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.
3) Its effects are less than special--when a vampire climbs a tree, he looks like a chipmunk being pulled up by string; when running to the top of a hill he looks like he's being hoovered up the incline. And speed lines! Like in a Mutt and Jeff cartoon! If I wanted to suggest inhuman swiftness or supernatural agility, I'd take my cue from Gerardo de Leon, to name one master filmmaker able to work in the horror genre (see the duel between Ronald Remy and Eddie Fernandez).

4) A little romance goes a long long way; this picture heaps great steaming piles of the stuff with a shovel.


5) It features a lead actress whose idea of portraying adolescent female lust is to flutter her eyelids, twitch her head, and stutter like Eric Idle on a bad day. Sounds perfectly fine if someone had dropped an ice cube down her undies, but no--watching her antics, the word 'lust' does not immediately come to mind.
6) Its dialogue plays as if conceived and written by the living dead. People in this picture don't react the way normal humans react, don't ask questions or think the way ordinary folks ask or think. When saved from a sudden traffic accident the first thing our heroine Bella says to her rescuer isn't "Thank you!" it's "how did you get over to me so fast?" Yes she'd be curious, but eventually, when the initial shock wears off; meantime she should just be happy her ass isn't pancaked between two four-wheel drive vehicles.

Later, she learns from the object of her not-too-particular desire that he's a vampire--this after hearing news in the past two days about fatal animal attacks on the local folk. I don't know about her, but the moment I hear the word 'vampire'--don't care if it's a cute boy or Dick Cheney himself--I'd immediately ask: "were you responsible for those attacks?!" Keeping stake and crucifix carefully close at hand, of course.

Granted, we're talking vampires and their groupies here, but c'mon--you need to conform to normal behavior in a narrative film, or at least account for the flagrant lack of ("I was raised by apes;" "I'm an extraterrestrial;" "I'm a moron what lived in a cave").

7) Did anyone notice vampire guy's hair? It looks as if it had crawled to the top of his head back in 1918 and died there, and he hadn't bothered to wash ever since (reportedly the actor in an interview admitted leaving his 'do untouched for the duration of the shoot). Maybe the girl is a good actress after all--can't imagine her coming close without being knocked backwards by the stench, or at least wrinkling her nose.

8) It features a dismemberment scene which, while horrifying to contemplate in theory, in practice happens in the background and with little comment or emphasis, as if the filmmakers were embarrassed to admit to what's going on. Whitewashed atrocities--now that's something fairly new.

9) It isn't just a steaming pile of, it's a steaming racist pile of. Bella meets everyone from a Native American to an Asian American, and who does she choose to date? The Caucasian-American with Nordic cheeks and questionable follicle hygiene. Not just that; when exposed to sunlight, her boy toy's beautifully pale skin shimmers--God's gift to women, in a star-spangled package (talk about Master Race).

The movie does feature one black man, who plays for the enemy team (to be fair, at one point he does prove helpful). But no one bothers (or seems particularly eager) to point out that this black vampire is also involved in at least two previous killings (see above, re: whitewashed atrocities).

Have not read the book and on the basis of this am not especially eager to, but from what I've heard, all of the author's characters are white, and it was Hardwicke who chose to cast some of them from different ethnic groups. Problem is, Hardwicke only exacerbated the problem, not helped solve it (or was that her intention?). What Bella badly needs (and so do we, to ease our fears of subtexted racism) is a pair of black lips (or other appendages) sinking deep into her lily-white neck (or other highly sensitive areas). If Edward and his family had dark skin, I submit, it would have made their alienation from society that much more dramatic, romantic, taboo-breaking, even sensible. Not to mention downright sexy.

10) It's written by an actively practicing Mormon--which, truth to tell, is neither here nor there. I'm not particularly eager to condemn an entire religion on the basis of one work of art (can you imagine judging the Roman Catholic faith on the basis of specific passages in the Bible, sans context (Matthew 27:25 "His blood be on us, and on our children")?). Lino Brocka was a Mormon.

So--condemning a movie for being a Mormon propagandist tract? Can't do it. Bad enough it's emotionally purplish, romantically embarrassing, somewhat racist, badly written, acted and, most of all, hairstyled, but. Can't. Quite. Take. That. Last. Step.

I do think that as an introduction to the faith's artistic potential it's hardly the ideal picture; see instead Lino Brocka's Insiang (1976) or Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974) for a sample of what a Mormon filmmaker (okay, Filipino Mormon filmmaker) is really capable of.

11) Did I mention the hair?

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'

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.
TopOfBlogs [Valid Atom 1.0] blogville.us BlogCatalog http://globeofblogs.com/buttons/globe_blogs.gif