The Play’s the Thing

The Play’s the Thing


Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in midparagraph. You think you’re watching the story of an elderly man in mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he’s started to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles, have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.

As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The elderly man’s predicament is the subject of I’m Going Home, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It’s not just the coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality. Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us something about the working conditions of today’s more interesting filmmakers.

More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I’m Going Home: doddering at death’s threshold and having the time of his life at it.

I’m Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of Ionesco’s Exit the King–a role that calls for him to stumble about in a cloak that looks like some kid’s security blanket, thrown over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient, palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver the play’s final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.

Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays out–Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen minutes–three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. “I can’t hear you. Your words scare me,” he protests from the stage, when the dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they don’t retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine: “I never had time.” But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his family has died in a car accident–wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert, we don’t see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the information to reach him when he’s out of the frame. Then Gilbert clatters down a staircase and is gone.

The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us: We haven’t seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we’d expect: someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown. Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is utterly transformed: We now see he’s posed behind the window of a cafe, where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.

Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his urbanity. The next section of I’m Going Home shows how he does it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest (where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young woman). Doesn’t he need companionship, his manager wants to know. Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He has his grandson, he says. He’s content.

This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a part in a film version of Joyce’s Ulysses–a French-American co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first, Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and pathetic.

This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic and elegiac. Although I’m Going Home has some sugar of its own, spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility of imagining your way out of old age. It’s a theme that Piccoli acts with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his career.

Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I’m Going Home is beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.

The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot’s conceit is that a producer who is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie’s screenplay in his spare time. Carl’s energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), is meanwhile banging the movie’s male lead.

The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a hotel room, first making the lovers’ bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope, then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time, though, he doesn’t want magic. The “real people” in Full Frontal tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the “movie characters” (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit a schlock-cinema world that’s as persuasive as it is preposterous, since it’s shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.

It’s good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie–to see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an assumed name (she’s a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.

Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated. This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film’s funniest moments (Nicky Katt’s improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank. So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting figures in the picture.

The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man’s screwups and continually finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it, Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his day.

For some of Soderbergh’s moralizing critics, though, this is not enough. They complain that the director of Ocean’s Eleven is being pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid Bergman–or is it Bergman they can’t forgive, for having left Hollywood for Rossellini? I’m perpetually amazed at the way some people really want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though, Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I’m Going Home, and Soderbergh adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full Frontal. That doesn’t mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That’s a good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open, and it’s a good thing for us moviegoers.

Otherwise, we’d all have to go home.

Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops. It seems that God has killed the minister’s wife, then dispatched to Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried off so that one can be saved? I’d say God’s methods are inefficient–which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.

Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood’s aging, in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets to it; which is strange, because he doesn’t seem to have wasted much time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame, line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the Line of Fire, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn’t yet checked into intensive care.

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