Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It's Just Like That

Woman Is the Future of Man
(Hong Sangsoo, South Korea, 2004, 35mm, 88 min.)


I like his films above all because they are amusing. Not in the style of comic films but they manage to capture aspects of everyday life that drift by without us really paying attention to them. They show things that we look at and say, "That's right, it's just like that." That's what's amusing.
-- Tae-woo Kim, actor

womanisthefuture.jpg

If, as Hong Sangsoo (Turning Gate) would have it, woman is the future of man, then man is in big trouble. The men in his fifth film, Mun-ho (Ji-tae Yu, Oldboy) and Hyeon-jun (Tae-woo Kim, Joint Security Area), are emotional idiots. The woman in their life, the willowy Seon-hwa (Hyeon-a Seong), may be marginally more mature, but she's just as passive. After college, when Hyeon-jun left to study film in the States, Mun-ho hooked up with her. The men stayed in touch, but Mun-ho never told Hyeon-jun about the relationship.

Years later, the two reunite. They've grown apart, but they're still jerks. Hyeon-jun is a filmmaker; Mun-ho is an art professor. Hyeon-jun is poor and single, while the married Mun-ho makes a comfortable living. After spending the afternoon reminiscing and hitting on their waitress, who resembles the college-aged Seon-hwa, they decide to visit the hotel bar she manages.

Long story short, Seon-hwa is the one that got away. Hyeon-jun is lonely and regrets dumping her. She's still hurt. Mun-ho has regrets, too, but keeps them to himself. Mostly, he seems bored. Seeing Seon-hwa again reminds him that he once felt more alive. In a Hollywood production, that would indicate reconciliation time. Instead, Seon-hwa indulges the two losers, letting them drink themselves into oblivion before crashing at her pad. The next morning, she gives Mun-ho a blow job.

Later that day, Mun-ho runs into some students while walking through the snow with Hyeon-jun and Seon-hwa. This results in yet another blow job. By this point, I was reminded of Carnal Knowledge (1971), in which Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel are depicted as dunderheads for mistreating Candace Bergen in college--plus, the Mike Nichols picture also ends with Nicholson being "serviced." It is presented, of course, as a degrading experience.

Woman Is the Future of Man offers a less definitive conclusion. I can only assume that this former SIFF Emerging Master (2003) has more love for his cretins. Hong doesn't punish them--as he does in his grimly fascinating debut, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), which ends with a multiple murder--but nor does he let them off the hook. The menage /* trois re-formed by this clueless trio simply collapses.

It may sound anti-climactic, but the filmmaker Michael Atkinson has called "Korean New Wave's answer to the love child [of] Antonioni and Hou Hsiao-hsien" has, for better or for worse, mounted one of the most realistic reunion films ever made. If The Big Chill (1983), with its kitchen-dancing and flag football games set to the boomer-friendly strains of Motown, is your favorite movie, you may wanna take a pass, but if you're looking for something with more of the messiness of real life: Here's your antidote.

*****
Woman is the Future of Man plays at the Northwest Film Forum May 5-11, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave, on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

It's Just Like That

Woman Is the Future of Man
(Hong Sangsoo, South Korea, 2004, 35mm, 88 min.)


I like his films above all because they are amusing. Not in the style of comic films but they manage to capture aspects of everyday life that drift by without us really paying attention to them. They show things that we look at and say, "That's right, it's just like that." That's what's amusing.
-- Tae-woo Kim, actor

womanisthefuture.jpg

If, as Hong Sangsoo (Turning Gate) would have it, woman is the future of man, then man is in big trouble. The men in his fifth film, Mun-ho (Ji-tae Yu, Oldboy) and Hyeon-jun (Tae-woo Kim, Joint Security Area), are emotional idiots. The woman in their life, the willowy Seon-hwa (Hyeon-a Seong), may be marginally more mature, but she's just as passive. After college, when Hyeon-jun left to study film in the States, Mun-ho hooked up with her. The men stayed in touch, but Mun-ho never told Hyeon-jun about the relationship.

Years later, the two reunite. They've grown apart, but they're still jerks. Hyeon-jun is a filmmaker; Mun-ho is an art professor. Hyeon-jun is poor and single, while the married Mun-ho makes a comfortable living. After spending the afternoon reminiscing and hitting on their waitress, who resembles the college-aged Seon-hwa, they decide to visit the hotel bar she manages.

Long story short, Seon-hwa is the one that got away. Hyeon-jun is lonely and regrets dumping her. She's still hurt. Mun-ho has regrets, too, but keeps them to himself. Mostly, he seems bored. Seeing Seon-hwa again reminds him that he once felt more alive. In a Hollywood production, that would indicate reconciliation time. Instead, Seon-hwa indulges the two losers, letting them drink themselves into oblivion before crashing at her pad. The next morning, she gives Mun-ho a blow job.

Later that day, Mun-ho runs into some students while walking through the snow with Hyeon-jun and Seon-hwa. This results in yet another blow job. By this point, I was reminded of Carnal Knowledge (1971), in which Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel are depicted as dunderheads for mistreating Candace Bergen in college--plus, the Mike Nichols picture also ends with Nicholson being "serviced." It is presented, of course, as a degrading experience.

Woman Is the Future of Man offers a less definitive conclusion. I can only assume that this former SIFF Emerging Master (2003) has more love for his cretins. Hong doesn't punish them--as he does in his grimly fascinating debut, The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996), which ends with a multiple murder--but nor does he let them off the hook. The ménage à trois re-formed by this clueless trio simply collapses.

It may sound anti-climactic, but the filmmaker Michael Atkinson has called "Korean New Wave's answer to the love child [of] Antonioni and Hou Hsiao-hsien" has, for better or for worse, mounted one of the most realistic reunion films ever made. If The Big Chill (1983), with its kitchen-dancing and flag football games set to the boomer-friendly strains of Motown, is your favorite movie, you may wanna take a pass, but if you're looking for something with more of the messiness of real life: Here's your antidote.

*****
Woman is the Future of Man plays at the Northwest Film Forum May 5-11, Fri.-Thurs., at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave, on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Silent Hill

I admit: I went into this film with the very lowest of expectations. And even though I've never played the video game, I was prepared for the worst (I still have bad flashbacks from House of the Dead), but fortunately, Christophe Gans is not Uwe Bowl.

The most striking thing about Silent Hill is how absolutely beautiful it is. Like Gan's last film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, I sometimes got so lost in studying the set details or gazing at a building that I forgot the story narrative -- not that there was much, mind you. But come on kids, this is a horror film based on a game. How much plot, exactly, do you expect there to be? Really the most important thing about a horror movie is that it deliver the heebie-jeebies, and boy howdy, does Silent Hill deliver.

Rose Da Silva (the ever beautiful Radha Mitchell), and her husband (Sean Bean) have a small problem. Their adopted daughter Sharon (Kingdom Hospital's Jodelle Ferland, cementing her name yet again as the spooky-looking child with the large eyes) has disturbing, and sometimes dangerous, sleep walking incidents in which she yells out the name "Silent Hill". Determined to solve the mystery, Rose takes off with her daughter in a car to the town that bears the same name -- a deserted ghost town that hovers over still-burning fires which wiped out most of the residents years ago. After crossing over the bridge to town, the car crashes, Sharon is lost, and that's where all hell breaks lose, only it's not the kind of hell you're used to seeing.

While Rose combs the town for her now-lost daughter through streets raining with ash, burned out buildings, and catacomb like cages, Silent Hill throws us a number of super-creepy town inhabitants. Burning, screaming charcoal-babies, pulsating no-armed things that spit out acid, barbed-wired freaks, flesh eating beetle bugs, and a giant, pyramid headed monster with the biggest sword I've ever seen.

Keep in mind, I don't scare easily, but these guys all made me twitch -- in particular a pack of blinded nurses, all with surgical knives, scalpels, etc., that Rose must tread through carefully because they will kill her instantly if she makes one wrong move. *shiver*

The script does lose momentum a little bit with the whole husband sub-plot (apparently Sean Bean's character was a studio requested write in, because the script had no male characters -- and man, can you TELL it was a last minute addition), and some would argue the steadily built upon religious plot arc is a bit ridiculous, but I have to say: I love me some freaky religious fanatics, especially if they are REALLY freaky (Hello, Alice Krige, I'm looking at you -- nobody plays freaky better), and absolutely deserve to get their comeuppance. I was only wishing that Amanda Plummer had been involved somehow, as she would have fit right in.

And fear not, gore fans. In addition to all the monster-rific creations, there is plenty o'blood to be shed. Lots, and lots, and lots of it - in fact. I was quite happy with what I like to call "the splatter factor" of the special effects. And whoa, those were some impressive special effects -- especially the ones of the non-CGI variety.

All in all, I believe it really did a decent job creating a creepy story with lots of scary gore, and of course, leaving it wide open for a sequel at the end. I found it highly entertaining, and would definitely pick it up on DVD if I found it for around $10. Silent Hill 2, anyone? I just hope there's as much splatter...and maybe some new monsters.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Hope Is Dead

MOUCHETTE
(Robert Bresson, France, 1967, 35mm, 78 mins.)


mouchette.jpg

I want to concentrate, constantly, absolutely, on one face, the face of this little girl,
to see her reactions... And I will choose, yes, the most awkward little girl there is,
and try to draw from her everything that she will not suspect I am drawing from her.

-- Robert Bresson to Jean-Luc Godard

*****

That makes Bresson sound like a master manipulator. Maybe he was. At any rate, he pulls it off-or rather the little girl pulls it off-and I don't see how anyone could fail to be moved by her performance, regardless as to their feelings about the film.

Fourteen years old, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) has the countenance of one much older. Her eyes are dark, lips full, nose long, hair unruly. She is not unattractive,
but nor is she beautiful. This being a Bresson film she is, however, miserable.

mouchette2.jpg
She has reason. Mouchette's mother (Maria Cardinal) is dying. Her father
(Paul Hebert) spends all his time drinking and bootlegging, so it's up to her
to take care of Mother and the infant child. She also works at the local tavern.
At school, nobody likes Mouchette, not even the teacher. During a singing
exercise-"Hope is dead" is the key line-she shoves the girl to the front of
the class and holds her head down, inches from the piano keys, forcing her
to hit the notes. Fine singing voice aside, there's one she can't get. Every time,
she's off-key. The teacher pushes her back in line. The other girls snicker.
Later, Mouchette hides in a ditch and flings mud at her classmates. Has she
been mistreated? Without a doubt. Are her actions justified? Possibly, but why
would anyone want to be friends with someone who would throw mud at them?
Adapted from the novel by George Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest) and released
a year after Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette follows a similar trajectory. Balthazar, a donkey, is abused for years until he finally falls to the ground and expires. He's the ultimate mute protagonist. He suffers, we suffer. Death marks the end of his misery.
Mouchette is also abused, but she can fight back. And does. This makes the
movie as compelling as it is discomfiting. She says and does some perfectly
dreadful things-just because we know why doesn't make it any easier to take.
It's the crux of Mouchette's dilemma. Hers is a horrible existence. When
life hands her lemons, she makes more. As other unfortunate events befall
her, Mouchette does everything within her power to make each one worse.
On the other hand, she's also a sensitive caretaker. She may not be ab-
le to fend for herself, but she takes good care of her mother and younger
brother. When the village poacher, Ars/(R)ne (Jean-Claude Guilbert, Au Has-
ard Balthazar
), has an epileptic fit, she cradles his head as he foams at the
mouth. When he stops thrashing about, she wipes his face with tenderness.
Is she rewarded for her efforts? Not quite. Once recovered, Ars/(R)ne
thanks Mouchette for her kindness by raping the girl. The next day,
her mother dies. And that's when things start to get really bad.
But let's backtrack for a second. Earlier in the film, Mouchette is driving a bumper car, flirtatiously crashing into-and being crashed into by-a handsome young man in a dark suit. She's smiling the whole time. She looks her age. And she's beautiful.
Afterwards, the boy walks away from her, but keeps looking back. Clearly, he
wants her to follow. She does. Things are starting to look up. This being Bresson,
the moment can't possibly last. It doesn't. All of a sudden, her drunken father swoops in like a bat, smacks her across the cheek, and drags her back to the tavern.
The boy is gone, the smile is gone-the beauty is gone. From that point forward, Mouchette has no place to go but down. So down it goes. It's as if Antoine Doinel stepped off the ride in The 400 Blows, walked towards the sea and, well, you know.
Mouchette goes all the way. Some have described the ending as "spiritual,"
others as "tragic." For me, it came as a relief. Up until that point, Nortier,
a one-shot actress, made me feel every bump, bruise, slight, and slan-
der. I'm not sure whether I should be grateful or resentful, but it ranks
as one of the most remarkable child performances I've ever seen.
mouchette3.jpg
Bresson quote from Joseph Cunneen's Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in
Film
. Mouchette plays the Northwest Film Forum April 28 - May 4, Fri.-Thurs.,
at 7 and 9pm (no shows April 29). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave-
nue between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please
click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-
5380 for show times. Images from Horses Think and Sounds, Images.

Hope Is Dead

MOUCHETTE
(Robert Bresson, France, 1967, 35mm, 78 mins.)


mouchette.jpg

I want to concentrate, constantly, absolutely, on one face, the face of this little girl,
to see her reactions... And I will choose, yes, the most awkward little girl there is,
and try to draw from her everything that she will not suspect I am drawing from her.

-- Robert Bresson to Jean-Luc Godard

*****

That makes Bresson sound like a master manipulator. Maybe he was. At any rate, he pulls it off -- or rather the little girl pulls it off -- and I don't see how anyone could fail to be moved by her performance, regardless as to their feelings about the film.

Fourteen years old, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) has the countenance of one much older. Her eyes are dark, lips full, nose long, hair unruly. She is not unattractive,
but nor is she beautiful. This being a Bresson film she is, however, miserable.

mouchette2.jpg
She has reason. Mouchette's mother (Maria Cardinal) is dying. Her father
(Paul Hebert) spends all his time drinking and bootlegging, so it's up to her
to take care of Mother and the infant child. She also works at the local tavern.
At school, nobody likes Mouchette, not even the teacher. During a singing
exercise -- "Hope is dead" is the key line -- she shoves the girl to the front of
the class and holds her head down, inches from the piano keys, forcing her
to hit the notes. Fine singing voice aside, there's one she can't get. Every time,
she's off-key. The teacher pushes her back in line. The other girls snicker.
Later, Mouchette hides in a ditch and flings mud at her classmates. Has she
been mistreated? Without a doubt. Are her actions justified? Possibly, but why
would anyone want to be friends with someone who would throw mud at them?
Adapted from the novel by George Bernanos (Diary of a Country Priest) and released
a year after Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette follows a similar trajectory. Balthazar, a donkey, is abused for years until he finally falls to the ground and expires. He's the ultimate mute protagonist. He suffers, we suffer. Death marks the end of his misery.
Mouchette is also abused, but she can fight back. And does. This makes the
movie as compelling as it is discomfiting. She says and does some perfectly
dreadful things -- just because we know why doesn't make it any easier to take.
It's the crux of Mouchette's dilemma. Hers is a horrible existence. When
life hands her lemons, she makes more. As other unfortunate events befall
her, Mouchette does everything within her power to make each one worse.
On the other hand, she's also a sensitive caretaker. She may not be ab-
le to fend for herself, but she takes good care of her mother and younger
brother. When the village poacher, Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert, Au Has-
ard Balthazar
), has an epileptic fit, she cradles his head as he foams at the
mouth. When he stops thrashing about, she wipes his face with tenderness.
Is she rewarded for her efforts? Not quite. Once recovered, Arsène
thanks Mouchette for her kindness by raping the girl. The next day,
her mother dies. And that's when things start to get really bad.
But let's backtrack for a second. Earlier in the film, Mouchette is driving a bumper car, flirtatiously crashing into -- and being crashed into by -- a handsome young man in a dark suit. She's smiling the whole time. She looks her age. And she's beautiful.
Afterwards, the boy walks away from her, but keeps looking back. Clearly, he
wants her to follow. She does. Things are starting to look up. This being Bresson,
the moment can't possibly last. It doesn't. All of a sudden, her drunken father swoops in like a bat, smacks her across the cheek, and drags her back to the tavern.
The boy is gone, the smile is gone -- the beauty is gone. From that point forward, Mouchette has no place to go but down. So down it goes. It's as if Antoine Doinel stepped off the ride in The 400 Blows, walked towards the sea and, well, you know.
Mouchette goes all the way. Some have described the ending as "spiritual,"
others as "tragic." For me, it came as a relief. Up until that point, Nortier,
a one-shot actress, made me feel every bump, bruise, slight, and slan-
der. I'm not sure whether I should be grateful or resentful, but it ranks
as one of the most remarkable child performances I've ever seen.
mouchette3.jpg
Bresson quote from Joseph Cunneen's Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in
Film
. Mouchette plays the Northwest Film Forum April 28 - May 4, Fri.-Thurs.,
at 7 and 9pm (no shows April 29). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave-
nue between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please
click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-
5380 for show times. Images from Horses Think and Sounds, Images.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Innocent Dreams

Innocence
(Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France, 2004, 35mm, 115 mins.)


01_small.jpg

It's such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green
it's memories that I'm stealing
but you're innocent when you dream
when you dream
you're innocent when you dream

-- Tom Waits, "Innocent When You Dream" (1987)

*****

There are films that, if known by another title, just wouldn't be the same.
Gaspar Noé's incredibly disturbing Irréversible is one of them. It begins at
the horrific end and winds its way back to the blissful beginning. Then it's over.
The idea is that you'll leave the theater feeling good. Nice try, but I found it impossible to get those indelible images of rape and murder out of my head.

It all comes back to the title: Irréversible. (Happiness will not -- cannot -- last.)
Noé's editor, Lucile Hadzihalilovic (I Stand Alone), has named her debut
Innocence, and I can't imagine another title for it. While watching, I kept
thinking about the concept. I wondered: Is innocence really such a good
thing? As children, we work hard to lose it; as adults, we work hard to regain it.

innocence2.jpg
Ranging in age from six to 12, the girls in Hadzihalilovic's dreamy reverie
(she has cited Spirit of the Beehive as an influence) are locked away from the
outside world. The velvet ribbons in their hair indicate their ages: red for the six-year-olds -- like new arrival Iris (Zoé Auclair) -- orange for the seven-year-olds, etc. The rest of their uniform consists of a white shirt, white skirt, and dark boots.
It isn't clear where this boarding school is located or when the story takes
place, only that the students are as innocent as can be. There are no men,
no boys -- few women even -- to "corrupt" them. This is fine with most of the
girls, but some will do anything to escape, even though the vine-encrusted wall enclosing the school lacks an entrance. They take risks, they pay the price.
The assumption is that there must be something better beyond the wall.
Like, say, the adult world. But maybe there isn't. Maybe they're surrounded by crushing poverty. Maybe an arid desert. Maybe there's nothing there at all.
Based on Frank Wedekind's Symbolist short story, "Mine-Haha, or The
Corporal Education of Young Girls," Innocence often feels like Kafka, i.e.
lots of arcane rules and regulations, as interpreted by photographer Sally
Mann (or even Lewis Carroll), i.e. lots of "innocent" prepubescent nudity.
In any case, the girls have been locked away for so long they have no idea.
We don't know where they came from or where they'll go when they turn 12 -- only that they must leave at that time (and that each one arrives in a coffin).
Will they be sent out into the world? To another school? Into indentured servitude? After all, their primary subjects are physical fitness, ballet, and biology. And the headmistress who visits anually, to select one "blue ribbon" girl for early departure, is as concerned with their looks as their ability.
So who are we meant to side with -- the girls who quietly accept their fate or those who question it, knowing that insurbordination will not be tolerated? And what about their instructors, Mademoiselles Eva (Marion Cotillard, Big Fish) and Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles, Va Savoir)? The women are strict and supportive in equal measure, but there's something sad -- even a little sick -- about them.
Are they sisters? Lovers? Former students? They look a lot alike, except Edith has a limp. Rumor has it she tried to escape as a student. Her punishment was to stay and teach. Do they have their students' best interests at heart?
By the end of the film, Hadzihalilovic has lifted the veil on many of these mysteries, but only in the most elliptical manner. We do find out, for instance, where Bianca (Bérangère Haubruge), a violet ribbon girl, goes every night. But why? Ay, there's the rub. Then again, we don't find out what happens to Alice (Lea Bridarolli), only that the girls are instructed to never mention her again.
At the conclusion, we also find out what happens to Bianca and the other violet ribbons when they "graduate." But what does it mean? All I know is that Innocence ends with one of the most blatant phallic symbols in the history of cinema. Is Hadzihalilovic suggesting that woman without man is incomplete? That seems too simplistic. If so, however, she's found a fantastic way to say it.
Note: If you've never heard of Marion Cotillard, who picked up a César for
A Very Long Engagement, you will. According to her official website, she's been
cast opposite Russell Crowe in the new Ridley Scott movie, A Good Year.
innocence.jpg
Innocence plays at the Northwest Film Forum April 14-20, Fri.-Thurs., at 7
and 9:30pm. First screening introduced by critic/programmer Jonathan
Marlow (GreenCine). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on
Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Knowledge Is Power

Protocols of Zion
(Marc Levin, US, 2005, 93 min.)

As promised by the title, Marc Levin's provocative documentary examines the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. But it isn't the first or last word on the racist tract.

Mostly, he uses the widely-discredited document as a framing device for a discussion about the rise of anti-Semitism in the wake of 9/11. It's a big subject and Levin, director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Slam, plunges right in--eyes open, gloves off. Consequently, Protocols of Zion is, as The Boston Globe's Ty Burr has put it, "Simultaneously enraging, depressing, necessary, and frustrating." It's also been described as "rambling" and "scattershot," and there's truth to those claims, too.

Levin talks to a variety of interested parties: Christians, Muslims, African-Americans, Arab-Americans, rabbis, and convicts (surprisingly, the inmates at Trenton State Prison are some of the most articulate). His father Al, also a documentarian, accompanies him on many of his New York and New Jersey-based rounds. They get to hear some pretty hateful stuff, and Levin argues against the most vitriolic. This can be difficult to watch. Not because Levin isn't able to hold his own, but because there isn't much of a point. The anti-Semites of the world have already made up their minds, and you can tell they're not listening to anything he has to say.

Levin starts by exploring the origins of Protocols before moving on to the easily-disproved notion that no Jews died in the World Trade Center to the furor over The Passion of the Christ to the execution of Daniel Pearl, with a number of other stops along the way. He's as brave as he is foolish to enter closed communities where Jews are clearly not welcome, yet a few of the individuals he meets are surprisingly open and, in some cases, downright friendly. Perhaps they're so eager for publicity they don't care who's providing it. That said, I can't imagine that fans of the website "Jew Watch" will seek this film out in order to catch Frank Weltner in action.

Then there's the white shirt and tie-sporting Shaun Walker from the West Virginia-based National Alliance. He shows Levin around his stockroom and discusses sales of Protocols, Mein Kampf, and boots with swastika-patterned soles. Their conversation is cordial. Walker explains rather than defends his work, so Levin lets him have his say, and he comes up with some patently ridiculous stuff. When Levin asks the former skinhead if he owns a pair of those Nazi boots, for instance, he replies--without a trace of irony--that he doesn't, as he prefers tan to black leather. There are many other moments of unintentional humor, albeit of the creepiest kind.

In the end, Protocols of Zion is more of a feel-bad than a feel-good film, but I agree that it's a "necessary" one. While Levin doesn't propose any solutions, his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach suggests that exploring the roots of anti-Semitism, as painful--and exhausting--as that may be, is necessary in order to begin formulating ways to combat it.

Music alert: John Zorn provides the soundtrack. Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu also puts in an appearance--if you blink, you'll miss Lou Reed celebrating Passover, which begins this Wednesday, at the same seder.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Protocols of Zion plays the Northwest Film Forum April 21-27, Fri.-Wed. at 7 and 9pm and Thurs. at 7pm. Thurs., 4/27, screening followed by a panel discussion with Rabbi Anson Laytner of the American Jewish Committee Seattle, Rob Jacobs of the Anti-Defamation League, and filmmaker Gregg Lachow. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Maybe It's a Trick of the Light

The Intruder / L'intrus
(Claire Denis, France, 2004, 35mm, 130 min.)


intruder_sr3.jpg

Where to begin with the latest burst of brilliance from cinematic illusionist Claire Denis--with the spooky opening or the ecstatic conclusion? Or should I simply describe what The Intruder is about? Normally, that would make the most sense, except I haven't quite figured it out yet. I was about to say I haven't quite figured it all out yet, but I'm not so sure that's even possible.

Last year, I finally caught up with I Can't Sleep (1994), which employs a similar structure, i.e. there are a number of different characters and Denis keeps shifting among them as the plot progresses. That story was based on an actual case in which elderly Frenchwomen were murdered and relieved of their valuables. I don't know if the real-life culprits were ever caught. Fairly early on, Denis reveals who the fictional ones are, but doesn't explain their motives. That said, she drops a lot of clues.

The Intruder is even more ambitious and laden with even more clues--or questions, depending on your point of view. The cast is bigger and there are more locations: France, Switzerland, South Korea, and French Polynesia. As with her previous films, Agnès Godard is back as cinematographer, Stuart Staples (the Tindersticks) is back as composer. (And most of the French actors are regulars.) Both are working at the top of their game, although the electric guitar-based music is used sparingly. Aquamarine-eyed Louis (Michel Subor, Petit Soldat) is the character around whom the others revolve. We spend the most time with him, but he remains an enigma.

Here then are a few "facts" about Louis. He lives in a spartan cabin in the Swiss Alps. He has two beautiful wolf-like dogs to keep him company. He's in his late-60s, but looks younger. Louis is in great shape; he swims, bikes--even strolls about in the nude. Sometimes he sleeps with an attractive middle-aged woman (Bambou, widow of legendary musician/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg) who works as a pharmacist in town. But something is wrong with his heart. It can't keep up with him.

Louis also likes to flirt with the sexy dog breeder down the road (Betty Blue's Béatrice Dalle, billed as "The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere"), who humors him, but otherwise keeps her distance. Were they once lovers? It seems possible. She isn't his only neighbor. The woods are filled with others, but it isn't clear who they are. There's a Russian woman (Katia Golubeva, Pola X), a young vagabond with a dog (Lolita Chammah, "The Wild Woman"), and a group of hunters. It occurred to me that some of these shadowy folk might not really exist. Or that they do, but that some of their actions are products of Louis' increasingly fevered imagination.

One day, Louis goes to his computer and sends a message that he's ready for the "experimental option." Long story short, he's arranged for a black market heart, and travels to Pusan for the operation. Next thing we know, the new ticker is in place, and he's off to Tahiti. Apparently, he was based there once and fathered a son with a local. His other son, Sidney (Grégoire Colin, The Dreamlife of Angels), lives with his family in France. Post-transplant, Louis seems more concerned about reconnecting with the son he's never known than the son he knows and from whom he's estranged. Was that always part of the plan or has the foreign organ changed him?

As for those other characters, it was the unnamed Russian who brokered the heart deal and appears to be following him around the world. Does she represent his guilty conscience? Possibly, because earlier in the film he fatally injured someone with whom she was associated. Was it an act of self-defense? Did it really even happen? Then, while he's out of town, the vagabond breaks into his cabin and makes herself at home. Not long afterwards, she disappears. Drops of blood are left behind. (The dogs are gone, too.) Did the hunters get her? After all, we do see them dragging a body through the snow...but then it appears to belong to a young man.

I could say more, but I fear I may have already said too much. From my description, you might think I'm suggesting a parallel to Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003), which also concerned a heart transplant recipient (Sean Penn in his best performance). Inspired by the novella L'Intrus, The Intruder is much more mysterious. "Confusing" is a word detractors might use, and I wouldn't take issue with that, although confusion--or "willful obfuscation"--can be a good thing in the right hands.

As in latter-period Buñuel, Denis leaves out crucial pieces of information. I was never in doubt that she knew what she was doing, but I wasn't always sure why she was doing it. I'm still not, but I was spellbound from start to finish--and the spell hasn't broken yet. While Beau Travail (1999) may represent the pinnacle of her achievement, The Intruder comes close. Highly recommended.

*****

The Intruder plays April 7-13, Fri.--Thurs., at 7pm and 9:30 at the Northwest Film Forum. Local critic/educator Kathleen Murphy will introduce the first screening. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please see www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info or 206-267-5380 for show times.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Reflections on a Journey

Phantom India / L'Inde fant/Yenme
(Louis Malle, France, 1969, 35mm>BetaSP, 378 min.)


inde-fantome.jpg

It was enormously important for me, and I'm still trying to make sense of it today.
-- Louis Malle on Phantom India

To quote Sir Tom Jones, it's not unusual...for me to see a couple dozen French films a year. Along the way, I've managed to overlook Louis Malle. Well, almost. British-French co-production Damage (1992) was the first Malle film I ever saw. It wasn't a completely satisfying experience, but I was intrigued and have been working my way backwards since: My Dinner With Andre (1981), Atlantic City (1980), Elevator to the Gallows (1957), and now seven-part television series Phantom India (1969). The more I see, the more I want to see.

Clearly, there are many gaps yet to be filled, and I can't compare Phantom India to Malle's other documentaries. Fortunately, the Northwest Film Forum will also be screening the Oscar and Palme d'Or-winning The Silent World with Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1956), Human, Too Human (1974), and the short Vive Le Tour (1962). If I were so inclined, I could compare Phantom India, subtitled Reflections on a Journey, to Malle's features vis-/*-vis Werner Herzog's fiction and non-fiction films, except I didn't detect any obvious similarities.

In the press notes, Malle explains, "India was impossible to understand for a foreigner-"t was so opaque--yet I was so completely fascinated by it." In 1990, when speaking with Kristine McKenna (Book of Changes), he noted, "One of my great pleasures in life is just to be in a crowd, to observe people and see behaviors, the little details in the way people dress and move their hands." Both traits--the ability to observe, the inability to understand "The Other"--are on full display in Phantom India, which Malle narrates in the first-person.

[My book club just finished reading Norman Mailer's third person-narrated The Fight (1975) about the "Rumble in the Jungle." At times, Malle's subjective approach comes close to Mailer's, i.e. "But his love affair with the Black soul, a sentimental orgy at its worst, had been given a drubbing through the seasons of Black Power. He no longer knew whether he loved Blacks or secretly disliked them, which had been the dirtiest secret in his American life."]

Originally broadcast on French TV, the shoot was a bare-bones affair: Malle, cinematographer /atienne Becker (son of Jacques), and soundman Jean-Claude Laureux. The three travelled to Mysore, Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), and other cities, mostly in the South. They shot for four months, then Malle spent a year editing the footage in France. With the exception of Bombay, the trio was often met with curiosity, suspicion--mistrust. Outright hostility was in short supply, but they were rarely welcomed with open arms.

This reception affects the tone of the series. Phantom India isn't exactly pessimistic or judgmental, but it is critical--and sympathetic at the same time. As David Thomson points out, in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, "[Malle's] Indian documentaries...showed his visual elegance but offended many Indians with their superficial criticism of the country."

In her review of Human, Too Human, B. Ruby Rich adds that, "Malle [through his Phantom India narration] constantly revealed a sincere but naive liberalism that couldn't compensate for his lack of depth and characteristic 'tourist' attitude. He applied a French cultural perspective to the Indian situation so that his socialist comments often seemed grafted on to an erroneous view of Indian culture."

I would argue that Malle goes beyond the superficial and the tourist, but I can see why some Indians were offended (in Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia, he notes that "the Indian government protested to no avail"). Malle is more interested in the poor than the powerful--he's harder on the latter, as well. They include left-wing intellectuals, fascist firebrands (who would like to relocate all Muslims to Pakistan), and empty-headed Westerners seeking enlightenment.

Malle would rather spend time with the peaceful Toda people, who believe in poetry and polygamy (and it's the women who take the multiple mates)--and face extinction as India becomes increasingly industrialized. To him, they represent the country at its best. They may not be more "knowable" than the other Indians he encounters, but they seem more open and welcoming.

Throughout the series, Malle becomes quiet whenever he encounters something of particular interest: A peasant rolling chapati bread, two girls practicing the Bharatanatyam (a classical dance that takes years to master), a group of pilgrims pushing an overloaded shrine, vultures feasting on a fallen bison (they reminded me of the bloodsuckers in Interview With the Vampire). Becker's camera is rarely stationary, but these sequences all last for several minutes.

These patient passages lend Phantom India a meditative, "un-Western" quality, although some viewers may find Malle's refusal to cut more exasperating than not. In that case, feature-length documentary Calcutta (1969) may better meet their needs. (Unfortunately, it isn't part of the NWFF's Malle tribute.) Although my mind did wander on occasion-" watched the series in one almost-seven-hour block-"t's these mesmerizing images that have stayed with me.

Note: Released in France last year, the Criterion Collection will be issuing this series in the US (but don't hold your breath for that to happen this year).

*****

In French and Hindi with English subtitles, Phantom India plays at the Northwest Film Forum April 7-9, Fri. at 7pm (Part 1), Sat. at 7pm (Part 2), and Sun. at 4 (Part 1) and 7pm (Part 2). Part one (162 min.) includes "The Impossible Camera," "Things Seen in Madras," and "The Indians and the Sacred" and two (216 min.) includes "Dreams and Realities," "A Look at Castes," "On the Fringes of Indian Society," and "Bombay-The Future of India." Click here for more information on The Other Louis Malle. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine.

Reflections on a Journey

Phantom India / L'Inde fantôme
(Louis Malle, France, 1969, 35mm>BetaSP, 378 min.)


inde-fantome.jpg

It was enormously important for me, and I'm still trying to make sense of it today.
-- Louis Malle on Phantom India

To quote Sir Tom Jones, it's not unusual...for me to see a couple dozen French films a year. Along the way, I've managed to overlook Louis Malle. Well, almost. British-French co-production Damage (1992) was the first Malle film I ever saw. It wasn't a completely satisfying experience, but I was intrigued and have been working my way backwards since: My Dinner With Andre (1981), Atlantic City (1980), Elevator to the Gallows (1957), and now seven-part television series Phantom India (1969). The more I see, the more I want to see.

Clearly, there are many gaps yet to be filled, and I can't compare Phantom India to Malle's other documentaries. Fortunately, the Northwest Film Forum will also be screening the Oscar and Palme d'Or-winning The Silent World with Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1956), Human, Too Human (1974), and the short Vive Le Tour (1962). If I were so inclined, I could compare Phantom India, subtitled Reflections on a Journey, to Malle's features vis-à-vis Werner Herzog's fiction and non-fiction films, except I didn't detect any obvious similarities.

In the press notes, Malle explains, "India was impossible to understand for a foreigner--it was so opaque--yet I was so completely fascinated by it." In 1990, when speaking with Kristine McKenna (Book of Changes), he noted, "One of my great pleasures in life is just to be in a crowd, to observe people and see behaviors, the little details in the way people dress and move their hands." Both traits--the ability to observe, the inability to understand "The Other"--are on full display in Phantom India, which Malle narrates in the first-person.

[My book club just finished reading Norman Mailer's third person-narrated The Fight (1975) about the "Rumble in the Jungle." At times, Malle's subjective approach comes close to Mailer's, i.e. "But his love affair with the Black soul, a sentimental orgy at its worst, had been given a drubbing through the seasons of Black Power. He no longer knew whether he loved Blacks or secretly disliked them, which had been the dirtiest secret in his American life."]

Originally broadcast on French TV, the shoot was a bare-bones affair: Malle, cinematographer Étienne Becker (son of Jacques), and soundman Jean-Claude Laureux. The three travelled to Mysore, Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), and other cities, mostly in the South. They shot for four months, then Malle spent a year editing the footage in France. With the exception of Bombay, the trio was often met with curiosity, suspicion--mistrust. Outright hostility was in short supply, but they were rarely welcomed with open arms.

This reception affects the tone of the series. Phantom India isn't exactly pessimistic or judgmental, but it is critical--and sympathetic at the same time. As David Thomson points out, in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, "[Malle's] Indian documentaries...showed his visual elegance but offended many Indians with their superficial criticism of the country."

In her review of Human, Too Human, B. Ruby Rich adds that, "Malle [through his Phantom India narration] constantly revealed a sincere but naive liberalism that couldn't compensate for his lack of depth and characteristic 'tourist' attitude. He applied a French cultural perspective to the Indian situation so that his socialist comments often seemed grafted on to an erroneous view of Indian culture."

I would argue that Malle goes beyond the superficial and the tourist, but I can see why some Indians were offended (in Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia, he notes that "the Indian government protested to no avail"). Malle is more interested in the poor than the powerful--he's harder on the latter, as well. They include left-wing intellectuals, fascist firebrands (who would like to relocate all Muslims to Pakistan), and empty-headed Westerners seeking enlightenment.

Malle would rather spend time with the peaceful Toda people, who believe in poetry and polygamy (and it's the women who take the multiple mates)--and face extinction as India becomes increasingly industrialized. To him, they represent the country at its best. They may not be more "knowable" than the other Indians he encounters, but they seem more open and welcoming.

Throughout the series, Malle becomes quiet whenever he encounters something of particular interest: A peasant rolling chapati bread, two girls practicing the Bharatanatyam (a classical dance that takes years to master), a group of pilgrims pushing an overloaded shrine, vultures feasting on a fallen bison (they reminded me of the bloodsuckers in Interview With the Vampire). Becker's camera is rarely stationary, but these sequences all last for several minutes.

These patient passages lend Phantom India a meditative, "un-Western" quality, although some viewers may find Malle's refusal to cut more exasperating than not. In that case, feature-length documentary Calcutta (1969) may better meet their needs. (Unfortunately, it isn't part of the NWFF's Malle tribute.) Although my mind did wander on occasion--I watched the series in one almost-seven-hour block--it's these mesmerizing images that have stayed with me.

Note: Released in France last year, the Criterion Collection will be issuing this series in the US (but don't hold your breath for that to happen this year).

*****

In French and Hindi with English subtitles, Phantom India plays at the Northwest Film Forum April 7-9, Fri. at 7pm (Part 1), Sat. at 7pm (Part 2), and Sun. at 4 (Part 1) and 7pm (Part 2). Part one (162 min.) includes "The Impossible Camera," "Things Seen in Madras," and "The Indians and the Sacred" and two (216 min.) includes "Dreams and Realities," "A Look at Castes," "On the Fringes of Indian Society," and "Bombay-The Future of India." Click here for more information on The Other Louis Malle. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

A Marquee I'd Like To See In Seattle

ifcmarquee.jpg

Took this snap on a recent trip to NY and was thinking how great it would be if we had this here. A Pit Pit. You know, fresh pita with a kebab would be awesome.

But seriously, I know Drawing Restraint 9 will be opening at the Varsity this May, but will we get a personal appearance by Mr. Barney himself? Landmark Theatres, make it so!