If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
During my last days at the Venice Film Festival, I was able to catch four films that rounded out my total-number-seen of main competition pictures to eight. A little over one-third of the 21 total, and so, by my lights, not an exactly representational sampling, but not a bad sampling either, and I was fortunate in that the four films I went out on were all outstanding.
I began with “Anomalisa,” written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, an animation veteran. “Anomalisa” is a beautifully rendered stop-motion animation film, enacted by what look to be computer-graphics-enhanced puppets. In the initial scenes of this meticulously structured 90-minute film, one is apt to wonder why it was made in this format. Aside from the fact that maybe Kaufman is preoccupied with puppets—recall the failed profession of the protagonist of Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” written by Kaufman. In any event, all becomes clear, at least if you’ve keyed in to the unusual and varied metaphors the film trucks in. One clue lies in the faces of the characters. Not the eerie sameness of every face except for that of protagonist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a British business consultant of such popularity that when he enters the lobby of a Cincinnati hotel conventioneers whisper his name like he’s a rock star or something. It’s in the way the faces are constructed, in sections, with foreheads that clamp on the top and leave a smooth line leading from the middle of each eyeball and around the temple. In Michael’s case, it makes him look as if he’s maybe wearing wire-rim glasses. And then there is, yes, the similarity of every other face and of every other voice. Michael’s a miserable fellow, seemingly unloved by his wife and son in L.A.; looking up an old lover from his dismally efficient hotel room winds up makes him even more miserable after they meet in the dismal hotel bar. On his way back to his room, Michael hears in the hallway a voice that’s very distinct from every other one he hears. That voice belongs to Lisa, a shy young woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in whom Michael takes a very strong interest. Their tentative liaison grows into something more furious as Michael charges into Lisa’s heart, and by the next morning he’s ready to leave his entire life for her, which she can scarcely believe is true. And as it happens…
Well. This is a movie I went into relatively cold, and I think it’s the best way to do it. It really is a staggering achievement: the whole thing is steeped in Kaufman’s sardonic, surreal sense of humor but there’s a new dimension of seriousness and artistic gravity here, and it’s because of the way the film’s form is inextricably knotted to its themes. This is, I suspect, one of those rare Perfect Films, and also a perfectly sad one, one that’s executed with remarkable conviction by everyone involved, including third major cast member Tom Noonan, whose role is best not described here. A landmark picture.
Marco Bellocchio’s “Sangue del mio Sangue” (“Blood of my Blood”) is a picture I’d like to see again before I weigh in on it in more detail; I certainly do hope this latest work from Italian radical turned fecund old master Marco Bellocchio finds distribution in the U.S. As I said to a colleague after the film was over, “I’m not sure I got it all, but it was sure fun to sit through.” The first half is not that much fun, mind you: set in a convent-prison in the town of Bobbio in what looks to be a pre-Enlightenment period. A young quasi-nobleman named Don Federico rides into town, seeking a “proper” Catholic burial for his twin, who is said to have committed suicide. The young woman who is said to have “bewitched” his brother is being put to “the question” by local priests. The church’s barbaric practices aren’t explicitly depicted, but they register strongly, and the episode has a disturbing conclusion. Then the action cuts to present-day Bobbio, where the convent-prison, in a state of disrepair, is being considered for purchase by a Russian billionaire. Only problem is the vampire who lives there. Who also happens to run the town. Yes, you read that right. Cheeky, whimsical, and movingly elegiac, it’s a movie that’s likely more immediately pertinent to Italians and particularly Italian Catholics, but that ought not circumscribe its availability.
My roll of first-rate cinema continued with Jerzy Skolimowski’s “11 Minutes.” Skolimowski’s a Polish filmmaker who came to the west around the same time as his compatriot Roman Polanski. (Skolimowski co-wrote Polanski’s brilliant “Knife In the Water.”) His London-set film “Deep End,” from 1970 is one of the last, and most disturbing, pieces of “mod”-influenced English language cinema. Skolimowski’s U.S. and Europe career is full of great stuff (“The Shout,” anyone?) but wasn’t nearly as high-profile as Polanski’s, and he actually went 17 years without a directing credit. He came back oddly, and strongly, with 2008’s “Four Nights With Anna,” followed that with the underseen, galvanizing “Essential Killing”…and with “11 Minutes” he delivers a work of such intensity and energy that it’s startling to consider that the director is in his mid-70s. It is a multi-character story running on different tracks covering the titular 11 minutes in Warsaw. Characters include a sexist Hollywood sleaze, a coked-up courier, a professor turned hot-dog vendor…and a dog, whose point of view the camera frequently adopts. The soundtrack is dominated by ominous drones and buzzes, and while the fates-colliding-over-a-small-period-of-time film is a fairly common one these days, trust me, you’ve never seen one like this. It’s a virtuoso stress monster of a movie.
I left the fest on a very emotional note: Multimedia artist Laurie Anderson’s brief but exceptionally potent “Heart of a Dog,” in part an extended anecdote about the life and death of her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle. Like another competition film, Sokurov’s “Francofonia,” this is an essay film, and it extends its reach into philosophy and religion and ideas about language and sleep and love and…death. “The purpose of death is the release of love,” Anderson muses at one point. I could write a whole essay about the way Anderson uses her light, scintillating voice in this movie; she begins each section speaking in that formal, sort of sing-songy way that’s kind of her trademark, but as the text stretches out she deliberately lets the voice out, turns it more confiding, and this is always in conjunction with where the text is going. Her incredible control of the artistic arsenal this medium provides her with—images, music, sound, language—enable her to construct a work that’s both highly intellectually engaging and provocative and also emotionally wrecking. I was crying frequently during the last five minutes and I didn’t care who knew it. In the film Anderson talks about how in her study of Buddhism she found a directive that one should practice feeling sad without being sad. Her film could be said to be a tool for that practice: one feels sad experiencing it, but it’s so wonderful one simply can’t be sad that it’s in the world.
I wouldn’t mind a bit if it took the Golden Lion. But we won’t know what wins until this weekend. After that, I’ll chime in with some final thoughts and talk about my experience of the three films in the Biennale College.
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