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The Perils of Art Films and the DVD Experience: "Yes," "Palindromes," and "The Ballad of Jack & Rose" PDF Print E-mail
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 20 December 2005 18:00

Joan Allen in YesLast week, I received an e-mail from a reader asking whether I thought Ang Lee’s wildly acclaimed Brokeback Mountain would be playing in the area any time soon. She also referenced Capote and The Squid & the Whale – two other small-scale, independently financed films with a whole slew of end-of-the-year accolades and no current release date set for Quad Cities venues – and concluded her correspondence with a cry often heard from we Midwestern art-film fans: “Are we not grown-up enough to see these films?”

Brokeback Mountain I’m not concerned about. As nearly everyone now knows, Lee’s sweeping, romantic (and, yes, gay-themed) western has been earning rave reviews since its premiere at this fall’s Toronto Film Festival; any hesitancy about the local booking of this elegiac cowboy love story will, I’m guessing, be outweighed by the extraordinary buzz the film has been generating. (And even if Brokeback doesn’t get scheduled at either Showcase 53 or the Great Escape Theatre, the film is listed as an upcoming release on The Rocket Theatre’s Web site.) I’ll be shocked if we don’t see it here within a month.

As for Capote and The Squid & the Whale – and barring spectacular awards-organization showings from these movies over the next two months – area film fans may have to resign themselves to catching up with these titles on DVD. The sad truth is that, considering the size of our market and the number of prints released for specialty works of this sort, a lot of the movies that national critics and art-house aficionados rave about don’t even merit consideration for local release. (As opposed to, say, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, which premiered on 3,858 American screens, Capote was being seen – at its apex – at 317 sites, and The Squid & the Whale never made it past 90.)

Such are the perils of living in a smaller film market. Thank goodness for DVD, which, when faced with releases like Yours, Mine, & Ours and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, gives we cinephiles options outside of the expectedly “heartwarming” holiday fare we’re all too accustomed to.

Yet seeing art films on DVD can be a double-edged sword. True, the intimacy of the DVD experience – in which you can adjust the picture and sound to your liking and the only cell phone ringing will be your own – can aid in your enjoyment of an untraditional narrative enormously, and, let’s face it, beggars really can’t be choosers; if we film fans are forced to choose between seeing Capote on DVD and not seeing it at all, I’d go with the former every time.

But, somewhat ironically, you also have to work harder to appreciate art films on DVD, as I was recently reminded after renting a trio of off-the-beaten-path new releases: Sally Potter’s Yes, Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, and Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack & Rose. Conceits that might seem magical within a darkened auditorium can come off as slight and precious in your living room, and if a work seems a little too proud of its art-film label – if its artistic leanings feel overly self-conscious – you can find it all too easy, when not surrounded by strangers at the cineplex, to giggle at it.

Which brings us to Yes. Potter’s tale of the adulterous affair between an American scientist (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese waiter (Simon Abkarian) is oftentimes a strange and beautiful piece, filled with stunning imagery and arresting visual design, and it boasts a magnificent performance by Allen, who grows more poised and sensual with each new film. Watching Yes is a hypnotic experience.

Catherine Keener and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack & RoseIt’s also a bit of a laugh, because Potter has opted to tell her story through iambic pentameter, a choice that, ultimately, proves as ridiculous as it is risky. While it’s a measure of her cast’s talents that their line readings are as naturalistic as they are, the rhyme-scheme presentation keeps you at a distance from the film’s emotional content; you applaud the stunt, and the fact that Potter can sustain the stunt over the course of 100 minutes, but Potter’s poetic dialogue doesn’t much aid the story she’s telling. It’s a filmmaking conceit that feels like nothing but a filmmaking conceit. (The passion of Potter’s leads might have been more convincing if you weren’t spending so much time wondering how they were going to get their overripe dialogue to rhyme.) At the start, you’re so jazzed by Potter’s boldness that the movie feels exhilarating. By the end, you feel like you’ve just sat through the most deadening Dr. Seuss adaptation ever filmed.

As an artsy cinematic stunt, Potter’s ranks right up there with Solondz’s in Palindromes, in which the New Jersey auteur’s central character – Aviva, a 13-year-old constantly thwarted in her desire to mother a child – is played, randomly, by eight actors of differing ages, races, and levels of performance experience. (At one point, Jennifer Jason Leigh takes over the role.)

For anyone who has enjoyed experiencing Solondz’s bleakly hysterical worldview in the past – in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling, or, his best work to date, Happiness – the prospect of Palindromes is a thrill, and the writer/director comes through with some truly memorable sequences; the mid-film plot twist that sends Aviva into the welcoming arms of a sitcom house overrun with children suffering from physical disabilities (honest to God) is weirdly, almost embarrassingly, funny. Yet, as with Yes, there’s not much to appreciate beyond its atypicality. Solondz is saying that we’re all the same, life will continue as it must, and there’s nothing to be done about it (so it doesn’t matter who plays his central character). This might indeed be true, but so what? Aside from a few moments when Solondz’s humor saves him, Palindromes is a dreary slog that seems to repeat its themes endlessly, and with its shape-shifting lead, it’s all just too damned cute; movies like this and Yes, fascinating though they are in parts, help explain audiences’ wariness of art films.

But then you’ll land on a buried gem like Miller’s The Ballad of Jack & Rose. What begins as a pleasant, fading-hippie idyll concerning the relationship between a dying father (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his 16-year-old daughter (Camilla Belle) turns, by the end, into something almost ravishingly emotional; for long stretches, you can sense the film ignoring its darker impulses, yet in the final reels, Miller’s work proves to be about the ignoring of its darker impulses. Jack & Rose, which boasts sterling work by Catherine Keener and the ever-astonishing Day-Lewis, becomes more and more engrossing as it progresses; it’s the sort of movie that seems nearly invented for DVD, because the finale exudes such power that, after it finishes, you might want to watch the entire movie again immediately. The heartbreaking simplicity and lyricism of The Ballad of Jack & Rose makes you realize that it’s not just art films that are in short supply at the cineplex; it’s honesty.

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