Sunday, March 31, 2013

Christ almighty

Holy Week again? Along with the same old films about Christ, the same old post about what may be the worst of 'em all:





Questioning The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson and his publicists have repeatedly claimed that his The Passion of the Christ is the most historically accurate of all pictures made on Jesus.

Actually--no. Historians have pointed out various inaccuracies--that Jesus would have spoken to Pontius Pilate in Greek (the lingua franca of the time), not Latin, and so would the Roman soldiers (who were conscripts from various nearby regions, not actual Romans); that Jesus would have carried a crossbeam and not the entire cross (which weighed something like 350 pounds); that he would have been nailed through the wrist and not the palms (his weight would have pulled the nails through his palms); that his cross used a projecting seat and not a footrest to support him; that his fellow convicts should have been scourged, as is standard Roman practice, instead of him alone. Gibson in reply has said that he has read many accounts and that as they often conflicted with each other he felt free to choose a "middle way," so to speak. It's significant, though, that Gibson's choices are often consistent with classic depictions of Jesus and his passion, rather than with the latest archeological findings.

Accuracy isn't the only controversy associated with this picture; there is also the charge that Passion is anti-Semitic, that it promotes the old idea that the Jews as a race are responsible for killing Christ. Gibson's publicist Paul Lauer puts an ingenious spin to this accusation, saying that to call the movie anti-Semitic is "to call the New Testament Gospels anti-Semitic," implying along the way that the movie is a faithful adaptation from the New Testaments (the marketing campaign has also trumpeted the picture as being the most biblically accurate yet made).

Is it? I mean--is it historically and biblically accurate, and are the charges of anti-Semitism false? The answer to these questions, interestingly enough, seem interrelated.

Some elements in the picture are definitely not from the Bible--an androgynous Satan (in interviews Gibson refers to him as a "Satanic" figure) tempting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and walking among the Jews who watch Jesus being whipped; an effeminate Herod, heavily rouged and eyelinered, mocking Jesus as he's brought before him (strange how few critics have noted the picture's homophobia); a Pilate and his wife, wringing their hands over the death of an innocent man.

To be fair, Gibson can't help but rearrange and insert extra scenes: the four Gospels offer varying, sometimes even contradictory, accounts, and their coverage of Jesus' final hours is sketchy when it comes to physical details about crucifixion and scourging. Sometimes when making a picture you have to add or make changes, for dramatic impact and narrative clarity.

But as Catholic teaching--or at least mainstream Catholic teaching--declares: "It is not sufficient for the producers of passion dramatizations to respond to responsible criticism simply by appealing to the notion that 'it's in the Bible.' One must account for one's selections" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, 1988).

Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College makes some interesting points in his article The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching. He points out that in the movie's pivotal scene, Gibson selected a passage from the Gospel according to John where Pilate orders Jesus scourged, hoping to appease the crowd demanding his crucifixion. When this tactic fails, Pilate appeals to Jesus for help, to which Jesus replies "He who delivered me to you (Jewish high priest Caiaphas) has the greater sin."

Gibson then tacked on a passage from Matthew where Caiaphas calls out in Aramaic "Let his blood be on us and our children!" (Gibson's claim to have cut this scene is false; he merely removed the subtitles). Pilate then washes his hands (a scene found in Matthew), in effect absolving him of the whole affair, granting the Jewish crowd what they want--Jesus' crucifixion.

The net result of this joining of scenes from John (the scourging, the 'greater sin') and Matthew ('blood be on us and our children,' hand-washing) is to shift blame away from Pilate onto Caiaphas and the Jewish crowd; the net result is a depiction of Pilate as more compassionate and of the Jews as more determinedly bloodthirsty than is actually found in either John's or Matthew's Gospels. The net result is a heightening of Jewish guilt, and a relative exoneration of the Romans (of senior Roman officials, at that).

True, most of the passages cited can be found in the Bible and even taken separately they seem to indicate a common trend. Now is as good a time as any, then, to ask the question implicit in Lauer's earlier assertion: is the New Testament anti-Semitic?

Putting aside the anachronism of the question (the term 'anti-Semitism' was coined in the nineteenth century), it must be noted that the Gospels were originally oral traditions written from fifty to seventy years after Christ had died, and that they reflected the times of the writers as much as of Christ--times when the early Christians were struggling to reply to unbelieving Jews and reach out to the Romans. Bible historians and theologians know this, and what's more the Vatican (whose authority Gibson rejects) admits this as well, saying "The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work…Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent church and the Jewish community" (Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Teaching in the Roman Catholic Church, 1985).

Cunningham writes "Honesty demands the recognition that Christians have used (and abused) the New Testament over the centuries to claim that 'the Jews' were cursed for rejecting and crucifying Jesus." He notes that from the late middle ages onwards, passion plays much like the one Gibson has adapted (with additions) to the big screen were performed every Holy Week, and that these plays "regularly inspired violence against Jews." Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, leader of Chicago's KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation reminds us that Adolf Hitler praised the Passion Play at Oberammergau, declaring it "vital that it be continued…for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans" (the play was revised several years ago, with the help of Jewish advisers).

Catholic teaching warns that "Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious; blood thirsty (e.g., in certain depiction's of Jesus' appearances before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies of Christ (e.g., by changing the small "crowd" at the governor's palace into a teeming mob)" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, 1988). It stresses the "overriding preoccupation to bring out explicitly the meaning of the (Gospel) text while taking scriptural studies into account" (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, 1974). To, in other words, consider what today's biblical scholars have to say as well and not read the Bible too literally, as Gibson's movie has done.

How then is one--in this case, Gibson--to "account for one's selections?" Granted Gibson is of a Traditionalist sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the pope in Rome (which makes his trumpeting of said pope's endorsement of his movie--since withdrawn--all the more disingenuous) and the validity of Vatican ll; the idea is still sound, whether you believe in the Vatican's authority or not. One must be responsible for the choices one makes in telling a story, and must be able to give good reasons as to why they were made, especially when said choices can come together to create a false and harmful image.

Actually, Gibson is perfectly capable of accounting for his choices; he just doesn't seem at all eager or even willing to do so. As Cunningham puts it, "Gibson has actually created a cinematic version not so much of the Gospels but of Anne Catherine Emmerich’s purported visions of the death of Jesus."

Anne Catherine Emmerich was a 19th century Augustinian nun known for her visions of the life of Christ. The German Romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, offered to write down her visions and the result was The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ after the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich, published in 1833.

The book was internationally renowned, as much for its violent, rather exaggerated imagery of Christ's suffering as for being full of closely observed details of Palestine that (as some readers who visited the country noted) a simple German nun could not have possibly imagined. The question arose, however, whether the visions are truly Catherine's or embellished by Brentano; when German experts sifted through his papers after his death, their general conclusion was--after finding travel literature and biblical apocrypha amongst his papers--that only a small portion of the text is Emmerich's.

Emmerich's name was submitted for beatification in 1892; the process was halted in 1928 because of the questions on her visions' authenticity. The process was resumed in 1979, but with the explicit provision that her writings be excluded. Father John O'Malley, SJ, in his article A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ tells us: " The official opinion on the writings has thus for a long time been sober and even skeptical." He adds: " I would not recommend it to anybody today. It is anti-Semitic to the degree (sometimes considerable) that virtually all nineteenth-century retellings of the Passion, whether by Catholics or Protestants, were anti-Semitic."

Here's a sample of one of her visions: "The soul of the old Jewess Meyr told me on the way that it was true that in former times the Jews, both in our country and elsewhere, had strangled many Christians, principally children, and used their blood for all sort of superstitious and diabolical practices. She had once believed it lawful; but she now knew that it was abominable murder. They still follow such practices in this country and in others more distant; but very secretly, because they are obliged to have commercial intercourse with Christians" (The Life and Revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich).

Cunningham asserts in his article that Gibson owes many of his non-biblical images (Jesus thrown off a bridge, Pilate admonishing the Jews on their abuse of Jesus, an effeminate Herod, Pilate's wife giving Jesus' mother cloth to wipe away his blood, Jesus falling seven times, Christ's arm dislocated to fit holes drilled into the cross) and even the ordering and selection of scenes from the Gospels to Emmerich (John joined with Matthew to form Christ and Pilate's meeting). Gibson has reportedly denied using Emmerich as a source and does not consider her anti-Semitic (!); in a February 16 television interview, however, he said Emmerich "supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of," and admitted to carrying what he thinks is a relic of her.

It's possible that Gibson doesn't believe himself anti-Semitic and probable that he didn't intend his picture to be such. For his picture, unfortunately, Gibson has chosen to translate onscreen an old theatrical form known to have inspired hatred for Jews; has chosen scenes from the Gospels in a way that heightens Jewish guilt; has tried to polarize debate so that anyone not for his movie is against Christianity and the Bible.

He may not be consciously anti-Semitic but by pointedly ignoring the principles set by orthodox Catholic teachings on dramatizations of Jesus' passion and by depending instead on the visions of an outspokenly anti-Semitic nun, Gibson has created a movie remarkably open to abuse by anti-Semitics, much as the Gospels themselves have been abused in the past, providing justification for the persecution of Jews.

Putting aside, the question of anti-Semitism, is the movie still to be recommended, theologically? Cunningham says the picture promotes the view that "God had to be satisfied or appeased for the countless sins of humanity by subjecting his son to unspeakable torments," which isn't the case--Christ's crucifixion is meaningless without his resurrection; it's the whole reason for his suffering. Gibson's movie upends this emphasis, focuses on Christ's physical sufferings (including much that was added thanks to Emmerich), and confines the resurrection to a few quick moments onscreen. Fr. O'Malley points out that this emphasis and at times overemphasis of the crucifixion and of Christ's suffering are a trend of recent centuries, and that "The reforms of the Easter triduum that began with Pius XII and were continued with the liturgical changes during and after Vatican II were, among other things, an attempt to redress the balance."

So what can be done about this picture? I don't believe in censorship, or outright banning, and I doubt if the Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board (MTRCB) will ban it either (I expect glowing praise of the movie on the copy of their decision posted outside theater gates). Rumor has it that they will give the picture a rating of PG 13--which would be awful; bringing anyone younger than sixteen into this movie is, I think, tantamount to cruel child abuse.

Rabbi Sandmel may have the most sensible answer--he proposes converting the movie into a "teachable moment" for Christians and Jews (Catholics here in Manila), to watch the picture, be aware of its errors, understand both the context in which the movie was made, and the proper context in which Jesus' Passion should be seen and understood.

(With thanks to Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College for permission to quote extensively from his article The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching;

to Fr. John O'Malley for his article A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition: Anne Catherine Emmerich & the Passion of the Christ.

To compare Gibson's movie with Emmerich's visions, read The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ)

First published in Businessworld, 3/19/04

 




















The perversion of Christ

In a previous article I wrote about how Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ was historically and biblically inaccurate, how it may not have been intended to be anti-Semitic but is open to abuse by those who are, and how Gibson's true source for the movie isn't so much the Bible as he claims, but the anti-Semitic writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century nun and "visionary," and German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, who compiled her "visions" in a series of books (Brentano possibly fabricated the bulk of Emmerich's writings). But how is it as a film? As a work of cinema?

It looks handsome enough; say what you will, Gibson did have one genuine artist in his employ--Caleb Deschanel, the tremendous cinematographer of such beautifully photographed films as The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff. Gibson in interviews mentioned how he wanted to evoke the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio, and Deschanel obtains it for him, especially Caravaggio's use of dramatic chiaroscuro--the deep shadows, the bright highlights.

But filmmaking is more than beautiful photography and lighting: it's editing, writing, acting, and, above all, that difficult-to-define skill of storytelling through, as much as possible, the use of moving images, cut in patterned sequences. Gibson's movie is easy to nitpick--his editing stitches together Deschanel's lovely footage with all the skill of a thumbless tailor; he doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word "restraint" when it comes to slow motion (I'm guessing a full ten to twenty minutes could be lopped off if every shot ran at normal speed); his sets and costumes are sumptuous, but sadly remind you of the kind of overproduced extravaganzas Hollywood used to make, like The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Gibson's notions on violence aren't much better. He's clearly working out some personal demons--torture is common to almost all his films, from impromptu electroshock therapy in the first Lethal Weapon movie to evisceration in his self-directed Braveheart. Gibson seems to want to punish himself for private wrongs in as public a manner as possible--he wants us all to suffer for his sins, in effect--and I suppose we can relate to that; there are some guilt-obsessed filmmakers who make a career out of visualizing the blood and violence inherent in the Christian faith: John Woo, Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, to name a few.

Unlike the above filmmakers, however, Gibson doesn't seem to understand that violence should be used sparingly, to keep viewers from becoming numb; it has to be mixed in with other elements (like a sense of irony, or better yet a coherent story), and sprung on the audience at the precise moment when they are off-balance. Worse of all Gibson's violence doesn't seem to possess a distinct identity--it doesn't have Woo's sense of rhythm, which turns violence into a choreographed dance; doesn't have Ferrara's cool eye, which gazes on violence with unsettling serenity; doesn't have Scorsese's restless intelligence, which pares away unnecessary footage like so much fat. Gibson's Passion, with its endless images of scourgings and stumbles (seven of them, mostly shot in excruciatingly slow motion) on the long shuffle to Golgotha is clumsy, self-absorbed, flabby with extraneous detail--not just numbing in its obsession with violence, but boring.

These criticisms, however, are strictly small fry; most of Gibson's storytelling sins can be traced to his decision to focus almost entirely on the last twelve hours of Jesus' life (other sins too--Gibson's movie is essentially an adaptation of the passion play filtered through the sensibilities of Emmerich and Brentano, and passion plays were traditionally used to fan the flames of anti-Semitism). By filming the climax and not the rest of the story, we never learn why Jesus was condemned and crucified (for all you know, they pulled him off the street). Certainly Christians would know, but this makes the picture more exclusive than inclusive, strictly for the baptized only; Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists and the rest need not watch.

The lack of context also means Caiaphas is largely unmotivated--we don't know why he wants Jesus dead, and it's easy to think "maybe because Jews are just evil;" the actor playing Caiaphas, Mattia Sbragia, is reduced to playing a stereotype Evil Jew. We don't learn of Jesus' more provocative acts, like the whipping of the moneylenders in the temple, or the entrance into Jerusalem riding an ass in blasphemous (at least to Jewish authorities) fulfillment of scriptures; we don't have the crucial scene of Jesus revealing himself to his disciples as the Son of God--his primary reason for doing the things he did. The question has been long debated, who's responsible for the death of Jesus--Judas, Caiaphas or Pilate? There's actually a fourth possibility: Jesus himself, not as a suicide but as a man on a mission to redeem souls. But you never see that in this picture.

You never get to see Jesus' other sides either--the intellectual and theologian, the revolutionary leader ("I bring not peace but the sword"). Jim Cavaziel, who plays Jesus, does well enough with the physical suffering but essentially has no character to play--his Jesus is a passive, rather uneloquent lamb led to slaughter. My personal opinion, but a film on Jesus needs to be more, needs to engage mind and heart, intelligence and faith; it needs to focus less on drawing out and magnifying the beatings, to better relish the pain. That's the technique not of an artist, but a pornographer--he stretches out the money shots, gives his viewers the opportunity to "get their rocks off," the only difference being that Gibson peddles violence, not sex (I prefer the latter kind of porn, myself).

Another point: Gibson's emphasis on physical torture gives short shrift to inward, psychological torture; the beatings, the scourging, the pounded nails, they're nothing compared to what Jesus must have felt inside. Gibson's movie gives us little hint of Jesus' humiliation and despair, his sense of being abandoned by friends, disciples and, worst of all, God.

That's another difference between Gibson and Woo, Ferrara, Scorsese--for Gibson the depiction of violence is its own end; for these filmmakers it's a means of suggesting inner torment. Despite all the bloodletting you see in films like Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled, Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant, Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, these filmmakers managed to portray protagonists whose interior suffering dwarfed their exterior pain. Arguably the most fascinating aspect to Raging Bull's Jake La Motta was the suggestion that he entered the boxing ring and allowed his face to be beaten to a bloody pulp because it made him feel better, relieved his inner pain--compared to La Motta, the sufferings of Gibson's Jesus are strictly skin-deep.

A final thought: Gibson's movie has made hundreds of millions of dollars in boxoffice revenues, thanks to a publicity campaign that exploited both the fears of the Jewish community and the gullibility of Christian conservatives who thought they were getting a Hollywood superstar's faithful adaptation of the Bible. Gibson wanted to exploit Pope John Paul II as well--the same Pope whose authority his Traditionalist sect doesn't recognize and who he privately (according to his father) calls an "ass"--but thanks to luck (or perhaps the grace of God) the Pope withheld his endorsement.

No reason to believe Gibson can't repeat his success in Manila, though--the Archbishop has given his approval, and already testimonials to the movie's artistry and holiness are popping up in papers all over the city; I assume Academy Awards are only a matter of months away.

We need to remember that in 1915 D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was also a great boxoffice success, and that President Woodrow Wilson gave it his ringing endorsement--"history writ with lightning," he said; the voices raised in objection to its monstrous depiction of blacks were largely ignored. Years later, admiration for Griffith's filmmaking has not diminished, but recognition of its intense racism and gross historical distortions has grown, accompanying the film like its own dark shadow. Gibson's movie is nowhere near as good as Griffith's of course, but with time and a little luck, hopefully people will begin to recognize The Passion of the Christ for what it is--a crude, anti-Semitic snuff flick, cynically marketed and blindly embraced, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

It's the latter that's so galling. Gibson wraps righteousness round his self like a cloak of invincible holiness, when you just know that the one thing Jesus hated above all else was religious hypocrisy. This movie isn't just bad, it's evil; it's the voice of a false prophet, magnified and sanctified by the sound of cash registers ringing several hundred million dollars' worth of boxoffice gross*. The Hollywood producers who spurned Gibson when he was making his picture must be looking on with envy.

* Matthew 16:26 "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" To which Robert Bolt's Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons gives an interesting variation: "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales!"

First published in Businessworld, 4/2/04 


The straightest stories ever told

It's Easter season and just fresh from the controversies of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, so a quick rundown of different Christ pictures through film history might be appropriate, starting with movies that tell the story in a (more or less) straightforward and direct manner.

Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings (1927) is not perhaps the earliest screen depiction of Jesus, but it's one of the biggest and most popular. DeMille gives us his signature mix of hedonism and sanctimoniousness: an extravagant Mary Magdalene (Dorothy Cumming) wrapping elaborately designed capes round her near-naked body while riding a chariot pulled by zebras; a recognizably Caucasian Christ (H.B. Warner) striking endless poses with a gently concerned expression on his face. Judas (Joseph Schildkraut) is a former lover of Mary and a recognizably upper-class dandy; Caiaphas (Rudolph Schildkraut, Joseph's father) is an old-fashioned silent-screen villain.

Interestingly enough, the portrayal of Caiaphas plus certain scenes (including one where the Jews are paid to yell for Jesus' blood) gave rise to cries of anti-Semitism, which prompted DeMille to insert various titles, the most crucial of which has Caiaphas blaming himself, and not his people, for the death of Christ.

George Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is perhaps the representative Christ epic--long, slow, with improbably huge sets and an intelligent if glossy visual style (word has it that David Lean directed a few scenes).

What makes the movie such fun despite the ponderous, holier-than-thou filmmaking is the hilarious Hollywood casting: Donald Pleasance as Satan, Robert Blake as Simon the Zealot, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate (shaved his head for the role and kept it shaven ever since), Charlton Heston bellowing about apes--sorry, about repentance--as John the Baptist. In the background are the unique landscapes of Death Valley, California, and Utah, and lo and behold, you spot the Duke himself, drawling "Truly, this is the Son o' Gawd…"

What works, though, is Von Sydow as Christ. He flashes his laser-beam stare and bellows in his stentorian voice, and you can't help but think: "I can follow this guy." He's eerily effective when delivering dark prophecies like "Behold, the days are coming in which they shall say 'Blessed are the barren'…say to the mountains 'fall on us'"--this is, after all, the medieval knight who played chess against Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) features a more bloodless Christ in Jeffrey Hunter, whose chest was shaved because preview audiences objected to the body hair. More interesting (thanks to writer Philip Yordan) is a parallel subplot, where Harry Guardino as Jesus Barabbas struggles to free the Jews from Roman tyranny. Barabbas acts as a sort of political doppelganger to Christ (it's noted that they have the same first name), and the two struggle for the soul of an indecisive Judas (Rip Torn!). Ray keeps the drama more human-sized than Stevens, yet manages several striking setpieces: a Sermon on the Mount staged and shot (as filmmaker Martin Scorsese points out) like an impromptu press conference; a camera strapped to the top of the cross looking down, so we can follow it as it ascends to the sky (Scorsese borrows this shot for his own film).
 Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) puts in a rather benign Robert Powell as Christ, and follows Steven's style of Hollywood casting: an improbably young Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary, a hammy Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate, an unconvincingly bestial Michael York as John the Baptist. More interesting than Zefferelli's rather flat directing is Anthony Burgess' literate script, which supposes interesting relationships among characters (Pilate talks of mercy to Jesus just to needle the Jewish priests; Judas, as in King of Kings, is a political innocent out to save Jesus from himself) and attempts to show the political and social tensions of the time. Burgess would later use the script as basis for his novel Man of Nazareth which interpolates, among other things, a Jesus who married during his hidden thirty years.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) does the story of Christ, or at least Matthew's account of him, in a way no one seems to have thought of before, or since: as simply as possible.

Oh, Pasolini adds touches--a soundtrack with Mozart, Bach, and blues music--but by and large he took his cue from the way Enrique Irazoqui, the Catalan Economics student who plays Christ, walks across the screen: straightforward, direct, with no hesitation whatsoever. Easily the most beautiful, most cinematic, most faithful and "straight" of Christ movies--which is ironic, since the director is an outspoken homosexual, atheist and Communist.

The strangest stories ever told

There are the straight Christ movies like Jesus of Nazareth or Gospel According to Matthew; then there are the stranger versions of Christ's stories: the New Testament plus a little something else. A sample few:

Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) was pretty controversial when it came out in Broadway--what, Christ singing rock?! Nowadays, though, you hear "I Don't Know How to Love Him" in many a '70s compilation discs (it used to be sung at masses).

It turns out to be a pretty reverential take, with less-than-brilliant lyrics and only hints and rumblings of a modern consciousness in Ted Neely's rock-star Christ (at one point he worries people will forget him ten minutes after he's dead); it's also an extremely dated movie, with the camera constantly zooming in and out, presumably to "open up" the picture. What stays with you is Carl Anderson's passionate Judas, and the rock beat clearing away all the musty familiarity in your head. 

The picture was also charged with anti-Semitism, and I suppose you can see traces of a negative Jewish stereotype in the movie's Caiaphas (Bob Bingham). To the picture's credit it depicts some of Christ's more provocative acts against the Jewish orthodoxy, and gives us a sense of what his mission's all about (to die on the cross, be resurrected, redeem our sins), giving Caiaphas' hostility some context.

So sue me, I think Monty Python's The Life of Brian (1979) is easily the most sensible of all Christ films--mainly because it puts everything in perspective. With all the hoopla about religious faith, and the violence and chaos such faith inspires, what really matters (the picture seems to say) is that you have a bit of fun with a good Jewish girl, be kind to one another, and whistle cheerfully when you're hanging on a cross.

For those unfamiliar with the film it's Python's way of sending up--not Christ per se, the Pythoners think he's a decent chap--but the religious fanaticism and hypocrisy surrounding the man and his teachings, something I suspect he would appreciate if he were alive today. Small sidenote: the film was banned in Norway for eight years, after which it was marketed in Sweden as the film "so funny it was banned in Norway."

I cannot tell a lie; despite all the controversy about sex and New York accents, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the equally controversial book by Nikos Kazantzakis, is my personal favorite of the genre (Pasolini's might come in second, with Monty Python's third). If anything, I love that everyone speaks like they come from Brooklyn and the Bronx; it feels like Scorsese's way of personalizing a familiar story and telling it his way, in his voice and language, and showing us that the whole thing still works, nevertheless.

It does--at least, I think it does, thanks to Scorsese's inimitable visual style (he takes his cue from the desert landscape's apparitions and heat mirages, and turns Morocco into one of the most desolately beautiful settings one can have for a struggle over human spirituality); Willem Dafoe's ferocious Christ (Dafoe is rumored to be one of the best-endowed men in Hollywood, and somehow I like the idea of Christ speaking softly and wielding a very big stick); Paul Schrader's plainspoken screenplay (he pares away much of Kazantzakis' rather purplish prose); and Peter Gabriel's eclectic (he combines elements from, among others, symphonic, Egyptian and African music) rock score.

It's easily the most accurate, with Scorsese drawing details of Jewish life and Roman crucifixion practices from such sources as Michael Grant's The History of Ancient Israel and The Biblical Archaeological Review. It's also the most moving, I think, the one that speculates most thoroughly (and courageously) on the psychological and spiritual aspects of being Christ--on the inner suffering Christ must have undergone.

At 300 million dollars in boxoffice at the time of this writing and counting, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) is easily the most commercially successful Christ movie ever made. It's also, despite Gibson's claims of biblical fidelity, as much a piece of fantasy as Scorsese's Last Temptation, being closely based on the visions of one Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th century Augustinian nun and anti-Semite, and Clemens Brentano, the German Romantic poet who compiled her writings (and, it is suspected, added to them considerably).

Gibson's film is violent, it's true (in a crudely dull and repetitive way), and as such upends what Christ is all about--not that he died and was resurrected but that he endured superhuman torture for his sins (as if God were some kind of old school deity demanding blood payment). Besides being questionable theology, it's bad art--Gibson dwells so much on physical suffering that the sense of abandonment Christ must have felt is left unexpressed. It's also, thanks to Emmerich, virulently anti-Semitic (the Jews are malevolent for no apparent reason).

(First published in Menzone Magazine, April, 2004)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful, Valhalla Rising, Volver, Story of GI Joe

By Popular Demand

Never had much use for boxoffice figures; never thought the approval of the moviegoing public was all that important, or an indicator of a film's quality, or relative lack of.

Once in a while, though I find myself in the embarrassing position of agreeing with everyone else. In which case I plead pure coincidence, and point to that old adage--how does it go again? A stopped clock is right twice a day? 

Well, maybe not that one. But I do suspect that public opinion is smarter than the critical establishment is willing to admit. 

Case in point: Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful. Critics describe it as not "knowing its own mind," or "visually overcrammed, empty mega-spectacle"--which is funny, because Raimi has never been known for sticking to one genre, even in his own movies, and was never a believer in visual restraint. The man likes over-the-top comic-book action, and unlike some filmmakers I can think of who can't even do that properly, he is superb at it.

But my favorite complaint and easily the most common of them all is that it doesn't come close to the original. Folks, lemme make a radical suggestion: the original wasn't all that great, either. It was almost as "overcrammed" a "mega-spectacle" that didn't know "its own mind" (at one point Dorothy sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the anthem of everyone who ever felt unhappy about their present lot in life, at another point she's muttering to herself "There's no place like home; there's no place like home"--remember that over half a dozen people helped write the script). The flying monkeys were laughable, the Emerald City more quaint than impressive (they're the '30s idea of what the ultramodern urban future looked like), and I personally never did like Munchkinland--the sets were plastic and flimsy in the worse sense, and the poor Munchkins, with their thick makeup and orange hair! Never heard any of the actors complain, but they should have. 

If there was magic to the movie it didn't come from the sets, or costumes, or directing (by Victor Fleming, a capable craftsman if not exactly an artist, though the Kansas sequences--shot by King Vidor late in the production--have the eerie, austere two-dimensional beauty of charcoal sketches). I'd point instead to Harold Arlen's songs, to Burt Lahr's brilliant Lion, and the lovely, emotionally vulnerable (almost painfully so) performance by Judy Garland. 

Is it a wonderful movie? Sure; but it was also scattershot, out-of-control, all over the place. It had plenty of dud moments (what was the point to the poppy field scene? And I suppose it's just me, but Jack Haley's Tin Man was an annoying, useless drag). It was hardly the work of an artist in complete control, as Salman Rushdie points out in his brilliant deconstruction of the film, possibly one of the rare examples of an 'authorless text'--or as close to it as possible.

Which brings us to Raimi's picture. Which if not completely respectful, shows considerable affection for the original (including a better use for the aforementioned poppies); which takes the tacky set designs of the original and reimagines them on a sleeker, darker, grander scale; which puts at the center of things not a Dorothy ("the small and meek"), but Oscar Diggs the brash and crafty--Raimi's latest incarnation of his Ash ("Housewares!") from the Evil Dead movies, a more comic, more capable, and in some ways more interesting character stranded in worse circumstances (he doesn't have a good witch for an occasional guide; he's not even sure who are the heroes or villains in this particular landscape). People like to take pot shots at James Franco's stoner wizard, but I say he's serviceable, and that any number of actors could have done as well if not better, and quite a few worse (Bruce Campbell would have been ideal, but he's too old (he does a cameo here); Robert Downey Jr. would have been brilliant, but probably out of Raimi's price range; and can you imagine how Jim Carrey would trash the production?).

As with the original, you're not looking for a lean script and coherent narrative; you're looking for setpieces, funny exchanges, memorable moments--the best in this case being Raimi's horror-film images: the Wicked Witch arriving like a meteor in Glinda's soap-bubble domain, then rising out of the flames like something from The Wicker Man; the same witch minutes earlier, clawing at the top of a table as if she were The Creature coming out of the Black Lagoon

Not just horror film imagery, though--Oz dancing with the drop-dead gorgeous Theodora (Mila Kunis); presenting her with the music box (a running gag that at one point is rudely crushed by a Strong Man who knows better); Oz using glue to piece together a China Girl's shattered leg; and so on. 

By film's end Kunis' Theodora has developed into something almost tragic, and Oscar yes does experience some kind of redemption. But how many battles do you see nowadays where one used brains instead of ballistics to win, used imagination and craftsmanship instead of the usual high-powered automatic weaponry?  

It's not great filmmaking, it's arguably not the best new treatment on Oz out there (Walter Murch's largely forgotten Return to Oz is beautifully dark and grim; Wicked is a novel-length prequel and sequel to Baum's book, later turned musical; Tin Man is a science-fiction variation) and it's far from being the best thing Raimi's done. But it's alive, in a way most megaproductions aren't, with a look as inventive and slapped-together as Raimi's Evil Dead movies. It's fun, and I submit this is what all those people were responding to when they made the picture a box-office hit.

 Lost in America

 
Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising is a bleak, almost dialogue-free tour of the New World, an early work from the filmmaker who recently gave us Drive. Outrageous deadpan violence (at one point the hero uproots someone's large intestines with barely a flicker on his stony expression, as if he'd been picking through the man's pocket for loose change) set in the icy reaches of the Scottish Highlands.  

Easy to make fun of this picture--our heroes (a gaggle of Crusaders who have adopted a mysterious Norse warrior named One-Eye, and taken him on a quest to fight in the Holy Land) wander around helpless, not a little like King Arthur and his knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail--only with Holy Grail you know you're supposed to laugh. Refns gives you no clue at all how to react to this--no French knights needling you with Gallic insults and highflung cows--but the clumsiness and fumbling about is almost the same.  

The film also reminds me of Herzog's Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes only compared to that film Valhalla looks sadly sane and rational--where Refn's One-Eye sees his visions in wild, saturated colors, Aguirre's visions become more and more indistinguishable from reality, become (in effect) one and the same. Both heroes are stranded in an unfamiliar wilderness, both experience Hell on Earth, but where one warrior falls into a deep peaceful slumber, the other manages to shrug off his mortal limitations and launch into the thin vapors of insanity. If ever given a choice, I believe I would vote for taking off and vaporous insanity.  

Talk to Me

For the record, I don't think Volver is Pedro Almodovar's best work and don't think Almodovar is the best director of camp melodrama around (give me Joey Gosiengfiao, whose Temptation Island was ballsier, more deadpan surreal than Almodovar could ever hope to be, and at a fraction of the production cost). 

Of course it could be argued that Almodovar did what Gosiengfiao couldn't do--transform himself as an artist, turn himself into the serious dramatic filmmaker he always aspired to become. I've always maintained (and I know I'm in the minority on this) that Almodovar didn't so much grow up as sell out, traded in his outrageous shock sensibility for more conventional scripts and artistic respectability. You might say it was as if Gosiengfiao had magically transformed himself into Lino Brocka--Philippine cinema would have been all the poorer for the loss in variety, the loss of a unique voice.

Almodovar's scripts I submit play better to the ear (or at least read better in subtitles) than to the eye; aside from his much vaunted color schemes (which, yes, shock eye and mind into a kind of heightened receptivity), there doesn't seem to be much to his directing here, certainly not enough to justify the world-wide reputation. Especially disappointing is how Almodovar handles the crucial scene (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film) where Penelope Cruz's Raimunda finally meets her long-lost mother, Carmen Maura's Irene, which Almodovar shoots with matter-of-fact flatness, as a series of closeups--after all the buildup, all the grief and loss endured, to end up with only this? It was as if Almodovar had lost all interest in the story and just hurried the reunion on, hoping to find something more interesting down the road.

Meat and Potatoes
 
William Wellman's great Story of G.I. Joe views the Second World War not from some elevated vantage point (the way say The Battle of the Bulge or Patton or even Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan occasionally does) but strictly from ground level, from the grunt's eye level. The film has its moments of great suspense (a sequence where the soldiers explore the ruins of a bomb-blasted church, and death literally pops out of anywhere), but the bulk of the picture focuses on the dullness and tedium in between action--which hardly makes the film dull (Wellman's focus is on the soldier's reaction to the tedium). The mediating consciousness is Pulitzer Prize-winning Ernie Pyle's combat journalist (a fine, heroically quiet performance by Burgess Meredith), who watches these men with at first muted skepticism, then growing admiration, then in the end an abiding affection; the way his regard for the men changes and develops over the long stretches he spends with them--or even meeting them again, after long stretches spent without them--is the dramatic spine of the film. 

Can't talk about this classic without mentioning Robert Mitchum in his career-making breakout role. You don't see the lazy insolence of Mitchum in his later roles; instead you see the weary veteran who gets the job done, who dozes off during quiet moments out of sheer exhaustion, who invisibly, without much fuss or bother, comes to occupy a central portion of his men's hearts. So when (if you haven't seen the film, skip the rest of this paragraph) his body is carried by mule down from the battlefield, to be laid down like a sack of potatoes on the muddy ground, the tribute the men pay to him--walking past his body in mute, inconsolable grief--is almost heartbreaking. A great, great film. 

March 29, 2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, 2009)



(Reposting--maybe I can't celebrate St. Patrick's properly, but I can at least pay some kind of tribute)
 
Book crazy


Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's Secret of Kells was a nominee for the 2010 Oscar for Best Animation Feature, but don't let that discourage you--this isn't some Pixar wannabe, all ingratiating characters and a storyline designed to wring tears from your eyes, done up in soulless digital animation. There's real passion here, not just directed to the heart but to the mind, and enough ravishing imagery for one's mind and heart and eye to feast on till overflowing.

The film is told mainly through the eyes of Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire), a novice monk living within the fortified walls of the Abbey of Kells. Outside, it's the latter half of Christianity's first millennium, with Viking raiders burning down villages, and the abbot (voice of Brendan Gleeson) devoting considerable time and manpower and resources on the abbey's defense. Enter Aidan (voice of Mick Lally), a famed illustrator who studied under St. Colum Cille (St. Columba); he is fleeing the Scottish island of Iona, which has been sacked by Vikings, and carries with him a partly finished Bible which he himself has been illuminating. Celebrity artist with a secret treasure, telling a story of destruction and escape--how is a young and innocent Celt like Brendan to resist? To add complication Aidan needs green ink for his work, and Brendan volunteers to find the rare berries required in the surrounding forest; he ends up befriending Aisling (Christen Mooney), an apparent wild child / forest spirit / wolf girl.

The film does feel like your average animated fantasy feature at first, like the Star Wars series or any dozen Disney or Pixar extravaganzas--lonely young hero, forbidding father figure, wise old mentor, possible love interest, dangerous quest; in the margins are jokes a-plenty and action and hairbreadth escapes galore. But not many fantasies prominently feature a book at the heart of their narrative and as object of adoration the Book of Kells, as this particular book eventually became known, is as fabulous an object as any you can possibly think of--it's a real book, an illuminated bible, the prized possession of the Old Library in Dublin's Trinity College, and widely considered to be the single most precious artifact in all of Irish culture.

The film opens with a chase--Brendan and three men hunting down a panicky goose across the abbey courtyard, presumably for the cooking pot. Neat slapstick action immediately captures your attention but also pointedly illustrates (in comic form) the monks' obsession with the film's true subject matter (not so much goose meat as goose quills). At one point we see the book's cover, which closely replicates the intricate details of the actual book (Moore has a glint flash across the book's surface to suggest its brilliance); Brendan eventually finds himself working on a crucial page of the book's calfskin, lovingly rendered by animators--this page later becomes a beloved keepsake, hidden away for years. Difficult to find a movie, much less an animated feature, that invests so much emotional intensity into the bound volume, and its accompanying painted images.

Sneaking out of the abbey, Brendan tells Aisling "Aidan is my friend. I'm helping him make the most incredible book in the whole world! He says it will turn darkness into light. Wait until you see it!" To which Aisling replies: "Wait until you see the rest of my forest." If the monks can only think of the illuminated page (aside from the killjoy abbot, who can only think of the coming barbarians), outside the walls is an entire world being shut out, the forest surrounding the abbey. It's as if the film has a split personality--half its energy and running time is devoted to the abbey with the book as its emotional and dramatic core; half is spent on the vast, mysterious forest, full of wolves and spirits and marauding hordes and the occasional Celtic god. And here's the true mystery, Tomm Moore's visual coup--the two are linked. The forest trees' branches spiral and swirl in graceful curves, festooned with leaves and fruits and birds and insects and the same spirals and swirls, similarly adorned, are found in the book's pages; Brendan confronts the Crom Cruach, and it takes on the form of a massive serpent that might have slithered in and out of the letters of the book's alphabet. Moore acknowledges that much of the forest's design was taken from the book (which uses designs not just out of Celtic art, but from all over the world--some were found to have been taken from Moroccan art, for example, hence its richness), but one can easily imagine it the other way around, that the book's wondrous artists had looked around them, and were inspired accordingly.

I love the transitions. Characters moving from one place to another, or experiencing the passage of time are often treated as mere filler in animated features; here Moore regards the transitions as a chance to shine. He wipes the screen with falling leaves, or divides the screen into three tree-lined boulevards, like a triptych; in a later triptych he has characters pass from one section to another, and as we see them pass we notice them growing older, more bent.

I love the encounter with the Crom Cruach which apparently occurs deep underwater (aren't anxieties--such as the ones crippling Brendan's confidence and sense of self-worth--often described as 'free floating?'), and that Brendan battles the serpentine deity with a last-minute improvisation, a struggle by the graphic line for control over the storyline. I love it that the abbot, so grim, so self-contained, so disapproving of Brendan and Aidan's adolescent enthusiasms, reveals himself to be a closet artist as well, sketching intricate plans and blueprints for his massive abbey defenses all over the walls of his personal chamber, obsessing in effect on his masterwork.

Most of all, I love the way the story turns, or doesn't. This is when the film starts becoming more than just an animated fantasy and starts to become great--the Vikings hack and slaughter, the abbot builds and fortifies, Brendan and Aidan dream of their emerging book. The plot unfolds relentlessly, with destinies determined by the shape of one's character; Moore doesn't give us last-minute miracles or heroic rescues. In this he approaches the emotional relentlessness of Hayao Miyazaki, or even Isao Takahata (whose Grave of the Fireflies in its plainspoken honesty is possibly the single most heartbreaking film ever made about the Second World War)--he allows the drama to play out as it will, and should. Easily one of the finest and most moving animated features to come out this year, or several years; more, it should be seen again and again, just to catch all the little details one might have missed the first time around.

First published in Businessworld 10.14.10

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death; Peque Gallaga, 1982)


War story


I remember seeing Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death) on the big screen back in 1982--an impressive picture, back when our idea of a Filipino film was Lino Brocka's social-realist melodrama Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon), or Ishmael Bernal's multinarrative tapestry Manila By Night. Gallaga's epic was something else entirely: a period piece set in World War 2 full of endless tracking shots, slow motion, and (outside of the independent films of Kidlat Tahimik, or the occasional surreal experiment by Bernal) visual poetry for the sake of visual poetry, never mind that it was rarely justified by the narrative.

The movie followed the lives of two upper-class families in the island province of Negros, the Ojedas and the Lorenzos. The Oro of the title described the conditions of life at the start of the war (extravagant parties, mansions full of servants, banquet tables groaning heavily with food); Plata describes the Ojedas' visit to the Lorenzo's countryside hacienda to escape the oncoming Japanese (fields of grain, hordes of water buffalo, a rooftop observatory under the vast constellated night sky); Mata goes deep into the war and deep into the rain forest, where the Lorenzos maintain an airy but relatively modest vacation lodge, and where both families take refuge for the remainder of the war (chicken coops, hunting trips, regular swims in crystal-clear streams). More successfully than any other Filipino filmmaker Gallaga is able to evoke the luxury of the upper-class Negros lifestyle, possibly because he came from that society (but is not, apparently, a card-carrying member), and paints a broad canvas full of nostalgia and great affection, and not a little good-natured ribbing (the Lorenzo scion Miguel (Joel Torre), when faced with the prospect of free sex, responds with astronomical gibberish; his mother Inday (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), when faced with the prospect of Japanese occupation, prays desperately to her menagerie of plaster saints).

It's beautifully structured, with the trajectory of the families' fate described in the title (gold, silver, death); the characters are fascinatingly conceived, their leisurely ways meant to be seen as too chivalrous and impractical to survive the ordeal of wartime. In a way the script takes a page from David O. Selznick's superproduction--this too is an age gone with the wind. Gallaga matches Jose Javier Reyes' ambitious script with a style appropriate to the material: a tracking camera that glides easily, casually from one room to another, following one guest after another, eavesdropping on one conversation after another. The shot evokes everything from Orson Welles' great The Magnificent Ambersons to Bernardo Bertolucci's gigantic if flawed 1900 to Luchino Visconti's tremendous Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)--and in fact at one point the guests start a conga line, evoking the wedding sequence in the latter film.

If Gallaga's picture doesn't quite touch the heights of Il Gattopardo that's perhaps because he hasn't developed the layers of metaphor and symbolism found in Visconti's masterpiece. Visconti's Prince is the last of his line, painfully conscious of the changing winds of history and the crumbling of his own exalted class; Miguel in Oro, Plata is barely conscious of his own budding sexuality, much less the winds of change. There's a poignancy to Miguel's own story, a kind of bildungsroman, but the problem is that Miguel's character dwindles instead of expanding, growing more complex--when confronting sexuality he panics and turns timid (he has to be coaxed into making love, not once but twice); faced with opposition and violence he counters with even more violence, an emotional excess that seems to come out of nowhere (does sexual repression cause that much neurosis?). Miguel doesn't consider that perhaps the opposition--embodied mainly by his mother's former majordomo Melchor (the late Abbo dela Cruz)--may have another point of view, may have their own justifications for doing what they do.

Coming to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film--Melchor is clearly meant to represent the lower classes, and his assault on the Lorenzos and Ojedas are meant to show us an old war irony: it's not always the foreign invader that commits the worse abuses, but one's own countrymen (a point Gallaga may have learned while giving a wonderful performance in an earlier Filipino war film, Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)). Except Melchor is not just a fellow countryman: he's also a member of the lower classes, and expresses the resentment and anger of the lower classes. At one point Melchor asks his son to join him, an offer his son rejects (like Scarlett O'Hara's servants in Gone With the Wind, the son has the mentality of a good slave) to which Melchor replies bitterly: “all right, be a prisoner, then.”

Melchor comes practically out of nowhere to shake the roots of the Lorenzo's and Ojeda's deeply rooted, long-established balete tree with a force even the Japanese could not muster; the script's failure is to capitalize on that tremor, to show us the darker side of upper-class Negro society as it exploited peonistic servitude to fund its high-maintenance lifestyle. Abbo dela Cruz is an excellent actor handicapped by an underwritten role: there are no differing sides to his villainy, no point or justice to his rebellion other than as an excuse to depict wartime atrocities inflicted by fellow countrymen on each other (actually the revenge of the poor inflicted on the rich--which makes it, of course, a fantasy). This is every upper-class Filipino's nightmare, and is presented unambiguously as such.

If the characters fail to grow and the narrative fails to develop layers, the imagery does increase in beauty and complexity--Miguel, who has finally (after an unconscionable delay) grown a pair finds nothing will satisfy his newly found manhood save a full-blown massacre, Wild Bunch style; Gallaga with the help of production designer Don Escudero and cinematographer Rody Lacap fashions a ruined-hospital nightmare of dark hallways and twisted rubble on which to stage the final shootout; the violence recalls Peckinpah (though without matching his exuberant poetry) and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now (the deep shadows, the oranged light), albeit at a fraction of either filmmakers' budget.

If I've come down hard on the picture's flaws, I feel it's a needed corrective to its burnished (and in my book somewhat inflated) reputation, adding that there is, after all, a happy conclusion to all this--Gallaga, I suspect, learned from the experience and addressed his issues not just well but brilliantly in his true masterpiece, Scorpio Nights (1984). Flimsy characters? Have them shut up and fuck. Simplistic narrative? Do away with story entirely! Excessive violence and sexuality? Have them fuck more, then end the film with a multiple homicide!

And it works--the premise (a student and a housewife conduct an affair under the very nose of her security guard husband) and the tone of thick sensuality (inspired by Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, though I believe Gallaga trumps Oshima here in terms of tension and psychological realism) are strong political metaphors for life under the fascistic Marcos administration. The lack of story points to the lovers' need to erase her oppressive husband, erase the outside world, erase the very narrative of their lives with sex, constantly aware of the consequences should the husband ever find out (they are literally fucking in the face of death). Oh, Gallaga has learned, all right--instead of turning away from his appetites he faces them head-on, and the result is one of the greatest Filipino erotic films ever made.

In the meantime there's this: a masterpiece not of narrative or social analysis perhaps, but of epic imagery, cinematography, and production design. I have not viewed the restoration; having seen the original in all its big-screen glory, I can't imagine the digital version being superior, no matter how high the definition. But I'm sure it'll look great.

First published in Businessworld, 3.7.13

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amour (Michael Haneke), Holy Motors (Leos Carax)

Love Never Dies

Amour feels like a film Michael Haneke has been aspiring to do, a Bethlehem he has been slouching towards for years. From the pressure-cooker tactics he applied in Funny Games he has refined his technique to what we see here--two people trapped in a large apartment, struggling to survive.

The style in Funny Games was severe, the story confined mostly inside a spacious vacation house with few exterior scenes, a largely unflinching (if often coyly oblique) camera peering into the different rooms with (except for one brief and startling exception of a gimmick) little comment or fuss. The style in Amour is if anything even more spare, the camera locked down for most of a scene, unwilling (unlike the one in Funny Games) to look away, the staging calling for very little camera movement  or cutting and (again save for a brief sequence) even less fuss.

That exception I feel is unfortunate--Haneke seems to have perfected his grindingly claustrophobic style; to indulge in fantasy no matter how inventive or restrained or even relevant (it's a metaphor for escape, or its impossibility) seems superfluous, even disruptive. The interruption lets us off the hook for a moment, relieves the oppressive atmosphere.

This is a horror story, of course; think of a man torturing his captive wife to death and there's really little difference save this: the torture in my example would have gone on far longer. Haneke has finally come around to telling a story about recognizably ordinary (if affluent--that apartment is huge) people, in this case an elderly married couple; aside from the aforementioned brief flight of fantasy the whole film could be happening to your neighbors in the apartment next door. And instead of anger or sadism the driving emotion here is the eponymous one, expressed in the somehow more appropriate French. 

Much has been written about Emmanuel Riva's performance as Anne, the eloquent depiction of her character's gradually decaying body. I say this is not so much a solo as it is a duet--crucial is Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges, with his intelligent, all-too-aware eyes. He knows what's happening, he knows what is to come, and the knowledge threatens to overwhelm him. 

Might as well note that Haneke doles out plenty of suffering for both actors--Riva sits in a bathtub naked,  scrubbed vigorously by an unpleasant nurse; Trintignant huffs desperately (not to mention suspensefully and  hilariously) after an intrusive pigeon. You don't know if he is only acting his arthritic limp, or his excruciating attempt to get up off the floor; you only know that it's almost too much to watch. Is the scene necessary? I think so--it shows Georges still able to care for a living creature, though you wonder if perhaps what he really wants is to twist the bird's neck (with Haneke both are possible, perhaps even inevitable)

There is no escape here; no puncturing the plausibility of Haneke's scenario (unlike fellow shockmeister Lars Von Trier, whose scenarios (save in The Idiots) have almost always been implausible, and hence easy to dismiss). This is easily Haneke's most horrifying film because it says that love that is selfless and passionate and enduring is also monstrous. The film shows you (step by step, moment by moment) the how and why of its monstrosity and you can't contradict the case being made, you can only agree with it--perhaps pray it doesn't happen to you.

It's Haneke's best work to date, I think; possibly Haneke's terminal work...after a film like this, what else does he have to say, really? 



Big Wheel


Unlike Amour which lends a kind of stripped-down finality to Haneke's career, Leos Carax's Holy Motors seems more like a thrown-together, extravagantly appointed photo album of all the films he's seen and all the films he's made and all the films he's likely to make--the picture hurls allusions and ideas at you like sparks off a Catherine wheel. It's brilliantly unhinged, liable to go any direction like a runaway horsecart, yet still you sense the presence of the director at the reins, maintaining the illusion of complete abandonment (or is it an illusion of complete control?).

The film can be a metaphor for any number of things: the Shakespearean notion that life is a performance we're always trying to rehearse for (but end up improvising); the conceit that higher powers (Oscar's chauffer Celine (Edith Scob, the mad doctor's disfigured daughter in Franju's Eyes Without a Face) calls a fellow driver "Ectoplasm on wheels!"--are the drivers ghosts or spirits?) manipulate our destiny; the sense that life is a neverending job from which we long to punch out

Bits seem contradictory, if not confusing--Celine mentions that Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) has nine appointments, nine encounters (if you like) in which he participates, responds to or initiates, either alone or with others. I counted thirteen 'episodes,' not nine: man in 'forest;' banker; beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde and model; father and daughter; entr'acte with accordion; assassin and double; street shooting; dying old man; Jean; home; limo garage. 

 Celine tells him about the appointments when he's playing a banker so the first two are out; the entr'acte I take to be an entr'acte--outside the narrative; the street shooting is (or so Celine claims) an accident, and so (it's implied) is the encounter with Jean; Oscar confirms that the next appointment after the dying old man is his last, so the garage should not included, which leaves us with--what, seven episodes? Do we consider Monsieur Merde and model two episodes (first half in the cemetery, second in the sewers)? Do we include the entr'acte? Adding to the confusion, the credits have Lavant playing eleven roles (we can take out Mr. Oscar as his meta-persona and the accordion player, but do we count killer and killed?).

Kylie Minogue sings heartrendingly in a vast space that recalls Orson Welles' The Trial and the climax of Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, both shot in the Gare d'Orsay, both filled with a dark opulence that seems to have inspired this film (her scene was actually shot in the abandoned La Samaritaine department store near the Pont-Neuf bridge, Carax having used store and bridge in his previous Les Amants du Pont-Neuf). Minogue calls herself Eva but her real name (as much as we can ascertain anything in this picture is real) is Jean. When the man she is to meet runs up the stairs he calls out "Jean!"--does this signify that what happens to Jean and her partner is real and not staged, hence Oscar's anguish? 

All very mysterious; doesn't help that one has the nagging feeling Carax is chortling at all the effort being expended on unraveling his tangled web (for the record I believe Oscar's appointment list went something like this: beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde; father; entr'acte; assassin; assassinated; dying man; home). More profitable, I suspect, to simply sit back and have fun free-associating the metaphors as they flash across the screen--to sit back, in effect, and enjoy the ride. 

Perhaps the closest we come to an explanation for everything (an explanation for anything?) is when Michel Piccoli--in a role Carax wanted to (ah-ha!) play himself--asks an obviously exhausted Oscar: "What makes you carry on?" Oscar's answer: "What made me start. The beauty of the act." 

"Beauty?" Piccoli's Carax-like figure can't resist musing. "They say it's in the eye of the beholder." Pause. Then in a worried tone: "And if there is no beholder?"

3.13.13  
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