Time Out; Lee’s Jim Brown

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



Urgent as next
week’s paycheck, Time Out delves into common experience that most
movies ignore: work-world identity and anomie. At first it’s not clear
that Vincent (Aurelien Recoing) has lost his white-collar job, but director-writer
Laurent Cantet reveals his professional and psychological drift. Sitting behind
the wheel of his parked car, watching the slow defrost of his windshield, Vincent’s
psychic shock thaws out–giving way to unignorable dread. To pass the time
his wife and children think he’s at work, Vincent drives through wintry
French woods, his self-respect speeding toward disgrace.


Movies have
classically lamented the lives of typically destitute people (the poor and elderly–proved
by the nondiscriminating praise of any Iranian film and the masterpiece status
conferred on DeSica’s recently rereleased Umberto D), but Time
Out
is something else. Cantet’s nature and automobile metaphors capture
personal and social disorientation so deftly, he instigates what might be called
a New World Order of shocked compassion. By rethinking social commonplaces,
the class assumptions that provoke our empathy, Cantet shows that when the formerly
secure middle class is in a panic, moviegoers’ pity no longer trickles
down. It expands.


Vincent is
a new era’s archetypal protagonist, a Travis Bickle spawned by the International
Monetary Fund. Pale-faced, pockmarked, almost jowly, Recoing resembles the American
comic actor Larry Miller, who alternately plays doofus clerks or obnoxious bureaucrats.
That same schmo-like, average-white-guy bearing makes Vincent fascinating when
serious worry and unarticulated seething expose him as a frighteningly anonymous
Everyman. This intensifies the point of Cantet’s debut feature Human
Resources
, which implied that the need to work–to make a living–was
not simply universal but absolute. Its dramatic focus was on a fresh-from-business-school
exec’s confrontation with a labor union (and how management theory affected
his home life). But Time Out’s drama more closely examines the self-image
one gets from work. Not the false generational pride shown in the naive indie
film Stolen Summer (with its fake dilemma of a fireman father keeping
his son down) but the sense of self-worth that automatically comes with employment
and participation in the economy. Cantet knows the secret side of paycheck dependency.
Losing all that puts Vincent in a similar position to characters seen in Mike
Leigh’s Career Girls, the Dardennes brothers’ Rosetta,
Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels and The Little Thief.
This vision of the modern working world gainsays Marxist analysis to concentrate
on an individual’s temperament. These filmmakers all confirm that there
is suffering and self-delusion inherent in job exploitation but they also uncover
the emotional roots of those anxieties, illustrating the characters’ unspoken
social beliefs (their acted-out but suppressed frustrations). They take unprepossessing
characters and draw us into their psychology. Vincent doesn’t become vengeful
(the American movie reflex of Michael Douglas’ character in the abysmal
Falling Down); he gets increasingly remote from his family and parents
because his disaffection expresses Cantet’s considered view of how the
current global economy alienates.


Cantet’s
art is new not just because it’s post-Marx but, more excitingly, post-Antonioni.
Time Out gets its extraordinary sense of ennui from evoking the places
Vincent wanders as an outcast who instinctively wants back in. ("How should
I live?"–the first line in Antonioni’s La Notte–could
underscore all Vincent’s closeups.) Corporation lobbies reveal impersonal
spaces anyone can fit into, yet these same locales also accommodate–and
provoke–anomie (as in Mike Judge’s Office Space). An overhead
shot of cubicles and offices makes haunting reference to the demoralizing effect
of nature-mocking architecture that one sees throughout suburban business sectors
(the same anomaly Jacques Tati joked about in Playtime). Vincent moves
through a world so full of enforced, artificial social structures that he’s
even lost during a weekend trip with his wife Muriel (Karin Viard).


Vincent’s
secretiveness about finding new work shrouds their relationship like the vast,
bewildering snowiness. The uneasy natural landscapes–mountaintops and woodsy
roads–create stillness and tension also felt in guarded lobbies and in
parking lots with video surveillance. Time Out’s unnerving peak
comes when a security guard jolts Vincent’s isolation. Caught by an unrelenting
high-powered beam, Vincent is paralyzed in misery. Because Time Out starts
with the heartbreak of joblessness, Cantet conscientiously goes on to examine
the undependable institutions, what a new character in the film describes as
"the legal and parallel economies." Vincent’s straying takes
him into a con man’s confidence. He meets Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet)–an
older operator with a gnarled mug that seems to be in-your-face even when he’s
seated across the table–and sinks into the illicit world of fences and
purloined goods. Jean-Michel’s an all-too-human tempter (he could be one
of Claire Denis’ vampires in Trouble Every Day, preying on the commonweal);
an outrageous character conceived as normal (at times, he’s sensually familiar).
Through Jean-Michel, Cantet penetrates how modern life is soaked in avarice–affecting
all aspects of trade-based culture, everywhere creating the same participatory
horror that the Coen brothers (currently the best satirists of social ambition)
attempt laughing themselves out of. (When Vincent visits his old work place,
the postal potential invites nervous laughter.)


It’s no
joke when Vincent’s teenage son (who typically wants sneakers, jeans, bikes)
is seduced by Jean-Michel’s tv-commercial bluster. But the son has inherited
something more alarming: his father’s super-ego. Ignoring his parents when
they visit his karate class, he’s already learned the defensive social
behavior and independent wiles that boys are heir to and the work world demands.
When Cantet’s social drama swells into family trauma in a second climax,
the nervous, troubled confessions between Vincent and his wife, and between
son and father, are quietly devastating. Questioning his social and familial
place, Vincent is wracked by the conflict between his personal and group identity.
This crisis is so up-to-date, I didn’t expect any director to make it so
classically moving. Time Out might be a truly great movie, because Cantet
suggests that Vincent’s predicament is not only timeless but eternal.



Jim
Brown: All-American


Directed by Spike
Lee



Jim Brown’s
movie career is just four films (The Dirty Dozen, Fingers,
Mars Attacks!
, Any Given Sunday) better than Elvis Presley’s,
yet this documentary praises Brown’s filmography as a key event in black
American culture. More bollocks from Spike Lee. To make this assertion, Lee
uses historian-apologist Donald Bogle to lead the charge against Sidney Poitier
as an emasculated figure; it fits Lee’s nonsensical, racist resentment
of any Hollywood film he didn’t direct. (It takes an aside by Melvin Van
Peebles to provide necessary historical dimension by simply mentioning Jack
Johnson, for his time a more radical figure than Brown.)


Brown’s
current image–head shaved, kufi-wearing, ’stache dyed black–is
shown as if hallowed. But it’s not elder-statesman wisdom that Lee venerates;
he presents Brown as an ideal that "Stands up for African maleness"–once
again racializing his film’s subject simply because white people (and some
black people) enjoy being enflamed by the provocation. It’s funny to watch
this cable-tv-level account of Jim Brown’s football/Hollywood career and
reflect on the difference between quantifiable athletic achievement and the
bad joke of Lee’s career. Brown may have run yards on the football field
with unprecedented speed and power, but Lee’s renown is based on the generally
low standard people hold for movies. He benefits from the irony that intellectual,
artistic professions discriminate more frequently and arbitrarily than sports–a
subject that an honest, aware documentarian (say, the redoubtable William Greaves)
might advantageously pursue showing the inequities that make black athletes
more successful than black filmmakers or black intellectuals.


Greaves, whose
most recent film was the enlightening documentary Ralph Bunche: An American
Odyssey
, would give a truer sense of Brown’s historical significance.
It shames our film culture that Lee’s documentary gets mass media instead.
Lee simply trades on controversy yet is too intimidated by Brown’s presence
to pursue the most pressing topics. (Someone should put James Toback’s
fascinating book on Brown back into print.) The first hour is about Brown’s
athletic career, the next half-hour about Hollywood, leaving the final half-hour
to nod at Brown’s family life and glide over his dubious female troubles.


To get a better
understanding of Jim Brown the pop icon, see his late-career casting in Tim
Burton’s Mars Attacks!. As the black Father, Brown returns home
to a scene of urban (thus global) devastation and helps the national resurrection.
Director Tim Burton borrowed Brown’s image (and costar Pam Grier’s)
from blaxploitation, the cheapest pop legacy, but his respect for black iconography
elevated the way we read Brown. In Mars Attacks! Brown stands for something
valiant; in Lee’s visually atrocious video-doc, Brown is simply an adolescent
kid’s virile pinup. Laurent Cantet matched capitalist and labor dynamics
to the conflict between identity and self. Lee’s portrait of Brown stays
superficial.



•Widescreen
Alert: Bypass the ugliest doc in years and seek out the Museum of Modern Art’s
Kon Ichikawa retro. Ichikawa was one of the masters of widescreen composition.
Any Ichikawa you pick guarantees eye-expanding beauty plus rare insight into
sex and politics. Punishment Room and The Makioka Sisters are
standouts.


..