*Spoiler alert: according to your level of intelligence, this blog post may or may not give away the ending. Then again, if you’ve ever seen a Christopher Nolan film and know a little bit of film history, you have nothing to fear. Fredric Jameson’s notion of pastiche is at work here and there is no way you won’t guess what’s coming. If you don’t have a film education, maybe you will get one from reading this blog. Perhaps you can also benefit from Nolan’s layers of dream… I choose to think of them as layers of homage or intelligent plagiarism; you choose which is the misnomer*
Where does one even start talking about a film titled Inception? The connections to beginnings are endless: from Ellen Page’s Juno and her troubled portrayal of the creation of a life to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, who fails to launch of an (in-plot) epic love story in (500 days of) Summer, Inception bursts with associations to foundation and origin. Oh, and it does so in its storyline too. Ok, since you insist in discussing the intra-plot intricacies, why not say what this film is really about: endings, or the difficulty of success when attempting to achieve them. Nolan is a crafty, young filmmaker. The end of his career is nowhere in sight. However, his opening sequence is dreadfully prophetic in showing a wrinkled Ken Watanabe remembering ‘better’ times. Time is at the crux of Nolan’s film: whether the one that has elapsed, or the one that will. Of particular interest is the present time, the 2 ½ hours that transpire as our eyes remain affixed to the screen watching a curious broken time/space continuum that unfolds in front of us linearly in life but not so on screen, and that may make the weak hearted question if it really does… or even what world we are living in. This “Matrix effect” is achieved in a not-so-similarly racially charged manner. Far from the progressive black savior who enlightens Neo (beginning again!) into the path of truth, Nolan’s film regresses to post WWII notions of the “yellow peril”.
In Inception, Saito (played by Ken Watanabe) is evil, manipulative and extortive, a real exponent of the ‘Nippon terror’ that flooded the US in the 1940’s. This villain makes our beautifully white-faced hero enter a dangerous ring of corruption, and for his own attempt to plant an idea in Cobb’s head or claim supremacy over a member of the land of the free, he must be punished with death. We have seen this story before… many many years ago.
Is Saito (Ken Watanabe’s character) a Japoteur?
And not just once, as his ailment translates to each and every single layer of the “dream”.
In addition to race, this film also scores points in the gender arena. Nolan may have learned the teachings of David Mamet, who in the film The Spanish Prisoner educates audiences of the devilish quality of the female gender.
The film’s tag line: “Can you really trust anyone?”
The answer is no, especially if she is a woman. Remember the “Femme Fatales” of film noir?
Like Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon’s character in The Spanish Prisoner), Marion Cotillard’s Mal is as evil as Brigitte Helm’s Hel/Robot in Metropolis. With a short name that in a different language can be associated with evil, the two latter women exemplify the evil that Ricci artfully conceals. Can you trust anyone?, Mamet asks. Dom Cobb and his subconscious representations of Mal prove that old noir adage that women are dangerous even in dreams. But luckily for us females, films and dreams are not real. The pervasive patriarchal structure of the allegedly “real world” unfortunately is. Will we ever wake up from it? Let’s spin a dreidel, shall we?
The totem dreidel in Inception
Centuries ago, philosophers wondered about the dreamlike quality of life. Calderon de la Barca and Descartes explored this notion in print, sparking endless pages of discussion. Many Earth rotations later, the so-called “Dream Factory” continues to do so, in updated ways. David Mamet circa 1987 in House of Games, and David Fincher after him in (the almost remake) 1997 The Game have posited that maybe life is some sort of entertaining ludic fantasy.
David Fincher and his notion of a game.
The structure of the unsettling final plot point has been explored ad nauseam by directors throughout the history of film. As a new chapter is being penned, Christopher Nolan’s name seems to appear written in indelible ink, and rightfully so. His intervention provides a crack at the age-old question but presents it in a novel way hence ensuring his page will not be ripped out of the Film 101 manual. In the long list of quotes on his IMBD page, he tells the world that “The term ‘genre’ eventually becomes pejorative because you’re referring to something that’s so codified and ritualized that it ceases to have the power and meaning it had when it first started. What I’m trying to do is to create modern equivalents that speak to me of those tropes that have more of the original power.” But indeed he is not the first who has tried to repackage film noir, though he may be one of the few that have succeeded. Looking at the bare bones of Nolan’s film and the predicament it poses, Inception is a long-treaded story with a shiny exterior, an absolutely brilliant execution of a clichéd desire to travel through time and beat death. Ending at the beginning, life is a circle. Sometimes, it can also be a dream.
Marion Cotillard. Enough said.
As a mere audience member (and perhaps a little bit of film academic mixed in to bring out flavor), I can only wish that while the credits of my life roll against the background of a black screen, Edith Piaf’s voice reminds me of Marion Cotillard’s overall fabulousness. And maybe of a mysteriously abandoned Dior handbag.
Seen above is one of the four episodes created for a Dior campaign (one of which was directed by Olivier Dahan in a noir style, also responsible for “La Vie En Rose”). Shanghai, intrigue, a rarified atmosphere and lots of blue seem to line up perfectly with David Lynch, director of the short embedded here.
Centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned a world in which men could coexist happily and flourish through communitarianism. So did Karl Marx. And so did Tim Thomas, the protagonist of Gabriele Muccino’s Seven pounds, whose concept of sharing did not involve democratic forums a la Rousseau or a denouncement of the atomizing effects of capitalism a la Marx. Tim’s notion seems born out of a “one with the Universe structure” in which life ends but begins through the dismembering of his body that will endure in the physicality of others. His heart goes to Emily, a kind and open young woman born with a congenital failure, and his eyes go to Ezra, a blind and slow to anger gifted pianist. Other than a woman who is the recipient of Tim’s worldly possessions, the other beneficiaries remain more obscure that the aforementioned characters. In this way, Tim’s self and body become ubiquitous, occupying different spaces at the same time and able to defeat death by providing a fuller life to those who ail. Through these unusual actions, Tim’s vision is one that liberates the body from its prison, an ideal that allows humans to flourish through dispersion in a great time where the technologies that span the globe have managed to make the planet more interconnected.
Many would object to the technological era that has enveloped the present, claiming that its advances have alienated humankind by allowing an illusion of self-sufficiency thwart face-to-face interaction. However, Muccino circumvents this issue allowing us to understand that technology has facilitated that connection: Tim speaks to Ezra on the phone, and conveys to Emily that she is the recipient of a new heart through a pager. Technological mediation either becomes a lifeline or the passage to a fuller life. However, this technology means nothing without the human component. Doctors cannot “fix” an unfit or incomplete body: the heart and the eyes that Tim provides are the real salvation. The interesting complication of this film resides in the character who receives Tim’s possessions. While health ailments follow the aforementioned model, human created problems such as a broken family (due to an abusive partner) are not mediated by technology but by heartfelt handwritten words and the gifting of material items. It would seem like this film is advocating for a return to those Rousseaunian values of community, or perhaps even a normative desire to believe in said philosopher’s state of nature. While technology and progress mediates nature’s faults, human conflict must be resolved through the traditional moral values of generosity and material detachment.
Believing in rescuing the old values in addition to his defense of technology, the director also advocates for an intelligent use of both. After all, Tim is the one who fixes Emily’s vintage press that others were unable to repair, while also “fixing” Emily, Ezra and others with his dismemberment and detachment. He is the vehicle of Rousseau’s communitarian values as much as he is the one character that finally understands (after his partner’s death) what it really means to strike a balance between human relations and an intelligent use of modern technology.
By donating 7 pounds of flesh, Tim can right a wrong, or so the director believes. The protagonist’s life is redeemed in this second chance: donating his organs and possessions gives him a different yet newfound life, a ubiquity that his dispersed self (body and possessions) weaves into a web. The interwoven humanity, best personified in that hug between Emily and Ezra in the last frame of the film, defends the Internet culture in which each hub connects to another and closes the distance across the world. The important thing to remember is that, despite threats like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers and any other technological advances are created and operated by human beings and without people loving, caring for themselves and others, and forming communitarian networks humans are unable to see and feel, to live a rich, long and full life.
Even though some lives may be cut short, such as Tim’s wife’s (who dies in a car accident he causes) the protagonist chooses to stage his death at the hands of nature: electrocution with a jellyfish. Once out his body, his organs will have a new beginning not fraught with thoughts of guilt or pain, but a Benthamian perspective of making the maximum number of people happy at the expense of the fewest, or in this case simply compensation with one pound of flesh for each death that he has caused. Muccino tells us clearly that, when used in the right way, the eyes and heart can and should be tools for good, aided by both technology and nature. This balance is imperative to achieving human flourishing.
Though Seven Pounds is not a great film, it is one that helps to gain perspective on our historical moment, of a world in which technology and its threats have been used both for progress and destruction, a planet where fear and war have atomized the world into distrustful nations, these nations into populations and populations into individuals. If every life lost upon the misuse of technology were to be compensated, no scale would be able to bear the weight. Seven Pounds provides a small-magnitude example of how this world can become an ideal place, just like Rousseau planned centuries ago. The scale that weighs those pounds of flesh seems to bear a resemblance to that being held by the blind, stoic trademark statue of justice. Perhaps what this film proposes, and what is in order in today’s reality, is stepping on that scale to see what kind of a balance we have created.
About sixty years ago, Antoine de Saint Exupery created a fantasy in which a Little Prince hopped from planet to planet in his search for happiness. Much more recently, another member of the royal enclave (the king of pop) was engaged in a different kind of meandering: race hopping. From black to white, Michael Jackson not only traveled in his own life, but also in the diegetic world of his video clip “Black or White”. Whereas the Little Prince promised to never forget what he learned from a fox he had domesticated, Michael Jackson seems to have forgotten what every member of the imaginary royalty should know: the tenet that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. “Black or white” opens with an aerial shot of the suburb and home that we will later familiarize with, hence introducing us to the space as coming from the sky. The departure of the hopping and exploration of the diverse worlds that inhabit Planet Earth (as opposed to the diverse planets that compose our universe) is a white middle class suburban home, which sets the norm of our reality. In this home, the father, mother and son seem to have assumed primary psychic roles, which become reversed when the son blasts off his father to the other side of the world. The repressive patriarchal authority, in contrast with the Little Prince, is transported against his will to a world of Otherness. His voyage, in turn, leads the audience to a different double journey: that of the King of Pop walking from frame to frame into stereotypically depicted cultures, and that of Michael’s own real life travel, from blackness to whiteness. This double journey, as the images that compose the video indicate, takes on certain implications about racial difference and its importance in terms of white supremacy.
THE MUSIC VIDEO IN QUESTION:
The representation of a number of diverse racial groups is what makes this video so unique. However, these representations are fraught with a “flawed mimesis” (Stam and Spence 881), stereotypes, and a certain colonial sensibility. In the introduction to his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the presence of a division, “as both geographical and cultural entities […] sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made” (5) By extension, I would like to argue that the video “Black or White” creates several imaginary geographies, adjudicating to each one a stereotypical image that when placed opposite whiteness can be redefined to mean ‘otherness’. This project becomes apparent during the first racial representation, that of the African Natives. The scantily clad men in painted faces are about to kill an animal, responding to their savage and primitive calling. However, out of nowhere, they begin dancing with Michael in a highly choreographed manner. He is within them, trying to blend his difference by yelling a guttural sound, but failing as his western clothing denounces him. Through the attempt to erase difference but by highly stereotyping the natives, the image is then in crisis: the imaginary African continent and its people as a locus of otherness conflicts with the blurring of the distinction with whiteness, because according to his own words “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”.
Enter the eroticized Asian female. These women move in perfect unison, wearing oriental outfits and moving in constrained and very slight movements, as they portray the essence of the truly feminine, “passive, subservient, dependent” (Marchetti 115). The male gaze within the diegetic world not only complicates this representation in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, as these women become highly sexualized racial bodies. As he continues to screen hop, Michael encounters the far West, with its Indians in red face and cowboys that shoot guns without a purpose. Herein lies an invocation to the most racially troublesome genre of American culture: the western. Michael interacts with the Indians like he belongs, and nobody looks at him any different, despite the long withstanding antagonistic relationship between whites and native Americans set up by westerns such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956).
Another locus of erasure of racial differences is Michael’s encounter with a traditionally clad Hindu woman, dancing in the middle of the streets of an industrialized India. The imaginary absence of borders manifests itself through the action and setting, as their dancing nonchalance suggest that, contrary to reality, the middle of a well-populated street is removed from dangers.
Many parallels run through these representations of the diverse cultures. Firstly, Michael seems to blend with the ones who accompany him in the frame, even though he leaps out of the screen for the audiences who see him as different. Secondly, he seems to be able to adapt quite well to each race through dance, which suggests his dexterity in the art of bodily adaptation and race hopping. Nevertheless, this argument becomes more complicated when taking into account the last stop on his diegetic culture trip: the Russian white Cossacks. This particular segment is the only one he can complete in its entirety and in perfect unison with his screen partners. This feat suggests perfect harmony with his fellow white dancers, inducting him, according to the video’s discourse, into The ‘Hall of Whiteness’. The white snowflakes falling only add to the sentiment of absence of color that permeates the screen.
Furthermore, as the scene converts into a snow globe, a small hand holds it in its grasp. The camera pulls back to reveal a white baby sitting on top of the world, who right in front of a black infant shakes the snow globe that has captured Michael’s reality. Almost like a justification, these two babies are evocative of the Clark Doll Study, an experiment which asked children to choose between a white and a black doll in terms of their preference. Just as the study reveals, and as Michael represents, whiteness equals desirability. This not-so-novel discovery as a result of white supremacy explains why the snow globe resides on the white baby’s hand, conferring him and agency the black baby cannot have. The white baby is, in this world of binary divisions, the one that gets to hold the globe. The exposure of this experiment almost validates Michael’s escape from blackness, but also endorses the idea of whiteness as the top of the food chain, or literally in this video, as the agent in control on top of the world.
The same can be said about Michael’s trip to the flame of the Statue of Liberty. His positioning on top of one of the tallest structures of the world reinforces his status of privilege as a white male, but also stands as an emblem of the Ellis Island culture, that of the American Dream. In the United States, the land of possibilities, one can become whoever he or she wants to be. America becomes the place of dreams and reinvented identities, a space where most fantasies can become a reality because of that ‘freedom’.
It would seem that only white people are in the privileged position to say that skin color does not matter. “I’m not going to spend my life being a color”, he sings, mainly meaning that the prism by which we should evaluate people is not race, but equality. However, the suggestion of the erasure of color leads us to conjecture that whiteness is the ideal. Michael, occupying his throne near the crown of the Statue of Liberty, asserts this statement through more than his lyrics. His costume choice for this video becomes an interesting one to analyze: a white shirt, paired with black pants. If we were to deconstruct it, we would find that the whiteness of his outfit resides on top of the black, signaling the order of hierarchy of race, but also occupies the top portion of his body, the one valued because of intellect and reason, while the black one covers the bottom half, the portion that contains the genitalia and is often associated with the sexualized and the primitive. We can see this clothing choice as a reflection of cultural stereotypes: the rational and civilized white is above the primitive and hypersexualized black. Being that this is a video to try to disavow racial stereotypes and racial differences, the clothing selection surfaces as a huge oversight, or a fraught choice.
Whereas this video was released to repudiate certain racist accusations towards Michael Jackson, the image tells us a different story. Even though the video promises to challenge ruling discursive assumptions about race, it ends up reaffirming the status quo of white supremacy. The morphing of the faces that ends the musical portion of the video, as well as the transformation of Michael’s face through plastic surgery manipulation seems to suggest that the King of Pop is not looking to join the Little Prince on his quest of returning to the Earth to live happily ever after. Instead, it seems that he has reached the point of no return, and as his hopping from identity to identity progresses, his highly morphed body better suits a space within this galaxy, but out of this world.
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House, 1994.
Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism an Representation: An Introduction” in Film: Psychology, Ideology, and Technology. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th Ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004. pp 877-891.
Yesterday, on Good Morning America, during Britney’s performance of her new single, “Circus,” also the title of the latest effort to reboot her career, I notice the familiar tune of Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) as the opening and closing bookends for the song. Transporting us to some carnivalesque wonderland because you know…Fellini/Rota equals garish circus freaks and a barely sweating ringmaster attempting to sell the greatest show (I mean, preview) on earth, Britney is less of a performer than she was before, now a vampish marionette in the grand tradition of female has-beens, like Lola Montes and Mariah Carey, wearing her setbacks as pity points for fans’ financial support. By even comparing herself to the incredibly cluttered yet fluidly warm style of the late Italian master is more insulting if it was an intentional homage than simply browsing through Itunes for mood music.
To her credit, Britney revived my interest for Rob Marshall’s film adaptation (filming in the UK, due out 2009) of the Tony Award-winning musical, Nine (also thanks to Meg!), simply due to its stellar casting stunt alone: Daniel Day-Lewis, as the womanizing (ha, Britney) artist Guido with writer’s block, Nicole Kidman as his on-and-off again muse, Claudia, Judi Dench as the witty French reporter, Lilianne, Marion Cotillard as his faithful wife, Penelope Cruz as the voluptuous dim-witted mistress Carla, Sophia Loren as his Mamma only in memory, Kate Hudson as a composite character of American/European socialites parading around the set, and of course, the Duchess herself, Fergie as Guido’s first sexual conquest, a misunderstood monster of a whore Saraghina. Even though the film is adapted from a theater show and not directly a remake of the original Italian film, creating a compare/contrast profile chart of the character/actors gives us however, tiny of a clue, that Marshall is referring to both sources for his project rather than the musical itself (look at the exact hair styles!) and hopefully unlike its dour box office cousin, The Producers, another film-to-musical-to-film inbred, Nine should absorb or borrow the exuberant energy that made 8 1/2 a sensational box-office draw of its time, a classic in the kooky genre of films about films, transforming the behind-the-scenes of the production process into an exquisite confrontation between fantasy and memory, the tempting desire to let go and the stubborn will to create meaning.
As the reigning discourse around the word, “adaptation” brings to mind, the embarrassing accusations that the “film” didn’t do this or that justice to the “book,” or what I think is inevitably an impossible endeavor, one could distill the situations or more crucially, the sensual essence of the source, while taking liberties with how an actor will improvise spontaneously with words and gestures, or how a whole scene could be shot from a perspective that goes beyond what the book can imagine. Upon digging through the photo archives of 8 1/2, who could have known that Sophia Loren, visiting the set of the original film, would star in its redo’s remake. If originality is inherent in the original, could originality be transferable to a copy, cutting its ties to the original, plain and simple? I find it better to move away from the iron curtain of fidelity and towards a more conducive discussion around intertextuality. Excuse my academic jargon, but the term means what it says, suggesting the play of allusions and references that one cultural object refers to another. Rather than speaking in ad finitum about a singular piece, the plenitude of experiences between texts bring us closer to dissecting changing attitudes about times present and past, and how subjective interpretations are being filtered as objective criticism. If professional and amateur critics like to spin personal anecdotes only for the sake of attention, followed by defending their preferences through external standards of good taste, than for better or worse, in the probing spirit of 8 1/2, to think about the trivial and profound relations from one book to another, from one film to another, would surrender the human ego to the witness stand as its own judge and prosecutor…the artist have already sold his soul to the devil, it’s a matter of how long he can keep it.
Britney’s “I’ll just wiggle around the playpen” routine, listen for the beginning:
SPOTTED: Slovenian hobo in a stolen YSL t-shirt, chugging a whole can of Diet Coke, looks like lonely boy isn’t going to be lonely anymore.
Tempting as it is to feed all my faves from this year 35th Telluride Film Festival through the Zizekian viewfinder, I’m going to refrain from such fanatic behavior and deliver a well-balanced account of what really happened…
HUNGER (Steven McQueen, UK, 2008)
What Firaaq failed to provoke during its Crash-inspired dissection of the ongoing Hindu-Muslim hostilities in India is the intimate kernel of individual suffering made unbearably palpable by the lingering shots of the open sores blistering and sputtering against the fine pale surface of a cadaver waiting to shed his last sign of life. It may be unfair to judge both films (the latter being Hunger) by some arbitrary aesthetic yardstick, since their creators belong to two completely polarized modes of filmmaking, on one hand, we have a famous Bollywood actress turned passionate chronicler of her country’s forgotten crimes against itself, and on the other corner, we have a video artist evolving from installation eye-candy to the loose narratives of the European tradition. Director Nandita Das employs shock tactics to externalize the pain of a Hindi housewife haunted by the banshee screams of her Muslim neighbors begging for help, so obviously, her only means of masochistic atonement is to sear her arm with hot cooking oil. Steve McQueen, on the other hand, creeps closer to the essence of horror, building dread not of death’s approach, but of apathy wearing away little by little of political conviction, and while many critics has cited the middle portion as being the most political and politicized, the now infamous 20-minute long take of two people conversing whether a hunger strike really achieves or motivates social change, for this reviewer’s opinion, where Hunger truly exceeds are the soft-focused texture of surfaces, from fingers probing the rusty iron bars to snow falling on the bloody knuckles of the prison guard, there lie its most gentle moments wrapped around extended tableaus of institutional brutality and frenzy protests (exemplified by the opening credits, the sound of drums are enough to cite historicity without all the cheap signifiers of that Thatcherite era). In the end, neither lofty philosophical conversations nor liberal ideals could rescue the body from flatlining, all that remains is the precious flashback of a childhood lost in the woods, a journey not into a man’s personal beliefs, but his mind right at the precipice of forgetting everything including himself.
I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Philippe Claudel, France, 2008)
Finally, a high-pedigree film that can be read in no other way than a French maternal melodrama centered on Zizek’s most belabored conceit: the inherent transgression. With drooping baggy eyes and quenched lips, never far away from a lit cigarette, Kristin Scott Thomas fulfills her duty as Oscar bait in another Fresh-off-from-Jail picture starring a strong female lead with a deep dark secret, but even as her most ‘heinous’ sin is carefully spelled out in calm bold letters to an inquisitive employer, we have already succumbed to the face of this pitiful creature that any audible gasp in the audience is a knee-jerk reaction than a sudden transformation of empathy to revulsion. [Spoiler alert] Simply put, Juliette is no cold-hearted murderer, taking a page out of the Euripidean playbook, she’s the modern equivalent of the tragic Medea, sacrificing her terminally-afflicted son in order to save him. Her proof of love is not diminished, but intensified by defying bourgeois notions of morality and confronting the harsh reality of mortality. There’s no better way to showcase pure maternal affection than through mercy killing. The film, in full Zizekian fashion, casts a suspicious eye on this enigmatic mysterious character of Juliette in order to scurry her away into the space of innocence with maximum approval by the audience…of course, how could she, look at this poster child of melancholia. However, we are the not the only spectators of this staged reversal of virtue, for the title points to one of the most banal yet powerful phrases in all of declarative speech, those precious three letter words, I-love-you spoken by a restless spirit: I’ve Love You So Long. Who else but Lea as the true addressee and addresser of this private confession between on the surface, estranged sisters, but symbolically, mother and child surrogates to one another. Is not one of the most poignant gesture of the waiting lover is to write the name of her beloved on each day of the calendar, when physical arrival becomes less important than the promise of remembrance, as time replaces space in all manners of treachery? One could extrapolate that the true monster of this film is the Janus-lingual mother, cast away in her dungeon of a convalescent home for separating the siblings at the first place, her disorienting switch from French to English serves up a cushion of sharp pain for Juliette, who pulls her crucified arms away from this Jane Birkin wannabe. While we could characterize I’ve Loved You So Long as a study on mourning, this intellectual euphemism can’t hold back the flood of what in layman’s term is a full-blooded weepie, you just gotta wait till the doves cry [first].
TULPAN (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstan, 2008)
How can I truly encapsulate the experience of watching Tulpan, a sort of all-knowing homage to Nanook of the North, as if its director’s humble start in documentaries reveal itself through the winding long takes of nomadic kinship set against the desolate plains of Kazakhstan, while the story is languidly propelled by the coming-of-age ambitions of Asa, the returning naval officer in search of a bride. The title of the film refers to ‘tulip,’ the elusive beauty, prized among the scattered inhabitants, but kept offscreen, out of sight, not necessarily out of mind, to drive Asa’s hopes of starting his own enclave of animal husbandry extraordinaires. While the film culminates with a mesmerizing and squirm-inducing birth of a lamb, in which the lack of cuts produces its own brand of realism, not in the order of authenticity to reality, but the other A: aware admiration for the actor’s ability to endure such extraneous demands, a miracle of photography that would raise Bazin from his grave. Thematic consideration aside, what makes the film so pleasurable is the repetition of the disco hit, “Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M, which enters the film only at times of euphoria, when the City, as both urban space and dream realm invoked in the song, promises easy passage into adulthood. Interestingly, the director rejects the hipster flavor of today’s pop tunes for an antiquated sound, an already too late nostalgia, an opportunity missed and never to be recovered, perhaps the inclusion of the folk ballads sung by Asa’s niece is a much required listening session: a counter siren call that lures him back to discover a rite of passage still waiting for him in the present, in his own home, and what the film promotes to be more viable than the hanging gardens of Babylon. Guess which route he chooses?
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD (Kim Ji-Won, Korea, 2008)
Would it be wrong to indulge in a excessively violent action movie while knowing all too well that it consists of thinly-coherent setpieces, like dots on a blank paper with lines connecting to form nothing but more meaningless scribbles? Of course, my description could fit any Hollywood blockbuster from the last five years, including those heading towards the Nicholas Cage’s retirement funds, but what makes The Good, The Bad, and The Weird different from the lot isn’t its intrinsic value as a Kimichi Western, a national appropriation of a bygone genre, resurrected occasionally like its clown-whore cousin, the Musical. Unlike his Asian compatriot Johnnie To, director Kim Ji-won revels in his inconsistency, jumping form one genre to another, and reinvents himself not as an auteur of fresh originality, but as a refiner of form, a distiller of borrowed styles to their most effective luster. As if parodying academic reductions of Korean cinema to nationalist readings of trauma and historicist hoopla, the film accounts for its interpretative posterity by inserting a random scene that takes place in a roadside brothel, even proffering a lecture about the fractured identity of Korea during the 30s. What’s more, we are given everything we expected from the Western, including quiet reflections on what outlaw men dream of, while leaving The Good in the middle of his thought. What does he really want? The film answers this question with the final draw between all the titular leads, their desire is mutual, a chance to challenge each other, whatever hokey bullshit spoken before comes down to a moronic duel-to-the death existence.
Forget about the ‘Melville’ Kim of The Bittersweet Life, or the ‘Kobayashi’ Kim of The Tale of Two Sisters, there’s no dramatic grace or terrifying ambience here, only a topsy-turvy road to perdition, punctuated by perfectly choreographed sequences of deranged shootouts, epic train robberies, and chaotic chases-within-chases. If the Tarantino signature (an oxymoron) is awfully apparent in his recent excursion, it’s only because of their shared passion for Santa Esmeralda, a song that truly blends with the visual spectacles of men running after each other on horses and jeeps, to almost ridiculously laughable duration. I could never articulate my sheer ecstasy in rewatching (infinitely if possible) these scenes of sensory overload, but what I realize in my second viewing is the unique technique Kim brings to Hollywood plot devices that could have called for split-second editing, instead, he decides to keep the camera rolling, extending the moment of gory impact for not only objects on camera, but of the camera itself blown into smithereens. It reminds me of the film’s own vulnerability, its materiality, its mortal inevitability in the filmmaking process rather than only being a omnipresent window to a fictional world. For instance, when the Japanese army starts shooting at all the bandits, our perspective is bound with that of the machine gun, jittering across the frame, but right there, you start to feel the “frames” of the film running every 24 seconds. Like an amusement park thrill ride, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird refuses to play into the dialectic between full form and empty content, we have here a reconciliation of form as content, spectacle as narrative, and a feast even the eyes would think twice about before attending.
An internet pastime of mine is perusing various movie poster websites with updates on recently released posters of upcoming films and international versions of old films. While I imagine one day becoming rich enough to purchase my favorites to line the walls of my home theater, for now, I settle for saving the images on my hard drive and rotate hanging them on my Desktop. I’ve always wanted to know the masterminds behind the designs of my favorite posters and this is an opportunity to highlight, outside of the Key Art Awards and other industry celebrations, the works of individuals and companies. Though I don’t know if I can keep this series up as much as my colleague Joie with TGIFF, the reward of having a single place to look at a series of pretty pictures does fit my low attention span.
Born in Colorado and raised in Kansas, Bob Peak rose to the scene in the 1960s as a commercial illustrator. Like many ad men of the time, at least as told by a certain popular television show, Peak entered the scene after serving for the military during the Korean War. Starting of as an artist of an ad agency creating illustrations for Old Hickory Whiskey and covers for Sports Illustrated, he later was called upon by United Artists to do artwork for West Side Story. Though the signature poster for the film was done by Saul Bass, Peak work was still used for album covers and other smaller ads for the film. Enough talking – let the pretty pictures begin.
Minister: Can you tell me about anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them?
Bess McNeill: Uh… their music?
As The Dark Knight continues to dominate the box office numbers even a month after its release, another film that shared the same opening weekend and an accomplishment for breaking records is being brushed underneath the bed. Despite its all star cast and its former life as a successful musical, Mamma Mia! is still being categorized as an underdog against the unstoppable Goliath of The Dark Knight. Though the numbers are not unexpected nor does The Dark Knight not deserve the accolades it is receiving, but Mamma Mia! deserves a little boasting itself.
There is a single line that is being said by both the yay and nay-sayers for the film: “Mamma Mia! is pure fun.” On one side, you have the positive interpretation of the line in that the film is a return to the escapist roots of cinema. On the other side, you have the negative understanding where “pure fun” means candy-coated rainbows/”lollipops vomitting Skittles onto the screen” a la the negative reviews of the big screen version of Speed Racer. It is a little too easy to de-merit a film by equating “fun” with lack of substance or lack of societal purpose. In all its glory, Mamma Mia!, as Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, “isn’t a movie. It’s vacation.” As my dad points out immediately after his viewing of the film, Mamma Mia! in every essence is both a film about escape and one that provokes its audience to escape. The film is align with the films of the 1930s such as those by Busby Berkeley that were products of a country undergoing economic downturn. Meryl Streep et al. provide a nice cinema experience as well as the cheapest way to travel to the Greek Isles.
Perhaps the most off-putting/criticized parts of the film are the performances displayed by the seasoned actors of the cast. It’s one thing to see Tony-Award winning actress Christine Baranski in a musical, but it’s a whole new thing to see Mr. Darcy and Chuck/Jan Nyman singing in spandex suits. I, too, at parts had a hard time immersing into this new world actors who have played lowly suitors or violent townsmen can be happy people seeking a good time. However, it is this reaction to the film that I found the most interesting about Mamma Mia! Not so much a film illustrating the struggle of a dramatic actor’s entrance into the musical world, but an fascinating display on how trained actors translate the form of acting they have been known for into a subcategory of cinema that requires a different type of acting language.
The Winner Takes It All
The “The Winner Takes It All” number marks a pivotal moment in the film where Donna (Meryl Streep) and Sam (Pierce Brosnon) discuss their former life together and the harboring feelings that still remain. It is THE scene where “actor” must come out. The Kramer vs. Kramer Oscar-type acting and musical acting both require an overt, exaggerated form of emotional expression, the two modes still have a little bit of variation between the two. With every emotional lyric, you see Meryl Streep translate her mode of acting we’ve become used to into the mode necessary in a musical as she is singing. Instead of focusing all her energy on creating subtle facial expressions of pain and joy to be captured in extreme close-ups, Streep moves around on the cliff with arms flaring around, an action that is exaggerated by a red pashmina at hand.
In his critical review of the film, Chris Wisniewski of Reverse Shot writes:
But what does it say about our collective moviegoing habits that the same audiences who mostly spurned Chris Columbus’s Rent (admittedly, no masterpiece) and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd have turned out in droves for Hairspray and Mamma Mia!? Columbus and Burton take their stories and characters—and the genre—seriously. They use the medium to their advantage, staging their numbers with and for the camera; through framing, camera movement, editing, choreography, or production design, they craft rousing, sometimes resonant cinematic spectacle out of their theatrical raw material. Hairspray and Mamma Mia!, by contrast, are clearly products of a post-musical era, in which the genre itself is treated like a joke, where musical numbers are less displays of technical virtuosity than extended gags, sometimes at the expense of the performers themselves (in Hairspray, John Travolta’s pseudo-drag performance becomes a running punchline; Mamma Mia!‘s male leads are made equally ridiculous without the aid of dresses or fat suits).
What Chris Wisniewski chooses to gloss over are moments like the “Winner Takes It All” number where acting, a part of the “medium” he doesn’t include in his list, highlights the great use of film in translating a stage musical. In the “post-musical era,” everything is not simply a “joke.” Rather jokes are another opening to the understanding of how a craft can delve into a story that has already been told in another form before.
What did Sky and Sophie do after they left the island? Become a recording duo!
While the verbal wildfires continue to ravage the intelligentsia quarters of the blogosphere, sparked by our beloved Stephanie Zacharek’s recent NYT rant of Richard Brody’s new book, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, we would like to extend the olive branch to both sides of the debate, and save Ms. Zacharek time from googling her own name (you brought us a year’s worth of hits, thanks). As you may have guessed, the man in the middle of it all isn’t Brody, but his subject matter, Godard—French filmmaker, born-again Maoist, bitter recluse—and even more decidedly, between his early versus late works. I haven’t read Brody’s extensive study myself, but from reading the reviews and meta-reviews, the exchange has now veered off into the realm of subjective preferences, a game of defending my likes and dislikes, with critics lambasting each other for taking too seriously or too lightly Godard’s post-1967 period, and this is the dividing year, sharing his detractors’ sentiment, that the music died (and how slowly!).
Reasonable enough, an artist tends to escape the lingering success of his meager beginnings, not surrendering to the whims of popular opinion but to grow and develop as a person, who sheds away prior interests in hopes of cultivating future passions. In this sense, Godard doesn’t want to be overshadowed by his own creations, to be remembered only in the annals of history as the critic-turned-auteur who lead a string of dazzling revolutions in cinematic architecture, or what he would now deemed to be frivolous, amateurish, and infantile, the fever dreams of Hollow Men. Yet, cultural consensus always dictate otherwise, and the fond memory of the Nouvelle Vague movement has made the term nostalgia obselete, bereft of pain and politics, Godard’s name only recalls the playfulness of that tumultuous era: the way how Anna Karina smiles with her eyes, the saccharine primary colors and murmuring musical cues fading in and out of scenes, and those pesky and exhilarating jump cuts. A few months ago, I attended a screening of La Chinoise (a precursor to the 1968 hoopla), alarmed by the number of hipsters in the audience, who even as they’re watching a parody of their lifestyle, knew that after this exhausting experience, they will finally earn their street creds and identify the shade of tangerine on a similar looking mod blouse from Haight Street as Godardian in nature.
The branding of a filmmaker’s fashion choices may seem like an informal practice, but American Express merely made it more explicit and accessible to the elitist consumer. If anything else, Godard will not be forgotten, only superficially invoked, and if we are supposed to extrapolate any residual sense of meaning from Haynes’s experimental biopic I’m Not There, the artist will forever be elusive, his imprints scattered among the shards of his career, a life worth knowing in halfs, quarters and eighths. And what a legacy of fanboys to commemorate that emblematic Godard of the 60s, which includes card-carrying members like Wong Kar Wai to the oh-so-obvious Tarantino (his production company A Band Part a direct reference to Bande a Part)!
I would also add Scott Sternberg to the inspirational wishlist, whose fashion line, Band of Outsiders, is more than a cheap nod piggybacking on the cool mystique. Like Godard, Sternberg was irritated by the constraints of tradition granted upon menswear, so in 2004, he returned to the hardboiled pulp fiction of the 40s and 50s, tweaked and restitched past sensibilities for a slimmer and awkward fit, accentuating the disportions and jutted angles, and eliminating the reigning dishoveled look of the grunge rockstar or free-spirited surfer. With his new Boy collection, a Preppy girl complement to the original mensline, Sternberg further brings back that masculin femininity to the women’s body, with alternating pinches of tightness and looseness, see Michelle William’s tweed version of the Timberland lumberjack. It also doesn’t hurt to know what all the kids are raging about these days and outfit their idols with your clothes.
Submitted for your approval: a pair of tribute videos.
Band of Outsiders Fashion Show
The Famous Dance Sequence from Bande A Part
I know that listing is best left to Jack Black and Nick Hornby. But, it’s fun sometimes. The urge to canonize is essential to understanding a medium- or at least, to the fetishization of it- so I thought, with a healthy sense of irony, I could get away with a little play on the classic Top 10 as a weekly feature here at the leh repertwarr. Plus, I’m just too impatient to write things of substance here. Does anyone read this either way?
Believe me, I hate the AFI just as much as you do. So you will never hear me use the words greatest (or American, hopefully) in any of these features. And additionally, I’m going to resist ranking any of the films that I discuss under the headings I come to every week. WHATS MORE! I’m going to try to thread these things together, to have a common factor between each group of films week to week. So, like, if I happen to have included Naomi Watts in my list of the Top 5 Most Obnoxious Australians in Film, I might use the actress and her Lynchian bygones as my TANGENT for the next week’s list: the Top 10 Movies For Which Knowing What Is Going On Is Not Necessary. Get it?
I’m a genre film fan. This is a resoundingly annoying statement, I know. But it’s a fact- I love when cinema finds a way to commute its pretensions to terms of genre, color, and style. I really do think that the greatest (oops!) instances of “high art” have a definite relationship to the opposite end of the spectrum, and that “trash” is an interminably versatile word. But, who the fuck wants to see another discussion of the best Sci-Fi films? Or even of the most interesting instances of exploitation?
That type of list would most certainly get me in trouble, so here’s my alternative: Isn’t it fascinating when genre films disguise themselves as the most serious fare? The system of sensation and spectacle can be so drastically manipulated, and hidden under layer after layer of the high art aesthetic. Because of this, the most exciting trait of the horror genre is, to me, that the monster truly can take any form. A horror film certainly doesn’t need to have a physical villain to cause abject terror, it can draw affect from setting, theme, or mood and cause plenty of skin-crawling:
TOP 5 SCARIEST NOT-HORROR FILMS
AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)
Doesn’t than name have just the most amazing catastrophe to it? Werner Herzog is amazing, sure. German, definitely. His philosophies are so dark and virile that his films ooze tropes of the horror genre. Sturm und drang seem to compose every bit of his somewhat fucked up string of virtuoso film exercises. DER ZORN GOTTES is no exception.
THE MONSTER: The Amazon. The S. American jungle in this film is utterly horrifying. From the first frame it begins to devour the human capability of it’s conquistador prey. Just like in a slasher film, the supporting characters are unceremoniously taken out by wild aspects of the setting and their own blunders. Klaus Kinski’s slow descent into evil ravings, culminating in the film’s spectacular final scene (monkeys fucking EAT him!), is egged on by the Amazon, and finally succumbs to his insanity and the seething environment the very film’s last dregs of humanity are defeated by nature.
LORD OF THE FLIES (1963)
William Golding clearly had intentions very similar to those of a horror writer with his classic novel about boy castaways. The novel is a beautiful exploration of the way manhood looms in front of a child and, even in the most disastrous of situations, cannot always be achieved before due time. Peter Brooks’ film adaptation is simply one of the best examples of a movie that respects and expounds upon its source text, treating the story as not only a lyrical sort of eulogy for youth, but a terrifying study of boyhood pettiness.
THE MONSTER: KIDDIES! Kids are fucking creepy! Any horror buff knows this. The horrific child is one of the genre’s favorite icons. But, when the Children of the Corn are traded for innocent victims of happenstance, their development into little terrors is all the more affecting. The spectacle of these poor English schoolboys completely deteriorating into raving animals should be revered as an ultimate spectacle of horror.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)
Peter Wier’s languorous study of summer (and girls) is a hypnotic and, eventually, wholly disturbing example of the effect of filmic tone on the viewing experience. The movie displays a haggle of girls from an Australian boarding school lounging in the haze of an afternoon, under the menacing crag that gives the work its name. When they suddenly disappear, the whole that this loss of characters and the angelic young woman at their lead, creates an empty space in the film that is absolutely haunting.
THE MONSTER: Time, Summer, and GIRLIES! In a sort of centrifugal Antonionian narrative weave, Wier terrorizes his viewer with brief pangs of loss that are felt in both the visual and aural tone of the film. When the girls go missing (have they been abducted? fallen to their deaths? spirited away to another world?), its as if the central binding figures of the film have been torn away. The effect is a severe, creeping sense of doom, and the suffocating heat that oozes off of the film’s gorgeous cinematography only accentuates this feeling.
[SAFE]’s coyly bracketed title perfectly summarizes its affect. The walls begin to close in on Julianne Moore (brilliant, here) from the first frame of the film, and her slow suffocation is the stuff of classic horror.
THE MONSTER: Disease, Paranoia, Modernity. Todd Haynes is self-admittedly obsessed with exploring identity and its influences in a wide range of style. Here, in another slowly creeping horror exercise, he turns his questioning gaze to New Age medicine, pollution, and the generally suffocating aesthetic of smoggy Los Angeles. The protagonist in SAFE is worried that she’s being poisoned by her atmosphere, and it becomes clear that whether or not she’s actually afflicted, her environment is absolutely out to kill her. Her wan figure becomes more and more like a porcelain doll as her home life and the eventual trip to a New Age healing retreat conspire to break her completely. The film’s one rare moment of fresh air is a great example of its horror tropes: Moore’s character is wandering in a California field, thinking for a spare moment that she might actually be healing, and she stumbles on a highway. Modern progress, pollution, exhaust, and the general invasion of natural space by modern shapes is punctuated by the car that blasts by her. The audience definitely shares in her horror.
SALO, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Shortly before being brutally murdered, poet, playwright, homosexual, alleged nihilist and film master, Pier Paolo Pasolini completed what is surely the most revolting cinematic spectacle in the history of the medium. Salò is an impossible film to enjoy; a fable of awful violence, masochism, and torture and… well, it’s just a film that’s pretty hard to talk about pleasantly. But its is an absolutely astounding and necessary masterwork.
THE MONSTER: Spectacle. Salò is the ultimate exploitation film. Based loosely on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, it features what is probably the most disgusting string of depictions possible outside of snuff cinema (this term is hardly inappropriate for the work itself). It trudges from rape to torture, fascist declarations and sick piques of comedy, and is truly, bodily disgusting. But, the film contains an absolutely destructive social commentary and a statement on the experience of cinema that it is impossible to shake. It’s genius and horror lies in the way Salò incriminates its viewer. It taunts the spectator, dares him to look away but keeps a brutal hold on the eye. It’s as if the film is Pasolini’s final fuck-you to the world that had named his heartfelt, poetic work, and his very nature as an artist, an abomination. It names and condemns the reflexive double-edge of cinema, and truly embodies the word horror!
THE SCOOP: Summer Edition, post-Mamma Mia!
Pacific!: Taking a cue from Pan’s Labyrinth? Longtime childhood friends from Gothenburg, Sweden, Daniel and Björn lost and found each other a few years ago, decided to rent a studio together and make electronic pop for a living. Oh yeah, they toured with Justice for a while.
Think: Beach Boys + PBJ + Royskopp
Latest album: Reveries
Best “every frame can be my silkscreen T-shirt” video:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
PAS/CAL: This Detroit-based band has been scattering their EPs around for years, and lucky attendees of their concerts described them as “all dressed up in deceptively catchy and meticulously arranged tunes with hooks that would make Johnny Marr jealous and turn Serge Gainsbourg’s head.” A perfect recipe for unabashed twee under the cloudy skies of summer in San Francisco.
Think: Of Montreal + The Zombies + Final Fantasy
Latest Album: I Was Raised on Mark, Matthew, Luke, & Laura
Why pay at all when you’re at Payless?