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Director: Keith Gordon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Writer Joyce Carol Oates called Scott Spencer, “the poet-celebrant of Eros.” As someone whose memory of his highly sensuous prose and love-mad teenagers is as vivid as it is some 30+ years after reading Endless Love, I couldn’t agree more. Spencer has written 12 novels in various genres—most recently, horror, under the pseudonym Chase Novak—but his elegant explorations into the depths of romantic love and obsession are nearly without peer. Even after two tries, Spencer’s celebrated vision of teen love hasn’t gotten the screen version it deserves yet, but his 1986 novel Waking the Dead is another matter. Keith Gordon, a director with a small, but impressive list of prestige television credits (“Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Dexter,” “Homeland”) and at least one film that deserves a better reputation than it’s got, The Singing Detective (2003), is a veteran surveyor of the depths of human emotion. With Waking the Dead, he must navigate emotional commitments both personal and global. In the process, he gives us a much larger picture of what it means to be a good person than most films care to approach.
The opening sequence immediately announces the field of action on which Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) has been sparring with his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), for the two tempestuous years of their love. Fielding watches the TV news in mounting horror as a report about a car bomb that killed two Chilean dissidents touring in Minnesota mentions that an American activist from Chicago was also killed in the blast. Sarah’s picture flashes on the screen, doubling the one on display near the television. Fielding squeezes his head as though to keep his skull from exploding and shrieks in jagged despair. From this point, the film toggles between 1972 through 1974, the years of Fielding and Sarah’s love affair, and 1984, when Fielding has taken his seat in the U.S. Congress.
Fielding and Sarah first meet at the office of his brother Danny (Paul Hipp), a counterculture publisher who hired her only the week before. Fielding’s attraction to her is immediate. When he asks her to dinner, she is a bit put off by his U.S. Coast Guard uniform, but agrees. At dinner, Sarah tells him she was educated at a Catholic convent school and is a committed activist for human rights. Fielding enlisted in the Coast Guard to build his resume as a patriot who has served his country; he intends to become a U.S. senator, though he confides to Sarah that he’d really like to be president. Fielding walks Sarah home, but she resists kissing him good night; however, moments after she enters her apartment, she opens her window and throws her keys down to him. Despite their unlikely pairing, their affair becomes a grand passion.
Leaving aside the chemistry between Fielding and Sarah, there is a sounder basis for their relationship. Both are dedicated to making the world a better place in part because of their early training. Fielding comes from a working-class family; his parents gave him a patrician name to match their hopes for his social mobility. His own observations of the needs of ordinary Americans drive him to become their representative in the halls of power. Sarah’s Catholic upbringing set her up for a life of service—indeed, she had ambitions to become a nun until puberty struck. When the pair met, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was about to surface, leaving behind massive disillusionment and the widespread radicalization of youths like Sarah. At another point in time, she might have welcomed Fielding’s ambition to reform the system from within, but her distrust of conventional solutions brings her into regular conflict with Fielding, and her clandestine missions to Chile to help opponents of its dictatorship escape have him feeling fearful for her safety and frustrated at not being the center of her universe.
By 1983, Fielding seems to have picked up the pieces and gotten on with his life plan. He is running for Congress with the backing of powerful politico Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) and the support of politically savvy girlfriend Juliet Beck (Molly Parker). Fielding seems to be headed for a major power trip with all the trappings, but he starts seeing Sarah everywhere, imagining that she is speaking to him from beyond the grave or, perhaps, may have used the bombing to draw attention to the plight of oppressed Chileans and gone underground to continue her work. Has he finished grieving? Is Sarah the “Jiminy Cricket” on his shoulder to keep him in line as he ascends the staircase of influence? Is she alive?
What is great about Waking the Dead is that it places the mystery of love ahead of the mundane whodunit of Sarah’s fate. In Spencer’s world, the intensity of the feelings Fielding and Sarah shared transcends the grave. Fielding misses Sarah horribly and is honest—and cruel—enough to admit it to Juliet when he agrees with her that if she walked out the door and disappeared, he’d forget about her in a matter of days. The sticking point between Sarah and Fielding is a greater love than what they feel for each other—the love of humanity that Sarah ultimately chooses over the private happiness she has with Fielding. Waking the Dead does justice to the passion many activist boomers cling to from the time when they felt most alive and committed to public action, while honoring the private losses many of them faced as the war took its toll.
Fielding proves to be the kind of boomer for whom private happiness tends to be more important, the kind who have taken over the country and given up the fight for the common good, if they ever had much fight in them to begin with. When his sister Caroline (Janet McTeer) and others suggest the Sarah would have been a liability to Fielding’s future, the careerist boomer priorities come plainly into focus, though, in fact, they’re right. Sarah is the braver of the two in recognizing that however she and Fielding differ in their approaches to helping others, humanitarian causes must be fought for on as many fronts as possible; she never discourages him from his path and tries to help him by attending networking cocktail parties with him—though she can’t help making a hash of them by insulting the influential businessmen and party functionaries he is trying to court.
The script by Robert Dillon, which preserves some of the best of Spencer’s writing, is smart and literate. The scrambled chronology isn’t really a problem, but Gordon may have been induced to dress his sets in clearly defined ways—warm hippie-style scored by Joni Mitchell for the early sequences and sleek modern scored to Brian Eno and David Byrne for the ’80s scenes. On the other hand, placing Connelly and Crudup naked in front of a roaring fire might signal it was the director’s lack of imagination that drew this overly defined line in time. Fielding’s visions tend to be fairly straightforward as well, with the repeat motif of a figure in a long tartan cape standing in the distance. One place where the hallucination is truly haunting is in an airport terminal—one Sarah becoming many Sarahs wearing capes and moving down a corridor like ghosts emerging from the other side.
This film could have been little more than a hectoring indictment of boomers—and maybe that’s just how it was seen by some audience members—if not for Jennifer Connelly, a gift to this movie almost as miraculous as Sarah herself. She hits every note right between the eyes, utterly convincing in her commitment to her cause and to Fielding, acting both completely vulnerable and strong with determination. Crudup nearly matches her, but he is somewhat hampered by having to portray a shallower individual. When her love reaches out to him with all the right words and feelings, he answers more often than not with a hungry sexuality. In their final scene together, tellingly, nothing but tears and touches pass between them, a sign of Fielding’s growth through great pain. This film, though fairly conventional in its attitudes, can awaken the romantic in all of us, but especially those of us who have lived in heady times and loved with all our hearts.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola
By Roderick Heath
With its legendarily torturous production, including a typhoon and a heart attack suffered by its leading man, and its thematic and aesthetic challenges, Apocalypse Now looked doomed to be a grand folly and the death-knell of ’70s auteurist ambition in Hollywood. Instead, Heaven’s Gate (1981) would be labeled the folly, whilst Apocalypse Now became the capstone for Francis Ford Coppola’s astonishing run of creativity in the decade, a careening outburst of artistic intensity that captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a surprisingly popular, if also intensely divisive, film experience. Few mainstream films of any era have tried to stretch the form of cinema as much as Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. Coppola’s famous statement of creative hubris at the Cannes press conference in which he described the production as reproducing the nature of the war itself, only added to the mystique of the work and the strange, otherworldly power it radiated of being at once a film about feverish excess and obsession, and the product of these passions. Coppola later returned to the work and reedited it into the “Redux” version, adding back scenes that had bitten the cutting room floor over concern that the original epic concept could not be sold to mass audiences. I’ll go on the record in saying that the recut made the film, already a great but slightly inscrutable work, even better, and indeed lifted it into a truly epic realm with works like Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1969) as a vista of human experience in extremis.
The inspired notion of transposing Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s epochal 1899 study of colonial degeneration, onto the Vietnam War, courted overt parallels between two different eras and versions of First World sin. Conrad’s tale had dazzled critics for decades with its portrait of psychocultural collapse in the face of primal forces and unchecked exploitation, but earned the enmity of some postcolonial voices, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who felt that the novella perpetuated some of the worst misunderstandings of the colonialist mindset. Such unease was understandable, as the essential ambiguity of the piece, the invocation of the crazed, ungovernable forces released when cultures clash and power becomes almost godlike, suggests that finally all humans are prey to the same frailty, from the tribal level to the most “sophisticated.” Such is also true of Coppola’s adaptation, coauthored with John Milius, whose own sensibility often explored the schism between the beauty of the warrior ethic and the tragedy of martial violence. The adaptation took very loose inspiration from some real-life figures who attempted to form mountain tribes or “Montagnards” into fighting forces, and synthesised them with the image of the company man gone native, Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, paragon of civilised and civilising values somehow crumbling into pagan overlord of a bastardised anticivilisation.
Apocalypse Now, whilst offering a sustained and impressive catalogue and critique of the insanities of the specific war it dealt with, nonetheless stands most essentially as a psychologised, stylised, oneiric study of the divide between humanity at its best and basest instincts. Commencing with an Ouroborous-like moment where central antihero Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) recalls the thunder and carnage of jungle warfare as a dream of apocalypse, underscored by the sturm und drang of The Doors’ oedipal classic “The End,” the film surges forth in a state of woozy, shell-shocked, freaked-out fever dream. The film’s weird and expressive texture gains its inspiration and force from the disconnected mindset of soldiers on the ground, caught between a world of super-technology and the pleasures and comforts of modern “civilisation,” and the primordial savagery, shock, joy, and delirium of war, faced with the temptation to become lost in an alternative reality. Such an alternative zone of perception might be found either through drugs, or complete entrance into a semi-hypnotic state of dissociation. Both, indeed, temper the reality seen throughout Apocalypse Now, as the war provides sights as mind-jarringly weird as cattle being hoisted by helicopters above smoking battlegrounds and surfers trying to dodge explosions at they skip waves. The film’s structure obeys an essential geographical reality—it’s a “river movie” in the same way Easy Rider (1969) is a “road movie”—that also maps an interior, metaphysical, experiential journey backwards through states of consciousness and history.
Apocalypse Now both proved the consummation of the era in which Coppola seemingly could do no wrong and the end of it. Coppola’s rise from a wunderkind at the edges of Hollywood had begun under the wing of Roger Corman, whose name is checked in Apocalypse Now as a leader giving the hero the order to adventure into the unknown. Coppola attempted, like Corman but with a far different set of ambitions, to become a film industry unto himself. His rise had seen him move through multiple guises of cinematic genre, from brute horror (Dementia 13, 1963) to Richard Lesteresque hipster satire (You’re A Big Boy Now, 1967), offbeat twists on cute big studio properties (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), and soulful proto-indie drama (The Rain People, 1969). His films were marked by great technical competence, one reason he blazed a trail that other Movie Brats followed, but also a growing fixation with singular characters engaging in odysseys of discovery that rarely have a certain, or positive, ends in sight, and a sense of expressive largesse that could make the smallest subject seem epic. His triumph with The Godfather (1972) and its sequel saw him elevate pulp fiction to the level of operatic tragedy simply by taking it far more seriously than anyone expected, wringing every moment for gravitas and substance, and sustaining a totality of mood that enfolded the audience. His low-key, semi-experimental thriller The Conversation (1974) extended his willingness to take formal risks, seeking new textures and methods in narrative cinema whilst also extending the semi-political studies of The Godfather films into a more interior style of storytelling to match the enquiries he had made in that direction with The Rain People. Willard, like Shirley Knight’s benumbed housewife in the latter film, cavorts in hotel rooms, stripping naked, and spiralling in promethean crisis. Whereas The Conversation is cool and bleakly paranoid, Apocalypse Now is overheated and delirious, but both revolve around the way their lead characters perceive the world around them. Like Michael Corleone, the monstrous Kurtz looks upon his works, achieved at first for resolute and honourable motives, and trembles in utmost horror.
For a film that is as famous, oft-quoted, excerpted, and satirised as Apocalypse Now, it’s often been the subject of a certain wood-for-the-trees cluelessness about its actual achievement, thanks to the iconic thrill of moments like the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter raid that threaten to prove Truffaut’s rule about the difficulty of making antiwar movies. But one of Coppola’s supreme achievements was to succeed in transmuting the electric, still-raw experience of the war, rooted in the ’70s in the realm of polemic, social and moral fallout, and brute fact, into an argot of hallucinogenic expressionism. With its teeming visual textures, constantly littered with sensuous dissolves, dreamy double-exposures, flowing tracking shots, and layer upon layer of image, it’s one of the few modern films to take up the mantle of great silent Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Paul Leni, in attempting to render the cinematic space as a psychological canvas. Willard’s mission to seek out Kurtz is prefaced by glimpses of the emotionally gutted man in the floating, lunatic time he spends awaiting an assignment, having run from the high tension of suburbia back to that of war, drinking liquor like water in the desert, dancing in drunken gyrations, and slicing his hand open which combating shadow enemies. Coppola’s dynamic excursions in montage throughout the film are bookended by two mirrored examples, scored to the breakdown phases of “The End” where private distress and butchery are correlated in a process of ritual catharsis.
Willard’s call to action comes from contemplative General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and his doughy, unctuous underlings, men who seem to embody the cool distance between object and enterprise in the war, playing tapes of Kurtz’s eerie, disembodied, shamanistic speeches broadcast from the edge of nothingness, passing around shrimp that sits dead on the plate like alien harbingers (“…You’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”) whilst the coded statements and charged looks of the men communicate the profound and forbidden necessity of the mission. The General’s musings on the battle that Kurtz has lost are at once facetious and genuinely prognosticative, as if suggesting that the truth is not hard to find, but experiencing it is an entirely different animal.
Willard’s assignment to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” the nicely euphemistic way of saying kill him before he embarrasses us, takes him through a landscape of carnage and human wreckage, commencing with an exemplar of cavalier bravado Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). A Custeresque leader of the Air Cavalry, Kilgore leads attacks with Wagner blaring from loudspeakers on his attack choppers, and more terrifyingly, encourages his soldiers to regard war as a distraction from, and another part of, one big, long beach party. Willard wonders why Kurtz, who fights this same way, is such a big deal, but the differences emerge sharply. Kurtz is described as a warrior-poet in the classic sense, but it’s Kilgore who introduces the idea with his famous “napalm in the morning” speech, celebrating the victorious associations of the scent of that flesh-roasting alchemy like a samurai writing poems to the beauty of cherry blossoms before combat. But Kilgore, with his bantam cock strut and frat boy worldview, embodies a macho, showy, almost caricatured ideal of a specifically American soldier, decrying his enemy as “fucking savages” for using guerrilla tactics against his indiscriminately destructive helicopters. Kilgore’s bizarre swings of militarist passion encompass brutality and sentimentalism, his mannerisms seemingly collected from a life of watching John Wayne movies, but filtered through a very real vocation for war. He’s the kind who tosses around cards to tell his enemy who killed their friends before giving a drink to a wounded VC because “any man who’s brave enough to fight can drink from my canteen any day,” seeing no discrepancy in such an attitude, because for him war is a kind of market of awe and power. He can be distracted instantly, however, by the presence of an admired figure like Lance Murdock (Sam Bottoms): fulfilling the necessary mission of getting Willard barely stirs Kilgore, but the hope of giving Lance a chance to surf a great swell has him fire up the engines of his ships. Kilgore wields the schizoid nature of modern war, whereas Kurtz is its victim.
The hilarious victory, part prank, partly moral statement, that Willard wins for the boat crew by stealing Kilgore’s surfboard seals an initial camaraderie that dissolves slowly, but definitely in the face of the ugly nature of Willard’s mission and the peculiar trail they follow. The crew of the boat manage as a cast of characters to tread a fine line between symbolic function and eccentric gallery of types: the sturdy, pragmatic skipper Chief Philips (Albert Hall), nervy but artful former New Orleans cook Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), innocently brutal young gunner Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), and wave-dancer Lance, all of whom stand at last at great remove from Willard, who operates throughout the film on a level of intensity that can seem at once soulless and zenlike. His desolate, yet curious, even philosophical vision was strengthened with great effect on the film via former war correspondent Michael Herr’s indelible voiceover, charged with an anthropological affection for specific Vietnam War jargon whilst also accessing the often enigmatic Willard’s interior meditations on the nature of his mission. Kurtz evolves in his mind from mere rogue lunatic to a creature of monstrous importance, his fall from a man “groomed for one of the top jobs in the Corporation” to a ranting demigod. For Willard, Kurtz becomes more than a target, or even a curiosity: he becomes the emblem and embodiment of the broken nature of the age and king of the dead zone Willard inhabits. The schism between the air-conditioned world of modern civilisation and the brute charnel house of Kurtz’s compound has more than miles of jungle and warfare separating them: it’s a gap of time, of learning, of art, of culture, of the refinement of the human soul, all reversed and left broken into inchoate fragments where once they linked, synthesised, and provided form in the face of chaos.
The boat’s journey maps the nature of the conflict like stations of the cross. The surreal USO show sees Playboy playmates gyrating to please the young and desperately horny soldiers whilst dressed up in a mockery of America’s historical wars—cavalry, cowboys, and Indians transformed into erotic tease—whilst the young men are worked up to a pitch of excitement so great some finish up dangling from the helicopter trying to snatch the lovelies away again. This moment evokes the inevitable conclusion of the war in images of helicopters ferrying out refugees from the fall of Saigon, played out here in anticipation as tragicomic burlesque show. The violently surreal disparity between this situation and the other world, the “real” world of home, is hinted again, whilst exploitation of young men and young women is presented in a double bind. Willard’s lesson gleaned about the nature of the war, the realisation that the enemy has no such illusions, no other home, no other reality (“His idea of great R’n’R was some cold rice and a little rat meat.”) is one that echoes through to Kurtz’s prescriptions for a war that should be fought purely by dedicated, amoral creatures facing such a determined enemy with so little to lose. Later, when the crew of the boat re-encounter the playmates, Willard is able to swap petrol for sex, an act of veritable prostitution that turns nonetheless into an islet of clumsy, but eager carnality and quicksilver emotions. The gorgeous young women and their soldier-johns at first graze off each other rather than meet. Chef tries to mould Miss May (Colleen Camp) into the simulacrum of her poster whilst she reminisces about her days as a birdkeeper in a zoo. The Playmate of the Year (Cynthia Wood) rambles anxiously about her exploitation whilst the increasingly spacey Lance paints her into an otherworldly idol.
Coppola implicates himself in the weirdness by providing a glimpse of himself as a TV director, anxiously trying to capture reality unmarred by awareness of the camera. The sense of the war as something powered by a deracinated, incoherent objective is suggested repeatedly and finally stated outright by Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand), the patriarch of a lost French plantation still clinging by its fingernails to its piece of this good earth: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history,” he says, as if to suggest that no one in the end really fights wars for politics, but for essentially personal desires, gains, or fears that find expression in political ideas, basic drives that are lacking for the characters seen throughout the film. Choices for coping with this lack run the gamut of stark survivalist integrity, glaze-eyed warrior trances, rigorous professionalism, rampant enjoyment of destruction for its own sake, and psychic disintegration. The Chief’s efforts to hold to the professional line offer the promise of sanity and safety, and yet eventually run up against the impossibility of rationality in a war where jittery kids command machine guns and the populace teems with potential enemies. His attempt to do his “job” rather than merely pursue Willard’s mission finishes up in a grotesque slaughter of civilians in a boat, and Willard announces his variety of singularly brutal honesty by shooting a wounded survivor,an act at once jarringly heinous and yet also compassionate to all concerned. The “moral terror” of which Kurtz becomes the prophet is inseparable from the stages of the journey, as the notion that war can waged in any kind of ethical fashion seems to become ludicrous, and total nihilism looms on the horizon: “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”
Some of Coppola’s touches of pathos, like the tape recording of Clean’s mother reading a wooden birthday message whilst his crewmates are confronted with his body, are a little heavy-handed, and can be criticised for perpetuating a certain American egotism in the face of the war’s suffering. Still, the film hardly skimps on visions of the war as a grotesque infliction, particularly early on as civilians are evacuated in landing craft that close up like monsters and the land is pillaged. Part of the thesis here is that the reasons the opposing sides fought were completely different, and moreover that war in the world is merely an extension of war within the self. The essential Sisyphean nature of the struggle is clearly invoked by the symbol of a bridge that is constructed each night and smashed each day, glimpsed through the LSD-hued viewpoint of Lance as he and Willard stalk the battle zone where terrified, hollow-eyed mostly black GIs like the Chief and Clean suffer an injustice within an injustice. Ghostly armies, armies of the night, lurk throughout Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz’s eerie band of white-painted guerrillas and the force defending De Marais’ remote plantation seeming to resolve out of the fog like a spectral band guarding the memory of the dead of Dien Bien Phu. It is these anachronistic warriors to whom Phillips entrusts Clean’s body as icon of the war’s dead, and they enact the proper funeral service with backwoods rigour.
The crew’s stay at the plantation swiftly segues into a quorum on history blended with very French disputations, but the essential motive of the planters is much the same as that of the Corleones: the desire to hold family together and defend hard-won turf, family integrity being one of Coppola’s constant absolutes. Willard remains far outside of it all, whilst locked in a zone of charged awareness with the ethereal widow of one of De Marais’ family, Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément), who offers him the balms of opium and sexual contact as she had once given them to her husband. A moment of ghostly eroticism gives Willard a chance to reconnect with one half of himself seemingly annihilated by war, and the liminal limits of the moment are peeled back to find a chain of people inhabiting the same roles back into primordial time. The felicity of the Redux cut in adding feminine and erotic dimensions to the tale helped flesh out the film’s themes and also its almost numbing sensuousness: the physicality of Apocalypse Now, captured throughout by Vittorio Storaro’s masterly photography and aided by Walter Murch’s editing and richly compiled soundscapes, keeps the spiritual and philosophical excursions constantly rooted in the immediate land of blood, mud, flies, fire, jungle heat, sodden skin. The metaphysical is an extension of the physical. Willard’s face, perpetually beaded with sweat and with eyes like impact craters where a sense of reality once was, dominates many a frame of the film.
Conrad’s Marlowe, Willard’s analogue in the novella and a recurring voice of experience in Conrad’s works, was a peculiarly thoughtful, but also pragmatic working man; Willard, on the other hand, is just as thoughtful, but his soul is as much of a battleground as Kurtz’s, a fact that makes him the potential inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. Willard is an unusual film protagonist considering that there are aspects of him that remain unknowable to the audience; the usual role of narrator-mediator as a way for audiences to get into the drama is passed onto the supporting characters. Willard’s calamitous soul is glimpsed at the outset as torn loose from time and place, reducing him to a lump of pure, raw feeling before he switches back into the clarity of his warrior mode. His previous missions, the men he knows he’s killed, haunt him, and the causes of his divorce and return to Vietnam seem rooted in a horrified fascination, an inability to escape the nagging hint of something he needs to confront fully, a need that Kurtz finally fulfils. Sheen’s less showy, often overlooked performance is a thing of hypnotic beauty, and likewise Hall’s emotional immediacy as Phillips is a quiet coup.
Equally memorable is the kinetic, late appearance by Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist trapped in Kurtz’s compound, an emissary of both mass media and countercultural impulses, and embodying every exposed nerve of both. Hopper’s own spiral into hophead exile after The Last Movie (1971) was perhaps one Coppola wanted to channel, and certainly no one embodied the crack-up of ’60s idealism more than the director of Easy Rider. His character stands as a kind of priest/court jester for the titanic Kurtz, rambling with incoherent urgency in his efforts to communicate both Kurtz’s greatness and his depravity, as if he’s found a kind of guru who scares the shit out of him. Not coincidentally, the Manson murders are invoked during the voyage upriver as Kurtz’s ignoble stateside avatar. In finally meeting Kurtz, Willard is ritually washed by his followers, who include Colby (Scott Glenn), another soldier sent on the same mission but seduced into the mesmerised fold, and presented as a trussed prisoner whom Kurtz regales with mysterious anecdotes: his description of having once sailed down a river past a place where “heaven fell to the earth in the form of gardenias” suggests that somewhere is a natural paradise to mirror this stygian abode. Kurtz is glimpsed mostly as a saurian beast in the shadows, running a hand over his bald head like a tarantula crawling on a melon, a creature of strange discursions and secret intentions that may well have proven to be so much quackery.
In one of Brando’s most compelling pieces of acting, Kurtz finally reveals one source of his madness—seeing a pile of children’s arms, inoculated against smallpox, hacked off by Vietcong extremists as a rejection of all imposed, external, modern control, an act of heinous brutality that nonetheless possesses a stringent logic. Coppola and Milius seem to have sensed that the wars of the modern world and psyche would be as much about deciding a frame for reality, and rejecting what does not fit into that frame, as they are about any concrete aim: control of the narrative is everything. Kurtz assesses Willard as Willard has tried to assess him—as a fitting bringer of death and successor as messenger from the edge. He cuts off any means of escape, including murdering Chef before he can call in an air strike, and wrings out nearly the last drop of life from Willard before reviving him as a man, “not even in their fucking army anymore.” Willard’s slaughter of Kurtz, associated in fierce montage with animal sacrifice, is both a bloody and savage act and a moment of liberation that gives Willard a unique power. His killing is an act of mercy and faith, thus uniting the two halves of the soul Roxanne had seen as irrevocably split. The followers of Kurtz bow down to him as their new god-king, but Willard throws away his weapon and received wisdom—Kurtz’s testimonies—having achieved a complete, Euclidian rebirth for rational man. He is able to lead the innocent Lance back home, and as he sails away, Lance returns from the trance he’s been submerged in. Willard’s victory over moral terror, smothered as it is in a still-pungent scent of rot with Kurtz’s final words still echoing, is nonetheless real.
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Several years ago, my blog partner Rod made a comment on one of my posts: “Stephanie Zacharek recently, and correctly, said that audiences go to the movies to see beautiful, exotic, or at the very least, vividly interesting people on screen, and that it’s one of the great pleasures of going to the cinema.” If nothing else, Abbas Kiarostami’s experimental film Shirin confirms this observation. He chose more than 100 of Iran’s leading actresses to play audience members watching what I took to be a film adaptation of the “Khosrow and Shirin/Fahrad and Shirin” section of Persia’s well-known medieval epic poem the Shâhnâma, and all of them are beautiful, exotic, or vividly interesting to look at. Are they interesting enough to look at for nearly 90 minutes? You’d better think about that before you decide to watch this film, for the entirety of what we see on screen is these women watching a story we only hear, and read, if Persian is not a language we understand.
Shirin is not the most compelling of films to watch, but I found it a fertile experience for monitoring my own reactions to what I was witnessing and bringing to the surface actions that human beings perform unconsciously when we take in a person’s face and figure. I also found it an interesting experience in multitasking, dividing as I had to the images Kiarostami shot while keeping track of the sad story of Shirin, an Armenian queen who left her kingdom for the love of Khosrow, a dethroned Persian king, and ended up alone and unhappy. Finally, I found distinct pleasure in moments of recognition. Not only did I enjoy thinking, oh look, it’s the actress I just saw in A Separation (Leila Hatami—I’m not that good at remembering Iranian names), but I also liked seeing people fidget with their clothes, hands, and faces as they settled into the picture, whisper to the person next to them, doze off for a few seconds—in other words, do the same things I do when I watch a movie.
An Iranian would have a much better time ticking off the names of all the famous women on screen, but since I do not have this familiarity, I found myself really looking at the faces, many of which looked familiar, and remarking to myself how beautiful many of them were. A natural extension of this realization, and something women almost always do with other women, was to analyze the various attributes that lent them distinction. I noticed how many of them had carefully shaped eyebrows, often with the thick inner brow squared off with the upper bridge of the nose. I examined their lips to see who was wearing lipstick and who was not; that appraisal led to an overall inquiry into how much make-up each woman wore. I also checked for jewelry, feeling a bit surprised to see earrings on a few of the women who didn’t appear to be wearing make-up. I also checked to see if all the women were veiled, and I think I spotted only one woman without a hijab, though it was hard to be sure. Even Juliette Binoche, the only Western actress in the film, wore a hijab, letting me know we were definitely in Iran, which subjects all women to this form of attire, regardless of religious affiliation.
Binoche also added artifice to the film, reminding me, as is Kiarostami’s habit, that I was watching actresses playing roles, not genuine reactions caught documentary-like on camera. For example, at one point, the actresses, including Binoche, shed tears. I know she speaks a number of languages, but as far as I know, Persian isn’t one of them. Since it’s unlikely the film would have been subtitled for showing in Iran, how could she have known what the characters were saying? Having witnessed Binoche’s ability to cry on cue in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), I assumed her reactions must have come some other way. It was not surprising to me to learn during my research that Kiarostami filmed the actresses in small groups, instructing them how to behave or what to think about as they stared at a dot-filled card near the camera lens.
Through careful editing to match the narrative of the unseen film, Shirin appears to take place in only one setting. To add more veracity to the illusion that marks the film as fiction, men were also in the audience, including one man who seemed to be accompanying his wife. The men, always at the periphery of the frame, served something like extras. They sometimes grabbed my notice, particularly the bottom half of one face that appeared to belong to Jafar Panahi, the beleaguered director who is awaiting “execution of the verdict” to begin a six-year prison term for sedition, as well as a woman with two black eyes and a bandage over her nose, which, given the composition of the “audience,” I thought was probably the aftermath of a nose job. Like many glancing encounters we have every day, the reason for her appearance can be guessed at, but never known. We thus create a narrative for the things we see that are as individual as our experience of life and the way we process data.
By bringing new faces into the frame throughout the film, Kiarostami seeks to engage the processes described above for the entire running time. I, however, got tired of the game. I might have turned the film off entirely except that the story of Shirin was really quite involving. In relatively short order, I mainly “tuned out” the faces and approached the film as a radio play, barely noticing that I was reading the dialogue. I have listened to radio dramas all my life, so this shift was not only natural, but also quite pleasurable, and allowed me to create pictures in my mind in the same way Kiarostami invited us to create narratives for the pictures of the peripheral members of his fictional audience.
Shirin is quite in keeping with Kiarostami’s usual approach to cinema, even if it seems more unorthodox than most of his films. His reflexive examination of illusion and reality is very much in play here, and is approached more subtly than in his controversial conclusion to Taste of Cherry (1997), though Certified Copy truly is the apex of his examination of this subject. Kiarostami also does one completely unique thing with Shirin that I don’t remember experiencing with any other film: he restores the oral tradition that was always associated with the Shâhnâma, in particular, and with epic poetry, in general. We actually get the chance to imagine the story of Shirin through audio cues and the faces of those who are listening as stand-ins for the storyteller who would emote during the recitation. Thus, not only do we get to learn an ancient tale from the classical Persian canon, we also get to time travel to experience it as it might have been experienced in medieval Persia. I, for one, enjoyed the ride.
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Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West
By Roderick Heath
Revivalism is always a contentious practice in any art form, inviting charges of slavish nostalgia and unoriginality, but it’s also often a signifier of a form trying to reinvent itself and a rejection by younger artists of dominant, but oppressive and depleted models, a way of looking forward by looking back. That’s as true in cinema, though often more piecemeal because of the difficulties of film production, as it is in pop music or painting. In the case of a recent strand of revivalist-tinged horror cinema, it’s easy to see the roots of the movement: the horror film has been in a crisis, it seems, for most of my lifetime. That crisis has been ever-present, even though, or in large part because horror is a genre with a powerful commercial worth, whilst remaining doggedly verboten in the minds of many filmgoers and cultural watchdogs: many a box office list of recent years has proven what utter garbage can still lure fright and gore fans into the multiplexes. The genre proves over and over that it’s sourced in an essential ethic, one that can only be domesticated so far. The genre has seen a variety of pretenders march its halls. The much-hyped waves of Torture Porn, J-Horror and Euro Extreme yielded one or two strong films and a slew of infinitely lesser fare. Fortunately, just lately, there have been distinct signs of a sea change in the genre from the independent film scenes of Great Britain and the U.S.: indeed, whereas indie cinema has for a long time prided itself on distinction from low-budget genre cinema, a crossbreeding of the two seems to be nascent, allowing adventurous young filmmakers to reject the tired reflexes of the slasher movie, endless lousy remakes, and pure stomach-churning nastiness, and channel other models.
Ti West’s films are particularly engaging in this regard, because they represent a melding of the immersed sensibilities of a young genre fan with the anti-generic rhythms of independent film so confidently that he erases the disparity as if it was never there. The House of the Devil, for instance, immediately declares its indie cred with the mischievous touch of casting Greta Gerwig in the type of part often filled by Nancy Loomis or Belinda Balaski back when. West, who began to gain attention with two ultra-low-budget features, The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), before an ill-fated stab at becoming Eli Roth’s anointed successor with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), is suddenly the genre It Boy, and for once, the attention is for very good reasons. West’s already-signature slow-burn narratives have one foot distinctly planted in post-mumblecore realist cinema, with an emphasis on characterisation through suggestion and an almost discursive sense of narrative construction, and one foot in a classic gothic genre sensibility where a prevalence of a mood of evolving credulity, a sense of precise timing, and a slow rhythmic build-up, is of paramount importance. This mood is directly opposed to the instant gratification sensibility ushered in by the likes of Friday the 13th (1980). West extends that into the raison d’etre of his works, invoking no less a figure than Andrei Tarkovsky in the way he insists, like the Russian titan, that the surest way to build tension is to force the audience to wait. Thus in many ways West betrays the legacy of the ’70s and ’80s genre cinema he clearly loves as much as he celebrates it, because such patience and such wilful resistance to cheapjack stunts was rarely exhibited by such models.
The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are, in their fashion, extremely simple movies, employing spare settings and casts, and moving to deceptive beats of storytelling, at least until they hit their crisis moments, closer to ambient techno than blaring rock. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are linked not only by aesthetic design but by the circumstances of their production: West was inspired to make the second film whilst making the first, during which he and his crew stayed in a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. Most consequentially, they’re conjoined by their human focus, and a distinctive quality of generational biography, skewed a little, but hardly unrecognisably by the ’80s setting of The House of the Devil, and emerging more fully in the context of employment anxiety and the disintegrating faiths and decaying institutions in The Innkeepers.
Both films follow comely, young, but hapless and semi-alienated heroines. The Innkeepers’ Claire (Sara Paxton) is spiritual kin to House’s Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), whilst moving in focus from college into the big, wide world, a world ironically defined by constantly narrowing environs to match their narrowing options. Samantha is more introverted than the kookier, talkative Claire, but each is linked by a flailing lack of direction and both seem clearly cut off from any reliable sense of refuge with, or support by, family, or more than one or two immediate friends. Samantha’s course in The House of the Devil leads her inexorably to the titular abode; Claire’s choices similarly see her unable to avoid the basement she’s explicitly warned not to venture into in the hotel that had become her home and, to a certain extent, refuge from life. If in a subtler, less transparently hip fashion, West’s cinema is nonetheless as attuned to the mindset of the moment as John Carpenter’s was in the hairy, feckless, oppressed atmosphere of Dark Star (1974): like Carpenter’s heroes in that film, the experiences of West’s heroines illustrate immediate realities through the prisms of the fantastic. In both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, financial anxiety is a keynote, and a subtler but pervasive air of anomie and abandonment.
The early scenes of The House of the Devil depict Samantha eddying in a time between times, preparing to move out of her college dormitory into a rented house, negotiating with a kindly prospective landlady (Dee Wallace), and getting a deal that will allow her to make a quick and relatively cheap leap into living by herself. She has good reasons to do so: her room back at the dorm is perpetually used by her roommate (Heather Robb) to copulate with random men, and the college is a dull, desolate space through which she flits in anxious distraction. West is suggestive but not declarative about the nature of Samantha’s background and present state of isolation, but she evokes such marked heroes of the genre as the eponymous mother of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Sgt. Howie of The Wicker Man (1972), defined by her subliminal distinction from her surrounds, retreating to the bathroom to weep in private, sprawling on steps to wait for a prospective employer, zoning out in music.
The prospective employer is named Ulman, and has placed ads for a babysitter around the campus: the moment Tom Noonan’s voice emerges from the other end of the telephone, you know whoever’s answering this ad is screwed. Fate is given an accidental nudge along when Samantha’s solitary gal pal Megan (Gerwig) takes offence on her behalf after Ulman fails to show for the appointed meeting, and rips down all of his ads, leaving Samantha as the sole alternative when another candidate backs out at the last minute. When Samantha finally gets to Ulman’s impressive old pile of a house located (natch) deep in the woods, the list of complications gets increasingly more daunting, including the fact that she’s supposed to actually sit for Ulman’s wife’s mother, an elderly shut-in, and Ulman is willing to pay an absurd amount for a few hours’ work. Mary Woronov, the darkly vulpine star of ’80s flicks like Nomads (1986), is Ulman’s fur-draped wife, who probes with disquieting effect into Samantha’s personal life and circumstances.
Just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive directly evoked older films with its credit sequence, so, too, does The House of the Devil, projecting large yellow titles over an ’80s pop-scored reverie of Samantha (the music is actually on her ever-present Walkman) whilst strolling through autumnal suburbs back to the college. And, as in Refn’s film, it’s a touch that to a certain extent both announces the film’s programme but also miscues those quick to assume what’s following is mere pastiche. The House of the Devil is quite a radical piece of narrative cinema in its quiet way, especially by modern standards, in taking its time to quietly condition the audience and its heroine, to the point where an inevitable eruption of chaos will come as a virtual relief from the tension—and one thing West does superlatively well is build tension. The bleary casualness of Samantha’s scenes with the gauchely agreeable Megan, even when driving her into the deep dark woods, is delectable for the mood of everyday camaraderie blended with irritation and mutual indulgence of failings. For the most part, West seeks to justify his long intake of breath with undercurrents rather than declarations: only when Megan, after dropping off her friend and leaving in a huff at Samantha’s willingness to place herself in such an odd situation for the sake of rent money and then pulls over for a cigarette in a nearby cemetery, does the lurking threat finally resolve. A helpful young man (AJ Bowen), actually the son of Samantha’s intriguing employers, steps up to the car and gives Megan a light, but the instant he realises that she is not the prospective babysitter, pulls out a pistol and shoots her in the face.
Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are structured around buildings, and the elusive sensation of isolation and paranoia that can define being alone in large supposedly empty spaces, a mood West ties ineffably to the unease of his protagonists within their own skin. Throughout the second half of House, there are shots peering in at Samantha through windows, a specimen of study, whilst she in turn explores a space that offers constant mystery and suggestion; only the privileged audience is allowed to understand, as West will seemingly casually give viewers a glimpse beyond a door that has foiled his heroine, to find bodies strewn in bloodied carnage. Such gambits relieve the almost purified pressure of the anxious unknown which defines the way The House of the Devil’s narrative works.
If The Innkeepers is slightly more prosaic in its style, with much more dialogue, more defined generic situations, and a few nods to traditional horror movie tricks, it’s also slightly more mature. The dynamic between Samantha and Megan is reconfigured into Claire’s slacker-hued companionship with Luke (Pat Healy), a slightly older he-nerd and fellow college dropout who’s further along in the process of cultivating disengaged contempt for the real world, spending his days surfing internet porn and building a web page to showcase the supposed sepulchral delights of the hotel they work in. The hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, is a virtually empty Edwardian pile about to be closed down. The boss has skipped out to holiday in a tropical paradise, and the young duo is left as a live-in skeleton staff over a long weekend. It’s the sort of job that could be a godsend to the creatively self-involved, but the anxiety provoked by the job’s imminent demise, the immersive constancy of it, and the lack of any other purpose in their lives, makes the mysteries swirling within the building’s aged bricks and timbers a trap that works a perfect spell on Claire. The hotel is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, a lovelorn suicide who, it is said, can still be glimpsed wandering the halls. Luke claims to have seen her, though he’s caught no more substantial evidence so far than a video shot of a room door closing spontaneously, and he and Claire salve their boredom by engaging in a part-time ghost hunt.
Claire’s fraying capacity to survive in the outside world is brought out in an early scene, the only one where she leaves the immediate surrounds of the hotel to visit a neighbouring café, only to flee swiftly at a barrage of whining by the barista (Lena Dunham, herself an indie filmmaker). She withers under the anxious contempt of a woman (Alison Bartlett) who’s staying in the hotel with her son (Jake Schlueter), who proves less than an ideal audience for Claire’s ghost stories. An encounter with a childhood hero, former actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who, tellingly, played a maternal figure in an ’80s TV show Claire once adored, proves equally discouraging. Leanne supposedly comes to stay at the hotel for a fan convention, but it’s actually a gathering connected to her new occupation as a new-age therapist and psychic, and Leanne’s sozzled prickliness is sometimes mitigated by a more friendly demeanour as she willingly uses crystals to try to commune with the hotel’s spirits. Her contributions to the ghost hunt are vague at best in her bad tidings and warnings to stay out of the basement. Claire, left on a solitary nighttime vigil with a sensitive microphone provided by Luke as part of the hunt, seems to hear traces of far-off piano music, and tracking it to the piano in the lobby, she witnesses one key struck with melodramatic impetus, scaring the hell out of her, but also seeming to announce that the haunting isn’t just the hotel’s emptiness getting to them. And yet, there remains a possibility that Claire’s assailed psyche is fraying.
McGillis’ presence in The Innkeepers, like that of Wallace, Noonan, and Woronov in the earlier film, pays a definite nod to ’80s genre cinema, and utilises the actors’ specific auras and capabilities with intuitive aplomb. Noonan’s capacity to seem both affable and unsettling is expertly employed in his character’s mix of old-world gentlemanliness and desperation to please Samantha enough to get her to stay around. His towering height is utilised in The House of the Devil’s best gag, when Samantha and Megan first meet him, his head cut well out of the frame that comfortably encompasses the two shorter, daunted ladies. McGillis admirably embraces her part as a greying, fatigued, spikily alcoholic old dingbat with élan, her initial patronisation and coldness to Claire transforming a childhood hero into an embodiment of both the alienating schism between art and life and implicitly maternal condemnation and a generational gap. Later, Luke sneaks in a few low blows, figuratively speaking, at Leanne’s drinking and failed career in revenge for her hurting Claire’s feelings, and this bit made me wonder if in some way all our contemporary obsession with the failings of the famous is sourced in similar motives. Either way, West advertises himself through such casting as an heir to Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s penchant for reviving the careers of faded figures of former cool.
But West is always focused on his central, younger figures, and he gets gems of performances out of Donahue and especially Paxton, whose wrestling match with a garbage bin early in The Innkeepers is a terrific piece of physical comedy that doubles as a furtherance of characterisation, as Claire is easily overwhelmed by inanimate objects, and the sight of Leanne gazing down from her hotel window like a hovering, disapproving owl deepens the moment’s humiliation. There’s a sequence in The House of the Devil where Samantha momentarily wins her war of nerves against both her own depression and her boding surrounds by cutting loose for a moment by listening to music on her headphones and dancing around the place with a kind of footloose energy and innocence that seems definably pre-’90s.
Unlike some obvious precursors like The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House or The Shining’s (1981) grandiose Overlook, The Innkeepers‘ Yankee Pedlar is nominally vintage, but is actually undistinguished in any quality except by age. But in the grand generic tradition, it has become a snare for frustrated dreams and circular lives: as well as the ghost whose backstory carries intimations of despair and abandonment, an aged man (George Riddle) turns up asking for the room his spent his honeymoon in, a room that, like most of the rest of the hotel, has been stripped down and sealed up. Claire and Luke acquiesce to his request, only for Claire to later find he’s committed suicide, the final catalyst for an onrush of terrible visions. Much of The Innkeepers is sustained by the attentive back and forth between Claire and Luke, particularly in an epic movement where the pair escapes ennui by getting drunk and playful, Claire’s flaky forlornness for a moment almost connecting with Luke’s sexual frustration and stymied attraction to his coworker. This tension resolves as Claire suggests descending into the basement to hunt for Madeline, culminating in a intense sequence offering only close-ups of the two actors in the midst of a sea of darkness, and Claire fearfully informing Luke that the wraith is standing right behind him. Luke freaks out and flees the hotel entirely, leaving Claire to try to survive alone. This sequence is enormously pleasurable on several levels—the slow-rising, sustained tension, the precision of characterisation and acting, the cunning use of camera perspective that generates a certainty of the supernatural whilst still never confirming its existence beyond Claire’s point of view.
If West’s otherwise marvellous diptych is hampered by anything, it’s by the relatively stolid conceptualisations of evil and the uncanny once they are actually revealed: the witch-woman (Danielle Noe) who claws her way out of the attic to perform a devilish ritual over Samantha’s trussed form at the climax of The House of the Devil and the mangled ghosts that pursue Claire in The Innkeepers are standard movie ghouls. West hasn’t really yet figured out ways to complicate and explicate deeper edges to his supernatural Macguffins yet. To a certain extent, that appears deliberate. West relishes their cheesy impact as ways of reminding people that he really likes the schlocky side of his films as much as their more ambitious elements. He’s clearly reaching a stage in his career where he might be advised, a la Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) or John Carpenter with The Thing (1982), to tackle an adaptation or a personalised remake that can enrich his lexicon. On the other hand, West displays in both films judiciousness about just what he does explain and depict that evokes the greatest traditions of Western ghost stories, as in the tales of M.R. James. One beauty of this approach is their simultaneous success as psychological narratives and genre fare. The apparently demonic gestation the witch-woman plants in Samantha in The House of the Devil is easily decipherable as the encumbrance of pregnancy putting a final damper on Samantha’s stymied upward mobility, and Claire’s final pursuit and death at the hands of a vengeful Madeline sees her unable to use an escape hatch she herself locked earlier in the film, finally entrapped by her own choices and susceptibilities. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers resolve in genuinely haunting final images, suggesting survival in some form or another entails unknowable menaces.
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Director/Screenwriter: Raúl Ruiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The world of cinema was shocked by the not-unexpected, but relatively premature death of Chilean-born filmmaker Raúl Ruiz on Friday. The 70-year-old director was known for his parodic approach to film styles, his lush canvasses, his sometimes overstuffed plots, and his extremely fecund output. For those seeking a deep dive into this complicated, experimental filmmaker, I recommend this survey/memoir by Jonathan Rosenbaum for starters and a date to view his Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has started to show in the United States and likely will be booked in more venues in tribute. As a Ruiz novice, I will try to honor his legacy as best I can with a review of Klimt, one of his more recent and accessible films, and a style of biopic more filmmakers should adopt.
Ruiz takes an ingeniously elliptical approach to film biography, one that puts the spirit of artist Gustav Klimt and fin-de-siècle Austria at the forefront as it drops the details of his life almost subliminally into our consciousness. As such, the film does something that is nearly impossible to do—find a channel, however speculative, into the creative process itself.
The film opens with Klimt’s protege Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) going to visit Klimt (John Malkovich) as he lays dying in a bath. The doctor greets Schiele by swinging a skeleton in front of him and pointing out the various bones that comprise it, each from a different donor, all of different nationalities. Schiele comments that while there may be a scarcity of many things, there is no shortage of dead bodies. Klimt died of syphilis February 6, 1918, a few months before the “cure” for all war, World War I, formally ended. Klimt was treated with mercury, the standard remedy of the time and a poison that may have hastened his death and one that did not save him from the madness that accompanies advanced syphilis. Thus, the parallels Ruiz sets up between Klimt’s private disintegration, delusions, and madness and those of Europe at this time are established. Klimt’s mental free-fall through his life comprises the rest of the film.
Klimt’s life could be a template for the stereotypical successful Artist. He was a sensualist who bedded many women and fathered many children out of wedlock, who enraged the art establishment while still enjoying great popularity. We meet him in memory first in his studio, as three naked models move above his head on swings of cloth and another lays down on a bed in the background. Klimt ignores all of them as he pours water on a square of glass to examine the images it creates. He dismisses the models. The one on the bed remains. He says, “What about you?” She answers provocatively, “What about me?” Malkovich lets virtually nothing cross his face to indicate his state of mind, though perhaps the tiniest of smirks does escape by the end of the scene; it’s a bold choice, to keep Klimt in the state of sexual abstraction he must have needed to do his work when faced with an off-hours temptation.
This containment marks much of Malkovich’s performance, even in scenes where he declares his ardent love for an actress (Saffron Burrows) who plays dancer Lea de Castro (Georgia Reeve) in a short film by Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian). Their embrace is one of the more awkward in film history, though Brown is wonderfully natural in her nakedness considering that her character is being watched from behind a two-way mirror by the real Lea to see how Klimt behaves. The fracturing of personality, the real and the false fronts, the interchangeability of human beings as seen in the mix-and-match skeleton in the first scene, all are preoccupations of both Ruiz and the Klimt he has written. Indeed, any representational artist is faced with how his or her creations poach from many sources and create illusions that are, nonetheless, physically real and real experiences for those who take them in.
Ruiz’s hallucinatory touches are inspired. Klimt’s long-time companion Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), called Midi here, quarrels with him in his studio while he is applying gilding to a painting. Suddenly, her lips are gilded as well, an incarnate inspiration that Klimt would transfer to his canvas. When she slams the door to his studio, she blows the small squares of gilding into the air, sending Klimt, childlike, chasing after them to catch them on his brush. His cat starts mewling, and Klimt comes face to face with the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a government functionary who becomes Klimt’s projected guide through his life and desires and, finally, his death. The Secretary, though sympathetic to Klimt’s art, seems to contradict Klimt’s outsider stance as part of the Vienna Secession, and suggest that his life was a function of bureaucratic manipulation.
Ruiz isolates the artistic claptrap of the day in a wonderful scene in a Vienna coffee house. A waiter takes orders from some of the patrons, calling their names and having them respond “as usual.” Klimt is dining with a friend who gives him the lay of the land of the different artistic schools of thought. A camera tracks around them, the background spinning one way, and Klimt and his friend spinning in the opposing direction, suggesting Klimt’s contrarian state of mind and bringing a liveliness to the Viennese art scene that ends with Klimt pushing a cake into a rival’s face.
The proper Viennese bourgeoisie, represented by Klimt’s mother (Annemarie Düringer) and sister (Marion Mitterhammer), are placed in a cool, utilitarian setting. His mother scolds him for his many illegitimate children, and his sister insinuates something unnatural about him for choosing only Jewesses to bear his children: “I didn’t make it up, I read it in the paper.” Klimt retorts, “You didn’t have to make it up because the papers already did it for you.” The poisonous atmosphere that would later engulf Austria gets a brief, but effective airing, but so do the distortions of media about celebrities, a very modern concern.
Apparently, no expense was spared in putting this film together. The costumes and sets are utterly sumptuous, and artists were brought in to recreate the scandal-inducing paintings Klimt produced for the University of Vienna that were destroyed in a fire in 1945, as well as a fictitious portrait of Lea and various Klimt canvasses in different stages of completion. Little is known about Klimt’s life, so the decadence of the times is brought to bear on his womanizing reputation while creating an atmosphere that helps the viewer sense the forces that influenced his sensual art. For example, Klimt goes to the Moustache brothel, where gentlemen play games in various rooms—Klimt is locked in a cage wearing a gorilla head in the African room—before going off with one or more of the moustachioed whores.
The anteroom of Klimt’s death is filled with the atmosphere of his life—the ever-present Viennese snow, stuffed cats, a bare-bones studio, and doors opening onto different paths. I hope Ruiz’s anteroom was just as inviting.
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Director: Ngozi Onwurah
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Shoot the Messenger is a humorous and profoundly uncomfortable film for any serious-minded, well-intentioned liberal to watch. As a white liberal, I found it particularly hard to react to. The film opens with a black man saying in an angry and anguished tone, “Everything bad that has happened in my life has happened because of black people.” It is tempting to think of the man as a successor to the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a black man made profoundly self-loathing by racism. But in the spirit of the unintentionally ironic “feminist” ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo), an angry young black man in good, updated British tradition, isn’t shown to be the victim of racism. He’s actually a buppie who wants to do something to help troubled black boys become proud and productive men. He attends a meeting at which the problem is being discussed, or rather, pinned on anyone and everyone, and finally hears something he can do. He can become a teacher and role model. He quits his good job in information technology and lands a teaching job at a local high school. He’s so proud as he stands in front of the school, with two boys washing some obscene graffiti from the front of it. He’s going to clean up, too, and uses a tough-love approach that Sidney Poitier’s character Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love would have approved of heartily.
Unfortunately, the black boys in his school have developed something the eventually grateful students Poitier taught didn’t have—pride. Three friends led by Germal (Charles Mnene) sit in the back of Joe’s class and lob jeers. One morning when the three are slow to enter Joe’s classroom, Joe grabs Germal’s shoulder and pushes him toward the door. Germal protests that teachers are not supposed to touch students. After Joe gives Germal and his friends numerous detention classes (in which Joe takes great pride for forcing the students to learn), Joe learns that Germal has filed an assault complaint against him. The principal tries to drop it, but Germal’s mother goes to authorities, and criminal charges are brought against Joe.
The media start calling. Joe initially resists making a statement, but as the heat becomes more intense, he goes on a radio show to tell his side of the story. Of course, the shock jock hosts broil him and condemn “the system” that does nothing to protect black children. Eventually, Joe is brought to trial and convicted, though he receives a suspended sentence. As he walks out of the courtroom, he is heckled by community protesters carrying signs that say “House Nigger.” Of course, he loses his job. After he cleans out his locker at school, the wall he took so much pride in keeping clean of graffiti gets tagged with Joe’s personal mantra: “Fuck Black People.”
Joe goes mad, and after a stint in an asylum, ends up on the streets. Sitting on a bench in the pouring rain, he sees an older woman, Sarah (Medina Aijikawo), struggling with her groceries. She’s black, and he’s reluctant to help, but does. After that, he becomes a crusade for her. A church lady, she brings parishioners and her preacher to his spot in the alley and encourages him to come to Jesus—which he does. He moves into her home, wears her son’s clothes, and attends her church. He notices that all the people in church are women. Where are all the men? Cut to prison, where Sarah visits her son Roy (Richard Pepple). Joe thought he was dead, but of course, he should have known: Most black men are incarcerated.
Eventually, Joe tries to get a job, but his assault conviction (being appealed) hinders him. He and his job counselor Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird) become romantically involved. She is a New Ager/self-helper who wears a hair weave and won’t let Joe touch her hair. When she is having a new weave put in, Joe takes some of the hair and burns it, forcing her to comb out her real hair into an afro. He is trying to work on her self-esteem. Instead, she breaks up with him because she doesn’t feel good about herself when she’s with him. Nobody does. His odyssey ends in the mental hospital to which he was admitted, where he encounters Germal for a final time and finally sees the fatal error that led him astray. The last shot challenges the audience, however, when Joe defies expectations and says he doesn’t take back a lot of what he said.
And what he says throughout this film in his direct-to-the-audience asides is dynamite in the cultural war within the black community. Joe would be a Joe Lieberman Republican in this country, a bit of a contradiction. He wants to help the beleaguered black community, but he does it from a condescending position. He is extremely hurt at how the community turns on him with their “House Nigger” signs, but in a way, he is. He is a classic boot-strapper who believes in individual responsibility and initiative, and refuses to accept arguments about slavery as excuses for the underachieving black community. Even Sarah says that blacks can’t be trusted because they pull each other down. They are the cursed people of Canaan to her.
The beauty of this film, though, is that it is more than a political satire. Joe’s pain at the rejection of his good intentions is extreme. He tells Heather that a heckler threw a rotten vegetable at him and holds his chest, over his heart, to indicate where the object struck. “After that, I went cold,” he says. Heather responds, “They broke your heart.” His later indictments include welfare mothers exemplified by Sarah’s daughter, who comes to Christmas dinner with her four children from four different fathers and abandons them, and a hoochie-looking girl with decaled fingernails and a made-up name (L’Braia). Like all stereotypes, these are funny, have a grain of truth, and are extremely unsettling. Joe’s refusal to disown his disdain for that bad behavior of members of his race shows that the filmmakers thought th black experience could finally handle criticism. (Not everyone saw it that way, however, calling the film “the most racist programme” in BBC history.)
Sharon Foster won the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award for Shoot the Messenger, and it is a worthy honor for a television writer—this film was originally aired on BBC2—working solidly in Potter’s no-holds-barred tradition and borrowing styles from a wide range of works, from Alfie to Homer’s The Odyssey. Director Ngozi Onwurah maintains a sharp, comic pace, while skillfully building the force of the more serious, dramatic elements of the film. Shoot the Messenger is a gleefully thoughtful tour de force.
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Directors: Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner
By Roderick Heath
The recent release of Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class has tried to capitalize on not just the 50-year-old comic book source, but also the intricate allure of the franchise first built by Bryan Singer. Aficionado as I am of fantastic cinema, willing to take a bet on most any example of it, I still avoided the series at first. That’s partly because I had little investment in the source material, and I also because I was uneasy at Singer’s premature canonisation as director because of The Usual Suspects (1995), a fine film that nonetheless seems to have kicked off an insufferable Hollywood obsession with trick narratives, and to a certain extent the feeling I had that Singer was essentially a slick professional with a thin veneer of post-Tarantino indie chic has been proven essentially true over the years. But when I finally did sit down and watch the X-Men films, I was pleasantly surprised at how much character and class Singer managed to transfer to them.
The first two films were imbued by Singer with a definitively chic, minimalist visual style and a correspondingly nimble sense of their characters and ideas. They were also exceptionally well-cast, possessing a balance of both character-based and satiric humour, and emotive and symbolic awareness. Moreover, since I caught up with Singer’s debut, the little-seen, interesting and curiously affecting, if pretty slapdash parable Public Access (1992), I started appreciating his growth, which is both obvious and coherent. His consistent interests are apparent in the effervescent frosting of elegance and abstraction in the visual design, his acute thematic awareness of outsider angst and interest in political diatribes that mask hidden agendas, and his fondness for vividly chiselled leading men. As such, the X-Men films are one of the most successful examples of a former independent director negotiating his way through broad-appeal fare.
Moreover, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter established a series rather unique among comic book adaptations, by taking them seriously as worlds unto themselves, in which the powers of the heroes are not merely devices used in otherwise relatively conventional action, but as intrinsic to the story on all levels: the question of mutation is both the starting point and the consistent motivator. This makes the films close to legitimate science fiction. Another challenge for Singer and McQuarrie was to develop a coherent and intimate story out of the over-busy Marvel comic book series they were adapting. They did it chiefly by focusing on characters, and the series is essentially driven by three of them, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), around who swirl other interesting personas whose gifts and faults complement and contrast each other.
X-Men commences portentously with a nadir of humanity: Jewish victims being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. One of the young men panics as he’s separated from his parents, and, as he’s wrestling with guards in a screaming frenzy, the gates of the camp seem to buckle spontaneously in obedience to his gestures. The boy is Eric Lensherr, who survives and grows into Magneto, a ferociously talented and brilliant manipulator of metal, and one of the emerging class of mutant people with the so-called X gene that gives them extraordinary, but unpredictably diverse, powers. In “the not too distant future,” Magneto determines to resist a growing push to track down and register mutants. He believes, not without some good cause, that a war is brewing, and he decides to push it along. He’s opposed by his former colleague and fellow defender of the oft-abused and outcast mutant population, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school that takes in mutants to educate them and train them to master their powers.
Some were offended by the use of the Holocaust for grounding this free-flowing fantasy, but can such fantasies be easily separated from the intense, real-world anxieties that fuel them? In any event, Singer and McQuarrie obviously stress such realistic likenesses for the material, apt considering the series was begun as a parable for the Civil Rights movement, and evolved to take in any disaffected social faction, including the gay experience. Such a point is repeatedly stressed by the need for rejected youths with problems that first manifest at puberty to find a home with den father Professor X and his understanding community.
Into that community stumble two new figures. Marie (Anna Paquin) finds herself afflicted with a particularly alienating mutation, the capacity to draw energy from anyone who touches her; she can absorb the gifts of any mutant, but if she touches them for too long they die, meaning she can’t have any kind of physical relationship. As per mutant custom, she gives herself a new name, Rogue, and flees from her suburban home to Canada, where she falls into the company of Logan, or Wolverine, a bristling tough guy who makes money winning cage fights. Wolverine and Rogue are attacked by a fearsome mutant, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who seems to want to capture one of them, but they are saved by two of Xavier’s teachers, Jean, a potentially powerful but fretful, unstable telepath and psychic, and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes emit powerful rays that have to be controlled with special glasses. The mutant school’s staff is rounded out by Ororo “Storm” Munro (Halle Berry), who can control weather.
The asocial Wolverine flits about the edges of this stable world: he possesses incredible healing capacities and an artificial metal skeleton with deadly claws that spring from his hands for battle, but no memory of how he got these claws. The story of their origin is crucial to X2, where Magneto’s worst nightmare is embodied by William Stryker (Brian Cox), an army bigwig who has sought to control and utilize mutants. He exploited Wolverine’s healing gifts to try to create a perfect soldier, and lobotomised his own mutant son, who killed his mother with psychic projections. Stryker blames the mutation for this, but father and son are both cut from the same psychopathic cloth. Magneto’s efforts in the first film mirror Stryker’s in the second—to exterminate the species they fear and detest with electronic augmentation. Stryker gains traction for his extermination plans by brainwashing lone German mutant Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Alan Cumming) into attacking the U.S. President (Cotter Smith).
The running confrontation of ideals, perspectives, and methods between Magneto and Xavier, backed up by the relish the two stalwarts bring to their parts, is a great part of the fun of the films, which put surprisingly little emphasis on spectacle and special effects except in controlled bursts. The emphasis on Xavier and Magneto’s former friendship and shared ideals lends a proper dramatic tension to their conflict, rather existing for simple generic necessity. Both possess the same traits in different mixtures, as Magneto’s genuine, empathetic angst is immediately established, underpinning his rage and contempt for the human world, and Xavier’s expedient choices in regards to Jean eventually lead to a grandiose tragedy. McKellen’s knowing, yet fierce playing of Magneto’s dramatic self-importance, which is entirely justified by his increasingly godlike powers, sees the actor transfer his persona from Richard III (1995) intact into a blockbuster.
The good casting extends right down the line, as various subplots and percolating themes evolve, such as Wolverine’s attraction to Jean, and hers to his hunky bad-boy appeal, in spite of her relationship with the cool, but too well-adjusted team player Cyclops. Jackman and Marsden’s mutual loathing is nearly as good as Stewart and McKellen’s, enacted in tossed-off insults and catty confrontations. Interestingly, and rare in such fare, it’s the female characters who keep the drama grounded, thanks largely to the restrained, mature performances, particularly Janssen, who makes her difficult character work well. Storm, signalled eventually as Xavier’s successor, maintains an intense slow burn that counterbalances Jean’s unsure brilliance. Berry’s Storm possesses a subtle, but noticeable African accent in the first film, as per the character’s Kenyan origin in the comics, but Berry drops this as well as Storm’s early glaze of weirdness in the second film, and her characterisation consequentially becomes less original. Still, I was more persuaded as to Berry’s acting talents by her here than by all the sweaty acrobatics of Monster’s Ball (2001).
On the opposite side of the camp is Rebecca Romijn’s lithesome Mystique, a shape-shifter and Magneto’s perpetual aide-cum-concubine who constantly overwhelms and surprises opponents with her capacity to change appearance and kick ass. As Brian de Palma did with Romijn in Femme Fatale (2002), Singer amusingly exploits her ability to imbue a sinuous wet-dream-incarnate sexuality with potent anger and predatory grace. It’s Mystique who really throws down the gauntlet of outsider rage when she kidnaps pompous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), the main proponent of the Mutant Registration Act in the first film, spitting, “It’s people like you who made me afraid to go to school,” before knocking him out with her talented feet.
Simultaneously, the younger generation is developing its own hang-ups. Although the series never really works out what to do with her, Paquin’s Rogue is the character who seems most mythic (at least until Jean turns into a goddess of wrath), and reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Rappacini’s Daughter in possessing a physique that is inimical to all erotic experience. Like a gorgon, her cursed nature is suggested by her hair, as is Storm’s. Rogue’s relationship with Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), who can freeze anything, is inevitably frigid, and he seems to fall under the sway of Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (well-played by Ellen Page in the third film, after brief appearances of other actresses in the first two films). Meanwhile, their mutual friend John “Pyro” Allerdyce, who, naturally, wields fire, eventually gives into his aggressive streak and joins Magneto’s team.
If there’s a problem with Singer’s X-Men diptych, it’s curiously indivisible from its strengths: Singer’s too-cool handling and spare action means he never approaches the overheated delights of Guillermo del Toro’s glorious Hellboy films, and doesn’t quite possess the personal warmth that lit up Sam Raimi’s erratic Spider-Man series. None of the episodes is entirely satisfying on its own, demanding to be watched in close proximity with the others. On the other hand, this franchise was more complex and dramatically integrated than its many rivals, and where Raimi’s studied naiveté eventually grew excessive and repetitive, here the characters and their interactions grow more interesting the more familiar they become. It helps that the series went back to the original comic books for their best storylines. The chief source for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand was the Phoenix cycle of the late ’70s, regarded as one of the greatest in comic book history. X-Men, on the other hand, feels limited by its very standard save-the-prestigious-event climax: the first film falls into the trap of basically setting things up to be knocked into the hole later.
Fittingly, X2 is the series highpoint, introducing the likeable, if fierce-looking Nightcrawler, and building to a lengthy, well-sustained finale, as the heroes try to save Professor Xavier from Stryker’s plot to fool him into psychically killing every mutant on Earth. X2 is full of excellent little set-pieces, particularly Magneto’s escape from his all-plastic prison, accomplished because Mystique injected tiny metal fragments into one of his guards during what he thought was a drunken hook-up, which Magneto is then able to suck out of his body and use to smash his cell. Wolverine’s discovery of his origin as part of a grotesque experiment and his shady personal history lead him into a battle with Stryker’s second, more obedient super-warrior, Yuriko “Lady Deathstrike” Oyama (Kelly Hu). Lady Deathstrike sprouts long, mandarinlike fingernails of steel, and the two well-matched animals slash and hack each other in a mean tussle that could theoretically last forever.
Singer sets up an elegant visual contrast for Stryker’s son, now a crippled, obedient, yet still obscene monster, with the little girl he projects into people’s heads to get them to do what he wants, and switches between reality and false vision. The episode concludes with Jean sacrificing herself to save her friends from being washed away by the waters of a collapsed dam; Singer pays obvious stylistic and thematic tributes to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), including having the familiar introductory quote by Xavier read by Jean before the final fade-out. Jean is reborn in X-Men: The Last Stand as a schizoid monster called “Phoenix,” an escapee from Xavier’s attempt to compartmentalise the unstable part of her personality and its awesome power. She returns from her watery grave at the mercy of this alternate personality and kills Cyclops in a lover’s embrace, a moment that finally fulfils the theme of deadly intimacy introduced by Rogue.
Singer’s interest in excoriating demagogues, rhetorical fear-mongers, false visionaries, and his penchant for wandering antiheroes, in evidence since Public Access, likewise recurs through the series, though no longer all packed into the same person. The series is worth comparing to the thematically similar Harry Potter series: in the latter, the unusually talented kids are accepted into a school that disciplines them and immediately normalises them, at least on a social level, whereas in the former, the emphasis remains clearly on the consequences and the immutable nature of their exceptionalism. Even the most successful and open-minded adults, like Storm and Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), are beset by a gnawing mix of resentment and alienation, even when trying their best to be proactive. One of the series’ best sequences comes in X2 when Stryker’s goons invade the school, shattering the cosiness of that environment, falling foul of some unusual mutant gifts, and forcing Wolverine to take up the mantle of defending the children in lieu of the absent teachers. As predictable as it is, the evolution of Wolverine from a fierce, somewhat masochistic, crude and brutal rebel into a functioning, responsible, but still lovably gruff member of the team, is an affecting and amusing strand throughout the films, until the unhinged Phoenix can taunt him with the observation that Xavier has tamed him.
Singer jumped ship on the franchise after this to try his hand at reviving another great superhero franchise with Superman Returns (2005), with very mixed results: whilst his ability to handle the infrastructure of a big action series had grown, his sense of what he wanted to achieve seemed to have disappeared. The third X-Men film was handed first to Matthew Vaughan, who, distressed by the studio’s rush to production, passed it on to Brett Ratner, whose name was already supplanting that of Joel Schumacher as an emblematic Hollywood hack. Ratner had made that claim for himself with his Rush Hour films and his unnecessary (and how!) remake of Manhunter (1987), Red Dragon (2002). Ratner kept most of the cast together however much some of them seemed to be going through the motions in virtual cameos, and did a passable job of sustaining Singer’s style. The result is somewhat better than it’s often regarded, but it’s hard not to notice that Ratner swapped Singer’s visual concision and ear for dry dialogue for a lot of clichéd bombast, trailer-ready dialogue, and a much less refined sense of pace and style. X-Men: The Last Stand also casually tosses away some of its by-now iconic characters, which does at least give it an unpredictable edge, and sports some overly obvious in-jokes.
Whereas Singer employed his outsider parable adroitly, here Ratner embraces it with cartoonish obviousness by introducing a young mutant, “Angel” (Ben Foster), who sports wings. His father, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), has developed a “mutant cure” with his pharmaceutical company, hoping to save his son. Angel is glimpsed in a prologue as a kid, desperately trying to saw off his wings in the bathroom whilst his father bangs on the door, an admittedly cunning conflation of the theme of protean adolescent shame with the fantastic. But Angel finishes up flying away in a tribute to Tony Kushner by way of Melissa Etheridge.
The third film does, at least, accomplish the job of bringing the many strands of the first two episodes to a head and leading to a suitably epic showdown. Jean/Phoenix falls under Magneto’s sway as he leads resistance to Worthington’s cure made possible by culling the genes of a young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), whose immediate presence completely nullifies mutations. Both Leech and the infrastructure for making the cure are housed on Alcatraz Island. Magneto, after putting together an army of disaffected mutants, decides to assault the island, and pulls off the trick, impressive by any standard, of levitating the Golden Gate Bridge and planting it between the island and San Francisco. This sequence is fun to watch, but less impressive than an earlier one in which Phoenix, enraged, turns her powers on Xavier when he and Magneto track her to her family house. She causes the entire structure to levitate, and, amidst a blizzard of debris and with Wolverine crawling across the ceiling, Xavier disintegrates, and the house crashes back to earth. It’s one of the most exciting and dramatic special-effects set-pieces of recent years.
Indeed, for all his bad choices, I can’t help but feel Ratner wielded his effects with more confidence than Singer. The big action climax, for once, delivers, too, as Iceman and Pyro duel, Magneto falls prey to the cure and faces (horror!) life as a normal human, and Kitty saves Leech from one of Magneto’s goons, the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), in a very funny little vignette that finishes up with the iron-clad villain, taunted by Kitty, knocking himself out cold when he tries to bash his way through a wall in the vicinity of Leech. Finally, Phoenix is let off the leash by a suddenly regretful Magneto, who bleatingly quotes Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai as Phoenix starts annihilating everything in sight. Wolverine has to shoulder the duty of taking on Phoenix, being the only one who can survive her pulverising telekinetic powers long enough to kill her, a coup de grace that Jean, momentarily back in control of her psyche, begs for. This ending offers proof that delirious melodrama and extraordinary colour aren’t only the province of Hong Kong cinema.
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Director/Screenwriter: Sally Potter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The only film I have watched twice in a row, waiting only 30 minutes for my mother to show up for my second viewing after I rousted her with the order to come over NOW, was Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997). As tango and art lovers, Mom and I were mesmerized by the dancing and Robby Muller’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. But we were even more thunderstruck by Potter as a self-assured, determined woman romantically involved with a younger man. Because so few films provide women over 40 with positive images of women like themselves, I took it as a personal attack when critics called Potter self-indulgent for casting herself in the lead and showing off not only her dancing skill, but also her fantasy of seductive power, capped by a grandly over-the-top sequence where she is dancing with three men. (Strangely enough, another reviewer has yet again pronounced Ms. Potter to be “self-indulgent,” oh, and also “silly,” with her latest creation, Rage. It seems to me that some reviewers are becoming self-indulgent with that default pronouncement themselves.)
Rage represents an experiment in accommodating the cellphone viewer of movies. It was shot in seven episodes, uses actors delivering monologues to a cellphone camera against individually color-coded backgrounds, and premiered on mobile phones around the world. An intertitle introduces each episode, typed with mistakes that are deleted and retyped as though being texted on a cellphone. Rage is also directly linked to The Tango Lesson as the film Potter was working on when she changed her focus to tango and romance. Gestational scenes of Rage in the earlier film feature three high-fashion models wearing statement designs of different primary colors, with epic-length wigs to match, created by a legless fashion designer. One by one, they are gunned down during a photo shoot in Paris. Potter pitches this film unsuccessfully to some Hollywood honchos, and then later declares that she doesn’t care because she wrote a film she didn’t want to make. I’m glad she reconsidered.
Rage is the shortened title the fictitious director of the film, Michelangelo, decides on instead of “All the Rage”; the earlier title would have been fine for a film about the preparation and staging of a fashion show introducing a new fragrance called M, but not for what Michelangelo, a high school student doing the film as a school assignment, witnesses over seven days of shooting. To wit: The show is first derailed by the accidental death of a weepy model who gets her scarf caught in the wheel of a motorcycle driven onto the stage by Krishna-colored Vijay (Riz Ahmed), the personal pizza delivery boy to the show’s self-dramatizing designer Merlin (Simon Abkarian). Then, the second attempt to put on the show is cut short after the shooting of another model. Third time’s certainly not a charm, as workers protesting the unfair labor practices of the fashion house’s owner, “Tiny” Diamonds (Eddie Izzard), and the young people who have been following Michelangelo’s coverage on his website, converge to destroy the show and anyone connected with it.
Rage has a large cast of types. Among the more memorable is Dianne Wiest as the sweet former owner of the fashion house who pines for the good old days when the company belonged to her parents and clothes were made in America, not China. Diamonds reminded of me of a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, buying businesses of every type just because he can and offering his unsolicited business advice to the pubescent filmmaker. Otto (Jacob Cedergren) is a self-important public relations flunky who consistently mispronounces Michelangelo’s name and thinks everything needs to be kept secret and under his control. Merlin himself is a caricature of dancer Pablo Veron, Potter’s costar in The Tango Lesson, amusing in his abstractions and down-to-earth exasperation over designing to marketing department specifications. Jude Law is a revelation as a drag queen supermodel called Minx who employs a fake accent and brings a genuine poignancy to the proceedings with his coming-out saga while undercutting it with the supremely narcissistic notion that he caused the mayhem because he wished the two unfortunate models dead. Judi Dench as fashion critic Mona Carvell is the height of cynicism, offering a critique of Merlin’s aesthetic to Michelangelo, knowing that she can circumvent traditional media through Michelangelo’s website when Diamonds ensures that her opinion will be censored by her publisher.
It’s interesting to see how Potter’s ideas about Rage have evolved. The original setting in Paris would have highlighted the economic and social importance of fashion to the French capital, making the killings both more significant and more dramatic. Moving the show to New York and highlighting a fragrance as the center of the supposedly provocative show reduces fashion to just another commodity, a fact driven home by the interchangeable marketing personalities played by Bob Balaban and Patrick J. Adams and their miserably uninspired ideas, as well as by the cellphone format itself. Talk about cutting fashion down to size! Potter tries to maintain a relevant edge by bringing in off-screen protesters heard along with many of the wonderful sound effects and asides that contribute to an insistent and lush sound design, but having talking heads relate the dramatic events undercuts any gravity Potter may have been going for. Bringing a complaining, over-the-hill war photographer (Steve Buscemi) on to shoot the fashion show further trivializes the event, even though it does, in fact, become a massacre worthy of his talents.
Several of the characters question themselves about why they are talking to Michelangelo, but the new technology and the ubiquity of reality TV has accustomed just about everyone to displaying their egos for an audience. Some of the characters, like Carvell, see how to work this technology to their advantage, while others never even seem to consider that their interviews are public domain as soon as they open their mouths. Seamstress Anita de los Angeles (Adriana Barazza) says little, refuses to carry on her life in front of a camera, and seems to be the only one completely in touch with the outside world, though anime-faced Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole) hides out with Michelangelo until she can get out of town, very sensibly not wanting to be the next assassinated mannequin. The challenge to Michelangelo that he has blood on his hands for revealing so much to his Internet audience is laughable, and yet tracks with ideas about cyberbullying. Movements can indeed be launched and sustained on the Internet, but in Rage, the bastards have hung themselves.
In general, Rage is a comedy filled with great performances and superb writing to flesh ideas and observations that are rather obvious. Like most information we access on the Internet, Sally Potter’s film is ephemeral, but well done and a lot of fun.
Rage can be viewed at Babelgum. In an extra on the site, Potter discusses how she got actors to appear to look directly into the camera—she didn’t use an Interrotron to do it, either!
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Producers/Codirectors: Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza
The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ever since I visited South Africa in 2000, I have been interested in the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Such processes occur on both the grand scale of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought psychological reparations for the atrocities committed under apartheid, and on the smaller scale chronicled by documentary directors Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza in Concrete, Steel, & Paint. Their film takes a look at the complications that occurred when two artists tried to bring together inmates of Pennsylvania’s Graterford maximum-security prison and residents of Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood, a poor, violent area from which many of the inmates hail, to create a mural.
The idea for the mural came from the inmates themselves, all of whom were part of an art class inside the prison who heard about mural-making from Jane Golden, director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts program, and urged her to work with them in the class. Spurred by their sense of fulfillment in creating murals for some of the prison’s common areas, the inmates wanted to do something to give back to the community they had each wronged with their crimes, including murder. Golden got together with Victoria Greene, founder of the victim advocates group Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) that is named for her murdered son, who helped facilitate a meeting between the members of the art class and crime victims. Eventually, the mural project got off the ground, but evolved into two separate murals, one representing the inmates’ point of view and the other representing the victims.
What is fascinating is the differing perceptions and attitudes of the inmates, victims (largely family members of murder victims), and Golden herself. Golden says, “Graterford is the sixth
largest maximum security prison in the country. It has a reputation of being a tough place. There were serious criminals there—people I had read about—people I had judged. I was very suspicious of them.” The 30 inmates who attended the first meeting looked upon the mural project initially as something to do, highlighting the monotony of prison life and uselessness inmates feel.
At an initial meeting where the idea is brought to victims, one woman says, “I’m speaking as a victim, a survivor. I’m not interested in what he has to say…necessarily. I’m interested in my healing.” Another says, “I have to hear from the offender. I have to hear the remorse. I have to hear their pain because I need to know do they understand my pain.” Altovise Love-Craighead, Emir’s sister, tells her story and says, “There’s nothing to come out of. There is no closure,” explaining simply that the pain of losing a loved one to murder never goes away.
Despite misgivings and nervousness, both groups meet at the prison. A bridge starts to form, as Love-Craighead says the encounter kind of opened her eyes. The project commences, as Golden and muralist/instructor César Viveros work with the prisoners to come up with a mural concept for the wall they have chosen. He and Golden feel the concept is beautiful, but the victim group attacks it as showing only the prisoners’ pain. This rift forces a reframing of the project: Golden locates two new walls, on buildings that stand next to each other, and Viveros works with the survivors’ group on a mural design of their own.
Again and again throughout the film, the prison artists repeated, “We’re still people.” The horror of a life sentence and of being judged to be inhuman and unfit to do anything but sit, grow old, and die is vivid and very disturbed. Yet, there is a self-pity and feeling of victimization coming from some of the inmates that is galling. Zafir says he was not guilty but some people “didn’t see it that way, and I have to live with that.” Although there is abundant evidence that wrongful convictions take place, most of the inmates admit to their guilt. Tom, who is serving a life sentence for a robbery homicide, says he sees his victim’s face every day and knows he can never get over it.
By working together to paint the panels that will form the murals, the victims and prisoners get to hear each other’s points of view and do something constructive together. Tom talks with one of the victims about how he thinks murderers have a right not to accept the verdict of the outside world that people like him deserve to be “ripped apart by dogs.” She counters that “I’m sure the person who that person murdered probably didn’t want to die. And they had no choice.” This seems to make an impression on Tom. Another inmate talks about how he was a crime victim before he became a criminal, and a victim advocate says that no one is trying to diminish the horror of his experience but that “it’s unfair for you guys to speak for the crime victims who aren’t incarcerated.” Tom’s sister also comes into the prison to paint with the group, giving the survivors a humanizing representative for the prisoners.
In only 56 minutes, Concrete, Steel, & Paint offers a comprehensive view of crime and its victims, punishment, and the importance of dialogue for bringing disparate, resentful groups of people together to affirm their common humanity. Criminals seem to take some responsibility for their actions, though many of them seem to cling to their status as victims before their crimes to assuage their guilt. Likewise, survivors start to let go of revenge as an effective means to heal their pain. Some are frankly pragmatic that many of the people who go into prisons come back into their neighborhoods eventually, and the community needs to care about them. Indeed, one of the inmates, Linwood Ray, is released during the project and gets a job with Viveros working on the mural walls.
Once the murals are up, the community responds, seeing not only their decorative value but the value of the stories they tell—one man, a former inmate, identifies with struggles portrayed in the prisoner-designed walls, another who looks at a crestfallen boy on the survivors’ mural and says “that was me” when he heard his cousin had been shot to death. The power of creativity and the ability of art to offer a channel of communication for people who desperately need it comes through. Concrete, Steel, & Paint is an affecting portrait that makes documentary into a healing art as well.
Concrete, Steel, & Paint screens Friday, April 15, 6 p.m., at the MTC Forum, Medill School of Journalism, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston.
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Director: Satoshi Kon
By Roderick Heath
Satoshi Kon’s death last year aged just 46 was a serious blow to anime fans and for cinema in general. Kon worked his way up through the animator ranks beginning in the early 1980s, and debuted as a director with 1997’s highly regarded Perfect Blue. For his second film, Kon wanted to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel Paprika, but that project was put on hold when the production company folded. Kon made three more films in the interim before he finally brought Tsutsui’s novel to the screen. Like Perfect Blue, it was considerably altered from the source material, becoming in almost all respects Kon’s brainchild. That word seems particularly apt here, for Paprika is about the transformative capacities and boundless expanse of the mind’s imaginative abilities.
Paprika, the titular heroine, is the literal brainchild and ultra-cute avatar of brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara in the Japanese version and Cindy Robinson in the English-language edition). Atusko works for the Foundation for Psychiatric Research that has begun moving beyond traditional therapy methods, thanks to new technology that can help the shrinks infiltrate the dream states of clients, including a new remote unit called the DC-Mini invented by the brilliant, corpulent, geeky, distracted techno wiz Kohsaku Tokita (Tôru Furuya/ Yuri Lowenthal).
At the film’s outset, Kon plunges deep into the head of police detective Toshimi Kogawa, or Konakawa in the English version (Akio Ohtsuka/Paul St. Peter), via a recurring dream in which he’s tracking down a criminal. His dream commences in a circus where he’s caged by a magician and passes through several different genres of fantasy, including a Tarzan film, a suspense thriller in which he’s being garrotted, and what he says is the scene of a true crime he’s working on. There, a man falls dead to the floor of a hotel hallway whilst the perp is disappearing into a fire escape, and when Togawa attempts to chase him down, the dream dissolves and sends him plummeting toward wakefulness. Togawa’s getting neurotic, and Chiba, in her Paprika guise, has begun treating him with the still-experimental DC-Mini.
When Chiba arrives at the institute the next morning, however, Tokita, whom she finds humiliatingly jammed in the elevator, admits an even more humiliating fact to her: his DC-Mini prototypes have all disappeared, apparently stolen by his assistant and fellow nerdy genius Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi/Brian Beacock). The singular brilliance of the DC-Mini is its capacity not only to allow mind-to-mind communication, but also to project remotely into other minds and allow people attuned to it to step into and out of the dreamscapes at will. Because Tokita had not put security settings on the device, there are no limits on what the thief can do with the gadget. Immediately, the thief makes some of his intentions known to Chiba and her fellows, as her immediate superior Dr. Torataro Shima (Katsunosuke Hori/David Lodge) starts talking gibberish and hurls himself out of a window. Seriously injured and in a coma, Shima dreams of being the grand marshal of a great, insane parade that includes horn-blowing frogs, singing dolls, walking soft drink machines, and a thousand other equally ludicrous figures. Shima recovers, but the race to find the villain who begins subsuming increasing numbers of people into the same seemingly wondrous, but deadly dream chosen from the mind of one of the Foundation’s psychotic patients becomes urgent.
One of the most outstanding qualities of Paprika is that it has a more complex plot than most mainstream thrillers, and whilst it frequently operates on the level of dream logic, it’s always tightly coherent. Yet, it manages to remember that, at heart, it’s a fantasy adventure though tracts of the subconscious and the unconscious built around that desire to maintain lucid control over the dream-state’s possibilities. Chiba, in the familiar guise of a professional woman with her sharp suits and tight hair, is uptight, sober, critical, and rigid, but she lets slip her alter ego Paprika when delving into the dreams. Paprika is a bob-haired redhead with the antic disposition of a playfully creative teenager, a warrior princess perfectly adapted for the surreal world. Chiba has mastered the capacity to move in and out of the dream-state and control herself within it. At one point, sent off to do battle, Chiba runs along a corridor, transforming into Paprika a la Superman in a phone box. Pursuing the villains through layered dreamscapes, she changes forms according to childhood fancies, turning into the hero of the cult Japanese TV show Monkey when she needs to fly, or Tinkerbell, or the Sphinx from Gustave Moreau’s painting.
Chiba/Paprika needs all her wits to survive. At one point, she seems to follow an Ichimatsu doll into a deserted fairground, and while trying to jump a fence, is snatched back by her colleague Dr. Morio Osanai (Kôichi Yamadera/Doug Erholtz), because she was actually about to leap off a balcony. Later, when she finds the real-life equivalent of the park, she’s nearly flattened by Himuro falling from the top of a Ferris wheel: far from being the mastermind, he’s just another patsy.
Simultaneous to the main plot, Chiba attempts to continue treating Detective Togawa through his work computer, with Togawa passing into the dreamscape and imagining himself in an upscale, but empty bar with two dapper waiters; Paprika shows up to guide him in an investigation of the meaning of his dream. They prove to be based in Togawa’s own suppressed interest in movies, with the recurring dream commencing in a street showing movies that include the ones through which his dream then proceeds—The Greatest Show on Earth, Roman Holiday, Tarzan. Here, of course, Paprika the film openly acknowledges the accord between its version of dreaming and cinema itself as a primal space where identities are swapped and fantasies actualised. Togawa, initially neurotic and denying any interest in movies, proves, in fact, to be a colossal film buff who once tried and failed to make a suspenseful short film with an interesting gimmick: all the way through the film the characters, a cop and criminal, were chasing each other. At one point, Togawa realises the man falling dead is himself, and he starts to realise the dream is a metaphor for his own regret over abandoning his cinematic aspirations. His dream also becomes another battleground in the attempt to corner the DC-Mini thief, as Togawa is the detective the Foundation members turn to for help in tracking down the villain. He immediately recognises Chiba as Paprika’s real-life equivalent. When the two plot strands intersect in Togawa’s dreamscape, Togawa manages to gun down the bad guy, save Paprika, and gain a heroic The End all to the applause of the audience within his dream. It’s not really The End, but it does get them all out of the closed loop in which the true villains have tried to trap them.
Those villains are Dr. Seijiro Inui (Toru Emori/Michael Forest), the wheelchair-bound director of the Foundation, who believes that the dream-invading techniques are an abomination he’s using to teach a painful lesson to their proponents, and Osanai. But it’s clear that both men’s intentions have become blurred with a hunger for power for its own sake, as Inui becomes a colossus unlimited by his physical disability. Osanai, terminally jealous and desirous of Chiba, has become Inui’s lover in order to share in using the DC-Mini and possess Paprika. Kon respects the protean, often highly sexualised, if not specifically sexual, nature of dreaming, and the film is richly, playfully, and sometimes acutely aware of the eroticism that pulses through the material whilst going nowhere near the seamier precincts of animation. Some of this is on the level of a naughty pun, like Paprika giving Shima a different kind of blow job: she sinks inside of him and then inflates him like a giant balloon, which then bursts, waking him up. Elsewhere it’s more evocative and pointed. Particularly, beautifully kinky and nasty is the scene in which Osanai, having captured Paprika, has transformed her into a huge butterfly he has pinned to a table, and, with relish, plunges his hand into her groin and slides his splayed fingers up under her skin, peeling the Paprika shell off Chiba, discovered inside.
Inui attempts to assert control over Osanai, growing off him and out of him, but the two men remain fused in one, self-wrestling body, a grotesque vision of their mutual homoeroticism, narcissism, and crippled aspects turned monstrous. Their fight gives Togawa time to snatch away Chiba, and, when Togawa shoots Osanai, who has taken the place of the fleeing villain in the film, they have a vision of him in the waking world as dying from the wound, and in Inui’s house, where his body was, he’s sucked into a void that begins opening, consuming reality and dreamscapes alike.
It’s embarrassing to think about the level on which most Western animation is still pitched, whatever the fine qualities of such contemporary models as Pixar are, for it’s still basically kid’s stuff. Perhaps that’s one reason why the equally inventive, but still firmly youth-oriented films of Hayao Miyazaki have found more favour with Western critics than that of any other anime director. Paprika mashes together traditional juvenilia with far more adult imagery and concepts; in fact, it’s very much about the state of flux between youth and experience and the psychological continuity, or lack thereof, that afflicts so many. The tropes of childhood and early obsession afflict most of the characters, including Chiba herself, Tokichi, and Togawa. Paprika’s singular brilliance is in using such tropes to fuel her capacity to navigate dreamscapes. The film named after her is equally the work of a director with a vision in perfect control of, and comfort within, his medium. The material could have played out in many different ways, from the riotously grotesque to something as numbingly literal-minded as Inception (2010), a film that drained the dream-infiltrating idea of all colour, wit, and sexuality. But Kon, who held particular esteem for George Roy Hill’s time-hopping Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and the works of Terry Gilliam (the influence of the latter is especially noticeable), and his animators kept a tight grip on this film, which swings from anarchy to crisp realism. As borderline psychotic as the imagery and as loopy as the story become in places, the film is never less than a carefully constructed, highly witty, and fluent piece of work.
Terrific little dashes of imagination and humour dot the landscape. A row of schoolgirls subsumed into the mass dream strut about with cell phones for heads, and a mob of perverts, similarly transformed, eagerly dash to look/photograph up their skirts. Togawa, when explaining a point of obscure cinema language to Paprika, suddenly appears dressed up in Akira Kurosawa’s signature peaked hat and sunglasses. Streams of weirdly poetic gibberish pour from the mouths of the victims plunged into the mass dream. There are morals to the story, of course, not least of which being that external appearances are rarely entirely true. As well as trying to save the day, Chiba finds herself as a point on an amusingly elusive romantic triangle between the cast-iron cop and the fat sweaty nerd, and all three characters are refreshingly complex creations. Togawa’s tough-guy job and his artistic impulses prove finally to have been deeply entwined, for he decided to live out the role of his movie’s hero in real life and thus joined the police force; his recurring dream is more about the way he lost contact with his forgotten collaborator on the film, who died young after getting attention. Chiba and Tokita’s love-hate relationship shows the psychotherapist in love with the genius in him but repelled by his weight and displacing that anxiety into tirades against his boyish obsessiveness.
Paprika herself embodies Chiba’s frustrated youth and playful instincts, which enables, rather than contradicts, her great professional ability. Paprika can be read as a film that is also about the creative impulse, with Chiba/Paprika evolving constantly in her sense of herself as a nexus of influences she takes in and then gives out. Similarly, Togawa comprehends his life as one of real dedication sprung from fictional creation. Tokita’s attempt to redeem himself by entering Himuro’s dream to draw out the villains gets him swept up pretty quickly, but later, Tokita, in his dreamscape reconfigured into one of his own collectible robots, destroys the gigantic Ichibana doll that is Inui’s favourite avatar. By the film’s madcap final 20 minutes, all of Tokyo has become engaged with the mass dream to the point where nobody’s sure what’s real and what isn’t; to Togawa and Shima’s bewilderment, Chiba and Paprika argue with each other over what course of action to take. Finally Paprika, yin to Inui’s yang, reconstructs herself into a colossus like him, growing both in size and through physical ages with the battle cry, “There’s always an opposite. Light and darkness, life and death, man and woman. And to spice it all up, you add Paprika!” She literally consumes Inui in defeating him. It’s both a send-up of, and a tribute to, the traditional monster-bashing finales of so much anime and keigu eiga movies. Finally, although he doesn’t get the girl, Togawa goes out and buys himself something just as vital to a well-balanced life: a movie ticket.
Weird, beautiful, sexy, funny, Paprika is a master class in film and story, and a great testament to its sadly departed creator. Also worth kudos is the terrific musical score by Susumu Hirasawa, particularly Paprika’s infectious theme.
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Director: Yousry Nasrallah
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is possible in the most general terms to assign outstanding characteristics to various national cinemas. For example, Swedes seem to excel at introspective films with a fatalistic edge. Czech films tend to be absurd, sardonic, and visually stunning. And though my exposure thus far has been very limited, I’m starting to think of Egyptian cinema as excelling in the use of fables as a storytelling device. Perhaps it is only that Yousry Nasrallah learned at the knee of a master Egyptian fabler, Youssef Chahine, that he was drawn to depicting the political conditions in Egypt, particularly for women, through a modern-day Scheherazade. Whatever the reason, Nasrallah’s beautiful blending of political content and compelling storytelling makes Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story both an entertaining film and one that helps Western viewers understand the recent, courageous protests against government repression that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Hebba (Mona Zaki), the beautiful host of a hard-hitting talk show on one of Egypt’s private television networks, has been married for seven months to Karim (Hassan al Raddad), an ambitious journalist who expects to be promoted to editor-in-chief of the state-owned newspaper where he works. The film opens with Hebba having a frightening dream in which violence silences her voice. She gets up and tries to work her tension off on her treadmill while watching herself grilling a government official on a tape of her show. Karim awakens, remarks jokingly on her vanity at watching herself, and then suggestively offers her another way to relax.
Karim has a problem. The newspaper isn’t happy with Hebba’s criticisms of the government. Fearing his promotion is in danger, Karim assures Hebba that her career is just as important to him, but cajoles her into offering viewers fluff until after he is confirmed. Fearing that this, her second marriage, might fall apart if she doesn’t agree, she decides to concentrate on women’s stories of love. Alas, no matter how hard she tries to find a noncontroversial subject to interview, each of the three women she brings on her show “Dusk to Dawn” highlights the woeful position of women in Egyptian society. Both she and her husband learn that everything is political, even love and marriage, as they reach a horrible crisis in their marriage that provides the climax of the film.
Just like Scheherazade, Nasrallah finds some compelling stories and tells them in such an exuberant way that the 134-minute film virtually flies by. The first story is the most benign, featuring Amany (Sawsan Badr), a 60ish woman who has lived in a mental hospital since she started screaming at a man who proposed marriage to her in a restaurant. To anyone who hadn’t heard the marriage negotiation, she certainly would have seemed crazy, but to us, it is the would-be husband who seems insane. He asks Amany merely to start wearing the veil, give him all her money, cook and clean for him without the maid she is used to, and allow his mother to come live with them to give her orders. In return, she gets a husband. Since he offers her no other tangible benefit than to simply repeat that she gets a husband, Amany rejects him as a lecher who wants to use and rule over her. It’s pretty clear Amany isn’t crazy, she’s simply mad, and has retreated to the hospital, where she is loved and useful, to avoid participating in a society that requires her to give up so much for so little in return.
Amany’s story is a big hit, and Kasim is thrilled with the new direction Hebba is taking. Encouraged by his response and the enthusiastic audience ratings, Hebba decides to track down Safaa (Rihab El Gamal), a woman in her late 30s who is living with the prison guard whom she befriended during her 15-year incarceration for murder. The modestly dressed, quiet Muslim seems an unlikely criminal, but her story is the longest and most compelling of the three.
Following the death of her father, a hardware-store owner, Safaa and her two sisters discuss their inheritance with their uncle. He abdicates his inheritance rights in exchange for maintaining his job managing the store. After three months of this arrangement, the sisters wonder when they will see some profits from the store. Their only worker, Said, says their uncle has been using it to gamble, drink, and take opium. The sisters banish their uncle and start running the store themselves, while paying Said, formerly an unpaid apprentice, as an employee. When they start to long for love and family, they are short on suitors. Reasoning that Said will be good to all of them if he marries one of them, they each begin trying to woo him. He responds to them all with promises of marriage in exchange for sex. When his deception is discovered, Safaa sends her sisters away and takes responsibility, as the eldest, for wreaking vengeance on him for treating them like whores.
This second story does not sit well with Karim or his employers, because it exposes the immorality of the men in her story. Despite Hebba’s protests that she presented a well-known story of love gone horribly wrong, Karim scolds her for not realizing that everything is political. It seems Hebba’s journalistic instincts simply will not be denied, as evidenced again in the third story she chooses to showcase. After seeing a well-dressed woman holding a sign up in the street, Hebba decides she needs to get to know her.
Nahed (Sanaa Akroud) is a dentist from a wealthy, conservative family who is wooed by a well-educated, influential economist. He cannot move in with her until renovations to his villa are complete, but he has a civil marriage with her in front of witnesses to confirm their attachment, and agrees to forestall consummation of the marriage until after the traditional ceremony. Nonetheless, he convinces Nahed, a virgin, to have sex with him—they are legally married after all—and succeeds in impregnating her. When he says he cannot be the father because he is sterile, he accuses her of adultery and tries to extort $3 million from her family in reparations. She finds this is his modus operandi for maintaining his plush lifestyle and finds his previous wife—actually an Egyptian who has a child by him—to testify in her divorce proceedings. But when he is appointed to an important government post, Nahed decides to protest, reasoning that a government that will do business with crooks is crooked itself. This story is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and reveals Karim to be just as oppressive as the other men in the film.
The fact that each story can be summed up easily shows how self-contained and direct they are. Likewise the characters tend to be types, as is the custom and strength of fable in offering home truths. This is not to say that the acting is one-dimensional. Many of the women in this film, particularly Akroud, El Gamal, and Badr, invest their characters with hopes, anger, and disappointment. I particularly liked El Gamal’s uncontrollable rage in a brutal murder scene that felt earned but that signaled her own destruction, and Nahed’s crestfallen betrayal at her husband’s deception and her simple, courageous protest conducted like the intelligent lady she was raised to be.
Zaki does not lend particular nuance to Hebba, whose story stands as a reverse of Scheherazade’s own tale of begging a night’s reprieve from death with each story. Hebba is eliciting an opposite response, endangering her own well-being the more stories she reveals. The outcome of her telling is more in doubt as well. While Scheherazade slowly allowed her murder-minded husband to understand the worth of women as he came to admire her ingenuity and storytelling abilities, and absorb the morals of many of her stories, it is not clear that Hebba and her subjects will have the same effect on viewers of Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story. Describing injustices to women offers awareness, but it seems these days that awareness is the end of the road of righting many wrongs. Nonetheless, Nasrallah was cagey in setting his “1,001 Nights” on an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, in which the juxtaposition of Hebba and her interviewee on a background screen gives visual reality to Oprah’s theme “I’m Every Woman.”
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is a superior melodrama full of intrigue, sudden violence, and knowing humor that I found exhilarating and the hubby found very moving and shame-inducing. I highly recommend this wonderful film with a message.
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Director: Eugène Green
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You’ve got to love a director who makes fun of formalist arthouse films right at the start of his formalist arthouse film—“The film is . . . unconventional,” says his main character, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), to the woman doing her make-up, who replies, “Boring, you mean.”—and then goes ahead with it, letting Julie speak his wish for the film: “I hope not. The story moves me.”
The self-reflexive meanings within meanings, of art imitating art as a means to tell the truth, as evidenced by this hope about the film French actress Julie is in Lisbon to film and the film Leonor Baldaque is in Lisbon to film (even director Green plays director Denis Verde [green]), comprise the main schema of The Portuguese Nun. The film’s main theme is the folly of earthly love, signaled by the project with which Julie has involved herself: a dramatization of Letters of a Portuguese Nun, comprising the love letters of said nun to a French officer with whom she had a passionate affair that were thought genuine until they were revealed to be a work of fiction. Julie, whose mother was from Lisbon and whose father was French Basque, speaks Portuguese but has never been to Lisbon before. Because of a leisurely shooting schedule, she spends a good deal of time wandering through the city, exploring her origins and learning to forgo her usual habit of brief, intense romances and embrace abiding love in some amusing ways.
Aside from the desk clerk at her hotel, who thinks Lisbon would be great if not for all the intellectuals, every male in this film is in thrall to Julie. She encounters an orphan boy, Vasco (Francisco Mozos), who tells her she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. She exchanges glances with an older man (Diogo Dória) in a restaurant, and he gives her his card; when she impulsively calls him the next night and accompanies him for the evening, she learns she has saved him from killing himself that very night and given him the will to go on. When she meets her handsome costar Martin (Adrien Michaux), who is happily married to a woman for whom he feels no passion, she does the good deed of sleeping with him so that he can feel he has not been cheated of anything by staying with his wife. Even a brief encounter at a disco with a man (Carloto Cotta) who asks her to dance becomes a mystical meeting at which she declares that he is the reincarnation of D. Sebastião, a 16th century king of Portugal who, legend has it, is supposed to step from a fog to restore the country as a world power. They meet again near the end of the film, and he tell her that he thinks she’s right about his true identity. In fairytale fashion, she tells him that if they meet a third time, she will tell him her name and be his forever because one cannot escape one’s destiny.
But it is Green who is Julie/Leonor’s most ardent admirer. You can see it in his face every time he plays a scene with her. He gives her a much larger wardrobe of beautiful, flowing clothes than she would ever need for a few days in Lisbon, and when the wind kicks up during any of Julie/Leonor’s strolls in her spaghetti-strap sundresses, a pretty wrap or sweater magically appears to keep her warm for the rest of the scene. Unaccountably, however, he puts her in clunky high heels for her long walks through the cobblestone streets; not only is it impossible to imagine her going very far in them, but they actually pitch her body at a very awkward angle. Green also gives her the increasingly distracting direction to open her doelike, brown eyes as wide as possible as often as possible and to refrain from blinking as he gives us straight-on views of her face. This technique was most jarring when Julie hears music and turns a corner to see a fado band playing, it seems, just for her. The camera cuts between close-ups of her unblinking face and the singer, whose eyes are little more than long-lashed slits as he tells a story that might have been her own. Although I loved the music and it was used well throughout the film, this interlude felt a bit like it was clipped out of a Bollywood musical.
The most problematic part of the film for me is the encounter Julie has with a real Portuguese nun (of course, not really real—she is played by Ana Moreira) in a chapel where the nun prays nightly. Julie has watched her from the back of the chapel on several nights, but they finally interact when the nun revives Julie, who has fainted among the pews. The cause of her fainting spell was seeing Sister Joana—a name the nun assumed in reverence for St. Joan of Arc—disappear and then reappear. The conversation they have about there being only one kind of love, and God being besieged (or besieging, I really couldn’t figure it out) left me more or less in the dust. This may have been by design, as Sister Joana asserts that reason was not created by God and does not exist, but giving us dialogue that can’t be reasoned out is a cheat and rather cheapens Julie’s apparent spiritual awakening, turning over of new leaves, giving of genuine love to little Vasco, etc. etc.
Green has a sly wit that had me thinking for quite some time that this was a romantic comedy. But the humor was not pitched well enough or sustained, nor was the seriousness of purpose consistent. In the end, the film was a bit too tricked up for its own good to be either a parody or an introspective examination of love. Such films are possible (see Certified Copy for the best recent example to date), but Green doesn’t seem to have grown an organic style of his own. When he stops having short passions with various film techniques and finds the slow-burning love of his life, his films will take the great leap forward they truly are poised to make.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Mann
By Roderick Heath
This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.
In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowski brothers’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.
Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high-profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.
Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists, after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.
Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off, and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.
Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.
The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.
A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.
Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects.
Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Mendoza can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive. Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.
What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Mendoza, and even some of the white supremacists.
That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources (no wonder Mann’s been kicking about the notion of shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls). Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Mendoza to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans. The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.
Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.
After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated but with Mendoza having escaped.
Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jonathan Auf Der Heide
By Roderick Heath
Western civilisation’s remarkable capacity for setting up hells on earth at suitably distant places from itself in the Age of Enlightenment saw the primeval landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until 1856, become a place synonymous with harsh extremes and brutality. There the English invaders and the aboriginals engaged in a genocidal war of possession, and some of the harshest penal colonies were erected to banish the domestic losers of the British Empire’s great age of expansion and industrialisation. Thus, the best Australian movies—as opposed to the most popular—usually have a hint of deeply uneasy existential fable to them. Van Diemen’s Land, an oddly unheralded work, is a return to subject matter for Aussie films that was rendered groanworthy by repetition in the colonial revivalism of the ’70s and ’80s: the Convict and Settlement era. But Jonathan Auf Der Heide, an actor making his feature directorial debut, chose to tell an infamous story, one that inherently resists being romanticised. Auf Der Heide expanded Van Diemen’s Land from the short film Hell’s Gate, which dealt with the story of Alexander Pearce and the seven other convicts who escaped with him from the penal settlement of Sarah’s Island, Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce’s subsequent cannibalisation of several of his fellows became one of the most bloody and colourful tales in the already bloody and colourful history of that island.
Pearce’s story, which saw him nicknamed “The Pieman” in later mythology (there’s even a Pieman Creek, named after him, near which the film was shot), recently came back to attention both through Auf Der Heide’s film and the nearly simultaneous Dying Breed, which used the legend of Pearce as the background for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre knock-off. Van Diemen’s Land immediately posits itself as a meditation on the terror and beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, which is distinct from the Australian mainland in several ways: heavily forested and possessing a climate similar to Europe.
Auf Der Heide makes his models and debts, to Herzog and Malick, fairly plain early in the film, but for once, an Aussie director with an eye for artful foreign models chooses them as is appropriate to the material, and moulds them to his own purpose. His film is shot through with a deeply convincing and gruelling sense of physical detail, especially in the early scenes that concentrate, with little dialogue, on the working men, their axes hewing into wood and shoes squelching in mud, hauling great logs into the harbour. There are also notes of black wit to leaven the bloodcurdling, unblinking approach to physical violence, and a cunning approach to the characterisations of the escapees, who are introduced as the anonymous members of a labouring gang. Auf Der Heide commences with a jolt of disorientating humour, showing a huge mouth sloppily chewing on a badly cooked pie, before revealing this is actually an officer, the overseer of a detachment of convicts. It’s more than just a grim joke, though: food is the chief dramatic stake and object of power in the following narrative.
Several of the convicts are Irish, victims of imperialism in subtle and overt manners, but that’s a point Auf Der Heide avoids proselytising into the ground, as finally, their backgrounds and identities place a distant second to their immediate capacity to live and kill. That he illustrates the point indirectly by having Pearce’s voiceover meditations spoken in his native Irish Gaelic rather than in the English he needs to communicate to most of the others, and the internecine, bare tolerance of the Irish, Scots, and English members of the party, which erupts occasionally into brawling, say enough. The Gaelic also carries a strong whiff of something more primal, barely reconstructed by a modern, viciously repressive milieu: the “freedom” that the convicts give themselves, even at its direst end, is only a variation on their lives. Pearce (Oscar Redding, who cowrote the script with Auf Der Heide) is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the men detailed to fell trees at the outset. His crime, for which he was deported to the other end of the world, was the theft of three pairs of shoes—a very Jean Valjean sort of misdeed, but one Auf Der Heide doesn’t tap for any sympathy. Pearce doesn’t mention it until very late in the film, and it becomes more like the ultimate absurdity, the pretexts for which men are reduced to less than men. There’s also a dark echo to his crime, which Auf Der Heide indicates by offering shots of the shoes the men wear and that get dumped along the route: six pairs of shoes, including Pearce’s own, get him to where he finishes up, alone and depraved.
Pearce, along with Bodenham (Thomas Wright), Travers (Paul Ashcroft), Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter), Kennerly (Greg Stone), Little Brown (John Francis Howard), Greenhill (Arthur Angel) ,and Mathers (Torquil Neilson), make a break when they’re sent to a remote edge of the harbour to fell trees under the supervision of Logan (Adrian Mulraney), an infuriatingly garrulous overseer who offers pronouncements like, “There’s freedom in work!” With a mixture of bonhomie and self-satisfaction, Logan offers the crew a share of the decent meal he had partaken of the night before: none of the men take him up on it. Greenhill tackles Logan when the coast is clear, and the men strip him naked to augment their own clothing with vengeful delight. Dalton has to threaten Mathers to make him stop hitting the overseer who asks, “Where are you going? There’s nothing out there!” There is something out there, however: where the men see nothing else, they see each other, alternately as companions in freedom, competitors, enemies stranded together, and, finally, food.
Van Diemen’s Land, whilst offering information in carefully parcelled amounts, essentially reduces historical horror story to a virtually metaphysical simplicity: is it easy to reduce a man to an animal, or is it the man who is truly dangerous? Threat is inherent long before any violence makes itself plain; it’s even inherent when Kennerly says to Logan, with subtly genuine malice, that one of his fellow convicts would much rather be home than stuck with the likes of him. Kennerly and the injured Brown eventually split off from the party; having witnessed Dalton’s killing and deserting to try to make it back to their jailers before they starve, they sense that either way lies probable death. Auf Der Heide leaves the fate of the two men unstated (they did actually make it back to the penal settlement, only to both die in hospital). Dalton seems to be the practical leader at first in restraining Mathers and directing the party. Kennerly is the dominant personality at first, with his earthy humour and sexual anecdotes, but his style soon proves abrasive when he mocks one of his fellows for trying to hunt an animal (“You’ll never catch it! Them imaginations are too fast!”) and starts a brawl amongst the convicts.
The initial plan, to try and make it to present-day Hobart and catch a ship away, gives way to a numbing, physically and spiritually corrosive pounding through bushland that’s seemingly as inhospitable as any desert. The men know far too little about survival in such circumstances to live off the land, and as the ructions deepen and the certainty that starvation looms for all of them, this near-inevitably translates into homicide. Dalton is the first victim, assaulted by Mathers and Travers and strung up to bleed to death. The axe that the convicts brought with them from their tree-felling labour becomes the totem passed between them, a tool of power and murder that some wield more easily than others. Pearce, in fact, initially stands back from the killing, and only develops and comes into specific focus as exceptional because in his quiet, reflective, foreboding nature lies a nihilistic potential to reject humanity with a completeness that eludes his other, more volatile and reactive fellows. “God can keep his heaven,” Pearce decides towards the end, “I am blood.”
Unlike some other recent attempts to create a more probing, unremitting approach to the often awesome violence involved in the country’s first hundred years of white settlement, like Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Van Diemen’s Land presents violence free of apologia and Grand Guignol. Particularly in Pearce’s murder of Travers, Auf Der Heide presents the killing in all its unvarnished shades of feeling and physical difficulty, whilst managing to avoid being too theatrically literal (dismemberments are all offscreen). There’s a confrontational, questioning quality to this film that’s all too rare to Aussie films, apart from odd examples and the better works of Rolf de Heer.
Early in the film, the convicts and their overseer travel upriver, tracing the edges of the bristling, choking landscape into which they’ll soon desperately plunge. Later interludes where the camera drifts through the mist-clogged, darkly thatched landscape, Pearce’s sonorous Gaelic epigrams suggesting the lurking psychic unease, allow Auf Der Heide to have his cake and eat it in twinning the deeply corporeal, immediate problems facing the characters and the almost cosmic hopelessness of a situation where only bestial reversion can offer survival. There’s an eerie moment later in the film in which Pearce and his last fellow survivor, Greenhill, stumble out of the forest into a grassy plain where soft rain falls. You can almost feel the psychic relief, even if it’s only temporary, before Pearce has an hallucination of Dalton’s shade, accompanied by Dalton’s “Cooee” cry, as if that’s only just echoed back to him. Earlier, Bodenham is killed when his fellows realise that he’s completely left them behind, psychically, staring distractedly into the trees, so that Mathers, after a long pause, lifts the axe and swats him on the head.
The last section of the film plays out like Treasure of the Sierra Madre stripped of all pretences of motivation other than naked survival and hate. Travers mocks Pearce, whose first actual killing is of Mathers when Mathers tries to convince him to take care of Greenhill, because Pearce committed his killing without any hypocrisy but only in recognising who the weakest member was. But Travers is bitten by a snake, and after days of helping him limp through the forest, Greenhill, having shepherded him to the point where he can’t move anymore, carefully leaves the axe propped for Pearce to take up to finish him off. But Pearce isn’t in the least bit merciful to Travers after his mockery, and with the words, “Your soul to the Devil!”, rather than quickly kill him, chokes him to death with the axe-head. Travers and Pearce then have nothing to do except wait for the time when one will kill the other. Pearce fools Travers into showing his hand first, and when Travers awakens the next morning with Pearce standing over him, he can only wait for the blow to fall and then eventually demand, “Get on with it.” Pearce’s final pronouncement on the subject, that he sees God as dancing over humans with an axe, is the end of his progression back into a heart of darkness as he chew on Greenhills’s flesh. Auf Der Heide smartly ends the film there, as there’s nothing more to be said apart from a written postscript that tells of Pearce’s recapture, the disbelief of his confession by the authorities, and the bleak postscript in which he escaped again and needlessly killed another convict in order to eat him.
The juxtaposition of cancer-like neurosis blooming in the primordial forest and intense mortal and spiritual straits is a contrast more familiar from classic New Zealand than Australian cinema (Utu, Vigil, The Piano), though Van Diemen’s Land certainly expands the contemplation of the fearsome Aussie landscape seen in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. That Auf Der Heide’s debts are apparent and yet that his film still never feels laboured is an admirable achievement, and whilst Van Diemen’s Land would undoubtedly be a slightly too tough and taciturn experience for many audiences, it is purposefully so. In fact it’s as marvellously coherent, in the fullest sense of that word, as any Australian film I’ve seen in at least the past two decades, all the more admirable for choosing its firm focus and then taking no short cuts. It is, of course, inherent in the story, but Auf Der Heide nonetheless manages to communicate the way in which landscape and occurrence are linked in a much more profound way than, say, Philip Noyce’s similarly odyssean Rabbit-Proof Fence. Peculiarly enough for a film made by an actor, there’s an incredible avoidance of rhetorical showboating and anything but the most necessary emoting and semaphoring of internal meaning, making the collective acting all the more impressive. More than any other recent work I’ve seen, Van Diemen’s Land suggests the recent upturn in Australian cinematic culture might be more than skin deep.
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Director: Róbert I. Douglas
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My local library, the Skokie Public Library, is, I’m convinced, the most wonderful community library in the country, and it’s got the credentials to prove it—the 2008 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for libraries. The huge catalog of foreign-language films the library carries or has available for download to accommodate village residents who speak one or more of 97 languages likely cannot be found in even the best video rental sources. And while I would never guess that Icelandic was one of those languages, the Skokie library has a few titles from that small country as well. The hubby picked up one of them yesterday for our evening entertainment, an irresistible-sounding film about a gay soccer club based in Reykjavík.
Eleven Men Out wastes no time in getting to the point. The powerful pro team, KR, moves into the locker room after a game, where they are pursued by photographers and reporters. One of the reporters is talking to Ottar Thor (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is concerned where a photo of him will be placed in the magazine. She says that it will be on the last page, the last thing people read. He complains. She says that if he gives her something good, he could get a cover. He decides on the spot to come out as gay to her, the photographers, and his unsuspecting and flabbergasted teammates. Ottar gets his magazine cover—and gets booted off the team by the homophobic team owner.
Ottar’s father (Sigurður Skúlason) tells him to give up this nonsense or, barring that, to get psychiatric help to “cure” his “illness.” Ottar’s brother Orri (Jón Atli Jónason, who cowrote the screenplay), a completely contemptible person who treats his girlfriend of two months like trash, merely insults his brother at every opportunity and shows more concern for the money owed him for rentals from his video store than the tumult Ottar has caused his parents. Gugga (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), Ottar’s ex-wife and a former Miss Iceland, is sloppy drunk for most of the movie; neither she nor Ottar understand how Ottar has made their son Maggi’s (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson) life hell at school.
Ottar’s friend Pétur (Helgi Björnsson), a former pro who had his moment of glory scoring a goal off the mighty Arsenal team in London, coaches an amateur soccer team. He offers Ottar a position, mentioning that his team has a few gay members so Ottar won’t get the same treatment as he did on KR. Alas, Ottar is now a very high-profile homosexual, and the few straight men on the team resign. The discussion Pétur has with them is hilarious in its circularity (“But I’m not gay.” “Exactly. That’s why this isn’t a gay team.”). Of course, it doesn’t matter that the team is mixed; perception is everything, and these men fear guilt by association.
Eventually, the team is composed entirely of gay players. They change the name of the team to Pride United and adopt a uniform that has a rainbow stripe on the sleeve. After winning their first game through the homophobic forfeit of the other team, they finally get a chance to prove their worth by winning enough games to reach first in their league. A random drawing of teams for the playoffs has them bussing to northern Iceland to play a team in an isolated hamlet and partying in a pathetic disco called Club Cambodia, run by the Cambodian wife of the other team’s coach. Maggi meets their lovely half-Cambodian daughter Rosá (Pattra Sriyanonge), who asks the 13-year-old boy if he wants to fuck. He’s taken aback and nervous, but she says matter-of-factly that there’s not much else to do in her town.
The film climaxes when KR, worried about fallout from their homophobia, agrees to play Pride United. The date of the match falls, coincidentally, on the same day as Reykjavík’s gay pride parade. As a multicolored balloon ribbon follows the floats filled with drag queens down the streets of Reykjavík, Pride United and KR face off. If you want to know the outcome, stay with the closing credits; this film does not traffick in the traditional underdog payoff of most sports movies by filming the big game.
To many Americans, this film may seem thoroughly contemptible and behind the times. After all, have we not seen openly gay politicians rise to national prominence, openly gay entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres win lucrative modeling contracts and continue on with their successful careers, gay writers land on best-seller lists? Have we not also seen gay bashing continue, gay marriage rights come—and go—in various states, strong coalitions of religious leaders forming organized offensives against gay rights of every stripe? Have we not seen a 2010 film by a gay director present two lesbians in the most straight-friendly manner imaginable? If you listen carefully to the Icelandic, you’ll notice that the language has only one word for homosexual, whereas the subtitles change it up frequently. This one difference represents what I like so much about Eleven Men Out—its direct approach to its subject.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat the homophobia that exists in Iceland; it also doesn’t have its gay characters back down into stereotypes or defensiveness. Ottar says he is what he is, and by the way, that includes a narcissistic soccer star whose vanity brought him out of the closet without considering the consequences of an abrupt public outing on his teammates, friends, and family. Continuing with his tunnel vision, he takes up with a young soccer player on Pride United, offering up movie theme nights for entertainment; he’s caught completely off guard when his lover walks out on him, preferring to spend his time in more youthful, active pursuits. He is also careless about having Maggi walking in on him having sex with his lover. The film is utterly casual about nudity, mixing women and naked men in locker rooms without comment; a group hug in the showers is handled unself-consciously by the actors.
The film also doesn’t whitewash the very serious drinking problem the country has, as evidenced by Icelandic singer Björk’s admission to drinking a liter of vodka every Friday, a “custom” she picked up from her grandparents. Gugga is drunk all the time, but so is everyone else in the film, and there are virtually no scenes in which a character doesn’t have a drink in his or her hand. It also doesn’t present picture-postcard images of Iceland; in fact, I’m surprised the populace hasn’t drowned in all the rain, which isn’t the gentle mist one finds in more image-conscious Irish films, but comes down in torrents on the umbrella-free characters.
While Eleven Men Out strives for some kind of upbeat ending, with the Pride/KR match, Gugga’s entry into rehab, a real talk between Maggi and his parents, and Ottar’s mother (Lilja Guðrún Jónsdóttir) forcing her husband to sit in the stands with the fans of Pride United, the film doesn’t foresake the reality of Iceland’s attitude. “You didn’t expect us to win,” Ottar says to Pétur, a wonderfully comic line that sums up a realistic, sardonic attitude not only to the difference in skill between Pride United and KR, but also the uphill battle facing homosexuals in a society whose language has barely changed since it landed on the island in the 9th century.
I like how unsympathetic a part Atli Jónason was willing to write for himself, making him the perfect comic man you love to hate. This is a funny movie, but it’s not blind to the seriousness of its subjects and isn’t willing to turn its characters into caricatures for the sake of a few yucks. Unlike a film I didn’t much like, Up in the Air (2009), it doesn’t use its serious subjects as mere background. The film is too packed to get a deep character study, but we do get a good feel for the nasty situation Icelandic homosexuals find themselves in and their real strength to overcome it.
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Director/Screenwriter/Executive Producer/Star: Tommy Wiseau
By Roderick Heath
The Room has grown slowly but with ever-increasing momentum to become perhaps the preeminent Bad Movie of our time. When people talk about Bad Movies, the kind I mean by capitalising the epithet, they’re usually interested in the pleasures gained from the obscene mockery of all good sense exhibited on the screen. There’s affection in the way we love Bad Movies, akin to the impulse that makes people take in stray animals. Less noble emotions, too, including a level of wrath for the frustration that many of us aim at movies for being made by people richer and prettier and more talented than we are (or who at least mysteriously have access to enough money to make them) finds appropriate targets in select icons that encapsulate everything that can be rotten about cinema. These people become scapegoats, whipping boys, Gadarene swine for all the small frustrations and dashed hopes, the cumulative cognitive dissonance and offended sensibilities that movies can provoke and fuel. And yet, anyone who’s ever tried to create anything can empathise, usually distantly, but sometimes all too keenly, with the failures of artistic ambition that, a bit like the way decomposing marine life lends a phosphorescence to the brine, illuminate what’s actually good that much more clearly.
We rate movies according to the success with which they, in fact, lie to us. A film that so utterly compels us with its lies, say, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, or any other movie hailed as a popular icon of great cinema, stands in contrast to Bad Movies, which are defined by their failure in this regard. The worse the movie, the more evident it usually is that the movie is constructed by a complex interplay of technicians and actors. Therein lies the beauty – or anti-beauty – of Ed Wood’s films, and it is present in Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 debut film The Room, feeding into the playful audience participation that usually infuses such cult artifacts, as if they’re open, interactive creations. Such works offer, in their way, unfiltered windows into their makers’ lives and attitudes, redolent of narcissism or at least breathtaking insensitivity to the problems of art. The cult status of The Room gathers more ironies in that the cult was germinated amongst the young culturati of California, essentially the same milieu from which the film itself emerged. Tommy Wiseau’s origins have been described as obscure, and, of course, Wiseau’s weird accent, bizarrely retro personal style, and strange notions about what a film should look and sound like readily designate him as a figure of fun.
Such considerations serve merely as intellectual prologue for me to the actual experience of watching The Room, which is, alternately, deliriously funny and deeply depressing. Armed with a budget that would have been entirely sufficient for other, actually talented filmmakers to put together something great, Wiseau produced one of the most god-awful films ever made. There’s often a peculiar kind of magic at work with bad films, as the piling up of mistakes and idiocies metastasize, and replicate, in their way, the same accumulation of refinement or invention that makes for great films; they therefore can be just as compelling, as each little fragment of foolishness takes on its own epic lustre. The Room certainly fulfils this requirement of the awe-inspiringly Bad Movie. I spent long stretches of the film clawing the air in pinioned physical reaction, and had to take a long breather in the middle, for it was starting to make me feel like a prisoner in a Kafkaesque nightmare. One by one, all of my more gentlemanly, inquisitive, broad-minded instincts were met and defeated by this film; it actively invites cheap shots at such rancid conceits as Wiseau’s evident pride in serving his body up as what he obviously thinks is a strapping example of manhood, but which in certain shots and lighting, looks rather like he’s suffered some sort of massive tissue trauma. Even the film’s title broadcasts a stultifying lack of imagination. What room does it refer to? The bedroom? The living room? The room in the loony bin waiting for anyone who watches this film without warning?
The Room is the story of Johnny (Wiseau), an all-round awesome dude with a fiancée— oh, sorry, “future wife” as she’s constantly referred to—Lisa (Juliette Danielle) who live together in a dream apartment in San Francisco. We know it’s San Francisco thanks to the endless opening montage of tourist brochure locations. And if we didn’t notice it then, Wiseau re-uses shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and other locales throughout The Room in his constant, ham-fisted scene interchanges. He even appears in some of them, crossing the frame with all the apparent randomness of CCTV footage or one of those “actual documented proof” movies depicting a Bigfoot sighting. Actually, with his long shaggy hair and knobbly, fit yet ungainly body, Wiseau looks a bit like Bigfoot, strategically shaved.
But I digress. Johnny is an employee with a bank who credits himself with saving his employers large sums of money, and expects a big promotion. Lisa talks about having to do something with computers, but she’s a failure at that, and so spends all day every day sitting about their apartment. Early on in The Room, Johnny comes home with a gift for Lisa, a sexy red dress she promptly dons as an overture to a scene of extended, sweaty passion, but only after a bit of banter with Denny (Philip Haldiman). He’s a young man whom Johnny apparently once wanted to adopt and whose college education Johnny is paying for, in spite of the fact that Denny acts like an emotionally retarded 11-year-old, following Lisa and Johnny up to their bedroom and hurling himself into their pillow fight, before they make it clear to him they want him to go away so they can make sexy-time.
Later, there will be a dramatic moment in which Denny is threatened by a gun-wielding drug dealer who insists in an unreasonably forceful manner that he be paid for selling Denny some of his wares, but fortunately Johnny and Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero) grab the thug and take his gun without great difficulty before bundling him away. After a few tearful recriminations, this incident is not mentioned again. Its purpose, we later learn, is simply to get a gun into the story. Mark is the object of Lisa’s lust, for Lisa, as she explains to her reprehending, patronising mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), is bored with Johnny in spite of the fact that, as everyone repeatedly states, he’s a being of overwhelming goodness. He is a river to his people: father-figure to Denny, breadwinner to Lisa, and his apartment is, as Claudette describes it, a bit like Grand Central Station for the people who traipse through it. Michelle and Mike (Robyn Paris and Mike Holmes), a couple who, in spite of being in what appears to be their mid-20s, feel a need to sneak into Johnny’s place under the cover of doing “homework” in order to erotically share chocolates. Michelle is also Lisa’s confidante and sometime-enabler of her wayward sociopathic streak, half-heartedly trying to talk her into being honest with Johnny, but mostly just giggling along as if they’re both high and having playful fights with household objects. Other randomly introduced members of this circle of friends include Peter (Kyle Vogt), a psychologist who mumbles vague opinions about Lisa’s mindset, and some guy who looks a bit like Danny Huston who first appears during the climactic party scenes and yet seems instantly included as a major character.
An aspect of The Room that attracts the most immediately obvious incredulity, and yet which I found myself particularly taken by, is the way it accidentally trashes the settled niceties of humdrum screenwriting. It’s as if Wiseau, in penning his script, began toying with many possible discursions for his tale, decided to pursue none except the central romantic crucifixion, and then did no rewriting whatsoever. Scenes lurch by and repeat without specific motion, the story has an entirely disconnected rhythm, and Wiseau doesn’t just introduce conflict, but every conflict he can think of. Johnny tries blatantly to make Denny his lovably foolish mascot, as he cajoles the guys into playing football when they’re wearing tuxedos (Why they’re wearing tuxedos is not explained. Is someone getting married? Going to a funeral? Winning the Nobel Prize? It seems to be for some kind of wedding rehearsal — but whose wedding?) and stoking panicky, weepy concern from Lisa and Claudette when he gets threatened by that drug dealer. Claudette mentions early in the film that “I definitely have breast cancer.” Mike, during one of Denny’s impromptu football games, wobbles and nearly collapses as if he’s suffering from some illness, too. Neither of these aspects, like the drug dealer, is mentioned again. When Wiseau himself isn’t on screen, the combination of the otherwise blandly attractive cast and the jostling, clichéd story lines resembles clip-show excerpts from a particularly bad mid-’90s soap opera, assembled without any of the connective tissue or resolutions. That’s actually the highest praise I can give it.
Sometimes the Bad Movie cult engages in a kind of snobbery, where all low-budget films or even just old films with dated special effects and production values, are food for ridicule, a notion I’ve always been intensely at odds with when the film exhibited some passion and smarts. The original canon of cultish bad movies was built around monster movies and tacky spectacles like Plan Nine from Outer Space, Eegah!, Robot Monster, etc. Later, these were supplemented by movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s that tried to exploit the Counterculture, and then finally, by calamitous misfires of the blockbuster mentality, like Showgirls and Battlefield Earth. But The Room is something different. Aspects of its awfulness are timeless—the egotistical one-man-show quality of the production, with the auteur parading his sexual and emotional hang-ups, as well as incompetence, across the screen; the soul-witheringly awful writing; and total lack of cinematic intelligence and craft in the filmmaking. But other aspects are more contemporary in their obnoxiousness—the sex scenes, with their stale reproduction of visual gimmickry from shitty cable TV filler flicks and cheapo music videos; the dreadful synthesiser music score with its endlessly repeated, yet completely unmemorable main theme, and random quotes from Satie and Beethoven that swirl surreally under dialogue exchanges. The Room is the inevitable by-product of the independent film revolution, a specific summary of everything that could go wrong with the “Hey, I can make a movie, too!” philosophy.
One amazing thing about The Room is that it cost a reported $6 million to make. Apart from the incessant blue screen work in the rooftop scenes, in which exactly the same light and sun-through-cloud effects occur from scene to scene, it’s hard to imagine what the hell that money got spent on. Its sex scenes are like some hitherto undescribed 10th circle hell, interminable montage interludes scored to ballads that sound like they were recorded by the clapper loader’s brother’s band. Leading lady Danielle seems to have been chosen mostly for her willingness to let Wiseau’s carcass undulate on top of her. Undoubtedly these would-be sexy bits are the film’s selling point as some kind of erotic drama, and yet they wouldn’t get a nun bothered, except possibly by nausea. The first sexual interlude sports red rose petals crumbled over Lisa’s skin, dissolves between lighted candles and shots through the gauzy drapes around the bed, and rainwater flowing down the window. Soft-core? How about dribble-core? Most of these elements repeat in the next bedroom bit, too, like some horrible, recurring dream. These scenes elucidate both Johnny’s awesomeness and Lisa’s perfidy: how she can seem so blown away by Johnny in such moments, and yet still want to reject him and cheat on him, is supposed to be utterly mysterious. The fact that he’s an unattractive dimwit doesn’t seem to be obvious to anyone but Lisa and the audience.
Lisa and Mark’s first shag, on the stairs, sees them disrobing and fondling, and then, after a delicate dissolve, finds them both fully clothed again, still seated on the stairs. As the story gains terrible momentum when Johnny fails to land his sought-after promotion, Lisa encourages him to get drunk and go crazy. A jarring jump-cut later, intoxicated high spirits are communicated by how Lisa now wears Johnny’s necktie around her head; they then ascend to the bedroom for more eye-wounding contortions. But all of this is part of Lisa’s evil plot to justify leaving him—she plans to tell her mother and others that Johnny got drunk and hit her. She never does actually get around to leaving, at least not until another hour has passed. Lisa’s initial seduction of Mark is equally hilarious, as she comes on as vaguely crazy. Her character passes through some mad switchbacks of behaviour, sometimes full of tender concern for Denny and elucidating her appreciation of Johnny’s caring side, and then violently transforming into the scheming minx full of contempt and lies about to ruin everything. Mark’s steady shift from a confused, but nice hipster doofus into a posturing, pot-smoking jerk who first assaults Peter when he confronts Mark about his strange behaviour and then attacks Johnny in the wrenching climax, is character evolution of the lowest calibre.
Ed Wood’s films maintain a sort of honesty, and their efforts to say, in their fumbling way, vaguely original and serious things in the context of their ’50s origins about arms control and sexual understanding, inspire a certain level of affection for Wood amongst casual and serious cinephiles alike. Wiseau’s agenda is much less agreeable. Wiseau’s portrait of Johnny as undone by widespread betrayal has qualities in common with some great tales of ridiculous men, like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. Here, however, it just reeks of gruesome self-pity composed of a potent misogyny mixed with a strange naiveté about the real world. Recognisable human behaviour is almost nowhere to be seen. Several scenes depict Claudette lecturing Lisa on what she owes Johnny and how Lisa can’t support herself and therefore needs to tether herself to his financial security, scenes that reveal Wiseau’s understanding of gender relations to be jammed somewhere back in 1947. Lisa’s ultimate crime of not comprehending Johnny’s greatness is therefore a compulsive act of self-destructiveness. By the time Johnny finally shoots himself after a titanic bout of maudlin demolition, it becomes clear that the film he’s made is a version of a child’s pouting session where he fantasises how much people will regret hurting him once he’s dead. The internal dynamics of Wiseau’s scenes often defy description, like the one in which Mark and Peter come to blows, or the already-immortal scene in which Lisa’s distanced provocation drives Johnny to scream, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” The characters move on from these concussive, sometimes near-deadly altercations almost immediately, without repercussions. Only one scene obtains anything like a whiff of authenticity, when Johnny recounts how he met Lisa just after his arrival in San Francisco.
Fortunately, Wiseau had the perfect lead actor to focus the qualities of his writing and direction. Wiseau’s acting is bad enough to warp the fabric of time and space, his complete lack of charisma only compounding his seeming insensibility in many scenes, refusing to look actors he’s exchanging lines with in the eye and mumbling so thickly that he’s had to redub his lines throughout, lip movements rarely synched to what he’s saying. He expresses emotion through violent exclamations, and theatrical groans and grunts only add to his accent in creating a likeness to a stoned Arnold Schwarzenegger with delusions of thespian capacity. Then there’s the spectacle of some of the other actors obviously trying to work out how to deliver the insipid drivel they’ve been given to speak. Wiseau’s inspired awfulness reaching an apogee in his moan-and-groan final scenes, trashing his house and shooting himself in a bratty fit, leaving Lisa and Mark to weep over his body and Mark to finally realise what a bitch Lisa is and walk out. Perhaps Lisa goes on to find her metier as a weapon of mass destruction for some obscure dictator. Either way, the ultimate statement of Wiseau’s movie is that it sucks to be him, and it’s one whose manifold inanities I feel like I’ve only touched on.
The effect of The Room is powerful, in a strange sort of way, as it lives up to the grand tradition of Bad Movies, and seems to infect everything else after it to make you feel both elated and wearied. It’s perhaps the first time I’ve ever been left feeling personally insulted by a filmmaker. The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.
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Director: Hans-Christian Schmid
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The filmmakers of the Berlin School have caught the interested and often admiring eye of serious cinephiles around the world since they began releasing their deceptively simple films at the beginning of the new millennium. The Berlin School filmmakers, of whom Christian Petzold (The State I’m In , Yella ) is perhaps the most iconic, generally shun the overtly political breast-beating other German filmmakers have engaged in with regard to Germany’s fraught past; instead, their stories are quite personal in scope. Yet there is an underlying seriousness of purpose that often puts difficult choices and feelings of guilt at the center of their films, thereby coming at the problem of the moral legacy with which Germans are still struggling from a less sensational, but no less acute angle.
These films vary in the degree to which they work; sometimes stripping them down too much takes some of the urgency of the questions they pose out of them. Such was the case, I felt, with Longing (2006), Valeska Grisebach’s Lady or the Tiger parable that never really fleshed out its dilemma for me. So, too, Hans-Christian Schmid’s most recent film, Storm (2009), seemed a hybrid of the overtly political and the politics of personal betrayal that didn’t do either perspective much justice. However, with Schmid’s earlier film, Requiem, the tone is perfect, and its tale of possession leading to tragedy is a perfect allegory for Nazi Germany’s brutal mindset.
Requiem, which tells the story of a modern-day demonic possession and exorcism, is based on the true story of German college student Anneliese Michel. Schmid’s take on this story, which certainly must be well-known in his country, focuses intensely on the possessed woman herself. In using this approach, Schmid does a remarkable thing. He takes us inside the life of someone who eventually comes to believe she is possessed by demons.
Unlike the makers of another film released about the same time that is also based on this story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Schmid isn’t interested in deciding for us—and especially for the woman herself—whether her claims of possession are real. If we want to draw our own conclusions, screenwriter Bernd Lange has provided “evidence.” It must be kept in mind at all times, however, that this so-called evidence is the interpretation of a writer, and therefore not truly factual.
Michaela Klingler (Sandra Huller) is a 21-year-old woman with a strong and completely natural desire to become independent of her family and start her own life. She receives a letter in the mail informing her that she has been accepted to a college in another town. Her father (Burghart Klaussner) and younger sister (Friederike Adolph) are happy for her. Her mother (Imogen Kogge) reacts by saying, “How can you go there with your thing?” and reminds her of her previous failed attempt. A predictable fight ensues, during which Michaela accuses her mother of not wanting her to have anything of her own. This could be any family, anywhere in the world.
Michaela prevails with the support of her father, who arranges a dorm room for her. He drops her at her new home with a smile and a hug, and Michaela begins her first steps into freedom. On her first day of class, she is late. The professor stops her on the steps of the lecture hall as he describes a theory of teaching. He then asks her if she agrees with the theory. She answers that she doesn’t know. He asks her what she does believe in. She says, “In God.” The room explodes in titters—this is the rebellious ’70s after all. The professor cautions them that their response means they may not believe in much of anything, and that is a problem. In this not terribly subtle, but effective, way, Schmid is cautioning the film audience to suspend judgment about spirituality and its power. It also, however, provides a much subtler set-up for the rest of the film that believing in something too deeply can have grave consequences.
Michaela sees a woman from her hometown leaving the lecture hall at the end of class. At first, Hanna (Anna Blomeier) rebuffs her, but when Michaela later gives her a cheat sheet during an exam, she warms up. They become fast friends, especially after Hanna finds Michaela collapsed in her room and learns her secret—she has epilepsy. Michaela and Hanna have some carefree times together, including going to a mixer at which Michaela meets Stefan (Nicholas Reinke), a handsome young man who appears merely to want to get in her pants. She ends up as his girlfriend, however.
Michaela confesses to Hanna that she hears voices. Hanna thinks Michaela should see a doctor. Michaela argues that she’s seen doctors, been to hospitals, and taken pills all her life, and they have done her no good. She decides to follow her instinct to seek spiritual help.
Michaela goes home to see her parish priest to complain about the voices. He sternly chastises her for believing in demons, calling God and the Devil symbols rather than facts. Michaela sees another priest, who wants to perform an exorcism once he sees how agitated she becomes when he tries to pray with her. She has lost the ability to pray, touch the cross, and hold a rosary.
Events snowball, including a major fight with her mother and a break-up with Stefan, and eventually, Michaela ends up at home. Her mother and father are now convinced she is possessed, and they call in the two priests to start the exorcisms. The movie is almost over by the time the exorcism begins.
We recognize Michaela’s swearing and rude behavior from The Exorcist (1973), and it does seem demonic coming from such a pious girl. But it’s not horrifying. It could be the result of many factors, such as being off medication, heartache, school pressures, her mother’s disapproval, her own identification with St. Katherine, who suffered possessions all her life. What becomes obvious is that medical science is as primitive as religion at this point in time, and that a troubled girl brings out the worst in everyone, from her long-suffering mother to an eager young priest in love with the idea of exorcism.
The cast is uniformly superb, but Huller, who is in nearly every frame, gives one of the great performances I have ever seen. She brings to life a complex woman with a view of her condition consistent with who she is. Schmid adds to the verite feel of this film by shooting with a handheld camera and concentrating on close-ups, making us feel as though we are trying to peer into Michaela’s soul. I don’t know what was going on in this girl, but I found this film to be a fitting requiem to her spirit.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the last blog entry, my partner Rod Heath gave his year in review and 10 favorite films of 2010. He also mentioned the ongoing dialogue we’ve had about the films we’ve seen and what has worked and not worked for each of us. Here’s what he said:
Marilyn’s been hungry for films with positive and expansively humanistic sensibilities, which have, sadly, been pretty thin on the ground. I’ve found myself, on the other hand, responding enthusiastically, or, at least, with a certain empathetic recognition, to the oft-brutal and misanthropic mood exhibited in so many films.
Rod, of course, is essentially correct about the kinds of films we’ve each pursued and how we have scored our respective reactions. I have not been impervious to the misanthropy afloat in the zeitgeist—indeed, I have found myself haunted by the dead-on critique of the current state of our culture by the mockumentary I’m Still Here—the mud-wallow that is reality TV, the rise of the dilettante to meteoric heights, self-obsession projected for mass consumption by enabling home and surveillance technologies, and the sanctification of the word “fuck” as the dominant term for emotion and emphasis. Do I want to escape all that? You bet! Art has the ability to ennoble, but it seems that most filmmakers are content these days to fish in wading pools and shoot into barrels. A paucity of films with ideas or any motivation to really wrestle with them has film audiences and critics falling all over themselves to try to find some nourishment for their minds and souls—hence, the declaration that Inception is the thinking man’s blockbuster, never mind that there’s nothing to think about but the plot twists.
I find myself in the grip of a very strong desire to find a lot more that’s real in my everyday experiences. The world has gotten too virtual for me, and even the movies, whose fictional stories have always helped put real life, once lived largely face to face and in real time, into much-needed perspective, are, as Rod put it, “thin on the ground.” For example, the gay and lesbian experience, so long banished from or opaquely referenced in movies, is now everywhere, with many a straight actor looking for a same-sex tongue kiss to keep up with the times. Ironically, lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko, given the chance to show how the other half really lives in The Kids Are All Right, chose to create a sitcom highly palatable to straight audiences, putting her characters in an upper-middle-class California milieu and offering a lesbian who is made invisible under a bulky blanket while failing to arouse her lesbian partner during a silly sex scene and who is then rushed into a straight sexual relationship for the duration of the movie.
Leave it to documentaries to provide a snapshot of where we are today—ironically, still remote from the world or in despair. Marwencol shows how a hideous assault on a cross-dresser in upstate New York sent the victim, exceedingly lucky to be alive, into a fantasy world populated by dolls whose names and stories stand in for a world the man is too frightened to face. Restrepo recalls the televised Vietnam War, but unlike with Vietnam, who has really connected their own fates with the men and women sent to the other side of the world to fight yet another war? And Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work continues a trend of documenting aging celebrities (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster); watching Rivers’ desperate bid to keep working—and surely that’s why she agreed to do this documentary—seems to continue the freak show aspects of her current celebrity, but I’m not sure what it means on a cosmic level. Waiting for Superman is union-busting propaganda and fear mongering. And documentaries like Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Countdown to Zero (“convincingly argued and extremely polished, it has theatrical potential for auds whose reservoir of worry about humanity’s future hasn’t already run dry” says the Hollywood Reporter) provide too little too late for most of us.
As distribution for films made outside the United States or official channels continues to dwindle, it is harder for fresh, world-expanding visions to be seen. And yet they are there, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them. Recognizing films officially with awards based on whether they have played theatrically during a given year is a hegemonic and, given internet distribution, archaic practice that assures these films will not join in the publicity bonanza a show like the Oscars can provide. So I’m simply going to ignore this kind of nonsense and make a list of favorite films I’ve seen this year through any means at all.
In alphabetical order:
Asleep in the Sun (Alejandro Chomski)
Literary adaptations don’t have to be Oscar-baiting films on a grand scale. Alejandro Chomski’s sly and winning Asleep in the Sun reinvigorates the scifi horror film with humor and wisdom. It’s a smallish film with a big heart and charm to burn.
Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
Leave it to the brilliant Catherine Breillat to take the oft-told tale of Bluebeard and weave a grisly story of wish fulfillment that gives patriarchy its comeuppance.
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Recalling the multinational, polylingual sex farces of Luis Buñuel, Abbas Kiarostami turns out a philosophical love story unlike anything I’ve ever seen—as puzzling and beautiful as love itself.
Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
A perfectly modulated comedy, Lourdes also makes rueful comment on the desperate need and search for personal miracles that keep religion and its many brokers in business.
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)
Regarding Henry made poignantly real when Mark Hogancamp is beaten nearly to death, awakens from a 9-day coma with the task of relearning everything from walking to writing, and gives up his old best friend—booze—to build himself a new, safe world of doll friends in his fictional Belgian town of Marwencol. The will to survive and create art rich with sincerity and imagination is Hogancamp’s gift to everyone who sees his town and this film.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (Steve James)
If documentarian Steve James has ever made a less-than-compelling, beautifully crafted film, I’ve yet to see it. James turns a beam on his own home town of Hampton, Virginia, where a criminal assault case against rising basketball star Allen Iverson showed the depth of the community’s racial divide, long buried, but never dead.
On Tour (Mathieu Amalric)
A bit of a rambling, loose film, but the wonderful sense of family and shared fates reminiscent of the films of Mike Leigh inform this look at an American New Burlesque troupe on tour in France.
Problema (Ralf Schmerberg)
Imagine you are at a dinner party with 112 of the most interesting, informed, out-of-the-box thinkers on the planet and they all respond to 100 pressing questions asked by people from all walks of life all over the world. Imagine, too, that you could see their answers any time you wanted by clicking on this link and that you could make your own movie out of what you found there. Open-source films are a totally new form, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be around at the moment of their birth.
The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (Pamela Yates)
The United States lost all credibility as the world’s white-hatted savior when it failed to join the International Criminal Court. The ICC truly does divine work, bringing criminals to justice and ending their reigns of terror. How the court works, what it has accomplished, and what still needs to be done form the basis for this eye-opening, compassionate documentary focusing on the real good guys in the world today.
Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
An ordinary tale of adultery given an extraordinary treatment by master filmmaker Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas provides an allegory for Romania in a newly prosperous era.
Waste Land (Lucy Walker)
The art of found objects advances exponentially when photographer Vik Muniz travels back to his native country of Brazil to make art with garbage from the country’s largest landfill and the people who make a subsistence living recycling some of it. Uplifting, ingenious, and a subtle critique of the social divide that keeps black Brazilians down and white Brazilians throwing away perfectly good objects and people.
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Director/Screenwriter: Claire Denis
By Roderick Heath
Claire Denis is one of the best directors working today, a maker of films that are poetic and cryptic, humanist and yet lacking illusions, fascinatingly artful and creatively evasive. Trouble Every Day is both a key Denis film and her most atypical work: the ugly violence and horror-movie motifs she explored in her much-discussed 2001 film stand in contrast to the fonder instincts she displayed in her other notable films of the decade, including Friday Night (2003) and 35 Rhums (2009). Some feel Trouble Every Day was the film that gave new impetus to the visceral, attention-seeking, but largely silly wave of extreme Euro-horror. But Trouble Every Day takes its place in Denis’ canon with ease, not only in style, and in the multifarious ways it explore human intimacy, but also in the extension of the notion presented more tangentially in Beau Travail (1999) of the human body as both an object of fetish and warfare.
In terms of pure story breakdown, Trouble Every Day toys with the essential ideas of many late ’70s European horror films, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Ruggiero Deodato, in which interloping white westerners who have travelled into foreign lands return infected with a taint that drives them to nihilistic violence. The literal plot is, however, only presented in tangential, hinted terms, the key occurrences having occurred long in the past, and the familiar patterns of those model stories are partly inverted. Trouble Every Day, both more exactingly grotesque and personal than many undeniably but often juvenilely brutal films, is also far more attuned to its protagonists as physical and moral entities.
Denis commences with a series of what appear barely connected events that all contain the threat of horror. A young woman (Béatrice Dalle), wandering the desolate outer suburbs of Paris, eyes a truck driver with evident sexual interest, and he responds; later, a motorcyclist (Alex Descas), coming across the man’s parked truck and the woman’s van, penetrates the vacant lot nearby and finds the man’s mangled body and the woman dissociated and caked in blood. Simultaneously, a newly married American couple, Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his bride June (Tricia Vessey), arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, but only after Shane has locked himself in the plane toilet and had a panic attack whilst conjuring visions of June drenched in blood.
Denis’ peculiar, eliding film grammar, alive to the minatory pleasures found in the focused tranquility of a commute home from work, or the cigarette break when at one’s job, meshes here with her bizarre story to create a rare texture. The long prologue, consisting of decorous dissolves between shots of Paris at sunset, romantic and yet dark, sonorous, to the music of The Tindersticks (their soundtrack is generally admired, and rightly so), remakes Denis’ Paris as a depopulated, drowsy, faintly forbidding place, and much of the rest of the film is shot either early in the morning or in the late evening. Her purpose, to both evoke and undermine the romantic glaze of the city as one for lovers, is slow to congeal, but ineffaceable once done. Gallo’s own debt to what he learnt (or mislearnt, as some might have it, from Denis) for his own The Brown Bunny (2003) is evident in how he tried to counterpoint textures of grief, expressed in lingering images of ceaseless travel, with grossly intimate physicality and brutal discoveries.
Denis explores bodies with the eye of an astronomer craning closer and closer to see all the multitudinous shapes and intricacies charged with mystery and beauty. Here it contributes to the slow conditioning of a sense of uneasy eroticism, her camera playing over the minute pores of Vessey’s skin as Shane suffers from initially inexplicable, repeated spasms of anxiety as he fondles himself, pops mysterious pills, and avoids intimate contact with June: at one point he locks himself in the hotel bathroom to masturbate rather than conclude sex with her, to June’s pleading, despairing reaction to being locked out.
Slowly, the facts begin to solidify. The young woman glimpsed at the start is Coré Semenau, and the motorcyclist was her husband Leó, a doctor and former research fellow of Shane’s. Leó has dropped out of sight in the scientific research community because of his wife’s mysterious illness. Shane visits a lab where Leo used to work in attempting to find them, and he meets the sceptical reaction of one of Leó’s former colleagues about a theory of his that Shane is interested in following up on. A lab assistant, Malécot (Hélène Lapiower), contacts Shane later and gives him a lead as to where Leó and Coré have retreated. It is a large, old house that’s been fortified by Leó to try to keep Coré locked up, but every now and then she escapes, and he has to track her down, inevitably finding her next to another mangled body. In one of several hazy flashbacks that punctuate the film, Shane recalls an icy conversation with a fellow scientist, Friessen (Marilu Marini), in which he explained how he and Coré had an affair when they accompanied Leó on a jungle research expedition, and Shane also stole some of Leó’s data to advance his own career. But the darker secret soon reveals itself when two young men (Nicolas Duvauchelle and Raphaël Neal) break into Leó and Coré’s house, believing that because of the security it must contain all sorts of riches. One of them instead finds Coré, making a hot and sultry come-on, and he joins her in bed, where she commences to eat him. And that’s not a euphemism.
Denis’ films are often about patiently withheld secrets and veiled truths of great importance. Here, the hidden crux is monstrous. Coré and Shane both have a disease that drives them to acts of cannibalistic sadism when they engage in intercourse: desire portrayed as a literally carnivorous act. Shane’s keeping his disease partly controlled, but in his new, frustrating marriage he’s clearly being driven closer and closer to the edge of total enslavement to the disease that Coré is gripped by. The story evokes some classic metaphors and images of sexual anxiety, particularly in the scenes of the young men trying to penetrate that mysterious house and gain access to the woman who is raw passion personified, and, in the mythic tradition, the price to be paid for this transgression is not small. In its own hypermodernist way, then, Trouble Every Day is about taboos that are ancient and figurations that are primal. When the young man who will be Core’s last victim finds her eyeing him from behind wooden slats, he’s violating a sanctum, a common fairytale motif, and unleashing the contained yet always straining feminine libido (the similarity to Michael Cacoyannis’ vision of Helen contained in The Trojan Women leapt out at me).
The subsequent visions of Dalle—large teeth dripping gore like one of H. R. Giger’s aliens, laughing and toying with her prey who’s unable to fight off her supercharged strength, as she bites off his lips and slides fingers under flaps of skin, all the while giggling like a child—aren’t easily forgotten. Perhaps even more affecting, however, is the agonised spectacle of the perpetually unspeaking Leó trying to take care of his wife, who he loves in a deep, easily apparent fashion, in spite of all good sense, and Shane’s increasingly frail efforts to keep his wife from becoming the object of his own latent predatory tendencies. Questions of how people use each other, laden sometimes with both hate and love, bubble throughout. Denis’ taciturnity as an artist is actually one of her great strengths, and that’s readily apparent here as her galvanising efforts escape the facile inchoate provocations of Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier in trying to keep pace. Shane’s hunger for money (which he confesses through silence to Friessen) and for Coré, both of which meant fucking over (Afro-French) Leó, condenses forms of betrayal and exploitation, but Denis leaves this as a suggestive aspect of her drama. Simultaneously, whilst Denis is undoubtedly making an excellent horror movie, her approach both teases apart the fibre of old-fashioned mad scientist and vampire movies and restores and emphasises sensitivities usually excised from the gruelling modern genre. Shane’s mixture of unrequited passion and intense guilt is part and parcel with his disease, gnawing him from the inside out as much as the disease makes him and Coré gnaw on other people, and Shane’s killing of Coré, after she’s set fire to her house is part mercy killing, part self-defence, and part last-ditch effort to kill the animal in himself she embodies.
Denis’s fascination for layers of society interacting half-consciously in modern metropolitan life sees her segue now and then from the main drama to follow the maids in Shane and June’s hotel, women of various ages and states of being, and especially pretty, young Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille). Denis follows Christelle as she’s dropped off in the morning by her boyfriend, pinches unused perks left in hotel rooms, and sprawls on the Browns’ bed when they’re both out for a cigarette. She catches Shane’s eye, and he catches her, so that when Shane tracks her into the maids’ locker room, the thrill of a quickie is nigh, but this turns inevitably into another grotesque assault, punctuated by the nightmarish image of Shane’s blood-smeared face rising from between Christelle’s legs and then kissing her, forcing her to taste her own blood. It’s as genuinely horrific a scene as cinema can offer, but one that, in ironically treading close to pornographic detail, avoids the pornographic thrill of a lot of modern horror movies, in which sexualised violence is presented through conveniently shallow characterisations. The idea that true terror lies at the end of a simple workday shift is all too resonant. Denis tries to encompass her bottom-of-the-barrel fantasia in just such a way that makes every cruel and kind act count, and in this way, Denis both heightens and reinforces the emotions that underpin many of her other films; but also the threat of damage individuals can do to each other hovers in those other works and explodes here.
Denis’ style might have felt a bit abstract, some of the power in her approach left untapped in trying just a little too hard to avoid the usual, if it wasn’t for the offhand wonder of moments like that in which June automatically helps Christelle make the bed in June and Shane’s hotel room, a telling moment of interaction; June’s not someone who’s used to or comfortable with being waited on, and also not one to let her bridal couch be usurped by anyone else, a point that has dreadful ramifications. Or the heartbreaking tenderness with which Leó cleans Coré after one of her murders. Or the polite yet remorseless way Friessen orders Shane out of her lab. Or the dark suggestiveness of Leó, and the audience, knowing what he’ll find when he spies blood dripping from stalks of grass in another of the vacant lots Coré uses as her killing ground. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Shane and June visit Notre Dame, Shane acting like the monster of traditional movieland as an overture to a magically romantic moment high in the towers, closing in for the most tender of clinches as the June’s headscarf blows away, a moment that renders her confused and despairing later reaction to Shane’s retreat to the bathroom to jerk off all the more palpable. In offering a melodramatic set-up, Denis doesn’t quite deal with how this upsets the usual balance of her style, and outsized horror grazes against fragile humanity, contributing to the finally icy, alien chill the film gives off. I suppose that’s a comparatively small complaint, considering the undeniably powerful and quite brilliant film Denis wrought.
The effect of Trouble Every Day sinks deep into the bones and doesn’t let go for hours after the chillingly curt coda. Denis manages to conjure what is at once a psychologically, physically, and metaphorically immediate sense of hell being other people.
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Director/Screenwriter: Juan Carlos Valvidia
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If you want to learn how the other (upper class) half lives in Bolivia, Southern District can show you in minute detail. Visually arresting—something I’m coming to expect from South American films these days—director/screenwriter Juan Carlos Valvidia turns his acute eye on the fading, as one character puts it, of 500 years of dominance by the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors.
The movie takes place almost entirely within the grand old hacienda in the posh Southern District of La Paz in which matriarch Carola (Ninón del Castillo) grew up and is just about done raising her three children. Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria) and Bernarda (Mariana Vargas) are college students, but Carola must have had a change-of-life baby with her now ex-husband. Andrés (Nicolás Fernández) is an imaginative 6-year-old who follows Carola’s native butler Wilson (Pascual Loayza) around, imitating everything he does and asking him, Marcellina (Viviana Condori) the maid, and a local farmer who sells the household cheese (“from the Altiplano!”) through the barred gates of the hacienda what they wanted to be when they were his age.
After 25 years of service, Wilson has become something of a platonic husband to Carola. He knows her wardrobe so precisely that he is able to pull a handbag out for her simply by having her name the designer, and he knows that the senora will ask for vinegar the minute he puts his spicy noodles on the dinner table. But familiarity brings its own problems—Wilson has a family back in his mountain village to support, and Carola hasn’t paid him his wages in six months. Indeed, Carola owes money all over town, and Wilson has to scrounge change from the children to buy bread and pay the dry cleaner. Carola’s unspecified job clearly is not paying her enough to keep up with her extravagant lifestyle.
Carola believes in the old values of femininity (declaring women’s liberation to be the worst thing ever to happen to women), style, and white supremacy. She overindulges Patricio, buying him condoms and a new car when he loses the old one in a card game, and frankly telling her sister Rosario (Ximena Alvarez) that she’s in love with Patricio and thinks mothers should save their sons the lifelong trauma having their first sexual encounter with a prostitute or common girl and initiate their sons into sex themselves. Patricio believes in machismo and warns Andrés away from the sissy pursuits of cooking and cleaning that Wilson performs. We also see him in one too many scenes having sex with his girlfriend (Luisa De Urioste) under his mother’s roof, with her approval. Bernarda is having a lesbian affair with a “half-breed” college girl (Glenda Rodriguez) from the Northern District and plays the rebel to Carola’s insistence that she dress like a woman, but she gives in fairly easily to her mother’s demands and seems to be trying lesbianism on like the latest fashion.
This description makes this family seem thoroughly loathsome, but there is something so easy about their relationships—and Andrés is the wonderful heart of the family that keeps them human—that their decline seems, despite all odds, rather sad. It would be easy to focus on the racism, privilege, and petty injustices served upon Wilson (who, by the way, claims his wife is worse than Carola), but Valvidia ensures that we see the beauty, too. The lush grounds, filled with calla lilies for centerpieces and enormous, spreading greenery that was grown from seed, emphasize a certain aesthetic graciousness that can’t be ignored easily. Valvidia uses a rather odd, restless camera to envelope us in their story. The slow 360-degree pans of each scene almost never cease, and his crane shots allow us to see the house as a singular entity in its immediate and distant surroundings. He frames the inhabitants of the hacienda staring out of their tastefully barred windows, pulling his camera back to emphasize their isolation from the reality around them.
These isolating techniques cause claustrophobia, and eventually feel rather suffocating. I felt an actual, physical release when Wilson leaves the hacienda against Carola’s direct orders to attend to an emergency in his village, with Andrés as a stowaway. On the road, the harassment Wilson experiences at a checkpoint shows the real situation of the native population and the need to disassemble the apparatus of power Carola represents. A brief scene in the village is too breathtaking to describe. I will just say that the power exerted by the Andes Mountains trumps anything the Spaniards had to offer and shows exactly why native culture has survived.
Southern District is a film in the grand tradition of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Despite attempts at keeping up appearances, an era of concentrated privilege is passing. Judging from the ending, an only slightly assimilated native population of Bolivia seems poised to come into its own. This film is a fascinating, beautifully executed look at a country and culture I’d like to know better. l
Southern District screens Friday, October 15, 3:45 p.m. and Saturday, October 16, 8:45 p.m. (rush tickets only on Saturday). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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