De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté
starring Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Jonathan Zaccaï, Gilles Cohen
screenplay by Jacques Audiard, Tonino Benacquista, based on the screenplay for Fingers by James Toback
directed by Jacques Audiard
HUSTLE & FLOW
starring Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, Taraji P. Henson
written and directed by Craig Brewer
starring Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green
written and directed by Gus Van Sant
by Walter Chaw On my better days, I still think of film as the quintessential artform of the last century--a medium for expression uniquely suited to our Modernist Yeatsian decomposition, what with its malleability beneath the knife, as it were, cut and spliced back together again as the un-spooling literalization of some patchwork Prometheus. Likewise, in its 24 flickers a second, it's an illusion of life, teased from the amber of still photography, drawing, painting; mixed with symphonies; blended with dance and movement; enslaved to the syncopation of words and imaginary drum beats. It's a miracle, a golem, capable of illuminating the rawest humanity in one stroke and of exhuming the most abject failure of human impulse in the very next. Its tractability is astonishing--protean, not too much to say magical; in describing his first film experience as a visit to "the kingdom of shadows," Maxim Gorky brushes up against the ineffable sublimity of a medium that mimics the eye, stimulates the ear, and has as one of the key elements of its academic study a concept that suggests the moment a viewer finds himself "sutured" into the text. Like all fine art, then, when it's right, its "rightness" is indescribable--Frank Zappa's "dancing about architecture." And like the stratification of art imposed by some in varying orders to describe the proximity of each to the inexpressibility of their souls (prose to dance to painting to poesy to music, for me), when film aspires to combine the more abstract elements of human expression in its mélange, the results, always mixed, at least have the potential to be grand.
Start with the music of an excellent if not extraordinary French neo-noir that captures Paris the way that John Schlesinger captured the New York of Midnight Cowboy. Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté), a remake of James Toback's Fingers, functions best as a kind of conduit to a history of artistic expression. Its fascination with hands in movement (assuming various aspects of tenderness and violence, creation and destruction) speaks to larger notions of connectedness and legacy, pointing discreet to the parts of us that are temporary and the parts that are eternal. When brutal organized real estate crime enforcer Thomas (Romain Duris) looks at a new lover through the slits of his fingers--fingers we've seen hungry at her body just moments before, fingers we've seen brutalizing squatters and other unfortunates he's been enlisted to bloody--there is aroused an essential sympathy with the base humanity of this man through his most human part. First year anatomy students remark on the difficulty they have in dissecting two things in particular: genitalia and hands--and indeed, Audiard recognizes the erotic "godliness" of the human hand. It's the capacity, the potential, that fascinates--that here in one appendage is all the tenderness and rage, hate and love, creation and destruction, all the contradictions of the human animal, expressed in five-part, harmonized microcosm. (It's part of what makes Clive Barker's "The Body Politic" such an interesting read.) The other side of Thomas is that he's an accomplished pianist fallen out of practice because of the death of his mother (the pianist) and years under the influence of his father (the thug). A chance meeting with an old teacher inspires him to hire Chinese maestro Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) to help him prepare for an audition for, literally, a different existence.
That Miao Lin doesn't speak a word of French and Thomas not a word of Cantonese is one layer (I like how Thomas doesn't want her to watch him play at first, too, but instead just listen)--another being that actor Duris's sister is a concert pianist and it is she who not only taught Duris how to play for the film, but also voices Thomas's dead mother on a recording we hear from his childhood. (Organically, the sister's frustration at her own playing is unrehearsed.) More than just the tale of a thug with an artistic streak, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is the story of how complicated we as individuals are no matter our apparent transparency. It's about potential. It's a pithy remake in that it takes an excellent film that was very much a part of its time and place and re-imagines it as an excellent film that is very much a part of this time and this place. The reflection of Paris as a metropolis in a state of perpetual unrest--immigrant populations flitting in and out of frame, bulging society's seams and creating disquiet as mirrors darkly to the most unsavoury elements of our own personalities--has a gritty, apocalyptic, romantic feel to it that reminds me a little of the lovers in rest and motion of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is self-conscious in the best way: a movie that loves movies enough to let itself be the story of a brute who wants to be a concert pianist, and of how a frog is a frog and a scorpion is a scorpion, and of how the French at their best know a good tune when they hear it.
Another film that deals with music and feels like the Seventies (and if we must resurrect a decade in American cinema, what better?) is Craig Brewer's Sundance sensation Hustle & Flow, a maudlin, broadly-appealing, race-baiting melodrama that traffics in cliché and misogyny with as much ease as its happy-go-lucky pimp/drug dealer hero. DJay (a fine Terrence Howard) is a two-bit street hustler trafficking in twenty-dollar whores (white Nola (Taryn Manning), in particular), turning tricks in the back seats of questionable Johns while DJay writes his puerile, illiterate rap lyrics in a little beat up notebook. "Everybody has a dream" is the film's catchphrase--the catchall that this "everybody" includes pimps, whores, drug dealers, and DJay, our sad-eyed asshole street thug. It's not the point that everybody has a voice, it's that not everybody with a voice has something to say nor, verily, deserves to be heard--and so it is with DJay and so it is with Craig Brewer. Anymore, the Sundance imprint is a promise that a movie is going to be self-satisfied, laborious, and incompetent in that special way that independent films have become since getting co-opted by big money and directors looking to make a résumé instead of a film. You can call this shit "alternative," but alternative to what? Hustle & Flow is the same kind of underdog bullroar that mainstream producers who never met a pre-chewed master plot they haven't massaged introduce into the pool at every turn.
DJay's pal Key (Anthony Anderson) happens to be a board operator who happens to know a talented white keyboardist Shelby (DJ Qualls) who happens to be good comic relief in the "jive-talking cracker granny" tradition of offensive, underwritten garbage like this. After stapling egg-cartons and drink-holders to the walls to baffle the sound (would that we were outside this sanctuary), the three proceed to record DJay's magnum opus--but not before DJay throws one of his hos out the door with her toddler son, forces Lola to screw the hick in a pawn shop for a better microphone (she quails, natch, in the tradition of movie whores suddenly too good to fuck), and soul-kisses one of his pregnant streetwalkers in a scene so protracted and grotesque that it looks simultaneously like two wet pink mattresses slapping together and the parody of ethnic blaxploitation melodramas Hustle & Flow threatens to turn into at every turn. DJay finishes his classic in gangster rap (completing his ascendance from two-bit street hood to convict and two-bit gangster rapper street hood in the process)--something about smacking his tricks up and the hardships of pimping out little girls lost--as audiences outside the festival plutocracy laugh, derisively, at the excess that white-guy Brewer slathers on his black criminals, sociopaths, and hen-pecked castrati. That's the point, Brewer might say: to satirize society one magnifies its injustices. But outside of a nicely-metered conversation between DJay and childhood-pal-turned-superstar-rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), Hustle & Flow is faux-hardcore rap without any hint of credibility at its root--Justin Timberlake doing his R&B shtick. It looks good, it has its moments, but Jesus it's embarrassing to be caught in a theatre with it.
Not so Gus Van Sant's third film in a row to explore Wallace Stevens silences that are there and silences that aren't. Ace cinematographer Harris Savides at his side, Van Sant paints, in extended, wordless takes, the titular Last Days of Kurt Cobain, with his only narrative intrusion a surprising grace note towards the end that conveys the rapture of real escape. Last Days forms with Gerry and Elephant a triptych aglow with youth at its most impossible and ravishing--medieval panel paintings of fathers, sons, now holy ghosts. Cobain is Blake (Michael Pitt), named, I'd like to think, after British Romanticism's mad monk William in the best, most dulcet use of the name since Johnny Depp's William Blake in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. We're introduced to him fresh from rehab, savouring a dip in a mountain stream before wandering, mumbling, through the grounds of a country estate: sometimes in a dress, always in a Blake-ian, maybe heroin-inspired, tactile ecstasy. Blake wears women's clothing and passes out in front of a television blaring a Boyz II Men anthem, prostrate before Cobain's (and, we presume, Blake's) collective, cultural sea of troubles (loud mediocrity plagues us still: see Hustle & Flow). Meanwhile, a collection of hangers-on and sycophants (played by iconoclasts Harmony Korine, Kim Gordon, Ricky Jay, and Lukas Haas) flit around in nervous orbit to their falling god, moths around a guttering flame. A bit where real-life Yellow Pages salesman Thadeus A. Thomas tries to get an incoherent Blake to renew an ad for railroad parts (more British Romanticism in its tension between Nirvana (band and state, natch) with the encroaching of Industry's engines) lands with a lovely, loaded Brechtian absurdity.
If Gerry is about the search for the sublime and Elephant about the trembling, ephemeral moment of its Keatsian decay, read Last Days as the morning after the "Eve of St. Agnes": the spent moments following, once despair overtakes fantasies of eternity. It's the possibility of film to serve as a canvas on which the viewer paints: a blank screen (and they always are) where we invest our hopes, our passion, our ardour and our ire, regardless of how worthy they are to receive it. Blake sings a song in Last Days (written and performed by Pitt) called "A Long Lonely Journey from Death to Birth"--a song of experience and a song of innocence, and Van Sant is involved in creating celluloid reels the loops that marry our dreams of Heaven to the hell of our day-to-day. Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days are cinema as music, as painting, as meticulously choreographed dance (danses macabre perhaps), and as poetry. They're unbelievably risky, they trust the audience to a degree that's as dangerous as it is gratifying, and they're full of a mad melancholy that's almost unbearable in its terrible beauty. Originally published: July 22, 2005.