THE YEAR OF THE LIMO:
  SOME NOTES ON THE FILMS OF 2012

eric pfriender

One of the hazards of regularly posting your Year End Write-Up in February of the next calendar year is that there's a chance using titles like "Year of the Limo" is probably going to make you look like a rip-off artist - surely someone got to it first. But a quick googling of the phrase tells me that I may in fact be the only English-speaking freelance (emphasis on free) internet film writer who thinks the two limousine-centric art house films of 2012 were the best films of the year. How is that possible?

In its third year, my year-ender caveats and disclaimers are now standard: didn't see everything, don't believe in best-of lists (but secretly fetishize them), etc. New disclaimer: I think the Oscars are dumb, because I think the idea of what are ostensibly pieces of art (but are in actuality something closer to, say, Big Macs) competing against each other for supremacy is fundamentally ridiculous. Nevertheless, I made an effort to see most of this year's Oscar contenders, and am offering my thoughts on them, free of charge, to anyone who is interested. I should mention that there are nine movies up for Best Picture, and I only saw six of them, but I managed to say a few obnoxious things about the other three anyway.

 

  THE CANON

COSMOPOLIS

The reason the section on Cosmopolis is so long is simple: Cosmopolis is my favorite movie. Not my favorite Cronenberg film, or my favorite movie of the year, but my favorite movie. Of everything. I like it more than Naked. More than Badlands. More than Chinatown. More than Seven Samurai, Wages of Fear and Touchez pas au Grisbi. More, even, than The 'burbs. I come home at night and think about whether or not to put Cosmopolis on. It doesn't even get put back in the Cronenberg section of the dvd shelves anymore, I just leave it near the TV so I can put it on faster. It has joined my canon of works of art that have spoken to me, and shone a light in the cold darkness of existence. It is my favorite movie. Now: a few things. 1) This may change. Six months ago Cosmopolis didn't even exist, and my favorite move was some ever-shifting order of the films listed above. But right now, at this moment, this is an accurate statement: Cosmopolis is my favorite film. 2) This is not necessarily a recommendation for you to watch it. Chances are pretty good that you won't like it very much. It's plot description is something like "A very rich young man decides to get a haircut, and takes his limo across town to the barber. There is a lot of traffic." If that doesn't sound like your particular flavor of hummus, feel free to skip ahead.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that I was going to love Cosmopolis, but I went in with limited expectations. I had been fooled by the past few Cronenberg films, lulled into thinking that he was on an unstoppable downhill trajectory. The brutal, goofy disappointment of A History of Violence led to the sheer bland emptiness of Eastern Promises, directly into the indifferently-filmed grad school essay that was A Dangerous Method; the fact that the latter two starred two of cinema's most pleasant-to-look-at ladies only compounded my belief that Cronenberg, hard as it was to believe, may be past his expiration date. I was way off - turns out he was just waiting for the right material.

When it was announced Cronenberg was going to adapt Cosmopolis, I had an internal dilemma: do I read the book now, before I see the movie, or do I wait? Cosmopolis is part of a run of slender volumes DeLillo has been churning out since Underworld, all of which at that point I hadn't read yet. Whose vision did I want to experience untainted, uncolored by the other's, DeLillo's or Cronenberg's? They are two of my favorite artists in each of their respective mediums, but who was more important to me? This being the age of the iPad, I basically just succumbed to my desire to have something NOW, and during a particularly slow shift at work, beamed the book to my devices and plowed through it. I made the right decision, because Cosmopolis is, above all else, an adaptation of DeLillo's book, and is sort of inseparable from it.

Cosmopolis was not a particularly well-received novel upon its release in 2003. At best, the reviews were mixed. It was DeLillo's second book after the enormous, universally-praised, half-century encompassing Underworld, as well as his second in a run of shorter works, and it's possible that critics may have been a little underwhelmed. It was also his first book to be written since the attacks of 9/11, but despite being set in New York and being very much a New York book, it's set in the year 2000 and so doesn't deal with the attacks at all. The criterati may have been disappointed that DeLillo wasn't helping us through our collective cultural despair by crystallizing it in his prose, taking it out on the book that he wrote while wishing for one that he hadn't. In any case, I'd bet money that history will be kind to Cosmopolis as a novel. If nothing else, the thing was prescient. Sure, the protesters depicted in its pages were probably inspired by earlier events, but from the perspective of 2012, in the wake of a financial collapse mirroring Eric Packer's and massive Occupy Wall Street protests taking place on the streets of New York, it's spooky to think that the book had been on shelves for a decade already when producers brought it to Cronenberg's attention. And while it doesn't have the epic scope of Underworld, in many ways it is here that DeLillo has honed his prose style down to its essence. There's not a word out of place; it feels delicately perfect. Take this passage, from the first sequence of the novel:

"He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut."

What a perfect distillation of the thought process, simultaneously kicking off the novel's "plot." The book is really a Ulysses homage, detailing a single day in the life of Eric Packer, 28-year-old multi-billionaire finance strategist. He leaves his giant penthouse apartment, gets in his limo, and spends the day trying to get across town to his barber. Along the way he has several encounters with his wife, some employees, and a few other associates, while simultaneously making large bets against the yen, losing his entire fortune in the process. According to Cronenberg, when he was approached to adapt the novel, he transcribed DeLillo's book into screenplay format, excised a few sections, updated the yen to the yuan, and then read it to see if he thought it was a movie he'd like to see. Thankfully, it was.

Looking back over his career, it's clear that among his many, many gifts, Cronenberg is uniquely talented at the art of adaptation. Naked Lunch is a weird, brilliant fusion of Cronenberg's and Burroughs' sensibilities. Same for Crash, but there Cronenberg was melding his vision with J.G. Ballard's. Spider, Dead Ringers...even The Fly was an adaptation of sorts. Naked Lunch is nearly incomprehensible unless viewed through the prism of the careers and obsessions of its two central authors. This is the key to watching Cosmopolis: I believe that it stands on its own as a film, but when considered not just as a film about Eric Packer, but also as a film about DeLillo, the film is brilliant.

It's a weird thing, realizing that you're watching your favorite movie as you're watching it. It happened to me about thirty minutes in. I had this thought: "Is this my favorite movie?" I spent the rest of the film both exhilarated and terrified: exhilarated that Cronenberg was pulling off the feat of taking a great DeLillo novel and turning it into one of the great existential comedies, and terrified that it was too good to be true, that he would drop the ball before the film was over. Contrary to the majority of critical assessments I've read, the ending of Cosmopolis is phenomenal, a short tour-de-force in and of itself. Giammatti is amazing, the blocking is amazing, the dialogue is amazing, the cinematography is amazing, all working towards a gut wrenching final second. It might have been the happiest I had ever been walking out of a theater. I went back to see it again (bringing somebody who ended up hating it) to see if I could possibly have liked it as much as I remembered. I liked it more. I've seen it several times since, and each time I expect my excitement for it to diminish, but it keeps holding strong.

Funny story about me, Cosmopolis and the internet: I saw the film opening morning, and tweeted something about how I thought it might be my favorite film as I was having lunch afterwords. I didn't think much of the tweet, just one of those narcissistic little gestures I let float out into the ether once in a while. Later that night, I noticed I had a large amount of unread emails. Scanning through them, I noticed they were all from Twitter. Something called the "Cosmopolis Film Blog" had retweeted my tweet, as my posting was one of the first responses to the film, which was in limited release. Soon afterward, that retweet was being retweeted by dozens and dozens of people who follow the Cosmopolis blog. I assumed the people retweeting me were like-minded Cronenberg and DeLillo followers, which turned out to only be half the story - they were joined by a legion of rabid Rob Pattinson fans, with twitter handles like @ultimatepattinsonfan and @iloverob27. I didn't know much about Rob Pattinson before I saw him play Eric Packer, I was just vaguely aware of him being the dude from the Twilight movies. I think he's brilliant in Cosmopolis. His performance evolves over the course of the film. He starts out cold and stiff, and gradually comes alive, so that by the time he is walking into his assassin's lair at the film's end he is positively buoyant, a wonderful illustration of DeLillo's ongoing thesis that the way to become most human is to kill someone, even if that someone is yourself. In any case, that's how I got sucked into a weird corner of the internet that I never would have known existed had I not loved Cosmopolis, and I can't help but feel a shred of hope that somewhere, a fifteen-year-old Rob Pattinson fan went to usee Cosmopolis to see her dream boy take on a "serious role," and had her mind forever altered by Cosmopolis, and in thirty years will be the next Cronenberg. Until then, we'll just have to be content with the news that Cronenberg has announced plans to film DeLillo's The Body Artist, starring Denis Lavant, Isabelle Huppert, and himself. I'll see you there, opening morning.

 

HOLY MOTORS

This one's a little bit harder to talk about, partially because chances are you haven't seen it yet, and seeing it unsullied without any idea of what to expect is definitely the best way to experience Holy Motors. The film starts in a dream (I think) and then gets weirder from there. I don't want to spoil anything, despite the fact that there's almost no narrative to speak of. Without ruining anything, let me present a list of themes and topics the film covers: life, death, suicide, rebirth, murder, performance, music, regret, technology, nostalgia, wealth, fear, identity, lust, love, beauty, work, responsibility, and hair-eating goblins that live in the sewers of Paris. If you are interested in any of these subjects, I highly recommend that you watch Holy Motors as quickly as possible. It's like a cinematic Rorschach test: there's something there for everyone to see, you just have to look.

In the first of my two favorite performances of the year, Denis Lavant plays a man whose job it is to travel around Paris in the back of a limousine, keeping "appointments" in which he performs as, or becomes, different characters. (Depending on how you look at at, it's either one performance or a dozen - hard to say.) It's never made clear who he is working for, although at one point he has a conversation with someone who may or may not be his boss, and he seems weary of his work, while simultaneously resigned to the importance of his responsibilities, even while the audience is kept at a maddening arm's length from understanding what those responsibilities are. Yet despite never really understanding what is happening, over the course of the film we are taken on a tour not just of Paris, but seemingly the totality of the human experience. Also, there is an intermission featuring an impromptu accordion jam, because why the fuck not?

If what you're looking for is a strong narrative and a likable lead character, you'll probably give up on Holy Motors after thirty minutes or so. If you stick with it, you'll see the most consistently exciting and surprising film of the year. Every three minutes something completely unexpected and completely thrilling happens. Holy Motors is totally unique, and totally fucking awesome.

 

NEXT PAGE: MORE OF ERIC'S FAVORITES and HIS TAKE ON THE OSCAR-NOMINATED MOVIES

 

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