Saturday, August 28, 2010

Marebito (2004)

Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) records everything. He doesn't have a steady income and makes his living as a freelance cameraman. He shoots footage and presumably sells it. One day with his video camera, Masuoka is in the subway and captures a man about to commit suicide while the police attempt to talk him out of it. After reviewing his footage at his work desk, Masuoka is convinced that the man killed himself because he was terrified, and what terrified the man was down in the subway in its tunnels and catacombs. Armed with his video camera, Masuoka heads deep down under Tokyo to discover what terrified the man in Marebito (A Stranger from Afar) (2004).
The director, Takashi Shimizu, is talented. Interestingly (and perhaps ironically) upon its first viewing, the narrative of Marebito is compelling (screenplay by Chiaki Konaka from his novel), and it is easy to surrender to the story and watch it unfold. During a second viewing, it is easier to become detached and watch how the film is constructed. Masuoka doesn't just capture footage with his video camera but he reviews it at the end of the day. At his work deck with multiple monitors and equipment, Masuoka is able to slow, freeze, and replay the events. If Masuoka walked the streets of Tokyo every day and captured the events with only his eyes, then all his critical review would have to come from memory. With his video footage, Masuoka can apply a much more critical eye. During the suicide subway footage, Masuoka is able to capture one frame of a split second, a quick glance by the man down the hallway of the subway. Viewing this one frame during this split second, Masuoka becomes obsessed with what terrified the man and he wants to replicate the experience. Marebito is about the perception and construction of reality. What the eye sees, what the mind perceives and what video captures creates the film.Most of the scenes away from directly advancing the narrative seem innocuous. In one telling sequence, Masuoka is walking the streets and holding his camera near his waist. The footage that he is capturing is fuzzier than the primary film footage which Shimizu is using as stock for Marebito. In Shimizu's footage, the faces of street people are blurred, but there is no blurring in Masuoka's footage. A man in a suit walks past Masuoka, and as he turns into a tunnel, Masuoka is confronted by the passing man. Were you recording? he asks. Masuoka lies and says no. The man presses him again and demands the tape in Masuoka's camera. Did you do something bad? asks Masuoka. The man doesn't answer that question, and Shimizu offers no evidence whatsoever for the viewer to speculate upon the question. The blurring/no-blurring footage from Masuoka/Shimizu juxtaposed with Masuoka's encounter with the man (Masuoka gets beaten for his cassette) leads to no discernable, rational answer. Maybe, however, that some people just do not like being captured on camera.One of the oddest quirks that Masuoka has is filming his apartment while he is gone. During the course of Marebito, he finds a dweller in the underground and houses her there. Footage is shown of Masuoka purchasing a surveillance camera, designed, as the salesperson describes, to monitor your pets, like a cat, when the homeowner is absent. Masuoka is able to monitor his houseguest from his cellular phone via remote from the camera. However, Shimizu shows his viewer the point of view from the remote camera in Masuoka's apartment before he discovers the dweller in the underground. Why would Masuoka want to film his apartment then, seemingly unoccupied? Perhaps the answer is in the question, as "seemingly unoccupied" is the phrase which hides Masuoka's fear. At the end of a day at his work desk, Masuoka reviews his house footage from the remote camera. He watches his house guest move around and notices in the footage that she is alerted by something/one. The footage blacks out and for twelve seconds, Masuoka has no idea what happened. His house guest is traumatized, and presumably, what caused her distress occurred during the twelve-second blackout. Masuoka is distressed, but the flaw in his plan to capture the world around him is revealed (or the world that he wants to capture/perceive): he cannot completely create his own reality, regardless of his methods.
Marebito has more layers. Quite a few jokes are made at the media's expense, and Masuoka also has a mental condition, which may or may not be clouding his perception of reality. In any case, Shimizu's sensitive portrait certainly deserves sensitive viewing. Few films like Marebito are so meta yet so organic that for this reason alone, Marebito is worth viewing. With films like the original V-cinema Ju-on, Reincarnation, and this one show that Shimizu's cinema is often top-shelf and extremely provocative.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Washing Machine (1993)

"The film was developed from a theatrical piece and was shot in Budapest. I wasn't very happy with The Washing Machine," says its director, Ruggero Deodato, "because I was never convinced that the casting was correct, and the film was made too quickly." (from Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato by Harvey Fenton, Julian Grainger, and Gian Luca Castoldi, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., 1999, p.29.) Deodato continues, "I can only say that I am not at all pleased with the final result because it's a very intimate movie and should have had well-known actors, which it does not. So, after the first few minutes it collapses.
"I am very sorry to have to say this because the setting is extraordinarily good and finding the body inside the washing machine at the beginning of the movie is an unusual and interesting start; but for the moment I prefer to put it to one side and regard it as an experiment. When I look at it again later more carefully, I might like it better." (from Spaghetti Nightmares by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Phantasma Books, Florida, 1996, p. 44)While Deodato's first statements regarding his Vortice Mortale (The Washing Machine) (1993) seem straightforward and clear, his second statement, "it's a very intimate movie and should have had well-known actors," is cryptic. By "intimate," one can assume that Deodato means that The Washing Machine is a film with few actors who are burdened with carrying the film's plot. This is true: The Washing Machine really has only four principal actors: Philippe Caroit, who plays Inspector Alexander Stacev; and his character becomes entangled with three sisters, Maria (Ilaria Borrelli), Vida (Kahia Figura) and Ludmilla (Barbara Ricci) in a murder case. By qualifying "actors" with "well-known," perhaps Deodato is also insinuating that better actors were needed to carry the film.
Intuitively, since Deodato says "after the first few minutes it collapses," what he is really saying (and his first statements corroborate this) is that The Washing Machine needed the Hollywood A-level treatment for B-movie fare, as the film is firmly rooted in the erotic thriller genre. Like Basic Instinct released the year before, The Washing Machine boasts an extremely talented director with a flare for the wicked and the perverse and a fairly convoluted and interesting script (here by Luigi Spagnol). However, The Washing Machine lacks the star power and budget of Verhoeven's blockbuster, so it remains in the B-movie arena, much like the films which inspired Basic Instinct, starring the likes of Tanya Roberts, Shannon Tweed, and Andrew Stevens, for example. The Washing Machine received no theatrical release in Italy. (from Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato by Harvey Fenton, Julian Grainger, and Gian Luca Castoldi, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., 1999, p.104.)Just speculation on my part. The Washing Machine is carried by the eroticism of its three actresses, and the kinky fun that their director has with their characters. In the film’s best visual sequence, Alexander has gone to a museum to see Maria. Maria, in addition to her giving music lessons, spends her free time with the blind. On this particular day, the museum is closed to the public, so Maria and the group of blind patrons are allowed to touch and feel the sculptures while Maria gives commentary. Enter Alexander, who by this time in the story is well-seduced by the three sisters, especially Maria. She walks over to Alexander, feigning blindness. She disrobes and allows Alexander to feel her, much like the blind patrons are doing to the sculptures. The fear of getting caught heightens their excitement, as one of Maria’s wards comes dangerously close to discovering the two. Deodato reserves his relish for his actresses--a tight close-up of a handcuff hitting a railing or a high heeled shoe propping up or a skirt sliding up or a dress falling down. Claudio Simonetti’s score (one of his better later pieces) feels oddly out of place accompanying sex instead of violence; yet this is where the excitement is within The Washing Machine. Luigi Spagnol’s script is familiar. Alexander is the cop who in the course of an investigation becomes seduced with his suspect(s). During the course of the investigation, twist and turns ensue, and his obsession towards his suspects leads him astray (as the director attempts to lead his viewer astray from obvious clues in the mystery). A lot of the relevant sequences to the mystery are through hearsay: Alexander questions one of the sisters, and she tells her version. Deodato renders each story visually, so each sister’s credibility is always an issue. Personally, I could care less how the story ended, as most plots usually end with the most ludicrous result imaginable. How The Washing Machine actually ends remains hidden for the curious viewer. The Washing Machine loosely portrays the three sisters like traditional witches; so when Alexander, against better judgment, continues deeper into his obsession, the metaphor, he is under their “spell” is oddly appropriate. Other visual motifs like Maria’s black cat and the titular washing machine substituting for a cauldron are also present. It’s a very creative touch and strongly felt throughout the whole film. Deodato is a brilliant visual stylist with a unique eye; and he really captures the beauty and atmosphere of the Budapest setting. It’s a lot more fun watching the three sisters have their way with Alexander than watching him stumble through an investigation. Obscure.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Warriors

The Warriors by Sol Yurick (1965)

Sol Yurick writes in his 2003 introduction to his 1965 novel, The Warriors:
"Gangs (of the time I was writing about) were quite different than the gangs of today. For one thing, automobiles were not available to them. For another, there were very few guns around. The gangs were neighborhood-bound and quite ignorant of the city outside their territories; indeed, they were frightened of strange turf. Whatever contacts, alliances, conflicts, and permissions to travel through alien lands belonging to other gangs took place were conducted through their leaders. They practiced diplomacy from gang to gang, albeit in crude language, but formally, just like the diplomacy conducted by nations. It's fascinating to see these social forms spring up among the 'ignorant' 'lower' social strata; no readers of Kissinger they...and yet the had the same sophisticated understanding. ¶ Economically the gangs of those times were totally marginal. They had just about no entree into organized crime. The very need to form gangs was a product of their irrelevance." (xxvi-xxvii).

1. "They parleyed back and forth a little about the safe passage. The little leader said he didn't know if he could let the Family through. After all, the matter should be discussed in council. They talked a little about one another's reps, what brother gangs they ran with, what interborough affiliations they had, who they knew. But though the Dominators and the Blazers had never heard about one another, they took care to admit one another's big reps. They pulled out clippings: Hector's from the Daily News; the little leader's from La Prensa, in which their gang's raids and bops were written up. They bragged how many men they could field. Hector said that they had a Youth Board Worker. The little Borinqueno had to admit that they didn't have a worker yet, but they were busting out hard and should be assigned one any day now. Hector hastened to say that the Youth Board was overworked, short-handed and it was short-sighted on the Board's part, not so much an insult." (83-84)

2. "The Junior was having difficulty with the center of the map. He had it figured out that they were on the wrong line; they had to change somewhere, or they would never get to where they wanted--where? All the train lines met in the center of the city, and got tangled up there, and then emerged again, and everything ended up where it should end, but The Junior was having trouble following it; he moved his forefingers slowly along the lines trying to bring them together, but train jolts kept knocking his fingers loose. He tried to rush it so he wouldn't look duncy in the eyes of his Family." (73)

3. "They passed an apartment building. A lot of broken furniture was lying around in the street. It worried the family. Might mean an assembly and ammunition dump: tables with legs fixed to come off easily, couch springs for wire whips, guns stashed away in the fluffy arms of busted-down easy chairs, ash-can covers for shields and ash cans full of broken Coke bottles to fling, rocks, used light bulbs, pipe ends, loosened spikes in the iron fence, old-fashioned spear-headed cast-iron floor lamps, stacked bricks, and oiled excelsior bunches to fire and fling from the rooftops. All the enemy had to do was to boil out of the doorways, race up from behind the stoops and the whole arsenal--nothing the cops could call weapons--was ready for them. The Family would have to run a gauntlet under the fort. But the houses were very old here, and there was a reason for throwing out furniture, and a street this wide was never a good place to ambush anyone. It couldn't be blocked off from the ends; it couldn't really be controlled from the roofs and, for that matter, the cops could easily come down on everyone with their superior tank force, cordon off the whole battlefield and take both sides in." (92)

Quote #1 reads like a sociological case study and is a very good fictional depiction of Yurick's research on gangs. There's also Yurick's joke on social workers from the gang's perspective: it was a strong symbol of badassery to have a your very own social worker assigned to your gang. The Warriors, at least up until page ninety-nine, reads in this manner: it feels like a detached, sociology text written by an observer. There is a real attempt to reach an understanding into the inner consciousness of gang members. Adult perspectives, from a Youth Board Worker, a cop, and bus driver, who have encounters with the young gangs occur early in the text; and what the adults have to say to the reader almost represent societal views towards gangs perhaps at the time. The Youth Board Worker, adopting the lingo and mannerisms of the gang that he is attempting to help, sees wayward children who need nurturing and encouragement and, above all, patience: helping just one gang member become a productive citizen is positive. The cop and the bus driver see potential criminals and troublemakers. A very somber tone dominates this portion of The Warriors; and Yurick's jokes are subtle and sparse in the text. Quotes #2 and #3 are fun to play off each other: quote #2 emphasizes that this gang is still made up of children: reading a map of a world that you've never seen before might be helpful with adult consultation (the description of the adults on the train really should be encountered first by the reader. Adults do not fare well in Yurick's depiction in The Warriors.) Quote #3 is brilliant military strategy from instant observation on the spot: these kids definitely know how to fight. However, post page-ninety-nine (ish), The Warriors slips and loops out. Here are two passages from Yurick describing writing his first book Fertig and writing The Warriors while attempting to publish Fertig. The second quote is informative upon The Warriors:

"Whereas it had taken more than a year to write Fertig, it took me three weeks of intense work, after research to write [The Warriors]. I could not have done it the way I did without having gone through the growth process in the writing of Fertig." (xxi)
"I ended with a completely un-Camus-like book [Fertig], being led into astonishing directions and discovering that the world, the real world, was more absurd, crazier, more ding-an-sichtlich than any fiction writer, no matter how ingenious and imaginative, could conceive. And, at the same time, without being quite conscious of it, I was also discovering that the social 'sciences' were in themselves partially forms of fiction." (xix)

Any sophistication (or better, read civilization) dies out in The Warriors at around a hundred pages. The irrational becomes polarized and the violence is unrelenting; and Yurick's prose matches the substance of the text. What follows is my favorite passage from The Warriors:
"Wounded Hinton, bruised Hinton, tired and drifting Hinton, Hinton the outcast, set himself against the town and its sheriff. He fought for his Family; he fought for his pin; he fought for himself. While the sheriff was sounding him and boasting and making his rep big--hadn't he put down a thousand pitiful outlaws--Hinton drew the guns and cocked them. And when the word came, he fired just a fraction of a second ahead of the sheriff. This time the voice cried out in pain and told him, all right, he had won it this time. But there were two more chances and it was best out of three. ¶ The figure stood there. Did it lean a little to the side? Did blood ooze from a hole in the shoulder, staining the front of that fancy western shirt? Did a look of pain make that impassive face a little whiter? Did it twitch? Hinton's guns were cocked and he was waiting before the word came to drawcockandfire. He won a second time because the gun leaped in his hand and it spurted fire first; hot lead sprung across the gap, and crumpled the man who had shot him down and moved him on and wouldn't let him live. Was there a new hole ripped into that flesh? The yelp of pain was joyful to Hinton and he grinned. The little kid pulled at his coat, asking him for a dime again, and he put the smoking gun down, dug, gave the kid a dime, and got ready for the third shot. He won that one too; he got the sucker right in the eyeball. ¶ Hinton, very tired, straightened slowly in spite of his wounds, sucked in air, and felt new now--a man. He had faced up to and beaten the sheriff. He could have won another round, but he had the sense to put the guns away now, even though he was entitled to a free fight. He turned and walked away, began to strut through the arcade, and out; it was time to go and see if the Family had made it back." (164-165)

This passage needs no commentary from me. Initially, I was going to write this post mixing Yurick's novel and Walter Hill's film (not really comparing the two but being oh-so clever and playing the two off each other. I realized this was an extremely shitty thing to do: Yurick is an obscure writer, and he notes in his 2003 introduction that many would have never read The Warriors had the film never reached "cult" status. I am a reader in that class. After reading his introduction, like many good author introductions, it says as much about Yurick in its telling as it does in its text. I feel a real kinship to him). The 2003 edition of The Warriors, published by Grove Press [New York, from where all the above page citations come] is essential reading. Yurick's introduction details his literary genesis for The Warriors to its publishing to his reactions and encounters with Walter Hill's film adaptation. He also shares about his life and his philosophical development. Fairly radical in its structure and very daring in its substance, The Warriors is a hidden gem.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Minaccia d'amore (1988)

Within Minaccia d'amore (1988), Jenny (Charlotte Lewis) is in the subway, hunting for her friend, Mole (Mattia Sbragia), who has volunteered to uncover the mysterious source for the dysfunctional telephone in Jenny's apartment. Jenny cannot pinpoint his exact location (somewhere in the tunnels at an electrical substation), so she runs the myriad hallways, hoping to stumble upon him. A wide-eyed and maniacal-looking gentleman is following Jenny, and he comes upon a trash bin. He knocks it over and as the trash spills out, he pulls an empty syringe from the debris. Jenny cannot find her friend and fears that he is in danger. In a panic she encounters the gentleman who has been following her who now holds the syringe to her face, before attacking her. Minaccia d'amore (1988), also known as Dial: Help, directed by Ruggero Deodato, is about an evil and sinister presence torturing poor Jenny through the telephone. Or as Deodato describes the film, "It was given a theatrical release in Italy and it was bought by Berlusconi for Mediaset. It's a delicious film. It's a fantasy film and this is the reason that I like it. The story concerns a telephone which falls in love with a girl who is trying to make a call to her friend, and which kills all the people who hang around the girl. This is the type of fantasy film which I like. Zombie films don' t interest me, a telephone which falls in love, yes. Hard horror is not my genre, I far prefer fantasy." (from Cannibal Holocaust and the Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato by Harvey Fenton, Julian Grainger, and Gian Luca Castoldi, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K., 1999, p.28.) Deodato continues, "It was not exactly my idea. It was a very old script that no one wanted to do because it was too difficult. Normally you have a monster, a zombie or killer doing the evil in a movie. Here you have a...telephone. For me a film is interesting when it is difficult to make. To be honest, I really like the finished film. With a bigger budget I think it could have been a fantastic film." (from European Trash Cinema, Vol. 2, No. 7, edited by Craig Ledbetter, Springwood, TX, 1993, p. 17) The "very old script" for Minaccia d'amore (1988) "that no one wanted" was originally penned by Franco Ferrini. Ferrini describes its genesis: "The film [Turno di notte] is the story of a single man who, alone at night, hears a cry on the radio, marking the beginning of a real nightmare for him and Barbara De Rossi. ¶ In fact, from this film onwards, I started using the media as the diabolical element in my stories: in Turno di notte it was the radio, in Minaccia d'amore it was the telephone, in Demoni the cinema and in Demoni 2...l'incubo ritorna the television. I would like to carry on the series..." Ferrini states that he sent the script for Minaccia d'amore to Dario Argento in 1983, who "showed a certain interest" but "decided to let it go." Despite Argento rejecting Ferrini's script for Minaccia, the two began a creative relationship which would spawn Argento's film Phenomena. (from Spaghetti Nightmares by Luca M. Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Phantasma Books, Florida, 1996, p. 49) Whether its a story of a telephone falling in love with a girl or about a diabolical medium of modern technology, however creative these themes may be, Minaccia d'amore is above all a Ruggero Deodato film: beautifully-composed, well-paced, compelling, nasty, and perverse (-ted). Jenny's encounter with the maniac in the subway is just wrong. Despite the attempt by Deodato to overshadow his sinister implications by having his maniac attempt to violently rape Jenny in the subway, who is then saved by a machine (in a bravado move which would make all the machines in Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive squeal in jealousy), the imagery of an empty syringe as a weapon is offensive. An empty syringe is a pitiful weapon; and a sharpened wooden pencil would be far more effective in inflicting damage. If one thinks of the era during which Minaccia was made, then the potency of the damage that the empty syringe could inflict is far more frightening. A truly nasty undertone and almost signature Deodato touch. Jenny is a gorgeous model initially depicted as self-absorbed: she does not have time to speak to her shy, awkward, and sensitive neighbor, Riccardo (Marcello Modugno), as she is obsessed with an expected phone call from a lover (who has spurned Jenny and allows the telephone/love motif to begin). Jenny's admirers fall over her footsteps. For example, Mole. When Jenny begins to show serious distress at a party, regarding the mysterious and frightening happenings around the telephone, Mole does not suggest to Jenny to call the telephone company: he is on the job personally, tapping into switchboards at her apartment building, installing a new telephone in her apartment, and parading around the vast underground networks to uncover the source of the telephone evil. Mole might be adept at fixing telephone technology, but his initiative goes far beyond the call (rimshot) of duty. Poor Riccardo almost dies the first evening that Jenny seeks his help, but the opportunity to have Jenny desire him for any reason is quite all right. Deodato is attracted to Jenny's powerful beauty and sexuality as well. In an audacious sequence, Lewis's Jenny, now under the influence of the energy-derived evil, is forced to dress in her garters and corset; and with some striking compositions, she models for the viewer (as her character is all alone in the setting). Jenny gets into the bathtub, now a dangerous place with the source of water and impending doom of the energy evil, and she writhes in the bathtub in a continued benefit for the viewer. Jenny's character is a sexual object and Deodato never hides this sentiment. Yet, it is difficult to view Minaccia and not feel for Lewis's Jenny during the absurd, violent, and strange sequences that ensue. It is also difficult to not become involved in the story. Perhaps the story is so absurd and fantastic, each subsequent sequence is unexpected and unusual; or Minaccia is so attractively lurid and seductive. Claudio Simonetti provided the score for Minaccia d'amore, and it's not nearly as effective as the score that he composed for Deodato's The Washing Machine (1993), but it works well within the film. The look of the film is superficial and glossy, which is very appropriate, and the cinematography by the excellent Renato Tafuri is superior. Deodato's cinema never suffers from the lack of an extremely interesting montage of images. Minaccia d'amore is, like other Deodato cinema, a conundrum. William Berger who plays a small part in Minaccia, echoes this sentiment: "Deodato is quite a crazy guy, but strangely I work best with the really crazy ones. Deodato changes within seconds from the sweetest person to a complete madman." (from European Trash Cinema, No. 13, ed. by Craig Ledbetter, Springwood, TX, exact year unknown (1995 or 1996 presumably), p. 11.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Joë Caligula (1966)

A young man (Gérard Blain), while his sister (Jeanne Valérie) does not watch from behind a fire, beats upon another member of the underworld. With a cinematic "message" killing, the beaten member is set afire in front of an appropriate locale, and Blain and his crew shoot up the establishment. The death of the man is relayed by telephone to the boss as he is awakened in bed with his lady. In the frame, the boss occupies a judicious space in the right corner--enough to show his talking head and the telephone--while his lady slowly dresses in her undergarments and outfit (dominating really the entire frame). A quick scene of comforting then leads to a funeral procession in which Blain makes an appearance--with machine-gun fire, he shoots at several of the cars in the procession and speeds off. No return fire. Beautiful pastoral scenery follows as the mourners exit their bullet-ridden vehicles to quietly bury their member in the cemetery. Now at the club, Blain is having a drink; and a striptease begins. Neither the director, José Bénazéraf, nor his actresses are shy--powerful female sexuality, lovingly captured, ensues. "Absolutely. Absolutely." Bénazéraf answers in response to the question, "Do you think the banning of Joë Caligula was the revenge of the authorities for your earlier defiance?" Bénazéraf continues, "It was revenge. Because of my opposition to all that administration and bureaucracy. So they fucked me and they fucked me well." (from Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs, St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York, 1995, p. 217.) "It's a very sad story. I made the film with Gérard Blain, who was quite a star of the nouvelle vague. It was a story of incest--but intellectual incest--between a man and his sister. I made it in a kind of--in France we say 'extase'--because I believed totally in that movie. I took it very seriously. I invested a lot of money. I shot in in black and white. It was Bonnie and Clyde--the same kind of mood, the same kind of tenderness and the same kind of violence. It was Bonnie and Clyde--but two years earlier. I showed it to the censors and they said over 18 only. So I said, OK, over 18 only. I had national release and on Wednesday, the day before release, we had 30 or 40 copies across France and they said, 'No. Completely banned.' And I was left with 30 prints of the film and all the costs to pay. And I couldn't export the film or exploit it. And it's so sad because perhaps it's the best movie I ever made. The only really good one. They said I was making an apology for violence. You know--the old routine. Gratuitous violence." (Immoral Tales, pp. 216-17.)
Joë Caligula shifts in its imagery from often sexual or violent to a scene of still life whether it's characters in repose or a setting of street life or the occasional scene in the country. However, there is no overt tonal shift in the imagery. When Gérard Blain puts on his sunglasses, a quirky and raucous tune begins, like an audio cue to accompany the sunglasses--here comes cool gangster here comes me pulling my gun...check this out, it's me committing a crime. There's an energy to Blain's rampages and violence but it fades as the film continues. Most enthusiasm is shown by Bénazéraf when he captures his actresses' imagery. Overall their imagery overwhelms the violent scenes as there is more poeticism watching Jeanne Valérie take a solitary stroll at night on the streets of Paris or watching Blain and crew hanging out at the cafe with their female company.Blain's Joë Caligula is a rebellious character in a overt nod against the old guard. Ironically, his character and his narrative arc can only channel a modicum of Bénazéraf's cinematic rebellion and willfulness. In the majority of Bénazéraf's cinema that I have seen, there is an overwhelming sense of a filmmaker filming what he wants to. And obviously was pissing a few people off. There is a scene near the end of the film with Blain all alone sitting at a table, a wide shot emphasizing his solitude. Perhaps, this is the most affecting scene within Joë Caligula.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Phenomena (1985)

Yes, there's a lot going on in Phenomena. It remains my favourite film because of that. I discovered people who walked in their sleep have an affinity with insects. Schizophrenics too...and mediums. When you are in another dimension it becomes possible to talk to insects. And being schizophrenic means you are practically in another dimension. Unlike animals, flies don't hear, so you can only have a telepathic relationship with them. I put insects in the script after discussing them with Roman entomologists. Franco Ferrini and I spoke for weeks with them. We also spoke with police about how important insects were in their investigations. Maggots usually provide the date of death during an autopsy. Sergio Stivaletti wanted to include some stop-motion fly special effects but I refused as I wanted the insect footage to be completely realistic. It was horrendously complicated to film but I'm glad we did it that way. Phenomena was also about the loss of innocence too. I was attracted by innocence when I came to write it. I became a vegetarian and stayed in a Zurich clinic which prompted the lifestyle. It was like being in school all over again escaping through windows for midnight feasts--and I came back to Rome feeling like a child. The school in Phenomena is a clear mother-figure for that reason; don't do this, do that etc...Chimpanzees are childlike too. Does that explain the ending for you? I chose Jennifer Connelly to play the lead role after Sergio Leone showed me Once Upon a Time in America. I thought she looked fabulous in it and wanted her from the start.
All my films have given me lots of experience and I don't think I have a particular favourite. For a short time after making Phenomena I thought it came as close to the real me as any of my movies did. Now I look at it and I'm not so sure. That's one of the reasons why I considered going back to its themes and reinventing them again for a possible sequel after Nonhosonno. There is a lot going on in Phenomena. Ever since I was a child I've had a strange attraction to insects. I've always had a hard-to-define feeling when I'm around them. I used to impale flies on pins or else use a piece of thread to tie their legs together and watch them struggle. It was when I discovered through an American newspaper story that sleepwalkers, schizophrenics and mediums have an affinity with insects that prompted the story. When you are in another dimension it becomes possible to talk to insects. And being schizophrenic means you are practically in another dimension. Unlike animals, flies don't hear, so you can only have a telepathic relationship with them. I spent a whole year and a half immersed in insect studies and talking to noted entomologists before tackling the script. One of the many curious things I discovered was that the female fly is capable of laying as many as 5000 eggs in its brief lifespan. Thank God for us that their lifespan is only 20 days otherwise the whole globe would be covered with them. I also learnt how important insects were to police investigations. Maggots usually provide the time of death during an autopsy.
[The above quotes by Dario Argento are from Mondo Argento and Profondo Argento, respectively. The first, p.71, Mondo Argento by Alan Jones, Ed. Paul J. Brown, Midnight Media Publishing, England, 1996; and the second, p 127, Profondo Argento by Alan Jones, FAB Press, England, 2004. While perusing my collection of fanzines, magazines, and film books and the like, of which I have quite a bit, I pulled every instance of mention within each of an interview with Argento. To my surprise, Phenomena (1985) receives little mention, not only from questions to Argento from interviewers but in his responses to general questions. This fact by itself is of little value as it only shows how limited my collection is in regards to Phenomena. I chose the two quotes for I find the two highly informative, not only in their substance but also in their delivery. If nothing else, the two quotes are eerily similar but have notable differences, and I think that it's fun to play the two off of each other.] Dario Argento's Phenomena is an odd film and not easily digestible. On the one hand, it's neither a character-driven nor a plot-driven film, although it has elements of both. By far not a traditional film in the classic style of its predecessors in the horror genre nor is it more ethereal or symbolic in the "arthouse" style of previous cinema, especially from Europe (although, again, it has elements of both). An initial viewing by anyone would find Phenomena disorienting as the film defies many traditional modes of viewing. I am reminded of a conversation that I had years ago with a friend regarding David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), and we were speaking about the abrupt shift in the film towards its protagonist. I was asking my friend if the events subsequent to the character shift were a rendition of events from the mind of the original protagonist. He responded, "Perhaps they are events coming from the mind of David Lynch." I first saw Phenomena over twenty years ago under the title Creepers on its American VHS release (heavily-edited) then to search out an Nth generation VHS copy of a Japanese VHS then to see it again on laserdisc in a beautiful print from The Roan Group then to purchase the first DVD release from Anchor Bay Entertainment to a recent viewing on DVD again from Anchor Bay Entertainment as a re-release (this time in anamorphic widescreen). After this recent viewing, I recalled again my friend's words from that Lost Highway conversation, and my intuitive feeling is that Phenomena is a rendition of events from the mind of Dario Argento.In a particular sequence, Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) is locked in room in a mansion. The door leading to an exit has a transom above it. Outside the door is a telephone that she wants to reach to dial for help. She pulls a chair against the door in order to reach and unlock the transom above. The telephone is on a table right outside the door and is connected to its socket by a long cord. Jennifer cannot reach the phone with her arms. From the bathroom in her locked room, she exits with a large metal pole which appears to have a white grip, is extendable, and has a white hook at its end. I've attempted to rationalize this object as a shower-curtain rod or a hanging-curtain rod, but its appearance leads me to the conclusion that it is an extendable rod with a grip and a hook designed to manipulate objects from a distance. After a bout with attempting to hook the phone cord and pull the phone into her chamber, while bloodcurdling screams are heard elsewhere in the mansion, the phone slips and falls into a large hole in the floor. Jennifer drops the rod and reveals that she is able to escape the chamber by climbing through the transom. The hooked rod is the very definition of a deus ex machina; and her use of the rod was not only counterproductive but unnecessary as she reveals she could crawl out of her space quite easily and use the phone. The phone had to enter the hole as Jennifer had to enter the hole to encounter what was waiting for her there. This sequence of events appears to follow from Jennifer's deductive reasoning as to how to escape; and the presence of the rod fractures the narrative technique (although it could appear in a dream). Beyond this conclusion what remains is that this contrived and discursive sequence of events must come from somewhere else. During the first hour of the film (and over half of its duration), the majority of the dialogue within Phenomena is exposition. Even if Franco Ferrini and Dario Argento's script were one-hundred-percent literate and compelling, an hour's worth of expository dialogue would become tiring to most viewers. Even more fascinating is discerning what does the dialogue explain. Much of the it is redundant. In the opening sequence of the film, a young tourist (Fiore Argento) is left behind by her bus. With strong wide compositions, the mountains of the Switzerland locale are focal. She shivers and shakes on the road from the fierce wind. In a medium shot of Fiore, the camera even appears to shake from the violent wind. Cut to the credits with a powerful visual sequence of an upwards tracking shot of the wind blowing fiercely through the trees. Above the forest is revealed an isolated villa where the young tourist seeks solace. More than one subsequent character will tell Jennifer about these "fierce winds" in the region which has been dubbed, because of them, the "Swiss Transylvania." While these dialogue sequences explaining the origin of the region are fun in a Gothic, Poe-esque sense, the wind motif is rendered far more powerfully visually in the film's opening sequence. Further, in Jennifer's opening sequence, she has a dialogue with Daria Nicolodi's character, much of it expository. When she arrives at her destination, the one-time appearance of a detached voice-over narration occurs. This narration serves only to reiterate what the viewer has learned from the previous dialogue scene. The majority of the dialogue during the first hour fails to explain the plot while its minority only slightly enriches its characters.Beyond the one-time narration appearance, Phenomena has other odd creative inclusions. The soundtrack has original music from both Bill Wyman and Claudio Simonetti, for example, side by side with heavy metal songs from Iron Maiden and Motorhead. While Iron Maiden's song during its first appearance seems to match the energy of the film's events (the killer stalking a young victim), when Motorhead's song appears in the film, it is an odd juxtaposition (it plays over a sequence depicting a character being rolled out on a gurney, having been attacked by the killer). Jennifer has communicative ability with insects, and once, Argento shows his viewer the P.O.V. of an insect watching Jennifer walk away, hand-in-hand with a chimpanzee. Much of the energy in Phenomena is derived from its rebellious spirit. Seeing the film through Jennifer's eyes, it is easy to feel it. During her first evening at her school, she has an eventful bout of sleepwalking. The following morning the headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro) forces her to see the doctor, and their treatment is extreme: since no one in the school has ever left the grounds by sleepwalking, Jennifer must be seriously ill. In fact, she might just be crazy. Instead of talking to the young teenager, the adults would rather strap her down and plug her into a machine. During her first class, Jennifer causes an impromptu coup by feeding answers to her new friend Sophie, turning the students against their teacher. When Jennifer finds the headmistress and other students going through her personal letters in her room, she has had enough. It leads to a forceful confrontation between her and all of the others in beautifully odd sequence. Through Jennifer's eyes this rebellious spirit is certainly linked to a juvenile nature. It doesn't reach the heights of a lofty ideal of anti-authoritarianism, but it also does not seem the idea that Argento was trying to convey.I greatly admire Phenomena, and if it still is Argento's most personal film, then I believe, today, I understand why. Perhaps it is just my bias, as I feel a strong kinship with outsiders. Certainly, there are few films like Phenomena--it's truly a puzzle with some very creative and audacious visual sequences. At times, it appears truly nightmarish and dream-like. The mélange of artists who comprise the soundtrack greatly contribute to its atmosphere. An overall unique experience.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Chik juk ging wan (1997)

Jade Leung is Inspector Cheng Hsuen; and one morning during a car escort of a criminal turned state witness, she and her colleagues are attacked by the criminal's former colleagues. Well-armed and armored, the criminal crew with a fury of bullets attempt to kill their former member. They succeed in killing many of the officers in the escort, while Leung's Hsuen keeps many of her assailants at bay, using her vehicle as a shield. While the sound of automatic gunfire keeps most passersby away, one gentleman (Mark Cheng), armed with a video recorder, creeps closer to the action. He moves dangerously close to Hsuen and the action and has become fixated with a sole attraction: Inspector Hsuen's legs stemming from her short skirt. Hsuen survives the shootout with a bruised wrist while many of her colleagues were slain. The curious gentleman with the video camera has ignited his psychotic obsession and now has targeted Hsuen in Chik juk ging wan (The Peeping Tom) (1997). Chik juk ging wan is a Category III film from Hong Kong, directed by Ivan Lai Gai Ming. For those unfamiliar with Hong Kong's rating system, here is a wonderful description:
Hong Kong films are divided into three rating categories. Each category is denoted by a roman numeral set in a simple geometric symbol, which grows increasingly angular as it becomes more restrictive. Nobody much cares about the difference between Category I (a single stick in a cute round circle) or Category II (two sticks in a less-friendly square). But the Category III rating (three sticks in a sharp-edged triangle) means under eighteen types are verboten. Public service announcements in HK depict teenagers unceremoniously ejected from theaters showing such fare, not to mention the life-sized cardboard cutout of a stern-faced police constable often present in the lobby. Most Category III films are cheap, rapidly made, soft-core ninety-minute wonders, usually featuring instantly forgettable starlets. These are manufactured and consumed with the fanfare of a bowl of instant noodles: boil water and scarf'em down. Sometimes gore is added to the mix to spice things up. Much as we salute the exploitative spirit--the "ghoulie, roughie, kinkie" mantra--most of these films are a waste of time. The catchall category also serves as an "NC-17" category, and some worthwhile films do end up with the stigma of the Triangular Triple-I, like Jacob Cheung's award-winning Cageman, a sensitive look at life in Kowloon's infamous Walled City. The film features no sex, violence, or nudity, but was rated Category III solely because of its inventive use of Cantonese slang! (from Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-Bending Cinema by Stefan Hammond & Mike Wilkins, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, pp.238-39.)While it does at times seem an arbitrary rating (Wong Kar-wai's Chun gwong cha sit (Happy Together) (1997) is Category III while John Woo's extremely violent Dip huet seung hung (The Killer) (1989) is Category IIB), most of the films that I've seen with the rating exploit the content restrictions (excessively sexual and/or violent) and go over the top. Within the category, however, there are some filmmakers like Herman Yau who push the limits of the film's content but also take advantage of creating more provocative and daring stories to match the action (his Bat sin fan dim ji yan yuk cha siu bau (The Untold Story) (1993); Gong Tau (2007); Tau chut (The First Seventh Night) (2009); and Tung moon (Rebellion) (2009) are stellar examples). From its first act, it appears that Chik juk ging wan has a daring and provocative story to match its content. The casting of Jade Leung in the lead role is essential: not only is Leung dead sexy but also capable of generating an amazing intensity with accompanying emotional performance (her riff on La Femme Nikita, Hei mao (Black Cat) (1991), opposite Simon Yam, is less conflicted and more focused: she appears a born assassin with a singular, violent intensity.). What the gentleman with the video camera fails to recognize as he obsesses over Leung's legs at the shootout (as does the viewer) is that there is a specific reason why Leung's Hsuen survives the incident: she's a stellar cop. It's a clever ruse on the part of director Lai: he masks Hsuen's capabilities by shaping her image through the eyes of both his killer and his viewer. The gentleman with the video camera is the "peeping tom," of the English-language title; and he is a nasty one: a serial killer/rapist with a leg fetish. Cheng's killer is off-kilter, methodical, and obsessive as he is able to subdue his victims quite easily with his tricks and brutality. However, his obsession causes him to appear to lose focus in his method: he actually shows at the crowded police station to confront Leung and play some mind games, but she immediately picks up his weird vibe and comes close to catching him right then and there. Cheng's killer sees Leung's character as nothing more than a beautiful woman, and when the two have a confrontation, she is far from a helpless victim. Chik juk ging wan, up until its first half, appears as if it is close to becoming a fascinating exploitation film that belongs to that rare class of its type: a film which engages openly in exploitation while also simultaneously commenting upon the nature of its exploitation: it creates a very hypocritical dichotomy yet can be fascinating and disorienting viewing.During its second half, however, the film falters and ups the ante on its exploitative content and loses focus of its main conflict between Leung and Cheng. Leung disappears for most of the second half while Cheng's character goes on the tear and performs some truly repellent acts against woman victims. It appears that those behind the camera of Chik juk ging wan just gave up: they chose to become conservative by focusing on depicting extreme behavior almost exclusively. This fails ultimately to be provocative or interesting. It should be noted that Chik juk ging wan is extremely well-shot and composed, and this makes the film all the more disturbing. It's obvious that it was made by creative people and it could have been more daring in its execution. Jade Leung is amazingly charismatic and is the attraction here, but she fails to save this one; and Chik juk ging wan would have faded further into obscurity without her presence.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974)

“There exists a material origin,” says Alain Robbe-Grillet towards the production of his film Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974). “I was dining with a wealthy man who had produced fairly expensive films and had lost money on them. He knew that I made films that were not very expensive, and he asked if I could make a film for 500,000 francs. I said I could, so we reached an agreement.” (from The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His films by Anthony N. Fragnola and Roch C. Smith, Southern Illinois Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1992, p. 70.)[Pete Tombs writes, “Eden and After gave a boost to Robbe-Grillet’s reputation as a man who made tastefully kinky movies for the intellectual set. Soon he was approached by the Boublil Brothers, who ran a successful chain of Paris sex cinemas. They agreed to finance his next film, Slow Slidings of Pleasure. (from “Oddball Kinkiness & Intellectual Conceits, The films of Alain Robbe-Grillet” by Pete Tombs, Flesh and Blood, No. 9, ed. Harvey Fenton, FAB Press, 1997, p. 69.)] Robbe-Grillet continues, “The project I had in mind was inspired by Michelet’s The Sorceress, as interpreted by Roland Barthes in his Michelet par lui-meme. That gave me the idea of making the character of the sorceress a young woman who upsets masculine discourse. The sufferings that the masculine order subject her to are described in Michelet’s text with a certain delight. The Sorceress is an ambiguous book. One the one hand, the sorceress is the spirit of revolution, while on the other, she also serves as a sexual object. Those conflictual drives can be discerned in Michelet’s style. I took up that conception in The Progressive Slidings of Pleasure, with the fundamental departure from Michelet that she upsets the masculine order not only with her body but also through her reasoning by which she undercuts the logic of a police investigation. “The third origin of The Progressive Slidings of Pleasure is a structural one: to make a film in which the narration is intercut with punctuation shots that serve to separate the scenes. Little by little, “slippages” occur from the punctuation shots towards the narration, from the narration towards the punctuation shots, and from one scene to another through the intermediary of punctuation. Punctuation shots, whose origins are ‘tailpieces’ in typography and ‘fades’ in film, are gradually integrated into the narration. There is a structural slippage from punctuation shots towards the diegesis. The structural idea was, in short, this concept of slippage.” (from Erotic Dream Machine, p. 70.) “It was filmed in an inexpensive little studio in Paris. We shot quickly, and then we all rushed to the railroad station…And it worked because I had an excellent rapport with that young girl [Anicée Alvina]. She was quite willing to do virtually anything that was demanded of her. When she was painting her body before pressing it against the wall, she would listen to me, and I would tell her, ‘Okay, a little lower on your belly.’ She carried it out, and one does not have the impression upon seeing the film that she is listening to instructions. Yet she certainly was not a professional actress. She simply handled her body with naturalness. “Catherine [Robbe-Grillet] had seen her in a film called Les Remparts des béguines (The Nun’s Ramparts), where a fifteen-year-old Anicée had a bit part in which she was really not too bad. We were driving through Cognac when Catherine saw a sign announcing the showing of Les Remparts des béguines. She said, ‘That is the girl you are looking for. You should go and see that film.’ I went to see it that evening. We returned to Paris a few days later, I contacted Anicée. Catherine had perceived that she could act without any of the problems that actresses generally have with nudity.” (from Erotic Dream Machine, p. 76.)“I did not pay myself a salary, while in general the filmmaker pays himself well from the outset. I did everything quickly, and I received a large portion of the returns. Since the film did well, my earnings from Slidings were considerable. The only expensive actor was Trintignant, and he played for free. He is like a well-known painter who cannot afford to sell his paintings for a lower price to a friend, so he performed without charge. That is why his name does not appear in the credits. One sees ‘With the participation of,’ and there is no name, only a shot of a smiling Trintignant.” (from Erotic Dream Machine, p. 127.)Glissements progressifs du plaisir is sensual, playful, and kinky. A lot of the intellectual allusions are also infused with eroticism. Robbe-Grillet states that, “Because red is the color of blood in the film, and blue is the color of the sky. [Yves] Klein is obsessed by the sky in his first paintings. But that young girl [Anicée Alvina] does not know Klein. She has fun with the paint, and you must not forget that her interlocutor is a nun, and the question of imprints is an important one in religion. She ends up by giving her a red cloth, saying, ‘Here is Veronica’s veil.’ ¶ For me, it was simply a nod at Klein. All I did was to think that since she looks so comfortable with her body, she could go ahead and do it, and, indeed, she carried it out the very first time. There was only one take of that scene. To make a film for 500,000 francs, one cannot have two takes of any shot.” (from Erotic Dream Machine, p. 75.) This scene that Robbe-Grillet describes defies both adequate description here and upon viewing. Alvina stands nude against the stark white backdrop of her room. At her feet is a basin filled with red paint and with a brush she paints the front of her body. She then presses her body up against the wall in various poses and leaves red imprints, creating a mural. While the scene is informed by Robbe-Grillet’s intellectual nod to Klein, its sensual nature is focal. The scene, like most in Glissements, is a fun game between the prurient and the intellectual.Robbe-Grillet is fond of games as motif and is also fond of playing them with his reader in his fiction and also with his viewer with his films. As in his previous L'éden et après (although in a different manner), Glissements is full of games. Just beyond the opening montage, Trintignant appears as a police inspector investigating a murder. He searches what appears to be one room by opening various doors and even a door in the ceiling. His character does not seem to leave the room, but the room, itself, is being altered. The space is either being manipulated by Alvina’s character or within the frame by Robbe-Grillet or both. The entire narrative of Glissements is both fractured and circular and certainly elliptical.Even if Robbe-Grillet is playing games for the sake of being playful in Glissements, he will hear no complaints from this viewer. After several viewings of Glissements, the imagery is far too seductive to not become weaved in its web. A beautiful film and a personal favorite.