16 March, 2009

Nothing Bad To Say

Little later than planned/promised but here goes with a trio of films that I utterly adored in the past couple of months:

Waltz With Bashir was as visually arresting as I could have wished for. This telling of a set of events in the 1982 Israeli campaign in Lebanon is presented as an animated documentary with a personal tilt, where director Ari Folman re-learns events that he was part of some 26 years previously. There was a sort of guilt that set in for me when I paid attention to the documentary, that I wasn't paying full attention to the animation, and vice versa.

The effect of the technique used is highly reminiscent of rotoscoping - during the interviews Folman conducts it would take a mammoth effort to avoid comparisons with A Waking Life - and complements the film perfectly. Folman is exploring his lost memory in a perfectly post-modern way, forming human bridges to his forgotten past and allowing enough reconstruction to take place that his one niggling dream-scene slots right in.

And for this, the presentation is perfect. Waltz With Bashir is one half dream to one half devastating reality. While some scenes allow Folman or his contemporaries to float dully off into reverie, remembering the changed towns they came home to and surreal things they saw, others heighten the terror of the truth: in this cartoon world bullets, bombs and child soldiers are more present than they could be if filmed.

This is to say nothing of the wonderful score set down by the great Max Richter or the macabre yet surprisingly gentle humour that runs throughout the film. Or the perfect compassion that fills every frame, every pore. Waltz With Bashir is a work that treats its character as human, that steers away from simple answers. And seems more real than real, right into its final reel. Then, it leaves the viewer with no doubts about what reality is.


Documentary also receives a make-over in The Class ("Entre Les Murs") where, confusingly, the author of the semi-autobiographical subject material of the same title plays the main protagonist, François, who is French teacher to a class of teenagers in inner-city Paris. The students (played by real students in a semi-improvised fashion) are a mixed bunch. Not only is talent and committment as varied as might be expected in any classroom, but François' charges include pupils of European, West Indian, Chinese and both North and West African descents, which on occasion leads to tension.

The vast majority of the film takes place in a single classroom. Multiple cameras are used to pick out the subjects in their classroom, one focussing on the teacher, another on the pupils as they respond, and one more has an eye for detail. The sensation when things go well is of a warm embrace, which can quickly turn sour and claustrophobic. Our omniscience extends only beyond these 4 walls on a handful of occasions, when events are discussed in the playground,headmaster's office, or among the traumatised occupants of the staff-room.

On the battleground, François' familiar teaching style is capable of engaging and delivering great results, but can also de-rail proceedings hugely. The 9 months we observe are certainly not without their highlights, but it's a warts-and-all depiction where a mis-step can send repercussions reverberating through the rest of the school. And with François' attitude, and that of his class, mis-steps are inevitable, making parent-teacher councils a microcosm of conservative-liberal debates in schools (and media) everywhere. The Class is a film that doesn't hesitate to deliver joyous moments alongside crushing ones, presenting a hero who can easily fall and villains we desperately want to pull through. More-real-than-real, it feels like we've taught a full school year in just over two hours.


Already reality is a theme here, as I come to my favourite film of recent times, The Wrestler. I don't want to qualify that because if I have a more perfect cinema experience anytime soon I doubt my heart will take the strain. I can't do this justice (although I shall try) because The Wrestler not only has to be seen, it must be lived! Darren Aronofsky's 4th feature film takes a less-than-trendy form of entertainment and makes it a universal tale of broken dreams and triumph.

Applying compassion liberally to the semi-pro wrestling ring seems like it should be a thankless task, but among the sweat, broken glass, staple guns and chest hair, Mickey Rourke makes it easy. It's hard to imagine a more outstanding acting performance than the one we get from Rourke (it was well documented he took training for the role seriously), a career role where his fading wrestling glory sits awkwardly alongside his difficult romance with stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and reconciliation with estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

Much though I admire Sean Penn, to say Rourke was passed over for the Oscar is a mammoth understatement. The Ram, hardly ever off the screen, displays all the scars of the past across his face and stands boldly, beautifully and self-destructively above his circumstances and (immaculately realised) surroundings. The elation pouring out from the screen when The Ram interacts with his fans, even during a memorable scene where he puts in a showstopping performance behind a deli counter, feels nothing but unutterably true.

Things don't go The Ram's way, precisely. But it's never lost on the viewer that this film is about performance. Every time we view Rourke, channeling Randy, from behind, taking in his gait, his shabby environs (that feel absolutely accurate), we feel how different this is to life in the ring, that everything outside that is a pale shadow. The joy when he does what he does best, the pride that radiates from the screeen during the ring scenes and the respect he automatically commands when he's in costume cast aside any feeling we might have that we're watching a lovable loser, and never more than in the final scene.

As Randy Robinson stands atop the ropes, trembling, whipping the crowd into a frenzy, ready to perform his signature move, we see him for who he would be, and at that moment is: The one man standing triumphant as the universal, doing the thing he's best at and proud of. In short, being the greatest.

That's also how I feel about this film. I'm 100% as slavishly enamoured with it as I sound. It's beautifully made in almost every regard, it's emotionally brutal, it feels more-real-than-real, it understands that both truths and happy endings are subjective, and it leaves us believing that things matter. It embraces all humanity through one character, and not just the pretty bits.


What makes these films special? I'm not certain, but I've been trying to trace several threads. Technicality is important, films have to be well-made for any theme, however powerful, to kick in. Novelty, gimmicks, distinctive styles are not to be sniffed at, provided there's some content behind them. A full world, populated by characters as complex as human beings always are, is a must. A sense of purpose, a meaningful story to tell, makes a film worthwhile. These films are of consequence, in the way they are written and made, not by being consciously weighty.

And I suspect the 'transcendence' I feel about these particular films comes from symbolism. Within each, the well-presented particular is able to represent more universal human and emotional forms. I feel particularly fortunate to have seen all these things coming together three times already this year.

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