Friday, December 29, 2006
The first theft for me is the most telling: Michel at the horserace, behind the woman, hand poised above the handbag. Bresson cuts to a head-on shot of the two figures as they watch the race (depicted, in typical Bressonian fashion, entirely on the soundtrack). Michel's eyes, always hooded, droop an extra millimeter here: you can see how absorbed he is at what he's doing.
This isn't sex, or at least it isn't interactive sex: it's onanism, self-absorbed violation of a man or woman without the man or woman's awareness that he's being so intimately molested. It's a game people play, and yes, it is actually possible to ejaculate just from the friction created by textile alone. Whether the person you're doing it to is aware or not you're not quite sure, and that's the one thing that felt so freakishly right about it all, that paradoxically frank stare Michel gets from his victims sometimes: it's as if they're sizing him up, and in that millisecond of contact, seeing his soulful eyes and handsomely ascetic face, giving him consent to proceed. Is Pickpocket also Bresson's most most openly erotic film? Could be.
Looking at the DVD's extras, I found a fascinating documentary by a filmmaker who, confusing a vaguely familiar man she's met for an old childhood friend, discovers she's looking at Pierre Laymarie, who played Jacques in the film. She goes on to hunt down the rest of the cast, discovering Marika Green, who played Jeanne as the 16 year old virgin that she really was (and at 60 years old looking remarkably fit and lovely). Martin LaSalle, who played Michel, was unrecognizable (he was bald and bearded) except for the intense heavy-lidded eyes. Unlike most of Bresson's 'models' (as he called them sometimes) and like Anne Wiazemsky and Dominique Sanda, Green and LaSalle went on to have long careers (LaSalle, I'm surprised to learn, was in among many films Missing, Under Fire, Alamo Bay, and even an episode of Crime Story--like his character, he slips in and out of films I've seen without my noticing; he's even finished a film this year).
Green proudly shows a small painting LaSalle's given her in 1996, with the words written "with great love" or something like that. One wonders--that final image, of the two pressed together through prison bars, how intense was it that the memory of it should inspire so vivid an expression of affection after so many years? Michel, after years of alienation, finally discovers simple human contact--ironically when he's physically isolated, in prison. It's about as moving an image of love as any I can think of; one remembers the singularly intense sexual thrill Michel had (and Bresson so memorably evoked to us) of picking pockets, however, and wonders how long the relationship will last.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Sitting down to a three hour-plus Japanese film with a ten and six year old is actually not impossible, particularly when said film is directed by Akira Kurosawa.
They loved it, of course. They loved the introduction of Kambei (Takashi Shimura) shaving his head in preparation for his daring rescue of the child (this may have been the point where they really got hooked, I think); they loved the antics of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune, their hands-down favorite); they even loved Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and his relative cluelessness.
They loved it that through maps, a quick reconaissance tour, and careful organization of shots (cut together so that the movement from one location to another or vice versa is always consistent) they come to know the layout of the entire village--the field of conflict, in effect. They loved it that the action sequences are clear and coherent (my six-year-old walked out of The Descent because, as he put it "they keep cutting and shaking the camera, and I'm getting dizzy"). They love it that Kurosawa as much as was possible didn't cheat--one bandit (as I pointed out) was really struck in the chest by an arrow (shot by an expert archer into a wooden plank the actor wore under his armor (Kurosawa wouldn't go so far as to actually kill his actors, I had to explain)); Kyuzo really swings his sword with masterful skill (a skill all the more impressive since (I pointed out to their amazement) before this film the actor, Seiji Miyaguchi, had never picked up a sword in his life).
It was a pleasure watching two kids experiencing the pleasure of watching a master filmmaker at his best. They laughed when he wanted them to laugh, oohed when he wanted them to ooh, sat sombre when he wanted to show them something sombre. When the movie was finished, they shook their heads; they couldn't believe they just saw a three-hour Japanese film.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Did Charles Laughton direct Island of Lost Souls? The film shares so many images and feelings with Laughton's Night of the Hunter you wonder: if he didn't actually have a hand in it, Laughton must have learned a lot from the director, Erle C. Kenton.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
This is not exactly a new trend; as far back as his Oscar-winning (and utterly ludicrous) Braveheart Gibson has had a blinkered, hateful view of the politically marginalized, not to mention a way of painting all over them with a broad brush--witness the way he slanders Prince Edward in the picture.
The praise for Gibson's talent is, frankly, puzzling--what's the difference between his style and, say, Eli Roth's in Hostel? If' it's graphic violence and body mutilation you want, Roth's movie shows that a few modern hardware items and an array of medical equipment will cause far more suffering and physical damage, and with far more reliability and precision, than was available to the Mayans, anytime.
Oh, he can hire good talent--Caleb Deschanel for Passion of the Christ, Dean Semler (the cinematographer of choice of George Miller in films like The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) for this project. Gibson can also pull off something halfway entertaining--the encounter with the jaguar comes to mind--but at his best he is a pale shadow of Miller, who was filmmaker enough to give the kineticism in his early works an epic, mythological feel, and never felt a need to dwell on the violence (you saw more cars being shredded in his postapocalyptic outbacks than human beings)--unlike Gibson, who often will (most notably in Passion of the Christ) indulge himself to the point of tedium (all right, all right, his back's hamburger meat--get on with it already).
More, Miller seems to have moved beyond mere action--he has kept his dark, larger-than-life filmmaking, and applied it to such diverse films as Lorenzo's Oil, Babe: Pig in the City, and Happy Feet (a for all its flaws far more ambitious, more imaginative, and more moving (not to mention more environmentally relevant and popular) film, I submit).
We're talking about an anti-Semitic, racially insensitive (to put it mildly), homophobic director, narrow in his range of interests (have I mentioned his Man Without a Face? More evidence of a persecution complex, mawkishly dramatized, plus Gibson expunges any and all hints of the main character's homosexuality from his adaptation), and rich enough to buy what semblance of filmmaking talent he has. A hack asshole, in short.
I'd have thought people would be smarter than to continue to buy this guy's bullshit (though apparently people still do). Give me wittier practitioners of the art of torture or violence, like Michael Haneke, or even the now-unpopular Kim Ki-Duk; at least they still know the value of creating horror in the mind, or of operating on the principle that less can at times be more (I'm thinking of the less-violent-than-you-remember Funny Games and the bizarrely beautiful The Isle, respectively), or at the very least of using a less sophomoric brand of humor (the Three Stooges Meet The Spicy Testicle joke that opens Apocalypto is more embarrassing than funny). The only principle Gibson seems to recognize is a kind of masturbatory sadomasochism--the more he feels bad, the more he wants you to suffer for it. Especially if you're not white.
(Which is about all I can say on the movie at the moment; I'll be moving house, and won't be able to post anything new till maybe next week)
But Kaufman does share Altman's tendency to dawdle over little details and interesting side characters, like the bank manager constantly scheming to get people to deposit in his bank; the equally eccentric bank employee who feels morally superior to his boss; the crazed old man looking for his dead son; and the Pinkerton detective who feels confident of being able to catch the Jameses. Kaufman spends an inordinate amount of time on a baseball game complete with gloveless players, sticklike bat, well-armed audience and all--inordinate if you happen to think the game does little to advance the plot (it doesn't), but not so if you think it advances your feel of the time and place (which it does, beautifully and more successfully (albeit with less spectacular slapstick) than Altman does with his football game in MASH).
The film isn't so much about the raid, ultimately, as it is a study of contrast, between Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson, unusually subdued and good) and Jesse James (Robert Duvall). Younger excites more sympathy with his more poetic, forward-looking view on life, his childlike interest in machines and his (mostly suggested) sympathy for caged convicts. Duvall's James is a thug, a religious hypocrite, and a psychopath; I wonder if Duvall's played a more repulsive character in his career. What's interesting is how Kaufman has both men overreach with this raid, their past actions (one man's senseless murder, the other's seemingly innocuous repair of a steam calliope) catching up with them. Both their careers essentially end with this failed heist (or at least James' career with the gang--he goes on to rob a few more banks); Kaufman, though, shows more sympathy for the less fortunate Younger--despite being paraded around in the cage he earlier regarded with such unspoken dread, Kaufman has him express the last word on the marvels and hilarities he has witnessed around him.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Catherine Hardwicke's "The Nativity Story" (2006) sad to say, feels like a stillborn effort; you want to poke at it with a stick or the tip of your shoe, but the thing just lies there on the big screen, limp and rather lifeless, with a strong soporific effect (I had to stand at the back of the theater to stay awake, myself).
It's not a bad movie or at least not an actively evil one, as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was. It doesn't take the lunatic writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich (or possibly Clemens Brentano, who may have added to or heavily rewritten her) and turn them into an ostensibly pious picture that's really an excuse for beautifully photographed torture porn and vicious anti-Semitism (I hope no one out there still harbors doubts--Gibson pretty much revealed his heart's true sentiments in that famously suppressed police report. "In vino veritas," if you like).
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Part of my problem with Apocalypto isn't just the violence; it's that Gibson has too simpleminded a take on violence. Scorsese had incredible violence in Raging Bull (more intense and vivid, I submit, than anything in Gibson's picture--remember Jake's nose being smashed?); what was fascinating about that film was that the violence was just the tip of the iceberg--you sensed that LaMotta's awful masochism was just a symptom of some profound inner malaise (same with Gibson, only Gibson seems incapable of stepping far enough away from his problems to actually do anything interesting with them; they just pour out of him, like an endless, artless turd).
And there's a grandeur to Miller's filmmaking that's startling, if you're used to the kind of icebound animation found in the Ice Age movies, or the Discovery-Channel look of March of the Penguins--here, every glacier and mountain is intricately realized, from snow-drowned foot to rocky crest, every ice storm vividly evoked (there's this shot of icy vapor rushing over a ridge that's amazing, like a jet stream the size of the Amazon). Nightmarishly high ice pinnacles, vertiginously deep chasms, endless subzero desolation--it's an intriguing mix of the real and the hyperreal.
Better yet, the penguins might look cuddly at first sight, but there's little cuteness to their personalities--they can be every bit as hidebound with tradition or xenophobically racist or thrilled by sexual attraction as we are; one penguin's languorous waddle practically challenges the more hotblooded among us to tackle her and wrestle her down to the frozen floor.
The predators are unapologetically presented: malevolent seagulls, ferocious leopard seals, monstrous killer whales--this is not the benign nature seen in kiddie cartoons; if no one actually dies, you get the impression that it wasn't for lack of serious trying. One particularly hideous hunter (usually depicted as cute and obedient in almost any other nature flick) stares at the desperately fleeing penguin: you look into his terrifyingly lifeless black eyes (positioned above row upon row of great gnashing teeth) and you see--a reflection. Suddenly you feel you have an insight into their point of view, realize that their desire to eat the wobbly bags of tasty blubber is as desperate if not more so. If the birds manage to escape it's one more opportunity at survival lost, and a long, lonely time being hungry until the next opportunity pads along...
There are considerable flaws--the film is an unholy fusion of 'cutesy kiddie animation' and 'dark parable on ecological disaster,' and the stitches show. Frankly I can do without the former, but as Miller learned in Babe: Pig in the City (1998) (which was a commercial if not (in my opinion, at least) artistic disaster) one cannot have a consistent artistic vision and boxoffice success in the same production.
I like it; I like the risks it takes, the way it's willing to stretch credulity to make a point, even a bizarrely absurd one--the neck ornament hanging round a penguin's neck, for example, which later becomes as onerous and strangling as any symbolic albatross; or the surreal feel of sitting in a zoo habitat (Is that the horizon or a cleverly painted facsimile?)--isn't it ironic that what's meant to comfort an animal might only serve to confuse him? Or the way the mysterious Others finally present themselves, as ghostly images lurking behind thick glass. The finale might be a tad optimistic, but given what comes before it's not overwhelmingly, fatally so, I think. The film seriously shakes up one's idea of what an American animated film should look like, feel like, be about.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
I have to confess, I'm not a big fan of Christmas. No, let me be more frank: I loathe Christmas. Absolutely hate it. The pressure to haunt department stores and shove fellow shoppers aside for expensive gifts, heavily discounted; the horrendous traffic, made far worse by endless Midnight Madness sales; the parties where you overeat and drink and go ho-ho-ho when all you want to do is go home and pull the sheets over your head till it's all over; the obligation to stre-e-e-etch your cheeks upwards in a death rictus and force a "Merry Christmas!" from between gritted teeth (greet me and I'm likely to snarl). Given the choice between an extended Christmas season (nowadays pushed as far backwards as what we Filipinos like to call the first of the "ber" months, meaning September) and a long and slow root canal done without the benefit of anesthesia, I'd choose--no, I'd insist--on the root canal. Christmas, the way it's celebrated in America and the way it's being aped more and more in Manila, is just not my style.
Maybe one of the worst manifestations of this wretched season would be the Christmas movie, that annual Hollywood display of forced Yuletide cheer (when Filipino films try it, the results can be even worse). In the old days it would be a fairly tasteful display of pious sentiment like the 1947 "Miracle at 34th Street" (the '94 version wasn't too bad, either); nowadays it's something farcical and chock full of CGI effects like Tim Allen's endless "Santa Clause" movies (the latest featuring a face-off between Santa and Jack Frost). A more recent trend is farce without the CGI, driven by cute "concepts" like a self-centered celebrity adopting a family for the holidays (the gruesome 2004 movie "Surviving Christmas," starring a perfectly typecast Ben Affleck as the aforementioned self-centered celebrity).
Days of swine and grossness
(Fragment of a rejected draft for Ridley Scott's Hannibal)
BARN INTERIOR. NIGHT.
A fully grown BABE enters large wooden arena with his fellow boars. In the center of the arena is a forklift; tied to this forklift is a large man in a hockey mask.
BABE: Are you my mom?
MAN: No little pig. My name is Dr. Lecter. Why do you ask?
BABE: Never saw my mom so when I meet someone I ask. Otherwise I suppose I should go ahead and eat your toes.
LECT: You are welcome little pig but allow me to satisfy my curiosity: do you miss your mother?
BABE: O yes sir.
LECT: I too suffered loss when young, the death of my beloved sister. That story is told in the latest novel about me, not in this film version which seems to lack heart. Do you like heart little pig?
BABE: Yes sir! Especially when it's still beating.
LECT: So do I little pig so do I.
BABE: If you don't mind sir I'll start on your big toe now
LECT: But I do mind little pig. Not that I disapprove of your snacking; you are after all trained to eat human flesh, and as we are already shared childhood confidences I have no objection to sharing my toes with you. I am however disappointed in my current situation.
BABE: You mean being tied up? Why is that sir? Are you a bad man?
LECT: Very bad little pig. I am what you might call a man without hypocrisy; I treat the world exactly as it would treat me, kill or be killed, without regard for sentiments that might compel me otherwise.
BABE: But isn't that what I do? If someone tries to hurt me I hurt him.
LECT: There's a difference. You do what you do in innocence, without guilt or remorse. Even feeding on my feet would be understandable, since you were no doubt starved beforehand and would like to rip my leg off at the knee.
BABE: Oh yes sir may I?
LECT: You speak so avidly because you speak with your whole heart. We do similar things, but certain sentiments are supposed to hold me back such as 'justice' or 'morality.' I don't heed these sentiments and so am considered insane.
But that was then; things have changed. There were three novels written about me by Mr. Thomas Harris, and in the first one, Red Dragon, he called me a monster.
BABE: Weren't you mad when he did that?
LECT: He did a fine job of portraying me, despite the insult; he amused me. In the second novel, The Silence of the Lambs--lovely title, don't you think?--even gave me a more interesting diversion, a young woman by the name of Clarice. You should meet her little pig; you would get along well.
BABE: Does she like heart too?
LECT: She won't admit it but I'm sure she can be persuaded. She has your innocence little pig, your idealism and freshness. She wanted to catch a killer, and I decided to help her. Mr. Harris in turn liked that about me; it touched something in him that I was capable of such kindness, and his attitude towards me softened considerably. Of course while everyone worried about Starling's killer I managed to escape--Mr. Harris probably felt pleased I showed such initiative, dismayed that I showed such independence.
BABE: But see you're caught again!
LECT: That's because we are near the climax of Mr. Harris' third novel Hannibal, named after yours truly thanks to the success of the second novel.
Hannibal was the end result of Harris' evolving attitude towards me. Where in the second he felt ambivalence in the third he shows definite sympathy. It helps that the morality of a serial killer doesn't seem so bad, compared to the corruption and stupidity of institutions Mr. Harris once respected--the police, the FBI, the U.S. Government as a whole. Hannibal's real story is Harris' growing disenchantment with society; it's both his declaration of independence from the rest of the human race and his oath of fealty towards m, ah sensibilities, for want of a better word. Quite a disturbing book in its implications when you think about it, at times cartoonishly written and not entirely persuasive. My nemesis for example, Mr. Mason Verger, is more grotesque than evocative, a horrorshow scarecrow rather than the greater evil to oppose my already great evil. Mr. Harris also hoped to make me more appealing to readers by 'explaining' me through the death of my sister. I had their sympathy all along of course--didn't need the help. But Mr. Harris didn't want me to just be the protagonist; he wanted me to be the romantic lead.
BABE: You mean with Clarice?
LECT: Yes little pig very good: with Clarice indeed. I hope I can introduce you to her, she'll be along any moment now to rescue me.
BABE: You still haven't said why you're so disappointed. Or should I ask? I'm really starving.
LECT: Appreciate your forbearance. In the first novel I was the inspiration for the killer named Dolarhyde; in the second I was the imprisoned monster who begins to show signs of compassion. The more known of me the more I shrink in stature, the more human I become to readers. It is a transaction of sorts, awe traded for affection. I suppose ambivalence would be the most natural reaction I can have towards this change. Still hungry little pig? You are drooling heavily now.
BABE: Yes sir very much. Couldn't I just nibble on a toenail?
LECT: Not much longer now. All three novels were made into motion pictures. Red Dragon was adapted by Mr. Michael Mann into Manhunter, a rather cold film with a nevertheless interesting visual texture. But Silence was the real success, commercially and critically winning a collection of what are known as "Oscar" statuettes.
BABE: Are Oscars good to eat?
LECT: You need a lot of ketchup.
Part of the success of Silence may be due to its director. Mr. Jonathan Demme is a fascinating man, full of empathy and compassion for the characters in his films.
BABE: He likes heart too?
LECT: Very much. Please step back little pig your sniffing tickles my toes. Thank you. At the same time, Mr. Demme told the more gruesome aspects of my story--my violent and bloody escape, for example--with real relish. You see, little pig, he tends to empathize with all his characters, good or bad; he must have been disturbed to find himself empathizing with me.
More he has been accused of homophobia, which shocked him; he had carefully established what Harris also stated in his novel--that the killer Buffalo Bill was not a real transsexual. But the power of the word on the printed page is nothing compared to the power of the image on the silver screen: people saw a man trying to become a woman by killing other women; some equated transsexuals with serial killers. Demme was dismayed with the end result--the outcry and the audience reaction--that he presumably refused to direct the third film.
BABE: Who did it then?
LECT: Shan't tell you if you don't step back a little further. Thank you. Mr. Ridley Scott directed, with the help of producer Dino de Laurentiis.
BABE: Does Mr. Scott like heart?
LECT: Don't think he has one. Ridley Scott is a gifted hack, able to pour his considerable visual skills on both gold and garbage alike. He was the unfortunate choice to do Hannibal, unfortunate because he doesn't seem to have or seems to have lost the ability to tell a story with clarity and coherence. He begins the film for example with a fish-market shootout where you couldn't tell who was doing what to whom, what was happening or why--very confusing the way it was shot and put together. I dislike confusion little pig; I dislike it intensely.
More, you miss Mr. Demme's way with characters, his knack of using a telling detail or line of dialogue to reveal a person. Take my dear Barney, for example: in Silence, he has a brief scene in the hospital where he explains the rules when entering my cell to Starling, gives her a warm smile and tells her: "you'll do just fine." Later I thanked him for the services he's done for me, and Mr. Demme treats the quiet little moment as the culmination of years of acquaintance and respect--he is in those few seconds in Silence a richer, warmer human being than he is in the many minutes he enjoys in Hannibal. Then there are my face-to-face interviews with Starling, which have an intimacy missing in Hannibal--Demme photographed us full on, in giant close-up, to catch every nuance and shift of emotion; Scott has us talking through cellular phones with a merry-go-around whirling behind, as if he felt that what we were saying wasn't interesting enough. Demme’s focus in short is on the human face; Scott’s seems to be on the merry-go-round.
Scott likes to pose his characters against beautiful landscapes and setting suns, substituting visual drama for the missing narrative drama. He is careless about action sequences, unable to build much suspense (Mr. Demme does a better job creating tension with his flowing camerawork and elegant, unhurried editing). Scott ultimately is a shallow director who loves surfaces; any profundity in his work comes from the script, and the script of this film comes from a novel that does not represent Mr. Harris at his best.
That is it in a nutshell, little pig. I am perhaps not too unhappy with the my growing fame…but I am unhappy about Mr. Harris' inability to maintain the level of writing in his third novel, and extremely unhappy about this slipshod vulgar insulting little film they have made of the novel, all for the sake of money. Hence my distress.
BABE: But that's awful! Terrible! Those swine!
LECT: Aren't they, little pig? "Free-range rubes," I like to call them. Free for the picking--only I'm incapable of doing any picking at the moment.
BABE: Let me help you.
LECT: Certainly. But how little pig?
BABE: I don't know. I can bite their toes off.
LECT: If you go back into the pen from which you came you'll see to the left side the latch that keeps the door closed. Take a stick in your mouth and lift the latch. Go right, take the first stairs you see, and you'll be in the arena's upper seating. Ridley Scott should be the rube in the red shirt to the left of the camera, Dino de Laurentiis the rube in the yellow jacket behind Scott.
LECT: Have you ever heard of Dante Alighieri? He wrote a long poem, part of which was called Inferno, where various sinners were punished, their punishments formulated according to the nature of their crimes.
BABE: Gosh, really?
LECT: Don't kill those two, little pig; it's important to me that they remain alive. De Laurentiis deserves to live for producing La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Mandingo, Flash Gordon, and Danger: Diabolik. Scott deserves to live for the lovely images of Florence, and for the blackly amusing way he staged the climactic dinner--the single best scene in the picture. His life should also be spared in the hope, foolish perhaps, that he will someday gain the courage to do at least one more film of consequence. Will you do this for me, little pig?
BABE: It'll be my pleasure. Should I bring you back some toes?
LECT: Thank you, but I'm not that hungry at the moment. Bon appetit.
(With thanks to my evil twin brother for the initial idea).
(First published in Businessworld, 3/2/01)
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Since the recent Film Criticism Blogathon, I've been thinking: how many different ways can a critic pan a movie? How many other ways have I used in panning a movie? A search through my files uncovered this 1998 piece:
Does size matter?
An exclusive interview with the King of the Monsters
By Noel Vera
(The following interview was taken at the lowest level of Grand Central Station, beneath 42nd Street, New York City, where Godzilla was found chewing on a subway car)
N: First of all, may I congratulate you on the success of your latest film, Mr. Godzilla--?
N: Oh, Ms. That’s right, in this movie, we learn that you are a woman.
G: I’ve always been a woman, sir; it’s just you humans that fail to notice.
N: Thinking about it, ma’am, it should have been obvious. The grace of your walk, the feminine way you swat down helicopters…
G: Confidentially, sir, I was considered quite a dish among my fellow lizards.
N: Anyway, Ms. Godzilla, what do you think of the movie?
G; Oh, fabulous. Wonderful, wonderful film. “We will give you a real star vehicle,” said that dear man, Dean Devlin, and he was as good as his promise. That other dear, Roland Emmerich, seemed to know how to catch the good side of my face, no matter what direction I was facing.
N: I thought I saw bits of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in your profile. Not to mention Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, and some of our local dragons in Philippine show business.
G: Such as?
N: No one you know; let’s just say that when aroused, they tend to imitate your performance in the film. With nowhere near your style, of course.
G: There are people who have whispered to me that at the next Oscar ceremonies, I could be a serious contender for Best Actress. I know, it’s my first film and I’m a foreigner and all. But I’ve already applied for my green card, which they should approve if they know what’s good for them. And I do have one important qualification for an Oscar.
N: Which is?
G: Why, box office, sir. All Best Picture winners at least have good boxoffice. Why give the statuette to something good that no one has ever seen?
N: That’s one thing I want to ask you about: reports were that the film has done well--
G: Extremely well, sir.
N: But not as well as expected.
G: That is a complete and unmitigated lie! A cheap rumor, spread by the Titanic people, who can’t bear to have their film upended!
N: But the boxoffice figures show--
G: --that my film is no. 1 in the United States, is no. 1 in every country it was shown in, and will be no. 1 here. So what if it made less than Mission Impossible on its opening weekend? Fifty million dollars is still fifty million dollars!
No, I refuse to believe the film was less successful than expected. I have conquered America; I will conquer the world. Not to mention your country.
N: I’m sure you will. But what about what the critics say?
G: Film critics! Let me tell you a joke: what’s a thousand film critics castrated and buried and at the bottom of the sea?
N: I give up.
G: A good start.
N: A-hah, a-hem. But getting back to those castrated critics--
G: Buried at the bottom of the sea--
N: They point out what seem like inconsistencies in the way your size is depicted; like your fitting into a subway tunnel but not the Park Avenue tunnel, which is bigger. And why, come to think of it, are you heavy enough to make deep footprints in soil, but not to cause the Brooklyn Bridge to collapse, especially after the suspension cables have snapped? Those cables are practically the bridge's only support.
G: One does not discuss the weight of a woman to her face.
N: I’m sorry.
G: I should bite your face off.
N: I apologize. Have a finger instead.
G: Never mind. I’ve just had a thousand tons of fresh tuna and I’m feeling a little bloated. I love tuna sashimi. Can never seem to get enough of it.
N: It’s good for the heart, I hear.
G: And for the figure! Have you seen me in my past movies? I look positively fat! Here, at least, I get to show my new slim, svelte self.
N: If I may bring up another question: you are known to breath radioactive fire. Why do you use it so sparingly? Why not roast the people in the Park Avenue Tunnel, say, if you want them so bad?
G: Now I know where you get your questions, from that horrid, horrid film critic, Roger Ebert! I’m so glad they made fun of him in this movie by making him a buffoon of a mayor. I especially like it that he can’t resist Hershey’s kisses, and they blew him up to an obscene size. He’s not really a critic, you know; he just summarizes the film’s plot, then gives it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Anyway, about my radioactive breath--I hate to talk about this, but I really have a delicate constitution.
N: A delicate constitution?
G: It’s my stomach, you see; it gets easily upset. The fire breath is a side effect. When I see helicopters chasing me, I sometimes get too excited, and I, well, belch.
That’s why I don’t breath flame if I can help it. It’s too embarrassing, especially in front of the cameras.
N: Let’s get into some serious questions: what about the story? The acting in the film? What about the human element?
G: The human element? Sir, you're behind the times. No one is interested in story nowadays, except a few nearsighted, overweight men working overtime on their word processors. Why, Godzilla was the closing film at the Cannes International Film Festival!
N: It’s a far cry from when they used to show films by Ingmar Bergman, or Orson Welles.
G: Ingmar Bergman? Orson Welles? Totally passé. Bergman was completely dropped from the most recent Sight and Sound survey of the Ten Best Films of All Times; I hear they’re considering Steven Spielberg or James Cameron to replace him.
As for actors, my dear sir, no one comes to these movies to watch the actors; they came to see me, the star of the film. I was in tears when I argued with Mr. Emmerich: “But you can’t waste time on some silly love affair! You should be focusing on my attempt to raise my children, my tragic frustration!” The dear man sympathized, but shot the love scenes anyway. Needless to say, Matthew Broderick and I are hardly in speaking terms. He should be careful about entering dark alleys.
N: And the future? What do you think you’ll do next?
G: I want to do something sensitive. Beautiful. Now, don’t raise an eyebrow: I want to show the world the more artistic side of me. Mr. Devlin, dear man, was mistaken when he said I “reproduced asexually” (if I’m asexual, why am I female?). That’s not true; I have a passionate nature, in need of a male to love and care for me. He should have given me a real leading man, someone virile and aggressive and basically inarticulate, like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger to complement my shy and retiring disposition.
I’ve been thinking about this story outline that was given to me, where I play the role of a beautiful prostitute who marries a man for love, and for love, gives him up.
N: That sounds like a remake of Camille.
G: Camille was decades ago; who remembers? Besides, it’s so romantic!
Or perhaps this one, where I play the role of a schoolteacher, who doesn’t know the man she married is gay.
N: Would you have Roland Emmerich direct, or Dean Devlin write?
G: No. Confidentially, Emmerich, dear that he is, has all the subtlety of a ten-ton truck, while Devlin, another dear, can’t write a love scene to save his life. Who knows, maybe I can train one of my children to become a director. The eggs that were destroyed in the movie, of course, were props; I had my real eggs hidden away in some safe place; I hope to send them when they’re hatched to New York University to study film.
N: Have you been to the Philippines? What do you think of it?
G: Oh, beautiful, beautiful country! The beaches! And I love your mangoes--they actually make me forget tuna for a while.
N: Would you consider living here?
G: I might. I might. I could try acting in a few of your films. I hear your audiences love big, expensive dramas with glossy photography and expensive costumes. Can you see me in one of your period dramas?
N: Um, yes, actually I have, I think.
G: Or I might run for office. I hear that film celebrities are very popular here. Madame President Godzilla! Doesn’t the sound of it make you positively tremble?
(I would like to thank Columbia Pictures and Northwest Airlines for making this interview possible; I promise that if any more of these international publicity junkets are made available to me, I will view all their future productions in a more favorable light. NV)
Friday, December 01, 2006
QC scraps amusement tax on local films
A nice first start--give the locals a hand, the same time you're sticking it to Hollywood.
And you know it's workable, because when a measure is well and truly making or about to make a difference in Philippine society, someone complains.
Atienza's remarks are revealing; for one he says the city's measures aren't a threat to the industry per se, but to "the government's reward system for quality movies"--to whit, the CEB, or Cinema Evaluation Board of the FDCP or the Film Development Council of the Philippines. The distinction is important, I think.
As for the very idea of a ratings board--my problem with that isn't just the fact that their tastes in films don't exactly match mine--an "A" for Crying Ladies? Only a "B" for Magnifico? No ratings for Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003) or Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) (I don't think they were rated; one problem of this board is that it doesn't have an official website, much less an online record of what films they have recommended). My problem is that such a system doesn't even consider rewarding films that cater to tastes like mine (and I have esoteric tastes, I know). A ratings board is at best the distilled and considerably compromised opinion of a group of (hopefully) reasonably intelligent people; at worse, as with its predecessor, the Film Ratings Board, it's a way for a handful of industry trapos (a punning acronym, TRAditional POliticians, with the word "trapo," or dirty washrag) to reward their cronies, friends, sons and lovers.
He suggests that Quezon City should "reduce ticket prices by the equivalent amount of the reduction of amusement taxes," which is an admirable aim, I suppose, since that's another way of bringing back the audience. He goes on, however, to suggest a "two-tiered tax scheme: 10 percent for local films and 20 percent for foreign films" with the difference "put in a fund that will continue the incentives program for producers of quality films." See, my problem with that is the word "fund." It implies a pool of money controlled by a small group of people, probably governmental, not always competent. And please remember, the Philippine government isn't just known or famous, it's legendary for its corruption.
He goes on to wonder "is the higher tax on foreign films a violation of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and can it be considered "protectionist" in nature?" Well, yes, strictly speaking, it's protectionist, but I've got a long previous post (see above link on the subject) talking about what I think about such purely free-market regional or even world economies--how they seem to favor the ultra rich, and powerful, and roll over underdeveloped countries such as ours.
He ends with the following words: "(t)he two-tiered tax system can be justified if it is implemented for a (limited) number of years. It is the same system followed in France." I'm not up on the system adopted in France, but knowing what I do about the French, I think it'll be a cold day in hell before they allow Hollywood to come traipsing in with their Adam Sandler comedies and Ron Howard melodramas and Michael Bay extravaganzas just like that; I think--and I've said this again and again--we should follow suit.
2) On being a Filipino film critic; I'll freely admit I'm not the most knowledgeable of critics, even in my own narrow field of specialization (I haven't for example, seen Gerardo de Leon's legendary Daigdig ng Mga Api (World of the Oppressed, 1965) nor am I likely to in the near future--the film is probably as lost as the American occupation of Iraq), or the most prolific, or even the best or wittiest overall writer; I just do what I can. What informs my writings though, and is possibly the driving force behind much of the work I do, is the sense that with Philippine ciema there's so much that has to be done. Not just in the act of creation, and I salute the many talented people in the industry who are doing their best (and with so little return) in that formidably challenging endeavor, but in the act of appreciation. Not just, having halved the field right there, the act of putting down on record and even describing what little survives (I can tell stories of lost and destroyed prints that will curdle the blood and whiten the hairs of many a cinephile or archivist--and these are recent films, circa 1980s!), but digesting and meditating on the many wonderful films out there, and putting them in their place against the larger scheme of world cinema.
I mean--Lino Brocka is the Philippines' most famous director, and did you know there isn't a single book written on the man? Oh, numerous essays and articles, most of them mouthing the same platitudes, and many of these collected in one volume (Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, edited by Mario Hernando, indispensible by default mainly because there's literally nothing else)--but a real book, a systematic and thorough appreciation of the man? No.
It's a near-impossible task, and the best I can do is chip away, bit by bit, at the problem: writing an article here or there, seeing not just lost or hard-to-find classics, but also new work by new filmmakers; trying to keep in contact with people in the know or people who matter, either to ask for help or to help them if I can. Even if it's just moral support, a mutual crying-on-shoulders about a film we've never seen, and probably never will.
I hate to think about the future--what happens ten, twenty, fifty years from now? Who comes after these people (and I like to flatter myself that I'm one of them), who will remember them or what they've done? Yes, the act of recording and spreading the word, thanks to the digital camera and the internet, has become far easier--but what of the new, greater challenge, that is of making your voice heard in the increasingly louder and more chaotic din? There are new ways of remembering and discovering, but also new and frighteningly subtle ways of forgetting and getting lost. Questions like these tend to keep me up at night.
But what's the alternative--roll over and die? In this sense I think I share a sentiment with even the humblest filmmaker, that one cannot see into the future, that one just plods on the best he can.
This two-part post was written for the ongoing Film Criticism Blogathon. Other posts include:
At Lost in Negative Space Peet Gelderblom takes a good, hard look at the film criticism of Armond White and discovers that this famously anti-hipster critic is, in fact, one himself (he must be one of them self-hating hipsters... ) in a fine piece called "The contrarian fallacy: Armond White vs. the Hipsters."
So you want to be a film critic, huh? Please, go to Last Night with Riviera and read Matt Riviera's post about "10 Thoughts on Watching and Appreciating Film." Film criticism cannot be simply about evaluating movies. It must be an active attempt to engage films on their own terms, to understand them and how they work. These ten thoughts describe an approach to film that is prerequisite for good criticism.
At Flickhead (home of the recent Forrest J. Ackerman Blog-a-Thon) you'll find an assortment of delightfully provocative statements about film criticism introduced with a wonderful quote from John Simon. There's potential for a great discussion here: I know I'll be spending time with this post with my morning coffee tomorrow!
Jim Emerson, who's supposedly on vacation, has posted his initial (!) contribution to the 'thon, a piece called "Pearl of the South: A tale of two reviews." This post functions not only as a fine appreciation of the late Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville (1975), but also as a reminder that a good critic is more than simply someone whose opinion closely mirrors one's own. By accepting two critics' (Bob Strauss and Jonathan Rosenbaum) invitations to look at the new film Bobby (2006) in comparison to Nashville, Mr. Emerson pays tribute to the old idea of historically grounded film criticism (the role of the critic is to place new films in the context of film history) while at the same time exploiting the potential of the internet (by responding immediately and directly to these reviews) and pointing to the future.
Writing at his blog Critic After Dark, film critic Noel Vera shapes a messageboard debate into a fully-realized piece of writing on the state of Filipino film industry, specifically in regards to its relationship with Hollywood, called "The Hollywoodization of Filipino films." Like Jim's piece, this is an example of film criticism that utilizes the unique possibilities of the internet. And also like Mr. Emerson, Noel has suggested that more posts may be forthcoming!
The wonderfully erudite and prolific film writer/critic/blogger (but not necessarily in that order) Peter Nellhaus weighs in from Thailand with his thoughts on the recently-controversial critic and screenwriter Paul Schrader, specifically in regards to Schrader's book Transcendental Style. As Mr. Nellhaus mentions, religion is in in Hollywood these days, and now might be fine time for me to introduce myself to this book...
YouTube Fridays at That Little Round-Headed Boy are a beloved institution in the film blogosphere: he sifts through a lot of "one man's garbage" each week and points us to the rare bits of treasure. This week he has rounded up four film criticism gems in a post called " Talk about a mash-up! YouTube Friday meets Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon!"
At Zoom In Online Annie Frisbie pays tribute to a truly seminal pieces of film criticism, Godfrey Cheshire's "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," in a post called "'Film is about to disappear over the historical horizon.'" Annie's astute observations highlight the many ways in which this article is more relevant than ever before...
Lucas at 100 films pauses for a moment to take stock of his activities as both a critic and a filmmaker. Looking back on the French New Wave for inspiration in a post called "Your own worst critic," he comes to the conclusion that we're on the cusp of a similar era of cinephiles working in both film criticism and filmmaking, with their activities in the one arena benefiting from their experience in the other. Lucas' own short film L'Attente (2006) strikes me as an exploratory effort in this direction--it is a critical examination of his relationship as a filmmaker to the French New Wave.
At Edward Copeland on Film (is that name still appropriate now that other people are contributing to the site?), Edward Copeland himself reflects on the past, present, and future of film criticism as a profession (a subject that regular readers know is something of an obsession with me) in a post called "Critical thinking." Are there any optimists ready to challenge the convincingly bleak picture he paints?
In a post called "powell and... dwyer?" Gareth of gareth's movie diary pens an elegant tribute to two film critics who had a lasting and positive influence on his development as a film lover, Michael Dwyer of The Irish Times and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times. He's describing exactly the sort of informed, passionate, and regional film criticism that Edward Copeland fears we're losing; as gareth's post ably demonstrates, this would be a sad turn of events.
Harry Tuttle of > screenville, whose writing will be the subject of my own first actual submission to this 'thon (it's going so well that I'm determined to write at least one more, probably about Slate's Movie Club, which is indirectly responsible for the existence of this here event), contributes what may be just a first offering: a compilation of critics, writers, and directors trying to define what a film critic is called "Defining a critic." Posts like this one, which run completely contrary to the film blogosphere's tendency towards currency, are amongst my favorite things that Harry does...
Writing at The ScreenGrab, Editor Bilge Ebiri burrows into the annals of film criticism and brings back Graham Greene's scandalous review of the Shirley Temple film Wee Willie Winkie (1937) in a piece called "Dubious Moments in Film Criticism: Graham Greene vs. Shirley Temple." Lately I've been pondering the occasionally disturbingly sexual screen persona of Judy Garland in her early films, made when she was only 14-16 years-old, so this post is delightfully apropos for me. But you'll find it interesting too, I promise!
At Burbanked my fellow Pittsburgh-based film blogger and storyteller Alan Lopuszynski passes along the wisdom of the Very Old Tale of film criticism to the critics of tomorrow in a witty entry penned in that inimitable Burbanked style called " Daddy, when I grow up, can I be… a film critic?"
"Everyone is a critic" is a truism that a lot of us tend to accept at face value or reject out of hand without really thinking about it. Writing at Windmills of My Mind, relative newcomer to the film blogosphere Damian actually stops to examine that statement in a personal and insightful post called "The Critic On Your Corner." It can also be read as something of an elegy for the waning age of the video store, when arguably there was a critic on every corner. While you're there, say hi and introduce yourself!
Film critic Simon Crowe, who blogs at Mostly Movies, contributes a post about the lessons he has learned that guide him in his journey along this road we call Film Criticism. This is my introduction to Mr. Crowe's blog, so I'd like to say hello and it's a pleasure to make your virtual acquaintance!
Film critic Tim Lucas, writing at his Video WatchBlog (home of the recent Joe Dante Blog-a-Thon), shares with us his history in film criticism. In the process he touches on a garden variety of the principles of good film criticism, including the critic's obligation to be familiar with the filmmaking process (it's shocking how many professional critics routinely display ignorance in this department).
Filmmaker Karl G. Bauer (Deadly Obsessions (2003)), blogging at KGB Productions, Inc., muses about what he can bring to film criticism as a result of his filmmaking experience that will make his writing unique. His thoughts are informed a great deal by Matt Riviera's post for this blog-a-thon. "The early worm," as the fella says...
Jim Emerson is back with a second post! Mr. Emerson is one of America's great, forward-thinking film critics and we must pause for a moment and say that we're extremely gratified by his enthusiastic support for this project. But, his post! This time he's writing about a variety of things, touching on subjects like film as film criticism and how does one write a movie review that haven't yet been addressed in this blog-a-thon. He concludes with his own personal rules for film criticism, a sort-of meme for this 'thon that I'm really enjoying!
Damian of Windmills of My Mind is back with a second post as well. Thinking about what spawned his initial interest in film analysis/criticism, he lights on the preface to David Cook's The History of Narrative Film, one of my own first film texts (along with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art).
In another second post (!) Noel Vera continues his thoughts on the present of the Filipino film industry, this time based on recent governmental actions, and then looks both back to the past and ahead to the future in his reflections on "Being a Filipino film critic." For whatever it's worth, Noel's passion for Filipino film has infected at least one Western movie buff!
Writing at Critical Culture, Pacze Moj (it's good to have you back Pacze, by the way!) asks a question about one of the few film critics who got to be as big as the movies themselves in a post called "Pauline Kael: Great Critic, or Great Writer?" In the process Ms. Kael is compared to: Cary Grant, The Beatles, Marshall McLuhan, and "one of the droogs sitting next to Alex by the white, naked statues in the Korova Milk Bar in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange." It is, in short, a post as distinctive as Ms. Kael herself!
At Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, my esteemed friend and fellow-blogger Dennis Cozzalio pays tribute to a recently deceased (that was a sad day, wasn't it?) master of cinema in post called "Robert Altman, Film Critic." It consists of two quotations that are brief, but extraordinarily rich!
Girish Shambu, who I've always thought of as playing Fagin to the gaggle of young writers/pickpockets in the film blogosphere (but in an entirely positive, non-anti-Semitic way! Um... ), contributes a short post called "Ricoeur's Three Stages" that is nonetheless one of the most thought-provoking pieces collected here. This is a nearly perfect description of my own "process of immersion" in any given film, and it is proof positive that academic film writing can be as vibrant and exciting as anything published at, say, Ain't It Cool News!
Film scholar Chris Cagle, whose Category D: A Film and Media Studies Blog is one of the best academic film blogs on the internet, lends his keen eye for insight to this blog-a-thon with a post called "Film Criticism as Subfield." After placing "film criticism" into its historical context (as one of three subfields of the discipline of film studies along with film theory and film history), he raises a lament to which I'll readily add my own voice: Where are the solid historical studies of film criticism and journalistic film criticism in the twentieth century? Such work is a necessary precursor to the study of film criticism in the internet age that I'd also like to see.
Bob at Forward to Yesterday contributes a post called "The Burden of Opinions" in which he extolls the virtues of an underrated virtue, humility, and tells the story of the most "invigorating bit of non-work" he's ever not done: the review of The Triplets of Belleville (2003) that he didn't write. For me this would be the review of André Téchiné's Changing Times (2004) that I didn't write. And you?
A writer on the road named Larry Gross has e-mailed me a post that I've posted for him on my site and titled "A Humble Proposal and a Humble Opinion." He first suggests that quality, innovative film criticism is dependent on a quality, innovative cinema to write about. Then he submits that the best contemporary film criticism is being produced by a writer named Joshua Clover, who blogs at jane dark's sugarhigh! I'm not familiar with Mr. Clover's writing, but I'll certainly make a point of acquainting myself with it now!
David Lowery, whose always insightful and entertaining Drifting: A Director's Log marks him as one of the best filmmakers/bloggers on the internet, writes about another one of his duel identities--as a filmmaker and a film critic--in a post called "Film Criticism and Films, Criticized." I'd wager that it's the respect for these two forms of art that shows here which accounts in large measure for his success in both arenas...
Las Vegas Weekly film critic Josh Bell, who blogs at Signal Bleed, contributes an admittedly narcissistic post called "Selling out" about one of his favorite critics: Josh Bell. Fear not: it's not an appreciation, but rather an inside look at the perils of self-promotion.
Emma of All About My Movies, who surely most be the energetic and enthusiastic aspiring young film critic in London, contributes a review of Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher (1970) called "Butchers, Murderers, and a Whole Lotta Movie Criticism." Tell me again that the kids these days are only interested in special effects-laden blockbusters?
Okay! At last I've finished something of my own, a preface to my main contribution to this 'thon which I'm calling "As a Preface: Andy's Letters to the "Young Turks" 3:1 (Or something)."
Tram at Talk To Me Harry Winston takes a look at Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel's recent blog post on "the death of film criticism" (which I wrote about here), and comes to a conclusion that differs from his considerably. I'll glibly summarize it thusly: "Film criticism is dead? Long live film criticism!" I'm suffering from a spot of summary fatigue, I think, but be assured that her piece is as serious, thoughtful, and well-supported as my description is vapid and flighty!
At Cinemathematics Dan Eisenberg contributes a tribute to a critic near and dear to my own heart in a post called "Jay Sherman as Critic." Jay, who made his television debut when I was 13 years-old, is the first film critic I ever knew (even before Roger Ebert!), and now he occupies a place of honor on my DVD shelf in the form of The Critic: The Complete Series.
I've only owned Phillip Lopate's brilliant American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now since May, but already it's the most worn-out book on my shelf save for my dictionary and my thesaurus. Every page is dog-eared, because every page is golden. At The Evening Class Michael Guillén has not one, but two posts detailing the contents of Bay area Phillip Lopate lectures and Q&A sessions! The first: "Phillip Lopate: PFA Readings on Cinema Lecture and Q&A," and the second: "Phillip Lopate: Codys Bookstore Reading and Q&A." Michael, these are a gift!
Hmm. Well, for better or for worse (one of my great weaknesses as a writer is my inability to fairly evaluate my own work) I have finished my own contribution to this blog-a-thon, a post called "Harry Tuttle, Film Critic: An Appreciation." Thanks to the overwhelming response to this blog-a-thon, I just don't have time to compose a second post, but I'll definitely add the etiology of my interest in film criticism (ah, Movie Club '04!) that I had planned to my to-do pile. And maybe when I write that post I'll sneak in an explanation of le blog's name as well. . . . (Note: it's not nearly as exciting as all that.)
And last, but certainly not least, a big thank you to everyone helping to bring readers to this event: Anne Thompson, The House Next Door, GreenCine Daily, The Sheila Variations, ScreenGrab, Girish, Dennis Cozzalio, The Bleeding Tree, The Listening Ear, Talking Moviezzz, Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-scope, and anyone else I'm forgetting!
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Davis Guggenheim's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" has the force of a high tide, pulling imperceptibly yet irresistibly upwards until you're knee deep in it, you can't ignore it, and the edge is some twenty feet behind where you're standing at the moment.
The film is a 96-minute documentary on a series of what appear to be Power Point presentations given by Al Gore who, as he puts it "used to be the next president of the United States (when the audience laughs, he replies "I don't find that particularly funny.")." Gore uses animation, graphs and anecdotes to make the not-so-easy-to-grasp case that the world's average temperature is rising, that man's--and especially the United States'--technology has been largely responsible, and that the consequences on our weather and water levels are going to be dire.
I won't mince words on this one--it's one of the most frightening recent movies I've seen. Unlike pictures like "Hostel" or the "Saw" franchise, it portrays ordinary horrors, horrors you are likely to meet every day (step outside in any Metro Manila street and take a deep breath), and are likely to choke on (now try hold that breath).
From pinoydvd, prompted by a 7/22/03 Philippine Daily Inquirer article "The Hollywoodization of Filipino movies:"
How to save the Filipino film industry? I say, tax Hollywood movies.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
(Plot discussed in close detail)
Who'd have thought Bresson, he of the austere aestheticism and rigorous philosophy, could make such an effective thriller as A Man Escaped? That opening sequence of Lt. Fontaine about to attempt a break from a car is as superbly timed and edited--with the suspense stretched out into a thin, taut wire--as anything from Kurosawa or Eisenstein.
Bresson's visual style couldn't be more fitting for the setting--the whole movie is focused on the title character, in a series of tight medium shots and close-ups. The camera is trained on him, and since he operates in such a small space, it rarely strays elsewhere. The impression of claustrophobic confinement is thus emphasized, even magnified--about an hour of the way through you dearly wish for a shot of a tree, of the sky, of something outside the prison walls, which Bresson refuses to grant (the final shots are of more walls, glimpsed through thick fog, and at night). A voiceover keeps you constantly inside Fontaine's head, telling you what he thinks and feels with direct simplicity.
Bressson builds tension here in ways Hitchcock might have approved of--the emphasis on deadlines and time limits, the constant fear of being detected or searched, the treachery of the Nazis (a promise of release is always suspect until you've actually been shown out the door, something we never actually see--or hear--happen). And it isn't just the circumstances--when he's finally ready, with hooks and ropes and all, Fontaine experiences a failure of nerve (a crisis of faith?), and can't seem to bring himself to actually escape.
It's almost all escape, all the time, but Bresson manages to take a moment to speculate about God's role in all this. "Trust in God," a priest says, but Fontaine is more practical: "we have to help him," he says. The prison break might be Bresson's way of dramatizing a spirit being redeemed, but he's not very didactic about ways and means: if anything, his hero is microscopically narrow-minded, focused only on the minutiae of his coming flight. Interesting to compare him to the hero in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest--Fontaine is more physically restrained, but he has an outward focus, a definite goal he has his eyes trained on that keeps him going; the cure in Diary roams where he pleases, but his soul is trapped, maimed in some fatally hidden manner.
Bresson's sound design is as strong as ever, with tappings on the walls reminding us of neighboring prisoners (potential allies or informers) listening on either side, the loud chatter of the machine gun reminding us of the penalty of being found out. Two moments in the use of sound stand out: when Fontaine first taps on a wall and gets silence as a reply, it turns out the old man on the other side is too frightened to answer. As Fontaine gets to know his neighbor, the old man begins to open up to him, whisper to him from his window, confide in him, at one point (in a rare burst of motion so sudden as to be almost spectacular) tossing him a blanket for making rope.
On the very night of Fontaine's escape, the old man makes a single request: he should knock before he leaves. Fontaine does this, and the reply--the sound of tapping where before there had been fearful silence--is inexpressibly moving, like a baby's long anticipated first words finally uttered.
The second moment comes when Fontaine is on the roof; he's thrown the hook across the gap between two walls, the final obstacle, and stopped; Bresson inserts a fade, possibly the most exasperating in all of cinema, because you realize that time has passed; Fontaine is again experiencing a loss of nerve, and can't bring himself to climb across. The clock strikes, and you count the beats--one, two, three, four.
With the chimes Bresson has indicated just how much time is left, just how close Fontaine is to succeeding (it's the first time we actually hear a clock), and just how close to catastrophic failure (a hundred and twenty minutes more or less--about the length of a motion picture--till sunrise, and capture).
The final scene has Fontaine tightly embracing his escape partner Jost, who murmurs "if only my mother can see me now." One wonders about the gesture: an expression of brotherly affection and friendship in an especially intense moment? Or, as David Thomson channeling Bogart might put it, "the beginning of a beautiful friendship"?
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980)
Lino Brocka's Bona is possibly the least-seen of his major works, partly because the two remaining good prints of the picture had been squirreled away abroad (to the Cinematheque Francais and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) while Filipinos back home had to content themselves with fading recollections and equally faded Betamax tapes. Everyone remembers how powerful the film was; no one can rightly say they've actually seen it, at least in recent years.
It's exciting news to learn that Cinema One with the help of the Cinematheque is broadcasting a clear new video copy of Bona, one with French subtitles. For a new generation of viewers--one barely able to recognize the name of Brocka--this is a chance to finally see a famed classic; for those who remember the film from its Metro Manila Film Festival run this is a chance to update (and possibly destroy--but that's the risk of any revival) their Beta-assisted memories with freshly minted images. Whichever you are, veteran or innocent, even twenty-six years later there's much in the film that can still shock and appall.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Saw Brazil again and brooded on the way it didn't quite come together--how Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) and his mother, for one, sit down to dinner, a bomb explodes, and they don't even stop eating (they're even annoyed); it's maybe that one scene that destroys much of one's empathy for Lowry, and if Pryce manages to gain much if not all of it back by film's end, it still seems a pity, how callous he seems early on. Then there's the impression Lowry gives you that he can't seem to get his act together--he panics when Jill parks in front of Information Retrieval, insists on crashing through a checkpoint, and can't even develop the cunning to use what position and influence he has to do what he wants (when he does, finally, it's too little, too late).
More than that, I suppose, is the feeling that this is a dumbed-down version of Orwell's classic dystopia, and that Gilliam was too disorganized or incoherent to maybe borrow effectively from Orwell or keep different elements less jarringly inconsistent (is it a noir? Parody? Action-adventure fantasy?). He pretty much jettisons Orwell's intellectual baggage (from Newspeak to the philosophy of power) and instead fashions a mediocracy barely able to keep itself working, much less effectively reppressive.
That said, Gilliam does take advantage of the decades of hindsight he has over Orwell to be more accurate about the kind of fascism ruling the world today: that "mediocracy" is spot-on, with marketing taking precedence over skill and value, and spin the most valuable commodity of all. And his version of terrorism and the government's tendency to take advantage of it to systematically violate civil rights (in 1984, it's an endless war between three states) is eerily prophetic--what's missing, really, is the revelation that it's the government that's behind the bombings, as a way of preserving its hold on power. The detail, though, of the government actually charging you for your detention and torture (a detail Gilliam reportedly lifted from some 16th century European witch trials)--well, it remains to be seen if that little bit ever comes true, or becomes true again.
Maybe the film's real power lies not so much in the nightmare future it posits--Orwell's vision is more aggressively nightmarish--but the utter impotence of its hero. Gilliam did say he had wanted to make a film where the happy ending is that a man goes insane, but do we need to accept his word on the subject? Isn't Lowry in truth a devastating portrait of a man who could have saved the world but didn't bother? Callous at first, stupid later on, hopelessly escapist by film's end, Lowry just doesn't seem to have either the spine or the balls to do what needs to be done; he seems constantly trapped in a vegetative (and isn't Brazil--the country, not song--just chock full of rain forests?) state of mind caused by humming the title song once too often.
That ending isn't just bleak; it's downright confessional. The ostensible message may be "it's all too much and too powerful for us to really fight (even if it is a watered-down version of Orwell); let's just sit passively and hum a happy tune (it's a conclusion Gilliam arrived at earlier with his colleagues in Life of Brian)." Behind all that, though, he seems to be muttering "I'm just saying this because I'm a lot like Sam--too weak and dumb and disorganized to be really effective." And behind that--behind the struggles he underwent to finish and properly release the film, behind what artistry he does achieve is the hint of a whisper: "it doesn't have to actually be that way, you know." He leaves Lowry humming away in a vast space, but the tune Lowry's humming is, of course, Brazil--just the very tune we're taught throughout the film to resist succumbing to. Possibly it's his one moment of real subtlety, in a film full of unsublte passion and grandeur, that he would use a little ditty to remind us to carry on the struggle, long after Lowry (and he, by implication) has fallen.
rufus christ: Noel, at first blush, my take on Lowry was pretty similar to yours. However, upon seeing it again not long after it was released, it occurred to me that Gilliam was trying to show why people don't act when they can. When this film was released, American culture was reaching a point where it was seen as permissible by many to sacrifice morals for comfort and acquisition of wealth and power.
Lowry was a quisling who could be easily lulled by creature comforts from any horror he might feel. No matter how moved he felt by the heroics of Harry Tuttle, Lowry just didn't have the fortitude to make the sacrifices or engage in the kind of fight that drove Tuttle. Was there ever anything beyond his attraction to Jill that inspired him to act? Maybe a little pang of conscience, but its not enough to even qualify as a still small voice.
The bottom line is that Sam Lowry is a piss-poor hero. It is also a pretty sad fact that there are far more Lowrys around than Tuttles or Jills. This might have been Gilliam's point, which is why I have a hard time writing off Brazil and just as hard a time watching it as I get older.
Hm. From what I read, my view of Lowry is pretty much similar to yours, rufus. It's not a great take on a dystopia, but it's a great take on a failure of a hero--us, in effect.
rufus: I think where we diverge is on Gilliam's intent. You could be right, maybe he does see himself as just another Lowry. Or am I misreading the last couple of paragraphs?
The distinction could be even finer--he's being critical of the liberals' impotence, and including himself in the criticism. Covering both our points, so to speak. It's a mess, but I think it has power despite the mess.
ChrisJ: It's simply a case of it being too ambitious, trying to do a little too much. You create a dull hero and then have to live with what you have done so you allow him to twist and shift a bit and become more interesting which not everyone is going to go along with.
That's probably how he arrived at what he did.