Listomania part 2

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Following the haphazardly put-together best reads list, along comes this haphazardly put-together best films watched in 2010 list. But I detest “best”, so “noteworthy” it is. Before I continue, I feel the need to clamber up onto my soapbox and say: it’s well-nigh impossible to participate in year-end conversations with cinephiles on the film highlights of a particular year if you’re Malaysian. Even considering, for a moment, that you had enough money to buy ridiculously overpriced DVDs of foreign and independent films from online stores, it’s harder still to enter into contemporaneous conversation with film-fans from the West because none of those foreign or independent films would have been released in Malaysia and none of those films would have made it to DVD before the year was out. So it would seem that a serious Malaysian film critic or a regular film fan with a taste for the different will always be a couple steps behind in the conversation. The movie that everyone loves today is the movie you’ll likely watch next year. This really pisses me off. *clambers down treacherous soapbox*

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that these don’t refer to any movies released in 2010. Nevertheless, I watched some amazing films in 2010 made in other years. Hence, a list!

Noteworthy films watched in 2010:

Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda. I’m still unsure how to talk about this film except that it proves to be  something that your mind will revisit over and over again in the hopes of making sense of human frailty, simple parental neglect and cruelty, and the general malaise of a wilfully-ignorant society. Based on the real-life incident of abandoned children in Sugamo, Japan, Nobody Knows brings the story to modern-day Tokyo and features one of the most heart-rending performances ever by a young actor, Yuya Agira. Whether or not there is any one person to blame seems not to be the central issue here; what we get instead is a beautiful, bleak, non-sentimental look at how all of us –every single member of society – is implicated in issues of neglect and marginalisation of the young, the powerless, and the poor.

The Celebration, dir. Thomas Vinterberg. I made the mistake of following up Nobody Knows (to get it out of my mind) with this; the result was mental and emotional catatonia for about a week. What seems to be a regular family gathering to celebrate the 60th birthday of a bourgeois family patriarch turns out to be a searing indictment of bourgeois family values and societal hypocrisy. That some people choose values and status over the health and lives of the children and young in their midst is a known fact; what Vinterberg does is drop us in the middle of a family where this is the lived reality. It is harrowing, and yet the living reality of how people cope with terrific pain and betrayal and what they make of it is shown to possess redemptive power and beauty, as well. But I found the movie mentally and emotionally draining, so I’d block out a whole day to recover if I were watching it for the first time. Or the second time.

The Circle and Offside, dir. Jafar Panahi. Two movies that I’ve grouped together simply because they were directed by the same force of Iranian talent, Panahi, and because I consider them the tragic (The Circle) and comic (Offside) versions of the same issue – the oppression of women in societies functioning under fundamentalist regimes. The Circle deserves its own review when I’m finally up to it but its narrative structure is quite technically perfect, and the intertwining stories of women in trouble in modern-day Iran are presented with clear-eyed and tender honesty. I blogged about Offside here. It’s a truly hilarious depiction of unfathomable and absurd sexist rules as it’s played out against the backdrop of football fanaticism and communal participation in hegemony. In both movies, Panahi excels in pointing out, with kindness, sympathy and great tenderness for his human subjects, how foolish we allow ourselves to become when we forget the reasons for doing what it is we do, and the dangerous yet seductive pull of ignorance when we cease to ask why it is we do what we do.

Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, dir. Roman Polanski. Again, these are two wildly different movies, but you know, it’s Polanski. And so some thoughts on Repulsion have already been blogged here, but I’ll just say again that Polanski intrigues with this surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of feminine “excess” and sexual confusion. It’s a riveting cinematic description of desire gone awry, and underpinning it all is the question of female madness – is she, or isn’t she? Cul-de-sac, on the other hand, is a riveting cinematic description of marital hermetic bliss gone awry. It takes an aggressive, violent stranger to ruin the shaky foundations, but the flamboyant and eccentric husband and his seductive, sexually-confident wife have basically switched sexual roles in this “charming romp” which becomes increasingly non-charming and dark as the characters start peeling off their eccentric layers to reveal a seething mass of resentment and confusion. And this can only end in…? We’re not sure. Disaster for some, perhaps, and freedom for others.

The Joshua Tapes, dir. Arvind Abraham. This quiet Malaysian indie film doesn’t really shout or announce its intentions very loudly, except through its occasionally-annoying lead characters who do, in fact, shout quite a bit. But as I mention in my longer review, the effect of being with these characters during an emotionally-turbulent road trip is similar to that of being with one’s own friends. It’s hard to see Malaysiana depicted honestly and without overt nostalgia, optimism, or moralising clouding the essential story, but The Joshua Tapes succeeds admirably and is one of the unexpected minor gems discovered this year. It’s also a superbly-honest look at friendships between long-time friends of mixed ethnicities. The only problem is its significant lack of female characters, but then again, it’s a male-bonding movie that dares to portray male friendships and masculinity without the usual dumb-ass fuckery of, say, Judd Apatow. (Hell yeah, I went there.)

Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold. I didn’t know what to expect of this when I clicked on it on mubi.com, but what I got was tender and subtle brutality, largely perpetrated and rendered through a emotionally-volatile and isolated CCTV operator who recently lost both her husband and daughter in an accident. Set amidst a particular depressing slice of North Scotland, the act of surveillance is turned upon itself when the surveyor and the surveyed are both implicated in a strange, dark dance of desire that, on the part of the woman, is one rooted in the desire for retribution. What should be nasty, brutish, and short, however, becomes sympathetic and a possible – perhaps – path for potentially redemptive hope. Katie Dickie’s performance is exquisite; her subdued yet jittery portrayal melds perfectly with Tony Curran’s unpredictable yet tender-hearted sort-of criminal.

Strangers on a Train, dir. Alfred Hitchock. Oh, Hitchcock! If only one was able to dismiss you as a misogynist with a bizarre vendetta against women in general that finds its full expression through your female characters on-screen! And then, having made that conclusion, be rid of you forever! Instead I find you beloved in my film-director pantheon. Lest we think ol’ Alfie only had trouble with femininity in female characters, think again. Here, Robert Walker’s effeminate and menacing Bruno Anthony’s manifestation of “feminine excess” is the thing that truly sets everyone off, and Farley Granger’s very manly and athletic Guy Haines can barely relax in Bruno’s presence before all of Guy’s defences are up again. Perhaps I’ve grown used to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates with one too many viewings of Psycho, but Walker’s agitated energy and cloying charm is always shot-through with a dose of danger, and the result is that Bruno Anthony gives Norman Bates a good run for his money in the hard-to-pull-off category of Disturbing Psychopaths of All Time. Furthermore, it’s a damn good story. And there are trains. Also, there is a fabulous scene involving a woman’s fallen eye-glasses.

Russian Ark, dir. Alexandr Sokurov. Russian Ark is an unexpected delight; whimsy and dreams and history all coming together in 90+ minutes of a superb directorial imagination taking flight.  After some Wikipedia-ing, I learned that the concept behind Russian Ark was based upon the travel writings of a 19th-century French marquis while he was in Russia. As far as concepts go, Russian Ark is simple and uncluttered and pretty much genius. Who among us does not feel the need to enter into conversation with travellers of yore – imperialists and non – who arrived on our shores and said a great many things about our country before it was even a country, our people, and our culture? The idea of “ours” and “theirs” is explored beautifully in Russian Ark. The result is not a facile, sentimental “It is ALL ours equally!” but more of a “None of us can remain untouched by the other.” Sumptuous scenes filmed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg also rekindled old longings to visit St. Petersburg. Everything about this film – a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot, as we’re told – is perfection, which is all the more heightened when you think about the fact that the entire film is a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. Hello, you say! Yeah, I reply! Go watch it.

I would have liked to write about the “noteworthy music” I heard in 2010 but I can’t seem to write intelligently on music. (Insert “What can you write intelligently about, then? Hyuk hyuk” joke here.) Also, I acquire music on a regular basis in a very haphazard manner, not full albums most of the time, but bits and pieces, and then after some time when everyone’s heard the full album, I’ll listen to the full album.

So Listomania will, sadly, end here.

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Authority-seeking phallus – refused.

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to blog about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion for some time, if only to say that I found it one of the most disturbing mental screw-up films ever. And I mean this in a good way, if such a thing is possible. I was surprised to read movie reviews where people apparently fell asleep from boredom while watching it, or almost died laughing because it was so… funny.

But then, people are strange. As Repulsion will show you.

(But first! THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW.)

 

SPOILERS. THE SPOILING OF THE MOVIE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT YET.

 

This review over at the Sunset Gun caught my attention in particular, because I share most of the sentiments even if I may not agree with her take on the Polanski statutory rape case. What I sort of agree with but also kind of disagree with (yeah, it’s that kind of a blog post I’m writing today – apologies, gentle blog reader) is this passage:

Roman Polanski knows women because he understands men. He knows both sexes because he understands the games both genders play, either consciously or instinctively. He understands the perversions formed from such relations and translates them into visions that are erotic, disturbing, humorous and, most important, allegorical in their potency.

I don’t know if Repulsion necessarily worked because of Roman Polanski’s knowledge of women via his understanding of men so much as it worked because of his lack of knowledge. And from the way in which it is shown in the film, Polanski seems to want to imply that most men lack this knowledge, as well, especially when desire enters the picture. That games are played, consciously or instinctively, is something that I understand. But in Repulsion, Polanski has shown what it’s like when only one person – the man – is hitting the ball, while the other person – in this case, the woman – is, hello, not even consciously present in the game.

Catherine Deneuve does such an outstanding job conveying her character’s jittery awkwardness undercut by a vaguely-terrifying sense of seemingly harmless bewilderment. Carol stumbles about in a daze; when men pass her on the street, they can’t help but stare. Yet, the collective male gaze is one of appreciation and/or sexual objectification precisely because Carol is such a lovely woman. It seems somehow inconceivable that someone who looks the way she does can have trouble recognising, and subsequently harnessing, her own sexual power. Does anyone expect a young Catherine Deneuve to be an awkward, nervy mess when they take a look at her? Men look at her and probably assume she knows she’s being watched because she’s beautiful.

Excellent copywriting.

But to other women, it seems, Carol’s skittishness can’t help but draw attention to itself. In the beauty parlour where she works, her boss and her colleagues alternately watch her with exasperation and a burgeoning sense of wariness. There is something in Carol’s blank expression that conveys complete and abject terror if you only take a moment to look at her – really look at her – as opposed to merely looking at her to appreciate. Other women can perhaps sense something in Carol that men, then, do not. For example, Carol is does not seem fully present in the very moment, in her immediate surroundings. Her physical body – beautiful – is there, and perhaps some will assume that is there to merely be enjoyed. But in the film, the women look puzzled: where is Carol? She’s certainly not present.

This brings me to another passage in Kim’s review:

Deneuve’s loveliness makes Carol’s madness more palatable (her unfortunate suitor thinks she is odd, but he can’t help but “love” this gorgeous woman), but eventually it becomes horrifying. Carol is not simply a Hitchcockian aberration of what lies beneath the “perfect woman,” she is the reflection of what lies beneath repressed desire — in men and women. Polanski has a knack for casting women who are nervously exciting (Faye Dunaway in Chinatown is a blinking, twitching mess), and therefore dangerous to desire. He makes one insecure about longing for them.

I like that idea of Polanski “making one insecure” about longing for a woman who is a “blinking, twitching mess”, but I think a key part of desiring an anxious woman – especially if she’s beautiful – is the inherent attractiveness for the desiring man to conquer this insecurity that it arouses and make sense of his own lack, seemingly embodied by this womanly object of desire.  And in Polanski’s framing, this type of desire can apparently – and quite literally – result in the death of the man.  I can’t help but relate this to Jacqueline Rose’s conceptualisation of one of Lacan’s fundamental theories: “As negative to the man, woman becomes a total object of fantasy, or an object of total fantasy, elevated into the place of Other and made to stand for its truth. […] It is from the Other that the phallus seeks authority and is refused.”[i] Um, yes. Or dies, Polanski seems to want to say.

It’s intriguing how Carol is shown as being out-of-control in the purest sense; everything she does seems to come to her realisation only after the act itself. That weekend when she’s alone and experiences her own private descent into hell, she commits two acts of murder brought upon by unwanted male sexual attention. Her well-adjusted sister, for example, or any other woman who is sexually-experienced and/or mature might handle the attention in another way, or else that’s the assumption we’re supposed to make. How? By deflecting, perhaps, or engaging in repetitive avoidance, or maybe even, by succumbing – either willingly or unwillingly. These are things rational women do when a man desires them. But Carol kills them off! There is an internal logic to this solution from Carol’s perspective; she apparently knows that the “dark sludge of desire” (I like that particular phrase from Kim’s review) knows no bounds; the only way to shut it off is to shut it off at its source.

It is ultimately fascinating that this movie is a result of Polanski’s imagining of female desire gone awry, especially in light of what he finally did with an underage girl in his actual life. I don’t mean to draw any conclusions or say anything profound – couldn’t even if I tried – but it is something to think about, even if art doesn’t replicate life and life doesn’t replicate art. (Right.)


[i] ‘Feminine Sexuality – Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, pp. 74-75.

 

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of treason and gunpowder and things

November 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

A few weeks months ago I found myself coming to the end of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher the same day the V for Vendetta movie showed on TV. I had to watch it because nearly everyone who had watched it told me I had to watch it. The very next day, I went to the bookstore and bought the V for Vendetta comic by Alan Moore. I read it in a day in order to make up for all the years it took me to get to this masterpiece. What struck me as rather painful and consequently difficult to accept was how similar V for Vendetta, a dystopia of Britain’s imagined totalitarian future, is to Capitalist Realism (which really should have come with the subheading, ‘An Account of the Bleakness of Our Times’). Both books speak of the dangerous, insidious, and often initially-unrecognisable spread of ideological propaganda, be it overt totalitarianism or capitalist realism masquerading as post-ideological “freedom”. While one is a work of art designed to prevent collective stupor and alert us to what we don’t want our world to become, the other is an account of what our world has become, written precisely to shake us out of our stupor.

Both are bleak, yet both are must-reads for anyone –as David Lloyd put it in his introduction to V for Vendetta – who doesn’t turn off the news. But that’s not entirely accurate of Capitalist Realism; it is even more of a must-read for those of us who turn off the news and engage in passive “participation” of culture and consumerism because we can’t bear the news after working in jobs that only remind us of our increasingly shitty quality of life.

In the movie version of V for Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings wrote their screenplay by adapting Alan Moore’s sprawling premise and condensing it into a neat, linear narrative. It worked for the movie, and the extrapolation of the key themes and modification of the characters were intelligently-done. The visual aesthetics of the film is outstanding, marrying to good effect the opulent banality of shiny technology and impersonal spaces with the ornamental, almost baroque setting of the interior of V’s home. Stephen Rea’s performance was strong y subtle; his character, Detective Chief Inspector Eric Finch, was more of the emotional core of the film than Natalie Portman’s Evey. Hugo Weaving’s voice conveyed sorrow, anger, and hope in ways that infused V’s “face” with humanity; after some time I could not get the voice and the mask’s smiling facade out of my head.

Where the movie floundered, then, was in Natalie Portman’s performance as Evey; I realise now that I’ve always defended her acting based on the potential in her performances. I watch her and think she could be better, and I keep rooting for her to do better the next time, but this time I finally accepted the fact that her beautiful, extraordinary face can never really transform itself with each different role that she plays. She’s always beautiful, and THERE, but there doesn’t seem to be much there behind the there, if that makes sense. In this movie, she was very precise and serviceable with her British accent. Her impassive exterior was meant to mask a complicated character, tormented; except this tormented inner soul also revealed itself to be impassive and rather proper.

In the comic, Evey starts out confused and erratic because she is truly confused, being 16 and thrust into this hell of a world with nary a guiding hand or shoulder to cry on. Her naivete is total; she is meant to be lost and adrift. But in Moore’s able hands, however, her growth is gradual and her walls start coming up in a way that is almost familiar to all adults, simply crushing to dust early reader impressions of Evey as a feeble, needy blonde with Bambi eyes. This transformation is also evocatively portrayed through the art. The early drawings of Evey depicted her as wide-eyed and alarmed in nearly every panel; it frankly annoyed the hell out of me until the drawings, and her character, gradually began to take on the subtle nuances of her character’s maturity. The idea of every lost soul needing a mentor or a maker is one that resonates, regardless of whether or not it’s a cliche; and in Evey’s case, she was fortunate (or unfortunate?) to fall under V’s care.

The art in the comic is rather raw; the drawings rough and possessing an unfinished look especially to sensibilities used to the polished smoothness of the colouring and inking work in current graphic novels. But when you read the accompanying essay written by Alan Moore, and about the long genesis and fruition of V for Vendetta between the years 1981 to 1988 (when I was but a wee toddler, and then… not so wee), it dawns on you just how much of a revelation this comic would have been upon its release to readers used to larger-than-life superheroes, detailed captions and proper speech balloons instead of the almost stream-of-consciousness narrative that tends to carry through much of this work.

As for the masked V – monster or everyman? Our collective conscience? His methods are violent and reactionary. For every one person who makes this world a horrible place and must be eliminated, there are others who need to be nurtured and guided in order to save it, according to his logic. Perhaps these twin impulses of destruction and creation are always present in each person and are never meant to be resolved or sublimated; perhaps V is the only honest person among all of us. The thing about Moore is the kindness and pathos with which he’s able to depict people knowing, vaguely or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, how they’ve signed on to their oppression, how they allow it to work within quite legitimate means, but who themselves only work helplessly within the existing totalitarian framework to ensure that they marshal enough power for themselves and come out on top at all costs. There is no real effort and will to change things from the inside out; it is especially chilling in the context of our current situation. People are absolute monsters in the face of their own weakened autonomy; and yet Moore shows us how pitiful they are, even as monsters, even as he holds those characters up as reflections of ourselves in the most discomfiting, repulsive way.

Image nicked from http://bit.ly/ca28z3

The film shows audiences fragments of American neoliberalism at its most hysterical – footage of the war in Iraq, for example, or anti-war demonstrations that actually took place, while glossing over the comic’s themes of the nature of anarchy and fascism, which of course, are the most important parts of the book in the context of its overarching premise. (Poor Moore; it must be incredibly frustrating to write comics that are every movie producer’s wet-dream. Especially ones who simply jerk-off by making a movie that’s a tribute to a banal personal fantasy than anything to do with the comic, such as in travesty that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) This doesn’t hurt the movie, necessarily, so much as emphasise the importance of having to consider the comic on its own terms apart from the movie adaptation.

Another essential difference between the movie and the comic is that the movie expressly lays out a very clear path for Evey, via V, while the comic emphasises the importance of Evey coming into knowledge and awareness largely on her own, though aided and abetted by V’s hints and actions. Evey wonders if V is a monster, as does Chief Inspector Finch, but the latter’s gradual realisation of the monstrosities done by other people – people he knows and has worked with – leads him to realise his own complicity in monster-making. V’s monstrosity is that he remembers his humanity too well in a world filled with robotic humans. His character never acts without thinking, and not simply thinking within either/or binaries or in terms of cause-and-effect, but reflective, sustained, deep thinking. If Hannah Arendt was right in saying that “under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think,” than V’s true rebellion against society begins long-before he kills people or destroys buildings and places.

Back in our present day, Mark Fisher shows us in Capitalist Realism how the system has essentially configured itsef to make monsters of us all, even as we steadfastly go down kicking and screaming against non-monsterism. “Monster” is not a word he uses – ‘zombies’ is the precise one, as when he writes:

The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, the zombies it makes are us.

This is admittedly fascinating, especially for those of us wondering why these last few years have brought about a cultural obsession with vampires. If we follow Fisher’s analogy, it would seem that we unconsciously find the metaphor of parasitic energy compelling; but at the same time, we seem to imbue these vampires with hopes of redemptive power far more transgressive and useful than our measly and often embarrassingly-insufficient human “power”.

When I said that Fisher’s book is bleak, I wasn’t aiming for hyperbole – it’s not the kind of book that compels you to down half a bottle of Scotch and then slit your wrists. Well, not really. His assessment of capitalist realism owes a lot of Fredric Jameson’s formulation of postmodernism, but as Fisher explains, at the time of Jameson’s postmodern formulation, there were at its basis three assumptions: 1) there are political alternatives to capitalism; 2) modernism as a cultural style AND mode of living still existed as something to respond to or engage with; 3) incorporation of styles, cultures, values “outside” of capitalism was still a concern. Fisher reminds us that now capitalism is taken as the “only alternative”, modernism is only engaged with as a nostalgic past. We no longer have to worry about capitalism incorporating everything into its juggernaut – everything is already “precorporated” into capitalism:

Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or the quasi-propagandastic way in which advertising functions. It’s more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.

Mental health and bureaucracy, particularly within the culture of post-tertiary education (Fisher is a lecturer/tutor at the City Literary Institute in London) are the elements that Fisher focuses on in the book, and the arguments he makes are so compelling, so true to our daily existence, that I can’t understand why this book wasn’t reviewed and discussed in more visible fashion in some of the more big-name publications. But I suppose that’s capitalist realism at work for you.

Capitalist realism posits itself as post-ideological – it borrows Zizek’s theorisation of the unconscious nebulous fantasy that structures everything else, which is essentially Zizek borrowing Lacan, which is essentially, I suppose, Lacan modifying Freud. It’s fundamentally different from V for Vendetta, because Vendetta is about absolute and centralised totalitarianism, while Capitalist Realism describes our decentralised, ever-nebulous forms of power, but the effects are the same among the people – the inability to really do anything, the belief that there is no choice, and the overwhelming “reflexive impotence” as described by Fisher. And even if we believe we aren’t impotent, and are strongly moved to take action, we’re acting within a closed-circuit of capitalist realism that subsumes and incorporates acts of resistance even as it allows it to flourish – ensuring that no act of resistance truly achieves anything lasting or sustained. Sustainability is anathema to capitalist realism.

Like Moore, Fisher wants to remind us that we’re all complicit:

There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.

Capitalist Realism is filled with quotable sentences, not least derived from the theorists and philosophers whom Fisher cites, including Jameson, Zizek, Badiou, Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan, and Butler. I’ve resisted countless impulses to basically retweet the whole book in blocks of 140 characters. But beyond it, it’s a necessary jolt to the collective comatose psyche. The similarities it outlines among societies deadened by too much control is similar; while capitalist realism operates on the premise of “democracy” and “choice” unlike the explicitly totalitarian regime of the Britain we see in V for Vendetta, the net effect is the collective inability to think out of the current operating structure, and thus act in ways that genuinely undermine it.

But while Moore seems to suggest that one person can act as the spark that sets an entire society blazing, Fisher reminds us that in our current world of instability, precarity, forgetting, and endless “choice” and “flexibility”, collective action and management is what is needed now, while “voluntary” action is still a possibility. Or else, authoritarian management is quite possibly, as Moore predicted, the only road left to travel.

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Le bonheur? Votre méfiance est tout à fait compréhensible!

October 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

I recently had the momentous experience of watching two Agnes Varda films; two of the most popular, it seems, of her earlier films: Cleo de 5 a 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) and Le bonheur (Happiness). Not being well versed in film techniques or film criticism, I can’t really talk intelligently about what I liked so much in Cleo. I can say that what I found so visually-sumptuous was the way in which people and places were framed in the film; it made me feel like I was watching an extension of a moving photograph. I’ve now learned that Varda did indeed start out as a photographer. It’s probably that photographic sensibility that suffuses her films with outstanding, memorable images, such as one particular scene that shows Cleo on an empty cobblestone street save for one tiny toddler in the corner playing with a toy piano. Weeks later it still comes vividly to mind when I think of the film.

Similarly, Le bonheur begins with a strong image – a shot of sunflowers, to be precise. The colours are lucid and bright and quite painful in its piercing intensity. It’s a photographic shot that is somewhat of an assault to the visual sense, the exuberance of colour somehow prefiguring the excess of “happiness” to come. I avoided reading any particular reviews of the film before I saw it, but within the brutal excess of those colours one can already feel a sense of foreboding about the movie’s end. The scene that open the film depicts idyllic family togetherness against a background of nature at its most passive, all well-manicured parks and trimmed shrubs. This scene is an early indication of carefully-constructed artifice – the myth of happiness in action through ridiculously cheery, bucolic images.

I apologise if this post is a little… weird. Le bonheur is sneaky and sly in how it creeps up on you with its understated destruction. Watching it leaves one feeling fragmented. I had no idea that the title was ironic (but what else could it have been but ironic, really?), even if I was nervous about watching it precisely because of the title – the concept of happiness makes me anxious and slightly terrified. Having watched it, what appears to make me a devout Varda fan from this moment on was the way the movie itself seems to dance around the issue of Happiness in movements both delicate and assured. Le bonheur seems to me to be about three things: the tyranny of happiness, the tyranny of marriage, and the biggest Terror of all, the tyranny of a “happy marriage”. I say tyranny, of course, because people are generally compelled to have to want one of those three things, or better yet, all three.

As exemplified in the male lead, Francois, happiness is a self-blinding form of selfishness when pursued as an end in and of itself. We don’t really discover much about Francois’ ambitions or thoughts and hopes for himself – but we do know he wants to be happy, and that a little bit of happiness is never enough. One always wants more. “Happiness works by addition,” he tells his mistress Emilie. This seeming addiction to the feelings aroused by happiness is an ideal master for someone as unself-reflective as Francois. The contradictions of happiness are imbued within it, as we’re aware; the moment someone starts to think about his or her own happiness and begins to deconstruct it, of course, the experience of happiness is over.

The idea of the “tyranny” of marriage is perhaps simply a reflection of my own neuroses. People certainly seem to want to get married and stay married. But I think Le bonheur manages to show, precisely because it focuses on the “good times”, the idea of marriage is fundamentally an idea laden with terror. Banal terror, yes, behind shared moments in the bathroom and the supposed joy of child-raising, but still signifying the depths of unrecognisability that can slowly spread outward. How much do Francois and Therese really know of each other? It is a marriage that’s “happy” because their lives circulate upon the calm, cheery surface of normality. It’s when you start becoming curious about who your spouse really is that it all starts to crack around the edges. When Francois tells Therese of his affair, she realises that she was she has simply taken to be his heightened sense of joy has a more insidious layer to it, encased within well-meaning yet damning deception. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but the viewer sort of knows better. In marriage you have two fundamentally different people unknowable to themselves, much less to their spouse, coming together for what should technically be an eternity. There cannot be a charade from the start, or if there is one, it must then be maintained at all costs.

One of them is happier than the other

We don’t really know much about Therese, Francois’ wife, except from what Francois describes of her to Emilie. He mentions attributes that the viewer has already come to see about Therese: she is relentlessly positive, cheerful, calm, and eternally present. When she hears of Francois’ affair, she is disturbed and hurt –evident from her facial expressions – but she is willing to “love him more”, as Francois asks of her because he is that much happier now that he also loves Emilie. Francois subsequently receives her acknowledgement to do just that with absolute trust. You want to shake Francois and remind him to watch out for the surprise that Therese will inevitably spring upon him, just like he has upon her. Just because she tells you she’s happy with this does not mean anything, Francois! The bonds of marriage, precisely because of its essentially contractual nature – you pledge unwavering devotion to the other in the eyes of the law and/or religious law – requires this kind of self-immolation in various degrees. Isn’t that the fundamental value of marriage – that unlike a relationship, you just cannot walk away? You could, of course, and people do, but the rupture of a divorce in cataclysmic, even in our current very cynical, “postmodern” lives. The spectre of forever will always hang over both individuals, gimlet-eyed and unwavering.

Which brings us to the tyranny of the “happy marriage.” I say tyranny because no one really has any idea what the hell constitutes a happy marriage. This is precisely why I only trust those who are in unhappy marriages (and unhappy relationships). Are relationships and marriages ever meant to be “happy”? Like heartbreakingly foolish, over-eager dogs, we seem to be barking up the wrong tree the moment we start to imagine relationships within the context of happiness. Can people, such as we are, ever be “happy” whilst in them? If you’re going to make that connection with someone and sweat it out for the rest of your life, it is not for reasons of happiness.  Isn’t it evident that modern people do this – get married, have relationships – for the very basic fact of connection, which really does come at the expense of happiness. No matter how much you know someone, you’ll never know them, and this fundamental disconnect can only bring pain because the irrational impulses of love, after all, compels one to want what one can’t have, the  complete knowledge of the other. If this doesn’t work, we carry on replacing the former loved one with another, and another, and another…

Which is what enables Francois to continue being happy. Without delving deep, he coasts on the surface of love, knowing full well that one person can easily take the place of another if one doesn’t think too hard about the other person, but focuses instead on oneself. In fact, this leads me to think that unabashedly self-protecting and selfish individuals will probably have happy marriages more than any other personality type. I don’t mean selfish in the sense we’ve come to typically use the word – someone necessarily kind to oneself and mean to others – but simply a person who strives for self-interest above all. In this case, as Le bonheur shows, Therese was doomed from the start. Emilie may fare better – if what she told Francois about how she has learned to serve her own interests first in the wake of a ruined relationship is essentially true. In which case, this also means that Francois has truly found his “other” half in Emilie. It is a match made in mutual self-preserved happiness. Perhaps in 1965, when the film was released, it was easier for a man to be a Francois in a marriage. Emilie, a potential Francois, is still single when we meet her. I’m unsure how her story will pan out once she’s caught up in the bonds of traditional domesticity and marriage. Does she inevitably become a Therese?

This is not to say that I’m trying to make a case, via a very fragmented reading of Le bonheur, for why being single is better than being married. I don’t think either state is the better one. One can also be unhappy alone and single, yet find ways to assuage the unhappiness in purely self-serving ways without having to consider the other person – the spouse – who is always and necessarily there. There is that saying with which single people comfort themselves, the one that says that it’s better to be lonely and alone than be lonely with someone else. Or some such thing. I tend to believe this, but then again I am single, so don’t trust a word I say. However, what about being unhappy? Is it better to be unhappy alone or unhappy with someone else? Perhaps there is incalculable value in the latter. Perhaps Francois robbed Therese the chance of this by compelling her to accept his happiness so soon. She really plays no part in this newfound multiplication of happiness except as the cause of his original happiness upon which this new happiness takes root. Francois could not see – or could not bear to acknowledge – Therese’s unhappiness. It’s all so new, and it encroaches upon the myth of the happy marriage.Furthermore, there is that self of his he needs to preserve.

But what do I know of marriage? Only everything that I’ve observed from the outside, which is essentially nothing. I’ve no doubt that plenty of people will disagree with what I’ve said, especially since I disagree with what I said. I like to believe in the happy marriage and the amoeba-like relationship that keeps self-replicating its own joy – these beliefs, erroneous or not, keep me going. It’s clearly what kept Therese going too, until she died either by chance or by will. But let’s not get too dramatic. What we need, to take the edge off of the feelings brought about by Le bonheur, is to rewatch Bridget Jones’ Diary. Then, to lull ourselves into a stupor, Love, Actually will do the trick.

*The French in the title of this post is entirely due to some creative Googling. I apologise if what it actually says is “eat shit and die”; this is not what I want to convey to you.

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Chaff

September 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

So I went to the cinema today, bravely, to watch the Mandarin movie Wheat. GSC’s International Screens’ offerings have never pulled in a massive audience. There will not be lines circling the perimeters of the cinema for a movie showing on the International Screen. Typically, there’s simply a bunch of nerdy-types, outlaws and discards – gathered in communal yet estranged appreciation of movies rendered in another language and refusing to make eye-contact with one another lest this horrible infection becomes a permanent disease – standing around waiting to enter the theatre before being spotted by Someone One Knows for daring to watch a movie alone. A movie in another language, mind you.

Some KL-ites can be very mean in a very Mean Girls way towards people who like different things. I mean, especially once they’re out of high school.

Or that’s how it felt, anyway, on this rainy afternoon.

As for Wheat, well, who can remember? I willed myself to sleep through it, because the cinema was freezing and my thin cardigan just wasn’t enough. Also, much focus was on my bladder – the result of a grande vanilla latte prior to the movie. (Note to self: never again; always after, never before.) It’s a testament to the International Screen movies and its popularity among KL folks that it will never be full enough in the theatre that the warmth of many bodies can take your mind of the specially-calibrated Arctic chill.

So… back to the movie. I’m not sure why He Ping decided to make it. You’ll have to ask him.

I think, somewhere along the way – and this is me just randomly attributing intentions to He Ping – he wanted to convey in Wheat the pain of being uprooted from one’s life either literally, by having to go off and fight a war, or symbolically, by having to stay behind in a world emptied of the people who have gone off to fight a war. In 3rd century BC China, this means, of course, men – gone, women – left behind. But somewhere along the way He Ping couldn’t decide if Wheat should be a drama on the condition of human pain and nihilism or a satire on social and economic politics, or just something he lost interest in doing along the way, and the result is a potently snooze-worthy mix of bad dialogue, stilted acting, and over-the-top, cringeworthy performances by the resident “clown” named Zhe, played by Du Jua Yi.

But hey, outside of this movie, they are hot. (But the green belt... um?)

The historical context was played down in favour of individual character development – which would have worked had the characters been strong enough to merit focus. The cinematography worked wonders in rendering a particular slice of 3rd BC China as its own character, much more than any of the human characters, to be sure; the visuals of sumptuously-coloured fields and the women’s plain white linen costumes create effects that are certainly beautiful, but which ultimately lack resonance because the movie on the whole is neither here nor there. The slapstick humour was basically a ham-handed way of exploring the absurdity of war and the spread of information in wartime, and that’s just too bad, because you know, it sort of had to be funny to work.

There are lots of shots of manly buttocks wiggling like jelly in the men’s G-string type contraptions that involved long swathes of fabric in a skirt-pants type thing that covered their calves and part of their thighs but not the buttocks. Lord knows what these things are called; but only lord really knows if peasant men dressed that way back then. In any case, even if they did, He Ping’s choice to focus on the cavorting Zhe and his bare buttocks was just odd; as a spectator our gaze is directed there, but it’s unclear why. Something about the framing of Zhe’s buttocks felt as hackneyed and absurd as the character itself, and it seemed to be shown merely to titillate the viewer, but all it did was alienate the viewer (or perhaps just me) in the most disconcerting way. And I say this as a fan of men’s bums. Generally-speaking.

But the thing I found most annoying was how, in the women-occupied village to which these two military deserters found themselves, the potential for erotic play and desire gone haywire was just RIPE for the taking but completely ignored by He Ping except as a catalyst for one or two badly-written and badly-conceived bawdy jokes. I mean, these women constituted a veritable army of desire; when the other non-clown, actual manly-man male character was passed out drunk, some of the women rubbed their faces against his bare torso and squealed, “Ah, how I love the smell of alcohol on his skin!” or something to that effect. PURE POTENTIAL. Unfortunately, all that happened after that is everyone stumbled about artificially-drunk and the village shaman started having fits, and the whole party had to come to a stop.

Bla bla bla, some tears; shots of wheat fields; close-ups of Fan Bingbing’s luminous face; close-ups of Fan Bingbing missing her husband and replaying an erotic scene in her head after which she rolls around in a piece of red cloth; close-ups of dewy, quivering leaves; lots of high-pitched women yelling, squealing, shouting; the two men and their wiggling buttocks; very, very bad slapstick that was basically a waste of movie-watching time; and then, and then! The movie ends.

(This is not really a review. But you knew that.)

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The piecemeal body of subjectivity

September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

The most arresting symbol of capitalist realism or what I like to call postmodern madness and its infliction upon the individual person is probably that of the mutilated body. The stabbed, sawn-off, hacked-off body parts represent the end of The Body, alarmingly parallel to the end of a whole, linear narrative. The butchered body is a solemn testament to the butchered societal and cultural psyche.

Are we not all in agreement here?

I’m referring to, particularly, the mutilated, hacked-apart bodies that litter the cinematic landscape of Repo Men, directed by Miguel Sapochnik. All the things that you want to buy and can’t afford, like cars, homes, and hell, boats, are ever-so-kindly put on credit so that you can consume and enjoy it immediately and suffer for it later. It’s just the way of the world. In Repo Men, this idea is extended to individual body parts and organs that malfunction. With the help of an uber-evil corporate behemoth called The Union, sick people who don’t have the money to afford a new heart or a new liver or kneecaps (and in the case of hyper-capitalism operating at its illogical best, this includes most people) can technically “buy now and pay later” through a series of payments in installment. The catch is that once you’ve ignored your late payment notifications a few times, repossession men (yes, they’re all men) come in, cut you apart, remove your organ/body part, and leave you unattended without medical care to die.

Does the idea of this truly shock? I think most people can, on some level, accept this is a very possible scenario in the near future. We’re one with our gadgets and things; the objects that we own become an extension of us. It seems only inevitable that our body is similarly broken down into parts; parts removed and inserted at will. The final element – the fear of death – seems to be about the only truly human instinct that still operates at both a conscious and unconscious level.

Several things interest me about Repo Men, namely, the way in which the mechanical body parts and organs are removed from human bodies. There is beauty and precision to the way in which the repossession men, played by Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, perform the various “surgeries”. It is Cutting -Up a Body as Performance, done with flourish, care, and attention to the aesthetics of the butchery. That the human body is left to then drown in its own pool of blood is irrelevant. The fetishized mechanical body part/organ has been retrieved, and placed with love into its proper home – because it’s real home is never really the human body. No one can afford to pay for these things; no one has these things in their body for more than a few months before the bodies are cut up again and the things removed. These things continue to circulate within a steady rotation of ugly, failing human bodies, but its real place is only within itself. Bodies belong to it, but it doesn’t belong to anyone.

The thing about Repo Men is that the narrative falters and flails at moments in a way that does great disservice to what seems to be an intelligent story. Similarly, the dialogue also ebbs and flows along a haphazard line; sometimes sharp, nuanced, and piercing in its observations (Jude Law’s character, Jake, gets these lines) while sometimes falling into hackneyed, cheesy, Hollywood predictability (Forest Whitaker’s two-dimensional character, Remy, gets all these lines). For that reason I think Jude Law gives one of the more intriguing performances I’ve seen him give in a long time. Maybe ever. And for that same reason, Forest Whitaker’s performance is trite and unconvincing, as though he’s trying to convince himself with effort throughout to believe in the trite and unconvincing things his character is supposed to believe in. But the entire movie operates on this level – the story is never allowed to really explore the ramifications or possibilities of its own ideas, and when all else fails, the creators of the movie seemed to have said, “Oh well, let’s not get too thoughtful. Give them predictable Hollywood-style action and dumb platitudes! Because we’re fucking tired and lets’ get this movie done already.”

A small picture to break the monotony of text

What fascinates me most is the vitriol with which movie critics and reviewers have received the movie. Massive amounts of squishy, mildewed tomatoes have been thrown at it. The reviews don’t seem to be content with saying, “This movie is bad because I hated it!” but seem to take it personally, are almost affronted and offended by the entire experience. This intrigues and puzzles me, because the movie is not that much worse than any other junk that Hollywood routinely churns out – in fact, in certain aspects, I consider it to be intellectually-superior to some truly asinine shoot ‘em up movies.

Which leads me to think that perhaps these reviewers object to the lack of distance between us, the audience, and the spectacle on-screen. Repo Men puts quite a bit of effort into making blood, mutilation and butchery appear aesthetically-pleasing. (The entire movie presents a near dystopian future that is visually-pleasing, even when it takes us into the slums of the slums where the poorest of the poor live – very Cronenberg, the visual spectacle of gritty biology.) There is also a strong element of the eroticisation of not so much of violence, but bodily-mutilation – self and mutual. There is a sex/cutting up scene that, for me, was as equally sexy as it was repulsive. I wasn’t quite sure what to feel; even more, I was deeply anxious if what I felt was normal. Susan Sontag, in her ‘Imagination of Disaster’ essay, talked about how horror and science-fiction films sometimes strive to supply “extreme moral simplification” that presents a “morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings.” It’s easy to revel in the killing and the mutilation if one can also be morally-distanced and superior all at once, i.e. “We’re saving the world”, “It’s those evil/horrible/ugly inhuman aliens/monsters we’re killing”, or “The monster was going to get me.”

Sontag was talking specifically in the context of sci-fi and horror films, of course, but in the case of typical thrillers and action movies the monster/alien is analogous to the evil person/terrorist/criminal person, and while still human, these are humans possessed of bad, mad, morally-suspect qualities. So it’s okay to enjoy the killing and violence of these bad humans or other nonhuman beings. The good guy triumphs, and all that. But Repo Men shows the spectacle of killing among “innocents” by “innocents”, to be sure, because it’s shallow to assume that Jake and Remy are evil people when they’re merely pawns in a all-encompassing system. Or maybe the reverse applies, and we’re all equally criminal. “A job’s a job,” says Remy, which is what you and I tell ourselves to get through a life. But the line between the morally-superior audience and the degenerate bad guys on the screen is fuzzy. The blood, the mutilation, the beauty, the sex – it all invites the audience to identify with the dead and the killers.

I’m sure this discomfort of not knowing whether to enjoy, be turned, be repulsed, or be all at once is draining on an attention span that is already trying to make sense of the at-times incoherent narrative. What modern attention spans want is the comfort of logic. There are people questioning the speed and alacrity with which Jake falls in love with Beth (played by Alice Braga); it seems to make no sense, they say. But Beth is broken on the inside – made up solely of various body parts and organs. Jake feels broken on the inside. Her literal insides mirror his metaphorical insides. I would be surprised if they didn’t fall in love. But also, most important in a movie that finally accedes to age-old Hollywood tradition: two mutually-hot people in any movie must eventually find each other.

But then again, maybe people loathed the movie so much because the ending was a lazy cop-out. Nolan’s Inception ending was a well-done, intelligently-filmed and stylish lazy cop-out, too, in a way, but at least it had the confidence to allow its audience to enjoy the imaginary pleasure of participating in a Thinking Person’s Movie. But Sapochnik’s ending is a little too eager to sacrifice a story in service of coming out with a potential blockbuster hit, and it shows. Moreover, it probably indicates a need on movie-going audiences everywhere for an Aristotelian moment of catharsis that makes every horrible moment worthwhile in the end, if it’s for the greater good of society – or someone. Repo Men hits too close to home with a stupid ending without a purpose; it’s much like life as most people know it, but after the carnage of blood and mutilation we’ve been subjected to onscreen, it becomes a bit harder to have any sort of energy to buy into the movie’s version of what’s real.

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Uh-oh – scary, unstable chick. Totally hot, though.

August 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m still trying to understand what I feel about Chloe. It didn’t help that the cinema was filled with children who couldn’t have been older than 15 and who couldn’t handle a single intimate scene without snorting, giggling or whooping (I suppose a film with an SG-18 rating is the ultimate in naughtiness, especially in the middle of a weekend afternoon at the mall). It didn’t help that these highly-excitable children talked loudly throughout the entire movie, but especially during the quiet moments of dialogue. It didn’t help that the girl next to me had smelly feet and that she removed her shoes. Possibly, the movie itself just felt wrong. Julianne Moore gave excellent performance, and Amanda Seyfried gave a decent one. And these performances seemed to strive for something raw and real, and were at odds with the artificial, expressly-manipulative look, feel, and tone of the movie.

Before I go any further, I must warn you that this post has SPOILERS! LOTS OF ‘EM!

SPOILERS!!!

(not a spoiler, yet) Chloe is a remake of the French movie Nathalie, which I have not seen.

NOW! REAL! SPOILERS!!!

I’ve seen reviews that trashed Moore’s performance, but I really felt that she dug deep into that abyss of numb horror that most women experience when they realise that the man they still love and desire may still love them in return – only it’s a companionable love minus the desire. It’s a genuine and at times brutal performance but one that still frustrates, as Moore – undoubtedly a beautiful woman – walks around moping about not being able to hold her husband’s attention or stimulate his desire and sustain it forever. It’s hard to fully immerse yourself in world, even if it’s only a fictitious one on celluloid, where someone with Moore’s beauty is relegated to being an invisible afterthought simply because she’s NOT fresh-faced and nubile.

Anyhow. Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, who suspects her husband (played by Liam Neeson) of having an affair. Her husband is a professor with a confident, debonair air of distinguished good looks and charm – it is a key point later in the movie when Moore’s character tells him that as he only becomes more beautiful with age, and she feels more invisible and unworthy of him as she ages. This premise is played out explicitly throughout the movie, as her husband flirts with younger waitresses who reciprocate by looking at him meaningfully in the eyes and his female students sort of lean forward coquettishly and smile while he’s presenting a lecture. He is meant to be the embodiment of mature masculinity in its prime.

Because, as we all know, men age like fine wine, and women age like… bread.

So it should not surprise me, really, that Moore’s character, beautiful as she is, is rarely put into contact with men who want her or desire her or stare at her from across the street. Her sexual focus, in all its confusion and jitteriness, is wholly centred on her husband.

Because, as we all know, married men are tempted and like beautiful, young things, while married women only want to sleep with their husband. And because young girls and women are tempted by married men, but no boy or man is ever attracted to a… married woman? Gone are the days of Mrs. Robinson. In our present culture, the very act of being a woman who ages renders you an immediate abomination. For the love of God, woman, FILL IN THY WRINKLES with Botox!

There is a conversation in the movie that emphasises this marked difference in desirability within the system of marriage, in case you’re dim and you miss the point. When her husband tells her that he’s been tempted so many times but has not done anything about it because of his commitment to their marriage, Moore’s character retorts by saying that she’s “never, ever wanted to be with anybody else”. Her husband accuses her of lying.

But we believe her. Of course we do.

So when Moore’s character ends up having desperate sex with Amanda Seyfried’s Chloe, it’s only inevitable that it’s an expression of misguided and misdirected desire. Her real desire is directed toward her husband; but since she can’t have him, and Chloe gets to fuck him (which we’ll later find out has been a complete lie), she’ll fuck Chloe because she needs it (she hasn’t been touched in so long) and because it’s a way of fucking her husband.

Except in this Fatal Attraction twist, Chloe becomes obsessed with Moore’s character, and starts appearing in her life a little too often. That’s when the movie simply degenerates into a B-grade thriller, only with beautiful cinematography and what would commonly be called “lush scenes”. Lush close-ups of young female flesh, lush close-ups of places and interiors. Lush, lush, lush.

Perhaps it’s not the artificialness of the movie that really bothered me. I think what really bothered me was the movie’s inability to move past prescribed sexual norms and roles. It seems to say that desire only works in constructed, predictable ways: that of a wife for her husband; that of a husband for a variety of women (the younger the better); that of boys for pretty girls; and that of girls for boys with power, money, in order to gain money, attention, or love. I mean, if there was a rule-book on How to Make Sexual Desire Adhere Faultlessly to the Fault Lines of Sexism, this movie adapted its every principle. Everything else is merely accidental.  So there’s a soft-core sex scene featuring two women; but their desire for each other is only incendiary as it forces Moore’s character to realise her real desire is for her husband, and for Seyfried’s character to reveal herself as dangerously lonely and unstable. The fact that it could be fun, loving, passionate, or dangerous – a catalyst for the destruction of old relationships and the creation of new ones – well, now that would just be too much. I mean, let’s just focus on the important thing, now: two hot women having sex. Yowza!

That sex scene between Moore and Seyfried is everything one would expect an older man (yes… hello to you, Atom Egoyan) would dream of – two thin, beautiful women in soft lighting; gentle moaning and sighing; everything proper and in its place, and very dainty. There is no chaos or mess. It’s all very polite and well-mannered, really.

It’s almost as if Egoyan read Laura Mulvey and said, a-ha, this is a book on the principles of filmmaking. Right? I will follow her every word. Only, I will subvert it by making the main protagonist a woman – a woman who “others” another woman just like a man would, like that de Beauvoir woman said, and a-ha, won’t those ranting feminists be confused?

When Moore’s character confesses to her husband about having slept with Chloe, there are no repercussions. The husband’s face registers this with only momentary interest – the realm of woman-to-woman desire ostensibly existed only for him, and his wife tells him as much. To be fair to Liam Neeson’s character, he didn’t really have to say or do much. So perhaps he had deep thoughts in his head with regards to his wife’s affair with a young girl. It’s just that we never got to find out.

The sex mattered to Chloe, obviously. But the movie’s almost-end, where Chloe falls to her beautiful, ludicrous, slow-motion death, only serves to undermine Chloe’s sense of desire – in fact, it effectively negates her agency. The movie wants you to know that she was only crazy, you see, and disturbed, and so who knows why the hell she wanted to have sex with a woman? And like, stalk her and shit? Whatever. There’s no back-story to Chloe’s instability; only lots of slow-motion, languorous shots of her porcelain, firm skin and pouty lips and lustrous doe-eyes.

Which is fine, really. I’m sure life’s filled with married women having sex with young girls to get closer to their husbands and young girls having sex older women because they need a mother figure and god knows what else. Who cares, really? Just between women, after all. I mean, I would have been happy if they explored the “sexual desire and insanity, two extremes on the same continuum” theme further and brought Freud into the picture, but nope. So I was little perturbed to learn that the screenplay for Chloe was written by Erin Cressida Wilson, who did Secretary, which I thought was pretty brilliant. But then, that was adapted from a Mary Gaitskill short story, so perhaps all the hard work was already done for her. Wilson certainly falls below the mark here. I know this movie is based on Nathalie, but what’s the point of the remake if you’re only rehashing stereotypical themes that don’t serve any particular purpose?

Unless, you know, Nathalie was actually better than this self-indulgent exercise in superficiality.

[Chloe fails the Bechdel test although it has two female characters who talk to each other. But about 95% of the film is of them talking to each other about a man. The remaining 10% is Julianne Moore’s character telling Amanda Seyfried’s charater, “You’re beautiful. You must know that you’re beautiful. But this has to end, leave us alone.” That counts as a FAIL, right?]

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When the natives look slightly… different

July 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

If you meet one in a lonely alley you might want to try fondling its hair. Aren't you curious?

I have watched the new Predators (starring newly-buff Adrien Brody, who most likely gave up sex in preparation for his role). I have not watched the old Predator (starring Arnie, who may or may not have given up sex in preparation for his role – but we will never know).

The Predators are very cool. I mean it. They are not just our darkest imagining of the Other; they are our darkest imagining of the Other equipped with technology beyond our dreams. Or only hinted at in our dreams. So, yes. They are, like, amazing. If I met one, I will calmly shoot myself. Fight? No.

This movie has alerted me to the important need of owning a gun and having it with me at all times.

*Edited to include mention of… SPOILERS!

SPOILERS!

Our 21st-century Predators, however, still feels woefully familiar.

SPOILERS!

There are a bunch of white people. The white man, the American, he is the Leader. To emphasise this, he does not talk. He rasps. He.is.The.Leader. Okay? There are other white people, and then there are coloured people. The coloured people all die.

There is the requisite one feisty female. She is Israeli. At some point during the movie she looks at the dead bodies and flinches, even though she’s a soldier who has seen many dead bodies. She also has qualities like compassion and tenderness. She also wears a tank-top that reveals a hint of cleavage. It is hot in the jungle.

Among the coloured folks, there is the requisite wrinkled Latin American older man. He is dangerous and tough. He is the first to die.

There is the requisite one black slash African dude. He is kind of comical, and he’s also very tough.  He is the second to die.

(In the middle of all this there is one other black dude but this time it’s the requisite American black dude. He is a bit loony in the head. He dies.)

There is one white American guy who’s on Death Row. He makes rape jokes. He dies.

There is the requisite one Asian slash Japanese dude. He is silent, though it is revealed that he speaks English. He also dies, but only after some very poignant and meaningful Ninja-esque sword fighting with Predator. There is a hint of Ninja-cum-Predator music playing in the background. WARNING: a lump might swell in your throat.

There is another American guy who is a crazy doctor. He dies.

The American Leader dude is still alive. The Israeli feisty girl is still alive. (Lies and propaganda. All lies and propaganda!)

American and Israeli go off in to the woods to find a way to leave this hellhole and maybe fight more Predators and presumably procreate, because Earth needs more Americans and Israeli spawn to withstand Predators and the universe’s continued illogical cruelty. It’s like American Leader Man = Adam and Israeli Feisty Girl = Eve, and this alien planet jungle is the rebirth of a new world order. Or something.

THE END.

(It’s a fun movie. I recommend it.)

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Caution: no pictures of Jake Gyllenhaal included

June 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I went to see Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time today, and predictably it was boring and dull, with all the “action” scenes a pastiche of all the action scenes we’ve seen before, time and again. It’s quite likely that my enjoyment of the movie was ruined by the fact that I didn’t particularly feel good about seeing it today, when I had the nagging issue of Unfinished Work hanging over my head like the spectre of… a sandstorm. Thought it must be said that dumb as the movie was, Jake Gyllenhaal couldn’t give a dumb performance in his life even if he tried. Possibly I’m biased towards that cheeky smile and drowsy eyes… sigh… but more than that, I think that quality is just inherent in the type of actor he is: a steadfastly non-dumb one. Just like his sister, Maggie. Those are some good genes they be havin’.

However, that doesn’t mean Jake escapes from the sorry fact that seems to befall all thinking actors when they find themselves apparently acting in a steadfastly dumb movie. There is an unmistakeable tinge of shame, a shadow of dispirited listlessness that follows Prince Dastan as he scales palace walls, runs after a valuable something-or-other, leaps from one high place to another high place. And I don’t think that it has much to do with Prince Dastan fearing for his life, or worrying about the fate of his country and brothers. I think it has much to do with Jake Gyllenhaal thinking, “Why the fuck am I doing this? Oh yeah, the money. The money, Jake ol’ boy, stay focused, don’t let the audience SUSPECT that you did this for the money.”

Full confession is that I’ve never played the videogame, so I can’t happily go off on a bitter rant as to how the movie “ruined the game” like I would for a movie based on a book. But there was something indescribably creepy about watching white actors play Persian people, royalty or not; it’s like some sort of weird and relentless imperialism in reverse. How disturbing it is that white actors can now appropriate ancient Persian culture (granted, how much of it is realistic Persian culture is up for debate… forever) for the benefit of entertaining a global audience of non-discerning (or simply bored) movie-goers. And yes, white actors and Hollywood have been doing this for years, but for some reason I just felt indescribably irritated to hear Gemma Atterton and her proper British accent, untouched, in the role of some “Persian princess” and Jake Gyllenhaal with his white-boy (though lovely) face scamper about as the ragamuffin orphan turned “Persian prince.” And then the requisite real black people playing the fear-inspiring, knife-throwing slave (inevitably, despite all their ferocity, forever yoked to a superior, fairer master-owner and with a heart of gold ), and ostrich races, and some other bullshit. I mean, hell, even modern racial and cultural appropriation is a pastiche of all that has gone on before that one even wonders how to be suitably angry or outraged about anything anymore.

It was all just wrong, and there I was, having paid for the ticket, watching it. I mean, Jake – I share your shame.

Speaking of Gemma Atterton, she annoyed me less here than she did in Clash of the Titans, but I think her ethereal floatiness was kept in check by the decent chemistry she had with Jake. (Although I’m not too happy about the way he occasionally looked at her, pleasure and amusement mingled with desire, damnit.) In other words, just like Prince Dastan kept saving the day relentlessly while the feisty, opinionated, and independent princess yelped in fear, Jake saved Gemma. However, with her eternally pursed lips and straight and proper button nose, she is going in the way of Keira Knightley (only more irritating, though who but the Lord would have even thought that possible?).

God, this entire post has been one long rant of irritation, for which I apologise. May the dagger of untold secret powers help me out, or something.

Grunt. Mumble. Grunt.

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

I realise that my blog’s heading says, “On the disquieting effects of everyday life” but I’m more likely to simply yammer on about the effects of books than anything else. This must be rectified. More of everyday life must be included. Hence, a summary of recent events of everyday life:

1) The worst possible smoked salmon angelhair at Delicious in Mid Valley. The sauce was watery, runny, bland; I’ve gotten a bigger taste-kick out of pureed baby food before than I could ever get out of this. This is not to say I steal food from babies when babies appear to not want the food. Anyhow, I’ve tried the pasta many times before at the Delicious outlet in Bangsar, and they always got the sauce right – creamy without being too thick; a tasty parade on my tongue without actually being a carnival. But it seems that any decent restaurant chain that opens a branch in Mid Valley is doomed to suffer the Curse of Yuckiness.

2) Robin Hood, the movie. Yes, yes, we’ve read the reviews, it sucks, why did I watch it? I’m a sucker for historical epics. No, that’s not true. It’s just that I’m a bit of an Anglophile, although that’s somewhat embarrassing to admit these days – I can see certain postcolonial theorists giving me dagger looks, or worse, the side-eye. I was expecting the movie to be a rather fun romp, the kind where you leave your brain slinking about by the popcorn stand outside while you head inside to the theater. But it was such a painful romp, this movie, all stolid and sober and brutal without any sense of lightness to leaven the landscape. Furthermore, I’m not sure why Russell Crowe thought he had an accent. I’m not sure why certain people thought he had an Irish accent. He had, for sure, his mumble-grunt more pronounced than usual, meaning that no one could understand what in King Richard’s hell Robin Hood was saying without straining their God-given ears. Cate Blanchett was a delight, but she was relegated to the wispy female role – the wispy female with deep reserves of strength, that is. I maintain my position: she should have played Robin Hood.

Put that bow and arrow down, and go bake some bread.

3) I have recently discovered Ellie Goulding. Her music will not move mountains or shatter your perspectives on life, etc., but they will sort of put a twinkle in your sleep-deprived eyes, and perhaps a slight bounce to your heels-ravaged step. My favourite song at the moment is perhaps ‘Black + Gold’.

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