The Good, the Bad, and the Veteran

The Good, the Bad, and the Veteran

Problem-solving will only get liars and filmmakers so far.

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I’m not sure if it’s true, but the moral imparted at the end of The Martian is certainly useful: When in trouble, set to work. “You solve one problem,” Matt Damon explains to a classroom of NASA cadets (and by extension, the audience), “and then”—despite the demonstrated likelihood of calamity—“you solve the next.”

He ought to know. Damon has spent a lot of time recently fighting for his life far from Earth, sometimes disgracefully (in Interstellar) and sometimes with a newfound revolutionary fervor (in Elysium), but never with such inventiveness and droll good cheer as in The Martian. His character, an astronaut named Watney, might be intended as a slightly futuristic Robinson Crusoe, marooned on the red planet with no resources other than a well-stocked operating base, a scientific education, and the support of Mission Control in Houston; but considering the man’s pluckiness, and the movie’s amusement in seeing him patch things together, the better comparison might be with Buster Keaton, when he was lost at sea in The Navigator.

You may recognize this high-slapstick tradition in the knowing deadpan that Damon expertly maintains, the occasional pratfall that drops a cast member out of the frame, the persistent sense of play (which turns the climax into a game of crack-the-whip high above Mars), and even the film’s old-­fashioned attitude toward its lead actress. Given little to do in her role as a NASA mission commander, no scripted quirks other than a taste for disco music, and an apparent reluctance to make up anything on her own, Jessica Chastain might just as well have been credited as “The Girl.” For this reason, among others, I can’t say The Martian improves on Keaton, or even contributes much to his heritage beyond spiffier visual effects (which I’ll get to in a moment), but it does belong to an honorable lineage. Nature may erupt with terrifying force (as when a sandstorm on Mars sets off all of Damon’s problems), and authority figures labor to seem tough (witness Jeff Daniels, looming in close-up as the sternly befuddled head of NASA), but American pragmatism reliably triumphs, winning out over entropy and seriousness alike.

It’s puzzling, though, to see this cinematic vein being mined by Ridley Scott, a filmmaker who tends toward fatalism, cynicism, and a belief that dumb luck is all that saves us from the fangs of a reptilian universe. I wonder what moral could have been taught at the end of his 2013 film, The Counselor—all people are utterly depraved, except for Cameron Diaz, who isn’t human? Or his 2014 epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings—don’t believe the Bible? I much prefer the jovial, can-do spirit of The Martian to the implicit worldview of Alien, Blade Runner, or American Gangster, but I imagine it comes primarily from the source novel by Andy Weir and the jovial screenplay by Drew Goddard, which Scott, as an old pro, has realized with more craftsmanship than conviction.

Notice, for example, how Scott deploys his visual effects. Like many current blockbusters, The Martian doesn’t make much use of the 3-D capability with which it’s been endowed. It establishes the presence of this feature with a few early blowouts (notably the opening sandstorm on Mars—a good opportunity to fling grit into the audience’s face) and then for long stretches forgets about 3-D. So it’s telling that Scott reserves the most prominent depth-of-field effect in this outer-space adventure for a scene of a man sitting at a desk. When Damon, in the operating base, records his log, the computer screen seems to come forward into the moviegoer’s space, while the man who is narrating with such jocular composure is pulled away, into a telescoping void. You’re literally distanced from the character, while being reminded that you’re not really watching a human being but a piece of technology.

This formal choice by Scott, however momentary and minor, is the telltale sign of a more general disregard for the story’s emotional possibilities. Consider that Damon has been left for dead by his crewmates, who couldn’t wait to leave Mars. (I’m telling you nothing you wouldn’t learn from the trailer.) How must he feel about that abandonment? wonders a NASA official. How will the crew feel when they realize what they’ve done? These are questions you, too, are likely to ask—and the answer given to both, after only a few moments of throat-clearing, is effectively “No problem.”

With his authority as both director and producer, Scott might have insisted that the screenplay devote, say, 90 more seconds to the matter—distributed over several scenes, of course, so as not to weigh down the comic tone. Would that have been too much to ask? You might have cared a little more about the fortunes of these characters. You might have felt carried along more strongly by the efforts of a far-flung team to pull together and rescue clever, uncomplaining Matt Damon. But to date, team members in a Ridley Scott film have been less likely to pull together than to be picked off, one by one. For the sake of the current property, Scott has been willing to pretend to care about communal effort—but you can see his heart isn’t in it.

And maybe his insincerity is just blatant enough to add to the laughter of The Martian. The liars of the world may be divided into the categories of bad, good, and veteran movie directors. As one of the latter, Scott knows exactly how to fake his way through The Martian, giving you a picture that’s more genial than suspenseful, more diverting than absorbing, but (thanks especially to Damon) consistently worthy of your good will. I applaud the moral and also Ridley Scott’s adherence to it. He put his head down and solved one problem in The Martian, and then another.

* * *

Veteran filmmakers lie to entertain. Great ones may do it to get at the truth—and for some, such as Jafar Panahi, this strategy of sincere deceit can be nothing less than a necessity. Forbidden to leave Iran, banned from directing, and for a period put under house arrest, Panahi has slipped his chains by pretending to honor the terms of his captivity, making the brilliant, defiantly titled This Is Not a Film in his Tehran apartment with simple video cameras, as if he were just taking notes for a future project, and creating the fragmented, self-reflexive Closed Curtain inside his beach house, in part under the guise of a picture dreamed up by somebody else.

He may have gotten away with the latter non-film, but its claustrophobic despair and involuted allegory gave me little confidence about Panahi’s ability to keep going. I should not have underestimated him. Like a good-natured and resourceful astronaut stranded on Mars, he has now invented a lighter, more outgoing way to work within the law’s constraints, while still addressing the inescapable subject of his own condition and that of other dissidents.

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi finds the director of The Circle, Crimson Gold, and Offside behind the wheel of a cab, driving around Tehran and picking up people seemingly at random, while a video camera mounted on the dashboard records whatever the passengers have to say. It’s a flimsy faux-documentary disguise—as thin in its way as the flat-billed cap and amiable grin with which Panahi has outfitted himself for his new profession. He’s a terrible taxi driver, as some of the riders are quick to point out—unsure of directions, unsteady in traffic, and cavalier about collecting his fares—but that’s only the start of the situation’s obvious anomalies. You also notice that the dashboard camera can somehow cut to different viewpoints. You wonder how the third passenger to stray into the cab knows what the first two said and did. (“They were actors, right, Mr. Panahi? You thought you could fool me!”) And who is the fast-talking, highly opinionated little girl, about 7 or 8 years old, whom Panahi picks up outside a school? Supposedly, she’s his niece—and for all I know, that might be the truth. But can she really be taking a filmmaking class? And, if so, could the teacher have dictated the long set of rules she lispingly reads to Panahi, detailing the faults that must be shunned if an Iranian wants to make a “distributable film”?

One paradox of this imposture, of course, is that while Panahi’s Taxi does not officially exist in Iran, it has in fact been distributed overseas (it won the top award last February at the Berlin Film Festival) and is now opening theatrically in the United States. The bigger and better paradox is that this deviously contrived picture, which focuses so intently on Panahi himself, should also seem full of life.

No sooner does the car start rolling than an argument erupts—a very plausible one, between the woman in the backseat (a liberal schoolteacher) and the man in front (a swaggering regular-guy conservative, who admits upon exiting that he’s a mugger). Other characters who come in and out, in addition to the ostensible niece, are an unctuous dealer in bootleg videos, who wants to pretend he’s doing business in partnership with Panahi; a film student who wants Panahi’s advice on which movies to see; a bloodied man who is said to have been in an accident; and the victim’s sobbing wife, who is either hysterical or an undercover cop scheming to steal Panahi’s cellphone. Also on board at different times are a man from Panahi’s old neighborhood, who tells a story about being mugged; a young boy who scavenges in dumpsters; a human-rights lawyer with an armful of roses; and two elderly women dressed in folkloric outfits, who need to hurry to an ancient site on the outskirts of the city so they can carry out an inexplicable ritual involving goldfish.

Many of these characters chat knowledgeably about Panahi’s earlier films, or even hint at having emerged from them. (The niece points out that she’s just like the girl in The Mirror; the human-rights lawyer is apparently defending one of the sports-loving women from Offside.) It’s not difficult, then, to interpret the taxi as Panahi’s mental space, where frustrated creative urges and memories mingle with worried political reflections (both “sordidly realistic” and fanciful), and the police threaten to intrude at any time. But despite the pressures that bear down on this little vehicle, and despite the sarcasm implicit in Panahi’s supposed change of career, his smile in this picture does not seem entirely fake. I felt he was taking a communicable pleasure in the slyness of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. He’s figured out a way to move about in the world even while being confined, and enable the absurdities, outrages, and oddities of daily life to permeate his enforced isolation. It’s a onetime solution—but while it lasts, he enjoys it.

* * *

Maybe you’ve seen James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire, about the “artistic crime” that Philippe Petit carried out in 1974 by walking a tightrope he had clandestinely rigged between the towers of the World Trade Center. Though arguably marred by reenactments that were not always first-rate, Marsh’s film gave you a complex portrait of Petit as both a dreamer and a driven, sometimes callous egotist. You heard from the man himself and from a variety of his former friends and lovers. Best of all, you saw heart-stopping footage of Petit’s performance, as recorded by an accomplice on the roof of one of the towers.

I mention all this to warn you that Robert Zemeckis’s feature film about the same incident, The Walk, begins with Joseph Gordon-Levitt standing in a CGI imitation of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, with a CGI re- creation of the Twin Towers gleaming across the harbor. “But why? Pourquoi?” Gordon-Levitt asks in his best Franch ox-sent, meanwhile shrugging and popping his eyes and bouncing the air off his palms to indicate uncontainable joie de vivre. “Zat is the question people ask me ze most.” The answer, of course, has something to do with freedom and the pursuit of happiness—but to understand why, one must first go back to that beautiful city, Paree, a few years earlier. Cue le jazz hot.

In fairness to Gordon-Levitt, I have to say his spoken French is more than passable, and his dancer’s lightness makes him a physically credible Petit. But there is no exoneration for Zemeckis, who has committed not artistic crimes but crimes against art: filling a script with corn, and reducing Petit to an ooze of oo-la-la cheese. Most inexcusable of all, he has used his digital 3-D to flatter you, creating the illusion that you are out on the wire with Petit, walking between the towers. This is the worst kind of lie—because, as you may learn from the grainy, 8mm images shot some 40 years ago, few of us would have dared step to the roof’s edge and look down.

The Walk has gone into release after providing the 2015 New York Film Festival with an underwhelming opening-night feature. Fortunately, many other films are in the festival. By the time I write about some of them in the next column, I expect The Walk, unlike Petit’s boldly imaginative act, will already be fading from memory.

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