Thursday, June 24, 2010

Two Zero Zero X: Favorite Films of the Decade Pt. 6 — 2005

Previous installments: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004...

The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2005

10. Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (dir., scr. George Lucas)

A far-too-gushing write-up from 2005 can be found here, republished for the Star Wars Blogathon.

With an element of gross misstep and a boggling triumph in every scene, this age's designated popcult touchstone epic marches and meanders to its in/evitable conclusion, and Star Wars ends. The end is the beginning is the end, as unspooling contradictions writhe beneath the surface of George Lucas' primal and personal glossy space opera. A full-frontal merchandising assault is mounted on the same stage as a politicized Greek tragedy about how genocidal dictators are born. Bleeding-edge tech is harnessed to create photorealistic Amazing Stories covers. Every major beat of the story is etched in marble, but destiny's grim march is constantly interrupted by noodling asides. The unreined imaginations of a hundred creature, costume, environment and spaceship designers are funneled through a director with no filter for kitsch, cliché, or dorkiness, and a stadium full of lightsabers cannot slice through the resultant clutter. The downward-sloping arc of doomed protagonist Anakin Skywalker is designed to take him from slave boy to slave cyborg, and focused on the moment when he will murder his pregnant wife, but when that defining moment arrives the cause of death is something like lack of will to live. The biochemical mechanics of the Force are explained, but in such a way as to explain nothing. Moldering Yellow Peril caricature villains are merged with amphibians in papal hats and named after Republican politicians.

The nominally straightforward plot is confused, baffled, and rerouted through twisting blind-corner mountain roads. Nothing so agonizingly prevized on every level from galactic to midi-chlorial has ever been so sloppy and strange.

We have here a series of children's films with images of decapitated and dismembered fathers as a major visual motif. There is something going on in the Star Wars prequels at direct odds with certain conventional wisdom that they are vapid, soulless, lazy, cynical cash-grabs: Bad in some conventional, grinding, anonymous fashion. They are many things, but normal they are not. They are profoundly weird and more than a little bonkers.

This shadowed half is intended to balance the bright-hearted Episodes IV-VI. Within the six-movement film cycle, the Episode I-III trilogy climaxes and resolves with a fall from grace, leaves the universe charred and smoldering and thus primed for new hope. In an infamous, much scoffed-about preproduction documentary clip, Lucas tells his team that the films are "like poetry." A peculiarly formal poetry they are, carefully metered, rhymed and assonated, highly allusive and steeped in mystic esoterica. E.g., General Senator Binks may not be funny, but his real role in the mythos is of the Holy Fool, and his place in the poetics is to rhyme with the sidekick life-debt of Chewbacca. Where the story does not work, the schematic is rich. Trash, perhaps, but singular, epic trash.

Revenge of the Sith specifically finds its director in purposeful, less spastic form, confident in the forward thrust of the film and not just isolated sequences. A sleek black helmet is lowered over the burnt skull of a little boy who once insisted that he is a person and his name is Anakin, and the weight of six films bears down and presses the mask to his face.

9. Sin City (dir. Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino, scr. Miller)

Set in a cherry-picked L.A.-New York-Vegas-Chicago-Detroit of the troubled imagination, Sin City is a film on a shopping spree to fill a cart with its favorite elements of noir, hard-boiled detective, cop thriller, and vigilante stories — essentially all of crime pulp — and is very probably bad for you. For cartoonist Frank Miller, the exciting parts of those genres are flappy trench coats, sensitive but impossibly tough guys, absurdly large guns, Madonna/whore complexes, serial killers with grotesque M.O.'s, tar-black irrationally placed shadows and glowing rim lighting, and a pervasive air of moral, mental and physical rot. Those looking for complex detective plots, sophisticated, dimensional femmes fatales and human-scale violence with realistic repercussions need not apply. Apart from the caricatured chiaroscuro, the reference point for Sin City is less Late Show Bogart movie than the sort of lurid crime magazines with a brand of hyperbolic violence Stephen King once charitably described as "gushy." Adapting Miller's comics for the screen, Robert Rodriguez takes the difficult road and assumes that while Frank Miller's psyche looks like a difficult place to live, it is a pretty hilarious, entertaining place to visit.

8. The Proposition (dir. John Hillcoat, scr. Nick Cave)

Hard, mean land, it seems, has made hard, mean men of its residents. Or perhaps they were drawn to this, their ideal landscape, as Hell was built for demons and the damned. If the classic genre theory reduction says that Westerns are About Civilization versus Wilderness, Law versus Freedom, Order versus Chaos, White Hat versus Black Hat, etc, to The Proposition this may as well be Mad Dog versus Mad Dog, or meaningless as Late Breakfast versus Brunch.

Bull-man Captain Stanley enlists captured outlaw Charlie Burns to put down his rampaging criminal brother, Arthur, somewhere in the hellscape of 1880's Australia. The collateral is to be younger Burns brother, Mikey, scheduled to walk or hang on Christmas Day, pending Charlie's success. As Charlie wanders, drinks, and laments, Stanley finds himself forced to protect Mikey from the wrath of the community. And everyone is compromised, every hand is bloodied, and man clings to the lie he needs to get through the long, boiling days.

Nick Cave's score is in wistful, hypnotic mode, and his screenplay is in brutal poetic mode that casts every human as killer, victim or ethereal outside observer. This is the shortlist of options as the characters trudge through the sun-pounded outback, looking for their place in the universe. Stanley aims to civilize the land, but in familiar, eternal, sickly comic Kubrickian tradition, has tragic ideas of what that means, how to do it, and insurmountable circumstances working against him. The cycle of history turns the wrong way. Stanley's brand of civilization cannot abide the criminals, cannot survive the rough justice the townspeople would like, and cannot truly coexist with the native population, and so the contradictions will be written in blood, gunpower and pain.

7. The Call of Cthulhu (dir. Andrew Leman, scr. Sean Branney)

The geeky, obsessed cabal of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society focus their efforts to create the Lovecraft adaptation of the highest fidelity to the source material in all of film history, and display sizeable cinematic prowess and good taste throughout. The simple and clever conceit that makes The Call of Cthulhu soar is to pastiche the fantasy film style of 1928, when the story was published, as if Lovecraft were being adapted in his own era.

Though some of the accuracy of the attempt at silent Expressionist style is dubious, on the whole it smoothes over the rough patches of semi-pro production. Arch performances, unrealistic sets and handmade special effects become strong artistic choices in a creaky / wildly stylized aesthetic, rather than flaws to conceal. Lovecraft's globe-jumping, disjointed, epistolary plot structure remains intact, and his antiquated, lugubrious purple prose is ingeniously transformed into irrationally-lit, oneiric images.

The way the story is built is more about pace and increasing scale than plotting. Notes left by a deceased academic relate tales of increased activity among demonic cultists around the world, and eerie, otherworldly clues point toward the awakening of a transdimensional alien god. Cthulhu is too twisted and feverish to be flattened into three acts, disinterested in character drama, but is full of vivid imagery and snowballs to a thrilling, monstrous and cosmic climax on a sea voyage to an uncharted, newly risen island.

Part of Lovecraft's enduring power is in the dread sense that the stories themselves are unstuck in time and space. That there is something Wrong with them, or maybe with the writer. That maybe he is slightly mad, or a visionary, or both. That the stories are doing something to you. Though he casts a long shadow over all mediums of fantasy art, these are the Lovecraftian qualities never captured in screen adaptation. Simultaneously hokey and august, the feverish Call of Cthulhu strays closer to those mad mountains than any motion picture dream-quester before it.

6. Manderlay (dir., scr. Lars von Trier)

For the fancy-schmanciest art movie on this list, I’m going to drop the pretty talk for a minute. Lars von Trier makes fairly accessible art films, full of ideas, discussion points for later, and crazy formal experiments. They also have strong stories that are communicated in a relatively normal way and movie stars from all over the world. So von Trier is a good starting place for understanding how normal, unfancy, untrained never-took-a-film-class people can get a lot out of art cinema, and with a little work even find it fun and exciting.

I dunno if the gods love a good provocateur, but I know I do. It is good for audiences of the arts, casual and serious alike, to be challenged and affronted. People don’t like to be fucked with. That is understandable in real life, but art is a great place where we can be provoked and irritated without actually being personally injured. It’s okay to be bored during an Andy Warhol film, because he really is trying to bore you, get you to a place where you think about why you’re bored, what about the movie is boring you, and what it means to be bored. Maybe it even makes you mad. Maybe the guy is fucking with you. Did you really leave the house and pay money to watch a guy sleeping? You did, and Warhol is certainly fucking with you. Maybe that’s a scam and you could make a movie like that, too. You could, but you didn’t. But you win in the end because you just had a meaningful sit-down with some challenging art, and that experience went beyond “liking” or “not liking” a movie.

Lars von Trier is also certainly fucking with you. In his case, the stories are emotionally direct and brutal and he’s honestly working out issues that are personally troubling and painful to him. But they’re also a joke. Not a trick or a prank on you for having feelings about the put-upon protagonists that von Trier abuses. The joke is about how extraordinarily cruel the universe seems to be. The nature of drama is conflict, so melodrama piles on as much misery as possible, and it’s funny, interesting and beautiful that we still respond to this, even when as absurd and excessive as in a von Trier plot, even when as minimally presented as Dogville and its sequel, Manderlay. It seems impossible to forget the artifice when the sets are a giant black box with white lines on the floor and the buildings have no walls, but it is possible, too, because we kind of do forget. This isn’t necessarily a difficult, distancing way to tell a story that we have to work at to figure out or how to look past. It is potentially a stripped-down, simple way to tell a story without unnecessary stage dressing, like telling ghost stories around a campfire.

Anecdotal evidence says that some people (Wikipedia would put a tag here that says “[Who?]” and the answer is “some Americans I read on the Internet”) don’t like that von Trier frames Dogville and Manderlay as films about America. This is apparently because the writer-director isn’t American and has never been here. Now maybe some of Those People are spouting off, haven’t seen the movies, and just don’t like the idea of the rest of the world having opinions about America. That’s weird for a lot of reasons, but if I may characterize the nation (this is what blogs are for!), the country is pretty much a big showoff and wants the other countries to talk about it at parties, so here you go, this is what one troubled, weirdo filmmaker from Denmark thinks. I know you can handle that, America. But giving Those People the benefit of the doubt, it’s great that they take issue with von Trier’s Land of Opportunity movies. It means that they’re engaging with the films and interpreting them.

Interpretation is necessary, because von Trier doesn’t actually make definitive statements. He doesn’t put forth an articulated thesis that he perfectly illustrates, but worries through complicated problems at length, and doesn’t resolve them entirely or come to definitive conclusions. Dogville is about things like the pitfalls of charity, kindness, capitalism, the work ethic, and the unbridgeable gap between ideals and their application. Manderlay is about those things plus American race relations, slavery, power dynamics, the meaning of freedom, democracy, and historical trauma. When we talk about those things in Real Life, we usually take a position, have an opinion that we cling to, and shout a lot. Von Trier gives individual characters strong opinions, puts them in conflict, and usually has something awful happen to everyone. His own position is not necessarily in the mouth of anyone onscreen or even easy to suss out. When the stage is cleared at the end of Dogville, all that is left is a God’s eye view of the void and a furious, snapping dog. I’d guess that’s as close to a mission statement as von Trier gives.

In Dogville's case, maybe von Trier uses the town of Dogville to stand for America the Real Place, or to represent the national character, or as stand-in for any capitalist nation, or the entire sphere of human society, or all of those, but it’s also just the isolated, specific, imaginary mountain town of Dogville. Now, in Manderlay, our old pal Grace is leaving in the car with her gangster dad, and she transforms from Nicole Kidman into the more starry-eyed and sincere Bryce Dallas Howard, and happens upon an Alabama plantation where the resident slaves aren’t aware that they have been legally emancipated for seventy years. So, being Grace, with her superiority complex, good intentions and deep sense of social justice, she sets about forcing the slaves to be free. This being von Trier, that plan will go about as well as expected, which is to say not well at all.

If your Manderlay discussion club needs some prompting, bounce over to the Rotten Tomatoes patch and see how the Fresh (32% of Top Critics!) and Rotten alike mostly agree that this is some kind of indictment of some aspect of something. Some critics find a scathing statement on President Bush’s Iraq war in the way Grace pushes freedom upon the Manderlay slaves — using machine guns if necessary — but doesn’t have a solid plan in place for the clean-up phase. Some critics find a condemnation of well-meaning liberal tendency to rush in, meddle and foist assistance on others without understanding the situation or helping people to help themselves. Some critics say both those things without noting the confusion of targets. But wait, does von Trier even know the particulars of contemporary American conservatism and liberalism? This seems doubtful.... Iraq war, sure. But also Vietnam. Also every time anyone ever forced anyone to do anything for their own good. Manderlay is more like a frustrated, angry satire of no-win situations, especially those shitty circumstances you’ve inherited, must take action upon, want to set right, but there’s no clean, correct way to do it.

What belief systems do we get to impose on others? How does America move past its historical atrocities? Specifically, how do white people feel about and deal with the legacy of slavery? Broader: how does anyone in the world deal with these kinds of traumas? How do they haunt us, how do we remember them and move forward, and what do we do when confronted with their residue? Have we truly dismantled and discarded our racist stereotypes? Which ones are gone, which persist, which could reoccur? Why do we continue perceiving truth, allure or usefulness in stereotypes that we know are hateful and untrue? When do you help people who don’t want help? How hard should you try to help? When have you accidentally imprisoned someone with your ideology? How complicit are minorities and the oppressed in their own subjugation? Sorry, I got lingo-y there on you. Point being that some of these topics are painful to consider in private, infuriating to discuss in public, but all necessary to confront.

Now maybe Lars von Trier is fucking with you, and maybe that’s a good thing. What separates the great provocateur from the chortling wiseass? How do we tell a challenging, serious artist from a naughty attention-mongering huckster? Well, that's part of the fun, isn't it?

5. Serenity (dir., scr. Joss Whedon)

In which Joss Whedon does the impossible, or at least attempts it, and succeeds to an implausible degree, and completes the birthing of the rumpliest and philosophically humane science fiction for the screen in decades. The impossible task of Serenity is to act as second (er, third) pilot episode of Firefly, season finale (should the film have performed better), and probable series finale for a failed-culted-resurrected television show. It has to do this without the broad cultural awareness of Star Trek, which would otherwise be a logical comparison. It attempts to function as a self-contained feature film, a continuation, a conclusion, reiteration and encapsulation. As a film that, in all reality, exists thanks to the support of a network of vocal fans, it wisely attempts to satisfy those supporters and thus mustn't bore them with repetition but needs to introduce a nine-crew member ensemble cast and the precepts of its SF universe.

The central mystery tease of the series is played out, namely What is Up with Wise-in-Her-Madness Teen Waif Stowaway River Tam? This being Joss Whedon's playground, the answer is obviously that she got kung-fu powers after patriarchal powers tampered with her personality. The stories can't all meet their tidy, intended endings. That option was lost years ago. So some of the Serenity's crew of bandits and fugitives are get the short shrift, but the single most important story arcs out beautifully: fourteen episodes of Captain Mal Reynolds accepting the part of outcast, outlaw, lost cause, unloved cynic pays off as he resolves his bad faith, stands unshackled and free. Roaming the frontier space after fighting for the losing side of the Unification War and resigning himself to a life of scavenging, running and smuggling, what we have here is a man trapped — like Howard the Duck — in a world he never made, restless, frustrated, and chasing an undefined Something.

Whether he could use some faith, purpose or just some inner serenity, Mal certainly needs to free himself from bad faith. And he does, in shining Existentialist hero fashion, release himself from that moral death-grip, realizes his inherent, unstrippable freedom in the universe. The Alliance isn't Inherently Evil Empire Par Excellence, but ideologically stifling; as Mal is being smothered more than most, he's in the best position in the 'Verse to notice and do something about it. And that's how Serenity pays off the character arc properly.

Mal's circumstances "force" him into outlaw role, but he wills himself into semi-cooperative inertia through all of Firefly, and he tells himself: I'm a bad man, I'm on the run, I'm struggling to survive, human relationships are barely tenable, and I have no choice in the matter. It is not that he plays victim, but Mal sees his unsatisfactory life inhibited by circumstance, blind to the myriad courses available to him. He's not "free" because he doesn't acknowledge himself to be free. Were Firefly-Mal singing the theme song, the refrain "you can't take the sky from me" is wistful and ironic, but by the end of Serenity it is a true, defiant statement of purpose.

In less fancy terms, Mal needs to stop feeling sorry for himself, and gets inspired to action because he finds something to stick up for, namely the right to feel sorry for himself.

This is the extraordinary par for a Whedon-engineered course. All three of his lead TV protagonists have been plagued bad faith, constrained by roles and external belief systems. Buffy Summers doesn't need to just grow up and accept that she's the Slayer: she needs to locate a viable moral space in which to live, give herself permission to have problems, accept that she is grown up but not Solved, and that circumstance may suck, but you're never out of options (and ultimately says the hell with being The Chosen One). Angel doesn't need to Fight For Redemption! Not when there's (probably?) no God, everyone who matters to him has forgiven him, and he's going to "hell" anyway: he needs to reconfigure his sense of purpose, moral system and definition of "redemption," moment to moment, for all his un-life (and ultimately says the hell with any further reward).

And Mal, too, chooses what kind of man to be. He's not redeemed. But he's something like free.

4. A History of Violence (dir. David Cronenberg, scr. Josh Olson, from the comic by John Wagner and Vince Locke)

Here’s the problem for diner owner Tom Stall, who lives an idyllic, calm life in small-town Indiana: gangsters show up and say he’s mob deserter Joey Cusack and his nature is to murder people. Tom denies this for a good while, and Viggo Mortensen plays the affable straight arrow family man with all his bodily cells except a couple muscles somewhere in his jaw and some that calibrate pupil dilation. Something is wrong, or was wrong, or is about to be wrong.

What does it mean for a film to be truly Cronenbergian? It must take more than inventive grotesque biological mutations. That’s a signature plot trope, not a quality, not a style. A video-playing chest-vagina is an example, not a theme in full flower. Cronenberg infuses his unpredictable, uncompromising take on genre pictures with a profound human sadness, a wintery melancholy that pervades whether his bent lens is trained on the sex thriller, the tragic monster saga, the psychic assassin yarn, pervy transgressive horror, adaptation of modern lit classic, or crime drama. The inner turmoil of protagonists explodes all over their physical reality in spectacularly gooey, messy or at least violent and traumatic form, and the mysterious transmutations of perception and reality, identity and form get blurrier, blurrier, meltier, meltier. So tooth-shooting guns made out of gristly flesh are in short supply, and A History of Violence sounds like somebody's term paper subtitled "Evolutionary Stasis and Sociological Satire in the Films of Stanley Kubrick," but the picture is inescapably Cronenbergian.

They used to make terse, starkly poetic, dolorous and doomed crime pictures approximate six per week back in the 1940s (coincidentally circa when Cronenberg was born), when everyone had problems with their souls due to the trauma of the war. Nobody is exactly sure what David Croenberg's trauma is, if any, but it causes him to make purposeful, confident cinema that glides along scene to scene like a mean animal that knows where it's going.

3. King Kong (dir. Peter Jackson, scr. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, story Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace)
Also available here are lumpen extended thoughts about Kong '05, the first film written about at length on ExKin.

The rarest of unnecessary remakes is one that not only assumes thorough familiarity with the original, but wants its audience to hold that original forever in their hearts with religious awe. King Kong '33 is an Ur-film, a primal, godlike thing that lives in human consciousness like the Old West, the Christ story, and the Oedipal complex. Kong has no company but The Wizard of Oz up in that stratosphere. Chaplain does not live there, not Casablanca, nor Citizen Kane. Just Kong and Dorothy.

It is, then, not possible to really remake King Kong any more than one could rebuild the Great Sphinx of Giza or raise a baby to be Muhammad Ali. Peter Jackson would not replace, revise or improve upon King Kong '33 even if he could, so King Kong '05 is what exactly? A meditative deconstruction and expansion? An extended film appreciation essay? A public display of affection? Sure, sure, and sure, and Jackson's King Kong is a dream journal. The accumulated flotsam in one man's brain from a lifetime of dreaming about King Kong. The result is sentimental and strange, juvenile one moment and sophisticated the next, and all things considered (including peeks at ill-conceived, long-ago screenplay drafts), possibly the most naked and honest approach the filmmaker could have taken.

Every thought that Peter Jackson has had about King Kong and could possibly weave into his film is crammed into the loom, including those dangling in contradiction and unresolved (e.g.- it is an adventure at heart or maybe it is not an adventure). But key among those threads is a theme in Kong '05 wherein each man kills the thing he loves. Obsessive, bottomless passion proves throughout to crush the fragile dream. It comes to bear most spectacularly for Carl Denham and Kong himself, but behind the curtain we sense Peter Jackson pacing in worry, knowing that the act of creating this film is not so different from hauling the giant gorilla across the sea and placing it on stage in Radio City Music Hall. And will that crazy scheme work? Can Peter Jackson ever be done with King Kong? Can any of us? Will it kill the beast, or will the ape unleashed kill the showman? Don't worry, folks. Those chains are made of chrome steel.

2. Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog)

It is Man versus Nature as environmentalist Timothy Treadwell attempts to live among Alaskan grizzlies. It is Man versus Society as the National Park Service tries to prevent Treadwell from breaking the law. It is Man versus Self as Treadwell struggles with the the personal issues that cause him to shun life among humans and delude himself about how beneficial his presence is for his beloved bears. It is Man versus Destiny as Treadwell is inevitably killed and eaten by a bear.

And Grizzly Man is ultimately Man versus Man, in an ideological war between the self-designated protector of the bears and filmmaker Werner Herzog, who assembles Treadwell's own documentary footage and freely editorializes. It is impossible not to do so, as the fascinating, outlandish star blathers and rages and shoves his hands into fresh bear dung, pesters and taunts massive animals while insisting to his camera that the creatures love him, and gathers approximately zero useful data about bears. Treadwell's footage is bracingly beautiful, and absurdly hilarious in its own disconcerting, tragic way. In one of the movie year's most indelible scenes, Treadwell has his hat stolen by a wild Fox, who he has named Ghost and tries to treat as a pet. Ghost the Fox scampers off to his den with the cap, and Treadwell wails about the theft, the violation of his trust by the naughty animal, and never gets his hat back. Whether one sympathizes with Treadwell or agrees with Herzog that nature is a brutal, inhospitable, impassive force, one has to admit in the face of the evidence that a fox will steal your hat and just not give a shit. Nature is like that.

1. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (dir. Park Chan-wook, scr. Park, Jeong Seo-kyeong)

Mashing up the chain-reaction kidnapping plot of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the extensively-premeditated revenge tale of Oldboy, Lady Vengeance concerns the elaborate score settling between convicted child murderer Lee Geum-ja and the man who actually did the deed. And between Geum-ja and her daughter Jenny, long lost to adopted parents. And with the families of several other murder victims. And between Our Lady of Vengeance and God.

The emphasis is on themes of identity and art, prep work and improvisation, and the hair-fine lines between sacrifice and degradation, grace and wrath, atonement and —wait for it — vengeance. As she examines a specialty firearm crucial to her painstaking scheme, Geum-ja is warned that ornamented gun is entirely impractical. She does not care, and murmurs only that it is beautiful, and every piece of her scheme must be beautiful. The death angel's day job at a bakery sees her excel at the decoration of tasteful, fancy cakes. As her life has been wrecked, her world shattered, Geum-ja reinvents herself with a purpose, and that plan is an elegant confection. Revenge is all she has, so it must be beautiful.

Central to that plan is complete full-body transformation, several times over. Before imprisonment she was a schoolgirl in over her head. The publicity circus around the crime recasts her as an angel-faced monster, and here begins the long, treacherous snaking of The Plan. As far as news media and prison personnel can see, in the arms of the penal system, Geum-ja becomes a repentant saint-in-training; so the Kind-Hearted Geum-ja facilitates her own release. Meanwhile, she wins the gratitude of fellow inmates by donating organs and murdering bullies; so the sisterly bonds forged and debts are incurred that may be paid off outside prison walls. And once outside, Geum-ja's decorations shift once more. Like a superhero suiting up, she paints on red eyeshadow, dons the coolest high-collared leather coat available, and chops off her finger in penance. If it is not artful, it is not worth doing.

Byzantine and intricate as Geum-ja's plan is, the film’s chronology is rewired into flashbacks and temporal cutaways. Information appears when and if the audience needs it, and not before, surprise reveals of causes after effects, as if the plot has gotten ahead of itself or Geum-ja’s scheme has outwitted the storyteller. The heroine undergoes (undertakes?) such radical behavioral shifts, transforming herself as required to achieve her next goal, that like Kill Bill, Lady Vengeance becomes a revenge quest as journey of identity. Where The Bride is winnowed down and built back up, Geum-ja is in a constant state of becoming.

Park Chan-wook lands his camera on unexpected views, literalizes metaphors without warning, frames to communicate dramatic relationship as much as compositional aesthetic and hops between scenes with flashy transitional devices. So the beatific Geum-ja prays and is crowned with the glowing aureola of a religious icon, or we glide between rooms on intercom cables to reveal one scene listening in on another, or a subtitle is rattled onto the screen by an overhead shot of tabletop coitus. Each scene has a little formal surprise in store. In one remarkable sequence the captive villain about to feel the wrath of Lady Vengeance is forced to translate from Korean to English and back again as Geum-ja communicates with Jenny. Blocked as a line of linked subjects with the translator in the middle, a gun pointed at his brain, split screen effects and simple editing gradually blur the geographical staging. The translator is gradually forgotten, disappears from the screen, though his voice continues. Halfway through the conversation the mother will stand with her back to the child, but Park continues cutting their close ups as if they are facing each other. In these moments, as Geum-ja makes her confession (through the mouth of a man also being forced into confession by repeating her words), states aloud her intention to kill, articulates as best she can her understanding of sin and atonement, she uses the act of her revenge as a statement. She literally makes her victim speak for her.

So what we have here is an exploration of the value of ritual, the role of the symbolic act in the invention of identity. Upon her release from prison at the beginning of the film, Geum-ja rejects a symbolic brick of tofu presented by her Christian comrades. It isn't a coded object with a secret meaning to unlock: its meaning is explained, and explicit. Shucking off the Kind-Hearted persona, Geum-ja requires more than a costume swap, and with high heels, red eyeshadow and burning cigarette in hand seduces the teenage bakery assistant. She has to transgress the boundaries of the Kind-Hearted to transform herself. And so she progresses, marking each step of the way with ritual and symbol, imbuing her quest with meaning beyond personal revenge.

"Atonement" is at the center of Geum-ja's Great Work, but for the film it is more a question than a purpose. That violence begets violence is a given in Park's Vengeance Trilogy, and here the Lady aims to atone by killing her guiltier partner in crime. And this outlaw justice, as outlaw justice is sometimes wont to do, actually may "solve" something — namely uncovering and halting a serial killer — but that is not the same as atonement. The damage to Geum-ja's original victim and his family is already done, and for this she can apologize, revenge, repent, and even affect positive change, but cannot undo. The pattern of destruction has encompassed more murder victims, but none can be saved. There is, however, another child and another parent wounded but struggling for air: there is still a chance for Geum-ja and Jenny. If Lady Vengeance wants something like redemption, wants to atone, wants her world set right, she'll have to forge the tools herself.

Lady Vengeance may famously fade to black and white in its director’s preferred version, but there is no black, white, or grey in the world of the Vengeance Trilogy. There are actions and consequences, impossible choices, and a cast of characters backed up against the wall. Everyone here is a victim of circumstance. Blackness swirls around them, but before they are enveloped, they will try, as Lady Vengeance says, to “live white.” All we can do is try.


Izzy said...

Whew... my patience has finally been rewarded!

Soheil Rezayazdi said...

Very much enjoying these lists, Chris. Keep up the good work.

Aram said...


While Revenge of the Sith is a fascinating illustration of When a Filmmaker Has Too Much Money and No One Willing to Question His Judgement I'm not sure it would make my top 10 list.

Serenity? Absolutely.

Off-topic, but you may be interested to know that Andrew Leman will soon be recording an audiobook reading of "The Haunter of the Dark" with the folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. (No relation to the embarrassingly poor "radio plays" from the HPL Historical Society.)

And finally, because I know you love making completely subjective numbered lists as much as I do, how would you rank the films in the Vengeance triptych?

William B said...

Very good work as always.

ROTS: I really like your assertion that the prequels may be bad, but are certainly not lazy-bad; Lucas may have done a lot of things but he certainly didn't phone these in. I do think that there are areas where the films are bad in conventional ways--the somewhat boilerplate romance between Padme and Anakin, for example--but I concede your general point.

What do you mean by the life-debt of Chewbacca, and how this compares to Jar-Jar? I don't quite follow.

I hadn't really thought before (though it's obvious now) how much of Anakin's story is a loss of identity, becoming not a person but a thing; Vader wears much the same thing as the anonymous storm troopers (who are, in II-III at least, all clones who have no independent identity, period), after all.

SIN CITY: I'm curious, have you read the comics? What do you think of Rodriguez' adaptation in that case? I think I've read the book covering the Marv segment, but I'm not quite sure....

SERENITY: Excellent. You articulate Mal's arc very well. This has no doubt been discussed to death everywhere, but it's very interesting how Mal's story plays against the Operative's--who also tells himself he's a "bad man," but acts purely out of ideology instead of out of Mal's anti-ideology, nihilistic attitude (that's early in the film).

You mention that the Alliance is not an Evil Empire par excellance--it's always bothered me a bit that this is much less clear in the film than in Firefly. Certainly the Op believes in what he's doing, and we are given the Reavers to show what the Alliance is a response to on the control <-> chaos spectrum, but since they've created the Reavers there's still the sense that "Everything Wrong in the Universe is the Alliance's Fault" is a defensible position going just from the movie. But maybe this is a necessary feature of the compressed story? (And the Alliance still has a Parliament, so we know it's not a true dictatorship....)

Incidentally, where would you put Caroline/Echo (or Dr. Horrible) in the "bad faith" protagonist argument?

KONG: I hadn't thought about Jackson-as-Carl Denham, for example, and I think that Jackson's Kong as, essentially, an extended video essay on the original, offering different perspectives on what it means, is instructive.

GRIZZLY MAN: Herzog vs. Treadwell is a very interesting lens. One of the film's most memorable moments is where Herzog is shown listening to Treadwell's being killed, and then states that no one should have to listen to this. The mere act of showing us that he listened to it helps show that Herzog is withholding information that he doesn't think would be right to show, which is a statement more clearly about Herzog's ethics and aesthetics than anything about Treadwell; Herzog might just be responding to criticism before it happens ("why didn't you give we bloodthirsty spectators the audio of the death scene?") but it also might be designed to show Herzog's struggle to be respectful of this man whom he's not sure if he does respect.

Chris Stangl said...

Thanks, gentlemen. Among the reasons these take so long to compose is that I've been trying to rewatch or finally catch up with as many potential contenders as possible. This blog was invented in 2005, so I'm beginning to catch up to a lot of films that I've already written about. After writing exhaustive/exhausting pieces on, say, KING KONG and SITH already, I still have a compulsion to plumb for fresh things to say.

Aram— You're so totally not wrong about SITH. And on this list it is really standing in for all of Star Wars I-III. It's such a wrecked movie that I swapped it out for other titles several times (THE NEW WORLD, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK), but in the end had to be honest: I'm going to keep looking at these six screwy movies forever. The discourse around these films and the filmmaker is clogged and fouled by focus on marketplace muscle and the passions of Fans, but the movies underneath all that, and the wayward artist behind the wheel are still compelling to me. The thing is that they're not simply a dogpile of wrong ideas and garish execution, but a miasma of contradictions. Even with all the breath, ink and pixels expended on Star Wars, I still feel like there's stuff to say, that the work's not all done.

All three of Park's Vengeance films are nigh perfect, and they hit me where live, as pulpy, colorful drive-in type pictures that you have to go to the arthouse to see. On first go-round my order of favoritude was 1. MR. VENGEANCE, 2. LADY VENGEANCE, 3. OLDBOY. Having recently revisited all three via the Blu-ray set (no longer a Best Buy exclusive, so heads up!) and... I was right in the first place. MR. VENGEANCE is really the tightest, twistiest and showcases the greatest quantity of bravura performances. Come to think of it, it does have some vague or ill-communicated plot points, but so have all three.

Chris Stangl said...

William — SITH: Yeah, that remark about Jar Jar is a little confusing and I might've done better to use an example specific to SITH. It was just intended as an offhanded example of an element of these films that was, in the understatement of the century, not well received but makes sense in the rhyme scheme. So basically, in larger STAR WARS lore, Chewbacca hangs out with Han Solo because the Wookiee owes a life-debt to the Corellian (I actually forgot that this isn't mentioned in the movies... I suspect that Lucas forgot, too). Immediately upon introduction, Jar Jar is bound to Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon by another life-debt. For most of us, Jar Jar is no Chewie, but his comic relief-cum-noble warrior task in the story is basically the same, and they owe life-debts to humans. That's all.

The Anakin and Padmé relationship remains fascinatingly botched, though the bulk of the problem is of dead-eyed actors enacting Doomed Love Story clichés that are forced haphazardly into the adventure story architecture. Any screenwriting-by-template exercise would indicate LOVE STORY BEAT GOES HERE, and the heroes would fall in "love" because of the constant proximity, and near-death adrenaline rush as they save each other from the A-Story plot perils. That'd be the normal thing, as filed under Han and Leia, Indy and Willie, Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll. But STAR WARS has peculiar tortured problems all its own. The plot thread isn't there because audiences like love stories, but because the plot is predetermined: to set up the whole series, Anakin and Padmé have to make twin babies. So I'm not saying anything new here, but their relationship is written as if it is a cog necessary for the machine to work, not a sweeping romantic tragedy around which the series is built.

The approach is screwed to start with, and the spots Lucas chooses to wedge in the handful of scenes that constitute this galaxy-quaking affair stick out at uncomfortable angles. E.g. — finding no organic way to keep the couple together, the plot forces a newbie with no emotional control and well-known boner for his charge to bodyguard the refugee politician, despite the availability of an entire temple full of able-bodied Jedi. Et cetera. Padmé commits to Anakin AFTER she knows he has fascist leanings and has committed a one-man My Lai massacre. Et cetera. The texture of the whole relationship is creepy, soaked in unacknowledged Mother Issues. And that element I actually like a lot, but it is extremely uncomfortable and I am not sure whether it is by design. Plus that much-mocked dialogue sails well beyond "corny" or "clunky" and becomes straight up gibberish. I mean I like you because you're not like sand, which I hate. Exclamation point, question mark. That's, like, wild, man.

Chris Stangl said...

SIN CITY — I have read several Sin City books, which display Miller's inking at its finest and his writing at it's most fucked in the head. What Rodriguez brings to the party is a sense of silliness, a feeling that the gag here is to push tough-guy toughness to the top of the wall and see if there's a top. Frank Miller seems to think his work is funny and cool in a different way, or for a different reason. He works in absurdity, too, which accounts for his dumb jokes, characters with too-colorful quirks and costumes, and his movie of THE SPIRIT. What I'm never sure Miller realizes – what I feel Rodriguez understands intuitively – is that Frank Miller is funniest when he's trying hardest to be serious. I wouldn't go so far as to say Rodriguez is satirizing Miller's comics, but he brings out the testosterone-and-sugar-rush-flavored comedy.

SERENITY — Never gonna be sure how this film plays out for the FIREFLY virgin. I remember being a little disappointed that the Reavers were explored any further at all, let alone saddled with an origin story tied to the Alliance. As they stood on FIREFLY, the Reavers were a powerful poetic invention, a sort of back-of-your-mind threat that staring into the Void can cause any man to lose himself. Because what is the Serenity crew doing but spending too much time isolated from society, drifting morosely through the frontiers of space? And it's a bit of a necessary bummer that the Alliance has some more standard Bad Guy skeletons in the closet. But like those final acts of DOLLHOUSE, these are sort of necessary concessions, making due with the blocks in place to build to the most important climaxes. The Mutant Enemy philosophy is to write from the emotional core of the story, to focus on character journey, after all.

I mentioned this in some long-ago DOLLHOUSE piece, but the concept of that program is a fine (if complicated) illustration of existential bad faith. What are Dolls, but people who choose to abandon their freedom and become objects and attempt to deceive themselves out of consciousness (unless, I guess, you're Priya and are sold into slavery)? What are Actives, but consciousnesses fully deceived into roles defined entirely by others and existing only as the essence of that role? The Sartrean key turns out to be Echo's example: the Dolls retain a spark of selfhood. True selfhood, moving, changing, not an object in the world, and aware that it is inherently free, even as circumstance has it's body locked in a coffin-bed in an invisible tower.

Anyway, semi-finished as it stands, DOLLHOUSE is the least satisfying of these series, but the most philosophically complex, and Echo — not Caroline, but Echo — is right in line in the Mutant Enemy tradition of heroes who need to learn/earn a new type of freedom and understand the painful gift of personal moral accountability. Whew!

Good thoughts, too, on GRIZZLY MAN. I think all those things are going on in Herzog's encounter with the death tape. Besides a preemptive defense against criticism, the scene adequately squashes any natural curiosity about the tape. Our guide has an agenda and is not necessarily trustworthy, but he is smart and he is not squeamish, and he seems to feel there is nothing to be learned there. That's enough for me. We're curious about death for a good reason, but begging for the tape after that moment just seems morbid.

William B said...


STAR WARS: Ah, yes, points acknowledged. (And your point reminds me of Ebert's putdown of the movie--'There is not a romantic word they exchange that has not long since been reduced to cliche. No, wait: Anakin tells Padme at one point: "I don't like the sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating--not like you. You're soft and smooth." I hadn't heard that before.') Though I confess I'm fond of the mother issues aspect as well, though that plays a lot better from his end of the story than hers. One of my biggest personal beefs with episode III, which is in most respects the best of the prequels, is how Padme's role seems to be reduced, mainly, to being pregnant and dying of, um, a broken heart I guess; maybe the somewhat regressive treatment of its ostensible female lead is a necessary part of the mythos to make Leia's badassery even more heroic.

It is interesting, the notion of reconstructing what a storyteller was going for when the execution is as frequently botched as it is in the prequel films. As you say, Chewie's life debt to Han isn't in the films, but it is in Lucas' head and we, I suppose, have to find a way to live there (frightening!) in order to get the full story. To tie things together, it's rather like making arguments about the whole world of Firefly or Dollhouse, where we just have to speculate about some major aspects of, uh, certain head-of-Rossum-shaped character's motivations might have been (beyond "use Echo, er, Eliza Dushku's body for profit and possibly immortality!" which was the cynical part of the show's premise from day one). (Yeah, I'm not quite over my disappointment with "The Hollow Men," but, hey, the DVDs will be out soon....)

SERENITY: Tying the Reavers into the Alliance made storytellig sense, I suppose, as the story has to involve both extremes of the control/chaos divide Mal straddles. Still, I agree that the original explanation is a little more haunting, and seems more resonant for the main characters in the show; arguing that Mal might go crazy staring into the vacuum really because the Alliance is trying so hard to placate him is perhaps still meaningful but too neat (and fitting in too close to his knee-jerk antiauthoritarianism). I do like the other details the film uses to tie the Alliance and the Reavers together--both massacre a village, Mal can get through to his mission only by pitting them against each other, etc., and another explanation for River's psychosis, tied to some new element of the 'verse, might have pushed the whole thing past critical mass for the crazy-lean intro/season finale/series finale (which, I think, Leonard Maltin criticized Whedon for "stretching out to nearly two hours," but, hey, as you say, Firefly virgins are hard creatures to understand).

GRIZZY MAN: I hadn't thought about the way the scene also satisfies our curiosity and bloodlust, merely by pointing it out. Herzog's pretty savvy for the lunatic he often appears to be, and I mean lunatic of course as a compliment in this case.

William B said...

*I'm sure it's obvious, but my last comment was not meant as a knock against Firefly virgins, though it *may* have been a knock against Leonard Maltin.