Beyond the Multiplex

The director of the minimalist, suburban "Thumbsucker" explains why he hates "American Beauty" and "Garden State." Plus: A polysexual French farce, and a master filmmaker's sweeping history of Greece.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 8, 2005 7:00AM (EDT)

Our role here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ (an operation far more efficient than FEMA or the White House, it appears) is to be the friend and champion of lonely indie filmmakers, to adopt worthy little movies found wandering in the wilderness. You know it and I know it, gentle reader: There are weeks when we practice a little affirmative action on behalf of likable projects that aren't necessarily among the most memorable or moving films ever made. Why? Because it's the right thing to do, dammit, and because nobody ever died from extending a little generosity to artists who strike a genuine spark, no matter how small, amid the encroaching gloom of the film industry (a dire pair of words if ever there was one).

This is not one of those weeks. You and I have not been thinking overmuch about movies in the last 10 days or so, I imagine. I've certainly been going through one of those post-9/11 phases where I ask myself: "In the face of you-know-what, are the things I write about actually important?" I don't have an answer, and I suspect any answer I tried to come up with right now would be facile and stupid. But I can tell you that I believe art -- successful art, at any rate -- creates its own inescapable meaning as you experience it, and that meaning might not be the same for any two people. I believe that when you encounter it, it requires no justification, because it carries its own moral compass. This week we've got three marvelous films to talk about -- any one of them could be my lead item in a normal week -- and whether I found in them a reflection of reality or a respite from it, I can tell you that (as dumb as this may be) they all helped.

What's more, they're completely different. Mike Mills' debut feature "Thumbsucker" is an earnest, meticulous and beautifully acted exercise in suburban minimalism, with one of the most amazing casts put together for any recent American film. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's "Côte D'Azur" is meticulous in a different direction, a door-slamming, bed-hopping polysexual farce, flavored with seafood and summer sunshine, in the grandest Gallic tradition. Theo Angelopoulos' "The Weeping Meadow" opens a massive, tragic trilogy on Greek history that is meant to conclude this masterly director's career. It's precisely the kind of prodigiously moving, cinematically overwhelming spectacle that ordinary moviegoers avoid like a moldy Milky Way bar and hardcore film geeks mark on their calendars in three colors of ink.

"Thumbsucker": A tale of TV commercials, Keanu Reeves and Ingmar Bergman lost in suburbia
Sadly, my picture does not appear on Mike Mills' blog. The writer-director of "Thumbsucker" did, however, take a picture of the chair I sat in during our interview in his New York hotel room, part of his good-natured and halfway self-critical attempt to chronicle his publicity tour. In the blog, Mills muses on his two literary avatars, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, but recognizes he couldn't be like the famously standoffish and manipulative Dylan if he tried. Ginsberg, on the other hand, bonded with interviewers, opening up to them emotionally and inviting them into his life. You could describe that as manipulative in a different way, I guess, but Mills is clearly in that camp.

I approached both Mills and "Thumbsucker" with considerable trepidation. Mills is a veteran of the early-'90s Lower East Side art scene, who designed album covers for Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys and went on to become a celebrated director of music videos and TV commercials. His film debut, six years in the making, is an adaptation of Walter Kirn's cult-hit novel, with one of the most amazing casts ever assembled at this level: Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton are the suburban parents of 17-year-old Justin, the eponymous thumb-sucker, who is played (marvelously) by newcomer Lou Pucci. Vince Vaughn plays the high school debate coach. Keanu Reeves, for Christ's sake, plays the kid's orthodontist.

But "Thumbsucker," it turns out, is not some jokey hipster wallow. It's a lovely and meticulous film, intimate in scope, that captures the awkward terrors of adolescence with an honesty few movies have ever managed. As Mills puts it, not at all ironically, "It's a sincere, thoughtful movie that's not trying to be weird." Justin's not a thumb-sucking freak, just a talented and insecure kid who has a certain level of secret shame and believes himself to be unlovable. That sounds like, hmm -- you? Me? Everybody?

Mills, too, might be described as a sincere, thoughtful guy who's not trying to be weird. He tells me he's a "total Criterion Collection guy," whose filmmaking inspiration comes from Ozu and Bergman, as well as from such no-longer-fashionable American directors as Hal Ashby and Elia Kazan. "Thumbsucker" is a marvelously crafted movie, with a few real surprises I won't spoil and a powerful emotional payoff. But in all honesty, Mills probably has better pictures in him down the line: The real story here is the arrival of a smart, sharp and generous new filmmaker.

You know, when I first heard about this movie, before I knew who was in it or anything, my first reaction was: "A movie about a 17-year-old kid who sucks his thumb? That's gross. I don't want to see that."

Well, there were a ton of people who said: "A movie about a 17-year-old sucking his thumb? Gross; I don't want to finance that." Every film company you could think of said that. Part of me has been a little curious about this nervous reaction to an adult who is thumb sucking. By the time the 50th person says it, I was like, "Huh." There really is this great taboo and fear and energy around an adult thumb sucking.

A very famous supposed "friend of the director," a big producer-financier guy, said, "Friday night, people looking for what they want to see, and you've got a movie called 'Thumbsucker'! You might as well fucking name it 'Buttfucker'!" I was curious -- here's this homophobic statement, you know what I mean? It is similar to homophobia. Another person told us we might as well call it "Masturbator." But it isn't masturbating, or butt fucking -- not that either of those things are bad, right? But it's an interesting conundrum you get into.

Actually, It was James Schamus who said that, the "Buttfucker" thing. Go ahead and print it. Maybe on some level that's what "Thumbsucker" is about: We all have these things about ourselves that are secret, that we feel are shameful or unlovable or unacceptable, and we're trying to cover them up. That galvanized me a little bit. It made me feel like this wasn't just a quirky, whimsical coming-of-age bullshit thing. There's actually a nerve here that we're touching.

I know you've changed a few details about the story, but you've really tried to capture the essence of Kirn's novel.

I think the spirit is very much the same. I really liked the book, and it was the right project at the right time for me. My mother had just passed away -- this is in 1999 -- and I was looking for something that spoke to that sense of, you know, "Life is short. What are you doing?" This seemed like the way to go to the next level. I was actually asking myself, "What are you doing for the world?" What I hope to achieve in this is something like what Hal Ashby achieved in "Harold and Maude" -- something that creates a big space, opens up a different perspective that's a little more permissive, you know?

Walter Kirn is a literary legend, on his own sort of small scale. Were you apprehensive about meeting him?

Oh, I was scared shitless. You read that book and you just know, that's gotta be him. That's gotta be things that happened to him. So you expect him to be really protective and he just wasn't. My favorite thing about our relationship was after I was smelling how bad this was going to be -- I had already gotten 20 or 30 noes -- he was over at my house and I was wondering if this was a message, all these noes. He was like, "None of us really knows what we're doing. We're all just guessing. That's all it means to be human." I was like, "Whoa, wait a sec." So I wrote it all down, and Keanu's whole last scene [as Justin's orthodontist-guru] is something Walter told me in my house. The whole project was full of that kind of mirroring and transference -- people becoming like fictional characters, and characters becoming like real people.

On some level, I still have this mythology about independent directors -- you know, you have to suffer and starve for your art. But people like you and Spike Jonze and Jonathan Glazer and Michel Gondry are coming out of making TV commercials, getting paid serious money, and then making good movies. It's an exciting shift, but to an old college Marxist like me it's also disturbing. I mean, you guys are corporate whores, right?

I had that same viewpoint. I went to Cooper Union, I was a student of [German conceptual artist] Hans Haacke. I was a punk-rock skater kid, but I was bourgeois. I grew up in Santa Barbara, where my dad was a museum director. I was doing record covers for the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, so I was in a commercial environment in some ways. But we all left art school hating art museums and galleries, trying to find some way to work in the public sphere and still be somehow subversive. We thought, well the visual glue of the public sphere is design. If you fuck with that you're doing something powerful. This is 20-year-old thinking, but we believed it.

And then, here comes Spike Jonze. I knew Spike from skateboarding and the Alleged Gallery [a legendary downtown Manhattan art space], and he kind of fucked me up. He could be best friends with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, bastion of independence, and do whatever frickin' ad he wanted. And he shamelessly self-promoted. And he was doing really good work. So who cares what category he's in, right? Whether he was doing a commercial or not, it was really mind-melting.

I wanted to do film stuff and didn't have any film training, I didn't go to film school. And I wanted to do it with a certain legitimacy. I wanted to do it with a certain level of production values, with a certain mainstream-ness. I didn't want to be ghettoized into independent-land. I wanted to play with the big guys. So that meant I had to use tools that were really expensive.

I have no problem with doing videos; videos are totally artistic and wonderful and great. Doing ads is a whole different story, and I was very uneasy about it. I rationalize it as: It's my film school. The first time I made a Nike ad I had no fucking idea how to shoot a medium shot or a wide shot. I was asking people on the set, and pretending I knew how. I really felt Robin Hood-ish: I was stealing from the man.

Eight years later, I don't feel that way anymore. I'm blue chip. I'm a coveted commercial director, and it all feels like something I talked myself into. I did learn a lot, it did get me where I am. I got to practice making "Thumbsucker" for a number of years. I bought a house. And, you know, I just retired. I came to another one of these things: "What the fuck am I doing? I can't be reading Thoreau and doing an ad for DuPont. It just does not work." So I quit. I don't have a great rationalization for it. I kind of like that I don't have a great rationalization for it, and that I'm going to say it in print.

Well, you come out of this directing a movie with an incredible cast. How did that happen? I mean, you seem like a great guy, but it's not like Vincent D'Onofrio and Keanu Reeves run to the phone because Mike Mills is on the line.

Well, it was years in the making. Think of any film production company in America, including Sony Classics -- they all passed on the script. And in Europe. It took almost two years to get all those noes. And simultaneously the script was going out. You know, Elijah Wood was going to be the kid, and Scarlett Johansson was going to be the girl. It was spreading -- they're telling other people and they're telling other people. With the bankers, it wasn't going well. With the actors, it had this completely different life.

You were in danger of becoming the author of one of those legendary unproduced scripts.

Totally. Very much. Tilda Swinton didn't even read the script when I first met her. Luckily, she knew about me from videos. She was in L.A. a few years ago and she met me, and we just hit it off. The thing that interested me about "Thumbsucker" was looking at all our flaws and foibles and secrets, and not treating them as failures. Tilda is a complete activist for that idea, so we had an intense bond right there. To be honest, I think she liked me, or what I was saying, more than she liked the script. But once Tilda is on board, it sends up a certain flag: OK, this is probably performance-driven, and it's definitely not this quirky, weird, odd thing that "Thumbsucker" says it is.

Keanu was looking for something small, some way to get away from "The Matrix," and he liked Tilda. Tilda was a valuable commodity in his eyes. So that was kind of the way it worked. Vince Vaughn loved Vincent D'Onofrio. And Vincent D'Onofrio, knowing that he'd be working with Tilda, felt very comfortable. I mean, Vincent and Tilda, improvising together over a period of weeks -- it's like psychoanalytic heaven! So Tilda was the tentpole that supported everything.

Whether it's fair or not -- and it's not -- you're going to be compared to other recent American movies that deal with suburbia. People are going to talk about "American Beauty" and "Donnie Darko." I don't know if you see any thematic continuity there, but I'm curious how you approached a setting that's become so symbolic.

"American Beauty" I completely hate. I find it a really reprehensible movie because it's making fun of people that live there. I don't respond to "Donnie Darko" at all, because its quirkiness overtakes any sense of reality. But "Ordinary People" I watched a lot. "Ice Storm" I watched a lot. Those are two suburban movies I would embrace. And while mine has certain visual gags, I guess, I'm more in that camp.

I get compared to "Donnie Darko" every frickin' day. That and "Garden State," another movie I hate. I'm not going to argue with the audience. But my take on suburbia is that I have no interest in picking on people, or saying they're "dysfunctional." I hate that phrase. As if there's a family that's functional, you know? It's a very George Bush way to be looking at family: Evil is to be killed, and good will go to heaven.

I grew up in a 1910 Spanish colonial house, but I walked home every day through developments like that, and had this projection that there was all this happiness and togetherness that I didn't feel like I had. So I'm a little bit like the Lars von Trier of America: It's this imaginary thing. But it's very real, and it's still very hard for me to look at the suburbs and understand that it's not as perfect or as well integrated as it seems. That's a 6-year-old's problem, but it's still in me.

"Thumbsucker" opens Sept. 16 nationwide.

"Côte D'Azur": A musical without music, a sex farce without judgment, a summer movie for fall
Fewer than five minutes into "Côte D'Azur," the handsome Parisian couple at its center (Gilbert Melki and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) are bonking in their creaky vacation-home bed like happy summer bunnies. A couple of minutes after that, their elfin androgynous son Charly (Romain Torres), who may or may not have sexual-identity issues, pleasures himself in the shower, and we pretty much know the universe we're in. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's latest film is a lighter-than-air seaside concoction, a French bedroom farce no less classic for its modern preoccupation with who's gay and who isn't.

But really, in some sense that question isn't the point at all. You could argue that in Ducastel and Martineau's universe, nobody's ever quite sure who they are and what they're doing. If, because this works itself out in the realm of sexuality, the duo's thoroughly delightful films make some viewers uneasy, well, that's their loss. As Ducastel says over coffee in a SoHo hotel bar, "If you are a heterosexual guy, maybe you can't be completely comfortable with this film. Or you have to be a very, very heterosexual guy. We know some!"

Ducastel and Martineau are indeed a gay couple who both live together and make films together without murdering each other, which is certainly a momentous accomplishment. Inevitably their movies have been stereotyped as gay films for gay audiences, and while there's nothing wrong with that -- they tell me, in fact, that the market for French gay films in the United States is "very big" -- they're after something a lot more interesting, and more fun, than a tiresome empowerment agenda.

When I meet them during a brief New York stopover for the Tribeca Film Festival, Ducastel and Martineau are feeling a bit bruised by a French critic who has called them "the kind of homosexuals that think they should turn any heterosexual into a gay person," as Ducastel puts it. "This isn't our mission in life," he assures me. "We are very, very happy that there are heterosexual guys."

"Not even in the movie!" protests Martineau, whose general mode is to play the laconic wisecracker to his partner's straight man (you should pardon the expression). "There are absolutely, definitely straight people in the movie. So they are a little bit homophobic when they say that."

Maybe more than a little bit. Indeed, Béatrix, as played by the beautiful Bruni-Tedeschi -- whom you may have caught recently in François Ozon's "5x2" -- is as overly heterosexed as any female character in the recent history of French cinema. Fueled by the famously aphrodisiacal shellfish of the French Riviera, she rekindles the home fires with her hunky husband Marc (Melki), and stays busy on the side with her insatiable and persistent lover (the fine comic actor Jacques Bonnaffé).

But is Charly sleeping with his tan and slender buddy Martin (Edouard Collin), as Béatrix assumes and Marc fears? Why is Marc so interested in Charly and Martin's relationship anyway? And who is Marc's old flame, who shows up at a crucial juncture and turns the household upside down? Is Marc and Bétrix's love life just held together by the arousing power of all those oysters and mussels? (The French title of the film is "Crustacés et Coquillages," which is much funnier and more appropriate, but I guess doesn't translate well.)

The answers to these perplexing questions may surprise you, or perhaps not so much. But "Côte D'Azur" is a finely balanced piece of comedic machinery, full of slamming doors, inconveniently ringing cellphones and showers at inappropriate times of day. Unlike "Jeanne and the Perfect Guy," Ducastel and Martineau's masterpiece (and perhaps the only AIDS musical the world will ever see), this isn't a musical, but as they observe, it's constructed like one.

"We are of course entranced by Jacques Demy's movies," Ducastel says. "And for this one we thought about 'Lola,' which isn't a musical. I remember when I saw it I didn't know anything about it. I went into the theater and it started and I thought, 'Shit, it isn't a musical!' But at the end I realized it was one of the most perfectly musical of his movies."

"So this is not a musical," adds Martineau, "but we have a song during the opening credits, a song after half an hour, and we end it with a big musical number. Some musicals don't do that."

When I ask whether there is something essentially French about their movies, Ducastel says, "I think so, maybe." But Martineau insists: "People in France do not understand us either. We are a gay couple, we make all different kinds of movies. We make light films with serious backgrounds. When critics ask us: 'Don't serious moviemakers make serious movies?' we say no. That is totally wrong."

"Even French people think that sexuality is a very serious matter," says Ducastel. "Jacques has a theory about that." Martineau arches his eyebrows skeptically. "Yes?" he says. "I have theories?"

"Yes, you have a theory that heterosexuals think that sex is important because it's related to procreation," says Ducastel. "Gays are more free about sex because it's not related to anything useful. It's just pleasure."

Martineau brushes this away. "Sex is not a moral thing. It's just physical pleasure." Now it's Ducastel's turn to sound dubious: "That is your theory?"

"Yes," says Martineau, before catching himself: "No, no, no, that's Diderot. Diderot wrote that, two and a half centuries ago. There's no reason to consider it a serious matter. The question of identity is a serious matter. But that's only partly related to our sexuality. And here is what we especially have to say: It's not a moral issue. That is a totally different question. To be good or bad doesn't depend on your sexual activities. That's only a story of skin."

Côte D'Azur" opens Sept. 9 in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area; Sept. 16 in Boston and Washington; Sept. 23 in San Diego; Sept. 30 in Palm Springs, Calif., and Seattle; and Oct. 7 in Dallas, Denver, Detroit and Minneapolis, with other cities to follow.

"The Weeping Meadow": A passionate and unforgiving history, from the last of the High Art dinosaurs
Those of us who can still remember the art-film landscape of the '70s and '80s (or earlier) are feeling our mortality these days. Buñuel, Kurosawa, Fellini and Tarkovsky are long dead. Bergman is retired (again) and pushing 90, although not without having made one more great movie. Godard and Antonioni are pale imitations of what they once were, which may say more than a little about their enduring value. Maybe the bigger lesson here is to let go of the Great White Man theory of cinema (and of history). But for those who aren't quite ready -- and I'm talking to myself here -- there's still Theo Angelopoulos.

If you haven't seen any of Angelopoulos' acknowledged masterpieces -- I'd count "The Travelling Players," "Landscape in the Mist" and probably "Ulysses' Gaze" -- you owe them to yourself. I say that in total seriousness, and then I also say: Who the hell has time? These are the kinds of movies that demand your entire attention for an entire evening, and then want you to spend the next day hanging around with your friends, drinking coffee and talking about your role in the life of this planet, the past or future deaths of people you love, whether the evil of the 20th century outweighed the good and (not least of all) what that long movie you just saw has to do with it all.

I wanted some version of that fellowship after seeing "The Weeping Meadow," I can tell you that much. This is the opening film in a proposed trilogy about the history of modern Greece, which Angelopoulos (now 70) has said will be his final films. It's a gorgeous and resonant work, full of the memorable images and passages of pathos the director's fans expect. It's also a painful, unforgiving film, the kind of thing that sharply divides audiences from critics, and whenever that happens I get the uncomfortable feeling that neither side should be entirely proud of their reaction.

Our heroine, if that's even the right word, is Eleni, whom we first meet as a young orphan girl picked up by Greek refugees in 1919, on their way out of the Russian city of Odessa. Driven out by the Bolshevik Revolution, Odessa's Greeks have returned to their ancestral homeland to live in a marshy no-man's-land along a riverbank near Thessaloniki. Eleni and Alexis grow up as brother and sister in the household of Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), a leader of this desolate community, but since they're not actually related, other kinds of bonds form between them by the time they're teenagers.

As adults, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) and Alexis (Nikos Poursadinis) make a strikingly handsome couple, and have pledged themselves to each other. They long to reclaim their twin sons (adopted by a rich family) and, like couples the world over, make a new world together. But the cruel tides of 20th century history will swirl them toward unknown destinations. When Spyros' wife dies, he claims Eleni for himself; when she elopes with Alexis (who actually is Spyros' son) after the wedding, a taboo has been violated and a long, slow curse is set in motion that optimism, love and good intentions can do nothing to break.

I can feel the pressure of symbolism in "The Weeping Meadow," without quite being able to grasp it: Is Angelopoulos suggesting that modern Greek history is a story of generational warfare and patricide, of unresolvable conflict between repressive tradition and reckless modernism? That sounds plausible, but it's just a guess. What I do know is that the film is packed with wonder and cruelty, with the Greek music the director loves so dearly, with vivid images of the overcrowded camaraderie of refugee-packed Thessaloniki in the years between the great wars.

Something about Angelopoulos' historical vision here feels pretty cold and distant, as if he's looking at Eleni and Alexis the way a scientist views specimens under a microscope. Sometimes we hurry along through helpful expository scenes, as characters explain that the workers are planning a general strike, or the fascists are seizing power, or that the terrible civil war that followed World War II is in fact terrible. Sometimes we dwell on the tragic ultra-long shot: a group of indistinguishable women on a distant battlefield, discovering the bodies of their husbands, sons and brothers.

I'm not suggesting that any of this is aesthetically inappropriate: Angelopoulos' homeland definitely had a rough century, as European nations go. But as a practical matter, "The Weeping Meadow" doesn't offer quite enough sugar for its harsh medicine to go down easily. This is unquestionably the opening chapter of an extended, important work, and I'll probably work up the courage to see it again. But please be forewarned. Even setting aside the fact that Eleni and Alexis' hometown is abandoned to rising floodwaters, "The Weeping Meadow" principally offers us human dreams ground to dust, history as a process of barest survival but not (so far) of redemption.

"The Weeping Meadow" opens Sept. 14 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York, with a national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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