Sunday, May 25, 2014

Drink Blood, or What Kind of Dumb Jerk Are You?

Kino Lorber and Raro Video keep pumping out DVDs and Blu-rays of the strange and the obscure.  Tuesday sees the release of four more, including two in Kino's ongoing re-issues of the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet. And so onward!
Blue Movie (d. Alberto Cavallone) - Speaking of ongoing re-issue projects, Raro Video continues to indulge their taste in Italian oddities, including this piece of fractured political, ahm, well I'll just say it, nonsense.  It's about a woman (Dirce Funari) who, after escaping from a gang of rapists, and possibly killing one of them, ends up in the home of a pretty much entirely hateful artist (Claude Maran), who collects empty soda cans and treats all the women who drift within his orbit like garbage.  In fairness, we're not meant to approve of this man, but it would be nice to find him somewhat interesting, or any of the things that happen inside his home compelling in some way.  But what you should probably understand about Blue Movie before heading in, is that it's the sort of movie that features an extended blowjob scene scored in part to Offenbach's "The Infernal Gallop," that universally recognized piece of can-can music (which, by the way, would seem to imply that at least the on-screen action at this moment had some energy to it, but no; a sleepier blowjob you'll not find), and then afterwards the guy slaps the woman and calls her stupid.  As far as "interesting things" go in Blue Movie, this will have to do.

Blue Movie came out in 1978, four years after Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie and three years after Pasolini's Salo, 120 Days of Sodom, the statement of which fact should indicate to wily readers that all three have something in common.  I'll maybe leave that for you to figure out in any case, but the thing worth pointing out here (okay, I'm talking about shit, as part of one of Claudio's art projects a woman smears shit all over herself in this movie) is that the shit scene is juxtaposed with real (though distorted by Cavallone) footage of a Buddhist monk self-immolating.  The shit, I'm willing to bet, was fake, which is perhaps neither here nor there, or even a source of relief, but nevertheless ends up highlighting how much of a pose Cavallone's imagery is, and if that monk knew anything about this sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-Godard "attack" on (I'm pretty sure) consumerism, boy I bet he'd probably be pretty embarrassed.

I have to say, though, that at the end Blue Movie takes a turn of a sort that would ordinarily drive me crazy but in this case actually up-ended things in a way that I thought worked rather well.  Cavallone can't quite let well enough alone and so casts this development (which has to do with the exact relationship between Silvia and Claudio, plus more) into some slight doubt, but the positive damage had already been done, and Blue Movie does become, very briefly, kind of worthwhile.  But worthwhile only if you've been obligated to sit through the thing up to that point.

Gang War in Milan (d. Umberto Lenzi) - Much more my speed is this 1973 crime picture from Umberto Lenzi, a filmmaker best known for his cannibal films Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive!  I haven't seen either of those, nor, I suspect, will I ever, but Gang War in Milan, at least, I'm grateful for.  It's a great, mean little piece of amorality starring Antonio Sabato as Salvatore Cangemi, a successful and powerful Milan crime boss.  As the film opens, Cangemi learns that someone wants to either start a war with him or force a partnership -- this someone turns out to be a dapper (reserved to offset Cangemi's passion) Frenchman played by Phillipe Leroy.  Cangemi makes his money by dominating the prostitution business, and the Frenchman wants to establish a heroin trade, and so anyway things go badly between the two sides.

The key to Gang War in Milan's success is that Lenzi never falls into that pandering trap of making Cangemi, the film's lead, heroic, or the "nice" crime boss.  He's as much of a scumbag as anyone else, abusing the hookers, plotting murders, actually carrying out murders, and being as morally ignorant (this suddenly strikes me as a key idea, not just here but in a lot of similar films, and also in, you know, life) as you'd expect someone like this to be.  What Lenzi has to guide us through this mess is not some manufactured rooting interest but rather pure propulsion, and a reliance on the knowledge that human beings eat this stuff up, when it's done well.  Plus, hero or not, Sabato is pretty terrific in his blind, cartoonish bluster, as a man who can never quite accept that it's actually possible for his empire to crumble, that nothing is guaranteed, and if no one loves you then it's probably true that when the chips are down no one's really going to help you, either.

Eden and After (d. Alain Robbe-Grillet) - Somewhat more difficult to get a handle on than the previous two films, though this is to be expected, is Eden and After, Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1970 film about a group of decadent French students who routinely gather in a café called Eden and play games that simulate violence and rape, all as empty as Claudio's soda cans in Blue Movie.  The difference being that while these students can't see that, Robbe-Grillet can, and so he introduces into their midst Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer), a sinister man with a supply of a drug he's brought over from African tribesmen, which he calls "fear powder," and which, indeed, within the mind of our protagonist Violette (Catherine Jourdan), a kind of terror does take hold.

Plus there's lots more.  I sometimes worry that I have a tendency to compare a film I've just watched, or book I've just read, to another film or book I'd enjoyed not long before -- the concern here being similar to not being able to see past one's own nose.  With that out of the way, thinking about Paul Bowles, whose great last novel Up Above the World I seriously just read, is kind of unavoidable when the whole mess of characters, having divided into factions and now driven by strange motives, pick up and head to Tunisia. Bowles made his home in Morocco, and Up Above the World isn't even set in Africa, but even so the hallucinatory sex and violence into which these fools eventually spiral is quite Bowlesian.  As imagined by Robbe-Grillet, of course, and indeed a more immediate comparison would be to Robbe-Grillet's own Successive Slidings of Pleasure for the structure (kind of), and L'Immortelle for the doom of it all.

It's difficult, or anyway I find it to be so, and also you may have already noticed this anyhow, to sum up not just what Eden and After is, but what I think of it, besides "It is good."  If I had to boil it down, I'd say it's a film about people who pursue nothing until death.  I'm okay with that, actually -- there's a good deal more, obviously, but still, that's a lot of it.

The Man Who Lies (d. Alain Robbe-Grillet) - Robbe-Grillet's third film was this sort of cock-eyed mix between a French Occupation thriller and the Martin Guerre story.  Among the many, many things that make this thing cock-eyed are the fact that it takes place many years after World War II, and therefore the Occupation, ended, and also in this particular situation instead of Martin Guerre it would be his friend, and his friend could only be considered a villain, not the hero Guerre would have wanted him to be. If they even knew each other in the first place.

This "friend," Boris, is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who it somehow just now occurs to me resembled in his youth a cross between Frank Sinatra and John Cassavetes.  In this film, Sinatra from Von Ryan's Express specifically, but why? Other than an extremely tenuous World War II connection, the two films couldn't be more different, and Sinatra's heroic Col. Ryan would have been thoroughly disgusted by the venal, cowardly, awful Boris Varissa.  But I thought of Mark Robson's rousing adventure all the same, possibly because, as is usually the case with Robbe-Grillet, the movie-ness of everything is not intended to go unnoticed by the audience.  There's a part late in the movie, when Boris is telling another of his  many different stories about the fate of Jean Robin, the disappeared Resistance hero of the small village Boris has fled to (though we see them, from whom, exactly?) at the beginning of the film, and we're shown the story Boris is telling.  A woman is seen conspiring with German soldiers to give up the whereabouts of Boris and Jean, and the actors exaggerate their behavior almost to the point of pantomime.  That's because this is a lie, we know it's a lie, it's possible Boris doesn't care if anyone believes him as long as he can stall them, and anyway as far as these lies at 24 frames per second go, we're all in this together.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is utterly superb in this, by the way, in a way that might have brought the whole John Cassavetes side of him to the forefront.  It's a comic performance at times, the kind of comedy that comes from watching a bastard be a bastard to everyone, and the comedy of a con man spreading horseshit.  It's a very naturalistic performance, actually, which Trintignant has plopped down in the middle of Robbe-Grillet's madness.  I haven't mentioned the three women -- Robin's widow, his sister, and their servant -- who Boris seduces and lives with for a time, or the completely, wonderfully bonkers and dialogue-free sequence showing these women -- who incidentally when Boris isn't around comprise a sort of Gothic lesbian coven -- moving, or as the case might be not moving, depending on circumstance, and posing like...they're models in a photo shoot, I want to say, except that's not quite it.  In any case, it's all scored to Michel Fano's almost literally industrial (it's not the drums so much as the creaking doors and sometimes I think he's throwing things on the floor) score.  What's this scene doing here?  I don't know, but run it again.

Monday, May 19, 2014

As Though I Had Wings

It's very strange to consider that many of the best films that lay down as part of their aesthetic a close approximation of every day life are themselves, and one could say "as a result," very strange themselves.  Take, for instance, Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, which Criterion is releasing tomorrow on Blu-ray.  I've seen the film twice now, and watching it for the second time yesterday I was struck that a large portion of the film plays it in something close to real time.  From the moment Kiarostami cuts from the (apparently platonic) night the elderly writer and translator Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno) has spent with the young prostitute and student Akiko (Rin Takanashi) to Takashi driving Akiko to class the next morning, from that cut to the end credits, that hour or so of film could be reasonably argued to be one scene.  The fifty or so minutes that precede this is maybe, what, three scenes?  And all through these few scenes, a lot of ground is covered even though "not much happens," until the end when comparatively a lot happens, and the every day blows up with an almost terrifying ambiguity.

There is, I suppose, a cliché at the heart of the film:  an old, intellectual widower seeking a few brief hours of companionship from a perhaps impossibly sunny young prostitute.  And together they will find a new kind of love or something.  Even the fact that there is no sex, and that Takashi possibly never even wanted sex from Akiko, is a standard-issue wrinkle in this whole premise.  If merely described, the film can sound manufactured.  But Kiarostami is less interested in the premise itself than it what reality he can extract from it.  So during their evening together, the two discuss soup, family, a little bit about Takashi's job, the fact that Akiko believes that she resembles many people, the painting "Training a Parrot" by Chiyoji Yazaki, plus Akiko tries and fails to tell a couple of jokes (and Takanashi really is almost impossibly charming during this stretch), all of this written and performed in the exact cadences of small talk delivered by two strangers who want to get along with each other. 

But there's stuff the succeeds and precedes their evening together.  Impossibly charming though Akiko might be, she doesn't want to spend her night in this old man's apartment, nor does she particularly want to be a prostitute for anybody.  There's something about Akiko that's not entirely easy to pinpoint, something about her separation from the rest of the world.  It's a separation that is perhaps inherent in her role as prostitute.  The film opens on a shot of a restaurant full of people, while a woman's voice carries out her side of, we will learn, a phone conversation.  Akiko is the speaker, but she's not on-screen.  The space on screen she would traditionally occupy is possibly, we might think before things become clear, occupied by this woman off to the right, but no, when she turns her head we can see she's not saying the words we're hearing.  But when that woman, who turns out to be another prostitute and friend of Akiko's named Nagisa (Reiko Mori) moves into that empty space to speak with Akiko, we realize that what we've been looking at is Akiko's reverse shot of a shot/reverse shot construction, the other half of this construction being empty space.  Nagisa may slip in there, and she may be Akiko's friend, but she's intruding.

Later, Akiko is in a cab heading towards Takashi's apartment and listening to her phone messages, most of which are from her grandmother who is in town and was hoping to meet Akiko for lunch.  There are several of these messages, chronicling the grandmother's lonely day as she keeps trying to touch base with her granddaughter.  This sequence culminates in a scene of heartbreaking distance that might paint Akiko as cold if it wasn't becoming clear that this fundamentally nice (she treats Takashi with nothing less than warmth despite the fact that, had her pimp given her a choice, Akiko would have been just about anywhere else that night) woman is pulling away from other people.  It's become easier to talk to a client than to her grandmother.  There's too much shame for anything closer.

All of which could explain how she ended up engaged to Noriaki (Ryo Kase), an angry, jealous, suspicious, insecure and human young man who looms over the second half of the film.  He's a potential threat to Takashi, who Noriaki mistakes for Akiko's grandfather when they meet outside her school the next day, and a clear threat to Akiko, who by now has related to Nagis some of the controlling and unsettling phone conversations she's had with him the night before.  It's plain that if Noriaki ever learned how Akiko earned her keep something terrible could happen to her, but of course Kiarostami is far too curious to portray the young man as some looking-up-from-lowered-brow thriller villain.  He's desperate and pathetic and pitiful, all of which make him sympathetic while heightening the danger.  In any case, he's the key to the whole film.  Akiko may be the film, but both Takashi and Noriaki are the title character, as it were.  Though Akiko is the object for both men, nobody, least of all Kiarostami, is raising any impossible pedestals for her.  Yet why an unhinged man like Noriaki could focus his obsession on Akiko is easy to see, and why Takashi, a man in his eighties, would want, or need, to step in as her protector is even easier to understand.  As the Lerner and Loewe song that gives the film its title, and which we hear sung by Ella Fitzgerald at various times throughout, says, behaving like someone in love means you bump into things (admittedly, their version of the line scans a bit better).  If that doesn't describe the last half of this film, this nearly real time escalation from simply giving someone a ride to class to fearing for one's life in the span of an hour, then I don't know what does.

I said before, back when this all seemed to make some kind of sense, that a plan to represent the every day in art can result in a strange kind of poetry.  Like Someone in Love is comprised entirely of every day moments, or moments that, even if they're not a typical part of a person's life at all, are still presented by Kiarostami in every day terms, as these moments are familiar to these characters.  Moment by moment, and conversation by conversation, the film feels as if it's happening as you watch it.  This quality allows the film's literally shattering conclusion, which must in the grand scheme of things, count as "crazy," seem inevitable, its unresolved nature instilling in the audience some sense of the panic and fearful irreality that is now, perversely, alive in the characters.  This morning could not possibly have led to this moment, and so on.  But if you look at it again, of course it did.  It's a strange world, but compared to what?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

King of the Monsters

As I see it, the only way to begin a review, which this might well turn out to be, of Gareth Edward's new film Godzilla is to say "Very recently, I saw Godzilla."  Sentences that begin "Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear scientist in Japan with a wife (Juliette Binoche) who works with him, and a son, and so one day" or "Gareth Edwards' new blockbuster hits theaters on a wave of etc." or any of your standard openers, feel slightly disingenuous to me.  There's so much understood going in about Godzilla, such as what he is and does, where he's from and why he's from there specifically, that one should, in theory, be able to cut the line so that all preamble can be condensed, with no loss of understanding on the part of the reader, to "Very recently, I saw Godzilla."

Which indeed I have done, and I'll tell you:  this is actually kind of an odd one.  It's the second (or third, depending on whether snobs like you count television) full-length feature from director Gareth Edwards.  His previous offering, 2010's Monsters, was to my eyes an only partially successful attempt to combine old-fashioned monster movie-as-allegory directness with a modern arthouse, of the American independent variety, sensibility.  But as weak as I found the majority of Monsters to be, there is within it the seed of Edwards' particular genre aesthetics.  If that seed hasn't blossomed particularly in the four years between that film and this new Godzilla, I feel confident that's not because Edwards doesn't know what he's doing, or what he wants, but rather that this particular aesthetic is not something that's going to be embraced by the kind of people who have the kind of money Edwards would need to expand significantly on the one concept that makes Monsters memorable.  It would be both expensive yet not remotely commercial, is what I'm getting at.  Yet here it is again, no larger but still recognizable, in the very expensive-to-make Godzilla.

And I'm talking about what, exactly?  In Monsters (which I talk about in more detail here, if you care) Edwards ploy was to show the audience very little of the titular beings until he shows you everything, and that withholding when paired with the explicit image's inexplicability, becomes very powerful.  Okay, but how can you do that in, and perhaps more to the point who would want it from, a modern Godzilla film?  To explain I suppose I will have to tell you a little bit about the plot.  So:  Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear scientist in Japan with a wife (Juliette Binoche) who works with him, and a son, and so one day, on the scientist's birthday, a terrible accident destroys the nuclear plant, his wife is killed, and for the next fifteen years the scientist follows an obsession that the cause of the accident isn't what the official story says it was (it was actually Godzilla). His son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) grows up, joins the Army, goes to Iraq, comes home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son and then immediately has to fly to Japan to get his dad out of jail for trespassing, long story short it was Godzilla just like I said, plus two other monsters, there's a whole thing about these guys that is explained to us by scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins).

So that's how things get going.  And before I get to the important stuff, I have to point out that Godzilla is a strange one in a couple of different ways, and before Edwards' unique approach asserts itself, the strangeness is apparent in how quickly he blows through the above plot stuff.  Godzilla is just about exactly two hours long, which in the world of modern effects blockbusters is actually about thirty or forty minutes on the lean side.  The film opens in 1999, with one of those scenes of scientists wearing safety suits with the flat glass helmets shining flashlights in a cavern (which I'm about done with, by the way; pretty soon all films will become one and we'll have scenes of scientists in safety suits holding flashlights in caverns while they use the internet to look up old newspaper articles about mysterious local deaths) and by the time we've reached the modern day section with Taylor-Johnson and Cranston in Japan, I can't imagine more than ten minutes have passed.  Most films of this type, that material takes up a solid half hour.  I was jarred, but perhaps only because I've been conditioned to the torture so that someone offering me kindness seems untrustworthy.  In any event, that's different, and pretty clearly part of the philosophy of this Godzilla is to hack things to the bone as much as is reasonable, a philosophy that can lead to clumsiness, as when one scene featuring Olsen ends with her standing outside the hospital where she works, about to go back inside, but when we see her next she's in the middle of the street, in the rain, with let's just say some threatening things surrounding her.  It's not necessary to know, when you get right down to it, how she ended up there, but there should be a clean flow between scenes, unless it is your plan to throw that shit right out the window; however that is not Edwards' plan.  "Plunging ahead" is not usually the most graceful way of navigating this stuff.

Fundamentally, though, who cares?  One thing about Godzilla that surprised me was that it follows the rough structure of the later Godzilla films made by Toho, when Godzilla acted as a kind of savior of mankind, defending them against other, more vicious monsters (in this case, thankfully though not really surprisingly, Godzilla's helpfulness is just a happy, for humanity, side effect of his natural predatory behavior; he's not overly concerned with being benevolent, or consciously aware that such motivation is even possible), and so much of the havoc wreaked upon Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco is the result of Godzilla squaring off against this kind of husband/wife monster pair which have also been on the radar, as Godzilla himself has been, of various scientific and government agencies over many decades.  But for quite a while, Edwards doesn't want us to see it.

To give a couple of examples, in one dramatic scene we see Godzilla and one of the other creatures coming together to do battle -- for the first time in the movie, I might add -- and right then Edwards cuts to Taylor-Johnson and Olsen's kid watching it on the news.  And even then, the point for Edwards is not to give us a good look at this fight but through the lens of media, or some such thing, but rather to highlight the absurdity of an oblivious Olsen telling her son to turn off the TV and come to dinner.  Later on, these creatures are slamming together again, mouths snapping at each other, but here Edwards has his camera down where Olsen would be, and moving backwards, as Olsen would be, into shelter, and the doors of that shelter close and cut off Olsen's, as it would cut off the camera's, and our, view of this battle.  So not only is Edwards fucking with us, but he wants us to be aware that he's fucking with us.

The way he handles the human characters is illustrative, as well.  Taylor-Johnson is positioned as the hero, and he is, but if he has more screen time than, say, Olsen or Watanabe, and I'm sure he does, it's not so much more as to make him feel anything more than part of an ensemble, one that even as a whole is overshadowed by enormous monsters that we're often not even allowed to see, even as the people are playing second fiddle to them.  Even when Godzilla isn't on screen, and, for instance, Watanabe and David Strathairn are sharing a scene, it's Godzilla -- absent from our eyes for maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes by now -- who dominates.

When all is said and done, we'll have seen Godzilla do everything we hoped we'd see him do, but that we, or I, left the theater feeling he was a mysterious character is a strong mark in Edwards' favor.  As ubiquitous and as soaked into international culture as Superman, yet I still found myself thinking "This Godzilla, what's the whole deal with him anyhow?" Part of this is achieved through Edwards' focus on the other two creatures, the "bad guys" of the story, who, as I've said, are a mated male and female, and before the shit's really off the hook (and please make no mistake, for all Edwards' coyness, eventually shit really does fly off the hook, and the special effects, and the imagination that dictates what these effects should depict, are all top of the line), Edwards takes time showing these things simply behaving, doing things that, if they make sense, make sense in the same way that the behavior of wild animals in nature makes sense to a human observer.  This is when the best part of Monsters comes through into Godzilla.  Those moments, and also when Edwards brings Godzilla in, cloaks him in smoke or darkness, and lets his massive tail swing silently over our heads as he simply turns.  One thing Edwards understands that almost no one else in the world who makes these kinds of movies does, is how breathtaking such sights as the one he's presenting, monsters such as these, would be if human beings actually encountered them.  Add to that the iconic shudder that accompanies the name "Godzilla," and nothing less than awe is called for.

Monday, May 12, 2014

New Yorker Cartoons But Guess Who Wrote the Captions For These Ones? I Did.

"Well, I'll tell you what's wrong: that salesgirl was extremely rude to me. Extremely rude."

"Anyway, that's the last time I saw my sister alive."

"I told you I had a giant needle in the other room."
"Just a salad, thanks."

"I'd like to officially offer you the position. Congratulations!"

"So finally Beth agreed that if we split...WHAT THE FUCK!! OH MY GOD!!  OH MY GOD!!  WHAT THE FUCK!!"

Monday, May 5, 2014


June 27, actually, if you want to be specific, but while little else in the world of culture and so on is currently on my mind, I do know myself well enough to accept that I won't remember to do this almost two months from now. Not counting the two volumes of Aickman's collected stories, the above portfolio depicts the full bibliography of the greatest horror writer of the 20th Century, and one of that century's greatest writers of any kind. This year, which being Aickman's centennial marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, will bring quite a bit in the way of easily affordable reprints; as far as I'm concerned this is a huge deal. So please, everyone, for the sake of his deserved literary immortality but more than anything for your own sake, all you who are parched as if by desert heat for great, strange, eerie, haunting writing, seek out his books. Buy them, or borrow them, and read them. I haven't read close to everything yet, and I even want to read those two waterways books. I bet they're real fuckin' good waterways books.

From the first I understood that [Aickman] was a deeply original artist. This in no way implies that I understood Aickman immediately because I didn't. Sometimes I would look up at the end of a story, feeling that the whole thing had just twisted itself inside out and turned into smoke - I had blinked, and missed it all. It took me a little while to learn to accept this experience as valuable in itself and to begin to see how the real oddness of most of Aickman's work is directly related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity. Unconscious forces move the stories itself, as well as the characters, and what initially looks like a distressing randomness of detail and event is its opposite - everything is necessary, everything is logical, but not at all in a linear way. To pull off this kind of dream-like associativeness, to pack it with the menace that results from a narrative deconstruction of the notion of "ordinary reality," to demonstrate again and again in excellent prose (no dumb experimentation or affectation here) that our lives are literally shaped by what we do not understand about ourselves, requires a talent that yokes together an uncommon literary sensitivity with a lush, almost tropical inventiveness.

- Peter Straub