Monday, October 20, 2014


Ida (2013; dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) is understated and neutral.  Filmed in beautiful black and white, it is set in the early 1960s in Poland.  It thereby avoids the settings and situations and clichés one might expect in a more contemporary film.  Even though the black and white cinematography is beautiful, it is understated.  We’re not asked to believe that anything or anyone in this film is extraordinary.  As an American viewer, I struggled with a temptation to attach values of one sort or another to the basic focus of the film: a young woman, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who has grown up in the convent where she is about to take vows and become a nun.  Her mother superior informs her that before she takes this important step she must pay a visit to her aunt, of whose existence she was unaware.  Ida makes the visit and receives information about herself and her past that could change her plans.  Will she change them? In narrative terms, that is the main question in this film.  Will her discovery of an unknown past, of unexpected ancestors, steer her towards another destiny?  In moral or ethical terms, or at least terms that don’t relate to plot, should she change her plans?
Balanced against the possibilities that might characterize a life for Ida outside the convent are the facts of her past, of the dark and still present specter of World War II in Poland, where fifteen years after it ended victims of that war live alongside their victimizers.  Poland is deeply embedded in the Cold War as well.  The West is faintly present, mostly through a small jazz combo that Ida listens to in a bistro.  She is an attractive young woman.  She considers her options with one of the performers in the combo, who is attracted to her. 
In the end she makes her decision.  It is to the credit of this film, its truly unusual and rare achievement, that those of us in the audience are unable to feel that she has made either the right decision or the wrong one, the good or the bad.  Does she surrender in the end to cowardice, to timidity, or simply to the cold realities of life in the world?  Maybe it is more desirable to avoid them than to live with what they might bring.
Ida is the most distinctive film I’ve seen this year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Boyhood (2014; dir. Richard Linklater) is certainly a logistical achievement.  Made over a period of 12 years using the same actors, it was a feat to keep them all alive and willing to participate.  The main focus in this process was Ellar Coltrane, who plays the boy.  He is six when the film begins and eighteen when it ends. As a young boy he is an unaware and wholly natural actor.    As he grows older, and more self-conscious, his acting becomes slightly less effective, but he does the job.  His parents, not so much.  Rosanna Arquette as his mother always seems on the verge of some sort of nasal allergic reaction.  Ethan Hawke as his father seems smarmy. 
The underlying premise here has to do with the patterns of human life, of children who grow up and of the parents who, together or apart, raise them.  There’s supposed to be a commonality of experience there with which we can identify, and there is.  Of course, the parents here are middle class white Americans, and undoubtedly the experience would be different if a Syrian or Afghani or Ukrainian boy were at this film’s center.  But I grant this film its premise, with its limits.

This film works best when it centers on children, and it’s therefore Ellar Coltrane, the boy at this film’s heart, who is its heart.  The final scenes, about his first experiences as a college freshman, are truly moving.  There’s nothing particularly revelatory or illuminating for me about this film.  Maybe because I was once a boy and lived in my own way the life Ellar Coltrane lives.  Or maybe because as a parent I’ve seen my children grow up and mature and move away and have felt that same pride and sense of despair and abandonment that Arquette feels in the film.  Against one’s own personal experience, a film such as this one, however well conceived, can never hope to measure up.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

It is not so much boredom as ennui—spiritual and intellectual malaise—that Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) addresses.  Its main characters have lived for at least 400 years and have, unless something goes especially wrong, every prospect of living another 400 years.  They are vampires, but have long since abandoned seeking sustenance from the necks of hapless victims, a practice they regard with disdain.  Instead they make arrangements with local hospitals or blood banks.  Partially as a result, perhaps, their lives lack drama.  They try to stay out of sight.  They want to be anonymous.  Despite the fact that they are vampires and thus immortal, they need meaning in their

 loves.  One finds it through serving as a ghost composer for various famous composers.  At the time of the film, he’s a famously reclusive rock star.  Another seeks it through living a life of elegance in Tunisia.  A third is Christopher Marlowe.  Yes, that Christopher Marlowe, the author of the tragedy of Dr. Faustus.  He’s bitter that his need to stay in hiding has deprived him of recognition as the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.  All these vampires see themselves as lovers of fine things, of high culture, of the arts.  They’re romantics, or failed romantics.  One is so tired of his life that he’s considering rash actions, even suicide.  What can bring him back?
Vampires bore me.  The fact that they prove so fascinating to contemporary culture is a sign of something wrong with contemporary culture.  But director Jim Jarmusch does a wonderful job in this film of depicting their lives in textured and wry detail.  This may be my favorite among his films.  These are not comic book vampires, not teenage icons.  They are living undead humans.

It’s the end of this film that disappointed, if ever so slightly, for its surrender to the conventions that for the most part it had successfully avoided