Thursday, April 16, 2009

"4 Flies On Gray Velvet" (1971)

Argento's 3rd film, which improves on the speed ritualism of the 2nd (The Cat O'Nine Tails), but does not approach the aesthetic refinement of his 1st (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, easily among the most self-realised debuts by a horror director), is nonetheless an important work in his oeuvre. The foolish but unavoidable vacuity of the 4 Flies script, which comes to decadence when the 'meaning' of the bizarre film title unveils the identity of the killer, and evinced especially during the apathetic dialogs shared by the protag and his gf, are here and there nullified by touches of impromptu mastery. The meagerest script becomes an excuse for flashes of deadpan jazz. 4 Flies literally come to represent the significance of size in the fortuitous discovery: the more aberrant the killer's motivation - and resultingly the tinier, the more tenuous the evidence - the more apropos the disproportion of cause to menace. The killer's lengthy monologue at the end, unapologetically zany, is matched by the slowmo glassshattering beauty (literally & figuratively) of the killer's rationally irrational demise (the deus ex machina resolution in which the killer is killed off in karmic collision). Argento's meticulous attention to detail compensates for the plot's empty whole: monstrous bullets in slowmotion fly through air, magnetised to flesh; a young woman's head crashes down the stairs to her death but the camera shoots her upside down, showing her as she ascends as if she were cracking her head through a ceiling on the way to a degenerate heaven.

The film contains one of Argento's best executed murder scenes, and a model to be followed by any existing horror director, or the student of horror: a park in broad daylight, boisterous children at play, the happy noise of parents, lovers, and the elderly surround a woman who sits on a bench and waits for no good reason except to perish, we know, at the hands of the faceless assassin... then the park speakers, which had been languorously playing Argento's typical perverse children's music, abruptly stops: an evening wind picks up, the children and the people and the happy noise of life and even the broadness of daylight and the busybody sun, all disappear. A single cut is all it takes, and it is night. (Argento, the demiurge of this realm, with undisguised glee conjures the night and its shadows, causes a tall garden maze to appear into which the unfortunate woman of course walks in, and of course she knows that someone, something, is following her...) Argento sets up a clever, absorbing dichotomy of killer 1st person perspective (the arch Argento trademark), accompanied by fearsome breathing and the heavy one-two oscillation of silence & methodic leather sole steps; and close shots of the victim as she squeezes into a narrow corridor in order to evade and hide from the killer, but which seems to suffocate her as it tightens and the camera stalks her, to the tune of Morricone's heart murmuring music. The interplay of the claustrophobic shots of the victim as she futilely, wildly struggles to squeeze through the corridor, and the 1st person tracking shots of the killer on his/her patient way to the victim, are sustained so well that Argento doesn't even bother to show how the killer offs the victim: a sign of early cinematic purity, in a director who could easily lend himself to gratuity (and who eventually does give in to gratuity in his later films). Morricone's score & Argento's visuals are testament to the italian temperament: the muscular aestheticism of a sports car, the lush red of blood on patent leather shoes.
Undoubtedly one of Morricone's best theme songs, 'Come un madrigale':

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Tokyo!" (2008)

Tokyo. Spectacle of the spectator. The internetwork made tangible, actualized: a city somehow brought to birth by the world wide web, which paradoxically had grown out of it like a plastic weed of contorted steel-glass buildings & color-coded designer colonies. A city that grew with the web, and which the web transformed, while being transformed by it, by that haven of demiurges: Tokyo. Paris has grown bloated, overrated by memory's forgetfulness, which we conventionally call 'nostalgia'; and far too many film homages have been paid as overlavish tributes. Rather than Paris, the 21st century hearkens to Tokyo. (If not to New York, a locale of new century grandiosity every bit as vibrant.) We have our first film omnibus devoted to Tokyo, by foreigners appropriately, non-Japanese, non-Tokyoans/Tokyo-ites: 2 french men, one corean. 2 frenchmen because frenchmen rather unnaturally like the idea of Japan & rather fanatically adore the naked torso of Tokyo, are enamoured by its metropolitan sophistication because somehow it isn't derived from europe, yet seems to run parallel with it, seems to be as chic & fashion aware as Paris or London or Roma is aware. And a corean because coreans understand japanese ethic better than any other foreigner can possibly contrive, without resorting to that intellectual fascination westerners have the imprecise fault of turning into worship. 3 quick jolts by 3 exceptionally talented directors constitute a fine yet unwholesome picture of a city that silently asks for more similar treatments: european cities insist on hagiography, but Tokyo doesn't have to beg: it is as bold as a new sun, day or night, far more relevant to our futurism than the european capitals. The importance of this particular film is that it has been made, its carefully pruned flaws secretly amounting to an aesthetic of threadbare dissection, thus allowing for the inevitable need to undertake Tokyo again, in another film omnibus, helmed by other music-video caliber directors. A film-length music video for the post-nothing ironic-irony crowd: Tokyo.
(Michel Gondry - "Interior Design") Tokyo is one of those few cities that outwardly reflect the inward living space: it is a living room blossomed into foreign air like a mushroom cloud. [I remember once inhabiting the sublimest Starbucks in Tokyo, after navigating a trammeled concrete maze that led upward through a haze of whimsical boutiques, and while sitting outside and sipping a mediocre overpriced cappuccino, catching sight of the Tokyo skyline and feeling thoroughly at home, as if I were surrounded by house party mates on a friend's terrace outside her sliding glass door kitchen overlooking the sights and sounds of the city.] Tokyo is so much an extension of one's living space that the natural loneliness one feels outside on its streets in broad daylight equates to the infinite feeling of solitude that descends on one any sunday morning of the year when you find yourself sitting on a wooden chair, reading the paper, sipping a cappuccino, and suddenly recognizing that you have lived your life in the vanity of comfort. Better to serve others than yourself. A feeling of loneliness so pervasive outside as in, that one might as well be furniture. And so one becomes a desk, a lamp, a book left unread on the coffee-table. Or a chair, on which a solitary just like yourself sits and composes silent order by the soft discursive melodies of Tokyo's impinging traffic, everyday, like wanton house guests who won't leave one alone enough to feel one's aloneness.
(Leos Carax - "Merde") Shit happens. In Tokyo as any other place. A frenchman notices that Tokyo is insanely clean, well-kept, antiseptic. He feels its cleanliness so much that he feels himself to be barbaric just roaming its kept pedestrian grounds, unkept & vulgar. When he speaks his barbaric french tongue, he imagines that it must sound like gibberish to the Family Mart clerks. So he says, "Shit" in french to them, and they just giggle, not knowing what he says, yet knowing that he smells like it anyway. The frenchman consequently concocts a fairy tale in which his alter ego, an unkempt savage caricature of a parisian vagabond, arises from the sewage of international waste, and plays the nihilist terrorist on the irritatingly peaceable Tokyoans. Suffice it to say, that this short film has nothing to do with Tokyo, but everything to do with a foreigner's psychotic sense of living in Tokyo knowing not its language, not its conduits, not its appetites. In the end the frenchman attempts to excuse his extroverted public fear into a brandname that he tries to sell as a distinctly impartial phenomenon by proposing a similar invasion into New York. Absolute bollocks because New York is the easiest city to sink into, the multinational city par excellence, ringing in the tongues of a thousand people. Tokyo is persistently japanese, hence its mystique and its appeal to the non-.
(Bong Joon-Ho, "Shaking Tokyo") Not surprisingly, a corean outclasses the western contingent when it comes to description of a spiritual state arrested by fear of the oriental metropolis. It is the same loneliness of furniture people and rampant foreigners unlettered in the native language, but this time it is a definite fear of self that does not immediately or irrationally lapse into the absurd as a last resort. The fear of earthquakes is a biological fear, fear of orgasm & herd-union. But we are always involved through tabloids with eschatology, and so the appeal to city devastation, to apocalyptic sex: to the end of days. Let us not become robots, the corean asks, because he knows what excessive neon lights can do to the homebodies: create nightmares of sexless days. Days of captivity in a body that needs other bodies, other contact. The solitary seeks Tokyo like a lover, even if he was born and bred in the city. For Tokyo disperses and crushes love like a vibrator vibrating without insertion into the moist part. Let us not become robots, let us find human touch, human contact, orgasm....
Tokyo! doesn't deserve an exclamation mark: it merits further interrogation, a revisit that asks itself for ontological purpose, is this shimmering high-definition monitor screen, Tokyo?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Philadelphia Film Festival 2009: "Julia"

10 years ago Erick Zonca directed a quiet, emotionally mannered, adult film titled The Dreamlife of Angels. It won plaudits, awards, and the collective nod of approval by critics for its thoroughly french maturity. From that film up to now, Zonca has watched many american films, particularly the Coen brothers' films, and, in a moment of doubtlessly inebriated excitement, decided that he'd give their brand a shot, if only Tilda Swinton was involved. He had a good premise: like Jacques Audiard did with James Toback's Fingers, he would do with Cassavetes' Gloria; that is, he would better it by a few degrees of heightened suspense and a few more notes of free jazz. And so he did. Julia is a savage, unrelentingly violent film, that very surprisingly outdoes the Coens' usual brand of kidnapping gone wrong, by twisting the film's passages beyond the pale of absurdity. The plot becomes swiftly implausible, but Zonca focuses so much on the suspense at hand that the viewer is not allowed to weigh in with skepticism. We are held hostage by the film and its painfully irrational plot devices, since its entire plot is moved into action by the inebriated thought process of a raging alcoholic, played by the indefatigable Tilda Swinton. We are forced to accept the constant plot turns in the film because they are as they should be in a mind soaked up by alcohol (an ingenious plot mechanism, when one considers how skillfully Zonca's direction and Swinton's acting walk the thin line of sympathy and repulsion with Julia's character.) The beginning shots of the film that introduce Julia Harris, as she dances to booming club music in a redlit dance hall, in no way prepare us for the ending that comes more than 2 whiteknuckled hours later. The film's excellence resides in how surreptitiously violent it seems, with so little body count. That a film director as mannered and 'adult' as Zonca can manage to make a film more gratuitous than the Coens' kidnapping masterpieces is no small feat.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Philadelphia Film Festival 2009: "Rudo y Cursi"

A condensation of mexican popular values - futbol, fame, & family - according to Carlos Cuaron. Two lower class brothers from a plaintain farming family achieve fame and riches through their football skills. They are signed for top league clubs, and enjoy a period of success and fast times. Eventually their baser natures come to the fore: one falls foolishly in love with a promiscuous model, the other falls prey to gambling and cocaine. The plot builds up so that the predicaments facing the 2 brothers are resolved by a climactic football game, in which quite naturally a penalty will decide it all, forward against goalkeeper, brother against brother. For a mexican, thus, life can be summed up by football. The film's central parable is that in the end, when the shit hits the fan, a narcotraficante can bail you out. In Mexico success comes through 3 vocations: politics, football, or drug dealing. When football and politics fail, the drug dealer absurdly emerges as the deus ex machina of a rags to riches drama given over to the fatalism of football.
Cuaron directs his first feature length film, and though he shows a lesser aptitude than his brother Alfonso for camera technique, he succeeds in scripting a marketable crowdpleaser. His narrative style consists of multiple asides (made by an offscreen or onscreen narrator) that set the rhythm and background for the inner mechanics of the story; just as in Y Tu Mama Tambien, a narrator (here it is the argentine football scout who signs up the brothers) delivers meta-comments on the social and philosophical ideas that motivate the characters and that color the milieu. The usual dichotomy of a money-oriented higher class in contrast to the money-oriented lower class ensues.

Philadelphia Film Festival 2009 - "Treeless Mountain"

A film with little to show, but much to reveal. The director's 2nd film, noticeably, about the trials of 2 sisters disallowed their innocence to play but not to dream, when their mother disappears from the picture, in search of their nameless father. A lot of dichotomous film school edits that pan from closeups of the 2 young sisters' faces (in anguish, sadness, or hope) to panoramic shots of the city, the serene speechless sky, drifting clouds. A film that is less a narrative film and more a tone poem. Yet the dramatic fragments that propel the narrative forward, from life with mother, to life without mother, and finally to life in the rural countryside with their grandparents, are sufficient to keep the viewer's attention. Reminiscent, but perhaps not as intentionally devastating, as Kore-Eda's Nobody Knows. The director skillfully attempts to simulate a child's vision by keeping adults mysteriously absent and too large to fit into the frame, hence the closeups, and the sudden manner in which their mother leaves them, and fails to keep her promise.
Treeless mountain
on which the grasshopper sits
and waits for spring winds.
But a mountain without a tree,
a tree without leaves,
leaves without wind -
in vain the grasshopper waits
for spring to come.
Their mother tells Jin & Bin,
"When this piggy bank is full of coins
given for good deeds,
I will come back."
A child will believe,
since she has no other way
of seeing. Jin's mother
so large and loving,
out of largeness vanishes
into smallness. Her younger sister,
Bin, wears her cinderella gown
& loves to eat. One day she buys
a sweet red bean bun,
and learns that a won bill
can break into many coins.
(Largeness breaks into smallness,

Jin's face up close
resembles the drifting cloud
of a distant overcast sky;
she cries. The plastic pig is full,
but the bus does not bring her mother back.
Instead Jin & Bin find a lone grasshopper
sitting on a mound of dirt (to these little women,
a treeless mountain from which to survey
the faraway reaches of the earth.)
They spit the grasshopper over fire.
Their only consolation is a mountain song
they sing, grasshopper in their mouths.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Philadelphia Film Festival 2009: "The Hurt Locker"

Can Iraq be depicted as an action film? (Consider the severity of the fact that soldier boys are committing suicide at an alarming rate.) Is this film supposed to be taken as a document of realism, or a document of sensationalism? Does Kathryn Bigelow (director of the afternoon TV action classic, Point Break) transcend her normative action director stance, and is she asking us to sympathize with soldiers overseas in a war so futile as to raise speculation that we are purely addicted to the spectacle of war as the controlling raison d'etre? Among the marketing taglines, one simplistically runs, 'War is a drug,' as if it were among the great unknown truths known to modern times. (In fact if I am not mistaken the same line appears as an introductory note to the film, in case the audience is unaware of its inner addiction to violence.)

There is a single value to this film: it is a terrifically directed action film. Wartime provides better support to the plotless plots of hollywood actioners than the run of the mill productions that depend so much on a key point of anarchy in a civilized society (for instance, there will always be a serial killer, a rapist, a terrorist, a criminal mastermind, a Dr. Evil or what-have-you, running amok in an otherwise peaceable society, the appearance of whom causes the reluctant or not so reluctant hero to conduct himself according to the social laws that employ and restrict him, while coming into communion with the baser violent nature in himself so freely glorified in the villain.) Even the emptier actioners that may or may not star Van Damme or Steven Seagal or, currently, Jason Stratham, have to somehow concoct a dramatic permise flimsy yet functional enough for the action to brew steadily and with little to no interruption. The Hurt Locker has no such roadblocks or difficulties - there is no need for a criminal mastermind or a remorseless killer who dons a face or a name to menace the proceedings. The film's thrust derives from the simplified premise of war (as a drug, and consequently, as an action film), in which no one villain manifests, and so from the 1st frame to the last, any concern for the other emotions (of romance, of ambition, of peace, of honor, etc.) that old school war films so long worked to contrive amid the bombs and bullets is thrown out the window. The film prides itself on its realism and believes its fastidious attention to detail and undiminshed intensity to explain itself sufficiently without any need for dramatic scaffolding. Not surprisingly, this negligence of dramatic cultivation remains the film's virtue and vice. We are provided with breathlessly composed action sequences that pile on each other with little to no interruption, and with infinitely more ease than any riotous actioner could manage (even hardcore kung fu films, notoriously bereft of any dramatic gestation, are matched by this film's piledriving action scene for scene - the typical excuses for a kung fu fight to take place are matched by the omnipresent threat of bombs and terrorists lurking in the shadows of broad daylight.)

The film's trite ending, and its feeble attempt at dramatic afterthought (where the protagonist returns home after finishing his tour of duty and finds life's domestic misery to be ridiculously exemplified by a supermarket aisle whose entire shelf is covered by cereal boxes [!?]), demonstrate how internally empty the film is once removed from the spectacle ('the drug') of war. But the film is exonerated from any pernicious negligence of the real issues at work in the Iraq war, since its aims are largely nugatory: its major fault is the action film's common but excusable sin; that is, it suffers from an adherence to the necessary demands of the genre (more action, less dialogue). Instead of taking Bigelow's The Hurt Locker as a serious film about a seriously unjust war, it should be seen in light of Seagal's classic On Deadly Ground, which incongruously devotes the last few minutes of its conclusion (after a mindless but expected 80 minutes of righteous action) to serenading us with a powerpoint lecture by Seagal on the ills of global warming and oil drilling.