Monday, June 29, 2009

Web

[This post is part of Ten Days' Wonder, a Claude Chabrol blogathon, hosted by Flickhead]

Claude Chabrol's The Flower of Evil is a very deceptive film, but, given the story Chabrol's telling, it would sort of have to be, wouldn't it? At the center of the story -- and virtually the only characters in the whole film -- is the Charpin-Vasseur clan, a family with a highly scandalous past (and not much less scandalous present) that is made public when an anonymously written leaflet about the family -- detailing everything from unsolved murders to Nazi collaboration -- is distributed to the public in the wake of Anne Charpin-Vasseur's (Nathalie Bye) announcement that she's going to run for political office.

Anne's husband, Gerard (Bernard Le Coq), is very much against Anne's political ambitions, though his reasons for this are never made entirely clear. He's also serially unfaithful to Anne, which is one -- but only one -- of the reasons that his son Francois (Benoit Magimel), who has just returned home after four years in America, dislikes his father. This dislike is shared by his step-sister, Michele (Melanie Doutey), who is Anne's natural daughter. Her natural father, and Francois's natural mother, died together in a car accident years ago. They were, respectively, married to Anne and Gerard, and their deaths brought those two together, although the Charpins and the Vasseurs had always been very close over the years, and intermarriage had bonded the two for generations. The families are so close, in fact, that Francois and Michele have long harbored a non-familial love for each other, which Francois's return to France has rekindled.

Rounding out the characters, and joining Francois and Michele in their dislike of Gerard, is the elderly Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon). It was Aunt Line's father who was the victim of the unsolved murder mentioned in the leaflet, and Aunt Line herself was actually tried for the crime, though she was acquitted. Though Aunt Line dislikes Gerard, I got the impression that she did so for no reason more specific than because Gerard is so very unlikable; generally Aunt Line wants to simply get along, and wants her family to get along, and to be happy. Although it's not her political campaign that is in danger of being derailed, the leaflet may trouble Aunt Line the most, as it dredges up so much anguish that she hoped had been buried.

The Flower of Evil plays, at times, like a mystery, the central question being "Who wrote the leaflet?", but that isn't really what it is. What the film really seems to be trying to do is explain its title, and I mean that as a compliment. I think viewers can be forgiven for not having a complete understanding of all the backstory laid out by the leaflet -- which, we're told by Gerard, is "all true" -- but that's not terribly important. What is important is the knowledge that this family, or pair of families, has been laced with deviance and, yes, evil for decades. What can such a past do to future generations, even as those deficiencies would seem to have thinned out over the years?

Earlier, I referred to Francois and Michele as step-siblings, but in the film, at one point, Francois refers to Michele and himself as cousins, which would make their relationship fully incestuous, as opposed to only technically incestuous. I don't have the family tree completely clear in my own head, but if they are indeed cousins, then the fact that they don't hide their intimacy from their family, and that intimacy is not only accepted by the family, but in some cases actually embraced by them, becomes a little alarming. I'm told France is more permissive than the US in sexual matters, but this is really pushing it. Which is, finally, I believe, the point. The Charpin-Vasseurs are so terribly casual in their abnormalities. Francois and Michele are very likable (and also very well played by Doutey and Magimel, but then the high quality acting in this film is formidably consistent, with my own favorite performance coming from Le Coq -- his Gerard is so exquisitely, humanly awful), but the ease with which they slip into their relationship, and the happiness that Aunt Line takes in seeing them together, is faintly chilling.

Not just that, but when murder finally occurs, as you sort of know it will, and two characters are attempting to hide the body, at one point they lose their grip on the corpse, and both break into laughter. By this time in the film, there are a great number of moral complications and grey areas revolving around this crime, but if two more normal people had found themselves in the same awful situation, I don't think laughter would ever be a feature of their evening. It is for these two, though, because in the history of the Charpin-Vasseurs, violence runs deep, as does secrecy and sin. If they didn't laugh, they'd go crazy.

In a sense, I believe that Michele and Francois are the title characters. As the youngest generation of this diseased line, they are the ones who are most able to see all that is wrong around them and try to step back from it. But as I've said, they have their own problems, still inherited from their ancestors. If, perhaps, they could see past the ends of their own noses, and possibly try to, you know, not marry their own family members, they could have children who were still more cleansed than they are, and those children could have children, and on down the line. There could be a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe, but probably not the way these two are going about it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

On Insects

Insects are terrifying creatures. Or so they appear. Throughout recorded history, when faced with any species of insect at all, men -- and especially girls -- have regarded these tiny creatures with abject horror and maniacal violence. Why is this? Freud would say that it's because men and women regard insects as their own malevolent genitals, sprung from our collective ids, or "superegos", and bent on exposing our homosexuality to our parents. But this is only part of the truth, the other part being that insects are often pretty wicked looking. Personally, I find it disgusting that eight or nine years, depending, into this new millenium, mankind still judges the animal kingdom by its appearance, and it is my hope that, today, I can change our perceptions of the insect world. I want to turn our terror and disgust into joy and delight, our stomping and crushing into hugs and laughter. And I've studied all this shit, too, so if anybody can pull that off, it's me.
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Insects can be separated into three broad types. Those are Ants (which includes ants, beetles, earthworms, and millipedes); Scorpions (which includes scorpions, snakes, and alligators); and Flies (which includes all flying insects, such as bats, and all the beetles that don't count as ants). Each of these types contribute something positive to our daily lives. Ants, for example, eat all our grass. Scorpions keep the natives at bay, and provide poison for our spear- and arrow-tips. Flies gives our hard-working scientists and engineers ideas for future individual flight packs. Think about how you might one day be able to buzz your way to work like the care-free housefly, and the next time you go to squash one, I think you might find yourself thinking twice. Also, bees are flies, and bees give us honey. Honey is great. It's so good.
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Now, let us look at each type of insect. First, Ants. Ants are the kings, literally, of the Ant family, and there are three main kinds. The most famous and best kind of ant is the Black Ant, pictured below:

Black ants are the wisest of all insects, teaching all their minions how to hunt and fish, build homes and plant crops, even to carry items that weigh 1400 hundred times their own weight, which is hard to do, if you've never tried it. Think of it like this: You weigh one pound, okay? Now try to pick up a refrigerator that weighs 1400 pounds. That'll mess you up. And yet black ants can do it like it's nothing. Do you have any AAA batteries lying around? Go pick one of those up. See how easy that was? Okay, a black ant would find it just as easy to pick up something that weighed 1400 times that, or right around there, anyway. And yet we crush them under our boots every day!
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Red ants are often believed to be the natural enemy of the black ant, and in some ways that's true. Before I explain why, let's take a look at a red ant:

As you can see, red ants spend a lot of time around beautiful garden flowers, and, frankly, black ants wouldn't mind a little of that action themselves. So why not just do so, you might be asking, if black ants are the kings of insects? Because, hey, Einstein? How is a black ant supposed to blend in with beautiful flowers? How many black flowers have you seen? Not too many, I'll bet. But red flowers are all over the place, aren't they? So red ants can scamper amongst them as they please, while the black ants have to sit in the goddamn dirt, saying "You know what? Fuck those guys. Flowers are dumb." Sometimes this sort of denial works, but just as often it doesn't, and on those days, jealousy reigns, which in turn leads to those red ant/black ant fights you used to see in your backyard when you were a kid. That shit was nuts. At the time, you probably wondered what in the world red ants and black ants could possibly find to fight about. But now, thanks to me, you know that it's because of flowers.
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Next we have blue ants, seen below:
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In all honesty, you really probably should steer clear of blue ants. Those are some really bad motherfuckers. And if you see one -- and God, those things are everywhere these days! -- do not try to step on it. Being cast into the deepest caverns of Hell would feel like sinking into a warm bath in comparison to what that blue ant would do to you.
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On the other hand, every insect in the Scorpion category would make an excellent pet, should you ever wish to take your life in that direction. Humans who keep scorpions as pets are often looked down on as freaks, "weirdos", losers, terrifying loners, the kind of guy who puts up websites that claim that Stephen King is the one who shot John Lennon. And that's all true, as often as not, but why blame the scorpion? Look at him:

Isn't he beautiful? He's like a poisonous, scurrying little box of crayons. And his poison, so called, actually isn't poison at all, but a natural antibiotic that can be used to treat any number of infections. You don't even have to kill the scorpion to get it -- if he sees that you're not feeling well, he'll offer it to you. But actually, that particular type of scorpion is extinct. Most other scorpions really are pretty nasty, and I wouldn't get within ten feet of one if you paid me twenty dollars.
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Finally, we have Flies. Most humans consider flies, and other such creatures, to be the most aggravating of all insects. They fly around your food, bite you when you're outside, get all up in your face...but they mean nothing by any of that behavior, and most times they're pretty embarrassed about how everything went down. If we only shared a common language, we'd probably develop a pretty emotionally and intellectually satisfying relationship with them. As it happens, scientists, God bless 'em, are working right now to try and manipulate the vocal chords of humans, and the auditory senses and sensory communication capacity of flies, so that this beautiful dream can one day become a reality. We might be there right now, if it weren't for a tragic, yet fascinating, setback. About a week ago, a scientist named Dr. Leonard Barclay (pictured below) isolated himself in a Science Chamber with a lone housefly.


Dr. Barclay surrounded himself with lab equipment and potions -- everything he thought he might need to communicate with the fly. The potion (which was green) was intended, upon Dr. Barclay's consumption of it, to act as a conductor between one kind of lab equipment and Dr. Barclay, but unfortunately, like most science potions, it was full of sugar, and just as the scientist was lifting the beaker to his lips, the fly dove in.If the potion hadn't worked, there probably wouldn't have been a problem. The US government would have been down one housefly, but that's about it. Unfortunately, science once again "succeeded", and disaster enveloped Dr. Barclay in its icy cloak.

Needless to say, as soon as Dr. Barclay's colleagues could get their hands on a flamethrower, they burned him to ashes, because who wants that thing running around. But the potion works, which is the bright side of this whole deal. We are one step closer to being able to talk to flies. Thank you, Dr. Barclay.
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So ends tonight's lesson on our insect friends. I hope you've learned as much as I've tried to teach you. If you take away nothing else from this, please remember one thing: insects are beautiful. As beautiful as the hottest, most beautiful woman. But the thing is, insects aren't going to make you buy them dinner first! Right, fellahs? No, but seriously, don't kill insects if you can possibly avoid it. I mean, come on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I'm Not What You'd Properly Call a Person

This is not a review.

I have about 30 pages left to read of Tony Burgess's bizarre, head-spinning, I-don't-know-what horror novel called Pontypool Changes Everything, and I simply don't know what to say. It's about a town in Ontario, called Pontypool, that is being devestated by a language-borne zombie plague (they're not zombies, strictly speaking, but that's what everyone calls them). The first half of the novel (titled Autobiography) focuses largely on the experiences of a mentally unstable high school drama teacher named Les Reardon, whose hallucinations add a sense of spatial, physical, and corporeal uncertainty to events that we know are actually supposed to be happening. The second half of the novel (titled Novel) deals with a drug-addicted teenager named Greg, who, through a crisis hotline, meets Grant, a perverted local news anchorman; and Julie and Jim, two children who flee from their home, due to the encroaching plague, and end up smack-dab in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Burgess's prose is exceedingly surreal, even when it's entirely lucid, like in this passage, which describes overtaking of a police detective by the plague:

The detective is a foolish man, not smart or pleasant, so, while he becomes even less appealing in these last days of his life, an angel will be assigned to him: the soul of an innocent child whose murderer he brought to justice. The angel is assigned to him to remind us that we are tormenting a man who is loved by God.
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God and angels have virtually nothing to do with the rest of the novel, by the way, which somehow makes that passage more striking. But remember, that's the novel at its most clear, which it sometimes isn't, exactly. Check out this bit, which is part of an explanation of this word-plague, taken from a chapter called "Zombies Explained to Us":

It gestates in the deep structures prior to language. Or, at least, simultaneous with language. In the very primal structure that organizes us as differentiated, discontinuous copies of each other. The virus probably enters, in fact, among paradigmatic arrangements. And then, almost instantly, the virus appears in a concept of itself. This causes all sorts of havoc.

Well, I would think so!

I don't ordinarily do this before I've finished reading a book, but earlier today I went browsing for interviews with Burgess, to try and get a sense, from the horse's mouth, just what in the hell he was up to. And I found a good one, conducted by The Danforth Review. Here's an interesting exerpt.

TDR: I was trying to think of an adjective to describe your fiction, and I couldn't think of one that suited. Your work has elements of slasher films, post-apocalyptic nightmares, science fiction, horror, and high-minded literary styling in the vein of William S. Burroughs. In your work, zombies haunt small-town Ontario and the populace is infected by an language-borne virus. I see much of this as a metaphor for frightening unseen forces that may or may not be influencing our lives and our world. There's also much humour; I want to make sure I don't forget to say that. Were you surprised to find yourself writing stuff like this ... or has this always been your modus operandi? (and how do you make sense of it? what are you '"up to"? if that isn't too blunt and reductive a question).

TB: No, no surprise that I write like this. Oh wee. Each of the elements you mention matter to me...except, you mention metaphor in your question and I don't really think in terms of metaphor...it goes to this: metaphor is a device (distracting) for looking at this world, and usually about the experience of being a person. Well, neither of those things are particularly interesting to me. I'm not what you'd properly call a person. When I'm writing I grant myself exceptional powers. Sometimes I want to write in a substandard fashion but have the occulted ambition to physically change the immediate vicinity of the book. Now, you might say "so what? You're fuckin nuts!" but I'm now going to be curious to see what I end up writing. This is partially what I've learned from badly made horror films. There are places that realize the unrealizable. We just don't notice it because it looks like failure.

Do this: rent Phantasm or Tool Box Murders or something and suspend your disbelief like you never have before. Believe that it is the world, not an incompetent version. (You will, because it matters to you, believe that somewhere along the process you'll meet your world again anyway, right? So don't worry, metaphorization is a stable insidious program.) Then that forks off for me this other question: if I'm not making metaphors, then what exactly am I dragging back here? Here's an intense experience that yes, did happen in the world, but it is alien to the world, so please, what can we do with it? Put it this way: I came by those books I wrote honestly.

His dismissal of metaphor is actually a bit of a relief, because a blurb on the back of my copy of the novel says that Pontypool Changes Everything is positively bursting with the stuff (I'm paraphrasing), but I'll be damned if I know what this is all a metaphor of. Or for, I guess.

Anyway, Burgess seems like a pretty unusual guy, and although it doesn't necessarily follow that such a person would write a pretty unusual book, that's what he's done. It is, I suppose, a horror novel, though it doesn't really feel like one. It feels like an experiment, or maybe just a series of images that Burgess could only justify to himself by welding them to a pseudo-horror plot. Though even "plot" seems like the wrong word.

Pontypool Changes Everything was recently adapted (script by Burgess) into a film called, simply, Pontypool, and it's currently playing On Demand, so I'll be catching it shortly. That should sure be something. In the meantime, I'll try to remember what Burgess says later in that interview linked to above, regarding how he'd like to imagine people finding his book:

I like to think of someone finding the book in a cabin where they're staying, shoved on a small book shelf with five other books. In time, they are forced to read it and when they come back to work they can't forget this unsound little read and finally have to ask somebody, "have you ever heard of this...?" and the somebody says "no" and the person spends weeks trying to privately shake this book that, as time goes by, they're not sure they ever read at all.

I can absolutely see that happening.

Monday, June 22, 2009

20 Seconds to Leave

Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone is no Taxi Driver, however desperately Noe might wish it was, but for much of its length it's a reasonably effective knock-off. Philippe Nahon (pictured above, in a contemplative moment) is very good as The Butcher, an unemployed, middle-aged man whose turbulent history up to the point of the film's beginning is recounted in uninflected, yet sardonic narration, while a Nazi-esque march plays in the background. His rage at the world is both putrid and banal, though his banality may not necessarily reflect badly on Noe, as the sort of man we're dealing with in I Stand Alone, as they exist in the real world, are hardly the deepest of thinkers.

So okay: I thought the film worked, for the most part, and Noe's preferred method of arist-to-audience communication -- shocking sex and violence -- spreads the existential sleaze on just thickly enough. But I want to focus exclusively (and very briefly, as I'm back home now, and completely wiped out) on one moment that really drove me up the wall. With about fifteen minutes to go, a title appears on screen that says, roughly, Warning! You have 20 seconds to leave the theater. Danger! Then we get a countdown to the film's big, shocking climax, which then shocks us, and then the movie's over.

There are a couple of things that are supremely obnoxious about this bit of self-congratulatory post-modernism. One is that it drops its post-modernism into the middle of a film that primarily shoots for a naturalistic tone (with some mild exceptions). In that sense, the title card merely doesn't work, which is excusable. Less excusable is that it exposes Noe as someone who positively adores his own transgressions, and who seeks to shock his audiences so that he can pat himself on the back for his bravery and honesty. As if that wasn't enough, the title card -- like the rewind scene in Michael Haneke's Funny Games -- also saps his climax of nearly all of its natural, visceral power. While Nahon's performance (as well as that of Blandine Lenoir, with whom Nahon shares the end of the film) saves some of that power from draining away completely, an actor can only do so much repair work after the director has announced to the world that he doesn't care about his characters.

Shock, as a means to an end, and developed organically in the story, is perfectly fine by me. But shock as the point in and of itself, accompanied by a smirk, is extremely offensive to me. And its offensive as an artistic philosophy, moreso than any of the images that philosophy tries to rub my nose in. Its like telling a dead baby joke and then chastising those who couldn't "handle" it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oops!

I probably should have mentioned that I've been out of town, and therefore largely off-line, since Friday. I hope nobody was too worried. I haven't been murdered or anything, so everybody calm down.

Until I return to my normal daily rut, allow me to offer a hearty Happy Father's Day to all you Dads out there (and to my own, to whom I've said this is person, but it would still be wrong not to include him).

But I offer those sentiments sincerely, on behalf of myself, as well as everybody's favorite movie stepdad, Harry Powell.

Now go watch golf, or whatever!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Wanted to See How it Worked

If you're still reading this blog at 10:00 AM Eastern Time, you're out of your flippin' head! You should be over at Flickhead's place, voicing your thoroughly considered opinion of this month's TOERIFC film, Henry Jaglom's Someone to Love. Now git!

UPDATE: Er...ignore that whole "10:00 AM" business. The discussion is going on now...!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yeeeessss....

Release date Sept. 8, 2009. More information here.

This is my favorite film that Mamet has ever directed, and that's saying something. It's a fascinating, strange, gripping thriller, with an ending that is both hard to swallow, and dead-on perfect, which is a pretty neat trick. It's never been on DVD before, so if you haven't seen it, your chance is fast approaching. I can't wait.

Monday, June 15, 2009

For Monsters

Chilean author Roberto Bolaño is probably the hottest writer around these days, at least in the capital "L" Literary Circles. His gargantuan novel 2666 was published in America earlier this year to acclaim so intense that it has dwarfed the previously wild acclaim bestowed on his The Savage Detectives, and that book was the Big Book of 2007. He has nine more books -- novels, story collections, essay collections, poetry -- in the pipeline to be translated, with publication dates ranging from later this year until 2011 or 2012, while a good four or five other books are already available in English, apart from 2666 and The Savage Detectives. This is impressive on its own, but is doubly impressive when you consider that Bolaño died in 2003.

Bolaño was a poet by training and inclination, but he turned to prose fiction in 1998 when he realized he didn't have long to live, and he decided the money he could bring in from novels would provide for his family far better than his poetry would. His output in those five years is fairly staggering, matched only, perhaps, by Anthony Burgess's own prolificacy after being mistakenly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 1961. Burgess lived for another 32 years, but Bolaño, sadly, had it right.

I finished reading Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (my first full experience reading him, although when I received my copy of 2666 I couldn't help diving in; unfortunately, the fact that I hadn't planned on reading it at the time, and its great length, kept me from continuing, though I set it aside with no little regret) yesterday, and I must say it was a highly unusual and pretty mesmerizing book. His posthumous fame would seem to indicate that his plan to financially provide for his family by writing novels was successful, and maybe things are different in Chile, but I find it strange and vaguely hilarious that a book like this could ever have been conceived with the primary goal of making its author any money at all.

Which is not a knock on the book, because as I said, I liked it quite a bit. But the book is a collection of mostly short biographical essays on authors with a fascist bent who never existed -- most of whom are South American by birth, some are North American, one or two are Germans who made their way to South America by being descendants of Nazi fugitives -- and I can't see something like that flying off the shelves, however fascinating or entertaining it is. I don't have the book in front of me, and am therefore unprepared to write a full review, but I honestly don't know how one would go about writing a review of this book in the first place. Obviously, others have done so, but I wouldn't know where to begin. I will say that Bolaño's prose is precise and sardonic throughout, and his imagination is formidable. The authors being written about are separated into categories, and I particularly liked the section of fascist science fiction writers (though I might complain that this part was too short), and I was also especially intrigued, though also somewhat confused, by the last, long-ish (about 24 pages in my edition) essay about the "infamous Ramirez Hoffman", who was, among other things, a poet who wrote in the sky, with a plane; a photographer whose pictures caused outrage and vomiting; and a serial killer.

The only part of the book that I thought was a grind was the epilogue, called "For Monsters", which is essentially a list of secondary figures, publishing houses that specialized in this sort of thing, and books. Every so often, Bolaño will include further information in one of these entries, but to no great purpose that I could see. Although this reminds me of another difficulty I had with the book: when these fictional writers are mentioned in relation to other writers, my grasp on Latin American literature is so weak that I often had no idea how many of these other writers were real, and how many were Bolaño's inventions. Since some of them were obviously real (Borges, Allen Ginsberg), this opened up the idea that many or most of the others were, as well, but you'll get nowhere asking me. As a result, I think I missed out on a fair amount of the book's satire.

But I'm more or less okay with that, because I thoroughly enjoyed the book anyway. It's certainly like nothing else I've read this year.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Before it Rains

There are, essentially, two kinds of stories about time travel: in the first kind, one or more people go back in time and kill a bunch of cattle rustlers or black knights (or, if they're travelling back to our time from the future, they're trying to stop air pollution from destroying the universe, while taking a moment here and there to marvel at these marvelous ancient foods which we call "pizza" and "snack chips"), and then have to make it back through the wormhole before it's too late. In the second kind, the time travel paradox comes into play, and certain actions taken by the time traveller in the past affect the future as we know it, usually adversely, and things have to be fixed by travelling through time again, and then you have more than one time traveller running around, each with a different agenda, and one of them is trying to stop Lincoln from being assassinated, but the other one knows that if that happens then by 1982 America is under water and England is being tyrranized by self-aware android revolutionaries. So way to go, First Guy, your intentions were good, but now look what's happened.

The first kind of story uses time travel as a means to an end, but the second is actually about time travel itself, and is therefore, to me, inherently more interesting. Nacho Vigalondo's 2007 film Timecrimes -- and I know that title sounds like it belongs to a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie, but oh well -- is a time travel paradox film, and it's a refreshing curiosity right out of the gate, in that it clearly was made for very little money, and didn't need to be made for any more. Like Shane Carruth's earlier time travel paradox film, Primer (which, I'm going to admit right now, utterly baffled me), Timecrimes is a science fiction film that is about a concept, and Vigalondo gets around the problem of all those expensive bells, whistles and light shows that jack up the budget of movies like I Am Legend by realizing that they don't matter. The time machine in Timecrimes looks like a round sunken bathtub, over which fits a very heavy lid. The time travel special effect itself consists of a very cheap light and camera trick that is exactly as effective as it needs to be.

To summarize the plot of this film -- stopping, as is customary, before we get into spoiler territory -- is very simple. One day, Hector (Karra Elejalde) is home with his wife, Clara (Candela Fernandez). For a while, their day is pretty uneventful, save for one odd phone call, until Clara leaves to run an errand. At the time she leaves, Hector is sitting in their backyard, looking into the trees with his binoculars. While doing so, he sees a woman take her shirt off. Curious, he enters the woods to investigate, and finds her completely nude, and either unconcious or dead. While approaching her, a man with bizarre, pink-stained bandages attacks him and stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors. Hector runs from the man, and soon finds himself in what appears to be a house, mixed with an office building, mixed with a laboratory. A short series of events leads him to a young scientist (Vigalondo), who tells him he can hide out in what turns out to be, but which Hector doesn't realize is, a time machine.
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And we're off. It's a curious aspect of these kinds of films that the more effective -- and the more fun and suspenseful and involving -- they are, the less sense they seem to make. Because at the end of Timecrimes, I had two questions. One was "Well, but how...?" and the other was "Except that...no, but what about...?" Also, Hector makes one very big decision towards the end that, while I understand his motives, because he can have only one, I have no idea quite how this decision is going to bring about the outcome he wants. But I guess that's why they call it a "paradox". Or one of the reasons, anyway.

Timecrimes is also quite a dark and melancholy little movie -- as was Primer, if I remember correctly -- which is a tonal approach I admire, because it reveals an unusually high level of empathy on the part of the filmmaker. Vigalondo's imagination is such that he's able to look at this story and say "Look, I know this is absolutely impossible, but if it were possible, wouldn't it be awful??" And I like that. I like art that takes the impossible and treats it not as a game or a gimmick, but as its own kind of reality -- the kind that exists on the page, or on the screen. The only severe hiccup I felt while watching the film was when I figured out a big plot twist at the exact moment the story element was introduced (which I don't point out in order to brag about it, because given how this point is introduced, and knowing what kind of film Timecrimes is, it's not hard to see the twist coming) and felt that the movie would have no surprises left. This turned out not to matter at all, because Vigalondo's film may not work on the plot level, and it may not actually even make any sense on that level either (then again it may -- it'll take at least one more viewing before I can answer that) but it sure works as a movie, and it reminded me how gripping and fresh the most shopworn of stories can be when the storyteller actually gives a damn for once.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How's This for a Nothing Post?

Here's what I have waiting at home for me, courtesy of Netflix:

I've heard very good things.

Because sometimes you just want to turn off the ol' brainbox!
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Possibly a mistake.

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So that's what's on deck for this weekend. Maybe I'll write about one or more of them. Wouldn't it be amazing if I did? I agree: it would be amazing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Strange Animal

Rarely am I able to watch a film and say afterwards, "I've never seen that before. I've never seen any version of that before." But that's how I felt after watching Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, the first half of which is a quiet, episodic and gentle story about Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), a Thai soldier, and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), a local villager he falls in love with. And Tong reciprocates, though in a shy, fumbling way.

But in some ways their love story is incidental, because Weerasethakul is just as interested in showing snippets of random life, set-ups with no pay-off. Tong searches fruitlessly for a job, a quest hampered by his social awkwardness and illiteracy. He adopts a stray dog, takes it to the vet, where he finds out it has cancer. The vet offers him different treatment options, though we're never told his decision. In the film's first scene, a group of Thai soldiers (a group that doesn't include Keng) find the body of a naked man. Later, the camera lingers on a young woman on a bus, sitting across from Tong, while she talks on the phone. We never see her again. How does any of this relate to what's to come?

What comes is a second half that I hesitate to even talk about. I went into this film with some knowledge of where this was going, though the synopsis provided to me by Netflix was, obviously, not entirely accurate. But if you're reading this, and you don't know anything about this film -- though Weerasethakul and this film are not entirely unknown, at least not to critics or the art-house crowd, I don't hear Tropical Malady mentioned nearly as often as Weerasethakul's more recent, and very highly praised, Syndromes and a Century -- I can't quite convince myself that I'd be doing anybody any favors by going into more detail. But then why am I even writing this?

At the end of the slightly rambling first half, Keng and Tong have just spent the day together. After a display of physical affection that leaves little doubt of what kind of relationship they have, Tong walks off into the forest. The next morning, Keng wakes up alone, and hears, outside his window, villagers discussing a rash of livestock killings. We fade out, and into part two, which even has its own, brief credit sequence. A narrator tells us a story about a shaman who was able to change into any creature he wanted. He tormented a village until he was shot, while in the shape of a tiger, by a hunter. The tiger's body was mounted in a museum, and the shaman's ghost continued to haunt the forest. And for the next hour, Keng is in that forest, on the hunt. He sees strange things, and a monkey gives him a warning. Outside of that monkey, and a bit in the last scene, there is no dialogue. We only hear jungle sounds. In the last ten minutes, the film becomes quite unnerving, and beautiful.
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I've seen very few films as truly mysterious as this. A lot of films are "weird", and a lot of films don't make sense, intentionally or not. Of the latter, almost none make their lack of narrative, logical, or earthly sense a virtue. Towards the end of Tropical Malady, I was practically begging Weerasethakul to leave well enough alone. I didn't want to know anything else. I wanted to stay confused. And I did. How, precisely, these two halves fit together is something I will have to continue to puzzle over, though the film exists far more on a sensory and emotional level than it does on the level of narrative logic or cohesion. It's an experience.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Friday, June 5, 2009

Meme Clearinghouse Part Two - Der Unenthüllte

Twice now, I have been sorta-kinda tagged for a new meme started by MovieMan, over at The Dancing Image. MovieMan wants those who take part to list their favorite books about film, and I feel that I've been tagged for this twice because Ed Howard and Glenn Kenny, in the section of their posts for this meme where they're supposed to tag five other bloggers, chose instead to tag everyone on the planet at once. Which means I'm in.

So, in essence, I took this particular bull by the horns all on my own, and I therefore have no one to blame for the subsequent difficulties I've suffered in trying to put together a post but myself. It's not that I don't read movie books, or that I don't consider any of the ones I've read to be "favorites" or "important. I do -- sure I do! But I actually haven't read that many film books, and those I have read tend towards the obvious, or at least they seem so when compared to the books listed by Glenn and Ed. This is Orson Welles. Danny Peary's Cult Movies. Harlan Ellison's Watching. That sort of thing. I mean, what, who's going to click over to this blog and shout "Stop the presses! This fucker's going to talk about Adventures in the Screen Trade!" Who needs that? Not me, I can tell you, and it's my blog!

But dry your eyes, my children, because there was one book that I always planned on placing at number one, a book that is, in almost every conceivable way, more interesting than any of those others. And I've decided to dispense with the whole list idea and just write about this one book, because it really is my favorite film book, and because rules and promises are made to be broken, and you have to follow your heart, and also individuality. All that stuff. The book is also a work of fiction, which I haven't yet seen represented on any of these lists, because remember what I said before about individuality.

I have no idea where or when I first heard about Theodore Roszak's Flicker. All I know is that whatever description I read immediately pissed me off, because I needed that book, I needed to read it now, but it was out of print, and I couldn't find the sucker anywhere. It was years before I finally got my hands on it -- thanks to a reprint by Chicago Review Press -- and when I did, I read it at once. It was everything I hoped it would be, while being quite different from what I expected.

The plot, essentially, is this: in the 1960s, a young cinephile named Jonathan Gates spends much of his time at dingy movie theater called The Classic. He meets a budding, strong-willed film critic named Clare, who teaches him all she knows about films and life, and with whom he searches high and low for prints of classic movies. Over time, they come to hear about a forgotten director named Max Castle, who as an uncredited writer, co-director, or etc., worked on such films as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Mad Love and Citizen Kane. He also made his own films, with such titles as Ghoul of Limehouse, Queen of Swords, Simon the Magician and Judas Everyman. Clare and Jonathan are able to track down some of these films, and the effect these films have on them is quite unusual. After they've watched Judas Everyman, Jonathan -- the novel's narrator -- reflects:

We had no name for what we'd seen. We couldn't be certain that we'd viewed the whole film or that we'd seen it in anything like its correct sequence. What we'd watched was obviously a rough cut with all the ragged edges still showing. Yet, we knew that none of this mattered, for, after several minutes of talk, it was clear that the film, just as we had seen it, had worked. It had left us all with exactly the same experience of absolute, numbing horror. Not the horror of fear, but of revulsion.

And such is the case with every other Castle film they're able to track down. The fact that the films burrow so deep into the viewer is actually a bit frustrating for Clare, because she can't figure out why the films get to her the way they do. Nothing she knows about the art, craft or mechanics of film seems to apply to Castle's work.

Add to this the fact that Castle is, of course, missing, and has some bizarre connection to a frightening religious cult called the Orphans of the Storm, and the reader might find him- or herself not minding so much that Roszak's novel is pushing 600 pages. Because while Clare grows up to be Pauline Kael, Jonathan keeps digging for answers, and what he finds is singularly unpredictable and exactly -- narratively and thematically -- right. Also, Orson Welles is in it.

It's hard to write about a 600 page book I read three or four years ago, especially as I didn't foresee that I would one day be writing this post, and therefore didn't mark passages I thought might be illuminating to others. But I've described this book to others as a metaphysical horror novel about the secret history of movies, and I'll be damned if that doesn't just about sum it up. Castle was in films almost from the beginning, and he understood a deep truth about the subliminal power -- the potential of the flicker -- of the artform. And he used that knowledge, and that knowledge has been passed on to a cult that doesn't worship Jesus or Mohammed, but what it worships I won't tell you, and what it hopes to do I won't tell you either, or where Jonathan's discoveries take him, or what the last line of the novel is. That line would be such a wonderful title for this post, but I wouldn't dream of doing that to any of you.

Also, not incidentally, this book is positively drunk on movies. Ultimately, one might wonder how in love with cinema Theodore Roszak really is, or if, possibly, he's renounced that love (out of fear, perhaps), but he sure as hell knows his stuff, and he needs to for the whole thing to work. This book was written for cinephiles, so that, in print, we can wallow in what we normally just stare at in the dark. And it might make you flinch a bit, by the end. You might wonder about some of the movies you've spent time with over the years, and how they effected you. Maybe a movie made you feel bad, beyond what the narrative, however effective it might have been, could reasonably be held accountable for. Maybe a film made you angry, and you've never been able to pinpoint exactly why. Maybe a movie ruined your day, and maybe you don't even know that it was the movie that did it. Well, you weren't supposed to know, so just move along, and forget I said anything.

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I'm going to actually tag some people for this meme, because I'd love to read their answers. So Greg, Fox, Arbogast, Dennis, Rick, Ryan...get to work. Then tag all the people I wanted to tag but couldn't.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Meme Clearinghouse Part One: These Things I Believe

Just today, my close personal buddy Greg wrote a post called Why Being a Cinephile Matters (enough with the links already!). In it, he talked about things he's learned about movies and cinephilia since becoming a reader, and writer, of blogs, and then asked that pretty much everybody he's ever met do the same. Since I am one of those people, I've been included.

Greg, as he tends to, kept the rules of this already pretty loose meme very open. You can write about whatever the fuck you want to (and I think you can even swear!). You can go on at length, or you can just write a sentence or two. I'm pretty sure the only rule is that you should probably make your observations movie-related. Other than that, you are as free as the hawk in the breeze.

Ho-kay then:

* When I started reading movie blogs a few years ago, I didn't even know what I didn't know. Now I do. This is progress.

* I learned that discussions about Lars von Trier can get pretty heated. Go figure.

* I learned that, in the world of film, there are some things called "mumblecores" and "joe swanbergs". The world, she is mysterious.

* I learned that pretty much every cinephile worth their salt, no matter how long he or she can go on about Rivette or Tarr or Ozu or Brakhage or Roehmer is, at heart, a genre hound. Which makes me happy.

* I learned that nobody doesn't like Werner Herzog. This is as it should be.

* I learned that with film -- and all art, really -- it really is often better to look back, rather than forward, and to wallow in the past.

* I learned that some people will exalt just about anything. I probably already knew this, but the Film Wing of the Internet Institute of Studies has really driven it home. It's okay to love movies, but can we stop pretending that Lucio Fulci was something he wasn't?

* On a more positive note, I've learned that the received wisdom about certain older directors, the kind of wisdom you find in actual, physical magazines, like the idea that Scorsese has lost it, The Departed was his first good movie in more than a decade, and so on, has not been as readily and blindly received by film bloggers.

* I've learned that it's okay if you think that David Lynch's films don't make sense. Seriously, I didn't know that before.

* I've also learned that a lot of people claim to have, say, Inland Empire figured cold, and if the film didn't play to you as clearly as Yankee Doodle Dandy, then you simply weren't paying attention. Those people are fools, by the way.

* Related to my earlier "genre hound" observation, the number of serious film critics or bloggers who are also full-blown horror geeks is off the charts.

* I've learned that film bloggers are like honeyed-sunshine dappling the seas of my...or no, the waters of my...ah, what I like about film bloggers, is that their discourse is of the rarest spun heaven metal...oh fuck it. I think I probably have enough.

Now you go!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Funk

Anybody out there who might actually read this blog might have noticed lately that many of my posts have been a little, how you say, half-assed. Pictures, or pictures accompanied by two, possibly three, short paragraphs, less than in-depth reviews, and so forth and whatnot. The reason for this is that, blog-wise, I've been in a bit of a funk, lately. I haven't felt especially inspired about any particular topic, even in regards to movies I've seen lately that I particularly liked. The same goes for the bad stuff I've encountered lately, which one might assume should have energized and inspired me towards some sort of massive takedown, but no. I did read one especially bad novel recently, but my inclination was to spend no more time thinking about the book after I closed it, and that's what I've done.

This is how I've been feeling lately

I'm writing this not to announce any kind of momentous change around these parts, so the world can let out a collective sigh of relief. I guess this is just more of an attempt to explain myself, and to keep the blog from lying fallow. More the latter, really, because who cares that much about the former? I also offer no plans to reinvigorate myself or this blog, because I honestly assume that will eventually take care of itself. Everybody has moments like this, after all. Although -- and maybe this is a bit early, especially since I'm not prepared to commit to anything -- I have been considering going back on my word, and kicking off another The Kind of Face you SLASH!! for this October. Last year, I said I was never going to do it again, but now I'm not so sure. It was hard work, but I'm glad I did it, and I also have no idea what else I would do this Halloween. So I guess if this place is still bland and lifeless through September 30, just wait one more day, because things might possibly get marginally better after that. Though I promise nothing.

Also, Star Trek was good! It was a fun time at the theater, and I have no particularly strong gripes beyond the belief that next time around they should maybe rein back a little on the comedy. Especially if the stakes are going to be as high as they were in this film. A story of genocide should maybe not include a scene where Kirk is running around with cartoonishly big hands (the result of an injection from McCoy) trying to warn of imminent danger, but unable to make himself clear because his tongue is numb (ibid). But that's honestly not as bad as it sounds (or not quite, anyway), and overall I had a blast with the film. Special praise goes to Zachary Quinto as Spock, who more or less nails every moment. All the actors stepping in to play these iconic characters must have had a pretty bad case of the jitters, and, honestly, all of them stepped up and delivered, but none moreso than Quinto.

And look, that's going to be my entire review of Star Trek!! I told you I've been half-assing it lately.

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