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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Last

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

“It is Finished,” he said –

MATCH CUTS: In looking back at the past decade, I think it’s both ironic and somewhat amazing my favorite film came out in the very first year, and was the only film by its director to be released in this time span. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi just represents everything I love about the movies. It’s subtle, complex, astute to human interactions and shifts in personality, and complete adept at capturing moments of transition, something Western films don’t always pay attention to.
THE FILMIST: I first saw Yi Yi a couple of weeks ago, after hearing quite a lot about it. It’s certainly something to consider, I think – a three hour familial epic that does something that very films have done before on such a scale, and that is: it makes an effort to represent to the full the true nature of family in a modern context, with a great emphasis on sound. It’s very much the type of film that Sam Mendes has always tried to make, but could never quite grasp.
M: For sure. It all begins in the opening moments at the wedding when the ambient sounds of laughter, birds in the park, children at play, and also the ex-girlfriend screaming at the bride’s family. I think you point about the sound design really speaks to the multiple layers that Yang is working with, the way he overlaps dialogue with the sounds of the street traffic, also how he shoots scenes from afar. This is what I respect most about Yang as a filmmaker, the space he gives his characters to interact. Sometimes all we are left with is the soft sound of their dialogue, and their bodies in the distance.
F: That opening sequence is great – the kids sneaking out the wedding with their father to go to McDonalds. It’s a subtle, humorous sequence that really hints at some of the universality of the story – even in China, kids who prefer McDonalds to formally prepared food aren’t unique. Which is one of the great things about the film – Yang gives these characters room to move, something you hinted at up above, with his lingering long shots, that really allow the other parts of the film to come to light, in the moments where they’re not acting in lieu of the forward motion of the plot.
M: Yes, this is a film about patience, both something the characters learn a great deal about and something inherent to Yang’s filmmaking style. It’s very rewarding watching Yi Yi develop as a film, slowly, gracefully moving forward, not because of plot points but because of character action. It’s a film that doesn’t rely on overt style or flash, but the deep seeded impression that you are watching the brilliant drama of everyday life.
F: It’s a film that has a very sociological air about it, filtered through the eye of a filmmaker. One of the things I noticed as I was watching it was that the long shots of the characters constantly have some form of interference between us and them – either they’re inside a coffee shop or somewhere similar, and we’re looking in on them, or their reflection is obscured in the glass of a window by the city outside. Close-ups are rare in the film, but when they occur, they have a real impact.
M: Or that scene between the daughter and her potential boyfriend that takes place under the freeway overpass in complete shadow, and the camera is across the street. Yes, The close-up is only used when necessary to the character’s realization that something will never be the same, like when NJ (the father) truly understands that his high school flame will never be his again. The close-up really becomes the final emphasis that life is full of moments of disappointment, but we must continue on.
F: Yes – and you know, I have to wonder if Yang Yang was supposed to be representative of the director, in some form or another. I mean, outside of the obviously shared surname. The young boy, fascinated by photography. He’s not really doing it for any artistic reasons, at first – but, he seems interested in the fact that people don’t know what the back of their heads look like. And, the close-up on NJ really seems to cap off the train of thought that’s been nagging at us about him, throughout the course of the film, that he’s not really living a life of his own measure. The wedding is the first time he’s questioned what it is he really wants in life, and it’s a bit too late for that.
M: Going back to Yang Yang, he really is the heart of the film. It’s his conflict that begins and ends the film, and his curiosity provides the brilliant improvisation involved in filmmaking and artistic endeavor. The ending of the film proves your point that he’s a fill in for the director, because for the first time a character is addressing the elephant in the room, that life inevitably leads to death and sometimes we can’t address it until we are ready. And when Yang Yang does finally talk to his grandma, he tells her why he waited, so he could figure out the importance of her death in his life. It’s one of my favorite endings in film history.
F: It’s a great ending, to be sure – it’s a shame Yang passed away before he had the chance to try and one up himself.
M: Even worse, most of his films are still unavailable in the West. Someone needs to fix this for sure.
F: Well, at the moment. But, I have an inkling that the Criterion Collection is going to be releasing most of them pretty soon, in a big box set. Don’t ask me how I know these things, because even I can’t explain it.
M: It’s a gigantic omission in the DVD world. Luckily I was able to see Yang’s four hour director’s cut of A Brighter Summer Day, and I can tell you it’s just as amazing a film, if not more ambitious.
F: I keep meaning to see that, but I’ve never been able to find a copy, outside of imports and those are a big hassle.
M: I had to travel up to Los Angeles at the LACMA. Pretty much the only way you’re going to see it. But this also adds to Yang’s mystique as a unique master. Yi Yi in particular proves the man is up there with Ozu, Hou, and Mizoguchi in terms of Asian filmmakers dealing with the everyday moments of life.
F: I agree – Yi Yi is very much his masterpiece, I think. It’s just such an honest film, both formally and thematically, that it really takes one up by the roots, after having seen it for the first time.
M: The main gripe against realist films is that who needs to watch real life when you can get that for free, but this film is about as exciting as films get, but in different ways that your typical action film. it’s brilliant at creating the emotional roller coaster of living through tragedy, happiness, and everything in between.
F: That’s always been a little silly, to me – film is such a wide medium, for both verisimilitude and the fantastical. In a lot of films, it’s by contrasting the two of those that some realization is struck upon, but they’re both important to the form. And, I have to wonder – would you place Yang in with Bahrani and Reichardt, as part of the new Neo-Realist aesthetic, or what?
M: I think he rests somewhere closer to Hou Hsiao-hsien. He’s dealing with universal themes as well as distinctly Asian themes, but that’s another discussion altogether.
F: For sure. So – and this is going to be a sloppy transition BUT – if Yi Yi is about family on an intimate, modern scale, then Children of Men is about the concept of family projected forward twenty years, into a post-apocalyptic context, where it has become an almost alien sort of thing. I first saw it the year of its release, down at the Angelika – and, it really is one of those films that leaves you dazed upon exit of the theater.
M: Yes, I remember leaving the theater stunned, not just by the virtuoso filmmaking, but the scope of the message. Cuaron seemed to have tapped into a revelatory way of approaching the apocalypse, by subverting the conventional tropes of Sci Fi and reassessing the themes of the genre, the distrust of authority, but also the distrust of the rebels on the flip side of the coin, equally responsible for the collective terror.
F: The treatment of the rebels is something that really got to me – in a way, it draws on a comparison I’ve always made when talking about the film, that of Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta.” That is, the graphic novel, not the film. I’ve always said that this should’ve been the model they used for that film. There’s a strong ambiguity to both sides, because on the one hand you have the authoritarian government trying to enforce some kind of order, however harsh, on a microcosmic world slowly dying, and on the other, there’s the rebels – who’ve lost their claim to the moral high ground, and become constantly distrustful. It’s from out of this chaos that the new world emerges in Kee and The Human Project – breaking that chain of self-destruction.  It may not seem like it ostensibly, but Children of Men is one of the most purely hopeful films that’s come around in a long time. And, in really sums up the theme of my ‘best of’ list, save for one or two films – of social revolution, something that is here represented on a personal and sacrificial level.
M: I think it speaks to Cuaron’s desire to paint the individual motivation for survival trumping the collective will for power and control. When you look at Kee’s situation, and Theo’s arc, it’s really all about the concise movement forward, the necessity of momentum. The plot is always driving forward because of the importance of action, the push to reach a point where the world has a hope of surviving. The character development, the incredible cinematography, it all feeds into reaching a certain locale, an emotional place as well as a physical one.
F: Exactly – it’s very much a road movie, like Cuaron’s other films, although it’s a bit less cynical than Y Tu Mama Tambien.
M: BUt unlike Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men is a genre film, multi genre at that, with a distinct outlook on the global perspective. The detail Cuaron creates in this world is nothing short of amazing, as his camera slyly picks up on signs, cars, advertisements, and soldiers resting on the fringes. It creates the world in a very dynamic way. It combines our current climate with a nightmare scenario of the future, but there is still a sense of everyday life marching on toward the end. A very interesting dichotomy at work here.
F: This is very true – one of the amazing things about the film is the world it creates, every bit as immersive as the one found in James Cameron’s newest cash-cow, and it didn’t cost three hundred and fifty million. There is literally something happening everywhere, in every corner of the eye – new forms of advertisement, a new model of car here and there. But, it’s so subtly applied throughout the whole of the film that it really does feel like something strange and real, which is disconcerting when the more obvious signs of its future world begin to pop up. The politics, the science, those kinds of things – all contrasted slightly with a street-level world that hasn’t really made any sort of progression. If anything, it’s gone backward.
M: If not backward, it’s gone underground. I also wanted to mention the way Cuaron handles violence, how he also keeps death on the fringes or through quick movement. You get rapid glances at bullet wounds, limbs blown off, and it really feels like a war zone. The tension these sequences create is more palpable than any other film of the past decade. Like a bullet or rocket could penetrate any character at any time. Cuaron isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, making this cinematic world a very dangerous place.
F: Yes – and, it’s through Cuaron’s use of the Extreme Long Shot that gives it this sudden and visceral quality, I think. Following the characters through smoke and haze, chaos and fire – shots and shouts, seemingly without blinking. When something does penetrate the sides of the frame, the reactions it provokes come usually out of nowhere, even when we can see the shooter, as in the case of Julianne Moore’s death sequence.
M: That sequence in the car really is something, I know it’s been talked about endlessly, but to this day, it’s one of my favorite moments in a film. Just the way it goes from so playful to complete terror in a second. Really sums up Cuaron’s world in one moment.
F: Yes – it’s one of those film sequences that’s going to be talked about and studied for years when talking about the action genre and shooting techniques in general, right along with the first use of Steadicams in chase sequences and so on. It’s in the way that the camera just won’t cut away, won’t break the tension once its been raised up as high as it can go – and then, it ends quietly, on that shot of the two dead police officers lying in the road.
M: Yes, it’s the first sequence that sets the rules of the movie, what these people are capable of. The Cuaron holds on those dead officers, their brains spewed out on the ground, it’s letting the audience know what to expect going further. I always tell my students that you have to introduce the rules of the cinematic world, and this is the moment Cuaron does just that.
F: It’s also one of the first moments that hints at the coming ambiguity of Luke’s character, I think. That hold on two dead men –
M: It definitely shows Luke’s dark side, what he is capable of when pressed into violent action.  I also wanted to talk about Clive Owens’ performance, it often gets ignored in favor of the film’s brilliant aesthetics, but it reminds me of what the classic Hollywood actors were able to create with a stunning script and under calculated direction. His torment resides in the way his face retreats into uncertainty. This evolves throughout the film, until finally in the boat at the end, he seems completely at peace. Just a brilliant turn by Owen.
F: I concur (sips wine glass) – it ‘s a performance that seems steeped in remaining stony-faced, and unphased to all that might occur. But, everything starts to wear on him, as the film goes on, and he starts responding, finding himself startled out of his dead surroundings.
M: Absolutely, I think this film is indisputably one of the best in the past decade (on my HM’s list), and like Happy Feet, and 25th Hour, will only get more pertinent as the years pass.

***

This discussion appears a far bit shorter than our previous back and forths, to be sure – but, there’s a huge chunk that I’ve cut out that comes right after Glenn’s last word, where we  played lots of Tom Waits and talked about all kinds of things, from tap-dancing to the invention of the flying car – it’s all really very interesting stuff. You’d all like it, I’m certain. I’m Henry, he’s Glenn. And, these have been our favorite films of the past decade.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – The Epilogue

The Epilogue (and, “The Ten Rest of the Prestigious Best.”)

It’s been two and a half months, and yet it only seems like we’ve just started. But, everything must wind down, eventually. That’s the way of things – but, I think it’s all been worth something, and certainly a great experience. We’ve just charted ten whole years of cinema – something that doesn’t sound big, after the fact, but man. And, as mentioned in our respective introductions, for every film on our list, there are at least three others that could take their place – and, here they are. As with the big ten, they’re not ranked in terms of scale, and could be interchanged willfully, depending on the day of the week, or the weather.

11. PrimerShane Carruth

Shane Carruth’s film, made for $7000, marks him as an intriguing new voice in the sci-fi genre – a brilliantly low-key meditation on time-travel, within a framing that becomes so gradually non-linear that even the audience feels as if they’ve come unhinged in time, somewhere along the road; all compounded by Carruth’s use of digital photography, which contrasts the inherent verisimilitude it brings to the film with its mind-bending subject matter, creating something else entirely. As a fellow Texan, I give him a pump of the fist.

12. OnceJohn Carney

A low-key musical filmed on the streets of Dublin, John Karney of The Frames gives us a meeting of the minds framed on all sides through song – what initially begins as simple flirtation becomes something infinitely warmer and more soulful, and even truthful.

13. Wendy & Lucy Kelly Reichardt

A stunningly under-played un-dramatization of poverty whose  potency is increased ten-fold in the current climate, told in a lean fashion by Kelly Reichardt, without even the most minimal extravagance. Only Wendy and her dog, together and apart, again and again.

14. Goodbye SoloRamin  Bahrani

The third film from Ramin Bahrani may be his very best, so far – continuing his exploration of the working classes, the immigrant in America, and the temporary, fleeting relationships that spark up between people, and their evolution. He charts the two of them through subtly long takes, and the natural quietude of their conversations, and their eyes – Red’s old and sad, Solo’s constantly alight. And, while the title of the film is never spoken, it informs every word.


15. Wall-EAndrew Stanton

Pixar’s environmental fable first takes us back to cinema’s silent beginnings, and then into a future of brilliant light. Never one for convolution, WALL-E‘s strength is in its simplicity – in the love story through masterful pantomime and exaggeration, in the dazzling use of color and sound in a simultaneously foreboding and foretelling future, and – near the end of the film – in the redemption of the whole human race spawned from the heart of a Chaplin-esque robot and his unending devotion to EVE.

16. A Scanner Darkly – Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater gives us one of the only adaptations of Philip K. Dick to not veer unrecognizably from the source text, utilizing a more pared-down version of the same kind of expressionistic rotoscoping that that made Waking Life so interesting – a strange, surreal trip of disassociation and misidentification, through a shifting kaleidoscope of colors and the constant paranoia that comes from Substance D. But, don’t disregard it completely.

17. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford – Andrew Dominick

Well, Glenn sums this one up far better than I could have – and so, I will paraphrase him. This is a constantly and intensely lyrical deconstruction of American-Western iconography, from within the relationship between the ostensibly larger-than-life Jesse James and his number one fan. Dominick frames this story within forests, mountain rages and great, dirty faces. By the end, the film has become a tone-poem on that same thought illuminated on so clearly by Aaron Eckhart in my number ten, that of living long enough to see yourself become the villain.

18. Black Snake Moan – Craig Brewer

A eye-opening poster posed the main attraction for the film, but within its lurid trappings, Brewer’s keenly humanistic story of soulful resurrection takes advantage of doing the unexpected with its choice of actors – Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, and a Samuel L. Jackson who doesn’t once spout a catch-phrase the entire film. It remains completely earnest about these characters, and their plight, the entire way through, never trivializing their respective journeys, whether it be bluesy Lazarus’ and his coming to terms with his divorce, or Ray and her gradual awareness of her own sense of grace.

19. Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair – Quentin Tarantino

Lately, Quentin Tarantino’s fallen into a real slouch, with the violence in his films becoming meaningless, and trivial – with Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, he’s given himself over to schlock and excess completely. More power to him, I suppose. But, at least he managed to eke out these two before he went – a giant homage and pastiche to all those things he considers so holy, from kung-fu films and comic books to Seijun Sezuki’s Tokyo Drifter, with a great deal of respect and visual panache, informed through bright colors and bloody faces, and exaggeratedly violent bullet ballets.

20. Moon – Duncan Jones

David Bowie’s son gives us a film that works on us as slowly and methodically as the movement of the main character out on the surface of the moon, itself. Sam Rockwell gives one of the great performances of the year, playing against himself and the anti-HAL. Jones makes no qualms about veering off in a direction we hadn’t expected – what appeared at first to be a cryptic drawing-room mystery in space becomes a film about the question of identity, within a giant moon base that feels  familiar-yet-underused.

***

It has been my pleasure, and a real privilege, to do this thing with Glenn – a classier act you will not find, out there on the web. Couldn’t have done it by my lonesome. And, if any of you hated our selections – well, it was all his idea. His “rest of” can be found here.


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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Ninth

Over at his site, Glenn’s posted up the second-to-last of our round-table discussions, concerning The New World and There Will Be Blood. It can be found hurr.

There now remains but one more, ladies.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #1: Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

It’s been a relatively uneventful train ride – quiet, save for the droning on of the TVs up on the ceiling. And, then – a rock cracks against the windowpane, and another and another. He bolts upright, looks outside. Shanty-towners, coming out of their hovels culled from the old boxcars, strewn with graffiti. There’s one that catches his eye, particularly – all in red: “The Last One To Die – Please Turn Out The Light.”

So, we’ve done it – the two of us. After two and a half months, we’ve finally hit number one. This is it. The big one – the final, full entry in this most prestigious series of essays between Glenn Heath and myself. It’s astounding to think that it’s been two and a half months, already. I just can’t get over that, mang – it’s a real trip. While there’s still two more discussions and a ‘respectable rest of the very best’ post to go until all is put to pat and proper, I think this may also be the time to admit that this is the last you readers will see of me. After this, I depart for far seas in January, first for China and then onward to the Himalayas, to live as a mountain man for two years. Well, no – not really. But, I had you going there for a second. This being the last of these posts may also explain it’s lateness, by a day or two – that I just can’t bare to part with it, and all that.

Alfonso Cuaron is a director whose work has always intrigued me – one of those three Spanish directors who rose to prominence in the nineties, in tandem with Guillermo Del Toro and that other fellow whose name escapes me at the moment. With stuff like 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, he’s shown himself someone distinctly focused on the relationships of traveling journeymen three in number, something that, among other things, was carried over into his adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter novel, Prisoner of Azkaban – which is, coincidently, the only entry in that series that I can really stomach watching. In his most recent, Children of Men, there are again three travelers, for most of the film, making their way through a dense and cluttered world entirely within its own context – but, this is the film that provides the best example of the director’s raw talent, something that seems to remain understated in his previous films. This is a film that, hell – to use an old fashioned tried-and-true cliche, is a real ‘tour-de-force.’

Children of Men is actually adapted from one of P.D. James’ shorter novels, one of few that she’s done that hasn’t been a detective story, and it may be one of the best examples of what a director can do to really make an adaptation their own work, using its relatively sparse-in-length source material as a jumping off point in the same way that Spielberg and Kubrick did with Aldiss’ “Super Toys Last All Summer Long,” placing us in the context of some future date and enveloping us so convincingly within it that we’re oftentimes left dumbstruck, and cringing at the state of things. Cuaron does Spielberg one better, though – he astounds, with his truly immersive vision of 2027, and while the phrase ‘a world in turmoil’ is one often used, it can find no more succinct a home than here.

The title of the film comes from a passage in Psalms, that runs something like “thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men,” which is a quote that does very much seem to sum up the social context of the film that we’ve arrived at. And truly, this is very much a spiritual film, with many not shying away from calling it a modern-day Nativity Story for our times. which is a very accurate definition, I think – the story emerges as one of societal rebirth, and with the presence of the baby always marked by the crossing of the chest. Near the end of the film, its cry is enough to lull the gunfire, if only for a minute. Hands outstretch for it as she’s carried by. And, in the background, musical accompaniment by John Tavener, subtly reinforcing this spiritual subtext through repetition of Latin verse and chants, and great choral sounds.

Our induction into this projected world of twenty years later is slow and gradual, so slow that, in the first ten minutes, when we hear or see something that makes the context of the story explicitly obvious to us, it’s very much like a cold slap of water on the cheek – for the first few minutes of the film, we follow Theo as he learns that the youngest person on the planet – at eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours and eight minutes old – at  has recently been killed in a riot of his own cause. There’s nothing too conspicuous about our first initial site of London in 2028 – the streets are grayer, and the display screens on the side of the buildings are bigger. Out of nowhere, the shop Theo’s just left explodes outward, and there is no sense, for a minute. Smoke, screams. Noise. The giant display screens shatter into darkness. And, the camera tracks forward onto a dim, bloody silhouette emerging from the clouds –

The future world that Cuaron sets up is, like that found in McCarthy’s (or Hillcoat’s, since we’re in the land of filmdom) The Road or Miller’s Mad Max films, something rapidly degenerative, somewhere nearing the brink of the pit. In contrast to something like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, there’s very little revolutionary technology or any of that apparent, only things left behind – things used up and discarded. The extent we see of our twenty year’s progress is a newer model of a car, here and there, and perhaps some new mode of advertising projected onto the side of a building, somewhere. But, it’s obvious that science and medicine have, on the whole, failed to resuscitate us, and everywhere Cauron’s subtle camera turns, there’s some vestige of steadily-boiling unrest – from the quieter signatures of The Human Project on the walls to the various politico-terrorist groups and factions, hiding out in the woods – that seems to finally come to a head at the end of the film, as everything coalescences seemingly over night, and bursts out into the street; humanity seems very much to have resigned itself to its eventual end, something very much akin to the thought process behind James’ novel, which ran something akin to the notion that with no future, no better society to hope for, there is no real massive regard for compassion, or mercy.

Instead of any sort of progress, there’s just more of everything as it was, to such an extent that it’s begun to crowd the people inside of the city off from their own air supply – in one shot, near the beginning of the film, as Theo is being driven to The Ministry of Arts, he spots the residents of some gray, concrete-slab apartment building flinging their possessions out of their respective windows – and, down below, on the street, there’s barely room to move among the litter of human debris.  This weird, enveloping sense of initial hopelessness is embodied by Clive Owen’s Theo Faron, one of many bureaucrats that, despite what seems like the inevitable, impending doom of the world coming along at an accelerated pace, continues to put pen to paper, if only to have something to do until it’s all over. We’re told later in the film by his ex-wife that he used to have some real spirit in him – along with the rest of society, given the mention of protests with meat on their bones – even going so far as to invite several officers in for coffee, and spiking their drinks with LSD. Now, however – he’s a desk jockey. There is an occasional sense of something still lurking under the surface of his dogged eyes, in the form of his visits with Michael Caine’s character Jasper, but it never really passes his lips save for a wry smile in the back of a car. We’re informed even later on that he’d had a kid with Julian, who’d died in one of the various flu pandemics that had occurred in the film’s alternate history of 2009 – “he’d have been about your age,” Jasper tells Kee, at the end of the film’s first hour. “Beautiful child.”

Near the beginning of the film, Theo is picked right up off the street by a subset of the Fishes – a politico-revolutionary band of freedom fighters, or terrorists, raising their fists up for the rights of the waves upon waves of illegal immigrants pouring into the country, due to the constant state of civil war the rest of the world seems to be in, and the reactionary measures that have been taken to keep everything in some form of order. Leading the group is Julian Taylor, portrayed by – well, Julianne Moore. Quickly, we learn that the two of them were married, once before – as mentioned above, they even had a child together, whose death drove a gradual wedge between the two of them. She comes to him now with an offer, to be a courier to a young girl from one side of the country to the other – and, in this, one could very well make a comparison to John Ford’s Stagecoach, I suppose, although I won’t, at the moment – why, she doesn’t say; only that she’s a “fugee,” or a refugee. Theo’s aim is to get her to the boat christened appropriately the Tomorrow, sent by the Human Project, the “greatest minds in the world working for a new society.” But, why? As we come to know her at first, she’s a nervous girl covered in blankets, distrustful of Theo. It’s only later on in the film, when they’ve all reached their ranch in the fields with the loss of but one, that Theo realizes just ‘what’s at stake,’ and it’s here that the film’s almost neo-Biblical subtext starts to emerge, with, among other things, the reveal taking place inside a manger, among the animals: her belly pokes out from her body in a way that hasn’t been seen for eighteen years or more. She’s pregnant. “I’m scared,” she says.

Since Julian’s death in a scene just before, Luke – played by Chiwetel Ejiofar, whose name I will never try to type again – has made the bold decision to use the baby as a bolster for their political cause, something Theo overhears, skulking around. Waking the girl and the midwife up in the middle of the night, he absconds with them – and, from then on, the film follows the three of them from one end of the UK to the other, and finally out to sea, where jets shoot past overhead and toward the city in the distance, giving it its own final eulogy. The Human Project starts to become an almost mythical name at this point, something apart from the soiled and crowded surroundings presented to the characters, of evolution in the place of the eternal stagnancy that society seems locked into – and, its something indicative of the general cautious sense of optimism that pervades the film, from Kee’s reveal onward. She, or her baby, literally comes to represent the entire future of the human race, no bones about it. Even as characters are shot, dragged away and black bagged, Theo and Kee continue onward toward the sea, and everyone whose eyes meet the baby seems strangely affected by it. They smile, through dust-stained teeth – wide, and hard.

One of the things, but just one, that this film has become renowned for in the four years since its release is Cuaron’s inarguably innovative use of the camera as an almost interactive viewer in the story, nearly a participant. It’s not handheld, or documentary-esque in a literal sense, as would be the dictate – instead, it remains unblinking, and always, there is an emphasis on the constant long shot, especially in moments of great trauma or chaotic development. It is documentarian instead in its ‘you-are-there’ sense of reportage, and where other films would cut, sometimes as a necessity, this film follows its characters through the heat of the moment, and the crowds. And, most emblematic of Cuaron’s approach, and most often mentioned, are two scenes in particular, one inside a car and the other without, in a broken city at dawn. Such a thing pervades the film in a subtler fashion, as well – in scenes of prolonged discussions and even the birth of the savior-baby – but, these two seem to show it at it’s most powerful.

In the former, Cuaron incorporates this single shot technique from what seems like an impossible vantage point inside the car, following the group as they try to make their way to the insurrectionists camp/ranch in the country – the camera seeming to weave from the backseat to the front, from the passenger side to the driver’s seat, from looking forward to looking backward – as Julian regales the group with stories about Theo’s wild youth as a squatter, and a fiend to the police. Noise from up ahead on the road, suddenly – and, the camera’s moved up next to the dashboard now. There’s something moving down toward the road, something burning – it’s the hulk of a car’s remains, blocking off the road. All is frenzy. Great masses of people descend from the trees at both sides of the way, hurling rocks and bottles at the windows – chasing after car, as it pulls away in reverse. Two of them are on a motorcycle – Julian screams something about Kee, and there’s two quick shots, spidering the windshield. Her head rocks back in the seat – blood everywhere. Ringing in our ears, constantly – police vans shoot by. Miriam’s urging Luke to “just – go – faster!” And, then they pull over to the side of the road. Luke hops out of the car, and shoots the two roadside officers – urges Theo to “get back in the fucking car!” And, then the camera lingers for a moment on the bodies of the two patrolmen, lying in the road. Still.

It’s an absolutely breath-taking sequence, and all the more astonishing when you’ve learned just how it was accomplished, with the moving seats, and the dodging of the camera, and what not. And, the moment of reflection provided by the shot of the two policemen is just one of many in the film, something which can again be seen during Theo’s visit to his cousin Nigel’s Ark of the Arts exhibit, after the two of them argue quite genially about the preservation of art even after the pretty certain fate of all humanity ensues, and what worth would it all have, in the final calculation of things – we leave the scene lingering on the seemingly  knowing, smiling face of a sixteenth century man.

The other shot of mention moves us through the breaking point. The revolution that takes place near the end of the film seems to bare less resemblance to the iconic and primal, as depicted in something like Soderbergh’s Che, and more the dirty, the chaotic, and the bloody – what comes bares a lot of similarity to the Czechoslovakian and Ukrainian insurrections, as seen in the photos by National Geographic, and other similar magazines: all dirt, and dust, and people cradling the bodies of their loved ones on the side of the road, and the insurrectionists have lost any claim to the moral high ground. Buildings are pitted by bombshells, and there’s a facile effort made by some to hide in shanty dug-out train cabins. Through this, Theo and Kee run with baby in tow, hither and yon without any real place of safety –  constant noise, and confusion. The effect is something disorienting, as the two lose track of each other, and Kee is dragged off by Luke into the building off at the far end of the road. As he goes to retrieve her, he finds Luke, resting in the crevice beside an open window – “you forget how beautiful they are,” Luke tells him, before blasting his gun down at the soldiers below.

As the two of them come down the stairs, silence overtakes London – soldiers, homeless squatters, all seem absolutely blindsided. In awe of the young girl in her mother’s arms. Chests are crossed – and, for the first time in a while, those grim faces are smiling. Only for a moment, however – before the fighting suddenly resumes. The two make their way to a dinghy, and out onto the sea, where the Human Project’s boat should be arriving any second now – and, it does, just as Theo slumps over. His last word is “Jesus!”

The boat approaches up out of the mist, and Kee tells her baby, “it’s going to be okay.”

And, it is.

***

There are, astonishingly, very few essays or what-have-you’s available on the film around the web, from a general and cursory glance. It’s – just shocking, really.

Glenn’s final entry, Edward Yang’s 2001 masterpiece Yi Yi,  can – sniff, sob – be found here.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Eighth

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

MATCH CUTS: I discovered Mulholland Dr. the weekend it came out, I was 20 years old, and visibly shaken after the screening. It was one of the first films where I was completely taken with the “feeling” of the film, even if the narrative itself wasn’t clear. This feeling got under my skin like no other film, and it’s only gotten more pronounced with the passing years. It’s something about Lynch’s cutting indictment of Hollywood, the abuses, compromises, and the manipulation. It’s the best horror film of the last twenty years, and it’s because there is so much left up to the viewer.
THE FILMIST: I saw Mullholland Dr. only recently – which is strange, because it’s one of his most well-received films of that last fifteen or twenty years. And, I think it does the film kind of a disservice to talk about it in terms of narrative or plot, even though there is one, of sorts, because – as you mentioned – this is a film that seems to deal in the evocation of certain emotions that burrow themselves up deep in your veins, festering and brooding, and it’s only later when we start to search for the ‘method behind the madness,’ if I can go ahead and use a cliche’. I described The Fall as a ‘fever dream,’ and I think that label fits this film to a ‘t,’ as well – but, it’s something more urbane, something more harsh.
M: Well, this is a fever nightmare, and absolutely devastating when you think about the degeneration of hope, connection, and trust, and this film is not about narrative at all, but the construction of mood from the ground up. The shadows really come to mind, and the music, how it supports the menacing glances of the actors. Everything stems from this desire to provoke emotion, provoke a reaction from the disjointed collection of horrific moments.
F: I think what springs to mind immediately is the beginning of the film, which is almost a series of completely disjointed images – the dancing crowd, the faces, the quick, loud flashes of noise and light during the car ride. There’s no real logical sense to it ostensibly, like most of Lynch’s more experimental works, but – it’s driving at something, what we’re not sure of, but we can feel it in our throats.
M: I’ve heard theories that it’s the jitterbug contest Betty supposedly won, but it really doesn’t do it any justice to try and explain anything. It’s the fact that Lynch is giving us these images that are supposed to be positive, or at least jovial and safe, but driving this intense darkness into them, the overlap of the images, the diabolical movement of the bodies and faces. Then, the darkness of the shot behind the limo. You’re right, Lynch is leading us somewhere very disturbing.
F: And, then there’s this whole business with a ‘blue key,’ behind everything else. What are your thoughts on this particular element of the film, hoss?
M: Well, I’d venture a guess that the key unlocks the darkness of reality. The first half really promotes this connection between Rita and Betty, and that key really reveals the flip side of the dream, the nightmare where Betty turns into this downtrodden waitress, envious, unsuccessful, and completely self destructive. But the film is all about identity, and much like Inland Empire, this film shows how Hollywood deconstructs identity, changes it for it’s own good, for it’s own profit, which is the ultimate destruction of human complexity. It breaks a person down to the surface, something that can be manipulated forever.
F: Quite so – you know, one of the most interesting interpretations of the film I’ve read so far is that the stories of Rita and Betty take place in parallel universes that just kind of intersect and bounce off of each other, every so often – but then, I suppose that’s as likely as the whole film just being one big dream sequence is.
M: And it’s great that the film doesn’t limit this approach to Betty and Rita, and the feeling is like an infection rampaging through Hollywood in general, tainting the director especially. THis film is the epitome of mood.
F: Yes, indeed – I’ve also heard the same thing applied to Diane and Betty, as well, and Diane and Carmilla. It’s like an ever-moving kaleidoscope of potential relationships and reflections, through colors and shadow.
M: The film is a revolving mirror, just like you said, but it changes with each viewing, which is very unique in film these days. Sometimes I really connect with Betty (the obvious choice), but at other times I see the pain in the supporting characters’ eyes, or the true evil in the Cowboy’s facial expression. It kind of depends on what mood you the viewer are in.
F: In the great pantheon of modern filmmakers, Lynch seems kind of like an impish trickster god of some kind, constantly dizzying us with his own unique brand of mysticism. With this film, he seems to have done so even in regards to his actors and actresses – when you read interviews with them, Naomi Watts, Melissa George, and everybody else, it’s obvious that the film appears as willfully obtuse to them as it does to us. And, perhaps that’s the great indicator that this isn’t just a collection of cheap parlor tricks, but a genuine experiment. Lynch laughs like a madman, above everyone else.
M: Yeah, Lynch is always working toward unearthing something awful within the mundane, like the brutal murders in Twin Peaks. But with Mulholland Dr., his target is the very art of performance, the very core of Hollywood’s power. So the terror resides in popular trends, shifts in consciousness, manipulations of imagery, something that the folks of Twin Peaks might see at the drive in. But there’s a direct connection between the two, and it’s in the human nature that Lynch is dissecting, that something evil is just around the corner (like the bum outside of Winkies), or just beyond the shadow (Cowboy).
F: Yes, indeed.
M: It’s what makes him such an interesting director. The fact that he takes his love for Classical Hollywood Cinema, and slices it to pieces with this unnerving twist of the screws. There are certain scenes in Mulholland Dr. that freak me out every time, like the “There is no Band” moment. That everything we enjoy in life, including actual relationships, might just be an act. A facade for disappointment, for horror, for all the elements we can’t bring ourselves to stare right in the face.
F: Exactly. His is a filmography of disillusionment revealed under the coverlet of our day-to-day existence – which is, by itself, a scary train of thought; his films are, in the best way, like those people on the bus who believe that our modern culture, our relationships to each other, even our own personalities, have no meaning – which is a notion that just frightens the bejesus out of me, for some reason or another. Although, you know what this film reminded me of, the first time I sat down and watched it? It wasn’t “Twin Peaks,” despite the strong relationship between the two both on a trivial level (with this film’s intended origin as a TV pilot, and so on) and on a narrative level – but, “Wild Palms,” that early 1990’s TV Show with Jim Belushi, what with the criticism you’d brought up against Hollywood and the media, and the imagery feeling strikingly similar.
M: I haven’t see that, but it’s definitely apparent here. I also find it really disturbing when Betty/Diane envisions the old people as small ants, laughing maniacally and dancing, which invariably drive her to shoot herself.
F: Frightening stuff.
M: A lot of people around the Web have been talking Watts’ performance up as possibly the best of the decade. i’d agree with that since she is equal parts snake and lamb, innocent and aggressor, hers is such a layered incarnation of pain and anguish, but also hope and unrequited love. To be able to achieve those polar opposites in a performance is amazing.
F:: Indeed it is – I wish she’d done more stuff working on this level, because she pulls it off here with considerable aplomb.
M: I’ll admit that this film is tough to write about, but watching it again for this project, it reminded me what brilliant filmmaking represents, guiding the viewer down a corridor of emotions, a tunnel of possibilities. Modern films tend to force us to look a certain direction, but Lynch opens doors for the viewer, into all these different, terrible, beautiful places.
F: It’s an intriguing film, certainly – and, it’s got its own reserved spot on my epilogue post, after all these machinations are finished.
M: Excellent, why don’t you lead us to a much more happier place with your selection.
F: Indubitably. When Happy Feet was first released, I had no real inkling of what it was about, and no real interest in it until I’d noticed George Miller’s name down below – you can chalk this up to the intentionally misleading ad campaign, which really was quite bad, as many others have written about. But, the finished film was anything but – Miller’s taken what is an essentially throw-pillow concept and found a way to take it for all of its potential resonance, turning it into something societal, something epic and spanning. It’s something much in the same mythological vane of his previous films, especially the second and third Mad Max movies, and Babe 2 – and, astonishingly, he’s found a way to make a dancing penguin not look completely and unintentionally silly. That alone is an amazing feat, I’m sure you’ll agree.

M: Absolutely, I completely dismissed this film when it was released, but caught up with it on DVD. I remember watching it three times in one weekend, having been blown away. It’s one of the few films that poses questions within a children’s narrative, about the world, the environment, the future of this planet, these grand questions that kids and adults alike need to consider.

F: Yes – viewing it as a children’s film, Miller seems to have returned to what was the true intent of that particular genre of film, not of a movie that leaves a stagnant impression on a young viewer, but one that grows with him or her, whose implications become gradually more and more obvious as the viewer gets older, much like Don Bluth’s initial Land Before Time film, or any of those other considerably morally complex animated fables of the seventies and eighties. It’s a shame that that we hadn’t the opportunity to compare and contrast the film with Pixar’s WALL-E, a couple of weeks back. That would’ve been interesting, I think.

M: It respects the viewer, both young and old. It’s essentially an origin story about a savior, but it’s an ideology born of joy, dance, and subversion, something that keen adults really respond to.
F: It’s interesting you mention the ‘savior’ aspect of the story, because that’s one I’ve heard a lot about, of late – Davey Morrison, a writer for The Examiner whose followed our respective posts and discussions from start to finish, wrote a paper on the film just recently examining it from that same angle, comparing the overall arc of story and Mumble’s character to The Pharisees and Jesus, and all of that. It’s an interesting take, one I can agree with in the context of the film’s focus on the religious aspect of the penguins, and it’s even more interesting when one looks and sees that there are even some people who’ve gone in the completely opposite direction, seeing the main character as a sort of “atheist maverick for our times,” to quote The New Statesman.
M: It’s an angle I haven’t really address in my own writing about the film. I’ve focused more intently on the use of landscape in the film, and the juxtaposition of the natural order of things with the chaotic clutter of the human world. But Miller seems to grasp genre here better than any of this other films. I teach this film for my Film Analysis class because it contains every major genre, representing the musical obviously, but the romance picture, the action film, the adventure, and even elements of Horror, most notably the Zoo sequence, which is just damning from so many angles.
F: And, it ties them together so cogently that there’s barely a hair over-turned. It’s interesting how well Miller’s kinetic shooting style seems to lend itself to the musical form – outside of the film’s true-blue chase sequences, the Boogie Wonderland scene that marks the midpoint of the film, the ‘contact’ sequence near the end, and so on, all really extend the same kind of focus on rhythm and lyricism that was at the center of his Mad Max films. Or, the first two, at least. Speaking of juxtapositions, Miller’s reflective use of tone in the film deserves mention, as well – moving from light-hearted into the mythological, and so on. What were your thoughts on it?
M: It balances all of the things you mentioned, so well that it seamlessly becomes this incredible synergy of genres. But I’ve always flocked to Miller’s use of sky, mountains, snow, sand, all the elemental aspects of this film and Mad Max, and Babe 2. How often does the light blue sky frame Miller’s heroes? He has a wonderful grasp on the connection between environment and character.
F: In this film more than the others, I think, because the environment seems to actually become a character in the film – much like the use of the desert in the third Mad Max film, and in the second to a somewhat lesser extent. Or, if not a character, then a reflection of the characters, themselves – subtle clouds in foreboding moment of sorrow, golden hues in moments of awe at the ships down below.
M: Yes, and when they crash against each other, like in the moment when Mumble and the Amigos try and cross the tundra, the wind blowing them backward, it’s just a virtuoso moment, and the film is chalk full of them.
F: That’s probably my favorite scene in the film, more than the ‘contact’ sequence or the zoo scene, or the Huddle near the beginning – because, really, when you get right down to it, it’s a battle to move from the left to the right of the screen, complicated by the machinations of the wind and blizzard around them. It’s one of those scenes where Miller’s mythic intent becomes obvious, in the best way, I think.
M: I also adore the moment after they’ve skied down the slope, caused the avalanche, and Mumble is under water, and he sees the gigantic Tractor sinking to the bottom of the ocean, disappearing into the darkness. He knows something is wrong, and it’s the instinct that drives Mumble. To change it.
F: That’s one of the best examples in the film of Miller’s creative use of tone, I think. One of the things I found so fascinating about the film, and it’s one of the reasons why I like to think of it as Watership Down‘s spiritual brethren, is that there’s an almost anthropological attention to detail given in sketching out the culture of these penguins. It’s very stark, and imperative, I think.
M: It’s wonderful that the film ends with this wave of dancing penguins, this complete glorious celebration of the cycle of life. You can’t help but root for a film like that.
F: Oh, certainly – Miller’s a great follower of Jung and Campbell, all of those cats, and I don’t think I’ve seen a better example of the ‘Reconciliation of the Two Worlds’ stage than that final moment, following immediately after the dreamlike montage of the world’s response – beautiful stuff. It’s intriguing to think of where he might end up going with a sequel, which has been in production for several months, by now.
M: Ha. that’s what I was just thinking. I can’t wait to see how he continues the saga. I mean what “conflict” could be more crucial than the continuation of nature.?
F: Well, I hang out at a lot of French film forums, and all of that. They’re all great admirers of the film over there, and some of the ideas they were tossing around were things I wouldn’t mind seeing – some kind of investigation into the implications left at the end of the film between Mumble and the Elders; perhaps some kind of giant, mass penguin exodus; or, more intriguingly, a resuscitation of the dead ‘penguin alien’ plotpoint they cut out of this first film at the last minute.
M: It will be great to see an expansion of the visuals as well. Something maybe the advances in technology could help achieve. I love that Miller is getting creative freedom.
F:This may turn out to be his most prolific period as a filmmaker yet – certainly his most productive in a long while.

***

The poster for Happy Feet was created by designer Anton Ville, who worked on the film as a concept artist. A disclaimer so I don’t get sued, or anything.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #2: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Silence, for a moment – before a great, black liquid jet seems to burst forth from the ground, like a blood vessel being nicked, here and there mixed with small bits of flame and smoke. It pitters down in droplets onto the men below. The one over to the side is laughing, and clasping hands – they’re rich. He’s rich.

Paul Thomas Anderson has an unfortunate name – always with the constant risk of being confused with that English schlock-meister with the same surname. Yet, it’s a minor confusion – where the latter seemed to take all of his inspiration from Roger Corman and co., P.T.A. seems to have aspired to be every great American seventies director at once – and, since 1996’s Hard Eight, his films have shown him to be progressing steadily on his road toward that goal. There is the mark of influence from all of those oft-repeated names throughout his filmography – the Altman’s, the Scorsese’s, the Kubrick’s and so on – and yet, it’s as with all examples of great osmosis: from these, something new has emerged, almost completely and fully formed. His most recent film seems to be a deliberate departure in environment from his earlier films – in contrast to the urbs and the suburbs of a Punch Drunk Love or a Boogie Nights, this is a film that takes place out in the quiet wilderness of Texas in the early 1900’s. It also seems to be his most wide-spanning and “epic,” a character study interspersed through landscapes and textures. Facial hair and redness of the cheeks on grizzled old men that remind one of something from a Sergio Leone film. A lot of people have called this his tribute to Altman, but I disagree – if we’re going to be as mundane as that, then I think this is a film that bares more resemblance to Kubrick than anyone else. But, to discuss his influences in this particular way is pretty superficial, I think – what flavor is the meat on the bones?

The film begins in 1898, in the dark, with a man grinding away at bare rock with a pick-axe. There are grunts of weariness, and sighs of relief – but, no words. Not for the first fifteen minutes. Behind everything, Johnny Greenwood’s almost anxious, unsettlingly focused string-score beings to build to its crescendo – the man has struck silver, down here. For a moment, there is triumph – and, then he falls. And, his leg cracks – this is Daniel Plainview, dirt-stained and wide-eyed. Though he’s unaware of it, he’s just began the long cycle of repetition that winds itself, throughout the film. Of his momentary triumphs, always – always – followed by great disaster, and isolation, and personal degradation. There is no sound for nine years – until 1907, and the first words we hear are “Ladies and gentlemen,” almost a sly wink from Anderson in lieu to his formalist showmanship that’s apparent in all of his films, but especially here. Plainview is a big-time oil-man now, explaining his pitch to a skeptical audience – and, these sequences reiterate what seems to be Anderson’s focus in the film, a lonely, isolated mise-en-scene. Plainview is shot with either his face closed up by the borders of the frame, with the voices of the townspeople filtering in from the outside, or he is joined by H.W. beside him, and that only until the midpoint of the film – when he’s left, Plainview has no one to share the frame with, and that’s when his trouble really starts, I think.

The film’s origin point seems to have been Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, although by the time the finished film has found its way in front of us, very little of the novel’s characters or plot remains – instead, there is the core story here, of the descent into hell of a self-made oil tycoon, something that I’m quite sure Sinclair would be pretty happy with. At the center of the film is, of course, Daniel Plainview – as portrayed by Day-Lewis – now less a toiler than he who we first met at the beginning of the film; an oil-prospector with a John Huston-esque voice that pours rum-thick from the bottom of his throat, with a note to it that seems just a little too insincere for common comfort. Initially, while there is a bit of the cruelty of the businessman about him, especially in the first inklings of his prolonged cat-fight with Eli, he appears relatively restrained – while it’s obvious that he cares not a thing about any of these people, epitomized by his line early on in the film that he “doesn’t need to look past seeing them to get what he needs,” he is at least putting on a face for them, and for his adopted son, H.W.,  although he’s more sincere and intimate with the latter than the former. Slowly, cracks and fissures begin to form, first through his attack on Eli, and then larger. In one of his only real moments of plain frankness, at one point, he finds himself confessing to his would-be brother during a night in the woods around the fire, that he “has a competition in himself,” and that he “hates most people.” And, one of the great questions about this film, and this character, is – whether or not he begins his long train of descent into the maelstrom after his son’s accident, or whether he’d always been the same kind of monster we see him become later in the film – and, for my part, I think it’s really only with his son that he has any sort of real connection to anybody, and he’s the only child in the film that Plainview seems to see as more than a commodity, although he does serve that function more than once in the course of the film, serving to reiterate the “common values” that Plainview shares with the townspeople. He seems to have a genuine care for the boy, although their relationship seems like less of a nurturing father and a son than a businessman to an apprentice – and, by the end of the film, not even that. This is most obvious in the sequence recounting H.W.’s accident, and the explosion of the derrick – Plainview’s first thought is of the boy, rushing as fast as he can to pull him down, and away from the fire to come.

But, it’s greed that seems to fester and convalesce over Daniel, like a sickness – after sending H.W. away to San Fransisco, he begins to snowball farther and farther downward, losing touch with those around him. He comes upon Eli, who asks for the money he’d promised to his church – and, knocks him down, physically dragging him into the mud, browning his face with sludge. “Well, aren’t you a healer?!” he asks. “When are you coming over to make my son hear again?” He shoves mud in his mouth, and tells him that he’s “going to bury him under ground” – later, he out-and-out murders the impostor claiming to be his brother in the forest and hides his body under the soil. All the while, his small empire gradually begins to build itself – everywhere, in sequences backed by pieces of score that remind one not a little of the sharp, progressive string tones of the 1920’s. It’s when H.W. returns that his seeming regression is placed into stark focus, in the scene at the cafe. Plainview’s chin is covered in two-day old stubble. His face is redder, and ruddier than usual. But, he has his boy back beside him, and for a moment or two there’s a glimpse of humane emotion poking out beneath the cold, slick surface layers. Several of his associates enter the cafe’, and take a seat just opposite him. And, after hearing them mention his name and give him a glance one or twice, he saunters over to their table – his limp that he gathered in the first scene of the film implicitly made more obvious here – and lurches downward, at face level. And, he can’t seem to manage his words – they all come dribbling out like a drink from a man whose drank just a little too much; he’s become a spectacle to the rest of the restaurant’s patrons. “You — look like a ffffffooool,” he manages outward, and that’s the best he can manage.

The John Huston influence on Plainview’s personality, and the film itself, seems well-stated, as well as Edward Doheny, on whom Sinclair’s original novel was based – this is a film that is, among other things, a harsh criticism of capitalism, and its relationship to a particular brand of religious faith, embodied by the holy roller minister, Eli Sunday. Two things that should, ideally, be diametrically opposed, and when brought too close together, seem to infect and entangle themselves in each other’s woes. This is played in many fashions, throughout the film – with Eli’s congregation being placed at one end of the town, and Plainview’s oil offices at the other. Or, one could even see it as a battle between the evangelists of two faiths, if one so chose – that of god and that of Mammon. They seem to recognize in each other something of the same – Eli perking up almost immediately at Plainview’s mention of buying the farm, demanding more than his initial offer, with an eye on one-upping him. After Plainview’s first physical attack on him, he goes even so far as to leap over the dinner table and attack his father – “it was your stupid son, Paul, who led him here. … stupid father to a stupid son,” he says, repeatedly, still caked with mud. Eli Sunday comes by way of Paul Dano, and his is as much a ground-up characterization as Plainview’s, in smaller amounts. An awkward, girlishly shrieking snake-oil salesmen behind the guise of a minister, and a self-convinced prophet. Anderson originally envisioned  the character as a young boy of twelve or thirteen, and that element of his composition still seems to linger around him – there’s something about him that seems so oddly childlike, behind the eyes. And, yet – so alive and aware, in the worst way; his manipulations are almost as far reaching as Daniel’s, through the townspeople. And, what’s more, he seems to be every gangly, wee-voiced guy you knew from high-school, rolled into one.

Anderson’s films have been compared favorably to Kubrick’s before for their constant emphasis on tracking shots and almost artificial silences dropping throughout conversations, in between sentences – particularly in the case of Punch-Drunk Love; and here, that’s a comparison well-earned, as Anderson moves his camera out into the parched country-side of rural America in the early twentieth century. And, this is a film defined by the pervasive artificiality of it’s two figureheads – Eli and Plainview – who seem to circle and bat at each other throughout the community, whose true colors only seem to emerge when engaged in turmoils or violence of some kind or another, either against themselves or each other. But, Anderson’s Steadicam isn’t as intensely focused as Kubrick’s – never attached to one character, wondering off as they seem to see fit. It seems to become a character in itself throughout the film, with Eli at one point casting it out of his holy-roller church. This seems very much in line with the film’s gradually emerging theme of the emergence of the twentieth century up to date and with a vengeance, and it’s effect on the town – this gradual reticence expressed by Eli toward the camera, and technology in general, will dissipate, quickly enough.

Long sequences, composed with the rhythm of a metronome, tracking Plainview’s parallel success and loss – through ambient silence and constant, harried commotion, the two of them seeming to alternate at Anderson’s will. The most interesting of these being the one spanning a day and a night, where H.W. loses his hearing – Anderson utilizes sounds and lack thereof astoundingly in this scene, helped along by Greenwood’s pulsing score, which seems to reach it’s overall crescendo as night falls on the derrick – Plainview’s relationship with H.W. is put into stark focus here, as everything else revolves around the two of them, Plainview rushing toward the townhouse just outside the range of the derrick’s field. And then, he looks back outside, and the flames begin to intermingle with the oil, igniting it all in a constant, hellish blaze upward. After he’s laid the boy down on one of the small tables inside, he rushes back outward, cutting the derrick’s support cables – and Anderson follows the character into the next day, the oil still burning as hard as it ever had, taking down the whole of the derrick’s structure with it’s intensity. Dynamite is loaded into a barrel, and – with Plainview finally and completely alone in the frame’s focus – the top is blown off, cutting off the oil’s flow.

After a short stint away in San Fransisco, H.W. has returned – but, as mentioned previously, it isn’t the same as it was. He seems to recognize why his father sent him away, because of the potential liability he represented – and, his father, in his own way, seems to have acknowledged this, as well. H.W. returns once again as an adult, near the end of the film – now completely deaf, and almost without the ability to speak. He wishes to go to Mexico, and start up his own company with his wife, Mary – the little girl we’d seen him playing with earlier. To be away from him, and be back out into the fields. He means no ill will by this, something he constantly repeats. But, suddenly, his father’s vision of him seems to have switched, almost mechanically – he’s business competition, now. Harsh words, coming from a mouth that seems almost dulled with misuse – “why, you’re nothing but a bastard,” he says to him. “You have none of me in you, you realize.” It’s almost a reflex to him, at this point – but, his son seems wise to his new machinations. “I am glad I have none of you in me,” his interpretor translates.

The film’s last sequence finds Plainview subjecting Eli to the same humiliation and subjugation that he’d thrust upon him, earlier in the movie, during his repentance in the church. Plainview, now openly misanthropic and physically uncouth, wandering around as sweaty and unshaven as he was in the film’s initial prologue, constantly pulling from his glass of whiskey, rebukes Eli as he comes to him in an hour of need, telling him of the money he’d squandered while on the road with his new radio show, and of the depths he’d fell to. Perhaps Plainview might be able to broker a deal on the recently-deceased Mr. Bandy’s land. He makes Eli kneel before the heavens themselves and proclaim that he is “a false prophet, and god is a superstition!” repeatedly, louder and louder. And still, Plainview refuses to help him, instead opting to take this final opportunity to sink his teeth in – telling him that:

“Yes, it’s uh, it’s called drainage, Eli. See, I own everything around it, so of course, I get what’s underneath it…do you understand Eli, that’s more to the point, do you understand? I drink your water. I drink it up. Every day, I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract. You can sit down again. …. I did what your brother couldn’t, I broke you and I beat you. It was Paul told me about you, he’s the prophet, he’s the smart one. He knew what was there, he found me to take it out of the ground. You know what the funny thing is? Listen, listen, listen– I paid him $10,000 cash in hand, just like that. He has his own company now. Prosperous little business. Three wells producing $5000 a week. … DRAINAGE! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry, I’m so sorry. Here: if you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw, there it is, that’s the straw, see, watch it! My straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake: I – drink – your – milkshake!  I drink it up! Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli? I am the Third Revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen!”

And, then he chases him around the indoor-bowling alley, beating him to death with an old, scratched-up pin. He sits there, for a second – overcome, seemingly. And, then there’s a sound. His servant at the door – and, it’s here that the camera seems to finally move out into an objective focus of the man, seeing him surrounded by blood pooled on the alley floor, and the violence he’s created. He spits something onto the floor, and looks up at him.

“I’m finished!” He says.

***

Of the articles abound on the film around the infinite web, the ones I personally found the most interesting were Tom Charity’s look at the film over at Cinemascope, as well as Jamais Vu’s photo essay on the movie. There was also Lorenzo Wang’s (ha ha) analysis of the film, which is quite a read, as well.

Conversely, Glenn’s pick for #2, Terrance Malick’s beguiling The New World, can be found here.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Seventh

 


Over at his most impeccable blog, Glenn has posted up the seventh of our discussions, comparing and contrasting Tarsem’s The Fall and Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, that will just melt your eyes right out of your head  – if that’s your bag, you may, of course, find it right here.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #3: George Miller’s “Happy Feet.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

What’s that, up on the hill-top?

We’re coming down to the tail-end of this project, now. The big three – the chart-toppers, the blind-siders. And, coincidently, also the hardest three to write about. And, in the whole short history of this site, I don’t think there’s one film-maker I’ve written more about than Australia’s own Dr. George Miller. How do you even introduce the guy? Myself, I’m still not quite certain, as the following paragraph will no doubt reiterate. The last of cinema’s thoroughly modern myth-makers – those implicit, anthropological followers of Campbell and Jung, before George Lucas arrived and gunked up the works –  and a college lecturer on the indelible powers of those myths on our collectives psyches and their places in modern cinema, in his spare time. The single-handed spokesman for Australia’s burgeoning film industry, and their self-proclaimed answer to our own Steven Spielberg – although, that’s an arguable comparison, I think. Here is a director whose output has equaled one film in the past ten years – and, just one other film eight years before that; much like his contemporary Ridley Scott, his is a constant and laborious refining process, with the film here in question having taken the full eight years to fully realize. Of course, it probably didn’t help that after the production of Witches of Eastwick with Jon “hey, let’s have a giant mechanical spider in the third act” Peters, he’d been put of off Hollywood and directing in general for several years, only cautiously returning in the early nineties with Lorenzo’s Oil, but I digress. Within these films, despite the wide berth between their respective releases, there is one constant, underlying story, moving through different contexts, cultures and faces, out of thousands – whether man or penguin, woman or pig – conveyed through the ultimately humanitarian eye of a physician.

Happy Feet, like the Mad Max films and Babe: Pig In the City, begins with an expansive, mythological vision of a microcosmic world in the midst of great transition. The film begins quietly, in space, which will becomes a constant visual motif throughout the course of the film. A wide, vast cosmos is spread before us, like a shot from the Hubble – a nebula. And, in the middle of it, the faintest of familiar outlines – a mother penguin, her head bent down toward her young. At first, all we hear is the softest of voices behind the stars – a slow cover of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.” And, then we begin to descend – down toward the Earth, as the noise begins to build. The planet takes center frame, spinning until Antarctica is at the top.  And, it’s here, in these first thirty minutes, that the tone – or tones – of the film solidifies, constantly shifting from the serene and light-hearted into the sudden and potently mythological. From the parents of the main character Mumble meeting in a relatively bright unity of song, and into the huddle of the males in the harsh, bleak red light of the setting sun, set against the primeval chants of the colony Elders in praise of their food god, whose visage appears above them in the swirling winds. The juxtaposition of these two scenes together, and how they relate and reflect off of each other, epitomizes Miller’s use of tone for the rest of the film, with a slight emphasis on the latter aspect.

And, this is a mythic tale, fully realized – and, like Miller’s Mad Max films, intently so.  Always, with the exception of the first Mad Max film, his movies have always been intently focused on the community, and the relationship of the outsider to that community; the outsider who becomes, in his words, an “angel of change.” Here, the world and the community at the center of his story isn’t quite as picturesque and water-color storybook as those found in the Babe films, and yet at the same time, it’s not quite as harsh and grim as those on the sand dunes of the Mad Max trilogy.  Here is something entirely other, a fable in the truest sense. Everything in the film leads up to it’s second hour, after Mumble is forcibly excommunicated from his colony, becoming a pariah in the most spiritual sense – and, it’s here that Miller’s film hits its most mythic stride, with an archetypal camera tracking the penguin compadres through sweeping, vast – and yet, starkly minimal – ice-lands in search of the great Other: the much whispered-about “aliens,” the identities of which the film makes no secret about, because that isn’t the point. Here, Miller employs scale in a way that creates an eye-opening dichotomy between the penguins and their environment, always a constant factor – and, moving over them, those shadowy, almost god-like machines from without, breaking through the mist and ice, represented often in a ground sense of wonderment and fear – the mythic composition of the story comes finally full circle as Mumble delves off the ice cliff and into the Unknown, and Lovelace makes a vow to tell his tale, even long after his death. That’s how you do it, Lucas.

More than any of his previous films, Happy Feet is a film that defines its characters in terms of their surroundings – framing it’s characters in against the wide, barren expanse topped by vivid blue skies, and clouds that seem to go on forever. The main character’s father against a sudden and foreboding blue sky,  watching the wives move off into the distance, and into the long, lonely night of winter ahead. Miller’s mastery of environmental mise-en-scene and composition is emphasized most clearly here, in the stark white wastelands of Antarctica. This becomes most obvious in what I consider to be one of the best scenes of the film, where Mumble and his compadres, against the eternally setting  sun, attempt to cross a tundra in the throes of a massive blizzard, only to be constantly pushed back by the winds – shot in widescreen, the scene is really a simple battle to move from the left to the right of the screen, made into a force of wills. Leaning in to each other, bearing the winds, they make their way across – into the dark.

It’s also interesting how well thought out the primal religion of these penguins is – while it acts primarily as allegory, it seems also to have been implicitly crafted to fit into the same kind of naturalistic mold as the one found among the rabbits in Watership Down – it’s a food god they pray to, certainly. And, there’s a reasonable skepticism apparent here and there in Miller’s Thomas Aquinas-esque reconciliation of faith and reason, science and religion, the individualist and the collectivist, represented in the smaller community of the colony, also indicative of his oft-quoted philosophy, cribbed from astrophysicist Paul Davies, that “science is a faster way to god than religion.” There’s a bit of the Carl Sagan here as well, remaining from Miller’s time on the film version of Contact – it isn’t overly cynical about the mythology that holds this penguin community together at the bottom of the world, and it even seems fascinated by it, despite the machinations of it’s Pharisaic Elders. This is a colony that must remain welded together to survive in this harsh wilderness, and indeed, the emperor penguin is the animal most emblematic of collectivism – and, it is this purpose that their mythology serves, as the concrete of their society. At the same time, there’s also a slight unwillingness and uncertainty about it, in hushed whispers at first – which culminates in the zoo sequence near the end of the film, where Mumble steps out of his plastic enclave for the first time and into the white light of the aquarium. And, upon asking where this place is, the only answer he gets is, “You’re in Heaven. Penguin Heaven – and, it’s wherever you want it to be.” It seems more focused on the personal relationships inside of this culture – of Mumble to his father Memphis, particularly, and the continuously developing arc of his father, by itself, as more and more his guilt overwhelms him over the course of the film until, by the end of the film, he finds himself as spiritually dead as Mumble was in the zoo.

Mumble the character is an idealist, as much as Max was a nihilist, and constantly, Miller places this idealism – or naiveté’, some would say – at the behest of a violent and often cruel world. As with all of his films, there’s an emphasis on the essential safety that the community provides, in the wasteland, and the inability of individuals to live outside their environment. The farther away that Mumble gets from his tribe, the more immediately dangerous the world around him seems to become – gradually, the size of the predators pitted against him increases, from a skua bird to a leopard seal to a killer whale – until, he ends up in a zoo, continents away. And it’s here, in this sequence in the zoo that Miller breaks the character down toward his “essential self.” As Matthieu Santelli notes, “the film revives the theme of the Mad Max trilogy and the Babe films, when the crossing of the line becomes inevitable. The danger in Miller’s films always comes from the other side. And, if they walk too far, they may find themselves trapped.” Yet, it’s only there, after months of isolation and being driven toward near-insanity, that he finds what he’s been looking for – just on the other side of the glass. And always, a cautious sort of optimism that acts as the real through-line between this and the latter two Mad Max movies, and everything in between pervades the film, even in its most darkest moments, when the main character finds himself screaming his lungs out at the faces behind the glass, staring down at him.

Music, and rhythm, both take an especially active role in the film, as well – the pinnacle of these penguin’s culture is the “Heartsong,” coming from the natural practice of the Emperor penguin’s mating rituals, represented here in iconic fashion through the use of prior-recorded music – and, it’s through this that we’re informed of much of their world, in more ways than one would think, initially – it becomes Miller’s centralized way of representing the unease growing within the penguins’ community;  along with the use of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” at the beginning of the film, mirroring it and bookending the movie is a rendition of “The End,” from the same album – and, to parallel the religious, almost ‘prophetic,’ subtext of the film, Gloria’s song during the two’s courtship ritual that marks the midpoint of the film is a simultaneously somber and bombastic rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland,” a song about the loss of faith in prayer – and bell-bottom jeans, but I digress. And always, following the character is an almost Gregorian soundtrack, reminiscent of the chant of the Elders in the Huddle sequence near the beginning of the film, and repeated in defiance of the dancing below again near the end. When Mumble is awoken from his dormant egg early on in the film, it’s by the tapping on the shell by baby Gloria. Later on in the film, it’s this same rhythmic tapping, on the glass of the aquarium exhibit, that startles him from his emotional death – and into a rebirth, in a sequence that returns Miller to what he’d found so fascinating about cinema in the first place, images without sound, “visual music” in the clearest sense.

And in keeping with that train of thought, this –  like most of Miller’s films – this is a movie fascinated with the possibilities of cutting – which becomes most apparent in his musical sequences. Musicals have always seemed like the brother or sister to action films, with their collective emphasis on the kinetics of cinema – and here, Miller takes full advantage of that, adapting his headlong, constantly moving and almost aggressively lyrical style to the unification of image and music, song and rhythm, voice and dance. In a way, it’s a return to the style of the classical musicals of the forties and fifties, like Stormy Weather or Singin’ In The Rain – I hazard to mention Busby Berkeley, because what most people miss with his musical sequences is that they were entirely meant as pure escapism with little relationship otherwise to anything else in the films they were in, which isn’t the case here – but at the same time, it’s also a furtherance of those ideas, with a cast of thousands, spanning colonies and, in the final sequence, continents. A Blue Angels-esque musical sequence that, for the penguins, represents nothing so much as the equivalent of spring break, a courtship ritual that breaks out of its boundaries, a rebellion against the perched, and a celebration.

The role of Mumble is a three-way composite between Elijah Wood, Alan Lee, and Savion Glover – and, as a tap-dancer myself, it’s Glover’s role as both the character’s feet and the general choreographer of the film that gives the character an almost iconic feel, much like a Babe or a Max, or even an Odone; in contrast to what candy-colored Broadway floss might have come if someone like, say, a Simmy Slyde had been brought on, Glover gives the character an individualized and gradually evolving artistry to the noise he’s creating with his feet – sometimes it’s very “light and bright,” and other times it becomes “real hard and heavy,” to use his own terminology. There’s a real love and respect apparent here for the form, inside the film and out – it isn’t trivialized, and it isn’t made fun of, as most expected it would have been. It’s respected, certainly. And along with the character, the use of dance gradually evolves throughout the film, becoming larger and more unifying – first as a method of personal expression, and then of courtship and love, which is followed by it’s shift into something a bit more primal, a tool of mass rebellion and defiance, against those up on the perch above, who do their best to drown it out with their own ritual noise. And, as the helicopter arrives, all falls silent for a moment – before the penguins begin to move again in unison, following their new leader at the back. And, finally, dance becomes a tool of almost universal communication, as revealed by the final sequence.

There are actually a lot of interesting ways to look at the film – as a religious allegory, as a veiled alien abduction story, or as the meeting of two societies and cultures, the Indians and the Spanish, among them. I remember once, a while back, reading someone’s essay comparison between the film and James Cameron’s The Abyss, and – you know, it does make sense. More simplistically, it could be a love story, a tale of the outcast, or even the gap between the new generation and the old. Or, it could be all of those things. Whatever you consider the film – a piece of children’s cinema in the vane of Golden Age Disney, a new sort of mythic fable from the same class as Martin Rosen’s Watership Down with a sense of humor, or something that sits somewhere in between – there’s no doubt in my mind that it is something indelible, and will remain.

***

Interestingly, in my bits of reading and research about the film, here and there, I came upon an intriguingly early, and unnaturally disturbing, piece of concept art – see what you can make of it.

Like most of the other films on this list, there are a great many articles published examining the film from several other angles, though most of them are French – being the country where the film seems to have demanded the highest degree of respect. Among them are Matiere Focale’s (roughly translated) “Happy Feet: Do We Need A New Hero? (Is There Any Escape From the Noise?)” and, the counterpart to our own CinemaBlend, Critikat’s own look at the film’s editing schemes in relation to Miller’s previous films; also of note is fellow stateside blogger Davey Morrison’s recent essay, “Happy Feet: The Expansion of Spiritual and Moral Point-of-View,” which examines the film’s use of subjective camera, among several other things. Finally, there’s Glenn Heath’s own unpublished analysis of the film as a whole in  tandem with Miller’s other works, from which several ideas here and there in the preceding article were sprung, and which hopefully will in the future see the light of day on his own site.

Speaking of ol’ Glenn, his respective #3 entry, David Lynch’s mind-numbing Mullholland Dr., can be found right – over – here.

** This article was selected by The Dancing Image as one of their picks for the best pieces of blog writing on film from ’09, as of December 29th, 2009. Not bad.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Sixth

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.


 

 

MATCH CUTS: Spike Lee is very hit or miss with me, but his best films really strike me as unabashed manifesto’s about human weaknesses, prejudices, and assumptions. For me, 25th Hour is his best films because it combines the perfect mixture of Lee’s stylistics with his dynamic view of the world. It’s cinematography, music, and dialogue belong to this very tense vision of the world, obviously influenced by 9/11, but still incredibly personal and tragic.
THE FILMIST: It was interesting watching this film, having just finished his “Malcolm X” again just a day earlier. On the one hand, you have this three hour long, autobiographical epic about a revolutionary public figure, and his exploits from one end of his life to the other. And, on the other, you’ve got “25th Hour,” a small, intimate – for the most part – film following one man’s last days on the outside world, underneath the attitudes and ires bred by September 11th. These two films are, I think, some of Lee’s best. Because, as you wrote in your article for the film, too often he seems to lapse into “howling at the moon,” with films like Bamboozled – which I still enjoy if only because of Savion Glover.
M: I love Bamboozled, but that’s a whole other conversation. But yes, 25th Hour is so contained to the decisions of it’s characters, to the consequences of those decisions, and all the possibilities they will never realize. Each scene is seeped in this extreme melancholy, best represented by Terrence Blanchard’s haunting musical score. It follows Monty, resting heavy on his shoulders in way I’ve never seen in any other film.
F: Yes – the opening scene may be one of my favorites out of Lee’s films. We’re exposed to this Monty character played by Norton, and we’re not quite sure if he’s up to or involved in anything, just yet. But, he finds this dog – and, despite the guys they’ve got waiting on them, the “guys with money,” he decides to put it in his trunk and take it to the vet. And, it’s one of the first times that Lee’s patented “repeat-cut” (I call it) pops up, three times.
M: Which repeats throughout the film, a repetition that is incredibly artificial in way the rest of the film is not, and I’m glad you mentioned the opening scene, because it shows his misguided humanity front and center, it shows his cockiness and compassion in one sequence, the reason he got into this mess in the first place, and the reason his plight is so complex.
F: Yes, it actually gives a small hint as to what’s revealed later about Monty, that the reason he turned to the business that he’d turned to was to help out his family. It’s funny, even in the lighter scenes, there’s an underlying melancholy that’s brought out into the open – as in the club scenes, for example.
M: And this sense of doubt filtering through each character, Monty doubts Natuerelle, Frank judges Monty, then feels guilty for it, Jacob doubts his validity as a person, all while mired in this strange celebration, and for what? Everything is ill-fated, except for the genuine pain that each character feels, the loss is something that can’t be played down. It’s a stunning achievement when you think about the atmosphere of character the film creates.
F: One of the characters I found interesting, even though she’s relatively minor in terms of her presence in the story, is Mary, Jacob’s student. And, before I start talking about the character, I also want to mention how weird it is to see Anna Paquin in 2002 and Anna Paquin in 2009, with “True Blood.” I can’t quite place it, but something’s changed about her.
M: She’s always on the cusp of the frame it seems, and to me she really represents the allure of that dangerous life Monty has brought into his lifestyle. We really see how separate these old friends are, Monty and Jacob, in the sense that Monty dismisses Mary and Jacob sees her as his entire obsession. They have become apart of two separate worlds and never realized it.
F: Yes, and it’s funny the effect she has on Jacob in the club, right after Monty’s told him that he’s “the only honest man in the room, right here.” And, he ends up trying to kiss her, directly afterwards. She seems to be caught on the same kind of downward spiral that Monty fell into. Where at first we see her at the prep school causing king-hell about her grades, which she obviously cares a lot about, the next time we see her, she’s hopped up on E and champagne – it seems to be something a little stronger than a rebellious attitude, which is hinted at with her button tattoo. Also, it’s telling how she says (she says) her mother dismissed such a thing with only, “where did you get the money for that?”
M: I think this falls into the idea that money, which ties into class, consumes each and every character, Frank, who works on Wall Street yells at Natuerelle for not speaking up since she was living a lavish lifestyle, Jacob is independently wealthy, and Monty makes his bad decision based on the need for money. It drives everything in this very personal film. The way money really changes old friendships, perspectives, yet there is still that connection, that memory of loyalty that still rings tru.
F: Indeed. Speaking of, I also found it interesting to see Lee use the same “background moves in the distance as the character stays rooted in the foreground” shot that he used at the end of Malcolm X, after Jacob leaves the bathroom.
M: When the actor is positioned on a dolly with the camera? Yes, that’s a Lee staple, and it creates this surreal atmosphere in the club, but it is just prolonging the inevitable.
F: He seems unhooked from time, almost.
M: Which is fleeting, because time is about to come crashing down.
F: In more ways than one, with Monty’s rebuke of Kostya.
M: Yep. What did you make of the ending? Do you see it as a vision of a future that will never happen, as I do, or do you have a different reading of it.?
F: Well, if I’m being optimistic, then I’d say that it was a possible future that’s left ambiguous by the last shot. But then again, on a rainy day, I think that Monty kind of disregards such notions and decides to face his time – hence the Washington Bridge in the background, and them being on the road toward upstate New York.
M: The mere juxtaposition of a failed future and a failed present makes this film a major achievement. As he looks out the window, he finally realizes that he’s devastated everyone’s life, not just his own.
F: Despite what may have been his best intentions, everyone except the dog comes out worse at the end of this night.
M: Very ironic, although life with Jacob seems very depressing and repressed.
F: Yes. He reminds me of this guy I used to know, actually. Very strange guy – I won’t reveal his story here, but he seemed to have the same kind of mental attitude going on, that same kind of fear.
M: I think the main thing with 25th Hour for me, is that portrays characters in crisis without blowing their guilt or innocent out of proportion, it’s about the complexities in between the stereotypes (as addressed in Monty’s crippling verbal tirade to the mirror), the intricacies of relationships that reveal themselves through traumatic experiences.
F: True. For all his faults, Jacob is still a truly redeemable character. And, I love the immediate silence after his broker friend beats him to a pulp – only the sounds of the birds fluttering in the background, and the dog barking.
M: Absolutely, Lee leaves you with the reality of the situation, the ambient noise lingering, drown out a bit….So if 25th Hour is all about character, then Che: Part 1 is concerned with ideology, a collective birth, a romantic vision of change. But for me, I can’t separate the first film from the second, since it charts the harsh breakdown of that vision. Why choose just the first part of Che for this project?
F: While they’re connected by the sort of causal relationship you mentioned, apart from that, they’re two very different films, stylistically and in their aims – where the first part seems a lot more cohesive and all of that, the second part is by its very nature fractured, and almost deliberately obtuse. And, maybe it’s because I’m an optimist, but it’s the first film, with it’s bombastic and revolutionary nature, is something that appeals to the good old fashioned Communist in me. The second part of Che seems to fall in the same direction as Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” in that it’s a constantly hard-luck film for this character for two hours, physically as well as ideologically, pointing out the illogical nature of going in and trying to resurrect the spirit of a people who don’t really want to be “saved.” Which is another reason I kind of prefer using their separate titles, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” hinting at their separate aims and goals.
M: I guess I see them as flip sides to the same coin, and The Argentine is definitely more linear in that it progresses a sequence of events that allude to genre conventions of the War film, it’s also shot in widescreen which gives the film a sweeping visual look that plays into this inherent romanticism. But even then Soderbergh strips these tropes down to the barest essentials, the interactions between Che and Fidel, even the action scenes are disjointed.
F: The action sequences were one of the things I loved about the film, actually – being as I am one of those guys who interested in the whole “kinetic nature of cinema;” not just in action sequences, but they do often serve as some of the best representatives – the way they’re shot with such from-ground immediacy and yet still with such a great emphasis on formal dynamism, as in the first attack on the Sierra Maestra barracks.
M: The building exploding from the bazooka round is really something, it’s almost shocking because the film hasn’t given us anything like that before. There are these moments of grand chaos, like the train flipping off the tracks as well.
F: Yes, the whole portion of the film dedicated to the Battle of Santa Clara, and the fight for control of the tower, is relentlessly breakneck. It was interesting that, here, in the middle of all this, Soderbergh points out prominently Che’s injured arm and his asthma.
M: The scene that really struck me was the moment where he orders the executions of his men that have committed atrocities. It really speaks to the dynamic attention to details that you just mentioned.
F: Oh, certainly. And also, its that scene and a few others that really brings to light one of the weirder aspects of the revolution at the time – the strong, harsh emphasis on capital punishment that Che and Castro used. Small scenes, mentions here and there -and the protesters in New York – signs of what came during the interval years between the first and second films, with Che during his stay at La Cabana’.
M: In both films, especially The Argentine, is this very meticulous, almost bare bones vision of historiography, a re-writing of history in a non-linear fashion. We see the gaps that other films have left out, we see the moments that the history books have ignored. That’s why when critics have called this film too dry of emotion, or distant from the material, I just don’t see it, because Soderbergh has inserted some seriously dynamic material and characters into this important segment of modern history.
F: Yes, I’ll never understand that complaint – it confuses me, especially in contrast to Soderbergh’s film he finished just afterward, The Girlfriend Experience. Now, that was a dry, stagnant film.
M: I haven’t seen it yet, but The Argentine is full of more life than any of his other films, and it’s a criticism that I will never get.
F: Mainstream critics, more and more, are becoming insane. Insane, I tell you. Maybe it’s something in the water.
M: It’s really tough for a weekly critic to get a film like this on one viewing, which is the inherent problem with writing “reviews” as opposed to criticism.
F: Yes, indeed – the only really redeemable critics I’ve found at the moment are Ebert and the three or four cats who occasionally end up in the Dallas Observer, like J. Hoberman.
M: There are plenty of good ones, but Hoberman is the only one to champion this film in the way I thought it deserved. He seems to have an incredible grasp of the way history plays into these sorts of films, and why they are essential. Kent Jones from Film Comment seems to be the other critic that just gets it on a collective level. Soderbergh has made a difficult film that cannot be fully processed on one viewing. There’s just too much going on, which makes it a fascinating piece.
F: Surely. It’s not a film that goes in for easy hero worship, but at the same time, it’s also not one to denigrate or denounce its central title character, as another bunch of people would’ve wanted. He seems to have achieved something entirely other, and that’s left a lot of people disoriented.
M: I agree with that, especially considering how different the two halves are in style, and how unsettling they are when placed together.
F: They do create an interesting contrast. And, it’s in the second film that I think Soderbergh’s approach becomes clear – at the moment of Che’s death. He avoids having him say the rousing, “Shoot, coward! You are only coming to kill a man!” that’s quoted by the one side, or the pleading issued by the other. Instead, he has Che share a look with the guy, and say, “I don’t talk to traitors,” after agreeing that he killed his uncle.
M: Del Toro’s performance is almost entirely conveyed through his eyes, the passion, the longing, the isolation, everything streams through his eyes. Which plays into what you just mentioned.
F: And, I have to say, I love the great contrast the film creates, in between young, clean-shaven Ernesto and bearded, beret wearing Che. Which is one of the reasons that I’m glad the film didn’t stay too long before the boat ride to Cuba. Among other things, we do have “The Motorcycle Diaries,” for that. His is a virtuoso performance – which is one of the reasons he’s quickly becoming one of my most favorite actors. Not that he wasn’t, you know, up there before, but –
M: Well, this an his performance in a little seen near masterpiece, Things We Lost in the Fire, are superb, just great method turns.
F: I haven’t seen TWLitF just yet. Been meaning to get around to it, but something about it just keeps pushing me away. It’s Halle Berry, that’s who it is.
M: She’s great, and I really despise her acting, usually at least. The main thing with The Argentine and the entire project as a whole is that Soderbergh is attempting something grandiose, something altogether rare in Western filmmaking today. A gigantic epic with pertinent ideas on its mind, issues of nationalism, pragmatism, and failed ideologies.
F: Oh, I agree. We haven’t seen one of these in a long while. It’s intriguing the contrast this film creates with his others – your opinion of Spike Lee matches pretty closely my opinion of Soderbergh.
M: It’s interesting how some filmmakers you usually admire but can’t buy into, except for that one instant when their obvious artistry breaks through and hits you on some intrinsic level.
F: Exactly.
M: Of course you have to suffer through a few stinkers to get there.
F: The Girlfriend Experience” remains an indelible burn on my brain. You don’t know you’re alive until you’ve seen Sasha Grey masturbate some Jewish guy on screen while he talks about why she should vote Republican. When the movie’s finished, you’ve got a whole new outlook on life, really – you made it through.
M: I can’t wait. Sounds invigorating.
F: You’re gonna love it. LOVE IT, I tell you.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #4: Tarsem’s “The Fall.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

So, an Indian, an ex-slave, an Italian, a masked bandit and Charles Darwin (and his monkey) all walk into a bar …

Tarsem Singh is an interesting fellow – having made his own personal fortune directing several music videos in the nineties, in particular, that seem to be remembered to this day for bringing post-modernism and surrealism into the mix – most famously, the one he did for REM’s “Losing My Religion,” in 1991 – and then deciding to make honest-to-goodness films only after the fact. His first film, The Cell, seemed to strike a cord with critics and so on because of it’s Salvador Dali-esque imagery, and constant visual imagination, despite the relatively standard police procedural that formed the story’s backbone. Still, it seems like, with that film, he was merely testing the waters, and getting a feel for the form as a whole, and how his style might work within it. I say this retrospectively because of his sophomore film, The Fall – filmed over a period of something like seventeen years in twenty countries, this is a film that stands as Tarsem’s own labour of love to cinema and storytelling, and a tribute to silent films and film history. And, perhaps more than any other film in these last ten years, this is one that defines the phrase ‘near hallucinatory intensity.’

The film begins with a slow, black-and-white montage under Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony #7, which is reused a few times throughout the film – it’s a collection of faces in the midst of reaction at something off screen, some of which will become familiar to us later, and other ostensibly separate images. It’s only later in the sequence that our view widens, and the whole incident is revealed – a horse, and it’s rider have fallen off a set of train tracks. The rider is stuntman Roy Walker – and, though it seems like an accident right now, it’s revealed later on that he’d spotted his girlfriend chatting up the lead actor just across the way, and decided he’d to try to impress her with a mind-boggling jump into the water. It doesn’t seem to work, and he ends up laid in a hospital bed – which is where he meets Alexandria, played astoundingly by newcomer Catinca Untaru, a little girl with a broken arm. Slowly, the two of them begin to endear themselves to each other, and Roy begins to tell her a story – of Alexander the Great, and his wisdom in all matters, but especially in water. After being told that what’s led to his army’s downfall is their greed for water, he makes a tough but logical decision, pouring out the last helmetful onto the sand —

“–why?” Alexandria asks. She finds the story boring – and so, Roy begins to craft another. And, this one catches her attention far more successfully. It’s a fable, a high-flying fairy-tale of revenge writ in the bright colours of Alexandria’s imagination. And, like most stories, it reflects the causes of the ones who’ve created it, and the ones who’re listening to it. Roy’s story is one that seems to encompass the lot – for both of them, the story serves to distract the both of them from their present situation in the hospital, from their boredom and pain. And in response, the story seems to demonstrate high and colourful romanticism, and – at first – pure spectacle to counter the two of them. But, as is revealed later, it also serves as a form of deception on Roy’s part, but I’ll mention that again later on. Weirdly, one of the common criticisms that was going around at the time of the film’s release was that the story for this tale was “nonsensical,” and it most certainly is, but it seems like that’s precisely the point. This is a story being told live, from one person to another, on a whim. And, it’s a story that moves and evolves based on the minds and interventions of its two participants. It’s not the focus of the film, by itself – but, the evolution of the relationship between the two characters inside the fantasy and out, which is conveyed through the fantasy.

And, it’s in this fantasy-world that we’re presented with what Roger Ebert, in his review for the film, called “new images”: these are things we haven’t seen before, most certainly. A map crawls over a twitching man’s naked body as a crowd of natives directs the flow of the ink with dance and chant, elephants dancing in shallow waters, a man falls back on a table of arrowheads. Constantly, Tarsem places emphasis on the tableau, and patterns – the travellers pitched against the grandeur of the environments they’re in, faces moving in and out and transitioning into the white and sandy landscape. And, some of these images and so indelible that you’re struck down at their appearance – The red of the blood crawling up the hundred-odd-foot sheet, the twirling dancers encircling the travellers at the Bandit’s wedding – to another, who seems eerily similar to the female hospital orderly who’s made Roy her business, of sorts; “he knew she was the one for him,” he tells Alexandria.

The characters inside the fable are wonderfully sketched caricatures, walking the line somewhere between cartoony and mythic. The Italian bombmaker an apple-cheeked and thickly accented man chomping down on a cigar in a downy yellow coat, a play – I thought – on the stories going around at the time the story takes place in, spinning off from Sacco and Vanzetti, of Italians as wanton fire-bombers. The Indian reminds one of Captain Nemo, from Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series of comics – eternally stern faced, with a comically large turban, and flippant with a sword. On the other hand, there’s the masked bandit – who slowly becomes Roy’s avatar in the story, is nothing if not the archetypal gunslinger character writ large. And the Mystic, who emerges from the Earth itself, at first seems very much in the same vane as a nakeder, more virile embodiment of the trees and the soil – a kind of wild Gandalf is the first impression, which is a connection made even clearer when we meet his people.

It’s here, in this free-wheeling fairy-tale world, that Tarsem weaves a broad tale of betrayal, social and personal violation, and justice – and,  all of these men have been hounded from their homes or violently persecuted in some way by the unseen Governor Odious. The Indian’s wife killed herself after being kidnapped by him; the ex-slave was captured and enslaved by him; Luigi, the bomb-maker, was exiled and disengaged from his home for the power of his new bombs; and, for Charles Darwin – he seems to have sent him one of the rarest of rare butterfly species, Americana Exotica, dead in a box. These crimes – they will not stand. And, the Bandit may have the strongest cause of all – for his brother, the Blue Bandit, was gutted and strung up onto the ceiling by the governor. There’s a sense of perverse, yet whimsical, humour apparent in these scenes, as there is in much of the fantasy tale, when they all reach up to the sky and utter out the same long, overwrought scream to the heavens. These character’s individual tales of betrayal mirror Roy’s own, at the hands of his girlfriend, and the lead star of the movie – although the higher stakes of these characters make his own look minuscule in comparison, they also reflect the emotions Roy holds toward the star, and his reaction to his own betrayal that he doesn’t yet seem comfortable with – even going so far, later on, as to try and get Alexandria to steal sleeping pills for him that he might commit suicide, which eventually lands the girl on a hospital operating table.

It’s funny to contrast this to Tarsem’s previous film, 2000’s The Cell, with Jennifer Lopez and company – while constantly visually stunning while in the dream-world, Tarsem showed an awkwardness and an uncomfortable fidgitiness with the portions of his story that took place in the flesh-and-blood, which relied bitterly on that old ‘find the killer before time runs out’ chestnut made so popular in the nineties to a ‘t’. Here, there’s a stronger and far more richer correlation between the Story, the children’s fable that Roy weaves for the girl, and what’s propelling it forward on both sides – initially, the story begins as a tool of deception on Roy’s part. And, this purpose finds its way into the fairy-tale narrative, subtly. With it, comes an underlying ugliness when we’re made aware of what that purpose is – to steal pills from the hospital’s pharmacy. But, it grows, fluctuating with emotion and colour, and the intensely careful, yet lyrical, composition of a silent film. The red of the blood crawling up the hundred-odd-foot sheet, the twirling dancers encircling the travellers at the Bandit’s wedding – to another, who seems eerily similar to the female hospital orderly who’s made him her business; “he knew she was the one for him,” he tells Alexandria.

And, at it’s core, The Fall is a film about the three-fold metaleptic relationship between the story, the teller and the listener. What is said, what is meant, and what is heard. Tarsem said as much in an interview with Ioncinema, where he remarked, “There’s always three incarnations of a story: the story that is being told, the listener’s interpretation and the version the listener retells in the future.” And, in the film, this is played out in various ways – the characters who appear filtered through the young girl’s mental image, like the Indian. Where Roy obviously was referring to an American, red-blooded, red-faced Indian found so often in those old serials, but Alexandria – who’s lived only in the immigrant laden regions of Southern California the whole of her short life, and has known only those from the Indian sub-regions – imagines him as a limber, athletic member of distant India. Or, the guards of general Odious – given no real description by Roy, they take on an amalgamated form that comes from Alexandria’s fear of the bulky, lead radiation suitsAnd, as the relationship develops between Roy and the girl, so too do the characters – and their quest. Slowly, the girl begins to project herself onto the story, and so does the Man, with her – in the form of the Black Bandit and his little bandito. And, following this, the recent events of his own life begin to take shape, inside the story. Subtly at first, but only at first. All of these characters are given by Alexandria faces familiar to her – the ice-cream man, the hospital orderlies – and, like most elements of this fantasy world, they all seem to have some relevance to Roy’s life as it is, although these connections aren’t made clear until later on. The plot, when it’s revealed, seems to come from the silent film Roy was working on at the time of his accident – which, when it’s played later on, reveals a startlingly different collection of visuals than what Alexandria created inside her head, although the faces remain the same.

And, after having driven the poor girl onto the hospital bed, Roy – now morose and barely able to swallow down his own remorse – begins the finale of his tale, after much pleading. But, this is different – the characters have all resigned themselves to their death, and seem to meet it in quick succession. Storming Odious’ castle, it’s just suicide, we’re told. In poetic shorthand, evocative of linguistic metaphor, doves flutter out of the Indian’s mouth, and up into the sky. Darwin stands down an army of long-bowmen at the sight of his dead monkey. The tale evolves, and it isn’t just his, anymore – at her tearful protests, the only reproach that Roy can offer up is, “it’s my story.” But, it’s “mine too!,” she says. And finally, we meet Odious – and, he’s a face we’ve seen before. It’s the lead actor of the film, haughty and cold. Just as in the flesh-and-blood, he’s usurped Roy’s woman from him, and now in the courtyard of his castle, he’s going to kill him – it doesn’t take long for Alexandria to discover on some level the connection between the two, and with this comes the realisation of what the story is heading toward, Alexandria’s pleading to let now-only the Bandit survive, to have a more optimistic destiny, reaches a fever pitch – because, it’s her Roy. Odious’ intensity, his absolute derision of Roy’s Bandit, and the Bandit’s utter apathy – all seem to coalesce in a weird frenzy of water, colour, tears and noise, and a real image of sadness on screen.

But, something gets through. Something clicks for Roy, in Alexandria’s pleading for him. The Bandit gets up – and,  starts punching back. He confronts his old girlfriend – and, disregards her. The story ultimately gets a happy ending – and, The Bandit and his little bandito drive off into the sunset, leaving his old girlfriend in their wake.

At the end of the film, we see the movie Roy’s been working on, playing for the children of the hospital – and, it seems familiar. There’s an Indian, and a Masked Bandit, and even an Italian bomb-maker, although they all differ pretty wildly from what Alexandria had imagined – and, in just a few short seconds, Roy’s stunt goes by on the screen. “That’s it?” someone asks. But, down below, the story – no matter the difference in form – is having the same effect on a wider audience. Looks of amazement, looks of fright, and entanglement in the story. Not just kids, but adults as well, laid up in wheelchairs or what have ye. It’s a powerful story, it seems. The film ends on a montage of famous stunt actors, and their respective feats of daring-do, which include everything from see-sawing on the top of a car to hanging off the side of a building. Pure cinema – and, Alexandria, older now, tells us, “there’s Roy. There he is!”

They’re all Roy. Even the ones who aren’t.

***

Of articles on the film there are many, but one of the most dazzling is “Liberations of Mind, Spirit and Vision: The Fall, a film directed by Tarsem,” by Daniel Garrett, which can be found here.

Glenn’s pick for his #4 spot, Michael Haneke’s doubly intriguing “Time of the Wolf,” can be found here.

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