Friday, April 23, 2010

It's the New Age, Stupid

Day 2 of Ebertfest found us awash in sunshine, which always creates a bit of a dilemma. We New Yorkers are apportioned three beautiful days a year (a fair exchange for living in my finely feathered city) so my first impulse on a beautiful day outside the city is always to gallop like a madwoman into the nearest Merchant-Ivory- style field.

I’m glad I didn’t. It’s always such a pleasure to watch movies here. As a critic, I’ve learned to use the term “screening,” rather than “go to the movies,” but the truth is that attending films held in small houses built solely for industry and press viewing is as dry as it sounds. No big screen, none of the optimism you find in an audience who only gets to see a few movies a season, and (arguably most problematically) no candy. Here at the Virginia Theater, it’s wonderful to just go to the movies again. To sit with a receptive group of people, ogling a big, big screen, and throw back Junior Mints one by one.

That said, this year’s docket of movies was some heavy pizza. Eavesdropping on a conversation yesterday (festivalgoers beware: this is my favorite occupation), I heard someone say that “each year always has a theme, whether or not Roger intended it.” Initially, viewing this year's selections, I figured Ebertfest 2010 addressed mortality plain and simple. But, really, this year’s crop –from Wednesday's The Wall to You, the Living (a Swedish poker-faced series of emotional tableaus) to Apocolypse Redux to yesterday's Munyurangabo (about two Rwandan boys' lackluster quest for vengeance)--is about the search for redemption, which is so often only inspired by the threat of death.

I thought about that especially while revisiting The New Age, a movie that is no less disturbing viewed 16 years after its 1994 release. Talk about time travel. A profoundly West-Coast film, it is about a Beverly Hills couple’s slide into social and financial oblivion. Along the way, it ogles the Southern California upper class’s various fetishes, from lo-fi takes on S&M and Eastern and Native American spiritual rituals to a compensatorily fierce passion for shopping, with a tone that is intriguingly, irritatingly uneven. Peter Weller stars as Peter Witner, a Hollywood agent whose boss passive-aggressively lays him off with the statement “People like to be around you, but you’re not a closer.” It is an excellent trick of the film that it goes along with Witner’s conceit that he actually quits, leaving his boss off the hook for any kind of severance package.

Peter’s wife, Katherine (Judy Davis), is in even worse straits. A graphic designer who’s got no work since her bank client has gone under (her rant on the topic is so chillingly prescient that the audience here burst into spontaneous applauce), she loses her chief motivation to ignore her husband’s philandering once she realizes he’s lost his job. Both of them are handsome if a little creased, fastidiously turned-out, and viciously self-aware about their own emptiness. Without their cabbage, they realize, they not only don’t know what to do with each other but themselves. Too broke and unimaginative to find separate lives, they embark upon a trial separation while living under the same roof and opening a new upscale boutique. These are people profoundly removed from their own emotional landscape.

What’s confusing about the film is whether it’s worth inhabiting that landscape for two hours. At times it’s as icy as its subjects and, though occasionally witty, it’s not actually funny--nor is it necessarily supposed to be. Too sympathetic to the characters’ dilemmas to condemn them with any glee, the film languishes instead in their overly groomed navels as Katherine and Peter trip through boutique spiritual rituals, boutique parties, boutique sex parties and even boutique deaths. As their business fails –unsurprisingly, since these are folks better at buying things than selling them—and as the couple’s pukey truce subsequently falls apart, Katherine cries out, “ I don’t feel anything!” The problem: it's hard to feel much about people who don't feel anything. Throughout the film, the two flirt with suicide but as they are more brittle than brave, even death looms as too much of a commitment.

I had a chance to ask writer/director Michael Tolkin about the challenges of working with unlikable protagonists when critics Elvis Mitchell, Jim Emerson, and I sat on a panel with him after the screening. His answer surprised me: “I didn’t find them unlikable.” He went on to discuss how painful he found aspects of the film today, that it was if he were reading a letter he’d sent himself 16 years ago. As I was sitting right next to him as he said these words, I was aware of how painful that letter might have been and felt a rush of empathy for him. What is powerful and undismissable about The New Age, I realized in that moment, is that it is not just about emptiness but a longing for completion.

He went on to describe the film as a kind of a documentary, as he had included many friends and colleagues who actually belonged to its mileus, and questioned aloud that decision. Acknowledging how little the money the film made, Tolkin said bluntly that more nudity might have helped it sell more. I wouldn’t blame him for being serious, and I am not sure he wasn't. But it is that kind of indeterminacy of conviction that made me feel for a minute that we were listening to one of The Player's writers after they'd thrown in the towel.

During our conversation, Tolkin referenced his novels more than this and his one other film, the equally complicated The Rapture, even saying outright that he thought he might be a better novelist than filmmaker. He might be right. His particular brand of ambivalence, as keenly observed as it is, works best on the page, where you don’t have to succumb so entirely to it. But to describe that gray area accurately takes more courage than his characters evinced, and it is this brave, accurate honesty that always intrigues me about his films. It is why I will be the first to see his next should he ever make one.

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