Friday, March 8, 2019

Reviews from gulag: My family's slave

ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

I am not happy that Green Book won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards.  I can't be unhappy about it, at least not honestly—I'm pretty sure I would be unhappy, but I have not seen Green Book, and have no particular desire to, outside of the possibility that watching Aragorn getting fat and eating fried chicken for two straight hours might be amusing.  Even so, I can't imagine it was anywhere close to 2018's best picture.

Nevertheless, Green Book winning does have one nice silver lining: it means Alfonso Cuarón's Netflix-distributed Roma did not.  I did watch Roma; I can hate it.  I don't hate it for the reasons Steven Spielberg apparently hates it—helping push Green Book to its Oscar win and presently trying his level best to have Netflix banned from Academy Award consideration—for the great filmmaker has never been more petty and out-of-touch in his motivations, nor, I'm sad to say, more on the wrong side of history, even if "Netflix" and "movie" in the same sentence don't conjure the most pleasant cinematic expectations, and even if there are many valid reasons to be suspicious of Netflix that don't involve giving a shit about movie theaters.

Nor do I hate Roma because it's slow and boring!  Though it's true: it is very slow and extravagantly boring.  I may hate it more than it warrants.  That's conceivable.  I can be a resentful person, and it's one of those movies I feel like I've been kind of lied to about.  That is, it's one of those movies that everyone comes to the conclusion is amazing and great and necessary and barely gets a single less-than-laudatory review (though Richard Brody's at The New Yorker is spot-fucking-on).  I imagine this is because it presents itself as overt, challenging, capital-A Art, therefore putting its viewers in the fidgety position of feeling embarrassed if they don't like it (this being the biggest reason I distrust art cinema in general).  It is also, I suppose, because it (uneasily) fits into a certain righteous narrative, and it is therefore good to amplify its signal, which I agree with in principle, though what they say the film is and what it actually is are, to my mind, two very, very different things.

What it physically is, anyway, is Cuarón (found here directing, writing, producing, lensing, and, finally, co-editing, alongside Adam Gough) being permitted to indulge himself on a massive and overwhelming scale, which I do not mean as a compliment.  Fair being fair, as the director behind the best movie of my lifetime (Gravity), he could put out 135 minutes of blank screen, call it a meditation, and I'd still concede he'd earned the privilege.  It's a crude reduction to say Roma actually comes pretty close, but I feel pretty crude and reductive about it.  So: prompted by nostalgia, Roma is Cuarón's recreation of the good and bad of his childhood in the Roma Colonia neighorhood of Mexico City over a period of a year or so, as the 60s switched over to the 70s; however, instead of his tow-headed stand-in, Cuarón decided, in his generosity (I'm being sarcastic), that the focus of his piece would be a fictionalized version of his family's beloved household servant, Libo Rodriguez, whom he pressed for stories to fill up the movie he didn't tell her he was making, creating a character he based upon her, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).  I'll note that Cuarón got a Best Original Screenplay nomination for, basically, remembering shit and taking dictation.  But fair enough: Roma is por Cuarón a long, long time before it ever gets around to being por Libo.

"Cleodegaria Gutiérrez" is many things to the upper-middle-class household she and her friend Adela (Nancy García) work for, and she shall become more as the marriage of family matriarch Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) disintegrates, leaving Sofía and their four children behind.  Presumably Cuarón has projected himself into the film in the body of the youngest.  We often find him saying dreamily stupid things, and therefore he has the most distinct personality, albeit an annoying one.  Meanwhile, his two older brothers are indistinguishably-rambunctious assholes, and his sister is a nonentity, probably for thematic reasons.  Cuarón elected to refrain from giving a girl negative traits; hence she has none at all.  Doesn't matter: the story belongs mainly to Cleo, and the family's drama happens mostly in the narrative background, which means it's pretty far-backgrounded indeed.  Cleo pursues a boyfriend; this turns out to be a mistake; and soon enough she's been knocked up and abandoned, right around the time Sofia is abandoned, too, and if that wasn't tragedy and suffering enough for Cleo, well, there's certainly more to come.

Roma isn't a tragedy, or a melodrama, despite having those elements within it.  It's kind of hard to say what it is: a piece of European-style slow cinema that uses these things as a readily-comprehensible plot that's interested, instead, in combining a great deal of blood-curdling neorealism on the one hand and a bunch of godawful artsy filips on the other, while also employing some Forrest Gumpy historical signposting without Forrest Gump's magical realism, entertainment value, or (if we're being mean) thematic heft.  In pursuit of that first aim, so much of Roma is spent just watching Cleo do chores.  A question you never want to ask after a film is, "Could I have cleaned my own house in the time it took me to watch somebody clean somebody else's?"  (You could, and plausibly in real time, for Cleo's family generates a cartoonish amount of trash; and the dog that craps in their driveway, a truly flabbergasting amount of poop.)  But just as representative of this film, if not as typical, is the way a key plot moment unfolds: for a very long while, we watch Cleo and her boyfriend Fermin watching a movie, the camera utterly still and letting us soak in the production design, the background elements, the movie playing on screen.  They're making out, but she needs to talk to him, to tell him about the pregnancy.  As she does so, the movie on the screen is going through its own motions.  It's some kind of slapstick comedy about war, and an antiaircraft gunner gets knocked in the head, giving him double-vision as he tries to line up a shot.  The circular reticle of his weapon spreads into two, like a zygote.  And, man if you like that, later on there's a really great shot of ceiling material falling on a baby in an incubator when Cleo visits the obstetrician during an earthquake, which I'd call "crushing foreshadowing," except then I'd be guilty of the same sins as Cuarón.

Maybe you like that, though.  To be honest, I would probably like that, or at least many of the bizarre visual tangents Cuarón takes throughout Roma, if Roma were not determined to deaden me to any kind of sensual elaboration.  The scene at the theater is indeed typical in one crucial respect: that immobile camera.  I doubt there have been many movies made since the advent of dollies that have relied upon a shot design like Roma's, with a camera that sits there at an awkward distance, capturing its enormous long takes, panning from one boring thing to another boring thing, perversely unwilling to get involved in any of it.  Almost every movement in the film happens as a rotation upon a vertical axis, sometimes a horizontal one; when it actually changes position, it's in a lateral tracking shot, and you jolt up, though little happens in these shots, either, besides Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enríquez's (admittedly-rich) production design.  If there is a single shot that substantially moves in or out, I don't recall it, whereas almost every close-up is of some element of a process (dishes being washed; dog shit being scooped; dust being swept) and these are simple inserts, contrasted with the endless long shots by being too short to get any real sense impression out of them.  I can think of only two or three shots that even potentially qualify as close-ups of Cleo (or anybody else).  Roma, you know, secured a cinematography nomination too, which it actually did manage to win.

At least the languid, paceless editing gestures toward a point; I'm not sure there's anything about Roma I like less than its cinematography.  I've seen it compared to the work of Cuarón's longtime lensing partner, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, which I feel is a sort of insult to a man who has basically served as a co-director on a half-dozen Terrence Malick films, which tend to also seek to generate their power through the accumulation of moments.  Lubezki's lithe and evocative camera is nothing like Cuarón's indifferent cyclops.  (Terrence Malick also usually has the Goddamn basic decency to marry each of his plotless impressionistic meanderings with a soundtrack, and not just random diegetic music that drifts in and out of scenes.)  Now, Cuarón's movie remains impressive, in a cold and distant way: in the silver that its low-contrast black-and-white captures; in the enormous amount of stuff that Cuarón has staged across his dozens of vague tableaux, few of which he actually allows his camera to investigate.  (Sometimes the ones he does, you wish he didn't.  The forest fire scene is art cinema at its most obnoxious.)  But sometimes Cuarón's collection-of-stuff does rise to the level of cool-to-see, like the geometry of a paramilitary cult, or the waves crashing across his camera in the climax.  It can, indeed, be beautiful.  It's always quietly expensive.  It's often staggering, if mostly because of the egomania you perceive in its faultless recreation of Mexico in 1970.  It amounts to the world's best-lit surveillance video, only without even the spontaneity that implies.

Not that Cleo has it in her stars to be spontaneous.  (Even her labor scene is overdetermined.)  This is where the movie's weird indulgence becomes a queasy thing, rather than just numbing, and it starts to parallel Sofía and Cleo in some pretty artless, tasteless ways.  To its credit, it's technically "good" on intersectionality, ultimately complicating their closer relationship with its issues of class and race, reminding us that they are not really in this together.  But then, it does this while still only allowing Sofía to speak, to have opinions, even to have noticeable thoughts about things.  Unfortunately, in Cuarón's hagiography of his personal saint, Cleo is rendered essentially featureless.  The movie it reminds me of most of all is Gone With the Wind, except I think Hattie McDaniel had more dialogue.

Aparicio is blameless, but this ought to go without saying: she's an untrained, first-time actor, who was evidently cast due to some perceived resemblance to Cuarón's Libo, and she was then thrown into Cuarón's unconventional, stupid production.  Roma was shot in script order, which sounds like a helping hand until you read he parceled out copies of his script piecemeal on the day of any given scene.  This odd, self-defeating method shines through, even for the pros on set.

One assumes that Roma was a well-intentioned thing.  I don't despise Cuarón's motives the same way I despise his execution: he seems like he wanted to honor his servant and friend, and perhaps apologize to her, though I frankly don't think he succeeds in doing either.  (In full honesty, I think he's exploited her one more time to burnish his career, and, whether this pertains to Libo or not, allowed his film to strongly imply that Cleo's only source of possible human affection in this world, flawed as they may be, are her white masters.)  But ignoring that, the fundamental failure of Roma is that he seems paralyzed by his inability to connect with his servant's experience, and, afraid of failing, he scarcely even bothered to try.

Score: 2/10

ZAMA (Lucrecia Martel, 2017 Argentina, 2018 USA)

One good thing about Roma is that it resets one's idea of what the word "boring" actually means, and while Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel's Zama is still pretty much objectively boring, it's at least intentionally boring in order to get at a particular psychological state, and it is, on its own narrow terms, very successful at doing so.  On the other hand, I almost fell asleep during it, and I never do that during a movie, outside of silent films I've already seen multiple times, and then only the longer ones.  It is, anyway, a movie I respect more than I like, and the narrow terms it succeeds on are not ones I'm enthusiastic to recognize.

So Zama tells the tale (adapting a mid-century novel by Antonio di Benedetto) of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a low-level functionary of the Spanish Empire who has, for who knows how many years, served his king and country in a remote district of Paraguay.  He hates it there and wants to leave.  Spoiler: he will not get to leave.

The film is about waiting, and about entitlement, and about colonialism, and in its combination touches upon an irony not often noticed in stories of the European effort to conquer and settle the New World: leaving aside the famed adventurers who preceded them, the real work of it was undertaken by people who didn't want to be here, and who were considered expendable by the ones who sent them.  Basically, Europe wasn't sending its best, and it's hard to get more mediocre than Diego de Zama, a man of hypocrisies, contradictions, and vices without corresponding virtues—essentially, a man whom the film itself is probably just as repelled by and annoyed with as anyone, and who is portrayed by Cacho as a series of variations upon a perpetual scowl.  Theoretically, this is a satire and a funny one; occasionally, it even is.  There's a pretty great moment where Diego, in the space of an edit, is suddenly blocked out of a shot by a very precipitous llama.  But it's only the most forceful example of a formalistic gag running through the whole film: the camera's only modestly interested in Zama, and tends to find ways to put him behind objects or frame him in corners or in a background where it doesn't have to bother with him any more than it has to.  And since that's how he feels, too, it works on both those levels.

In practice, of course, it's mostly very dry stuff, cerebral to a fault.  For example, Martel's decision to use anachronistic luau music as her backdrop doesn't fail, but it's not exactly high hilarity, either.  Barry Lyndon—a film I've seen Zama compared to—is plausibly funnier.  It's certainly more conscious of a need to be exciting.  If nothing else, Kubrick's homage to the painting style of an era gives Lyndon an exacting prettiness that Zama never possesses, too busy with creating more claustrophobic images to frame Diego in.  The film does break this style in its final act, though it's for the worse: Zama's surprisingly unimpressive in managing the frontier action it gets up to when Diego makes a last ditch effort to curry favor, by chasing a bandit chief out on the pampas.  It's also here that it seems like plot points just start occurring randomly, for no remotely motivated reason.  One's not "supposed" to judge it by either of these metrics, I guess; but, you know, I do.  Ultimately, Zama's own mission works against it, and it doesn't compensate with enough of anything else to make its long two hours a worthwhile sit.  It feels like waiting because it is.

Score: 5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment