Sunday, June 15, 2014

You, The Living (2007); Wag the Dog (1997)

You, the Living is a Swedish movie, directed by Roy Andersson. He is known for being experimental. I don't believe he used any, or not very many, professional actors in this. It is quite short for a modern film, less than 90 minutes. It consists of a series of vignettes of ordinary life with mildly absurdist embellishments, some of which involve recurring characters and themes that intersect tangentially with other recurring characters and themes, but some of which do not. I feel like I have seen several movies similar to this that have come out in the last 20 years, though I cannot think of what any of them are at the moment. The 90s/Generation X movie Slacker was kind of like thisthough it is not really one of the ones I was thinking of; but it is that idea, moving from one obscure, secretly weird or disturbed person or environment to another, this variety of life and thoughts and obsessions and habits and desires all around us that we may or may not be awake to, or don't have the energy to care about, or maybe in most instances don't have the nerve or social acumen to engage with. Being Swedish, the atmosphere, settings, emotions, conversations have a subdued nature that is congenial to me. The slight element of absurdity that I mentioned above (along with at least one departure into whimsy) was needed. The themes here are not such as require unflinching realism, which, even when it is good, I find keeps me at a distance from the material and doesn't have the effect on me that it ought to. I am kind of deadened to realism, even my own.

This was OK and it interested me a little bit but it didn't really excite me either. I don't have a lot to say about it.

Wag the Dog on the other hand was cringingly painful to get through. I guess the idea must have seemed clever or incisive at the time, which caused people to rate it highly, but has anyone gone back and looked at it recently? The combination of personalities in the cast--this production was full of big names, as well as people who were names of a sort at the time--does not really work. To begin with, even though the script was written by David Mamet, who is supposed to be a genius, it was too ham-handed to be either funny or even diverting. The director, Barry Levinson, was an old pro who had made some movies I liked in the 80s, but evidently he was past his prime even by this time (he continues to work to this day, though I have not even heard of most of the stuff he has done in the last twenty years). The two big stars, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, neither of whom I really like all that much to begin with, are very hammy and way oversell the jokes, which of course causes the other members of the cast either to play along to this tune, or even worse, to follow their lead. Given the absence of any James Mason type figure (which this movie sorely needed) to provide even a hint of gravitas, the movie has nothing resembling a solid center at all. And then there are the minor cast members, who besides not meshing either with anything resembling a spirit of a story or with the other actors, constitute a true who's who of nightmarish 90s awfulness. Anne Heche! If you're making me wistful for Helen Hunt, let's just say, you are not getting it done. Dennis Leary! One of the most profoundly unlikeable personas in the history of show business. And also a comedian who is not really funny. A very 90s combination. Woody Harrelson! I hate him in everything he does. I don't really know why. He seems like one of these people who is vapid and vaguely hostile, without any real charm. The famous country singer Willie Nelson is in this, sort of, playing himself. I mean, you see him, but he doesn't have any lines or interact with any of the stars, so artistically it is hard to see how it was worthwhile for him to be in the movie. Maybe he was supposed to be ironic, or there was supposed to be a joke about his tax problems or something. But I have nothing personally against Willie Nelson.

The further we get from it, the more the late 90s looks like a cultural black hole. It's a shame I was not ready to seize the moment, because looking back on it, it seems like it must have been one of the easier times in history for any young person who displayed talent in writing, acting, singing, comedy, etc, whatsoever, to any substantial degree to break into and launch a professional career in these fields. You would have stood out so grandly, like David Foster Wallace did. He was the great white hope, the Knausgaard, or the Gravity's Rainbow-era Thomas Pynchon, of that time. He was what all the (mostly male) working pros and top English professors of the age had wanted, they realized upon encountering him, to develop into themselves, and they were too fascinated at the thought that someone had actually managed to pull it off to hate him for it. Quite the contrary, in fact. (One thing I have noticed about the Knausgaard phenomenon is that the English professors really have not been at the forefront of the hype, if they have even been involved much at all. Is it an illustration of how much their status has collapsed [or their ranks have been thinned] in the last twenty years?)

No comments: