31 January 2011

Silent Souls and Kawasaki's Rose

Right away, it was so nice PIFF had begun again. Silent Souls opens with an in-motion tracking shot: we're behind a bicycle with a bird cage resting on its rear, two birds inside. Switch to a reverse POV: a moment for the viewer to simply soak in the passing forest, the small puddles of water on the asphalt, the emotion of motion. I felt it then, and it was what we all said to each other when the movie was over: this is why we love movies. Poetry is alive in cinema. We (I) sometimes forget after so many visits to American multiplexes, but today we (I) remembered.

Silent Souls is a Russian movie with the personality of Russian and Finnish movies, and the film is about the Merja people, an ethnic minority from a historically Finnish enclave of Russia, a people experiencing the steady extinction of their culture, customs, and memories. The film explores internal and external reasons for this, and Aist admits that "no one remember anymore" the history of certain Merja traditions.

A terrible feeling of sadness of loss haunts the film. Aist (the narrator and one of two protagonists) has been asked by his friend Miron to travel with him to an emotionally significant river in order to perform the Merja death ritual, which involves rivers. A river is a sort of highway to heaven, and Aist tells us that if a Merja dies by drowning, they will simply weigh the body down without performing the death ritual. For them drowning is a privilege, and purposeful drowning is considered impolite, like cutting in line to arrive at heaven.

"A woman's body is also a river that carries grief away."

It captures well the feeling of hopeless loneliness in the midst of people - the type of loneliness sometimes called the worst. Aist and Miron, often in a car together, for most of the film together, seem incapable of truly bridging the distance between themselves, of truly connecting to each other. Another Merja custom is "smoking." Smoking is sharing private things about the dead that wouldn't have been shared while the person was alive; a process Aist refers to as turning "grief into tenderness" (a lovely sentiment worth expressing and demonstrating). Miron is sometimes smoking, but Aist wonders what Miron isn't saying, if he's really sharing anything unknown, and the audience is allowed to know, through flashbacks, things we can wonder whether the two know about each other.

The second film was Kawasaki's Rose, from Czech Republic, directed by Jan Hrebejk, whose film Shameless I saw at least year's PIFF. Like in Shameless, Hrebejk weaves disparate emotions into an unusually shaped narrative that flashes with moments of pain, beauty, and love. For example, there is a musical sequence of petty theft (chocolate bars) and arrest. This quality I most admire about Hrebejk.

It's a quality well-suited to some of Kawasaki's Rose, a film that explores entangled familial and national relationships. A son-in-law, who is a "jealous outcast from the family church," uncovers damaging secrets about a father-in-law he's always despised, and then much of the film deals with sins of the past haunting the sinner and sinned-against in the present. Unfortunately some of this material doesn't allow Hrebejk to shine. Branching paths are sometimes ideological rather than emotional, despite Hrebejk attempting to make them otherwise, and most points are followed through to their near-conclusions, which created a feeling of disconnect for me.

Kawasaki's Rose, like Silent Souls, has a theme of "a common fight against the loss of collective memory," but Silent Souls makes this theme universal and transcendent, and I think Kawasaki's Rose fails to do this. It fails because it has a specific, political agenda at its core, and though it searches for several ways to unbound its themes, including a documentary project within the movie, and the introduction of characters of different perspectives, its vacillation between the spiritual and tangible contaminates the sincerity of each. I would think my unfamiliarity with Czech politics of the 70s was one of the problems, but the film spends plenty of time explicating the historical political climate: doesn't this make it the film's problem and not mine? I guess maybe, maybe not.

27 January 2011


It's a rather straight path to the heart of Alucarda; it begins with a little bit of madness, a dying mother trusting a wild looking gypsy to deliver her newborn baby girl to a convent, and ends in total madness. The insanity of its closing moments would be terribly fun to describe, but if you've seen the movie you already know, and if you haven't seen it I wouldn't want to give it away.

"They used the most evil language I ever heard to recognize Satan as their lord and master."

Although clearly made by a serious devotee of horror mythology, its exact roots seem difficult to delineate. The grandmommy of them all, the novella Carmilla, is likely an influence, but the title is of course the feminine version of the backwards spelled Dracula, first used as the name of Dracula's son in 1943's Son of Dracula.

The director Juan López Moctezuma began in the theater. Early in his career he encountered, befriended, and collaborated with Alejandro Jodorowsky, working in producing roles on Fando y Lis and El Topo. The mania of Jodorowsky's films is present in Alucarda; the two filmmakers share a creative point of view of visual and thematic adventurousness. But then, the 70s were like that, weren't they?

"This is not an act of faith! This is the most primitive expression of ignorance I've ever seen!"

"Now, how can you explain this from your scientific point of view?"

There isn't much in the way of political subversiveness, at least compared to the extreme heights of other films' political subversiveness at the time. Moctezuma seems both critical and curious about religion; the film both attacks and sympathizes with the nuns and priests. It's interesting that the nuns are not dressed in traditional nun habits, but rather wrapped in white cloth almost like mummies. The whiteness of their strange clothes is, of course, perfect for soaking the red of blood.

There are a few moments of pure diabolical playfulness and bucolic bliss, but not to the extent of Séria's Don't Deliver Us From Evil. Moctezuma's agenda is to create a seriously sinister demonic possession movie, but his is more jubilant, sensational, and playful than Friedkin's brow-sweating and anti-everything The Exorcist. It's insane like Russell's The Devils, but doesn't make you feel insane yourself like that movie does.

Point is, Alucarda, despite its similarities and dissimilarities with other movies, is its own thing. The movie works as it is, and would work if those other movies didn't exist. Moctezuma's seriousness and passion win. When watching the movie the emotion which overrides all others is appreciation, an appreciation for cinematic form and the ability of filmmakers with talent and heart to enmesh the unrealities of fantastic cinema with the unrealities of the human spirit.

09 January 2011

Mystics in Bali!

Old Leák Queen: What is her name, and where does she come from?
Catherine: Catherine Kean from the USA.
Old Leák Queen: Hmm. And where is that?
Mahendra: Very far away.
"Here there is even a western actress playing a key role. In fact, the elusive Ilona Agathe Bastian was not an actress at all, but a German tourist holidaying in Bali. She was spotted by the wife of one of the film's producers and it didn't take much to persuade her to stay on for a few months free holiday." -production notes.

H. Tjut Djalil is a new hero of mine. This, Mystics in Bali, is the second film of his I've seen, following Lady Terminator. He is a director of keen imagination and sharp cinematic wit. Roughly a year ago I didn't even know Eastern black magic horror films existed. Which is appropriate: here I was in the house of film, and black magic was being practiced in the back yard. Of course! The ones that I've seen, including a recent theatrical screening of Boxer's Omen, are among the craziest, most enjoyable movies I've ever seen. They lack the tiresome earnestness and rectitude of Christian horror films, and their potential for engaging supernatural phenomenon is greater.

"I'm surprised that a pretty girl like you would be interested in learning black magic."
- the first line of Mystics in Bali

H. Tjut Djalil is a genre surrealist. Neutral, monotonic voice dubs and plastic-faced actors engender a strange impassiveness as the protagonists journey to learn the intricacies of Leak Bali, a black magic which could be the church of Lynch. The roots of its power seem to be joyless high-pitched laughter. The laughter is one aspect of black magic taught by the face-shifting Old Leák Queen, who takes on Catherine as an apprentice. Of the things the Old Leák Queen teaches Catherine, the most important is drinking newborn blood by way of disembodied, floating head.

Blood has a restorative power for the Leaks, and infant blood is best. Like other exploitation movies, kicks are to be had, intentional and not. Some of the dialogue exits in this movie are extraordinary. When Catherine vomits green goo and live mice, Mahendra blames the prior evening's meal! Absurd on the one hand, but true on the other: does Mahendra know of the prior evening's metamorphosis, the transformation of Catherine from human to pig (Leaks can do this[!])?

Mahendra starts Catherine down the dark path of black magic. She asks him to; she's learned about African Voodooism already, and now wants introduction to Leak Bali, the strongest black magic in the world. It ends badly, unfortunately for Catherine and Mahendra, but fortunately for the audience, and really Mahendra is a great guy who cared about Catherine and meant best.

08 January 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

If I'm going to dig through the trash, I'm bound to inspect other people's garbage. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 1992 movie, puts to the test my idea of a lasting place for all films in curious hearts, and a permanent value for them as historical records. A recent theatrical opportunity was, like Basket Case, a testament to the fervor of its followers, who might say the film isn't material for a tolerance test but good material. Simply, I disagree with the assertion in Buffy's case, and remain interminably ignorant of the television show and the show's spin-off. I consider it passable material.

I'll attempt to avoid dismissive language that might reduce the conversation to the purely taste based. As a film, Buffy is a specific breed of popular 90s filmmaking: a vampire element (genre emblem) is subordinate to related vampire hunting mythology (subgenre), subordinate to teenage allegory (demographic), subordinate to broad ranged teen comedy (Hollywood). It's execution is as a generic and broad ranged teen comedy. It functions as a teenage allegory as the vampire myth is secondary to the myth of Buffy, and the film is structured on her acceptance of new adult roles. Its efficacy boils down to your emotional investment in Buffy, who is written to attract sympathy and become liked.

Mostly the direction is functional, sometimes perfunctory. Working directors, without personal agenda (or vision), from Sam Wood and Lloyd Bacon to the present, are always the first to be accused of artlessness. When you feel the hand of Fran Rubel Kuzui in the movie it's in short, disconnected moments; stylistic choices, like the perfect push in on Buffy when the vampires arrive at the dance, are rare. It's occasionally decently written, sometimes entertaining. It can be both ("I'm the chosen one, and I choose to be shopping"). Too much time is spent satirizing 90's breed airheads, and either airheads are now more sophisticated or, more likely, filmmakers have become more sophisticated at portraying them. Several actors in the film were popular at the time, and several made names for themselves later on. I don't think it's worth discussing in this case. The performances are neither good nor bad. They are conspicuously performances, people pretending, without passion. Several times humor is used to puncture the artificiality, most notably in the instance of Paul Reubens's prolonged death.

The movie's deficiency, compared to other movies of the type that I enjoy, is the limited scope of personal, internal material. Little is undiscoverable, mysterious, or captivating in either the written characters, the actors' performances, or anyone else involved, behind the camera or in front, and it fails to capture the reality of the time and place. It's clearly made in the 90s, but says nothing interesting about the 90s. The weak direction limits its potential as spectacular dross, and too the film's conventional middle-class values make it less thrilling, less compelling. Taken as a teen comedy, the vampire stuff gets in the way; a discordance that generates copious exposition potential for the writer, but ultimately reveals little about teenagers or vampires. As a character based drama it's most successful, but I have difficulties imagining an enduring legacy for Buffy without the television show.

05 January 2011

Basket Case (1982)

"But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call

- from Frank O'Hara's Why I Am Not a Painter, because this could be Why I Am Not a Critic, as it's only tangentially a discussion of Basket Case:

It's difficult for me to imagine a mainstream one-thousand theater rerelease of Basket Case, mainly because it's never enjoyed such mammoth distribution. The film, even in its time of production, was self-consciously executed from the margins. Made by a certain type of movie fan, it's dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis, for a reciprocating audience familiar with its rote of camp and humor infused gore and horror, it has fared better than some of its contemporaries that didn't make it to dvd and don't enjoy reputations. The lifespans of this film type are entirely dependent upon fans of the movies, as the film is released by an independent distributor, Something Weird, and has only a sliver of cultural relevance. If not for its esoteric demand it could easily become lost, and, more terrifying to me, people could easily question the relevance of its disappearance. While films by Orson Welles are still underseen and underreleased, who cares about Basket Case? I care about both, and think everyone else should too.

The question of its perpetuation is for me a matter of social self-censorship, a matter of the merits of Basket Case versus the reality of Basket Case. Films like this are now rarely ever made, supplanted mostly by films of ironic self-consciousness, and far better produced films, and distribution for independent films is ever diminishing. Within Basket Case, for example, shot in New York City, 1982, the protagonist strolls by a kung-fu theater playing a triple feature next to a grindhouse with its own set of features. In John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Ben Gazzara takes his dancer girlfriends to a kung-fu theater and has to ask the girls to leave because they're still sitting after three movies! Three kung-fu movies! This culture, even in its time marginal, has mostly disappeared. Its lingering presence can be relished in revival screenings, in youth populated revival screenings, wherein the majority excitedly see the movie for a first time or attend for an "experience," and especially in random encounters with aging film fans. Nothing reminds me of the shared, universal condition of human suffering and longing so much as encountering a genuine fan of a movie after a revival screening, someone seeing it for the second time since its initial theatrical release, even better if it's a non-cinephile, and only loves the particular movie and had to see it again. For me, the more esoteric the film, the deeper the connection, because I often have meaningful conversations about popular films, but rarely have the chance for passionate conversation about the obscure, and treasure when I do. The conversation can be of a delicate, personal nature, the kind prone to evaporate with time.

Films from the margins often show or appeal to the marginalized. For example, their actors are often less talented, less perfectly beautiful, or never became well-known enough for their looks and talent to receive popular validation. Sometimes they are unappealing, sometimes despicable, sometimes outrageous. In this way outsider independent films can depict overlooked characters in a society, people not usually on screens, screens more and more reserved for manufactured, big-budgeted entertainment. So in time an outsider film can come to be defined by what it does show, the particular forms of personality and character it exhibits.

Cities well-known for filmmaking often tend to depict shifting populations. Think of the shades of urban character that flourish and vanish through decades of Los Angeles film, and the continuing near-eradication of particular forms of eccentricity that used to be a striking characteristic of New York City's personality. Bright, imaginative, fresh-thinking NYC films still exist for a different type of minority, one that has always blossomed in the film community: the sophisticated, cultured film fan. Recent NYC movies like Momma's Man, Frownland, and Tiny Furniture prosper because their subjects are members of the viewing cadre, and they're great films, but it's hard to imagine Gazzara's dancers sitting through them in succession*!

Diminished and homogeneous genre films, and other forms of esotericism, are partially to blame for the receding scope of independent films. The baby has been thrown out with the bath water. As smaller independent theaters, production companies, and distributors leave the stage, theatrical options narrow, and with them the potential for diverse encounters. Quality levels have risen, in theaters and films, but the curious and unconventional continue to die out^. All film fans have recently heard the repopularized "I'd rather stay home and watch television (!)" The reason for this get-the-fuck-out-of-town comment's revitalization is that television has begun to surprise its audiences, while cinema only flatters.

Cinematic taste has turned the corner while fleeing from Basket Case and films like it, and that's too bad. The progress of narrative variety and the evolution of filmic curiosity shouldn't be slowed to accommodate the safe or familiar. It's not that I want Basket Case to be remade again, the solution Hollywood suggests with their surge of remakes, it's that I see a necessity for an environment of creativity that allows for films like it to be made. In order to sustain the legacy of Basket Case, the outer boundaries of the imagination must continually be sought by filmmakers of all types. While continuing to ask for honesty, I also ask for invention, and gratefully welcome the intrusion of dreams.

* Momma's Man, Frownland, and Tiny Furniture, while not portraying an audience generating minority, due of course portray the statistically marginal, and are made deliberately non-mainstream in order to appeal to a certain group. They don't have well-known actors and they receive limited distribution. Like Basket Case, they sometimes challenge your reasons for watching them with either poor or atypical decisions and processes. The films' specific tones and points of view alienate audiences seeking comfortable inclusion, but reward the curious. I love them, and love that they get shown, but they're not the subject here. They should stay the same and in addition there can be other types of films.

^ If I must mention Internet alternatives well here I have, but it's not really the subject.

03 January 2011

Heat (1995)

Films are historical documents, even when they lie to us. They are a recorded reality first, entirely or partially fabricated stories and characters second. By the nature of film and natural processes the real life context of films evaporate with time, so for example future people may not be aware of Al Pacino's other work or his social life, and that part of him may cease to exist, but as they view the film Heat they will be reminded of the existence and past reality of Al Pacino. For me this is the vital feature of film theory, and it is the vantage point from which I attempt to view film. It's important here because Michael Mann has a prized, well-earned reputation for accuracy in his depictions of violence, crime, and action, but a dual reputation for escalating tension, achieved by focused structuralism, low-key but ubiquitous glitz, and robust dramaturgy. Mann's film style itself is bedizen with harmonious philosophies, and this is a central theme in his film Heat.

The way Neil McCauley, Robert De Niro, holds his rifle is a detail of realistic drama Mann portrays superiorly well because the primary aspects that concern him are McCauley's professionalism and skill, and he expresses the character primarily by exhibiting these characteristics. If someone's a good flute player, it's worth mentioning, and Mann thinks it's worth mentioning multiple times in different ways from alternative perspectives, with long flute playing scenes, and friends who also play instruments. Thus, each scene develops said motifs and contributes thematic continuity to the film's dramatic structure.

Mann replaces typical action movie dramatic nonsense, bridges between action scenes, with idiosyncratic, pop art, advertisement chic inspired nonsense. In Mann's films the action scenes are reality and the characters' lives are fantasy; this sentiment is explored interiorly in the film's major dramatic scene, the conversation between De Niro and Pacino over coffee. Their characters can neither do nor even consider doing anything else; they are to their essence, respectively, a criminal and a cop. Life, everything else, is second.

On a simple level, Mann's auteurism organizes the drama. After the film's centerpiece bank robbery an hour of the film remains, and in order to keep you interested Mann unleashes knock-outs from three major dramatic strands. The love life dramas reach apotheoses, in dramatic synchronization, and the stakes swell to vertiginous heights. Like his action scenes, Mann doesn't leave drama to the imagination. He's precise and articulate.

Criminal behavior is a lingering fascination with filmmakers; perhaps some who are technically minded see clearly that filmmaking and crime share more than dramatic properties. Certain filmmakers excel at identifying with obsessive, autodidactic or well-educated experts in specialized fields because this is what they are themselves. Precision and articulation are cherished features in crime film sequences, as they require a high level of intimate knowledge on the specifics of the subject. Ex-convicts and ex-cops can produce authentic seeming material, as in Edward Bunker's No Beast So Fierce, turned into the film Straight Time, as well as others close to the lives of criminals, such as ex-lawyer George Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle, turned into a film of the same name. Mann is well known to have consulted and made relationships with real life convicts and cops while designing Heat, which is rooted in a real life crime story.

If I accept Heat's dramatic conditions it presents me the opportunity to learn about the personality of the filmmaker, his characters, and their obsessions. He chooses an expressionistic atmosphere to evoke the emotions of his characters, and succeeds in achieving sometimes spectacular reality, sometimes dynamic fabrication. It's difficult for me to categorize my responses to films that conspicuously weld fantasy and reality, entangled as my feelings are by the performance of the film, especially those of total fusion of romance and reality, which is what I think Mann wants to achieve in Heat. In this way the film has a life in my memories and imagination.

02 January 2011

Lady Terminator!

"The role of Nyai Loro Kidul as a Javanese Spirit-Queen became a popular motif in traditional Javanese folklore and palace mythologies, as well as being tied in with the beauty of Sundanese and Javanese princesses. Another aspect of her mythology was her ability to change shape several times a day."

Lady Terminator is an Indonesian action myth-fi, based loosely on stories of the South Sea Queen, reinterpreted with central images borrowed from James Cameron's Terminator. It shares the action spectacle excess of outrageous Hollywood action films and the sloppy short-hand dramatics of a poorly written b-film. It was my first Indonesian genre film. My understanding is that there was a wave of these types of productions in Indonesia, and seeing this movie and later learning this feels like discovering treasure chests on the seabed of cinema.

The riches of this film are found in the execution of the material, its performance as a film narrative. It's written for an audience, by a filmmaker who thinks as an audience member, particularly an audience member seeing the movie in a mall or multiplex, the populist, consumerist audience member. It's written and directed to be this kind of mainstream formulaic movie, but the filmmaker fucks it up in a thousand exciting and different ways that make the film a thousand times more interesting than those movies usually are. For me the idea of a Hollywood style film from a non-Hollywood location is richly compelling, as with genre films from the southern United States, Australia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, France, etc., because parts of the filmmaker's outsider personality will inherently corrode the mechanization of material that's such an annoying and artless feature of many Hollywood films themselves. The filmmakers who attempt to curb this natural tendency are the bad ones, the ones as bad as the Hollywood filmmakers. The filmmakers who make movies like Lady Terminator are gems, treasures of the film world, unconscious documentarians of the human soul in flight from reality.

The movie wisely steals several attractive features from the Terminator series: the tech noir vibe, the unstoppable murdering machine (with compelling backstory), and key scenes, including the downtown car chase (!), are directly imitated.

Most of the heavy-duty action material is performed by an actress named Barbara Anne Constable, who apparently acted in several other regional films and never expected Lady Terminator to be seen overseas. Lady Terminator is her sole credit listed on IMDb.

Constable is badass in Lady Terminator, in presence and performance. She does things no other human being will likely ever do, with a gusto and brazenness that only a skilled and daring actress could bring to a role. It's impossible to imagine her character existing in the real world, and yet simultaneously easy to sense the presence of a personality and distinct acting choices beneath her performance - qualities that bring the unreal to life! Her character is a spirit-possessed human, and this allows acting space for a role previously played, in the Terminator series, as emotionally barren by consequence of robotics.

Like many other action b-films the dialogue is dramatically perfunctory and bridges together action scenes. Unlike many other action b-films the action is frequent and engaging. Its successes are easy to calculate: play the film before an audience and listen to them. I saw it at the end of a triple-feature that began with Master of the Flying Guillotine and Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead and this one was my favorite - and I really like the first two - because most of the components that contribute to the perception of this film as a failure are for me very entertaining, interesting, and human, and all the little blemishes are simply stimulators for my imagination and curiosity, as with the best of films.