Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Lonely Villa

Lately I've been taking a look at a few contemporary Hollywood(ish) films I should have seen upon their release, but let slip through the cracks. I was shocked at how impressive I found Panic Room. (After liking this and Zodiac over the last eight or nine months, I should stop thinking of Fincher as an overreaching underachiever, and re-grant him status as a genuinely interesting filmmaker--i.e., the way I felt about his work in 1999, but a bit more detached.) Here's a paranoiac NY real estate fantasy, completely upfront about it, which dramatizes the stored-up fear accompanying the UES/UWS bourgie brownstone dream home. So many New York films just assume, or gloss over, the utter jaw-dropping financial prerequisites necessary for all the amazing apartments they exhibit. A favorite whipping-boy of mine in this respect is The Interpreter, in which Nicole Kidman plays a former white romantic-revolutionary in "deep, dark Africa" but has successfully hidden her past from the UN to work as an interpreter ... and she lives alone in a gorgeous, tastefully decorated Manhattan (or perhaps Park Slope [equally expensive]) pad from her presumably cushy salary. Such is the fantasy with films and TV shows in New York, of course, my complaint is just one among a million. But it's nice to see the occasional film that is relatively honest about this fact of real estate presentation. I do think the film starts to unravel, become (somewhat unpleasurably) predictable, in the last 45 minutes or so; I wouldn't call it a total success. But in terms of overlaying societal relations, interior space, and psychology it's pretty shrewd.

I'd suggest that the film treats the gorgeous UWS home as an analogue of the human (subject's) body; all the breathtaking trick shots, the ones that go from the top floor down to the first by means of an ostensibly acrobatic camera, drive home the unity of the space. But once it's invaded the subject must perform a kind of triage, retreat to the essentials to keep the whole pursuit going against the unwelcome harmful elements. This is one reason why the invasion of a home--and all the precautions taken to prevent it--are such powerful tropes: when one's identity is tied up into the property in which one lives, the assault on the property itself is like an assault on one's person. This is reinforced, I think, by the immense investment the film makes in corporeal or kinaesthetic identification--diabetic complications, one's fingers crushed, one's body beaten and broken ... but also the deliberate trade-off in exposing oneself to flame (in order to harm one's enemies), of invading one's circulatory and respiratory systems with drugs and chemicals, of hushing and stretching out the body to make not a peep when tiptoeing past one's assailants ... of surveilling others inside the home via its 'central nervous system.'

It seems to me that the film makes a jokey little play on the contrasting motivations of the three invaders--Jared Leto is simply a greedy privileged fuck-up; Forrest Whitaker a disadvantaged smart man driven by economic necessity; Dwight Yoakam a working-class dude with massive amounts of pent-up sadistic hostility. The degrees to which they're willing to go, the amount of pain they're willing to inflict on others or endure themselves, become a grid through which one can interpret the very justifications these guys have formulated for their own crime. Indirectly one could come up with a dense essay on why these guys assault the bourgeois home.

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