Monday, May 28, 2007

Bizarre Dreams from which I Wake Up Crying

The night after a visit with my parents, I have two interlocking dreams shortly before I awake, and cannot fully sort out the order of events in them, save for the moment that comes last; I know it comes last because I wake up with tears in my eyes. For convenience's sake, I'll separate the narratives.
In the "first," I am in an apartment building to pick something up from a woman I don't know. Not exactly sure why or what - a purchase off eBay, perhaps, which may be an unusual version of the Clash's Combat Rock, because when I leave her apartment, I have acquired such a thing. On picking it up, though, I find that she is having a vicious fight with her boyfriend; he in particular is being quite abusive, standing in the doorway screaming at her. I sheepishly say "Excuse me," and she apologizes for the scene and gets me my item. I apologize for interrupting and leave. Then, in the elevator, I discover that the CD I am carrying - Combat Rock - is special in ways I hadn't figured. I want to put it in my CD player, but for some reason, I feel like I need a surface on which to do it. I go back to the apartment of the fighting couple - they have calmed down since - and ask if I can use their counter to change the CD in my Discman. They eagerly invite me in and I go about my business; as I do this - as if changing a CD were so complex! - the woman offers me tea and brings me an LP by a Krautrock band, Xhol Caravan, asking me to help identify some of the figures in the surreal, and very orange, landscape on the cover. Some of them, she thinks, are made of sugar; there's a tower, I respond, that seems to be made of non-dairy creamer. She goes away, and the man takes me aside, and proceeds to explain the scene I'd interrupted; he is glad I returned, since it gave them an excuse to stop fighting...

The "second" dream: I am in some sort of performance space that also sells CDs, and after seeing a highly abstract, flickering film introduction, in which one tries to sort out the band member's faces, I find myself dancing to a rare live version of Pere Ubu's "The Modern Dance." (In the dream I think I incorrectly identified the song as being off Dub Housing; somehow my sleeping mind is less efficient at keeping track of such details). I want to know the recording the song is on, because it's terrific, so I go to the counter at the front of the space and am handed a box set of live recordings of bands, the only one of which I recognize (or recall now) is an otherwise unreleased "Ubu live" disc (one of the other CDs is of classical music, but I don't know the composers; I stand at the counter, wondering if they're avant-gardists). I am stunned at how much I am enjoying the music, which continues to play, but the box set costs $45.99 and I don't know if I'd want the other recordings on it. I try to explain this to the shop girl, so she understands my hesitation, but she is rude to me, saying slightly sarcastic, cutting and disrespectful things - more of an attitude she has, probably, than a deliberate attack on me, but I find myself really bothered by it. I decide not to buy the CD and she makes some snotty comment - not really to me, and somewhat under her breath - about that. I go to leave, then return to the counter and start to demand she apologize. I deserve to be treated with respect, am a customer and have been entirely civil with her and do not merit her sarcastic asides. She argues with me and I get angrier and angrier, until I have completely lost control and - rather like the boyfriend in the "previous" dream - am yelling at her harshly, refusing to leave, demanding contrition; she is getting upset herself, but it's not giving me satisfaction. Suddenly a small bearded man approaches me - the manager? - and begins to say very soothing things about how he understands that I'm a good man and just want to be treated with respect. He puts a hand on my shoulder, and I feel afraid that if I trust him, he's going to punch me in the chest and push me out the door; but he doesn't, and continues to say soothing things, and suddenly I collapse crying, REALLY crying. Sobbing. An immense release of emotion, complete and utter catharsis - yowling and sobbing, tears spurting from my eyes.
As I wake up, I discover that I am crying still. The photo I've attached to this post is an old one, in which - shortly before my digital camera broke - I tried to capture the peace I felt the last time I really cried. I wonder at my dreams, in the brief time allowed before I have to go to work.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Jamie Fessenden's THE SACRIFICE in Xtra West

A coworker of mine lent me a DVD of a shot-on-digital feature a friend of hers had made - a DIY gay-themed occult horror film with bottom-drawer production values and a great story, called The Sacrifice. Directed by New Hampshire-based horror buff Jamie Fessenden (pictured at the top), it's one of those films where the modesty of means actually ends up making you root for the filmmakers and quietly cheering when they pull it off; I was surprised, when it finished, by how much I'd enjoyed the experience. It's filled with esoteric, genre-related in-jokes, a fairly dark sense of humour, and it has a thought-provoking story - I still haven't quite worked out what the relationships between the characters "mean," thematically, subtextually, archetypally, or psychoanalytically, but I found it fascinating, particularly since Fessenden isn't afraid of - is in fact interested in - entering some fairly dark regions of the human psyche. (I tend to prefer gay cinema that's a bit on the dark side - like, for instance, the transgressive and whip-smart Swoon, about the Leopold and Leob murder/kidnapping, or the films of Gregg Araki). Since I really enjoyed the film, I thought it would be kind of cool to interview Fessenden for Xtra West, Vancouver's gay and lesbian newspaper, where I'd yet to appear in print. They liked the story, and the interview has just been published in this week's issue; The Sacrifice, meanwhile - if all is going according to schedule - should be on the shelves at Videomatica now.
One quote I couldn't use in the article, offered here as a teaser, though it's completely unrelated to the film at hand: Fessenden and I were talking about the ways that horror cinema, with a few exceptions like David DeCoteau, has steered pretty clear of gay themes, to his disappointment. "Werewolf films are a particular pet peeve of mine," Fessenden said. "If the werewolf is male, for me, that’s a particularly homoerotic thing – you’ve got this guy who keeps running around naked all the time in the woods! And a lot of werewolf films kind of chicken out on that – you don’t even get much nudity in them, or anything else. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a werewolf film myself." It will have to wait until his sequel to The Sacrifice, The Resurrection, is finished, Jamie says.
Since we were on the topic of werewolves, I had to ask about the Canadian-made Ginger Snaps films, which (though they don't always live up to the greatness of the ideas behind them) I quite like. So does Jamie, it turns out. "The Ginger Snaps films are wonderful – especially the third one. I really love the one where they go back in time to sort of the origin of the thing. Some people debate it, but I think it has some very powerful moments. I love it!"

The Sacrifice tells the story of a geeky gay Goth kid who is drawn by a handsome blonde boy into a deep mystery involving Satanic ritual abuse in his town. Fessenden, who is also a composer, gives a great Bernard Hermann-esque score to to the piece, by the way - he was very flattered when I drew the comparison, but I don't believe I mentioned that in the article... Check out Dunkirk Studios' website for more, or pick up Xtra West - it's a pretty fun read, if'n I do say so myself...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Displaced Penguin, still no bees

A field in Seattle; a huge flowering shrub at the West Coast Express station in Maple Ridge; the wildflowers and flowering cultivated plants downtown: I stop to inspect the flowers whenever I can, and not for aesthetic purposes. I am dying to see a honeybee. I am in a state of quiet panic about it - it's making me very paranoid.

I have seen one bee this year, to my recollection. It was a large black and yellow bumblebee, and it was crawling on the sidewalk, looking confused, like it would soon die. (Healthy bees generally prefer to fly; you don't often see them near-immobile on the pavement). Not only have I seen no bees, I have seen no hornets or wasps. Dandelions are already gone to seed, months early, but bees, hornets, and wasps seem to be almost completely absent. Whatever is causing colony collapse disorder, it's terrifying me (and yes, I have cracked "bee afraid, bee very afraid" jokes. They aren't funny anymore).

Meanwhile, here's my latest displaced animal note - a penguin 5000 miles from home. I am connecting the dots (which no one else is doing) and assuming that the vast number of animals that are losing their way and ending up where they shouldn't MAY be connected with the bees that are abandoning their hives, and that both may relate to some human interfence in the environment - whether it be raditation from cell phones or global warming or... hell, I don't know. There seems to be a new story like this every few weeks, often involving seagoing mammals - I've posted similar tales about seals and manatees in the past.

It totally fits my sense of things, that this would be the way the world ends - something no one even notices is going on until it is much too late.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

28 Weeks Later is Profoundly Immoral

Note: in its wisdom, Fox Atomic has not made images from 28 Weeks Later available to the general public - there' s no press section on their site for lesser media representatives like myself to lift images from; all images on the site are presented in a Flash Player that doesn't readily lend to their being downloaded. Not to be frustrated, I'm illustrating what follows with an image from Fallujah, in Iraq. You will see why presently.

28 Days Later was a very likable film. 28 Weeks Later is, I think, profoundly immoral and offensive. My saying this may be puzzling, because to many viewers, the films will seem very very similar, and for good reason. They share a host of features: the Rage virus as phlebotinum; jagged edits of shaky, grainy, hand-held digital video images that really get under your skin; images of a deserted London; running, raging, red-eyed “zombies;” a central focus on the family; and even the music of Canada’s own Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which worked so well in the first film that they’ve made the same passage, I believe from “East Hastings,” the primary soundtrack to the sequel. I need to step back a little bit and set forth a few basic principles before I can even begin to lay clear my objections to the film.

A vast and surprising number of viewers seem to have no idea just how complex horror and action films are. The vast majority of viewers seem to read movies on the level of “story” alone, or even simply spectacle; the idea that some of the most formulaic action and horror films out there also have themes, to say nothing of sometimes even more subtle subtexts, seems to be lost on a great many. I’ve emerged from seeing all manner of films asserting they were “about” things that no one else among the people I viewed them with was aware of; when I try to explain what I’ve seen, I am constantly confronted with comments like, “You’re reading way too much into things.” From my point of view, I’m usually stunned how most people read nothing at all. Lots of folks approach films as entertainment, as stimulus, not as text; even professional film critics – of the more commercial variety, mind you – generally do a piss-poor job of reading the films they watch.

One rule of thumb for reading a film – I’m not sure where in the canons of film theory this was first articulated, but it’s generally accepted as a given – is to look at whatever disturbances begin it. What is upsetting, confusing, or unpleasant in the prelude to the film? What problems do the protagonists face? Chances are that, whatever the ordeal of the film – the specific form of which will often, but not necessarily, relate in some way to the disturbance at the outset – it will involve overcoming the flaws or problems that are articulated in the prelude. A few examples may be in order: at the beginning of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant is indecisive about committing to a romantic relationiship and too-in-the-sway of his mother, which is part of the problem. The ordeal of the film involves him possibly losing his relationship and his life if he doesn’t overcome these weaknesses; interestingly, he must battle and defeat an evil homosexual couple, overcoming, thus his own overly feminized aspects and said dominance of the mother, which their gayness is the logical extension of. At the end of the film, gays defeated, he can get married and perform sexually. This pattern is typical of Hitch: he generally equates the dominance of the mother or of the female with male homosexuality, and requires that both be overcome, so that masculinity and marriage can flourish; Strangers on a Train is another interesting example of this. Psycho doesn’t follow a conventional narrative formula, but relates, since Norman is sexually confused (and being played by a gay man) and his mother is definitely dominant, if dead.

A few more contemporary examples may be in order. Die Hard – the first one – is “about” the primacy of white, masculine, American authority in the family, as most purely experienced among the working classes; it’s sort of a an average American white man’s self-pitying, self-validating masturbatory fantasy (as is The Last Boy Scout; Bruce Willis is a sort of poster boy for self-pitying, self-validating, masturbating white male authority). Consider it: John McClane, at the beginning of the film, is coming to visit his wife, who is working for a foreign corporation. She doesn’t appreciate him, wants a career, is tired of his self-pity, self-dramatizations, and cranky world view. This is the problem that must be overcome, the sign that the universe is out of order: the Virtuous White Man is NOT BEING APPRECIATED - and his wife has a career of her own. Through a series of ordeals, he must defeat a sophisticated, European terrorist and his gang, prove himself smarter than his superiors, and rescue his wife from the consequences of her own foolish desire for independence. (I don’t recall there being any specific pokes at Japanese companies operating in America, but they’re clearly part of the problem, not of the solution, and corporations and international business are generally framed in a bad light, assumedly since the men in the film's demographic feel threatened by them). By the end of the film, we have confirmed that McClane’s cranky world view is in fact an accurate perception of things as they are; the universe has been restored to order, symbolized by his wife finally being subordinated to him again – leaving the ruined building, abandoning her career and aspirations for an independent life, once more under the arm of her potent and powerful hubby, where she belongs, and belonged all along (if only she’d realized it in the first place, so much trouble could have been spared everyone!). It’s plain as day, but try telling anyone that the film is about how women shouldn’t work, and people will generally look at you funny. Trust me: it’s a conversation I’ve had more than once.

28 Days Later, mind you, is not a particularly subtle film, and enough has been written about the aspects of social commentary in its Romero-directed precursors that savvier viewers probably could pin down a few thematic threads; zombie film watchers generally represent a higher class of filmgoer than Die Hard fans, too – or did for the longest time; the form is being somewhat vulgarized now, as the pointless and thematically void Dawn of the Dead remake evinces. Still, if I said that 28 Days Later is about survival in a society that has completely broken down, which is meant as a dark mirror for our own; that it suggests that our survival requires people have an open mind to new forms of relationships (overcoming racism, for instance, in the form of the mixed couple at the center of the film), and that there is a profound mistrust of white male authority in the film – as symbolized by the soldiers and their deranged leadership, and the threat they represent to the two female leads and thus to the survival of the surrogate “family unit” at the heart of the film -- most fans of the film would probably be with me. Neverminding its plot device of misguided animal activism – which seems irrelevant to any of what follows – the film could be read as extremely progressive, and much in line with Romero’s project (which, with the possible exception of Land of the Dead, typically places non-whites and women in the role of protagonists and regards “the old order,” most often represented by the police or military, as oppressive, atavistic, or at the very least fraught with difficulty). Even though again 28 Days Later has a white male hero, he has to battle and overcome the institution of “white male power” in order for there to be a happy ending, and is at times shown the inferior of his black female counterpart. It's ultimately pretty liberal-friendly.

28 Weeks Later is far more complex and harder to read. In order to do so, I’m going to have to spoil most of the film for people who haven’t seen it. I’ll warn you when the spoilers are particularly destructive.
At the start of the film, a surrogate family is holed up in a farmhouse. Actually, the main couple are a real man and wife pair, but there are surrogate grandparents, surrogate siblings, etc. There are also rage-zombies outside – even Ken Eisner notes the parallels with Night of the Living Dead and the “theme” of family, while failing to get much further into the film. While the drama of the original film centered around the question of whether the family can possibly survive, though, the entire impulse to family – or indeed, any sentiment that holds people together – is depicted as the enemy in 28 Weeks Later, the center of the problem, the thing that must be overcome. Thus: the woman at the table, in the opening sequence, who is convinced that her boyfriend will return is a threat to the safety of the surrogate family. The impulse to let the uninfected child who pounds on the boarded up windows into the house and protect him is a threat to the safety of the surrogate family; we can assume it helps the zombies (well, Rage carriers, but it's more or less the same thing) figure out where the fresh meat is. The zombies are more or less invited into the house by the woman hoping her boyfriend is outside; her peering through the slots in the boarded up window incites them to break through it. The surrogate family are thus placed under siege, and in trying to help each other, end up almost all being killed. The man and wife pair are separated; seeing he has no choice, rather than indulging the hopeless impulse to protect his wife – who is inside protecting the child – he takes off. This sets in motion the key disturbance of the film, and what I guess is meant to be its explicit theme: sometimes you have to cut people loose and look after yourself. As the film frames it, there is little doubt that if the man (Robert Carlyle, by the way) had stayed with his wife or gone back for her, he would have died; no good would have come of it. He makes the right choice, and the action of the film serves to vindicate him, as, in the rather complex narrative that follows, it is abundantly proven that sentimentality (like that which has him looking over his shoulder at her as he flees) is a bad thing, dangerous to indulge.

This message, in itself, is not entirely objectionable, I suppose: the theme that “sometimes selfish sentiment needs to be sacrificed for the good of the whole” in fact runs throughout the zombie genre – for example, in Night of the Living Dead, the parents who refuse to accept that their daughter has been bitten and is going to become a zombie run the risk of jeopardizing all the other survivors in their party and pay the ultimate price – being eaten by their own kid. (One is also reminded of Tom Savini pretending he hasn't been infected in From Dusk til Dawn). When survival requires it, you have to be honest about your chances in horror films; denial is dangerous, and that's fair enough. The problem is the alternative posited to selfish sentiment in the film, and how it interfaces with the film’s subtext, which is clearly meant to resonate off audience’s awareness of what is being done in Iraq.

This is most explicitly triggered early in the film, when the “safe area” in a post-Rage London is referred to as the “Green Zone,” aka Baghdad; the American military are defending it, and the area outside the Green Zone is off-limits and dangerous, as in Iraq. The “family” at the heart of this film exists within this world – Carlyle and his two children, who were safely out of the country when the virus hit and return to him the titular 28 weeks after the virus has died down and he has been safely evacuated. He lies to them, rather than trying to explain that he chose to save his ass by abandoning their still-living mother; his inability to overcome his guilt at having done perpetuates the problem – if he were more bravely honest with his kids about the reality of the dangers out there, some of what follows could be avoided.

Spoilers begin to mount here on in, but since I think I can easily convince you this is an immoral film unworthy of your money, fuck it. Examples of clinging to the sentiment of family, as the root of all evil, persist. The children endanger everyone by voyaging into the forbidden zone in order to find a photo of their mother. They further endanger everyone further by actually FINDING their mother, who has survived, an immune host to the Rage virus. She is brought back to the “Green Zone,” and Carlyle, in his sentimental desire for forgiveness, kisses her – and thus contracts the Rage virus, which he spreads through the safe zone; it quickly runs out of control.

The American military have (supposedly) no choice: with the virus out of control, the entire population of the town must be destroyed, to protect the world from the possibility of a resurgence of the Rage disease. The order is given to execute everyone, even those not visibly infected: in the chaos that has descended, no chances can be taken. We are placed on ground-level, for the most part, as the uninfected strive to survive against both the marauding rage-zombies and the arbitrarily death-dealing military. Carlyle’s two children form the heart of a new surrogate family that springs up, comprised of a female scientist who (for good scientific reasons) wants to preserve the kids so their blood can be studied, on the chance that they’ve acquired their mother’s immunity; and a soldier who (sentimentally) disobeys the command to exterminate civilians. He will later be aided and abetted by a friend, who also chooses to disobey orders for sentimental reasons.

In the meantime, we are treated to a vivid depiction of the extermination of civilians – a vast firebombing sequence larger even than the one in Apocalypse Now, and happening in a city: the entire green zone is spectacularly torched, with innocent, non-infected civilians whom the army is supposed to be protecting being set ablaze with the snap of fingers. If you don’t think of Fallujah while this is all going on – y’all know that the equivalent of napalm – napalm-by-another-name – was used there, right? – you probably need to give up your subscription to the Province and find a better source of news.

If you disagree with firebombing civilian centers, you’ll love Plan B: when some Rage-infected survivors of the scorching are seen, nerve gas is used.

Now, you see, for me, at this point in the film, regardless of the question of whether it was okay for Robert Carlyle to have cut and run - the overt disturbance of the film, which in fact obscures the real subtext -- the stakes have been raised considerably, because the film seems to be offering us the following choice: either we approve of the firebombing and gassing of civilian centers (to get at the terrorists hidden among them, say – or zombies, or whatever) OR we cling to the sentimental impulse to respect human life, to regard those we would firebomb as being like ourselves and thus worthy of respect, and place ourselves in danger. This is basically a fascist question, and it is absolutely chilling that Boyle and Garland – who made the (liberal, anti-fascist) first film and are involved as producers of the second – would be willing to frame it. It is absolutely imperative, for the film to have any shred of morality to it, that the decision to exterminate everyone be proven the incorrect approach, and the “sentimental” respect for human life, however imperilled or troubled, to be ultimately vindicated.

It isn’t. The kids survive, but by doing so, spread the Rage virus to the mainland. The “bad guy” in the film is thus not hysterical, murderous authority, as in 28 Days Later, but any human impulse that would object to hysterical murdering authority. The army was right; Tony Blair was right; George W. Bush was right; KILL THEM ALL, it’s the only way we’ll be safe. (I guess this kill'em all to save our own asses thing also vindicates Carlyle post-mortem, tying up the other thematic thread quite nicely: not only is it okay to cut and run from your family to save your ass, it's okay to napalm them, and everyone else too).

If the film could be defended on any grounds, it perhaps could be said to be a provocation, “raising the issue” of what is being done in Iraq in the name of preserving our privelege; I mean, I don’t think that defense could hold water, but if ANY defense of the film COULD be issued, it would have to go along those lines. For it to be a credible defense, among other things, it would require that viewers emerge from the theatre deeply unsettled, asking each other if we are really bad people, for allowing atrocities to be committed in our names.

I profoundly doubt that that sort of conversation is taking place in movie theatres, but I dunno. I will now visit Rotten Tomatoes and see how many negative reviews mention Iraq at all...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Odd animal migrations: Arctic Seal Hits Florida

I prefer stories about manatees being found in unusal places (one actually turned up off Manhattan not long ago), but I think the principle is the same - water dwelling animals are swimming far from home; this Arctic seal, found in Florida, for instance. No one is explaining why it's happening; I am privately assuming that it is a new phenomenon, related to climate change...

Sunday, May 06, 2007

David Lynch's Inland Empire at the VIFC

Went to see Inland Empire at a sold out screening tonight. Sat in a plastic chair at the back of the auditorium because all the other seats were taken. Arrive early if you go to see it - there're still a few days left.

The film starts out and you feel okay. We're in Lynchland, but it's interesting enough. Seems to be about infidelity and the relationship of movies to reality; there's something like a plot that emerges, after a few strange bits, and you feel more or less comfortable - it's no weirder, initially, than Lost Highway or Mullholand Drive, offering us a story about a movie being filmed, which may or may not have a bearing on another movie in the past; the relationships in both movies may be spilling over into reality and there's a certain degree of narrative suspense, involving very "Hollywood" questions of who will sleep with whom and what the consequences will be. My favourite bit in this section of the film involves a creepy turn from Grace Zabriskie, who echoes Robert Blake's character in Lost Highway. I remember getting off (literally, I'm afraid) on some of Zabriskie's erotica (a funny but sexy short story called "Screaming Julians" in one o' those Susie Bright anthologies, I think) and am always amused to see the uses Lynch can put her to - generally unflattering but often quite compelling. (Does it mean anything that Laura Dern's main character in the film is called Nikki Grace?).

Anyhow, about an hour in, the film starts to get very strange. We move into an overlapping series of semi-narratives involving various characters, many of whom are played by Laura Dern, who really shows her breadth as an actress in this film. (It's no wonder she helped produce it; she seems to be living out a similar trajectory at three different levels in the film - the affluent, the suburban, and the dirt-poor - and inhabits each strata convincingly). At first we feel like we're being treated to dreamlike digressions, voyages, perhaps, into the female interior, and expect that we will wake up at some point, returning to the master narrative somehow enriched by these digressions to make better sense of it, recalling, say, Mullholand Drive - which gets very strange in parts, too, but eventually resolves itself into something coherent. We wait, but, though certain bits pay off - there's a scene where a group of prostitutes who serve as a sort of interior chorus talk proudly about their tits, to quietly hilarious effect - the film delights in frustrating us, setting up our desire for coherence but never quite rewarding it. The narrative and the question of who will fuck whom having been abandoned, this becomes the dominant mode of "suspense" the film generates: will it make sense? When it's all over, will I get this? Lynch dangles the carrots of understanding just out of our reach, almost as if to see just how far he can make us go without letting us take a bite; he makes of the film a colossal mindfuck (a word one Dern character actually uses to describe the experience's she's had, apparently mirroring our own perceptions). He does this for about two more hours.
While Lynch is a master of mood and tone and succeeds in stirring the desire to SEE to a creepy level of intensity, the last third got a bit much, for me.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, never one to be one-upped, concludes that while some have complained that the film is incoherent, the emotions Lynch is presenting on the screen are plain as day - among them, a sort of loathing for Hollywood and its cheapening of human emotion (he makes a great deal of what I guess is the film's climax, in which a dying Dern - in one of her various incarnations - vomits blood on one of the stars on the Walk of Fame). Clear that Lynch feels antipathy towards Hollywood - Rosenbaum is right that that is in there, and there are constant other references to spectatorship, the cheapening of experience on TV and in movies (most notably figured by a sitcom within the film, complete with laugh track, starring giant rabbits); certain scenes at the end deliberately echo Mulholland Drive, taking place in a cinema where Dern watches her own image onscreen - an image of herself watching her own image, and on into infinity... All told, this self-reflexive one-hand-clapping "cinema about cinema" stuff seems to only account for about 50% of the last two-thirds of the film, however. What's with the Slavic subplot? What's with the framing device involving a prostitute (?) being beaten by her pimp(?)? When Laura Dern shoots the badguy, what the fuck is the meaning of the giant surreal face that appears? Why have her talk about gouging the eye of a potential rapist to a sort of shrink-character (whose role is what, exactly?)? What's the point of all the class stuff here, and do the stories the prostitutes tell (or the homeless people watching Dern vomit) have any bearing on anything? What's with the whole issue of the death of a son - whose son? Why a screwdriver, and what's the whole "I've been programmed to stab someone with a screwdriver" thing about? Is it meant to signify characters trying to escape the plot of the narrative they're in - never really having autonomy, slaves to the master plan of the artist - or is the resonance meant to be deeper, dealing with how we're all slaves to our subconsciousness, to drives we can't fully master?
In the end, you settle into a sort of resignation: none of this, it turns out, is going to make sense after all, save what sense you impose on it. It's crafted to frustrate being resolved into any one reading; the film would probably be a failure if it could be wrapped up with as tidy a bow as Rosenbaum brings to his reading of it. It's actually something of a service to the film to call it incoherent; it means you've resisted the urge to oversimplify, to chop off limbs to fit the bed you've made for it.
Since I don't really know what the hell to make of the film, though, I can't really evaluate it. I suspect it will best lend itself to people who want to go for the experience of being tripped out, who don't care about whether it amounts to anything, enjoying the aesthetic experience for its own sake (a "shamanic journey," as a friend said of the film, a drug trip, which you can make what you will out of). I'm not actually interested in that sort of cinema - even El Topo, which I'll be attending Tuesday at the Cinematheque, is quite coherent and cogent and applicable to life, by comparison to Inland Empire, which I am currently planning to simply forget about; I've been frustrated enough by it to not really want to think about it much more. I do like stories that have meaning, nice little meanings you can wrap up in a bow and contemplate. Or, even better, that leave you asking interesting questions about life and experience, questioning your relationship to the world, stimulated to look at things differently.

This was not such a film experience. Leaving Inland Empire, I just felt like I'd been bludgeoned, fucked with, and finally dismissed. For all the film's obvious craft and ambition, I can't really recommend such an experience to anyone.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Old Joy on DVD

Go figure... one of the best-received films of the last film festival, Old Joy, starring Will Oldham, who sold out three shows in a row when last he played Vancouver, has just been released on DVD, and very few of our stores have had the wit to stock it. I dropped by HMV last Monday night at midnight, just as they were putting out the new stock (it was released on May 1st): they'd never heard of it, though were busily emptying cases of Jodorowsky. A&B Sound and Future Shop - forget about it. Scratch say they'll be getting a copy any day. So far the only place that I've found selling it in the city is Videomatica. Maybe the rental stores are faring better?
This is a really beautiful, quiet film - lots of meditative silences and lovely photography, but also a very moving, if subtle, story of friendship, alienation, and life in contemporary America; it follows two friends and their dog (actually the filmmaker's dog, Lucy) on a camping trip to Bagby Hot Springs. The less said before you see the film the better; it's not that it offers up any particular narrative surprises, but simply deserves to be experienced with as a few preconceptions as possible.
By odd coincidence, just as Old Joy was my favourite film of 2006, Police Beat (due in July on DVD!) was my favourite film of 2005. Both films imagine the mountains, forests and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest - Old Joy more explicitly, though the working title for Police Beat was, in fact, Cascadia... It DOES comfort me to see forests that remind me of the forests I've explored in BC, to see landscapes that speak of home; even the grubby little suburbs of Portland at the beginning of Old Joy are pretty much exactly like the town I grew up in, Maple Ridge (where I'm currently blogging from, visiting my parents).
One warning to anyone considering buying the DVD, though: the commentary track is very, very odd, since it's punctuated by very long silences. It's impossible to tell if the people involved - director Kelly Reichardt, her cinematographer Peter Sillen, and filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who has nothing to do with Old Joy and says at the outset that he doesn't know why he's been asked to moderate -- are uncomfortable with each other, said things that got edited out at a later date, or, most likely, are just moved by the meditative qualities of the film to watch it in silence, perhaps also helping them cope with social awkwardness... It's pretty weird, though. There are six or seven minute stretches where the film simply plays and you wait, wondering if and when anyone is going to speak again, and if they're going to say anything more interesting that "it rained while we were shooting this scene" before lapsing into another long silence. It would have probably been better to just turn the film over to one person - Reichardt - and let her say what she wanted to... She DOES have interesting things to say when she speaks. Maybe she just doesn't really believe in the whole idea of commentary, though? It's not actually necessary.
I like that she sought out a story that she could write her dog into, in any event. Dog lovers would like this film.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Michael Ondaatje on The Hustler

Michael Ondaatje's reason for selecting The Hustler for his Cinema Salon showing earlier this evening at the VIFC had to do with the craft of the film - viewing the film at age 19, shortly after coming to Canada. It was the first time - I can only roughly paraphrase - that he became aware of film as a work of art, consciously crafted to take a certain form, and it left a lasting impression on him. To my surprise, he had little else to really say this evening - certainly he had little prepared; he shared his enthusiasm for the movie, and praised the lovely new print we were privileged to watch, but offered no particularly deep insights, placing himself not particularly above the audience in terms of his thoughts about the movie - he was actually quite down to earth and relaxed about the whole event, which, don't get me wrong, was quite pleasing to see; I had never imagined he would be an approachable sort, and besides, I went to see the film on the big screen, not to hear him. He did TALK, mind you: Ondaatje expressed considerable enthusiasm for Walter Tevis' (non-SF, post-alcoholic) novel about competition, third in a sort of series after the two Fast Eddie books, The Queen's Gambit - a chess novel that I have on my shelf but have yet to read, including an enthusiastic blurb on the front cover from him. I was somewhat disappointed, though, that he had next to nothing to say about the differences between the novel of The Hustler and the film, which fascinate me; he confessed that he hadn't looked at the book in something like 25 years, and invited me, when I asked, to explain the different ending, which I did. I actually re-read the novel expressly for the purpose of being prepared to see the film again on the big screen, so that, if the opportunity arose, I could engage Ondaatje, as a fellow fan of both Tevis and the film, on the topic. Ah, well - so much for having done my homework!

Anyhow, for those curious, the film IS very different from the book. What makes the movie so remarkable is the archetypal force of the characters; though Bert, Sarah, and Eddie are all wholly believable, their trajectory seems pregnant with meaning. It resonates deep in the viewer's mind - at least is does mine; it is impossible not to think about fathers, teachers, competitors, lovers, losers, hustlers and predators when watching the film, to position yourself among these characters, to see them as types and polarities also present in ones own life, and to try to abstract some sort of lesson from their drama: what does their interrelationship teach you about life? What is the meaning of Sarah's suicide, of Bert's need to defeat others, of Eddie's need to win, and - where does it leave you, as a human being? What do your own feelings during the film say about your own failings, your own vices, your own virtues? Why do you feel so RECOGNIZED at times in the film - when these characters are mostly talking about pool and gambling, neither of which you might give the slightest damn about? As one of the audience members commented after the screening, getting Ondaatje's agreement, it seems a very moral film, which is very true. Oddly, though, for all it's moral force, all the sense that you've learned a lesson from the film, it's very difficult to tidily "sum up its meaning." Asked about this, Ondaatje shrugged and said it was about the characters, about "everything," and didn't really try to grapple at all with it. I don't blame him, and I will follow suit, but -

- what really interests me about the difference between the film and the novel is this: much of this "archetypal, moral" quality of the film - the sense that you are supposed to be drawing lessons from the experience - is present only IN the film. In the film, things unstated or very subtle in the novel are accentuated, underscored, made more obvious - one example would be Sarah's shockingly bold comment at the bus station that the four hours before her bus (allegedly) leaves wouldn't give her and Eddie very much time ( have sex). It's a great line, really surprising and revealing, and got a laugh from the audience, but while its absolutely true to the characters in the novel, it is, in fact, an invention of the screenwriters - who time and again strive to accentuate the developments in the book, to exagerrate them, to make them larger than life and thus more "cinematic." (Sarah's speech about how if Eddie ever says that he loves her, she'll never let him take the words back - one of the most memorable moments in the film - is also their invention). This tendency for them to underscore passages in boldface, to state the unstated, to really dig deeper into the meat of the novel, strip away some of the unnecessary details and get the essence of things on the screen is responsible for most of the "archetypal" quality of the film, and also says a great deal about the differences between cinema and literature. While, obviously, one does think about winning and losing when reading the novel, and learns and grows along with Eddie, the book is much more concerned with staying true to its characters and finely observing their lives, perceptions, emotions; and none more than Eddie's. It is much MORE about the "characters and everything" than the film; it's compelling and rewarding and a really admirable novel, but in the way of a very well-drawn character study, and the sense that you've just watched a Greek tragedy or an obscure morality play situated in poolhalls is almost completely absent when you close the book. You may wonder how much of Eddie is in you - but you won't wonder what the meaning of the Eddie-Bert-Sarah triad is; it's just not a question that will come up.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the ending. In the film, Sarah insists on coming to Kentucky; locks horns with Bert; and is eventually seduced and destroyed by him, committing suicide out of her own despair - her belief that she is "perverted, twisted, crippled" - but also, perhaps, to rescue Eddie from Bert's clutches, as a sort of desperate act of love. (This is certainly the effect her sacrifice has; it's almost a Christian act, dying so that the one you love may live). All of this is a complete departure from the book, in which Eddie goes to Kentucky alone; there, he vacillates between two extremes. He thinks Sarah is too much of a loser, too romantically drawn to dramatic failure and suffering (and alcohol); he wonders if she will just hold him back. Yet more instinctively, when he passes a jewellery store, he finds himself contemplating buying a wedding ring for her. He decides, finally, that he can't be with her in the long term, that he's indulging a folly, and goes on about the business of pool, playing Findlay. When he next sees her, it is clear that he has decided to move on, but he offers her a very fond goodbye, and wants her to know that he really did think about buying a ring (he gets her an expensive watch instead). She understands and accepts, and he walks out of her life into the final confrontation with Minnesota Fats (and Bert). Nowhere near as dramatic as in the film, and nowhere near as pregnant with MEANING - but also nowhere near as contrived. Sarah's suicide and the events that lead up to it actually betray the realism of the novel and even of the film, to some extent - we leave the poolrooms and bars and suddenly find ourselves in a Hollywood melodrama - a really GOOD one, but one that definitely does have the mark of Hollywood on it, and of drama and of Greek tragedy and all that, too. A lot of things totally extraneous to the game of pool and the novel's fixation on what it means to win; the story of The Hustler (the film) brings to mind Wim Wenders (once famous, now probably forgotten) quote - which I'll have to paraphrase, so long has it been since I've seen it mentioned - that stories only take place in stories.

So different are the two experiences, the novel and the film, that I've never really been able to choose between them, as to which I like more. The film is a great adaptation of a very good novel; it probably ranks higher in the hierarchy of great American films than the book ranks in the hierarchy of great American novels; but comparing the two is quite a lesson in how an adaptation can be faithful and yet still be radically different.

On the way out, I offered my copy of The Hustler (which I'd brought along) to Mr. Ondaatje, as a thank you for having selected this film - it was great to have seen it on the screen. He said he had a copy of it around somewhere, but thanked me - and signed the book I thrust at him. He seems like a nice chap... maybe I'll get to The Queen's Gambit sometime soon.

El Topo at the Cinematheque May 8th - Jodorowsky fans take note!

Okay, it's somewhat lazy of me, but here's a first: I'm copyin' out verbatim a press release for the upcoming Jod screening at the Cinematheque. (It's late and I want to get to bed). All errors I didn't catch should be attributed to the authors o' the release!

A Friends of Jodorowsky presentation

The cult film that was the first “Midnight Movie” returns to the screen at last

A restored “El Topo” ready to blow minds again

Vancouver audiences will have their first chance in over 35 years to see the film that launched the midnight movie phenomenon and became a cultural icon to a generation. El Topo (The Mole) is an explosive tale of blood, sand and surrealism. Locked away for decades in the vaults of Allen Klein, the Beatles' former business manager, El Topo has not been distributed in years, nor issued on video (Al note: in North America. It's been available in Japan all along, with optical fogging on the genitals). When Klein’s son took over his father’s interests, it was decided to restore the film and let the world have another look. Now the film has been HD digitally restored and is being released to art houses and in a DVD set of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

In the fall of 1970, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky arrived in New York with a print of El Topo under his arm. There was no attempt to open the film in Mexico, where it was made, because Jodorowsky had had problems there with the censorship of his first feature Fando Y Lis. El Topo premiered at the Elgin theatre in New York City on the night of December 18, 1970, where it ran continuously every weekday at midnight, and at 1:00am on Fridays and Saturdays, until the end of June, 1971. Within two weeks of the first screening, El Topo was doing turn-away business. Ben Barenholtz, owner of the Elgin recalls that “within two months, the limos lined up every night.” El Topo became a must-see item.”

Among the regulars at the midnight screenings of El Topo at the Elgin in the spring of 1971 were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Ex-Beatle Lennon, was blown away by El Topo. He wanted his manager, Allen Klein to purchase the rights to the film. So in June, Klein’s Abkco Films acquired El Topo and re-opened it at the up-scale Broadway Cinemas in the winter of 1971 to mixed notices from mainstream New York reviewers. Regardless, the film became an art house cornerstone all over North America.

The power of El Topo lay in its ability to address the counterculture directly. It’s style is a synthesis of Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Jean-Luc Godard. El Topo’s relevance ranks highly amongst other important texts of the counterculture generation, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural,” and Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. No one who sees this film ever forgets it.

El Topo is playing at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver on May 8 for one night only. Not since 1971 has El Topo been shown in its full glory.

Tuesday May 8, 7:30 pm at Pacific Cinematheque, 1131 Howe St. Vancouver.
More info: