Times Squared

Times Squared

Jem Cohen’s Newsreel No. 1, Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, Andrew Niccol’s In Time


Like a good movie house, a movie column worth the price of admission ought to offer a feature presentation, some short subjects, a musical performance and maybe (to cushion the Depression’s blows) a raffle for a set of dishes. I can’t do anything about the dishes; the music I leave to you. But with gratitude to the IFC Center in New York City, I start this column with a newsreel—several, in fact. On October 26 IFC began opening all its shows with a brief documentary by Jem Cohen—a different one each week, for five weeks in a row—rushed to the screen from the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park.

Strictly speaking, the first two of these newsreels were rushed from Midtown, where Cohen recorded the main local event of the October 15 Global Day of Action. Newsreel No. 1 begins on the subway, with images of the young members of an Occupy Wall Street affinity group crowded together as they ride into Manhattan. The scene shifts to the sidewalk outside the New York Public Library’s main branch, which served as an assembly point for the day. Shots of relaxed and amiable demonstrators greeting one another and chatting on the steps alternate with pictures of police officers at the ready. (The camera lingers on the strands of plastic handcuffs dangling from one officer’s belt.) Then, with an abrupt shift, the newsreel moves into Times Square for views of the rally.

Cohen makes much of the contrast between the immense, smooth, shimmering corporate advertisements in Times Square (such as a crawl-letter display of financial news) and the human-scale, handmade signs carried by the demonstrators. The former are shown in screen-filling close-up, so they swallow all context; the latter appear in the hands of figures captured in medium and long shots to emphasize not only the impressive number of protesters but also their sociability. They patiently shuffle along, penned in by the police but maintaining a calm demeanor, as they apparently go nowhere but actually make good on the French term for a demonstration: they manifest themselves. No doubt that’s why you see so many of them photographing one another or taking videos of the mass they’re in, just as Cohen was doing.

Newsreel No. 1 has no voiceover narration and no intelligible talk—a trait that mostly holds true for the other films as well. In the fifth newsreel, shot at Zuccotti Park, you see moments from a group discussion (one of the General Assemblies) and hear a few snatches of the speeches. In the fourth, recorded on a rainy day and evening, excerpts of cable-news remarks by Eric Cantor and Herman Cain overlie the images at the end: shots of the financial district’s towers disappearing in the mist, and of demonstrators on the ground getting drenched under their plastic ponchos, accompanied by the sound of the politicians’ warnings of a growing, destructive mob. Apart from these exceptions, Cohen’s newsreels are free of argument and commentary. You see whatever was available to be seen—the makeshift medical dispensary and library at Zuccotti Park, people producing silk-screened shirts, a demonstrator tidying up the site, a middle-aged man sitting alone and pondering the situation—as you listen to a complex but nondirective soundtrack, designed with the help of musician Guy Picciotto. Until the end of each newsreel, you don’t even get a title to identify what you’ve been witnessing. You’re more or less thrown in and asked to perceive.

More or less—because Cohen’s newsreels are too patently structured to be mistaken for a mere assemblage of actualities, and too well composed, shot by shot. All the same, they remain reportorial in purpose and immediate in effect. I can imagine no better match for the strategic spontaneity of Occupy Wall Street.

For moviegoers who cannot get to the IFC Center, Cohen’s Occupy Wall Street newsreels are accessible online, at the center’s Vimeo page.

* * *

I also can think of no happier coincidence than the one I enjoyed when I saw Newsreel No. 1 before one of the features the IFC Center was showing in late October, Le Havre by Aki Kaurismäki. Consider it the B movie on this column’s program—a status that does not imply any lack of merit in Le Havre but merely acknowledges a modest budget, a thrifty running time and a conviction that the audience should never have to suffer, even when the characters do.

For some of them, the suffering seems all too real. Kaurismäki, a Finn temporarily working in France, spins out a yarn in Le Havre about a foreigner granted no such welcome to the country. This character is Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young boy from Gabon who is discovered by the police in a dockside shipping container, among a mass of other half-starved, half-suffocated Africans, but who manages to slip into hiding. The way Kaurismäki lingers over the faces of the people huddled in that container, and later dwells on the figures of other Africans held in prison, persuades me that he is seriously concerned about human trafficking, economic migration and the hunting of people whose crime is to be poor and without papers. There is an almost documentary force to these moments; and the impact is nearly as great in a few of the more obviously contrived scenes, as when Idrissa, shivering in water up to his armpits, conceals himself in the shadows under a dock.

But what does it matter that Kaurismäki shows these troubles? What good can a movie do such people? That, as it happens, is exactly the question Kaurismäki sets out to answer, in a story about a vainglorious old bohemian poet, Marcel Marx (André Wilms), now self-employed as a shoeshine man in Le Havre, and his efforts to save Idrissa with the assistance of other artists (notably the semi-retired French rock singer known as Little Bob) and a working-class community remembered fondly from a hundred old French movies.

Actors whose faces might have come from a caricaturist’s notebook pose in unsmiling thought, for just slightly longer than necessary, amid boxlike sets furnished for pocket change and port-city locations that are the closest French equivalent Kaurismäki could find to Helsinki. The whole shebang is conveyed in a shot sequence suggestive of Robert Bresson struggling to suppress the giggles. It’s really an act of heroism for Kaurismäki to keep the style matter-of-fact when Jean-Pierre Darroussin (as the implacable police inspector) stalks solemnly into a dockside bar carrying, for no good reason, a pineapple, or when Wilms bluffs his way into the office of a prison warden on the pretense of being a lawyer, journalist and (for good measure) Idrissa’s albino uncle.

To rephrase the question: are Wilms, Kaurismäki et al. rescuing Idrissa, or does he (as a fully contemporary figure) save them from their little world of nostalgia and miserabilist avant-garde absurdism? My tentative response: it works both ways. Le Havre charmingly renews the old-fashioned belief in an ethic among the urban poor, one that sometimes rises to the challenge of mutual help across lines of race and nation. This sense of solidarity even crosses lines of cultural ambition—because artists are surely as accustomed as anyone to persisting in the face of hard times.

I think the people gathered for Occupy Wall Street might recognize something of themselves in Le Havre. And maybe they would take heart to see that collective action in the movie, however implausible its method of organization, is followed by nothing less than a miracle.

* * *

And now, for the feature presentation, I give you In Time, a new sci-fi thriller by writer-director Andrew Niccol, which makes 109 minutes speed by with often droll excitement while offering the most explicitly Marxian social analysis I have seen from any Twentieth Century Fox release.

“I don’t have time,” intones the protagonist, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), in an introductory voiceover. “I don’t have time to worry about how it happened.” The “it”—which you shouldn’t worry about, either, because no explanation would be possible—is the genetic re-engineering of humanity so that we stop aging at 25. This biomedical premise yields two consequences. First, it enables Niccol to exceed commercial imperatives by making a movie in which absolutely everybody is young and pretty. Second, it allows Niccol to make literal Marx’s insight that in a capitalist society, time really is money.

In Time posits a world where everyone’s left arm bears a glowing digital time code, set to kill the bearer automatically should it run down to zero. The masses of workers, shut away in proletarian ghettos, are paid in time and rarely have more than a day on their arms. (The cost of a cup of coffee is now four minutes and rising, while wages for piecework in the factories keep dropping.) As for the wealthy, living in their gated enclaves such as New Greenwich, they keep accumulating more and more surplus value (that is, time) and can theoretically live forever.

Niccol, a satirist whose other dystopian fantasies include Gattaca, The Truman Show and S1m0ne, is, of course, not the first to have envisioned such a total divorce between labor and capital. Think of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, or of Fritz Lang, whose manner of dressing the overlords in Metropolis is perhaps recalled here by a thin smear of lipstick worn by the overlord of New Greenwich (Vincent Kartheiser). The use of retro settings could be a nod to these influences as much as a way to send immediately intelligible signs to the audience. (You recognize New Greenwich as upper class because it looks like downtown Houston, with nothing but black town cars on the streets. You recognize Dayton as an industrial ghetto because it comprises blank-faced loft buildings, empty lots and one-story commercial blocks housing pawn shops and liquor stores.) But these elements should not obscure the fairly novel level of specificity Niccol brings to his vision of glittering and dismal inequality. One of the clinching ironies of In Time is the job that Timberlake performs on the floor of the old-style brick-shell factory where he must work or die. Forced to forge his own manacles, he operates a die press that stamps out the metal wrist cuffs used to transfer time.

He escapes, of course. I don’t have time to worry about how it happens. Let’s just say that he goes on the lam to New Greenwich, carrying a lot of time on his arm, and encounters the lipstick-wearing overlord and his doe-eyed, poof-skirted, Anna Karina–wigged daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). The wig is a giveaway. Although Seyfried is initially drawn to Timberlake because he gets her wet—he entices her to go swimming for the first time, in her father’s private expanse of ocean—she is soon kidnapped by him (he has no choice) and must decide whether to convert her petulant, rich-girl’s hate into love, etc.

Meanwhile, dressed in a long leather coat and never speaking above a whisper, an implacable police inspector (Cillian Murphy) pursues them both.

It’s a pity that Murphy, who has been so remarkable in Anglo-Irish films such as Breakfast on Pluto and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, has been confined in America to secondary roles as villains and semi-villains. That he consistently delivers more than is required in these parts may be seen from the way that he alone, of all the In Time actors playing superannuated characters, convinces you that he is actually 75 behind his 25-year-old exterior. Seyfried, too, has a relatively undemanding role. (Look good in the wig? Check. Pretend to run in six-inch heels? OK.) Showing the instincts of an excellent light comedian, though, she makes the most of jittering dangerously when a gun is put in her hand, and of diving for Timberlake’s lips as if needing another dip in that ocean. Timberlake, still wonderfully light on his feet but now, at 30, a little more severe in his features (especially with a buzz cut), carries the grinding anxiety and pugnacity of his working-stiff character as if born to that fate—though of course, when given a dinner jacket for the scenes in New Greenwich, he wears it beautifully.

The only objection I have to In Time is the name chosen for the overlord of New Greenwich: Philippe Weis. If Niccol wasn’t willing to go all the way to Rothschild (and thanks be to the memory of Marx he wasn’t), he should have had the good sense to use White, or Blanc. Other than that, I enjoyed the film thoroughly, and realized afterward how well Niccol had drawn me into his imagined world. The first postscreening sight of a digital clock gave me the autonomic ghastlies.

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