November 21, 2009

On Family, Loss and 'Mother Night'

I think my cousin's matured into a fine filmmaker.

That was my reaction after seeing Mother Night, director Keith Gordon's adaptation of the eponymous Kurt Vonnegut novel. Gordon, an auteur who these days works primarily in TV, is a director whose works have intrigued me for some time--dating back to his interesting 1988 adaptation of the Robert Cormier book The Chocolate War.

Of course, there's another reason why his films have been on my radar. He's my cousin...although, admittedly, one I've never met.

Strangely enough, my ex-wife once admitted having a crush on Gordon during his days as an actor, when he starred in movies such as Christine and Back to School. Not sure if that has something to do with the distinctive visages so prevalent on my mother's side (the area of the family whence Gordon came), but I thought it was an interesting aside.

What's more interesting, however, is the talent that Gordon has summoned up--both internally and externally--for Mother Night, a film I wasn't prepared to like.

The story, concerning an American playwright (played superbly by Nick Nolte) who is recruited during World War II as a double-agenty spy in an effort to transmit code disguised as anti-Semitic rants from Germany to the United States, has a fascinating subtext: that of lost identity, and the ingratitude following anonymous service. Gordon films the proceedings sumptuously, in painterly tones, switching to black-and-white at times a la Lindsay Anderson's If..... The ironic quality of the tale is enhanced by some excellent, solemn music by Michael Convertino that seems to echo Javier Navarrete's score for Pan's Labyrinth. But the real star is the script, adapted wonderfully by Robert B. Weide from Vonnegut's work. It's a dark, melancholy screenplay, negative but not inhuman, and cognizant of the inextricable forces that bind people within unwinnable situations. It's very nicely done.

Which is not to say that there aren't any issues with the film. It's not completely clear why Nolte's character, Howard Campbell, takes the spy role in the first place, as he admits to being a man without politics. And Gordon sometimes gets a bit too fancy with his direction, especially in a scene between Campbell and his recruiter in which the camera circles the duo as it did in Hitchcock's Vertigo...albeit with less intrigue. (I have to admit: I'm not a big fan of the ever-popular camera-circling technique, as I feel it generally detracts from the goings-on in the scene.)

Still, Mother Night is a distinctive, unusual work and deserves to be better known. I'd say my cousin has grown up a lot from his days in Back to School. But that's what happens with talent: It matures with age. Now we have to see where it goes from here.

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