Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tower

I'm watching a documentary called Tower about a campus shooting in Austin, 1966.

A pregnant woman and her boyfriend were shot, her boyfriend died. A professor walks by, not hearing the shots and is disgusted with them, "Pick up your books and get up," he says.

This reminds me of some who respond with disdain to those who suffer in poverty or under racism or with those oppressed by our government. "Get up," they say angrily. Those trapped say, "Could you get us some help?" But because the disdainful don't see the danger, don't see the blood --don't see the horror that exists for all of us, but especially those racially, sexually, economically and religiously vulnerable-- they ignore the plight and resume living ignorantly. Mocking those in pain and tragedy because they don't feel it.

***

I am shocked as to how much human experience one can pack into an hour and a half under the hot Texas sun. Victims, heroes and observers of a horrible sniper shooting at the University of Texas in Austin speak about their experience, actions and emotions in the most dramatic hour of their lives.


It feels so much like a Richard Linklater film, perhaps it is very influenced by his work. Rotoscope, Austin, real conversations speaking on intense, big subjects... I was all ready to love this film. Even so, it was more dramatic and personal than I expected. Everyone seemed so real-- funny, hopeful, brave, entranced, scared. It's a powerful film, not only about that day, but about the human reaction to death.

Children of Paradise

It is the 1820s.

"Paradise", in this case, is the abode of the gods, and the gods are the audience of the theatres of the Boulevard of Crime (so called because adultery and murder happen in the theatres ever night).  Thus, the "children" are the actors, writers and producers of the stage who cater to these "gods", their whole lives revolving around the pleasure of the audience.

The central figure is Garance, a woman of such remarkable beauty that four men request, demand and battle for her hand, as well as her evening companionship.  She, on the other hand, smiles at them all, remains distant, and wanders where her interest takes her.  She never participates in crime, although observes many crimes.  She does not dance or sing or act, so she is only ever window dressing for the various theatres, never wanting a speaking role.  Three of the four men are up-and-coming central figures of the Boulevard, Baptiste, the gentle pantomime, Frederick the Shakespearean actor, and Lacenaire the boastful criminal.  Garance would like to dance like a butterfly between the three men, but a powerful fourth man appears, a proud nobleman who changes their whole world.

There are three sets of stories: that of the multiple-party romance, the highs and lows of the theatres and the stories on the stage, all reflecting what is happening in the actors' lives.  While there is a light touch on all of these deep real-life events, I prefer the stage productions, both silent and spoken, that portray both entertainment and serious themes.

This film is spoken of by some as the greatest French film, and it's epic scale, intermission and grand credit sequences indicate that it wants to be seen as an important film.  I am sure it is important.  It has it's significant place in the history of cinema.  But as a whole, I am not sure I want to give it too much credit.  It is good, the characters are well-drawn and it uses it's length of time well, but I do not know how much I will consider this film in the future.  It has to do with show business and with romance, and the presentation of both are far removed from my own experience, nor does it teach me much about the context.  The acting is an older style, almost vaudevillian, that keeps me distant from the characters, even as I am somewhat involved in their stories.

There are a number of things that I can admire about this film.  It was created and filmed in a Paris occupied by the Nazis. It presents it's worlds distinctly, each having their own manner of speaking and focus and running gags. And it also shows how there are pathways from the world of the stage to the world of the personal lives to the world of the theatre and back.

Yes, it's three hours.  But it is certainly a significant watch, and a generally enjoyable one.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Reinterpretation of Life: Kubo and the Two Strings

I want to make my case why Kubo is not only the best animated movie of the year, but among a few best films of the year.  I haven't read any reviews that really get deep into the film beyond it's beauty, so I thought I'd write something that helps folks see how I saw it.

If you never saw this film on the big screen, then I don’t think you could really appreciate the line, “If you must blink, do it now.”  On the one hand, it is a line of a marketplace storyteller, the hyperbole of the campaigner, the exaggeration of the ad man.  But in the context of this most artful film of an artful studio, it is simple reality, without any stretching of the truth.  The film keeps the promise of this line with stunning sets and eye-popping animation.  I honestly didn’t want to blink.  And in those sets, the new direction of clamation, the master-stroke of this studio is presented and I didn’t want to close my eyes for a moment.  Right after I saw it, I wanted to see it again.

Part of this is not just due to the art.  Frankly, this story resonates within me.  It is the hero’s journey, which I love in its many forms from The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Moana.  But here, the hero’s journey is joined with the boy’s adventure, filled with dangers and adventures.  It is 1001 Arabian Nights and The Thief of Baghdad and The Boy’s King Arthur, as well as The Neverending Story.  It is monsters and enemies and magic and secrets and mythology, all revealed in a powerful mix.  If this were released in 1977, I would have gone to the theatre twelve times to see this instead of Star Wars, for the fine mix of hero’s journey and magical adventure resonates perfectly to my boy’s heart.

Add in the wonderful music, simple and emotionally resonant, as well as each relationship being a form of love and charity and I am sold.  All I need is a great theme and this film will be one of the great films of all time.

The theme, however, is considered one of the weaknesses of the film.  Everyone recognizes that it is about the power of stories, but most folks feel that it isn’t really saying anything new or interesting.  I would like to challenge that assumption.   But to do so requires an overview of the film.  And spoilers.

* * *

The story is about Kubo, a young storyteller who cares for his addled mother in a cave, and who is loved by a nearby town.  Disaster strikes when his aunts, daughters of the Moon, find him and cruelly bind him to take him to the Moon to take his eye out.  He escapes, to find his mother gone and he is led by a magical monkey, an origami representation of his father and a beetle-man to find his dead father’s armor.

The quest for the armor is a McGuffin, but it gives us an opportunity to see relationships grow, to see his parents fall in love again, to see Kubo learn his values on his own, not just because his mother taught them to him.

The plot is really a loose collection of events that barely hang together, as any epic odyssey is a collection of events.  As in any hero’s quest, the significance is the opportunities for the hero to learn significant lessons, which reach a climax of the hero’s stand.

But what we see by the end of the film is the figure who is always there, always making events occur, always watching, but never speaking until the film is ready to end: Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon.  We see that the film was always about the relationship between Kubo and his grandfather, and the challenge between the values each stands for.   The grandfather is a gentle man who just wants the respect he is due, and sees the world through eyes of logic.  Kubo is the product of that heritage, but also the heritage of his father who values relationship above logic and honor.  And of his mother, who chose love over the ways of his grandfather.  So far, so good.  Nothing really unique here.

The climax is what changes the perspective.  The grandfather, the Moon, is is transformed into humanity because of his desire to be connected to his grandson.  He wanted his grandson to be like him, to show him the respect his daughter and son in law didn’t display.  To reject his humanity and take on eternity.  But Kubo couldn’t refuse his heritage, and so brought his grandfather into his family.  The key is that the moon agreed to take part in Kubo’s story—the story of the battle between the evil but strong moon the  noble but weak boy. The moon took on Kubo’s story, that of him fighting a monster.  The moon chose to be a monster, thinking he could defeat Kubo with his own story.  But Kubo changed his story in the middle, so that it was no longer about a battle against a monster, but the story of a family, joined by experiences and uniting in their differences.  When the stark, cold moon took on a side in Kubo’s story, he could be transformed into a human, blended from both eternity and temporal, heavenly and earth.

What was an epic battle between good and evil became a story of thesis (the moon), antithesis (the parents) and synthesis (Kubo).  Kubo then uses the story to transform the moon into his own image—a kind man.  Kubo re-interprets his story and so re-interprets his grandfather who agreed to take part in Kubo’s story.

So the theme is not about the victory of story, but about the victory of reinterpretation.  About changing the paradigm and so changing reality.

What is a child supposed to get out of this? That his parents are not what they seem; everyone has their own point of view; family is the joining of contradictions; our life is the continuing story of our parent’s lives.  But I think what we can get out of it is more important.  How do we interpret our lives?  Rather than asking whether the interpretation is the closest one to the “truth”, rather we should ask if the interpretation is the one that benefits everyone.  Is a good v. evil story really what makes unity, what makes joy for all?  Or is there another way of creating a story of our lives that draws all people in?


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mulholland Drive: Deadly Desire

The vision opens with a group of kids, circa 1950s, energetically dancing the Jitterbug. The sashaying and twirling is hypnotic until the dance is interrupted by a girl with short blonde hair laughing with her companions.  And then the story begins.

A car with two men up front and a glamorous woman in back stops.  She says, “This isn’t where we are supposed to stop,” and the man in the passenger seat pulls out a gun and commands her to get out.  Just as the tensions run high, two group of kids in impossibly speeding vehicles crash into their car.  The glamorous woman crawls out of the wreckage and collapses.  Then she gets up, confused, walks off of Mulholland Drive, wanders over to Sunset Blvd and then to a high-end apartment building in L.A.

The streets remind us of other movies that take place in a secret Hollywood, the Hollywood-behind-Hollywood in which violence and sex rules the lives of the stars, directors and producers of the films we all clamor to see.  Young actors are desperate for attention, and famous actors bask in their decadence and power over others.  How much of this is real is almost impossible to say, as the gossip about Hollywood is as creative as the on-screen entertainments.  But it is in the netherworld of speculation and desire that Mullholland Dr. takes place.

The filmmaking is almost perfect.  We enter quickly into the story of Betty and her companion “Rita” who has forgotten her identity.  The acting is odd, at a distance from reality, but Naomi Watts and her co-stars are so larger than life, so melodramatic that we aren’t concerned at all.

As the story moves on, we become more confused. What causes the run of horrendous luck of the director, Adam?  Why does Adam’s wife, when caught in bed with the pool man, say, “Now you’ve done it.”  Why can Betty and “Rita” so easily enter an apartment, although it is overseen by the police and a neighbor?  Why is there a full ashtray when no one is smoking? On the surface, we might think of these as simple contradictions—not like we haven’t seen such obvious errors before in film.  But this isn’t your average filmmaker.  This is David Lynch, who eats a few contradictions for breakfast, before spitting out an analogy that clarifies them into a paradox.  

More than a plot that becomes more confusing as the film goes on, this film is almost perfect cinematically.  Every shot is distinctive, having their own flavor, as if we were if a buffet of cinematic eras.  I finish the film and want to watch it again, not just to try to grasp some of what I didn’t understand, but to simply watch the colors and textures.  To hear the sounds and to glory in the latter insanity.  This is Lynch’s mysterious masterpiece, having hints of Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, but beautifully vanquishing both.

*** Spoilers Ahead***

The biggest question we are left with after the film is: WTF?  What was that all about?  And we scan the internet to see if we can find any clues.  It turns out that David Lynch himself, explaining nothing, has given us some details to explore, which might, he suggests, explain the film:

Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: At least two clues are revealed before the credits.
Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
An accident is a terrible event—notice the location of the accident.
Who gives a key, and why?
Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
What is felt, realized and gathered at the Club Silencio?
Did talent alone help Camilla?
Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkie's.
Where is Aunt Ruth?

Perhaps these are clues, but they are as Lynchian as anything in Eraserhead.  Not much help for those of us without a clue, although on my next viewing I might hold these clues before me and try to answer all of these questions.

I believe that a key to the film is found in a quote from Laura Harding’s attempt to grasp at the straws: “Who we are does not count for much—what matters instead is what we are about to do, what we want to do.”

I hold that the basic meaning of the film…or at least the meaning that means the most to me now… has to do with desire.  There are two Hollywoods in the film, and both are the Hollywood of imagination.  The first is the Hollywood of dreams, where a young girl gets ahead on talent alone.  The second Hollywood is that of gossip, where everyone famous is corrupt and takes advantage of the power they have.  Although the one we see dreaming is Rita, they are both fantasies of Diane.  The first is the dream of her desire, the second is the fantasy Diane thinks she lives in.

Betty is who Diane wishes she could be, innocent, professional, seeking after her ideals, letting nothing stand in her way.   Rita is who Diane wishes Camila would be, helpless, needing to be guided, ready to be loved.  Camila, meanwhile, is a separate character, who gets the role Diane wants because of a mob producer’s threats.  Adam, meanwhile, is remarkably consistent in the two distinct Hollywoods, although in the first he his hapless and punished, while in the second he is overjoyed at the same events of his life.

There are so many other themes: that of identity, that of illusion (and disillusionment), that of power and the cost of revenge.  All of it makes sense though, when we see the film through the haze of Diane’s desire and how she reacts when her desires cannot be met. 

Personally, her response reminds me of men’s rights activists, who look at women as objects of desire both in sex and in power.  When women will not submit to their desires, then they embark in a moral fantasy, creating “musts” for women that have no resemblance of who women are or should be.  At times, this fantasy becomes so pervasive that they must shatter reality in order to conform it to their desires.


But I think the point of the film is to talk about the power of desire and how broken we are when we are disillusioned. In the end, when Diane realizes that she is no Betty and Camila no Rita and that she is actually the evil one in the Hollywood she created, she kills herself, freeing her of both fantasies—the one she is forced to live and the one she only dreams about. 


Friday, December 9, 2016

Joy in the Struggle: The Gleaners and I

If the ultimate purpose of directors is to guide the tone of a film, then Agnes Verda is the most successful of all directors.  Even in the darkest of her films, she finds a way to infuse a lighthearted joy, allowing us to smile in surprising moments in her protagonist’s struggles.  This is a collection of real people, including the director herself, gathering up the discarded elements of our society and find it useful and even necessary.  We see a number of people on the edge of survival, and yet they matter-of-factly, even happily, pursue their lives, whether chosen or not.  

In the struggle there is joy, there is joy in the struggle. We might feel defeated, but we still must struggle, not just for ourselves, but for those around us.  And in that struggle, we need to laugh and make light of ourselves.  We need to feel the joy of love.  And in the midst of our joy, we need to recognize that it is also hard work, to keep afloat in a world with so much opposition, with so much difficulty.  Along with the joy, we can feel a pride in the work of love and compassion we participate in. 

Also watch: In America, 7th Heaven, Tideland

Keep reading our blog series, The Way Forward

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Cycles Return: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring

Despite the title, this film is not about a year, but about a lifetime that takes place at a hermitage on a beautiful tiny island/dock in the middle of a lake.  A young boy is raised by a monk and goes through struggles, rebellion, despair, and eventually returns to take the place of the monk.  The protagonist must make changes in his own attitudes and how he sees the world in order to fit where he belonged in the first place.  

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring reminds us that no matter what struggle or difficulty we find ourselves in, no matter how the world seems to encroach on our freedoms and our abilities to do what we must, in the end, our lives are a cycle, the world is a part of a larger cycle, and all things come back to where they should me, if we would but endure.  At times, being who we should be then patiently enduring in that being is the best we can do, and we can watch the world return to where it should be.

Also watch: Wild Strawberries, Ikiru, Temple Grandin, Boyhood

Keep reading other posts in the series: The Way Forward


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Simple Joys: The Scent of Green Papaya

A deceptively simple film, we see a girl growing into herself through cooking, serving and dreaming. Although she is in a Vietnam of conflict, she is a servant with no way out, she is hopeless and helpless, yet the film doesn’t look at that reality.  It focuses on her joy in life, in food, in relationships.  And that joy is infectious.  

Not all of us can see the joy in life, especially in a time of conflict.  I know I can’t, not always.  But we should allow those who can find joy in simple things to inspire us, and we shouldn’t ever dampen what they understand: that God has given us the simple things to enjoy and we should let that happiness pierce through the skin of darkness that seems to surround us.

We need to experience the sensuousness of texture, the delight of a quiet conversation, the sacred presence of a good meal. The refreshing bath of a beautiful film. No matter what hell goes around us, we can still take time for joy.

Also watch: Bright Star, Life in a Day, Alamar, Babette's Feast

Read more of this blog series, The Way Forward