Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Okay, maybe that title isn’t what it sounds like. It just seemed like a pretty radical left turn from those other two. But is it? And which of these three, if any, are worth checking out as they hit limited release in the days ahead?
Howdy folks, It's been a while since I've had time to write any of my typically verbose and periphrastic reviews; perhaps that's a good thing, but regardless, I felt compelled to put a few words together concerning three upcoming releases that I feel are, for the most part, worth viewing. First up is a film that's opening this coming Friday, and which is going to be such a hard sell that I can't believe it was ever greenlit in the first place. My compliments to the money men behind this picture, and I hope it does well enough to give other risky projects a leg up in the production pipeline. The film I'm talking about is... FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS (dir. Steven Shainberg) What Steven Shainberg has set out to do with Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus is free the biopic from the shackles of literal history. Within the limits of that end, the film is an unqualified success. Beyond the confines of grand intentions, one runs into some problems - but nonetheless, I've done enough damning of the traditional biopic (no need to name names) that I can't help but embrace this picture. Serious devotees of Diane Arbus may mistake this for a revisionist piece of history. It isn't. Shainberg alights so quickly from biographical detail (beginning with the casting of the statuesque Nicole Kidman) that it's almost impossible to read the film as anything other than fantasy, and equally difficult to keep in mind its basis in fact. This will leave those audience members unfamiliar with Arbus somewhat in the dark as to the import of this enigmatic woman on the screen; indeed, none of Arbus' work is featured in the film, and those expecting to learn something about one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century will leave the theater as much in the dark about the art as the artist. Thus, I think there are very particular and rather precarious criteria necessary for appreciating Fur to the fullest extent. One must be aware of Arbus' photography and, to a certain extent, her life and death, and keep her and her work in mind throughout the film - but not to the extent that the extensive fiction of Shainberg's script becomes distracting or insulting. Forget the real woman and the film suddenly becomes pointless; recall her too vividly and it is conversely diminished. The key words with which to approach the film are in its title; that it is an imaginary portrait is not just an excuse to play fast and loose with the facts, but a reminder to take nothing in the film at face value. Indeed, what is there on the surface isn't terribly satisfying; literally reading the film as an assumption of the events that lead Arbus to pick up a camera confines the film to - for all its excessive weirdness - a rather typical story of self discovery, a romance that is equal parts Beauty And The Beast and Shainberg's own Secretary. As a series of events, the film suffers. But even though the film has an ostensible timeline, complete with title cards reading 'Three Years Earlier' and 'Two Years Later' and such, I really don't believe that Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Crissidia Wilson intended the film to be constricted to any sort of chronology. The gateway metaphor seems clear: Diane, the daughter of wealthy furriers, begins her road to artistic self discovery when she meets Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.) a former circus-freak who is covered head to toe in fur. Lionel can be interpreted as a real character, but doing so would trap the film within its own baroque design. Better to read him as a manifestation of something deep and dark within Diane herself; this frees the film from its otherwise awkward temporality and spacial geography. Lionel's apartment (like James Spader's distracting office in Secretary) is so cavernous and baroque that it's almost impossible to suspend disbelief, until one begins to notice that the ornate grecian tanks in which he dyes the wigs made of his mane resemble the tubs of developer and fixer commonly found in the darkroom. It's a delicate substructure of imagery and incident, punctuated by latent shots of Diane's Rolleiflex camera, which goes unused for most of the film. Arbus didn't actually begin using a Rolleiflex until later in her career (and indeed, it became intrinsic to her acclaimed style), but its prominence in the film further speaks to Shainberg's intentions. Additionally, it is one of the two overt tethers he provides to the real woman from whom this fanciful creation of his has sprung. The other is the marginalized folk who will eventually become Arbus' subjects; the sideshow freaks and societal outcasts who, in the film, she meets through Lionel. As obvious a symbol as Lionel's hirsute body is the image of dwarves and giants and dominatrixes parading down from the trapdoor in the floor of the upstairs loft, through Diane's ceiling, into the relatively objective world of her family's apartment. This, technically speaking, could be seen as reality; this apartment, her husband, her children, her obstreperous socialite family (whose airs inevitably and unfortunately invites comparisons to Birth). But the Diane who coexists with them belongs entirely to the world upstairs and to the abstract process that, perhaps moreso than the woman herself, the film is a portrait of. Shainberg has pinpointed a miniscule black hole in Arbus' biography and exploded it into this flight of emotional fancy. He has, essentially, given narrative form to what is commonly referred to as 'the creative spark.' In that sense, the same film could have been made about any artist, or any member of the audience, which is exactly what most biopics don't do; they stick so strictly to the life of their subjects that they become stolidly exclusive. In this case, Arbus and the details of her life are the vehicle for an idea, rather than a portrait unto themselves. It isn't entirely successful, and a convincing argument could be raised that it isn't successful at all; but if I were given a choice between this film and one in which all the facts were laid out before me alongside her famous photographs, the choice would be simple: I'd rather not know. Fur opens on November 10th. DANCE PARTY USA (dir. Aaron Katz) There's that aphorism about all the good girls always falling for the bad guys. There are those implicit and eternally frustrating questions of how, of why, of what do they see in them? There's that hope that maybe they'll come to their senses. And there's the possibility, which most lonely, pining romantics rarely pause to consider, that maybe the bad guys aren't all bad. Dance Party USA is about one of those bad guys. We first see Gus (Cole Pennsinger) on a train with his friend, bragging emphatically about a fourteen year-old girl he almost slept with. It doesn't matter whether or not he actually slept with her (his friend doesn't believe him) - the point is that he's the kind of kid for whom success is measured by sexual conquests, whose aspirations are mostly limited to being Matthew McConaughey in Dazed And Confused and whose conscience doesn't extend to the numerous girls whose hearts he's probably broken. He defines himself with a story about the time he had an ugly girl put a paper bag over her head before she gave him a blowjob. But he's is also seventeen, and his youth gives him an edge, an intensity not yet dulled by the sad life he's setting up for himself. And, too, a little bit of innocence; he's an immature little boy in an adult's body. Maybe that's what all those good girls see in their bad boys: sweet naivete, and room to grow. The film takes place over a twenty four hour period in which Gus drinks a lot, has sex with a random girl and, later, achieves a sustained moment of clarity when he meets Jessica (Anna Kavan), a sad wallflower at the titular party. He realizes pretty quickly that she's not going to fall for his moves, his usual lines; but instead of moving on, he keeps talking to her, and it's here that Dance Party USA moves past the improvised naturalism of a Cassavetes film and into Bergman territory. Over the course of about fifteen minutes, Gus tells Jessica a story -- not to impress her, or to make her sympathize with him, but because he suddenly sees in her rejection of him all of his own shortcomings. What he tells her is a little bit shocking and quite a bit sad. It's a long, long scene, and it's not funny or pleasant or uplifting. But it comes so unexpectedly, and is so sincere and unflinching, that it turned Dance Party USA into one of the most vibrant and exciting alive cinematic experiences I've with a film in a long time. The film was written and directed by Aaron Katz; it's his first picture, and he's populated it with fresh faces, many of whom have never acted before. Everyone in front of and behind the camera (which, like so many intimate character films these days, is digital and frequently handheld) is flawless. I can't wait to see what they do next - but in a certain sense, nothing they ever do will be as exciting as this. I go see a film like Babel and I enjoy it, but its qualities are no greater than I expected going in. I know what to expect from Inarritu and Arriaga and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; I know the extent to which they can be great, and so do they, and thus their film, for all the punches it might pack, contains no surprises. There's comfort in familiarity, to be sure, but there's excitement in the unexpected. There is no anticipation preceding filmmakers like Katz and actors like Lavan and Pennsinger, and when their movies work - as Dance Party USA does - it's like rediscovering the magic of film for the first time, all over again. The film opens in New York on November 15th. FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (dir. Christopher Guest) This, on the other hand, is the very definition of a comfort film. Most people didn't think the last mockumentary from Christopher Guest & Co, A Mighty Wind, lived up to Waiting For Guffman or Best In Show, but by that point, their form was so well defined that half the film's pleasures came from seeing all the familiar faces together again. The same can be said about For Your Consideration, which only has one or two points that really made me laugh out loud, but which I nevertheless can't help but recommend. Technically speaking, there's one big difference between this film and the others, and that is that it's not a mockumentary. It's a traditional narrative -- which really means that it's exactly the same as the other films, only without the talking heads. Perhaps there's a little less improvisation than usual, but this cast knows this sort of material so well by now that it's sort of hard to tell. Catherine O'Hara gets center stage in this one, and it's always nice to see her shine; as in A Mighty Wind, she brings a touch of pathos to all the buffoonery. I really don't have that much to say about this one, actually (except perhaps that you shouldn't judge it by the trailers, which I found pretty grating). It's not great. It's good, but good doesn't seem like quite the right adjective in this case. It's just pleasant, and ometimes pleasant is enough. For Your Consideration opens on November 17th. *** That's it for this time. I'm off to catch Borat -- I've been counting the days to its opening for weeks, and then suddenly it's in theaters and I'm too busy to actually see it. I hate it when that happens. Until next time, Ghostboy