Who expected the national psyche to be on display for the holidays? “Lincoln” and “Dark Zero” both represent historical triumphs—passage of the 13th Amendment and liquidating Osama Bin Laden. “Lincoln,” the current Oscar front-runner, screened at the White House and for a joint session of Congress, is a movie to make you feel good about America; “Dark Zero Thirty,” poised to suffer its second Congressional investigation, not so much. And then there are those movies out to evoke what D.H. Lawrence called “the spirit of the place.”
Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” (the title tells all) has been praised and attacked as an anti-fracking treatise. It is that, although the star and prime mover Matt Damon is not wrong when he describes the picture as an inquiry into America’s character. Call it a granola movie with a twist. Damon, one of the contemporary Hollywood’s most likable leading men, plays a salesman peddling hope to the depressed denizens of small-town rural America. Attention must be paid. Lotta natural goodness out there, sitting atop an ocean of natural gas—and the countryside, wryly personified by wholesome Rosemarie DeWitt, is mighty pretty. So is this super “sincere” salesman going to con them or are they going to con him? Damon’s nemesis, an environmental hippie organizer played by John Krasinski, rocks out in a leering rendition of the Boss’s “Dancing in the Dark” but suffice to say that when the new day dawns, it’s Simon and Garfunkel, the very guys who once upon a time sang wistfully about going to “to look for America” who have the final word.
Actually, Simon and Garfunkel classic would have been a hilarious addition to Walter Salle’s reverential (and interminable) adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Brow mightily furrowed in the attempt to channel the frantic torrent of Kerouac prose into a coherent narrative arc, Salle makes no attempt to evoke the apocalyptic rush of late ‘40s America that was so deftly evoked in “The Master”–despite a few swipes from Robert Frank‘s “The Americans” (see above). Nor, does Salles generate much heat in the novel’s underlying Huck and Tom bromance between Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarity (Garret Hedlund), the latter’s repeated propensity for open the door buck nekkid not withstanding. It’s painfully conventional and, for all the rushing around, generally inert. The only one who seems to be breaking free is Kristen Stewart, liberated from her Gothic twilight in the role of Dean’s game-for-anything child bride.
Leave it to avant-garde old master James Benning to “remake” the “On the Road” of the ‘60s. Showing this Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image, Benning’s “Easy Rider” is a leisurely succession of beautifully framed, static landscape shots, more or less corresponding to the locations in the 1969 movie, and accompanied by bits of dialogue from the movie’s soundtrack–with particular attention to Dennis Hopper‘s stoned stream of consciousness gibberish. It’s not subtle (after Peter Fonda’s heartfelt “we blew it”, Benning cuts to a shot of a steam-belching oil refinery) but when the filmmaker throws in Space Lady Suzy Soundz’s acid reverb version of “Born to Be Wild” or uses a close-up of creepy jail house graffiti (“I Love God”) for Jack Nicholson’s first scene, his “Easy Rider” is both a weird tribute to original’s mythic power and an evocation of an America haunted, as Lawrence imagined it, by “grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons.”