Saturday, April 29, 2006

United 93 (Greengrass, 2006)

First, a few points:

The film has every right to exist.
It is not "too soon."
The subject has never been taboo for me.
I strongly believe that this film is not an accurate representation of the actual events that day. The reasons why are outside the scope of this review.

That said, United 93 is an extremely successful film.

When I began watching the film, I was immediately troubled by the fact that I could not discover a reason for this film's existence. A labored enactment of speculated events rarely has inherent value in itself. Similarly, the film's aesthetic seemed to be the standard attempt at "documentary realism," which is generally an excuse for not developing a style and promoting your work as "raw" or "realistic." It also seemed that the film was relying solely on bitter ironies for impact: a woman taking her pills, a reminder to fasten a seatbelt, people making plans for after they reach their destination... all these events, with the knowledge that these people will die, are documented emphatically.

As time went on, around the halfway mark, it all fell into place. This film is not a political film. It will be seen as such by many, but a political message is not intrinsically a part of the film's text except tangentially (the film depicts a government's failure to react properly to the events); any political response says exactly zero about the film and only reveals the responder's own personal political leanings, biases, and hang ups. This is a film about humans under a stressful situation, and it earns its "documentary realism" camera style by the fact that its narrative has a primal immediacy that more or less demands the aesthetic.

The film has a minimalist approach that I find intriguing by default, since I'm a minimalist in preference and expression myself. I was thankful that this was not a "Hollywood" movie; there are no heroes here. My stating this is not to undermine the real life people who parallel the characters in the film, though; as they are portrayed in the film, they respond as any man or woman could be expected to respond under the circumstances. To deify people for attempting to stay alive and failing is to say they were in the "right place at the right time," since the heroic status is afforded only by the opportunity, not the action. No, these people were desperately, hopelessly in the wrong place at a very wrong time, and they tried to survive. Similarly, some potentially "harrowing, climactic, pulse-pounding!" events are presented quietly, in the dark confines of air control towers, with planes represented by green squares with lines through them.

In regard to the film as a depiction of actual events: as I've said, I do not think this is how it happened. The fact remains, though, that real people were on the real plane, and I think they did fight back. I think this film is an accurate depiction of what would happen if the plane went down as depicted, and is an accurate estimation of the collective mindset of the people on the plane. Greengrass wisely opts for a lack of differention between the passengers. In film, a human being photographed is instantly recognized by the viewer as a human being. It's only once the character begins to be "characterized" by symbolic gestures and "revealing" dialogue that he begins to seem a synthetic production of a screenwriter's imagination. Characterization can be done well, and it can be a great thing, but there is a power (and, again, a primalcy) in knowing less about the mind behind the face that is represented. Mystery is a human quality, and Greengrass uses it as such.

The film's structure, oddly enough, resembles a film from last year that may seem an odd comparison: Wolf Creek. Much of the first half is muted, building up even as the day's iconic events (the crashing into the towers) take place. However, unlike that film, the climax is not a devolution, but an ascension and a justification of the previous events. This film probably says everything about human nature Wolf Creek purported to say, but successfully and without them being necessitated only as part of a larger genre canvas.

There is only one glaring facet that bothers me, and that is the inconsistency of subtitling the hijackers' dialogue. There is a different psychological association between translated and untranslated foreign dialogue. It is almost as if Greengrass wanted to make their intentions clear to the audience in some scenes while making them seem foreign (not in the country of origin sense) in others. Both instances can be devalued as pandering to the audience's mentality instead of maintaining a clear artistic vision. Imagine watching the quiet conversation in which the hijackers' fears and anxieties are revealed, but the dialogue is untranslated and we only know what they're talking about by the worry on their faces. Or, alternately, the wild screaming in the cock pit elevated to understandable speech rather than hollerings of someone apparently not worth understanding at that particular moment. I would've preferred to have none of it subtitled, but consistency either way would be welcome and would sidestep this minor bias the film presents (whether intentional on the parts of the filmmakers or not).

I've tried to avoid any political discussion in this review of the film outside of saying that I don't think the film is an entirely accurate depiction of the events of that day, because as I've said, the film is remarkable in its depiction of how people may react under a hijacking situation. It's unfair to write the film off as an aid to the "war on terror" or anything else so classifiedly political. I do think that those viewers that accept this film as an absolute truth are reacting improperly, and there's a danger in that, but it is not the film's responsibility to interpret itself for the viewer. That's like hating a band because some people think they're metal, when you know they're thrash. The consensus does not change the film itself, except from a social perspective. Any one viewing the film should view it without considering how others have reacted, but rather how they alone react. Analyzing a film's social impact is academia, not art response.

I will say that the film's ending is the only respectable way to end the film. If I were given the choice, I would surely end it the very same way, which is rare especially for a film this mainstream.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)

In Peeping Tom, several realities exist simultaneously: that of the characters, that of the filmmakers, that of the audience, and the tiny threads that link each. Every one of these parties and relationships are implicated as voyeuristic. This is, Powell says, the alluring power of the ability to see; indeed, even a blind, alchoholic mother cannot resist the impulse to glimpse the forbidden, or the hidden, using every sense available to her.

Mark Lewis is a psychopathic killer who uses a sharpened leg of his tripod to stab his victims in the throat as he approaches them with a mirror mounted on his camera so that they fear not only death, but the vision of their own death. His victims do not look away; they are somehow powerless against the compulsion to see what they previously could not, though it means the end of sight altogether. Similarly, Mark and Peeping Tom's audience do not look away, even as we see the killer methodically developing and personally screening the footage.

We learn from an old reel he shows the woman who lives downstairs and his eventual, brief love interest that Mark's father was a biologist, though seemingly also a psychologist, who studied the effects of fear in adolescents. He used his son as a subject, inpiring fear and capturing it on film. Mark was never unwatched as a child; there is an entire, terrifying record of his skewed development. Every room in his house is wired, and it remains that way. What Mark cannot see, he hears still.

It is implicit that the compulsion that drives Mark is not unlike that that drives a dramatic filmmaker: the director sees his fantasies, no matter how bizarre, fantastic, or even sadistic, acted out in front of him. Mark at a point remarks "everything I photograph, I lose." Indeed, photography is a kind of death: when a picture is taken, the moment it captured is now gone. You can never photograph the life of a moment, because at that very moment it is also dying. The killing on film that Mark partakes in is an extension of this loss through documentation.

When approached about his carrying a camera around and taking seemingly random shots, Mark states that he is working on a documentary. By the film's end it becomes apparent that the 'documentary' in question is his own life, though his death has been staged: the logical progression of his actions is to turn the camera on himself, implicating his own role in the 'documentary,' and similarly the end of it.

The film was outright banned, forgotten, and the end of Powell's directorial career upon release; it's not hard to imagine why. Though cries of outrage over the mere content and supposed amorality of the film were released, it's likely that the implication of audience-as-voyeur, perhaps audience-as-Mark (indeed, through the use of subjective camera shots and the act of watching Mark watch his films, the audience is forced to empathize with the killer), was too much on a subconscious level for the critical community and public to handle. Like Hitchcock's Psycho released months later, a film concerned more with the surface and visceral action versus Peeping Tom's emphasis on the subliminal, mental, and psychological, the film is terribly modern not only in terms of its portrayal of then-questionable (and eternally disturbing) subject matter, but the treatment of the material as a means of audience inclusion (Psycho doing so by means of suspense and character sympathy, Peeping Tom through outright finger wagging and imparting a feeling that could almost be described as guilt).

Whereas Fellini's 8 1/2 is a fantastic film about the economics, society, and the conceptual stages of filmmaking (and a masterpiece in its own right), Peeping Tom is an insightful masterpiece concerning the in-the-moment instinct that is the actual filming; that is, the recording of temporal death. The blind mother at one point remarks "Instinct's a wonderful thing, isn't it, Mark? A pity it can't be photographed." While the film doesn't photograph instinct itself, it is perhaps the most arresting implication of instinct's immutability in the face of passion, fear, attraction, and filmmaking, all of which are equated in the mind of Mark Lewis.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971)

If one were to take Harry Callahan's actions as being condoned by the filmmakers, the stance of the film would be more or less one of fascism (as has been well documented in most reviews of the film). Of course, Harry discards his badge at the end of the film, so this would be some sort of vigilante fascist justice... thing. Kind of like Batman, except Dirty Harry is way cooler than Batman.

However, it is more probable and rewarding to see Harry as being presented as a hypothetical. From this perspective, the film begs the question: if criminals like the sadistic fuck in the film exist (and it's not terribly far-fetched that they do, though probably not with much frequency), does it not take an equally sadistic opposing force to successful, well, oppose it? The film's exploration of the question of "How much force should law enforcement have?" is similar to the questions posed by Fritz Lang's M, though M is arguably a more potent and competent disseration on the concept.

Though we may not like the idea of an officer like Harry Callahan walking the streets, we may like it a lot better than the idea of a criminal like Scorpio. And, aye, there's the rub: which is the lesser of two evils (in the long term)? Can a force such as Harry be trusted to not abuse his power, whether legally sanctioned or not? Can a more moderate law enforcement system be counted on to stop a criminal such as Scorpio, in the event that one may appear?

The film was loosely based on real events of the Zodiac killer in San Francisco. The Zodiac killer was never captured. We can not be certain that a real life Harry Callahan would've made any difference, but, again, he's a hypothetical. We cannot condone a Harry Callahan, we cannot condone withholding a force capable of stopping a Scorpio killer. This is the Kobayashi Maru of the legal system: we have checks and balances, but what do we do about off-the-radar extremes? They can throw off the average unexpectedly, and we may suddenly be defenseless. Quite the quandary, indeed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An American Werewolf In London (Landis, 1981)

An American Werewolf In London is a terrifically funny movie both because it recognizes the absurdity of the situation it presents, and because of (not in spite of) the fact that it remains an effective horror film in addition to a pop-culture riff on standard horror tropes and American-versus-European excentricities. Two Americans walk in to a pub... sounds like the beginning of a joke, and in many ways it is.

So they walk into this pub, and there's some very foreboding and suspicious behavior. There's also a five-pointed star on the wall. These guys know from movies that it wards off evil. Yet, that only happens in movies, so they don't take it too seriously. Until they are attacked by werewolves, of course. At a point, they look directly into the camera, saying that the beast making the sound they hear is directly in front of them. This does several things, from being inherently funny to recognizing the fact that the only reason they're dying is that they're in a film. This is true of all horror films. Hence, the camera is essentially the cause of death. When one asks "What's the plan?," the other responds incredulously "Plan!?" These aren't heroes in a horror film, they're just guys who have absurd events surrounding them.

The movie is permeated with this sly self-awareness. There is even an extended discussion of the Chaney/Lugosi Wolfman film, as the man attempts to come to terms with his new found malady by comparison to the film. The film functions effectively as an homage to a classic horror film such as the Wolfman, but plays everything halfway for a laugh. Casting wolf transformation as a metaphor for the male libido results in a humorous desire in the American to have sex, not any sort of profound psychosexual release.

It's interesting how comedic timing and horror timing are so similiar. In the pub, when the Americans ask about the star on the wall, a dart misses the board in close up. This is somehow funny and foreboding simultaneously. The inherently funny glance into the camera also inspires terror in the werewolf POV shot during the slaughter of the man on the escalator.

Perhaps the most hilarious scene in the film is the "suggest a method of suicide" scene, in which several corpses in an adult movie theatre cheerfully recommend means of taking one's own life. That the man doesn't may lead some to believe that there is hope, but there isn't. When in the end the nurse futilely tells the werewolf she loves him, he lunges at her and is shot down. Love does not overcome all hardship here, as Landis is strictly faithful to his original concept. When one is transformed into a werewolf, he loses control. He no longer understands the concept "love." In a lesser film, perhaps the werewolf would stagger a bit, look troubled, and ultimately give up fighting in the name of love. Thankfully, that's not the case here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Capsules: Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto, 1988)/The Road Home (Yimou, 1999)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto, 1988)
Tetsuo is a film that could potentially raise and explore many interesting questions and concepts, but in actuality it's the most overt attempt to disorient the viewer while being graphically subversive I have witnessed. I think a mechanical penis is a great idea (it's also in Tsukamoto's A Snake of June), I just think there are better ways of presenting it, and anything else the film throws at us.

The camera is needlessly shaky, the editing needlessly nervous and frantic. This is in a way that actually detracts from the film; while some level of erratic camera work with perhaps a mechanical flourish would complement the film's subject matter nicely, this is just obtrusive and leads to incoherence. Equally erratic is the films approach to its titular Iron Man: one moment he's exploring his mechanical body as a means of psychosexual release and escape from male paranoia (he's literally fucked by a female's biomechanical penis before turning the tables on her with a rotary phallus of his own), the next he's engaged in some Dragon Ball Z battle in fast forward. This is subversive pop culture for the MTV generation, entirely schizophrenic in every aspect of its construction.

A literal minded approach to the film's title could result in a great film, but this just isn't it. I wish I could like it, and on a certain level the other two Tsukamoto films I've seen (A Snake of June and Vital), but he's too busy living up to the "extreme" in "extreme Asian cinema!" to say anything meaningful.

The Road Home (Yimou, 1999)
The Road Home is a visually arresting, very sweet, somewhat slight, wholly enjoyable melodrama that is a meditation on love, the merit of tradition, the role of education in Chinese culture, and tinged with muted political ideas that are more implicit than thematic certainties.

The film opens with flat black and white cinematography, as the present is a time for mourning. A man has died, and his son returns from the city to see his mother. He learns she desires a highly ceremonial carrying of his body back home by men, and watches as she weaves a likewise ceremonial cloth. In her room are two Titanic posters, which do several things: orient the viewer in the proper present-day time frame, explicate Western culture's advance into Eastern lives, allude to another film with some similar themes (arguably, this film undermines their handling in the Cameron film), and perhaps also alludes to the actual sinking of the Titanic, in that a picture about loss in modernity has certain tangents to that story. While looking at pictures, the flashback that is the body of the picture is initiated.

The past is in vibrant color, very idealized, and seems very pleasant. That is because this is a past of personal mythology: this is the story of the school teacher and his wife's courtship that the entire village knows, and as such it has become ritual in itself. The woman, as a young girl, is weaving a cloth for the construction of a new building (as opposed to the cloth of mourning she weaves in 1999). Their courtship advances largely in glances and silent gestures (special meals cooked by the girl, hoping her would-be suitor will select hers from among those of the other girls). It's difficult not to have a silly grin on your face: this story is cute, plain 'n simple.

The man is taken away for political reasons. He hangs a red flag on the ceiling of his classroom, and I think I recognized a portrait of Mao Zedong. He likes the girl's red jacket most of all. If I knew more about Chinese history, I'm sure I could elucidate the political message here (something to do with communism), but I don't. It doesn't detract from the film, though it probably would be enriched with an understanding of this aspect. Regardless, we know the man will return, and he does.

The words written by the schoolmaster tend to sum up the various themes in the film. One of them is "Know the present, know the past." Rarely is that idea explicated as fully, vibrantly, and passionately as it is here.

Capsules: Blow Out (De Palma, 1981)/Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)/Hulk (Lee, 2003)

It is late, I am tired, and the following writings will be quite facile. Deal with it:

Blow Out (De Palma, 1981)
Blow Up meets The Conversation meets Hitchcock. De Palma wears his influences on his sleeve, so much that the film is ultimately an imitation more than anything. However, De Palma gives the film just enough visual flair to make it an enjoyable imitation.

What prevents the film from being as good as its influences is De Palma's sole concern with the surface construction of the film. Blow Out is a movie that does everything an art film does on the surface, but has the core of mainstream entertainment. Yes, it is a well conceived political thriller, yes, it calls attention to the construct of cinema, yes, it shows artistic creation as a search for understanding in a world that would prefer you didn't understand, but it all seems like posturing for the sake of slick aesthetic production.

Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
Masina plays Maria, a woman who tells people her name is Cabiria, and who is looking for true love. We watch as her first few loves are lost, how she meets a man all too briefly who could probably be the right man for her (the guy who gives stuff to homeless people), and ultimately we are strung along with her by her final suitor.

What makes the film so great, then, is the milieu that can best be described as Felliniesque. No one else creates scenes so on the brink of being unhinged as the scene of Maria dancing on the street while there's music being played, people screaming, and who knows what else. There's always a sense of realism coupled with surrealism coupled with a sly smirk, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly how this mood is created. It's ordered chaos.

Much of this wonderment can be attributed to Masina, whose comic grace (yet with a simultaneous ability to inspire true pathos) warrants comparisons to Chaplin.

A summary of the film cannot do it justice, because with Fellini it is the moment by moment wonders that accumulate to create a memorable experience. Nights of Cabiria is really just a comedy about a hooker with a heart of gold who can't seem to find a guy who wants more than her money or will give her likewise, but the mixture of comedy with the quirky atmosphere and the subtle and unexpected emotional connection that develops between the viewer and Maria is what elevates it above what it is conceptually.

Hulk (Lee, 2003)
Hulk trades in the heroism of traditional super hero mythology for a portrayal of the subject's 'super' form as undesirable, as a burden in itself (rather than Spiderman's theme of the power begetting responsibility begetting burden). The film goes to lengths to portray the big green outbursts as an effect of pent up aggression and emotion in Banner, but is never wholly convincing in this regard. We are told that Banner has repressed memories, that he is externally stoic, and that he finds human relationships difficult, but there is no experiental evidence of this. Verhoeven's Hollow Man is a more convincing dissertation on supernatural power leading to a lack of inhibition and a release of troublesome desires.

The problem here is not that of the filmmakers, but of the super hero concept in itself. Super heroes were created not because of the kinds of psychological or philosophical problems that their existence may present (i.e., Batman wasn't conceived as the logical progression of being orphaned, Hulk wasn't conceived as a meditation on passive aggression), but because someone once thought "Hey, wouldn't a guy who was kind of like a spider be pretty bad ass?" Any show of profundity a super hero film has exists as an attempt to justify the existence of such hollow concepts. Super heroes are first and foremost juvenile pulp entertainment, and it is very vogue at the moment to present them as tortured souls in film (something that has been going on in the graphic novel and comic book mediums for decades). It works, to an extent, but there's always a disconnect between the seriousness and the absurdity of the very construct. For the record, Spiderman 2 has pulled off this mixture best.

As for the aesthetic construction of the film, in particular the editing, I liked it. It achieves differentiation, even if it is a very literal-minded approach to the "comic book film" concept, without being obtrusive. It amounts only to so much polish on the surface of an engaging film, but it's good polish nonetheless. Some of the split screen and floating comic book frame compositions can be not only visually interesting and unexpected (unlike many big-budget action films, you can't always predict the editing rhythms of Hulk), but effective in creating a sense of immediacy that would otherwise be absent.

Also, am I supposed to know what the fuck is going on with Banner's father?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Gerry (Van Sant, 2002)

For his past three films, Van Sant has been crafting his own film syntax, one relatively free of dramatic manipulation or overt expressions of thematic and emotional concerns, and one that offers many more questions than answers. It is all of these, particularly the last, that infuriates and alienates many viewers. Some expected him to, for example, know the cause of the shootings in Elephant (i.e. Columbine), yet one gets the feeling that people would be even more infuriated, and more deservedly, if he did claim to know the cause. But, that's a different film and a different topic.

This trio of films concerning death in the modern world (in Gerry, homicide that is potentially a mercy killing, potentially a smothering of embarrassing or unfortunate memories, potentially a Darwinian triumph after a reversion to animalistic needs to survive, in Elephant, a mass killing, and in Last Days, a likely suicide) begins with Gerry. The two characters, both named Gerry, become fixtures of the landscape as they walk endlessly and without direction (despite futile shows of control, as when a map is drawn in the sand or they retrace their steps, their mistakes). A story is told early on about a Wheel of Fortune woman who has to solve the puzzle "BARRE_ING DOWN THE ROAD" and thinks the answer is "Barreying down the road." The answer may as well be Gerrying down the road, for it is a similarly simple mistake that utterly dooms the two Gerrys.

It is important that, when lost in nature that they were until recently commenting upon as great and beautiful, they revert to discussion of their electronic experiences. Perhaps they are unable to see the picturesque landscapes without the aid of an electronic media, such as film. Would the viewer see the desert in the same way if it were not a part of the film?

A second such reversion is during a campfire sequence (a motif in Van Sant's work, second only to time-lapse clouds), when a Gerry announces "I captured Thebes the other day." He is, of course, talking about a video game (Age of Empires or Civilization, or something like that, I presume), and there is a wonderful disharmony in hearing a normal guy lost in the desert cast himself as an emperor in charge of a Thebes-capturing army. This is another comment upon the modern world's dependence upon electronic media. He then gets to a point when he says he needed twelve horses to save his city, but had only eleven. So the other Gerry asks "So you didn't capture Thebes, then?" to which the initial Gerry replies "No, I had already captured Thebes, and then that happened." He had been dwelling on what he lost, on his failure, rather than his triumph. Despite his feeling the need to anounce it, his victory in the video game meant nothing. Electronic experience cannot replace real experience, and it breeds negativity. He brought this anecdote up not out of pride, but out of a need to converse. Indeed, it is after they cease talking about either immediate matters or past modern-world experiences that they cease to have anything to say, and a fissure erupts between them. This scene is a very subtle but very rich one, exploring concepts that are in plain sight every day though few acknowledge them. Gerry is in many ways a film about the price of life in a modern world.

Gerry is an endless bounty of beauty and provocative starting points for discussion and personal thought. Only a fraction of its depth has been touched upon here. Gerry is the film that propelled Van Sant from "good" to "great," and he has since been proving his worthiness of this leap.

Capsules: Marebito (Shimizu, 2004)/The Abyss (Cameron, 1989)

Marebito (Shimizu, 2004)
How many films can be made about technological disconnect before innovative thinking about the matter becomes necessary? According to Shimizu, less than or equal to Marebito -1.

The film is like a jigsaw puzzle: you put it all together, then you think "what the fuck did I waste my time doing that for?" as you clear off the coffee table so you can use it for something more useful, like harakiri. A videographer (equated to a vampire in the film, as he "sucks" images from life) stops using Prozac, can't cope with modern life (since he lives vicariously through his camera), and so ends up kidnapping his daughter, failing to recognize his wife, and being very, very trite.

It's ironic that I watched the Abyss after this film, because the protagonist in that film's name is Virgil, and in Marebito the voiceover is the Virgil to the viewer's Dante. It holds your hand along the way, commenting upon such things as the scene of a suicide seeming more "realistic" on a television screen to the fact that the protagonist aims to open a door. Such a claim is generally followed by a shot of the protagonist opening the door. Shimizu's a workin' man's director, he always gives the viewer fair warning. Imagine the hysteria that unexpected portal unlatchings would produce and tell me the voiceover wasn't a good idea.

Marebito is a film about technological disconnect, contemporary life in an urban setting, familial disruption, descent into madness, loss of past history and combined mythologies, and the weight of creation. It makes damn sure you know what it's about, too. The only thing it doesn't tell you is that it's good at exploring none of these concepts. A hollow effort by a hollow director.

The Abyss (Cameron, 1989)
Aliens and sea dives and underwater machines! Wetsuits and warheads and sunk submarines! Marriage, divorce, and symbolic rings! These are a few of Cameron's favorite things.

The best thing that could be say about The Abyss is that it looks expensive. Cameron seems to had gotten every dollar's worth from his budget, but to what end? We have a disrupted marriage that is ultimately saved as a result of a psychotic Navy Seal armed with a warhead whose actions lead to the discovery of an alien race that resides in the titular abyss. This was all of course caused by the sinking of a submarine at the hands of said aliens. On top of all that, allow for the possibility that screaming can reverse hypothermia-induced death. Convergence of the Twain this is not. A mess, 'tis.

The final confrontation with the alien race visually alludes to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Um, why? Is the allusion the end in itself? After spending the last half hour watching submarine hot potato played with a nuclear warhead, am I supposed to see some sort of logical progression to an encounter with aliens? If things were my way, not only would I have a cup of expresso sitting next to me at the moment, but all this nuclear-warhead-crazed-Navy-Seal stuff would've been cut out. Or not even conceived of. If the allusion to Kubrick's film could be supported with a fitting sense of an encounter with a higher state of being, or the unperceived future, the Abyss could've been a great film. It would have a chance to play on US paranoia in that the cause of the submarine's sinking is unknown. The entire middle section could be reworked to showcase both the social angle and the philosophical one. The recovered marriage bit could stay, but more realistically portrayed (not "OMG I love you suddenly I realized thank you aliens!").

I'm not generally one to actually say what a film should've shown the viewer, but this is a case in which a provocative setting is crafted but the ol' fauna and machina inhabiting it don't amount to much. All the visuals involving the aliens were, for the record, gorgeous. I wish the film could capitalize on some of this promise.

Now, about that expresso...

Friday, April 21, 2006

Capsules: Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1979)/Aliens (Cameron, 1986)/Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1949)

Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1979):
I'm going to do a silly thing: I'm going to try to loosely define art as it pertains to storytelling. Artful storytelling does not merely reiterate plot points, it is not just exposition, it does not exist to take a person from point A to point B without something to reflect on in between. If art aspires to higher modes of thought or emotional experience, perhaps even higher modes of existence, Superman: The Movie is not art. It is a poorly conceived action comedy that is haphazardly paced, badly shot and edited, utterly inane, and wholly awful.

It is not only the lack of "food for thought," or lack of aspiration, that cripples this film. It's simply a bad movie, let alone bad art. Money was obviously spent on these setpieces, and it's wasted on cramped talking-head compositions and editing that is at best predictable and at a frequent worst jarringly awkward. What's that whirling thing in the background? Eh, must not be important, since we can't get a good look at it.

Early in the film, Superman is sent to earth on a manger representing the Bible's Jesus' manger. I won't even get into how the film completely misses the mark in following up on this at least borderline provocative idea. I was disenchanted from the start, and by the time Lois recites grade school poetry in voice over during the hackneyed flying romance sequence, the film was dead to me. Yet I still had to live with it for a baffling forty minutes (?) or so longer.

An episodic wasteland of cliché heroics, embarrassing slapstick, and poor filmmaking.

Aliens (Cameron, 1986):
I had seen Aliens once before, and thought it was a poor excuse for explosions and creature effects. Now, a less-jaded me thinks it's a good excuse for explosions and creature effects.

I once mistook filmmakers for being sincere. So, when I first saw Aliens, I took the paper-thin badassery of the infantry to be sincere. It isn't, I now realize. On a thematic level, this is a struggle between corporations, politicians, and decision makers (usually and in this film, all the same entity), and people, especially people under the influence of instinct, whether that be the instinct to stay alive or the instinct to save one's child. Long story short, a corporation screws a bunch of people over, a businessman continues to screw people over, and meanwhile some military people, Ripley, and a girl that comes to be a surrogate for her long-dead daughter try to survive against a hostile, deadly, and very photogenic alien race.

The film is a strong display of the motherhood instinct. When she meets the queen alien, Ripley shields Newt, shows the queen what her flamethrower can do, then points the flamethrower at an egg. This is mother talk for "Let my kid live and I won't kill yours." One thing leads to another, a reprise of the ol' stowaway gag from the first film, and there's a badass showdown between Ripley-as-dock-worker and Queen-sans-eggsac. Cameron isn't the most artful of directors, but he's very good at keeping hold of all the threads that hold a big film like this together and crafting something that warrants respect, if not divine admiration.

Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, 1949):
Young Mr. Lincoln is a bit simplistically conservative, sometimes faux-sentimental, occasionally bordering on hagiography, but cumulatively is a nice film. A nice film, that is, and not a whole lot more.

If John Ford's style could be summed up in a word, that word could be "simple." I do not mean this in a derogatory way; simplicity is sometimes a thing to be valued. What this simplicity does, though, is coddle the audience into being manipulated by the daintiest of strings. There is scarcely a moment when you are unsure what to feel, thanks, of course, to the score-as-emotional-cue. There's similarly nary a moment when you will question Young Old Abe's judgement; in Ford's world, he even gets away with cheating in a tug o' war contest.

Early in the film, Lincoln announced regarding law: "That's all there is: right and wrong" (paraphrased). For a moment, one may think that this would be a pitfall, and by the end of the film Mr. Lincoln would acknowledge the plethora of grey in the world. But no, the "young" of the title refers merely to Lincoln's age, not his youthful ignorance. For Lincoln as seen here is always right, always pleasant, always the life of the party, always winning, and always admirable. He's the most consistent feller this side of... anyone.

Ford makes likeable pictures. This is a film that any one of any age could watch and have his or her interest maintained. It's easy to digest, and if you don't think about it too long you'll probably want seconds. I'm not saying that the film is offensive intellectually, morally, or in any other way, but just acknowledging the film for what it is. You could do far, far worse than Young Mr. Lincoln, but you could do better as well.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hollow Man (Verhoeven, 2000)

There is a point early in Hollow Man in which a character playfully chastises the scientists from a balcony (nicknamed "Heaven"), saying that he is God and that they will be eternally punished for steppin' on his turf. This is, of course, the idea behind all mad scientist films, and so this line is a wink to the audience. It is this self-referentiality and self-conscious humor that I love about Verhoeven's cinema. To this jestful warning, Kevin Bacon's character responds "I'm God."

So the story is this: man overrides military (why would the military want invisible people anyway?) to test invisoserum on himself. He touches some tits. Maybe rapes a woman. Loves his power, has to kill people so he can get away with it. Slasher film, but with presumed college graduates rather than dumb teenagers. Basically, this film manages to be enjoyable, moderately kitschy, and not much else.

The moral premise is intriguing, but indulged all too seldom. "It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror any more" says Sebastian (Kevin Bacon). This is, relatively, a revelation. Relative, that is, to the rest of the movie's implausible action set pieces and genre film tropes. And that's about as 'deep' as the movie gets. The title, Hollow Man, refers both to the invisibility schtick and the fact that man (Sebastian) and Man (Mankind) are hollow, whether that be morally, in the face of power, or in striving for glory (according to this film, all of the above). Rarely is this explicated outside of Sebastian, but one instance calls attention to itself: a man is bleeding horribly from a Bacon-induced wound, and a woman goes to get blood to save his life. However, she discerns that Sebastian is in the room with her, and without hesitation flings the blood over the floor. Of course, she must save herself to save her coworker, but it's unlikely she was being pragmatic. Her fight-or-flight reflex is a counterpoint to the Bacon God. The blood is also a neat visual opportunity, so let's go on to that next.

The special effects are great. Even if the film is a bit silly, it can't be argued that the effects are necessitated by the plot and not the other way around... ok, so a little. There are convenient uses of water and the earlier mentioned blood that probably existed as visual ideas before plot points (it would explain their moderately hackneyed nature). Nonetheless, watching the cardiac map of a gorilla being materialized intravenously is a sight to behold.

Despite the hollowness (tee hee) of the proceedings, I still liked the film. One scene in particular, near the end, pushed me to the fence between "Fresh" and "Rotten": that damn elevator set piece. What a profound waste of computer animator talent that was. Of course, people could react that way to the entire movie, so who am I to judge. This is not to mention Mrs. MacGyver's electromagnet machine.

With more genre subversion, this could've been a nice little post modern statement, maybe doing for the mad scientist genre what Unforgiven did for the western (though the western is a bit more critically prestigious than the mad scientist flicks, and perhaps it should be that way; I'm no aficionado). However, it's just fun, occasionally funny, almost always stupid (though infrequently insultingly so), and forgivable (for Verhoeven fanboys, at least).

One line in the film reflects my own dry sense of humor quite well: when asked if he has any last words before being invisofied, Sebastian says "Yeah. If I die, pretend I said something deep and clever." It's too bad that, if Verhoeven died immediately after making this film, no one could say the same for him.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Hour of the Wolf (Bergman, 1968)

In the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman did a crazy little thing: he deconstructed the construct of cinema, called attention to its artificiality, shattered every notion of the third wall, and went altogether insane. Which is to say, this was a brilliant decade for a brilliant man. In Persona before Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf), the camera reverses itself, giving us a shot of the crew and Bergman himself. In the Passion of Anna after it, the actors are interviewed as a means of delving more directly into both the psychologies of the characters and the methods and psychologies of the actors themselves. Narrative and the artifice that creates the narrative becomes intertwined. What more common statement, then, is there than the opening credits of Vargtimmen: we hear sounds of construction, saws, hammers, and voices. The familiar can distinguish Bergman himself, the unfamiliar recognize the authoritativeness of the voice and likely get the message. As we watch the names of those who will craft our evening's illusion flash upon the screen, the reality behind the illusion becomes audible.

In the next scene we meet Alma (Liv Ullman), who tells tangentially of her husband's (Max Von Sydow as Johan) downfall. This is passed off as documentary, with Ullman speaking directly to the camera, and therefore to the audience. This again beats the third wall to the ground, and it lies in rubble for the rest of the picture. Bergman's work has always been reflexive to the director himself, and now the film is reflexive to cinema itself. Vargtimmen manages to be utterly self-aware, yet simultaneously captivating and believable. The relationship between film and audience becomes a statement in itself concerning suspension of disbelief: it is only by will that the audience believes in the construct. There is a duality to the viewing that tantalizes the viewer with neat classification (is the film horror, surrealism, tragedy, comedy?), yet keeps all such labels gloriously out of reach.

In a Bergman film, you can count on any artist present as being a surrogate for the director himself. It is with great audacity, then, that Bergman casts himself as such a despicable creature. The first half of the film recalls Fellini's La Dolce Vita at points, in which the island's bourgeoisie seduces Johan with flattery concerning his paintings and a past fling with one Veronica Vogler, who is mentioned in passing though never fully explicated (of course a smart move, but from Bergman it's to be expected). Johan is disgusted by the people who live in the castle on his island (who can easily stand in for all of society, especially those with a desire and capacity to consume art), but also fascinated. This is the constant struggle of an artist, and a duality present in Bergman's cinema (perhaps most memorably in Through A Glass Darkly, in which Karin's father is both horrified by his daughter's illness and powerless against the impulse to watch and record its progression as fodder for his new novel).

A moment of startling clarity is realized when Johan makes an elaborate monologue concerning his status as an artist, saying he calls himself 'artist' only for lack of a better term, that he merely acts upon a compulsion, that he cannot understand why he has been recognized as a special artist among others, and finally that he is humbled by the simple realization of how utterly useless art is in the pragmatic world. He is applauded for the bravery of his speech by the island dwellers, for he had created a mini-masterpiece in front of their eyes. Johan's sincerity is never determined, though one gets the feeling he believed it as he spoke it even if he never meant it in any absolute sense. A second high point occurs when a woman in the castle shows Johan and Alma a painting she bought, one that Johan painted of his former lover Veronica Vogler, and explains to Alma what a significant piece of her husband she owns. The idea of works being a part of an artist, and the body of work as a whole being such a large portion of the person that there is no room for personal relationships is a recurring theme in both the films and the life of Ingmar Bergman.

I've managed to thus far avoid Alma's role in the film for the most part, but in ways she is the protagonist. We watch as she slowly disintegrates, not in the way that Johan will, but because of Johan's disintegration. Her eyes as black pools as she watches a recreation of a scene from The Magic Flute perhaps sum up her entire function in the film. She is losing Johan, and she blames herself. In the final scene, she will beg of the audience again, looking directly into the camera, to know if she loved Johan too much, and so indulged his flights of fancy (if they are indeed fancy), or too little, and this is why he left her. Poor Alma never considers that maybe she isn't to blame.

Johan's utter embarassment at the end of the film is no less tragic, if more karmically sound. It is on his way to meet Veronica Vogler and annihilating embarrassment, though, that the film unhinges or finally focuses, depending on your perspective. The genre elements at this point border on both the grotesque and the absurd-to-the-point-of-hilarity. They are also extraordinarily self-aware, and the doubt this casts on the audience's illusion mirrors Johan's doubt that what he's seeing exists. Everything in the film is transient, and the vampires and other monsters in the film may or may not exist. The only act of vampirism that occurs for certain is the soul-sucking laughter that is produced by this group as they watch a made-up Johan try to reclaim a lost romance. These people say thay love his art, but they are voyeurs who love scandal more. This is moral grotesquery as opposed to the earlier of a visual nature, but it is again coupled with a subtle thread of irony. In a way, we want to laugh along with these people, and hate them for it, and question their existence, and maybe watch their end. We feel the same way about the film.

The film was written, shot, and released during a time when Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman were dating. Ullman was, in fact, pregnant with Bergman's child, but did not live with him at the time. It is easy to see how this could be a direct message to the young and admittedly naive Ullman, who says she did not understand how a film about the impossibility of coexistence with an unstable male artist could apply to her at the time. In retrospect, it was a fair warning from a man who was likely unstable only because he was so painfully aware of his own inadequacies. He made the film to explicate why making the film necessitates the making of the film. If you understand the preceding statement, you understand the works of Ingmar Bergman.