Saturday, June 30, 2007

Movies watched, week of June 10-16, 2007

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, Mika Kaurismäki, 1994

In 1956, legendary director Samuel Fuller traveled to Brazil to scout out locations for an upcoming movie that was to star John Wayne and Ava Gardner. As has undoubtedly happened many times, the insurance company refused to back the film, and the project was scrapped, leaving behind nothing but a script and some 16mm footage that Fuller shot of the Karaja Indians.

Forty years later, Finnish filmmaker Kaurismäki created this examination of the lost Tigrero, part fiction (in which the actors play themselves) and part documentary spanning multiple subjects, from Fuller’s films to the Karaja and their struggles to preserve a traditional lifestyle in the modern world.

The film opens with a shot of a crocodile snapping a white bird in its jaws, Fuller’s gravelly voice describing a potential chain of events in which another crocodile comes along and starts to fight it, their blood attracting a school of piranhas that devour the crocodiles until nothing is left but their bones—meanwhile, another white bird then swoops down to eat a piranha: “Human nature! Man eat man!” This sequence was Fuller’s intended opener (and closer) to Tigrero. Thus, it seems an appropriate beginning to this film, though it is inexplicably repeated, complete with Fuller’s entire voiceover, in the middle as well.

In the first few scenes, Fuller “surprises” director Jim Jarmusch with a trip to Mato Grosso to meet the Karaja Indians. Here the dialogue is stiff and unnatural, quite obviously staged. As Jarmusch expresses his skepticism about how much the Karaja can possibly remember this man who came to film them more than 40 years earlier, Fuller, chomping on his signature cigar, wags his finger at Jim and contends that “We gotta take a crack at it!” (To which Jarmusch coolly replies, “I think you’re on crack.”) Though fairly amusing, the film is much more effective and engaging once it abandons these attempts at fiction and settles into its documentary status.

Upon arriving in the village of Santa Isabel Do Morro, Fuller finds that much has changed in forty years. While they have maintained much of their culture, they also now have TVs in their grass huts, and a number of brick buildings in their village. Shaking off his initial disappointment, Fuller arranges a screening of the footage from the 50s, which delights the Karaja, many of whom recognize deceased loved ones, and are happily surprised to see them alive again, if for only a moment.

The Organizer, Mario Monicelli, 1963

In this classic Italian film, actor Marcello Mastroianni plays a political refugee taking cover in a small town who assists a group of textile factory workers in organizing a strike against their greedy, smooth talking bosses. The ragtag yet determined workers are met with struggles they hadn’t even imagined, suffering increasingly impoverished conditions and beset with thoughts of surrender—even if their bosses exploit them, at least they’ll be able to eat. The serious subject matter is interspersed with hints of comedy, depicting various aspects of the human condition, both beautiful and devastating.

You’re Gonna Miss Me, Kevin McAlester, 2005

This film about psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson mercifully resists the usual boring rock documentary template in which a bunch of grizzled has-beens reminisce about the glory days, waxing nostalgic on how great everything used to be. You’re Gonna Miss Me isn’t entirely divorced from this format, however, featuring brief commentary from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Gibby Haynes, and others. But despite my initial reaction ("more Thirteenth Floor Elevators!"), I’m relieved that McAlester instead forms a narrative out of mostly present day footage, chronicling Roky’s struggles with mental illness and his family’s battle over how to care for him.

The film is framed by courtroom scenes presenting the case between the Erickson brothers and their mother, Evelyn, over whether or not Roky should be given psychiatric medication and assigned a guardian. Evelyn harbors a deep-seated mistrust of psychiatrists, and prefers that Roky remain independent, treating his illness with herbal medicines and yoga. Her suspicions aren’t unfounded, as Roky came out of his stint at the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane drastically worse off than when he went in. (The tragedy heightens when you realize he was admitted only because of an ill-advised attempt to beat drug charges by pleading insanity.) But it’s evident from our first encounters with Roky that yoga is not going to be enough—the reclusive musician hasn’t actually played music in about fifteen years, his unkempt hair looks like one giant matted dreadlock, and in order to relax he needs to drown out the voices with a cacophony of sounds, from cartoons to white noise emitted from a Casio keyboard.

Evelyn seems a little nutty herself—eccentric at the very least. (She attempted to write up her own divorce decree in calligraphy to make it look more official, but it more closely resembles the study hall doodlings of a teenage metal fan.) In a poignant opening scene, she presents in court a sculpture she made involving five crying clown heads pressed in clay (representing her five sons), surrounding a larger head. When she checked the clay the following morning, the middle head had cracked—highly symbolic, she explains, of how she felt broken.

There’s been much speculation over what precipitated Roky’s schizophrenia. Was it too much acid, electric shock treatments, or plain old genes? After witnessing the rest of his family’s behavior, none of whom are particularly well-adjusted, I sense that while these first two factors undeniably made matters worse (none of his other family members ever believed they were an alien), even if Roky had never done LSD or received shock therapy, he would still not be completely sane.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Tim Story, 2007

This was playing as the first in a double feature with Bug (see below) at a drive-in theater in Poughkeepsie. Despite the unique viewing experience, I feel like I wasted 90 minutes of my life. Any remotely interesting plot points are glossed over to make room for more bad, campy jokes and excessive action scenes. I initially hadn’t even realized that this was a sequel, but my brother assures me that it’s better than its predecessor, which seems kind of inconceivable.

Bug, William Friedkin, 2007

Critical comparisons to Polanski’s Repulsion and a previous directorial credit that’s often referred to as the scariest movie of all time piqued my interest in Bug, a psychological horror film about Agnes, a coke addict living in a cheap motel, who allows a young drifter named Peter to sleep on her floor—and later in her bed. There is something amiss about the man’s behavior from the start, but it doesn’t become apparent until after they’ve had some hilarious, ridiculous movie sex, highlights of which include sweaty floating nipples juxtaposed with images of a praying mantis. Peter claims to find aphids in the bed (which, of course, no one else can see), eventually claiming that they’re under his skin and the only way to expel them is to cut the egg sacs out of his body. He manages to involve Agnes in his delusions—while it seems that the intension is to maintain an ambiguity concerning the nature of the bugs, I think it’s clear that they’re a hallucination—and they redecorate her motel room in a Warhol’s Factory meets psych ward motif, with aluminum foil covering every surface (to scramble the signal), and bug zappers hanging like creepy buzzing lanterns. I like the premise—escalating paranoia that continues to gain momentum until an explosive (literally) ending—but it’s poorly executed, hysterically over-acted, and somehow kind of boring.

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