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Director/Coscreenwriter: Marko Škop
2017 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most movies about alcoholics tend to put drunken behavior front and center, offering actors a golden opportunity to give the kind of dramatic performances that awarding organizations love (e.g., Oscar wins for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas  and Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow , and Oscar nominations for Dudley Moore in Arthur  and Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses ). I’ve generally felt that, whether in fiction or real life, people under the influence are the farthest thing from entertaining, but who they are is another matter. Thus, while the title character of Marko Škop’s feature debut, Eva Nová, is addicted to alcohol, her story is complicated, compelling, and deeply moving.
Emília Vášáryová plays Eva, a famous Soviet-era actress in her early 60s to whom we are introduced on the last day of her third trip to rehab. She gives a recitation as her farewell gift to the women in her therapy group, and one of them gives her a tiny plastic camel to remind her that she can go without a drink as long as a camel can go without water. She returns to her flat, goes to a cabinet where she stashed a bottle of vodka before her hospitalization, and dumps it down the sink, turning her head away so as not to catch the scent of liquor. It is a fragile time for Eva, and the emptiness of her apartment seems to weigh on her heavily.
The next day, she boards a train to the countryside to visit her son, Dodo (Milan Ondrík), who lives with his family and Eva’s sister, Manka (Žofia Martišová), in the house where the older women grew up. Dodo’s wife, Helena (Anikó Varga), is not happy to see Eva but invites her in for a cup of tea anyway. Eva’s grandson, Palko (Alexander Lukac), just looks down and refuses to speak with her, and she meets her seven-year-old granddaughter, Noemi (Michaela Melisová), for the first time. When Dodo and Manka return to the house, Dodo refuses to let her stay with them and deposits Eva, her suitcase, and the box of chocolates she brought as a gift on the street. She’s forced to stay at a cheap hotel. The next day, when she checks out, we see that she has eaten all the candy.
This detail of the empty candy box is one of many telling moments that director Škop and Vášáryová use to build an indelible portrait of a vain, weak, older woman whose hungers outstrip her ability to fulfill them. But Eva Nová does more than this—it interrogates the place of women in Slovakian society, and arguably, other societies, and how the ages-old bugaboo against actresses aging plays into Eva’s problems. Vášáryová herself is a legend of Slovak and Czech theatre, film, and television who has claimed the titles of Actress of the Century by the Slovak Journalists Syndicate, as well as First Lady of the Slovak Theatre. Škop strategically positions photos of a younger Vášáryová in Eva’s apartment and uses clips from her films; thus, the actress not only accesses her character’s struggles with alcohol and the damage she has caused to her personal relationships, but also draws on the challenges Vášáryová herself faced at one point in her career trying to continue to work in an industry that worships youth.
Škop has said that he got the idea for Eva Nová from interviewing French superstar Annie Giradot, who covered up her struggles with alcohol, depression, and disillusionment by acting a version of her screen persona for him. Vášáryová is in almost every scene, a true star turn for the actress playing a character 12 years younger than herself (Or is she? Eva may be lying about her age.). Škop’s shooting style is very simple, with straight-on shots of understated moments reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s technique and close-ups that bring us into the space of these characters. The latter technique is especially important for Eva so that we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of her interpersonal interactions, an opportunity we realize we need when we watch her rehearse an apology to her family in the mirror before she turns up on their doorstep.
Škop doubles down on his mirror imaging when Eva encounters the much younger, pregnant wife of her long-time lover at an industry reception, both dressed in red, their repeated images in the bathroom mirrors subtly evoking the horrifying hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Her lover rejected her and her bastard son, and denied her the child he is now having with her replacement. By now, Eva has gotten drunk and abusive, and she is dragged out of the reception as the paparazzi snap the kinds of pictures that made her a pariah in what is the most dramatic scene in the film. Then the film reverts to its air of quiet despair. At home, Eva’s bra strap has crawled back onto her shoulder from its hiding place down the sleeve of her off-the-shoulder dress, another detail of her fight against her aging body.
Although Vášáryová is in nearly every frame of this picture, she does not suck air from her supporting cast. Ondrík is very effective as a man who is beyond bitter with his mother, but bullying to his breadwinner wife and his daughter, whom he trains to repeat that she loves him in an awkward, creepy scene. Martišová is matter-of-factly disgusted with her sister, telling her that she is still paying off the headstone for their mother and rejecting any help other than financial when Eva tries to ingratiate herself. Only Helena gives Eva a break, with Varga hinting at why her character may feel more kindly disposed toward her mother-in-law when Eva confirms that Palko must definitely be Dodo’s son.
Still, Vášáryová shows Eva to be a survivor doggedly determined to keep control of her life. She endures the comedown of working as a shelver in a grocery store and performing a soliloquy for a group of dementia patients at a nursing home. She hangs on to the house where Dodo and his family live after it becomes hers on Manka’s death, refusing to sign it over to Dodo and agree to disappear from his life. In the end, she finds a precarious solidarity with Helena in a final tableau that suggests that women may only have each other to lean on in the end.
Eva Nová screens Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)
Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)
Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)
My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
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Director/Screenwriter: Joe Maggio
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Dennis Farina had one of the more unlikely routes to show business fame and fortune. A dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department before he was elevated from acting as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to performing a small role in the movie. Farina knocked around the Chicago theatre scene, garnering the support of his fellow cops, who came to see and cheer him on. Chicago actors were hot in the 1980s, and Farina was swept up in the talent scouting that took such stage actors as William Peterson, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise on to bigger and better things.
Farina’s Sicilian-American mug and unmistakable working-class accent didn’t outfit him for romantic leads in Hollywood, so, unsurprisingly, he played a lot of cops and crooks. Indeed, Mann would return to Farina again, casting him as cops in the classic 1986 film Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, and as a crime boss in the TV series Miami Vice. What I always appreciated about Farina’s approach to his characters was that he never overplayed their toughness. His real-life experience prevented him from hyping the potential threat his characters posed, allowing his natural gravity from having walked in those shoes do the talking for him. At the same time, he found something individual in each of them and understood the delusions and vulnerabilities that might drive a man to choose a tough-guy profession. I became startlingly aware of just how great an actor he had become after watching one of his last films, The Last Rites of Joe May.
Joe May looks at a few weeks in the life of its title character (Farina), an aged short-money hustler of stolen goods who has just been released from the hospital after six weeks’ treatment for pneumonia. He must have been admitted in warmer weather, because the thin leather coat he wears is no match for the brutal dead of winter that greets him on his way back to his apartment in Little Italy, on the near West Side of Chicago. When he arrives, things look different. His belongings are missing, and signs that a child may be around (drawings on the refrigerator, frilly bedspread, toys) dot the apartment. Unexpectedly, he surprises a young woman in the shower. It seems Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are living there; the landlord (Phil Ridarelli), thinking Joe died, rented the apartment out from under him and tossed all his belongings. A shocked Joe is next to be tossed by an equally shocked Jenny. Now homeless—even his ancient car has been ticketed as abandoned and towed away—Joe has nowhere to go and nothing to do but ride a bus until he is kicked off. One night, Jenny finds him shivering at her bus stop. She takes pity on him and offers him a room in the apartment. He immediately prepares to resume his “career” and get his life back on track.
Farina plays May as a man who has followed his delusions all his life, believing he was destined to do something great and ruining his relationships with his family and friends in the process. His life has been self-centered, petty, careless. His old age is a betrayal of how he sees himself—vital, tough, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. He rejects the advice of his friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) to move into a retirement community with him where he can socialize and relax. Joe’s life project is unfinished, he hasn’t achieved his potential yet, so relaxation is out of the question. The less Farina does, the more he says about May—his quiet determination and a mind racing to outpace the bad fortune that is overtaking him, but not knowing what to do.
According to director/screenwriter Joe Maggio, he based the character of Joe May on the impoverished, displaced pensioner who is the title character of Vittorio de Sica’s classic drama Umberto D. (1952). Unlike Umberto D., Joe May never succumbs to pathos or melodrama. Farina’s May meets the world with bravado and refuses to let his belief in himself crumble. When he goes to see Lenny (Gary Cole), the fixer who fronts him the stolen goods he sells for a percentage of the take, Joe makes a big show for the drivers waiting outside for their hoodlum bosses to call, using what little money he has to hire a taxi and have the driver (Craig Bailey) open the door for him. Lenny’s contempt is palpable, but Joe is polite and controlled.
Sure he is going to get back into the game, he finds that Lenny has fixed him up with a 50-lb. hunk of grassfed New Zealand lamb (“It sells itself.”). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as we watch Farina hump the slowly thawing meat all over town as one grocer after another throws him out on his ear. Farina shows varying shades of anger, exasperation, fatigue, and defiance as Maggio records a day of effort move into a night of failure. Joe loses his courtly ways with Lenny when he goes back to get some respect and spits venom at one of the drivers who tries to offer him some money to tide him over, a cruel act that Farina plays to rip some sympathy for Joe from our hearts. He’s not willing to give Joe a pass, even though we might be.
His saving grace is the tenuous friendship he forms with Jenny and Angelina. Farina’s May is more embarrassed to see Jenny naked than she is shocked to see a stranger in her bathroom. Somehow, he finds it within himself to accept her charity, choosing to believe he can help with the rent, though he has barely a dollar to his name. He bristles at looking after Angelina when Jenny wants to have a romantic weekend away with her boyfriend, Stanley (Ian Barford), a Chicago cop; he was never around for his own son and doesn’t see himself doing “woman’s work.” He proves his inadequacy when he can’t even babysit Angelina properly, “losing” her when he dumps her at Billy’s rest home while he is trying to land a deal. Nonetheless, when he learns that Stanley beats Jenny up and intimidates her, he realizes that it’s finally time to square things with himself, to live up to his potential—which, surprisingly for him, is to do something for somebody else.
Maggio’s script is very observant, very attuned to what happens to us when we find the world has passed us by before we are ready to go. Joe’s neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro) still fronts him a boilermaker from time to time, but the gentrifying neighborhood is now overrun with hipsters who look at Joe’s tavern as the perfect “old man” meet-up bar. One of the hipsters even tries to buy Joe’s leather jacket for its retro cool look, insulting its current owner. When Jenny and Angelina buy Joe a record player for the few opera records of his the landlord didn’t toss in the garbage, we know it’s come from a junk shop, a relatively worthless relic that still fits Joe’s present need.
Maggio’s camera, lensed by Jay Silver, offers the real Chicago, far from the famous buildings, marquees, and lakefront that most films use as signifiers, a great tribute from a New York native who changed the location of the film from his city when he cast Farina. This film lingers on outside-the-Loop streets, underpasses, working-class residential neighborhoods, and meat-packing facilities. I’d almost say this film isn’t recognizably anywhere to people who don’t live here, but the presence of Farina and a raft of other Chicago actors gives the film a distinctive voice and vibe. A rap of the knuckles on a tabletop signifies thanks and recognition, short, plain-spoken sentences and expressive looks emphasize the understated staccato of a Chicago conversation, inadequate outerwear gets a matter-of-fact “That’s a little thin for the weather.”
The Last Rites of Joe May is full of small, telling moments that paint a picture of a place, a time, and especially a man whose life amounted to something after all just in the telling of it. The film builds believably to its inevitable end, honestly earning Joe the respect he craved all of his life. Dennis Farina’s tour-de-force performance is an appropriate legacy for a great actor who shared his soul and passion to the end of his life.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Larisa Shepitko
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“War is hell” is a truism for most people, as it should be, but the fact that large numbers of people continue to wage war and fight shows that a lot of people have a lot more complicated, even positive relationship with it. Such films as The Hurt Locker (2008), American Sniper (2014), and even The Third Man (1949) suggest that for some, war offers purpose, thrills, and profits that no other experience in life has or possibly ever will. The excitement and romance of serving one’s country in combat is at the core of Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s Wings, a film that offers a unique perspective on the familiar subject of the “old soldier,” as well as a telling commentary on Soviet life, by focusing on a female fighter pilot whose glory days are long behind her.
Nadezhda “Nadya” Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a decorated veteran of World War II, is a school superintendent and civic leader in her provincial town. She faces the usual difficulties of Soviet bureaucrats of the time—her shoddily built school is crumbling, her small staff works overtime to make repairs and manage the day-to-day running of the school, and her students are undisciplined and insolent in the face of authority. During a gathering at which she is to accept an award for the school, some teasing between a male and female student gets out of hand, and the boy shoves the girl hard against a post. An outraged Nadya, her moment in the sun ruined, demands that the boy apologize in front of her guests and his peers. When he refuses, she expels him.
This incident is only the first of several in which Nadya must confront the breakdown of the values she holds dear and the respect she once commanded. Nadya, who never married, has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), who has grown distant from her. She learns after the fact that Tanya has married her college professor, Igor (Vladimir Gorelov), an older man Nadya has never met. Hurt that she was not consulted nor invited to the wedding, Nadya invites herself over to the newlyweds’ apartment while the couple is entertaining a gathering of Igor’s male colleagues. She listens to the men talk, pinpoints the philosopher of the group as Igor, and goes over to shake his hand. She has guessed wrong, and fumbles awkwardly as Tanya introduces her to Igor.
Despite her very contained and defined look—a severe haircut, close-fitting suits, and buttoned-up blouses—Nadya is a woman who doesn’t seem to know where she fits anymore. Shepitko emphasizes the irony of her situation in her opening shots: a close-up view of a tape measure moving quickly around a body as a tailor records the dimensions of a person who turns out to be Nadya. She adopted a girl instead of a boy because she thought mothers and daughters become closer, yet this plan hasn’t worked out at all. She commanded respect as a flyer, yet now her students draw unflattering pictures of her on their chalkboard and tell her to her face that they despise her. She is refused entry into a restaurant because it doesn’t seat unescorted women, and is sent next door to a tavern mainly populated by men and treated like one of the boys. She visits a museum that has an exhibit honoring Soviet fighter pilots and finds her picture in the collection—she is quite literally a museum piece, her previous life as dead as the bones her curator and would-be boyfriend collects.
Her longing to break free asserts itself frequently throughout the film. As we all do at moments of stress, disappointment, or boredom, Nadya escapes into daydreams. She imagines an open sky around her, the sun peeking through clouds, as Shepitko’s camera dips and tilts from inside Nadya’s thoughts. During a sojourn to a riverside beach, Nadya watches planes glide through the sky doing barrel rolls and finds herself traveling to the nearby airfield where one of her former comrades is training these pilots. The two reminisce and talk about getting the gang together for dinner and drinks, though they and we know this gathering will never happen. Too much time and life have passed. Nadya has only her memories now, including one of the man (Evgeniy Evstigneev) she would have married had his plane not crashed, and her duty. As she tells Tanya, “I never even knew such words as these: ‘Let someone else do it.’”
Shepitko’s eye and ear for detail are admirable. Nadya asks the curator if anyone has brought him a samovar for his collection, referring to an outmoded teapot she no doubt used in her younger days in sarcastic reference to her own age. Shepitko shoots a close-up of a high heel sinking into the school’s cheap floor, turned to putty by a pervasive dampness. She very effective isolates the charged look between Nadya and the student she expelled at the crowded tavern and catches the paralyzed look of the curator when Nadya abruptly asks him to marry her. Shepitko honors the solidarity of women of a certain age when Nadya and a restaurant owner bond over a cup of coffee and dance joyfully together in a spontaneous burst of energy. That energy extends to the final, inevitable scene where Nadya may or may not have found herself again. The open-ended shot of a patch of sky ends Wings on an ambiguous note.
Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the most important early Russian filmmakers and a pioneer of montage theory. She died in a car crash in 1979 with only a handful of credits to her name, though her final feature film, The Ascent (1977), made her international reputation by winning the top prize at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. However, it’s easy to see from Wings that Shepitko was on an upward trajectory that would have lasted for years had she lived. Her able direction of both the camera of Igor Slabnevich and her actors, especially the many shades she elicits from Bulgakova and the pointed portrayals of her supporting cast, mark her as a particular talent steeped in a film tradition not even Soviet control could contain.
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Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My mom was born in 1926 on the Near West Side of Chicago. She went to grade school and high school in Chicago, and moved to the Near North suburbs along with many of her friends and relatives in the 1950s. She and my dad still had friends from their school days, and after he died, she and her childhood friends became constant companions. She spoke to me about their quirks, especially Shirley, whose mind was starting to wander and who would repeat things over and over again and yell at waitresses for hot coffee when she finally took a sip only to find it had gone cold while she rambled on. My mother had some complaints about the people from the old days and her early days in the suburbs who had come with her into old age, but never was she discourteous to any of them, never did she think of giving them the heave-ho, and never were they less than friends.
You don’t have to be past 50 to appreciate Another Year, Mike Leigh’s most subdued, cohesive film in years, but it helps. My memory of my parents’ friendships has helped me internalize their values of loyalty and acceptance of human frailty, particularly as I get older. I sense that younger, Internet-age viewers may have a very different take on friendship, and much more difficulty finding the kind of acceptance my parents’ generation—and even mine—were generous with. I’ve seen a number of youthful film critics criticize the central married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri Hepple (Ruth Sheen), as smug and condescending to their unhappy, unattached friends Ken (Peter Wight) and Mary (Lesley Manville). In my opinion, this view says rather more about the critics than it does about the characters. All I see are two people who have room in their hearts and lives for the people they have known for many years and provide them with a soft place to fall when life has dealt them the hard knocks Tom and Gerri have been fortunate to avoid by dint of luck, love, and commitment.
A deeply pessimistic note is set during the film’s prologue. A very sour-faced woman (Imelda Staunton) is having trouble sleeping and has gone to her local clinic for some sleeping tablets. Tanya (Michele Austin), the pregnant doctor tending to her, sees her obvious anger and depression. Tanya writes her a short-term prescription, but suggests she see a counselor at the clinic to get at the underlying cause of her sleeplessness. The counselor turns out to be Gerri. Gerri’s affinity for helping depressives may explain why she and Mary, an administrative assistant at the clinic, have remained friends for 20 years, all through Mary’s financially ruinous divorce and long-term affair and break-up with a married man. But Gerri has an energetic, partying streak in her, as evidenced by a seven-month trip she and Tom took from Australia back to England early in their lives and some hell-raising she remembers when talking with Ken; in the early years of their friendship, Mary would have been a natural fit for Gerri, and their bond seems genuine.
Because he loves Gerri and is an amiable person, Tom also befriends Mary, a frequent dinner guest and occasional overnight lodger when she’s had too much wine to drink. Gerri returns the favor with Tom’s old friend Ken, a civil servant who’d retire if he had anything to do with his free time, and whose gluttonous eating and endless beer guzzling fill the void left by his bitterly ended relationships and the deaths of his closest friends. He rails against the young people who have taken over his favorite pub, feeling as the aged often do, that he and all he values are being discarded and forgotten. Tom and Gerri try to remind him that they were once loud and obnoxious, too, to help him see that every generation has its day.
Leigh literally pushes the notion of “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” by dividing his narrative into the four growing seasons, beginning in the spring as Tom and Gerri plant their crops in a community garden and ending with the plow-over in winter. Other new beginnings in “Spring” include Mary’s decision to buy a car that she expects to change her life and Gerri and Tom’s 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) heading to Dublin to attend the wedding of yet another friend. “Summer” sees the birth of Tanya’s baby, and love is on Mary’s mind, as she rejects the good-hearted, but physically revolting Ken at a garden party at Gerri and Tom’s to make an awkward, understated play for Joe. Mary’s new life curdles fast in “Autumn” when her car turns out to be a costly fixer-upper and her traffic and parking fines mount up. Worse, Joe brings home his girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) to meet his parents for the first time on a day Mary is scheduled to come by. Mary’s romantic disappointment comes out in extreme rudeness to Katie. “Winter” brings endings as Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and the rest of family mourn Ronnie’s wife Linda, the deep-freeze Mary has been in with Gerri since her rude behavior finally thaws, and Mary’s “glass half full” finally empties in a closing shot of her thousand-mile stare into the abyss of her sadness.
As is obvious from this synopsis, nothing terribly dramatic occurs onscreen, or offscreen, for that matter. The film is, to use Tom’s word, “inexorably” about life. Leigh and his actors have emerged from the months-long creation of their characters with rounded, relatable human beings. None of the characters got where they are overnight, and they’ll move forward inexorably as well. We learn their histories in bits and pieces, in remembrances, cold glances, a warm pat on the bottom. They have work they perform onscreen and talk about in their off hours: Mary, Gerri, and Tanya at the clinic, Tom at a building site where he works as a engineering geologist, Joe advising an Indian immigrant at a public-aid office. There is conflict, for example, when Ronnie’s resentful and long-absent son Carl (Martin Savage) comes late to Linda’s funeral and quarrels with his father and Tom back at Ronnie’s house. Yet nothing horrible happens—Carl rudely tells Linda’s coworkers who have come to pay their respects to leave and then flees himself, while Ronnie packs a bag and goes to stay with Tom and Gerri for a few days. The emotion of a funeral is there and real, but mainly in a dislocated, quiet way. Even Carl never gets very loud; he seems genuinely distressed in his prickish way.
Many of the performers, like Wight, Broadbent, Savage, Sheen, and Manville, have worked with Leigh over the years, and the family feeling of an ad hoc repertory company greatly enhances the deep emotional resonance of the film. Broadbent and Sheen work so harmoniously that one might mistake them for a married couple offscreen. I was particularly taken with their teamwork in the garden, perhaps reflecting on my own experiences with the hubby in our community garden. It all was so familiar, so real. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope outdid himself in this film, creating an ambience for each season that strongly communicates the passage of time. In “Spring,” for instance, his camera seems to so capture the dampness and fecundity of the soil that I could practically smell the mulch and feel the relief of a hot cup of tea Gerri clutched to warm her from a sudden rain. Similarly, the first shot of “Summer” is a landscape of gold, with Gerri turning her face upward to gather in the sun’s warmth. Indeed, from the way she is photographed to the plush sweaters she favors, Gerri is a fully realized creature of warmth, a fitting flame for the rest of the characters to fly to.
Lesley Manville, however, really seems to be at the core of this film. That may be due to her fearlessly vulnerable performance that shines just a bit brighter than anyone else in the magnificent cast. Mary is infuriating, but impossible to resist. One wants to slap her for the horrid way she treats poor Ken, but Manville never lets us lose sympathy for Mary, a lost soul if ever there was one. My sympathy for her increased exponentially after Joe’s cruel treatment of her when she flirts with him at the garden party. He leads Mary on, agreeing with her that they “click,” playing a teasing sexual game about naming his body parts, and then telling Mary when she asks him how old she looks “…. 60 …. 70.” She assumes after he says 70 that he’s goofing on her, but her initial shock at “60” reveals Joe to be, as Katie says, a “dark horse,” that is, more cruel than his genial facade would suggest. This scene is a master class in acting, with Manville and Maltman hitting their beats with exquisite timing, Joe’s yielding impenetrability deflecting Mary’s tired feints and faded hope. The scene also encapsulates the indifference of time to the pain of the old and weary; Mary deserved more out of life, but time waits for no one, and youth will laugh as it pushes age over the side of the ark.
Films that not only capture aged adults moving off the main highway of life, but also treat them with good-natured sympathy are rare indeed—as rare as friendships that last a lifetime. I wonder what will happen to the ascendant generation that is so heavily invested in virtual friendships when it is their turn to move along. Whatever it is, I hope they meet up with some of the kindness and acceptance found in Another Year.
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Director: David Fincher
By Roderick Heath
When I was 10 years old, my mother, a nurse, took a weekend job as the senior matron at a nursing home. I would often come to work with her and talk to the aged residents, helping to bring them dinner, making friends. I would run around acting out adventure stories. One of the grey-haired old ladies would always come up to me and ask, “Are you winning?” In its way, a half-empty nursing home was the greatest playground a boy could have. I also came to understand mortality there in an intimate way. One night, I found my mother attending to the body of one of the old men who had just died. Death looked awfully peaceful to me. Handily, if a trifle insensitively, the funeral parlour was right next door.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button put this back into my mind, mostly because the bulk of the first hour is indeed about a young man (albeit one who’s physically old) utterly at home in an old folks’ residence. It chases a feeling I understand from that experience. An attempt to conjure an elegiac epic out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s caustic short story, it retains one key idea of Fitzgerald’s aesthetic: the need to be very careful about what one wishes for, be it wealth, love, or to defy the usual strictures of age. Benjamin, born on Armistice Day, 1918, is a crinkled, miniature old man at the point of birth and a mindless infant when he dies at the age of 85, thus treating with deadly seriousness the story’s inspiration, a quip by Mark Twain that youth is, in essence, wasted on the young. Button seems to tap into a great American fantasy of never growing old, indeed, of regressing to something more pure and vigorous.
In the film, Benjamin’s life is linked somehow to another tale, shorter in the telling, of a blind clockmaker (oh yes, we’re deep in fable territory now), Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas). Having lost his son in WWI, Gateau built a clock for New Orleans’ railway station that turns backwards—a hopeless cry for time to be reversed. Benjamin, too, is in reverse. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), horrified by the sight of his child, leaves him on the steps of an old folks’ home, where he’s adopted by a black nurse (or maid, or whatever she is—it’s never quite spelt out), Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and her beau Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Benjamin fits right in at first amongst the decrepit residents.
In the story, he’s born fully formed, both physically and intellectually, an ornery old codger who’s irritable and bossy with both his nurses and his glum father. In the film, as he grows, er, younger, Benjamin manages to go through all the usual rites of passage. He learns to read and talk, and then to walk, inspired by a preacher at a revival. He gets a first job on a tugboat working with its captain, Mike (Jared Harris), has sex for the first time with a prostitute, and has his first real affair with a middle-aged, lovelorn woman named Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) who, married to a chilly British trade official-cum-spy, counts herself a wash-up. All the while, he carries a torch for Daisy (Elle Fanning, later Cate Blanchett), whom Benjamin met when she was a young girl who visited her grandmother in the home. At first, it’s a hopeless romance—she’s a pixie and he looks like a midget George Burns—but eventually it flowers.
It’s the sort of yarn that can finish up dire translated in the literalism of cinematic images, so Button is careful to make analogies between growing old and growing young—a nearly three-hour edition of Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about your first and last birthday parties being much alike—as a yardstick for emotional and physical realism to couch its conceit. Here, the film is a success: it subordinates disbelief and moves according to its own necessity. Button’s at its best when it’s being larkish. A great running gag has one of Benjamin’s elderly friends constantly recalling that’s he’s been struck by lightning seven times, always cueing a silent-movie-fashioned flashback to each occasion. But that’s the sort of throwaway touch that the otherwise elephantine film lacks. There’s a stream of cinematic invention and commitment from the cast and technicians that pays off sometimes in fine images, from the withered Benjamin rising from his wheelchair to take his first stilted steps, to the last shot of the magical clock being swamped by the rising flood waters following Hurricane Katrina. The production happily shows off all the cash, craft, and spit-polish Hollywood can still muster better than anyone. The story is absorbing, intriguing, and ambitious. And yet there’s something empty about Benjamin Button, both man and film, which fails to grasp the brass ring of greatness it’s so patently reaching for.
Button fails to make a point that doesn’t seem easily reducible to homily. Aging is natural, love is blind, all things pass, etc. It’s not a social portrait, or a satire, or a whimsical fantasia, or an investigation of our concepts of age and time. It’s ultimately just another tale of perfect love spoilt by shit happening. The promise of that symbolic clock, the code in its construction for the legacy of rage and grief over human waste, finds no analogy in Benjamin’s life, which remains divorced from the stage he moves across. The clock, which in the film’s last image is drowned, seems to promise some concept of both history and humanity that’s never drawn out. Wars come and go, eras pass, arts, morals, cultures, societies alter, and though Benjamin is a player in these (he loses most of his friends on the tugboat in a battle with a U-boat during WWII), his life offers no perspective on any of this, except in relation to Daisy and his daughter Charlotte. Despite all the ferocious effort and money expended on constructing an illusion of passing time, time doesn’t pass—only story points are checked off. The film tries to floor us with its vision of life and death, but the longer it goes on, the less interesting and emotional it is.
Commentators have noted that the film follows the template for Eric Roth’s screenplay for Forrest Gump (1994), and it’s true, though it’s not nearly as trite a film. Nonetheless, the similarities are uncomfortable: the shallow cultural touchstones (tent show preachers, Teddy Roosevelt, George Balanchine, The Beatles); the protagonist goes to a war that feels like a tedious joke until it provides a great way for some major supporting characters die. Benjamin, like Forrest, is a perpetual outsider boy-man whose life thrusts him into the most extraordinary places, and yet he exists in a fiscal and political vacuum. His untainted amour causes him to cringe at his true love’s messy, ungainly efforts to be a rare and extraordinary creature: he desists from spoiling his love by giving in to her first, straining-to-be-wanton come-on. It’s as if Roth is trying to keep alive another American tradition—the one Leslie Fiedler identified—of the incapacity of traditional American narrative and its heroes to deal with adult sexuality.
Likewise, the film imagines the past as a racism- and sexism-free land of infinite jest. There’s no prejudice in the old folks’ home, or anywhere else. Benjamin’s contrasting perspective on all things is never used for anything. Benjamin is passive. He has no intellectual depth, no inner existence that we comprehend, and doesn’t seem especially psychologically troubled. He maintains a serene disconnection from life (which fits Pitt’s withheld, too-cool-for-you acting persona to a tee), and at no point bemoans his lot. He ought to be in fundamental conflict with his world, but instead, he drifts along almost serenely. His one moral act of actual consequence is to leave his family.
The characters Benjamin encounters—a Shakespeare-quoting black servant, a witty and wise African pygmy, a drunken Irish tugboat captain who’s a self-tattooing, self-proclaimed artist with a deep knowledge of hummingbirds— all seem to have been sent down from a fantasy-whimsy version of central casting, the sorts of flourishes artists attempting to tell tall tales pack into their narratives, thus murdering the art of telling the tall tale. One sequence painstakingly analyses the various small causes that contribute to Daisy receiving a career-killing injury, a patent piece of we-watched-Run, Lola, Run-too jimcrackery that only establishes how tired some of this gimmickry and faux-philosophy is getting. The final montage of its characters, as Button describes their diverse characteristics, is more poignantly reminiscent of a Microsoft ad than anything else.
The point that Twain was making was that in a fair universe, the wisdom and control that comes upon a man in his older years ought to be matched to his greatest years of physical robustness. The film cops out On Benjamin’s confronting the terror of mortality by skipping over the crucial age between when Benjamin sets out to ride around the world on his motorcycle and returns as a demented child—he’s there and then he’s gone. It’s a rather illogical cap: why would a man whose body is growing younger be afflicted by an impairment brought about specifically by the effects of aging? Button’s full of such holes and unconvincing elements. Why does the U-boat only send up one man to fire a machine gun? What does Benjamin do with Button’s Buttons for all those years between his father’s death and his selling the company? Why doesn’t anyone notice this miracle of nature? Why would Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war be broadcast unedited on a Russian radio station? Why don’t Daisy and Benjamin share the rest of their generation’s disdain for grooving to the Beatles?
Fincher’s oeuvre in a nutshell is this: whether he’s going for punkish anarchism (Fight Club ), scifi dystopia (Alien 3 ), or nihilistic horror (Se7en ), there’s no intellectual level to his films—they’re studies of poses. Before Zodiac (2007), his films were composed of flashy images attached to material that’s always on the level of a talented teenager’s first effort at an underground graphic novel. Zodiac tried for gritty procedural, but finally took refuge in its own wizardry and avoided really entering the dread of the unexplained.
Fincher has not here achieved a new emotionalism, but simply swapped his shallow macho attitude for another—an affectation of rusticated, sepia-hued sentimentality. Tim Burton’s similar Big Fish (2003) was derided, but it was a superior film, because it presented in a more dialectic fashion the urge to explore reality through metaphor, and presented boldly the moment when its fantasist hero confronted his inability to escape mortality. Albert Finney lolling despairingly in the bath with the wife he adores, betrays, and is bound to lose, is less cosy and far more to the point.
Fincher tries for poetic tragedy, and instead comes perilously close to Norman Rockwellian schlock. The film is a solid wall of eventually tiresome fakery, endless CGI sunsets and snowstorms. Sainted voiceovers proliferate. Like Zodiac, it flinches from its natural ending in a bottomless abyss. Fincher is the kind of director to whom reality is an inconvenience that can always be digitally repaired. Aiming for transcendence, he achieves only a diverting Hollywood weeper—The Notebook (2004) with a gimmick. Finally The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for all its self-underlining pretences, is no work of art: it’s Hollywood at its most troublingly self-important.