Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Not Quite Recent Thoughts: Wandering Women

The near decade-old Netflix cue has a mind of its own now, spitting out discs like a randomized jukebox. The first movie reviewed here, Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, arrived because I’ve neglected to alter the queue, or I’ve forgotten about some late night, wine-fueled re-prioritization. In any and all cases, I congratulate myself for expediting the arrival of Varda’s Vagabond, because it has a more than a thematic resonance with Arnold’s American Honey. The subject matter of the wandering teenager is only as unique as the methodological approach of these filmmakers. Arnold, like Varda, found inspiration in a newspaper expose, traveled away from home to produce the work, and intuited that non-actors best served the story’s purposes. Both films uneasily occupy a space of relative social homogeneity so as to assure the viewers that they know what they are seeing. They (I mean “we”) don’t necessarily identify with the protagonists - it’s hard to argue that Varda’s or Arnold’s heroines would be the target demographic for the movie. Recall those befuddled reactions to the artsy montages of Spring Breakers, a film which is surely in the cultural milieu of Honey. I don’t want to lob accusations of snobbery. The entire point is the assumption of the common ground and shared world. We assume responsibility for living in the same world as our impoverished heroines. Varda’s studio promoted the sensational Sans toit ni loi (the French title) with billboards asking its customers directly: Est-que vous la prendriez dans votre voiture? Elle est mignonne, elle pue, et elle ne vous dira pas merci.

That thesis statement fits perfectly into Varda’s didactic filmography. Sans toit ni loi assembles a series of fairly pointed testimonies, beginning with one by Varda herself, meditating from behind the camera about Mona’s (our vagabond’s) origins.When Varda speculates that she “came from the sea” over an introductory shot of Mona emerging from a beach, it appears that Mona will become a romantic figure. The other characters that are “interviewed” by, we assume, an off-camera “Varda,” offer descriptions, many offhand judgments, but nothing quite as poetic. Mona, while socially apt and a quick wit, is supposed to be a forgettable person, whose sociopathic impulses keep her at more than arm’s length from anyone that begins to offer help or companionship. Essentially, Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire are here to briefly resurrect the precarious life our their protagonist, but to do nothing more her. As we know from the beginning that she will die, Mona certifies a horizon of social awareness only visible as long as she is untouchable.

Framing device aside, Varda cannot resist gleaning (hey, you knew it was coming) narrative details from her other characters, effectively producing a larger portrait of country life in 1980s France. Mona hooks up with fellow vagabonds in robberies, drunkenly bonds with an old, property-owning woman, is comically shunned away by a prostitute; an ex-philosopher turned farmer, seeing her plight, gives her some land which she refuses to tend. Even the crooks tend to mostly be polite. It’s all cordial until Mona begins her downward spiral of public drunkenness among thieves. Just as we are beginning to sense Mona’s impending death,Varda characteristically exploits the opportunity to document the outcasts’ rituals: they take printed photos away before customers can even exit the photo booth. The penultimate scene severely, horrifically, punishes Mona while also documenting a bizarre local tradition.

One of Varda’s talents lies in creating frames that I could only describe as sturdy. The camera doesn’t move a lot, and holds fast to a limited vocabulary with a true sense of purpose. Her dry visual style prioritizes the delivery of information, which is one of the ways the model of dialogic mockumentary works. It is not all as cool and intellectual as it sounds. However, the entire framing device might not work in our favor. It’s the ni loi part of the title that provokes criticism about Varda’s perspective. And while wonderfully performed, Mona is assumed carelessness is sometimes simply a narrative springboard and an excuse to move us further along in the story. It’s a thesis we will see in both of these films: that laws are for those with roofs. The pleasure of gazing at the immoral actions of the “less fortunate” perhaps overcomes the pleasure of withholding judgement. Or perhaps there’s a moralizing principle at work that Varda unabashedly embraces; after all, would not poverty be justified by the acknowledgement that it gives those suffering the freedoms of infantile pleasure? (the contrast with the prostitute, the virginal “emergence” from the sea, all point to Mona’s distinctly pre-genital sense of pleasure). The sympathy Varda might feel for Mona might be withheld by the very assumption that she is sans loi,  by her insistence on combining the flaneuse with slumming auteur.

Jump forward 30 years and even the vagabonds have access to Instagram. American Honey risks positing that we should, and could, see its characters through their fantasized images of themselves. It is full of things you might see on social media: dramatic sun flares, half-hidden landscapes, tight, narcissistic handhelds of social moments; you, a sophisticated consumer of visual culture, might be repulsed by Arnold’s insatiable appetite for the recurring scene of our hero capturing bugs and setting them free - nothing less than the work of a self-conceived Disney Princess, visually depleted by corporate color filters. But you would also miss, I think, a transitional gesture between the slumming Mona and our equally pugnacious, but less more glamorous Star.

You could say that every character in American Honey participates in self-fashioning at the expense of more antiquated modes of self-making. The band of young magazine salespersons that Star (Sasha Lane) joins in a sporadic flight from her impoverished “home” have a stage on which to describe themselves. This stage is a packed old church van or one of many overstuffed, gender-divided motel rooms across Middle America. It isn’t the most traditional stage. Yet, Arnold seems endlessly fascinated with the confidence these people have in their own personas. It’s a strange kind of narcissism that their pop playlist allows. In a crucial scene, Star reflects that no one has ever asked her what she wants from life. She approaches the question wistfully, like it is a refrain to a song someone else might be singing. And by the end of a long film that revels in being a long film, Star won’t have an answer to dictate.

For my part, it is clear that the length does more than simply lend  American Honey some artistic credibility. Nick Pinkerton is right in Reverse Shot when he calls out the hypocrisy of some critics when assessing the uses of runtimes. I am comfortably within that zone of hypocrisy, if only because I’m weary of the artistic credibility given to sadistic dramas like Spring Breakers, which, as I’ve noted, is in the cultural mix here. It’s not that I genuinely thought time with these characters got more pleasant the longer I spent with them. As the film goes on, Arnold piles on uncomfortable scene after uncomfortable scene. But the length does prevent any neat coming-of-age conclusion, or worse, its nihilistic reversal in severe punishment. Moreover, in the days of binge watching, it feels confusing to act like 2 ½ hours is a task, even though it is. I hope it suffices to at least nod at this befuddling contradiction.

Benign acts of lawlessness are the stuff of American Honey’s dreams. Our heroes aren’t Bonny and Clyde. Shia LeBeouf’s Jake, who wears the assured grin of a conman, seems dangerous, uncertain, but he proves to not be hiding much. He’s the paramour to the group’s leader, Krystal, who is often portrayed drunk and full of petty anger. Her vices are vulgar power mechanisms. I thought of Barbara Loden’s Wanda, or Malick’s Badlands when watching this, as each film contains the skeleton of the mythic Western outlaw tale, but spends their running times foregrounding banality and stifling even the awareness of their character’s desires. In 2016, Arnold can simply revoke the mythic pretense Harmony Korine somehow found necessary for his “pop poem.” It appears at an interesting time for realism and provides hope -- hope that the genre isn’t just there to be the yang to the overripe yen of a comic book, or thriller, or fantasy.

Such hope diminishes when thinking that, however dedicated Arnold is to her formal conceits, her film is still pitched at an extreme time in an extreme mode of life. The portraits of Southern and Middle American life do feel accurate despite the movie sharing Star's cynicism about them. Early on, Star and the camera relish protesting the hypocrisy of Christian culture. Later, the relationships get much more ambivalent. We get a portrait of Star’s poor “family” life and a parallel in a heroin addict’s house. We also find her at the house of upper-middle class and “working-class” men who have less-than-innocent intentions concerning her. Like Vagabond, as long as the spectator is tethered to Star, it rewards the social mobility of the camera. But American Honey even moreso leans on the side of harshly reproaching  our curiosity, with outbursts of violence and harassment unresolved.  To reiterate: each encounter Star has is profoundly disconcerting, uncomfortable.

The thought of extreme modes of life brings us to Certain Women, for Reichardt’s film is decidedly embedded within the center of this periphery: the normal. Even when Certain Women depicts jarring situations, like Fuller’s (Jared Harris) takeover of a government building, it is weighted by so many other facts of life. Dern’s Laura went to work that morning and expressed mild annoyance at seeing her stubborn, misogynist client. She’ll be at work the next day.

Reichardt has always been interested in one-track minds. Her works build hypnotic montages through characters who, while sometimes obsessed (Night Moves is an exception here), one could most radically describe as “mildly focused.” Her stroke of genius is to think monomania need not be presented in the traditional Hitchcockian modes of alarm - she favors long shots and broad compositions to which no point of view can be assigned. Meek’s Cutoff portrays its central purpose - a gradual movement westward - through a right-left motif in camera movement, a horizontalization of intentions that are normally aimed straight down the depth of field. The too-easy thesis is that Certain Women is all the more in line with her subversion of obsession because you get three of these incomplete narratives at once. It plays with our hope for paltry world pictures.

The concluding Kristen Stewart-Lily Gladstone segment fits most easily into the model. A woman wanders into a school classroom just as a young lawyer-in-training has begun her first session of school law course. It isn’t obviously sexual attraction that makes The Rancher (Gladstone, delivering across the board) approach her, take her to the local diner, and hear her half-complaints about working in the bottom of the white collar ladder. But Reichardt does beautifully direct that sharp conversion from anonymity to desperate interest in the faces of both her actors. Stewart is starting to turn recalcitrance into her signature trope. The way she pecks at a meal while looking towards the window, unsure about the stakes of friendship in a strange town, had me wondering how to seduce her. Gladstone’s unnamed Rancher, whose benign look of fascination imprints on the mind, goes through a wonderful process: of meeting someone, establishing a routine around them.
The first two acts are about the kind of alienation that the third act tries, and fails, to overcome. Take, proceeding backwards, Gina (Michelle Williams), the matriarch of a family built upon a construction company. She’s stuck playing “bad guy” while her husband can entertain her daughter more readily. Less than nothing occurs during her segment. She visits an old man to acquire some sandstone that, to her frustration, he’s offering her for free. More apt to talk to her husband, Gina becomes wrapped up in the ethics of an encounter that the two men, her husband and the old men, find agreeable. Demurring to take something for free, Gina leaves with a frustrated look.

We know from the first scene of the movie that Laura is having an affair with her husband (played in full teddy bear mode by James le Gros). No confrontation ensues. Fuller is the closest we get to a realized conflict, but event that is played as another task among a day replete with double-and-triple tasks for these women. After a nervous climax, in which Reichardt does finally pull a Hitchcockian lever, Certain Women shows our characters once again walking in and out the same doors, unable to see each other, unable to account for the damage done to them. Gina finds her usual spot to sneak a cigarette behind the van. She pours a cup of red wine. Ten feet away, there’s a pile of sandstone where a schoolhouse once stood. The pile is her's for free, after a long 40 years of not taking much for granted.

Vagabond: B
American Honey: B+/A-

Certain Women: A

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