Monday, October 31

A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)

Hou Hsaio-hsien's A City of Sadness opens on perhaps the most solemn moment of celebration I've ever seen in a film. Over the black credits screen comes the voice of Emperor Hirohito announcing his unconditional surrender to Allied forces, his thin, resigned voice carrying the still-fresh shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hou cuts to a Taiwanese family in a candlelit household during a power outage, listening to this broadcast as a woman in the next room gives birth. One cannot tell whether the looks of apprehension on their faces are for the woman in labor or the political uncertainty. What should be a joyous moment—one Hou even visualizes a sense of hope when the lights come back on with the baby's birth and Taiwan's official liberation from 50 years of Japanese rule—instead feels ambiguous, even vaguely threatening.

But then, it's not really a true celebration of Taiwan's freedom. As characters note a few minutes later, the Japanese flags have been taken down and replaced with the old Chinese ones. The country still finds itself under the heel of another, venal Chinese bureaucrats replacing imperial Japanese forces. Not two years later, the Kuomintang government headed by Chiang Kai-shek would unleash a mass crackdown of growing Taiwanese dissidence in order to consolidate power over the Nationalist party's new homebase. During this vicious suppression, anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 dissidents were killed and the KMT enacted a 40-year reign of martial law that would kill and imprison many more. Hou never bothers to make that coming storm a surprise, focusing instead on the sense of loss and voicelessness that categorizes Taiwan to this day.

In a typical practice of narrative focus, A City of Sadness condenses its large-scale historico-political subject matter by filtering it through the more personal prism of the Lin family, made up of four brothers. The eldest, Wen-heung, is the most optimistic about the end of Japanese rule, reconverting his bar into a restaurant he calls "Little Shanghai." But when gangsters from the real city come by demanding his cooperation, he learns soon enough that he isn't free. Two brothers got conscripted into the Japanese army, but only one, Wen Wen-leung, returned, albeit shellshocked into madness. When he recovers, he finds himself working for the same gangsters who pressure Wen-heung, unable to find work elsewhere. The youngest, Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), is deaf-mute, a sweet intellectual who operates a photography studio where grumbling young dissidents begin meeting before everything goes to hell.

Each represents some facet of Taiwanese response to liberation and subsequent re-enslavement, yet none exists solely as a symbol. But neither do the characters get much in the way of insight and depth of thought. Their presence grounds the emotional remove of the film with resonant hardships, also sidestepping any play for concrete objectivity by resolutely sticking with the brothers and their immediate families instead of capturing the full impact of the White Terror. By concentrating on what happens to these people, however, Hou can still address the actual events that ravaged the island. It's a hard approach to grasp, and it's telling that, as much as the film baffled Western critics not versed in Taiwan's history, it similarly vexed Taiwanese audiences.

Hou achieves his contradictorily historical and lyrical perspective through a singular use of camera movement and placement that uses geometric precision to create an antithetical sense of natural realism. He sets shots on an axis, returning to each area with shots in different positions along that same axis. For example, when he first moves inside the central set of the hospital, Hou situates the camera in the middle of the corridor looking out the door as Shizuko, a Japanese girl repatriated back to Japan following the war, asks for her nurse friend, Hinomi. Shortly thereafter, Hou returns to the axis but pulls the camera back into another room, still pointing out the hospital door but placing a second doorway to complete change the mood of the shot with only the slightest variance.

This style proves more confusing and challenging to Western viewers than its esoteric approach to lesser-known cultural history. The shots we assume to be chronological progressions are revealed belatedly to be simultaneous occurrences, and sometimes distinct areas become adjacent rooms in a larger set. For a film that situates itself in an intimate family setting, Hou's camera reverses the expectation of proximal shots and more psychological framing of sociopolitical response. If anything, the director moves further back the deeper the film plunges into its despair. No shot moves nearer to a character than medium-close-up, and any violence gets framed in long and extreme-long-shots, if not elided altogether.

Yet there is a poetic beauty at work here, with Hou's precise framing marking the progress of time outside clear dates. Mixing Ozu's static shots with Mizoguchi's elegant, long takes, Hou consistently clarifies and subsequently redefines spatial relationships in a playful but serious and perfectly judged way. And by returning to the same sets along the same axes, Hou creates visual motifs that instantly convey meaning through repetition. Several scenes occur at a dinner table in front of a stained-glass window with diamond shapes, and all of them feature some form of conflict. First, people mumble dissent over politics before being chided and distracted from their talk. Later, the Shanghai gangsters cow Wen-heung there. By showing intimate unrest throughout the film, the table symbolizes the massive conflict outside that window when Hou ends the film with a shot of no one sitting there. Furthermore, his method of visualizing the notes Wen-ching writes and receives to communicate recalls silent film intertitles, tying a film about cultural history to the history of the artform itself.

Wen-heung summarizes the film's theme even as his weary voice sets the tone when he bitterly sighs, "This island is in a bad way. First the Japanese, then the Chinese. They all exploit us and no one gives a damn." A sense of elegiac sorrow hangs over this film, and not only for the Taiwanese; Hou devotes some sad moments to the Japanese who grew up there during the 50-year rule forced to return to a still-smoldering motherland they wouldn't recognize even at its best. But Hou uses politics to move deeper into his story, presenting history, culture and personal recollection not into one homogenous whole but alternating between them until the ties that connect them are revealed. Hinomi, whose romance with Wen-ching leads to a marriage they won't be able to enjoy because of the regime crackdown, narrates the film.

Another director might have played up the irony of this, a Japanese woman speaking for a depiction of brutality upon the Taiwanese. Indeed, to some extent, Hou does suggest some commentary here, such as the scene where Hinomi diverts the political talk of others at the table by bidding Wen-ching to put on music he cannot hear to distract them. But Hou goes beyond using mere jabs, instead complicating the humanity, not the politics, of the film. She wanted a normal life too, and her flat, wistful narration proves no less haunting and resonant than the shot of an arrested Wen-ching staring blankly as he sits in a cell, unable to hear the sound of gunfire eliminating prisoners just outside the jail walls.

Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Long seen as the French answer to Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to surpass his British yin with Les diaboliques. Predating Psycho by five years, the film clearly got under Hitch's skin, for he plundered it to make his own twisty horror-thriller. Les diaboliques (released as Diabolique in the United States) introduces the upheaving twist that Psycho would move up from the climax to the end of the first act, features a bathroom scene the Master of Suspense had to work to top, and it works on a high plane of grim irony that even Hitchcock, with his dark sense of humor, must have admired.

But to define Clouzot by Hitch's standards is not only unfair but misleading. Where Hitchcock's technique-driven direction typically bypasses both narrative and character to grab the audience, Clouzot puts so much effort into retaining the plot of Boileau-Narcejac's novel that the film feels more like a proper mystery book, with its meticulous, follow-the-breadcrumbs pace daring to languish with extraneous scenes while still carefully building a mood. More so than the glissandi-spiked frights and deliberately jarring anti-narrative strokes of Psycho, Les diaboliques seizes the audience through a series of events so smoothly ordered that it's impossible to feel cheated even when the director rips out the carpet from underneath the audience.

Subtly, Clouzot never even allows for a moment's rest, even subverting the calm of the first few minutes by playing up the always glum setting of a boarding school. Horror is all about an exaggeration of anxieties, and the film traces this school back to the root of European education, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, patron saint of teachers. In a cute joke, the married couple who head the school are the Delassalles. Christina (Clouzot's wife Véra), a frail wife whose heart condition seems to have preserved her in a false, perverse youth, actually owns the school. But it is her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) who runs the school as principal, and he projects the financial insecurity of his wife's wealth into his behavior. Michel takes every opportunity to shame Christina, referring to her as his "little ruin" for her health issues. He so boisterously tears Christina down that his taunts have a way of silencing the school's rowdy boys but also shifting their attention squarely to the abused wife, as if attack dogs waiting for the order to strike.

Michel is misogyny on legs, so cruel he flaunts his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher, before everyone. Yet his repellent behavior is such that these two women actually bond over how much they hate him, with Nicole just as disgusted by his treatment of Christina as the wife herself. Signoret, with her limitless sensuality, here seduces the wife more than any man, ignoring the lecherous come-ons of the other teachers to woo Christina into doing something about Michel. This only further complicates the complex sexual dynamics of the film, which already aligns leering masculine presence against suffering females of different stripes. Nicole hatches a plan to kill Michel, the femme goading another woman into taking down a man rather than the usual inverse.

Clouzot progresses the plot from this point with a steady suction of light from the mise-en-scène and a gradual twisting of the frame. Everything slowly darkens as the two carry out their scheme and deal with the fallout, gradually dipping into inky voids so black that when light finally reenters the frame, it is only to spotlight a new shadow. Clouzot rarely uses music to punctuate a scene, letting the dread pile up from his gentle but ominous presentation of mostly static shots that tease failure at every turn. However, the shot of a sedated Michel being submerged in a bathtub to drown, or of the mild shock of his bloated face (complete with eyes rolled back into his skull) revealed as the women dump the body, wrings further chills by implicating the audience's desire to see him punished visualized in flat but gruesome terms. Furthermore, the flat pans and tracks that began the film pivot to angle everything, and objects such as stairs increasingly enter the frame add yet more visual madness as Christina starts to fall apart from guilt and fear.

Mordant irony plays a key role in the film as well. As Nicole runs the bath to drown the unconscious Michel, the tenants she earlier had to shake down for money now complain about the noise drowning out a radio contest. And as Michel's last breath bubbles out of him, the whinging man upstairs tells his wife he won't come to bed until they drain the tub because he cannot sleep with the noise. But later, he helps load the wicker basket containing Michel's corpse into Christina's car, oblivious that he's toting the reason for his minor inconvenience. When the women dump Michel's body into the school swimming pool hoping to make the murder look like an accident, the grim humor begins to align with the plot as his body subsequent disappears and clues stack up that he may be alive. Before long, Michel is darkly tormenting his wife more in "death" than in life. Christina, already terrified of being caught, soon has to deal with yet another thorn in the form of a retired detective who pities this woman who's "lost" her husband and also wants to feel like he can still figure out a case. The poor bastard found the one woman in France who couldn't want his help less.

To further connect the film to Hitchcock, the British director purportedly pursued the rights to the book and only just got beaten to the punch by Clouzot. But I can't help but feel Hitch, who largely left religion out of his work and even took Ed Gein's fanatical upbringing out of Norman Bates for Psycho, wouldn't have brought as much to Les diaboliques as Clouzot. French Catholicism hangs over this film, from the naming of the lead couple and school after a saint to the altar Christina keeps that subtly keeps triggering her guilt when she prays at it. Yet I wondered if that religion also didn't drive her to the murder in the first place, as it clearly forbids her from divorce. It also informs the patriarchal model in which the two women operate, creating a system of chauvinistic, repressed men who speak condescendingly and paternally to the same women they want to defile. Even the boys suffer from this, as heard in one brief aside where two schoolboys preparing for a trip home work out the final details for peeking in one of their sisters while bathing.

Even the film's twist plays into this critical view of misogyny, revealing an even larger scheme orchestrated by corrupting male forces to manipulate and even dispatch women. Clouzot does such a fine job of making Christina, for all her misdeeds and mounting paranoia, sympathetic that to see the tables cruelly turn on her provoked a complex mix of tragedy and just desserts. It also makes the terror that much more effective and, combined with some beautifully chill-inducing shots in the climax, manages to sustain the energy of a quicker jump scare over a longer period of time, drawing out the horror all the way through the best damn use of contact lenses ever put to film.

An omnipresent suggestion of surveillance hangs over the second half, which feels like the voyeuristic thrillers of Hitchcock and De Palma rooted solely on the perspective of the watched instead of the watcher. That makes the twist guessable but not obvious; more importantly, it makes the film rewatchable, not simply dropping a sudden break into the film but demonstrating its narrative cohesion through visual mastery of mood. That building aesthetic of constant reality shifts and a tragic sense of bewilderment would find its way in Hitchcock's subsequent adaptation of another Boileau-Narcejac book, his masterpiece Vertigo, the film so unlike what its director had done before yet so summarizing and fulfilling of all his traits. To see so much of that film, and Psycho, given its foundation made Les diaboliques a delight, but the film's true joys are self-contained and independent of the huge influence they had. It's easy to see why everyone, even the best, would crib from it, and Les diaboliques got under my skin as well as I'm sure it did for audiences in the mid-'50s, when it was one of the first foreign films to play outside the arthouse circuit in the English-speaking world.

Friday, October 28

An American Carol: In Case x In Case of

This a totally politically incorrect movie, full of misconceived stereotypes about the Arab world. Be selective when you use the segment, especially if you have students from Arab countries. It is a funny scene though. I used it to practice the use of In Case (of) in a contextualized manner.

A. Watch the movie segment and then read the sentences below. Then complete the blanks with IN CASE or IN CASE OF.

1. Ahman said they need a guest work program _____ the Taliban don't do their job.

Ahman said they need a guest work program _____ the Taliban's desistance.

2. They believe they need a new recruitment video ____ suicide bombers stop volunteering.

They believe they need a new recruitment video _____ lack of volunteers.

3. Ahmed is usually punctual ________ something delays him.

Ahmed is usually punctual ________ delays

4. Ahmed double checks his the address of the site ________ mistakes.

Ahmed double checks his address ________ there is a mistake.

5. Ahmed wears properly, wearing clothing that is loose enough to hide his explosives _______ someone becomes suspicious of the bomb.

He wears loose clothing _______ suspicion.

B. Talk to a partner:

1. How do you describe the stereotyped characters shown in the segment?

2. Is it fair to picture Arabs this way? Why (not)?

3. How would you describe the stereotypes of the people where you live?

4. Why were the characters shown the way they were in the segment?

5. How do you think your country is stereotyped by foreigners?



Answer Key:


1. In case / in case of

2. In case / in case of

3. In case / in case of

4. In case of / In case

5. In case / In case of

Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, 2008)

Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) bears more scars than the shotgun marks on his back. His monosyllabic name, a description more than an identity, speaks to a childhood of neglect as much as his terse self-sufficiency. We meet him as he discovers his wife has left him, silently reacting to this awareness as if having long expected it. She wouldn't be the first person to walk out on him, whether or not he deserved it. With her gone, Son invites his similarly monikered brothers, Boy and Kid, to come live with him. The reluctance on Shannon's face communicates a primal sense of filial obligation more than any real kindness for his homeless siblings.

When word comes that the father who abandoned them as children died, they show up at the funeral in dirty work clothes to find the man's second family, the one he made after getting sober and finding Jesus, sitting apprehensively. Son says some harsh things about the father his half-brothers remember as a kind and loving man, standing before them as the skeleton from Pa's closet. At last, he spits on the coffin, catalyzing an inevitable feud that will have horrific consequences.

Jeff Nichols' Faulknerian debut Shotgun Stories creates a bleak atmosphere of its Arkansas setting, swapping David Gordon Green's rust-belt North Carolina for agricultural plains, where even a college boy knows how to fix a tractor. Gray skies hang over still fields of muted brownish-green. Poverty is an ingrained way of life, with Kid living in a camping tent outside Son's house and Boy in a van with a busted tapedeck and a battery he uses to run a salvaged window A/C unit and a margarita blender. Boy asks Son to use his VCR, but the older brother says that privilege comes with a price: a bag of Doritos.

When a character outside the fraternal conflict enters the frame, they bring only further coldness rather than a breath of fresh air. The father's first wife, who raised Son and the other two boys, lowers the already frigid temperatures into the realm of absolute zero, sucking out any hint of life with her hateful indifference to the plight of her boys before and after the altercation with the other Hayeses gets out of hand. Then there's Shampoo, who seems to come around only to let slip some new bit of gossip about the four half-brothers that reignites issues that previously hinted at settling.

Soon the insular conflict heats up, becoming so fierce it's easy to forget just how small and petty the squabble truly is. The second Hayes family cannot appreciate that the man they loved essentially ruined these three men, who in turn cannot respect that he did change and make a positive mark on the others' lives. The narrow-mindedness awakens the most destructive masculine tendencies in all of them. Well, most of them anyway, but the brother in each respective camp who tries to broker some kind of peace between the rest gets rebuffed by ally and foe alike.

"You raised us to hate those boys, and we do," Son tells his mother when the feud escalates into dire consequences. "And now it's come to this." Though Nichols elides over the violence, preferring to let a close-up of the drawing of a knife tell the audience what's about to happen rather than show the result, Shotgun Stories feels brutal and direct. Yet its lyrical quality also prevents the film from falling fully into despair. Son and Mark cannot lose face face before the other, but even when the situation spirals out of control and only deepens everyone's resolve, the men give off a sense of reluctance to continue. Bound to fight a conflict out of innate feelings of necessity, these brothers' fight seems a microcosm of so many conflicts great and small, and their conscious selves struggle against this primal urge. Some of them clearly have no clue even how to fight these battles, buying shotguns and looking at the pieces in confusion when it comes to assembling them.

That a small measure of decency manages to worm its way through the film's permafrost communicates some vague hope for concluding these seemingly unending battles, even as it does not even pretend to be an upbeat conclusion to the senseless violence. This is but the cautious first step, and there's no way to know if this is the start of a brighter dawn or merely the calm before the next storm.

Thursday, October 27

The Other F Word (Andrea Blaugrund, 2011)

Andrea Blaugrund combines the two safest, dullest documentary subjects—bands and children—into one tedious ride with The Other F Word. A survey of pop-anarchist punks now domesticated by fatherhood, The Other F Word doesn't seem to realize that a lot of people think they're hot shit and unique when they're young and get eaten by the system later. Many of the stories are touching, but running through a gauntlet of abuse memories starts to feel exploitative after a while. Furthermore, they limit the film from exploring its implications. Somewhere in this movie is a vicious critique of that same punk egotism  and solipsism, but instead it settles for a mild look into the well-covered hardships of raising a family while being away most of the year.

My full review of The Other F Word is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, October 25

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011)

Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre is so intelligent and well-composed that at no point did I see its unflinching optimism as the usual Hollywood approach of burying one's head in the sand when confronting delicate (and especially racial) topics. His comedy on illegal immigration is the most old-fashioned, dry movie out there right now, with his Hawks-in-a-vacuum approach on proud display. It's hilarious, sweet, and so tight you could bounce a nickel off it even as it takes its time with scenes. (And in Kaurismäki's world, no matter how short the film, there is always time for rock 'n roll.) I loved nearly every second.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 24

Record Club 6: Miles Davis, Agharta

Miles Davis’ Agharta—and, to a lesser extent, its sister record Pangaea—embodies the various dichotomies and outright contradictions of the artist's growth to that point. It is an album largely defined by the absence and weakness of Miles himself even as it firmly establishes his invaluable role as a conductor. Its long-form acid-funk jams sound as far removed from the cool and modal jazzes Miles pioneered as possible but also incorporates themes stretching back to Kind of Blue. Most importantly, it demonstrates his most ambitious attempt to remain current to hip, black audiences, yet Davis’ formal training at Juilliard has never been more evident.

With On the Corner, Miles overshot his attempts to appeal to young black audiences by jumping ahead of the curve by nearly 20 years, laying the foundation for hip-hop, dub, and drum and bass techniques. Its disastrous reception kept Miles out of the studios for years, but he never stopped developing his sound. When Agharta and Pangaea came out after three years of nothing but vault-clearing compilations that only hinted at the strides the ever-changing live bands were making, even Miles’ dwindling numbers of faithful must have been stunned.

From its opening moments, Agharta lives up to its namesake, the legendary city within the Earth’s core. Everything bubbles and rumbles like disturbed magma, James Mtume’s frantic percussion complementing Al Foster’s rhythmic drumming, while Michael Henderson’s groovy bass mingles with funk rhythm guitars. Everyone combines to form a primal sound, one tied to African rhythms that stretch even farther back in time to the bubbling of the primordial soup. Out of this molten foundation bursts tuneless synthesizer screams in abstract buzzes so hot the speakers threaten to melt. Those electronic shrieks sound like a primal beast moaning in agony and rage. Or a cat hooked up to a live wire. The effect is jarring, unsettling and it instantly throws a wrench into the funky groove of “Prelude,” catching the audience off-guard from the start.

When Miles enters on trumpet two and a half minutes in, his ailments and substance abuse issues can be heard in his wan tone. Further diluted in wah-wah effects, Miles’ trumpet creeps into the rumbling funk of his bandmates with a sound so watery one first suspects he hadn’t cleared his spit valve in six months. The first time I listened to the album, I nearly despaired at this; just five years earlier, Miles was at the top of his game. His playing on A Tribute to Jack Johnson is the strongest of any of his studio album, and here I thought he sounded on the brink of death.

Upon further listens, however, Miles’ playing reveals a quiet strength and a striking counterpoint to the fiery sound of his band. It’s also a reflection of the conscious, well-considered shift in style brought on by the evolution of his musical direction. As Miles explains of his playing circa-On the Corner in his autobiography:
At first there was no feeling because I was used to the old way of playing thing like with Bird and Trane. Playing the new shit was a gradual process. You just don't stop playing the way you used to play. You don't hear the sound at first. It takes time. When you do hear the new sound, it's like rush, but a slow rush...But you don't have to blast because you've got an amplifier. And the smoother you play a trumpet, the more it sounds like a trumpet when you amplify it. It's like mixing paint: with too many colors you get nothing but mud. An amplified trumpet doesn't sound good when you play real fast. So I learned to play two-bar phrases and that's where I was going with my new music.
On Agharta, Miles’ playing is not smooth in the sense of his classic mid-range legato, but he seems to have found a sound almost beyond legato, his trumpet burbling through phrases with amoebic progression, punctuated by squeaking staccato pips. Were someone to transpose his playing, I don’t think a single passage of notes would be unmarked by either slurs or dots.

Yet there is a bizarre logic in Davis’ playing here, especially if one considers him as much a conductor as a player. Miles always took his role as bandleader to heart, not merely in playing prowess but in just how much he ceded to his rotating rosters of up-and-comers. Before and after he started plugging instruments into amplifiers, he left the electrics to people like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. What he does with his trumpet on Agharta—and what he’s too tired to do on Pangaea, to noticeably negative effect—is guide the others with his warbling notes, pushing out beyond the band as they realign around him.

Indeed, Miles’ staccato squeaks and quivering, murky slurs tether the sound as much as Henderson’s basslines, if not more so, making him both leader and anchor. This split gives drive to his melodies (for want of a better term) and a foundation to his most abstract searching. Unorthodox as his playing sounds here, this approach fits in with Miles’ larger arc as a bandleader, in which he has always been front and center but also a background force. Photos of Miles from this period show him hunched over his wah-wah trumpet, the horn pointing almost straight down as he plays the damn thing almost as if it were a clarinet. But decked out in outlandish clothing and mysterious shades, this posture has the effect of casting Davis as some kind of sorcerer, conjuring music from beneath the Earth and tapping into that underground city to bring out its savage, alien sounds.

For fireworks, Davis turns to two players. Woodwind player Sonny Fortune gets off a rousing alto sax solo after Miles’ fractal entry that is the closest thing to traditional-sounding jazz on the whole album. His arpeggios provide some semblance of form in the tenuous musical outreach heard thus far. It’s almost reassuring to hear from him, the mere fact that he’s playing something coherent and traditional turning even the gritty punch of a sax into a burst of cool air amidst this sweltering acid-funk. But never fear; not long after, Fortune breaks out a soprano saxophone, adding a tinge of Bitches Brew to the mix with that sinewy, sidewinding, reedy noise those instruments make. I always think of a desert when I hear soprano saxophones, and the high-pitched drone here compliments the tribal rhythms well, further tying the overall sound to African heritages even as they sound like nothing of this Earth.

The other star player is guitarist Pete Cosey, who leaps in with a lengthy solo 11-and-a-half minutes into “Prelude” and promptly announces he has filled the hole left when Jimi Hendrix died before he could collaborate with Miles. With squealing, wah-wah-wracked distortion, Cosey sounds like a monster unleashed, darting in clipped, effects-laden chords and running through fast, vicious passages. Cosey is one of the few guitarists to truly understand what made Hendrix Hendrix, and his solo shows the same balance of squall and listenability.

Cosey’s prodigious skill makes him more indispensable to the band’s dynamic than any other guitarist to play with Miles. Not even John McLaughlin had the same level of importance with Miles; listen to the Cellar Door Sessions, from which Live-Evil was culled, and you’ll hear a band that is much tighter without him than with him. McLaughlin served as a session player for that lineup, and it showed; his playing is exemplary, but it exists almost entirely outside the interplay of the others, making his solos, thrilling as they are, jarring. McLaughlin’s diminished role is especially evident as Miles was slowly working his way toward the sound on On the Corner, to which McLaughlin contributed little.

(As Adam Holzman wrote in the liner notes for the box set, hearing these complete Cellar Door recordings helps bridge the dying-sun jazz of Bitches Brew with the fitful beginnings of the 1975 volcanic funk sound as heard on Dark Magus, recorded live in 1974 but not released until after both Agharta and Pangaea. The Cellar Door tapes show Miles starting to consolidate everything but the guitarist, making Cosey’s find all the more vital.)

Cosey’s interplay with the band is tremendous given how much time he spends shredding (a word one can almost use literally for his style). His whammy-bar-abusing stunts form a bizarrely logical extension of Miles’ own playing, and across the entire album Cosey keeps rhythm with second guitarist Reggie Lucas and Henderson’s fluid, walking bass.

And while I’m on the subject, let’s talk about Henderson for a bit. Having replaced the legendary Dave Holland at age 19, Henderson’s complete unfamiliarity with jazz and his inability to do much more than hold a steady beat made him the whipping boy for those who felt Miles was selling out and simplifying his music to appeal to teenagers. By 1975, however, Henderson had become the rock upon which Miles had built his new church. Plaiting his bass through the thick lines of mangled guitar distortion and soupy trumpet, Henderson is the least "visible" member playing yet quite possibly the only reason it all works. He and Al Foster generate beats that extend into infinity, holding such a tight rhythm that one feels these LP-length jams could extend even further on the strength of the foundation. Henderson’s vamps add flashes of color to the bottom end, but he works best when generating the throbbing pulse of the sound, a groove so funky you can dance to it but so unwavering it takes on the vague properties of a drone. As such, even Henderson and Foster’s time-keeping feels warped and unorthodox.

Listening to Agharta, it’s almost funny to consider there was a time Davis had slammed the avant-garde wing of jazz. The man who once threatened to stomp the foot of Eric Dolphy—one of the more melodic and precise practitioners of free jazz’s early explosion—for tuneless squawking had now gone so far not only past jazz but jazz fusion that he existed on his own island of experimentation. Yet one can easily tie the ostensible break from form here back a full decade to Miles’ work with his Second Great Quintet. Live recordings and studio albums of that lineup reveal a gradual but considerable shift in Davis’ group interplay to a kind of Left Bank to the free-jazzers New Wave, less radical in aesthetic but no less daring in aim.

With the Second Great Quintet, Miles broke from traditional songwriting patterns to develop the more fluid collage of distinctive styles and solos that sees its endpoint with these Osaka recordings. But rather than collide in shrieks and howls of cacophony, the young players of the quintet found the pulsating through lines that made the composition whole. This grounded their clashing solos and paradoxically slowed this innovative sound to a crawl, countering the abandon of free jazz with coherent experimentation. That development continued through the beginnings of Miles’ flirtations with electric and can be plainly seen in his best two pure jazz-rock albums, the serene, cautious In a Silent Way and the airtight A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Even in the maelstrom that is Bitches Brew, a calm bedrock roots the music.

That pulsing, hypnotic sound especially comes through on Agharta in the second track, “Maiysha.” Opening with Miles playing wavering chords on an organ and Sonny Fortune’s gorgeous flute lines, the song simply but brilliantly reverses the dynamic of “Prelude.” It pulls back the lead instruments into melodic softness as Foster, Mtume and Henderson play more propulsive rhythms, keeping time with Miles and Fortune but also anticipating another hot Cosey solo on the way. As chaotic and improvisational as Agharta can sound, no one is just leaping into the fray. The play between Miles/Fortune and Cosey shifts several times throughout the composition, but the rhythm section split the difference so perfectly that they barely have to modulate to accommodate, only dropping down in the middle section for a gorgeous, out-there solo from Miles that in itself demonstrates how he could ground his searching, exploratory music in gentler, more cohesive sounds.

Agharta culminates in an LP-length jam that serves an artistic smorgasbord for the various influences at work on Miles at the time, as well as his own artistic evolution. When Miles hired Henderson for his band, he specifically honed in on the young man’s green chops, commanding him never to learn “the old shit” under threat of termination. He was an artist who never liked to look back and insisted on moving forward where luminaries like Louis Armstrong kept consolidating their live shows into “just the hits.” But the “Jack Johnson/Interlude” jam uses a number from Miles’ past to demonstrate the distance travelled in just five years. “Right Off,” the tightest, most focused jam of Miles’ electric period, ruptures with a rollicking sax solo from Fortune that melts into more guitar freakouts from Cosey before settling into something sounding like the original song (albeit with a swing that reaches far back into jazz’s history) in time for Miles’ solo, which feels like a classic jazz approach to the original, variating the theme while still keeping the original version recognizable. Take out the electricity and this could be a typical jazz jam, but then the electric add-ons make it so much more. The jam soon settles into a workout of the more current number, “Ife,” but before that Paul Tingen, writer of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis 1967-1991 notes the bassline of “So What” being played at 16:42. As Tingen says, Henderson must have figured “the risk of being fired for playing old stuff is gone.”

Tingen also correctly points to the counterintuitive ending of the show, which does not build the white-hot jamming of the rest of the album to its final explosion but instead ends on an entropic note. It’s a curious approach, one in direct opposition to the typical structure of a concert. Yet there’s a bizarre logic in it, given the nature of the music. Agharta, as indicated by its title, sounds like music made before civilization, before humanity, even. Much as it incorporates everything, from avant-garde 20th-century composition to Afrobeat, the music sounds primal, like the foundation for everything it’s consolidating rather than the endpoint. The eruption of this underground city spews forth lava that cools into a new landmass.

No wonder, then, that this cooling energy should continue into Pangaea, named for the supercontinent that originally joined all land on Earth. Granted, Pangaea’s reserved energy owes less to thematic consistency of musical rebirth than to the sheer exhaustion of the bandleader, tired and ill and forced to cede even more prominence to his band members, who seem unsure of how to proceed without him. All of the elements that made Agharta so fiery—the screeching synths, the funksplosion guitars—appear and add speed and verve, and often the band sounds as relentless as they did during the earlier show. But too often the jams fall apart, reaching areas meant for Miles to assert himself now left perilously unfilled and throwing off momentum that is slow to be regained. It’s still a great recording, but Pangaea seems to anticipate the continent breaking up into fragments rather than reflect the igneous formation of Agharta.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to take one without the other, and collectively the albums represent Miles Davis’ artistic peak, and the endpoint of various musical efforts of his. By resurrecting Hendrix via Eddie Hazel in Pete Cosey, Davis found a sound that, in theory at least, tapped into the prevailing African-American trends. In Mtume and Foster’s tribal drumming, he extended that idea further into the past, mixing the modern with the roots. And in the rhythm section’s endless loops he found a way to recreate live what he’d been doing in the studio with Teo Macero’s help, that is, reconstituting jams around a basic beat and constructing music not out editing (or just out of editing, as it were) but real-time musical direction. This style leaps to the other end of the spectrum from primal roots music to arrive at the European intellectualism of modern composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, of whom Davis was a fan. Davis describes the influence of Stockhausen on his own work in his autobiography:
I had always written in a circular way and through Stockhausen I could see that I didn’t want to ever play again from eight bars to eight bars, because I never end songs: they just keep going on. Through Stockhausen I understood music as a process of elimination and addition.
This explains why both albums peter out into the abyss rather than building to an orgasmic chord to send the crowd home reeling. It makes the jams seem incomplete, even cyclical, perfectly suited to the idea of the albums restarting after ending. Stockhausen’s musique concrète broke the boundaries of musical structure by warping recorded sounds into music, thus completely subverting musical composition while finding ways to make the whole world musical. Davis’ approach manages to find similar grounds of deconstruction and incorporation, breaking apart genre and throwing in everything until you have something as danceable as it is avant-garde.

I don’t like to overly romanticize artistic self-immolation, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Miles at this time knows of his crippling conditions and worse drug habits. Nevertheless, while so much of his sickness was self-affliction, the strain it induces in him with Agharta and Pangaea gives the albums the feel of Icarus reaching the apex of his flight as he hangs in the air for a second before plummeting back to Earth. This is the sound of a man reaching the limits of musical exploration and expansion and collapsing exhausted.

Following a five-year retreat of sex and drugs, Miles reemerged in the ‘80s as an elder statesman, his embouchure so ravaged that the watery tones of his trumpet here sound as strong as Dizzy Gillespie at his peak. The Miles of the '80s continued to work popular music into his sound, and it’s funny that the man who resented the stale traps into which legends such as Satch fell spent so much time following the pop culture barometer. But those '80s recordings lack the fire of these albums, and while Miles reemerged looking to stay current as fans dug with even more relish into his early days, this pocket of mid-'70s work remains understudied and underpraised. For this fan, however, Agharta and the other work of the tail end of Miles’ glory days remain not merely his finest hour but one of the most daring and inimitable musical progressions of the 20th century.

P.S. For a condensed history of Miles’ electric period, I highly recommend Bill Laswell’s remix album/tone poem Panthalassa, which combines elements from all stages of the ’69-’75 period into an hourlong jam. It cuts a lot of waffle out of Davis’ Stockhausen-inspired improvisational free-for-alls while revealing the logical foundations linking the vastly different aspects of the electric years, from the fire of “Prelude” to the abstract but deeply emotional elegy for Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly.” Freshly unearthed sections mix with sometimes radically altered existing structures to make the ultimate Electric Miles mixtape.

Friday, October 21

A Bug's Life: Pre-Determiners - Such, What

This is such an interesting animation. I used this scene to teach pre-determiners - such and what. My lesson was contextualized and fun.



These words are normally placed before the indefinite article.
Such and what are often used to express surprise or other emotions:
a. What a lovely day!
b. She's such a lovely woman!
c. What an incredible film!
d. He's such a fantastic guitarist!

I. Watch the movie segment and choose one of the adjectives provided to complete the sentences, according to the movie. Then rewrite the sentences, using the pre-determiner in parentheses and the adjective you have chosen. Follow the examples in the introduction.

1. Ants are very (organized/intelligent/agile) insects.
(such) ................................................................
2. The pile of food is (huge/amazing/impressive).
(what) .................................................................
3. The anthill is (awesome/complicated/interesting).
(such) ...................................................................
4. The grasshoppers are (terrifying/scary/aggressive) insects.
(what) ...................................................................
5. Flik is a (clumsy/stupid/ridiculous) ant.
(such) ....................................................................
6. Princess Atta is a (beautiful/ugly/nice) ant.
(what) ................................................................



<!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 21 false false false PT-BR X-NONE X-NONE

answer key:

possible answers

1. ants are such organized insects

2. what a huge pile of fod

3. it’s such a complicated anthill

4. what terrifying insects

5. flink is such a clumsy ant

6. what a beautiful ant

Tuesday, October 18

Cold Fish (Sion Sono, 2010)

[The following is being considered for 2011 evaluations.]

Sion Sono openly states the narrative conflict of his thriller Cold Fish during the first on-screen murder, the revealed serial killer delineating his worldview from that of the man he's forced to witness this crime even as the victim continues to sputter and vomit from poisoning. As the killer says, the protagonist, Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), sees the Earth in its idealized, far-away form, a perfect glass sphere of swirling blue and white. But the murderer sees the planet up close, noticing only its craggy, ugly rocks. But then, Cold Fish is not exactly a war between idealistic romanticism and pragmatic viciousness, as the dreamer gets slapped into his place almost instantly.

Instead, Shamoto finds himself at the center of an intended class satire that uses the guise of a "based on a true story" crime thriller about a Japanese serial killer to set up social archetypes for grisly deconstruction. Shamoto, a mild-mannered, middle-aged fish shop owner, is the submissive employee who supplicates to his boss, the spineless reality beneath the idealized view of the loyal, obedient Japanese worker. He's but the first type that Sono relentlessly mocks, but where his epic but intimate Love Exposure rebuilt the world after shattering it, Cold Fish revels too joyously in its devastation, ultimately flying off the rails entirely until it's anyone's guess what Sono is trying to say.

The killer in question is Mr. Murata (character actor Denden), the owner of a far larger fish shop in town who catches Shamoto's rebellious teenager daughter Mitsuko shoplifting but kindly gets her off the hook and even offers her a job. All smiles, Murata initially seems the kindest man in Japan, helping take the increasingly withdrawn, even violent Mitsuko off the hands of Shamoto and his new wife Taeko, and he even offers to make the protagonist a partner in a lucrative business venture. But there's something about his motormouth that prevents anyone from disagreeing with him, and gradually that kindness morphs into pure sadism, Murata's powers of persuasion goading those under him to perform horrifying acts of their own accord but without anything like free will.

Murata exudes an almost magical effect on people, converting all of the film's women (all of them fitting into types of maladjusted Lolitas, impossibly hot housewives, and scheming, duplicitous cohorts) into obedient slaves and cowing Shamoto into becoming an accomplice in his murders. I can't decide what's more chilling, his bouts of icy severity or that raucous laugh and verbose cheerfulness that fills the audio mix at all other times. Indeed, though Cold Fish has its share of gore, the blood soaking up the tile floor of Murata's hideout proves far less disturbing than the casual humor with which Murata and his wife Aiko treat the grisly act of dismemberment and evidence disposal. Though Sono throws in vague references to a horrible childhood, the implication here is clear: Murata is the ascendant bourgeois entrepreneur who will stop at nothing to assert himself and does so bloodily.

For a time, this simple class warfare makes for a gleefully transgressive satire that recalls the best of Sono. The sensory overload of Love Exposure makes a subdued appearance here, primarily noticeable in the rainstorm that roars over the beginning action, so deafening it sounds like industrial noise more than Mother Nature. There are other giveaways, such as casting buxom gravure model Megumi Kagurazaka as Shamoto's bored second wife and decorating the film with such touches as an ironically placed cross and a pair of detectives who play as if they know what Murata is up to but seem only to compromise those forced into the killer's sphere, thus putting more names on the list of people to be made "invisible." But the film is at its best when Murata is cruelly curling characters around his fingers, almost supernaturally aware of their actions and thoughts. In one of my favorite fake-outs in recent years, Sono stages a double-trick wherein Murata screams at Shamoto until we fear he knows of cops putting pressure on the accomplice, only for the killer to demand to be taken to where Aiko is having an affair with his attorney, thus shifting fears from Shamoto to Aiko as we assume Murata wishes to kill his unfaithful spouse. Then the truth is revealed to be neither of these things, dissipating the tension abruptly and wringing a cold laugh from the manipulation.

Cold Fish had me for a time, and had it stopped at the two-hour mark, I'd have rated it one of the finer genre films of the year. But Sono fatally overreaches, attempting to show the cycle of class ascension and abuser/abused roles resetting to demonstrate how each bully, either physical or social (or both), only begets a worse generation. But the point is lost amidst horrific, unjustified misogyny and a nonsensical finale that undoes the chilling end the narrative would have had if it merely teased the implications of the climax. Sono's falling action is too unfocused and too self-consciously offending, concentrating so many bad choices into such a brief amount of time that 20 minutes nearly eradicates the accomplishments of the whole. It also shamelessly rips off Straw Dogs, a theft so brazen that this plagiarism is even advertised in the film's theatrical poster. It's a shame, for otherwise this previously taut, gonzo thriller would have made a fine intro into Sono's work. As it is, Cold Fish suffers such a drastic shift in tone that it makes this 140-minute film drag more than his four-hour magnum opus.

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, 2002)

The Man Without a Past occupies the nebulous realms between emotions and moods. It's deadpan-comic and entropic-tragic, ironic and optimistic, detached and intimate. Its characters speak with such icy remove that they make Coens brothers side players look as animated as Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. And don't let the title fool you: though we have no background information on the unnamed protagonist or the Finnish seaside around him, the past is everywhere, from the postindustrial rust where he rebuilds his life to the rough lines and vaguely haunted look that hangs around the edges of Markku Peltola's face.

Precisely composed with shots that seldom move, Aki Kaurismäki directs with simplicity yet artistry. This is the kind of movie that can wholly lack a plot yet still unfold with a sense of internal logic that makes every diversion inexplicably inevitable. That's no mean feat for a film where even the dialogue routinely floats out of comprehension, with the lead character suddenly going off on a tangent about visiting the moon as another humors him. When asked whether he met someone, the man replies, "Not really, it was a Sunday."

We meet Peltola as he rides a train to Helsinki. He disembarks with a well-worn suitcase he clings to as if driftwood. That night, without a place to stay, he falls asleep on a park bench, where three ruffians spot him and club the already unconscious man before stealing his possessions. Believed dead even by the doctors who treat him, the man nevertheless wakes up when alone and casually readjusts his broken nose in the mirror. He passes out a second time on the waterfront, where a homeless man happens up the still bandaged man and swaps out his worn shoes for our mystery protagonist's nice kicks. Poor guy just can't win.

The flat minimalism of these scenes suggests an overwhelming cynicism, and the crisp blue of Finland's sky and icy waters cannot help but seem an ironic contrast to the travails being heaped upon a man beaten into amnesia before the audience even gets to know him. Yet when the man happens across a family that helps him despite clear poverty, Kaurismäki slowly introduces a warm, communal, human counterpoint to the chilly humor that not only prevents the film from disappearing into frigid nihilism but actually makes everything funnier. The wife bosses around the husband without coming off as a shrew, handing him a grocery list and some cash before rolling her eyes and forking over a "tip" with a warning not to stay out too late, as if she were married to a teenager. Later, the husband insists he buy the mystery man a beer, mixing kindness with an act of rebellion against his disapproving spouse. These touches, oddly framed and delivered as they are, feel truer to life than snappier dialogue, capturing as they do the good-natured self-satisfaction of charity.

As Kaurismäki adds more characters to the mix, he clarifies not so much the man's past—though eventually he does that too—as the man's present and future. Unlike the amnesiac protagonist of Paris, Texas, whose own obliterated memory only put off a necessary reckoning, the man here has the opportunity to restart his life. As such, the director balances the pain of being left without an identity with the optimism of being able to start afresh. Of course, the sunnier side of the film is just as dry as the humor, so it can be difficult to spot. But Kaurismäki's good nature comes out in small scenes, such as the man walking into a café and asking if the hot water is free. It is, and he grabs a cup and sits down, surreptitiously pulling out a tea bag of his own and slipping it into the cup as the cashier looks on, annoyed. Yet she goes into the back room, and instead of bringing back someone to throw him out, she reveals a plate of leftovers she gives to the hungry, broke protagonist. The tone of her voice makes this act of kindness sound like a hassle and something unworthy of discussion, yet one cannot mistake the goodness of her action, and while the whole situation feels like just another gag, it also adds a sweet flavor to the often cold mood engendered by minimalism.

Indeed, I found myself caring for all of the loopy characters who flitter around Peltola. Standouts include the landlord who fancies himself a dictator but cannot even get his adorable dog to move when he commands it to attack, and the new husband of the woman who unlocks the lead's identity, a guy who offers to fight out of duty and looks relieved but also unsure of what to do when the conflict is calmly resolved. Best of all is Kaurismäki muse Kati Outinen as a Salvation Army officer with a look on her face that suggests she envies the spark of hope given to the protagonist by erasing his past. She's the only character more despairing and broken than he, and Outinen's morose helpfulness is the one aspect of the film that cannot be mistaken for comedy even as she proves an able wit. Kaurismäki clearly feels for her too, and while the narrative comes full-circle with a darkly positive return to the roving thugs (wherein the locals stand up to the bullies but also literally step over a prostrate vicim to get their vengeance), he has to stage another coda to give Outinen a wholly unironic ending.

The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011)

Hey, so I have a new writing gig at Spectrum Culture. I'll be getting screeners every now and then for films that I otherwise wouldn't get to see until well into next year. Naturally, I'm excited. My first review is for Lucky McKee's fantastic, deeply troubling exercise in extreme feminism, The Woman. Dealing with the depravity of patriarchal systems and putting unleashed femininity on display in such a brilliant fashion that I had a complete flight of ego after watching it and assumed McKee made it for people like me who liked Lars von Trier's Antichrist but wanted it stripped of distracting affectations. Barring an awful soundtrack, this is a magnificently crafted film that foregrounds McKee's gift for gradually building overwhelming bewilderment and terror without cheap scares. One of my favorites of an excellent year.

So please take a look at my review of The Woman and leave a comment.

Saturday, October 15

May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

Lucky McKee's May belongs to the small group of horror films as likely to make you cry as scream. Its protagonist rates with the children of Let the Right One In and The Devil's Backbone and any Lon Chaney performance as one of the most unsettling but affecting characters put on the screen. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller adds a splash of sadness to his biting satire when he describes the childhood of unwitting officer Major Major with a grimly funny but painfully real summary: "Because he needed a friend so desperately he never found one." The same sentiment hangs over May, its titular character secluded all her life for her lazy eye, the social alienation carrying into her adulthood where she cannot find pals even after taking steps to correct her condition. By this point, the physical deformation is secondary to her malformed social skills.

But McKee's mise-en-scène reflects May's eye, casting askew glances at synecdochical body parts upon which May fixates. In so doing, the director at once deconstructs the male gaze and creates a new female gaze that is no less disturbing for its fetishistic intensity. For May, the phrase "nobody's perfect" functions not as a comforting call to acceptance of her physical abnormality but a maddening reminder that she can never find the perfect person to offset all her years of loneliness. She knows she'll probably only ever have one friend, so she needs that companion to be perfect.

McKee layers a significant amount of information in the opening seconds, throwing in recurring images, presaging the conclusion with a shot from the end of the film, and establishing a mood, the shot of fabric being cut and sewn dotted with a drop of blood that stains the innocence of the quaint activity. The distinct, unsettling images—the eerily childlike sewing, the rain of dolls, the agonized, bloody screaming—evoke thematic and atmospheric richness, saying more about the stunted growth of its as-yet introduced protagonist than the whole of Black Swan's fun but reductive sub-Freudian diagnoses. A brief establishing sequence follows, showing a girl forced to wear an eye patch over her perilously drooping eye and withdrawing from her classmates because of it. At a birthday party attended only by some pitying adults, May's mother gives her a homemade doll too special to be played with and intended as a substitute for human companionship. "If you can't find a friend," chirps the mom, "make one."

As an adult, May (Angela Bettis), has internalized a life of shyness but continues to hope for a real friend. Her insularity manifests itself in the form of obsessive fixation on specific parts she likes. She crushes on a local guy named Adam (Jeremy Sisto), but while she likes all of him, nearly all we see of him before they interact comes in the form of extreme close-ups on his hands. At the veterinary clinic where she works, May obliviously finds herself the target of flirtation by her lesbian coworker Polly (Anna Faris), a flirtation she stokes when she abruptly notes how beautiful the woman's neck is. These minute fetishes slowly stack up as May meets more people and McKee's anti-male gaze shots are as funny as they are off-putting.

But their creepiness wouldn't work if McKee didn't keep cutting back to an actress who could subtly communicate that increasing obsession, and Bettis is a marvel. Bettis' sharp features, down to her straight but lightly serrated smile, are attractive but strangely preserved and surreal. Hollow cheeks, slightly bulging eyes, and a forehead exposed in bulbous presence by pulling the hair create a play of individual features on Bettis' face, all of them symmetrical but never quite meshing. She resembles a living doll, a freak looking to be a real girl. Her jittery, nervous advancements suggest that May lives in a glass case like her doll's, and the cracks that start to form in the doll's case after an accident make a clear symbol for May's slow fragmentation.

Having never enjoyed proper human contact, May has no idea how to hold a conversation, and the calmness with which she speaks of dark thoughts and memories proves almost as scary as the eventual bloodbaths. Speaking to Adam, she relates an anecdote of stitching up a dog with weak sutures, only for the owner to come home later to find the poor beast disemboweled with blood smeared all over the fences. May talks as if relating a fun story, wholly oblivious to the look of utter horror on Adam's face. Even May's attempts to help the next generation of children, in this case a school for the blind, goes terribly awry and sparks the symbolic break from reality that leads to the grim climax.

What makes May so fascinating is how often it resembles less a horror movie than an indie exercise in extreme quirk. Polly's dressing like she's going out to the club when she comes in to file paperwork at the clinic, the student film about cannibalism Adam made that arouses May, May's homemade outfits; everything could play as indie comedy with but the slightest variations. But McKee finds the loneliness and confusion of what is usually used as a prop, casting these oddballs as strangely believable within a world that seems outside their ken. Even the otherwise normal Adam clearly has some degree of interest in May, and his reassuring statement, "I like weird" contains some truth. He likes that sense of quirk, but when he uncovers the madness under the oddity, he recoils.

But just because McKee finds the morose relatability under comic strangeness doesn't mean May is bereft of laughter. May's erotic response to the cannibal student film Adam made is creepy, but she turns that awkwardness into an uneasy laugh when she critiques one aspect of the film: "I don't think she could have gotten his finger off in one bite though." Later, as a dejected May sits waiting for a bus, a punk with hair so madly composed his gelled strands resemble less spikes than spiracles drawn by Dr. Seuss. Yet the first thing that comes out of this leather-clad greaser is a soft, considerate, "Are you OK?" After briefly chatting up May, he invites her to get some Jujubes. It's a fun dig at the punk image, but also kind of sweet, and I was surprised how quickly I felt sorry for poor Blank after he unwittingly stepped into the realm of a woman past the point of no return.

And when the film finally moves into her unhinged actions, McKee yet again subverts expectations by framing kills in such a way as to be eerie but too sudden and unforced to be easy scares. No music plays over the deaths in this film, and May's kills are as swift and almost elegant as the scalpels she uses to easily slice open veins and arteries. McKee isn't out to scare, though he certainly succeeds in shocking.

A shot of blood swirling with spilled milk adds to the rampant symbolism of the film, the penetrative act of a stab mingling with semen-like fluid. This shot specifically suggests a sexual subtext not immediately clear elsewhere until one realizes that, unlike his far more direct new film, The Woman, McKee isn't pushing a specifically feminist idea through horror but is deepening what a woman in horror "can" do. May is neither victim nor monster, though she is a bit of both. Rather, she exists outside generic molds that assign women into the slut, final girl and villain roles ad nauseam. She's pitiable but disturbing, violent but longing, and she's one of the few characters from the last decade of increasingly grisly, meaningless horror films worth caring about.

Her final actions speak to a despair that punctures the screen with far more effect than even the shock of her mutilation of others and self. Her quest to assemble a friend out of the body parts she so eerily idolized add an extra dimension of sorrow to the already wrenching Frankenstein story, for here the monster is being made to make up for the seeming absence of any real person who will love May. The quiet, hallucinatory last shot made me shudder, but it also brought tears to my eyes. Admittedly, I'm no expert on horror, but when's the last time anyone could say such a thing of the genre's modern output?

Friday, October 14

Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 2011)

Terri feels like the film the Duplass brothers' intended crossover Cyrus wanted to be, even if its subject matter is different and the overall quality of the two movies is not radically different. Azazel Jacobs' smooth, crisp, measured direction lingers on the odd but believable high-school world crafted by screenwriter Patrick DeWitt, drawing out its beats until "comedy" and "drama" become meaningless distinctions. This is not discomfort humor, or at least not in the sense of squirm comedy. Rather, Terri ekes comedy out of the discomfort of life itself, not the embarrassing shenanigans of warped loonies who may well exist but are not as common as the quiet embarrassments and indignities on display here.

The titular protagonist (Jacob Wysocki) is an overweight 15-year-old  who lives with his uncle, James (The Office's Creed Bratton), a loving but often removed man in the early stages of dementia. Picked on at school and made increasingly lonely by the mental slippage of the only person who speaks to him, Terri starts showing up late for class and constantly wears pajamas, only further distancing himself from the other kids. Taller and wider than everyone else, mocked for his poverty and weight, and decked out in clothes that isolate him in the frame, Terri looks absurd, but the look of muted loneliness on his face evokes a great deal of pain.

Orbiting around Terri is a cast of skittish but lethargic oddballs who behave like your average zany high-school-movie kids after passing around bottles of Adderall. Terri worries about fitting in among the slimmer boys who boast of sexual conquests, but their cagey, pubescent jitters make them no more normal or centered than Terri. One boy even coaxes a girl (whom Terri likes) to let him grope her during a class But the isolation is taking its toll: forced into setting traps for mice by his uncle, Terri's initial reluctance turns to a brief fascination with death that signals how slowly but surely he is headed for the edge.

Noticing this is the school's assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who decides to take Terri under his wing in a seeming act of kindness. Reilly plays Fitzgerald as the picked-on kid who overcame his shyness and sense of hurt only through completely internalizing child therapist exercises. He talks like a motivational speaker in search of a gymnasium, trying to pep up Terri with personal experience he's honed into slogans so pat he could deliver them in call-and-response cheers.

Fitzgerald makes plain a truth that links the characters of Terri: everyone wants something from the others. Heather's (Olivia Crocicchia) boyfriend wants sex from her, and Terri at least wants some kind of recognition from her. Uncle James wants Terri around to do all the chores he cannot. A spiky basket of pent-up sexual aggression named Chad hangs out with Terri for a time, but he really gravitates toward the protagonist when his kindness wins Heather over and presents an opportunity for the gangly kid to swoop in and steal her from the fat guy. The nicest of these characters—Terri, Fitzgerald, and Heather—all carry such baggage that even their niceness seems suspect at times, or at least driven by their own desire to be validated by someone else. As Heather quietly, morosely yet defiantly explains her willingness to let her ex- touch her in class, sometimes it's just nice to be wanted.

The understanding that wanting something from others is not only not inherently evil but natural softens what might have been a cynical look at the nastiness and exploitative relations of children and adults. Jacobs wrings comedy out of downbeat moments, such as a funeral for Fitzgerald's old secretary that makes Eleanor Rigby's seem a New Orleans jazz wake in comparison, but he does not sacrifice the chill of such scenes. The film climaxes with a date of sorts between Terri and Heather back at Uncle James' place, a date into which Chad wedges himself, and the bored, awkward chatter leads to booze and pills that tilt the sequence slowly off its axis. Chad's drunken, predatory lures are as creepy as they are hilarious, while Terri wrestles with his temptation in heartbreaking bewilderment in a moment that shows considerable maturity in displaying the moral weight of potentially acting on urges with someone too drunk to give proper consent. We've certainly come a long way from Animal House downright mocking a character's masculinity for not date-raping an underage girl.

Terri's minute observations of real human emotions elevate some of the shakier elements of inconsistency and insecurity, issues easily dismissed as minor. In one brief but memorable exchange, a deluded Uncle James grabs Heather and sweetly but pointedly speaks beyond her, "There's no use in pretending you're thinking of anybody but yourself." That idea of self-serving consideration runs through the film, but as we see when Terri faces his hardest challenge of moral fiber, genuine decency does exist here. For a film so stark that its laughs often die before they even reach the throat, Terri also proved unexpectedly moving, its understated conclusion one of the more hopeful of the year. Slight quibbles with some repetition aside, this is a fine work of deadpan comedy and revealing insight.