Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/Warner Bros.)
       Those who have not read the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or missed the last one or more Harry Potter films, or who have been dwelling in a cave in Siberia for the past decade, should be assured that they won’t have the vaguest idea of what is happening in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To the basically uninitiated, the film will look like it is about a boy with glasses--for some reason, a real VIP-- whose friends run around with him everywhere flailing wands like mad men when they aren’t bickering at each other, hurriedly encountering so many mustached, long haired, and inhuman characters that it is impossible to tell who are their friends and who are their enemies, all the while being stalked by a cult of goth scenesters and an arrogant biker gang. To the initiated, the film will either fulfill the same obligations as the book, or it won’t.
            Literally speaking, it doesn’t. This is only part one of the mammoth conclusion to J.K Rowling’s series, so the film ends as suddenly as it begins. The first thing we see is a pair or ghoulish eyes, the last thing we see is some blaring flash of wizard-light. Squished—and oh, so tightly--- between these two images is the story of how Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emily Watson) careen through a magical version of England, being chased by Lord Voldemort and his whole host of Evil, trying to outwit the dark lord with various trickery, but not quite succeeding. Voldemort has taken over, so Wizards (Harry Potter and all his chums with wands) and Muggles (us regular schmoes) are not allowed to live side by side. Muggles and half-bloods must be killed and dark magic must prevail. Not one scene of all this high pursuit takes place at the school, Hogwarts; it’s too dangerous to go back there, although this is not made clear in the film. It leaves the film with a strong sense of anxiety for both the audience and the characters. No time for them to camp out in the highlands any longer, they better run for the woods. No time for us to camp our eyes on the remarkable sets, costumes, or Helena Bonham-Carter’s gleefully stylized performance; we’ve got part two to see, next summer.
(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/Warner Bros.)

            All this anxiety is acceptable in and of itself; the film is about the various misgivings, conflicts and anxieties that almost tear Harry and his friends apart. But the film is all too ready to ignore the real elephant in its room, which is most certainly not Voldemort. It’s the “Muggle” world, or reality as we might call it. The first several Harry Potter installments benefited from juxtaposing Harry’s drab home life with the take-off-the-blindfold thrill of the world of Hogwarts. From there on, it steadily turned in to a body of work that hated reality with vitriol. Although this film is ostensibly about how the harmony between Wizards and Muggles is being disrupted, it is unclear where Rowling’s and the filmmaker’s sympathies really lie. The scenes on the streets of present-day London feel like a relief to the regular viewer; to Harry and his friends, they are an opportunity to smash up a cafĂ© or drive recklessly through a tunnel. Then it’s back to this weird alternate reality, never entirely defined, where the characters feel more at home, pointing sticks and screaming Latin gibberish. There is none of the juxtaposition with the world we know; that of cars that sometimes break down and animals that don’t say a word, of total exposure and daydreaming. Aside from a cheap connotation of totalitarian regimes, there is no concrete metaphor for us in this other world. There is no grey area between right and wrong. The exploits of Harry and co. have become so divorced from being even a mirror of reality that each character has come to look as though they are in on a scheme the rest of us just don’t get. Harry and Voldemort may as well be on the same side.
        Of course, when a fictional world comes to resemble a scheme rather than a believable place, there is something poisonous about the imagination that spawned it. So without explicitly implicating Ms. Rowling—this is her creation per se, but she didn’t make the film—let’s place the blame on a whole strand of movie culture. At times, this film resembles The Dark Knight, other times Inception; there are dashes of The Matrix and obvious similarities to The Lord of the Rings. The film has the flight and feel of every other gadillion-dollar grossing franchise in recent memory, each one a fantasy or sci-fi spectacle. Harry Potter, as an idea, no longer looks like a kid who flies around on a broom and learns of his true abilities as a wizard. He looks like an anxious compendium of pop, now bursting at the seams. There are still likeable scenes and images in this film, including one animated segment that slows down, takes a breath, and creates a world far more mysterious than any shot surrounding it. But the films may be lost to cultural memory except as something that inspired a lot of fanaticism and made a lot of money. They are technically stunning, but have been anxiously losing their true wizardry almost since birth.
(Emily Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint/

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Boxing Gym
(from Boxing Gym/Zipporah Films, 2010)

One irritating visual clichĂ© in films is the foot shot. This is the shot that shows a character’s feet at ground level, usually in motion. In his new documentary Boxing Gym, Frederick Wiseman takes this dead image and re-births it. Uma Thurman’s moving feet in Tarantino’s brawl-fests are shown to tag some supposed dramatic energy on to her characters; the moving feet of boxers in Wiseman’s brawl-fest are shown because these characters move like dancers. They parry around a punching bag with the left foot in front, followed by the right foot. They do a tap dance in the ring while they threaten to punch each other’s lights out. It may be self-evident that this film has much in common with Wiseman’s La Danse, from last year. But that film was actually about ballet. This film is about a dance with violence, or rather, pseudo-violence making constant contact with the real thing.
            Perhaps the protagonist of the film is Richard Lord, the manager of the boxing gym of the title, in Austin, Texas. Most of the people who come in and out of the gym are locals from all social classes and ethnicities. Men only have the slightest edge on women in attendance, and many of the regular participants are married or divorced working people over forty years old. There is apparently even a 68-year old woman who can “…hit the punching bag better than any one else,” according to Lord. But although Lord presides over all the operations in the gym, he tries to stay out of the way. The protagonist may also be the young man who rides in from Houston, casually boasting of needing to “take things up a notch.” It may be Eric, whose daughter, we are informed, attends Virginia Tech and is wounded in the fateful shooting that occurred there, some time near the end of the film. Characters such as these—victims and proponents of violence real and staged—are among the huge cast of characters, but they are the one’s Wiseman gently guides our attention to. Otherwise, he doesn’t intrude; a barely registered agreement between Richard Lord and his camera.
            But despite its pre-occupations, it would be a grave mistake to recognize Boxing Gym as a romantic film, or even more tepidly, a film with a message. Boxing Gym is a work built on physicality, deriving its rhythms from people’s bodies rather than a narrative or a meaning. The film is not ruled by any theme, insofar as there is one. It is ruled by spectacular images like the one of five boxers, warming up in the ring by doing a frog-leap exercise; four crouch down, the fifth propels himself over each of their backs with his hands until he reaches the front of the chain, at which point the new last man stands and propels himself to the front of the chain, where he crouches down…and so forth. All this amounts to nothing more than a fascination with the way images move across the screen. Wiseman is one of the few filmmakers today to concern himself with such a basic objective. This approach takes more guts than in takes to punch a man across the cheek.
(from Boxing Gym/Zipporah Films, 2010)
            So while on one level, this particular dance from the eighty-year old Wiseman is a work of deep concern, even stating that goes far overboard. His films are in one sense public service announcements, and in another sense vast, observational tapestries. They are in one sense deeply personal and in another sense staggeringly holistic. We can’t ever be sure. They are so cool, so presentational (not representational), that they can hardly even be written about. This is not to say that Wiseman never shows his hand; Boxing Gym takes on an unpredictable structure in which nearly two-thirds of the film are spent in the close quarters of the gym before we are shown wide shots of the surrounding city in the middle of the day. Wiseman knows when he has to pull back and take a long view of the surroundings. No film can do without a context. But Wiseman’s context is, literally, a long view, nothing more. There is no romance or metaphor in those Austin buildings. Only room for sparring.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cell 211

(Alberto Amann in Cell 211/ Canal+Espana)
There is a certain strand of art film that can find nothing better to do than wallow in wretched imagery. “Wretched” meaning images of blood, sharp objects penetrating skin, bruises, vomit, clubbings, starvation, and the like. Topics of conversation not suitable for the dinner table. Images borne out of the presumption that this is a no-holds-barred film, unafraid to show un-sugar-coated reality. Recent films in this strand include 2008’s Hunger, 2003’s Irreversible and 2009's Antichrist. Cell 211, directed by the Spanish filmmaker Daniel Monzon, is one of the most recent additions to the wretched reality strand.
            The film announces its brutality from the get-go. A prisoner in a shadowed cell, one that looks not quite of this world, opens his veins into a sink and calmly does away with himself. The cell he is in is cell 211, which Juan Oliver (Alberto Amman), a new guard at the prison, will be involuntarily locked in after a riot knocks him unconscious during a prison tour. His subsequent initiation into the prison--full of militant Basques and regular Spaniards, all who believe him to be an inmate-- cobbles together a collection of abrasive characters, including Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a prison gang-leader who takes a liking to Juan. These developments are proceeded by the required dossier of imagery: fists hitting faces, batons hitting people, a severed ear, and finally, a shot of Juan’s pregnant, unconscious wife, having been beaten down by a guard outside the prison where she was one of the many rioting protesters. She simply wanted to see her husband, whose safety she was concerned about; now, she lies in a hospital, dying. Predictably, it is only here, at the climax of wretchedness, that the film softens up; a poor pregnant woman, beaten senseless. Now, Juan will lose it. He will turn against the guards and find himself siding with the militants. This cues more images of throat-slitting, male-on-male brawling, a hanging attempt; shame if you aren't slapped awake by this film!
(Luis Tosar and Juan Oliver in Cell 211/Canal+Espana)

            Monzon tries to care about the story and produces several haunting, claustrophobic scenes; one involving Malamadre walking down a corridor, guided by a guard’s voice towards a file on Juan; another involves Juan sitting in his cell and staring at the crazed engravings on the wall. Monzon fills his film with pretensions towards social commentary on the conflict between Spain and the Basque region, and on the Spanish prison system, but these points becomes easily overwhelmed by the parade of wretchedness. What Monzon and his contemporaries (Noe, McQueen, Winterbottom, et. al) who make us stare at hard reality don’t understand is the other hard reality they aren’t penetrating; the audience’s sense of reason. Any excessively violent Hollywood film would cause the audience to walk away with an impression of rapid-fire close-ups of gore and sadism. Cell 211 accomplishes nothing more and nothing less. The only difference between its excessiveness and the excessiveness of Rambo are the suggestions that this is reality we’re dealing with, and we take reality seriously. The mature viewer will not be fooled. When a film presents us with non-stop wretched imagery, yet asks us to feel empathetic about its substance, it simply becomes sensation. The violence in Cell 211 is merely cringe-inducing and shows us nothing about the menace and anxiety of living in prison; the only feelings that can earn the brutality.
Wretched imagery in modern art films more often than not creates a product that we don’t mind getting out of our heads as we exit the theater. Cinema is probably the most successful spectator sport of all time. While there have been brutal films that have penetrated the consciousness of the audience and transcended spectatorship, the recent crop of highly lauded films are doing no such thing. The last line is Cell 211 is: “Any questions?” No, I think we have more answers at this point.
(Monica Belucci in Irreversible/Studio Canal)
(Michael Fassbender in Hunger/Film4)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Motion Studies: In a Petri Dish

1.                    A gliding pan to the left scans the faces of children in an English prep school, frightened by the sounds of the caning of Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) in the gym below their classroom. The pan takes on the stiff movement of one of the senior heads of the dorm who often surveys the boys, checking the degree to which they behave as composed, non-emoting men, as Britain’s enlightened are meant to behave. The whacks continue in a series of sharp reverberations that are immune to any dulling the walls and ceiling usually provide.
2.                    One boy is not behaving well. He returns to his scientific studies and peers through a telescope on his desk.
3.                    The petri dish in to which he peers contains a clear green liquid surrounding rectangles of bacteria hoarding themselves together. The whacking continues. The bacteria hoard themselves together as if they have a certain purpose; here are the lowest forms of life (like Mick Travis, his toublesome friends, the gay young teenager, the scrawny kid with black hair…) shaping in to a form of menacing organization (as do Mick and his band of rebels). It is not discernable what this shape is or what it means, but it begins to look like a mouth, then a face, then a weapon, then…(just see what you want to).
4.                    Lindsay Anderson’s If…(1968), is a film so deliberately charged with symbolism and red-herrings—often combined—that this image could easily irritate us to the point of tuning us out. In its combination of radical camera stylization as a means of communicating rebellious feeling, it ends up looking weirdly outdated, in a way that only late-60's films can look. It is an intriguing bit of experimentation; a pan followed by a literally miniature assembly. This is Anderson’s clever way of communicating the spirit of 60’s radicalism, yet it ultimately fails to get past the tired notion that “we had to be there.” Like that boy, we had to be looking through that telescope to feel the analogy; like Mick, we had to feel the whacks to feel like rebelling. Motion creates a beautiful metaphor; that metaphor lets us down.