Sunday, December 20, 2009

Decalogue I (1988)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata, and Maja Komorowska

Images from the 2003 Facets release of The Decalogue.

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Think back to when you were at school and you solved a math problem or learned a new concept. Something where the pieces just “clicked,” and you got it. Everything seemed clear, fresh, and new, perhaps because we felt we understood the world and had a better grasp on it. A math equation seems so reassuring and straightforward. It tells us This equals That. It’s precise and definitive, giving us a simple solution to a problem.

Yet our command of math problems can make us confident and proud, to where this hubris can create absolute faith in a system. Our faith gives us a sense of superiority, as if we understand the world better than the non-believers. It feels good to have an answer and not just for math problems, but for life itself. It’s as if we’ve discovered the secret key to the eternal question: What does life mean?

In Decalogue I, Pavel is happy when he solves the math problem. He’s glad he has the answer and also that the problem came from his father, who he sees as a kind of god. The answer he finds is a number, which has a satisfying finality to it. That is the answer. Period. While numbers have closure, they can also be disappointing once we realize how limited they are. What does it matter if Pavel figures out when Ms. Piggy catches Kermit when he’s presented with something inexplicable like a dog’s death? For once, his father fails to provide a satisfying answer.

We all go through that phase when we think our parents have the answer to everything. The world seems safe and understandable, like a cocoon protecting us from reality. So when Pavel’s dad tells him that death is when the heart stops pumping blood, we stop moving, and we cease to exist, that cocoon is shattered. His answer has the finality of a number. Yet Pavel is not satisfied, because his aunt believes with the same conviction that there is an afterlife. The question is not: Who’s right? But rather: How can two people have opposing beliefs, yet absolute faith in them?

The father trusts his system of logic. Like the chess player using a system for the games she plays, he uses his computer to lock doors, turn the faucet on, and predict the weather. It’s a system he has absolute faith in, but one that isn’t perfect. His pride on it costs him his son. Yet how is his faith any different from a religious one?

The father trusts his numbers just as the aunt trusts in God. Ask any religious person: “How do you know God exists?” and the answer will probably be: “Because I have faith.” But what if they’re wrong? How can Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus and every other belief all have the conviction that they are right? We can’t answer that with a satisfying conclusion, just as Krzysztof can’t give a satisfying answer about death, which leaves us in an existential quandary. Perhaps the problem lies in the question itself. Maybe everyone’s right. Maybe we should simply tolerate and respect a person’s beliefs. To each his own, you know what I mean?

But what if beliefs manifest themselves in the way we live? Which of course they do. Should I respect an occult society that sacrifices children on blood altars and dances with rattlesnakes just because it’s their faith? Or a more relevant question: How do you respect a Catholic’s belief against abortion if you are Pro-Choice? If you bend over for their beliefs, you are renouncing your own. We cooperate as best we can, but we’ll never agree on everything. So what should we do? Proclaim faith in God? Then which god? Islamic, Jewish, or Christian? If Christian, then should we believe in Catholicism, Mormonism, Evangelicalism, or any other denomination? See what I’m doing? I’m looking for a definitive answer, which I’m not sure is possible.

I must confess I’m stuck at the moment, trying to finish this up. I feel the need to conclude, but how? Maybe ruminate on a shot in Decalogue I? How about when we see the father enter the church frustrated and knock over the altar. Candle wax spills on a portrait of Mary, and she appears to cry. Is this an act of God? A sign? Or perhaps it’s coincidence? Or the eyeball-rolling (but nevertheless true) explanation: The filmmaker’s intention. I don’t think “fate” and “coincidence” are mutually exclusive. For me, they are two names for the same phenomenon. But I don’t think the name we give is as important as the phenomenon itself. We notice these things, and isn’t that the important part? They give us a measure of stability and meaning in a world of chaos. That we notice them at all blows my mind more than trying to figure out what caused them.

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I guess in the end, we’re left with questions. What we have in us is the desire for answers, which raises more questions like: Why are we so keen on looking for solutions? Maybe it should be enough to simply accept this part of us and use our faiths as something to hold onto, like something that anchors our sanity and gives us hope.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)


Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, and Ivana Baquero.

Images from the 2007 New Line 2-disc Platinum Series.

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Pan's Labyrinth may be a movie I'm too close to, but as Jim Emerson has said (repeatedly): If a movie is worth talking about, then let's talk about it.

Why is it that I rank del Toro's movie so high? Is it sentimentality? Its place for me, personally, as a gateway into cinema that moves beyond the form of entertainment? In a way, I find these movies tougher (or perhaps more daunting) to talk about, but that shouldn't stop us. Citizen Kane seems to have fallen into an almost automatic place at the top of many people's lists of bests (or worsts). But if we like a movie, we have to like it for a reason. "Just cuz" doesn't cut it. So why is Pan's Labyrinth so special for me?

Movies are, at their heart, an acceptance of the screen's reality and departure from our own. Ultimately, though, our escape is still standing on the border between two worlds. As a movie lover, I am fascinated by that line: the division between our reality and another, which Pan's Labyrinth balances upon like a seasoned gymnast. Its interest is not plunging into the fantasy world but standing at the doorway separating the two realities. Pan's Labyrinth is many things tied together and rolled into one: A coming of age parable, fairy tale, rumination on escape from the horrors of reality, and an existential dichotomy of physicality and transcendence.

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From the very first shot, we can already see a focus on a transitional state; one of transcendence between two concepts. The camera pans across darkness to cinematically reverse Ofelia’s later death, and then shows her ascending from the underworld into our own. The film uses the screen to reciprocate birth and death; events bookending lives and heralding the arrival and departure from a world of suffering. Indeed, the film carries with it spiritual currents in tune with Buddhism or Christ’s teachings that acknowledge and shed light upon the suffering inherent to life and the burden of physicality. It’s the level of existentialism found in The Seventh Seal, although its ultimate prospect isn’t as grim.

I've heard two criticisms of the movie, neither of which I feel address any significant flaw in the picture. The first is the characters' simplicity; the idea being they haven't been "fleshed out" enough but remain archetypal. The problem with this line of reasoning lies in applying judgment for one type of movie to another and assuming these criteria are universal. Fantasy, and more specifically a fairy tale, necessarily simplifies its characters into archetypes. It's as fundamental to the genre as breaking out into song is for musicals. A problem with the characters not being "John Cassavetes characters" (to use del Toro's phrasing) is a problem with the entire genre and not the execution of making the film.

The other criticism is that not enough time is spent in the fantasy world. Yes, we are left craving more of the movie's visual delights, but to depart from reality any more would compromise the picture thematically. Again, this has to do, in part, with understanding the role of fairy tales. To view fantasy solely as a means of escape is to miss the point. Rather, the genre is a way of confronting and clarifying ideas and issues in the real world. By extension, this is what any type of fiction generally seeks to do: to hold the looking glass up to the world.

If you know your fairy tales, you know many of them are really coming of age stories that allegorize adolescence into narratives, often involving curses, princes, princesses, and sexual repression. Ultimately, what many of these have in common is a progression from naiveté to a greater awareness of adulthood. This is growth that Ofelia undergoes in Pan’s Labyrinth. Early on, she’s blithely ignorant of her mother’s pains; distracted by her imagination and books while her mother staggers from the burden of pregnancy.

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Children view the world through a simplified lens that is simultaneously a gift and a limitation. Their blissful ignorance leaves them hermetically insulated from experiencing complex feelings of pain and anguish, but also incapable of empathy beyond simplified emotion. Ofelia understands her mother is lonely, but cannot distinguish physical and adult loneliness, or mother-daughter love vs. adult love. Her mother tells her she’ll understand when she’s older.

Ofelia is Princess Moanna in the Underworld. Yet in her Earth life, her mother treats her as a princess too, and dotes upon her with dresses and patent leather shoes. In this sense, her cinematic death could be read as marking a spiritual death of the childhood self (princess). The film, therefore, serves as a “cutting out” of the princess. Consider, too, the scene where Mercedes is milking the cow and tells Ofelia to be careful because “we can’t have you getting milk on your new dress.” Indeed, the Ofelia of the movie does not enter nubility and remains a princess. Her maturation over the film’s course is not one of sexuality, but of a different kind.

Just as there isn’t one type of love, maturity isn’t simply defined by a person’s chronological progression into adulthood. Beyond physical development is mental and spiritual maturation, which is the focus of Pan’s Labyrinth. It isn’t necessarily determined by age, but occurs as a result of compassion being born within us. Perhaps Ofelia’s transcendence to the Underworld not only marks the removal of the physical child, but also heralds spiritual wisdom and understanding that the common denominator is our mortality in the corporeal world.

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Ofelia and Captain Vidal value life, but that is where their commonality ends. The difference lies in why. Captain Vidal is archetypal, but the movie isn't a character study and that shouldn't be seen as a fault. Rather, Vidal comes to represent a side of humanity; one that values life not as an end to itself, but out of fear towards the alternative. Vidal's character is structured around actions and habits focusing on worldly, material concerns. The first time we see him, he's staring at his pocket watch with a Quentin-esque gaze a la The Sound and the Fury; a motif that's repeated over and over. The watch represents the one white elephant he can't dispose of or wield. His "bienvenidos" to Carmen is really by proxy: his physical actions revealing a concern only for his son, which is the closest he can get to immortality.

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I don't think del Toro is calling Captain Vidal a villain so much as an attribute of humanity that we deny out of shame, but must ultimately accept in its presence, to whatever degree, within ourselves. Life, for Vidal, is merely the alternative to death and as such is not valued for the sake of life alone. Consider the story that Ofelia tells to her mother’s womb of the rose atop a mountain surrounded by venomous thorns. The rose brings the promise of immortality, but:

“Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but never about the promise of eternal life.”

This story overlaps with Vidal cleaning his pocket watch. When I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth, I made the connection that he was a man who did strive for the rose of immortality. Yet this would elevate him, and I don’t think that’s the point. There is too much commonality between Vidal and our own material concerns. What the rose suggests is not immortality in the physical realm, but the spiritual one. Del Toro is arguing for the eternal existence of the soul, but only if we allow ourselves to see that. The story regards “men” generally, meaning those of us who treasure life out of fear from death. This is something all of us face to some extent and Vidal is emblematic of that fear.

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His obvious concern for his son cannot be disregarded if we face that thought ourselves. Hackneyed ideas are what they are because we continue to dismiss them as such. If we fear death, then let us acknowledge that. With our children lies the hope that some part of us will remain once we’ve left. Yet the narrow view through which Vidal sees this isn’t sufficient to grant us immortality or even a legacy, del Toro is arguing. What does blood even mean as an end to itself? Ofelia takes after Doctor Ferreiro and Mercedes more than Vidal or even her own mother. The movie talks of family that transcends and subverts the blood-axiom.

Consider Mercedes, too. Upon hearing one of the rebels has been captured, her thoughts turn immediately to her brother, Pedro. Yet it isn’t with relief that she reacts to learning it was instead the stuttering rebel. She’s still affected because she realizes that the prisoner is still her brother, if not by blood. The image of Mercedes, lost in thought and chopping potatoes, isn’t one of fear that she’ll be ratted out. It’s one of compassion and sorrow for a brother in spirit. Yet her strength lies in noticing that incorporeal idea. Her strengths (in spirit) and weaknesses (in physical being and location) are reciprocal to Vidal’s.

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Women are strong. We’ve been down this road a lot. Much of the time, this is emphasized by their ability to give birth where men cannot. Yet that is only the starting point. Carmen and Mercedes come to form two types of mother figures to Ofelia. One by blood, and the other by adoption (in spirit). Carmen displays the woman’s traditionally held power: pregnancy. But del Toro isn’t really focusing on that strength per se. What the film does is elaborate this idea beyond the physical. Mercedes carries her knife hidden against her abdomen. Where Carmen wields the ability to give birth, Mercedes holds the ability to subvert the expectations given to women. Vidal’s thinking is limited to these conventions and that ultimately proves his downfall.

I’d also point to the chalk. When Vidal picks it up, it breaks. He lacks the mindset to wield that key into understanding spirituality and transcendence. The movie uses the fairy tale as an allegory for reality, something that Vidal could never comprehend (I doubt he’d watch movies very much). The tasks Ofelia performs are somehow connected to something she, or someone parallel to her, must overcome in real life.

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The fig tree is a source of bounty and fertility, yet the monstrous Toad has festered its roots. The tree, and more specifically the entrance, is a maternal image and parallels Ofelia’s mother. The introduction of the toad, of course, is Vidal. Ofelia tricks the toad into eating the stones to obtain the key. Similarly, Mercedes uses Vidal’s own pride and underestimation of women against him, evident in the store room key. Ofelia’s ingenuity also foreshadows her spiking Vidal’s drink with the sleeping medicine; combining something tempting with something deadly. The ultimate idea of this task is that Ofelia confronts her fear and gains independence.

The Pale Man sequence holds another key to understanding del Toro’s message. Namely, it is the idea of choice, regardless of benevolence. I’ll point to the strong parallels between Vidal and the Pale Man: both pose a significant obstacle to Ofelia/Mercedes/Doctor Ferreiro, both hoard a mountain of food in their abode tempting their enemies, and finally, they are both defined by their physical action. The Pale Man is the fantasy surrogate for Vidal, his eyes and perception literally and figuratively indivisible from his actions (his palms, in this case). Anything he sees is an action, and any action he takes necessarily guides his sight. In other words, his sight is confined to his physicality and he is incapable of transcending his body. Notice, too, that the Pale Man is stuck in his realm, whereas Ofelia is able to pass freely from one to another.

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The Pale Man scene also plays out like Eden. Yet del Toro’s take on this isn’t one of reprimand, but one of acceptance as a necessary trait defining humanity. Utopia is not a place of growth and learning, del Toro is saying. Casting out of Eden was a necessary step in humanity’s coming of age. Ofelia needs to defy the Faun’s instructions because it is her choice. Limiting our free will limits our spiritual maturity, which is the distinction the movie is making from sexual maturity.

Pan’s Labyrinth is ultimately a movie arguing for spirituality. Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, spirituality can still exist as a belief. It involves moving beyond physical appearance to read between the lines. Whether this manifests itself as God, Allah, or whatever misses the point. Rather, it is the idea that we are not limited by our bodies.

“It is only in His physical absence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed.”

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Blade Runner (1982)


Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: David Peoples
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer

Images from the 2007 Warner Home Video 4-disc Collector's Edition.

Films are very much products of their time, whether unconsciously echoing that era’s beliefs or values, or actively rejecting those customs. The 80s, rife with morbid, self-centered materialism saw many films revel in that excess, although the decade also gave birth to the likes of Blue Velvet, Videodrome, Brazil, Time Bandits, and Blade Runner; films that openly defied bureaucratic, consumerist, and suburban values. Of these, perhaps none has held up a more serious lens to its subject than Blade Runner. The rest are all, to varying degrees, mired in dark, dark satire. Blade Runner, by comparison, is coldly melancholy, with its noir roots asking us what defines humanity while incisively examining rampant capitalism. With the 2007 Final Cut, Ridley Scott lent to the film an even darker, less certain prospect by the end, which is a fitting reaction to materialism that only seems to have grown since the 80s.     

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The glow of a Coca-Cola advertisement hovers over a futuristic L.A., divided into sleek skyscrapers and a crumbling underbelly. The city seems to be growing in on itself, threatening to collapse under its own weight. The capitalist mentality is rooted in the idea that we are better off with what’s being shoved into our eyes. Today, everything has a sponsor. Sports, television, and even film are no longer havens from the proliferation of product placement. Michael Bay, notorious for his own morbid product mongering, deserves a little credit for recognizing the aesthetic that goes into a commercial, even if his films lack any sizable merit. Billboards in Blade Runner rise above the tangled urban sprawl like beacons, enticing with promises of better, cleaner worlds. The film focuses on the dregs of its futuristic society, unconcerned with those privileged that migrate to new homes. The great unwashed get thrown in the garbage pile along with, ironically, the leftovers from yesterday’s consumerist orgy. 2008’s Wall-E would attempt a successful (if dramatically uneven) indictment of capitalism just as Blade Runner did.   

The world of Blade Runner is divided into the backwater alleys of societal dregs and the metropolitan elite (Tyrell) hovering, like the billboards, as gods ruling the rest from their unfathomably colossal monoliths. We live in a world of manufactured excess. All around us, with a few exceptions, are items that have undergone some production process, or at the very least, have had a price tag attached to them. We are ruled by capitalism, and those precious few things that we once thought were unsellable are worming their way into the global market. This is not to say everything has gone downhill. Slavery is no longer what it once was, but there is still class division that suffuses us with prejudice, and there are horror stories of modern day sex slave markets. So whatever progress we make feels like taking one step forward and a half step back. Blade Runner blurs this line even further by having mankind attempt to systematically terminate the humanity that their slave Replicants have come to evolve to.  

Science fiction has a perpetual fascination with what defines humanity that is rooted in reductionism. The idea of an artificial, man-made being that evolves to increasingly human characteristics is such a provocative one that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica borrows from, and eventually elaborates upon, the core concept that Blade Runner puts forth. If we can essentially manufacture ethos; that is, forge an identity a la Frankenstein in the laboratory using tangible ingredients, then what makes us human?   

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Blade Runner takes this a step further. Mankind is easily frightened by things that we don’t understand or that threaten our identity. We know our existence, as Descartes (and Pris) said: “I think, therefore I am.” We can’t offer explanations as to why we exist or why we’re human but it is like some unquestionable axiom. That’s just the way it is. With Blade Runner, we are presented with Replicants that begin developing their own emotions. This scares us. It’s okay that they are physically stronger than us because we built them that way. But emotions (and I mean complex ones rather than simply fear, or hunger, or lust) are something we identify with, and having our own creations asserting their individuality is something that mankind cannot accept. We have no way of knowing if it’s simply excellent software, but that doesn’t prevent us from empathizing. Rachael is different among Replicants because in addition to emotions, she has memories with which to anchor them. Deckard ultimately accepts her as a conscience being with real emotions. He could or could not be a Replicant. For me, it is more philosophically interesting if he’s a human. Calling him a Replicant seems to simplify, or at least rationalize, Deckard and Rachael’s love, whereas a human-Replicant relation suggests deeper, more ambiguous complexities to our emotions.   

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What Blade Runner posits by mixing the division between human and Replicant identity leads to an interesting exercise in empathy as we observe humans during the film. The common observation/complaint I hear about the movie is that the characters are difficult to sympathize with. To put it simply, I believe that’s the point of the film. It is certainly necessary for Blade Runner’s ability to blur the categorical lines we mentally form about human identity. The implications posed if Replicants are indeed developing genuine emotions can be astounding. If we accept that Replicants do feel emotional pain and pleasure no different from our own and if we accept that emotional complexities imply a conscience being, then what does this say about our desire to stamp out these entities like an experiment gone awry? Furthermore, how foolproof is the Voight-Kampff test and can we really reduce emotion to an analysis of questions, answers, and pupil dilations? Certainly, there have been people to fool a polygraph that we’re certain are humans.   

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One intriguing motif is the focus on eyes. The Voight-Kampff test examines the pupil’s contractions like a pulse, or like peering into the window of a being’s soul. If you’ve taken general anatomy, you’d learn that the only living surface tissue is from the eyes. The 30 or so layers of skin cells we see are in fact dead. Similarly, eyes offer us something intrinsically insightful to understanding our subject. Present us with a shady person covering his eyes, or someone with dark sunglasses, and we form a preconceived notion of their accessibility in the back of our minds. This focus on eyes brings to my mind the camera lens itself, garnering the film with a self-examination of sorts. To an extent, the act of filming is something of a mirror image to the Voight-Kampff test. Rather than examine existing emotions, film instead (often artificially) produces emotions, often in settings that couldn’t be further from intimate (a common complaint about film acting, I hear, is how impersonal and haphazard it seems compared to say, the stage).   

The film distances us from the humans, and other than knowing that the Replicants aren’t human, the playing field is leveled. My own sympathies lie closer to the Replicants, partly because it is not their choice to exist as they want. They have been born into slavery to the point where they are no longer treated as humans but mechanical beings that have developed emotions as if by downloading software. Mankind has built them with a specific function: manual labor, assassination, pleasure, or military services. I am reminded of a Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa are at military school, and their CO tells them that in the future, wars will not be fought between humans, but between robots and preferably in space. Yet this prospect is being fulfilled right now. Today, pilots are able to fly remote bombers from the comfort of their own home and drop several megatons of ordnance with the push of a button. The disconnect has risen, and killing almost becomes a virtual act. Blade Runner has taken this idea one step further by incorporating the weapons with a conscience. Prostitution, too, is a common point of attack on capitalism, the idea being that selling yourself is something of a violation of our dignity. There have certainly been a few masterpieces on the subject. The reference to Pris as a “basic pleasure model” is said with such casualty, it again suggests a disconnect with what should be a touchy subject. The Replicants are not so much prostitutes as they are sex slaves, and it is disturbing how such a thing can be accepted just because they aren’t considered human. Are they lesser even than animals?   

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I said earlier that I sympathize with Replicants because it is not their choice to exist. I realize a potential hole in this argument, since we too, have not chosen to exist, but were borne into this world by our parents’ choice (or accident). In Blade Runner, there is the idea of Man playing God, so to speak. I am not religious, but I’m not adverse to the ideas and implications thereof. Tyrell is like God, creating Replicants in his own image. He is constantly tinkering with his design, attempting to perfect not merely form or emotion, but the act of creation itself. If you accept the auteur theory to any degree, than Ridley Scott, too, is the God of his film, constantly improving his creation through modification. Tyrell, seemingly safe in his obsidian, Mayan-like pyramid, is something of a father figure to Roy Batty, who is obviously supposed to be Christ. In a sense, Blade Runner accomplishes what The Last Temptation of Christ did: give its Christ a human face and allow us to empathize with what is possibly the most mythological figure in history. Roy is born into the world with a destiny, so to speak. He is confused and grappling with his own existence because of his new-found emotion. By the end, we even see him drive a nail through his palm, ultimately accepting his fate and sparing Deckard. Perhaps this is another rationalization for having Deckard as a human: He serves as an allegory for those that Christ sacrificed himself to save. The end of the film offers a measure of hope, even if the Final Cut wisely removes that incongruous ending of the original.   

Why does Roy save Deckard? I don’t believe it’s because he’s a Replicant, as this seems to simplify Roy’s actions. The film does depart from a straight Christian parable, partly because Christ didn’t drag humanity through the mud only to save them in the end. I think part of it has to do with empathy. Roy is essentially near death, like being cursed with a terminal disease out of his control. By having Deckard not only being helpless, but also dependent on Roy, he is turning the tables and switching roles with the blade runner and making him see what it is like to be so close to death. Roy accepts his fate, but this final act is a way of putting Deckard in his shoes, in the hopes of making him (and mankind) see his existential dilemma.   

Christ didn’t kill God as Roy kills Tyrell either. The lead up to that scene, with J.F. Sebastian, plays like something of an uprising from the lower class. Roy is leveling the social playing field, which has so often given the upper classes, well... the upper hand. As Roy and Sebastian physically rise to Tyrell’s level, they are rising up to socially meet him face to face, symbolized by the chess game. Sebastian is a societal reject, having to build his own friends and is essentially treated as a child (he does, after all, appear to be the oldest person ever with Methuselah Syndrome; and children, too, create their own friends). He is something of a poster child for the lower class. But wait a minute... Roy kills both of them! It can’t be because he’s scared of having a witness. Rather, I think the act of killing Tyrell and Sebastian represents a kind of social purging. If you want another biblical allegory, perhaps it is akin to the Noachian flood. He is killing off the class structure and through Deckard, removing humanity’s prejudice.    
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Blade Runner, admittedly, isn’t the easiest film to watch. There’s so much going on in the frame that it takes multiple viewings just to sort out who everyone is and to penetrate their character’s superficial inaccessibility. I have only seen the original 1982 cut and the 2007 Final Cut. The voice over of the original, interesting for what it is (and because it adds to the noirish feel), is wisely removed from the 2007 cut. I don’t have a strong desire to watch the other versions, and I do think the Final Cut works well, but I’ll try and get to them eventually. Regardless, Blade Runner is a fascinating, monumental achievement that is deeply rooted in a kind of 80s counterculture. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Spoilers... You gotta be kidding me. You can't spoil this picture.

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Irène Jacob
Score: Zbigniew Preisner
Cinematographer: Sławomir Idziak
Editor: Jacques Witta

Images from the 2006 Criterion Collection release*.

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Krzysztof Kieslowski once said that he’d be happy if he could get 30% of the film he wanted. Likewise, I’d be happy to articulate 30% of what I feel and think when watching The Double Life of Veronique. For me, this is his most personal, introspective work. Just as Jerzy Stuhr turns the camera on himself in Camera Buff, Kieslowski is turning the camera inward to question his own conscience in The Double Life of Veronique, and in the process, bringing forth innumerable other ideas and emotions. To deconstruct specific scenes in the film almost seems to reduce it, and the picture is never static in my mind, but fluid and changing. I don’t believe I’ll ever reach a point where this movie ceases to be significant, nor do I think I’ll ever plumb all the depths of what it can do.

Since I’ve built it up so much, what is The Double Life of Veronique about? Admittedly, I cringe at this question, because the thing is, whenever someone asks me about a movie, it’s invariably about “the story.” For me, the story as it relates to plot is painfully uninteresting most of the time. What interests me are characters, atmosphere, emotions, feelings and ideas. The Double Life of Veronique is all of these things, blossoming into a phenomenon that the filmmaker speaks through, reaching audiences on a spiritual level rather than merely an intellectual one. It’s often called “metaphysical” and while that’s perfectly apt, people can be left content to leave it at that without digging deeper.

It’s a bit hackneyed, but The Double Life of Veronique is a film of feeling more than cold, clinical camera movements, and looking at our emotional responses to it is maybe the best way we can render meaning. In a sense, the film is like music: Something that is difficult to articulate meaning from, but is somehow uncommonly effective in swaying our emotions. The Krzysztof Kieslowski/Zbigniew Preisner collaboration is one of the best director/composer teams (along with David Cronenberg/Howard Shore or Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Hermann), in part because Kieslowski involves Preisner from the very beginning of the screenplay. Preisner’s scores, for me, are some of the most unique, evocative pieces I’ve heard in films. Like Kieslowski, I’m not good at critically evaluating music, but I know what works in a film. The score for The Double Life of Veronique, for me, evokes the delicacy of not merely life, but of beauty, music, images, and love, as well. Balancing life is as much of a tight-wire balance as Veronique holding her notes in tune. Lives can just as easily waiver and collapse altogether.

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If The Double Life of Veronique evokes a feeling of vulnerability, it also brings a feeling of intimacy that can best be described as cinematic lovemaking. The scenes that exemplify this are the ones where we simply observe Veronique alone. Or is she alone? Aren’t we, the audience, always accompanying her? Isn’t it the medium of film that allows our minds to merge with her into a single disposition? She is often seen seemingly alone, but aware of something else. Perhaps this is her double, or perhaps it is a spirituality present between all human beings, including the audience.

Like The Red Shoes, The Double Life of Veronique can be seen as a rumination on the divisive forces of vocation and love life (and by extension, a simple, quiet life). The two women played by Irene Jacob: Weronika and Veronique, are perhaps two sides, or rather two possible outcomes, of the same person. Weronika forsakes her love life to aspire to the very limits of a singer’s potential. Her weakened heart, perhaps included because of Kieslowski's own heart condition, is representative of the choice between commitments: to a profession or to a love life. Veronique is the heads to Weronika’s tails, forgoing her potential as a great singer, choosing in the end not so much a love life, but rather yearning to regress to a simpler, childhood-like state.

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There is a similar progression throughout Kieslowski's oeuvre, in which the filmmaker transitions to increasingly intimate and personal work. Beginning as a documentary filmmaker, his pieces from Poland are closely tied to the nation’s communist history. Kieslowski then began a transition to fiction because he felt he was using the people he documented and had no right to film such personal events. Throughout his fictions, we see a filmmaker more and more concerned with the internal, eventually turning his back completely on the politics that populated his earlier works. This progression reached its apex with The Double Life of Veronique, his most intimate work. This is almost a declaration from Kieslowski, as Weronika moves in the opposite direction of a political rally, completely unconcerned because she has just seen her double. The films of Three Colors: Blue, White, and Red present a kind of reversal to this, moving backwards from solitary freedom to an affirmation of fraternal love.

Has there ever been a film so intricately and intimately connected to its filmmaker? The film begins with Veronique as a child and ends with her returning to her father’s house: to the safety of the paternal hearth. When Kieslowski announced his retirement, perhaps he, like Veronique, wished to return to his childhood, or rather, a life of simplicity away from the chaos of filmmaking. Yet isn’t he also, like Weronika, an artist who pushed himself so far, that in the end he simply burned out way ahead of his time? There is little doubt that these two women represent Kieslowski's own internal struggles, yet he is suffused into virtually all the main characters here, from the papas of Irene Jacob to Alexandre.

It’s interesting that I chose to write about The Double Life of Veronique right after The Red Shoes. The films deal with the dichotomous pull between life and vocation, and both have a performance in the middle that reflects much of what the films are concerned with. “The Red Shoes” ballet is a more grand departure from the reality of the film it’s in, but the puppet show’s purpose in The Double Life of Veronique is, for me at least, twofold. It is first a reflection of the larger reality of film, with Alexandre as the puppeteer that, much like the film director, controls the movements of the characters in his play. It is also reflective of the yearning for the simplicity and safety of childhood.

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What makes this such a personal film is that Kieslowski is inside so many characters. His life seems eerily connected to Veronique, but is he not also present as Alexandre? Alexandre’s influence on marionettes is extended to reality when he lures Veronique to him as if she’s merely a puppet being guided by his invisible wires. Kieslowski, too, is an unseen, yet ever present force guiding these character’s actions. Many of his films, with The Double Life of Veronique in particular, evoke the visual motif of glass. Kieslowski will distort the screen or create reflections as if inviting us to look at the world differently.

Glass, which is often a physical barrier (like in Playtime), isn't used that way here, I think. Kieslowski instead uses it as a connective, rather than divisive, force. It's as if he's emphasizing some invisible (or barely visible) connective thread. The love scene after Weronika's death is distorted by a crystal ball or fish eye lens, not only creating a surreal atmosphere, but perhaps reminding the viewer of the camera's presence. Or consider the shot below. Weronika approaches the window, as if regarding the camera itself. She then sees an old woman carrying groceries and offers to help. The commentary says Kieslowski included this because he was guilty, having made fun of the elderly in his youth. Perhaps, then, Kieslowski is asking for a second chance through the film medium, atoning for his mistakes and speaking through Irene Jacob with an offering of help rather than ridicule.

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Veronique is hurt by Alexandre, feeling he subverted her emotions in wooing her not out of love, but out of profession. The film, in this sense, plays like a filmmaker’s confession, with Kieslowski torn by the intimacy of his profession. Like Alexandre, Kieslowski is perhaps saying that his role as director involves asking the actors to expose and make themselves vulnerable for the sake of the film. Alexandre’s motives may originate from an almost scientific pursuit in creating his fiction, but there is a moment when he recognizes both the harm his experiment has caused, as well as the human being he’s come to love (yet he'll still use her double life for his work, ultimately pushing her away). Kieslowski is perhaps not so much in love with Irene Jacob, but rather comes to the realization that the director-actor relationship (or any filmmaking relationship) cannot simply be a business pursuit where everyone has a contract and adheres to the stipulations thereof. There must be a kinship and empathy amongst the crew if the film is to thrive. In a sense, they must become a family: a singular unit working for the sake of the film (seen in Day for Night).

If we consider the puppet show in the context of the opening and closing passages of the film, there is, perhaps, a yearning to regress to a child-like state. The first scene shows Veronique and Weronika as children, being asked by their mothers to look at something in a new, different way. Children are capable of seeing the world in such a strange, upside-down perspective, and throughout the film, Veronique seems to be within this mindset. Much of the film is concerned with approaching the world from a new angle, with its kaleidoscope-like shots, upside-down images, gold and green exposures, distortions in the image, and subjective camera angles. The world of this film is, like the molten Earth, changing and malleable. The distortions suggest a universe that is tearing at the seams, not in any apocalyptic way, but in a manner that implies alternate realities we are given glimpses of like peering through a keyhole.

If we take the “double life” of Veronique as a musing on possibilities, then the two stories come to represent a kind of crystal ball. In the first, Weronika makes a choice that determines her demise. Perhaps, then, these events do not occur consecutively, but rather parallel to one another: not reflecting reality so much as the possible outcomes within reality. Veronique then becomes the alternative, shying away from her calling as a singer in exchange for love, but subsequently shying away from love as well and returning to her cinematic papa (the trunk of the family tree, so to speak). In thinking about the film this way, it becomes not so much like The Red Shoes, but almost a backwards coming of age tale, musing on a reversal of maturity.

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The meaning of The Double Life of Veronique is fluid and changing. Nailing it down seems to make it all the more slippery, and there are so many approaches to such a strange, yet miraculous, piece of cinema. Kieslowski said this film is about things that cannot be named, or that doing so reduces it to something silly. In a sense, analyzing films is a bit silly, but thoughts should not be discouraged by Kieslowski's open-endedness. What results is a blossoming of interpretation. The work is almost unclassifiable. While so many films depend on plot as a krutch, The Double Life of Veronique could be argued as a more pure form of cinema, like a work of abstract filmmaking. The diverse number of essays on The Double Life of Veronique and the 20 some versions of the film Kieslowski prepared attest to a work that hearkens not to a concrete reality, but rather a fluid possibility.


* I don't normally do this, but The Criterion Collection has put out an incredible DVD of The Double Life of Véronique which is probably my favorite from them. It is filled with insights that expand, rather than limit (as these things tend to do for me) my own interpretations of the film.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Red Shoes (1948)

There are spoilers.

Director and Screenwriter: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, and Moira Shearer

Images from the 1999 Criterion Collection release.

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There are two fundamental kinds of self-reflexive films. Those that reflect the medium explicitly, such as The Player or Sunset Blvd., and those that convey an interior, implicit reality, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (along with Rear Window and The Double Life of Veronique). There is, of course, plenty of overlap, and I simply cannot make a value judgement on which is more important. It could be said that the latter is simply a broader realization of the former, but I like to think of them as two separate perspectives: one of an interior relatability and another of external realities. Both complement one another like the body and the soul.

The musical is one of my favorite genres, and while The Red Shoes is no musical, it is, I believe, reflective of the melodrama that the genre often achieves. Both are not representations of reality so much as expressions of emotion. Expressionism is usually appended to German works conveying an emotional reality, and while classic film examples are Pandora’s Box or Metropolis, I believe expressionism is applicable to musicals and films of that ilk as well.

There is something hyper-real about the luscious Technicolor of The Red Shoes, and the film pulses as if blood flows through its veins. It is difficult to describe and impossible to convey with a screenshot, but even in relatively still scenes, there seems to be motion in the colors, as if they are beating to some silent rhythm. Every time I see the Technicolor in these sorts of films, an entirely closed system is opened up to me. These films almost don’t seem like a photographed external reality, but rather an interior reality, almost like a cartoon.

The division between reality and fantasy plays out over and over again in movies, since it is something inherent to film and audience, literature and reader, or listener and music. What these texts do is pull someone into an alternate reality and transmogrify their experience through vicariousness. How many times have you think you’ve experienced something, but then realize it was something you saw in a movie or read in a book? Yet, it is reductionist to simply point at fiction as merely shadows on a screen or words on a page with no sway towards actual experiences.

There is something about picking a film apart, like how one takes apart a machine to see how it works, that reduces the magic created by it. It’s as if the images on screen serve the same purpose as words in a story: as a guide that inspires imagination within the viewer. Perhaps, then, the magic lies not in the medium alone but the interplay between a viewer’s mind and the medium.

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If it sounds like I’ve digressed, it’s because I have, to an extent. The Red Shoes is less concerned with the audience and more with the creators of what the audience takes in. Martin Scorsese loves the film, and the fight scenes in Raging Bull are inspired by the subjective reality of “The Red Shoes” ballet, which emphasizes the writers, directors, producers, and dancers while distancing itself from the audience. Notice the emphasis of the screenshots sandwiching this paragraph on Julian, Vicky and Lermontov. The audience becomes a background, like the ambience of waves crashing against rocks. Yet, it is the same ability to crawl inside a medium that binds the audience to performer, and since I have never had a hand in creating art and am not professionally engaged to film/art, I must find another way to relate to what goes on within the movie screen to my own experience.

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What The Red Shoes does so brilliantly is juxtapose images that suggest a fusion between fantasy and reality. Perhaps this goes back to the look and feel of the film, in that it is simultaneously filmed reality (people before a camera) and a representative of an expression and mood (conveyed by the sumptuous colors and the dramatic arc). Nowhere do these images merge more beautifully than in “The Red Shoes” ballet. Like many musicals, the film gives us an extended sequence that is entirely self-contained and stands alone as a masterpiece unto itself, like a story within a story. Yet the best of these pieces, like “Broadway Melody” in Singin’ in the Rain, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet, and “The Red Shoes” ballet are simultaneously standalones as well as serving to enhance the film they’re in, commenting on the thematic elements and expressing them in a highly cinematic mode of storytelling.

Another short digression, but generally speaking, the two least interesting aspects of films, for me, tend to be the story and dialogue. Invariably, when I’m asked about a movie, it’s about “the story,” as if plot alone is enough to recommend it. For me at least, plot is the clothesline, but it is certainly not the clothing. It helps stitch the fabric of a film together, merging the pieces without overpowering these elements, which include character, mood, atmosphere, and symbolism. The unimportance of the story in my mind, explains why I consider The Red Shoes to be as much about film as it is about dance, even if there is nary a mention of movies throughout the picture.

All of this, I think, is contained within “The Red Shoes” ballet, which sort of magnifies the entirety of the film within its 20 or so minutes. It is like watching the film in miniature, and in the process, it explores the medium of cinema itself and compares it with the stage. The ballet, perhaps endlessly analyzable, begins from a viewer’s perspective and then crosses over into increasingly subjective angles, finally departing completely from the stage, only to reappear in the theater as the number closes. This is what I’ve come to recognize as fantasy surrounded by reality and is representative of the film going experience: as a film begins, we begin to lose reality and by the end, we slip away from fantasy, reciprocating the initial transition. Of course, this is more broadly applicable to fiction in general, although it is more filmic in the sense that the stage cannot shift perspective as easily.

Where it gets (even more) interesting is in viewing Vicky Page as an allegory for the acting piece of the filmic jigsaw puzzle. There is another moment where, in a flash of light, her dancing partner transforms into Lermontov. In another flash, Lermontov changes into Julian Craster. And there is another moment when Julian steps up on stage towards Vicky, but then transforms into a dancer. The film is transposing the conductor into the characters themselves, as if he is conjuring the characters into being with his baton, like a wizard wielding a wand. In a way, the film is arguing for the auteur theory in collaborative art forms like film or the stage. The conductor, like the director, is almost a puppet master pulling the strings and controlling the movements of the player (the puppet, incidentally, is used in The Double Life of Veronique, one of my very, very favorite movies).

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Personally, I’m not crazy about the auteur theory, although I tend to identify movies by director, since they are generally the biggest creative force. While it is important to acknowledge every person involved in the filmmaking process, I also believe the film itself is like a living entity, acting and reacting to what it sees. There are some things that simply cannot be accounted for, and perhaps luck, fate, or whatever you want to call it is responsible. It is an invisible force, like strings being pulled by a higher power, or perhaps no power at all other than life itself. We are all governed by something which we cannot fully explain, and it is this mystery that causes Vicky to jump from the building. Yes, we can say she jumped because she couldn't take it anymore, but why was she so torn and what caused this?

The division between Vicky’s love for dance and her love for Julian is balanced on a razor, and upholding both, as the film implies, is difficult. Her obsession with either one is like a love affair, and there is an interesting shot of her dresser where we see a picture frame. One half has a photograph of Julian, and the other is a cartoon of what appears to be Lermontov. When Julian storms in her dressing room, it is like the husband catching the adulterous wife. Interesting, too, that Lermontov’s picture is a drawing, perhaps reminding us that dancing is an alternate reality from “real life.”

1 The Red Shoes

Boris Lermontov is a caricature more than a complete human, representative of having complete devotion to a craft and treating it like a religion. There is a shot that, for me, more or less defines him: He is next to a statue of a ballerina’s shoe, literally placing it on a pedestal. His relationship with Vicky is intended to be completely professional, and I sense no lust in his obessesion with her.

The red shoes are an allegory of this life force tugging at an individual to make divisive choices. It is often said the shoes are representative of obsession with perfecting a craft. Just as Vicky puts herself inside them, she is immersing herself within the dancing profession, and this is applicable to virtually anything in life. The ending of the movie can be seen as the tug between love and vocation, finally tearing the individual apart.

4 The Red Shoes

I see the ending not so much as a tragedy, but as an allegory for transcendence. When Vicky dies, her spirit doesn’t float into the ether but rather becomes the red shoes. The ballet continues eerily without her, having the spotlight shine wherever she would be. This idea of having the performance transcend the body is, for me, a self-reflexive gesture that was foreshadowed in the earlier rendition of the ballet. The first time, the demonic shoemaker holds the red shoes and makes them dance, just like a puppet master (he can be seen as representative of Julian/Lermontov, who are in turn, representative of the filmmakers).

The film medium is incorporeal, yet the images on screen have a life of their own. Moira Shearer may have passed away, but she lives on in The Red Shoes, just like any other film actor's work. Having the final ballet with a physically incorporeal, yet imaginary and mentally tangible, dancer is indicative of the film medium itself. The demonic shoemaker is emblematic of the director, and there is a simultaneously intimate, yet violent, sequence where Vicky battles with the demon. It’s almost a love-hate relationship, in which there is a love between actor and director, and at the same time, hostility.

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The Red Shoes is a magnificent, engrossing film. Like all movies, there needs to be some sympathy with what the film is trying to do, since it is melodramatic. It is a lyrical meditation on life and vocation, and attempting to balance on a tightwire above the two. Like The Double Life of Veronique, there is the sense of a metaphysical, transcendent state, in which artist and medium, audience and text, illusion and reality, merge into a single disposition. It is an act of love.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Steve Knight
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and Vincent Cassel.

Images from the 2007 Focus Features release.

Eastern Promises, I am inclined to think, is one of David Cronenberg’s best works; a film that depicts the inheritance of social standing with heartbreaking detail. I know that some of Cronenberg’s fans have been disappointed with his turn to what is generally seen as more popular material, but I couldn’t be more impressed. What’s so refreshing is to see an artist not content to make the same film over again, but rather tinker with his own conventions, adding new layers to his repertoire while continuing to explore themes that interest him. Perhaps it helps that the first two Cronenberg films I saw were A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. When I saw them, I had no idea who he was, and as such, did not carry with me the rest of his oeuvre. I've now worked through 12 of his features, and I've grown to see the Mortensen collaborations as two of the most thoughtful meditations on the nature of violence. Deciding which of the two is better is difficult for me, but I am slowly convincing myself that Eastern Promises is the more complete work, with a pace that feels mournful and sad.

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If you’re wondering why I used the above picture to introduce the film, and not Naomi Watts or Viggo Mortensen, it’s because I believe the shot is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful in the film: a young woman used as an object for a rite of passage. The film may be about another girl’s story, but this woman and every other woman has a story too, and her vacant gaze as she sings a lullaby reveals a soul so damaged, that where she comes from and who she is is reduced to names and facts. Whatever ambition she once had, perhaps to support a family or start a new life, is gone now and all that remains is a life of prostitution. She has been forced into this so brutally that we can see her spirit waning as she stares blankly into nowhere, having been chosen like a horse from a stable. To those trafficking women, she is viewed not as a human being but as a commodity to be bartered, sold, tortured, or used. It is frighteningly true, yet it is something most of us turn a blind eye to, as if our ignorance of the problem will make it disappear.

Cronenberg excels at portraying violence as it ought to be: Horrible, brutal, nauseating, and clumsy. Yet he is rarely exploitative of violence, and much of his work, including Eastern Promises, is more interested in developing characters. When violence does bubble to the surface, it erupts with such force that I continue to cringe after many viewings. You see action movies today, and most of the action has lost its shock value. The editing in those epic battle sequences has become so cookie cutter, you may as well just stick with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Death has become belittled to a split second shot of a faceless enemy dying. These sorts of films, in a way, are morally reprehensible in their treatment of death as entertainment. Eastern Promises (and A History of Violence, for that matter), subverts the Hollywood convention. Even though the violence in something like Kill Bill is more graphic, the violence in Cronenberg’s films feels uncomfortable, grimy, and less exhilarating by comparison.

I’ve often wondered if violence should even have an entertainment value. I do enjoy movies like King Kong (2005) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, yet they are guilty of defusing the brutality of violence for the audience’s comfort. And John Woo’s Hard Boiled is maybe the ultimate treatment of human beings as bodies to put bullets into and I still admire it. I can’t really account for why I still like these films at this point. Perhaps it is human to be drawn to violence, and the sort that does not make us cringe is what audiences crave most. I do think the value of showing the consequences and horrors of violence, however, has a significant place in the cinema, and it’s refreshing (?) to see Cronenberg do it with unnerving success.

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The fight scene in the sauna is one of the most brutal and ugly things I’ve seen in the cinema, and that, I think, is the core of Cronenberg’s philosophy to violence. Treating it as something real, rather than fantasy does not allow the audience to regard it at arm’s length. Instead, the film pushes the violence uncomfortably close to the audience, not offering them an external experience but rather a visceral one. Having Nikolai fight naked in a sauna adds a level of realism, and the audience identifies with his own vulnerability. Fight scenes in many Hollywood movies have the nasty habit of making it sleek and elegant, and the hero suffers minor scratches at best. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg does not spare the audience and Nikolai is brutally slashed with linoleum knives.

Speaking of which, the setting and mode of attack is another stroke of genius. Cronenberg said he used linoleum knives because if the two guys were caught with them they could say: “They’re for work. We’re linoleum cutters.” Cronenberg is intentionally subverting the conventional switchblades of gangster films, grounding it that much closer to reality. These knives tell me: violence is not something remote, but it can happen at anytime and with the simplest of tools (a screwdriver or a hammer could've been used for that matter). The sauna, too, is not a normal association with violence. It is in fact, thought of as a sanctuary for peaceful discussion and meditation; a place for healing rather than wounding. Yet it is, in a way, Cronenberg’s own arena of meditation on violence, and as he exposes the audience to this brutality, he is getting under their skin and making them feel vulnerable. Vulnerability, I think, is a key part of Eastern Promises.

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Eastern Promises penetrates the surface of the Russian mob, concerning itself not with mechanics but with the people involved and the shockwaves of their criminality. This movie makes me feel so vulnerable, in part because I inhabit these characters’ own vulnerability. The scene where Kirill makes Nikolai have sex with one of his father’s prostitutes (from his own “stable”) is such a demeaning, exposed rendition to what is normally considered intimate and private. And afterwards, as I’ve already written, we see the damage of forced prostitution. Nikolai asks Kirilenko where she’s from, and how she responds is more important than what she says. She whispers her hometown like a faded memory that hangs by a thread. She appears lost in thought, willing herself to block out the awful treatment of her humanity. When Nikolai says: “stay alive a little longer,” I wondered what that meant. The first time I saw Eastern Promises, I doubted any benevolent intentions, but after a fourth viewing, I now think Nikolai had the hope of saving her. Martin Scorsese calls it the “goddess-whore” complex, and I’m inclined to believe Eastern Promises does it as well, if not better than, Taxi Driver.

After all, the central story of Eastern Promises is concerned with a woman who is forced into prostitution, raped and impregnated, and then dies giving birth. Birth is the miracle of life, and the tragedy is that in many parts of the world, giving life means a woman’s sacrifice of her own. It is the one thing men will never have the power to fully control. The gangster movie is often an arena for masculinity on display, and in Eastern Promises, the façade of male power is flayed back to reveal their internal weaknesses. That men seek to force a woman’s ability to bear a child is terrible, yet it happens. And regardless of whether the audience wants these stones uncovered or not, Cronenberg is intent on lifting them up to reveal the horrors that exist in the world, because denying their existence will not make them go away.

The tattoos are a source of vulnerability as well as pride. To see them is to allow your entire life to be read: you are on display. It’s the body language, and by extension, the body, that tells who you are, not your words. They can be a source of pride and for Kirill, they mark his inheritance: “These stars are a fucking birthmark.” For Nikolai, the inheritance comes from an inability to escape his past. Any action that is performed is carried with him throughout his life, symbolized by the tattoos. In a way, this makes Eastern Promises a sequel-in-spirit to A History of Violence, which was also concerned with the idea of whether we could put aside our past and start anew.

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Inheritance is another layer to Eastern Promises, and it is intrinsically linked with the idea of an heir. Kirill doesn’t strike the same presence as his father (the subplot is concerned with a murder he orchestrated for rather petty reasons), yet Semyon clings to the fact that their blood is the same. He is willing to sacrifice the more practical Nikolai to save his weaker bloodline. At the same time, the illegitimate bloodline in Tatiana’s baby can be used against him, so he orders it to be destroyed. Kirill isn’t perfect (surprise!), but he has a level of humanity that brings a measure of hope. His inability to kill Tatiana’s child (and his half brother) is the mark of a merciful soul not beyond redemption.

If Eastern Promises is more brutal than A History of Violence (and I say it is), then it is also more hopeful by the movie’s end, offering the audience a reprieve that feels welcome and even deserved. I don’t believe the ending is a cop-out at all, because just as not every movie needs a happy ending, not every one need to drown the viewer in endless sorrow. Eastern Promises offers us hope in Anna, and her home feels like a sanctuary. Yet I wonder if this success story of Tatiana’s child will distract audiences from the hard fact that this is just one case in thousands of others. We are left not with a sense of closure and happiness, but with a sense of unease; something neither uplifting nor depressing but a decided uncertainty. I don’t know what’s the proper way to end a movie like this, and I am left wondering what intentions Cronenberg and Knight had (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

magnolia (1999)


director: paul thomas anderson
screenplay: paul thomas anderson
starring: jeremy blackman, tom cruise, melinda dillon, philip baker hall, philip seymour hoffman, ricky jay, william h. macy, alfred molina, julianne moore, john c. reilly, jason robards, and melora walters.

from the 2000 new line platinum series release.

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Given my admiration for Short Cuts and Nashville, Paul Thomas Anderson's magnolia naturally appeals to me. Admittedly, I'm not a big fan of ensemble movies, and maybe half of the ones I like are directed by Robert Altman. I find the worst ones try to force in too many connections, and the result becomes a game trying to find out how their lives intersect, or worse yet, the film makes sweeping generalizations about these people (I'm looking at you, Paul Haggis!). Unlike Short Cuts, which I feel focuses more on social interactions, magnolia feels more intimate, more about seeing these characters' fortitude stripped away to reveal their humanity, their flaws, and their pain. Part of this may be the shooting style. Short Cuts almost never uses a close-up, while magnolia is filled with them.

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Everyone's someone's son or daughter

The interplay between parents and children is a very relatable issue for me (and for most I would imagine). magnolia understands that the love between parents and children often fades, disintegrates, or just drifts apart. The lives in magnolia are insular and vary in mode of protection, whether it be Stanley and his books, Frank and his hyper-masculinity, or Claudia and drugs. Regardless, the universal thread is loneliness borne out of social pressures as well as familial ones. Ensemble movies seem ideal for showing people who, out of pain, wrap themselves in a cocoon. Another one would be the other Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.

Frank's "Seduce and Destroy" program, admittedly, is extremely funny, but also filled with meaning. Roger Ebert brings up the question: Why does Frank hate women if his father was the one who abandoned him? I think this kind of misses the point. Frank's display of hypermasculinity isn't something that we can attribute to what's on screen, per se. I suspect that, after he had to take care of and lose his mother, Frank may have felt a need to compensate for the lack of a father figure. That he lashes out at women does not mean he hates them... it's a product of his masculinity. It's not too hard to imagine social pressures influencing his final behavior. But the movie doesn't give us answers, and the point is 
not to give conclusions to life (which is what the interviewer foolishly wants).

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Another way of looking at it is that Frank is a man who wants control. His "Seduce and Destroy" program has all kinds of booklets, chapters, and mottos, which seems to be an attempt to garner control over something,
anything really. In this case it happens to be trying to bed women. This desire for control undoubtedly stems from Frank's helplessness when tending to his dying mother. Yet, his claims for the "Seduce and Destroy" program are merely a coverup, and especially after the interview, you can see that powerlessness and frustration surface. The reporter has managed to strike a chord, and broken his persona. He has just heard his father is dying and who, no matter how much Frank may resent him, is still his father. As much as Frank hates to admit it, he knows he will regret it if he doesn't see his father before he dies. 

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Regret, I think, is a huge part of magnolia. The bizarre raining frogs is a revelation, and while there's a biblical reference, I prefer to pare down the explanation to something more universal. I see the frogs as a wake-up call, jilting people out of their stupors to make them realize what's really valuable as well as make them see that they are passing up a great opportunity to do the right thing. It's as if the universe is slapping Jim in the face, telling him: Are you going to pass up a chance to help yourself and a woman who needs your support? Or telling Claudia and her mother: Come on, the same blood flows in your veins; don't let yourselves drift apart. Or telling Frank: Regardless of past resentments, he's your father and he's dying; it's really that simple. Or telling Donnie: You're not a kid anymore, grow up and take responsibility. Or telling Stanley: No, you don't have to have the answer to everything. I think the earthquake in Short Cuts has a similar purpose.


I think magnolia has some really raw performances, and Philip Seymour Hoffman I found really likable here. His Phil allows himself to connect emotionally with Earl, a dying man who he has only known by profession. I can't say I found his character particularly profound, but it's nice to see compassion in someone's job. Plus, if you don't find him both loving and funny at the same time, I don't know what to tell you. 

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I'd say magnolia's the best I've seen Tom Cruise, in the way he allows facade to be torn down. On a side note: I'm not too thrilled with the constant Cruise-bashing that goes on. It's ridiculous that a star like that has to be slated by the media and the public, at the cost of his talent. People love to drag stars through the mud, as if it elevates them. Just leave them alone, admire their work, and only their work. Simple. 

Other than Cruise, who I think really peels back his persona to reveal how conflicted he is, I really admire Julianne Moore, who plays a smaller part than I would have liked.

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Moore said she's best playing the more reserved roles, where she underplays emotion. I'd posit that when her emotions flood over her, as they do often in magnolia, it's to her strength and it's quite compelling. She has the same helplessness that Frank had. She knows she can't do anything except ease the pain (which in and of itself is difficult), and she finds herself unable to control her own emotions. I see the same thing with Frank. When he's by his father's bedside, you can see this inner turmoil erupt. He is torn between love and resentment, and the helplessness he had over his mother is returning with his father. Moreover, he knows that all those years can't be recaptured. This is the best he can do.


This regret plays out in virtually all the characters, and it's seen in Earl's astonishing monologue. What magnolia does at several points is to quickly cut to every major character, frequently to draw a thread through all of them and bring an emotional connection that binds them together. When Earl is lamenting about the overwhelming regret, saying over and over again: "What did I do? What did I do? What did I do..." we see all the characters. All of them are at a crossroads, where if they take the easier road, they will regret it the rest of their lives. 

Grow Up

For me, the most apparent dichotomy in the movie is between Quiz Kid Donnie Smith and Stanley. While there's the implication that they share similar fates, it's never quite hit over the head. If anything, I would think they have divergent paths, since Stanley is the one who breaks free from the zoo of conventions the adults have set up. His position is something that, I'm sure, everybody can identify with on some level. Even if it's not a parent, there are always social pressures forcing us into roles we may not want. When I see Stanley wet his pants, it's incredibly visceral... you can feel his embarrassment, probably because it's something we've all felt at some point. magnolia is so good at making us understand and care what these characters feel, maybe because it taps into very identifiable dilemmas. Exposure is something dealt with over and over in the movie, and real life for that matter.

Stanley confronts his father, telling him he needs to be nicer, but as in life, there are never any definite answers or conclusions. Thankfully, the movie wisely sidesteps giving us a definitive answer to life.

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It's important, regardless of consequence, that Stanley spoke out against the adults because it's the action that has signified his maturation, which is something that Donnie Smith seems to lack. Stanley's failure to reach Quiz Kid Donnie Smith's record has, in fact, allowed him to mature. Donnie, by comparison, is childish and believes that a silly thing like braces will help Brad fall in love with him. He's caught in a perpetually pre-adolescent phase in which he believes reciprocation of love is created through silly middle school notions. 

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William H. Macy has a tricky role to play, since he kind of has to be a sideshow. It would be very easy to dismiss him, but I feel his character is perhaps the most tragic of them all. Donnie is a product of adults parading their children around like freaks. That shot of him in the pitiful little kitchen with his giant check, light of his life, hanging on the wall, makes his whole life seem empty and wasted. His pleas for attention at the bar, like talking about getting struck by lightning, are pitiful and remind me of the kind of thing people did in middle school when they had a school crush.

I think Donnie isn't a hopeless figure, per se, but it is kind of disheartening that a man his age would still act like a child. I think Stanley and Donnie, by the end, have matured and come to realize that life doesn't have easy answers. Stanley finds that he doesn't have to know or explain everything, nor will he find it easy to change his father. Donnie learns that getting the man he loves isn't as simple as getting braces or inspiring pity, but is sometimes impossible.

What Do Kids/We Know?

Jimmy Gator, the host of "What Do Kids Know?" and shining influence, good or bad, on Donnie and Stanley's lives, has an interesting part that I almost ignored the first time I saw magnolia. Interestingly, when I first saw him, I immediately thought of Network. His performance seems to have a little Peter Finch in it, but maybe more William Holden. Funny enough, the features on the disc show PTA screening Network, so I guess he was successful in channeling that.

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The connection between him and Earl is something I completely missed the first go around, but now seems all too clear. It seems Jimmy Gator is an earlier version of Earl. When we hear Earl talking about his regret with never telling his wife Lily that he cheated, we see Jimmy Gator at home, clearly sick and suffering from cancer. His wife lovingly attends to him, and it's not too hard to see Jimmy and Rose as a younger Earl and Lily. In this life, however, Jimmy does admit his adultery, perhaps giving Earl some spiritual closure through the ether. 

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Rose is understanding of her husband's adultery, but she's enraged that Jimmy could've molested their daughter, Claudia. Jimmy and Earl's relationships with their children are very similar as well. Both estranged, they both have, in their children's eyes, caused great harm. Whether Jimmy did molest Claudia or not is immaterial. What matters is that she thinks so. This has caused their estrangement, and while their circumstances may be different, the film is able to draw another thread between Jimmy and Claudia, and Earl and Frank. 

One thing about magnolia is that it's impossible to pigeonhole. It's tragic, but the humor tips the scales back into balance. I don't like the term "drama" because I don't really consider drama to be a genre. It feels like it's the leftover bin everything else is thrown into. Categorizing this sort of movie isn't really that important, and if it's unclassifiable, then so be it.

If magnolia is part tragedy and part comedy, then it's also part romance.

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The relationship between Jim and Claudia is necessary, and it is the storyline that marks the beginning and ending of the main bushel of narratives. Hence, it's important to see that, in spite of Jim and Claudia's complete differences, they both need each other. They're like two puzzle pieces, opposite in form but perfect in complement. 

When we first see Claudia, she is a mess. She sleeps around, takes an innumerable amount of cocaine, and seems to hide behind her curtains, which always seem to fall down in a blinding epiphany of light. She is, perhaps, the most physically reclusive of the characters, drawn into the apartment that becomes her world. It's both a sanctuary and a prison, and she exists in a stasis.

Jim is equally lonely, with a life consisting of waking up, going to work, then coming back home. He talks to himself, as if trying to affirm his place in the world. He provides Claudia with second chance, and when he asks her out, she accepts, forcibly and almost desperately. 

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There are redemptions, and if there is a "message" to the film, it may be that. Certainly, the relationship between Claudia and Jim carries that theme, but I don't think it's as simple as redemption alone. Claudia's drug abuse is a reciprocation of what she believes her father did to her, yet again, the film doesn't give us easy answers (if psychoanalysis was the answer, we'd all read Freud instead of questioning movies). But because she thinks that, it makes the drug abuse an attempt at remedying her painful memories. This is, in my mind, no different (or blameworthy) than Linda's desires to remedy her pain (and if she thinks her father did that then, well, that's enough)... it is human to err, even if we're not sure what we've done wrong. I don't think about it as "redemption" so much as consolation by reciprocation... Jim and Claudia are both lonely for different reasons. But what matters is their loneliness, not where it comes from (again, proving that providing answers for everything is beside the point).

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magnolia is not solely about parents and children, even if it's a common thread. Moreover, I think it's about the physical and mental insulations we create in an effort to hide from reality and our pain. It's loneliness that resonates strongly with me, and it's something that magnolia nails.

That magnolia does not confine itself to the parent/child drama is ambitious, but in no way pretentious. It never hits anything over the head so much as gives us little winks. The film itself doesn't give us answers but allows us to form our own conclusions, which is why it's a movie that can be seen over and over. It doesn't feel answers are the point, but rather believes that the act of observation is enough. Answers and the much dreaded moral-at-the-end-of-the-story generally feel forced (if a movie had the answer to life's questions, we wouldn't need any more) which is why Slumdog Millionaire as a drama doesn't work (and again, I bring that movie up). The advantage of an ensemble piece is that each character can reach a different conclusion and represent a different facet of life, which magnolia does in spades.

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