Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Messiah (Roberto Rossellini, 1975)

(Plot discussed in detail--though it's hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with this story. Film is not available on Netflix or Amazon in DVD form, but is available on youtube (though I don't feel I should include a link))

Promised man

"In the beginning was the Word," so began the Gospel of John, and so begins Rossellini's treatment on Christ, his last narrative feature--only I remember when I first saw the film it began so far back in biblical history I had to check the title again to make sure. 

Rossellini starts a thousand years before, with the Israelites' arrival in Canaan, all sunbleached vistas and dusty tents (the sand-and-rock palette providing a subdued background against which the occasional red cloak or robe pops out of the screen). A child digs a hole in the ground with a stick and pisses in it; a shadow looms over him and he turns; a Philistine soldier whirls his sling, cuts loose--the child cries "No!"--and Rossellini cuts to a shot of the child lying on the ground, the blood on his forehead as startling a scarlet as any we've seen in this desolate landscape. 

Rossellini cuts to a meeting of tribal elders, in front of their tents. He zooms out (to establish location), glides around (as if trying to find the best vantage point), zooms in (to focus on this or that speaker). 

The camera pulls back in a flat arc from an anguished elder declaring: "We want a king, Samuel, as all nations, a king to judge us and lead us!" Continuing its arc the camera catches an old man--Samuel--rising to his feet. "My brothers, there is no king for our king for Israel, because the king of Israel is the Eternal, Who freed us from slavery."

The Israelites insist however, which is how the country got to anoint its first king: Saul, a bellowing tyrant hard on his countrymen and even harder on their cattle, at one point whacking a bull in the head with an oversized mallet (What did Joseph de Maistre once say? "Every nation gets the government it deserves"). Rossellini establishes the style and demeanor of Israeli kings to better contrast with the style and demeanor of the coming king, but establishes at the same time the historical and political context from which the line of rulers arose: the Israelites demanded a king, a military dictator, in effect, because they wanted the safety and relative stability of such a king--which wasn't quite what happened (Samuel: "You shall know what meaneth to be subject to a king's will!"). They may have also prayed centuries for a messiah, but wasn't prepared for when he finally came, or what he had to offer.

It's startling to realize just how much Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ borrowed from Rossellini--the baptism (with its shallow stream surrounded by rocky bluffs) could have been rear projected directly into Scorsese's picture (all that's needed is for Andre Gregory to do a walk-on cameo). A hut of straw and tree branches standing behind Christ (Pier Maria Rossi) as he tells the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds might have been dismantled right after shooting, then reassembled fourteen years later for Willem Dafoe's honeymoon with his not-so-blushing bride. The camera follows closely as a cup is passed from Rossi's Christ to disciple after disciple after disciple, and with a little judicious splicing might pass right back to Dafoe's Christ. 

Scorsese is an admitted admirer of Rossellini, but doesn't overtly adopt (despite all the borrowed images) much of the filmmaker's visual style. You often catch Scorsese indulging in visual flash--gold coins spinning in the sky; a recreation of Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross; a camera lashed to the top of the cross as it's lifted up into the air (a tribute if you like to a similar shot in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings). 

Rossellini's film might have influenced Scorsese and was probably influenced in turn (to cite yet another brother-in-Christ) by Pier Paolo Pasolini's earlier The Gospel According to Matthew--like Rossellini's film a low-budget feature and an angry rebuke towards Hollywood-style Christ extravaganzas. No name stars, no elaborate sets or costumes, no production values whatsoever--there isn't even any color. Pasolini took a page from neorealism (of which Rossellini was an establishing master), but did it his way: edgy editing, casual handheld shots that on occasion shoved the lens in the actor's face, a high-contrast black-and-white palette. His soundtrack is eclectic--Mozart; Bach; a traditional African-American spiritual. A leper's misshapen nose bulges into the big screen as he whispers "make me clean;" Christ (a no-nonsense Enrique Irazoqui) declares: "you are clean" and Gloria from the Missa Luba blares out from the soundtrack.  

Rossellini doesn't use much music; a kind of suspenseful shiver here, there (the child's murder, Herod's death), developing into a honest-to-goodness if modest melody in the film's final two minutes. His editing is anything but aggressive; instead he pieces together sinuous long takes that come close enough to the characters to register as medium shots (but otherwise keep a discreet distance). Unlike Pasolini he doesn't forsake color; he seems to acknowledge that color is a part of a man's normal view, that black-and-white is (especially nowadays) an extreme form of stylization. Where Pasolini is severe Rossellini is chaste; where the former denies himself the pleasures of period filmmaking the latter shows reluctance, a sense of restraint--the difference, I think, being mainly in attitude and tone.

I've tried describing Rossellini's style before, and was unhappy with the results; possibly it's easier to describe what he's not instead of what he is. He's not into displays of virtuosity like Scorsese, though there are shots that betray the pure craft of a master--a group of children chanting and clapping, for example, the camera climbing up to follow soldiers marching the ramparts of a high wall, then pulling back and arriving at Christ transfixed on his cross (the contrast between the children's singing and Mary Magdalene's soft sobbing being more emotionally devastating than anything in, say, Mel Gibson's laughably overheated Passion of the Christ). His film's austere, but not in the in-your-face manner of Pasolini; he doesn't use Pasolini's alienating manner of having Christ lecture to us, profile head-on and free of frills or music or movement or lighting effect of any kind (save the setting sun, and the occasional lightning flash)--daring us to stay focused on the words' inherent wisdom and the image's flinty beauty (not to mention Irazoqui's piercing eyes), despite our faltering, all-too-human interest. 

Rossellini for his part does something more audience-friendly, yet interesting on its own terms. His Christ is busy repairing one of the apostles' fishing boats--he's about to send them on their own teaching missions. A disciple asks "what should we bring with us?" the camera coming up close as if to better hear his reply (and along the way underline the importance of his reply). Christ answers: not much--just what you have. "Behold the birds of the air," he points out, noting that they do nothing to provide for themselves yet are somehow cared for; at which point the camera pulls out--as if it was us the audience taking this insight and carrying it in our hearts and looking at the world through a new attitude, through differing eyes--the camera frame restlessly framing and re-framing to juxtapose image to questions and questions to answers in a sustained visual conversation.  

And--for me the breathtaking part--Christ runs with the idea, or rather his people do. Rossellini cuts to one disciple, then another repeating Christ's parables (said parables--stories with a philosophical point--being easier to remember and understand for these mostly uneducated men and women). It's not all about him, Rossellini seems to be saying; Christ won't save the world all by himself--he's using them (and by extension us) to put words into others' ears, and into practice in everyday life (in a way Rossellini's suggesting a sequel to his mid-career masterpiece, The Flowers of St. Francis, where at film's end the master orders his disciples to spin around till they stumble, then go in the direction they've fallen to spread the word). He's using communal effort--a key concept of communism if you like (and remember that Rossellini's politics leaned decidedly to the left)--to scatter his ideas abroad

It's not as if the film were totally bereft of humor--there's funny here, if you look carefully. Or perhaps you didn't need care; a quick glance at the Pharisees and you see their ridiculous horns, the bizarre little cube of wood sprouting out of their foreheads. The Pharisees may represent established authority, or entrenched hypocrisy, or the interests of the powers that be (which may include Hollywood and its equivalent in Italian cinema); Rossellini has about as little respect for any of them as Christ does, mercilessly depicting them as helpless in the face of radicalism, till they concoct a cowardly plot to accuse Christ of political conspiracy against the Romans (a massive misunderstanding--he's subversive, but not in that sense). 

It's not as if Rossellini's film is determinedly secular--there are miracles but (unlike in say Pasolini's) they're even further de-emphasized, we don't actually see him performing them (though we do on occasion see the aftereffects, as in the miracle of the loaves of bread). The miracles aren't Christ's strongest selling point, Rossellini seems to suggest, or at least he seems to feel they're mostly gimmicks that distract from Christ's ideas, and can safely be relegated offscreen.

It's not as if Rossellini's film is bereft of lyricism either, or visual poetry: one of the loveliest passages in the film is of Rossellini's camera lingering over this man or that hard at work, then zooming in on Christ hammering on what looks like a partly assembled plow (unlike most other onscreen Christs, Rossellini's seems to be  busy plying his trade). He talks of who will or will not enter the Kingdom of God, asks what is the Kingdom of God--

--whereupon Mary takes over, explaining to a child that the Kingdom is where "milk and honey will flow," stressing that this Kingdom will come about when everyone works for its coming--

--and Rossellini's camera moves away from Mary to wander among people sweeping, cooking, milking, bricklaying, and so forth. Mary might talk of a heaven to come, but Rossellini seems to suggest that heaven might already be here in the form of a worker's paradise, if we so choose to recognize it. 

At one point Christ is asked a blunt question: how to gain eternal life? His reply is equally blunt: love God, and each other--the two sentences clarifying and simplifying and above all distilling thousands of years of Jewish theology (or at least that's how Catholics feel about it). In a way it's what Rossellini seems to be doing--to have done: clarify and simplify and above all distill the Christ of the Gospels (in particular Luke) in a single hundred and forty minute film, as cogent a case of form following content as is humanly possible, from a master of Italian--of human--cinema. 

Easter Sunday, 4.20.14

Friday, April 18, 2014

Terror is a Man (Gerardo De Leon, 1959)

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's ongoing Centennial Celebration, The Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) screened Terror is a Man at the Tanghalang Manuel Conde at CCP, April 12, at 4 pm. 

The film is available on Amazon and Netflix, respectively)

The Island of Dr. De Leon

Let's get expectations out of the way right now: Gerardo de Leon's Terror is a Man--about a scientist (Dr. Charles Girard) who surgically transforms animals (well, one animal; the production budget presumably couldn't afford any more) into human beings--isn't very frightening. Oh, some extremely sensitive adults and a handful of impressionable kids might have been swept away back in 1964 when Hemisphere Films reissued it under the less evocative title Blood Creature (it was a commercial failure when first released as a Lynn-Romero production back in 1959--an account nicely outlined in Scott Ashlin's horror blog 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting), but there isn't much gore compared with, say, the shocking bright blood of the Hammer films. The horror here recalls rather the Universal classics of the '30s: Todd Browning's Dracula, or James Whale's Frankenstein films or The Invisible Man, films that favor suggestion over splatter, their most distinctive attribute an atmosphere of lyrical dread. 

On the surface a no-budget adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau with a surprisingly literate screenplay from Paul Harber (whose career included only two more--one for an Eddie Romero kidnap drama, the other for an episode of Hawaii Five-O--plus a lifetime of television acting), the film could be a fascinating companion piece alongside Erle C. Kenton's classic The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Where the earlier version had a more emphatic tone--lush oversized sets evoking Moreau's jungle to great (if expensive) effect, Moreau himself played with half-sane intensity by the inimitable Charles Laughton--De Leon's adaptation is set in the languor of the real tropics (shot, if IMDb is to be trusted, in Corregidor Island, off the coast of Cavite), his Moreau (played with a lightly ambisexual note by Francis Lederer), a decidedly more subdued figure. 

It's instructive I think to compare the way Moreau explains his methods to Pendrick (the novel's protagonist/narrator) to the way Laughton's Moreau explains to the '32 Pendrick to the way Girard explains to our film's Pendrick figure, William Fitzgerald (a stolid and rather bland Richard Derr). Wells' Moreau goes to some lengths to point out historical parallels to his work--the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition; the "mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples" described by Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs; the Siamese Twins (a covert operation, he claims). Along the way Moreau's brutally frank language suggests a man so monomaniacally devoted to his field of study you daren't question his motives (he devoted his whole life's energy to it, so he must be right). Laughton's Moreau updates his methods to include "plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, ray baths" (Ray baths? Similar to tanning beds, only more radioactive?); to Moreau's monomania he adds a winking smirk (isn't this amusing? Aren't you entertained by all the nonsense?).

De Leon dispenses with the horrorshow, the electric moment (in Wells' novel) when Moreau drives a penknife into his leg, the even more vivid moment when onscreen Moreau presents one of his subjects on an operating table, howling in agony and terror. Girard and Fitzgerald instead have a discussion in the office, and Girard in the manner of a dull lecturer explains how he worked up from "skin and bone grafts" to "alteration of major organs." And as medical science has advanced since the '30s (having in turn advanced from the time of the novel's writing) he points out that "the real difference is in the brain," and proposes a chemical (taken from gland extracts, of course) that can "bring about an alternation of the individual cells, cell division and cell growth." Girard's methods seem more recognizably like our own partly because the science isn't so very far from our own, partly because De Leon's MD training helps ensure authenticity (you see it in the handwashing, the surgical instruments, the working autoclave in one corner), but also partly because Girard seems so calmly reasonable (where Wells' was insanely focused), so serious (where Laughton's was playfully coy) that we're halfway sold by his earnestness. This isn't Moreau the madman we're faced with but Moreau the progressive intellectual, the dedicated humanitarian, who can't think of one reason why he shouldn't be doing what he's doing--one reason why what he's doing is wrong. 

(A sidenote: Francis Lederer (Girard) who changed his name from the more German Franz Lederer (he was in Pabst's great '29 film Pandora's Box) was actually born Frantisek Lederer in Prague, the birthplace of the Golem and the word "robot" (from Karel Capek's classic play R.U.R.), and a major center of Czech puppetry--appropriate, considering Lederer plays yet another manipulative fabricator of artificial beings)

That's script and man, in a way more disturbing than the figure found in either novel or classic film because he's more persuasive--invincible, almost--in his solemn conviction. 

Then there's De Leon's camera, which in sequence after wordless sequence undermines Girard's words with quiet effectiveness. 

The first hunting sequence, for example, early in the film--the camera in a parody of the famous shot in Murnau's Sunrise pushes through leaves and branches to peer at a sleeping village. A native sits by a fire, watchful--he senses something lurking out there, isn't sure what. Cut to a shot of the camera approaching the man's back, as we belatedly realize: this the creature's point of view; growls and cries and sudden lunge, the actual death elided over with cuts not unlike the sudden transitions found in dreams. Cut to a wide shot of the entire village, to the sound of screams as the bodies are found, and the camera in a perverse inversion of Murnau (and anticipating Hitchcock's retreating shot in Frenzy by some thirteen years) pulls back into the surrounding jungle.

Then there's the creature itself, hidden not just by camera angles or deep shadows, but by layer after layer of surgical bandages. De Leon the MD probably asked why the creatures in Kenton's and James Whale's films don't spend more time under wraps--Whale's is studded with long stitches that don't bleed out, the stitching never once tearing no matter how violently it moves. A practical question, but looking at the creature, at the tear-brimmed eyes peering out from the reeking gauze, and all questions of plausibility fall away. This is a creature in agony, capable of doing anything and everything just to make the suffering stop. 

Unmentioned yet plain as bandages is the subtext of racism: Girard is the imperialist white man attempting to remake the Malay 'beast' into a civilized being (the story is set in a South Pacific island named La Ysla de Sangre (Blood Island)). Seated at a table and surrounded by Malay servants (one boy waves flies away with a whisk on a pole), having just been served a presumably Western meal, Girard's wife Frances (the well-endowed Greta Thyssen) gratefully toasts their guest for reminding them they "can still be civilized on occasion." She adds that she's "forgotten we have good china or silver, or the manners to use them." Girard's native-born assistant Walter (a sensually sinister Oskar Kesse) mutters the hope that he can get "that black devil back where he belongs"--presumably strapped to an operating table, shrieking (the sharp ear might catch the pronoun he used, an implicit admission that the creature is an equal). Girard contemptuously dismisses the natives on the island as "superstitious" for leaving just because an 'animal' was on the loose (though to his credit he thinks New Yorkers would probably act the same way). With every sneer and suggested condescension we Filipinos can't help but bristle; with every unthinking line of dialogue the Western actors affirm their superiority over the natives (us) and over the creature himself, coded to be the most native inhabitant of all (a supernative, if you like).

Then there's fraternal hatred: the creature kills several of the natives, the rest flee in fear; when it--he--encounters Frances, he spares her. Why? A Filipino's immediate unthinking (kneejerk) response: "oho, he likes white meat." Doesn't matter if actress Lilia Duran, who plays one of the victims, is a fresh-faced beauty--the fact that Thyssen is white (and top-heavy) trumps that. One of the uglier subtexts of the '33 Kong (which none of the remakes managed to mitigate--and which in fact is exacerbated in the Jackson version) is that Kong clearly prefers the white blonde--the first he's ever seen--over any number of black women offered (the latter he kills; the former he takes with him to Skull Mountain, presumably for an evening of date rape). De Leon's creature seems to unthinkingly follow this pattern--

--only he knows her; she took care of him over two years and countless surgical procedures. Where Girard would often inflict pain, she would often take it away. Where nearly everyone  in the island (natives included) regard him as some kind of stalking evil, she doesn't. She fears him but doesn't hate him--if anything, she pities him. Frances is both Girard's wife and surgical nurse, and nurses often represent compassion, mercy, a surcease of pain--and the creature recognizes that. Racist? Perhaps not. 

Final bit of business (skip this paragraph if you intend to watch the film!): Harber has Fitzgerald say to Frances: "I want to help you;" later Walter says the same thing, then attempts to rape her (Fitzgerald at one point finds bruises on Lilia Duran's arm--if we go by De Leon's lexicon, Walter is the pervert found in many of De Leon's films who arrives at sexual gratification through sadism). At a certain point the word "help" acquires a sarcastically obscene connotation, as she turns down aid of all kinds from males of all sides. When she finally ends up in a beach watching the dying creature float away in a rowboat, she casually remarks: "he wanted to help me." All sarcasm is gone from her voice: instead there's a bizarre yet poignant longing--as if she recognized the genuine nature of the 'help' the creature offered, a once-in-a-lifetime offer that she was very possibly a fool to reject.  

First published in Businessworld, 4.11.14

Monday, April 14, 2014

Game of Thrones

(Warning: plot twists and storylines discussed in close detail)

A song of nice and ire

Having wasted an entire weekend gorging on almost the entire first three seasons and the first two episodes of the fourth season of Game of Thrones (a partial adaptation of George R. R. Martin's epic series A Song of Ice and Fire), I pretty much came to the conclusion this is the most entertaining American TV show around: intricate, sexy, hilarious, harrowing, a vast world you could watch in lieu of most other TV series--or movie franchises for that matter.

Think about it: the intrigues revolving about King's Landing recall everything from Rome (the decadence) to The Borgias (the incestuous affairs) to The Tudors (royal descendants of the combatants from The War of the Roses--the history of which Martin used as partial basis for his series) to of all things The Sopranos (the hits, the war between gangs). Up north beyond the wall walk an army straight out of The Walking Dead--only these zombies aren't limited to humans, they fight and follow orders, and they aren't stopped by anything as simple as a crossbow bolt to the brain. 

Then the franchises--Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit--though can I say here and now how much more I vastly prefer Martin's series over Tolkien? Not only is the plotting more baroque and dialogue more sophisticated, there's sex--actual sex--motivating and influencing momentous events, the way they do in real life!

It's not a particularly well-directed series. The battle sequences have little distinctive shape, the close combat is mostly shaky-cam footage cut ADHD style; the zombies are often digital creations without the on-camera solidity of George Romero's undead. I'm especially disappointed with the CGI dragons--Matthew Robbins proved in his criminally underseen Dragonslayer (whose dragon--Vermithrax Pejorative--gets mentioned in an early episode) that it's possible to depict the creatures using large puppet parts and complex practical effects to considerable dramatic impact. The lesson, it seems, has been largely forgotten.

At the same time those dragons, though digital, are a major source of the series' appeal. We first see them as three large eggs, which legend claims have ossified into solid rock; their hatching is a tremendous moment, when Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) walks into her husband's flaming funeral pyre (a gypsylike healer tied to a nearby post, screaming in immolated agony) and in the morning stands in a steaming circle of ash--the little hatchlings crawl up her leg, past her unburnt pubes, over a sooty shoulder to loose a thin screech. Martin is playing the long game here, introducing tales of the creatures as figures of myth and legend, revealing them right after a spectacular bonfire, doling out their presence in bits and piece--not too much, just a brief appearance per episode, perhaps even (if we're well-behaved) the occasional well-deserved torching--while word of their growth reaches the outside world. Despite the fact that they look fake to the eye, to the mind they've grown in presence such that you're eager to see more, no matter how they're rendered. 

Martin does the same for other creatures--the zombies (or wights as they're called) lurk mostly in shadows, their blue eyes glimmering in the dark; at one point there's a glimpse of a giant ("don't stare too long--they're shy; and when they stop being shy they get angry; and when they get angry I've seen them pound a man straight into the ground like a hammer on a nail")--but none of the other creations send as powerful a tingle up and down the spine.

We're talking effects and fantasy creatures, but the glory of Martin's world are of course his characters. Daenerys is a prime example: she starts the series as chattel, a bride sold to a barbarian warlord to be raped on her wedding night; when the warlord dies and her people wander the desert in exile she proves herself a strong leader who acquires not just dragons but an army of dedicated warriors.

She's no perfect leader; she makes mistakes early on and in one memorable episode is forced to choose between the life of her husband and that of her child, with results far from what she expected (in Martin's world nothing's guaranteed, satisfactory or even final, not even the desired outcome paid for by horrific sacrifice). When she's wronged she can be extravagantly cruel--there's the aforementioned healer, and later she orders a man and woman sealed into a vault--but her loyalty to the faithful can be equally extravagant. Cruel or magnanimous, her gestures betray a grand style--even if she wasn't played by the gorgeous Ms. Clarke she'd still be unforgettable. 

Recent commentators have praised the show for its complex depiction of powerful women (Daenerys, among others). Noted; I especially like it that the series introduces its women as adolescent fantasy figures, either naked courtesans or trembling virgins, then reveals their more complex, less comfortable sides (Lady Cersei (Lena Heady) is the manipulative power behind her son King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and yet is powerless before her father Lord Tywin (Charles Dance); Lady Catelyn Stark is the heart and strength of her family but when goaded into a discussion of trust and honor risks the unthinkable: her single most valuable hostage for her hostaged daughters). As for Daenerys, I'm sure her emphasis on liberty for all, including the soldiers she bought, will appeal to many in the audience, but there's a fanaticism to her, a rod of unbending steel to her character that I find unnerving--especially as she has ten thousand stone-cold killers behind her, over a hundred thousand newly freed if untrained slaves behind them and dragons the size of winged horses hovering above all. This is Martin we're talking about; if we admire anyone now I'm sure he'll find a way of making us regret that admiration later.

I'm more willing to bet on the decency of a more obviously flawed human being like Tyrion (the wonderful Peter Dinklage). Call him the Walter White of Westeros--he's your less-than-average (heightwise) whoremonger and drunk, who out of sheer boredom or sense of rejection finds himself reading more than expected for a royal, is hence is smarter than the average royal. Tyrion is forced (along with the rest of his family) into the role of court intriguer, and at one point admits (as White does in his own series) that he enjoys all the politicking--he's good at it. That he's the everyman's point of view in Martin's world, and that that point of view is some two feet lower than average I think says something--about Martin's regard for the everyman or, more likely (and interestingly), the everyman's status in the world (low, but unsteadily rising). 

On the fourth season's first two episodes: well, the first ('Two Swords') is basically a series of introductions and re-introductions, a toe re-dipped into the pool where the game is played. I remember it best for a new character's arrival (Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal) with his marked Spanish accent, deft dagger hand, and mission of vengeance involving one of the Lannister knights) and confirmation of another's destiny (Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in recovering her stolen blade commits her second murder). The 'two swords' of the title obviously refer to the swords Lord Tywin has ordered made from the Stark greatsword Ice, its vast shaft of Valerian steel melted down and reforged into two blades--in a way the reforging symbolizes a diminishment, the passing of a great house (Stark) to become lesser houses (the smaller Starks and uh Jon Snow?). I suspect it also refers to one of the swords being gifted to Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and to Arya's reclaiming the smaller but beloved Needle. One with a stump for a right hand regards his blade as worse than useless, a mockery of his former prowess; the other in her humbler blade finds a liberating power, a reason to go on living. Two blades for two owners, a different significance for each.

The second episode ('The Lion and the Rose') is memorable for a throwaway moment, when Joffrey demands a name for the sword Grandfather Tywin gifted to him on his wedding (the second of the aforementioned Two Swords). Here we learn that Martin is a true enthusiast of the fantasy genre: someone yells "Stormbringer!" (The legendary demonic blade featured in Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone series), another "Terminus!"(The double-bladed, hydrargyrum-filled blade Severian the Torturer wielded in Gene Wolfe's great science fiction--not fantasy--series The Book of the New Sun). It's also memorable for a death during the celebrations--can't have a wedding in a Martin story without a murder can we (admittedly Tyrion's didn't, though there were humiliations galore)? Typical, to give us a death we've been wanting for so long, and immediately pin the blame on a favorite character. By now we should  have known better--in Martin's stories you can't have what you dearly wished for without paying some kind of high price. 

There's also a brief scene where the red priestess Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) talks to Stannis' daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) about gods--Shireen speaks of the Seven Gods and Melisandre about the One True One. Martin's careful not to make the identification too close, but Melisandre's religion looks suspiciously like Christianity, with its monotheism and past (hopefully) propensity to burn heretics at the stake (the Seven Gods, on the other hand, seem to represent good clean pantheism). Seems that in the novels the parody is in the same position the original was under the Roman Empire--a lurker in the shadowy margins regarded with fear and suspicion, but poised to engulf the land. 

If we consider Martin's novels (and the series made from them) a world and Martin absolute god of that world, I'd call Martin a generous and sadistic deity both, cunning in the way he avoids cliches, imaginative in realizing his creations; so far he's kept stubborn control, and while not everyone is willing to follow (especially after The Red Wedding, where Shakespeare's phrase "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" applies with more jawdropping force than in any other example I can think of in recent popular fiction), others keep a tight hold while firmly seated on the emotionally epic roller-coaster ride he's given us. Forget Daenerys, Cersei, ruthless Tywin or even psychotic Joffrey: any craven act, any moral outrage, any spectacularly sadistic torture or perversion or combination thereof comes first and foremost from Martin's mind--and (to be fair) so do any act of quiet heroism, or unexpected mercy, or lifelong sacrifice. In his head--that's where the real game's played.


An interpretation of Tyrion Lannister, by Noe Tortosa

Friday, April 04, 2014

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Blue Movie

Abdellatif Kechiche's Palme D'Or-winning feature--an adaptation of the comic book by Julie Maroh--is a miracle of a portrait of quotidian life: how Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is joined on the bus she's riding by a boy she knows from school, how they casually talk and flirt; how she pulls a tangle of pasta from her father's manhole-sized serving dish and champs noisily; how she falls asleep, and her pudgy fingers--not quite childlike, not quite adult--brush her ample behind in a half-sensual, half irritated manner, prior to masturbation.

The masturbation scene by the way--with camera bedside, mostly focused on Adele's face, mostly told from Adele's subjective viewpoint (with shots cuing us--unnecessarily, I thought--that some of what's happening is fantasy)--is my favorite bit of eroticism: lazy and slow to start, it rollercoasters into unexpected directions including an intense, literally climactic visitation by one steely-eyed blue-haired girl (Lea Seydoux). If sex is all about intimacy, about men and women being not just nude but naked, this is as naked as one can get--a startling peek into Adele's unruly mind, a brief glimpse at an about-to-bloom sexual obsession, a choice sampling of her burgeoning, uncertain sexuality. 

Kechiche's film lives and breathes in these little details, in the filmmaker's way of making the most ordinary material casually, remarkably cinematic. Take Adele's first glimpse of Emma, her blue-haired girl: she spots Emma across the street, the camera following as she approaches; cut to a sweep from right to left as Emma walks past, a reverse sweep as Adele turns back, thunderstruck; cut to a shot of Emma walking away, an intrigued expression on her departing face. It's not quite Fassbinder--there is no Michael Chapman-esque pirouette round the lovers, sealing their doom in a delirious spiral--but Kechiche has a nearby hammered-steel drum do an urgent riff, and your heart can't help but trill in response.  

Can't even begin to say how important Ms. Exarchopoulos is to the film--Kechiche changed the protagonist's name from Clementine to the actor's own, claiming that in his language her name meant 'justice' (it does, though interestingly in Arabic it's a man's name). The French-Greek actress is hardly one's idea of a beauty--she doesn't have the flawlessly healthy vigor of a Jennifer Lawrence--yet under Kechiche's absorbed (some would say obsessed) gaze she's something altogether more tangible, more fascinating: a child-woman on the brink, her tiniest gestures magnified, her flaws transmuted into virtues. Her mouth is in constant motion, either giving or receiving pleasure, information, food; even in sleep it's slightly open as if dissatisfied with what it's taken in through the course of a long day (interesting detail: if you take a peek you'll spot two buck teeth hidden carefully between the pouted lips). 

Lea Seydoux's Emma is more astringent: her eyes are narrowed, focused on a faraway goal; her smile is crooked, altogether more cynical. When she talks she can act casual as if she didn't give a damn, but when upset she will push and push to get what she wants--a marked contrast to Adele's warm, forgivingly fleshy presence.

Kechiche doesn't film the lovers on a blank canvas; against the comic book's main plot he throws up a background of unrest and class consciousness, from students demanding more money for education to a gay pride parade (in a moment of fortuitous destiny the film opened shortly after the French government recognized gay marriage). Emma is upper class--you see this in her glamorous, more sexually sophisticated parents (they welcome Adele with a kind of open absentmindedness), her tonier cultural sheen; Adele's parents are working class--she introduces Emma as her philosophy tutor, as she's (presumably) afraid they wouldn't understand. 

Then there are the dishes served: Emma's parents offer a dainty plate of oysters, a revelatory experience for Adele, who has never really eaten seafood (I'd call the scene cliched, save Kechiche adds a lovely detail--when hit with a squeeze of citrus a truly fresh oyster cringes, like genital flesh in pain); Adele's father cooks endless bowls of steaming pasta in thick deep-red marinara sauce (Adele in turn cooks and serves her father's pasta to Emma's party guests, who scarf down the food (they seem pleasantly surprised to be served plentiful and palatable fare)).

If there's a flaw to the film sadly it's in the now-infamous seven-plus minutes of lesbian lovemaking: Emma and Adele entwine in a series of Playboy fantasy scenarios, coyly hiding genitals with cunningly arranged wrists and limbs, with the occasional reveal (molded prosthetics, as it turns out). Can't say I saw anything definitively abusive  (accounts of what happened behind the camera vary, and even the actors involved seem ambivalent), and it isn't as if I don't appreciate onscreen eroticism (if anything we need more of it, in greater variety), but compared to what Kechiche had achieved before--the aforementioned masturbation scene, a brief session of sex with a young man--this stuff falls woefully flat, feels not so much voyeuristically captured as it does unpersuasively manufactured. 

But if I have to hold the film accountable for the misstep it's because the rest of the film registers such vital immediacy. In the end (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to watch the film) Emma, angered at Adele's unfaithfulness, throws her out; you can't help but feel old-fashioned class anger at the way this rich so-and-so has exploited a fresh middle-class dumpling and spat her unceremoniously out the moment she's lost her savor (or was Adele's infidelity Emma's excuse to shack up with yet another beauty, already heavy with child, an instant family?). Are we asked to condemn Adele, approve of Emma's high moral standards, or to condemn Emma's rigidity, sympathize with Adele's plight (I'd say the latter)? When they meet again years later in an art exhibit, you badly want Adele to exact retribution, toss an expensive glass of wine at her ex-lover's face, hopefully splatter one of Emma's large-scale (and not all that inspiring, come to think of it) canvases. That Adele doesn't feels unsatisfying, but not untruthful--you think of her as a fully realized character you wish would triumph, would enjoy the best life can offer; you're also willing to allow her her own choices, even her own form of suffering. You believe in Adele enough to allow her room to live her own life, even away and against your own ideas of how that life should look like.

The questions of who should come out on top seem irrelevant, though--ultimately she's already won over the people who matter: Kechiche; the Cannes jury; us. One of the better films, I'd say, of 2013. 

First published in Businessworld, 3.27.14