Friday, May 25, 2012

The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, 2010)

Sleeping beautifully, too

Catherine Breillat's The Sleeping Beauty is her version of the Charles Perrault fairy tale, a radically different but no less fascinating take from Julia Leigh's 2011 debut feature of the same name.

Her tale begins literally at the beginning, with the child Anastasia's umbilical cord cut by the evil fairy. The three good fairies come running after; “we lost track of time,” they offer by way of explanation. “You're scatterbrained,” the evil fairy informs them. By way of amends, the good fairies attempt to offset the evil fairy's curse with their own spells. “The princess won't die--she'll just fall asleep for a hundred years,” offers one; “I can make the princess wander in her sleep,” offers another; “I can make her pierce her hand when she's six and wake up a hundred years later age sixteen.” When they look at her like she's an idiot, she explains thusly: “childhood takes too long.” Julia Leigh's version isn't straightforward funny like this one--its humor is more deadpan surreal--but Breillat's wears its fizziness on its sleeve, saving the fangs and poisoned thorns for later.

The resulting child is not, to put it mildly, quite that normal. Anastasia (the enchantingly willful Carla Besnainou) calls herself 'Vladimir' and declares herself a tomboy; one wonders at the Slavic names, the tree-climbing, the language (mother speaks to grandmother in subtitled Russian)--are they alluding to Tchaikovsky's ballet? The Romanovs' mysterious daughter, who also had a penchant for tree-climbing? When her hand is wounded at age six she is transported (past a giant covered with boils) from the early 19th century to what looks like modern day, complete with contemporary trains and houses. She stays with kind-hearted Peter (Kerian Mayan) and his mother, and for a time lives a fairly happy life--when Peter shows her a queen bee too fat with royal jelly to move, she cries, afraid to be (like the bee) a prisoner of her own weight; Peter hugs and promises to protect her.

As with any fairy tale, matters can only remain happy at tale's end, not its middle; A splinter of ice presumably from the Snow Queen (Romane Portail, imperious in her furs and gemstone-encrusted breast) lands on Peter's eye, causing him to see all things as ugly, all people as grotesque; he insults his mother, and drives Anastasia to tears, repeatedly. Peter's mother has a different explanation for what's happening, though no less truthful: “You're at that awkward age (We later see Anastasia reading from a textbook the definition of puberty)!" From Perrault's tale Breillat has shifted gears to tell a more modern, more nakedly emotional one--Hans Christian Andersen's “The Snow Queen.” Peter climbs into the Queen's sled, which takes him away; Anastasia leaves home (she seems to have largely forgotten her royal origins) to look for him.

Additional adventures, each more picaresque and colorful than the last--a train station managed by a dwarf and a mannequin; an albino prince and princess, eating rainbow meringue; a trip across snowy wastelands on a sled pulled by a reindeer, the sky lit by curtains of green light; a robber princess (Luna Charpentier), about the same age as Anastasia, as eager to slit her throat as play with her. Anastasia's adventures, we come to realize, have been defined by the women at the film's beginning--the evil fairy with her curse; the first good fairy with her sleep spell; the second with her qualification that the sleep be filled with dreams (and what dreams!). You can pretty much define a fairy tale from all the conditions imposed: conflict (the curse), contrivance (sleep instead of death, dreams instead of just sleep). As for the third--

The third's spell reveals to us the final element of a bona-fide fairy tale--it must have an end. Anastasia (the awkwardly beautiful Julia Artamonov), now sixteen, comes crashing down in the twenty-first century. Doesn't seem like one at first (like a crash, I mean); first she meets Johan (David Chausse), Peter's great-grandson, and with the castle she has slept in for a hundred years as backdrop they flirt. He makes for a wonderful partner, playful and patient and gentle; she in turn is an ardent student, hungry to learn. Later, she has a reunion with her robber-princess friend (now played by Rhizlaine El Cohen), and the robber-princess is the first (not Johan) to initiate Anastasia into the mysteries of carnal pleasure.

Then--listless orgies, violent quarrels, ennui, nihilism, despair. The film pretty much ends up like a--well, like a regular Breillat film, complete with torn fishnet stockings. Breillat's cheerfully vigorous fairy-tale of a film wakes up to the grim reality of modern-day France, magic wands and pixie dust all gone.

How does this compare with Leigh's later version? Emily Browning is breathtakingly beautiful, but Artamonov has a firmer hold on your sympathies, as you've followed her adventures since childhood. Aside from the humor, which this film wears more nakedly on its sleeve, and the eroticism, which has a lovely fairy-tale aura, Breillat's take is more forthright with its ideas, more openly playful with them; Leigh's version is an exquisitely carved cameo that you gaze at, fascinated, trying to winkle out its mysteries. Leigh's take on men is equally ambivalent, if not a little sympathetic; Breillat, like a child, sets you straight about them--they're not to be trusted. Seek the arms of another woman first, if you must seek knowledge and experience.

No wonder audiences for this film were so angry, critics especially: Breillat for the umpteenth time has refused to play by anyone's rules, meet anyone's expectations, kneel down or bend over for anyone's viewing pleasure. Talk about a Grimm fairy tale, this one captures the brothers' unflinchingly violent, folksily humorous, casually fabulist tone. 

First published in Businessworld, 5.17.12 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011)

Sleeping beautifully

Australian Julia Leigh's debut feature Sleeping Beauty (2011) is the furthest possible take one can imagine on the classic 1697 French fairy tale "La Belle au bois dormant" by Charles Perrault, and on the magnificent 1959 animated version of said tale by Walt Disney (easily one of the handful of features the studio made whose visual grandeur--it was shot in Super Technirama 70, took eight years to produce, six years to animate in a distinctly elongated Gothic style--mostly overwhelms the standard Disney house tone of namby-pamby wholesomeness). This film is closer (closer, not necessarily close) in spirit and tone to Catherine Breillat's 2010 digital film, with the most significant difference being a kinky twist to the story inspired by a 1961 Japanese novella by Yasunari Kawabata.

It starts (unlike the two other versions) in modern day, introducing Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student struggling to keep above water financially--she works in a sterile office doing photocopying, waitresses part-time in a cafe, and on occasion volunteers sex in a high class bar (whether she goes through with it or not isn't clear). Eventually she answers a newspaper ad, and finds herself being interviewed by Clara (Rachael Blake). The job offered is decidedly decadent: she is to attend a formal-wear dinner serving wine in snow-white lingerie (that complements her equally pale skin), with lipstick that matches exactly (and this Clara explicitly specifies) the color of her labia.

The pay apparently is very good; Lucy returns seeking more work, and over tea Clara informs her that if she consents (and here's where the Kawabata story comes in), she will be given a powerful narcotic which will put her to sleep, be laid in a large bed where a client will be allowed to do everything and anything to her except penetrate her vaginally.

The sessions are the heart of the film, with Lucy's body often shot head-on, the feet towards the camera, the image striking in its symmetry yet with a tone of unsettling serenity. The clients respond in a variety of ways--one licks her face, another drags her off the bed. There's more, but easily the most disturbing reaction comes from one client who sits at the foot of the bed opposite Clara and tells her (while Lucy sleeps on) a long, rambling story that concludes with him despairingly saying he is all “broken bones.” It's a moment of emotional nakedness, and one can't help but think it's Leigh's way of making the character more sympathetic, which one initially resists--why would anyone want to feel sympathy towards this wealthy pervert?

One is compelled to do so. Stripped, the men reveal themselves to be a sad contrast to Lucy's gracefully perfect form. Oh, some of them show signs of good maintenance--some muscle definition here, there--but on the whole you can see where the sand has slipped, you see the pathos of their tiny phalluses, hanging limply over their shriveled scrotum sacs.

There's more. Lucy on occasion shows up in what looks like a research lab where a scientist takes a tube with a balloon attached and slides it down her throat (the researcher is possibly conducting a procedure called esophageal manometry, where the balloon measures the strength of the esophagus' contracting muscles); at one point Lucy sarcastically calls him “Dr. Frankenstein”--but why submit to these tests? They're apparently paid for--Lucy signs what looks like a waiver, and collects a yellow envelope that possibly contains money--but all that discomfort repeated (she does this several times) seems to indicate more than just a need for money. A masochistic enjoyment of choking? An unanswered desire for penance? A flirtation with the researcher (judging from their interaction, unlikely). Perhaps a combination of all three?

Even more puzzling is her relationship with a man called Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a lethargic, despairing man who seems attracted to Lucy and grateful for her impromptu visits; conversely Lucy seems happier and more relaxed with him than with anyone else in the film--she casually agrees to his request to get married (nothing seems to come out of this) and, deadpan, serves him a bowl of cereal with vodka poured on top.

Later we meet a man who seems to know both Birdmann and Lucy from way back--an old friend, kind of. I say 'kind of' because when Lucy throws him the question Birdmann used to throw at her--“will you marry me?”--the man starts verbally abusing her.

Who is he to her? Who is Birdmann to her? Why does Lucy go to that lab? Leigh hangs these enigmatic (sometimes comically so) details like so many Christmas ornaments on the central fablelike mystery of Lucy lying asleep--what drives her to do this? She gets paid well--but for a whole night? And doing God knows what? Why do the men do what they do? That first client gives us an oblique clue (as a hedge against entropy and despair), but Leigh seems to hint at more--there's something primal, something powerful in the image of these wrinkled old creatures hovering like vampires over this helpless girl. Possibly Leigh wants to evoke a sense of mortality as opposed to renewal, of flesh corrupted by time lying side-by-side with the miracle of this timeless, ethereal beauty and her breathtakingly smooth skin.

One isn't quite sure what Leigh is getting at--whether she's attempting to say something specific, or simply creating a mood, a feeling. She seems to be a talented imagemaker who knows how to borrow eclectically--the decadence of the dinner scene is possibly inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini's magisterially malevolent Salo (1975); the old men in bed with her seem to recall the erotic, deadpan comical surrealism of Luis Bunuel (I'm thinking Belle de Jour (1967)); the overall fairytale ambiance, however, seems all her own. Fascinating debut film--can she manage to say something more definite on her next venture, or will she continue with this more oblique approach, somehow retain our interest? One wonders.

First published in Businessworld, 5.10.12

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Re-posted as part of the For the Love of Film: Film Preservation Blogathon

Merry Go Round Broke Down

(Warning: plot and story discussed in close detail)

Was looking at Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) again, drinking in all the little details. Like: Gavin Elster offering Scottie a drink, who turns it down, later pouring himself a drink at Midge's minibar. Scottie doesn't trust Elster enough to accept alcohol from him; Midge he trusts as an old friend--that is, completely, though this does him little good in the long run (Midge is about as effective as Scottie's instincts at keeping him out of trouble).

Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011)

Five characters in search of a killer

Five friends drive into a forest; among the trees stands a little house.

You could almost see where this is going--cue shadowy outline of twisted figures shambling through forest's edge, dragging heavy rusted implements behind them--only that's not where the film was going, not initially; initially we have two men (Peter Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) driving an electric cart down a long hallway, sipping their coffee mugs and talking morning-office chat. Suddenly the words “CABIN IN THE WOODS” in huge block red letters drop down on the screen with a huge crash, and just as quickly vanish.

In the audiences I've sat with the moment almost always gets a big “Huh?” One companion whispered to me “hope the rest isn't going to be as cheesy as that.” I remember someone behind me muttering “Worst movie ever.”

Then the story proper starts (Camera crane swooping from ground to second floor, catching Kristen Connolly at her apartment window, in underwear), and everyone quiets down--nothing like a beautiful girl in panties to capture one's attention. We meet in succeeding order the Virgin, her friend the Slut, her boyfriend the Jock, his friend the Nerd; the Clown (Fran Kranz, channeling a spacier version of his Topher character in Whedon's Dollhouse) arrives last, wielding a three-foot long bong that collapses into a coffee mug with snap-on handle (Where can you get one? I want one). From their chit-chat we learn they are planning a road trip, to a remote homestead in some far-off wilderness.

So far so familiar...only a man in black wearing an earphone has been monitoring their conversation, and the film keeps cutting back to the two men seen earlier on their electric cart, now walking up to a highly secured control room, with surveillance cameras that look into...the five youths' cabin in the woods.

Welcome to Joss Whedon's latest brainchild, his answer to the question “whither now, horrorshow?” In his opinion (an opinion I happen to share), the horror movie is all tapped out; horror nowadays is mostly half-naked teenagers being pinned down and violated and tortured repeatedly, endlessly, the only variation involving the method of torment and means of death.

Pizza-making, says I. Horror in movies, at least in the better examples, has traditionally been the art of transferring one's fears from the screen into one's head (where they can fester all night, developing all kinds of interesting flavors) with as little effort as possible, showing us as little of the process as possible, letting the audiences' collectively shivering minds do most of the work for us. Alfred Hitchcock was a master; so to a less prolific extent was Roman Polanski. The list of other masters is not a long one.

Nowadays the 'art' has devolved into mere pizza-making--basically using one's production budget to create as many and as diverse a number of pizza toppings as possible (pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, bacon, chopped vegetables, pineapple, anchovies) to scatter on and around your fake corpse. Add plenty of freshly made tomato sauce and melted cheese, and you're good.

That's pretty much where the genre is at the moment. Eli Roth's Hostel pictures pushed said scenes to pornographic extremes while promoting xenophobia (those sadistic Eastern Europeans!) and, in the sequel's final minutes, cynical class warfare (if you have the plastic you can buy your way out); the Final Destination movies turned death into a series of intricate Rube Goldberg sequences, where the chief pleasure is in trying to predict from what direction the blow will come, and how; the Saw franchise took the cliche--mechanically baroque death manipulated by mad genius--and (in a shameless bit of hypocrisy bordering on genius) turned it into a demented therapy session, forcing the victim to either resolve his particular personality failure or die trying.

The genre found itself on the slippery slope of diminishing returns, at the end of which lay the Wayan Brothers' Scary Movie parodies--four as of last count, of increasingly poor quality (the Wayans wisely left after the first two); a fifth installment was announced some three years back, and is still (knock on wood) in development hell.

Whedon takes the genre by the back of its scruffily disreputable neck and gives it a few good shakes. This is a movie where all the classic ingredients are in place (five gullible kids; a gorgeous but isolated location; the classic Southern hillbilly (the wonderful Tim de Zarn) intoning prophecies of doom) yet what happens doesn't all go according to formula. Whedon shows affection for these tired conventions, but doesn't try sugarcoat them--if anything, he uses their familiar quality to leap into the unknown, into far more imaginative (and for me, more productive) directions.

Difficult to say what those directions are. Problem with movies nowadays is that there is so much demand for product--for teasers and trailers and cast interviews that reveal entirely too much--that no movie twist ever comes as a complete surprise (the fact that I'm writing about such a surprise is already a dead giveaway).

That said, one can know details about Whedon's script (co-written by Whedon alumnus and film's director Drew Goddard) and still enjoy just how expertly and effectively this one is put together--how, for example, we learn that the Jock isn't just a jock, and still make the moment quietly amusing (“Where did you learn about all this stuff?” “From you, okay? I learned it from watching you!”); or how the characters allude to parallel action taking place elsewhere (“We might as well tell Japan to take the rest of the weekend off.” “Yeah, right. They're Japanese. What'll they do--relax?”); or later how Whedon suggests the dawning of understanding in some minds, the lack of same in others (“Puppeteers...” “Pop Tarts? Did you say you have Pop Tarts?”). There's even a moment set aside for expressing the views of what I'm guessing is Whedon's favorite candidate for most blatant and consistent evil, the conscientious administrator (“This is all most unpleasant. I know you can hear me. I hope you'll listen”). Plus a moment of plain and simple humanity (“I'm sorry I almost shot you. I probably wouldn't have”).

Whedon displays a fanboy's love for the classic genres--the western (Firefly), the horror flick (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel; this picture), the science fiction dystopia (Firefly; Dollhouse), the same time he shows a gift for goosing said genres, taking their overfamiliar conventions and sending them spinning in startling new directions. He's on record as saying this is his attempt to revitalize the horror film--a noble sentiment, I'm sure.

I doubt if the film will revitalize much, unfortunately; the genre--at least the subgenre of 'cabin in the wood' horror--has sunk too low, I think, grown too repetitive, too tired. What the picture has done instead is hammer in the last nail of the coffin (“I come to bury Caesar, not praise him”). This isn't Whedon's attempt at resuscitation so much as it is his final tribute, his sendoff and farewell.

I know there are hints of a possible sequel, but Whedon attempts one at his peril--can a sequel do justice to what's already been done? Can it deliver as much fresh wit, as many new ideas? Can we, if the answer to both be negative, leave well enough alone? This is the 'cabin in the woods' picture to end all 'cabin in the woods' pictures--or at least is of sufficient quality to allow the subgenre to end on a fairly respectable note. Please, Lord, can we let it rest in peace?

First published in Businessworld, 5.3.12

Monday, May 14, 2012

A mother's story

Florentina Borja, or 'Floring' as her friends and family called her, was born in Naga City on June 20, 1929. Her mother died when she was two, her father when she was twelve, during the Second World War. For a while she was raised by an aunt, who treated her badly, and refused to have her schooled. She had only finished grade six.

Before he died her father married her off against her will to a young man from a rich family--he felt there was no other choice, there had been stories of Japanese soldiers sexually assaulting and sometimes killing Filipino women. She had four boys by her arranged husband, the first at the age of fifteen. She thought him spineless, and too dependent on his family; after the war she left him with two of her elder children--she was forced to leave her two youngest behind--and traveled to Pasig City, where she got a job as a dressmaker. At the dressmaking store construction surveyor bought softdrink from her (they sold groceries as well) was and struck by her hazel-blue eyes and Spanish looks; she was impressed by his intelligence. They married in 1957.

She had five children by him; she lost the first two, fraternal twins, a girl and a boy. She raised the three by herself in Blumentritt, in old Manila, while her husband worked; later he started working overseas, in Guam and Hawaii, and she managed to invest his earnings in a piece of land, and eventually a house. She was ferocious, the way she guarded her children. She would guard her children outside the school they attended, spending the entire day there (sometime she would help out and volunteer as a substitute teacher). When a boy bullied her daughter T. in class, she waited till after classes for the boy, yanked at his sideburn, told him to stay away. Every time he would go to school she would warn him. He never bothered T.again.

She was extremely strict. She demanded that her children learn to clean house, do chores, buy and pick vegetables at the market (if the fish wasn't up to her standards, she would tell L.--the eldest--to go back; the vendors wouldn't argue because they were just as terrified of her).

She also loved them--hugged them, kissed them, teased them no end. She could be endlessly playful and would sing songs, and she had a lovely voice.

Even at the age of sixty-three she still had a lovely voice. I'd just met her, and she was a handsome woman with a wide smile by then. I'd fallen in love with L., and was visiting their house regularly. I never knew they were putting pressure on L., telling her I probably wasn't a good match--they were never anything less than warm to me. I don't think it was anything personal, just her in her mother hen role, guarding one of her children from some boy, the way she guarded them outside their school when they were young.

Things were different when I finally married L.--when I became part of the family, I found out what I'd been missing as a mere beau. We didn't have any place to stay, so she had us put up in a spare room in her house; we didn't have to worry about food, she cooked our dinner and breakfast.

Nanay Floring--I called her nanay (mama) by then--was from Bicol, and she cooked wonderful laing--taro leaves that she dried and cleaned and boiled herself to remove the irritants (a chore of several hours) then simmered with bits of fatty pork and chilies that L. and I (this was L's favorite dish) would spoon over steamed rice, a perfect reflection of her personality--naturally sweet, but fiery when aroused. 

I never felt that fire myself. When I married L. she treated me like a favorite son, kissing me and teasing me and tousling my hair ("You have such lovely hair! So soft, so fine--"). That surprised and flattered me no end. I never took care of my hair; would never comb it, or pamper it, and no one ever complimented me on it either. Was she just being affectionate or did she notice something no one else did? I don't know; all I know is that she loved my hair. 

I remember when a group of her friends had asked L. out for a date, a reunion of friends; she had told her parents and I that she would be home late. I couldn't help it; I was worried. I sat up in the living room and nanay sat up with me, fuming. When L. finally got home nanay was the first out the door, furious at L. L. felt embarrassed before her friends, but nanay didn't care; I was worried that L. wasn't home, and as far as nanay was concerned, I had every right to be worried.

I have to mention my favorite of her dishes--ginataang bulaklak at talbos ng kalabasa (squash flowers and sprouts in coconut milk). Bright orange squash flowers and the tenderest leaves and tendrils simmered in coconut milk, with chunks of glistening pork and small briny shrimp that brought out the sweetness of the milk, contrasted with the faint bitterness of the greens.If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, she had me at the very first pressing of her coconut milk. If the best dishes are 'made with love,' hers are made distilled and pure--made with the fire and sweetness of her very soul.

I remember nanay meeting my own grandmother, and my grandmother taking a liking to her, which was, frankly, amazing--my grandmother was a very reserved, very quiet woman, and rarely liked anyone. To the end of her days she wanted to meet nanay again, and I often thought of arranging something--but my grandmother was bedridden by this time, and nanay had a hard time traveling (she had to stop cooking for us by then). I always regret not being able to bring them together again, at least one more time. 

I once remember arguing with L. over money matters--some of the worse arguments in a marriage are over money matters, and raising my voice. Nanay Floring was between us and in a way this concerned her too. She was upset, she had tears in her eyes, but not once--not for a second--did she raise her voice against me. L. was her daughter and she supported L., but I was her son, I could do no wrong in her eyes, and I imagine the conflict tore her up inside. I felt bad about it afterward--in many ways I felt as if I had taken advantage of someone helpless to resist me.

In 2003 L. and I moved to the United States. L. had gone ahead months before; I was waiting to join her. I paid a last visit to nanay; we talked, wondered when we might meet again, joked a little. She tousled my hair for the umpteenth time, for the umpteenth time told me how beautiful it was. For the umpteenth time I didn't know what she was talking about, for the umpteenth time I didn't care--her hand felt good on my hair. We hugged, and I left. I never saw her again.

On October 18 nanay had a stroke; she couldn't move or talk. The people caring for her said she had a sad look, as if she wanted to say something, but couldn't say it. It was her fifth stroke; the doctor said she should go home, there wasn't anything left to do, so on October 22 she did. Her husband and son--L.'s brother--took care of her the best they could. A week later she passed away; we learned the news over the phone.

L. of course was devastated--she owed everything to nanay. But the news hit me hard too. I regret not being able to see her again, hug her again, tell her how much I owed her, how much her cooking and caring and teasing and loving meant to me. I miss having her hand on my head, gently rubbing my hair. For some reason I've been keeping it short ever since--I don't feel as if I have to keep it long for anyone, not anymore. 

Oct. 29, 2010 

An adaptation of one of my favorite of her creations:

Ginataang talbos ng kalabasa (Squash fronds in coconut milk)

2 stalks of kalabasa (squash) fronds and flowers
5 ounces fresh shrimps, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons bagoong (Filipino shrimp paste)
1 tablespoon patis (Filipino fish sauce)

1 cup kakang gata (first-pressed coconut milk)
1 cup gata (second-pressed coconut milk)
4 cloves garlic
2 pieces siling haba (finger chili, sliced if you want it hot)
1 medium onion or shallot
3 ounces liempo (pork belly, cubed)

Saute onion and garlic in cooking oil. Add liempo, saute some two minutes. Add bagoong, siling haba, and gata, cover and simmer for 5 minutes or until the vegetable is tender.

Add shrimp, squash fronds and kakang gata; season with patis, and pepper to taste. simmer for two minutes until the squash leaves are tender. Eat with steamed rice.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009), in tribute to Maurice Sendak (1928 - 2012)

 Max with my favorite wild thing (who shall forever remain nameless, as he should)

(Re-posting as a tribute to the late Maurice Sendak 1928 - 2012)

Mild thing

The best parts of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are (2009) are possibly the scenes depicting Max's home life--Jonze takes camera in hand and follows Max up and down stairs, through hallways, into an improvised snow fort to capture the casual lyricism of everyday life (Jonze set it in wintertime presumably because he needed the added melancholic touch, to cut through whatever sticky pathos might be found in the script). When adolescent youths unthinkingly destroy the fort, trapping Max inside and subjecting him to a vividly realized moment of claustrophobia (Edgar Allan Poe would appreciate this) Max finds himself weeping angry tears. When his mother (the lovely if--for this production--more domesticated Catherine Keener) pays more attention to her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) than him he finally turns wild, screaming and biting his mother, who yells at him--a startling moment reflected in Max's startled expression, and in his even more startling response: to run out of the house into the snowy winter night, board a sailboat, and set off to unknown realms.

All well and good for a preteen angst picture. But this is an altered Max, a thoroughly re-tinkered Max, considerably less funny and with less of a crack comic timing than Sendak's creation. Sendak's Max was a truly terrible thing, no less so for the fact that his wildness was sui generis--unexplored and unexplained. He chased the poor family dog with a dinner fork (anticipating his fellow Things' famous catchphrase “I'M GOING TO EAT YOU UP!”) and “got up to” one bit of mischief after another till his mother called him “Wild Thing!” and sent him to bed without supper. The punchline--Max throws the door (you can imagine it slamming shut just seconds before) a hurt expression, as if he had expected praise, not punishment, for his behavior.

And then the most magical moment in the book--there's no near equivalent in the movie, and Jonze unwisely (or is it wisely?) does not even make an attempt--huge leaves and giant jungle blooms sprout in Max's bedroom; the four posts of his bed turn into trees, the carpet into tall grasses, the ceiling into a thick woven canopy. Every time I read this--at four, fourteen, even at forty--I read with wide eyes, wondering if, should I close my eyes, my room might undergo a similar transformation (it never does, but I never tire of wondering).

Max arrives at some strange island / strange land, washing ashore in an elaborate (if somewhat unnecessary) landing sequence; he climbs up a cliff, enters a forest. When Max and the Things meet, it's a fairly unconvincing encounter: the Things surround him (silent, expectant, threatening) and Max looks up (wet, shivering) to claim in a tremulous voice that he's “a great king, with magical powers.” All the Things stare at Max doubtfully; they seem to be expecting him to throw them a line, as if they had all lost their places in the script. Sendak's Max betrayed no such weakness; he had charisma to spare and solved the problem easily by staring at them without blinking until they capitulated and declared him the Wildest Thing of All.

At this point Jonze's movie departs from Sendak's book to weave a tale of estranged friendships, growing mistrust, painful regrets. Just in time, too--the book simply (and confidently) relied on Sendak's inimitable artwork to depict the Wild Rumpus that follows, images of unbridled joy and ferocity (Max at one memorable point in the revelry giggles as if it were all some private joke) that go on and on until Max grows tired, boards his boat and sails back home, the last line in the book bringing the entire story to a full circle.

Jonze gives the Wild Things names--K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), she with the stringy hair; Ira (Forest Whittaker), with the faintly anthropoid body; Judith (Catherine O'Hara), with the horned nose; Carol (James Gandolfini, aptly cast) with the fiery temper, striped chest, fish-scaled legs (my favorite Thing, though I suppose he was everyone's favorite--he's given the most substantial role). Not sure I'm happy with the names; I've known them as nameless all my life, and have always imagined that if we met, we would never bother with talk--just roar, charge at each other and either roll playfully on the ground wrestling or eat the other up.

Carol (as mentioned) has anger issues; he is both the warmest and most dangerous of the Things. Max sees him as a good friend, and--implicitly--the missing father figure in his life (Can a father act childishly and throw tantrums? Absolutely). K.W. is more of a mother figure who comforts Max and, at one point, hides him in her womb (need to see it to believe it--works, too) when an angry Carol comes looking for him. The story comes to a crisis, Max again boards a boat to sail home, trailing behind him Wild Things that want to eat him up, only this time the emotions--as is typical in a Jonze film--are sadder, more complex. Not necessarily better--Sendak's narrative flows in a clear, swiftly flowing stream, which serves to hide undercurrents of anger, fear, frustration; what Sendak buries in a furiously paced avalanche of verbal and visual delights Jonze makes explicit, somewhat plodding, less intensely flavored.

Jonze's film works best when it departs completely from Sendak and, like Max, strikes out on its own. He paints an altogether moodier world, populated by creatures with wide (if toothy) smiles and bulging eyes that imply (Carol in particular) soulful depth behind them. But while critics talk of the Wild Things with their puppet limbs and digitally crafted faces, I was more fascinated by the sets designed by K.K. Barrett: seemingly woven out of sticks and vines and branches (inspired, Barrett says in an interview, by Sendak's crosshatching style), the Things' homes take shape as either egglike shelters that you can pick up and toss about (just imagine--mobile homes!), or as a fort that resembles a gigantic snail with a pair of eyestalks soaring into the sky. Then there's the miniature city carved by Carol, complete with an elaborate canal system; Carol pours a bucket of water into the city's channels and drops in a tiny boat with two people riding inside--they wander the waterways like Huck Finn and friend, out to see the world on a little canoe. As an adaptation of Sendak, I think the movie is a failure--you simply cannot adapt perfection--but as a boy's dream (or rather, Jonze's dream of a boy's dream) of his inner demons confronting then sitting down to sadly acknowledge the presence of the other, perhaps even learn to care for the other, the picture is worth seeing.

First published in Businessworld, 2.4.10

Sunday, May 06, 2012

The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)

Hero worship

Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012) is a pretty good comic-book movie. 

How good? Let me put it this way: it's smarter than Zack Snyder's Watchmen (which unintentionally parodied--not to mention trashed--the more unsettling aspects of Alan Moore's book), more entertaining than Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (which spent too much time on melodrama, and limp melodrama at that), wittier and more varied than any of Nolan's Batman movies (Whedon's better at directing action, too), more moving than Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (okay, not saying much there).

It's a satisfying conclusion to what has been a lackluster string of Marvel movies--an indifferently directed Thor (Kenneth Branagh despite his Shakespearean chops couldn't bring his digital Asgard to life), a so-so Captain America  (Joe Johnston couldn't quite capture Jack Kirby's magic--the only reason to be interested in this square-jawed, straight-shooting hero), a passable Iron Man (passable only because Robert Downey Jr. could make even a metal armor suit amusing), a disappointingly dumbed-down Hulk (much prefer the more psychologically bizarre Ang Lee version--possibly the only Lee movie I actually like).

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

The flick that fathered a hundred sequels

Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) might be called the bastard son of a bastard remake of a bastard parody. 

Arguably it was Sergio Leone's fault. He did not strictly speaking make the first Spaghetti Western (or as Italians call them western all'italiana)--Raoul Walsh did The Sheriff of the Fractured Jaw in 1958; Mario Amendola did Terrore dell'Oklahoma (The Terror of Oklahoma) in 1959; and you might say Puccini's 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the West) was an Italian production set in the California Gold Rush...

But--trying to stay on-topic here--Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) took Akira Kurosawa's jidai-geki samurai comedy Yojimbo (The Bodyguard, 1961), transposed it to the American West, and produced a hugely influential hit that turned genre conventions upside-down, morphed the noble white-hatted protagonist into a dark, cigarillo-chewing anti-hero, basically created a whole new mythology for a bastard new genre.

Which is doubly ironic--Yojimbo itself was a parody, Kurosawa's subversion of the chambara (or swordfighting, a subset of the jidai-geki) genre, his way of sending up ossified conventions that he himself helped establish (Of course Yojimbo would became a hit and revitalize the genre, spawning its own sub-genre with countless imitators). Adding just one more twist is the fact that Kurosawa himself was heavily influenced by classic western filmmakers--John Ford, Howard Hawks--and all we need to complete the circle is a Japanese ripoff of A Fistful of Dollars or Django (arguably Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) is just such a picture)...

Coming back to Django (and trying, again, to stay on-topic), Corbucci's film doesn't even try very hard to disguise its influences--as with Yojimbo and Fistful we have the lone hero; as with the previous pictures the hero comes between two warring factions (the Mexican bandits and a troop of renegade Confederates (needless to say, they're racists)). Corbucci does away with the cyclical nature of violence, the vision of man outdoing fellow man in greed and depravity--he probably felt the two previous pictures wasted a lot of running time and effort keeping the complicated plotline coherent, and damned if he wasn't right: Django lives or dies on its extravagant setpieces of sadism and suffering and little else (there's a subtext involving racism, a topic Corbucci would develop further in other films, particularly Navajo Joe (1966), but it's more subtext here--an additional sharpness to the stink in the air, almost--than anything bold, or especially memorable).

Corbucci's visual style unlike Leone's doesn't try capture the action through sweeping tracking shots, nor does he try create a sense of outsized scale (the vast barrooms, endless cemeteries, gigantic closeups of Leone's films). Corbucci's action is mostly fast and functional, stitched together with quick (but coherent) cutting; when Django faces off with a bandit Corbucci intercuts handheld, high-angled footage of the two struggling with even shakier footage of the breathless onlookers, giving the viewer a strong sense of you-are-there immediacy. 

When called for, however, Corbucci can serve up cinema as grand and operatic as anything from Leone. He introduces one confrontation with the sparely beautiful image of standing fences and a spindly water tower, a lonely flute playing in the background; renegade Confederates strut into view and Luis Enriquez Bacalav's baleful trumpets take over, a snare drum giving crisp accompaniment. 

Corbucci (unlike, say Leone) doesn't have his camera track backwards, following the soldiers; instead he shows us Django's patient point of view, angular rail fences pointing as if in alarm at the approaching soldiers, the reverse shots showing Django's doomed position, perched atop his coffin behind a gigantic felled tree trunk (remarkable the contrast in imagery--the soldiers' unstoppable approach, the tree trunk's implacable solidity). More soldiers appear, wearing Klansmen-type hoods, only (a baroque touch) dyed a bright blood-red. Django continues to sit on his coffin behind the tree trunk; the music, the editing, the emotions escalate to the point where the very frame vibrates with tension--you know the climax when it comes will be something...

It comes, and it is something; it's also the punchline to a long and elaborate joke, one that began preparations from the moment we set eyes on our hero. Here's another difference between Leone and Corbucci: Leone's Man Without a Name (played with lanky minimalism by Clint Eastwood) shows a trace of faint amusement at Leone's complex shenanigans; said Man embodies Leone's point of view, an Olympian sense of distance flavored with irony. Corbucci's Django (played with soulful earnestness by Franco Nero) isn't nearly as interesting a character--he's totally immersed in his situation, no distance or irony to his posture, a classic western all'italiana hero. If there is any humor in the film--and there is, considerably--it comes from Corbucci himself, who gleefully sets up intricate visual and narrative pranks which detonate, then with ceaseless enthusiasm begins preparations for the next gag. 

I'd earlier said there's little more to Corbucci here than sadism; I'm not a little wrong. Hands are a significant motif, from a bandit spitting into his hands preparatory to whipping a helpless prostitute, to a Confederate major pulling a blood-red scarf from his pocket to wrap round the neck, to Django tenderly slipping a woman's camisole off her shoulder...later clutching desperately at his coffin, and being as desperately clutched in return. Hands, Corbucci seems to say, are arbiters of one's fate and expressive of one's inner state; to damage them is a grave sin, to have them damaged a great suffering.

So, Corbucci or Leone--who is better? Leone is an epic lyricist, Corbucci a baroque sadist; Leone likes to build complex narratives that resolve themselves smoothly, in ingenious fashion; Corbucci can barely be bothered with narrative bumps (he can't even be bothered to hide the fact that his narrative was lifted from somewhere else). Leone is a poet, Corbucci a near-madman; the world is a richer place for having both artists, and I for one refuse to pick between them. 


Friday, May 04, 2012

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

The Passion of Brandon

Steve McQueen's Shame, about Brandon, an ad executive and closet sex addict, is a fascinating passion play--'passion' in the older sense, of a dramatic re-enactment of Christ's trial, suffering, death, with Brandon as the Christ figure.

Difficult to avoid the religious overtones--McQueen practically mashes your face in it. Brandon (Michael Fassbender, McQueen's collaborator here and in his first feature Hunger (2008)) is like a flagellant purifying his flesh for God, only it's not a whip but his phallus he's both wielding and mortifying at the same time (convenient, when you think about it), on and against any available woman.

As with any flagellant turned upside-down and inside-out, the pleasure (like pain) is not an end in itself, but the means--to what, exactly, is the mystery at the heart of the film. There's a humorless fervor to Brandon, a tendency during the act of sex to see past the woman--past her clenched haunches, her heaving breasts--towards some unseen objective. At one point McQueen gives us a series of explicit images, and the music (by Harry Escott) practically pounds into us (artfully, artfully) the idea that Brandon is a pilgrim on a personal Calvary, an impossible quest that can only lead to disaster, one pelvic thrust at a time. You get the impression that if McQueen had used unknown actors and just tilted his camera a few inches to the right or left of the shot's focus, one might mistaken the film for something directed by Robert Bresson--back when Bresson thought there might be such a thing as a human soul worth saving.

And then--and here's the conflict of the film--we're given Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who's everything Brandon's not. Where Brandon is prosperous, Sissy is homeless (she asks to stay at his apartment for a few days); where Brandon is cautiously self-contained, she is recklessly expressive; where Brandon as played by Fassbender is all hard angles and chiseled muscles (his flaccid penis being the only thing soft about him as he pads around his place naked), McQueen for a first glimpse of Sissy gives us right off a full frontal view: childlike, with tiny breasts and a slight pudginess developing around the waist. Later Brandon comes to watch Sissy sing at a nightclub and she offers a fragile, wavering interpretation of “New York, New York” (with its lyrics about determination and success in the Big City, what song could be more inappropriate for such a tentative performance?). McQueen gives us a gigantic closeup of Mulligan's gamin face, padded with dimples and a pair of plump cheeks, breathing into her mike: “I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep / to find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap,” and Brandon (in a similar closeup) finds he has shed a teardrop. The irony of Sissy singing that song is big--too big, actually; McQueen's firm grip here starts feeling a bit obvious, if not oppressive--and older brother can only sympathize. It's a crucial moment, a turning point: that drop is possibly the first sign of empathy to be squeezed out of him onscreen.

To complicate matters McQueen adds a strong undercurrent of sexual tension between siblings. Sissy is naturally affectionate; Brandon holds her firmly, and not a little desperately, at arm's length (he's like a cokehead asked to safeguard a kilo of cocaine). The tension awakes unknown needs in him--the need, for one, to have a normal relationship with a woman as another person and not some sexual object, not some mere receptacle for his sperm (again, you have this strong sense of foreboding that matters will not end well).

McQueen directs in a series of long takes, framing his characters in a relentless medium shot that on occasion follows them as they move about, but usually sits down patiently to wait for the scene to resolve itself. He repeats shots over and over, of Brandon standing at the subway station like a warrior-knight waiting to ride into battle, or of Brandon pacing naked in his room, a tiger restlessly measuring the limits of his cage. From Mulligan he elicits a minor miracle; where in Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) she was a rather dull young mother, here he uses her very same physical immaturity to give the film vulnerability, emotional accessibility, warmth.

Fassbender is the central consciousness of the film; his asceticism is our asceticism, his suffering our suffering, and the film is relentless in its fidelity to this idea--we only see or hear what he sees or hears, can infer only what he feels, thinks. It's a wearying task, carrying an audience's attention for most of a film's running time, stretching without snapping the string of sympathy between him and the audience; to do it while being for a large part naked and performing budoir gymnastics is something of a feat. Fassbender's physical charisma gives the film its magnetic pull; no matter what little he does or how much he seems to want to pull his shell tighter about him your eyes are still drawn to him, you're still invested in what he is about to do or say.

Shame largely succeeds, I feel, in what it set out to do. It startles; briefly, it even shocks. But it doesn't unhinge you. Can't help but think of another work about endless sex, with a wilder, far more uncompromising imagination: David Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Crash (1996), about a disparate group of people who discover the erotic power of the car crash (Crazy? If you only knew). Consider a protagonist with Brandon's relentlessness but without the spiritual anguish; a creature with an insatiable appetite for sex who just doesn't care. Accepts his bizarre psychopathology totally, cruising the roads in search for a chance at penetration, carnal or metal or both. 

Cronenberg shoots the novel with a pornographer's unflinching eye, depicting the most bizarre sexual acts with the calm professionalism of a lab scientist recording the mating practices of a rare beetle; he has Ballard's cold regard down perfectly, effortlessly translated to the big screen. McQueen is a genuine artist, I think, a romanticist with an ascetic's approach--but he's basically covering ground Cronenbeg has trod years before, and contaminated with the spunk of a more current, more unsettlingly amoral generation. 

First published in Businessworld, 4.26.12