Thursday, December 11, 2014

On Robert Greene's Actress

I think I "related" to parts of Robert Greene's non-fiction film in the way so many other people "related" to Boyhood, in that when we join her, stay-at-home mom Brandy Burre is very much looking to reestablish an identity for herself outside the home. This manifests itself as one of the main threads of the film's story: her preparing to restart her acting career after a several years' hiatus. That need for a creative outlet, for a definition of self that doesn't revolve around one's children (and the guilt inherit in that, a little voice telling you that not devoting yourself 100% to your children makes you a bad parent) is something I imagine every parent experiences, especially for those of us who abandon our careers for full-time parenthood. But also, more obliquely and alien to my own experience, this identity shift for Ms. Burre manifests itself in the collapse of her relationship with her partner Tim. This ultimately becomes the dominant storyline of the film: while Burre looks for jobs and gets her hair done and meets with friends, nothing really happens on the job front, but the relationship story unfolds dramatically in time as Tim gradually moves out of the house and we learn ever so little about what actually happened to break them up (both the proximate events and the emotions that underlied it).

But how much of what we see is actually true? Early in the film, during a standard documentary-style "confessional", Burre says a line and then repeats it, with a different emphasis, as if in another take of a staged scene. This, along with her profession as an Actress, clues us in to be wary of the "actuality" of what we see, at odds with the documentary-style of the film (hand-held camera, live (in one instance rudely interrupted) sound, natural lighting). Some shots are clearly staged, notably a slow motion one of Burre washing dishes in a 1950s style red dress, an image referenced in the film's poster (and echoed in the old movie posters that line Burre's home, which are pointedly revealed to not belong to her). Other shots are very "movie" shots: ice breaking up on the Hudson River, a cut to an abstract orange and pale blue of a sunset during one of Burre's interviews, a shot of her walking along an overpass, briefly recalling Millennium Mambo (a film with which it would make a great double feature) in its sheer movie-star gorgeousness. Half the film looks like "reality", the other half like "cinema".

Doubling down on the ontological riddle is the fact that Burre's conflict is identity-based: she finds herself playing a role (housewife) which is unsatisfying to her. Throughout the film she will adopt a series of other "roles": singer, yoga instructor, party hostess, wife, daughter, unfaithful spouse, "other" woman, abuse victim, none of which fully encapsulate who she truly is (and some of which are explained away as mistaken identities, as when her facial bruises are explained to be the result of a simple fall but which people assume are domestic violence. At least that's what she tells us.) In the same way Burre can't find a single role that defines "her" (though for the outside world "that woman who was on The Wire" seems to apply), we are left knowing that we are unable to understand her or her life.

An actor is a relatablity machine. They are the medium through which we experience scenarios, stories, worlds, lives, roles that are (usually but not always) unavailable to us in our everyday lives. Everything an actor does is a lie, and yet, if done in a certain way, the emotions they inspire seem real. Actress is not so much an investigation into Simulation as The Real (or Hyper-Real), as a riff on the unreliability of our understanding of the relationship between cinema and reality. Like a puzzle box with pieces missing, it asks more questions than it answers. It's a documentary about a woman who is an actress and who may be acting for all or part of the time we see her on-screen. Does it make a difference if the story of her breakup is real or staged? Does it make a difference if her to-the-camera expressions of her emotions are real or performed? Is it possible for the camera to capture the core of a person? Can anybody every really know anyone?

This, I think, is how Actress escapes Boyhood's relatability problem (which, it should be said is more a matter of that film's reception than anything inherent in the film itself). To the extent that much of the critical response to Richard Linklater's film seemed to rest on the fact that viewers' saw reflected on-screen their own life experiences, it worked as a kind of self-reinforcement, a form of flattery. I don't feel affirmed by Burre's identity crisis, but to the extent that she expresses on-screen a conflict I've felt in my own life, I feel complicit in it. By undermining a layer of verisimilitude, Greene encourages not identification but questioning, both of the film's storyline and of our own relationship to the roles we play. We're asked to both be emotionally moved by the character while at the same time acknowledging that she is an Actress and that what we are seeing is potentially fake (and just as potentially real). I've experienced some of what Burre expresses, but not all of it, do I relate to those things in the same way, do they have the same emotional impact on me? Boyhood tells a story that for many reflects certain aspects of their self, which is fine and good and many films, Actress among them, do the same thing. But Actress pushes further, challenging our understanding of what the self is, asking why we want to see ourselves in performances, as performers.

What I really want to know is: can I nominate Burre for a Best Actress award this year, or not?

Sunday, December 07, 2014

1999 Endy Awards

These are the 1999 Endy Awards, wherein I pretend to give out maneki-neko statues to the best in that year in film. Awards for many other years can be found in the Endy Awards Index. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I've seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners are bolded. And the Endy goes to. . .

Best Picture:

1. Beau travail
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. The Matrix
4. The Mission
5. My Neighbors the Yamadas

Best Director:

1. Claire Denis, Beau travail
2. Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut
3. Andy & Lana Wachowski, The Matrix
4. Johnnie To, The Mission
5. Isao Takahata, My Neighbors the Yamadas

Best Actor:

1. Denis Levant, Beau travail
2. Forrest Whitaker, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
3. Stephen Chow, King of Comedy
4. Lau Ching-wan, Where a Good Man Goes
5. Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown

Levant will win again in 2012 for Holy Motors. Just missing out on nominations are Andy Lau for Running Out of Time, Eddie Murphy for Bowfinger, Russell Crowe for The Insider and Matthew Broderick for Election.

Best Actress:

1. Reese Witherspoon, Election
2. Zhang Ziyi, The Road Home
3. Samantha Morton, Sweet and Lowdown
4. Gigi Leung, Tempting Heart
5. Kirsten Dunst, The Virgin Suicides

Supporting Actor:

1. Sydney Pollack, Eyes Wide Shut
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Magnolia
3. Tom Cruise, Magnolia
4. Hugo Weaving, The Matrix
5. Anthony Wong, The Mission

Hoffman will win again in 2012 for The Master.

Supporting Actress:

1. Selma Blair, Cruel Intentions
2. Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut
3. Cate Blanchett, The Talented Mr. Ripley
4. Sylvia Chang, Tempting Heart
5. Ruby Wong, Where a Good Man Goes

Original Screenplay:

1. Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia
3. Andy & Lana Wachowski, The Matrix
4. Sylvia Chang & Cat Kwan, Tempting Heart
5. Abbas Kiarostami, The Wind Will Carry Us

Adapted Screenplay:

1. Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau, Beau travail
2. Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael, Eyes Wide Shut
3. Jim Uhls, Fight Club
4. Isao Takahata, My Neighbors the Yamadas
5. Trey Parker, Matt Stone & Pam Brady, South Park

I think this is the first year in which I like the nominees for Adapted Screenplay as whole more than the Original Screenplays. In the 21st Century, Adapted is kind of a wasteland, but all five of these are terrific.

Non-English Language Film:

1. Beau travail (Claire Denis)
2. The Mission (Johnnie To)
3. My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata)
4. Running Out of Time (Johnnie To)
5. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)

Documentary Film:

1. Belfast, Maine (Frederick Wiseman)
2. Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
3. HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Olivier Assayas)

Animated Film:

1. The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
2. My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata)
3. South Park (Trey Parker)
4. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter)

Is this the best year for animated features ever?

Unseen Film:

1. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar)
2. Peppermint Candy (Lee Changdong)
3. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay)
4. Rosetta (The Dardenne Brothers)
5. The Straight Story (David Lynch)

Some big names this year. I should watch more movies.

Film Editing:

1. Beau travail
2. Fight Club
3. Magnolia
4. The Matrix
5. The Mission


1. Beau travail
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. The Matrix
4. Time Regained
5. The Virgin Suicides

Tempting to go with Eyes Wide Shut just for the opening party sequence, but bullet time. Which is probably a visual effect, but whatever.

Art Direction:

1. Fight Club
2. The Matrix
3. The Phantom Menace
4. Time Regained
5. Topsy-Turvy

Costume Design:

1. Eyes Wide Shut
2. Galaxy Quest
3. The Matrix
4. The Phantom Menace
5. Topsy-Turvy

That dress Kidman wears to the Christmas party.


1. Existenz
2. The Matrix
3. The Mummy
4. The Phantom Menace
5. Topsy-Turvy

Original Score:

1. Beau travail
2. The Mission
3. The Phantom Menace
4. South Park
5. The Virgin Suicides

Adapted Score:

1. Eyes Wide Shut
2. Magnolia
3. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
4. Sweet and Lowdown
5. Topsy-Turvy

Shostakovich wins everything.

Original Song:

1. "Save Me", Aimee Mann, Magnolia
2. "Theme from 'The Mission'", Chung Chi-wing, The Mission
3. "Blame Canada", Trey Parker & Marc Shaiman, South Park
4. "What Would Brian Boitano Do?", Trey Parker & Marc Shaiman, South Park
5. "Playground Love", Air, The Virgin Suicides


1. Bringing Out the Dead
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. Fight Club
4. Magnolia
5. The Matrix

Sound Editing:

1. Fight Club
2. Magnolia
3. The Matrix
4. The Mummy
5. The Phantom Menace

Visual Effects:

1. Fight Club
2. Galaxy Quest
3. The Matrix
4. The Mummy
5. The Phantom Menace