Time Out; Lee's Jim Brown

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Urgent as next week's paycheck, Time Out delves into common experience that most movies ignore: work-world identity and anomie. At first it's not clear that Vincent (Aurelien Recoing) has lost his white-collar job, but director-writer Laurent Cantet reveals his professional and psychological drift. Sitting behind the wheel of his parked car, watching the slow defrost of his windshield, Vincent's psychic shock thaws out?giving way to unignorable dread. To pass the time his wife and children think he's at work, Vincent drives through wintry French woods, his self-respect speeding toward disgrace.

Movies have classically lamented the lives of typically destitute people (the poor and elderly?proved by the nondiscriminating praise of any Iranian film and the masterpiece status conferred on DeSica's recently rereleased Umberto D), but Time Out is something else. Cantet's nature and automobile metaphors capture personal and social disorientation so deftly, he instigates what might be called a New World Order of shocked compassion. By rethinking social commonplaces, the class assumptions that provoke our empathy, Cantet shows that when the formerly secure middle class is in a panic, moviegoers' pity no longer trickles down. It expands.

Vincent is a new era's archetypal protagonist, a Travis Bickle spawned by the International Monetary Fund. Pale-faced, pockmarked, almost jowly, Recoing resembles the American comic actor Larry Miller, who alternately plays doofus clerks or obnoxious bureaucrats. That same schmo-like, average-white-guy bearing makes Vincent fascinating when serious worry and unarticulated seething expose him as a frighteningly anonymous Everyman. This intensifies the point of Cantet's debut feature Human Resources, which implied that the need to work?to make a living?was not simply universal but absolute. Its dramatic focus was on a fresh-from-business-school exec's confrontation with a labor union (and how management theory affected his home life). But Time Out's drama more closely examines the self-image one gets from work. Not the false generational pride shown in the naive indie film Stolen Summer (with its fake dilemma of a fireman father keeping his son down) but the sense of self-worth that automatically comes with employment and participation in the economy. Cantet knows the secret side of paycheck dependency. Losing all that puts Vincent in a similar position to characters seen in Mike Leigh's Career Girls, the Dardennes brothers' Rosetta, Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels and The Little Thief. This vision of the modern working world gainsays Marxist analysis to concentrate on an individual's temperament. These filmmakers all confirm that there is suffering and self-delusion inherent in job exploitation but they also uncover the emotional roots of those anxieties, illustrating the characters' unspoken social beliefs (their acted-out but suppressed frustrations). They take unprepossessing characters and draw us into their psychology. Vincent doesn't become vengeful (the American movie reflex of Michael Douglas' character in the abysmal Falling Down); he gets increasingly remote from his family and parents because his disaffection expresses Cantet's considered view of how the current global economy alienates.

Cantet's art is new not just because it's post-Marx but, more excitingly, post-Antonioni. Time Out gets its extraordinary sense of ennui from evoking the places Vincent wanders as an outcast who instinctively wants back in. ("How should I live?"?the first line in Antonioni's La Notte?could underscore all Vincent's closeups.) Corporation lobbies reveal impersonal spaces anyone can fit into, yet these same locales also accommodate?and provoke?anomie (as in Mike Judge's Office Space). An overhead shot of cubicles and offices makes haunting reference to the demoralizing effect of nature-mocking architecture that one sees throughout suburban business sectors (the same anomaly Jacques Tati joked about in Playtime). Vincent moves through a world so full of enforced, artificial social structures that he's even lost during a weekend trip with his wife Muriel (Karin Viard).

Vincent's secretiveness about finding new work shrouds their relationship like the vast, bewildering snowiness. The uneasy natural landscapes?mountaintops and woodsy roads?create stillness and tension also felt in guarded lobbies and in parking lots with video surveillance. Time Out's unnerving peak comes when a security guard jolts Vincent's isolation. Caught by an unrelenting high-powered beam, Vincent is paralyzed in misery. Because Time Out starts with the heartbreak of joblessness, Cantet conscientiously goes on to examine the undependable institutions, what a new character in the film describes as "the legal and parallel economies." Vincent's straying takes him into a con man's confidence. He meets Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet)?an older operator with a gnarled mug that seems to be in-your-face even when he's seated across the table?and sinks into the illicit world of fences and purloined goods. Jean-Michel's an all-too-human tempter (he could be one of Claire Denis' vampires in Trouble Every Day, preying on the commonweal); an outrageous character conceived as normal (at times, he's sensually familiar). Through Jean-Michel, Cantet penetrates how modern life is soaked in avarice?affecting all aspects of trade-based culture, everywhere creating the same participatory horror that the Coen brothers (currently the best satirists of social ambition) attempt laughing themselves out of. (When Vincent visits his old work place, the postal potential invites nervous laughter.)

It's no joke when Vincent's teenage son (who typically wants sneakers, jeans, bikes) is seduced by Jean-Michel's tv-commercial bluster. But the son has inherited something more alarming: his father's super-ego. Ignoring his parents when they visit his karate class, he's already learned the defensive social behavior and independent wiles that boys are heir to and the work world demands. When Cantet's social drama swells into family trauma in a second climax, the nervous, troubled confessions between Vincent and his wife, and between son and father, are quietly devastating. Questioning his social and familial place, Vincent is wracked by the conflict between his personal and group identity. This crisis is so up-to-date, I didn't expect any director to make it so classically moving. Time Out might be a truly great movie, because Cantet suggests that Vincent's predicament is not only timeless but eternal.

Jim Brown: All-American
Directed by Spike Lee

Jim Brown's movie career is just four films (The Dirty Dozen, Fingers, Mars Attacks!, Any Given Sunday) better than Elvis Presley's, yet this documentary praises Brown's filmography as a key event in black American culture. More bollocks from Spike Lee. To make this assertion, Lee uses historian-apologist Donald Bogle to lead the charge against Sidney Poitier as an emasculated figure; it fits Lee's nonsensical, racist resentment of any Hollywood film he didn't direct. (It takes an aside by Melvin Van Peebles to provide necessary historical dimension by simply mentioning Jack Johnson, for his time a more radical figure than Brown.)

Brown's current image?head shaved, kufi-wearing, 'stache dyed black?is shown as if hallowed. But it's not elder-statesman wisdom that Lee venerates; he presents Brown as an ideal that "Stands up for African maleness"?once again racializing his film's subject simply because white people (and some black people) enjoy being enflamed by the provocation. It's funny to watch this cable-tv-level account of Jim Brown's football/Hollywood career and reflect on the difference between quantifiable athletic achievement and the bad joke of Lee's career. Brown may have run yards on the football field with unprecedented speed and power, but Lee's renown is based on the generally low standard people hold for movies. He benefits from the irony that intellectual, artistic professions discriminate more frequently and arbitrarily than sports?a subject that an honest, aware documentarian (say, the redoubtable William Greaves) might advantageously pursue showing the inequities that make black athletes more successful than black filmmakers or black intellectuals.

Greaves, whose most recent film was the enlightening documentary Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, would give a truer sense of Brown's historical significance. It shames our film culture that Lee's documentary gets mass media instead. Lee simply trades on controversy yet is too intimidated by Brown's presence to pursue the most pressing topics. (Someone should put James Toback's fascinating book on Brown back into print.) The first hour is about Brown's athletic career, the next half-hour about Hollywood, leaving the final half-hour to nod at Brown's family life and glide over his dubious female troubles.

To get a better understanding of Jim Brown the pop icon, see his late-career casting in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!. As the black Father, Brown returns home to a scene of urban (thus global) devastation and helps the national resurrection. Director Tim Burton borrowed Brown's image (and costar Pam Grier's) from blaxploitation, the cheapest pop legacy, but his respect for black iconography elevated the way we read Brown. In Mars Attacks! Brown stands for something valiant; in Lee's visually atrocious video-doc, Brown is simply an adolescent kid's virile pinup. Laurent Cantet matched capitalist and labor dynamics to the conflict between identity and self. Lee's portrait of Brown stays superficial.

?Widescreen Alert: Bypass the ugliest doc in years and seek out the Museum of Modern Art's Kon Ichikawa retro. Ichikawa was one of the masters of widescreen composition. Any Ichikawa you pick guarantees eye-expanding beauty plus rare insight into sex and politics. Punishment Room and The Makioka Sisters are standouts.

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