Satoshi Kon; A Sad day for Anime and Film.

August 25, 2010

This was to be my fourth entry in my summer reading section, but right now I don’t feel like writing it. Today has brought some very sad news indeed, as I have just learnt that one of my absolute favourite film makers has passed away.

The work Satoshi Kon leaves behind, while not immense, is so impressive that we must rage against his passing, for the world is a poorer place now. While I am uncomfortable eulogising someone known, as if saying that this person deserves more than the next man, I can’t help but give Kon-san some words now. He has through his art arrested my attention for countless hours, and in consequence made my life richer, better. I am grateful to him.

I am sure that Satoshi Kon himself would be bothered by too much attention on his person. From all the interviews I’ve seen and read with him, I’ve perceived him as a modest man, downplaying his own importance and achievements. I’ve watched the commentary-tracks to all his films. There he always focused on his collaborators, never drawing attention to himself or his own role.
The field of Anime, in which Kon-san made his art, is extremely stressful. Fifteen hour work days is almost the norm. For the talented, there is better money and working conditions in other pastures. As a consequence there are fewer professionals working actively in Anime than ever. The shows produced are often cheap TV-productions without any artistic merit, and it is difficult to find capable Anime directors under the age of fifty.

A brief example: In 1994, Hayao Miyazaki finally found someone younger to groom for directorial work in his Studio Ghibli, planning for him to take over as the head director of Ghibli films. He chose Yoshifumi Kondo, then 44 years of age. Kondo-san made one very good film, Whisper of the Heart, before passing away at the age of 47. The reason was said to be work excess, causing Miyazaki to announce his own retirement from the field, a threat he luckily didn’t follow up on.

Still, even with financial problems and a scarcity of talent, the Japanese Anime field manages to produce some of the best cinematic art in the world.

Satoshi Kon made his directorial debut in 1997 with the thriller Perfect Blue. It is the only of his films which he didn’t write himself, but that he is not given a writing credit might as well be a result of his modesty. A word like Hitchcockian was often used in contemporary reviews of the film, but like all stock phrases, it is used altogether too often.

Perfect Blue is not a perfect film, the animation is at times crude, but where the film shines is in the direction, the choices of angles and building of suspense. I detect more of David Lynch in the film than Hitchcock. The way the female protagonist sacrifices personal dignity for what she thinks is her art, to make it as a film star, is at times reminiscent of Lynches later Inland Empire. The fusion of dreams and reality, the dissolution of the borders between the waking world and one’s subconscious, is also very much Lynchian. In many of his films, it is clear that Kon-san was influenced by the American director, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lynch was inspired by Satoshi Kon in return.
My first experience with Satoshi Kon was through what I still consider his absolute masterpiece, Millennium Actress from 2002. It is impossible to give justice to the film by any mere description. A TV interviewer who is a big fan of a classic Japanese film actress visits the actress in her later age. It has been some thirty years since she withdrew from the silver screen, but now her old movie studio has been torn down. The journalist comes to give her back a key once given her as a teenager by a young revolutionary. As she tells the tale of how she came to possess the key in the first place, and later spent her life looking for the young man who had given it to her, her story comes alive for the journalist and for us. This gives Kon-san the opportunity to jump between realities and genres.
It also gives him a marvellous opportunity to show us glimpses of Japanese cinema history. At one moment the eponymous actress is in a Jidaigeki film, for example something by Kenji Mizoguchi, the next in a Chanbara, like a Samurai drama by Kurosawa, then in a science fiction film or in a Gendaigeki, or Shomingeki, like a contemporary Ozu-film. At the time I first watched the film I wasn’t all that familiar with these different genres, but that is not a requisite to appreciate the film, not at all. I’ve later rewatched it many times, and I always find something new there, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Let me stress in case someone would think this film is only for the specially interested, that first and foremost Millennium Actress is a great work of cinema, period. Anyone should be able to find something to enjoy here. This was incidentally the first film in which Kon-san collaborated with Susumu Hirasawa, who has made the sound tracks to all his best films. It is hard to overstate the importance of Hirasawa-san’s contributions.

Millennium Actress works on many levels, all of them worthwhile. It is a love story in more ways than one. It is at times tragic, but often very funny; it has adventure, but dares to dwell on serious matters. The film also does more for female empowerment than any feminist tract could ever hope for. It can be heartbreaking in one moment, only for the viewer to be thunderstruck by its inventiveness in the next, followed by a heartfelt laugh. Most of all, it is a great example of what the medium is capable of.
His next film was the well received Tokyo Godfathers. It is by far his most conventional film, with few of the jumps between realities that has been one of his stylistic and thematic main concerns. It takes its title and initial idea from the 1948 John Ford film 3 Godfathers. The Godfathers of Kon’s film are outsiders, to say the least: a young runaway girl, a transvestite and a former professional cyclist turned hobo. They find a baby in the trash as they scrounge for food, and decide to track down its parents. This is very much like one of those classic Hollywood films where everything can happen on a Christmas Eve, as long as it all turns out well in the end. I could well see Frank Capra concoct something like this, and that I mean as high praise indeed. The animation is just beautiful, the characters extremely well written. This is the closest Kon-san has come to making a true family film, and indeed it can stand proudly with the best of them.
Immediately after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon-san began working on perhaps his most ambitious project: a TV series of 13 episodes called Paranoia Agent. Again, it is almost impossible to give a concise description of what it is about. In some ways, this is Kon-san’s Twin Peaks, but without the filler epsiodes of that series. The use of some genuinely weird characters, and especially how they are made to grin maniacally from ear to ear at the opening credits of each episode, is pure Lynch. Paranoia Agent, though, wants much more than anything Lynch has made. It is at one time an attempt to define the Japanese psyche, at another an examination of the power of the media. It shows how stories begin and how they are changed into myth and legend, and thus changing reality itself, making reality just another story among many.

Needless to say, this is ambitious stuff, but Kon-san never makes the series into a mental exercise, focusing instead on simple human stories within the larger picture he draws for us bit by bit through the various episodes. Writing this now, I feel I must watch the series again, even though it is only a couple of months since I saw the last episode. Paranoia Agent manages to be a collection of short stories that turn out to be chapters of a novel. Each story is excellent, the novel very satisfying. Again it is Susumu Hirasawa who makes the music, giving the episodes his inimitable stamp. The full fruition of their collaboration comes first with their next film: Paprika.

Paprika, made in 2006, so unfortunately turned out to be Satoshi Kon’s last film. I say unfortunately, not because the film is bad, on the contrary, it is an unmitigated masterpiece. Rather, it shows us what Kon-san was capable of, his rich imagination and understanding of how to tell a very difficult narrative in an immediately understandable way. Without Paprika, I doubt that Christopher Nolan’s current worldwide hit Inception would have been made.
Paprika is again about different realities, about the relationship between dreams and reality. Here as well, the seriousness is offset by generous amounts of humour, which has been a trademark of Kon-san in all his films except Perfect Blue. Paprika is the character the heroine Chiba Atsuka becomes as she enters the dreams of others. She works for an agency specialising in a form of dream therapy that they perform by enabling her to enter other people’s dreams. There is a ghost in the machine, however, and soon the dreaming world, unbridled imagination, enters the waking world with potentially catastrophic consequences.

While one can detect inspiration from Lynch and Philip K. Dick in the narrative, the execution of the story is all Satoshi Kon. This must have been a labour of love for him, in which he could inject all the elements only hinted at in his earlier animation, and make a kind of hyper-Satoshi Kon film.

As an example of how well his collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa could be, one should check out the first parade of the dream creatures with its myriad of inhuman participants. While they walk merrily towards reality’s border, Hirasawa-san accompanies them with a nonsensical but highly addictive marching tune that seems absolutely perfect for the action taking place. It would be a fitting tune to play now, as Satoshi Kon is himself marching from this reality towards the big sleep, perchance to dream. If anyone will, it is him.

At times like this, I often think of Laurie Anderson’s words in the song World Without End: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”

Satoshi Kon loved film and film history. He had an innate understanding of the particular art of Anime, and how anime can do things live action can not. In this art he excelled. He passed away some hours ago. He was 46 years.

Summer Reading Part 3: Knut Hamsun

August 24, 2010

I’ve read surprisingly few books by the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun. Being Norwegian myself, this is close to heresy. I can’t offer a good excuse or explanation, especially given my almost unconditional liking of those of his books I have actually read. I began last year to remedy this situation by reading his early novel Mysteries, and continued this summer with a late work. I plan to read at least one Hamsun-book a year, so that should keep me going some 20 years more… (I have the same project going with Faulkner… and I should read more books by John Steinbeck, Jack London, Phillip K. Dick, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad … Oh time, time, We hardly even knew you! My bad conscience is imprisoned in my book shelves. There it holds court).

Landstrykere, in English known as Vagabonds or Wayfarers, was written in 1927, 10 years after his perhaps best work, Growth of the Soil, which was the novel that probably secured him the aforementioned Nobel Prize. At this point in time, we are approaching the end of his rich authorship. Wayfarers is the first volume of a trilogy about the “lovable scoundrel”-type August. After the trilogy had ended, he wrote only one more novel before his “recollections” Paa Gjengrodde Stier in 1949 marked his very last words, at the age of 90.

At this point in his career, Hamsun had found a voice far removed from the talkative nervousness and longer passages of stream of consciousness found in, say, Hunger and Mysteries. These later novels are also distinctly anti-modernist in theme, so perhaps the stream of consciousness, so indicative of the modernist style, would be unsuitable for and even downright hostile to Hamsun’s treatment of the subject matter.

His voice in Wayfarers, the authorial voice, is that of the old sage; someone who sees through the human follies of his characters and condemns these or accepts them grudgingly. Still, there is love there for a particular type, one with a head upon his shoulders which might be full of foolishness, but dares think outside the box, as the Americans like to say with their excessive love of sports analogies. Hamsun’s genius is that while Hamsun the person wants to warn against the dangers of modernity and a mindless celebration of newness and fads, Hamsun the author balances what could have been merely harsh judgments on his characters with a genuine love for their whims and fallacies. His characters come truly alive under his pen, to use a trite image, and we recognize so much in them that we follow their reasons for making stupid choices as well as forgive them their bad fortune, no matter how much it is of their own doing.

We meet the protagonist, Edevart, at a young age and follows his adventures and life until middle age, through love affairs and attempts to make a life for himself. His is a life spent on the move. Since an early age, as he befriends the bigger than life character August, he is a restless soul looking for some permanence, but comes to realize that he is a vagabond at heart.

August, the gold toothed orphaned boy with illusions of grandeur, comes to dominate not only Edevart’s life, but the novel as well, almost stealing the story and the novel from him. While August is portrayed as a genius with a penchant for -and habit of – utter stupidity, Edevart is more of an everyman, and thus lacks the vibrancy to dominate a novel like this. Edevart has to compete with Hamsun’s wonderful descriptive powers, be it of the landscape or of the physical appearance or psychological exactness with which the author portrays the other characters.

Of course, Hamsun knew how to tell a story, even though he was never the best of plotters. Here, too, is an author who lets himself be carried away by the whims of his characters and starts down narrative alleys he doesn’t always manage to come out of completely unscathed. However, a book about wanderers must dare to wander.
And as I hinted, in this almost instinctive way of telling a story lies some of Hamsun’s particular quality. While he – and the book – wants to tell of the folly of disregarding the earth and the possibilities of the land and the soil, of how the good life can only be lived by close contact with nature, by patience and endurance, the story moves away from any one will and reaches a plurality of world views that sounds more true than any dogma. The story refuses to let itself be reduced to any singular vision and in effect comes to embrace the good and the bad, the foolish and the clever, letting us see a whole world there, in these simple people from a dirt poor village to the north of Norway, in a land that in this novel is itself and the world.

There is no one who writes quite like Hamsun, though many have tried to. Hemingway famously claimed that Hamsun had taught him to write, and Herman Hesse, Isaac B. Singer and Thomas Mann were all highly indebted to him. For me it is fascinating to see how he almost reinvented the Norwegian language, using words, spellings and phrases that seem more true than the dictionary.

Especially in his later novels, Hamsun is also very humoristic. The humour is more often than not based upon human folly – and human inventions and social institutions (say, capitalism). Apart from the humour, his descriptive powers were considerable. I have spent quite some time in a similar environment as these novels. Hamsun’s language helps me see clearly and anew the nature and language of this part of the world. The modern psychological novel would not be the same without Hamsun, but apart from the psychology, there is a way of looking at the world in these novels that, while not unproblematic, is still presented and portrayed in a manner without compare.

I’d venture to say that Hamsun is quite singular in Norwegian literary history. A few good novelists turned up after his time; Tarjei Vesaas, Sigurd Hoel, and Kjell Askildsen (short stories), but none has approached Hamsun’s genius. Of writers before him, I can only think of Ibsen and perhaps Bjørnson, who I’m not that acquainted with. (I’d like to say Snorre, but he was Icelandic…) Hamsun seems one of these flukes, a personality and creator capable of things that by all rights should be beyond him, were it not for some miraculous historical convergence of talent and will, for good and for bad.

Summer Reading Part 2: Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country.

August 22, 2010

I normally don’t read two books of the same author in a row, so in order to get all the Murakami books out of the way, I had to intersperse them with something else. The first one was by another Japanese writer.
Yasunari Kawabata – or Kawabata Yasunari, if you want to stick to the Japanese way of presenting names – was the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1968. Whereas Murakami is a Japanese writer very much influenced by the west, and particularly USA, Kawabata’s style and subject matters are Japanese through and through. (At least as far as I can see. I am by no means an expert in Japanese literature, and can base my impression only on a few works). I think Murakami’s western sensibilities, to put it perhaps euphemistically, goes a long way to explain his quite singular success in translated form. Apart from a certain inherent Japanese quirkiness, he often reminds me quite a bit of Paul Auster when Auster still seemed interesting.

Kawabata, on the other hand, is no easy sell abroad, I suspect. At least not these days. While his style can at times have a certain exotic attraction by its very Japaneseness, the at times strong modernist traits won’t ingratiate him with the casual reader. Of course, this is by no means a goal in itself. The only thing Kawabata has in common with Murakami (apart from both being Japanese authors), is that neither of them seem to find the endings particularly important. Snow Country was begun in 1934 and finished in 1947, after having been published piecemeal in various instalments. The ending almost being an afterthought as he revisited the book after several years…
Snow Country is by many considered his finest book, and it opens fantastically:
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”
Note the rhythm here and the haiku-like sparseness of the prose, like some oriental Hemingway. I had to read these lines several times, allowing myself to bask in their perfection. The Haiku is perhaps influential in Kawabata’s way of using very short scenes to stand in for a much larger story; we are never given more than fleeting glimpses into the actual actions and lives of the characters. The opening description of watching a woman’s translucent face halfmirrored in the window of the train during its nightly ascent to the Snow Country, is among the sublime  passages of the book. Here Kawabata suggests not only the protagonist’s way of looking at his world and at life, but  even sums up the novel for us, almost telling us how we should expect to read it.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, albeit not told straightforwardly. The young well off protagonist of the piece, is a dilettante with enough money not to have to worry about sordid matters such as actual work. As a consequence, he is busying himself by writing a monograph about the occidental ballet, an art form he has never actually seen. He is married, but returns to the hot springs of the Snow Country to meet again a young geisha who has fascinated him. Another girl there also draws his attention. A sense of resignation infuses their conversations and interaction. There is a love affair.

I am pretty sure that Snow Country is a very good book. It might even be a masterpiece. However, there were so many elements I didn’t understand, and I came to believe that I had no means to understand them. I didn’t have any problems with the modernist style of going back and forth in time, without clear indications of how much time passes or who is speaking at any given time. Thus spake Faulkner. Neither did I find the language particularly complicated, and I am convinced that the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker is impeccable. So, I concluded that the reason for reason evading me must be at least in part cultural.  Or I might be a bit more on the stupid side than I hitherto feared.

The translator adds some valuable foot notes trying to explain the more esoteric aspects, for example which cloth is typically used for which kimonos, and what would be the kimono’s purpose and significance in a given situation. However, it seems also the colour of the kimonos, to continue this example, would be pregnant with meaning in a given exchange, signifying not only social status but also symbolic relations. Whether a person is standing to the left or the right of the oldest person in a room could be extremely important for all I know, but – I just don’t know. The translator himself notes in his foreword that he doesn’t know of any other novel in which a slight change in tone signifies so much. Thus, no matter how good a job the translator does, it is pretty impossible to catch all or even most of the nuances of the novel. As a result, I never felt that I managed to inhabit Snow Country in the way the book probably deserves. There are beautiful phrases here, conversations rendered clear and cold as ice. There are psychological insights in the novel that even I could appreciate, told in a spare, distant style, with any melancholy left to the reader, not in the text itself. This will have to be enough for me, and perhaps revisiting the novel in thirty years’ time, I will have learnt more of the culture and know enough of Japanese literature to appreciate Snow Country properly.

By the way. While the foreword is a valuable tool in order to understand what is going on and why, try not to read it before you have been through the book at least once. Seidensticker chooses for some reason to retell the entire plot, including the very last line, even giving his interpretation of the books climactic moment(s).

And by the way again: I just love the painting on the cover of my edition of Snow Country: Ando Hiroshige, or rather, Hiroshige Utagawa’s Night Snow at Kambara (from his 53 Tokaido Stages/Stations) (It’s the first picture at the top of this post). I know of no other painter who portrays snow nearer to my ideal of snow, as if his pictures are communicating to a half forgotten childhood, and there is a faint answer there. I get a warm, excited feeling every time I see one of his snow scenes. (That sounded wrong, didn’t it?) I have a nice framed print of Hiroshige’s Man Crossing a Bridge in the Snowy Landscape, from his 100 (Famous) Views Of Edo. It was begun the year he withdrew from the world to become a Buddhist Monk and would be very fitting of this novel as well. I would decorate our entire apartment with his pictures if it was up to me…

In closing this part, I recommend the book to anyone seriously or half-seriously interested in literature, and it can’t hurt if you also have some interest in Japanese culture. I liked Snow Country a lot, I just didn’t love it. For this, I suspect, I can only blame myself.

Summer Reading Part 1: Haruki Murakami

August 21, 2010

Well, summer seems to have departed this part of the world and it is doubtful we’ll see it again this year. The rain is falling heavily and decidedly outside the windows (and a good thing it is, too, that it is staying outside…) and it is good bye to summer evenings and leisurely revelry in its pleasures, scarce as they might be. It is time, then, to take stock, in short, and in a round about way, to look back on what my summer reading consisted of this year. I’ll need a couple of posts to finish this…

There are not many surprises for those who have read earlier list of my vacation literature. And mind, vacation doesn’t mean anything more than the fact that I have more time than normally to read. It’s not like I choose books that I think will be particularly suited for the season.

I admit to being on a bit of a Haruki Murakami-kick since I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle last summer. In June and July I finished five books of the author, but none of them was quite as good as my first experience with Murakami. They all share, to some degree, the weaknesses of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but not all have its strengths. The foremost weakness with all the Murakami books I have read is that it is so clear that this is not an author who spends a lot of time plotting his books. Rather, he writes, I suspect, quite fast and lets his imagination have free reign, allowing each new idea a place in his books, even though they would have been better served on the cutting room floor, so to speak. When he – and the reader – reaches the end, few things are wrapped up and the dénouement seems vague and not really very meaningful, at times trite.

What makes the books worthwhile – and almost always very enjoyable – is paradoxically also connected to these short comings. Murakami has imagination and he has the words and control of language to make his ideas attractive and even seem more interesting than in hindsight they really are, I think. As a consequence, his books are extremely readable and easy to follow, even though they take detours into the whimsical and borderline surrealist at times. Murakami is probably at his weakest when it comes to real feelings and he isn’t always able to make us take the situations seriously enough to vest any emotional interest in them. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but neither does Murakami strike my as a deep thinker, rather, his ideas are cutesy and just irreverent enough to draw in the arty crowd, which always revels in terms like surrealism and seldom look behind surfaces.

Still, I have read five books of the man this summer, and I expect to read his remaining oeuvre in the year to come, so there must be something that draws me back. As mentioned, the books are extremely readable and they are almost very good as well. I think part of the attraction is the hope that maybe this time he will make it; he will be able to finish the book in a coherent way, the disparate parts will turn out to fit after all, there will finally be proof of a plan somewhere.

Of the five I read, the two books that came closest to being successes were Kafka on the Shore and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Especially the latter, in which there were actually two stories mutually illuminating each other. This, at least, led me to think there was some authorial purpose and plan behind the book. Kafka on the Shore is long and for the most part a satisfying reading experience, were it not for Murakami’s habit of forgetting or losing interest in his own plot lines and characters. There is a schizophrenia sub-plot in the book, for example, that never really goes anywhere, even though the novel starts with introducing it. It’s as if the author is hoping he’ll manage to come back to this in a meaningful way, but for the most part he forgets about it and finally it seems he just can’t be bothered with it at all.

The documentary book Underground; The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, is of course different than his novels in that Murakami’s usual flights of fancy can’t be expected. The subtitle pretty much says what the book is about, and Murakami presents the case quite clearly, and for the most part doesn’t intrude too much in the stories of the interviewees. In the last part, when he talks with the members of the Aum cult responsible for the metro gas attack, he for some reason finds it necessary to serve as the sensible voice of an enlightened public, debating with the cult members and presenting his own views in a more inquisitorial manner. Perhaps this was a mistake.

What I Talk About When I talk About Running steals the title, of course, from Raymond Carver, but little else. I was irritated by this. Apart from capitalizing upon a known and damn good title, what Murakami writes about in the book has absolutely nothing to do with Carver’s short stories, neither in style nor subject matter, and as a result it would be like if, say, Eminem released a record called Dark Side of the Loon, which, upon reflection, is not that bad a title. Not that I compare Carver to Pink Floyd… Anyhow, just because Murakami has translated Carver to Japanese, doesn’t give him the right to Bogart the connotations to Carver’s tightly constructed and very precise short stories in his own literary output.

Murakami’s book itself is no great shakes. The type of book which would probably never be released unless you already have a name. It is a collection of essays already published in slightly changed forms in different magazines, and put together in this book as a kind of runners diary and attempt at autobiography. Like most of Murakami’s books, it is enjoyable, but this one was forgotten as soon as I finished the last page. It’s an easy read, though, perfect for having in your pocket to be read while waiting on the bus or any occasion where the alternative is to stand up and down glaring into nothingness. It’s the equivalent of an extremely light lager, something to sip while staring lazily at the sea.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is among Murakami’s shortest books. It is also seemingly a very simple, almost intimate story. Therefore I had reason to believe that the author would be able to have sufficient control of his characters and their situations to give us a satisfying ending. (Note: I don’t mean a happy or sad ending, not even a logical ending, just something to make the reader think that it is important that he pays attention). Nope. Again, the ending is so vague that it is irritating. I don’t even need resolutions to the plot, I‘ll accept that human experience is too complicated and that resolutions can be artificial. Just give me a sign that the author has paid attention to the narrative possibilities and threads he has put out there!
The book is rather erotic and as always it is well written. But the eroticism doesn’t seem to suggest anything more than itself and the fine prose is left hanging with nowhere to go.

Still, I don’t mean to sound too negative. There is much to like about Murakami, it’s just so frustrating that he never seems able to quite deliver that last genius phrase or resolution or meaning or whatever the hell you want to call it. He is like a Maradona with no goal scoring abilities, and should he score, it is almost certainly with the hand of God, never a result of an honest well executed play. This is the joy and frustration of reading Haruki Murakami.

New TV. The New World,New Edition.

August 6, 2010

Well, I have finally bought a new TV, thank God! I’ve been searching for half a year and gather I must have studied every Audiovisual forum known to more or less civilized languages. I couldn’t be happier with my final choice, a Sony LCD that sports better picture quality than sets costing the double of my new friend. Most people seem to want ultra-thin sets, and this is where their money goes. Me, I couldn’t care less whether my set is 3 or 10 centimetres deep, as long as the TV doesn’t turn David Lean into Aaron Spelling.


Anyhow… The first two Bluray films we saw on this 7th wonder of the world, were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The New World. Best to feed the TV some quality films, so it doesn’t pick up bad habits or thinks it can just begin to slack off! I think this was the third or fourth time I watched The New World, and this time in its Extended Edition.

While often just a marketing ploy, in the case of this film, I have to say the extra minutes – each 41 of them – contributed positively to an already very, very good film. Whereas before actions and motivations had to be surmised or guessed at, I felt that with its new running time of almost 3 hours, the film seemed a fuller and even more immersive experience. The director, Terrence Malick, never one to leave the technical aspects of his films to chance, re-edited the film and oversaw every nuance of colour and sound in the new high-def mastering. Do yourself a favour and seek out the new version if you have the means. That last long shot of the tree broke something inside of me. In a good way. If you have paid attention and are not a stranger to yourself, it will break something inside you as well. In a good way.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Malick’s new film is called Tree of Life. It was almost premiering this year in Cannes, but Malick decided last minute that he needed more time with it. This can, of course, mean anything from a couple of weeks more to a couple of years. Malick has only made four films, all of them masterpieces. Needless to say, I’m awaiting Tree of Life with baited breath and a slight fear that perhaps this time I will be disappointed. I never am, though. No, sir. I never am.

Incidentally, while watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it struck me that Snow White never calls her male companions dwarfs, rather Little Men. Political correctness in 1937?  The film itself has no qualms about calling them dwarfs, both in the narration and in its title…

Speaking of BluRays. One of the companies that has not immediately begun to flood the marked with more or less high definition editions of their back catalogue, is Studio Ghibli. Most expected that with the release on BluRay of the studio’s latest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the rest of the companies’ titles would follow suit. This hasn’t happened. Disney, who owns the Western distribution rights to Ghibli, has been in frequent contact with the company, requesting titles for the BluRay market. Ghibli, however, seem to take their time, hopefully because they want to protect their many masterpieces from fast and shoddy releases.

Former president of the company and leading producer, Toshio Suzuki, said that he suggested Ghibli’s break through film, Nausicaa, for the Blu Ray treatment, but sensed hesitation from the Disney side, who evidently wanted more commercially viable releases. Still, Suzuki has continued to digitalize Nausicaa, deciding to clean up the original print, but still taking care not to make it more clean than the original once was. Director Hayao Miyazaki only demanded that they not change the imperfections of the film: A film is an element of its time, it grows old like everything else, and perhaps herein lies its value. Any imperfections are signs of the process, and has as big a place in the history of the product as anything else. No artificiality!, the old master demanded. After having seen the near finished result, he only wanted they stress a bit more green in the colour spectrum. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two…

Suzuki ends the interview with this: “Okui-san came (to) my room (the) next day (after the screening). He said “Miyazaki-san cried, didn’t he?” I answered in this way, “Nausicaa is not yet over.” Both I and Miya-san remember all of the events and every cut“.

Nausicaa is supposed to be released on Blu Ray in Japan one of these days. As for when it and other Ghibli films will reach “the West”, we have to wait and see. Amazon has put some titles on its web pages without suggesting any date.

BIFF, Day Seven: Still Walking

October 29, 2009

Today we are travelling to South America and Japan. One journey I will take only once, the other I can’t wait to take again.
The Colombian road movie Los Viajes del Viento has two strengths that make up for many of its conventional traits: It never descends into a too typical South American sentimentality and it has the luxury of taking place in a geography that is seldom seen on films. The story is about an old, taciturn accordion master who recently lost his wife, and the young boy who may be his son. The old master wants to travel across the entire country in order to give back his accordion to his master. As legend will have it, he once won the instrument in a duel with the devil. The boy sees apprenticeship with the old man as his only possibility to make something of himself and thus follows his unwilling companion stubbornly through some spectacular landscape and hairy situations.

los-viajes-del-viento1While beautiful to look at, the film didn’t really stand out in any particular way. You could substitute the old accordionist with, say, a kung fu master, or a literature professor, or any old sage with a special gift to impart on the young, and the basic story would pretty much be the same. And in the history of films, God knows this has been done again and again. The accordion only really comes to the fore in an early duel with a younger braggart in a music contest. Like the rapper’s duels in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the accordion contest consists in psyching out one’s opponent by rhyme and insult while sticking to the chosen accordion tune. It may sound far fetched, but this part of the film really worked.

vientoThe travelogue, or road movie, is often an excellent way of highlighting a country’s geography and supporting the local tourist industry. Often, the tourist industry will help finance the film if the country is represented as a series of tourist vistas. This being Colombia, I’m not convinced that the ploy will be entirely successful, but we, the audience, win anyway. Especially since most of us will not get the chance – or take the chance – of visiting the country, I can’t think of a better way to be able to experience Colombia’s breathtaking natural vistas than in the comfort of the cinema chair, where the most immediate danger is an aneurysm triggered by some popcorn-munching moron by our side.

los-viajesUltimately, the film is worth seeing for its depiction of nature and the very varied geography – or geology. The stone formations towards the end were a sight to behold, as was the endless salt flats, the village built almost on the lake itself, and the Indian village atop a mountain. I have not seen exactly these sights before and felt fortunate to witness them in this way. The film also strikes up some laconic humoristic moments and I did chuckle a time or two. As for the main plot, I didn’t feel that it resolved itself entirely satisfactorily, but, as is my habit in these posts about films that most have not yet seen, I shan’t be spoiling the end here. The titular symbol of the travelling wind has a double bottom, referring both to the literal wind that has shaped the country and the various wind instruments. There is a scene where the wind blows through a piece of wood with a whistling sound, perhaps telling us that the tradition of these men has its roots in nature itself, in a time before Man, and that all we contribute are complications of that theme.

afterlifeHirokazu Kore-eda has made some seven films, not including his TV-work and some short films. Unfortunately not all of these are readily available in the west. His first film, Maborosi, an Ozu-style examination of a young widow trying to find a new lease on life after the loss of her husband , had a limited international run. But it was his second feature, the often wonderful After Life, which made him into a household name, if that house was an art house. (Yes, I know, bad pun…) In 2001 he made Distance, perhaps inspired by the gas attacks of a suicide cult in Japan; the Aum cult‘s nerve gas attack on the city’s subway system. Then came Nobody Knows, which got a wider release and was nominated in Cannes and won a number of Asian awards. The story of a group of children left to their own devices after their mother takes off, was a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. Kore-eda directed over almost two years, and the children visibly live in the film. There are scenes in Nobody Knows that should break most hearts that are not already irredeemably broken. In 2006, two years after Nobody Knows, he made Hana, about a samurai who doesn’t really want to be a samurai. He is no good at fighting and wishes he could spend his days helping the poor people of the village in which he takes up residence. His very latest film is Air Doll, about a blow up sex doll that turns human Pinocchio-style. I have not seen this yet, but those that have, comment that it is remarkable in that the film never is exploitative, nor even is interested in the sexual aspects of this offbeat story. The film is more about what it means to be human and the innocence of the non-human in comparison. The first thing the doll learns after becoming human with a beating heart, is to lie.

still-walkingThis lengthy introduction is spurred by my absolute satisfaction with Kore-eda’s penultimate film, made in 2008, and shown this day in the BIFF-festival. Still Walking is perhaps the first perfect film I’ve seen this year. I really can’t find any faults with it. The only film coming near it in quality is the Swedish Burrowing, which I spoke of in a former post. The two films have in common that they are influenced by other directors. In Kore-eda’s case, the spectre of Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu, is present, but not overwhelming, while in Burrowing, Terrence Malick is perhaps an even more present godfather.

The majority of Still Walking takes place within 24 hours, but including the epilogue, the time covered is three years. The real scope of the film, however, reaches much longer, as both the past and the future is so implicit in these 24 hours, that the film nears an almost general understanding of the human situation, particularly our place in the everlasting links between generations, from the very first to the last. I was most impressed by the way in which the director achieved this generality from a very specific time in a specific family.

still walking grandfatherA man who has just lost his job brings for the first time his wife, who is a widow, and her son to the annual family reunion. He clearly is not on good terms with his mother and father; “you should call your mother more often“, the father tells him. “I can’t stand listening to all her complaints“, the son answers. The father is a retired doctor who feels useless and socially in a no-man’s land, as he hasn’t anyone to continue his practice, and therefore must still play the role of village doctor himself, even though he is not up to it.

Seemingly, much of the reason for the family’s strained relationship, is that the eldest son lost his life in a drowning accident many years before, while saving a young boy from the waves. This son was the father’s favourite, and is in hindsight made to have represented the hopes for the family’s future. Every time the conversation begins to run more or less easily, the mother mentions some details about the dead son, and the family is thrown back into non-communication.

The reason for the reunion, is indeed that it marks the anniversary for the son’s death. Also present here is a sister with her husband and two children, who the father finds noisy. We can only assume that had the dead son had any children, they would be just as noisy. This is a film where I don’t want to tell much about the plot, as much of the enjoyment comes from gradually piecing together the dynamics of the family and just what has gone wrong in their lives. It is never -apart from the death of the son, which paradoxically has brought them together – the big, life-changing events that make these people be who they are, what they have become. Kore-eda is a master in communicating much bigger truths by very small movements and glances. Sometimes he lets a phrase linger a bit longer than necessary in order for us to grasp not only the context of the phrase, the feeling behind it, but its consequences, insignificant as they may seem before we have the entire picture.

still_walking_02_148953cIt’s a cliché, but movies is really a universal language. I almost can’t think of better ways for us to see the common humanity between us all, than by immersing ourselves in works by masterful directors like Kore-eda. I felt more recognition in this film than in any Hollywood work I can recall. Nothing sudden or life-changing happens in the film, yet I felt a wiser person after having seen it, perhaps even wanting to be a better person. In this film, the characters don’t have “arcs”, as they evidently teach in Hollywood script classes. The characters that we observe become persons more than characters, and persons, for the most part, don’t suddenly learn something or change just because they have attended a family dinner, even though a number of American Thanksgiving films want us to believe this. They go on with their lives, as best they can, or maybe not even that.

What makes the film magic to me is also a consequence of the characters not only being oblivious to their shortcomings that we as spectators can detect in them, but that they actually go on living as if there never was anything particularly important about the day we have spent with them. They just go on, or as the film says in its title, they are still walking. (This phrase also comes up in a song the grandmother insists on playing on an old record player, and which she says she has a special relationship to. The song so subtly illuminates something of the past of the characters that we don’t quite grasp it before a shot of the grandfather doctor’s later reaction. The world of memories and forgotten times that comes into light here is staggering).

The only hint of sentimentality in the film, is when the unemployed son’s voiceover comments on what has happened in the three years since the family dinner. The words are spoken very matter of factly, but that very restraint is heartbreaking in its seeming neutrality to the lives that are commented. I would love to present the importance of the grandmother’s speech about butterflies and how that speech is reproduced later on, but this is such an integral part of the experience that I must leave it for the individual viewer to assess.

Still_Walking_2_149507aNot only is Kore-eda a master of presenting the social interaction and directing the actors into an almost completely naturalistic style, also his setting of the story deserves some mention. The film is shot in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, a seaside town with streets climbing upwards the mountainside from the sea. Seeing the wonderful locations, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of streets so typical of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Whisper of the Heart. There just is something very magnetic to me about this kind of setting, some serene quality that helps convince me that this site is ideal for the family home, a piece of childhood we all will always carry with us. The lack of the typical features of the big city helps the film to achieve a feeling not only of timelessness, but of placelessness. While very much a Japanese setting, the feeling is more general, of the kind of place that we find beautiful in hindsight, but that we had to move away from. The reasons probably felt important to us at the time, but any place we have lived in our formative years is bound to hold the ghosts of our younger selves in some way or another, still offering us possibilities of who we could have been had we by chance chosen differently.

stillwalking2Again, all this essaying runs the risk of making the film sound as if it could be boring. It is not. In fact, there are many scenes with a wonderful understated humour, not least in the comments by and about the grandmother and grandfather. As in any real grouping of human beings, be it a family or a group of friends, there is humour to be found in familiarity. Kore-eda, being concerned with reality, has the gift of finding the humour that springs from a common humanity, from recognition, even in the idiosyncratic. The actress You (yes, that is her stage name), who played the irresponsible mother in Nobody Knows, here gets the chance to use her quirky personality in a role that never seems as it is an imposed vehicle for her brand of acting. Her presence and comedic (her voice makes me think of a Japanese Meg Tilly) timing is so strong that when she leaves the film, we suddenly feel that we have been deprived of a comforting presence in what is, after all, a scary situation; reality. Or as close to reality as we want to come.

Offering us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives, Kore-eda still makes us feel as if we’ve known them for a long time. His telling of this story is so effective that, even as we think that nothing very important happens, we get to learn everything that we need in order to fully grasp the situation as well as its ramifications. All the characters are given flesh and blood and lives that are not neatly solved by a contrived Hollywood script. Still, the miracle is that we don’t miss the solution, even though we’ve been indoctrinated to expect it. When all is said and done, we can leave and know that all is not said and it is not done. In fact, the way the characters are not able to come to terms with their shortcomings, or their disability to solve their conflicts, is the very thing that gives the piece such a powerful end. After this film, I really had to take some minutes to let the credits roll before I could or wanted to move. Those were good minutes.

BIFF, Day Six: 9 and Sin Nombre

October 28, 2009

I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal to say about the two films of the day. One of them was good, the other very good. They are both the first feature films of directors I think have the potential to make even better films.

99 is an animated film directed by Shane Acker. He is formerly known only for a short film, also called 9( you can see it by pressing link), which won an Oscar in 2005. I was a big fan of the short film and therefore had my hopes up for the expanded feature version. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been to the film maker’s advantage, at least not artistically.

What made the short film 9 such a unique creature was that it threw us smack into a world that seemed familiar and alien at the same time, never offering any explanations for what we saw or why. While having many of the characteristics of a post apocalyptic earth, the protagonist was a rag doll with the number 9 painted on his back. There were no humans in sight. Exploring this destroyed world, he came upon a monstrous creature that started an intense chase of the frail doll. He found a round metallic object that, put properly together, released ghostly forms of other rag dolls who faded away into the ether or afterlife. This was the plot, and I didn’t feel I needed to know more, really. There were no dialogue and this strengthened the pure chase concept. It was certainly clear that Acker had an eye for design and a good understanding of what makes animation work. His sense of movement and gravity in animation was particularly impressive.

acker05_9shortFor the feature length version, the chase of the short film constitutes the beginning of the film and yes, ghostly figures – souls of the dolls? – are released at the end. In between we have an hour of more chase scenes and so many stock situations that I wondered if the script writers had encountered some paint by numbers guide to how to write trite dialogue for scenes seen a hundred times before.

As in the short film, the character 9 starts out mute, but unfortunately that situation is quickly remedied. As soon as these dolls start speaking American, they lose a lot of mystery, but also intelligence, it seems. All of a sudden they spout feelings that are supposed to sound dramatic or even political, but comes off as something a child would say. And no, this is not intentional. “We must save him! You are a coward! I’m sorry! You can’t hide from reality!” For some reason, the script writers have only been able to think in exclamation points while writing the dialogue. The same heavy-handedness can be found in the plot as well; never offering dilemmas we haven’t seen many times before, spouting Disneyfied sentiments about the importance of sticking up for one‘s friends and reducing everything to a fight between the good guys and the bad guys, with no grey scales. This is where animation studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli really excels, never going for the easiest solutions or indeed world views.

7As the film, then, is never more than a question of getting from here to there, I found myself bored even by the generous amount of action taking place in the plot. What saves the film is that the animation is absolutely gorgeous and that Acker hasn’t lost his eye for design and for making the characters move in exciting and fresh ways. The world he has created is indeed fascinating and had the script been better, especially the dialogue, this could really have been something. As it is it is never more than entertaining, at times it is less.

I think I’ll blame one of the producers, Tim Burton, for this. Hell, I’m feeling magnanimous, I‘ll blame the other producer, Timur Bekmambetov, as well. For one thing, I guess it was Burton who made Pamela Pettler write the screenplay. She also had a finger in the screenplay for Burton’s Corpse Bride, so I assume her presence here is no coincidence. I have a feeling that all my objections to the dialogue should be directed to her, and to Burton. Let me take a moment to explain why I consider Burton poison to the film.

9 would probably not have been made without Burton’s name attached to it, so for that Acker must be grateful. But when did Burton really make a more than passable film? His latest, Sweeney Todd, had its moments, well helped by the dependability of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful songs. Big Fish is a cinematic atrocity best forgotten. Sleepy Hollow should have been a horror film, but was turned into an exercise in style and quirkiness and never remotely scary. His two stop motion animation films, Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, seem designed only to be different in concept from most mainstream animated features, but are they really that good? Sure, some of Danny Elfman’s music is catchy, but what is really the point of the films? That outsiders have feelings too? Burton is the cosy Goth, never daring to be different enough to be disturbing, intent on turning the borderline strange into the definite mainstream. Has he ever had any meaning behind his films other than the aforementioned call to accept the goth, the freak, the outsider? Subtle, he is not, and intelligence you have to search for elsewhere. After Edward Scissorhands, he should maybe have called it a day, realizing that he had made his masterpiece and not emulate the same formula again and again.

The point to make here, is that while the original short film of 9 retained much mystery and, by necessity of its format, perhaps, allowed the audience to actively make its own interpretations of what they were seeing. After Burton’s hands have fondled the package, every movement now has to be given a reason and that reason is never very interesting when you peel away the, grantedly, spectacular surface. Much like so many of Burton’s own films.

Pretty much all the protests I have directed at Burton’s cinema, I could also send the way of the film’s other producer, Timor Bekmambetov. He as well has made a career on pure surface, seemingly having little interest in what he is actually trying to say, or even accomplish, with his films. Daywatch, Nightwatch and Wanted all look very good, but have so many narrative problems that were they a person, Mel Gibson would seem sane in comparison.
While these big name producers ensured that Acker could bring “his vision” to the big screen, they also ensured that said vision would be severely diluted, turning all mystery into cliché and placing something that had aspirations of being original plump into the safety of the still waters of the mainstream. And that, my friends, is not where you catch the biggest fish, and certainly not the most succulent.

sin-nombre_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85Sin Nombre is a film about people seeking escape because they have to. The young Honduran girl, Sayra, has no prospects in her own country and chooses to set out on the long journey towards USA with her father, who she hasn’t seen for many years. El Casper(or Willy, as he sometimes calls himself) is a young man – or boy – who has pledged his life to a local street gang, seemingly in perpetual war with the rival Los Chavalles. After he kills the leader for a number of reasons, he knows that his life is over, but chooses to make his way to USA as well, on the same train as Sayra. I don’t want to say more about the plot, again not to give away too much.

The director, Cary Fukunaga, has formerly made a short film about the subject of Mexican immigrants dying of overheating in a truck, trying to make their way into USA. However, Sin Nombre, separates itself from a number of films about the crossing over the Mexican/US border by treating USA almost as a MacGuffin. USA is some vague goal that we doubt will influence the proceedings in other ways than to bring the action forward.

sin-nombre-gangThe film is as much about the possibility of starting anew in a philosophical sense than in the particular case of USA as the necessary site of this renewal. More than that, it is about innocence and the limits of innocence; the mechanisms that taints us by some sin, some overstepping of a boundary we only realize that we have crossed when it’s too late to go back.

I hear that the director spent some time travelling on top of trains the same distance as the protagonists, in order to get a grip of what they are going through. This, if true, serves the film well, as the train riding scenes seem very realistic, while at the same time offering the director the opportunity to show how evil and good is often a question of the geography of chance.

I should not forget to mention that Sin Nombre works very well as a thriller. It shows us a world we don’t often see and there is not a false scene or sentiment in the film. The guns are primitive, and they don’t make the explosive noise of a Hollywood actioner, but they are just as deadly. And in many ways they are more fatal.

BIFF, Day Five

October 27, 2009

The festival is beginning to take its toll on me, especially as I also have to work during these afternoons, so I only managed to fit in two films in my schedule. By shear chance, both of them were South Korean and both starred the always good Kang-ho Song.

song-kang-ho-in-thirstSong is one of Korea’s biggest moviestars, but he also is a very competent and versatile actor, often adding a touch of humour in his roles. I first became aware of him in Swiri (from 1999) by Je-gyu Kang, who five years later made the good war film Brotherhood. After Swiri, Song did J.S.A. Joint Security Area, which was his first collaboration with Chan-wook Park. Park used Song in his next project, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as well. Park went on to make the internationally acclaimed Oldboy, without Song this time. He gave him a cameo in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance before granting him the undisputed lead in Thirst, which is the first film I saw today.

Thirst is a gorgeously filmed vampire story. For the first hour it is really good, at times exceptionally so. There are scenes we haven’t seen before and the protagonist is definitely not your typical vampire. Song plays a devout catholic priest who becomes a vampire through a tainted blood transfusion after having briefly died as a test subject for an experimental vaccine. He soon realizes his predicament, and not feeling it is a sin, as he didn’t ask for this to happen to him, he considers it an illness and not inherently bad in any moral way. There is initially no big change in his personality and he makes sure that he doesn’t harm anyone in order to procure the necessary quantities of blood, tapping blood from coma victims at the local hospital who are not likely to miss a bottle or two of the red stuff.

thirst-movie-posterSoon, however, he is introduced to Tae-joo, a young woman forced into servitude of her sickly husband and mother in law. The priest, soon to be ex-priest, and Tae-joo begin an erotic relationship which is very well represented in the film. The scenes of love making all seem natural and as a result comes off as truly erotic and not the silly wish fulfilment fantasies of countless Hollywood films. Unfortunately, it turns out that his love is a bit of a femme fatale who uses him for her own ends. From this point in, I felt the film became overlong, dwelling too much on its grantedly beautiful frames, but not advancing the plot in any surprising ways, or at all. I won’t spoil the film, so I’ll limit myself to saying that for me, at least, the film didn’t reach its potential. I saw where the film was heading and it didn’t make any meaningful detours from that direction. As a result, a short trip felt far too long. What made this second half of the film worth staying, was the stellar work of Ok-vin Kim, an actress I’d never heard of before. She really made the character of Tae-joo a full bodied creature, upping the menacing aspects of her arc in the film. I’ll recommend the film with caution, as it is very well made and looks fantastic, with some really breath taking scenes. Just be aware that the recommendation is not unconditional.

Memories-of-Murder_press08The Good, the Bad, the Weird also stars Kang-ho Song. In this film he plays almost an amalgamation of the two characters he has played in the films of my favourite Korean director, Joon-ho Bong. I assume anyone with an interest in Korean films has seen Memories of Murder, in which Song plays a policemen with a temper and some intellectual shortcomings. I personally found this even better than David Fincher’s Zodiac, being a very similar story. Song also played in the environmental monster film The Host, which was a bit of a hit internationally as well. Here he played a well meaning buffoon, possibly short of some marbles.

As The Good, the Bad, the Weird gives Song the chance to essay a character who seemingly has two personalities, he can really let loose with his two most typical screen personas. Song, of course, is the weird one of the title.

tale_of_two_sisters_2003_posterThe film is directed by Ji-woon Kim, who among others has made the solid A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life. Kim is a very visually oriented director, often presenting tableaus which are easier to admire than really like, but in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, he uses his considerable talents to give us the purest entertainment this side of Indiana Jones (disregarding the fourth near-abomination). The title of the film makes the countless nods to Sergio Leone quite clear, but more than a Spaghetti Eastern, I felt this was an adventure film, an action film like they don’t make em anymore.

goodbadweirdThe plot is all a bit of nonsense, with a treasure map serving as a MacGuffin for countless inventive chases and spectacular fight scenes, not with kung-Fu, but guns, cannons and everything that can be fired from a steel tube. In between the action scenes, we get to know the characters just enough to care about them. There is also a sub-plot regarding how Korea has been stolen by the Japanese, and as a result the three protagonists are men with no country, all now making a life lived in the eternal present in a soon to be mythic Manchuria. This gives them the chance to reinvent themselves, something Song’s character has done most successfully, gladly accepting the role as a happy-go-lucky small time thief and adventurer. Again, I can’t say more, as it would spoil a plot point towards the end.

The plot, however is not the important thing here. The unbridled entertainment on display is all that counts. I laughed out loud many times during the film and too often during the action scenes, I found myself sitting with my mouth open for a longer time than is considered proper in polite society. The only thing that was a let down was the ending, which I felt was too abrupt and disappointing in its stock situation. I felt that it was unnecessary to emulate Leone to such a degree at this point. That particular scene can probably never be bettered anyway, so it was a bit of a suicide attempt for Kim to try to get away with it. Be sure, by the way, to watch some minutes into the credits, as some resolution can be found there. Heartily recommended, but not for those who feel that all art should be slow moving, reflective and involve the deeper meaning of life, come hell or high water.

BIFF, Day Four. The Festival Strikes Back.

October 26, 2009

Such a good start of this day! The Swedish Film Burrowing (Man Tänker Sitt) is the first true masterpiece of the festival. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better (new) film this year. Experiences like this make everything worth it; the amount of mediocrity and pretentiousness (hello again, Un Lac!) one usually has to wade through in order to happen upon small jewels like this. The film is directed by first time directors Henrik Hellstrøm and Fredrik Wentzel. If they stick with their partnership, I can’t but think that we have much to look forward to in the coming years.

BURROWING_POSTER_WWWThis is a small film, both in length and, I presume, in budget. This means nothing more than that every scene is the perfect length, everything the film wants to tell, it tells admirably and with confidence. Hellstrøm and Wentzel has made a true film, in that the sentiments it wants to communicate are not easily reduced to words, but created by images and sound. The result is at times heartbreaking. More than being just a simple back to nature fable, the film lets us see people interacting with other people and how they have each discovered an emptiness in the world that perhaps has no remedy, but that in nature can somehow be reduced. A society needs rules, but when these rules take over each aspect of human interaction, they have a deadening effect on the soul, and personal identity becomes suspect.

I feel that it is difficult to address these issues through formal language, as the very uttering of the sentiment is based on a need to be understood by as many as possible, an agreed upon system. This is where Burrowing so admirably does the job better than I can in this review, as the film is not easily reduced to a clearly delineated argument. Some of the best novels of the world has talked about these issues, the estrangement of man in society is one of the oldest tales and constitutes an important part of what we call tragedy.

cabin_walden1The film starts with a quotation of Henry David Thoreau, famous for his Walden, about a man retreating from civilized society into the wilderness, into nature, for two years and two months. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he says in that book, which could have been used in the film as well. Instead they use another Walden quotation, from the economy chapter: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior“. The film then cuts to a young boy walking along a lake. We hear his voice narrating. This innocent, yet wise in its way, voiceover will intermittently accompany us to the very end of the film. And what an end it is! Damn, if my eyes didn’t fill up… I could write about the poetry of the scene and how well the words illuminates all the preceding scenes we have witnessed, but that would be to deprive you of the pleasure of finding the beauty of the film for yourselves.

man tenker sittAs I mention an innocent-sounding voiceover and a longing and fascination for nature, I guess most will come in mind the films of Terrence Malick, and they wouldn’t be wrong. If Malick had been raised in Swedish suburbia, this is the film he would have made. Or something close to it. There is a scene of the boy walking through high grass, or weeds, while his voice tells of his understanding of the grown ups’ world, partly naively, partly containing a wisdom that disappears with the death of innocence, of the Eden of childhood. Soon enough the boy will be put in a suit and forced to nod politely to meaningless conversations about meaningless non-topics. It is at this point he reaches a decision. That decision has to do with the other small tragedies we witness.

man_tanker_sitt_2_press1One of these is the estrangement in a young man “without direction”, always carrying his baby in his arms. The scene where he changes diapers in a parking lot and is accosted by a well-meaning woman who threatens to report him to the social services seems very real and true. She doesn’t know anything about him, but has a vague feeling that society will punish her if she does not report such an obvious break with society’s norms. The young man is seemingly unable to take “control of his life” and thus has no place in the world of humans.

Then there is the Russian émigré who meant to stay a few months in Sweden, but has now lived there thirty years. He spends his days trying to spear fish in the small brook that runs between the houses. Who are you?, a suspicious neighbour asks him. He laughs, as if he has been told a joke.

There are others, all with a restlessness they seem unable to put into words, even in their own heads. Everyone stretched so thin in the need to show their neighbours “good behaviour”, that something is about to break, to break out into violence or self destruction. I think this is a feeling that is not limited to Scandinavia and their political model of social democracy, although I assume that plays a part in it.

I’ll end my recommendation by talking briefly about the music used in the film. I have never before heard of the composer, Erik Enocksson, but the way his music was used in the film made him an integral part of the experience. He has composed some almost Bach-like polyphonic and beautiful songs. They are very explicitly linked to the theme of the film. I think all the songs are in Latin, and although I’m not exactly fluent, I was able to discern some snippets.
Somnio, somnio, I heard repeated some times, meaning “to dream“, or “imagine follishly“, I think. Other lines were “Hic non serenitas regit”, which I think means something like “There is no peace/serenity here”. Hic qui virem regit, I think can mean “Here where Man – or perhaps Green – reigns“. Non Qui Periculi Imminent must be translated as something like “There is no danger here”. And other lines about wolves and bears, possibly star signs. The final line I was able to work out was Non Spiriti Mali, “there are no bad spirits here“, or something to that effect. I mention these lines as they can tell a bit about the simple, yet complicated feelings that the film addresses.

All this might lead you to think the film is boring. It is not, certainly not if you think that you can contribute a bit yourself to the little plot there is. The film is really put together like a series of situations that are linked by the characters’ mutual discontent, albeit for different reasons. Apart from the wonderful images, there are situations bound to draw a smile or a tear out of recognition. The film will have a Norwegian premiere in November, and hopefully other countries will also be able to see it outside festivals. It deserves a much bigger audience than I fear that it will have. Please see this!

mary_and_max1The next film of the day was the Australian claymation film Mary and Max, by Adam Elliot. This is a bittersweet tale of two outsiders, who find comfort and the possibility for a meaningful life in each other’s correspondence. One is a young unattractive Australian girl, the other an older fat New York Jew with Asperger syndrome. The result is a kind of 84 Charing Cross Road for extreme outsiders. The film is by no means as depressing as it sounds, although it deals with depression and many of life’s tragedies and setbacks. In fact, it is very funny. I think the entire cinema was laughing every two minutes. I really liked this, and the animation – or claymation, to be correct – is fantastic. And it’s for adults, so the filmmakers deserve credit for making a film in this format that doesn’t depend on millions of children or unethical merchandising to keep the production afloat. Recommended!

Fryktelig_lykkelig_141457bAfter Mary and Max, I had to go to work, so I was unable to see more films before the last film of the day. This was the Danish Fryktelig Lykkelig, Terribly Happy, directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, most known for his TV-work. Terribly Happy wants to be a Coen brothers film, but is no such thing. A policeman is transferred to the countryside where the local village is peopled by all kinds of weirdoes and the Danish version of Texan good ole boys. The protagonist is a bit of a moron right from the start, and thus his fall from grace doesn’t contain any grace to begin with. This makes for a very bad story, clichéd and contrived. For some reason this was among the most popular films in Denmark last year, even among critics. Don’t, I say, make the same mistake as the Danish. They tell me there is something rotten in that state. Had this film been on TV, I don’t think I’d bothered to watch it through. I guess it is passable entertainment, or rather, hardly even that.

However, even the mediocrity of the Danish couldn’t take away the satisfaction of the Swedish neighbours’ Burrowing. Remember this title, should it present itself to a cinema near you. Or even at some distance.

BIFF, Day Three

October 25, 2009

Due to circumstances beyond my control (work), I didn’t get the chance to see that many films this day. I did, though, have an unpleasant encounter with a member of the film jury, which – if not anything else – convinced me that the winner of the festival’s jury prize will be left entirely to chance and incompetence. I wish the festival leaders had considered their jury choices a bit more carefully. More on this later.

mr_nobody_1jpg_rgb2I first became aware of Belgian director Jaco van Dormael with his 1993-film Toto the Hero, which generally got rave reviews and which I liked. I seem to recall that I felt it put an unnecessary sentimentalism to the world of the child protagonist, but I think that was part of its theme. Not having seen the film since its cinema run 16 years ago, I don’t want to compare it with his latest work, which was my first film of the day.

Mr. Nobody is by far his most ambitious project to date. It cost close to $50 million and features at least B-list Hollywood actors. It is filmed at several locations; Belgium, the famous Studio Babelsberg in Germany, in Canada and at several other places. Most of the money, though, must have gone to the impressive special effects which are very, very good. Very complicated fx shots integrate seamlessly with the “real” world and a number of editing tricks and film styles are on display.

The film is not only ambitious from a financial or technical perspective. The story seeks to sum up the entirety of the universe’s existence, and not only this universe. It is at times a period film, a science fiction story and a contemporary love story. It is about storytelling, parallel universes, time travel, religion, immortality and death. Most importantly it is about love.

jaredletomrnobodyJared Leto plays the grown up version of the protagonist Nemo Nobody and he does it well. I think this is his first leading role in a film of this magnitude. Then again, there are not that many films of this scope. In a way I felt the film was never quite only itself, but borrowed from a number of films and from the history of film. Perhaps it had to, but I felt at times that the director had seen the works of other directors he admired and tried to emulate them and, by combining their tropes, hoped to find something personal enough to call his own.
There is a bit of Darren Aronofsky’s the Fountain here, but on an even bigger thematic scale. Kubrick’s 2001 is quoted in some images. In a scene depicting humanity’s pre-existence, the moments before we are conceived, Van Dormael used the Melanesian music from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line while at the same time putting this music to images of white and black children playing innocently together in a heavenly innocent state. So, in other words, welcome to the beginning of The Thin red Line! The basic concept of splitting destinies – of turning into several future versions of oneself – based on a choice made while standing by a train, is found in the less ambitious Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors. The drowning in a car scene reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Europa (By the count of ten you will be dead, as Max Von Sydow laconically narrates in that film). In a way Mr. Nobody is two and a half hours awaiting said count. I could go on, but you get the point.

malickforestIt is not easy to sum up what this film is about. When the protagonist is forced to make a faithful choice at the age of nine (I think), he is separated into two persons, depending on which choice he makes. Within these two possible characters comes a further three choices – which makes it six characters(?) – based on his choice of girlfriend as an adolescent. One version of himself turns out to be a lecturer in astrophysics, who sometimes enters the action to lecture the viewer about the history and philosophy of the universe. He says there are seven dimensions in the universe; six of these are spatial, while the seventh is temporal. He then poses the question of whether the temporal – time – inhabited more than one dimension. (I take this from memory, so forgive me for any inaccuracies!) To complicate matters further, another one of these personalities takes up writing, creating a fictional world that in the film is presented as just as real as the non-fiction worlds. This fiction takes the action to space (to Mars) and the future. However, another future is also depicted in the film, a future where the protagonist is the last mortal human alive (and thus, the last who remembers love and lust; you don‘t need children if you live forever…) There is a point to this, but I won’t discuss it here, so as not to spoil the film.

While the plot of the film seems incredibly advanced and ambitious, to its credit, we are never lost and most times understand perfectly where we are in the story and what is depicted. Actually, I had no problems with the science fiction elements of the tale. They are well thought and very well executioned. It is in the way the film revolves around the concept of love that I feel it loses itself a bit; it becomes a bit too much.

11One kind of love that is decisive for Mr. Nemo Nobody is the child’s love for his parents. Another kind of love is the puppy love between nine year olds, then the lustful love between adolescents and finally the emotional, during and at times hard and stressful love between spouses. Put together, this becomes a whole lotta love, as the song says. Now, if the love theme had been presented a bit more smartly, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. (While it is presented in a complicated tale, this doesn’t make the kind of love on display any more “intelligent” or new to the viewer). Especially irritating is the extremely cliché ridden music the director has chosen for the soundtrack. There are just so many times you can hear Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream… Almost every scene has music that has been used so often before in films that it brings you as a viewer out of the film’s universe and at least I began pondering boredom and references rather than the action taking place before me.

Another unfortunate effect of the music has to do with its placement. When the protagonist as a young boy sees a girl his age, nine, swimming, a lusty soul-number is played, thus turning her into a kind of sex object. This is disturbing and can’t have been the director’s intention. While he wants to tell us that the protagonist falls in love at this moment, there must surely be better ways to sonically enhance this element!

Then there is the fact that all of Nemo’s love stories revolve around three girls that he meets as a young child. I find it a bit far fetched that these same girls shall also be his only interests in adolescence and in marriage. The film is, then, not only about premeditation, but about an emotional stiltedness, as if Nemo doesn’t really evolve during the film and this is the reason for his future being so clearly delineated into his separate possible selves. The name Nemo, by the way, does not refer to the captain of the Nautilus. You’re better served by reading it backwards.

MrNobodyIn closing, I’ll venture to say that the word ambitious will surely be used in pretty much every review of this film. (It wasn’t finished in time for Cannes, so it hasn’t been shown that many places yet). While it is certainly intricate, it ultimately doesn’t convince me. While I’m perfectly willing to take any leaps of logic that the film requires of me, I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up. I have a strong feeling that there are internal discrepancies within the fantastic logic. This should have been worked out a bit better, but I think I will need to see the film a second time to really pinpoint these errors. (And the ones I could point out would ruin the ending, so I’ll refrain).The problem is that, as much as I admired the film for what it’s trying to do, it was just a bit too long and ultimately not all that it could have been, so a second viewing will probably not take place in the immediate future. But if you are in the mood for a lengthy love story told in a brilliant technical style and with a basic sience fiction concept underlining it all, by all means take a chance on the film! I think it deserves an audience and it is without doubt a much better film than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was half the rave at this year’s Oscars, and which it also shares some sensibility with. Being the better film of the two, I’m also sure that it won’t find half the audience of Fincher’s unfortunate detour into drivel and mediocrity.

While Mr. Nobody may be flawed, it is at least interesting enough for me to have given it more attention and space than most films. This is more, much more than I can say for the next film I had the misfortune to attend this day. I guess I should have seen the warning signs; it being French the clearest.

thumbnailUn Lac – A Lake – is a minimalist work about an epileptic boy, his sister and family in an unknown wintry location. This is the second film as writer/director for Philippe Grandrieux, his fourth as director. On this film, he also serves as cinematographer, so he is an auteur in the real sense. The problem is that he is just not a very interesting one. Most of the actors are, for some reason Russian, and it is filmed in France and Switzerland. And the landscape does seem wonderfully oppressing and beautiful at the same time. That is, if any of the images had been in focus. (The images of the brother and sister found to the left are pretty much the only two clear images of the film)

Grandrieux uses a handheld camera style that is extreme in its use of closeups and movements following the characters so closely that we are supposed to see the world as they themselves do. The mother of the family is blind, though it took me some time to decipher this. Many of the scenes are filmed in near darkness and the ones that are not are foggy and out of focus. The brother has a close relationship with his sister, possibly incestuous, but I was never able to tell for sure. His epileptic fits grows in frequency. He is at times very happy for no apparent reason, at times he is moody. One day he is by the cold lake that seems to be the only contact with a wider world. A young man arrives. He says his name is Jurgen. Soon this man starts a relationship with the sister and finally they sail off on the same lake. This is the film. Or what I managed to see of the film.

UnLac_iwDo not misunderstand me. I have no problems with challenging films, be it in narrative or in film style. This film, however, is ridiculous, very boring and unbearably pretentious. The dialogue is almost non-existent. Perhaps this is a good thing, for when they speak, they speak platitudes. “You are my sister”, the brother says. Then he adds: “I am your brother”. Yes, well, you had me at sister…

Of course one can read something symbolic out of the minimalist setting and action. The more minimalist a work is, the easier to regard it as symbolical of something. But here even the symbolic meaning is trite and clichéd. Perhaps the director wants to deal with archetypes, with a biblical simplicity. If so, he fails miserably. Is he interested in hidden pockets of humanity, of humanity’s place in an unforgiving and uncaring nature? Well, he doesn’t come even close. Perhaps he wants to talk about female sexuality and awakening. If so, he says nothing new and certainly nothing of interest. – If you want an arty film about this, watch Picnic at Hanging Rock again! You will be grateful for it. Do not waste your time with Un Lac. With the basic setting of these characters in this kind of nature, you have to be pretty incompetent not to make it even slightly interesting or even beautiful even in a harrowing sense. Unfortunately, competence has no place here.
It strikes me that writing even disparagingly about the film, I make it sound better than it is. Give me a camera, this location and these characters and I would have made a better film. Look away, there is nothing to see here! By the way, this was a film I had high hopes for and that I really wanted to like. More the fool me.