the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

Fathers and Sons

The local art-house movie theater was showing a Ryan Gosling picture called ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’. The poster had a blurb from entertainment weekly saying ‘riveting crime drama’. I took the bait. The opening sequence was promising - a steady cam shot of our anti-hero, carnival-attraction, motorcycle-stunt man.... sucking up the sleazy circus milieu while cooly acknowledging the adulation of star-struck teenagers. Within the first 8 minutes there were two references to Scorsese’s films: the entrance to the Copacabana in ‘Goodfellas’ and the introduction of the tattooed De Niro in ‘Cape Fear’. They worked well. No dialogue but the strut and small touches were worth reams of carefully written description .  The audience was going on a ride with someone who knew what they were doing.  The long single-shot gave the feeling of a director, Derek Cianfrance, in sync with a movie star. Gosling and him had worked previously on a dark romance, ‘Blue Valentine‘, which I have not seen.  According to the press he has been making films since he was 13 and became a darling of Sundance with his debut feature in 1998. This movie starts well. The love interest is quickly introduced with some pithy exposition:  He had disappeared. She was disappointed. She now has a man. He’s leaving. He comes back. He finds out a dark secret. Things are building.  So far so good.  Then... well...  To quote Auden, “the center did not hold”... or perhaps more precisely: there was no center to hold.... just a long series of events stretching into the horizon.

After an hour and a half the main storyline came to a climatic finish.  I expected to see ‘the end’ credits, but instead was greeted with a black cue card which read:  “15 Years Later”.  Oh boy - if I was on a plane I would have flagged down a steward for some extra pillows or a drink.  Actually the feeling was more akin to believing you were on a jet and suddenly realizing you’re on a train. This isn’t the 40 minute air shuttle from NY to Boston but the 4 1/2 hour Amtrak special.  A new feature emerges with a new star, Bradley Cooper, who is a law school educated cop trying to prove something to his politically savvy father who is a Judge.  All interesting enough - and it was connected to the original motorcycle-man storyline. In fact, we have an almost biblical sort of epic where the sins of the father’s are visited on the next generation. In this case the two sons of the protagonists shine. Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan capture that narcissistic innocent victimhood of high school loners. They are the repulsive, attractive types your daughter might like... but you wouldn’t. Ray Liotta, of Copa fame, actually is in the second half reprising his role as a corrupt heavy - almost borrowing De Niro’s sneer.  Eva Mendes shows an amazing range as she morphs from the sexy love struck heroine to a tragic middle aged mother of a difficult teenager.  Cianfrance has a touch with actors as everyone rose to the occasion. In addition the film is marked by numerous high speed chase scenes which are carefully executed in a ‘reality TV’ manner - it works. So far so good... strong acting, solid direction, interesting (albeit epic) script, well executed action sequences..... Ironically the weakness of this work lies in a battle between the director and himself.

Cianfrance is one of three people who share a writing credit for “The PlaceBeyond the Pines”.  It is is an earnest effort at a grand statement but the director’s talents are more geared towards a more fluid and concise style of cinema.  This film is alive in ‘the inbetween’. The chases, the walks, the struts, the party scenes.... have a natural flair that is lacking in the many plot driven expository dialogue moments... and yes clocking in at 140 minutes - there are plenty of those.  The real question is why should it take over two hours to tell this story (or stories)? Great performers have the ability to replace spoken dialogue with gesture, glimpse, movement...  Cianfrance has a talented cast and might have place more trust in their simple presence.  The sequence involving Gosling’s partner in crime, Ben Mendelsohn, is a poster child for this film’s need for concision.  Gosling’s initial encounter with this back-woods mechanic is the narrative Achilles‘ heal. The are INSTANT best-friends-forever. The one day “come and move in with me... I’ll give you a job and a place to live” challenges credulity.  It is strange that the writing team failed to create a more plausible root of their friendship.  It is perfectly plausible that they might have become acquainted on a previous visit. Gosling’s fling with Mendes shows that he spent time off the carnival campus.  Simply having him ride through the woods and arrive at the mechanic’s camp would have trimmed ten minutes of ‘getting to know you’ exposition. In the second half Gosling’s son returns to the cabin and introduces himself to Mendelsohn.  Once again there is a great deal of walking around the grounds with dialogue explaining Gosling’s prowess as a rider and loyalty as a friend. This all culminates in the son being given his father’s riding glasses as a remembrance. It would have been more powerful if the whole sequence was condensed. DeHaan delivering the news of his progeny and Mendelsohn handing him the glasses while speaking “he was a great rider”.  If the scene had ended here it would have made the son’s wearing the glasses in the next sequence all the more poignant. The discussions and verbal exposition UNDERCUT the son’s search for his father, despite the professionalism of the performers. The actors and scene wear ALREADY clearly delineated - all that was required was a SIMPLE gesture.  It would be possible to recreate the entire film in this manner and come up with an exceptionally strong 95 minute feature. Even the title, “The Place Beyond the Pines”, seems stretched into forget-ability. I challenge anyone to have this easily roll off their tongue after not having thought about the film for a few minutes. Why not ‘Beyond the Pines’ or ‘Robber and Cop’.  The overall effect of over-painting the portrait is to blur the heart-wrenching struggles. We have over two hours of diffuse pathos rather than a crisp penetrating tale of two generations.

‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ thesis revolves around how the sons cope with absent fathers while defining their own identities.    It is interesting to note that Cianfrance has been making films for nearly two decades and studied at University under the pioneer of American Avant-Garde filmmaker, Stan Brakhage.  His professor’s body of work consists of many silent, emotionally jarring, quick-cut meditations on topics usually reserved for philosophers rather than movie-makers.  As a paradigm example one of his major early films, ‘Sirius Remembered’, is a 6 minute silent frenetic film documenting the slow disintegration of the family dog in an open field. How does it compare to Cianfrance’s latest work:  Brakhage made a short, 16 mm silent black and white portrait of a rotting pet: “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a multi-million dollar 35mm color sync sound feature based on a multi-generational linear storyline documenting the trials two families joined by tragedy. In a sense they are mirror images wrestling with transcendental themes of family and time. Cainfrance’s total rejection of the experimental sensibility is extreme to the point of being a throw-back to a old fashioned style of storytelling. Unfortunately the spoken word fails to be his strong suit. I have not seen his earlier work but I viewed a clip from his debut feature ‘Brother Tied’. Once again Cianfrance knows his cinema history as the moment pays homage to violent scenes from features past. The key thing is this moment was SILENT and riveting. This director’s strength will shine when he comes to terms with his film ‘fathers’. One sees him as a figure closely linked to the two struggling ‘sons’ portrayed in the work. He is trying to find his style amidst the ghosts of his predecessors. Ironically his embrace of an anti-Brakhage conventionality served his cause about as well as the cop/DA’s son diving into the gangsta drug life.  Cianfrance should utilize non-chronological fluidity and abstraction in favor of stiff, stage-like narrative. It brought to mind a story I once heard about William Faulkner. His third novel, where he created Yoknapatawpha county and it’s brooding set of characters, is written in a traditional linear style. Interestingly it is an epic family tale in which the protagonist dies the day of his son’s birth. The publisher cut 40,000 words and changed the title. The critics failed to be impressed.  Faukner’s reaction was to reject the meddling publishers and the tiresome critics and to trust his own judgement. He went back to Yoknapatawpha but this time he wrote: ‘The Sound and Fury’.  Cianfrance knows the medium.  He has delivered good results. His crew trusts him. His actors trust him. It’s time for him to trust himself. Maybe even return to a place beyond the Pines... but do it his way. I suspect it will be shorter, harder to follow; but more fun to watch.

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