Thursday, March 24, 2011


(Monogamy/Oscilloscope Pictures)
         I am in a theater. It is a small theater, with perhaps seventy seats, and a small screen. The lights go down.
 The film that comes on the screen, as is clear from the get-go, is about still imagery. Next, it is about voyeurism. An old man walks down a sunny sidewalk in some squished New York park. Then it becomes about analysis; The man sits, in real life, with Theo (Chris Messina), the photographer he hired to snap shots of him going about his day. Theo lives with his girlfriend, Nat (Rashida Jones) in a loft in Brooklyn. He has created the unusual profession of a “Gumshoot;” a photographer hired by people to photograph them unawares, in their daily lives. As he sees it, it “pays the bills.” So then, the film could be about profession.
It soon becomes clear that it is not about profession in anything more than a peripheral sense. Which is a shame; the craftiest pieces of the film come to life when Theo is doing his job. He photographs a mysterious woman with the online moniker of “subgirl” (played by Meital Donhan), sitting on a park bench, fondling herself. He looks at the pictures on his computer and zooms closer to her legs, then closer to a tattoo on her heel. He photographs a wedding by a lake, sick with tension, and watches the bride and groom veer from forced contentment to argument within the frame of his camera, before he finally snaps the photo. 
(Monogamy/ Oscilloscope Pictures)

How images embarrass us. What really goes on within a frame. This is strong visual ground for the director, Dana Adam Shapiro. Unfortunately, he slides that ground out from under himself. The only reason the photographs of Theo’s elusive exhibitionist are important is to show that Theo has a perverse side. But if he has a perverse side, then why can’t actor Chris Messina show any evidence for it? Then the thematic ground slides away; the only reason the wedding scene is so extended is to show us a mirror of Theo and Nat’s relationship troubles. Shapiro doesn’t want to understand that we don’t need a mirror for such a grand theme; we’ve taken fraught relationships as a given.
Then the screen goes blank. The projector bulb is out. The sound continues over a blank screen. It looks appropriate, for a second—still images give way to moving images, which then give way to blankness—but of course, it’s an error. I know the projectionist—Christ, I work in this theater—so I don’t want to say anything. Some other viewer leaves to complain. Soon the lights go up and I can see the projectionist back there, re-threading the film. I may have an engagement later tonight. But I wait.
Sound. Picture. The wedding scene, the tail end of it. Theo finishes the job and gets back home to Nat, who wants him to come to her gig over the weekend. But while talking and chopping garlic, she cuts her thumb with the kitchen knife. It is at this point that the film branches off in to a surprising parallel narrative; first, Theo goes on an obsessive hunt for subgirl, whom he tracks to a nighttime rendezvous with an aggressive stranger (does the stranger see him?). Meanwhile, Nat’s cut develops in to an infection, and she is rushed to the hospital. That Nat is staying in the hospital while her boyfriend pays her vague, half-assed visits pumps some juice back in to the story, by default. Theo’s nighttime lurkings, disguised as business, keep the juice going. Theo might be getting in over his head. But why is it such a mundane deep end? Girl is an exhibitionist; likes it rough; stalks around at night; dresses in mysterious symbols. The film thinks it’s too good to be a genre piece, but that’s the territory it is lurking in.
(At this point, I consider yelling at the three girls sitting in front of me, not even watching the film, chatting and lighting up their cell phones.)

Blankness again. Again, it somehow looks right. The sound stops and the few audience members groan. Oh, what is wrong with these films? How hard has film projection become for the modern projectionist? I take a phone call for a few minutes. When I come back in, I still have a few minutes of sitting before the lights dim.
Sound. Picture. Theo rides his bike, in a wide shot. He goes on to click on his pixelated close-ups of subgirl’s provocative acts. He shows the pictures to a friend, resulting in the poorest scene in the entire film. This friend, who we have barely been introduced to, has a chat with Theo out on his roof, thereby veering away from a flesh-and-blood chum and in to an embodiment of the film’s moral voice. Go talk to your Girlfriend, Theo. She needs You. You are wasting your Life with this perverted Fascination. Take a hold of Yourself.
Only after another episode of blankness, and another re-threading of the film, probably a few calls for refunds, perhaps a few more text messages for the girls sitting in front of me, does the third act start, and, thank god, it works.
The most obvious comparison to Monogamy is Antonioni’s 60’s groove fest, Blow Up. In that film, there was another photographer, and he also took pictures of people in their every day lives. He also became too transfixed with one of his more sinister images. He also followed it to a distorted and maddening conclusion. But sadly, this type of story did not work when Antonioni did it, either. Like Monogamy,  Blow Up was too interested in  the hipness of its ideas to even move along at a decent pace. Which is why it is a relief when, in its final act, Monogamy becomes a quick, bluesy mystery. Nat gets out of the hospital, but not without Theo first unearthing one of her own secrets. Then he goes out on his nightly stalk to find subgirl and her married lover. The film becomes a sleuth film, not a pile of vague, deep questions. It offers a few twists and turns, rather than versimilitude.
Some twenty minutes later, it’s over. As I leave the theater, I feel as if those breaks in the picture followed by silences were not errors, but the way the film should be seen. It was like the god of movies had intervened, trying to force the film to be what it could be. But even he could only do so much work. In the end, perhaps those three chatty girls were giving the most appropriate response the film deserved.  I felt frustrated, because I knew my engagement was off, that my friend would not call me back that night. But mostly, I felt deeply frustrated by the last twenty minutes of Monogamy. If only Shapiro could have looked at his footage and realized that this was his story, that this was what he could expand on…I would have sat through a million projection errors.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing, 2010)
            As westerners, we must be careful about foreign imagery. We must be able to separate the exotic from the merely unfamiliar. A shot of sun rays streaming through a tangled jungle scene might fool us in to thinking its exotic, but it’s really just unfamiliar to people who do not live near a jungle. Seeing a ghost appear at a dinner table and stick around for much of the film, on the other hand, blurs the line; we have seen ghosts in plenty of films, but never in such a central, casual, presentation. Is that unfamiliar, exotic, or truly weird?
            Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker behind the films Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady, knows the difference and likes it both ways. When a film asks you to identify with a stranded bull in the first scene, you know you are in the territory of general unfamiliarity. This is the prologue to a story, itself blurry and unclassifiable, that encompasses the dying Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), his wife, and his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) who cares for him. Various friends and family members show up throughout, and it is in the details of these characters that the film goes in to wild. Boonmee’s dead daughter, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) appears as an apparition at dinner, and stays with the family for one last haul. Boonmee’s long lost son turns up, as a half-man, half-monkey, and recounts, over shots of leaping monkeys and fading sunlight, how he mated with a monkey-ghost and ran off with her, turning in to one himself. It is one of the many folkloric segments of the film that also include a princess copulating with a talking catfish and a dream sequence set in the future, shot in still photographs.
(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing)
These pieces of the film are Weerasethekul working at the level of hypnotism, his strongest ground. He has seemingly adapted the methods of Sergei Paradjanov and Chris Marker, but they were self-conscious and technically obsessed directors. As a director, Weerasethakul is not self-conscious, not quite a surrealist, nor a technician of any sort; he is something like a guider of meditations. As Boonmee and his family stumble through a cave, a flashlight spotting engravings, inlets of water, and bare stones, we might feel like we are falling asleep. But we don’t fall asleep; our eyes stay on the screen, even tighter as the scene shifts back to the sun-spotted jungle. This is the aim of his direction; folkloric hypnotism, relaxing the viewer as a way of gaining their trust. So far, Weerasethakul has been able to make it work in each of his films.
(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing, 2010)

Most remarkable is that Weerasethakul’s fantastic indulgences are moderated and un-showy. We are never led to believe we are watching anything but a film (this isn’t a real Thai folktale, people), and his characters are people first and symbols later. Their poor French makes their friends laugh; they talk about flirting with girls with their aunts and wartime regrets; they listen to Thai rock music. This is, perhaps, another way in which Weerasethakul gains his audience’s trust, but it also underscores how risky his exotic and unfamiliar imagery has become. A mere walk through a jungle is fascinating to these Anglo-Saxon eyes. Even the Thai alphabet, with its letters that resemble tangles of roots and ancient sketches, is wondrous to glimpse. So if it doesn’t matter which imagery is truly exotic and which is just unfamiliar, if we are entranced by it all, what happens when we get used to it? Weerasethakul has bet the entirety of Uncle Boonmee on this enchantment, and won for now, but had the film been any longer we might have gone from hypnotically sleepy to actually tired. Weerasethakul has to be at least as careful a filmmaker as we must be as viewers, or he might become a has-been of foreign cinema in ten years. It is this creeping suspicion that does not allow Uncle Boonmee to live up to Syndromes and a Century or Tropical Malady (which had a tighter, more disciplined structure). But, largely because of his true foreign-ness, he has earned his title as an astonishing memory creator; one who lets us sort those memories out on our own, trying to make sense of them.
Those memories include a picnic on a farm surrounded by tropical vegetation; that was unfamiliar. A woman sleeping on a bed with a white silk sheet draped over it as the sunlight shines through in pink rays; that was exotic, perhaps too exotic. A man in a monkey suite posing with soldiers in a still photograph, barren plains surrounding them, was unfamiliar. A monk, a girl, and an older woman staring at a T.V screen blasting news of national unease—what was that?
(Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/ Strand Releasing, 2010)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


(Lemmy Kilimister in Lemmy/ Damage Case Films and Distribution)
           There are supposed to be more films like Lemmy. That Greg Oliver and Wes Orshoski’s documentary about Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kimilister was never intended to be a cinematic exemplar doesn’t make it any less true. Lemmy is one of the more rugged, giddy and life-affirming films to come along recently, in no small part because its primary subject is a jack-and-coke swilling, tank riding, long-haired, growling metal-head. Yet its more important subject is not taking oneself too seriously, even when one really ought to. The film's narrative hinges on the belief that there is such a thing as  a walking cultural expression and a regular Joe rolled in to one. Which is to say, an unbelievable eccentric, like the rest of us.
         Motorhead was one of the first proper heavy metal bands, coming along in the mid-70’s around the same time as Black Sabbath and shortly after the emergence of punk rock. Kilimister, its founder, came from a fatherless background in England and Wales and was obsessed with classic Rock and Roll from an early age, immediately recognizing the Beatles as the pinnacle of the form. So how to jump from these average-enough roots to a band that epitomizes outrageousness, playing songs with titles like “Killed by Death” as loud and as fast as they deem necessary? By laughing. One of the first concessions Oliver and Orshoski’s film makes is to the utter hilarity of rock and roll in general and metal in particular. Watching Lemmy growl out lyrics about gambling and loose women, lug himself around in black clothes and a cowboy hat, and fail to apologize for a past of drug abuse and philandering is to laugh uncomfortably. Watching him joke around with fellow musicians, gruffly express his love for his son, and show a true English sense of humor-- as he stands beside his tank, in old-fashioned military garb-- is to observe an admirable goofball. Here is a man comfortable in the anti-hip hipness of his chosen profession. He is participating in a film that, with a casual yet specific eye, reveals something about the psychology of Rock music with a vigorousness that rivals This is Spinal Tap.

(Lemmy/Damage Case Films and Distribution)

            The shooting style Oliver and Orshoski adapted is equally vigorous. While interviews with fellow musicians—including Metallica’s James Hetfield and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl—are shot in standard interview form, during the concert footage, guitars wheel through the air, and an audience of lanky, black-clad metalheads scream in our faces, as the camera whips from audience to musicians in an act of frantic engagement. There may not be anything revolutionary about the film’s structure, but there is an untapped well of in-your-face potential in the concert scenes. Even off the stage, one gets the sense of engaging in a performance. This comes across, in particular, as Lemmy shows off his vast blade collection, unsheathing one long dagger, putting it back, then whipping out something even sharper. Or as he mocks other bassist’s playing style before turning up his amp and strumming the bass in his demented guitarist style. The interactivity of the whole project eventually becomes intoxicating, though never overbearing. The film is, like most daring films, a physical experience.
             In one of the most riotous scenes, near the end of the film, Lemmy, restless and a diabetic, paces around his hotel room and pulls a lever on the wall that sets off a musical duck playing a crummy tune about being happy. He stares and stares at it, before walking out the door to play another show. Only after our laughter can we understand how he is simply a rock star, and just another guy who none of us will ever be. He can’t comprehend a cheesy jingle because he is a man who never knew his father, saw friends and lovers die of drug overdoses, and managed to pull through to his 60’s, but at some cost. His film, which, as some footage at the end credits suggests, he was not always comfortable with, transcends the idea of a fan’s tribute in the same way Lemmy himself transcends an outlandish, hard life. A film about a rock star can only get so far before resorting to nonsense about survival and individualism; Lemmy leads us to that point exactly, and ends. Yet all the way through, it plays by the basic notion that people are peculiar and fascinating; so much so, that judgements of good or bad are beside the point. What this same notion might do for Michael Moore’s diatribes and every other feeding-bag of irony and righteousness that passes for documentaries can only be imagined. What it does for Lemmy is create a genuinely felt portrait, amidst all the feedback.
(Lemmy/Damage Case Films and Distribution)