the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Beantown Afflecked

Picasso supposedly said that every good portrait painter needs a person standing behind him with a revolver pointed at the back of his head ready to pull the trigger at the right time. The same might be said of film directors. The tendency to overdraw, over-explain... is a trap for first time movie directors and it is especially noticeable when actors get behind the camera. It is as if the performer, brimming with all the hard work of creating their character, is now taking revenge on every director who said "That's okay - I think we have it covered". Recently DeNiro's "The Good Shepherd" comes to mind - although in that case maybe the shot should have been fired in pre-production. (other examples: Marlon Brando's "One Eyed Jacks", John Nicholson's "The Two Jakes" and all of Sean Penn's directorial efforts). Films, unlike plays, are not driven by the spoken word. Visual reaction is the heart of all good dramatic features. Performers have a difficult time understanding that if pictures say 1,000 words - moving pictures say 1,000,000 - even if there is no dialogue.

Ben Affleck's unfortunately titled "Gone Baby Gone" is a strong case in point. The title sequence and setting of the scene is absolutely magical. Ben and his brother Casey, who stars in the project, are natives of Boston. This fact dovetails with the plot which revolves around a young private detective who is hired because of his familiarity with the gritty streets of an insular Beantown neighborhood. Casey's character knows the territory and his older brother demonstrates in the first 10 minutes that he is also the real deal. One of the greatest films of all time is a short documentary primarily shot by still photographer Helen Levitt (often credited exclusively to James Agee) entitled "In the Street". Affleck's painting of the hood concisely reveals the pride, poverty, anger, joy, pain, pathos in much the same way Levitt did in her lower east side neighborhood half a century earlier. There is a trust in these images which outsiders would fail to capture. Whereas Fellini often delivered the grotesque as a punch-line or a means to shock; Affleck shows the overweight, the disabled, the down & out with the care of a guardian. Don't laugh - these people are ugly, loud and fierce - but these are my people. Bravo. There are other aspects to this film which also deserve praise. The cast is superb. The best performances occur while everyone bunkers down in the endless bitter family interactions or step rigidly into Catholic ritual. Its interesting to contrast this with Scorsese's recent Boston saga "The Departed". All things aside - Affleck manages to make you feel like you've been to Fenway. Aside of Mark Wahlberg (the genuine article) all of Scoreses' cast seemed to be "from away".

Unfortunately "Gone Baby Gone" fails. Its demise is rooted in misunderstanding the power of his home-grown knowledge. Mr. Affleck trusts editorializing. He should have stuck with his gut.. A clear illustration of this lies in a scene in which Casey and Ed Harris have a drunken heart to heart following a shooting which critically injures Harris' partner. There is a long back and forth regarding the question of action, justice and guilt. The film is a meditation on what it really means to "Do the right thing". Spike Lee's ambiguous answer at the end of his feature, quoting both a pacifist and a violent activist, matches Affleck's conflicting feelings. Putting philosophy aside and focusing on mechanics: does the long dialogue between these two good actors really make the point? Ed Harris is a great performer who is endlessly called upon to deliver the blue vein popping out of the red face rage-scream. It would have been better to play this scene in a different octave - can Mr. Harris whisper? It's too bad Mr. Affleck, along with many other directors, never tests this range. But the problems are more than tone. The audience at this point knows that Casey is guilt-ridden and looking for answers. The audience is also aware that Harris is the old hand brimming with bitterness and wisdom. We know that - we don't need to hear it. In fact hearing it undercuts these feelings - its as if lovers suddenly read Hallmark cards aloud to each-other to demonstrate affection. An actor's training slavishly drives him to the script which in an performer's mind translates to the spoken word. The first 10 minutes of this film illustrates that the two are not the same. Words can drive a stage-play but here we need more matter, less talk. Think more of Antonioni's "Blow Up" instead of Kurosawa's "High & Low" (a Japanese homage to Joe Friday?). Affleck is compromised by a script which has more twists than a pretzel and a need for plot driven exposition. Throw it all to the wind. This is Boston. There is a reason detective story's are traditionally set in cities that are loaded with psychiatrists' couch (New York, LA or San Francisco). Boston is a schizophrenic combo of old line Brahmin and gangsters - neither group prizes verbal introspection. Lonely heartfelt speeches are contrived in this setting. The Yankees might win every other year but would the fans show up if they didn't? In Boston they have proof that they do - they'll show up in droves even if they win the big one once a century. They'll also go to church no matter what they say about the Cardinal. This is about duty, history, honor - not talk. You might wonder why - but asking the question out loud? Bestiality would be more acceptable. Unfortunately "Gone Baby Gone" is an endless verbal-fest of questions peppered with plot points.

Affleck would have been better with minimal plot and a meandering meditation on Boston. Its unfortunate he didn't tackle Freedomland. This Boston drama also centered around a missing girl but it was a device to examine race relations. Unfortunately the director failed to capture the nuances of the city and the film devolved into a endless set-piece of racial characters harassing each-other. Despite its shortcomings it was a truer representation of racial issues than Affleck's work. All the teenagers who chanted "here we go Southie! here we go!" during the busing crisis of the 70s grew up and they didn't become Civil Rights lawyers at the Justice Department. The iconic image of the white blue collar worker beating a suited black attorney at Boston City Hall does not represent where things are either. But it a leap of faith to believe that a West Indian gangster would have a white thug as his #2. It is equally difficult to swallow that a blue collar Joe from the South End would reprimand someone for using "racial epithets" in his house. Com'on Ben - there are still bigots in beantown. It's not the whole story - but lets not pretend. As one of the police cadets says in the Scoreses picture : you're a black man in this town - isn't that tough enough?

This film gives Casey Affleck a vehicle. Not the road the riches but he's good enough to play with his older brother. The brother needs to keep at it. Lets hope the horrific flashbacks towards the end of the film were a studio exec trying to make things better. Ben has a clue - there are real moments in his debut. He's proved can work with actors. He didn't win this time but as a Red Sox fan he knows - there's always next year.

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