Thursday, April 17, 2008

Movies watched, March 9-22, 2008

Story of a Junkie, Lech Kowalski, 1987

Documentary filmmaker Lech Kowalski (of such punk movies as D.O.A. and Hey Is Dee Dee Home) chronicles the day-to-day activities of John Spaceley, a.k.a. Gringo, an eye patch-wearing junkie living on the Lower East Side in the early 80s. Cloaked in perpetual darkness, teeming with graffiti, and populated by junkies, thieves, and freaks, the film accentuates the real Mad Max qualities that New York once possessed (particularly in the scene in which our eye patched hero is skateboarding down a dark, gloom-laden street with a motorcycle gang in tow). In this way, much of it feels less like a documentary than a B-grade Escape from New York.

The film does include straight documentary footage, but much of it falls into murkier territory. One could call it a quasi-documentary, as all of the people portrayed are real “street characters,” as Kowalski describes them in the DVD commentary, filmed in real locations and circumstances—basically, Kowalski would bring these people together, put them in situations that they would often find themselves in anyway, and let the camera roll. It’s authentic, yet not quite—essentially set-up only in that the participants were aware of the camera’s presence. A few scenes were, admittedly, outright stagings—the murder scene, for instance—based on real events that Kowalski witnessed and recreated for the film. Spaceley was never in on this though, so as to capture his true reactions to his surroundings—in the aforementioned murder scene, as soon as the shot is fired Spaceley takes off down the street, genuinely terrified.

As one might imagine considering the subject matter, the film is often disturbingly graphic. One witnesses people shooting up, suffering through withdrawal (with the inevitable profuse vomiting), and flagrantly sharing needles at shooting galleries, a particularly uncomfortable moment knowing that many of these people will later die of AIDS as a result of these activities.

The film is shot in a pre-gentrified Lower East Side and Soho, when they were vastly different from the chic locales they’ve become today. Yet they’re still vaguely recognizable—the funny thing about Manhattan is that despite all the development, how much these neighborhoods have changed in the past 20 years, there are still elements of the past preserved “like a seasoning” (as Luc Sante writes in his essay “My Lost City”), so that if you were to squint you could almost imagine Spaceley hustling on the corner, crouched over a comic book, or uncertainly making his way down the street in his snazzy white boots.

Not a Photograph, Jeffrey Iwanicki, 2006

“What happens when the most influential band you never heard reunites after 19 years?” This documentary about Boston’s legendary Mission of Burma attempts to answer that question, but unfortunately I’m far less interested in what they’re doing now than in what they were doing then. Not that I haven’t appreciated the newfound chance to see one of my favorite bands play—and for a bunch of 40 year olds, they monumentally surpass most of their contemporary competition. (I especially enjoyed their rendition of the Dicks’ “Hate the Police” onstage in Austin. Granted, I’d just seen the newly reunited Dicks play it too, but it was nonetheless cool.) And perhaps that’s the issue: I was there for the reuniting. I wanted the film to show me what I wasn’t there for: the history, the context, the early live footage, and so on. Not a Photograph does allocate a brief chronicling of the band’s beginnings and significant musical legacy, but not in enough detail for me.

Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982

An aging German film star meets a sports writer, who, after a brief affair with the unstable actress, becomes suspicious of her doctor and self-proclaimed “best friend,” believing her to be keeping Voss pumped full of
morphine in order to slowly deplete her assets. The film uncannily captures the look and feel of an old film, despite its being released in 1982, evoking a kind of German Sunset Boulevard.

Minority Report, Steven Spielberg, 2002

While this movie is enjoyable as a suspenseful, futuristic thriller, there’s too much of Steven Spielberg in there to transcend beyond pure entertainment. It’s too slick, and maudlin at times, failing to capture the paranoid, druggy atmosphere of a Philip K. Dick story.

The Elephant Man, David Lynch, 1980

While The Elephant Man is one of David Lynch’s more conventionally plotted films, there are elements of his distinctive style present, such as a slow, nightmarish montage of marching elephants superimposed over women’s faces. This sequence seems to depict the explanation of how the Elephant Man came to be, according to Bytes, the sideshow man: “Consider the fate of this creature's poor mother, struck down in the fourth month of her maternal condition by an elephant.”

The film is more or less faithful to the story of the Elephant Man, though the events of his life are represented somewhat out of order, with perhaps a few embellishments. John Merrick (whose name, apparently, was actually Joseph) suffered not from any elephant attacks, as Bytes would have one believe, but from Proteus syndrome, a disorder that causes skin overgrowth and atypical bone development, often accompanied by massive tumors. In short, he was severely disfigured, the growths on his head so enormous that he could not sleep lying down for fear of breaking his neck (more on this in a moment). Despite his ailment’s being of a physical nature, many presumed him to be mentally deficient as well, perhaps simply because they did not want to imagine the horror of a normal, intelligent man trapped inside such a grotesquely malformed body. (“Pray to God he’s an idiot,” as Dr. Treves says, following Merrick’s first exposure to the medical community.)

Unfortunately, he is far from an idiot. As the film’s quintessential anguished line goes, “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” Beneath the misshapen façade, Merrick is a sensitive, refined, and loving son, with a love of poetry and theater, and a talent for drawing (he builds a cathedral made of cards based on the spire he sees from his window, using his imagination to supply the rest—the card cathedral can be see on display at the Royal London Hospital Museum).

Merrick died at 27 in his sleep when his neck was dislocated, due to the weight of his massive head. Merrick was well aware of the risk he was taking by sleeping on his back, but he did it anyway, his desire to be normal was so intense. (According to Wikipedia, Merrick had expressed the desire to visit a hospital for the blind so he could find a woman who could not see him, who could love him for who he was.) And thus was the plight of the Elephant Man—people tried to abuse him and exploit him, while others wanted to gape at the spectacle of his hideousness, but few truly cared for him.

Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck, 2007

I really can’t figure out what people saw in this “critically acclaimed” movie. I found it to be a rather predictable thriller, plagued by unlistenable Bahston accents, and implementing every silly plot effect (for instance, blocking out sound and then letting it back in for maximum effect) that you’ve seen countless times before. Boring.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Movies watched, March 1-8, 2008

Funny Games, Michael Haneke, 1997

In this Austrian horror film, two preppy-looking young men take a family hostage inside their own vacation home and torture them throughout the course of the night. Far from a conventional thriller of this ilk, Haneke takes a self-examining approach, employing various techniques that force the viewer to contemplate their responses to the film’s violence. For instance, one of the killers dislikes the outcome of a particular scene, so he “rewinds” the film so he can redo it. This interruption in the plot not only draws attention to the fact that we’re watching a movie, but sparks the viewer to stop and reflect on it a little longer than they might otherwise have done. At least that’s the intention—I found the rewinding to be kind of annoying.

The killers often address the audience directly, shifting responsibility for their actions upon the viewer. It implies that by watching a violent film, the viewer is somehow complicit, allowing the violence to happen—as if we can protest. I suppose one could challenge our reasons for finding such films entertaining (this is often attributed to an inherent desire for emotional stimulation), but to suggest culpability for the fictional characters’ crimes is a bit farfetched. Maybe I’m oversimplifying a complex idea, but regardless, I think I’d rather just watch a film and analyze it as I see fit. I don’t need the director forcing me into philosophical reflection.

Sicko, Michael Moore, 2007

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary addresses the many flaws of the American healthcare system, in which insurance company staff are rewarded for denying coverage to their customers. In addition to interviewing various victims and employees of this profit-driven system, Moore visits several countries that practice universal healthcare.

In a British hospital, the only cashier he can find actually exists to give out, rather than collect, money; if patients can provide a receipt for taking public transportation to the hospital, they will be reimbursed for their expenses. This is rather bewildering for someone who is used to patients being charged for ambulance rides—in one scene, a woman describes how her insurance company denied coverage for her ride from an accident scene to the hospital because she hadn’t pre-approved it, despite the fact that she was unconscious for the trip.

Residents of countries with a universal healthcare system generally seem not only healthier but also happier, the result of a vastly different mindset and approach to life. Europeans, for instance, work less—they have a 35-hour work week and often enjoy upwards of four weeks vacation a year—as opposed to the doggedly work-minded Americans who often spend upwards of 60 hours a week in the office (and two weeks or less on vacation). There’s a clip included in the film in which George W. Bush meets a woman who works three jobs in order to make ends meet. While to me there is something horribly wrong with this picture—to put it simply, the cost of living grossly exceeds the average wage—Bush praises the woman for her steadfast work ethic, proudly beaming as if hers is an admirable situation we can all aspire to: “Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic.” Uniquely American, indeed.

As in any Moore documentary there are a few gimmicks employed, and while I’m not a particularly big fan of this practice, they’re nonetheless effective. For instance, Moore transports a group of ailing 9/11 volunteers to Cuba, where they receive better healthcare than they did in the United States, one woman finding that her $240 a month inhaler costs five cents in a Cuban pharmacy. Never mind that Moore rather sneakily draws on our sympathies with dramatic stories of these American heroes turned out in the cold—the five cent inhaler drives the point home pretty clearly.

And so, as this film illustrates, it is possible to efficiently and effectively provide universal healthcare to the masses, yet America severely falls behind in its practices—we’re perversely more concerned with profits than with our own citizens’ wellbeing.

Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972

A weathered-looking, middle-aged man named Paul (Marlon Brando) and a beautiful young woman named Jeanne are brought together by fate in an empty Paris apartment. Paul’s wife has just committed suicide, and Jeanne is about to be married to an obnoxious filmmaker (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose performance is somewhat derivative of that of his previous characters—a little more about this below). They don’t know this about one another though—they don’t even know each other’s names, which is the driving force of their affair. Their relationship exists solely within the walls of this large and barren apartment; it could not subsist in the real world.

The film is best known for its graphic depictions of sex, which in this case is not nearly as romantic as it is brutal—instead of passion one witnesses two lonely souls desperate for human contact. It’s difficult to mention this aspect without referring to the infamous “butter scene,” in which Paul and Jeanne have anal sex, using butter as a lubricant. The actress playing Jeanne later revealed that despite the simulation she truly felt violated by this act, that her tears of humiliation are real.

Brando’s anguished performance is intense, most notably a powerful, grief-stricken monologue over the body of his dead wife, in which he cycles from berating her, calling her a “cheap, goddamn, fucking, godforsaken whore,” to mournfully removing her makeup (“you never wore this fucking shit”), and sobbing uncontrollably (“I don’t know why you did it!”) His character is much more complex and multi-faceted than that of Jeanne—whether this is because of the script or their performances, I can’t say, but Brando definitely makes the character his own.

As I said before, their relationship could not exist outside the apartment—and when they eventually meet up again, and Paul reveals his name and tells her about his life, the change in dynamic is palpable. It’s also a case of “too little too late”—he wants to pursue a normal relationship (“We left the apartment and now we begin and love all the rest of it”) but at this point she is desperate to put it behind her, to forget he ever existed.

The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973

Released a few years after the French New Wave and the protests of May 1968, this film looks back at these heady times with romantic nostalgia, referencing them on various occasions: “After crises one must forget everything quickly. Erase everything. Like France after the occupation, like France after May ‘68. You recover like France after May ‘68.” It emulates the films of the Nouvelle Vague in style and technique, with its black and white cinematography, natural lighting, lengthy exchanges of intellectual banter, and the casting of classic New Wave actors Jean-Pierre Léaud and Marie Lafont (who starred in Truffaut’s first short, Les Mistons). It’s difficult to separate Léaud from the performance he’s most associated with—Antoine Doinel, a character (and to a certain extent an alter-ego of Truffaut himself) whose development is portrayed over the course of five films spanning 20 years. He conveys a frenzied, romantic aura in his distinct movements, gestures, and manner of speaking—perhaps a bit pretentious, yet charmingly so.

The film spans a few days in the life of a 20-something French intellectual named Alexandre, who lives with—and is supported by—his lover, Marie. Alexandre spends his days idly chatting at the famed Deux Magots café, where at the start of the film he scores the phone number of a young woman at a nearby table. Marie is fully aware of his romantic pursuit after Veronika (the “whore” to Marie’s “mother”); as one might guess, their relationship is rather complicated, not to mention one-sided. Alexandre is up front about his interest in other women, which Marie initially seems not to mind, but she gradually begins to voice her frustrations, which seem to go unheard. At one point, the three of them actually share the same bed, which is carried out rather awkwardly, with Marie unsuccessfully attempting suicide immediately afterward.

The film is an effort to recreate events from Eustache’s life, down to specific conversations. Most remarkably, perhaps, Francoise Lebrun was actually reprising her role as “Veronika,” as she had been Eustache’s real-life lover as wellI can only imagine that this must have been an uncomfortable role to play.

It's debatable as to whether or not these attempts at mirroring reality are the cause, but the film achieves an improvised, documentary feel, despite a definite prepared script, calling to mind the early work of John Cassavetes. There's also the fact that The Mother and the Whore is one of just two narrative films in Eustache's oeuvre, the rest of them comprised of documentaries and shorts. Regardless, I found myself engrossed by the film, despite its length (3 and a half hours) and extreme talkiness, and am saddened to find that Eustache's work is not only difficult to come across but fairly small (in number, that is) due to his suicide in 1981.