After the (relative) moral relativism of Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is the Star Wars of the woman’s weepie: stark sides of good and evil and a sweet, innocent piece of play-dough caught between them to be molded into a fighter to save the universe. This is movie-as-claptrap-contraption, in which a perfect mother’s victimization by vainglorious bureaucrats and loony killers serves as audience victimization as well, 90 minutes of masochism to enable another hour of catharsis. Of course, it’s a “true story,” in the same sense that Hitchcock tells us The Wrong Man is a “true story, every word of it,” except that Hitchcock is concerned with more than plot points to submit his audience to Henry Fonda’s entrapment. Unlike Eastwood, Hitchcock is concerned with actual settings and landscapes, with the way people react to being wronged (and change), with the way that the wronging is the result not of human pettiness (Hitchcock, like Lang, admires his villains for wielding power in a systematized world), but of near-divine mechanisms that hardly test morality, even if they compromise it (choice is rarely an option).
Which is to say, Hitchcock, like Lang, doesn’t make sanctimonious hogwash: at best, one submits to the drab reality of traffic cops and Midges. Whereas in Changeling, characters are brought in throughout to remind Angelina—the audience surrogate—that “I just wanted to let you know that what you’re doing is right.” Something like that. Where Dreyer’s Joan of Arc finds strength in rejection and possible insanity, where Griffith’s “Dear One,” in Intolerance, can only pause from sweeping her floor for respite, where King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry can only fuck men over by fucking them (and vice-versa), Eastwood’s Angelina, made in their mold, another subject to society’s self-righteous decrees, merely reacts in kind—with more self-righteousness. (whither Barbara Stanywck? Withered.).
Compare this to Lucrecia Martel’s greater and greater The Headless Woman, which is also in the New York Film Festival, and is another mystery about a helpless woman, a missing child, an exploitative society, and a whole slew of side stories that echo her fears and answer some (not all) of her questions. These stories and occurrences don’t always make total sense in Martel’s nightmare—at least, they aren’t always explained, as they wouldn’t be in real life and certainly not in dreams—but Martel cares about them and their plausibility: the various worlds of offices and pools swirling around the central story are only caught in fragments, but point towards whole histories of bad zoning and adulterous affairs, towards a world coming apart in all sorts of ways. For Eastwood, side stories exist only to demonstrate that there is real evil, an evil so evil that cute kids are murdered and good girls like Angelina are enfeebled unless they fight. Most of the movie is spent watching her cry in close-up—shorthand, if we didn’t get it, that she really doesn’t deserve all of this. Her performance exists entirely to confirm how harrowing the story is; her crying face is the melodrama’s equivalent to a laugh track.
Repeat more or less for Hunger. The simplifications here are that of a bad music video, or A Clockwork Orange: where Steve McQueen (if only Steve McQueen!) means to attack the dehumanization of a police/prison state, in which both sides are reduced to identical, equally anonymous existences as soldiers and sufferers, his perfectly-ordered choreography goes beyond an evocation of robotic life to making the director himself the tyrant and oppressor in love with his own stupid reductions. Again and again McQueen returns to a shot of a prison guard soaking his hands in water to hammer in its figurative implications (spiritual cleansing and the wounds that will not heal—but why not include a title card instead to spell it out without an illustration mind-numbingly repeated?). An old doddering woman sits doddering in a retirement home as her son is shot and falls to her lap in another grotesquely contrived tableau that has almost nothing to do with his movie but exists only to reassure the audience how bad bad men can be. (“Oh man, oh man,” I kept hearing McQueen in my mind, like a little devil on the left shoulder, “this’ll get ’ em”). Beatings are delivered via assembly line, by a chorus line of marching soldiers (recalling this), while the possibility of freedom from the torture factory are given in a hilariously overreaching pastiche of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Flags of Our Fathers (2006), in which a child runs through wheat fields and birds soar (as does the music) overhead.
Everything, even ugliness, is made to look quite beautiful in Hunger and its splendid palette of muted glinting yellows on dusky blues. All other elements are subordinated to perfect compositions, though McQueen, with one exception, seems incapable of shooting a shot that doesn’t exist to be decoded for the obvious “meaning” that oppression brutalizes. His point might have been an excuse for a movie if, like the Lang of Metropolis or Die Nibelungen, McQueen’s calculations were done up with verve or imagination—and sympathy—instead of static, symmetrical shots that presumably mean to drain the brutality of its excitement (which into-your-face editing restores), but only end up accepting a premise the script goes lengths to undermine, that people are geometric figures, automatons as soulless as the vacant, piss-spilt hallways around them. But his movie is an excuse for a point. Everything in Hunger is to be taken figuratively. Little of it is to be taken literally—though the movie would pretend it’s merely an abstraction of reality. In his excellent review of the film, Michael Sicinski points out that almost all of Hunger is to be taken as synecdoche: “every fragment represents some larger social whole—the prisoner, the guard, and more than this, the Republicans, the Loyalists, the Catholic Church, the Crown—that is ever-present but can never exactly be seen as a totality.” But for me, this is exactly its problem. Positing a portrait of a man who stood up for individual rights and freedoms, Hunger treats him as nothing more than a symbol of a cause, a symbol for other people exactly like him. His individuality invisible, if not erased, his life becomes a vacuous stand-in for an idea—freedom—decontextualized from the particular conditions that would lead to such self-figuration.
There is one exception: a 20 or 30 minute dialogue in which Republican Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) discusses his plans for a hunger strike with a fellow Republican priest (Liam Cunningham), who well demonstrates the inanity of Sands’ plan. The film’s lynchpin—it’s the mental interrogation, where act I is all physical suffering and act III all spiritual martyrdom—it’s the only point that takes any stock of the history and politics responsible for every moment of this ostensible portrait of early ’80s Ireland. As usual, McQueen shoots it as another gimmick, a single shot for about 20 minutes before he cuts to Sands’ hands. If the rest of the film is a mechanical gloss on Dreyer’s Joan, without any emphasis on what the person himself is like, this scene is McQueen doing Dreyer’s Gertrud, but where Dreyer would allow some visual revelation—a space opening up, a sudden 180˚ cut to unexpectedly flip a space we’ve become perfectly accustomed to—McQueen simply holds the shot, his actors barely lit and, faces in profile, barely seen. Again, he shows that he doesn’t really care about his characters as anything but compositional figures, and what’s so insistently virtuosic in the coldness is really only the fact that the actors memorized their dialogue. A great stunt: McQueen has made a play. A passion play, that looks like it’s been performed by wind-up toys.
That all-American resilience and resignation returns in Robert D. Siegel/Darren Aronofsky/Mickey Rourke/Marisa Tomei’s The Wrestler, the ol’ old-guy-goes-in-for-one-last-score bit given neo-Dardenne spiff: Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Rourke), washed-up wrestler signing autographs at the local American Legion, tries to pay his rent, date a stripper, reconcile with his daughter, and restage an infamous fight made legendary on Nintendo years earlier. All he wants is what he’s already had, and part of what’s so great about The Wrestler is its paltriness with such genre legends, not only in the vivid grain and overcast skies of the cinematography and suburbs, but in its acceptance that The Ram’s great legend is built on dudes spraying roach killer in his face and the blows of a staple gun in his back. This is the heroic, martyr life Randy has to choose in place of weekend hours at a supermarket deli, back in the everyday, spent joking with customers, “two breasts, you want. Two breasts, now that’s what I want! Two breasts…and a brain.” But greater still is The Wrestler’s ennobling of such ultra-realist paltriness; as in Nicholas Ray’s comparable The Lusty Men (1952), aging men’s dreams rest on victory in a stupid cruel and pointless ring sport, itself something of a virtual reality to which they’ve devoted their lives and sacrificed their bodies à la Christ. Just as the rodeo is like Ray’s domesticated mock-up of the Wild West, the wrestling matches here are all for show, pandering to guys and girls looking for a little blood, brawn, and racism—though both rodeo and wrestling still carry their dangers.
These are pretty sad fantasies—unlike Reichhardt’s Wendy, another down-on-her-luck and all-on-her-own folk American, The Ram doesn’t even have hope of leaving his small industrial town—but Aronofsky and company, like Nicholas Ray, are more interested in Randy’s response: in his everyday life, in the ways he and everyone around him are, for once in a modern American movie about unfortunates, funny and smart, and the ways they deal with each other as best they can. Unlike Wendy and Lucy or Changeling, which offer a protagonist whose reactions are just appropriate levels of exasperation, The Wrestler, with its own Jesus-like martyr/societal victim, focuses on character—on the way, for example, Randy, kicked out of his trailer for not paying rent, sleeps in his van and is woken in the back by a bunch of kids tapping on his window. Groggily, he opens up and starts taking mock-swings at them, while they mock-swoon in return; as all throughout the film, performance and play seems the only relief. Wendy and Lucy and Changeling are stories with potential resolutions. The Wrestler is portraiture; its hopes, as in Nicholas Ray’s best films, lie not in escaping or revamping society, but in finding some alleviation and distraction in personal relationships (rather than the sensual outs of Aronofsky’s early films).
In his awesome Tony Manero, Pablo Larrain also takes on Dardenne Bros. stylings—lumbering men and lumbering tracking shots behind them—but to keep viewers out of the perspective of a homicidal maniac (whose expressions we can’t even see), and to make all the parallel absurdities and brutalities of Pinochet’s Chile and a man murdering for his dance club grounded in frumpy reality. That Tony Manero is a satire is missed: by playing his To Die For gags as real, Larrain makes Pinochet’s tanks and the murder of a projectionist who’s dared to show Grease (a film the protagonist hates) seem even stranger. They’re just everyday occurrences that the camera happens upon, or that happen upon the camera. In The Wrestler, perhaps because it aims for a recognizable reality, these same camera movements have the opposite effect, as devices to bring us into a surrounding, inescapable world of parking lots and trailer parks and abandoned warehouses on docks. They survey the world that Randy lives his life in reaction to. But only near the end of the film, as Randy starts to restore a couple relationships, do these tenuous tracking movements give way to the more stable syntax of shot/reverse-shots, as the camera finally does assume his viewpoint: and it’s this sense of sudden stability that helps work over all the clichés of Evan Rachel Wood’s performance.
While Marisa Tomei—suddenly the movie beautiful woman alive?—owns the film. The counterpart to Rourke’s gracious burlyman, she’s another one straddling gigs as performer in a seedy joint (as a stripper), living out fantasies that were never her own, and, as an everyday mom, a position that’s just as much a put-on. Resigned to her parka and iPod, in retreat from all the ways she has to present herself, the film’s real artistry comes through in the scenes where she scrunches up her face, takes on a girliness (“fuck the 90s!”) that’s just more playing at life, before the rent resurfaces. Unlike The Ram, she doesn’t bother seeing any part of her life as noble—and yet it’s her who finds, maybe, some purpose beyond duty. The Ram doesn’t. Even at best, his hope—or self-delusion—is less that other people care about him; more that he’s actually got something he can care about himself.