Thursday, February 12, 2004

Lab-coat Killers  

This is the kind of news that makes you angry at God for not smiting the people doing this and raining fire on the culture that loves it. Some Korean scientists have cloned human beings and then killed them at the embryo stage for use as spare parts. And this is hailed as a great scientific breakthrough, because these Dr. Frankensteins succeeded for the first time in actually harvesting the cells they wanted, actually getting the gold from the teeth. Though not without some collateral damage: "the Seoul team ... succeeded in cloning 30 blastocysts -- early-stage embryos containing a mere 100 cells. From those, they harvested just one colony of stem cells."

This is murder, blessed by a lab coat. Which of course means, in the Culture of Death, that the "objective" media will hail it as a very good thing. And sure enough, they got as weak-kneed as a bobby-soxer within 100 feet of Frank Sinatra. This is the sort of story that tells me that the so-called "objectivity" of the mainstream media is nothing but a sham. Several things worth noting about the first version of the Associated Press story. (Multiple outlets and a Google News search cited to guard against site updating.)

We aren't even finished with the first paragraph before we get told of all the wonderful things cloning does. The third paragraph begins "This is not cloning to make babies" (can you hear the writer emphasize the word NOT, NOT, NOT, DAMMIT?) as though some other purpose makes it something other than cloning. It is reassuring, though, that this "cloning" is not gonna result in something as horrible as babies. Can't have that, can we, in this overpopulated, messed-up world?

The rest of the paragraph gives us a soothing bit of doublespeak -- "embryos ... are grown ... to supply," like they were a herd of cattle and with no mention of how this "supplying" is achieved. The herd needs to be culled, though at least the farm industry is honest enough to call them "slaughterhouses." In fact, you'll see words like "kill" or "slaughter" more often in stories about mad cow disease than about human embryo and tissue research.

Throughout, the story pays obeisance and hinges around this nonexistent and evil (CQ) distinction, dreamed up by self-justifying researchers and medical "ethicists" (sic), between "therapeutic cloning" and "reproductive cloning." Since when have medical or scientific procedures been distinguished according to the use to which identical products from the identical process would be put? It's like saying there's some ontological or definitional difference between building "bank-robber getaway cars" and "nursing-home trip cars." It is pure euphemism designed to hoodwink gullible people and illiterate lawmakers into thinking scientists aren't "really" cloning human beings, and thus what they are doing is somehow morally acceptable. But cars is cars. Judging from history on partial-birth abortion, you almost expect the next edition of the AP stylebook to make the preferred style "so-called 'cloning'," or "the procedure opponents refer to as 'cloning'."

Then in the 15th paragraph of the story that we get this little sentence. "Culling stem cells from embryos kills them..." What is so remarkable about this is not just that it uses the world "kills," but that it considers 14 paragraphs of material somehow more important than this indisputable scientific fact about "culling" -- what an unintentionally revealing metaphor, human beings as livestock herd. Imagine, if you can, 14 paragraphs about Jack Kevorkian (or a state executioner, pick according to ideological fancy) "giving chemicals" and "providing injections" and then a casual aside about the fact that people die from these "chemicals" and "injections." No worry; they were just culled from the herd so to speak. Actually, my 10 years as a daily newspaper wire editor tells me I hardly have to "imagine" such blowsy euphemism in stories about subjects such as abortion, euthanasia or the other Blessed Sacraments.

What's even more contemptible and disgusting is that later write-thrus of the AP story in question, such as this one, cut that paragraph down, and eliminated the word "kills." But it keeps this odd locution: "Bush administration policy forbids any federally funded research on stem cells from embryos destroyed after Aug. 9, 2001." How is "embryos destroyed after ..." in any sense different from "embryos killed after ..."? Oh, it's less direct all right and different in connotation. The word even has literal meanings other than "kill": "The detonation destroyed the building and cleared the way for a new development"; or "Manning destroyed the Chiefs secondary, throwing five TD passes and no interceptions." Something tells me that was the point.

But journalists are supposed to be the enemies of obfuscation, cant and euphemism. Either "culling" does not mean killing, and hence "destroyed" is inappropriate; or it does, in which case, it's euphemistic in meaning and the story also buries the most-important detail. Why bury the fact that human embryo research kills the human embryos? To ask the question is to answer it.

YEAR END TOP 10 -- Honorable Mentions 

These were the films that just missed my Top 10 for 2003.

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, Britain) -- It's hard to say what's most drop-dead gorgeous thing in this movie, Eduardo Serra's cinematography, Ben Van Os and Cecile Heideman's art direction or Scarlett Johansson's face. All three superbly-controlled surfaces seem to do nothing, yet inspire by their mere calm existence. And they evoke and create a world with no artificial light, no mass-produced goods and a servility that can see beyond herself. Misses the Top 10 because Colin Firth as Vermeer gives the weakest performance of his career (oh ... to transplant Michel Piccoli from LA BELLE NOISEUSE) and the film doesn't offer much more than those three swoonable objects. Actually, that's not quite true, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parffitt are pretty good as the randy benefactor and the domineering mother-in-law, but they're roles any middle-aged British character actor could do in his sleep.

DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed, USA) -- This overthetop, overacted, overdecorated, overcostumed, and oversplitscreened homage/re-creation on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies was the year's tastiest bon-bon -- with pastels that a Castro Street interior decorator would have found excessive. Last year's Sirk-homage FAR FROM HEAVEN unintentionally showed how difficult it is for a re-creation to keep a straight face under all that artifice. But in an exaggerated comedy, unlike a weepie, such periodisms and incongruities contribute to the fun. I saw DOWN WITH LOVE a couple of days after watching PILLOW TALK, and it helps to have one of those films fresh in your mind. Misses the Top 10 because the last 20 minutes of the movie (roughly, after Renee Zellweger ... um ... gives a monolog) just isn't very good or inspired; they're tying up plot threads. But stay through the closing credits (or best of all, look at the DVD extras) to see Renee and Ewan MacGregor sing "Here's to Love," the best scene in the movie and one of the year's best. Oh. And memo to the Academy: *This* was Renee's best performance last year (insert grumble about Oscar ignoring comedies.)

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman, USA) -- I've written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 for reasons stated there -- I just never quite fell in love with it.

PHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher, USA) -- Nearly every thriller will hype itself with the word "Hitchcockian," causing film geeks to roll their eyes, but this is one that understands the details of The Master's style. You can actually be familiar with ouevre and imagine Hitch making PHONE BOOTH. Naturalistically and logically, it doesn't makes much sense, but I'm not certain it's really supposed to, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The reliance on the villain having supernatural knowledge, the fact that it takes place in a "booth" and the voice on the phone demanding an admission of wrongdoing tells me there's something else going on here, something that Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were the first to note about Hitch. Works also as a showcase for director Schumacher (yes, really), who somehow manages to keep the basically one-set film visually alive under very constrained circumstances, like in REAR WINDOW or ROPE. Colin Farrell has an easy, meaty role to play, and though he isn't exactly great, he's like Patriots QB Tom Brady -- doesn't have the glowing stats but wins the game mostly by not messing up or fumbling the film away. Actors are cattle, etc. Misses the Top 10 because ... well, Hitchcock would have made it better.

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN'S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada) -- I've written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 because, fun though it was, I found my admiration a bit more distant than I prefer.

SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, Britain) -- When leftist director Loach hasn't got politics on (the foreground of) his mind and makes kitchen-sink portraits of working-class urban Britons, he is quite a filmmaker, particularly as a director of actors. He gets a great central performance here from the nonprofessional Martin Compston in the role of Liam, a (smart and tough) juvenile delinquent approaching adulthood -- naturalistic, funny, exuberant, defiant, and determined (in both senses). Maybe it takes a Scot to appreciate the exchange: "We're just trying to keep your customers satisfied," "You're a right wee Simon and Garfunkel, you" "well, here's to you, Mrs. Robinson" (looking at it on my computer screen, I see that it just doesn't *read* funny. Spoken in Glaswegian patter, it's hilarious. Trust me.) Misses the Top 10 because the film stacks things too much in Liam's moral favor. Theo first made this point to me at Toronto, but I became convinced on second viewing during (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) a stabbing scene -- which isn't really a stabbing scene. Between this and MY NAME IS JOE, Loach should make more films about Glasgow and fewer about Chile.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

YEAR END TOP 10 -- Number 1 


If CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS were only a police procedural about a suburban family victimized by charges of child molestation against two of its members, father Arnold and son Jesse during the 1980s day-care witch-hunts, it would still be a very good, interesting and diverting film. But what made this film so unique and so great, the best of the year and NOW out on a kick-ass 2-disc DVD, is that the family basically recorded its entire life on film and video, before during and after the charges, and the current-day filmmaker had access to all the footage.

With that footage, and a truly brilliant storytelling structure that lets us have information in strategically-parceled-out drips to lead us down garden paths and then pulls the rug out from under us, FRIEDMANS somehow manages to be, all at the same time -- a case study of a terrible miscarriage of justice; a mind-dizzying game on narrative and expectations (its twists truly rival MEMENTO); two father-son love stories; a family meltdown (there are scenes of family quarrels that play like early John Cassavetes or Ingmar Bergman); and a meditation on knowledge and the will to believe. By the very end, the dizzying kaleidoscope has even turned upon itself and we're questioning the very ethical existence of the film and the final hug sticks in the craw horribly. (Again, like MEMENTO's heartbreaking "now, where was I?") All at the same time. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS is that good.

Arnold and Elaine Friedman are introduced as a typical 1950s couple with three sons (David, Seth and Jesse) and a home in Great Neck, Long Island. It looks like we’re gonna see another Suburban Hell movie, shooting leaden ducks a la AMERICAN BEAUTY with obviously contrived time-lapse footage of the town and shots of home facades, because we all know that Suburbia is a “comfortable concentration camp” and that beneath the surface placidity, passions run dark and dangerous. We *do* know that, don’t we? And so the revelations begin, starting with Arnold’s arrest one ordinary day for receiving child pornography in the mail and ending with charges of hundreds of counts of sodomizing the boys in a computer class the Friedmans ran in their basement. Both Arnold and Jesse plead guilty and are sent to jail for a long time. That’s the basic structure and I can't duplicate the pleasure of actually following the story, but there’s a lot of meat on them thar bones.

I should say that I believe the charges against Arnold and Jesse were false, the product of group hysteria, the leading questioning of children, and police blackmail. To my mind, three undisputed facts are each dispositive -- 1) there was never any physical evidence of sodomizing, as there had to have been after the description of the game “leapfrog”; 2) there were zero complaints of abuse before Arnold's porn arrest, yet hundreds of counts were charged; and 3) many "victims" were tainted by police-questioning techniques, including the leading of children and the absurd use of hypnosis.

Like with MEMENTO, part of the pleasure in FRIEDMANS is the way the story structure invites us to jump to (wrong) conclusions and thus makes us understand how an outrageous miscarriage of justice and the destruction of this family could *both* have happened. The test question is this: once it's established that a miscarriage of justice took place, what's your next thought? Moralistic denunciation of witch-hunters is fine and there's a place for it, but for me that can only go so far. The *much* more interesting question is -- how and why? How could people believe something so obviously false? That people believe that hundreds of sodomizations could go unreported for years tells me people were watching too many Suburban Hell movies (seeting their expectations of the possible and the normal). But if one wants to go beyond cluck-clucking, the filmmaker has to make *us* (at least tentatively) see the world the way the mistaken people did. And one way to do that is to mislead the audiences into jumping to conclusions in exactly the way real-life authorities and the town did.

This is where I think Jonathan Rosenbaum's comparison with DAY OF WRATH is so apropos. Carl-Theodor Dreyer's 1943 masterpiece was notoriously ambiguous on the matter of whether Herlofs Merthe and Anne are actually witches. It was about hysteria but it made you understand the hysterics. Besides being 20th-century sofisto audiences, we're cued through various means early on to see Merthe's death as hysterical, sexphobic retaliation on the part of repressive authority. But if we reflect on it and see the film a second time with the plot events in mind, we realize that Merthe's first line was "there is great power in evil" while selling gallows herbs (i.e. she actually *was* guilty of conspiring with the devil); that all her stakebound maledictions came true; that Anne wished death on her husband at the moment he felt death on the moor; and that Anne's trying to realize an unnatural liaison. In sum, we see how even Anne could have come to be seen as a witch, even by herself. The whole point of FRIEDMANS (well, of one of its strands anyway) is precisely about such emotional manipulation based on partial knowledge and the "will to believe," both within the family and within the town. In Great Neck, people who said their sons weren’t sodomized were viewed as suspect and the horror of pedophilia meant that the charge was enough -- doubters were ostracized as insensitive.

FRIEDMANS makes us think one thing and then give another piece of the puzzle, which makes the rest appear in a completely different light. For example, the preposterous investigation and the lack of physical evidence (plus the basis for the investigation being a porn bust) cues us to think Arnold wasn't really a pedophile, he'd just committed "pedophilia in his heart" as Jimmy Carter might say. But then we find out he was a sex abuser, though not of the charges involved. And then we reflect on how the mother's uncertainty about Arnold's innocence (a major factor in tearing the family apart, and which we've been cued, through Elaine's unattractive personality, to see as the sons do) as not so unreasonable after all. And Arnold's decision to accept jail time appears in a new light. And Jesse and David's dogged faith in their father appears as more than (or less than) filial loyalty, and also possibly as the latest act of anti-Momism (or certainly, we can see how *Elaine* could see it that way). David's scene dismissing Arnold's confession of the other acts of abuse is as hilarious an act of willed denial as you’ll ever see. And so on. This is why I find FRIEDMANS’ withholding of information and manipulation so enlightening and thrilling. As Jean Renoir put it: "The thing that is most horrible, don't you see, is that everybody has his reasons." You feel everybody's reasons in this film. That's what the manipulations achieve.

FRIEDMANS never gets “meta” like such documentaries as ABC AFRICA or DERRIDA, but I don't think I've ever seen a nonmeta-documentary (and few films), for which textuality is such a central concern, and eventually the film’s central ethical concern. The whole film is essentially a reality TV show avant la lettre -- voyeuristically looking at the misery of people who film themselves and volunteer for debasement. Rosenbaum writes a lot of tendentiously-wack-liberal soapboxing, but when he’s on his game ... I read no better film review last year than his above-linked piece on FRIEDMANS, where he zeroes in on this very matter. We see footage of the most rancid, bitter family fights. At the absolute minimum, it’s the Friedmans exploiting themselves or each other, and to both common ends and to ends against each other … in three of the nastiest confrontations -- the nights before Jesse and Arnold go off to jail and the defense-strategy meeting at the dinner table -- someone explicitly says “stop photographing me” and it’s clear in at least two of the cases that the footage was part of David’s persecution of the mother Elaine. There's even a subtle reference, if you blink you miss it, to the fact that David has been kicked out of the house by the time of Jesse's plea. It’s very uncomfortable to listen to … like arguing outside an operating room, as an Orson Welles character once said, but a family breaking apart should be uncomfortable at a certain level.

But the film explicitly implicates us, the movie audience, practically from the first three things we see. They are -- 1) home-video footage of mock news-style interviews, including Jesse and Arnold breaking the fourth wall and talking into the camera; 2) opening credits that include the double-meaning word “Capturing” (i.e. arresting and photographing) and the song “Act Naturally” and its repeated line, “I hope you come and see me in the movies”; 3) self-made footage of David, amid tears, ranting into the camera at an imaginary viewer, i.e. us., telling us that nobody will ever see this footage unless you’re cops or prosecutors, and so, to anyone watching this: “GET LOST!!!! (that’s the G-rated version) … don’t invade my grief; my family is destroyed and leave me alone.”

One of the things things emphasis on textuality does is challenge the astute viewer of FRIEDMANS to ask himself "wait a second, how did this footage make its way to this screen?" until by the end, the film has completely transvalued (and subtly, I leap to my feet in applause to note) a closing shot that would otherwise be a sentimental cliche. That shot, of a hug between Jesse and Elaine at a hotel room, leaves us with a very strange taste in the mouth. It sticks in the craw as something artificial and staged.

The film has shown us much home-movie footage where we can "see" (in various senses) the filmmaker; the "characters" frequently break the fourth wall (David addressing the camera at the start); and the process of filming has been interrupted (the "please don't film me" requests and the attack at the courthouse at Jesse’s sentencing come first to mind). So by the end of the movie, we have become very sophisticated viewers about the process of image-making. And so the minute we see the camera inside the hotel room and pick up that it's supposed to be Jesse and Elaine's reunion, we start thinking. David is estranged from his mother and Seth absent from the film for some reason or another, and so the immediate question to come to mind is "who is filming this and isn't it obviously a 'staged' moment?"

The hug and the implied uplift of the final shot, if taken or meant to be taken straight, would be a false emotional note. Look at the situation -- the family is in shreds. The father is dead and disgraced, the mother was always an outsider and is now remarried and apparently relieved of it, Jesse is the walking prison-scarred dead, David is consumed with anger at his mother, and Seth is, far as we can tell, nowhere around and unspoken of. And this is all supposed to end on a hug? I'm not saying Jesse and Elaine were "faking it" for the camera, in the sense that professional wrestlers "fake it." But the artificality and stagedness of the means underlines that it's a staged moment emotionally. It reminded me emotionally of a scene late in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece CRIES AND WHISPERS in the moments after Agnes' death when Karin and Maria try to synthesize the love for one another they had as girls and they touch one another and speak with the tentativeness of a toddler still learning to use its muscles. But the next day, things are back to normal.

YEAR END TOP 10 -- Number 2 


I’ve pretty much already said here what I wanted to say about THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS in this post and in this post.

I watched it again last week, when I got the DVD and each of the five times I’ve seen DENTISTS, it’s just gotten better: more seamless, more romantic and more moving.

And Denis Leary is *NOT* giving a bad performance people. He’s playing an id in a world of superegos. He *should* be performing in a completely different key. Grrr.

YEAR END TOP 10 -- Number 3 

THE SON (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)

“Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
-- St. Francis of Assisi; last seen by me on a T-shirt worn by this man.

THE SON is a European art movie that almost nobody saw (it never played commercially in Washington; I saw it twice at festivals) and it’s still not on video unless your player can read European-coded discs or tapes. This joker compared it to Robert Bresson; when I saw it a second time, with a professor at Howard University, she thought it excruciatingly slow and boring (though she warmed up to it once we started discussing it); the other day, I got a note from a film-buff pal who wondered to me “I've watched the first 20 minutes or so of this and I've yet to see anything of interest ... what should I be looking for?” So I well realize that THE SON, much as I love it, is not a crowd-pleaser.

Still, I can’t get the suspicion out of the back of mind that THE SON could be a crackerjack success among the people at St. Blogs (Barbara? Father Sibley? Mark? Others?) if more people could see it and get the word out on it, because this little Belgian masterpiece speaks to the workings of God’s grace more than any other film I saw last year. In addition, it centers around divine grace and one of Christ’s admonitions to virtue more thoroughly than any film I can think of where the word “God” never appears, the central character never goes to church, and priests or religious figures are absent. Or rather, THE SON preaches grace without ever using words. Oh, there are indications that we’re supposed to understand the film allegorically and theologically all right, the film’s title and the fact that the central character, Olivier, is a carpenter. And he is faced with a moral dilemma of Christ-like proportions. But even if God is present everywhere in the film, He is visible nowhere.

Brother writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne spend the first 25 or 30 minutes of the film just following a mousy, pasty-faced character actor named Olivier Gourmet (who won a deserved best-actor prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) as his character goes about his job teaching carpentry to teenage boys at what looks like some sort of apprentice program. We learn the nuts-and-bolts of a profession in THE SON like in few films I recall. For a long time, in fact, the film hardly seems to be more than IF I WERE A CARPENTER and the Dardennes show Olivier’s taciturn, stern, fatherly manner with his charges -- a perfectionist teaching and exuding a work ethic and job skills.

And he goes on living alone. And merely existing. And looking. At something. Or someone. For some reason.

When I say “following Olivier,” I mean that about as literally as one can. The Dardennes use the same close-up-heavy, seemingly hand-held style as they did in ROSETTA -- the camera is constantly moving and seemingly permanently perched about a foot behind Gourmet’s head, creating a kind of intimate claustrophobia for us within Olivier’s skin. Some wags complained that the Cannes jury should have give the prize to the back of Gourmet’s neck or his earlobes, and other sane (but wrongheaded) people found the style offputting and/or said it wrecked the film. But I found the camerawork a breathtaking virtuoso act and, although the plot doesn’t obviously kick in until a big revelation at about the 30-minute mark, the Dardennes hide more story-exposition than you’d ever guess until after THE SON is over (the Dardennes’ focus-puller does more story-telling than most Hollywoof scriptwriters). We get a general sense that Olivier is haunted by something he's been able to put in the past. But he has that ... inexplicable interest in one of his students? I usually cannot abide films that go nowhere for long periods, but right when I mentally said to myself “OK, I think they’ve milked this for all it’s worth, something needs to happen soon” -- something did. And then I said “thanks dardennebuds.” That plot point constitutes a major spoiler for one of the great pleasures of THE SON (for me at any rate) -- the intimate mysteriousness of the opening half-hour. You have been warned.

“Then came Peter unto him and said: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus saith to him: ‘I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times’.”
-- Matthew 18:21-22

We find out the reason for Olivier’s interest in one of the pupils -- a teenager named Francis just released from reformatory. Francis had served five years in juvenile hall for killing Olivier’s son in a car robbery gone awry. Olivier knows this; Francis does not know who his boss is. And the rest of the film concerns the VERTIGO question -- what happens when Scotty/Francis finds out who Judy/Olivier is? And what is Olivier’s agenda?

One of the many reasons this film is so great and the last hour so tension-filled is that we never quite know (from the uncertain way Gourmet carries his body and his taciturnity) what Olivier is doing. Is he an ironic criminal out of Poe planning the perfect crime? Is he trying to exercise Jesus’ command to perfect forgiveness, despite its obvious impossibility and the nature of the wrong done him. Not until the very last shot of the film can we be certain. THE SON is a series of temptations put before a Christ-figure on the road to exercising perfect forgiveness, the last of which, perversely, is his own righteousness.

Most of the time, when people "forgive" their tormentors (and I'm speaking of much more than parents of murdered children, which is at the extremities of torment), they generally say a few easy words, and then they leave the sinner at a distance and move on. But THE SON is about a man who has "forgiven" (in that easier sense) his son's killer at the start of the movie. But then the world, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, conspires to push the limits of forgiveness ... by putting the killer in his apprenticeship program, by a scene in which Olivier has to save the boy from a ladder-climbing accident, by Francis’s starting to like Olivier, treat him as a friend and finally asks him to be his guardian. Olivier’s ex-wife (their marriage broke up over the death of their son) finds out and goes batshit -- "how can you do this,” she screams. “I don’t know,” he (honestly) answers.

In the climactic scene, Olivier makes a date with Francis go out to a lumber yard alone. The drive out there makes up most of the film’s third act and it keeps tantalizing us with doubts and hints until I was thinking of the third act of IN THE BEDROOM and of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” with Olivier as Montresor luring a young Fortunato to his crypt for an ironic death. There’s a universe in the smallest snubs and changes in tone of voice. They stop at a pastry shop, and each gets a turnover. Olivier pays for his, leaving a surprised Francis to pay for his. No explicit explanation is offered or sought, but look at the faces. We’ve seen Olivier’s fatherly or avuncular manner with his pupils, but when your father or favorite uncle took you out somewhere, you didn’t go Dutch -- and these are Belgians (couldn’t resist). It seemed like such a calculated and particularized snub that I thought it was paving the way for something more. There's also an element of shame in Francis' behavior throughout the drive (his evasive answers to Olivier’s asking "why were you in jail?") and that makes his fleeing a perversely moral reaction to being made to face your wrongdoing. Martin Luther once said: "Love God, often I hate him," and Isaiah was terrified by seeing the face of God, and that's sort of the dynamic here. And then, in a final perverse twist at the end, when Olivier tells him who he is, Francis flees him precisely BECAUSE the boy (quite rationally, I add, since he has seen IN THE BEDROOM) assumes he has been lured out to a murder site.

Has he? See the movie.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

YEAR END TOP 10 -- Number 4 

CITY OF GOD (Fernando Meirelles, Brazil)

CITY OF GOD won multiple Oscar nominations (including script and director) and is taking advantage of the publicity with a minor theatrical re-release, at least in Washington and so I imagine in some other markets too, giving people who missed it (and shame on you) another chance to catch it. (Though its video release just got pushed back a few months, and not for the first time, now to June.)

And that additional chance really should be taken advantage of, because of the four movies among my Top 10 that are in foreign languages, the two from Europe will not be to everybody’s taste, I acknowledge. But the two films from Brazil -- CITY OF GOD and BUS 174 -- are movies that I’d heartily recommend to anybody, even people who rarely see foreign-language flicks. BUS 174, as I’ve said, begins with the form of a “Cops” episode, while CITY OF GOD is basically a gangster film. One of the most dazzlingly directed, most powerful and brilliantly structured gangster films ever (think GOODFELLAS ... and yes I do intend that comparison; CITY OF GOD *is* that good). But a gangster film, so it’s well within most people’s comfort zone (as IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON are not) if they would just go see it.

The title does not refer to St. Augustine’s theology, but to the name of a Rio de Janeiro favela, which, in the course of the movie’s sprawling 20-year, dozen-character scope, breeds an army of killers, drug lords and thieving children (the three categories by no means mutually exclusive). It begins with several teens in the 1950s, and follows their story for about 30 minutes until it ends with a police crackdown following a massacre at a whorehouse, after which the three central characters -- Clipper, Goose and Shaggy all take three different routes -- religion, respectable poverty and crime. But then CITY OF GOD shifts focus and we see this sequence has been there primarily to get to the heart of the emotional situation among some younger children on the fringes. These kids survive into adulthood to provide the engine for the main plot -- principally Rocket (the somewhat bland central character who nibbles around the edge of the gangster-drug lifestyle), Ze Pequeno (who never really grows up but comes to run the favela as a teen by sheer ruthlessness) and Benny (the entrepreneur who’s down with murder, but only instrumentally and so is a restraint on the psycho). The children have become the men.

It's as if, on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" director Fernando Meirelles had been a contestant for "Authors" and had to do "LOS OLVIDADOS in the style of Martin Scorsese." This is a good thing, by the way; the hyper-caffeinated style in CITY OF GOD is just breathtaking and entertaining as all get-go -- the orange-clay look of the 50s segment, a bravura one-shot dissolve through the history of a single room in the favela over decades, the repeated freeze-frames, a 360-degree stop-motion shot, the great sequence of Benny’s "leaving the life" party. And it's not all that Old Razzle-Dazzle. Mereilles understands the importance of counterpoint. In the midst of Benny's party, which is basically all hurtling, exhilirating “flow,” the shot I most remember (maybe more than any other single shot in a movie this year) is the scene’s one moment of “ebb.” Mereilles holds for several seconds, but it feels like an eternity, on the face of Ze Pequeno (think the Joe Pesci character in GOODFELLAS), as it dawns on him that all his machismo isn't getting him the thing he wants most. And as the dance floor lights flash, the opening bars of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” swell up (oh ... hoh-hoh-hoh ...). The look on the face of actor Leandro Firmino da Hora, a nonprofessional like most of the (terrific) cast, says everything and nothing at the same time.

But CITY OF GOD is more than an empty exercise in cinematic fireworks. One of the keys to seeing what it is about is to notice how few of the significant deaths (and there are a *lot* in this movie) come deliberately from an expected source. Neither Ze Pequeno nor Ned the vigilante kills the other, though their feud is what drives the last hour of the movie. Probably the most-memorable death is a botched attempt to kill someone else. Your downfall is never what you expect, precisely because you're on guard against that. But life forces so many unthinking and habitual actions on us that we can never quite know what will turn out to have been the important ones. "Life can be lived forward, but can only be understood backward," Kierkegaard said. One's character and a polity are defined by what they take as ordinary and taken-for-granted, *not* what is self-consciously agonized over. That's the reason for the initially deliberately misleading gaps in the narrative (e.g., we're at first cued to think a massacre at a brothel is the work of the police).

Although most of the central characters meet the fate you expect, the film becomes richer on second viewing (the classic test for a great-vs.-merely-good movie) because you see each man sow the seeds of his doom, but he's never cognizant of it and Meirelles does nothing to make *us* cognizant of it on first viewing. But (and here’s the movie’s genius), in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. One of the great strengths of CITY OF GOD, and what allows it to do this, is that it creates a real sense of a teeming world beyond the edges of the screen. For example, there is a bus conductor whom we see for a moment at about the midpoint but are casually told “it’s not time for him to enter the story yet.” But he becomes the central engine for the third act. The amazing screenplay juggles a huge number of characters and incidents without ever losing focus or getting confused. One central character is killed by someone only seen on the periphery in three or four moments (which the film re-plays and thus re-codes for second viewing). Survival in CITY OF GOD is at one and the same time unpredictable while living it, while seemingly perfectly predictable in hindsight or with perfect knowledge (which as limited mortals, we don't have; and even apart from that, most of our actions are habitual and not self-consciously thought-through).

The ending, and the fates of the two or three characters may seem arbitrary, but in some ways that's the point -- the life of sin leaves so much ruin in its wake that the sin that comes back to haunt you isn't the one you'd been looking out for (see also, MENACE II SOCIETY), nor necessarily is it the worst sinner that suffers most (ditto). This “fickle finger of fate" theme common to gangster-drug movies -- that kind of lifestyle, shall we say, does not offer security and stability as one of its benefits. Or as the hit man in Wong Kar-wai’s FALLEN ANGELS put it: "someone else decides who lives or dies." There is one harrowing set-piece involving some child thieves (think the Travolta-Jackson apartment invasion at the start of PULP FICTION ... only instead of college students, they’re kids of 8 or 9). It might sound craven to use children as symbols of innocent vulnerability, but by the point in CITY OF GOD where this happens, nobody watching the movie could be under any illusions about these kids’ innocence -- and Mereilles has these kids turn up later at some rather important points. Still, the scene goes on for a while while Ze Pequeno recites Ezekiel 25:17 and the tears start to flow. It’s not gory exactly (in fact, for a film shot as much brio as CITY OF GOD, there's no fetishizing of blood or gore that I recall). But it’s not for the psychologically squeamish -- I saw about a dozen people walk out at this scene in my three viewings of CITY OF GOD.

Plus I knew I was seeing a work of genius when the flashback began with a soccer game and everybody can dribble and move like a mofo, but the goalkeeper absolutely stunk. THAT'S Life In Brazil for you.

YEAR END TOP 10 -- Number 5 

IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)

Now, to the capsule I’ve been dreading having to write since I started this blog. Where to begin? With the 9-minute unblinking, unbroken shot of the anal rape of Monica Bellucci, with her face in closeup before the rapist smashes it into the concrete? With the homosexual S&M; club called The Rectum (and don’t think for one second there aren’t 100 references to anal sodomy and worse in the dialogue)? With the early sensual attack on your ears by the music -- a loud hum cycling up and down monotously like a sine curve? With a camera that, for the first 50 minutes, never stops moving, and spends much of that time spinning, like the strobe lights at a disco? Or with an overall narrative trajectory that actually gets more depressing as the subject matters becomes more palatable? Just sitting through this film is in some way an act of masochism, as its existential “success” depends on getting your mental ass kicked and feeling drained and wiped out by the film’s sensual assault (CQ) in its first 15 minutes. People with any capacity to be turned off a priori by the subject matter of fictional images will HATE this movie. And they should. And you know who you are ... why are you still reading?

So ... why did my friend Scott Tobias link to my site by calling me the only Catholic moralist who loved IRREVERSIBLE, which 95 out of 100 sane people will find morally indefensible? Precisely *because* it is morally indefensible. Or rather, because it depicts a universe that has turned to shit (CQ), because it depicts both sin and its wages unblinkingly, because it ruthlessly removes and/or undermines every bit of hope. In short, because IRREVERSIBLE is an 97-minute taste of Hell. And in Hell, there is nothing but hell.

I first saw both IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, a couple of days apart. These two very dissimilar French-language films were my two favorites among the movies I saw there that year, and it was as though they commented on each other and were providentially intended to be seen together. They both present a world of sin, La Cinema De Boue, but in the latter film's world, there is grace (see upcoming capsule at #3) and in the former's there is not. An irredeemable vision of an irreversible Hell is not the greatest achievement one can discharge, but I have never seen a film discharge it better than this one. There is no question that IRREVERSIBLE is nihilistic, but it is not a nihilism of the Western-preferred variety -- what Allan Bloom called “nihilism with a happy ending.” This is the real, nauseating thing. The fact that so many people hate this film and that its notorious rape scene has prompted mass walkouts since its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival almost validates the film to me. Or maybe you should dismiss me on the grounds that my single all-time favorite film is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, basically from a brawl and a murder in the bowels of the homosexual S&M; club to how the murder came about to the motivation for it (the rape scene) and then the previous relationship between the three principals -- basically girlfriend (Bellucci), boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and best buddy (Albert Dupontel). In MEMENTO, the backwards-chronology story structure, and the way it constantly recoded what we had earlier seen, was used to put us sympathetically inside the head of a man with no memory. But in IRREVERSIBLE that same recoding is used for almost the opposite -- and completely pitiless -- purpose. It makes a story that, told in chronological order would be just a straight downward spiral, absolutely heart-breaking, because even when the three principals have happy or normal moments, we know they’re doomed, see the mistakes they’re making, are powerless to stop them. The true kick-in-the-gut scenes are actually not the notorious ones in the film’s first half, but the sedate ones in IRREVERSIBLE’s second half. Seeing a woman as beautiful as Bellucci all aglow in the final moments retroactively raised the stakes on what we had seen -- any decent man would want things to come out differently. When Cassel acts like a drug-toking teenager at a party, we share Bellucci’s frustration with him -- and on 2nd viewing, even more so because of the revelation at the film’s end, which makes the portrayal of the Peter Pan Syndrome in Cassel bite harder. So you get frustrated at him, and cheer her as she walks out of the party. Then you remember what you’ve just seen happen “next.”

In one of George Will's greatest columns, he printed some of 2 Live Crew's lyrics (though he had to use print-euphemisms like “p--sy” to satisfy Newsweek) to make the point that one of the ways that cultural extremity advances is that people, in interest of maintaining decorum, will talk about it in vague euphemism and thus be false about it. Catherine MacKinnon once made more-or-less the same point on an ABC News special, that engaging pornography required her to engage in it herself in some sense, using words like “ass” (she noted the immediate snicker from the audience) and thus reinforce pornography's effects. And to bring this back to IRREVERSIBLE, the film’s structure effectively torpedoes this problem of extreme subject matter. But IRREVERSIBLE goes beyond not being pornography, rather it’s the very opposite. Noe systematically denies the audience even the pleasures, however morally dubious, of pornography. Consider the start of the final dramatic scene, a nude Bellucci and a nude Cassel are curled together asleep in bed. It is the closest thing the film has to a turn-on scene (it’s bathed in a warm, golden light, and the two actors, lovers in real life, have an easy rapport and affection). But before it can do anything for you, Bellucci says she had a dream of a long red corridor (we wince) and there are several lines referring to revenge and some playful slaps between the two (wince again). In fact throughout, the film has 100 foreshadowings and allusions throughout to the events of future past.

Then look at the two most notorious scenes in IRREVERSIBLE. Our first view of the beautiful Bellucci is of her battered body, and while our second view is more conventionally tittilating (she’s walking away from the camera in a skimpy dress), we know better than she does the fate we’re helplessly following her toward. The rape scene itself, people walked out on it because they sensed its unredeemed sadism. But making sadism unredeemed is far more moral than aestheticizing it in the name of Good Taste, making it like the rape scene in the film of TESS, which, in the name of Good Taste, made the act look like having a wart removed. IRREVERSIBLE’s rape scene has to, in conventional dramatic-arc terms, go on for far FAR too long, in order to make its point -- which is to take the logic of extremity past the point of any possible pornographic pleasure. Good. In the same way, consider the descent into The Rectum, where dozens of men are committing every conceivable manner of sexual degradation. But between the dark lighting schemes, the redness of the little light that is there, and the camera twirling upon itself as it darts through the club, so we never even have a sense of which way is up -- between all these things, we can never get a good look at any of the nudity or sex. Oh, we get a fleeting glimpse of this and that, but almost as soon as we figure out that, e.g., “this guy’s masturbating,” we lose sight of him, lose any ability to be turned on by what we’re seeing, and thus get more frustrated. The lighting only becomes dimly adequate for when the action becomes as unerotic as imaginable and for one glimpse of a character that turns the movie inside out (though you might not realize that on first viewing). From the Tenia sequence, we remember clearly only the mind-bending camera work, the monotonous hum of the music, and images that even if we’re of a mind to remember with a smile, we can’t. By giving us too much of the rape and not enough of the S&M; club, Noe gives us a major achievement -- a film with outre subject matter that cannot be consumed as tittilation.

So relentless is Noe in denying his audience and characters any hope or grace that he even undermines the logic of revenge and self-defense that motivates Cassel and Dupontel in their hunt for Bellucci’s rapist in The Rectum. The man they kill is not the guilty party -- a fact that it’s tough to see without a second viewing (mull over what you think *that* might mean). But ... he *is* a rapist, and the men surrounding him egg him on in his threat to sodomize Cassel. Until Dupontel saves him. And then goes too far in what is one of the most blood-curdling images I’ve ever seen that, like the rape of Bellucci, goes on for far FAR too long -- about three fire extinguisher plunges into the face too long. Yes, it’s a fake face, but still, it’s one of the few things in The Rectum we see very clearly at all. Dupontel’s murder is committed basically as an innocent bystander stopping a rape, which makes problematic a minor detail in the rhyming scene of the rape of Bellucci. Other than the two principals, it’s the only thing in the earlier scene for the entire nine minutes.

But is there a point to it all? Absolutely. The pattern of the scenes basically follow a slide of basically increasing degeneracy. The film’s credo, stated at the beginning and (unfortunately and redundantly) the end, is “Time destroys all things,” which isn’t very profound as a moral but does tell us that the film’s end-to-beginning events represent a decline. And what is time destroying? In chronological order (thus the reverse of IRREVERSIBLE’s presentation): children and family, affectionate (if unmarried) sex, adolescent sex talk, party animal promiscuity, rape, prostitution, revenge, consensual gay sex, homosexual rape, and (finally) sexualized murder. Or in Catholic terms, from the natural to the unnatural. From the co-creation of life to anonymous fist-fucking. And Noe draws this comparison in many other ways between the first and last scene -- the music degenerates from Beethoven’s Seventh to that siren-like hum; the lighting scheme goes from full and bright to dark and dank; we see the pinwheel shape that, embodied in the camera, made the Rectum scene so punishing, only now in the form of a water sprinkler on a verdant lawn. From life to death. Before going to absolute white, the film even spins and looks straight up for the only time. And so, in the beginning there was light. But at IRREVERSIBLE’s beginning, the camera is doing so much spinning that we can hardly know which way is up, as though even the structure of the universe is disintegrating. I’m not just referring to The Rectum, but also the apartment block next to it where the film’s first scene takes place -- the spinning camera is seemingly free of even gravity and so a coherent cinematic space never emerges. But it all ends with two ugly people we don’t know* musing about how there are no bad deeds, just deeds. Beyond good and evil.

* They’re actually characters from Noe’s earlier film I STAND ALONE, but unless you know that, there’s no way to tell or figure it out.

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