A far-too-late post on Oscar Isaac and A Most Violent Year

On a crisp winter morning in 1981, a young Latino man jogs along the East River. Sporting a black knit cap and gray warm ups like a young Rocky Balboa, he moves, steely and determined, to the moody rhythms of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” He is alone amid the rusty detritus of a city seemingly left for grabs, its docks and warehouses abandoned and still, no longer bustling with the cranks, blasts, curses, and exhaust of industry. This is how we first come upon Abel Morales, aspiring heating oil magnate and protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film, A Most Violent Year.

He is played by Oscar Isaac, who imbues Morales with an almost inhuman stillness, even as financial and legal nooses tighten around him in 1981 New York, threatening his ambitions, livelihood, and his family. This was a New York eaten from the inside by corruption and violence. For those seeking to build an empire, the city’s broken carcass was ripe for the picking — perhaps by the brown man, the working man, or even the brown man who was once a working man. Abel’s carefully groomed appearance and deliberate cadence suggest construction: of behaviors, of experiences, of a coherent identity. He uses few words, and those he uses he deploys to great effect, to make the listener internalize the dogma.

Morales wages what he deems a righteous war to secure his company’s long-term future in heating oil, just as Michael Corleone ruthlessly consolidated his family’s criminal empire in the 1950s and 60s. Both projected power through composure, and choose their words carefully. Many (most, really) have, in fact compared Isaac’s controlled performance to Pacino’s as Corleone. Homage is no doubt at work, an observation critics will likely continue to make as Isaac — by no means a traditional-looking or seeming star, whose odd rhythms, sensitive but neurotic intelligence, convey something pained and struggling for control — continues to complicate our sense of him as a performer: as a crusader for desegregated housing, as an X-Wing pilot, as a monomaniacal supermutant.

Abel comes from an unnamed Latin-American country. With one notable, obvious, crucial exception — a young truck driver hungry but tragically ill-equipped for Abel’s world– he is the only one of his particular tribe. From an interview with the New York Daily News:

[W]ith A Most Violent Year, it’s like the very first time that you see a Latin American man portrayed this way. He’s not a gangster; he’s nonviolent, he’s powerful, he’s quintessentially American, and he’s not a sidekick. We get to see a very un-clichéd look at the Latin American immigrant experience and really what the backbone of this country is. A lot of people like this come and work their way to the top, and this is somebody that buys into the American dream — and at the same time he’s very flawed. When you present someone not as a token for the entire community, I think that actually does more for the community than being some sort of poster child.

Yet, within Morales’ quintessential Americanness, there is the nagging sense of a camel-hair coated aspiring tycoon desperate to break in — to perform that quintessentialness.

There is something subtle and powerful Isaac instructs about the nature of performance in A Most Violent Year. In this scene, he explains performance. Breaking it down step by essential step, Morales wants, and needs his new salesmen to understand the script and to live it, the lessons and rituals that made Abel Morales into Abel Morales.

As he grows more desperate — for a massive infusion of cash to close a purchase for a fuel terminal that would profoundly improve his company’s fortunes — he somehow grows increasingly determined to win by the book, and only by the book. He won’t arm his delivery men even though they’re being carjacked by rogue gunmen, and he won’t cave under the pressure of a dogged attorney general bent on bringing him down for corruption, real or perceived.

His intense cerebralism seems to exist without spit and fire, the visceral stuff of empire-building. He has constructed a persona, and understands himself as the archetypal self-made man: reliant on no one, aiming to please and provide for one those closest to him. This is the story he’s written for himself. Abel’s stillness, his precision, is all part of a carefully calibrated performance. He is not of their tribes — the Teamsters, the Italian organized crime networks, the Hasid businessmen he’s trying to buy the terminal from.

The specifics of Abel’s story before the heating oil, before New York, before his family and marriage, seem to matter little for him. He is what he is here, today, the product of his choices and decisions as a businessman able and willing to create something of his own atop the detritus of collapse. It’s his American tale.

That exception is, of course, his tragic, blubbering foil: young delivery man Julian, who wants nothing more than to one day be Abel. Abel shows concern and genuine sympathy for Julian after he is violently held up in the inciting incident that drive the rest of the film. Abel, David Denby wrote, sees a younger version of himself in Julian. “If you’re a rising entrepreneur, you have to impress people, even a confused, impulsive young immigrant like Julian,” Denby wrote. “[T]he character is Chandor’s way of reminding us that most immigrants don’t wear camel hair,” he adds, drawing a parallel with the Corleone family code. But as he also points out, it is “the ways in which Abel differs from him that make the movie special.”

As shit luck sends Julian spiraling, Abel chooses to separate himself from him. He’s too weak, too stupid, too unwilling to take the occasional beating as part of the long game to glory. Something in Abel’s past perhaps shaved away any softness, reducing him to a hard, not unfeeling rock, but one one whose sympathies are hard-earned. For a man who so desperately wants to be seen by Abel, Abel has no sentiment to spare.

Sid Mah

“…dance Dance, I said!” – Salt-n-Pepa

“Dance like nobody’s watching” – Mark Twain

Thanksgiving week, 2008: between jobs, zeroing out my bank out, living with lovely roommates in a gorgeous old Mt. Pleasant house, paying a rent I couldn’t afford. How a lot of folks between the ages of 22 and 25 roll in the NW.

Earlier that year, a three-month internship with an ambitious non-profit gifted me with a social circle loaded with the accomplished, talented do-goodery sort that makes Washington a place worth enduring. But their ambition wasn’t infectious enough to inspire me to join their ranks. I spun out on my own to try to make it as some type of journalist. [Note: don’t let anyone ever relax you into thinking that starting something brand new at the age of 24 isn’t the most stressful thing ever. There is nothing like feeling you missed the boat.]

Leaving the internship meant leaving my student hostel, which meant finding a new place to call home, and snapping in place a support framework that would have to carry me through the leaner times to follow: an unpaid stint at a US government-subsidized Afghan television station, subsidized by a night job processing early voter rolls submitted from precinct-level Democratic party chiefs stationed in battleground states. Never did my beard and olivey-brown complexion acquit me so poorly as on those soggy November nights. I was a haggard, bloated, watery mess.

And yet I had a home back in Houston to fly back to for Thanksgiving. My paying gig expired, it was becoming near-impossible to justify “sticking it out” or “getting mine” or “going on craigslist” for opportunities to tide me over. It was an act of irresponsibility and shameful entitlement, this notion that I  had to suffer while warmer weather and more reachable opportunity—technical editing, teaching, earning an average LSAT score—was well within my reach. I didn’t share my troubles with my family, as it seemed like it’d help no one to admit that I had run out of gas a mere four months into my grand adventure.

I thought about that week back home while watching the brief, silent, Sacramento-set montage in Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach’s endearing and strange love letter to trying and failing a lot at adulthood. There’s nothing romantic about the shiftlessness and gradual dissolution of Frances, a sometimes-dancer living in Brooklyn who’s fallen on hard times: her best friend and life-mate scooped up by a Goldman Sachs-bro, her spot in her dance company gone, and nowhere remotely affordable to live.

Frances tries: to dance, to assert, to befriend, to date, to actualize as an adult even as it’s abundantly clear that she’s losing the safe moorings that the grown ups among us rely on more than they’d care to admit. There’s a thrown-together mumblecoriness to the story of her unraveling and eventual resurrection, indie-smart characters quick with a quip or a clichéd nostalgia for an older New York. These are the kinds of people Whit Stilman wrote about in the 90s. These characters live and work like they do because of that weekly check from Dad. That’s been a persistent truth for the youth among us populating this country’s treasured urban artistic enclaves; a movie like Frances Ha grapples with the soft desperation of people living just on the fringes of gilded bohemia.

Do hipsters work? When they work, do they work hard? Can we pity or feel a common kinship with a self-described aesthete who seems, at least at this phase of her life, to be making very little of her art? More sympathetically, it’s terribly scary to think that the time to do your best work has already passed you by the time you turn 27. It’s also laughably narrow-headed to think we’re best positioned to determine what our “best” looks like at any given point in our lives. Yet if your life is about creating, emoting, and clarifying some narrow angle of human experience, you can’t help but obsess over the possibility that you’re always failing to capture the sense of what’s most sublime and horrible. That desperation inflected Frances Ha, and felt most authentic to me.

Captured in digital black and white, a weird, lovingly worn-looking Greta Gerwig seems to tumble among her various neuroses as she tackles her central obstacle: conceiving of her self as an adult with tangible responsibilities. Responsibilities, at the very least, to herself. Her struggle felt earned. Going home to those who knew you when, to undifferentiated, warm one-story suburbia, to Christmas lights and the family dog, convinces you that you have been utterly ungrateful for all the advantages life has heaped upon you. It’s tough, feeling you are falling short of what you expect of yourself, and inflicting that pain on those who are in your corner.

I am no artist, at least not in my public life. And the things I want out of this world that are hard to get will not be circumscribed by age, as they are for dancers (I hope). In Frances’ life, the sense of the swiftly closing door is real, so real that it scares her out into the soothing forests of upstate New York.

By the end, we’ve seen Frances drag herself through the first of what’s sure to be many crises, where the limitations of professional possibility seem all-but-ready to deprive her of the chance to be a truly Interesting Person—the age-old joke being that a culture of strivers often fails to produce any interesting people at all, a Groucho-cum-Woody Allenism that always rings true.

Spoilery PS: Things worked out for me and Frances in the end.

“Why all the stalking and sneaking?”: creeping Menace, a story in two trailers

Typically, we don’t see any real intentionality or narrative coordination between teaser trailers. But I would suggest that that is what we have in the two recently released teasers for The Master, P.T. Anderson’s upcoming, very hush-hush, very-maybe-about Scientology movie.

 

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Most immediately and most maddeningly, it’s that dull guitar strum, set off by a disciplined metronomic  tap, upset by a deranged fiddle. It’s the delayed entrance of each element, the way none of the pieces attempt to fit together (courtesy of Johnny Greenwood) that pokes and grinds.

Discord, though, is the name of the game. Because the “A” images—Joaquin Phoenix set against a gorgeous beachscape, the sun beaming onto his face, then a cut to our gaunt hero toying with a sand castle—are so utterly serene. But those calm moments give way to ones of subtle violence: a tanned, shirtless Phoenix, hacking away at coconuts, then rough-housing with fellow sailors. It’s innocent, though.

The voiceover is anything but. An unnamed voice asks Phoenix: “Are you mixed up? Are you more jumpy than you were before?…And now you’re sleeping?…When you sleep do you have nightmares?… You’ve had violent episodes.” Phoenix responds: “Yes sir, we all did. [Laughs] But we box that out.”

Menace. And then, suddenly: a jarring, over-the-shoulder, near-extreme close-up of the hero: not just gaunt, but caved in and twitchy. Those penetrating, deep eyebrows can’t recall a more recent, apparently violent “episode” that the inquisitor asks about.

Then cut to Phoenix with his comrades, spelunking into the bowels of what appears to be a submarine or some other seafaring vessel, trolling for moonshine, gin, something. Back to caved-in Phoenix, who still can’t buy or believe something so awful happened—mostly because he can’t remember it for the life of him.

In terms of texture and light, the clear distinction occurs between the soothing exteriors and the ugly, almost olivey interior. There’s the free and untamed, versus the inhibited and the somewhat doomed.

I once watched a short video essay on Anderson’s shot compositions. The essayist argued that lines of sight, and lines in general, are key to understanding how this director situates actors, objects, shadows, and coordinates movements. I happen to think that in this trailer, we see evidence of different physical planes intersecting, both within and between shots.

[To cut the pretentious close-viewing crap for a moment here: I’m not suggesting that geniuses like Tom Hooper or Brett Ratner don’t consider geometry in their storyboards; I’m merely offering the idea that tracing the various lines and axes operating in a given frame lends a not-insignificant degree of pleasure to absorbing why and how a particular shot or framing “works,” or whatever, in Anderson’s work.]

 

 

In the second teaser, we re-join the hero, and are also reacquainted with the disjointed strum-tap-twang tune. The hero squats near a gentle creek, waiting for a truck to pass by on the road above. He scrambles up the wooded creekside to pursue it, as the unmistakable voice of Willy Lo—er, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the eponymous “master” (presumably) asks Phoenix: “Why all the stalking and sneaking?”

And then, the grand entrance of the man himself, a “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all…a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like” the hero. The middle sequence of the trailer juxtaposes the centeredness of Hoffman’s character—firm in mind, in prestige, in love (it would seem)—with the fractured persona of Phoenix’s. “You seem to inspire something in him,” Amy Adams’ character tells the hero, suggesting a solution to all that stalking and havoc-raising.

What he inspires would seem to be an endless stream of questions, a voieovered, chaotic catechism designed apparently to soothe the hero, to bring his pained mind some semblance of peace. The final shot brings us the hero, behind bars, Hoffman attempting to settle him down. “Just say something that’s true!” he screams at the master.

These  trailers don’t give us much to work with, and probably just infuriate the haters. I don’t particularly mind their elliptical structure, and the heavy reliance on Greenwood’s soundscape. I think they function rather elegantly as brief tone poems that set a time (late 40s, early 50s), a mood (disturbed), and a tension (the hero vs., and perhaps eventually supplanting, the master). And that will do for now.

Trailers are not always about affect. Most are over-produced and hamfistedly edited out of the director’s view. These two, it should be said, upset, gently phasing in elements that do not cohere. Knowing that the creepy hero himself does not know what has so troubled him nudges its denouement into something nearly sinister. Phoenix’s hero is a vulnerable creation, who may have passed his breaking point without realizing it.

Before 2010’s Really Over

A.O. Scott sees “class warfare everywhere”:

For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

The characters in, let’s say, a typical romantic comedy or family drama are blander, better-looking reflections of what the members of the audience are imagined to imagine themselves to be: hard workers and eager shoppers, neither greedy nor needy. Those airbrushed mirror images draw from a common well of (reasonable) aspirations and (mild) anxieties. The people on screen are ambitious but not obsessively so, educated but not snobbish about it. Mostly they want to be happy, and we want them to be happy because we want to be happy too.

There’s some merit in what he observes about the blanding of characters in mainstream American entertainment. Quite rightly, Scott hones in on the particular injustices inflicted by the Sex and the City franchise, and the latest generic rom-com offering starring [Insert McConaughey/Kutcher/Agreeable Substitute here] and [Insert…Katherine Heigl here].

Make no mistake: these kinds of movie are bad but completely bankable, surefire investments that bankroll the Focus Features’ of the world. Necessarily predictable, these crassly commercial projects offer featureless escape porn. But when was this not the case?

Sensing a paradigm shift in 2010, Scott now sees class warfare everywhere:

…the cheery, harmonious universalism that Hollywood has promoted and relied upon for so long seems out of tune with the surrounding cacophony. And lo and behold, the screen suddenly bristles with something that looks like class consciousness.

Suddenly? Really? In everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to On the Waterfront, to Rocky to Good Will Hunting to films like David O. Russell’s The Fighter or Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Hollywood harbors a keen obsession for class arguments—superficially, at least, but often with astute poignancy—in an ongoing effort to affirm the American story. Bootstraps, assembly lines, underdogs, used syringes, and all.

Scott’s argument for 2010—that the best movies of the year reflected this theme—mutes their tones and smoothens out their complexity. Take this handy thesis-in-a-box, for example:

Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network takes on the ultra-privileged Winklevoss twins. The real-life Micky Ward in The Fighter takes on the world and his own family, just like the fictitious protagonists of Winter’s Bone and The Town. Denzel Washington, a heroic working stiff in Unstoppable, takes on a mighty train (and the corporate fat cats more concerned with the bottom line than with public safety). A howl of anti-Wall Street rage sounds through Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job and, more bombastically if less coherently, through Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. To the barricades!

These movies, give us, he says, “a culture war, a battle between populism and elitism, a sectional conflict between the coasts and the heartland and ideological dispute between liberals and conservatives.” Scott isn’t wrong about much of this, insofar as one can say that any compelling film is about conflict and resolution. Of course these movies encompass the battle between the haves and the have-nots, the stuffy and the radical; this is the stuff of great narrative. It’s neither uniquely American, nor the most interesting thing to say about these movies.

Frequently, major American cinema (big and nearly-no-budget, alike) uses the class frame to move along some other, less discomfiting, more satisfying arc. Some form of guy gets girl, generally. Defying your apparently predestined, class-bound fate, is thrilling. For the protagonists in these movies, the door to greatness via class ascension is cracked open, if slightly. We see this in Good Will Hunting, Rocky, and even in the urban horror of Midnight Cowboy. The central characters of these films achieve or fail, to varying degrees. And there’s nothing but ambiguity about their futures. That, maybe, is the most consistent factor circumscribing the fate of the working class hero.

When times are tough, Scott’s thinking goes, we want something more real. Something that reflects “the times,” like last year’s Up in the Air. But that thinking didn’t hold for the spate of Iraq War-themed movies released during the 2000s. There’s little to support the idea that people want to see their personal battles waged on screen. Even if what makes their own lives suck yields a compelling story, it’s not clear that that’s what audiences want. Especially those most-afflicted by the economic, social, and political calamities of the past decade.

To say that filmmakers, audiences, and critics have just discovered such a prominent thread smacks of peculiar oversight, a rushed insistence to make some sense out of this year of cinematic chaos. This is, to some extent, the trade in which Scott traffics: overgeneralization and funny, revisionist conclusions.

As a counter suggestion, I offer this: the movies of 2010 were about the latent perniciousness of family, something Scott freely conflates with the class argument:

Micky [Ward, of The Fighter]—like Ree Dolly, the Missouri teenager in Winter’s Bone—wants out, just as surely as Zuckerberg wants in. What they want into and out of are the closed systems defined by custom and kinship that demarcate the ends of the social spectrum. The special status of the Winklevoss twins, or of the shadowy bankers in Wall Street…A countervailing mystique clings to the streets of Lowell…and to the hollows of Appalachia and the Ozarks. The defining common trait of these places is not so much poverty or criminality, though these certainly flourish, as tribalism.

Family ties and longstanding traditions, which in the modern world of Winter’s Bone …have come to include methamphetamine production…are what complicate and sometimes doom any effort to escape.

What they all really want is entrée into the middle class, which is why these movies can set them up as objects of audience sympathy and identification. The people around them are variously scary, comical, noble and grotesque, to be pitied, feared and wondered at. But they are consistently exotic, always other.

Scott sees tribalism—his criti-speak for the sacred family bond—as holding the protagonists back. But family, as argued in the (at least superficially) scrappy The Fighter and the (indisputably) hardscrabble Winter’s Bone, corrupts, manipulates, misleads, and destroys.

In The Fighter, we’re made fully aware of Lowell’s inherent toxicity, and the havoc it wreaks on on Dickie Ecklund. But what is Micky fighting for? His mother and sisters want him to provide for the family. Dickie wants him to vindicate his own legacy as a fighter. Charlene—who, Scott points out, is the clearest representation of class aspiration—does, in fact, see victory in the ring as a chance for her man to reclaim what she surrendered when she dropped out of college: a way out of Lowell.

Micky wants nice things; but, more than anything, he wants to be able to hold his head high and make Lowell proud. He’s not looking for a way out; he’s looking for a way to the top, of his own tribe. Not THAT tribe up in Cambridge. And when his shot finally arrives, his needs and wants are for himself. And what makes that possible? Dickie’s return to his corner. Dickie has fucked away everything else: his early promise, his career, his mind, his body, and, possibly, his soul. But he’s still got Micky, and Micky’s still got him: perhaps the one man (besides the ever-loyal trainer/cop O’Keefe) whose got a piece of his head, heart, and soul. It’s family that saves.

And in Winter’s Bone’s poverty-stricken, world of deerskinners, welfare addicts, murderers, moonshiners, and methheads, family is what we fight for and fight against. The rules of her particular “tribe” urge her to leave it all…alone.

Family, then, redeems. Whatever shred of humanity and unique ability the central protagonists are imbued with, is enhanced and enlivened by the sort of tribal connections Scott writes about. We succeed, the thinking goes, both in spite of and because of family. And, yes, we see this in The Social Network as well, a story of corporate intrigue compellingly reduced to a story of surrogate brotherhood and betrayal. Even the high-brow, super-polished, The King’s Speech wrestles with family in the most extant of ways: responsibility, disappointment, triumph. Family will break you and then, perhaps, make you. Just ask George VI.

Waterboarding with Polanski: A Few Thoughts on The Ghost Writer

Do watch this movie, available at Redboxes everywhere (I think). Evocative, moody, terrifically written, and likely one of the few movies that makes you never want to visit Martha’s Vineyard.

Check out the trailer:

For me, the money scenes were those between the Ghost and Ruth. Not because of the comically predictable adultery they culminate in, but because of the layers of intelligence and resolve that constitute this woman who isn’t quite what she says she is, but is, in fact, everything she appears to be: neglected but not vindictive, conniving but not ruthless, sexy but not obvious. She’s everything Emmett could’ve wanted in a spy.

Polanski’s staging of The Big Reveal that (SPOILER ALERT) Ruth’s the CIA agent confirms what you remember suspecting an hour before, but were gently dissuaded from believing. Is that deceptive? Perhaps. But, thanks to Olivia Williams’ cool, quietly seething performance it’s thoroughly satisfying. It’s what you wanted to be true, after all. As for Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang: here’s a man who should’ve been asking more questions from the very beginning. With menacing, strange winds swirling around him, he’s thoroughly befuddled and overwhelmed, and it’s no act. There’s no way for him to comprehend the impossible web he’s stuck in. The movie’s most prominent, disturbing suggestion, is that a manifestly uncurious disposition is what defines our elite. Willful ignorance with a pretty face is what we want.

As for the unnamed Ghost: a compelling character, insofar as he’s something of a blank slate. I took his general air of detachment from public life–in reference to his conscious decision to be an apolitical creature–and his absence of any sort of domestic connection to mean that this is simply a man who wanders in and out of things, significant and non-significant.

Yet he’s no Meursault; I don’t think the absence of connection is meant to suggest any kind of lack of feeling or interior life, or substantive desire to be removed from the world and its rules. Ewan McGregor imbues him with a wry, almost winking intelligence. He knows he’s in over his head. But in a life lived without any meaningful challenge, he’s plunged into this world of almost-absurd intrigue; a few strange days in Martha’s Vineyard turn him into a character in a potboiler he could only dream of writing himself. There’s some vaguely meta about his experience.

The Ghost lucked into something that was, apparently, too good to be true. If there’s any tragedy to this, it’s that it’s only when he “figures it out”–that it was Ruth ghostwriting Adam’s political career, all along–that, well, (SPOILER ALERT) he eats it.

But just as in The Parallax View or The Conversation, this represents a certain kind of tragedy: the protagonist’s dying act, after he’s teased out the terrible secret, reveals the unfortunate reality that some truths are too great for any one man to bear. Unless you’re Robert Redford.