This essay is the fourth and penultimate piece from Spooool.ie’s current “Writer in Residence” David Turpin. It’s a series which will see us introduce a new writer every three months. The contributor is free to write about whatever they like during these months, once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form. Read David’s other essays here.
As a juvenile know-it-all, I somehow came into possession of a ticket for an advance screening of Titanic (1997). I had just started going to the cinema alone, and I imagined myself very grown up and very authoritative. By the time I arrived, all the seats had filled bar the front row, so I had no sense of the audience reaction as I watched. I sat through the thing – an experience I have never been tempted to repeat in its entirety – and I remember thinking, as the lights came up afterwards “Well, nobody’s going to go and see that rubbish”.
It’s strange when one’s certainties about a film’s reception are overturned so comprehensively. It happened to me again when I first saw Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004). At the time, I felt with absolute certainty that Birth would be widely acknowledged as a modern classic – but now it’s nine years later, and there’s still no sign of that happening. I suppose there’s still time – maybe Glazer’s forthcoming adaptation of Michel Faber’s haunting novel Under the Skin will make people return to his previous film. Until that happens, I’ll happily defend this “absurd psychological thriller” (Halliwell’s) as one of the finest American films of the 21st century.
Best known for his lurid Ray Winstone vehicle Sexy Beast (2000) and for crafting an appropriately sanctimonious video for Radiohead’s “Just”, Glazer co-wrote Birth with Milo Addica (Monster’s Ball) and frequent Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière. The plot involves a wealthy young widow, played by Nicole Kidman, who comes into contact with a 10-year-old boy who appears to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Birth is about many things – plot is not one of them.
In so far as the film has a “subject”, its subject is Kidman herself. Make all the boring botox jokes you like, the fact is Nicole Kidman is one of the greatest living film actors. I say “film actor” specifically because acting for film is a fundamentally different proposition to acting on stage, or on television. Acting on film is about connecting to the machinery of camera, on some deep and mysterious level. Some people hold our attention on camera with showy feats of impersonation (Meryl Streep) or physical prowess (Natalie Portman in Black Swan), or simply by belting it out to the cheap seats at the back (Cate Blanchett in everything). Kidman does none of these things. Perhaps that’s why her success in a role depends entirely on its congruence with the base note of her star persona: she always plays a prisoner. In all her best dramatic performances – Birth, The Portrait of a Lady (1996), The Others (2001), Dogville (2003) – Kidman plays a woman entrapped. Broad comedy has never been her thing, as anybody who’s seen Bewitched (2005) or The Stepford Wives (2004) can attest, but she has tremendous dry comic timing in To Die For (1995) – perhaps because this kind of humour involves making the most telling movement within the smallest possible space. I like to think the deep sense of unhappiness that radiates from her every frame in Moulin Rouge! (2001) stems from finding herself trapped again, this time in the cinematic equivalent of a washing machine filled with Quality Street.
Kidman has precisely two “tricks” as a performer, and both of them are entirely specific to film – they simply cannot be performed without the aid of camera and microphone. First, she allows her voice to break down to a whisper mid-sentence – see how her hushed delivery of the line “They gonna save you” in Lee Daniels’ insanely entertaining soap nightmare The Paperboy (2012) sucks the air out of the room, or the way the crack in her voice precisely pinpoints the moment in The Portrait of a Lady at which Isabel Archer realises her marriage to Gilbert Osmond has been a horrible mistake. This is performance that is absolutely, instinctively linked to the technology of cinema – to the medium’s ability to create an intimacy beyond the declamatory posturing of the stage, almost beyond human interaction itself.
Kidman’s second specialty is, of course, the close-up. Birth contains one of the most striking sustained close-ups in cinema, as every flicker of turmoil across Kidman’s face is mercilessly observed while she sits – a prisoner again – in the audience at a performance of the “storm” movement from Wagner’s Die Valküre. The unbroken two-and-a-half minute shot pins us to our seats just as Kidman is fastened into hers, and it tunnels into one of the most compelling paradoxes in cinema – that the medium we slangily refer to as the “big screen” is actually a realm of minutiae. In close-ups like this, the distinction between the real and the idiomatic is flattened as the tiniest of gestures is projected on a scale that literally renders its significance. Not many actors can carry this off – Carey Mulligan’s valiant effort at something similar in Shame (2011), for instance, is cluttered up with fussy gestures – perhaps because, on some level, it’s not actually acting.
Birth revolves around Kidman, but it’s brilliantly played, down to the smallest role. Alison Elliott, who inexplicably didn’t become a star after her luminous turn in the 1997 Henry James adaptation The Wings of the Dove, makes a sharp impression in a small role as Kidman’s sister. Peter Stormare, whose impassivity was so frightening in Fargo, makes something oddly affecting of it here. Lauren Bacall is genuinely terrifying as Kidman’s mother and delivers one three-word line, in a maternity ward scene, with such withering acumen that it’s a miracle the film didn’t freeze in the camera. Even Anne Heche pulls it out of the bag to the degree that you don’t find your mind wandering to her Byzantine private life every time she appears on screen.
There’s yet another star turn in Birth, though, and it comes from Central Park itself. Birth seems to me to be one of the most arresting explorations of the mysterious power of city parks – specifically Central Park – as spaces of unknowability, mystery, even some strange kind of magic, at the heart of urban expanses. If New York, in cinema at least, is a “city that never sleeps”, then it corrals its dreams, and sometimes its nightmares, into the park. In Birth, Central Park is a place where a healthy man can drop dead without warning, and where a grown woman can be irretrievably seduced by a small child. The limitations of the camera seem to be suspended too, as in the extraordinary opening sequence, which tracks a jogger through the snow-covered park with almost supernatural grace and composure.
In a strange way, Glazer’s devastatingly tranquil film has always been linked in my mind to an unlikely predecessor: William Friedkin’s jawdroppingly nasty S&M serial killer aria Cruising (1980), in which Al Pacino loses his identity, sexual and otherwise, under cover of darkness in Central Park. Cruising has never enjoyed anything remotely like the (baffling) adoration afforded to The Exorcist (1973), and I wonder if that’s at least in part because its horrors are psychosexual rather than supernatural, and the violated bodies are those of adult men rather than a pubescent girl. Whatever the reason, James Franco probably didn’t help its cause with his pastiche/homage/thingamabob Interior. Leather Bar. (2013). I’ve always found Cruising genuinely disturbing, though, in a way The Exorcist has never been – particularly for the moments where the claustrophobic, sweltering leather bar scenes give way to the eerie Central Park sequences, in which threatening figures seethe in the foliage, their identities erased by their uniforms, by the night, and most of all by the park itself. In a way, Pacino’s tormented police officer experiences the same phenomenon Cameron Bright’s schoolboy does in Birth – he comes under the power of the park. If New York City is a symbol of human mastery, then the park is its concession to that which cannot be controlled – both Pacino and Bright’s characters enter its domain and find that they may not be the same person when they emerge again.
A couple of days ago, I went to see Shane Carruth’s terrific Upstream Colour, a very elegant, arresting film that gains much of its power from its refusal to untangle its own mysteries. A recurring complaint about Birth – and, to a lesser extent, about Cruising, for that matter – is the apparent banality with which its central mystery is “solved”. In Birth, Bright’s character is revealed to have come into possession of a series of love letters sent from Kidman’s unfaithful husband to Heche’s character, providing the information necessary for Bright to impersonate him. Dissatisfied viewers have quite sensibly raised the question of who, exactly, would load torrid letters to his mistress with quite so much convenient exposition. It’s a reasonable question to ask. I would counter, though, that the genius of Birth’s construction is that it offers a third-act “solution” that actually deepens the story’s central conundrum. If the who and the what of the mystery are revealed as having a dispiritingly earthly source, the why of it seems more intangible than ever. We feel this great unknown in the awful uncertainty with which Kidman – having learned about the letters – rounds on the child and cries “You’re a little liar”, only to immediately follow it with the repeated question “Is that what you are?” It’s there again in the devastating final montage, as we see a disconsolate Kidman flee her wedding reception to wade knee deep in the sea, while Bright poses for a class photo at his school, his persistently grave expression breaking on command into a smile that seems to transform him into a completely different person.
The persistence of love beyond rationality that shapes the narrative in Birth, the seething hatred that mutates desire into violence in Cruising – these are the mysteries that make up the wilderness at the heart of human life, just as Central Park punches an unknowable hole through the centre of the most Metropolitan city in the world. In both films, but especially in Birth, there is the persistent, unnerving sense of some kind of presence, just beyond the edge of the screen, just beyond the edge of our experience. No matter how definitive the “solutions” may appear, they never quite suffice. If we want a real answer, we have to step into the unknown. We won’t find it, but maybe – like the camera-as-angel-of-death that stalks the jogger in Birth’s opening scene – it’ll find us.
David Turpin is a recording artist (as The Late David Turpin) and occasional academic. His new album, We Belong Dead, will be released on September 13, 2013. See him perform live at Smock Alley Theatre on September 15 as part of Dublin Fringe Festival (www.fringefest.com). Read more at: www.thelatedavidturpin.com