Women are Inconsistent

•December 15, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Like A Shooting Star (The Velvet Hustler), Toshio Masuda, 1967.

masuda

posted by Christine

Shutupanddeal went to the Japan Society last night for a screening of Like a Shooting Star, one of the Nikkatsu action films in the “No Borders, No Limits” series. The last film in the series, The Warped Ones, was about a jazz-obsessed thug named Akira. The film was melodramatic and ultra-stylish, with intense close-ups of scowling faces and long drives to the beach on windy roads. Like a Shooting Star doesn’t have the jazz, but its hero, Goro, has his own soundtrack — a tune he whistles that mixes with the music that follows him all through Kobe, where he’s settled since a shooting the head of another crime family.

Goro’s a wacky loner, a killer with a heart of gold who likes nothing more than reclining on a rocking chair at the bay with his hat over his face. He’s grown tired of women, although his “mama,” the local madam, insists that his current prostigirlfriend, Yuriko, is the one for him. Yuriko also calls the madam “mama,” I guess has the effect of making this criminal clan seem like one big happy, um, family. Gross. (Early in the movie, he tries to explain to Yuriko that it’s not that he doesn’t love her, it’s just that he’s tired of her — but weirdly, this drives the poor thing to despair.) To cut the summary short, a jeweler winds up dead and his gorgeous, classy, Paris-obsessed girlfriend comes to Kobe to investigate. She and Goro fall in love, but there’s another hitman on Goro’s tail and is she-or-isn’t-she a virgin and how many dresses did she cram into that tiny suitcase and what kind of life could they have together in Manila, for gods sake, and…

Mod music! Impromptu musical numbers! Disco dancing in swanky clubs, purple hotel walls and motorboats oh-so-conveniently waiting just for you. Masuda has a lot to teach you about crime but even more to teach you about women.

Things I learned from women by watching Like a Shooting Star:

1. They can never decide if they want to sleep with you or not, and then when they make up their minds, it’s the one night that you have to go kill a guy. Typical.

2. They like to dress in bright colors.

3. They are excellent dancers, and particularly enjoy doing the mashed potato and that disco move where you just walk around each other with small steps.

4. The ones you don’t want are clingy; the ones you do are like ice.

5. They will sing at the drop of a hat; if you like them, you’ll harmonize.

6. Women are inconsistent. Perhaps fatally disloyal. This last lesson turns out to be learned a little too late. No surprise there.

“That was one goddamn hell of a show.”

•December 6, 2007 • 1 Comment

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

posted by Akiva

No spoilers, I promise. But I’d like to get a few thoughts in order about what is unequivocally the major American film of the year. There Will Be Blood is going to turn off many, many people, and I don’t just mean mainstream moviegoers. It’s a relentlessly sour portrait of what it means to have a Voice in America, pitting the twin pillars of American agency — Commerce and Christianity — against one another in a frontierland where the potential for money and power is oozing above the surface of the ground. As Ed Gonzalez notes in a quick comment over at the Slant Blog, the film lacks the “powerful, compassionate human interest” of other PTA films, and I know what he’s talking about. But I’d argue that humanity is purposefully thrown to the wayside in There Will Be Blood, which concerns itself entirely with the havoc wreaked by the monoliths of American power, represented by two characters who are clearly larger than life. Human beings have no voice in this film; Daniel Plainview’s son illustrates this idea all too literally. (The film runs for about 20 minutes before we hear a human voice, and when we do, it’s a voice spinning empty rhetoric before a crowd.) That compassion can find no purchase in a world dominated by greed is precisely the point.

Though PT Anderson claims that he only adapted the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking “Oil!”, There Will Be Blood has the shape and focus of an angry Socialist tract, an overblown but essentially truthful portrayal of Boss Tweeds and false prophets out to steal the bread of the common man. PTA may have ditched the book’s title, but he should have kept that exclamation point.

Still, don’t get me wrong: the film is the product of a rigorous aesthetic perfectionist, not the ragged looseleaf of a leftist zealot. PTA is really in full command of the form here, having grown out of the adolescent hero-worship that sometimes made Hard Eight and Boogie Nights feel like top-drawer tribute albums. TWBB is an exercise in minimalism and compressed release, and the more explosive set pieces are simply staggering.

There’s a wealth of biblical portent and near-apocalyptic fervor that PTA weaves into the fabric of the film much more gracefully than the Coen Bros. did in No Country For Old Men (where Cormac McCarthy’s metaphysics seemed unfairly/unnecessarily imposed upon the B-movie dynamic). This film held me so completely in its grasp that I didn’t question the outsize metaphors … unlike, say, the immediately baffling but brilliant-upon-mental-replay moment in Magnolia when an army of amphibians drop in on the San Fernando Valley. I don’t think There Will Be Blood ever pretends to be about anything less than myth. In contrast, the Coen film plays as a pretty nifty chase movie, and Magnolia concerns itself with a whole host of recognizable human neuroses.

TWBB powerfully argues that a weakness for spectacle is the ultimate American Achilles heel, and it seems fitting that its epic saga ends in 1927, the year the world meets the talking picture. I don’t think you need me to parse the political subtext of a film about a greedy prospector who colonizes a desert land, promising increased democracy if they hand over the oil. You’ll be forgiven for yawning at the conceit. But I defy you to resist There Will Be Blood‘s despair at the inexorably encroaching dictatorship of mass-media spectacle, one that has continued unabated since (at least!) 1927, making it ever easier for us to digest every little lie the powers that be are bent upon pushing. Consider this spectacular period-piece an attempt to win spectacle back for the spiritual offspring of Upton Sinclair, Clifford Odets, and Woody Guthrie, the ones hovering outside the margins of the film’s mythic drama.

“The fourth dimension will collapse in upon itself, bitch!”

•November 14, 2007 • 1 Comment

SOUTHLAND TALES (Richard Kelly, 2007)

posted by Akiva

Since I caught an early screening a couple weeks ago, I’ve been curiously awaiting the opening-week reviews of Richard Kelly’s zeitgeisty magnum opus, because it’s truly something to be reckoned with — one of the worst films of the year, I think, and a truly monumental expression of artistic hubris and tone-deaf liberal outrage. I’ll clarify: Southland Tales is a deliriously miscalculated cavalcade of dumb dystopia, the kind of thing that happens when you use the Book of Revelations and Das Kapital to teach a fratboy how to read. The most distressing result of Kelly’s inflated hero-experiment is that he made me feel like The Rock and Sarah Michelle Gellar have had their time wasted. Really, it’s a waste of The Rock’s time. Because Kelly pretends to have prudent thoughts about the use of celebrity, about how the news cycle from the past few years has been Britney and Iraq, Britney and Iraq, Britney and Iraq, to the point where the two become intertwined, and then does nothing coherent with the provocative idea. Kelly uses The Rock — not to mention the rest of his improbable A-listers — as a pawn, and the gambit eventually comes across as pointless and mean-spirited. But enough about me.

The critics who got behind the film in the wake of its vitriolic reception at Cannes — here’s looking at you, Manohla — mainly admire the sheer chutzpah (Ms. Dargis calls it “reaching beyond the obvious”) of the thing, as if grandiosity was a cure for clumsiness. What they forget is that nearly everything in Southland Tales is miscalculated, from its woeful sense of humor (see the title of this post, or consider the script’s oft-repeated catchphrase: “I’m a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide!”) to its stupid political science (the kleptocracy is being fought by a rebel sect called the neo-Marxists, which a voice-over helpfully explains is influenced by “the teachings of German philosopher Karl Marx”) to its childish fixation on big-bang apocalypse (I’m sorry, but Kelly has made only two films, both about the end of the world.)

Thank God for YouTube, because it will save the film’s only worthwhile scene from languishing in obscurity. Justin Timberlake plays a soldier recently returned from Iraq, a question-mark-scarred veteran of the siege at Falluja, and Kelly provides him with a drunken karaoke wonderland set to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” (You know: “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier!”) The scene is a complete non-sequitur, but Timberlake’s bravado rescues it from complete nonsense and then some. Maybe if Kelly had restricted this overblown project to Timberlake’s recognizable human character, the film would begin to approach the contagious sci-fi passion of his earlier project, the justifiably celebrated Donnie Darko.

This is, of course, the problem with Southland Tales. Somebody told Richard Kelly that he’s a genius, but failed to point out that Donnie Darko became a cult classic for its detailed illustration of teenage anxiety, not for its needlessly elaborate (and mostly incoherent) cosmology. This explains why Donnie Darko is the rare film where the theatrical version far outshines the director’s cut. While Kelly is obsessed with explaining how the world ends, we (and, presumably, the studio) simply loved peeling away at the secrets of his approachable suburban heroes. So Southland Tales is his big “You want the End of The World? I’ll give you the End of The World!” statement, and he ditches Donnie Darko‘s restrained and emotionally pointed scope for a masturbatory universe (complete with three prefatory graphic novels, available for purchase) whose characters and ideas seem completely interchangeable.

I get where Kelly is coming from. I understand the sentiment that this geopolitical moment needs its own interpretive dance climax set on the eve of apocalypse. It’s a stretch, but I also get that our country’s responses to “teen horniness and war” are essentially part of the same continuum of governmental mismanagement. But still, Southland Tales is a waste of resources. Instead of taking the nation’s pulse, it sublimates our patriotic outrage into comic-book squares, and drowns our coherent anger in petty conspiracy theory. Bill O’Reilly would call it “bloviating far-left twaddle”; he wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate.

It’s almost enough to turn me Republican.

The lion sleeps tonight

•November 11, 2007 • Leave a Comment

“There is quixotic, and then there is Norman Mailer: the author of numerous best-selling loose, baggy monsters that tackle every important issue and icon of the 20th century, but also a guy who stabbed his second wife (out of six) with a penknife at a party, head-butted Gore Vidal in response to a suggestion that he was violent, and ran for mayor of New York City in 1969 on a platform advocating that the city sever itself from the United States. The 84-year-old literary lion has burnished his legend by pursuing every whim to its pathological extreme.”

Continue reading Akiva’s take on the films of Norman Mailer over at The Forward.

Against Human Logic

•November 6, 2007 • Leave a Comment

WAR AND PEACE (Sergei Bondarchuk, 1968)
posted by Christine

To the young woman who sat in front of me during Parts 3 and 4 of War and Peace last Thursday:

It’s okay not to like a movie. We’re all adults. We don’t have to pretend to really enjoy something just because it’s been described as “the greatest movie ever made.” But if you do think it’s really boring, you should probably just do what I do when an episode of Family Guy is dragging on: leave the room. If your boyfriend wants to stay, that’s okay! You guys don’t have to do everything together all the time. I mean, I left my boyfriend at home for War and Peace. He was cool. I was cool. We both were cool.

Moving onto the film. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like it. The battle scenes were just unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. Pre-CGI, thousands of real bodies choreographed, horses bucking riders, fires, expolosions, fires, explosions, bullets, smoke, and so many beautiful birds’-eye shots that were, I’m guessing, shot from a helicopter? Seeing Pierre wander into battle in his white suit and top hat had a new power — Bondarchuk made it absurd in a way that Tolstoy simply couldn’t in words. (Of course, Tolstoy also gave Pierre’s intellectual evolution a weight that the film doesn’t even try to match — when he announced his intent to assassinate Napoleon, audience members laughed, thinking it was a joke. It is not.)

Lady in front of me, you might feel better knowing that I missed the balls from Parts 1 and 2, too. I loved watching Lyudmila Savelyeva dance. (She was a ballerina, after all.) I also loved her haircut. (I also went home and gave myself her haircut after the first two parts.) And Vyacheslav Tikhonov! Maybe he was the reason I didn’t mind having left my boyfriend at home. But twelve hundred pages is not easily whittled down to 8 hours, and of War and Peace, Bondarchuk chose to make Mostly War. Certainly the movie is more deeply affecting if you’ve read the book and know that the endless landscape shots are standing in for philosophical meditations on the Russian people; and you might wonder why Bondarchuk bothers to put Sonya in the movie at all. But I digress. Perhaps the only thing more inconceivable that this film was made at all is the fact that it was only Bondarchuk’s second directorial stint. Destiny of a Man is moving to the top of my netflix queue.

“I have this phobia about having my body penetrated…”

•November 3, 2007 • Leave a Comment

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
posted by Akiva

Marshall McLuhan said something about how all forms of media are extensions of our bodies, but I doubt he had anything in mind like the game-pods of eXistenZ, fleshy modules of bumpy nipples linked to umbilical cords that, properly lubricated, plug into a vaginal “bioport” at the base of your spine. (I said this was a Cronenberg movie, right?) We generally conceive of virtual reality as an escape from the flesh — how else to define immortality? — but Cronenberg’s 1999 mindfuck wants to depict “jacking in” as just a heightened form of organic pleasure seeking. It’s a natural inclination. What other film about video games takes place entirely in the wilderness?

The pleasures of this very funny, very sick movie will deepen with time. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Allegra Geller is the Salman Rushdie of the gaming circuit, an artistic sorceress whose newest work is provocative enough to merit a fatwa from committed “realists”. After a test-market tryout of Allegra’s brand-new “eXistenZ” is interrupted by an assassination attempt, Allegra and her milquetoast bodyguard (Jude Law) — dude hasn’t even been fitted with a bioport! — escape into the woods to penetrate each other, play eXistenZ and save the game from the clutches of the fundamentalists.

Like Cronenberg’s earlier Videodrome, this is a movie about the movies in an abstract sense; it deals with the pleasures and dangers of alternate reality, and attempts to make sense of a world in which reality can be paused on demand. Free will becomes a troubling concept in a parallel universe where your character’s actions are predetermined; Allegra’s game cannot advance unless your character sticks to the program. This makes for one of my favorite Cronenberg sex scenes — and that’s saying something: Jude and Jennifer are playing the game, and he gropes her without meaning to. “Our characters are obviously supposed to jump on each other,” she responds. “It’s probably a pathetically mechanical attempt to heighten the emotional tension of the next game sequence. No use fighting it.”

I originally saw eXistenZ (which, I should add, is the last Cronenberg film that he wrote and conceived himself) on the big screen during the one week it played in 1999; it was a lot of fun, and I fell for Jennifer Jason Leigh for the first time, but it didn’t yet play like a modern classic to my 14-year-old brain. I was less intelligent, sure, but also more optimistic, less internet-saturated, and I probably didn’t own a cell phone. I never played video games, so all that virtual-reality stuff played like sci-fi to me. That year we all got excited about The Matrix, which had already cornered the market on Y2K paranoia and psychosexual gadget fixation in much more palatable fashion.

I watched eXistenZ this week right after finishing William Gibson’s 1983 “Neuromancer,” a novel that effectively imagined the internet into existence, defining cyberspace as that “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation,” which is still about as good an encapsulation of what we’re dealing with as I’ve ever heard. And eXistenZ‘s game world is quite literally a consensual hallucination, a bunch of folks gathered in a room, smiling eagerly, plugging in in unison. It’s an update of “Neuromancer” — but a definite improvement on Gibson’s jargon-heavy pulp exercise; he would go on to write better books — and an elaboration upon Videodrome and Crash, both of which imagine the ramifications of the new and dangerous ways we might devise to get our kicks.

The film is itself a game, and the “shocker” ending originally struck me as an elaborate tease. But still, if the ending fails on a dramatic level, it helps underscore the limitations of a reality that has no firm footing. Stories need to create a coherent and consistent universe, and eXistenZ asserts that the immediacy of video games — or any other form of role playing, really — corrodes all our associative faculties. If it’s an obvious point, well, I don’t recall it ever being made so invigoratingly. Unfortunately, to Cronenberg, it’s too late now to resist plugging in; the new world order is already part of the body.

“This is Radio Peking.”

•October 21, 2007 • 2 Comments

LA CHINOISE (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
posted by Akiva

At this point, what can you do wih Godard? Do you relegate your admiration to the “early, funny stuff,” the unimpeachably chic Band of Outsiders or Breathless, the kind of movies you can play on mute during dinner parties — and here I suspect Vivre sa Vie works best — to cultivate a mood? Do you laugh at the grad-school-level circular dialogue, because political radicalism, existential philosophy, and Brecht no longer carry weight? (And maybe this is just a new alienation technique for contemporary urban elites to reckon with; I certainly heard laughter at New York’s Film Forum last night, at least until the kids starting talking terrorist tactics…) Or do you — pardon my French — shut up and deal with the Hobermanian assertion that Godard reinvented cinema and you just weren’t around early enough to notice?

Well, there’s a level on which Godard will always get me. His ability to meld form and content (while keeping both form and content very clearly in the foreground) makes just about every other film seem like it exists in 2-D. There’s a specific scene in La Chinoise in which Anne Wiazemsky’s Maoist militant tells her boyfriend (the forever puppyish Jean-Pierre Leaud) that she no longer loves him, attempting to make him simultaneously feel the pain and understand her decision. She is trying to prove a point, something about how a revolutionary needs to be able to fight a war on two fronts.

And of course, Godard is not content with this snippet of conversation as an explanatory device. Throughout the rest of La Chinoise, he makes the viewer attempt to make sense of two threads at once; a scene heavy on didactic dialogue will be intermittently interrupted by a fragmented sentence presented to the viewer via title cards. This is complicated further for non-French audiences because the title cards flash so quickly that they often can’t be fully subtitled. It’s a potent and baffling barrage of intellectual engagement, and like any would-be revolutionary, you’re either all the way in or you’re out.

I love Susan Sontag’s historical explanation of this technique in her essay on Vivre sa Vie: “Throughout the history of film, image and word have worked together in tandem. In the silent film, the word — set down in the form of titles — alternated with, literally linked together, the sequences of images. With the advent of sound films, image and word became simultaneous rather than successive. While in silent films the word could be either comment on the action or dialogue by the participants in the action, in sound films the word became (except for documentaries) almost exclusively, certainly preponderantly dialogue. Godard restores the dissociation of word and image characteristic of silent film, but on a new level.”

One of my favorite Brechtian illustrations of alienation-as-engagement is the way Godard uses a title card to announce The Last Scene of the Film. Seeing that, how can you not pay attention?

I’ll let others deal with the muddled politics of La Chinoise. From today’s vantage, Maoism is nobody’s idea of social progress, and I’m not even convinced that Godard’s haute bourgeouis radicals believe their own bullshit, but I love the way Godard allows his characters the time to pose ideas, argue and protest. My favorite scene is a ten minute argument on a train between Wiazemsky and a professor. She’s trying to convince him that a terrorist act is the logical next step, and he’s trying to make her realize that she has no follow-up plan. For a film built in fragments, La Chinoise really gives this conversation room to breathe. While polemics shout from the walls of the film’s revolutionary cell, these two characters speak in complete paragraphs.

La Chinoise is all about theory and practice. How do you bring home violence from across the world? Well, you stage it as theater. The characters argue about whether or not they belong to the Communist tradition from Russia, debate the ramifications of Stalin’s death, attempt to define just and unjust military action, and recreate war zones using G.I. Joes and toy guns, but really, they never leave the apartment. (I think that modern-day SDS meetings also follow this blueprint.) And when they eventually do make it outside to turn theory into practice, the fun and games quickly dissipate, and it’s time to close up shop.