Half-Assing It & Full-Assing It

Last night I watched Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes, partly because it sounded intriguing, partly because I wanted to see the movie which beat out both A Prophet and The White Ribbon for the foreign-language Oscar. It’s one of those movies where a character becomes obsessed with chasing a rapist-killer to escape the void that is his life, and his learning how to let go of the case tracks with his ability to open up to another human being—in other words, thhpfft! (Comes complete with a head-to-toe view of the victim’s battered nude body, artfully spreadeagled for our delectation.) Smack in the middle of an otherwise very conventional movie, we get this freakshow of a shot (slightly accelerated here, the actors don’t really sound like they’ve been huffing helium):

Robert Frost once compared writing free verse to playing tennis with the net down, an equation I’d find odious coming from anyone less than the author of “After Apple-Picking”, but the shoe certainly fits here. The phony kineticism of a shot which the mind recognizes is physically impossible even as it’s taking place, and which isn’t just created but can be endlessly toyed with and corrected in a computer, makes a poor substitute for, say, the 400 timed camera moves, and the perfection necessary from cast and crew alike, that went into the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas.

While I’m at it, I may as well mention how badly I’ve wanted to write about Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, a movie which affects me more like music than a film, and which hit me harder than any movie I’ve seen in—hell, I dunno—a year at least. It opens with the light of the world being diced and obscured by a thickening hatchwork of fencing and bars, as all normal life is stripped away from an illiterate French Arab teenager who’s entering prison for hitting a cop, and ends with his release a few years later, when he’s grown into a young man with a radically altered position on the food chain. The unsentimental education that he receives in between these two moments—moments so cleanly defined you could set an atomic clock by them—is a detailed, demanding process, and we’re made to feel his years behind bars so completely it’s as if we’re experiencing every second of them. Grim as it is, A Prophet exhilarated me, and fills me with joy. Audiard brings a really dense conception of characterization to his heroes, both here and in his earlier films, A Self-Made Hero and the great The Beat That My Heart Skipped, yet what plays smoothly on the surface comes at you in jags and angles afterward.

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