Monthly Archives: February 2015
David Cronenberg is fascinated by altered states of consciousness. His characters’ view of the world may be shaped by technology (Existenz) or drugs (Naked Lunch) or mental illness (Spider). Throughout his career, Cronenberg has made films about people who perceive reality in different ways, and he seems completely uninterested in making judgments. In fact, at times he may be asking if their perception of the world might not be valid. In Crash a man and a woman who survive an auto accident find themselves irresistibly drawn toward the violence of car culture. The hero of Eastern Promises has to walk a tightrope between the demands of a Russian crime syndicate and an American law enforcement agency, trying to survive in the space between the two. But survival isn’t always a priority for Cronenberg’s characters. Sometimes they just surrender to their fate.
In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer lives in a universe shaped by the ceaseless flow of cyber-capital. He spends most of the day riding through Manhattan, the financial center of the US, in a gleaming white limousine. It glides along the streets in sleek, soundproof isolation. While he can see what’s happening outside, he barely hears it when protesters are banging their fists against his window. We meet this brilliant young billionaire on the day when his financial empire is quickly imploding. Instead of freaking out, he ponders his misfortune with an odd detachment. Not only is he unruffled by the loss of his millions, he’s amazingly calm about the fact that an assassin is trying to kill him. He takes almost everything with an unsettling calm, and he insists on driving across Manhattan in spite of all the obstacles. “We need a haircut,” he tells his chauffer/bodyguard. Nothing will keep him from that goal.
Robert Pattinson gives a beautifully focussed performance as Packer, riding across Manhattan, consumed in melancholy meditation of a reality that appears to be coming apart at the seams. He’s a control freak who realizes that he’s losing control, and rather than screaming and crying, he seems fascinated by the circumstances of his downfall. In the course of his journey he picks up various visitors who accompany him part of the way. Juliette Binoche does a funny, raunchy turn as the art dealer who shows up to have savage sex with Packer, and then discuss the purchase of a painting by Rothko. Samantha Morton maintains an eerie serenity, a disturbing clarity, in her role as the financial philosopher who carefully breaks down the way money is changing our perception of time. She rides along in the limo, cradling her drink, talking calmly about how our reality is altered by the massive pressures of the markets. Morton plays this difficult role with perfect ease, staring off into space with shining eyes, an intellectual entranced by the beauty and the violence of capital. Abdul Ayoola gives a quietly moving performance as the chauffer who takes Packer on the last leg of his journey. And Paul Giamatti has just the right presence to play the grimy loner who wants to kill Packer. Though he’s filled with rage at the way the world has treated him, he seems unnerved when he finally comes face to face with his prey.
I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s book, but I’d really like to. Published not too long after the dot com bubble burst, the author was obviously exploring the new ways in which the markets were changing our world. The film was released in two thousand twelve, and I’m sure many people read it as a comment on the more recent financial meltdown. But Cosmpolis isn’t a morality play about the soulless rich. Packer’s problem isn’t that he has no soul, it’s that his soul is starved. He’s a brilliant young man who spends his days analyzing the ebb and flow of markets, riding waves of currency. Existing almost completely in this alternate universe, this gleaming, abstract future created by the endless flow of capital, he begins to realize that he’s living in a vacuum. We see that there are plenty of women who want to have sex with him, but the one woman he really wants to have sex with, his wife, is out of reach. The bodyguard he’s hired to protect him becomes a nuisance to overcome, an obstacle that keeps him from experiencing the world. And when he finally arrives at the barbershop, we realize it’s not the haircut he needed, but the amiable grin of the guy who gives it to him, a man who knew his father. This chatty old man may be his only friend.
Composer Howard Shore has been working with Cronenberg so long they seem to understand each other perfectly. The director doesn’t care about drama, or driving his points home. In Cosmopolis the narrative moves forward on its own terms, relying on its own logic, and the music reflects this. Instead of a conventional film score with its dramatic highs and lows, Shore gives us an abstract soundscape that hovers in the background. Relying largely on color and texture, he creates a shifting sonic fabric that echoes the main character’s zoned-out state of mind.
Packer realizes that he’s come to inhabit the world of capital so completely that he’s estranged from simple, physical experience. He turns homicidal, then suicidal. He’s desperate to connect with somebody, even somebody who’s trying to kill him. But through all of this, Cronenberg avoids making judgments. He doesn’t care about putting Packer on trial. He’s more interested in getting inside this boy’s head.
Summer of Sam (1999)
Spike Lee is a New Yorker. That’s who he is. The city is the lens he uses to look at the world. In Summer of Sam he gives us a sweeping panorama of New York in the seventies. At the center of the movie is the series of murders committed by David Berkowitz, who called himself the Son of Sam, but this is really just the catalyst for the story that the director wants to tell. Lee uses the killings as a way to explore paranoia, pop culture, racial tension and sex. Especially sex.
Summer of Sam delves deep into the currents of sexual freedom and sexual repression that were roiling the country back in the seventies. The story revolves around two couples living in a working class Italian-American neighborhood. They all come from the same background, but they end up going in wildly different directions. The movie depicts their conflicts with the world around them, with each other, and within themselves.
The first couple, Vinny and Dionna, are married. He works as a hairdresser and she works as a waitress. Vinny loves his wife, but he can’t stop chasing women. What he wants is wild, nasty sex, and because he sees his wife as a “nice girl”, he can’t bring himself to ask her to do anything out of the ordinary. She even tries to get him to loosen up in bed, and it freaks him out. His Catholic upbringing tells him you’re not supposed to do those things with your wife.
There’s a key moment early on when Vinny takes his wife’s cousin home from a club. He makes crazy love to her in the back of the car, and after dropping her off he drives by a crime scene where he sees the Son of Sam’s latest victims. Vinny is deeply shaken. He’s convinced this is a message from God. The Catholic in him believes that God is telling him to stop messing around, or he’ll be next. In his mind it’s that simple.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Richie and Ruby. Richie comes from the same working class neighborhood as Vinny and Dionna, but he’s dying to escape. He feels irresistibly drawn to punk rock and the scene swirling around CBGB. Sporting a spiked collar and a bristling mohawk, Richie makes his money in Manhattan where he dances for men and turns tricks on the side. Even though they’re coming from the same place as Vinny and Dionna, Richie and Ruby let go of their hang-ups and live the way they want to.
But this doesn’t mean they live happily ever after. When they’re through partying in the city, they still have to go back to the same old neighborhood, and now Richie and Ruby are perceived as outsiders. Richie especially is seen as a freak to be avoided. If that were all, it might not be a big deal. But a pack of local losers have decided it’s their mission to catch the Son of Sam, and they gradually convince themselves that this weirdo with the spiky hair and the dog collar must be the killer.
The script, by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Lee, uses these two couples to explore repression and freedom, fear and desire, weaving their stories into the larger fabric of life in New York in the seventies. Punk rock, disco, the Yankees, Italian mobsters, serial murders and Jimmy Breslin are all bound together in a volatile urban landscape where repressed desire is pulsing under the surface and fear drives a spiralling cycle of violence. On the surface it may seem like a chaotic mash-up, but the film is actually a beautifully structured collage. Overlapping layers of image and sound coming rushing at us, plunging us into this feverish, overheated world. In creating Summer of Sam‘s aggressive, abrasive style, the director was helped by numerous talented collaborators. Lee has often used a range of visual textures, and here Ellen Kuras gives him everything he needs, from brassy high-contrast to gritty, low-light images. Barry Alexander Brown’s editing gives the film pace and punch. The sound is amazing, capturing the screeching, scraping, rumbling, raging vibe of the city. Out of the huge crew that worked on this facet of the film, I’ll mention supervising sound editor Kevin Lee, sound designer Blake Leyh, sound re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman and foley editor Andrew Kris, though there are probably others that deserve to be named as well.
And I haven’t even gotten to the cast yet. John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino both seem to be living their roles from the inside out. Adrian Brody and Jennifer Esposito play their parts with a convincing mix of toughness and tenderness. But getting beyond the leads, the film has an incredible supporting cast. Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Michael Rispoli and Ben Gazzara don’t even seem to be acting. You get the feeling they’ve been living in this neighborhood all their lives. And that same feeling extends to even the smallest supporting players. Casting director Aisha Coley deserves credit for filling the film with people who all seem to be a living part of the New York landscape.
But this film isn’t just about New York. It’s about people everywhere. As specific as Summer of Sam is to the time and place it’s set in, the conflicts these people are going through are universal. Wrestling with desire. Dealing with pressure from family and friends. And maybe most of all, searching for some kind of honesty. Once you get past the accents and the clothes and the music, you’ll find that Spike Lee isn’t just talking about New York in the seventies. He’s talking about all of us.