Brandon Camp's Love Happens (2009) is not so much a romantic comedy (something of a relief) as it is a romantic drama (oh god) where a man struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife and possibly fall in love with someone new.
And that's pretty much it; if you're interested in the details, you could look it up on the Internet Movie Database, or one of the half dozen entertainment magazines that bother to cover these things, along with which actor is sleeping with who, after breaking up with Madonna. All I could think of watching the picture is: “Boy, Seattle is a beautiful place--”
I mean it, too. The city settles like a quilt onto a group of hills; it's sandwiched between Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east--in nighttime shots it glitters like a crystal and porcelain service set on purple tablecloth for a royal dinner. Movie director Camp for your delectation presents images of the Space Needle at night (which doesn't so much resemble a rocket ready for take off as it does a fairy-castle tower poised to stride across the horizon), of gently sloping cobbled streets, of ravishing mountain forests. At one point the mourner and his prospective girlfriend ride a hydraulic lift to sneak a peek at a Rogue Wave concert (Seattle was the epicenter of grunge music, and today is venue to many alternative bands); at another they visit the tombstones of Bruce and Brandon Lee, which piqued my interest (I've got to go pay my respects someday); they seem to walk everywhere and at all times including late at night, which indicates a nice, safe city to wander in (looking at a few numbers and making a few guesstimates, I'd say there is a rate of roughly twenty-four violent crimes per 100,000 residents per year, which is more than, say, Tokyo (ridiculously safe) but much, much lower than the rest of the United States). If the travelogue patter and statistics don't exactly thrill you, well, neither did the movie thrill me. I do wish they had shown more of the city's vibrant cuisine--I hear their seafood is out of sight.
I suppose I have to talk actors--I've never understood the appeal of Jennifer Anniston, and I suppose I never will; seems like every fluff magazine from People Magazine to, well, Entertainment Weekly does a monthly watch on the woman, because her blank expression stares out of almost every cover in a magazine stand. Bony body, bony face, and far as I can see, bony acting--she apparently started out on some television situation comedy set on a sofa in a coffee shop, then had a middling career on the big screen (the magazines seem more interested in who she's sleeping with than what she's doing professionally).
Aaron Eckhart--here's to hoping Anniston's sleeping with Eckhart, the only possible reason I can think for him to be involved in this project. I thought he was excellent in Brian De Palma's much maligned, much underrated The Black Dahlia--his Lee Blanchard was a scenery chewer, a violent defender of women physically abused by violent men, and while most people thought the performance out-of-control and over-the-top, I thought it the perfect ornament for such a darkly baroque, brilliant film. I even thought De Palma improved on the novel by dropping a crucial bit of information at a point when it would suddenly illuminate Blanchard's erratic past behavior, the same time it would color our view of erratic behavior yet to come.
Eckhart's performance as Two-Face in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was for me the only element of interest in that bloated, overserious megaproduction (for the record, I thought Heath Ledger as the Joker did well in a badly underwritten role)--he managed to locate some human angst under the medium-rare charcoal-grilled porterhouse makeup.
Eckhart gives the picture more heart and heft than it deserves, I think; he pulls off the unlikely premise of a man who uses his wife's death to sell motivational books, tapes, workshops; he even pulls off the unlikelier premise that the man feels ambivalent about exploiting his wife's death this way. The way Camp's camera explores Eckhart's chiseled face you can tell there's so much unspoken feeling jammed up just behind it wouldn't take much for the facade to crack; it was the only thread of much-needed tension in the picture and helped keep me awake, even mildly interested.
Might throw in that the hero's most romantic gesture, the release of a cockatiel into the wild, may not have been a wise move as the bird is native to the wetlands of Australia and will probably not survive the chilly Seattle weather (well, not for long), much less nearby predators--but maybe that's me. And if my petty worries about the fate of a supporting animal character don't exactly thrill you either, well...
Sunday, February 21, 2010
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.Trying to list down titles lost to Philippine cinema is like trying to jot down all the Filipinos who fell victim to the last world war. There are too many to mention and the accumulation of names, the memories of what they were (fading, as those who actually saw them pass away), what they mean to us and what it's like not to be able to see them again, ever, is too heartbreaking to even talk about.
The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.
You hear of fires, floods, and various disasters cracking open and collapsing roofs, exposing precious celluloid to the elements. You hear of film prints being dumped in the middle of a basketball court, baking and slowly turning into vinegar. You hear of dank warehouses with no air-conditioning, an unmistakeably sour stench filling the air. You hear of actual film prints, of goodness knows what titles from goodness knows which filmmaker, being cut and rolled up and turned into party trumpets for blowing on New Year's.
We don't have a National Archive in the Philippines; we have at most various studios, with storage structures of varying and questionable capability (drip, drip drip; the whir of an industrial fan; the thick heat that wraps your face like a blanket when the door is opened). We do have a group intent on archiving--SOFIA, the Society of Film Archivists, but they have little funding and can do little more than exchange information and continue to agitate for the establishment of an actual facility (the recent world economic meltdown hasn't helped).
By default, the best archiving facilities in the country at the moment is in television station ABS-CBN's storage vaults which, unlike some film studios that will not be named, does possess temperature and humidity controls--ABS-CBN operates Cinema One, the Filipino film channel, and has possibly the largest collection of film prints in the country, outside of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the official government arm dealing with culture as a whole. CCP has an excellent collection of film prints, but less than excellent facilities in which to store them--humidifiers, if I recall correctly, but no air-conditioning.
There have been a few success stories--Gerardo De Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961), his flawed yet fascinating adaptation of the classic novel by Jose Rizal, was saved through the efforts of the Goethe Institute Manila and NCCA (National Commission for Culture and Arts) Vice Head Teddy Co; Teddy was also instrumental in recovering a print of De Leon's political drama The Moises Padilla Story (1961). Lino Brocka's daring gay melodrama Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1970) was considered lost until film blogger Jojo De Vera found a Betamax copy in a garage sale. Things move on--Lino Brocka's first feature Wanted: Perfect Mother (1970) has apparently been discovered, at least in video form; and a print (an actual print!) of Laurice Guillen's classic Salome (1981), long thought to be lost, has somehow surfaced.
These stories are but a few bright spots in what on the whole has been a story of unrelenting grimness, the gradually worsening state of amnesia in Philippine cinema. We have made thousands of films, some of them I believe to be the best in the world; every year heat and humidity take their toll, every year prints grow increasingly moist and vinegary. Back in the '70s, Teddy Co once told me, a retrospective of Gerardo De Leon's films was possible; in the '90s only a precious handful were left (I hate to think on how matters stand, ten years later).
Rumor once had it that a print of De Leon's El Filibusterismo (1962) was floating around somewhere in Germany--what happened to that? I know there's a blurry and barely comprehensible video copy in Viva Studios--that's how I saw the film, when they broadcast it on their now-defunct cable channel. Film preservation in the Philippines is a lot like Indiana Jones, adventuring in the jungle--you don't know what you'll find, or how you'll find it, you feel as if the world is if not indifferent then actively against you, you never have resources, and time inexorably against you.
Horror stories aren't confined to Filipino films before the 1940s. Here's an article I wrote (as yet unpublished, for one reason or another) on a somewhat recent film:
A Lost King
Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) was released in early 1986, a special moment in Philippine history. It was produced and released during the final days of the Marcos regime, when the dictator's hold on things was seriously weakened (though few realized just how weak he really was), and the level of social and political ferment was at an unprecedented high--was at a level not seen since Marcos declared Martial Law fourteen years before. It was also--though few knew it then--the final days of what we might call the '70s and '80s golden age of Philippine cinema, a period that started with the release of Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974) and continued past the end of the decade with works like Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981) and Himala (Miracle, 1982).
In 1983 the assassination of Marcos' political opponent Ninoy Aquino threw the stagnant economy into chaos and provoked an outburst of anti-Marcos sentiment, one that the dictator struggled to staunch but never managed to stop. Partly as a result of political and economic troubles--Marcos had more on his plate than he could possibly handle--partly to appease people with "bread and circus" style entertainment and appear more liberal, Marcos eased censorship restrictions. Films full of graphically depicted sex and intense violence bloomed, and people felt it was a sign of the times--the end of the world for all they knew--that profound change was imminent, and maybe to be desired.
Perhaps one of the most intense expressions of this sentiment was Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights (1985), about an apartment housewife who has an affair with the college student upstairs, practically under the nose of her security-guard husband. The allegory was clear--youth and woman defying the authority figure for moments of intense sexual satisfaction--but it was the sex that inspired the audience's imagination; staged and choreographed as if they were stunts, the sex was imaginative, passionate, thrilling, like nothing ever seen in Filipino screens before, or since.
But if Scorpio Nights perfectly captured the people's hunger to see sexual rebellion in the face of repression in 1985, Bagong Hari perfectly captured the regime's utter corruption, its systemic use of violence, our need (or hunger, if you like) to have someone rise up against it. If, in effect, Scorpio Nights was Philippine cinema's ultimate statement on sex, Bagong Hari was that cinema's ultimate statement on violence. Ironically, while Scorpio was a boxoffice success, Bagong Hari was a huge financial failure--the film, meant for the December 1985 Metro Manila Film Festival (it failed to enter because of censorship issues), received an early 1986 release with little publicity (I do remember a quarter-page newspaper ad, a beautiful one featuring Addon (Dan Alvaro) in cruciform pose, with a barbed-wire crown on his head). Which was a pity, because O'Hara had meant it to be a commercial (albeit dark) entertainment, one that had sharp and even prescient things to say about Philippine politics at the time--or, for that matter, all times.
The setting is some unspecified province in the Philippines (Metro Manila); the governess (the late Elvira Manahan, doing a more elegant version of Imelda Marcos) is being accused of overspending on the construction of a large library (obviously the Manila Film Center). Her rival in the coming elections is Mayor Aguila (filmmaker Celso Ad. Castillo, in a witty performance), a former actor turned politician with a reputation of being an intellectual lightweight (the parallels with Joseph Estrada are striking, especially Aguila's ambitions of becoming governor of the province (read: Chief Executive)). The governess and Mayor Aguila's struggles to win the election form the complex series of machinations and betrayals that drive the film.
Caught in between is Addon Labrador (Dan Alvaro), son of Isagani Labrador (Robert Arevalo), Mayor Aguila's right-hand man. Addon doesn't share in his father's political success (his mother left Isagani years before, presumably for serial womanizing) but he does share one of his father's talents--he's a born killer, a one-shot, one-kill hunter also adept at street fighting and the barbaric yet strangely beautiful art of balisong (butterfly knife) combat.
Violence is a classic mode of expression among Filipino political parties, especially during election season (even today we hear news of assassinations and shootings this time of the year--if anything, the number of incidents has increased); more, violence is one of the oldest and most preferred means of interaction between men, with the man most skilled at inflicting it revered, worshiped, granted larger-than-life status. O'Hara's film acknowledges this from the opening sequence, a hand-to-hand duel between two men on a beach. Fists crunch into bone, feet are ground into faces, and faces in turn are crushed in the wet sand; O'Hara keeps the various body parts in giant close-up then freezes the images, partly to distance us from the horror of physical punishment, partly to aestheticize the violence, force us to dwell on its awful beauty (hard, muscular bodies being pummeled and punched). Meanwhile, the grunts, groans and howls of pain continue in the soundtrack, ending with the abrupt snap of someone's neck. The reasons behind this clash are only hinted at (a prize money is mentioned, along with ownership of the gintong balisong (a golden butterfly knife), and the title of hari (king)); the sequence is the opening chord in what is meant to be a symphony of brutality.
The film is full of fight sequences of various settings, emotional tones, overall look. The first had an existential quality to it (we fight, therefore we are), with two unknown men struggling on an empty beach; the second is substantially different, set alongside the Pasig River with the strains of a tender guitar melody as ironic accompaniment.
The fight begins with Addon in a urinal (a makeshift cubicle hanging precariously from the riverbank, directly over the river) being attacked by three men from behind; it proceeds up a tilted truck bed (one thinks of Carol Reed's canted camera angles only here it's the flooring that's askew), up on the rooftops of a series of shanties (here O'Hara's camera takes on a long view with the rooftops for a horizon as the figures run and jump and collide) to finally end (in a nicely symmetrical touch) back in another of those overhanging urinals. The fight is hardly gratuitous, either; Addon is being auditioned, presumably for a bigger fight.
The film's most distinctive battle is set at night, in the arena-like Greek Theater of the National Mental Hospital. Addon has been offered fifty thousand pesos (a huge sum to Filipinos, but a mere two thousand in American dollars) to fight the hari we had seen earlier in the picture (character actor Ruel Vernal at his most villainous); the fight begins with hand-to-hand combat, proceeds with meathooks ("What's this?" Addon asks; "just use it," he's told), and then with balisongs until only one is left standing; high up on bleachers rich young men place wagers on the battle's outcome.
It's O'Hara at his most baroque: two desperate men in a life-or-death struggle for the amusement of the upper classes; the arena setting and progression of weapons (from fists to meathooks to balisongs) reinforces the gladiatorial feel. O'Hara often perches the camera on the upper steps of the venue, looking down at the two small figures struggling below. The image calls to mind any number of ideas: that Dante's inferno was also shaped like a bowl; that freedom for the two combatants is found outwards and upwards, past where the camera sits (a fact underlined when Addon at one point starts walking out on his deal--walking towards the camera, in effect--and is halted by a man racking his M16 rifle). Later, when the hari takes one of the torches lighting the venue and attacks Addon with it, O'Hara shoots the two men through the spilled flames, as if they were already burning in hell.
The film goes on to chronicle how Addon is forced to commit his most heinous killing, and how Addon's attempts at retribution starts a cycle of escalating mayhem that leaves few people left standing.
I haven't touched on various minor elements--on Addon's girlfriend Rina (Carmi Martin, tough of heart and foul of mouth), for example, or her involvement with the governor's son Rex (Joel Torre, parodying the son of a famous political figure), or the power struggles between the governor and mayor's several underlings. I haven't mentioned the little girl who adores Addon, and is in many ways the film's mediating viewpoint (we are that little girl, looking up to her hero); I haven't mentioned details O'Hara adds that are possible only in Manila (the children perched atop bridges, for example, snaking down loops to hook objects from the barges that glide underneath; or the policeman who sets out to investigate a shooting by riding a rented tricycle). I haven't mentioned the various ways in which O'Hara presents the physical cost of violence--from the ripped stitches suffered by a hospital patient while fleeing her pursuers to another woman's agonized, shrieking attempts to breathe while dying of a gunshot wound to the chest.
I certainly don't have the space to discuss the ways in which O'Hara keeps all elements--the characters, the political allusions, the details unique to Manila, the varied and brilliantly staged action--in beautiful proportion and working towards an interesting (if debatable) point: if violent revolution ever needed a justification, then the political and social circumstances surrounding the Philippines during the years 1983 to '86 should suffice. And if a man were to initiate such a revolution, O'Hara gives us a rough sketch of one such man--earthy, quiet, courteous, gallant to women and children, essentially kind, but skilled at dealing out death. A champion, in short.
O'Hara's Addon Labrador is no Mike Hammer, looking for the Great Whatzit in Kiss Me Deadly, or Hank Quinlan using doubtful means to catch his quarry in Touch of Evil--but then O'Hara probably felt that the times didn't call for such brutes. A man taking on the Philippines' entire political establishment would have no time or energy to handle self-doubt, introspection, cynicism, elements that would only add complication to an already complex plot (part of the film's complexity--something I again have neither the time or space to fully discuss--comes from the careful way Addon's character is presented and developed, as someone basically good but not unbelievably so). The film pits Addon--and us with him--against the world, pits classic Filipino virtues (virtues which, when you think about it, the film itself possesses) against the vast perversion that is the Philippines today. It's a ray of hope, however fantastic, meant to encourage us in our despair.
Bagong Hari is recognizably noir, in that it has protagonists struggling against a complex crime plot in a dark and hostile urban landscape; because it presents such a wide range of characters--from the highest offices of power to the humblest river rat--interacting and dominating (or being dominated by) others, I'd say this belongs to the special subset of "epic" noir, of which Curtis Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential would be another example (personally, I prefer O'Hara's more modest but stranger and (I believe) visually richer work).
The film as mentioned was a boxoffice failure; nevertheless, it managed to impress the handful of people--me, included--who caught it on its brief commercial run. And it has left its mark on our cinema--many an action film since has since featured balisongs and meat hooks in gladiatorlike combat, many a drama has borrowed characters and events from our history for verisimilitude. Lino Brocka (with whom O'Hara has collaborated on a number of projects) did if not a remake, then a rather pallid reworking: Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (Dirty Affair, 1990), with Christopher De Leon as the Addon character and Charo Santos as the Imelda Marcos figure.
A final note: partly as a result of its commercial failure all prints of Bagong Hari have since been lost (the producer is himself looking for a copy), and only a few fugitive video recordings remain. That loss is more than a pity, it's an intolerable tragedy; that Philippine cinema was capable of this, arguably the finest Filipino action film ever made and the last great film from a great period in Filipino filmmaking--it's enough to make one weep.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Raymond Red's Himpapawid (Manila Skies, 2009) is, frankly, ballsy filmmaking. To spend roughly a hundred minutes following the meandering odyssey of an introverted, possibly autistic young man named Raul (Raul Arellano, seen above) is hardly one's definition of popcorn entertainment--one feels no immediate sympathy for him, no leap of sympathy or kinship. His eyes home in on the camera lens laser-sharp; he's intimidatingly, almost frighteningly intense, and he maintains that intensity for the length of the picture. Following in his footsteps, serving as mute witness to his suffering--his lifelong passion so to speak--we find ourselves exhausted and not a little depressed by the experience.
Depressed, and at the same time exhilarated. Red is back, one can say; Red is back after some nine years of relative silence (after winning the Palme d'Or for his short film Anino) and he seems as obsessed with his themes and subject matter and storytelling style as ever.
Himpapawid starts off strong, with the simple story of a man (Ronnie Lazaro) who finds jewelry and money literally dropped from the sky, and uses this found treasure to finance his son's education in the big city, in Manila.
Red photographs the lucky youth head-on, in perfectly modulated sunlight, walking straight towards us with a burden of baskets on one shoulder; he cuts to a matching shot of a young man (Raul) walking towards us with a heavy sack on one shoulder and we know it's the same youth some years later.
We learn that Raul's luck has long since petered out, that he's living a hand-to-mouth existence as a cargador, a dockside loader, and that he wants to apply for another job, in another country. He asks his boss (Noni Buencamino, sporting a goatee and looking very put-upon) for a day off to apply for that job; the boss explains that in this job there are no days off. He insists. His frustration with his boss' stubbornness and his boss' exasperation with his insistence becomes a study in irresistible force meeting immovable audience.
Raul's troubles only weigh the heavier when he learns that his father is sick; he needs to go home. He takes on the neverending process that is Filipino bureaucracy (a lower circle of hell just as vividly if more thoroughly realized by Veronica Velasco in her Last Supper No. 3) to secure his permit to work abroad, the same time he falls afoul of a hopelessly naive and incompetent gang of would-be robbers (Keystone Kops gone extremely bad, headed by a ranting, raving, endlessly self-motivating John Arcilla).
It's a framework, a skeleton, really for the true star of the picture, Red's incomparable photography, editing, imagery (he's one of the few filmmakers around fluent in all stages of filmmaking, having been making them since he was seventeen). From the experimental exuberance of his first film Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity, 1982)--a great work, possibly his masterpiece--to the honeyed, golden hues of his Anino, he has pared his style down to this lovely, subtly sunlit camerawork with its deep shadows and subdued color pallet (different hues of brown and gray mainly, as befits urban Manila, with the occasional splash of bright red provided by the banners of striking workers). His lenses work the casually lyrical transformation of even the most mundane details (shacks with corrugated roofing and plywood walls; two naked boys bathing each other at an outdoor faucet; barges gliding down the Pasig river) into the gorgeously textured tapestry of a city ever decaying, ever alive.
Through this tapestry Red weaves a bright theme: skies, planes, the act of flying. Red in his interview said he had attempted to remake some of his shorts into features; this was to have been a remake of his short A Study for the Skies, only with two brothers and set in the Philippine American War; the final result bears little resemblance to that original premise and is instead based on a true story involving a Philippine Air Line flight coming from the southern city of Davao to Manila.
For all the talk of skies and flight, though, the overall impression one comes away with is not of free space but, paradoxically, of oppressiveness, of increasingly claustrophobic space, of rapidly closing walls, vanishing options, a dwindling future.
At a certain point, one does find oneself identifying with Raul, despite his many thorny aspects--he is stubborn, sometimes insanely so (as befits an independent filmmaker); he constantly looks upwards (as befits any dreamer) and inwards at himself (as befits anyone wracked with guilt and living in anguish); and he never gives up. Delusional and very likely insane, he finds a way to leap out of his straitened circumstances into some kind of freedom, some kind of conclusion. An inspiring, frightening, hilarious and tragic film, in equal measure.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
I suppose Selma, Lord Selma (1999) might be called Burnett's take on the Civil Rights Movement. Easy to wish it had been produced by anyone besides Disney, but that wish is a double-edged sword: if Disney had not coughed up the money, would there be a film at all?
It's not nothing--basically a dramatization of Sheyann Webb and Rachel West's book about their experiences as black children caught up in the turmoil in Selma, Alabama, where the population, as someone in the film informs us, is fifty percent black, though only a tiny fraction are registered to vote.
It's a TV movie; worse, a TV movie about a relevant subject--how much more deadly earnestness can you ask for? Yet Burnett's film feels more substantial than the standard movie of the month, and not just because of the subject matter. Seems to me that telling it through the eyes of a child--in effect turning it into a by turns eyewitness account, learning experience, and life-changing moment for a girl of eleven--is Burnett's way of presenting familiar material in a fresh and urgent manner (and, cannily enough, providing a handy pretext for explaining relatively well-known historical facts).
Burnett often employs black music in its many forms in his films (see Jonathan Rosenbaum's appreciation of his short When it Rains); here he makes full use of the movement's rich legacy of songs as transitional bridges, codas, inspirational pieces. At one point Martin Luther King (Clifton Powell) asks Sheyann (played here by a very young, very charming--perhaps too charming--Jurnee Smollett) to sing "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
Burnett frames King and Sheyann standing before an (unseen) audience, has King introduce Sheyann, then leaves her up there alone; Sheyann looks about her nervously (Burnett keeps the scene free of background music, so quiet you can hear the audience breathe and murmur expectantly), then sings a tentative line. A piano takes up the melody, helping her along; a voice rises out of the audience, joining her in song--Sheyann gradually gains confidence and turns the song into a rousing, up-on-your-feet-and-clapping number. Later, after the crushing despair of Bloody Sunday, Sheyann looks about her in that same church, sees all the men and women bruised and bloodied by truncheons, and--again tentatively, then with growing assurance--reprises the song; the people around her look up in wonder, respond powerfully. It's an unforgettable moment.
Even that old standard "Kumbaya," endlessly parodied and ridiculed by more cynical generations, here regains its serene mystery as a song somehow able to rekindle the tired spirits of marchers who have trudged many miles, and have many more yet to go.
One sees a bounty of visual grace notes (Sheyann standing alone in church and about to sing being one aforementioned example) adding to and ornamenting this lovely little drama. "Little" is the operative word here--Burnett's storytelling is so modest in spirit, so dedicated to serving the drama's themes one has to search specific instances out and hold them to the light to appreciate their understated artistry.
When King is first arrested, for example, Burnett gives us a shot of King behind bars, angled and lit so that the bars--coated with a peeling pail paint--almost entirely obscure King's face. The overall impression is of an animal in his cage, hunched over and waiting, a wall of white sealing him off from the outside world. Burnett refuses to leave the man alone, though--his lighting seeks out King's eyes, which gaze outwards with a terrible patience.
When King speaks at Jimmy Lee Jackson's funeral, Burnett pulls the camera back, revealing wreath after wreath of flowers surrounding him while a mournful singer wails in the background. It's as if Burnett, mindful of King's own violent death to follow a mere three years later, was seizing this chance to pay tribute to the man.
At the first march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, Burnett shoots the tiny party of six hundred marchers in profile as they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge--the image is dreamily lyrical, as if the marchers were crossing from earth to paradise. Later Burnett cuts to an overhead shot of the marchers, the camera gliding from right to left, from water far below to asphalt up close, emphasizing the bridge's precipitous drop and giving the march a strange free-floating quality, as if they were already more than halfway to heaven (one marcher, looking at all the police officers and deputies blocking their way, quips: "See that water down there? I hope you can swim because we're fixin to end up in it").
Working with Disney on a prime-time television movie, Burnett has developed the marvelous skill of depicting violence without being explicit. The bombing of four black girls in Birmingham is mentioned and the relish with which the story is told, the obvious intent to terrify and intimidate, is to my mind more appalling than any detailed depiction. There are two shootings here, and in both instances Burnett cuts away from the actual killing to other faces, either of the killer or of people affected by the death; again the effect is of Burnett putting emphasis not on death but on death's repercussions--as if the soul in question had been assigned to haunt those left behind, to in effect haunt us.
I can't say Selma Lord Selma breaks entirely free of its television roots--sometimes the visuals are flat and dull, sometimes the dramaturgy is awkward, crude. But at its best, in its moments of quiet love and transcendent power (I'm thinking above all of a little scene at a water fountain), it gives the movement back to us burnished with a bright new glow.
I submit on the other hand that Burnett's Nightjohn (1996) does in fact break free, and does in fact succeed in transforming the sickeningly wholesome family television format (Hallmark Channel produced, Disney distributed) into something truthful and unsettling (I had shown this to my students, and one of the most repeated comments was the question (accompanied by widened eyes and dropped jaws): "This was shown on the Disney Channel?!"
Nightjohn apparently commanded a larger budget than Selma did; the cinematography is more lush, the production values (necessarily) more elaborate. Carl Lumbly plays his eponymous role with laser-light intensity--fierce eyes framed by dark brow. I can see the actor playing either Jesus Christ or Judas Iscariot, maybe both (I would have had more respect for Mel Gibson if he had cast accordingly in his Christ snuff flick).
Instructive comparing Burnett's film to Gary Paulsen's short novel. Paulsen--a popular writer of youth fiction--here created a brief account of what punishments were in store for rebellious slaves in the South. That's basically what you remembered, coming away from the book--the sadism, the cruelty, the unrelenting, graphic brutality. Clel Waller, the slave owner, was a "white maggot"--his characterization didn't go much further than that (frankly, I thought his characterization bore ugly traces of reverse racism); Sarny was little more than a narrative channel through which the story was told while Nightjohn was essentially a cipher--a tough, noble one but a cipher nevertheless. Paulsen's little book is effective, but to my mind inexpressive--it told its story with curt efficiency, nothing more, nothing less (oddly enough, Paulsen in 1997 wrote a sequel titled Sarny, which seems to benefit somewhat from Paulsen having (strictly my suspicion, no hard evidence to back this up) seen Burnett's adaptation).
Burnett's achievement with no small help from Bill Cain is to take Paulsen's sketches and bring them to full-blooded life. He makes Sarny a quiet yet spirited young girl ("she's still waters" as Dealey (Lorraine Toussaint) perceptively puts it), and John (as he is called in the film) a man who, in losing his family, feels compelled to look for them, and finds himself sufficiently blessed to discover another family along the way.
Perhaps the biggest difference comes with Burnett and Cain's treatment of Waller. As Beau Bridges plays him, he has an affable, roguish charm, but when he comes down to business, he does so unhesitatingly. He's not a bad man, or (key difference) doesn't think of himself as a bad man--he doesn't punish his slaves because he enjoys it, or because he needs an outlet for his frustrations (at one point he tells his son "I've never whipped a slave in anger" and you can sense the truth of the statement, or at least sense his belief in the truth of that statement); he does so because it's expected of him, part and parcel of the business of owning slaves, what one does to keep them from rising up and cutting one's throat.
When John is found out Waller extracts a terrible penalty; John in the book keeps quiet and carries on the revolution without Waller's knowledge, setting up pit schools (pits dug in the ground and covered so that the light from their lamps don't leak out); John in the film is more open in his defiance; he tells Sarny "when an arm is cut off the other grows stronger; you're my other arm, now." Sarny proves John right--she not only knows as much about reading as he does and at an earlier age, she takes on Waller too, only she has more smarts (if a tad too much recklessness).
In Paulsen's book John and Sarny take their punishments without complaint, then secretly carry on with the teaching--a quieter, safer way to go. John and particularly Sarny risk more, and in a more open fashion, in Burnett's film, and while the solution to their problems seems unlikely, it does stem from the fact that they are more capable people, thanks to their self-education, that reading does have its immediate usefulness, is a major tool in the game of survival.
Burnett's visual style here can be summed up simply: the antebellum South is depicted with much of its glamor, especially in the dinner Waller holds for his older brother and guests--all sweeping candlelit shots and extravagantly plush accents; when the issue of slavery pops up, the cameras stop gliding and stare at the little cruelty that occurs (involving Sarny and a dropped tray of food) with unblinking relentlessness. When John is teaching Sarny it's in the warm glow of firelight--as if Sarny was warming her relative ignorance in the blaze of John's mind; when the slavers intrude, as in the scene involving the stolen bible, Burnett shoots everything under a merciless noon sun, the better to capture the horrors to come.
Interesting to note that some of my students have already seen the two films; that somehow teachers have gotten wind of these two little-known projects, and are showing them to kids, possibly for Black History Month. Ironic to think that Burnett rarely gets the money to make projects, that Disney of all people would bankroll him, and that it would be these two Disney projects that would give him the most exposure, at least for the next generation.
Interesting also to see how, with the familiar subject of slavery and civil rights, Burnett resorts to telling his stories through the eyes of intelligent young girls. I'd mentioned how relating the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of Sheyann Webb lent the tale fresh urgency. In the case of Nightjohn, telling the story through Sarny gives it the feel of a fairy tale, gives it a ravishing sheen that enhances slavery's many horrors (I particularly remember Burnett's strikingly firelit shot of the old man's face as he recites his alphabet, just before he reveals the price he paid for learning it), adds depth and resonance to the film's dramatic high points (John's farewell to Sarny, Sarny's final thoughts on John). Burnett takes two of the most important episodes in African-American history (slavery, the civil rights movement), and gives his own humanistic, quiet, gracefully told take on them--all on a TV movie budget, under the banner of the Disney corporation. That, to my mind, is a genuine miracle.
Saturday, February 06, 2010
A tasty little 'Meatball'
First-time filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) is a winning little morsel of a movie--sprinkled with topical references to junk food diets and overconsumption, lightly spiced with foodie satire, not too heavy on the moralizing.
It's based on the slim, 32-page children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett, which presents the kind of whimsical situation perfectly concocted to catch a child's attention: a town where food falls from the sky instead of rain or snow (never underestimate children's literature--children are the harshest of critics, extremely difficult to please; classics in the genre have a simplicity of appeal that is almost impossible to reproduce (see, for example, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are--a pleasing enough movie on its own, but not a true adaptation of Sendak)).
The Barett's book pretty much presents the situation as is, then proceeds from there in a series of richly detailed illustrations (hotdogs falling from the sky, for example, followed by a cloud of mustard and a drizzle of soda). Much of the appeal (aside from the basic premise and all the little details tucked away in the corners (the town is called Chewandswallow and its paper The Chewandswallow Digest)) comes from the matter-of-fact way the townspeople accept and even exploit the situation--always leaving home with fork and knife in hand (in case of sudden downpours), keeping umbrellas upside-down to catch a splash of orange juice.
Difficult sell; I can imagine the filmmakers reproducing the artwork and doing a slim thirty-minute short, at most (which I'd love to see, personally). To blow the book up to a more commercially viable running time of almost ninety minutes, they presumably had to add the backstory, involving a small town called Swallow Falls. The community has seen better days--its biggest company, the Baby Brent Sardine Company, has long since closed, and the economically depressed townspeople have been largely living on unsold cans of sardines ever since. Enter Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a wannabe inventor who means well but invariably creates technological disasters (but don't they all, at least in American animated movies?)--the town is still plagued by the flock of Ratbirds he once bred. Flint uses a machine, the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator (or FLDSMDFR for short) to mutate water molecules into food, draws on too much power, and sends the contraption rocketing into the sky, where it hovers among clouds and starts sending down cheeseburgers.
One wants to ask questions--how to 'mutate' a water molecule, for one, and what about the hygiene issues involving food falling on the ground, or left uneaten for days? And I'm tired of this longstanding disdain for canned sardines--if you're willing to expend the effort, Spanish and Portugese canned sardines are actually quite tasty; Italian ones best of all. Canned seafood from Galicia, in Barcelona, are so carefully crafted and prized a single can costs anything from twenty to seventy dollars (when you open a can of mussels, rich globules of fat float in the golden broth--the juices and oils have merged inside the can, and produced a taste rivaling that of fresh seafood). One can imagine the people of Swallow Falls abandoning their ugly canning factory and going into artisanal manufacture, selling their handmade canned sardines at thirty dollars a pop.
And here's where we entered, bookwise. The movie borrows some of its best ideas from the book--a steakhouse minus roof, where the diners wait for their orders to drop from above, for example. The movie can't quite replicate the wondrous image of a gigantic jello setting in the horizon, but it does turn said jello into a kind of playhouse Flint can romp in with his new date, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), the pretty weather news intern who is reporting on the phenomenon--the animators really go to town with the idea of an elaborate jello mansion.
It's not earthshaking, consequential storytelling, and I like that. There's a message somewhere in here, about moderate eating and care of the environment , but we're not whacked over the head repeatedly with it. There's something about Flint's dad Tim Lockwood (James Caan), who can't seem to express any affection for his son--but the resolution to that potentially sticky subplot is relegated to a brief moment with a brain translator. Unlike, say, Brad Bird's Ratatouille, we are not slowed down by meaningful flashbacks, or attempts at serious drama; instead of half-hearted and rather idiotic attempts at fantasy (say, a rat guiding a cook's hand by tugging the hairs on his head), we go shamelessly whole hog (giant donuts crashing down from the sky and rolling across the town).
Plus, I like the sometimes horrific, sometimes sexual imagery--the giant meatball contains various suggestive orifices, killer roast chickens surround and threaten our hero, and the FLDSMDFR is imbedded in a mountain of pulsating, suppurating meat that calls to mind James Wood's gun-hand (not to mention pulsating belly opening) in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Filmmakers Lord and Miller could have gone a lot further with this and I'd have loved it, but I suppose we have to make do with what we have, and call this a fairly satisfying meal.
First published in Businessworld, 1.28.10
If it only had a brain
Martin Barnewitz's Messengers 2: Scarecrow (2009), prequel to the Pang Brothers' Messengers (2007) gets the full theatrical release treatment in Manila--why, one can only guess. After gathering dust in the shelves of barely busy Blockbuster stores (the once mighty chain has cut operating hours, and is giving discounts and free rentals away as if the world might end way before 2012), I suppose the distributors expect supposedly less educated Asians to bite what supposedly savvier American audiences turn down.
Hope not. We have our happy quirks (where else but in the Philippines would a gay-themed melodrama like Olive Lamasan's In My Life be such a hit?), but if the '2' appended to the title isn't ample warning, the fact that this went straight to video in the United States should give local moviegoers pause. Just think, people: if garbage as bad as Planet 51 hung around American multiplexes for weeks before expiring, what are movies that shun big-screen exposure like?
In this case, you've been warned: Messengers 2 plays like a parody of Pumpkinhead, Children of the Corn and The Shining, only not as funny--the dialogue sounds stilted if not downright unnatural, the acting is wooden, to put it kindly, and the scares are strictly of the pop-up variety (to be fair they're sufficiently loud to help wake me whenever I nod off). Barnewitz uses enough handheld camera footage to be counted among the new generation of horror filmmakers, and I hate the new generation--not a coherent sequence among them.
Still, that's not what really reeks about this picture; it's how the movie seems to be subtly selling itself to conservative Christians while indulging the 'R'-rated fantasies of the pimply horror-geek crowd. Note such details as John Rollins (Norman Reedus) having trouble with his corn about the time when he's stopped going to church; note his good wife Mary (Heather Stephens)--mother of God, get it? Get it?--is a sensible, old-fashioned housewife who frowns at beer-drinking, cursing, and taking the Lord's name in vain. By way of contrast, when the bad guys come they bear six-packs, mutter insidious ideas (“reap what you sow, John”), and offer tempting visions of sweaty women dousing their naked breasts with bottled water.
I know, I know, I'm probably being paranoid--can't see some Christian conservative film production outfit putting out a subliminal “Jesus Saves!” promotion campaign in the guise of a mildly gory, mildly erotic horror flick, and for all we know the scriptwriter (Todd Farmer, who recycled his largely discarded script from the original “Messengers” for this picture) only meant to exploit Bible-belt agricultural workers, not glamorize them. That said, you can't help but wonder why the scarecrow is hung up in cruciform position, and why John later finds himself in a similar fix. Then there's the moment when a sardonic neighbor looks on John and says “I see who wear the pants in this family;” John in another scene repeats the line, and adds “isn't the man supposed to be the strong one?” Granted this is a drama about a man's corruption, and those lines are meant to be taken as sexist markers on John's progress towards, one can't help but feel we're supposed to nod in tacit agreement, not recoil in disapproving horror. Later, there's a lovemaking scene between John and Mary that comes uncomfortably close to rape; nothing is made out of it afterward, and Mary doesn't even mention the incident to her ex-beau Tommy (Atanas Srebrev)--it's as if no one knows what to make of the assault. Anyway it's between husband and wife, so that's okay. Right?
Then there are Jude and Miranda Weatherby (Richard Riehle and Darcy Fowers, respectively), who put on the most painfully obvious Mephistopheles act this side of a Sunday school kindergarten drama. Fowers has the pneumatic breasts and skanky look of a Fox Network newscaster; Riehle at least makes some attempt at subtlety--he heaves up the six-pack as an offering and can't seem to imagine why a body might refuse.
I'd mentioned Stanley Kubrick's The Shining--that film chronicled a father's breakdown and a family's disintegration. I kept thinking back to that film when John is confronted with a police officer's dead body and desperately tries to explain to his wife “it's the scarecrow! It's the scarecrow!” Sounds pretty much like blame-shifting, and maybe it's just me but the fact that a scarecrow does pop up to terrorize Mary, validating everything John has said, sounds like unbelievably good luck. Towards the end of Kubrick's film the monster comes out in the open as well, only he doesn't wear cheap makeup effects; he's simply himself, father and husband and head of the family, his inner demons revealed at last. Now that's horror.
First published in Businessworld, 1.21.10