ANYWHERE BUT HERE Anywhere But Here directed by …

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Earth and Heaven
Not
many Hollywood movies listen to their characters as closely as Anywhere But
Here
, a moving story of the prickly relationship between an eccentric, deluded
mother and her withdrawn, brooding teenage daughter making a new life for themselves
in Los Angeles. The film gives its characters room to breathe and live. The
big dramatic moments coexist with smaller, stranger ones, and although its lovely,
forlorn Southern California vistas put the drama of working-class domestic life
in perspective, director Wayne Wang is also attentive to the specifics of daily
life–bustling public school hallways, bowls of cereal gone soggy, the pale
brightness of shabby apartments at dawn.



The story begins with Adele
August (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Ann (Natalie Portman) on the road from
their small town in Wisconsin to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Despite the
ill-advised voiceover, which lifts overly descriptive prosaic lines straight
from Mona Simpson’s book ("My mother made an amazing amount of noise
when she ate, as if she was trying to taste the entire world"), you can
sense right away that this isn’t going to be a typical road-trip movie
or a typical sentimental mother-daughter movie. The body language of Adele and
Ann is too real for that. They’re sitting two feet apart in the car, but
they’re each in their own little worlds: Adele, an ageless adolescent with
an unnervingly consistent can-do attitude, is singing along with a tune on the
radio and trying to convince her daughter that this relocation is a good thing.
Ann isn’t buying it, but what raises the scene above the level of standard
adolescent sullenness is the suggestion that the relocation is only part of
the reason Ann is so dour. Mostly she’s dour because she’s 14, self-aware
and convinced nobody else can possibly understand what she’s going through–least
of all her mother.


The mother-daughter relationship
is an elaborate skein of empathy, strategic silence, needling and lies. Ann’s
father ran out on the family when Ann was very young; the closeness of this
mother and daughter is partly a defense mechanism; they need each other in the
here and now–despite the ever-widening personality gulf that separates
them–because they’ve always needed each other and can’t imagine
life without the other.


Adele is an inveterate,
gleeful liar who is obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous. They move
into a dumpy apartment in the lowest-rent section of Beverly Hills and spend
the better part of a year there without proper beds or furniture. Yet Adele
drags Ann along on house-shopping trips and insists that when money troubles
are getting them down, an expensive meal and a night on the town will cheer
them up. "My father always said, if you’ve only got a dime left, spend
it to get your shoes shined," Adele declares.


Ann’s reaction to the
latter line is exactly right–a wordless look of numb disdain. (Portman’s
reactions to Sarandon’s chipper cluelessness are always exactly right;
one of the most intuitively honest young actresses in movies, she somehow manages
to express the audience’s point of view toward Adele–affection plus
exasperation–without editorializing or breaking character.) Where Adele
lives in a dream–makes herself live in a dream, because reality is too
depressing–Ann sees the truth, or at least part of the truth.


But does she really? Though
Ann is the heroine of Anywhere But Here and claims the narration, the
film doesn’t make her right and Adele wrong. Each woman has weaknesses
and blind spots; Ann’s are mostly due to her age, while Adele’s are
rooted in buried disappointment over a lifetime of chances not taken. She’s
living vicariously through her daughter. She keeps encouraging her to go on
auditions and study acting even though Ann’s not interested; it’s
really Adele who wishes she were an actress. The film astutely senses that all
family relationships involve a degree of performance–of misdirection, strategic
silence, strategic cruelty, showmanship. The roles of mother and daughter are
exactly that: roles. At some point, hopefully, Adele and Ann will stop acting
for each other before their relationship is irrevocably harmed.


Veteran screenwriter Alvin
Sargent, who adapted Simpson’s same-named novel, eschews easy sentimentality;
the dialogue is blunt and precisely chosen, neither unrealistically on-the-nose
nor fake-documentary banal. It lets the characters communicate their feelings
without knowing they’re doing it. And Wang–one of the finest directors
of actors in movies–employs exactly the right look, tone and style for
this material. He and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, find a visual style
that expresses the intense emotions of his heroines without veering into hyperreality
or shameless melodrama. It’s a widescreen movie–an unusual choice
for an intimate mother-daughter drama–but the width of the frame is used
strategically. It validates the characters’ feelings and suggests a largeness
of emotion, yet it doesn’t imply that Ann and Adele’s story is earth-shatteringly
important, or even unique. In other words, the style keeps the story in perspective
without diminishing the characters.


Deakins shot many of the
interior scenes with a remote-controlled camera, which lets the actor maneuver
freely in tight spaces without having to trip over equipment or a crew. The
more intense scenes–Ann’s impulsive seduction of a classmate; her
late-night, heart-to-heart talk with a favorite male cousin (Shawn Hatosy) who’s
come to visit; Adele surreptitiously watching Ann’s audition monologue,
which cruelly caricatures some of Adele’s quirks–have a startling
aliveness. The style says we aren’t seeing a fake melodramatic spectacle
staged for the cameras; we’re seeing concise, heightened dramatic fragments
from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. We’re invited eavesdroppers. Anywhere
But Here
rarely violates its own stylistic integrity–only in the audition
scene, which struck me as too contrived and movie-ish. And there are a couple
of dramatic confrontations that, while wrenching and real, aren’t adequately
prepared for (I’m thinking of the ugly argument right after a funeral,
during which the blowup of an uncle we really haven’t met before takes
center stage). But for most of its running time, Anywhere But Here couples
emotional directness and crowd-pleasing drama and humor without pandering to
the audience.


Will the critics and the
film industry take notice? Somehow I doubt it. Some of the most interesting
Hollywood movies of recent years have revolved around women, and the concerns
of women, and with few exceptions they’ve been treated condescendingly
by the media as "chick flicks"–as if the emotional lives and
life anxieties of half the population were less important, less valid, than
tales of war, crime and free-floating male anxiety.


The Joy Luck Club,
another Wang film, was a box office success that packed an amazing amount of
drama, emotion and artistry (the flashbacks to rural China had the austere purity
and boldness of a silent movie) into a fairly short running time. Yet it was
largely dismissed by critics as a four-hanky special, something for girlfriends
to bond over during a Saturday matinee. Little Women and How to Make
an American Quilt
–two similarly dense, concise, lovely and crowd-pleasing
movies, movies that I never get tired of watching–were greeted with similar
dismissiveness. I find this astonishing. These aren’t films on little subjects;
they’re about love and friendship, marriage and divorce, birth and death.
It doesn’t get any bigger than that.


It’s also worth noting
that so-called "women’s movies"–a dismissive label if there
ever was one–are the only American films being made at the Hollywood level
that routinely address the specifics of family and community life. Even most
indie films–supposedly "artistic" alternatives to Hollywood phoniness,
directed largely by men and supported largely by male critics–rarely bother
to delve into that area of life, preferring instead to fixate on sensationalism,
genre noodling, cartoon violence, gutter perversity and cutesy, postcollegiate
navel-gazing. In this generally trivial movie landscape, Anywhere But Here
is a beacon of excellence–an accessible, honest movie about mothers and
daughters made at a very high level of craft and honesty. It deserves support
from critics and respect from viewers–male and female. I hope it gets both.


Dogma

directed by Kevin Smith

I was rooting for Dogma;
I root for the artistic success of any movie that dares to be different. On
the surface, writer-director Kevin Smith’s latest certainly qualifies.
But it’s an incoherent, draggy movie, and the gap between the script’s
provocative ideas and gags and the director’s ability to dramatize them
is as wide as the Red Sea.



If you read entertainment
coverage with any regularity, you already know that it’s a comic-epic,
a satire on the state of modern Catholicism that also expresses staunch belief
in the necessity of faith and the existence of God. Smith, who describes himself
as a practicing Catholic, has ambition to spare. I can’t remember the last
loopy comedy on religious themes that also demanded to be taken seriously as
a statement of faith. (Monty Python’s Life of Brian doesn’t
really count, since the Pythons, like the creators of South Park, don’t
have religious bones in their bodies: they view religion mostly as a ludicrous
and hypocritical spectacle–something that gets in the way of real-world
morality rather than embodying it.)


Smith’s premise is
both silly and ingenious, like something a stoned seminary student might cook
up at 4 a.m. instead of studying for his final exams. In New Jersey, a cardinal
(George Carlin) is using the rededication of a church to launch his new public
relations campaign for Catholicism, complete with a winking, friendly Christ
who gives onlookers a reassuring thumbs-up sign. The cardinal hopes to lure
lapsed Catholics back into the fold by promising that anyone who enters the
rededicated church and embraces the newer, more forgiving brand of Catholicism
will be wiped clean of sin.


A couple of fallen angels,
Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who’ve been banished to Earth
for plotting against God, see the rededication as a physical and theological
backdoor entrance to Heaven; they believe that by posing as humans and sneaking
into the church, they can be wiped clean of sin, at which point they will be
able to sneak into heaven, thus proving that God is fallible and negating human
existence.


Smith’s hero is a lapsed
Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) who works at an abortion clinic. The
angel Metatron (Alan Rickman) appears before her and tells her that she has
been picked as the human who will foil the fallen angels’ scheme. She goes
on an odyssey from her home in Illinois to her home state of New Jersey; along
the way, she’s joined by recurring Smith creations Jay and Silent Bob (Jason
Mewes and Kevin Smith) as well as the heretofore-unknown 13th apostle, Rufus
(Chris Rock), who was cut out of the Gospels because he was black.


I admire the crazed, aggressively
naive boldness of Smith’s ideas. His typically dense, monologue-heavy screenplay
jumps from pop-culture minutiae to relationship talk to honest confessions of
emotional distress, always returning to issues of modern and ancient Catholicism.
There’s talk of plenary indulgences, the origins of heaven and hell, the
concepts of sin and redemption and the church’s complicity in the Holocaust
and the slave trade. Smith is a smart, oddball comic writer, and he takes faith
seriously and has done his homework–a rare combination of qualities for
a young American filmmaker.


But Smith has trouble shaping
the material; too much of it rarely rises above the revue-sketch level, and
it lacks the animating spark of fury and bewilderment that characterizes similarly
themed material by the Pythons and Carlin. And even at its most entertaining
and engrossing, none of the scenes could be called "dramatic," in
the sense of conveying ideas visually and emotionally. Mostly the characters
don’t really talk to each other; they just wait for their turn to declaim.
And Smith’s laid-back skill at directing punk-screwball acting seems to
have deserted him. During some extended monologues, the actors who aren’t
speaking look stranded; they don’t know what to do with their faces and
hands–always a problem in a monologue-heavy movie–and they’re
reduced to shrugging in disbelief and rolling their eyes like performers in
a student film or a cable access show.


Nor can Smith find a way
to reconcile his dense, intelligent rhetorical flights of fancy with his penchant
for gross-out humor (exemplified by a vengeful golem made entirely of human
shit) and ineptly staged slapstick (Silent Bob tossing a couple of baddies off
a train, then homaging Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by declaring,
"No ticket").


After the quantum leap of
Chasing Amy–a sweet, strange film that infused the John Hughes romantic
formula with unexpected tenderness and pain–this seems more a step back
than forward. Sure, Smith’s canvas is bigger, his concerns more urgent
and literally cosmic, and the financial stakes higher; he worked with a real
budget this time, and Miramax was so scared by the potential for controversy
that they auctioned off the movie to Lions Gate.


But size doesn’t matter;
what matters is artistry, and that quality is conspicuously lacking here. Dogma
looks shockingly bland for a film of such ambition. It’s as if Smith literally
doesn’t care what it looks like as long as the camera is recording the
actors saying his words. (David Mamet has the same problem.) The film is shot
in widescreen by Robert Yeoman, one of the great cinematographers of the past
two decades (he shot Rampage, Drugstore Cowboy and Wes Anderson’s
Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, to name just four beautiful but stylistically
distinct films), but his work on this film suggests he’s never shot a feature
film before. It can’t possibly be Yeoman’s fault; when a cinematographer
of such versatility and vision makes such an indifferently photographed film–with
little attention to expressive lighting, strategic camera movement or even the
dynamic arrangement of actors in the frame–there can only be one conclusion:
he is giving the director exactly what the director wanted, and what the director
wanted was blandness. There are some potentially startling images here, including
the massacre of innocents by dark angels who hover in the sky like kites, but
Smith seems oblivious to their possibilities. He shoots images of suburban boredom
and apocalyptic horror the same way, as if the camera were no more than a recording
device.


The no-frills, nail-the-camera-down-and-let-the-actors-act
technique worked okay in Smith’s last three movies, which were verbose
comedies set in enclosed spaces. But for a film whose concerns are literally
cosmic, it’s self-defeating. While watching Dogma, I kept thinking
about how much better it would have been if it had been directed by an expert
fantasist and engaged dramatic storyteller–someone like Terry Gilliam or
Peter Jackson. Even the Pythons, working as a group with a budget of about 10
shillings per film, made movies that looked better than Dogma–movies
where what was onscreen visualized the writer’s ideas instead of simply
providing the actors with a platform to talk. Looking back on his four movies,
Smith’s learning curve as a writer and a budding artist is gratifyingly
steep, but his learning curve as a director is nearly flat. He can do better
than this; it’s the only way to be taken seriously and last beyond the
cultural moment. He has been quoted as saying, "My style is that I have
no style." That’s not an explanation anymore; it’s an excuse.
And it won’t do.



Framed
Train
of Life,
a French-Belgian-Romanian-Dutch black comedy
about the attempts of Jewish shtetl inhabitants to avoid extinction in the Holocaust,
would not be possible without the success of Life Is Beautiful. But it
lacks the Benigni film’s fairytale simplicity, which means that its mix
of comic exaggeration and escapism grate and offend rather than provoke and
amuse. The plot has the town’s inhabitants, led by holy fool Schlomo (Lionel
Abelanski), buying a train and deporting themselves not to a concentration camp
but to Palestine. Some of the inhabitants dress as Nazis, and there are predictable
(albeit amusing) gags about how playacting can cross over into reality. And
while the film looks great, with its widescreen, deep-focus compositions, and
has a surging forward momentum, the images of Jewish peasants are gross and
stereotypical; Fiddler on the Roof is a model of sensitivity in comparison,
and at least it had songs. The final revelation is meant to throw the previous
two hours’ worth of excitement and crazed comedy into mournful relief,
but it just makes you wonder why you wasted your time.


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