a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Passion of the Christ [sic] (2004, Mel Gibson)

Following countless demands from plebians sick of deeming it villainous sight-unseen, Mel's Xtreme Jesus Movie has finally landed. Discuss.

Curiously, Salon has yet to pipe up. But Roger Ebert went the reliable route, trotting out his "I prefer to evaluate a film on the basis of what it intends to do, not on what I think it should have done" mantra -- which I can only assume means that if it doesn't want to add something thoughtful to the pile, that's cool with him. In a rare case of the Onion's A.V. Club being less than a pillar of eloquent bite (but still very much so), Keith Phipps, in his denouncing it as a simpleminded reduction, verved all over the place -- a fate which also met the New York Press' Matt Zoller Seitz (ditto, though). Then again, Sean Burns, from the alt-rag I write for, admitted to his own apparent full-on re-conversion (surely -- okay, arguably -- what Mel's out for) and then announced that, in the end, it's all about love. Not so, claims Slate's David Edelstein, who cites Mel's history of tortured heroes in movies and then says the final shot of J.C. Arisen suggests he's "heading out into the world to spread the bloody news. Next stop: the Crusades."

Even more intriguingly, Edelstein posits "What does this protracted exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christian faith? I'm asking; I don't know." Why, to depict that Christ was beaten really hard. I mean, really, very, very hard. So very, really hard that the term "very, really hard" hardly fits the bill so really, quite horribly beaten he had been by people so incredibly, mind-bogglingly cruel in their horrifyingly horrible torture. Surely, traditional definitions of the word "hard" should be altered, revealing the dichotomy between being normally hard and the abnormally, psychotically hard that was so very absurdly unleashed on Christ. I mean, there's really no words in any languages for how really awfully he was beaten.*

Okay, so this all means something more to, say, die-hard Catholics. If Passion has any discernible reason to exist, it's to remind them of the toxic levels of guilt they should feel for the mire he went through to save their souls. I won't begrudge die-hard Catholics their emotional reactions to the film -- it succeeds only for them. Everyone else, though, has been left out of the equation. For it to have any impact -- apart from the obvious "gee, that looks like it hurts" repeated ad nauseum -- you have to believe that J.C. was no mere man but in fact the Messiah. Certainly, you can't look to the mucked-up politics: Caiphus is now the handlebar-moustache-twirling bad guy while Pilate some poor schmuck who's just doing his job, and not happily at that. And you can't look to Jesus either, since Jim Caviezel does little else but act vaguely uncharming and then zombie-like. Then again, if you like snuff films, and you like the New Testament...

More where this came from, apparently: Mel has claimed that if this one's in the black, he'll be making other religious films, presumably with the same You Are There approach. Oh, goody. Because we can't have our religious films displaying thought or interpretation, can we? As someone raised Lutheran and Episcopalian before heading over to agnosticism, I can't say I see the gospels as anything but more myths. But their ideas, naturally, seem right and warrant exploration. For all its inconsistencies, Last Temptation of Christ remains one of the most fascinating takes on Christ, painting him as a neurotic everyman who discovered he had this magnificent burden to carry. And The Gospel According to St. Matthew -- made, however improbably, by committed Marxist (and thus atheist) Pier Paolo Pasolini -- lobs him into a neo-neorealist movie, turning him into a rebel for society. (Not, alas, a rebel without a cause -- that was Nicholas Ray's handsome but inert King of Kings.) Mel's movie expands on nothing except the rating system, and the tedious, monotonous, unquestioning and regressive system of Christianity. Maia Morgenstern makes a pretty kickass Mary, though.

This Gay-Marriage Nonsense

Awesomely, Mel's monolith of celluloid wasn't able to wrest the front page in nearly all papers from this slice of actual news. Obviously it's just a stunt to distract the public from more pressing concerns and round up some extra votes (was there ever a worse liar than Dubya?). Unfortunately, his notion seems to have legs. One thing I kind of don't get, though: is the "voice of the people that must be heard" the one that's just a bunch of homophobic fuckheads? News item after new item, live appearance after live appearance, I've gotten no sensible reason to not let gays be married other than that it's (as per Pat Buchanon, helpfully) "absurd." Everyone against it is impenetrably vague, tossing around meaningless terms like "the sanctity of marriage" and pussyfooting statements about altering the constitution so that we can preserve "the most enduring institution." No wonder the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has interpreted this as a declaration of war. Anyone who can fill me in on what I'm missing out on will then receive a dollar from me. I'm willing to learn.

* In a scene dutiful atheist Luis Bunuel -- who, were he still with us, would have to make a satire on it posthaste -- would've appreciated, a couple people behind my friend were heard to exclaim a kneejerk "Jesus Christ!" at random instances during the 100-minute non-stop block of pain and torture and de-eyeballings. Remember that scene in Diary of a Chambermaid where Jean-Claude Carrier's priest gets so frustrated at trying to pry open a locked door that he mutters "Jesus Christ!"? That was awesome.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Hastily Assembled Random Thoughts

- What in the world do Old School and the doc Tibet: The Cry of the Snow Lion have in common? Nothing, except that I saw them hours apart and awarded both of them a grade of C+. Now, grades are not relative -- they reflect each film on their own merits, i.e., if I enjoyed them for what they were trying to do, what they failed at, et al. (Grades are also bullshit. I use them for organizational skills and also because I don't feel like typing up a treatise on every one of them I see but still wish to let you know what I vaguely thought. I'm not lazy; I see hundreds of these monsters a year. Time is tight. Lay off bud.) But that I had a similar reaction to both of them illuminates to something about reactions. With School, I was embarrassingly amused by the inane antics, and felt that, for a bad-taste movie, it wasn't as noxious and was more inspired than most out there. (Including Todd Phillips previous outing, Road Trip.) But with Tibet, we have an interesting subject given a fairly pat, expository treatment, and in the least cinematic fashion possible. Seeing it on the big screen feels creepy -- wouldn't the plain footage, the plain v.o. and the simplistic harrangues go down easier when expectations are lowered on PBS? Were I Sean Burns, the grade would be like a D, but it is fairly interesting, at least in that I didn't know the entire history of the Tibetan people. Apart from exposition, the most it has to say about the situation is that it's sad. School, though, had Vince Vaughn as a obscenity-liking father. Admit it: they're the same damn movie.

- Always the fence-sitter, I haven't totally made up my mind about Bernardo Bertolucci's horny-cinephiles opus, The Dreamers. On one hand, it flat-out doesn't work -- thematic strands never really take off, his love-'em-AND-despise-'em handling of the French pair seems simplistic, and, well, a lot of it is just so much bullshit. (Esp. for cinephiles like me, at whom I'm sure this movie is supposedly directed. As Frog Man says, "Did you hear what Godard said about Nicholas Ray? 'Nicholas Ray eees cinema!'") As a movie to, for lack of a better term, live in, it's rather pleasant, actually; it looks like Bertolucci needed to make a miniature like Besieged a couple years back, if only to reclaim his command of mood and tone and space after a neverending string of Epics. The movie is loose with everything, trying on different guises throughout while never trying to force anything down your throat. Even the notorious kitchen scene follows its own rhythm and logic -- it should be daring and ballsy and, I dunno, Solondz-esque. Instead, it's gentle, even ethereal. Only when it does try for Depth does it feel out of its element: the ending feels patly "disturbing," and I'm sure someone else feels there should've been some connecting tissue between these film anarchists turning into actual anarchists. Oh well. On Matthew Pitt: Bertolucci wanted DiCaprio, didn't he? Also, Eva Green is strong -- can even act well without her clothes on. That's talent.

- A tangent from the above: what's up with cinephiles being depicted on film and in docs as deranged former asylum members? With The Dreamers and Cinemania, filmmakers seem to want to punt the theory onto the masses that film geeks are only interested in a) the visceral quality of images and b) seeing a fuck off amount of movies. I know we all watch movies differently, be we obsessive or casual, but what about those of us who watch 400+ movies in a year (like I did last year) and can spend an entire evening talking about things that aren't movie-related? (This blog, for instance, will one day very soon mention something other than movies. I just never touch this thing.) Discuss.

- The word "just." I just used it. I was advised long ago to evict it from my vernacular, and subsequently from the vernacular of everybody else. There are much better substitutions: "simply," "only," a form of "but," "solely," "merely," "singularly" even. Spread the word.

- For those who don't look at sidelines, I've done some updating and have added both a pathetically miniscule grade list of films released in 2004 and, at long last, my Top Ten of the year. It's long. It could be longer, even more self-indulgent. Peruse at your own risk.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Bubba Ho-tep (2003, Don Coscarelli) Grade: B

Directed by Phantasm perpetuator Don Coscarelli, Ho-tep would seem to live and die by its premise: a low-budget remake of The Mummy re-set entirely within a Southern rest home and featuring Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis and Ossie Davis as an aging JFK. There's your instant cult classic, yes? Somehow, no. Even more baffling, Roger Ebert's right - it isn't a film that caters to the camp audience, nor is it fixin' to be a horror film. Instead, it's a laid-back -- very laid-back considering its not terribly imaginative -- ode to old age, dementia (possible or not), and good old fashioned non-aggressive whimsy. What's more, Campbell seems to have turned in one of the most affecting performances of the year, never once pandering to his audience and, in an unprecedented move, disappearing completely into his character. Whether Coscarelli followed suit because he's an incoherent auteur ("Let's continue the story of Phantasm") or because he's riding alongside his protagonist's malaise is up for discussion. I'm thinking the latter...but, yes, some more imagination would have been appreciated.

Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock)

Let me try to unravel this.

So, a klepto misandrist who freaks when she sees red (Tippi Hedren) is caught in the act of looting by a wealthy, charismatic playboy (Sean Connery) who, for reasons he prefers to glibly shrug off, decides he's going to keep her by blackmailing her into marriage. Prematurely out-Fassbindering Fassbinder is what Hitchcock is on about here, laying out a complex, ever-morphing series of traps and one-upmanship that, as always, have a hefty metaphorical kick. (It's marriage, isn't it? Hitch was never one for marriage, as seen in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Rebecca, Dial M For Murder and Notorious.) Of course, it's a wildly ridiculous film, with a Hou Hsiao-hsien-slow first hour and a finale that wraps things up in leftfield dubious psychology. But once Connery has first ensnared Hedren and up to the shock finale, it's arguably the tightest he's ever wrenched an audience. In this hour-or-less, Hedren goes increasingly insane, with every outlet cut off to her by amateur psychology from Connery, Connery's lascivious semi-incestuous sister-in-law, and, at one point, actual rape. There's really no way to end it, and the guy who made Vertigo knows what to do: just provide some convoluted Movie Thriller Reason for the whole thing. As ever, I'm partially on a fence: are the lapses into stupidity forgiveable for one of the freakiest, blood-curdling and addictively watchable tales of unrequited love and abuse? Most of us can forgive Vertigo the silly murder plot, after all...

Also, the crowds are right: Louise Lathan is indeed the best Hitch mom ever. No diss on the Notorious, Psycho, To Catch a Thief, The Birds, et al. moms. That, and a shout-out to Connery's book, literally entitled Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female. Is that still in print?

Saturday, February 07, 2004

/The Triplets of Belleville/ (2003, Sylvain Chomet) Grade: B

Second time around; still don't "get" either side. I am still pretty goddam impressed, though, and I think that's the most accurate wording for my reaction.*

So, in the spirit of Pauline Kael's early-day swipes at Bowsley Crowther, here's what (the smart) Sam Adams had to say in the City Paper:

"Triplets plays like a 78-minute demo reel, a self-conscious display of technique applied to a story that’s more silly than fanciful. The characters -- obese women and stringy, fragile-looking men -- only exist as graphics; it’s not the lack of dialogue (there’s virtually none) so much as the fact that Chomet will twist the movie in any direction as long as it provides an opportunity to draw something interesting. They can’t even hold their creators’ interest: The movie wanders so much...it’s hard to tell what’s digression and what’s plot. The film can’t even properly be called episodic, since the diversions are purely scenic."**

All of which is, of course, exactly what makes it so singular. Though it has its ragged parts, Chomet's pulled off what I think is one of the first successful stream-of-consciousness features -- it feels like it was written in one go, if not animated from front to end. Thus, it's both plot and digression -- even the long stretches where grandma is trying to figure out what hobby will hold the kid's interests or hanging out with les triplettes de belleville are part of the throughline. Not to mention the most general thing: Chomet's animation is so arresting as to hold up on its own. Basically, the whole movie's like this: those legs! those limp frogs! those enormous teeth! (Like skyscrapers they were from my second row seat, those teeth!) That it wraps up as a paean to grandmothers is, admittedly, slight as all kinds of slight things, and that's indeed the problem. But chooglin' along with it rectifies that -- just trying to see where it's going, or imagining what's up with these gangster drones with nic fits and rectangular backs kidnapping bikers (for what? for gambling purposes? which is worth sending your entire legion of hoods to their doom?), or the almost Leone-ish way he lets you watch the triplets refuse to allow grandma to touch their fridge and newspaper without letting you know why till five minutes later. (Then again, they need to be pristine for their act?) Journey over destination is the case -- and I don't even like "trip" movies.

Oh, and the fat guy wearing a shirt that reads "I [Love in Shape Form] Fat"? Is that a tip off to one of Chomet's biggest (pun half-intended) interests? This guy loves drawing fat people -- foreground, background, unacknowledged cameo, whatever.

Two Youngish Women Having an "Open Umbrella Fight" in Front of a Guy, Also Youngish, 10:15pm-ish

"Look at me! I'm whimsical! Fuck me!" Eugh. Where's Janeane Garafolo when you need her?

*J-Ro, what is wrong with profanity? If you chide me one more time for letting loose a string of "fuck"s and "dick"s, I promise to stab your hand with a fork.

** Sorry I didn't indent it like a proper massive quote. I don't know these things.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Don Hertzfeldt Shorts

Don Hertzfeldt draws stick figures. These stick figures -- of humans, human-sized rabbits, clouds with appendages, balloons who've Had Enough -- are then tortured, maimed and/or killed by either eachother, some leftfield antagonist or Hertzfeldt himself. In fact, it's always Hertzfeldt himself doing the torturing, maiming and killing. His characters invariably sport frowns or big, eyelid-less eyes, as if they know they are about to meet a demented, grotesque fate. They do not fight against it like Daffy in Duck Amuck. They know it's coming, know they can't escape it and almost never fight back. If an alien rips out their eyes near a yield sign, the next thing they'll do is try to walk, surely enough right into that sign.

That said, good luck finding his toon shorts. You would have to be a religious patron of animated fests (like Hertzfeldt's own The Animation Show, presently in Philly) or do the odious thing of downloading them in tiny, shoddy files to catch them since the maker himself has kept them largely out of stateside video emporiums. Back about a year ago, respite seemed to be on its way: Adult Swim spent a week promoting their Sunday airing of Hertzfeldt's 2000 product Rejected (improbably nominated for on Oscar). When the time came to show it, they mysteriously didn't. Fark! (I've since given up and downloaded them; I advise you to do the same.)

Whoever pulled the plug might've been keen to something. Honestly, Rejected would only half-fit into the program's usual array of po-mo smart-ass-ness*. His pics are po-mo and smart-ass, admittedly. But Hertzfeldt seems to (pardon the expression) take it to another level. The Ambiguous Non-Ending is always present and accounted for, to be sure, but so is the possibility of reading them as metaphors. What to make, for instance, of the death-to-the-kiddies Billy's Balloon? Is it about the way tykes are trained to have a Pavlovian reaction to certain objects? A presentation of these objects, who are sick and tired of being treated so single-mindedly? Just a joke about kids in an apparently parent-less world being tortured by the things they trust in (albeit rarely being killed, even if they plumet one hundred feet five consecutive times)?

Structure is another thing. Hertzfeldt knows structure. Using Balloon again, he starts off with one vomitously funny gag -- Billy's red balloon pounds on his head for a full minute -- and, once that's played out (Hertzfeldt's also a fan of the protracted deadpan pace, so much so that I just caught myself about to liberally compare him to Marguerite Duras), he introduces another, highly unpredictable, factor. (Showing it to my parents, they both walked away, right before I told them it wasn't even half over.) Both Balloon and Rejected go so far as to end on an apocalyptic note, which is, in the latter's case, genuinely unnerving and, as noted by Sam Adams, nigh-Godardian. (Instead of the simple "A Film by Don Hertzfeldt," it almost could've ended with "Fin d'animation.") (Which I didn't really translate, of course.)

While we're comparing him to Godard, why not De Palma, too? Both like to devise stylistic exercises where a good portion of the punch is how the filmmaker is taking some joy in punishing his creations. Hertzfeldt's admits it more is all -- blatantly so in his earlier college short, Genre, in which a cartoon bunny is morphed literally by the animator while sifting through a slew of genre styles. Those frowns and wary eyes he gives them is part of his plan -- he makes us feel sorry for his rudimentary characters, even while making us laugh hysterically at them. There's a trace of doom in Balloon when he ambiguously shifts from Billy, fatally dropped several times and having just seen another balloon drag another kid directly in the flight pattern of a jet plane before being dropped again, to the revolution going on elsewhere. At the same time, is it maybe, in an insane kind of way, possible to feel something for the balloons, finally in charge and (ulp -- bear with me on this one) no longer objectified? They're all part of the same mental state, these torturers and torturees; it just depends on who's most in charge.

Oh, and just incidentally, I did mention that these shorts are hysterically funny, didn't I? Just in case you thought I was writing a goddam thesis paper. Sheesh.

*No big slight on A.S., that. Sealab 2021, for one, is one of the least predictable and sane things on TV, even when it flat-out doesn't work. Incidentally, Harry Goz, the voice of the unhinged Captain died in September. This I didn't know. Is there a reason to go on?