Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Broken Embraces (2009) – written and directed by Pedro Almodovar

(My friend Lorin Stein asked me what I thought of this movie. He told me that he saw it with his sister - in a cinema in
New York. He said that they were the only two who were laughing, but that later, alone at home, he felt sad. I saw it alone in Toronto, at the Bloor Varsity cinema, on a rainy afternoon. Under my raincoat and galoshes, I had on a satin purple zebra print on the outside, teddy bear fur on the inside, hoodie and tight pale blue jeans. I notice that I sometimes unintentionally dress in the anticipated aesthetic of the movie I am about to watch.)

In Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" (1946), a beautiful new wife (played by Ingrid Bergman) is held captive and is slowly being poisoned to death by her husband because he found out that she is only pretending to be a Nazi. Really, she is a spy and she is actually in love with another spy (Cary Grant). In "Broken Embraces", a beautiful young girlfriend (played by Penelope Cruz) is physically tortured by her old and wealthy boyfriend because he found out that she is only pretending to be a capitalist whore. Really, the woman is an actress and she is in love with a film director. She is starring in a film that is being directed by this love (whom she met while auditioning for the main lead). The film is financed by the old and wealthy boyfriend.

And though in “Notorious”, the woman literally couldn’t escape, the woman in “Broken Embraces” chooses not to escape in order to allow the show (the movie) to go on. The obstacles to love in “Broken Embraces” are a little bit more make-believe than in “Notorious”. But this is a wonderful thing - like kids playing a game so enthusiastically that it becomes real. I like that in Almodovar’s movies. It’s not ineffective drama, it is just drama that is its own game and is never required to be in direct relation to the forces that are suggested to have created it. And we know that in this pretend and real creation of romance, Penelope Cruz and the director really do love each other. And it’s real because they decided to make it real.

The sad part, though, comes when this brief romance and romance-playing is ended by a car accident that kills the woman. The accident also leaves the director traumatized and blind. This sad part lasts for 14 years. Immediately after the accident, the director abandons his name Mateo Blanco and calls himself Harry Cain. I think the name Harry Cain is a film noir reference, but during the movie, it kept sounding like “hurricane”. I kept thinking "hurricane" while watching a man barely moving and choosing not to live while attentive friends, also not quite living, circle around him.

We accept and understand sad and lifeless periods, but we want life at the end, before we go home. What good is the ability to make-believe drama if you can't create it when you need it most? I believe the last act of “Broken Embraces” was an attempt at a happy conclusion – of life reentering the scene for the 3 remaining characters. But all we see is a blind man staring blindly at a film, a lovelorn woman staring lovingly at a blind man, and a taken-for-granted son smiling agreeably at everything. The happiness on their faces makes it seem like something has changed, but their faces are all beaming at something that can’t look back at them - things that they have already been looking at this whole time. And though we had hoped that they were in the process of mending their half-alive selves, we actually see that all of their combined efforts just went into polishing a jewel of the director’s past – restoring the film from 14 years ago that starred the director’s love. We are still in the sad part. When I left the theatre I noticed that I was inappropriately dressed.

It would have been great if the movie was contained in 1994, the first year of this long 14 year story. It could have ended with this scene that, as it is, takes place in the middle of the movie: Judith, the long suffering and lovelorn producer picks up the newly blinded director from the site of the tragedy and takes him to the sea with her young son. When it is time to leave and go back to the city, she calls the director’s name and he doesn't respond, she eventually tries his new name - the name, she was told at the hospital, that he now responds to. She calls out “Harry Cain!”. With this, he turns around gleefully towards her voice (the happiest we’ve seen him after the accident, a smile that is real but contains the absurdity of tragedy and games and the ridiculousness and freedom of being someone new) and says “Yes!!??” If the movie ended there, we would leave the cinema believing that maybe Harry Cain knew, like we know, that there is much real life to be created with made-up personas and new chapters, even if they start off dark and troubled and in terrible pain. Ingrid Bergman knew it!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Godfather (1972) - Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

(At a diner with red cushioned booths, as the theme song from "The Godfather" played from the radio, my friend Lynn Crosbie asked me what good could possibly come of "The Godfather". Like most people, I have seen it as many times as I’ve seen “It’s A Wonderful Life”.)

Before I had first seen “The Godfather” movie, it was a book I had come across when I was eight. My grandmother had it next to the Bible in her living room. I remember wondering if the adults around had read these two books since they both suggested different morals than what I had, so far, been let in on. Though no one seemed to mind that I was reading them. It is good that books are not rated.

While reading - this is what I paid most attention to:

Sonny (Don Corleone’s son) had an abnormally large penis and Lucy (Don Corleone’s daughter’s bridesmaid) had a technically loose vagina. They were both miserable (or caused others misery) until they had the good fortune of finding each other and fitting together so perfectly. When Sonny was shot down, Lucy was alone and miserable again. But then she again had good fortune and fell in love with a surgeon who then diagnosed her with “loose vagina”. He easily repaired the problem with a simple surgery, then provided her with normal sexual pleasure. Mainly what stayed with me was this idea of “good fortune”. But anyway, this part didn’t make it to Francis Ford Coppola’s movie. So back to the movie and the *what good of it*.

The thing that makes “The Godfather” so easy to watch over and over again is the same thing that it’s good for.

Don Corleone looks out at his children. He is old so he knows the great precariousness of one’s path in life. He knows that sometimes the young get eaten up early and sometimes they become monsters. He knows their fates are owed more to their natures and to their luck than anything he could say to them so he doesn’t say very much. But once, he couldn’t help himself. At a time when he was becoming more careless in life, he leans over to Michael (his youngest son – the one he both longs to always see and to protect) and tells him that women and children can be careless, but men cannot.

But the reason that it’s possible to watch this tragic and bloody movie so many times is because Don Corleone is careless. Careless mistakes (to be separated here from intentional mistakes) made in “The Godfather” are the only thriving life to be found in the mostly-dark-with-blood-red-accents aesthetic that surrounds the men in their business. A kitten, some oranges, a look of love not managed to be hidden, a fit of protective rage, any acts of playfulness – these are the foreign elements to be cautious of in this masculine world. These foreign elements are both hopeful and dangerous. They let life in, but they also can let death in. These elements are the only windows. We want Don Corleone to be both careful and careless. We don’t want to see him get shot, but we do want to see irrepressible love come across his face in the wrong moment. It is what makes this movie tolerable.

It makes sense that Don Corleone felt compelled to give this advice to Michael. Michael was also a foreign element when the movie begins – the only son outside of the family business. Don Corleone has a weakness to protect him. In a way, we too want Michael to be very careful as we watch him enter the family business and watch as his world physically grows darker around him.

But within 3 hours, we are most seriously grieved to see Michael take this advice. We see him become more careful than his father was ever capable of being. We literally see the doors shut around him and we are left on the other side with Diane Keaton. It is the success of this carefulness that looks like death to all of us. And though we no longer have to fear for his physical safety, we know for sure in our hearts that his is the worst fate. And this is where we are left when the movie ends. It makes sense that we want to start from the beginning again. To see a sudden amusement in Don Coreleon’s face, to see him play with a ginger cat, to reach for the oranges, to have the good luck to survive his business, to be able to retire and enter this mythical world of women and children’s carelessness, to die at the peak of his carelessness – only playing at being the monster for the amusement of his grandson.

And again - as we are left at the end of the movie, now watching Michael only playing at being a loving family man while never betraying a false note in business - it is good to be reminded that despite the good fortune we think we want and others want for us, we need more than anything these moments of carelessness, to allow for the mistakes that make us and the journey more tolerable.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) - written and directed by Terry Gilliam

( I went alone to the Bloor St. Varsity Cinemas on a Saturday night. All the shows were sold out except for “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”. The movie is about an old man who - with some help - carts his old-timey fantastical show around a contemporary city looking for an audience. I sat in the middle seat of the front row. Two young French women sat beside me. The one closest to me was wearing a furry white beret.)

Sometimes a Terry Gilliam movie is like playing with the funniest and most sorrowful kid who decides with you what the cardboard box you two are always playing with will be today. But sometimes a Terry Gilliam movie can feel like playing with an adult who already knows what impossible world he wants to make and *you are not really sure why you are there*. And though I think that I would take a bullet for him, I tend to avoid some of his movies.

But in this one, his groundless imagination and fantastical aesthetic are firmly contained inside an old wagon pulled by horses along the contemporary streets of downtown London. And though there seems to be a suggestion that the "real world" is losing the imagination war - I was very happy to be seeing the real world. Inside the wagon, and specifically through a magic mirror, a world of imagination exists that is just as infinite as the one outside. But we always know, when we are there, that it is Dr. Parnassus’s world and not necessarily our own. It was much easier to appreciate what was inside the wagon – once I knew who’s wagon it was and where in the world the wagon was located.

Four men and Parnassus' beautiful young daughter cart the wagon around, hustling for their living to diminishing audiences and occasionally saving or damning some souls - including their own.

At turning 16, Dr. Parnassus’s daughter is to be reimbursed to the devil. Dr. Parnassus spares her this information until one hour before her 16th birthday. He has hesitated telling her because he was hoping to reverse the situation through some more bargaining. When he does finally confess his pact with the devil, he tells her that he might have a few tricks left from his imagination at this late hour- that he might be able to save her still. She becomes furious. She screams "I am sick and tired of your imagination!! I have lived with your imagination my entire life and I want no more of it!".

I am not sure if Terry Gilliam is resigning himself to thinking that this "war of imagination" is being lost or if he understands that maybe it is a different game now. Based on the evidence of "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", I would guess that, in various parts of his mind, he believe both things to be true. And fortunately for the audience, the grounding of the wild imagination here in such a logical and interesting manner combined with the unusually humble approach he seems to have taken with the whole project, contribute to the success and the magic of the movie.

When I left the theatre (practically walking in a circle and trying to shove open the door to a broom closet that I thought was the washroom I was so disoriented) and walked home through the streets of contemporary Toronto, I felt a little bit of what I imagine Terry Gilliam must feel a lot when he leaves his eyes open and walks through contemporary London - the world is sometimes as magical as a cardboard box.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans - directed by Werner Herzog

(I watched this at my favourite movie house in Toronto, the Royal on College St. It's a big cinema that is always pretty near empty. Sometimes you see the directors standing outside smoking and once I saw the main actor - in the movie I had just watched - sitting at the back with her friends. The conversations before this movie started were hilarious. People explaining to their companions who Werner Herzog was. People explaining to their companions who Nicolas Cage was. It sounded like no one had seen the first Bad Lieutenant movie – the one where Harvey Keitel was acting. I hadn’t either. The movie was out of focus for the first 10 minutes, but then the projectionist fixed it.)

If life is art for you and you are living your life and in your life you want to watch a Hollywood cop movie that’s about America, you go see this movie, cause it’s like you’re dreaming a cop movie about America in public with other people around you. And for you, maybe most of life is art – but sometimes it is more so.

Sometimes the movie comes into focus as a real cop flick complete with a banquet ceremony and a happily pregnant ex-prostitute and then it goes back out again to the place where you’ve been dancing to the beat for a million years in an unconscious stupor.

I like best Werner Herzog's documentaries. They always seem more bizarre than a straight fiction is often capable of being and his strange voice-overs are a big part of this. It's actually kind of generous to suddenly tell the audience, with a dead serious and floating voice, what metaphor we are to go with while we watch a bear coming towards the camera. It’s a hard thing to do because a German-accented voice-over is pretty near some people's definition of pretentious. But when Herzog does it, it is the opposite. It’s accessible. He is not ever being mysterious or windy, he is shooting down metaphors with a pellet gun and saying – wow, look at this one. We are all coming from different places – it’s helpful and interesting to know where the director is coming from and where he is going. Telling the audience straight-up is one way to go about it.

No voice-overs in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans" cause it's not that kind of movie. But a similar need/ instinct to lock down the metaphors comes out. The most beautiful and hilarious one happens immediately after an intense crack-smoking session when there is a shoot-out between a group of 3 men on one side of a room and a group of 4 men (this group including Nicolas Cage) on the other. The 3 men fall to their deaths, the group of 4 remain standing in the silence of the gun-smoke filled room.

Nicolas Cage is the only man without a gun. He suddenly yells “Shoot him again!” One of the other 4 men says “They’re all dead, man.” Cage says, “Shoot that one again - his soul is still dancing!” Because of Cage’s intense drug use and constant hallucinations throughout the movie, we assume that he is literally seeing a soul dancing. We have also witnessed him talking to others, without too much concern for being considered crazy, about things he sees that are clearly not being seen by others. So as he says "his soul is still dancing!" we see a straight double, of one of the men lying and dying on the floor, upright and dancing a crazy jig – then we watch the slow fall as one last bullet goes through his body. We know that what we are seeing is a representation of another man's hallucination and not only a suggestive metaphor. For Herzog, it’s always this kind of heavy and simple poetry – patiently tying anything ethereal to the ground so that it can't get away, and so that we can remember where it came from.

It made me think that the seed of this project was Herzog thinking - I wonder what a soul looks like when it is dying and fighting and dancing all at the same time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hysterical Blindness - directed by Mira Nair

(I was attracted to the cover of this DVD, the cover featuring Juliette Lewis, Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands, in the drama section at the video store. I was looking for "Paris, je t'aime" which Gena Rowlands is also in and I got confused. I would like it if Juliette Lewis played herself in a lot of movies. I watched "Hysterical Blindness" at home while it snowed outside. The movie takes place mostly during sun warm dusks in a late summer New Jersey - which was pleasant. When the streetcars go by, my TV screen turns everything green for a second. )

The movie is a fiction made by mostly outsiders to a very specific time and location – working class New Jersey in the 80s. It is about two women who live in houses, go to work, and then, every night, go to the same bar – Olly’s.

Olly’s seems to be the only place for them that holds any promise of change or validation. That they do this every night is not boring. You can see them shivering with discomfort and excitement at every evening’s arrival – leaving the warm, beautiful dusk outside and opening Olly’s door towards possibility. It made me think of what that is for other people – this one location of fear and potential, how specific and limited the structures can be that end up becoming the sole place where we look to for life’s potential.

The perspective of the movie doesn’t make fun of the women too much and life’s ecstasy and pain are pretty wonderfully full within their restricted stage, a pleasure to watch. Though throughout the movie, the many bridges and train tracks in the background - never crossed over or discussed by the two characters (but heavily paid attention to by the camera) - loom large like slightly condescending angels around them.

This made me think of Agnes Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnes”, a movie she made in 2008 about making movies. In one scene she stands in front of a house in a dense neighborhood where she had lived as a young woman. Now she is an older woman in front of the camera holding a giant blue electrical chord on a big spool. She explains that the chord is 300 meters long – and that the only source for electricity that she could use for filming was in her house. She explains that the film she wanted to make had to be shot within a 300 meter radius around her house or else the crew wouldn’t be able to plug their equipment in. An early lesson for and from one of the reigning geniuses in contemporary documentaries/fiction: sometimes one’s own limitations are more interesting than other people’s.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Antichrist - written and directed by Lars von Trier

(I watched this at the Carlton theatre in Toronto right before the theatre closed
permanently. I went with my friends Carl Wilson (critic) and Ryan Kamstra (poet) and saw it late on a Friday night. There were spurts of uncomfortable and uncontrollable laughter (possibly very healthy and necessary for watching this movie). Afterwards, we excitedly wandered the streets - hysterical and a little confused. I think this is the ideal way to see this movie – particularly with a poetic critic and a critical poet – and a painter who keeps getting the phrases “genital mutation” and “genital mutilation” mixed up.)

At one point, while watching this movie, I think I felt an actual prick of jealousy because it was so good. Another part of my brain was thinking – Lars von Trier? Genius film about misogyny?? And the loudest part of my brain was yelling – Ack! Shut your eyes!! We don’t know what she is going to do with that old piece of farm equipment. We don’t, as eyes, want to even see the farm equipment!!

It has always seemed weird to me that the murder of tens of thousands of women during those centuries of hysterical woman-burning is still dealt with much more by the Monty Pythons out there than ever really the Steven Speilbergs. Though I’m super glad, for the sake of my people, that gynocide skipped over Speilberg once again in 2009, and am *sort of* glad that it went to Von Trier. It had never occurred to me that this literal subject matter could be used in such a grounded fashion in such a contemporary story about the contemporary world. Lars Von Trier manages to make a kind-of simple and stunning film with this for a heart. The plot of this is less of a clever, or damning, one-liner than his other films are, it’s much more complicated and searching – more intuitive and alive. Visually - completely right, even just one of the two main characters “He” carrying around a piece of crumpled lined paper with an absurdly simple, sometimes stupid, chart of what “She” is *irrationally* fearing. He keeps adjusting the words on the chart to match his slow observances – the best kind of poem-making ever. If I could have this piece of crumpled paper, I would keep it close always. She is a bit broken as a human with a recent tragedy and he is attempting to cure her. He is broken too and curing her is his attempted cure for himself. They have gone to their remote cottage for this task. The last use for this place of isolation was her lone attempt to finish her thesis on gynocide.

On this trip, He eventually stumbles across her somewhat hidden work room. We see all of her abandoned academic work as She had left it from the year before. We see the evidence of her work as He sees it - the subject matter starting from horrific historical pictures of women being tortured and burned to her dense and lengthy academic writing turning then to loose and frantic gibberish (a pretty and logical sequence). At this He becomes more actively worried for her state of mind and maybe a bit more unconsciously worried for himself. Later in a casual attempt, without confessing that he has seen her work room, he asks cautiously what happened with her thesis – asking what she left off saying about gynocide. She replied offhandedly something like, “..well… the women were punished . . because they were evil”. His calm, arrogant psycho-analytic façade fell away as he sputtered, “What?! You’re an academic! You are supposed to be critical of these things!!” And she replied calmly, as though correcting herself in a dream, “Oh, of course… I don’t know why I just said that”.

This is exactly when I got jealous. It is one of the most genius stories I have ever heard of:

Woman writes thesis about misogyny - gets confused.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Twilight, a blockbuster (2008) - Based on the book by Stephenie Meyer

(I watched this late at night on my computer in sections on Youtube. I came across some of the footage when I was on the internet looking for white skin for a painting I am working on. I was intrigued. The video clips were elongated so that all the figures had very tall skinny heads and bodies. Also, I probably missed a bit of the movie with the different sections not matching up and I couldn't find the first sequence.)

When I was watching this I thought - I can’t believe no one has told me to see this. The vampires are vegetarians! The trees are so tall and everyone is so beautiful and sad. Also, it is raining all the time and there is a teenage girl movie star who never smiles and barely says anything and who doesn’t work hard at making the more awkward more comfortable.

I love a story that takes facts from the real banality of life and uses those facts to tell the most seductive lies. Boy is mean to girl (because he loves her so much he might kill her so he has to be mean to keep her safe from himself). They don’t have sex (because it is too dangerous for him to lose control, he might kill her. There is some natural and light S and M (right before he kisses her for the first time, out of caution for her - he tells her “don’t move”). He shouldn’t bring her to meet his family (because they might kill her – she smells better than most humans and the temptation to go non-vegetarian with her is high). Finally, a girl in a movie desired so perfectly and so perfectly left wanting. It is the most convincing and conventional romance novel. Maybe this is dangerous for young people who will be sorely disappointed by their first loves – or willing to convert religions for them, but it is not dangerous for me.

The girl is very clumsy and the boy, with his supernatural powers and focused attention on her, finds himself continuously and instinctively saving her in the nick of time from physical harm. There is a moment where she trips slightly, he catches her and immediately annoyed says “can you at least look where you walk”. NICE.

I also love how the parents are the ones who are always texting at the wrong time and whose own love is stupid and silly and vain. But the vampires are A LOT older than the parents so it makes sense that they are more serious.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Name of the Rose (1986) – based on the book by Umberto Eco

(I watched this on video while babysitting my friend Amy Bowles' kid. It was on top of the adult movies and underneath the kids movies. I think the sounds from this movie gave him a nightmare, so I missed a bit in the middle. The movie’s about a lost book of comedy so it is not very funny. I had seen this before when I was younger – maybe on tv.)

This is my favorite thing about this movie:

The oldest monk in the Abbey thinks Aristotle’s book of comedy is too disgusting and dangerous for the world, but he also can’t bring himself to destroy it. So the old monk keeps it hidden in a secret library. The secret library is mostly surrounded by other monks at the Abbey who seem to mostly all have different kinds of physical deformities. I think the old monk’s idea is that it is less dangerous to let those deformed (in body and therefore presumably in spirit) near to this dangerous text because their purity is already compromised in some obvious way. The ones who get killed by the *literally* poisoned book are the youngest and most perfectly formed of the monks. Maybe they are the ones who are most actively kept away from the book and who are not taught how to handle it without killing themselves.

It was hard to not see this structure in my head for a few days after – this dangerous book of comedy surrounded by those deformed in body and spirit, who are in turn surrounded by the scholars circling, trying to get in to see what is at the center of the surprising deaths. I think we are to identify with the logical scholars – the clean and ready-to-go Sean Connery and Christian Slater, but it is hard not to identify completely with the deformed monks (especially the beautiful and ready-to-agree Ron Perlman), or the one female character (the filthy, grunting and seductive peasant girl known as "the girl" - Valentina Vargas), or even just with the book.