Thursday, August 20, 2009
1. [On Spread for The Auteurs' Notebook]
2. Ben Sachs and I saw Spread together. It hadn't been press-screened, so we had to go the day of release. A muggy evening. We biked down the Loop, to a multiplex on the top floor of a shopping center. Locked up our bikes, walked up the broken escalator, bought our tickets, went in to the theater, where there were maybe a dozen people. They gave us surveys which, though ostensibly written for the film, didn't seem to represent any of its qualities; we had to write in new categories and check them off. Then a walk back, a walk and a talk, with a stop to buy a pack of cigarettes on Rush. The Friday night crowds were out at the restaurants.
When it became obvious that Spread would be out of theaters by the the end of the week, Ben's review (intended for tomorrow) went out via an emergency mailing from Cine-File. The piece doesn't appear online, so I'm posting it here:
To little fanfare, David Mackenzie has spent the past decade becoming one of the great living directors—rich in understanding of film history yet acutely sensitive to the pace, texture, and concerns of life today. Specializing in mobile long takes that are immaculately framed no matter how much the camera moves, Mackenzie may be the only active filmmaker who merits comparison to Max Ophüls or Vincente Minnelli. He's also created a body of work largely concerned with sexuality that never slips into prurience or reductive psychologizing. Like the great Studio Era directors he often evokes, Mackenzie uses the magic of cinema to suggest a world of possibility: Even when directing more formulaic material (as in SPREAD), he still imbues every moment with spontaneity. In Mackenzie's films, events grow organically out of what came before; life seems ever volatile, electric. Since his brazenly odd debut, THE LAST GREAT WILDERNESS (2002), Mackenzie has proven himself a master of literary adaptation, capturing the formal experiments and psychological observations of modern literature while still advancing a complex visual language. (Tonally, YOUNG ADAM  is one of the most accurate adaptations of an existential novel in cinema, and his youth picture HALLAM FOE  may be the closest film equivalent to The Catcher in the Rye .) With SPREAD, Mackenzie finds himself performing another high-wire act: making a personal art film out of a "serious" vehicle for former sitcom star Ashton Kutcher. As filmmaking it's often breathtaking, containing some of the most sophisticated moments of any movie to open this year. The most important scenes transpire in single takes, employing sinuous zooms and crane movements to chart the constantly shifting inequalities between characters. The little press that SPREAD has received has treated it exclusively as a Kutcher sex comedy—and a failed one, by most accounts, since it isn't very funny. Fair enough, but Mackenzie never wanted to be the Farrelly Brothers: This is comedy in the Balzacian sense. Kutcher plays a gigolo living off the wealthy middle-aged women of Los Angeles; he comes to realize that he has been living at the mercy of the shallowest tastes. The script by Jason Dean Hall (clearly indebted to Warren Beatty and Robert Towne's SHAMPOO) is structured to follow his fall from grace; but MacKenzie, in his love for the present moment, makes it anything but a morality play. Building the film around Kutcher's limitations as an actor, Mackenzie makes his focus the character's passive drift from woman to woman and from wealth to poverty. This may dampen the impact of SPREAD's third act, but the film possesses a consistency of tone and leaves a rather strong aftertaste: In retrospect, the gigolo's exile from Hollywood royalty seems presaged from the start. Mackenzie's depiction of the elite is disdainful without resorting to parody (The first long shot is a Steadicam track through a pool party out of an Aaron Spelling series, and MacKenzie uses the inhuman glide of the camera to mirror the falsity of the behavior) and his depiction of working-class L.A. is admirably earthy. But the final moments of SPREAD are something else entirely, ending on a tone that even this multi-faceted movie has not yet explored, something neither funny nor rueful but full of mysterious implications. Like the haunting coda of Truffaut's TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, Mackenzie insists that even in the most rigidly defined milieu there is the constant promise of surprise, of life forking from familiarity into wonder. (2009, 97 min, 35mm widescreen) Ben Sachs