The Assassin, or movies we’re not meant to follow

22 12 2015

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Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s latest is complicated. It’s so complicated someone went ahead and created an infographic outlining the characters’ relationships. Still, I enjoyed the movie, and I think the reason I did is that, with cinema, it’s not always necessary to understand what’s going on.

This has to do with the nature of the medium, especially in a theatrical setting, where viewers can’t rewind or pause the screening. Overwhelming amounts of visual and aural information are always flitting past them, so it’s expected that they won’t grasp everything. And they truly can’t when the images are as breathtaking as they are in The Assassin. How can they simultaneously keep track of such gorgeous compositions, layered period detail, and dense webs of spoken exposition? Well, the answer is: they can’t. Or: they should consult the infographic. Or perhaps: they should stop worrying and love the Hou. Or maybe: they’re not supposed to keep track of it all, because that failure is part of the meaning, part of what the film has to say about the prickly brambles of politics, legacy, and heritage, in which every action in the present is an equal but opposite reaction to innumerable factors stretching into the past.

Now, unlike movies, novels often include family trees, maps, and other paratextual elements so that readers can, indeed, keep track of it all. With literature, as tangled as a story might get, the unwritten assumption is that readers can handle it because they have all the time in the world to wrap their noggins around it. They can flip back pages, look up information, scribble notes on the margins. The story isn’t going anywhere until they force it to. Even if the author hoped to instil a sense of disorientation, readers will still try to assimilate the whole unwieldy edifice.

This might explain why so many readers become frustrated with, say, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, an extreme example of  confounding art. Since it’s a book, total understanding seems to be simply a matter of perseverance. And if total understanding never comes, well, that’s a problem. Jorge Luis Borges, in his famous pan of the book, mentioned his “total bewilderment” and admitted to only stealing “useless and partial glances” at the Irishman’s “verbal labyrinth.” Had it been a movie, I suspect some might have more readily accepted it as a brilliant mind-fuck and rolled a joint. (As it happens, there is indeed a movie version, an acceptable one made in the 60s by Mary Ellen Bute, but it’s considerably more coherent and sedate than the original text. Bute’s own experimental shorts from the 20s, with their dreamy abstraction, are probably closer to Joyce’s vision.) Or maybe not: early responses to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as many will recall, were similarly baffled. As a culture obsessed with rationality, perhaps we’re terrified when an artwork exceeds our capacity to comprehend it.

That’s not to say books or movies should never make sense. Sometimes their stories or themes call for sense to be made. But other times, that’s obviously not the point. Joyce was doing a novel about the night, like Ulysses had been about the day. Kubrick was imagining bedrooms beyond the known universe. And Olivier Assayas, in his brilliant Demonlover (roundly criticised for being as infographic-worthy as The Assassin), was studying the endless twining and interweaving of corporate intrigue, even flirting with satyrical absurdity. (As we discover, the company all the protagonists work for is entirely and comically comprised of double agents from other, competing companies). When judging their merits, we should not ask how much sense they make, because they don’t always make that much of it, but how well they keep our attention despite the “total bewilderment” they sink us into. The best mind-fucks are those we’re forever close to figuring out, but can’t. Or rather, we can’t while in the process of watching them, because the pieces often do fall into place after post-credits reflection – or reading an infographic.

The examples I just mentioned often deceive us. They seem to straddle the line between sense and nonsense, the shadow and the light. Finnegans Wake seems written in an alien language, but… is that an actual English word? Are those repeated names or initials? Is that the faint outline of a discernible narrative structure? 2001, inversely, is so glacially slow and its images are so transparently beautiful and clear, that it seems impossible to be flummoxed by anything in it. And then, suddenly, there’s a white room with a black monolith – and is that a space-faring baby? In the same vein, Demonlover and The Assassin include reams of exposition. Characters talk and talk, they name names. Viewers suspect that, if they keep listening, their burning questions will finally be resolved. Except they’re not. These masterpieces of confusion know that confusion isn’t fun unless we feel we’re perpetually close to an epiphany that might never come.

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The Dystopia We Want

27 08 2015

As part of my job, I watch plenty of TV spots and promotional videos, and read piles of print ads. Sometimes, I come across some curious examples. This is one of them. Corning, the company behind this YouTube short, wants everyone – tech and construction companies, even governments – to use its product. That is, glass, obviously, which might be used, in some science-fictional future, for smart televisions, smart phones, smart bathroom mirrors, smart fridges, smart kitchen tables, smart dinner tables, smart shop fronts, smart bus stops, smart traffic signs, smart billboards, even smart panels in clothing stores to browse the catalogue. This is not your grandfather’s glass, that’s for sure. This is glass in the Internet of Everything era. Connected, all the time.

The curious thing, of course, is the inevitable question: do we want this? Is this a good thing? Is this our future? The prevalence of blinding brightness – white or faintly beige or lightly grey surfaces – throughout this video would seem to suggest some sort of heaven. Certainly, all the characters look very, very happy. They’re calm, comforted. They spend the entire day enjoying the endless delights of interconnected devices. But they also spend every waking minute surrounded by surfaces reminding them of their jobs, of their appointments, of the products they do not need but will consume. And the efficiency gained from such technology has a drawback, as anyone who owns a smart phone knows. The drawback being that social expectations change as technology expands the realm of the possible. You can contact people with more speed now, sure. But they also expect you to. Unanswered messages – and by unanswered I mean not replied to within the hour – convey a message: about how much you care about a person or project or team or whatever. The meaning of our interactions has been altered.

What I found intriguing about Corning’s video, quite simply, is its assumption about the absolute, unarguable, unambiguous goodness of the ubiquitous smart technology on display, its assumption that these images – of endless screens surrounding us and bombarding us with information all the time – are attractive, that they make the underlying product (glass) desirable. But, then, maybe that’s true: certainly, tech and infrastructure seems to be moving in this direction. And Corning, here, means to woo other businesses and governments, not street-level consumers or bloggers (in ad-speak, this video is B2B, or business-to-business). Maybe we’ll end up having to get used to this future. Maybe this is the dystopia we want. We’ll doubtlessly grow used to it, whenever it comes about, but it is no more desirable because of this.





Sisters: Brian De Palma’s inconstant selves

17 11 2014

sisters

For Sound on Sight:

In Brian De Palma’s Sisters, the titular siblings are French-Canadian Siamese twins surgically separated as adults. Danielle is gentle and lovely, and Dominique gloomy and anguished. This dynamic is complicated by the fact that the former needs the latter to develop her persona. Without Dominique, Danielle has no identity. To weave the fiction of her socially acceptable behavior, she must have Dominique bear the burden of her most disturbing desires. Yet the film, oddly enough, is not about Danielle or Dominique, but about the journalist Grace Collier. As Dominique recedes into the background, Danielle and Grace become the main antagonistic pair, a transition that culminates in an intense climax, a hypnosis dream, that imagines them as conjoined twins. As we learn, Dominique has been dead from the outset, and Danielle has transformed into her in moments of sexual and emotional excitement.

Keep reading.





7 Boxes: Living with cell phones in Paraguay

17 11 2014

7 Boxes

For Sound on Sight:

Even within Latin America, Paraguayan cinema does not exactly dominate the cultural conversation and, sadly, remains something of a mystery. In fact, outside of Argentina, Brazil, and maybe Chile, the rest of South America, in cinematic terms, is mostly uncharted territory (which is not to say no movies are made there, but rather that international audiences, even open-minded cinephiles, don’t know much about them). With this in mind, the breakaway success of 7 Boxes, by Tana Schémbori and Juan Carlos Maneglia, is startling. Since premiering in 2012, it has nabbed prizes in San Sebastian and Mar del Plata; has featured in film festivals in Mexico, Cuba, Sweden, Canada, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic; and has earned critical accolades wherever it has been shown. It is also the highest grossing Paraguayan movie of all time. Nevertheless, it still took two years to reach North American art houses, and it only recently opened in a handful of screens in Argentina, which neighbors Paraguay.

7 Boxes, in this age of sequels and franchises, is like Hollywood done right, except outside of Hollywood. Although, in many countries, it has been relegated to the festival circuit and has received a limited release, this is a formally conventional and fast-paced affair, featuring energetic handheld camerawork and an aesthetics of clutter, which, as in City of God or the more sophisticated Portuguese works of Pedro Costa, emphasizes the lived-in texture of poverty. Although it has plenty of violence, 7 Boxes is never solemn or sensational, allowing sudden and even surreal intrusions of humor to relieve the tension and bloodiness. Any movie of this sort risks suggesting that its humble characters know only hunger and crime, and though it would be false to say that 7 Boxes entirely avoids this pitfall, its protagonists do seem to enjoy a broad panoply of emotions, love and camaraderie, dreams and pure adrenaline, as they also interact creatively with technology.

Keep reading.





New Rose Hotel and the epiphanic flashback

25 09 2014

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New Rose Hotel explores what happens when genre clichés are expanded to their breaking point. Eventually, they become surprising and expressive devices. Their generic origins are forgotten and their traditional contours disappear. In this case, Abel Ferrara uses the epiphanic flashback trope: a pivotal moment of recollection in which the protagonist, thinking back on previous scenes, links together clues he or she failed to recognize before in order to finally solve a mystery. This happens, to give just one example, in the recent Argentine Oscar-winner The Secret in their Eyes. However, these epiphanic flashbacks typically last one or two minutes. They serve a functional role, giving viewers a sense of what the protagonist is remembering. The protagonist views his or her own story as if he or she were an outsider, an audience member like us, and this role reversal or out-of-body experience is emphasized by the fact that the memories on display usually consist of past sequences from the actual movie. Which means that the protagonist remembers him or herself in the third person.

Ferrara subverts this convention in two ways: the epiphanic flashback lasts almost twenty minutes, becoming a dreamy, fragmented, nonlinear dive into subjective space; and the repeated sequences are not quite so: old scenes are seen from new angles, others are shortened or extended with new footage, and new scenes illustrate what had previously only been suggested in dialogue exchanges. This lengthy, stream-of-consciousness review of events is so meandering, so interminable (compared to similar moments in more traditional movies) that it transforms into a poetic representation of longing, disappointment, and remorse. The protagonist (played by Willem Dafoe), a kind of con artist who specializes in corporate intrigue, may or may not have been conned by the very woman he hired to do his dirty work (a gorgeous Asia Argento), who was also his lover. His recollections piece together the enigma, often ironically, as he realizes that he may have been the victim of the exact deception he meant to perpetrate himself.

The fact that he remembers himself in the third person, as is typical of epiphanic flashbacks, becomes a joke or wink. He has spent much of the running time surveying videos of his prey, so that he now observes himself as once he spied on the subject of his failed con, trying to understand, to look for revelatory details. His identification with the character on the screen – the scientist in the hidden camera footage – is now complete, as he transforms into the body in the video feed, appears in the movie in his mind as the main character, which of course he has been all along for us. More effectively than The Matrix, it restates the Baudrillardian notion that everything has become a simulation, that representation is simply presentation since the original referent has disappeared, leaving only the shape on a screen. A powerful notion in a film about con artists, who simulate for a living, so that, more than people, they are fictional constructs, always seen by others, perpetually watched, any sense of identity slippery and fugitive. What is at stake, in the protagonist’s retrospective disentanglement of the plot, is the degree of his loneliness. Having lived a life dedicated to deceit, as either the offending or offended party, he now finds himself utterly alone, the only people he can talk to figments of his ghostly, echoing remembrances. That his flashbacks occur inside the titular New Rose Hotel, comprised of tiny cabins stacked one on top of the other like storage containers – a monument to spiritual and physical isolation, a bestiary of lonely people ensconced in private boxes – only reinforces the potentially fatal and horribly anguished path his mind and body have taken. Has he found a tomb for himself at the New Rose Hotel? And are his flashbacks the life that flashes before his eyes at death’s door?





Snowpiercer and Plot Holes

22 07 2014

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Saw Bong’s Snowpiercer and liked it. I’m a bit confused, however, not about the film itself, but rather about some of the comments it’s been getting on the Internet. Specifically, about its presumed plot holes. Now, I hate discussions about plot holes, but it seems to me that, with Snowpiercer, people are basically boring the holes themselves, or in plain English, making up plot holes where there’s only ambiguity or lack of information, and sometimes not even that. Why? I don’t know. Following, my replies to some oft-mentioned plot-holes-that-aren’t:

Why a train?!

This is the part that confounds me the most. What do people mean by this? It makes no sense. Why a train? Why not? It’s a crazed industrialist’s vanity project. There’s a didactic video, included in the film, that illustrates this point very forcefully. It’s a train because its owner liked trains and he had the money to make one. Rich people have been funding ridiculous projects since the time of the pyramids. The only difference is that this ridiculous project ended up being humanity’s salvation when the Earth froze over. It’s not like the countries of the world got together and thought, hey, you know what would be a great solution if our Earth-cooling plan backfires? A train! No. You might say, well, shouldn’t the countries of the world have thought up a contingency plan? Well, yes. But they didn’t, and the train definitely wasn’t it. And anyhow, that’s not what people are criticizing. Perhaps international leaders are all hidden in bunkers somewhere. The protagonists don’t know and neither do we.

Why can’t the train just stand still instead of going around in circles and risking derailment?

I’m not sure about the science behind it, but it’s made pretty clear that the train needs its engine to keep running for heating and it needs to keep moving to procure water.

Aren’t there any simpler ways to control population?

Probably, but perhaps Wilford was not keen on attempting them. We should not take his climactic explanation at face value. He’s selling an idea to Curtis, and Curtis buys into it until Yona raises the floor panel and (literally) reveals the train’s dirty underbelly. It’s not about population control, or not just about that: the reason the tailenders are forced to live in misery is because they’re reserves for slave labor, the worst of which is accomplished by five-year-olds in the engine room. Wilford talks about the balance of life or whatever, but that’s just an excuse. Population control only applies to the tailenders, who must not get too numerous. Simply executing them for no reason would encourage dissent. Having them die after revolts, on the other hand, encourages the tailenders to learn obedience.

Why does Gilliam con Curtis?

Gilliam’s relationship with Wilford is complicated, in part because we only get Wilford’s version of the events. Given what we know about Gilliam – I mean, this guy chopped off his arm to make a humanitarian point – several things are possible. A) He bought in into Wilford’s talk about the balance of life. He really believed this was the best situation for everyone: frequent revolts to give tailenders hope and resulting population control to keep the tailend inhabitable. B) He could’ve been conning Wilford, not Curtis. By dealing with Wilford, he grants the tailenders a margin of freedom so they can actually revolt. At no time does Gilliam suggest he does not believe that Curtis can get to the engine. He even seems pretty convinced of it. And when his “agreement” with Wilford is broken – that is, when the tailenders get to the water room – Gilliam doesn’t seem distraught or worried about his well-being. Quite the contrary, he encourages his fellow tailenders to continue. He likely didn’t tell Curtis about his “agreement” with Wilford because, well, if he had, would Curtis have walked straight into an ambush? Not telling him was the only way to get him to push forth and make a break for it.

I think both solutions work, frankly. We’ll never know, and neither does Curtis. That’s the problem when you only get one side of the story, and a considerably unreliable one at that.

Who maintains the rails?

I don’t have a clue. This is actually a legitimate criticism. Even accounting for the fact that these rails are used only once a year, they should suffer environmental wear and tear. Especially when the environment is, you know, catastrophically frozen. But this is the future. Maybe they’ve invented particularly durable rails. Of course, according to the film’s timeline, the train and its rails were already finished in 2014, which is obviously hilarious and improbable. But who pays attention to numbers?

Why does Nam not speak English? He designed the train’s electrical circuit, but he speaks no English?

Sure. I don’t even understand why this is an issue. It’s likely that someone like him would know some English, I guess, but given the technical focus of his work, I’m not convinced he should know that much. Also, he might have once known some English, but after years of detainment and lack of practice, he might have forgotten what little he knew.

Why do Curtis and Nam stop using the translator devices and talk in their own languages?

They don’t stop. The film establishes that they use them and then moves on. Every now and then, there’s a medium shot featuring the gadgets to remind us that they’re there. But no, we’re not constantly being reminded of them. This is not because the film thinks we’re dumb or impatient. It’s because it doesn’t want to waste our time.

If the film requires us to fill in so many blanks, the film didn’t do its job.

Think not what a film can do for you, but what you can do for a film. Or rather: what you can do with a film. Frankly, this post took some minutes to write, but about thirty seconds to think up. If all I need to do to resolve my niggling plot-related doubts is reflect for thirty seconds, without making up anything that the film didn’t suggest or outright explain, then yes, I’ll go ahead and do that and continue to develop my wonderful relationship with the movie. It’s not a chair. I don’t have to sit on it. Audience participation completes the work of art. Move on and stop asking what a film “has” or “is supposed” to do.





Combined Sight and Sound Top 100 (or so)

27 07 2009

I’m always looking for this list, so I will post it here as a personal short-hand. This list combines the Critic’s List and the Director’s List and is in order, from greatest amount of votes to fewer (if not fewest – the list is actually more extensive if we want to include those titles that have only garnered two votes)

Citizen Kane – Orson Welles
Vertigo – Alfred Hitchcock
La Règle du Jeu – Jean Renoir
8 1/2 – Federico Fellini
The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola
2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kurbrick
Tokyo Story – Yasujiro Ozu
The Godfather Part II – Francis Ford Coppola
Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa
Rashomon – Akira Kurosawa

Battleship Potemkin – Sergei Eisenstein
Singin’ in the Rain – Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Sunrise – F.W. Murnau
The Searchers – John Ford
Lawrence of Arabia – David Lean
The Passion of Joan of Arc – Carl Dreyer
Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio DeSica
La Dolce Vita – Federico Fellini
Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
L’Avventura – Michelangelo Antonioni

À Bout de Souffle – Jean-Luc Godard
Jules et Jim – Francois Truffaut
Dr. Strangelove – Stanley Kurbrick
Raging Bull – Martin Scorsese
L’Atalante – Jean Vigo
Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder
Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock
The General – Buster Keaton
Pather Panchali – Satyajit Ray
Some Like It Hot – Billy Wilder

Mirror – Andrei Tarkovsky
Fanny and Alexander – Ingmar Bergman
City Lights – Charles Chaplin
La Grande Illusion – Jean Renoir
Les Enfants du Paradis – Marcel Carné
Andrei Roublev – Andrei Tarkovsky
The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman
The Apartment – Billy Wilder
Au Hasard Balthazar – Robert Bresson
Taxi Driver – Martin Scorsese

Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola
Casablanca – Michael Curtiz
The Third Man – Carol Reed
Ugetsu Monogatari – Kenji Mizoguchi
Le Mépris – Jean-Luc Godard
Chinatown – Roman Polanski
Metropolis – Fritz Lang
Ivan the Terrible – Sergei Eisenstein
Intolerance – D.W. Griffith
M – Fritz Lang

Ordet – Carl Dreyer
Wild Strawberries – Ingmar Bergman
The 400 Blows – Francois Truffaut
Modern Times – Charles Chaplin
The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums – Kenji Mizoguchi
On the Waterfront – Elia Kazan
La Strada – Federico Fellini
North by Northwest – Alfred Hitchcock
Persona – Ingmar Bergman
The Conformist – Bernardo Bertolucci

Amarcord – Federico Fellini
Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick
Greed – Eric von Stroheim
Napoléon – Abel Gance
The Gold Rush – Charles Chaplin
Man with a Movie Camera – Dziga Vertov
L’Age d’Or – Luis Buñuel
The Wizard of Oz – Victor Fleming
The Magnificent Ambersons – Orson Welles
Rear Window – Alfred Hitchcock

Sweet Smell of Success – Alexander Mackendrick
Pickpocket – Robert Bresson
Rio Bravo – Howard Hawks
Last Year at Marienbad – Alain Resnais
The Battle of Algiers – Gillo Pontecorvo
Once Upon a Time in the West – Sergio Leone
The Wild Bunch – Sam Peckinpah
Nashville – Robert Altman
Blade Runner – Ridley Scott
Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino

Ikiru – Akira Kurosawa
Voyage to Italy – Roberto Rossellini
The Night of the Hunter – Charles Laughton
The Leopard – Luchino Visconti
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – John Ford
Viridiana – Luis Buñuel
Sansho Dayu – Kenji Mizoguchi
A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick
The Travelling Players – Theo Angelopoulos
Ran – Akira Kurosawa

Dekalog – Krzysztof Kieslowski
A City of Sadness – Hsiao-hsien Hou
GoodFellas – Martin Scorsese
Nosferatu – F.W. Murnau
Sherlock Jr. – Buster Keaton
Gone with the Wind – Victor Fleming
Stagecoach – John Ford
The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford
His Girl Friday – Howard Hawks
The Lady Eve – Preston Sturges

Double Indemnity – Billy Wilder
It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra
A Matter of Life and Death – Powell, Pressburger
My Darling Clementine – John Ford
Notorious – Alfred Hitchcock
Black Narcissus – Michael Powell, Emric Pressburger
Letter from an Unknown Woman – Max Ophuls
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre -John Huston
El – Luis Buñuel

Madame de… – Max Ophuls
World of Apu – Satyajit Ray
Vivre sa Vie – Jean-Luc Godard
The Gospel According to St. Matthew – Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pierrot le Fou – Jean-Luc Godard
Chimes at Midnight – Orson Welles
2 or 3 Things I Know about Her – Jean-Luc Godard
McCabe & Mrs. Miller – Robert Altman
Don’t Look Now – Nicolas Roeg
L’Argent- Robert Bresson

Shoah – Claude Lanzmann
Once upon a Time in America – Sergio Leone
Blue Velvet – David Lynch
Three Colours: Blue – Krzysztof Kieslowski
Breaking the Waves – Lars von Trier








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