March 31, 2009

Scarface aspirations

Arguably over-hyped, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is a deliberately disillusioning challenge to those who think that Mafia films should be entertaining -- all death, pasta and melodrama -- that there is something operatic, tragic and noble about the mobster, that Mafia films should come with romantic notions about organised crime as part of a quaint, old-world Italian heritage (as in The Godfather, GoodFellas and the final season of The Sopranos which was heavy with back-in-the-day nostalgia). Of the five parallel stories adapted from Roberto Saviano's fact-based novel about Naples's Camorra, one is easier for us to grasp than the others, because it feels familiar: young wannabes Marco and Ciro quote lines from De Palma's Scarface as they play with guns in the semi-ruins of Neapolitan housing projects; they graduate to real crime (robbing African crack dealers) and then come up against and appear eager to take on the insidious and vicious Camorra itself.

Garrone has shot this grimy and violent film like neo-realist war reportage, which is ideal when your subjects are two dumb punks with guns, but is less exciting when you are observing the real, quotidian business of organised crime, the Camorra's diverse interests in toxic dumping and even fashion, its collections and pay-offs, its courting of new recruits. It's about the dull reality of watching mob accountants count rolls of Euros, kids being sent on drug errands, thugs with guns on rooftops keeping an eye out for the police. Garrone doesn't offer back story or character development; he gives us nothing but the immediate, ruthless present. There is also, we realise, little in the way of wider context until the end titles, which give us some startling facts about the Camorra's reach, the extent of its international crime networks and its connection to legitimate business (even a stake in rebuilding Ground Zero). Up until this point, we have no idea how the Camorra fits into Italy's economy. What is its scope? What has been done to stop it? Or, conversely, why is it so tolerated? Italian journalist Silvia Angrisami, who had mixed views about the film, touched on this last point in Sight & Sound, November 2008: "There is no economic aid for poor people apart from the Camorra, which provides them with a job and a salary ... It's impossible to understand why organised crime is so powerful without taking into account the failures of the Italian institutions and the subsequent lack of confidence of Italian citizens, Neapolitans in particular."

March 30, 2009

The self-critical warning

Is this fantastic or is this terrible? I remember asking myself that as I watched Adaptation for the first time five or six years ago, and I asked myself the same thing in the early stages of Synecdoche, New York: is this fantastic or is this terrible? Again, fantastic won out. What is it about these two Charlie Kaufman films -- the earliest written by him, the second both written and directed -- and this question? It might be to do with their uncomfortably personal nature, their plumbing of both mind and body, but I'm not sure. In any event, this new one might be the ultimate Kaufman film, one that you could read as a self-critical warning about the dangers of self-absorption (even if self-criticism is still self-absorption), with self-absorption as the dominant trait of Kaufman characters from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Synecdoche, New York, with the writer impersonated along the way by John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey and now Philip Seymour Hoffman. His neurosis keeps getting star billing, expanding this time from an extreme, morbid hypochrondia -- familiar from earlier films -- to a paralysing obsession with documenting and staging his life as a theatre project so vast that it needs a replica of New York City to be built as a set, like the Borges story about a map of the world that is as big as the world, a story routinely cited in discussions of the real and the simulated (see the movie's title, obviously). The Kaufman film has always been about the terror of being oneself, of being in this skin, this head, but it's not a terror that causes him to turn away -- instead it holds his unblinking attention. Yet it's a terror laced with sharp, black humour and throwaway gags, like a Woody Allen film with serious metaphysical reach rather than just narcissistic pretensions towards it.

Directing his own material for the first time, Kaufman brings less clarity to his story than Spike Jonze (Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Sunshine) did; we don't get their clean separation between the actual and the imagined but a tangle that puts the film closer to traditional surrealism. This kind of reality/fantasy slip is in the film from the very start, when we realise that timeframes are off, that there's no way of making sense of dates in newspapers and on calendars (and which has produced this weird event around Harold Pinter, from a Freudian slip that reveals Hoffman's character's constant death obsession -- this is a guy who always turns first to the obits), but as the film goes on, we can also see its surrealism as a breakdown of reality growing out of a personal crisis. As in a dream, the actors can seem like Platonic versions of themselves: I always thought there was something sneering and dismissive about Catherine Keener, and here that's all she is. And again as in a dream, there are doubles: Kaufman casts Emily Watson as an alternate Samantha Morton, which is surely a joke designed to appeal to the many who have mistaken these actresses for each other.

March 25, 2009

Silent Light

I'm glad I waited for this. Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light started playing festivals, beginning with Cannes, in 2007 and played the North Island but not the South in New Zealand's 2008 festivals. Thankfully, NZFF director Bill Gosden has put this right by programming Silent Light in this year's World Cinema Showcase (Auckland and Wellington get to see it again). It's been available on DVD here for a few months but that would be entirely the wrong way to see Reygadas's slow, serious and absorbing masterpiece. Art like this needs a large canvas; the screen at the Rialto in Christchurch will do. The setting is a Mennonite community in northern Mexico where the dialect Plautdietsch is still spoken; the subject and the storyline -- which really shouldn't be divulged by reviewers -- could lead one to compare it to Breaking the Waves, only it's less overwrought, graver in tone, more forgiving of its characters, more carefully documentary-like but still open to the miraculous. Which really means that, like Von Trier, Reygadas was influenced by Carl Dreyer's simple, stark and powerful northern European religious stories (Ordet especially). This is film-going as an act of contemplation, or rapt attention, and it can have the unexpected effect of making you feel more alive when you leave the cinema than when you arrived. "Curious how a slow and deep film can absorb, and a fast and shallow one can tire us" -- Roger Ebert, reviewing Silent Light.

March 24, 2009

The problem with being poor

Of Time and the City, Terence Davies' essay film about a working-class Liverpool upbringing, comes with bitter attacks on the institutions that organised or dominated it -- the monarchy, the Catholic church -- while still managing to drum up a certain nostalgia for all that has been lost. Kids play in the streets, terrace houses spew smoke, ships leave the docks for new worlds: we recognise these post-war images as ancient cliches and Davies's voice-over -- weaving together fragments of memory, those bitter attacks and extensive literary quotes -- doesn't make them new again but you have to be impressed by a level of bias and negativity that borders on the eccentric. He's no cheerleader for the north's urban renewal (nor Liverpool's most famous sons, who get a hilariously dismissive "yeah yeah yeah" from Davies). At his best, he turns his theatrical disgust into aphorisms: while playing footage of QEII's coronation -- easily the comic highlight of a surprisingly unmournful film -- he quotes Willem De Kooning's "The problem with being poor is that it takes up all your time" and quickly adds, "The problem with being rich is that it takes up everyone else's".

March 17, 2009

Apocalypse II: Tribulation 99/Watchmen

Two relevant interviews to act as footnotes to last week's post. Tribulation 99 creator Craig Baldwin here: "What I'm trying to do is not create clarity, but again, this idea of opacity, of confusing people and destabilizing the assumptions that they have, which are basically wrong." And the legendary Alan Moore here: "Much as I love the medium [comics], I despise the industry."

March 13, 2009

Tribulation 99/Watchmen

A few months ago, Sight and Sound ran a feature on dream double bills. How about this one: Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America and Zack Snyder's Watchmen. Both are secret histories of American power and paranoia, dark pop-political satire, but one film (Baldwin's) is made for the approximate cappuccino budget of the other (Snyder's). Or: how many Tribulation 99s could you get for US$120 million?

I'd seen Baldwin's subsequent films -- O No Coronado, Sonic Outlaws and Spectres of the Spectrum (that last title could almost work as an alternate Watchmen title) -- in various film festivals since the early 90s but not his name-making Tribulation 99 until I mail-ordered DVDs of that and Spectres of the Spectrum from Other Cinema in California, partly to prepare for his new, Scientology-inspired Mock Up on Mu. Arguably one of the late 20th century's most important experimental films, Tribulation 99 is a dense 48-minute collage film that tells the secret history of American intervention in Central and South America since World War II via a breathless narrator, craftily-edited found footage from educational films, forgotten B-movies and faded newsreels and through an apocalyptic structure based on sly appropriations from and rewritings of Revelation. As a Situationist-inspired agitator (remembering that it was the SI's central guru Guy Debord who said that "most films only merit being cut up to compose other works"), Baldwin turned Reagan-era supernatural credulity on its head: his story mixes true fact with strictly metaphorical versions of reality -- UFO attacks, aliens hiding inside the hollow Earth, Castro as unkillable being, Noriega as werewolf -- and asks you to discern the difference. The key fact is that most of its true story of assassinations and black ops was, and maybe still is, unknown to most Americans and therefore seems just as unlikely as occult folklore about, say, lizard creatures from another world. In the words of the Senses of Cinema reviewer:
Organised into 99 chapters, each with a terrifying title screaming out in full screen capital letters, the structure of the film invokes both conspiracy theories and biblical texts. And yet a great deal of the narration in Tribulation describes a readily verifiable history of American intervention in Central America from the 1960s through the 1980s. It is mixed in with vampires, voodoo and killer robots, but it is there.
Or, as Baldwin says in his DVD commentary, this "rant" is simply raising the CIA's own tendencies towards "paranoia, fantasy and imagination" to the next level. "It's a narrative that makes fun of narrative", he says. He's breaking up the traditional, journalistic relationship in documentaries between narrative and representation.

Outrage motivated it, Baldwin says -- outrage at Reagan, the Contras, Oliver North. But he wanted to avoid the "dry" leftist discourse of documentaries; he hoped to make a leftist documentary as funny and entertaining as his collection of shonky psychotronic movies. He calls the result a "political fantasy" but you could also call it a black comedy documentary. He was surely ahead of his time: just recently, film scholar David Bordwell, writing about animated documentary (thinking of Waltz with Bashir), found that "even imagery that seems to be wholly fictional -- animated creatures -- can present things that really happen in our world. This mode of filmmaking can bear vibrant witness to things that cameras might not, or could not, or perhaps should not, record on the spot." Put Tribulation 99's images firmly in the "should not" category.

Tribulation 99 is both stranger and more real than Watchmen. If the first is a (largely or generally) true story told in an unbelievable way, then the second is an obvious fiction told with blockbuster realism, and a product of the same kind of outrage in the same era. First, some history:
The ideal viewer — or reviewer, as the case may be — of the Watchmen movie would probably be a mid-’80s college sophomore with a smattering of Nietzsche, an extensive record collection and a comic-book nerd for a roommate.
That's AO Scott in the New York Times and I'd have to say that I'd be close to that ideal viewer. As would many thousands of others. I can remember when this stuff -- Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns especially -- first appeared and made an impact; when people stopped talking about comic books and started talking about graphic novels. I can remember a case being made for the psychological complexity of these Moore and Miller stories, but it wasn't a leap -- it all seemed to be of a piece with the way that the intellectual high ground and the pop-culture low ground were merging and crossing over in the 80s more generally, through publications like The Face. Comic books with serious, maybe pretentious ambitions didn't seem so far from music or fashion writing with serious, maybe pretentious ambitions.

Watchmen was surely the best of the lot. And now, nearly 25 years on, here's a movie so faithful to the comic that it's close to a exact replica. First thought: this would have been a flat-out masterpiece if it was released in 1989 not 2009, released instead of Tim Burton's Batman, which was the disappointingly inspid film that grew from that talk about psychologically complex, revisionist superhero comics -- owing a lot, as the Chris Nolan films also do, to Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke. But in 2009, Watchmen the movie can seem weirdly pointless. Yet it's also provocative, bizarre, serious, original, impeccably made and, 25 years on or not, still manages to push the superhero mythos to the very edge, further than anyone has taken it since and could ever take it (the movie won't kill off the superhero mythos, though, because the entertainment business keeps finding ways to re-charge its exhausted heroes: before this careful Watchmen adaptation, a trailer for a Star Trek prequel that resurrects characters who died before our eyes years ago; they were camp then, but now they're young and heroic again). The Watchmen film is a curiosity, a strange and perfect 80s artefact, with the just right mix of ambition, high seriousness and gloom. File it with other 80s films with the same qualities: Brazil, Blade Runner and Richard Kelly's 80s simulation, Donnie Darko.

As secret history: it still seems like a daring idea to have superheroes working as secret weapons of the US military, as the Comedian and Dr Manhattan do here. Wittiest throwaway: the Comedian is revealed as one of JFK's gunmen, a quick gag with huge implications and a moment that Craig Baldwin could have scripted, while Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing" runs over an opening montage, civil-rights-era optimism souring into 80s nuclear-dread pessimism, the cold war at its coldest. The song now means the reverse: fear the future, even if that future came and went for us, just as Donnie Darko's apocalyptic 1988 did. Nixon and Kissinger are still running the show, with the president somehow in his fifth term. What kind of heroes for these near-fascistic times? Misanthropes, nihilists, vigilantes, psychopaths, more charismatic and persuasive than the good guys. The Comedian, dead at the start, is the second best character here; the best is surely Rorschach, a masked figure who narrates with Travis Bickle-like loner disgust:
"Rorschach's Journal: October 12th 1985. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!' And I'll whisper 'no'."
So, different kinds of modes bump up against each other: seedy noir yarns, war stories, mystery cliches, superhero romance, the shifts of geopolitical history. And the original comic was a kind of jigsaw formed loosely from these parts and others (even comics within comics), one where the storyline itself was that much less important than the way it was being told -- yes, even the possible end of the world was a mcguffin. That was a very 80s thing -- you admired the craft, the intellectual skill, the clever pastiche, Moore's comic-book deconstruction. One of the best examples of the latter might be Moore's subversion of the villain's speech set piece -- why would Ozymandias/Veidt reveal his plan to the others only to give them a chance to foil it? But these meta-fictional tricks don't have the same impact in the film and some of the cliches just look like cliches again (worst offender: Laurie's repeated childhood flashbacks). And the film's ending is weirdly unsatisfying.

Still, there's a lot to admire about this. Why do they call it the Citizen Kane of comic books? Partly for its tricks of flashback and perspective, piecing together an inconclusive truth. It was, Iain Thomson wrote in a widely-quoted essay, a book designed to be re-read, although that doesn't necessarily mean it's a film made to be re-watched. The unprepared viewer might expect a triumphant third act -- maybe Dr Manhattan staring down the Soviets in Afghanistan -- but there's only Moore's anarchist, power-critiquing view: his idea that to invest faith in superhero icons was to surrender personal responsibility to, in his words, "the Reagans, Thatchers, and other 'Watchmen' of the world who are supposed to 'rescue' us and perhaps lay waste to the planet in the process". ("Watchmen makes the case," Iain Thomson said, "that if our superhero fantasies were realised, our world would be radically altered and not for the better"). And I guess I also admire the film-makers for making the perverse decision to so carefully, even obsessively duplicate the original comic. At least one of the many directors who came and went since 1987, when the rights were first sold -- Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, Darren Aronofsky included -- talked of updating the story to the age of Al-Qaeda. More crooks in the White House, more nutters in central Asia: why not? But you would have lost the older, dirtier New York of the comic and you would have run the risk that a much duller vision than Moore's was now shaping the satire. So the ordinary, efficient Zack Snyder might have turned out to be the right choice: in Dawn of the Dead, 300 and now this, he's the director you trust to make careful, commercial copies, with just a little fine-tuning towards crisp, nasty, 21st century video-game violence (the kind of violence we get a lot of here). As in his Dawn remake, you can then take the satire for granted, hoping or knowing that it's seeped in from the original work, so you just enjoy the scenery.

Finally, a quick note on soundtrack choices: I'd agree with AO Scott that we need a moratorium on "Hallelujah" (it's not that I'm not a fan). And "99 Luft Balloons"? Come on. Even "Two Tribes" would have been better. But what did 1985 sound like? From memory, "Nemesis" by Shriekback, "Love like Blood" by Killing Joke. That last one would give you your smattering of Nietzsche as well ...

March 6, 2009

"We spend our years as a tale that is told"

1) Why is Julian in the movie Children of Men named Julian? It's not exactly a common woman's name. Might audiences think that they're somehow mishearing the name of the actress, Julianne? Maybe. But it's not that. The clue is in the original novel by PD James. At one point, Theo -- another meaningful name, really, in the context -- wonders if she was named for Julian of Norwich.

The James novel is steeped in Christianity. It's split into two parts, Alpha and Omega. The very last word in the book is "cross". The title is explained as a reference to Psalm 90. Appearing almost 15 years ahead of the movie, the James novel has the same basic premise: in the year 2021, a fertility crisis has left the human race without children for close to two decades. This is international, but our focus is on England. In his film, Alfonso Cuaron imagines this as a hectic, distressed, fearful dystopia -- the end of the world coming with guns and explosions -- but the mood in James's novel is much more gentle, more melancholic. She doesn't give us models for Cuaron's astonishingly fluid war scenes. Indeed, she sets most of her action in a bookish, subdued Oxford. Her Theo is an academic not a public servant played by an actor with the grit and obvious strength to have been taken seriously as a possible James Bond. The novel's not-so-distant future is a society that is barely limping on, not coming apart so much as winding down: you picture weeds growing through cracks, buildings falling into ruin, each day slightly quieter than the last. What passes for terrorism is pretty minor -- some pamphlets dropped in letterboxes -- but there are apocalyptic cults and clear religious symbolism, suggestive of a build-up to a second coming. There are flagellants in the streets -- voices in the wilderness -- and a group called the Fishes, dedicated to opposing the Herod-like leader, Xan, a slightly bland tyrant James wouldn't have found hard to dream up in 1992, towards the end of a long, tired stretch of Conservative rule. There is martyrdom and sacrifice, temptation and betrayal, the stuff of Christian stories. But the general mood is a tranquilised hopelessness: if the human race is slowly coming to an end, whether the cause was divine or biological, what is the point of fighting? What could you fight for? That's the same fatalism you find in the psalm that James namechecks: one way or another, all this is out of our hands.

2) All right, but who was Julian of Norwich? A 14th century female mystic concerned, as others were then, with an idea of God as Mother. From Wikipedia:
As part of her differing view of God as compassionate and loving, she wrote of the Trinity in domestic terms and compares Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and merciful. (See Jesus as Mother by Carolyn Walker Bynum.) Similarly, she connects God with motherhood in terms of 1) "the foundation of our nature's creation, 2) "the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins" and 3) "the motherhood at work" and speaks metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing. She, like many other great mystics, used female language for God as well as the more traditional male pronouns. Her great saying, "...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well", reflects this theology. It is also one of the most individually famous lines in all of Catholic theological writing, and certainly one of the most well-known phrases of the literature of her era. It was quoted in TS Eliot's Little Gidding, the fourth of his Four Quartets, and served in its entirety as the title of Tod Wodicka's first novel.
In the novel but not the film it is Julian who is pregnant with the first child to be born in approximately 20 years, breaking the drought or ending, to the religious mind, the plague of infertility. It's a restoration of hope in another sense, too -- years earlier, Julian and Theo had a child who died in an accident (this is alluded to in the film but isn't vital to its plot), so the second chance for humanity is also a second chance for them, or just her, or just him. In the film, this Julian is the messenger but she's not the mother: she's closer to a John the Baptist figure, and is appropriately killed early in the story. She enables the birth to happen but doesn't carry the baby. But both the film and the book privilege the idea of motherhood, or pregnancy, and not just as a novelty but something more than that. Something possibly miraculous. One of the film's jawdropping moments comes when Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) shows Theo her pregnant belly in -- appropriately again -- a stable. This privileging of the pregnant woman is what gives Children of Men, the film, a kind of tenderness you don't expect from the genre. How many sci-fi action movies have had a midwife as a central character? Not even Terminator: Salvation.

3) Now, Thomas L Long, from here:
But as an extensive body of scholarship since then has shown, in the Middle Ages the image of Christ as Mother was by no means unique to Julian of Norwich. Valerie Lagorio, for example, has examined the extent of the Divine Motherhood similitude in Latin and vernacular works of the 11th through 15th centuries, which she attributes to multiple family relationships, the iconic Motherhood of the Virgin and of the Church, and the ancient image of Wisdom as Mother. She notes that the maternal image conveys Christ's role as nurturer (in which his breasts feeding souls is prominent) and disciplinarian.
A question: so, are we really in the middle ages? The film gets this better than the book: the flagellants are part of the apocalyptic backdrop with the piles of cows burning in fields, the immigrants in cages, sometimes hooded and humiliated like the inmates of Abu Ghraib. There is a constant state of anxiety. Cuaron compressed all of the unease of the early 21st century -- in my original review, "the same sullen crowds, the same Tube stops, the same terrorist bombs in the city" -- and spread it thickly across the background of the film. In the foreground, characters that James devised more or less perform her plot. Behind them, there is a kind of apocalyptic wallpaper in which the world is as threatened as it seemed to be in, say, The Seventh Seal -- a time of the Black Death and peasant revolts, a time when the European population halved. In an interview on the film's release Cuaron said, “The truth of the matter is I didn’t respond to the material. I was not interested in doing a science fiction film and also the book takes place in a very posh universe. I respect, I love PD James. I enjoy the book, but I couldn’t see myself making that movie. And, nevertheless, the premise of infertility kept on haunting me for weeks and weeks and weeks ... It’s when I realized that the premise could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope that humanity has today, that’s when I said, ‘Okay, this can be the point of departure for talking about the state of things today."

On the DVD's bonus disk, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek urges us to pay attention to the background in Children of Men, as we did in Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien -- in the foreground of that earlier film there was an older woman love triangle; in the background, a travelogue through the poverty of Mexican peasants. Zizek: "I think that [Children of Men] gives us the best diagnosis of the despair of late capitalism, of a society without history."

It's not a society without history in the novel; history is everywhere in Oxford, almost too present. But it is a society without history in Cuaron's film -- as Xan's ransacking of Picasso's Guernica and other art treasures shows -- and also a society without religious hope. No one in the central plot sees the pregnancy as a religious sign; no one picks up on the second coming symbolism, stable or no stable. No one thinks that they are within that story. But it could be said that Cuaron's skilful evocation of a society in a constant and increasing state of crisis and unease corresponds more exactly to both the medieval period of Julian of Norwich and the urgency of the first century Christians than the more refined world -- "posh" to Cuaron -- of PD James's novel; by getting a state of deep hopelessness and despair so well, he reminds us why they felt that the Christian story was even necessary in the first place. As Pasolini showed in his classic The Gospel According to St Matthew, sometimes leftist radicals make better Christian films than Christians.