The Exploding Kinetoscope is four years old today. Not a monumental anniversary, perhaps, but this weblog's date of invention falls between my own birthday on December 27th and, I understand, something or other that happens on December 25th.
In modest celebration of all these babies being born, let's head into the ExKin paper archives! I acquired this beauty a few years ago, and apart from some rusty vintage staples, it's fresh as the day it was printed. Nothing could be more appropriate than a jaunt through the highlights of the original pressbook for the birth-of-a-baby Golden Age exploitation classic Mom and Dad (1945)... especially as paired with the 1949 Mitchum-sploitation anti-dope parable She Shoulda Said 'No!'!
The tale of showman, "producer," marketeer and American genius Howard "Kroger" Babb has not been told in full biography. Babb's legend weaves in and out of David F. Friedman's autobio A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King (1998, Prometheus Books; required reading for all movie-drunk humans!), with the older exploitation pioneer serving as a sort of tall tale creation myth for all movie con-men. Babb appears like an eternal trickster figure, inspiring, disobedient, dishonest, and so incorruptible in nature that he cons his would-be protégées and, maybe, the very gods of capitalism!
Mom and Dad, directed by ol' One-Shot himself, William Beaudine, is Babb's masterpiece of ballyhoo. Promising the audience that "YOU... will SEE the birth of a baby! Both normal and Cesarean!," the ad campaigns do not exactly lie. But they also imply frank sexuality, uncompromising depiction of clinical science and to enlighten through education. The Mom and Dad press book very nearly vows that the film will save the world... and it is no less hyperbolic or dishonest with potential exhibitors.
In some ways, this is my favorite page of the book, despite relatively sedate graphics. The two messages from Babb are direct challenges to exhibitors, confrontational and dismissive. So the movies aren't fresh first release material? If people haven't seen 'em, they're new enough. The implication of the box at the bottom is that Babb is handing you, the drive-in or grindhouse proprietor a perfect, can't-fail recipe, and if you blow it it's your own damn fault. To a theater owner, this is a more effective affront than asking if he's a Real Man! What kind of showman are you? Can you handle Mom and Dad?
No comment necessary, really, but the headline alone demonstrates one Proven Fact: every modern marketing department, for every distributor on the planet, when placed next to Kroger Babb, has absolutely zero kung-fu.
Kroger Babb threatens to punch your bridge club in the face!
No quotation marks are "unnecessary," when advertising for Gay Drive-In.
Look, you're there to see Mom and Dad, and you're only at that for the sexy parts anyway. It is still startling to see the the co-feature complaining about being overshadowed in its own advertisement.
The reality is that Mom and Dad is a panicked/dreary teen social issue melodrama, which doesn't mention, let alone depict sexual intercourse, and exists only as a support system for the live birth footage grafted onto its slender frame. The way it plays seems almost intentional, designed to disappoint and anger the lusting audience into rioting, then, spectacularly, unpleasantly, and totally honestly gives them what they came for. You will see the birth of a baby. And another baby. And sometimes a shock-science reel about the horrors of VD. Sometimes more... sometimes less.
No one drove away from Mom and Dad feeling ripped off... because it was constantly remade for every audience. In markets where authorities intervened, Babb would swap out the graphic medical footage. During screenings where cheated audiences were about to explode, he'd slip in a nudist or sex reel. It is a grand confection of smoke and mirrors showmanship. There is no definitive version of the film, and in some ways no film to consider at all. There is nothing important except the advertising and the birth reel.
The pressbook is a fine illustration of the value of marketing the same barely-there product in every way possible. The above ad is the most sexed-up, with prone, leggy blondes and promises to reveal the secrets real moms and dads will not speak. The medical sidebar is a highlight, implying that Mom and Dad will make you powerful, wise, deliver you from ignorance, and cleanse you of sin!
There is a reason this special piece of antique garbage is in the National Film Registry (and would be one of my first choices for an exhaustive Criterion Collection special edition disc). It is a brilliant demonstration of the business of selling movies, of spectacle intersecting rip-off, supply creating demand. In Mom and Dad desire to see, to know is met with shameless, crowing opportunism.
Under the pretense of thorough education and responsibility, Babb juiced his crowds for further coin by accompanying most Mom and Dad playdates with a lecture delivered by a fake doctor who hawked sex hygiene pamphlets — a $10 value that was a steal at $2...
As it happens, I'm just the kind of sucker who needs one of these.
The lurid pink/el cheapo austere cover of "The Key to Successful Sexual Relations". The "Dr. Elliot Forbes" who Babb employed to tour with Mom and Dad had the amazing ability to appear in dozens of cities at once because he was 26 different actors canvasing the nation. In the name of historical precision, "Successful Sexual Relations" dates from 1955, and was not the only (or most common) book that Doc Forbes made available for purchase. It was also coupled with other sex hygiene genre pictures with similar lecture gimmicks attached.
The booklet is boring by most prurient/enlightened/post-Kinsey standards, as the language is semi-medical, antiquated, vague and retiring in turn. Still, it is kinda-sorta progressive, walking "husbands" and "wives" through a deconstruction of what is wrong with their (assumed) attitudes toward human sexuality, then providing weird how-to advice. The above page is among the frankest passages, but perhaps most titillating for Mom and Dad audiences were two pages of sloppy line drawings of female genital anatomy, which also happen to be badly proportioned and leave off some body parts.
American Birth Control League founder Margaret Sanger either had a problem with her Shift key, or was shouting with enthusiasm for this book's important message of "high positioning."
If you can't live without your own copy of "The Key to Successful Sexual Relations", I've scanned the order form from the last page. I wouldn't count on ever seeing your $1.25 again, though. These companies disappear at the rate of approximately one per minute... about the frequency at which suckers are born, both normal and Cesarean.
Go ahead. Try to resist Mom and Dad. Stupid "jerks" always try to outsmart the proven facts!
Saturday, December 26, 2009
The Exploding Kinetoscope is four years old today. Not a monumental anniversary, perhaps, but this weblog's date of invention falls between my own birthday on December 27th and, I understand, something or other that happens on December 25th.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2002
10. Dahmer (dir., scr. David Jacobson)
There are racks and racks of no-budget DTV hack jobs filling the video shops of America, bearing the names of notorious criminals as one- or two-word titles, all tacky, all terrible. Dahmer is not one of them. Though the culture is saturated with stories of serial killers, one of the great lies explaining this trend is that the fascination exists because we want to Understand. Perhaps we do want to understand something, but the use of the serial killer as pop fiction trope has not been bent in that direction. Placing the serial killer in genre films as boogeyman, antihero or funhouse mirror Everyman has the effect of mythologizing or domesticating him.
Serious-faced and nonsensationalistic, Dahmer elliptically charts the adolescence and adulthood of Jeffery Dahmer. The film fictionalizes the crimes of 1992 Dahmer only by compositing his victims and imagining wholly plausible interactions for which no accounts or living witnesses exist. Jacobson’s visual strategy is modernist and spare, with tough, hard-edged compositions and special attention paid to environmental light sources. The film hinges on Jeremy Renner’s daring performance as Dahmer, all bone-deep loneliness and rage trickling through glassy-eyed stare. Renner’s quiet seething dictates the shape of the movie, and Dahmer just stares and stares as if the truth will rise to the surface with enough patience.
Jacobson’s camera does not take an unflinching or documentarian attitude toward Dahmer’s crimes. Murder, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism are mostly framed out of view, out of focus, around a corner or not depicted. We know these details, and they accumulate around Dahmer’s void like tub scum around a drain. If True Crime style reportage implies that the criminal is little but the sum of his crimes — what, when, where, how?— and gets us no closer to truth, Dahmer, interested in who and why, situates its gaze on everything else. Maybe the truth is there. So here is Jeffrey Dahmer working at the chocolate factory. Here is teenage Dahmer exploring and repressing his sexuality. Here is Dahmer out clubbing, sitting on the couch, seducing a victim, lying to cops, visiting his grandmother. By his own account and his father’s, Jeffrey was traumatized by his parents’ divorce, and deeply troubled by his own homosexuality. The film allows that this much is true, but specifies nothing as cause, excuse or reason for the murder of seventeen people. Certainly a man existed inside Dahmer’s crimes, a life existed outside of them, so to solve them both holistically, Dahmer tunnels into Jeffrey’s space. The longer we stare into his eyes, the more we wonder if there really is nothing further to report or learn, no truth, no answer.
9. Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (dir. A.J. Schnack)
Like a compacted Beatles Anthology for a band that is not The Beatles, Gigantic charts the personal biography, career and artistic development of gyro rock band They Might Be Giants. Though unabashedly fawning toward its subject, A.J. Schnack’s documentary exists as exhaustive celebration of TMBG as cult object and as contravention, an argument for the band’s influence and importance. The senior body of music critics, though largely comprised of nerds, are not the sort of nerd who necessarily reveres TMBG, and have marginalized the band’s place in history. Without even deigning to mention that the band is frequently understood as high-flown novelty act or niche pop for rabid cultists, Gigantic reframes TMBG history, placing them at the epicenter of post-punk, and positing them as elder statesmen of modern alternative rock.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer holds the world record for the second most posts to the newsgroup alt.music.tmbg, despite not having frequented the forum for the better part of a decade. They Might Be Giants is not only my “favorite band” but one of my favorite things in the charted universe. Having lived inside TMBG Land for so long, I cannot rightly say how the film plays as an introduction.
It ably sketches the larger contours of the band’s career arc, from creative collaboration in the adolescent friendship of Johns Linnell and Flansburgh to early performance-art-tinged gigs in illegal NYC venues to college radio success (such as it is) to their film scoring work of the early ‘00s. A partially animated opening credits montage bustles through a full kit of TMBG iconography accompanied by an exciting song montage (they don’t blend into medley, they blast, stop, blast, stop), previewing and promising: this will be a concert movie, a rock band bio, a New York story, a buddy comedy. The band’s hyperactive aesthetic is reflected in the film’s form, which cuts between several timelines; in the “present,” TMBG works on and promotes the Mink Car album, and performs a Greek chorus concert staged for the documentary, playing key songs that crop up in the story of how they got from 1982 to ~2001. An unfortunate side-effect of the cross-cutting and a dual organization by timeline and anecdotal topic is that some of the chronology is jumbled — the band seems to make a triumphant Tonight Show appearance with songs from their third record before their demo tape is discovered. Some crucial milestones are glossed over which might have helped define what makes the TMBG story special. The band’s early sound is driven by Linnell’s accordion and Flansburgh’s experimentalism, and their non-traditional rock voices, and some explanation of what separates TMBG’s music from their peers’ would be useful. The band’s output is voluminous, scattered across nontraditional media and spans decades, but dates are scant, and the only record specifically situated in time and space is Flood. The frenzied sonic leapfrogging also gives an inaccurate portrait of the band’s musical development, mashing songs of every era into an incandescent miasma.
Caveats aside, Gigantic has its work cut out for it, and somehow at the heart of the coffee-addled ruckus is a creative partnership, a friendship between two men. Linnell and Flansburgh’s personal lives remain quiet enigmas; fleeting reference is made late in the game to Flansburgh’s wife, and there is a precious, unexplained glimpse of candid footage of Linnell eating bagels with his son, Henry. In uncharacteristically relaxed joint interview, the duo’s interpersonal dynamic is far more apparent than during talk show grillings. Linnell drops his shrinking violet act to ramble thoughtfully, and it becomes apparent that Flansburgh’s boisterousness less masks a blowhard than a man concerned at all times with the public presentation of his life’s work. Two key principles of TMBG: they are generous with their creativity, and they consistently refuse anything that smacks of laziness or to compromise their vision. This leads to projects like the damnedest Dunkin’ Donunts commercials in the world, but extends to matters of generic labeling, message and interpretation (Linnell, hunched over a phone, tells an interviewer: “There is nothing missing in your understanding of ‘Particle Man’”). Gigantic does not press deep into the nonprofessional lives of its subject, but besides simply being private people (typically so, not fanatically), this is part of the TMBG project. The work is already an expression of the artist’s deepest preoccupations, passions and fears (every TMBG song is about death, their mascots are a parade of the reanimated dead, defeat, head injury, madness and alcoholism bless every narrator, and there are no true love songs), and should autobiographical incident leak into a lyric (Linnell’s songs are haunted, for instance, by a bike accident he suffered long, long ago), detailing such incident does not enrich the art but deplete it. There is nothing missing in your understanding of They Might Be Giants. The most valuable insights come when the men are separated and remarkably candid (for these guys, anyway), and Flansburgh explains his awe toward Linnell’s songcraft and musicianship, and Linnell expresses jealousy over Flans’ untrained ear and enthusiastic avant-garde form-busting. These guys need each other, and that’s all we need to know.
There is much on display to drive the diehard fanatic absolutely up the wall with joy. The central L&F interview is conducted on a site that appears to be the exact location of the “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” video. A songwriting session to unveil the demo sketch of “It’s So Loud in Here” proves detail-oriented and tense. Trips to the archives provide flash-glimpses of internal PolyGram Records memos (! Get your pause button ready!), long buried early publicity photos (Flans chomping on simultaneous multiple cigars well before the cover of Mono Puff’s It's Fun to Steal). There is material in Gigantic that the most ardent tape trader has never seen, including a snippet of the never-ever-ever released video for “Rabid Child”. That five seconds is worth the price of admission.
8. Far From Heaven (dir., scr. Todd Haynes)
When an artist is learning to paint or draw, attempting direct copy of a better artist’s work is a valuable exercise. The practice lets you know, rapidly, brutally, exactly where your own technical skills stand. It forces study of technique and method. The only analogous major filmmaking experiment may be Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho, but with Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes tries his hand at Douglas Sirk pastiche and in the process of perfect form mimicry absorbs the lessons of a master. Though a period piece, Far From Heaven is not dressed and designed as 1957/8, but as the world of a ‘50s movie (bonus effect of the glass-case stylization, there is an artistic motivation for all the vintage automobiles to be pristine, one of those no-way-around-it details that sinks period picture verisimilitude). Most qualities of Technicolor cannot be duplicated, but the first step is to make a thing that looks like, sounds like, behaves like the thing.
And so Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, impersonating a ceramic poodle filled with blood and tears) finds her suburban Connecticut Better Homes and Gardens pictorial life aggressively invaded by lurid lighting gels, her husband mutating into an abusive cocktail napkin joke under the strain of homosexual aversion therapy, and no solace in sight but the shade of her burly Negro gardener, who has Opinions about Joan Miró. Haynes tweaks All That Heaven Allows, though, pushing to the fore of the narrative the social issues Sirk (and anyone else making weepies under Breen Office watch) had to coyly hotfoot around. The further twist is that Far From Heaven retains the repression and Cruel Universe anguish, keeps the coding even when the code is rendered explicit. Sirk’s films became exemplary playground for auteur theorists, feminist critics and queer cinema studies (and their slobby pals, camp cultists), but Haynes puts all those concerns front and center: the plot is actively about public and private politics, imploding social and domestic spheres, miscegenation and stifled homosexuality, women’s voices smothered. The most astonishing feat is that by resisting any camp readings of Sirk, Haynes brings into focus the more beguiling and sophisticated brand of irony already inherent in Sirk. A direct critique of ‘50s conformism, consumerism, and social mores there’s no subtext to this study of The Surface of Things. It’s all rich, impeccable text.
Through intense formalist study of Sirk’s social melodramas, Haynes’ film is thrust immediately into deeper understanding of his inspiration. If nothing else, Far From Heaven is insightful, fascinating film criticism.
7. The Happiness of the Katakuris (dir. Takashi Miike, scr. Kikumi Yamagishi)
Takashi Miike’s films have floated out of sight, just below the waterlines of these Decade Faves lists. Miike belongs to the Jess Franco school of sharklike filmmakers who must keep moving or die, pumping out films at a dizzying, prolific rate. In the vast wash of the diretor’s work, some projects have stronger scripts, more focused filmmaking, contain keystone ideas which he revisits, etc., but at the same time, the defining qualities of Miike’s cinema are frenzied imagination, absurdist rupture, speed and quantity. The celebrated Audition, for example, is a fine and nuanced horror film, which is also atypical Miike. Audition contains extreme images of violence, but is not particularly puckish, avoids shock humor, and does not gyrate wildly in tone and sensibility.
The Happiness of the Katakuris is both outside Miike’s normal generic concerns (a musical comedy), and deeply inside his sensibility. Shock comedy comes in many breeds, and Miike’s serves to jar his audience out of complacency by pushing buttons. Those buttons are wired directly to the director’s social and aesthetic concerns. The Katakuris, a family tree rooted in failure, set up a B&B in the forbidding shadow of Mt. Fuji. The presumed tourist traffic never materializes due to a through road that is never built and hotel’s few guests rapidly perish through unlikely accident, suicide, murder. Their misfortune and self-made misery mounting, the Katakuris conceal the bodies to save the hotel and the family. This coherent outline skips the musical numbers, stop-motion interludes, zombies and volcanoes.
An opening stop-motion sequence operates as stream-of-consciousness poetry, as a restaurant patron digs a winged demon out of her soup... who absconds with her uvula, but is gobbled by a raven, which is mauled by a goth teddy bear. With no literal connection to the plot, the title sequence primes the viewer for the film nonetheless: the cycle of consumption and rotten luck continue until the re-hatched demon stretches in triumph, only to be swallowed again. With the hotel built on a landfill as central metaphor and a full-family array of life’s losers, Katakuris is about the ways personal fulfillment is tied up with financial success, social approval and the rotating whims of fortune. In its farcical, distracted way, the film is about what happiness itself “is,” how we attain it, how we maintain it.
6. The Pianist (dir. Roman Polanski, scr. Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
There is nothing romantic, nothing noble, nothing beautiful about mere survival. Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman watches his world erode and shrink into the Warsaw Ghetto, then bobs, weaves, and dodges the Holocaust itself. Szpilman’s survival requires tenacity, resourcefulness, and, perhaps above all, luck. In the process of shedding weight through an existence of running, hiding and starving, Szpilman’s very identity peels off in invisible strips, with little time to pause or grieve. Survival burns the man away. First the obvious niceties of home, family, name and career. Community, ethics, kindness and dignity weigh down the running man. They crowd his hiding place.
Moral codes can only be modified so much until they’re whittled into kindling. And politics? — Oh, politics burn fast. As Warsaw is finally liberated, the survivalist shell of the once-a-pianist is nearly executed as he stands starving and shivering in a German coat. Why the fucking coat?, he’s asked. Answer: It’s cold. If Szpilman would define himself as a pianist, how long can a pianist go without playing the piano before is no longer a pianist? What do you cling to as reminder that you’re something more than a life drive inside an animal form? Maybe, in the moment, will to live incinerates everything superfluous to survival instinct. In the place where hope is a luxury, these questions may not even apply, and there is no music there.
5. Lilo & Stitch (dir., scr. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois)
The best Disney animated feature in more than a decade, this brief burst of summery joy is the last great film produced by that venerable department before returning to making horrible movies and (temporarily) closing shop shortly thereafter. Animated “Classic” #42 (oh Jesus, must we count Dinosaur?), Lilo & Stitch borrows the roughest outline of E.T., fills in its own colorful, happy details and swaps the mythopoetic tone of wonderment for comic abandon and an outsider’s quiet reflection.
Our protagonists are the deeply eccentric Native Hawaiian girl Lilo and her rambunctious adopted alien mutant koala, Stitch. Lilo and Stitch are kindred spirits bonded by behavioral problems, left-of-center hobbies, and burning love of the music of Elvis Presley. Both bear the scars of broken homes, Lilo being raised by her loving, overwhelmed sister, Nani (Tia Carrere, doing, bar none, the finest work of her career) after the death of their parents, Stitch being an intergalactic fugitive, a monstrous genetics experiment with no parental guidance to nurture his rampaging nature. So Stitch, screaming and slobbering, barely verbal, short-tempered and destructive stands in as Lilo’s ego unbound, all her hurt, anger and confusion in a three-foot ball of teeth and claws. Hand-in-blue-furred-paw, the girl takes on the responsibility of providing the wild thing with a place to belong, with empathy, with discipline, with love. Lilo does more than simply mature and learn to behave through looking after a pet, and Stitch does more than chill out, lest he lose his first and only friend. The relationship gives both Lilo and Stitch access to their own better natures. Through the Hawaiian concept of extended, adopted family, their individual pain and loneliness are channeled into something more powerful, and Lilo & Stitch celebrates the strength and beauty of nontraditional families. That, and the redemptive powers of Elvis Presley.
4. Femme Fatale (dir., scr. Brian De Palma)
Brian De Palma doesn’t really make thrillers. He makes harrowing comic meditations on thrillers, one thesis of this deconstruction being that the words the movies speak are gibberish but the language resonates with us anyhow. The story, from its opening viper-headed jewel heist setpiece to wreathed doppelgängers-and-sex-fever noir to the narrowed and dangerous twist in the tail, is fully improbable/ impossible. The topic is Euro spy/thief adventure, of the waaay-post-Arsène-Lupin variety, sexed-out pulp whose sleek presentation and perfectionist gloss turn sleaze into allure. Femme Fatale is dirty-minded, perverse and unhealthy, but the delivery system is elegant, confident, sophisticated. Like the serpentine, jeweled, precious-metal bra nabbed in the film’s inaugural battle cry, Femme Fatale is cold, uncomfortable, tacky, impractical and wears those qualities on the outside. Its chilly tendrils curl and tighten as the film unspools; it pumps narcotic toxin into the bloodstream with axial cut fangs. If the viewer-victim should start to swoon, there is no hope. Once in the coils of Femme Fatale, intoxication by cinema is inevitable.
This is not style over substance. This is style as substance.
3. Punch-Drunk Love (dir., scr. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Punch-Drunk Love strands its protagonist in Kafkaesque dingbat apartment buildings, the featureless hallways an endless maze, or in cavernous, anonymous warehouse spaces. Barry Egan’s Godardian blue suit gives the edges of his figure visual pop and make him look superimposed onto the acrid urban interiors. The cinematic transponder beam glides Barry from simulacrum supermarket that looks like the Close Encounters landing pad to a languid open-air Hawaii that looks suspiciously “like Hawaii.” A busted, wheezy harmonium appears at Barry’s doorstep in a coincidental meet-cute or a deus ex something, and spends the rest of the movie being a symbol for either his new ladyfriend Lena, or his own heart, or a busted harmonium.
The music is nerve-scraping like few horror film scores. Dialogue comes in clipped, unfinished sentences. Figures are frequently backlit or blown out, color schemes are repeated until they seem symbolic or maybe not, and there is the out-of-breath corner-of-eye sense that something dire is bubbling under the surface, in the history, around the corner of everything. Punch-Drunk Love aims to capture the chemical sensation, if not necessarily the thoughts and feelings, of falling in love. To parties not involved in the affair, this doesn’t look so different from psychosis. This is teeth-rattling romantic comedy.
2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson, scr. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
The oliphauntine bulk of Lord of the Rings is populated by superbeings whose psyches are slightly more vivid than the ciphers of genuine myth, but whose dilemmas are those of how to deal with great power. Charismatic, able character actors have been placed in all these major roles (if, in the meanwhile, Cate Blanchett and Viggo Mortensen have become A List Movie Stars, they do not approach their work as icons and personas), and each carves personalized, detailed features into their allotted marble block. The glue is Ian McKellan as Gandalf, god-spirit cloaked in the body of a shaggy hippy elder, a man of creature comforts and earthy vices, wearied and not a little wistful at the duties of being Middle-Earth’s central mover and shaker. All comers are free to take their pick among the Great Performance! array (mine is John Rhys-Davies as Treebeard, at once glorious dying Green Man archetype and senile old man comic relief).
Among the legendarium’s grand tales of the straight-backed and mighty, wicked and fallen, the Rings cycle reaches an apex of exploded romantic tragedy in The Two Towers. In material barely represented in the source novel, Elrond (another personal favorite, Hugo Weaving playing the elf lord as pursed-lipped hard-ass separatist, grimly resigned to leading his people out of this world) narrates the hyperreal/hypothetical end of Aragorn and Arwen’s love story. The brutally honest speech is rhetorically pitched to underline an immortal’s disgust at natural lifecycles, the Maxfield Parrish-inflected compositions of doomed lovers, fading bodies and a hero calcified into his own sarcophagus are just too tragi-delicate to resist. How ever interesting these characters, they remain remote, the kind of people to which monuments are erected.
So at the center are the hobbits, appropriately sawed-off Everyman avatars, reacting with wonder and confusion at the enormity of landscapes and political machination around them. Whether stouthearted bumpkin gardner, stoner comic relief or haunted, curious and reluctant Ringbearer, it is the little people who are free to indulge in the feelings and expressions of normal human beings, and for that, their sorrows are deeper, their bravery greater. Rings finally bares the heart of its down-and-dirty, conflicted humanity in the portrait of Gollum. The storytellers emphasize the creature’s fracturing psyche, design tilts less to the amphibian and more toward lantern-eyed, drug-emaciated Peter Lorre, and unseen actor Andy Serkis ditches Tolkien’s indication of phlegmatic frogginess for a demonic take on Frank Welker’s voice for Slimer on The Real Ghostbusters.
If The Two Towers has a showstopping setpiece, it involves no swelling music or cast of digital billions: Gollum, alone in the dark, arguing with himself about his selfish addict’s desire versus his scraps of latent conscience. Once Two Towers has is zeroed in on this solitary, molecular scene — one rotting waif pinned in this vast atlas— it isn’t about nonsense abstracts like “good” and “evil” but internal, personal struggle and conflict between infinite non-binary choices. Every line, every word, every shot twists the one-man debate in a different direction as this wretched thing which is all of us weighs his compulsions and his moral options. The prosecution rests its case — je m’accuse: “Murderer.” Well. What’s the worst thing you ever did? The defense is reduced to tears in the night, the debate on personal ethics and freedom lost in the riptide of self-loathing, guilt, regret, loss, of being a fuck-up alone in the world. Lord of the Rings may contain more grandiose images of clashing armies of beasts and angels, but it has no more monumental picture of the human experience than this three seconds. A being speaking to his own reflection, Sméagol wails to Gollum: “I hate you.” The moment is epic.
1. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (dir. Park Chan-wook, scr. Park, Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong, Lee Yong-jong)
Ryu is a deaf mute factory worker with a) a dying sister who needs a kidney transplant and b) an impossibly hot girlfriend, Yeong-mi, who has links to a leftist terrorist group. Ground zero. Ryu tries to buy a black market organ, ends up stripped of cash and his own kidney. Hoping for ransom money, Ryu and Yeong-mi kidnap the daughter of industrialist Dong-jin. Ryu’s sister dies, the little girl dies. Then the action starts rising.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance continues unfolding in this fashion. The story moves like an accordion bellows or a wooden Jacob’s ladder puzzle that keeps flipping open new panels as others disappear. Characters take turns occupying the role of Mr. Vengeance, connected forward and backward with each other, their choices, limited vision, and personal ethics tripping one another up all the way. Mr. Vengeance expands into a chain reaction vision of the universe in which choices are not black or white, not even grey, just choices with consequences; everyone is linked to those for whom they are hero and those to whom they are villain. Everyone’s attempt to do right, whether wrathful or righteous, boxed-in or self-interested, has the potential (or inevitability) of mashing someone else’s toes; with the slightest perspective shift, every possible move shatters another player’s life.
Park Chan-wook’s metaethics of doom and fatalistic chaos theory are not relentlessly glum. Mr. Vengeance unravels with the crime pulp pleasure of a wild tale well told, a trickster god’s delight at dishing up outrageous misfortune, and the hair-raising exhilaration of inventive violence and outrageous gross-out. It is about sympathy as much as vengeance, after all. If all this cosmic slapstick doesn’t warrant the occasional laugh, we’d just be screaming all the time. The circumstances are different, but we’re all in the same boat. And in the end, no one gets out alive.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2001
10. All About Lily Chou-Chou (dir, scr. Shunji Iwai, adapted from his Internet novel)
An expose of the secret, violent lives of Japan’s depressed and dyspathetic high schoolers, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about extreme cases of bullying and social pressure, and its horrors are, indeed horrific. But it is not alarmist, scolding or exploitive in tone, and nothing like a Japanese equivalent of Kids (1995), Thirteen (2003) or their blood relatives, Reefer Madness (1936) or She Shoulda Said 'No'!(1949) . Without drawing explicit causal relationships, adolescent crime and suffering seems to flow into these lives as a natural evolution of crashing hormonal tsunamis, willfully clueless failed parenting, and old-fashioned universal postmodern alienation. The subplot of the title — or perhaps it is the axis around which this brutality whirls — is the fandom of J-pop star Lily Chou-Chou (voiced by real pop star Salyu). The children of Lily Chou-Chou inhabit an Internet message board for Lily fanatics, their pseudonymous postings celebrating the music, obsessing over minutia, and expanding, exploring the philosophy of The Ether.
Like the mystical fifth element, Aether, the Ether is the source of Lily’s music and something it conveys; the music rides on the Ether and possesses it. Lily is barely glimpsed on a concert viewscreen late in the picture, the Ether is untouchable but touches the listeners, and the fan discussions take place in the Internet’s nonphysical other-world, a not-place where the teens of All About Lily Chou-Chou express unfiltered passions and experience something like community. Lily Chou-Chou herself and her fansite occupy the absent center of the film, and the beatings, pimping and gang-rape are pushed to the outer edges, Lily spinning in the Ether.
These are not really ironies driven home with any emphasis, that the numbing daily miseries of these disaffected children are less immediate and vital to them than Internet pop music discussion, or that classmate Shiori is forced into prostitution but cannot tell protagonist Yuichi that she like-likes him, or that the unique acts of violence haunting this overgrown field of teen angst occur, for the most part, in missing-time narrative ellipses. Shot on digital video, Lily Chou-Chou embraces the nature of its medium, fits its impressionistic narrative to its form. The image slips in and out of focus, by design or because the camera cannot keep up with movement, or even shifting light. Colors are over or under saturated, always unstable. Detail goes fuzzy or is too sharp, and light plays weirdly with depth and texture. The achronological structure and narrative disruptions by Lily-chat sessions do not serve to impart information in order of maximum effectiveness, but to dislocate, to set audience and characters alike awash on the mournful tides of the Ether.
9. Little Otik (dir., scr. Jan Švankmajer)
Each of Jan Švankmajer’s features is more sophisticated and focused than the last. Otesánek (Little Otik) retells the European folk tale in a modern, dreary Czech apartment building, and in a world where the Otesánek story still exists as a story. The childless Horáks long for a baby, and so (joking? Mocking? Indulgent?) husband Karel digs up a tree stump, carves it into rudimentary baby-shape and presents it to doting Božena as surrogate offspring. Little Otik springs to squalling, flailing life. The stump baby’s appetite and size grow at alarming rate, forcing Karel to haul dripping sacks of meat home from the butcher until the postman’s flesh-stripped skeleton appears beside Otik’s crib.
Working from the same set of primal symbols as the human subconscious, Little Otik is driven by food, sex, drink, death, plants, meat, knives, money, dirt, animals, and body parts (the central and loaded ones: mouths, teeth, tongues, bones, butts and genitals). Švankmajer’s trademark stop motion animation appears in Otik to realize the infant (mercifully, Otik’s scary, animal tongued mouth is the only animated orifice; his knothole anus remains inert, though in the mind’s eye it is not), to illustrate a neighbor’s revulsion to his wife’s cooking (insectoid nails skittering through viscous glop), the subjective view of Alžbětka, the little girl next door, as she is ogled by the neighborhood pedophile (a frenzied appendage unbuttons his pants from the inside as she goggles in disgust), and as blunt-edged television adverts steeped in sex and power fantasy (the funniest is for the Inferno robotic iron, an affectless announcer deadpanning “Inferno Inferno. The rest are rusty pieces of junk”).
Parallels are drawn between a mother’s longing for a child, the baby’s infantile oralism, advertising, sexual lust and hunger. The commonality is desire and consumption. When the Horáks box up Otik in the basement, trying to sublimate and conceal the devouring force, Alžbětka takes pity on the monster baby and tries to mother and domesticate it, but to no avail. Out of options, she does the rational thing and starts drawing straws for which tenant to feed to her ward. But this is no time for rational thinking. True to his card-carrying surrealist ethos, Švankmajer does not trade in messages, morals, lessons or slogans. In Little Otik, to hunger and desire is to ultimately consume and destroy. We are insatiable.
8. Wet Hot American Summer (dir. David Wain, scr. Wain, Michael Showalter)
An edgy next-generation comedy, Wet Hot American Summer flew like a Concorde over the heads of the nation’s middle-aged critical establishment, or perhaps directly into them. The pile-up of critics of fine taste and sophistication explaining why Wet Hot is dumb and not funny (frequently citing gags strong enough that they can’t be killed even in derisive summary; I recall Salon’s reviewer complaining that David Hyde-Pierce is made to exclaim “Fuck my dick!” in surprise) was probably last seen walking out of Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996).
In the post-ironic comedy scene populated by geek chic hipsters and amiable smarty-pants slobs, the heritage of idiot comedy has been reevaluated, and nothing is funnier than very smart people telling very dumb jokes. The highest aim is jokes so dumb, crude, meticulously mistimed that they deconstruct the idea of a Joke itself. WHAS trades in meta/non/and genius material like Paul Rudd as a man so dumb he pronounces the J in “journal” as a hard G, and sentient canned goods defiantly confessing to autofellatio (a lot). What is this stuff doing in a spoof of the summer camp and teen sex comedy cycle of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s? Who has even seen these movies, and do they need sending-up? Are WHAS’s jokes within spitting distance of the cracker-n-condoms barrel comedy of G.O.R.P. (1980) or Computer Beach Party (1985) or whatever it is that is being satirized?
Shifting frame of reference and intention, stream-of-consciousness movement in which one gag’s payoff becomes the setup for the next, faith in the power of extremely specific non sequitur: the rules of comedy for alumni of The State, especially in their purest experiments, WHAS, Stella and The Ten (2007). Stripped of the rock star ‘tude of too many fourth generation sketch and improv specialists, devoid of both sarcasm and sincerity, the basic attitude toward comedy is that if it is funny, it is worthwhile. There are no sacred cows on this plane, and that includes the performer’s perceived intelligence, the dramaturgical soundness of a scene, the tone and “reality” of the entire film. Sometimes WHAS is a parody of summer camp comedies, sometimes a parody of parodies, sometimes just a for-reals summer camp comedy. A passionate, prolonged and relatively explicit gay sex scene exists simultaneously on about 20 levels — as an upending of the heterosexual lechery that pervades teen comedies and their presumed audience, as goofy slapstick, as a straightforward dirty joke, as part of a lengthy runner in which the lovers get married. The stroke of wet hot brilliance is that it is absurd and discordant for a teen sex romp to suddenly lapse into passionate, sincere anything, let alone explore an irrelevant subplot about the romantic lives of gay camp councilors.
In a simpler time, we called this “silly.” Which, fuck my dick, to a comedian ought to be a compliment.
7. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, scr. Mitchell, Stephen Trask, from the musical, book by Mitchell, songs by Trask)
A queer theory primer with sing-alongs, Hedwig and the Angry Inch celebrates the heady, scary rush of freedom symptomatic of being stranded high and dry on the rocks of identity discourse, trapped between the Scylla and Carbides of false dichotomies, and forced to make your own place in the world or be rent apart. Our hero is East German expat Hedwig (née Hansel), come to America with a botched sex change operation and a headfull of glam rock dreams, a sort of genius songwriter whose music is swiped and is reduced to playing salad bar joints. Like much LGBT literature, Hedwig is largely a memory and identity piece, the bulk of the (slim but eventful) narrative tracing the rocky path to the rocker’s current gig, trailing superstar/ex-lover/musical thief Tommy Gnosis on national tour, Hedwig playing at Bilgewaters restaurants while Tommy sells out stadiums. Hedwig can’t — or won’t— be torn between or shuffled into normative categories of gender, biological sex, nationality, musical genre (her performance seesaws between showtune revue and ferocious riot grrrl punk), even success and utter failure.
Form following content, writer-director-shooting star John Cameron Mitchell’s original stage show is itself a narrative musical presented in the form of a rock n’ roll performance piece, the story relayed primarily through monologue, neither a traditional musical nor a concept album played on stage. His film dramatizes the plot, and even on miniscule budget bounces around the globe, Berlin Wall to inside an oven to anonymous American motels to mounds of discarded tires to animated fantasia to dreamy symbolic netherworld, with cinematic verve and excitement. The structure itself is queered, refusing movie parade blitz or to betray its stage roots; it is inaccurate to call the film stagey or to deny that it feels very much like songs stitched together by character monologue, and the final reels refuse camp spectacle or comic melodrama and warp into abstracted Jarmanesque symbol-drama.
Ferociously, bottomlessly funny, angry and poignant, Hedwig’s quest for identity, self-knowledge, acknowledgement and love are tinged with overlapping mysticism and religious philosophy, speeding past roadsigns to Gnosticism, Taoism, Surrealism, and, famously, Aristophanes in the Symposium, in syncretic blur. The hunt for the other half of a fractured self, for completeness, is itself spectacularly blown apart if not abandoned by the film’s end. Hedwig stands stripped bare and resplendent before an invisible audience in the void-as-theatre, identity as eternal succession and cycle of event, incident and crisis, sawed and nailed together in endless construction project. Hedwig ends on her own terms and no more incomplete than any creature in the universe.
6. Hannibal (dir. Ridley Scott, scr. David Mamet, Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Thomas Harris)
A medievalist comedy of manners, a grotesque romance and a fairy tale black comedy about corruption, Hannibal is lush, florid and extremely perverted, through and through. After ten years, the entire world hunts Hannibal Lecter, but he flits through fingers, cities, nations with ease, the planet’s population simply too dumb and slow to catch him. Every other character dreams up elaborate, intertwining schemes to catch the mad doctor, but his only worthy adversary is Clarice Starling: she knows him. And so it goes, each manhunter compelled by personal sins and revealing even more, each and every corrupt by nature or circumstance, a network of rot and compromise circling the Earth's crust. And so it goes that Starling is ‘buked and scorned, tested and tried, used and abused by this gallery of venal gargoyles, until only two beasts of unyielding personal integrity are left standing: Lecter and Starling.
Ridley Scott’s eye for opulence and grime provide rich and rotting stage dressing for this operatic manhunt thriller, but his sense of jittery action and peekaboo scares do not capture the elegant air of Thomas Harris’ source novel. Harris writes like he is organizing blocks of time and space into a labyrinthine invisible castle, his characters move through the story as if guided down glass corridors of a maze criss-crossing the globe, linked to some burning, ancient meaning as if pursued by a minotaur. Scott’s film has little of Harris’ fated, antique majesty, and is forced to rework the novel’s cut-crystal, uniformly lunatic plot (hinging as it does on details like Lecter’s sixth finger, excised from Silence of the Lambs). But the state of constant hysteria is alive, and the trade-off is that Scott’s film is funnier.
It was very difficult for an admirer of Harris’ weirdo vision to walk out of Hannibal in 2001 and feel much besides that the most special elements were missing. To streamline the story seems to be to miss the point of the novel’s baroque ornamentation, and absent are some of the more outrageous, exotic tangents — Hannibal’s childhood reminisces of eating his beloved sister, Inspector Giannini’s investigation of the Monster of Florence — and loveliest grace notes — in the book’s best scene, Lecter orders Starling, by letter, to contemplate the cast iron skillet that he just knows she has hanging on the wall. The novel’s finale is its masterstroke of delirium, the romantic union of Dr. Lecter and Clarice Starling. It is practically a defiant slap in Hollywood’s face. Naturally, it had to go, lest Hannibal cause riots and/or wild, unrestrained cheering. The film would be infinitely more audacious if built straight off Harris' blueprint.
As the initial butt-slap sting of adaptation fades, it is truly remarkable how much of Hannibal is still in Hannibal. If there is a scene which does little to further the plot but embroiders it beautifully, it is Lecter’s art history lecture on Dante and medieval depictions of Judas figures: “easy” to cut, and impossible to lose. Hannibal picks and chooses wisely, still bizarre enough to repel more than 50% of critics, still so extravagant and strange that it is not of the same genre as Silence of the Lambs. It is barely a sequel. Scott does find some ingenious cinematic means of capturing the magnetized sensation of the twin protagonists drawn to one another from across the globe. In a dizzying sequence original to the film, Lecter guides Starling by cell phone through the chaotic carnival of Washington’s Union Station, and with deft cajoling, the quarry points the hunter in the wrong direction. He averts her gaze just long enough to spin past on a carousel, just that he may brush his hand against her hair for a split second. The carousel keeps moving.
5. The Man Who Wasn’t There (dir., scr. Joel and Ethan Coen)
In Film Noir Land, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Ed Crane, The Man Who Wasn't There, mostly doesn’t. Postwar malaise is the topic of the day, the same kind that fueled The Twilight Zone. Billy Bob Thornton’s motionless disappearing act performance as the bewildered barber is a marvel of underplaying. It is hard to say if Ed is disaffected or bored, repressed or sorrowful, or just a nitwit. Given his constant internal monologue narration, we are tempted to lean toward the last. Enmeshed in a life-destroying crime plot that covers pretty much every legal transgression, all Ed lifts a finger to do is consider investing in a dry cleaning company because he’s tired of being a barber. For the rest of his sins, Ed’s greatest crime is to fail to speak up while blackmail and murder spiral around him, whether his wife is being railroaded for a murder she didn’t commit, or he is being railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit. Mostly, Ed just watches, but as his slick attorney, Freddy Reidenschneider, speechifies: “There is no ‘what happened. Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds. Because our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the "Uncertainty Principle". Well, they actually call that “the observer effect,” and whether it is applicable outside of physics is debatable. Though it is Reidenschneider’s bullshit-baffle defense for Ed’s wife, it pegs Ed’s crimes exactly. Ed, just being there, smoking, looking —just being alive — mucked everything up.
The visual touchstone that haunts TMWWT is a spinning silver disc. Sometimes it’s a flying saucer; sometimes it’s a dislocated hubcap. The UFO motif (the film is set in 1949, two years after the Roswell incident) infects Ed’s imagination — in the final moments of his Death Row stay, his execution is configured as alien abduction— but he doesn’t seem to know it, not any more than he understands why he is calmed by teenage pianist Birdy’s playing mathematically ordered Beethoven. Ed cannot make heads or tails of what anything means, how he feels, or what’s happening to him, so signs and wonders, though all around him, are lost. He’s the strong silent type minus the strong, history’s most passive protagonist, a man whose spiraling Chesterfield smoke constitutes most of his body language.
4. Spirited Away (dir., scr. Hayao Miyazaki)
An interesting factor in stories about children who (literally or figuratively) dream up (literal or figurative) fantasy lands, enter, adventure, and exit as (literal or figurative) young adults, is that the protagonist generates the Wonderland, Oz, chocolate factory or bathhouse as a form of escapism, but finds that, as Ms. Gale put it, “some of it wasn’t very nice.” Dreams are like that; they turn on you. Hayao Miyazaki’s universally beloved Spirited Away is certainly of this school, as slightly petulant ten-year-old Chihiro wanders into the carnival of the gods, and winds up robbed of her name and employed at a bathhouse for folk spirits. Which means, of course, that all other world animation of the last 50 years has been left in the dust.
Chihiro’s coming-of-age story rests in the shadow of the film’s larger and more abstract theme, a yearning for an older, faraway Japan, less industrialized, war damaged, polluted, and more vitally connected with its roots and terrain. The longing is both justified and too nostalgic, and Spirited Away does not let itself get away with simple answers, pat solution or bitter-heartedness. The towering and impossible bathhouse on the threshold where Chihiro takes residency is a place of ritual purification, but her journey into the heart of native Japanese tradition is riddled with danger, fearsome manifestations, ancient and powerful weirdness. The physical sensations that come with true awe are not so different from mortal terror. The deeper you go, the longer you stay, the more you learn, the more apparent it becomes that the universe’s reservoir of kami is bottomless.
3. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson, scr. Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
In which an Oxford linguistics professor and a low-budget splatter director are tapped to create a worldwide smash popcorn-selling effects spectacle. The effect is that Tolkien’s peculiar conglomeration of Norse myth, religious philosophy and Germanic language deep structure inside baseball is stripped down by Peter Jackson and his invaluable screenwriting partners to a vast and accessible adventure story and its specifically-wrought, human-scale characters. Art directed to the teeth, every New Zealand location is made the subject of a massive art installation, villages of elves and hobbits, towers and more towers all laboriously designed to appear to have sprung out of the dirt. For its look and aura, the Rings films shift wizard-and-dragon fantasy away from heavy metal and airbrush and into the territory of New Age inspirational music and misty watercolor. Totally unaware and/or unrepentant that it is steeped in kitsch, the entire trilogy goes for broke with sincerity.
Tolkein’s technique and structure make a letter-perfect Rings impossible. The exciting events are related in conversation, the narrative flow mired in offstage action, and key ideas at the heart of the story are non-visual... including the effects of, oh, the Ring. The screenplay chooses not to strip-mine the novel but bring it into a more contemporary focus, action oriented, and obsessed with the internal conflicts and emotional arcs of characters. This entails some discerning narrative compression and inflation, but above all requires slight psychological expansion and coloring of Tolkien’s myth-people. The Middle-earth of the novel is here, in vainglorious swooshy tourism film helicopter shots of sparkling New Zealand vistas and in noodling details like carved wood decorations in public houses. Each orc in every pulsating battalion has its own particularized ugly sword.
Jackson’s consistent style has always been subcutaneous cartooning — on the beat cutting, slightly bug-eyed cinematography, emotion pitched larger than life. The attitude is to treat the cinematic apparatus as slight of hand, a Mélièsian magic trick, even when there are no special effects. Despite an elephantine budget and protracted shooting schedule, the production realities are too huge, and the occasional rough and tumble second (third, fifth) unit footage announces itself gracelessly and the post-production panel must make do. The spots where Fellowship is improvisational and the seams show are excellent demonstration of the innate showoffy cleverness underlying the technique, the same bratty intelligence as Orson Welles. Jackson uses everything a camera and a cut can and cannot do, its biases and blindspots, the misdirection and slippery fingers of the device to build an image flow out of a thousand things that are not what they seem. The whole of the Rings cycle contains nearly every picture-making trick in cinema, and creates many new ones. For hours on end, any lapse into clichéd setup, framing, or editing pattern is negated by an overriding dedication to visual invention. As every scene is lavished with attention, as if holy text were being illuminated, the films are emphatic about every moment; it is all equally important, whether a building-sized demon made of glowing charcoal briquettes is attacking or a fat kid in a cornfield weighs his decision to take one step further from home than he’s ever been. The drive to perfectionism means the films get a lot of things perfect... and thus bound to become the standard visual language for filming similar scenes. Lord of the Rings is a wellspring for the movie clichés of the future.
Straight out of the gate in 2001, Fellowship was treated as an instant classic. It has grown into the real thing, a wildly successful film that does something more than spawn catchphrases for a summer. Its dialogue begins to embroider daily speech, the actors’ cadences familiar as a pop singer’s phrasing, providing in-jokes and little wisdoms for a generation. Its plot dilemmas become mental touchstones for our own crises, its images, grandiose and understated, appear on illustrated cards in internal Rolodexes. When one has imbibed too much, stood up too fast, or is feeling powerfully swayed and helpless in the face of a seductive bad choice, consider this picture: Elija Woods’ stubby digits, nails painfully bitten to the quick, compulsively finger the Ring. Head drained of blood, his eyes flutter and his stomach rapidly drops to his hairy rubber feet.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (dir. Wes Anderson, scr. Anderson, Owen Wilson)
“There's a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast.” – Tom Waits
Wes Anderson is the freshest and finest voice in American comedy to emerge since the heyday of The Simpsons. There is a lot of dazzling filmmaking on display in The Royal Tenenbaums, quite apart from Anderson’s most notorious trademarks. That showy deadpan style, if one has forgotten, includes the detailed shoebox diorama art direction, symmetrical dead-center framing, super-slow motion elongating moments of emotional overload and making time for long snatches of British Invasion folk rock, and elaborately choreographed wide shots in which a dozen actors have to hit marks and enact business to be precisely captured by a slow dollying camera. This hangdog narcotic haze is regularly broken up by the cockeyed syntax of the rule-breaking editing, the axis of action breeched here, a New Wave jump cut there, scenes of physical violence and exuberance barge in with handheld camerawork. These details and strategies do not quite add up to Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.
“No one in the world ever gets what they want/
And that is beautiful.”
-John Linnell, “Don’t Let’s Start”
In this story of the Tenenbaum family, rich New York intellectuals fallen into various shades of melancholy, everyone's situational details and singular turmoil are first presented as amusing alien artifacts, then like cherished heirlooms. The Tenenbaum children, morose ex-child prodigies become exquisite adult losers, trace their miseries to their father Royal, irresponsible and irrepressible scoundrel. The core cast is stunted but coping with adult emotions, as if surprised to find they have grown up, and have been grown up for a long time. Radiating out from the nuclear family are those extended relationships, friends and lovers, employees and hangers on, all tinted with pastel variants of the Tenenbaum blues. The film is not sapped of joy, the characters are not all despairing. But it is a miniature portrait gallery of extremely specific eccentrics all going through a rough patch, with some particularized, previously unarticulated quality to admire, empathize with or simply recognize at every turn. Whether that is lovelorn Richie Tenenbaum driven to do violence to himself over inappropriate affection (you don’t have to be in love with your sister, nor suicidal), or Royal, seeing himself as brash and impassioned, realizing that he is also an asshole, and it is too too late in life to correct the damage. There is a disparity between who we wanted to be —who we want to be right now— and who we have become. Even the very happy and successful cannot deny it, though it may not haunt us all to the same degree.
A personal aside then, though I don’t do this often, the first time I saw The Royal Tenenbaums its distancing techniques and shadowbox styling must have worked. All I could think was that it was very funny, lovely, and that the characters were fascinating caricatures of types of people I had never seen and doubted actually exist.
But the snowballed structure of the film gives equal weight to throwaway detail (look, Chas Tenenbaum invented his own breed of mice) and shattering expression of emotion. Every other viewing has been different, and some new previously buried moment makes me burst into tears. Last time it was gentlemanly family accountant Henry Sherman, soon to be married into the family as Royal’s successor and opposite, who spends the entire film falling in holes and bearing the brunt of Royal’s verbal abuse. He bursts into the ER after Richie’s suicide attempt, and his only question is: “How can I help?” The Royal Tenenbaums has become one of those special films whose portrait of humanity is so accurate, so emotionally raw that it is becoming too painful to watch.
1. Mulholland Dr. (dir., scr. David Lynch)
The second film director we meet in Mulholland Dr., Wayne Grace (who yes, also shared an X-Files with Michael J. Anderson) as Bob Brooker, instructs Betty Elms during an audition. Established as an industry joke on the downward slope of his career arc, Brooker’s prompting is vague and emphatic (and, reportedly, not unlike the direction David Lynch gives actors). Naomi Watts as Betty pulls an indescribable expression that indicates this is a comic beat about the inscrutable techniques of pretentious directors. But it is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.:
“It’s not a contest. The two of them, with themselves. Don’t play it for real until it gets real.”
David Lynch produces at least one era-defining/defying/best film per decade, triumphs of personal vision made in the margins of the industry production machine, previously unclassified film creatures which appear as singular anomalies and proceed to disrupt the cinema ecosystem for years after. The pervasive legacy and influence begins with Eraserhead in the late ‘70s, continues through Blue Velvet in the ‘80s, Twin Peaks in the ‘90s (and, less adored but just as seminal, Wild at Heart... can one imagine Kalifornia, True Romance, Natural Born Killers without Wild at Heart?). The Designated Lynch Classic of the ‘00s is Mulholland Dr., the single goddamnedest thing ever to earn its filmmaker an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
The many entranced by Mulholland Dr. found that the spell lasts long after the final reel. Indeed, the hypnotism virtually begins with Betty Elms’ arrival at LAX, as she steps out of the terminal and soaks up her first rays of Southern California’s peculiar, brilliant sunshine. David Lynch has related a telling anecdote of being a new resident of the city, similarly enthralled by the unreal clarity of Los Angeles’ white gold light, its blasting, color-enhancing quality a beautiful-eerie contrast to the choked grime of Philadelphia. No, with this film that introduces its lead with a burst of sun, stepping out of the theater into the light (sunlight, marquee glow or street lights) does not dissipate the mystery.
For lovers of mystery, the problem with detective fiction is that it does not love mysteries back. It seeks to obliterate mystery; its pleasures are in rendering secrets legible. The sad fact with mystery stories is that they end with no mystery left. Lynch has gradually developed solutions to this conundrum, stories that preserve the pleasures of mystery itself while retaining basic of the shape of rational detective fiction. The feat is greater than simply paying off whodunits without reducing a film to an equation or riddle. The situation is not unlike Lynch’s entire relationship with narrative cinema itself. Narrative trades in the articulated, while Lynch comes to film as an abstract expressionist, mistrustful of over-articulation.
Many admirers of Mulholland Dr. spent 2001 making notes and timelines, sorting clues and developing elaborate theories, seeking to sort the chronology, explain the symbols and solve the mysteries of the film. The quest that fuels its first two acts, as we follow Betty and her amnesiac houseguest Rita as they try to track Rita’s identity, is derailed when the women find a dead body, attend a show at Club Silencio and promptly disappear, leaving behind a mysterious blue box. The game becomes something else, the locating of connections between the story up to this point and the third act, where names, personalities, relationships and circumstances have scrambled. Prevalent theories, in descending order of popularity — sadly, not necessarily in increasing order of outlandishness — include explaining the split between the Betty and Rita Mystery Solvers! section and that in which the leads have transmuted into Diane and Camilla as dream, psychotic delusion, masturbatory fantasy, deathbed reverie, fugue state, repressed memory of sexual abuse or parallel dimensions.
The film encourages these approaches with one beckoning finger, and bats them back with a flyswatter with the other hand. Mulholland Dr. is a rich environment in which to play games, but single-minded clue-sorting theories are literalist and reductive. Too many readings seek to iron out the curves and illuminate the shadows of Mulholland Dr., but even a literalist approach requires the puzzle-solver to evaluate what the film is about, to read it on multiple levels. Conversely, to read the film is to begin positing a theory of its narrative.
Listening to someone else’s Mulholland Dr. theory is like hearing a recounting of their dreams. Fascinating to the dreamer, and no one else really needs to hear it but a therapist. It is also a non sequitur to say it is “wrong.” And though Betty and Diane’s stories call and echo to one another through the blue box (“one chants out between two worlds...”), and signs and signals both underlined and parenthetical fly through the frame, when Diane has her coffee refilled by a waitress whose nametag reads “Betty,” (and here is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.), no one needs to grope in the dark for meaning and clarity. The sensation of spooky, electric frisson flows directly out of Betty’s nametag and into the theatre.
Like a birdwatcher’s diary, the Mulholland Dr. theorist’s list of clues spotted and jotted is just a record. Besides imposing data that is not there onto the lopsided halves of the narrative, these threads are not knitted up into a holistic view of the film. In a film very much about the dark dazzle of the film image, to say Betty’s story is Diane’s dream, full stop, quite misses that Diane’s reality is no realer than Betty’s or Henry Spencer’s, Norma Desmond’s or Cruella DeVille’s. They dream each other. If Special Agent Dale Cooper famously woke from a dream to declare “my dream is a code: crack the code, solve the crime,” he eventually learns that the dream was something far more. In forwards-backwards-simultaneous time, the wised-up Agent Jeffries would mutter in Fire Walk With Me: “We live inside a dream.” It’s not a contest. The two of them, with themselves.
Betty and Diane do not live in Twin Peaks, they live in Los Angeles. Most often understood as a fable of a would-be starlet’s Hollywood dreams shattered by grim reality, Mulholland Dr. is certainly a bitterly funny portrait of the film industry as Kafka nightmare-fable, but it is not so one-sided nor so acrimonious about the artform itself. At Club Silencio, the emcee tells the audience that though we hear a band, there is no band. Rebekah Del Rio performs a captivating rendition of a Roy Orbison number, and collapses midway as the singing continues, revealing: No hay banda. There is no band. Why should we be surprised or awed, when we have just been told, no hay banda? Why, when standard film production reality is that musical numbers are customarily lipsynched? Was it any less involving a performance? Coming shortly before the film’s splashiest narrative fracture, this is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.
“Hollywood” is vernacular for the American entertainment industry, and talismanic shorthand for the dream of studio system era Movie Stardom, the whole of the art, business and legend in one monolithic word, as if Hollywood were a single organization, collective mind, and symbol at once. But Hollywood is really a place, and you can go there — live there, even— and discover how strange it is, how wrong it feels, to actually walk on Hollywood Blvd. A clogged-by-day, abandoned-by-night tourist attraction with no attractions, the street is composed of approximately 300 tattoo parlors, smoking paraphernalia shops and stores that sell platform shoes to sex industry workers. The majority of the real, literal, physical Hollywood is a collection of neighborhoods where people walk dogs and eat fish tacos and sit in traffic. That big white sign is a leftover advertisement for a housing development.
There are still post-production houses, DVD mastering companies and film equipment and prop rental houses in the neighborhood. The Paramount backlot is the only remaining major studio production facility in the area (unless, as district zoning would have it, one includes Universal City, which makes no sense). There are television soundstages and landmark movie theatres, none of which do or “mean” what they did when Hollywood was “Hollywood.” It is not accurate to say that Hollywood does not make movies, but neither is it proper to imply that it produces a majority of what we casually designate “Hollywood” product. “Hollywood” is not in Hollywood.
Mulholland Dr. is about both of those Hollywoods. One of those Hollywoods does not exist anywhere. That doesn’t make it less real.
Here is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.: it is very much like the experience of driving Mulholland Drive at night. The meandering road looks a little wiggly but more-or-less straight on a map, and connects two stretches of US 101 (which, confusingly, shifts alignment and starts running east-west just to be contrary). Mulholland twists up through the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, providing a spectacular Olympian view of both L.A. proper and the Valley, the city glowing below like a gilded lava spill. The road runs along a precipitous drop, occasionally shielded by scrape-covered guardrails. It is so wracked with tight turns and blessed with so few streetlights that one can inch along for an hour and barely get anywhere. Meanwhile, traffic is thin, but residents familiar with the curves will rush by at terrorizing, reckless speed. By night, Mulholland Drive is dark, it is dangerous, and it is extremely pretty.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
The end of a decade comes but once every ten years! Arbitrary and traditional as Top Ten lists are, the division of history’s ebb and flow into ten-year cycles is even more pervasive and less meaningful. What we collectively imagine as The Sixties or The Eighties are no such thing. History does not wait for round numbers. Nonetheless, here we are. 2000 through 2009.
Historians form a master narrative through an ideological lens. The most persistent shape for film history narratives is a teleological model explaining how film art and film culture has arrived at its present state. When Roger Ebert laments of Transformers 2 that it marks the “end of an era,” he envisions film history piling up to the circumstances where Transformers 2 is possible, a series of manipulations and accidents that add up in backward view to explain how we got to this moment. First the highway is built, then the cars are set in motion, somebody doesn’t brake fast enough, and the dominoes topple until the ambulances arrive. This construction is intended to locate root causes and pivotal events, and also cooks up an aroma of inevitability. Most of us build casual causal arguments about film culture in this fashion, even if we know it involves cynicism or naïveté, simplification and received wisdom.
Consider a familiar case: the present-day event picture. They do exist, and without even bothering with a specific title, imagine a summer release action-fantasy, calibrated for maximum width of appeal and depth of box office receipts, and oiled up with cutting edge technology. One or two of these pictures, though extraordinarily expensive, prop up a studio’s entire fiscal year. Consider how frequently one is presented with the idea that this is the legacy of Star Wars, that lavish effects extravaganzas, shopworn goodie/baddie conflict and juvenile exuberance makes the most money. If we are expressing a bellyache, this is framed as: this is Star Wars' fault. Shade that outline, detail it, change the resolution, whatever. Maybe we want to say it was the one-two punch of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) that dumbed down studio product into a stream of mass-appeal blockbusters. Maybe we want to make it a flurry of increasingly powerful jabs with The Godfather (1972), The Exorcist (1975), Jaws and Star Wars, the Coppola film additionally accounting for the contemporary model of awards-bait prestige title epics, the Friedkin for the sure-bet adaptation of any national bestseller, no matter how trashy. Maybe we want to point out that the Movie Brats once celebrated as artistic insurgents during the death throes of the studio system proper ended up establishing the template for the modern blockbuster-as-genre. Maybe we want to complain that things used to be better or different... or that they are roughly the same, that Gone With the Wind was 1939, and The Sound of Music was 1965, or that the meaningful difference is the breaking of block booking and studio production... the pivotal event being the outcome of the Paramount antitrust case in 1948.
Maybe we want to fawn over Casablanca (1942) as the finest example of the studio system’s ability to produce magically slick, universally beloved entertainment. Maybe we want to remember that our greatest film critic, Mr. Manny Farber, thought it was a corny junkyard of spare parts that worked better in other movies. Could be that the demise of RKO is ultimately as responsible for Revenge of the Fallen as anything else.
Each citizen in a world of moviegoers builds a little history of film for themselves, complete with private pantheons, household classics, the unjustly dismissed, overpraised or overlooked. These histories are influenced by our selective blind spots, parents and gurus, taste economies, social engineering and pure dumb chance. List-making is an act of criticism all by itself. It winnows and excludes, reveals and conceals, and for the list-maker causes at least cursory examination of critical values and assumptions.
It is not the most insightful critical practice. List-making is also rife with problems and begs a lot of questions, particularly of the apple/orange variety, and can easily slip into attempt to stratify and quantify the unquantifiable. As much as an awards show, the building of lists can transform art appreciation into a sporting event. When it comes to matters of “Greatest” and “Best,” what we’re really talking about is “Favorites” perfumed with false objectivity. We don’t cotton to objectivity at Exploding Kinetoscope. An objective observation on a movie would read something like “the film was projected onto a screen at a rate of 24 frames per second.” Farber also said in interview that the last thing that matters is whether a writer “liked” the movie or not. Point taken to heart, but it is also the inevitable starting point for all that follows, all critical arguments and observations proceed from preference.
In a series of ten lists of ten, Exploding Kinetoscope will present my ten favorite films from each year of the decade, 2000 through 2009, with a brief appreciation of each of the 100 (or so) films. The brave and bold may wish to read “favorite” as “the best,” but I make no concessions but that they are favorites. Were the project to identify the 100 most influential films of the decade, or most revolutionary, zeitgeist-capturing, popular — “important” in some way — films, the titles would be different. A list-maker might even be forced to include Transformers 2.
The only qualities I am making conscious effort to project are honesty and a degree of eclecticism. The lists were not built with an eye to looking smart, sophisticated, worldly, populist or contrarian. If they end up that way, so be it.
The project begins two months before the end of the year because I take forever to write pieces. This will allow the year to actually end before the 2009 list is unveiled to thunderous silence and boredom. I take forever to write pieces because I am lazy.
HOW THIS WORKS: Practical Matters (AKA – Boring. Skip.)
Like any responsible blogger, I normally contribute an annual favorite films list at the end of each calendar year. The films considered for inclusion in those lists are any new releases first available for viewing in my geographical area during the year in question. As I am located in Los Angeles, this allows inclusion of limited releases — generally for small films, dumped films, and those special December films funneled in for awards season consideration before wide release. It also includes pictures from exotic foreign lands on their first American release.
When I make lists for years gone by, foreign films slip back into proper alignment by their release date in country of origin. If this sounds arbitrary, it sort of is. The reasoning is that year-end lists are built with the intention of pointing readers to recent releases and celebrating personal viewing experience of that year; the purpose of retrospective lists is to weigh recent history after some cooling-off time. So, for example, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance appeared on my original 2006 Favorites list, but now has to contend with 2005 releases — which actually improves its ranking. As to whether festival screenings, non-US limited releases, etc. influence the determination of year of release, I confess the entire system is built on whim and fancy. I have tried to iron out major defects with cursory Internet-based “research,” but feel free to notify the manager of any errors.
Speaking of cooling off, heating up, the dispassionate eye and the seduction of novelty... well, that’s why I am doing this. Things look different in the long view, and I’m more confident in the lists from 2000 to around 2006 than recent years, simply because I’ve had time to see more of 2000’s films than 2008’s, and more time to think about them.
Documentaries, experimental film, art video and genres not yet named all compete for space with narrative features. Features are defined by Academy rules — 40 minutes minimum — and do not vie for position against short subjects... except in one(?) rare (arbitrary) case below, in which a short was just too goddamned good.
Do keep in mind that the completed set of ten lists would not necessarily represent a set of top 100 favorites of the decade. One year’s unranked #13 could be better than another year’s #1. For the bean counters, at the end the individual lists will be shuffled into a weigh-distributed master list of 50 titles.
Favorites of the Two Zero Zeroes, Pt. I — 2000
10. Final Destination (dir. James Wong, scr. Wong, Glen Morgan, Jeffrey Reddick)
Jeffrey Reddick’s repurposed X-Files spec script (that’s fine, it wouldn’t have jibed with what we see in “Tithonus”) was repurposed and rewritten into a feature by Files first stringers Glen Morgan and James Wong. The hook is irresistibly silly, a slasher movie with no slasher, and in a stroke of bold, unapologetic redundancy, “death” itself is the killer. Boring teenager Alex (the boring Devon Sawa) has an unexplained precognitive vision and convinces a handful of passengers not to board a doomed 747. Thus thrown off-track, Death is forced to work overtime to burn, decapitate and smush all escapees. Imagined as an implacable force of nature and visualized as shit falling over and blowing up, Final Destination’s vision of mortality is the most fatalistic in all pop horror cinema. The first great horror franchise of the brink of the new century, the Destinations are loud, rude, pitiless black comedies with one single-minded two-fisted joke to tell.
Director James Wong moves through the hollow space between death setpieces at an acceptable clip. The characters are bound to be little but Reaper-feed, but the first installment doesn’t even bother to sketch its people as types or caricatures (however, everyone is distractingly, pointlessly named after historical horror film figures). Sequels would reach grander heights of invention, comedy and ludicrosity, but Final Destination is the first wicked hammer drop in death’s Rube Goldberg machine. The joke is on everything with a beating heart.
9. The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (dir. Peter Segal, scr. Steve Oedenkerk, Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffeild, Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, whew!)
Here is a happy thing. The comedy of Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films rises from the ways different people are uniquely silly, interesting, and funny. Our bodies and their differing shapes and shades are not inherently funny; they can, indeed, be a great source of pain. But to the gifted character comedian who studies the way we move, the way our bodies shape our attitudes and opinions, and personalities affect our forms, human diversity is a veritable candy shop. This is roughly true every time a sketch comic puts on a fake mustache, but Murphy’s tour de force eight-piece-one-man-band performance is all about fully loading his characters with character. Much of that is Murphy’s mimicry and invention, and the rest is Rick Baker’s meticulous, beautiful makeup work.
Because everyone’s body IS funny, or can be, and should anyone forget, the aim of caricature is to point this out. A good caricature is specific and detail-oriented. The rotund Klump family is jolly and vibrant, comfortable with their frames — proud, even— and their earthy brand of good-natured humor is a double joke, and they aim to loosen up the scraps of self-loathing clinging to sensitive and shy Professor Sherman Klump. There is possibly no funnier material than the unfurled egoism of Buddy Love, though, the nasty and gleeful spirit whose greatest pleasure is simply cavorting in a thin, muscular body and causing embarrassment to others. Murphy is not only playing all these characters but the dynamics between them. The Professor films take their critical lumps for being a string of fat jokes and fart gags. But the villain is a parody of body perfection, and the fart jokes are the best possible sort: of happy people, delighted to be passing gas because it says their bodies are alive and hilarious.
The Klumps is a bit convoluted and Janet Jackson makes a dull, inoffensive love interest, not that she is asked to do anything particularly funny. It is perhaps not as rousing or straightforward (or, okay, hilarious; nothing here is so perfect as Buddy Love in aerobics class) as the 1996 Nutty Professor, but as the balance is shifted toward the other Klumps, the sequel actually satisfies a legitimate desire: to spend more time with the family!
8. Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan, scr. C. Nolan from short story by Jonathan Nolan)
Pity poor Leonard (Guy Pearce, looking like a battered, blown-out half-developed Polaroid) who cannot form new memories since his injury, whose brain self-purges approximately every ten minutes and whose body constantly snaps awake while in perilous situations. Pity the audience of all sloppily written and edited pop cinema product, for we possess attention spans, allowing us to track plot holes, oversights and fudge-ups, recognize clichés and retain information without being condescended to. Presupposing capable viewership, Memento runs backwards, requiring that its revenge thriller clockwork not only be tooled with precision but fully reversible. The film’s thrumming ontological malaise and show-off structure tend to overshadow its pleasures as a terse and chewy crime picture, but these concerns are bound up together. As metafiction on the art of narrative filmmaking, Memento reconfigures the steady, regulated information leak of storytelling, applying its full smarts to suspense and mystery genres in which the shielding of the dealer’s cards matters the most.
If Memento says nothing more profound than that reality is simply the state in which we find ourselves second to second, that is enough. Leonard has lost the illusion that he is the sum total of experience, that a life lived provides anything but consequence and circumstance, that history conspired to make him the man he is today. He loses that when his head smashed into a mirror: self-perception shattered, slate wiped, scars permanent. Those who charge forth with confidence that we know who we are, know where we’re going, know where we’ve been labor under a very practical delusion. Those who wonder in anguish over who they are may be asking a question that does not make sense: you are the man looking in the mirror and asking who you are. Memento makes over Camus’ The Stranger as sunbleached California noir, in which perception is slippery, but it is all we have. The pictures lie. You must remember this.
7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (dir., scr. Joel and Ethan Coen)
A rangy, meandering tall tale of the Depression era Deep South, Joel and Ethan Coen’s sole musical is also an amiably stoned ramble through screwball comedy, self-serious social issue films, and cornepone rural comedy. After 15 years of Coen films, the temptation is strong as ever to create run-on lists of every genre and text being pastiched, lampooned and paid homage, then marvel that the resultant film does not really resemble any of that parentage.
A swiped Preston Sturges title is applied to the sort of goofy crowd-pleaser that it was meant to stand in contrast to in Sullivan's Travels, and recalls some contradictions that Sturges shares with the Coens. These are, namely, ambivalence about characters, swinging between affection and distain, and incontrovertible authorial smarts playing push-pull with the desire to be taken Seriously. As Sullivan alludes in the broadest ways to Gulliver's Travels, O Brother purports to adapt Homer’s Odyssey. And it does, with cute, unceremonious parallels and offhand references, but the important thing is its purpose and spirit. O Brother is a period piece set not in a real historical era but in the accumulated imagined American past, populated by icons and legends, historical whitewashing and spooky folktales. Like the Odyssey, it is the historical epic romance of a nation as it wants to see itself. In the case of America, that is with much contradiction, truth and wishful thinking. O Brother presents the American hero as scrappy but upright, resourceful but hardscrabble, charming and clever but not too clever, rugged and handsome, wise-ass and silly, wandering but family-obsessed, lazy and hard-working. Above all, the very shape and subject of this comic myth celebrates and satirizes in the American character an incompatible desire to be an impossibly lucky winner and still possess hard-luck simple-value “Authenticity.” Witness, as Ulysses Everett McGill, proud and indignant that he is Bona Fide, makes a big success by recording that timeless ode to American shit luck, “Man of Constant Sorrow”. Adopting the Greek Pantheon sure makes it a lot easier to reconcile that that some days your manifest destiny is to roam, and some days it’s nothing but depression.
6. Mission to Mars (dir. Brian De Palma, scr. Jim Thomas, John Thomas, Graham Yost)
“Drifting through eternity will ruin your whole day.” So goes some wisdom from Brian De Palma’s marvelous spaceman thriller. Mission to Mars is practically a humanist retort to 2001: A Space Odyssey, its climactic moments dedicated to a pretty and inspiring filmstrip on biological evolution on Earth. Containing something to bewilder or sour nearly ever viewer, even the film’s final statement of wonder is marred by one badly designed transitional era CG alien effect. But all De Palma films have a little of this wonder, and no small amount of dread, as starry-eyed humans are ricocheted around a cosmic pool table along networks too daft to make sense of, dragged by forces they cannot see. Mission does, in its finale, marvel at nature, but until then it is variously spooked and awe-struck.
The climax of physical action occurs in the black void, of course, stranded between heaven and earth (well... between spaceship and Mars), safe home and unknown adventure, chilly womb and blazing death. The suspense device is of properly calibrating jet pack thrusters and conserving limited fuel supplies; the moral questions are of the same stuff: applied force, inertia, impossible choice and aiming carefully while navigating through space.
One zero G setpiece alone sees the director pushing the cinematic apparatus’ ability to organize space and time to a new plane: it is a De Palma Future. As the ship is about to enter orbit around Mars, a micrometeorite barrage perforates the hull, one space suit helmet, and one astronaut’s hand: bam, bam, bam, these are the crises in poetic simplicity, tiny rocks hurtling through infinity just to fuck up four heroes. The ensuing repair effort is a suspense scene of elaborate construction without parallel... except in the De Palma canon. Beginning with the image of atomized blood globules swirling lazily about the pristine ship, the sequence expands and flows into airless abstract 3D museum diorama. As four crewmembers undertake separate tasks in different locations and the atmosphere rapidly suctions out of the craft, their work unites the action, a seamless vignette about punctured seams. The source of the first leak is detected via the floating blood droplets, the second by a serendipitous packet of Dr. Pepper. The pieces and particles flocking in one direction to create a whole, the scene snakes through space, inside and outside, perfectly oriented in a place where up and down do not apply and time is the crucial dimension. Linked in purpose, discrete no longer, like the chromosomes sent to a blue planet from a red one, like the astronaut’s DNA model built of M&M’s, like the Dr. Pepper and the blood, like the clouds of Martian dust. Like pictures threaded in sequence, moving in time together to tell a story.
5. Dancer in the Dark (dir., scr. Lars von Trier, songs by Björk)
Old-time women’s picture hokum, nothing in Lars von Trier’s musical extravaganza holds any water or makes any sense, except that melodrama tells its own sort of truth. When the indignities and cruelties upon the innocent are piled high enough, any weeper turns into a dark comedy; tell a horror joke from the inside out, and with enough sincerity and it becomes a tragedy.
This joke is about a girl who gave and gave and a world that took and took, until she had nothing left. Von Trier has told this one before, would tell it again, and the challenge this time around must have been to test the limits of weepy excess while purging every semblance of reality: how far can either fundamental component of the film be pushed before it undoes the other? The martyr heroine is not only impoverished, abused, wrongfully persecuted and slowly going blind, but apparently suffering some intellectual disability, her every interaction and behavior exactly the kind of thing no one would do. Björk plays Selma as a walking Sacred Heart, a lived-in, humanity-stinking performance, a matted waif that one might feel compelled to slap for her own good, if she were not constantly being slapped already. The music is exuberant, aching and achey, and bitterly ironic in context. Björk’s own records thrive on a similar tension, as dance music that cannot be danced to, soaring pop as intimate and uncomfortable as crawling through the singer’s throat. As a victim/collaborator in Von Trier’s campaign, Björk adds another layer of contradiction and mystique to both the film and the art project of her public persona. For in Von Trierland, it is possible to become confused as to what is sincere or put-on, sophisticated or juvenile. Dancer in the Dark is both, of course. The kind of emotional rawness and thoughtful technique on display are simply too much work to muster up for a derisive chuckle. Dancer in the Dark is Passion play as escapist Mamoulian musical, and vice versa.
4. American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, scr. Harron, Guinevere Turner)
Brett Easton Ellis’s gasbag novel is punctured, drained and distilled into an elegantly mean and hilarious feminist tract by director Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner. While Ellis’s method of literary satire is to stand in one place, bare-knuckled, and punch the same spot over and over and over, Harron and Turner feint and bind, slice and dice with a thin, exacting blade. The subject is manly competition and conspicuous consumption in the world of late-1980s Wall Street investment banking, the case study one Patrick Bateman and the crimes engendered by boundless privilege and ridiculous amounts of money: disconnect from humanity, ennui, failure of taste and serial murder. As a period piece takedown of extreme yuppiedom, American Psycho picks an easy target, but courtesy of Ellis there exists a graceless, hammering take on the same material, proof that this is not as easy as it looks. Whether one finds the ‘80s stage dressing deft and funny or irrelevant nearly a decade after the fact, the thesis is tied to no one time and place, a hysterical burlesque of late period capitalism careening into a barbaric dead-end, the human body made ultimate disposable luxury commodity.
The excesses of Ellis’ novel are the point, but it is more excruciating than funny or horrifying, ideas more interesting to discuss than to read. Harron and Turner’s choice to clean up the grue, besides making the book filmable, eliminate Ellis’ habit of rubbing an audience’s nose in the material. The only lamentable cuts are of Bateman’s most far-out hallucinations — being pursued by a park bench, and witnessing a Cheerio being interviewed on television — that might have strained credulity even with this most unreliable narrator. The psycho himself is alternately locked in a human skin sarcophagus, and on berserk nude chainsaw rampage. While the film is largely lodged inside Bateman’s head, crucial space is made for the voices of the women of American Psycho. Turner is tellingly cast as the only woman who laughs in the protagonist’s face. In a moment like a clear, mournful bell amidst the cacophony, Bateman’s secretary, Jean (Chloë Sevigny, earnest and breakable, good as gold), steals a peek at the boss’ diary, and finds only primitive childish doodles of mutilated women. The film still closes with Ellis’ bleak jabber (and portentous inscription: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT), Bateman’s final embrace of nihilistic abandon, brain-snapped and sweat-drenched. But the summary of Harron’s Psycho is in the eloquent, beautifully composed scene of Jean alone, confronted with the swarming, dehumanizing rage of Bateman’s notebook. Whether the crimes of the book are “real” or not, the disease behind the symptoms is the same, and lost, confused, and hurt, Jean weeps.
Bonus points for a credits sequence that prefigures Dexter's opening by 6 years.
3. In the Mood for Love (dir., scr. Wong Kar-wai)
This is a film about extraordinarily beautiful people smoking cigarettes, which make extraordinarily beautiful smoke, and looking moody, sexy and tragic while they do it.
The story of Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) lovers-never-to-be, neighbors united because their own spouses are cheating on them with each other, is both emotionally complicated, poetically pared-down. It is speaks to many things inside those prone to heartsickness, romantic longing and indolence. Like a series of lugubrious interlocking etudes, In the Mood for Love is vague and elliptical enough, repeats variants on its own themes with such seductive rhythm as to encompass itself in forward and reverse. It is a story about how a mutual case of blue balls prolonged over the better part of a decade, combined with a propensity for melancholy, can cause the afflicted to inflate intimacy and longing into having mistimed meeting one’s one and only Soulmate. In more sympathetic light, the opposite spin: love and connection flit through our lives, prolonging defining moments with an aching sustain, and sex just has nothing to do with romance. Chow and Su torture themselves into increasingly lovely emotional and-or sexual starvation, their stated motives may be to maintain the moral rectitude and dignity that their spouses could not. Of course, this just makes their anguish more perverse, their behavior creepier and more damaged.
Should you remove the mud, and let the whispered secrets float out like scribbled plumes of cigarette smoke, there is every chance that the voice of a broken heart has nothing to say but “Oh my God, oh my God. I should have fucked her.”
In the Mood for Love is truly and deeply about how gorgeous movie stars can look while smoking cigarettes in the rain.
2. “The Heart of the World” (scr., dir. Guy Maddin)
“Heart of the World” IS:
-Six minutes and some few seconds long.
-An erotic montage-edited frenzy about the erotic frenzy of montage editing.
-A romantic evocation of the spasmic lovemaking of silent Soviet sci-fi, Fleischer brothers shorts, experimental Marxist documentary and many other sorts of popular entertainments currently in vogue with audiences the world over.
-A loving, meticulous recreation of German Expressionism and Soviet montage that looks precisely like no Expressionism or montage that ever existed.
-Absurdist redemptive melodrama about the redemption of melodrama!
-A full history of passion, love, death, resurrection, erection, economics, religion, science, sacrifice and birth conveyed in such bold, decisive strokes that it takes place entirely in hyperspace!
-KINO KINO KINO KINO!
1. Battle Royale (dir. Kinji Fukasaku, scr. Kenta Fukasaku, from the novel by Koushun Takami)
Directed by the 70-year-old Fukasku, the last great film of the millennium closes with an imperative to the young: RUN.
Japan of the undefined near future finds its economy collapsed, unemployment rates soaring and youth in rebellion. The implied fascist government instates the Battle Royale program: each year, a ninth grade class is abducted, shipped to a small island, and made to participate by slaughtering each other until one child remains standing. From this high concept, equal parts compelling and appalling, proceeds Battle Royale. The giggly, angry, black satire plot reads, on paper anyway, like a premise John Waters might have imagined, had he been born some thirty years later. Its barely-science-fiction kill-or-be-killed tale meditates on universalist themes common to Lord of the Flies, The Most Dangerous Game, and Stephen King from Roadwork to Under the Dome: the scary speed with which the body’s survival instinct kicks in when under duress, the fascinating and varied ways in which civility disintegrates and societies break down.
Battle Royale is bitterly funny to be sure; its political bite sinks deep into the luxury culture, unhealed generation gap and entertainment tastes of postwar Japan, teeth scraping bone. The premise alone is enough, an overstated, ferocious lampoon of conservative social politics, and their bad ends for the defenseless and innocent. The BR program is ostensibly created to quell the rising tide of youth discontent, but is motivated by adult failure, fear, and anger scapegoated onto the nation’s teens.
But Battle Royale does not play out as a bad taste splatterpunk comedy, a sadistic action movie or, really, in any way expected at all. The film’s main modes inside its pointed, complicated satire are rich, novelistic storytelling and quiet, sensitive poetry. The strong backbone allows Fukasku to check in with the 42 students in various combinations all over the island, and on their mysterious teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano, also malevolent and weary), in quick sketch intertwining vignettes. Comically blunt intertitles punctuate the deaths, but the survival game is not the heart of this story, and the rest unfolds in the oblique, haunted tone of flipping through a high school yearbook with a headfull of psilocybin.
In careful, spare strokes, the film marks out miniature portraits of its dozens of 15-year-olds. The emotionally intense reality of adolescence is so vivid that Battle Royale seems willed into existence by the resentments, heartache and irrational impulses of the ninth grade class. Still, somehow the film stands at a contemplative distance from this hormonal miasma, those love stories that are really crush stories, bullying that is really dismemberment. The abject nastiness, adorable naïveté and poignancy of teenage social interaction is observed with empathy — respect, even— and on their own terms.
In the greatest movie scene of 2000, fierce and beautiful class track star Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama, blood type: A) is dying. Her friend Hiroki (Sousuke Takaoka) finds her, and though freaked out, picks up the dying girl and sits with her as dusk falls. And what can she want in those final moments? What is important right then? She asks Hiroki if he is in love. And yes, he is. She asks: but not with me, right? And no, not her. Hiroki can barely stand to look. But he will stay with her. Still nervous, even with nothing to lose, Chigusa musters everything she has and... tells Hiroki that he looks cool. Hiroki gives his friend the most beautiful last moment possible, as her heart simultaneously breaks and slows and stops. He tells her: “You’re the coolest girl in the world.”
What does it mean, then, to tell a generation to “RUN”? Contemporary as its other concerns may be, Battle Royale is not an anthropological exposé on the slang, savagery and mating habits of modern Japanese youth. It is about what it is always like to be 15, what it has always been like to be 15, and what 15-years-old means to a 70-year-old man. There is nothing sweeter than catching the extremely jaded in a moment of wistful reverie.