M. Leary

M. Leary writes on film and the arts for a variety of outlets (but calls Film-Think home). After managing a bookbinding shop, for a few years he went on to complete his graduate education in the information technology of the first few centuries AD at several institutions in Europe. While not creatively pretending to write, he can be found mortising nipping presses, restoring your favorite old book, or rewinding the railway scene in Stalker ad infinitum. His found-material artists books have been exhibited in Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. His daughter is convinced that the lady in Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle" is giving the turtle a special treat.

JCVD: What Do Awkward
Letterman Interviews Really Mean?

I have always been a fan of the awkward David Letterman interviews. Andy Kaufman set the bar pretty high for cringe-worthy “in character” interviews. Harvey Pekar frequented Late Night in the guise of his most cloyingly political persona until Dave couldn’t take it any longer. For his efforts, Pekar received one of the choppiest cuts to commercial in Late Night history. Crispin Glover once almost kicked Dave in the face, channeling his role as “Rudy” in a film that wouldn’t come out until four years later. The myth that Glover was on LSD during the interview persists to this very day.

I have become an aficionado of these interviews because, staged or not, they are moments during which reality begins to bleed through the veneer of celebrity culture. How is Madonna shilling her new album, or Tom Cruise talking about his latest film, any less an act than Crispin Glover trying to arm-wrestle Dave? These more awkward interviews are apocalyptic moments in the most everyday sense of the term. They pull back the curtain on our cherished distinctions between performance and celebrity.

But the most recent bizarre Letterman interview, Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance on behalf of both Two Lovers and his forthcoming hypothetical rap album, has been more difficult to explain away as the result of someone’s bizarre sense of humor. It was hard to get our bearings in that interview. Is it an act? Has he been partying too hard? Is this a genuine celebrity crash and burn happening right before our eyes? Can lighting strike twice in the Phoenix family?

My suspicions lean one direction, but this doesn’t really matter. Even if it is pure spectacle, it is disconcerting. Even if it is pure fiction, as one hopes, it is one chapter of a sad story. Time will only tell what is really going on with Joaquin Phoenix, but regardless of how it plays out, these kinds of Andy Kaufman-ish indeterminate public embarrassments should be sobering. Too bad it makes for such dishy news. (Did you hear what Christian Bale said to that one dude in that tape online?)

I couldn’t help but think of the Joaquin Phoenix debacle in terms of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s recent festival hit JCVD. Like Adaptation or Purple Rose of Cairo, it is a tricky film about films scripted like an M.C. Escher print. While it is a Van Damme action flick, it is also a Van Damme biopic, and a movie about the toll movies take on their stars.

In the beginning of JCVD, Jean-Claude action heroes his way through a five minute single take of guns firing, fists flying, and bombs bursting. Jean-Claude sweeps in sweaty arcs through debris, pirouetting through walls and flames, and battling villains across several planes of action like an artist. It is beautiful. The camera floats in and around this film within a film in such a way that for a brief moment grants transcendence to Jean-Claude’s typically straight-to-video exertions. But this unexpected glimpse of Van Damme in all his glory quickly gives way to a court scene custody battle in which his daughter frankly tells the judge she would rather be with her mother because all the kids at school laugh at her when her dad is on TV in crappy movies.

Having lost his family, Jean-Claude now owes his lawyer a hefty bill which could only be paid with an advance on a film role that may go to Steven Segal instead. (All this stuff, including references to his drug abuse later in the film, is bona-fide Van Damme biography.) Alone and almost penniless, Jean-Claude returns to his Belgian hometown to recover, only to get caught up in a bank robbery while trying to make a withdrawal. When the town figures out that the bank is being robbed, the robbers decide to use Jean-Claude to their advantage.

As this plan involves making the cops think Van Damme is the actual robber, numerous hijinks involving the parallel universe of celebrity ensue. This clever movement of the film only pans out under Mabrouk El Mechri’s sharp direction and farcical visual timing. The points at which the film could digress into cliché B-list celebrity navel gazing are sharpened by the sheer narrative intelligence of this plot that pits Van Damme the actor against Van Damme the person.

And then as soon as this dust begins to settle, we meet Van Damme himself. In a rambling confession at the center of the film, he looks directly into the camera and unloads what seems to be an unrehearsed heart-to-heart between Van Damme and his audience. But he has never been known for his acting skills, so this confession may actually work so well because Van Damme has just delivered his lines poorly, which is the best realism he can offer. Either way, the film takes on the tone of an apology, a plea by Van Damme to be heard through the static of a slowly declining filmography and a series of bad real life choices.

What we hear in this monologue is not as important as its delivery, and its context – a film in which Van Damme has skillfully acted through a stack of parallel storylines. His hypnotizing dance through the opening five minute long tracking shot of his latest action film says something about Van Damme. He has been unjustly ignored and marginalized. His iconic status lends his now mostly straight to video performances both a note of shame or tragedy, and a corresponding smirk of schadenfreude from a mercurial audience. But this iconic status is also what makes JCVD much more than an exercise in snappy filmmaking. It drills down into what it means to feel as lost as the real life Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the way we shoulder the burden of our mistakes that can’t simply be written out of the script.

There are as many layers to dig through in JCVD as there are in the Joaquin Phoenix appearance. Any time we bring “celebrity” as a concept into a storyline, we have to deal with a mess of different issues. Who is this person? What do they mean? Why are they so important?

Celebrity as a concept is such a mess because it is just a reflection of all the mixed motivations that make star culture possible and ascribe gossip mags the importance they obtain in everyday life. It is such a mess that we aren’t quite sure what to do with the Crispin Glovers, the Andy Kaufmans, and the Van Dammes. We don’t know how to respond when Van Damme stares directly into the camera and tells us what is really on his mind, or when Joaquin Phoenix treats the hallowed Late Night stage with such blatant disregard. It is as if they aren’t playing fair. But however you want to parse it, JCVD is one of the best depictions of both the glory and the tragedy that is celebrity culture.

JCVD is now on R2 DVD, but comes out on R1 in late April, 2009.

Where is the Cinema?
Some Cities and Films in 2008

In his 1986 book about America, Baudrillard gets to Los Angeles and asks: “Where is the cinema?” His odd response: “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios.” In France or the Netherlands, one walks out of a theater or gallery into a city that is the source text for the paintings and landscapes you have just seen. What Baudrillard discovered in his roundabout musing on Hollywood was a reversal of what he had become used to in Europe. In LA, it is the city that takes its cues from the cinema. If we want to figure out America we can’t start with our living spaces and think towards the cinema. Rather we have to begin there, in the continual flicker of our theaters, and realize that this is where society is born. Americans appear to live in screenscapes rather than actual landscapes.

For Baudrillard, this is a creepy thought, recasting our neighborhoods in the phantom hues of C.S. Lewis’ description of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. In his version of hell, the damned are free to construct any house at will, the catch being that they are only half-real. The restlessness inspired by this artificiality creates a cosmic urban sprawl, the houses of history’s oldest villains ending up light years from each other. Cinema can have an equally isolating and cheapening effect on the American conscience. But soon after America appeared, so did location intensive films like Linklater’s Slacker, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Jarmusch’s Night Train. This early wave of independent cinema broke the back of Baudrillard’s criticism, and by now we are accustomed to a kind of American cinema that is aware of the way Hollywood glosses over its tendency towards simulacra. What Baudrillard claims is very true in isolated Studio City cases, but it is by no means true of film that Americans have become increasingly aware of through our ever increasing exposure to independent and international cinema. I was reminded of this through a globetrotting theme that trailed my movie-going in 2008, one that responds to Baudrillard’s idea that the average American cinema is like a toxic leak in the public square.

Take for example Guerín’s recent In the City of Sylvia, the quiet story of a man on holiday in Strasbourg who thinks he has chanced upon a girl he met in a bar a few years ago. He follows her from a distance, through staged sets of minimalist urban compositions, until realizing that he is most probably mistaken. Much like the brisk pencil sketches his main character makes of this city’s many attractive café patrons, Guerín’s Strasbourg is beautiful and humane in its simplicity. His camera will linger for minutes on street corners and alleyways that his characters have already passed until their natural rhythms begin to appear. All the people-watching in the film, often obscured by mirrors, windows, and odd angles, begins to converge with Geurín’s preoccupation with the architecture of Strasbourg until the audience becomes part of its hum and throb. It is a voyeuristic experience, but one that keys us into the potential cities have for either alienating or embracing us. The film thrives on the pseudo-community experience of any Starbucks, and poses alternatives in its focus on the everyday spaces of Strasbourg.

A similar thing happens in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. In homage to the Lamorisse children’s classic, Hou’s film periodically shifts focus onto a red balloon bumbling its way across the boulevards and parks of Paris. Though the film is primarily about a young boy watching his single mother struggle to keep their family afloat, it is also about his fledgling experience of this beautiful city and the way his first memories of it have begun to form. There is the smoky café with a pinball machine his absent father taught him how to play, the sharp angles of graffitied streets he walks between school and home, the field trips to sunlit museums, peeling marionette stages in verdant gardens, and the different views from his apartment windows. Little Simon becomes a stand in for Hou’s obvious love of Parisian minutia, the red balloon at the same time a tour guide across the city and an emblem of the buoyancy of childhood memory. The way Hou frames this bittersweet slice of life with charming sweeps of Paris mimics the way particular cities define the structure of our memories.

Texture is perhaps the key word for Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a befuddling film that charts the history of his beloved home town across a series of memories both real and manufactured. The central image of the film is an imaginary subterranean river fork that lies beneath Winnipeg’s famous Red and Assiniboine River fork, a shape Maddin finds similar to his mother’s loins. In this “discovery,” Maddin finds out why he has never been able to move away from Winnipeg even though he has tried for many years. Winnipeg’s history and lore are so integral to Maddin’s coming-of-age, and woven into the fabric of his odd oeuvre, that he can’t conceive of disconnecting from it. The latter half of the film chronicles the real destruction of landmarks in downtown Winnipeg like a dirge. Though he can’t leave Winnipeg, he also can’t stop its slow demise. The absurdity of the film’s voiceover, and the collection of fables Maddin weaves around his description of the city, are the only responses he has left to the growing rubble. Like Hou’s film, My Winnipeg is bound up in a sense of love for a particular place, his surreal vision of Winnipeg emerging from an intimate knowledge of its sidewalks, streets, and buildings.

And then over all of these films about the way we relate to cities stretches Marsh’s Man on Wire. A documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, the film is a parable for rethinking the way we look at our skylines. When we finally see Petit dancing across the wire in this rarified space between what were once the two largest buildings in the world, the impact of the film as a paean to our living spaces finally dawns. He has made these giant monuments to capitalism pylons in his own playground and the harried space of lower Manhattan a theater for his own monologue on play. Petit’s attitude towards cities as a stage for celebrating human ingenuity is only enhanced by the fact that Marsh never refers to 9/11 in the film. The documentary allows us to sidestep the awful memory and catch a glimpse of a 45 minute period during which the stark modernism of the Twin Towers had been far more eloquently reconfigured through Petit’s elaborate stunt.

In all of these films there is a looming presence of places: real streets, cafés, and bits of geographical lore that persist beyond the imagination of these storied tours. They are films intent on celebrating their chosen landscapes rather than using them to concoct the kind of infectious screenscapes Baudrillard discovered all over Hollywood. And though only one of these films actually takes place in an American city, they inform us nonetheless. We step out of theaters after films like this into St. Louis, Boston, Austin, or any other hazardously American city armed with ways to look at our neighborhoods and daily routines in similarly thoughtful ways. In the City of Sylvia and Flight of the Red Balloon train us to slow down and appreciate the fabric of our living spaces; masterful renditions of “smelling the roses.” Maddin’s film demonstrates how connected we are to our hometowns, which in a very real sense give birth to us. Man on Wire shows us how slight shifts in perspective can humanize places that have become so associated with the daily grind.

I like to think of films like this as an antidote to the dislocating tendency of Hollywood commerce and advertising described in America. In their celebration of particular places they train me to see wherever it is I live as a place to live and thrive rather than just a backdrop to my daily commute or a borough of the madding crowd. Like a master class in topophilia they tell us why our walk to and from the theater is just as valuable as our time in the theater itself. Or as experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky once quipped in a Village Voice interview: “Narrative film seems very clogged up, with almost no exceptions. It has no openness for me. I go to any narrative film, in recent years, and with almost every one, the lobby is more interesting than the film. Getting out of my car and walking to the theater is much more interesting, because at least I am alive in the present moment.” And, I would add, in a particular place.