Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Still not sure what It's All About

Rented It's All About Love this weekend. My first criticism about this film (and there will be more) is the title, which, given what the movie is trying to achieve, is pedestrian and highly forgettable. My other major criticism is that the movie is much too good to suck, yet somehow I still don't know if I liked it. And then I'm forced to ask myself, 'do I have to like something to consider it good?' To which I must answer 'no, of course not!' Which leaves me virtually nowhere in terms of a critique of the film. Bottom line: it's excellent, it's terrible, and critiquing it is like trying to critique someone else's dream.

It came out in 2003, stars Joachim Phoenix and Clare Danes, and Sean Penn and Douglas Henshall play supporting roles. With a cast like that, you can't go wrong, right? (There they are again, those pesky dialectics. )

All Up in the Air
Okay, so here's what I know for sure: It starts on a plane (this image will become significant, although its significance remains unclear). John, a man with an intermittent Russianish accent (you later find out he's Polish), and played by Phoenix, is just trying to get to his new professorship post in Canada. He has a small layover in NYC to get his divorce papers signed by his ex. Said ex, played by Clare Danes, who has a slightly more consistent Poli-russianish-czechy-type accent, is a prima skaterina superstar figure skater. She doesn't show up at the airport as promised--her handlers show up instead--and John is asked to come to her hotel to get the papers signed. He is thence launched into a world of cloning, international intrigue, murder, climate change, and spontaneous heart failure.

It would take a brain surgeon on uppers to dissect the plot twists that ensue, but there are a few major items I can list without spoiling the film:

1. you'll never get it, and if you think you do, you probably don't
2. it's set in the future--2021
3. the world is facing some final spiritual catastrophe
4. this catastrophe has something to do with the emotional state of the main characters in the story
5. Sean Penn's accent is the best one, and he spends the whole movie on a decomposing low-G jetliner, leaving endless voice-mails with his brother (Phoenix), who is going to be pissed when the end of the world is over and he tries to retrieve his messages
6. Ugandans are flying into space as gravity gives out in their country, but nobody seems too alarmed
7. People are dropping dead because they 'pine for love'. They're dying in the streets, on sidewalks, on escalators, and they are treated like roadkill by the living. I found this the most poignant and haunting image in the film. It was really affecting, much more than any of the other unexplained weirdness. And I think the message of the film, such as it is, is probably summarized by this image.

Where's Thor When You Need Him?
The writers are Scandinavian, and you can see an ancient Norse quality to the film. It's very dark, on every level. There's a little center of light -- the couple -- fighting the encroaching darkness and the savagery it brings with it. God is absent, and this absence is somehow hostile. The characters and the plot are mythic and dreamlike. You mysteriously end up at a new point in the plot, and you know how you got there, but you don't really understand how it all came together.

It's All About Eyes Wide Shut, Love
So all that's cool, but does it work as a movie? Not everyone will like it. In fact, I'd venture to say that most mainstream North Americans would probably hate it. Not because we are incapable of depth, but because we have a distinct story structure of our own. It's what we're used to, and it's how we build movies, and this is outside of that structure. But even if you bend your brain a little to give this one a chance, it falls apart in places--much in the same way that Eyes Wide Shut fell apart. It's a really cool idea, but the structure put around it -- plot, characters, images -- doesn't fully deliver on the idea.

It comes down to a bunch of questions about the nature of film: does a movie have to be a story? Does it have to be a good story with a clear plot, or offer a clear message? I'm no filographer, I'm just a viewer. But my instinct tells me that, for a film to be good, it has to give the viewer something more than an exercise in cinematic risk-taking. It's like the filmmakers forgot the audience altogether. I left the movie wanting more, but not in a good way. I wanted either a plot or a stronger sense of what it was all about--after all, that's what the title promises.


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