"Thus open the gates of paradise."

In this issue


06 Apr 2002

I once worked for someone who said that couldn't imagine why anyone would see the same film twice. Unless it was "Star Wars". Ex-boss, I salute you, but you're probably not seeing the best films you could. Despite there being an awful lot of films out there (many of them awful), I find myself seeing old favourites again, either in the theatre or on DVD. Here's a couple of them.


I've seen this film three times in the last three months. It's not often I see anything that persistently, and more often than not, some of the enjoyment of the movie starts to ebb. At the end of the last screening, a friend asked, "So how was it a third time?" "About as good as the second," I replied. 

I went back in part to understand what it is I like so much about this film. The good news is that it's no one thing in particular. The acting is good. The lighting is lovely and crisp, and the camerawork is fluid and graceful. Fitting music, and lots and lots of little details. Let me give you two examples.

There's a scene early on where Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) has joined the Pollock's for Sunday dinner. It's all grabbing, reaching, and plate filling with no chit-chat. Krasner is a bit tentative about reaching in front of the others, and hesitates before she does anything. Is it OK to eat yet, or do they wait for everyone to serve themselves first? What's Jackson doing? He's not eating. Put down the fork. The scene all looks so natural that it's easy to overlook, but it's really a miniature ballet that plays itself out within a single scene. 

There's another bit later on, once Krasner and Pollock have moved in together. Jackson looks into Krasner's studio from the doorway, watching her paint. Her back is to us. He leaves the doorway, goes down the hall and into his own studio where he starts to work on a painting of his own by applying yellow paint directly from the tube onto the canvas. After a couple of minutes, Krasner comes in, and starts analyzing the work, gradually placing her body between Pollock and the canvas. "Why don't you paint the picture?" he finally asks in frustration. And now the cool thing -- it's done in a single shot. In a scene that's all about painting and creating, they chose not to introduce any cinematic devices (editing). It feels so right, in part because it's done so simply. I love it.

One more reason to see this again: Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim, out of breath, saying, "I'm Peggy Guggenheim! I don't climb five flights of stairs! I have bad ankles." Fabulous.

State And Main

You don't realize how difficult it is to tell someone the name of this film until you actually try. State and Main is an intersection of two streets. Once you know this, there's never any confusion. Without that knowledge, you're likely to hear "Estate In Maine" or "State of Maine" or "Plate of Shrimp". 

When I saw this at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall, I thought it was just about the best film in the Festival. To be fair, I tend to think that of any half-way decent film seen early in the morning when I'm still fresh, and I'm not expecting anything. But I think this film stands up for at least a second viewing, despite some of the rather dodgy reviews it has inexplicably received.

It's David Mamet's film, and it shows. What I mean by that is that it's like a hand-crafted toy that you might find in a Fabrege egg. You wind it up, and just watch it go. A mainspring unwinds, levers splay out, the toy trundles forward, then just as its energy is spent, it folds itself neatly together again. (To be honest, I've never seen a toy from a Fabrege egg do this, but in my imaginary Kafkaesque world, they do that all the time.)

What's the movie about? It's about the quest for purity. It's about getting a second chance, a chance to regain that purity. The pace is fast and furious, and the satire caustic. If you like films where people talk a lot, then this is definitely for you. Fans of Rebecca Pidgeon take note: she is purity itself.

The Limey

Recently picked this up on DVD. It was certainly one of the best films of 1999, and why so few people saw it, I'll never know. Terrance Stamp plays the Limey. That's all you've got to know, right?


Director Steven Soderberg tells the story of Wilson, a man trying to find out how his daughter died, in way that suggests you're hearing the story forwards and backwards at the same time. And maybe you're hearing it from a couple of different people at the same time too. Cubism? Or just non-linear storytelling? Hardly matters what you call it, the fascinating thing is how well it works given how unusual it is.

Part of the appeal of this DVD is the audio commentary between Soderberg and writer Lem Dobbs who talk about early versions of the story and the way it evolved into the final film. This is the process I find absolutely fascinating. What do you keep? What do you throw away? How can you tell if a scene is working? What background do you make up (and film) and then discard? Who else could have played a given part? Who was that guy, anyway?

Questions answered. Just like peeking at The Back of The Book.