Saturday, August 27, 2011

Submarine & Deep End


What is it with contemporary British directors and supercharged, super-stylized filmmaking? Guy Richie, Tony Scott, Danny Boyle, and Edgar Wright all boldly go further than American filmmakers with faster cuts, flashier camera work, and all kinds of montage tricks, close-ups, and inserts. It's probably just a coincidence, but a funny one nevertheless. Since when did the British make Hollywood look restrained?

 Now we have yet another name to add to that list with Richard Aoyade. Previously known as a TV actor (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd) and director (Community), he has recently made his first venture into the director's chair of a feature film. His Submarine is an excellent first picture, a coming of age comedy and teen romance that's as playful as one of Wright's pop-culture feasts and as sincere as a romantic teen's bad poetry--in a good way.

Aoyade isn't one to hide his influences. His 2008 music video for Vampire Weekend's "Oxford Comma", is a sub-Wes Anderson exercise with little mind of its own; a long tracking shot through a bunch of farm buildings with quirky characters running around and some Anderson intertitles tacked on just in case you didn't get it. He has improved. Submarine owes much to Anderson's Rushmore--the most obvious link being its 15 year old protagonist, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who's as endearing and peculiar as Rushmore's own 15 year old Max Fischer--but it's a singular work; highly detailed, and with a keen eye for the erratic ups and downs of teenage emotion, as well as the more tedious (but no less treacherous) relationships of the middle-class and middle-aged. Just as our Oliver is attempting to woo his first love, Jordana (Yasmin Paige), he has to stop his parents from breaking up their marriage. He monitors their sex-life by keeping tabs on the position of the dimmer switch in their bedroom.

Submarine is adapted from a book of the same name, but I came out of the film thinking that  it was drawn from the director's own experience. If nothing else, we get in very close to the mind of Oliver, who provides voiceover narration throughout. We follow him in flash back mode as he observes a lecture on marine biology, and we receive his saddened commentary about his dad's habit of drinking lemon tea from an unwashed mug whenever he gets depressed (which is often). Since the film really forms itself around Oliver instead of offering a more objective vantage point, we can't help but get drawn into his idiosyncratic world. Even the elements that are familiar or derivative in the film's structure are in sync with its main character's personality. The Godard/Anderson intertitles are here, but they belong, given that we're entering the mind of a kid who's precocious and charmingly pretentious. He takes his girlfriend to see the Passion of Joan of Arc on one of their early dates and she rushes out in disgust 15 minutes in.

Fortunately, Submarine isn't cute. Oliver can be cruel, as when he gleefully bullies a pupil by pushing her into a pond, and he's slightly deluded; he gets carried away by his fantasies whenever life doesn't give him what he wants . The film, though very funny, doesn't have the breezy good cheer of, say, a John Hughes movie. When Jordana breaks Oliver's "tiny little heart", he's devastated, convinced that the pain and joys he's going through will still matter just as much 30 years down the line. And the movie plays along, showcasing plaintive shots of Oliver looking out across an endless sea. There is some irony involved, but not as much as could be expected. When Oliver's parents get their marriage into serious trouble, their situation is resolved with some comic relief and a helpless shrug. The two aren't happy together, but we get he feeling that their marriage will trudge along as they try to rekindle some sort of fondness for each other. Apparently, the young have much more say over their emotions, more choice over whether or not they can find happiness in their lives. For all of the film's exuberance, Oliver and Jordana's love is played with remarkable delicacy and seriousness.


Deep End (1970)

One of the key references for Submarine is this little known British film from acclaimed Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. For one, Deep End also stars a 15 year old boy looking for love and dealing with the uncertain territory of sexual impulse. The most overt reference to the film in Submarine is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Oliver jumping, clothed, into the deep end of a pool, just as Deep End's Mike (John Moulder Brown) does at one point. Also, there's a sign behind Oliver that says "Deep End". That this film was long thought lost (due to some sort of rights issue) and is just now getting a re-release in cinemas and on DVD is some fortuitous timing. 

Mike is a different kind of awkward adolescent. Whereas Rushmore, Submarine, and most other teen movies have their main characters functioning at a higher level--either socially or intellectually--Mike is a high school drop-out who responds with child-like enthusiasm to almost everything around him. Whereas Oliver pretends he knows more about the world then he really does, Mike is too un-selfcounscious to realize that he needs to pretend. When his parents visit him while he's working his first job--as an attendant at a local bath house--he's ecstatic; "look everyone, it's me mum and dad." Mike seems to be a pretty solitary fellow, but he can't get enough of his very attractive, and older, co-worker Susan (Jane Asher, girlfriend of Paul McCartney in the mid 60s), who balances teasing him with shows of genuine affection.

Much of the film is occupied by the leisurely paced depiction of Mike and Susan working at their bathhouse. It's a place that seems at once comfortable and seedy. One the one hand there's the warm echo of the pool room where Mike and Susan spend time laughing and horsing around, on the other the ugly sight of the aging attendees who stop by to indulge their fantasies in the private bathrooms. One rather buxom lady grabs a very uncomfortable Mike by his hair and yells "dribble, dribble, shoot, shoot" as she gets herself off. A swim coach spends his time spanking his young pupils, and we later learn that he's having an affair with Susan. Mike's bathhouse allows him to satisfy his growing attraction for Susan, but more often than not, it's a place of sexual humiliation.

Sex eventually becomes something perverse in Deep End. Mike is a romantic, trying to establish a pure form of love between him and the promiscuous Susan, but he keeps following her into porno theaters and night clubs. When trying to duck out of the way of the cops, he finds himself in a brothel. It's with growing horror that we watch his innocent pursuit devolve into an obsession. Some have interpreted the film as an attempt to show the regressive sexual behavior that was an unintended consequence of the sexual revolution. I'm not sure if Skolimowski really thinks his society's values were as misguided as they are here, or if these attitudes are specific to our oddball protagonist. In any case, I prefer to look at the film as a bizarre and deeply involving study of adolescent confusion. It's too abstract to provide any real social commentary. We don't get any of Submarine's voice-over narration, but Deep End is strange enough that it eventually submerges us entirely in the insular world of Mike's fantasies. The last scene is definitely a puzzler, and without giving anything away, I'll just say that whether or not Mike finds the kind of purity he's looking for, the film is so charming and hypnotic that it achieves its own state of sublime innocence.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trip & I'm Still Here

The Trip

I doubt Steve Coogan will ever break out in Hollywood. The British comedian, long admired for his television creation, the hilariously narcissistic and cringe-inducing radio broadcaster Alan Partridge, has been trying to hit it big on the other side of the Atlantic for a while. I remember reading an optimistic New Yorker profile in 2007 promising success, and a quick search reveals an article from  2004 announcing that Coogan had just done away with his crooked teeth and, with the help of a trainer, developed a something resembling a set of abs in preparation for his arrival on the silver screen. That arrival was the phenomenal flop Around the World in 80 days. Since then his biggest starring role was in the largely ignored Hamlet 2.

Luckily, Coogan has Michael Winterbottom, a director as notable for his wildly eclectic output as for his ridiculous name. This is the third time Coogan has found critical acclaim working with Winterbottom, as well as the second time (after the excellently bizarre Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) he's played a man named Steve Coogan.

The Trip is where Coogan's onscreen persona hits closest to home. There's a fine line between representation and reality, and both director and actor set out to make it as blurry as possible. Here, Coogan the character is a narcissistic and slightly ornery actor desperate to set his Hollywood career in motion and struggling to stay with his girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley, who is not, however, Steve Coogan the person's girlfriend). But instead of being with her in New York, he must driving his range rover through the north of England on a gastronomical tour that he's supposed to be covering for the guardian. And since Emma dropped out of what was supposed to be their delicious romantic getaway, he's had to replace her with a new travel companion; his not very close friend, Rob Brydon, conveniently played by comedian Rob Brydon.

And that's pretty much the entire plot of The Trip.  Coogan and Brydon drive through the pastoral countryside, dig into three star tasting menus, take lighthearted and sometimes not so lighthearted digs at each other, and, at what was apparently the director's insistence, continuously impersonate other, more famous people. Everything goes; Michael Caine (great), Al Pacino (terrible), Woody Allen, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins. It didn't make it into the film, but Coogan also does a pretty great Stephen Hawking.

The Trip is a rather low-key and messy affair, neither very cinematic or well-paced, since it's essentially the condensed version of a 6 hour miniseries. But it is hilarious. Brydon is the perfect foil for the arrogant Coogan. He's content with his marriage and his career, and has a knack for annoying others and sometimes embarrassing himself. Brydon is smug, Coogan is cocky and their repartee crackles with dry wit. The humor usually comes from the pair's ability to aggravate each other and from their insistence on competition: Who does the best impressions? Who has the greatest singing range? Who can recite more Wordsworth? Who knows more about local limestone formations? But it also comes from unexpected places; in one of the film's best scenes Coogan tells Brydon how he would eulogize him. There's more than a hint of self-loathing in the way Coogan tears his friend down.

This kind of morbid humor is also indicative of a deeper seriousness that Winterbottom is aiming for. Coogan yearns for fame and validation, but we're continually reminded of how empty his life is. Escapades with various hotel staff recall his actual tabloid exposed sexploits. A scene where he refuses cocaine from one conquest with a melancholy look in his eye recalls his actual drug addled past. The beauty of the country surrounding him is supposed to allow him to connect with something real, and he has the crampons he needs to brave the outdoors, but in the end, the hills do little more than provide cell-phone reception. Even the impressions are a distancing mechanism.

Is The Trip too serious? The plinking piano music layed over key moments says yes. In some ways, all this somber introspection seems like something forced onto the story by the director and not necessarily the natural result of the always amusing and more gently confrontational exchanges between Brydon and Coogan. Does real Steve Coogan really approve of fake/real Steve Coogan being so depressed? Well, as enticing as Hamlet 2 and Hollywood success sounds, maybe gray hills and dreary British weather suit him better.


I'm Still Here

If anything, Coogan's self-deprecation seems only to have helped him. We're glad to cheer on man capable of taking on his flaws and making them funny. As hesitant as I am to defer to the tomatometer, it's important to note that The Trip has garnered nearly universal praise. Not so for, I'm Still Here, a movie in which actor Joaquin Pheonix explores his celebrity persona to much greater effect. There are many similarities between the two movies (the presence of Ben Stiller in key scenes, the same annoyingly dramatic piano music in others) but where Coogan led a mild mannered foray into his unpleasant side, Joaquin went for broke in a full blown reinvention of himself, unleashing his id not just onto the art-house screen, but, with the help of an avaricious media cycle, into public consciousness.

It might have been too much for people to handle. When I'm Still Here was premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the shock of Joaquin Pheonix's much publicized transformation was only just starting to fade from memory. Hindsight might make that amish-y beard, Letterman interview, and attempted rap career seem ridiculous, but many still thought Casey Affleck's supposed documentary on his brother-in-law's downward spiral was real, and what they saw in it was shocking and ugly. Some critics championed the movie (whether or not they believed it), but there were enough 0 star reviews to savage it. 

What's interesting about the disgusted reaction is that even when viewers were leaning towards the idea of a hoax, they were unable to separate Joaquin from his onscreen craziness.   They saw only a stunt that fed off the media's interest, and a man who must have been at least somewhat unhinged to attempt something so detrimental to his career. In that way, I'm Still Here is extraordinarily convincing. It leads you to believe that no product so depraved could have been conceived with anything less than depravity.

Now that time has allowed some distance from the film and the publicity surrounding it, however, now that the debate over whether it was a "hoax" or not has quelled, an entirely different film has emerged. I'm Still Here provides great interest as a social experiment, sure, but it's above all a darkly comedic character driven story, ludicrous fiction seamlessly turned into reality in a way that not even Borat could manage.

Joaquin starts out with a monologue. He paces back and forth overlooking the L.A skyline, panting. He's not sure whether his natural intensity has caused him to burn out, or whether critics had pegged him as intense, forcing him to become even more intense, causing him to burn out. In any case, he can't go on. He has to break free of the path that other people expect of him. At this point, you can already tell that the man is messed up, but he's at his most lucid here; hard to cipher, but not totally lost in the haze of his own mind. And even later, when Joaquin's path reveals itself to be made out of cocaine, hookers, and vomit, and Jackass-style pranks, you can see where all the self-destructiveness comes from; from that misplaced intensity, that drive that no one--especially not Joaquin himself--can seem to understand.

The character that Joaquin creates certainly does his best to become unlikable (he's perhaps a little too dumb for his own good), but even at his worst, I never saw him as unsympathetic. There was always something burning in him even when his initial over-excitement turned to confused loneliness.

The movie's turning point and early climax comes with that infamous Letterman interview. Until then Joaquin has been struggling to start off his rap career--a session where he plays his material for a very uncomfortable P Diddy is priceless--and he desperately needs some sort of acceptance. And then Letterman tears into him. There's still a bit of a shock in seeing it happen, even more so now that the footage has been given some context. We know that Joaquin is in character, but still you can't help but feel that we're sharing a devastating moment with him. The illusion he's been trying to cling on to is being stripped away in front of an audience of millions.

The film wraps up a little too tidily considering the scope of Joaquin's and Affleck's ambitious undertaking. They have a plant in the audience of Joaquin's first major rap concert ready to heckle him, stopping the concert short. It seems a little too easy a way to get out of the madness the two had created for themselves--they didn't exactly follow the performance to its logical (or rather, unpredictable) conclusion. They don't allow the public's response to Joaquin's rap heroics to factor in. And there was actually surprisingly little interaction with real people or the world outside driving the story; asides from that Letterman interview and possibly the P. Diddy sessions, much of the narrative was self-contained. It's Joaquin making snow angels with his crew, driving around D.C upset about not getting invited to any inauguration parties, or filming one of his crew members swinging his dick around (this happens on multiple occasions).

Perhaps that just furthers Casey's point that he wasn't trying to trick people en masse, to rile them up before chiding them for believing it all. He really was telling a story, showing how fame transforms and destroys, how easily celebrities' images are created and manipulated. Unfortunately, it's a story that's become all too familiar in this era; Amy Winehouse's death would be its most recent incarnation. I'm Still Here may not attempt to provide insightful commentary in itself, but it's still a valuable and hilarious look inside the crazy and tragic world of celebrity.

Too bad that some of that fictional tragedy has rubbed off on reality. Joaquin hasn't been fully absolved of his antics, and his look at celebrity foolishness has been deemed itself a foolish vanity project. When he returned to Letterman, clean shaven and eager to talk of his project, Letterman seems merely to want to make Joaquin as embarrassed about it as possible. Some people still can't quite believe that Joaquin cut off that bat-shit insane when the camera stopped rolling. "Was the idea of a hoax itself just a hoax intended to cover his disastrous misstep?" says they. If that isn't the sign of a  great performance I don't know what is.