The Perfect Timing, and Humanity, of Malkhmalbaf’s Kandahar; Use The Royal Tenenbaums As an Antidote to the Odious Vanilla Sky

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


You want Mohsen
Makhmalbaf’s new film Kandahar to bring the news, because for two
weeks now Kandahar has been the Afghanistan city where U.S. troops have waged
a costly fight. Instead, Makhmalbaf offers poetry–an artist’s truth
(that may explain why Iranian film will never be popular in the U.S.). He starts
with a personal hook, based on efforts by Canadian immigrant and journalist
Nelofer Pazira to return to her native Afghanistan to find a loved one still
suffering there. Pazira acts out her endeavor, playing a character who travels
to Afghanistan and who must don the burqa, women’s customary head-to-toe
dress, enduring the country’s oppression of women. As Nafas (an Afghan
name that means "respiration"), Pazira’s high-fashion cheekbones
match the director’s high estheticism. She portrays the frustrated helplessness
that Westerners–along with Makhmalbaf–can recognize. "I have
tried not to have any specific hero," Makhmalbaf says in the presskit.
"The hero of Kandahar is the people of Afghanistan, of which ten
percent have died over the last 20 years and another 30 percent have been made
into refugees. In other words, Kandahar attends to the devastated soul
of a nation." But because Nafas/Pazira never actually gets to Kandahar,
the film depicts an emotional state of human/artistic despair; it feels, scene
after scene, aghast.


A fluent didact,
Makhmalbaf’s gift to instruct-and-illustrate is balanced by humanist tendencies.
(His great, autobiographical A Moment of Innocence was as much a love
story as a middle-aged director’s lament about youthful zealotry.) Coming
out of Iran’s recent meta-cinema movement, Kandahar is not so clear-cut
as the classic antiwar films Fires on the Plain and Forbidden Games.
After engaging public interest in recent history, Makhmalbaf deliberately frustrates
it. Kandahar is structured allusively, following Nafas’ inquiry
into surreal, modern, wartime suffering. Makhmalbaf teaches little about the
specifics of tribal warfare in Afghanistan that allowed the Taliban regime to
take over; nor does he clarify the differences among the Uzbeks, the Tajiks,
the Pashtuns, the Hazaras; but his tangential digressions on themes of oppression,
resistance, outrage are never maudlin–a Makhmalbaf strength. He keeps a
viewer skeptical, thoughtful. At the same time, Kandahar is a politically
intriguing account of the need to reach out–in fact, to intervene–and
also a visually enthralling meditation on what Makhmalbaf sees as the current
futility and the need for change. (One metaphoric shot shows a solar eclipse;
another shows men on crutches hopping toward prosthetic legs landing by Red
Cross parachutes.)


Nafas’
story includes a young boy, Khak (Sadou Teymouri), who gets expelled from a
Muslim school and becomes her renegade guide; next, a mysterious African-American
"doctor," Hassan Tantai (Tabib Sahid, who speaks like Clarence Williams
III), directs her to a Red Cross camp. Makhmalbaf takes on new humanist archetypes–black
man, Afghan woman–to focus his tale of oppression and resistance. There’s
only one other contemporary world-class exemplar of socially responsible artistic
vision: Steven Spielberg, who in Amistad and especially The Color
Purple
addressed political history with large imagination. (Makhmalbaf might
be acknowledging that effort when the Afghan women, passing compacts and lipsticks
under their burqas, ask, "Do you remember how you used to use the color
purple on your nails?") He shows Nafas and Tantai’s subversive communication
during a medical examination–with culturally provocative closeups of a
mouth or eye behind a hole in a curtain. Makhmalbaf emphasizes Nafas and Tantai’s
radical participation in Kandahar, speaking their observations and homilies
to the camera or into a mini tape recorder. (Nafas wonders, "Can the boys
still sing songs in the alleys of Kandahar? Can the young girls still fall in
love with those songs? Does love pass through the covers of the burqa?"
and Tantai muses, "They don’t need a doctor here, they need a baker.")
Concerned with the future of human decency, they and Makhmalbaf are improvising–and
not just for a movie.


Vanilla
Sky

Directed
by Cameron Crowe



The
Royal Tenenbaums

Directed
by Wes Anderson


Overachiever
Tom Cruise has never given a completely convincing performance, yet because
he clearly tries hard and has become wealthy, the media world bows to his smiling
ambition. Writer-director Cameron Crowe wouldn’t know how to critique this
situation because he suffers his own stupefying career success. In Vanilla
Sky
, a post-yuppie, big pimpin’ revision of It’s a Wonderful
Life
(though actually based on the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos),
Crowe contorts luxe and vanity into high-tech special pleading for insecure
rich guys. Media mogul David Aames (Cruise) can’t tell his fantasy life
of sex with dark-haired waif Penelope Cruz from his nightmare reality of sex
with blonde babe Cameron Diaz. His psychotic self-abuse comes complete with
physical disfigurement and snazzy nihilism. (The film could just as well be
titled It’s a Wonderful Death.) Every item of baby boomer excess–Aames’
sports car, townhouse, playmates, tomorrow’s coolest gadgets–inspires
awe and envy. And Crowe, typically, wraps it all in movie and music references–commodities
that flatter a particular class of insincere overachiever. This kitsch-fest
may be the biggest white elephant in recent movie history, but it’s also
something worse: Opening this week against Wes Anderson’s The Royal
Tenenbaums
, Vanilla Sky exposes the also overcelebrated Crowe as
a pop-culture poseur–a graver sin than working as Tom Cruise’s court
jester.


Since parlaying
his Rolling Stone career and early screenwriting gift (the credible youth
romances Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything) into glossy
Hollywood dreck (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), Crowe has betrayed
the youth culture idea of rebellion and guileless creativity. Wes Anderson puts
a new, heartfelt spin on the promise of pop, but Vanilla Sky recalls
that old Rolling Stone Perception/Reality ad campaign that looked hip
but, in fact, championed materialism, anti-idealism and taking nothing in pop
culture seriously. Even the plot’s Fatal Attraction triangle gets
drowned in avarice and privilege. When Aames is interrogated by a psychologist
(Kurt Russell) about his involvement in a crime of passion, Aames wears a latex
mask (called "an aesthetic regenerating shield") to hide his scars.
This gimmick isn’t the big star confession Crowe pretends, because Cruise
always wears a mask, is always hollow. Behind the puff-pastry facial mutilation,
no deep Dorian Gray unpleasantness is revealed.


Exactly who
is behind that latex mask? Hannibal Lecter or a Jann Wenner prototype? Aames
owns three magazines, runs a worldwide publishing house and manages his personal
relations conceitedly, including with his best friend Brian Shelby (Jason Lee),
a writer he keeps under contract and treats as chattel. Crowe avoids confronting
Aames’ carelessness about the women in his life or the world he commands.
He’s just a flirty, poor little rich boy. A critic cannot say how this
redounds upon Crowe-Cruise-Wenner’s real life consanguinity, but certain
linguistic peculiarities (referring to a woman as Aames’ "fuck buddy,"
Diaz blurting "I swallowed your cum! That means something!") suggest
inadvertent homoerotic tension that Crowe also shields against. (The women’s
roles are vapid, and Penelope Cruz’s English is practically unintelligible.)
Although characters keep intoning, "The subconscious is a powerful thing,"
the idea merely sets up the film’s time-twisting play with Aames’
flexible mental state–a fancy distraction from seriously questioning Aames’
behavior.


Without a moral
base–and as Aames gets more anxious–Vanilla Sky’s glibness
becomes overwrought. Crowe pulls a Robert Zemeckis, using overscaled f/x, from
a graphic car crash to digitized sci-fi fantasies. These expensive hallucinations
play Aames’ freakout back to him (us) through simulacra of old records
and movies–a Rolling Stone Rorschach. His subconscious paranoically
refracts pop culture as trivia, falsifying every emotion displayed, every feeling
the music connotes. Violence is backed by Todd Rundgren’s "Can We
Still Be Friends?," Aames’ agitation is scored to "Western Union,"
etc. Though a spawn of Rolling Stone, Crowe relays no personal sensitivity
about pop. For him and Aames it’s all stuff, something to show off
his superior acquisitiveness whether the brand name is Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan
or French New Wave movies.


To combat another
noxious Crowe/Cruise yuppie hero hagiography (Aames’ "Citizen
Dildo" nickname could also apply to Jerry Maguire), let’s understand
this plundering of pop just for egotism and rapacity. Aames represents that
part of our culture that has rendered so much pop music inane through prostitution
in movies and tv commercials. The totems tell us nothing about Aames except
his ability to buy them. Aames’ bedroom contains huge, gorgeous Jules
et Jim
and A Bout de Souffle posters; it’s just yuppie showing-off
reflected in the film itself when Aames idealizes Cruz in terms of Jules
et Jim
. His misreading of that movie proves it had no bearing on
him (or Crowe); the finest pop art of the past–including Vanilla Sky’s
overload of hit tunes–has now simply been commodified, made meaningless.


Crowe’s
disgrace of his pop music background contrasts Wes Anderson’s felicitous
use of pop as the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums. When Gwyneth Paltrow
and Luke Wilson hide away from the adult world, grownups lying in a kid’s
tent, their anguish is made exquisite by Anderson’s use of the Rolling
Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday," a doubly nostalgic lament because Anderson’s
sensibility–and the characters’ desire for regression and communication–both
developed from popular culture. Crowe uses pop for self-aggrandizement
(like a snide rock critic) but The Royal Tenenbaums’ pop subtext
is unusual and special for defying such cynicism.


Anderson’s
emotional connection to pop is almost as extraordinary as Terence Davies’
in The Long Day Closes. At Tenenbaums’ New York Film Festival
showing, the temporary music track featured the Beatles’ "Hey Jude"
during the opening sequence and "I’m Looking Through You" for
the closing. "Hey Jude" was momentous, maybe too powerful. But the
instinct to use it for Tenenbaums’ early epiphany (a lonely child
craving family connection sets a falcon flying across the urban sky) was genuine
artistry. It reintroduced the song’s great yearning. Alluding to the song’s
history (Paul wrote it to console Julian Lennon’s anguish over John’s
divorce), Anderson made his story of a family’s failure, betrayal and disaster
irresistible.


Unable to get
legal clearance, Anderson now opens with Elliott Smith’s cover of "Hey
Jude" and closes with the Beach Boys’ trenchant "Sloop John B."
The first substitution is better. Smith’s modest version better suits this
eccentric fable in which Anderson poignantly substitutes imagined worlds for
real totems–the Lindbergh Palace for the Waldorf-Astoria, the Braverman
Prize for the Guggenheim Fellowship, Archer Ave. for 5th Ave., Windswept Fields
for Flushing Meadows–always expressing an emotional essence. His "New
York" is a pop culture collage. Despite Robert Yeoman’s hyperrealistic
widescreen photography, Tenenbaums’ dream world is surreal (like
one character’s breeding of Dalmatian mice).


But Crowe offers
an upscale "New York" of fabulous impossibility. His Vanilla Skyline
(including the World Trade Center) feels as impersonal as a Lexus ad. Nothing
about it matches Anderson’s eccentricity. Shots of Aames dashing through
John Toll’s pristine mirage of Times Square lack the splendor of pop expressiveness.
Vanilla Sky’s conspicuous exploitation of pop music–and people–coldly
proclaims Aames’ self-centeredness, excusing the responsibilities of wealth,
while The Royal Tenenbaums pays homage to peculiarly articulated personal
visions. Crowe ransacks the rock ’n’ roll catalog like a sycophant
flattering the economy’s key players (and their ugly psyches). That’s
the ultimate betrayal in a film that sentimentalizes betrayal.


"Why ‘not
a genius?’" Owen Wilson asks in Tenenbaums, wondering why
a critic doubts an artist’s potential. As Eli Cash, the Tenenbaums’
decadent novelist/neighbor, Wilson recalls an adult Jeff Spicoli from Ridgemont
High
but also Anderson himself, a maybe-genius with a prodigiously strange
sensibility. It’s through pop music that this critic was able to get his
bearings on both Anderson and Crowe. Pop richness gives Anderson’s nerdiness
genuine eloquence (and makes the difference between Tenenbaums and the
very fine, very similar 1991 family drama Crooked Hearts). It’s
a lesson in the complicated ways our culture’s moral traditions are sustained.
Anderson’s attentive to humane pop whereas Crowe imitates sardonic Billy
Wilder (his book Conversations with Wilder features more kissing-up).
This is especially apparent when Crowe ignores Brian’s selling out for
professional gain (as in Wilder’s The Apartment) rather than holding
Aames to account for stealing his girlfriend. Compare The Apartment’s
famous cracked-mirror scene that ridicules a character’s secret shame to
the Tenenbaums’ moment when an exposed smoking habit wounds the
self-image of a character involved in a love triangle. It’s the difference
between cynicism and compassion. Vanilla Sky’s brown-nosing slickness
is stuck in the middle.


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