Mondays with Schobie: Dangerous minds
It might seem that I can't leave TIFF behind and, well, you're probably right. Let's revisit one of this past festival's most talked-about films.
• It might seem odd to say a career highlight took place in a movie theater, but it’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been covering the Toronto International Film Festival for the last five years with cohort (and Spree online film reviewer) Jared Mobarak, and there have been some amazing moments: Stumbling upon Jason Reitman shortly after seeing Juno; the intense, still unsettling trio of 2009 classics: The White Ribbon, Antichrist, and Enter the Void; the always joyful “Midnight Madness” experience; shaking Don Draper’s hand, then interviewing the bodacious Megan Fox in the next hotel room.
But on the first Friday of the 2011 fest, I had the opportunity to attend the press screening of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. This had special meaning for me. As I so nicely put it in the October Spree (I have no problem quoting myself), “I was likely the only thirteen-year-old in North America (or at least in Erie County) who had an autographed picture of the Fly and Naked Lunch director on his bedroom wall as a budding cinema freak, and that made seeing a new Cronen the Barbarian film months before release a delight.”
I suppose the only way it could have gone better would have been to spot the director at the screening, or score an interview (my request was unsurprisingly turned down). But to be there, in that environment, watch a new Cronenberg release ... It was something that truly thrilled me.
As the film about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, a “disturbed” patient, and the birth of psychoanalysis unspooled, I found myself riveted. This was a story I did not know, and the acting, from Michael Fassbender, a wildly underrated Keira Knightley, and, most of all, Viggo Mortensen, was stellar.
But after its chilling final shot and end note, it was clear that the response, among most, was “Meh.” As I walked out, a couple in front of me loudly proclaimed that it was “a major disappointment,” and “worse than Masterpiece Theater.” The main criticism, it seemed, was that the stage adaptation was too “stage-y.”
While I would not place the film among my personal Cronenberg favorites (Dead Ringers, Crash, Eastern Promises), the reactions I heard seemed utterly at odds with my own, and that intrigued me. How could one not find this all utterly fascinating.
One of the folks who “got it” is the great Glenn Kenny. The former film critic for the sadly defunct Premiere magazine (and costar of Soderbergh’s Girlfriend Experience), Kenny writes: “It seems as if every time a film is adapted from a stage play it gives unimaginative and unobservant critics an opportunity to not look at what's actually in front of them and to reflexively condemn the resultant work as being "closed off" or 'closed in' or 'not cinematic.’” And, of course, this was one of the major criticisms of Cronenberg’s film. But as Kenny illustrates, the film has a visual power the stage play could never have pulled off, chiefly a sequence when Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) interviews his new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley):
“The crucial section of the scene consists of three shots. The first is a very properly—classically, you might say—composed medium shot in which we see Fassbender and Knightley from the waist up. Fassbender's sitting very still, but Knightley's Sabina is knotting up as she speaks; she's a collection of tics, she keeps setting and resetting her jaw and intertwining her arms and leaning forward as she speaks, and her behavior winds the still shot up, gives it a building tension; and Cronenberg holds the shot for a long time. He then cuts to a tighter medium shot isolating Fassbender, who's still unmoving, but is looking rather fervently forward and to the right of the frame (his left) at Knightley's back. We cannot read his expression with anything like certitude, but it's clear he's highly engaged. Cronenberg then cuts back to the prior two-shot, and after holding it long enough to sufficiently re-ground the viewer in it, starts to move the camera, slowly, to the right and forward simultaneously, until Fassbender's out of the shot and Knightley's isolated in it. The camera is, in effect, following Jung's wishes, seeing her the way he wants to see her; if not yet wanting her, utterly fascinated with her.”
As Kenny asks, if this isn’t visual storytelling … then what is?
I think the response to the film, on some level, was anti-intellectual. It was too smart. And perhaps because the director of Crash was the man behind the camera, audiences and critics expected something more explicitly sexual. But watch the film on DVD or Blu-ray (it will be released on March 27), and you’ll see that it reeks of sexuality—and intelligence.
A Dangerous Method, then, is something truly rare—intellectual cinema. Thank goodness for that.
• One of the films Method most calls to mind is one I just watched, Possession—no, not the Gwyneth Paltrow flick, but the shocking, unhinged, extremely disturbing 1981 Isabelle Adjani-Sam Neill film directed by Andrzej Zulawski. Adjani and Knightley give similar performances, at times, although as anyone who has seen Possession can attest, Adjani’s character moves into other, stranger realms very quickly.
As Artforum points out, “A perfect match to the destabilizing urges under fresh study in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, this is mania without analysis.” I would recommend watching the two together, but it might not be easy. Turner Classic Movies aired Possession a few weeks ago, but it’s not currently available as a Region 1 DVD in America. It IS lurking in full on YouTube, though …
And check out this strange, haunting, semi-NSFW poster art.
• In part two of his “What is cinematic?” debate, Kenny discussed Roman Polanski’s Carnage, another film based on a successful stage play that fell victim to the “it’s too stage-y” criticism. This one did feel a bit claustrophobic to me, but that’s the point. It does, after all, take place entirely in one location, a Brooklyn apartment. In the film, two couples face off after an incident involving their children at the playground, and the feeling of being unable to extricate oneself from a long, difficult conversation is perfectly dramatized. One location helps, stage-y or not. (Kenny called it “an absolutely virtuoso piece of cinema craft.”)
Does it feel a bit … slight? Perhaps. My own initial take was a bit mixed, although much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. But I have a feeling it will play far better at home than in a movie theater. Check for yourself when the DVD/Blu-ray is released on March 20.
• Lastly, and on a completely different topic, Hilbert College’s Social Media 2012 conference, sponsored by the school’s Department of Digital Media and Communication, took place last Tuesday, and by all accounts it was a smashing success. (I was unable to attend, but listened to the stream on Facebook.)
The conference is archived, in full, here, and it is well worth your time. Speakers included Spree contributor Kevin Purdy and Buffalo State College professor Ramona SantaMaria, and topics such as the use of trademarks and copyrighted materials in social media were discussed. Congrats to Hilbert's Chris Gallant for making it all happen.