Love and Mercy (2014: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks)

I figured I’d wait until this docudrama came out on a streaming service to see it, despite my general fondness for all things Brian Wilson. I found it hard to imaine that it could be either so brilliantly performed or so illuminating as to justify a need to see it in the short term. I was pretty much right on that front.

Pretty much every piece of purportedly nonfictional media about Brian Wilson’s life has had (if you excuse the reference, which whistles over the head of everyone who’s not obsessed with late-60s Beach Boys works) its Heroes and Villains. Exactly who falls into each category depends who happens to be spinning their agenda with this go-round of the blame wheel. There are enough people in his history who can be read ambiguously that it’s up in the air as to whether in any given story Mike Love is going to be the pragmatist trying fruitlessly to pull Brian out of the clouds or the philistine who is crushing his artistry; whether Eugene Landy is going to be the genius psychoanalyst who untangles Brian’s knot of neuroses or the unethical quack who isolates and bleeds his patients; whether Marilyn Wilson is a long-suffering and completely-out-of-her depth loyal spouse or an enabler for Brian’s worst habits; or whether Murray Wilson is a rage-fueled abusive monster or a rage-fueled abusive monster (nobody still living is actually on Murray’s side, so he always gets to be a villain).

In this particular (fictional but truthy) iteration of the Brian Wilson story, the central conflict is between the virtuous and determined Melinda Ledbetter and the nefarious and shifty Dr. Eugene Landy. One depressing thing about the Brian Wilson narrative is that, no matter how much people coo over Brian’s genius, he’s never a character with much agency in these retellings. Melinda falls for Brian, Landy snarls and rages and holds Brian prisoner, Melinda mobilizes an offscreen Carl Wilson to serve Landy with papers, Brian gets set free, roll credits. There’s not much there there, plotwise (it’s churlish to point out, in a work of fiction, that it’s also completely fabricated, inasmuch as Brian Wilson remained in Eugene Landy’s care for 6 years after meeting Melinda, for most of which the two weren’t in contact).

Intercut with the 1986 plot is a series of flashbacks, mostly the the Pet Sounds/SMiLE era of 1966, although there’s a brief montage of Brian-in-bed shots later to sum up the 70s with trippy Brian-at-different-ages visuals for exta mindscrew. In these scenes, Murray Wilson gets to carry a nice load of the burden of villainy, while Mike Love (a popular punching bag for SMiLE-era histories) is presented somewhat ambiguously.

THe film as a whole doesn’t go much of anywhere interesting. Hagiography for Melinda is a new look for the Brian Wilson bio, but it’s a new look on an old story, and the story itself is presented as a rote recitation of setpieces Brian Wilson fans would have encountered elsewhere. I’m reminded, actually, of how two the few scanty lyrics from “Barnyard” and “I’m in Great Shape” were in the 2004 SMiLE remake. No, they almost certainly weren’t lyrics planned for the final versions of those songs, but they were what the fans had heard and therefore had to be included. Likewise this film replays the greatest hits of the Brian Wilson story, most of them of obvious origin: both a dialogue Brian has with Melinda about his father’s physical abuse and the abortive mission to visit his house are taken near-verbatim from I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times; the SMiLE-era stuff is a montage of pianos in sandboxes, studio musicians in fire hats, and sessions of dogs barking, all skimmed form the most prominent elements of ’66 Brian Wilson lore. It’s not unexpected but its kind of disappointing, that this film had nothing to say, on either a large or a small scale, than had already been said several times before.

Le scaphandre et le papillon

[Screenshot]I haven’t read the book which this is inspird by and sort of connected to, and I didn’t even know who Jean-Dominique Bauby was before I watched it. Basing a film on a nonfiction book has to be one of the hardest things to do well: it encompasses the most difficult aspects of docudrama and book adaptation. Fortunately, both reality and Bauby’s text were up to telling a pretty compelling story here. It’s fortunate that Bauby had had such a glamorous and rich life to contrast his locked-in end with. I don’t really know how the retelling here stacks up against reality (I get a vague impression his wife and mistress had very different takes on his character, and that one or the other might have influenced this production) but except perhaps in these specifics there’s a definite sense of verisimillitude.

The acting and cinemacraft here is unspectacular but they really aren’t the focus anyways; as a vehicle for this interesting and introspective story they’re more than adequate.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, by Julian Rubinstein

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is an interesting slice of Hungarian culture. What fascinated me, reading the story, is how screwed up the society it describes is, which is actually far more interesting than the fairly incompetant antihero who exposes Hungary’s complete dysfunction. It has fascinating trainwreck qualities, watching Ambrus make absurd, ridiculous mistakes, staying too long at jobs, spending his money completely conspicuously, and leavign a trail any idiot should be able to follow. Actually, it almost seems that one of the primary reasons Attila Ambrus escaped the police so long was their assumption that he was far cleverer than he was: if they’d thought to ask cab drivers if they’d shuttled a robber away from a bank, or made discreet inquiries at casinos about big spenders who don’t seem to have actual means, they’d presumably have gotten their man earlier (or maybe not, on the latter: it may well be that the casions were full of big spenders whose fortunes were of dubious origin, probably mostly drug dealers). So in many ways the reaction of the country was far more interesting than Ambrus’s shenanigans. Althoguh he too is an interesting character study in self-destruction: the aforementioned screw-ups, and his constant wasting of money, seems to point up a self-destructive personality, or at least one that subconsciously wanted to be caught. This actually makes a lot of sense in light of Ambrus’s claimed need for attention. On that front, it seems that getting caught actually made him happier — his story’s out now, and he’s gotten his notoriety. And it’s a story worth reading, partially for his own wacky character, but also for the wacky character of the setting. Early-90s Hungary was a weird place going through capitalist growing pains. The peculiar cult of the robber-hero, and the police’s fumbling helplessness, is a part of that story.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

[Screenshot]I read the comic and saw the film in close succession, so I’ll write up about both of them at once, especially since they are extremely similar stylistically. It’s black and white with biold deliniations. The overall effect is very stark, reflecting accurately both a child’s view and the totalitarian state. Even within this constrained style, art-shifts are common, with paper dolls for the history lesson and Munchesque distorted, elongated scenes during a suicide attempt. And, of course, the artistic style in the comic is followed faithfully in the animation. It’s unusual for sequential still images, but for animation it’s positively bizarre. It’s a major departure from traditional animation styles, and, inexplicably, it works. So top marks for both media for style. As for the story, it too is strong and interesting, although it drags a fair bit during the Europe section: while the backdrop of Iran presents compelling drama for either a precocious child of a young woman seeking an identity, the “fish out of water” segment felt a bit too self-pitying and insufficiently dramatic. Yes, I know, it’s autobiography and real lifes have those interludes, but, still, it felt more like a distraction than anything else.

Other than that mild bog-down in the plot, however, Persepolis is a fantastic, engrossing story, however you choose to experience it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.