Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Rumpus at the Movies

Junebug's occasional pretentiousness -- long, soundless shots of empty rooms and self-consciously sterile suburban landscapes -- is offset by an occasional thoughtfulness and a few sincere gestures. It's the story of Madeleine, a sophisticated art gallery owner and exhibitor of "visionary" art who travels with her shiny new husband, George, whom she has married after a one-week courtship, to his hometown in North Carolina in order to convince a "visionary" Southern artist named David Wark -- reminiscent of one of Flannery O'Connor's "grotesques" -- to exhibit his works at her gallery. Since they happen to be in town, the newlyweds spend a few days with the husband's moderately dysfunctional down-home family. It's an earnest and sometimes affecting film that attempts to present its culture-clash theme without pandering to urban, liberal preconceptions about Southern culture or patronizing its Southern characters. Despite the vague suggestion, however, that Madeleine is in her own way as provincial as any of George's family members, and despite the implication that Madeleine's admiration for the drawling, exotic, anti-Semitic Wark represents an absurd orientalizing of North Carolina culture, I'm not sure that the film finally succeeds in the attempt. I suspect, for instance, that the critical acclaim that attended Amy Adams's performance as the very pregnant and pathologically chatty sister-in-law, Ashley, arises from exactly the kind of "aww, bless their little hearts, aren't these Southern types quirky and fascinating?" impulse that drives Madeleine's over-estimation of Wark's art. I wouldn't mind the ambiguity of the film's end, except that the crucial character of George is so underwritten that what might have been an enriching ambiguity plays more like a slamming of the door in the audience's face. Still, I can't quite get a handle on the movie, and I'm sounding harsher in my assessment of it than I really felt while watching it. It's an interesting and often appealing movie. I'm just not sure whether it succeeded in fully fleshing out its vision and its themes.

Junebug was sort of an indie incarnation of Sweet Home Alabama, an engaging piece of mainstream fluff whose similarities with Junebug -- far from causing me to lower my estimation of Junebug -- has caused me to raise my estimation of Sweet Home Alabama.

I watched Mahattan on Turner Classics the other night, and it was another one of those "when I was a child, I thought as a child" experiences I've been having lately. I used to think Manhattan was one of Woody Allen's best movies, and I still admire Gordon Willis's magnificant black and white cinematography and the lush Gershwin soundtrack. But my goodness, this movie is populated by some of the most insufferable, self-absorbed, pretentious, and morally vacuous characters in moviedom. I suppose when I was younger their self-consciousness made them interesting to me -- maybe because I mistook self-consciousness for self-knowledge. This time, however, they just seemed distasteful and pathetic, and -- try as I might -- I couldn't take the last scene as an indictment of Woody Allen's character. It still has a few funny lines, but those count for less than they used to once the characters begin to seem less like interestingly screwed-up but nevertheless witty urbanites and more like sad clowns costumed in Ralph Lauren instead of big red noses and floppy shoes.

The Lives of Others
is superb. I always have a harder time articulating unequivocal admiration for a movie than I have quibbling and nit-picking, so maybe I should just leave it at that. I don't have enough time, at the moment, to praise it thoughtfully.


Blogger Jeff said...

Aw--I'm disappointed that you didn't like Junebug more than you did, but I agree with your assessment of its weaknesses. I still wonder if George was really "underwritten," or if he's deliberately enigmatic to point out the fact that we'll never really get a handle on him because there's something troublesome, even sinister, about the ease--heck, the unthinking ease--with which he can slip from being urbane art-gallery guy to the down-home local boy who can sing spirituals in the church basement. I liked the film's observations about the assumptions of city-dwelling intellectuals, but I got the sense that the filmmaker is still trying to assess the relative dignity of his own rural roots and his own discomfort with moving between the two worlds. It's a good start, at least.

Of course, I am thrilled to know that someone else may soon linger here on the dark side of distaste for Woody Allen films. Join us! All the uncool kids are doing it...

November 09, 2007 5:50 PM  
Blogger Kate Marie said...

Hi, Jeff!

But I *did* like Junebug! I was worried that I was giving the wrong impression about my impression of the movie. Like I said, I couldn't quite get a handle on it, and that's generally a good thing, and I thought it was interesting and thoughtful, but because it was interesting and thoughtful, it somehow encouraged me to think about where I judged the movie to have stumbled a bit. And I should clarify that I really liked Amy Adams's performance (I liked all the performances, actually), but I wondered whether the character wasn't, perhaps unwittingly, written in such a way to attract all those urban sophisticates who would fall for her without fully recognizing her humanity . . . if that makes sense, which it probably doesn't. :)

And I really like your take on George's character. I think I just needed to see more of "urbane art gallery guy" in order for the final scene not to seem so jarring. But then again, it was probably meant to be jarring. And I wonder, too, whether George wasn't intended to be at least somewhat of a cipher, so that we could understand the extent to which he's a creature of Madeleine's romantic projections -- Jim to Madeleine's Huck.

Thanks for the invitation to the dark side, Lord Vader. I'd much rather hang out with the uncool kids than with Woody Allen's Manhattanites!

November 09, 2007 8:43 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I agree there's something odd about that performance by Amy Adams. It was a bit too actor-ish, and the character was one of those showy eccentric types beloved by critics. Adams did a good enough job with it, but I'm not sure she belonged in a movie where most of the other characters seemed to have wandered right out of a thoughtful, slow-paced documentary. (Although I did appreciate seeing the other side of her character near the end of the movie.)

November 09, 2007 9:27 PM  
Blogger stewdog said...

I *liked* Manhattan when I first saw it, in spite of itself, but I have never felt compelled to watch it again. To me, it is a marker for the end of the Woody Allen that I loved. . the funny one. . the one who could be insightful while amusing us, not boring us.
I really haven't liked a single movie he made after it. He should have been "hit by a truck" after his masterpiece. . Annie Hall (come to think of it, so should have the now insufferable Diane Keaton).

November 11, 2007 1:46 PM  

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