Thursday, October 28, 2010

HOUSE (Japan, 1977)

"House" is a 70's horror movie from Japan. I say horror, but that hardly means anything with this film. It is about seven teenage girls vacationing at the home of an aunt. The aunt is a ghost, of course, looking for some redemption.

Here'e the thing - the seven girls remind me of something like the Goonies, but not really - there is not a great analogy to any American film I can think of. Each one goes by a nickname: Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Kung Fu, Prof, Mac and Melody.

The House comes to life in very strange ways as it picks them off, one by one (sort of a slasher flick M.O., but the slasher is any number of household items). There is also some odd Japanese humor - not all of it translates well, which is part of the charm here, maybe.

I believe it is basically about girls growing up, relating to each other and their mothers - somehow. There is a scene in the middle in which Melody plays a haunting - ah, melody - on a haunted piano, while Gorgeous comes to terms with mirror images of herself, her late mother and her ghostly aunt. It is fascinating, and works as ghostly cinema. At least it did for me. You might just groan and shut the DVD player off.

It is one of the strangest films I've ever seen. It left me shaking my head, but smiling. It was just released in the Criterion Collection, and is available on Netflix.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I found the above clip on Yahoo Movies the other day and got excited - it looks great. I then read the Yahoo user reviews which all universally panned it.

Luckily, I ignored that and watched it OnDemand this evening - a beautiful film that is hard to describe. I will say this - the humanity shown in the film - between people, one to one, is more often than not the way I hope we can treat each other. And though the film is low budget, the climactic scene, between two Monsters and two Humans, is amazing. The actor's face, Scoot McNairy, says it all.

I'm interested to see how this film fares from paid reviewers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"You're either an activist or an inactivist."

I am not usually at a loss of words when it comes to a film. The Cove, 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, has me at a loss for words. What follows is an attempt - I suggest getting the film and watching it. It's on Netflix...

I was going to watch the film for a second time before writing, but I really didn't want to. It's a powerful document of dolphin slaughter and I was rather emotional by the very end. Anything I write has a hard time competing with the film itself. James Hillman suggests, "Stick with the image." Since watching the film, an image has stuck, unfortunately. It is an aerial shot of the title cove, in Taiji, Japan, really a rather small landform. The water is bright red - the blood of slaughtered dolphins.

Other than the slaughter itself, what lingers in my disbelieving mind is how the town promotes itself with cute dolphin, whale and turtle signs, statues, billboards, etc. The veneer of the cute animal as tourism advertisement, when the underlying economic engine is to actually slaughter these same animals. And then the fishermen and authorities, who work so hard to try and prevent foreign visitors from understanding what goes on. When someone works so hard to keep others out, they know somewhere inside themselves that they are hiding something that is wrong at best.

There are, of course, politics involved. I have never understood the International Whaling Commission and how it allows any whaling to take place at all. Well, we see here there is no power behind the organization. But it's blatantly ineffectual. Japan buys the votes of Caribbean islands to get away with their "scientific" whaling. Whale meat still ends up in certain Japanese grocery stores, and as the film shows, sometimes that whale meat is mercury-soaked dolphin meat. I would think it would be relatively simple for like-minded governments to apply some pressure to end these practices, but I can only assume by sifting through the news of the day that most people are rather ignorant of anything other than their own selves.

I actually understand, without condoning, the Japanese fishermen hanging on to this barbarism as an act of defiance against Westernization. I have strong belief, though, that as the Japanese people learn of the actions in this film, they will bring a halt to it. I eagerly await a Miyazaki film about it. Please?

But I have a hard time understanding how anyone could actually do this - who could stick a harpoon in a dolphin? Or hunt down any animals really? I am never impressed. As I wrote about Ghost Bird, humans assuming privilege is messed up, and becomes more messed up every day human population grows. Anyone defending families with eighteen kids - or eight - or even three at this point - are simply not paying attention to the world they live in. In reading about the demise of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, it seems the main cause of extinction was the complete obliteration of the forests they lived in. The wood was sold off during Reconstruction to fuel the continued industrial growth of America. It's an endless cycle of precise connections - foul one up, others follow quickly.

"What are the chances of the world changing?" Well, as Ric O'Barry says in The Cove, if we can't stop the dolphin killing in the cove, one little cove in Taiji, Japan, we have no chance at changing the rest of the world.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ghost Bird: Between Myth and Science

The 2009 documentary Ghost Bird focuses on the 2005 declaration by the Department of the Interior, backed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker still exists. The film contends the proof this claim was made on was nowhere near conclusive enough to make that claim. As of today, there is still no concrete evidence of the extinct bird's continued existence. It was a wonderful bird - if you know the Pileated Woodpecker, the Ivory-Billed was a good degree larger. It is easy to understand why even a prestigious organization such as the Cornell Lab would say there is evidence - they want the bird to exist, as anyone in their right mind would.

Not everyone is in what I would call their right mind however. In the face of oncoming animal extinctions, I often hear the statistic that over 98% of the Earth's species have gone extinct already and it is simply the result of the natural world at work. Somehow, these are usually the same people who don't "believe" in evolution. Of course, the problem is that much of the environmental mess being made is because of our influence and has not been "natural". This too is often denied.

What I wonder though, is - even if, somehow - assuming if, even - what is happening is not man-made, or even if it is the natural world proceeding as normal - why would anyone just accept that? Why would we not work to try and keep alive the amazing variety of animal species we are aware of? Even if it were not our fault, it certainly seems reasonable to steer our actions towards rescue. But that would mean giving up the human advantages - reducing our scale to allow others to exist more fully. The human race does not give an inch. For anything.

In light of these thoughts, while I watched Ghost Bird I found myself wondering if the governmental announcement of the Ghost Bird's proven existence wasn't simply made to steer funds toward the economically hard-hit Arkansas region the claims were made from. I found myself imagining conspiracy, in which the former President Bush's Interior Department was able to take advantage of the Cornell Lab's good reputation in order to funnel funds over to a good Southern neighbor.

The industrial world has developed with the over-arching idea that human beings are more important than all other species on the Earth. Even more important than Earth itself. Why? What makes the human, with all of our obvious idiocies more important than everyone else? Our ability to kill and destroy on a massive level?

Ghost Bird really tries to move beyond the argument about the Ivory-Billed to make a case for spending funds more wisely to prevent any further extinctions. Of course we all wish the bird was found. And here is where myth and science come too close. Science can be a myth of course - when new ideas are floated out, those theories are indeed mythical. They suggest new knowledge, without being able to demonstrate that knowledge. This is the typical tension of myth - a story that holds the tension of both possibilities. The "real" and the "imaginal" are often found to be the possibilities.

But when there is proof, that science is myth no longer. It is either fact, or disproven theory. The problem with the tale of the Ghost Bird is that there is no on-going fact. It remains rather imaginal, a truly mythic bird at this point. And this movie fulfills my criteria as mythology - it tells the story of extinction and life, holding both up as the ends of a scale - and offers us the suggestion that the story we live in today carries both. Even if the Ivory-Billed exists, there are countless other species that soon may not.

If ever we are to recognize the possibility of mass extinctions on our world, now is the time. We must enter our myth and perhaps find the hero. Otherwise, the Ghost Bird will find many new neighbors, wherever it currently resides.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Satantango, Disc 3 - The Wasteland

Satantango begins with a long shot of cattle, presumably emerging from a barn. They roam through what appears to be a deserted farm.

The film ends, seven hours later, with an alcoholic doctor, whose life previously shown was lived in a stupor, now somewhat renewed. He thought he had been imagining the hearing of bells tolling, announcing his death. He may have discovered bells really were ringing, and they were announcing an invasion of Turks. Though he seems clear-headed for the first time, he seals himself into his hovel, barricading the window and blocking out all light - fulfilling his own hallucination as he seals himself inside a tomb of his own making.

And there it is - the bleak message that cattle may be more free than the human race. Nature in this film is powerfully beautiful, but rendered in black and white, that power is stark. The awe and wonder are sucked out of the visuals, leaving a bare bones backdrop of nature as devastator. The rain, the darkness and the vast expanses of bleak land mirror the lives of the people - unable to find any reasons to dream, excel or strive. The landscape is as dark as the human soul.

These people are controlled by Irimias - designated a magician at one point - who can get them to do anything he wants. Irimias is a false magician though - he has no plans, no power other than that of the con - and it all shows through when he comes upon a dense fog in the forest. He drops to his knees - he seems to feel it is mysterious, as if this was something he had never seen before. Of course, such a fog can be magical. But from his more earthbound sidekick, the only response is "Have you never seen fog before?"

When an empty town is shown - and the sound of galloping horses gets louder and louder until the herd appears - running through the deserted streets as if they rule this former human space - the camera drops down, revealing the false magician and his cronies. Again, awe is vanquished, with even more power this time as one says, "The horses have escaped from the slaughterhouse again."

The band of truly beaten humans enters a decaying manor, expecting great things because the magician made them believe the manor contained such things - but there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. The humans accept their lot and go to sleep - as an owl perches, more movement from his eyes and neck than the humans had in the journey coming here. It is obvious who has more control and rules the manor.

Bela Tarr's film is a masterpiece, as almost every shot is beautifully composed and rendered. But Satantango is not for everyone. The long takes and running time are clues: if you cannot soak in such long shots. you will not be able to screen this. And as difficult as it is to suggest this - I would try and make a day of it. This needs to be seen in blocks of time as long as possible.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Satantango, Disc 2

It is only appropriate that for any discussion of the second disc of this seven hour film the graphic used is of this young girl. She is tragically deviant, yet, quite probably, a victim of the backsliding adults that surround her.

Satantango has proven to be a film of the Wasteland, modern society in all its decay, with relationships broken, mangled and torn, and the landscape devoured by the endless rains.

Again, Tarr's long takes are masterful cinema (this is must viewing for anyone in film, cinematographers at the top of the list, if only to see the visuals unfold) - and the black and white proves, as usual, to be artistically evocative and downright beautiful. And it says a lot, because the beauty here is only in the eye, the visual, the shot.

I am not quite sure what Disc 3 holds. For now, I will say that Disc 2 brought the following films to mind: Werner Herzog's "Even Dwarfs Started Small" and the low-budget horror classic, "Carnival of Souls". If you know these films, you know something really crazy is going on here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bela Tarr's Satantango

What do you after a grueling week of graduate school? Begin watching a seven hour film, of course. Ever since I saw this still from "Satantango" I have wanted to see it. It came out recently on Facets DVD. So far, I would have to compare it to the works of Carl Dreyer - long takes, slow pacing - powerful images. I plan on taking my time with this, so there will be more commentary to come.

The eight minute take on the opening shot - of a herd of cattle, on a muddy, rainy farm crowded with decaying buildings, is well worth getting Disc 1 of 3, at least. We'll see about the rest.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Perverting the Landscape in The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" is a powerful film, though not an easy one to watch. I have not read the novel it is based on, so have no comparison in that regard. The focus for me was the revulsion I felt at seeing the murderer stalking and trapping children. I don't  think the film went over the line in its depictions - it simply worked, because dread and disgust are the only emotions we should feel when we understand a grown man is trying to trap a fourteen year old girl.

What truly pushed it over the edge for me was the killer's perversion of the landscape and nature to assist him in his evil deeds. He digs a pit in a field that becomes a trap, and later weaves branches in an attempt to create another trap. The resonance of using the natural world for unnatural deeds really twisted me inside as I watched. As well, he lurks in cornfields and behind trees, as if he was part of the natural world, using it as his shield.

It perverts the landscape because there is nothing natural about him. Pure evil. I don't often have problems watching films, but this man, made me nauseous. When juxtaposed with the other characters, it was easy to remain nauseous.

In the end, the natural world makes sure it does not allow the killer to use it for cover. Though a random accident, I felt it was a just end.

I understood this film to get some poor reviews, but I'm not sure why. The acting - Saorise Ronan and Stanley Tucci - but also the rest of the cast, including Mark Wahlberg, a favorite of mine - was excellent, and the film was suspenseful. The revulsion I felt was necessary to the situation. Perhaps Ronan's "heaven" was controversial, or seemed strange, but it worked for me because her character deserved at least that much wonder and satisfaction.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ondine - Something Wonderful, or Something Terrible

Ondine is an Irish film drenched in magical realism. For magical realism to work - for me - the realism must be subtle and not overpower the magic.

Something Wonderful: the magic here is truly wonderful. Colin Farrell plays an Irish fisherman, a "landsman", who, in the very first scene pulls his net out of the water and finds there is a woman in it. Having no exposition beforehand works - it is a powerful scene  that we know is not supposed to happen, so we can get thrown right into the action and still feel comfortable.

Something Terrible: Though I have always felt good about understanding a thick Irish brogue, combined with cinematic sound which I have lots of complaints about any way, it was pretty hard to understand much of the dialogue.

Something Wonderful: to the films credit, the performances and cinematography are so perfect, it was surprisingly easy to not care about missed dialogue. Will need to catch the DVD and watch it with subtitles.

Something Wonderful: the woman pulled out of the sea may or may not be a Selkie, a folk being who is a seal in the water. The performance by Alison Barry playing Farrell's young daughter drives the mystery of whether the woman is a Selkie or not. Barry wants to believe, and the interaction between all three of these main characters is truly wonderful.

Something Terrible: In the very end of the film, the realism overpowers the magic. In a film like this, you should be left wondering about what is real - is she a Selkie? Does it matter? But the wondrous possible Selkie should never turn out to be a Romanian drug mule. That kind of spoils things.

Add it up and we have three Wonderful's to two Terrible's. The Wonderful's win and the movie is hauntingly beautiful. The accents can be looked over because the acting, plot and visuals are really stunning. Farrell really is amazing here, as are the rest of the cast. You might want to stop watching, though, once the Ondine appears to have gone away.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sweetgrass - Immersion in the Landscape

Sweetgrass is an expansive new documentary about the last sheep herding trek through public lands in Montana. It is expansive because the natural landscape the sheep and the cowboys move through is visually stunning. Through the mountains, hills, rivers and forests, the film tracks moving flocks of sheep and the men, horses and dogs that watch them as they graze.

To balance the impressive visuals, there is little in the way of explanation. The soundtrack consists mainly of the natural sounds of the sheep themselves. What little narrative there is comes from the dialogue of the cowboys, often low in the mix or garble when they use two way radios. Because of the lack of dialogue, the film brings you into the landscape and the result is your interior moves into overdrive - thoughts come in response, filling up the narrative with whatever you bring to the scenes unfolding. As such, this film is probably not for anyone looking for Hollywood "action".

The human focus is mostly on two cowboys - one old, whose  easy-going manner includes sweetly talking to the sheep, his horse and the dogs. He sings in a ragged but surprisingly charming voice, utterly alone on the range for long periods of time. Poignantly, at the end we find out this is his last trek, and it is not clear that he has much else to do. The other cowboy is a much younger man, who seems alternately enthusiastic and depressed on the range. When he meets up with the older man, they speak in short sentences. When he is alone, he produces some of the most colorful and degenerate cussing you may have heard in awhile. You may get the impression the sheep respond better to the older man's singing.

The sheep and the landscape are really the attraction here. Though the sheep follow each other, it was interesting to see their varied reactions. Often, there would be a few off by themselves, blazing their own way through the land. It was fascinating to hear the multitude of sounds they make, and their timely reactions at moments of importance to the humans forcing them on, and filming them.

The most interesting scene takes place when the younger cowboy is cursing up a storm at his flock who has wandered down a steep hill. In between his curses, he wonders what he is doing there and also curses  the landscape itself. As he does this, the camera pulls back, showing the viewer more and more of the incredibly beautiful Montana wilderness. My guess is that the Chicago audience watching this might think he was insane for wanting to get away from that place. Later, he adds that he wants to get away because he wants to continue to love the mountains, not hate them as he is starting to do. Almost everyone complains about the work they do. Perhaps what we need is more of a balance - regionally, we all need time in the wilderness, but as humans, we understand that we might need to get out of it also. It is a fine line we tread, with a lot hanging in the balance.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chicago Farmer: Through the Country Like a Feather

Putting on the Film Producer hat right now and trying to get a documentary on Chicago Farmer off the ground. Chicago Farmer is a folk singer and storyteller from a small town in Illinois - Delavan, population 25 - who moved to Chicago - population 2.8 million + - for a few years. Now he's somewhere in between. But you listen to his songs and you soon realize that no matter you're from, or where you are now, a human being is a human being.

To get this project into production, we are looking to raise a little backing money. We're doing ok right now, but would like to raise some more. Please go the director's blog to donate directly through Paypal - you can get a copy of the film, screen thanks or producing credit, depending on your donation interest. Or you can contact me directly for more information.

Why folk music in 2010? Well, from Murray Lerner's oddly awesome documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, Festival!: "You see I, I have a feeling about the people here. I have a feeling that although they're united in their interest in folk music that they're not, that it's not a leveling process, that it just, it serves to allow them to become more themselves. Folk music is, is really, the personification of a human being extending his hand to another human being, without losing any of his dignity. If you feel this way about it, walk with us."

And we ask that you walk with us - donate if you can, at least listen to some beautiful songs if you can't.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Inevitable Death by Whale in John Huston's MOBY DICK

John Huston's "Moby Dick" deserves, I think, more attention. It really is not at all like Melville's novel, this is a good thing. It constricts the narrative, truly focusing on the madness of the whaling hunt, not simply Ahab's madness as he pursues the great White Whale. It is not a pleasant tale, but it is a powerful one.

Huston uses a dream-like camera at times, and directs the action that emphasizes the crazy atmosphere on a ship of whaling men far from home.The editing is also rather abrupt at times, but this only adds to the hazy feeling, as if the sea spray were constantly obscuring the reality. The sailors are not at home in the sea, which Melville's voluminous text loses by including so many whale details from so many men.

One of the most notable inclusions in the film are the scenes of the women as the boat prepares and sets sails. Almost entirely lacking in the novel, women do not get any large roles in the film. But if any more powerful images were needed of the madness of whaling, the faces of these women on film fit the bill perfectly. They know they are at a funeral, and they don't really look sad; they are angry, seething even, but can say nothing. In the real world of whaling, I'm sure women accepted their men leaving as the necessity of economics. But for us, and the art of film, whaling is not only brutal and unnecessary, but truly madness when done in wooden ships.

The second addition in the film that truly works is the use of music. From the haunting concertina at the beginning scene when Ishmael enters the whaling inn barroom to the haunting chanteys sung by the sailors as they progress toward their sure death, the music here completely works in tandem with the hazy shots and editing to unite the mood of dread that only grows as the film goes on.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

TREME: Musician as Myth Hero?

HBO has a great new series on called TREME. It takes place in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina and uses the music of the area as the undercurrent to the lives of the people trying to deal with the disaster and following neglect. Timely in the sad way as another man-made disaster heads toward Louisiana shores, it is brilliant in so many ways. Though every possible problem and facet of New Orleans culture gets screen time, it is all put together that none of it seems out of place.

I bring it up here because of a review on the series 4th episode from NPR's music site. It's a good lengthy review, which brings up many of the issues about and in the show. Most of the piece is an interview with  a DJ about the lengthy music playlist from the episode. I quote here (my italics):

PJ: ..." And this: "Jazz hasn't run hot or cold since bebop. It just is, man." You want a piece of any of that?
JJ: I'm comfortable saying that jazz simply IS, without the "just" qualifier. There's no red-hot intensity of an actual movement anymore. The music is now a loose confederation of individual heroic quests, and heroes are the figures of antiquity. Jazz, however, is still current, but that's a different measurement value than it was during the heyday of bebop. As long as there's a need for freedom of expression, jazz has a base of operation.
Interesting use of words, I thought. Seeing the musician as the hero, on the mythical hero quest, into the unconscious, to deliver saving knowledge that transforms humanity, and then each subsequent musician as the continuing hero who has to perform that quest for themselves (and for humanity again) kind of blows my  mind. This makes every solo, every song mythical regeneration. What a nice thought.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Serious Man

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." - Rashi

"A Serious Man" begins with the quote above; apparently Rashi is an ancient Jewish scholar. Though this film is "Jewish", it strikes me that its message, if there is one, is very Buddhist.

This is a film that I'm thinking most people don't really want to watch. You must think about this film and it does not necessarily make itself clear. There is a certain lack of closure perhaps that many will find too open. As I note these aspects of the film, I begin to understand the film even more. Dualities - think/watch, think/clear, closure/open - are the heart of Buddhism. It seems they may also be the heart of Judaism. I'm sure they are the heart of mythology. And they are the heart of life, no matter how, when and where it is lived. But both sides are always present, or at least possible.

"A Serious Man" begins with a shot of a winter snowstorm, falling beautifully down on an old Jewish shtetl. The film ends with a tornado bearing down on a mostly Jewish high school in 1967. The duality of inclement weather - both awesome; one brings wonder,the other brings fear. How we receive these events - these random events - is what matters to us, not necessarily the events themselves. Larry Gopnik does not really know how to receive the events taking place in his life. For the most part, they are not positive events. When things look up, there is always the possibility of a downturn.

But this is why I see Buddhism here - Larry is not aware of what is going on around him until it comes and bites him in the ass. Good or bad. If he had been more aware, his life would not have deteriorated as it has. For me, the original and most Buddhist idea about Buddhism is that you must be Aware of yourself and what surrounds you. It's frustrating to watch Larry because he never tries to deal with anything or take control of his life. He asks for advice, gets pushed around and lives in an understated cloud of fear. To be sure, some of that fear is justified.

How to understand this movie? What does the title mean, or try to convey? Without awareness, Larry is too serious. He has "tried to live a serious life", but he has ignored that life is not always serious. Even when we're aware of what surrounds us, a snowstorm falls, a tornado hits. We cannoy control most events. We can only control ourselves and how we receive those events. If we're aware, it's easier. Not easy though. And if we are unaware, watch out. We will get blind-sided.

The film begins with a prologue, a short tale, in that wintry shtetl, of a husband and wife confronting a possible dybbuk, a Jewish demon of possession. The husband does not believe the wise man in front of him is a dybbuk. The wife never falters in her belief that evil has come to visit. She must make it leave her home. Which is he? Old man, or dybbuk? The film makes no resolution. Each receives the event in a completely opposite way. The duality is formed. Until perhaps the next day, which we never see, the issue is solved. We don't always get to know the details, whether we are right or wrong in any big picture. Just for ourselves. I imagine the husband up all night, sweating, while his wife sleeps as soundly as she ever has.

How do we receive events? I believe it depends on how aware we are of what comes before them. Larry is woefully unaware of some things, perfectly aware of others, and completely unable to have any knowledge of others. Like anyone's life.

*** This film is one of ten nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Without adressing how silly - and economically calculated - it is to have so many films nominated, I will say this film is not a perfect film. If you don't want to think about a film, you really won't like it at all. Avatar, this ain't.***

Friday, February 26, 2010

Abraham Lincoln in Fiction and... Fiction

 An interesting duality last night as Netflix brought John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" and Mike Mignola's "The Amazing Screw-On Head". Ford's movie is a highly fictional account of one of Lincoln's first cases and is a classic film. Henry Fonda is made to look like Lincoln in many ways and it is a tour-de-force for him. Screw-On Head is one of the craziest things I've seen in awhile. Mignola is the genius behind Hellboy - this apparently was a one-shot comic featuring a secret agent robot that worked under Abraham Lincoln. It is crazy and hilarious - Mignola states in the Making of feature that he won't be doing more stories about Screw-On Head - what else was there to do?

There are no two films that could be more different - except for the fact that Abraham Lincoln is in both. And the character - as you would expect - is remarkably similar in both. Perhaps the best-regarded President in American history, the quiet man who makes hard though utterly human decisions, may be the myth of Lincoln. Having Lincoln in the craziness that is "Screw-On Head" grounds the narrative and lends it a gravitas that can only help such a spinning tale. John Ford focuses on the same - Fonda's Lincoln is deliberate, magnetic on-screen as his slow, reasoned actions lead to quiet mobs and correct decisions.

There often seems to be a disconnect that leads to high and low culture, academia and popular, that too often simply shows one side's ignorance of the other. Watch these two in tandem and let it all mix up together.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cinema in 2010

A good friend of mine reads this blog and calls me a movie critic. This gets under my skin just a little and I try to defend myself, thinking - nay, Hoping - "I write about more than film" - but I know, as Tags prove without a doubt, that Beyond The Veil could easily be called Beyond the Concessions Counter. Would you like to get a large popcorn for just a quarter more? That kind of thing. Films are an easy entertainment option, with the definite upside of having so much potential to speak to us about ourselves and society. They are important. They are art. They are fun. They are also hyped, expensive, and often, a big letdown. I owe that friend a debt for the above graphics, from "The Great Train Robbery" of 1903 to today's current blockbuster, "Avatar", have we really come so far? Is this start pretentious enough?

I stumbled onto studying and making film, needing a diversion from the sale of office furnishings. How could film not be attractive when your daily concern is selling more stuff? And film can be Cinema, the great god of visual art and narrative. On that level, film truly is mythical. But, as is the case with everything, everyone has a different opinion about what that level, that narrative, that mythical plateau, is.

Luckily, making a film was fun - it really takes a lot of work, and usually a lot of people, but I believe everyone's academic career should involve making at least one fictional narrative film. The process and the concerns of the filmmaker are not as readily understood, even in our Hollywood-based culture, as I would have expected. Which meant that, as I became more interested in interpreting and analyzing film, I found film school to be even more valuable. In today's world, understanding the flood of images and discriminating among them is an immense and important tool for living. I never had this type of training in visual analysis, though I do think many high schools and even grammar schools now teach some film analysis. That's a good thing.

Film is a heady environment, with artists and failed artists discussing what works and what doesn't; the form of film is mythical in itself: a narrative, with imaginal happenings taking place every second, almost always trying to connect to an underlying something. Cinema is Cinema because of those underlying somethings. Cinema is Cinema because we can go back and re-watch, ponder and intuit every detail. The mise-en-scene is so important to how we connect to a film. One of my favorite films of the winter so far is "Sherlock Holmes". There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that I'm a Sherlock Holmes fanboy, but what's relevant is mise-en-scene: in that traditional style of the detective film, every little thing Holmes does during the film, every object he touches and even glances at, is important to his detection. Not surprising cinematography, but fun and thoughtful. That can surely be enough at times.

I knew making film was not going to be my new career, but I also realized the film school I was in was not going to gain me access to Graduate level film programs. I tried, but ultimately settled on Myth Studies, choosing elucidation of story and imagination as my chosen field. As I've noted already, there is work to be done on the mythical structire of cinema in addition to the analysis of the content. My graduate program seemed open to film, and I was assured that many filmmakers passed through the hallowed halls. I took the bait and jumped.

I finally had the first session of the required Film class, and I'm feeling somewhat perplexed right now. One problem is that after delving into myth - which turns, for me, on philosophy and imagination - I am wondering why Film gets so hallowed a place as to have a class devoted to it. Though film pervades every aspect of our lives, it seems to me there are other forms of media and story that should be equally emphasized. On the required reading list is Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", an excellent beginner's text into reading comics as a frame-by-frame structural art. There is some overlap with Film (being of course a frame-by-frame medium that just goes really fast) but the teacher was a bit confused when I asked whether I could do a project based on Comics, rather than Film. I only asked because McCloud was on the reading list. For me, the structure of the form of Comics is more mythical because we get to breathe between panels; we add our thoughts and imagination to the work. Film forces an identification on us, if we're lucky, that we ride till we reach a suitable point; for me, hopefully that point is the end credits. There could be many more facets to this discussion, but the Film class this time around had missed potential. Simply identifying an identification works well in psychological analysis, but sort of "loses the plot" and subtlety of film discussion.

In today's world, there are discussions to be had on almost every level of society about - well - every level of society. Film (and film of the fantastic has a special role here - see past posts) is able, when it is Cinema, to evoke feelings and thoughts at a high level. So - how far have we come from "The Great Train Robbery" to "Avatar"?

One film that sharpened the focus on my cinematic discomfort was actually incredibly enjoyable: "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" (see yesterday's post). Though I smiled and laughed throughout, I walked out thinking it had really missed the mark. Though I don't always care if a film hits any mark at all, one with such an interesting incursion into ideas should spend some time developing them. I kept thinking here was a typical film - so many people involved that the final product doesn't really have cohesion. How many films get made for how many millions of dollars that have key scenes that simply do not make sense? How does this happen? Well, it could be anyone's fault - if footage doesn't work, or there is bad editing, or if the producers and directors get fired and then new personnel change the script but try to use footage from the script as previously shot, etc. etc. etc. Or, by golly, as it seems to be the case with Terry Gilliam, perhaps the money runs out. There are so many reasons for problems in film. This is why teaching kids to be able to analyze visuals is so important.

And how could money run out on Gilliam? Why would anyone want to fund something other than Cinema? If Gilliam didn't have to worry about funds, it seems his films would be the most entertaining as well as the most thought-provoking. The money ususally only goes toward entertaining - if thought is provoked, that's a bonus. I don't know Gilliam's story, but this is my guess from the little I have heard.

But perhaps the majority does not want thought to be provoked. It seems they just want to react. I was appalled at having to see clips of "G.I. Jane" in my recent film class. A good friend described it well when she said she "loathed" that film. And what is "Avatar" but another cowboy/Indian movie, even if what we are reacting to these days is our allegiance with the "Indians". Is this enough for us? One interesting possibility in myth is forming a new third that includes both sides of a duality - getting beyond that friction by including it in something new and hopefully "better". In movies, it seems war is always the answer. Though an audience sometimes just wants to react, must we always want to react by winning, by beating something down? In "Avatar", the expected and happy result occurs at every plot point. Thus, number one movie, of what, ever?

I have seen five films at the theater this holiday period, probably three or four more than I usually do. "Fantatsic Mr. Fox", "The Road", "Avatar", "Imaginarium" and "Sherlock Holmes".

"Imaginarium" tried the hardest, but probably failed the most because of it. "Avatar" is Gonzo, and "Sherlock Holmes" opened well with fall-off crowds from the packed "Avatar" theaters. As I have said, I love Holmes, and this film surprisingly did not stray so far from what I have always loved about him, but this is pure Hollywood. Which, when done right, is a huge compliment. "Mr. Fox" is charming, animalicious and gave me my favorite new swear phrase - "This is a cluster cuss!". It was brilliant, but I think most adults would not be seen going anywhere near a film like this. Too bad.

My favorite? The most depressing film I've seen in awhile, "The Road". It's a journey (mythically we're talking Senex/Puer) in a post-apocalyptic world in which not much happens - but it is thought-provoking and humanly honest - mythical at every level. Even the end, which seemingly is a "happy" note, personally gave me the creeps. But no one is really talking about this one. Everyone just wants to win in the end.

But winning isn't everything.

The Road

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

I saw Terry Gilliam's new film last night and have been prodded to write a bit about it. It is a hard film to put words on, as it tries really hard. For the most part, it succeeds - purely as entertainment, I can only say I had a smile on my face almost throughout the film. It was big, colorful, imaginative - as with most films of the fantastic lately, the production design and spfx departments were working overtime to good effect. My favorite scene is depicted above, with Jude Law on some really tall stilts. Delicious camera work put me in a jolly mood and made me want to try out some stilts.

But as with many films these days, this could have been so much more that ultimately it was disappointing. I have not seen all of Gilliam's films, but I loved "Time Bandits" as a teen and have seen "Baron Munchausen". It seems these films all have similar problems. Ultimately, the script is circular, by which I mean circling around ideas without ever evoking a final meaning.

One problem may be my own - perhaps my hearing is getting poorer as I get older. But I think the sound is just poorly done. As "Imaginarium" is Heath Ledger's final film, it would have been nice if I could make out his lines. The only lines I consistently heard completely were the diminutive Percy's. Perhaps I also have a problem with the accents, but I recall hearing every line of dialogue in Altman's "Gosford Park" clearly - and there were some major overlapping British lines in that film. No - I just think a bit more money should have been spent on sound. This is a problem I encounter more and more these days. I want to suggest that perhaps this film would make more sense at home on the DVD player with subtitles turned squarely on.

So perhaps the film makes perfect sense if you get all the lines. Perhaps. But my real problem is the missed opportunity in which this film had to explore story and what it is and does.

The Imaginarium is a travelling show - through which audience members can enter their fantasy worlds in full reality. The women who dream of Faberge eggs and giant shoes - not usually a particular high point in any dreamed possibility of mine - really are a high point here. But every fantasy is shown to wonderful effect. The problem is thematic. Early on, we see Dr. Parnassus as one of a sect of monks who, through the telling of stories, keep the world alive. Though the Devil (Tom Waits, who is always wonderful) shows him that their story is not what keeps the world alive, Parnassus believes others are telling stories as well and still believes in story.

A bet with the Devil leads Parnassus to form his Imaginarium and see how many people he can influence and engage by allowing them to see their internal story in full-color.

Story keeps the world alive, but does story keep individuals alive? Since Parnassus is having rough times in today's world, Gilliam's answer seems to be "less and less". And it seems people's fantasy stories are getting more banal - though the shoes and Faberge eggs are cool, ultimately, they are shoes and Fanerge eggs. The final fantasy explored is one in which deception is used to tell a lie, not a story at all. It's fascinating, but somehwat unintelligible.

I was hoping for an exploration of story keeping the world alive, which, for me, is yet another perfectly workable definition of myth, but only got really pretty pictures. Really pretty. Oh yeah, and Johnny Depp almost-but-not-quite playing himself again. Fun, but oh what it could have been.