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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

New DVD: Down to the Bone (2004, ***)

ONE OF THE REGRETTABLE THINGS about not having the luxury to write only about one film or two films a week is the lack of time to consider what truly constitutes “acting” in movies. vera_farmiga1.jpg
It’s one of the most mysterious components of the alchemy of filmmaking. Pauline Kael, for one example, was terrific at finding zingy one-liners to describe the physicality of a performer. “There are things you just can’t write, like the way an actor will look at another actor,” Oliver Stone once told an interviewer. “And these little things are everything in a movie. So I think that as filmmakers, we don’t truly have control over everything.”
Made on the most modest of budgets on digital video, Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, (Hart Sharp, $20) which won two prizes at Sundance 2004, including for actress Vera Farmiga’s “outstanding performance” is a powerful mix of control and fearlessness, of observation and contemplation.

Set in the drearier reaches of economically failing upstate New York, Bone is the story of Irene (Farmiga), a young mother with a child to raise and a cocaine addiction as well. Working in a dead-end job as a grocery cashier, Irene’s life is one urge at a time more than one day at a time.
Granik’s work as a writer and director, drawn from research for a documentary she did not make, has the felicity of nonfiction filmmaking, but the grace of Farmiga’s fearlessness. Even if you choose just to stare into the center of the screen at this marvel of an actress, you cannot help but admire the authenticity of each moment as it plays out. Irene is wearied from drugs but also from work: it’s a double-edged situation, with the lower-working-class milieu as inescapable as a bad habit yet likely more permanent.
“Do you have an advantage card?… I don’t either,” is Irene’s potentially condescending opening line to a customer at the grocery, yet in Farmiga’s delivery, wry grin and body language, the movie opens out like an vulnerable smile. Irene isn’t a histrionic audition piece for a Steppenwolf try-out: much of the pain stays simmering within. There’s casual authenticity in verbal and gestural exchanges, which could be summed up by a post-rehab pal of Irene’s offering the shrug of “I just feel more comfortable high.”
Down to the Bone failed to get a distributor after its Sundance awards, and after being picked up by a small start-up, opened in Los Angeles in late 2005, to almost no response, except critical raves and a Los Angeles Film Critics’ award for best actress. The subject matter may be off-putting in outline—woman-kids-junk-uplift-downfall like too many recent Sundance dramatic entries—but to deny oneself the chance to see Farmiga’s performance is a more painful prospect. (The promise of a non-romanticized working class milieu may also be alienating to audiences, from those who don’t want to see such things because it doesn’t speak to them to those who don’t want to see such things because they’ve escaped (or hope to escape) it themselves.
The only movies that are “downers” for me are ones that are badly mad or poorly observed, and while dealing with hopelessness and haplessness, Down to the Bone is uplifting for its minor-key yet majestic feats of empathy. (And Michael McDonough’s digital cinematography is lyrical without straining.) Granik’s movie is a feat of listening, and a feat of watching as well.
There are theories to hatch and cases to be made about what constitutes the best of screen acting, but as in Down With the Bone, start with the human face. And in Farmiga’s face, you will see one of the most powerful performances of recent years.

One Response to “New DVD: Down to the Bone (2004, ***)”

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s one of the most mysterious components of the alchemy of filmmaking. Pauline Kael

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“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us ALL—His children.”
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“I’m more and more interested in Godard’s idea that not much matters except dealing with the present moment, that when you look at history, you’ve got to refract it through your awareness of the present. I mean, I’m interested in history, and here I am talking about biopics, but I don’t want to run from the present. And the idea of time-travel through CGI feels like a magic trick that might be an evasion of other issues. Besides, I like working with real actors in real spaces. Can’t help it.”
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