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The Way It Was

Scouring the upcoming schedule for Landmark Theatres, from now through May, I find no mention of the current reissue of Alain Resnais’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad, one of the smallest handful of films that can live up to the theater chain’s name. A landmark. Were you able magically to channel-surf through all the films of history, there is no other that, at any random spot in the middle of it, could be more quickly and infallibly identified. Provided, of course, you had some prior familiarity with it. (Resnais’s chief collaborator on it, the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a future filmmaker in his own right, died just this past Monday, you might have noticed.) It’s little wonder, though, that an out-of-the-way burg such as San Diego would get passed over in the distribution last year of the director’s latest film, Private Fears in Public Places. The younger generation, after all, has no earthly reason to know who Resnais is, let alone how indebted they are to him, through some descending, degrading, debasing route, for the editing techniques of music videos and their spawn, the liberation from the constraining continuities of time and space. Marienbad might have raised a few eyebrows as well as a few standards. Not merely was it ahead of its own time; it remains, almost half a century later, ahead of our present time, too. (The confusion and the controversy over the perfectly comprehensible ending of No Country for Old Men do not speak well for public open-mindedness.) In the way of reissues, meanwhile, we have lately had to content ourselves with the likes of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1982 Diva and, wrapping up a week at the Ken Cinema tonight, Bruce Weber’s 1989 Let’s Get Lost, two superficial showpieces that came by, on their first go-round, well along in my Sisyphean stint at this paper, a possible sign that I have been too long on the job.

To be grateful for whatever we get, however, I am bound to say I am grateful for the next film at the Ken, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, an easy enough title to memorize once you take the time to note the simple numerical progression. (It’s not as if it were 4... 2... 5... or 4... 1... 3....) I’ve been hearing about this Romanian film more or less unceasingly since it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, and been wondering what could be so special about a squalid quest for an illegal abortion in the final years of the Ceausescu regime. The opening moments provide few clues: a still-life within a wavering frame, goldfish on a messy breakfast table, the handheld camera eventually pulling back without a cut to take in two polytechnic roommates, the dishwater-blond Anamaria Marinca and the brunette Laura Vasiliu, readying themselves for the day: “It’s like you’re going camping.” (The task isn’t defined ahead of time; we have to figure it out as we go.) By the second shot, the camera reveals itself to be not just handheld but highly mobile, ambulatory, peripatetic, tagging after the central characters like an invisible third roommate. You don’t expect much from the lighting in such circumstances, and indeed you get a pervasive greeny-gray overcast that doubtless intends to comment on the bleakness of life in the Eastern Bloc. As a hard-and-fast rule, I prefer my color to be solidly inside the screen and not laid on top of the screen like a scum. I like to see the colors clearly, regardless how dull; I don’t like to see them through dulling sunglasses. But I got the point. And I could tell already that this is not a film, à la Marienbad, that fifty years from now I could immediately identify at any random spot in it, and not only because fifty years hence I’ll be reduced to dust.

Still, it’s a strong film, in the mode of rub-your-nose-in-it naturalism, availing itself of the aesthetic precepts selectively followed by the Danish Dogmatists, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, perhaps (based on scant evidence) the Hungarian Béla Tarr, the latter-day Gus Van Sant, and above all the Belgian Dardenne brothers. Boiled down to a basic checklist: the aforementioned humanoid camera, handheld and foot-propelled; a bias towards the “integrity” of long takes, whether static or kinetic; an observance of one or more of the classical unities (the action here lasts less than a day); location-shooting only, in “natural” light; no special effects; no background music. 4 Months toes the line, makes no missteps, and it holds interest if it doesn’t quite stir excitement. I’m glad — I’m, once more, grateful — that I got to see it; I won’t need to see it again.

It tells us, in passing, a good deal about a way of life, and in particular about the foundation stone of the black market (cigarettes to abortions). Under that way of life, the not so simple business of a single woman checking into a hotel, especially if the officious clerk has a head cold or a nosy mind, can generate a thrillerish suspense. And there is a riveting set piece, really the film’s centerpiece, after the supportive roommate has torn herself from her friend’s bedside, post-abortion, to drop in on the birthday party of her boyfriend’s mother: the long-held stationary shot of trifling table talk, with the sullenly unparticipating guest seated center-screen, a private island of misery in a heedlessly sloshing sea, rises above mere suspense to a level of metaphysical agony. The entire cast, helped perhaps by the unfamiliarity of its faces and its tongue, closely guards the illusion of reality. But Vlad Ivanov, helped most definitely by the natural dominance of his role as the outcall abortionist, unflaggingly stern yet unpredictably patient, is the clear standout. Nondescript in his physical features, casually attired in black leather jacket, striped sweater, and blue jeans, he manages to be intimidating, manipulating, and ultimately abusing without ever looming larger than life, a mundane villain.

Although the film, like Vera Drake a few years back, doesn’t debate the rights and wrongs of abortion (just another of the facts of life), it has something for both sides of the argument. It has, on one side, again like Vera Drake, a hazardous backstairs modus vivendi for which no one could be nostalgic and to which no one would choose to return. And on the other side it has, in a towel on the bathroom floor, an unmistakably human fetus whose exact age is told in the title, and only there. (The expectant mother is prone to waffle.) The rights and wrongs of it can’t be properly debated till we’ve clarified what “it” is. The fetus, as “real” as everything else in the film, makes it clear.

* * *

One of the stifling things about today’s movie scene is the sameness of the lineup from one multiplex to the next. So I warmed to the occasion when, last Friday, three movies opened in town to exclusive runs outside the Landmark chain: John Sayles’s Honeydripper at the downtown Horton Plaza, George Romero’s Diary of the Dead at the Palm Promenade in Chula Vista, and Adam Marcus’s (whose?) Conspiracy at the Del Mar Highlands in North County. A throwback, this, to the early days of the Reader, before multiplexes, before video stores, before homogenization, when I would routinely range from El Cajon to Oceanside to see a film in the one place it could be seen: some B-grade exploitation film, some dubbed Italian erotic thriller, some unsubtitled Mexican melodrama, some dust-gathering decade-old Western. Admittedly, it is not unusual for the Horton Plaza to have an exclusive run, and still less unusual for John Sayles. But the Romero took me to a theater where I had never been before, our largest number of auditoriums under one roof, Auditorium #21, in specific, out of twenty-four. Neither had I ever been to the Del Mar theater, which seems to be making a practice of offering brief refuge, en route to the video shelf, to easily ignorable action films featuring such over-the-hill action figures as Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Films projected, it turns out, in digital video.) But Val Kilmer is on my good side — for Tombstone and Spartan, he always will be — and not so easily ignored. When the dust settled at weekend’s end, it wasn’t the films that had afforded pleasure; it was the necessity.

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Scouring the upcoming schedule for Landmark Theatres, from now through May, I find no mention of the current reissue of Alain Resnais’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad, one of the smallest handful of films that can live up to the theater chain’s name. A landmark. Were you able magically to channel-surf through all the films of history, there is no other that, at any random spot in the middle of it, could be more quickly and infallibly identified. Provided, of course, you had some prior familiarity with it. (Resnais’s chief collaborator on it, the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a future filmmaker in his own right, died just this past Monday, you might have noticed.) It’s little wonder, though, that an out-of-the-way burg such as San Diego would get passed over in the distribution last year of the director’s latest film, Private Fears in Public Places. The younger generation, after all, has no earthly reason to know who Resnais is, let alone how indebted they are to him, through some descending, degrading, debasing route, for the editing techniques of music videos and their spawn, the liberation from the constraining continuities of time and space. Marienbad might have raised a few eyebrows as well as a few standards. Not merely was it ahead of its own time; it remains, almost half a century later, ahead of our present time, too. (The confusion and the controversy over the perfectly comprehensible ending of No Country for Old Men do not speak well for public open-mindedness.) In the way of reissues, meanwhile, we have lately had to content ourselves with the likes of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1982 Diva and, wrapping up a week at the Ken Cinema tonight, Bruce Weber’s 1989 Let’s Get Lost, two superficial showpieces that came by, on their first go-round, well along in my Sisyphean stint at this paper, a possible sign that I have been too long on the job.

To be grateful for whatever we get, however, I am bound to say I am grateful for the next film at the Ken, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, an easy enough title to memorize once you take the time to note the simple numerical progression. (It’s not as if it were 4... 2... 5... or 4... 1... 3....) I’ve been hearing about this Romanian film more or less unceasingly since it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, and been wondering what could be so special about a squalid quest for an illegal abortion in the final years of the Ceausescu regime. The opening moments provide few clues: a still-life within a wavering frame, goldfish on a messy breakfast table, the handheld camera eventually pulling back without a cut to take in two polytechnic roommates, the dishwater-blond Anamaria Marinca and the brunette Laura Vasiliu, readying themselves for the day: “It’s like you’re going camping.” (The task isn’t defined ahead of time; we have to figure it out as we go.) By the second shot, the camera reveals itself to be not just handheld but highly mobile, ambulatory, peripatetic, tagging after the central characters like an invisible third roommate. You don’t expect much from the lighting in such circumstances, and indeed you get a pervasive greeny-gray overcast that doubtless intends to comment on the bleakness of life in the Eastern Bloc. As a hard-and-fast rule, I prefer my color to be solidly inside the screen and not laid on top of the screen like a scum. I like to see the colors clearly, regardless how dull; I don’t like to see them through dulling sunglasses. But I got the point. And I could tell already that this is not a film, à la Marienbad, that fifty years from now I could immediately identify at any random spot in it, and not only because fifty years hence I’ll be reduced to dust.

Still, it’s a strong film, in the mode of rub-your-nose-in-it naturalism, availing itself of the aesthetic precepts selectively followed by the Danish Dogmatists, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, perhaps (based on scant evidence) the Hungarian Béla Tarr, the latter-day Gus Van Sant, and above all the Belgian Dardenne brothers. Boiled down to a basic checklist: the aforementioned humanoid camera, handheld and foot-propelled; a bias towards the “integrity” of long takes, whether static or kinetic; an observance of one or more of the classical unities (the action here lasts less than a day); location-shooting only, in “natural” light; no special effects; no background music. 4 Months toes the line, makes no missteps, and it holds interest if it doesn’t quite stir excitement. I’m glad — I’m, once more, grateful — that I got to see it; I won’t need to see it again.

It tells us, in passing, a good deal about a way of life, and in particular about the foundation stone of the black market (cigarettes to abortions). Under that way of life, the not so simple business of a single woman checking into a hotel, especially if the officious clerk has a head cold or a nosy mind, can generate a thrillerish suspense. And there is a riveting set piece, really the film’s centerpiece, after the supportive roommate has torn herself from her friend’s bedside, post-abortion, to drop in on the birthday party of her boyfriend’s mother: the long-held stationary shot of trifling table talk, with the sullenly unparticipating guest seated center-screen, a private island of misery in a heedlessly sloshing sea, rises above mere suspense to a level of metaphysical agony. The entire cast, helped perhaps by the unfamiliarity of its faces and its tongue, closely guards the illusion of reality. But Vlad Ivanov, helped most definitely by the natural dominance of his role as the outcall abortionist, unflaggingly stern yet unpredictably patient, is the clear standout. Nondescript in his physical features, casually attired in black leather jacket, striped sweater, and blue jeans, he manages to be intimidating, manipulating, and ultimately abusing without ever looming larger than life, a mundane villain.

Although the film, like Vera Drake a few years back, doesn’t debate the rights and wrongs of abortion (just another of the facts of life), it has something for both sides of the argument. It has, on one side, again like Vera Drake, a hazardous backstairs modus vivendi for which no one could be nostalgic and to which no one would choose to return. And on the other side it has, in a towel on the bathroom floor, an unmistakably human fetus whose exact age is told in the title, and only there. (The expectant mother is prone to waffle.) The rights and wrongs of it can’t be properly debated till we’ve clarified what “it” is. The fetus, as “real” as everything else in the film, makes it clear.

* * *

One of the stifling things about today’s movie scene is the sameness of the lineup from one multiplex to the next. So I warmed to the occasion when, last Friday, three movies opened in town to exclusive runs outside the Landmark chain: John Sayles’s Honeydripper at the downtown Horton Plaza, George Romero’s Diary of the Dead at the Palm Promenade in Chula Vista, and Adam Marcus’s (whose?) Conspiracy at the Del Mar Highlands in North County. A throwback, this, to the early days of the Reader, before multiplexes, before video stores, before homogenization, when I would routinely range from El Cajon to Oceanside to see a film in the one place it could be seen: some B-grade exploitation film, some dubbed Italian erotic thriller, some unsubtitled Mexican melodrama, some dust-gathering decade-old Western. Admittedly, it is not unusual for the Horton Plaza to have an exclusive run, and still less unusual for John Sayles. But the Romero took me to a theater where I had never been before, our largest number of auditoriums under one roof, Auditorium #21, in specific, out of twenty-four. Neither had I ever been to the Del Mar theater, which seems to be making a practice of offering brief refuge, en route to the video shelf, to easily ignorable action films featuring such over-the-hill action figures as Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Films projected, it turns out, in digital video.) But Val Kilmer is on my good side — for Tombstone and Spartan, he always will be — and not so easily ignored. When the dust settled at weekend’s end, it wasn’t the films that had afforded pleasure; it was the necessity.

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