Tag Archives: Adam Driver

Tracks (2013)

“Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

If Tracks is not he first film ever made to contain a “trigger warning” alerting Australian aboriginals to a dramatic recreation of people who might have already died, it’s the first one I’ve ever seen. The “deceased person,” the father of the explorer Robin Davidson, who appears to her periodically through her one-women trek across the Australian desert, is not portrayed as an obviously malevolent ghost. But he is. The more the heroine of Tracks tests herself against the pitiless heat, distances, and isolation, the more the memory of her mother and father puts her life at risk.

When Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a 27-year-old woman from an educated, middle-class family, moves to Alice Springs, a frontier town in the Northern Territory, she has a plan. Sick of the malaise of her “class, generation, and sex,” she intends to train three wild camels to carry her gear and her belongings, then simply walk to the Indian Ocean. Why? “Why not?” she answers.

Needless to say, training three wild camels, is a daunting proposition. Camel wrangling isn’t something they teach in girl’s schools, even in Australia. Davidson, however, is a particularly determined young woman. She couldn’t care less about physical comfort, money, possessions, or conforming to society’s expectations. She apprentices herself to two ranch owners, doing free menial labor in exchange for the three camels. The first ranch owner, a surly German immigrant, cheats her out of her wages. The second, an Afghan immigrant, is an honorable man. He not only gives her the camel he promised her. He teaches an important lesson that will later save her life. Davidson, unlike Chris McCandless from Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild, is well-prepared when she begins her journey into the wilderness. But she still needs money.

Eventually, on the strength of her letters, National Geographic agrees to stake her to $4000, quite a bit of money in 1977 for an unknown young woman with a plan most people considered suicidal. But it’s not that simple. Davidson may have got the $4000 dollars based on her literary ability, but it comes with a catch, a photographer named Rick Smolan, Adam Driver from the TV show Girls. Smolan is a likable enough guy, but he’s also a talkative sort, not really compatible with prickly loner like Davidson. Davidson hates being photographed. What’s more, Smolan falls in love with Davidson, so his gaze is not only invasive and objectifying, it’s sexual, invasive, and objectifying. While it’s true Davidson does like Smolan enough to sleep with him — he does drive 1000 miles out of his way to make sure she has enough water to finish her trip alive after all — she doesn’t want him “framing” her trip with his camera.

Photography, an art form that was born during the industrial revolution, has also, paradoxically, been associated with the wilderness. Some of the greatest photographs ever taken, Ansel Adams’ portraits of Denali and Yosemite, Galen Rowell’s photos of Tibet, were taken by men who considered themselves outdoorsmen first, photographers second. What’s more Davidson, and Mia Wasikowska — who’s the daughter of a Polish photojournalist — are well aware of the contradictions. Half the reason for Davidson’s cranky personality, as least as played in the film, comes from her awareness that as badly as she wants to get away from civilization, she knows she can’t. As Smolan says, it’s the eternal problem for explorers. In order to get out into the wilderness, you need money. In order to get money, you need connections.

What’s more, in order to enjoy Tracks, a fairly slow moving film, you need to enjoy looking at two things, Mia Wasikowska and camels, neither of whom is native to Australia. As Davidson explains, there would be no wild camels in Australia had it not been for the British Empire, which imported them into Australia before it’s system of railroads had been built. That they thrived in the Australian desert when they were no longer needed, became, is part of the paradox. The camels are the best possible way for Davidson to escape civilization. But the only reason they live in Australia is civilization.

Davidson, in effect, becomes, through her trek, a native Australian, a white aborigine. But she’s also a colonizer. Wasikowska, a dead ringer for Davidson. In spite of her decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon name, she looks stereotypically English. Dressed in white, or in flannels, with her sun-bleached hair and pale, then sunburned skin, she summons up the image of the British Raj in India. The movie goer becomes Rich Smolan, the photographer who annoys the hell out of her. Don’t photograph me. Stop looking at me. Don’t objectify me. But how can you not? Convince yourself she’s not beautiful? Walk out of the movie? Start a Twitter hash tag calling for the cancellation of the white girl “appropriating aboriginal culture.” Obviously not. The act of watching a film means to objectify.

Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless made no attempt to prepare for his journey, to train himself to survive in the wilderness. He saw going to Alaska as living out a dream he read about in Tolstoy and Thoreau. And he died, alone. The last image we have of McCandless is a selfie. There was no Rich Smolan to bring him water or take his photograph. The only way to leave society completely is to die.

Tracks, a far more progressive and anti-racist film than Into the Wild, is redeemed from being yet another ode to English pluck and grit by the way Davidson survives. She may resent Smolan’s pretense and consider herself a loner who hates people, but she genuinely respects the aboriginals. Indeed, Davidson flees to the wilderness to escape her, bad, white parents. She survives because of good, non-white surrogate parents. Davidson’s mother hanged herself when she was a little girl. She’s haunted by the memories. Davidson’s father, for reasons its difficult to guess at, had her dog euthanized after her mother’s death. As Davidson goes deeper and deeper into the desert, becoming, in effect, more aboriginal than English, she also becomes more vulnerable to the images of her dead parents, those very images the “trigger warning” at the beginning of the film warned Aboriginal Australians about. Her most faithful companion in the desert is her dog, Diggity. When Diggity finds a can of Strychnine hundreds of miles away from where a can of Strychnine should be, and dies, Davidson loses her mind. Diggity’s death triggers the memories of her parents she came into the desert to escape. She walks around without her clothes. A huge snake coils itself around her neck when she’s asleep. The journey starts to become a nightmare. Nevertheless, the lessons she learned from the Afghan camel herder, and an aboriginal elder who briefly serves as her guide through a forbidden sacred landscape, help her survive. “If you see a charging bull, camel, just shoot him,” the camel herder tells her, “don’t hesitate.” The aboriginal elder warns her not to butcher a dead kangaroo. It’s forbidden to women, a sexist reason, certainly, but one that saves her life at the end of the film when she attempts to eat the rotting, and surely poisonous, carcass of a long dead kangaroo. She’s internalized the elder’s warning so well she pulls back at the last moment.

By the end of the film, Davidson has exorcised her demons. She can admit she’s glad to see Smolan. She needs people. She needs society. She reaches the Indian Ocean. Thálatta! Thálatta! Θάλαττα! Θάλαττα! The sea! The sea! She dives into the water, a joyous expression on her face. Chris McCandess would die in the Alaskan wildness, his only monuments an abandoned bus, a selfie, and a book written by someone else. Davidson would go onto write her own book, to tell her own story.

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha is Inside Llewyn Davis with a cuter star and a happy ending.

Frances, played by writer Greta Gerwig, may not have a cat, but she’s a struggling artist in New York City. After accidentally dumping her boyfriend with a Freudian slip — He wants to move in together. She doesn’t. — and after her roommate and best friend announces she’s moving in with her fiancee, Frances, like Llewyn, finds herself adrift. She quickly finds another situation with a pair of rich hipsters, but it’s 1250 dollars a month. What’s more, like Llewyn Davis, Frances, an aspiring dancer, is not going to conquer the world overnight. She’s 27. Her friends are all getting married or moving on with their careers. She’s still a apprentice dancer with a small dance company. Then she isn’t. The director of the company likes Frances, but doesn’t quite think she has enough talent.

Unlike Llewyn Davis, who really doesn’t seem to like being a folk singer very much, Frances actually likes being a dancer. She may not be an overwhelming talent, but, she loves to move for the sake of moving. When asked by a benefactor to play a folk song, Llewyn Davis bursts into spasms of rage. I do not perform on demand like a circus monkey, he said. When asked by her roommates to dance, Frances is overjoyed. She’ll dance anytime, anywhere, for anybody. There’s a 20 second stretch towards the halfway mark that’s a sheer joy to watch. Frances is running along Catherine Street in Chinatown to the sound of David Bowie’s Modern Love. Greta Gerwig is a tall, lanky actress who seems to bounce when she walks. When she runs, she almost seems to fly. Just about the only movie I can think of that’s ever captured youthful energy and the sheer joy of being physical quite so well is Breaking Away with Dennis Christopher. Like Dennis Christopher’s 19 year old bicycle racer coasting through the Indiana woods, running a red light, or racing a truck along the Interstate, Frances knows that what makes you free is to occupy your own body.

Frances Ha is worth watching for those 20 seconds alone.

(Just a note: Frances Ha running through Chinatown to the sound of “Modern Love” has been almost entirely copied from a 1986 French film by Leos Carax called Mauvais Sang. Shame on you Noah Baumbach.)

There’s also the gorgeous black and white photography. I don’t know if Frances Ha was shot on digital or with old film stock, but every frame looks beautiful. Greta Gerwig is not only an appealing actress and a talented writer, she’s director Noah Baumbach’s girlfriend. The camera loves her. I’ve seen Greta Gerwig interviewed on television, and, how best to put it, she’s cute both nothing special. But Frances Ha allows us to look at her through the eyes of her quite obviously smitten boyfriend, one who’s also a brilliant cinematographer. Greta Gerwig is OK. I dare anybody, male or female, not to fall in love with Frances in the first 20 minutes of the film.

I said male or female because Frances, while straight, has a long term platonic love affair with her roommate and fellow Vassar grad Sophie. They talk so much about being lesbians not having sex it serves to obscure whether or not they really do have any romantic feeling for each other. People talk so as not to understand. But it’s clear that Frances and Sophie feel deeply for each other. Indeed, Frances getting fired at her dance studio and Sophie going off to Japan with her rich boyfriend — a Goldman Sachs banker — is the double hammer blow that strips her Frances of her youthful identity.

Since Frances is in her late 20s, a loss of identity is expressed as anxiety over aging.

“Are you older than Sophie?” a passive aggressive little yuppie hipster chick asks.

“We went to college together,” Frances responds. “But I’m a few months older.”

“I mean a lot older,” her antagonist says. “You look much older. You have an old face. Only you’re less grown up.”

Ouch. We never quite understand why this other woman feels so much passive aggressive hostility towards Frances, but it’s a perfect expression of late 20s angst in only a few lines of dialogue. Frances is a young, beautiful, vibrant woman, but she feels old. She even asks her room mate if she looks old. Well, he says, 27 is old. But it’s not. Frances isn’t worried about slowing down physically. She’s worried that her social status isn’t where it should be. She’s worried that, as she pushes 30, she should be further along in her career than she is. Late 20s angst is all about your social body versus your physical body, about how your social body, economic worries, routine, friends, competition for status makes you view your physical body through a distorted lens, makes you feel old when you’re young, makes you long to fit in when you really just can’t.

That’s another thing Frances has in common with Llewyn Davis. They both, at times, want to fit in, but know, deep down inside, that they can’t. Inside Llewyn Davis is a much angrier movie. The physical, in Inside Llewyn Davis, is full of wrath. A blizzard in Chicago, an unwanted pregnancy, a strange “well-dressed man” coming out of the shadows and beating Llewyn to a pulp, the only refuge outside of society is what you create. That’s what dooms Llewyn Davis to what’s almost certainly going to be a lifetime of unhappiness. Llewyn Davis has vibrant, rebellious soul but he doesn’t have the talent to make it known and it only expresses itself at odd moments, a cat that keeps escaping, odd spasms of rage that rip through the phony world of early 1960s folk music, a self-destructive downward spiral.

Frances is just as much an unintentional rebel as Llewyn Davis, but she’s a happier, more likeable person. Llewyn’s rebellion is always bitter. His anger makes him an outcast. For Frances, on the other hand, it’s her joy in living that makes her, if not exactly an outcast, then at least a bit of a weirdo who doesn’t quite fit into the world of passive aggressive New York hipsterdom. She challenges a friend to a “play fight,” and almost knocks her out. She dangles herself over the subway platform and almost touches the third rail. She hilariously derails the conversation at a dinner party full of stuffy WASPs by talking about her perfect romance.

“I’m really stoned, aren’t I,” she says as she realizes people are looking at her curiously.

I don’t know if Llewyn Davis’s anger makes Inside Llewyn Davis a better movie. But I do know that the one thing I didn’t like about Frances Ha was the happy ending. I suppose it’s disappointment that even so likeable a misfit like Frances decides to make her compromise with the adult world, to accept an offer of a day job while working on being a choreographer in her spare time. Her first production goes well. Her friends show up, drink wine, and applaud. The director who fired her from her apprenticeship, the one who gave her the office job, tells her she liked it. You get the sense she did.

But we’re disappointed. Inside Llewyn Davis ends with the appearance of a young Bob Dylan. We know the 1960s are coming. That rebellious anger just may amount to something after all. If Llewyn Davis hangs on maybe he can go on to protest the Vietnam War or register voters in the south, or at least sing for people who register voters in the south. Frances Ha ends, on the other hand, with Frances becoming just another journeyman (or woman) culture worker in hipster New York. She’ll go to parties. She’ll get into debates about Girls and Breaking Bad, She’ll get married, have kids, hire a nanny, and buy her food at the Park Slope Food Coop.

Couldn’t she have occupied Zuccotti Park instead?