The American (2010); Dir. Anton Corbijn

Despite the poster which seems to promise an action-packed summer thriller of the international-spy-assassin variety, The American is very quiet. Silence echoes through the film. It reverberates. The American is interested in how things operate: how people operate, how deals are made, how relationships develop, how guns are assembled, how small towns have their own rhythms. Because it is so interested in these things, the film takes time to linger. It does not rush. It stays put, a very bold move in today’s fast-paced world, especially in a summer thriller starring one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The film has a very specific eye. The plot is minimal. There are very few action scenes, and even then, there is a quietness to them, an inevitability, that gives them a greater impact than any shoot-out hi-speed chase ever could. For the most part, we get Clooney, alone, thinking. This is not thinking of the kind we normally see in thrillers, where the hero is forced to think quickly, under the gun, making split decisions as he runs down some narrow alleyway in Budapest or Amman. Here we see real thought. A man contemplating himself, his situation, his woman, his job. There isn’t a lot of dialogue. Things are not explained. The film lets us sit in the uncertainty. What exactly is he thinking about? Where is this guy coming from? Well, who knows, we never get a clear answer, even his name is uncertain, but it sure is interesting to watch.

The opening-credits sequence comes about 15 minutes into the film, and it was there that I settled in and maybe even you could say I fell in love. I had a visceral sensation of Ahhhhh during that sequence which involves Clooney, in dark silhouette, at the wheel of a car, careening through a dark tunnel, with dim yellow lamps lighting his way ahead.

The credits sequence isn’t flashy. There are two shots all told: Clooney in profile, and the view of the tunnel ahead, with the names and credits showing up in simple white print. The tunnel goes on forever. In the film up to that point, all we have seen is that Clooney is some sort of agent for the United States government, and he is being tracked by angry Swedish assassins. He has killed some people. He was surprised by what happened, and he has to flee the scene, after making a quick call to his boss (the marvelous craggy-faced Johan Leysen). We know nothing else. Now we see him careening through a long dark tunnel. The camera stays on him. The music (wonderful score by Herbert Grönemeyer) is melancholy, haunting. It’s one of those examples of a moment in a film, early on, where the audience knows exactly what they are about to see, the mood, the tempo, the feel set up … all done with such a sure and artistic hand that you stop worrying. I worry a lot when I see movies. I have high hopes for every single movie I see. I want them all to be fantastic. It’s part of the fun of going to the movies. It’s a roller-coaster. It’s fun to think to myself, “Hm, that doesn’t work. Now why is that?” as much of a disappointment as it usually is. But with The American I stopped worrying almost immediately. It was a visceral moment, as I mentioned. An almost satiated feeling of satisfaction. And this was 15 minutes in.

Could the movie sustain that?

It can. And it does.

Director Anton Corbijn creates a truly paranoiac atmosphere while, at the same time, keeping a light-hand, not rushing the pace, not insisting on anything but the everyday observations of the moment-to-moment. George Clooney plays an American named Edward, or maybe it’s Jack, who holes himself up in a small Italian village, waiting for instructions for his last job, his final job. “I’m getting out.” The job in Sweden got too personal. Someone died who shouldn’t have died. He made a personal connection with someone, when he knows that that is detrimental to his job. He’s lost his edge. He is sick of living under discipline. He throws out the cell phone given to him by his boss, and instead drives to the next village to use a pay phone to call in for instructions. In the meantime, his life slows down to almost a halt. He lives in a bare-bones second-floor room. We see him doing situps, pullups, his body adorned with tattooes. He walks around the town. He makes regular visits to the local whorehouse, where he is a regular client of a prostitute named Clara (played by Violante Placido, she of the wonderfully malleable and expressive face). If Clara is not working, he doesn’t go with another girl. He leaves. This is an eloquent detail, essential to the emotional center of the film. We come to our own conclusions. He befriends the local priest (played by Paolo Bonacelli, a wonderful Italian actor), and they share meals and brandy. Their conversations contain worlds that are left unsaid. Edward/Jack knows he probably shouldn’t befriend this man. Anyone who gets close to him is in danger. But what is the harm of talking with a nice elderly man who lives just around the corner? The priest worries about the American. He senses something, something existential and tragic. “A man can be reached if he has God in his heart,” says the priest. Jack replies, “I don’t think God is interested in me, Father.”

These conversations unfold with the pace of people who have a lot of time. This is an illusion, and time is clearly running out for The American, but this moment in his life, this stay in the small village on the hill, is a respite. A deep breath before the final plunge. Doom and fear hang over him like a pall. He wakes up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat, reaching for his gun, although no one is there. He works out like a man wanting to lose himself. His heart is not in it anymore. He works on his own time. He calls his boss when he feels like it (causing much anger on the other end). There is urgency in the world, yes. There are matters that need tending to, and now. But the American has opted out, for the moment. Perhaps he senses that tragic existential something too.

What is this final job? He is hired to create a perfect gun for another assassin (Mathilde, played by the coolly beautiful Thekla Reuten). She is mysterious. They meet surreptitiously in public, and talk about the gun she wants, its range, its speed, its sound. It must be built, this gun. An automatic rifle that can fit in a small bag. Jack gets to work. The sequences of his building this gun, with parts imported and parts found in a local “car doctor’s shop”, are riveting. Clooney sits at his table, parts spread out, filing things down, testing how they fit together, banging things with a mallet (timed with the church bells so that no one will hear), and again, the film does not rush this. The cuts are not quick or feverish. Corbijn is not trying to have an effect, although the end result is extremely effective. What we see is a man at work. Surrounded by isolation and quiet. We hear the clanking of the metal, the slight ominous clicks of the gauges, the tiny little sounds that make up an operation such as this one. The music is held back. The score is used to great purpose. When you hear music in The American, it really means something. Other than that, we hear natural sounds, what we would hear if we were really there. The clicks, rattles, sawing, clanks, click-click-click, and over all of that is Clooney’s face, lost in focus and concentration. He knows who he is in this moment. He knows his place in the world. His dread at who he has become, and what he has done, all of his sins, is present at all times … although soft-pedaled, by Clooney and Corbijn. By soft-pedaled I mean, except for a couple of lines (“I want to get out”, “I’ve sinned a lot, Father”), Jack does not wear his dread on his sleeve. He is coiled shut. He is inaccessible. This is the job for a movie star, full-stop, a man who knows how to act in close-up, and Clooney is fantastic throughout. He offers himself to us, because that is the job of a movie star, but he holds himself back, as people do in real life. He is a closed book. We, out there in the dark, project things up onto him: feelings, a past, motivations, and Clooney’s face allows that. He knows exactly what he is doing as an actor here. This is a star part. An old-school studio-system star part, and that’s one of the reasons I love the film so much, because it is so rooted in what the studio system once did so well. It created vehicles for the giant personalities it had under contract. It played to their strengths. It allowed the stars to shine at a wattage unheard-of today. Jack is a man not comfortable with what he does. He wouldn’t call himself a romantic, I don’t imagine that he would allow himself such introspection, but that is what I see in him. That is his secret, hidden even from himself, although he is starting to get the picture. A man in love, connected to others, in a casual everyday way (being a neighbor, a friend, a husband) is what he is meant to be, where his true nature leads him, and the world he has chosen will not, cannot, allow that.

The love story between Jack and Clara is subtle and complicated. She is a woman of the world, naturally, but there is something in her that is untouched. He touches it. The cliche of the “whore with a heart of gold” is not in play here, thank goodness. She treats him equally, but when she falls in love, and it happens rather suddenly, she goes with it. You can see it trembling across her face when she runs into him at a cafe during the daytime. She has now been held hostage by her own emotions. That’s the way love can be. She wasn’t looking for it, but here it is. Violante Placido is a wonderful actress. In the red-lit scenes in the brothel, she looks one way. I almost didn’t recognize her in the daylight, wearing a jeans jacket and a tank top. Jack seems disoriented as well. He has placed her in a context: she is the girl I sleep with once a week, and to see her out and about, and looking up at him with tenderness that seems to surprise even her throws him off. I loved how they both played that scene, in particular. There is so much going on! I immediately wanted the Rewind button to analyze each moment, each breath, each glance. He is ambushed as well. He only sleeps with her. There is a sex scene between the two of them that is raw and tender. Perhaps as a way to keep his own feelings at bay he says to her afterwards, “I come here to get pleasure, not give it”, although it is obvious from his behavior during said love scene that he wants to give her pleasure as well. Clara understands men. She’s been around. She was made love to that night, and she knows it. Such connections are often primal. She is comfortable in the world (watch how she handles the rude waiter who wants to shame her in the restaurant by only dealing with Clooney), comfortable with her place in it, but the American made love to her like he meant it. She knows the difference. That’s it for her, she’s in. Becoming emotionally involved with a client is a risky business – for both her and for him – and yet there’s that primal thing that can happen. It happens here. The love story is not a distraction from the thriller-aspect of the film, as so often happens. It is not a bone tossed to the women in the audience. It is an essential part of the film. It really is the film, actually.

This may come as a surprise. There are lots of surprises here.

Clooney broods, without making a fetish of it. He is not self-congratulatory as an actor, although you never doubt he knows what he is doing. Here, the character is lost in his everyday activities. He purposefully loses himself, in order not to think. When the time comes for him to act, you can feel his adrenaline rising. You can see it in his eyes. When he is alone, he is afraid. His time has run out. He never says it, but you feel that he is thinking, “Please … just a little bit more time …..” Life is calling to him, in all of its complex connections. He wants it. He wants in. But living in isolation and cold solitude has altered him. It may be too late. None of this is ever said. It is in Clooney’s performance.

What makes the film tense is not the plot. It’s the mood created. It’s the look in Clooney’s eyes as he sits across a table from a woman, and he tries to figure out what is going on. He tries to understand what is happening. Essential pieces of the puzzle have been left out. We know as much as he knows.

The small Italian village, crouched on a small hillside, is claustrophobic, with old streets and sidewalks folding in on each other, creating an almost Escher-like landscape. Dizzyingly repetitive. Up seems to be down. Stairways merge into alleys which merge into streets that then go up the stairs again. You can’t see around the corner. There are a couple of scenes showing wide Italian vistas, mountains and hills and fields, but for the most part, the vision is cramped in, which is appropriate.

Claustrophobic and close, The American dwells on Clooney’s face, as we watch him thinking, thinking, thinking.

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26 Responses to The American (2010); Dir. Anton Corbijn

  1. TonyDayoub says:

    There are three things you hit upon here which I noticed as well.

    First, THE AMERICAN definitely focuses on process: the process of covering your tracks; the process of retaining anonymity; the process of keeping ones emotions under control; the process of making contact with a client; the process of assembling a gun, etc.

    Second, the way Corbijn sustains the feeling or paranoia in some of the most surreptitious ways. Clooney’s mundane respite at the cafe (pictured at the end of your post) becomes tense when he (and by extension, we) begins to listen to the Italian pop song playing overhead with a seemingly innocent refrain that seems targeted towards him, “L’americano, l’americano.” There’s also the way Corbijn makes his landscapes conspirators in the paranoia, roads snaking through the frame with Clooney’s auto always coming into the frame from the direction one least expects it to.

    Finally, you are right on the money about this being a “star” vehicle. Films of this ilk generally are. I once spoke of a lineage of these loners on film here. But unlike the stars I brought up—Isaach De Bankolé, Alain Delon, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and to a lesser extent Terence Stamp—Clooney seems to bring an interior life to this iconic film archetype of the loner. There seems to be a soul to his hitman, which runs counter to the usual cipher-like role we’ve seen in other movies. This impressed me most because THE AMERICAN hints at a life outside the confines of the film for its central character, an atypical quality for the usually existential film persona Clooney takes on here.

  2. sheila says:

    Tony – thanks for your comment. I was waiting for it. :)

    I like what you said about the landscape becoming a co-conspirator. It folds back on itself, it is strictly medieval – with niches and alleys and streets going up stairs, etc. How is The American to navigate this?

    Yes, the “L’Americano” moment was very chilling. I also liked the meeting he had with Mathilde in the cafeteria with the white curtains blocking the parking lot. You wouldn’t think such a small everyday detail would become so ominous but I found that space truly creepy because he couldn’t see out there, he couldn’t see what might be coming. And in that moment, EVERYONE is against him. The waitress, the patrons who get up to leave … And there’s a flash across Clooney’s face that I find interesting and sort of dovetails with your last point: What I found interesting about this guy was that he doesn’t seem to get a lot of joy out of life. He’s pretty bare-bones, he needs to be. But when it comes down to facing the swift end of his life, he gets afraid – he doesn’t want to die – Suddenly life is precious and is exactly the thing that he wants. NOW he will change, NOW he will start to live.

    No accident that the man he befriends is a priest. I liked, though, how the film didn’t make too didactic a point of their spiritual conversations. Their talks were perfectly directed and acted, I thought. It wasn’t a lecture about how he should repent. The priest seemed truly concerned about the American. The priest is a good man. I liked their relationship.

    In general, I like Clooney best when he is allowed to be a goofball. But something very interesting is happening to him lately – he’s aging, as we all are- and Up in the Air and this film are showing new qualities to him that I think are quite interesting. He’s too proud a man and too big a star to wallow in it, but that anxiety is there. I like that he’s actually letting that show. The American could be seen (in a way) as a metaphor for the aging movie star. It’s isolating, being that famous. Anyway, I very much liked him here. That unease and malaise in the performance is merely suggested at, not nailed home – and that’s a very good place for Clooney to be.

    And I could have watched him put together that gun for 2 hours or more.

  3. sheila says:

    You know. Me and my love of gun-porn.

  4. sheila says:

    What did you think of the love story?

    I am so sick of Woman as sentimentalized Hooker Cliche that I was predisposed to be critical of it, but I really really liked it – I liked her a lot, her practicality, how real she seemed – and of course it would be HER she wants to be with. It’s not the sex he’s after -it’s her tenderness (as sentimental as that sounds – it wasn’t sentimental at all, it was actually quite pained.) I loved the strange shot of him with his head down in his arms and she’s massaging his neck. I don’t know what it is about that one shot – it’s not a typical massage, she’s not just kneading his muscles, her hands are open and long, almost like she wants to scoop up his entire back/neck in her grasp. There was something about that wordless scene that said for me: That’s what he wants. Not just sex, but touch. And she gets that about him. It makes him much much sadder, as a character.

    I may be reading too much into it, but I don’t think so.

  5. Tony Dayoub says:

    I don’t think you were reading too much into the relationship. But like you, I’m predisposed to see that character as a cliche. Granted so is his character, and in that respect the film lends itself to be seen as an archetypal film story. Placido’s performance does transcend the limitations of her character. But Clooney’s interpretation of the arms dealer is so fascinating it kind of leaves her in the dust.

    I’m conflicted about her role, as you can probably tell.

  6. sheila says:

    Right, it’s hard to make that cliche new and fresh. I wonder why people still insist on using it. It’s like storytellers still don’t know what to do with women in the movies. It’s quite odd. And infuriating if I think about it too often, which I try not to. My favorite moment of hers is the scene with the snooty waiter who tries to bypass her ordering, as though she is beneath his notice – and how she doesn’t get offended or horrified or angry or hurt. She just purposefully moves forward, making her order once again, insisting on being served, and then sort of grins at Clooney and shrugs saying, “Small town.”

    I liked that. It was subtle and unexpected. She’s not waiting to be saved by a Prince Charming. She is already at home in the world, if you know what I mean.

    I really loved his interactions with Mathilde, the assassin – in particular the scene where he shows her the gun he built, and she tests it out. “I brought my own target.” She’s very sexy and all that, but the scene was so clinical, so businesslike – it counteracted the Gun Crazy cliche. I liked how she gave him “notes” on what needed to be fixed – again, with that focus on process, and how things work. And his sort of murmuring to her about the sound-suppression and how that might throw her off a tad, etc. It was fascinating, totally fascinating.

  7. Tony Dayoub says:

    (SPOILER!!!!!)

    Interesting too, the rapport Mathilde tries to build with him on a fundamental professional level, moves to a romantic level, and in neither instance is he falling into the trap. It’s a subtle contrast between their relationship and the one he has with Clara. He’s paranoid and lonely, but not too far gone to recognize which one his instincts point him to. I’m glad they didn’t pursue the cliche of having turning Clara against him either.

  8. sheila says:

    Me too. His suspicion of Clara ended up being a psychological thing showing his paranoia growing, as opposed to something that would have felt like a tricky plot-point out of another (more boring) movie.

    And to your SPOILER WARNING:

    You know what moment I loved (which speaks to the Mathilde vibe you mentioned). After she tests the gun – he has a picnic spread out, and she lies down, and appears to be softening. Part of her plan, obviously. To soften him up, using sex. He pulls out the bottle of wine, and what does he do next? Pours it out onto the grass. You can see the flicker of uncertainty in her face, which had a lot of layers in it: first, the spy layer (Hmm, my plan is not working), and then the other layer – of a woman who knows she is beautiful, expects to get who she wants to get, and is a bit … discomfited by the realization that this man is not gettable.

    It’s a very Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman in Notorious kind of moment, and I really liked it.

  9. sheila says:

    (Although I don’t really see Clooney as the “heir” to Cary Grant. Maybe I do when he’s a total goofball, the side of him I most appreciate. But that sort of “what happens when you get involved with a client” thing reminded me a lot of Notorious – and Grant’s character’s suspicions about pretty much everyone.)

  10. Boone says:

    Sheila, you got this movie dead right. Great piece. I fell in love with this flick the way I fell in love with “I Am Love” and “Love Streams” earlier this year. Love, love, love.

    Clooney’s last shot stole my breath. A lot of movies have attempted that image, of a man watching his dream slip through his fingers, but this one really hit me where I live. It’s a slow film, but not a leisurely one. I walked out of it thinking about how much time I’ve got left on this earth, and what to do with it.

    A summer movie that does that? Dayumn.

  11. sheila says:

    Boone – how nice to see you over here! Thanks so much for your comment! Ahhhh, Love Streams. Yes, yes, yes. The heart cracks open to it. You are forever altered.

    I agree about that last shot. I was feeling that the whole movie, and the best part of it was that it was never really said: He wants more time. He’s ready now. Ready to give it all up, to commit to life, to regular everyday life. I am not sure if things would “work out” with Clara, but that is irrelevant. She is a symbol. He loves her. Maybe not “in love” but she represents life. She IS life.

    So I felt that for the whole film: that this man has almost run out of time. Not because of the urgent job he has to do, but because he wants out, he wants to join the land of the living … can he?

    It’s a difficult job – imagine how cliched it COULD have been. Clooney keeps it all tight to the chest, and that is exactly right. That is just how he would be.

  12. sheila says:

    And I love what you say about how it is slow but not leisurely. Yes! How is that done? The editing is clearly superb. My favorite sections was the gun-assembly section – I can’t wait to own this, so I can study it frame by frame.

  13. Kate P says:

    Even though I’m not that intrigued by the story, maybe I’ll rent it someday because I like Corbijn’s work, and your description makes it sound just so HIM. (He directed all the Depeche Mode videos in the ’90s IIRC.)

  14. Jeff says:

    I also love Boone’s “slow but not leisurely” comment. I was wound so tight that when Clara snuck up behind him and put her hands over his eyes in a “guess who?” gesture, I nearly jumped out of my seat. “A little nervous, dad?”, my son said.

    Great post, Sheila. I waited on purpose to read it until after I’d seen the movie and written about it myself. Your comments about Clooney are spot on.

  15. Boone says:

    Slow-but-taut: I’m one of those loons who insist that any competent craftsman in Ho’wood pre-2000 would have had the patience to let a scene unfold in this manner. It’s simply a moment whose dramatic impetus (this guy doesn’t know who to trust) has already been carefully spring loaded. Same script, same scene rendered by the average “craftsman” today #1. wouldn’t have had the subtlety or restraint to work up to this scene and #2. wouldn’t have the patience or appreciation for the energy that can accumulate in a long take to resist cutting all over the place for bullshit emphasis, with a thunderous “menace” cue on the soundtrack. They are cutting for the iPhone, not the big screen.

    Notice how the tension in this film is the kind you feel before going on a date with somebody you suspect is amazing but, who knows, just might be a jerk– or for a second interview at a dream job that is scarily important. There’s this anticipation that builds deliciously, roulette wheel spinning. Most “thrillers” today only pack the kind of tension you feel when trapped in a subway car with a bunch of drunken Yankees fans. Or a chicken coop. Your attention is arrested, your nerves prodded, but no part of you is coaxed or seduced, just harassed.

    And I love it that ’90s-vintage music video directors, who cut their teeth in the very medium whose influence has helped destroy big screen visual grammar, are the ones who’ve been preserving it in their own features. Corbijn, David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Francis Lawrence, Antoine Fuqua, Hype Williams… Whatever the merits of their films as art or entertainment, they definitely move like FILMS, not feature-length trailers. It’s like they’re doing penance, haha.

  16. Boone says:

    ^Oh, and I should say that the scene I mean is the gun-testing episode.

  17. sheila says:

    Jeff – so glad to hear you saw it and liked it! I’m gonna go check out your post about it.

  18. sheila says:

    Boone – // They are cutting for the iPhone, not the big screen. //

    That is so right on. I have similar issues with today’s films and how they are made as you do – I’ve read your writing on it, and I find it so refreshing and true. I just find the editing of most movies (or, let’s say, a lot of movies) shows a lack of TRUST in what they are doing. You can easily manipulate an audience in a primal way by zooming your camera around randomly and not letting us linger on any one shot too long – but that’s way too easy, too facile. I get so frustrated with it. Especially if I can tell that there actually is a good story there behind all of that, and good performances – if the director would just LET ME LOOK AT IT FOR GOD’S SAKE.

    And I’ve been annoyed at movie scores for a long time. I appreciate a good score. I recently watched Reds again and Sondheim’s score couldn’t be better. This is a ‘sweeping’ movie, but the music itself is not ‘sweeping’. It is subtle, and emotional – with repeating themes – Sondheim’s “love theme” is barely noticeable, but it works on the audience, showing up in different places, always sounding different – never banging the nail on the head. Or the “Internationale” montage – perhaps the most dramatic part of the film – with this giant Communist chorus singing as we see what’s happening in Moscow – There, the music is used to perfect effect, cresendoing and taking over the whole damn film, just like the revolution it is portraying.

    The score here in The American is perfection – again, I want to see it again so I can study it. I feel like I remember where the music came in, and it is not in the places you expect. I don’t think there is any music at all beneath the sex scene – we just hear her gasps of pleasure. It’s pretty raw, and it makes me sad that more movies don’t “behave like this”. We don’t need music under that scene to “tell us” that she’s fallen in love with him. We get it. Or, if we don’t get it in that particular scene, then we sure as hell get it the next time they see each other at the cafe.

    The story UNFOLDS.

    Sad that this is something to be surprised at nowadays – but there you go.

    I love your point about the video directors. Fascinating – I wonder about that trend. Have you written anything about that?

  19. sheila says:

    And yes, the gun-assembly scene: There are moments when I’m an audience member when I actually start to feel excited. Not by the events on the screen, but by the fact that a film has the courage of its convictions. I was so impressed by the silence in the film, as I mentioned – the long stretches of silence – with no music underneath – and that one scene was so exciting to me. I was noticing things: No music underneath for one. Just the sounds of the clicking and clacking, which allowed me to focus on the gun, first of all, and also his face and how much he knew what he was doing. I was also noticing the cuts – how specific they were, how much they were motivated – Imagine how the same scene would have looked in another movie. There would have been crazy macho music blowing out the speakers, so we could all revel in what a badass Clooney was – and the cuts would have been quick and frenzied – so we couldn’t have a chance to actually watch what he was doing. As I said in a comment, I do love “gun porn” – hahaha – but there’s a difference between fetishizing the object and showing the object. I’m not sure what you thought of Public Enemies – but that was another movie that showed guns in a way that excited me. They had weight, substance – they were practical – but filmed in a way that showed that they were the most important things in the world to these people. I know I’m not describing this right – I only know that the way Clooney put that gun together was so interesting and exciting to me. Corbijn actually allowed me to see what he was doing each step of the way, and I was figuring it out – “Oh, okay, he has to dent those cylinders for some reason – okay, got that …. Oh, he needs to file that handle down – but it has to be at that exact angle for some reason – Okay, no idea WHY – but I know that HE knows why …” I love movies that care about how things operate.

    Does that make sense?

  20. sheila says:

    Jeff – Loved your piece! (If you click on Jeff’s name, you can go read what he wrote.) I should have mentioned in my piece how much I loved the part where Once Upon a Time in the West is playing in that little bar, the huge screen showing Henry Fonda’s face in that brutal scene where we first see him. I loved the bartender glancing at Clooney and saying, proudly, “Sergio Leone.”

  21. Boone says:

    Makes a heap of sense, Sheila. The screen loves accumulation of detail, tasks and processes shown in some kind of continuity– if only more of these CGI-bling-obsessed, blender-cutting filmmakers understood that. They’d save a bundle, and avoid carpal tunnel.

    Yeah, speaking of Jeff’s Leone catch and Sheila’s “Public Enemies” nod: Both filmmakers have a gift for bringing out a zinger of a static composition as a kind of iconic punctuation. I’m thinking of the shot in PE of all the lawmen in the jail standing stock still, arrayed against a precinct door. Like a portrait of state ruthlessness. And other such goodies: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews48/public_enemies_blu-ray.htm

    As for the sex scene, that was revolutionary. I swear, this flick is an incestuous male cousin of the Italian film “I Am Love”– in the sense of showing us the terrible beauty of a flawlessly composed middle-aged adult going half mad for want of an object to accept all the pent-up passion he/she has in store– before it’s “too late”; then bursting at the seams when that person emerges (the sex scenes). As Wong Kar-Wai found in “In the Mood for Love” and “2046″ (as did so many Golden Age Hollywood filmmakers, and dudes like Ophuls), 40-something is a spectacular age for dramatizing the terror of falling love: You’re still young and likely at the height of your physical and mental powers, but there is no more time to waste. You know what you want/need and if you haven’t gotten it yet, the clock is ticking, loudly.

    Anyway, the revolutionary part is how the sex scene took its time and didn’t even turn “dark.” Usually with this kind of thing, to make it acceptable for family viewing, he’d have to bite a chunk out of her shoulder and force her to fellate his handgun. Violence is always a convenient buffer against deep feeling, like visual muzak, and a soul-dead filmmaker’s shortcut for expressing a character’s “edge.”

    I can’t remember the last big American film (certainly no thriller) that luxuriated in a sex scene with such awe and appreciation for women or such R&B honesty about a man’s vulnerability in that situation. This is a Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye type ache. American, indeed.

  22. sheila says:

    Boone – I agree that the sex scene was revolutionary. I kept waiting for it to turn (“fellate his handgun” hahahaha) but it didn’t. I don’t mean to be totally cynical about today’s movies – there is much to admire – but the fact that the sex scene, first of all, didn’t cut away – It stayed on her as he was going down on her. It just stayed there. We watched her experience that. Then up he came back into the frame, and I kept waiting for it to cut again, or go into some “lovemaking montage” – but again: the event played itself out. I couldn’t believe it. It continued, just like sex does in real life. It was perfect, too, that it would be him going down on her, and then him, putting his pants on later, insisting, “I come here to get pleasure, not give it.” Sure you do. But that’s so human, so flawed, so real. She can see right through him, but she’s kind about it. She doesn’t scoff. He has revealed himself during the act of sex, as men often do – and more often than not they reveal themselves to be gentle, kind and considerate. All public bluster to the contrary. The fact that this is revolutionary is a sad commentary on how such things are handled today – but it’s a step in the right direction. How often are sex scenes alienating … there’s a hostility to them, and I find it off-putting. If the character is alienated, then it can be an illuminating moment – but that’s how I like sex scenes: when they REVEAL a character. Whoever he/she is. I’m thinking of the sex scene in The Big Easy – they don’t even have sex, but her emotions and feelings about being touched, not the touch itself – she has problems “being sexual’, and so she has feelings about what is happening: her own sense of distance from herself, and how she doesn’t know how to be passionate, and he’s freaking her out – and the fact that all of that is included in the sex scene … forcing him to HANDLE her in that moment, handle all of those issues, as real men often have to handle the insecurities of the women they make love to – it’s all there. Those two characters are totally revealed by what goes on when they are making out in her bed. I absolutely loved that and too many films totally don’t want to deal with that. At all.

    I wonder about this trend, and I do worry about it. It’s just as damaging to men as it is to women, although I don’t want to get too political about it. I get that some men are hostile to women BECAUSE they are attracted to said women – and that’s an interesting dynamic – but it’s not always the case. How about a little tenderness, how about a little joy and pleasure – even in the midst of a larger story? I actually felt the same way about the sex scene in Public Enemies – I LOVED it. I loved the montage effect there, actually – it seemed to be used to great purpose. When you look back on sex you’ve had, you often aren’t thinking, “Then he did this, then I did that …” It’s fragmentary, glimpses, snippets of sensoral information – and that was how I felt that scene was filmed. The sudden tears on her face, his focus on her – it was just human, it allowed them both to be HUMAN, for God’s sake.

    It’s emotionally based, sex like that, and I love a movie that has confidence about that fact and handles it with zero embarrassment. Not an easy thing to do – for the actors, certainly – and I think some audience members may be embarrassed, but that’s okay too. Sex is often embarrassing.

    I loved that scene.

  23. sheila says:

    “R&B honesty about a man’s vulnerability …”

    GOOD stuff. That’s it exactly. And Clooney wasn’t embarrassed by that. He wasn’t trying to dominate or protect himself. That is how this man was making love in that particular moment. Perfect.

  24. sheila says:

    Oh, and In the Mood for Love – ouch!!! My heart has not yet recovered.

  25. Scotter says:

    My friend and his wife came across a theater showing this and went in on an impulse.
    They were disappointed. People were walking out. Much grumbling in the lobby after.

    I dug in to him about it, and really, it was all about expectations that the marketing gave. Maybe not the freneticism of a Bourne movie, or the momentum of Taken, but “something” needed to happen often enough to fulfill the promise of the poster and the trailer, and a quiet European style character study was not what got them in the door.

    I’m going to see it in the next couple of weeks, and I’m sure I’ll dig it, but I think I’m going to be alone in the theater.

  26. sheila says:

    Scotter – The trailer was very good, I thought – it didn’t market itself as another kind of movie in the trailer. It wasn’t all flash-bang-boom with a portentous scary voiceover. I went back and watched it yesterday and thought: Wow, this really is the movie I went and saw.

    So I think a lot of the expectations are just in people’s heads. It is what they have been trained to expect.

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