A grizzled carriage horse, a grizzled father, a grizzled daughter, a dilapidated cottage, an endless windstorm, toil and bleakness, impending doom. Shot in Tarr’s trademark black and white: hyperrealistic close and medium shots, increasingly so with each new film, slightly blurry long shots. Is it a metaphor for the truly bathetic, even absurd reality of human decline and death (spotted with Beckettesque touches, sans almost any humor)? For the impending self-inflicted apocalypse brought on by the noxious bacteria that is the majority of the human species (shown as a reverse Genesis, the world deconstructing)? Is it an affirmation of some of Nietzsche’s metaphysical postulates and most pessimistic sociocultural prophesies? Is it, more simply, an unremitting real-time immersion in the harsh marginalized uneducated rural life that has predominated much of human history, mingled with expressionistic representations of a carriage driver’s worries about the looming death of the ill-treated horse that precariously sustains his and his daughter’s livelihood?
Whatever it is, it’s a spectacular debacle— bordering on unintentional parody of some of the most misguided and cliched avant-garde cinematic pretensions, and almost a parody of itself. Here Tarr extends many of his most trying and torturous qualities, and elides some of his best. (It’s unclear what qualities co-director and partner Ágnes Hranitzky brings to the film, as it seems largely Tarr-esque.) Sátántangó, at 7.5 hours, feels less plodding and wearisome somehow. When the father character takes the extra dram of liquor towards the end of the film, one feels it is in sympathy with the audience’s having already suffered through 2.5 hours of this grueling, tortuous moil. If creativity is indeed the opposite of cynicism, one wonders why, at least consciously, Tarr and Hranitzky felt compelled to make this film: the only conscious glimmer of hope seems to be an implicit respect for sentient dignity. And if there is a cinematic prize for ‘bleakest director,’ Tarr indisputably secures it with this self-professed swansong.
That written, The Turin Horse, a product of remarkable talents, does manage to offer some fine and redeeming qualities. Some striking insights through cinematography, mannerism, and pathos are eked out. As in Tarr’s other later films, the everyday and rote— walking, sitting, eating, looking, sleeping— take on the gravity of the monumental, and however intentional or unintentional on the directors’ parts here, seem to reveal a metaphysics: in what is not said, in what they are not, in what one doesn’t perceive, in what is between the lines, in blankness and silence. The film defies categorization, and is one of the most unique ever made. Is it art? Yes. Is it good art? Sort of. Is it a masterpiece? No. It’s too myopic, incoherent. Is it an indelible and overall profitable life experience? Yes. Should one see it? See Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies over it— they are broader, more insightful and rewarding. This is a film that in particular one must go into, even more than Tarr’s others, entirely openmindedly, taking the experience uncritically for whatever it’s worth, its eccentricities and excesses and whatever effects they bode to have on one in the future, or otherwise one will find oneself squirming and laughing inwardly overmuch— sometimes justifiably, sometimes to palliate the fear of the void. For my part, I would rather watch a film of this fidelity to reality and detail, however onesided, trying, and flawed, over the standard unelightening and sometimes detrimental Hollywood fare any day.
Disclaimer: This review, uncharacteristically, is not pithy. I apologize. I plan to return to form if I write future film reviews.
|For your convenience, a brief key to the artistic, literary, and historical characters in Midnight in Paris: Joséphine Baker (singer), Djuna Barnes (writer), Juan Belmonte (bullfighter), Luis Buñuel (filmmaker), Salvador Dalí (painter), Edgar Degas (painter), T.S. Eliot (poet), F. Scott Fitzgerald (writer), Zelda Fitzgerald (dilettante artist & socialite), Paul Gauguin (painter), Ernest Hemingway (writer), Henri Matisse (painter), Pablo Picasso (painter), Cole Porter (composer), Man Ray (artist), Gertrude Stein (writer), Leo Stein (art collector), Alice B. Toklas (companion & memoirist), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (painter), Georges Braques (painter, merely mentioned), Amedeo Modigliani (painter, merely mentioned), Vincent Van Gogh (painter whose style is referenced in film poster), Adriana (fictional pastiche of Picasso’s muses). . . Ah, the cruel reductiveness of labels
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Amazingly, after a decade or so of wandering in a wilderness of un-inspiration and ineptitude*, at the age of 75, Woody Allen is back to decent form in the twenty-tens. Though often delving furtively into the theme throughout his career, he’s now directly exploring the ways in which people deceive themselves in order to cope with the confusion and difficulty of existence: turning to superstition, mysticism, religion; identifying with some ‘golden period’ of the past; or— maybe the subject of a future film— pining for some impossible future Utopia.
While many artists endorse or entertain the possibility of redemption through spirituality or even societal perfectibility, Allen, inveterately the skeptic (and sometimes cynic), has maintained a more ambivalent and bleaker stance throughout his oeuvre. Yet most of his films of the late ‘60s through late ‘90s are marked by insight and inspiration— qualities directly linked if not to ‘spirituality,’ at least to what could be called wonderment, mystery, the ineffable— and an accompanying exuberance— if sometimes not for life itself then for displaying its struggles beautifully and originally through the celebrated medium of film— belying his intellectual cynicism. “Creativity is the opposite of cynicism” (Esa Saarinen). His best films defamiliarize the ordinary and, however advertantly or inadvertently, offer glimpses of things as they are, and the dim possibility of ‘a peace that passes understanding.’ Salvation can be found in the movement of cities, in romance (if only for a window), in humor, in art, in yet untrammeled purity, in vague overtones of a kind of ‘law’ or, if one will, ‘karma.’
While Midnight in Paris still has traces of the choppiness, forced and anachronistic dialogue, weak characterization or even weak caricature, and inattention to visual detail and emotional nuance that mark his films of the aughts, it readily transcends these minor drawbacks both through the successful realization of a style Allen has intuitively been moving towards since Sweet and Lowdown, one more minimalist, world-weary, ironically deadpan (for those of an advanced age rarely possess the dynamism and connection to present-day mores that more-slapstick humor requires), and Flaubertian than that of his last heyday, and more importantly, inspiration and exuberance.
As Manhattan was to New York City, the film is intended as a paean to Paris: not only the flagging but nonetheless still-resplendent Paris of today, but the historical Paris with all the legendary and romantic qualities surrounding it both in the main character’s mind and the public mind. (Since it’s not filmed as gloriously as Manhattan, and shows off contemporary Paris’ highlights while eliding its problems, native Parisians who don’t quite pick up on its rumination on romanticism might find the tone a little trite.)
Manhattan assumed that however bleak life is, New York City of that time, for Allen’s character, and maybe in general, is one of the greatest places to live, ergo, there are many worse place-times. Allen’s character loves New York for its grandeur, artistic undercurrents, and mad exuberance, and the half-conscious irrepressible romanticism he ascribes to it as a place of reverie and, paradoxically, a poignant metaphor for the decay of Western society. Midnight in Paris takes the somewhat more trenchant view that each place-time has an equal balance of benefits and drawbacks, that one can find happiness and attain one’s allotted capacity for enlightenment anywhere, and that pining for another place-time is dangerous, because it precludes one from putting the utmost into the here-and-now and rightfully pursuing things-as-they-are, and also because one would inevitably feel some things lacking in the past, like the supposed most up-to-date knowledge about existence, and more practically, effective medical treatment, and soon also grow dissatisfied due to the inherent difficulty and blinding familiarity of life.
For all his cerebralism, Woody Allen has always operated much more on intuition and emotion, and his best films provide few answers or clear-cut philosophical postulates, other than, maybe, the impossibility of answers or clear-cut philosophical postulates. “Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind,” says Allen’s character in Manhattan. Nonetheless, in the last decade or so, Allen must either be reevaluating the importance of reason in guiding art, and-or trying to overcompensate with it, for he has become more overtly philosophical, ala Dostoevsky, conveying certain philosophical stances through particular characters (or, just as often, caricatures) and interlacing certain overarching thoughts throughout films— such as Midnight in Paris’ meditation on romanticizing the past. But he usually does this in a kind of offhand, slapdash way, not quite thinking things through (if even to emphasize that things can never be quite thought through), and in Midnight in Paris this is still somewhat the case.
The more thought-through exposition would be: Time, the moving reflection of eternity, seems to move such that species, through ‘evolution’ and manifold unknown forces, gradually develop a greater capacity for Awareness. Beings of every place-time have access to awareness in their own ways, but after a certain historical threshold are able to attain a state resembling equanimity or tranquility or contentment, and past another, are able, exceptionally, to attain absolute awareness (or ‘enlightenment’), if such a thing exists. Maybe existence is teleological and one day all beings will be able to attain enlightenment; maybe not. For the time being, while enlightenment, in theory, can be found in any place-time beyond the aforementioned evolutionary threshold, most individuals are from it. Through whatever conflux of historical forces, some place-times, like people, do inevitably congregate an unusually large number of fine qualities. And, like countries or cities, some place-times are inevitably better suited to certain individuals, even if these individuals will miss many of the perks of the place-time they were born into.
Allen, intuitively, comes to a similar conclusion. As the film is set entirely in Paris, he represents contemporary America through the characters sojourning there: Gil Pender, the protagonist, and the only more or less fully-fleshed character in the film, a West Coast writer conflicted between a cushy life earned by penning vacuous Hollywood screenplays and the uncertainty of following his dream of becoming a legitimate artist and the creative and brotherly values he intuitively esteems. His spoiled, smugly incurious fiancé Inez. Her elitist, solipsistic, xenophobic parents. Her pedantic blowhard academician friend who teaches at the Sorbonne and his cipher of a wife. All painted in broad strokes as caricatures. Contemporary America is thus depicted as degenerate— abundant in materialism, lacking in intellectual curiosity, aesthetic appreciation, friendship, and generosity— in comparison to Paris and, implicitly, Western Europe, which nevertheless, one is made to feel indirectly, have also declined culturally somewhat from their heydays and are in danger of similar stagnation. Pender, played tactfully and tastefully by Wilson, particularly considering that Allen continues infusing some of the male lead dialogue with the shtick of his standard neurotic persona— easily better than Kenneth Branagh’s turn in Celebrity or Jason Biggs’ in Anything Else, the latter film maybe Allen’s lowpoint— like many of the artists of the first half of the 20th century he admires, opts out of America, including his increasingly stifling relationship with Inez and her overbearing parents, for the promise of one of the last bastions of high culture and aesthetic understanding, or at least the one most akin to his sensibilities, where he is more likely to find a romantic partner and friends on his wavelength and become, as it were, self-actualized. He is supposedly wise enough not to remain in the past, like the ever-pining ‘art groupie’ Adriana, and to realize that he is embracing Paris both for its current form— which, especially if there is no other life in the universe, nevertheless might be ‘one of the greatest gigs in town’— and his romantic notions of it.
Whether or not one takes issue with Allen’s tendency to caricature what might have served better as three-dimensional characters, or his indirect admonition of contemporary America, or his lopsidedly positive portrayal of Paris, or Pender’s (and Allen’s) decision to eschew the Paris of the past for that of the present, or any of the other possible foibles and convolutions in the film, what is clear is that Allen has regained degrees of inspiration and technical competence that have mostly eluded him for a decade. The metaphysical Catch-22 of art and visionary pursuits is that without meaning and wonder they— and life— are pointless. (If enlightenment doesn’t involve ‘meaning,’ one of the limited view nevertheless needs to climb it to ‘transcend’ it, and art is such a ladder.) Through effective characterization and caricature, turns of that intangible called inspiration, and a sincere exuberance unseen in the director for at least a decade, Allen makes one feel that life does hold some meaning— in the appreciation of great cities and art, in romance, in camaraderie, in creativity, in dreaming, and, moreover, in wondering. And that sometimes it’s okay to revel a little in romanticism— so long as one is aware of one’s indulgence. And that, on a good day, maybe all of this might amount to more than just personal meaning— maybe some kind of ‘karma’ or ‘peace that passes understanding.’ These are the kinds of meanings one forgets as one grows older and is blinded by the oppressive familiarity of life. If just for rekindling them, Midnight in Paris deserves praise.
*With the exception of Vicki Cristina Barcelona, which may or may not have been something of a happy accident. IE: “The trick in casting is to hire great people, let them do what they do, don’t interfere too much, and then when they’re great, take credit for it… I’ve done this for years. Works like a charm.”