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Monday, September 27, 2004

Best of the Fest 

"Man gets used to everything -- the beast!"
Raskolnikov, "Crime and Punishment"

NOBODY KNOWS (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 9) -- I mean this as a recommendation, but this film about four Japanese children abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves in a tiny apartment, is probably the saddest movie I've ever seen, and I was told by the person sitting in front of me that he could hear my sniffles throughout the film. Roger Ebert has said that no good movie is sad and all bad films are depressing. I wonder what he would think about NOBODY KNOWS. After seeing this film on Day 3, I told my friends that, early as it was, I didn't expect to see a better film at the festival. I didn't.

NOBODY KNOWS is primarily about two interrelated subjects -- the erasure of the child-adult distinction from both ends and the resilience of children. Obviously, there's plenty of "shame on the parents" here -- mom had her four children by four different sperm donors and is played as a giggly teenager whose more of a big sister than anything else. She even has the indifference to complain that, after having abandoned the kids for several weeks, one of their fathers only gave 5,000 yen to eldest son Akira ("to kids in a jam?!?!" she blusters.) But the film starts off like a comedy, when the mom smuggles the kids into their new apartment. And the kids, especially the younger ones, take mom's initial abandonment as an adventure, an excuse for self-sufficiency or for all-fun. Everyone remembers the first time as kids they got up early and made their parents breakfast -- and burnt the bacon, or put salt instead of sugar in the pancake batter or whatever. Because doing your laundry or making dinner and whatnot symbolizes growing up and being an adult, something kids want to do.

But what makes NOBODY KNOWS so heart-breaking and so absorbing is that despite the apparently harrowing premise and its tragic end, almost nothing happens that is very terrible or emotionally punishing. For most of its length, NOBODY KNOWS is about everyday events, and the few dramatic events are played down -- the one death occurs discreetly off-screen, with no SEVEN-like fetishization of the body; there may or may not be a scene of prostitution; some shoplifting happens, but it's played as a teen lark. Everything is in the same key and the kids take one bad event after another just by getting around it and getting used to it. For example, after the water is cut off for bill nonpayment, the kids just make daily playground trips to fill up at the water fountain. When they have no electricity and so can no longer video games, they play "rock, paper, scissors." When they run out of food, they go to a convenience store and receive yesterday's sushi before it's thrown into the garbage. The younger kids, Yuke and Shige seem genuinely happy through it all. And the elder kids, Akira and Kyoko become de facto parents like their mother and fathers were not, fretting about Shige eating his carrots. But later, like Roberto Benigni in LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, they play a kind of game against their better knowledge to protect the younger ones' innocence. That's what makes the events in this movie so truly tragic, even by Aristotle's strict definition: the kids' flaw was the vice of an excessive virtue. They get used to everything.

One of the major rationalizations for the divorce culture and single parenthood is that as long as adults are happy, kids learn to cope. When Akira accuses his mother of selfishness, she responds "What is this? Am I not allowed to be happy?" (I have "NO!!!" written out to the side of my viewing notes.) But even to the extent that the mother is right, though, this movie shows the problem with that: it's not that kids can't cope but that their having to cope is nauseating and tragic. I saw NOBODY KNOWS shortly after seeing a film by Swede Lukas Moodysson, whose unifying theme, whatever his films' quality, has been the resilience and defiance of youth in the face of adult stupidities and evil. NOBODY KNOWS is sort of the same thing, but while in Moodysson's films the kids' toughness aims (and usually succeds) at uplift, here, their resilience is profoundly and deeply depressing. What does it say about urban isolation and community anomie that these kids spend almost a year without thinking to tell their landlord, that nobody checks up on them, that they have no extended family, that they take maternal abandonment as just another bump in the road to be patched over? And the kids handle this "well" without LORD OF THE FLIES or anything like that. There's a stoic nobility to the kids, and the performances are spot-on in the "resignation" or "blissful ignorance" modes (Yuya Yagira as Akira won Best Actor at Cannes for the former type of performance). The film consists almost entirely of "little things" that in an ordinary coming-of-age film would be side material, like the way the younger girl tippy-toes on the ladder to reach a shelf she couldn't get to before, or the way a few spoonfuls of rice are used to sop up the last stock from a stew. (the "slow, nothing happens" complaint being the principal rap on this great film from some untypically unperceptive reviews). Slow, boring movies rule.

Kore-eda's last film DISTANCE did not get an American commercial release, and I fear the same rap may hang around the neck of NOBODY KNOWS (there were comparison to EUREKA, fercryinoutloud) and unfortunately consign this masterpiece to the same fate. Yes, NOBODY KNOWS is contemplative and subtle and it could be shortened by about 10-15 minutes in the third act with little loss. But this middlebrow philistine who can't stand Bresson was left in tears by it, and some distributor needs to pick it up.

There was a young man from Nantucket ... 

A DIRTY SHAME (John Waters, USA, 7) -- Now here, we're at the other end of the spectrum from the sad tragedy of NOBODY KNOWS. This movie is nothing more than 90 minutes of dirty jokes, but my taste and morals are low enough that I thoroughly enjoyed A DIRTY SHAME: "I'm not a prude. I'm married to an Italian." Or rather, I thoroughly enjoyed about the first 60 minutes of it before it just degenerates into chaos and mayhem and people jumping into each other, yelling "let's go sexing," as if Waters had exhausted his inspiration -- which is so silly it can't be taken seriously. Tracey Ullman plays the final apostle for a group of Sex Addicts who trying to bring about the Sexocalypse by finding the one sex act that has never been committed. They're opposed by Citizens for Decency (or some similar moniker) who loudly say "we hate sex; we're neuters." Sudden head blows cause people to turn from nymphos to neuters and back, but Waters does less with that than you might think. The film just runs out of gas -- unevenness has been a constant in the work of Waters. I don't think he has ever made a consistently great movie from fade-in to fade-out (not even PINK FLAMINGOS or FEMALE TROUBLE). Still, there's too much here for my inner leering-13-year-old-adolescent not to love. Ullman doing the hokey-pokey at an old folks home, to a reworked version of the song that sounds like an old 78-rpm-recording, may be the funniest scene of the year. Selma Blair's boobs as "Ursula Udders" seem to defy the laws of physics, aerodynamics, engineering and simple human back strength. The film also makes the best use I've ever seen of the rarely-funny Foul-Mouthed Grandma Character, with Suzanne Shepherd playing the role of Big Ethel. Waters has two of the right performers in Ullmann and Shepherd (known to me only as Lorraine Bracco's mother in GOODFELLAS -- "they're not even Jewish"). They so delight in shamelessly going way over the top with their roles that their overstatement, while absolutely straight and sincere in their characters' minds, is part of the joke. Offhand delivery just wouldn't work with this material, especially for Foul-Mouthed Grandma, since the creativeness of her vulgarity, combined with her self-seriousness, is the joke. (Think the opposite of sweetly-charming Maureen Stapleton in JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY.) Having an elderly lady say "dildo" is not funny; having an elderly lady who proclaims her prudishness say "two-headed vibrating dildo with lubrication and extra battery power" is funny. And yet, I insist that like with Benny Hill, there's a childish innocence to the 13-year-old boy's adolescent leering -- the overall tone is gleeful, not Trangressive. And Waters shows that he knows how much of public nymphomania is just pose -- we get a quick glance of Blair's film-viewing material, and it's not the nympho material she wants the world to think she watches.

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