From the Vault: Richard Hell’s Thumbs Down for Wim Wenders, Carlos Reygada, the Dardenne Brothers

Originally run in BlackBook’s March 2006 issue, musician/film critic Richard Hell wrote for us about the films he admired least from the month. With the nature of the industry changing so rapidly over the past seven years, it’s interesting to look back on his criticism with the knowledge of today. We see how the directors of whom he speaks have gone far beyond in that time, as well as how the DVD culture he praises has progressed into the world of video-on-demand and Blu-Ray. .

As a rule, I don’t write about movies I don’t like, just because it seems like a waste of space. I didn’t see any I liked for this issue, though, so I’m finally writing some straight pans. There were three movies that turned out to be bad for similar reasons, having to do with how they tarted themselves up in art drag when really all they were was the drag part. One was more or less simply disappointing, one I hated, and one was frustrating in a kind of complicated way. After all that, I’ll lighten up with some good news at the end.

The plain disappointment was the new Wim Wenders film, Don’t Come Knocking, written by and starring Sam Shepard. Wenders has always been an over-romantic Americanaphile, the kind of European who wants to make western road movies with a lot of motels and desert, fronting an electric guitar soundtrack. At the same time, I respect his casual, eye-oriented style. I’ve liked some of his documentaries and remember being susceptible to Wings of Desire too, though I haven’t seen it for a long time. Paris, Texas, his earlier movie written by Shepard, was too ploddingly portentous for me. Shepard, before he was a movie star, was the playwright hero of the 1970s and has continued to be that for two or three generations of rock & roll cowboys of the theater, reeling off drama into the dawn the way most people go to sleep. He’s successfully worked his radiotronic rabbit tooth or his silver dog smell or whatever it is on me more than once over the years. I liked a lot of those plays, and I also respect, as I do in Wenders, Shepard’s anti-Hollywood priorities.
But this movie is so bad and bad in such a way as to make me wonder if I could have been wrong about the earlier Shepard. This shit is too fucking macho, faux-mysterioso, and too much a mental mess, like a blind cut-up of Sam’s and Wim’s own faded old material. It’s strange to see these guys, who so conspicuously reject Hollywood formulas, making works as limited to formula as the stuff they oppose. There are a whole lot of good looking shots in this movie: of western desert, of the big-skied beat-up streets of downtown Butte, Montana, of outrageous disco-squared Nevada casinos, of the star’s vintage Packard wheeling down the two-lane, etc. But that shit is as tired by now as teeth-gnashing mega-pixel dinosaurs. More tired. And who cares about another jacked-in cowboy having an existential crisis all over his family? He should do that on his own time. Eva Marie Saint as Shepard’s mom is really great though. I wish they’d stayed at her house and let her be the movie.
If Don’t Come Knocking is derivative of its own filmmakers, the other two movies here are counterfeits of interesting recent artistic trends. Apparently, there are enough art movies succeeding these days that what at first was fresh gets immediately degraded by imitators. (The one film I’ve walked out on in these two years of movie reviewing was Napoleon Dynamite, a moronic and mean-spirited psuedo-type of Todd Solondz’s great Welcome to the Dollhouse.) The movie I hated is called Battle in Heaven. It’s from Mexico and is the second feature by director Carlos Reygadas. The techniques that Reygadas exploits here are those originally used sensitively and organically by directors like Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Bruno Dumont (France), and their cinematic godfather the incomparable Robert Bresson: employing non-actors in stories about ordinary, usually poor, people in mostly everyday scenes — though the everyday scenes often include violent death, frequently suicide. Lately, explicit acts of sex have joined the real life detail of some of them, too.
Battle in Heaven opens with a shot travelling slowly, from a mushy face, down the full-frontal body of a very fat and homely naked guy who you eventually see (in unforgiving closeup) is getting his purplish penis sucked by a pretty young woman. The imagery — the camera work, lighting, angles and material subject — definitely get your attention. You want to trust this director because he’s showing you strong stuff. You want to find out where he’s going to go with it, what he’s going to indicate to you about its importance. Unfortunately, he goes nowhere and means nothing. The movie is pure exploitation masquerading as art. It’s degrading to watch. It’s all strategic smoke-blowing, the smoke being filmic techniques that we’ve learned from the director’s betters to read as signifying insight and intelligence, but which here are used in the service of emptiness and vanity, emptiness made to further keep your attention with explicit sex and extreme violence. It’s pure Hollywood pretending to be its opposite. I’ll take Get Rich or Die Tryin’ any day.
The frustrating film is L’Enfant (The Child). Isolated from its models and influences, the movie would seem more than worthwhile: it’s smart, well-acted, shot well, and compelling. (It actually won the Dardenne brothers, who produced, wrote, and directed it, their second Palme d’Or — the first was for Rosetta in 1999 — at Cannes. ) Like Battle in Heaven, it shows underclass folk (and fully credible ones, in contrast to the freaks predicated by Reygadas), carrying out their daily routine. The story is of a dim and luckless 23-year old petty thief and beggar, his 18-year-old girlfriend, and their new baby, on the streets of an industrial city of Belgium. In L’Enfant the roles are played by actors, though they’re good enough and the film is shot in such a way — hand-held camera, natural light — as to make it feel uncannily real. As in Bresson, there is no soundtrack music.
By the time it’s over, you’re moved, though for me it was against my will, because it all wasn’t enough. We’ve seen it before, in Italian neo-realism, in Bresson—the climactic scene, which defines the film, is a shameless appropriation from Bresson’s Pickpocket. I don’t know, this sort of thing isn’t unprecedented. Brian DePalma made a lot of enjoyable movies that were homages derived from Hitchcock. But DePalma’s movies were intended half as goofy filmfreak larks, not intense depictions of our condition, like the Dardennes’ film. There’s certainly a lot to be usefully learned from Bresson — Kiarastami and Dumont prove that — but this film too narrowly imitates him. It’s like if you hadn’t heard Little Richard doing “Long Tall Sally,” you might think the Beatles’ version was great. If you’ve seen Pickpocket, L’Enfant is kid stuff.
For an up note, I’ll point out that DVDs have recently been released of two really good films that you might have missed in theaters in 2005: Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen. Both are strikingly original (!), intelligent, and entertaining, the former a whimsical/spooky tale of the quest for romance of a video/performance artist in nowheresville Southern California; and the latter a novelistically complex look at crises in the life of a thirty-five year old French woman (played by the tremendous Emmanuelle Devos). While being very different from each other, they also have a kind of poetic imagination in common, which, in mixing the real with the hallucinatory, makes everything more real (and funny). There’s not space to say more, but I think you wouldn’t regret renting either.
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