Sunday, April 29, 2007

Jeonju 5: 2 Films, and The World According to Tony Rayns

Im Sang Soo's The Old Garden is a love story set against the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising between a socialist on the run and the woman hiding him, his eventual capture and incarceration, and their ultimate separation. It's a simple story, plainly told, but what makes it affecting are the performances and particular details--the context and circumstance of their coming together and forcing apart and the precisely calibrated way their characters respond. The man (Ji Jin-hee) is taciturn when sober, ranting mad when drunk. The girl (Yum Jung-ah) matter-of-factly gives herself to the man, then grows increasingly bitter because he refuses to be content with the relative safety and considerable comfort of her home, looking constantly to Seoul and his friends there as they are hunted down one by one.

Characterization is substantial, and subtler than what you might expect to find in a melodrama (it's based on a novel by prizewinning author Hwang Sok-yong, who spent much of the 80s in exile). Im Sang Sook helps by telling the story at a relatively understated emotional pitch, cutting loose only for the man's capture (an action sequence involving tunnel and motorbike--and steel pipe--all the more wrenching for its slow build up and startling release), and during an insurrection where kids barricaded themselves into a building tossing cocktails down on riot police, and the police fight back with tear gas rockets and meter-long truncheons (at one point Im photographs the police moving around in the gas clouds, their silhouettes suggesting armored creatures from space). A moving (if somewhat conventional) film that, thanks to no small part the performances, rings true.

Lee Kang-hyun's The Description of Bankruptcy is a documentary essay on the credit situation in Korea. It begins with a collage of sounds and images that coalesces into a series of testimonies on how people are persuaded and wooed take on more credit card debt, hounded for payment and sucked dry on mounting interest cost. Lee intercuts this with other footage to create powerful juxtapositions--an East Asia Economic Summit, where rich foreigners sip champagne and laugh, or a concert commemorating the June Resistance, celebrating the victory of democracy and justice when the struggle is yet unfinished.

Afterwards, at a party--well, Tony Rayns can always be depended on to hold forth on a few iconoclastic if not shocking views on the world, politics, and the State of World Cinema at the Moment, and last night was no exception. The following is a collage sample of maybe a fraction of what Tony said last night, and definitely represents his views, not mine--and maybe not completely his, as I was a touch tipsy from Korean wine, not to mention my first cigarette in, god, four, maybe five years...?

He considers France's cinema to be in deep trouble. Fewer people are buying tickets to watch arthouse films, and the reason why Cahiers du Cinema is coming out with an English online version is because fewer and fewer French have been reading it. Yes, France likes to think it's the great center for cinephilia, but that's mainly momentum and tradition.

India, well, he says attempts of India to expand its audience worldwide just aren't working out. Nothing will change in India, because the society doesn't change. There is a flexibility with the middle or upper classes, yes, but the lower classes remain the same, and will remain that way. 'Bollywood' will always have its mass audiences, but it won't grow further, and may shrink some, thanks to television...

Japan--that's been in trouble for decades. I pointed out animation, though, and he had to agree with me there--animation remains strong and is actually penetrating the American market.

Only South Korea has a 70% share of its nation's market; that is unique in the world right now, outside of the USA. Since their democratization in 1993 the country has shown a great hunger for films of all kinds, which is why Pusan when established found its tickets selling out and its theaters showing all kinds of fare--foreign, silent, documentary, what-have-you--packed. Other festivals have sprouted; film magazines too. South Korea, he declared, is the most cinephilic nation in the world, and while the surge was strongest in the '90s, it's reached the point right now where its growth is stable.

More, South Korea's influence is growing--in Japan it used to be fashionable to display all things Korean; entire shops were devoted to Korean actors. Korean films and television were being shown all over Asia (and I confirmed that, yes, Korean TV and actresses were popular in the Philippines). Korea in effect occupies the same position Hong Kong's films used to have--better, since the Koreans are more media savvy, and have more venues (cable, the internet) than Hong Kong had in the '80s. The craze in Japan is over now--a passing fad--but Korea's film industry continues strong.

If you talk to Korean film industry people, they'll tell you that the industry is in trouble, that everything is unstable. But, Rayns pointed out to them, they can't see more than three months ahead, or backwards: two years before people talked of a slump; then a moderately budgeted historical drama came out and broke all records to become the most popular film in Korean history. Then The Host came out, and did better than that. After such a phenomenal surge, it's only natural for the boxoffice to slump.

Korea's films are strong in all respects--commercial features, independents, digital, documentaries, shorts, animation. Before this it was just an outpouring of talent, long held back by the military regime; now it's a reflection of the country itself, which is changing rapidly socially and economically. I asked if it'll continue; he said (and I can't disagree with him) nothing continues forever; this will change. But at the moment, it's sustainable.

Korean has a strong and lively independent film movement; Japan as a lot of indie filmmakers too, but like their Sundance counterparts, there's a parochialism, an inwardness and innocence and ignorance to their filmmaking that makes their product so bad. All they know is how to tell their own lives, indulge their own appetites for sex and violence, use their friends in their films.


China has a strong independent movement--and film industry--but it's being choked by censorship. The independent filmmakers depend on international festivals and sources for funding, and it's not a healthy situation for a filmmaking community. In India only the state of Kerala gives significant support to its filmmakers, so they continue to work (Adoor Gopalakrishna seems to remain active). But Adoor's films aren't being shown anywhere else, even inside of India (you can't get a DVD in New Delhi, for example). His films need film festivals in order to be seen.

Will China emerge as the new Hollywood? Maybe, but first it has to work out its issues with Hollywood, which is furious at the fact that, say, the day a new Spiderman comes out in the US two days later there are pirated copies being sold in China for a dollar. The government keeps a stranglehold on the Chinese market--only 20 films a year, from the entire world--and Hollywood struggles to get as many of its films on those twenty slots. They want that changed. All other films are shown in China in pirated copies. They want that changed too.

Rayns also had this little Oscar anecdote: in 1994 three Asian films were nominated--Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, Anh Hung Tran's The Scent of Green Papaya; the winner was Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque. At his acceptance speech, Trueba said a very odd (and oft-remarked) thing: "I'd like to thank God, but I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank Billy Wilder." All this has been noted and known and written about.

What isn't as well known is that Wilder was a friend of Trueba; more, Wilder had previously called every one he knew in the Academy and actively campaigned for Belle Epoque and against the Asian films. "No, don't vote for Farewell, it's not good, I've seen it and I don't understand it. Vote for Belle, it's much more like my films..." Beyond its other issues, Tony said, China is going to have to deal with racism, too.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Jeonju, day 4: The Go Master (2006); Who's That Knocking at My Door? (2007)

You don't know what you have even when it's in front of you; that's the truism that popped into my mind after reading the amazing critical reception given to Tian Zhuangzhuang's latest film on Go-playing legend Wu Qingyuan, as typified by this short scribble by NYT's AO Scott. How many times have we complained about biopic cliches, especially sports biopics and in particular chess biopics? The hyped-up action sequences; the impossibility of giving the audience any sense of the game's shape and rhythms and strategies; the need for a big finish and win--or at least a Pyrrhic victory that shows the hero's a winner at heart.

And when we finally get a film that avoids all those cliches, finds a subject matter that sidesteps the need for such cliches and develops a whole other approach towards illuminating that subject? We get cliched complaints about 'lack of drama' and "dull 'n stately."

acquarello of
Strictly Film School has it right, I think; it uses techniques similar to Hou Hsiao Hsien's to depict a "humble, yet remarkable life lived in the periphery of turbulent human history"--Bertolucci's anti-drama The Last Emperor, in effect, done on a far smaller scale, and this time done right.

Actually there's no lack of conventional drama unconventionally (and superbly) realized: when Wu steps into a roomful of cheering Japanese, he smiles uncomprehendingly until a board is paraded into the room displaying a map of China, the Japanese flag spread all over its northeast territories like small pox;when his wife informs him that she's leaving the religious sect they are both part of, Zhuangzhuang cuts to a long shot of the bus Wu is riding as it stops and lets Wu out; he starts walking back, hesitates, turns, walks towards the long-departed bus, hesitates, turns, and sinks to the ground in frustration.

Wu's relationship with his Japanese wife Kazuo is a prime example of Zhuangzhuang's obscure style. We never see the two kiss, or caress each other, or flirt or tease or whisper sweet nothings into the other's ear; instead, Zhuangzhuang gives us an episode where the two go buy a sack of potatoes--Wu lifts the sack up, has trouble, uncomplainingly accepts his wife's assistance. Not a word is said, and the two don't even come into direct physical contact (their bodies are more intimately involved with the sack), but a more sharply poignant image of love and shared hardship I have not seen in recent films.

Key to the film's approach is the way Zhuangzhuang shoots the matches: spare, zenlike sketches where every detail (the clack of stone on wood block, a flash of lightning illuminating the board) stands out in stark contrast to the surrounding serenity, then cuts away from the action to focus on his real concerns. The complexity of Go is suggested, never shown; a few brief details (shots of the bewilderingly complex game board; mention of Wu's innovative 'Four Corner Star' strategy, early in the film), but not much beyond that, which actually adds to the fascination: a sense of mystery surrounds the game (the rules are actually simple enough; it's the tactics used that are incredibly complex).

Zhuangzhuang not just shifts focus from the conventional priorities of a sports biopic, but shapes his storytelling to reflect the nature of the game--if in Go the goal is to 'take territory,' usually in the corners, where boundaries help make the conquest easier, then take the sides using the corners for boundary, then the center using sides and corners for boundary. his film follow a similarly elliptical arc. He begins by focusing on disparate physical details (sounds, shapes, textures, even smell (someone at one point farts during a game; the audience titters before turning full attention back on the board) and facial expressions (or relative lack of)), establishes their significance (at one point, a physically incapacitated player insists on getting up because he needs to "watch while my oponent ponders!") before making a stab at attacking the inner essence of a man playing the game.

Chang Chen's performance embodies the essence of Go playing. Outside of competition he's a geek with thick glasses, waddling around in a ducklike gait as he shuffles out of peoples' way. In competition he has the intensity of a world champion, with a laser beam stare and ears that shut out all other distracting sounds and voices. To understand his character you need to understand not the game but the kind of mindset focused on winning the game; any change of circumstance in his life (fallen opponents, unstable religious figures, a world war) he responds to with a blinkered look, incapable of understanding how such a thing--how such a betrayal--can be visited upon him.

Unlike recent examples such as Inarritu's Babel, Yang Heah-hoon's Who's That Knocking On My Door? does the we-are-all-interconnected bit (two couples and a renegade are tied together by a dead body and the internet) with deadpan flair and a genuine sense of perversity. The director creates characters interesting enough to draw you in--a bullied student who locks himself in his bedroom and plots revenge online, a hyperchondriac zookeeper with strong psychotic tendencies--and grounds them in enough realistic, understated detail that you find yourself accepting his rather unique sensibility, a mixture of roughly equal parts Larry Clark, Robert Bloch, Kurosawa Kiyoshi. Objects and motifs fly about--a flute, a dart gun, a cellphone camera, a ball of crumpled paper (the film gives the ball a fetishistic quality that recalls the fluttering plastic bag in American Beauty, only where Mendes' footage was mostly dull, Yang achieves real existential horror)--all overlaid by the tapping of computer keyboards. Online remarks creep across the screen, giving advice, offering condolence, threatening vigilante justice; at one point Yang fashions a terrifying episode involving a stolen light bulb and a gang of angry stall owners that has you by turns rooting for and crying out against the psychotic hyperchondriac.

But it isn't all clever plot twists and shock value; there's a sharp poignancy to the characters' loneliness, and a generosity of spirit to everyone, even the sexually predatory bully, that makes you confident whatever new wrinkle the plot may acquire, the director won't 'cheat'--that is, he won't twist without prior preparation, and said twist won't take the most conventional, least interesting direction.

The film ends as it begins, with a figure balanced precariously on ice. The figure, facing a hole in said ice, walks carefully around the hole, the ice around him creaking and threatening to give way. It's as neat an image as anything one might think of to summarize the director's view of life--as a creaking, threatening brittle medium on which to skate, carefully avoiding the open breaks.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Jeonju Days 2 & 3: Jiri Menzel, and Tony Rayns' naughty bits

Hanok Village

One co-juror turned out to be Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel--Closely Watched Trains (lovely, rueful, funny, tragic comedy), Larks on a String--accompanied by his beautiful wife, Olga. Mr. Menzel was quiet at first, but managed to get him talking by mentioning Karel Capek."My favorite writer," he said; "not just the play, but his novels, short stories, journal pieces."

"My brother helped produce Capek's play in Manila." I explained about my Evil Identical Twin.

"Really? It has not improved with time, I'm afraid. That play does not speak too much to our times anymore."

"But you do like Capek?"

"Oh, I like his plays, but his novels--there is this book,
The War with Salamanders that fits the present day so much better. Humans discover that salamanders are intelligent and can be taught to work. They use them as a source of cheap labor. The salamanders revolt, and eventually take over the world--ironically with help from the humans, who can't resist sellingthem the necessary arms."

"That sounds like China right now."

"In the book, the Chinese are involved in the foolishness."

Later, I asked him: "so where do you keep your Oscar statuette?" He smiled and said: "I know of someone--very nice guy, very talented--who keeps his statue on an altar in his house. Mine is in a cabinet. In the cabinet is some old shoes, a pair of skis, some odds and ends. I keep things I never use in that cabinet."

On movies: "I dislike war movies. I used to like them, but now no more. Even anti-war movies like The Deer Hunter are very violent, but they seem to be glorifying war, not condemning it. Somehow the violence is still made very attractive."

"You know what Truffaut said: that the greatest anti-war films are Chaplin's Shoulder Arms and the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Because they refuse to take war seriously."

"That's right, I agree! Also, my favorite films are old films. The silents, they never age. The silent comedies, especially."

Mr. Min, the festival director, was kind enough to bring us out to lunch at the city's Old Village, a historical distric full of traditional Korean homes, some of which have become restaurants. We sat in a small hut next to the main house, and the waitress brought dish after dish after dish; Mr. Menzel didn't have much of an appetite, but Olga was interested in everything (no idea how she kept her knockout figure). "This is white kimchi," Mr. Min explained; "and this is crab in chilies and sesame seed." "It's raw," I noted. "Excellent! And much easier to eat than cooked; you just put the crab shell in your mouth and suck out the meat." "What is the yellow?" Olga asked; "Crab fat," I said. "The best part. In the Philippines we fry it up with garlic and pour it over steamed rice. Heart attack fare."




Maybe the highlight of the meal for me was a small dish full of what looked like fish bones, with some meat still on them. This dish I could smell being brought in the room; when I picked it up, it had a distinct rotten fish smell, and the translucent meat indicated it was still raw. "What is it?" I asked; Mr. Min informed me that it was fermented fish bones.



I nibbled on the flesh. Like sashimi, only much saltier, much fishier and maybe left several weeks too long out in the open. "Delicious," I told Mr. Min. Meant it, too.

That afternoon instead of resting for the opening ceremonies, I was talking to the staff. "Call me So," one of them said. "Ah, so!" I said; "how do you say 'hello?"

"An-nyeong haseyo."

"And 'thank you?'"

"Gamsa hapnida."

Then I taught So some Tagalog.

"If you say 'maganda ka' the girl will smile. It means 'you're beautiful.'"

"Oh, good, good!" He was furiously scribbling the words down.

"If you say 'napakaganda ka,' the girl will give you a kiss. It means 'you're very beautiful.'"

"Oh, thank you, thank you!"

"If you say "mayaman ako, kakasalin kita,' the girl will go to bed with you."

"Oh?" So's jaw dropped. "But what does it mean that the word is so powerful?"

"'I'm rich, I'll marry you.'"

"Oh, the romantic style! Very good!" When Chloe, another staffer, approached us, So said: "Maganda ka!"

"That won't work; she's not Filipino."

"What is he saying?" Chloe asked. So explained.

"Oh!" Chloe exclaimed, smiling in embarrassment. "There, see?" I said. "Still works. Just don't use the other words on a Filipina or you'll end up spending the rest of your life in Manila raising ten Korean-Filipino brats."

"Of course, of course!"

Opening ceremonies, I put on the only long sleeve shirt I had--black--and a pair of black pants, and black leather shoes sizes too small from years of neglect. Looked in the mirror and told myself with some grim satisfaction, "you look like a flamenco dancer several hundred pounds overweight." Mr. Menzel came out in a jacket--which beat my flamenco outfit right there, while Olga was gorgeous (and I had to tell her so) in some classy elegant outfit.

Bussed to the arts center or wherever it was; was herded down a long red carpet, Oscar Awards style. While we marched, Mr. Menzel took one look at the arts building and said "it looks like a crematorium." I had to bite my hand to keep from dropping to the carpet from laughter. Our escort stoped us. "Please stand here while the photographers take your picture. Flashes hissed and blazed; I said "now I know what a firing squad feels like."

It wasn't over; at one point during the show (which featured American Idol type ballads, rap dancers, and some kind of avant garde piece using traditional Korean instruments that wasn't at all bad), we were escorted to the stage to say a few words.

When it was my turn, I stepped up to the mike. "An-nyeong haseyo," I said. The crowd roared. "It took the JIFF staff the whole afternoon to teach me that phrase. Anyway, gamsa hapnida for inviting me here. I was asked to judge independent films, and I hope to see many interesting and exciting such films.

"We have a word in Filipino, mabuhay, which means 'long live.' Mabuhay to independent filmmaking and mabuhay the Jeonju International Film Festival."

You should have heard the crowd. For a moment I thought I could run for office in this country.

The opening film, Han Seung-ryong's Off Road, might best be described as Tarantinoesque in structure and sensibility (fractured storytelling; an example of the road genre, complete with appropriate references to other road films; some clever twists). What raises it beyond Tarantino is the director's strong sense of sympathy for his characters, and the sadness that hovers over the whole film.

After the screening and at the reception, a very tall, imposing man strode towards me. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "I always go to Jeonju," Tony Rayns said. "Only this may be the last time."

At which point Rayns and I are kidnapped by a bunch of Korean film industry bigwigs and whisked back into the Old Village, where they settle in what can only be some kind of high-class drinking joint, serving expensive shoju and bar chow.


One of the dishes looked like raw mussels. The man beside me said "I don't think you should eat that."

Tony said "oh let him; he's Filipino."

I tried it. It was incredibly bitter. The sweet sauce it came with helped it go down. "It's strong. What is it?"

"Mussels, aged until they've rotted. Told you he'd be fine," Tony said.


"In our country," I replied "we have many kinds of movies but no monster movies."

"That's nonsense! You have plenty--"

"Plenty in human form. We don't have many creature monsters--giant ant, giant crab, plague of cats or dogs or rats. Partly it's budget, but partly also it's because we'd never be frightened. Giant crab or ant, or rat? Instead of being frightened, we'd be hungry. That monster would be bar chow before dinnertime."

Tony thought it over. "You know, you may have a point."

I looked at the extravagant spread. "I hope this isn't Dutch treat," I said.

"No, they'll take care of you. See that man? That's Mr. Soon. He wants to be the next president of South Korea."

"Is the movie industry that powerful that presidential candidates have to fete them?"

"Of course."

I asked about United States pressures to
increase the quota for Hollywood films. "Yes, it happened, but unfortunately for Hollywood the liberalization didn't matter. Koreans still prefer Korean over Holywood films. The market share for local films is 70%.

"Curious I walked into you. Philippine cinema has been on my mind lately. Been transferring some old Filipino films from VHS to DVD. Thinking of Lino Brocka, and Ishmael Bernal a lot." He added with a twinkle in his eye "saw Bernal naked, you know."

"Now you have to tell me that story."

"Oh, it wasn't much. We went to a bath house in Japan. The manager presented him with a young man. Ishmael said 'but he looks like a fucking horse' and refused to have anything to do with him. What he probably wanted was a Filipino, which wasn't available there, of course."

"I know I'll hate myself for asking this, but...was he well endowed?"

"He was average. I remember when we had dinner with Christine Hakim, who was seated beside him, and poor Christine, who had not the slightest clue who she was dealing with, asked: "Are you married?" Without blinking an eye Bernal replied "yes, but my husband couldn't come."

You don't want to know what he had to say about Park Chan Wook, most of which I happen to agree with, but would never have that much guts to say out loud.

The next day, saw Im Kwon Taek's Beyond the Years, his 100th film. Tony was there ("a huge flop, a catastrophe!"). The film told the story of a father, son, daughter troupe that traveled bars and inns, singing for their living. The son (a drummer) falls in love with his beautiful singing sister (adopted, or so they say); the father has designs for keeping his daughter with him always. By turns moving, compelling, immeasurably sad, it asks what price an artist must pay for the purity of her art, and where does love and family and happiness fit into all of this (trailing behind the artist, usually, as he or she leads a nomadic life)?

I've always thought Im an old-fashioned filmmaker with strong interests in traditional Korean culture. He does experiment with structure (we see the brother, a middle aged man, talking to an old acquaintance, and his story fitting slowly in piece by piece), but its a measured experimentation. One shot was particularly expressive--a scene of brother and sister sitting in the grass, the sister singing. The camera slowly revolves around them, keeping the couple on the lower right corner of the screen; it's as if they were on some giant diorama, the landscape turning, while they acted as pivot to the great wheel--as if the world may change and move around them, but their love for each other is a fixed constant.

I asked Tony what he thought afterwards. "It's a remake of an earlier film, but I thought it was very fine."


"Why did it flop, then?"

"Because Korean audiences don't want the past, they want the future. Because the film doesn't speak to their concerns now."

That night I met Gulnara Abikayeva, a critic from Kazakhstan (!). I know, but apparently they do have a film industry there, fifty filmmakers using government funding to make ten films a year, mostly on historical subjects ("we'd like more modern works, too, she said." Then she asked "are you the film critic? Noel Vera?"

"Yep. Why?"

"Critic After Dark?"

"Yes?"

"I have a copy of your book."

"You do?"

"I never expected to have the book, then meet the writer."

"I never expected to meet anyone who had my book."

So I'm being read in Kazakhstan--who knew?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jeonju, and a trio of Korean films

Jeonju bibimbap


Fourteen hours in a jet--even a jumbo--is no joke. Thankfully the video screens have a wider range of entertainment--not just your usual multiplex fare (The Pursuit of Happyness, Charlotte's Web) but a few classics (Casablanca, Stagecoach). Intelligent and time-conscious man that I am, I instead spent the hours practicing and cheating my way through electronic mini-golf (I'm a world champion now, and able to break into the game's secret tenth level).

Oh, and there were pop Korean films--hits, I presume. Something called Hearty Paws (I can't find it on imdb) is as if Koreda's Nobody Knows had humped Benjie and produced puppies (orphaned kids and a dog! Who can resist?). It has nothing of Kore-eda's understated mis-en-scene or dispassionate eye, though the child actors were good though (there's a fine scene in a police station where the little girl asks the boy "can you remember my name?" hoping someday they might meet again), and it's interesting to see that Korean films are not averse to showing children or dogs in deadly peril (a chld outrunning a dog, however, is beyond the pale).

Kim Yong-hwa's 200 pounds beauty (they really need to get better translators) has a brilliant premise--an overweight singer named Hanna (Kim Ah-jung, in a not very convincing fat suit) who dubs a famous pop star also doubles as a phone sex worker; when she recognizes the voice of a plastic surgeon as one of her clients, she blackmails him into producing his masterpiece--a slimmer version of herself, so 'natural' (the word is loaded with meaning in this film) a beauty no one can tell she's phony (another loaded word).

Too bad the movie fails to follow up on the ingenious setup--Hanna stays mostly sweet and uninteresting; she fails to identify herself to her father, and she disappoints her best friend on occasion, but those are sins of omission, of cowardice, than anything more active or malevolent. The film seems more interested in pleading for plastic surgery to make deformed or overweight people feel better about themselves--noble enough topic, I suppose, but that's about it--than in being a real meditation on the evils of skin deep beauty.

That said, Kim Ah-jung without the fat suit is stunning. Korean women are beautiful, but she has some kind of lost-waif quality that is electrifying on the screen (even the tiny one I was using). There's something dramatic, even tragic about her expression that makes you feel protective; one of the few actresses I know who can inspire this kind of reaction was the young Sandy Dennis.

Easily the best of the lot was Kim Sang Woo's Seducing Mr. Perfect, a romantic comedy about an assistant who falls in love with her superhandsome boss that for once is funny and sexy. What is it Hollywood's missing that other countries--and this is a prime example--seem to have in spades? It could be that I'm not overfamiliar with these faces, that they're fresh as strawberries to my rom-com strained eyes, that the actors have genuine chemistry together, that the writer and director cook up reasonably clever gags for them to try out on each other. Working Girls is the obvious model (though the only time Griffith really turned me on was way back in Night Moves), but I enjoyed this more. It seems lighter on its feet, less inhibited, more willing to take risks and look silly. Daniel Henney is the heartthrob, and he looks suitably stiff and solemn (he spends a lot of the movie without his shirt on, which irks me no end--what is it with these hairless men who look like flatchested girls that women demand them in movies?); at his best, he's practically a Mr. Darcy (Austen being the true ancestor of this oldest of genres). As June, Eom Jong-hwa reminds me of the best qualities of Vilma Santos, or Santos if she wasn't so damned afraid to take risks--a pretty girl who retains your sympathies no matter how many pratfalls she has or schemes she hatches.

Maybe one more thing these filmmakers have over their doddering Hollywood counterparts is a budget small enough that they need to be more inventive. June at one point has a nightmare where all the men in her life tell her just what's wrong with her; later, when she asks her boss to help her win her boyfriend back, we see him hovering over their dates, and inventive staging and camerawork and editing make it clear that he's a figment of her imagination. Surprisingly sophisticated stuff, considering that this is just another rom-com.

Arrived at Seoul at 4 pm. Took a four-hour bus. Arrived at Jeonju's Core Hotel at ten pm. Not a lot of places open for dinner, but I found an alleyway with a street stall that fried up peppers, potatoes, chicken parts, and squid tentacles; bought a thousand wons' (less than a dollar) worth. Crisp and hot, and good.

Walked into a hole in the wall, the best kind, where the counters are stainless steel cafeteria style, the tables and chairs simple wood furniture and the people totally incapable of speaking a word of English. I knew only one word--bibimbap. A big bowl of hot steamed rice with sliced up carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, mushrooms, bellflower root, spinach, soybean sprouts, bracken fern roots (I'm guessing they're the dark brown shoots I found in the bowl), all seasoned with a bright red hot chili paste, topped with crisp fresh lettuce and a sunny-yolked fried egg.

There's beef in there somewhere, I can taste it, but it's not a major component; I'm guessing this was poor man's fare, rice and a little beef and whatever a farmer could pull out of the ground and slice up to add to the meal. Following the big dish was a constellation of little dishes, including the ubiquitous kimchi, pickled cabbage, hot broth with scallions, and bright yellow pickled radishes that were blessedly sweet and cool.

I've tried this dish in Korean restaurants in Manila and even the US (and lemme tell you, the Manila restaurants were better), but it turns out I haven't really tried it, not this way, and Jeonju is famous for this. Not a lot of meat, but huge, huge flavor, and filling, all for three thousand wons--less than three dollars.

Took a spoon with a looong handle out of a box and started mxing it, as I've seen Koreans do. Apparently I was doing it wrong, or too slowly: the girl took my spoon away and did it for me, scooping the contents of the bowl and mashing it down in circular motions with the spoon's bowl. I asked for tea; the girl pointed to a hot water thermos. I asked for a tea bag; she pointed to a jar full of brown powder. When I spooned it into my cup, it turned out to be coffee. Oh, well.

Walked out very happy; just before I left, two police officers came in and sat down and had what I had. Well, if Jeonju's Finest isn't a good enough recommendation of the place, I don't know what is. Thank god they didn't arrest me for being a terrorist.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965)


This post is part of the Shakespeare blogathon

(Note: plot discussed in close detail)

What to say about this film? I first saw it on a pirated VHS tape I'd rented in New York back in 1991 (the tape startled me; I had no idea pirated tapes still existed in the USA), and despite the video snow, unstable vertical, wretched sound (not that the actual soundtrack was a model of clarity), thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Haunted Theater 80 at St. Marks for the longest time, because I'd been told they have screened it before and might again, but it never showed up. Finally had a chance to see it on the big screen in Detroit, of all places, at an arthouse theater that served coffee and sandwiches on tables while you watched the screen. There were two screenings, and I went to both; had no reason to change my opinion.

Welles based his script on four plays: Henry IV Parts 1 & 2; Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. I'd seen a published version with annotations noting which line had been taken from which play, and a look at the heavily marked pages was revealing--a patchwork of words ranging from all four sources, mostly Henry IV parts 1 & 2, some early scenes from Henry V, and (far as I can tell) only a few lines from Merry Wives, all held together by excerpts from Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, narrated by Ralph Richardson. Scenes are not only shortened, but transferred earlier or later in the story, changing the flow or feel of the narrative; sometimes two entirely unrelated lines of dialogue from two, even three different plays are married to create an entirely new meaning. Many cite Welles' directing and performance in the film, but I can't recall anyone commending his writing. It's quite an achievement, though: roughly sixteen hours of Shakespeare, boiled down into a hundred and nineteen apparently seamless minutes (took him long enough to do; arguably, he's been working on this since his overambitious theater project Five Kings, in 1939). Not just condensed but radically reinterpreted--Shakespeare as raw material for fashioning what essentially is a new story.

The main dramatic thrust of Shakespeare's Henry IV is commonly seen to be the struggle between King Henry Bolingbroke (John Gielgud) and Sir John Falstaff (Welles) for the soul and affections of young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter); the struggle is still there in Chimes, but with judicious use of Holinshed and of style, atmosphere, acting and imagery, Welles alters the landscape on which the conflict takes place.

Near the film's opening the narrator (Richardson) identifies Henry as a usurper, having seized the throne from his predecessor, Richard II. In the play, when Henry is informed that Edmund of Mortimer had been kidnapped and held hostage by the Welshman Glendower and Henry complains of having to pay ransom and delay his crusade into the Holy Lands you think: that makes sense--why pay for someone who led a failed military campaign, messed up your timetable and is, in Henry's words, "foolish" and perhaps even "revolted" (with, no doubt, all the meanings that word evokes)? With the brief excerpt from Holinshed, however, Welles puts Henry's stubbornness in an entirely different light: suddenly Henry's indignation acquires a strong note of self-interest, Edmund being the rightful heir of Richard, and his argument for not lifting a finger to help Edmund--partial basis for his differences with Mortimer's brother-in-law Henry Percy, or Hotspur (Norman Rodway)--sounds more like a stubborn man's insistence at his version of matters over anyone else's (Henry's guilt over usurping Richard prods him into mistreating and arguing with the Percy family). Mind you, Shakespeare's play does mention all this (Richard's usurpation, Henry's true motive for abandoning Mortimer), but added later, through the words of Hotspur as prodded on by Worcester (hardly, as is pointed out by Henry, a disinterested observer). Shakespeare presents Henry's official story, then complicates matters by introducing other points of view; Welles introduces doubt right off, and has us listen to Henry's words with a mistrustful ear.

Welles elaborates with a few other touches. The credit sequence shows horsemen riding through some landscapes; a soldier walks past scaffolding, the purpose of which is unknown (a hard wind blows his helmet off--prophetic, considering what eventually follows). The credits' final shot gives us the meaning of the scaffolding head-on: soldiers stare straight at the camera, swords swinging in curious slow motion while behind, hanged men twist in the wind. I've always wondered at that bit of slow motion--a way to stretch the footage, so we can read Welles' name better? Or a little touch meant to cause the image (the swing of the corpses echoing the swing of the soldier's blade) to linger in the memory, the way it has lingered in mine for years? In one shot Welles summarizes Henry's England--a police state filled with unrest, barely held together by a policy of terrorism, summary executions, and military campaigns in foreign lands.

A look at Henry's court is equally instructive--his castle has cathedral-high ceilings illuminated by shafts of light (you feel like kneeling upon entry). When people talk there's an echo (like a cavern--or better yet, a tomb); vapor from their mouths suggest a wintry chill (to match the owner's temperament?). Henry's courtiers keep some ten or so feet away from him, as if Henry were afraid of assassination, or, conversely, the courtiers were afraid Henry might have them killed. Only Henry Percy--hot spur indeed--dares to raise his voice to the king.

As played by Gielgud, you can't ask for a more astringent villain. Yes, villain--Shakespeare is too much of an artist not to create a rounded view of characters in his plays, but Welles chooses to underline certain aspects of the king over others, to a more pointed dramatic effect. "My blood is too cold and temperate," Henry complains--this Henry speaks constantly of wars, of punishing enemies and putting down rebellions, but does so in such a passionless manner you wonder why he even bothers to fight--not for his useless son, certainly (it's clear why Hotspur talks battle, by way of contrast--he enjoys the excuse to expend his boundless energy). When not wearing his crown he wears a monkish skullcap--this Henry, you imagine, pores over passages from the bible before going to sleep; in war he wears gleaming black armor but is never seen wearing his helmet--he may lead his men, but apparently doesn't indulge in actual battle. Welles can't help having Henry parodied at least three times--first by Hotspur, fuming over Henry's decision not to help Mortimer; second by Falstaff, playacting with Prince Hal; third by Prince Hal, reversing roles with Falstaff (Hal's impersonation is best, I think, though Hotspur's is the most startling). Perhaps the most vivid impression I have of the king is his utter loneliness--Welles isolates him on his throne, standing on a high stepped platform, often as not shooting him from a distance; if Henry at all derives any comfort or pleasure from his position of power, we don't see it.

Falstaff, on the other hand, is all about pleasure. As played by Welles he's often shot from a low angle, to emphasize his rotundity. His realm (the inn in which he resides) is visually and dramatically opposed against Henry's forbidding castle--homely wood against hard stone; low-beamed ceilings against high vaulted ones; blanketed hay beds against what (in Henry's room) looked like a sepulcher with sheets (the pillow on which Henry's crown rests is, far as I can see, the only concession to comfort in the place). More, Falstaff is in constant physical contact with his "courtiers"--where Westmoreland and Worcester approach Henry by at most a few steps (even Harry Percy can only appear to charge at him), Falstaff is constantly being pummeled, pushed, bussed, hugged, even lifted bodily up a table by a gaggle of kids while playing king (the table is a nice touch--Falstaff's parody of Henry's raised platform). Unlike Henry, loneliness and loss are not something Falstaff seeks out (they come upon him involuntarily); he does his level best to live life as fully as he can, inviting everyone and anyone to join him.

Shakespeare darkened Falstaff's character considerably--the man is in a struggle with Henry for the soul of the prince, after all, and the prince must be seen to have made the right choice; Welles includes elements of that darker side, but the emphasis again has been changed--the Gadshill robbery, for example, where Falstaff takes money from some travelers is treated as a romp, Falstaff repulsed (by Prince Hal in disguise), the money returned (over the robbery we hear the main theme music, plus another melody, softly played, that will be repeated later on). Falstaff's role in accepting bribes from men who don't wish to be drafted into Henry's army is a far more serious matter, but should be seen in the context of what follows.

What follows is Shrewsbury, where Henry and Hotspur's quarrels come to a head, and Welles stages the only battle sequence of his career, and arguably the greatest ever filmed.

Half the battle is in the preparation, they say, and it's no less true here: armored knights are lowered down from tree branches onto their horses; racked spears point directly at the screen, as if ready to fire upon the audience. We have preparatory slapstick from Falstaff--the knight, clad in what looks like a potbelly stove and wearing on his head what resembles a thundermug is raised by a team of men; his gravitas is too much for them, they let go of the rope, he crashes to the ground. The unmounted knight contents himself with waving his sword in the direction of the enemy, urging the men forward.

The battle itself gives the impression of chaos, but a chaos with an underlying progression--cavalry charges to the right and left indicate attacks by Henry and Hotspur's men; when the soldiers meet, the distinction between the two sides is quickly lost. Armored men on horses swing swords at fellow armored men; a knight with lance charges at a man with spear, and when the lance hits Welles cuts to a gorgeous long shot of the spear flying through the air. The action degenerates into a slaughter--unarmored infantry pull knights off their horses and bludgeon them; soldiers with swords wander about, stabbing the wounded. The men ultimately end up tumbling over each other into the mud, struggling in slow motion; at one point we see a pair of legs atop another pair, both sunk in mire, parodying the sex act. Throughout all this Falstaff runs comically, ineffectually, from one side of the screen to the other; if he shows any real allegiance, it's to the surrounding shrubbery, which offers him protection.

Welles' sound--remember he started in radio, and has been a great innovator of film sound--is at least as important as his visual effects and editing. The thunder of hooves gives way to the clash and clang of sword on armor (the sound of shrieking metal suggesting more weapons than is actually on display onscreen), transforms into the brutal thud of club on flesh, mutates into the repulsive sound of squelching mud. This, in effect, is war: a devolution of trained and coordinated soldiers into mindless crustaceans, all spiky armor and wavering antennae, groping in the primordial muck. At a certain point we recognize the music full of mournful voices: the same tune that had played at the Gadshill robbery. It's as if Welles were inviting us to compare the activities of Henry and Falstaff--whose is the more honorable? Whose, on the other hand, results in more deaths? Up to this point we see Falstaff's antics--his refusal to take part in the battle and his earlier impromptu catechism on 'honor'--as a sort of comic counterpoint to all the violence. "What is that honour?" he asks; "air. A trim reckoning…therefore I'll none of it." His cowardice comes to seem less like mere cowardice and more a lonely beacon of sanity shining in all the madness.

Falstaff's taking credit for Hotspur's death from Prince Hal is crucial to the story, of course--we need an ostensible reason for Hal to turn on his friend (though the prince has already been preparing us in a series of asides, telling us he's only pretending to cavort with Falstaff). A despicable thing to do, except that in Falstaff's eyes honor is important only for what it can give him--a promotion, perhaps--and not valuable enough to risk life and limb to acquire (as many of the dead in the battlefield behind him have done). Stealing credit is no big deal for Falstaff; no more so than robbing roadside travellers, or taking bribes from draft dodgers (ordinary folk with no more stomach for violence than Falstaff does).

The earlier scene where Falstaff plays the prince and the prince his father seems to lie at heart of what Welles is saying (or rather, part of it--more on this later). At a certain point the play stops being play; Falstaff, confronted by a pretend king who one day will be crowned, accused of iniquities and threatened with banishment, suddenly finds himself begging for clemency: "banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company." His final plea is haunting in its pathos (all the more for the way Welles tumbles the words out--like throwaway lines that in truth contain the very meat of the speech): "banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." Falstaff is the world, not just in size but also flaws, heart, appetite for life; that his equating himself with all of humanity, after all we have come to know of him, does not seem altogether inappropriate is a measure of Shakespeare and Welles' (both actor and director) achievement.

Contrast this to the film's climax--Prince Hal's coronation as Henry V, with Falstaff presenting himself loudly and openly to the new king. In the earlier scene Shakespeare's Falstaff makes an eloquent case for his nobility and against his banishment, to which Baxter's Prince Hal has a short but serious answer ("I do, I will."); this time it's Falstaff's plea that is short and Hal--now King Henry--who delivers the sermon. If Welles has a rebuke to this scene and to Shakespeare's beautiful eloquence, it is with the expression on his actors' faces. Baxter's king chides Falstaff in slow, measured words--much in the same manner as the older Henry, only this time Hal is not doing a parody. But Hal's voice trembles at certain lines, and his eyes are wide and staring; he seems fully aware of the horror of what he's doing, honoring his blood father while deliberately condemning his spiritual father to exile. As Welles plays him Falstaff has an even more poignant response: he kneels wordlessly, looking up at what in effect is his son with undisguised pride. Baxter in a recent interview describes the "tremendous bond and affection" he had with Welles; I think that bond, the severing of it (in terms of the story and in real life (it was towards the end of the shoot)) and Welles' acceptance and forgiveness of that, shows through.

Henry IV in dying had earlier bequeathed to Hal not just his crown, but advice: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Hal takes the advice to heart, and in a later scene (which Welles takes from Henry V) initiates an adventure in France that, following Welles' viewpoint, will inflict great suffering--on the French this time (shades of Bush blowing off steam at Iraq). Falstaff leaves his own legacy--in the same scene Hal pardons Falstaff (again, Welles borrowing lines meant for another offender in the same play), suggesting the youth has learned from both fathers, and will perhaps do better with his reign (perhaps not--the final image is of Falstaff's enormous coffin being carted away, human carnality disposed of as inconvenient garbage). Chimes is for my money Welles' masterpiece, the finest film ever made from Shakespeare, and one of the greatest films ever made. 


4.23.07

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Reaping (Stephen Hopkins, 2007)

The Reaping (Stephen Hopkins, 2007)

Excerpt:

Stephen Hopkins' brand new horror flick has a simple enough premise: the ten plagues visited upon Egypt are being inflicted on the small town of Haven, Louisiana, possibly because of the influence of a devilish young girl named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb); former missionary turned miracle debunker Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank, doing some serious slumming) arrives skeptical in the little town, ready to find a scientific explanation for all this.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike this movie, but perhaps the strongest is the cheap way the picture tries to cash in on the recent trend in faith-based filmmaking--"Oh, look at how much boxoffice apocalyptic pictures and most of all "The Passion of the Christ" are making! And look how much more we can make if we have an Oscar-winning actress in the lead, and a pretty young girl as the source of evil ("Rosemary's Baby," "The Omen," "Village of the Damned," "The Bad Seed," etc.). Throw in the ten plagues digitally re-enacted (See frogs drop out of the sky! See rivers turned into blood!), and we're talking big money!"

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Inland Empire (David Lynch,2006)

Maybe the most surprising thing about Inland Empire wasn't that it was complex (intercutting, repeating, transmuting plotlines, images, characters), ambitious (at almost three hours one of the longest works the director has ever attempted (outside of his massive adaptation of Dune)) or incomprehensible (Lynch?), but that it was actually satisfying--and all the more memorable for being so, despite (or even because of) the former three qualities.

The film follows Laura Dern as she plays three or perhaps four different characters, belonging to at least three different social classes (spoiled rich actress; tough but bruised housewife; unfaithful middle-class wife) and milieus (Hollywood, Poland, and what I can only call Lynchland). It's difficult to describe what she does as a performance--Dern herself admits she didn't know what the hell is going on, and the characters change, bleed into, and at times comment or observe one another, so you're not presented with any recognizable development arc--but Dern is perhaps used like one of Bresson's models, a thinking, feeling palimpsest on which Lynch can record the infinitely varied reactions she has to his nightmare imagery. Lynch's fine arts background, comes into play here, I think; he lights and films Dern's face like a piece of sculpture that mutates over time, from glamorous film star to ravaged slattern; of all his effects, her huge close-ups as she registers wonder, terror, anger, despair are easily the most haunting.

Lynch's use of a video camera in Inland Empire has been noted many times elsewhere--he found the Sony DSR PD-150, an old digital video camera (a fumbling attempt at a Google search reveals mention of the camera as far back as 2004, and no new cameras of the same model available for sale), and loved the pixilated images for their "beauty"--words in quotes because instead of vivid colors and movie-theater clarity (as you might find in Michael Mann's high-definition DV efforts) you have its opposite: a grainy, desaturated stylization that renders the footage both distanced (seen through the lens of obsolete video equipment) and immediate (it looks as if it had been caught on the fly a minute ago, by someone standing right next to you). Lynch may be onto something--he recognizes that video is the future, the eye through which we observe reality most often, either through TV, the internet, or our own handheld equipment. It could very well be the eye of choice through which we record memories, people, events--whatever and whomever we consider important enough or interesting enough to point our lens and press the record button.

Interesting, though, that if the visuals are intentionally crude, the sound (except when music or noises are heard through an old phonograph, or speakers, or a radio) is almost always crystal clear. Lynch's visual effects are remarkable, but I submit that his sounds are easily the most powerful--when his camera moves down yet another darkened corridor, with some indescribable throb heard over the theater speakers (one thinks of boilers at the point of overheating, or a great creature's heart racing, or even the dull roar of hellfire, burning away a few concrete floors below), one knows a thrill of fear no recent horror filmmaker (Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Victor Salva, eat your collectively uninspired hearts out) can match. Lynch knows the power of sound, knows how it skewers the subconscious and provokes emotions at a deep level; Inland Empire is a hundred and seventy-two minutes of Lynch playing your inner canal like a fine instrument.

I saw the film with fellow blogger Andy Horbal (apparently he's closing down this blog and planning a new one ), who also found the film fascinating (Along with the film and filmmaking techniques, Lynch's method of distribution is unusual--three prints making their slow way through America's major cities. I had to drive some three hours to Pittsburgh to catch this particular screening). Andy mentions an upcoming film program that pairs Lynch with Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, and while he admits that this film may be Lynch's most openly surreal to date, he finds the combination puzzling--Surrealist art (of which Bunuel was participant and practitioner) is basically the expression of thought unmediated by reason, morality, or aesthetics--the evocation of the dream state, in short. Lynch's films, on the other hand, may be strange and on occasion shocking, but they basically portray the real world as Lynch sees it.

Which is an interesting idea--there's always been a solidity and texture to even Lynch's most fantastic sequences, and the sounds you hear (a more important component, I submit, than what you actually see), often have the echoing quality of massive objects trapped in underground rooms. I don't know how far we can go with this train of thought--is Inland Empire a direct apprehension of reality--of his reality--only with fewer attempts to present the material in some more easily comprehensible form? For that matter, has Lynch's entire career been an attempt to present his view of the world, only more and more on his terms than ours?

Certainly everything in Blue Velvet can be considered real, from the severed ear in the grass to the insects battling beneath it to the commonplace objects (flowers against a white fence; mothers talking in a yard) given hues of the most fantastic intensity--yet it's possible to imagine that to Lynch all is real, all is of equal importance and value to him: ear, insects, flowers, fence, mothers, and all. The visions and some of the more baroque touches in Twin Peaks are real--at least to FBI agent Dale Cooper, Lynch's surrogate, who accepts any and all explanation, no matter how fantastic, because he knows better (that's perhaps the crucial difference between Lynch's hero and, say, a UFO fanatic or a man seriously in need of Thorazine. He (and the man who created him) seems less like someone who accepts just any bull handed to him and more like someone capable of believing otherwise unbelievable nuggets of information, because he can fit that fantastic fact into his system of knowledge and experience, and make it work). The Good Fairy touching down at the end of Wild at Heart? Fred turning to Pete in a jail cell in Lost Highway? Betty vanishing and turning into Diane in Mulholland Drive? Well, the latter is problematical--the most popular interpretation is that Betty is Diane's dream of herself as a promising young actress--but that's the popular interpretation; Lynch provides ten enigmatic clues as to what's really happening, and leaves it at that (possibly he--like Chandler, famously clueless as to the plot of The Big Sleep--isn't quite sure, either).

Parts of Inland Empire threaten to make sense--the snatches of aimless conversation we hear from the prostitutes in their hotel rooms, for example (they seem to function much as a Greek chorus does, providing meta-commentary that may or may not have any relevance on the action) could perhaps be understood if we had been able to listen in ten seconds later or earlier or if we had been able to catch one line of dialogue more than we have been allowed; ditto for the three rabbits who walk about in a room shot unsettlingly as if it were the interior of a doll house (reportedly the animals--think of Art Spiegelman's mice talking not of the Holocaust, but of more cryptic matters--are taken from a series of video shorts Lynch created named "Rabbits"). Can one travel a day into the future, observe oneself reading for a film? Perhaps, if you believe in time travel, or in space folding on itself. Can you believe in a roomful of animals speaking in cryptic lines that seem unaccountably funny to some unseen audience? I don't know about funny--like the prostitutes' talk, a joke can be rendered enigmatic with the removal of a single word--but rabbits dressed and talking aren't necessarily dream images (is a comic book a dream image, or reality on the comic book artist's terms?).

Perhaps much of the film's subterranean pull may be due to the hope (however irrational) Lynch awakens and sustains for almost three hours, that the next sound or image or spoken word might actually fall into the realm of comprehensible thought, or hold some key that will unlock the whole mysterious construct. You get this persistent--almost irritatingly so--feeling that somehow, in some way, Lynch's film does make sense, if you can only look at it a certain angle, or listen or think about it in a certain way; it feels more like an accident of circumstance, if not an actual failure of your senses or cognitive faculties, that you don't understand the film.

Be it as it may, I can only come back to the feeling I had walking out: that I had witnessed a narrative, however obtuse, that I had been moved and transported; that I had been shown something--just what, we're not sure. Naysayers throw up their hands and say Lynch has gypped us again; I can't hold the sentiment against them, what with so little available beyond my intuition telling me they're wrong. It's that very intuition, though, that keeps me from throwing up my hands myself; I can't help but wonder if perhaps that's what Lynch wants to impart to us as we leave the theater.

This is but a cursory venture into the realm of Inland Empire--not even a venture, really, but a toe dipped into water, to test the temperature (I doubt if anyone else has gone much further, though). We--I--will need to see this again, either to attempt a more thorough exploration, or to confirm our original suspicions--that it isn't Lynch that's crazy but the world, and that Lynch is just projecting that craziness onto the big screen.

The Best of Everything (Jean Negulesco, 1959)

Saw Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything (1959) mainly because I was browbeated into seeing it--a discussion on a_film_by declared how great it was, how it was available on DVD, and how we younger uns should go rent it.

And it's pretty good--the genre of working girls struggling and surviving in the big city, the women mostly flawed but heroic, the men mostly heels. The commentary--by Rona Jaffe whose novel the film is based on and Sylvia Stoddard--had its moments thanks mainly to Jaffe, who can remember how it was like to actually work in those offices.

It's interesting that Jaffe chafed under the changes made to her book--a subplot where Diane Baker becomes pregnant is watered down (to solve her problems she jumps out of a car, which is supposed to be better because the consequences are accidental); Stephen Boyd, who plays Hope Lange's love interest, loses much of the alcoholism he was saddled with in the novel and now mostly spends his time stepping into Lange's office to lecture her about the unmixable nature of love and career, and how she has to make a choice. Very Hollywood, Jaffe notes. Stoddard seems more into providing us with every actor and filmmakers' biography, and pointing out every car, costume and color detail onscreen (I'm not sure she thinks there's anything worth noting about Negulesco's directing style).


That said, the changes weren't all bad. Robert Evans (yes, THAT Evans) as Baker's snake of a rich boyfriend seems all the more despicable for taking her out to be married, then revealing that they're really going to a doctor for an 'operation'--his buying her a wedding bouquet is a nicely vicious touch. Boyd is dull when he's not tipsy (his best scene is when he's riffing on other men with an equally drunk Lange), but as Lange's tiresome 'voice of conscience" you actually feel ambivalent that they end up together, despite the romantic theme song that plays over their walk away from the camera. And I presume Joan Crawford's peformance as Amanda Farrow only improves on the book--there she's supposedly a one-note villain, while here we see a vulnerability that presumably was Crawford's contribution to the film (she took the role--her first supporting role in a long time--because she reportedly needed the cash).


Negulesco's use of color in the film is striking--color dictates the office worker's status (the higher up the ladder, the more muted the color of door or dress), everyone has noted the Mondrian set design (Negulesco was a painter, and may also have done some of the sets' paintings). Cinemascope I imagined would be problematical--New York is all about dizzying heights, not wide expaneses--but Negulesco counters this by panning down the buildings, emphasizing the way they tower over the antlike workers below; in office interiors he uses the wide screen like a theater set, staging crucial action in long takes where actors cross each other a number of times (I'm thinking of the tipsy Lange and Boyd) and keeping them mostly in medium shot so that they seem to look at each other from arm's length, puzzling over how to close the distance and make contact (this impression is especially strong when it's a woman confronting a man about his lack of commitment). The spaces also point up the relative wealth of corporate officers with their roomy offices and apartments--especially in Manhattan, where the square foot of flooring is at a premium.

I can't be sure about this, but I would imagine Best has influenced many a modern-day office comedy--from Ishmael Bernal's Working Girls (about the shenanigans in a Metro Manila bank--far more intense than in a publishing house I can tell you from personal experience), to Mike Nichols' Working Girl (only Nichols's is more clearly a simpleminded fairy tale).

Fun, fun, fun, though what impressed me the most is that even an eleven-year-old girl can appreciate it (seven-year-old boys are more problematic, though).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Robert Altman: a contrary view (and my reply)

From Forum with No Name:

Ted Fontenot: I’ve always like what I heard about how Altman went about making movies. Everyone involved always seemed to love working with him. (I’m sure there must be some exceptions—I don’t think Donald Sutherland did, and he doesn’t seem to have gushed forth at Altman’s death, but maybe I just missed it.) How he engaged everyone involved--the technicians, the writers, the actors, especially the actors--into giving of themselves on a project—it’s all legendary and quite exemplary. Jack Lemmon once compared Altman very favorably to John Ford (in the Ford documentary everyone comments on how his sets were not happy places at all). Altman wanted you to make suggestions, Lemmon noted. Altman encouraged the actor’s collaboration, which he contrasts to Ford by telling the story of when on the set of Mister Roberts, he very excitedly told Ford: “John, I have an idea!” Ford immediately raised his hand to stop him: “No. No, you don’t.” And that was that.

Yet, as far as I’m concerned Altman is not only not in the tradition of John Ford (I can’t think of two more dissimilar directors), he wouldn’t make the proverbial pimple on Ford’s ....

I’ve often wonder why I don't have a stronger positive affinity for Altman's movies. At one time I did. In my callow youth, I loved MASH, McCabe, The Long Goodbye, and others when they came out. I think it’s his attitude. As generous a person as he seems to have been, nevertheless artistically and esthetically his movies are permeated by a small, callous, mean-spiritedness, and it's usually directed in some obvious fashion against some easy, even PC, target. His movies simply have not traveled well over time with me. And it may of course all have to do with me, but the fact is that I don't much like most of the people he means for you to like, or the facile ways he cleft-sticks the types he dislikes. Nashville may be the apex, or nadir, on this score—it is just one long tedious predicable cheap shot from beginning to end, but most of his stuff is just full of that sort of stuff. He always has a someone or thing he stacks the deck against, a type of person or people, a view, that he just trashes. In retrospect, it often seems too facile and shallow. He has none of Ford’s humanity or compassion. Ford had his side, but he got there regrettably, feeling for those who had to fall before juggernaut. Ford has the grace to be sad at the conflict between views, cultures, the two sides. Altman’s stance may be more excusable, more tolerable, when he’s doing comedy/satire, but he’s never gone beyond the sensibilities of the New Left knee-jerk ideologue of the late '60's—politically, socially, and esthetically. One of the most loathsome, gratuitous bits of violence (just thinking about it makes me recoil with revulsion) is the smashing of the Playboy bunny’s face with the Coca Cola bottle in The Long Goodbye, as is the smartass humiliation of Hotlips in MASH. He had talent, even genius if you like, and it’s not like I think he was a boob, an utter failure, but he also had grievous substantive shortcomings that seriously mar and undermine his accomplishments.

I think Ted's got a point with regards to Altman's flaws; about his happy sets--well, ask Sally Kellerman how he's behaved towards her, not just in MASH, but Ready To Wear. I don't think generosity of spirit or compassion in real life is a true measure of an artist--Ted's mentioned what Ford's sets are like.

That said, there's space in my pantheon for both Ford and Altman because they're such dissimilar filmmakers. I love Ford's classic style--hell, he practically has the patent on it (handed over from on high by Griffith, and I'm guessing cribbing a bit from late Eisenstein) at the same time I love Altman's, which owes much to Renoir, which in turn is imbued with an American sense of adult profanity and humor.

Altman's got flaws--and Ted's pointed some of the most telling of them out. I'm actually more bothered by the treatment of Hot Lips in MASH than I am by the Coca-Cola incident in The Long Goodbye--I'm not too bothered probably because I eat scenes like that for breakfast and because I think the senseless violence underlines Augustine's character and what's at stake exactly. Hot Lips is less defensible I think; it comes from the source novel by Richard Hooker, sure, but beyond that, I can't see why Altman should include it, except he does hold some kind of sadistic view towards Kellerman (who he shafted again in Ready to Wear, onscreen and off) and towards women in general, when he's not being sensitive to them (I notice the same tendency in Bergman, except with Bergman the divide seems different--he seems to treat his women better on film than in real life).

I do think there is compassion in Altman, in the sense that he seems to give many of his supporting characters their time in the sun; Renoir does this too, but the older antecedent would be Dickens, who can animate even the smallest walk-on roles in his novels with a single line (I'm thinking of a coin caught, underhanded). Hard not to think of McCabe (or even Mrs. Miller), or the two lovers in Thieves Like Us, or Olive Oyl singing "He Needs Me" in a wobbly voice, on a pair of wobbly legs, without thinking you've gotten to know them pretty well as human beings.

It's not consistent; in something like Ready To Wear, that empathy is in short, short supply (which makes me like that film, strangely enough; it's the picture the industry deserved, I felt). And HEALTH is a mess (despite which it has the funniest closing image I've ever seen in an Altman picture).

Does he compare to Ford? Or Hitchock, Renoir, De Sica, Keaton, the giants? I hesitate to say; maybe in three or four films, he approaches their level (I did a recent ten best list, and it didn't have any Altmans in it). I'd say he looms over the present landscape, definitely; besides Bergman, Antonioni and Godard, I can't think of many other filmmakers of his stature, and even less who did as good recent work. I'd pit Hou Hsiao Hsien against him in terms of gravitas and ambition and consistency of tone and style, and I'd submit Mario O'Hara has an edge on him on wild imagination (though Altman was never about wild imagination, was he?), but--well, that's how I'd assess him, this many days after his passing. Could change, could rise or fall in my estimation in time, but I could say that of any filmmaker.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Spielberg is NOT the new Riefenstahl!

The New York Times link is more comprehensive, but then the Times has this inconvenient habit of putting their articles in a pay-as-you-read mode.

Sounds like a happy ending straight out of a Spielberg film. Will it stick? We don't know--China's making a lot of noises warning against boycotts and linking Darfur and the Olympics. But they would, to save face, and I don't begrudge them the attempt--just as long as they do the right thing.

Kudos to Ms. Farrow, and Spielberg. Now if we can turn back time and have him finance an Orson Welles film...or at least pay for his dinner...

Friday, April 13, 2007

8th Jeonju International Film Festival

Someone made a mistake, I think (not that I'm complaining). Apparently, I'm being invited as member of the jury judging the Indie Vision section of the Jeonju International Film Festival, from April 26 to May 4.

The films we're going to be judging include the following titles:

1. Aria Dir_Takushi TSUBOKAWA Japan 2006 105min 35mm Color Feature

2. Chrigu Dir_Jan GASSMANN, Christian ZIÖRJEN Switzerland 2007 87min DigiBeta Color+B&W Documentary

3. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen Dir_ Zacharias KUNUK, Norman COHN Canada 2006 112min 35mm Color+B&W Feature

4. The Other Half Dir_YING Liang China 2006 111min DV Color Feature

5. Potosi, the Journey Dir_Ron HAVILIO Israel, France 2007 246mm 35mm Color+B&W Documentary

6. Private Property Dir_Joachim LAFOSSE France/Belgium/Luxembourg 2006 95min 35mm Color Feature

7. Reprise Dir_Joachim TRIER Norway 2006 106min 35mm Color+B&W Feature

8. Salty Air Dir_Alessandro ANGELINI Italy 2006 87min 35mm Color Feature

9. Schroeder's Wonderful World Dir_Michael SCHORR Germany, Poland, Czech Republic 2006 114min 35mm Color Feature

10. WWW. What a Wonderful World Dir_Faouzi BENSAIDI France/Morocco/Germany 2006 99min 35mm Color Feature

11. A White Ballad Dir_Stefano ODOARI Italy/The Netherlands 2007 78min 35mm Color Feature

12. Look of Love Dir_Yoshiharu UEOKA Japan 2006 108min DV Color+B&W Feature

The films range all over Europe and Asia; use 35 mm, digital video, and betacam; and vary in length from a little over an hour to over five hours long (I viewed Lav Diaz's Heremias (2006) once--at least (I'm going through it a second time); I think it's safe for me to say five hours doesn't sound utterly intimidating). After over a year of thoroughly bland Hollywood pap (just sat through a DVD of Casino Royale--not impressed), this should be a blessed relief, if not a genuine treat; not to mention the chance to actually visit South Korea...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

Was hardly his biggest fan. Can't help but think of how Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their novel Inferno (A tongue-in-cheek retelling of the first volume of Dante's The Divine Comedy), relegated him to the Circle of Heretics, trapped in a garishly enormous tomb with a gigantic neon sign blinking over and over again (guess what the sign said). I wouldn't wish such a fate on the man--I don't think anyone deserves to be the victim of that kind of bad taste--but I can't help but think that Niven's rant ("he knew better!") had a point. Vonnegut's writing did at times get lazy, and he did at times seem complacent in his legendary status.

Of his works, a sentimental favorite would be God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater--mainly because when I read it years ago I wished I had the guts to live life the same way (I'd hate to read it now; it mightn't survive the experience). Mother Night was fascinating for the way, as David Pringle pointed out, it sustained the ambiguity (hero or heel?). I liked maybe one or two of the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House--well, okay, I liked one mainly because of the TV movie made out of it, and not so much because of Vonnegut's story as for the opportunity to see Jonathan Demme work with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken (as a nebbish, yet!) together on a romantic comedy. Walken, incidentally, seems to me to be the most convincing Stanley Kowalski I've ever seen (and yes, I've seen Kazan's version).

Cat's Cradle is my unsurprising favorite, maybe the rare--or even one--time when Vonnegut's humor and despair were in perfect balance, sketching a portrait of a mad scientist and his dysfunctionally unhappy family, the birth of a cheerfully nihilistic religion, and the end of the world through crystallization (did this provide the germ for Ballard's hauntingly beautiful The Crystal World--my favorite end-of-the-world scenario--published three years later?). Vonnegut seemed to have said it all with this one (unfortunately he wrote for several more decades ("See the cat? See the cradle?")). But for this and a for a few others of his early work, I'm grateful for him.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Spielberg the new Riefenstahl?

Thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, for pointing out the above link.

"Leni Riefenstahl" of the Beijing games sounds a bit much--he's only staging the games, not making a documentary on them, and he displays nowhere near the massive sense of opportunism Riefenstahl did. Other than that specific basis of comparison, Rowan Farrow's piece seems sound.

I've little to add, save these few questions:

1) What does Spielberg have to lose, walking away from this deal?

2) Who does he hurt? Physically, not emotionally, I mean (I know we'll hear from the Chinese on this).

3) If he walks and the Chinese go ahead with their plans--with, say, Michael Bay replacing Spielberg--will he have done anything significant (Corollary questions: if Michael Bay stages the ceremonies, would the issue still be urgent?)?

No. 3 has an answer, I think. Yes--he has refused to participate in a massive whitewash.

The ball is in his court, I'd say; action, or even silence, would be an answer.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Eye of Welles, brain of Wood

There are films that inspire passionate admiration thanks to their sublime beauty, or skilled construction, or honesty, courage, audaciousness at tackling difficult or taboo subjects; then there are films that are great not because they're beautiful or skillful or honest, but because they have this great something--not so much courage or audaciousness, but sheer cluelessness--that has led them to where, well, no filmmaker has ever trod before.

People misunderstand my intense regard for Carlos Siguion-Reyna's films. I don't think they're just bad (even if they are), and my articles aren't merely attacks on their artistic merits per se (even if they do). To be honest, I've actually grown to enjoy every new Siguion-Reyna film that came up, and am disappointed that he hasn't done anything (at least as far as I know) in the past seven years.

Filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar or John Waters earn critical praise for their shocking bad taste and outrageous comedy, but Almodovar and Waters are fully aware of what they're doing; they revel in bad taste and outrage. Siguion-Reyna belongs to a purer breed altogether: think Edward Wood, Jr., the legendary director of films like Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood's films are enjoyable because they're obviously labors of love, the same time they're excruciatingly bad; he thought he was destined for artistic immortality, and he was half right.

Siguion-Reyna is a Wood with real talent--he has huge resources at his disposal, he wields them with the confidence of a master, he's film literate and knows how to tell his story in visual terms. I remember a shot in Hihintayin kita sa langit (I'll Wait For You In Heaven, 1991), his version of Wuthering Heights, where Richard Gomez held the dying Dawn Zulueta in his arms, and a panoramic landscape unfolded below them--a deep-focus shot straight out of Welles' Lady From Shanghai. In Misis mo, misis ko (Your Wife, My Wife 1988) Edu Manzano attempts to seduce Dina Bonnevie in the background while Ricky Davao tries to do the same to Jackie Lou Blanco in the foreground--a scene that could have come out of Renoir's La regle du jeu. In Ikaw pa lang ang minahal, Siguion-Reyna's adaptation of William Wyler's The Heiress, Maricel Soriano is told by her father that she's an unattractive spinster; Soriano goes into her bedroom and in a single unbroken take trashes it, and you can't help but think of Welles trashing his wife's bedroom in Citizen Kane.

Ikaw pa lang ang minahal is his finest, most honest work in the conventional sense, possibly because Siguion-Reyna connects with Henry James' story of the insulated rich more than to anything else he's ever done, but for my money his outré masterpiece has to be Abot kamay ang pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996).

The film is based on the true story of a maid who was either seduced or raped and made pregnant by her Chinese employer; the baby was either killed by the employer's wife or by her own hand, depending on who you talk to.

The film begins with Michael de Mesa as the lawyer of the employer (now an upper class Filipino mestizo), urging the maid (again, Ms. Soriano) to sign a document releasing his client from all liability. Soriano signs; De Mesa grabs her round the waist, spins her about, rapes her on the coffee table she signed on, and spits on her face. Soriano goes back to her hometown, where her father (Pen Medina) slaps her face for bringing shame to the family; she starts bleeding between her legs and collapses. When she wakes, she's lost her memory; her mother (Daria Ramirez) begins reading all the letters she wrote from Manila, in an attempt to make her remember.


All this happens during the first ten minutes of the film.

The rest of the story takes its cue from the opening. We see Soriano (during the lengthy flashback that makes up the bulk of the picture) apply for the position; we see her throwing sidelong glances at her handsome employer (Tonton Guiterrez). When Gutierrez has a quiet dinner of shrimp and rice with his wife (Dina Bonnevie), Soriano suddenly picks up Gutierrez's shrimp and starts peeling it. Instead of staring at the maid with an expression of "Excuse me--why are you touching my food?" Gutierrez seems grateful; Bonnevie looks jealous. "That's enough," she snaps at Soriano, waving the maid away.

Soriano and Gutierrez have their affair; Soriano learns that she's pregnant by him. She goes to see an abortionist. She's sitting in the doctor's illegitimate home clinic when the doctor walks in and stumbles, dropping all his instruments on what looks like the world's stickiest floor. The doctor apologetically peels the tools off the floor, and asks Soriano if she will go through with the procedure; Soriano shakes her head in horror. The doctor snorts, calls in the next patient--a girl, head downcast, accompanied by her boyfriend. The girl looks up, exclaims: "Father?" The doctor exclaims: "Daughter?" and starts beating on the boyfriend "What have you done to my child? What have you done to her?" Soriano quietly lets herself out the door.

Heavy irony: Bonnevie learns she can't have a baby (Bonnevie is a fertility specialist). She starts stripping down her proposed baby room of its fixtures--mobiles, stuffed dolls--and Gutierrez is trying to talk her out of it when Soriano suddenly appears in the doorway, says "I'm pregnant. You can have my child if you want it," turns and walks away. Bonnevie, instead of asking the inevitable question ("Who's the father?") starts after her, is held back by Guiterrez, and shakes off his arm. "Don't you realize this is our only chance to have a child?" she tells him.

Soriano has the baby; since this is a Filipino melodrama, she delivers it on the living room floor. Bonnevie arrives, listens to Soriano and her husband talking, realizes just who the father really is, and does this (the action isn't as clear as I'd like; the image is drastically cropped).

I'd learned that there was an earlier edit of that scene which the producer had invited friends to watch: Guiterrez and Bonnevie struggled, the baby flew out of Bonnevie's arms, and bounced. The audience gasped--in laughter or horror, no one could tell. On subsequent edits, the bounce disappeared; when asked about it, the producer said, "Oh, I think it's understood what happened."

All this, of course, is faultlessly photographed, with lush production values and live sound recording (a luxury in Filipino productions). At one point Soriano tells Guiterrez "We have nothing else to discuss; the child is yours. But I fervently hope that every time you look at that child, your conscience pricks you; that is, if you still have a conscience left to prick!" I remember a filmmaker sitting next to me, listening, and whispering in my ear "The sound is so clear and crisp!" and me replying: "Apparently they want you to hear every word."

How to explain a film like this? I've often maintained that Siguion-Reyna's pictures look as if a band of aliens suddenly landed on Earth outside a film studio and started making films by applying their advanced techonological knowledge on available equipment and watching maybe three hours' worth of television soaps on the side. The film betrays no feel or understanding of common human interaction (the shrimp dinner), much less human psychology*, but that, for me, is the very source of their fascination--Siguion Reyna makes films like no one else on Earth; he is sui generis, and this, I submit is not a bad thing. Even the unusual to the point of grotesque has its value, I think, though I would probably feel differently if he had actually inspired a movement of like-minded filmmakers (which he hasn't to date--thank God--though filmmakers like Erik Matti and Yam Laranas, when writing their own scripts, seem to suffer from a similar cluelessness and disconnect from reality, albeit while wielding a lesser, MTV-derived style). I'm grateful we have him, the same time I'm equally grateful there's no one else who follows--or can follow, apparently--in his lead. Perhaps one of my dearest dreams--and greatest frustration--is to one day host a retrospective of his work that would tour the festivals, with me introducing each and every film, explaining why I think they're so special. Alas, it may never be...


*Take the ending of Ang lalaki sa buhay ni Selya (The Man in Her Life, 1997). Rosanna Roces is persuaded by her lover (Gardo Verzosa) to try blackmail her gay husband (Ricky Davao) into giving up the son she and Verzosa conceived under Davao's nose and that Davao is raising. They show up for tea at Davao's house one afternoon (Davao daintily pouring from a pot), demanding that Davao give up the boy; Davao refuses. Verzosa pulls out a gun, waves it in Davao's face; Davao again refuses. Verzosa mutters "we'll think of something else," gets up to leave; Davao suddenly stops them, declares "A boy must have his mother," and tells them they can have the child.

Davao goes upstairs to pack the boy's things. Verzosa, impatient, grabs the luggage and boy (now weeping), and heads out the door; Roces stops Verzosa: "You love my body, not my self," she accuses Verzosa, taking the boy away from him and shutting the door on his face. Verzosa is left glaring impotently, gun still in hand (everyone seems to treat the weapon like the movie prop it really is).

Motivations and convictions spinning three-hundred-and-sixty degrees at the least provocation, for maximum melodramatic effect, all breathlessly shot and edited, with magnificent sound design, a beautiful score, and a sumptuous large house of a setting--the very hallmarks of the Siguion-Reyna style of filmmaking.

(Parts of this post derived from articles first published Businessworld and reprinted in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema)

(This post written for the Trashy Movie blogathon at The Bleeding Tree)
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