Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bolt (Byron Howard, Chris Williams, 2008)


Disney's latest animated effort (Bolt, 2008, directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams) comes as something of a surprise--hasn't Walt's Rat Factory turned the animation reins over to the more commercially and critically successful Pixar yet? Do they still insist on churning out 'family-friendly' fare so totally devoid of point and bite and flavor that the movie ends up like an order of McDonald's French fries confined under glass (see Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me (2004) DVD extras, for what may arguably be the most terrifying and disgusting ten minutes you will ever experience)? Will this be yet another occasion for obvious moral uplift, the Factory's umpteenth attempt at affirming traditional family values over decadent modernist lifestyles (the better to raise perfectly compliant Disney-product-consuming youths with healthy credit ratings and vigorous appetites)?

Well--yes. Animation was never much of an invitation to realism, but the premise they come up for this one strains credulity, even allowing for the freedom implicit in the medium. A dog, Bolt (voice of John Travolta) plays hero opposite of Penny, his "person" (voice of Miley Cyrus), in a long-running TV show full of giant attack copters, sinister high-tech ninjas, and hair-singeing fireballs. That's not the unlikely part; we're asked to believe that animal psychology has developed in sophistication and effectiveness to the point that they can fool a dog into thinking its make-believe life (attack copters and ninjas and fireballs and all) is real (of course an actual dog only has to sniff to know when its leg's being pulled).

The concept's not entirely original--it's basically an inside-out version of Peter Weir's fairly interesting The Truman Show (1998), which featured an equally deluded protagonist (he thought he was just an ordinary guy when in fact the world turned around him); Weir's film in turn borrowed its premise from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint, written some forty years before.
Dick's scenario is vastly more ambitious, of course--not surprising, coming from the mind of a man writer and critic Brian Aldiss called one of two or three geniuses working in the genre. Dick's protagonist Ragle Gumm believes he lives in suburban America, in 1959; actually the year is 1998, and the town he lives in is an elaborate constructed hoax designed to prevent him from learning that Earth is at war with one of its former colonies, and only Gumm's precognitive ability to point out the location of the next nuclear strike (which Gumm does when working out a series of newspaper puzzles) keeps them alive.

A deceptively wholesome image cut straight out of the Saturday Evening Post unraveling into a darker, altogether more surreal scenario, that's the trajectory of Dick's novel (The Truman Show managed to reduce the stakes from survival in a nuclear war to audience share of a TV show). Bolt scampers in the opposite direction, from bombastic Michael Bay action movie to an ordinary family watching TV in the living room--not exactly an inferior premise, I'm all for stories about sleepwalkers waking up to sober reality, but the endpoint Disney proposes--portly mother, purring cat, girl playing with dog--has such a manufactured look that you suspect that of being the fantasy, not the TV show (at least in the show you have a sense of eccentric if talented people working hard, sacrificing selfish comforts for the greater good).

It doesn't help that the main character and his "person" are such a dull pair. Travolta's a good actor, and when he's at his best few are as good at establishing a simple and direct rapport straight through the camera at the audience as he is, but he needs to use his body's physical eloquence (can one remember--or rather, can one ever forget--his strut down a Brooklyn street in the opening of Saturday Night Fever (1977)?), he needs to be impudent, he needs to be sexy, he needs to be charming. Bolt is a straight-shooting character, and as such you want an accomplished comedian capable of skewering the character's straightforwardness (that's why the voice casting in the otherwise humdrum Toy Story (1995) was inspired--was probably the only thing I really liked about the movie: Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear was so heroic he bordered on the megalomanic, not to mention psychotic). Travolta, who does sincerity intensely, can only play the character on one level; doesn't help that he's cast opposite Cyrus, a Disney teeny-bopper and vocal non-entity, or that the wonderful Malcolm McDowell is largely wasted as the picture's putative villain.

But the movie's not a total loss; there are gigantic laughs here, and wonderful feats of derring-do. I'm talking about Rhino, the heroic little sidekick of Bolt, who rolls about in his near-indestructible hamster ball and is voiced by vocalist veteran Mark Walton. Strange, but arguably the funniest gags in recent American animation involve mostly monomanic characters--the Ice Age movies were a bore, but skittering through the main narrative was this running gag about a squirrel and his beloved all-too-slippery nut that was the best thing about that picture. Likewise with the penguins in the Madagascar flicks; likewise with Rhino here. If Bolt represents the ideal of heroism cast into doubt and then re-affirmed, Rhino represents the ideal of heroism rising beyond doubt and despair, heading somewhere in the general direction of dementia. Rhino's mind is pure; Rhino's belief in Bolt's powers is invincible, elemental, grand. The fact that Rhino's also a furry little ball of fat makes that grandeur all the more hilarious.

And Rhino delivers; he performs amazing feats of strength (like pushing a ladder across the street through ball-power alone) and speed (like chasing and running down a pickup truck) and cunning (he opens latch doors and escapes from a dog's viselike jaws using saliva as lubricant and a kind of patented flywheel-release technique as a launch mechanism). Unlike Bolt, whenever faced with adversity he doesn't despair; he hunkers down and squeezes his fists, the glare from his beady eyes burning holes into the back of your head. Bolt isn't much of a picture, is probably a good way to park your kids in a theater for ninety minutes while you indulge in entertainment more mature and adult in nature like--oh, say, fecal paintball. That little rodent, though, he should have his own movie.

(First printed in Businessworld, 11.28.08)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Griffith's ghosts, and Cahier's 100 most beautiful films

Arguably NY Times' DVD critic Dave Kehr's blog is one of the most active online site for film around; it's easily the most lively.

Take the case of his recent article on Kino's release of the second volume of the films of D.W. Griffith, and read the commentary page, which runs to over 160 posts as of this time.

Griffith almost a hundred years later is still the provocateur, still able to raise a good if not always civil or intelligently reasoned (or worse, unoriginal) fracas. All to the good despite the negativity, I say; better by far than if no one cared at all.

Didn't want to add fuel to the fire (or static to the already considerable noise), so I'll just comment on the whole debate here. Been an Asian living in America for five years, and for the past half decade, has not been entirely unaware of the problem of racism in this country. Been called everything from 'spic' to 'nigger' (apparently Filipinos are not a very common sight), and accused of being racist myself (among other less savory things). I get that sidelong glance when walking into a store, or public institution; I've felt that closemouthed tension whenever entering a room full of white people. Racism--or at least its simmering, tightly-plated-over-with-a-thick-layer-of-courtesy equivalent--is something I have to live with all the time.

I can see what an appalling tract Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is; I know something of its history, and the role it played in reviving the Ku Klux Klan. Watching the film, I cringe at the blackfaced stereotypes depicted onscreen, running apelike after Flora Cameron (the ever-sunny Mae Marsh), or wreaking havoc in Congress.

And it's not just the racism; if the racism were hamhanded and obvious (as I have to admit it often is here), it wouldn't be such a thorny issue. It's in how persuasive the film at its best can be. If a black man (or an actor in blackface) running after a woman hoping to have sex with her is too grotesque to take seriously, the subplot about the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) trying to force marriage with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) is sufficiently and subtly developed to actually make one bristle at the thought of a subhuman brute laying his hands on Gish's lily-white limbs (not to mention make one feel the satisfaction of seeing a do-gooding liberal (Austin Stoneman, played by Ralph Lewis) being confronted with the consequences of his own 'wrongheadedness'). The climax is easily the film's most powerful moment, a thrilling rescue sequence to rival anything done by Kurosawa or Spielberg, and not the least of Griffith's accomplishments is in having you cheer a band of Klansmen riding to the rescue.

All that said and considering what I am, I take what I think's the middle view on Griffith: the man was a social naïf, but he could direct like an angel (or devil, if you like). For every scene with a slouched and gibbering white man in blackface, he's got a scene of exuberant gallantry, like a wounded Confederate, defiantly stuffing a Union cannon with its own flag, or of surpassing tenderness, like a soldier's halting, hesitant homecoming. Griffith in film took sides and dug in like a soldier, and people cheered or condemned him for that--still do to this day. I do think you're probably something of a naïf if you can dismiss his racism as "a product of his times;" if you can manage to totally ignore his filmmaking, though, you're probably also blind (or maybe just not paying attention).

Also found in the commentary pages is a link to Cahiers du Cinema's 100 films pour une cinematheque ideale. It's not a bad effort, for an attempt at something definitive (personally, I prefer a whole score of lists, and refusing to tally them up in any shape or size whatsoever), and probably the most credible outside of Sight and Sound's and Senses of Cinema's.

I've heard minor cavils--no Borzage, no Naruse. To which I'd like to throw in "What, no Guru Dutt, or Raj Kapoor, or Bimal Roy (what, are Donen and Minnelli the only masters of the musical?); no Anthony Mann; no Hou Hsiao Hsien; no animation (unless you consider King Kong, which is arguably stop-motion)? Nicholas Ray represented by a kitschy work (I'd love to see him recognized for In a Lonely Place)?Welles present, but represented by the usual suspect (Citizen Kane--though it's nice to see Touch of Evil included)?"

To be fair, I do appreciate the high ranking of Laughton's Night of the Hunter, which critic David Ehrenstein considers the greatest American film ever made (I don't know if I'd go so far, but I understand where he's coming from, and I do love the picture myself), of M (my favorite Lang), and of City Lights, which I do love to death but have failed to keep in my own top ten , due to overfamiliarity. Maybe I should look at it again.

(But waitaminute--only one Keaton, while Chaplin has five? What's going on here? (Only, I suppose, the rubbing off of strange protuberances and projections in the lists--one reason I dislike tallies is that they usually end up giving us what the mainstream considers top quality; give me heterogeneous lists anytime, where a man's quirks and eccentricities are clearly on display))

But yeah--maybe the most painful omission is any word or mention of a Filipino filmmaker, Brocka or Bernal or Ad. Castillo or either of the two De Leons or Diaz or Red or even O'Hara. Still have a long way to go with the French critics, I suppose. To work, then.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Burn After Reading (Coen Brothers, 2008)

A sarcastic soufflé

Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading (2008) is their first feature film after last year's No Country for Old Men and by most standards it's a diminishment. Less ambitious, less grave (where No Country dealt with an inexorable, implacable mortality, in Burn mortality acts more like a caffeinated jack-in-the-box), less demanding of its audiences, it seems to resemble in tone and level of cynicism the kind of dry, dark comedies the Coens have made through the years, starting with--but their works have always been comic, from the ironic noir of Blood Simple (1984) through the leisurely narrative knots of Miller's Crossing (1990--arguably their finest) to the small-town caricatures of Fargo (1996).

No Country may be their least typical work, taking for its source (and tone, and essential spirit) a novel by Cormac McCarthy; there's a mournful, elegiac feel to the book that's entirely new to the Coens, a sense that the novel--and film adapted from it--values life and cares about its passing too much to fail to take it seriously, more seriously than the Coens ever have. It was enough to push people's sympathies over the edge, I suppose, to the point that the Coens have won commercial success, near-unanimous raves, and--finally--that collection of gold doorstops Hollywood values so highly.

And yet--for some reason I much prefer the Coens' latest. Yes it's less ambitious, yes it doesn't stretch or lead them over relatively unfamiliar (at least not in obvious ways) ground, yes it gives one the impression of the Coens tossing off an entertainment--a trifle--to their fans while their next major work gestates. But comfortable Coens are, it seems, confident Coens, with the effrontery that's their hallmark--where with No Country they seem subdued, cowed even, by McCarthy's reputation, dealing with their own material they're able to bring to Burn the spark that I thought was missing in No Country.

It isn't as if the novel was all that much--a strange man of indeterminate ethnicity with a hideous pageboy haircut (admittedly the Coens' own addition) wielding a captive bolt pistol isn't exactly my idea of fearsome Death (check out Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod (Destiny, 1921) for a more persuasive figure). The book alternated between a chase and endless musings on death and dying; its self-absorption seemed muted and puny compared to McCarthy's later, much more superior The Road, where the writer's traditionally lean prose is given tremendous emotional and dramatic force by the love of a doomed father for his doomed son. If No Country was a commercial success, I submit, that may be because of the Coens' crisp staging of McCarthy's action sequences; if a critical success, I submit that may be thanks to all the people snowed under by news of the brothers adapting the work of a major literary figure.

Which leads us back to Burn. Hardly anything weighty in Burn, an airy concoction with a decidedly acrid taste--a sarcastic soufflé, if you will. The Coens have traded the wide spaces of the American Southwest for the gray streets and hallways of the Capitol Beltway, turned in the realist acting of the No Country cast (excepting Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, who's basically the Terminator in an absurd bob cut (Bardem reportedly took one look at himself and said "I won't get laid for the next two months")) for the more energetic mugging of Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and George Clooney. This is farce, low farce, and the Coens play it perfectly: close in to catch every twisted expression, and in long takes that allow the performers to whip their comic inertia into a lather (I'd love to see the Coens tackle Oscar Wilde--not only do the sensibilities mesh, so does the pacing, somehow brisk and deliberate at the same time).

If there's anything at all new to the film, it's the gift the Coens seem to have acquired for ensemble work. They've told stories full of memorable supporting characters, but always with an ostensible protagonist, or at least one character dominating the foreground. With this picture no one really stands out (not always a bad thing), everyone works--hard--to achieve an overall frenzied quality. Malkovich (maybe the only casting choice I might quibble with) is a known quantity and frankly he's getting a little dull (even in Clint Eastwood's The Changeling you don't find much variety or surprise to him), but he doesn't detract; he pushes matters along with sufficient energy. Clooney depends on his famous handsomeness for comic effect, and a dependable handsomeness it is--it suggests leonine wisdom and grace where there isn't any, and you're constantly being surprised by the absence, thanks to the abundant surface evidence. McDormand--well, she's dependably varied, and here while the Coens do introduce her through a series of grotesque body parts (flabby upper arms, crow's-feet eyes, ballooning butt) her conniving Linda Litzke eventually becomes familiar, charming, even towards the end poignant. Richard Jenkins as Linda's boss and secret admirer functions as the only straightforward character in the picture, the gravely sane and sober lynchpin on which the whole unlikely enterprise turns.

Pitt--I've rarely if ever liked the actor. He was faintly ludicrous in Neil Jordan's Interview with a Vampire (1994), hilarious in Edward Zwick's Legends of the Fall (same year), forgettable in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel (2006), and made for an uncharismatic Jesse James in Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, released last year. He did strike comic sparks from Guy Richie's Snatch (2000), a movie I otherwise detested, and does an okay understated turn in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean movies (where he's supported by a dozen other better actors), but here he's a wonder; can't believe how well he plays stupid. I'd call him the film's Ralph Bellamy--he lacks Bellamy's slyness, but has gotten the man's apparent cluelessness down pat.

And it's all much ado about nothing. Ultimately no one gets nowhere fast, even the holier-than-thou CIA sentinels watching pitilessly from their featureless Quantico office (they merely lose less than everyone else)--and that, I submit, is what makes Burn so unsettling. No one rises to the top, or stands out; we all strive and struggle according to our respective intellectual gifts (the film's tagline: "Intelligence is relative"), hamstrung by the same diabolical Fates (or by the same diabolical brothers, if you like). Resistance is not just futile, it's downright laughable.

First published in Businessworld, 11.21.08

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stuart Gordon's recent horrors ("Stuck" and "Edmond")

Stuart Gordon's recent horrors

Stuart Gordon's been a favorite of mine, and not just for directing the memorably over-the-top Re-Animator (1985). He's done immensely interesting work since, often for little money and even less public attention, flying below the radar to do the material he wants to do--another far more ambitious Lovecraft adaptation (Dagon, 2001) for one, and more domestic, or at least more recognizably realistic (but Gordon's always been realistic; he pretty much captured the tone and texture of pre-med campus life in Re-Animator, of clannishly unfriendly small coastal towns in Dagon) fare like the low-key King of the Ants (2003). Even his contribution to Mick Garris' Masters of Horror series, Dreams in the Witch House, is memorable, not the least because it features a yearning college student living next door to a beautiful single mother (one thing Gordon doesn't get near enough credit for is the eroticism in his films--beautiful, casually sensuous women, so approachable you imagine you can smell the scent of their hair); you can't help but like the two, they seem to have wonderful chemistry together, and you're all the more appalled at what ultimately happens between them.

Gordon's still active; surprised the hell out of me when I learned that he had made something just last year (it opened to limited release just May this year): Stuck, about a woman high on Ecstasy and alcohol who hits a homeless man with her car and drives home with the man sticking out of her windshield. She parks the car in her garage then leaves the man there, still half out of her windshield, for several days.

It's the kind of scenario so outlandish it can't possibly be true, only it is. Gordon's trick is to use his trademark handheld tracking shot (which serves superbly for this purpose) to follow both Brandi the driver (Mena Suvari) and Thomas the victim (Stephen Rea), peering over their shoulders, earning for them our familiarity and sympathy, as they cope with their respective days. Gordon provides plenty of wince-inducing moments (among others, the sickening snap as Thomas' leg shatters against Brandi's front bumper--though my personal favorite is the little dog that manages to wiggle into the garage and find Thomas lying inside). What sharpens that horror, what makes us catch our collective breaths and want to scream or yell at them not to do this or that (or to please do this, please do that) is the fact that we're totally taken by these two characters, we believe in them as human beings. Thomas is a bit more complex (and tragic) than the martyred saint he could easily have ossified into, and Brandi isn't just some pill-popping, booze-swilling monster we can simply boo at. We hope for one to survive, for the other to get away with it, and we're constantly spinning on our heels, trying to decide just who to root for.

Throw in the film's not inconsiderable sense of humor, which veers wildly from goofy to grotesque and at its best is both at the same time (at one point Brandi looks at Thomas' apparently lifeless body hanging from the windshield and, seeing him move, bitterly demands "why are you doing this to me?!") and what you have is--well, I haven't quite seen the like of it before, but I hope to see it from Gordon again, or better.

If I think Gordon's doing good work at the moment that's nothing, I submit (or at least not all that much), to what he did some three years back. Edmond is an adaptation of a David Mamet play, and most critics take it as an early manifestation of Mamet's ideas--the subversive machismo/misogyny/racism that turns out to be critique (or celebration--the ambiguity is why Mamet's so fascinating) of itself, the lone male protagonist who faces a hostile world of pimps and hustlers and women (who if they don't want money up front don't want to hear any more of Edmond's intensely felt philosophy).

But Gordon in one sense made Mamet--he (being an established figure in the Chicago theater scene) encouraged the writer in his early days, and staged Mamet's award-winning Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Gordon was familiar with Mamet before almost everyone else was, and I submit that his adaptation of Edmond is less an adaptation and more a collaboration of two brilliant minds. Have not seen this staged (according to Gordon aside from a few early scenes very little was added or changed), but Edmond's journey through the streets and alleyways of Chicago suggests a kind of personal odyssey, one perfectly visualized by Gordon's aforementioned trademark over-the-shoulder tracking shot, made even more vivid by his insistence in holding the lens tight on Edmond (played with feral fatalism--leastways that's the best way I can describe it--by William Macy).

Gordon keeps the buildings crowding around Macy, and confines him to dark corners and dingy apartments (one's memory of where Macy comes from--a luxurious, antiseptically clean high-rise--helps heighten the contrast between his former and present life). In effect the whole city becomes a kind of shadowy tunnel, a birth canal if you will, leading him by reverse labor contractions inexorably to the cramped little womb numbered 115 that the fortuneteller at film's beginning prophesized was his destiny.

"You are not where you belong," the seer tells him point-blank; Edmond blinks and taking her cue, begins his long descent downwards. Forget the outdated references or milieu (Edmond today might have carried a cellphone, which would have helped him out of various scrapes)--more than Re-Animator (a comedy about dead people stubbornly refusing to stay dead), or Stuck (another comedy, about a live person stubbornly refusing to die), Edmond is Gordon's definitive horror film, a relentlessly deadpan comedy about a man who, dissatisfied with his present status, stubbornly insists on looking for his proper place in life, and--most awful fate of all--finds it. A great film, I think, and Gordon's masterpiece.

Friday, November 07, 2008

An unlikely candidate wins; a famous hack passes

In the light of recent events, had this to say:

The morning after November 4 the kids were asking "did you vote?" To which I said "no," and explained about my status. I added: "the White House though, isn't as white as it used to be, is it?"

After which I launched into a short rant on the significance of the recent US election, saying "I'm not a citizen, and in one way that's a disadvantage--I'm not as involved and don't have as much at stake in this as you do (in a way that's not completely true, though; as a tax-paying US resident, as a citizen of a world dominated by the United States, I do have considerable stakes. Have huge emotional stakes, anyway, citizen or no citizen). On the other hand, think of me as a man from Mars who has come to Earth to have a looksee.

"I've been accused by other kids of being anti-American (some portions of my lecture on Philippine history gave rise to this); I don't agree--America as a huge and powerful country will have its share of faults and virtues, mistakes and achievements. I happen to point them all out when I'm talking. I don't believe in sugarcoating.

"In this case, I think Obama's win is a showcase of one of this country's most admirable virtues, the tremendous possibilities presented to each and every one no matter what class, creed, or skin color. This is one moment in your history when my admiration for this country is ascendant. You should be proud--I am proud, of you, of what your people have done."

I ended the little speech with a: "Doesn't matter what your political affiliations are, Obama's victory means this: if a black man from a broken family can make it to the White House, then what can you, any of you, even me, what are we capable of doing? How high can we rise, now that we've been shown what's possible? Think about it."

On an admittedly more negative note, Michael Crichton has died at the age of 66.

He's done some good work. I think the best book he's ever written was The Andromeda Strain, where the star was a deadly microbe; I even liked the crisp 1971 adaptation done by Robert Wise (the recent miniseries, though, is a lengthy bore). I liked Westworld (1973), easily the best job of directing he's ever done (it helped that he had such a strong premise--the theme park as a reality show--and Yul Brynner as a terrifyingly implacable robot gunslinger). I liked The Lost World (1997), where Spielberg turned Crichton's dully sociopathic dinosaurs into hilariously sociopathic slapstick artists, able to provoke laughter as readily as shrieks. I even liked Kaufman's version of one of Crichton's novels, Rising Sun (1993).

He knew how to extrapolate a gripping premise from the latest in techonological and sociological trends, he knew how to frame said premise in a provocative way, and he knew how to market the hell out of it. What he didn't know how to do is write decent prose, and populate his books with sufficiently engaging, convincingly human characters (it says something of a writer when his dinosaurs are more expressive than his ostensibly human heroes).

I remember his Rising Sun, which film critic David Ehrenstein accuses of racism. I do think the novel is racist, but that filmmaker Philip Kaufman manages to subvert the book's themes, mainly by pushing them to one side and concentrating on making a great-looking film, sensual and playful with the conventions of noir and the sex thriller.

Coming away from Kaufman's picture, I pretty much summed up the film's theme as this: that the Japanese are gradually rendering the American businessman irrelevant, and that the true conflict will be fought between rival Japanese companies, not American ones (of course this was in the '90s; Japan and the world's economy were in better shape then).

I'd seen--and enjoyed--Kaufman's film first. Then I picked a paperback off of a Wal Mart shelf (funny how Crichton's novels seem to belong there) and towards the book's end read exactly that premise, blurted out loud by one of the man characters. Apparently Kaufman was able to suggest the film's themes without using a single word of Crichton's flatfooted dialogue.

In Disclosure he just about stated the same thing--this time women and not the Japanese would meet and battle as equals, and men would find themselves irrelevant.

Crichton's philosophy might more or less be found in one of his books--I'm thinking Jurassic Park (or was it The Lost World?), where one of the scientists (can't remember his name, only that Jeff Goldblum played him) declares that we shouldn't whine about saving the Earth; the Earth will be fine; it's our own survival we should be concerned about. He may have a point, but beneath that statement is the implication that if we do die, that's because we're stupid, and we deserve to die. There's a strong evolutionary (Libertarian?) strain running through his books (the question is always which is the strongest female or strongest Japanese or strongest dinosaur, ) and while I'm a strong believer that Darwin's theory applies to the natural world, I don't think it should necessarily apply as freely and thoroughly to our modern society. Choosing to follow or not follow trends in nature, after all, is one thing that distinguishes us from animals--one thing that marks us as fully human.

Imelda Marcos introduced, Pete Lacaba elaborated

Presented Imelda (Ramona Diaz, 2003) to my gaggle of American youths and while they didn't take to it with the same enthusiasm as they did to Insiang, they did find fascinating the idea of a woman who owned thousands of shoes (the final tally is 1,060 pairs, including one battery operated model that sparkled in the dark).

There's nothing really new about what Diaz deals with in her documentary--basically skims over Imelda's early life; her meteoric rise to fame as senator's, then president's wife; her years as right hand to Marcos' increasingly insatiable pair of hands during the Martial Law years; her decline, fall, period of exile, eventual homecoming, surreal rehabilitation (of sorts) and present state of--well, that part's complicated.

There's plenty to gawk at in this documentary, not the least of which are the shoes (the girls had a field day oohing and aahing their color and variety) that emerge one after another like so many stars, forming a collage of Imelda's face on the video screen. Perhaps the documentary's greatest virtue is in shaping all the stories about Imelda, from truthful to apologetic to delusional to downright bizarre, into an overall narrative as told through her own words, in a series of lengthy interviews Ms. Diaz did with the former First Lady (Imelda has since attempted--and succeeded for a time--to have the documentary banned when it screened in the Philippines).

The early Imelda impressed the kids; "she's so pretty," was a common judgment; some couldn't believe it when I told them that she was over seventy years of age at the time the doc was made (I couldn't resist mentioning that considerable plastic surgery had as much to do with her looks as the natural youthfulness of Asian women). The comments dried up as the documentary advanced; Diaz used the simple but apparently effective stratagem of allowing Imelda to speak freely, then showing testimony that either qualified or contradicted her words. Sometimes opposing testimony wasn't even needed--the kids stared in openmouthed wonder while she voiced out her wish that an assassin's bolo knife had been wrapped in a yellow ribbon (to make it prettier, she said) before it stabbed her eleven times (I happen to know the plastic surgeon--yes, she had one, denials notwithstanding--who fixed the scars). Later Imelda launches into one of her famed philosophical discourses, where she describes how man can be symbolized by a pie divided into three slices (body, spirit, soul), and how a missing slice can leave the pie looking like a Pac man ("she's got to be on drugs," one young man told me).

The girls were more direct in voicing their opinion--while most hated her with a passion, one did believe that there's nothing shown here that definitively proved that she did anything wrong. "It's all her husband's fault," the girl declared, and wouldn't change her mind, even when the others ribbed her mercilessly about it (I had to at one point step in and stop their teasing). One did admit that she'd be willing to be Imelda's friend, if only she could have a few pairs of those shoes. Almost all expressed a wish to visit the Philippines, if only to see the collection (I told them the shoes were enshrined in a museum in Marikina).

Imelda has oft been compared to Eva Peron (asked why she refuses to allow Andrew Lloyd Weber's well-known musical to be performed in the Philippines, to which she replies: "because I am not a prostitute"). Perhaps a more fruitful comparison might be made instead to Norma Desmond, the aging diva from Sunset Boulevard (another Andrew Lloyd Weber production, come to think of it, based on Billy Wilder's film): she's out of step with the world, and all her loyalists are working heart and soul to keep her in that state, and woe to the unfortunate man or woman within earshot who should happen to try and wake her up. As Joe Gillis put it: "You don't yell at a sleepwalker--he may fall and break his neck. That's it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career." Imelda is both tribute to and expose of (at least to those who know little about her) that lost career, and the woman who both lived and dreamed it.

I mentioned knowing some of the faces in the film--Fr. James Reuter ("arrested in the '70s; during the 1986 presidential snap elections, ran a backup independent vote count"); Behn Cervantes ("arrested and imprisoned"); Pete Lacaba ("arrested, imprisoned for two years, tortured; wrote the few openly anti-Marcos films made while Marcos was in power").

Some of the more hardened youths wanted to know more details about Lacaba's incarceration. I handed them Lacaba's own testimony, written in his own blog. The immediate reaction was to say "that's crazy;" more telling, however, was the room's emotional atmosphere after I'd given a few details about his interrogation ordeal. Before this the boys and girls were enjoying Imelda's wackiness as the eccentricities of yet another nutty international celebrity (an older Paris Hilton, they thought, or Britney Spears). At least Norma sleepwalking hurt only herself and those who loved her; Imelda's waking dream meant the very real suffering of an entire country, for decades. Confronted with a human face representing the cost of Imelda and her husband's eighteen year rule, the laughter died down considerably.

Lacaba towards the end tells of how his deposition and ten thousand others helped win a human rights lawsuit against the Marcoses amounting to a billion dollars. He never for a moment believed he would see the money; neither did I, and neither did any of the kids who read his story--it's almost an abstract figure in its immensity.

There was, however, an interesting footnote. A deal is being made, to pay a hundred million dollars to the complainants (Lacaba included) in exchange for the dropping of all charges. Where a billion seems silly, a hundred million does not (especially where the Marcoses are concerned). Suddenly, Lacaba is confronted with a troubling choice: take what amounts to a million dollars in hard cash and a lifetime of fair financial comfort in exchange for one's right to persecute a man for taking away two years of one's life (not to mention admitting one's incarceration and torture was "a figment of my overheated imagination"). I put the question to the kids.

Male and female, the answers were pretty much unanimous; "take the money!" One did opine that he understood where Lacaba was coming from--this was honor Lacaba was talking about (nevertheless, he'd take the loot). "I can do a lot of good to myself and my loved ones with that money," one boy tells me, "than I ever can trying to sue that woman's ass."

A girl did say "He's a brave man, sir." Many asked if he took the money, to which I noted this: that at 111 pounds at the time of his arrest and having just recovered from pulmonary tuberculosis (he experienced a recurrence during his prison term), the weakest of them--girls included--could have beaten him up. But he has, far as I know, a will of iron; he never broke during his two years' imprisonment and far as I can tell he's never given in on anything in his life. Knowing Lacaba his record and a bit of the man himself, he's probably still poor as a church mouse, writing away his news articles and film scripts, seeking what in effect is the ultimate verdict on a crucial period of his life.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Der Mude Tod (Destiny, Fritz Lang, 1921)

Death becomes her

Fritz Lang's 1921 Der Mude Tod (Destiny), which the Goethe Institute will be presenting this November 8, 7 pm at the St. Joseph Parish Church Las Pinas (Stephan von Bothmer to play accompaniment in the church's famous bamboo organ), is a wonder of a film, and a hugely influential one. Its effects have inspired Raoul Walsh's 1924 Thief of Baghdad, not to mention Michael Powell's 1940 remake. Its portrait of Death (Bernhard Goetzke) has affected both F.W. Murnau's outsized Mephisto (played by the equally outsized Emil Jannings), looming over Murnau's 1927 masterpiece Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (Faust - A German Folktale) and Ingmar Bergman's famously pale and hooded figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot) in Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957)--and, if I'm not mistaken, has lent a bittersweet flavor to Lotte Reiniger's Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926). It set a young Luis Bunuel on the path to filmmaking, and is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite films.

The story is simple enough--a young woman (Lil Dagover) realizes that Death has taken her lover (Walter Janssen); she attempts suicide, but is stopped at the entranceway to the afterlife by Death. She begs him to let her beloved go, and Death, professing a weariness of his role as doomsayer and all-around spoilsport, presents a counteroffer: he will let her lover go if she can save at least one of three lives in danger of being extinguished.

Over and over again the young woman tries; in various forms--as a Caliph's slave, as a Renaissance lady, as a Chinese magician's assistant--she's constantly risking life and limb to save her lover, who also takes on various roles. Over and over again the young man is stabbed, shot with an arrow, buried alive; Death, the third party in this triangle, each time takes on the role of enabler or executioner, each time is labeled with names like "The Moor" or "El Mot." The repetition becomes inevitable, oppressive; the woman's plight gains a sharpened sense of fatalistic poignancy with each succeeding failure.

Is the story key, however, to the film's greatness? I don't know--the script seems mostly a series of scenarios, designed to appeal to an audience's desire for foreign exotica (interesting though that Lang (with the help of his wife and scenarist Thea von Harbou) manages to impose a rigorously defining pattern over all that variety, and out of that pattern work out the film's themes), with a last-minute moral point thrown in. Possibly a matter of taste, but give me Goethe's style of dramaturgy in his masterwork, where the moral quandary is thoroughly foreshadowed, exhaustively debated, constantly framed and re-framed in each and every scene the hero is in, to the point that the tension becomes almost unbearable when the deadline nears and Faust's soul is in peril of damnation.

It doesn't help that Dagover represents the kind of heavy-boned Teutonic type actress, full of 19th century theatrical gestures that weighs on the early scenes of tender romance. It's only later, when she's lit and shot to emphasize her suffering, when she transcends hysteria to attain a higher plane of what I suppose is serenity (or the kind of acceptance you see in dumb beasts about to go under the knife) that she acquires a martyr's beauty.

Goetzke, though, makes for a perfect Death. Solemn and serene, with massive architectural cheeks and sunken eyes that Lang as often obscures in hooded shadows as he does reveal in flat, undistinguished light (Goetzke's gaze actually seems more expressive, more human when it's hidden). You don't doubt that he's the ancestor of Eskerot's Death; you also don't doubt that the original is more inscrutable, more serenely unsettling.

Beyond Goetzke, though, is Lang's inimitable filmmaking. Working on a limited budget (I imagine Murnau and Griffith (whose Intolerance (1916) was an aesthetic ancestor in its use of multiple storylines and fatalist tone) enjoyed more financial resources while doing their fantasies), Lang creates a metaphysical drama as compelling, if not more so, using effects as basic as lighting, framing, and the multiple exposure. Death comes to a small Flemish town, buys land near a cemetery, erects an impossibly high wall around the land without gate or door; Lang shoots the wall head-on, filling the screen with mortared stone--we see Death walking at the foot of the wall, a small figure cuing us to the size and scale of the edifice. The young woman picks up a bottle of poison; Lang drops out the image of her actually drinking and fades directly to her hands in repose, her face looking in wonder at her suddenly new surroundings (it's as if Lang were suggesting death was as much a matter of falling asleep and dreaming as it was a state of physical reality). She walks through a portal shaped and lit to resemble a shining sword (a metaphysical blade, that inserts itself between the realms of life and death?), to a staircase that reaches endlessly heavenwards.

In the Muslim sequence one remembers the rooftop sequence, the sense of dread felt while waiting for the young woman to realize her lover's fate; Lang stages this as if it were a play, with the crucial action happening off-camera, leaving the audience with this urgent need to look down past the lower right side of the screen. In the Renaissance sequence one remembers the gigantic curtains, the deadly duel played out before it moving back and forth, the assassin behind the curtains preparing to deal the death blow (if in earlier story death is brutally out in the open here, Lang suggests, death is the distance in steps from an unnoticed curtain, and a treacherously hidden poisoned blade). In the third sequence the lovers transform into a holy statue and a giant cat, a startling show of imagination and defiance in the face of the inevitable.

The film's finest effect, however, is its simplest: a trio of candles that gradually expire, one after another, at the end of each story. A more potent image of the transient nature of life I'd be hard put to name; the smoke curling up from the just-extinguished flame suggests just-snuffed souls rising heavenwards.

I called the film's conclusion a 'sudden moral point.' I'm being ungenerous--it's an ironic finale that plays ruthlessly fair to the story's premise, at the same time it mutes the harsh conclusion with a strange tenderness. The film's German title translates literally to "the weary Death," and throughout the film you can't help but feel that despite his impassivity, Death does harbor some sympathy for the film's heroine; the conclusion, unless I'm reading too much between the lines (between the intertitles?) seems to bear this out. It's a great albeit flawed film, very much worth watching. Go, see.