Sunday, January 12, 2014

Itzik Basman v. David Thomson On Inside Llewyn Davis

I just saw this movie yesterday and thought it was great so I'm belatedly adding my few two cents though Jake's comment pretty well says it all.

I'm unlike Thomson not bothered at all by "Inside" in the title. Of course the plain reference is to Davis's album, which he thought had been sent to Grossman, a folk impresario with a firm grasp on the prices of things but not so much on their value. But past that obvious reference are other meanings intended by the Coens, surely among the most cerebral, artistically driven and self conscious of film makers. What marks and enlivens Davis, amongst all his haplessness, bad luck, carelessness, passivity and the ongoing unstable shambles of his life, is his integrity-making commitment to the purity of his art.

His singing is beautiful, as Jake notes, haunting too, and evokes what is beautifully soulful and timeless in the songs he sings. (Thomson may find his singing boring but if he does he's missing wide swathes of what this movie is about.) That inner directed commitment is what is inside about him and is pervasively evident. It's evident when he sings. It's evident in his song selection when he sings so affectingly before Grossman and it's evident in his rejection of Grossman's offer that he change himself up some and possibly fit in with a trio.

Thomson misses too the the ideas of externality and insideness that the Coens drive through the movie from beginning to end as emerge from the contrast between the mess of Davis's day to day life and the singularity of his commitment to his art. A lot of what all that mess goes to is his relative indifference to most conventional things and to his intense desire to be uncompromisingly successful doing his art. So that desire and his trying to act on it, going to Chicago, seeking out Grossman, singing for him all give form to what is inside Llewyn Davis. In missing this, Thomson misapplies what the Coens mean by "Inside," and wrongly complains that they, despite the movie's title, don't render adequately Davis's interiority.

I'd argue the same conceptual problem affects Thomson's complaint that the "interest in life," by which I think he means vitality or √©lan, and which he finds, for example, in Lebowski, emerging from its weird and crackingly great ensemble energy, is missing in this movie, which is flawed by Davis's apparent lack of sufficient inner life, the inner life an artist needs to "make it," asThomson has it. That for Thomson makes the  movie without interest and obstructs any desire we might have to get inside Davis.

I say, "All all the contrary." Understanding and appreciating the shining beauty of his singing, when inner light and outer light are heightened, and his commitment to it are to be inside him. What we are distant from, outside of, are the absurd stupidity of Jim's song Please Mr. Kennedy, the faux authenticity of the well scrubbed Irish singers with their "nice sweaters," and the pathetic folk singer from Arkansas playing her pathetic auto harp--both among the worst manifestations of the folk song revival of the fifties and sixties, the former its antiseptic, commercial sanitizing, the latter its dreary attempt at atavism. If Thomson doesn't get that beauty, so central to the movie's meaning, he can't get the movie.

Too, Thomson misses in fact how hard Davis struggles, the lengths he goes to, in order to "make it." He dismisses Davis's belief in his own artistic possibilities; he says they're ill thought through; and he says Davis doesn't believe he either will, or deserves to, "make it." But Davis has been set back and is deeply affected by Mikey's suicide. He has a deep belief in the meaning of his own professionalism and thus rightly takes offence at his professor friend's bugging him literally "to sing for his supper." He keeps at his incompetent agent whether there's been any response to his record from Grossman, which it turns the agent, Mel, never even forwarded.  His entire freezing, hard, long trip to Chicago to see Grossman is his belief in himself in action.

Thomson confuses entirely inside and outside in his criticism here, mashing them up. All the outside of Davis, the entire messy shambles of his life, his hapless hard times, are not, as Thomson argues, the measure of his lack of commitment and lack of pursuit of his artistry. He fails, it seems, but decidedly not from want of trying on his own terms or want of self-belief. In a word, the proof of Davis's insideness is in the hearing of his singing.

The criticism that Oscar Isaac "seems disinclined to command the film, as if he felt Llewyn lacked the chops or charm to do that" while in my view misconceived harbours a good insight into the movie. Isaac plays his role exactly perfectly, evoking by his every reaction his laconic nature, his personal quietness, except the one time he gets drunk and obnoxiously mouthy. Davis's underlying truth, his inside, is the unadorned beauty of the resonantly meaningful songs he sings so  beautifully. They are quiet, slow moving songs--and contrary to Thomson, the songs tell their stories, moving from beginning to middle to their end. But his lack of personal charisma, the lack of a compelling personal presence, the straight forward assertion of his art all form the Coens' exploration of artistic success, the need for that thing that makes the Grossmans amongst us see the money in it.

There is thus a large theme implicit in Davis's lack of success, a variant of "mute and inglorious Miltons," resident in how many gifted talents who don't "make it" for any number of reasons, including artistic integrity, a theme encompassing the strange arbitrariness and caprice of the bitch goddess of commercial success and what counts to get it.

One last note: somehow because the Carey Mulligan character seems to Thomson to be on the brink of some apocalyptic end, this marks what is deficient as missing cinematically in Davis and hence the movie

....As it is, her character seems closer to the kind of despair we might expect to find inside Llewyn himself. The singer makes no progress, but he never really seems in danger or agony. Whereas the girl is on the edge of checking out...

What prescriptive maxim about film has it that Davis needs to be experiencing life threatening despair, must be driven to his screaming emotional limits. Thomson's is really a dumb observation. Why can't Thomson be satisfied that Davis is who he prosaically is, that quiet prosaism contrasting so vividly with the "poetry," so to speak, of his singing, a contrast of a piece with the movie's fundamental and paradoxical meaning. Under that meaning, no reason exists for Davis's danger or loud agony--his quiet agony is apparent and effective enough. (And as post script, both I and my fellow movie goer thought Mulligan's acting was bad. We didn't believe in her anger towards Davis. And we appreciated his quiet, prosaic calm about her, mildly suggestion that "It takes two to tango."

(Sorry that my two cents became four cents.)


Friday, January 10, 2014

Note On Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life

Just finally finished Michael Ignatieff's excellent biography of Isaiah Berlin. When I read the extensive discussion of many of Berlin's views, I felt often that he says exactly what I think in how I see the world. But one thing different is Berlin's fascination with religious content even though he was a skeptical atheist. The virtue of that content for him was at least two fold: abstracted atheism for him was way too far from the way people actually live and in that was thin intellectual gruel; and even more importantly that content and the pervasive fixity of religious belief formed an important reminder of the limits of reason. The failure to see those limits, the seed of positive liberty, was the cause of the great horrors of the twentieth century, Fascism and Communism. I don't agree with that analysis and would argue that you can reject religion and still hold to reason as it gets practiced in liberal democracies without falling into a moral abyss. In a word, the rejection of religion need not engender totalitarian horrors. I took some offense at Berlin's fascination with the story of Isaac as revealing something awesome and magnificent in that blind and unwavering display of faith, the same thing that delivered Kierkegaard from his fear and trembling. I have always deeply reviled that story and the idea of such a God who so tests Abraham's faith. I'm with Leonard Cohen on that one--his Story of Isaac.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On Donnie Brasco And Comparing It To Goodfellas

Donnie Brasco

In my brief exchange with a friend, in part about some ways in which Goodfellas bothers me, which he nicely encapsulated by the phrase "amoral narrative," I mentioned Donnie Brasco as an example of a mob movie that doesn't in any way glamorize or make seem appealing or treat as funny thug life.

I just watched Donnie Brasco again.

Newell treats that life with all the grey and somber disrespect it deserves. He shows consistently what stupid, low life slugs the gangsters are, how sickeningly violent they are, what scum they are, without Scorsese's bizarre morally qualifying touches of sardonic humor as when he shows corpses in various aspects, sitting shot in a car, floating to the surface in a huge heap of trash, hanging frozen in a truck on a meathook among frozen carcasses of meat, all in reposes more humorous than horrifying, as a result of Jimmy the Gent's murderous paranoia and just plain greed. That Scorsese makes these corpses look funny in death is, I'd argue, as morally numbing as it is baffling. What's the point of these macabre humorous touches, of thuggery as a kind of hi jinx in death?

Donnie Brasco, mind you, is anything but a a moralizing tract or a one dimensional portrayal of its hoods. It tells both Lefty's and Joe Pistone's fully human stories, painting a portrayal of them as individuals and their relationship as deep and subtle as are Pacino's and Depp's great acting.

(Someone once commented that Goodfellas suffers from how consistently loud it is, though Robert De Niro is never loud. But compare Joey Pesci, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, who all bring the word "shrill" to mind, and who I wish would just hush up some, to the relentlessly understated, almost whispery, beat up quality of Pacino's acting and speaking and to Johnny Depp's intelligently modulated expression of emotions, which houses occasional and vividly contrasting kinetic outbursts of temper and frayed nerves.)

So, unlike Goodfellas, which presents no discernible character development or moral dilemmas, only its thugs trying consistently to get by and get over, Pistone roils in his personal life as he increasingly becomes Donnie Brasco and as his relationship with Lefty becomes real, deep and enduring. It survives his knowledge of Lefty's twenty six hits, of his unqualified immersion in "the life" and, most intensely, his execution before Depp's eyes of Bruno Kirby.

In that, Lefty murders the man who's been his close friend and associate for over twenty years, just like that. That killing fires up Depp's outspoken disbelief at its ease such that he demands, to the point of shouting, that Lefty say his murdered friend's name as the slightest token of some humanity and decency, as the slightest token of recognition of, of owning if only a little, what he has just murderously done.

There are scenes in Donnie Brasco of powerful and unerring human reality, so vivid in their depiction of complex emotions and frustration. I'm thinking, for example, of our first view of Pistone at home in the midst of his deep undercover having evolved from a scheduled two weeks to two years. He takes out his frustration and marked psychological disturbance from dangling between the identities of Pistone and Brasco on his wife, Anne Heche. Remarkable too is his being overtaken slowly but surely and subtly by the Brasco identity. Powerful is his explosion of anger in the motel room in Florida dealing with his Mormon FBI boss and with some taped conversation being ruined. And what can surpass the beautifully acted, quietly elegiac manner Pacino goes to his certain death after the final, inevitable "sent for" phone call on Donnie Brasco, who he vouched for, being exposed as Pistone?

There's something profound in that elegiac penultimate scene. For just as Pistone feels deep, irreducible friendship for Lefty, loves him really, as Lefty loves him, right to the end, despite Lefty's murderous criminality, so do we as audience feel the sadness of it. That paradox, compassionate, sympathetic feelings for such a homicidal thug, is, I'd argue, the rich and complex ambiguity of highly affecting art. It's that same mixture of moral horror and sympathetic attraction that, in a different way to be sure, marks the genius of The Sopranos. My contention is that that ambiguity contrasts positively with what I find to be the confusing ambivalence of Goodfellas.

And what of the subtlety in the contrast between Depp's inner experience and tormented love--as--friendship for Lefty and the FBI's treatment of the entire matter as just another operation to be worked, albeit a significant one? So Newell shows the pro forma honouring of Depp, the FBI official getting Pistone's name wrong after stumbling over it, awarding him a medal and a paltry $500.00 bonus, its pathetic minginess a measure of its utter hollowness for Pistone. That $500.00 contrasts with the $300,000.00 Pistone accumulated undercover, and unless I missed it, has no intention of returning. (And that $300,00.00 is late seventies early eighties money. Consider what it would amount to now.)

The point, I think, is that the $500.00 measures meaninglessness while the $300,000.00, apart from being a great deal of money, measures the depth of Depp's undercover immersion to the point of becoming what he was pretending to be and measures how meaningful it all was and is to him. The depth of that, too, shows in Depp's dazed, hollowed out and robotic going through the motions of that FBI honouring ceremony. He, in the end, Lefty surely dead, rejoins his wife and kids in what might seem a resolutionary way. But, in my view of the movie at least, he's a changed, haunted tormented man, indelibly marked by his experiences with Lefty and Lefty's fate as a result of Depp doing his job.

Another powerful instance of contrast, by the way, is the FBI putting the final stamp on Lefty's death warrant by showing an incredulous Sonny Black, Michael Masden, the pictures of Donnie Brasco as Pistone, hoping to flip him and others, maybe score some guilty pleas. The FBI in its indifference to Lefty's resulting fate can't be blamed, I suppose. It's just doing its crime fighting job. But this indifference is so opposite to Depp eating himself alive with torment and anxiety over what the consequences of just doing his job hold for Lefty.

What I want to say is that Goodfellas has none of this subtlety, human torment, agonized friendship, moral dilemma or psychological depth. For me, despite its broader canvas, its greater vivacity, and seeming bravura performances, Goodfellas is noisier, morally ambivalent, less affecting--really without any poignancy or humanity--and, generally, simply a lesser movie than Donnie Brasco.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Note On Ambiguity And Ambivalence In Scorsese's Goodfellas

I don't credit Scorsese with ambiguity as a rich means of complexity in theme and vision, which makes for great art, in Goodfellas, but, rather, an ambivalence between wanting to show the many sidedness of gangsters and gangster life that, I'd argue, reduces itself to an overarching vaunting of them and that life, reducing their homicidal, preying, blood sucking thuggery to their putative attractiveness--money, getting whatever you want, doing whatever you want, high life, women, fraternity--as the movie has it.

So Ray Liotta is only nostalgic, nothing else, no remorse, no insight into what's so horrible and blood sucking about it, for that life as he has to leave it behind to get into Witness Protection. There's, for me, a disturbing element of moral idiocy in that. As somebody put it, "the filmic affirmation of scum."

I don't judge art insofar as it confirms my biases. I'm neither philistine nor self righteous prude. But that said, I distinguish, as noted, between ambiguity and ambivalence in art, the former a virtue, the latter a sign the artist didn't achieve a coherent work, that the work's tensions weren't under control, that its contrary impulses worked against each other incoherently.

A good example of that is The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is both so vile and so majestic and the surrounding Venetian society, meant to be such a contrast to him, is empty and itself cruel,, making the ending and final treatment of Shylock so emotionally unsatisfying.

Too there can be coherent works richly created with themes and portrayals that are nevertheless repugnant by most people's lights. I'm thinking as an example of The Olympiade.

My approach to art is essentially to want to grant the artist his vision and subject and see what he's done with it. But Goodfellas increasingly emerges on my re-seeing it as a well made and compellingly entertaining movie that doesn't ultimately know what it's about. David Denby caught what l feel about Goodfellas well in his piece on The Wolf of Wall Street. He says the exultancy in the depicting of so much vibrancy in the excesses the movie wants to expose and take on makes Scorsese trip over himself. His film becomes one with what he wants to take down. In a word, Denby's criticism is, for me, apt for Goodfellas.