Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recent viewings (Twilight Samurai, Once, Shop Around the Corner, King of Kings, Casablanca)

Other movies: Yoji Yamada's Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Samurai,2002) is surprisingly enjoyable. Didn't have high hopes from the director of the endless Tora-san series, but goes to show what assuming things does to one's viewing choices. It's not a novel premise (a samurai with a second class reputation and mien so modest everyone assumes he's a loser, including himself) and the film follows a fairly predictable narrative arc (basically the samurai exceeds everyone's low expectations), but the pleasures to be had are so modestly and expertly wrought one hums with pleasure, as if sipping a bowl of comfort noodles. The fight scenes are wonderfully retro--long takes, no fast cuts, and the occasional sidestep off camera to make the outcome all the more tantalizing.

John Carney's Once (2006)--maybe it's just because I don't know much about music but the songs themselves don't seem all that memorable (I responded more to the singing than the lyrics or melody), except perhaps the duet at the piano store, which was lovely, and the number at the bus, that 'Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," which was low-key hilarious.

Beyond that the two actors are perfect for each other, and I love how understated everything was. Not a bad film at all.

From Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities:

Looked at Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) again. What's striking isn't so much the romancing (there's actually very little to none onscreen) as it is the bickering, and there Lubitsch catches the essential truth about workplaces, that it's all about cliques and allies, covering your ass, and trying to pull down your fellow worker. It would all be bitter and depressing, if it wasn't so funny.

Ted Fontenot: I, too, have been re-watching some old favorites courtesy of the seasonal marathon on TCM, including The Shop Around the Corner. Sullavan's performance in Shop Around the Corner is pretty damn daring. She really skirts a razors edge. Just a little more and her character becomes unlikable and annoying. She's still got her ideals right up to the ending kiss. Indeed, there's no indication that she's really given them up in an absolute sense. They were just misdirected. Stewart's character finally maneuvers the goings on so he can assert himself, but after all his elaborate finessing, what happens—he still has to show her his calves to prove he isn’t bowlegged. He doesn't, and can't, really put her in her place because (like the later Cluny Brown) she doesn't accept the idea of knowing her place, which is what the men in those films find attractive to begin with, so in a real sense putting up with the downside of that is the price they must pay. But like I said earlier somewhere, he will have his hand's full with her (it's the price you pay for positive of attributes arising from that irrepressibility. One of the nice touches in Stewart's performance is this air of admiration that his face can't help but express at her facility with sticking the knife in him. She's definitely high maintenance. He has to assert himself, confront her, or what is all too likely to be is a recapitulation in some form of the relationship of Matuschek & Wife. Through the parallel relationships, we see how neatly Lubitsch and his screenwriter(s) traverse a precarious tightrope, successfully negotiating a delicate balance between comedy and pathos. Kralik knows his woman (“not too beautiful, just a regular, average lovely girl”). He knows all what he's getting, and he lets her know he knows. Then he relents. All romantic comedies are about the essential Darwinian battle between the sexes, and they aren't successfully resolved, whatever your gender perspective, unless an equilibrium is attained. And successful campaigners know when to stop overtly fighting it. Matuschek doesn’t understand this, and thus never confronts his romantic illusion.

Good call on the parallels between Matuschek and Kralik's high maintenance women. I suspect the difference is that while Matuschek married above his station (he might have been an up-and-coming retailer who managed to impress the daughter of old money), Kralik and Novak are both struggling bourgeoisie--they know the chill breath of loneliness, joblessness, and they'll cling just a little tighter together for comfort. I can't see Klara's eye wandering, in the near future, anyway.

Apparently according to the wiki (for what it's worth), the British comedy Are You Being Served? is based on the film.

I remember Lubitsch insisted on setting it in Budapest. I can believe that's necessary--you don't get this amount or flavor of hypocrisy in America. It actually pretty much captures the flavor of hypocrisy found in the bank I worked in for ten years.

A quick glimpse of Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1951), which I mention briefly in my overview of Christ movies turned up a striking throwaway image, of Christ standing in Pilate's courtyard, the stripe of a red carpet running down the left side, the stripes of black shadows stretching out to the right. A row of obelisk-shapes stand towards the right (I wondered what they were, and eventually guessed that they could be flagellation posts), and to the leftward rear is a massive gate guarded by Roman soldiers.

This could be the cinemascope version of some long-lost Star Trek episode, with the courtyard functioning as some kind of elaborate board game metaphor, red stripe, black stripe and all; the flagellation posts, the soldiers, and Christ himself standing left of center seem to represent game pieces with arcane functions, powers, weaknesses, though I'm guessing the posts and stripes serve another more practical function--they lend a sense of depth to the image, cuing to us just how far away those soldiers and that gate really are. It's a powerful image, suggesting the forces at work (at play?), struggling to determine the fate of the King of Jews. The shot held my eye longer than I intended it to, before I managed--with effort--to switch the channel. Fact is, the shot stayed with me longer than I'd wished; hopefully by writing about it I can finally exorcise it from mind.

And Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942)'s still the onscreen equivalent of a page-turner, 'specially the last fifteen minutes. Couldn't help but notice Curtiz was photographing ceilings, this only a year after Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) was doing it.

Ted Fontenot: Casablanca...indeed, is a real page-turner. The movie just develops and never stops. So much happens, and it all takes place in about a couple days. It's a textbook script on how to plot and tell a story.

Watching it last night again, I was struck about how neatly Rick sticks it to Elsa. It's all high-minded and high sounding, and he may not even be aware of that aspect of it, but, all verbal ritualizing aside, what it comes down to is he gets some of his own back from her for her leaving him flat, and in the dark, like that in Paris. The parallel is all very neatly drawn out. At some level there had to be some psychic release. Everyone gets to be noble, but only he wins and then has the satisfaction of giving it all up for a noble cause, while accruing points that will come in handy later in life I'm sure.

Casablanca's armature, the original play, is a nice little engine to set to humming along while Bogart and Bergman miraculously strike sparks off of each other (what did Kael say--that they wisely didn't push their luck on a second collaboration?), Curtiz makes with his proto-Spielberg trucking and low-angled shots (don't they give you a head rush, zooming in so many times on Bogart's huge forehead?), and Steiner drenches all with his swooning romantic score.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New issue of Criticine out

I'll have to admit, this is very late news: the latest issue of Criticine, arguably the finest online website dealing with Southeast Asian cinema and film criticism, is up--has been, or so I've been told, for the past few weeks.

In this issue, along with a review of Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century are interviews, features, and a survey question put to filmmakers and critics alike: why and for whom do you film/write?

Editor Alex Tioseco's collection of directors is surprisingly impressive: filmmakers Kiri Dalena (who flips the question around: "why, and for whom, do we cease to make film today?"); Erik Khoo (whose reply was blessedly succinct); Raya Martin's typically enigmatic answer; John Torres', expressed mostly in Tagalog); Pen-ek Ratanaruang; and, again, Weerasethakul.

And, of course, there's my rather long-winded contribution.

Whatever; nearly the end of the year, and we're supposed to do our summing-up articles. I suppose my own would resemble that old Chinese curse: that we live in interesting times. Not a big Christmas fan, so I'm not going to wish you happy holidays, only the fervent hope that you survive them, and go on to have a better year. Mabuhay.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

How'd it suck badly? Let me count the ways:

1) It runs for a hundred and twenty minutes, about a hundred and nineteen too long.

2) It's a vampire movie without fangs, crucifixes, stakes, beds recycled from used coffins, and spontaneous daylight combustion--in short, all the paraphernalia that marks a classic vampire movie. Watching it is like watching a Western without horses, or a comedy without a sense of humor.


Friday, December 05, 2008

Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008)

Four suggestions

Dear Messrs. Gordon, Allen, Wilson, Lucas, Moore, Barber, Billingsley, Birnbaum, Disco (?!), Emmerich, Evans, Glickman, Kaufman, Nedivi, Riedel, Rohlich, Vaughn and Witherspoon;

Saw Four Christmases, about a couple (played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) forced to spend the holidays with their four divorced parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek as Vaughn's parents, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen as Witherspoon's) and yes, it's bad, yes it's an almost complete waste of time (more on that "almost" later), and yes I can't recommend it to anyone unless they're some kind of Yuletide masochist willing to accept this as their only alternative to an eggnog enema (given a choice, I'd need a minute to think about it).

But I don't want to dwell on that. 'Tis the season to be jolly, so they say, and I want to keep myself happy, my smile wide and cheerful; I want to offer four constructive suggestions that might help improve the film, if you feel the need for improvement (if any of you are even halfway sentient you'd want to improve this with a can of gasoline and a lit match). I just hope y'all take this in the spirit in which it was given.

First suggestion: listen to Hitchcock.

Hitchcock famously said, "actors should be treated like cattle" (actually the entire quote goes something like this: "I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle." He was probably joking (for the record plenty of artists of the thespic (I just love that word; know a few critics who use it liberally, it's so pretentious) persuasion that enjoyed working with him, and he in turn coaxed quite a few great performances from 'cattle'), but like all Hitchcock jests there's a kernel of truth to be found. Actors should be treated like cattle--not in the concentration camp sense, perhaps, but certainly in the sense meant by older cultures, where you use every part of the animal you slaughtered. I mean, used.

I mean--a movie with Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen, and I'm barely able to stay awake? Duvall and Voight aren't known for comedy, but the filmmakers could have used that, blindsided us with carefully calibrated yet surprising roles for these two old hands to play; instead they have Duvall at one end of an elaborate gag involving an old TV set and a very long video cable yelling at the top of his lungs to little effect, and Voight at another being so serious I could have sworn the occasion was a wake, not a Christmas party.

Steenburgen--well, she didn't have a lot to do, but I found myself in a more forgiving vein with regards to her, especially as she has managed to stay devastatingly sexy even past the age of fifty. Sissy Spacek is in a better situation--she's involved in perhaps the only really funny joke in the movie, where a surprisingly younger man turns out to be her boyfriend (I loved Vaughn's reaction to watching the man kiss Spacek. "Your mother is a very sexual being," his stepfather explains). There's an almost Woody Allen-esque quality to Vaughn's mother of a problem (I wonder if one of the reasons they cast him weren't because he played the Oedipally challenged Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's infamous Psycho remake), and for maybe ten minutes I was thoroughly entertained.

Second suggestion: Lose the concept

Cuteness is all--meaning every year, all they serve up is a cute concept. Last year it was Santa's terminally underconfident brother (again starring the hardworking Vaughn--what is it with him and Christmas comedies?); the year past it was a decorating war between neighbors; some years before that it was Ben Affleck hiring a family for Christmas. Every December they come up with the same unfunny idea, that a seemingly funny idea (instead of decent writing, acting, directing) will carry a movie through. Enough already; you're flogging a long-dead horse, and the stink is starting to bother the neighbors. Give it a decent burial or, better yet, cremation.

Third suggestion: be funny.

Not as easy as you'd think. As I'd already mentioned, I sat up and chuckled for all of ten minutes (Sissy Spacek playing a cradlesnatcher); most of the time I was just trying to find something--anything--to enjoy in this comic wasteland (maybe that's why many of the women in the picture wear low-cut tops; "if you show it," the filmmakers must believe, "they won't leave"). To recall another quote: "Dying is easy, comedy, hard;" the movie has four writers and thirteen producers, you'd think that some time before the wrap party they'd all have more or less agreed that they were doing a comedy. If Witherspoon had been cast opposite of Daniel Day Lewis and the whole thing reshot as straight drama it might be funnier.

Fourth suggestion: be real.

Vaughn was said to have suggested Seth Gordon as director. Gordon did an excellent job telling the story of some of the world's greatest video-game players in The King of Kong (2007); you'd think his experience in documentaries might have prepared him to tell us what Christmas really is: a monstrously overblown corporate excuse for pointless consumer spending, set in the center of a howling spiritual wasteland. The ideal Christmas film for me (and Gordon might still have been the man to direct it) would tell of decades of corporate greed suddenly collapsing in an orgy of cutbacks and deflating values. Streets would be littered with the bodies of financial analysts; the rich would sit on the window sills of their million-dollar executive suites and contemplate the pavement far below. It may sound like a grim apocalyptic scenario, but it would at least be honest. And, I'm willing to bet, as funny as hell.

Well, those are my suggestions--make of them what y'all wish. I just hope they do the reshoots in time to save what's left of the season.

Yours truly,

Wide and cheerful

(First published in Businessworld 12.5.08)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

American kids view 'Not One Less,' 'Grave of the Fireflies,' and 'Whispers of the Heart'

(Warning: plot twists and general story for all three films discussed in detail!)

Three films about children

Some weeks back I talked to some kids about the Philippines, showed them Lino Brocka's Insiang and Ramona Diaz's Imelda and then moved on to talk about China. End of that series of lectures I decided to show them a film that I thought would give them an idea of if not present-day China at least China at a transitory stage, from being a purely communist country to a country with a communist government and capitalist economy.

Zhang Yimou's Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less, 1999)--his finest film, in my opinion, is about a substitute teacher named Wei who is promised a bonus if she can keep her students attending school. It's a portrait of what life is like for the majority, the people who live in the countryside and (as opposed to urban dwellers) struggle to comply with the government-mandated nine years of schooling; even in recent years the issue of education in the countryside is still a problem. "This would have been before China's economy really started kicking in," I reminded them. "Even in China, the countryside's usually the last to benefit."

Zhang's story went down remarkably well for the most part; some were bored by the slice-of-life neorealism, others were charmed by the kids (I'd mentioned that Zhang in the film used non-actors playing more or less themselves and using their own names--the town mayor is played by a real town mayor, the students by real students, the TV station manager by a real station manager so on and so forth, to which they asked "is this a true story?" Had to reply "no, but the situation is true").

A student drops out of school to work in the city; Teacher Wei and her entire class scheme and struggle to raise money for a bus ticket so she could follow and drag him back. Eventually (after an unsuccessful attempt to board a bus) she hunkers down and starts walking, at which point I made this brief note about the Chinese character: that they can be practical to the point of materialism (Wei early on simply writes the day's schoolwork on the chalkboard, then posts by the door to prevent walkouts), and stubborn to the point of absurdity (she refuses to let one student go and participate in a state-run sports program for promising athletes), but when faced with impossible odds they will sometimes go forth and do what's needed, a step at a time if necessary. That's their curse (I believe Mao tried to exploit this trait with his Great Leap Forward) and glory (the recent economic miracle, which bloomed from out of the state of stagnation they suffered in the previous decades). I can't help but think that the young men and women in my classes, watching the girl walk the long miles to the city, were impressed.

Having discussed Philippine history and touching along the way the subject of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese on us Filipinos, then discussing Chinese history and touching along the way the subject of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Chinese, I decided to do something a little different and show the Second World War from the other side--hence my choice of Isao Takahata's great Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) for a final film (warning: film's story discussed in close detail).

So how did they take it? The back-and-forth time scheme confused them a little, and needed a little clarification. But seeing the mother wrapped in blood-drenched bandages--as one young man put it "if that were my mom, I'd snap; just take out a gun and kill everyone in sight." I'm usually supposed to squelch mention of gunplay or killing in the classroom, but this time I let it pass; the boy was visibly upset.

I pointed out little visual effects that Takahata inserted into the film--bits like the falling napalm canisters resembling fireflies, which in turn resembled the glowing flakes of ash whirling out of burning buildings. I pointed out how the camera would move from Seita or Setsuko in natural light, then move to Seita again in deep red light, and how this would indicate that spirit-Seita and spirit-Setsuko are watching events from their past lives ("Does this mean Setsuko's dead too?" one young woman inquired. "What do you think?" I asked her). I singled out the scene where Seita washes his face from a spraying water pipe as an example of the film's animation quality (water being--or at least used to be, before the advent of digital animation--the most difficult of elements to animate).

The ending--well, they'd as likely as not come out of the screening looking as if they'd been poleaxed. Some asked "Is she dead?" to which I'd reply with Seita's words: "She never woke up." We talked a little about what Seita did, what their aunt did, and why.

Someone asked about the money Seita had--why didn't he buy food for his sister earlier? I pointed out that he tried to buy food, but no one was selling; the Japanese government was probably collecting everything the farmers produced for the war effort. When towards the end Seita withdrew his remaining money to buy food, it most likely wasn't with any expectation that he could actually buy anything, but things had changed; Japan had surrendered, rationing was over. When he got home, it was with rice, meat, watermelon, all kinds of good things to eat...

On the question of who was at fault--most of the youths blamed the aunt for being mean; some blamed Seita--he could have gotten a job, or found some way to earn rent money, or helped out; he could at worse have always swallowed his pride and gone back to the aunt. One perceptive student answered: "No one--Seita and Setsuko are too young to be responsible for their actions. The aunt was just trying to do her best. The Japanese government was too busy losing the war. And the United States was too busy trying to win it." A second student said: "Everyone--Seita for being too proud to go back, the aunt for being too mean to stay with, the Japanese government for neglecting the children, and the Americans for bombing the city."

Watching the film for the umpteenth time, I had these few extra thoughts about the question of action vs. live action vis-à-vis Grave of the Fireflies (in short: like Art Spiegleman in Maus, Takahata used classic anime faces (big eyes, small mouths) as a way of stylizing the story, of imposing realistic suffering on characters that look as if they belonged in a children's cartoon--the most innocent of innocents, meant for innocents' entertainment--for greater impact).

Aside from the ideas I outline in the link immediately above I wondered: some demand of anime or animation in general that it fully exploit its potential, in effect asking that animation be less, not more realistic, since this is where it excels. But the Japanese (and the British, come to think of it--see Watership Down and The Plague Dogs) feel no such compulsion; the Japanese in particular dabble in both fantastic and realistic animation, and I for one don't see them exploiting the medium with any less skill and passion and attention to detail when in the realist mode, nor do I see them condemning realist animation as being necessarily inferior. If anything, realist animation is arguably a more difficult achievement; you can fudge a giant robot, no one's sure what that will actually look like, but everyone knows the look of a rain shower in spring, and how it fills a street with puddles. Digital animation complicates the discussion, of course--but there's often a sameness, a uniformity to digitally created weather (at least in its present state) that keeps it from being truly evocative.

But flip the question around: why should live-action filmmaking confine itself to realism? Because that's what it does best? In fact live-action filmmaking does not confine itself to realism and hasn't since the beginning of cinema--since Melies shot the moon in the eye with a bullet-shaped spaceship and Bunuel sliced an eyeball with a straight razor and Cocteau filled a Beast's castle with enchantments and magic mirrors. If live-action isn't asked to be so limited, why should animation?

But I've never really been interested in the realist vs. fabulist debate; the question that's always interested me was "is it art, and is it done well?" I submit that Takahata's filmmaking--whether animated or live-action ultimately doesn't matter--has the grace and simplicity of the greatest filmmakers. Take the way, for example, he has Seita's spirit look on, at times taking our place as silent witness, at times wordlessly commenting on the action, a mute but mediating intelligence straight out of Thornton Wilder. When Setsuko shrieks and demands that her mother's kimonos be left alone (the aunt wants to sell them for rice), Seita's spirit watches, then shuts his eyes and ears to Seita's cries. You want to ask: why does he watch? Is he just reliving the moment? Does he return wishing to somehow change what happened? Or is he helplessly drawn because he is attracted to scenes of great pain or emotion, the way a moth is to flame? The distancing effect created when Takahata provokes such questions modulates the pain and--in some paradoxical way--enhances it. Like a bombardier viewing the city he devastated from a great height, or a patient under anesthesia watching the amputation of his own foot, one views such suffering with a feeling of dislocating and at the same time exquisite horror.

At one point Seita's running with Setsuko from a night raid, seeking shelter; suddenly it's spirit-Seita and spirit-Setsuko running up the hill, and the camera cranes up behind them to reveal an abandoned shelter facing a small lake. Takahata cuts to the two standing in the shelter, looking out on the lake (it's daytime, so presumably this is some time after the night raid); cuts to a flashback of the aunt upbraiding them--for the umpteenth time--for their uselessness, suggesting they move out; then cuts to a closeup of Seita, thinking over his aunt's suggestion. Takahata could have kept it straightforward (Seita finds the shelter, realizes it's livable), but instead has Seita from the night raid, Seita from some time later, and spirit-Seita converge at the same spot, to realize and dwell upon the same idea: that they should move out from their aunt's and move in here, for the rest of the war. This way Takahata suggests the fatefulness of a decision that will affect--haunt, even--all three young men for the rest of their respective timelines (past, nearer past, indeterminate present).

But if Takahata is a master at complex, time-twisting effects above and beyond anything even a relatively accomplished practitioner like Mamoru Hosada is capable of, he's also a master of the heroically simple shot, with an emotional power above and beyond its ostensible simplicity. When Seita finally comes back to the shelter with food and promises to cook some for Setsuko, Takahata shoots the scene's final shot head-on, with Setsuko lying in profile on the screen's lower half and Seita sitting up and to the right. Seita leaves, and the camera pans down, bringing Setsuko to the center of the screen--alone; still and unmoving; the shelter's sun-drenched entrance behind her. We know, even before Seita says a word; we simply know.

I had expected to end there, but was given a few extra days. Subjecting young men and women--some of them hardened young men and women--to Hotaru no haka may have been a bit much, so by way of compensation, I thought of a light-hearted pleasure of a film, set this time in modern-day Japan. Hence: Yoshifumi Kondo's Mimi wo sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, 1995).

The reactions broke down according to sex with considerable precision. The boys were charmed, at least until the frankly corny ending ("They admitted it was corny;" I told them. "Admitting the corniness is one way of dealing with it. Isn't it?"); the girls just ate it up, save for one girl who was furious that they didn't kiss. "Sometimes not getting the kiss is more fun and memorable, at least in a movie," I told her.

Can't help but be struck by the incredibly detailed artwork used to depict the grandfather's antique shop--the half-lit galleon complete with rigging and canvas sailing away on one table; the vase full of feathery reeds waving in another; the shelf full of dimly glimpsed porcelain gleaming in the far back. It's as if Kondo had said to his background artists "Go nuts," and the artists did--the shop is meant to be a magical place, and you know it the minute Shizuku steps inside.

Then there's the foliage shadow. I usually don't pay attention to vegetation in anime films, much less their shadows, but I submit Kondo or some animator working under him is a master of foliage shadow--I'm thinking of the way the leaves break up the light in one scene, that bittersweet moment when Sugimura grips Shizuku's hand, hoping against hope that she will admit that she loves him. An imperfect creature craves the affection of another imperfect creature; Shizuku is aware that Sugimura's hardly the romantic hero type, aware that she hardly deserves the romantic hero type (and someone like Sugimura is probably the most she can aspire to). The dappled sunlight, neither pure light nor pure shadow but some compromise of both not only provides dramatic lighting but represents the imperfect, compromised world Shizuku must deal with.

Then there's the weather, which is almost a character in itself: the film is full of sun, clouds, rains, mists, winds. When Seiji tells Shizuku what he really feels about her, the rain has just stopped; the rooftop they stand on faces a dramatic cityscape full of shifting shafts of light, of dark-bellied clouds rolling across a sky of pure blue.

The film's such a perfectly delightful little rom-com (have I mentioned how much I despise that word?) that it pretty much ruins all other romantic comedies for me; I keep comparing each and every subsequent example of the genre to Kondo's film, and finding them all woefully short. Actually, Kondo's film itself falls short of its own standards; the first half up to the rooftop scene is perfect, I submit--afterwards the film tends to flail about, much like the heroine (which makes sense, actually--form following female).

The fantasy sequences I find rococo, overdone--which again would be consistent with a first-time, youthful effort at fantasy (much is made of the fact that a high school art teacher named Inoue Naohisa did the art. Does the teacher suspect what I suspect, that producer Miyazaki chose his work as an example of overdecorated youthfulness?). The flying sequences (reportedly directed by Miyazaki himself) don't have that same sense of mass and weight and realism found in the man's other films--mainly, I suppose, because the fantasy of flight is set against Naohisa's distractingly busy background.

And yet, and yet, and yet, Mimi's romantic heart can be found in this latter, messier half. The idea of a young artist like Shizuku setting down to write her first story, ignorant of what she faces yet determined to accomplish her task, is both painful and poignant to contemplate; I'm reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre (easily a stranger work than his better-known previous novel), about a similarly naive artist hoping to write himself out of his predicament. The despair, the fury inspired (you know how difficult the task is, you know how inadequate your abilities are) is intense, unsettlingly so; it's almost like cheating that the grandfather manages to soothe Shizuku's anguish with a bowl of hot ramen (the grandfather notes that his grandson Seiji, the too-perfect boy in love with Shizuku, needed four bowls of hot ramen to console himself).

The film resolves itself happily, but an image remains, that of Shizuku running past all the glowing gemstones to end up with a little dead bird curled up in her hands (perhaps the only moment of fantasy in the film that really works, because the bird hardly looks like a child's fantasy). It's about as eloquent a metaphor for a writer's sense of inadequacy as anything I know and believe me, I know--I've been there so many times.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bolt (Byron Howard, Chris Williams, 2008)

Dolt

Disney's latest animated effort (Bolt, 2008, directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams) comes as something of a surprise--hasn't Walt's Rat Factory turned the animation reins over to the more commercially and critically successful Pixar yet? Do they still insist on churning out 'family-friendly' fare so totally devoid of point and bite and flavor that the movie ends up like an order of McDonald's French fries confined under glass (see Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me (2004) DVD extras, for what may arguably be the most terrifying and disgusting ten minutes you will ever experience)? Will this be yet another occasion for obvious moral uplift, the Factory's umpteenth attempt at affirming traditional family values over decadent modernist lifestyles (the better to raise perfectly compliant Disney-product-consuming youths with healthy credit ratings and vigorous appetites)?

Well--yes. Animation was never much of an invitation to realism, but the premise they come up for this one strains credulity, even allowing for the freedom implicit in the medium. A dog, Bolt (voice of John Travolta) plays hero opposite of Penny, his "person" (voice of Miley Cyrus), in a long-running TV show full of giant attack copters, sinister high-tech ninjas, and hair-singeing fireballs. That's not the unlikely part; we're asked to believe that animal psychology has developed in sophistication and effectiveness to the point that they can fool a dog into thinking its make-believe life (attack copters and ninjas and fireballs and all) is real (of course an actual dog only has to sniff to know when its leg's being pulled).

The concept's not entirely original--it's basically an inside-out version of Peter Weir's fairly interesting The Truman Show (1998), which featured an equally deluded protagonist (he thought he was just an ordinary guy when in fact the world turned around him); Weir's film in turn borrowed its premise from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint, written some forty years before.
Dick's scenario is vastly more ambitious, of course--not surprising, coming from the mind of a man writer and critic Brian Aldiss called one of two or three geniuses working in the genre. Dick's protagonist Ragle Gumm believes he lives in suburban America, in 1959; actually the year is 1998, and the town he lives in is an elaborate constructed hoax designed to prevent him from learning that Earth is at war with one of its former colonies, and only Gumm's precognitive ability to point out the location of the next nuclear strike (which Gumm does when working out a series of newspaper puzzles) keeps them alive.

A deceptively wholesome image cut straight out of the Saturday Evening Post unraveling into a darker, altogether more surreal scenario, that's the trajectory of Dick's novel (The Truman Show managed to reduce the stakes from survival in a nuclear war to audience share of a TV show). Bolt scampers in the opposite direction, from bombastic Michael Bay action movie to an ordinary family watching TV in the living room--not exactly an inferior premise, I'm all for stories about sleepwalkers waking up to sober reality, but the endpoint Disney proposes--portly mother, purring cat, girl playing with dog--has such a manufactured look that you suspect that of being the fantasy, not the TV show (at least in the show you have a sense of eccentric if talented people working hard, sacrificing selfish comforts for the greater good).

It doesn't help that the main character and his "person" are such a dull pair. Travolta's a good actor, and when he's at his best few are as good at establishing a simple and direct rapport straight through the camera at the audience as he is, but he needs to use his body's physical eloquence (can one remember--or rather, can one ever forget--his strut down a Brooklyn street in the opening of Saturday Night Fever (1977)?), he needs to be impudent, he needs to be sexy, he needs to be charming. Bolt is a straight-shooting character, and as such you want an accomplished comedian capable of skewering the character's straightforwardness (that's why the voice casting in the otherwise humdrum Toy Story (1995) was inspired--was probably the only thing I really liked about the movie: Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear was so heroic he bordered on the megalomanic, not to mention psychotic). Travolta, who does sincerity intensely, can only play the character on one level; doesn't help that he's cast opposite Cyrus, a Disney teeny-bopper and vocal non-entity, or that the wonderful Malcolm McDowell is largely wasted as the picture's putative villain.

But the movie's not a total loss; there are gigantic laughs here, and wonderful feats of derring-do. I'm talking about Rhino, the heroic little sidekick of Bolt, who rolls about in his near-indestructible hamster ball and is voiced by vocalist veteran Mark Walton. Strange, but arguably the funniest gags in recent American animation involve mostly monomanic characters--the Ice Age movies were a bore, but skittering through the main narrative was this running gag about a squirrel and his beloved all-too-slippery nut that was the best thing about that picture. Likewise with the penguins in the Madagascar flicks; likewise with Rhino here. If Bolt represents the ideal of heroism cast into doubt and then re-affirmed, Rhino represents the ideal of heroism rising beyond doubt and despair, heading somewhere in the general direction of dementia. Rhino's mind is pure; Rhino's belief in Bolt's powers is invincible, elemental, grand. The fact that Rhino's also a furry little ball of fat makes that grandeur all the more hilarious.

And Rhino delivers; he performs amazing feats of strength (like pushing a ladder across the street through ball-power alone) and speed (like chasing and running down a pickup truck) and cunning (he opens latch doors and escapes from a dog's viselike jaws using saliva as lubricant and a kind of patented flywheel-release technique as a launch mechanism). Unlike Bolt, whenever faced with adversity he doesn't despair; he hunkers down and squeezes his fists, the glare from his beady eyes burning holes into the back of your head. Bolt isn't much of a picture, is probably a good way to park your kids in a theater for ninety minutes while you indulge in entertainment more mature and adult in nature like--oh, say, fecal paintball. That little rodent, though, he should have his own movie.


(First printed in Businessworld, 11.28.08)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Griffith's ghosts, and Cahier's 100 most beautiful films

Arguably NY Times' DVD critic Dave Kehr's blog is one of the most active online site for film around; it's easily the most lively.

Take the case of his recent article on Kino's release of the second volume of the films of D.W. Griffith, and read the commentary page, which runs to over 160 posts as of this time.

Griffith almost a hundred years later is still the provocateur, still able to raise a good if not always civil or intelligently reasoned (or worse, unoriginal) fracas. All to the good despite the negativity, I say; better by far than if no one cared at all.

Didn't want to add fuel to the fire (or static to the already considerable noise), so I'll just comment on the whole debate here. Been an Asian living in America for five years, and for the past half decade, has not been entirely unaware of the problem of racism in this country. Been called everything from 'spic' to 'nigger' (apparently Filipinos are not a very common sight), and accused of being racist myself (among other less savory things). I get that sidelong glance when walking into a store, or public institution; I've felt that closemouthed tension whenever entering a room full of white people. Racism--or at least its simmering, tightly-plated-over-with-a-thick-layer-of-courtesy equivalent--is something I have to live with all the time.

I can see what an appalling tract Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is; I know something of its history, and the role it played in reviving the Ku Klux Klan. Watching the film, I cringe at the blackfaced stereotypes depicted onscreen, running apelike after Flora Cameron (the ever-sunny Mae Marsh), or wreaking havoc in Congress.

And it's not just the racism; if the racism were hamhanded and obvious (as I have to admit it often is here), it wouldn't be such a thorny issue. It's in how persuasive the film at its best can be. If a black man (or an actor in blackface) running after a woman hoping to have sex with her is too grotesque to take seriously, the subplot about the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) trying to force marriage with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) is sufficiently and subtly developed to actually make one bristle at the thought of a subhuman brute laying his hands on Gish's lily-white limbs (not to mention make one feel the satisfaction of seeing a do-gooding liberal (Austin Stoneman, played by Ralph Lewis) being confronted with the consequences of his own 'wrongheadedness'). The climax is easily the film's most powerful moment, a thrilling rescue sequence to rival anything done by Kurosawa or Spielberg, and not the least of Griffith's accomplishments is in having you cheer a band of Klansmen riding to the rescue.

All that said and considering what I am, I take what I think's the middle view on Griffith: the man was a social naïf, but he could direct like an angel (or devil, if you like). For every scene with a slouched and gibbering white man in blackface, he's got a scene of exuberant gallantry, like a wounded Confederate, defiantly stuffing a Union cannon with its own flag, or of surpassing tenderness, like a soldier's halting, hesitant homecoming. Griffith in film took sides and dug in like a soldier, and people cheered or condemned him for that--still do to this day. I do think you're probably something of a naïf if you can dismiss his racism as "a product of his times;" if you can manage to totally ignore his filmmaking, though, you're probably also blind (or maybe just not paying attention).

Also found in the commentary pages is a link to Cahiers du Cinema's 100 films pour une cinematheque ideale. It's not a bad effort, for an attempt at something definitive (personally, I prefer a whole score of lists, and refusing to tally them up in any shape or size whatsoever), and probably the most credible outside of Sight and Sound's and Senses of Cinema's.

I've heard minor cavils--no Borzage, no Naruse. To which I'd like to throw in "What, no Guru Dutt, or Raj Kapoor, or Bimal Roy (what, are Donen and Minnelli the only masters of the musical?); no Anthony Mann; no Hou Hsiao Hsien; no animation (unless you consider King Kong, which is arguably stop-motion)? Nicholas Ray represented by a kitschy work (I'd love to see him recognized for In a Lonely Place)?Welles present, but represented by the usual suspect (Citizen Kane--though it's nice to see Touch of Evil included)?"

To be fair, I do appreciate the high ranking of Laughton's Night of the Hunter, which critic David Ehrenstein considers the greatest American film ever made (I don't know if I'd go so far, but I understand where he's coming from, and I do love the picture myself), of M (my favorite Lang), and of City Lights, which I do love to death but have failed to keep in my own top ten , due to overfamiliarity. Maybe I should look at it again.

(But waitaminute--only one Keaton, while Chaplin has five? What's going on here? (Only, I suppose, the rubbing off of strange protuberances and projections in the lists--one reason I dislike tallies is that they usually end up giving us what the mainstream considers top quality; give me heterogeneous lists anytime, where a man's quirks and eccentricities are clearly on display))

But yeah--maybe the most painful omission is any word or mention of a Filipino filmmaker, Brocka or Bernal or Ad. Castillo or either of the two De Leons or Diaz or Red or even O'Hara. Still have a long way to go with the French critics, I suppose. To work, then.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Burn After Reading (Coen Brothers, 2008)

A sarcastic soufflé

Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading (2008) is their first feature film after last year's No Country for Old Men and by most standards it's a diminishment. Less ambitious, less grave (where No Country dealt with an inexorable, implacable mortality, in Burn mortality acts more like a caffeinated jack-in-the-box), less demanding of its audiences, it seems to resemble in tone and level of cynicism the kind of dry, dark comedies the Coens have made through the years, starting with--but their works have always been comic, from the ironic noir of Blood Simple (1984) through the leisurely narrative knots of Miller's Crossing (1990--arguably their finest) to the small-town caricatures of Fargo (1996).

No Country may be their least typical work, taking for its source (and tone, and essential spirit) a novel by Cormac McCarthy; there's a mournful, elegiac feel to the book that's entirely new to the Coens, a sense that the novel--and film adapted from it--values life and cares about its passing too much to fail to take it seriously, more seriously than the Coens ever have. It was enough to push people's sympathies over the edge, I suppose, to the point that the Coens have won commercial success, near-unanimous raves, and--finally--that collection of gold doorstops Hollywood values so highly.

And yet--for some reason I much prefer the Coens' latest. Yes it's less ambitious, yes it doesn't stretch or lead them over relatively unfamiliar (at least not in obvious ways) ground, yes it gives one the impression of the Coens tossing off an entertainment--a trifle--to their fans while their next major work gestates. But comfortable Coens are, it seems, confident Coens, with the effrontery that's their hallmark--where with No Country they seem subdued, cowed even, by McCarthy's reputation, dealing with their own material they're able to bring to Burn the spark that I thought was missing in No Country.

It isn't as if the novel was all that much--a strange man of indeterminate ethnicity with a hideous pageboy haircut (admittedly the Coens' own addition) wielding a captive bolt pistol isn't exactly my idea of fearsome Death (check out Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod (Destiny, 1921) for a more persuasive figure). The book alternated between a chase and endless musings on death and dying; its self-absorption seemed muted and puny compared to McCarthy's later, much more superior The Road, where the writer's traditionally lean prose is given tremendous emotional and dramatic force by the love of a doomed father for his doomed son. If No Country was a commercial success, I submit, that may be because of the Coens' crisp staging of McCarthy's action sequences; if a critical success, I submit that may be thanks to all the people snowed under by news of the brothers adapting the work of a major literary figure.

Which leads us back to Burn. Hardly anything weighty in Burn, an airy concoction with a decidedly acrid taste--a sarcastic soufflé, if you will. The Coens have traded the wide spaces of the American Southwest for the gray streets and hallways of the Capitol Beltway, turned in the realist acting of the No Country cast (excepting Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, who's basically the Terminator in an absurd bob cut (Bardem reportedly took one look at himself and said "I won't get laid for the next two months")) for the more energetic mugging of Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and George Clooney. This is farce, low farce, and the Coens play it perfectly: close in to catch every twisted expression, and in long takes that allow the performers to whip their comic inertia into a lather (I'd love to see the Coens tackle Oscar Wilde--not only do the sensibilities mesh, so does the pacing, somehow brisk and deliberate at the same time).

If there's anything at all new to the film, it's the gift the Coens seem to have acquired for ensemble work. They've told stories full of memorable supporting characters, but always with an ostensible protagonist, or at least one character dominating the foreground. With this picture no one really stands out (not always a bad thing), everyone works--hard--to achieve an overall frenzied quality. Malkovich (maybe the only casting choice I might quibble with) is a known quantity and frankly he's getting a little dull (even in Clint Eastwood's The Changeling you don't find much variety or surprise to him), but he doesn't detract; he pushes matters along with sufficient energy. Clooney depends on his famous handsomeness for comic effect, and a dependable handsomeness it is--it suggests leonine wisdom and grace where there isn't any, and you're constantly being surprised by the absence, thanks to the abundant surface evidence. McDormand--well, she's dependably varied, and here while the Coens do introduce her through a series of grotesque body parts (flabby upper arms, crow's-feet eyes, ballooning butt) her conniving Linda Litzke eventually becomes familiar, charming, even towards the end poignant. Richard Jenkins as Linda's boss and secret admirer functions as the only straightforward character in the picture, the gravely sane and sober lynchpin on which the whole unlikely enterprise turns.

Pitt--I've rarely if ever liked the actor. He was faintly ludicrous in Neil Jordan's Interview with a Vampire (1994), hilarious in Edward Zwick's Legends of the Fall (same year), forgettable in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel (2006), and made for an uncharismatic Jesse James in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, released last year. He did strike comic sparks from Guy Richie's Snatch (2000), a movie I otherwise detested, and does an okay understated turn in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean movies (where he's supported by a dozen other better actors), but here he's a wonder; can't believe how well he plays stupid. I'd call him the film's Ralph Bellamy--he lacks Bellamy's slyness, but has gotten the man's apparent cluelessness down pat.

And it's all much ado about nothing. Ultimately no one gets nowhere fast, even the holier-than-thou CIA sentinels watching pitilessly from their featureless Quantico office (they merely lose less than everyone else)--and that, I submit, is what makes Burn so unsettling. No one rises to the top, or stands out; we all strive and struggle according to our respective intellectual gifts (the film's tagline: "Intelligence is relative"), hamstrung by the same diabolical Fates (or by the same diabolical brothers, if you like). Resistance is not just futile, it's downright laughable.

First published in Businessworld, 11.21.08

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stuart Gordon's recent horrors ("Stuck" and "Edmond")


Stuart Gordon's recent horrors

Stuart Gordon's been a favorite of mine, and not just for directing the memorably over-the-top Re-Animator (1985). He's done immensely interesting work since, often for little money and even less public attention, flying below the radar to do the material he wants to do--another far more ambitious Lovecraft adaptation (Dagon, 2001) for one, and more domestic, or at least more recognizably realistic (but Gordon's always been realistic; he pretty much captured the tone and texture of pre-med campus life in Re-Animator, of clannishly unfriendly small coastal towns in Dagon) fare like the low-key King of the Ants (2003). Even his contribution to Mick Garris' Masters of Horror series, Dreams in the Witch House, is memorable, not the least because it features a yearning college student living next door to a beautiful single mother (one thing Gordon doesn't get near enough credit for is the eroticism in his films--beautiful, casually sensuous women, so approachable you imagine you can smell the scent of their hair); you can't help but like the two, they seem to have wonderful chemistry together, and you're all the more appalled at what ultimately happens between them.

Gordon's still active; surprised the hell out of me when I learned that he had made something just last year (it opened to limited release just May this year): Stuck, about a woman high on Ecstasy and alcohol who hits a homeless man with her car and drives home with the man sticking out of her windshield. She parks the car in her garage then leaves the man there, still half out of her windshield, for several days.

It's the kind of scenario so outlandish it can't possibly be true, only it is. Gordon's trick is to use his trademark handheld tracking shot (which serves superbly for this purpose) to follow both Brandi the driver (Mena Suvari) and Thomas the victim (Stephen Rea), peering over their shoulders, earning for them our familiarity and sympathy, as they cope with their respective days. Gordon provides plenty of wince-inducing moments (among others, the sickening snap as Thomas' leg shatters against Brandi's front bumper--though my personal favorite is the little dog that manages to wiggle into the garage and find Thomas lying inside). What sharpens that horror, what makes us catch our collective breaths and want to scream or yell at them not to do this or that (or to please do this, please do that) is the fact that we're totally taken by these two characters, we believe in them as human beings. Thomas is a bit more complex (and tragic) than the martyred saint he could easily have ossified into, and Brandi isn't just some pill-popping, booze-swilling monster we can simply boo at. We hope for one to survive, for the other to get away with it, and we're constantly spinning on our heels, trying to decide just who to root for.

Throw in the film's not inconsiderable sense of humor, which veers wildly from goofy to grotesque and at its best is both at the same time (at one point Brandi looks at Thomas' apparently lifeless body hanging from the windshield and, seeing him move, bitterly demands "why are you doing this to me?!") and what you have is--well, I haven't quite seen the like of it before, but I hope to see it from Gordon again, or better.

If I think Gordon's doing good work at the moment that's nothing, I submit (or at least not all that much), to what he did some three years back. Edmond is an adaptation of a David Mamet play, and most critics take it as an early manifestation of Mamet's ideas--the subversive machismo/misogyny/racism that turns out to be critique (or celebration--the ambiguity is why Mamet's so fascinating) of itself, the lone male protagonist who faces a hostile world of pimps and hustlers and women (who if they don't want money up front don't want to hear any more of Edmond's intensely felt philosophy).

But Gordon in one sense made Mamet--he (being an established figure in the Chicago theater scene) encouraged the writer in his early days, and staged Mamet's award-winning Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Gordon was familiar with Mamet before almost everyone else was, and I submit that his adaptation of Edmond is less an adaptation and more a collaboration of two brilliant minds. Have not seen this staged (according to Gordon aside from a few early scenes very little was added or changed), but Edmond's journey through the streets and alleyways of Chicago suggests a kind of personal odyssey, one perfectly visualized by Gordon's aforementioned trademark over-the-shoulder tracking shot, made even more vivid by his insistence in holding the lens tight on Edmond (played with feral fatalism--leastways that's the best way I can describe it--by William Macy).

Gordon keeps the buildings crowding around Macy, and confines him to dark corners and dingy apartments (one's memory of where Macy comes from--a luxurious, antiseptically clean high-rise--helps heighten the contrast between his former and present life). In effect the whole city becomes a kind of shadowy tunnel, a birth canal if you will, leading him by reverse labor contractions inexorably to the cramped little womb numbered 115 that the fortuneteller at film's beginning prophesized was his destiny.

"You are not where you belong," the seer tells him point-blank; Edmond blinks and taking her cue, begins his long descent downwards. Forget the outdated references or milieu (Edmond today might have carried a cellphone, which would have helped him out of various scrapes)--more than Re-Animator (a comedy about dead people stubbornly refusing to stay dead), or Stuck (another comedy, about a live person stubbornly refusing to die), Edmond is Gordon's definitive horror film, a relentlessly deadpan comedy about a man who, dissatisfied with his present status, stubbornly insists on looking for his proper place in life, and--most awful fate of all--finds it. A great film, I think, and Gordon's masterpiece.

Friday, November 07, 2008

An unlikely candidate wins; a famous hack passes

In the light of recent events, had this to say:

The morning after November 4 the kids were asking "did you vote?" To which I said "no," and explained about my status. I added: "the White House though, isn't as white as it used to be, is it?"

After which I launched into a short rant on the significance of the recent US election, saying "I'm not a citizen, and in one way that's a disadvantage--I'm not as involved and don't have as much at stake in this as you do (in a way that's not completely true, though; as a tax-paying US resident, as a citizen of a world dominated by the United States, I do have considerable stakes. Have huge emotional stakes, anyway, citizen or no citizen). On the other hand, think of me as a man from Mars who has come to Earth to have a looksee.

"I've been accused by other kids of being anti-American (some portions of my lecture on Philippine history gave rise to this); I don't agree--America as a huge and powerful country will have its share of faults and virtues, mistakes and achievements. I happen to point them all out when I'm talking. I don't believe in sugarcoating.

"In this case, I think Obama's win is a showcase of one of this country's most admirable virtues, the tremendous possibilities presented to each and every one no matter what class, creed, or skin color. This is one moment in your history when my admiration for this country is ascendant. You should be proud--I am proud, of you, of what your people have done."

I ended the little speech with a: "Doesn't matter what your political affiliations are, Obama's victory means this: if a black man from a broken family can make it to the White House, then what can you, any of you, even me, what are we capable of doing? How high can we rise, now that we've been shown what's possible? Think about it."

On an admittedly more negative note, Michael Crichton has died at the age of 66.

He's done some good work. I think the best book he's ever written was The Andromeda Strain, where the star was a deadly microbe; I even liked the crisp 1971 adaptation done by Robert Wise (the recent miniseries, though, is a lengthy bore). I liked Westworld (1973), easily the best job of directing he's ever done (it helped that he had such a strong premise--the theme park as a reality show--and Yul Brynner as a terrifyingly implacable robot gunslinger). I liked The Lost World (1997), where Spielberg turned Crichton's dully sociopathic dinosaurs into hilariously sociopathic slapstick artists, able to provoke laughter as readily as shrieks. I even liked Kaufman's version of one of Crichton's novels, Rising Sun (1993).

He knew how to extrapolate a gripping premise from the latest in techonological and sociological trends, he knew how to frame said premise in a provocative way, and he knew how to market the hell out of it. What he didn't know how to do is write decent prose, and populate his books with sufficiently engaging, convincingly human characters (it says something of a writer when his dinosaurs are more expressive than his ostensibly human heroes).

I remember his Rising Sun, which film critic David Ehrenstein accuses of racism. I do think the novel is racist, but that filmmaker Philip Kaufman manages to subvert the book's themes, mainly by pushing them to one side and concentrating on making a great-looking film, sensual and playful with the conventions of noir and the sex thriller.

Coming away from Kaufman's picture, I pretty much summed up the film's theme as this: that the Japanese are gradually rendering the American businessman irrelevant, and that the true conflict will be fought between rival Japanese companies, not American ones (of course this was in the '90s; Japan and the world's economy were in better shape then).

I'd seen--and enjoyed--Kaufman's film first. Then I picked a paperback off of a Wal Mart shelf (funny how Crichton's novels seem to belong there) and towards the book's end read exactly that premise, blurted out loud by one of the man characters. Apparently Kaufman was able to suggest the film's themes without using a single word of Crichton's flatfooted dialogue.

In Disclosure he just about stated the same thing--this time women and not the Japanese would meet and battle as equals, and men would find themselves irrelevant.


Crichton's philosophy might more or less be found in one of his books--I'm thinking Jurassic Park (or was it The Lost World?), where one of the scientists (can't remember his name, only that Jeff Goldblum played him) declares that we shouldn't whine about saving the Earth; the Earth will be fine; it's our own survival we should be concerned about. He may have a point, but beneath that statement is the implication that if we do die, that's because we're stupid, and we deserve to die. There's a strong evolutionary (Libertarian?) strain running through his books (the question is always which is the strongest female or strongest Japanese or strongest dinosaur, ) and while I'm a strong believer that Darwin's theory applies to the natural world, I don't think it should necessarily apply as freely and thoroughly to our modern society. Choosing to follow or not follow trends in nature, after all, is one thing that distinguishes us from animals--one thing that marks us as fully human.

Imelda Marcos introduced, Pete Lacaba elaborated

Presented Imelda (Ramona Diaz, 2003) to my gaggle of American youths and while they didn't take to it with the same enthusiasm as they did to Insiang, they did find fascinating the idea of a woman who owned thousands of shoes (the final tally is 1,060 pairs, including one battery operated model that sparkled in the dark).

There's nothing really new about what Diaz deals with in her documentary--basically skims over Imelda's early life; her meteoric rise to fame as senator's, then president's wife; her years as right hand to Marcos' increasingly insatiable pair of hands during the Martial Law years; her decline, fall, period of exile, eventual homecoming, surreal rehabilitation (of sorts) and present state of--well, that part's complicated.

There's plenty to gawk at in this documentary, not the least of which are the shoes (the girls had a field day oohing and aahing their color and variety) that emerge one after another like so many stars, forming a collage of Imelda's face on the video screen. Perhaps the documentary's greatest virtue is in shaping all the stories about Imelda, from truthful to apologetic to delusional to downright bizarre, into an overall narrative as told through her own words, in a series of lengthy interviews Ms. Diaz did with the former First Lady (Imelda has since attempted--and succeeded for a time--to have the documentary banned when it screened in the Philippines).

The early Imelda impressed the kids; "she's so pretty," was a common judgment; some couldn't believe it when I told them that she was over seventy years of age at the time the doc was made (I couldn't resist mentioning that considerable plastic surgery had as much to do with her looks as the natural youthfulness of Asian women). The comments dried up as the documentary advanced; Diaz used the simple but apparently effective stratagem of allowing Imelda to speak freely, then showing testimony that either qualified or contradicted her words. Sometimes opposing testimony wasn't even needed--the kids stared in openmouthed wonder while she voiced out her wish that an assassin's bolo knife had been wrapped in a yellow ribbon (to make it prettier, she said) before it stabbed her eleven times (I happen to know the plastic surgeon--yes, she had one, denials notwithstanding--who fixed the scars). Later Imelda launches into one of her famed philosophical discourses, where she describes how man can be symbolized by a pie divided into three slices (body, spirit, soul), and how a missing slice can leave the pie looking like a Pac man ("she's got to be on drugs," one young man told me).

The girls were more direct in voicing their opinion--while most hated her with a passion, one did believe that there's nothing shown here that definitively proved that she did anything wrong. "It's all her husband's fault," the girl declared, and wouldn't change her mind, even when the others ribbed her mercilessly about it (I had to at one point step in and stop their teasing). One did admit that she'd be willing to be Imelda's friend, if only she could have a few pairs of those shoes. Almost all expressed a wish to visit the Philippines, if only to see the collection (I told them the shoes were enshrined in a museum in Marikina).

Imelda has oft been compared to Eva Peron (asked why she refuses to allow Andrew Lloyd Weber's well-known musical to be performed in the Philippines, to which she replies: "because I am not a prostitute"). Perhaps a more fruitful comparison might be made instead to Norma Desmond, the aging diva from Sunset Boulevard (another Andrew Lloyd Weber production, come to think of it, based on Billy Wilder's film): she's out of step with the world, and all her loyalists are working heart and soul to keep her in that state, and woe to the unfortunate man or woman within earshot who should happen to try and wake her up. As Joe Gillis put it: "You don't yell at a sleepwalker--he may fall and break his neck. That's it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career." Imelda is both tribute to and expose of (at least to those who know little about her) that lost career, and the woman who both lived and dreamed it.

I mentioned knowing some of the faces in the film--Fr. James Reuter ("arrested in the '70s; during the 1986 presidential snap elections, ran a backup independent vote count"); Behn Cervantes ("arrested and imprisoned"); Pete Lacaba ("arrested, imprisoned for two years, tortured; wrote the few openly anti-Marcos films made while Marcos was in power").

Some of the more hardened youths wanted to know more details about Lacaba's incarceration. I handed them Lacaba's own testimony, written in his own blog. The immediate reaction was to say "that's crazy;" more telling, however, was the room's emotional atmosphere after I'd given a few details about his interrogation ordeal. Before this the boys and girls were enjoying Imelda's wackiness as the eccentricities of yet another nutty international celebrity (an older Paris Hilton, they thought, or Britney Spears). At least Norma sleepwalking hurt only herself and those who loved her; Imelda's waking dream meant the very real suffering of an entire country, for decades. Confronted with a human face representing the cost of Imelda and her husband's eighteen year rule, the laughter died down considerably.

Lacaba towards the end tells of how his deposition and ten thousand others helped win a human rights lawsuit against the Marcoses amounting to a billion dollars. He never for a moment believed he would see the money; neither did I, and neither did any of the kids who read his story--it's almost an abstract figure in its immensity.

There was, however, an interesting footnote. A deal is being made, to pay a hundred million dollars to the complainants (Lacaba included) in exchange for the dropping of all charges. Where a billion seems silly, a hundred million does not (especially where the Marcoses are concerned). Suddenly, Lacaba is confronted with a troubling choice: take what amounts to a million dollars in hard cash and a lifetime of fair financial comfort in exchange for one's right to persecute a man for taking away two years of one's life (not to mention admitting one's incarceration and torture was "a figment of my overheated imagination"). I put the question to the kids.

Male and female, the answers were pretty much unanimous; "take the money!" One did opine that he understood where Lacaba was coming from--this was honor Lacaba was talking about (nevertheless, he'd take the loot). "I can do a lot of good to myself and my loved ones with that money," one boy tells me, "than I ever can trying to sue that woman's ass."

A girl did say "He's a brave man, sir." Many asked if he took the money, to which I noted this: that at 111 pounds at the time of his arrest and having just recovered from pulmonary tuberculosis (he experienced a recurrence during his prison term), the weakest of them--girls included--could have beaten him up. But he has, far as I know, a will of iron; he never broke during his two years' imprisonment and far as I can tell he's never given in on anything in his life. Knowing Lacaba his record and a bit of the man himself, he's probably still poor as a church mouse, writing away his news articles and film scripts, seeking what in effect is the ultimate verdict on a crucial period of his life.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Der Mude Tod (Destiny, Fritz Lang, 1921)

Death becomes her

Fritz Lang's 1921 Der Mude Tod (Destiny), which the Goethe Institute will be presenting this November 8, 7 pm at the St. Joseph Parish Church Las Pinas (Stephan von Bothmer to play accompaniment in the church's famous bamboo organ), is a wonder of a film, and a hugely influential one. Its effects have inspired Raoul Walsh's 1924 Thief of Baghdad, not to mention Michael Powell's 1940 remake. Its portrait of Death (Bernhard Goetzke) has affected both F.W. Murnau's outsized Mephisto (played by the equally outsized Emil Jannings), looming over Murnau's 1927 masterpiece Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (Faust - A German Folktale) and Ingmar Bergman's famously pale and hooded figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot) in Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957)--and, if I'm not mistaken, has lent a bittersweet flavor to Lotte Reiniger's Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926). It set a young Luis Bunuel on the path to filmmaking, and is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite films.

The story is simple enough--a young woman (Lil Dagover) realizes that Death has taken her lover (Walter Janssen); she attempts suicide, but is stopped at the entranceway to the afterlife by Death. She begs him to let her beloved go, and Death, professing a weariness of his role as doomsayer and all-around spoilsport, presents a counteroffer: he will let her lover go if she can save at least one of three lives in danger of being extinguished.

Over and over again the young woman tries; in various forms--as a Caliph's slave, as a Renaissance lady, as a Chinese magician's assistant--she's constantly risking life and limb to save her lover, who also takes on various roles. Over and over again the young man is stabbed, shot with an arrow, buried alive; Death, the third party in this triangle, each time takes on the role of enabler or executioner, each time is labeled with names like "The Moor" or "El Mot." The repetition becomes inevitable, oppressive; the woman's plight gains a sharpened sense of fatalistic poignancy with each succeeding failure.

Is the story key, however, to the film's greatness? I don't know--the script seems mostly a series of scenarios, designed to appeal to an audience's desire for foreign exotica (interesting though that Lang (with the help of his wife and scenarist Thea von Harbou) manages to impose a rigorously defining pattern over all that variety, and out of that pattern work out the film's themes), with a last-minute moral point thrown in. Possibly a matter of taste, but give me Goethe's style of dramaturgy in his masterwork, where the moral quandary is thoroughly foreshadowed, exhaustively debated, constantly framed and re-framed in each and every scene the hero is in, to the point that the tension becomes almost unbearable when the deadline nears and Faust's soul is in peril of damnation.

It doesn't help that Dagover represents the kind of heavy-boned Teutonic type actress, full of 19th century theatrical gestures that weighs on the early scenes of tender romance. It's only later, when she's lit and shot to emphasize her suffering, when she transcends hysteria to attain a higher plane of what I suppose is serenity (or the kind of acceptance you see in dumb beasts about to go under the knife) that she acquires a martyr's beauty.

Goetzke, though, makes for a perfect Death. Solemn and serene, with massive architectural cheeks and sunken eyes that Lang as often obscures in hooded shadows as he does reveal in flat, undistinguished light (Goetzke's gaze actually seems more expressive, more human when it's hidden). You don't doubt that he's the ancestor of Eskerot's Death; you also don't doubt that the original is more inscrutable, more serenely unsettling.

Beyond Goetzke, though, is Lang's inimitable filmmaking. Working on a limited budget (I imagine Murnau and Griffith (whose Intolerance (1916) was an aesthetic ancestor in its use of multiple storylines and fatalist tone) enjoyed more financial resources while doing their fantasies), Lang creates a metaphysical drama as compelling, if not more so, using effects as basic as lighting, framing, and the multiple exposure. Death comes to a small Flemish town, buys land near a cemetery, erects an impossibly high wall around the land without gate or door; Lang shoots the wall head-on, filling the screen with mortared stone--we see Death walking at the foot of the wall, a small figure cuing us to the size and scale of the edifice. The young woman picks up a bottle of poison; Lang drops out the image of her actually drinking and fades directly to her hands in repose, her face looking in wonder at her suddenly new surroundings (it's as if Lang were suggesting death was as much a matter of falling asleep and dreaming as it was a state of physical reality). She walks through a portal shaped and lit to resemble a shining sword (a metaphysical blade, that inserts itself between the realms of life and death?), to a staircase that reaches endlessly heavenwards.

In the Muslim sequence one remembers the rooftop sequence, the sense of dread felt while waiting for the young woman to realize her lover's fate; Lang stages this as if it were a play, with the crucial action happening off-camera, leaving the audience with this urgent need to look down past the lower right side of the screen. In the Renaissance sequence one remembers the gigantic curtains, the deadly duel played out before it moving back and forth, the assassin behind the curtains preparing to deal the death blow (if in earlier story death is brutally out in the open here, Lang suggests, death is the distance in steps from an unnoticed curtain, and a treacherously hidden poisoned blade). In the third sequence the lovers transform into a holy statue and a giant cat, a startling show of imagination and defiance in the face of the inevitable.

The film's finest effect, however, is its simplest: a trio of candles that gradually expire, one after another, at the end of each story. A more potent image of the transient nature of life I'd be hard put to name; the smoke curling up from the just-extinguished flame suggests just-snuffed souls rising heavenwards.

I called the film's conclusion a 'sudden moral point.' I'm being ungenerous--it's an ironic finale that plays ruthlessly fair to the story's premise, at the same time it mutes the harsh conclusion with a strange tenderness. The film's German title translates literally to "the weary Death," and throughout the film you can't help but feel that despite his impassivity, Death does harbor some sympathy for the film's heroine; the conclusion, unless I'm reading too much between the lines (between the intertitles?) seems to bear this out. It's a great albeit flawed film, very much worth watching. Go, see.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel 2007)

(This is part of the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival which is ongoing until Oct. 29 at the Gateway Cineplex 10, Gateway Mall, Araneta Center, QC.)

If you could see all through my eye

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is based on a book by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do, as friends call him) who suffered a stroke, fell into a coma for twenty days, and woke up with a rare condition, "locked-in syndrome." He could think, smell, hear (faintly), see, but couldn't move a single muscle in his entire body with one exception--his left eye.

Schnabel tackles head-on the challenge which one filmmaker or another has dreamed of, telling a story almost exclusively through a single point of view (Orson Welles planned to film Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" this way; Robert Montgomery actually succeeded with Lady in the Lake (1947), even if the results aren't always compelling). Schnabel succeeds, perhaps not completely, but more than any previous filmmaker I can think of, with the first forty minutes almost exclusively told through Bauby's left eye (exceptions include a brief flashback, and a harrowing sequence where Bauby's immobile right eye is being 'occluded').

Welles' and Montgomery's problem, of course, was in attempting to create the illusion of the protagonist's point of view as an uninterrupted shot (with all its accompanying technical and dramatic difficulties). We know of course that this isn't so--our view is constantly interrupted by eyeblinks and sudden shifts in attention (the eye moving too fast for images to register clearly); it's obscured by eyelashes, momentary blurring, even tears. Schnabel (with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) painstakingly recreates each of these effects with cinematic analogues, using jump cuts (for blinks), flickering shadows (for lashes), out-of-focus lensing and smeared imagery for blurring and tears. Then there are subtler effects, like cutting off the heads and shoulders of people talking to Bauby, to underscore the fact that his view of the world comes entirely from one eye, and that the eye is unable to move.

But Bauby's eye is only half his capability to apprehend and comprehend the world; the other half is his inner eye, which surveys the double realm of memory and imagination. Schnabel conceives of memory as looking like old film footage, with handheld camerawork and the slightly washed-out colors of old Super 8; imagination is granted an altogether different look, with gliding camera moves (suggesting a freedom he doesn't have), opulent colors (suggesting a voluptuousness he can't feel), crystal clarity, and the occasional, defiantly surreal image (a wheelchaired Bauby on a wooden platform standing in the middle of an ocean; the wind whipping a woman's hair into a frenzy of seething serpents; Empress Eugenie running and Nijinsky leaping through the corridors of the hundreds of years old hospital). Perhaps the single most inspiring shot is that of a gigantic iceberg stretching from one side of the screen to the other in all its detailed majesty, collapsing slowly into the ocean; by film's end the process is reversed, and the shards of ice leap up from the boiling seawater to re-form, jigsaw-puzzlelike, back into the glacier--a more bravura image of reversal, renewal, redemption, of defiance in the face of entropy, would be difficult to find in recent cinema.

Audio at the very least makes up half of Schnabel's arsenal. When people talk to Bauby, we hear them through the film's standard stereo track, complete with ambient outdoor or indoor sounds; when we hear Bauby talking to himself it's as if he speaks in a locked room, a small one at that--we can sense the room's size (or lack of) through the voice's reverberations (or lack of).

The soundtrack, which includes Bach and pop standards like Charles Trenet's "La Mer" and Tom Waits' "All the World is Green," betray Schnabel's film-literate orientation (I wouldn't know about the real-life Bauby). He includes excerpts from the lush piano score of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and from the score of Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)--in particular the piercingly beautiful passage when Doinel rides the police van through the night streets of Paris, and the city never looked more magical or unreachable (no accident, I suspect, that the excerpt was taken from Doinel's last night before incarceration). At one point he calls his favorite spot in the hospital--an open terrace looking out on a small suburban town--his Cinecitta, after the famed Roman studio, and indeed there's something of the stage, or dais, or podium about his vantage point, something of the artificially miniaturized studio set about the town in view.

The effect of Bauby speaking out to correct or contradict or protest the images fed to him by his eye can at times be humorous (as when a hospital staff turns off the soccer game he's watching) or heartrending (as when he begs them to leave his right eye alone). It's the helplessness, you imagine, of Montresor rattling his bells inside his walled-in tomb, in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," or of Emily Webb mourning the wasted ruin of her life in Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. it's the helplessness and isolation we all feel at one time or another, that we somehow can't fully engage the outside world in the manner we'd prefer, that the universe is a complex and hostile and unknowable place, that we somehow can't connect with one another, no matter how hard we try. Of course, Bauby could only appreciate what he has--or had--just when he's lost them; he seems to connect best with other people, especially the mother of his children Celine (Emmanuelle Signer) only when that connection is at its most physically challenging. It's not the medium that matters, Schnabel seems to tell us, but the content, and the passion with which one wants to communicate said content.

Or is it as simple as all that? Perhaps Schnabel means to say that medium does matter, that it's the daunting nature of the challenge that forces Bauby to reach out and 'touch' someone. One only has to sit down and see the film, appreciate how natural Schnabel's effects can be, how effortlessly he lets us slip--that's the proper word, I think--into Bauby's shoes (suit, if you like), show us what Bauby's thinking, what he's up against, and what, most of all, is at stake. If the film has any power, if it maintains such a masterful grip on our emotions and imagination, that may be because Bauby's situation is really ours (considerably exaggerated), and his story, realized through Schnabel's tremendous filmmaking capabilities, is our own--we hear him speak for us in his locked-away voice, watch him look for us with fear and wonder at a strange, at times hostile world using his restlessly roving eye.


Interesting--ironic, even--that on its journey from page to screen the film's very story underwent mediation, distortion, transformation. According to an article in online magazine Salon, the women in Bauby's life served radically different roles--the mother of Bauby's children (real name Sylvie de la Rochefoucauld) visited at most a few times, while Bauby's gilrfriend (real name Florence), depicted onscreen as being too frightened to actually go and see him-- was at his side every day.

Should we dismiss the picture for its lack of accuracy, or call the news story a slanderous hoax directed at an international boxoffice success (funny how people rarely if ever sue an international boxoffice failure)? I say this: the truth must out, the truth must be known and told and retold alongside the film's screening venue--one must be aware of Bauby's real story, same time one must appreciate the film's many felicities and innovations. It's a mixed bag of truth and delusion and invention, but then, so is any film, and so are we alll.

Allow me to put it on record, say it aloud as plainly as I can: Le Scaphandre et le papillon is easily the best film of 2007 and Julian Schnabel, with his slim portfolio of films, arguably the finest filmmaker working at the moment.

First published in Businessworld, 10.22.08