HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Film (Page 3 of 6)

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Omnipresence of Gene Hackman

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The other day I was perusing one of McSweeney’s many humorous lists and moved my click finger over one entitled, “5 People You Meet In Hell” which when clicked upon revealed number 5 as, “Gene Hackman. That guy is everywhere.”


Or he used to be anyway. One of my grandfather’s favorite actors was Gene Hackman. He never vocalized it but I could see from his bright, happy eyes and the way the sun glinted off his shiny pate as his jaw quickened that he admired Hackman’s Tough-Guy-Average-Joe-Schmoe-Who-Somehow-Prevails-Everymanliness more than I could know. Gramps had been balding for years and maybe Hackman’s increasingly obvious lack of hair, average build–his schlubliness, if you will–while still maintaining a strong presence had a lot to do with it as well. And though I was in many ways too young for it at the time, he piqued my eventual love of all things Hackman by first showing me The French Connection, which simultaneously inducted me into the world of Good Cinema and Hackman’s balls-out (& Oscar-winning) portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a cop who–by the way–does not get his guy. To be able to pull off a true-to-life defeat as expertly as Hackman does shows us, like Jack Nicholson at the time, an actor in full stride.

Fast forward three years to 1974 and we have The Conversation in which Hackman plays Harry Caul, a secretive & disturbed professional surveillance expert living in San Francisco who we meet doing a job for the CIA in the middle of a crowded Union Square. The always under-emotive Hackman plays the paranoid professional Caul brilliantly, going minutes without a word of dialogue, yet drawing the audience evermore into his own hellishly conflicted world of devout religion, and the one thing he can cling to: manic saxophone playing (he learned for the part). Despite his insistence of strict non-involvement in clients’ affairs, he becomes caught up in the drama, even to become a potential accessory to a crime, and eventually to end up–perhaps just in his own mind–the subject of counter-surveillance. His understated though tense encounters with Harrison Ford’s Martin Stett remain a highlight. Coppola sought to show the innate search for balance between the public and the private, asking whether the viewer (or in this case the listener) isn’t actually always somewhat the participant.

Written before Coppola took on The Godfather, when he hadn’t the clout to get anyone to produce it, this often overlooked study (it was nominated for Best Film alongside The Godfather II, lost to the latter but did take the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) in paranoia seems to have opened the door for Coppola’s internalized brand of soul-searching to come to fruition in what many call the masterpiece of modern cinema, Apocalypse Now. Coppola had this to say in the short Making Of The Conversation:

“(This film) is a struggle. A struggle always on the brink of failure. I have learned in the past that those struggles usually bring about the best results.”

Omnipresence of Gene Hackman

Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975)

Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975)

Just the following year we find Hackman in Arthur Penn’s 1975 thriller, Night Moves, as Harry Moseby, an ex-NFL star turned Private Investigator whose seemingly average personal life is about to begin to fatally intermingle with his professional one. We learn early of his wife’s infidelities, but it’s not until much later that we learn what, if anything at all, Moseby feels about this and how this mirrors his current plight. Then there’s the case, passed along by a friend centering on a soused ex-nobody Hollywood blowjob artist’s runaway daughter (played by the young nymphet Melanie Griffith, whose nude scenes underwater probably got her noticed in Hollywood). Harry’s job is to find her, bring her back, collect a check. Easy.

Turns out to be anything but. There are so many twists in this Alan Sharp penned anti-p.i. flick just when you think you have got the movie figured and you know who’s doing what to whom, you get the breath knocked out of you in what has to be one of the darkest final minutes of 70’s Hollywood noir flicks. Astonishingly good performances by Hackman, a young James Woods and Griffith, who’s just frustratingly, underagedly hot (yes, that’s her on the cover swimming in the nude).

Hackman was working his ass off during the 70s, building up a filmography so full of both philosophical thrillers, edge of your seat action and popcorn culture fare that few will ever have the strength of conviction nor range as an actor to match. Grandpa knew his stuff.

For more of Hackman’s greatest, here’s a few of my favorites. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) French Connection II (1975) A Bridge Too Far (1977) Superman (1978) Hoosiers (1986) Mississippi Burning (1988) The Package (1988) Bat*21 (1988) Unforgiven (1992) (Best Supporting Actor), and the ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Enemy of the State (1998).

The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

Vengeance Violence and the Sentimental in Korean Film Part I

The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

Innocence & the Monster in The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

A man holding a hatchet chases a car full of gangsters down an empty, wide boulevard. He looks down and sees blood pouring from a bullet wound in his abdomen. He approaches the first car he sees. A man on a phone screams and flees. He continues to chase the car of gangsters. But he is bleeding heavily. He must find something to stem the tide of blood before he passes out. He needs to find the girl. But first he needs to get the bullet out. Darkness is closing in. Fade out.

Darkness. A light out of the black. A cherried cigarette illuminates faces inside a van. The call comes to the undercover cops on stakeout: wait for the drop, then take the man called Bear down. Simple. But it never goes like it’s supposed to. If it did there would be no film.

In The Man from Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010) Bin Won portrays the diminutive Cha Tae-sik, a wooly-haired recluse the locals call “pawnshop ghost” whose only friend is the ten year-old neighbor girl, So-mi. Although he buys her sausage and they eat together in his spartan apartment, the talk is sparse and the cinematography echoes his disturbed and dark past with desultory lighting and accented shadows. Dispelling the pedophile angle early by alluding to her heroin-addicted mother who has male “friends” visit at night, it is through their various interactions that we see that he is not merely concerned for her lack of proper role model, but is conflicted in his as yet undefined role as father figure. It is to intermittent adult contemporary guitar and soulful piano music that these first 25 minutes rather slowly elapse, creating a sentimental connection that will be heavy-handedly drawn on later.

Cue the torture. Specifically on So-mi’s mother, kidnapped and turned up dead and organ-harvested in the trunk of the car Cha is forced to deliver heroin in to a rival gang leader (who thinks Cha is an emissary of a Chinese drug ring). All in order to save So-mi, also kidnapped and being held as one of many “ants”, a massive farm system of child mules delivering drugs, who will later serve as involuntary organ donors. Yeah, complicated. To the upstart kidnappers/ organ harvesters/ drug dealers, Cha is a pawn, being used to destroy the incumbent gangster in a trap, and thrown away.

But Cha persists. The subtlety of his facial expressions hidden by his ragamuffin hairstyle pregnant with meaning so commonplace in Asian cinema allures as much as it distracts. Making up for that is his silence. He is a man who expresses himself through his actions. And action is what he does best. Which the police soon find out when they manage to subdue him only through sheer numbers. Waking up cuffed to a chair in a police station he speaks only to ask to use the restroom. Cue to six policemen being hospitalized and Cha back on the street, searching for any way to find So-mi.

Amazed by his prowess, we learn from the police—in their only adept move throughout the film—that this man from nowhere is a former Special Forces Agent with ties to Army Intelligence. In his search for the girl, he hunts any lowlife who may provide a link, and we experience how far Cha will go to achieve his goals—from his methods of information retrieval (“tell me what I want and I won’t hurt you”) to hand-to-hand fighting a la Jason Bourne with a Thai assassin in a toilet stall next to the corpse of a dead woman. The attention to detail vis-à-vis the mise-en-scène (shot selection, lighting) is as startling as the editing is kick-bass tight, driving the story forward without visual fodder.

The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

The Good Intentions of a Man with a Gun in The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

Yet as what it is that drives him to undergo beatings, get himself arrested, and kill a lot of people (though all of them very bad guys) becomes clearer to us, director Jeong-beom ratchets ups the violence the closer Cha gets to his goal, ostensibly saving the life of the orphan So-mi, and symbolically avenging the brutal murder of his wife and unborn child by some unnamed assassin we see only in flashback. Subconsciously blaming himself for drawing them into his nefarious world of black ops, we can surmise that the only reason he hasn’t already killed himself is that he feels his redemption lies in this little girl.

The various subtexts are more subtle than in many preceding Korean films, gently poking as it does to the considerable American military and C.I.A. presence still in South Korea, prodding at the inept police work of an inexperienced force, and gently stroking the idea that looming in plain sight, society is secretly controlled by massive organized crime syndicates. In its soft persuasion the film is successful in allowing critical viewers an opportunity to realize that much more is being shown than yet another typical action flick.

The good intentions of the script, direction and acting notwithstanding, the plot of the film remains Hollywood predictable: the strong, silent and handsome hero will destroy the evil organ-harvesting gangsters and rescue the girl. Overcoming the ineptitude of a bumbling, paper-obsessed bureacracy in the process. Yet because these characters symbolize something much bigger than merely themselves, there is a deeper beauty than the gun-metal gloss of cinematographer Lee Tae-yoon, the crisp direction of Lee Jeong-beom, and the enigmatic acting of Bin Won. As cliche as it may sound, they embody the hope of a burgeoning nation struggling to become more self-aware amongst a country divided, and the dream of residing as equals within a larger region that has bent her to their will for centuries. It will be messy. There will be blood. The hero—the free radical in the system through which honorable ends are realized—may be put through such mental anguish and physical torture as to be unrecognizable by the film’s end. But, against clearly unsurvivable situations, the girl—which is to say the innocence of the country—will survive. And as the memory of the hero then becomes legend, the village ethos sheds its skin and lives on in new mythology.

蛸と海女 Octopus and Shell Diver (Hokusai, 1824)

Anime Psychedelica – Satoshi Kon

Anime Psychedelica - Satoshi Kon

Anime Psychedelica – Satoshi Kon

Octopus and Pearl Diver

While studying photography on a secluded part of the south coast of California in the late nineties I dated a frisky young blonde co-ed for a little more than a year. In our breaks from study we camped in Big Sur, visited her father’s home in Palo Alto and accompanied her family to their cabin on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The overriding theme of these trips was sex, lots of it, anywhere we could get away with it: outside on a break from hiking, an impromptu picnic by the lake, inside on the ancient oak kitchen table, on the washer (or dryer), or even (yawn) in bed. We would often plan our next tryst during the big family meals prepared by her step-mother, which given the ages of her step-brother and sister who accompanied us on these rustic getaways, was usually spaghetti with meatballs, or some variation of meat and potatoes, typical American fare. Often after the meal we would happily volunteer as the cleanup crew and get downright sudsy with a five and seven year-old running about the kitchen, while her parents relaxed in the other room. We even went so far as to volunteer to babysit the kids, so they could run to the local pub for a few Vodka sodas before bed. My minxish lover all clad in tight blue jeans and form-fitting winter sweater would pop on a well-used VHS tape for the kids, give me a wink and dirty smile and we would jaunt off like hyenas smelling a kill to whatever part of the house had yet been christened by our more animal nature. This ploy worked like a charm the first few times, that is until the youngest started complaining of “scary animal noises” coming from inside the house, forcing mommy to stay at home and all of us to watch the video, of which these children were so enamored. I remember plopping nonplussed into a plush purple bean bag, hand in communal popcorn bowl, and perusing the well worn cover of the VHS tape, which read, My Neighbor Totoro and had a small girl standing incongruously next to a huge racoon-like panda. Odd, but what the heck? By the end of it, having forgotten all about my lover’s unfulfilled libido, I was right there cheering and crying alongside her brother and sister for little Mei and Satsuki. Sadly our wild outdoorsy ways did not last (we got caught in the bathtub and I was banned from subsequent conjugal family vacations), but I had found a new love, one that would be with me always. It was thus that I learned of the hypnotizing world of anime, and along with it, of the complex and mystifying country of Japan.

When most people think of Japan a flood of visuals rise up in the mind’s eye: samurai, geisha, sushi, bonsai trees, a single red sun on a white background—all of them gorgeous cliches. But the fact that it is easier to attempt to describe Japan in terms of the visual is no coincidence. In a place where words are used less than body language, and silence can suggest more than the direct verbal answer to a question, the primacy of the image has led to a strong history of pictorial artwork, ranging from colorful Ukiyo-e woodblocks with its erotic sub-category of Shunga, the Nishiki and Kakemono scrolls, and Bunraku puppetry, which have all been major influences of the serialized visual story-telling of Manga—and the main impetus of the current paradigm of Anime. Which begs the question: in terms of story, character and in relation to the pop culture zeitgeist, given the great lengths animation has come in the past fifty years, would Hokusai’s 1824 woodblock scene of Octopus and Pearl Diver be out of place on the big screen?

蛸と海女 Octopus and Shell Diver (Hokusai, 1824)

Is this erotic Shunga image entitled 蛸と海女 Octopus and Shell Diver by Hokusai, 1824, a major precursor to modern anime?

Since its inception in post-war Japan when television began offering opportunities that the neutered film industry wasn’t prepared to risk, anime stands directly opposed to the big budget Hollywood aesthetic. In defiance of the sappy American predilection for happy endings, here there endings are rarely anything but dark and very often end with the hero dying, goal unfulfilled. This, coupled with elongated storylines, allows for greater psychological development and more realistic characterizations, mirroring the society that creates them, and the global paradigm toward creative endeavor only as limited as the mind will allow. As Susan Napier says in the excellent discourse on contemporary Japanese animation, Anime From Akira To Howl’s Moving Castle, “Indeed anime may be the perfect medium to capture what is the overriding issue of our day, the shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society. With its rapid shifts of narrative pace and its constantly transforming imagery, the animated medium is superbly positioned to illustrate the atmosphere of change permeating not only Japanese society but also all industrialized or industrializing societies.”

The winner writes the history. And as we are seeing in perpetual-post-war world, the loser, too, also tends to write its own history. Such is the case with history-obsessed Japan, a place often reticent to recall the full breadth and subsequent impact of its decades of warmongering in China, Korea, Asia and the world. Despite this inner turmoil, Japan has had major success, more than just as the most successful industrialized society in Asia, but also by extending its soft power—that of its deep and specialized culture—far beyond its own borders, something China yearns to do in a modern way, yet continues to fail at. This extended recognition of Japan as active progenitor, and not just passive receiver, of its storied past as well as its innovative present and potentially avant-garde future has given rise to opportunities to illuminate the beauty of an isolated and inward-looking country as well as render itself in ways both true and perceived.

Anime As Self-Reflection

In the only country in the world to have experienced the atomic bomb—twice—, in the midst of a self-inflicted famine brought on by said warmongering, whereupon the replacement of the revered emperor with the cult of MacArthur, after whose reign, began an almost unprecedented spurt of industrial and economic growth, at the sacrifice of the populace, who was beset by disease (Minamata, chronic Hay Fever) and the destruction of their natural landscape in order to emerge from the radioactive ashes as a world leader, how does the world see Japan? A more enlightening question to ask might be, how does Japan see itself? As an economic world power equal to Europe and the U.S.? As a victimized country with only itself on which to rely? Embroiled in an ongoing battle to define the cutting edge of the next world order? Or perhaps some combination of all three, and more. Propped up by their rich history during such societal and economic upheaval in an extremely limited time period, is it any wonder that the most popular modern day art form is populated by fantastic tales of futuristic technology and peopled with vacillating  humans/cyborgs who generally fight some kind of evil to no real tangible result? The most obvious metaphor in visual heavy anime is metamorphosis, from the literal act of Shinji donning the EVA suit in the popular mecha series Neon Genesis Evangelion to the figurative transformation undergone by Chihiro in Spirited Away, the highest grossing Japanese film of all-time. Although both characters undergo both literal and figurative metamorphoses, like Motoko Kusanagi’s change from sexy cyborg to disincorporated incarnation in Ghost In The Shell, the end result is vague and often dispiriting. Is it the ambivalent outcome of the apocalyptic vision of Tetsuo’s transmogrification in Akira from impotent biker thug to creator of a new universe that keeps us coming back?

The depth of the anime universe and the manga on which they are often based is as profound as the unconscious mind. Animated television and film have overtaken modern Japanese cinema as the mythological backbone of the country and, by extension of its popularity, the world. The worlds inhabited by the characters are as often unlike like our own as they are similar, yet the overriding thematic motifs that penetrate through the mystery of the unknown are universal.

Perfect Blue (1997)

Perfect Blue (1997)

The mind-bending metamorphosis of Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) requires more than just an open mind, but a strong stomach as well. Soaring through the vast 2D cosmos of the prolific Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, 1987; Ninja Scroll, 1993; Vampire Hunter D – Bloodlust, 2001) are good examples of lesser known productions that have had huge influence on the many up and coming independent animators. Before creating Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke 1997, Spirited Away, 2001), directed  Lupin III – Castle of Cagliostro (1979) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Along with Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, 1995) of Production I.G, and the godfathers of anime, Osamu Tezuka, Rintaro, Osamu Dezaki, Shinichiro Watanabe, among many others, they are instrumental in creating a modern animation industry that produces more than 50% of the annual output of Japanese films, and has supported innovators like Shinji Aramaki (Appleseed, 2004) and the late Satoshi Kon.

Paprika – Inner World Unified Theory

Collaborating with Mamoru Oshii on Patlabor 2: The Movie gave Studio Madhouse’s Satoshi Kon some of the experience needed to produce his own psychedelic vision of reality. Writing Memories in 1995, he debuted his directorial talents with Perfect Blue in 1998, quickly adding to his oeuvre with Millennium Actress in 2001, Tokyo Godfathers in 2003 and before his big-screen pièce de résistance Paprika in 2006, he fathered his own television series, Paranoia Agent, arguably his most well developed work. Kon’s meteoric rise deserves more than a mere postscript to the world of anime due to his all too early demise from a rare form of cancer. His films are an ode to the simulacrum: the artful melding of real life (in anime form) within the realm of the unreal (dreams, thoughts, memories). Yet they defy being categorized as “fantasy”. Projecting the subconscious onto the flimsy scrim of daily life, we see touches of Kon’s absurdist-based humor paint surrealistic broad strokes which allow us to ascertain patterns for the living in a mad mad world.

Perfect Blue is an example of an animated feature (featurette really in that it weighs in at a welterish 77 minutes) that could be a psychologically taut live action film in its own right. Kon’s tendency of tinging the more surreal aspects of stress-induced self-realization with graphic violence and sex would be right at home in any thinking person’s film collection. Kon is particularly adept at using point-of-view to string the viewer along in an almost Hitchcokian way that slowly raises tension while still peeling back layer after layer of psychology until the final reveal. Much as in Psycho, we are one with the protagonist in search of their true identity. In a very real sense, we walk step by step in the shoes of the afflicted Mima, who undergoes some variance of metamorphosis, in this case a positive aspect of what Napier calls the “Disappearing Shōjo”, in that she is leaving her cute asexual persona of pop-star singer behind for the more mentally and sexually mature figure of television actress. This is a credit to Kon’s directorial talents in that he subverts the traditional shōjo genre, or in other words, provides a positive vision of a potential reflection of the societal backlash against the kawaii depiction of women as wanton receptacles for male voyeurism, women as purely homemakers, providers, nurturers and so on.

The vehicle of Kon’s second film, Millennium Actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara is an atypical version of the popular shōjo driven anime popular with young women. She represents the eternal youth, who is in the perpetual state of searching, inhabiting a liminal existence, consistently pursuing an elusive and essentially unattainable goal, in this case an attractive and mysterious stranger who dogs her throughout her life and career as a pop actress spanning the 20th century. Although a sense of self-realization does eventually take place, and she does depart into the depths of space, the popular western trope of riding off into the sunset never occurs. Ostensibly being interviewed at the end of her life by a sycophantic director, Chiyoko passes into the realm of memory and dream through a dérive of remembered films scenes in which the thin screen between fantasy and reality are consciously blurred until she vanishes, i.e. dies. This can be seen as another form of the unfulfilled pure youth of the disappearing shōjo. As a once again young Chiyoko says while blasting off into space, “だって私、あの人追いかけている私が好きなんだもの.” (After all, it was chasing him that I really loved.”)

Paprika Film Poster (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

Paprika Film Poster (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

Yasutaka Tsutsui (Chūōkōron Shinsha, 1993), Kon’s final film, Paprika, focuses on a futuristic kind of psychoanalysis called “dream therapy”, in which a device called the “DC Mini” allows Nobel prize-winning scientist Atsuko Chiba to view people’s dreams and explore their subconscious thoughts via her dream avatar, Paprika, a piquantly cute alter ego who deftly turns the concept of amae (indulgent dependence) into a psychoanalytic tool to examine the dreams of troubled police detective Konakawa. Accompanying the detective throughout his cinematic dreams and employing multiple guises, she saves him time and again, allowing him the opportunity to reflect on the multi-layered meaning of it all.

Ambiguously childlike while maintaining an alluring sexuality just below the surface, she smiles and blinks her big eyes in order to gain the trust of the detective, as well as the audience. The DC Mini devices are stolen and all dream hell breaks loose as the so-called “terrorist” begins to break into the dreams of those who helped invent the still unregulated machine. The infected victims spew nonsense and march like automatons as they begin to inhabit a liminal existence between reality and the dream world, eventually causing schizophrenic breaks and even death. Alongside Konakawa there are six male characters depicted: Dr Inui, the old, paraplegic, luddite chairman; Dr. Shima, the old and friendly chief-of-staff, Dr. Tokita, the obscenely obese inventor of DC Mini; Dr. Osanai, a subordinate apparatchik; and virtual two bartenders working at an online meeting place called Radioclub.jp. Except for the detective, who embodies the peak of middle-aged masculinity, although distraught by his troubled past—all of these male roles portray the a very real aspect of modern Japanese society—the impotent and desexualized male: disabled, old, fat, whiny, internet otaku and so on. It’s a grim social reality indeed when there is nothing for the brilliant and attractive Dr. Chiba or the minxish and deep-seeing Paprika to fall in love with. No wonder dreams are the focus of reality. What else is there?

The mystery continues and the waking realities of the hospital staff who worked on the invention are invaded by the DC Mini, including Dr. Shima and to a lesser extent even Dr. Chiba, who experiences more than one near-death experience. This culminates in the appearance of a creepy procession led by a behemoth ichimatsu doll, and populated by western prairie dolls, daruma heads, samurai silouettes, faceless mannequins, manekineko, statues of liberty, kitchen appliances, and innumerable cultural references, marching in and around the traditional portable mikoshi shrine with an eerie and jangly musical accompaniment toward what Dr. Chiba calls “行けば二度と戻れない”, a place of no return. The idea of the endless parade could potentially recall the collective obeisance of World War II Germany and Japan, where anyone out of line was fatally dealt with by the Gestapo or the Kempeitai. Affecting the guise of a robotic avatar, the immature genius Dr. Tokita dives into the dream and becomes trapped in the hallucinogenic amalgam of fragmented thoughts, memories and ideas that threaten to turn waking life into a living nightmare. As Dr. Chiba becomes the last viable option to derail the dystopian plans of the dream terrorist, Paprika becomes more and more powerful until she is abruptly captured and, in the film’s only sexually tinged scene, has a hand plunged through her—from the pubic area to the face—that literally splays her identity like a rubber suit to reveal the unconscious and naked body of Dr. Chiba. Rescued in the nick of time by the troubled detective, who has both a literal and figurative breakthrough in his own case, gives Paprika (and the bartenders from the online chatroom) a chance to set reality straight and remand the world of dreams to their proper place. Paprika’s suggestion to detective Konakawa that the “ネットも夢も似ていると思うはない?” net and dreams resemble one another is perhaps a confession that while at first it may seem like yet another form of fantasy, this film is really a hallucinatory vision of a potential future where humanity must overcome its own inclination to allow technology—and those who create it—to run amok. There is never any hint of sexual tension between either one of Chiba’s personalities or Konakawa, who seems obsessed with his own troubled past. The one man able to physically please Dr. Chiba is essentially unavailable. What is Kon saying about modern-day relationships?

Anime Psychedelica – Satoshi Kon

While any of Kon’s films could easily transfer to live action, I have often wondered why western animators never attempted to put attempt to portray more complex themes in their stories. Why not employ more “realistic” plot scenarios akin to live action sci-fi classics Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator, or Robocop and their ambiguously tortured protagonists, human or not? What about acknowledging the serious divide between Japanese animation and their western contemporaries? What is Pixar and DreamWorks Animation notable for other than Toy Story I, II, and III, Antz (Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998), the Shrek Universe (2001 Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson) and Seinfeld’s Bee Movie (2007 Simon J. Smith & Steve Hickner)? Aren’t these campy, cheesy representations just big budget attempts to glean more money from the wallets of parents trying distract their kids for a few hours? How deep do the American aces in Pixar’s pocket Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo 2004) or Brad Bird (The Incredibles, 2004, Ratatouille 2007) delve to find true humanistic storytelling? WALL-E is a valiant ttempt to further the conversation to a more adult level, but has anyone at Disney ever considered producing an erotic animated horror feature? A dystopian sci-fi post-apocalyptic tale with a philosophizing female android as the hero? A romantic comedy for young gay teens? I wonder what Walt would think of Wicked City.

From the earliest cave paintings to the Magic Lantern, Zoetrope and the flipbook, through to today’s massive CGI productions, do these esoteric beginnings of animation hold the keys to understanding the hold this supposed underground genre exerts on its ever-growing collection of mainstream fans and admirers? If it were possible to sit down with each successive artist, what secrets could we delve about how the flickering of light through drawn cels of imaginary characters has continually amazed even the hardest of hearts throughout history? Would it shed any more light on our collective love of seeing pure speculative imagination brought to the big screen? Doubtful. For what we bring to each darkened theater and living room is our own baggage. And so we help create the stories, and imbue them with meaning. This could be a clue into the extreme popularity of the medium. There is less and less a sense of nationality and separation and more and more a feeling of similarity and collective consciousness. Despite the fact that mainstream western audiences may think of anime as “cartoons”, thus dictating pop culture, the themes dealt with on a regular basis are often as deep as, if not more than, current live action Hollywood fare.

Did the discovery of anime, in the form of Totoro, really replace my lost love that night so long ago? Or had I known that that college dalliance was merely a natural progression in a complicated process and I had no chance at all with her? Did the complex and ambiguous nature of anime somehow give me ballast through the long years of sailing an empty ship through troubled waters of modern love? Who can say? Delicate and brutal as modern life, we need more of Satoshi Kon’s style of story-telling. Since his untimely death, production has begun, resumed and halted on Kon’s final work-in-progress Dreaming Machine, purportedly to be released in the next couple years, should Madhouse get the injection of funding they need to finish the ambitious postscript to the life of a thinking man’s artisan. Someone tell Spielberg he needs to produce another posthumous work of a genius (but this time, no annoying child actors please).


A Separation - Just Like Us

A Separation – Just Like Us

A Separation - Just Like Us

Leila Hatami stars as Simin in Sony Pictures Classics' A Separation (2011)

Consider this situation: a woman wants to leave her country to live abroad, only her husband refuses to go along with the plan. He wants to stay put in the big city they live in, most importantly because his ailing father suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. This point of difference being irreconcilable, they decide on a separation, the woman going to live with her parents, while her husband hires help to watch over his helpless father when he’s on his job at the bank. Meanwhile the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter decides to stay with the father, hoping that in doing so, she might influence her mother not to take the separation any further. The family residence is a spacious, modern apartment with a large bookcase, an entertainment system, and a foosball table. Have I mentioned this is a film about a family in Iran?

A Separation – Just Like Us

The film is called A Separation, and its arrival in our American pop life is timely and important. This is not because A Separation is a great film. It is great—Roger Ebert named it the best film of 2011, A Separation has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy—but the film’s extraordinary importance lies in its humanizing of the Iranian experience for an America audience. For lately we’ve been proselytized to support a probable preemptive war launched by Israel against Iran due to the latter’s suspected nuclear program. Once more, propaganda conflating an entire nation’s people with terrorism and monstrousness is being pressured on an American psyche susceptible to boogieman psychosis. A Separation is an artistic counterpoint to the idea of an Iranian menace. What it suggests more than anything else is they’re just like us. Of course, “us” being us, this is not necessarily a good thing.

The couple’s situation should seem culturally familiar enough—marriages in America crumble all the time because individual personalities are stronger than the relationship itself. This is true enough in the case of Simin, an opinionated, fiery redhead and Nader, her stubborn husband. Although Simin and her daughter, Termeh, use headdresses, they don’t wear the traditional chador or burqa. Their apartment has modern conveniences, including an oxygen tank for Nader’s father. There are no portraits of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, or any martyrs particular to the Shiite variety of Iran’s Islamic faith. Termeh has a tutor for her studies. Nader admonishes her to work on her English, but doesn’t ever mention the importance of memorizing the Qur’an.

They couldn’t be more different from Razieh, the woman hired to take care of Nader’s father. Wearing a black chador, Razieh, and her six-year-old daughter commute from one of Tehran’s distant, impoverished suburbs. She is devout but does not communicate her fundamentalism to her secular employers. That’s revealed when she struggles to take care of the old man in her charge: he wets himself and she has to wash and change him. He is so old and incapable as to be virtually asexual; nevertheless, Razieh calls an Islamic hotline to ascertain that cleaning him would not be considered “a sin.”

A Separation - Just Like Us

Peyman Moadi as Nader in "A Separation.''

It’s hard work and Nader can’t pay Razieh what she wants but she takes the job anyways because she needs the money. She’s pregnant and her husband, Houjat, is hounded by creditors. But Razieh is quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility, especially when Nader’s father escapes out the front door. Frantic, she finds him in confusion on the edge of a busy street in his pajamas.

The following afternoon, Nader and Termeh return to the apartment early, horrified to find the old man lying on the floor, his arm tethered to the bedpost. Nader manages to revive him. “Scum,” he mutters sotto voce, discovering money missing as well. When Razieh and her daughter creep quietly into the house, Nader confronts her on her conduct. They argue and he fires her. She wants to be paid but he calls her a thief, infuriating her moral pride. Razieh persists at the front door and Nader shoves her out. When the neighbors come down they find her on the stairwell. Retuning to take care of his father, Nader breaks down and cries.

Later in the evening, when Nader is dropping off his daughter at his in-laws, Simin asks to see him. She says that Razieh is in the hospital. When they visit, they learn Razieh had a miscarriage. Are they at the hospital out of courtesy or culpability? Houjat, Razieh’s hot-tempered husband, believes the latter, that Nader is guilty of killing his unborn child. In the ensuing quarrel, Houjat throws the first punch.

The next day finds both parties at the police station. Houjat and Razieh accuse Nader of precipitating her miscarriage. Nader admits he was a bit rough with her but denies knowing she was pregnant. He also counters that Razieh was negligent with his father, nearly causing his death. However, the bigger problem is the death of the fetus. Since it was four months developed, Nader stands accused of murder. If convicted, he is liable to face a three-year sentence. Simin’s family posts his bail.

Nader may be accused of the greater crime but he is wealthier and more pragmatic than his accusers, causing Houjat to become increasingly unstable and a potential threat to his family. Simin desperately wants Nader to pay them off with “blood money” so they can move on but Nader is determined to guarantee his innocence.

A Separation - Just Like UsWhat we have is a nasty case of ‘He said… She said…’ In fairness to the film, it would be wrong to reveal any more of the storyline. Needless to say, the director, Asghar Farhadi, while leaving inconspicuous clues to the players’ guilt, keeps our sympathies unbalanced throughout. Had Nader’s shoving Razieh precipitated her miscarriage? Was he telling the truth when he said he was unaware of her pregnancy? Their troubles envelop Nader’s neighbors as well as the family tutor. No one is truly innocent. Judgment fails them at the wrong moments and mistakes are made.

I’ve never been to Iran but the cultural divide feels familiar enough. Nader and Simin represent an urban, secular, liberal bourgeois while Houjat and Razieh are part of a larger underclass denied educational and career opportunities, falling back on religion to protect themselves from the melancholy of poverty. It’s blue state/ red state dressed up in different clothes, spoken with Farsi in place of English. They go through their days eating meals, studying for exams, taking care of loved ones, bearing a long commute, cursing bureaucracy, worrying about debt, struggling with relationships in decline, overwhelmed by life. These people have much more important concerns than parroting the worst of state-run propaganda. No one is cheering, “Death to Israel.”

For me, at least, I couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the two families in the event of a war: if Tehran were to be bombed by Israeli jets with American-made missiles and later partitioned with checkpoints guarded by armed foreigners. If an insurgency were to develop similar to what happened in Iraq, a dead fetus and a disabled grandfather, tragic as their circumstances may be, would pale to greater catastrophes at large.

I lost interest in the Oscars and their self-congratulatory saccharine aesthetic a long time ago. But I am rooting for A Separation to win at least one award. Because millions of people tuning in will be introduced to this film for the first time. Because of the free publicity the film will receive. Because Americans need to know Iranians, with their fanatical stubbornness, incessant quarreling, questionable judgment, self-destructive tendencies, familial loyalties, and emotional breakdowns are just like us.

A Study of American Power

A Study of American Power

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

                                                        — Hassan-i Sabbah

Henry Kissinger called power the ultimate aphrodisiac. We can see how power attracts all sorts of people toward it, but how is it grasped and how is it wielded? Since the end of World War II the United States of America has wielded power in the manner of a clumsy, yet mostly beneficent, oaf, rewarding her allies and punishing, overtly or discreetly, her enemies, mostly economically (Cuba, Indonesia), but also bombastically (Laos, Cambodia, Iraq) as well as covertly (Iran, Latin America). The emergence of the U.S. as the sole dominant world power is an unrivaled precedent in human history overshadowed by the shifting alliances of the European continent for the better part of the last millennium. But different than the British power center which emerged as the dominant force of geo-political influence during the last 500 years, current U.S. hegemony is based upon economics rather than politics. Since the late 40s the U.S. has set the bar for everything from education to manufacturing, establishing an assembly-line economic infrastructure unrivaled in the modern world. The power that came with economic largesse was wielded by men who gradually came to operate within a system that can no longer come to terms with its own eventual demise: the U.S. Congress. Like Narcissus in love with his own reflection, the policy-makers worked mostly under the assumption that American influence was drawn from a never-ending pool of resources, and rather than adapt to changing environments, they not only endanger the authority of the U.S., but threaten the very survival of the modern world as we know it. How did these Politics of Fear come to be? Backed by the BBC, at least one man has been investigating this very subject for years. Through a series of multi-part documentaries employing streamlined techniques of film-making by combining newsreel footage, pop songs and personal interviews, Adam Curtis is using the state’s own propaganda against itself.

David Hume Kennerly-Gerald R. Ford Library

Alan Greenspan, center, was a follower of Ayn Rand, right with her husband, Frank O’Connor. With them in 1974 were Mr. Greenspan’s mother, Rose Goldsmith, and President Gerald R. Ford.

A Study of American Power

In his latest film, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis examines the connections between the “rise of machines and how they made us believe we could create a stable world that would last forever” or so goes the superscripts on the intro. Part one: Love and Power delves into the creepy and mysterious world of Ayn Rand and the Objectivist Skull & Bones-style club called the Collective she surrounded herself with that hard-coded itself into modern day politics, business and culture. Curtis alludes to the point in time when a young economist by the name of Alan Greenspan, a believer of Logical Positivism, met Ayn Rand, and fell in love with her work-in-progress, Atlas Shrugged, which debunks altruism as the guiding light of modern society for a more personal oriented life where people are free from politics to follow their own desires.

Fast forward to the mid-90s where Greenspan–now Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board–advises President Clinton against expensive social reform and instead to cut the growing deficit, which would theoretically decrease interest rates and allow the market to regulate itself. But how could the market regulate itself if it was being controlled by Greenspan’s interest rates, i.e. government intervention in the free market? Not a move Ayn’s John Galt would support, to be sure. As the expected boom came and the market rose the investors hailed it as a never-ending updraft, thanks to the precision risk forecasting of the machines doing the trading. With the banks subsequently hedging against those risks, allowing for unprecedented loans to millions more people, many of whom were clearly not qualified lendees under the previous system, we bear witness to the birth of sub-prime lending. This perceived increase in stability was thought to be a permanent facet of the New Economy, an idea espoused by Silicon Valley magnates and Wall Street executives alike, which said that the potential for growth was unlimited. As a favorite saying of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

When that high tide of investment that had flowed freely into the economies of the Asian countries western speculators were funneling money into finally ebbed, the tidal wave of growth eventually crested and capsized whatever craft the Koreans, Thai, Malaysians and Indonesians were holding on to for dear life. Enter the IMF and a grand scheme to bailout–not the foundering Asian economies–but rather the investors, who were paid off as soon as the austere loan agreements were begrudgingly signed by the various countries’ naive leaders. This was all taking place around the same time as the Bill Clinton scandal involving a dress, a stain, a cigar and Monica Lewinsky, turning the sitting President into a lame duck, and paving the way for Wall Street financiers to take over the world and the rise of the Neo-Conservative nightmare.

In The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear Adam Curtis examines how the Neo-Conservatives rose to power in the post-Nixon/Kissinger administration of Gerald Ford with Alan Greenspan as the Chairman of the President’s Economic Council of Advisors. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld had been making wild assertions about secret Soviet weapons and their overwhelming desire to use them against the United States (sound familiar?). According to Curtis these accusations were machinated by a team led by Paul Wolfowitz, which had also created a lobby group (with Ronald Reagan as a member) called Committee on the Present Danger in order to produce a number of films, the title one of which was, The Price of Peace & Freedom. Curtis’ look at a Nixon speech to the Senate, after signing SALT I–a nuclear limitation treaty–, in which he and Brezhnev welcomed the détente of the era of peaceful coexistence, by reducing the “levels of fear by reducing the causes of fear”, makes the President appear positively left-wing by comparison to the rising tide of neo-conservatives current fear-mongering.

The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis (HESO Magazine)

Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian political theorist who believed the rise of individualism in post-World War II American culture was destroying the moral fabric of society. His conservative ideas took root in Egypt and inspired many of the most radical Islamists, including Osama bin Laden. He was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966. From the documentary "The Power of Nightmares," by Adam Curtis

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian author and one of the leading intellectuals of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s. He was a conservative Islamist who disdained anything that was materialistic and violent, which after spending time in the U.S. during the 1950s he quickly came to associate with anything American. Before he was tortured by Egyptian president Nassar’s CIA-trained henchmen, and eventually executed, he had written over 20 books and, like Leo Strauss, influenced members of the future group of radical Islamists who were to shape the world, one of them being Ayman al-Zawahiri, the founder of Islamic Jihad, and current de facto leader of Al-Qaeda. Here you have the impetus for two of the most influential groups of the last thirty years: the American Neo-Conservatives and the radical Islamists. Curtis maintains that both groups are similar in their origins, in that they grew out of the failure of the liberal dream of a utopian society and that both needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy in order to draw people to support them, be they fellow Neo-cons or radical Islamists. Led by Leo Strauss’ philosophy of failed liberal politics, the Neo-Conservatives main objective was to “perpetuate the myth of America as a unique nation whose destiny was to battle evil in the world” while the Islamists goal was to unite the Muslim world in Jihad against the invading infidels. You can see where this is going.

The chief impetus for both groups turned out to be largely the same: the ends justify the means. More specifically, if your ends are noble, any path you take to reach them is justified. In the case of the Neo-Conservatives, Bush Jr. sums it up, “…Good and evil are present in the world and between the two there can be no compromise.” Whereas al-Zawahiri’s cause reads as defending the Nation of Islam from infidels and those who have been turned against the will of Allah, including Muslims themselves, such as Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Zawahiri’s group in 1981. In an almost identical situation to Qutb’s prison sentence, al-Zawahiri too was tortured, and when he emerged in 1984 was a severely changed man, one who realized that it was not only politicians that were corrupting Islam, but all citizens of the world themselves who allowed the “evil of materialism” to define their lives by their mere inaction. Much like the Straussian Neo-cons plan to target small town Americans with cultural propaganda and fear-mongering, the al-Zawahiri led radical Islamists too would point their aggressions at those innocents in a more direct way: violence.

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work–whereas economics represents how it actually does work…If you learn how to look at data in the right way, you can explain riddles that otherwise might have seemed impossible.”
Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (Penguin, 2005)

It Felt Like a Kiss is Adam Curtis’ ode to America, in which he explores the seemingly tenuous connections between Rock Hudson, Doris Day, the C.I.A., the Soviets, Saddam Hussein, and Chimpanzees in “the story of an enchanted world that was built by American power as it became supreme…and how those living in that dream world responded to it.” Using mixed media and highlighted by 60s era Motown hits—including Carol King’s “He Hit Me (& It Felt Like A Kiss)”—the 54 minute film delves into these disparate aspects of 50s Cold War America with a hot and soulful knife through butter. And without Curtis’ usual voice-over narration to guide us. The creeping paranoia that the CIA is conducting an experiment via the BBC Documentarist is overwhelming.

In 2007’s The Trap, Curtis looks at Freedom as the ultimate expression of political power and the nebulous desire of modern politicians to eliminate the old class distinctions and bureaucracies in an attempt to secure individual freedom. This can be widely viewed as the ostensible goal of the Iraq War: the liberation of the citizen and the elimination of tyranny. Yet this assumption has backfired. The Middle East has consistently rejected western style democracy and continues to resist Americanization despite the successes of the Arab Spring. At home, in the dismantling of western citizens’ safeguards, we find that much of the restrictions regulating the financial markets put in place after the Great Depression have been rolled back and that the so-called one percent have benefited more greatly than ever before. Partisan politics are stalling any kind of real progressive movement toward populist reform due to fears of reelection campaigns falling short of today’s requisite finance goals, which turn the people elected to run our country into zombie soundbites beholden to the corporate lobbyists who fund them.

All watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace film still

Film Still from "All watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace" (Adam Curtis, 2011)

One must eventually ask the question: are all of these deadly public gaffes (invading Iraq despite no WMD, elimination of financial regulation ala the Glass–Steagall Act) just a cleverly disguised ruse used to enact an agenda of quantifying, commodifying and consolidating every last resource for the very few who can afford it, while the rest of the world languishes in a suicide pact with itself, fighting for the scraps? Is the ostensible goal of modern society the advancement of knowledge toward an ending of suffering and an equality amongst humanity or merely to accumulate as many multi-colored rectangular pieces of numbered paper as possible? Are the distinctions between the Republicans and Democrats negligible when one considers their joint aims: to maintain control of all resources necessary to perpetuate the status quo of American domination in the world arena? Is it a dream to think that the 20-odd percent of the annual U.S. Budget going to defense spending could be used in a more productive way than funding a big jobs program whose sole goal is destroy…and then rebuild? We would have to figure out a way to detach it from its corollary corporate welfare program, Haliburton, as well as the private security industry that has spawned around it, but is it possible to think we might just stop making bombs someday? Or do we have to wait for the extraterrestrial invasion to come together as a species? Even then the anthem might be heard over the crack of the whips: Sing the song people…A base in every country on every planet and a drone flying overhead…

Is it Barry Goldwater famous utterance that “extremism in defense of liberty is not a vice.” or Daisy, the Lyndon Johnson 1964 presidential ad showing a picture of a small girl holding a flower as a nuclear bomb is detonated, saying you “can’t afford not to elect LBJ,” that inaugurated the politics of fear as a mainstay in American culture? Is fear the only way to use the power bestowed upon political leaders to guide or is there another way? Fareed Zakari notes that the “test for the United States is political — and it rests not just with the United States at large but with Washington in particular. Can Washington adjust and adapt to a world in which others have moved up? Can it respond to shifts in economic requirements and political power?” If the recent failure of the so-called Congressional Super Committee to reach an agreement on cutting government spending (Greenspan’s policies are still in effect then…) without touching the Defense Budget or raising taxes is any indication, then no, it would not seem as if it can adjust and adapt. It will be interesting to see what Curtis can cull from the eons of archive footage for his new work-in-progress entitled Every Day Is Like Sunday about the downfall of the newspaper mogul. I bet Rupert Murdoch won’t be tuning in. But you should.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

                                                        —Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear”

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Even as it becomes more mainstream, the lines of modern documentary film are ever blurring. No longer is documenting, “what is real?” the most apt, but rather, how do we instill the viewer with a big enough sense of awe at the world (and universe) around them to get them to become activists themselves? Take the fictionalized, The Tree of Life. Does it matter that it’s not technically a documentary? With his fifth directorial effort Terrence Malick went with Big concepts (Life, The Universe, Everything), big stars (Brad Pitt), and big organic visuals that stun with their naturalistic analogue feel rather than digitally deceptiveness. Despite president of the jury Robert De Niro declaring it difficult to choose a winner,The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival competing against such notables as Pedro Almodóvar’s La Piel Que Habito, and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Best Documentary Films – 2011

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Creation of the Universe Film Still from The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Shot in straightforward 35mm, Malick’s Waco, Texas is a visual poem to 60s Americana, depicting a lenitive south where shirtless boys roughhouse and light firecrackers, run chasing the billowing smoke from the DDT truck just around the corner from a rhubarb pie cooling on the window sill. The cinematography (done by visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull) sweeps us through the wistful memory of a slower era using hand-held POV (which tends to exert a certain sentimentality) of naturally lit moments of discovery: bright prisms of sunlight stabbing through stately elm trees on wide avenues without sidewalks, barefoot redhead mother dressed in white gown prancing in slow motion lead us through a fractured five-part journey of the creation of the universe down to the death of Mr. O’Brien’s son and what lies beyond.

Magic Trip (Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney) looks at the 60s from another perspective. Co-starring the self-dubbed Merry Pranksters, and based as it is on his writings and recordings, is a portrait of the summer of 1964 in the life of Ken Kesey, when he embarked on the fabled road trip in Further, the bus, across America in search of a cool place. This was before the term hippie had come into colloquial use and predates the easy-rider phenomenon. This busful of exuberant youth were on the bus, as it were, ready for anything, fearless and full of enthusiasm for what was to come. Yet instead of waiting for it on Kesey’s Oregon farm, they decided to go and see for themselves. See what? Practically speaking, their goal was the 1964 World Fair in Queens, New York, but when that turned out to be a bust, when Kerouac turned out to be an antisocial drunk, when Ginsberg’s introduction to Timothy Leary’s people at Castalia in Millbrook turned out to be a letdown, what did they turn to? Exactly what was in the Kool-Aid they had been drinking all the way across the face of America: LSD. If taken at face value, the more than 30 hours of archive footage shot by the Pranksters themselves (although sadly the audio was not synced, which is why it has been so long in production), plays as a kind of hippy-dippy day-glo soap opera that doesn’t necessarily end in the happiness that they were seeking, but in the larger context of the sacrifices made by the Pranksters as guinea pigs and by Kesey himself, we see the beginning of the era of the expansion of the mind begin to take shape.

The same time that Kesey was enlightening America, the Beatles were taking over the world. Like Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven, the persistent popularity of the Beatles thrives today, yet how well do you know the third Beatle, George Harrison? The one that kept John and Paul from killing each other. The one that had a much-talked about love triangle with Eric Clapton. The one that wrote “Here Comes The Sun” and was the impetus behind The Traveling Wilburys. In George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) we tag along on a journey interspersed with George telling the story of his own spiritual awakening and a treasure chest of new interviews (Paul, Ringo, Yoko) as well as archive material of friends, family and associates of the musician addending the little known story of his life. Great footage of Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi accompanies this two-part HBO film named after his 1973 album Living in the Material World. If only we were all so blessed with such maddening interference in the form of screaming teenagers who indirectly fund the explorations George took across the world in search of the kind of inner peace attainable only by coming to terms with the screaming teenager within.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "American: The Bill Hicks Story" by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

What George Harrison is to music, Bill Hicks is to comedy. The Georgia native toured the United States parodying, satirizing and openly mocking the wannabe opulence of the coked-out 80s with little success until he was finally “discovered”–as is so often the case with avant garde Americans—in England. Through interviews with his family, friends and other comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story(Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas), looks at how Hicks’ punk-centric diy ethic went from frenetically straight edge to embody the drunken banality of all he abhorred. Yet through it all he maintained a crystalline gaze into the dark heart of superficial American society: the rampant consumeristic rise of pop culture meant to “keep people stupid and apathetic” while keeping a third eye on the bigger philosophical picture and persuading people to question authority. Visionary. Genius. Outlaw. These are the words that people use to describe his work. And as with too many visionaries, their flame, burning too brightly to begin, flickers out all too soon.

That flickering flame by which our dreams are guided is often locked within the very rock itself. In The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog allows us to peer into the distant past, into a limestone landscape known as Chauvet Cave, which houses the oldest cave paintings known to humanity. Now a tourist spot for hikers and kayakers, the Southern France river valley best known for the Pont-d’Arc—a natural bridge formed by the Ardèche River—once was populated by Cave Lions, Wooly Rhinos, Cave Bears, Wooly Mammoths, Panthers, Neanderthal and yes, homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic period some thirty thousand years ago. In order to preserve these fragile representations (peoples’ breath causes mold to form thus degrading the site) the French government allows almost no one inside the 1300 foot cave of calcified bones, glittery stalactites and stalagmites, yet Herzog was given permission to take a very limited crew with hardly any equipment to document the cave paintings. According to scientists studying the cave, no humans ever lived within, using it only for drawings, and perhaps for ritualistic purposes. In a film that transcends the medium—due to the ubiquity of the filmmakers and their equipment in such a limited space—we witness something awe-inspiring which, like walking on the moon, the majority of humans will never get to experience firsthand.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Clearcut Film Still From "If A Tree Falls" by Marshall Curry

What is awe-inspiring to some is merely toilet paper to others. The tall majesty of a Giant Redwood stretching its ancient limbs toward the puffy clouds floating across the bright blue sky. Now a forest of Aspen, creating an ecosystem of life, an interconnected network communicating across thousands of miles, providing myriad species of flora and fauna—including humans—the fundamental ability to sustain life. Now imagine it all gone, gutted, gored out of the ground for the remarkably short-sighted goal of ephemeral profit. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation FrontWhat happens when so-called tree-huggers shake off their hippy-dippy tie-dye for a more militant approach to fighting back against the wanton destruction of the forest. Marshall Curry tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of an ELF cell, by focusing on the transformation and radicalization of one of its members.

Being connected to the world from which we come, rather than manipulating it for profit, is the underlying message of Forks Over Knives. Written, directed and narrated by Lee Fulkerson, himself a subject of study in the controversial 95 minute long exploration into what scientists Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have discovered through painstaking research: “that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.” How will history view us? As the Age of Diabetes? The Age of Heart Disease? Or as the age that had a chance to change repeated bad behavior but did not do so in order for the few to profit from the many? It may be the most important film of the new decade, but who will actually watch it?

The tagline to Transcendent Man by Barry Ptolemy is “Prepare To Evolve” and if futurist Ray Kurzweil has any influence in the matter, we will all live forever. Or at least those that can afford nanobot surgery to repair dysfunctional organs, the hundreds of vitamins taken on a daily basis to sustain human health, and the acceptance of Transhumanism—the mixing of machine and human—into the mainstream. The film follows Kurzweil across the globe as he talks to thousands of people about his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and what it means to transcend biology. The post-biological world will solve world hunger, disease, aging and even “cure death”. He doesn’t, however, comment on how to cure all the rich psychopaths that always seem to end up running the world. Maybe in version 2.0.

Best Documentary Films - 2011

American Grindhouse Film Still from "Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS"

John Landis puts it succinctly when he says, “In the terms of the business, a profitable picture is a good picture.” American Grindhouse(Elijah Drenner) focuses on the history of the B-movie, the rise of the exploitation flick, the slasher movie, and pornography to merge with Hollywood film-making to become the epitome of modern American Cinema. The concept of a grindhouse is based upon the hey-day of studio-owned theaters—some running non-stop 24 hours a day—in a big city which would show anything to keep the customers entertained. This predated the current MPAA rating system and other rating laws, and thus gave the public a window to see the societal taboos that they really wanted to watch: sex, violence and antihero on the big screen. Once legally separated from their studio backers, a true free market reigned at the theater , giving rise to a larger independent film movement and helping create the modern American film industry. Talk all you want about what should and should not be filmed, but leave it to film producers to capture the zeitgeist of a pop culture clamoring for (yet another) female jail flick / slasher movie.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender)
It’s a good thing that Conan O’Brien is one of the funniest people on the planet, because he’s kind of a dick. Not a Dick Cheney kind of dick, but the inevitable kind that comes from everyone wanting to meet you all of the time and your show has just been hijacked and you can’t be on TV for one year and you’re a dad and that means you’re tired, and everyone still wants to chat you up—even celebrities (they who should understand)–like you have all the time in the world while putting on a massive mostly-one-man cross-country show. It must be said, this documentary on Conan O’Brien’s comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada after leaving his post at “The Tonight Show” and severing his relationship with NBC, cements O’Brien’s standing as Comedian of the People.

Honorable Mentions go to:

Best Documentary Films - 2011

Film Still from "General Orders No. 9" by Robert Persons

  • Prohibition Ken Burns & Lynn Novick invite you to toast a tipple to the teetotallers while watching the history of how to royally screw anentire country.
  • General Orders No. 9, writer-director Robert Persons cinematographically stunning tale of Man’s interaction with Nature in the Deep South is enigmatically told through experimental usage of poems, music and images.
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times Andrew Rossi is given
  • unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom, yielding a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity.
  • The Greatest Movie Ever Sold by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock is a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that is financed and made possible by brands, advertising and product placement.
  • I Am is a 2011 documentary film written, narrated, and directed by Tom Shadyac. What happens when a director best known for directing Jim Carrey vehicles Ace Venture: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty has a life-altering bicycle accident and sees the light: a feelgood Choose Life documentary of the year.
  • Life in a Day is a crowd-sourced documentary film comprising a series of video selected from 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube, all taken around the world on July 24, 2010. The 95 minute “film” includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations.
  • Miss Representation from Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.
  • The Captains is a feature length documentary film written and directed by William Shatner in which he, the original Captain Kirk searches out the lives of other captains of the USS Enterprise and interviews them. He’s also got a new album coming out soon.
  • These Amazing Shadows, Paul Mariano Producer / Director Kurt Norton Producer / Director
  • Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton is a documentary on DIY producer/director Roger Corman and his alternative approach to making movies in Hollywood.
Fan Bing Bing at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

24th Tokyo International Film Festival For the Love of Cinema

Damn Life ©2011 Hitoshi Kitagawa at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Damn Life ©2011 Hitoshi Kitagawa at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

The demise of cinema marks a loss even greater than that of vinyl or even books. After all, music sounds almost the same whether played on a record or an mp3, and e-readers do at least replicate the format of paper books.

But the cinema? However gratifying it might be to download a movie torrent in minutes at home, the experience pales in comparison to walking into a darkened theatre, perfumed with the scent of caramel popcorn and soundtracked by the crackle of anticipation, for your eyeballs to be pelted with a flurry of hypersize images and your ears assaulted by booming surround sound. To me, you could drop your inheritance on an enormous flatscreen TV and a Bose soundsystem, and still come about as close to the real cinematic experience as a cellphone jingle does to a symphony.

I think that’s what the 24th Tokyo International Film Festival was getting at when it chose the slogan, “Believe! The Power of Film”. As with most cultural events since the March 11th tsunami, it came close to being canceled, but eventually went ahead with the requisite “Overcoming the Disaster” section tacked on.

The tone of the festival was therefore even more conservative than usual–and that’s saying something for Tokyo, one of the most anodyne international festivals of the annual circuit. If film is about the big screen, for me, then it goes without saying that festivals are about the scandal beyond the silver screen–be it bed-hopping, brawling or wardrobe malfunctions.

Sadly, the absence of Hollywood’s glitterati meant nothing of the kind happened at this year’s TIFF. That’s not to say there were no celebrities at all: this year’s opening ceremony included appearances from Jackie Chan, whose 1911 co-opened the festival, and Milla Jovovich in The Three Musketeers, directed by her husband, Paul Anderson. Whatever happened to the lovely Milla? Sure, in the flesh she still glittered with that ethereal, movie-star grace denied to mere mortals, but… remember when she was an extraterrestrial vixen in Jean Paul Gaultier bondage? Well, now she makes “grt family adventure movies,” according to one of her own appallingly abbreviated Tweets, and attacks movie production companies for under-promoting what is apparently a complete turkey.

Cluttered with bizarre “modern” props such as airships and screened in 3D, I snubbed the musketeers Damn Life, a dark and deeply creepy Japanese flick. It tells the story of Kotani, a boy who cannot help but literally do as he is told. Awkward and seemingly mentally disabled, he starts working on a construction site, where he is severely bullied. The tables are turned on his attackers, however, when one of them accidentally kills another, and then pleads Kotani to kill him out of guilt. Kotani complies with remorseless ease, which kicks off a murdering spree. The actor, Keita Kasatsugu, has the psychopath look down pat: dark eyes peeping out behind a long fringe, a manic laugh, sporadic convulsions. But director Hitoshi Kitagawa, (who is, bizarrely, a monk, who makes films in his spare time) skilfully steers the film away from the gratuitous gore-flick it could have potentially dwindled into, diverting the camera away from much of the violence and employing a static shot to give the scenes a taut, theatrical atmosphere.

Tokyo Drifter ©2011 Tofoo Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Tokyo Drifter ©2011 Tofoo Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Fukushima Hula Girls ©2011 CineSpecial at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Fukushima Hula Girls ©2011 Cinespecial at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

A calmer and more entertaining response to the disaster was Tokyo Drifter–not a remake of the 1966 Seijun Suzuki yakuza classic, but a feature which follows a busker, Kenta Maeno, around Tokyo’s eerily dark, electricity-devoid streets after the quake. You wouldn’t think that a lone guy bashing ballads out on an acoustic guitar would fill 90 minutes, but it’s curiously captivating. Sadly, the immediate bystanders filmed seem to be either oblivious or indifferent, which only augments Maeno’s hoarse, melancholy notes.

Of the films in the “Overcoming Disaster” documentary section, Fukushima Hula Girls, was the most enjoyable to sit through. Following a troupe of hula dancers at the Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, the documentary delicately balances an optimistic tone with a realistic look at the situation after the nuclear disaster. Particular attention is given to second-in-command Hula Girl Rie Omori, who grew up in Futaba, just two kilometers from the plant, where she remembers playing when she was little. Her grandmother, sitting in her seventh evacuation residence, notes that no-one was anti-nuclear when it was originally built: “We were just farmers and we weren’t rich. But I guess it’s too late now to say we should have opposed it then.”

Underlining her message are the bizarre sights that greet the family when they journey back to their home to recover a few small possessions: cows and even an ostrich wandering aimlessly among the irradiated, waist-high weeds that wreath a large sign declaring “Nuclear power creates a prosperous society”.

Omori is an open and quite charming interviewee, who tries to put a bright spin on the situation. Laughing through tears she recalls how she bought protective

clothing and wore three facemasks at once when revisiting her now contaminated home. There are many awkward echoes of Omori’s very personal situation in Land of Oblivion, which is set in Pripyat, a city just two miles from Chernobyl. It opens with a wedding party that is terminated rather abruptly by the infamous black rain, which stains the cake–and the summoning of the groom to a “forest fire” that turns out to be the nuclear plant. Skipping ten years ahead, it shows the once beautiful bride, Anya–who is a tour guide for French tourists in “the Zone”–now infertile and losing her hair in clumps, but not afraid to eat the local apples.

The immediate events that unfold after the accident are eerily similar to those seen in Fukushima: residents refuse to budge, even when the authorities are carting them out of their homes in their chairs; vigilantes carrying Geiger counters to the market and warning people not to buy meat; the reluctant abandonment of somewhere they used to live, work, play. The same regret and nostalgia that has emerged in Japan is present, too:

“Pripyat was a model Soviet city, the best in Ukraine–it had cinemas, theaters–now it doesn’t even have water or electricity,” says Anya. Later, she reminisces about the past, when they felt infallible: “The Cold War was a good time for us, at least. We felt stronger than the atom.”

Previous residents now have different dreams. One man who was evacuated to a city called Slavutich boasts that it has a radiation research center funded by the international community. “In 100 years it will be a megapolis!” he says, seemingly undeterred by the fact that the city’s success would be built by research into how people die.

Gus Van Sant Restless ©2011 SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Gus Van Sant Restless ©2011 SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Trishna ©2011 Bankside Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Trishna ©2011 Bankside Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

The same love and death theme is at the centre of Gus Van Sant’s latest offering, Restless, the tale of two teenage lovers. We first meet the death-obsessed protagonists–Enoch, a troubled orphan, and Annabel, a terminal cancer patient–as they bump into each other when crashing a funeral. On their second meeting, Henry “introduces” Annabel to his parents’ gravestone, and the topic of Annabel’s imminent death is never far from their minds.

Both of the kids are explicitly quirky, which occasionally turns somewhat contrived. Enoch is friends with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi, who still wears his uniform and always wins at Battleships. Annabel, meanwhile, is a “bug watcher,” according to Enoch–or more accurately, a Darwinian devotee obsessed with evolution and ornithology. She tests Enoch and herself on names and characteristics of birds, and her unbelievably prosaic attitude to her own death is probably an effect of her belief that every individual human life is nothing but a blip in the grand evolutionary scheme.

Perhaps, as the actor who plays Hiroshi, Ryo Kase suggested at a Q&A after the screening, this is Van Sant’s idealization of a heterosexual relationship (he’s gay). Kase said that he found their relationship a little too “pure” the first time he watched the film, and asked a gay friend about it, who told him that as a member of a minority who “have to live alone”, Van Sant had likely injected a little of his idealized innocence and sweetness into the relationship. I take this to mean that it was perhaps a little unrealistic and not as fractious as it could have been. Moreover, the invention of a ghost as Enoch’s only friend echoes the isolation that can accompany coming out and being gay as a young man.

This is an interesting angle to offer at a film festival in Japan, where homosexuality is not often publically discussed and is often only tacitly accepted. However, it

might be quite a culturally specific reading in that Kase, or even his gay Japanese friend, assumed that gay men “live alone” and are necessarily solitary, which is obviously not always the case.

The love story in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna is much more bitter, but all the better for it. An adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbevilles, transposed to Rajasthan, it tells the tale of a rickshaw driver’s daughter, Trishna, who is offered a hand of help and employment by Jay, a wealthy British-Indian whose father owns a string of luxury hotels.

Jay’s patience eventually pays off, and they become a couple. They move to Bombay, where the poor peasant girl shacks off her saris for leggings and spandex, learns to drink alcohol in cafes and gains some independence. Their relationship evolves into an equal and loving one–until Jay returns to England to nurse his sick father, leaving Trishna alone.

When he returns they have to move to the more traditional Rajasthan, where Trishna once again works as a maid at the hotel, and their private time is restricted to when she brings Jay lunch. Suddenly, the dynamic of their relationship shifts. As the owner’s son, her boss, and perhaps even as half-British–if you care to read into the colonial context–Jay begins to dominate and abuse Trishna in a way that was unimaginable when he first scooped her up.

I don’t want to give too much away, since this is a movie that you really should catch, but suffice it to say that this is an intelligent, multi-layered analysis of the modern class system in urban and rural India as the country undergoes enormous social upheaval. The acting is superb, and the direction so natural it’s imperceptible, which is a good thing.

Detachment ©2011 Paper Street Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Adrian Brody in Detachment ©2011 Paper Street Films at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ©2010 Creative Differences at Tokyo International Film Festival 24 (HESO Magazine)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ©2010 Creative Differences at Tokyo International Film Festival 24

The best that I saw, however, was saved until last: Detachment. British director Tony Kaye takes a highly critical–and dramatic–look at the American education system through the eyes of a substitute teacher, Henry, played by Adrien Brody. On Henry’s first day in the classroom, we see something remarkable: a teacher who’s able to handle even the most violent of kids in a calm and respectful way. In response to some perceived slight, a kid begins heckling him before marching up to the blackboard and threatening to attack. Henry defuses the situation by telling him, “I understand that you’re angry. I used to be angry too.”

Used to be? In the next scene, his temperament makes an about-face: when called to coax his grandfather out of the nursing home bathroom he has locked himself into, he launches a fiery tirade on the nurse for not removing the locks as he had requested. “I could make you lose your job so it’s your children, your family!” he yells, almost spitting with rage. “Don’t ever call me out here at this hour again!” On the way home he has a strange encounter with a child prostitute (looking not unlike Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) after she gets punched by a john on the bus. He pushes her away, seemingly indifferent to the fact she is bleeding from the mouth.

So: does he care about people, or not? Although he says he “used to be” angry, where is all this current rage coming from? The blurry, color-drenched Super8 footage cut into the movie gives us some hints: his mother. Exactly how his childhood influenced his current state remains unclear until the end of the film, but they’re a constant reminder that this man is damaged. Not, however, as damaged as the kids he’s attempting to teach, or even his fellow teachers. Most reviews have described this film as a biting critique of the U.S. school system, and another string of the movie is a retrospective interview with Henry, who describes all of its failings.

The kids are violent, self-hating, scantily dressed. They hammer cats to death in the gymnasium and hurl expletive-filled insults at teachers in lieu of morning greetings–and their parents do the same when they bother to contact the school. Worn down by relentless abuse and not enough thanks, the teachers are also close to snapping–and their mental state is rendered more explicit by the intermittent animations that pop up, showing frantically scribbled blackboard pictures of guillotines, blood and collapsing structures.

Unlike other school-based movies, there is no redeeming dance team, no one inspiring teacher, no positive figure to save the school. It ends in the same state–if not worse–than it began, and the damaged Henry has barely the power or energy to stop it. The acting is extremely solid–from a tranquillizer-popping James Caan, to the about-to-be-fired Marcia Gay Harden as the principal, or Lucy Liu’s uptight and nervy Dr. Parker. While the dramatic interludes of footage woven through the film–his mother and the blackboards–it’s a little heavy-handed at times, and perhaps a little too open about its manipulation of the viewer. All the same, it’s a solid production that is well worth a watch–if only for the superb Brody, who hasn’t put a foot wrong in his career yet.

The thing about film festivals is that you can’t see all the films. There were many other small productions that I regret missing, however. When Pigs Have Wings by Sylvain Estibal, a quirky comedy which won the Audience Award about a Palestinian man who finds a pig and then tries to conceal it, cleverly woven against the background of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Cave of Forgotten Dreams by the enigmatic Werner Herzog–the first 3-D documentary I have heard of–is about the oldest extant cave art known to man, at the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The list goes on: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel on director Roger Corman, Lonely Planet a conglomeration of Gogol stories set in Siberia by Edan Zeira, or even the festival closer Money Ball starring Brad Pitt, based on a non-fiction account book about–of all things–baseball by Michael Lewis, and it goes without saying, the winner Intouchables co-directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache which won the festival’s Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix and the Award for Best Actor.

Even without seeing all of these films (an impossible feat I would say few people not being paid handsomely could accomplish and even then…), the hours and days and months and even years of hard work put into them add up to greater than the sum of streaming them on Netflix, greater than the convenience of being able to download them to your iPad or smartphone, greater even than the two hours allotted them in the darkened church of the theatre, that hallowed place of modern worship, where the sound of sticky footfalls pace to find the perfect seat for expectant eyes to perchance take a peek into another world. God, you can take the Queen, but save film!


About the Author

Isobel Wiles is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Isobel Wiles is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Because we live in a 24-hour news cycle you’ve probably heard the story slipped in somewhere between nuclear contamination fears, carnage in Afghanistan and sexual indiscretions of Republican candidates—2005 YU55, a massive asteroid four hundred meters in diameter will pass within the orbit of the moon on November 8th. It’s the closest an asteroid this big has come this close to Earth since 1976. Though scientists have been explicitly clear that there is nothing to worry about, it hasn’t stopped the morbidly inclined of our newspersons from speculating on the high-magnitude earthquake, seventy-foot tsunami waves and various ecological catastrophes associated with such potential deep impact. A cosmic apocalypse can be a boon for ratings.

Another godsend for news-gathering minions is when a famous person expresses “sympathy” for Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, as Lars Von Trier supposedly did at a press conference at Cannes earlier this year. Trier, an idiot savant if there ever was one, was extrapolating carelessly on his genetic ancestry, having recently learned of his German bloodline. His words were taken out of context and French authorities went into a huff. Melancholia, his very great film about a planetary collision wiping out the earth and all existence was disqualified from the Palme d’Or competition.

I don’t know anyone who’s ever named Lars Von Trier as a favorite director. His aesthetics can be wildly inconsistent—in addition to directing lush, surreal melodrama, he is one of the founders of the anti-Hollywood Dogma 95 movement, which among some of its manifesto points, insists on using unknown actors, natural lighting and diegetic music. Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, among other famous names and beginning with a special-effects laden series of moving stills depicting the end of the world to the music of Richard Wagner’s dramatic Tristan und Isolde is decidedly not the latter. Nevertheless, for all its Hollywood stars and high-concept content, Melancholia is very European in tone, execution, and ultimately, pessimism.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Why the long face beautiful? Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia"

If a diabolical European filmmaker is going to sabotage our relation with certain beloved tropes then, he may as well begin the story with a white wedding at a Cinderella-style castle, celebrating a bride and groom whose love story is utterly doomed. Justine (Dunst), a gorgeous, busty blonde is to marry handsome nice guy Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at her sister, Claire’s (Gainsbourg) and husband, John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) sprawling garden estate. Claire has taken the trouble to organize the gala and John has bankrolled an event with hundreds of beautiful people in attendance. The problem is Justine: she suffers from crippling depression and tends to disappear in key ceremonial moments.

We don’t know why Justine is sad. She’s a successful copywriter but she doesn’t like her job (her boss is a slimeball played by Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard). Her divorced parents make spectacles of themselves. Her father (John Hurt) is a philandering, unserious drunkard while her mother (Charlotte Rampling) could win a cinematic award in the category of World’s Worst Mom for her bitchiness (she condemns the institution of marriage in her dinner speech and when Justine turns to her in a moment of need has only cold-blooded pragmatism for comfort). Let’s face it: there is no such thing as ‘normal’ and most people have crazy parents so though you may feel ashamed when your father makes an ass of himself at your wedding table, it’s not entirely destabilizing. After all, the sister, Claire, is well adjusted, thoughtful, and kind.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

The director Lars Von Trier in his own Melancholia Poster

It appears then that Justine’s sadness may be of the more inexplicable kind—a nihilism peculiar to certain personalities susceptible to “What’s the point?” thinking. It afflicts those too sensitive of the misery and suffering in the world, for whom the benefits of material security and distraction are of little comfort. It is rather sourceless, or rather, existence itself is source enough.

Justine fails not just on bridal protocol but on moral terms as well, avoiding intimacy with and abandoning Michael to be alone, dragging her gown on the golf course, taking a bath, peeing in the garden and at the moment she should be consummating her marriage, fornicating with a relative stranger on the 18th hole. The planet set to collide with Earth is yet just a speck in the sky but Melancholia is already a disaster film.

With such inauspicious beginnings, the marriage never gets off the ground and following a complete nervous breakdown, Justine moves into the fairy tale castle with John and Claire and their five-year-old son, Leo. A few weeks have passed and it is understood that the rogue planet— named by astronomers as Melancholia— will pass very close to Earth without destroying it, a “fly-by.” Nevertheless, there is an alternative slingshot theory called the “dance of death” that argues that Melancholia will collide with the Earth, though scientific details are somewhat vague. But science is not the point. Trier’s interest is not astrophysics but psychology— how would uniquely polarized personalities deal with the specter of absolute extinction?

Claire, who appreciates her wonderful life and thus has much to lose by certain death, is understandably agitated. On the other hand, Justine feels a kinship with a planet describing her acute condition (she bathes naked in its reflected light one night). That it might destroy the earth gives her a certain amount of vindication and through the ordeal, she is abnormally calm if not excited about total annihilation. It’s what she’s been waiting for her entire life.

Hollywood has a long tradition of end-of-the-world thinking. This makes sense, as after putting together civilization, man has seemed certain of its inevitable destruction (the early 1940s and WWII must have been a boom time for self-professed nihilists). Doomsayers like their fin de siecle preordained, the most topical one being the Mayan calendar and the pseudo-science arguing that the poles will move setting off titanic earthquakes, biblical floods and for the survivors, floating arks to which to start over (already filmed by eminent disaster film guru Roland Emmerich as 2012). When December 21st, 2012, passes without incident, the world’s Chicken Littles will come up with a novel day and method for our demise, sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. Always, it seems there is some cult of fear that gathers enough momentum to infiltrate our collective consciousness— a real pain in the ass for those who enjoy themselves and believe that life on earth is getting better, not worse.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Look! The End of the World! Charlotte Gainsbourg & Kiefer Sutherland in Melancholia

Eschatological tales have great dramatic potential with a mass audience and Hollywood is wise to capitalize on our fears as such, though its enterprises are often incompetent and buffoonish. The nationalistic Armageddon is among the very worst offenders of bad taste. The problem in nearly all disaster films—rendering them unwatchable for intelligent viewers—is their scattered lack of focus. Instead of the particular, they focus on the general, jumping around the globe, introducing and then ignoring characters in the buildup to the disaster which then becomes this horrible MTV-style edited mess of CGI nonsense that has no coherence for those of us who have not hot-wired our brains on video games and Michael Bay film-making technique. The effect then is not urgency but utter boredom.

What is so very great about Trier’s Melancholia is that we have no idea how the world is reacting to the news of apocalypse—we suffer the fear and resignation with a single family living in an opulent setting isolated from the rest of humanity. There is no television or radio sculpting our emotions, just the phenomenon of the approaching planet itself. No one in this family is capable of doing a thing to prevent destruction should it occur so we are left merely with dealing with it. I cannot think of another disaster film that has let alone the problem solving to focus exclusively on characters that cannot be proactive, who merely react with one line of thought or another until that speck in the sky is the harbinger of our ultimate end.

When the time to die is at hand and Justine’s life philosophy ascendant, she espouses to a desperate and distressed Claire that life on earth is “evil” and we are “alone in the universe.” It’s not a viewpoint one wants to cling to in mortally bad circumstances and again, for optimists it’s a rather dour summation of existence. But for all that, Melancholia finishes beautifully. Of course, how one faces death is more suggestive of one’s character than how one dies, a point asserted with the film’s terrific ending, one of the most dramatic, beautiful, cosmic final flourishes rivaling any movie ever made.

Though we live in the Age of Terror, it’s important to point out that for about forty-five years vis-à-vis the scheming Soviets we were on the brink of mutually assured destruction, a fact of life Generation Y readers cannot contemplate and for this author is a distant childhood memory. That nuclear war has been relegated to history books is just one instance demonstrating human progress. Life on earth is not entirely evil and we are not necessarily alone in the universe. There are many reasons to believe in the Hollywood happy ending, the most important of which is that it suits a beautiful, fulfilling life.

I may be wrong and the end may be nigh—until then we will have to live vicariously through the imagination of depressive dreamers. You can do a lot worse than spending two hours in the dark with Lars Von Trier and friends. One does not need to share his discontent to pleasure in his glorious end-all-be-all. “To life,” John toasts his wife when they mistakenly believe themselves to be in the clear. “To good cinema,” I raise my beer can from a temporarily safe cosmological vantage point.


About the Author

Sean "Smiles" Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sean “Smiles” Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan, who contributes the bi-monthly Pop Zeitgeist column to HESO. His website of writing & photography is here.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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