Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
August 2004

The Toronto International Film Festival has posted its official list of films, and it's a doozy. I'm sure there are many great films on the list that I don't yet know anything about, but when I quickly looked for the three or four films that I'm most eager to see, I was elated to see all of them on the list:

  • Café Lumière — Hou Hsiao-Hsien's (I could stop right there. That's reason enough to see it.) tribute to Yasujiro Ozu (and there's the other). Oh yes, and it's shot by Hou's regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing and co-written by his regular screenwriter Chu T'ien-wen, so there are two more reasons. You need more? My God, you're demanding. OK, here: it stars Tadanobu Asano who starred in Last Life in the Universe and Kitano's Zatoichi (and, ok, he was also in Ichi the Killer).
  • two by Kiarostami — And they're called Five and 10 on Ten, got that? The first is another Ozu tribute. Last year was Ozu's centenary, which is why we've had all the retrospectives and homages, but Kiarostami's Five supposedly has few actors and little dialogue. Intriguing. 10 on Ten has been described like this: "Iran?s most honored director returns to the location of Taste of Cherry for a revealing documentary on himself."
  • L'Intrus — Claire Denis's latest, which I've mentioned previously. As regular readers know, Denis is easily one of my favorite filmmakers working today.

The list goes on. Chantal Akerman's latest (which I caught at San Francisco's Jewish Film Festival and will post something about very soon), an anthology by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni (woah), new films from Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, etc. etc.

I'll be attending the festival this year, and couldn't be more excited.

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I love this description of Claire Denis's latest movie, from the Toronto International Film Festival:

In L'Intrus, from returning French filmmaker Claire Denis (Le Beau Travail), dialogue and conventional narrative storytelling have been replaced by an attempt to tell a story in purely visual and aural terms. Moving from the French-Swiss border to an unidentified location somewhere in Asia, L'Intrus follows a man who is trying to reconcile parts of his past with events in the present.

It sounds like a natural progression of her work, to me.

Posted by davis | Link

Wow neat. I love that book and often go back to it after watching a Hitchcock movie. One of my favorite parts is when he tells Truffaut that he could never have made a movie like Jules and Jim. Imagine what the attempt might look like, is what I was thinking. I'll have track down that moment in the audio archives.

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[Apologies in advance for some ranting.]

Last year I started listening to Rush Limbaugh's radio show a couple of times a week. Although I try to get my news from a variety of sources, I do sometimes feel like I live in a San Francisco bubble and don't get many opportunities to hear the concerns of the right. Even though I don't listen to the full three-hour show, end to end, and even though Limbaugh often makes me pace furiously in the kitchen — it's always the kitchen, for some reason, oh yeah, that's where my radio is — I have to admit that it helps, somehow. Ignorance about what a large percentage of the populace is talking about can't be good, and Limbaugh does occasionally make a clever argument that tickles my brain. The irksome aspect of the show is that he has at least two standards for every action. One for him, one for others. One for conservatives, one for "libs". In short, although the answers he supplies aren't always right, the questions are sometimes worth asking.

But TV, I can' t do. I've tried. I know that the guys on Fox — Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, et. al. — may have even more followers than Limbaugh, nowadays, but I just can't spend part of my day with them or the other talking heads on cable TV. It's a seething cauldron of false dilemmas and crosstalk, sound effects and time limits, and it makes my blood boil.

Thanks to a friend, I now have a Tivo. I know, welcome to 1999, Rob. My friend upgraded and was kind enough to let me try his old machine, which had been sitting in his garage, just long enough for me to get hooked. So with this new (to me) tool at my fingertips I've tried again to get a small, regular dose of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. But to paraphrase Al Franken, the more you watch this stuff, the stupider you get.

For example, if you watch cable advocacy shows in isolation...

  •'d think that Kerry and Edwards are the first and fourth most liberal members of the Senate. People who say such things are quoting the National Journal which ranks senators but also admits that those 1st and 4th rankings are for a small subset of the past year's Senate votes. When the same magazine ranked the entire careers of Kerry and Edwards, Kerry wasn't in the top ten and Edwards wasn't in the top twenty-five, to the right of the median Democrat. Nevertheless, you hear the claim over and over again, and not just from TV commentators. Dick Cheney recently told a bunch of rally-attenders in Minnesota that Kerry and Edwards are 1st and 4th, and knowing that some people may have heard that the rankings are for an unrepresentative subset of votes, he added, "And it's not based on one vote, or one year, it's based on 20 years of service in the United States Senate." You see, that additional sentence gave his argument that extra umph, albeit at the expense of making his claims completely false. Nevermind, the phrase "1st and 4th" continues to be spit out, rapid-fire, high volume, by TV gunslingers who leave no time to respond. Thanks for being here, now on to the latest news in the Laci Peterson case.

    (Who on TV debunks this claim? Let's thank Jon Stewart of The Daily Show for hammering one of his guests on this point. Here's the video, and if that doesn't work for you, here's a transcript that someone typed up. Yes, you have to rely on the comedy shows to get the facts right, I guess. Did you see David Letterman doing his "I'm a dumb guy" act last week while asking Bob Woodward some pretty tough questions?)

  •'d think that Kerry doesn't support the troops because he voted against the infamous $87B, $67B of which was for the war, the rest for reconstruction. In reality, Kerry supported a plan which financed the same $67B differently (more responsibly, you could argue) and asked the President to provide a specific reconstruction plan for the rest. Six days after Kerry voted no, Bush himself threatened to veto the bill if the financing weren't to his liking (loans vs. grants). I guess that means Bush doesn't support the troops. Or he felt like playing politics. Or maybe he was lying about that veto threat. Most likely, he was just negotiating the financial details, as was Kerry. To date, by the way, one year later, only 1% of that reconstruction money has been spent. It sure was urgent. It sure has been put to good use. It sure was ridiculous to ask for a more specific plan. Boy, that Kerry sure is a flip-flopper.
  •'d think that Kerry tried to gut the intelligence agencies by slashing their budget by $1.5B. Bush said so! Sean Hannity said so, and this week he reiterated that it was wrong for Kerry to do that! In reality, Kerry wanted to reclaim $1.5B (which is 1% of the intelligence budget) that had been allocated but unspent, and he wanted to spread it out over 5 years. He failed in this endeavor, but, not to worry, the Republican Congress successfully passed a bill that cut 3% out of the same National Reconnaissance Office. It's weird that Hannity forgot to mention this in his fair and balanced, rapid-fire comments this week. (This is when he was talking to Ben Fritz of Spinsanity, a web site that I often enjoy as an equal-opportunity spin watcher. Hannity can't get his head around the idea of someone really aiming for fair and equal treatment of media spin, and so the conversation between him and Fritz sounded like people speaking two different languages. Don't bother going on that show, man.)
  •'d think that two weeks ago, Kerry said that knowing what he knows now he, too, would have invaded Iraq, just like Bush! In reality, he didn't say that. He said he'd have requested the authority for military action from Congress and used it to apply pressure to Hussein. The threats that Bush made did get the UN inspectors back into Iraq. But then the inspectors had to leave again because of an invasion. (The misperception of Kerry's remarks — which are wholly consistent with his voting record, since he voted for giving Bush military authority — has been exacerbated by an article in the Washington Post on August 8 that quotes Kerry's national security adviser Jamie Rubin saying that "in all probability" Kerry would have launched a military attack by now. The problem here is that, as hard as I've tried, I can't find the sentence that the quote comes from, let alone the paragraph, line of thought, or conversation, and in fact the Washington Post, whom everyone else is quoting on this, doesn't even say who conducted the interview, where, and for what. Perhaps Rubin was predicting that Hussein would have continued his belligerence and would have forced military action, but only after Kerry had followed a more measured process. Who knows? It's only three words. Clarification would be nice, but certainly three out-of-context words aren't much to build an argument out of, but that's the nature of public discourse today. In fact, if it's more than a dozen words, it gets lost or ridiculed as nuance, eyes rolling.)

Etc etc etc. Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager repeated most of the above claims on Meet the Press this morning, and Tim Russert didn't respond to any of them, probably because he didn't want to stray from the topic of Swift boat veterans. Hey, that's not even cable. That's plain ol' NBC.

And how is so much misinformation introduced into the national debate? Well, here's a textbook example from an episode of Hardball this week. Michelle Malkin was on Chris Matthews' show to talk about her book and — what else — the Swift boat hubbub, and she accidentally said that "some people" have accused Kerry of shooting himself on purpose in Vietnam. Now, of course, no one, not even the Swift boat dudes who are the most pissed off at Kerry have made such a claim, and it's not worth refuting. But what's interesting is how she came to say such a thing on national TV by accident.

Well, it happened like this: first she used the term "self-inflicted wounds" in reference to one of Kerry's Purple Hearts, and Matthews jumped on the phrase, asking if she was implying that he deliberately shot himself. He asked her repeatedly, and repeatedly she avoided clarifying what she meant, which you'd think could have been done with a simple, "No."

On her web site she says that Matthews put words in her mouth and that by the end of the exchange it seemed as if she had made the ridiculous claim that Kerry shot himself, but "only someone who had not read Unfit for Command [the book documenting the claims of the Swift boat vets who oppose Kerry] would interpret what I was saying the way Matthews did".

Ah, now her strategy is clear. She intended to imply that Kerry intentionally wounded himself, knowing that people who had read the book would see her words as technically factual but that others would pick up a negative, wussy/crazy vibe about Kerry. If she didn't mean to imply this, she could easily have responded to any of Matthews dozen questions by saying, "No, I'm not saying that. No one is saying that" (which is essentially what John O'Neill, the author of Unfit for Command, told Jim Lehrer this week when the same phrase "self-inflicted" arose and Lehrer questioned it; O'Neill quickly said no, Kerry certainly didn't intentionally hurt himself). But when Matthews asked Malkin, "Are you saying he intentionally shot himself?" Malkin replied, "Have you read the book?" which is a deflective way of implying "Yes, the people in the book say that" while still maintaining plausible deniability for your weblog. Another time she answered with a nod, saying, "Self-inflicted wounds!" OK, is that a Yes or a No?

Unfortunately for her, she then went a bit too far and at one point actually did say, "Yes, some people say that," then gave the names of two people who say that (actually, of course, they don't). Oops. In other words, she intended to be merely misleading but when cornered, she broke down and simply lied.

Here's the video footage and a transcript.

As for Matthews, he may not be the most prepared host in in the world, and his show is a stinking pile of shouting and yelling that hasn't added much to the public debate (based on my limited viewing), but in this case his ignorance was a substitute for many viewers' own hazy understanding of the allegations, which actually helped expose the whack rhetorical machinery at work here. When Malkin said "self-inflicted," Matthews naively assumed she meant that Kerry shot himself, when really he was probably supposed to see it as a factual statement so that it would slip under the radar and into the ears of the unsuspecting who are free to misinterpret the statement, to Kerry's detriment.

The lie itself is silly, but the machinery, the idea of walking into a debate with the apparent intent to be misleading-without-actually-lying is fascinating, not least because it's the norm for today's national debate.

My grandfather received a Silver Star and Purple Heart in World War II. My parents told me how it happened, but my grandpa didn't talk about it much. Once, though, he told me about the time he was called into the office of the guy who was filling out the report for his medals, and the officer asked my grandpa how many hits he took. His wounds were the kind that are very difficult to count. (I knew the word "shrapnel" at a young age, because the fragments of metal that my grandpa carried near his heart were the source of many health problems.) So when the officer asked how many wounds he'd sustained and said he'd give him a medal for each one, my grandpa said, Well if they're that easy to get, just give me one and that'll be that.

He got one. So did Bob Dole when his grenade bounced off of a tree and he got a mild wound. (Later, of course, he got another for a much more severe wound.) So did John Kerry when he and Jim Rassmann (the Green Beret who he later fished out of the water) blew up a stockpile of rice and Kerry caught some fragments in his butt. War is dangerous and messy, and that's why there's a Purple Heart. Whether it came from your own grenade, a buddy's, or an enemy's, a wound received when you were in the service of your country is eligible for a Purple Heart, as I understand it, and rightfully so. Repeating this phrase "self-inflicted wounds" does nothing to change that fact and only seeks to discredit Kerry, although really the most that such an accusation should be able to do is paint him as an exaggerator.

A few years ago I lied to a co-worker. This is unpleasant for me to mention, but... I was supposed to be working on a sort of secret project, news of which leaked out, and when my co-worker asked me about it, like a deer in headlights, I denied it. It was a relatively benign lie, but I lost some sleep over it because I felt like the whole event said something about me. Under pressure, my true self came out. I like to think I learned something. I'm steeling myself against this in the future, because I don't want to be that. It made me think of HAL the computer in 2001, who also didn't deal properly with conflicting rules, but luckily in my case no one was ejected into space.

But the things people are saying on cable TV aren't benign. They're not investigative or truth-seeking. They have none of the qualities that we might hope for in a national debate. They're never corrected, and people don't stop saying them. It's ok for people to disagree. It's not ok for people to twist and mislead.

All of this is a symptom — I know, I say it all the time — of information overload. We've built systems to bring information to our feet. Piles of it. Now what? Well, we don't have the slightest idea how to deal with it, so as children in the information age, we listen to the loudest item in the pile, the one that, like a good movie thriller, makes us root for someone or makes us angry when that someone gets beaten down. The cable channels encourage us to take sides first and ask questions later, widening the rift that runs up the middle of the false dilemma.

What's lost in the process is truth and reason. As much as I disagree with William F. Buckley, Jr, on a number of issues, his appearance on Charlie Rose last week was a breath of fresh air, a quiet, thoughtful discussion in which people actually pause a moment before giving an answer and then give that answer in complete sentences. When Rose brought up the sorry state of discourse in Washington these days, Buckley noted that many commentators seem to feel the need to "assert and reassert." I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's true. Hammer home the talking points, folks. They need to be heard over the noise and need to fit within a 10-second window.

It just makes me jittery.

Wow, so much TV this week. I'm glad to have a Tivo, but I'm going to have to dial it back to the usual level for our house. I don't mind to sample the cable news channels from time to time, but I can't do it regularly. You get more nuanced arguments on the funny pages.

[Sorry for the political tangent.]

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Michelangelo Antonioni may be 92, but he still knows how to make a great movie. One of our local Landmark theaters this weekend showed his latest short, Michelangelo Eye-to-Eye (Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo), a 17-minute meditation on that other Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses. It was an unusual showing. As far as I can tell, it wasn't a part of any series, and it wasn't paired with another film. It was just a short with a $2 admission.

The title at the beginning of the film says that in 1985 Antonioni had a stroke that bound him to a wheelchair. In 2004, "through the magic of cinema," he was able to visit the church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome to see the sculpture. I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but the next thing you see is someone who looks like Antonioni walking into a dark church with a few streams of light coming through high windows. For the next 15 minutes he stands before the giant Moses, sculpted by the man with whom he shares a name, gazes up at it, feels its smooth curves and hollows, and then leaves the church.

And it's really quite soothing. The short is nearly soundless, with the emphasis on nearly, because it's actually filled with sound, it's just very delicate. Antonioni's footsteps echo and even his ring and fingers against the stone are audible, only just, before angelic voices sing over his exit. The church is dark, but the light plays off of Moses' beard and deepens his furrowed brow, and Antonioni cuts elegantly from one detail to another and often back to his own face or hands. He uses shallow focus to move through the sculpture's layers, and sometimes puts himself in an unfocused haze.

At times the picture goes into slow-motion, but usually it's when there's very little movement, his wrinkled hand dangling at his side, say, and the only way you can tell it's in slo-mo is through his arm's ghostly-smooth, nearly imperceptible sway. In another moment, when the camera pans from Moses' toes to his head, it seems to hang a few extra seconds on his feet.

In L'Avventura, Antonioni dwarfed his characters with massive architecture and barren islands. One character was even swallowed by one of those islands and was never seen again. Here, by cutting from the stone to his own aged skin and sunken cheeks, he seems to comment on age itself. As his joints turn to stone, he must wonder what others will see when they look at his legacy. And the lingering on the feet, does it recall his own, unusable, bound to a wheelchair? In this short he strides confidently through the church, or is it just the magic of cinema?

I've always wished there were an outlet for short films, besides TV. As simple as it seems I'm not sure I've ever seen one in a theater in isolation like this. I've seen them as part of a shorts package at a festival, where they'll show you half a dozen or more in one sitting. Or I've seen them opening another film, or at home on video.

But having seen one all alone, having walked into the theater, gazed up at the screen for 17 minutes, then walked out into the day to talk about what I'd seen— well, it's just hard to imagine feeling the same way about it if something else had butted up against it. It would be like a tour group coming into the church and hurrying Antonioni along, or it would be like visiting a museum in which you see not one sculpture but many, spreading your attentions, always on the move.

No, this is the way to do it, on a Sunday afternoon in broad daylight, a quick film before lunch, a meditation on art and life, and a reminder that filmmakers are put out to pasture far too soon. Won't someone show us how to grow old?

[Here's one of the few reviews of the film I've been able to find. It premiered at Cannes earlier this year. Watch for it to come to your town.]

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2004, U.S.
director: Vincent Gallo

Half way through The Brown Bunny, after having driven and driven down long stretches of highway, Bud pulls off the road for some gas. He fills up the tank, then returns to the road, at which point many of the people in the theater where I saw the film chuckled. They thought he might do something besides refuel, I suppose. They were hoping something would happen.

Be careful what you wish for, my friends. In the end, Vincent Gallo, the godlike figure who dominates the film's credits and also plays Bud, provides the barest, cheapest of explanations for his character's moping in a sequence so counter to the movie's own minimalism that it makes you wish the whole thing had been a shaggy dog story. And I'm not talking about the scene that's caused the hubbub.

Tsai Ming-Liang, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the Dardenne brothers, and Claire Denis (who cast Gallo in her own Trouble Every Day) make movies in which very little seems to happen, but they convey a wealth of ideas non-verbally, subtly, cinematically, which must be harder than it looks given how few films actually pull it off. The Brown Bunny, written, directed, produced, photographed, shifted, shuffled, marketed, trumpeted, and over-sold by Gallo, tries hard to be in the company of such films, but instead it vacillates between inscrutability and triteness, never quite finding the balance required for poetry, let alone smooth exposition.

The film's most famous scene — a graphic sequence involving Gallo's genitals and Chloë Sevigny's lips — is as perfunctory as the coda that follows it in which the character's supposed complexity is explained and therefore robbed of its mystery. What you think of the sex scene depends largely on whether you buy the character, and by the end of the movie, I don't. I want to believe that a movie shows the actions of someone whom its filmmakers are trying to understand, but by the end of The Brown Bunny I felt like those actions had contrived their own stimuli, an unenlightening bottom-up construction.

Although I've never been to the Cannes film festival, The Brown Bunny probably isn't the worst movie ever shown there, as Roger Ebert has claimed. Gallo has selected a handful of good, mellow folk songs and woven them together with the sounds of the open road and pockets of silence. The ebb and flow of the soundtrack complement some nice images: endless streets as seen through windshields, a motorcycle shrinking into the distance as it speeds over the Bonneville Salt Flats, and idiosyncratic framing of faces, usually Gallo's.

The plot feels like a blend of Easy Rider and Eyes Wide Shut, and I'd say the movie falls somewhere between those two, better than the former and nowhere near as good as the latter. Like Tom Cruise in Kubrick's film, Gallo turns the head of every woman he meets, but the echoes and repetitions in Eyes Wide Shut are multi-faceted meditations on married life, and each of its encounters brings to mind the character's wife, even when she isn't physically present. Gallo is aiming for something similar, but he goes about it much more awkwardly. He names all of the women in the movie after flowers and makes sure their names are written on necklaces and purses so we'll make the connection. They're Bud's stand-ins for the absent Daisy.

When every other scene looks like a cola, jean, or motorcycle commercial, the kind of ad in which the people look perfectly unposed, their hair proudly mussed, Gallo's motivations seem too compromised for his film to say very much about life on this planet. In the theater, I had the sense that I was surrounded by people of two minds: there were those who wanted the movie to do something, be something, make some sense, and there were those who just wanted it to immerse them in a mood. Me, I'd have voted for the mood — Gerry with a black van and a motorcycle — but others have seen a decent short film in the last half hour, driven by plot and psychology. Gallo himself seems to be of both minds. He's produced a tone poem with a melodramatic plot twist and a graphic sex scene.

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A letter to The Economist last week:

SIR — Given the British predilection for finding something praiseworthy even in a great mess, I wonder why you are so negative about George Bush and Tony Blair ("Sincere deceivers", July 17th). Unlike you, I was against the Iraq war from the start but even so let's look on the bright side. The war has almost certainly put paid to the notion of pre-emptive strikes (thereby saving us from perhaps even greater mishap in the near or far future); we have learned a lot about how intelligence is (not) gathered and how far we should be prepared to trust it; the Iraqis got rid of Saddam Hussein; and there is a decent chance that the Americans will get rid of Mr Bush.

Thomas Lauer
Basingstoke, Hampshire

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This weekend I had the opportunity to see what has been billed as Dave Eggers' first play. It's called Sacrament!, and although it's based on Eggers' book You Shall Know Our Velocity it was mostly adapted by Kent Nicholson and the Campo Santo theater group in San Francisco.

As editor and creator of McSweeney's, Eggers has injected a great deal of vigor into the literary world, but I've always preferred his own writing in small doses. In advance of each of his books — A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our VelocityThe New Yorker published excerpts that I enjoyed more than the books themselves, in both cases. His self-conscious style and cute phrasing work in a short story or essay but quickly grow old in a novel or memoir.

So I was curious about what Velocity would be like when compressed into a two-act play, and while I almost missed it, catching the next-to-last performance of a month-long run that had already been extended, I'm pleased to report that it was really good. The book follows two young men who embark on a harebrained scheme to travel around the world in one week and give away $38,000 to random strangers, and when it's boiled down to little more than banter and misgivings, it's pretty close to brilliant. The cast — headed by Sean San José and Danny Wolohan — was shockingly good, especially given the $9-15 ticket price for an offbeat play in a low-key art space. (I've been trying to see more plays in recent years, and while I'm no expert on such things, I can say that when I compare this least expensive of recent plays with the most expensive, a production of a Mamet play on London's west end starring two Hollywood actors, these guys at Campo Santo win, hands down.)

When reduced to bits of dialogue, Eggers' story resembles a Richard Linklater movie, like Waking Life, Before Sunrise, or Before Sunset, full of ideas and theories, questions and philosophy, humor and grief, the ethics of philanthropy and the importance of place. I never saw this in the book itself, so the play was a revelation. Eggers tries to unite his mishmash of attitudes and theories by explaining their connections where Linklater is more likely to let them accumulate like poetry; I prefer Linklater's approach, really. It's a free-form smattering of ideas hung on a simple, humanist spine, grand, provocative world views spoken just to pass the time or engage the listener, which is enough because she's a pretty girl you met on the train.

Sacrament! carries over a few other things that I didn't like about the novel, such as clunky temporal shifts that make the story feel like a cross-cut TV show. The central narrative is repeatedly interrupted by a tedious frame tale and overly dramatic internal dialogs that revolve around the recent death of a friend, and while Eggers tinkers with time and tries to make you question the narrator, these devices ultimately feel like games that get in the way of the more genuine notes of wonder about the world and the difficulty of giving away money. The guys find that it's a lot harder to give the money away than they expected, not because they don't want to do it but because they want to do it right, and they're not sure what that means.

The play is funny, and I wonder if it has planted the idea in Eggers' head to write one from scratch? The program included a note from Eggers in which he says he "never thought for a second, ever, about writing a play," but that these folks at Campo Santo approached him about using his text and he couldn't be happier with the result.

I can't say the play drastically changes my opinion of Eggers. At two hours, it counts as a "small dose," which is probably one reason I enjoyed it. But I didn't realize — or didn't remember, since I read it a year or so ago — how many thought provoking ideas are in the book, a failing that's probably just as much my own as a lazy reader as it is the author's.

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One blogger's hiatus is another's breath between paragraphs. Or sentences. A comma, even.

I've recently taken on a new project, unrelated to any of the stuff that I talk about here, and I've had to move such things as blogs and movies to the back burner. Waitaminute waitaminute. Blogs, maybe, but not movies:

7-29 The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass)
7-31 Smiles of a Summer Night (Bergman)
7-31 Wild Strawberries (Bergman)
8-1 In the Bathtub of the World (Zahedi) [DVD]
8-2 I Was Possessed By God (Zahedi) [DVD] [short]
8-3 A Man Escaped (Bresson) [DVD]
8-5 The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Kitano)
8-6/7 The Sopranos: The Fourth Season: Episodes 4-5 [DVD]
8-8 Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (Greenwald)

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Ruang rak noi nid mahasan
2003, Thailand
director: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

Last Life in the Universe is a little piece of perfection. Kenji is a Japanese man who lives in Thailand but doesn't speak the language. His apartment is so clean that he doesn't have much to do besides sit in it. The few items in his refrigerator are aligned just so, and the clothes in his closet are all the same. His many books are stacked neatly in columns on the floor with a little label on the wall above each pillar, like a high-water mark. Kenji works at a Japanese cultural center in Bangkok where his duties are similar to a librarian's, but he spends most of his time contemplating suicide.

He imagines one scenario that goes like this: he steps onto a stack of books in his apartment, slips his neck into a loop of rope, then kicks the books away and hangs above the pile, dripping blood over the pages. As played by Tadanobu Asano, Kenji speaks less than the hired bodyguard in Zatoichi, coincidentally played by the same actor, so he's not the kind to say much about why he wants to kill himself. Loneliness, it seems. Maybe his exceedingly ordered life is a prison, and kicking over a stack of books would be the perfect escape.

Through a dramatic turn of events, Kenji meets a young Thai woman named Noi and becomes a guest at her house, a spacious seaside home that's so messy it takes something like personal rebellion for Kenji to set foot inside. The film is shot by Christopher Doyle, one of the few cinematographers who's nearly as well known — or in this case probably better known — than the directors he works for. He shot Zhang Yimou's Hero and many of Wong Kar-Wai's movies, and he has a well-deserved reputation as a photographer who could light a heap of trash and make you want to hug it to your breast. He gets the opportunity to do just that in Last Life in the Universe, where even a house that's one moldy can of beans away from condemnation looks ravishing.

As Kenji spends time at Noi's house, the story lingers on the tenuous connection between these two people and their opposing temperaments. Neither speaks the other's language, so they communicate in broken English most of the time. Kenji discovers a teach-yourself-Japanese cassette tape in Noi's rubble, and although it's meant for Thai speakers, he listens to it anyway.

In these moments Last Life in the Universe is as inviting as a warm blanket, with its perfectly symmetrical elements, its perfectly lit filth, and its perfectly alienated people. What's most disappointing is that, as ambitious as they appear, the filmmakers seem to be satisfied with these few simple patterns. The clichés of modern life — the malaise of people who are lonely in a crowd and the irony that's so expected it's no longer ironic — have never looked more attractive. The movie is a mirror, completing all of its own half-circles rather than reflecting life back at the audience. It's a fully contained ecosystem with little need for the real world, content with the urban hum of an artificial feedback loop. The "universe" of the title is a fishbowl with plastic plants.

Writer-director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is a fan of Jim Jarmusch, and he shares some of his preoccupations, such as wryly downplaying the language differences of his characters and showing more interest in household minutia than any drama going on outside. The movie also reminds me of Tsai Ming-Liang's What Time is it There, with its parallels, connections, and criss-crossing cultures. It's when Ratanaruang moves his characters beyond the moment that the plot feels forced. Some critics have compared the film to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, in which a mismatched pair of travellers find each other in a cloud of melancholy, but Lost in Translation uncovers little bits of truth about people, and Coppola lets her characters — and her story — drift delicately through indistinct thoughts and honest emotions. By contrast, Ratanaruang orchestrates his characters to attract or repel each other like magnets spinning on axes, adjusting the angles to arrive at an optimally clever conclusion. The movie feels something like Kenji's apartment, overly neat, and I kept hoping that someone would knock things over, but every time someone did, the pieces fell right into place.

Despite all that, the movie is entrancing. The camera glides through Noi's house, and at one point household objects hang in mid-air, recalling the swirling vortex of leaves in Hero. This sort of moody visual poetry is the highlight of a movie whose pleasures come not from peace and understanding, and not even from observing human foibles, but from watching a lizard on an apartment wall or looking down from the upper corner of a room at a claw-footed bathtub, slanting across the screen like it might slide over the floor if someone gave it a nudge. The performances are spot-on, the ample humor is gentle and dark, and the guns and gangsters are thankfully minor. Ratanaruang's playful flourishes are exciting — he swaps actresses late in the game, experiments with dream-vs-reality, and shows his opening title some 30 minutes into the movie — but more than anything they make me curious to see what he'll do next.

San Francisco International Film Festival
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