Friday, April 29

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

It may come as a surprise that Terry Gilliam, surrealist animator and maker of various self-contained fantasies, has never touched drugs in his life. It therefore comes as an even bigger surprise that he would put one of the great drug odysseys ever written on the big screen. As a fellow teetotaler, even this writer can plainly see Gilliam's vision owes nothing to drug-induced hallucination.

However, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas succeeds in a far more important task: it successfully presents the sentimental cynicism of a cult hero's last-ditch effort to find the dwindling glimmer of hope of the American Dream. That this effort came so early in Hunter S. Thompson's career says something about the bleakness of the majority of his output. Gilliam succeeds by filming the story in emotional retrospect: his broad interpretations of Thompson's prose and Ralph Steadman's sketches contain less the hints of addled paranoia than the creeping horror of seeing the naked, reptilian face of America.

Gilliam films the Fear and Loathing in shallow focus, framing Johnny Depp's Thompson and Benicio del Toro's Dr. Gonzo in unflattering close-ups. When he pulls back, the deep focus places everything in warped subjectivity but also horrible clarity. Thompson's book detailed a wild, frenzied, hilarious tour of the Nevada desert, but Gilliam presents this journey as terrifying and self-destructive.

But I'm making this sound like a moralizing condescension to Thompson's work. On the contrary, Gilliam retains the journalist's caustic wit and eye for detail that always seemed to bypass facts on the way to truth. He also places his faith in Depp's performance, which seems more than mere imitation the more I return to this film. Depp gets Thompson's quirks and mannerisms down pat, his mumbles and darting glances and penchant for banshee fits of shrieking frenzy, but he also presents the yearning beneath Thompson's self-annihilating binge.

The movie is so disjointed in its twisted comic vignettes that even now, after at least nine or 10 viewings, I still watch whole chunks of the film as if for the first time. Gilliam makes high comic setpieces out of banal settings, such as the desert bike race that served as the impetus for Thompson's trip to Vegas: the director turns the event into a maelstrom of dust and pent-up aggression from white-trash shit-kickers shooting and driving their demons away in the middle of nowhere. Pathetic staggers through the funhouse world of the Vegas strip and its outlying provinces of even stranger attractions becoming miniature epics of endurance as the two careen and stumble around trying to find a safe zone for their thoughts.

Depp and del Toro hone in on the mad humor of it all: from the start, both are so consumed by suspicion and rum-soaked fits of rage that they justify their paranoia in their violent tendencies toward each other. Flashing blue strobe-lights pulse over numerous interior shots, as if the cops are always watching and pursuing our unlikely heroes. Yet when an officer finally catches up with ol' Raoul Duke, he proves as strange as the gonzo king himself.

Gilliam constantly contrasts the two leads with the regular people around Duke and Gonzo, not only emphasizing the eternal weirdness of button-down normalcy in society but also the horrible spiral of the main characters. One almost has to feel sympathy for the "villains" of the movie -- hotel staff, valets, unsuspecting tourists -- for Duke and Gonzo bring acid-sweating delirium into their tepid, calm lives. Once the initial shock of the regulars' quotidian, dull lifestyle abates, the roles reverse, and we see how two banshees screaming out of the desert wreak havoc on them.

Oscar and Hunter leave hotel rooms in states that would make Motlëy Crüe blanch. Everywhere they seems to be wet and demolished and on fire all at once, room service trays upheaved as the two make barriers against the forces they see outside their door. Whatever color these places once were, we see them in musty pinks, dirty light breaking up harsh red lights: they look like they live under a heat lamp in a fast food restaurant, and they probably feel the same way. Breaking up this damp pink are cakes of Stucco vomit and that ever-encroaching blue light, always pressing down on these fetid war zones.

Has a film ever been so anti-drug? At one point in the film, Gonzo and Duke find themselves in a bizarre convention that seems to mix the DEA with Scientology, where mad officials play a knock-off of Reefer Madness warning about the dangers of marijuana use. But its stern, histrionic proclamations both vastly overstate the evils and telltale signs of drug use and utterly fail to capture the full horror unfolding around these two characters. The despair in some of their actions digs into the heart of Thompson's work. He subtitled his book "A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream" for a reason, and Gilliam aims to extract that truth, not merely recreate the slow descent into hell that makes the book such an entertaining, fresh and perversely inspiring read nearly 40 years later.

Some might fault Gilliam for making a drug movie, having never been on one himself, but the true mark of authenticity in that respect would necessitate him not remembering his drug trips anyway, so even if he had lost a decade to heroin and mescaline he'd basically wind up in the same position. Gilliam pulls out all the stops to put altered states on the screen, using rear projection, canted angles, shifting focal lengths and more to make cinema of a thoroughly literary sojourn.

But the director's greatest moment might be the one in which he removes himself entirely from the film and places all focus on Thompson's great words. During one of the projects previous phases, Alex Cox intended to direct the film, but Thompson barred him from the film in a rage when the director proposed taking the central moment of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the "wave speech," and animating it in cheaply symbolic yet crudely literal fashion in a manner that would have sucked the beauty and power from the moment. Gilliam simply makes a montage of countercultural footage, the sociopolitical home-movie vibe meshing perfectly with Thompson's great elegy of the Love Generation.

In some ways, Terry Gilliam's interpretation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a harsh criticism of Thompson and his work. But I've never really bought the supposed iconoclasm in Hunter's best writing: I always saw a man looking desperately for the truth, even going so far as to invent new paths to it that would get any normal writer sued into oblivion. If I am stating this point for what seems the fifth time in this review, it is because I continue to marvel at how insightful Gilliam proved to be with the emotions and thoughts within one of the great works of culture criticism of the 20th century. This movie is funny, bizarre, unpleasant and haphazard, but it's almost mournful, an interpretation on the bitter hindsight of the '60s made even more dour by further aging.

Like Raoul Duke himself, Fear and Loathing caters to the whims of the zonked-out freaks out there with its hallucinogenic structure and kaleidoscopic whirlpool of color and sound, but it also holds up a mirror to those freaks to show how ragged and lonely they've become. Few authors can make me as sad while laughing as Thompson, and, after I got over the orgy of stylistic excess this film contains, it came to have the same effect on me.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Too x Either

This is one of the most touching movies about the Holocaust I've seen. The friendship between these two boys is moving. I used it to practice TOO and EITHER.

I. Watch the movie segment. Then write sentences about Shmuel using TOO or EITHER.


1. Bruno is eight years old.

Shmuel is eight years old, too.

2. Bruno doesn't have any food.

Shmuel ........................................

3. Bruno isn't playing.

Shmuel .........................................

4. Bruno doesn't have friends.

Shmuel .........................................

5. Bruno is German.

Shmuel .........................................

6. Bruno doesn't know anyone called Shmuel

Shmuel .........................................

7. Bruno is friendly.


II. Work with a partner and find 4 things that you have in common. 2 things have to be affirmative (ex: I like potato chips. My pal likes potato chips, too) and the other two things have to be negative (ex: I can't speak Japanese. My pal can't speak Japanese, either).

1. _____________

2. _____________

3. _____________

4. ____________

Answer key:

2. doesn't have any food, either.

3. isn't playing, either.

4. doesn't have friends, either.

5. is German, too.

6. doesn't know anyone called Bruno, either.

7. is friendly, too.

Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)

Having seen neither the third nor fourth entries in the Fast and Furious franchise, I cannot say whether Fast Five is, as so many now say, the finest film in the series. I certainly preferred it to the first two, inasmuch as one can prefer one case of chlamydia over another. Ludicrous the point that even the strongest critics are powerless to stand in its way, Fast Five offers enough entertainment, at least of the unintentional variety, to make for a decently fun, if unnecessary, 130 minutes . Yet the filmmakers' awareness of Fast Five's inanity leads to such a disregard for character, coherence and, frankly, morality, that it proves the first film of this series I've found genuinely troubling.

Fast Five once again locates its core band of crooks and expert drivers as they continue to inexplicably walk away from all sorts of consequences of their actions -- only Michelle Rodriguez has truly suffered among the main recurring cast, suggesting that even the physics-suspending Fast and Furious franchise cannot surmount the immutable curse of the Michelle Rodriguez character. Ex-federal agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend Mia (Jordana Brewster) bust antihero crook (and brother to Mia) Dom (Vin Diesel) out of a bus bound for prison. They leave all other convicts to be picked up by cops. The three escape to Rio de Janeiro, where soon they find themselves targeted by a dictatorial businessman (Joaquim de Almeida) over some ridiculous matter concerning a computer chip containing information about his business transactions and where he keeps his money.

I cannot believe I got a full paragraph out of that. Fast Five technically has a plot, and one that involves more pieces than the ones I named -- for instance, it eventually finds an excuse to bring back the cream (for want of a better term) of the Fast and Furious crop, gathering characters from previous films as a way of thanking fans for sticking by them through thin and thinner. Six cast members reprise their roles, which is handy: that's enough two-dimensional sides to form a cube, so presumably they share a three-dimensional character between them.

Fast Five was directed by Justin Lin, who helmed the last two franchise entries but caught my attention as the director of the paintball episode of Community, that contemporary masterpiece of television making. But the cheeky cleverness of his television work gives way to empty spectacle here, all big explosions and disorienting editing that undercuts the impressive staging of his outlandish stunts.

And yet, a certain TV sensibility is precisely the chief setback of the film. Of Fast Five's 130 minutes, a good 80 of them must consist of close-up shots of the actors, particularly Walker and Diesel, reacting off each other. This winds up being the most engaging aspect of the film, as relying on Walker and Diesel, two of the least expressive actors to ever find themselves attached to a lucrative series. Both actors are so resolutely inexpressive that Fast Five may be the most expensive test of the Kuleshov effect ever mounted: naught but music and the juxtaposition of other images gives the audience a clue what we should feel.

What nags at me, however, is the film's disturbing disregard for everything around the beautiful characters. The wanton apathy for collateral damage is the worst facet of super-budget blockbusters: even this franchise, which admirably uses old-fashioned physical stunts and spare computer animation in lieu of rampant CGI, still benefits from gargantuan setpieces afforded by millions of dollars. The climactic sequence, involving a bank heist that finds a way to utilize cars at the expense of the last shred of disbelief whipping from a vehicle antenna, lost me because of its glorying in the destruction caused by a bank vault being dragged around crowded Brazilian streets at 80 mph. I know it's a movie, I know no one got hurt, but to see a movie perceiving humor and coolness in millions of dollars in careless destruction of property and life repulses me. If that constitutes an unfair, too-literal bias, so be it, but I cannot and will not cheer a film with such a hollow view of the "fun" of carnage, particularly when framed in the aesthetically displeasing style favored by those afraid to pull off such a ridiculous and immoral stunt piece in a manner people might be able to fully process.

Unintentional humor and the occasional moment so patently absurd I couldn't help but love it floated me through Fast Five, but if this is the franchise's high point, I cannot say I'm sorry to have missed half the previous installments. I had a great time at the screening, if only because my friend and I nearly passed out from laughing at Vin Diesel's chimpanzee smile or the constantly oiled muscles of an unfortunately goateed Dwayne Johnson as a DEA agent and walking tank hunting down Dom and Brian. But neither of us could laugh in the frenzy of the final free-for-all, all of it for what is frankly an unimpressive sum of money (who would risk the wrath of a multinational businessman/warlord for a measly $11 million each in modern times?). Perhaps it's such a small sum of money so these idiots will blow that cash in months, thus necessitating yet another sequel a year from now.

I thought I would get back on this franchise and give it a fair shake, but Fast Five manages to tie up a great many of the simpler reasons for mocking the series and introduces issues that nag at me far more than the blank slates of its uncharismatic stars or the flashy offense of its insipid mechanical fetish. Oh, for those halcyon days.

Wednesday, April 27

Ulysses, Chapter Nine: Scylla and Charybdis

The Scylla and Charybdis episode marks a turning point in Ulysses: though it once again only teases the reader with the near-miss of Stephen and Bloom, it at last expounds upon Stephen's much-touted theory on Shakespeare, a convoluted, witty explication de texte that would stand as the magnum opus of any critic. However, insecure, self-conscious thoughts nag at him throughout his attempts to convince librarians and intellectuals of his talent, and the chapter ultimately reveals as much about Stephen as anything in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Naturally, Joyce drops us in the thick of it, as Stephen lays on the complexities of his theory on Hamlet and Shakespeare's corpus at large. Sitting in the director's office in the National Public Library, Stephen gives an example of his theory -- the full idea of which we have not heard, by saying that Shakespeare "plays" the ghost father in Hamlet, thus making the titular character the Bard's dead son Hamnet and Gertrude Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway.

But Stephen cannot just come out and say this: tangling the argument are Stephen's thoughts, which transcend the exacting detail of observation demonstrated in previous chapters to dwell purely on calculation. Joyce treats the reader to Stephen arguing with himself as much as he does his condescending audience in the office. Internally, he tells himself to make his already-tangled theory even more complicated to impress the others, but he only particularly wins over one of the librarians, Best, who clearly makes up for his lack of understanding by praising the young man to stay in the conversation.

As deeper, contextualizing tangents flesh out Stephen's theory, the chapter moves further and further into the most esoteric recesses of Shakespeare's canon. Don't even bother reading this chapter if you don't at least know Hamlet (though why or how anyone could read this before a Shakespeare play or two is so strange I can't imagine this being an issue), and a working knowledge of King Lear, Richard III and maybe Macbeth would help too.

Just as important, however, are the various conspiracy theories and specious biographical gossip surrounding Shakespeare's mysterious life. Stephen's incorporation of biographical details into an aesthetic evaluation causes consternation for the others, all the old men stuck in their staid, unoriginal interpretations of the playwright's work. Two men in particular, the critic Eglinton and the poet A.E., stop short of outright disdain for the rebellious new take on the Bard. Throughout the chapter, references are made to other theories and even several conspiracies (such as whether Francis Bacon truly authored Shakespeare's plays and the identity of the W.H. mentioned in the Sonnets). The notion that Hamlet was a woman also comes up.

Stephen himself relies on seedy, unprovable "facts" from the Shakespeare biographies popping up around the time to support his ideas. He bases his interpretation of Hamlet on the dominant, sexist idea that Shakespeare loathed his older wife and even posits that she cuckolded him, possibly with William's brothers, Richard and Edmund (the names of two of Shakespeare's most loathsome villains). Clearly, some of the threads he takes from Shakespeare's life are pure conjecture, and though he does not let on to the others, internally he picks out the weaknesses in his own argument and all the details he omits to make his theory. Amusingly, he can gloss over those failings in his speech, declaring near the end of his spiel that the dominant narrative in Shakespeare's plays is the false or adulterous brother banishing the sibling from home and heart. Stephen maintains this is true not only in the works he cites but "in all the plays which I have not read." No one bats an eye at this.

Joyce packs this chapter with jokes like that, as well as numerous plays on Shakespearean lines and legend. I cannot pretend to have gotten more than a fraction of them, but, like the actual Shakespeare plays, this chapter marks one of the few times I can turn to the explanatory notes and have a joke explained to me and still laugh. Sheer audacity has powered much of the humor to this point, as Joyce's outright scatology surprised even this 21st-century reader. Here, he delves fully into wit, the references to Wilde and Shaw thus serving purposes beyond tying Stephen, however sarcastically, to other Irish talents with theories on Shakespeare. This is Joyce (via Stephen) firmly placing himself among those Irish greats, even setting up the Anglophile idealist Eglinton as a subtle boxing rival.

But he also shows the insecurity and self-doubt behind the ever-adroit, ever-barbed Irish tongue. Stephen displays a clear disdain for these Dubliners, yet he desperately craves their respect. His grandstanding theory culminates in a hysterically blunt punchline that nevertheless reveals Stephen's cynical motivation for spending his time coming up with these ideas: to get noticed and earn the respect of the city's literati. He bites his tongue when Eglinton, a Platonist, insults him but manages to hide retorts by relating an impressive understanding of Plato's ideas (particularly his off-putting view of artists) and the recollection that young Aristotle was once Plato's student before emerging from his shadow. Still, Stephen never feels comfortable around these people, and when Buck Mulligan shows up to trade witticisms but also insults, I began to suspect Stephen might be hallucinating this nightmare of social embarrassment. But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?

Appropriately, the Scylla and Charybdis chapter features numerous dialectics: Stephen's scabrous internal monologues, mocking both self and others, clashes with his polite, obsequious attempts to win over the people he disdains. In a sense, he must navigate between the isolated solipsism of his Scylla and the swirling collective of outdated, circle-jerk criticism forming the word whirlpool of the others' Charybdis. Likewise, he also seeks a middle ground between Eglinton's Platonist idealism, in which he finds the symbolic resonance of Shakespeare's characters and the man himself, and the more pedestrian, realist ideas espoused by the witty but ignorant Mulligan, who literalizes everything Stephen says and thus makes light mockeries of the young artist's points. One can then extrapolate that ideal/real split into the dialectic between art and life, which Stephen (and Joyce) seeks to find.

As a sidenote: I love how Stephen's flecks of outward annoyance take the form of insults aimed over the heads of those present into the ideals they hold. Not only does Stephen let on a subtle but powerful dislike of Plato, he also peppers the conversation with numerous jabs at the Church, broad enough to be recognized but casually dropped so as not to cause offense. My favorite joke was his brief mention of the "plot hole" in the Bible's first passages, of how God somehow made light two days before he made the sun.

Yet Stephen's theories chiefly serve to bring out the pain eating at him since his return to Dublin. His talk of the ghost of Hamlet's father inevitably brings memories of his mother's death, and one senses he would rather deal with his father's ghost than his mother's. He even makes reference to the vast gulf of responsibility and importance between maternity and paternity: paternity is decided by a crucial half-second of sexual congress, while a mother's love is one of life's few constants. Paternity is a "legal fiction," he says, making plainer than ever his need for a guiding father figure. (It also ties back into the jabs at the Church when Stephen notes that Christianity is based on the vague, demanding notion of fatherhood instead of the bond of the Madonna.)

By the end of the chapter, no one may be more sick of analyzing Shakespeare than Stephen himself, who practically collapses from the effort of putting on a show for these people and reliving his recent trauma. He's so spent he even agrees to head out with Mulligan just because they'll end up in a bar where he can get a drink. As they leave, Bloom passes between them, and Mulligan makes a joke about the "wandering Jew's" lustful leer at Stephen, who can only shake his head at the childish homophobia implanted in the man by English schooling. Once again, paths cross but break apart instantly. Having tired himself by digging at his need for a genuine, loving father, Stephen cannot recognize the potential figure before him, though he does tut at Mulligan's boorishness toward the man. Slowly but surely, the pieces are coming together, and it's amazing that seemingly the most throwaway chapter of the book to this point also contains the most insight and emotion.

The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Made in 1991, The Fisher King is both somewhat dated and remarkably ahead of its time, a rarity among the classical mythological/folk-tale fantasies of its maker, Terry Gilliam. That aspect of Gilliam's filmmaking is certainly on display, of course: the film gets its title from the Arthurian legend of the keeper of the Holy Grail. But its view of healing wounds and redemptive human arcs is far more deeply felt than anything else in the director's corpus, and it set the stage for a number of reductive movies that used some facet of its subtly sociopolitical construction without understanding the true humanity that powered it.

The film's first shot places a mouth in extreme close-up as it sleazily talks into a microphone in a smoky radio studio. Jack (Jeff Bridges), a shock jock who combines Rush Limbaugh's combativeness with Howard Stern's puerile humor. For the entire first scene, Gilliam never places Bridges' face in full view, alternating between overhead long shots of the jock mocking disembodied voices and more close-ups of an almost toad-like mouth smacking and oozing literal and metaphorical spittle at those poor saps foolish enough to call in and argue with the man. Even in person, Jack is a voice, a lecturing superego as vile as the most uninhibited id, spewing bile upon the populace he so completely loathes.

In only a few minutes, Bridges finds this character, then completely shifts gears in an instant: as he celebrates his sitcom being picked up in his large, lonely apartment, a news report notes that one of the callers he insulted took his misanthropic, anti-yuppie railings too seriously and shot up a fancy restaurant, killing several patrons. Suddenly, the arrogant look twisting Bridges' face into a condescending leer slacks, and his face goes numb with horrific self-realization. Not many actors could take a character they've only been building for five minutes and completely change him in 30 seconds, but not everyone is the greatest living American actor.

For the rest of the film, the smug Jack moves around in a stupor, destroyed by guilt. Gilliam deploys his patented fish-eye lenses to show the man's incessant intoxication, and though he moves rapidly to a scene of attempted suicide, the confidence of Bridges' performance makes the sudden transition to Jack getting loaded at a dingy, pre-Giuliani rental store and putting on concrete shoes to drown himself later that night. Some gangbangers spot him and plan to have some fun torturing the wino, only for a crazed homeless man calling himself Parry (Robin Williams) to intervene.

The greatest surprise of The Fisher King lies not within the film's style, which manages to recreate Gilliam's bombastic élan on a more intimate scale, nor the flawless gearshifts Bridges pulls off but in the simple, astonishing fact that Robin Williams manages to show everyone else up. Now, that sounds more unbelievable than it is, but Williams rarely clicks for me. He tends to veer between manic and maudlin with such abandon he makes Alan Alda's most unstable leaps on M*A*S*H seem cohesive. The Fisher King represents one of a handful of roles to adequately play on his dramatic capacity and his overwhelming comic energy in equal measure, and this performance stands well above his others.

A high school teacher driven insane by his wife's murder at the hands of the man Jack drove to despair, Parry believes himself to be the incarnation of Percival, the fool knight in search of the Holy Grail. (I suppose Gilliam just can't let the Grail go.) Williams gets to vent his high comic style in Parry's more deluded flights of whimsy, mixing his chivalric challenges with streetwise language to create fitful moments of lucidity in which he so completely wears down Jack that he ultimately emerges the sane one. In film, Williams often puts his body into his comedy and his soul into the drama, but here the line blurs.

Feeling responsible for Parry's misery, Jack tries to help him out, but his initial gestures reveal a thoughtless, facile attempt to put the man out of sight and out of mind. Yet Jack finds himself genuinely caring for Parry's well-being, and he soon comes to believe his path to redemption lies in introducing his strange (but only) friend to the woman he's fallen for: a timid, klutzy book editor named Lydia (Amanda Plummer). Holding Parry back is his devastating insecurity, manifested in the form of a red knight that patrols around offering symbolic reminders of the event that tore his life apart -- tattered red clothes resembling ripped flesh, belching fire the blast of a shotgun. He cannot bring himself to talk to the lonely woman, so it's up to Jack and his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), to bring the two together.

The Red Knight, as well as the expressive setpieces of New York's post-crack, pre-Giuliani homeless jungle, offer familiar sights to Gilliam fans expecting his fantastical direction. The film even offers references to some of his other work, most explicitly Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brazil -- a Brazil poster dots the wall of the Video Spot office, and high angle shots of Lydia's bureaucratic publishing job recall the stifling morass of office life in the director's masterpiece.

But what Gilliam does not receive nearly enough credit for is his way with actors. Responsible for several of the finer child performances of the last few decades, Gilliam also eked career-highlight performances from Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Jonathan Pryce and Johnny Depp, and he even managed to compensate for the beautiful fragments of Heath Ledger's incomplete work for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with actors all offering different but cohesive takes on the same character.

Here, he gets magnificent performances from all four of his leads. One might attribute the fact that the least noticeable of the main cast, Ruehl, is the one who got an Oscar for her work to typical Academy thick-headedness, but I see it as proof of how well everyone fit together and how even the softest touches of one actor enhanced the work of the rest. As Jack's long-suffering girlfriend, Ruehl is used to being the most malleable of the characters, forced to deal not only with Jack's mood swings but now Parry's brief flirtations with normalcy and, eventually, Plummer's bitchy nervosa. She holds the rest of the cast together and wonderfully plays off their foibles and joys and pains.

Plummer too carves out her own space against the titanic outpourings of emotions and self-loathing that Williams and Bridges offer. Withdrawn and wiry like a caged mouse, Plummer finds a way to be annoying and endearing, emotionally sheltered the point of frigidity but just lonely enough to keep following Jack ludicrous schemes to set her up with Parry. Anne later admits that the two are made for each other, and that's obvious even before they meet.

Gilliam places such faith in his actors that he takes himself out of the most crucial moment of the movie: the double date with the four characters. With a simple long shot of all four eating Chinese food, the director lets them riff, intruding only to cut the waffle with some hilariously Kurosawa-esque transition wipes and the occasional closer shot of Jack and Anne whispering comments on how Parry is doing with Lydia. The scene initially works as riotous comedy, Jack and Anne doing their best to keep a straight face as Parry and Lydia awkwardly handle the food, slurp, burp and never finish a tentative attempt at conversation. As the dinner wears on, though, the mood relaxes, and we see Parry start to charm Lydia, and soon the light feeling spreads even to Jack: Sheila O'Malley pointed out a lovely, underplayed moment of Jack gently pulling down Anne's loose bra strap and kissing her lightly on the shoulder as Parry sings a half-romantic, half-bawdy ode to his love.

Compare this plainer, more realistic view of romance and romanticism to the lofty, self-consuming varieties found in Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, even, to an extent, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Though that style creeps in with the vignettes involving the Red Knight, The Fisher King deals in lilting but painfully tangible visions of love. Parry's reverie in Grand Central Terminal turns the place into a giant dance hall, but beneath the gorgeous image of the expansive transit station bathed in angelic light is the harsh sight of the ragged Parry chasing a love that keeps getting farther away. When he finally gets to confess his feelings for Lydia, he must first overcome the uneasy suggestion that he's a stalker. There's a thin line between love at first sight and obsession, but Williams manages to find himself on the right side of the divide with a gorgeous speech that turns his microscopic detail of her life into a love letter. Insecure but harmless people like Parry cannot just ask someone out: they have to get to know the person and learn her quirks and likes and worries first. The innocence of his delivery threatens to bring me to tears as much as it does Lydia. And have the words "Shut up" ever been so gentle and warm?

That light approach floats the film through potential pitfalls, such as its wafer-thin view of homelessness in post-Reagan America. The two most prominent homeless people in the film, Parry and a cabaret queen played by Michael Jeter, both found themselves crazed and homeless not because of deep-rooted psychological issues or economic duress but because of major traumas that broke them. One could argue this is an attempt to prove that anyone can wind up on the streets given the right circumstances, but it also presents a narrow-minded view of the horrors of homelessness. Yet Gilliam does not trade on the idea that a bum can teach a yuppie to find himself, at least not without reciprocating that moral instruction in turn. The beauty of The Fisher King is that all its major characters help the others in some way instead of any one person unlocking a moral truth. For example: Anne nurses Jack during his dark years, agrees to help Parry and softens up the frosty Lydia to deal with people. In turn, she gets a moment to reflect upon the one-sided nature of her relationship with Jack from Parry.

The first cries of "Forgive me!" in the film are ironic, the drunken ramblings of a cocksure asshole chanting the catchphrase that will make him millions. Later, when that sitcom makes it to air, they're farcical. But the idea of forgiveness forms the core of the film: Jack needs forgiveness for the consequences of his shock jock confrontations, while Parry needs to forgive himself for living while his wife died and mourn her properly. Thus, the role of the Fool and King in the film's frequent allusions to the myth alter routinely: each sees the other for who he really is and hold the key to the other's redemption. The paths back to humanity are twisted and gnarled, and when both Parry and Jack suffer setbacks the haunted looks in their eyes can rip out heartstrings.

For all the film's mordant, Gilliam-esque comedy -- Jack gets back into show-biz late in the film, only to be pitched on a sitcom about the homeless that "won't be depressing" -- The Fisher King stands as the most touching movie the director ever made, an underrated actors' showcase that does not want for visual acuity. From the dawning horror on Bridges' face as his hand glides up from below frame in a vain attempt to cover his gaping mouth at the start to Williams' disturbing look of peace when thugs attack him, the actors always find ways to surprise us with this movie. It may be disjointed, but The Fisher King belongs on the list of unappreciated '90s movies along with another transcendent movie (also starring Bridges) about redemption and reconnecting the disconnected to humanity: Peter Weir's Fearless.

Monday, April 25

Numéro Deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975)

Numéro deux represents Godard's first fully successful attempt to include the elements of his previous films into a cohesive whole. Ironically, it may also be his most abstract and jumbled film yet. Shown entirely on video monitors (even the two establishing shots showing Godard in his studio contain running images on screens), Numéro deux takes his Brechtian distance to a new extreme, creating such an aesthetic distance that the cold abstraction of his characters can be attributed as much to the blatant falsity of it all as it can to Godard's philosophical and political musings.

And yet, the film represents the best-yet examination of Godard's obsession with the line between discussing politics and embodying them. Despite its formal minimalism -- employing nothing but static shots of video monitors themselves displaying solely static shots -- Numéro deux at last emerges as the true heir to the poetic 2 or Things I Know About Her, a film that partially informed every Godard film that came after it, as well as a further exploration of not only the ideas behind the Dziga Vertov Group but of the reasons that collective failed. It represents a better meditation and autocritique than Here and Elsewhere, and somewhere in its brutal asceticism is a poetry I'd begun to think Godard lost.

After a brief play with images on two video monitors, the film cuts to Godard in his editing suite giving a monologue about his move from Paris to a smaller home outside the city, which then leads into a discussion of money and the difficulty of financing movies. Purportedly, Godard made this film when the producer of his landmark debut, Georges de Beauregard, proposed that the director remake that film. Godard agreed but naturally had no interest in returning to Breathless. Instead, he used the money to get the equipment needed finish Here and Elsewhere, then made this movie, which examines a French family suffering a bourgeois implosion. Not exactly a jazzy genre exercise.

With voyeuristic still shots of the family in their social housing complex, Godard takes the contradictions and metaphors of his monologue and examines them in action. In his speech, he referred to his editing studio as a factory, where he is both boss and worker, a semi-equal but nevertheless distinct dichotomy that speaks to socialism as it turned out, not in its fully egalitarian utopian model. For the film's subjects, their bodies are themselves machines in a factory; I don't know of a film with a less romantic vision of sex.

The young couple between the other pairs of the film -- two children, two grandparents -- use sex as an empty means of power and brief pleasure. The father caught the mother with another man, but only one part of him reacts with anger. Another part is turned on, and his internal struggle occasionally explodes in physical and sexual violence against his wife. Yet he still idealizes the act: in bed, Pierre and Sandrine compare men and women. Pierre romantically speaks of woman as a river crashing into the shore that is man. Known for washing away the shore, the river does not receive much consideration for the effects of the shore upon it, limiting its graceful flow and span. Sandrine's views of Pierre are far less rosy: she notes that she sees his ass every morning when he goes to work and leaves her to do chores and his dick when he comes home expecting some action.

These harsh, clashing dualities comprise the film's philosophical conflicts, as well as its aesthetic framing. Using two monitors, Godard juxtaposes sight and sound against each other, creating jarring miniature compositions. Before the film turns to the family, Godard experiments with the two screens, juxtaposing news broadcasts concerning revolutionary activity and Establishment crackdowns of same with light TV programming, suggesting television's capacity for indoctrination and how it's used to retard mental growth and independence with endless fluff. Anne-Marie Miéville, who co-wrote the film but did not share a direction credit, speaks in a voiceover as these two screens keep going, discussing how all images, including those in a film, are manufactured just as TV images and ads are. At one point, she drifts into a tangent where she speaks of Numéro deux as if it were a coming attraction, thus exposing how film can be its own advertisement. She also amusingly wonders whether the film is political or pornographic, placing the two as flip sides of the same coin.

Tempering these comparisons and dualities is a written-in admonishment to this dialectical approach. "Why do you always ask 'either/or?'" ponders Miéville. "Maybe it's both at once." Though the characters of the movie often talk politics, the true focus is on the mundanity of their lives, hence the presentation through the smaller scope of television. From their quotidian routines come questions on many of the same topics Godard explored with the DVG, delivered without the collective's polemics.

Despite the stark framing, Godard clearly put care into his compositions, and they betray some of the higher ambitions of this essay film. He shows the grandmother doing chores, her head either cut out of the frame or so far away we cannot read it. He then lays a monologue on top of these images of her reflecting not only on mortality but feminism. She speaks bitterly about gender struggle as the video shows her ironing and cleaning, and one gets the feeling that she's voicing a suppressed cry she never got to vent to another person. The grandfather, far more steeped in self-pity, summarizes his life (one that coincides with various radical movements and their failures) as he sits nude from the waist down, his own chilling conflation of the death of rebellion with his own mortality sending shivers down the spine.

Perhaps this is still too polemical despite Godard's efforts to present politics through human interaction and emotion, however abstract. Indeed, some parts challenge the audience's patience, if not its sense of propriety. The two children pose a number of those simple-but-deep questions children always ask -- a precursor to Godard's TV series France/Tour/Detour/Deux/Enfants? -- and, since sex takes up so much room in the film, their questions naturally gravitate in that direction. Eventually, the parents invite the kids into the bedroom to explain sex by pointing to their exposed genitals. Even a liberal viewer might question the necessity of this, particularly when Godard had already effectively used dissolves to layer the kids' faces over shots of the couple screwing.

However, there's a perverse beauty in the moment. The parents refer to their genitals as mouths and portray sex as a form of kissing and silent communication. It's a poetic view of sex, and one the parents certainly don't believe, but they at least try to put intercourse on the pedestal for the next generation. Even then, Godard can undercut the moment: part of the reason the sex in this film is so unerotic is that it has been abstracted to the point of objectivity and obscurity. Like Howells' anti-romantic point about the ideal grasshopper, Godard demonstrates how losing track of the actual object or action robs it of its true meaning, a lesson he might need to re-learn after the radical analysis of the DVG.

Rather than focus on the dichotomies between each pair of characters, Godard and Miéville show how each group, however emotionally isolated from each other through their self-absorbed worldviews and the aesthetic oppression of Godard's editing, links with each other. The grandparents resemble less the previous generation than futuristic visions of the young couple currently mired in acrimony, aged and bitter endpoints for these post-radicals burned out on politics after the failure of May '68. In turn, the kids' inquisitiveness about sex reflects the moments of innocence in Pierre and Sandrine's sexual play, and perhaps they will internalize their parents' more beautiful talk of sex instead of the brutal reality of their acts.

Godard's attempts to tie these people together are but one facet of his desire to link threads: he might have burned his old producer by making this film, but he drops a vague reference to Breathless in the form of a gangster story the two children tell each other, bits of which recall the plot of Godard's first feature. Likewise, Godard's wordplay reveals a respect for puns as a means of experimenting with, and expressing a love for, language. As Miéville says, "Numéro Deux isn't a rightist or leftist film but a before and behind film." It sees what lies before it, but it takes care to incorporate the past as well.

In Godard's rambling monologue, he briefly touches upon the idea that "there's too much DNA not enough RNA." I interpreted that to mean he sees too many completed thoughts that cannot be manipulated. He wants to get a hold of the half-strands, the ones that leave space for learning and exploration. Numéro deux looks to the past (its Breathless reference, its abstract reflections on May '68) and the future (paving the way for both Godard's miniseries and Histoire(s) du Cinéma), but the most striking revelations it contains deal with the present. Godard has not quite returned aesthetically to cinema, but he certainly believes in it once more: in one shot of the typed text intertitles frequently placed in-between scenes, "cinema" changes into "possible," as if to say film can make anything happen. That reinvigorated look at film fits nicely with my favorite summary of the film courtesy of this capsule review: "If we look at the 1960's as Godard's childlike enjoyment of pop culture, genre cinema, and primary colors, and if we look at the Dziga Vertov Group as Godard's rebel without a cause years, then Numéro deux is when Godard finally becomes an adult."

Announcement: Inexhaustible Documents

Next month, Ed Howard of Only the Cinema will launch a new series at his blog called Inexhaustible Documents. Modeled after The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, Inexhaustible Documents will instead focus on music, with one blogger selecting a title each month and posting about it on his or her blog as the others discuss it in the comments.

The first edition will cover The Congos' Heart of the Congos, which is almost perfect, as reggae represents the biggest gap in my music listening. Starting May 23, you can read Ed's post on the album and join in the discussion.

Some bloggers, including yours truly, have already signed on to participate, but this is by no means a limited series. I hope this series gets a good turnout and leads to some great discussion, and that some bloggers I know and love join in the chat. So mark your calendars, and do please participate.

Sunday, April 24

Taxi Driver

To commemorate the release of Taxi Driver on a downright essential Blu-Ray, I've reviewed the film at Cinelogue. Almost assuredly my favorite movie of the 1970s, Taxi Driver hasn't aged a day regardless of the vastly different condition of modern New York City. This is a film for the lonely, the hurt and the angry, which makes it as good a fit for millennials as it did the post-hippie burnouts.

I only briefly touched upon the extras included in the Blu-Ray, but everything you need to know about the movie can be found in its commentary track or the bevy of retrospective material. The A/V restoration makes the film come alive more than it already does, yet this gorgeous transfer does not take away from the dingy feel of the movie. It is already my to-beat disc for 2011.

You can read my review now at Cinelogue.

Friday, April 22

The Lovely Bones: Simple Past x Past Continuous

You can't miss this film. A great story, great acting, and amazing ending. Although the movie is suitable for adults only, this scene can be used with students of all ages.

I. Work in groups. Read the activities below and guess which activities the character in the movie did NOT do while smoking cigarettes BEFORE VIEWING THE SEGMENT. You have to choose 4 activities. The winner is the group who guesses most activities.

1. ( ) Vacuum the house
2. ( ) Drink whiskey
3. ( ) Water the plants
4. ( ) Sweep the flo0r
5. ( ) Put a mask on someone's face
6. ( ) Break some eggs on someone's hair.
7. ( ) Do the laundry
8. ( ) Sleep
9. ( ) Kick the dog
10. ( ) Read a book
11. ( ) Dance
12. ( ) Talk on the phone
13. ( ) Kiss the children

II. Watch the segment now and check your guesses. Which group is the winner?

III. Now write affirmative and negative sentences about the activities in exercise I. What did she do while she was smoking?


1. She vaccumed the house.
2 ................................................
3 ................................................



Answer Key:

The incorrect items in exercise I are 9, 10, 12, 13

Thursday, April 21

I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2011)

What is it about South Korea and revenge films? My overriding distaste for all but the most thoughtful and daring revenge movie largely confines my genre excursions on this subject to the national cinema of the country (as well as the work of Quentin Tarantino and the odd film like the Coens' True Grit). Perhaps South Korea's long history of exploitation at the hands of other nations -- ending only in the last half of the previous century and gaining that independence at least partially through the intervention of Western nations -- is the impetus for the desire for payback. Now that South Korea is a major economic presence, maybe they want to show others what they're made of.

I Saw the Devil, the latest by Kim Ji-woon, does not stand with the best, most insightful genre film Korean cinema has to offer, but it successfully blurs the line between hero and villain with a masterfully gory portrait of all-consuming vengeance that, to its credit, will probably revolt audiences looking for a visceral kick even more than the deliberately repulsive films of Park Chan-wook. The story of a stoic cop seeking revenge against his fiancée's killer, I Saw the Devil plays like what Christopher Nolan wishes he could have done with The Dark Knight: it takes the conflict between a psychopath and a preternaturally skilled crime fighter and grinds the pieces together so violently that the ostensible hero truly is brought down to the evildoer's level.

Using cold, crisp cinematography saturated in blue tones, Kim introduces the scenario with enough tension to drive an audience mad before they've had any time to settle in: Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), the daughter of a retired police chief and fiancée to detective Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), drives down a remote, scarcely lit road during snowfall when her tire leaks air and strands her in the middle of nowhere. A man offers to help but cannot fix it, and all the while the camera peers at angles outside the windshield, waiting for something to happen. It finally does, and the results are brutal, immaculately choreographed and unexpectedly terrifying given how telegraphed the kill is.

Torn by grief, Soo-hyeon seeks revenge, but instead of simply tracking down down Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), the cop instead finds the killer and initiates a perverse game of cat and mouse. Soo-hyeon plants a tracer on Kyung-chul so he can burst in at any time and beat the man to within an inch of his life and depart without arresting him.

After a few such meetings, all of which involve Soo-hyeon allowing Kyung-chul to corner yet another prey before saving the day at the last second, Soo-hyeon begins to change. Lee's icy demeanor comes to embody less professionalism than unrelenting sadism, while Choi's feral madness grows contours that do not even attempt to explain his motivations but reveal his ferocious anger as self-hate manifested outward. That is not to say that the film makes us "root" for Kyung-chul; I Saw the Devil is not so simplistic. It does not seek to swap black and white but to pour them in the same can and put the thing in a shaker. No one emerges from this movie unscathed, including -- with the exception of those with the strongest stomachs -- the audience.

Kim and Lee Mo-gae navigate the twists, turns and role reversals with a diversified yet coherent style. The opening use of blue, from the overall tone to the lights inside Joo-yeon's vehicle, creates a sense of idyll but also impending doom. When an attack is imminent, the crisp frame dims into gritty, inky blacks with isolated light sources illuminating just enough to suggest the horror, and when someone flips a switch to investigate a mysterious sound, the alienating fluorescence makes the mise-en-scène even more unsettling. Kim's inventive framing defies even the most cynical expectations: when he shows a nude woman wrapped in plastic, one assumes the cops have sealed a corpse, only for her to jerk suddenly and make clear that the killer isn't through with her yet.

Unfortunately, for all Kim's control of the direction, his pacing does not reflect the same care. At 144 minutes, I Saw the Devil stretches far beyond the typical limit for a film of this nature. Viewed from a certain perspective, the overlong beginning segment and repetitive middle chases could be seen as Kim's way of de-romanticizing the quest for vengeance beyond shadow of a doubt. However, after a particularly brutal encounter at the house of Kyung-chul's cannibal friend at the 1:40 mark, I cannot fathom anyone still being even subconsciously enamored with the violence. By the time the tables turn on Soo-hyeon and then back again, the film has already dragged on a half-hour too long.

Kim rallies at the end, however, and his occasional moments of quiet reflection throughout deepen the film beyond its inventive but hollow narrative. Joo-yeon's soft "Can you please not kill me?" to Kyung-chul and the tender moment of mutual sorrow and regret between Soo-hyeon and Joo-yeon's father add texture to the movie and are as memorable as any of the action setpieces. This being Korean cinema, there are also moments of dark comedy, such as Soo-hyeon stabbing the cannibal's hand on a table and the handle popping off like a cork when the poor sod tries to pry it out. If the movie loses itself in the middle, it regains composure at the end when finally the full horror seems to hit both the cop and the killer, though by then it's too late for either.

Here and Elsewhere (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1975)

Partially cobbled together from footage Godard shot in 1970 of a Palestinian insurgency, Here and Elsewhere, his first collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, serves as the final nail in the Dziga Vertov Group's coffin, not only because it uses the last of the group's material but because Godard uses the opportunity to investigate why the group failed. Predictably, he cannot go into such details without making a movie as messy as one of the DVG films.

Though five years removed from his time in Palestine, Godard clearly has not forgotten his outrage, and as Miéville translates the revolutionaries' anti-Zionist rhetoric, it becomes clear Godard agrees with them even before he starts visually comparing Hitler to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. As ever, Godard thinks in terms of the Marxist class struggle, and when he cuts to a petit bourgeois family in France watching these images on their TV the connection -- Palestinians and Westerners held down by the same capitalist powers -- is obvious. Too obvious, in fact; Godard does not account for religious tension, and his equation of Hitler with Meir is but one example of his single-mindedness getting the better of him.

And yet, Here and Elsewhere also serves as a response to that dogmatic commitment Godard displayed even at his most open and considerate during the DVG years. Godard and Miéville discuss collecting all the footage and feeling confident in relating the story and its currents of theory and practice, only to return to France and see how all the careful ordering was inherently false, no matter how pure Godard's intentions were. Adding further sobriety to this autocritique is the reason Godard and co. left Palestine before completing their original film in the first place: so many of the natives involved had been killed. Shots of children training in a camp to fight in the insurgency may once have convinced Godard of the commitment of the Palestinians to their cause, but as he looks back he clearly wonders how many of them are dead now, and the images seem tragic and mournful. By filming these people at all, Godard ensured he would present their struggle against Western domination through Western means and interpretations of art. All filmmaking is interpretive, meaning that, for all the elements the director stripped from his style during his Dziga Vertov years, he always retained the most bourgeois one.

Still, he presses on in search of a universal form, and the film largely serves as his attempt to sift through his failure and learn from the mistakes. The text on the monitor at the start reads "Mon/Ton/Son Image," communicating that everyone can lay claim to the image, not merely the filmmakers who believe they are getting the full story. As frustratingly didactic as the film can be, Here and Elsewhere is yet another fascinating peek into Godard's insecurity and self-doubt in his lofty goals. He considers images in both time and space and seeks a way to put images in the same space at the same time instead of having one follow the other as it must in film. Multiple monitors and new editing equipment allow Godard the freedom to juxtapose more images than ever, and he uses these toys, these capitalistic innovations, to try to get a more accurate representation of his Marxist aesthetic.

More than any of his preceding late-'60s/early-'70s work, Here and Elsewhere captures and further develops the ideas and desires that motivated 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, in which he first surrendered autonomy of the image to seek all around him. By finding methods of not only cutting up images to fit them all in the frame -- which he does here using video technology that allows him to blur, overlap and melt images -- he instead places all these monitors on the screen, so that we are in effect watching others watch the movie, sitting in the editing suite with the filmmakers as they judge which images to use. Thus, Here and Elsewhere transcends Godard's efforts to find a Marxist image by not only showing more freedom in the selection of images beyond those that serve Godard's narrative means to making the viewer a semi-equal participant in viewing the complete footage. Of course, Godard still has the power to interpret it, but now he starts to leave

Here and Elsewhere expands the scope of Godard's attempts to capture the world on film, delineating all around one's vicinity from the images we ultimately receive on TV or in film, all of which were shot "elsewhere." Because of this, the images and sound lack their full power. The family in France look no different watching Godard's imposed images of horror and war than they do watching an ad with a catchy jingle play in-between the Palestinian footage. By, however unwisely, tossing out religious considerations, Godard can frame the Palestinian cause as class struggle and draw comparisons from the families elsewhere who grew fed up with their station and began organizing to the Western drones who can start their own revolution on a similarly small scale before expanding. But since he does leave out all that vital information when compiling his thoughts, Godard's conclusions can be messy and taxing, like the worst of Dziga Vertov output.

I admit I got a bit lost with this film and felt I were missing something in between what Godard was aiming for and the final product, so I looked to Ed Howard (one of the people chiefly responsible for me deciding to go through Godard's canon in the first place and a fantastic resource for where to find so many of the director's forgotten films) to see if he made anything out of it. I think we largely agree, but one of the passages of his review of the film caught my eye:
"It is not so much a political film as it is about political films, about the ways in which images, sounds, and their combinations can contribute to or impede understanding. It is also a study in contrasts, with the title's dual concepts the central dichotomy at work: "here" for the familiar, the domestic; "elsewhere" for the unfamiliar, the foreign.

That's a spot-on observation, though I find it amusing that Godard would divide locations into "here" and "elsewhere" given the time he devotes to criticizing his obsession with Marxist dialectic. "It is too easy and too simple," Miéville repeats, "to simply divide the world into two." In fairness, his dichotomy here is flexible and relative as opposed to the more hardline "good/bad" splits of earlier rhetoric. However, the key component of the film's title (and the filmmakers' focus) is neither on "here" or "elsewhere" but on the "and." Godard stresses the "and" in comparisons as if stuttering, and a giant "Et" fills the screen when he does so. He wants to bury into the "and," the conjunction taken for granted, to find the mysteries it contains. Godard notes that even the most quotidian, insignificant image becomes part of "a vague and complicated system," and Godard desperately wants to map that system.

Despite these humanistic aims, Here and Elsewhere still contains the frustrating limitations it criticizes, including its moments of rigid condescension. "There are no more simple images, only simple people, who will be forced to stay quiet, like an image," the filmmakers say. And yet, Godard and Miéville do internalize some of their inclusive aesthetic lessons, lumping themselves in with the crowd when Miéville posits "It seems we do not know how to see or listen." The solution, it seems, is to "learn to see here in order to understand elsewhere." I can't say I'm not glad to finally emerge from Godard's political period (barring the chance to catch up with a few of the DVG films I couldn't track down). But as many issues I have with Here and Elsewhere's pacing and contradictions, its mature evaluation of those politics and the human motivations and limitations behind them make the film a surprisingly moving elegy for an ambitious but misguided period for the world's most ambitious filmmaker.

Tuesday, April 19

Letter to Jane (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

Conceived as a postscript film to Tout va bien, the 52-minute Letter to Jane closes the door on Godard and Gorin's partnership and the lingering remnants of the Dziga Vertov Group. Structured around the infamous photograph of Fonda in Hanoi, Letter to Jane seeks to break down the image's symbolic meaning and every implication of Fonda's visit to North Vietnam.

Yet the most readily apparent aspect of these interpretations is the acrid tone of the two men's discussions. Perhaps this can be traced to Fonda's unease with Tout va bien, which confronted her naïve political sensibilities with all-out radical filmmaking and so offended her that Gorin ranted at her for three hours until she broke down and agreed to what ultimately amounted to a slyly minor role.

Thus, Letter to Jane too often smacks of sexist condescension. Godard used several of his '60s films to directly attack the commodification of the image of women. Here, however, the men pore over her looks seeking discrepancies between her actions, their true motivations and the effects of them on the revolution. Gorin says that, as a woman, Fonda will be more sensitive to their criticism and practically tells her to put aside her womanly hormones to engage with them. They then try to absolve themselves by saying, "We are not aiming at Jane but a function of Jane." Gorin and Godard could be dropped into the male roles of Une femme mariée or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her without skipping a beat.

Then again, it's possible that Godard and Gorin are addressing that obsession over the female image. They break down the image's aesthetics in taking its politics to task, noting that right-wing and left-wing papers ran the photo in equal measure because it was structured by the photographer to be ambiguous. Conservatives can mock it, while leftists can celebrate it. The filmmakers hit upon something when they note how the actual Vietnamese in the photograph are minimized and not even named in the cutline. In an age where some celebrities attempt to funnel their camera magnetism into social activism, this analysis points out the true effect of a celebrity lending her voice to a cause: the cameras follow her there but only shoot her.

Some of their aesthetic analysis deconstructs the subconscious tone of the shot until one cannot look at it the same way again. Its low angle emphasizes Fonda's superiority, a point the filmmakers support by contrasting it with stills of films like Citizen Kane as if the whole film were a class lecture (and it certainly feels like one). They break down her body and facial language as if Fonda gave a performance to the North Vietnamese, comparing the look of sympathy on her face to various condescending glances of pity in paternalistic Hollywood films, suggesting that, in coming to North Vietnam to protest her homeland's imperialism, she brought that Father-Knows-Best social tone with her.

Godard and Gorin do believe in the Vietnamese cause, and they even stress the importance of answering the question, "How can cinema help Vietnamese people win their independence?" Clearly, they come to the conclusion that Fonda's visit is not the solution, and they argue she does more harm than good. As they argue, photos of the Vietnamese are of relevant people with stories, while an "American's face a function that only reflects a function." Fonda is only a symbol, interchangeable and distracting. As maddening as this harangue can be, Godard and Gorin achieve a haunting level of meditation in their close-up isolation of the only person besides Fonda to face the camera, a Vietnamese man. Out of focus to begin with, the Vietnamese looks even blurrier when blown-up, as if Fonda's presence and ostensible assistance actually turns the indigenous people into ghosts in their own home. Then, the two find the joke in the situation: by isolating this member of the proletariat in the background, Fonda makes herself into the embodiment not of the leftist movement but the oppressive bourgeoisie.

Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

In Paul Tingen's survey of Miles Davis' electric period, Miles Beyond, the author repeatedly returns to the idea of "transcend and include" as a way of charting Davis' substantial musical growth by way of seeing how he maintained a link to the past. No filmmaker embodies this ideal like Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1972 film Tout va bien marked a return to more cinematic storytelling even as it incorporated ideas and stylistic traits he'd picked up with collective filmmaking and tried to move forward. Having ditched the Dziga Vertov Group moniker to share name credit with Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard took elements of his mid-'60s pop art aesthetic, essay film structure and DVG polemics and autocritique and mixed them to try to find his way in a France he could not recognize from its turbulent days in May '68.

Indeed, Godard's return to his more filmic mise-en-scène may be a visual cue of how thoroughly France had returned to the status quo by 1972: capitalism emerged victorious, and lingering political hostility only displays a fraction of the turmoil present in the streets during the national riots. His titles, which return to the blue/white/red format of his mid-'60s credits sequences, juxtapose May '68 with May '72, and when the film begins one can see the marked difference between the two despite the prevalence of revolt in the film's narrative.

The fully transparent self-reflexivity of the Dziga Vertov Group films returns in the opening sequence, as two voices argue about the best way to make the film. Where the autocritique of the DVG films focused on Godard and co.'s political purity and the contradictory forces of their bourgeois upbringings, Tout va bien incorporates more critical views of Godard and Gorin's aesthetic choices. One voice, largely in the role of producer, tells the other that putting a star in the movie will help them get more money, and a coherent and, more importantly, recognizable narrative subject will ensure a better box office.

Godard and Gorin have the last laugh, though. The two major stars they cast, Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, were at the height of their political involvement: Montand had just starred in two of Costa-Gavras films, while Fonda was on the cusp of leaving for Hanoi to record some propaganda for the North Vietnamese. Then, the directors further subverted expectations.

Fonda plays Suzanne, an American ex-pat working as a radio announcer for the American Broadcasting System. Her husband, Jacques (Montand) shoots TV commercials, having once been a New Wave filmmaker. Sent to interview the manager of a meat-packing factory, Fonda (with husband in tow) finds herself holed up with the boss when the workers revolt and take him hostage. Ergo, for the first half of the movie, the money-making stars barely appear, only getting one or two lines each time they appear on-screen.

After years in the ascetic wilderness, Godard and Gorin suddenly display a sense of formal adventurousness that does not forsake the ideals of the DVG but does seek to tie them to more aesthetically appealing images. The camera tracks through a factory made to look like a dollhouse, a reference to Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man (and containing flecks of Tati's Playtime) that makes Brechtian art out of the filmmakers' self-examination once more. Confining the stars in one area, the filmmakers instead cover the factory workers, who bring Fonda out of holding only to spread their message to this member of the press.

As with their previous films, Tout va bien at once supports Marxism but spares scant sympathy for the revolutionaries. Though some of them talk tough and attempt to whip up the frenzy of May '68, even the most radical of the workers ultimately looks like little more than a schoolboy who seized the school from the teachers, or an inmate who took over the asylum. Apart from vague demands of social change, the workers seem more content to muck about and tease their boss than funnel their takeover into further action. One worker even deflates the impassioned rhetoric of her colleague and wonders why the media never shows a dissenting voice poking holes in the simplistic logic of stilted propaganda.

The key suggestion of the film is that capitalism returned so quickly in the wake of the '68 revolution that people cannot seem to remember those turbulent times despite name-checking them constantly. The union head is no longer an agent for worker's rights but a paid stooge on the boss' side who must be forced to read out the half-baked manifesto by the others and starts mocking them the second he finishes. The wildcat strike lasts only a day and a half before the workers relent and the factory returns to normal so quickly one would be forgiven for thinking that whole revolt was just a dream.

Even Suzanne and Jacques' relationship is defined in commercial terms. Suzanne emigrated the United States to become a leftist in Europe, where she enjoyed a brief spell of infamy as the go-to resource for the revolution, but now she pays the bills by flatly reading objective news, brought to you by these sponsors. Godard clearly had a bone to pick with some of his old friends when he fashioned Jacques as a disgraced Nouvelle Vague director now making commercials, and the long monologue Montand delivers after he and Fonda leave the factory suggest a deep level of self-loathing covered up by a total blindness to the full extent of his selling out.

After the characters' release from the factory, the filmmakers get to a conventional narrative topic, the "love story," to appease the projected mainstream audience. Yet Godard and Gorin once again undercut their own ostensible sell out, immediately showing the relationship disintegrating in the wake of their ordeal. The revolt only reminds Suzanne of what she's lost and what France has lost for her -- "I'm an American correspondent in France who corresponds to nothing," she says near the end. Perhaps their crumbling marriage serves as an allegory for disillusioned radicals unable to look each other in the face for fear of recognizing their failure. And what use have either of them for an international meeting of minds and beliefs in the Me Generation?

Though Godard and Gorin never tried to distinguish who did what in their creative collaborations, Gorin tends to get more of the credit for this film, mainly for the obvious reason that Godard got into a severe motorcycle accident and spent a great deal of the shoot in and out of the hospital. It still contains the more polemical thoughts of the DVG years to balance out Godard's aesthetic questions, and the long monologues might be Gorin's. Yet the film is a better showcase of the rapport the two filmmakers had formed, using the larger scale to transplant the political and aesthetic examinations of the DVG, and also the humor that peeked through in their late efforts. Fonda, who wanted to appear in political films but had to be harangued into appearing in this film by Gorin, is admirably game for their sense of humor, her largest chunk of dialogue involving an argument with her husband in which she brandishes a picture of a woman's hand holding a penis to emphasize the chauvinist thoughts clouding Montand's head. That the Marxist-Leninist revolt would be framed as a nod to an absurdist comedy points to the pair's wry take on politics they nevertheless believed.

But the best joke comes last. After following the stars' marriage in the second section of the film, the filmmakers turn to a gigantic supermarket at the end of the film. The slow camera track through this seemingly endless warehouse -- it makes IKEA look like a small-town hardware shop -- recalls the masterly tracking shot of traffic in Week-End. However, Godard and Gorin update the reference for '72: in Week-End, the tracking shot of cars congested suggested that, however hypocritical an action it might be in a new car, people were trying to escape. The end here suggests people have grown comfortable accepting the capitalist society and only revolt when their humanity peeks through all the stuff. When a riot breaks out, people simply try to grab what they can before the cops show up. There's no social revolution, no quest to bring about a better society; just get a little something extra for yourself. Even the Communist hawking Little Red Books at a stand has fallen sway to capitalism, offering the pamphlets "on-sale" -- what a prescient commentary on Red China, no?

Though not as delightfully wicked as Vladimir and Rosa, Tout va bien is a more welcome return-to-form in its literal sense, dragging Godard back into cinema without abandoning what he'd learned in collective filmmaking. Its lulls -- specifically in the long monologues late in the film -- deaden the flow, but it's a joy to see Godard working with his Pop Art color scheme, using film and finding ways to be subversive and relevant without being obtuse. The problem with the Dziga Vertov Group was that it sought to solve aesthetic and moral questions while jettisoning many of the complexities that make such question so hard to answer. Having found their footing with the last few DVG films, however, Godard and Gorin could begin adding all those elements back in to find answers. If Tout va bien frustratingly does not solve those questions, it at least continues the mature response Godard and Gorin began displaying with their best work: it seeks to determine why they cannot answer those queries.

Monday, April 18

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

One of the stranger aspects of animation is how production studios tend to be viewed in auteurist terms. Mention Disney, Studio Ghibli or Pixar and people can get an instant image in their heads despite the disparities of style and content between movies produced by various directors and various animation teams all getting their paycheck at the same place. Brad Bird, however, is one of the few animators who enjoys any singular auterist cred, carrying pet themes across projects and displaying a love for a chic past with styles based off old advertisements.

Following the release of his magnificent retro sci-fi picture The Iron Giant, Bird hooked up with old pal and Pixar head John Lasseter and pitched a superhero movie for the studio. Yet despite the swap from traditional animation (with some digital elements) to 3-D CGI, The Incredibles looks like a logical stylistic continuation of Bird's retro style and love of isolated heroes. When I first saw it as a 15-year-old, The Incredibles instantly became my favorite Pixar movie, only to go years without watching it. Using the new Blu-Ray release as an excuse to rediscover the film, I approached it with nostalgia, but also reminders of some of the criticisms I'd read since I last watched it a few years ago.

Brad Bird loves stories about unique, gifted individuals persecuted for being different. Whether it's the kind robot with enough arsenal to take out the planet if angered or a rat with impeccable culinary prowess, Bird's protagonists must always suffer the constraints of a society that refuses to acknowledge them as anything but freaks. The same is true of The Incredibles: Bird slyly posits a society in which the common people take legal action against superheroes over the collateral damage they cause. He kicks off the idea with an absurdity, a suicidal man suing the main character, Mr. Incredible, for preventing his death and injuring him, only for the passengers of a train that almost derailed because of his mistake to also sue for damages. Cops used to chase Batman and Spider-Man to make them stop, but all that really needed to be done was for a lawyer to get involved.

Some, though, have interpreted Bird's views as Randian, of the special individual held back by the collective. To be sure, Bird clearly has a bone to pick with standout members of society being ostracized. "Everybody's special," says exasperated super-mom Helen to her lightning fast son Dash when he begs to show off his skills on the running track. "Which is another way of saying no one is," he grumbles in response. He's right, though: one doesn't need to be conservative to agree that too much effort is wasted making everyone feel special these days and that groups of people celebrate mediocrity because they see themselves in it. Why else would anyone allow an idiot like Sarah Palin to hold any office while high school dropouts have the temerity to call Barack Obama, who received a doctorate from Harvard, an idiot?

Besides, Bird does not celebrate the individual so much as show how the individual can find his place among society. His standout characters never succeed without help, be it physical or emotional. More than any of his other movies, The Incredibles demonstrates the necessity of teamwork and family, downplaying Randian individualism for a more holistic integration of the average and the exceptional without ceding all control to either side.

In the opening scene, structured as a TV interview, Mr. Incredible and other heroes talk about their lives and future paths. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) thinks of settling down while Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) defiantly insists upon staying in the game where she can continue to work outside of gender limitations. Yet soon the two marry and the roles reverse, trapping Bob in an office job and Helen at home cleaning and caring for the kids. Helen adjusts to the life and the superhero ban enacted in part because of Bob, who looks for any chance he can get to flex the muscles under his growing belly. The early-'60s aesthetic around them suggests lingering '50s conformity caging them in this banal life and creating internal strife within the family -- between spouses and with their children -- so outward appearances can be maintained.

A great deal of dark irony runs through the early sections of the film, from the suicidal man suing Mr. Incredible for making him live to the superhero's out-of-hand rejection of an eager fan, Buddy, despite the fact that the boy displays an impressive intelligence by inventing working jet boots before he hits middle school. The grimmest (but funniest) joke, puts Bob in an insurance office, where the man who wants to help people is tasking with finding ways to denying money to even the most airtight claims as an avaricious imp (Wallace Shawn) threatens to fire him for helping little old ladies get payments.

After establishing this stifling scenario, Bird suddenly pulls back and dramatically widens the scope, sending Mr. Incredible a mysterious job offer playing to his desire to get back in his suit. He arrives at an island complex that would make Ernst Stavro Blofeld green with envy, complete with volcano lair and advanced weapon facilities that bombastically mix epic-size superhero tropes with Connery-era Bond movies, complete with a wonderfully brassy score by Michael Giacchino that combines the work of John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. Compared to the limited sets of previous Pixar movies -- animators would make digital sets and then structure their shots and characters within those environments -- The Incredibles relies upon far more locations. Instead of scenes occurring entirely within one area, shots move across jungle and through compounds, necessitating potential weeks of animation for a few seconds of connecting action.

Eventually, Bob learns that the island is run by his old fan Buddy (Jason Lee), now calling himself Syndrome. Destroyed by Mr. Incredible's rejection, Syndrome vowed to get his revenge, and he hatches a Watchmen-esque plan to make himself a hero in the public eye while rubbing out all those born special to ensure his supremacy. Syndrome, I think, stands as a response to those who would fault Bird for elevating the privileged few over the sneering masses: the villain is far more a Randian ideal, someone who actually did work to get what he did instead of being inherently different. There's a tragedy to Buddy, the kid ignored by those who would not acknowledge his abilities, only to return and stamp them all out and assert his own dominance.

And yet, you have to hate him. The animators must have had a hell of a time avoiding the Uncanny Valley with this film, but the character models manage to ape human behavior and body language while containing enough exaggerations and suggestive properties that one does not feel uncomfortable with them. Syndrome, funnily enough based on Bird's likeness, oozes scheming, cowardly evil, showing off powers that give him an advantage over heroes but leave him defenseless when someone disarms him. Helen is elastic and pliant, a visual metaphor for her flexibility as a mother and housewife. Dash's slicked-back hair and Violet's shyness (hiding behind her hair even when she's not using her powers of invisibility) also make for expressive characterization.

When Peter Travers listed the film as one of his favorites of the last decade, he characteristically included his usual round of quote-whoring blurbs but rightly noted the sheer range of issues covered in the movie, such as "midlife crisis, marital dysfunction, child neglect, impotence fears, fashion faux pas and existential angst." Mr. Incredible most visibly struggles with his dissatisfaction, but all these characters to some degree feel alienated, to the point that they can't even find comfort in each other.

Not that the film isn't great entertainment. Its action scenes are so grandiose that the makers of Fantastic Four added more special effects to make their movie comparable (it didn't help), while its humor displays the classic Pixar reliance on situation over reference. Aesthetically, the film may be pastiche, but its dialogue is all its own: one of the film's most memorable moments is the rant on capes by Edna (Bird), the fashion designer to the gods, which cuts through any romantic view of superhero costumes with a hilarious list of mishaps that cost supers their lives.

In the end, though, what stands out is Bird's mature view of such adult issues of emotionally distant parenthood and marital discord, which he handles with such aplomb Steven Spielberg could even learn a few things about putting such themes in mainstream populist entertainment. Along with Don Hertzfeldt, Bird is my favorite contemporary American animator, and while I can understand the criticisms against this movie, I love it now more than I ever did. I don't even realize how cramped and centralized so many Pixar films are until I watch this, and its satire represented a new level of sophistication in the writing. Seven years on, it still deserves serious consideration as Pixar's best movie, or at least the studio's most entertaining outing.