Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chaleur bleue

Blue is the Warmest Color is the film directed by Abellatif Kechiche, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh. I saw it last night at the State theater in Ann Arbor and was basically completely enthralled by it. While it has some questionable moments that may be style choices, overall it was an amazing portrayal of a rather simple story that many (if not all) viewers have gone through: the process of self-discovery and sexual awakening.

The main stylistic aspect of the film is the use of constant close-ups. Most of the time, the camera focus is mere inches from the actors' faces. I think Kechiche went in that direction because of the extreme intimacy of the story, but also because most of the action that you really want to see is happening on those faces. Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) reveal vast amounts of their thought processes simply with their eyes and the quirks of their lips. Nothing could be more revelatory than watching Adèle's eyes after her unsatisfying sexual encounter with a man. No dialogue or action could fill that moment better than the emptiness and longing in her gaze and Kechiche was smart enough to use that. Being so close to the actors makes it easier for the audience to both empathize and sympathize with their situations, since we've all been there; all faced those moments of passion, confusion, frustration, loss, bliss, and contentment. This is a technique that was used with the idea that the audience would be an active participant in the events on the screen, whether they know it or not.

It's fortunate, as well, that Kechiche found the actors that he did, as this movie is completely driven by their performances. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are magnetic, although I'll give the edge to Exarchopoulos, as the film's version of the story is more Adèle's tale than Emma's. Again, the story is relatively simple and the movie runs for over three hours. But there were only two moments in that span of time that I felt like we could move on and that only lightly. Otherwise, I was pretty much enraptured with events and constantly wanting to see what would happen next even when I knew what was coming. Again, I think what helped was the seeming familiarity of much of what was taking place on the screen. Having been in the moment when I was dumped or having had to tell someone that I was no longer interested, I could watch those emotions play out on their faces with the feeling that what I was seeing was real and not just a performance. I'd been there. I knew those feelings and they were occurring as if I was watching a friend go through it and not just an actor hitting her cue.

What makes it even more extraordinary is that Exarchopoulos is only 20 years old with a pretty thin body of work. Kechiche has to get some credit for extracting that performance from his two leads, but it apparently came at some cost, as both cast and crew objected to the extremely long hours that he required on set and both actors said that they would no longer work with him. Was it worth the pain and frustration for both of them to receive the Palm d'Or at Cannes, in addition to the director, for the first time ever? That's up to them to decide, but it's certainly a demonstration of just how heavily the film relies upon their excellent work. What makes Adèle stand out is the constant passion emerging from her. While Emma is the older character and plays her cards a little closer to the vest vis-a-vis her feelings, Adèle is on constant display all the time, even when she desperately tries to contain it later in the film. In that way, she plays a late-teens girl perfectly. But even later, as she matures, her intensity doesn't lessen and the love, confusion, and agony she feels blares from the screen. I'm not a huge fan of French cinema, as I find it relatively self-indulgent in a lot of ways (i.e. the director has a fetish that he's playing out, regardless of audience expectations or the needs of the story) but one thing that tends to emerge in most French films is passion and this film has that at every step.

No moment makes that more obvious than the scene in the park, shortly after the two have met. The sexual and personal tension present is enormous, as Adèle so obviously desires this woman and wants to fulfill this inner question that's been nagging at her for some time. Meanwhile, Emma, still a little cagey, wants to respond but is restrained by her natural reluctance and the fact that she's currently involved with someone else. And, yet again, we've all been there so this moment feels not only perfectly natural but like a reliving of moments in the past. That's great storytelling.

Interestingly, the story for the film is an extremely stripped-down version of that of the graphic novel. The latter is a kind of re-telling, in that Emma begins to read the diary of her partner, Clementine, after the latter has died. The events described by the diary are far more jarring and tragic than what happens in the film and, indeed, Maroh has said that she considers the film to be "another version... of the same story." Maroh also objected to the blue elephant in the room: the sex. The film is rated NC-17 in the US, which isn't surprising given the starkly different attitudes toward sex in American and French cultures. Consequently, you have American reviewers agog about the film itself, for the most part, but also cringing in true, Puritanical fashion over the lengthy scenes of two women making love. But Maroh also objected, comparing the scenes to porn and suggesting that the gay community in France found them "ridiculous" but later suggesting that it was a personal stance and that she would be interested to see how other women reacted.

Clearly, if you're making a film about sexual awakening and modern, sexual relationships, you're going to have sex on the screen, full stop. And, granted, hetero male here so watching two gorgeous women on screen, clearly enjoying themselves, is far from the worst way I could be spending my time. OTOH, one of my two questionable moments as an audience member was during one of those scenes because it was so lengthy (10 minutes.) Again, a movie about passion needs passion in it and the latter is an emotion best savored for as long as possible. I think this film does that. I just remember drifting a bit during that scene and thinking that it could have been curtailed just a bit given how much emotion and evidence of same had already been built up. It occurred to me at a couple other moments during the film that Hechiche might be a bit more pointed in his exposure of the audience to the story's overarching sexuality when he showed Adèle asleep or otherwise lying on her bed with her ass directly toward the camera. It's an open question whether this was an attempt at titillation or a constant reminder about the type of awakening taking place. In those respects, I can see where Maroh's comparison to porn comes from: it's seemingly gratuitous because it's not providing anything that the story needs that hasn't already been given. Or is it?

However, sex is also an expression of intimacy and part of the film's underpinning is not only the awakening of the desire to fulfill that intimacy in Adèle, but also how she shifts that into an essential part of her relationship with Emma. Despite viscerally objecting to her high school classmates' suspicion of her as a lesbian and being as guarded with her feelings and body as many other teen girls, she later takes to posing repeatedly for Emma's paintings, which will be publicly displayed and likely sold to other people. That's part of Adèle engaging herself to fulfill what her partner needs on a creative level and also her blossoming into someone that treats the human form and its physical activities as part of the natural world (i.e. very unAmerican.)

Unfortunately for her, that engagement also opens the door to a source of friction in their relationship, in that Adèle's feeling of fulfillment in simply being with Emma conflicts with the latter's more creative nature. Adèle only writes for herself and only in her diary but she has clearly shared this writing with Emma, who insists that it declares potential for Adèle to do something more. Her insistence is perceived as a slight and it creates a rift in their relationship because one has found fulfillment and the other is constantly striving for more and tends to lose respect for those around her that don't. I've been there. I've exposed people to that kind of remonstration and it had the predictable results, which is yet another point upon which I was really able to identify with this film. One opens oneself only to receive the barbs. Which is better: the turbulence of truth or the placidity of the illusion? Is it an illusion to simply be happy with what you have or is it an example of two people not truly in touch with each other?

The other slightly off moment was during the scene where Adèle has prepared a party for Emma's first show. There is a classic black-and-white film flickering by on a screen in the background, which uses brilliant juxtaposition for moments when Adèle's frustration and jealousy work in concert with the surprise and dismay of the nameless actress on the screen. But this scene was rather lengthy for what it conveyed, as well, and after a few minutes of driving home the negative impressions that Adèle was getting, I felt the urge to move on to something new. But those are two isolated moments in a 180-minute film that many people may not even notice. I do because I'm the damndest critic.

Of course, in a story of of self-discovery, you're almost naturally going to have hiccups. That's part of the process. There's an interesting moment where Adèle is striving to contain her emotions while on the job as a schoolteacher for very young children that you realize that this is still a somewhat-child teaching other children and it makes you realize just how traumatic her current circumstances are, as she went from confusion and feelings of isolation to bliss and then back to confusion and isolation. That's a difficult circumstance for anyone, but even moreso for one who can't rely on friends or family to understand her emotional problems if she feels that she can't reveal their source. The film does an excellent job of portraying the fact that, despite French society's more relaxed attitudes toward sex, its relationship with homosexuality is as complicated as that of many others.

Clearly, I loved it. It's one of the best films I've seen in many, many years and completely in spite of the story being so outwardly simple. I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Questions from the past

Going to be looking for work again soon, as the current employer apparently doesn't want to make it a permanent thing. Temping is the closest I've come to the experience of being a pro in my life. I've never partaken of one's services, although I've been approached. But working for a temp agency must be akin to being pimped, since the majority of the money you make goes to someone else and they have no real interest in your success or progression or even whether you do the job poorly. It's like wage slavery, but even further from a worthwhile living.

It got me to thinkin', though. I spent some time a few months back with a friend I hadn't seen in many years. I met him shortly after I graduated from Michigan and he was still a student at the time. Back then, I was still running RPGs (Nerd moment: Role-playing games aka Dungeons and Dragons, but not), most of which I designed myself, because it let me experiment with story and character and gave me an outlet for the acting gland, since I wasn't part of a regular theater group at that point. As the GM ("Gamemaster"), you have to play all the characters that the other players are interacting with, so it takes a bit of creativity and mental agility, both of which I used to have considerable amounts of. Anyway, there were 5 regular players in this group and me. My friend, Todd, was one of them.

Todd graduated from Michigan with a degree in accounting. Like many in the early 90s, he promptly went into programming, which he had been doing a fair amount of on the side, and has been a very successful programmer for many years now. He and his wife, Carolyn (an accountant for a car dealership chain in Canada) have a massive house on a lake out in Onsted and Todd works from home 4 days a week and is otherwise surrounded by house, cars, boat, side business of karting, and a trio of miniature Dobermans

Another member of that group was Adoni, who is currently a tenured professor of classics at Ohio State with multiple published volumes under his belt. He was hired by OSU with the mandate of building their classics department into something of renown and has done an admirable job of it from all the sources I've seen. He lives in Columbus with his wife, Carolina (also tenured at OSU), her son and their daughter.

Third was Greg, a successful architect in Ann Arbor (he was finishing his master's while we were haunting bars for a couple years) who lives in town with his wife, Terri, their two children, and a rambling red brick house.

Gamer #4 was Wendy. Unlike the rest, I knew Wendy while I was actually in school and we had stayed together after I graduated and I'd become pretty close with her sizable family (she has five siblings.) Wendy finished her undergrad, wobbled around for a year, and then returned to school for a master's in library science. She eventually became head librarian at the Texas Wesleyan School of Law and acquired a J. D. in the process.

Last was Kevin, Wendy's brother-in-law, who was married to Wendy's sister, Michelle, and had two kids with her while climbing to an executive position at a New Orleans chemical and plastics firm.

I remember stopping to think about all of that while hanging out with Todd because it kind of surprised me that the respective lifepaths of those 5 and I had gone in such different directions. All of them achieved model success in most or all of the measures that people use to assess modern life: money, career, family, property. Out of the whole group, the only one who hadn't succeeded in those respects was the leader: me.

So, I started to wonder: What was it that separated me from all of them? Ambition? Work ethic? Inherent talent? There's little doubt that all of them were talented in some way, if not multiple ways, and Adoni is easily the most intelligent person I've ever met in my life. I think I shared the ambition and work ethic that they displayed in trying to keep an independent comic studio running for years and then building a political party from the ground up and chairing it for some time; all of that while holding down a full-time job. I like to think that both of those require some degree of talent and, yet, all of them had found success and here I was, two steps removed from a drifter.

Was it bad choices? Clearly, venturing into the creative field and the political field outside of the major players could easily be seen as dead ends from the moment they've begun. And I had been married with a house at one point, but neither of them particularly resonated with me, as it were, and I abandoned them both while also walking away from the secure job that I'd had for years primarily because I had to pay the damn mortgage. Does staying in a dead marriage and a house you can't afford alone count as success?

So, after 43 years, I basically have nothing to show for it in the conventional estimations of society. Granted, my path hasn't been very conventional but that makes me very, very far from unique. Interestingly, shortly thereafter I got back together with another friend, Jeff, whom I'd seen briefly only twice in the past decade and who had been my partner in the comic studio. I spent a day over the weekend of the 4th of July with him and his family and it was easily the best day I'd had in years. Jeff and I finally had a chance to sit down and talk at length and I mentioned this comparison that I had been mulling over and he said a funny thing: "You know, I respect you more than anyone else I know. You've spent your life doing things that you're passionate about, no matter the material cost or sometimes the personal cost. I don't know anyone else like that."

I'm still not sure how to take that. Jeff is one of the few people in the world that I implicitly trust but I look back at the last decade and realize that I haven't done anything with passion for the vast majority of it. Indeed, my sole societal accomplishment, my marriage, failed because of a lack of passion, mostly on my part. I had tons of it for the studio, which failed, and the party, which failed, and I used to be a determined writer, which has yet to produce anything but failure. He reminded me of the time I drove to his home in White Lake from Ann Arbor in an ice storm because "it was Tuesday and that was the day we said we'd work." I suppose I'd still do that today if I thought I'd have someone at the end of that drive to welcome me in and pursue a dream with me.

I finished a book recently, Stay Awhile and Listen, which is about the development of Condor Studios, which developed the game, Diablo, in partnership with Blizzard (Yes, I know. It always comes back to games. Maybe that's why I never get anywhere...) The company had emerged in the early 90s, right around the time we were building the comic studio, and reading this account of it was so emotionally familiar it was almost painful. They talked about not thinking about money or success or pretty much anything else except making the coolest game they could come up with. They were doing it all with ad hoc approaches and technology and code that they were dreaming up on the spot because the video game industry was still in its infancy and no one was telling them that they couldn't. They didn't think of the conventional idea of success, either (except as much as they'd like to be able to pay the bills while still making games.) They had ambition, work ethic, and talent. That was us, 20+ years ago. That was me when things still seemed like they held promise, no matter how long I or we had to search for it.

That all went away as people moved into real life, as it were. Except me. I'm still here on the fringes and wondering how the so-called leader of so many things fell behind everyone else.