Thursday, February 17, 2005

To the Person Who Repeatedly Happens Upon This Page While Searching for "Elastigirl Nude" via Google:

In the slightly paraphrased words of Royal Tenenbaum:

I see you, asshole.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Irreversible d. Gaspar Noe, 2002

In the first scene of Irreversible, an older man mutters that "time destroys everything." It's almost always a red herring and, without fail, a cheap shot for a director to supply the thesis of the film at all, let alone in the very first scene. Philosophically, it doesn't really matter anyway, seeing as that destruction purportedly brought by time is omnipresent in the delicate balance of life. Noe's film is a razor-sharp, violently monstrous object, tearing its way through anyone (anyone) that happens upon it. The narrative is reversed, the camera bobs and weaves while cycloning about in coldly calculated bedlam, and the visuals contain two of the most abhorrent scenes ever captured on film - the destruction of a man's face with a fire extinguisher and a nine-minute long rape scene. Consider yourself warned. That said, Irreversible is a remarkable film.

The first 35 minutes of Irreversible are startling in form - the camera refuses static, instead spiraling through corridors and alleyways in a controlled chaos of sorts. The point, I believe, is that it causes the viewer to feel as if he or she is on a centrifugal carnival ride i.e., out of control, but in a pre-desitined, decided manner. As with Memento, the narrative is reversed; the scene order flipped from to front to back. The nauseating camera enters right after - you guessed it - the immoral coup de grace of the film, the rape scene. And after that (that is, in time relative to the narrative of the film), a discomfiting quiet pervades. Each moment from here on out holds the thematic weight of the film.

The essence of the first act of the film is violent disruption, of both form and content. Vengeance overwhelms rational thought, nature overwhelms civilized society, and death overwhelms life. The second and third act of the film (cordoned from each other by the presence of Pierre) are earmarked by that aforementioned discomfiting quiet in which all sorts of parallels are drawn between the seeming peace at hand and the heinous actions prior. Marcus (Vincent Cassel) asks his girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci), politely as one can with this type of request, if she'd be up for some anal sex. She laughs and politely refuses, unaware that a complete stranger will violate her in the same manner later that evening. Alex and Marcus' post-coital play, even in its innocence, holds something of the rape scene in the mannerisms of the characters. Marcus, waking up from a nap, is unable to feel his arm - foreshadowing (or is that post-shadowing?) the broken arm he received at the beginning of the film. Alex even has a dream that she is in a red tunnel, reminding the viewer of the red tunnel in which she will be raped later that evening.

Noe's thesis (despite his temerarious interview manner and glib "time destroys everything" line) is that life hangs in a delicate balance between control and chaos. But it is not that simple either. Chaos and control both intermix with each other, leaving neither entirely free of the other. In this world (our world, Noe would argue - and I agree) something as dependable as time can become reversed. The final shot of the film shows an Edenesque park: Alex is wearing a bright floral dress, the grass is a saturated green, children play in the cool streams of a sprinkler. Yet all is not what it seems. The camera cranes up and we see that Alex in reading a book called An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne. The camera continues and begins its disorienting cyclone that pervaded the first act of the film. Even in this Eden, chaos is at work.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Thin Red Line d. Terrence Malick, 1998

The initial conceit (and a problematic one, at that) with nearly every war film is that, almost without fail, the protagonist of the film will be the Hero. The Hero ranges from the obvious (John Wayne in The Green Berets) to the obscure (Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.) The Thin Red Line disregards the concept of the Hero, placing its focus instead on the act of war itself. Sergeant Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) states early on that one man alone cannot make a difference - in war, and even in life. He proceeds to, heroically and amidst substantial gunfire, attend to the aid of a comrade dying in the battlefield. But Malick is quick to point out that Welsh is not a hero - when this supposed hero is confronted with the possibility of decoration, he adamantly opposes the idea. His refusal contends that his acts were not heroic. Rather, they maintain that this is duty, this is expected, this is human decency. And therein lies the problem with the Hero. Heroism implies that mediocrity by choice is acceptable, that there exists such a thing as "just good enough", that allowing a comrade to die without aid on the battlefield is ok. Malick's film implies that such a concept exists only in the hearts of the selfish.

The Thin Red Line opens with the focus of the film on Private Witt (Jim Caviezel); Witt narrating while images of a jungle bucolic amble on. The Private speaks of good and evil, and innocence lost. He says, "How'd we lose that goodness that was given to us?" This is the thesis of the film. The hero is absent in The Thin Red Line because the hero is absent in war; all that exists is the possibility of momentarily attaining that goodness. Witt resides in the aforementioned jungle bucolic, having gone AWOL. The peace he sees there he equates to a whole different world. This is his heaven, a place where the goodness given still exists.

The Thin Red Line also works to examine absolute power corrupting absolutely. In this case, honor = rank = dishonor. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) is strongly reminiscent of Gen. Mireau (George Macready) in Paths of Glory. Like Mireau, Col. Tall's impetus behind his eager and strong willed military tactics is honor. That is, honor from his peers, which manifests itself as rank. If Mireau captures the Ant Hill, he will earn that fifth star he has been after for so long. If Tall takes the ridge, that coveted General rank will be his. Both officers demand impossible acts from their men in pursuit of personal gain. They are after honor, which only comes with rank, which only comes with dishonor. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) and Captain Gaff (John Cusack) who find their Paths of Glory parallel in Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas.) Both Dax and Staros refuse to obey the orders of their commanding officers, orders that would lead their men to certain death. Both men are tempted with medals and commendations of valor - both men realize that true valor has nothing to do with decoration. Gaff leads the band of seven men that overcome the ridge. Selflessly, he recommends all his men for commendation while admitting that he was ready to pull back. Col. Tall will hear nothing of it, and even recommends Gaff for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Selfishly, Tall knows that honor breeds honor - if Gaff did anything to deserve a Medal of Honor, it is because Tall appointed him to that position. This nearly guarantees Tall his General's star.

The Thin Red Line is far from the average war film. Poetic in its narration, painterly in its composition, and thematically complex in subject matter, The Thin Red Line transcends the war film genre. Terrence Malick had not directed a film since Days of Heaven, 20 years prior to The Thin Red Line. Clearly the man hasn't lost a step.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Dancer in the Dark Directed by Lars von Trier, 2000

It is an exercise in the futility of words, writing about one of Lars von Trier's films. Or maybe an exercise in the futility of my own pen. I cannot think of another working director whose films are as razor-like in their ability to divide an audience. For every person like me - who found Dogville to be the crowning filmic achievement of 2004 - there is a reciprocal, another person who found it be the lowest type of 24 FPS dreck possible. Von Trier's dense thematic material allows for readings that, while light-years away from each other, stand up as equally logical. His morals, methods, and subject matter could be argued as both reprehensible and revolutionary. To write about a von Trier film, if done right, is to be 100% correct while simultaneously being dead wrong.

Dancer in the Dark is typically serpentine. It's about the death penalty; no, it's about the inhumane treatment of foreigners; no, it's about the real axis of evil - America; no, it's about honor & dishonor in the face of the death. Circumventing (and, to some degree, incorporating) all of these ideas, Dancer in the Dark is about what it means to be a human living in this world.

Selma (Bjork) is a Czech woman, with a son, living in America. She has a degenerative eye disease and is saving up money so her son can get the operation he needs to avoid living with the blindness that plagues her. Selma is infatuated with that most American of genres - the Musical. When her eyesight sets sail, and her life turns dour, she tunes into the sounds around her, catching their rhythm and sliding off into her own musical world. It’s a bizarre idea - take a somber, digitally shot film and intersperse it with brash musical numbers sung by a brilliant, albeit strange, Icelandic pop star. This is division line #1. Is it cheesy? To some extent, yes. Are musicals in general - from Busby Berkeley to Baz Luhrmann - cheesy? To some extent, yes. It's entirely artificial, the juxtaposition of the realist Dogme style of most of the film versus the artifice of the musical numbers. Yet it works. Selma's musical wanderings are daydreams, temporary and utterly terminable. Each dream ends with Selma being snapped back to reality, returning to the hard locus of her daily grind. To some extent, this is von Trier's comment on the American Dream. That is, it's just that - a dream. He takes the musical - the premier genre of the depression era - and turns it on its head. This sentiment isn't anti-American, it's just anti-bullshit. His point is that the American Dream, or any dream for that matter, is a lie, or a facade that cannot be maintained. Sooner or later, you have to wake up.

As with many of von Trier's films, the female lead is subjected to all kinds of harsh treatment in Dancer in the Dark. Without fail, this trick engenders sympathy for the character. In the case of Selma, this sympathy is not entirely warranted. Apparently von Trier and Bjork argued over how the character should be played. Bjork wanted Selma to be an intelligent, cognizant character, almost prescient in her knowledge of the implications and results of her actions. Von Trier wanted to elevate Selma;s naivete, highlighting the blind trust of the woman. Both readings are possible, but the latter holds up better to critical scrutiny. Selma, as callous as this sounds if you've seen the film, is just as responsible for the events as any other character. She refuses the help of the one person who cares for her - Jeff - and embraces the hardship of her life. Rather than dealing with this hardship, and attempting to better it, she goes on smiling and creating escapist scenarios for herself. The film is combative - the editing, cinematography, and scenario all begging for battle cries - but Selma remains docile, almost sedated in her acceptance. Selma constantly denies, and covers up, her blindness. This is a metaphor for her stubbornness in admitting that, rather than the American Dream, she's living a universal nightmare.

With the motif of money, Von Trier seems to be intimating that there is no way out of this nightmare. Selma's landlord is a supposedly rich man. He once had wealth, and both him and his wife were happy. But he ran out of money, and turned to thoughts of suicide. Selma saves up every last dime in order to better her son's life. Without ruining the film, this turns on her as well. Money is a false idol, a supposed exit door that is, in actuality, a dead end.

If someone told me that they hated Dancer in the Dark, or Dogville, or The Five Obstructions, or even The Element of Crime, I would completely understand. These are tough films to watch, and tough films to stomach. They point out glaring errors, inconsistencies, and evils inherent to humankind. But to watch them is to mimetically confront your own demons. With Dancer in the Dark, whether enjoyed or not, von Trier is saying something about the human condition. Ergo, something important. That in and of itself is worthy of respect.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Distant Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002

What is it like to be truly alone? I don't think that being alone - being truly alone - has anything to do with proximity; you could be in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from civilization, without being alone. Conversely, you could be in a crowd of thousands and feel completely isolated. Distant examines this idea of solitude - both self-imposed and otherwise.

Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) is a photographer, hermitic in nature. A distant cousin, Yusuf (Emin Toprak), comes to stay with Mahmut in his apartment while he looks for work. Both leads won a well-deserved joint Best Actor award at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. As with any situation in which two people are adjusting to the constant presence of each other, a good deal of strife ensues.

The narrative arc, on a surface level, is rather bland - the apex of the film being the capture of a mouse. But the subtext offers a lot on one subject - distance, in every sense of the word. Distance, physically, from home; distance, emotionally, from other people; distance from one's own self; distance from society. Mahmut especially personifies this distance. Via his own, self-imposed isolated lifestyle, and his need for petty control over others and his environment, he sequesters himself. His distance was not purposely created - he still reaches out with attempted cordiality to acquaintances and what might or might not be a prostitute - yet he fails in these attempts. His auto-manufactured exile is too large to see past. Yusuf's distance is more societal. In essence, he is the country bumpkin visiting the big city. This could have been played for laughs, but an overwhelming pathos pervades in lieu of humor. Close Ups of Yusuf are in shallow-focus, blurring the world behind him - in effect, clouding his already imperceptible surroundings, and the harsh wharf-side cityscape is cruel barrier keeping him at arm's length.

Eventually, Mahmut and Yusuf cease to be two characters. Instead, they become an examination of distance as applied to all humanity. They are a mimetic capture of our alienation as well as a cautionary warning against what we might become. Clearly, it is not isolation that breeds distance - Mahmut is surrounded by colleagues, friends, and passers'by. Rather, it is the cold exterior of an individual toward others. As Mahmut's grievance with Yusuf grows, so does his distance. His self-centered existence produces a self-contained world, for better or worse. The last shot of the film shows Mahmut, alone, sitting on a bench near the wharf while smoking a cigarette. It is a slow, deliberate shot examining a lonely, isolated man; a man who has no idea of how he became who he is.