Her, American Hustle, and The Past

Her (Jonze, 2013)

Had I seen Her in 2013 it would have made my top 15 films, probably somewhere towards the upper-middle.  I really loved Her for its look at futuristic technology that isn’t fraught with dystopic overtones.  In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent film (maybe Robot and Frank…did anyone see that?) that takes a soft-to-middle ground on what seems to be the inevitable current of increasingly more human-capable technology.

The premise of Her sounds horrible on paper, but translates beautifully.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly (that has to be a reference to Cy, right?  But I couldn’t find any hard evidence based on the little knowledge I have of his art), a man going through a painful breakup who falls in love with his new, surprisingly human operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, in what might honestly be her best role).

There are several really great scenes in Her.  The highlights are a very human scene between Theodore and his about-to-be ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in a heartbreaking decision to sign divorce papers, and a beautifully conceived scene where Samantha enlists the help of a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) so that she and Theodore can make love while Samantha participates audibly.

The first scene here really speaks to the power of reaction shots and performances.  Jonze doesn’t do too much that’s fancy.  Yeah, it works because of context (we’ve heard so much about the relationship and seen so much of Theodore’s angst that when it’s finally placed in the present tense it means that much more), but Jonze is really smart to just let the moment as Catherine puts pen to paper linger silently, cutting back and forth between the two as they fight very real-looking tears.  One can imagine a lesser film either skipping this moment entirely (they already had their big fight!  Why do we need something more?), or placing the emphasis on their dialogue instead of what’s unspoken, which itself seems to be the reason for their divorce in the first place.

That second scene mentioned is my favorite of the film.  This one is just sharply written and yet another way for Jonze to meditate on what it means to be in a relationship in whatever future he’s portraying (digression: that’s another thing that’s great about Her.  This future could be 2015, 2025, or 2100; also, as I’m sure has been commented on many times before now, apparently the future holds a lot of high-waisted pants for men…maybe that’s the real dystopia!).  By having two separate women represent mind (Samantha) and body (the surrogate, Isabella), it turns into a weird menage a trois, a diluted male fantasy that Theodore can’t adhere to, and a solid representation of Theodore’s inability to find all of his ideals in any one woman.  When Jonze cuts to close-ups of Isabella and her face tries to register what Samantha whispers in both of their ears, but just a second too late because of a naturally human delay, the scene becomes odder, as though the sex is detached and impersonal despite the intentions.

The audio in the scene is also fantastic: it’s close and present (both Isabella and Theodore have Samantha in their ears via a small headphone) in a way that’s nearly frightening: it looks and sounds like Theodore and Isabella are having an affair directed by some omniscient voice of god.

The opening of Her is a great example of visual set-up.  Theodore works for a company that specializes in writing surrogate (that word seems to be a theme for the film as a whole) love letters.  The strongest part of the scene comes towards its conclusion.  Jonze dollies the camera from left to right, away from Theodore at his own computer as he quietly dictates his letter aloud.  The camera gradually reveals three other workers, each at varying distances from the lens.  Here, Jonze plays with sound perspective.  As each new character is revealed, his or her audio becomes the dominant track, despite the fact that they may be further from the lens (and the audience) than the person who was just speaking a moment before.  It’s a nice way to get the idea that Theodore works for a company where everyone performs the same function.  It’s also a nice way to set-up this subtle audio theme that Samantha will very much embody: proximity doesn’t always mean tangibility.

The Past (Farhadi, 2013)

Here’s another that would’ve made my list.  Like many people I’ve only seen Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation before this one.  While The Past treads on similar ground it still feels fresh.

I condensed much of what I want to say about the narrative, the themes, and the title into a review.  You can read that HERE.

What interests me about The Past for this post is Farhadi’s camera.  I didn’t really remember much about his visual strategy from A Separation and perhaps that’s because, though he certainly has an incredibly sure-handed approach, he doesn’t favor many of the stylistics that tend to dominate foreign cinema in 2013-2014.

If I’m to generalize, I could boil this down to the penchant for the long, generally static take (I’m thinking of a lot of Romanian and Austrian film), the long, virtuoso camera movement (thinking Bela Tarr, new Italian cinema), or the shock cuts and rapid montages that seem to accompany much of what I’ve seen of modern Japanese and Korean films.  There are, of course, several exceptions and additions to all of the above, but Farhadi doesn’t even seem to adhere to the example set by Iranian contemporaries Kiarostami (long close-ups, with constantly moving characters), or Panahi (a governmentally-forced claustrophobia).

Instead, Farhadi’s style actually seems built on some Hollywood principles.  He uses pretty standard coverage for clarity of space and interaction, and tends to hide more in his dialogue than in his shot selection.  That said, there’s still something of the psychological Polanski in his decision to very specifically move his camera at dramatically-heightened times (see the ending shot, which also reminded me of recent scenes in Elena, The Broken Circle Breakdown, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia).

I guess I thought this worth commenting on because so much of foreign cinema that obtains the “arthouse” tag here in the US really follows a visual language that seems to be either emblematic of that country’s past or current films, or a far cry from that which we see on a fairly normal basis in the US.  The Past doesn’t really fit either category, yet it’s hidden motivations and sometimes obtuse narrative defies categorization in its own way.

American Hustle (Russell, 2013)

This is the only one of the three that wouldn’t have made my top 15, though I’m still surprised at how much I enjoyed American Hustle.  I’m not much of a David O. Russell fan.  I’ve read multiple times over the last few years about his “high wire act” (I think I’ve actually heard several different critics use that same phrase).  I guess I kind of get it: The Fighter juggled the action of a boxing film, with the high drama of an addiction film; Silver Linings Playbook tried to balance comedy and seriousness in a picture about mental illness.  But neither felt particularly risky; if there’s a high wire for either film, the net was about five below.  Sure O. Russell is a talented director who gets strong performances from sometimes-unlikely candidates, knows how to edit to elicit strong reactions, and consistently tries to balance humor with something a bit more taboo, but that’s a tradition firmly entrenched by the likes of Preston Sturges, whose style was smaller and critiques harsher.

All of that said…American Hustle strikes me as that high wire act sans net.  The film has such a manic energy, and it feels like O. Russell broke some of the bonds of con/restraint that marked his other films to give it a leaping, boundless feel that is still masterly controlled.  I think that 8-10 years from now people will look back on American Hustle and see it as a cult classic, as a film that defined its current generation while talking about a past one, that translated absurdity and go-go-go stamina into a sign of two times: the drug-fueled, sexualized gloss of the 70s and the high-power financial cons of the 2010s.

Because American Hustle is far less about the con than it is about character dynamics, it also has the feel of some new Hollywood (a high praise compliment would be Dog Day Afternoon that swiftly becomes something far more than a bank robbery film), and is the better for it.  Give this script to, say, Michael Mann, and you’ve got a 100 minute (more on that below) series of tense set pieces.  In O. Russell’s hands it becomes a somewhat-bloated, free-form-feeling look at the various relationships surrounding one event.

Let me sound like a broken record for a moment: why are films getting so long?  I’d bet that the average length of a mainstream American release has increased by 10 minutes over the last ten years.  What’s the deal with that?  Neither American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street needed their full runtimes and both suffered for it (particularly the latter).  Yeah, it’s an easy criticism, but with such big-budget filmmaking and its series of checks-and-balances how does that happen?  Is it because it’s hard to cut a Scorsese or O. Russell film if the directors like them as they are?  Both films felt a bit beyond unfettered.

Bradley Cooper is the highlight of American Hustle.  Sure, Bale turns in a top-notch performance as always, but Cooper’s mile-a-minute, arrogant agent Richie DiMaso is both annoyingly chatty and sadly sympathetic, he’s violent and sleazy but also twistedly moral.  Cooper plays it with more spastic energy than he seemed capable of.  It’s a far cry from his comic energy – it’s actually kind of scary, which makes the performance that much stronger.

About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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