Friday, April 24, 2009

Too twisted titans, and an unforgettable lensman

1. The unforgettable lensman

Jack Cardiff is readily and rightly remembered for his work in Michael Powell's
Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) (though arguably their most enchanting collaboration is the lesser-known A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

One mark of a cinematographer, though, is the quality of his work in less than ideal circumstances. Thus:


Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is a racist piece of ordure but Cardiff's lenses help transform the jungle captured in above photo into a wonderland of oiled and polished greenery, where fat leeches thrive on naked flesh (before being bloodily flicked away by oversized knives), and Vietcong officers stand helplessly out in the open only to burst into balls of orange flame.

His work in John Irvin's The Dogs of War (1980), about mercenaries staging the overthrow of a small African regime, is some of the finest, Greene-est imagery I've ever seen in a major production. Scenes such as the one above (Christopher Walken, framed by a grimy window, aims what he calls an 'XM-18 grenade launcher') possess a documentary realism and understated style that evokes the corruption, the grinding poverty of a developing country far more effectively, I think, than the flashier filmmaking of more recent directors.

2. One twisted titan

With a tribute site as thorough and well maintained as that, I doubt if I can add much more that's original to his better-known works.

But I think something crucial, something iconic, something perhaps like the crystallized essence of the man can be found in an early work, The Crystal World. Easily the most original of his three end-of-the-world novels (arguably the most original of any apocalyptic fiction, anywhere), here Ballard posits a world slowly being destroyed not by fire, not by ice, but by crystals, a literal hardening and solidifying of flesh into faceted form.

Of course we still have the classic Ballard obsessions--beautiful writing, externalized psychology, an almost blithe unconcern for the standard priorities of a disaster novel both literal and literary. The protagonist, Sanders, is barely characterized; he's mainly a two-legged video camera programmed to wander about and capture as many of the fantastical images Ballard creates as possible--survival is a secondary priority.

What's so fascinating about this--it reads more like a prose poem than conventional fiction (or several ornate poems hung on an arbitrary narrative skeleton)--this work is the way Ballard manages to extend his metaphor (crystallization as death/fulfillment) to almost all aspects of existence. Musing on what's happening all around him, Sanders speculates that an effect of gemstones drawing light into themselves is the focusing--or compression--of time; when that light is released, so are these stored packets of time: "Perhaps it was this gift of time which accounted for the eternal appeal of precious gems, as well as of all baroque painting and architecture." He believes that the intricate lines of baroque design, its quality of "occupying more than (its) volume of space," provides admirers with an "unmistakable premonition of immortality." He also muses that the leprosy virus with its crystalline structure is possibly yet another manifestation of this disease in time.

If crystallization is the result of super-saturation in a solution (and everything that occurs in the novel a result of super-saturation of matter over time), it may be argued that The Crystal World suffers--or soars, depending on your response--from a super-saturation of Ballard's prose. Certainly many of Ballard's works give us other extremes--techno-porn in Crash, the profound psychological and sociological effects of architecture in High Rise, the autobiographical source of much of his surrealism in Empire of the Sun--but in The Crystal World you get the sense that Ballard has no other concept to develop, no other agenda to push other than to render the world in crystalline terms, in cold, brilliant words. I like to think of the novel as Ballard in amber--all his desires, his nightmares, his dreams hanging in mid-space, frozen, slowly turning in the light for all of us to see. The Crystal World is about the very opposite of moderation, restraint, dilution, mediocrity. It's Ballard at his most concentrated.

3. Too twisted titan

Ballard has his shocking moments (check out his short story "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan"), but he is a timid boy scout compared to Philip Jose Farmer. As Harlan Ellison in his SF anthology Dangerous Visions once put it, Farmer "has doggedly gone after one dangerous vision after another." We've heard about how Farmer's The Lovers was a seminal work on sexuality in science fiction; what we haven't heard as often is how in Blown he has a man receive oral sex from a decapitated head, or how in Lord Tyger a woman makes love to a freshly butchered baboon heart, still beating. Farmer is best known for his Riverworld series, and for bringing sex and sexuality to science fiction; what's less known is how he's brought extreme sexual perversion and outlandish violence--both often yoked together, like the proverbial 'beast with two backs'--to the genre (in A Feast Unknown, Lord Grandrith, Farmer's Tarzan stand-in, is at one point raped, at another point manages to slaughter a roomful of men) .

Not to mention an unfettered, outsized imagination (see the Riverworld books). The World of Tiers series takes place in a 'pocket cosmos,' an artificial universe containing only three astronomical objects: the World of Tiers, its small moon, and its small sun. The World of Tiers is a gigantic structure, a series of stepped plateaus with entire worlds and peoples of different times and nations spread out on each plateau; at one point the series' hero, Lord Kickaha, battles across the Lavalite World, where the earth heaves and sinks and swells and separates and floats about and violently re-combines like the heated oil-and-liquid mixture in a lava lamp. Bad enough to have characters winking in and out of different universes (possibly Roger Zelazny had to force himself not to imitate this in his later (and to my mind, far less colorful) Chronicles of Amber novels), but for the very earth to reform, every few hours! It's enough to drive a man insane, and you can't help but wonder how Farmer was able to live with his bubbling cauldron of a subconscious all the time.

In The Unreasoning Mask (science fiction editor David Pringle's favorite amongst his works), Farmer proposes that the multiverse--the series of universes that make up our reality--are really the cells of an unconscious, unthinking child or fetus (hence the book's title). A deadly antibody the size of a small moon flits about the various universes, killing the viruses afflicting the fetus--namely intelligent beings, or us; Hud Ramstan, the Muslim captain of a living ship must find a way to fight this monster, save the multiverse. Metaphysical hijinks ensue.

Farmer rarely reeks of literature--his novels move fast, and are never dull. But unlike entertainment writers of lesser metal, he has an unflinching view of humanity and of the various cruelties (and heroic sacrifices) we are capable of, and he records them in clear, unambiguous language. He's a unique read, definitely not for everyone; I've seen echoes of his writings here, there. Some of the more shocking atrocities in Farmer's Image of the Beast and Blown seem to have inspired Brett Easton Ellis in creating Patrick Bateman's rampages in American Psycho; I've mentioned the World of Tiers' tidal pull on later fantasies such as Zelazny's Amber series; and Farmer's influence was openly acknowledged by Robert Heinlein in writing his famous counter-culture novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

Pringle did note an escapist element in Farmer's work, a tendency to go into fantasy or classic science-fiction mode when confronted with a dead end situation (the conclusion to his Gods of Riverworld, for one). I tend to think of Farmer as the most realist of fabulists--no matter how fantastic the situation, his men and women fought, fled, fucked, defecated; they felt fear, fury, frustration, the need for fun, and the need to crack really terrible puns. Many writers describe adventurers climbing up a dizzying mountain trail; none but Farmer thought to write (in The Magic Labyrinth) about the problems of urinating or worse defecating on a ledge thousands of feet high; many write about the problems of surviving without food and water; few write (as Farmer did in A Feast Unknown) a detailed treatise on the relative merits and flavors of various animal dung (hyena manure is inedible; zebra, however, is almost delectable).

His characters in effect experience the same biological and psychological processes we all undergo, and in a genre where even the mention of a toilet bowl--much less its use or misuse--was a major event (I'm thinking of the intricate instructions for a zero-g toilet found in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Farmer took such realism to be more standard than startling, an essential element in his stories; all this, plus an imagination second to none.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2009)

How to be a millionaire

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is that one-in-million movie, a slick, scrappy, rags-to-riches flick complete with love story, chase sequences, menacing gangs, a helpless young beauty, a pair of scrappy brothers, a slum the size and population of a small city.

It's thrilling, funny, tragic, sensuous, infuriating; it's bright-colored and deep-shadowed, crammed full of danceable music, its characters running the gamut from insatiably greedy to viciously hateful to selflessly heroic to endlessly loving. It's the type of movie no one wanted to touch before getting made, and everyone loves after breaking boxoffice records; a heartwarmer, a tearjerker, a golden doorstop winner (Best Picture, Best Director, best yadda yadda yadda)…

I despise the movie.

Let me put it this way--there isn't a single authentic moment in the picture. The storyline (rags to riches, boy meets girl) isn't just a staple of Hollywood movies, but a staple of pop Indian films for as long as there's been a cinema; the style, all deep colors and bright music and restless, hurtling motion, the house style of every modern-day Indian musical, only tarted up with a little Hollywood production value. Danny Boyle borrows from the variously dramatic and bombastic manner of Indian films like Ram Gopal Varma's Mumbai crime flick Satya (Truth, 1998), two-brother melodramas like Yash Chopra's Deewaar (The Wall, 1975), and Ramesh Sippy's superultrapopular Sholay (1975), the last two starring the legendary Amitabh Bachchan (who appears in Boyle's movie through archival footage and a carefully photographed stand-in). Beyond them, of course is the seminal influence of Indian cinema's true greats: Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, (Thirst, 1957)), Raj Kapoor (Awaara (The Tramp, 1951)), Satiyajit Ray (Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)).

The sense one gets here is of a British tourist--a dilettante, if you will--coming to a land of movies and moviemaking that's doing perfectly fine on its own (Indian cinema is one of the few in the world where the film production rate easily outpaces the United States--about a thousand pictures every year, double that of Hollywood--and boasts of a viewing audience numbering in the billions (to be exact: 3.1 billion, give or take a few hundred million, compared to Hollywood's 2.9 billion, as of 2006)). Said British tourist looks around, is delighted by the colorful misery around him, the colorful melodramas made by Indians dealing with said misery. He borrows this fantastic, highly coincidental plot twist; lifts that intensely melodramatic crying scene; pinches this oddly tilted camera shot; pilfers that vividly lit color palette; ties all together with a string of popular songs, pours the mix into a Black & Decker blender, and hits "puree." The resulting masala (Indian term for "a mixed paste of various spices") may be hot enough for most audiences, but for those who have tasted the real thing, it's like sipping week-old engine grease--thick and noxious, with the unmistakable flavor of the secondhand.

Perhaps the plotline is forgivable--Indian musicals have come up with much more preposterous premises (I remember in Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony (1977, also starring Bachchan)) where three brothers are separated and raised up Hindi, Muslim, and Christian respectively, and all three reunite to give their dying mother a triple blood transfusion). That said, even Salman Rushdie found the source material, a novel by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, to be "a corny potboiler…a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name." Call this a fairy-tale picture then, but please don't call it as famed film critic Roger Ebert did "The real India, supercharged with a plot as reliable and eternal as the hills" (the movie gets about as close to the real India as Mike Myers does in The Love Guru, and the story isn't so much "reliable and eternal" as it is hoary and tired).

What I do find unforgivable is Boyle's generically attention-deficit filmmaking style. I thought it fresh and funny when I encountered it in Shallow Grave (1994), saw it at its most fulfilling in Trainspotting (1996)--or was I responding more to Irvine Welsh's drug-drenched sensibilities? Boyle's trick editing and handheld camerabatics grew wearying about the time of 28 Days Later (2002), where Boyle stole his best ideas from George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985)--the military base, its paranoid soldiers and chained pet zombie in particular--but not Romero's idea of the zombies being actually dead; in Boyle's picture they acted more like spastic convulsives with a bad case of rabies, felt less supernatural, less disturbing, and hence considerably less interesting.

Back on the subject of Slumdog and its disco-Pollyanna view of urban poverty: the poor, to paraphrase a famous philosopher, are always with us, and so are and will be stories and films about the poor. Perhaps the sharpest opinion on the subject comes from the Philippines' most brilliant filmmaker (and to my book most underrated satirist), Mike de Leon: in his short Aliwan Paradise (Pleasure Paradise) from the omnibus film Southern Winds (1993), he proposed an alternate-reality Philippines saved from its chronic poverty by a TV reality-show exploiting said poverty for its entertainment value (this, mind you, suggested years before there ever were reality shows). De Leon's "by his bootstraps" solution sounds remarkably similar in spirit to the idealistic garbage Boyle has been putting out in recent interviews; one wonders if Boyle himself is a de Leon invention, an instance of life startlingly and grotesquely imitating art.


First published in Businessworld, 4.11.09

Monday, April 13, 2009

Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

Moore, not less

(Warning: story discussed in close and explicit detail)

There's no two ways about it--the opening credits to Zack Snyder's Watchmen is impressive as hell, evoking as it does both the stillness of comic books and the solidity and depth of the film frame; for about two or three minutes a perfect fusion of both mediums is achieved.

Then the rest of the movie starts. The picture is two hours and forty-two minutes long, which I think is roughly a hundred and sixty minutes too long. It's an overproduced, ploddingly literal yet at the same time flagrantly unfaithful adaptation of Moore's comic book.

Most of the plot points and main characters are here. Richard Nixon and John Kennedy put in an appearance; so do airships and electric cars. The Tales of the Black Freighter comic book and the friendship between the two Nite Owls are gone, and I can see how they needed to be set aside, to reduce the running time (that said, Owl's reaction to his mentor's fate summarizes in a single scene the core of vigilante psychology--and how this kind of thinking will subtly if inevitably lead to abuse).

But if Snyder knows the words to Moore's masterwork, he seems to have missed the melody--nuances have been lost, entire concepts turned upside-down, or simplified to an appalling degree. The '80s United States shown here is more stylized than accurately captured--yes, this is supposed to be an alternate reality, but a recognizable alternate reality. To emphasize dark seductiveness (glossy clothes, bright metal, smooth stonework, yard after yard of sheet glass) over a familiar and recent time period is to throw that aspect of Moore's work out of whack.

Same goes for the fight sequences--instead of quick and dirty scuffles, onscreen they become slow-motion ballets; instead of realistic staging, we have elaborate moves, even some fancy martial-arts choreography. We don't get the sense of ordinary people wearing masks and beating the crap out of each other; we get super-heroes, and Moore's comic wasn't (with only one notable exception) about super-heroes.

Along the way Snyder has jiggered with the characters, not necessarily for the better. Adrian (Ozymandias) in the comic had a more thoughtful, more apparently compassionate presence (he actually looked despondent when Ed Blake (The Comedian) set him straight about the fate of the world); here his chilly visage screams "Masterminding sociopath! Do not trust!" Dan (Nite Owl) and Laurie (Silk Spectre) bloodied noses and perhaps broke a finger or two on paper, but they did not snap limbs, and at no point were they seen using criminals as human shields, to be shot to death. Making Dan and Laurie killers makes no sense--they would in effect be no different from sociopaths like Rorschach, or Ed Blake, and Moore's overall moral scheme would collapse into seething nihilism.

Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach does a decent job as Walter Kovacs--as Rorschach unmasked. When he has his 'true face' on, Rorschach tends to nod with every syllable, as if afraid audiences will think his voice comes from out of the thin air (he looks like a sock puppet nodding at every syllable); Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Edward Blake chews scenery with scraggly gusto, but fails to get at the humanity Moore suggests can be found at the bottom. Malin Akerman as Laurie defines woodenness--she only looks good when compared to Carla Gugino as Laurie's mom, Sally Juspeczyk, who seems both stiff and annoying at the same time.

I usually don't look to the performances to either sink or redeem a movie nowadays, but the characters Moore drew are so rich and meaty it's a shame not to take advantage of what he had accomplished. I think it's a measure of how misguided this movie is that the comic's emotional climax, the confrontation between Sally and Laurie over Sally's past, goes over like a collapsing Vegas hotel--two undoubtedly pretty but talentless actresses, mouthing lines too emotionally complex for them to comprehend, much less deliver with the proper nuance and subtlety.

Of course we knew where Snyder's priorities were much earlier. The crucial debate between Jon and Laurie on Mars about the importance of saving the Earth, which comically keeps turning into a therapy session on Laurie's messed-up life is turned onscreen into some kind of Vulcan mind meld, with Jon sucking the images out of Laurie's head--presumably to save on running time, so Snyder can have Laurie and Dan cross a prison hallway in glorious slow motion, bashing criminals right and left (a sequence Moore and Gibbons pretty much disposed of in a few panels on paper).

Tellingly the film's most successful character is its least human. As Jon Osterman, Billy Crudup manages to suggest the otherworldliness of a man literally above humankind's relatively petty concerns--but you have to figure Snyder would score with him. His thinking is alien, hence no interpretation artistic or otherwise is needed to make him fascinating. He's mainly a super-powered plot function, meant to get the narrative going and solve certain story structure problems.

Finally, there's the story structure. I'm actually not a big fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen; I think the text supplements that follow eleven of the twelve issues are largely unreadable (there are exceptions--Sally Jupiter's clippings and Ozymandias' (Adrian's) interview are minor character-sketch masterpieces), the basic plot too absurd and unwieldy to take seriously (it figures that a masked hero would think of saving the world that way). Moore's best work is possibly From Hell, his epic meditation on Jack the Ripper and 19th century England (with breathtaking art from Eddie Campbell--rare case where the artist's work fully matches the beauty and subtlety of the writer's prose).

But Moore's comic is an impressive achievement mainly for its intricate plot, divided into twelve segments. Snyder has to dispose of the twelve-chapter structure, certainly, but doesn't replace it with anything that would at least suggest the source material's level of complexity. Snyder could have picked from Moore and Gibbon's staggeringly extensive library of symbols and repeated motifs to construct some kind of visual parallel and commentary on the story (on those terms alone Moore and Gibbons' work stands above Snyder's).

Take the motif of sphere and spatter. We first see it on Ed's smiley button, the blood splat an affront to the button's yellow smoothness. We see that bubble motif repeated again and again, in various forms, for every main character--Laurie (the perfume bottle/snow dome); Dan (his dusty goggles, the Owl Ship's windshields); Adrian (his domed tropical garden). Even Sally has her own bubble, of sorts (Moloch's solar mirror weapon).

I think Moore's treatment of the bubble motif in Laurie's story gives us an idea of what the recurring image means--a memory, in effect, an encapsulated emotion or idea (or illusion, if you will), waiting to be burst. In Laurie's case it's the memory of her childhood, relatively happy if fatherless (when she learns who her father really is, the perfume bottle/snow dome shatters). The goggles/windshield represent Dan's memories of his adventures as Nite Owl, safely put away under a layer of dust and nostalgia (Laurie's finger--and later, hand--disturb that layer of dust). Adrian's dome represents the extent of his scientific powers (a tropical paradise in Antarctica); a random gap in the surrounding snowdrift reveals the life living beneath that dome. When Adrian opens the dome, he's bursting his own bubble, his own created empire, to make way for a new world.

Later a triumphant Adrian faces an orrery, representing his New World (Solar System?) Order. Jon stands half-inside, half-outside the large sphere; he vanishes, leaving blue smoke and the fateful words "nothing ever ends," the mist of his vanishing filling sphere and surrounding air--implying, perhaps, that life (random chaos, willful action) persists in marring celestial perfection. That forces are at play that even now will bring down Adrian's masterwork.

Each time we see a bubble, a glass dome, a lens, a smiley face, some portion of encapsulated space or air (or innocence) is variously burst, or opened, or smeared, or stained with blood, or violated in some way. Each tries to keep his or her memories/ emotions/illusions pure and intact, but everything from epiphany to murder keeps intruding and time, however delayed or suspended, flows once again.

Even Jon has his illusion, in this case an entire world. While Laurie talks to him of the urgency of the situation and primacy of human life, Jon drones on and on about the red planet (I personally found his little lectures on the grandeur of Mar's landscape fascinating). It takes Laurie's own example to remind him of an even greater wonder, the infinite variety and unlikeliness of human life--when Jon's crystal palace crumbles, it isn't just Laurie's illusions collapsing, but Jon's as well.

Ed's smiley button is an interesting case--a crucial one, I think. It's basically the face Ed presents to the world as The Comedian--a face that, knowing Ed's personality, relentlessly responds to the world's madness and despair with the same bright, cynical smile. When confronted by a massive but workable plan to save the world from that madness and despair, Ed's practiced cynicism cracks, the crack represented by the bloodstain on his smiley button. The comic's final image is that of Ed's smiley face making its final bow, tying its marred circular image with Adrian's foggy orrery, and reminding us of the failure of Ed's cynicism. Of the impossibility of any kind of certainty ("nothing ever ends") with regards to anything and everything that has happened before. The only certainty is change and flow.

Significantly, the one major character without a sphere or bubble or illusion to burst is Rorschach. Faced with ultimate answers to imponderable questions, he doesn't hesitate; he knows what to do and does it. "What would you call that, I wonder," Adrian muses. "'Blotting out reality,' perhaps?" Rorschach's view of the world is dark enough and flexible enough to take the secret master plan in stride; you might also say his insanity--which I'm guessing in Moore's mind reflects the world's insanity--is bigger than any mere plot to kill millions of people.

Cute theory, no? It's something you can piece together little by little, gazing down on a copy of Watchmen; I'm not sure you can do the same with the movie (for one Snyder doesn't bother to re-create Adrian's domed garden, or the snow-spatter on the dome's surface that ties it to the blood spatter on Ed's smiley-face button).

Maybe the saddest aspect to all this are the fanboys saying "I don't want to read the book, it might spoil me for the movie." "What?" I want to exclaim. "You have it all backwards. The movie will spoil the book for you; the movie is nothing compared to the book." The movie is a poor substitute for Moore and Gibbon's comic, maybe not the greatest ever made, but certainly one of the more intelligent ones, towering high over Snyder's multimillion dollar stumble. I urge anyone who hasn't read or seen either and is planning to do both (or just one of the two) to go for Moore, not less.

Friday, April 10, 2009

They Wait (Ernie Barbarash, 2007)

Make no bones about it

Is Canada such a wasteland when it comes to horror? There's Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974), which preceded John Carpenter's better-known (though not necessarily superior) Halloween by about four years. There are the endless slasher imitations that followed Clark's cult classic, including the Prom Night movies and J. Lee Thompson's Happy Birthday to Me (1981)--no fine example of the genre, the picture does include one memorable scene, of guests attending a girl's birthday party sporting the various weapons with which they were murdered. There's David Cronenberg in a category all his own, with examples of everything from gynecological horror (Shivers (1975); Rabid (1977); Dead Ringers (1988)) to cerebral (Videodrome (1983)--arguably his masterpiece; eXistenZ (1999)) to the everyday, kitchen-sink variety (Spider (2002); A History of Violence (2005); Eastern Promises (2007)). Then there's Guy Madden's Dracula: Pages from A Virgin's Diary (2002)--far too beautiful to be considered straight horror, plus Mark Holcomb in a Senses of Cinema article has suggested that the imagery may have been inspired by Gerardo de Leon's Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (Blood is the Color of Night, 1964).

So I ask again: is Canada such a wasteland for horror? Is it possible that underneath the fa├žade of breathtakingly beautiful natural landscapes all one will find is more breathtakingly beautiful natural landscapes? I wouldn't know; I'd be glad to learn that I'm totally wrong.

That said, Ernie Barbarash's They Wait (2007) is perhaps not the movie that'll change my mind. Basically an "abducted child" thriller, the movie may ground itself firmly in Chinese mythology, particularly those involving the "hungry ghost" month--the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar--but the thrills are mostly borrowed from Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) by way of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2003), with a fistful of Nakata's Dark Water (2000) thrown into the bargain.

Kudos to the filmmakers for actually taking the pains to foreground Chinese folklore in this--not only ghosts but illegal immigrants, sweatshops, burial practices, especially with regards to bones (one character is actually referred to as a "bone collector," or someone who encases the decease's bones in a box, for later delivery back to the homeland). And not just cultural but visual details--the look of the bone box, the intricately tabletop illustration of a human skeleton over which the real bones are laid out (presumably a guide as to what belong where, to ensure that all bones are accounted for), the black die coating the child's arm up to his elbows.

That last bit is easily the most unsettling detail in the film, the kind of distinct twist one might find in a supernatural drama steeped in a culture's actual folklore. Sarah (Jaime King) finds her son Sam (Regan Oey) unconscious, his arms somehow dyed black. They are staying with Aunt Mei (Cheng Pei-Pei), whose husband Raymond (Colin Foo) had been killed in the forest by an unknown assailant--in this month of hungry ghosts, spirits are allowed to wander the world of men, tempting them, frightening them, sometimes even possessing their corporeal selves, to carry out unfinished business (presumably Uncle Raymond was involved in some unfinished business that ended badly). In Sam's case, a young woman has taken his soul, and refuses to release it until her mission is complete--what that mission is and how to accomplish it is for the spirit to know, for Sarah to find out (not fair, I know). Various noisy digital effects later, Sarah is injecting herself with a poison to enable her to enter the spirit world, said action causing the medical staff to think she's lost her marbles and strap her to a hospital bed.

If I'm not on my feet applauding--if my affection for the picture is more guarded than enthusiastic, that's because I feel the movie has a split personality. On one hand there's the scrupulously researched and presented supernatural folklore; on the other hand, the ghosts themselves are introduced and presented with the understated subtlety of a bad Hollywood remake, all loud clanging and inane shrieking. It's been a pet theory of mine that half a horror film's actual power comes from the soundtrack, from the timing and amount of noise/alleged music generated when something scary is supposed to be happening--the less generated, the better. The soundtrack of this one feels especially like reheated leftovers from that stupid Ringu remake Gore Verbinski foisted on the general public seven years ago (the sequel, directed by Nakata himself is much better--is in fact quite underrated). If the filmmakers actually took the time and effort to supply the picture with an authentic and unique-looking cultural milieu you'd think they'd adopt a unique-looking (and sounding) audiovisual style to accompany said milieu (here's a hint: less clanking, less shrieking, less overall hysteria would help).

The cast is generally unmemorable, save for Cheng Pei-Pei, best known for her starring role in King Hu's great Da zui xia (Come Drink With Me, 1966), and for being the rare bright spot in Ang Lee's otherwise soporific Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Cheng creates unrealistic expectations, of elegantly shot and edited images, of strong women with tremendous martial arts skills, expectations that are ultimately left unfulfilled by this picture. To be fair, she does get to wield a meat cleaver (albeit as a younger woman, in flashback), and she does meet with a suitably gruesome end. Small blessings in a disappointingly small-minded movie.

First published on Businessworld, 4.3.09

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009)

The end of the world as we know it

If you go by what American critics are saying you'd think Alex Proyas' Knowing (2009) was a cheesy, preposterous, overwrought, overserious movie about the end of the world, and you'd be right. Consider the story: young Lucinda (Lara Robinson) fills a sheet of paper with numbers; fifty years said paper is discovered by astrophysicist John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) who realizes that some of the numbers represent the date of every natural calamity of the past fifty years--and that three of the dates occur some time in the future.

Who gave Lucinda the numbers? If they're the dates of foreseen disasters, why bury them--why not publicize them, make use of them somehow, save a few lives? If burying them is meant to give the numbers credibility, what's the point if they convince only a few people, Koestler and whoever he manages to persuade (not many since he hasn't much time)? Why go through all the fuss, when the objective of whoever gave Lucinda those numbers seems (after all is said and done) ridiculously simple, compared to the elaborate means involved (couldn't, say, some kind of specially tuned alert have worked as well?)?

The movie styles itself as some kind of apocalyptic mystery where the sinister scribblings have the significance of a Da Vinci Code, plus the urgency of a thermonuclear device on final countdown. Then there are the scores of silent, blond-haired figures wearing cool black jackets who dog Koestler as he runs about, trying to prevent the last three disasters.

Most of the critics' complaints revolve round the movie's climax, which they've seen before in other, better movies (if I actually mention the titles I'd give the whole thing away). That's the basic problem with mysteries, their revelations ultimately disappoint; that's why Alfred Hitchcock put so little faith in them--he preferred to give the audience as much information as possible early on, then left them to squirm while his characters wandered helplessly into danger.

Not every critic has given a thumbs-down; Roger 'all thumbs' Ebert gave the picture his glowing seal of approval, calling it "among the best science-fiction films I've seen," and granted it four stars. More interesting is his blog post on the film (warning: plot discussed in extremely close and explicit detail)), which is nothing more and nothing less than a religious/metaphysical meditation on the nature of the universe. Is fate random (which is what Koestler--who lost his wife in a hotel fire--believes) or predestined (which is what the film, with its apparently omniscient numbers-cruncher, implies)? The piece contains a few factual howlers (his statement "free will is a necessary component of all spiritual belief systems," for example, handily ignores the existence of Calvinists and Jansenists, among other belief systems) but does have one perceptive observation--this is basically an End of Days movie in science-fiction trappings, a religious fantasy made palatable by cool special effects, a major Hollywood star, and an almost complete absence of gratuitous Bible-thumping (well, maybe a little towards the end, where I'd say it's largely justified).

Actually, Ebert's elaborate essay on free will versus determinism is largely beside the point; the movie's appeal doesn't lie in metaphysics or philosophy, but fantasy. The film's ominous tone, shading darker and darker as it progresses towards utter hopelessness, perfectly matches the mood of today's audiences (I know, I know; movies start development years beforehand, and often do not intentionally reflect the times in which they were released…but nothing is written in stone against a coincidental reflection, one that helps explain the picture's strong boxoffice showing). The apocalypse we face in real life is less literal than economical, but that doesn't make our emotions any less ugly, our hopes any less unlikely. To watch this picture is to actually escape into a comforting fantasy, where money troubles and the threat of unemployment and all the stress of modern life are reduced to a set of numbers, and it's all a matter of interpreting them correctly (there isn't even a lot of math involved, which is slightly disappointing--in episodes of the latest Doctor Who they would at least throw in a happy prime or two). The picture indulges the death wish in all of us--cleanse the world and start all over again.

That's the general audience; personally speaking, if one must watch a dark mystery with some kind of apocalyptic scenario, it helps to have Proyas at the helm. He knows how to evoke shadows--some of the darkness in this picture feels almost palpable, like an endless supply of black felt. He knows how to wring menace out of a beam of light, or a vague figure standing alone in the forest. He knows the value of a tautly stretched moment--your nerves thrum, like guitar strings at the point of snapping. Little of this makes much sense, but Proyas pulls you along in an effortless glide, over every inconsistency and loophole, till you find yourself standing at the brink, surrounded by endless flame. Yes, Proyas knows how to do flame, plenty of it; barbecue enthusiasts may never feel the same way about their coal fires ever again after watching this.

Given how the picture plays so expertly on our anxieties (and boy, do we have major anxieties nowadays) it's a bit disappointing to report that Proyas' vision of human transcendence (here and in most of his previous films) lacks the complexity and scale, the sheer looniness of the classics of the genre. From The Crow (1994) where the hero flees death on the wings of a black fowl to Dark City (1998--his masterpiece, I think), where a city escapes alien captivity to bask in sunlight to I, Robot (2004) where a robot sheds programming to exercise free will to this picture, human (or at least intelligent) life has always sought to burst its mortal or imaginative bonds--but does it always have to be about the next step forward, onwards, upwards? John Boorman's Zardoz (1974) suggests what Darwin always knew, that death is half the engine of evolution (the other half is represented by Sean Connery physically responding to the sight of Charlotte Rampling in skimpy costume--against which reaction I totally understand and sympathize with). Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) suggests that man will do better to fall back on what hearth and home he can find for himself, wherever it may be. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) presents a visual enigma (an astronaut in a room/cage, aging rapidly) followed by a man's simultaneous physical regression and spiritual progression. Of Knowing, one wants to say--all that sound and fury, ending with not much to talk about? I don't know, I don't know--it was a nice trip but that finale, I don't know.

First published in Businessworld, 3.27.09



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