FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK FEBRUARY 8, 2012
Where is Frederick Wiseman taking us now? Beginning in 1967, when our pre-eminent maker of documentaries brought us into a hospital for the criminally insane in Titicut Follies, Wiseman has shown us American lives in—among many other places—high schools, a hospital, a monastery, a welfare agency. Lately he has been drawn to France, to some Parisian institutions: the Comédie-Française and the ballet of the Paris Opera. Now, he visits a prominent Paris cabaret, Le Crazy Horse, renowned for its spiffy nude shows.
The film begins mildly enough, with some hands-aspuppets tricks in shadows behind a sheet. Soon these shadows are replaced by outlines of the main subject: women’s bodies. Even after the sheet goes, the subject really remains women’s bodies—not women, not individuals. Most of the time the showgirls, whether onstage or off, wear nothing but shoes and the smallest possible G-strings. Bosoms and behinds are the currency of the place. In fact, in many of the show numbers that follow, Wiseman even frames his shots to leave out the girls’ heads. This seems about right for a place whose professed aim is to present the best chic nude show in the world.
Wiseman seems to have two aims. By filming meetings with the two male directors of the shows, who are more serious and weighty about their work than I can imagine Balanchine being about his productions, Wiseman lets the cabaret satirize itself, especially since the staff women who are there—costumers, etc.—are equally grave. Wiseman’s other aim—it doesn’t even have to be an aim; it’s unavoidable—is to reap the visual benefits of all that nudity. Wiseman surely knows that, satire or not, he too is presenting a chic nude show.
The directors rehearse and revise dance numbers. Those numbers are smartly lighted; the choreography, to misuse the term, is ultimately pitiful. After the first hour or so of this 134-minute film, we can only feel compassion for the directors who have to find still more variations on female sinuosity. There are limits, as many artists and non-artists have found, to the human imagination about sex; and python-like as some of the numbers are, they get repetitious.
This leads to a recurrent flaw in Wiseman’s work. Technically, in shooting and editing, it is fine, but occasionally, when he falls for a subject, his own enthusiasm can outlast his viewers’ appetite. Crazy Horse could be condensed to its advantage.
At the end, after we have learned from one of the show’s directors (to our non-surprise) that the object of their show is to feed the desire without fulfilling it, the film closes with more of the shadow hand-puppetry with which it began. Is that really the way the cabaret show ended? Or is this sanitized framework for the film a trace of American puritanism, opening and closing shots of sheer innocence? The thought certainly occurs.
BACK TO AMERICA and American women. Nowadays women as well as men return from war, and a film called Return is about one of them. The writer-director is Liza Johnson, an artist, making her first picture and doing it with considerable grace. She has chosen an instance that calls for subtlety, not a veteran who has seen combat and pain: this is a woman whose overseas experience has been an environmental jar rather than a plunge into horror. She worked in a supply depot. But that was enough: change happened. With the aid of a comprehending actress, Linda Cardellini, Johnson has fashioned a film that, despite its small scale, has a consistent—and perhaps large-scale—pertinence.
Kelli (Cardellini’s role), a woman near thirty, comes back to her husband and two daughters and their small-town home after a year overseas. There is no sense of strangeness in this reversal of roles—instead of the husband, the wife returns: that’s all. They behave, at first anyway, as if she had just been visiting somewhere. Her husband, Mike, and the children very quickly re-fashion a fabric of warm domesticity with her. In fact, one asset of the picture is Johnson’s creation of domesticity, both a value in itself and a base from which the story moves.
Things, commonplace things, begin to look and sound different to Kelli. Her women friends are just as pleasant as ever, but their talk now sounds foolish to her. Her job in a warehouse, which was waiting for her, seems stupid and dull. Then, in a particularly well-done moment, a newcomer to the town, a pretty young woman, welcomes her back with an effusion that causes a spark of uneasiness in Kelli. She soon discovers that her husband and this woman have had an affair while she was away. Readjustment is needed. More, too: she realizes that she is drinking more than she used to in this town, and her language has become saltier. It is as if Kelli no longer quite fits the role that she used to play here. To all these factors there are consequences.
Johnson is not telling us that Kelli’s discomforts are inevitable for a returnee; she is drawing our attention to the less immediately harsh yet abrasive readjustments that may bother a female veteran, after experience that makes her discontent with what once contented her, including herself.
Cardellini gives Kelli the emotional verities she needs along the way and also makes us believe that Kelli actually thinks. Michael Shannon as Mike has just the right maleness to verify his affection and a surprising deep-seated pride. Johnson’s first film is a nicely crafted small stinger.
IRAN IS ONE MORE country of cinematic surprise. In the past, we have had unexpected free-thought films from Franco’s Spain and Mao’s China, for instance; from Iran in the 1990s we had films from Abbas Kiarostami and others that, in their meditative mood and humanist temper, were the opposite of the public image that Iran creates. Now from Iran comes The Hunter by Rafi Pitts, which is surprising politically.
Pitts—Iranian by birth, British by education, French by film experience—has been making pictures for some twenty years. The Hunter is his fourth feature and shows at least something of his background. It certainly shows intimacy with the Tehran in which it is mostly set, but it also has a touch of British stubborn individuality, and it reflects the dark interiority of so many French films. Out of all these sources comes presumably its political dissent, close-mouthed but potent.
Ali, who is about thirty, lives in a tiny honeycomb apartment with his wife, Sara, and their six-year-old daughter, Saba. He is a security guard at a huge automobile factory. Recurrently through the picture we glimpse Tehran’s auto traffic—Californian in glut—with which Ali has a connection even though it is slim. We learn early on that he has been in prison, but we are never told why. Sara at one point says only that Ali once made a mistake; and from his behavior, even his fate, we can believe that he was jailed for political reasons.
He works the night shift at the factory, and by day he has a different persona. He drives out into the mountainous woods near Tehran with a formidable rifle and sits there, loading and fussing with it. He never really hunts anything. We see him take a couple of careful shots at last, but he clearly was not aiming at any animal. Just practicing.
Strikingly, Ali’s curious existence is surrounded by politics. The opening of the picture is a view of motorcyclists riding over an American flag. Then Ali’s taciturn being is surrounded by the uproar about an upcoming election on his car radio, in bars. His oddly isolated existence, though he is affectionate with his family, is shattered when he comes home from the woods one day and learns, in a painfully distended way, that both Sara and Saba have been killed in crossfire between insurgents and police. A police official tells him that only autopsy will reveal whose bullets actually killed them, but the manner of the police convinces him that they already know and are concealing it.
Now the hunter has his quarry. In his quietly strange way that now becomes quietly deranged, he shoots two policemen in a patrol car and flees. He is quite soon captured, and here the film deliberately changes character. It becomes chiefly a drama between the two cops who nab him, especially since they catch him deep in the woods and all of them are soon lost. The film ironically posits the policemen’s characters against Ali’s.
Throughout, the film assures us with its terse editing and fine camera work—the wintry woods look like groves of ghosts—that it is the product of a supervising intelligence doing what it means to do, even when it surprises us. Its mostly observant temper keeps us from being greatly moved, but it holds us with its acute, almost laboratory dissection of its people’s beings.
Pitts himself plays Ali and has the right face, vulpine and shadowy, for the part; not much more is required of him in a role that is close-mouthed. He seems exactly a man who has been born into the wrong time, if not the wrong place, and must just grimly follow his life along on its way. It is late in Pitts’s career to welcome him, as film-maker and actor, but it is apt.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.