Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Bruce Willis IS America (Pre-9/11, now it's Kiefer Sutherland)

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #40: Michael Bay’s Armageddon.

Despite the laugh­able fact that this movie is in­clud­ed in the Criterion Collection; and the al­most cer­tain fi­nan­cial & busi­ness-tac­ti­cal rea­sons for its in­clu­sion, I’m go­ing to try to re­view this film in good faith. This Michael Bay block­buster came out in 1998, and that’s im­por­tant, be­cause I can’t imag­ine a film like this be­ing made at all post-​9/​11. Yeah, I went there. The film is a self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry pro­jec­tion of America at the height of its pride, but be­fore it had got­tenth to the fall; an America that fan­cied it­self so in­vin­ci­ble that it could kick a Texas-sized asteroid’s ass in 18 days. An America with no prob­lems. This is a movie made in an America that had for­got­ten what it is like to be hum­bled. (And if you think it’s just co­in­ci­dence that the as­ter­oid is “Texas-sized”, you’re an id­iot).

Despite the not-so-laugh­able fact that the en­tire world is threat­ened by the as­ter­oid, the on­ly ones who can save the day are Americans. Americans who are ar­ro­gant dicks. (Redundant, I know.) America is the theme of this movie, not cos­mic an­ni­hi­la­tion. Most no­tice­ably, there are flags draped every­where, they are like sa­cred ta­pes­tries, and near­ly every scene is con­struct­ed to hon­or or pro­mote American-ness in some way. Plus, Bruce Willis; prob­a­bly the most stereo­typ­i­cal­ly “American” ac­tion hero. There’s noth­ing orig­i­nal here, the film is ba­si­cal­ly a HGH ver­sion of the played-out “can we dis­arm the bomb in time?” trope.

Armageddon might be the most quin­tes­sen­tial­ly American movie of the post-WWII era. Its ge­nius is that of an id­iot sa­vant, but be­cause this movie lacks any­thing ap­proach­ing self-aware­ness, the glo­ry of its brava­do & ob­vi­ous tack­i­ness cap­ture what it means to be American in the purest of terms. Michael Bay set out to make a block­buster about America’s big balls and suc­ceed­ed, but in his quest to present us with two hours of sub­con­scious mas­tur­ba­to­ry zeit­geist-stroking (there­by turn­ing us in­to lab rats who don’t even have to hit the crack but­ton) he man­aged to re­move any­thing vague­ly ap­proach­ing a com­pelling nar­ra­tive.  The movie is pablum; there is no there there, and that is the on­ly rea­son it is pos­si­ble to make the grandiose claims I’m mak­ing about this film. If you are a thought­ful per­son, let­ting the tits, ex­plo­sions, & smart-mouthed di­a­logue flow through you is like sit­ting zazen and pen­e­trat­ing through the im­pen­e­tra­ble mu of the American psy­che through the force of sheer baf­fle­ment. You will grasp for any sort of mean­ing and come up emp­ty, and at the ut­ter­most depth of your de­spair, when you sur­ren­der to the id­io­cy; en­light­en­ment. This film is the ar­che­type.

Branded to Kill

Sunday, 30 September 2007

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #38: Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill.


Watching a Japanese B-movie was a great way to get back in­to the swing of Criterion re­views. This is the first Seijun Suzuki film I’ve seen, but it re­mind­ed me very much of Samuel Fuller, and it is even a bit like Shock Corridor in its por­tray­al of psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma. The pro­tag­o­nist is Hanada, the third best yakuza as­sas­sin, and the film sticks with his iron­ic dis­in­te­gra­tion in­to mad­ness through­out. At first the film is quite hard to fol­low, main­ly be­cause it is of­ten dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine whether we’re in his sub­jec­tive frame of mind or whether ac­tu­al plot-ori­ent­ed ac­tion is oc­cur­ring. The irony kicks in be­cause the as­sas­sin is con­vinced that he’s go­ing to win and be­come Number 1, though he ob­vi­ous­ly be­comes less and less sta­ble and ca­pa­ble as the film pro­gress­es. In ret­ro­spect, the washed-up as­sas­sin we meet in the be­gin­ning of the film is a fore­shad­ow­ing of Hanada’s fate.


Suzuki’s dra­mat­ic cin­e­mato­graph­ic stylings of­fer pro­found and some­times star­tling char­ac­ter in­sights; of­ten serv­ing as a re­flec­tion or coun­ter­point to Hanada’s self-ab­sorbed obliv­i­ous­ness. All of the oth­er char­ac­ters have no ex­is­ten­tial qualms, they know ex­act­ly where they stand in re­la­tion to the world they in­hab­it; so Hanada’s am­bi­tion is al­most aber­rant in this en­vi­ron­ment. The tepid screen­play di­a­logue be­comes pol­y­se­mous and in­trigu­ing in this con­text, as no one seems to know what the oth­er is tru­ly say­ing. There is no trust and lit­tle un­der­stand­ing be­tween the char­ac­ters, so every at­tempt at com­mu­ni­ca­tion is fraught. There is al­so a dark­ly comedic tone to the plot that al­ter­nates be­tween be­ing no­ticed by the char­ac­ters and com­plete­ly ig­nored by them. Number 1 is the on­ly char­ac­ter who tru­ly knows ex­act­ly what is go­ing, even un­to meta-cog­nizance, as if he knows that he’s in a film and what the di­rec­tor is try­ing to do with it and him.


It seems that the film has lit­tle to say as an ul­ti­mate moral; there are no sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters, so their deaths don’t mean much to the view­er, ex­cept in the afore­men­tioned dark­ly comedic man­ner. The en­vi­ron­ment in which they lived was too vi­o­lent and chaot­ic for any sort of sus­tain­abil­i­ty or con­ti­nu­ity, they’re all liv­ing on bor­rowed time. The fre­quent sala­cious and vi­o­lent pow­er-strug­gle sex acts pro­vide an­oth­er da­ta point to strength­en this claim. It is cer­tain­ly a much more ac­cu­rate Japanese film cul­tur­al­ly, in­stead of of­fer­ing styl­ized, cliché or stereo­typ­i­cal por­tray­als more in line with Hollywood’s MO, Branded to Kill is vul­gar in the word’s most lit­er­al and com­pli­men­ta­ry sense.


Lord of the Flies

Saturday, 25 August 2007

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #43: Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies.


It is tough get­ting chil­dren to act well; just ask any­one who’s ever had to get chil­dren to act well. A vast ma­jor­i­ty of the cast in Lord of the Flies couldn’t act their way out of a wet pa­per bag, but thanks to Peter Brook’s care­ful plan­ning and chore­o­graph­ing of key scenes, and re­laxed im­pro­vi­sa­tion­al al­lowance in oth­ers, the awk­ward act­ing abil­i­ty morphs in­to an ap­pro­pri­ate skit­tish­ness for ado­les­cent ma­roons. This adap­ta­tion is well on the mark of the book, with an added in­ten­si­ty of vis­cer­al im­agery and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare that on­ly film can pro­vide so ef­fec­tive­ly. The main strength of the film is that it was shot en­tire­ly on lo­ca­tion, apart from the open­ing mon­tage, and the re­al­i­ty of the is­land set­ting feeds in­to the re­al­i­ty of the char­ac­ters’ de­vel­op­ment. Without the im­pos­ing hand of civ­i­liza­tion, re­gress­ing to a wild and sav­age state be­comes easy.


Lord of the Flies is not on­ly a tract about the im­por­tance of civ­i­liza­tion, but al­so an in­ter­est­ing thought-ex­per­i­ment on the emer­gence of new cul­tur­al forms. In the film, this is no­tice­able fair­ly soon, as the po­lit­i­cal rifts be­tween the two lead­ing boys, Jack and Ralph, are a mi­cro­cosm of in­ter­na­tion­al po­lit­i­cal strife. Similarly, the cre­ation of rit­u­al chants and ac­tiv­i­ties to ward off the beast­ie, and Jack’s clever ma­nip­u­la­tion of their fear to main­tain con­trol have con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels in our own coun­try. This is no new trick, but its ef­fi­ca­cy en­sures its con­tin­ued use. The cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance and lin­guis­tic la­cu­nae in their vo­cab­u­lary af­ter the first mur­der takes place is al­so telling in terms of their fear. Similarly, the de­vel­op­ment of face-paint and lit­tle to no cloth­ing are marked changes from their ini­tial school-boy at­tire.


Still, there are sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween be­fore and af­ter. The choir­boys be­come the hunters and their dis­ci­pline, or­ga­ni­za­tion, and loy­al­ty as the lat­ter is due di­rect­ly to their train­ing in the for­mer. They are al­so the ones who cre­ate and en­force the cul­tur­al pro­gres­sion of the tribe of boys, while Ralph and Piggy, who’ve main­tained their rea­son to some ex­tent, are in­creas­ing­ly os­tra­cized. All of this ter­ror comes through strong­ly through the use of lib­er­al cut­ting and re­align­ments in the edit­ing room, and the sheer amount of footage Brook had on hand to pick and choose from. The fi­nal scene is so ab­hor­rent , as Ralph flees the oth­er youths on all fours, much like the pig they are con­vinc­ing them­selves he is, that the ap­pear­ance of white socks and match­ing deck shoes of adult pro­por­tions, and the adult that is wear­ing them is a great re­lief. The mon­ster we’ve on­ly caught glimpses of, the mon­ster that was about to ap­pear in full and ter­ri­ble force, es­pe­cial­ly be­cause of its fa­mil­iar­i­ty, is slain just like that.


Dead Ringers

Friday, 20 July 2007

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #21: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.


Dead Ringers is based on a true sto­ry about iden­ti­cal twin gy­ne­col­o­gist drug ad­dicts; both played by Jeremy Irons. The film is a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller deeply con­cerned with ob­ses­sion, sex­u­al­i­ty and co-de­pen­dence. Cronenberg doesn’t over­do the shots that con­tain both Mantle broth­ers, but the most ef­fec­tive as­pect of the film is al­so the sub­tlest, there are vir­tu­al­ly no ex­te­ri­or shots apart from the be­gin­ning and end. So the en­tire film oc­cu­pies a claus­tro­pho­bic in­ter­nal space both phys­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, and these spaces tend to re­flect each oth­er as the plot de­vel­ops. The twins are Elliot and Beverly, both male, Elliot the old­est and ex­tro­vert­ed, the busi­ness­man and mar­keter of the two; Beverly younger and re­served, the med­ical ge­nius. They share every­thing, in­clud­ing pa­tients, in­clud­ing bang­ing pa­tients. In par­tic­u­lar, an ac­tress with a tri­fur­cat­ed uterus named Claire Niveau. Jesus Christ, you’ve got­ta love Cronenberg.


Beverly be­comes at­tached to Claire and vice ver­sa, un­til she learns that she banged Elliot ini­tial­ly. They break up but get back to­geth­er. Beverly’s love of Claire be­gins to sep­a­rate him from Elliot and their re­la­tion­ship changes in small ways at first, but when Bev starts pill-pop­ping his per­son­al­i­ty be­gins to de­grade rapid­ly. His nadir re­sults in his at­tempts to op­er­ate on a us­ing “gy­nae­co­log­i­cal in­stru­ments for op­er­at­ing on mu­tant women”. Elliot has his own psy­cho­log­i­cal ec­cen­tric­i­ties as­so­ci­at­ed with his twin­ship [at one point he gets twin es­corts and has one of them call him Elliot and the oth­er Beverly]. He al­so at­tempts to score a three­some with his broth­er and his girl­friend. When detox­ing Beverly fails, Elliot de­cides that he needs to start tak­ing drugs as well to get back on the same wave­length, so they can get off the drugs to­geth­er. They de­serve a Darwin Award for that idea.


There is no easy res­o­lu­tion to the myr­i­ad ques­tions about gen­der, ab­nor­mal phys­i­ol­o­gy and psy­chol­o­gy, sex­u­al de­viance and re­la­tion­ships that are raised in this film. The res­o­lu­tion in­stead comes in the form of an ab­horred pity for the Mantle broth­ers and a feel­ing of re­lief that such trou­bled souls find their rest. Meanwhile, the ca­su­al view­er is left with the need to ex­am­ine his or her own pre­dis­po­si­tions about the na­ture of hu­man re­la­tion­ship and cul­tur­al con­for­ma­tion. In this sense, this film owes a debt to Tod Browning’s Freaks. The ref­er­ences to the first set of con­joined twins is al­so rel­e­vant in this con­text, and the moral of the film, if there is one, is that de­viance from the norm has dis­as­trous con­se­quences, even if the de­viant par­ties are in­no­cent in and of them­selves. Or per­haps, that the heavy pres­sure to con­form has dis­as­trous con­se­quences to of­fer an­oth­er side of the same coin.


The Silence of the Lambs

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #13: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

“Nothing is so fright­en­ing as what’s be­hind the closed door. The au­di­ence holds its breath along with the pro­tag­o­nist as she/​he (more of­ten she) ap­proach­es that door…”

Stephen King in Danse Macabre and be­fore that Val Lewton


The Silence of the Lambs is all kinds of great. For a hor­ror movie it of­fers rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle gore, in­stead re­ly­ing on what is not seen to grow the fear. The film pret­ty much us­es one cin­e­mat­ic trick over and over through­out, but it nev­er gets old. Demme’s choice to use a shal­low depth of field and straight-on fram­ing of the char­ac­ters do much to strength­en the re­la­tion­ships be­tween char­ac­ter di­a­logue and re­la­tion­ship, the con­stant scopophilic gaze di­rect­ed by al­most every man to Agent Starlng cre­ates a de­lib­er­ate and con­stant sense of un­ease to her sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and the myr­i­ad ref­er­ences to change and meta­mor­pho­sis en­sure that no one thing we know can be seen as cer­tain.

But time and time again what gives the movie its pep is the closed door, the re­veal, the pas­sage through. The next time you see this film, count them. Doorways are lim­i­nal sym­bols, in­her­ent­ly un­pre­dictable and the con­stant ac­tion of open­ing, pas­sage and clos­ing tak­en by Clarice re­flects her own growth as an FBI agent. The view­er grows along with her and grat­i­fi­ca­tion is de­layed in al­most every scene; when we think we are about to make a dis­cov­ery, on­ly an­oth­er door is re­vealed.

The cli­mac­tic se­quence of the film [if on­ly I could find it on­line!] has well over twen­ty doors that must be passed through or at least iden­ti­fied as a pos­si­ble source of ter­ror for Clarice. Coupled with the un­pre­dictabil­i­ty of Hannibal Lector’s mind and the ease with which he ma­nip­u­lates an en­tire in­ves­ti­ga­tion it should be no sur­prise that the view­er is just as eas­i­ly ma­nip­u­lat­ed by the edit­ing in the lead-up to the Starling’s con­fronta­tion with Buffalo Bill. This is a film that has got our num­ber, can fool us over and over with the same cin­e­mat­ic par­lor tricks and leave us want­i­ng more. Hitchcock, who I had ini­tial­ly thought of as the man who made the closed door quote, would have been proud.

The oth­er main strength of the film is the act­ing. Just about every­one is su­perbly creepy. This might be due to the fact that just as near­ly every­one is a man and we are of­ten en­cased with­in Agent Starling’s world­view as the ob­ject of de­sire, but even the bit-part ac­tors are awash in un­can­ni­ness that is all the more ef­fec­tive be­cause it is so nat­ur­al. We all know peo­ple who are that sort of weird. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Lector and Starling is of­ten that of a snake hyp­no­tiz­ing a bird. Certainly Anthony Hopkins act­ing is makes the film ex­tra ex­tra­or­di­nary and the qual­i­ty of every­one else buoys his per­for­mance up even high­er. I re­al­ly have no crit­i­cisms of this film, it is so cruft­less, pol­ished and so ef­fec­tive at what it does that I can’t think of much else to say.