Thursday, January 24, 2013

Amour and Promised Land (and 2012 Top 10 Films)

               Love’s Labors Lost and a Lost Labor of Love

                                   Reviews by Ken Burke               Amour

A heartbreaking story of the natural realities of growing old and how loss of mobility and consciousness take their terrible toll on both the sufferers and their caretakers.

                                                                              Promised Land

A heartfelt but unsuccessful warning about the dangers of environmental manipulation (here, fracking for natural gas) and the choices facing economically-destitute towns.

  As a current adage of folk wisdom goes:  “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”  In my review of This Is 40 (Judd Apatow; posted here on Dec. 23, 2012) I stated that the aging challenges faced by the married couple protagonists as they both reached the mythical dawn of middle age bothered me little because I had gone through that minimal crisis so long ago and now see how relatively minor it was; what I would be nervous about, I said, would be shown in films that essentially confront “This is 70,” but I noted that since the death of Ingmar Bergman a few years ago we rarely get that sort of story from the film industry so I’d just have to deal with it in whatever way I could on my own.  Obviously, Amour director Michael Haneke is psychic because he heard that comment months before I made it and delivered a most fearful film, much scarier to me than whatever mad ghost Jessica Chastain is facing down in the current box-office bonanza horror flick, Mama (Andres Muschietti), because Amour directly confronts not evil spirits or monsters of some kind but instead the potential ravages we all face as our bodies and minds naturally deteriorate while we’re living much longer than evolutionarily necessary
through the miracles of modern science and medicine only to hit the inevitable barriers that lurk in the shadows of our own bodies, in this case the tragedy of strokes which leave us alive but progressively incapable of movement and expression.  To live trapped in our own fleshy coffins must be the most cruel fate of all—except possibly for being the concerned caretaker of one so unfortunate, watching helplessly day after day as the loved one we’ve known for years is now almost unrecognizable, devolving from non-ambulatory to non-communicative, as if the soul has long departed and left only a physically-animated body, the result of another Frankenstein experiment gone wrong.  Of course we still know the stricken partner, parent, relative, or friend in principle but, in a manner that reverses the mystical Catholic concept of transubstantiation, the body we now address is transformed not into something holy but into something devoid of its essence, a sickening reminder of our shared mortality.

       Such is the fate in Amour in which elderly, famous pianist Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) suddenly finds her life disrupted by a carotid artery blockage, worsened by an operation that sadly fell into the “rarely negative” side of recovery odds, leaving her paralyzed on her right side therefore noticeably immobile except when in her motorized wheelchair.  Faithful husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) never backs down from the daily strain on his equally-aged body, as he must lift his beloved wife into all changes of location (in and out/ off and on, regarding the chair, the bed, the toilet), cut her food for her, exercise her legs, provide her with most of her companionship (only their daughter and a young protégée come to visit during the presentation of this chronicle of her declining years), and watch her try to live within her memories, as in one eloquently simple scene where she sits at the piano in their living room with grand music filling the space, as if she has somehow magically recovered, only to have it stop when Georges reaches over to turn off a cassette player.  Unfortunately for both of them, she has another stroke so things soon get immeasurably worse as her condition starts challenging her own sense of humanity.

(As is often the case with my beloved Google BlogSpot, the site has decided to take formatting decisions into its own "hands" so pardon the different look between what's above and the rest but as usual I have no control over it so please just read on and know that I feel your eyestrain.)   While you’d have to be an aficionado of foreign films (particularly French ones) to fully appreciate my next statement, just believe me that the acting by the leads in this film is so sublime and emotionally moving that while this story makes only brief use of the magnificent Isabelle Huppert as the couple’s daughter, Eva, the performances of the older, well-established actors are so magnificent that you hardly notice or care how little is being done with this younger thespian powerhouse (who has a long career in a good many European and American films but is especially powerful in a previous pairing with Haneke in 2001’s intensely-disturbing The Piano Teacher) in light of how mesmerized you become with the quality of the on-screen lives of the older generation as presented with such triumphant devastation by Rive and Trintignant (reminding me, speaking before of Bergman, of how his powerful star of many 1960s-‘70s masterpieces, Liv Ullman, essentially became a strong but essentially supporting character to the immense but dying presence of former Bergman star Harriet Andersson in the stunning Cries and Whispers—a rare foreign-language Oscar nominee for Best Picture [up against Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972 and even topping the Corleone saga for Best Cinematography], a bone-chilling tale of family collisions that ranks as one of my all-time bests [I still shudder when I think of it and haven’t gotten up the courage to watch it again since first release, thereby making it even more daunting than Alan J. Pakula’s soul-searing 1982 Sophie’s Choice, which I avoided again until 2010 after I’d visited Auschwitz and decided I owed it to the massive number of victims to face up to my own fears of remembrance of their tragedy], with an impact very similar to the more restricted drama of the haunting Amour).  In truth, there is nothing extraordinary about the story in Amour because it’s a natural phenomenon occurring globally on a daily basis—people get older and begin to lose their former physical and mental command, someone must somehow take care of them, families often feud over the best course of action, especially if finances are more limited than seems to be the case with Georges and Anne, while the disabled and their relatives/lovers often drag through years of self-hated because of the suffering they’re causing to each other and the impossibility of reasonable resolution until death takes its course.

Certainly, this film brought back vivid memories for me of one of my grandmothers suffering a stroke while having an emergency operation at age 88, then slowly losing her facilities over the next 5 years as the result of more strokes and inactivity until she was reduced to simply lying in bed all day, sleeping or babbling, hooked up to a feeding tube with no apparent consciousness of what was going on around her (although if her mind was still aware, trapped in that inert body for so long, her total suffering must have been unbearable).  Then there was my mother, not immobilized by strokes but wracked with constant skeletal pain that finally took constant doses of numbing morphine to subdue until she voluntarily entered a hospice program and starved herself to what was I’m sure a painful death over two weeks as best she was aware of her body beyond the constant flow of powerful painkillers (a scene in Amour brings this to mind as Anne in a very deteriorated condition tries to reject the water that Georges is forcing her to drink, but she relents at his insistence as it’s clear he’s desperately holding on to her just as she’s desperately trying with her very limited options to break away).  It’s impossible for me to watch Amour and not be personally connected to its traumatic events (and my attempted forgetfulness of my own bicuspid aortal valve which gives me a heart murmur, although I’m not worried because my doctor has assured me that if needed there’s a helpful pig ready to make a donation), but this melancholically-beautiful film still feels universal to me, something that could speak to anyone who’s ever watched or waited with a loved one while their days or years were slipping frightfully away into a slowly-arriving oblivion (in contrast to the luckiest oldster I’ve ever known, the husband of my poor grandmother, who was watching TV, laughing and talking with family and friends on an ordinary night in 1959, then went pleasantly to sleep, had what seems to have been a silent heart attack and never woke up; the rest of us had to deal with the mournful sudden loss of my grandfather but he apparently went out peacefully, setting a goal for the rest of us that none have yet to achieve).

Normally I don’t bother with announcing in-review Spoiler Alerts because this likelihood is noted and explained in detail in our home page text; further, where this film is concerned you find out within the first few minutes that Anne is dead as a team breaks into the shuttered apartment, smells her decaying flesh, then enters the sealed bedroom to find her corpse on the bed surrounded by flowers, apparently with the windows left open in an unexplained manner (there’s actually quite a lot unexplained about the final aspects of this film).  However, the impactful dramatic aspect of Amour is not that Anne is dead but what happens over the months (?; hard to tell because while both of the leads seem to age considerably during the narrative the illness of Anne and the stress on Georges could easily have imposed the appearance of added years even if her decline was rather swift) after her first stroke and what life becomes for a long-connected husband and wife, even a pair not perfectly synchronized as she blurts out to him one day after her first stroke (But how many of us are totally in harmony, no matter how much we love our mates?).  So, if you don’t want to know more of Amour until you see it for yourself then I advise you to skip down to the next film for now.  For those of you still with me, it’s harshly honest to watch how Georges is willing to do whatever his wife needs but also how the daily responsibility bears down on him, taking away any private aspect of his own life especially as Anne’s condition worsens and he’s rarely sure what she’s even trying to talk about, let alone understanding how she might be reacting to anything internally physical because her gestures and sounds lead him to nothing.  The burden of constant care causes him to be resentful at times, yet protective at others, so that he fires one of Anne’s visiting nurses for being insensitive to his wife’s condition and when Eva comes to visit at one point he locks Anne in the bedroom so that his daughter won’t have to see the pitiful sight that her mother has become.  (He relents and lets Eva in but has no intention of allowing her or her English husband to interfere with his decisions, especially in keeping his essentially unspoken promise to Anne to never send her back to the hospital after her first operation went bad.)

Finally, in a combination of deepest love (what the title is really about for me) and brutal necessity, played out in a scene masterfully done where Georges first calms Anne’s rantings with his soothing bedside manner of a story about when he was a boy at camp, then suddenly suffocates her with a pillow so that her wretched pseudo-existence can finally end (See, I told you to heed my spoiler alert warnings!).  What happens with Georges after that is completely unclear as we see him writing some notes in a sort of diary about his daily experiences (including a very unpredictable one where a pigeon flies into their home through a courtyard window; he goes to a lot of trouble to chase it around with a blanket, finally capturing it in what seems to be yet another killing but then he just cuddles the bird through its wrapping and releases it, seeming to be in a desperate need to share some closeness with another living being after the death of his wife).  We never really know what becomes of him (there’s a dream sequence where Anne is suddenly alive and healthy in the kitchen, then encourages him to walk out of the apartment with her—so presumably he’s killed himself and joined her in the afterlife) nor why the dwelling was barricaded from the outside when the story begins, or what exactly is going on in the last scene as Eva walks into the quiet apartment and sits in the living room, seen by us from a bit of a distance in a long shot.  Maybe this is all indicative of how we can know the “what” of a person’s life—Anne is dead, George is no longer around either—but not truly understand the inner “how” and “why” that define all of us, so why try to make it concrete by showing specific clarification scenes?  Just like in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941; you knew I’d eventually get back to my all-time favorite at some point, didn’t you?), we may have the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that can be connected to give an image of what someone seems to have been but even when the portrait is complete it’s just that, an image, a simulation of the real thing, just like these films that mean so much to so many of us.  No film could really get inside Anne’s full persona (another Bergman reference, if you get my meaning or wish to look it up: a good place to start would be Roger Ebert's comments [may take a minute to load] on this 1966 masterpiece, Persona, my all-time #2 after Kane, especially given that Ebert won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, including for his writings on Bergman [the first film critic to receive that honor]), nor Georges’ for that matter, but Amour takes you as close as possible in a work of public art to the threshold.  What’s inside is for all of us to find out, in our own manner, when the proper time has arrived.  (By the way, I haven’t even mentioned that this film is Austrian-produced but shot in French with subtitles; I’m hoping that anyone who’s willing to endure its difficult subject matter won’t care that they have to read at bit, even if you normally avoid such a choice.  And, relative to French connections Amour was the winner of the top-prize Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival in 2012 and seems to be a strong contender for the Foreign Language Film Oscar after winning the similar award at the Golden Globes so it comes with a fine pedigree if that’s any further enticement to allow its haunting presence into your life.)

Speaking of ranking films, now that I’ve had the chance to see Amour I can finally offer my Top 10 list for 2012, with the understanding that there were some likely worthy independent and foreign films that I didn’t have a chance to see, but based on dozens that I did view the best ones for me are:

1.  The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) A powerful story of 2 very troubled souls in much more than a simple denunciation of the strange tenets of Scientology.
2.  Amour (Michael Heneke) “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper” (borrowed from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, 1925).
3.  Lincoln (Steven Spielberg) History of the passage of the 13th Amendment, banishing slavery, comes alive through a compelling examination of partisan politics.
4.  Argo (Ben Affleck) Succeeds well in the tough assignment of keeping you riveted even when you know of the successful rescue of 6 American hostages from Iran in 1980.
5.  Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) The hunt for and death of Osama bin Laden, told in a gripping manner, denouncing torture tactics by the depiction of their brutality despite what you hear otherwise.
6.  Life of Pi (Ang Lee) A supposedly unfilmable story about survival in circumstances that offer no hope, leading to spiritual speculations seen through the “eye of the tiger.”
7.  Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) Another hard-to-watch French (and Belgian) film about a couple coming to grips with her mutilated body and their equally tortured souls.
8.  Footnote (Joseph Cedar) An Israeli film about conflicts between father and son scholars and the difficulty of making ethical decisions when faced with difficult choices.
9.  Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell) Successfully accomplishes the difficult task of shaping a romantic comedy around issues of death and mental illness.
10. Bernie (Richard Linklater) Aspects of death become comedic in this one also, based on the actual story of an East Texas funeral director and a freezer in the garage.

If I were giving out Oscars, Best Picture and Director would go to The Master and Anderson (largely because when considering everything in the list above, with my respect for the quality of all of them and others that I finally decided not to include such as Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild and William Friedkin‘s Killer Joe, I just couldn’t find another contender that kept me as pleasantly off-balance and as in awe of everything that was transpiring from scent to scene as did The Master, but, as is often the case with my pick for best of the year, it’s not even a contender for the Best Picture Oscar), Best Actor to Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Best Actress to Riva in Amour, Best Supporting Actor to Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, Best Supporting Actress to Helen Hunt in The Sessions (Ben Lewin), Best Original Screenplay to Anderson for The Master, and Best Adapted Screenplay to Chris Terrio for Argo, but actual Oscar winner predictions will be posted here in about a month (ceremony is on Sunday, Feb. 24).

One last noble effort from 2012 that deservedly got no Oscar nominations is Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, starring co-screenplay writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski.  This is a sincere effort to warn the public about an ongoing potential environmental catastrophe as huge conglomerates, such as this film’s Global Crosspower, attempt to get contracts from destitute farmers to allow fracking on their land, releasing valuable reserves of natural gas but possibly polluting the ground water and releasing poisonous aspects of the gas in the process.  Essentially, this message-heavy film utilizes 4 types of characters which propel the plot along to its anticipated closure but in a more heavy-handed manner than the production team intended, I’m sure.  One character type is personified by Steve Butler (Damon), a guy from a failed farming community who sincerely believes that life can’t be sustained from the land, that it needs a boost from our agricultural-industrial complex, with Global’s potential to rescue struggling working class folks as their only salvation.  He seems to recognize the hypocrisy in his approach as he comes to town in a suit and has to buy jeans and a flannel shirt at a local store (Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars, and Gas—fronted by an evolving sign that signifies the evolving necessities of the town) but we know that deep down he’s honest because of his well-worn work boots, bequeathed from his grandfather.  He may be a corporate dupe but ultimately he’ll wake up to his real destiny, speak truth to power, get fired from his just-promoted-to-VP-of-Land-Management-in-NYC job, and settle down in Arcadia (actually McKinley, somewhere in unspecified rural America but shot in Pennsylvania) with the real folks that he naturally relates to.

Many of those same locals mostly see Steve as a villain (another primary character type in this narrative), intruding on their homespun community (despite the reality that many of them tentatively sign the Global contracts allowing fracking on their land out of economic desperation), but as we later find out (this time I’m using Spoiler Alerts for your advantage, attempting to tell you everything you might want to know about this story, so just send me half of the saved 10 bucks and we’re all better off) the real cad here is the too-obviously-named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) who arrives from nowhere as an environmental activist determined to thwart Steve’s plans but whose sincere story about the loss of his family farm to fracking disasters is proved to be a hoax, thereby setting the locals up to support Global when the community vote of fracking acceptance or denial is finally taken after a 3-week hiatus that allows the various plot complications to get their due.  However, at the climax we learn that Dustin is a Global employee as well, an “insurance” agent sent in to clandestinely guarantee Global’s victory rather than trust Steve’s strategies, despite his previous string of sincerity-based successes.  Dustin’s about as reprehensible as you can get and his plot to be discredited would likely have worked had not Steve sacrificed everything by blowing the whistle on his own employer; we’ll have to assume that the good citizens of McKinley will vote to chase Global into “the briars and the brambles, the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go” (to steal a line from Johnny Horton’s The Battle of New Orleans; at if you’re interested in one of my nonsensical musical distractions), but we don’t know that for sure as Van Sant chooses to go with an officially-unresolved ending that implies our faith in the goodness of the working class without allowing us to know whether they really rejected Global or not.

Another character type in this film is represented by Steve’s partner, Sue Thompson (Frances McDormand), who maintains her loyalty to Global while Steve is losing his religion, even ratting him out to the company higher-ups when he reveals Dustin’s plot at one of the high school-gym town meetings where democracy still rules (the fact that everyone seems to be of the same race and temperament doesn’t hurt the easily-constructed community consensus, although some tension is raised throughout the film between those desperate to take the money and those who refuse to give over their ancestral land to a faceless, soulless corporation).  However, Sue’s no company shill, she just needs to be successful in her job so that she can provide support for her son back in Houston and not leave him to the full custody of his father (not clear if they’re separated/divorced but whatever these parents' status there seems to be no love lost between them).  Her facial expressions and body language indicate that she’s just as aware as the finally-enlightened Steve that Global is up to no good, except for good profits for the stockholders (as evidenced by the fact that Dustin’s photo of dead cows comes from a mishap in Louisiana, unlike the Nebraska that he has claimed, but that still doesn’t absolve Global from a mess in Louisiana, no matter what story the “unnoble” Dustin was spinning).  Sue is to be pitied because she just moves ahead to deal closures no matter the personal damage to the communities that she flies into and away  from (while buying her local costume, alongside Steve), even as she knows the damage she’s causing, but her actions aren’t inherently heinous, just self-protective for her and her son, which pays off in the end because she apparently is given the home office job that had been waiting for Steve once the McKinley hustle was complete.

Finally, in terms of this story’s character types we have the truly decent citizens of McKinley as personified by Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) who’s attractive, alluring, a socially-productive schoolteacher, yet a regular at the local bar, and just happens to have inherited a farm that will give her and Steve something to stabilize their lives and relationships into their golden, presumably Global-less years.  She’s joined in her native nobility by Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a fellow teacher (but one with an armload of higher-calling scientific credentials than just local respect) who first challenges Steve’s rosy picture of a no-backlash financial windfall for these wary tillers of the soil.  It’s surely no surprise that Steve finally renounces his unrealized evil masters and throws his lot in with the good citizens of McKinley, just as it’s no surprise that this film tries hard to make a point that you should always look a gift horse in the mouth and not be suckered in by promises of easy riches, especially if you’re destroying the future of the land and its settlers in the process.  Promised Land’s intentions are as pure as Alice and Frank, but its delivery and subtlety is as thick and difficult to penetrate as the shale that holds all of that precious natural gas underground.  There’s a sincere fight-for-the-future warning here from a group of filmmakers whose hearts are in the right place but whose intended nuanced message feels as if it were “made out of stone, or is it lime, or is it just solid rock” (from Bob Dylan’s “Temporary Like Achilles,“ on the 1966 Blonde on Blonde album if you need a little interlude here; the whole album is at but you have to listen or forward to 45:27 of 1:15:37 for “Achilles” or you can just listen to a version of it at where Shelby Early provides a bluesy but better cover than others that I sampled)Promised Land has great intentions, but you can soon feel the preaching coming at you from a mile away.  Better to spend your time researching the realities of fracking and deciding what’s appropriate for your community or state; Promised Land will just offer you a simple tale of unmitigated corporate greed that may be easy to reject from your theatre or living-room seat but will be hard to help you articulate a position when the drills arrive on your front lawn.

If you’d like to explore more about Amour (couldn’t resist the alliteration) here are some suggested links: (Seemingly this site allows you to watch the full version of this film—and many others—but you have to fill out surveys which will probably result in you having marketing friends for life trying to sell you a ridiculous array of products; if you’re willing to gamble on this, have at it, but I didn’t finish the survey steps.  Sorry to even consider steering you to something like this; however, Amour video options beyond the basic trailer were virtually non-existent.)

If you’d like to know more about Promised Land here are some suggested links: (short interview with actor and co-writer Matt Damon—sincere but not very eloquent)

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  1. Continued great work in capturing and providing essential elements, nuances, and references.

    I believe Promised Land reasonably portrays the opportunities provided by Hydraulic Fracking and a few of the concerns. Most people do not understand the technology or even the terminology but may have heard about the newly found oil and decent jobs. Unfortunately the film does not really improve our knowledge and is easily dismissed when presented through soap opera elements.

    This kind of "advanced" oil extraction in the US does have the potential to significantly reduce or eliminate imported oil dependence when combined with increasingly available alternative power options. Fracking adds wealth and jobs in our Central Texas area, facts that are emphasized almost daily through the local print and television media.

    In the San Antonio area fracking has creating a gigantic oil boom which is unlikely to go away unless a tragic loss of water resources occurs through overuse or contamination. Politics in Texas allows it full bore with minor oversight, which is really not that much different than the ruthless powerplays of 100 years ago as depicted well in 2007's There Will Be Blood. This film will never be compared to Anderson's masterpiece.

    While oil politics have changed and otherwise poor land owners are becoming millionaires overnight, the longterm threats this time are bigger than before. When you consider that many countries and US states do not allow hydraulic fracking at all, you realize something important is underlying the debate.

    An interesting link on the South Texas fracking and water issues is here.

    In my mind, Promised Land was a little too gentle in it's depictions of what actually happens when huge amounts of water, propane and chemicals are injected by force into and through vital ground water resources. The technology does "fracture" structures underground to allow trapped hydrocarbons to be produced. Some of these chemicals are labeled "trade secrets" so open disclosure is not always mandated without state specific regulations. Some of the results near San Antonio include earthquakes for the first time in anyone's memory.

    While the film's charismatic environmental activist "defeating" the big company and stealing the girl made for some interesting moments, the "company plant" twist seemed too unrealistic and simply cheapen the message. Overall my grade is C, passing but nothing to write home about. Perhaps this introduction to fracking will be followed by something with more substance.

  2. Hi rj, Excellent, informative comments. This is not a case of "I couldn't have said it better myself," it's a case of "I couldn't have said it at all," because except for the appropriate reference to There Will Be Blood I'm not nearly as informed on fracking as you are, so I really appreciate how you've meaningfully extended this review's dialogue, a consistent trait of yours.

    Thanks for the ongoing enhancements of the Two Guys' contributions to the world of cinema. Ken