Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The White Ribbon

I left the auditorium of the Montgomery arthouse theater that showed Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or-winning feature, The White Ribbon, with a knot in my stomach that formed about 30 minutes into the film and only tightened for the next two hours. When I stumbled back into my car, I sat that for a moment and began to hyperventilate for a minute or so as my gut finally loosened and the flood of emotion I'd choked back for fear of having a public meltdown came pouring out in ragged breath and shaking hands. Never have I had such a reaction to a film; The White Ribbon did not so much grab me as throttle the life from my throat, and I hesitate to think what it says about me that I could go through such an ordeal and confidently say I loved it.

The film's narration, delivered by the schoolteacher (and, in what is perhaps a self-reflexive nod, the piano teacher) of the small, fictitious German village of Eichwald, recalls that of Barry Lyndon: his address overshares detail and often beats the action to the punch, if not precluding it entirely. One may not even trust the narration; "I don't know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true," the teacher confides in us at the start. How could he? He's in a Haneke film, after all; The White Ribbon is a horror film that, with only the briefest and most somber of exceptions, never shows its horrors on-screen. However, unlike the deliberate coldness of Caché, or the condescension of Funny Games, The White Ribbon depicts violence in humanistic tones: in this film is an Austrian's attempt to figure out how the generation that preceded his could have come to accept Nazism, and as such it contains an earnestness bereft of the director's other films.

The first major action of the film -- and the only significant act that is entirely shown -- features the town doctor riding his horse into a nearly invisible wire strung across the entrance to his manor that breaks the beast's leg and severely injures the man. He spends much of the next year in a hospital 30 km away, while his children quietly persevere. The mysteriousness of this incident -- a prank? An attack of darker intentions? -- stands as the opening salvo of acts of increasing brutality and shock that mount upon the villagers. Children are kidnapped and beaten, a barn catches fire, a weakened and overworked female harvester is killed in an accident in the sawmill. Each of these instances of violence, injury and death seems self-contained, but Haneke, with his static yet probing camera, observes how those incidents not only converge but how they each alter the lives of others. No such incident, whether accidental or the result of human violence, can affect only one person.

Adding to the level of discomfort, perhaps even the violence, in the community is the town pastor (Burghart Klaußner), a hard-line Protestant who rails against the evils affecting the village and harshly abuses his children. For reasons that remain unclear, he punishes his eldest son and daughter by thrashing them with a cane, and he ties the titular ribbons on them as symbols of the innocence and purity they fail to embody. Those ribbons thus become an ironic metaphor of shackles placed upon them by their father for transgressions so ill-defined they might merely stem from the kids' existence. Later, he even shames the boy, Martin, further by intimidating the boy to stop masturbating by telling a comically ludicrous yet terrifyingly grave story of another child who withered away and died from impure touching. This pastor's behavior, his hypocritical wrath and judgment, recalls the stepfather in Fanny and Alexander, who was of course based on Bergman's own father.

The entire film is Bergmanesque, really, from Christian Berger's crisp black-and-white photography to the theatrical placement, the detailed (yet historically inaccurate) set design and emotional distance peppered with the odd, unstoppably affecting close-up. The chief connection, of course, involves religion. The pastor is one of the most ruthless people in the village, and the children he beats go on to enact violence themselves. When his mother gives birth, Martin swears and punches his slightly younger brother, as if the thought of another child being raised and tortured in this house in unbearable, or that he simply does not want more competition. As God's representative, he inflames the tempers of not only his children but the townspeople; he routinely attributes grandiose levels of evil to mendacity and other minor sins while his own use of physical and psychological torture never gives him a moment's inner conflict.

Tracing this line a bit further, one could then accept the pastor's superior, the harsh, distant baron who rules the town, as a God substitute. He does not allow his subjects, particularly the poor, migrant farmers most reliant upon him, to ever really interact with him, and he even literally works some of them to death for his own profit. When his son is taken and severely beaten, (make the connection yourself), the Baron abandons the village, a cold reversal of the Biblical sacrifice of the son. He does not return for winter services that year, which the villagers interpret as "a sign of anger." When the pastor details that ridiculous masturbation story to Martin, the boy stands in front a cross in a clear reference to the key shot in Bergman's Winter Light. But where that film suggested the nonexistence of God, the implication of The White Ribbon is that He does exist; He's just an avaricious, self-absorbed bastard.

I do not think, however, that Haneke is really targeting God. Rather, he is attacking the idea of God as created by those entrusted to teach His word. The pastor does not come close to inhabiting the numerous atrocities committed in His name over the centuries, but his violent nature informs the wrathful image the villagers have of the Lord. Matthew 18:18 states that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven," so the God who treats Eichwald so cruelly is the result of the cruelty that forged Him. Curiously, I think of Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit: "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

Religion openly factors into the attacks, when the particularly repulsive attack on a mentally disabled boy is accompanied by a note that says the unidentified assailant shall continue to accost children as a means of atoning for their parents' sins. The note references the barbarous passage of Exodus 20:5, which reads, ""You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me." The next verse mentions that God will bless those who obey Him for a thousand generations, but the thought that He would take out his fury on the children of the wicked simply for being born is abhorrent.

The verse's use in this context raises a question: who is really being punished in The White Ribbon? The attack on young Sigi splinters the village across battle lines, between rich and poor as well as young and old. The adults beat their children to strengthen them, and those meant to help and advise them are either abusive (the pastor) or neglectful (the teacher). Even the doctor proves to be a monster, perhaps the worst of the all, when he returns; his kindness toward the other kids in the village belies the despicable, unspeakable ways in which he torments his midwife/mistress and his own children. The doctor's return collides so viciously with the longing and sorrow his children felt in his absence that he completely shifts the dynamic of their characters from loyal and loving children to codependent victims who do not have the power to change their lives and thus accept the conditions of their existence as best they can within traditional family behavior. The other kids in town are no better than the adults: the toughened children of the pastor and the Baron's steward eerily follow the trail of violence in the town under the pretense of helping the injured children and those of the injured adults as if an arthouse Children of the Corn. When someone brings to the attention of the pastor, who heretofore railed against the evils of the town children incessantly, he manages to locate a reserve of untapped hypocrisy to muster outrage at such an implication. How could anyone accuse the children? They're so innocent! Why, I even tied ribbons on them to remind them of how they're supposed to be!

The only rhythm to the attacks is that the weak are injured, which causes the strong to fear for themselves and thus take harsher measures against the weak, whom they set up as scapegoats. Thus, we see the young generation being hardened by horror, and that group of stronger children who follow the incidents around town will clearly grow into the sort of people who will embrace fascism in the detritus of Weimar Germany. It's plainly visible in Martin, who precariously walks the rails of a high bridge after his father beats him. When the schoolteacher catches him, Martin explains his behavior as a test of God's love; this moment demonstrates how the pastor's psychological warfare against the child's notion of his own spiritual worth leads him to desperately act out to see if God still loves him, but there's an almost Nietzschian arrogance in the response, as if this "proof" of God's decision to keep Martin alive proves his superiority. Like the religious angle of the film, however, I would hesitate to assign the film's violence to an explanation so simple as anti-fascism. Haneke himself placed the cycle of violence depicted in the film in the larger context of terrorism that such abuse breeds. For Haneke, children have suffered so much violence against them and perpetuated so much of their own that setting them in the fabricated glass cage of "innocence" is as detrimental as it is hypocritical. We turn our heads from this corruption so that these children grow up to repeat the cycle, especially when they live under an authoritarian system like the Baron's (or Hitler's).

Admittedly, that theme gives The White Ribbon a perilously clichéd premise, but anyone who truly pays attention to a film will know that what's being said counts for a lot less than how the filmmaker is saying it. The director does not show the violence, only the lead-up and the aftermath, studying how the acts affect others and how others continue to harm. Whenever a parent takes a cane to hit a child, Haneke stops his camera outside the room to spare us the sight. He does not, however, spare us the sound, the thwack of leather tearing air and ripping flesh as the most horrifying screams echo through the halls. The music is ominous and portentous, yet it is all diegetic, played by the sealed-off bourgeoisie who pound out such dolorous songs to distract themselves from the events plaguing the town even as the music itself makes it impossible to think of anything else. The sound design, deathly quiet and punctuated by the deafening sound of creaking wood and bloodcurdling screams, is every bit as impeccable as the cinematography, which itself gives away Haneke's method. By using color film and converting it in post-production to monochrome, Berger and Haneke prove that their intent with the film is not to recreate the period and delve into the characters but study them from a modern point-of-view. When Haneke cuts from the pastor intimidating his son with the masturbation story to a shot of the doctor screwing the midwife without passion just so he can get a jump (it's not even for something so seemingly quaint as pain suppression), the director underlines, with his typical dark humor, the insanity of instilling fear over something as harmless as self-love in the face of these cruel affairs conducted by the adults -- besides, is one-sided sexual gratification really so different from masturbation anyway?

That coldness might tie The White Ribbon to the director's usual detachment, but here he only condescends to the characters, and not the audience. There is a despair to this film, from the color being sucked out of its film stock to the flawless stoicism of the child actors, as Haneke attempts to show how deeply the corruption runs, how even children are being warped by a system of fascistic power-grabs that long preceded the National Socialist Party. And because he is willing to show the scope of society's oppression, Haneke is also shrewd enough to remind everyone that goodness still exists. Watch how he turns the overdone sentimentality of a young child, in this case the doctor's boy, asking about the meaning of death into something unique, heartbreaking, rewarding and even a bit scary by having the older sister, in her father's absence, try to explain this to the boy, whose birth cost their mother her life and whose father's uncertain state hangs over them both. Or, consider the scene where the pastor's young son gives him a bird that he nursed back to life as a replacement for his dad's lost pet, and how the pastor is quietly shamed by this act of the true innocence in which he does not really believe, that he commodifes with tacky symbolism and thus devalues until, for the rest, it becomes meaningless. These glimmers of hope can survive, but the sad truth is that the only way to do so, at least in the near future, is to simply flee the forces that identify humanity as a weakness and attack it. Who could blame the runners? Horror, like the other main forms of storytelling (action, comedy and drama), allows us to confront our fears in a safe environment. But Haneke does not allow us to simply accept these evils and move beyond them; he withholds the payoff, confronting us with the cracks in our society, not just the Nazis', and thus we are made to actually retain and ruminate upon what we see. Maybe that's why I had a panic attack in the parking lot.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


If the Godfather films used organized crime as a personification of the corruption of the American society and dream, Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas never rises out of the surface level, not because it is shallow but because it gets itself in too deep. Who can stop to think of the poetry of illegality and how it represents the truth ethos of American law and organization when you're too busy looking over your shoulder for the guy who's gonna whack you? Michael Corleone would sympathize, but only in his twilight: "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me right back in," he once said. The gangsters of GoodFellas do not even have the luxury of dreaming of escape.

Of course, to call the crime that occurs in GoodFellas "organized" would be generous. It charts the street level thugs, not the consiglieres and dons who buy casinos and bribe senators; the few visible higher-ups who manage to stand out above the rest never involve themselves in anything more substantive than the local rackets. What's interesting of Scorsese's eye-level document of gangster life is how the lower-level soldiers and minor bosses, when separated from those no higher than a caporegime, think of themselves as kings, even when they report to practically everyone. Hell, most of them aren't even made men.

A young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta as an adult) only noticed the swagger, though. "All my life I wanted to be a gangster," he tells us over a scene of horrific brutality that precedes a flashback, and the irony of the placement of that declaration dissipates in the face of Henry's childhood memories. A half-Irish, half-Sicilian brat with no future, Henry looks out across the street to members of the Lucchese Family and sees only idols. All they do is run stolen goods, but they have tons of cash and total respect, something that the kid values more than anything an education might get him. So, he starts to work for the wiseguys, which his parents enjoy until the father realizes what he really does.

Young Henry goes from an unremarkable, pre-gray-flannel-suit American teen to one of those low-ranking kings. He is made to park the wiseguys' Cadillacs and hock crates of beer and stolen cartons of cigarettes, yet the neighborhood kids carry his mother's groceries, and thugs intimidate the postman who delivers Henry's mail in order to stop him handing letters from school officials and truant officers to Henry's father. Of course, Henry's dad seems to react so angrily to his son skipping school not because he wants the boy to get a proper education but because he does not like the idea of his son gaining more clout than him.

GoodFellas opens with the old "Based on a true story" chestnut that usually announces a series of half-truths and whole lies. That's true of this film, too, but among the many delights of GoodFellas is the balance between some of Scorsese's most straight-faced and "realistic" direction and his usual fanciful interpretation. The script itself mainly served as a transcription of improvisations the actors performed in rehearsal, so much of the dialogue of this true story comes from the actors. That first scene, taken from the sequence that would bridge the first and second halves later in the film, casts the three main wiseguys -- Henry, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) -- in the Expressionistic red of the brake lights interspersed with blinding white bursts as Tommy shoots the half-dead man in Henry's trunk, reveals how Scorsese's aesthetic certainly doesn't stick to documentary-like verité either.

But the use of both subjective direction and improvised acting makes GoodFellas feel so real. The camera draws us into this world, while the increasingly panicked and paranoid mannerisms of the actors, even if they're speaking their own lines and not those of the real-life mafiosos and wives they play, give the audience a fly-on-the-wall perspective that more coldly scripted lines would have precluded. As a young adult, Henry walks through a night club, and the camera takes his POV as it glides through the place as wiseguys, these old and powerful men, turn and address Henry (and the camera, and therefore us) and greet him as an equal. The effect nearly drowns out Henry's narration, speaking volumes of the allure of what Scorsese always paints in a negative light even as he allows us to empathize. Violence permeates GoodFellas, even more so than Scorsese's preceding films, and the great triumph of the director's work here is the manner with which he can play it so broadly that it's often comedic even as the sadistic, lawless brutality constantly undercuts Henry's nostalgic view of his gangster life.

Occasionally, GoodFellas practically intoxicates the viewer with its hints of power. When Henry takes his future wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco, the film's sole weak link) on their first true date, Scorsese employs a tracking shot that manages even to shame the previous one. After all, the first tracking shot showed us why Henry loved Family life, but he'd also already become used to it; the second tacitly assumes Karen's perspective as she watches this punky, self-absorbed 21-year-old transform into a deity. He practically changes the properties of the microcosm of the club: he parts the entry line to get in through the side door, walks calmly and amicably through the kitchen where patrons cannot enter, a chair "materializes" in the packed restaurant for Henry and his date, and much older people buy Henry free wine out of respect. Scorsese has to end the shot with a pan to a shitty, hackneyed comic just to remind us that this isn't someone's wonderful dream.

Karen's embrace of Henry, aroused as she is by his violent reprisal for a groping neighbor and his flashy wealth and power, shows how even the routinely abused women in this underworld cannot consider another life once they've had a taste. Sure, you have to pay your respects and, most importantly, "keep your mouth shut," but a wiseguy only has to obey the wiseguys' rules, not society's. As such, the insanity of gangster life often plays as comedy so grandiose it might have fit in the silent age were it not so rooted in dialogue. Tommy, attempting to woo a Jewish woman, displays the typical solipsism of the gangsters when he unironically chuckles, "I can't believe this. A Jew broad prejudiced against Italians!" Scorsese then juxtaposes, despite their lengthy time apart, scenes of Karen's Jewish mother and Tommy's Sicilian mom to demonstrate how the two are practically carbon copies for all the ethnic hand-wringing of both the Jews and Italians who constantly insult each other. Tommy in general walks the line between lunacy and dark comedy, his emotional rollercoaster so wild it sweeps up all those in his company: in perhaps the film's most quoted scene, Tommy has a dinner party in stitches before suddenly turning into a cold and intimidating killer when Henry remarks how funny the hothead is. "Funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you?" he hisses, until he finally reveals that he's kidding and people laugh even harder. That's Tommy for you: he can cow everyone in fear or win their love, often with only the briefest separation between the two.

The most absurd comedy, though, reveals just how powerful even these low-level guys are. "Nobody goes to jail unless they want to," Henry tells Karen, and when he is later pinched, he has his driver take him to jail as if going for a meeting. He might as well be, as he and the other incarcerated gangsters live as though nothing changed; they even get access to a kitchen to cook hearty Italian meals. There's no place that the wiseguys cannot make more comfortable. As the film continues, however, the humor and irony of this infiltration reveals its double edge: it also means that there's no place to hide.

Henry is, after all, placed in the center of two men who will lead him to the same destruction, albeit in diametrically opposed paths. Tommy, the white-hot nova packed into Pesci's small frame, is the embodiment of the childish freedom allotted to these gangsters: free to berate, beat, even kill practically anyone who sparks his short temper, Tommy is the unglamorous portrait of what happens when a person is not held accountable (and, when he eventually is, of the stark horror of mob "justice"). Jimmy, on the other hand, is more measured and calculating. Along with caporegime Paulie (Paul Sorveno), Jimmy is one of the few truly organized members of the demonstrated organized crimes. Though violent and ruthless, he carries himself with a more professional and typically calm attitude. He orchestrates the Lufthansa heist, at the time the largest cash robbery ever committed on American soil. In the aftermath, however, Jimmy slowly devolves. As the other criminals immediately advertise their guilt by spending their cuts on expensive, noticeable purchases like cars and mink coats, Jimmy takes drastic measures to protect himself, gradually eliminating almost everyone connected to the heist. In the film's best sequence, perfectly set to the ending strains of Derek & the Dominoes' "Layla," Scorsese's camera glides over images of bodies stowed in cars, dumpsters and even a meat wagon to show where all roads lead in the goodfellas' world.

Jimmy's own descent into paranoia prefigures the intensified final act, in which Henry, made rich but also addicted by selling coke, falls apart in an amphetamine haze. Living in a house that makes Dirk Diggler's pad look tasteful by comparison, Henry practically gives himself to the cops, who track him by helicopter in a funny sequence where Henry constantly makes his companions look for the helicopter to prove he's not crazy. Both he and Karen lose their minds as police raid the house and arrest Henry, as he fears Paulie's wrath while Karen comes to dread Jimmy, who himself frets that Henry will rat on him. Their entire world is based on keeping quiet, but they all live such ostentatious lives that they don't need to speak to give themselves away.

At last, the house of cards finally comes tumbling down. "Being together all the time made everything seem so normal," Karen tells us much earlier in the film; the close-knit nature of family and Family life only further enhances their feelings of superiority and separation from the rest of society. But society eventually breaks up this loose community, and we see how shaky the ties that bind really are, jiggled loose as they are in the frenzy of cocaine-induced hysteria. By this point we're entirely inside Henry's mind, which is probably why Scorsese then chooses to harshly expel us from it. Perhaps because memory of Taxi Driver's controversy (or the more recent hullabaloo over The Last Temptation of Christ) hung over his head, the director does not finish the film in harmonic subjectivity. Instead, Henry stops in the middle of testifying before entering the Witness Relocation Program to rail directly at the audience, who largely complained about this ending. It's understandable, as it shows a man, even in defeat, so arrogant that he turns on the people he invited to listen to his tale. By breaking the engagement of his own story, Henry uses his last bit of screentime to impart one last reminder that he, and those like him, is nothing more than a cocky jerk, and no amount of short-lived power can disguise what a pathetic and aggravating man he is.

Bringing Out the Dead

In preparation for the upcoming Martin Scorsese Blog-a-Thong for the Large Association of Movie Blogs, the following is a re-write of the first Scorsese movie I ever reviewed on this blog. I've scrapped the first entirely in favor of this review for two reasons: 1) My opinion of the film, which was already positive, has changed considerably, to the point that I consider it the director's second-most underrated film after his satirical masterpiece The King of Comedy, and 2) because the first article was unsatisfactory on every level, a shoddy reiteration of plot with little interpretation.

David Bordwell recently posted an article -- to call attention to its quality would suggest that Bordwell (or his wife, Kristen Thompson, for that matter) is ever not at his best -- that outlined Martin Scorsese's use of both French Impressionism and German Expressionism in his work. Anyone who truly pays attention to the director's films will know that the "realism" label bandied about without a care holds no weight: Scorsese's impeccable eye for detail and character certainly add a bedrock of verisimilitude to his corpus, but even the exacting production design of Gangs of New York is interpretative.

This is relevant because, of all the director's films, none throws any pretense at realism to the wind quite like Bringing Out the Dead. Its first moments, a shot of an ambulance speeding through Hell's Kitchen that cuts to the eyes of its driver, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), being processed through numerous color filters as he careens through the city at warp-speed (a direct reference to the first shots of Taxi Driver, albeit played in fast-forward). These shots, and their existence as a frenzied update of Scorsese's greatest film, set the tone of the film: Taxi Driver cooled enough to use its protagonist's mental state to explore larger issues, but Bringing Out the Dead never leaves its tortured insomniac, never allows for anything but the slightest break for air.

It's fitting that, to date, the film should mark the last collaboration between Scorsese and Paul Schrader, as the film shares stylistic -- even narrative ties -- to not just Taxi Driver but Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ as well. The imagery of blurred lights, ubiquitous steam and cascading colors updates Taxi Driver with better technology and more money, yet Scorsese heightens them not simply because he enjoys a bigger budget but because of the lack of control Pierce has over his life; unlike Travis Bickle, Pierce is not the steady pilot of the vessel that ferries him through hell. Objects appear normally, after all, in the windshield; they only blur as you pass them. Pierce agrees: "The biggest problem with not driving is that whenever there's a patient in the back, you're also in the back. The door's closed. You're trapped."

Pierce himself contains elements of Jake LaMotta (his blindness to anything but his own pain and desires) and Bickle (take your pick), but the character he most resembles, after a fashion, is Scorsese's Jesus. Pierce cannot sleep because he's been unable to save any of his patients recently. This failure to literally save people recalls Jesus' doubt over his own message, which the people in Last Temptation begin to distort even before his death, centuries before His word would be completely corrupted by the Crusades and various inquisitions. Pierce, however, cannot seem to manage any sort of salvation: in his first shown assignment, he tends to a man in cardiac arrest who by all accounts is a goner. But he instructs the family, crowded around in fear and the mounting grief of lost hope to play some music that the man liked, as it "helps." Pierce than manages to get a pulse, but this "miracle" clearly had little to do with the Sinatra croon wafting through the apartment, its purpose merely to distract the family from their pain. The man, as we'll see throughout the film, didn't die because of the music, or even because of Frank and his defibrillator, but because Hell's Kitchen has torn him down too many times without killing him that he's not about to start now.

That patient hangs over the rest of the film, in a constant flux between life and death -- he flatlines a dozen times a day and is brought back each time. References are made to his "fighting spirit," but the darker implication is that he fights to die, not to live. He instructed his family not to call 911 and even locked himself in the bathroom to prevent easy access. Thus, this patient comes to embody Pierce's growing self-doubt and his troubling new ideas: "In the last year," he says, "I'd come to believe in such things as spirits leaving the body and not wanting to be put back. Spirits angry at the awkward places death had left them." Frank, with his twisted messiah complex, slowly kills himself for the sake of his patients, and his constant losses wreak havoc with his head. Suddenly, his ideas of saving others begin to lose their pull: "I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness," he says. "I was a grief mop." Ergo, Pierce serves not only as a Christ figure but his own apostle, attempting to save lives and consoling others (and himself) when he fails.

The other reason that the ever vacillating man plays into the story is in the introduction of his daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), one of the more compelling female characters to grace a Scorsese film. Mary, like Frank, cannot decide whether she wants her father to live or die, having suffered abuse as a child yet still unable to let the man go. Arquette excels at these characters, broken women fragile enough to need help in this world yet strong and determined enough to boost others. As such, she becomes Pierce's focus, neither as a love interest nor (à la Bickle) a symbol of anything but simply as the person who may hold the key to his stability, just as he, a kind man in a horrible city, may give Mary the support she's never had.

It's scarcely conceivable that anyone could get by in Scorsese's image of Hell's Kitchen on their own, though so many are made to. Taxi Driver spread its hellish effect over all of New York City, but Bringing Out the Dead reveals that the expanse of New York's hell was actually a dissipation of evil. Hell's Kitchen concentrates that evil into a subsection filled with despair, and its nightmarish imagery is all the more arresting because it's so much easier to identify with Frank and his perception of this nightmarish world. The hospital where he brings his patient, Our Lady of Mercy, is dubbed Misery by its patients and staff; whenever Scorsese returns to it, scanning over its aisles choked with patients who outnumber the rooms, the cops who spend so much time dealing with the wounded criminals and overdosing junkies that they, in their harsh black uniforms, become as much a part of the hospital staff as the white-clad nurses and doctors, who are hardly more sympathetic than the merciless cops. The streets are covered with brain-fried, punch-drunk loonies who cannot be called gutter trash because the gutters are too full to accommodate them. It's such a terrifying microcosm that a dying man (Michael K. Williams) swears that if he lives he'll join the army "where it's safe."

As is fitting for the work of a paramedic, Bringing Out the Dead is very episodic; spread across three nights, each night pairs Frank with another EMT who also suffers from the constant stress of so much death and pain, and each night he travels through segments of the larger segment that is Hell's Kitchen. On the first night, Frank travels with Larry, who attempts to outpace his own breakdown by focusing on the next meal. He cannot eat the same meal two nights in a row, because remembering what he ate the previous night might also conjure memories of the trauma to which he attended. Larry would typically like to avoid as many jobs as he can, so Frank must take the initiative to respond to any call. By the second night, though, Frank is the one who wants a break, which he never receives as Marcus (Ving Rhames) zealously pilots their ambulance to every incident in search of "miracles." Marcus spends the night railing about the Gospels and preaching like an evangelist at the scene of an accident, but his constant flirting with the female dispatcher with whom he shares a dalliance undermines his piety. Marcus and Frank are even present for what someone insists is a virgin birth, of twins no less, but Frank cannot accept this as the miracle that Marcus does as one of the twins -- the one he handles -- dies from complications. Of course, no one really believes that the woman gave birth as a virgin, save the man who saved himself for her.

Marcus' outlandish personality -- as well as his hair, which manages to be both curly and slicked back -- somewhat recalls Screamin' Jay Hawkins, which is appropriate for what is by far Scorsese's most pop music-oriented film; Martha and the Vandellas, Van Morrision, Sinatra, The Who, The Rolling Stones and so many more make appearances, generally increasing in rocking edge as the film wears on and Frank's resolve wears.

So, by the time that Frank teams up with Wolls (Tom Sizemore), whose own frustration with his job has manifested itself in anti-Hippocratic rage against his patients (or victims), the soundtrack is dominated by such punk rockers as The Clash and Johnny Thunders. Frank teeters on the brink by this point, and what is most affecting about Wolls' outbursts is not how insane and violent they are but how closely they mirror the final stages of Frank's self-annihilation. Despite his constant warnings against Wolls' behavior, Frank's first major breakthrough comes when he screams at a suicidal man and offers to help the man kill himself, who flees in terror; "We cured him!" Wolls laughs, but the absurdity of the moment is undercut by the realization that it really is the first person we've seen who might be better off for Frank's intervention. Later, a junkie, Noel, who appears every night in some fit of chemical (internal and external) imbalance and incurs Wolls' wrath, manages to redirect Frank's own budding madness; Frank and Wolls catch him smashing cars with a baseball bat, but when Frank agrees to help Wolls catch and beat Noel, he ends up venting his anger by hitting a car of his own.

The dark comedy of this moment pervades the film. Frank, disillusioned with his role as a savior incapable of rescuing others, wants to stop his torture but cannot bring himself to stop self-harming on his own (a Scorsesian theme that stretches back to his 1967 short The Big Shave). So, he reports to each of his shifts late, or leaves early to try to get some sleep that never comes; his captain finally confronts him on this, but he's got a wild hair up his ass that transforms his anger at Frank for sloppy work into self-righteous defiance of the system. Frank does everything but come right out and beg to be released from this torment, but the captain interprets the rage as a sign of dedication and not only retains Frank but offers the "unlucky" son of a bitch an extra week of sick time. So many people return to Misery for drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and brawl wounds that the head nurse (Mary Beth Hurt) knows many patients by name and chastises them and threatens to withhold treatment like a mother exercising tough love.

This lunacy adds to the warped perception of Hell's Kitchen, which results in some of Scorsese's boldest visual invention. The lights around the ambulance seem to blur as they're seen through the tears caught in Frank's eyes: he never quite cries after all, no matter how close he comes. The ambulance moves through Hell's Kitchen in such a frenzy that Scorsese films it from above, or with the camera entirely on it side, and images are often processed through the windows and mirrors of the vehicle, distorting if not completely destroying them. Just as Scorsese had characters glide in Mean Streets and GoodFellas to show how they perceived the places they felt most welcome, so too does he fluidly rush up the stairs to get Frank and Larry to Mary's father. Frank hallucinates a stoned dream of the ghosts of those he failed to save reaching up to him from a street pavement as he literally raises the dead, and a recurring image of a young girl named Rose, whose death set his collapse in motion, tortures Frank (this would of course be reworked and used again in Shutter Island). And few scenes in all of Scorsese's canon are as shamelessly Expressionistic (or bizarre) as his rescue of the drug dealer, somewhat kind and somewhat evil, impaled upon a metal girder below his apartment window. As Frank makes his first unmistakable, physical save of the film, the blowtorch cutting the girder sends up sparks. Almost romantically, with Frank cradling the weakened dealer's head, no less, Cyrus remarks that he can feel the heat of the warming metal, which pierced his chest. With such unabashed artistic touches, is it any wonder that the usual hospital dispatcher who sends Frank on these assignments is voiced by Scorsese himself?

Cage pours all of himself into the role, as the part could not work with any less an effort. His hangdog expression is perfect for such a downtrodden character; when he tiredly counters Mary's fleeting attempts to justify her father's past behavior as a method to make her strong to survive the city with, "The city doesn't discriminate. It gets everybody," his fatalism seems more human and strangely empathetic than cynical. That perverse humanism defines his final act, in which he puts Mary's father out of his misery rather than force the man to live with a micro-defibrillator in his heart for the rest of his life simply to sate Frank's need to keep someone alive. Searing, white light often highlights action in Bringing Out the Dead, usually when focusing on the dead and dying. It's an ironic use of holy light to show the terrible act of death, but then there's always been a certain contradiction between the horror of mortality and the hope of everlasting life it brings. By allowing Mary's father to die, however, and by returning to Mary, Frank not only releases the messiah complex that keeps him up, he also attains some of the holiness he so desperately chased, at last falling asleep in Mary's arms as Scorsese bathes in light. Travis Bickle's "redemption" was caked in blood, but Frank attains his by the absence of the red stuff that coats him everywhere else. As perfect as they were for each other, Schrader and Scorsese would do well to not undermine the chapter-closing image of this last shot, content to let it summarize their remarkable work together and to bide its time until people at last realize what they've overlooked.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Losers

The inherent strength and weakness of The Losers, indeed of the marketing pitches that secured its production, lies in the relative anonymity of its source material. The minor impact of Andy Diggle's 32-issue loose, modern remake of an early-'70s comic about World War II soldiers gives director Sylvain White the freedom to play with the material and rework it to his own ends without worry of legions of die-hards whispering the word "continuity" around him like a horde of extra-pale ghosts. On the other hand, the comic's adaptation suggests, in a broader sense, that the comic book film has hit the wall just as it appeared to be cresting into its golden age. With Kick-Ass created out of a fear of directors mining the C- and D-lists of DC and Marvel, Vaughn and Miller seem to have prefigured exactly this movie, even if they failed to overcome it.

From start to finish, The Losers plays like a throwback to the heyday of '80s action cinema and television. With an A-Team-esque squad of super soldiers burned by the government they so loyally and ruthlessly served fighting a deliriously campy villainous mastermind, The Losers doesn't have an ounce of originality in its breezy 98 minutes. To its credit, the film isn't trying to be subversive, satiric, innovative or whatever other terms have been lazily tossed about recently. Yet The Losers does not particularly succeed, failing to completely leap over even the low bar it sets for itself.

Perhaps it's the severity of the context in which White places the OTT characters, action and comedy. Not content to hang just any failed mission on the heads of its five specialists -- leader Franklin Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), right-hand man Roque (Idris Elba), hacker Jensen (Chris Evans), sniper "Cougar" (Óscar Jaenada) and driver "Pooch" (Columbus Short) -- White opens the film with a planned anti-terrorist operation in Bolivia that ends with a double-cross and the deaths of 25 children. Now, where's them one-liners?

Don't get me wrong: a film doesn't need to be entirely without sincerity or sobering drama to work as a piece of escapist fun. But this action sets a precedent for the film's narrative and seriousness that it abruptly abandons. The thought of two dozen dead children -- yes, even imaginary ones -- weighs over the enjoyment we're meant to take from the violence of the rest of the picture. Furthermore, their deaths only wander back into the minds of the characters, far more furious that the mysterious CIA bigwig Max (Jason Patric) burned them than the fate of those kids, when the time comes for an inspirational speech; I waited in vain for Col. Clay to shout in despair and rage, "Won't somebody think of the children?!"

That awkwardly inserted, non-motivational gravitas hangs upon the film's neck like an albatross, further dragging down the sloppy editing. Clearly a graduate student at Michael Bay U, White, previously known for his dance picture Stomp the Yard, appears to adamantly refuse to let any shot last longer than three seconds unless people are merely talking, and even then he peppers dialogue with reverse shots to ensure no one gets too comfortable. The phrase "looks like a music video" has become so hackneyed -- and, with original, innovative and supremely talented directors like David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry honing their craft with such projects, downright fallacious -- that its usage signifies that the writer has nothing of much substance to say of the aesthetic, yet it genuinely applies to White's direction. Porting over editor David Checel -- who has worked on numerous music videos, from Outkast's "Hey Ya!" to A Perfect Circle's "Weak and Powerless" -- from Stomp the Yard, White's camera jerks and spasms about the place, not so much transitioning between scenes (or even shots) as merely cutting to the next place. White and Checel even tweak one shot to jump a bit along with the beat of an overlapped song, a touch that has no purpose, little style and exists only in that one shot.

Such visual clumsiness only enhances the shortcomings of the script. Characters are given trite motivation that is only ever spoken, never shown. The Losers receive help in their quest to return the United States and to exact revenge from Aisha (Zoe Saldana), whose mysterious background cannot sufficiently envelop the flatness of her character. A helpful question to ask oneself in films driven primarily through narrative devices is, "So what?" Harsh and dismissive as it may sound on paper, questioning whether a reveal or twist or any other development affects anything. 25 children are murdered by a nefarious and corrupt CIA chief? So what? Oh, that's Aisha's secret? So what? There's a traitor in the Losers' midst who is the person you'd least suspect and therefore suspect the most? So what? This film passes like water through a clenched fist; everything that might give it some connection to the audience dissipates in the incessant irrelevance of it all.

Happily, everyone knows that nothing is expected of them, and, unlike Clash of the Titans, The Losers does offer its game cast a few moments to shine. Poor Jeffrey Dean Morgan: he puts in such commendable work -- who can forget him being one of two good things about Watchmen? -- but you just can't help but look at him and wonder if he gets work when casters put out calls looking for a stockier version of Robert Downey Jr. or a more American-friendly Javier Bardem. Bless his heart, Morgan commits to the part so completely, though, that he nearly draws out emotion from the most underwritten role in the film, and that's saying something. Patric comes the closest to updating his character for the modern age, playing Max alternately as an outsized action villain and a self-aware commentary on such types. Max's flighty petulance, evidenced by his demand for a team of 18 armed guards, only to order them killed simply because he changed his mind before even using them for an assignment, adds a tongue-in-cheek flavor to the otherwise banal action setups that surround him. But it is Chris Evans, who managed to shine in much worse comic book fare (the Fantastic Four series), who walks away with the film as the sort of endlessly quipping second banana who's just important enough to warrant his placement among an elite team yet self-effacing and carefree enough to stand outside the more leaden moments of reflection that burden the others. Besides, for all the dullness of most of the action scenes, the suitably ridiculous climax -- complete with a deliciously impossible death that defies the explosive properties of a vehicle's gas tank, any sense of logic and a number of the laws of physics -- offers a much-needed blast of throwback inanity in a world where Bond has gone the way of Bourne. If the poorly shot, largely stake-less scenes of the previous 80-85 minutes failed to successfully divert attention away from The Losers' many flaws, the ending demonstrates that White and Checel have a bit of spark between them after all, and pulling it all together in time for the film to end at least places it above Kick-Ass, which only managed to splinter farther apart as it progressed.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The River (1997)

Common sense for writing a film review dictates that the critic should never spend more time than necessary describing the movie's plot. The reasons are obvious: the reader either has or hasn't seen the film, thus making plot synopsis redundant for one group and too-revealing for the other (though why people read entire reviews for films they haven't seen and subsequently bitch about even minor spoilers is quite beyond me). Also, the purpose of the review is to describe and analyze the film in one's own words, not to regurgitate what happens like the host of a personal Chris Farley Show. Some films are dense enough to require a bit more explanation before explication, of course, and frankly sometimes you just fall into the trap of padding, even if doing so unconsciously. Tsai Ming-liang's third feature, however, is a film told so lyrically that it becomes sorely tempting not simply to write down what happens scene-by-scene, confident that even separated from the images a synopsis would read more beautifully than any attempt to tackle the film.

Take the first half hour alone: The River opens with a low-angle shot of an escalator in a Taipei mall, clacking loudly as its stairs rotate. The shot holds until a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) rides down the escalator as a man, Xiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), rides up. They recognize each other and converse, and the woman takes Xiao-kang to a location shoot where a director -- real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui -- fusses over a dummy meant to simulate a corpse drowned in a river. She asks Xiao-kang to enter the fetid, scummy water in the dummy's place, and he reluctantly agrees. Tsai moves from Xiao-kang, who cleans himself off in a shower and has sex with his lady friend, to a middle-aged man in a sauna attempts to solicit a tired young man who rebuffs him. Tsai follows this older man home, where he crosses paths with Xiao-kang, who develops a bizarre ache in his neck that cause him to crash his motorcycle. The older man rushes to his side, and we see that they know each other, and then realize that the man is Xiao-kang's father. Tsai cuts away from them both to a middle-aged woman (Lu Hsiao-ling), an attractive elevator operator who gets off work and heads home, where she sits at her bedroom mirror removing her makeup. Someone knocks at her door, and Xiao-kang enters asking for aspirin. The woman is his mother.

Even when trying to prove a point, I rushed to spare you any intricate, wordy detail, but just look at that pacing. That action takes you almost precisely to the 30-minute mark of a two-hour film, at which point do the nature of the three characters under Tsai's focus become sufficiently grounded and identifiable. By introducing each character separately and slowly working each into the company of the others, Tsai makes ostensibly arbitrary cutaways into expertly paced introductions. Furthermore, this structure, and the imagery already peppered within, outlines the emotions, themes and symbols of the film. The amount of time that it takes the director to establish the three characters as related, not in a cosmic sense but simply a familial one, emphasizes how distant they are from one another. This family is clearly dysfunctional, but not in the way that American films usually exploit for laughs at the expense of those who have it worse than "us," whomever that may be. No, this trio is practically inert: the son speaks to the parents occasionally, but the parents do not communicate with each other at all. The one time the father calls the mother, he gets her answering machine.

From their disaffected lives, Tsai charts three main concerns: the lack of communication in the modern world, the existential doubt that modern world imparts upon its residents, and the physical manifestation -- in body and environment -- of that spiritual corruption. The way that Hui and her crew debate the obvious falsity of the dummy, proposing futile solutions of smearing mud on it and weighing the feet down with rocks for more realistic effect, serves as a microcosm for Tsai's own preoccupations with human movement and behavior. His characters are apathetic and anomic; that the on-screen director would turn to someone like Xiao-kang, who often stands as motionless as an inanimate object and doesn't even register that Hui is speaking to him until she loudly repeats herself, makes perfect sense. He might as well be a wooden doll.

Tsai tracks the characters' listlessness with a detachment of his own: he only places the actors in shots from the medium range and beyond. Yet he still captures their eyes, the disturbingly similar looks of mall patrons gazing at tawdry attention-getters in shop windows that suggest just enough "class" to warrant their special placement, people absent-mindedly watching television, even the older men who wander the Taiwanese saunas doing some window-shopping of their own as they search each room for willing, nubile flesh. The same glazed look clouds everyone's eyes, blinding them to the rest of the world.

Only when people engage in sex do they even seem to notice anyone else, yet Tsai undercuts any potential gratification the numerous sex acts might give the characters -- or audience -- with his lighting. The director obscures the copulating bodies in shadow, allowing only one small beam of faint light in nearly all of the scenes depicting sex; only when pornography is shown does any sort of sex appear in full light, but it is either scrambled or, as when the mother watches it with her smut-dealing lover, made a tiny blip in the background or in a reflection. We see only Xiao's back and his lady friend's hand as they wordlessly, almost statically, exhale and shift; the young man who first turns down the father is almost completely covered in shadow save for his stomach down to his calves, an area that is itself covered up by a towel. Rather than portraying sex as dirty -- though the pitch-black, deeply unsettling saunas are the most recurring of sexual images, he does not differentiate between these seedy, literally steamy hookups and those of the heterosexual ilk -- or shadowing as a precautionary method against censors, Tsai's lighting suggests the anonymity and detachment in even the most physically intimate of acts. Sex does not serve to dull their pain because pain is a sensation and thus not felt at all.

Which is what makes the strange nature of Xiao-kang's ailment all the more striking. Visits to doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, even faith healers do nothing to ease Xiao-kang's pain. Indeed, his neck ache only becomes more excruciating, to the point that he suffers a breakdown about halfway through the film in which he frantic hits himself and cries for death to end this suffering. His predicament comes to resemble Carol's strange, incurable affliction in Safe; it doesn't make a great deal of sense that scummy water, dangerous as it may be, would cause the sort of ache that plagues the boy, and perhaps its development is as psychological as it is physical. With his ever-titled neck, Taipei becomes even more of an alienating oddity, not only cold in its modernity but canted as if in a fun house, an alteration both comedic and -- like any good fun house -- more than a bit terrifying. Tsai teases the audience with the possibility of Xiao-kang's sickness bridging the broken family, but the despair simply runs too deeply. When the poor kid suffers his mental collapse, his mother rushes to his side, only to chastise him for his agony; "Haven't I done enough pampering?" she cries, focusing the attention back onto herself, while the father keeps his distance, looking perplexed and uncomfortable as if merely struggling with a tight suit. At times, the director employs abysmally dark comedy upon this family that links their collective disengagement with their individual, sexual indifference: in one scene, the mother sits in her bedroom alone and puts on a porno tape with a look of arousal mixed with frustration. She just sits there watching it as if something's missing for her to get off, and Tsai then cuts to Xiao-kang massaging his neck with a vibrating rod that his mother gave to him. When the boy hops on his motorcycle to meet with the first doctor, his father will not allow him to ride with his twisted neck, so he sits on the back of the cycle and holds his son's head straight. It's likely the closest and most intimate moment they've shared in years, only to form a sharp contrast to a later, horrific event between the two in a sauna.

Like a similarly styled film from the same year, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, The River occasionally loosens its grip too much and allows an otherwise gently wafting film to stagnate. But Tsai Ming-liang displays an extraordinary ability to place his narrative, themes and symbols completely out in the open while structuring them in such a way that the finished product always manages to slip just out of reach. The prominent imagery of The River is, as you may have guessed, water, the symbol of life. Yet here it is a destructive force, ostensibly causing Xiao-kang's illness, fogging the hellish world of the saunas in the form of steam and leaking through a roof in the father's bedroom until neglect and delayed repair cause a full flooding of the family's apartment. Water indeed represents life, and if the first shot of it in the film is a disgustingly contaminated river, what does that suggest about life in the modern age? By the end of the film, Xiao-kang learns to live with his pain, to cease searching for a cure and to accept his condition as just something to work around rather than confront. He learned this lesson near the start of the film, when he showered after his stunt work and found that the stench of the river, of life, cannot be washed away lest one scrubs to the bone. So, he perpetuates the cycle of disenfranchisement and displacement that consumed his parents, and it may be only his crippling pain that gives him any sense of self in this world. Sleep tight, kids.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Happy Together

You know you're in for a unique experience when a film opens with a splash of color before cutting suddenly to a stark, black-and-white depiction of two gay lovers engaging in rigorous sex. Though not as ambitious, nor as aesthetically innovative, as the previous collaborations between director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Happy Together is no less worthy an entry in Wong's canon, as well as that of modern world cinema, as Chungking Express or Fallen Angels.

Wong and Doyle's aesthetic across their '90s output is nearly indescribable in its allure. The camera placement has the ability to be intensely off-putting -- using canted angles, various filters that stretch and contort the image, and offbeat color palettes -- yet perversely engaging; no one can see the world this way, as a fish-eye distortion, yet Doyle and Wong can trick you into thinking we do. They turn cinema, despite the loft poetics of their aesthetic, into a physical act, not an assault on the audience but certainly something that breaks a few lines that separates them from the film. Thus, when Wong opens the film on an act that remains fairly taboo even in current American cinema, whatever alienation the act, and its exhibition on black-and-white film, dissipates almost immediately as the director bursts through the dividing wall and involves the audience.

As one of the lovers, the calm, reserved Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), speaks in a voiceover, the reasons for the use of black-and-white film soon become apparent. Despite the passion and romance of their first shown interaction, Lai and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) are in the last stages of their romance, or of its latest incarnation, anyway. Lai confides in the audience that he and Ho have broken up and reconciled repeatedly; each time Lai convinces himself he's through with the more coquettish, unhinged Ho, the more volatile lover coaxes him back with the promise that they "could start over." Happy Together opens in monochrome because it captures the couple in the middle of their break-up. Having traveled to Argentina in an attempt to get away and save their relationship, they instead drift further apart, and Lai ends one argument by walking away from Ho while the two are pulled over on a highway and does not return.

Deciding to stay in Buenos Aires, Lai subsequently gets a job as a doorman for a tango club, the black-and-white that starkly captured the sadness of the break-up now a symbol for the ennui of such a dead-end job. Then, Ho returns, dressed to the nines like a Chinese Belmondo in one of Godard's early, faux-gangster pictures as the properly attired Lai can only try, and fail, to suppress his surprise. Arriving with new flame in hand, Ho appears not to notice Lai as he and his entourage sashay into the club, but we see him look in the rear window of his limo when he departs, leering at the heartbroken Lai with an evil smirk. He continues to bring different men to the club to torment Lai, who teeters on madness when he returns every night to his cramped hotel room. Just as he nears the breaking point, Ho shows up at his doorstep, battered, bloodied and barely conscious.

Color appeared in snippets of the film to this point -- most memorably a leitmotif shot of the Iguazu Falls, Lai's reason for wanting to visit Argentina and a metaphor for the film's conflicts that becomes decreasingly obvious as the narrative progresses -- but Wong switches entirely to color as Lai drives Ho home from the hospital. His badly injured hands entirely bandaged, Ho cannot fend for himself, so Lai takes him in to help his ex recuperate.

The reversion to full color clearly reflects Lai's excitement, despite his better judgment, at the prospect of nursing Ho back to health and possibly reigniting their relationship, the monochrome of his depression replaced by the vivid spectrum of hope. What it instead captures is the vibrant effrontery and the complexity of Ho's manipulation of Lai's crippling codependency. Wong's precise casting allows the audience to better understand the divide between these two characters. Cheung, who of course appeared in Wong's Days of Being Wild, where he also toyed with his image as a founding member of Cantopop, plays Ho like a rock star without the stardom, a balls-out loon with thirsts incapable of being slaked. Leung, on the other hand, is one of the most subdued and affecting of any actor of any nationality (or generation, for that mater). His strength lies not in the explosive movements that Cheung brilliantly unleashes but in the internalization of his feelings and thoughts until they bubble into his eyes, where they become unmistakable and devastating. To see Lai hurt is to see Leung hurt, which only compounds the effect of the poor man's tribulations on the audience. Lai attempts to shield himself, resisting Ho's physical and emotional teases, but his desires get the best of himself and he reenters into a romance with Ho, restarting the cycle.

Though the situation rapidly deteriorates, Wong maintains the use of color stock, forcing us to experience this even more searingly than before. Yet the director softens Lai's misery when he has the protagonist leave the nightclub to get work at a Chinese restaurant. There he meets Chang (Chang Chen), a Chinese ex-pat whom he befriends. Chang is everything that Ho isn't: like Lai, he is calm and measured, a placid individual just looking for normalcy. So tuned to Lai's frequency is he that Chang gets his own voiceover lines, in which he discusses his life and his budding friendship with Lai. He might even be gay: an attractive female co-worker makes a pass at him, but Chang lightly rebuffs her, explaining his actions to Lai with the excuse that he dislikes her voice. Chang prefers women's voices to be "deep and low," and when Lai sets down the phone to quickly perform and errand, Chang sees this and rushes to the phone as if checking the line just so Lai can brush against him when he returns to grab the receiver.

As Ho continues to push his relationship with Lai to its latest breaking point, Lai's bond with Chang strengthens. Chang relates how he got exceptional hearing from an eye problem he suffered as a child that strengthened his other senses. ""I couldn't see," he says, "so I listened." Thus, he is more empathetic and understanding of Lai, who'd long ago been blinded by the supernova of Ho's diva-like radiance. Though their relationship never progresses to the romantic stage -- at least so far as Wong shows us -- the intimacy between the two, at last fully reciprocated for Lai, gives the beleaguered lover the courage to finally break from Ho for the last time. Once he does, however, he finds that Chang has left Buenos Aires, off to see another Argentine landmark.

Now alone after closing one door and having the other closed on him, Lai spirals into his darkest depression yet, stooping to meaningless sex in bathrooms and theaters to dull the pain. The sex in Happy Together constantly degenerates, from the passionate intercourse that opens the film to the loathing -- much of it self-directed -- in Lai's later tryst with Ho. Finally, it becomes anonymous, something that Lai, once the person who longed for love, engages in for the visceral kick. The like-minded Chang's "rejection" of him edges Lai closer to Ho's characteristics, and his usage of cheap sex without stakes gives Lai an insight into Ho's behavior. Lai's shift toward Ho's mannerisms is contrasted with Ho himself, who rails against his ex for the break-up but, secreted away from prying eyes, bursts into uncontrollable sobs of regret. Perhaps Ho's flaw was not Machiavellian evil but an inability to properly express his feelings, which we can plainly see in private hem much closer to Lai's typical mindset.

It's tempting, and oh-so facile, to compare the film to Midnight Cowboy, that other story of the perils of gay love in society. Yet that film relied on naturalistic acting to tell an otherwise oversimplified and unrealistic story, while Wong uses poetic aestheticism to spin a believable tale. Too, Midnight Cowboy forced one of its characters to die for the film's homoeroticism, a sort of false redemption that spoke more to its pulled punches and attempt to play to more conservative audiences. Wong, on the other hand, uses the physical pain inflicted upon one his gay characters to examine the emotional, even existential, plights of the pair. Furthermore, Wong presents this tumultuous love affair as the sort of turbulent romance that couples of any sexual preference could experience. Schlesinger condemned his latent homosexuals for their sin, while Wong, without ever breaking out a soapbox, demonstrates how gay love should not be separated from what some obsolete members of society consider to be "true" love. Ho and Chang could easily be two ladies vying, whether they know it or not, for Lai's attention -- in fact, the structure of an exploding, id-driven hedonist and the supportive, empathetic emotional rock standing at polar ends from a confused but ultimately affable protagonist somewhat prefigures an equally devastating account of broken love, Two Lovers.

However, as enthralling as the narrative is, Wong uses his characters for more than a mere love story. One of the film's first shots, of Lai and Ho heading out to Argentina, shows a customs official stamping a passport. The dated stamps recall the expiration dates used in Chungking Express; in my review of that film, I noted the connection some critics established between the usage of expiration dates to the planned transfer of ownership of Hong Kong from England to China and called it a tenuous point. That was poor phrasing: the date stamps clearly reflected the Hong Kong handover date, but I objected to using those fleeting images as a basing for reading the rest of the film. Here, however, the characters openly come to symbolize Hong Kong's transition. Lai and Ho represent the relationship between Hong Kong and the British power that once controlled it. British rule had its benefits -- Wong, after all, is working with considerably more freedom than his contemporaries in the rest of China received -- but the crown also exploited and manipulated the colony. It's possible, then, that the Chang, less adventurous and inspirational but sturdier and more relatable to Lai, represents the China that would reacquisition Hong Kong in the same year. On the flip side is Chang, whose Taiwanese heritage reveals that he has his own unexamined issues dealing with colonization and cultural appropriation, in his case stemming from Chinese aggression.

This subtext might explain why the central idea of Happy Together is displacement, as Hong Kong fits neither with England nor, with its use of Cantonese over Mandarin, much of the rest of China. Lai, the clearest representative of an uncertain Hong Kong, wanders between two partners, weighing his pros and cons when with one and feeling utterly alone when completely separated from both. Lai says that his "happiest days" with Ho occurred when the more careless man got himself attacked and had to rely on Lai, thus forcing the volatile lover to calm down. Following World War II, Hong Kong recovered almost instantly from Japanese occupation as Mao's Cultural Revolution led many of China's businesses to relocate their industries to Hong Kong. While Britain was busy waging battles in India to delay the inevitable, Hong Kong enjoyed prosperity and development. But the desire to be a part of their own people must have weighed on the denizens of Hong Kong, and for all the fear of change there is an anxiousness to get away from Britain (Ho) to be with the more similar China (Chang). Hong Kong was one of the last British colonies that the once-mighty empire retained, and its transfer affected both. No wonder, then, that Ho breaks down so completely; he's crying not only for his own loss but the end of the final chapter of British imperialism as that nation's avatar.

Though the story occurs in Argentina, Lai's actions bring him closer and closer to a return to Hong Kong to set aside his feelings of displacement and anomie: first he works as the doorman of the nightclub, always standing outside the club looking in, before moving to the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and, finally, to a slaughterhouse, where he notes that the odd hours re-tune his body to Hong Kong time. His time with Chang, beside prompting the final split with Ho, also inspire Lai to return home, where he must face penance for stealing his father's money to finance his trip. The film's original Chinese title, Chun gwong cha sit, is an idiomatic expression meaning "to expose something indecent," less a reference to its display of homosexuality and more to its demonstration that indecent love is far more complex and harmful a situation than which genders are involved. The English title, taken from the Turtles hit that appears in the film as a cover by Danny Chung, is more germane to portraying the actual depths of the love story. At first it is a bitter ironic headline above the acrimony between partners, but Lai's infatuation with Chang and their compatibility suggest that the title really applies more to their relationship. By traveling to the waterfalls before returning to Hong Kong and subsequently stopping in Taipei to take a photo of Chang from his family's shop, Lai sets up a pursuit of Chang and the possibility for stable love between the two as they reenter China. Lai and Chang, the symbols of Hong Kong and China, respectively, may indeed find happiness together, forming a symbiotic bond that advances them both. Who'd a thunk this emotional gut-punch could end with such a hopeful implication?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two Short Films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

What a shame it is, in the modern world, that short films receive absolutely no attention. It's understandable, of course: with so many apathetic to film in general, the chance for bold and innovative short-form work to find an audience has nearly gone from slim to none. Only Pixar, with its admirable commitment to maintaining the tradition of shorts preceding the main feature, has managed to screen brief films in any sort of mainstream context.

Once upon a time, of course, short films could exist comfortably alongside feature films, playing in advance of the main attraction. Well, go back further: once upon a time, short films were cinema, back when one- and two-reelers preceded the advent of the feature film and continued to coexist healthily beside them into the '30s. Now, they exist for burgeoning directors to prove their talent in order to land a feature, after which they never look back. But what of the radical accomplishments of experimental cinema and its numerous short landscape-altering masterpieces? Why is it so crazy to insist that The Big Shave is one of Scorsese's best works, and a fundamental building block in the development of his thematic schemata, its image of a man incapable of ceasing to hurt himself reflected in most of his best features and many of the others?

I myself can claim no decent knowledge in short films, scrambling each year to find Oscar-nominated short films online until the ones I cannot see eventually fade from my mind as other pressing issues enter into it. I have, however, noticed the contributions of two filmmakers, both proven feature craftsmen, in the field of short films. One is Guy Maddin, who balances every feature with a short and whose The Heart of the World nearly captures the copious offerings of silent cinema and its range of genres and styles in only six minutes. Maddin, whose style is heavily indebted to the silent era, clearly understands the power of short films, aware that the same methods of good feature-length filmmaking -- smart writing and attentive direction -- are used to make great works in only a few minutes. The other is, as you may have guessed by now, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai director, one of the most prominent of the new century, has made dozens of short films, some commissioned, some simply the result of his desire to create. Any number have received attention in their own right, but the focus of this post will be on his two recent shorts, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and Phantoms of Nabua, each an entry into his "Primitive" series, commissioned by Animate Projects to examine the small but vital village Nabua, situated in the northeast of Thailand on near the Mekong River and the border between Thailand and Laos. Both are noteworthy not simply for their qualities, which are bountiful; they also reveal the director's ongoing preoccupation with pet themes, as well as the way that they relate to each other and to the director's feature canon.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee serves to prefigure a feature-length film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, set to premiere at Cannes this year. Like Godard's "making-of" supplements for some of his films -- Scénario du film Passion, for example -- Weerasethakul's short does and doesn't work as a behind-the-scenes companion piece to the longer version. Actors read out his titular letter, impersonating the director as they address the mysterious uncle, who could supposedly remember his previous incarnations upon the Earth.

The letter contains Weerasethakul's musings on traveling to Nabua to make the movie, how what he'd heard and researched, and subsequently scripted, was so very different from the Nabua he saw when he arrived. In the letter's matter-of-fact description of the split between the perceived Nabua and the genuine article, Weerasethakul gently introduces one of his key themes: the difference between cinematic perception and reality. Of course, the use of "gentle" in relation to Uncle Boonmee quickly becomes redundant, as nearly every second of its sublime 18 minutes proceeds in a light, hypnotic fashion.

Strange, too, considering the subject matter. Weerasethakul reveals the actors to be playing the roles of soldiers, who occupy a house in the otherwise empty village. Nabua fell prey to police occupation starting in the '60s and lasting until the '80s, during which time soldiers routinely tortured, raped and murdered under orders to curb Communist insurgency. "Soldiers once occupied this place," says one of the actors. "They killed and tortured the villagers until everyone fled into the jungle." The emptiness of the village thus takes on a wider significance: these soldiers now move into a village that their predecessors pillaged until it became the barren, forgotten hamlet we see under Weerasethakul's gaze.

Yet gentle the film undeniably is, what with its elegant tracking shots through the interiors of the Nabua homes, objects like portraits and mosquito nets frozen in time as the wooden walls that support them slowly rot. Each actor repeats the letter, and the director scans a new house with each reading, curving from left to right to take in the preserved adornments and the decaying structures. The repetition underscores the notion of reincarnation raised by the letter and Boonmee's supposed memories, a motif heightened by the role of the soldiers. The silence of the village, save for the reading of the letter, is broken by two noteworthy sounds. The first is the dull thud of metal farm implements on earth as the soldiers till the land and build a garden. Where their own past incarnations sought to pillage the land, now the soldiers cultivate and regrow. Though Thailand still suffers from oppressive regimes -- Weerasethakul himself has faced numerous artistic challenges from the country's strict censorship board -- these men perhaps represent a calmer future for the tumultuous nation, one in which people seeks to create instead of destroy.

The other dominant sound, and the one facet of the film that obliterates the tranquil of the picture when it crops up, is the nearly deafening roar of wind rippling through the surrounding forest, clanging the open windows against the slotted wooden frames and walls. In these gales, which carry in them the elements that erode the houses of Nabua, are the whispers of the village's ghosts. Though these soldiers now bring a more peaceful attitude to the hamlet, the murdered do not easily forgive and forget. Ergo, the winds roar so loudly -- and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee makes a strong case for the return of broad theatrical exhibition of short films on the basis of its exemplary sound design -- that they terrify, as frightening at their fever pitch as any actual vision of a wrathful ghost. Weerasethakul uses a certain, admittedly unintended, visual device to communicate this idea as well. In his absolutely superb accompanying notes for the film, which I urge you to read in their entirety, the director notes the issue he had with bugs buzzing around the camera, creating little blurs that dart across the screen and break the illusion of the focused photography. Yet Weerasethakul found a use for this nuisance, his poetic description of which I shall quote in its entirety:

On the other hand, I think they are very beautiful, like ghosts darting across the frame. They create a moment of wonder that makes the audience become conscious of the filmic focal plane, and of filmmaking. I would like to invite them to be part of this short film. These bugs are free to invade some of our ‘clean’ frames. Perhaps these mysterious bugs are flying across most of the villages in Thailand and happen to stop by in this village. Or they simply emerge from the ground where the soldiers are digging. Perhaps Nabua, with its tragic history, cannot host a pristine, bug-free picture of itself.
Just as the letter's notation of Weerasethakul's idea of Nabua vs. the real village, the occasional micro-blurs highlight the split between verisimilitude in film and the actual truth. But it also gives visual form to the antagonized ghosts who attempt to wear away their physical remains through the winds, barely perceptible blips on the radar that subconsciously unsettle us in a way we cannot immediately identify and do not consider until later.

Weerasethakul intended the Primitive project to return cinema to the time of Méliès and his landmark early advancement of the medium. It would certainly explain the classic silent film trope used as the director tracks past a window to see an egg-shaped spaceship smoking at the edge of the village, continues to move to the right, pauses, then moves back to the left in surprise to focus on this odd sight. (Amusingly, the camera drifts back in the same halcyon, measured pace as it passed over the object the first time.) Weerasethakul's stated artistic intentions are borne out thematically in the distinction between the Nabua of the past, a besieged, horrifying place, and the calm but eerily empty place we see in the present. Just as the director reworks the spirit of the earliest days of the cinema through his decidedly modern approach, so to does he attempt to consolidate the village's troubled past with its equally threatened presence, introduced here in abstract form to be more thoroughly examined in the next entries of the project.

Phantoms of Nabua literalizes the themes of the previous short in its title, and the dialectical themes that filtered through it, as well as his masterful Syndromes and a Century -- past vs. present, film vs. reality, nature vs. technology -- are conjured once more in the space of only 11 minutes. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee traced the past of Nabua even as it stayed in the present and even moved toward the future, and Phantoms melds those social preoccupations with the director's artistic ones.

The first shot, introduced by the rolling thunder of a gathering storm, shows a fluorescent streetlight humming and flickering in the twilight, surrounded in its medium close-up by trees. In my infinitely rewarding (and woefully incomplete) forays into Southeast Asian cinema, two recurring images have most routinely grabbed me: the sheer beauty of the classical architecture, with its ornate design and vivid coloring, and the cheap, reliable fluorescent bulbs that light the modern continent. The light here has the same effect that it does elsewhere in Asian cinema, to contrast with those classical elements -- in this case nature, not traditional buildings -- of its surroundings, yet also to appear perversely attuned to those clashing elements.

It's a shot that contains rich possibilities of meaning, and it's only the start. Weerasethakul then shows a viewing screen light by back projection. On the screen is a film about Nabua, the source of the thunder as it depicts lightning striking so rapidly and constantly upon the city that it looks as though the electrical discharges replaced rain. A light burns in the middle of this terrifying natural onslaught, linking the Nabua of the past, the one in the film-within-the-film, with that of the present, of the actual film. As the film grain and black lines on the projection screen become more noticeable, Weerasethakul highlights the divergence between the projected film and the "reality" of the present world that he documents. He stresses film's artificial nature, thus calling into question what we can believe of the short he's currently showing to us.

Rounding out Nabua's primary imagery is a pullback to show a group of young men playing near the screen, inadvisedly kicking around a flaming soccer ball. The shift of focus from the projected film to these bystanders allows the director to move away from the past exhibited by the deteriorated film stock depiction of Nabua to the present, as the current village occupants pay no heed to their history, or some simplified version of it, playing next to them. By now, it is entirely dark outside, and the fiery ball becomes the third source of light after the fluorescent bulb and the lit projector. Weerasethakul orders them as a progression: the streetlight is immobile and constant, while the projection bulb does not move but projects light of moving images.

But the ball does move, kicked around with mounting intensity and bringing the light/dark dichotomy of the visual scheme to a head. It flops about the sand like a sentient star, raking across the ground leaving tiny smolders of newborn planets. Where the initially off-putting shot of the streetlight distanced itself from the audience before emitting a more calming effect, the ball first looks cool and shimmering, until its dangers register and the young boys' game becomes increasingly unsettling. Finally, one gets so carried away that he kicks the ball hard enough to send it into the nearby screen, setting it on fire.

Nabua's most striking moment is its end, after the screen has burned down and we see the still-running projector flickering through the smoke. It now projects its images onto us, the heightened artificiality of the projection onto the screen now replaced with a gentle, beautiful reminder that film plays a role in the shaping of our reality as well as our escape from it. Perhaps it's so memorable also because of the sheer fact that it shows us an honest-to-goodness projector in the digital age. There's almost something fetishistic -- and I can speak only for myself here -- about seeing a projector in a time when the art of actually playing a film has been lost, replaced by the a-monkey-could-do-it task of inserting a disc into a machine and hitting the start button. The fussiness over aspect ratios, centering and audio calibration have become sterile and pre-programmed, a shift that has its benefits, of course, but saps some of the magic of the cinema.

As the light of the projector at last flickers out and dies as the reel runs out, Weerasethakul melds the past of his artistic medium with that of this Thai town, undercutting the beauty of the image with a sudden sense of loss, as if we'd just watched the slow decline of cinema's magic gathered in only a few minutes. Yet it also releases Nabua from its past without forsaking it, encouraging its residents, the boys who suddenly take an interest in the screen (and their past) as it burns away, to instill the past literally projected onto them. Just as Uncle Boonmee demonstrated the reincarnation and altered paths of the soldiers who invaded and pillaged the town in the past, Phantoms shows the descendants of the Communist farmers, no longer openly subjugated even though the powers that be still exploit Thailand in a similar fashion to their past rape of Nabua. In this context, the accidental burning of the screen almost seems like the first minor strike of a new revolution, tearing down the wall that stops Nabua's past from fully infusing itself into the next generation and allowing the town's memories to wash over them in the form of light. Ironically, Weerasethakul crafts the short film about the next wave of soldiers (Uncle Boonmee) into a gentle elegy, while making the more visceral and action-packed work about the descendants of the farmers who fled their attackers.

Weerasethakul does not press these ideas, using his striking but spare images to introduce his themes but not to tidily resolve them. Like Uncle Boonmee, he says, Nabua "is a portrait of home. The film portrays a communication of lights, the lights that exude, on the one hand, the comfort of home and, on the other, of destruction." The cold and alien wash of fluorescence somehow connotes familiarity and comfort even to those not from Thailand or other Asian nations, while the burning ball frightens in its magnetic allure. These lights, like the sounds of the recorded thunder, the sputtering of feeding film and the whoosh effect of the flying ball, overlap; Weerasethakul situates the makeshift cinema and the history it represents between these forces of "comfort" and "destruction," ultimately combining them in the screen's inferno and the alternately tragic and reassuring shot of the projector continuing to run. As if freeing the whispering ghosts of Nabua heard in the wind of A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, this act of destruction manages to bring out rebirth as it soaks into the minds of the gathered teens. But to stake a claim to the definitive reading of this moment would be to rob it of its power, and Weerasethakul's restraint allows Phantoms of Nabua to end as it started: one of the most energetic and captivating films of 2009, length be damned.