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Tailor Made (On “Hereafter” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”)

I watched some movies last week at the cinema that fit like clothing, one at the New York Film Festival (Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, which opens today), one now playing in theaters (Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger).  These clothes were comfortable, worn in, relaxed from constant use.  Hereafter was the loose one, a sweater stretched out from early, more vigorous use which now moves naturally with the roominess of a droopy garment.  The sense above all is of no need for energy, for cheeriness; there's a resignation to the film, you try it on for size and it sort of drapes down on your frame, airy and breathable but the thick, sentimental threads strain, close to shapeless, to touch the ground; there's an inevitably to the fabric's pull.  (It's no mistake Eastwood is starting to work with Matt Damon, an actor whose clothing fit you are always aware of, his trudging walk a bodily thing that reveals costume choices.)  A quiet, absurdist-sincere riff on Intolerance—here, accepting an awareness of death across three characters, three countries, three experiences—the sereneness with which Hereafter deals with melancholy and the passing of lives is because Eastwood has been weaving these stories for several films now, familiar patterns all lensed by Tom Stern's camera, which trends to the grayish monochrome of morose daguerreotypes, each with a tactile sense of inevitability to the world, the camera floaty, the editing somewhat sloppy, death on the tip of everyone's tongue or at least within touching distance.  (No mistake the film's finest, most unreal scene is one between Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard blindfolding each other and taste-testing foods in a cooking class, standing uncomfortably, intimately close, speaking private thoughts and placing food on each other's tongues.)  A man, a woman, and a child all connected by death, the film briefly, impossibly posits them as a family unit at an inspired collision at a London book fair, but are pulled apart of course, everyone is alone in a world so weary, worn out, totally lucid in its age (thus the weightless mise-en-scène, the airy movement) but certainly nearly obsessive with the implications of aging, the body, physical intimacy and the grounded, genre-based metaphysics that transform people (why else movies about space travel, psychics, interracial relations, neurosis/paranoia, war).  So wrap that comfortable, slouchy thing around you; its familiar feel, wrought from a lifetime of wear, might be a comfort, an understanding of the world through extended use and application, baring the abuse of aging as well as its understanding.

Despite the ill-fitting relaxation of recent Woody Allen, Dark Stranger fits like a too-tight, synthetic blouse—the actors having to punch out of their claustrophobic, nearly television-like frames (the film should have been shot in 1.33), the awkward long takes of Allen's previous film abandoned by DP Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Alisa Lepselter for shot/reverse-shot scenes which pin everyone a bit too close. The actors squirm and push back at this close-fit, this lack of freedom, small rooms, tight (yet not tight enough in this aspect ratio) framings, Allen's aggravated characters no longer given the room to gesticulate wildly or nervously pace about and claim space around them.  Instead they must grieve actively (this is one of Allen's most forlorn films, leaving three of his four main characters pinned in tight awareness of their catastrophic life errors), desperately, passionately proclaiming their worries, disbeliefs, hopes, and petty hoped-fors (Indian actress Freida Pinto has an entire plotline that is so implausible it exists purely as desperate wish fulfillment).  They try so hard to fight their way out of Dark Stranger's constrictive mise-en-scène, and as usual with late period Allen are so transparent as figures.  Allen works without subtlety (no dig there, truthfully), just a near-pure transparency; we are always aware of all that his characters think and act, all meaning right there in these limited figuration, so obvious that these are actors playing roles in a Woody Allen film (and specific actors at that, Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas flourishing in the obviousness, Anthony Hopkins getting a handful of amusing admissions in self-deprecating interactions with a whore, "Oh...I hadn't thought about AIDs...").  So maybe this is some kind of opaque/see-through tube top?  But the lack of urgency, a similarity Dark Stranger shares with Hereafter, belies this youthful-active analogy (though the sluttyness implied by a tube top does get at the nonchalance of the film's story and character drive, as well as its multiple-partners storyline).  Allen's film is inexorable in its lack of movement; in fact I'm not sure anything even changed in the movie, people just become more aware of their happiness or abject sadness (mostly the latter).  How can anyone move in something that fits so tightly but wants to be so free and relaxed?  Three final, brutal close-ups of the film's three most lost characters are as precise as anything Allen has ever done, a cynical, sorrowful punchline to the film's tailor-made fit.

Well, thank you for this review of Hereafter. For some reason Clint Eastwood seems to be a director that critics are increasingly finding it difficult to engage in intelligently (the only ones remaining are Manohla Dargis, the Ferronian Brigade, Zach Campbell, Glenn Kenny). A camera review from the House Next Door, the usual cut-and-paste job from Reverse Shot and Slant, even an uncharacteristic obsession on plot mechanics from J. Hoberman? Save us, Senses of Cinema! Why not just call it a day and say “I don’t get Eastwood”. Energy and carbon dioxide emissions saved.
Danny, I love the clothing metaphor as an expression of comfortable familiarity with films. Neat! I don’t think it’s any mystery that I am fascinated with narratives held in the grip of the death horizon and Hereafter certainly fits that bill. From the film’s disquieting calm at the beginning, through that amazing tsunami, Eastwood gently (lyrically) guides us forward through the hereafter to the promise of the everafter. His music alone is worth the price of admission.
As always Danny, a fascinating read. I was a bit worried about HEREAFTER reading all the negative advanced press coverage, but your layered admiration seems to be the most astute I’ve read so far.
Very nice, Kurt, I think that’s very accurate, including Brolin almost hitting the camera a couple times. Thanks Nicole, Michael, and Glenn for your comments as well!
Nicole: I wonder if you have any idea why people have a hard time talking about Eastwood’s films? I know I do but I’m surprised that it seems to be a common critical blindspot.
Daniel, can I simply direct you to one of the great writers on Eastwood instead? His words are much better than mine.
For old man cinema of the lazy kind? I don’t think so. Did you see either film, Hugo?

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