Saturday, June 30, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

Mommie dearest

Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), her first feature in nine years and an adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver is, to put it simply, spectacularly messed up.

The story follows the life of one Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) as she gives birth to her son Kevin (played at various ages by Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller as the child, youth, and teenaged Kevin respectively), struggles to raise him to doubtful young adulthood and, much later, live a life made lonely by ostracization from the entire community--though not necessarily in that order. Ramsey shuffles the time order, her way of echoing the novel's structure (a series of letters written by Eva to her husband that look back on her life), leaving clues along the way of something terrible that happens--will happen--later in the film, possibly the reason for her isolated status.

Ramsay's not an untalented filmmaker; she directs the film with a creepy deadpan tone, something of a cross between the hilariously serious (I'm thinking of Richard Donner's deadly earnest The Omen (1976)) and the seriously hilarious (Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family Values (1993), with a waywardly witty script by Paul Rudnick). Ramsay surrounds mother and son with a supporting cast full of grotesques (Alex Manette as a creepily predatory office co-worker, John C. Reilly as the eternally sweaty-looking husband), some (with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) striking imagery predominantly highlighted by a vivid shade of red (Swinton posed against a Warholian background of soup cans), and a soundtrack sprinkled with choices obvious (Buddy Holly's “Everyday”), and not-so-obvious (George Michael's “Last Christmas,” a selection from the score of Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine).

There's an argument to be made that Swinton is miscast here, being reportedly a less-than-empathic actress of the Isabelle Huppert school of onscreen disdain. I don't see it (actually I don't see it in Huppert who, when used judiciously, can be devastatingly effective); here Swinton's the put-upon sad-sack mother, her most consistently funny expression being the caught-in-the-headlights look on her face as she realizes time and again just what she's dealing with. As for her beloved son Ramsey manages to inspire every one of the Kevins, from toddler to teen, to flash the trademark Kubrickian evil psycho grin (see Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980), or Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket (1987)), to which Swinton's Eva can only respond with exhausted dismay. Yes, Swinton's default mode is  cold fish, but I actually found this more fascinating--a woman unapologetically accustomed to flying all over the world and writing about her travels suddenly confined to a single house in a tiny town with the Devil's spawn. She doesn't give in to her neighbors, she doesn't give in to us her audience; when she does give in, almost despite herself, it's a startling moment, and startlingly moving...

Perhaps my biggest problem with the film is the lack of psychological insight; we're outside looking in, and Ramsey doesn't even seem all that interested in doing more than suggest what drives both mother and son (and, equally interesting, what makes mother just as culpable as son). The film is really a series of darkly comic gags, artfully shuffled together and strikingly photographed--not unentertaining, but not something you would take seriously on the issue.

Perhaps it helps to look at another film for comparison. Lino Brocka is not the most sophisticated filmmaker in the world; his pictures work best as blood melodramas, with a sense of you-are-there immediacy. He's a straightforward, no-nonsense artist whose subtlest ability is a gift for modulating actors, coaxing them to underplay so that the melodrama starts looking larger and more profound--touching at times the level of dramatic art...

His Insiang (1976) covers roughly the same territory, albeit in a more straightforward manner: girl raised by less-than-loving mother, learns through abuse and neglect to give back as good as she gets, or better. Perhaps the difference here is that you identify with different points of view--mother, being abandoned by her husband; daughter being abandoned (emotionally if not literally) by her mother. Brocka makes both sides real for you, you can't help but sympathize with both points of view...and are horrified when both clash dramatically, then violently.

Brocka doesn't use a fancy back-and-forth time scheme, doesn't use a beautifully modulated color palette. His camerawork (by the great Conrado Baltazar) makes strict use of sunlight and available incandescents (or appears to do so, at least, better even than slum dramas are able to do today); his script (by longtime collaborator and filmmaker Mario O'Hara) is ripped out of the here-and-now (O'Hara claims the story happened to his backyard neighbors in the district of Pasay). We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't a bad film, really--it's brilliantly shot and acted and morbidly entertaining--but it doesn't have the white-hot intensity of unvarnished truth, or of a Brocka film.

First published in Businessworld, 6/21/12


Friday, June 22, 2012

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)

Don't talk

First of all Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist has had trouble being booked in Manila theaters--it took initiative on the part of this year's French Film Festival (officially known now as the Citi-Rustan's French Film Festival) to finally bring the movie to the Philippines, despite winning a Best Picture at this year's Golden Doorstop Awards ceremony.

Actually, it's always had trouble with bookings, even in the United States. An announcement had to be posted at ticket counters in American theaters, stating that refunds would not be given to audiences who belatedly realize that this is a silent picture, and black and white to boot; the movie's publicists (not to mention quite a few critics) practically had to apologize for the fact that it has no dialogue or color (“try it, you'll like it!”). 

To which I want to say: huh? What's the big hangup with black-and-white movies, much less silent movies? We deal with unorthodox viewing venues all the time--the latest technological advances have shrunk viewing screens to cellphone size or smaller; the computer freezes every five minutes because the phone line's bandwidth can't handle the traffic load. And then there's 3D, where you have to peer at the screen through thick sunglasses that make the image roughly three-fourths dimmer, and encourage your eyes to gaze at each other constantly, to achieve the illusion of depth.

So the movie's black-and-white and without dialogue? Grow up, kids--it's not as if you're being asked for your right pinkie in payment.

I do have to agree with the publicity on one point: Hazanavicius' movie is a charmer. Taking a page from the tragic story of John Gilbert while soft-pedaling the alcoholism and pathos, throwing in a parallel rags-to-riches plotline borrowed from George Cukor's A Star is Born, the picture gives us a brief (callow, unthreatening) view of the transition from silent to sound film (a transition also recorded in Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain).

As the Gilbert figure George Valentin, Jean Dujardin recalls the breezy unflappability of Gene Kelly, complete with wide-mouthed grin (he can dance too, though not with the same athletic exuberance); Berenice Bejo--Hazanavicius' wife--is a gentle, sunny presence as star-on-the-rise Peppy Miller, though she doesn't quite exhibit the kind of drive you imagine is needed by an actress out to reach celebrity status (I'm thinking of Judy Garland's sweet but determined Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born). They're both amiable personalities that trade on unconventional beauty (Dujardin's dark looks, Bejo's startlingly angular cheekbones and jaw) without digging too deep at the more disturbing implications of their characters.

And maybe that's my biggest problem with this picture--not that it's bad, exactly, but that it's so inoffensive and blandly likeable one wonders why anyone would be so excited over it, other than the fact that it's both black-and-white and silent (like I've said to those with problems: deal with it!). Gilbert's life was an occasion for high drama, not necessarily because he had a high-pitched voice (the official explanation), or because he had a thick accent (The Artist's version) but possibly because studio executive Louis B. Mayer was out to ruin him (reportedly Gilbert punched Mayer for disparaging his co-star, Greta Garbo); that, heavy alcoholism, and the swiftly shifting landscape of the sound era played their part in his downfall.

Valentin's descent is something of a puzzle. Yes he drinks; yes he has a heavy accent. But it's a reasonably soft, attractively deep-voiced accent, one that would fit many a melodrama, and Latino actors weren't all that unknown in Hollywood (thanks to Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino Latino actors were so popular aspiring actor Jacob Krantz changed his name to Ricardo Cortez to take advantage of the fad; Novarro himself worked a few years into the sound era). Plus Valentin as Dujardin plays him is such an affable actor one wonders why no one wants to hire him for anything (couldn't he cuss someone out, act like a jerk, or even punch a studio exec, like Gilbert?). The man doesn't even seem to have the kind of overreaching pride required to motivate his precipitous decline storyline (“I AM big; it's the pictures that got small”).

Hazanavicius is talented; he manages to capture some of the look and feel of a silent film without, sadly, injecting his own brand of poetry (the way, say, Guy Maddin or Raya Martin can). He tells his story swiftly enough, he has a pair of attractive lovers at the heart of his production, he has a heroic animal sidekick helping out (the remarkable Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier that resembles in appearance and spirit the legendary Asta, of The Thin Man fame). 

He does commit a major misstep in using Bernard Herrmann's music for Vertigo to paper over his finale--said music with its repetitive melody and resemblance to the “Lieberstod” aria of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde being so deeply ingrained in the mind with the idea of obsessive, undying love one wonders why Hazanavicius wants to yoke such tremendously operatic music (even in the mainly piano-based arrangement found in Hazanavicius' production) to his little fluff piece. Does Hazanavicius really want his picture compared to Hitchcock's masterpiece, one of the greatest films ever made? One wonders.

First published in Businessworld, 6.14.12

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

Inflexible Man

Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus is a lively and intense adaptation of an obscure Shakespeare play--especially obscure, considering this is the first-ever attempt to deliver it to the big screen.

There's probably a reason for the neglect--Caius Martius (dubbed 'Coriolanus' after his conquest of the Volscian city of Corioles)--is an unregenerate bastard, a highborn military career officer seeking election to high office who looks down upon ordinary men, claiming their breaths “reek o'th'rotten fens, whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air.” Asked to display his battle scars to the public--a Roman tradition when campaigning--he puts down the wounds as mere “Scratches with briers / Scars to move laughter only,” and declares “I would not buy / Their mercy at the price of one fair word.”

Coriolanus in effect is an unbending man, who refuses to yield to political expediency or changing fashion to win a single vote (a spin doctor's nightmare). Like character, like play--the work itself, written late in Shakespeare's career after he'd written all his best-known tragedies, is an unyielding, unbending drama about such a man, and the downward spiral his life takes, not long after enjoying a string of military victories. One might compare him to Richard III--Richard dissembles, manipulates, approaches every opponent and challenge by an indirect line (with his very body--as Shakespeare (brilliantly, I think) puts it--an indirect line). If they share anything it's a love of extremes, of the absolute: Richard for absolute power, Coriolanus for absolute honor.

Call Coriolanus then Richard's antithesis--Shakespeare's “what if?” proposition to come up with an antihero so unloveable the very play reeks of “the dead carcasses of unburied men.” The playwright wrought only too well; this is an ugly work that only its creator (and T.S. Eliot, who prefers this to Hamlet) can love.

And Fiennes. Laurence Olivier staged the play in 1959, drawing parallels to the career of Benito Mussolini by having Coriolanus' dead body hang upside down (I'm guessing Olivier meant to show the man as an ignominious fascist buffoon). Fiennes seems to want to go a different tack: to direct the film and play the man head-on: no apologies, no parodies, no whitewash. Shaven (shades of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now?), scarred, unsmiling, he seems to be begging you to hate him--Coriolanus as Coriolanus might present himself, so to speak.

Which is what, for me, helps both play and film succeed. Coriolanus the man is a piece of work but on occasion--in brief moments and snatches of dialogue here, there--you see chinks in the armor, bits of self-destructive stubbornness that serve not to annihilate his humanity but confirm it. When seeking high office the people tell him “The price is to ask it kindly.” His response: “You should account me the more virtuous that I have not been common in my love.”

That's what drew Fiennes to the material, I think, and what he draws out of the material: a thoroughly unlikeable man who--faintly, faintly--wants to be liked, albeit on his terms. Inflexibility in a character is rare in Shakespeare; such characters don't survive for long in the Bard's mutable environments, not with his oft-morphing storylines (Cordelia's love for her father was uncompromising and as a result he banished her, in the play's very first scene). Such characters don't survive in our present-day political environment either--think, oh, of Ron Paul, perennial presidential candidate, his horde of die-hard fans, his reputation as honorable loon. Possibly they have never survived long in any environment, fictional or non-fictional, past or present--hence their rarity.

And universality--there's something in human nature, in our nature, that recognizes that stubbornness in Coriolanus; the unanticipated, immature, irrational moments when he (and we) feel the need to dig in our heels and say “no!” even at the cost of a promotion, a political career, our lives. You've got to like or at least respect someone like that--he may be crazy, but he's our kind of crazy. It's a weakness we enjoy seeing in others, aware of it in ourselves; understood this way, Coriolanus' insufferable condescension, his arrogance, his magisterial misanthropy suddenly become symptoms of an overarching psychological disorder: he's hateful because he can't help himself, he was made that way.

Fiennes does well enough with his supporting cast--a fine Brian Cox as the realpoliticking Menenius; odious James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the relentlessly conniving tribunes Sicinius and Brutus respectively; a self-absorbed Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus' arch nemesis and only other man he respects (“he is a lion / That I am proud to hunt”). Only the prolific Jessica Chastain (who's been in everything from Tree of Life to The Help to The Debt to this picture) seems out of place, playing Coriolanus' dull, dutiful wife Virgilia.

The standout is Vanessa Redgrave--Redgrave, who is superb in romantic fluff (Letters to Juliet), in pretentious crap (Atonement), in iconic roles (Howard's End, Julia)--is electrifying as Coriolanus' mother Volumnia. She is not what you might call a shrinking violet (“Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself / And so shall starve with feeding”); in fact she's the only character in the play fierce enough to argue Coriolanus into a standstill, after which she notes this between the two of them: “I mock at death / With as big heart as thou. Do as thou list / Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst it from me.” She is in other words the root of Coriolanus' illimitable ferocity, which for her is a source of both pride and dismay.

As director Fiennes commits many of the mistakes of a first-time filmmaker: he works furiously to situate the play in the here and now ('Rome' in this case resembling Belgrave, with echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan), and amps up the violence in fight sequences, as if to keep us awash in the blood his protagonist speaks so fondly of--unconfident, apparently, in the play's ability to speak to us clearly, plainly, and in a strong voice. His fight scenes, while energetic, are incoherent; he subscribes unfortunately to the belief that shaking a camera brings out some kind of truth, or realism. He lacks the gift of surreal imagery of a Julie Taymor (Titus), or the coherent, consistent vision of a Michael Almereyda (Hamlet).

Despite the flaws Fiennes' interpretation of the eponymous character rings true, and he hews to it with an intensity that suggests a lifelong obsession with the material--excellent ammunition to carry into a film production. I wouldn't call Coriolanus great cinematic Shakespeare; wouldn't even call it the best Shakespeare recently made; but it's lively enough Shakespeare, and Fiennes a worthy enough interpreter of the Bard. I think in this case a little flexibility in one's own standards would not be such a bad thing.

First published in Businessworld, 6.14.12

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mystic Hitchcock


Posted as part of the For the Love of Film: Film Preservation Blogathon

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Mystic Hitchcock

(Warning: stories, twists, and surprises of various films to follow will be discussed in close detail)

Despite his Roman Catholic background, you find a dearth of mysticism in Hitchcock. He seems more concerned with the mystery residing in the human mind, than with any unknown supernatural power residing in the world at large.

That's fine, I suppose--the mind is as complex a puzzle as any, and a lifetime's study probably won't offer any immediate solution. Hitchcock, one might say, has confined himself to specific territory, though a territory particularly rich in drama and conflict.

Original Sin

Possibly the most consistent influence Catholicism had on Hitchcock was on the idea of "transference of guilt"--of an innocent man who comes to bear the burden and suffering of one who is guilty. That idea bears more than passing resemblance to the Catholic concept of Original Sin--where all of  humanity is guilty by reason of Man's fallen state, and the only hope of redemption is through an innocent Son of God.

Hence the common thread going through films like The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps, The Lodger, I Confess, and Strangers on a Train, where a man is accused of a crime he did not commit. A scapegoat if you like, in the Old Testament sense, a creature arbitrarily chosen to be blamed for others' sins.

Which isn't the same as saying the man is a total innocent--in The Lodger one reason why the man is so suspicious, why he's always at the right place and time, why he carries so much circumstantial evidence around with him is because he does have a relationship with the killer; in I Confess the priest is suspected because he stands to profit from the murder; in Strangers on a Train the thought of murder is so tempting the hero actually blurts the thought out loud--in effect, he is guilty in all except the actual deed.

That's as far as Hitchcock went, mostly: a kind of subtle filigree of fear and paranoia, overlaid on his otherwise secular filmography.

Life after death

And then there's the idea of life after death, which Hitchcock didn't deal with often, but when he did it was with unnerving intensity.

In Vertigo Madeleine Elster dies halfway through the story--but death in one form or another was always implied in this picture. Through  color, through camera angles, through sound effects and above all Bernard Herrmann's haunting music we are made aware again and again that this is a film steeped in death and memories, that everyone is haunted by everyone else. Madeleine is haunted by Carlotta Valdez, the city is haunted by Madeleine's desolate figure, Scottie Ferguson is haunted by details and echoes of Madeleine scattered throughout the city long after she's gone. 

There's something otherworldly about Madeleine herself: Hitchcock often shoots her from a distance, in profile, constantly on the verge of turning round a street corner or stepping behind a redwood trunk or dropping off a stone pier into San Francisco Bay. Finally she evades him, slipping like a prestidigitator's assistant up the bell tower's trapdoor; Scotty catches a glimpse of her hurtling past a tower window. 

As for the body itself, crushed and broken on the Mission's rooftop, he could hardly be less interested: it's the woman's elusive ghost--her soul if you please--he's after, not its mere fleshy remains. He leaves that behind, slipping surreptitiously out a side entrance, for others to discover.

What makes the second half of Vertigo so unsettling, I submit, is Scottie's full-on attempt at resurrecting Madeleine through Judy Barton. We get a rough inventory of half the filmmaker's arsenal in realizing his ideal woman: clothes ("I want to look at an evening dress, a dinner dress, black, short, long sleeves...with a neck cut this..."), makeup and hair ("You're sure about the color of the hair?") even lighting (standing before the windows in such a way that when Judy steps out of her bathroom she's wrapped in the unnatural green glow of the hotel's street neon). "She's alive!" Scottie might have cried, the way Dr. Frankenstein did in James Whale's horror classic; she is for a while anyway before she steps off the bell tower ledge one last time, simultaneously stepping  into Scottie's despairing, devastated memories for all time. 

There is, sadly, a rational explanation behind the film's supernatural claptrap, Gavin Ellster's over-elaborate plan to kill his wife. But in mood and tone, in spirit and intent if not strictly in actual deed (and isn't that an accusation leveled at nearly all of Hitchcock's heroes?), Hitchcock manages to create one of the greatest ghost stories in all of cinema.

Then there's Psycho, where for the first thirty or so minutes Hitchcock seems to be setting up Norman Bates as one of his Wrongfully Accused. We know, of course, that his mother did it. 

Turns out we're right and wrong: Norman did it, but not as Norman. The whole case is written off as an example of split personality, presented in what has often been argued as Hitchcock's worst-directed scene--an endless expositional monologue by Dr. Fred Richman.

Simon Oakland's performance as Richman should have clued us in to what Hitchcock was really after. Oakland has the manner of a carnival barker, speaking hurriedly and energetically as if to keep his audience from leaving; a police officer enters, blanket draped over one arm: "He feels a little chill," the officer asks. "Can I bring him this blanket?" The camera follows the officer out the hallway towards a door, which he enters. The camera sits outside waiting; suddenly we hear a woman's soft husky voice call out: "Thank you!"

Cut to inside the room, the camera slowly approaching a seated Norman Bates as he wraps the blanket around him. We hear a woman--the same woman, we realize--talk: "It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son..." We recognize the gravelly voice of Mrs. Bates in voice-over.

Basically Hitchcock through Dr. Richman first gives us the official explanation, a tale full of cross-dressing and poison and enough guilt to kill an entire platoon of mama's boys. It's not a convincing performance; you wonder if Oakland was rushing through the text, if his heart was really into making the most of the short and specific period of time allotted to his character. It comes off like a makeshift reply, something cooked up last-minute to satisfy a deadline.

Then we have Mrs. Bates, taking slowly and deliberately while the camera brings us close and closer to Norman's glittering eyes, and we come to a realization: this is the film's true explanation, this is the film's (and Hitchcock's) true response--that Mrs. Bates is alive and well, living inside Norman's totally insane head. 

Fade to the film's final image, of a chain pulling a car out of the swamp. During the transition we catch a glimpse of an image superimposed over Bates' glittering eyes and wide grin: a human skull. We can't help but note that the shape and width of Bates' grin and eyes match those of the skull's almost perfectly. 

A final image meant to send the audience out of the theaters on an appropriately macabre note? A way of suggesting what's really going on inside Norman's head--basically cunning and implacable Death, grinning at our ludicrous need for a crumb of comfort, a word of reassurance? Or did Hitchcock in a moment of weakness betray his true attitude towards death--that certainly there's the possibility of an afterlife, but we're entirely too optimistic in thinking this a good thing?

A greater power

The Birds stands alone among all of Hitchcock's films, I think, in leaving us with no explanation, however demented, for the violence. Bruno wanted his father dead because he couldn't stand the man; Gavin Ellster wants his wife dead presumably because he wanted control of her money; Mrs. Bates wants any girl interested in her son dead because she's jealous of him (or rather, as Dr. Richman puts it, he's so intensely jealous of her he assumes she's the same way about him). The birds never tell us why they want everyone dead, they just keep at it--presumably will keep doing so until the desired end is achieved. 

There's a funny scene in a diner where different people gather together and offer explanations: changing weather, occult malevolence, biblical vengeance, none of which ultimately stick. With the film's final image--of the little sports car about to lose itself in a vast herd of fowl, inching towards a baleful sky--there's an ambivalent rise of volume and intensity in the birds' constant murmur: are they about to attack again? We can't know beyond the end credits; we can only speculate.

But the supreme moment for me isn't the film's appropriately bleak final image (not as bleak perhaps as in Daphne du Maurier's original short story, but in its way more cruel--as hope, represented by the few sun rays that manage to penetrate the gray cloud cover, is always more cruel than absolute despair); rather, it's the pause right after the gas station explosion--the breathless moment before the birds launch into their most massive attack yet.

To review: gulls attack a gas station attendant, knocking him down. Gas flows downhill, towards a parked car; the driver has stepped out to light a cigarette. The gasoline ignites, the car explodes; the flames follow the stream up the road to the station, which explodes.

Suddenly Hitchcock cuts to a high overhead shot, looking down on the town of Bodega Bay. Far below we see the flames from the burning car and gas station.

A startlingly peaceful moment, this. The panic and mayhem are all far below, out of earshot; the town itself looks like a toy diorama, where some willful boy has poured whiskey over one corner and set it alight.

Then you hear it: the sound of breathing. Barely registering on the ear but labored, as if someone were sucking air from a scuba tank. Then you see a pair of wings--here, there, gathering in increasing numbers. The birds are like skiers on a summit, looking down on the slope they plan to plunder; or like fighter planes perched above clouds waiting for the signal to attack--and suddenly you realize the burning station looks like a signal, like something they've been waiting for all this time.

Hitchcock is almost always about the point-of-view, about gliding, eye-level shots that increase our identification with the protagonist's helplessness and fear. Once in a blue moon (I'm thinking of the opening shot to the cropduster sequence in North by Northwest, or the camera swooping upwards to look down on Norman carrying his mother to the fruit cellar in Psycho) he resorts to a high overhead angle--less a point-of-view shot than a pitiless gaze assessing man's all-too-apparent vulnerability.

This was, well, different. This felt like both point-of-view and pitiless, sentient yet not quite human. The breathing (or rather the faintest suggestion of breathing) makes the moment all the more unnerving--who is this? Why is he doing all this? What does he intend to do next?

It's the closest, I submit, that Hitchcock ever comes to entertaining the possible existence of God, albeit here--and more clearly in du Maurier's story--a God in the guise of implacable nature. You do form specific impressions from this all-too-brief assumption of his  point of view, this fleeting glimpse of the world through his eyes: he seems less like the loving God of the New Testament, more like the vengeful God of old; and he seems to look down on the town and its inhabitants like so many ants--like a pestilence that must be dealt with, if a house is to be considered clean and fit to live in by more respectable inhabitants.

It's about as mysterious and terrifying an image as anything Hitchcock has ever produced--and as such, arguably one of the most mysterious, indescribably terrifying images ever created in the history of cinema. 

6.15.12

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Secret World of Arietty (Hiromasa Yonebashi, 2010)


It's a small world, after all

Hiromasa Yonebashi's Kari-gurashino Arietti (The Secret World of Arietty, 2010), Studio Ghibli's adaptation of the popular 1952 Mary Norton novel The Borrowers is, in a word, a wonder. It demonstrates with graceful simplicity the idea that to evoke the fantastic and fabulous, one does not have to push at the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction, of the future and outer space and the fantastic; one can look in the past, in a book roughly sixty years old, and in the otherwise ordinary setting of an old-fashioned suburban home--with one significant twist.

We're introduced to the story through the eyes of Shawn (David Henrie), a boy suffering from a heart condition. He spots the tiny figure--somewhere between three and four inches in height--of Arrietty (voice Bridgit Mendler in the American release), a Borrower living with her family in a makeshift home under the floorboards of Shawn's house, and they become friends.

Borrowers, we eventually learn, are tiny people living in the cracks and crannies of full-sized people's homes. They live off the larger folks' supplies, taking sugar cubes, tissue paper, the odd green pea (it makes for a huge cauldron of soup)--explaining that they are only 'borrowing' these items, with the unspoken promise that said items will be returned or replaced in some later date. Borrowers have an uneasy relationship with the big folk (called 'human beans'--a punnish mispronunciation--by Arrietty's father Pod (Will Arnett)). They depend on them, yet are afraid to reveal themselves to them; when spotted by the beans, the Borrowers' response (to Shawn and Arrietty's dismay) is to pull up roots and move elsewhere.

The film constantly shifts point of view from bean to Borrower, and we can't help but notice each change thanks to a bewildering accumulation of details, the kind the artists of Studio Ghibli are practiced masters at capturing, and bringing to animated life. Water drops, for example--viewed from proportionally smaller eyes and handled by proportionally weaker limbs, water's surface tension seems accordingly stronger, turning them into rubberized orbs that flow and swell strangely, like living tissue. Bean sounds are deeper, sometimes more felt (like earth tremors) than actually heard. A dollhouse's intricately drawn furnishings are shot and lit (see photo above) just so that you're aware the teacups and table lamps are not just Borrower-sized cups and lamps but model replicas of the same, clumsily crafted and hand-painted (and if you look carefully you can see they're hand-painted) by large fingers to fit (however imperfectly) the delicacy of Borrower hands.

It's this attention to detail that allows the film to deliver startling effects, turning what on the surface is a domestic fantasy into grand adventure--a refrigerator door looms like a mountain cliff, a kitchen crossing feels more like an epic trek, a house cat stalks the garden with all the menace of a lumbering T-Rex. Dropping into the dollhouse's kitchen, Arietty gasps, startled to see the world has suddenly shrunk down to her size, and for a moment we're thrown too; then she--and we--look closer and realize our mistake (a mistake painstakingly achieved by the Ghibli background artists).

Mr. Yonebashi seems to have successfully captured Hayao Miyazaki's signature approach at storytelling, presenting the fantastic as if it were everyday, the everyday as if it were fantastic--both a good and bad thing. Good in the sense that Miyazaki, who wrote the script and produced the picture, manages to express himself through proxy--his voice is that strong; bad in the sense that Ghibli still has to find talented directors who can bring something new to the studio, who can eventually replace its two animation legends--Miyazaki and fellow filmmaker Isao Takahata (Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988)). Miyazaki's son Goro struggled against his father's influence in Gendo Senki (Tales from Earthsea, 2006) and the result is an unhappy compromise between the two filmmakers (in a way the story--the uneasy relationship between a young prince and a master wizard--seems to reflect the tension between father and son). Arguably the most successful non-Miyazaki, non-Takahata Ghibli film is Mimi o Sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart), by Yoshifumi Kondo, which manages to evoke the Ghibli spirit while retaining its own distinct look and lighthearted romantic-comedy feel--but Kondo died soon after (this was his only feature), and the film was released way back in 1995.

Yonebashi's work does do one thing--bring attention to some of the more progressive ideas implicit in Norton's novel. Miyazaki and Takahata have often expressed left-leaning sentiments in their films, and Miyazaki himself once dabbled in Marxism; the Borrowers' idea of 'borrowing' material from the beans--a variation on the idea of 'redistribution of wealth'--must appeal greatly to Miyazaki. Without undue emphasis, and by simply allowing the story to unfold, Yonebashi makes us aware that the Borrowers are in a way physically challenged folk; not lazy or especially passive but honest, courageous, naturally humble and reserved (save for Arrietty--her rich cascade of red hair suggests a more confrontational spirit) who cannot survive without resorting to desperate, even humiliating, measures. They have needs, they take what they need--not arrogantly, in the spirit of Spanish conquistadors but quietly, in the spirit of Deuteronomy's gleaners, and only what's necessary; all that's really missing is the beans' acceptance of their miniscule co-habitants (which in the course of the picture is, briefly and to a limited extent, achieved). Like what's missing in today's world (and here is where Yonebashi's film achieves some measure of relevance, of urgency even) is the one percent's acceptance of the yawning need of the ninety-nine, and perhaps a touch of everyday human compassion...

Loved Arrietty; think it's a superb adaptation of a lovely little fantasy--perhaps better than the magnificently flawed earlier attempt at adapting a far more ambitious one--and ultimately more emotionally satisfying. The film shows some hope for the future for Studio Ghibli which, after all is said and done, is probably the finest animation outfit now working.

First published in Businessworld, 5.31.12

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011)

Haunted house blues

Ti West's The Innkeepers (2011) is, like his previous work, a loving tribute to as well as a modern-day evocation of those classic '70s and '80s horror films, where the girl is stuck in a creepy old location (in this case The Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hundred year old hotel in Torrington, Connecticut reputed to be one of the most haunted locations in New England), and evil (often occult) matters are involved.

West knows the territory well. The House of the Devil (2009), his breakthrough hit about a babysitter paid an unholy amount of money to watch someone's mother in a decayed old mansion for a few hours, is a low-budget homage to Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) and the early independent efforts of John Carpenter. It featured genre-related casting choices like Tom Noonan (Wolfen (1981), Manhunter (1986)), Mary Woronov (Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974), Eating Raoul (1982)), and Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Howling (1981)), iconic '80s music (The Fixx's “One Thing Leads to Another”) and--most telling (or damning) of all--the sudden shock zooms and muted color palette that were the staple of horror cameramen of the time period.

If House was West's Rosemary, The Innkeepers is possibly his The Shining (1980). Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are front desk clerks manning the Yankee Pedlar Inn; come Monday, the hotel closes for good, and the two have been asked to preside over the establishment's final weekend. That's the premise; actually the two have cooked up their own subplot--Luke has brought some sound-recording equipment, and hopes to capture proof of the existence of Madeline O'Malley, an abandoned bride who hung herself from the ceiling of room 353. As with House of the Devil where the supporting cast (Woronov, Noonan) supplied much of the atmosphere, interesting guests walk in: Alison Bartlett's angry mother, Kelly McGillis' former celebrity and psychic, George Riddle's gruesomely old man--and that's basically it. West's productions are not known for their extravagantly large casts.

West is something unique in this day and age of digitally created horrors tossed at handheld cameras with ADHD regularity: he's a storyteller. What's more, he's a patient storyteller, one unafraid to bide his time and allow atmosphere and setting (The Yankee Pedlar being a particularly memorable setting) to seep into the bones, allow the frankly brilliant sound engineering to suggest things going on around this dark corner or behind that shut door, let the audience's minds do most of the hard work while he orchestrates light and sound, props and performers with the moonlight-and-gossamer finesse of a pianist performing Debussy.

For about the first hour or so nothing much happens, mainly Claire and Luke goofing off, checking out porn sites at Luke's laptop, sipping elaborate coffee drinks or cheap beer, showing Claire a particularly creepy video of a rocking chair (what makes the chair so creepy isn't that it does anything but that it doesn't--and does so for an uncomfortably long time). Paxton and Healy playing Clair and Luke respectively have a nice chemistry going, as a pair of not-all-that committed workers thrown together possibly for the last time, one definitely attracted to the other but too shy to say so, the other definitely attractive but too clueless to realize it. One might argue that this and not the shenanigans that follow is the heart of the film, is West's true gift--the leisurely accumulation of character and detail in an entertainingly persuasive work environment, so when the red-dyed Karo syrup finally hits the proverbial fan you care about who survives and who is cannon fodder.

We're not talking originality, mind you; Ti West is not an especially radical new talent determined to sweep away hoary old conventions. No, he's a decidedly classical new talent, content with collecting hoary old conventions and re-creating them with passion and energy. He does the old stuff straight, and in such a way that in this age of ironic posturing and cynical smirks his conviction feels downright refreshing.

John Carpenter was like that; with his Hawksian sensibility and Hitchcockian camera moves he championed the virtues of classic genre filmmaking and inspired a generation of younger filmmakers; West is a member of that generation and while it's too early to be definite there are signs indicating that he'll be influential too.

If West is missing anything, it's this: Carpenter wasn't content to just emulate Hawks and Hitchcock; he eventually tried to exceed them (in films like They Live (1988) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994), he (arguably, at least) staked out his own distinct territory). I think West's a craftsman--a good one--not yet an artist. His most interesting quality at the moment is his willfulness, his determination not to bend to the fashion of the times (abundant digital effects, shaky-cam, ADHD editing) but hew to his own antediluvian line.

It may also prove to be his greatest limitation, this lack of creative fervor. One imagines a filmmaker with an impressively accomplished visual style, but that's all he is right now--an impressive style. Hopefully he finds a script with enough demonic energy to seize possession of his soul, bring the potential artist within the film craftsman to vivid, unruly life.

First published in Businessworld, 5.24.12
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