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Friday, 18 January 2019

#204 THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1978

The ironic passivity and formality of the title emphasize the fact that Frau Braun can never be possessed by anyone or any institution--much to the chagrin of the men in her life. The title, then, begs the question: to whom or to what is she married?

Thursday, 6 December 2018

#702 THE GREAT BEAUTY and The Exorcism of Roots. Paolo Sorrentino 2013

It begins with a barbaric yawp. 

This beautiful film is an essay on, or better yet a contemplation of, creativity and its place in time. It begins with the protagonist's milestone 65th birthday party and evolves into an exploration of energy, sex and ennui combined in coherent unison.  Even funerals are not exempt from the Romantic. Funerals, after all, like all of Jep's life, are theatre. The movie is replete with performance, art, and performance art. Of course Sorrentino pays homage to Fellini in any number of instances as we journey through Rome's backways from Jep's point of view. However, this is not the busy, smelly, car-ridden Rome of Lonely Planet fame. Silence embraces the slight echoey sounds of water in fountains; you can almost taste the water, and feel it on your face. No one crosses a busy road, no horns are honking. No cars appear (except for one chauffeured vehicle with a Cardinal inside--faith always paired with decadence in Roma). As a matter of fact, aside from the Cardinal's ride, we see only two symbols of modern technology: we see airplanes far, far, up in the sky; in that context, they take on the characteristics of birds and just blend in with the other natural settings (by "natural" we must, with some delight, include art and architecture). The other instance is during a flashback where Jep has a run-in with a motorboat. The homage is more 81/2 than La Dolce Vita  but when a wild animal appears around a corner in the middle of a piazza, that image of striking juxtaposition from And the Ship Sails On, the one of the rhino on the boat, is evoked. Nevertheless, we can hardly be surprised when Alice's Wonderland turns out a wonder or two.

Tempus fugit: When the hangover is done, Jep realizes that although time has passed, what has not been so obvious is that those images, people and events that have passed are truly gone and, with them, crucial parts of himself. Can he regain them? Can Time be regained? He spends many moments in this film with tears in his eyes (much like Proust's protagonist in the novels I imagine). One of his friends (during a performance of course) declares that there is nothing at all wrong with "nostalgia" -- it's the only thing left for those who have no faith in the future. Another friend has set up an exhibit of photographs in the midst of a gorgeous, grassy outdoor arena. As the sun shines on him, Jep peruses the thousands of small photos on the ancient walls. They are photos of his friend, taken by his father every day since he was born until the age of 14, and after that by himself. Not one day of his life is missed. What a brilliant metaphor: some photos have a smile, some are grim, some goofy, some sad looking, others just hung over or looking like shit. Forgotten days, yet so important in the moment. The only time we can possibly die is in the moment--the past deserves respect because we made it through that moment repeatedly. The point is emphasized by the suicide of a friend's son: he did not survive the moment. Cue tears.

Love is paramount. Paramours are rife, but young, true, first love is still sacred in this picture full of sacred things and people, and sacrilege of same. When a man comes to Jep's door and says that his wife has just died--an old flame of Jep's--Jep and he stand in the foyer weeping. Then the man confesses he read his wife's diary where she says Jep was the only true love of her life--a man she had broken it off with 35 years before! These ironic parallels and cross-overs into an almost alternate reality are poignant; it's always poignant (and sometimes terrifying) to get a glimpse behind the curtain of Fate and our role in it, and its role in our lives.

Jep has a beautiful aging girlfriend who literally embodies this tension between times past and present. "I spend all my money on medical treatments," she tells him. They are content in each other's company, almost relieved to find even a semblance of love at their age; with another lady friend he rejoices that they haven't ever slept together (of course he has to ask her to make sure) and says it's wonderful to have something to look forward to. Faith in the future. Jep struggles to have it, and seeks it, while his "nostalgic" friend gives up and leaves Rome, calling it, in a moment of delicious understatement, a "disappointment"--he had lived there for 40 years.

Jep seeks "people who are younger than me. Things." Thanks to his friend with a case of ancient keys, Jep is able to tour the secret places of Rome where everything is far, far older than he. He feels youthful before the statues, the sculptures, the paintings--although even there he can't completely escape Time, as Sorrentino softly draws us in towards a medieval painting of a girl in her youth, her deshabillement somehow coy and innocent at the same time, her smile enigmatic, as if to say to him, "Remember this?" Flashback to when he was 25, swimming at the beach with some girls, including that one he loved but who ended up marrying someone else. He does not know why she left him, and it haunts him.

Haunting is a function of time as well. You can not be haunted (unless you are Mr. Scrooge) by the future or the present; the traditional ghosts are dead ones from the past. The only "spiritual" question Jep asks of the Cardinal at dinner is if it's true the father was a great exorcist. What demons does Jep have in mind? The dinner party is thrown in honour of the 104 year old Sister Maria--a saint but not a Saint, as the culinary Cardinal makes clear (he tediously spouts recipes as dinner conversation rather than pithy theological bon mots). The Sister wears the nun's garb, but she could not be further removed from the church, as demonstrated by the Cardinal's sour faces and total lack of connection with her--he natters on about rabbit recipes and drives off in a shiny black limousine, while she she speaks rarely, slowly, and at a low volume, but very clearly. The first time she speaks she utters, tellingly, a piece of wisdom cleverly consistent with the film's theme. Essentially she says (is Jep listening?) that one doesn't talk about life, one lives it.

Is she part of the supernatural, part of the "great beauty" that Jep has sought his whole life throughout the inner sancta of Roman streets and galleries since writing his only novel at age 26? We are not sure--but she appears to command a flock of flamingos. Jep seeks answers but asks the wrong questions, as he did above with the Cardinal, but the Sister knows what to tell him, unsolicited. "Roots are important," she murmurs to Jep, and the circle is complete: the conflict inside him that was catalyzed by his 65th birthday may not be resolved, but her words act as a vital reminder to him (and to us of course) that it doesn't have to be one or the other--stark differentiations of life moments, ages, and faces, like at his parties where the old desperately party with the young as if that youth can infuse them and alter their aged genes. Roots are important. The past is not only just as important as the present, but they are indispensable to each other as a means to moving forward...and finding that faith in the future. Jep's wise blue-haired editor remarks dryly to him soon after his birthday, "You've changed. You're always thinking." His struggling climb ends when he stops obsessing over "the awkward predicament of existing in this world" and allows himself to remember, not like a series of photographic images gone by, for he must renounce the negative trap of nostalgia, but as a wake of feelings that wash away the animal numbness and open the door to the great beauty of creativity.

"Roots are important."

Thursday, 15 November 2018

#229 SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Socratic Screenwriter: Ingmar Bergman 1973

Marianne thinks she can drop the "horrible masks."

Ingmar Bergman undoubtedly would like to be placed next to August Strindberg on history's shelf--but Henrik Ibsen shouldn't be too far away.

Not to say that we can not distinguish between Scandinavian geniuses, but there definitely is such a thing as the Scandinavian genius when referring to theatre. Scenes from a Marriage is a brilliant piece of film disguised as theatre.

As Johan leaves Marianne, cinematographer Sven Nykvist zooms in on Liv Ullmann's anguished face and we hear a door slam in the background: This is an echo of the original "door slam heard around the world," a famous comment attributed to Shaw about the ending of A Doll's House (1879). Johan is the new Nora, a fascinating, even humorous, ironic twist on a sacred theme. The final moments of A Doll's House set the social world between the sexes on fire. The ending even struck the Germans as so egregious that Ibsen was forced to write an "alternative ending" lest the censors just go ahead and do it themselves (copyright law has come a long way). Scenes from a Marriage is a series of door slams: reality, honesty, self-worth and reliance are all slammed, as are their anti-social and destructive counterparts.

Ironically as well, Johan and Marianne go to see A Doll's House early on in the series. When they get home they start discussing it as they change clothes and prepare a meal. Johan is derisive about the ending of the play. In a speech he concludes by saying he doesn't "mean a word of," he mocks the ending as rubbish, saying that women can do whatever they like now, which basically implies that Nora's ending is therefore irrelevant in a modern context: and so, according to Johan, is feminism. The source for this Comic diatribe is partly what makes it comical: Johan's insulation from the world and from the realpolitik of female life is almost charming.

This charm is part of the trap that Marianne is lamenting falling into--the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. The codes of behaviour espoused in female life are transferred and reinforced from generation to generation, in an endless progression. Bergman aggressively questions these "expectations" as Johan calls them near the series' end. Marianne tries to open Johan's eyes to the brutal reality of this cycle, albeit with limited effect. In a telling moment of self-awareness, she declares, "I was outnumbered, having to fight you, both sets of parents and society." Freedom from these bonds is freedom from and for oneself, whether that freedom comes with a death or a divorce. Knowing what you want allows you to decide whether to let the other person have what they want; the two are not necessarily always mutually exclusive. Marianne believes humanity's emotional holy grail is to "feel tenderness" without "effacing" oneself.

Marianne writes in her journal that she was always "wanting what he [any man] wanted," rather than what she wanted. Even Johan himself reveals that he "tried to fulfill other people's expectations," although this is especially true for Marianne; only in solitude does she realize she never even knew what she wanted before--or that she was wanting anything at all. This is revealed over a beautifully quiet montage of photos, ranging from childhood to precocious teenage wakefulness, which slides before us as her soft voice reads. It is one of many mesmerizing sequences in the series, a series that at first blush (even to Ullmann herself when she was reviewing the script) seems like it will show as a flat back and forth between two tired complaining people as they recline on tacky furniture and sip chardonnay. Like a socratic dialogue, but with dirty dishes.

The truth could not be more contrary to this image. The quotidian, the minutiae, and the trivial remain as such, but they extend from mere actions or activities into more complex territory: habits of thought, of feeling, even of gestures, which reveal scars heretofore unknown even to the wearers themselves. Their rituals are our rituals. There are many times when the dialogue or a scene is uncomfortable to sit through. Nevertheless, their conversations are consistently revelatory, even revolutionary at times. It is no accident that this series has resonated worldwide and continues doing so.

Our perspective as silent third party in turn has an ironic and unexpected effect: we begin a dialogue within, echoing Johan's and Marianne's questions and the lies they tell themselves and each other (even when they are being brutally honest). These characters, who begin this series as very different people indeed (from themselves and each other), come to represent two paths in life, both painful: one that of maturity and growth, the other a darker passage into the temptations of nihilism. The crucial bit to remember is that this is a fiction: while these characters are powerfully vivid symbols of the male and female paths, they also act in combination as a metaphor for the modern individual; they are also one, and taken in tandem they encapsulate our own foibles. As Liv Ullmann says in the Criterion interview: "Here we are [30 years later], with our longing, with our love, with our lust, with our being deceitful--and being left." As the scenes unfold one after the other, we ask ourselves, test ourselves, and the sweat breaks out on our brows as words are spoken which echo in our own secret chambers.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

#637 PURPLE NOON. René Clément 1960

Clément touches on many themes we would now still consider au courant in this first cinematic adaptation of the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote Strangers on a Train). Identity is another concept explored, of course, but I was reminded mostly of our present fascination with the "3%" (or whatever arbitrary percentage is the flavour of the day) and our collective jealousy towards this ephemeral group. I'm sure Tom Ripley would agree that somehow those richer than we are do not deserve their money or their status--at least, not as much as we would deserve the same. And while it is absurd to kill someone for condescendingly teaching us how to use a knife in society, this is implicitly an acceptable motive in the film. The injustice of it! Our complicity, then, is perhaps the key theme in this sly story. The fact is, while this film is indeed about the tragic misuse of resources, the misuse focused upon is on Tom Ripley's part, not Philippe's (whose greatest sin on screen appears to be that he is a consummate asshole; it is very reasonable, of course, to have doubts concerning his father's off-screen business practices which may or may not be (stereotypically) dubious). Tom uses his so-called "talents" to commit fraud and murder, full stop. The fact that this character is so likable says more about audience sensibilities, past and present, than about him. 

Friday, 2 November 2018

#837 DEKALOG 5. Krzysztof Kieślowski 1988

"It was almost as if my case was being tried without me," Camus writes. 
In his Criterion write up on each Dekalog segment, Paul Coates reminds us that "Jacek says he did not listen to the trial." This "Outsider," much like Camus' Meursault, may even have felt a little "superfluous" as he was caught up in "the merciless rite" of capital punishment. Just as Meursault "was already very far away from that courtroom," Jacek is ready to go back home, to prison (the real one and the one in his mind). The prison is part of a system which is as determined to kill him as he was the taxi driver, legalities notwithstanding.

For Kieślowski, Jacek's presence is far from superfluous, since his goal is not so much to expose the legal machinations of capital punishment as to put as human a face as possible on this rite. Yet it is not sympathy we are asked to feel: the protracted murder scene definitively precludes any such feeling. We are meant to feel a more systemic sympathy as it were; just like in Oshima's Death by Hanging, which is full of uncomfortable confrontations regarding the death penalty, we are forced to look into the face being inserted in the guillotine. Coates posits the murder in Dekalog 5 as a type of revenge killing: Jacek's revenge against the world that took away the person most precious to him, and his sole tether to the collective we call humanity. He was definitely a part of it; the moments when he smiles at the little girls, separated from them inside the cafe by the glass barrier, ironically take on a charming and poignant quality rather than seeming creepy, because we can see how precious his little sister was to him.

The world Kieślowski shows us is not only ethically and morally tainted; it is literally dirtied through the use of a series of filters. The cinematography is grainy, dark around the edges, almost like the point of view of someone in the last moments of life as their eyes close. The shutter is closing; the rest is silence. We also see many other symbolic snippets and images, such as the one above of the devil's head hanging from the taxi driver's windshield, a "nod" to the modern world's broken faith.

Also broken is the brackish landscape that constitutes the murder scene and which gives a desperately remote feel to those moments; the murder happens far from the eyes of God, and is as disturbing as can be expected, despite the taxi driver's previously despicable behaviour; what aspect of our humanity is dying there in the victim's throes? The only witnesses are not human: a horse looks on, as do the inscrutable Easter Island faces of nearby apartment blocks. The train going by might represent the dehumanizing and faceless rate of progress that inevitably leaves the individual behind. The water's muddy reedy edge where the driver's body ends up looks like a primordial swamp, a setting for our species' basest urges. Kieślowski firmly connects this messy horrible act with the antiseptic legal processes that kill Jacek and, like Jacek's tormented lawyer, asks whether there is any difference between them.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

#583 THE FOUR FEATHERS. Zoltán Korda 1939

So ’ere ’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ’ome in the Soudan;
    You ’re a pore benighted ’eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
    An’ ’ere ’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ’ayrick ’ead of ’air—
    You big black boundin’ beggar—for you broke a British square!

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

#212 INGMAR BERGMAN MAKES A MOVIE. Vilgot Sjöman 1962

"More contour."

The unmatched access portrayed in this film is somewhat deceptive; Vilgot Sjöman (of I Am Curious Yellow/Blue fame) certainly does have frank conversations with Bergman, but with limitations. The inner sanctum contains a few Do Not Enter signs. For example, we do indeed see footage of detailed rehearsals for a scene in The Communicants/Winter Light, but as Sjöman reveals in the DVD sleeve, they are re-dos of rehearsals and filming--a kind of re-creation of actual events, but which for all intents and purposes may as well have been the "real" thing, since the director, crew and actors were all perfectly and genuinely engaged in the scene just as if the TV documentary cameras weren't there to observe and record every nuance and detail. And of course Bergman had input on how the interviews turned out, not hesitating to insist on further takes of certain portions (he gets his way).  

I could not help but watch this documentary in the context of another recent documentary on the man: Bergman - A Year in a Life (2018) directed by Jane Magnusson. Like this film, Magnusson focuses on a very specific time period for Bergman (1957, a particularly prolific year). While Sjöman is on an artist's journey, Magnusson spotlights the man himself, his neuroses and even some alarming attitudes and behaviour. So as Bergman eloquently and disarmingly explains his fears and hopes to Sjöman, I have a kind of commentary reel running parallel in my mind full of images and descriptions of Bergman in a sometimes less flattering light. This struck me as relevant because, first of all, this documentary is essentially given a meta-title--Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. It's a movie about him being asked questions about himself making a movie about himself (well, his inner workings). It's very much a before/during/after structure (even though Bergman would not show his Boswellian interviewer initial drafts of proto-ideas for the Winter Light project). Bergman makes it clear that you can not separate the man from the film. Magnusson turns the question inside-out: Can you separate these films from the man? 

Regardless of opinions about the person, his process, or even Winter LightSjöman (and Magnusson, in a different way) honours truth--or at the very least has created for the record an attempt to discuss and elicit genuine feelings and ideas from Bergman regarding Bergman's perspectives on many fundamental concepts of artistic creation, in particular resulting in a penetrating study of the technical, spiritual, and human aspects of the art form of film itself. 

Vilgot Sjöman: Do you feel filming is a technical task, or is it a continuation of the creative aspect?...
Bergman: ...With the script you're only halfway there.... It's about continuously creating life. Making sure it's alive the whole time.
Bergman: I don't think a play or a film becomes a play or a film until it has encountered the audience.... The work isn't born until that strange and terrible moment of encounter.
 At the premieres of his films, Bergman used to get "the feeling of being judged. What you've envisioned in your innermost heart, that which you've created in the belief that it was somehow necessary and that it might be necessary for other people too...is judged unnecessary or stupid or silly...."

Vilgot Sjöman

Friday, 28 September 2018

#786 DONT LOOK BACK. D. A. Pennebaker 1967

Dylan is no milquetoast pop icon, yet being labelled an "anarchist" absolutely befuddles him.

                                                                             I am not surprised Bob Dylan seems like a cool dude, but there are a couple of very tense scenes. There's one where Dylan is absolutely livid that someone has thrown a glass into the street where it has shattered. He is relentless in his interrogations to find out who threw that glass, and the language, both verbal and non-verbal, is heated. When, unsurprisingly, no one fesses up to it, Dylan prepares to go outside and clean it up himself. Just before we see the subsequent scene where things are calm and reconciliatory, Dylan is caught personally apologizing to what looks like the concierge for the glass. All this while Donovan sits observing bemusedly, a little nervous smile on his face. This scene was very peculiar set as it is in the midst of footage full of all kinds of "deep" philosophizing--like when Dylan asks a journalist what the word "friend" actually means, kicking off a fascinating Socratic dialogue about the nature of friendship as it pertains to our own selfish wants and needs. In another sequence Dylan is the one who throws and smashes the glass, rhetorically: he has an incensed anti-interview with a non-plussed writer from Time, and does a fair job dismantling the intent and efficacy of main stream media. "There's no ideas in Time magazine," he insists. "There's just these facts which too are switched." His categorical rejection of labels such as "folk artist" is ironically epitomized when he learns a couple of papers have written that he is an "anarchist," which he says, in his laconic manner, is "not cool."

Most of the first half of the documentary catches "behind the scenes" with only some actual stage footage, this increasing as the film progresses. As Bob Dylan goes through a door onto the stage, someone closes the door on the camera, blocking as it were its (and our) progress behind him, as if the camera's power stops at the stage door. Indeed, his captivating performances notwithstanding (especially the Albert Hall clip, filmed surrealistically from behind him), a lot of the magic of this film centers on those scenes where the artists are plunking at a piano or guitar strings amongst abandoned empty wine cups and smouldering cigarettes, with Joan Baez's beautiful lilt interwoven there.

Friday, 17 August 2018

#720 THE BIG CHILL. Lawrence Kasdan 1983

The distance from the outside world is implied by infinitely receding landscapes.

A group of former college pals gather at the funeral of one of their own; that is not a spoiler, but the premise of the film. Zeitgeist USA captured; watching in the 80s, younger audiences felt nostalgic for a part of our lives that we knew we would live in the near future and that would be gone in a fleeting moment. Yet the film is firmly not obsessed with nostalgia for the past; hence Kasdan's decision not to include any thematically retrograde flashbacks; this is actually a film about moving forward. Every character has been in a sense rejuvenated by the sacrifice of their friend. They are not young and not old but have just enough experience to be in need of rejuvenation. "I'm getting a little frosty myself," the defense lawyer says of the big, chilly world she must deal with. The Magnum P.I. action hero is surprised at his naivete in thinking how many people who grew up just like him and his friends and who went through so many similar experiences (presumably 60s stuff) are scumbags. He expected them to be more like him and his friends, essentially decent people. The irony of what he is saying is cute: he's a Hollywood actor, another is a tabloid junk writer, another is that defense lawyer, another is a chain store magnate; good people, all, who are slightly uncomfortable with how their bourgeois lives sit with their revolutionary roots. When a delivery man calls Kevin Kleine's character Harold (who is the magnate) "Mr. Cooper," one of the others raises eyebrows at the "Mr." He says, sheepishly, "It's my name." Material gain and money are almost at the center of it all; that center in fact belongs to conflicts that abound under the various sunshine and shades of sex, whether out of desire or for family; the line is indeed thin. Kasdan asks, How does time work on all of these variables?

The overarching variable that works on us all once we leave the nest (if we had the privilege of having one) is the cliche that is nonetheless a fact: the big bad world out there. Herein lies the central conflict and the reason why Kasdan's multi-protagonist format can work; they are hunkered down against the encroachment of that world. Their presence fills their friend's absence, and their struggle to understand his motives is the struggle to find their own. But to do that they need respite from that outside realm in which they have become so completely enmeshed by family, work, competing scruples, and even war.

Their distance from the outer world is not measured in miles; it is implied by the landscape shots, at times receding into mist. Even the jog through the town with William Hurt and Kleine is tinged with a lovely misty dreamscape quality--well, it's literally foggy. It is as if the edges of their domain disappear, and their domain, for just one weekend, is all there is. Communications from the outside seem distant and are certainly silent, like the phone calls from Harold and Sarah's kids. Actual sounds within their cocoon emanate from the hi-fi system as Motown classics, music from their youth trapped like a genie in a bottle. Still there are some symbolic contemporary intrusions on their idyll, all based on comic turns.

First of all, at a crucial juncture in a conversation a bat gets in through a window and a fun bat hunt ensues. A creature that may have darker symbolic significance in other contexts becomes a hopeful reminder to these friends that the evil (to say vampiric might be too heavy) nature of the enemy without is not insurmountable. The delivery I mentioned is the other; everyone gets their own new pair of Nikes, delivered to Mr. Harold Cooper's door on the weekend by a worker, a tribute to his power, no matter how sheepish his reactions. Despite the light-hearted treatment, there is something slightly weird about someone buying your shoes for you; it almost reads as an impertinence. But they are colourful shoes. Finally we have the ultimate divisive symbol in the form of a local police officer who turns up with the ironically manly Vietnam war vet Nick in tow and is cause for an argument with Harold, who now sides firmly with the Man. All these agents of the outside serve as symbols of the cruel world; ostensibly, Alex's suicide stems from his intolerance for the hypocrisies of this same world.

That is why his girlfriend is such a funny juxtaposition to this class reunion. She seems simple minded at times, giggles at inopportune junctures, is disappointed she can't ride in the lead limo at the funeral--because she's always wanted to ride in a limo. Nevertheless, her surface naivete represents a refreshing lack of angst; she never had to protest a Vietnam. They don't get her, but she is a citizen of these chilling times that are challenging their principles on a daily basis. She is the relevant one, the new child: They realize time really runs one way and that they better keep up, but Kasdan keeps the lesson fun. He plays with notions of family as much as friendship, implying the two are one and the same category, intertwining just as various bodies intertwine in the film. The offspring of these unions, both emotional and actual, will carry them forward and prepare them for the next phase of their lives, where they will arrive presumably more grounded than at the start of this film.

Monday, 6 August 2018

#486 HOMICIDE David Mamet 1991

I'll look at this viewing like an historical project:  It's Mamet, so I am watching.  My main objection to this film is the very same central theme Mamet wishes to explore/explode, that of identity.  I thought it was absurd, in an immigrant based society, to present an argument that without your original cultural identity you are nothing, even less than.  So the Jewish cop did not know from Hebrew and was therefore looked at with pity, if not open hostility.  To me, the cop not being able to read Hebrew seemed a perfectly normal second-generation position to be in.  He does have an identity:  American.  The argument for the value of cultural roots is valid and important, but the absence of same is not a handicap in a New World context, since you are living in a--wait for it--new world.  So I tossed this thematic spine out from sheer irritation.  Seeing a grown man and a cop no less being bullied for this reason is not palatable.  And then, I'm sorry to say, you have the painfully stereotyped cop show and some weird moments regarding fire arms.  Mamet's signature conversational patois is not exactly missing here as it is ineffectual and even ham handed.  I'll have to leave this as a rare negative, all the more surprising for being Mamet.  

Friday, 29 June 2018

#888 THE BLAKEAN: STALKER. Andrei Tarkovsky 1979

This film conflates two fundamental legends of human nature, that of the Pandora's Box and of the djinn (we can fold the Fountain of Youth and a Holy Grail quest into the latter--the djinn will grant both eternal life and the grail, if you want to waste 2 wishes on those). Because we can't stand aside while a Tree grows there enticingly dangling fruit we were told not to touch, or while a closed box we were told under no circumstances to open sits in front of us. And because we have learned on the cellular level what Buddha articulated as "all life is a struggle" (for which, as he tactfully failed to mention, we are not equally equipped)-- for this, the djinn can offer some sweet shortcuts. 

Enter the Zona.

In the Zone the old instincts are triggered, with a slight alteration (think post-monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Since our awakening, a spontaneous fight and flight signal is often fired up in the kiln within. For the Zone requires battles on multiple levels, and simultaneously represents a running away from. (Each individual running away from their own something.) There are only broken souls in the Zone. And a dog--but nature is never affected by itself except in the context of a closed system. We are always trying to separate ourselves from this cycle, and many of humanity's stories serve as allegories and warnings against this tendency. Science Fiction often strives to remind us that we can not extricate ourselves from our universe. What better metaphor for nature than an alien presence/absence that doesn't seem to know of our existence yet has a profound effect on it, and not just physically? These themes and motifs are later echoed in SOLARIS in terms of the planet itself, a doppelganger of earth, both a mirror of us, even though we often strive to deny the latter.

And so the Zone is a mirror of us, a freeze-framed alien DMZ within us that borders the two countries, the World, and the Undiscovered Country, the eminently unknowable that we strive to know. This "zone" within represents our deepest fears and our most intense desires. We often flee them, even as we fight for them, a paradox. Humanity is a paradox and, by fantastic extension in the context of most science fiction, so are all sentient beings , such as the ones responsible for the Zone. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, authors of the source novel Roadside Picnic, provide Tarkovsky with a rich playground, full of nice shiny toys to choose from. However, just as Solaris is a Tarkovsky film rather than a sci-fi flick per se, so is Stalker

The Zone is a demented version of (an inversion of? a diversion from?) the Garden of Eden, conceived by two brothers living in their own ironic Eden, a garden full of knowledge of good and evil where the inhabitants are simultaneously caged but roaming free, and cast out but not allowed to leave, another paradox; the place was called the Soviet Union (hence "red"?). The novel gently (but firmly) pursues this aspect of life in its depiction of the town of Harmont (Roadside Picnic did finally get by the government censors in the late 1970s, although it was a back and forth process that took a couple of years: kind of a QED moment for the brothers.)  The fact is, like the concept of a "country", the primordial concept of the garden is inherently complex; i.e., dead things allow new things to live. In Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie's protagonist Geronimo Manezes has an epiphany about the dual nature of gardens: 

 ...The garden was the outward expression of inner truth, the place where the dreams of our childhoods collided with the archetypes of our cultures, and created beauty.... but he...knew...that a garden could also be a metaphor of the infernal. In the end [gardens depicting] both...terrifying "earthly delights" and...murmurous mysticism helped him formulate his own thoughts and he came to see the garden...as somehow Blakean, a marriage of heaven and hell.

A Blakean landscape--I can not say whether Tarkovsky was familiar with Blake, but the Zone does seem a blend of heaven and hell. It is a source of miracles and an eerie peace, although the quiet may result in the visitor's quietus. We must not mistake the 'hell' part for those natural hazards found in the Zone--these are no more hellish than a forest fire or volcanic eruption. The cliché "hell on earth" is redundant--there is only earth. Any "hell" is of our own making, anthropomorphism at best, arrogance at worst. The anguished souls that enter (and re-enter, in Red's case) the Zone bring their hell with them and believe they can quench its fires in the Zone with a deus ex machina short cut straight from the djinn's lamp. The "Golden Sphere" of the novel is exactly the Aladdin's lamp: the rub is, in the Zone you may not live to get close enough to rub it. In the film this concept is presented as The Room, that unreachable place of the soul, an El Dorado where the seekers do not see that their destruction is inevitable given that contradictory rules run this Place--how can a place be both a panacea of the soul, and a source of material wealth. I mean, literally, how much gold can one human carry? This metaphor brings to mind an image of Smaug sitting atop his impossible Hoard, a perverted dream of humankind, and inevitably guarded over jealously by a beast that serves as an ugly and deadly symbol of the greeds that consume us.  Whence come these hungers?

Strugatskian strangenesses implied. The disturbing side of a new age of miracles.

One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the illusion how virtually nothing happens in it. At one point, we see long shots of Red sleeping. Action, movement, causality and death are all implied. Tarkovsky is challenging us: You want to learn about life, but want the instructional video to be in fast forward? No, friend. This is the speed at which we live, and therefore the speed at which we must learn. Any cheating--any excessive uses of editing, or sound, or overt imagery, gets us off the hook, much like relying on a film for a novelist's story instead of actually reading the book. Yes, art can be said to imitate life, but do we really mean it when we say we accept that? This is not to say that Tarkovsky avoids these artistic conceits altogether. Sound in particular is used in a unique way in the film, for Tarkovsky is determined only to imply the Strugatskian strangenesses. So voices are heard, objects move by themselves for a moment, but mostly we rely on Aleksandr Kaidanovsky's performance as Red to convince us that the Zone is the deadly thing the legends say it is.

The fact is although this is a new Garden, one created (even passively, thoughtlessly) by aliens, human beings are the ones alien in it, as usual perverting it for their own uses and in turn tempting us to foster and serve our lowest most desperate tendencies. Tarkovsky is essentially demonstrating the birth of a new religion, with the all the concomitant persecutions, political machinations and miracles that this implies--a forgivable shift of emphasis from the Strugatskys, for both texts are enriched by this choice.

Dr. Valentine in Roadside Picnic: "The aliens are...preparing us for the time of cruel miracles." This phrase comes from the last sentence of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris.  It is also translated as "the time of cruel wonders." The phrase is quite in keeping with the "cruel wonders" that these science fiction writers saw coming thanks to rampant technological advances; as always, they were worried whether our ethics would also advance in time to save us from ourselves (they were, after all, writing in the Cold War era, where a terrorist bomb was a pin prick compared to mutually assured destruction).

Of course, the iconic visitors he is guiding through the Zone, the Professor and the Writer, are the doubting Thomases of our day. Thus Tarkovsky adds yet another dimension to the novel, the intellectual versus the spiritual, the classic struggle over our belief systems and very existence. They doubt the integrity of their Red Priest, and well they should.

I went to the Garden of Love. 
And I saw what I never had seen: 
A Chapel was built in the midst, 
Where I used to play on the green. 

And the gates of this Chapel were shut, 
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door; 
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love, 
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves, 
And tomb-stones where flowers should be; 
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, 
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

A new Priest in a new kind of Garden, Red guards the rituals of the Zone, a fervent believer and living martyr, reborn Lazar-like every time he survives a new foray into the Zone--this along with all-new crucifixes.

The Strugatsky epigraph for the novel is from Robert Penn Warren and reads: "Goodness...You got to make it out of badness.... Because there isn't anything else to make it out of." All the materials for our world are here; nothing alien will come and save us, we must use what we have: we must use what this worldly garden provides, yes, but, more profoundly, we are a product of this same garden, not above it, for thinking that is just another metaphor for calling ourselves a god over a creation. We didn't create this garden, and it didn't create us. It is, and we are. The universe is, and so, the Zone is.

Monday, 28 May 2018

#152 GEORGE WASHINGTON. David Gordon Green 2000

A cold blooded-dinosaur-like mask to represent the "extinction" of childhood.

Buddy recites from the Book of Job and the words reflect regret for loss and a yearning for a time when the world smiled on us (which, sadly, is what childhood is supposed to be). The title itself implies a hearkening back to the nation's innocent hopeful beginnings when the republic was all potential; a brutally stark contrast is created in the imagination, as we look around at what the camera captures. The setting is littered with the post apocalyptic detritus of an industrialized world. Wealth --somewhere else-- is represented by mountains of rust and decay. You can't have that much garbage without a glorious bounty --somewhere. Yet ironically Rico Rice says to Buddy that their town has its good and bad aspects like any other place. At first that is easy to dismiss, but if we take his words at face value and think about them, they are profound. As helpless and hopeless as these characters feel (and seem, to us), the positive tries to poke its head out throughout the film. Relationships, and love, try to flourish.

Nevertheless, make no mistake, this film is a funeral dirge for broken youth. Job's forlorn speech is a lament rather than a prayer per se. Rico can't tell if it's Shakespeare or the Bible; a clever equivalency is suggested, with neither text diminished. Vernon's chant-like monologue can be juxtaposed with Buddy's speech, bringing the intertextuality full circle. The emotional essence of Vernon's elegiac plaint is similar to that of Job, and its desperate poignancy takes you by surprise.

I just want out of this.
All my life--It's like I can't trust nobody, man.
I just want to be by myself and just think about this...
I just wish I had my own tropical island.
I wish I could go to China.
I wish I could go to outer space, man.
I wish I had my own planet.
I wish there were 200 of me, man.
I wish I could just sit around with computers and machines and just brainstorm all day, man.*

Oh, that I were as in the months past,
as in the days when God watched over me:
3While he kept his lamp shining above my head,
and by his light I walked through darkness;
4As I was in my flourishing days,
when God sheltered my tent

George is "soft in the head." He can't take the blows that life normally deals out, but he has a lot to make up for, and so he tries on the guise of "hero."

*my favourite

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

#539 HOUSE/HAUSU. Nobuhiko Obayashi 1977

When Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm Wine Drinkard, the book was both lauded as a great work of linguistic and creative genius (Dylan Thomas liked it) and condemned as an embarassingly naive plagiarism of yoruba folklore, told in broken English by an uneducated author. My impression was on the side of the favourable: my take was that through the bizarre manifestations of English--the colonizer's language anyway--grew a tale of Nigerian culture as magical and cohesive as any tale the Grimms told. It's an anthropological wonder but also a good book, albeit unaccountably...weird. That is also the consensus which eventually grew surrounding the work.

This movie has been described as alternately brilliant and "unwatchable" (I like that one). It is lauded as a creative showcase for the horror genre that uses every trick in the book, so to speak, effects-wise. It is touted as a wonderful child-centric foray into the subconscious, and is considered a cult favourite. The charming naivete permeating Tutuola's work, however, is absent here; the director specialized in TV commercials and if you have ever seen Japanese television, this film will not contain any surprises at all--just annoying reminders of over the top sight gags and inappropriate uses of underage schoolgirls. It's a long series of camp situations involving said girls in compromising situations and states of dress; all that is missing is a guy jumping out of a cooler with a Kirin in his hand.

I'll never subscribe to the "it's great because it's so strange" side of film appreciation, which too often sums up what a "cult" film is. This film is indeed rife with original imagery, with some quite unique camera shots, and with at least a couple of  professional actors, but the objective fact is that it is just not good. We all have our guilt-ish pleasures. I think Fletch is hilarious (it's not, I know, but I like it). There is nothing wrong with weird per se. Lynch is weird. Waters is weird. Jarmusch is weird. But I won't recommend this film to someone just because it's weird. At its base, this is a horror film, with all the challenges and baggage that dog that genre, despite the bold attempts to buck stereotypes. It's swell the New York Times said it was good, but in the Japanese context this film is just another nails-on-chalk gēmushō. I'll take Braindead any day.  

Sunday, 22 April 2018

#869 RUMBLE FISH. Francis Ford Coppola 1983

Diane Lane literally on a pedestal, objectified. If only Rusty-James had seen her as real.

Hands off.
Timeless. Out of time. Timely. Doing time. "Solow" down.

Monday, 9 April 2018

#147 IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Wong Kar-wai 2000

Hong Kong Latin Kabuki

It is established quite early and quite obviously, in this anti-story of non-infidelity that we are not ever going to see the cheaters in question, his wife or her husband. An unfortunate conceit that pre-empts any actively creative demonstration of conflict. There are of course many kinds of conflict--I got the attempt at the subtle, smouldering thing between them that was supposed to be tension, but it was so subtle as to be unconvincing. In any case I saw no reason even to care; these people are empty cinematic clichés. The prudishness of the couple rings false as well. I've seen 1920s movies that were sexier. Their intimacy is presented as a potential, as something which could have been, but cannot be or maybe even something which "is" but can not manifest itself conventionally. I appreciate the attempted pathos, but my appreciation is mitigated by my impatience waiting for something to happen. Not necessarily action, but maybe some metaphysical or internal changes to move these figures forward or flesh them out into something resembling humans. I wasn't expecting to see a version of Japanese kabuki where the players wear masks and distinctive costumes and move around in stylized motions. This film tries very hard to look and sound cool, and succeeds at that. 

Nevertheless, what dialogue exists is exasperatingly pointless, like overhearing a conversation. The film tries to speak through its soundtrack, but that falls flat as well. Nat King Cole recurs as a romantic motif, bordering on yet more cliché. English is obviously not “exotic” enough for an until recently British Hong Kong audience, so let’s have Cole sing in an actual exotic and alien language: Spanish! With Cole’s bad accent, unheard by those with no latin experience, it just sounds vaguely “romantic” and pulls on the requisite sentimental puppet strings for a "romance" genre film called "in the mood for love."

Speaking of kabuki and puppets, how many beautiful outfits does she appear in? Like a doll, her hair, makeup, and facial expression remain the same, with some variations depending how much “emotion” the scene calls for: a slight moue here, a forehead crease there; otherwise, whether it's morning, day, evening, or middle of the night she looks precisely the same. It's surprisingly artificial in what is ostensibly an art film. There is no reason for her to look so perfectly together from start to finish, except for the most superficial one: this is a romantic movie, and she's the glamorous star. She has more costume changes than Lady Gaga but we are never provided any rationale for such. Is she a rich fashionista? Is she just vain? Etc. Her outfits are also incredibly ornate, as if made for a movie rather than trying to reflect character, theme, or a life. This is all more in the style of a music video rather than that of cinema.

A rich tapestry of a movie with a moody score: true. If I judge by the words and actions of the two main characters, however, clearly they aren't in the mood for love--and normally I would be inclined to grant the benefit of the doubt and say this is meant ironically, but I do not reckon that is the case here.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

#164 SOLARIS and The Copernicus Solution. Andrei Tarkovsky 1972

Tarkovsky emphasizes the "alien" landscapes all around us.

When Kris Kelvin shows up on the Solaris station (along with KK monogrammed pajamas), Tarkovsky has already forced us to slow down and keep pace with his film rather than with our expectations. If it is a response to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris is veritably action-packed by comparison. We have murders, resurrections, creepy visitors glimpsed at the corner of the eye, and more. What has to be the most pleasing feature of this film, however, is that it is not a science-fiction film, but a Tarkovsky film. That may sound cryptic, but the fact is you could watch this film as a companion to Andrei Rublev (1966) and feel the symmetry, and the continuity of philosophically driven dialogue. It's about more than "auteur" or "oeuvre" though. It's about a quest, no, The Quest, the ultimate quest of humanity, the one that Dr. Snaut laments makes endeavours like the Solaris research futile: we are not looking for "aliens" out there: we are looking for ourselves. The search is out there, certainly, but even as our instruments point outward, we seek understanding and connection within. We need "man" as he puts it.  Hence the dopplegangers strewn throughout, as well as all the mirrored surfaces, which seem cold and clinical but actually "reflect" the truth that what we want is to see ourselves reflected in this universe, ad infinitum--always wanted that, always will. How long did it take to debunk Ptolemy?

Cue the juxtaposed images between Solaris and earth: the weeds floating in the water, yes, like a woman's tresses (evoking Ophelia), but also ebbing and flowing like the surface of Solaris itself, creating a double effect: our earth is echoed or doubled by the alien seascape, thus inviting a comparison that goes in both directions. We see ourselves in Solaris (literally), but we also have alien landscapes right here on earth, echoed by the fractal surges and swells of Solaris. Look at earth! Tarkovsky cries. We have all we need here! Even when we leave her, we return, if only in our minds. Stanislaw Lem has created a powerful metaphor, as powerful and rich I would argue as Clarke's monolith; fascinating how a black rectangular block can be a rich symbol, but that is Clarke's genius. Lem's is presenting us with a mirror of our own (humanity's) inscrutability (even to ourselves), a living planet/organism that can read us, godlike, and read back to us our deepest fears, hopes, and sins--which may lead one to the word "redemption" but Tarkovsky does not in my opinion argue that way: his opening arguments center around the natural world. We are, if you will, the aliens here, evidenced by a yellow balloon floating forlornly above a treed pond, a small fire burning amidst the grasses and the mist. Solaris can not offer redemption (an abstract, psychological concept) because the planet is a part of the universe, itself a subset of Nature: it represents Camus' "gentle indifference of the world" that we must open ourselves to. It will not open itself to us. This terrifying fact has spawned all kinds of angsty religious doings since our dawned consciousnesses. A hard, immovable, unreadable, monochromatic monolith of truth, potentially blocking our progress but oh if we could tap into its mystery and embrace it, it would propel our evolution forward.

Solaris is the next step in this evolution. The Station is a failure, and so is the return of Kelvin to the bosom of humanity. That represents failure as well because it is not real. Disillusionment is always pejorative as a theme, but really it's a gift. Kelvin has his illusions concerning love and redemption stripped away by Solaris/himself, and now he is kind of "stuck" out there. Is that our fate, to get stuck because we've strayed too far? The exploration is not the culprit here: our motive for it is, however. Snaut's quietly scathing criticism of our blinded intentions says that.

Friday, 16 March 2018

#142 THE LAST WAVE. Peter Weir 1977

"Dream is a shadow...of something real." Intellectual, moody; whoever thinks film cannot communicate culture and teach us about the profound is probably a fictional character themselves.