Short Cuts: March '06
d. Steven Soderbergh, 2006
I'm most interested by the doll metaphor. You have these casts for various parts - a head, a leg, a torso, an arm. These basic parts are solid, concrete, generally necessary. Then you gussy it up - eyebrows, eyes of different colors, latex color, clothing - and you change the entire impression of the doll. That is, the basic parts remain intact, but the whole composition is altered by superficial gestures. Like a film, right? You have a camera, some film/video, actors, a story of some sort - but the things you do to that basic setup is what makes each film different. A filmmaker is a sort of faux-surgeon, just like a dollmaker. It goes along nice with the film: the characters & the plot are both detached, dehumanized. They're obvious "parts," not fully realized, not complete, not entirely organic. Of course, right? The filmmaker has to be separate from the subject, has to treat it like piecemeal, fake humans; hence, the really eerie outsider-looking-in tone maintained from frame one. The artifice is both admirable - it fits in well with the doll factory bit, it works well on the theoretical level - and irksome - it makes for stilted viewing, unfortunately. So, while Soderbergh is doing something interesting here, it doesn't lead to a compelling film, merely "something interesting."
d. Bennett Miller, 2005
Why, I now realize, Blake Edward's film version of Truman Capote's novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, blushes in comparison to the book is the absence of the author. Capote is such a compelling and interesting character that, I imagine (not having actually read In Cold Blood), this "biopic" - it honestly hardly is that usually nasty descriptor - is a good deal more interesting than a strict adaption of Capote's book would be. Capote (the ever-adroit Philip Seymour Hoffman) is devoid of a personal life; all he has, it seems, are various modes of public life - he plays with the literary/social elite, empathizes with murderers, and plays house with the denizens of middle America, all with an equal amount of (in)sincerity (the clarifying of the ambiguity depends on your perspective.) Most of Capote's friends see his duplicitous relationship with the killers, specifically Perry Smith (the very good Clifton Collins Jr.), as unscrupulous, and the viewer might be too easily coerced into sympathizing with them. Capote is the consummate author - to write, for him, is to live; to examine the subject, to objectify what you're writing about, in cold blood, is requisite, at least for Truman, for writing well. Is it moral? Maybe, maybe not, but to see Truman Capote in this situation - this specific situation - makes for a much more complex and interesting film than traditional birth-to-death biopic.
Clans of Intrigue
d. Chu Yuan, 1977
There are plenty of reasons to dislike this kung-fu flick: the bad guy's identity is made obviously clear in scene one, then the possibility of him being the bad guy is taken away (turns out the bad guy's a girl), then the bad guy is unveiled to be the guy we originally thought (turns out the bad guy's actually a latent hermaphrodite.) The story is convoluted along the same lines as The Big Sleep. Et Cetera. But it's so damn likable, too! I could help but giggle during the last scene, when the aforementioned bad guy is pincushioned with two swords and a disembowled hand, bone-side first. The film is filled with ridiculous moments like this, and then held together by a really compelling lead and some unnecessarily good cinematography. Not great cinema in the traditional sense, but one of those films that helps one better understand just why Pauline Kael lost it at the movies.
Cowards Bend the Knee
d. Guy Maddin, 2003
Apparently fashioned autobiographically - but I don't know Guy Maddin, so it doesn't have much bearing here; moreover, I don't really care for biographical readings, auto- or otherwise - Cowards Bend the Knee is a bizarre avant-garde throwback to the infancy of film that channels the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Follow: man leaves woman for another woman (Jason & Medea); another woman kills her husband while he's having his hair washed (Clytemnestra & Agamemnon); son (here a stepson) feels need to revenge his father (ok, step-father) (Orestes & Clytemnestra); Step-son realizes - too late - that he did not actually need to kill, that it was all an accident, that it was fate - not his own hands - compelling him to kill his father, and sleep with his step-mother (Oedipus.) All this takes place within a drop of semen (what?), leading us to believe that this is the stuff of human life. It's this binding together of thematic integrity and formal absurdity (which I'll let you discover on your own) that makes Cowards Bend the Knee a great film.
A History of Violence
d. David Cronenberg, 2005
The opening sequence, where two people lay dead and one is murdered, is interrupted by a girl's scream, a girl waking up from a nightmare. While not a true dream sequence - it becomes perfectly clear later that these events definitely "happened" - there is an important play here between dreams and reality. A cook tells of a past girlfriend, future wife, who would wake up from a dream and attack him. He laughs about the time she stabbed him in the shoulder, unwittingly, with a fork. Combined with the stilted dialogue, wholesome familial tropes, and general facade over the first 2/3 of the film, we get a sense that the subject matter here is the debasement of the American Dream. The film is loaded with hometown goodness, Edward Hopper sheen, and referents to distinctly American ideals. But all this, we learn, is predicated on violence. That is, the history of the American Dream is a history of violence. Follow: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) was Joey Cusack, a mobster/killer - his benign present in the small, Midwest town, the manifestation of the American Dream, is only made possible because of his violent past. The American Dream is not a pure, wholesome thing, but an accumulation of all that is desired - through any means possible - and then a denial of the means taken. Look at America herself - what she has, how far she's come, is on account of a good deal of violent measures taken to get here. The point of the film isn't to say that violence is present and integral to every person, but that violence is a much more powerful force behind what is called good than many care to realize.
d. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999
The danger of having a three hour film is, generally, losing the interest of the audience. P.T. Anderson wouldn't know about that - Magnolia is a 185 minute orgasm caffeine sugar high adrenaline rush, always building, constantly peaking. The danger here is that those highs become mundane. And while it could be called overly long (I wouldn't say that), it can't be said the highs lose their power - for the first time in 3 years of watching movies, I cried watching the easy to fuck up non-diegetic primary cast Aimee Mann sing-along. Anderson earns this response, building up each of the 6 or so "mini-stories" that operate within the greater story without sacrficing the whole fabric of the thing. That is, the characters are built properly - fleshed out - and the narrative, in spite of being what some would see as too long by 100%, is comprised entirely of purely essential moments, each one operating as a significant piece of the whole. Ambitious, bravura filmmaking working damn near its finest.
d. Zhang Ke Jia, 2004
The film's initial premise is interesting: we are now living in a democratized, abbreviated world, a world in which technology has made travel first necessary and now impossible, and communication even moreso. The primary setting is one loaded with possibility - a cheap theme park called "The World," wherein one can see all the famouse landmarks of the world without ever leaving Beijing. It's a miniaturized counterfeit of the real things, but one that work like an ersatz stand-in, an excuse to not move outside of Beijing. In a scene that works powerfully, partly because it doesn't influence the narrative of the film, a man chaperoning a troupe of Russian dancers takes away the passports of said dancers. The transaction is shady; the audience is lead to believe that these dancers will not get their passports back, making it impossible for them to leave "The World," which now works on two obvious levels: a theme park and as a stand-in for the world at large. History and Politics are ugly nadirs in my education, but I imagine this relates directly to China's recent political past and (possible) future. I'll leave that for now; what I do know is that here we have not a democratized world, but a subjugated one. America - let's get ethnocentric! - is a sort of dreamland. The Manhattan fixture in the park is an island - you can see it, but you can't touch it - with the WTC intact. America stands as a sort of idyll for the denizens of "The World," with English being the only common language. But - let's get rebellious! - it's a false ideal. Could American global power be responsible for this whacked out version of an egalitarian democracy? Is America proliferating a corrupt hegemony? These questions are posed, not answered, which is a smart move for. The problem is, so much of this is lost in the film. While the idea of travel and the difficulty of travel spines the film, Jia falls for a limp plot in the form of a couple - both employees of the park - who are having relational problems. The film begins as an ensemble piece, glancing from moment to moment, picking the points that support the the thesis; this relationship angle is only tangentially related, unfortunately, and it isn't very interesting. Moreover, Jia relies on the setting like a crutch - numerous shots of various landmarks (Pyramids, Eiffel Tower, others) punctuate the Beijing skyline to the point that the repetition is no longer interesting, merely repetitive. Jia spends the last 1 and 1/2 hours dwelling on these things, marring an otherwise very interesting, and very good, film.