Action and Anti-Action

As a screenwriter you  spend so much time devising beginnings, middles, and ends, you begin to feel like a structure nag. In collaboration, or in the post mortem following the screening of a “just okay” film, you’re the one pointing out that the dramatic problem wasn’t clear enough, or the stakes never got higher as Act Two ground on, or the dangling subplot hurt things. Always, you feel, some visual or stylistic imperative got between the viewer and the story the writer wanted to tell.

Well, yesterday I saw two films, both by writer-directors, both bending the rules enough to make screenwriter-scold inside me shut up for a day.

Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours has a great premise for why two strangers would meet and start to care about one another and effortlessly talk about art. By the time you’re five minutes in, you have already been treated to a voiceover by its lead character describing his life as a museum guard and his appreciation of Brueghel in particular, so you’re not surprised when the structure turns out to be just faintly present enough to give you that familiar feeling of being in a movie once in a while, when all along you’ve been watching a discovery about art unfolding.

Cohen credits conversations with Patti Smith for the film, and although it’s largely about Vienna, it feels like a “downtown” New York philosophical position is being staked out here, one once hinted at by Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With André: “Isn’t there just as much reality to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?”

Nicolas Winding Refn (foreground), Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam.

Nicolas Winding Refn (foreground), Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam.

A train ride home to Brooklyn, and a sweaty jog, and I’m back in a theater, in the balcony of the BAM Harvey, which has a new, enormous screen. The new film by Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling called Only God Forgives, was having its New York premiere. It was like their previous film, Drive, but with the misogyny and a few unbearable scenes of violence jacked up to a cartoonish level. Unlike, say, Tarantino, Refn’s devotion to genre includes no devotion to story points, which he dispenses with carelessly in favor of surprises. This is no doubt what his fans like about him. I just find myself wishing there was more stuff to go with the style. Whereas Jem Cohen is all stuff, there’s no center of gravity in Refn besides “Wow, dude” clichés.

At the Q and A, between oddly impolite, pervy comments, Refn spoke very touchingly about Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom he credits with “inventing pop cinema.” I’m not sure quite what that means, and I was so high in the balcony, it’d have been futile to raise my hand and ask, “What the hell are you talking about?” I’m sure we’ll hear and read a lot about this film in the coming weeks.