Friday, September 26, 2008

The Man From London

The paradox of most feature films is that they are at once two contradictory things. They are, mostly, fictions---extravagantly untrue stories that thrive on glamour and bullshit. But, with the exception of animation, every film is also a documentary of the absolutely true---a photograph of this particular thing at this particular moment.

Much film style works to bring the latter in line with the former, using lights, camera position, and actorly charisma to turn ordinary sets and locations into fabulous facsimiles of themselves. But some films, like Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, make the authority of the real the thing that the fiction must rise to meet. A relentless insistence on the sheer is-ness of what's in front of the camera defines the film's style, and the defenses a person develops to protect themselves from even the most engaging lies are stripped away; the movie becomes convincing in the way Samuel Johnson's kickable stone is convincing, and the story is something experienced rather than watched.

This is a hell of an achievement, which is why Werckmeister Harmonies is one of the best films of the last decade. But it's also a hell of a responsibility, which is why his new film, The Man From London, is such a disappointment.

The plot of The Man From London is a pile of foofraw you've heard a thousand times before---Crime! Violence! Some schlub grabs a suitcase fulla cash money! Someone wants it! Pursuit! This standard-issue thriller plot overlays the domestic drama of Maloin, the aforementioned schlub who wants to use his accidentally-gotten gains to buy things for his daughter, a girl so unsparingly, uncomplainingly, and colorlessly oppressed by everyone in the movie that her treatment plays as a production design decision rather than an injustice.

Worse still, the conventional plot makes Tarr's grand style seem like so much huffing and puffing. Werckmeister's story-- -a small industrial town sinks into chaos under the influence of a demagogue's carnival---had an epic scope. It's expansive resonances imbued Tarr's cinematic gestures of patient-but-dramatic camera moves, long shots of people walking and eating, abrupt surges of music--- with metaphoric weight, and it helped, too, that the impeding apocalypse gave it a solid dramatic engine; the last half of the film plays like the climax of an action movie slowed down to realtime. Because The Man From London feels like a movie, rather than a myth, the attention-grabbing style degenerates into a series of tics---arbitrary rather than inevitable. Tarr's direction seems mannered and self-amused, and when he deploys audience-assaulting gestures, like the screen going black for a full minute while repetitive hammer-blows are heard, or a major plot point happening soundlessly behind a closed door, they seem bratty instead of affecting. In Werckmeister, the slow, strange shots seemed like the only way the story could possibly be properly honored. Here, they just feel like a director poking us with his own cleverness like an unwelcome erection at a prom---yes, I know you can do that, but why should I want you to?

The visual style, too, is enervated. Tarr's long (long, long, long) takes work best when the shot contains a wide range of elements, particularly textures. The presence of nature, especially, brings his shots to life, as our eye takes in the countless details of waves, leaves, and rocks, and our minds become conscious of all the detail in the world that we normally overlook. But in The Man From London, the featureless boat hulls and smoothly-paved streets that take up the frame just leave the eye bored. A long take is never dull if there's something to be looked at, but here, there's often nothing interesting to focus on, either for the eye or the brain.

For all its disappointment, the movie's not a total loss. Every so often, its restricted vocabulary of repetitive camera movements, and its eagerness to rest on unprotected faces, creates a genuinely affecting mood. By the end, the film rises to a real threnody of grief for a world where money can't buy dignity, but only sends waves of pain at everyone in its orbit. But if there's one thing made clear by Werckmeister Harmonies, a movie which spent great amounts of time watching people walk, it's that how you get to your destination is what gives you a right to be there. Up until its final moments, The Man From London feels like Tarr knows, deep down, that this movie isn't serious enough to command his belief, and I pretty much felt the same.