mother! (2017)

mother-poster

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make movies for your enjoyment.

From the earliest days of his career, his films have been a relentless barrage of grotesque and transgressive imagery, built around themes of paranoia and self-destruction, and tied together into a debasing experience that feels less like a catharsis than an assault.

Consequently, it seems odd that viewers would expect his latest work – “mother!” – to be the kind of tried-and-true psychological thriller its advertising would suggest; it seems even more odd that their reaction to it would be one of surprise and even outrage.

Yet that is precisely what happened.

During the movie’s opening weekend, critics and audiences alike labeled it as a “flop” within moments of walking out of the theater, and took to social media with ranting diatribes calling it one of “the worst movies ever made” – but does it really deserve such labels?  The answer to that question may be as perplexing as the film itself.

“mother!” is ostensibly the tale of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her author husband (Javier Bardem), in an isolated house in the country.  She works hard restoring their home, previously burned in a fire, while he struggles with writer’s block, but their life together seems tranquil and full of hope – until a strange couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, threatening the stability of the idyllic world they have built for themselves.

The premise echoes countless other thrillers in which happy couples are terrorized by interlopers, and forced to face uncomfortable truths about themselves as they battle to restore order to their lives.  Though Aronofsky quickly derails the formula with his customary descent into nightmare logic, he nevertheless takes on all the tropes of the genre – buried secrets, subversions of intimacy, implications of “gaslighting,” even good old-fashioned jump scares.  He doesn’t necessarily take them seriously; indeed, he milks them for considerable humor, using them to mock both themselves and the audience’s willingness to buy into them, even as he twists them into the service of his larger agenda.

He utilizes a similar combination of homage and satire in the repurposing of some of his own now-familiar tools, most notably the “unreliable narrator” technique.  Almost the entirety of “mother!” is focused in close-up proximity to Lawrence’s character; most of the action comes to our attention through a sort of peripheral vision which not only serves as a reminder that we are seeing it through her eyes, but creates a dreamlike flow which warns us that not everything in this film should be taken at face value.

It’s a warning well worth heeding.

Behind its thin disguise, “mother!” carries an ambitious vision.  From the bones of its generic horror plot, Aronofsky has built no less than a cosmic allegory about the eternal dance between creation and destruction.  Rife with Freudian underpinnings and Biblical overtones, flavored by the director’s darkly surreal visual style, and exploring a daunting array of themes, it’s a construct so dense with metaphor that its layers reflect endlessly upon each other like an infinite funhouse mirror.

It might be said that so much significance to unpack reduces the film to the level of a pretentious intellectual exercise, or that the Harvard-educated Aronofsky’s own privileged background is inseparable from the observations he makes.

Nevertheless, any honest artist must draw on personal experience in creating their work, and while these qualifications may be necessary for a discussion of the movie’s relevance within the larger culture, they are ultimately irrelevant to assessing the skill with which Aronofsky has executed his film or the impact it has upon the viewer.

Both are considerable.  The filmmaker has crafted a screenplay which deftly weaves  complex ideas into a simple narrative as it constructs a post-modern Creation Myth – with a decidedly feminist flavor –  out of a “B” movie structure; he has translated it onscreen with a blend of arch self-awareness and unabashed authenticity.  His film boasts a collection of superb performances (particularly Pfeiffer’s) and a masterful use of cinematography and sound in its depiction of a pastoral world slowly devolving into a landscape of dark esoterica.

Why, then, do so many people hate it?  Despite its calculated intellectualism, “mother!” is a deeply visceral experience that hits us in our most uncomfortable, instinctual places – but perhaps more than that, it leaves us with a sense of betrayal.

From its very beginning moments, Aronofsky makes us think we know exactly where he’s taking us; he telegraphs all his tricks with such a heavy hand that it puts us off almost as much as the escalating gore and violence; and yet, in the end, he still manages to pull the rug out from under us.  He takes our expectations and turns them against us, and it feels like a dirty trick.

It’s no wonder that many viewers have felt like they have been subjected to the same kind of psychological abuse suffered by Lawrence through most of the film – but that doesn’t mean it deserves to be written off with the vehemence and vitriol it has inspired in so many of its detractors.

Aronofsky never meant to make a simple horror movie that would disquiet you for the duration and then send you home feeling safe, secure, and satisfied.  To consider “mother!” a failure is to miss the director’s intention entirely.  His movie may not be for everyone, but it is also cinematic expression at a level of fearlessness almost unheard of in American filmmaking.  It’s a work by an artist at the peak of his talents, who seeks to challenge and provoke us – whether we like it or not.

With that in mind, his movie is perhaps too successful for its own good.

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LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

Desperate Living (1977)

Desperate Living (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Desperate Living, the 1977 feature by underground filmmaking icon John Waters, featuring an assortment of his “Dreamland” players in the tale of a deranged suburban housewife who is exiled with her maid to a shantytown full of social rejects.  Financed, as all of Waters’ early projects were, on a shoestring budget, it generated notoriety through the outrage it sparked among the lesbian community for its treatment of same-sex female relationships, but it failed to catch on with the public to the extent of his previous hits, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, probably due in part to the absence of his signature star, Divine (who was unavailable to appear because of his commitment to a theatrical project in New York) but also because the “midnight movie” fad which had provided the perfect venue for the earlier films had largely subsided by the time of its release.  Nevertheless, it has taken its place as a cult classic alongside the director’s other works of the period, with which it shares an outrageous, anarchic sensibility and a deliberate intention to provide shock value through its depiction of socially taboo behavior.

The plot follows the misadventures of Peggy Gravel, a housewife from an affluent Baltimore suburb, who has recently returned home- perhaps prematurely- from a stint in a mental hospital.  Paranoid, delusional, and disgusted by virtually everything, she harangues those around her with wild and hysterical rants, accusing the neighborhood children of trying to kill her and reproving her husband for his ineffectualness.  When he attempts to calm her by administering her medication, she assaults him, calling for aid from her maid, Grizelda, an obese black woman whom Mr. Gravel has recently caught stealing from the household, and who now, believing she is protecting Peggy, smothers him to death by sitting on his face.  When the two realize they have committed murder, they go on the run together, attempting to drive out of town in Peggy’s car, but they are stopped by a policeman; instead of arresting them, however, he demands their underpants and some kisses for his cross-dressing, auto-erotic pleasure.  In exchange, he offers to let them escape to Mortville, a sort of hobo jungle on the outskirts of town where the criminal dregs of local society can find safe haven among their own degenerate kind.  The two women make the journey, and find themselves in a derelict town built mostly of cardboard and garbage; after trading a lottery ticket for a guest house owned by hard-edged lesbian Mole McHenry and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (“the most beautiful woman in Mortville”), they learn that the community is ruled by Queen Carlotta, a sadistic and self-serving tyrant who takes pleasure in degrading her subjects and dispensing draconian punishment to any who dare to displease her or disobey her absolute commands.  As the unlikely comrades settle into Mortville life, they begin their own lesbian affair, despite Peggy’s revulsion; meanwhile, Queen Carlotta’s egalitarian daughter,  Princess Coo-Coo, has fallen in love with the trash collector, and renounces her privileged life to elope with him.  The angry Carlotta has him killed, and when Coo-Coo flees with his body, she seeks refuge in the home of Peggy and Grizelda.  Peggy immediately alerts Carlotta’s goons, and Grizelda, attempting to protect the Princess, is killed in the ensuing struggle when she causes the house to collapse on herself.  Peggy, however, is rewarded for her loyalty to the Queen by being appointed as the replacement for the now-imprisoned Coo-Coo, and as her first duty she sets into motion the royal plan to infect the entire town with rabies, starting with Coo-Coo herself.  Back outside the “palace,” the lottery ticket Mole accepted as rent has proven to be a winner, so she uses the prize money to buy a bargain basement sex change for herself, thinking it will please Muffy, who has been goading her with fantasies about men.  Instead, it repulses her, causing her to admit that she loves Mole just the way she is; the sewn-on penis is severed and thrown to the neighborhood dog, and with their bond renewed, the couple leads the Mortvillians in a revolt against Peggy and the Queen, at last exacting vengeance for the brutality of their regime.

If this narrative sounds a bit convoluted, it’s no surprise; Desperate Living constitutes Waters’ attempt at an epic fairy tale, with multiple characters in interwoven subplots, and part of his particular milieu– at least in these earlier films- is a disregard for logical coherence in narrative structure.  Waters’ story lines are usually threads intended to link together his depraved set pieces, and a great deal of the fun comes from the fact that they are generally irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie, which is mainly to delight and disgust his viewers, preferably at the same time.  The downside to this approach, from a certain point-of-view, is that many of his movies have a tendency to “peter out” rather than build to a climax, with the final resolution often being little more than a means to tie up the loose ends; but Waters, always the iconoclast, has never concerned himself with following rules, and such an aesthetic consideration is as immaterial to his agenda as laws and social mores are to his characters.

This latter point is not strictly true, actually.  Waters’ films are usually populated by people who are greatly concerned with codes of conduct, albeit warped or inverted ones.  Here, for instance, Peggy is motivated by a fanatical devotion to her own brand of decency and decorum, a world view in which she, as a member of the social elite, is the natural recipient of preferential treatment and should be immune from the disgusting unpleasantries of the world; it happens that, for her, those unpleasantries include any form of natural impulse or show of sentimentality or affection.  She hates nature, is repelled by her husband’s touch, and would rather be raped by the kinky policeman than submit to his kiss; yet she is willing to ally herself with an oppressor and give up her own life in service of the ideal of autocratic privilege.  Similarly, the avowed man-hater, Mole, is prepared to transform herself into the very object of her own loathing in order to satisfy the needs of the woman she loves, not just because of her desire to please her lover, but because she is dedicated to her role as protector and provider.  The irony of both characters, of course, is that they personify the things they themselves despise; the victim becomes the victimizer and the militant feminist embodies the negative masculine stereotype she has rejected in others.  In similar ways, the other denizens of Desperate Living enact this paradoxical principle, or else they perform the meaningless reactionary pantomime of the social bystander, chasing their own self-serving needs and pleasures, deluding themselves with rationalizations and platitudes, and expressing outrage when they are met with opposition; Waters shows us a world of degenerates, overseen by other degenerates, and the only unacceptable transgression is the assumption of authority.  Of course, one could open up a discussion about the layers of social satire, political allegory, psychological commentary, or mythological inversion that can be seen within this low-rent fantasy melodrama; or perhaps we might speculate about the filmmaker’s intentions regarding such things as alienation of the audience, subversion of societal values and norms, or the use of cinema as an expression of counter-cultural concerns.  In the long run, however, Waters’ interest in such matters is clearly parenthetical, at best, and his work here- as with all of his films, particularly the “Trash Trilogy” consisting of this and the two previous efforts- has more to do with his creation of a signature mise-en-scène which can best be described as “transgressive camp.”  Even more than that, perhaps, it has to do with sharing his warped sensibilities through the medium he loves.

That Desperate Living is an expression of the filmmaker’s own imagination is certain; as the producer, writer, director and cameraman, he makes sure what shows up on the screen is pure Waters.  The histrionic dialogue, the over-saturation of de-glamorized nudity and sex, the exploration of fetish behavior and insular communities, the skewering of respectable society, the fixation on repellent imagery and ideas; these are trademark elements in his films, and they are all present here in spades.  Desperate Living features copious full-frontal nudity (both male and female), the sexualization of children, a baby in a refrigerator, the human consumption of vermin, sodomy with a firearm, cannibalism, and penile amputation, to name just a few of its dubious delights, and in typical Waters fashion, they are de-sensationalized to the point of banality- which is why they amuse us rather than outrage us.  This, of course, is precisely the point, if there must be a point; Waters shows us that the only thing more ridiculous than human behavior is to be offended by it.

Indulging in this pageant of absurd excess is a cast mostly comprised of the director’s regulars, a troupe of stalwart non-actors upon whose services he has relied upon from his earliest days.  Leading the pack is the incomparable Mink Stole, a fixture in Waters’ films who is here given her most prominent role as Peggy, sinking her teeth with relish into the character as she alternates between hysterical wailing and some of the most ferocious bitchery you will ever see.  She is perhaps (apart from the late Divine) the most proficient purveyor of the curiously bad-but-somehow-great acting that defines the style of the filmmakers’ canon, and Desperate Living offers probably the best showcase of her unique talents.  Accompanying her on the adventure is Jean Hill, a greeting-card model turned actress whose jubilant sass makes her a fitting complement to Stole’s venomous ice queen, and the two exude an undeniable chemistry as they act out their perverted fantasia on Imitation of Life.  Waters newcomer Liz Renay (a notorious burlesque queen, former gun moll, and convicted perjurer, whose scandalous autobiography prompted the director to pursue her for his film) brings a surprising freshness of personality- not to mention her sizable breasts, unfettered onscreen for a good deal of the film- as Muffy, and Susan Lowe as the pugnacious Mole, normally one of the director’s bit players, manages to hold her own admirably in the role originally intended for Divine.  Also notable is Mary Vivian Pearce as the goofily likable Coo-Coo, and “Turkey Joe” in his deliciously trashy cameo as the cross-dressing cop.  The standout performance, though, comes from the sublime Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed ex-waitress who became a sort of muse for John Waters and a cult icon to boot, as Queen Carlotta.  With her inimitably amateurish delivery, her indescribable physical presence, and her inescapable authenticity, she makes this grotesque character into a mesmerizing spectacle; gleefully punishing her groveling subjects, turning her leather-boy lackeys into sexual objects with whom she engages in lewd- and graphic- excesses, or sweetly bestowing gifts on a pigeon like the skid row vision of a Disney Princess and her animal friends, she is the indisputable highlight of Desperate Living.  The lady had charisma, there’s no denying it.

In spite of the fact that the cast is entirely on target, however, the absence of Waters’ supreme diva, Divine, is keenly felt in Desperate Living.  There is a void, somehow, in the center of the movie, that none of the other personalities can fill.  This is not to say that any of them are lacking in commitment or ability- at least, the kind of ability required of them here- but that some intangible quality is missing that none of them are quite able to provide; it’s possible that this is due to the lack of a strong character to provide central focus in the story, for Desperate Living, in truth, is all over the map- but then so are most of Waters’ films, a fact which audiences easily overlook with Divine’s electric presence as an anchor.  It’s hard, though, to place the blame wholly on this gap for the fact that the movie doesn’t quite work- for, unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Though it is a veritable treasure trove of deliciously quotable lines and ripe with the kind of unforgettable lunatic imagery that keeps us engaged in any given individual moment of the film, it never really grabs us with the unexpected visceral urgency of some of his other works; all the pieces are there, but the whole package leaves us decidedly unsatisfied.  It may be due to the attempted scope of the story, or the fact that the fantasy is so far removed from real experience that it loses the sliver of plausibility which gives the director’s preposterously lurid tales their outrageous edge, but for whatever reason, Desperate Living loses steam soon after it takes us to Mortville, a fact that is particularly disappointing in face of the fact that the film’s first ten minutes are pure, vintage Waters, containing some of the most inspired expressions of his wicked genius he ever managed to create, and setting the bar at a high level which the rest of the movie is then, sadly, unable to match.

Still, for Waters’ many fans, this kind of critical quibbling makes no difference to their enjoyment of its many riches, and for those who are exploring this alternative auteur for the first time, the fact that Desperate Living is not as complete a package as the masterful Female Trouble doesn’t make it any less essential an experience.  There was a certain magic at work in these heady, early years of the Dreamland crew, and it is just as evident in this movie- with its guerilla-filmmaking feel, its grainy 16mm photography, its elaborately shoddy sets built from found objects and refuse, its celebration of filth, and its mockery of traditional cinematic forms- as in any of the others.  What makes it so… well… refreshing (for want of a better word) is that, as always, Waters’ subversive trash is not merely intellectual posturing, nor is it exploitation, for it is clear that all of his participants are equally complicit in his effort to inundate us with perversity; John Waters is a subversive filth-monger because he finds it fun, and because it is an expression of self rather than a calculated pose, he makes it irresistibly fun for the rest of us.  Of course if you are someone who has, as Peggy Gravel puts it, “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” you are best to leave this one alone, as well as the rest of Waters’ canon; although his work, for all its over-the-top shock value and subversive topsy-turvy morality, is ultimately as good-natured and sweetly innocent as, say, two naked children playing doctor, for somebody whose sense of humor is not well-tuned to this kind of trashy treat, it’s about as appetizing as a fried rat on a plate.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075936/

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror / Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Nosferatu (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), the 1922 German film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by the acclaimed and influential F.W. Murnau. An elaborate production, filmed largely on location, it was the first major film to focus on a vampire and has exerted a strong and lasting influence over the 90 years since its release; yet it was almost lost due to the fact that the production studio- Prana Films- never obtained the rights to Stoker’s novel and was sued by his widow, resulting in their declaration of bankruptcy and an order to destroy all copies of the movie. Fortunately, one copy had already been shipped out, and thanks to its survival Nosferatu (as it is now commonly known) was eventually heralded as a true classic, developing a cult following and becoming a cultural icon.

The plot is more or less familiar to anyone who has read or seen Dracula in any of its more “official” versions, but the setting and the names of the characters have been changed, and several new ideas are introduced in addition to the creation of a significantly altered ending. It opens with idyllic scenes of life in the fictional port town of Wisborg; a young man, Thomas Hutter, is being sent to faraway Transylvania by his employer, a real estate agent named Klock, in order to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in their town. Though his beautiful and virtuous wife, Ellen, has dark forebodings about the trip, Hutter leaves her in the care of friends and enthusiastically embarks on his journey. Once he arrives at Orlok’s ruined castle, however, he begins to suspect that the reclusive count- a thin, ghoulish-looking eccentric who evokes deep fear in the local villagers- may have darker intentions than a simple change of scenery; after the deal is finalized, the young man is horrified to discover that his host is indeed a member of the undead, a powerful vampire who sleeps by day in a coffin under the castle- but the knowledge comes too late, for Hutter finds himself imprisoned in his room, watching helplessly from a window as Orlok loads several coffins full of dirt into a wagon and departs for Wisborg. Fearing for the safety of his home town- and especially of his beloved wife- he manages to escape from the castle and begins to make his way back to Wisborg, hoping he can arrive in time. The count, meanwhile, travels by ship, concealed below deck in one of his coffins; along the way, he victimizes every port town at which they stop, leaving behind rumors of plague. He also preys upon the crew, killing them one by one until the boat arrives in Wisborg, seemingly a ghost vessel inhabited only by rats- brought on board within Orlok’s spare coffins. Believing the rodents have carried the spreading plague to their town, the authorities warn the citizens to remain secluded in their homes, and Orlok, having moved into his new abode and using the supposed epidemic as his cover, begins to feed upon the terrified population. When Hutter finally arrives home, he finds that Ellen, to his relief, is so far unharmed, but she is consumed by melancholy and terrified of the new neighbor who stares at her from his window at night. Though her husband tries to hide the truth from her, she discovers from his books the true nature of the threat, and learning that the vampire can only be destroyed by direct sunlight, she resolves to undertake a dire strategy by which she might lure Count Orlok to his doom.

The screenplay for Nosferatu, which has received much praise for its deliberate, rhythmic pacing and its pervading air of cool melancholy, was authored by Henrik Galeen, an Expressionist writer hired by the film’s producers for his expertise in the dark romantic style they wished to capture. Though the great Murnau is usually given credit for the movie’s eerie mise-en-scène, Galeen’s script was in fact quite detailed in its meticulous, shot-by-shot description; he included specific instructions for each scene, with directions for timing, camera angles and composition, and lighting, even providing sketches for reference in framing shots. The result is a haunting, dream-like exploration of the primal fears hiding in the dark corners of man’s imagination, given form through the persistent folklore that has resisted the rise of science and reason since the days of the Black Death. Though the vampire myth is ancient and universal, its most familiar and lasting incarnation springs from the superstitious tales of Central Europe, where bubonic plague wiped out whole medieval villages and prompted the survivors to imagine other-worldly causes for its indiscriminate and unstoppable devastation- not only vampires, but werewolves and other insidious monsters of the night became the dreaded scapegoats for this seemingly unexplainable onslaught of death, and legends of their continuing existence endured throughout the centuries as a reminder of those dark times. Galeen’s scenario, borrowed as it may have been from Stoker’s then-still-fairly-recent novel, stirs up all of these arcane fears embedded in cultural memory. Indeed, before Orlok ever appears onscreen there are scenes of a werewolf prowling the night (with a striped hyena- a bizarre-looking and fearsome creature that was largely unfamiliar to most 1922 moviegoers- standing in for the supernatural beast), and memories of the ancient plague are clearly tapped by the tale’s conceit of using the threat of just such a rat-borne pestilence as a subterfuge to mask Orlok’s killing sprees; even the vampire’s makeup, with his large, pointed ears and pronounced, close-set fangs, is designed to be rat-like and enhance the correlation between monster and disease. Though Nosferatu is set in the 1830s and was made in the 1920s, as we watch it in the 2010s our subconscious is undeniably returned to the Dark Ages, when the night concealed forces which we could neither fathom, foresee, nor combat, and safety was an illusion that could only be maintained by the light of day.

As for Murnau, even if he was guided extensively by the wishes of the screenwriter, his genius clearly shows through. His meticulously faithful adherence to Galeen’s directives is infused with his own brand of cinematic poetry, creating a striking visual statement that leaves lingering images in the viewer’s mind. His skill at using light and shadow is here used to great advantage, with his particular gift for capturing the almost tactile properties of both helping immeasurably to build the heightened, nightmare reality of the film. Nosferatu, after all, is pure Expressionist cinema- albeit tempered by the sensibilities of gothic romance- and as such is intended to simulate a sort of dream-state, in which the impulses of the unconscious psyche are manifested in outward form; Murnau’s ability to create this hallucinogenic, psychically resonant feel onscreen is largely responsible for its overwhelming success at this objective. Nor should his efforts with the mechanics of storytelling be ignored; he drives his film at precisely the right pace, neither too slowly or too quickly, but with a strong feeling of inexorability that feeds our cumulative sense of dread and pulls us deeper into the narrative. This effect was neither accidental nor accomplished after the fact through editing; the director filmed each scene with precision timing, even using a metronome to guide his actors, and controlled the rhythm and flow of the movie with such a musicality that its subtitle, “A Symphony of Horror,” is not at all hyperbolic.

The film’s other components should be noted, as well, for they all support Murnau’s artistry by building a cohesive visual unity. The director’s remarkable portrayal of light- such a tangible force it is itself almost a character in the drama- is made possible by the luminous work of cinematographer F.A. Wagner- who, amazingly, accomplished the entire shoot (even the extensive location footage) with only a single camera. Contributing immensely to the visual style, which not only makes heavy use of the theatrical, larger-than-life elements of Expressionism but also draws extensively on older, more traditional influences from Germany’s rich and varied artistic heritage, is the set-and-costume design of Albin Grau. His creations- with the help of Murnau and Wagner’s intricate lighting- evoke paintings by the great masters, but they also lend themselves to the edgy avant-garde milieu of the then-present-day; this melding of the familiar with the jarringly strange is yet another way in which Nosferatu derives its power. Grau was one of the film’s producers, and indeed had first conceived the idea of making the movie, inspired by an incident during his service in WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire; no doubt haunted by his imaginings of this farmer’s undead patriarch ravaging the countryside at night, he knew it was the sort of irrational dream material that was perfect for expression through film. It might be said that, more than Galeen or even Murnau, Nosferatu was his film; accordingly, his considerable design contributions, infused with the passion of a personal vision, should not be overlooked.

Though it was, of course, a silent film, music was nevertheless intended to play an important role in Nosferatu. Sadly, the original score composed to accompany its screening, written by Hans Edermann, was long thought lost. As a result, there have been numerous alternative scores created over the years, in styles ranging from lush orchestral romanticism to dissonant avant-garde minimalism. The print I watched recently (available on Netflix streaming video) features a score composed in 2000 by the Silent Movie Orchestra, consisting of a fairly contemporary-sounding ensemble utilizing such elements as electronic organ and heavy percussion; personally, I found it highly effective, but obviously it’s a matter of taste. Many feel that the score for a silent movie can only be appropriate if it is created in the style of- and with the instrumentation available in- the era in which the film was made; others have a more flexible preference, and obviously the majority of casual viewers will most likely find such a question immaterial (though I would venture to say that many of those who claim they cannot enjoy silent films are basing their opinion on the experience of seeing one with a generic, woefully inadequate musical accompaniment- the effect of music on this art form cannot be overstated). There are a number of prints available, with different scores to accommodate every taste, so if this aspect of the film is a concern, you would be well-advised to do a little research before choosing which version to watch. The now-reconstructed Edelmann score is featured on Kino’s restored print, which also offers probably the cleanest video quality available today, complete with the original, all-important chromatic tinting to differentiate day from night (in pure black-and-white, as most silent films were commonly shown for decades, time of day becomes a confusing issue); obviously, watching this edition is the best option, if possible; otherwise, there are numerous other versions available for free viewing online- after all, the movie is in the public domain, at least in the United States.

Whatever musical accompaniment you might favor, if you are a serious cinema aficionado, watch Nosferatu you should. Though many other horror films pre-date it, it is unquestionably the first unqualified masterpiece of the genre, from which all subsequent entries have sprung; not only have Galeen’s screenplay and Murnau’s direction spawned thousands of imitators throughout the past century, their film contains the first bona-fide horror icon (with the possible exception of Conrad Veidt’s somnambulistic murderer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the form of Count Orlok. As embodied by character actor Max Schreck, the count is a nightmarish figure indeed; a far cry from the darkly romantic charm of Bela Lugosi and other later interpretations of the Dracula character, he is utterly devoid of humanity, spectral, repellant and coldly detached. He famously grows uglier as the film progresses, with fangs and talons seeming to grow larger as he becomes more steeped in bloodshed and death. Like an anthropoid vermin, he moves his spindly frame with a grotesque grace and gazes with dull malevolence through his not-quite lifeless eyes; it’s easy to see why Schreck has been shrouded with mystery in the popular imagination, even being portrayed as a real vampire in the fictional 2000 film about the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire. For many years, cinematic legend surrounding the film has wrongly implied his surname was adopted for this role due to its translation into the English word “fright,” but Schreck was indeed his birth name, and he had enjoyed a long and prominent career in German theatre and film prior to being cast as Orlok. He deserves full recognition for his performance, a masterful creation in which he uses his physicality to bring the full essence of this loathsome character to the screen; to attribute his effectiveness solely to savvy casting, though Murnau reportedly picked him for his ugliness alone, is to discount the level of commitment this fine actor brought to the role, helping to make it one of the most definitive and influential screen depictions of a horror character ever filmed- an even more remarkable feat considering that he is actually on screen for a total of less than 10 minutes

The rest of the cast, though many of them have much more screen time, are not quite as unforgettable as Schreck- how could they be? This doesn’t mean their work is inferior, however; all of the players provide vivid portraits of their characters, delivering top-notch performances in the accepted style of the day. Gustav von Wangenheim, a noted theatrical writer/director and performer, and film’s true leading actor, is robust and florid as Hutter, a little over the top, perhaps, but more endearing by far than most of the wooden, stiff-upper lip types offered by later incarnations of the story’s parallel character, Jonathan Harker; the stately and beautiful Greta Schröder adds a touch more weight and dignity than expected to the role of Ellen, making her less the helpless victim than the tragic heroine; and as Knock, the psychically-enslaved real estate broker who serves as the film’s version of Renfield, Alexander Granach gives us a comically exaggerated- but still unsettling- personification of the archetypal greedy old man, here driven to the point of lunacy by the influence of his demonic master and presenting an obvious allegory, in his affiliation with the vampire, for the adulation of wealth and power represented by such figures- which gives Nosferatu a suggestion of sociopolitical commentary, in the sense that Knock becomes a scapegoat for the villagers, who blame and persecute him for the onset of the plague, though- despite his eager participation in the evil that besets them- he is, in reality, just another victim, a symptom of a larger malady that transcends political or economic concerns.

Nosferatu is one of those rare works from the early years of cinema that remains eminently watchable by the average viewer today; there is something about it, perhaps a sense of the dark despair hidden beneath even the brightest promise of happiness and prosperity, which allows it to strike a universal and timeless chord. There are so many haunting and indelible images here: the silhouetted horses fleeing from the marauding werewolf; the spectral coach speeding eerily in stop-motion as it bears Hutter to Orlok’s castle; the ghostly ship gliding inexorably through the night as it delivers the vampire across the waters; the angry mob destroying a scarecrow in its pursuit of Knock; and, of course, every moment of Orlok’s presence, from his first appearance as the sinister driver of the coach to his furtive and decidedly unromantic feeding upon his final victim. The stylized artistry of its presentation, far from making it inaccessible, seems to crystallize it and capture its essence in a form that is instantly familiar. It’s impossible to say, 90 years later, whether the imagery of Murnau’s movie has become integrated into our collective cultural consciousness or if it drew its inspiration from the dark imaginings that were already there; wither way, the effect is the same- Nosferatu is an experience that feels like it is coming from within us, not from without.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013442/

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Life of Pi, the 2012 film adaptation of Yann Martel’s popular novel of the same name, relating the tale of a boy who, stranded by shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific, must survive alone in a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger.  In development for several years, it was assigned to a number of directors before finally being offered to acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee; under his guidance, the challenging material was shaped into a 3D blockbuster, utilizing extensive CG effects to realize the logistically daunting circumstances of its plot.  Long anticipated by fans of the book, many of whom undoubtedly regarded it unlikely that an adequate film could be made from the delicate source material, it has thus far been greeted with overwhelmingly positive response by both critics and audiences, who have marveled at its visual beauty and technical wizardry, as well as expressing admiration for its handling of the novel’s important metaphysical themes.

Adapted more or less faithfully from Martel’s original by screenwriter David Magee, the film begins in Canada, with an interview between an unnamed writer and the possible subject for his new book- Piscine “Pi” Patel, a teacher from India who, as a teenager, survived the sinking of a trans-Pacific freighter and spent nearly a year adrift in a lifeboat before reaching safety on the shores of Mexico.  Pi proceeds to tell his tale, first detailing his childhood in Pondicherry, India, as the younger son of a zookeeper and his wife.  Exposed at an early age to not only his native Hindu religion, but also Christianity and Islam, he becomes devout in all three- though his family, particularly his father, tries to encourage him to take a more practical, scientific approach to life.  Eventually, as Pi approaches adulthood, the family decides to start a new life in America; father arranges passage on a freighter, upon which they can also transport the zoo animals.  Halfway through the journey, however, Pi awakens in the middle of the night to discover the ship is sinking; forced into a lifeboat by the frantic crew, he soon finds himself the only human survivor, stranded thousands of miles from land- but not quite alone.  Under the canopy of the lifeboat lurks an enormous tiger, the last remaining member of his father’s menagerie.  In order to survive his ordeal at sea, Pi must establish a precarious relationship with the huge carnivore, simultaneously his only companion and his greatest threat, while also learning to procure the fresh water and food they will both need in order to survive.  The experiences and adventures they share form a strange bond between boy and beast, and Pi’s journey becomes a rite of passage in which he must come to terms with his place in the universe and define his relationship with the absolute.

Life of Pi is one of those movies that is exceptionally difficult to write about in any meaningful way; even a description of the plot is impossible to accomplish without either giving away key story elements or making the whole thing sound like an implausibly far-fetched boy’s adventure yarn.  The film’s advertising campaign makes it clear, however, that it is a movie meant to inspire a sense of wonder, so it’s no spoiler to reveal that director Lee approaches the novel’s scenario with an eye towards capturing the mystical experience of it; and rightly so: like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, from which it clearly bears a direct lineage, Martel’s novel is as much a metaphor as a narrative, offering a portrait of inner transformation through its description of outward events.  It is precisely this quality that makes the notion of transposing it to film so questionable, since translating the esoteric into a visual milieu can be problematic, to put it mildly, particularly when the outward circumstances of the story are not only limited by its setting but also extraordinarily difficult to capture on film by conventional means- the 1957 film version of Hemingway’s tale, well-acted as it may have been by Spencer Tracy, is proof enough of that.  Fortunately, Life of Pi benefits immeasurably from the technological advances in filmmaking that have allowed the convincing depiction of almost anything imaginable; even more importantly, it benefits from the supervision of a truly gifted film artist who understands the importance of using all these high-tech enhancements to serve his material, rather than the other way around.

Ang Lee is an exceptional filmmaker, one who has proven time and again his particular gift for approaching Western subject matter with the perspective of his Asian background.  With films like The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, he has explored distinctively American subjects and settings with the cool and sensitive eye of a shrewd outsider, distilling humanity at its essence from the conflict between the cultural and personal mores of his characters; with Life of Pi, he is given the opportunity to merge these differing viewpoints in a story which draws from the elements of both.  In Martel’s novel- and fortunately, in Magee’s screenplay- the literal, narrative-based traditions of the West are blended with the symbolic, inscrutable mysticism of the East, creating a story which satisfies the needs of both; it is simultaneously a tall tale and an object for meditation, an invitation to participate in both a rousing adventure and a spiritual journey, and a celebration of both the outward and inward beauties of the universe.  With a keen understanding of this material, Lee once more coaxes the innermost revelations from his meticulously crafted arrangement of surface details, resulting in a remarkable film that combines his characteristic observational lyricism with the kind of shimmering magic that elevated his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from a straightforward martial arts genre picture to an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Unlike Crouching Tiger, however, Life of Pi is not exactly a fantasy picture; but Lee shoots it as if it were, giving even its most mundane settings a feeling of being larger than life.  He gives us a world where everything seems to shine with an inner glow, possessed of a deeper nature just beneath its surface, and in all his settings- the streets of Pondicherry with their fusion of European and Indian influence, the lush wonderland of the zoo, the cavernous, animal-filled cargo hold of the freighter, the exotic jungle of the mysterious floating island Pi discovers late in the film, and of course the alternately idyllic-and-punishing timelessness of existence in the isolated void of the ocean- everything we see has the a priori familiarity of an archetype, a deeply-embedded subconscious memory of a place we’ve never been.  This is accomplished by the surreal visual atmosphere the director achieves with the help of his artistic and technical team (particularly through the golden-hued palette captured by cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the hauntingly ethereal score by Mychael Danna), but also by a sublime artistic sense that allows him to put all the pieces together with just the right balance of dream-like ephemera and visceral tangibility.

It needs also to be observed that Ang Lee chose to make Life of Pi as a 3D movie, and though I’m not a fan of the current trend towards putting almost everything into this unnecessarily costly and often gratuitous format, his film demonstrates- like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo– what can be done with it in the hands of a truly gifted filmmaker.  Lee uses the extra depth to enhance and expand our experiences in the world of his film, particularly in regard to suggesting the overlay of different perspectives and realities that is of such great importance to the thematic core of the story.  Indeed, though Life of Pi can most certainly be enjoyed and appreciated in the conventional format, I might even venture to say that, at least in terms of artistic relevance to the material, it is the greatest use to date of three-dimensional technology; if at all possible, its a film that definitely warrants the extra effort and expense of an outing to your nearest 3D-equipped multiplex.

Besides the 3D effects, as mentioned before, there are many other technical aids that contribute to Life of Pi; it is safe to say the film would be impossible without them, for though most of the story’s circumstances could likely be provided by standard, pre-digital-age camera trickery, there is at least one crucial element that could probably never be realized without the help of the advanced computer wizardry on display here.  I refer, of course, to the tiger- who has a name I will not reveal here, since I am loath to spoil even the smallest of the movie’s many delights.  The relationship between Pi and this formidable creature is the crux of the entire film; through it comes the majority of the boy’s revelatory experience, his attempts to establish a connection to the awesome and terrifying power of the universe and come to terms with his own true nature.  The beast must seem as fully alive, perhaps even more so, as his human co-star, and it is a testament to the artistry of Lee and his CG technicians that this condition is met beyond any reasonable expectation. Remarkably, the tiger’s presence is almost entirely created digitally- the only live footage comes when he is swimming, and it is virtually impossible to tell the difference.  Pi’s feline companion exudes a palpable reality and a distinct personality, making him arguably the most impressive of the film’s triumphs.

The tiger’s utterly convincing presence is by no means the only triumph of Life of Pi, though, and while the beast is a display of special effects at their most dazzling level, it never overwhelms or upstages the rest of the film.  Rather, the tiger plays its role alongside the flesh-and-blood human cast members so seamlessly that the film’s advertising tag line, “Believe the Unbelievable,” seems entirely apt.  As for the humans, they form a superb ensemble of players, embodying their roles so perfectly as not to call attention to themselves as actors at all.  As so frequently happens in a film of this magnitude, the performers are so much a part of the cohesive whole that they tend to go unnoticed, but nevertheless they deserve praise for their fine work.  In particular, Bollywood actress Tabu and Anil Hussain make an impression as Pi’s mother and father, respectively, as does the lovely Shravanthi Sainath as a girl with whom the young hero enjoys a brief romance before he begins his fateful journey.  As the adult Pi, Irrfan Khan (another Bollywood stalwart) is serene and approachable, yet perhaps, somehow haunted- he makes us want to hear the tale of the journey that shaped him into this enigmatic figure.  As the writer to whom he tells it, Rafe Spall is appropriately likable (suitably enough for a character whose role is to stand in for the audience), but also offers a faint aura of desperation, suggesting that underlying his practical interest in Pi’s narrative as inspiration for his work is the deeper need of a spiritual seeker.  As an interesting side note, Spall was cast only after actor Tobey Maguire had already completed filming his own performance in the role; Lee decided Maguire was too recognizable and his presence would call undue attention to what was essentially, though important, a minor role, and reshot all of his scenes with Spall instead.  Interestingly, iconic French star Gérard Depardieu makes an appearance in another small- but ultimately significant- role as a chef aboard the freighter, making one wonder if his scenes might have been reshot for the film’s French release.

Clearly, though, the most crucial performance must come from the young actor playing 16-year old Pi, whose experiences- both exterior and interior- provide the main body of the film.  Making his screen debut in the role, first-time actor Suraj Sharma rises admirably to the occasion.  Chosen by Lee out of 3000 candidates, he actually attended the audition as an escort to his younger brother, but the director was taken by his appearance and asked him to try for the part; though he went through several rounds of readings, he was eventually chosen to star in the film, but before filming began he underwent extensive training- not only in acting, but in yoga and meditation practices as well as ocean survival.  The resulting performance is as magnificent a film debut as any young actor could hope to deliver, requiring Sharma to portray a profound range of emotional and psychological transformations, and he does so with utter conviction- and charisma on top of that.  He takes us every step of the way through Pi’s journey, without faltering for a moment.  It is a superb piece of film acting, and proves that this young man fully deserves a long and active future in front of the cameras, should he choose to continue on that path.

Though I haven’t said it yet, in so many words, it should be obvious be now that I think Life of Pi is a pretty great movie.  I should accompany that endorsement with the disclaimer that I am a huge fan of the book and also of Ang Lee; but even considering any personal bias, I feel pretty confident in my assessment of the film as one of the best films of 2012.  No doubt there are those who might be skeptical, particularly those unfamiliar with the original book who might suspect it of bring some sort of gooey boy-and-his-tiger adventure.  Rest assured, it is not.  Life of Pi is the story of man’s quest to form a relationship to the mysteries of existence, to reconcile the delicate balance between life and death, and to find within himself the strength and determination to keep going in the face of the uncertain and unknowable.  Like its protagonist, it draws influences from the three religious traditions mentioned above, as well as from a healthy dose of existentialism; it uses its story to explore not only themes of personal development, but of the nature of perception and reality itself.  Some viewers may feel that Pi’s tale is too preposterous to be believable, and to be sure, it strains plausibility increasingly as it progresses; to that, I can only say that this is in itself a part of the film’s unusual power, and that in the end, the story’s very unlikeliness is in fact a key factor to its purpose. Ultimately, Life of Pi asks a great many questions about existence, questions that each of us must face in our own lives, but it doesn’t answer any of them; instead, it challenges us to find our own answers, leaving us puzzled and pondering, stimulated and shaken- but most of all, amazed and- just maybe- a little bit more enlightened.

Before offering a whole-hearted recommendation for Life of Pi, I must also caution that, in spite of the presence of zoo animals and its adventurous overtones, this is not a typical “family” movie; not only does it deal with the sophisticated, “heavy” themes discussed above, it also contains much that could be very upsetting to young children- indeed, even to most adults.  Lee does not shy away from showing us the universe in its most chaotic, destructive, and unmerciful aspect, and though the movie contains a considerable amount of humor and counters its more terrifying content by also capturing the world in its most blissful and sublime beauty, his purpose is not to offer a comforting, sentimentalized vision of a reality in which, despite the scary parts, everything will always turn out alright.  That said, there is nothing inappropriate for young people in Life of Pi, and with guidance and participation from parents, it is probably a much finer choice for family viewing than the majority of safe and formulaic pabulum churned out around the holiday season; I would recommend it heartily above such “tweener” crowd-pleasers as the latest Twilight installment.  As for the rest of the film-going public, I can think of no qualification to offer with my encouragement to see this movie; it is one of those rare examples of mainstream moviemaking that successfully achieves the status of great art, and I have little doubt it will become a classic.  Thus far, Life of Pi has performed respectably at the box office, though it has been predictably overshadowed in a season that also offers impressive revisitations of James Bond and Abe Lincoln in addition, of course, to Twilight’s doe-eyed teenage vampires; let’s hope that it manages to hold its own long enough to ensure an opportunity for all fans of great cinema to experience it in its full glory on the big screen.  If you miss that chance, though, it will still be worth your while to pick it up as soon as it becomes available for home release- and buy, don’t rent.  This one’s a keeper.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454876/

Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407236/

Faust (1994)

Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience.  Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.

Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar.  When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust.  Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.

A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome.  In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other.  A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself.  By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.

That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework.  Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone.  He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives.  In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust.  To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world.  In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life.  They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right.  Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.

That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller.  How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater.  By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare.  Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly.  Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar.  Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain.  The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.

Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so.  His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern.  Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general.  His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers.  Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing.  I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109781/

Bronson (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bronson, the 2008 biopic about England’s most notorious prison inmate, Michael Peterson (who changed his name to Charles Bronson during his brief career as a boxer), whose reputation for violence and trouble-making has led to his having spent the majority of his adult life behind bars- and most of that in solitary confinement.  Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Tom Hardy in the title role, the film takes Peterson’s real-life story and presents it in a highly stylized, theatrical manner, focusing on fictionalized vignettes and incorporating some real-life footage to depict some of the most infamous incidents from his long history.  Rather than a straightforward biography, the movie is more a meditation on the enigmatic nature that causes such antisocial behavior, ultimately leaving its subject’s motivations a mystery and offering no concrete explanation for the impulse towards violence.

Bronson frames its story with a narrative conceit in which Peterson presents his own story, to an unseen but appreciative audience, on a bare stage; in various stages of theatrical make-up, and with a considerable amount of flourish, he gleefully relates his life story, beginning with his childhood as the son of typical middle-class parents in the London suburb of Luton.  Intercutting portrayals of real events with his “performance” in the theater, the film proceeds to relate the general outline of his life.  We see his early marriage to a co-worker who witnesses his first crime (the theft of money from a cash drawer in their shop), his subsequent arrest and incarceration for the armed robbery of a post office, and the continual extension of his 7-year sentence due to his repeated assaults on his guards and fellow inmates.  When frequent transfers to different facilities throughout the penal system fail to curb his violent tendencies, he is declared insane and moved to a mental institution, where despite heavy sedation he nevertheless attempts to murder another patient.  Further transfers lead to further incidents, so he is declared sane and set free.  His return to the outside world is short-lived, however.  After a short career as a fighter in the illegal sport of bare-knuckle boxing (for which, at the suggestion of his promoter, he adopts his new name), a jewelry store robbery lands him back in prison after only 69 days, where he promptly resumes his  escalating cycle of violence, despite showing an interest- and some talent- in art, leading to an ongoing campaign of riots, beatings, and  hostage-taking that continues not only up to the making of the film, but to this day.

The challenge for a filmmaker trying to tell this story is to find a way to avoid making it seem repetitive; Peterson’s life is one brutal fight after another, almost all of which happen in prison cells.  In the screenplay for Bronson, co-written by director Refn with Brock Norman Brock, an elegant solution is found with the bold and decidedly stylized narrative device in which the film’s subject presents his own vision of his life in the “theater of the mind.”  Besides providing a unique means of breaking up the action and offering pithy commentary, this technique creates an almost Brechtian detachment in which, constantly alienated from the story by the obvious artificiality of this conceit, we are encouraged to examine Peterson’s tale with our intellect instead of our emotions; yet, at the same time, by allowing the darkly charismatic criminal to speak for himself, Refn and Brock also make it possible for us to make a connection with him that would be impossible in a more standard approach to his tale.  He is permitted to be polished and eloquent in the spotlight of his fantasy, a stark contrast to the brutish, inarticulate beast we see in the scenes of his real life, and the self-satisfied irony of his performance persona confronts us with a defiantly mocking challenge to our attempts to find reason or logic behind his ferocious nature.  In short, the interstitial theatrics convert the proceedings from a straightforward- if stylish- biographical drama to a somewhat surreal cinematic exploration of the violent mind and its disquieting opposition to the standards of civilized normalcy we take for granted.

Despite this artistic spin, Bronson still struggles with the issue of redundancy; the film’s more concrete depiction of events returns, by necessity, to scenes of its anti-hero beating his handlers to a pulp, making it feel like something of a one-note symphony.  Director Refn, however, a Danish-born wunderkind whose later film, Drive, has firmly established him as an auteur on the rise, manages to find a number of creative stylistic tweaks which prevents the movie from seeming like it is stuck in a loop.  Even when we are not within the clearly marked boundaries of the theatrical framing device, Refn maintains a dreamlike sensibility that keeps us unsure of where we stand in the continuum of reality and illusion; he creates a visually arresting and mentally stimulating atmosphere through his use of bold primary colors, odd lenses and camera angles, and an absurdist perspective in his approach to the mundane aspects of the institutionalized settings.  He varies the environment as much as possible, choosing a number of distinctively different backdrops for Peterson’s myriad brawls and acts of terror (particularly memorable is the re-purposed ballroom that serves as a Fellini-esque purgatory for the scenes in the mental institution) and utilizing a surprisingly diverse assortment of jail cells and common rooms- which has the added effect of underscoring just how many times responsibility for “England’s most violent prisoner” is passed from one facility to another.  Most importantly- and more to Refn’s purpose- the ever-changing backdrops and the hallucinatory sense of heightened reality yield a disorientation that keeps us from anchoring ourselves as we experience Peterson’s journey and, ultimately, reminds us that everything we see here is filtered through the skewed perspective of his mind.

In the center, standing in for the larger-than-life figure himself, is Tom Hardy, making a substantial breakthrough in a career which has since led him to participation in blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.  Given his powerful, commanding performance, it’s no surprise that he has become one of the industry’s most promising stars; his vision of Peterson- with whom he met in person before filming began- is an impressive creation, full of raw, animalistic power (his massive, rock-solid physique contributes greatly in this department) and yet with the spark of considerable native intelligence that makes it impossible to explain away his brutal tendencies as the product of ignorance.  This is a man who knows exactly what he is doing- his violence is a conscious choice, even a calling, and Hardy makes it clear how much pride he takes in it.  What makes his portrayal most effective, perhaps, and in precise tune with Refn’s approach, is the humor he brings to it; ironic, dark and unsettling humor, but effective in helping us into the mind of this flamboyant character.  We may not understand what we find there, but in Hardy’s performance at least, we are captivated by it.  The rest of the performances- small roles, for the most part, reflecting the peripheral nature of others in Peterson’s personal universe- are effective as well, though no one gets much opportunity to shine, save for Matt King as the convict’s fey and seedy former-prison-acquaintance-turned-boxing-promoter and Juliet Oldfield as the young call girl with whom he has a dalliance during his brief taste of freedom.  It’s not meant to be an ensemble piece, however; Bronson is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man show for Hardy, who certainly proves himself up to the challenge.

With such a strong performance to recommend it, showcased in a stylish and visually exciting vehicle by its exceptionally talented director, Bronson succeeds in providing an engaging look at its notorious subject, albeit a highly fictionalized one- numerous facts are significantly altered and others are omitted or made up entirely to suit the purpose of Refn’s vision, which is more along the lines of an expressionist horror film.  The director casts his real-life subject as a sort of monster, though the story is seen from his point of view; Peterson is depicted as a force of chaos, a willful representative of the uncontrollable nature that lurks behind our civilized veneer, and much in the way that Godzilla represented the nuclear demons that lurked in the post-war Japanese zeitgeist, so does this destructive beast stem from our own uneasiness about the wild, untamed impulses surging beneath the surface of our blandly dehumanized society.  Though we struggle to understand the deeper motivations for Peterson’s deranged behavior, he himself offers the simple explanation that he wants to be famous; and in a world where fame and celebrity are the only way to rise above the dull existence of the common throng, it is discomfortingly reasonable to assume that this may, in fact, be the truth.  If he is a monster, he is a monster we have created, and the irony which permeates Hardy’s performance and the film itself aptly underlines this.

Thought-provoking and compelling though this thematic perspective may be, Bronson never really shakes us up in the way other films with a similar take on society have done.  Refn crafts his movie carefully, giving it a distinctive flavor of its own while evoking the memory of such iconic works as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson’s If…, but despite- or perhaps because of- the clear calculation of his vision, in the end the film feels more like an exercise in style than an expression of truth.  Still, that style has considerable appeal, and Bronson, while it may not be gripping, is never boring to watch.  This in itself would earn the film a recommendation, but when Hardy’s deeply committed tour-de-force performance is added into the mix, it’s an irresistible combination.  It may not be a great film, but it offers an exciting early glimpse at the prodigious talent of its two driving forces; both Refn and Hardy are still relatively new in the game, but they seem poised on the brink of long and significant careers, and based on the potential they reveal here, it’s easy to see why.

It should be mentioned that Bronson features a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity, all of it provided by Tom Hardy, thanks to the title character’s penchant for stripping down and covering his body with “war paint” before a brawl.  Depending on your viewpoint regarding such content- and your feelings about Mr. Hardy- this could provide further incentive to schedule a viewing, ASAP.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172570/

The Fall (2006)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Fall, a 2006 film, directed by Tarsem Singh, about a suicidal young man who unfolds an elaborate adventure tale for a little immigrant girl as they recover from injuries in a 1920s-era Los Angeles hospital.  Filmed over the course of four years at locations throughout the world, it was a deeply personal labor of love for its director, largely financed at his own expense.  It was initially released only on the film festival circuit, but, championed by filmmakers Spike Jonez and David Fincher, it was given widespread distribution in 2008, receiving widely mixed reviews; some critics found it a visually interesting bore while others placed it on their best-of-the-year lists, but the consensus was, by and large, mostly favorable, and the film was a moderate box office success.

Based on a 1981 Bulgarian film entitled Yo Ho Ho, The Fall interweaves its main narrative with epic scenes of sweeping fantasy described in the story told by its broken adult protagonist, Roy, a novice movie stunt man whose spine has been damaged in a fall during his first film shoot.  Deeply depressed, he has lost the will to live, but his morose state of mind has less to do with his injury than with the loss of the woman he loves to the movie star for whom he was doubling.  Recovering in the same hospital is Alexandria, a precocious Romanian child whose arm was broken in a fall while picking oranges with her immigrant family; curious and imaginative; she has taken to wandering the corridors and grounds, becoming a favorite among the other patients and the staff, who treat her as something of a mascot.  When she befriends Roy, he begins to entertain her with a fabulous tale of adventure and revenge, in which a masked bandit and his heroic comrades seek revenge against an evil prince for the wrongs he has done them; it becomes clear that his story is shaped as he goes by his own real-life situation, and that his ulterior motive is to use the continuing saga as a means to coerce his young companion into stealing morphine from the hospital’s dispensary in order to facilitate his intended suicide.  As the events of both stories unfold, little Alexandria exerts her own influence, inserting herself into the fantasy and affecting its outcome even as she begins to work her way into Roy’s broken heart.  Eventually, the imaginary epic becomes a vehicle for her desperate efforts to keep Roy’s hope alive- as well as her own.

Tarsem’s screenplay, co-authored with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, is geared towards revealing the triangulated relationship between reality, imagination, and the unconscious mind; but it is the relationship between its two protagonists that dominates the film, despite the resplendent spectacle of the fantasy sequences in which their shared psychodrama plays out.  This is not a negative criticism; on the contrary, the surreal, stream-of-consciousness yarn woven by the convalescent pair is meant to serve as illumination for the real-life process of their psychic healing, not the other way around, and it is a testament of the director’s dedication to his vision that The Fall does not make the fatal error of overwhelming its humanity by emphasizing the adventure plot over the drama which is the true center of the film.  That said, one can’t help wishing at times that a bit more effort had been made to forge a stronger coherence into the fantastical subplot, which is as all-over-the-map in its storyline as it is in its pan-geographical setting; but part of the film’s conceit is that the story morphs to suit the changing emotional needs of Roy and Alexandria, replicating the spontaneity and whimsy of a game of make believe, and though it may cause some frustration in viewers attuned to logical, linear storytelling, its structural malleability is in keeping with the larger purpose at hand.

The changing dynamics of this fantasy narrative yield numerous interesting subtleties.  We see, for example, that its visual manifestation is shaped by little Alexandria through the discrepancies between what Roy describes and what we see, reflecting her different cultural understanding- the bandits and Indians with which he fills his tale are depicted through the lens of her Eastern European, Ottoman-influenced imagination rather than the Hollywood-Western milieu he clearly intends; and the characters populating the adventure are portrayed by those surrounding the little girl in her real life (nurses, orderlies, visitors to the hospital), reflecting her associations and assumptions about them and what they represent for her.  Such clever and thoughtful touches do much to establish the elaborate meta-drama as a stage for the interaction of the two characters’ unconscious minds, as well as providing the source for a considerable amount of humor and even some subtle social commentary.

On a more obvious level, of course, it is these remarkable fantasy sequences that give The Fall its most distinctive quality- the breathtaking visual opulence that is made all the more astonishing by the knowledge that no special effects or computer enhancements were used.  Exotic, spectacular locations across the globe were used to create a surreal world of wonder; we are transported to Moorish palaces, ancient ruins, sparkling reefs, lush forests, otherworldly desertscapes, and monumental structures both well-known and unfamiliar, all beautifully photographed and magnificently showcased by Tarsem and cinematographer Colin Watkinson.  The characters are bedecked in the lavish costumes of Eiko Ishioka, which conjure a timelessly mythic quality made somehow more magical by their authenticity and their exquisite detail; and the larger-than-life majesty of these segments is undercut throughout with a playful spirit that keeps them fun and relieves the comparatively somber mood of the hospital environment in which the rest of the film is set.

Despite its inherent goofiness and its rambling inconsistency, the tale of the Blue Bandit manages to build an emotional weight as it reaches its climax; and though its characters’ fates are rendered irrelevant by the knowledge that they are wholly imaginary, they are nevertheless granted significance because we have come to care about the pair of storytellers who have created them.  It is in those less-rousing hospital scenes that the movie makes the emotional connection necessary to fuel both plots.  It succeeds in doing so largely because of the remarkable chemistry between its two leading players, Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru.  Tarsem cleverly sculpted this crucial element by shooting their segments in sequence, allowing the relationship between the two actors to develop naturally and taking care to keep the intrusiveness of his camera at a minimum- several scenes were filmed through a hole in the curtain surrounding the bed in which Pace’s character is confined, in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy- as well as allowing young Untaru (along with most of the crew) to continue in her initial belief that Pace was actually paraplegic.  In addition, much of their dialogue was unscripted, permitting the girl to use her natural expression; this not only results in a truly genuine performance from the little star, capturing her infectious real-life personality onscreen, but actually bore influence on the film’s scenario, with the director adapting certain elements of the story in response to spontaneous developments that took place in front of the camera.  This organic, delicate approach certainly paid off: the result is one of the most endearing, believable child performances ever put on film, and a magical, touching onscreen relationship that informs everything else that happens in The Fall.  Due credit goes to Pace, as well, who gives us a heart-rending portrayal of a young man crippled by morbid despair even as he manages to hold up his end of the connection with his juvenile co-star, not to mention the considerable task of embodying the fanciful hero of his fabricated saga.

Though the two central performers play an enormous part in making The Fall appealing, the real star is director Tarsem.  Having established himself as a talented film craftsman in the field of commercials and music videos (including the multi-award-winning video for REM’s “Losing My Religion”), he made his feature debut with the stylish 2000 thriller, The Cell, which was sufficiently successful to gain him the clout- and the finances- to make this highly personal film.  Choosing to pay for the bulk of it himself in order to forgo the necessity for compromising his vision to meet the demands of backers, the end result of his dedication is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, laden with magnificent scenery, brilliantly composed frames, a dazzling array of color and light, and threaded through with an obvious reverence for the cinematic medium itself; continually incorporating elements of optical illusion and perceptual trickery (with numerous clear nods to the art of Salvador Dalì), he reminds us of the illusory nature of existence and celebrates the simple magic with which our lives can be enriched- not just on the big screen, but within our own imaginations.  He also proves that his ability is more than merely technical with his savvy handling of the actors and his wise approach of allowing their own artistry to make its contribution to his film, infusing it with an vibrant honesty that makes it much more than so many of the hollow, soulless spectacles foisted upon us in our neighborhood multiplexes today.

The most pertinent question, of course, is the same with The Fall as it is with any other move: is it sufficiently engaging to sustain interest for its two-hour running time?  Many critics- and other viewers- did not think so; doubtless those who were bored were expecting a comfortably predictable adventure fantasy, along the lines of The Princess Bride, with enough artsy quirkiness thrown in to appeal to the highbrow set.  If so, it is no wonder they were disappointed.  Tarsem’s film defies expectation, choosing instead to tell its own, bittersweet little story in a highly unorthodox style; it is a movie about the heart, the mind, and the imagination, and its characters are not the catch-phrase-spouting adventurers that populate standard blockbuster fare, nor is its action the main focus of attention.  Indeed, the movie’s formula is almost an inversion of the norm, with the action and adventure sublimated to serving the needs of the characters’ psychological journeys rather than vice-versa.  Such a switch doesn’t make for heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping excitement, and any viewer looking for such thrills is better off looking elsewhere; but if you’re looking for a rare and unique, highly affecting, thought-provoking experience that shines with the sheer joy of filmmaking as an art- as opposed to a cash cow- then you can’t ask for better than The Fall.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460791/