30 April 2009

Tribeca: Diametrically opposed films beginning with 'G.'

The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, USA): 65
[Further proof, pace Bazin and the master-shot school, that the art of cinema lies mostly in the editing, as I suspect this would have been fairly puerile had it been presented as originally written. Instead, Soderbergh does a radical Limey-style slice 'n' dice, not merely fracturing the chronology but splintering each individual scene into half a dozen or more brief snippets, none of which now has any clearly discernible narrative function. Gorgeously shot on hi-def (which gets ever closer to achieving the tactile shimmer of celluloid; the line between this and My Blueberry Nights is paper-thin), it's a dazzlingly unemphatic mosaic of impassive narcissists and wealthy whiners, set (and shot) at the precise moment that the U.S. economy went unmistakably into the toilet and featuring the least erotic, most pragmatic hooker since Jeanne Dielman. Only at the very end do the intended character arcs become apparent, whereupon the film immediately deflates, and you remember that it was penned by the guys who thought Rounders needed Matt Damon's poker ace to be dating an überpractical career girl who Doesn't Understand Him. The seams also show in a couple of earlier scenes that Soderbergh allows to play out at normal length (including the otherwise amusing Glenn Kenny cameo)—like a shark, this movie needs to stay in constant carnivorous motion or die. But as a time-capsule of the '08 death knell and an impressionistic portrait of the service industry as its most blandly desperate, it ranks, for most of its running time, as one of the most audacious American films of the past few years.]

Garapa (José Padilha, Brazil): 39
[Let me be honest here. I did not really want to see a documentary about the miserable quotidian existence of the starving. I know they're miserable, and documenting their misery on camera tends to turn me into the late Sam Kinison: "Hey! Why don't you fuckin' feed him? You're only FIVE FEET AWAY!" Thing is, though, there's a grain of ugly truth to that routine, because Padilha (Bus 174—that's why I was there), who was present for a Q&A at this public screening, admitted that he'd decided before he started shooting the film that he was going to financially assist the families involved, because he knew he'd inevitably become emotionally attached to them over the course of the shoot. Which means that he essentially chose to deliberately let them go hungry for several weeks in order to capture their malnutrition on b&w 16mm. Obviously this was done with an eye toward a greater good, with the full consent of the film's subjects...but still, as I watched a wretched little boy whose open wounds were being attacked by so many flies you could barely see his legs, I could think of nothing but "For fuck's sake put the fucking camera down and do something!" Which I guess a truly good person would then feel compelled to pull out his checkbook and help rescue some other kid ("Dear...Ndugu..."), but I gotta say it just doesn't work that way for me. That hypothetical other kid remains totally abstract, and meanwhile I now resent the filmmaker for allowing the situation to continue when he already fully intended to make it stop as soon as he obtained the footage he wanted. (You get a sense of this even in the film itself, as Padilha occasionally speaks from off-camera and has clearly given one family pain medication.) And yet it's not as if I have a better solution for the problem. I just know that watching Garapa was a trial, and I can't honestly say it was a productive or even an edifying trial. It made me sad and nauseous, but so does the news.]

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