Toward the end of last year, a friend and I were e-mailing about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Released in mid-October, the film, a meditative journey along the boundary between life and death, had already done a fast fade as a commercial prospect (death is such a downer) and subject for awards speculation. My friend disdains Eastwood’s filmmaking as much as I mostly esteem it, but he agreed with me about one thing: he was “blown away” by Matt Damon’s performance. I said I thought it was the best of the year but feared it would be ignored come Oscar season. Not only was Damon’s character one among several focal figures in a film with several story threads—”He doesn’t speak with a British accent, and he doesn’t stammer.”
OK, that was glib. But also on point and, as a prediction, accurate. Damon wasn’t among the Academy Award nominees announced the morning of January 25. He rarely has been (GoodWillHunting, 1997; Invictus, 2009). Yet Matt Damon may be the best actor in movies these days, even if that superlative usually cues people to envision such worthies as Javier Bardem or Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp. Damon has long since earned a place in their company, but neither he nor his work insists on it—as he doesn’t insist on his stardom. He’s mingled stellar turns in the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley, TheDeparted, and the Bourne franchise with supporting and ensemble roles: SavingPrivateRyan, Dogma, Syriana, the Ocean’s pictures, Invictus. That’s better than being the best actor. He’s the exemplary actor.
[Originally published inQueen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]
Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.
The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.
Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film marked a significant new direction for young turk director, away from the impassioned sketchiness of his furiously directed first films and into the realm of carefully composed scenes and formal visual strategies. Developed to showcase his wife and muse Anna Karina (they were on the verge of breaking up), the film follows the journey of shop girl Nana (both a reference to the Zola novel and an anagram for Anna) from frustrated aspiring actress surviving on the generosity of her dates to professional prostitute. Karina isn’t given a glamorous treatment here, not like in the playful musical A Woman is a Woman, but the camera adores her in her simple shop girl clothes and Louise Brooks “Lulu” bob and Godard directs her to the performance of her career, giving a humanity to this shallow girl. It’s not just the famous close-up of Karina, with tears streaming down her cheeks, intercut with Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but her distinctive body language, her distracted behavior around her “dates” and furtive response to a police interview.
Godard makes it a mix of character study, social commentary and street tragedy broken into twelve distinct tableaux (the full French title is Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), many of them composed of carefully arranged long takes by Raoul Coutard. On the one hand it’s a provocative portrait of social and sexual politics (at one point the soundtrack reverts to a recitation of laws on the business of prostitution) directed with Godard’s distinctive gift for counterpoint and dramatic disassociation, on the other a moralistic tale of a shallow, emotionally reckless young woman ultimately punished for her ambitions and infidelities.
For a political radical, Godard was quite the conservative moralist when it came to women in his films of the sixties; where his male rebels were a mix of lovable criminals, charming cads and doomed individualists, his women are consistently flighty, shallow and ultimately disloyal, betraying the men in their lives in ways large (Patricia betrays Michel to the police in Breathless) or small (Karina’s character cheats on her husband in A Woman is a Woman). This is especially true when Godard’s personal life was in such emotional chaos: Karina wanted to leave him and he was desperate to hold onto her. You could say this was both his offering (to make her a serious actress) and his warning to her. (Spoiler alert) After all, Nana opens the film by leaving her husband to follow her dream as an actress and ends up herself betrayed, abandoned and dead, the victim of callous, thoughtless, brutally impersonal violence. (end spoiler alert) For a film that proclaims itself with the title “To live life” (translated as My Life to Live for U.S. release), it is awfully judgmental. Whose life to live is it anyway? (As an aside, I was brought back to Richard Brody’s excellent Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after reviewing the film and his rich mix of biography and aesthetic observation makes some excellent observations on Godard’s problematic portrayal of women in relation to his personal life. A well-researched and well-written book and I highly recommend it.)