Archive for the ‘Reception’ Category

BIFF 2010: Tarda Estate

October 23, 2010

It’s that time of the year again. The Bergen International Film Festival offers a week long program of some 150 films. Due to work and the fact that I haven’t managed to finagle a free pass for this year, I won’t see as many films as have been my custom, so I won’t attempt any thorough report in these posts.


My first film of the festival was the Italian Tarda Estate, directed by Marco De Angelis and Antonio Di Trapani. It gives me no joy to say that this is a film that should never have been invited to the festival. It is ridiculously amateurish and incompetently made on just about every level. The writing is atrocious and the actors are given no service or, it seems, instruction by the directors. The film lasts 89 minutes, but every minute is so cringe worthy that it felt like a true ordeal. Seeing as the directors were present at the showing, I felt it would be rude to just get up and leave, so instead I tried to roll into a ball of embarrassment, shielding my eyes with my hands, trying to focus on the shape of the loudspeakers above me, anything to escape from a work that confirms and indeed strengthens any prejudice one might harbour against Independent European film making.

The film reportedly cost only a few thousand Euro. Still, I am sure the money could have been put to better use. I don’t blame the film makers, who I am sure have done the best they could. Rather, the director of the Film Festival, Tor Fosse, seems wholly to blame. He evidently saw the film at the Venice Film Festival, where it performed – naturally – out of competition, and deemed it the best film of the festival. While doing so, he gave the backhanded compliment of describing the film as “just as if he should have done it himself”. This is such a lapse of judgment that one must question the man’s ability to continue leading the festival.

As far as I can tell, the only professional actor of the film, is Hal Yamanouchi, who portrays the protagonist. He has himself spent his last 35 years in Italy, playing in various B-films and TV series before he was given a role in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as a pirate. The rest of the actors are unknown. Now, of course it is possible to create wonderful films with unprofessional actors, but I think there must be a plan behind their inclusion; why and how to use them. With such an artificial sounding script as this, neither a Toshiro Mifune nor a Laurence Olivier would have been able to give a credible performance.

Before attending the showing, I had certain fears upon reading what the film was about: An elderly Japanese journalist, having lived most his life in Italy, is diagnosed with a serious illness and coincidentally is asked by his editor to go back to Japan in order to write an article about how the country has changed in the last decades. With a story like this, told by Italian director-writers, I feared that the film would fall prey to exotism: Pretty pictures of the Japanese countryside, shrines, clothes, nature, etc. While all my fears were confirmed, I was not prepared for the added clichés and contrived language, to put a nice word to it. Neither did I expect the film to look as bad – or ugly – as it did, filmed digitally, with no more cinematographic qualities than what any amateur can manage on even a poor video camera. You know that soap opera look that you get on bad LCD televisions? Imagine that, just often out of focus.

It is not automatically art to film a scene behind a veil or putting the camera down on the floor to film peoples’ feet. In fact, it almost pains me to write this, as the film clearly doesn’t deserve any serious or long review. Again, I wouldn’t bother if not for the fact that the film is pronounced a favourite film of the festival director.

“It wasn’t the wind I was scared of, it was our love”. This and numerous other platitudes and embarrassing utterings litter the film. The film is a proper turkey, only there is nothing funny about it. I’m just sorry that it is almost impossible to give a real sense of just how bad the film is, as I didn’t bring anything to write upon, so most of the comments are forgotten. “I seem lately to feel at one with all of nature and see the world in a new way”, the dying journalist says at a point towards the end of the film. He says it because the film has been unable to show us. Everything is explained by the characters in gusts of talk so unnatural and artificial that they would never have been included had the directors been Japanese or, at least, possessed an ear for dialogue.

Possibly the directors wanted to make Lost in Translation with a Japanese protagonist. I’m sure they had ideas they wanted to put into the film. Unfortunately, any such ideas fell apart in the execution. Perhaps they will do better in the future.

Andrei Tarkovsky and Stalker

June 3, 2009

Another brief interruption in my Studio Ghibli series…
Stalker is a film from 1979 by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. His films are generally considered art films, that is, not easily accessible to the layman. I have at times struggled to keep awake during some of his oeuvre, and have immediately afterwards felt that while meticulously framed and containing some striking images, the stories themselves have not been all that. However, as time has passed I have found myself thinking back on his films, and so large portions of them have remained in my mind, that I’ve come to realize that the fault lies entirely with me for not recognizing their greatness at first view.

rublev-knightNow I feel his masterpiece is his portrait of the iconic painter Andrei Rublev – iconic in that he painted icons (duh!) – and I can find myself shuddering whenever I recall the fantastic spectacle of the resolution to that film. The effect is achieved by having the three hour film unfold slowly in black and white, with the protagonist toiling in mud and darkness for the last half of the film, only to reveal at the very end his art in glorious colour.

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However, I digress, as the point at hand, is Tarkovsky’s maybe most famous film, Stalker.

tarkovskyThe director (in)famously shot the film two times (with different script, props and for almost no money the second time) as the first version was ruined in the processing, maybe due to a sub quality Kodak-stock or maybe because of sabotage. It is rumoured that the first version stuck more closely to the science fiction element of the story, while the re-shoot necessarily was more transcendental due to the lack of money. The story can be summed up briefly: In a post-war country, if there is such a thing, some happening – be it a meteor or extraterrestrials – has created a mysterious zone. The government of the small country in which the action takes place, has decided that access to The Zone is forbidden. There are those few, though, that specializes in smuggling people through the army-lines into The Zone, and after having gained access, guides them to “the room”, which is a place our innermost wishes come true.

StalkerTarkovsky claimed that the Zone had no further meaning than its literal representation in the film: “The Zone doesn’t symbolize anything, any more than anything else does in my films; the zone is a zone, it’s life, and as he makes his way across it a man may break down or he may come through. Whether he comes through or not depends on his own self-respect, and his capacity to distinguish between what matters and what is merely passing”. First of all, Tarkovsky contradicts himself as he does indeed say that The Zone is life, and as such he already has offered an interpretation. Secondly, as Tarkovsky was a believer in audience participation in his films, to say that a thing means only itself seems to be contrary to his purpose: “Anyone who wants can look at my films as into a mirror, in which he will see himself”.

And herein lies much of the power in Tarkovsky’s best work. While he is so adept and meticulous in presenting strong images, images that stay with us long after the witnessing, he also leaves us with a basic void: The images does not mean more than themselves unless we choose to look into ourselves for answers. We can feel that they strike a chord in us, but are often unable to explain exactly why or how. It is first by our active participation that the void can be negated, so to say, that some meaning can occur. This is also, I think, why his films stay with us, even though they at first impression fail to convince us that we have seen something truly worthwhile. They take time, as reflection takes time, and even though the films may be long, the period of contemplation must always be longer. The reward is bound to not be immediate.

Stalker is perhaps the best example of this. In my next post I shall try to suggest a few reasons why.
andrei rublev

Studio Ghibli Part 2: the 70s

March 6, 2009

230px-pandagopanda_dvdAs we recall from last post, the underwhelming sales of Horus, Prince of the Sun, forced Isao Takahata to look for other companies in order to continue directing. Miyazaki-san stayed for a year or so more at Toei, but in 1971 left to co-direct with Takahata-san the bulk of episodes of the action/adventure series Lupin III. After this, he wrote – together with his wife – the two shorts that constitute Panda! Go, Panda! These shorts were directed by Takahata-san as well, while Miyazaki-san served as animator and chief-designer on the project. (Evidently there was a bit of a panda-craze in Japan – and the rest of the world – at the time, as China had just begun to lend out their national animals to foreign zoos).

By now, it must have been pretty clear that the two animators were a hell of a team. The biggest project they participated on during the 70s, is probably what is called World Masterpiece Theatre, a production of Nippon Animation. The concept was to take famous works of children’s literature and to tell the stories as fully as the television format allowed. With the possibility to make series into 20 or 30 episodes, Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san sharpened their knack for being able to extract true and recognizable moments from their characters. If a situation required time and reflection, the anime-team let the action slow down, introducing everyday moments in a genre that so often had – and at times still has – an inbuilt resistance to rest and inactivity.

heidi_dvd_1Very often the works of this period focuses on nature and the relationship between children and nature. Often the protagonists are girls, as in Heidi, Girl of the Alps (which technically was a precursor to Nippon Animations Masterpiece-series) and Anne of Green Gables. (Miyazaki tried to get the rights to Pippi Longstocking and even flew to Sweden to meet Astrid Lindgren, but to no avail. Not the Swedish author’s best decision…) It is clear that these early works are, to a larger degree than what was to be Studio Ghibli’s own films, meant as children’s entertainment If there is a darker undercurrent in these series, it is well hidden. Mostly the problems facing the protagonists have to do with the grown up’s inability to understand the children’s needs and how they perceive the world, usually because they have become alienated from nature and the natural world.

anime-001Of course, seeing as these series are based on literary works, most of or part of the narrative is taken from the books. But the different series almost all feel as if they are made by the same intelligence, so to say. The animation, clearly, is similar from series to series, but more than that, I find the themes and ways of presenting the world is very similar as well. This signifies -at least to me- that the directors are pursuing a definite project that actually means something to them. And, certainly, while I can easily sit through six hours of a simple peasant girl running around the alps as long as Heidi is directed by Takahata-san, I have found all other versions of the story pretty near unbearable to watch. This as well leads me to believe that there is an undeniable quality present in these series, and that Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san are pretty much incapable of making anything thoroughly uninteresting, no matter the age of the viewer.

conanAnother work Miyazaki-san did for Nippon Animation is Future Boy Conan from 1978. Here Miyazaki-san himself directed the bulk of the episodes, maybe giving him the confidence to make his first feature length animated film the year after. This series, by the way, was for some reason an enormous success in Yemen. Or so I am informed.

Thus, after quite a long apprenticeship, mostly under – or in collaboration with -Takahata-san, Miyazaki was finally given the opportunity to undertake a full-length project as director. The Castle of Cagliostro is a feature film of the Lupin III hero that Miyazaki-san had directed intermittently before in its TV-series incarnations. Here we see the Miyazaki-touch in pretty near full bloom. While the film is more violent and cynical than most of his later works, he uses his eye for directing tremendous set pieces while at the same time balancing the action with an almost archaeological interest in the natural earth his characters inhabit.

cagliostro_450The Castle of Cagliostro was voted 5th place on a list that Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs published in 2007 of Best Anime. While such a list is not terribly interesting in itself, I note that Cagliostro had to see itself beaten by two other Miyazaki-films, which gives an indication of his popularity in Japan.

The film is also famous for Steven Spielberg’s praise of an initial car chase scene (The best ever filmed!). And quite rightly so, as we can see homages to Cagliostro’s car chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released a year after, as well as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But the film is much more than the action, impressive as that is. Miyazaki-san at times goes for a kind of hyper-exaggeration in the characters, almost Bugs Bunny-like, but while this only contributes to a feel of overall fun, when the characters need to be serious or act in pivotal scenes, the animation is much more down to earth, for lack of a better phrase.

lThe plot of the film is perhaps not that important. Lupin is a kind of Mediterranean hero of the kind Jean Paul Belmondo so often inhabited (see: That Man From Rio). In the TV-series he had been rather rash and cynical, with few redeeming qualities. Now he is, as he says, no longer as stupid as he was in his younger days, meaning in the TV-series. Thus, the film at times dares to slow down to reflect this, and our rascal-hero even falls in love with the lovely Clarissa, whose bloodline holds the key to the mystery/treasure of the Cagliostros. While the plot initially seems decidedly whimsical, a more serious undertone gradually creeps into the film, making us care what happens. There is love in this film, both visible in the directorial touches, but not least in the film’s love of history and of telling a thoroughly entertaining yarn or two.

castle_of_cagliostro_the_1980_685x385On the way to the resolution, we can marvel at Miyazaki-san’s designs of aeroplanes – or baroque machines that somehow can fly, I should say – and architecture (houses and castles all seem as if they have a history, and as if the history is about to win; with cracks and wild growing vegetation trying to take over the stone world that Man has built) and his mastery of showing people and objects in motion, giving the animated cells a kind of kinetic dirty energy that has lacked in Disney films since uncle Walt left us. I shall not reveal here how the film ends, just say that the Castle of Cagliostro holds a treasure in its foundations, but it is not for one man only, and that is my kind of treasure. (At least the days I feel more benevolent and magnanimous and all around a better person than is my habit).

Oh, and I must not forget to mention the creepiest assassins in memory, animated or not!

Studio Ghibli Part 1

February 28, 2009

image147The first film I ever watched on DVD was the Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s magically excellent Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) back in 2001 (pardon the slight hyperbole!). This was also the first film I watched by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese anime studio that was formed in 1985 with Miyasaki-san and his erstwhile mentor Isao Takahata as creative directors. Needless to say I was immediately convinced about the qualities of the new technological medium as well as the studio’s storytelling abilities. I decided, with a fervour I seldom feel, to immediately delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue. It turned out that I had to wait for the Oscar-success of the studio’s next film, Spirited Away, before Disney/Buena Vista, who held the distribution rights outside Japan and the east, saw fit to grant these other films a DVD release. Well, that is yesterday’s snow under the bridge, and let’s not spoil the good mood these films are bound to instil in any human being with a more or less sound mind and soul.

I won’t be recapitulating the entire story of the company’s formation in this post. I wanted, rather, to concentrate on the films themselves, and what makes them so worthwhile entries in the annals of film (you can snigger at the word if you want to…), and I wouldn’t be too surprised if a tentative history of Ghibli’s place in anime will threaten to surface as well. In short, what are the films about, and why are they so much better than pretty much anything any animation studio in the west has produced since Bambi? (The possible exception being, of course, Pixar, a studio that has taken to heart Ghibli’s insistence upon story over spectacle).

horusAs mentioned, the creative force behind Studio Ghibli, consists of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. (I use here the western custom of not putting surnames first). They first collaborated on what has later been called the first modern anime film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken), in 1968. The film is also known as, among other things, The Little Norse Prince and Hols: Prince of the Sun. Horus was directed by Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san served as “chief animator and concept artist”.

While later seen as a landmark in animation, the film was upon its release a financial failure prompting the two to seek employment elsewhere, to put it carefully. (The Toei Studio only allowed the film a ten day limited release, which goes a way to explain the lack of success). While originally conceived of as a run of the mill-anime, Takahata-san decided to expand the scope of the film both in terms of animation as well as in narrative. As a result the film went over budget, over time, and, according to the producers, all over the place.

The film is the story of Horus, or Hols, depending on which translation/edition one sees, a young boy, who in the film’s very first scene is being attacked by a pack of wolves. It’s an impressive action scene that shows the considerable skill of the director at this early stage in his career. At the end of the fight, Horus is saved by the stone-giant Mogue, out of whose “hide” he manages to pull the “sword of the sun”. He is told that once he manages to reforge the sword, he will be “the prince of the sun”. So far, so Arthur. We learn that his father, who is dying, once escaped the village where they lived because it was under attack by “the demon”, Grunwald. The film then plays out as a classic adventure where the boy will have to “find his way” or “find himself” in order to destroy the evil of the land. On the way he encounters a mysterious girl, Hilda, who, it turns out, holds the key to understand what hold Evil has over the people. The battle within her is mirrored by the battle between Horus and Grunwald; both of them claiming a part of her. In the end it is herself who decides the outcome of both the internal as well as the external battle. While this on the surface is hardly a groundbreaking plot, the real meaning of the story is found in the details as well as in the more complex parts that I allude to above.

a894-12The film was originally meant to be based on the Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan who were persecuted by ancestors of the modern Japanese. For some reason, be it of a commercial or political nature, Toei Studio felt that the film shouldn’t have a Japanese setting. As a result, we are in, I assume because of the title, a Norse settlement. However, with characters called Drago, Hilda and Grunwald, I suspect a kind of pan-European placement, with Germanic sprinklings. The geographical reason for the name Horus – or Hols, which is the pronounced Japanese equivalent – escapes me. Symbolically, though, it’s probably a reference to the Egyptian god Horus. (I mean, how many Horuses are out there?) He is traditionally considered “a protector of the people” and associated with hunting through his sometimes form as a falcon. This is all fitting to the story at hand.

The name of the villain, Grunwald, is also worth a short note. On one hand, it is deeply ironic, signifying “green forest” in German. Grunwald takes the form of Winter and his weapon is snow and ice. His way of destroying the villages is to cover everything green and freezing the land. On the other hand, it might be a reference to the Battle of Grunwald, which was decisive in ending the reign of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, if memory and Wikipedia serves me. I’m sure interpretative strands can be extracted in this context as well.

The year of the film’s making is also worth a thought. 1968 bears with it many connotations, and while the student protests of Europe and USA were maybe not felt as strongly in Japan, I understand that quite severe unionist disputes were taking place there as well. This can maybe account for the communist tableaus and iconography I noticed a couple of times during the film. The music is also vaguely communist sounding, without me being able to be very clear about this point. (Let me stress that this – communist leanings – is not at all problematic to me!) The protagonist’s main message also seems to be that the people must work together to overcome an evil that has paralyzed them and made them live in fear. As I’ve hinted at, though, the resolution of the film turns out to be a personal, individual resolution as much as a coming together of the people on a macro-level. The interplay between the individual’s concerns and need and the needs of the society to which he and she must belong to, leads us away from uncomplicated dogmas. Maybe the final winner is nature, which awakening and blossoming coincides with the people’s renaissance.

The joys of the film is in its fine action sequences and “unbridled imagination“, as reviewers like to say about films that don’t contain a tenth of the creativity this film has going for it. However, considering the things that were to come from the hands of these anime artists later on, the film is mostly of historical interest as an early intent to utilize the Ghibli touch. Here as well we have benign and evil giants alike, we see the joy of flying and have a complicated female character who turns out to be at least as important in the narrative as the male protagonist. It is only natural that the animation style is not as accomplished as in the works that would appear 15 or 20 years later, but the film is also marred by the studio shutting down production before some key scenes were filmed. While two large-scale attacks on the village (the first by wolves, the second by rats), is presented in still pictures, this does not really harm the film that much. More serious is the fact that Takahata-san had to remove some thirty minutes of the film because of the shut down. As a result, the film can at times seem disjointed and without sufficient resolution of various plot threads. Also, the film is almost burdened with a cutesy side-kick bear cub. I assume this was a demand of the studio, as they probably figured they could sell some cub dolls and earn back its money in merchandise. I say the film is almost burdened with it. Takahata-san gets rid of the talking bear cub immediately after the first scene in which it appears by conveniently having it be separated from Horus. When it returns to the narrative many scenes later, it never achieves a purpose in the film and mostly just lingers in the background. I can imagine the producers were not terribly happy with this handling of their cash-cub.

little_norse_prince_006Anyhow, as they say, this was a brief introduction to the first collaboration between the creative fathers of Studio Ghibli. I chose to begin with this film not only because of its historical significance, but because it was directed by Isao Takahata. When one mentions Ghibli, most people think only of Miyazaki-san. While he undoubtedly is the more famous – and productive – of these two, I’ll try in the coming posts to make a case for the equal importance of Takahata-san. As we get past the seventies and into the eighties and the formation of their studio, I promise that most of the films under discussion will all be not only worthwhile, but indubitable masterworks of Film in general. Sayonara for now!

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia; or Bloated Bruces and Shallow Sheilas

January 7, 2009

Maybe someone has noted a certain tone of complaint in my last posts, an intimation that I find everything recent in cinema tiresome and dumbed down to fit only certain groups of cinemagoers; demographics that have low standards of quality in their viewing demands. This cantankerous outlook is not entirely appropriate to how I perceive myself. Every time I walk into a movie theatre or pop a new disc into my DVD-player, I have genuine hopes that my next hours will prove worthwhile. So it was today as well, as I was brought by my wife to see Baz Luhrmann’s latest “personal vision”, the epic Australia.

australia-kidman-jackmanLet me start by noting that the film lasts for close to three hours. The length is not an unimportant ingredient when one sets out to make an epic, so Luhrmann certainly knows what he’s doing in this department. I must say that I was rather satisfied with the first third of the film. It is bigger-than-life film making, to be sure, but I felt that at least the proceedings held my interest and was put together in a way that was liable to make me forgive that I had seen it all before. Luhrmann starts with some magnificent shots of a “half breed”, an aboriginal child with a white father, who is told by his shamanic grandfather to make himself invisible by hiding under water as some white people pass by. We see the child under water and suddenly the surface opens up to the intrusion of a white man speared through the chest and dead. The child rises from the water and as his head breaks the surface, he is face to head with a black horse. These are beautiful images and as the child climbs the back of the horse and rides off, I feel that with luck the film might offer more than I’m used to from Luhrmann. (Mind, I actually liked both Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!, so I am not averse to his film making techniques).

australiaThen follows a typical story of Nicole Kidman’s upper class English Woman coming to the still semi-savage continent down under and of course she initially dislikes everything about it; its people, customs and its nature. (Relax, she’ll learn to love it all!)The film is at this point a Western, where the frail English Woman , Sarah, grows to admire the rugged Drover, played by a buffed up Hugh Jackman. Drover, by the way, is also his profession. They go on a cattle drive and everything that always happens on cattle drives happens here as well. But I was entertained, so I didn’t look at my watch. Yet.

After about an hour, the initial cattle drive is over with, and things begin to look bleaker for the viewer as the two protagonists find themselves well and truly in love, and they look meaningfully at each other and stare and kiss and say a few words. Two hours remain of the film at this point. Drover: “When it rains, I’ll stay with you. When the dry season comes, I have to drove“. Quite. Or how about this?: Sarah: “Let’s go home”. Drover: “There’s no place like it”. This by itself wouldn’t be so bad if the various homilies were only said once, but evidently Luhrmann is so satisfied with his writing that he needs every clunking sentence to be repeated and repeated again. “I’ll sing you to me”, says the little aboriginal boy some thirty times during the film. Maybe I exaggerate, but not much. I can’t remember having ever seen a film so proudly uttering this many platitudes. At times I had to concentrate hard not to begin laughing. I guess this makes me an unfeeling person. I think I am not. I cry during Bambi like anyone else.

AUSTRALIA-ENTERTAINMENT-FILM-TOURISMHowever, I can live with some bad dialogue if it at least brings the story forward. No such luck. Baz Luhrmann has recently been tasked by the Australian prime minister to film an advertising campaign to promote Australia as a tourist destination, and I gather he has already shot a thousand times over the material he needs by making this film. Well, I can also live with pretty pictures of Australian nature. Unfortunately he relies so much on CGI and colour manipulation that Australia looks more like something out of the more ethereal parts of Lord of the Rings than any real location. Also, why do war ships always look so fake in films like this? I guess the short answer is “because they are”. When our heroes are supposed to see water, we see green screen, when they are supposed to swim in the sea, we see stand- ins wading in a pool. I am well aware that Luhrmann’s style is supposed to be presenting a kind of hyper reality; that is, not real at all, but expressionistically so. And certainly, many of his withdrawal shots could be mistaken for deleted scenes from his prior Moulin Rouge!, but while that film’s artificiality was intentional and fitting its subject; a kind of opium induced point of view of bohemian life, Australia is a much worse fit.

Luhrmann has always taken existing stories, well known formulas, and given them his own over the top-spin. One could be clever and mention Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra and throw in words like kinetic, post modern; self referential/film referential, but I feel that “over the top” covers his style well. By always giving us recognizable stories (and none more so than Romeo + Juliet), he should know that he is working in the territory of clichés, but I fear that he actually feels that all his stories have something of value to impart on his audience. There is a weak sign of a thread in Australia that hints at “the power of storytelling”. We learn that if the aboriginal boy doesn’t go walkabout, he’ll lose his identity: “his story of himself”. Three times it is repeated that stories are the most important tool we have to make sense and meaning of our lives. This is all well and good, but for me this narrative thread mostly points to the fact that Luhrmann takes his stories seriously, and seriousness is the last thing they should be mistaken for. As far as I can see, Luhrmann’s only “message” in any of his films (he has written the scripts for all, and often the story as well) is that “love conquers all”, and in two of the films that it conquers even death. This is hardly a ground breaking insight. When it is coupled with repetitive clichés, it leaves us with a film maker who has actually nothing to say and just one way to say it. While he might be a visually recognizable director, he is hardly visionary, quite the opposite.

red-2d20kangaroo-2d2c-2d20australia-2dsmallNot a single incident in Australia surprised me. The bad guy was very bad and grew worse, the good guys all grew even better. The aboriginals were as usual portrayed in a mystical light; they have an insight into the world that us white people can never have and they are closer to nature. This is not exactly an idiosyncratic take on the matter, to say the least. Furthermore, every feeling we might read from the situations or the characters is spelled out for us in case there are sociopaths in the movie theatre who might not be able to interpret what is clear as a very clear Australian day for anyone more or less sane. And in case we forget what we are supposed to feel, the music is quick to remind us with cloying romanticism in the kissing scenes and something akin to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten for strings and bell in the scenes we are supposed to feel some unfortunate incident is just around the corner. (One of Luhrmann’s first projects was to make his version of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by the way). Of course, we also get to hear Waltzing Matilda; the film is, after all, called Australia. And we meet kangaroos. I’ll add in fairness that I think Luhrmann realized that as he had to show every single cliché about Australia, he filmed the Kangaroo scene in order for us to get a surprise, as if to say that he could at least in one scene make the film seem as if it had some life. The reader will see what I mean if he decides to brave a viewing.

As I am disappointed that yet another new film failed to live up to my hopes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Luhrmann has a similar scepticism as myself to the value of many modern films. As Australia has been panned rather severely by many critics, Luhrmann has decided that the problem is with their perception, rather than with his own film, as witnessed by this exchange with The Hollywood Reporter:

“A lot of reviewers like ‘Australia.’ And we’re making people cry; I know because they write to us,” he said. “But there are those that don’t get it. A lot of the film scientists don’t get it. And it’s not just that that they don’t get it, but they hate it and they hate me, and they think I’m the black hole of cinema. They say, ‘He shouldn’t have made it, and he should die.’ “
Asked why he thought the reactions were so passionate, he replied: “I know what it’s about.” The movie’s detractors were used to movies that were neatly defined, he said. “This is not (simply) a romantic comedy for 40-year-old women or action movies for 17-year-old boys, and that’s not OK with some people. It’s not OK for people to come eat at the same table of cinema. But you look at movies like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and Old Hollywood classics, and they don’t fit in any box. “Corny Hollywood movies from the ’40s freak out (the film scientists),” he added.

I’ve included some space to his answers as they seem to indicate a number of things I find interesting. Well, firstly, that he clearly struggles with a slight case of paranoid delusions, but this is to expect working with Fox, so no one can hold that against him. His belief that people, and by “they” I assume he means critics, should want him dead for having made what they perceive to be a bad film, is just a bit over the top, though. In short, he considers himself an artist, and as such, I guess it is only natural that he feels the world to have singled him out for a special destiny, even though that destiny is rather on the bleak side.

metropolisSecondly, I find it interesting that he uses the phrase “film scientists” about what is commonly known as film critics or film reviewers. Maybe his term will catch on and a lot of incompetent reviewers for newspapers will be able to say “I am not a lowly reviewer, I am a scientist”. Oh, excuse me, he doesn’t mean that all the reviewers are scientists, merely those that have the unfortunate and accursed tendency to think. After all, a lot of reviewers like the film (because the film) is making people cry.

Thirdly, I can appreciate that Luhrmann wants to communicate with our hearts rather than with our conniving little minds, but unfortunately even I, who can find myself touched by the smallest things, was not able to break through the shell of sentimentality Luhrmann layered his film with. If the film is more laughable than touching, no amount of actorly emoting can make us care about what happens on the large canvas before us. I thought I heard some twelve year old girls cry a bit during the film, but my wife insists they were sniggering. Alas, I shall never know the true answer…

st4539gone-with-the-wind-postersTo my knowledge, critics are not particularly put off by “corny Hollywood movies from the ‘40s. Douglas Sirk is rather the critics’ darling these days, more so than in his lifetime, and films like A Letter to Three Wives, Dark Victory – and pretty much everything with Bette Davis – are usually appreciated more now than ever. Luhrmann mentions Gone With the Wind as an example of the kind of film he tried to make. Well, maybe he tried, but that is not sufficient to hold his own work in comparison with the classic epic. There is nothing in the set pieces of Australia that even comes close to the burning of Atlanta in the earlier film. There is no “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” among the bland sentences Luhrmann put in his actors’ mouths. In short, the only thing the films have in common is that they are on the long side. Even the central love story is vastly more complex in Gone With the Wind than in Australia, and the former actually seems to be surprisingly more mature – and modern – than Luhrmann’s bumbling cinematic creature.

Well, I am indeed sorry not to have more positive things to say about the film. I could add that it’s Nicole Kidman’s best performance in quite some while, but that is really not the apex of congratulatory remarks. Let me end, though, on a bright note and assure Mr. Luhrmann that I have no wish to see him dead and wish him the best of luck with his next project, which is an adaptation of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This masterpiece is a subtle little book where most of the plot points are well situated between the lines. Unfortunately, Luhrmann wants to make it because he sees it as illustrative of the current economic crisis, which is really not what the novel is about, current or otherwise. Well, it is partly about disgust for materialism and flamboyancy, so the link is not completely beyond the pale.  I fear, though, that Luhrmann’s take will possibly work against this. As for subtlety, we’ll do well, I think, not to hold our collective breaths.

The Browning Versions; What is a Remake and When is it Not?

January 6, 2009

After my last post, regarding the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I received quite some negative replies – as well as some positive comments. I’ve replied/clarified some of my points in a number of forums and on the IMDB. I’ll let this long winded series of musings serve as a final summing up of points I’ve not had space to address on previous occasions. Almost all the negative feedback had to do with the perception that I, being more or less familiar with film history, could never view a remake “on its own terms“; meaning, I assume, that the spectre of an original – and fondly remembered – film, would always come between me and the new “work of art”.

I mainly disagree with this notion, but I can’t dismiss it altogether. Film reviewing and criticism has as much to do with knowledge of what has come before as with anything else. Film criticism, it seems to me, is not the art of analyzing a film and only that single film, as if no other films have been made. Without the ability to compare films, to hold them up against each other, it would be very hard to decide what quality is and what it is not.

la_confidential_be1Can one, for example, fully appreciate L.A. Confidential with no knowledge of the period in which it is set – and in the kind of films they made in that period? One can like it for its plot, suspense, action scenes and to a certain degree its characters, but I would certainly claim that a more thorough appreciation hinges on recognizing certain archetypes and archetropes of film noir and in seeing this film’s treatment of such. Also, while one can easily like the film without any comparative knowledge, one can never know whether it is really good; if there has already been made 1000 better films in the genre, one would be hard pressed to find the thousandandfirst film more than average at best. No one ever sees all the films ever made, so a truly exhaustive comparison is never possible, but if one hasn’t seen enough films to have at least a tentative understanding of what constitutes a genre, one can well rent films and privately consider every seeming novelty the best film in the world, but one should keep silent about them in polite company, if not on the internet…

Genre is one of the ways we can make sense of films. It is also a tool that enables us to talk about films that in some ways have something in common, usually having to do with subject matter and/or film style. It is usually ridiculous to compare a film (in terms of quality )of one genre to one in another genre. While I may like, say, the anime Mononoke-hime better than Die Hard, I can’t really claim that it is definitely the better film (it is!!!), as both seem to succeed in what they set out to do in a manner that is exemplary for their respective genres (Anime and Mainstream Action). I can, however say that Die Hard is better than American Gangster. I could also imply that I prefer a well made Anime over a well made Mainstream Action film, and thus validate my preference. It is after all the reviewer’s subjective take on the films that constitute the review. However, this must not mean that he disregards films in a genre that he doesn’t hold in especially high esteem as positively inferior. Ideally a reviewer should be able to appreciate all genres for what they are, what they can be.

mononoke_hime_mediumGenre, thus, constitutes one way we judge newer films by what has come before. As mentioned above, there were some protests that implied that I, having seen the original TDTESS, was incapable of judging it in a way that had anything to say to those that had not yet seen the original. This is not far from claiming that the less informed a reviewer is about the history of film, the better equipped he is to communicate what the general public is likely to appreciate. I will approach the matter of judging and validating remakes by another example, that of sequels.

In the case that a film is deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel, one of two things generally occurs: 1: The studio hopes to earn some easy money by replacing everything that made the original any good (if it had ever been good in the first place) with a second rate production or less known faces in front of and behind the camera. Often these films end up going direct to DVD, or at least sells gradually less and less (a number of Disney films come to mind as well as any sequel featuring members of Saturday Night Live. And let‘s not forget any mildly or very successful horror-film; Puppetmaster, Halloween, Friday 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Tremors, Resident Evil, Child’s Play, Critters, Jaws, Highlander, Mimic, etc, etc. By the way, none of these has less than 2 sequels, and some have already been remade as well). 2: Other films were maybe so-called sleeper hits, or films that the studio felt insecure about upon their original release, and when having proved successful beyond expectations, a bigger, more expensive and expansive sequel is arranged, with as many of the same players as possible. Sometimes these films do reasonably well commercially, such as the mentioned Die Hard-films, the Jason Bourne– or the Matrix Trilogy, other times they bomb as if there is no tomorrow, as, let’s say, Speed 2. Once in a blue moon, the sequels are actually almost on par with the original of what has now become a kind of franchise, or it betters them: Godfather II, Superman II, Spiderman II, Empire Strikes Back, Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max II, The Dark Knight (which is not called Batman II, so I don‘t know if it counts as a sequel) and let’s not forget Revenge of the Nerds II.

In the case of the lower budgeted sequels, it is generally not that necessary to have seen the first part of the series in order to understand/appreciate the following films. I find that the opposite is usually true for the ones that add a bigger budget. This is strange, as one would assume that the more expensive a film is, the more the studios would want the film to be able to stand alone. Oh well, I digress. My point here is that in order to determine whether, say, The Matrix: Revolutions is any good, or rather, how bad it is, one would be expected to have seen the preceding film(s). Seen by and for itself, one could perhaps confuse it for an original sci/fi-action film utilizing exciting and ground breaking new technology. I find it strenuous to think that someone would accuse a reviewer of being biased because he had seen the first of the trilogy and found the sequels to be severely lacking in comparison. Again, the point is that the quality of the film is in some ways bound to comparisons with already existing films. I doubt that the fact of having seen Tremors invites the viewer to base his entire impression of the quality of the sequels upon whether they follow the same formula as the original. There are other aspects that come into play, such as competence, direction and story. I fail to see that judging sequels differs enormously from reviewing remakes.

In the matter of remakes, one has a very definite and literal source of comparison. The film makers have decided for some reason – and these reasons can be good or bad – that they want to have another go at a cultural product. I put it as loosely as that, because in most instances they don’t really want to make the same film again – Gus van Sant’s Psycho being the possible exception – but to take a story, a character, a concept or – in too many cases – merely want to capitalize upon an established title, a brand, so to say, and try to make something new or financially viable of it.

gabriel-as-the-winslow-boySeeing as the film makers – or studio – has thus invited comparisons by retooling an already existing cultural entity (how’s that for being obscure?), I think any reviewer would be amiss if he didn’t consider how the newer version differs from, improves upon, takes away from, or expands upon the original concept. This by no means implies that the reviewer should automatically perceive the original version as a biblical text and any deviations from it as heresy. I very much like Anthony Asquith‘s original The Winslow Boy, and, seeing as it is based on a play by the excellent Terence Rattigan, I could see very few ways in which to improve upon the film. In David Mamet’s remake, almost the exact same story was told in almost the exact same way, with a very few exceptions. These exceptions had to do with some of Mamet’s usual concerns, a certain delivery of speech and stressing of relationship between truth and seeming truth. For me some little extra scenes and a very slightly different ear for dialogue was enough to more than appreciate Mamet’s new version.

I think the biggest problem some reviewers and many mere viewers have with remakes has to do with the quality of the original. If a film was really good, why remake it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to remake a flawed product that one perceives as having potential to be better than it actually turned out to be? In other cases, usually concerning some supernatural or sci/fi- concept, the effects available at the time of the original were so few that one thinks that adding green screen and blue screen and sensors on everyone’s faces will automatically make for a better viewing experience. The idea is not silly. The better the effects in these kinds of films, the easier to lose oneself in the reality of the film, one might say. So one “reinvents” Planet of the Apes and The Day The Earth Stood Still. It is needless to say that none of these will survive the test of time. I think part of the reason is that it was not the technology per se that made them function as films but the story and direction. So any remake has very little to gain but much to lose by relying on better visual effects to validate its existence.

Sometimes the results are indeed honourable, as in the recent versions of King Kong and War of the Worlds. I still prefer the 1933-version of the former. This has to do with being able to compare it to other films of the time, and thus seeing how inventive and adventurous the film really was and is. Another reason might be almost archaeological in nature, as if it stands before us as a beautiful artefact of a time gone by, and we should be glad it still exists for our pleasure. Both these reasons might be said to be more theoretical or intellectual than aesthetic, but I think that one can’t overlook that the story is extremely well told and as long as the story is captivating enough to hold our attention, the technical means of telling it does not matter a whole lot. My preferring the original did not, however, make me disposed to hate Peter Jackson’s remake. On the contrary, I liked it and thought it among the better block busters of its year. Much the same I can say for Steven Spielberg’s retooling of the classic invasion film. While not his best work, it was by no means a disaster, and I particularly liked how he made the action happen outside the reach of his Everyman. It reminded me in this aspect a fair bit of Marvels, the excellent comic book by Kurt Busiek.

This begs the question: Why remake films where the only available new technology to speak of is colour, and even that was available for most of these films? Why remake Father of the Bride, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 3:10 to Yuma, The Manchurian Candidate, The Women, The Pink Panther, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and many, many more? If it was the story that seemed old fashioned, why remake it, why not make something entirely new? If one thinks the acting style seemed too old fashioned, well, why pander to fads and make everything so goddamn easy for everyone? And why have Steve Martin try to badly copy Peter Sellers? Even some of my favourite directors are guilty of this meaningless retooling of already very good films, as in the case of the Coen Brother’s remake of the Ladykillers. And that, as they say, is a shame.

Maybe the first lesson the Remakers should take is “never remake a film made by a distinct director, someone who has/had their own vision”. Try to remake some journeyman director instead. I don’t think anyone alive, maybe except Stephen King, much appreciates the remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Well, at least they had the wits to call it Stephen King’s The Shining… I shudder to think of the day they decide to remake A Clockwork Orange. David Lynch has made one film that is not a master piece, but seeing as that was based on a series of novels and not even he was satisfied with the final version, I don’t find it scandalous that they remade Dune. However, imagine in 20 years a producer wanting to have a go at Blue Velvet or conceive of Eraserhead: The Mutation!

Now, while mentioning The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, I took pause, wondering if any new version of a novel or play is really a remake of the film or just another version of the literary source. In, let’s say films based on works by Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens, one doesn’t really think of them as remakes of films, does one? Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V or Hamlet are not really remakes of Olivier’s versions as much as interpretations of Shakespeare, methinks. Neither are new versions of Emma, Othello, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights or Dracula as much remakes of existing films as they are yet another way to bring the book to life. War of the Worlds, though, is considered a remake of the 1956-film more than an interpretation of H.G.Wells, and a number of Western films that have later been remade also had a literary antecedent, without this being considered when we talk about the remakes. Maybe it has to do with the classic status of the original work, or whether the novels predates Film itself?

browning_version_1951_xl_01-film-bIn closing, I’d like to take the opportunity to mention a case where I saw the remake first and only much later the original work. I have seen Mike Figgis’ film The Browning Version two times. It is based on a play by already mentioned Terrence Rattigan. Neither viewing left much impression on me. I thought it a so-so film, with good actors trying to play as good actors should. Recently I saw Anthony Asquith’s original and was blown away. Michael Redgrave delivers a portrait of the retiring teacher that put Albert Finney’s portrayal if not to shame, than at least rendered more or less meaningless. The difference in acting and actors was not all, though. It was made in another time, yet the original felt emotionally a hundred times more relevant to me than Figgis’ remake. Why this is so, and why the earlier film was so much better is something I hope one day to put into more words, maybe here. Perhaps they just made better films before, or perhaps when something has been made once, it can very seldom be bettered. I don’t know. I do not, however, hate those that try. Unless they insist on bringing Steve Martin along. And unless they fuck with my favourite films. Now, go and remake the Phantom Menace. With a director.

Western Mirrors. 3:10 to Yuma

November 5, 2008

whd_paintingBy coincidence or a private will not known to me, I have in the last two days seen two recent Westerns that mirror each other in many ways. They both feature two characters that function as mirror images of each other, going from distorted reflections in the beginning of the films to having erased many of the traits that separated them towards the end. While the one film is a seemingly never ending chase where the protagonists never catch up to each other, the other film is spent with the two protagonists sharing most of the screen time, one a captive of the other and not only in the physical sense. I’m talking of David Von Ancken’s Seraphim Falls (2006) and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

The latter film, which I shall concern myself with in this post, is a remake of Delmer Davesclassic psychological Western from 1957, which is considered one of the greats of the genre. I find it interesting that the genre is of a kind where not much in terms of narrative need to be changed even though the two versions of the same story are separated by half a century exactly. The 2007-version is not a blueprint copy, though, and maybe one shouldn’t expect it to be. It’s easy to spot the superficial changes, but also in terms of psychology are they a bit different.

310-to-yuma-insert-caption-400To begin with the casting, I think Mangold did a good job in getting Russell Crowe and Christian Bale to play the roles originally inhabited by Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. There are similarities between the two generations of actors, even though Bale is more of a leading man material than Van Heflin (“Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, “You will never get the girl at the end”. So I worked on my acting.”) ever was. I’ll readily cede the point that I don’t doubt Bale also works on his acting. There are these days few more thorough in the method acting tradition than Bale. As good as he is in this film, though, I have to say he doesn’t reach the brilliance of Van Heflin’s work in the original. Seldom have I seen a man able to convey so much with small movements; a flick of the eye, the brief glimmer of a begun smile in an otherwise precarious existence. One believes Van Heflin is the character he portrays through and through and no amount of method hysterics will enable Bale a similar ability. This is less a criticism of Bale than an acknowledgement of one of the unsung heroes of the history of film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Van Heflin do a less than impeccable acting job. (For those interested, I’ll also point to the brilliant Fred Zinneman Film Noir: Act of Violence. It is one of the best films in the genre, by a very good director working with two of my favourite actors, Heflin and Robert Ryan. I doubt you’ll see many better films this or any year.)

Both Crowe and Bale do good work in this film. Crowe is convincing to a degree as the well read and already semi-mythical gang-leader Ben Wade. He fits the role of an ambiguous bad guy, and portrays with an almost off hand ease the character as both cruel and charming without turning him into an out and out psychotic. Both Crowe and Ford have played a wide variety of characters from both sides of the good/evil dichotomy (see Ford in The Man From Colorado for a grand psychopath!) The reason why I still rate Glenn Ford’s role higher has, I suspect, more to do with the script than with the actor’s ability.

yuma02_lIn the original, there is a fantastic scene at the hotel where Van Heflin’s character, Dan Evans, has been deserted by everyone that was supposed to share his burden. Even the cynical moneyman, the capitalist owner of the diligences that Ben Wade has robbed, tells him that “You don’t have to do this. If it’s money you worry about, I’ll pay you the $200 now if you let him go.” As he hears this, Glenn Ford is leaning into his ear, talking fast, promising everything, giving voice to all his doubts about the situation, telling him how much easier it is to give up his mission, and he will even get paid anyhow. The picture is framed in such a way that I’m convinced that Ford’s leaning in that particular way is not the actor’s choice but a carefully construed image that the director wanted us to see.

04mp01sThis scene is indispensable in order to give and make sense of the tale. It is impossible not to see the Christian analogy going on here. Already we have heard that Van Heflin’s monetary troubles stem from a continuous drought (seven years) that has made living off the land impossible. Now he has a chance to redeem himself and alter this cruel fate as well as his own vision of himself, his own worth, so to say. Already his wife has been there and pleaded for him to give up, she has said that she “loves every moment of their misery”, she says that their children are proud of him anyway. So the only responsibility he has left is to himself, or to his place in the world, which is a moral world. By setting up all these temptations for him and letting him overcome them, he is given a similar saviour role as Christ and that, my friends, make Glenn Ford the Devil. Or God; because another Christian reference in Van Heflin’s role is that of Job, and Glenn Ford can equally be the God that tells the Devil that “his man” will come through no matter the temptations put in his way. How else to explain that Ben Wade willingly jumps onto the train with him after he has overcome all the temptations to quit his task that the film has put in his way?

It is telling that the final scene of the original film is the image of his newly devoted wife looking at him in a way she hasn’t for years and then the rains come and his crop is saved and they are all smiling for the first time in the film, even the villain, willingly being taken away. (Job is given back his family and his crop as well). Whether Ford is a God-like character or the Devil being amused by God’s success in having belief in his servant is not important. That he can oscillate between the two positions, and even be both at once, is both psychologically fulfilling as well as narratively sound. Dan Evans has spent the entire film fighting the temptation “to go to the dark side”, as George Lucas brusquely would have put it, to the point that it is almost worth asking whether Ben Wade really exists or if he is a manifestation of Evans’ consciousness.

allanpinkerton1862-500In the 2007-film’s corresponding and almost identical scene (although the capitalist is a Pinkerton agent in the new version), they seem to have missed this entire allusion to Christian mythology. Crowe remains lying on the bed, not giving the impression that there is any devil in the room, or even that he is the voice of Dan’s own doubts. This is a pity and almost incomprehensible, as there at least twice earlier in the film is made a point of Crowe quoting scripture. We are sort of given a pay off to these allusions in a story Ben Wade tells about how he was left by his mother at a young age after she had told him to read the bible. “I read it for three days, and she never came back”, he says. Thus, the new film finds a very prosaic, banal and not altogether believable psychological explanation for the character’s knowledge of the bible. But this doesn’t add much to the story or our interpretation of the story.

Another modern and perhaps more simple trait is that the new film has to have Dan Evans’ eldest son present for much of the action. This son has been critical of his father, pretty much calling him a coward and an incompetent. Rather than, as in the original, having the story play out as a morality tale, creating the (Christian) mythology anew for the West, the new version seems to reduce the scope of the story to more modern concerns of child rearing and being role models. It is worth noting that the wife is never seen after the initial meeting of all the protagonists in the kitchen scene, possibly reflecting that the family values (husband-wife-children) are different these days. While I won’t comment on the moral validity of this view (if moral it is), I’ll say that it changes the dynamics of the film and even the meaning of the narrative to a degree that surprised me.

The original film is a lean 88 minutes, shot in stark black and white. It begins with a stagecoach crossing a large, flat landscape, then cuts to the shadows of the men riding the Diligence, then to the robbery. In the midst of the robbery, Dan Evans and his two sons witness the assault where Ben Wade kills some men and orders the capitalist to send the bodies to their home town: “Where a man lives is where he should be buried”, Wade says. “Aren’t we going to do something, pa?”, the one son says. “There is nothing to be done”, Dan Evans answers. This sequence takes about five minutes to tell in the original and twenty-five minutes in the new version. The original manages to establish the characters and the basic moral compass they have, as well as their initial view of the world, with sparse and effective storytelling. The new version finds it necessary to make the robbery into a big action scene, with men killed to the left and right, and doesn’t tell us an iota more of who the characters are. Oh well, I thought, I guess this is what it takes to hold people’s attention these days.

The original finds itself ensconced in the hotel room in Contention City (surely not an accidental name!!) within 45 minutes, while the new version needs half an hour more to get there. Of course, it’s in this room that the film is supposed to excel, waging the war between good and evil, temptation and duty to a higher cause. But since the new version tries to be an action film, it seems that the film maker can’t wait to bring in the outside world again, afraid that these scenes will slow the film down. While I understand that remakes generally has to be “bigger”, if not necessarily better than the originals, I find so many positive things in James Mangold’s film that the let downs are particularly disappointing.

310toyuma-bf-big1While the new version doesn’t spell out all its points, it is too subservient to a perceived stupider modern audience. I’m not certain that it is correct in assuming that people nowadays need everything explained. With the generally elevated competence in media, I shouldn’t think that people are less able to interpret films than they were before. However, this film evidently needs to have a character call another homosexual for us to understand his psychological connection to his leader Ben Wade. This is an aspect of male relationships that was very often hinted at in earlier westerns. Maybe it was not de rigeur to call this kind of love by its name, or perhaps people were inclined to understand the situation unsaid; nevertheless, the ambiguity of this kind of unspoken relationship seems to me enrichening in a narrative sense if one is not going to go all Brokeback with the situation anyway. See Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (relationship between Henry Fonda‘s and Anthony Quinn‘s characters) for an example of the kind of Western I’m talking about here.

3_10_to_yuma_stillI actually think that the best parts of the new version is where they stick closest to the original, as in the kitchen scene at home on Evans’ farm, which is almost verbatim the same. Then, when they leave the farm, the original quickly found the riders in Contention City. Here, though, the director wanted to show as much of The West as possible, putting in Apaches (which is a wasted opportunity, as they are pretty incompetent for being “the toughest, the ones who have stayed”), Chinese labourers and an unnecessary long scene with a rival gang of “lawmen” or railroad-agents. I can appreciate that he wants to show the capitalist exploitation that lay the ground for USA, so to say, and I certainly can applaud that he doesn’t make Wade a one-note character, but these scenes don’t contribute much to the story. In a way I feel that the film as it is now has too much fat. “With a little money, you can get almost anything”, Glenn Ford said in -57.. That’s enough; we don’t need to see the exploited workers or the sadistic railroad foremen. It is abundantly clear elsewhere that selfish lust for money and the unequal distribution of wealth is criticized in the film.

Where the recent version contributes something new of value is in its slight change of focus; that it takes its two protagonists as mirror images of each other. Of course, this aspect of the story also exists in the original, but I feel it has been sharpened in the newer film. They begin by being complete opposites; one is lame and defeated and a family man whom justice has failed, while the other is virile, vital and a killer without any bounds to anyone or anything, a man who has no concern of the law and who himself decides what is justice. Gradually the two characters begin to merge, and it seems as though they both drift towards the middle, towards being one man. When Bale jumps at Crowe in anger after the latter has spoken about his wife, Crowe says “I like this side of you”. Thus, he seems interested in making Bale be more like himself, in swaying his antagonist into his own perception of the world. At the same time, Crowe mellows and does good deeds to the point that he has to defend himself against speculations that there might indeed be a good side to him: “I’m a bad man, to do what I do, to lead this gang of savages you have to be a bad man. Make no mistake. I’m evil.” In both films there is an underlying assumption that both men to a degree envy the life of the other, and this explains some of the divergence in their characters.

new-mexico-recollection-no-13-book-coverIn this version, when Crowe jumps onto the train, it is because the two men at different sides of the mirror finally stand nose to nose and they are the same for a moment. As soon as Bale is no longer there to balance him, however, Crowe’s character reverts to his former self and shoots down his entire gang, as if to say that they had only been bit players in his story, and that he would decide when their parts were over. Again he has taken complete control of the situation, after for a while maybe having enjoyed being led by his mirror image. Thus, where the first film was about the Van Heflin-character achieving redemption, the new film is to a larger degree about the bad guy winning the day. Being unbound in spirit, he lets himself be bound by finally jumping on the train alone, saying “I have escaped before”. We have no reason to doubt that he will do so again, by his own will, which is the Western will of making his own destiny, no matter the amount of bodies in his wake.

Many films have a subtext dealing with a current social situation. This is maybe especially true for genre films, particularly Westerns, horrors and, of course, science fiction, that is almost always a comment about Earth more than the stars. It is not unreasonable to view the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma in light of McCarthyism that was still an ongoing concern towards the end of the fifties. (To stick to one’s beliefs and not fold under pressures of a financial nature or because everyone else folds…) I don’t imagine that the new version is made in a cultural vacuum neither. It’s not hard to find a current situation in which themes dealing with the exploitation of the poor, and sending the poor to do the rich men’s work – even though it can kill them – out of financial necessity, is relevant. The Iraqi War can also be the reason why this film is about fathers and sons (while the mother waits at home) and the importance of giving an example (of sound principles and non-violence) to one’s offspring. Christian Bale’s victory in this film is not, as it was in the earlier film, getting on the train with Ben Wade, but in seeing that his son doesn’t follow the impulse society has tried to imprint in his mind (by the romantically violent dime novels; the TV of its day) and shoot his perceived enemy. Instead of choosing revenge, he mourns his father. As such, the film is anti-war and anti-capitalist, but allows for reality by letting the bad guy escape as a kind of hero to many that will watch this film.

rastsp

Words About Sexual Differences in Filmwatching.

October 28, 2008

No, this post is not about what you think. Nothing exciting, nothing to see here, move on… Numbers and facts, speculations and conclusions without any firm foundation is what you’ll find here. You are hereby warned. Welcome to Thunderdome for weaklings.

I have the utmost respect for women (pardon the term; they seem to prefer to be called girls these days). For one thing, I married one. However, this year has scared me a bit when it comes to their collective cineastic choices. Let me hastily add that these choices involve practically none of the women I know, and certainly not my wife, who I’ve indoctrinated to the best of my abilities (I would make Kim Il-Jung proud) and to the point that we are watching John Wayne Westerns every other night. I guess the group I’m talking about must be “the other half”; the one we never get to see but somehow know is out there, like the FrP-voter (Norwegian far right party with surprisingly – or unsurprisingly – many followers. I’ve never to my knowledge met one in the flesh).

There have always been films that have more or less aimed for a female audience (just as there are films that aim for the male counterpart). The Melodrama of classical Hollywood and the Romantic Comedy have usually been considered “women’s pictures”. Still, I’ve never considered this problematic. If a film is good it is suitable for both sexes, independent of which focus group the film studio had in mind while producing it. Even though the idea of a date film seems silly to me, I understand that romantic comedies and horror films traditionally have been considered the best date genres (which should be strange, since, generally speaking, I imagine that fewer women than men would see a horror on their own, and likewise fewer men go to see a romantic comedy alone. But somehow both genres are often perfectly acceptable to see together for both parties). No matter the practical uses a genrefilm has, if it has quality it will find an audience across the sexual divide – although with a dominating percentage of one of the sexes.

This year, though, has offered two films so far that I can’t imagine any sane and more or less heterosexual man would venture to expose himself to: Sex and the City and Mamma Mia. The former was the first out of the block, and if this had been the only oestrogen bomb of the year, I would dismiss the occurrence as akin to, let’s say, the first Star Wars film (for a while called Star Wars: A New Hope, now I guess it’s Star Wars IV or some such), that was very much a boy’s own film in its time (1977), and still is. I see that of the 200.000 grown up votes it has on IMDB, 175.000 of those are by males. This is not a real or accurate measure of the actual viewing percentage, as women tend to vote on the internet much more seldom as a rule. Even Sex and the City has a higher number of male voters, but in that case it’s much closer – 17100 to 12300. One can speculate that a large number of males have voted as a form of protest – their rating has an average of 4.7, while the female average is 7.3 – but this is hard to prove. One sees, though, that it is a film that is very polarizing: 22.5% give it a 10-rating, while 21.9% give it a 1.

The reason I mention the film at all is that I think it has marked a new tendency in the movie-going public, or rather, the female part of it. The film has apprehended many of the characteristics of a cult film from the get go. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, people went in masses or large groups to the film, making it serve as a kind of partystarter, and aperitif of the evening out. Rocky Horror, though, cemented its position as a camp classic over the years, and is a regular fixture in cineaste circles because it’s “so bad it’s good”. (I don’t agree. I think it’s a tremendous bore, but then again, so would most people describe me).

Sex and the City managed to draw a built in audience (of the TV-series), but also, judging by the sales, many new to the concept. This I must assume is because of a larger degree of peer pressure among women, or peer influence, to use a more positive, albeit invented, term; a wanting not to be left out, not to miss anything. It would be a royal folly for me to intend to analyze the wherefores without more data, and although I’m not averse to unfounded speculation I shall try to temper myself. I will say, though, that I personally find the concept of Sex and the City reprehensible. It celebrates one of the worst traits of modern society; blind and excessive consumerism, it disguises stupidity as feminism and, while it might be cleverly made, is so empty of meaningful insights that I can find little reason to forgive its existence, much less its success. I’ll readily admit this is more of a gut reaction on my part than a thorough and well founded analysis, but I don’t think it deserves one. So, for me, the female stampede to the cinema screens in this case is a lamentable matter.

Other films have been made of TV-series that have not approximated the commercial success of Sex and the City (Mission Impossible is an exception): Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, X-Files, The Brady Bunch, Lassie, The Untouchables (that were made into a TV-series again after the success of the film), The Naked Gun films (based on the niche series From the Files of Police Squad), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Serenity (an underperforming film based on a TV-series – Firefly – that did not sell well by itself, but by far the best of these together with the Lynch-film), to mention some. I could add Hulk, The Lone Ranger, the Superman– and Batman-films, which were first TV-series, but these I consider to be based on a literary antecedent. (Often films become TV-series as well: Terminator (The Sarah Connor Chronicles), Peyton Place and The Thin Man, to mention examples from different eras). Even though some of these series had many times over the viewing numbers of the TV-version of Sex and the City, and managed intermittently solid sales in their movie incarnations, they evidently lacked the ingredient that would unite women – or men – all over the western world and beyond.

The case of Sex and the City shrinks into insignificance, though, when held up against the year’s other female hit: Mamma Mia. Many of the same instant cult features I mentioned in regard to that film are doubly relevant to the Abba-spectacle. The cinemas are even arranging special karaoke-passes for the film. While Mamma Mia’s earnings have not yet superseded Sex and the City in USA, overseas it has more than doubled the revenue of the shoe shoppers. Just here in Norway, it has sold more than 1 million tickets, meaning that about 25% of the Norwegians have seen the film, unless someone has been crazy enough to return for second helpings, which I’m afraid I can’t completely disregard. While I understand that the highest rating of the film is given by women/girls under 18 years (8.5), the scary thing is that the 8000 women or so that has bothered to vote has given it a median of 8 – against the 6.6 rating of the males.

I won’t say too much about Mamma Mia, as I think again the concept speaks for itself. One readily accepts that people like musicals (many of my favourite films are musicals; Singing in the Rain, of course, Yankee Doodle Dandy, An American in Paris, Moulin Rouge!, Dancer in the Dark, The Bandwagon, even the Sound of Music I can appreciate), but why on earth musicals that are about nothing? The term “empty of meaning” rears its head here as well. I can’t imagine a sane person would look at an Abba-lyric and say to himself: Hmm, this should be a film! (If that person is a visionary, I would be loath to be a part of the future he sees). One can be obdurate, but there are limits…

Maybe I should be threading carefully and not concatenate what are so far merely two examples of bad films with a large and dominantly female audience. And, after all, many people evidently like these films, so I shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment, although quantity of followers and quality seldom go well together when it comes to art. Neither am I so naïve as to think that the cinema going public primarily visit the premises in order to broaden their horizons. If these films had been along the lines of Grease or Dirty Dancing (that is, harmless, not very good, but entertaining in their way), I would have no insuperable problem with their successes. However, as I think that Sex and the City is taken too seriously by many of its viewers as something positively instructing, I think the problem that arises is close to be downright of an ideological nature. Mamma Mia also seems to me to celebrate vacuousness, bad storytelling and a particular inanity that is scary by its popularity. Probably this says something about our society, but I don’t like to think about that too much (pun almost intended).

One can, of course, interject that God and Man both know that the last 90 years have produced their share of very bad films intended for a predominantly male viewing. For one thing, that is no excuse; one can’t, after all, set one’s sights on the worst examples of the form. Then, there is the flock instinct that seems to have overcome the ladies in these instances. If one by oneself decides that these are films one genuinely wants to see; fine. I know there are women who feel Sex and the City is a fine example of a film, two of them are even friends of mine. But the practice of going together some 20 or 30 in order to participate in a secular mass for female empowerment scares me. (Feminists would have a field day with that sentence!! – And, I fear, with the rest of this article…) I don’t mean that I’m afraid of the communal aspects of this, but rather the lack of personal choice and reflection it entails. Oh, well, people are different after all, and if someone’s idea of a good time is to sit in a cinema and sing Abba-songs – or not sing, as the case may be – I certainly would be amiss to belittle them this pleasure. (Even though belittling is what I do best…)

I initially thought that I could make a case for the male equivalents to these films to be Sin City and 300 (both based on comics by Frank Miller). Maybe that’s wrong, as these films have a somewhat younger core audience (both films are best liked by the under 18 years olds). But in terms of saying little about the world and appealing mainly to one sex, they do have something in common. Both these films, though, seem much better than the “female” films. (Of course I would say that, I’m male, one might protest). They may not at first glance say much about the contemporary world, but that isn’t to say that they don’t mean anything. Whereas the “female” films mentioned here to a large degree tell the story they have to tell – in a very safe and unadventurous way – and little beyond that, I think Miller’s work – and its cinematic reproduction – is definitely multifaceted.

This has to do with several things. Sin City is a pastiche, and as such comments upon a certain tradition as well as taking the noir trope of light and shadow to stark conclusions; it is also a formal experiment in reproducing another medium, and thus brings a level of innovation to Film itself. It is, however, not very clever when it comes to content outside its historical self-reflection. 300, though, has more narrative and hermeneutic possibilities, maybe because of its compact/minimal story. It is clearly bigger than life, and, being based on a part of history that has been aggrandized into myth, this is as it should be. Also the genre seems suited for contemporary readings (and it has been read as everything from a Republican tract to the complete other side of the political spectrum). While Miller can come off as bombastic and limited in his political understanding, knowing all of Miller’s work, I would venture that one has to look at the film more in terms of concepts like honour, destiny (whether one is born with it or shaped by social forces) and its inescapability, and the warrior’s code (Miller has an extreme interest in all things Japanese, it seems; his graphic novel Ronin is drawn in a style akin to Japanese woodblock printing). I could write an entire post about these films, but that is hardly the point.

If there is a point, it is in the vicinity of a general worry about how this possible trend of womencentric films will be interpreted by the studios and financiers of new projects. If they now see a new market group and decide that this is the kind of films they prefer, I’m afraid that the balancing quality that women’s pictures traditionally have had will be gone. Instead one will see a further sexual polarization at the movies based on rather low measures of quality. For every bad Mark Steven Johnson– or Jerry Bruckheimer-film aimed for the male teenager, there will be a pink hued nightmare about shopping disasters or shoe hunting for the middle aged woman of all ages, maybe with songs. What is the High School Musical-phenomenon if not an admission of marketing’s grip on young girls (catch them at an age before any kind of quality control comes into play)? And don’t get me started on Desperate Housewives or Bridget Jones; the original and in all her international permutations!

This post is by no means a call for not making woman’s pictures. On the contrary, I’m upset about the low esteem producers hold women in, of the low standards they think women will fall prey to if they just are told by marketing and commercials that this is what women should like. The current crop of women’s films reminds me of the commercials of the fifties aimed at women: how they tried to give housewives an illusion of control of their destinies by “giving them control in the kitchen” (with this new oven, you are now master of your domain!”; “With the Double Toaster you’ll keep your Man happy – doubly!”). Or the evergreen call for women’s attention; the always smiling women in shampoo or chocolate commercials; as if they have the time of their lives in the showers or while nibbling a dark chocolate of sorts (it always is dark chocolate for women…). And just imagine their happy faces when a new fabric softener makes junior’s shirts feel as new! I’m also reminded of female magazines of the time, whose ludicrous articles are by closer inspection not that different to what one finds today.

There was a time when women’s pictures were a sign of quality. Maybe there were grumps like me, complaining about the state of affairs with the release of George Cukor’s wonderful all-women ensemble film The Women in 1939, or sighs of exasperation at the thought of yet another Douglas Sirk film? What should one bother to see Joseph Mankiewitcz’s A Letter to Three Wives for, or any Bette Davis film for that matter, or a Joan Crawford-vehicle like Mildred Pierce? No matter the critical voices of the time, many of these were and are masterpieces. I know it’s futile and perhaps unfair to hold the recent films up to these earlier classics, but it is at least indicative that while the Woman’s situation was less than ideal in terms of liberty and personal freedom some decades back, one at least managed to make films that did not insult her intelligence. If film studios think that the concerns of women these days are what shoes to buy, what luxury handbags to collect or what Abba-singing ex-lover to choose, isn’t that a little bit derogatory? And if women fall for this, I can’t think other than that western civilization has reached is pinnacle and now the decline is slouching towards Bethlehem to rapidly spring from infancy.

But it’s all just a bit of harmless fun!, one might protest. If boys of all ages have their superhero films, can’t girls have their shoe shopping cosmopolitan-swillers or neurotic dancing baby-watchers? The sensible thing (apart from taking the fifth or ask for the word harmless to be stricken from the record) would be for me to sigh and say, yes, I guess so. That would indeed be the sensible thing.

The horror, the horror…

October 24, 2008

A small part of the BIFF-program is usually reserved for so called midnight movies, that is, horror or suspense films that are normally not associated with the “higher art” of the more typical festival films. One could write many a thesis about the exclusion of certain popular genres from the critics’ list of what they consider eligible for proper consideration when it comes to film as art. I refer here mostly to newspaper critics, who seldom have the tools or knowledge – knowing film neither as craft nor as more than a fleeting interest – to present the subject at hand as more than a brief notice about whether the critic enjoyed the movie or not. At times they don’t manage to say even that. “Professional” critics, writing for specialist magazines or certain scholarly institutions, usually have a more reflective approach to the matter of film as a whole, not least because they are bound to know more about the subject. They can thus comment from a position that is not limited to knee jerk moral reactions or the state of mind the reviewer finds him/herself in at the time of writing the article that must be printed the day after. As I say, the subject is not easily exhaustive and certainly requires a discussion I can’t fit in here.

I can venture a guess as to why horror films have usually been seen as the bottom of the barrel of the film world. News paper critics these days are mostly middle class, and the middle class likes to strive for an upper class appreciation of art. As such they are easily convinced that films should celebrate an almost classicist approach to art, with proper time for introspection and preferably include subtle moments of interaction between the protagonists and so forth. Above all films should steer away from sensationalism (in all meanings of the term, including “loud” effects, violence and “unhealthy” topics. Psychical violence is OK, though), and avoid straying too far from the politically correct.

And so they celebrate Lars von Trier’s Dogville, with its timely critique of USA and minimal art design. The film is closer to Theatre (especially Brecht), which they – maybe unconsciously – perceive as a more worthy than Film. That Dogville is just as “sensational” as any horror film, they easily forgive it – in the few cases they actually pick up on this – as the theatre of Brecht aimed to appeal to the uneducated masses, and thus von Trier must be allowed to do the same. I’d like to see someone treat that film as the banal, ugly and condescending mess it actually is. But alas, von Trier is so firmly established in the mind of the middle class critic as an eccentric genius that he can do no wrong. I doubt that any of these would consider watching Wes Cravens first film, The Last House on the Left, which is a more graphic retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. As for the plot, there is not much that fundamentally separates von Trier’s film from Craven’s so called “Video Nasty”. (This is not a recommendation of Last House… In my opinion they are both trash, but that is beside the question. I can add an equally irrelevant point; that I hugely enjoy many of von Trier’s other films).

Another problem – or advantage – with the horror genre is that it seems extremely prone to be used ideologically – not to say politically. What many conservative critics have failed to see is that the genre has mostly been used as an apology for conservatism. Maybe they shouldn’t have screamed so loudly for a ban… Horror films are frequently extremely moral, almost pietistically so. The slasher genre often warns against premarital sex and all kinds of loose-living traits in its characters. Stay at home, do your homework, keep your hands above the sheets, if you stopped believing in God – repent! – honour your parents and the chances of anything bad happening to you are significantly smaller than for the next door slut and her boyfriend. Many horrors – as many Hollywood films in general – also support vigilantism and celebrate the right for lethal revenge. In the sixties/seventies, some horror films took a leftist turn, as most of the work of George Romero bears out. But from the nineties to present day, I feel they have taken a turn for the conservative – not to say the inane – again. (Still with the notable exception of Romero). I can’t disregard that some of the more overt ideological treatment of some horror films can make them seem too oversimplified in their message. Some film critics will feel this taints them with a tackiness that genres where the ideology is not so outspoken evades.

I think that the preachy and moral aspect of horrors stems from its roots in the folk tales, where they were often meant as moral parables or warnings about the dangers of unhealthy proclivities (a bit of a tautology there…). This is evident even in modern seemingly nihilistic horrors that have little other function than to disgust. The Hostel-series, e.g., could easily be reduced to a warning about travelling abroad. Stay in USA and you won’t be attacked and tortured by those crazy Europeans! Such a message is, off course, ridiculously simpleminded, but so are the films (and don’t get me started on the so called capitalist critique of the sequel…).

The genre can boast many examples of “complicated plots” that still in its essence is a warning against a perceived danger, or the other way around; simple plots that are morally ambiguous and worth considering with some seriousness. Jaques Torneur’s Cat People could be an example of a simple plot (a woman is convinced the female line of the family is cursed to turn into felines) that is resisting any easy interpretations (it is hard to pin it down to a case of female hysteria, for example). Exactly because the story is so seemingly simple, one looks more intently for what it all means; it has to mean something more than itself! Horror seems much better suited to using this metaphorical aspect – and gaining meanings by it – than for example the Romantic Comedy or Melodrama.

Of course, a not insignificant problem with horror films, is that so many are shit. It’s a genre that many first time directors feel they can try their hand in, as a horror film is not so dependant on big names and expensive effects or even competent filming to work. Though, most often, it would have helped to have someone capable. But it is a genre that historically has showed that it is possible to score big hits without investing more than the pension of a kindly uncle. Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead and Blair Witch Project are examples. What many forget is that, at least in the first two cases, the directors were talented beyond the average, as their subsequent films have proven. So just because you have made a music video or filmed a family wedding, doesn’t automatically ensure that you are capable of making a good film. (Un)fortunately, horror films easily get distribution deals (albeit small ones), as producers have also taken notice of the fact that quite often even a very bad film in the genre will make its money back many times over due to its cheapness. Thus, there is a larger amount of these films on the market than the relative quality of the many productions would indicate.

I would venture to say that a good director is particularly important in horrors, as it is a genre that by its nature hovers close to the tasteless and ugly aspects of human experience. If one doesn’t know what one is doing, one can find oneself at best making an incompetent film or at worst contributing something ugly and degrading to the world of films. A good director, though, can reach at something genuinely unsettling, or use the genre to say something worthwhile about whatever else he’d want to communicate. I know this is vague, so let me try an example.

The last two days I’ve seen two good to very good films at BIFF that are both genre films: The Swedish film Let the Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In) and the English film Eden Lake. They share some of the same approaches to their respective subgenres (the vampire film and the slasher (e.g. Friday the 13th) film). They both go a bit beyond the perimeters of the genres, but that is nothing new. Genre is, after all, just a tentative description of what type a film is. Both try to (and succeed) to humanize their monsters; to make them human. They use children as potential threats and are not afraid to show them in violent situations. (They are certainly not the first horror films that use children to accentuate vulnerability and how appearances deceive; see Night of the Living Dead, The Omen, Village of the Damned, the Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, Joshua, and many, many others).

However, while all of the Swedish film is seen from the point of view of children, a point in the English film is that the grown ups, from whose situation we experience the film, never knows the worldview of the children (or lack of it), or realizes the extent of the children’s capabilities until it is too late. Using children in the way these two films do, is always a risky proposition. They are both, though, helped immensely by the young actors’ acting abilities.

Eden Lake is the most ideological film of these. It tries to say something about the society in which it takes place, and what it says isn’t very nice. On the one hand it shows how it is the parents and a society that has allowed these parents to live like they do, that has made the little monsters. There are quite some nice touches that tell us how society has failed by allowing parents to reproduce their own inherent evil and stupidity and lack of any firm moral grounding. This attempt at a nuanced critique, though, is offset by adhering to the more sensationalist British headlines regarding the state of the younger generation. (One actually should read up on the youth debate in England before seeing the film). One can say that it is normal for a horror film to exaggerate in order to make its point, but the film came uncomfortably close to validate the conservative outcries and the sensationalist headlines of the tabloid press. Maybe that is also part of its point, as if holding the film up as a grotesque mirror, it can say, look here, this is what you say we are; are these our children, what have we made them?

Eden Lake is, though exaggerated and sensationalist fiction, highly realistic in some of its moments. The scene where one of our protagonists approaches what he thinks are just unruly kids to tell them to turn down the volume on their beat box, is easily recognizable and has a truth to it lacking in most Hollywood productions. The director does a good job in these interpersonal exchanges and every glance and unsaid word carries a weight of potential danger as palpable as the sneering loutishness of the children.
A typical example of horrors – and westerns – is that it takes place as a conflict between nature and civilization. Deliverance is a perfect example, where the three buddies take a canoe ride down a valley that is about to be put completely under water when the new dam is constructed. Their ride thus offers nature (made flesh by the rednecks) a chance to fight back against civilization (the three financially and socially established men), to show that there are parts of this world that can’t be tamed. Deliverance is such a good film that it is not possible to subsume it to only such a basic conflict – it also talks about man’s fear of nature while he should fear man the most, and how nature is already inside us even though we have tried to deny it by adhering to societal conventions that only go so far – but it will have to do for now. I felt Eden Lake alluded to Deliverance when we learnt by a road sign that the Lake area was about to be turned into a massive plot of luxury homes. I think Eden Lake thus tried for something similar to Deliverance, only by placing working class children in the roles of the mountain men of that film. As if showing society saying relax, luxury and a higher class is coming, but for the moment the inherited sins and ails of the working class will still have a say. In this one can find a similar criticism of the folly capitalism and its message as of civilization in the earlier film.

The film is very well made, and there is an uncomfortable feeling from the very first minute of the film, as the news reports from the car radio intimates what we are about to face. In the hands of a lesser director this film would certainly have been an unbearable mess. While the children initially after their attack are seen as monsters, we do get to see what made them and what makes them human. Eden Lake could easily have been a by the numbers slasher film, with limbs flying and the children doing superhuman feats, but this is not that kind of horror film. That tells me the director knew what he was doing. The sense of realism is contributing to our growing unease and makes the film a harrowing experience. I can’t yet say whether I’m comfortable with the entirety of the message the film sends; what it is trying to say, but maybe that is also a part of a good horror film, to find oneself on a ride one regrets taking but it is too late to step off.

The Swedish film is also warning about inherited evils and its consequences. Our protagonist is the smallish Oscar, a loner mistreated by his class mates until the day he meets the seemingly young girl Eli. The film separates itself from other horror films by not accentuating the horrific aspects of the supernatural elements of the story. When violent scenes come, they come quickly and are soon over, but the relationship between the boy and the girl moves carefully and slowly forward, thereby stressing the importance of a very human and very recognizable element. This film also says that more than fearing the unknown, or nature, if you will (the vampire girl), one should truly be afraid of the known (his classmates). In fact, the two films could easily be twinned in so many ways. Let the Right One In also features a group of children that are capable of committing horrific acts because they are spurred on by a strong leader, and this film also shows us the hereditary and environmental conditions that has made him.

The thing that separates them most is the tempo. While Eden Lake is supercharged, going from peril to peril, delivering a continuous adrenaline rush, Let the Right One In takes its time to let us know its lead characters. It has the patience to linger on silent shots of snow falling, of the grey Swedish apartment houses at night, illumined by street lights and more snow falling and the faces of the children, with an unintruding, subtle camera that lets us read many more shades of feeling and experience than the English film.

The Swedish film has almost no time for grown ups at all. The vampire girl is followed by a grown up servant that could have been her father (which he is posing as), but that I think was once another boy that she met and made a connection to. He says himself that she has no need for him if he can’t procure blood for her, and she doesn’t disagree. The boy’s relationship to his parents is of a similar nature. His father is a good man, but alcoholic, and Oscar leaves him. He understands that he can’t trust him to be of use to him. His mother likewise doesn’t understand anything about what life is like for him and is always out working anyway. The rest of the grown up cast is an even sorrier lot, maybe made a tad too laughable in the film. The children are thus left to their own devices, good children and bad alike.

I assume that the Swedish film will get much better reviews than Eden Lake. It is beautifully photographed and works against the usual norm for horror films by taking a leisurely pace and its own good time to get to the end. I admit that I myself liked it better, but that is not to say that it is objectively the most worthy of the films. It depends on what type of film one prefers, and I’d say both films succeed in being the films that they want to be. In many ways the ruffian Eden Lake can give just as much food for thoughts and interpretative possibilities as its Scandinavian politer cousin. Furthermore I’d say that I was seldom surprised by anything that happened in Let the Right One Come In. The end was pretty much how I imagined it would be after an early scene where the servant of Eli said “could you at least not go out to play with that boy tonight? Could you do that for me?”, and I understood the nature of their relationship. Eden Lake, on the other hand, is never so narratively safe and offers us an ending that is one of the bleakest I have seen, but still very much a natural consequence of everything the film has tried to tell us all along.

I think that Let the Right One In will gain advantages from the critics by almost not being a horror film at all. For one thing, it has a near fatal flaw in that aspect: it is never really scary. Then, it is a vampire film, which is something that most reviewers have understood can be acceptable to like. It is kind of the respectable stately prince of the genre, and critics like the obvious metaphor of bloodsucking for sex, and consider themselves up to date and “down with it” by identifying it. (I think that this film makes some wise choices in that regard, by showing the boy kissing the girl’s bloodied mouth rather than the more traditional neck biting and chest-sucking, and it kind of has to, seeing as these are children we are talking about).

Another reason why the film will be appreciated by many, is that it is set in winter, and who doesn’t like films with snow? (e.g. The Shining, On Dangerous Ground, The Sweet Hereafter, The Dead Zone, Lost Horizon, Fixed Bayonets!, Day of the Outlaw, Jeremiah Johnson, Where Eagles Dare, Dr. Zhivago, Edward Scissorhands, Fargo, The Ice Storm, Indian Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life, the Snowman and, finally, Bambi, just to mention some really great films….) The only snowy vampire film I can recall at the moment is the recent 30 Days of Night, which was a bloodier affair than this. It was unfortunately marred by some plotholes and pacing difficulties that made an inclusion to the above list unwarranted. (EDIT: Iforgot to mention Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I had tried to erase from memory, also another Swedish film from last year: Frostbitten, that, unfortunately was a bit of a fiasco. Of course, there are also vampire films that feature just a bit of snow, as Blade2 and the low budget indie Vampire Diary (in its last shot), and probably many more. Van Helsing, an excreable product, I won’t deem a proper film. End EDIT).

After coming out of Eden Lake, my wife asked me, with a hint of irritation in her voice, what was the purpose of seeing films like this? Weren’t there enough frustrations in everyday life, why should one go to the movies to feel anxiety? I could have answered her by citing the well known cathartic example, but I don’t know if I can fully adhere to it and besides it is a bit of a cliché, is it not? (And my wife wouldn’t need me to explain the concept to her anyhow…) Catharsis, a concept of emotional cleansing, purification – or maybe clarification – that is supposed to be beneficial to the spectator of violent/tragic dramas at the end of the play/film, was not altogether fitting here anyway. Eden Lake, being more of a social tract of sorts, offered an unrelenting bleakness and the end of the film did little to alleviate this. One thing is the entire Danish court dead except Horatio, and Fortinbras can well command that “these bodies High on a stage be placed to view”, but Eden Lake denies us even the bodies as proof of the tragedy, and nothing will likely change, much less be learnt.

Of course, one can in theory achieve this catharsis by witnessing the suffering of others, but we hardly need fiction for that. So if the cathartic element is not in play, what is the purpose of seeing films as this? For one thing, good horror films can show us a primeval part that we luckily seldom have to face in our daily lives. A return to pure undiluted and base nature is a regular feature of the better of these films. It is telling that a certain Freudian aspect is hard to evade here. Usually the heroes – or actually most often heroines – have to be reduced to a primal state, often involving crawling through shit and blood in order to escape the attackers and be born again as better people in a Darwinian sense. This rebirth then enables them to survive their ordeal and take revenge on the threat at hand. What Eden Lake does effectively is following this pattern, but then showing us the uncomfortable reality of the new persona that now has the means to strike back. I can’t say much more without revealing important plot points, but notice what the heroine does after having hidden in a trash container where she had to submerge in the indelicate contents it held.

Then, one can’t disregard the adrenaline rush of watching effective horrors. For some this will seem uncomfortable and a waste of time, while others will find the experience fulfilling. It would be silly for me to speculate about the reasons for this. Apart from this, I will have to refer to this article – the rich interpretative soil of the horrors – and hope it contains sufficient reasons for my wife to at least give me the benefit of doubt…

Birdwatchers at BIFF

October 22, 2008

Being a person who would readily understand why the Grouch stole Christmas, I have not been spoilt lately by too many undiluted positive experiences in my irregular sojourns out among the people that form my fellow audience in the movie theatre. Today, however, everyone behaved as well as could be expected, and while this should be no superhuman feat, one has to polish the silver lining where one finds it. I have to say in all fairness, though, that the audience members are not the only contributor to the decline in one’s possibilities of cinematic enjoyment. Often the films themselves take well care of ensuring that the visit is a disappointing one. However, once in a very seldom while one is rewarded for wading through so much mediocrity and incompetence (see yesterday’s post on Helen), and when the elusive prize presents itself, it can make everything seem worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece neither, I’m more than content with a pleasant surprise or two. As luck would have it, today offered exactly that (and it is a bit of a master piece as well…).

The Birdwatchers is an Italian production, set in the Brazilian rainforest/countryside and is the first film to use the indigenous Guaraní people as actors. That should by no means be the only reason to see this beautiful film. Unlike the amateurs in Helen, it turns out the Guarani can actually act. I suspect the director, Marco Bechis, has spent quite some time in order to pick his cast. All the Indians (I hope that is an accepted word these days) have readily distinguishable features and are easily recognizable as the characters they are meant to portray. By this I mean that I assume the director picked people who were not too remote from the personalities he needed to portray in the film. I don’t want to fall into the trap of automatically assuming that they have no theatre schools or drama projects in the areas they come from, but I somehow doubt it. Of course, for all I know, they may all have been living in a Brazilian metropolis prior to filming, but if so, their acting here is of an even higher order. (After writing this, I’ve done a bit of research, and found that none of the actors had acting experience, but were used to performing, since that was what praying meant to them; a performance for their gods and fellow tribal members. At first they talked incessantly while being filmed, but the director showed them clips from Hitchcock’s The Birds and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West to show them the importance of silences in film acting. They understood immediately. See here for more information about the filming process.)

For act they do. The reason I know this is that the film tells me so. I don’t consider the story as far away from reality – or a possible reality. I know that it is not a documentary, but it is a well told story, too well told to be pure reality. That doesn’t take a sense of immediacy away from it. The customs we witness and the situations the Guaranís encounter all have an air of not only possibility but inevitability. One kind of knows that the film will not have a very happy ending – after all, we are talking about indigenous people opposing the “civilizing” forces of rich landowners and the government – but for the 100 minutes the film lasts we witness something valuable and something I’m very glad to have seen.

The film is, according to the Indians themselves, close to reality and the Indians were very satisfied with it when they saw it for the first time. It was also the first time any of them were inside a cinema, except one of the actors, who said he was once in a film theatre, in Campo Grande, many years ago: “It was scary. There was no way out.” They have said in an interview that they prefer to be represented in this way, rather than in a number of well-meaning, but false nature documentaries: “The white people only show ugly things; they don’t talk about what needs to be done, what needs to change. They talk about malnutrition, and soon all seem to be suffering from malnutrition. But that doesn’t solve the problem. And the mothers and fathers get the blame. But they don’t discuss the lack of lands, the devastation carried out by the whites, the lack of work and opportunities. Without forest there are no animals and it is not possible to perform the “kunumi pepy” (initiation ritual, also known as “fura-labios”).

Let me stress again, that this is not just an “exotic” film, showing us the noble savages or “the beautiful nature people”, but a valuable work of fiction in its own right. The film is entertaining and thought provoking (which is a rare thing these days and maybe all days), it is comedic and it is sad. Above all it’s damn good. The film begins with the Guaranís standing naked by the riverside to add a piece of exotism and excitement for the white tourists traversing the river. After the day’s show is ended they return to their transport and dresses in ragged jeans and t-shirts. I think the film is early on trying to warn us of the dangers of regarding these people as “others”, as harmless idols for the new age crowd or overly idealistic environmentalists. Later they try to fend for themselves by moving out of their allotted reservation and closer to the place their forefathers inhabited, and by this move are perceived as a threat by the local landowner. Conflict gradually ensues. But apart from the overt conflict with the land owner, there are several other conflicts and themes that run its course; nature versus civilization (as always!), man’s relation to Death; suicide, love, attraction; in many ways it is also a coming of age story told better than 99% of what comes out of Hollywood.

I guess it is impossible to make a film of this theme without showing certain well known examples of how an entire race has been extinguished, not necessarily by guns, but by commerce and alcohol. Capitalism and its good friend Catholicism has played such an unquestionable role in the eradicating of the indigenous people of South America that it is hard not to include certain aspects of these institutions. The local shop owner likes to give them hard liquor before negotiating prices for the goods, and as such comes across as a bit of a cliché. We know this character from the “Indian Agents” haunting the reservations of the North American Indians, poisoning entire tribes with his “fire water”. But maybe there is no way around including what is already known to us in order to show us what we don’t know? The reason I mention this is that the film is in other ways remarkably reflective and doesn’t unduly demonize the white landowner. (His speech about his grandfather working the soil sixty years ago is both laughable in his short view of history as well as true in that the Indians themselves have seldom bothered to cultivate the soil).

I won’t say too much about what further happens in order not to spoil the film for anyone, and therefore will not attempt an analysis here. Let me just say that the feeling of inevitability that I mentioned is both fulfilled and denied. There is a victory for good at the end of the film, but maybe not in the battle we thought we were watching. The end of the film is indeed one of the most satisfying I can remember having seen in recent times, expanding the arch of the film as well as giving the only kind of closure we can hope for in a film of this type.

A few words must also be granted the music, which is in part natural sounding incidental pieces by the score’s composer, Andrea Guerra, which work well by introducing an ominous aspect to the proceedings. But the most noticeable part of the soundtrack is definitely the choral works by early eighteenth-century composer Domenico Zipoli. The end credits inform us that he was a Jesuit missionary in Argentina and known as the “Indos composer”. By letting Zipoli’s stringent arch-European compositions accompany the images of the Indians’ mundane tasks, the film illustrates the Western constant presence, legacy and continued influence over their situation. It is a beautiful sound, but completely out of place here, like a dream or a feverish glance of heaven. I’ll let others read into that what they will.