The Beats seem to be in fashion. A few years ago the Barber Institute here in Birmingham displayed the original manuscript of On the Road to great crowds. Last year we got Walter Salles’ dynamic and interesting take on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which deserved to be a greater success than it was. However, it seems that artists are more interested in these quests for personal, sexual and social freedom than audiences have been, as if the current reality is too harsh to nurture such romantic dreams.
Kill Your Darlings is handsome fizzle that is not without interest. It has an arresting structure that begins with what one thinks is a scene of love and ends with what we will learn to see as an act of murder. Narratively, what’s led from one to the other? Thematically, what is the connection between the two? Extra-textually, it’s based on a real incident that connects to, and is meant to enlighten us on, the Beats.
The film has an interesting story to tell — based on on real events and anchored in the Allan Ginsburg character played by Daniel Radcliffe — and an interesting project: to illuminate a structure of feeling in a culture of repression and dramatise its effects. Kill Your Darlings also has a brilliantly textured cinematography by Reed Morano; lovely early 40’s jazzy swing; imaginative editing that brings out values in a scene the direction seems to be unable to; a superb cast (Kyra Sedgwick, Jennifer Jason Leigh) with lead actors (Michael C. Hall, Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan) that are taking considerable risks, that fascinate but that ultimately can’t compensate for the flaws in the story’s telling. DeHaan, for example, always seems troubled, is often mesmeric but is rarely transparent: Jack Huston is terribly miscast as Kerouac. A complex film with a difficult subject and superb actors that is lovely to see and hear but doesn’t quite work. I’m nonetheless glad I saw it.
A movie about the sexual killing of pre-pubescent children that has Dane DeHaan as the ice-cream man but that doesn’t end the way you’d expect it to. Another film that paints a dark picture of a rural America wading in poverty, ignorance, corruption; of a society that lacking justice in this world seeks it in another, sometimes through Jesus and sometimes through witchcraft.
This America that we see is depicted for us by a Canadian, a director famous for keeping things cool, distant, objective, complicated; one who likes to take it slow and doesn’t feel the need to take the audience with him; even when a town is willing to sacrifice three innocent teenagers as revenge for the murder of three innocent children. We see events in different mediums but the aim is to complicate rather than clarify. The focus is on self-expression rather than communication; maybe the director doesn’t trust the audience, maybe he simply hasn’t given any thought to it. Too bad for us.
Any film that needs a whole set of title cards at the end to wrap up the film can’t be said to work and I find the story-telling weak. However, Egoyan knows how to set a mood, one that starts under a river in a forest and ends up troublingly lodged in one’s psyche. The shots are often in shallow focus so that only one thing is clear at a time; and the camera sometimes wonders to the side of the action and sometimes outside of it completely, indicating that there are other answers to be sought.
Reese Whitherspoon gives another tart performance as a rural working class Mom, a multi-faceted one where hardness and anguish and need and love get even more muddled up with a need for justice. The moment where she dares her husband to hit her or when her arms seem to take up a life of their own and reach out for the nearest child as an evocation of the loss of her own, are moments worth treasuring: they show us a great actress giving her all and back to her peak.
Devil’s Knot also has other attractions: Stephen Moyer from True Blood is the lawyer working for the State; Bruce Greenwood clearly indicates that his Judge David Burnett has another agenda, Colin Firth is a very trim private investigator trying and failing to solve the case. It’s a film based on a true story, of great interest and many attractions. The pleasures, however, are few.
The areal sequences at the beginning are thrilling. Sally Field is the best Aunt May ever, her feelings so close to the surface that you just want to give her a hug and let her know that she really has been a good Mom to Peter and that her world will end up alright; her scenes with Peter Parker are to me the best in the film. Andrew Garfield is a dilemma: on the one hand, he seems perfectly cast; on the other, all that neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shift of the head, ends up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. I liked Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon very much but then the actor and what an actor can bring to a role seems so effaced by the CGI when he becomes Electro that they could have gotten anyone to voice that ‘animation’. Emma Stone is rather perfect as Gwen and she and Garfield have a definite chemistry though one that could have been directed with more wit: the earnestness drags everything down. The plot is serviceable and Dane DeHaan is brilliant casting as the Green Goblin, he brings something jagged, excessive, dangerous, diseased; he spikes the story with much needed and sour malevolence. It’s all enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and makes one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.
The Place Beyond the Pines
(Derek Cianfrance, USA, 2012)
When the movie finished, I overheard various people saying, ‘I read that it’s not one movie but three and it’s true’. It’s not. But when I first saw it, I did think The Place Beyond the Pines was a movie of three sections that didn’t quite cohere; with the first part being as great as contemporary cinema gets; and the other two, whilst very good indeed, not quite living up to the extraordinary beauty and depth of feeling of the first; the Ryan Gosling section seemed like poetry, the other two simply suffered in comparison.
A subsequent viewing convinced me that I was mistaken: the film now seems to need the last two sections. The themes of broken families, absent fathers, residual racial tensions, freedom vs. responsibility, they’re set up in the first part but unfold throughout the movie in a way that deepens the exploration of its themes and adds intersecting ones — the privileges and abuses of class, the corruption of social institutions, what the sins of the fathers do to the sons. And it does this in interesting ways: that photograph from the beginning reappears in newly meaningful ways that nonetheless do not fully disclose the occasion it was taken to memorialize; that ice-cream offered so as to instill an imprint of love reappears but gets displaced onto another father-son relationship; those shades a baby grasps at in a photograph will be his father’s only legacy to him. The Place Beyond the Pines seems to grow and deepen the more we watch and think about it.
We hear the movie before we see it: a sigh? A steadying out-take of breath? That sounds sets the tone for the movie. It turns out to emanate from Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny daredevil, just before he rides into a ball-cage with two other bikers so that the crowds can gawp and thrill as the trio race inside the ball itself. The audience does too, not only because it does seem to be Ryan Gosling performing that stunt but because the whole extraordinary sequence is done in one marvelous sustained long take, a showstopper of a start and a shot that will establish a tone and style for the rest of the film: a searching, hand-held camera following the protagonists from behind before settling on a context, an action, a scene; our view, at least at the start always behind that of the protagonists, who know what they’re doing but not what they’re heading into: they know what their immediate actions will be, but are not necessarily aware of the repercussions of those actions.
The first section contains filmmaking as beautiful and moving as any I’ve ever seen. Ryan Gosling looks like a tattooed choirboy, a kind of fallen angel, the tear already inked in his face for all that he has suffered and all that he will sacrifice; the shape of the tear both a warning and a prayer (is it a dagger dropping blood or a crucifix?); his tattooed body, our first view of him, a history of the life he’s led (the Holy Bible tattooed on his hand), the life he expects (the struggle and fight conveyed by the two boxers tattooed on his biceps), the kind of attention he has gotten (heartthrob tattooed around his neck, the witty ‘hand’ which coupled with the questioning ‘some’ makes for a cheekily self-aware proclamation on the fingers of each hand) and a demand for the attention and the respect he seeks (which includes that of being an ‘outsider’). When Luke says to Romina (Eva Mendes),’don’t talk down to me’, you get the feeling that he speaks from a lifelong experience of being talked down to in just that way; and that he speaks not only for himself but for a whole sector of society if not for a whole class.
There are aspects of the movie that remain indelible: Gosling’s tears at his child’s baptism, and how he conveys the complete sadness of somebody who is not even worth being told he’s a father; the extraordinary beauty of Mendes in some shots; the two of them foregrounded against an out-of-focus but dreamily lit Ferris Wheel, an ideal of sub-prole romance; the sound of The Crying Shames’ ‘Don’t Go, Please Stay’ over a low-angle shot of Gosling riding into the night; the charge the film elicits when the stepfather, the actual parent of the child Gosling is allowed to father only biologically, is shown to be black (the camera holds back outside the door so as to theatrically reveal it) — that still signifies in American culture today, a frisson the film plays with when it deploys it again; though this time it’s Bradley Cooper’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) who conveys all kinds of demeaning assumptions through his sneer: his reaction is what the film expects the audience’s to be earlier on and which it now condemns in AJ.
In the first part, sequences are often linked by dissolves, as if the situation presented melts into its inevitable and pre-destined fate. There are other scenes where Gosling is kept in focus but everything else around him races past in a way that can’t be digested or gripped, headlong into uncontainable frustration and unavoidable destiny. Luke wants to do the right thing, provide for his girl and his kid, it’s his job to do so, he says, and he thinks it’s everyman’s right to get his own girl and kid if he wants them. But in the America Luke inhabits you can’t do your moral or ethical job if you have a minimum wage job like he does. So when Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) points him towards bank robbery, he doesn’t resist for long. In this film’s America, one’s got to go outside the law to claim one’s basic right to a family. Everything about the film, the lights of the Ferris Wheel, the way Gosling and Mendes look, the movement of the camera, the type of editing, help to convey this contrast between what society promises, the purity, beauty and modesty of the protagonist’s wants, and society’s inability to meet them. America is no longer a place which creates wants, meets them and convinces people they live in the best of all possible worlds. Or at least Luke and Ro don’t think so in The Place Beyond the Pines
The other two sections of the film are not only good but necessary: Avery, who appears in all three sections, is the film’s conscience and the core of the narrative. The second section, the central section of The Place Beyond the Pines, shift the focus from Ryan Gosling’s Luke and onto Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross. It is not merely a continuation but a comparison, a juxtaposition that uses rhyming but different scenarios to accrue meaning. Avery Cross, like Luke, is a young man who wants to do the right thing but one who’s got his wife and kid and a job that can support them. However, Avery is not just on the other side of the law, he’s kind of slumming as a cop: his father, he’s got one, one he thinks of as a kind of superhero, is a judge. Avery’s got an expensive education, a law degree, and his wants and expectations are not as modest as Luke’s. But unlike Luke, by the time the film starts to focus on his story we’ve already been shown how this fundamentally decent man is also a liar and a killer; and unlike Luke, when he gets into trouble he’s got a very solid support system, institutional, therapeutic, medical, familiar to advise; and when they can’t help, Avery’s got a father.
In a way, the film is about how America treats these very nice men who want to do the right thing but end up making a few mistakes. One ends up dead; the other, after initially becoming a prisoner of a situation he’s caused and can’t find his way out of (when he ends up in the evidence stock room Avery is shot against a steel blue background only a little darker than his eyes, completely enmeshed in bars and fencing,), is freed from it, if not his own guilt from it, by his father. Luke cried because he wasn’t deemed worthy of being a father; guilt-ridden Avery can’t stand the sight of his own son, and feels even more guilt. But liberal guilt is no barrier to Avery’s ambition: he sells out his colleagues, loses his family but rises to the top. The contrast is rendered more vivid by the casting. In the latter parts of the film, Bradley Cooper’s open face wonderfully evokes a well-fed idealism. Later we see guilt and disappointment that follows the inevitable corruption of his fight against it; and later still the masked smile, so familiar to us from TV coverage of politicians, as he urges us to ‘Cross Over into the Future’ with Avery Cross on his election night.
The last part of the film features their sons, two stoners from two different classes: one rich, one poor; one part of a contemporary multi-cultural family, the other a child of divorce; one with a loving stepfather, the other with a father who feels guilt everytime he sees him. When Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, takes Avery to that place beyond the pines, forces him on his knees, and is about to pull the trigger to avenge his father’s death, it is only Avery’s first threatening, begging, pleading to find out what happened to his son and then saying ‘I’m sorry’ for what he did to Jason’s father that saves him then and might yet save them both later.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a beautiful and poetic sighing for America, one that yearns for its ideal whilst mourning for its reality, that gap between what everyone wants it to be and what it has really become. When the film ends, AJ is right next to his father on an election platform, crossing right to his future on his father’s coattails; but the last shot begins with Jason, riding into his future off to the side of the frame into the unknown; and the camera stays focused on a tiny American flag, slightly out of focus, but smack-dead in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the pastoral barns, silos and landscape so familiar and so potent a symbol of an idea of America, one dear to cinema and indeed to filmgoers, and both like and unlike what the film has shown us. And then the first notes of Bon Iver’s ‘The Wolves (Act I and II) start and we hear the lyric ‘someday my pain, will mark you’ and the eyes lightly well up just as they did with Ryan Gosling in church and one thinks ‘This is a truly great movie’.