Hartley, Cronenberg and the postmodern odyssey

The idea of posting short movies throughout June was a good one, with only thing we’d overlooked: the next post would be the 400th one. Congratulating ourselves could be done easily and cracking open a bottle of bubbly goodness likewise, but the Avenue felt such an occasion couldn’t go without a special post. It didn’t take long to find a topic – especially not after watching Cosmopolis – but it was clear this wouldn’t become a mini review. So now, with a bit of delay, post n°400.

Working your way through a book that may or may not be finished this year, some things just add a bit of pepper to your brain. My two favourite directors are Hal Hartley and David Cronenberg. Both released work in 2012, Cronenberg even managed to complete two movies. A Dangerous Method was reviewed earlier, the somewhat controversial Cosmopolis was his second release. Meanwhile, a good start of a sentence and also the title of Hartley’s movie. Reviewing this one would be a bit more problematic. It’s always a lot more difficult to dissect the work of your favourities, but in this case there was an additional hurdle to be overcome: I helped pay for the movie. Surely, if I’d give 8 out of 10 to this film, people might think I was way too subjective to review it accurately. Not talking about it wasn’t an option either (after all, you want people who read this to seek out the movies you like), so up until the end of May it looked as if Meanwhile would get a mini review somewhere in the summer. And that’s when Robert Pattinson needed a haircut…

Allow me to call a character by the actor’s name, it’s quite appropriate here: the poster of the movie was a picture of the main character in his limo, next to three names: Cronenberg, Pattinson and (author) Don DeLillo. All this raises speculations: why “Mr. Twilight”? Or even, why not? Was Pattinson chose because of his name recognitions or was he genuinely interested in shooting a movie with David Cronenberg? After the movie, I still don’t know.

Not knowing is not a bad feeling about this film, I have to admit. Never before – and yes, I watched all of his feature films – did I feel so disappointed when a Cronenberg movie opened. A feeling I couldn’t shake loose during the first half hour. Pattinson is someone who lives far from my comfort zone: I’m not a teen girl, so I don’t adore him. And not being a teen girl, I’m hardly interested in his movies. I had heard people saying Pattinson couldn’t act, but I hadn’t seen proof which could confirm or deny it. Here, a tub of lard could’ve given the same performance and I had trouble coping.
But then something struck me. Especially during a psycho-babble scene I suddenly noticed something. Cosmopolis felt very much like watching a re-enactment of a Bret Easton Ellis book. That author has a clinical style (much like Cronenberg) and is able to tell a story for hundreds of pages, only making you realise at the end the plot was very much a vacuum. Ellis’s books contain a desolate collection of nothingness. So does Cosmopolis: Pattinson’s character is a rich guy (like a lot of BEE characters) with only one thing on his mind: getting to the other side of town to get a haircut.

Hmm, a trip to the barber shop in a limousine and, in the meantime, he meets other characters. Isn’t this very much like a contemporary version of an age-old literary style? Yes, Cosmopolis embodies the postmodern version of an odyssey. No decade-long search for power battling sirens and cruel people, but a trip in a flashy limo across town. Doesn’t sound too intriguing and in fact, it isn’t. You might as well watch paint dry, but who better to make you focus on how a wall copes with drying paint than David Cronenberg? Don’t hope you’ll feel sympathy for the main character: he is as unlikable as any multimillionaire whizz-kid can get. There are a couple of other characters and it’s nice to see how some of them cope with our protagonist, but they’re far from irreplacible.
Much like the story. It focuses on this daredevil trip on a day someone may or may not harm the president and, worse!, our ‘hero’. But all he wants is a haircut. And that’s it. It’s the 400th review and I don’t think we’ve ever given you such a short summary. Oh yes, the assassin will reveal himself at the end of the movie (it’s Paul Giamatti by the way, so if you think you spot him in the background earlier in the film you’re not wrong – and no, that wasn’t a spoiler). Rather than a gun fight at the ranch there’s a lengthy dialogue about why our protagonist needs to die and that is the biggest weakness of the film. Here the movie reveals itself as an adaptation from a book and I can only assume the finale would be more interesting to read than to watch. Like in the rest of the film, not much happens, but there’s a lot of dialogue to go through, especially if you can’t pause. The ending left me cold. Not clinically cold, like the rest of the film, but cold in a bad way. I wasn’t expecting more – really, expect two hours of nothingness if you watch Cosmopolis – but it’s hard not to hum “Is that all there is?” once the credits have started rolling.

So how does that compare to Meanwhile, the first “long” movie by Hal Hartley since 2006? Clocking off at only 56 minutes, ‘long’ may not be the most appropriate word, but it’s definitely longer than the short movies Hartley directed after Fay Grim. Also, let’s not forget that Hartley shone with Surviving Desire, which didn’t exceed the hour-long mark either.
Meanwhile also offers us an odyssey, this one taken by Joe, the handyman who can fix anything. So let’s see how he deals with getting keys to the apartment of Hartley’s wife. She is out of town and Joe will look after the place. And Joe may be handy, but he doesn’t care about money. You’ll notice that: along his odyssey through Manhattan Joe will encounter several people and there’s plenty of opportunity to get his hands on some cash, but Joe does not seem interested.

In the short movies Hartley made in the past decade he often experimented with style and storylines, but for Meanwhile he went back to a more narrative format, without forgetting the best tricks he picked up from his experiments. The director still manages to create a vacuum world in which the dialogue sounds natural, but again, like with Cosmopolis, do not expect too much action here: this is a movie about a handy guy who needs to get keys and the people he encounters. The main difference is that Joe is likable.
One of the first people Joe encounters is a woman who wants to jump off a bridge. Don’t expect them to hook up, it’s Joe’s odyssey and even in postmodern times odysseys are undertaken alone. But it is a scene to pay some attention to because it summarizes all that the director embodies: the distilled dialogue, slightly awkward settings and detail to style. It’s not the best work Hartley ever made, but it’s a nice way to spend an hour. Meanwhile is a title that’s very much Hartley in that his earliest feature included captions like “meanwhile” or “two weeks later”. It’s not a return to form, but the next step in the director’s evolution. Much like it’s quite odd to see a severely underdressed woman in a Hartley movie. Yet, for some reason, Joe’s long-haired girlfriend (talk about functional hairdo) does not seem inappropriate.

In a way you could say that of Cronenberg as well: since A History of Violence the director seemed to have wandered off the familiar paths, but the rumour mill told us the Canadian director would now be up for a tv series with a surgeon. The title would be Knifeman and it would star Tim Roth. Eerily enough, Meanwhile was initially also a tv project, but it didn’t work out as planned. In a way, that makes Meanwhile Hartley’s Mulholland Drive. And like Lynch’s movie it’s an idea that, once tv didn’t like it, was rebooted into a movie that included all the director’s personal trademarks.

Meanwhile, 8/10
Cosmopolis, 7.5/10

3 thoughts on “Hartley, Cronenberg and the postmodern odyssey

  1. deeopey July 16, 2012 / 13:19

    400 Posts! Nicely done. Glad to see you got to review some favourites for it too, even if they weren’t quite as up to par as you would’ve liked.


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