Feck, as the Irish say. Feckin’ independent film, it’s not worth shite.
I just watched Ondine, this Neil Jordon thing set in contemporary Ireland about a soulful fisherman played by Colin Farrell, who catches a young woman in his fishing net and wonders if she might be a water nymph or some damn thing. It’s a crusher, a masterpiece of patience-testing boredom. It’s one of those films that keeps almost ending, but just as your flattened spirits perk up a bit in anticipation, you realize there’s a whole other wearisome sequence to go through before the characters emote their way to the obvious finale. By the time the real ending arrives, you’ve lost your capacity to rejoice in freedom regained, and you plod out sighing, “Well, the cinematography was beautiful.”
Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is always beautiful. He’s the guy who came to fame shooting Wong Kar-wai’s films (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, Happy Together, etc.). He can shoot a concrete wall and make you think, “Wow, just look at the texture! I never knew grey was such a complex color!”
And some people really like that kind of thing. But I find a little of it goes a long way.
You might wonder why I’d be watching such moony, broody, character-study kind of junk on Memorial Day weekend, when the summer season of Hollywood genre film kicks off and there must be a couple of big hyperkinetic blockbusters out there. Ha! In their most recent campaign to utterly destroy the movie industry, the studios have released the following: Shrek 4; Sex and the City 2, by most accounts a stomach-turning train wreck getting some of the worst reviews of our generation; and The Prince of Persia starring Jake Gyllenhall, an earnest low-wattage actor who hit the gym and got hair extensions and vainly hoped to be mistaken for an action hero.
Naturally these are all doing anemic business, with Shrek 4 tottering to a weak first place over the other two, because parents have to do something to distract the hyperactive kids on holiday weekends.
What to make of Hollywood’s latest suicidal throes? Recently Ted Hope, the Focus Features guy who directs scowling dramas like In the Bedroom, wrote a thing called “Twelve Thoughts on the Value of Cinema”. Yes, it’s just as pompous as the title suggests, but at least he’s trying to help. Hope wrestles with the basic problem that the movie industry charges us ten dollars a pop to watch stuff that doesn’t seem worth ten dollars, and something must be done about it. So he post these twelve thoughts, which include:
1. IMHO the greatest value cinema has always brought is community aka social capital. This is not to say that this is beyond pleasure, but something that is unique to the form. Cinema is a tool to organize community. Movies help people to connect. Can this connection — and the odds thereof — be increased?
2. Another historic value of the movie going experience is intellectual capital. Yet we do very little to increase either of this value. Where’s the equivalent of Oprah’s Book Club for Movies that bring both social and intellect capital? Where are the study notes for every film? What is done to aid in the appreciation of the art? To place the work in a cultural context? Where we once had critics, we now find a synopsis and stars.
3. Intellectual capital is increased by exposure to a new world. Intellectual capital is increased by exposure to beauty. Intellectual capital is increased by exposure to emotional complexity and emotional truth. This exposure is a value unto itself….
You see how quickly Hope’s thoughts become part of the problem, by being very, very boring thoughts. By Thought 3 you know you’ll never make it all the way down to Thought 12. And we can’t afford any more boredom in the world of film. We’re full up.
Look, people, even if you’re an arty-indie filmmaker type, you have to acknowledge that what enables your “art” is the excitement people have always felt about commercial cinema. There wouldn’t be a film industry or an audience or an opportunity to make radical cinematic art that defies Hollywood conventions, if way back in 1895 people hadn’t been excited by movies, and hadn’t stayed excited for generations. You kill that excitement and it’s off to the museum for you. And you are killing it, you worthless industry execs, you indie film gits. I looked at the upcoming movie schedule for the summer and was stunned at the dreariness of the prospect. The A-Team with Liam Neeson is starting to look like a highlight, that’s how barren a wasteland it is.
On rare occasions now there will be a little jolt of anticipation to remind one of former glories. Recently I read a thing somewhere about how Quentin Tarantino wants to make a movie about John Brown, a personal hero of his. That’s John Brown the great crazy fanatic abolitionist who made a legendary mess of the raid on Harper’s Ferry in the vain hope of generating an uprising against Southern slaveholders, and got hanged for his trouble. He died so beautifully they wrote that song about him later known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, but in its first incarnation, Union soldiers marched off to war singing “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in his grave…”
The thrill of a possible John Brown epic by Tarantino was considerably quenched when Tarantino added that he wanted to play Brown himself, claiming there’s a strong physical resemblance between them. As if Tarantino resembled anything human!
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, back to Ondine. Technically Ondine doesn’t even open till next weekend, not that it matters, since nobody will be battering down the theater doors to see it anyway. It’s gotten most of its advance press from the report that Colin Farrell knocked up his co-star, Polish newcomer Alicja Bachleda, who spends a lot of the movie in wet mesh mini-dresses and Victoria’s Secret-style underwear ensembles. So at least somebody got some fun out of it.
For the rest of us, though, it’s gloomy and moody and repetitious and annoyingly fey and everybody’s Acting like mad. Lots of long meaningful pauses, and gazing out over Irish seascapes, and saying cryptic things before rising suddenly and stalking away. The soundtrack has a lot of those songs featuring a monotonously strummed guitar accompanying a lone female voice mumbling and muttering about wrongs done to her.
Both leads have big manes of hair for epic hair-acting. Farrell outdoes his leading lady easily here. She sticks with either slick wet hair, due to her innumerable swims, or long tangled tresses, artful bed-head. These novices! Naturally an experienced star like Farrell has a lot more technique to draw on. He lets his hair hang in his face like closed curtains, or half-tucks it up under his adorable wool fisherman’s cap, or swings it back like a horse to punctuate a particularly emotional moment—it’s pretty impressive.
His character’s name is Syracuse, but he’s called “Circus” for short, as in clown. That’s because his reputation in the village is shot after years as a comical drunk, though he’s since become a sober citizen. (I know—a bad reputation in Ireland for hard drinking. This film isn’t even trying for verisimilitude.) Everyone calls him “Circus” like five million times, and he keeps correcting them, saying “Syracuse” in a pained voice, until you want to beat your head against a wall. Endless repetition of supposedly significant motifs is one of the main traits of arty-indie film, and Ondine is going for the record.
Syracuse has a little daughter Annie (Alison Barry) who’s ailing and has to go about pathetically in a wheelchair. (Jaysus!) She’s one of those old-soul kids you see in movies who say presciently wise, whimsical things. She’s a great believer in myths and fairy tales and immediately spots Ondine as a possible water nymph, or a mermaid, or maybe a selkie, a Celtic variation, a seal that can turn into a woman so she can get it on with a mortal man. Anyway, Annie stares thoughtfully at Ondine and says, “Curious.” And I thought, oh, boy, here we go, it’s an homage to Alice in Wonderland, when the talking White Rabbit and the magic Eat-me Cake and all that cause Alice to remark, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Then a scene or two later, Annie remarks, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Then in a while she says it again, presumably so we won’t miss the subtle intertextual reference, and Ondine says, “What?” and Annie explains that it’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland, and then Ondine starts saying “Curiouser and curiouser,” and pretty soon it’s a pointless catchphrase, and you want to beat your head against a wall some more.
The Ondine story is incredibly dicey material anyway; nobody should touch it who isn’t possessed of a rare vision that can overcome its diciness. It’s one of those myths that gets adapted into everything—a play, a ballet, an opera—presumably because the idea of a mortal man having sex with an immortal water nymph never loses its kick. The play version sounds a lot like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, in that the guy heartlessly betrays the water nymph who loves him and is way out of his league, and things end badly. Audrey Hepburn played Ondine onstage before she became a film star, and one can only assume it helped a lot that she looked like Audrey Hepburn.
Alicja Bachleda hasn’t got that advantage. She’s a pretty girl, though from certain cruel angles she’s got a face like a shovel, and there’s nothing remotely otherworldly about her. So it’s always clear she’s some mini-skirted refugee from a sea-going catastrophe, probably involving crime, judging by the hard-bitten way she wears boots with her mini. When seemingly magical stuff starts happening—the hangdog fisherman Syracuse actually catches some fish, for example—it doesn’t matter, it’s so clearly got nothing to do with the ordinary pretty girl with the Polish accent. It’s merely annoying when Annie and Syracuse keep pushing the selkie/water nymph theory and Ondine buys into it too, till her inevitable mean-criminal boyfriend shows up.
Oh, and I almost forgot: Stephen Rea plays a wry, tolerant priest always having to hear Syracuse’s dull confessions. Not a wry priest, I hear you begging—please say there’s not a wry priest along with the soulful fisherman, the wheelchair-bound child, and the maybe-water-nymph! But it’s true, they’re all present and accounted for. And since the rest of the cast consists mainly of Townspeople more or less painted on the backdrop, that’s all you ever get, in varying combinations: fisherman, wheelchair kid, nymph, priest. It’s a relief when the mean boyfriend finally arrives, bringing the violence. Though he turns out to be a dud in that area. Nothing interesting comes of it.
To be fair, I guess I should mention that I’m not a huge fan of Neil Jordan, the writer-director, who also did The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, Interview with the Vampire, etc. He strains so hard for effect it’s exhausting to watch his stuff. And he’s done Colin Farrell no favors, drawing the misguided eejit into yet another slow-moving gloom-fest completely unsuited to his talent. I guess it’s too late to hope Farrell will ever get a clue; when his career’s over, In Bruges and one lively guest spot on the TV show Scrubs will be all the evidence left of a wasted comic gift.
Stupid gobshite! As the permanently enraged old priest in the great Irish TV show Father Ted sums it up, “Feck! Feck! Feck!”
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