Won’t Get Fooled Again
Adam Nayman Revisits Birth
“With Birth, Jonathan Glazer saves critics the trouble of anointing him a filmmaker to watch: he enacts the benediction for them, with every attention-grabbing shot and ostentatious directorial gesture.” So did your humble correspondent damn—with faint praise and an evident, rakish smirk—the sophomore feature by the director of Sexy Beast (2000), a slick, clever, notably post-Tarantino gangster flick whose cultish reputation all but begged for a certain kind of critic to take its maker down a peg. Enter 23-year-old me, hungry for bylines and flying the banner of an upstart online film journal predicated on seeing through the haze of hype—one whose editors happily encouraged their even more snot-nosed writers to smear deserving targets. This was 2004, the year of Crimson Gold and Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Notre Musique; no way was a prestigious magic-realist weepie with Nicole Kidman in faux-Falconetti mode going to evade our millennial bullshit detectors. Even if I’ve long since deleted the Yahoo! chat messages I shared with a certain Reverse Shot co-founder about Birth—up to and including the commissioning of what two minutes’ worth of clicking tells me was my third-ever piece for RS that October—the title we decided upon together one afternoon echoes eloquently across the decades: “The Kid Is Not My Sean.”
If you’ll permit me to wax personal for a couple of paragraphs longer—and what is a writing exercise explicitly predicated on the act of re-viewing but a chance to relive one’s glory days?—one of the reasons that I loved writing for Reverse Shot in the early 2000s was the sense of camaraderie, an us-against-the-world mentality that, at least in my case, belied the literal geographical distance between myself and the mostly New York–based freelancers who made up the website’s roster. Not that I didn’t have friends and colleagues in Toronto, but, at least circa 2004, most of the cinephiles I hung out with were either as-yet-non (or never-to-be) professionalized University of Toronto Cinema Studies undergraduates (including my then-girlfriend and future wife) or older, more experienced local journalists—two cohorts whose experiences complemented my own without quite putting us in the same boat. Writing is a solitary pastime—and an even lonelier career—but Reverse Shot was a social network unto itself, and, along with the Toronto-based (but considerably more internationally atomized) print magazine Cinema Scope, opened doors to communication, community, and travel that leveraged a sense of glamor (such as it was) and upward mobility (ditto) against a lack of actual money. Exposure was its own kind of investment: every time I bought a ticket to a public screening in order to file an essay about some new release or other—Troy, let’s say, or The Grudge—I told myself that what I was really doing was paying my dues.
Of course, you can’t get your dues back, a truism that functions as a great, sobering joke in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and which was on my mind when Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert asked longtime contributors to consider returning to some version of their own private, primal scenes for “Reverse Shot Does It Again.” I surely can’t speak for all of the participants in this series—some of whom are still spring chickens, relatively speaking—when I say that the symposium’s unspoken, Steely Dan–tinged subtext is middle-age, specifically the holy trinity of coulda-woulda-shoulda that keeps those of us who’ve recently (not recently enough) put 40 in the rearview and at least considered what obsolescence (if not oblivion) might look like. Still, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Llewyn’s embarrassment that the world might hear his “early shit” draws a bead both on his fussy narcissism and his messy insecurity; reading Nick Pinkerton’s reassessment of William Friedkin’s 2003 thriller The Hunted, I found myself nodding along not only at his fondly reactionary rhetoric re: a certain kind of lapsed mid-tier Hollywood product—that these days, a “solid macho melodrama with a couple of meaty set-pieces” would play like “the second coming of Budd Boetticher”—but at the bittersweet sensation of revisiting one’s youthful scribblings and finding them at once wanting and nostalgic. They provide a conduit to a time when, paradoxically, I felt simultaneously more like a know-it-all and less concerned about my own margin for error: signs of the arrogance that comes with assuming, subconsciously (and presumptuously) that one has, in the words of a song I associate intensely with this period in my life, "all kinds of time."
Getting back to Birth—a movie that, God forgive me, is probably closer to being the cinematic equivalent of “Stacy’s Mom” than the other aforementioned Fountains of Wayne track—it ended up being my selection largely because of the impending release of Glazer’s Auschwitz-set drama The Zone of Interest, ratified by many as a masterpiece at Cannes and likely to become one of the most-talked-about movies in a long time. It’s a conversation piece touching on everything from the politics of representation to the banality of evil to the sadly topical (and even more appallingly timeless) discourse around the strategic euphemizing and disguising of genocide; it’s likely to inspire some great criticism, and plenty of bored regurgitation and/or doctrinaire skepticism. Because a professional obligation forbids me from reviewing The Zone of Interest in a public forum, I’ll say only that I admire it not just in spite of my reservations but in light of them; it’s precisely the sort of troubling, contradictory tour de force that I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
This was also how I felt, more or less, about Glazer’s 2013 Under the Skin, which represented a game attempt to suture together a modern science-fiction picaresque entirely out of alienation effects; it was, I thought after exiting a TIFF screening, definitely something, and something hard to shake, at that. Both Under the Skin and The Zone of Interest are, in their way, as ostentatious as Birth, and maybe as self-congratulatory as well; the former’s distaff Man Who Fell to Earth riff brought to mind Pauline Kael’s carefully hedged celebration of Nicolas Roeg as having more visual strategies than any other director she could think of, with Glazer picking up the torch of cold-fish virtuoso from his U.K. countryman. Virtuosity for its own sake is rarely a virtue, but sometimes a director’s skill and way of seeing can become a subject in and of itself, which was my way into Under the Skin, whose extra-terrestrial protagonist is, among other things, a provocative stand-in for the ethics and optics of filmmaking. The film’s centerpiece sequence, featuring a sobbing baby abandoned on a rocky Scottish beach after its parents drown together, transcends even its own in-context awfulness—which is considerable, and drove several people from the theater when I saw it—to access something disturbing and even cosmic about what it means to bear witness to suffering, while the lack of any correspondingly nightmarish imagery in The Zone of Interest struck me as a thoughtful and even heroic exercise of restraint. In both films, Glazer crafts clammily immaculate surfaces that belie ripples of feeling, and so it seemed worth plunging back into Birth’s murky depths to explore the possibility of some new—or previously ignored—undertow.
Water plays a major part in Birth’s pivotal moment, where Nicole Kidman’s Anna—a prosperous Upper West Sider on the verge of cinching her second marriage a decade after the tragic dissolution of her first—bathes warily with the ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) who claims, with preposterousness, to be the reincarnation of her late husband Sean. “You certainly had me fooled,” Anna says in the faint, trance-like cadence that Glazer and Kidman settled on for the majority of her dialogue (written by the director with Milo Addica and Buñuelian ringer Jean-Claude Carrière. “I thought you were my dead husband . . . but you're just a little boy in my bathtub.” Thinking back on my first viewing of Birth, I remember that line setting off alarm bells because it was so on the nose as to be the dramaturgical equivalent of a deviated septum; the question—at least for me, eyes rolling—was whether Glazer and his collaborators were, after what felt like a miniature eternity of ominous build-up, outing themselves as po-faced charlatans, or else trying to imbue some leavening sarcasm into a movie otherwise striving, in every carefully modulated moment, for Strained Seriousness.
More than even Roeg, Glazer has always seemed to want to be Stanley Kubrick, and Birth wears its influences on its sleeve, from the Shining-style Steadicam that opens its prologue and the Starchild-ish pietà that concludes it to an entire spanking sequence pilfered from Barry Lyndon. These and other acts of Kubrickian pastiche are theoretically bound together by the presence of Kidman, then in her post–Eyes Wide Shut prime as the go-to porcelain plaything of all-controlling maestro types, and yet what affected me on my recent viewing was not Anna’s plight—or even Kidman’s performance, which still strikes me as mannered marionette work—but the idea of an old soul in a young body, out of sync with its own romantic and biological impulses, stranded in a kind of living purgatory. “I’m looking at my wife,” Sean says when queried about the intensity of his gaze, and while Bright’s line readings are as flatlined as Kidman’s, there’s a trace of something wild and disconcerting in the mix—a quiet raging against his own inexplicable emasculation. No doubt Glazer had provocation somewhere in mind when he took on a project that maneuvered probably the most desirable Hollywood icon of the moment into a compromising—if tastefully aestheticized—position with an underaged co-star, and yet to the film’s credit, then and now, their kiss doesn’t play as an assertion of edginess so much as an image of different kinds of love crammed dangerously together.
The aching, humane conflation of sexual and maternal devotion is a scenario that David Fincher would develop a few years later in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which climaxes—emotionally and iconographically—on a shot of a young boy offering his wizened caregiver an ostensibly innocent (but impossibly loaded) peck on the cheek. (In his own bid to chase Kubrick, Fincher inadvertently opened up oceanic reservoirs of emotion closer to Spielberg.) Button’s epic extrapolation on the strangeness of being embraces magic realism, while Birth arguably exploits it; for a lot of people the frustration of Glazer’s film was not that it kept its cards to its chest the whole time, but it wasn’t really holding anything in the end. There’s a fine line between being beguiled and being fooled, and whether Birth simply couldn’t locate it or simply chose to blur it out of necessity is hard to know. It’s partially a matter of tone, which Birth has in abundance, albeit of the wrong kind. In Carrière’s films with Luis Buñuel, dramatic and spiritual ambiguity isn’t just enjoyable, it’s ecstatic—a way of understanding a world whose cruelties and contingencies are often akin to (pitch-black) magic. Ditto for the best of Kubrick, which always interlaced humor and horror on a molecular level, even in Eyes Wide Shut, where the sex-shop-Halloween-costume aesthetics emerge out the other end of their own severity to become wildly funny. Glazer, though, wasn’t—and, despite my increasing regard for his work, still isn’t—a light touch, and there’s only so much heavy-duty goofiness that even the most solid mise-en-scène can bear. But for whatever reason—and possibly because of the weirdly time-traveling nature of the assignment at hand—I re-encountered the film while thinking about the decidedly non-magical, all-too-ordinary fact that my younger and older selves co-exist within (a rapidly deteriorating) physical and psychic space. From that vantage, Sean’s forlorn epistemological confusion, no matter how unsatisfying its ultimate in-narrative explanation, hit me, hard, to the point that all my other utterly unchanged reservations about the film started to trickle away.
They haven’t dissipated completely; I’m still not sure that Birth really “works,” maybe because it doesn’t—or can’t—disguise how hard its major collaborators are laboring both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Even its most lauded passage, in which Harris Savides’s camera settles for two minutes on Kidman’s face while she watches an opera and gets wordlessly lost in her own thoughts, strikes me more as a blueprint for catharsis than a fully realized epiphany; it’s accomplished in a way that doesn’t seem to accomplish anything. What I can’t decide is whether I’m charmed or chastened by the fact that, at 23, I felt like I could simply see through Glazer’s tactics to apprehend the nothingness at their center, while now I squint in search of elusive, fugitive meanings, maybe to prove that my vision has grown more acute, maybe to justify a decidedly indulgent use of what increasingly feels like precious time. Either way, I’m not sure that I’ve finally grown up all that much, although I certainly have some people fooled: I’m just a little boy at my laptop, and I always will be.