This last weekend I caught up with two current releases which both proved disappointing, Pere Portabella's latest fiction/non-fiction hybrid The Silence Before Bach and Tony Gilroy's Oscar-nominated morality play, Michael Clayton. Below are short reviews of the two films.
The Silence Before Bach
An essay film in structure only, The Silence Before Bach is better characterized as a series of loosely-connected vignettes that riff on various aspects of the music and life of the German composer in a rather half-hearted attempt to suggest some measure of their contemporary significance. The film's title comes from an E. M. Cioran quotation which speculates that before Bach, "there must have been a world... but what was that world like? A Europe of empty spaces with no resonance." But far from being an essayistic exploration of the significance of the composer in a contemporary pan-European context (the film's characters speak German, Italian, Spanish and French), the work is rather a collection of unilluminating stagings that, while providing the occasional visual and (especially) aural pleasure, don't much advance our understanding of the composer's importance either in terms of personal significance for the film's director and participants, or in terms of his transformative influence on the modern world as a whole.
The film begins in complete silence in a whitewashed corridor, before a player piano - moving autonomously through stop-motion animation - saunters playfully down the hall, pivoting sideways and back as it turns out the Goldberg Variations. This opening, which, as J. Hoberman notes, neatly literalizes the film's title, offers the simultaneous promise of an exploration of the significance of the epochal silence-breaking effected by the titular composer and a certain jaunty lyricism, neither of which the rest of the work is able to fulfill.
As a thriller Michael Clayton has no problem delivering the expected payoffs, but as a moral drama it's considerably less accomplished. Writer/director Tony Gilroy's strategy for establishing an ethical framework is to present the two sides of the argument as dialectically opposed absolutes muddied by only the barest hint of troubling nuance and then allow his hero (played by perennial good-guy George Clooney) to move from a morally suspect position to a (mostly) unconditional embrace of goodliness with predictable ease. Although Gilroy tries to keep Clooney's final actions a question of perpetual speculation, this moral decision making registers as the least suspenseful component of the director's narrative program. The film's social concerns - outlining the responsibilities of corporations for the collateral damage they inflict on surrounding innocents - are admirable, but as in those other self-congratulatory "conscience" pictures of recent years (Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener), the ethical debate is presented as excessively schematic and the moral incontrovertibility of the hero's final decision (even if the character retains lingering uncertainties, the filmmakers are never in doubt) is understood as all too inevitable.