Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Tanner '88 (1988)

Tanner '88
was an 11-part mini-series directed by Robert Altman and written by Garry Trudeau that aired on HBO during the run up to the 1988 American presidential election. Starring Michael Murphy as underdog presidential candidate Jack Tanner, the series exists somewhere between reality television and mockumentary. Fictional events often take place alongside actual events, like in Haskell Wexler's 1969 "non-fiction film" Medium Cool. Tanner '88 is set during a transitional time in political history when old rules still reigned, new ones were being made, while many universal truths of politics still prevail.

A former congressional representative from Michigan, Tanner often appears as a vapid liberal tolling the 1980s Democratic party line. After eight years of Reagan, Democrats were on the defensive after losing by landslides in the previous two general elections. In off the cuff moments Tanner expresses an idealism that connects with young people. His fledgling campaign in New Hampshire takes off after a recording of him lamenting the loss of 1960s idealism in Reagan's America, in today's parlance, went viral. As the series progresses Tanner's campaign goes through a litany of ups and downs until a dramatic climax at the 1988 Democratic Convention in which he almost swipes the nomination from Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (Dukakis easily wrapped up the nomination at the convention but would lose to Republican candidate George Bush Sr. in the General Election).

Shot on videotape, Altman's familiar style of overlapping dialogue and meandering camera are used to full effect. The film follows three sets of characters: the candidate Tanner, his staff, and the media. A young Cynthia Nixon co-stars his ambitious daughter Alexandria and Pamela Reed as his savvy campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh. Many political figures appear as themselves including Bob Dole, Kitty Dukakis, Pat Robertson, and other minor celebrities from the era.

Now thirty years later Tanner '88 was prescient on a number of levels. Murphy himself is a dead ringer for the traditional Democratic candidate. Like Bill Clinton he would bring a 60s sensibility to his rhetoric but would get ensnared by interparty disputes and personal scandals (in the film Tanner is divorced but a media frenzy ensues when it's revealed he's having an affair with a staffer from a rival campaign). One may also find similarities with Al Gore and John Kerry. The Jesse Jackson campaign also figures into the story, the first African American candidate to nearly attain a presidential nomination. One episode depicts Tanner taking part in a protest the Apartheid system in South Africa, a vibrant part of campus activism during the 1980s. Many have lamented an insular streak plaguing the left recently, noting their concerning indifference to the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong.

Comparisons to The West Wing are often made, but Aaron Sorkin and Robert Altman have vastly different sensibilities. If Tom Clancy novels served as fantasies for conservatives on how political leadership should work, The West Wing did the same for liberals. Fiction allows for those with political inclinations to fantasize about ideal political leadership, but Tanner '88 is more in the tradition of Gore Vidal (would Vidal have liked Hamilton?) Any politician will eventually have to compromise on their ideals, upset the ideologues who support them, and maybe become the very thing they hate. One could easily see Tanner going down such a path, there's an unfashionable cynicism embedded into the story.

Or modern audiences may find Tanner '88 too tame in our period of polarization, decline, populism, fascist flirtations, and all within the vortex of social media. One may even find it naïve and nostalgic for a time when the threat of violence did not hang over national elections. Yet the America of 1988 and 2021 aren't so apart from each other: all politics remain local. The same issues continue to plague the country.

Altman and Trudeau sat down for a discussion for the Criterion Edition, and both fondly remembered the project. The 2004 release also featured updates before each episode with the series principals reprising their roles. In 2019 Murphy returned as Tanner for the 2019 Martin Scorsese film Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story.   

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Sparks Brothers (2021) ***1/2

The Sparks Brothers may not be household names, but chances are you've come across their music in some form along the way. I recall their appearance in the 1977 disaster film Rollercoaster, always thinking they were a fake acid rock band from the era. But they are in fact very real, recording 25 albums over the past 50 years. The documentary The Sparks Brothers directed by Edgar Wright (a big fan himself) covers the many ups and downs of their not so well-known career. Natives of California, Ron Mael and Russell Mael as Sparks defied convention at every point in their career, an approach that both boosted their reputation among their peers, but the popularity that many of the musicians they inspired went on to have, especially in the punk, post-punk and New Wave genres, eluded them. The documentary does an admirable job of navigating the ramshackle path of their career, the recurring motif being they were always ahead of the curve. Talking heads ranging from Beck to their other associates also contribute much to the film. Even Paul McCartney himself gave Sparks a shout out on his 1979 "Coming Up" video. The year 2021 may finally be their breakout year with a popular documentary and the acclaimed film they wrote and scored entitled Annette

Friday, November 5, 2021

The French Dispatch (2021) ***1/2

Wes Anderson specializes in creating worlds of the hyperreal, fantastical representations of the past. His 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, a bittersweet film about Europe in the years leading up to The Second World War, conjures a lively human drama with a melancholy ending. The French Dispatch pays homage to midcentury journalism serving as a spiritual sequel to Budapest Hotel. Inspired by The New Yorker, the film shares four legendary stories from the fictional French Dispatch upon the death of its editor and chief Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by a stately Bill Murray. It's a departure from previous Anderson films in that it's an anthology, telling four separate stories set during different periods of the 20th Century.

"The Cycling Reporter" vignette stars Owen Wilson with him playing up his persona as a roving reporter in the fictional city of Ennui (Paris). "The Concrete Masterpiece" stars Benicio del Toro as a brilliant and volatile artist who falls in love with his jailer played by Lea Seydoux. When art dealers become aware of his work, he becomes a sensation among the intelligentsia.  "Revision of a Manifesto" stars Frances McDormand and Timothy Chalamet during the "Chessboard Revolution" student uprising (May 68). And finally, "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner" features Jeffrey Wright as a food writer who gets caught up in all sorts of intrigue.

Anderson pulls all the stops with his signature visual style including vibrant colors, rotating from B&W to color, and even some animated sequences. Many Anderson regulars also appear, wouldn't it have been cool if Gene Hackman had come out of retirement? Each section recalls something of a lost era. Wilson as the happy go lucky photojournalist evokes an American enthusiasm for immersion in another culture, evoking an endearing sense of wonder and invention. "The Concrete Masterpiece" satirizes the media obsession with macho, temperamental artist. At the same time there's a nostalgia for a time when a painting could shake up the world. 

"Revision of a Manifesto" is the most adventurous chapter as it follows the student leader (Chalamet) of a revolution agonizing over writing a manifesto and receiving help from seasoned reporter played by McDormand. The style looks and feels like a Godard film from the period (through the more precise eye of Anderson). Yet its patronizing tone towards the mythology of student/worker solidarity of May '68 borders on smug conservatism. The last tale is the most chaotic and tragicomic but held together by Wright (a James Baldwin/Truman Capote composite) as he relates his story about a legendary chef during a Dick Cavett type interview.

If The Grand Budapest Hotel lamented the loss of a more refined and harmonious world ended by crude modernism (for lack of a better ism), The French Dispatch imagines a past when Chaplinesque figures and sincere eccentrics shaped culture - for the better. One did not read books about how to be creative or think like an artist, it was about being present. 

I've found Anderson's past films to be wonderful to look at, but shallow in their view of humanity. His recent films bear the same aesthetic of visual perfection, but also reveal an intriguing conversation with the past by creating characters who were fully engaged with their time and were also aware things were changing. I hope he makes a film set in more contemporary times to truly put his aesthetic to the test, as opposed to seeking cover in the grandeur of the past. I'm sure reading every issue of The New Yorker from 1945 to say 1975 leaves anyone with a literary bent drunk on romantic notions of witnessing and shaping their times. 

The French Dispatch reveals Anderson is still at the height of his powers, the question is whether he'll continually take cover in an imagined past or deal more directly with the troubled present.

Last Night in Soho (2021) ***1/2

Edgar Wright's latest Last Night in Soho channels the energy of Swinging '60s London in a fantastical story that's also set in the present. With two strong female leads in Thomasin McKenzie and Anna Taylor-Joy and a supple soundtrack of deep cuts of British rock and pop music from the Mid-1960s, the film builds a momentum that sustains itself even when the story gets a little murky.

Eloise (McKenzie) begins the film by learning the news she's been accepted into a London fashion school, her dream come true. Enamored with everything about the 1960s from the music to the fashions, she soon finds herself literally transported to the era. Upon arriving in London, she's picked on by her snooty roommates for being a country mouse lacking in style and charisma. Feeling like an outcast, Eloise decides to rent a room in an old neighborhood with somewhat foreboding landlady with strict rules. But it's quieter and allows for privacy. But then things begin to get a little strange.

At night she finds herself inhabiting 1965 London, sort of possessing the spirit of Sandy (Taylor-Joy), an ingenue on the London scene trying to make her way as a singer. Jack (Matt Smith)claims to have connections to the music business and romances Sandy, making big promises along the way. In time Sandy finds herself ensnared into the London underworld. Meanwhile, Eloise begins to adopt Sandy's persona in present day London as their identities begin to converge. Sandy provides Eloise with a newfound confidence as she begins to excel at school. 

A sense of foreboding begins to take over the story as the second half moves into thriller and horror territory. The past Eloise romanticizes no longer looks that great as she begins to realize there are ghosts everywhere. Wright's approach to the scares mostly reminded me of Kubrick's in The Shining, there's an old timey haunted house look, while evoking the unspoken horrors of the past, perpetuated by older men on young women. 

The vividness of the visual and sonic landscape makes up for some of the weak points in the story, which nearly careens into incoherence during the final 20 minutes. McKenzie was perfectly cast as Eloise, coming off two memorable performances in Jojo Rabbit and Leave No Trace. Taylor-Joy, unforgettable in The Queen's Gambit, is never fully developed as a character although she does have some memorable moments. To its credit, Last Night in Soho is never boring, Wright's passion for cinema is evident in every shot. One may complain about style being highlighted above narrative cohesion, but I don't see that as a negative in this case, a compelling journey most of the way through.