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My Los Angeles-based friend KHo caught a screening of Rian Johnson's sophomore feature The Brothers Bloom, which screens tomorrow at Landmark's Century Centre (Johnson will discuss the film and do a Q&A), and was inspired. Since my friend made me see Johnson's wonderful debut Brick, and since that was a brilliant decision on his part, and since I generally trust him on movies and other art forms, I asked if I could post the rave he e-mailed after watching TBB. He was kind enough to agree. I think his take on Brick and the Wes Anderson ouevre is spot-on.
Update: KHo also sends word that Johnson's uploaded an mp3 commentary track to the movie's blog, for listening at the theater.
I saw The Brothers Bloom tonight--Rian Johnson's new one, and though I think it probably isn't as good as Brick, it pulls the same rabbit out of a different hat and I'm pretty floored by it. Here's my notes toward an essay I think wants to come out of me.
Do you know what Rian Johnson does? He scares you--and then he saves you. He makes you think he's going to further destroy something you love and can no longer bear to see because it's been so fucked with by everyone who's ever dealt with it before--and he's in your face about it. He has setups that make you groan--high schoolers talking noirish slang and playing detective? Jesus, who could get behind that Bugsy Malone bullshit? Even Howard Hawks and Bogie couldn't translate the atmosphere of Chandler right, and now he's going to set a noir among the Clearasil set? HOW FUCKING PRECIOUS. But he doesn't wink at you while he's playing with this fire, he doesn't revel and bask in concept or mise-en-scene, he gets the motherfucker done. He pays it off. He keeps making the movie instead of pointing at how clever his movie is. Oh, concept and mise are there in spades, but they're mcguffins, my friend, they're there to keep you distracted (often by cringing at how close they're coming to falling in on themselves) while Johnson punches the magic of story through your addled eye like the boltgun of catharsis. You've been entertained. You've felt betrayed but found that the movie was loyal after all. You've cared about blatantly artificial characters. You've regained some of your humanity, and some of your faith in it.
And there's salvation here, children. There's actual life-saving going on here, at least the internal lives of us cynics. Because we've had to deal with the realization that Wes Anderson can't get out of his pretend world and will never pay off the promise of Rushmore. We've had to deal with Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald writing empty, self-indulgent bogus ponderings and being lionized and put in the menagerie with the masters--by people who must care as little about beauty as they do about truth. And Johnson understands this. He knows that these roads he goes down are the ones that are actually the scariest--the ones where you feel a kinship to the material, where you want so much for it to be actually good, to actually mirror your unspoken understandings and longings, that you make yourself vulnerable. If Max Fischer can grow up, then imagine how much the next movie is going to speak to me and my desires and disappointments... oh, no, it just kind of spins around in the same circle and starts to wear a rut in the track. It's fucking chained to a stake in the ground. The transcendence in Rushmore is an uncashable check, it seems. Fuck.
This is why the Rian Johnson drama is undeniable, because Rian Johnson knows WHAT REALLY HURTS about movies--it's the same as with love. You think you've seen your soul's reflection in the other and you let your guard down and dare to hope that life isn't a lonesome sit on the couch with nothing on but Law & Order. Next thing you know, you're on your ass, telling yourself that maybe I really did like that movie, despite how confused and dejected I feel, and that maybe it didn't hurt that much and eventually she's going to let me kick that football. Maybe I haven't been manipulated into believing in something before finding out that it doesn't give a shit about me or the things I love that it also pretended to love. ALL IT LOVES ARE SCALE MODELS AND BILL MURRAY GRIMACES AND WEIRD POST-RACISM AND COSTUMES THAT EVEN JAPANESE SCHOOLGIRLS WOULD FIND TOO CUTESY.
Rian Johnson knows that you're going to cringe when you watch him try to set a moody thriller in Beautiful San Clemente, California, and then practically cover your eyes when they start using hokey slang with too much conviction. But holy fuck, here comes the end of the phone call and the Mustang roars by--complete with absolutely parodic flick of an obviously-a-clue cigarette butt into the road--and you realize that this movie is somehow making you feel something. This movie is playing with your actual emotions about what *Story* has done to you, like the story of the movie is supposed to be manipulating the emotions via identification or whatever. This is a high order of aesthetics, but all it comes down to is making a damn good story using damn evocative material--and understanding that this material is so volatile because we want to see it done right and we never do. It doesn't even really matter if the climax is breathtaking. I mean, Brick gets an A-/B+, and Brothers Bloom a B/B+ as far as climaxes go, but the real pleasure is seeing the whole trip taken, the whole tightwire walked, without betraying the material, without going down a sideroad of disappointment and abrogation or stepping off into self-indulgence.
 Doesn't spoil anything spoilerwise, I mean. There are a few places where Bloom's similarities to the Ziskouverse don't seem able to transcend the source--but I've got to watch it again, and you've got to watch it and then we'll have that discussion at another time. Whatever failures and flaws the movie has, its totality is at least a good fight, and in my view, a triumphant one.