Art isn’t just some guy’s name

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We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?

MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.

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What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.

As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.

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In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.

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THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.

Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.

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I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.

But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.

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23 Responses to “Art isn’t just some guy’s name”

  1. Assuming you know about it, but on the off chance you don’t, my favorite Leigh, considerably ahead of TOPSY TURVY, which I like very much, is the short one-character film A SENSE OF HISTORY, in which Jim Broadbent (who also wrote the thing) is the 23rd Earl of Leet, and escorts us on a narrative tour of the estate, recounting his life there from early childhood. Don’t want to give anything away to anyone who may not have seen it, so I will forbear; but don’t miss it. It’s included as an extra in the Criterion (I believe) DVD of TT.

  2. I do like Broadbent. And I’d probably be more favourably inclined towatds any Leigh film he doesn’t claim to have written…

  3. I liked Mr. Turner a great deal, principally for the cinematography. Leigh assumes we’ve seen Turner paintings (a very astute and intelligent assumption) so when our anti-hero goes off into the wilds to paint we look at landscape up on the screen and — BAM! — there it is.

    Spall is an enormously compelling actor. Scarcely George Clooney in the looks department but always simpatico. I love his cuckolded taxi driver in Chereau’s Intimacy.

    You’re right about Monuments Men. It’s an interesting subject but George and his writing partner Heslov can’t find a way to dramatize it. I thought sure they were going to put Cate Blanchett in danger in the third act but they don’t even do that. As a director George is uneven. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck are superb. His others merely interesting. As a Movie Star Who Can Act no one can touch him — as is obvious from this great climactic scene


  4. I like Spall in Gothic.

  5. Oh yes. And above all The Sheltering Sky where he plays the cinema’s most compelling creep.

  6. Oh, but Ian MacNiece comes a close second in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

  7. Thanks!

    Yes, that’s rather good. One of the few times music has been able to play any coherent role in a Leigh film (I think because nostalgia and melancholy are more suited to musical accompaniment than the rather unnameable emotions of Naked or Life is Sweet), again it’s beautifully photographed, and Leigh’s tendency to be scathing about his characters is at least justified.

  8. henryholland666 Says:

    I wanted to love “Mr. Turner” as I’m a big fan of the paintings themselves, but alas. The main problem is that JMW Turner just wasn’t very interesting, his life largely consisted of painting, haggling about money and sex. The “dramatic” scenes in the movie seem very tacked on, as if the creators thought during filming “Dammit, we have to show something more than this fat man standing somewhere painting!!!”. It’s also 1/2 hour too long.

    The Getty Center had a Turner exhibit recently, the paintings really are interesting to look at in person. The Getty was also running a WWI propaganda exhibit, it was an enjoyable day at the museum.

    I was interested in “The Monuments Men” because of the cast and because I find the story of Nazi art looting interesting, but the reviews I read when it was released were along the same line as yours, so I passed. It’ll show up on free cable at some point, I’ll give it a try then.

  9. It’s worth seeing. Quite painless until you think about what it could and should have been.

    I slightly wonder if Mr Turner is a self-portrait by Leigh, and if that helps anything. Probably it makes it worse.

  10. kevin mummery Says:

    I had the good fortune to see “Monuments Men” on DVD a week before seeing Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer’s “The Train” on Turner Classic Movies, and it was interesting to compare the two very similar films. Frankenheimer’s film is pretty much ALL dramatic tension; Clooney’s film somehow manages to squander what little dramatic tension it generates, the few times any is generated…and yet it’s not a bad movie at all. Just suffers from comparison to a great movie.

  11. Frankenheimer’s movie also has an interesting slant on the art/war theme — the hero doesn’t care about the paintings at all, and the Nazi officer does. This kind of complicated, incorrect approach would be quite beyond the Clooney vehicle, where we’re constantly being told how important art is.

  12. henryholland666 Says:

    “Frankenheimer’s film is pretty much ALL dramatic tension”

    A little Googling reveals that Arthur Penn developed the movie but was fired very early on. Apparently in Penn’s version, the train doesn’t even leave the station until well in to the film, it was supposed to be a meditation on art and how that affects Burt Lancaster’s character. Lancaster was having none of that artsy nonsense, he wanted a mass-appeal hit, so he brought in Frankenheimer to make a straight-up action picture, a very good one as it turns out.

    I watched Penn’s “The Chase” the other night. It’s good, but reading about that, Penn’s ideas were messed with in the editing process. Brando didn’t like the movie at all (and his pronunciation of Redford’s character name of “Bubbah” as “Bubber” is annoying), it’s odd seeing Edward Fox playing a Texan too (the part was offered to Peter O’Toole of all people, he turned it down flat). It’s funny how Robert Redford’s hair is perfect during the scene in the junkyard after his character has spent the previous part of the movie in swamps etc.

  13. The gulf between the received wisdom about Leigh’s work and its reality baffles me – the sympathetic, naturalistic chronicler of nuanced home truths he is canonised as, versus the shrill, caricatured, structureless reality. He’s an actor’s director in so far as I’m sure all his actors absolutely love the opportunity to take the bull by the horns and run riot, but, Christ, some of those results. Jane Horrocks in Life is Sweet is comparable to Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange.

  14. I’ve been meaning to revisit The Chase. Found it unwatchable on TV as a kid but a proper widescreen showing in adulthood may reveal a bit more interest. I recall some truly egregious soft-focus on Fonda (who scarcely needed it).

    One can’t help question Mike Leigh’s process sometimes, partly because one is told so much about it. When a months-long process of improvisation produces a stereotyped banker villain of the kind you would come up with if given five minutes with pencil and paper, you do wonder what the point is.

    If you’re in the UK you can get Leigh’s appearance on Desert Island Discs on the BBC i-player, a normally cosy programme in which the host Sue Lawley unexpectedly asks ALL the difficult questions you’ve always wanted to put to the Gnome of Salford.

  15. Sue Lawley obviously isn’t a fan!

    I was a bit disappointed by Mr. Turner too, but I intend to give it another go. I remember being disappointed by Topsy Turvy and it’s now maybe my favourite Mike Leigh film.

    But I say all this as a proper fan. My tortoise was called Beverly because of Abigail’s Party.

  16. Favourite bits: Leigh is asked about his skewering of pretension and he claims it’s sort-of affectionate, because “we’re all pretentious, we’re all ridiculous.” Then he’s asked about his middle-class upbringing. “Were your family pretentious?” “No, I don’t think so.”

  17. Many thanks for that Desert Island Discs tip-off! I was pleased Lawley tried to go into who actually comes up with the dialogue, even if he dodged the question, because rather often with Leigh it seems to descend into a gauntlet of shopworn idioms, rather than anything resembling actual speech (even banal speech). It often seems vaguely satirical, but not in a generous, we’re-all-in-this-together way.

  18. henryholland666 Says:

    “I recall some truly egregious soft-focus on Fonda (who scarcely needed it)”

    Also egregious: the ass-kicking Brando’s character gets in the police station; the scene at the drunken party which goes on foreeeeeever; the absurd “The rich guy is totally evil, like SATAN EVIL!!! but we should feel sorry for him because the son he’s belittled throughout the entire film dies at the end” aspect to E.G. Marshall’s character; the sledgehammer upside the head when Redford is shot, drawing the parallel between that and Lee Harvey Oswald getting whacked by Jack Ruby.

    The John Barry score is good though.

  19. Brando, as always, had ideas about how to portray the violence his character suffers — he suggested Penn shoot very slow punches that actually connected, and run the cameras slow to make them seem fast and brutal. I can’t recall if Penn did so.

  20. Is the Michael Clayton scene thoughtfully shared by David E. in the top ten comeuppances in film? Right now, I’m trying to think of a better one (it’s a rich field). It’s certainly one of the great ones.

  21. Magnificent Ambersons and Manon de Source are good ones, where the longed-for comeuppance becomes tragic in its excess.

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