a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

On dupes and duping

As a skeptic and all-around New Age allergist, I’m pleased as punch about the dueling grown-woman-thinks-she’s-met-a-dead-boyfriend pics from last fall -- namely p.s. and the more high-profile Birth (2004, Jonathan Glazer -- B+). Both films follow women who stand at the crossroads between faith and logic and wind up chosing faith. In any other age, their decision would be something to applaud while the nay-sayers would reveal themselves to be hissable villains -- miserable cynics straitjacketed by rationality, maybe even with a secret violent streak.

Not that that last viewpoint isn’t present in either one, but the films wind up having it both ways: in their respective ends (spoiler warning, natch), Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman wind up magnificent fools, the object of their beliefs ultimately proving to be frauds. But where p.s. fumbles through a torrent of false starts, never deciding on a throughline, Birth cuts right to the point, and throws in expert filmmaking to boot.

No less than a meditation on why people believe in irrational things, be they reincarnated dead paramours or god(s), Birth quietly sprinkles an assortment of reasons for Kidman’s willingness to be duped, though none of them are clear. Finacé Danny Huston may be a bit smug, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. Nor does her Upper East Side lifestyle -- in fact, that was her life before her husband fell dead in Central Park. We never see or exhaustively hear about her previous life -- and we never even see this husband except from the back -- and nothing explicitly suggests she’d fall for such a bizarro-world ruse, even when Cameron Bright’s 10 year-old starts correctly answering ultra-specific pop quizes.

There must be an explanation; in fact, Glazer more than makes guessing the twist a no-brainer, planting it right there in a gratuitous scene in the first five minutes. But he pays more attention to dropping subtle clues as to why Kidman would convert so quickly. A key moment takes the form of Bright identifying who told her there was no Santa Claus, while most of it makes us implicit: just like Kidman relies on faith, we have to rely on our own faith to explain why she’d ever consider this set-up genuine. It’s up to us to graft our own theories onto Kidman’s inhibited persona ‘cause she ain’t dropping us many hints.

Is it a case of Kidman believing in One True Love? Perhaps -- particularly once Huston (who’s frankly awesome) buys into his own violent streak. Or is it a case of wanting to believe in more outside one’s self, therefore lunging at the first out-there suggestion that saunters up to her? Still more probing, it could be her subconscious need to upturn her perfect life, as evidenced by her abrupt suggestion that she and Bright run away, social mores be damned. Better still, it could be the classic duped case: after being presented with a small handful of sweet-sounding lines, she jumps to the false conclusion that they add up to something concrete. (Perhaps it's a good time to plug Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos again, whose 1988 best-seller Innumeracy -- as well as A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper -- are addictive repositories on how irrationality frequently gets the better of us.)

Glazer directs with an eye for the otherworldly -- his two-minute close-up of Kidman is a startler, and Harry Savides re-proves his mettle in a transporting opening tracking shot. But his other eye is on the chaotic and loose-limbed. “Kubrickian” was bandied about during its initial release, but Kubrick’s preferred acting style was never so relaxed and recognizably human. (Yes, even Peter Stormare.) Even Huston’s manic outburst has a make-it-up-as-we-go-along quality to it -- clumsy, un-thought-out, even slightly funny. (Or maybe it’s his decision to push the piano so it blocks the corridor, allowing him to leap over it and spank Bright undeterred. Why didn’t Redmond Barry think of that?)

Excepting 3 Women, it’s the only metaphysical mindfuck I can think of that’s also an ensemble cast showcase. And it’s this shotgun wedding of styles that clearly makes it a skeptic’s film. The part of Birth that eats into your mind isn’t that Bright could ever be Kidman’s dead husband Mach 2. It’s that she could ever consider it to be true, and what in her life has made her so malleable to such a whopper. That this can apply to anyone, in any number of fashions -- god, horriscopes, homeopathic medicine, that your number’s up soon on the roulette wheel -- makes Birth a disturbing reminder of one of humanity’s chief weaknesses: You believe what you wanna.


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