Saturday, June 26, 2010

Letters to Juliet (Gary Winick), 2010

Can you feel the love tonight?

She's gorgeous. Every time she enters the frame she lights it up; it's as if the camera operator had collapsed in an apoplectic fit (“What sentimental crap!”) and, clawing at the camera as he went down, swung the lens at the sun. She's tall, regally tall, the height of queens (and kings, even) with cheekbones to match, and when she moves it's with a tilted head, suggesting her intensely focused interest on whatever life or the world is presenting to her at the moment (you, for instance). Her voice is delicate yet level--you can tell she's a sensible intelligence softened by love, by compassion. Her eyes are the startling blue of a high mountain lake you chance upon while hiking, and when she smiles--dear God, when she smiles that brilliant, wide-open smile--you're willing to take on the world and everyone in it, just to have her smile at you again.

Vanessa Redgrave is a wonderful actress--reportedly a tremendous one in the theater (alas, I've never had the good fortune to catch her onstage), and a striking presence on the big screen. Even in a largely wordless role as Ann Boleyn in Fred Zinneman's A Man for All Seasons (1966) her bright eyes and wide smile made her stand out (can you imagine if they actually gave her lines?). In Michael Apted's criminally underrated Agatha (1979) her role is essentially a long sustained joke, wherein we are asked to believe that someone with the charisma and stature of Vanessa Redgrave (playing Agatha Christie) can manage to hide herself away in a health spa without anyone noticing--and she pulls it off, too. Even more unlikely, she makes us believe she can be attracted to Dustin Hoffman (never an obvious romantic choice), perhaps even fall in love with him, that he is in fact worthy of her considerable attention.

We see her here and there, once in a while, and it's never enough. A haunting Ruth Wilcox in James Ivory's Howard's End ((1992), an amusingly bitchy Max (short for Maxine) in Brian De Palma's Mission Impossible (1996). She even contributed a vast amount of gravitas and conviction to the ending of Joe Wright's Atonement (2007)--more than it deserved, I thought, because the whole movie was essentially a fraud.

She's still doing it, still turning sows' ears into silk purses. In Gary Winick's Letters to Juliet a young girl named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) travels to Verona on her honeymoon and is promptly abandoned by her restaurateur husband Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is pursuing various wine and cheese suppliers. Left with nothing else to do, Sophie chances upon The Juliet Club, a group of 'secretaries' who answer letters written to Juliet. Sophie herself finds and answers a letter written years before, in 1957, by a young English girl named Claire; seems she had abandoned Lorenzo, the love of her life, because she was afraid to commit to him as a girl of fifteen. Imagine Sophie's surprise to find the fifteen-year-old has grown into a graceful grandmother (Redgrave) who has come to Verona (thanks to Sophie's letter) with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) to look for her lost Lorenzo. Claire invites Sophie along for the ride, and Sophie gladly accepts; she's intrigued by Claire, the same time she's irritated by Claire's stuffed cabbage of a son Charlie, who disapproves of all this 'long-lost love' foolishness (far as he's concerned there's only one man for his grandmother, who died years ago).

Redgrave takes what is essentially a plot function and brings it to warm, breathing life. Her Claire has seen years of suffering; you see it on her careworn face, her at times tired expression, her often calm blue gaze. At the same time she hasn't given up on the possibilities that life offers; when she flashes that million-watt smile, you know she's up for some naughtiness, if there's any to be had. She definitely hasn't lost her sense of humor--when the group meets an especially decrepit Lorenzo (the computer threw up over seventy of them in all), she has the alarmed-yet-delighted look of a sister trying to tiptoe away from a sorority prank gone wrong.

As for the rest of the movie--forget about it. Gary Winick directs by the numbers, though he does have the sense to hire Marco Pontecorvo (son of legendary filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo) to shoot the various gorgeous Veronan and Tuscan landscapes (I've got a theory about Italian cinematographers: that they basically set up their cameras and lights all morning, break off at noon, take long, leisurely lunches till around four in the afternoon, when the day has entered its magic hour--when sunlight is at its most beautiful--which is why their films look so ravishing. That, or they smear extra-virgin olive oil on their lenses). Seyfried has huge eyes and pretty lashes to bat over them, but she's paired with Egan's Charlie, who is what can only be charitably called a wet noodle, and you know he's a wet noodle because (please skip the rest of this and all of the next paragraph if you plan to see the picture) when she's dumping Victor and Gael Garcia Bernal puts on a hangdog look, he's so expressively pathetic you wish she'd dump Charlie instead (Yes, her fiancee ignored her throughout the picture but--look at him! Those pouting lips, the sad, Spaniel eyes!). Victor is so passionate about his wines and cheeses you know he'd be a good match for Sophie who, at least in my book, has a bigger, hairier pair than Charlie.

Of course Claire finds her Lorenzo, and of course he'll turn out to be Franco Nero (Redgrave's own long-lost lover--they secretly married, after years of separation, in 2006), and of course he'll be riding a white horse (whiskey commercials, anyone?), but even with this cornball moment Redgrave finds the truth in her character--half a minute before, while Lorenzo was riding up, Claire is caught in a fit of panic, and begs to be taken away. “He knew me when I was a girl of fifteen!” she says, terrified of the enormity of the moment, and we're both enthralled and terrified with her, hearts racing in time with his approaching gallop. One wishes Redgrave had a more productive career--she hasn't really worked with a lot of great directors, or done that many great films, she's really made more of a mark on the stage than on the big screen--but we're grateful for what we have gotten so far, even this deeply heartfelt performance in a nothing of a movie. 

First published in Businessworld, 6.17.2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009)

Tattoo you

Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (from the novel by Stieg Larsson) isn't bad; if anything, it's the best example I've seen recently of the by-now ridiculous serial-killer genre.

I like the strong feminist context. I like it that Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is the real protagonist, both confronting and chasing after the killer, and that journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is mostly a Boy Friday, providing access and information (and the occasional late-night boinking, with Lisbeth firmly on top), by film's end acting as Dude in Distress for Lisbeth to rescue.

I like the way Oplev instills a chilly mood to the film--the ever-pervasive sense of cold; the dark mood, even in broad daylight (Thanks to Jens Fischer and Eric Kress); the ominous music (Jacob Groth). 

As for the rape scenes--understand that Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) is basically a foreshadowing of the evil yet to come, but the actual assaults are so extended and so intensely staged and acted they tend to upend everything that follows. There could be a rational for this--to suggest how frightening a character could be, have him (or her) do something frightening right off; then you can have the audience flinch at the sight of him for the rest of the picture. But Bjurman is not the killer, and his story only has a thematic and not direct relationship with the main plotline; we basically have a subplot that's taken over the picture, in terms of tone and impact.

To be fair (skip the next three paragraphs if you plan to see the picture) when you do meet the killer, he's chillingly matter-of-fact. Bjurman is all sweaty eagerness; the actual killer has the calm and confidence of a practiced veteran (that little business about the glass of water is brilliant). More, he sounds and looks reasonable; you have to think his words through to realize he's a sociopath, and (most disturbing of all) some of the things he says reflects what some politicians, in the United States and in Europe, are saying nowadays. 

Larsson is an outspoken liberal; he writes (or wrote--the manuscripts were submitted shortly before his death at the age of 44) on the side of the angels, and there's a righteous liberal fury burning away at the heart of his story. But he tends to go soft sometimes; you can tell from the climactic chase between Lisbeth and the killer that he wants to absolve her from any irredeemable wrongdoing, that he's basically preparing her for the sequels to come (there are two more books, in fact).

And Larsson tends to paint with a broad brush. If we are to believe him, every powerful man is a potential if not actual rapist and possible serial killer; of the family of Vangers, three are Nazi sympathizers (funny the women are briefly but never seriously considered suspects--the novel's title actually translates as "Man Who Hates Women"). Ultimate evil is a soundproofed basement, and a man rich enough and intelligent enough to indulge his hobbies for decades without giving himself away.

I don't quite subscribe to that; Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer points to a more persuasive villain, one that can't be as easily attacked by a golf club or a laptop computer, though perhaps at best you can uncover an operation or two--try, anyway. Oplev does well with what he's got but in my book Polanski does more, with less. No need for rapes or soundproofed basements--the violations are more insidious, more metaphysical, and the secrets kept hidden under a more secure set of locks and keys. 

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)

Kiddie gloves


(Just in time for Father's Day, a little skit about Toy Story 3.

Scene: Dad and son, coming out of the multiplex)

D: So?

S: Huh?

D: So how'd you like the movie?

S: It's okay.

D: It's okay? What do you mean?

S: I mean 'it's okay.' It didn't suck. What do you want me to say?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Girl on a Train (Andre Techine, 2009)

For the 15th French Film Festival:

Sweet little lies

Sometimes it's less frustrating, if not actually useful to describe a Techine film by what it's not. Based on what happened in 2004 to Marie-Leonie Leblanc, whose account of an anti-Semitic attack by six men of African origins touched off an international media firestorm, Techine's 2009 picture is not an analysis of the gullibility of politicians and the press, or of their eagerness to make political hay out of a lurid hate-crime story. Later it turned out that Leblanc was making it all up in a confused attempt to attract attention--but this film isn't about the accuser's reasons for fabricating the story, either. It's not some troubled-youth drama, meant to show us how clueless and confused our kids are--we do see and on some level sympathize with their confusion, but the film is playing a much more complex game than that.

The film is divided into two parts: “Circumstance” and “Consequence.” In the first half we're introduced to two families, the first of which is the Jewish Bleisteins headed by old Samuel (Michel Blanc), Samuel's son Alex (Matheiu Demy), Alex's wife Judith (Ronit Elkabetz) and Alex and Judith's son Nathan (Jeremy Quaegebeur); the second is made up of Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne, who memorably played the eponymous role in the Dardannes brothers' 1999 Rosetta) and Louise (Catherine Deneuve sans a celebrity's usual glamor accoutrements).

Though we come to know a bit about everyone, “Circumstance” is mostly Jeanne's story. She meets Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a slightly disreputable champion wrestler with sleep-deprived eyes (it's the eyes that mark him as somewhat scary--you wonder what he's seen that has deprived him of so much sleep); she moves in with him, something goes badly wrong, and Jeanne is left alone and rejected. She takes up scissors, a knife, a marker pen, and starts working on herself.

“Consequences” expands on the results of Jeanne's act--the Bleisteins come to take over center stage, thanks to an appeal from Louise (Samuel long ago had a serious crush on her). The aging patriarch takes mother and daughter over to live with his family at their country home; ideally I'd say “and now things start to get interesting” only they don't--Techine has managed to maintain interest from the start, and does so with seemingly effortlessness.

It's not social observation, it's not melodrama condemning one side or another. One thinks of Jean Renoir's films, where “everyone has their reasons;” one also thinks of John Hughes' films which, as a critic once put it, reveals a filmmaker “spookily into kids”--a filmmaker with rapport and empathy and insight into how youths act and talk. Techine has a voice--or sensibility--all his own, though. He likes to use handheld footage, but not (as is usually done with handheld) to create a point-of-view shot or give his film a sense of cinema verite a la the Dardennes. He likes to stitch together shots of Jeanne walking, rollerblading, sitting in a hurtling train--trying, I think, to emulate the pace of Jeanne's life, over the trajectory of the film. At first she's just moving--towards what destination or what purpose, who knows; Franck has to chase her, to match her headlong speed before he can catch up with her, possess her. Later the traveling shots come to suggest that Jeanne's life is moving a bit too fast for her, somewhat out-of-control; when at one point she's locked into a cell, the pause or stability this moment represents actually comes off as a kind of relief.

Jeanne manages to hit the pause” button in earlier scenes, and in one of the film's most startling passages, it's when she sits in front of her laptop, sending images to Franck. The way Techine angles his camera there are times when the laptop's frame is completely obscured, and it's as if the two were in the same room, physically facing each other half-naked--when Techine cuts to another angle it's clear they're still before their respective laptops. Without using a line of dialogue Techine suggests the intimacy these two feel, gives one a taste of the flavor of their relationship.

You see Techine building up his sketches of people this way--not so much through dialogue as through spatial relationships, movement and posture. Judith either walks ahead of or lags behind Alex; Louise sits at a street bench, surreptitiously watching Samuel from the corner of one eye (they act like clandestine lovers at a secret tryst); Jeanne puts her head on Nathan's shoulder, and he visibly stiffens, startled and dismayed at the trust she has suddenly put on him.

I'd mentioned John Hughes earlier, and in fact Jeanne and Nathan's situation bears a striking resemblance to Samantha and The Geek in Hughes' teen comedy Sixteen Candles. Granted, Hughes' movie is ostensibly funnier, but it's often funny through cheap shots, the kind kids might rather see (the jabs at elderly relatives seemed distasteful while Long Duk Dong is practically a racist caricature). It's not entirely a youth film, though; Techine's understanding of Louise as a harried mother and Samuel as a weary but sane lawyer helps balance out the film.

Techine's film comes off as plain and direct, as truth; what happens between Jeanne and Nathan, between Jeanne and Franck, between Louise and Samuel, between Alex and Judith all have the complicated fascination of real people making a real effort to make sense of each other, to strike some kind of accommodation and live with each other (or not--you wonder how much ball-busting one needs to drive a man all the way to China). It's not always grim realism--some of Judith's barbed responses to Alex's sarcasm are laugh-out-loud funny, and when Nathan is exiled to his 'den' (a small shack in the woods complete with laptop) his expression of dejection is priceless. What happens in this film feels very much like life, in effect, though with a grace and visual beauty one can only find in art. Wonderful film.

First published on Businessworld, 6.10.10

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Talking about Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976)

Nora Aunor in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos

I came, I saw, I answered questions.

I was at the 2010 New York Filipino Film Festival  where festival organizers Vincent Nebrida and Jojo De Vera were kind enough to allow me to introduce Mario O'Hara's masterpiece Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), and then talk about it afterward, in a Q & A session. 

Looking at it closely, I could have done a few things better--practice my hand gestures (seems to me that I count things off as if I were the Elephant Man), maybe practice my pronunciation on a few words and names. Could have been more careful to avoid repeating myself, maybe even throw in a few more fresh ideas. Ah, well, I think they enjoyed it--at least, I hope they did. 

For those able to make it, check out the rest of the week--some good films there, almost all but some of the older (Tawag ng Tanghalang being one of them) films subtitled. I recommend all the films, and have written about a few: Bona, Concerto, Kaleldo and Manoro

Tetro (Francis Coppola, 2009)


Bohemian rhapsody

Tetro (2009) is the first Francis Coppola film I've seen in years, and it seems  clear Coppola has not forgotten how to make films. It's beautifully shot and lit, with the deep shadows and dramatic pools of light found on the opera stage, only in black and white (Can you imagine opera in black and white--how it must look and sound and, above all, feel?). The detail and texture of the cinematography belies its digital origins--if this is digital cinema, analog cinema has less and less reason to consider itself superior.

Strangely enough, for someone who started out writing for Roger Corman (The Haunted Palace (1963)), went on to win an Academy Award for his clever screenplay for Franklin J. Schaffner's 1970 Patton (clever in that it allowed you to both condemn Patton as paranoid warmonger and praise him as geopolitical maverick, whichever your preference) then went on to write his first two Godfather movies and The Conversation (1974), Coppola's scripts have often been the weakest element in his films. Perhaps not in the case of The Godfather films--the first was a model of film adaptation, the second an imaginative extension of themes put out in the first.

At this point, I have a confession to make: familiarity has not made the heart fonder of Coppola's most famous pair. I like them, think they're excellently done, but can't consider them absolute greats anymore--my heart now no longer races when I glimpse the TV screen and it happens to be showing the scene where Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) teaches Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, oh so very young) how to cook proper spaghetti: “You start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; you make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. And a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar, and that's my trick."

Despite my Godfather apathy, I'd like to nominate that as one of the greatest cooking scenes in all of cinema. Simple recipe, delicious, wonderfully representative of what the film is like and all about--basic (garlic fried in oil), practical (meatballs, sausage), not adverse to a touch of decadence (wine, sugar), and all about family (“you never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday”). Clemenza does it all on-camera, right in front of your eyes, in real time (let's see James Cameron pull something like that out of his ass without reaching for a digicam).

Tetro is also about family--it even has a patriarch figure haunting the margins of the film, in the guise of Carlo Tetrocini (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a celebrated composer, and father of both Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Bennie's run away from military school, and has temporarily fetched up at Tetro's apartment to rest and presumably recover his bearings; Tetro with all his problems is hardly any help. He's an aspiring novelist who walked away from his father and has since lived a life of unfulfilled ambition, writing reportedly brilliant plays that “have no ending,” in a crabbed, near-indecipherable handwriting he shows to no one (shades of Charles Crumb, there).

If writing seems to be Coppola's Achilles' heel nowadays, casting is a pillar of a strength--Ehreneich and Gallo are wonderful together as brothers, one all dewy and innocent, the other all twisted anguish. Gallo, famous for his controversial projects (The Brown Bunny, (2003)) brings the right amount of passion and guilt and charm to the role--whenever Benny comes close to penetrating his secret or reading one of his hidden manuscripts, Tetro blows up and starts pushing people around; after he's offended everyone in sight he's all hangdog, begging for forgiveness; one only has to think “art film director” and his eccentric behavior is entirely believable. Tetro in effect is a monster of a brother, impossible to live with yet impossible not to care about--perhaps Ehrenreich's best achievement is in convincing us that he has enough love in him to want to care for Tero, flaws and all. Maribel Verdu is all angles, a charming, sharp-chinned beauty, but given little to do beyond being a nurturing mother figure (Tetro being her full-time spoiled brat of a charge); more intriguing is Carmen Saura as Alone, a prominent theater critic who can make or break Tetro's stalled career--there's a playful tension in her scenes with Tetro that suggest cat and mouse, Mephisto and Faust.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman (1951) is quoted extensively here; there's the image of the clockwork girl disassembled--but beyond a rivalry between Tetro and his father for a girl's affections (hence possibly the image of a woman disassembled), women aren't really crucial to this story. A more useful predecessor is Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), where the father's presence looms over the brothers' psychological landscape, warping their development and relationship together. If Tetro's a monster, in effect, that's because his dad was monstrous too.

But that's subtext; unfortunately Coppola doesn't provide much more in terms of normal, aboveboard text. The film rambles, is ruinously self-indulgent (you need not just an Introduction to Cinema but a detailed dossier on Coppola's life to capture all the in-jokes), and meanders more than marches to its mildly startling revelation. Is Coppola of The Godfather back? Has he made a solidly entertaining film? No and no though to be fair I'm not sure he wants to (come back and make mere entertainment, I mean). He's doing personal films again, and the opportunity has re-vitalized him; there are pleasures to be had here, more for the eye than ear.

A fifteen million dollar independent production from a former major director, about two brothers and their domineering father. A hard sell, even if you mention the “R” rating. Perhaps what this picture really needs, after all is said and done is a scene where someone explains his culinary secrets to a young gun, the enticing results poured out onto your plate in a cloud of steam. If not--if a hot spaghetti recipe isn't needed to rock your world--then bon appetit.

The DVD:

The DVD is handsomely produced, with the sound in particular capturing Walter Murch's (a crucial Coppola collaborator)  design, down to the moth wings plinking against a light bulb. Coppola's commentary is crammed with anecdotes and personal reminiscence (the film might actually be better listening to him instead of the dialogue). Four behind-the-scenes featurettes round out the special features.

First published on Businessworld, 5.27.10

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years without God) and I in NY!

Mario O'Hara's masterpiece Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) will be screened on June 12, 6.15 pm at the 2010 New York Filipino Film Festival in The Producers' Club Theater, 358 W. 44th St. bet. 8th and 9th Ave, New York, NY. 

It's projected video, with no subtitles and I haven't the slightest idea what aspect ratio they're using...but there is only one print of this film left on earth and it'll be a cold day in hell before they run that one decaying print through a projector. If you want to see this film on the big screen, this is probably your one and only chance.

And by way of inducement (hopefully), I'll be there to introduce the film, and talk about it afterward. I don't know about doing benshi service--I'm already helping two other people out by translating the dialogue to them--but if you like, let me know and we'll try work something out.

See you there!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Filipino films in Brazil; Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009); The World (Jia Zhang Ke, 2004)

Filipino films in Brazil!

From June 9 to June 27 in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and Brazilia, there will be a showcase of Philippine Cinema, both classical and new,which will include essays by yours truly and by oggsmoggs. If you happen to be in Brazil--check it out! Or click on those links for details.

Raising rugrats

Vincenzo Natali's Splice (2009) is all about the horrors of genetic manipulation and surprise, surprise, it's pretty good. The first ten or so minutes can be pretty murky as Natali gives us a brief precis of the ins and outs of private scientific funding--it's good, but it isn't exactly stuff that will keep us awake at night (or it should--research on possible cures for genetic disorders is shelved in favor of a growth protein for plant crops--but doesn't).

What might keep us awake are the consequences resulting from reckless experimentation by two scientists, Clive and Elsa (yeah, yeah, I know--the first names of two actors involved in what in my opinion is the greatest horror film ever made, not to mention a direct commentary and major influence on this picture). Clive and Elsa find themselves caring for a creature that looks something like a cross between an albino seal and a chicken, and run the gamut of nightmarish parenting experience from fussy eater to sudden chills and fever--anyone and everyone who has ever handled a child will be nodding their heads in recognition. 

The 'child,' now called Dren (their corporate name said backwards), grows up to be a slim young woman, beautiful and repulsive and graceful and awkward at the same time--yes it's that stage of growth, folks, the dreaded teen years, when hormones run wild and your gangly little girl will grow up in all kinds of startling, sometimes downright bizarre, ways.

I especially like the dynamic built into the script: Elsa initiates the whole thing, locking Clive out and having her own way with the fetus in the privacy of their work lab (Clive all the while pounding at the door and yelling impotently); when the child is 'born' Elsa is the nurturing mother, all coos and delight, while Clive stands back, resentful and even, at times, openly hostile. When the little chicken grows into a gangly and later strangely graceful young girl, roles are reversed: this time it's Elsa that feels threatened and Clive that steps forward to offer Dren advice and support. 

One appreciates the fact that Natali doesn't go for the cheap scare, the easy gross-out; if frightening and horrifying things happen (and they do), it's for a reason, it's because Dren (and even Clive and Elsa) are following their biological instincts, indulging in everything from power struggle to sexual play to the need to reproduce, to spread one's progeny. 

Natali has a gift for showing the occasional startling image--Dren, for example, hanging upside-down like a great albino bat; or Dren's face looking up through murky water, not a bubble issuing from her nose.

This sort of biological horror has been done before, of course, and better--David Lynch played on our fears of childrearing with his Eraserhead (at one point, Dren does resemble the horrifyingly smooth and gleaming monster child in Lynch's film). David Cronenberg has made the genre of gynecological horror his own, and one can see what part or stage of development in Dren was inspired by what Cronenberg film--the bag containing the fetus, for one (The Brood), the potent stinger with its venom that seems to induce some kind of anaphylactic shock (Rabid); even the gradual development of Dren according to some haphazardly created mutation process (The Fly).

Natali does his best, but he doesn't quite have Cronenberg's ability to give his monsters that quality of wrongfulness, that same sense of shame--one might call Cronenberg horror cinema's first (or at least finest) pornographer, his camera functioning as an unflinching record of the obscenities the human genital (male, female) is capable of producing (or reproducing). That said, Natali's film is a welcome minor addition to the genre.

Beijing Disneyland

Jia Zhang Ke's Shijie (The World, 2004) might have been the template on which Greg Mottola's 2009 comedy Adventureland (a movie I liked) was based. Both are about young men and women working in a theme park, both are basically love stories set in an unusual and metaphorically rich location, only with Shijie Jia captures an entire social movement--the migration of provincial workers to China's urban centers (in this case, the Fengtai district of Beijing)--while Mottola confines himself to the summer employment activities of high school graduates. There is a love story in both pictures, only in Shijie it's told in a considerably quieter, grittier manner, with fidelity to the way young men and women actually talk to each other, and with far less attention paid to the audiences' presumably brief attention span 

Adventureland is basically an entertainment, a teen movie that takes off on the idea that the backstage shenanigans in an amusement park are themselves a source of amusement. Jia's intentions for Shijie seem to be considerably more ambitious: the park stands for the freedom the people in the film strive for but never quite achieve; at the same time, at some level, the park also stands for the world--a considerably diminished world, a world where its wonders have been transplanted, their magic miniaturized and sanitized for safe-as-houses entertainment. 

And yet, and yet--various park attractions afford Jia the opportunity to play global traveler, to create odd juxtapositions and bizarre effects. The Eiffel Tower--at a third of its real height, the tallest single structure in the park--looms over all, from the rocks of Stonehenge to the Pyramids of Giza to the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth) in Rome; St. Peter's Basilica rises to roughly man height, its colonnades welcoming inch-high pygmies (you imagine) into its all-encompassing arms; New York's Twin Towers stand proud and defiant, as if miraculously resurrected by the park's creators. This in effect is Jia's final paradox--that this film, so critical of globalization, is also a celebration of that same globe, of the world and all its wonders, and that there is magic and enchantment a-plenty, if only the people wandering amongst them could but see it. 

Two 'Titanic' films

A Titanic film and a titanic film

Was looking at Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember (1958) again and thinking: this is so much better than James Cameron's version it isn't even funny.

Granted Cameron has access to more up-to-date data, and that Night does not include the latest scenario, of the Titanic breaking up before diving to the ocean deep--that's dependent on current knowledge, which changes all the time, almost every day. And, in fact, more recent evidence suggests that the sinking as depicted in Cameron's picture isn't as accurate as he likes to think it is.  

What I remember best from Baker's film is what I think truly matters about the Titanic's story--that the true protagonist isn't the ship, or a pair of star-crossed teenagers, it's the society in all its levels and complexity, reacting as best it can, in its blinkered way, to implacable Nature. 

It's the upper class passengers, noting in their clipped accents the various failures of the service in the face of general disaster; it's the smiling couple that bravely decides that, since he's not going, she shouldn't be either. It's the ship's crew doing the best they can, rightly or wrongly, smartly or stupidly, according to their particular gifts and circumstances--I'm thinking of Lightoller insisting that women and children board first; and later, of Lightoller organizing the men so that they can keep their precarious balance on an upside-down boat. I'm also thinking of the Chief Baker getting drunk as the ship sinks, and the Quartermaster insisting that their lifeboat not go back to rescue passengers struggling in the water--that they essentially leave those people there to die, screaming. 

I'm thinking of a young man in steerage looking brightly back at the young girl looking at him, both sporting strange Eastern European accents (funny, if you closed your eyes while watching the film you can pretty much tell if you're on First Class or steerage from the accents); I'm thinking of third-class passengers rushing like a stampeding herd at the lifeboats, and earlier of the same people shut up behind accordion gates and told they had to wait while the boat sinks. 

It's a complex, nuanced view of that society, warts and all, and a fine example of the intricacies of class obligation (not just from the genteel folk but from the ship's crew and even steerage), of acting out the dynamics of that obligation, in a world about ready to turn such obligations obsolete. Before World War I would set a match to the structure of traditional world society, the Titanic was already tilting complacency and smug assumptions forward, to send them crashing into the far end of the dining hall. As Michael Sragow points out in his excellent Criterion essay, Carol Reed tilted his camera to present a skewed vision of the world; Baker with giant hydraulic jacks tilted his world--his steel-plated, seagoing world--to achieve a similar effect, with the noted bonus that set as it was lifted by jacks groaned much in the way the actual ship groaned, audibly suffering from the undue stress.

The filmmakers of Night spent $1.68 million in 1958 dollars (roughly 9.37 million in 1997 dollars); Cameron spent $200 million 1997 dollars on his oversized bathtub movie--the last word in large-scale filmmaking at the time (if you don't account for Cameron's own follow-up, the 2009 Avatar ($237 million), Joseph Mankiewicz's 1963 Cleopatra ($44 million at the time of release, $300 million now) or Sergei Bondarchuk's 1967 War and Peace ($100 million at the time of release, $700 million today)). It's a lovingly detailed production, from the stained-glass ceiling on the forward Grand Staircase to the delicate bone-white china ordered exclusively for the ship; no expense was spared to make the props and sets as realistic, as impeccably and unquestionably authentic as possible (even the ship's sinking is based on the latest research, and on Cameron's own dives into the actual wreck). 

Why oh why, with all that money and time and effort expended, did Cameron cook up a sticky love story between steerage-class Jack (Leonard DiCaprio) with his social-climbing aspirations and upper-class ninny Rose (Kate Winslet) with her suicidal tendencies? Why are all the first-class passengers arrogant, self-centered twits (Kathy Bates' Molly Brown being the sole and lonely exception) while everyone from third class is the salt o' the earth? Why is the putative villain of the picture, Billy Zane's Cal Hockley, such an irredeemable cad he's only a mustache-twirl away from being an upper-class cartoon (not a big fan of the upper classes, but watching this even I'm embarrassed for them)? Has anyone noticed that Cameron is often his own worst enemy when it comes to scripts or to characterizing the opposition, and that perhaps the single most halfway compelling antagonist he's created in his career is a half-robot with an Austrian accent?

It's a weird effect. Cameron takes you down Titanic's deck and your breath is taken away by the gleam of all that polished wood, the feathery brightness of all that white lace. Then Cal speaks in total earnest: "There's nothing I couldn't give you. There's nothing I'd deny you if you won't deny me. Open your heart to me, Rose."

That's when they love each other; when they fight it's worse. Rose: "I am not a foreman in one of your mills that you can command. I am your fiancĂ©e." Cal: "Yes, you are, and my wife. My wife in practice if not yet by law, so you will honor me. You will honor me the way a wife is required to honor a husband. Because I will not be made a fool, Rose. Is this in any way unclear?" 

Oh, melodrama. It's a wonder that Billy Zane's jaw didn't fall off mouthing those lines, and that he didn't pick up the jaw and whack Cameron upside the head with it. 

Of course, that's nothing compared to some of the dialogue the lovers have to mouth: "Where to, miss?" "To the stars. Put your hands on me, Jack." The older Rose, reflecting on Jack, has some of the worse lines: "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets. But now you all know there was a man named Jack Dawson, and that he saved me in every way that a person can be saved." That's superb writing in a '70s porno--more appropriate in one, too. 

And--as a Filipina scriptwriter (a far better one than Cameron, in my opinion) has pointed out to me--just why did Jack Dawson sacrifice his noble self? So that Rose can live a basically selfish life, indulging in extreme sports (Cameron's a big fan), all fun and adventure all the time?  When the treasure hunters who spent time and effort and money made it clear to her that they're looking for an oversized hunk of overpriced zirconium, does she tell them where it is? No--she was raised a spoiled brat with romantic notions on life, and many years later she's still spoiled, still a brat, still indulging her romantic notions on life. 

Seems to me Cameron was missing something when he made this movie: a sense of proportion. I suspect he lost it years ago, during the filming of Aliens, and never found it since. A pity, because that's a crucial skill for an artist, the ability to stand back and realize when something's not enough or too much; without this, Cameron's basically a ringmaster, cobbling together spectacles for the consumption of the masses. Has he earned millions from his superproductions? I hope so; it's poor consolation for the fact that he's basically making junk, cheesy junk at that, but it'll do till he finally does something really significant.