Back at last

I've been more or less on break for the past four weeks now. You'd think that would allow me to update my blog more rather than less often, but as you might have noticed, the opposite was true. My meager explanation? Breaks tend to suck all creativity out of me, leaving me rather like a depressed zombie. Somehow I seem to need some bustle, some energy around me to write. I hereby apologise to my non-existant readers for my absence. The good news? The new semester is starting in two days, and I expect the two posts I just made won't be the only ones.


The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

When I review a film, even when I simply think about a film, in the end I come back to one basic question: did the film work for me, or didn’t it. A History of Violence worked for me on all levels, and got to look even better the more I thought of it. Serenity worked for me after the “how could he do that!” shock, because what he did was shocking and hurtful but in the end absolutely fucking brilliant. Broken Flowers and Le Temps Qui Reste did not “work” for me entirely, and neither did Munich. Most of Spielberg’s body of work doesn’t work for me, as a matter of fact, but more on that and Munich later.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, directed by Agent K himself, Tommy Lee Jones, worked for me, and to judge by the applause at the end of it, it worked for many people. It’s not a film that will probably become anyone’s favorite movie of all time, it’s not really extraordinary in any way, but everything in it just feels right.

The first half is told non-linearly, jumping back and forth in time, but it is always clear where we are in the story, and the pace is so leisurely that it never feels in the least confused. The basic gist: Melquiades Estrada, an illegal mexican vaquero, is friends with Pete (played by Tommy Lee Jones, who got the acting prize for this in Cannes and who is fascinatingly vulnerable). Melquiades accidentally gets shot by an aggressive new border patrol guy, who hides it. The local police finds out, but chooses to cover it up; Pete finds out and decides to take matters into his own hands, in the linear second half abducting Mike, the border patrol guy (played by Barry Pepper) to give Melquiades a final burial in his homeland.

Tommy Lee Jones apparently object to this be calling a Western. On the one hand I understand, because in a way the word Western implies themes of vengeance, violence, men’s men, black and white thinking, the thrill of shoot-outs and all that. This film has much more texture than the average Western, I’ll admit, but I don’t think of the word as being pejorative, and for me it has to do more with grand vistas, characters who say little but feel much, and of course with the wildness and unpredictableness of border towns, and if you see these as the fundamental elements of Westerns, then the term fits the film perfectly.

It is hard to say what makes the difference between a film that works and one that doesn’t. Here, so many things could have gone wrong. The parts with the corpse could have been too absurd, too gross, too ridiculous (there was much laughter in those sequences, but I think it stemmed mostly from discomfort), but they manage to stay just within the bounds. Barry Pepper’s character was almost too despicable, but he was luckily given some redeeming moments too. The ending could have been a let-down, but was pitch-perfect. The entire film could have been cheap sadism, and it is very sadistic at some points, but the film rarely (in fact, only really at one particular moment) lets you enjoy seeing vengeance exacted, lets you cheer, and the true sadness of Tommy Lee Jones’ character keeps things grounded. The enotional core of the film, the friendship between these two men, is set up in just a few short sequences, but it is crucial to elevating this film above your average revenge fantasy.

Les Amants Reguliers

Both The Dreamers and Les Amants Réguliers take place in Paris, at least partly in 1968. Both films star Louis Garrel (who, by the way, is dreamy, though googling for pictures of him reveals a somewhat misguided choice of hairstyles). So, going into Les Amants Réguliers, I expected something roughly like The Dreamers.

There’s a pretty good chain of DVD stores in the Netherlands called “DVD Valley”, good in great part because they sort their films by genre, and not alphabetically. Two of the genres they have are “Arthouse” and “Arthouse light”. The Dreamers definitely fits under the arthouse light category, despite all the full frontal nudity. Les Amants Réguliers? Far out in the hardcore arthouse field. And you know what? I kinda really liked it. To put it more precisely: it reminded me of what film can do, reminded me that indie films aren’t just be about a slower pace or quirkier characters, but that true arthouse films can be an entirely different experience from traditional narrative film.

This is a black and white film with barely the outline of a plot which nonetheless manages to be three hours long, with long almost static takes in which little happens, only scatterings any background music in the first half, and characters with no clear personality traits. I understand entirely if it sounds like torture to sit through it.

The film gets to the Paris riots pretty soon, long before it gets to any part involving lovers, in any case. Molotov cocktails and police charges. Sounds exciting? Not really. There is only extremely long take showing people throwing Molotov cocktail after the other at a burning car, with a few people in the foreground with helmets on watching impassively, a girl with a similar helmet kissing a guy, the main character crouching on the ground, standing up, crouching again. They move a car, throw it on its side as a barricade.

This sequence is crucial in the film, I believe, because it allows you to let go. It was during this passage that I stopped trying to make sense of things, look for the usual signs of narrative, stopped registering everything so precisely. It’s when I stopped watching the film to much and just let myself be carried away. And I love that, especially in the cinema, just letting you forget yourself for a moment (and I’ll admit, in one very slow passage, close my eyes for a few seconds). It’s why I loved La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, though this film was far from Fellini’s level, the individual passages much less fascinating, the artistic vision much less clear, and, to be honest, the characters a little generic. Interchangeable, even, at points. Despite these failings, the film took me somewhere else for a few hours, somewhere a lot less glamorous than I like imagining it, but in a way that I had somehow managed to forget existed.