Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Home for the holidays; Australia; Synecdoche, New York

Home for the Holidays :) Not only is this Christmas the first that I will spend with family since 1999, but it is also the first that I will spend in a house of my own. Unexpected but true: I seem to have put down some roots in the Maritimes, making Halifax my home insofar as I have purchased an edifice here - the actual making of a home involves the much more complicated fostering of community, which I hope will happen organically.

Yes, I have moved into the first-floor apartment in my three-unit building, and, along with the pride of ownership, am beginning to feel the weight of the many tasks that accompany it. Here's a taste: caulking the old, drafty windows on my floor, painting the second bedroom in the second-floor apartment and refinishing the floor in said unit, insulating the floor of my vestibule, renovating my bathroom, sealing and insulating the basement (by digging a five foot trench all the way around the house in the spring), etc, etc.

Volunteers are welcome :)

The move and laying the groundwork for this dizzying array of projects has cut pretty deeply into the time I can dedicate to my cinophilic pursuits (to coin a new term), but I have managed to take in two particularly intriguing current offerings.

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) (Park Lane) To lay the groundwork for this commentary, I must begin by unabashedly stating my love of the film Moulin Rouge. Although some of the cinematography was overly kinetic and disorienting, the musical collage that drives the plot - comprised of 1980s anthems of heartache, pain and desire - hooked me into the love story at the center of the film. Romeo + Juliet is another favorite, evidencing stunning camera work and great music that helps develop characters and drive the plot.

Australia is a much harder to be so unequivocal about. I entered the theater with great trepidation due to serious misgivings about the sub-plot involving the relationship between Nicole Kidman, a rich British aristocrat fresh off the boat in rough and tumble Darwin, and a young mixed-blood aboriginal/Caucasian boy, Nallah, who wants to avoid the mission schools that until the mid 1970s were tasked with "civilizing" the "native element" to assimilate them into "white Australia." (Run-on sentence! Hurrah!) Those fears were not assuaged by the opening narration, read by said aboriginal youth in a type of "pigeon English" that made me cringe.

My misgivings quickly multiplied, as Kidman took over management of a cattle station struggling to hold out against a beef baron with designs of securing a meat supply monopoly to the pacific fleet as war with Japan loomed large. I kept waiting to hear Kidman's voice murmuring "I had a farm in Australia" as the camera panned the dusty outback plains.

And this quickly became one of my key annoyances: Nicole Kidman is a great actress but is no Meryl Streep, Hugh Jackman annoys the hell out of me at the best of times (I'll accept him grudgingly as Wolverine...but that's it) and the outback is most certainly not the mountains of Kenya. I draw my line in the sand at this: Don't mess with Out of Africa.

Similarly, while I am less a fan of The Wizard of Oz than of Out of Africa, I quickly got pretty ticked off by the literally spelled-out-for-you-word-for-word "this is an homage to Dorothy's adventures in Oz" aspect of the film. (Although I must admit that the scene where Kidman sings 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' in an attempt to comfort young Nallah is one of the most beautifully filmed scenes I have seen on the big screen in quite some time.)

So is Australia a copy of Out of Africa or an homage to The Wizard of Oz?

I don't think that even Luhrmann really knows the answer to that question, but the bottom line is that the above complications conspired to make the first 1.5 hours of Australia thoroughly unenjoyable for me. There were, of course, a few pun-induced laughs (after all, Kangaroo humour is to be expected in a film called Australia) and a few heart thumping moments amid a cattle drive across the same territory used to film the race scenes in Star Wars Episode I.

Well that makes the film sound pretty wretched indeed - and leans towards decidedly unequivocal! Australia must be a wretched movie to be avoided at all costs! Except that...well, Luhrmann - as alluded to in my opening words on Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet - is a sucker for cheesy romance. And so am I.

You see, 1.5 hours of Australia only gets you to the equator of the film, and there is a whole other hemisphere to go! As Jackman pulls his Denys Finch Hatton and decides that freedom means more to him than family, as Nallah falls into the church-sponsored and government-sanctioned cultural genocide of the aboriginal peoples of the outback, as Kidman moves into town to support the commonwealth war effort and as Japan launches its Pearl Harbouresque attack on the port of Darwin, I got sucked into the romance (which thankfully was not done as an homage to Michael Bay's Pearl Harbour).

Yes, I threw caution to the wind and allowed my heart to soar and swell and cringe and cry along with Luhrmann's rousing score and wide cinematic vistas that seem to encompass all of the knowable world in one shot.

In the end, all I can say is that the previews for this film are pretty true to what it is, and that if you are intrigued by those images and ideas I am sure you will love the film. However, in the final analysis I have to say that this is not a film to be touched by even a ten-foot pole. Yes, I got sucked into the romance, but I was desperate for something to ease the pain by that point...

For those who are not as likely to get caught up in the sentimentality of the romance at the core of Australia, I can suggest a film that deals with many of the issues raised above - native populations and colonial authorities, WWII's impact on these communities, establishing a life and livelihood in a hostile environment - and does so seriously and splendidly. Try Caroline Link's best foreign film winner of the 2003 Academy Awards, Nowhere in Africa.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) (The Oxford) Few people ever know or care who the actual writer of a film is, and although I always stay til the end of the credits, I rarely remember this detail either. Charlie Kaufman is an exception to this rule, being the genius behind some of the most unconventional, quirky and just plain brilliantly written films of the past decade: Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (although this one did disappoint me) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Kaufman - whom I hold in esteem equal to the Coen brothers - writes dialogue that simply sparkles with wit, exploring the motivations of characters that live on the fringes of society and don't quite understand why things work as they do.

Synecdoche increases the comparability of Kaufman and the Coen brothers by adopting a much less lite-hearted tone than previous work - for the Coen brothers, Burn After Reading seemed to introduce a note of cynicism previously masked or absent in the face of satire and self-deprecating humor. Similarly, Synecdoche is less delightfully mind-bending black humour than serious indulgence of morose contemplation of death and loneliness.

Which is not to say that Synecdoche is not entertaining and engaging. Indeed, with a cast that includes Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh (in a lamentably small role) and Emily Watson, we are treated to some first-class drama.

In fact, Synechdoche can perhaps be best described as meta-film in the vein of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. Seymour-Hoffman's character, Caden Collard, a brilliant playwright whose marriage and health are falling apart, is awarded a McArthur scholarship for genius. He decides to take this money and create a piece of theater that is completely honest and unflinching in its portrayal of life - and in doing so hopes to divine who he is, why he is on earth and what the point of the whole thing is.

To do so he builds a massive set that is New York in miniature, and hires hundreds of people to spend years playing the roles of the people in his life - ultimately leading to a point of brilliantly beautiful absurdity when he is on set with the actor playing himself, and his wife, an actress, is on set because she has been hired to play his wife. As this scenario escalates the line between the play and Collard's life begin to blur together, and the artifice becomes more real than the real world - to the point where another actor must be brought in to play Collard the director, while he takes on the less demanding role of a night cleaning lady.

The key to this seemingly bewildering but surprisingly simple scenario is to remember that it is all about Collard. The failure of his marriage is because he only thinks of himself, the failure of his health is because he obsesses about himself, his failed romances are because he is so wrapped up in himself, and the lack of any clear framework - a recognizable beginning or middle or end to his grand play - is because he is so focused on himself and his place in this world that he misses the forest for the trees.

Perhaps one of the most impressive (if obvious) symbol in the film is a burning house that is purchased by Collard's true but unrequited love, Hazel. She seems uncertain whether to buy a house that is already on fire - but in the end decides to go for it, because she is willing to live life as it comes and savour the danger, fear, uncertainty, excitement and passion that results.

Something Caden has never learned to do...but perhaps I can...and perhaps so can you.

This movie is not for everyone, and I am sure more than a few people have walked out of theaters muttering about how boring, depressing or self-indulgent it is. But I enjoyed every word...and hope you will too!

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