Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Engaged or Entertained?

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  In a Village Voice interview recently, distributor Wendy Lidell devised a simple distinction between movies and films. "[T]o me, going to see a movie and a film are completely different experiences," she said. "Going to see a film is more like going to an art museum, where I'm going to be engaged and provoked but maybe not entertained."

That distinction is useful from a consumer's standpoint. If you've had a hard day at work, you might not want to tackle the cinematic equivalent of Ulysses. But Lidell's distinction between movies and films breaks down some if your idea of entertainment is being engaged and provoked. Perhaps there's a more meaningful difference--between movies that function as an escape from the world, and movies that serve as a vehicle for exploring it.

By most people's definition, Aleksandr Sokurov's 1997 feature Mother and Son (which Lidell's former company International Film Circuit distributes) is probably the polar opposite of entertainment: a plotless, almost wordless Russian drama about a son's last few moments with his dying mother. I'd be lying if I didn't say that the first time I watched it (on tape), I was exasperated by its painful slowness and its lack of narrative momentum. And yet, on a second viewing, it affected me so much I'm almost afraid to see it again. If you watch movies to be engaged and provoked--or simply to see the world in an unfamiliar and revelatory way--Mother and Son is nothing less than astonishing.

Sokurov explores the bond between mother and son, and the agony of impending loss, through a series of scenes that are nearly (but never quite) still-lifes. In a reversal of the parent-child relationship, the son (Aleksei Ananishnov) cradles his pale mother (Gudrun Geyer), combing her hair and carrying her outside for a last look. Clutching her to his chest, he trudges through a succession of stormy landscapes and birch groves.

These events are captured by an elaborate filming technique that distorts and refracts the image through mirrors and glass filters. At times the process gives an odd horizontal slant to the objects onscreen, as if the characters and the landscape were buckling under the gravity of grief. At other times, it creates pictorial effects of breathtaking stillness and solemnity. Sokurov has cited the 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich as an inspiration, and the influence is evident in his awe-inspiring gray mistscapes. Against these panoramas of undulating wheat and gnarled, elongated trees, mother and son are frequently reduced to a single inextricable speck.

The movie's less than 75 minutes long; even so, its running time feels like several hours instead of one. But the weight of time is central to Sokurov's depiction of loss. You're always aware of the slow passage of each moment and an accompanying pang of regret as one more moment passes--an apt way to evoke watching a loved one wither. Like the mother, the movie makes demands upon your patience; like the mother, the movie comes across as a living thing perched between death and transcendence. When the end comes for both, there is a howl of anguish for which nothing can prepare you; then darkness, silence.

In its insistence on forcing you to work through your own responses, both to Sokurov's rigorously controlled filmmaking and to the common plight of all parents and children confronting mortality, Mother and Son is certainly engaging and provocative. For those reasons, you can say it offers entertainment. What it doesn't offer is escape. --Jim Ridley


Twice-boiled

The other day, I was talking to a colleague about the concept of the "kickstand." Basically, a "kickstand" is when a filmmaker props up his movie on the reputation of another, similar movie, directly naming the influence so as to avoid being accused of ripping it off. Writer-director Ben Younger may have poise and confidence, and his debut film Boiler Room may be chock-full of hard-boiled attitude, but he's not so tough that he can't employ a kickstand. In fact, he employs two.

Early in Boiler Room, the film's narrator--a college-dropout-cum-stockbroker-trainee named Seth, played by Giovanni Ribisi--is being schooled in how to close a deal over the phone by his supervisor Greg, played by Nicky Katt. Before Greg launches into his "Always Be Closing" spiel (which Younger lifted from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross), he says to Seth, "You've seen Glengarry Glen Ross, right?" Kickstand one. A few scenes later, Seth is hanging out with Greg and his other superiors at the brokerage firm of JT Marlin--including Ben Affleck as the firm's recruiter and Vin Diesel as top salesman Chris--and just when the "greed is good" vibe can't seem any more reminiscent of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Younger has the characters actually watch Wall Street and recite Michael Douglas' lines right along with him. Kickstand two.

Presto--any complaint that Younger's film is just a mishmash of Mamet and Stone has been answered. And the answer is...sure it is. Luckily, Younger has a little to add to the licks he's copped. Boiler Room is about that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? feeling currently fouling the air. When the film opens, Seth is running speakeasy blackjack tables out of his house. An old friend comes to the game with Greg, and the two of them encourage Seth to interview at JT Marlin; he agrees, as impressed by their hot cars as the idea of honest work.

And as it happens, the work at JT Marlin is not that honest anyway. Seth soon learns that the brokerage runs on the hot air of ballsy blowhards, who misrepresent themselves and the stocks they sell to unsuspecting rubes. In voice-over, Seth compares the trading of worthless stocks to the sale of crack cocaine, a metaphor that Younger pushes through the use of gangsta rap on the soundtrack and the street slang employed by the brokers.

Given our current national obsession with wealth, it would be tempting to say that Younger has his finger on the pulse of contemporary society, particularly the young and greedy. This would be a mistake. The references to hip-hop culture and gambling are clever and relevant, but otherwise Boiler Room lacks any real insight into the modern world. It's mostly about the chatter.

The real power generator for Boiler Room is the hungry cast, whose members rip into Younger's "Corinthian Mamet" dialogue with gripping intensity. Even Affleck seems to be having a gas firing up his broker posse. The enthusiasm is infectious. Still, the more Younger shows his baby brokers haranguing would-be customers over the phone, the more apparent it becomes that in the real world, even the most desperate investor would hang up on these abusive clowns.

In one of the film's cornerstone moments, Affleck explains that JT Marlin's motto is "Act as if," which means that if his protgs act as if they're real wheelers and dealers, they'll convince their clients and themselves. Ben Younger "acts as if" he's a big-shot filmmaker with decades of experience, and though what he's selling is phony, the pitch is, for a while, quite convincing. --Noel Murray


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