting through movies where the handheld work signals how 'important' and 'socially applicable' the movie's themes are ('djou see THIRTEEN? Ugh.).

21 GRAMS is the bleakest movie of the year. And it ain't SHAME. The style might make sense if there was anything at all going on in the movie, but there isn't. I think Innaritu probably has some gobbledygook about 'fate' to serve up when grilled about the movie's structure, but what exactly is his real point? We're all going to die? Hmmmm. As my favorite Orwellian quote goes: "A fine thought, but did you really need to say it out loud?"

Posted by: Dick Ranko on November 26, 2003 10:11 AM

I think if a film can overcome and surpass its "concept" - in the same way a story can have a moral, but the moral almost always has to be beside the point or incidental to not shipwreck the story - then I think it can be considered good.

I thought "Memento" did a good job of surpassing its concept, because there was a story there, and a really interesting "who really killed the wife" question.

I don't think "Blair Witch" was a concept film - just an ultracheap production that had a good enough shaggy dog story to make it to national release. It's fun the first time - especially in a dark theatre.

Outside of that, I'll agree with you, hands down. "Zelig" got old very fast; I only kept watching it for the seamless insertions of himself into historical footage - kind of a movie geek thing. The point of the movie itself was less involving than an episode of "Josie and the Pussycats".

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 26, 2003 11:11 AM

Jleavitt -- I'm such a curmudgeon, I guess. People should be glad I've never been approached to run a studio. Now that I think of it, I did enjoy "Run Lola Run." I notice that it was about 80 minutes long, which helped. Hey, a more general question: you may or may not be entertained by these movies, but is anyone ever genuinely touched or moved by them?

Robert -- That's an excellent posting, thanks for pointing it out. I'd be even more glad if artists and entertainers didn't worry about making masterpieces but focused a bit more on delivering pleasure. Of course that opens a whole rat's nest of conversations about what "pleasure" might be ...

PF -- Nice catch. I remember the boobs-and-genitals from the original Canadian "Decline" poster, which also wasn't used in the States. Are we really such prudes, do you suppose? Is it that the French (and even French Canadians) are so much more sophistique and cynical than we are?

Annette -- Sean Penn is awfully serious, isn't he. If he doesn't stop talking about how much he wants to be a real artist (instead of a mere entertainer) ... Well, I don't know what. Maybe we should start throwing tomatoes. What's wrong with delivering a little entertainment and letting posterity judge whether it was art after all? I think you're right too, that the jiggly/cut-cut-cut thing is how younger people (or at least younger media-and-arts people) see things. Maybe it's how life feels to them: varoom. I guess a question might be, what this represents. Is it legitimate and interesting, or just a symptom of no character, too much positive reinforcement, and poor impulse control? I suspect the latter myself. You? But presumably someone somewhere will construct something of interest out of the approach. Can't wait, though I'm not holding my breath.

JC - Benicio gets your motor running? Well, he does have a smoking-and-drinking, unstoppable, lowdown thing going for him, I suppose. He pushes it a little too hard for my tastes, but maybe that can have its appeal too. Sorry, I was moving back and forth between "nonlinear" and "conceptual" and hoping no one would notice. But conceptual features often are nonlinear, even if not always -- the nonlinearity becomes part of the concept. I guess what I find most annoying about both approaches, especially when they overlap, is the the final work becomes little more than an illustration of the concept -- it often doesn't have much life of its own. Which is fine at short lengths, but something an hour and a half long? It takes some doing to keep goosing a concept along for that kind of stretch of time. Kind of parallels, by the way, the way that so many books have become less about narrative and more about themes. ("Salt." "Cod." "Longitude.") An approach which I'm not the first to notice works best when the book is small. I always thought one of the benefits of traditional narrative was that it enables you to stretch a work out over much greater length than you can if you don't have a strong narrative. Nonnarrative movies, fiction and poems? How long do you want them to be?

Dick -- Amen, dude. I'm with you: I think the jittery thing is a nice addition to the pallette and can be effectively used. What I dislike is the way it's become the new lingua franca. To expand a bit more: I dislike the way the medium seems to be going back and forth between hypershiney glitzy overpumped CGI things (on the fantasy and spectacle end) and (on the "reality" end) the drizzly-handheld-gritty thing. For one thing, it's monotonous. For another, it's idiotic -- there are deeper and more direct ways of making movies, which Hollywood basically seems to have abandoned at this point. Have you got a taste for the new spectacle-vs-reality thing?

Hey, I once saw an MTV crew interviewing someone in a NYC park. It was hilarious. You know the way that MTV's camerawork is so "energetic"? Well, this was just a guy with a mike talking to some randomly-picked person. But the guy with the camera was bobbing and weaving around the interviewee like a basketball guard trying to fake out an opponent. That "real" and "energized" thing that TV and movies do so often these days? It's as contrived as anything else. Reminds me of the way girls in California spend hours making themselves look "natural" ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2003 11:24 AM

Yes, Annette, this is how the world feels to twentysomethings. We're broght up with the "You can be anything you want to be!" mantra, but given no guidance to what might be a worthwhile goal. We're shown images constantly of products and lifestyles which are expensive and glamorous, while most of us can't afford to move out of our parents' houses until our 30s. Keeping a job for over two years is a rarity; keeping a lover for more than six months even stranger. And for those of us who do try to buck the trend and live a life with some sustainability and narrative, we have "Sex in the City" to show us how much more fun we'd have if we ditched it.

Cut, cut, cut. And if your energy flags or you're dissatisfied, there's a prescription for it.

I wonder also if familiarity with video games comes in to play with these conceptual films. The factor I'm thinking of is the interactivity. Even the most linear and narrative of games require the player to puzzle out things and make their own way to the finish. Perhaps our audience is bored if they don't have to participate in a film by piecing it together mentally (as in "Memento") or at least feel like they're there personally (as in "Blair Witch," or anything filmed with a hand-held camera).

Posted by: Nate on November 26, 2003 1:32 PM

I think Nate and Michael Blowhard need to talk. What Nate describes hardly seems like "varoom." On the other hand, The Barbarian Invasions give you a glimpse of the older alternative.

Posted by: annette on November 26, 2003 2:36 PM

Have to agree with Nate, even if I left the twenty-something period behind a few years ago.

I don't think it's poor impulse control, as you say, that drives a younger crowd to appreciate something other than a traditional narrative approach. It's boredom. Boredom with spending $20 to see the same film again you saw last week, with actors made up to look identical to the ones you saw last week, the same plot, the same location, the same camera work, with only the product placements allowing you to make any distinctions.

Well, you grab anything that looks a bit challenging. And saying it's been done before doesn't negate its potential value. What (which isn't a product of evolving technology) hasn't been done before? It's whether it's been done before during MY life that matters when I choose what I enjoy viewing. I couldn't care less whether you find it trite.

Posted by: tonio on November 26, 2003 4:41 PM

Are we really such prudes, do you suppose? Is it that the French (and even French Canadians) are so much more sophistique and cynical than we are?

Honestly, I don't understand what the genitals and boobs were doing there in the first place. They didn't seem to have anything to do with the movie. (Though I've never seen The Decline of the American Empire.) Clearly the male/female symbols on the American poster are there to replace them, but they are even less explicable, since there's nothing in-your-face about them.

I wonder why you think that watching the main fella slowly die was such a dumb idea. I thought that the whole lead-up to the end, starting from when they all relocated to the country house, including the their reminiscences of bygone youth, was especially moving, and wouldn't have been possible if he hadn't been bit by bit withdrawing from his contemporary world.

Going way off topic, I sometimes think that action/Kung Fooey films are popular because shots and scenes are structured.

I remember a friend of mine remarked once that Hong Kong fight scenes are like dance interludes in certain older movies. Jackie Chan, at least, twinkles and he moves.

Most of us can't afford to move out of our parents' houses until our 30s. Keeping a job for over two years is a rarity; keeping a lover for more than six months even stranger...

Perhaps our audience is bored if they don't have to participate in a film.

Another twenty-something, here. The first comment I've quoted rings true for me, and would not have been true for my parents at my age, but I wonder whether we are particularly deprived: my father's father did a good spell of wandering about, and my mother's parents didn't marry until their late 30s, and then settled down quite far from where they were born.

As regards our taste in film: I find I have to resist the impulse to pick up a book or fast-forward through a film which doesn't demand active attention. Something like Andrei Rublev, on the other hand, though it's not exactly jumpy or an obvious puzzle, holds my attention, because, though the overall trajectory of the story is clear enough, it's not obvious what co-ordinates any given point has, or what forces are working on it. That's my thought.

Posted by: PF on November 27, 2003 1:32 AM

Don't necessarily agree with the characterization of twentysomethings, but then I can't see myself from any perspective other than my own, so it's hard to say really. I certainly don't feel like my life is going vrooom, maybe I'm desensitized.

From a practical perspective though, I at the same time love the fact that I'm alive today, and lament it. How much of my life have I wasted watching TV and playing games? What could I have accomplished if I had nothing to do but produce my own entertainment? Oh well. Still lots of time.

Posted by: . on November 29, 2003 6:01 AM

I understand your review is suppose to irritate a response…

I am no authority, is the first thing.

Why would you prescribe what a film/movie/cinema experience is supposed to be? 21 Grams could be a response to such critical tactics, where experiences differ in poorly constructed ‘movies’, and where ‘films’ are concerned-interpretations can differ. That is why the film was not marketed at little children-rating 18.

If you had wanted to go and watch a movie, then why did you leave it up to the ‘voices’ of authority, which also tell us what food to eat, cloths to wear etc.

Although, I do believe there maybe some contradictory discourses existing, when understanding the process, with this products existence and its consumption.

I would love to see a critic really evoke a fruitful discussion out of a site like yours. A constructive opinion, objective opinion would and could result in something truly revolutionary in mainstream subjective criticism. Note: does anybody remember Goddard, Bazin, Truffaut et al. the result was rather impressive.

Posted by: Pavlos Wood on March 6, 2004 1:49 PM

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