Monday, April 24, 2006

Code Very Unknown

I live in Greenville, SC, a town whose idea of "independent" or "alternative" cinema is something that has just been nominated for an award and maybe has a couple of gay characters. So, I had heard of Austrian director Michael Haneke but had never come close to seeing any of his films.

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After reading a blog about "Code Unknown" at Cinemarati, I ordered it from Netfix. When I finally got around to watching it I was confused, depressed, but also affected more than any movie I've seen in a long time.

The only cast member I was familiar with was Juliette Binoche. The "English Patient" Oscar winner plays an actress who is the center of a number of storylines. Her brother-in-law has left home and shows up at her apartment, her husband is a photojournalist in Kosovo, and an African she encounters on the street sends the film off in another direction - a story of the life immigrants lead in Europe.

Haneke's vision is of a Europe divided by race, class, and religion. No one seems to be able to bridge those gaps, and the film ends with separation rather than easy resolution. I should add at this point I'm completely at a loss to explain the images of deaf children and drums that appear throughout the movie.

"Code Unknown" would never be released by an American studio. It has no three-act structure, no sympathetic hero at the center, no humor, and in the strictest sense no plot. How did we as Americans get conditioned to these narrative restrictions, ad what do we do about it? Why are Europeans so different? These are of course unanswerable questions, but that doesn't mean I'll stop trying to figure them out.

(image-screensaver.co.uk)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Bad indie movies

The Dying Gaul is a movie directed by Craig Lucas, based on one of his plays. Lucas is best known for the body-switching romance Prelude to a Kiss, and has written several screenplays. Gaul is his first directorial effort.

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The plot: Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) is a gay screenwriter whose lover and agent Malcolm has just died. One of Robert's scripts - "The Dying Gaul" - attracts the attention of a studio executive named Jeffrey (Campbell Scott). But there's one problem. Jeffrey gives a long recitation about why Robert's screenplay won't work unless the gay couple at its center are made heterosexual. Robert is of course resistant at first - it's strongly implied the script is autobiographical - but tempted by fame (and Jeffrey's $1 million offer)he makes the change.

Sounds like a promising setup for a satire about sexual hypocrisy and the inanity of Hollywood, right? Well, don't get your hopes up. Jeffrey is bisexual and doesn't waste much time beginning an affair with Robert. Jeffrey's wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson) initially is taken with Robert, but when she inadvertently discovers the affair things turn sour.

Now the problem: To wreak havoc on Robert, what does Elaine do? She sends Robert instant messages pretending to be his dead lover! You read that right. Inexplicably, Elaine has gotten hold of a cache of information about Robert's relationship with Malcolm and uses it to mainpulate Robert until she can confront both men with the affair.

I could go on about the logical improbabilities and difficulties of making scenes of instant messaging interesting. It all leads to a rather anticlimactic ending. But watching The Dying Gaul made me think of the special kind of pain a cinephile feels when watching a bad low-budget/indie movie.

Lucas clearly wants to tell a serious story about grief, but he has no feel for plot or motivation. Sarsgaard's role is the best written, but Scott and Clarkson are stranded. Couldn't these talented actors detect the problems in the script? Or are opportunities for actors of this caliber limited in mainstream Hollywood? It occurs to me that the only big sudio movie I can remember seeing Clarkson in is the hockey drama Miracle. (Well, The Untouchables, but she was unknown then.)

Of course, good indie films are out there and this year's Oscars prove good actors will want to be in them. For every Capote or Crash there's five underwritten failures like Gaul or well-intentioned bores like The Ballad of Jack and Rose. I guess the trick is learning to tell the difference.

(Dying Gaul image - Yahoo)