Conrad Veidt is mesmerized

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Force Majeure (Turist, 2014)

Poster for Force Majeure

This Swedish-language film is a black comedy about the human ability to reconceive humiliation as heroism and failure as triumph. It’s set in a ski resort in the French Alps, and the majestic setting, with its crystalline air and pure white snow, only magnifies the inadequacies of the characters, particularly the Swedish family of four at the heart of the story. Tomas is a workaholic who is finally taking five days to focus on his family, and Ebba is his beautiful wife and the devoted mother of their two spoiled children, Vera and Harry. While eating lunch on the veranda of the resort one day, they witness a controlled avalanche that nevertheless causes everyone on the veranda to panic. Tomas runs away, leaving his wife and children huddled under the table. His failure of nerve precipitates a crisis in the family.

The comedy of this scenario is very dry and deadpan. It’s a comedy of denial and emotional contortions observed from a chilly distance. I’ve seen some comparisons to Kubrick, and I think part of it is the way the mountainous landscape and modernist architecture of the resort are used to create a sense of austere beauty that seems to mock the fumbling foibles of the flawed characters. Even the mechanisms of the ski lifts and conveyor walkways seem to complain about the idiocy of human behavior or to threaten unexpectedly to break the illusion of command and control. Everything is regular, repetitive, mechanical, but constantly on the verge of coming apart at the seams. I’ve also seen this described as an attack on bourgeois complacency, but if there’s a class element to the satire, it’s too subtle for me. These are middle class characters leading a life of privilege, but their flaws are universal.

The Swedish title is Turist, which means “tourist.” I didn’t know what “force majeure” meant until I looked it up this morning, but the implications of Force Majeure as a title seem quite a bit different from Turist. In some ways Force Majeure spells out the underlying theme of the film, which is the attempt to dodge responsibility for reactions to events outside of one’s control. Turist perhaps mocks the characters for living life as though they’re only visitors looking to escape the responsibilities of the daily grind. Well, maybe that’s not so different after all.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Safe Blu-Ray

Safe (1995)

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Interstellar (2014)

Posgter for Interstellar

What to say about Christopher Nolan? His films always leave me with mixed feelings (other than Memento, which I loved at the time, and Insomnia, which I hated), and articulating the mixture feels like a chore. On balance I’d say the mixture is more positive than negative, and thus I’ve seen all of his films except the first one. However, there’s a stodgy, overblown quality to all of them that always leaves a bad aftertaste in my mental mouth.

Interstellar is the story of humanity confronting the existential threat of an ecological disaster called the Blight and looking for the answer via a space trip to a distant galaxy. It’s an ambitious, large scale science fiction film graced with some amazing visual vistas from outer space, inside a wormhole, on bizarre alien planets, and inside/outside time itself. Interestingly, the scenes set on blighted Earth looked muddy and dull on the Pacific Science Center IMAX screen where I saw it. Maybe that was a deliberate choice to contrast the dull-as-dirt limitations of the planet with the grandeur of infinite space, but I’m thinking something was wrong with the image, because it made faces blurry and indistinct too.

One of the things about Nolan’s later movies (since the first Batman film) that drives me up a tree is the hushed, anguished, portentous tone with which so much of the dialogue and the narrative is delivered. Everything — the stakes, the risks, the accomplishment — is HUGE AND VERY, VERY IMPORTANT!!!! The seriousness of Interstellar is leavened with some slightly nerdy but well-judged robot humor, but my personal taste always leaves me wanting more absurdity and sarcasm and less heroism. That said, this one is probably more successful for me than Inception in connecting the high concept to the personal melodrama. The finale was very powerful, I thought, even at its most implausible and perfunctory, and there’s one moment where the protagonist, Cooper, realizes (along with the audience) that he isn’t on a planetary surface like he thought he was that is a beautiful, perfectly executed combination of playful humor and science fictional sense of wonder. Beyond this horizon, indeed.

David Bordwell has written persuasively about Nolan’s skills with narrative structure, and Interstellar, while less tricky and elaborate than Inception, does a very nice job of connecting the dots set out at the beginning to those in the climax, which is a big part of the reason the finale is so emotionally satisfying. Getting between the dots is a bit of a slog, but the attention to structural detail pays off in the end. I find it hard to connect with Nolan’s thematic concerns, which seem overly grandiose to me, but he keeps me coming back with his flair for spectacle and neat story ideas. In a year that has seen a large number of very good and idiosyncratic science fiction films (Snowpiercer, Under the Skin, The Congress, The Zero Theorem), Interstellar isn’t one of my favorites, but it ranks up there with Guardians of the Galaxy as a more old-fashioned populist adventure story with plenty of thrills.

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Pasolini’s Medea

Comments from Netflix:

“Of course I thought this was the opera. I guess I’ll have to pay closer attention to the DVD descriptions in future. This was my fault of course.”

“On my dvd, one whole 15-20 minute scene is repeated, as if the film editor liked it so much, he wanted us to see it again.”

‘”Art” with a capital “A”.’

“It seems to take longer to watch the movie than for the students to have made it.”

‘OK, when I saw the priests scuttling around in their costumes, I thought of a scene in “Time Bandits” and started laughing.’

“Watch Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts instead, and just imagine Medea back home murdering the kids.”

“May appeal to those interested in 1960s experimental film, but anyone looking for a film version of Euripedes’ play will be disappointed. ”

“This is not a film version of Euripides’ ‘Medea’, although much of the last half of the movie follows Euripides’ narrative line. The first half is an intriguing imaginative recreation of ancient Colchis and the profoundly non-Greek cultic traditions out of which Medea came. It’s presented as myth, in that her passion for Jason is only implied, not presented. The theft of the Golden Fleece seems unmotivated unless one already knows the story. So this part of the film is like one created by a director from the eighth century B.C. In the second half Euripides’ gods play no role and the focus is on Medea’s psychological reaction to Jason’s abandonment — tho’ her old gods do play a role at least in her mind. The death of Glauce is presented in two versions, one akin to myth and the second a modern, almost feminist take in which Glauce realises Medea’s grief and sorrow and throws herself from the parapet in sympathy. Much of the film is wordless; words are unnecessary for the presentation of most of a myth like this and Pasolini knew that. The slow unfolding of the story is less important than the sense of foreboding and inevitability. One shouldn’t expect any surprises just a wonderfully strange evocation of a completely alien world.”

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Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours, 2013)

Poster for Mood Indigo

Michel Gondry has had a very odd, uncategorizable career. He’s perhaps best known for his hand-crafted lo-fi design sense that feeds into or grows out of a playful, surrealist perspective on the world, although he’s also capable of more straightforward (although still playful) documentary films like Block Party. I’ve seen six of his ten feature films, along with a bunch of his music videos, and I guess I’d say he’s best when he’s working with another powerful creative personality, such as Charlie Kaufman in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dave Chappelle in Block Party. Thus I was hopeful at the prospect of Mood Indigo, which is an adaptation of the 1947 novel L’écume des jours by the French writer Boris Vian. The buzz about the film was that it was full of Gondry’s trademark design and animation work, and I hoped that adapting another writer’s book would guard against the aimlessness that I thought both The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind suffered from.

I hadn’t heard of Boris Vian, but apparently he’s quite famous in the French-speaking world. L’écume des jours has been adapted on film three times before, including a Japanese version in 2001, and it was also adapted as an opera by the Russian composer Edison Denisov in 1981. The novel has been translated into English three times, under the titles Froth on the Daydream and Foam of Daze. “L’écume” is French for froth or scum, and IMDb claims that the colloquial meaning of the phrase is the remnant of daydreams. Vian’s book is considered a work of surrealism, and so it seems to be right up Gondry’s alley.

So after all that preface, I’ll say I had mixed feelings about the movie. The first half or so left me feeling pretty cold, as it showed Gondry at his most aggressively weird and nonsensical. The visual inventiveness is at a very high level, but it felt like an assault. The characters were unpleasant when they weren’t being too cute and childish. When the protagonist, Colin (Romain Duris), meets the love interest, Chloe (Audrey Tautou), it was like a nightmare romantic comedy. Not a parody, not a satire, but just unrelieved magical realist tweeness. I hated them both.

Well, maybe that’s the way Gondry wanted it. Maybe at heart he’s an avant gardist who wants to attack and subvert narrative conventions and escapist identification. Maybe all the mad visual invention is at the service of reminding us that this is an artificial world, and maybe he’s embracing the fact that dreams can be nightmares. Certainly as the film progresses, it gets darker and darker, and I found myself warming up to it as it got less twee and more anguished. After a while it did begin to feel like a very strange nightmare version of the standard meet-cute-and-die-of-a-disease story convention. (Think Love Story.) Weirdly, the alienation caused by the happy parts of the story gives way to identification in the tragic parts. Is that my personal problem, or is that intentional?

It certainly left me curious about the novel and the other adaptations of it. Vian seems a fascinating, complicated figure, from what I’ve been reading about him. (Amongst many other cool items on his resume, he apparently translated two Raymond Chandler novels and A.E. van Vogt’s The Word of Null-A into French.) As for Gondry, I’m not sure what to make of him at this point. I can’t say I really liked Mood Indigo over all, but I do love his design sense and quirky sense of humor. In the abstract I like his willingness to take chances and follow his literal dreams. The results are more often than not a mess, however, and I’m beginning to wonder whether he will ever do anything as great as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again.

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Birdman (2014)

Poster for Birdman

Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. This film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (it’s the first thing I’ve seen by him) concerns a Hollywood actor named Riggan (Michael Keaton), who is world famous for playing a superhero character named Birdman but who wants to re-invent himself as a serious Broadway actor and director. He’s written a play based on a Raymond Carver story called “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”. The movie is what David Bordwell calls a network narrative that follows Riggan and various family members and the cast and crew working on the play as they go about the business of putting on a show and working out their relationships to each other and to themselves. What results is a complicated (and perhaps muddled) meditation on film versus stage, parenthood, ego, fame, ambition, self-hatred, and, yes, even love in the big city.

Birdman has a very jazzy rhythm, both literally and figuratively. The score is mostly a propulsive jazz drum line full of nervous, surging energy. Likewise the narrative, which moves seamlessly from one scene and encounter to another with a restless, exploratory rhythm. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has done similar things with director Alfonso Cuarón, for example in last year’s Gravity, work with an expanded version of the long take, in which the camera follows characters as they travel from place to place and moves around them within a scene rather than cutting back and forth. It creates a feeling of continuous time that again emphasizes a jazzy feeling of immediacy and improvisation.

It also mimics the continuous time in which live theater is experienced, and that plays into the film’s theme of screen versus stage. It’s really quite clever in the way it allows for the passage of longer stretches of time within this scheme, for example by stopping on a building and then using time lapse photography to show the lights changing over the course of the night. Suddenly the stage becomes cinematic. Meanwhile, the camera weaves down a corridor until it finds a character and moves into an uncomfortable close-up to allow the character to deliver an over-emphatic monologue, and the cinema becomes a declamatory stage play. Likewise the film mimics the kind of theatrical realism of, say, Arthur Miller in exposing the mean everyman flaws of its characters, while occasionally escaping into screen fantasies of superpower flying and telekinesis.

I’m not sure I followed the thread between Riggan’s realities and fantasies. On a first time through it felt like there were several false endings, and I wasn’t sure what the point of that was, unless it was trying to draw attention to the falseness of narrative resolution. But the story’s got to end somewhere, and the ending of Birdman is appropriately ambiguous, even perhaps uplifting. Does it add up to anything insightful? I’m not sure, but I sure enjoyed the ride. Beautiful camerawork, great rhythm, wonderful performances, bopping music. If some of the emotional outbursts seemed contrived, the film seemed aware of it. It’s very funny, and part of the fun is the way it pulls the rug out from under the characters and out from under the audience. It’s ambitious, it’s urgent, it’s offbeat, and it’s shifty. It takes you to some unexpected places. But is ignorance really a virtue?

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Happy Halloween!

Screencap from Planet of the Vampires Blu-Ray

Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio, 1965)
[Via DVD Beaver.]

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Conrad Veidt is mesmerizing

Wearing eye makeup that calls to mind his role as the mesmerized somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the great Conrad Veidt plays the mesmerizer in the 1929 romantic melodrama, The Last Performance, about a middle-aged stage musician who falls in love with his beautiful teenage assistant. Directed by Paul Fejos with great visual style at the tail end of the silent era, the main reason to watch the film is Veidt’s expressive performance, which fortunately wasn’t actually his last. Look deeply into his eyes … if you dare!

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The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari, 2013)

Japanese poster for The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the latest and purportedly last film from Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata. (We’ll see if Takahata is better at following through on his retirement announcement than his partner Hayao Miyazaki has been.) The source of the story is a traditional Japanese folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It concerns an old bamboo cutter who discovers a doll-sized little girl inside a bamboo cane. He takes the girl home to show his wife, and the girl turns into a baby before their eyes. They raise her as she grows with unnatural swiftness into a beautiful young woman. The bamboo cutter also find gold and luxurious kimonos inside bamboo canes, and with the gold he eventually purchases a mansion in the city. The beauty of Princess Kaguya, as the girl comes to be named, soon attracts wealthy and noble suitors.

This is an animated film, and it’s utterly gorgeous. Takahata uses a style here that emphasizes the line and the hand-drawn nature of the line. Backgrounds look like water color paintings. It often looks like traditional Japanese prints come alive. Sometimes it looks like crude sketches come alive. There’s a dream sequence in which Princess Kaguya’s anger seems to cause the world and herself to dissolve into furious scribbles. Something about Takahata’s approach here calls attention to the fact that this animation. As evocative as it is of the natural world, there’s nothing naturalistic about the visual style. Or maybe it’s just that it the simplicity of the look produces its own sense of naturalism.

Simplicity and closeness to nature are perhaps the main theme of the story. The first part of the movie is about the baby princess being raised in the rustic household of the bamboo cutter and his wife, befriending the kids of a nearby family, and exploring the natural world of the mountain forest they live in. The middle part moves Kaguya and her parents to an urban environment, where she gradually loses touch with the simple, natural life of the countryside. Eventually her true home calls to her, and she learns the value of the life that was lost when she moved to the city.

As a city boy myself, I found the critique of urban life and social rules less interesting than the more playful exaltation of nature. Not that there’s much wrong with the middle section, but it did seem to lag at times. The satire of court manners felt a little banal or unfocused, although the animation continued to be fantastic and the humor sweet. The characters are also strong throughout, although again perhaps the father’s obsession with social status felt a bit unmotivated.

But whatever qualms I felt about the middle section of the film, the final act overcame all doubts. For all that Takahata is showing us the value of simplicity, the story he’s telling is emotionally complex. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it spiritually complex. The finale takes us into a supernatural realm — the world of the gods — and it is completely serene and utterly devastating. It’s an acknowledgment of death and mortality — the natural end of all our stories, with the overwhelming sense of painful loss and awesome inevitability that comes with it. Mono no aware: the poignant transience of all things.

Watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya, I was struck again and again about how unlike other animated movies it is, other than Takahata’s own movies. Miyazaki does something equally powerful, but he’s stylistically completely different. Takahata has created a style of his own. Contemplating this final tale, a sense of mono no aware arises at the passing of a unique vision. We can be thankful that he shared it with us for a time.

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