Saturday, September 27, 2008

Thomas M. Disch, 1940 - 2008


Thomas M. Disch, 1940 - 2008

The man shot himself, presumably over the burden of many recent adverse events--but then he'd always been fascinated with suicide, and can have a friendly, even mordantly flippant attitude towards it.

So loud was the outcry over his passing that I missed this obituary (or was too busy to notice it) for over two months. No surprise; he's a writer with a special flavor, one not meant to please as many people as possible--only those with particular palates. 


I remember first reading Camp Concentration back in college (I think), and noting how fine the writing was; even the cruder jokes had wit (graffiti found on a wall: "THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD," only with the space between "PEN" and "IS" eliminated). One of his earlier works, Camp Concentration, had a pleasing structure (diary of a political prisoner divided into two halves, with an entire central section devoted to a series of chaotic, near-lunatic entries written during a period where the prisoner learns he'd been infected with a fatal, intelligence-enhancing disease) and a neat twist of an ending, something Disch would make less use of in his later works--they would feel more unpredictably lifelike, less satisfactorily conclusive, would mimic the lulling rhythms of the everyday punctuated by sudden bursts of high drama. The twists when they came had a more random quality to them--while there were surprises in Camp, you could look back at previous pages and note the carefully laid details foreshadowing what was coming (in something like The M.D. the only hint would be the prophecy of an untrustworthy god).


I think 334 was his masterpiece (no surprise there); the novel is difficult to describe because it encapsulates an entire and entirely persuasive world of flawed people living recognizably humdrum lives, blind to the grand scheme of which they are part. You actually get to see the grand scheme in the novel, when at one point they print a three-dimensional diagram tracing the lives and interactions of various characters under different modes ( don't have the book with me, so I can't actually list down said modes).

It sounds like an intellectually pretentious exercise but Disch is a tremendous writer--his prose (he's an accomplished poet, and what little I've read seems excellent) is precise, dry in tone yet emotionally evocative when needed (Mrs. Hanson's final monologue is, to my mind, one of the most heartbreaking arias I've ever read). The characters flitting in and out and sometimes making guest appearances in other stories grow on you to the point that they seem like next-door neighbors you greet with delight when you see them again, or wonder about when you don't; I say this of even the worse of them, which is one pleasure of fiction--the most repulsive characters are bearable because they don't live next door to you.

If there's a recent equivalent, it would be Krzysztof Kieslowski's TV series Dekalog, with ten occasionally interacting stories dealing (in a complex manner) with the Ten Commandments. The series' characters share the same setting (a drab housing project that could have been modeled after the giant apartment building in 334) and the series itself uses a similar emotional palette (though arguably Disch's is the more astringent): often dreary, at times despairing; sometimes sharply, blackly funny; on occasion able to lift itself up into unforgettable flight.

The Prisoner, an adaptation of the legendary science-fiction TV series starring Patrick McGoohan I can barely remember much of, except that I enjoyed it very much, and Rover (the balloon sentinel that menaced McGoohan) had a more vivid, more terrifyingly anthropomorphic demeanor in the book.

A growing number of readers consider On the Wings of Song, the picaresque odyssey of a young man across a future America, his masterpiece. I remember three things about the book: that it was the first time I realized Disch was gay (and not shy about it), that its vision of a religiously conservative middle America (Iowa as a theocracy) seems to have been chillingly realized in the past few decades; and that Disch in the novel creates a terrifyingly persuasive vision of the afterlife, heavenly in its beauty, hellish in its random and absolute lack of purpose or meaning. I'd had strong hints before in 334 and Camp Concentration, but it's with this book that I realized Disch was a scary, scary writer. 


If one knows Disch at all, it's probably for The Brave Little Toaster, about a Sunbeam, an electric blanket, and a number of other common appliance who decide to set out and find their long-absent owner. Creating empathy, even pathos out of inanimate objects is possible, possibly easy (Poe did it; so did Twain and Hemingway); Disch's accomplishment was to do it within the confines of children's literature (later adapted into an animated feature, with even a sequel written, and an animated feature made out of that), keeping it ostensibly light while hinting at the darker implications behind planned obsolescence, and abandoned appliances.

The Businessman: A Tale of Terror is I believe (someone correct me if I'm mistaken) his first explicit work of horror (if I remember something he'd written or had been written about him, he'd abandoned science fiction for a hopefully more lucrative genre--a sad development). Elaborating on the metaphysical world of On The Wings of Song, Disch creates an often comic, often horrifying world of wandering suicides and demon children spawned by ghosts and their murderers (a first in fantasy literature, Disch claims, though I think Joss Whedon tried for something similar years later (the spawn of two vampires) in his TV series Angel).

Something I'd love to try is Disch 1987 computer game Amnesia, intriguingly described as accurately modeling the streets and buildings (and even opening and closing times of various businesses) of Manhattan. It's one of the rare interactive games written by a major writer, even if half of Disch's novel-length prose was cut due to the disk's limited storage space (Now that I'd thought to look for it, the game can be downloaded. Oh goody!).


He'd written more, but The M.D.: A Horror Story is the latest of his I'd read. The story revolves around Billy Michaels, a young boy who comes into possession of a stick with magic powers (albeit powers imaginatively circumscribed by a specific and even logical set of rules), and what he does with it. Disch shows us the step-by-step process by which Billy grows in skill and power, and eventually becomes a world-famous figure upon reaching full adulthood. It's an American success story that opens up into a modern-day horror epic, with worldwide consequences and chilling echoes of the AIDS epidemic (remember, there were whispered rumors that AIDs was a created disease, designed to wipe out homosexuals).

Disch has always tended towards horror (witness On the Wings of Song, of all novels, where the descripton of a simple whirring gadget and its effect on a wandering spirit had me breaking out in cold sweat); here the tendency blooms in all its nightshade glory. Stephen King in an introduction to the paperback edition notes the kind of chills inspired by such simple material as a kite and its string, but for me arguably the most powerful episode involves the fairy-tale irony of a blessing Billy bestows on his younger brother, granting the unborn child unfailing health--never felt before or since have I appreciated the power (and danger) of wishes, that they might come true.

What makes the novel truly memorable though is that one never loses one's sympathy for Billy, even at his most flawed, even at his most powerful. Disch shows us the traumas and disappointments, the hopes and dreams that shaped him, and how this was all involved in creating the monster that he's become. And he is a monster; Billy by novel's end is given a chance to articulate his full rationale for doing what he did, and it's a reasonable, even logical rationale, but nevertheless monstrous. We understand him, even if we're horrified by him.

Disch is an important American writer; I believed that when I read him, and still do. That his passing is so little noticed--well, he's always been an ironic writer, and his subtly nuanced stories (rendered in sharp prose and believable detail) have always been stiffened with a rigorous appreciation of the absurdity found in life and in human thinking--even in his own thinking. I think he would have enjoyed this final joke as well.

Paul Newman, 1925 -2008

Paul Newman Dies at 83

Good man, good work, will be missed.

Okay, I do have more to say:

He was saddled with a resemblance to Brando in his youth but evenutally moved on to his own distinct persona; he was difficult to take seriously thanks to his prettiness and likability, but managed to make people forget one (at least long enough to make em realize he was good), learned to use the latter in unsettling ways (Hud being I think the best example, Hudsucker being the latest). He managed to work with some great directors (Hitchcock, Altman, Scorsese), but arguably did his best work with low-key craftsmen.

Torn Curtain, The Hudsucker Proxy, Absence of Malice, Buffalo Bill and the Indians his movies with Martin Ritt (Hud, The Long Hot Summer), with Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth), and my favorite, with Robert Rossen in The Hustler. Him I'll miss.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Empire online's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time

Okay.

Lemme get this straight.

Rob Reiner is a greater filmmaker than either Victor Erice or Sam Peckinpah.

Peter Jackson is superior to both Andrei Tarkovsky and Orson Welles (who at most rates a #28 with his Citizen Kane), and

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the second greatest movie of all time?

Holy $#@!, Mother f>>>ing Jesus *&%#ing Christ, what the God-damned @$#&%*?+&???!!! were those ten thousand two hundred morons smoking when they cooked up this list? I want a hit too.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading (Coen Brothers, 2008)

The Coens' Burn After Reading (2008) by any standard is a letdown from their previous film, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (2007)--it's more shallow, more cynical, more a regression than a step forward.

And yet for some reason I prefer it to the latter. Not a big fan of No Country (as I think I made clear); I understand it as the Coens' attempt to stretch, to reach out for a more mainstream audience, but on their own terms, and to the extent that they did reach people it's successful (successful enough to win them a gold doorstop or two)--at the expense, I submit, of aforementioned terms.

Now that they've shrunk back into their shell, so to speak, I'd say it's freed them to be really subversive (think Keaton who, after trying out a smile in one of his films, found the gesture so deafeningly off-key he never tried it again). On the surface these are the shenanigans of a handful of not very bright people, with the true CIA agents watching from their little cubbyhole office like cherubim shaking their heads at the folly of mortals (love that shot of McDormand looking up at the helicopter--she in effect's been granted a brief vision of the real order of things).

Beneath that bright surface you sense troubling currents--the pathos of creatures of limited ability and knowledge, struggling and striking out in the dark, succeeding only in drawing the net tighter about them. The whisper of sympathy one finds in an outright Coen comedy seems sublter, more persuasive, and less hypocritical, I thin, than the full wind of professed humanity that blows when they're channeling another writer (in this case a novel that's far from being McCarthy's best, I think). In other words, I prefer them when they underachieve than when they overreach, at least in this case, anyway.

And is it too heretical to say I enjoyed Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) more? Stiller's far as I'm concerned comedic--scratch that; would love to parody people who use that word, but can't muster the energy to bother-- comic masterpiece (the set bar isn't very high) is possibly the best movie about a movie movie since, oh, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980) (I'd mention Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998), but that film's so clearly above mere comedy--or for that matter either movie--that I couldn't muster the effrontery). The picture peaks early, with the image of Stiller sucking the drippings off of Steve Coogan's severed neck, but manages to go on to be arguably the definitive satire on actorly ego, obsession and sense of inferiority, something Stiller apparently knows from bitter personal experience. Nothing visually interesting--Stiller I assume is from the school of not caring how a comedy looks, more's the pity--but I do enjoy some of the more disparate references he manages to insert, a low-status artform he's some kind of default master of (to whit, Bridge on the River Kwai and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Downey is dependably good; Cruise surprisingly so (what is it with him and Pitt (who was memorable in Burn?). Are the overrated stars of the '90s trying to pull their respective careers out of the Doghouse of the Forgotten by actually, y'now, acting?).



Bangkok Dangerous (Danny and Oxide Pang 2008)

Dud Thai

Danny and Oxide Pang's Bangkok Dangerous their remake of their 1999 debut picture is pretty much the latest in an endless line of corpses that fail to survive the transition from across the Pacific.

Not that the Pang brothers are all that; the original Dangerous is pretty much your standard-issue assassin-for-hire flick, made to seem fresh and exciting by the Pang's now familiar Hong Kong-style action filmmaking, and set in the relatively exotic locales of Thailand (the Pangs are from Hong Kong, but make movies in their adopted country). Details matter, of course: the original's killer protagonist (Kong, played by Pawalit Mongkolpisit) is a deaf-mute, taken in by an experienced hitman named Joe (Pisek Intrakanchit) who trains him in the art of assassination. It's perhaps the brothers' most brilliant conceit--in one stroke they eliminate the need for extraneous dialogue, elevate the importance of visual storytelling to an almost primal level.

The remake stars Nicolas Cage--and here the brothers apparently hit a snag: one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood (is he still? Cage hasn't been making productive career decisions lately--Ghost Rider anyone?), and the character he's supposed to play has no lines. Myself, I'd have welcomed it; silent film acting is practically a lost art nowadays, and I'd loved to have seen how Cage would have risen to (or fallen from) the challenge.

But no--we must keep our lead star (who's also producer) happy. Cage in the picture plays Joe, not Kong, and yaks quite a bit; aside from providing portentous voiceover narration ("Rule number 1: don't ask questions") or interacting with his protégé-cum-pickpocket, here given the name of Kong (Shahkrit Yamnam), he has to interpret the gestures of his love interest (turns out she's the deaf mute).

The dynamics have drastically changed: from an ostensibly speechless man who's really a professional killer befriending a sympathetic pharmacist's assistant we have a shyly soft-spoken, "aw-shucks"-style American gentleman (with a flowing mane of Pantene Shampoo hair) courting a prim and proper Thai woman (but then all Thai women are (in Hollywood movies, anyway) so prim and proper they're practically mute anyway, so--big deal). Where in the former the two lovers are on equal footing--one speaks with guns, the other with words, in the latter Joe holds all the cards, and the woman does little more than pose and look pretty under Decha Srimantra's adoring camera lens (Srimantra was cinematographer in all of the Pangs' Eye movies, and in the original Dangerous).

More than just changing the nature of a romantic subplot, taking away the hero's deafness takes away much of what defined him as a character--his solitary ways, his anger, his immunity to the sound of gunfire. He fares better in the action sequences--whirring through the Damnoen Sadauk Floating Market (didn't we see that menacingly waved boat propeller before, in Guy Hamilton's The Man with the Golden Gun? (1974)?), or shooting them up in a factory that for some reason is full of giant water jugs, Joe is too busy firing his gun to schmooze much. But when the action halts and our star is asked to act, the movie falls flat on its hyperactive face. Even the obligatory American boyfriend-meets-mother scene is half-heartedly played for a few miserly laughs--Joe sits uncomfortably on a chair too small for him, and grins as if any minute now he's expecting mother to tug his scalp and check if his hair's real.

In the movie's latter half a girlfriend is kidnapped--in the original this is fresh motivation, setting the stage for retribution of biblical proportions; in the remake, all she suffers are a few bruises, which may arouse a few anxieties, but would hardly drive anyone out to conduct early Armageddon. And one wants to ask--did the Pang Brothers pay their production's light bill? The factory raid is so poorly lit one wonders.
So--I'd mentioned four rules, and we pretty much made hash of the first one ("Don't ask questions"). The second ("Don't take interest in anyone outside of your work") I'd question too--Joe supposedly adopts Kong, to train as a future killer, but for all the interest revealed in his face he could be taking in a temp secretary ("I want you to deliver this parcel, then pick up my dry cleaning before ten o'clock"). Interest? Kong at least responds to Joe's lifelessness with a few choice retorts (My favorite being the one where he suggests Joe fornicate with farmyard fowl). Rule three ("there is no right or wrong") is not just questionable, but downright false--you know there's a right way and a wrong way to make a decent remake. Seems to me the Pangs fell off the Tree of Ugly Remakes and hit every branch on their way down.

Which leads us to the last one: "Know when to get out and walk away rich." Now those words ring true, those betray the taint of truth. One wonders why the Pang brothers didn't heed their own advice, quit when they were ahead.

First published in Businessworld, 9.19.08

Monday, September 15, 2008

Time Magazine's The Best Asian Films of All Time

Since when was New Zealand a part of Asia?

Glad to see Himala there, would have preferred
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976), but the others--Shall We Dance? Gwoemul? The Asian bench is much deeper than that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tekon kinkuritu (Michael Arias, 2006)

Michael Arias' Tekon kinkurito (2006) is, in a word, a wonder. Set in Treasure Town, a nonexistent Japanese city that seems to be part Hong Kong (the crowding buildings), part Bombay (the clock tower that every hour disgorges a gigantic moving figure of the god Ganesha), part Mediterranean Europe (the brightly painted plaster, the canals) and part Tokyo of the Showa era (1926 to 1989--the train, the bridges, the alleys, everything else), the film opens literally with a bird's eye view of the city, diving down to skim the canal water, gliding past various skyscrapers and landmarks to drop down at a specific intersection, and begin its story.

It's a brief opening shot, nowhere as long as what they're capable of nowadays, but Arias (an American filmmaker working in Japan) doesn't seem to be after feats of technical virtuosity, at least not beyond a certain point; it felt more like what the bird was doing--a kind of stretching of one's wings, a brief showing-off of one's ability, a heedless, seamless, effortless demonstration of integration between breathtaking three-dimensional background animation (certain parts of the shot, as when the camera wheels to take in the cityscape below, look as if it were taken with a fisheye lens mounted on a spinning helicopter) and traditional two-dimensional hand-drawn animation.

Ditto with the sound, whether it's the murmur of a city hundreds of feet up in the air, or the creaking clockwork of a giant elephant lumbering slowly to life, or the sudden hum of force when a seven foot tall assassin's gravitational or magnetic or whatever field switches on--director Arias seems to know how to use ambient sound and the comparative lack of music or dialogue to achieve maximum drama.

Add to this Arias' superb sense of action--and I don't mean the motion blur or jiggle to the frame added to make everything look as if it was shot by a handheld camera (that's just gimmickry). I mean the sudden bursts of violence, the pause to recover from a blow or shot, the second or so spent at finding the proper footing (feet wide apart, knees slightly bent), hefting a heavy pipe in hand for better grip, heaving it high above the head prior to bringing it down with all one's force--Arias with the use of timing and carefully animated movement and the occasional sound effect is able to suggest mass and inertia, and the bone-cracking impact of both when directed at a single point in time and space.

But it's more than just animated movement--beyond the visual dazzle is a story of two youths, lost in a city and clinging to one another, feeling truly lost when eventually separated. Black is the older of the two; White, while eleven years of age, is still childlike and needs Black to tie his shoelaces for him, even if both are immensely strong and able to literally leap tall buildings in a single bound (call them Japanese versions of Ed, Edd 'n Eddy, only superpowered). Arrayed against them are rival youth gangs with equally colorful names (Dusk and Dawn, Choco and Vanilla), the Yakuza, and a sinister corporate newcomer named Mr. Snake who seems able to call upon heavily armed seven-foot-high purple monsters whenever needed, and is determined to turn Treasure Town into the latest Kiddie Kastle amusement park.

An old man points out the obvious: that Black needs White to balance him out, otherwise he becomes lost to mindless nihilism and near-random violence. Granted, the film is no Los Olvidados (Luis Bunuel, 1950), where Bunuel put onscreen some of the cruelest acts of violence and nihilism I've ever seen committed by children, without a single word of explanation or comment (but then few filmmakers have as consistently unflinching an eye as Bunuel)--but think of Black and White and possibly one other character this way: instead of several people encapsulating various traits, think of them as the same person at various stages of growth, innocence, maturity. Hence White as a younger Black, sans that unexplained scar (possibly it's gaining that scar that helped give Black such a volatile temperament)--not a totally outrageous theory, I think; remember that at least one character in the film is an embodiment of another character's future...,

Whatever; I do think the film isn't so much about black and white (or good and evil, peace and violence, or crime and justice, or so on and so forth) as it is about past and present--cue Rat, a high-ranking Yakuza who returns to Treasure Town after so many years. He's grown nostalgic for Treasure Town as it is, and gradually ceases to be; he treasures the disappearing past, and holds little but disdain for the colder, more professional, more calculating future (and what can be colder or more calculating than an amusement park, where every ride, every facade and concession stand, every bush and tree and park bench for crying out loud, is precisely placed to stimulate maximum dissatisfaction, maximum desire for consumption, in unwitting youth?).

Rat's sensibility parallels Black's; both are a pair of consciousnesses acutely aware of what they're missing or lost, and both yearn for oblivion (one in death, another in violence) . When it comes to broad statements of the film's theme (have to remember this is a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, and that anything in the film's story is necessarily a drastic condensation of the manga's) instead of the old man's monologue, I prefer Rat and Black's conversation atop a tower, where Rat confides what he sees to Black ("Treasure Town will never be what it was...Even if we stop, the city keeps going"), and Black replies, point blank: "You're going to die. I can see it in your face."). Black ultimately struggles between accepting a nihilistic future, and recovering something of an innocent past.

Interesting that Matsumoto's artwork, or what I've seen of it, recalls the ultradetailed art of European comics and Heavy Metal than it does traditional Japanese manga art (maybe American expat Arias is the perfect filmmaker for this after all); interesting that the film isn't so much concerned with showing the contrast of black and white as it is in crowding together the influence of past, present and future (hence the density of the city's details; the additional characters leaping in from fantasies, or from the future; the frequent flashbacks into Rat's past). If Tekon kinkurito (the title is a child's mispronunciation of the Japanese words for steel-reinforced concrete) is such a complex, bewildering experience, that may be because it's a variety of timelines being told at the same time, vying for the eye's attention. Wonderful film.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Now for something a little different:

This:

Palin tries to defend her qualifications

And the thought that if she becomes Vice President of the United States, she should have bodyguards surround her all right--with strict orders that if the President gets it, they should draw their guns and shoot her, letting the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi take over. Just saying, it's the sane thing to do.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)

The big red one

Mike Mignola's Hellboy stories aren't your typical superhero fare. They're basically grim forays into the worlds of science fiction and mythology (or rather, mythology used as science fiction, where the supernatural follows a vague, constantly shifting set of working principles, and the government is savvy enough to establish an entire department (the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, or BPRD) to handle the more unruly elements). The serious tone of the comic book ("graphic novel" is the fashionable term) is leavened by gallows humor delivered in an unflappable deadpan style; this, plus the constant sense that Hellboy--the hero of Mignola's stories--is doing his job, even if said job involves the dispatching of "tooth fairies," cute-looking tiny carnivores so named because they go after teeth first ("Bet you they don't leave money, either" quips Liz Sherman, Hellboy's pyrokinetic colleague and domestic partner). It's that disconnect between the often fantastic, often horrific activities of the BPRD and the more mundane attitude of the main characters that forms the series' appeal--that and the quality of Mignola's graphic line, which can suggest detail and depth of darkness (half the time Hellboy seems wrapped if not completely lost in shadow) using a minimum of penstrokes.

The films can't reproduce that line, and to del Toro's credit, they don't try. Instead del Toro takes the chance to flesh out Hellboy (Ron Perlman, preternaturally cast) and his colleagues: Liz (soft-spoken, sultry Selma Blair), Abe Sapien (physically and verbally eloquent Doug Jones), their boss Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, every bit as droll as in the first picture, if less prominent). Add Johann Krause (John Alexander, voice by Seth McFarlane), and the film's a bubbling brew of power struggles, petty jealousies, and suppressed frustrations, punctuated by the occasional slapstick. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army after all is said and done is a comedy of the workplace--Office Space with supernatural hijinks and CGI effects thrown in.

That's not a putdown; if anything, it's the film's glory. The priorities of del Toro's characters are less the hell-spawned monstrosities confronting them than the everyday struggles they confront: issues like getting along with the boss (Manning frets at Hellboy's tendency to hog the limelight), dealing with a new employee (Krause is not just punctilious and Hellboy's superior, but also possessed of a thick Teutonic accent McFarlane stole from the terrorist villain in Die Hard With a Vengeance (and Hellboy hates Nazis)), hashing out domestic conflicts (between the empty cans of cat food and all the Butterfinger candy wrappers littering their bedroom, Liz has about had it living with "Big Red," as she sometimes calls him).

Cat food; pushy bosses; even pushier newcomers; trouble with the missus--unlike almost any superhero picture you can think of, there's a real dynamic between Hellboy, his friends, and the world at large. You can imagine them kicking off shoes after work and knocking back a few beers (and in fact in one scene they do); you can imagine them having worked together for years (too many, even), knowing each other's strengths and foibles to the point it's become a source of constant irritation, same time it's a source of unspoken strength (they quibble but when the chips are down, they have each others' backs). With this simple rearrangement of priorities Hellboy 2 upends the comic-book superhero movie genre, reveals to us where its real interests lie: not in computer-generated faceoffs but alcohol-fueled sing-alongs, to the tune of Barry Manilow's "I Can't Smile Without You."

Hellboy and Liz's relationship may have been crowded out along the way, but that's part of Liz's point--Hellboy's too outsized and chaotic for anyone to live comfortably with him, least of all her; wherever he's around he's center stage, causing havoc. But Liz isn't to be underestimated; in the resolution of their feelings for each other lies Hellboy's ultimate maturation, and Liz decides for both of them in one fell swoop, once and for all. Of course del Toro focuses not so much on what Liz does as on Hellboy's reaction to what she does, and as Perlman plays him, he reacts with a memorable sense of befuddlement--for once life is a step ahead of him, and he needs a moment to catch (or grow) up.

Not that other elements are neglected--far from it. Del Toro stages the action with admirable fluidity, using Hong Kong trained Brad Allen's fight choreography (one thinks of Yuen Woo Ping's work in the Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China) pictures) to create graceful setpieces that wouldn't look out of place in a musical. If Hellboy and whoever he's confronting (usually Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) armed with a spear of varying length) comprise a pas de deux of violence, in del Toro's hands the action becomes something of a pas de trois, a far more intricate affair with the camera as third partner, weaving in and out of each other's dance. Set against a variety of backgrounds--a teeming underground Troll Market, a nighttime city street, a fantastic series of giant spinning gears worthy of a Busby Berkeley musical--the fight choreography doesn't lose but instead gains from the unorthodox treatment; with character front and center over action the viewer is kept surprised, off-balanced, not quite knowing what to expect, alert and delighting in what he sees (he is in effect left wanting more, not less).

Beyond the action are the villains--perhaps one consistent complaint against the first is the lack of a memorable antagonist; here del Toro corrects the oversight by giving us a royal family of elves, Oedipal in their dysfunction: King Balor (Roy Dotrice); Princess Nuala (Anna Walton); above all the aforementioned Prince Nuada. No mere evildoers they, from their standpoint we're the aggressors; they have been honoring their end of an ancient treaty, even if this means diminishment of their kingdom and influence (it's Nuada who's had enough, and wants to fight back). Later a plant elemental rears to life, looming over Brooklyn; Hellboy goes into action, but the outcome is more tragic than triumphant, more mournful poetry than spectacular effect (leastwise it's not the spectacle that strikes you first). "We die and the world will be poorer for it," Prince Nuada warns Hellboy; Del Toro drives home the point that even those who fight against us have their grievances, that every victory implies its own set of losses, that every creature no matter how destructive deserves at the very least a passing tribute.

Beyond all that Hellboy 2 is an occasion for del Toro to unleash a gift for creature design and poetic imagery exceeded only by--well Hayao Miyazaki comes to mind. The film's opening, where puppetlike figures play out the back story, evokes everything from Orson Welles' animated prologue in Le Proces (The Trial, 1962) to Jan Svankmajer's often unsettling stop-motion animation, giving us a foretaste; the rest of the picture is a full buffet, from the plant elemental and its snowfall of spores (perceptive of del Toro to observe that a creature's penultimate act is often a reproductive one--an attempt to disseminate what may be irretrievably lost) to the unstoppable gold soldiers, their combusting internal engines giving them the inner glow of fireflies swarming in a cavern, to the Angel of Death (again, Doug Jones) looming over Liz and a dying Hellboy to spread its many-eyed wings.

That last image--the Angel with his pair of many-gazed wings pronouncing Hellboy's fate--completes the symmetry of del Toro's scheme. Where del Toro grants Nuada a point of view and a chance to express it, with Hellboy del Toro suggests that death might, after all, be best ("it is his destiny to bring about the destruction of the Earth," the Angel hisses at Liz. "Not now, not tomorrow but soon enough"). Poor crabby Hellboy with his candy-apple skin, sawed-off horns, deep growl and hidden heart of gold may represent the end of the world as we know it--who would pay such a price for his continued company ( I won't, I guess, but would have to really think about it first)?

An aggrieved villain, a doomed hero, a wonderland of images--no, not your ordinary comic-book superhero adaptation at all. One of the best pictures to come out of Hollywood this summer, possibly all year.

First published in Businessworld 9.12.08

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Babylon A.D. (Mathieu Kassovitz, 2008)

Babble

What do you say about a movie no one likes or wants to see? Mathieu Kassovitz's Babylon A.D. (2008) has been roundly trounced by American critics and pretty much ignored by the public at the box-office; it might have had some kind of second life as a DVD cult favorite, only the director himself is going around loudly proclaiming against the picture--apparently 20th Century Fox clashed with the man and took control away from him. "I had something much better in my hands," Kassovitz said, "but I just wasn't allowed to work."

This from the man who won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for La Haine (Hate, 2005), an intense little melodrama about a lost gun and race riots in the French suburbs (to be fair, he also directed Halle Berry's hysterically rendered 2003 thriller Gothika). Kassovitz strove for five years to bring Maurice Georges Dantec's science-fiction novel to the big screen; one of the reasons he was attracted to the book was because of Dantec's narrative conceit: one wasn't sure what the whole thing was about, as one was often confined to one person's viewpoint (doesn't help--or it does, depending on how you look at it--that the view expressed was at times disjointed, even schizophrenic). One thinks of Philip K. Dick's fiction, which mastered the art of telling story through multiple perspectives, some of them decidedly schizophrenic--but that's a topic for another article.

Fox trimmed Kassovitz's movie down to ninety minutes (he claims over fifteen minutes were deleted, rumors put it more at seventy (what was that again about multiple perspectives?)), leaving behind what the director describes as "pure violence and stupidity." "All the action scenes had a goal," Kassovitz claims. "They were supposed to be driven by either a metaphysical point of view or experience for the characters... instead parts of the movie are like a bad episode of '24.'"

If what he says is right, and I'm not claiming he's not, that must be an incredible seventy minutes (or fifteen, which is even more improbable); what survives onscreen doesn't give me much confidence in Kassovitz the action filmmaker. His idea of an action sequence is an undulating camera, with as much of the movement slashed out before and after and in between as to render the whole incomprehensible; you don't know how it got there, you don't know where it's going, you don't know why it's doing that in the first place--it's simply the director's idea of energy and cool. Any attempt at a "metaphysical point of view" I would imagine might be better served by sobriety and a stable tripod (the better to point out any unusual qualities; think David Cronenberg and the jawdropping impact he provoked from a camera simply sitting there and peering at a man pushing his arm into a pulsating vaginal opening in his belly to reach for a handgun--but hey, that's me; what can I say except that I think it makes more sense (is it a coincidence that Cronenberg did possibly the greatest Philip K. Dick film ever, Videodrome (1983) which isn't so much a direct adaptation as it is an inspired distillation of the Dickian sensibility?)).

The movie's plot--young girl pregnant with possibly the most important living thing in the world being escorted by armed men to a place of safety--has been mentioned more than once as resembling Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James novel Children of Men (2006); plotwise yes, I suppose, but watching this botched mess of a movie helps sharpen my appreciation of that earlier film more. Where Kassovitch has freedom of movement (or as free as Fox ever allowed him, which doesn't seem inconsiderable) and that very freedom has shackled him to the backwaters of confusion, Cuaron drives forward with camera shots of considerable complexity and duration. The effect is oppressive, claustrophobic even; one imagines the protagonists running a labyrinth of hallways and corridors and alleys, in a desperate bid for freedom. Which I thought was Cuaron's point: the future as a closed labyrinth from which we seek escape, a pointless, endless first-person shooter game from which we seek transcendence, or at least the next level (that's why Cuaron's camera in the film's final images floats through a tunnel--the film's theme encapsulated--to emerge in the wide open sea; it's fulfillment, at the very least a break from all that confined space).

I don't see anything remotely like that marriage of camerawork and theme in Babylon, about as denounced, orphaned, and abandoned a special-effects summer thriller as any I can think of in recent years. Perhaps Kassovitz can come out with an extended DVD version, make me eat my words; perhaps he can learn from this experience (and the experience of making Gothika), ditch Hollywood, go back to the small independent films that made his reputation; perhaps I in turn can undergo a lobotomy, electroshock therapy, and a heavy regimen of both Thorazine and Dilaudid to enable me to appreciate the movie. Whatever the case may be, I'm not holding my breath in anticipation.

(First published in Businessworld, 9.5.08)
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