Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Man Who Was and Wasn't There

There is a close-up of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) writing out an incredibly complicated mathematical equation on a blackboard in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. "And that," he concludes in his reedy voice, "is the uncertainty principle."

Cut to a wide shot of an enormous university blackboard filled with said equation, dwarfing the diminutive professor of physics, whose trousers end way above his ankles.

It's a very funny visual gag in a film (out on DVD) that is filled with more than just hilarious moments, visually or otherwise. In fact, things are uncertain from the start and, be warned, they don't end very conclusively either. Apparently a lot of people were upset about this. They should rather see a boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-finds-girl-again type movie.

In the prologue, a dirt poor peasant couple back in the Motherland is visited by a man who the wife believes to be a dybbuk, an evil spirit. He proves that he's very much alive by bleeding when she stabs him in the heart to prove her point. But wait a bit. If she stabbed him in the heart he should be dead. He leaves, however, complaining that he knows when he isn't welcome.

How very Jewish, but it's also alluding to Schrodinger's Paradox, which states that a cat that's in a box and activates something that will certainly kill it will, at a certain point, be both dead and alive - until you open the box. At least that's what I think it's about. I'm not sure. It's got something to do with quantum mechanics, which also involved a Jew, Albert Einstein.

Or, as Larry says: "Everything I thought was one way turns out the other."

So that is the framework for A Serious Man. Our physicist's life may seem determined by work, marriage, suburbia and faith, but that's not how it pans out. His aggressive wife leaves him for one of those touchy-feely schmucks who thinks that a warm hug can cure everything, he's being threatened by one of his students, his neighbour is a military nut, his daughter's just like his wife, his son is as foul-mouthed as his friends, his brother (Richard Kind of Spin City fame) is a freakish genius, the chief rabbi is too busy to see him and the substitute rabbi is far more interested in explaining why an ordinary car park is filled with the wonder of God than anything else.

The beauty of this film is that it cuts out the Coen brothers' more irritating, indulgent side (I thought Burn After Reading fell into that category). But they don't put a foot wrong here and it might just be because the film is autobiographical. Did not the Coens grow up in the flat Midwest, and is the essentially good professor's son, listening to Jefferson Airplane during Hebrew lessons and getting stoned for his bar mitzvah, not just the kind of thing the brothers would have got up to, judging by their sense of humour in other goofy, grassy flicks like The Big Lebowski?

If I had a bottom dollar I wouldn't bet on it, however, for how does one prove autobiography in this uncertain world?

If Music Be the Food of Love

Out on circuit now, The Concert is one of those films that sweeps you along with its conceit and its passion and then, the next day, you realise that it does have some problems. For example, it really labours the idea that certain Jews are incurable traders. Also, its send-up of the Russian nouveau riche lapses into cheap burlesque, undermining its otherwise comic elegance.

But then it also sends up the preciousness of French culture, which it nevertheless admits works, as well as the pathos of those who still cling to the old communist ideal - so much so that one of their old apparatchiks will hire film extras to make up the numbers at ever-dwindling rallies.

The plot is well known. Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) used to be the conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra. But when he refused to fire his Jewish musicians during the Brezhnev era he was fired midway through conducting Tchaikovsky's immortal Violin Concerto. Now he works at the Bolshoi as a cleaner and intercepts a fax invitation for the orchestra to play at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, France.

Andrei decides to get all his old musicians together again and go as if they are the official Bolshoi orchestra. Also, he has an ulterior motive for wanting the French violinist, Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent), as his soloist. In this regard, at least, Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu avoids a terrible cliche and sweeps one along to a finale that is deeply, joyfully affecting.

See it, love it, and take a hanky.

Go West, Young Man

Costa-Gavras has often managed to make films that are as politically challenging as they are dramatically engaging and therefore acceptable to a wider audience. Think of his debut feature, Z, which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1969. Then there were Missing and Music Box, both of which earned their leading (American) actors a nomination.

Less acceptable for the refined stomach are films like Stage of Siege, which deals explicitly with political torture. Showing a bound, naked prisoner on a stage having a pair of electrical wires attached to his testicles and then cranking up the power for the benefit of a bunch of military men does not exactly go down well with your popcorn. Set in a fictitious South American country, it's a scary film and I only saw it because the diminutive auteur showed it to us at a seminar in post-apartheid Johannesburg, South Africa.

But lately he's been turning to comedy, which some might say is a sign of maturity (he's 77).

Elias is a young Greek who is going west to find work, since there is none in his own country - thanks, apparently, to Wall Street bankers making dubious deals with his government. He is on a ship for economic refugees and, when the French coast guard sights them, they "lose" their identity documents. So that's the first thing you get rid of, after which your dignity is sure to follow.

But Elias decides to take his chances and swims for the mainland, where he ends up exhausted after a night-long swim at a luxury spa full of beautiful, European nudists!

It's reminiscent of that famous photograph of an African crawling exhausted on to an Ibiza beach while in the background two white youngsters catch a suntan in their bikinis, as well as JG Ballard's masterful Cocaine Nights, because behind the facade of this Romanesque spa are predatory owners, rich, lonely wives, security police and razor wire hidden inside the evergreen hedges.

From here Elias will try to make it to Paris with nothing but a smattering of French. He will meet people who will help him, lust after him, exploit him, rip him off and a wealthy Greek couple who give him a lift but are so obscene that he knows he cannot, like Odysseus, go back home. Paris will have to be his Ithaca.

But is it, and does the film work? The problem is that Gavras is tackling a very serious issue with a light comic touch, which doesn't entirely work. On the one hand the theme is one of economic deprivation and civic discomfort - Elias is constantly on the run from the police, as in a nightmare. As one mournful African worker, playing his marimba, says: "We are fighting a war without a battle." Nothing funny about that little truth.

On the other hand the Greek-born exile, Gavras, is celebrating (perhaps half autobiographically) the tenacity of ancient Greek culture and of a working man, played by Riccardo Scamarcio, who just so happens to have the most gorgeous grey eyes and could probably make a living as a male prostitute, should all else fail.

These two contradictions sit very uncomfortably next to each other.

So if you want to know what it's like for the real refugees - those who have the added disadvantage of another colour, another culture - you could get a very short, sharp insight into that by seeing Oliver Schmitz's Place des Fetes in Paris, Je T'aime.

As for the comedy side, you just need to see Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times to get the picture.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week I'll be looking at the mainstream Salt, with Angelina Jolie, and Harry Brown, starring Michael Caine.

** The photograph was taken with my Nokia 6500 of the synagogue in Manukau Road, Auckland

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