A Dangerous Method (2011)
Dir. David Cronenberg
It’s no wonder that A Dangerous Method has divided critics; the film is alternately obvious and subtle. Moreover, it could be said to represent a sort of culmination of David Cronenberg’s increasingly mainstream period (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), which is characterized by a more traditional approach to narrative, and a less explicit (but still explicit) investigation of his usual themes. This partly has to do with the fact that Cronenberg hasn’t written his own screenplay since 1999′s eXistenZ (although this is to change with his next film, Cosmopolis, scheduled to be released later this year). In abandoning Cronenberg’s “arthouse” and “b-movie” sensibility, he has subsequently been abandoned by some fans and critics alike, who see this embrace of more widely appealing material as selling out. But Cronenberg has not abandoned his obsessions, and even if we can no longer look forward to grotesque animatronics and wound-fucking, the dark pleasures of his cinema remain intact, and (don’t shoot me) is it not possible that perhaps this a legitimate maturation, and one which sees Cronenberg more concerned with form than ever before? Surely A Dangerous Method is a testament to this—it is easily one of his greatest formal accomplishments—as was Eastern Promises, which contrary to popular opinion, is one of his better films. In the past, his films could be too clinical and didactic, and were always best when they retained a mystery (Crash, his indisputable masterwork) rather than feeling like a purely psychological exercise. A Dangerous Method achieves this balancing act, and the film’s more veiled intents are difficult to uncover. Towards the end, it becomes clear that in addition to its interest in establishing the film’s historical figures as confused obsessives with their own limited perspectives, Cronenberg is concerned with Jewish/Aryan relations (Cronenberg, it should be noted, is Jewish) and illustrating a larger portrayal of European consciousness before the dawn of World War. The film’s post-script, clearly tongue-in-cheek, points out that Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), both Jewish, were victimized by Nazism—Freud fled the Nazis and died of cancer, Spielrein was shot by Nazis in a synagogue—while the Aryan Jung “lived peacefully” until his death in 1961. Cronenberg portrays Jung sympathetically, as he butts heads with Freud and struggles with his desires, but at the same time takes great pleasure in defining his flaws and ambiguities. Ultimately, Freud is not really examined in comparison, shown as a stubborn but mild man, mostly restricted to his office, alone, and shown in vulnerable moments, collapsing at one point in humiliating fashion in front of his rival. Jung’s quest to further psychoanalysis comes from an ambition to better the human being, an all-too Aryan idea. The birth of modern psychology is articulated as a time of self-investigation and uncertainty, and in its two primary figures, Cronenberg finds a self-destructive quality in the European consciousness as the turbulent first half of the 20th century approaches.
Fallen Angels (1995)
Dir. Wong Kar-Wai
I like most of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, but since being introduced to the popular auteur, I have had a bit of a “so what?” attitude towards him. At first I surrendered to the beauty of In the Mood For Love (I now think it to be overrated), and the ambition of 2046 (even more-so), but an indifference has been growing inside me. In the last while, however, I finally got around to seeing Happy Together, and more recently, Fallen Angels, and I may be changing my tune. The latter is now my favourite of his films, and I would argue, his most complete (incompleteness being an unfortunate quality attached to much of his work). In articulating the urban alienation of Hong Kong living, Wong’s most dominant theme, he has, as many filmmakers do, restated the same idea in different ways. In the Mood For Love‘s careful, ornate approach is to hone in on the tragic inability to connect with another person, and the impossibility of romance to exist as anything but a silent wish. Fallen Angels isn’t so ostentatious, opting to use fast-paced, overtly fun framing and editing to articulate this serious syndrome that In the Mood For Love essentially turns into a fetish. The film is divided into two stories, which overlap quite subtly. In one story, that of a hit-man and his female “partner” whom he never works with directly, two characters are, in a sense, living the same life simultaneously, separately but co-dependently. Both are completely alienated from society, existing in their own outsider world of canted angles and jump cuts. Their process is detailed by Wong in poppy fashion, but there is tragedy in how his characters revolve around one another. Through these characters we imagine a Hong Kong full of the detached and lonely whose perfect matches are just around the corner, but always out of reach. In the other story, a mute, also resigned to a life of relative solitude, is detached from society but exists in a distorted version of its system of living, compensating by working in random shops he breaks into after hours, forcing unwilling customers to participate in his comical fantasy. When the mute’s life intersects with the hit-man’s, it is brief and anti-climactic. Wong’s characters are magnets who expose to each other the wrong side, repelling, not attaching. The energy of the filmmaking makes for an interesting contrast with the themes, perhaps increasing the poignancy of this vision of a world defined by its recurring image of a dark tunnel with a single guiding light, in which one is either alone, or not—and how rarely the latter is the case.
Dir. Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor
The manic brilliance of Neveldine/Taylor reached its highest point (so far) with Gamer, which, if not as fun as Crank: High Voltage, is more cohesive and focused. The confusing satiric notes of the Crank films make it difficult to affirm just what, if anything, Neveldine/Taylor want to say, but that’s part of their appeal—meticulously crafted, vulgar “trash”, that puts other contemporary action films and filmmakers to shame with few exceptions. Gamer is also less funny, dishing out its spoonfuls of sugar with equal components vinegar and cyanide, but it finds the duo at their most articulate. Its seemingly most obvious target is that of the vicarious violence of video games, but Neveldine/Taylor aren’t cynical here—they clearly love sensationalistic violence and often celebrate it (they love it the same way Verhoeven loves SFX, an almost purely technical admiration). Instead, their focus is on the avatarism of 21st century life, or, the disassociation of realities from living. The universe of Gamer is one where cyberspace and physical space have collided so as to be difficult to distinguish, and where ignorance and immorality are the dominant forces. Everyone lives at the expense of others—as, essentially, people must do in a consumerist society—and control is capital. Some amazing sci-fi touches outdo most middle/highbrow films, such as a bedroom/digital interface in which Simon (the young man who controls Gerard Butler’s character) contently relaxes amidst a cyber-abyss. Another clever moment features a shot/reverse shot between Michael C. Hall’s villainous Ken Castle and a news program, both shots featuring digital backgrounds, the presence of reality completely eradicated between the forces of media and technology. The unification between Neveldine/Taylor’s form and content is at its most comfortable in Gamer. I can’t think of other filmmakers more concerned with NOW, amongst the mainstream or amongst festival approved auteurs, and these guys are a great deal better at articulating it, anyhow.