Thursday, June 28, 2007

French and Japanese Film Festivals

French and Japanese Film Festivals


From "Frenched:"

The French Film Festival is underway! And I'd recommend every film at the festival save the two I've already seen--not only because they're quite old and have been screened in Manila before, but because I'm not too crazy about them.

Luc Besson's "Arthur et les Minimoys" (Arthur and the Invisibles, 2006) is a part CGI, part live-action adaptation of two children's books he had written back in '02 and '03. Given that he had been the source and directed the adaptation, and was working in a medium where literally anything was possible at the touch of a button, you'd think all that would free up his imagination to try something really wild.

From "Haikus on the Big Screen:"

Akihiko Shiota's "Gaichu" (Harmful Insect, 2001) had previously been shown in Cinemanila some years ago, but it's nice to see it back--it's received so little attention since, but what little there is has been quite strong (Mark Schilling of The Japan Times has written enthusiastically about it; Max Tessier of Cinemaya Magazine and Positif considers Shiota a "very underestimated filmmaker" (both Schilling and Tessier are western critics who specialize in Japanese cinema)).

The film follows Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki, the heroine of Shinji Aoyama's "Yureka" (Eureka, 2000)) through her rather grim life--her father leaves her and her mother behind before the film begins, her mother (at film's opening) attempts suicide after suffering rejection from her new boyfriend and (in a series of flashbacks) a youthful math teacher in love with Sachiko (who may or may not have sexually molested her) quits the school for a job in Northern Japan.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ambitious failures

For the ambitious failure blogathon (and the perfect companion piece to oggsmoggs' article on Jose Rizal (Marilou Diaz Abaya, 1998):

If I had to define 'ambitious failure,' it would have to be Sisa (Mario O'Hara, 1998). A tiny film (roughly seventy thousand dollars) shot in ten days, it didn't have much expense to recoup, yet it bombed at the tills, closing on its opening day. I saw copies of the VCD for a while, and (I still have nightmares about this moment) actually held the print in my hands (oh why oh why didn't I run with it--it was even in good condition), before I returned it to Regal Films, where it disappeared into their warehouse (where hundreds of other prints sat in the Manila heat, slowly turning into vinegar) forever.

Anyway--here's my contribution, an early assessment of the film:

Excerpt from:
Minimalist moviemaking, or: "Look Ma, no cash!"

And then there is the multitalented, maddeningly maverick Mario O'Hara, who has been making movies since the 1970's. It's been over a year since he made the largely ignored (not entirely without reason) Manananggal In The City (Monster in the City), after which he's maintained a profound silence. Given P3 million (about a fourth of the budget of an ordinary, present-day Filipino drama) and fifteen shooting days and what does he decide to do? A remake of the Gerry De Leon classic, Sisa.

O'Hara, who wrote the screenplay, has an intriguing premise. Sisa--the Sisa in Rizal's novel Noli Me Tangere--is a memorable character, a great character, and O'Hara believes there's no such thing as a great character that wasn't based on real life: who then was Sisa? Rizal's diaries mention a "Binibining L.," a mysterious woman who he praised for her mysterious beauty and come-hither eyes; O'Hara's conceit is that this character is, in fact, Sisa, and that this woman was the great love of his life.

It's a daringly, imaginative idea, a brilliant idea. Possibly too brilliant: O'Hara obviously thought that the idea was strong enough to make a film, no matter what the budget, so he went ahead and did it.

The resulting film has divided audiences: some call it a great film, most call it unmitigated crap. People point out the plywood sets, the styrofoam skulls, the wine bottles with plastic twist-off caps; they jeer at the modern-day light switches plainly visible in the background and the horse-drawn carriage that passes over a concrete bridge. I've heard someone say "First lesson in making a period film: if you don't have the money, don't make it."

I don't buy that for a minute: how do you know it's possible--how do you know anything is possible if you don't at least try? Sisa is as hugely ambitious as its budget is small: O'Hara is clearly banking on his screenplay, his ability to direct, and his cast to carry the film. The more valid criticisms against the film were aimed at these three elements.

Sisa's premise is strong; the story, which switches back and forth between Rizal's past and his imprisoned present, between reality and fantasy and meta-reality, is complex, but ultimately coherent. I think the dialogue, for the most part, is a model for writing period films--everyday dialogue, plain and straightforward, with just the slightest stylized lyricism to hint that the people are of a different, more gracious time.

As for direction--O'Hara tries to defuse disbelief at his no-budget production design by emphasizing the lack of a budget, by proudly wearing the poverty of his production on his sleeve, as if it were a style; at the same time, he attempts to distract our attention with a dazzling display of his filmmaking prowess. He almost succeeds: his editing is fluid and his staging masterful--except in the unfortunately comic scene where Dona Consolacion (Evangeline Pascual) is pushed out a window. The audience laughed; I couldn't say I blamed them.

I'm not as happy with his decision to brightly light the sets. He's probably daring us with his lighting, pushing the cheapness in our face, but it doesn't work--shadows would have been more evocative, more appropriately Gothic. There's a nightmare involving styrofoam skulls and wooden swords that should look pathetic, but the grainy black-and-white photography transforms the sequence and gives it genuine menace. Maybe the whole film should have been shot in black and white.

As for the performances: Aya Medel captures the essential innocence of Sisa, but she has difficulty with long dialogue scenes, and the subtler changes of emotion required. Gardo Verzosa makes for an intense Jose Rizal, but he sometimes holds his body awkwardly and, like Medel, lacks sophistication. It's another daring idea, in a film full of daring ideas, to cast bold stars in a Rizal film (Medel strips in her movies for Regal, while Verzosa is a regular in Seiko's notorious sex flicks), but a film like this--naked, and without sets or costumes to distract the eye--lives or dies on your ability to accept Verzosa and Medel as Jose Rizal and his Sisa. Most people couldn't take the plunge.

For some reason, I did. Despite their awkwardness, I thought Medel was was an enchanting Sisa, Verzosa an intense, passionate Rizal (it might have helped that I haven't seen many of his Seiko films).

Everything followed from there: the moment I believed, I found myself open to every idea O'Hara threw at me, and it was a thrilling ride. I loved the way O'Hara explodes every cherished, fossilized concept we have of our national hero. It's difficult, for example, to think of Rizal as sadistic, but there he is in one scene, beating the life out of Sisa's husband; it's impossible to think of Rizal--whose overcoated figure stands in practically every town square in the country--lying naked in bed with a woman, yet there he is on top of Sisa, pumping away, beads of sweat popping out all over his bare buttocks. Rizal is human after all, and in a way I don't think any previous Rizal film has ever shown, or even attempted to show.

But that's my opinion; the common consensus is that Sisa is, at best, a brave and interesting failure, and "if you don't have the money, don't make it." O'Hara dares to make the completely unheard-of statement that "money doesn't really matter, talent does," but his message seems to have been garbled in "Sisa." I think it's a worthwhile, wonderful message; I wish more people could hear it.

Businessworld, 10/9/98

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hostel 2 (Eli Roth, 2007); The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)

Eli Roth's Hostel 2, I'll have to admit, is an immense improvement over his first. Gone (for the most part) is the incomprehensibly handheld camerawork, gone (for the most part) is the Cuisinart editing; this is 120 Days of Sodom not quite as Pasolini had done it (with subtlety and vision), but maybe as a fairly competent director (uh--J. Lee Thompson? Not the director of Cape Fear! Sean S. Cunningham? Maybe) might do it, with the horror plunked frankly in medium shot on the big screen for our delectation.

Flipping the sexes so that we have women victims is an obvious try for variety; more interesting is the attempt to look into the stories of the kind of people who might want to pay money for the service--one a hardcore corporate predator, the other a more ambivalent family man. Roth's one clever plot twist is predicated on one man's attitude towards (or problems with) his wife; the rest--the faux escape that leads to a luxurious chateau, for example--is obvious and dull.

Some fuss has been made on the treatment of Heather Matarazzo like so much hung meat; actually, the scene involving her demise is a perverse variation of Countess Erzebet Bathory's practice of bathing in a virgin's blood (for younger skin), and as presented, with the magnificent Edwige Fenech writhing in sexual ecstacy, the sequence is difficult to resist--it's almost beautifully sensual (and I'm a sucker for horror with a strong sense of beauty (Bava, Argento, Cronenberg)), and easily the finest single image in the picture.

More problematic is the presentation of Matarazzo as a clueless geek virgin, hopelessly in love with the Europe in her mind and failing to see the Europe Roth has in mind--Welcome to the Dollhouse with oversized blades and fully developed breasts. Matarazzo I'm sure was kept from being uncomfortable--or at least was as uncomfortable as she was willing to undergo--but allowing herself to be so contemptuously treated, one wants to ask: does she hate herself that much? Equally mysterious is Matarazzo's refusal to participate in Solondz's Dollhouse sequel, Palindromes; both Solondz and Roth treat her like shit onscreen--what does Roth have (or do) that Solondz doesn't? *

*("Heather, I've got this real cool death scene for you; you'll be nude, people'll talk about you, and you'll look hot.**")

**If you take a good look at the scene, not really--if anyone's eroticized, it's Fenech, not Matarazzo; the poor girl just looks like a sad side of beef, ready to be carved.

Arguably the creepiest moment in the film is when the heroine finds herself alone in the spa (nice use of mist and silence there); arguably the worst is the child killing--not so much the idea of a child being killed (Sergio Leone did something similar to better effect in Once Upon a Time in the West) as the fact that Roth stretches the moment to the point of tedium. It's about this point that you realize: he doesn't seem to have much to work with in the first place, is why he works over what little he's got so thoroughly.

Maybe that's the biggest problem I have with Hostel 2, the paucity of ideas. Roth talks a great game, about how the two pictures evoke Guantanamo, how there's a political subtext to all this. There is, but not the one he's talking about--seems to me his movies are a symptom of the mindset that created Guantanamo (let's party, dude!), not a critique, and that the final impression is of an implacable world that hates Americans not because they do anything to deserve the hate, but because they're such soft, easy targets (even when we follow the torturers' story, the impression is that these are self-absorbed amateurs; by comparison Fenech and the Italian gourmand are seasoned pros).

The finally brings to mind the adage about money buying everything. Is Roth so completely cynical that he'd admit there's no real possibility of escape for his guests (an implausibility he failed to address in the previous picture) save through the pocketbook? What does this say about his political subtext--that the rich escape and live longer, the poor are power-tool fodder? And why does he feel he has to steal a plot twist from the Saw sequels?

Instructive comparing this to Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley (which I saw right after and yes, the difference is dizzying). Loach includes a torture sequence early in the picture--nothing elaborate or particularly original, just rusty pliers tearing out fingernails. But Loach's gift for gritty realism serves him in good stead: we know who the people involved are (Irish Republican Army soldiers, held prisoner by the Black and Tan), we know what's at stake, and we know this isn't some fantastic scenario cooked up by a geek with too much time on his hands.

Loach doesn't linger (much), just gives us the bent-over man, the scrape of plier teeth against nail, the victim's scream. It takes as much time as one would imagine it would take, with no more buildup than a busy interrogator might actually spend before working on his subject. Roth's torture sequences are mildly amusing and competently shot, but they're weightless, because the characters involved don't really matter, just the details and manner of their passing; with Loach, we have the additonal horror of seeing people who we know existed suffering, people who could very well be friends and neighbors--are our friends, since Loach allowed us to spend time with them, get to know them.

And unlike with Roth, the torture has consequences--Teddy, the man being interrogated (Padraic Delaney), becomes the more practical of two IRA brothers; the other, Damien (the fragile, unsettlingly blue-eyed Cillian Murphy) is the idealist, the purist--his notions of freedom and independence, untainted by a strong dose of physical reality, allows no compromise. Brother versus brother is a hoary concept in literature, but Loach manages to tell it simply, give it fresh power.

Roth as mentioned talks about how his movies evoke the Iraq war; Loach is able to make the connection by the far simpler expedient of telling his story straight, without once forcing the similarities. We get the arbitrary arrests, the forced entries into houses, the beatings; we get the word "occupation" thrown about ("sticks and stones may break one's bones but words cause permanent damage"), the demand not to look at the oppressor's face (looking implies you stand on identical grounds with him, that you're an equal, that you're trying to establish a human connection, a connection he in turn is trying to destroy; to him you must be some kind of animal to be restrained). Just by being faithful to the details of his milieu (one wonders what milieu Roth's trying to evoke--Pan-European Softcore?) Loach makes the film speak to us about any occupation, at any point in history--about how distressingly similar they are, no matter what door is being kicked in, or which boot is doing the kicking.

And it's not leftist propaganda; at least, I think Loach intends leftist propaganda and in some films (unfortunately) gets it, but here the tone achieved is one of a general, genuine tragedy, inescapable no matter what you do, what you had originally intended, or whose side you belong. Roth's Hostel 2 is disposable entertainment, to be used then tossed in the nearest trash bin; Loach's Wind stays with you, and reshapes the way you think and feel about the world.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Meet the Robinsons (Stephen J. Anderson, 2006)

Meet the Robinsons (Stephen J. Anderson, 2006)


And now, the latest piece of ordure from The Rat Factory--sorry, Walt Disney Pictures…

Stephen J. Anderson's "Meet the Robinsons, 2006), based on the book by William Joyce, feels like ninety minutes spent in a disco for the half-blind and hard-of-hearing. I've read of Japanese interrogation techniques that were less sadistic; should be classified as "Cruel and Unusual Punishment," or "In Violation of the Geneva Code."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

CineFilipino releases 5 Lino Brocka DVDs!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Eddie Garcia holding down Lolita Rodriguez in the harrowing opening sequence of Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974)

CineFilipino to release five Lino Brocka DVDs this month

If this is true (and it seems too good to be true (someone please twist one of my nipples with a pair of pliers, Eli Roth-style)) then at least two of Brocka's best--and in effect two of the greatest films in Philippine cinema (as I've declared many times)--are soon available on DVD. Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged and Found Wanting, 1974), about a young man's rite of passage in a small town, is the initial firing shot in what proved to be the '70s Golden Age of Philippine cinema; Insiang (1976) is in my opinion Brocka's masterpiece--his version of Othello (three characters locked in a triangle of jealousy and hate)--set in the slums of Tondo (which has its advantages and disadvantages, as I point out in this article).

Thriling, thrilling news--and, I hope, news that really does come true (as of the moment, it's not in Cinefilipino's website--but I hope to correct myself soon. In which case, I plan to shout it from the housetops).

Friday, June 08, 2007

Omohide poro poro (Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata, 1991)

(This post written for the Ghiblogathon)

The way we were

Takahata is less well-known than his Oscar-winning colleague, Hayao Miyazaki, but for those familiar with his films, his work is arguably equal, if not superior. His best-known, Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Firflies, 1988), Roger Ebert considers one of the world's greatest war films, and compares to Spielberg's Schindler's List (Ebert, frankly, is talking out of his colonoscope; Hotaru is a far finer film than Schindler's). I've discussed Hotaru several times, though never dared write a full-length article--its DVD release, on several occasions defending the film's tragic nature, even replying to the question of why it was animated in the first place.

I've written about his Pom Poko (The Raccoon War, 1994), which depicts warfare on a far wider and more complex scale than Hotaru (and is almost as unbearable to watch) and think his HĂ´hokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbor the Yamadas, 1999) a better 'family film' than, say, Edward Yang's Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, 2000).

Omohide poro poro (Only Yesterday, 1991) is (compared to Hotaru) considerably more lighthearted and (compared to Pom Poko) far smaller in scale, but you find here the same subtle handling of character nuance, with perhaps a more complex appreciation of time, memory and nostalgia. Arguably, this is Takahata's time-travel film, and I would argue a major work--not only by Takahata, but by Studio Ghibli.

We see the main character Taeko in two modes: as an adult in 1982 (voice of Miki Imai), her world rendered with the kind of ultrarealistic detail and subdued color palette in which Studio Ghibli excels, and as a ten-year-old child (voice of Youko Honna) in 1966, her world distinctly stylized, with some of the backgrounds painted to look as if they'd been done with watercolors, the edges left unfinished. It's a little detail, those unfinished edges, but for me a haunting one: when you remember an image, do you focus on the background? No, you focus on what's in front of you, and the backgrounds are, as in this film, hazy, somehow incomplete.

The change from '82 to '66 is instantaneous--no transitional music, no fading focus or wavering image. It can be confusing to follow, until you realize that the color scheme (from realistic to watercolor and back again) is key. Takahata also gives precise clues as to where you are (and why you're there), helped along by Taeko's voiceover narration, and soon you follow the convention easily enough (What do you experience when remembering a long-ago memory--music; wavy images, perhaps? No--the image occur quickly and matter-of-factly as a skillfully inserted shot).

Taeko in '82 is a Tokyo office worker who spends her summer in the Yamagata countryside, where she helps in the safflower harvest--an odd way of vacationing, but as we learn from the flashbacks, Taeko was always an odd child, sticking out of the crowd even when she didn't mean to. When we first see the ten-year-old Takeo, ironically, she wants to conform--her classmates are going to their respective hometowns for the summer, and since she and her family come from Tokyo, they have no town to go home to (the grown-up Taeko says, arriving at Yamagata, that she's happy to finally have one (her sister married into a Yamagata family)). A sad but at the same time funny image (Takahata in this film combines pathos and comedy with effortless skill) is of Taeko at the public park, doing calesthenics before tape-recorded music, with one person manning the tape recorder, and one other person exercising beside her (her companion says she's going back to her hometown too, and a later shot shows Taeko at it completely alone). Taeko sticks out, but she can't help sticking out; it's not her fault that, unlike most of her classmates, she was born in Tokyo; it's not her fault that she is the way she is--or she thinks the way she does.

Meanwhile, the '82 Taeko almost effortessly slides into the flow of countryside life. She arrives at Yamagata on the night train, so that she can go straight to the safflower fields and start the early morning picking (she's a night person, and has difficulty waking up early enough); she is constantly smiling at her in-laws and treats her younger sister-in-law as an equal and confidante. And she has just met a nephew who likes Hungarian folk music ("I like it because it's for peasants, and I'm a peasant"), and looks as if he might become her closest friend there.

It's a straightforward idyll, almost dully so; an eleven-year-old girl who saw the film expressed the opinion that the younger Taeko's story is much more engaging (the '82 sequence where Takahata goes into a detailed explanation of how safflower turns into lipstick (with a vivid red dye as byproduct), a for me wonderful little interlude, didn't seem to impress her much). If there's anything at all interesting about the '82 Taeko, it's the mystery of why she'd want to pick safflowers at all. Yes, we know she wants to vacation in the countryside--most Japanese do, we're told--but spend a vaction farming?

More, there's her manner of behavior while she's there. She's ingratiating, almost unsettlingly so; of her time in Tokyo she says almost nothing--if she talks about herself, it's mostly about her ten year old self. That says a few things about her, I think: first, that life in Tokyo has almost no relevance to her at this point in time; second, that life in Yamagata is something she wishes to aspire to and work for, its folk people she wants to get along with, know, make good acquaintances, if not friends. The desire to fit in and belong is so obvious it's a wonder someone doesn't point it out (which, in fact, someone at one point does).

Takahata weaves both Taekos and their respective stories together into a multifaceted view of the young woman. The young Taeko is the film's comic heart--and in fact Takahata adopted the film from a manga by Hotaru Okamoto, about a ten-year-old girl dealing with the fifth grade; it was Takahata who added the adult framework along the way. By looking at the young girl through the prism of a grown woman Takahata adds a--no, not nostalgia, that's too easy--mediating distance to the material, a thoughtful consciousness that looks back, Our Town style, and realizes how simple and even stupid little details in one's childhood acquire, through the perspective of sixteen years, a scale and significance that looms over the relatively colorless present.

Thus, a seemingly pointless episode with a pineapple that the father brings home one day becomes, in retrospect, Taeko's introduction to the mystery of differing tastes. When she chews on her first-ever piece, there's puzzlement, even disappointment, but not outright rejection; if she eventually agrees that the commonplace banana (and not the pineapple) is king of fruits, it's partly because (you sense) she's capitulating to the opinions of the rest of her family. Though she knows what she thinks and feels, she hasn't learned to express herself, and this failure of self-expression will be a common motif repeated again and again throughout the film.

The issue of menstruation*--funny enough when Taeko's small bout of flu is mistaken for signs of a monthly period--become a metaphor for the ever-evolving nature of the human body (not to mention the female body, hers in particular). Here, the subtext is Taeko not learning to express herself, but (with the help of a fellow classmate who is having her period) to accept herself, to accept the changes happening in her body. The '82 Taeko perceptively realizes that part of the reason why she's remembering episodes from that period of her life--from the period of the '66 Taeko--is because she was changing then, much as she's changing now. Like the '66 Taeko, the '82 Taeko is transforming, becoming something other than herself, and it's either accept the change or reject the change; accept one's self or reject one's self.

The transformation process reaches a crisis point when seemingly out of nowhere Taeko is made an offer to stay in Yamagata--not just as worker, but as family member. Taeko is stunned; her mind flies back to perhaps the single most traumatic period in her life, when an uncouth transfer student had come to her class, and was seated next to her. He slouched, shuffled his feet, wore a perennially sullen face, spat, and picked his nose; when asked to shake hands with the class, he told Taeko point-blank: "I don't want to shake hands with you." Taeko to some extent demonizes this figure, makes him represent everything she despises and--worse--feels guilty for despising. More, part of her horror and guilt is in recognizing not what's so different about him (his slouch, his nose-picking), but what's so similar. Like her, he stuck out; the fact should have been the basis of a friendship, but instead it was the basis of a wary and sometimes involuntarily cruel relationship. That sense of wasted oppportunity, of hiding a contempt she feels she must have for any person or lifestyle different from the accepted Tokyo norm, that's the feeling that flashes to her mind when given this opportunity once in for all to join with her Yamagata family.

Both the '82 and '66 Taeko have had what people might call an "epiphany"--a revelation involving themselves or involving feelings they've never acknowledged within themselves, and it's a traumatic moment. Takahata presents her way of dealing with the trauma twofold: the '82 Taeko, apparently wiser and more sophisticated, must have everything explained to her (and by the one person most concerned with her happiness, of all people!); the '66 Taeko for all her awkwardness and apparent cluelessness is far cannier, speaking not a single word yet expressing herself far more clearly. Perhaps the single most poignant moment in the film is at the same time the funniest, when the young girl starts shuffling down the street, her shoulders slouched, spitting and scowling and picking her nose--a sign of solidarity, in effect, and a tribute to a lost friend.

The ending--I've heard accusations that it's sentimental, a cop-out. But I think it's significant that the resolution takes place after the credits start rolling; in effect what Takahata is telling us is that as far as he's concerned he is finished telling his story, and that what happens after is just his way of indulging us--is possibly even some kind of scenario played out in Taeko's mind (I think it's significant that it's only when the credits roll that both Taeko '82 and Taeko '66 appear together in the same frame for any length of time, the entire sequence in fact).

Takahata, more than Miyazaki in Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988) is, in my opinion, the true animation heir to the kind of quotidian Japanese cinema practiced by such masters as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse; he tells a story subtly, swiftly, without resorting to fantasy or science fiction, and in such a way as to evoke the most complicated emotions.

Along the way he comments on society in the '60s and society today, or at least society during the time of the film's making (the movie was made not long after the Japanese economic bubble burst, and you see stirrings of the kind of spiritual crisis Japan must have been beginning to experience at the time). He needles the Japanese need to conform and questions the Japanese (and very American as well) drive for material success, suggesting that inner peace and oneness with nature are at least an equal if not superior alternative means to happiness (along the way he notes the bitter irony found in safflower picking--in a labor-intensive process worked by women that results in a product too expensive for said women to use). He also in evoking the ten-year-old Taeko, asks us not to remember her innocence, or immaturity, or naked, inexpressible yearning for something (exactly what, even she doesn't know), but her honesty. He acknowledges that ten-year-olds more often than not know their feelings better than we do, know what they want more than we do; that is their gift, that is what we've lost ever since.

*Sadly, the very mention of this means that the Disney-distributed DVD release of this film has been shelved indefinitely, which is a pity (same case, I assume for the Ghibli TV movie Umi ga kikoeru (Ocean Waves, 1993), where menstruation also plays a role in the story). What, the Rat Factory refuses to acknowledge the reality of a woman's monthly cycle? How very odd, not to mention perverse, if not actually obscene...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)


Perhaps the single most surprising fact about Zodiac is that David Fincher directed it--one might think that Alan J. Pakula had been raised from his grave and given a far larger budget than when he did All the President's Men (1976), or that Sidney Lumet had been asked to remake his Prince of the City (1981) with a hunt for a psychopath at its center, or that Curtis Hanson--an excellent thriller filmmaker who raised the stakes mid-career when he made his epic L.A. Confidential (1997)--had suddenly developed a taste for serial killers. Fincher, a music video director turned feature filmmaker, showed such taste early on; he first became famous for the grotesque Se7en (1995--about a man who staged his killings around the Seven Deadly Sins), but had already made an earlier film about a nonhuman killer (Alien3, 1992) and later, a film about a serial terrorist prankster (Fight Club, 1999). Whatever the story, Fincher's camera seems to constantly seek out and focus on the character living or even temporarily thrown outside the norm (of society, of humanity) looking in, his actions dictated by his needs or obsessions.

A quick comparison of the two filmmakers should be instructive. I've always admired Hanson's attention to detail, storytelling skill, and gift for characterization, something that's kept him in good stead in films from L.A. Confidential to 8 Mile (2002) to his latest this year, Lucky You; overall, he makes clearer, more coherent films than Fincher. But with Fincher I've always had expectations, often disappointed by his not exactly disciplined approach--Alien3 was a shaky-camera mess, Se7en's plot was preposterous (genius killer who slays to make a philosophical point?),   Fight Club was brilliant satire that degenerated into comic-book ludicrousness (a worldwide conspiracy of bomb-planting waiters?). That said, there's a look to each of his films that often varied in tone and palette (from the ambers of Alien3 to the murky grays of Se7en to the sumptuous sheen of Fight Club), but was almost always ringed by an encroaching, ever-present gloom. Few recent Hollywood filmmakers made shadows as menacing as Fincher, and you suspect that if you ever opened up his cranium and peeked inside, you'd find the world viewed through similarly darkened lenses.

Then came Zodiac, where Fincher successfully trains those lenses on a script (by James Vanderbilt, based on the books by Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal)) that either Pakula or Lumet or Hanson might have been happy--might have killed--to direct. The film covers the nearly ten years starting 1968 during which the Zodiac Killer terrorized San Francisco, and during which the police force tried to hunt him down; it goes on to trace Graysmith's investigations of the killer, past the publication of his book on the subject in 1986, and some time after that. It deals with roughly twenty characters (portrayed by a cast of excellent actors, from Gyllenhaal to Robert Downey Jr. to Mark Ruffalo to Brian Cox to Chloe Sevigny, John Getz, Candy Clark, Elias Koteas, Charles Fleischer, Philip Baker Hall), at least half a dozen of them major, and ranges all over San Francisco (and some cities nearby), from the murder sites to the police precincts to the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle to even the apartments and houses of various people involved.

It's a huge, sprawling project, and a viewer might be forgiven for not getting all the particulars straight (this film, if any recent mainstream film ever did, demands additional viewings); more, there's so much story to tell, so much detail to wade through, that Fincher barely has time to illuminate the motives of anyone involved (the killer himself exists mostly as a glimpsed-at shadowy figure, a few brief scenes, and a quick climactic confrontation). Critics have cited this as a major flaw, but I see it as a change in Fincher's point of view, a change of heart, almost. Ever a man to glory in the surface, even texture, of his pictures, Fincher here is using surface--what a man does in killing, and what people do in trying to capture him--to suggest the mystery of what goes on underneath (the surface of things, of one's cranium), in this particular case the extremes to which a man will go to obey his need to kill, accomplish, explore, question, believe; beyond that, the film's surface suggests that truism with which any ambitious artist must eventually come to grips, the ultimate unknowability of things, the sense that final solutions or answers are rare, or false, or often impossible.

Actually, Fincher seems to have been straining to evoke this throughout his career. In Se7en, for example, we hear the killer's rationale, but we barely understand it, much less accept it at face value (as a detective so callowly put it: "You're a movie of the week. You're a fucking t-shirt, at best"); in The Game (1997) the nightmarish circumstances in which a man suddenly finds himself turns out to have (after two hours of chase and anguish) an all-encompassing explanation (and even when the credits roll, you wonder if that IS the final explanation); in Fight Club we never get a clear reason for the protagonist's split personality. In each of these near-fantasy settings, however (Fincher's films almost always seem to be set a few years in the future, or in some alternate reality), the mystery seems more like a conceit to get an unlikely premise rolling; they're easy to accept because they seem so shallowly conceived--gimmicks to help a gimmicky director.

Zodiac is different: thoroughly grounded in the San Francisco of the '60s and '70s, it creates a familiar, even banal everyday world, one we've seen and come to take for granted after years of films and TV shows, here presented to us--thanks to Harry Savides' use of the Thomson Viper FilmStream Digital Camera--in all its larger-than-life glory (the inspiration was American photographer Stephen Shore's '70s pictures). Occasionally Fincher would cut loose--an overhead shot of Paul Stine's taxicab, from killer's pickup to driver's death; a hilariously creepy visit to film projectionist Bob Vaughn's cavernous basement--but these moments seem more like baroque curlicues, to frame the essential realism of the film, a realism with slightly deeper shadows than one might normally expect.

The effect is unsettling, to say the least--like Blue Velvet, David Lynch's vision of small-town life (Zodiac would be Fincher's vision of big-city life), we're given a glittering shell, and can't help but be aware of the void beneath; more, the portrait of obsession (the film isn't so much about the killer as it is the effects the killer has had on those hunting him) uncannily mirrors Fincher's own obsessive qualities in making this film (aside from the painstaking work of recreating '70s San Francisco, Fincher and his collaborators spent an additional eighteen months conducting their own investigation into the Zodiac case). The two hour-plus film (the running time is roughly a hundred and fifty-eight minutes, and word is the DVD release will have an even longer director's cut) is arguably Fincher's Dorian Gray painting--a source of dark power, and Fincher's best chance yet for artistic immortality.

(First published in Businessworld, 6/1/07)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, 1975) DVD

Fun stuff--not just the movie itself (arguably the best of the Pythons' screen efforts), but also the extras, and even the menu instructions. When clicking on the "extras" option, for example, instructions appear asking you to "insert Disc 2;" after listening to the grotesque noise of a man in pain, you're admonished "I mean in a DVD player!"

If you choose to play the monks' Latin Chorus number, instructions appear asking you to take the DVD cover, hold it parallel to the forehead, and give yourself a sharp rap; if said rap isn't painful, "you aren't hitting hard enough." The instructions then proceed to advise you to use the side of the disc, preferably a sharp corner...

I remember hearing the Pythoners discussing the Japanese version of the film, and how the Japanese translation was thoughtfully translated back into English via subtitles--and two scenes with the said dub/subtitles are included. You haven't seen anything till you see Chapman and Cleese discuss the "Holy Sake Cup," or the Knights of "Ni!" demand that Arthur and his knights produce a bonsai ("not too expensive!") by way of ransom.

Maybe one of the oddest features is a subtitle option allowing that not everyone will enjoy the Pythoner's written dialogue; in which case, the filmmakers have thoughtfully included dialogue from William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, carefully tailored to fit the film. And it's a surprisingly good fit; when Carol Cleveland informs Michael Palin (playing Galahad the Chaste) that she and all the girls need a good spanking followed by oral sex, the titles read "satisfy the woman!" For the running gag where people yell "Get on with it!" (in response to any and all diversions), Shakespeare has them repeatedly yell "To the point!" At the Bridge of Death, when the Bridgemaster (Gilliam) asks Galahad his second question ("What's your quest?"), he asks "What say you to my water?"

Maybe my favorite tidbit is when Terry Jones and Michael Palin revisit all the film's shooting locations, 25 years later. Jones in particular is a pleasure to listen to, as he's quite well-versed in Medieval history--he notes, for example, that the squalor depicted in the film is worse than it really was; records show that Medieval teeth were actually in better condition than modern teeth, mainly because they haven't invented a lot of sugary snacks back then.

They also tell the story of how at the last minute the Scottish Department of the Environment withdrew permission to use any of the publically owned castles, out of fear that the script's tone would be "incompatible with the history and fabric" of the castles (to which Palin wondered: incompatible with what? The boiling tar and eviscerations and killings that are part of the castles' histories?). So most of the film's castle scenes, set in several different locations, mostly had to be shot in the privately owned Doune Castle, with various rooms doubling for a French fortress, a wedding party, a prince's bedroom, a girl's dormitory (well, what else would you call it?), Camelot, so on and so forth. What castles you see in the distance (save the first, which is the real Doune Castle) are mostly plywood models, roughly twelve feet high, and likely as not to fall down from high winds during a take.

Jones and Palin arrive and point out the parking lot, and the modern houses surrounding the castle; they enter and find a gift shop, complete with copies of the film's script being sold on the shelves. Then the shop clerk reaches under the counter to present the piece de resistance--a pair of coconuts! Apparently people come all the time, wanting to re-enact scenes from the film, and the clerk has thoughtfully put away a pair of the tropical fruit shells in case they haven't brought any of their own ("they can borrow it so long as they return it"). Few do, I imagine; the clerk tells stories of visitors coming dressed in full armor, or of a tourist dragging luggage having driven straight from the airport, completely sensible-looking save for a pair of coconut shells.

Eric Idle, Palin, and John Cleese take up the fifth commentary track (what, they still can't get along with each other?), while the two Terrys occupy the fourth. Highlight of track five (actually, Eric, Michael and John talk more about the acting and writing--valuable information there too--while the two Terrys talk more about the directing) include Cleese noting that the one-legged man who substitutes for him during the Black Knight episode was named Richard Burton, and believes that Burton was more agile on one leg than he ever was on two.

Cleese also tells the story that inspired the Black Knight episode--a tale of two Roman wrestlers who fought for hours, ending up in a complete tangle. One wrestler eventually broke his leg, and gave in because he couldn't stand the pain; the referee pats the other man on the shoulder, telling him that he won. When men untangled the two, however, they found out that the other man was dead.

The man who told Cleese the story didn't think the opponent lost, however; he believes that as long as a man doesn't give in, he's the winner. Cleese expressed doubts about the validity of that philosophy.

Palin talked about hot water--how there wasn't enough for the entire cast and crew, so after a long day in the cold and damp and shooting was finished, they made a mad scramble for the cars and raced back to the hotel for the remaining hot water. Palin and Cleese ended up doing a little research and found another hotel with hot water, and moved in there, a lonely proposition until one night they found themselves sitting with two dozen pretty girls at dinner--the Glasgow extras hired to play the lonely young virgins at Castle Anthrax.

Giliam dominates the latter part of the Track Four commentary, and makes some interesting points. English humor is the way it is, he muses, because England used to be the world's dominating power, later dwindling down to a little island with only a minor role to play in world affairs. He thinks the source of their silliness is their confidence, a legacy of that long-ago imperial culture--it's hard to be silly, he asserts, if you have self-doubts.

He tries to defend his filmmaking, conscious that Terry Jones had to take over at some points because he wasn't handling his fellow Pythoners too well. Interesting to listen to him stutter and defend himself; actually, I think he comes off fairly well--admits it could all be his fault (doesn't sound like much, but for a filmmaker that's a big-time admission of responsibility), though he couldn't help doing a little good-natured sniping ("in theory they were concerned (with the film's look); in practice the armor's really heavy"). He opines that one's belief in or love of a subject (religion, the Middle Ages) is strong if it can stand up to satire--if one's faith in or affection actually grows stronger despite, or rather because of, having stood up to ridicule. That comedy both tests and strengthens its target at the same time.

During the film's final moments, he had this to say: it's amazing that he got away with what he did; if he had to make the film again using the same budget and resources, he very probably couldn't do it. In fact, the rest of his career is based on trying not to go through all that again.

He loved the first screening they did in New York, how the audience responded to the film and its humor. Ten years later he remembers screening The Meaning of Life for college students, who found the film's ugliness and violence upsetting. "The difference ten years makes is amazing," he said. "Back then, people wanted to upset things, they wanted to change the world. Students these days, all they want to know is that after four years of college there's a job waiting for them." Or words to that effect.

Postscript: about Doune Castle visitors and coconuts, apparently I spoke too soon. I'd love to have gone to this thing--do they still hold it (maybe not, I can't google a more recent article), and will I ever be able to scrape together the money to fly there?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A voice of sanity; more Jeonju pics (last ones, I imagine)

A voice of sanity

And I agree, absolutely--Kiarostami gets harassed, and some sleazy lawyer with incurable TB gets a pass? Whaddahellzgoin on?

Final set of photos from my jury duty at the
8th Jeonju International Film Festival (I think; I'm pretty sure), sent by girl scout extraordinaire Areum Jeong (who should be in New York by now, God willing):

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From left to right: film programmer Jung Soo-wan (I liked to call her "Sue Ann," which could be the Tar Heel in me coming out); Mr. Min Byung-lok, festival director; yours truly; Korean actor Jeong Chan; uh--not sure, but I think that's filmmaker Kim Tae-yong; and Netpac jurist and film critic Yu Ji-na (I called her "Gina," no one seemed to notice the difference).

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Here's Jeong Chan making a statement in Korean while I--well, I don't remember what I was doing then; trying to follow his speech in English I suppose. Earlier, Jeong had been looking at me while I tried to copy my name in Korean. "Very good," he said. Didn't tell him that compared to Mandarin, Korean seems pretty easy. On the way out, I pocketed that nameplate sitting in front of me, the one with my name in Korean characters.

The press conference that followed was pretty civil, except for one reporter that cited an article critical of the festival; Mr. Min cheerfully replied that attendance in the festival was up, even in rainy days, and that he has it on good word that the one who wrote the article didn't even attend the festival--so he doesn't know what the man's talking about.

Then, being the only foreigner in the conference, the reporters turned on me--asked me what I thought of the festival, what could be improved on, etc., etc. I replied that my impression of the festival was that everyone worked 110% percent, past midnight even--I would catch them still at it when I had come home from either a late screening or a drinking spree, in the wee hours of the morning, and it was a running gag that I kept telling Areum to go to sleep (she had been getting about two hours' rest every night for the past two weeks); she was still pretty and all, I opined, but she looked dead tired.

As for what could be improved--I called on the city of Jeonju to give even more support to the festival. It's a no-brainer, really--the festival gives the city an international profile, brings in visitors both local and foreign, brings films from the world to Jeonju, helps showcase Jeonju films (like the opening film Off Road, which was shot in Jeonju) to the world.

Suck-up sure--what, I was going to bite the hand that hosted me? But I did mean every word.

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And here's filmmaker Ying Liang, receiving the Woo-suk Award of $10,000 for The Other Half. Behind him from left to right are the three Indie Vision jurists: filmmaker Jiri Menzel, yours truly, filmmaker Lee Yoon-ki. I don't know who the fourth guy is, or who Ying's getting his award from.

Being the one most fluent in English, I got picked to announce the winner at both the press conference and closing ceremonies. Basically repeated the short official speech I wrote (with everyone's input) on the winning film, after which the ceremony ended and we all sat down to watch Johnnie To's Exiled. Jiri didn't watch it; the Czech ambassador had a car waiting to drive him from Jeonju to Seoul, where he spent the night, so we shook hands then and there (and Olga gave me a quick buss). Ah, memories, memories.