Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On The Value Of Being Opaque (The Master, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas)

Just because my writing for the blog has been plummeting ever closer to the level of “shameful” for the last couple of months (To the four remaining folks whose Son Of Danse Macabre Reviews I have to write, I thank you for your patience, rest assured they are on the way) doesn’t mean that I haven’t been watching the films.

Indeed three seemingly unrelated films, The Master, Holy Motors, and Cloud Atlas. have been banging around inside my head since I saw them months ago, sparking against each other in all sorts of odd ways. And I think, the reactions and receptions from critics and the public to all three to all three, tells us a lot about where film is at the moment. Particularly in regard to the value of opacity.

Lets start with The Master. I’m not confident in my ability to even begin to unpack all the things that the film does right (though if you're interested in that I recommend reading Bill Ryan’s account, perhaps the sanest thing I’ve read on the film). What I want to point out is the baffled reactions of everyone from Roger Ebert on down, about the films lack of a "Deeper Meaning".

This is somewhat understandable, given that There Will Be Blood for all its tactile pleasures might as well have been entitled, Deeper Meaning: The Movie. But I simply think that with The Master it's just plain the wrong question to ask, this is a movie that is entirely, almost aggressively, surface. What is The Master About? It’s about putting you in the headspace of Freddie Quell, a personality in full fledged meltdown. It's as unpleasant a place to be be as any I’ve seen in a film. Anderson mercilessly puts you in this guys shoes, for an unsparing 144 min, and by the experience is nothing less than grueling. By the time you’ve finished you should be dangerously close to knowing what its like to be in the mind of someone who is taking mental and physical dysfunction about as far as he possibly can. Larger thematic concerns aren’t just secondary, they’re beside the point entirely. Everything you need to understand the film is right there on the surface.

Holy Motors on the other hand is a film that is utterly opaque. It is perhaps the first film that should have liner notes passed out with its tickets (Lets just say that one would do well to research director Leos Carax’s life before venturing in). Holy Motors tells the story of Mr. Oscar, a man who with the aid of a mysterious and mostly unseen organization stages pieces of, well lets just call it performance art, around a city. I've heard the film interpreted as everything as a meditation on the acting process, to a political essay. These are all very cute and reductive.

As for myself After a bit of research and a second viewing I think I have a better hold on what the movie is, "about" now, but I will not pretend that during my first viewing I had even the faintest notion of what was happening on a basic narrative level. (That being said, I’m pretty sure that Roger Ebert nailed the particulars of Mr. Oscar's peculiar occupation with his interpretation. Particularly given the film’s relationship to Tokyo! His explanation seems obvious to the point of bitter, face palming, frustration).

Does that make me a fraud? A poseur? Little more than Homer Simpson chuckling at the dancing Horse on Twin Peaks? Afraid to dislike the movie that all the cool kids are raving about? The thought has crossed my mind, but ultimately I don’t think so.

Even at my most baffled, my main emotion during Holy Motors was one of exhilaration. The sensation of seeing something new under the sun is the rarest a film fan can have and Holy Motors delivers it with every frame. It’s a film of contradictions, an elegy, if not a eulogy for cinema that opens up new possibilities for the form. As intensely intertextual as any film I have ever seen, that feels completely original. One of the great stylistic triumphs I’ve seen that manages to set itself in a recognizable world. It’s all as giddy, strange and inexplicable as well an orchestra full of accordions. And even if I had no idea what it all “means” the pure sensation of the thing is reward enough.

Which brings us to Cloud Atlas, a film that for all it’s supposed narrative opaqueness (bah!) is not merely more open about “What. It. All. Means.” than Holy Motors, but is so eager for you to know what it all means that it has several instructive montages on the subject, over which a voice over explains to the viewer What. It. All. Means. As the images reveal the truth (singular) of the lesson over the ages.

Of course I don’t think that Cloud Atlas’s thematic openness should count against it anymore than Holy Motors abtuseness about its message should count against it. Openess about theme is only a detriment if its clumsy and Cloud Atlas, despite what its harsher critics say, isn’t clumsy just earnest. Which is an entirely different thing.

Indeed perhaps the most rewarding thing about Wachowski’s career as a whole as it comes close to capping its second decade, is that for filmmakers who made their name for the post modern way they mashed up their influences, they have unexpectedly morphed into two of the most earnest filmmakers working today. There is a deep romanticism  underpinning The Matrix sequels (films I’ve long defended and am happy to begin to see finally get reevaluated) equal to the open, dorm room enthusiasm with which the Wachowski’s tackle the various philosophies that duel throughout the film. I may not defend Speed Racer as vigorously, nor do I love it half so much as its more fervent apologists, but I do have to admire it as a hot mess of a thing. And much of that is a result of how deeply felt and insistent its pro family message is.

In the end, the film I would liken Cloud Atlas to would be Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a film that gets an A for effort, but will most reward the forgiving viewer willing to overlook some significant flaws. But like Watchmen, the fact that it is on screen in a recognizable format at all sort of trumps whatever issues one may have with it.

Cloud Atlas has much of the same sincerity to it, it's about as ironic as a Golden Retriever puppy. It’s a film about Lots Of Big Stuff, karma, power, freedom, love, our ability to choose and The Wachowski’s and Tywker don’t want you to miss a single moment of it. While Cloud Atlas has its problems, (it simplifies and subverts Mitchell’s text, the decision to drop the book’s structure is a mistake, and though the actors playing multiple roles throughout the area works aestetichally it confuses things on a narrative level, as they can either be separate souls experiencing their own karmic tragetories, or they can be the reincarnation of the same soul throughout the eras, but they cannot very well be both) this eagerness to share its enthusiasms is not one of them.

This Autumn and Winter have been one of the strongest in my time as a Moviegoer. What can I say? Thanks to films like these if Cinema is a corpse as Holy Motors suggests, it is an extremely lively one. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Warning! Politics!

I don't usually get political on Things That Don't Suck, but there is one thing I must make clear.

If you lived through Bush V. Gore, and you're still giving those tired lines like "There's no real difference between the two parties," or  "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy." You have express written permission to kiss my ass.

Thank you for your time.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Days Of Horror: A Tale Of Two Sisters

(This review request comes courtesy of Neil Fulwood of Agitation Of The Mind, who collaborated with me on Son Of Danse Macabre, providing an excellent essay on post 9/11 horror that now serves as an appendix in the book. You too can lock me in a house with my own darkest secrets by purchasing Son Of Danse Macabre on your Nook or Kindle, and sending the evidence to my email)

“Do you know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it out of your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And it follows you around like a ghost.”

Out of all the horror archetypes the ghost story is unquestionably the saddest. And it’s always struck me as curious at how unexploited this trait usually is. In literature and film the ghost is usually taken as an aggressive, frightening creature, a mobile mirror of our own mortality. By its very nature the ghost is a pathetic remnant, a literal shade of its former self.

Kim Ji-Woon’s, A Tale Of Two Sisters is among the saddest ghost stories ever filmed. If that is indeed what it is. With a few key exceptions the ghost at the center of the film (and just who is the ghost at the center of the film?) is not seen as an aggressive force as a mournful one. The stain of an event that cannot be erased, the result of an act of negligence that is almost unimaginably cruel.

A Tale Of Two Sisters opens with the titular pair coming to their family’s new home after one of the sisters has had a prolonged stay in an asylum. Things are odd at their new country home, their Father is remote and withdrawn, their step mother, if not wicked is at least overly ingratiating and while the estate itself at first seems down right idyllicly pastoral there is a presence in the house that both girls sense. You probably have at least some idea where this is going.

And indeed the biggest flaw of A Tale Of Two Sisters is how it holds together as a narrative. At its most convoluted A Tale Of Two Sisters resembles the serial killer movie that Donald Kaufman pitched in Adaptation. The tortuous plotting only some what ameliorated by the fact that Kim leaves certain things, if not ambiguous, than at least open to interpretation. (Though one interesting thing is that the one interpretation that is perhaps the most natural, that it is all in the protagonist’s mind, is also the only one that Ji-Woon explicitly rules out. In the films most famous scene, the most uncomfortable dinner party this side  of The Exterminating Angel, Ji-Woon brings in the only two characters in the film who are outside of the family seemingly for no other reason than to specifically invalidate this interpretation. It’s clear that there is at least some sort of supernatural presence in the film, to me the real question is how many.)

Where Ji-Woon truly excels is in the layer of dread he brings to the film, the heightened emotional intensity, and the aggression of its imagery. While the film is obviously Korean, it was made at the end cycle of The J-Horror boom, and seems to be at the very least commenting on the imagery found therein, faces of principles and spirits alike hidden by dank curtains of hair, unsettling artifacts, scenes punctuated by pregnant knowing silences. It’s all familiar but given an aggressive spin, as when the standard lank haired Japanese spirit approaches one of the sisters in her bed, a fairly typical set up though rarely this well done, then straddles and begins to menstruate over her. This before a hand bursts from a place that hands don’t usually burst from. It’s the type of scene that makes you go, “Oh yeah I’m watching a Korean new wave movie,” and A Tale Of Two Sisters has more than a few.

Though Chan Wook Park has established himself as the leading voice of the Korean New Wave, Kim Ji-Woon is probably my favorite. I still consider his Bittersweet Life to be one of the most underrated films of the movement, a hard as nails utterly gorgeous action film, and the greatness of his The Good, The Bad And The Weird, and I Saw The Devil hardly need to be rehashed here (though I will admit I have no idea what to make of his upcoming Arnold Schwarzennegger Verus Truckulese American Debut).

To me the exciting  about the film isn’t their unity but their diversity. Aside from a preternatural visual skill what links them is their willingness to juke formula, to take familiar forms and turn them on their head. Making them lively and dangerous. A Tale Of Two Sisters takes the ghost story, one as old as any (it has roots in a centuries old Korean folk tale) and twists it into something that feels poisonous and dangerous.  It is a film that feels haunted.