Song For Martin

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

A hundred years
of advancement in cinematic technique haven’t changed one simple fact:
the most powerful image in movies is a meaningful close-up of someone thinking.

A Song For
, a new love story from Bille August, understands this maxim and builds
a whole movie around it. This story of soulmates who find each other late in
life doesn’t attempt anything too fancy or self-conscious; there are no
digital characters, no strobe-flash dream sequences, no pop-driven montages,
no 12-minute tracking shots designed primarily to make you wonder how on earth
they did that. But it accomplishes something much more elusive, difficult and
valuable: it captures a convincing facsimile of human behavior, and gives you
insight into what life is actually like.

It’s all
about two fiftysomething lovers—a symphony violinist named Barbara (Viveka
Seldahl) and a conductor named Martin (Sven Wollter)—interacting within
a series of simple, efficient close-ups and two-shots. Yet it’s a tremendously
exciting film. The excitement comes from getting to know this couple as they
get to know each other—watching them as they go out, eat meals, make love,
move in, compose music, argue with each other, dote on each other. She’s
reactive and reticent, but no wallflower; he’s somewhat brusque and grandiose,
as many powerful men are, but he’s also funny, charming and vulnerable.
By the end of the film, you’ve learned to anticipate their gestures, their
expressions, their pet phrases and favorite jokes; you truly do feel as though
you know them, and you care what happens to them because you feel as if it’s
happening to you. That’s what drama is supposed to do; that’s why
it was invented.

Barbara, the
middle-aged mother of adult children, falls for Martin, and Martin for Barbara;
for different reasons, each probably should not be getting involved with the
other, but love is love. Ignoring protestations from friends and family that
the relationship is wrongheaded and very likely doomed, they embark on an affair
that turns into a romantic second chance; they’re like a couple of flowers
written off as goners who unexpectedly blossom. Their sexuality is intense and
real, and presented in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner—as just one
more part of life. Like Bergman—and like almost any serious, respected
filmmaker who isn’t an American—August doesn’t find the very
idea of older adult sexuality mind-boggling or subversive; she takes it for
granted, and in taking it for granted, she ennobles it. The first part of the
film charts the lovers’ courtship; the middle stretch shows them forging
a believably complicated, imperfect, happy marriage; the final stretch tests
the outer limits of their bond, asking if love can exist without reciprocation.
(If you don’t already know the nature of the test, you should probably
stop reading now.)

August, an
Ingmar Bergman collaborator best known to Americans for her six-hour tv miniseries
The Best Intentions (released here as a three-hour movie), gives realistic
characters an unabashedly cinematic scale. She places them inside the rectangular
widescreen frame, a format more often employed by directors of historical epics
and big-budget genre pictures; she uses that vast horizontal space to suggest
the distance that separates even people who truly love each other—the aloneness
felt by all married people, even the happy ones. (Wollter and Seldahl, who appeared
together in other August projects, were married until Seldahl’s death last
year, but you needn’t know that to be impressed by the realism of their
interaction. It’s just one more thing that connects this movie to life.)

When Martin
is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Barbara, transformed in the film’s
middle section from someone quiet, withdrawn and respectable to someone more
assertive and bold, is transformed again, this time into a caretaker, a maid,
a nurse. The tale’s central irony isn’t lost on August. Barbara was
first attracted to Martin because he offered her a chance to think of herself
as a free spirit and a sexual being rather than as a wife and mother; in other
words, he helped her rediscover her own adult individuality. When Martin is
stricken, slowly losing his ability to understand and appreciate music, art
and his own marriage, she must reconnect with her maternal side—only now
the person she’s mothering is a grownup near the end of his life rather
than a child at the beginning. Like last year’s superb Iris—dismissed
by many critics because it didn’t offer a tutorial on Iris Murdoch’s
writing, and perhaps because it was about a woman—A Song For Martin
dramatizes the tragedy of an artist losing his ability to think. And it dramatizes
the predicament of a fellow artist (and loving spouse) struggling to remain
committed, interested, devoted, even though the basis of the partnership is
disintegrating hourly.

August and
her actors are interested only in creating fleeting moments that suggest the
astonishing complexity of human interaction. They do this by focusing on the
minute, even banal rituals of love, friendship and commitment—a subject
all viewers understand and appreciate, and a subject that shockingly few “important”
filmmakers are interested in. Spielberg, De Palma and other pop giants have
their cheerleaders (God knows I’m one of them), but they make movies that
are, to one degree or another, bigger than life, or at least a few degrees removed
from life; at their best, they make the extraordinary ordinary (which is to
say, involving and credible).

Directors like
August, Robert Altman, Alan Rudolph and relative newcomers like Steve Buscemi
and Christopher Guest would rather make the ordinary extraordinary. They don’t
want Bigger than Life; they want Life, or something in the ballpark. They’d
rather be messy than neat; they’d rather be quiet than loud; they’d
rather be meticulous than flashy. I wish there were more filmmakers like them;
I wish there were more films like A Song For Martin.


Lilo & Stitch, the animated tale of a little outcast
Hawaiian girl and her best buddy, a destructive alien robot monster who escapes
his creators and heads to Earth, aims to be a funky, girl-centered cousin of
E.T., about a couple of lonely, abandoned souls who find each other.
It’s wonderful in some ways and irritating in others. The look is distinctive,
original and in some ways quite lovely; it’s the first feature-length cartoon
in ages that employs watercolored backdrops, yet the character design and super-fluid,
computerized-looking animation suggests a merger of Disney and anime. It takes
little Lilo’s isolation seriously, its details of Hawaiian suburbia are
unique, some of the domestic details of her life with her big sister are finely
observed and, incredibly enough, Lilo’s friendship with Stitch, while contrived
and unlikely, actually works. (He’s a hideously ugly little bugger, with
retractable extra arms, a growly-babbly voice and a Muppet mouth full of serrated

But Stitch’s
wacky-grotesque-chaotic behavior grows tiresome, and the film squanders much
of its magic in a loud, overhyped, completely unnecessary action finale that
smacks of a desperation to pander to impatient little boys whose parents have
given them permission to squirm and complain during any film that does not contain
flatulence, crotch-kicks and explosions. What a shame: Lilo & Stitch
might have been a surprising, even great cartoon, but by the end, it seems more
like a marketing memo with illustrations.