Most young girls probably would prefer not to be snatched from bed by a hand the size of a London taxicab, toted half-blind across moors and mountain ranges, whisked through crackling thunderclouds, and at last hung like a drying cheese high up in the cave of a shambling, muttering, misshapen figure who wields a cleaver three times their length. In this sense, the heroine of The BFG, 10-year-old Sophie, is much like other girls, though different too. She trembles at her freakish captor’s appetite; she despairs of escaping from his gargantuan lair. But above all, she’s royally ticked off by her loss of self-reliance.
Despite the impression you might get from her big reading glasses and rosebud mouth, with a notch between the front teeth like an inverted V for “vulnerable,” Sophie (the faultlessly self-confident Ruby Barnhill) manages for herself where she usually lives, in a Thames-side orphanage left over from the Victorian era. As screenwriter Melissa Mathison and director Steven Spielberg establish at the start of The BFG, with a brisk efficiency to equal their protagonist’s, she’s the kind of bright, bossy, slightly sneaky child who wanders at will in the night, keeps an eye out for the early mail delivery (in case one of her fellow orphans receives something interesting), and can credibly threaten arrest when customers at the pub down the road make too much noise at closing time. Sophie might be underestimated in the grown-up world, but she can maneuver in it, if mostly on the sly.
Now, kidnapped by someone much larger than any human adult but also (when you get to know him) oddly bashful and ingenuous, she doesn’t at first know quite what to do: cower, remonstrate, instruct, or just play along with an increasingly enchanted game.
There’s an abundance of enchantment, in fact, which enables Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel to charm and excite, meanwhile offering children useful lessons about being kind and imaginative, standing up to bullies, and shunning cannibalism. For both children and their grown-ups, the movie may also deepen in emotion thanks to the complexity of Sophie’s responses to the Big Friendly Giant and his world, with its seamless blend of filmed objects and computer-animated marvels. And for some grown-ups, there will be even more to think about, since The BFG could also be titled The Testament of Steven Spielberg.
You don’t need to hold the endowed chair in semio-babble at Jacques Lacan University to recognize that Spielberg, cofounder of DreamWorks, might have found a mirror for himself in Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, who teaches Sophie how to chase dreams and bottle them. Some filmmakers, like Jean Renoir, represent themselves on screen as people of homey appearance and manner, wise enough in the ways of the world to get along cheerfully but sufficiently disappointed to wonder why they bother. Spielberg, who for better and worse has never shown much interest in human-scaled cinema, makes his self-portrait three stories tall, with the voice and computer-enhanced face of Mark Rylance, and gives this stand-in a magical occupation to match. The perpetrator of Jaws presumably has something in common with a character who knows how to concoct nightmares. The Hollywood titan with sure instincts about public sentiment may fantasize that his ears, like those of the BFG, are immense fans that he flaps at will, attuning him to “all the secret whisperings of the world.”
If you accept the notion that Spielberg may be picturing himself, then he’s no doubt boasting a little—or inflating himself a lot—despite having instructed the animators to render the BFG with receding white hair and wrinkled eyes, a sunken chest and chicken-wing elbows. These traits may add a wry admission of age to the image Spielberg has chosen to project—but some viewers still might wonder why he thinks he’s important enough to stamp himself on Dahl’s character.
All I can say is, artists have been creating self-portraits for a very long time, often with a mythologizing flair, so get used to it. Two decades ago, critics who disliked the pandering in Spielberg’s movies could still dismiss him as a mere engineer of lucrative entertainments, who by attempting to rise to respectability with Schindler’s List had dragged the Holocaust down to the level of commerce. But after A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Munich, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies—to name only some of the most reputable titles—it’s no longer possible to brush him off. He’s both a force in popular culture and an artist, and may reasonably assume that people might care to watch a version of the legendary “Steven Spielberg” (as distinguished from the 69-year-old man of the same name, who presumably creaks a little now on his way to brush his teeth).
The main question about the ethics of self-representation in The BFG isn’t whether Spielberg is flattering himself. It’s how much respect he gives Sophie, and us—because she stands in symbolic relation to the BFG as we do to the director.
The first thing to notice is that Sophie is complicit in her abduction, whispering the rules she’s violating as she slips from bed and advances into a snatchable position. It’s the same with us: By taking our seats, we provisionally agree to let Spielberg reach out and capture us. After the initial adrenaline rush, though, Sophie starts to think again instead of merely reacting, and to the degree that Spielberg encourages us to model ourselves on the child, he thinks we should do the same. She rebukes the BFG when necessary and feels free to explore his cave, which is furnished with scavenged goods like street lamps and sailing ships. (They could be props and sets that Spielberg salvaged from a back-lot warehouse.) As the plot advances, Sophie moves on to giving the BFG advice, making plans for him, and manipulating him through flattery. She’s no longer just a passenger on their adventure; now she’s his codirector.
In this way, Spielberg asks Sophie—and us—to remember him as our guide, partner, pupil, and watchful admirer. It’s an honorable testament, proposed in humility, but with no false modesty about his talent for magic or his looming stature. (Though he points out that he doesn’t loom like the major studios, allegorized here as the really big giants, bloodthirsty and stupid, who surround and harass the BFG.)
As for the rest: The BFG does not win the contest for best screen adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel, a competition suspended after Fantastic Mr. Fox. Nor is this Spielberg’s best film, even among his family entertainments. (For one thing, it’s a bit complacent about Sophie’s taste for social climbing and military solutions.) Those objections aside, The BFG is beautiful and droll and has a few happy tears to go with the excellent fart jokes. I can tell you that when the towering BFG at last withdraws from Sophie, I reflected that Spielberg, too, will depart someday, and I thought: Go in peace. I forgive you for the Jurassic Park series and War Horse, too much Indiana Jones and The Adventures of Tintin. Thank you for the good ones—including The BFG.
Todd Solondz’s new film surveys the entire human condition—childhood drifting by in boredom and confusion, aimless youth wandering in dampened hope, middle age trudging in rancor and defeat, blind senescence sitting alone—and in its kindness gives all four ages dachshund for company.
The animal, first seen caged in a puppy mill, last seen dead in a plastic box, passes from owner to unrelated owner in Wiener-Dog, meanwhile traversing its own life cycle. It is an absurd figure, oblivious to everything except its creatural needs, but it gives comfort to the cheerless in our darkly brooding country and connects the disconnected. To quote the analysis of a multigenerational troupe of mariachis who show up at one point—there’s no good reason for them to be hitchhiking through the movie, but then, in Solondz’s view, there’s no good reason why anything happens—America is “lonely. And sad. And depressing.”
Wiener-Dog is a “comedy,” according to the categories on IMDb.com. Well, yes: Solondz has been known to wring laughs (as well as sorrow) from horrific social attitudes and shame-ridden sexual drives, dramatizing them with a precise detachment that seems half in Samuel Beckett’s spirit and half in Jack Benny’s. Wiener-Dog continues in this now-familiar vein, even revisiting one of Solondz’s earliest characters; but it’s more existential in its dread than the past films, as well as more open to tenderness (a little), while deploying a formal strategy that is self-consciously artful even by Solondz’s standards.
Film-school students, sharpen your pencils, because Solondz has had the audacity to create a thoroughly inappropriate remake of a masterpiece, Au hasard Balthazar, translating the action from 1960s rural France to contemporary middle-class America and substituting his own agnosticism for Robert Bresson’s tough Catholic faith. The theme, adjusted for our time and place, is now misère de l’homme sans dog.
There can be no plot, of course, in this meaningless universe—only a sequence of events, or dog owners. Among them are Greta Gerwig, who has never been more subtle and touching than as Dawn Wiener, now grown up from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse; Danny DeVito, giving one of his rare inward performances (and doing it brilliantly) as a used-up screenwriter and film-school professor; Ellen Burstyn as a neglected old suburbanite with Zosia Mamet as her granddaughter, the one impossibly expressive while hidden behind huge sunglasses, the other flowing downhill from bright pretension to abashed flailing to heartache; and Julie Delpy as an affluent, worried, furious mother whose method of reassuring and instructing her young son is to make up a yarn about a dirty, ugly rapist dog named Mohammed.
One syllable stressed too heavily by any of these actors, one eyebrow raised too high, and not only the individual performance but the movie would fall apart. As much as Solondz traffics in outrage, his films live or die by achieving a tone that’s as perfectly modulated as the colors of Ed Lachman’s cinematography. I can report that mortality claims the title pooch, as it will every character in this sad, mordant, death-obsessed movie—but Wiener-Dog lives.
Thomas Bidegain wanted to think about the baffled, frightened, angry responses of white French citizens to the rise of Islamism in their midst; so he dreamed up a story and characterizations based on John Ford’s The Searchers and called it Les Cowboys. Zachary Treitz and his writing partner, Kate Lyn Sheil, wanted to think about the grubby details of money and power in America, and the suffocating rivalry that can develop between brothers; so they imagined a backwoods Civil War drama and called it Men Go to Battle. One is an impressive revival of the western using modest means; the other, a thoughtful and more lavish repurposing. Both reflect critically on the genre’s ideals of manhood while suggesting we’re still a long way from abandoning them.
Handsomely shot in wide-screen format, Les Cowboys is the story of Alain (François Damiens), a provincial businessman who becomes a vigilante manhunter in 1994, after his teenage daughter runs away with her boyfriend Ahmed. The pursuit, into which Alain eventually impresses his son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), runs on for years, leading from Belgium to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Georges at last stops playing out his John Wayne fantasies. It seems they don’t help very much when you’re confronting the world’s actual conflicts and interfering with the lives of real women—but that’s something Georges learns a bit late.
Tardy understanding is also a theme of Men Go To Battle, which meticulously captures every rough material detail and humiliation felt by two brothers—genial Francis (David Maloney) and taciturn Henry (Tim Morton)—as they eke out a living on their Kentucky farm in the early months of the Civil War. When the burdens become too much for Henry, he vanishes into the Union Army, where he has a fine time—until he doesn’t. Then he, like Georges in Les Cowboys, must cross a vast landscape, attempt to reinsert himself into a community where he no longer belongs, and face the fact that women have minds of their own. The light that goes on in Henry’s mind is as humble as the single candle burning on the wooden table in his bare plastered room. It is also as hard to ignore.