Friday, July 31, 2009

You, the Living

You, the Living is Roy Andersson's follow-up to his remarkable 2000 film Songs From the Second Floor. Like its predecessor, You, the Living is a loose collection of absurdist vignettes set in a dull, gray city full of odd, depressive, quirky people. The film has no central narrative, it's simply a set of scenes, with characters whose lives occasionally overlap but still never really add up to a larger story. Instead, the stories are linked thematically, by Andersson's concern for the condition of people's lives in the modern era. His characters are beaten down, often terminally unhappy, trapped in dull routines and useless jobs. Andersson's vision is unsettling — dreary, absurd, shot through with dark, satirical humor — and yet not entirely bleak nor entirely hopeless. What this film is about, more than anything, is the possibility of finding some happiness in this life, some joy amidst all the ugliness, some pleasure to go with the pain. The film's central idea is the importance of living for the present, of enjoying oneself when death lingers unseen just around the bend, ready to strike at any moment. Andersson's characters are acutely aware of death and misery, and perhaps this primes them to also recognize the little moments of pleasure they are able to find at intervals.

Andersson has retained the signature style of Songs From the Second Floor: the camera is almost always static and maintains a respectful distance from the characters, who are staged in self-conscious medium-shot tableaux. These people sporadically address the camera, conversationally relating their dreams to an unseen audience. Sometimes these dreams are Kafkaesque nightmares, as when a truck driver dreams that he was tried and sent to the electric chair after breaking some antique dishes during a failed magic trick. Other dreams are more ecstatic and joyful, even if they're tinged with the melancholy knowledge that they're just dreams. Anna (Jessika Lundberg) is obsessed with local rock band guitarist Micke (Eric Bäckman), and one night she dreams that they get married and live in a moving house. She's still in her wedding dress, puttering around, while he plays guitar and smiles at her, and outside throngs of eager admirers gather to wish the happy couple their best. It's a dream, not only of romantic fulfillment, but of a world in which everyone is cheerful and kind and goes out of their way to be nice to other people. It's not the world Anna lives in, but the one she wishes she lives in.

In fact, the real world of the film is much colder, and is filled with puzzling incidents of degradation and anger. An Arab barber, fed up with his customer's subtle racism, shaves a stripe across the top of the man's frizzy red hair and then storms out of the shop. A teacher breaks down in tears in front of her class because her husband called her a "hag" during a fight. Andersson then cuts away to a rug shop, where a salesman is upset because he got mad and called his wife a hag, though he tries to poll his customers about whether it was worse that he called her that, or that she called him an "old fart." A woman named Mia (Elisabeth Helander) laments her loneliness and misery, completely ignoring the proffered comfort of her boyfriend, even as she ends every fight with an ultimatum and then a promise that she'll see him soon. Andersson's characters often don't recognize the opportunities for pleasure and happiness in their lives: Mia has a devoted boyfriend, while the bickering husband and wife obviously love one another, or else their words wouldn't have had such power to wound. In another scene, a man lies in bed naked, mechanically recounting the way his pension fund was drained of money by a poor banking decision, while on top of him his wife makes love to him, ignoring his words even as he ignores her. She seems to be enjoying herself, grinding away at him, moaning and exclaiming how good she feels, but the man is too wrapped up in monetary problems to join in, to have some fun himself.

Often, there is a subtle socio-political underpinning to Andersson's tableaux. He's presenting a world in which people are routinely dehumanized, in which their opportunities for pleasure and genuine human connection are scarce. Their office jobs are unsatisfying — one man, seemingly useless at his job, rather pathetically asks if any of his coworkers called for him, even though he knows they didn't — and their lives are draining and boring. Meanwhile, a wealthy businessman gloats over a successful deal over lunch, loudly talking into a phone about buying a boat, while behind him a pickpocket steals his wallet, immediately paying for his own meal with the other man's money, then going out and buying a suit. The pickpocket does all this with a noncommittal expression on his face, but he can't hide a small note of satisfaction when he tells the tailors that a certain material is too prickly on his skin; he's enjoying playing at upper class for a change. He's thus one of Andersson's characters who actually finds a bit of happiness in this life.

Among the film's happiest characters are undoubtedly its musicians, who find satisfaction in their creative pursuits. The film is driven by the bouncy, bopping pulse of its music, a makeshift fusion of Dixieland jazz, New Orleans funeral music and the martial rhythms of a marching band. These musicians practice, oblivious to the discontent of those who have to hear them, who shout and bang on the ceiling for them to stop. But nothing stops them, and Andersson scores the film to the lugubrious bloop-bloop-bloop of the tuba and the leaden thump of the bass dream. He loves these ungainly instruments, which dwarf the men who play them. They are awkward instruments, silly even, but Andersson presents these men playing in isolated scenes as soloists — just tuba or just bass drum, each of them blasting away on their limited instruments. The music these men create is loose and spontaneous, as is the torchy song Mia invents about her own problems early on in the film, singing it on a park bench. The spontaneity of this music is contrasted against the ritualized music of funerals, the martial rigor of military parades, and the formal singalong that a group of wealthy partygoers engage in, enacting a set of prearranged moves to accompany the song. This song is an empty charade of drunken revelry, sung by people who lack the passion and deep emotional wellsprings that run through the film's other characters. Mia drinks because it's the only way she's able to cope with her depression; her partying is real life, not a ritual imitation of it.

You, the Living is ultimately a film about going on with life in an era when so much seems futile and impossible to fix. At one point, a woman in church rattles off a litany of the horrible evils requiring forgiveness from the Lord: lying governments, distracting media outlets, corporations growing wealthy by screwing over others, the greedy, the corrupt, the warmongers. This is explicitly a film about living in the post-9/11 era, the Iraq War era, surrounded by hatred of all kinds, by corruption and a global economy that makes a few rich at the expense of everyone else. Andersson, needless to say, is interested in the "everyone else." These people live their lives, and have fun if they can, under the shadow of death, the shadow of the terrors unleashed on the world by forces no one can seem to control. In the film's final image, the town is beset by a sinister squadron of planes, possibly coming to drop their bombs and put an end to it all. Andersson seems to be asking, if the bombs drop tomorrow, what will you have done today to make life better for yourself and those around you?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

War Requiem

Derek Jarman's War Requiem is a potent, poetic visualization of composer Benjamin Britten's grandiose anti-war composition of the same name. Britten's epic choral music, written in 1962 and recorded with Britten as conductor in 1963, incorporates Latin texts along with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who served during World War I and was killed in the final week of the war. Owen's posthumously published poetry captured the experience of war with a combination of romanticism and unvarnished realism, and Jarman's film is similarly conceived. The film is entirely dialogue-free, relying on the juxtaposition of Britten's music, Owen's poetry and Jarman's ripe imagery. During the prologue, Laurence Olivier appears, in his final role before his death, as an old soldier, also in his last days, reminiscing about his long-ago wartime experiences with his nurse (Jarman regular Tilda Swinton). On the soundtrack, Olivier reads one of Owen's poems. The remainder of the film is set to the entirety of Britten's War Requiem with no other sound, which was a requirement imposed upon the film by the holders of the recording. Nevertheless, Jarman makes brilliant use of this music, setting Britten's sweeping orchestrations and vocals against a collage of images, archival war footage and semi-narrative vignettes.

Tilda Swinton reappears in the body of the film as a wartime nurse, and much of the action cuts between her tending to patients and various scenes with Wilfred Owen (Nathaniel Parker) and other frontline soldiers played by Sean Bean and Owen Teale. Jarman's dialogue-free storytelling is lyrical and haunting, capturing the feel of war, its horror and misery, both for those in the middle of it and for those waiting elsewhere for news of their loved ones. These soldiers are dirt-smeared, caked in mud and blood, lying in piles to sleep, huddled together; there's a certain homoeroticism in Jarman's depictions of soldierly comradeship, inspired by the homoerotic subtexts in the poems of the possibly gay Owen. These men, suffering together, take comfort only in each other's presences, and in the periodic letters they receive from home. In Jarman's vision, there is no meaning to war, no advances or victories or even concrete battles: he shows only the aftermath, the men bleeding and dying, the muddy survivors lounging around in their bunkers, blank-eyed and exhausted, or the wounded, shell-shocked men who fill up the beds of the hospitals.

Interspersed with these scenes are memories of pre-war happiness, shot by Jarman in his characteristic grainy, hazy super-8 to contrast against the crisp formal quality of the wartime scenes. For these men, their memories are thus rendered ephemeral and indistinct against the hyper-real present of the war, and yet the past seems even sweeter for its gauzy imprecision. These memories are often simple, just glimpses of domestic tranquility, like a soldier helping his mother fold laundry. In other scenes, children play at war, making a game of it, not understanding that one day they will see its horrors for real. In one of the film's most haunting sequences, a group of children hold a warrior's funeral for a beaten-up old stuffed teddy bear: they place the bear in a red-lined coffin with solemnity and pomp, then lay it on a pyre of burning leaves, crying as they say goodbye to their beloved toy. It is a child's memory of a ritual that would later be enacted as an adult, with friends lost and buried instead of toys.

The film also incorporates a great deal of religious imagery, making a metaphor of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Jarman imagines Abraham (Nigel Terry) killing his son (Parker again) to the applause of corpulent businessmen in theatrical makeup, smoking fat cigars — the angel's last-minute change of plans goes unheeded in this version of the story. The film inventively recontextualizes the Biblical tale as a metaphor for war, as fathers send their sons off to war, to be killed on the basis of vague orders from above, all for the benefit of the wealthy classes, who profiteer as the blood of the young flows through the trenches. Later, the soldiers evoke another Biblical sacrificial figure, donning crowns of thorns as they carry the dead and wounded through an apocalyptic wasteland of burnt-out fields and rubble.

Jarman's imagery, without telling any particular story, nevertheless manages to capture the one larger story of war: the companionship of the men at the front, the letters home, the friends who die and are mourned. His dialogue-free storytelling and vague characters suggest that all wars have only this one story: young men suffering and dying and losing the people they care about. In the film's final half-hour, Jarman largely switches from depictions of individual soldiers to a more generalized image of war itself. Using archival footage of various conflicts, stitched together into an increasingly frantic, frenetic montage as the pace of Britten's music accelerates, Jarman moves smoothly from the suffering and death of the individual soldier to the horrors of war as a whole. He splices together images of soldiers dying all over the world, representing different nations, different races and ethnicities, different conflicts. But they're all dying or dead, all of them ripped apart, bleeding bright red, their brains exposed within their split-open scalps, as the cannons fire, different guns, new developments in warfare, all of them intended to cause more and more fiery death. This montage reaches its seeming climax with an image of the atom bomb exploding, an apex of horror, but then the collage of dead soldiers merely resumes, as though to confirm that the dropping of the bomb was not a horror to end all horrors, but merely one more especially devastating entry in the 20th Century's massive death toll.

Another of the film's most poignant sequences is more personal, a lengthy closeup on Tilda Swinton during a particularly elegiac movement of Britten's piece. The shot opens with Swinton braiding her long red hair, her eyes staring blankly off into the distance. As Jarman holds the shot, his camera gently bobbing, reframing Swinton's distinctive face, she begins swaying with the music, closing her eyes and mouthing the lyrics. It's the only moment in the film in which the images and the music are explicitly synced in this way, and it drives home the agony of those waiting at home for news of a soldier, as Swinton soulfully dances in place with the music, its melancholy tones moving her body, her graceful limbs arcing in balletic sweeps over her head as she's overcome with grief and the bittersweet smile of nostalgia. These complex emotions, the emotions of war and its aftermath, are at the heart of Jarman's intense, affecting film.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Films I Love #38: Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem, 2001)

Sex and Lucia is Julio Medem's moving, sensually rich film about the titular Lucia (Paz Vega) and her attempts to understand, in retrospect, her troubled relationship with her writer boyfriend Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa) after his disappearance and apparent suicide. The film shifts easily between scenes on a quiet island where Lucia goes to recover, and scenes from the past that blend Lucia and Lorenzo's real relationship with sequences that may be real or may be merely imaginative fantasies from the pages of Lorenzo's latest novel. The present-tense sequences on the island are shot in a high-contrast style where the sun seems to be blurring everything towards a pure white nothingness, giving these scenes an austere, drained visual aesthetic that's the opposite of the sensuality on display throughout the rest of the film.

Medem plays so cleverly with the line between fiction and reality that it's never quite clear what's real and what's not, and it hardly matters. What the film is really about is the power of desire and sexuality, the temptations of fantasy, and the comforts of a sustained relationship as opposed to the transitory but passionate release of a brief dalliance. There's a real darkness and emotional nakedness at the film's core, a sense of sexuality spiraling into death and confusion, but Medem is equally concerned with the joy and pleasure of sex. There are few films that represent sex on screen with greater beauty or sensitivity, capturing above all the fun of great sex. Most movie sex scenes are either sappy and shot with soft-porn stylization, or else gritty and unpleasant and degrading. Sex as visualized by Medem is profoundly happy and pure, with an intimacy and playfulness that establishes the real affection and connection between these characters. At the same time, Medem deals honestly and openly with sex, both its pleasures and its repercussions, and he doesn't flinch away from the uglier moments. He has made a film in which sex is no longer a dirty word but simply an essential part of life and love, a beautiful act that reveals certain truths about these people that can be seen no other way.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Hours

Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours is deceptively simple and undramatic, from its first moment (a lazy summer idyll, a family reunion) to its last (another summer party, this one a raucous gathering of youths). As these bookend scenes suggest, the film is about generational gaps, about the past and the future, about the breaking up of a family and its history, and the continuities and linkages that remain even after such fractures. The film is warm and gentle, its emotions mostly understated, its drama largely buried beneath the surface — there are only momentary bursts of harsh words, and wounds are quickly mended. It's a film dominated by quiet emotions, by melancholy, nostalgia, well-worn loves, regret, separation and reunion. It's the story of a family united around the strong core of an aging mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), and what happens to this family when she's no longer around.

The film's opening scene is arguably the key to the entire film, a dense introduction to the elements, objects and ideas that will continue to weave throughout the rest of the film, their meanings gradually unfurling. The family has gathered at their childhood home for Hélène's 75th birthday, bringing together the oldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling), his younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), along with the brothers' wives and children. It is an active, vivacious party, and Assayas' roaming camera captures the interplay of the various characters by remaining perpetually in motion, gliding through the corridors of the house or drifting among the lush greenery surrounding the estate, where the children's laughter echoes through the bushes. This family is reunited only sporadically, since work has taken both Adrienne and Jérémie far from home — she lives in New York, while he lives in China. Only Frédéric still lives in France, near enough to visit his mother more often, though one gets the impression that he still only sees her occasionally. They are a loving family, affectionate and comfortable with each other, but they have their own lives, their own problems and concerns, their own careers, which largely don't interest each other.

As for Hélène, she is absorbed in the past, in the memory of her uncle Paul, a famous painter whose legacy she has maintained since his death. Her home is a shrine to him, to the work of the other artists he collected, and to his own work as well. During these opening scenes, she takes her son Frédéric on a tour of the house, showing him antiques and works of arts, preparing him for her death — he doesn't want to hear about it, doesn't want to think about selling anything, about breaking apart this home in which so many memories reside. She knows, however, that it will have to happen, that her family is spread too far across the world to retain any nostalgia or use for her nostalgic home, with its many links to the past. These conflicting feelings are at the core of the film, which is torn between a melancholy longing for a lost past and a need to engage in the present, to avoid being overwhelmed by memories, weighed down by what came before. Frédéric shows his children some of the paintings in the house, telling them that one day these will be theirs, that they can pass them on to their own children as well, but the kids don't really care: "that's another era," it has nothing to do with their lives, their present.

This opening is lively and evocative, with these sad feelings of loss lingering just beneath the surface. There is a sense here of a tenuous balance between past and present: Hélène seems slightly out of sync with the bright, sunny aura of her own gardens, with her laughing grandchildren running everywhere, and her children who are loving and attentive but also lost in their own lives, not really attuned to her thoughts and concerns. For her birthday, they give her a complicated telephone system, and she picks through the box hesitantly, laughing, telling them they'll have to set it up for her, knowing that they'll probably forget (which they do). Her house is full of life for this one day, and perhaps she's remembering when her own children were young. She still keeps a plastic bag full of the shattered pieces of a valuable plaster statue her sons broke when they were children, and now she sees her grandchildren playing with similar abandon, disregarding warnings, running wildly around the spacious grounds. Assayas' filmmaking is subtle and supple, his camera agile, as he carefully creates a portrait of three generations of a family, their lives so different and yet bound together in small ways, with touches of affection, with shared memories.

This sublime opening sequence ends with a chilling series of scenes after the rest of the family has gone home, and Hélène is left by herself. She watches her children and grandchildren drive away, returning to their busy lives, and then she walks up a set of stone steps, out of the bright sunlight of the party, hunching over as she ducks under an overhanging tree limb and into the shade. This darker, moody loneliness is carried over into the next scene, in which Hélène sits inside her house with the lights off, speaking with her loyal longtime housekeeper Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), another old woman, someone she's perhaps closer with than she is with her own family. These scenes are as dark, claustrophobic and static as the opening was airy and fun. In contrast to the fluid cinematography of the opening scenes, here Assayas switches rhythmically between medium shots of the two women looking at one another and talking, Hélène bathed in shadows, the whole scene drenched in dark blues and browns. The autumnal chill of these interior scenes contrast against the lush greens of the party sequence, and it's obvious that Hélène is preparing to leave the world.

The film then leaps ahead in time, as the three siblings deal with the death of their mother some time later, as well as struggling with what to do with the legacy and possessions she left behind. Throughout the rest of the film, Hélène's house stands in for her, holding the summation of her life and work, everything she left behind, her memories encoded into the objects that surrounded her throughout her life, the art and furniture and fancy antique vases. Assayas imbues these objects with life, with great significance beyond their surface appearances. The children are concerned with breaking up their mother's estate, selling off some items, donating others to museums, avoiding heavy taxes, spreading around all the art she collected, everything that she had preserved so carefully in memory of her beloved uncle. The siblings are thinking about the value of these things in terms of money, but they are also conscious of the difference between monetary value and, as Adrienne says at one point, "sentimental value." Frédéric alone among the siblings does not want to part with his mother's possessions, but his sister and brother, living outside France, with little remaining connection to their home or their past, outvote him.

In its subtle way, the film is about the stories embedded in objects, the rich histories of the things we amass, and the emotional significance we attribute to such possessions. The opening established many of these meanings and connections for the things in Hélène's home, and throughout the film further meanings are uncovered, packed in layers around the home and the family's history. Assayas' storytelling is refreshingly straightforward and yet elusive, letting even the few potentially melodramatic revelations simply drop into the story without spreading too many disruptive ripples. Objects first introduced in the opening scenes are recontextualized throughout the rest of the film, acquiring new significance or reawakening old meanings. Adrienne especially has a connection to a certain silver plate with a leaf design, which once figured in a disturbing dream she tells her mother about at the beginning of the film. Later, when she finds the plate again, a broad smile spreads across her face: she is reunited with something important from her past, or perhaps, for a moment, with her mother, and the plate's reflective surface casts a pale white light onto her face, as though there were something magic in the moment.

This low-key, naturalistic magic flows through the entire film. Summer Hours is a marvelously self-assured film, a film entirely in control of its emotions and its dense network of associations. It's a film with a complicated relationship to the past, embracing the nostalgia of what came before without losing sight of the necessity for progress, for new things. The final scene thus provides an unexpectedly poignant closure for this complex film. In the final days before Hélène's house is to be sold, her grandchildren return to the now-empty estate with their friends, throwing a party on the abandoned grounds, where the rooms are eerily bare, stripped of the possessions that had so much meaning for Hélène. They are defiantly modern, drinking and smoking, doing drugs, blasting hip-hop and loud rock music through computers and stereo equipment, dancing and chatting. And yet Assayas is not making the obvious point one would expect, he's not suggesting that these loud, rowdy teenagers are disrespecting the past, trampling on something sacred. The scene is infused with subtle melancholy, in the sadness of Hélène's granddaughter Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing) as she remembers her missing grandmother, as she mourns the loss of this house she now won't be able to visit with her own children someday, as she once was promised. And then, grabbing her boyfriend's hand, she runs off through the tall grass, climbing a wall and skipping through the sunny fields. She is looking both forward and back, and so is this wonderful, remarkably rich film.


Tokyo! is a multi-director anthology in which three directors — Frenchmen Michel Gondry and Leos Carax and Korean Bong Joon-ho — present three individual short films, linked only by their shared setting and their different approaches to odd, surrealistic storytelling. Gondry's film is first, a quietly moving short called Interior Design, based on the great short story "Cecil and Jordan in New York" by comic artist Gabrielle Bell, who co-wrote the film with Gondry. The film is about Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and her filmmaker boyfriend Akira (Ryo Kase), who go to Tokyo in order to screen Akira's low-budget film and to make a start for themselves in the city. When they first arrive, they move in with Hiroko's friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito), staying in her cramped apartment while trying to find a place for themselves as well. Things are difficult, however, since only Akira is able to get a part-time job, their car is ticketed and finally impounded, and every apartment they look at is tiny and miserable. Hiroko is increasingly aimless in the city, wandering around, growing frustrated, sensing Akira's growing distance from her (and attraction to her friend Akemi instead) and sensing also Akemi's aggravation that the couple has been taking advantage of her hospitality for so long.

At this point, Hiroko undergoes a startling change, turning into a plain wooden chair. She initially runs through the streets in a panic as her legs become thin wooden sticks, but she soon becomes used to her situation, accepting and even enjoying it. She's taken home by a young musician, and stays a chair at night when he's home, while transforming back into a girl during the day so she can do what she wants, puttering around his apartment. Gondry treats the offhand surrealism of the story with much the same attitude as Bell's original comic, in which the heroine's transformation into a chair is accomplished in three panels, accompanied by the casual narration, "and so I changed myself into a chair." Other than transplanting the characters from Brooklyn to Tokyo, Gondry expands upon the original story while keeping to its basic thrust. The actual initial moment of transformation is more dramatic here, with some stunning special effects to show Hiroko's gradual process of becoming a chair.

More importantly, however, Gondry fills in the subtexts of the original story, which is about loneliness and the feeling of being ignored. Hiroko feels like she is "just the girlfriend" to Akira, who isn't exactly a successful filmmaker but still gets more attention as an "artist," while Hiroko feels left out, useless, without purpose in her life. Her transformation is thus an attempt to become valuable, to become something with a concrete use. She becomes a chair, strictly utilitarian, essential and important and yet also ordinary. It's a bittersweet, clever little film, quiet in its emotions and subtle in the way it allows its metaphors to play out. The relationship between Akira and Hiroko is portrayed well by the two young actors, who laugh and joke with one another; their relationship seems to be built on in-jokes and goofing around. They're young and not yet taking life seriously. They turn everything into a game, even serious problems like checking their finances to see how they can afford an apartment. And they're ill-prepared to really talk to one another, particularly Akira, who's too tied up in his goofy art films to really pay much attention to his girlfriend.

Hiroko's transformation is thus an escape, from a life of being ignored, and also from a life of encroaching responsibilities. She has a childlike sense of play — she sits around cutting pictures out of magazines and making collages or awkward origami — and she doesn't want to lose her little "hobbies," which for her define what she wants from the world. She doesn't want to have "ambition," as Akira keeps urging her. She just wants someone to think she's useful; she wants to feel like she has a place in the world. By the end of the film, she does. This is a wonderful, affecting film, one that does justice to one of cartoonist Bell's best stories.

The second film in this anthology is Leos Carax's incredibly strange Merde. This short opens with the titular character (Denis Lavant), emerging from a manhole cover, filthy and wild-looking in a green suit, with frizzy hair, a milky white eye, and a red beard curving off to one side like a scythe's blade. He has been dubbed "the creature from the sewers," and like a true movie monster he terrorizes the city's inhabitants, initially in bizarre, amusing ways like grabbing their cigarettes, licking them, or stealing and eating flowers and cash. But Merde's reign of terror soon becomes much darker when he emerges from the sewers with a cache of grenades he discovered beneath the streets, and begins throwing them frantically around in the streets, killing and maiming dozens of people and destroying cars and property all around him. Merde is then captured and placed on trial, defended by a visiting French lawyer, Voland (Jean-François Balmer), who is his mirror image, with a milky white eye and curved red beard, and one of the only people in the world who actually speaks Merde's guttural, gibberish language.

This film is unsettling and ambiguous, making intentional references to Japanese monster movies and their relationship to Japan's history as the only nation to be hit with a nuclear bomb, as well as exploring obvious parallels to the modern American-led "war on terror." At one point, a news broadcast asserts that Merde had once been spotted at an Al-Qaeda training camp. At his trial, the audience is filled with people with burn marks on their faces, or their heads swathed in bandages, looking like Hiroshima survivors. The film is a dense collage of references and possible meanings, incorporating stereotypical Japanese images as conceived by a Westerner, like the people at the trial who wear surgical masks or the Japanese schoolgirl who drops her coat, revealing a skimpy outfit underneath, when Merde attacks her. These images are like fever-dreams of Japan, conceived in the West through the prism of the little Japanese culture — monster movies, anime and manga, J-pop — that's popularly visible outside of Japan.

This is fitting, because one of the film's primary themes is the disconnection that comes with multiple languages and multiple cultures. Throughout the second half of the short, the entirety of the dialogue is heard three times, once in Japanese, once in French, and once in the nonsense language spoken only by Merde and Voland. This constant translation and repetition is required for everyone to understand everyone else, and the process becomes even more complex when subtitles are incorporated for audiences who speak neither French nor Japanese. The film is at least partly about the difficulty of understanding others, of grasping the thought processes behind people who seem grotesque, threatening and unusual. Is Merde insane? Is he a "racist," as one Japanese lawyer calls him? Is he a misanthrope? Is he ugly, or is he, as he says his "gorgeous" mother called him, "a pretty little boy?" Carax leaves everything ambiguous and tonally confused, constantly vacillating between outlandish horror and offbeat dark humor. This is especially apparent in the bizarre ending, in which an intertitle, superimposed over an image of a five-dollar bill with Abraham Lincoln disfigured to resemble Merde, promises further adventures of Merde in New York: "Merde in USA," a deadpan riff on Godard's Made In USA. Carax's weird, open-ended short never settles its multiple allegorical meanings and ideas, but it's an interesting, unforgettable film nevertheless.

The final short here is the most traditional and straightforward, as well as the one short that engages in a serious way with the nature of Japanese culture. Whereas the first two shorts, both by Westerners, could probably have been set anywhere and made just as much sense, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's Shaking Tokyo is more explicitly a film about Tokyo and Japan as a whole. It's the story of a "hikikomori," a Japanese word for a recluse who lives off his parents and never leaves his house, keeping his garbage carefully organized in stacks, spending his time reading and doing nothing. The unnamed central character, played by Teruyuki Kagawa, has not left his apartment in eleven years. Every year he receives a wad of money from his father, and otherwise his only contact with the outside world is his limited interaction with the delivery people who bring food and other things to his home. He never looks anyone in the eyes, simply handing over money and getting a pizza or a package in exchange.

This changes when he happens to make eye contact with a pizza delivery girl (Yû Aoi) who comes to his apartment. While steadfastly looking down, handing over his money as he takes the pizza, he catches sight of her garter belt and the thin strip of bare leg below her skirt, and it startles him into looking up at her face. At this moment, as though this man's isolation was unable to withstand such bracing contact with another person, Tokyo suffers an earthquake that shakes some of the man's possessions out of their perfect arrangements, and causes the girl to collapse on the floor in his foyer. The film's first magical realist touch is the man's discovery that the collapsed girl, who can't be woken, has dotted her body with tattoos of various buttons, indicating moods and conditions: sadness, hysteria, fear. Intrigued, he discovers a button on her exposed thigh, the spot that had so distracted him from his usually resolute avoidance of eye contact, that is marked "coma." He presses the button and the girl promptly wakes up.

This event changes the man, who soon learns that the girl, after meeting him and seeing his compulsively neat apartment, his splendid isolation, has decided to become a hikikomori as well. He thus decides to break his eleven-year isolation and venture out amongst the people of Tokyo. Instead, he finds a surreally abandoned city, its streets empty, its people staying inside — only a smiley-faced robot, delivering pizza, is visible on the streets. The man sees a woman standing behind a frosted glass door and tries to speak with her, but she simply fades back into the darkness, her ghostly form dissolving behind the glass as she steps backward. The film is a low-key examination of the isolation and disconnection of people living in a big, impersonal city like Tokyo. It's a haunting vision of a city full of people who all decide, spontaneously and all at once, to withdraw from other people, to remain in their own self-contained spaces, to avoid the crowds and the sunlight and the noise of Tokyo when it's full of people. The man's journey through this deserted metropolis becomes an attempt to find some connection, some link with another person, a reason to leave the house.

This final film isn't as adventurous or unusual as the first two, and its ending threatens to be excessively cute and hokey, but it's still an interesting short, worthwhile for the way its clever touches of imagination blend with its deadpan chronicle of everyday routine. As a whole, Tokyo! is a great collection. Its three shorts have little to do with one another, and they don't exactly fit together into a comprehensive statement of any kind, least of all about the title city — but then, why should they? Taken individually, each of these shorts is intriguing and entertaining in equal measures, and that's more than enough.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Man's Favorite Sport?

Man's Favorite Sport? finds Howard Hawks revisiting and recycling situations and ideas from throughout his career, most obviously from the comedy of humiliation films he made with Cary Grant. Indeed, this film is a remake of Hawks' screwball classic Bringing Up Baby, and the director even wanted Grant and Katherine Hepburn to reprise their earlier roles. Instead, Paula Prentiss took the role of Abigail, the ditzy, slightly daffy girl who causes so much trouble for Rock Hudson's staid, stuffy Roger Willoughby. Roger's a fishing expert at a sportsman's store, but he hides a dirty secret: he's never actually been fishing and all his knowledge comes from listening to those who actually have. However, his secret is endangered when Abigail and her friend Easy (Maria Perschy), who work at a prestigious fishing tournament, get Roger entered into the tournament, thinking that such a well-known expert will bring publicity to the event.

Once he's in the tournament, it falls to the two girls to actually teach him how to fish so his secret won't be revealed. The result is a silly, low-key, occasionally awkward film, a retread of Hawks' earlier comedies without quite reaching the heights of comic genius he so often scaled in the past. Certainly, Hudson and Prentiss are no Grant and Hepburn, as far as romantic comedy couples go, and the antagonistic chemistry between them only sparks sporadically, while many scenes play out stiffly and uncertainly. There's actually much more vitality in the relationship between Abigail and her German friend Easy. The two girls have a very natural friendship, exchanging mischievous glances and smiles, trading off quips and virtually finishing one another's sentences — it's a playful, fun to watch friendship that brings to mind Hawks' treatment of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Playing off of Perschy, Prentiss is relaxed and witty and fluid, while in her scenes with Hudson she often tries to affect a nervous energy that doesn't quite come off, especially when she slips into a deep-voiced purr to convey her excitement.

Hudson, for his part, isn't a born comedian, but he gamely plods through the film's slapstick gags and verbal sparring, and it's not really his fault if a lot of the physical humor seems flat and unfunny. At their best, the scenes of him trying to catch fish are fast-paced and frenetic, as the inept fisherman goes splashing around in the water, literally taking a flying leap to grab an escaping fishing rod or nearly backing up into a bear. At their worst, these scenes are stiff and extended for way too long, with Henry Mancini's bouncy score rather desperately trying to make the images seem humorous even if they're not.

Actually, though, the film's best scenes have nothing to do with fishing, which is just a pretext for another of Hawks' explorations of the way antagonism between men and women can be a prelude to love. Roger is continually subjected to one embarrassment after another on account of Abigail and Easy, as the girls put him into one tough position after another. Because of them, he falls upside down into a car, gets stuck in a sleeping bag, is trapped in a pair of inflatable waders that flip him upside down in the water, and gets put in a fake cast that makes him arm stick up in the air like he's permanently giving a salute. Many of these situations have a distinctly sexual component, as when he gets his tie stuck in the zipper on the back of Easy's dress (a scene recycled from Bringing Up Baby) or when he comes home to find Abigail asleep in his bed (a repeat of a scene from Hatari!). The girls, particularly Abigail, are constantly getting him into compromising situations, seducing him through humiliation without even seeming to realize it themselves. In one especially racy scene, the two girls are talking to Roger at a campsite during a rainstorm, their backs facing to the camera, and the water pouring down their backs makes their shirts see-through, revealing the lack of any bra underneath. Roger's stammering attempts to tell them what's happening are hilarious, as is the girls' nonchalance about their de facto nudity.

The film is especially great in the few scenes featuring Roger's fiancée Tex (Charlene Holt), who doesn't appear for more than a few minutes but makes quite an impression in her brief screentime. Her arrival is perfectly timed to cause the maximum problems for Roger: he's got Abigail sleeping in his bedroom, while he spent the night in a sleeping bag in the living room. When Tex walks in, Easy is there as well, trying to unzip him from his sleeping bag. Tex's bemused, chilly reaction is brilliant, maintaining a cordial smile, enjoying Roger's squirming discomfort, and casting bitchy double entendres at the German girl. "Oh, so you're Easy," she deadpans, her inflection leaving no doubt that she's aware of the double meaning. Even better is her retort to Roger's lame excuse for the situation: "Oh, just trying out some new equipment?" she drawls, casting a sidelong glance at Easy as she says "equipment." It's a subtly funny, delightfully naughty scene, encoding sexual puns into the dialogue, and Holt plays it perfectly; Tex seems to relish tormenting her wayward man, at least until Abigail stepping out of the bedroom makes the scene seem much less innocent.

Scenes like this have the energy and wit of the best Hawks comedies, even if other sequences show the director recycling old ideas or engaging in uninspired sight gags. The film is drastically uneven, and it's not helped by its relentlessly studio-bound aesthetic. After the gorgeous, unforgettable African vistas of Hatari!, it's disappointing for a Hawks film to look so flat. Its colors are bright and its compositions as perfectly framed as ever in Hawks' work, but there's still something off-putting about the film's artificiality, which seems to be of a piece with the occasional stiffness in the performances. The best Hawks films are driven by naturalism — not realism, because nobody used as much stylized dialogue as Hawks, but naturalism in the sense of the flow of the conversations, the way the characters interact with ease and wit. In a Hawks film, one believes in the various relationships between the characters because the words flow between them with such snap and verve. Here, this flow is often disrupted.

Still, the film remains interesting in the context of Hawks' continued fascination with male/female dynamics and sexuality. When Roger is talking on the phone with Tex, trying to make up with her, on her end she's wearing a filmy, flimsy bit of lingerie, looking unbelievably sexy, as though suggesting what Roger's going to miss out on. In contrast, Abigail looks awkward and ungainly in her night clothes; not unattractive, by any means, but somehow a little dorky, her long thin legs sticking out of very short pants, her slender body all angles and sharp corners. One of the film's main differences from its predecessor Bringing Up Baby is that in the Grant/Hepburn film, Grant's fiancée was distinctly unappealing, a businesslike secretary with no passion in contrast to Hepburn's wild unpredictability. Here, Tex is sexy and genuinely likable, possibly even more so than Abigail. Hawks deliberately plays up Tex's appeal even though the film's only possible outcome, really, is that the hero winds up with Abigail; it accentuates the unpredictability of love, its lack of logic or rationality. It's a film about a guy who falls in love with a woman who does nothing but aggravate and inconvenience him, but it doesn't have to make sense. It's just love, and when Roger and Abigail kiss Hawks cuts away to black and white footage of two trains crashing together. He outdoes Hitchcock's famous fireworks kiss by suggesting that love isn't just bright and pretty and exciting, it's as inevitable and as dangerous as a violent collision.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Quiz Time!

Every so often Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule posts a massive quiz for other film bloggers to tackle. Here are my responses for his latest one.

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
Lolita (my favorite is Eyes Wide Shut).

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
The best trend is seeing various intelligent, visually sophisticated directors — David Lynch, Michael Mann, David Fincher — transition to digital video and use it in interesting ways.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?
Definitely Buffalo Bill, from one of Robert Altman's most unfairly overlooked films. Newman turns in a fine performance, and the film itself is a thoughtful examination of showmanship, patriotism and the appeal of the frontier.

4) Best Film of 1949.
Tough and economical: The Set-Up.

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
Twentieth Century is a masterpiece, probably Howard Hawks' least known screwball comedy but nevertheless deserving of a place among his best films. And Oscar Jaffe is a big part of the fun.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
Of course, which doesn't mean that it can't also occasionally yield something interesting.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
Probably Kurosawa's Yojimbo, courtesy of a college roommate who loved samurai movies.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
Hiroshima mon amour.

10) Favorite animal movie star.
The spider monkey who stares down Klaus Kinski at the end of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
The helicopter disaster during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

12) Best Film of 1969.
My Night At Maud's.

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
The last film I saw theatrically was Public Enemies, and on DVD was Hollow Man.

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
I'm vacillating between whether I prefer The Long Goodbye or the much-underrated A Wedding, so I guess whichever of those ultimately loses out is my second favorite.

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
I couldn't pick a favorite, but I voraciously read many, many, many movie blogs, which provide my main source for writing about movies.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)
Beats me.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
As much as I enjoy Bullets Over Broadway, Mona Lisa has to win out.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
The famous funhouse mirror sequence at the end of Welles' Lady From Shanghai.

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, which brilliantly uses digital video effects to heighten the disorienting terror of his vision.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
I've got Paul Verhoeven on the mind lately, and that sentence sounds like it's meant to describe him, with Showgirls and Starship Troopers as the most obvious examples.

21) Best Film of 1979.
This year has The Brood, The Third Generation and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting... and you want me to pick just one?

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
For some reason, the example that's jumping to mind is the portrait of tranquil suburbia being invaded by a foreign threat in Paul Landres' horror classic The Return of Dracula.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
Either The Creature From the Black Lagoon or Cronenberg's Brundlefly.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
Either the first or the second Godfather film, I suppose.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
North By Northwest could've spawned endless sequels as far as I'm concerned: who couldn't watch Cary Grant wittily escaping from spies in movie after movie?

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
The startlingly unreal, disorienting matte-painted backdrops in Black Narcissus.

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)
I don't think I've ever actually seen a Smithee film, but the best thing to ever feature Smithee was surely the wonderful and much-missed Directorama.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?
It's so wrong to even imply that Costner could conceivably ever be superior to Matthau.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
I'm probably one of the few people who thinks this a hard question because there are just so many good ones, but if pressed I'll go with the lovely, witty Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

31) Best Film of 1999.
These seem to be tough years: it's a toss-up between Eyes Wide Shut and Beau travail, both haunting masterpieces.

32) Favorite movie tag line.
I never pay attention to these.

33) Favorite B-movie western.
Ride Lonesome.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
Raymond Chandler's a good enough writer that he doesn't really need the help, but he's had so many good films made from his books that it's hard not to pick him.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?
I like Lombard, but no one touches Hepburn.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
Rebekah Del Rio in Mulholland Dr., a scene that nearly brings me to tears every time I see it.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
Neither, just entertainment.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)
Jean-Luc Godard, Myrna Loy, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Jules Feiffer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hollow Man

Hollow Man was the last of Paul Verhoeven's run of Hollywood genre films, made following the lackluster reception of his previous two pictures, Showgirls and Starship Troopers. Both of those box office flops were later reappraised by various audiences as trashy cult/camp successes or genuine masterpieces, but that doesn't seem likely to happen for Hollow Man, which similarly flopped upon release but seems to reveal the director reaching the limits of his interest in making this kind of film within Hollywood. That's a shame, because the film's concept is certainly the kind of thing one would expect Verhoeven to eagerly embrace, to transform into the kind of morally ambiguous, pulpy genre deconstruction/celebration that he does best. Instead, while the film is good — even bracingly potent — in isolated stretches, it's sabotaged at every turn by indifferent scripting, disconnected acting, and one of the most absurd action denouements in Verhoeven's career. The film introduces some interesting concepts, some tantalizing hints of the film Verhoeven at his best could make of this material, and then destroys everything in a raging inferno.

The film is the story of government research scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), who's leading a project to discover a way to make people invisible. Naturally, once he's perfected the process, or believes he has, he wants to switch from testing the procedure on apes to, in the grand tradition of movie mad scientists, volunteering himself as the first human test subject. It's a heady concept, and Verhoeven hints right from the beginning that the film's going to be about Sebastian exploring his darkest impulses without moral accountability. Even before he turns invisible, Sebastian is kind of a jerk, a brilliant guy who treats his co-workers with barely disguised contempt, particularly the women, with the one exception of his ex-girlfriend Linda (Elisabeth Shue), who he treats just slightly better because he'd like to sleep with her again. He's also a voyeur, habitually spying on a woman who lives across the street from his apartment; she generously feeds his voyeurism by stripping down to her lingerie every night, tantalizing him, before closing the shades to finish undressing. It's obvious, then, what kinds of things Sebastian will want to do once he's invisible. This is a classic pulp premise, the invisible man who primarily uses his gift so he'll get to see lots of naked women.

To some extent, Verhoeven delivers on this premise, having Sebastian immediately abuse his power for sexual thrills. Tellingly, it's not being invisible per se that gets him off, but the ability to do what he wants without being held accountable. His first sexual assault, walking up to a sleeping girl and unbuttoning her blouse, doesn't necessarily require him to be invisible in order to do it. The invisibility comes in handy only when she wakes up, so he can escape literally unseen. Being invisible doesn't so much open up new things for him to do, it merely allows him to do what he already could've done, except now he can do it assured that he won't get caught. The moral dilemma at the story's core, then, is the question of whether morality disappears with the possibility of punishment and accountability: if a man can do what he wants without anyone ever seeing him do it, what will he do? Unfortunately, Verhoeven seems largely uninterested in these questions, or at least uninterested in the possibility of exploring them in this particular movie. Instead, the film rapidly degenerates into a rather typical, if particularly lousy, horror film.

The second half of the film does have some inventive, tense horror sequences, in which Sebastian stalks his fellow scientists after trapping them in the underground bunker where they work. These sequences revolve around the clever back-and-forth as Sebastian tries to maintain his edge of invisibility, while the other scientists attempt to find ways to track him, from spraying him with various substances to using heat and motion sensors. These scenes have the claustrophobic intensity of something like Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World, one obvious touchstone among many similar films where a group of potential victims are trapped in an enclosed, inescapable space with a killer. But as good as these scenes sometimes are as slasher/victim duels, it can't help but be disappointing that Verhoeven abandons his premise's moral concepts for such generic fare. Moreover, the final twenty minutes are an absolutely torturous attempt at a big action finale, in which Sebastian seems miraculously unkillable as explosions fill the underground complex. This ridiculous final battle all takes place in an elevator shaft where the last surviving protagonists, Linda and her scientist boyfriend Matt (Josh Brolin) struggle to escape and fight off the half-materialized Sebastian while an elevator literally bounces up and down the shaft, rocketing around crazily amidst the flames. It's a mess, a halfheartedly assembled compendium of action movie clichés that definitively erases any possibility that the film could have redeemed itself with its conclusion.

The film has other problems, too. One of these is that Sebastian is such a jerk to begin with that his gradual transformation into an even bigger jerk isn't really that interesting or morally complex. This should be a Jeckyll and Hyde story, a story about the dark impulses contained in all men, but in this case it's not exactly shocking when we learn that this sexist asshole is capable of rape, sexual assault and murder once he's invisible. The film's subtexts about male sexual voracity are poorly developed to begin with, limited to a handful of throwaway scenes, like the one where Sebastian's fellow scientist Carter (Greg Grunberg) is caught reading a porn magazine and talking dirty to the pictures. If the script, by Air Force One scribe Andrew W. Marlowe, intends this stuff to be a clever way of showing that all men are pigs, let's just say it doesn't work.

In fact, the script is arguably responsible for much of the film's failure, in that it takes a striking premise and then slowly, methodically, wears away anything that might be interesting about it, replacing it with clichés. The dialogue is almost unrelentingly generic, riddled with awkward phrasing and lines of almost astonishing mundanity. It's the kind of script that sabotages any possibility of meaningful acting, and the cast mostly responds by not really bothering to act. Bacon is a sneering cipher, and then he disappears altogether, spending most of the film unseen, acting from behind a rubber mask or various CGI effects. But even then he's not nearly as bad as Shue's sniveling, characterless Linda, who keeps giving in to steamy moments with her former lover Sebastian and then pulling back at the last moment to show she's a good girl after all. She's cheery and empty, while Brolin's Matt is stoic and empty, and most of the rest of the cast are just warm bodies, biding their time in waiting for the slasher finale. Only Kim Dickens, as the veterinarian Sarah, turns in a decent performance, emanating the low-key bitchy resentment that Verhoeven has always seemed to cherish in his female characters.

On the positive side, the film does make interesting use of its special effects. The CGI used here hasn't dated well, as tends to be the case with CGI, and the effects have a blatant unreality that makes them look cartoony. Even so, there's a real sense of wonder to scenes like the one in which an invisible gorilla rematerializes one layer at a time: first its veins become visible, its neural pathways, its muscles and organs, its skeleton, the layers of skin piling on before finally reaching its hairy exterior. Even with effects that today look substandard, the scene amply captures the sense of magic and awe in this scene. Later, when the effect is reversed for the scene where Sebastian disappears, it's equally powerful and unsettling, an image of the human body peeled away layer by layer, revealing what's inside, making us tick, and then obscuring all of those innards as well.

The film comes alive in moments like this. It comes alive, too, in a scene preceding Sebastian's disappearing act, when, in the hallway leading to the lab, Sebastian tells an astonishingly dirty joke. It involves Superman, a nude sunbathing Wonder Woman, and an invisible man, and it neatly encapsulates the film's anxiety about what men will do when granted power and true freedom from responsibility. It's a joke about what happens when someone can do something without anyone ever knowing, and its twist relies on the fact that while Sebastian is telling the joke, the audience suspects that he's implicitly comparing himself to Superman; after all, he's always joking that he's playing God. But it turns out that he doesn't aspire to be Superman, and despite his patter he doesn't really think he's God either. He just wants to be the invisible man. He aspires to be a man shorn of the moral responsibility that comes with having a face, a tangible presence in the world. This lewd, tasteless joke is one of the film's best, most revelatory moments. It's very tempting to attribute it to Verhoeven; it seems impossible that it could be a product of the same script that is everywhere else so lifeless, humorless, and blind to the ideas and possibilities embedded in this material.

The film is undoubtedly a failure, and it's probably no coincidence that after this Verhoeven finally departed from Hollywood, returning to the Netherlands to make his next feature, the creatively rejuvenating Black Book. Hollow Man, though interesting at times, reveals the limits of Verhoeven's ability to play around within Hollywood genre tropes. He seems constrained by his material, prevented from really taking this story to its naturally lurid, morally inquisitive excesses. And a reined-in, neutered Verhoeven is a director who has had his best tools and resources stripped away from him.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Total Recall

Total Recall was Paul Verhoeven's second movie in Hollywood, following up on the blunt, ultraviolent satire of RoboCop with an even loonier, more abrasive vision of totalitarian control. The film, loosely drawing its inspiration from a Philip K. Dick short story, imagines a future in which Mars has been colonized as a mining colony, producing a metal that is much in demand on Earth. The whole operation is presided over by the power-hungry Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), who maintains an iron grip on Mars by tightly controlling the air supply doled out to the inhabitants of the red planet, who live in specially controlled domes. If they want to live, they'll breath the air Cohaagen supplies — at a price, of course. It's a perfect situation for a would-be tyrant: complete control over people's very lives. His subjects need to bow to him just to survive, and there's no bargaining when it comes to a necessity like air, especially when Cohaagen's the only supplier.

As in RoboCop, Verhoeven is depicting a model for how a future authoritarian state might emerge — seizing control of natural resources, monopolizing the things people need, controlling the media to disperse only the information they want to get out, in this case propaganda about the "terrorist" rebels who resist. Not much information about Mars reaches the outside world, but one man becomes interested in the red planet when he begins obsessively dreaming the same dream over and over again, in which he is walking across the planet in a spacesuit with a mysterious woman. This man is Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he seems to be perfectly ordinary: he's a construction worker, he's got a pretty wife, Lori (Sharon Stone), and he's never been off Earth. But his dreams persist, and he begins to want a solution to this mystery. He suspects maybe something is up. Of course, the audience knows long before he does that something's up. One of the film's most brilliant maneuvers is casting Schwarzenegger as a secret agent whose mind has been erased and his identity changed to that of an ordinary working man. This is Arnold we're talking about here, with his Bavarian lisp and his bulging, elephantine muscles. He looks absurd as a normal guy. He looks out of place in normal clothes, without a gun in his hand. He looks vaguely ridiculous kissing his wife goodbye as he leaves for work, as though he was a sitcom husband going through his daily routine. Today, he looks absurd too as a politician, but that's another story. The point is, it's obvious from the moment we see him that Douglas is not just some ordinary guy. He looks like a secret agent in disguise, a brawler, and it's no surprise when he's attacked and fluidly demolishes his assailants with a barrage of countermoves.

It turns out that someone's been messing with his mind, and his former self was a government agent working on Mars, an agent who had apparently switched sides to the rebels at some point. This is when the fun really begins. As a satire of totalitarianism, the film has its moments, but Verhoeven doesn't go nearly as far with the ideas as he did in RoboCop. But as a totally crazy, goofy sci-fi action movie, Total Recall is pretty hard to top. The explosive violence and gore of RoboCop is carried over here, and each fight scene is basically a collage of inventive ways of dispatching people, with Arnold in typical action hero mode, racing around, pounding bad guys, and tossing off his usual ludicrous one-liners. (His best, because it's simultaneously the cheesiest and the nastiest, is directed at his faux-wife Lori: "consider this a divorce.") The action scenes are occasionally clumsy, and there are several scenes where it's obvious that stunt actors are simply throwing themselves around to give the impression of a frenetic fight that just isn't actually happening, while in another scene everybody vibrates spastically to make it seem like the ground is shaking. Verhoeven's occasionally awkward with stuff like this, the big epic fight scenes so central to the film, though he also stages much of the violence with panache.

A bigger hurdle to enjoyment (except of the campy variety) is the lame dialogue and inconsistent acting. No one expects a real performance out of Schwarzenegger — the guy's most famous for playing a robot, with good reason — but the rest of the cast mostly seems to be acting down to his level. Cox especially hams it up as the villain Cohaagen, though his theatrical mustache-twirling fits the film's over-the-top B-movie tone well enough. Out of everyone in the cast, only Sharon Stone turns in an actual performance, in the small but crucial part of Lori. Her sexy-bitchy mannerisms and stop-on-a-dime transitions from seductive to icy seem now like a rehearsal for Basic Instinct's Catherine Tramell, and it's obvious why Verhoeven cast her in the part for his next film. As for Total Recall, despite its generic, pulpy dialogue and weak performances, for the most part the film is a visceral action showcase, and that's really all it tries to be. Verhoeven's political subtexts are increasingly overwhelmed by the wildly entertaining surface, which makes it a rare Verhoeven film where, in the battle between surface and subtext that always takes place in his work, the surface wins.

Still, it's a pretty entertaining surface. A lot of the credit has to go to the special effects work of Rob Bottin, who crams the film with inventive plastic and rubber effects. Most of the film's most memorable images are a result of this effects work: the bulging, cartoony eyes of Douglas as he flails about on the surface of Mars, gasping for air; the special robot suit that allows Douglas to disguise himself as a woman; the infamous three-breasted prostitute; the various deformed "freaks" who inhabit Mars' Venustown. These images have a sense of wonder, not because they seem futuristic, because they really don't, but because they're so tangible. They're not realistic by any means — in fact they're grotesque and deliberately exaggerated — but they nevertheless feel real. In that respect, the effects are reminiscent of the equally potent gore and viscera in David Cronenberg's 80s horror films, which seem like an important touchstone here. As in Cronenberg's work, the use of plastic effects rather than CGI grounds the film in a real, lived reality, even if in this case it's an absurd alternate future where three-breasted women and freakish mutants coexist, and where a mask of a woman's face can unfold itself like a flower opening to reveal Schwarzenegger inside.

These images provide much of the film's energy and vitality, particularly when Douglas finally comes face to... uh, faces with the rebel leader Kuato (Marshall Bell), a seemingly ordinary man who's hiding a baby-like tumor under his shirt, growing from his chest. This creature, which has psychic powers and leads the rebel army, is a stunningly grotesque puppet, slimy and very organic-looking. Such striking and memorably horrific images are a big part of the film's enduring appeal. Certainly, the creature and makeup effects have dated a lot better than the crude work done to create the surface of Mars itself; the red planet sometimes looks like an Earth desert tinted red, and sometimes looks like a blatant studio set with a painted backdrop. In a way, though, this artificiality only enhances the film's sense of unreality, as its protagonist tries to untangle his fractured mind. The plot races through multiple reversals and false detours, suggesting at various times that Douglas is delusional, that he's really a secret agent, that he's stuck in a virtual memory simulation gone wrong, that he just needs to swallow a red pill in order to wake up — presumably into The Matrix, which would eventually run with that particular idea. At the very end of the film, Douglas' last line even casually, jokingly suggests that maybe all of this was simply a dream, and he's about to wake up, at which point the sun flares in the distance, whiting out everything.

It's a telling little joke, because ultimately it doesn't really matter what's going on here. All of the material about multiple identities and the mind and memory are essentially red herrings, distracting from the real point. The film could be a paranoid delusion, it could all be happening in Douglas' head, but even if it isn't, it's always clear that the film is a fantasy in somebody's head, that it's unreal and ridiculous from the very beginning. It's Verhoeven's fantasy, basically, in which a capitalist nightmare — a monopoly run amok — is defeated through the efforts of freaks, outcasts and deviants. Verhoeven's touch shows through most clearly in the portrayal of these outcasts, who are both ogled as freaks — including a real dwarf mixed in amongst the makeup-enhanced mutants — and simultaneously treated as the only decent people in the film besides Douglas and his rebel girlfriend Melina (Rachel Ticotin). It's surely no coincidence that the film's rebels dwell in a section of Mars given over to sex clubs and exotic pleasures of all kinds. Even here, in probably Verhoeven's most impersonal film, the evidence of his overblown sensibility is everywhere. The film might be just a silly action movie at heart, but its anything-goes aesthetic propels the action along and gives the film its verve; Verhoeven is never content to simply show an image when he can rub it in the audience's face.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flesh + Blood

Ugly, brutish and relentlessly bleak, Paul Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood is perhaps the director's idea of doing a realistic period picture, though of course with Verhoeven any concept of "realism" is entirely relative. The film is roughly made, with little concern for period detail or verisimilitude — in one shot, a soldier stabbed with a sword falls to the ground, the blade sticking out of his chest, and in the next shot he's clutching his bloodless chest, the sword gone altogether. The film is riddled with moments like this, evidence of a loose, casual approach to filmmaking. Verhoeven's realism is different: he's interested in including the details you don't normally see in period costume dramas. He wants to include all the grit, the ugliness, the grime and filth and rot. His actors are caked in dirt, and they perform with crass broadness; the performances are as messy and grandiose as everything else in this over-the-top film.

The film follows a group of 16th Century mercenary warriors led by Martin (Rutger Hauer). The mercenaries help the deposed lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) regain control of his walled city, but once the job is done, Arnolfini has no more use for the looting, raucous mercenaries, and he has his warrior captain Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) drive the mercenaries away, disarmed and without pay. Martin won't tolerate this, so he leads his men back against Arnolfini, slaughtering the lord's guards and stealing his wagons, as well as kidnapping the virginal princess Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who was betrothed to marry Arnolfini's scientist son Steven (Tom Burlinson). Agnes is initially terrified, but in order to stay alive and relatively safe, she cozies up to Martin, seducing him and expressing her love for him, refusing to allow any of the other men in the mercenary gang near her.

The film is epic and nearly operatic in its melodramatic intensity, as Martin and his men careen across the medieval countryside, finally finding a castle which they clear of its inhabitants and take over. They settle in like lords of the manor, guided by the "signs" dictated to them by the half-mad priest Cardinal (Ronald Lacey), who believes they are being led by a statue of St. Martin, and that Martin is himself acting as an earthly incarnation of the saint. Of course, Martin helps nudge the statue into place to deliver the signs he wants the others to see, establishing himself as unequivocal leader and making sure he keeps Agnes for himself. The barbarians are on a parody of a holy quest, and once they take up residence in the castle, they also parody the manners of the elite they're displacing, spurred on by Agnes, who attempts to control Martin by showing him how to eat with a knife and a fork. There ensues a mad orgy in which the mercenaries attempt, clumsily and roughly, to mimic her courtly manners, shoveling massive pieces of meat into their mouths with their forks, chopping awkwardly at the food with dull knives.

The film makes every effort to separate these 16th Century barbarians from the present, to establish that this is a different time, a cruder and meaner time, a time guided by a different morality. None of these characters are likable, neither the mercenaries nor the soldiers, led by Steven and Hawkwood, who pursue them in order to rescue Agnes. If the mercenaries are brutish and violent and crude, Arnolfini's soldiers aren't much better. In fact, the film's opening attempts to align the audience's sympathies with the mercenaries, as they are betrayed by Arnolfini after loyally doing his bidding. Of course, the mercenaries are hardly sympathetic protagonists themselves, raping and pillaging their way through every city they come across. Even when Martin decides to surreptitiously help Agnes avoid the attentions of the other mercenaries, he does it not so much because he feels sorry for her, but because he seems to want to keep her for himself. He was won over into something like love when his attempt to rape her was met with feigned pleasure, the girl pumping her hips against him and urging him on the way she'd seen her maid do it in the bushes.

Throughout the film, Agnes remains an ambiguous figure. It's not at all clear if she's simply faking her devotion to Martin to keep herself safe, or if she's hedging her bets on which man will win out in the inevitable confrontation. She manages to secretly slip signs of her love to Steven to show him how she feels, but at the same time she aggressively pursues Martin, and it seems that at some point her charade slips into genuine feeling for the mercenary leader. She's an interesting character, seemingly another of the film's many sly critiques of religion. She was educated in a convent where, with access to the nuns' many books, she ironically learned more about the ways of the world than most other young, virginal girls could. She has, as Martin says at one point, an innocent face — he calls her an "angel" — but the rest of her is not so chaste. Even when she first meets Steven, she overcomes his initial reluctance to marry a girl he doesn't know with her bold, straightforward seduction. She wins his heart beneath the dangling corpses of two bloated, rotting hanged men, and at the climax of the scene Verhoeven switches to a wide shot of the kissing couple framed between the dangling bodies of the dead men. Ultimately, Agnes is only as innocent as she can be in an era like this, surrounded by death and brutality — she is unflappable and tough despite her exterior appearance, and she is willing to do what she must to survive and get what she wants.

The film is a typically excessive, sensually overwrought piece from Verhoeven, who has always brought his uniquely skewed sensibility to all manner of genre films. Here, he's made a lurid, bloody, outrageously sexual period piece, a film in which the barbarism and cruelty of these people is paraded around relentlessly. Verhoeven isn't concerned with making his characters likable, and he cheerfully revels in their amorality. Even Steven, the closest thing the film has to a genuine hero, becomes hard and cold after Agnes is kidnapped, viciously threatening Hawkwood in order to force him to help, and later purposefully infecting the mercenaries with the bubonic plague. The film's ending is thus a parody of the conventional "happy ending." The hero has rescued his bride-to-be and vanquished the villains, but it somehow doesn't seem like such a positive outcome. Steven's soldiers, taking over where the dead mercenaries left off, grab the mercenaries' surviving women to rape and sleep with them, while Hawkwood rides back to the half-mad former nun he keeps as his woman after nearly killing her in an earlier battle. The film isn't so much about a battle between heroes and villains, but a struggle between opposing sides of nearly equal amorality and ugliness; one can't root for any of them to win, and the film is unceasingly unpleasant and grim. This makes Flesh + Blood staggeringly ambiguous in its effect; all of this bloodshed and misery and hatred seems to have been over nothing, despite each side's conviction that God or justice were in their corner.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls must surely be among the most absurd movies ever made, a gaudy, nasty, hysterical tribute to excess and bad taste. Made from a script by the notoriously exploitative Joe Eszterhas, Verhoeven's collaborator on Basic Instinct and a seasoned peddler of sleaze, the film is a glorious mess, a neon overload of sexploitation. It's the inspirational story of an ambitious young girl who fights and claws her way to the top of her profession, struggling to be the best she can be, fighting to make her way on sheer talent and drive alone. Uh, yeah. That's what it's supposed to be, anyway. That's the kind of movie that Showgirls models itself on, the movie where the small-town girl makes it in the big city because she's just so talented, so tough, so pretty — she gets the gig, gets the guy, wins the hearts of all America in the process. These kinds of films are capitalist fantasies, melodramatically romantic visualizations of the idea that anyone in America can pull herself up by the metaphorical boot straps. There's a reason these kinds of films are so popular, why they're an enduring mainstay of the American cinema, virtually a genre unto themselves: everyone likes to feel like this success is possible, that anyone can make it with enough hard work and dedication. Everyone likes to think America is a meritocracy where those with talent rise to the top.

Showgirls is, defiantly, outrageously, not this type of movie, though it pretends to be right down to the very end. It is a remarkably straight-faced parody of the genre it supposedly represents, probably because its lead actress, Elizabeth Berkley, seems to think that's the kind of movie she's in. Berkley pours herself into her character, the aspiring dancer Nomi Malone. She stomps around, she pouts and cries and squeals (actually squeals!) with delight, she eats junk food with the ferocity of a true carnivore. She dances so vigorously she looks like she's in the midst of a particularly tough fight, flailing her arms around as though throwing punches. She pumps her hips and flashes her body for anyone who'll look. She intones Eszterhas' frankly ridiculous dialogue with earnest intensity. She completely sells every moment, and it's obvious: Nomi thinks that her arc in this film is one of self-discovery and self-realization, because that's exactly what Berkley thinks. By the end of the film, as she's unleashing vicious roundhouse kicks (Nomi, kung fu master!) at the head of a brutal rapist, or dramatically heading out of town in her six-inch stripper heels, she seems triumphant, redeemed, a new woman born from the shell of the old, a beautiful butterfly emerging from her cocoon. Or some crap like that, anyway.

In her own way, Berkley delivers an astonishing performance, though certainly not a "good" one. Then again, what would be a good performance in this context? The character of Nomi demands a certain badness, a wide-eyed enthusiasm and intensity. She's larger than life, and Berkley is the perfect actress to play Nomi because she's just so raw and sloppy, so awkward, so completely without barriers. She never seems to catch on to the fact that she's in a farce, which is probably a good thing, because that would kind of ruin the fun. And oh what fun there is. The film is delirious and pretty much batshit crazy, a neon-tinted orgy of American enterprise run amok. It's a delicious satire, because on its surface it doesn't seem satirical at all. It's a fairly accurate portrayal, one suspects, of exactly what goes on in this kind of milieu: the bitchiness, the catfighting, the trading of sexual favors, the ugly, seedy underside to all the glitz and glamour. Nomi arrives in Las Vegas, running away from her past, hoping to become a dancer. She starts working in a strip club, not exactly her dream, but this film would be a tragedy if Nomi wanted to be a ballerina and wound up just shaking her tits and ass instead. No, it's a comedy because the peak of her ambition, the one thing she absolutely wants to do, the dream job that would drag her out of this hellish strip club, is to be a showgirl in a flashy topless revue at one of the Vegas nightclubs. Yes, she's a stripper who dreams big: she wants to show off her tits and ass in a "classy" setting. (The quotation marks are necessary because this is Vegas' idea of "class," class as conspicuous consumption; the brighter everything shines, the classier it is.)

There's a hilarious scene when Nomi first sees the revue, which is called simply "Goddess." It's a faux-arty melange of leaping half-naked dancers, explosions and lots and lots of glitter, and at its center is the sexy, bitchy superstar Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). The show looks like the Cirque du Soleil with bare boobs, gloriously tacky and gaudy. And Nomi is transfixed, raptly watching from the crowd as though confronted with a heavenly vision, her hands unconsciously mimicking the poses of the dancers on stage. Her eyes shine: she knows what she wants. Clearly, Verhoeven is having fun here, offering up all these kitschy surfaces without comment, as though to say, here it is, here's the American dream in all its glory, this is the pinnacle, this is something to aspire to. It's virtually the same attitude as the director took in his equally opaque satire Starship Troopers; both films offer up exactly what Verhoeven assumes that audiences want. It's a gesture of contempt, in a way, giving them what they want in the crudest, most overblown fashion. You asked for it, you got it. Want lots of mindless violence, things blowing up, blood and gore and video game special effects? Here's Starship Troopers. Want sex and glitz and conspicuous consumption, want excess and naked bodies? Here's Showgirls. One suspects that these two films together represent what Verhoeven sees when he looks at the American film industry, and it's apparent that he doesn't like what he sees.

This perspective gives the film a wicked edge, a biting undercurrent that elevates it to the level of a camp classic, albeit a deliberately campy one. It's all in the details, like the richly funny performance of Gina Gershon, who plays the whole film with a predatory, crooked smile, permanently baring her teeth as though ready to bite into her prey. If Berkley probably isn't in on the joke, Gershon definitely is, and she feeds into the campiness of the project, relishing the overblown dialogue, rolling her tongue around her lips, looking at Berkley's Nomi with naked lust in her eyes, pouting her lips out until they look like shelves. She's lively and funny and bitchily endearing. Berkley, on the other hand, plays every scene with a deer-in-the-headlights stare; her Nomi is half lost little girl and half vicious tough dame, with a switchblade and a temper.

This is fitting, of course, because one of the film's unspoken (but nonetheless central) jokes is that Nomi just isn't that talented: she looks at home in a strip club, and even seems to be a talented stripper, as far as that goes, but once she's elevated to the moderately more demanding burlesque show, with its complex routines and choreography, she seems out of her element, awkward and ungainly. She goes far because she generates "heat," which seems to be code for everyone wanting to fuck her, both the men and the women. And indeed, one of the film's recurring lines is that she dances like she fucks, which is especially funny in light of an early scene at a club where she's spastically dancing, flailing her limbs around, obviously thinking she's cool and sexy when in fact she looks like a malfunctioning machine; one expects to see sparks flying from her joints. Sure enough, later on, when she gets a comically overwrought sex scene with entertainment manager Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) in Zack's pool, she fucks him by straddling him and then flailing wildly, flopping around in the water like a fish that's just been hooked. At the moment they orgasm, she throws her head back into the spray of foamy water pouring from a dolphin statue's mouth, another of Verhoeven's typically unsubtle jokes. The film is all about details like this. See also: the way, immediately before this jaw-droppingly unsexy sex scene, Zack switches on the green neon palm trees by his poolside, doing it with a suave flick of his hand, as though it's meant to seduce her. The even funnier second punchline is that it does seduce her; of course Nomi gets off on neon.

The film is bathed in neon, too, simply saturated in it. It must be one of the most garish, brightly colored films ever made, and its visual sensibility matches its over-the-top acting and soapish storyline. It's a brilliant, deadpan satire, hilarious and tacky and relentlessly overblown, nearly operatic in its frenzied excess. It's a film about the American dream, but not quite in the way it pretends to be: it's about people who scratch, claw, betray and sleep their way to the top, about crass commercialism and the marketing of sexuality (this last of course a great irony since the film itself was marketed on the strength of its sexual excesses). It's a film in love with its own melodrama, in love with the neon overload of Las Vegas even as it satirizes and mocks it.