He Wants a Drink, But He Wants Her More

Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe , from a screenplay by Paul Laverty, marks the 30th year of the 62-year-old Mr. Loach’s passionate persistence in making movies about the otherwise forgotten men and women on the lower rungs of complacently capitalist British society. Along the way, Mr. Loach has reached into the inner lives of his subjects with compassion, sensitivity, emotional intelligence and life-affirming humor. He is at the top of his game with My Name Is Joe , a fitting companion piece to such previous Loach landmarks as Poor Cow (1967), Kes (1969), Family Life (1972), Hidden Agenda (1990), Riff Raff (1991), Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird (1993) and Land and Freedom (1995).

My Name Is Joe begins at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that gives the film its title-the second part of the sentence being “and I’m an alcoholic.” It ends with a funeral that reunites two very troubled but passionate lovers making do in the terminally depressed love-and-life-on-the-dole mode, one of the lingeringly bitter fruits of the Thatcherite revolution now glossed over in the Clintonian-centrist Tony Blair interregnum. Yet My Name Is Joe is less an angry rant at social and economic injustice than a compelling love story. It is not without fear, mistrust and danger, and it is sparked by a fierce determination to seize a moment in time when two lives are dangling in the balance.

Peter Mullan as Joe deservedly won the best actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Mullan exudes a commanding charisma with each breath and each step he takes. But Louise Goodall as Sarah Downie, a community-health worker overflowing with hardheaded compassion, was just as deserving of an award. Indeed, Joe and Sarah unleash feelings of mutual lower-caste need capable of exploding into a Liebestod . For all his charm and bluster, Joe is always teetering on the edge of disaster to which one last alcoholic binge might dump him. He might even strike his beloved Sarah, as he did his previous girlfriend and partner in alcoholic self-indulgence.

The amazing thing is that Joe does backslide, temporarily losing Sarah in the process and exposing the malignantly darker drunken side of his personality. Glasgow’s thriving drug culture has threatened the lives of those nearest and dearest to him, and he requires one last belch of outrage to pacify his soul so as to be worthy of a woman shown to be capable of serving as his mistress, wife, companion in candor and even mother-confessor. In their readiness to accept responsibility for other people weaker and more dependent than themselves, Joe and Sarah, separately, establish themselves as moral beacons in a dark world. Consequently, when they come together, they light up the screen with a luminosity that, in Jacques Prévert’s words for Jean-Louis Barrault’s Baptiste in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), would so brighten the earth that it would blot out the sun.

My Name Is Joe has been faulted by some critics for what is perceived as a descent in the end to nonrealist melodrama. I disagree. The tension caused by Joe’s fragile abstinence demanded a violent release. Some of my more cosmopolitan friends told me that they had seen this Glaswegian-dialected movie at Cannes, and that they preferred the New York Film Festival version with its English subtitles. Here I agree completely and enthusiastically. I have long argued that all movies, whether in English or a foreign language, should be subtitled not merely for the deaf and hard of hearing, but also because of the increasing number of line readings being addressed to the other actors, as if confidentially, with no regard for the audience. Not to mention the obvious fact that a huge number of regional dialects and pronunciations here and abroad on the Anglophone periphery are shamelessly indulged in the name of “realism.”

More importantly, My Name Is Joe is so good that there is a virtual certainty that it will end up on my 1999 10-best list. If I seem hyperbolic in the extreme, it is because Mr. Loach needs all the help he can get in the current movie marketplace with its galloping infantilism.

You’ll Need an Interpreter

Neil Jordan’s In Dreams , from a screenplay by Bruce Robinson, possesses all the ingredients of a first-rate atmospheric thriller except a coherent, convincing, compelling narrative. In fact, I am unable in good conscience to tell you how the film ends, not because of the constraints of a reviewer’s code of ethics, but rather because I am not sure I can “read” the dream-switch twist in the final frames of the film. Can a ghost dream? Can a ghost invade the dreams of a living person? These are the less than urgent questions raised by this perplexing film.

One suspects that Mr. Jordan and Mr. Robinson were so determined to seem culturally superior to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) that they chose to keep the audience in a state of frenzied mystification without any reassuringly rational clarification. The two major venues for the film’s dreamscapes are the autumnal forests of such New England locations as Northampton, Amherst, Holyoke, Springfield and other localities in the Pioneer Valley of Hampshire County, Mass., and the Deliverance -like drowned towns submerged long ago by the Tennessee Valley Authority for its dams in North Carolina and Tennessee.

In line with the visual grandiosity of In Dreams , the peripatetic production company eventually moved to Rosarito Beach, Mexico, also the site of filming for Titanic . For In Dreams , a tank created for Titanic was reused to create a supposed New England ghost town immersed in 14 million gallons of water, making the customary intimacy and interiority of dreams the stuff of a cinematic superspectacle that dwarfs the feeble supernatural loony-tunes plot in which the human actors are hopelessly and ridiculously entangled.

The enormously talented and intelligently sensual Annette Bening is largely wasted in the central role of Claire Cooper, an unwilling dreamer of a madman’s menacing pursuit of little girls in what look like apple orchards. A serial child murderer has indeed so far eluded the police, but when Claire tries to explain her bizarre link to a homicidal lunatic, first to her airline pilot husband, Paul (Aidan Quinn), and then to Detective Jack Kay (Paul Guilfoyle), she is greeted with impatient skepticism. We in the audience, of course, know better after we have been dragged through leafy forests and underwater depths. Why can’t Paul and Detective Kay believe our Claire, particularly after her own little girl Rebecca (Katie Sagona) is kidnapped and apparently murdered by the fiend who has invaded the mother’s dreams?

Claire doesn’t have much better luck with Dr. Stevens (Dennis Boutsikaris), who treats her physical symptoms, and Dr. Silverman (the more-sad-eyed-than-usual Stephen Rea), the shrink who listens with palpable weariness to Claire’s ravings. When Robert Downey Jr. bursts upon the scene as the hyper-villainous Vivian Thompson, Claire’s hitherto faceless nightmarish nemesis, the movie begins to wallow in the depths of type-casting. Vivian’s far-fetched case history is the last desperate effort to tie all the loose strands of the plot together, but it is all in vain. As for the marvelous Ms. Bening, I prefer to remember her as the thinking man’s sexpot, emerging in the Presidential bedroom wearing nothing but a man’s oversize shirt in The American President (1995) in one of the most erotic images of the 90′s.

The Complete Works of Bresson

The Robert Bresson retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is mandatory viewing for any serious student of the cinema. In a career that spans five decades, the 91-year-old Mr. Bresson has made 13 feature films and one experimental short. The series will run from Jan. 22 to Feb. 7 and will include all of his films plus a nonfiction 54-minute introduction to the work of the writer-director entitled The Way to Bresson ( De Weg Naar Bresson , 1983). It is directed by Jürrien Rood and Leo de Boer, and contains interviews with Mr. Bresson himself, Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Schrader and Dominique Sanda.

Over the years, I have seen every Bresson film and have taught and written about many of them. What follows is a selection of observations on some of them.

“It is not surprising that a baroque figure like Orson Welles should hate Bresson’s films. Release, so crucial to Welles’ art, is conspicuously absent in Bresson’s.” Review of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne , April 16, 1964.

“Richard Roud has described Bresson’s art as the chamber music of the cinema, and we wait in vain for the heavy orchestration most other directors would employ to enlist our sympathies for Joan. We must make do with the low-voltage, electrifying effect of Joan’s bare feet hobbling along the pavestones, the camera clinging to the earth angle as the disembodied feet convey an invisible soul to a stake mounted against the sky.” Review of The Trial of Joan of Arc , Feb. 18, 1965.

” Au Hasard Balthazar plucks out the roots of existence and presents us with a very morbidly beautiful flower of cinematic art. Bresson’s vision of life and his cinematic style may seem too bleak, too restrictive, too pessimistic for some, perhaps for many. Indeed, I cannot in all candor consider myself the most devoted Bressonian, and I have long ago renounced any ambition to do a definitive analysis of anything to which my entire sensibility does not respond, and there are large gaps in my psyche Bresson leaves untouched. And yet, all in all, no film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being as has Au Hasard Balthazar . I’m not quite sure what kind of movie it is, and indeed it may be more pleasingly vulgar than I suggest, but it stands by itself on one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realized emotional experiences.” Review of Au Hasard Balthazar , 1966.

Well, you get the idea.