Movie Review
New York Film Festival 2007, Part III
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the generous soundtrack of Silent Light buzzes with the natural and man-made sounds of the northern Mexican countryside: wind rustling the trees and cornfields, Ford pickups grinding down dirt roads, boots crunching on snow. The aural busyness fills the gaps between the utterances of its laconic cast, in what writer-director Carlos Reygadas admits is an archetypal adulterous triangle story that gets its raison d'être from being set in a community of Mennonite farmers, speaking an archaic German dialect. Though not quite as richly strange as his first two acclaimed works, this “metaphysical rural drama” is characteristically full of stunning landscapes, searching close-ups and sun-washed rooms, this time in collaboration with cinematographer Alexis Zabe.


Silent Light

On a human level, the archetypes don’t fully engage—perhaps because they’re not as chatty or confessional as they would be in a melodrama—even from the early scene where the unfaithful husband Johan (Cornelio Wall) sobs heavingly at his kitchen table. Johan, his wife, and lover all intone their feelings in Bressonian rigor without many flourishes (though Miriam Toews, as the pained wife, cries a rainswept fugue of despair under a tree), with Reyagadas counting on the fixed gaze of the camera to uncover the emotional truth. Diversions from the central plot, such as the peculiar incident of Johan and his kids piling into a van to watch ’60s video of a sweaty, antic Jacques Brel, consistently move these spiritually focused people through an uncanny, inscrutable world.

Perhaps the sober manners of the ascetics in front of the camera account for the presence of just one reticent sex scene, milder than the horse-fucking of Reygadas’ Japón or the deglamorized, corpulent couplings of his Battle in Heaven. The transcendental climax, tipped a bit too obviously by publicity blurbs mentioning a specific Carl Dreyer film, comes off as a quiet act of love rather than a miracle. Bookended with spectacular shots of the slow but steady turning of night to day to night, Silent Light doesn’t provoke or mark new territory but maintains the filmmaker’s vision of life lived persistently, passionately, generously.


Go Go Tales

Abel Ferrara opts to treat his familiar territory – Urban Loserville populated by barflies, hoods and dreamers who aren’t quite self-deceiving enough to achieve peace—with bloodless wackiness in Go Go Tales. Set exclusively in and around the foundering strip club of Ray Ruby (a game Willem Dafoe, alternating between showbizzy emcee brio and a gambler’s desperation) on its potentially final night of operation, this sentimental lowlife comedy roves the stage, dressing room and bar, ogling the writhing dancers (led by a Rottweiler-tonguing Asia Argento), suited wiseguys (one with a tall tale about nearly fatal pastrami and Hillary Clinton), and vaguely threatening interlopers (a new wave of Chinese mobsters). The bluish, lovingly composed scenes of these nocturnal Runyonesque heels jabbering and bitching does achieve a funky warmth, even if mannered excess is never too much for Ferrara’s ear. Sylvia Miles enters an early scene screeching as the joint’s landlady, ready to close it down and sell to Bed Bath & Beyond; I shuddered when she plopped down and remained at the bar for the entire film. The absurd plot has Dafoe trying to hit paydirt by buying thousands of lottery tickets; just as dopey but infinitely stranger are bits like Matthew Modine as Ray’s frosted-blond beautician brother and backer, singing to his pooch in a staff talent show. Though overlong and repetitive, Go Go Tales at least pulls a shrugging reversal after an easily anticipated fairytale climax; arguably, its indie pasties are in the right place.


I’m Not There

All over the place, to mostly exhilarating effect, is Todd Haynes’ “exploded biography” of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, with its media-catching hook of six different actors playing reflections or permutations of the pervasive icon. An ambitious, messy, proudly meta movie, it might be the best American film about America since The New World…or War of the Worlds. While Dylan the recognizable individual is riffed on mesmerizingly by chain-smoking Cate Blanchett, self-mythologizing boy hobo Marcus Carl Franklin, and (all too briefly) head-ducking Christian Bale, there’s plenty of space in Haynes’ hall of mirrors for more than performative tours de force. He employs fantastical effects, re-enactments of cultural moments and monuments, and a sprawling score of Dylan originals and contemporary covers (Calexico, Sonic Youth, Steve Malkmus) to mine themes of race, religion, Vietnam, and the artist’s struggle to preserve his autonomy in defiance of critics and audience.

I’m Not There is at its weakest when, as more frequently occurred in his glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine, Haynes puts forward a spiffy grad thesis on pop and its signifiers rather than dramatizing anything. He has fun throughout making visual quotes, from Dylanography as well as Godard, Fellini and A Hard Day’s Night (this last is worth the price of admission), but the segment that finds Richard Gere playing Billy the Kid as an expression of Dylanism’s 19th-century West facet falls almost entirely flat, like a theme-park frontier playlet. The other strand at a distance from the biographical facts, a Sixties romance of an actor and a painter played with a bracing lack of dewiness by Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg, nevertheless suffers from banal dialogue. An exception is Ledger’s combative assertion of women’s limited capacity for artistry, one flare-up of Dylan’s purported misogynist streak, matched by Blanchett/Dylan’s snarls at a dismissive ex (Michelle Williams approximating Edie Sedgwick). But the images, ideas and sounds come barreling from the screen in such a challenging, arresting parade that it’s hard to refute that Haynes has made the smartest, most sweeping musical spectacle in recent cinema.

Check out alternate takes on Silent Light and I’m Not There by Stylus writer David Pratt-Robson here.


By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-10-12
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