Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Manoel de Oliveira Retrospective

The Harvard Film Archive has been on a particularly interesting run lately. I suppose they always have great programming - but last year and this, they seem to have had a lot of things and people I knew a little bit about, but not enough - it's been a chance to discover several filmmakers in some depth. Rivette and Tarr and Pedro Costa last year; this year, Jose Luis Guerin, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and now Manoel de Oliveira

I've seen some Oliveira in the past, 3-4 films - Party, I'm Going Home, Belle Toujours, etc. They were, I thought, handsome, well made art films, with some surrealist or theatrical twists, but that's about all. I knew he had a reputation for greatness, but thought it was mostly a result of his longevity - a 70 year career of fine work... This series has been a revelation. In fact, he is a fascinating, challenging, almost unique director - the films I had seen are his most conventional: he has made some far stranger works through the years. 

This is just a quick set of notes about the films I have seen: there is a lot to be said about them, but for now, things will have to stay fairly sketchy. There are a few more films in the series - I have more to look forward to.

Magic Mirror: 2005 film, about a young man who gets out of prison and starts working for a rich woman who is obsessed with religion, and longs to be visited by the virgin Mary; the ex-con hooks up with a forger turned piano tuner, and they hatch a scheme to fake the miracle... but what happens then.... actually, the whole film works, narratively, by promising a plot - a trip to the Holy Land? a backstory about a woman named Camille? an affair between the driver and the rich woman? the plot to fake the appearance of the Virgin? - which never quite materializes. Or is elided in the film, like the tour - which happens offscreen, then appears onscreen, as something from the past... It's a strange, stylized film, that starts slow and stiff, but slowly teaches you how to watch it, and gains in power throughout - this was the first film I saw during this program, and it was an excellent introduction to the odder side of Oliveira's career.

Aniki Bobo: His first feature film, from 1942 - a very charming film about kids in Oporto, centering on the romantic rivalry between Eduardo, athletic and boastful, and Carlitos, soulful and a bit put upon, for the love of little Teresinha. When Eduardo gets the upper hand, Carlitos steals a doll for the girl. He is haunted by guilt, though that doesn't stop him from giving it to her. Things take a turn the next day - the shop owner sees them and follows, they run, fight, and watch a train - oh no! a fall! (Not giving anything away - that's the first shot of the film, one of the boys falling toward the train tracks...) Anyway - it's been called a precursor to neo-realism, which is a fair comment. Even more than that, though, it looks like the missing link between Zero for Conduct and some of Ozu's kid films and Little Fugitive - the tone isn't quite as dire as those post-war Italian films... But the style and the method, shooting in the street with kids, basically, is definitely where that stuff is going. I don't know what actual connections there were among these films - but the style is very similar for all of them, as well as the interest in kids and their world. Very few adults figure here - the shop keeper, who is alternately indulgent and stern, and a ridiculous schoolteacher, basically. It's all kids. Anyway - it's very nicely done; there are some great shots - a kid climbing a crane and diving into the water; another kid running around on roof tops, not all the shots faked... very neat stuff.

Francisca: Massive slow art film about doomed love, one of many (4?) such films from Oliveira in the 70s. This one follows two men - one a writer (Camilo Castello Blanco, one of Portugal's great novelists), the other a romantic, a Byronist. The latter falls for the daughter of an Englishman - Francisca/Fanny. They elope, suffer; he's bored from the start, and a bit of a prick, and the writer also loves her, and interferes. There are letters - incriminating? he is suspicious of her, but he marries her anyway (by proxy - one of the many slyly funny moments in these films), but - we can guess where this is leading. She sickens and dies, he rants, then goes to confront her brother about her mystery. The brother offers nothing, and the lover dies, offscreen, so his friends can gossip about him over cognac. A very strange film: beautiful and lush, though the lushness is often (obviously) fake - painted backdrops, usually seen through doors and windows. (The most startling example of this is a shot of the sea: first we see the actual ocean through a window; then we cut back, and see the same window and scene, but now the seascape is a painting: Oliveira makes no effort to pretend otherwise, he emphasizes the artifice.) Actors pose and talk, often directly to the camera, sometimes as inner monologues, but sometimes when they should be talking to each other. Actors strike poses and remain still in some scenes - people dance or walk through scenes in odd disruptive ways. Whole scenes are repeated, shot from different angles. The speech is flat and uninflected, without emotion, with things conveyed conventionally - putting your head on your arm to indicate crying, etc. Stagy, though well beyond stagy. As abstract as Greenaway or Gertrud or Straub/Huillet, and like those films quite powerful, building in force throughout. And - like most of Oliveira's films - surprisingly funny, in a dark, understated way.

Doomed Love: good as Francisca is, Doomed Love is a masterpiece. It's a simple story - the unruly son of a provincial magistrate falls for the neighbor's daughter - but their fathers are enemies and forbid the match. When her father tries to marry her to a cousin, she rebels, and when he (her father) tries to force the issue, Simao (the boy) turns up and blood starts to flow. When he finally gets around to killing someone important, he is arrested (again - I'm not giving anything away - the film opens with the story of his arrest and transportation to India), and he and Teresa suffer in their separate confinements, until the title is fulfilled. Meanwhile, Simao is comforted by the daughter of a blacksmith his father once saved from the gallows: she is an angel, and suffers her fate with no hope of anything - her love is pure and selfless and doomed. Very long - almost 5 hours - in the same, strange style as Francisca - voiceover narration, non-emotive acting, flat line readings (like reading), occasional breaks in the representations - actors freezing in place, etc., more of the panted backgrounds, stylized sets and so on.... And gorgeous - gorgeous compositions and lighting, and some dazzling sequences: Teresa refusing to marry her cousin (she's shot reflected in a mirror while her father is in the shot directly - when she leaves the room, the camera retreats to keep her reflection in the shot, but never reveal her...); Teresa's introduction to the convent; the murder; and the ending, which definitely gives the title its due.... 

These films remind me of other films - Straub/Huillet, Greenaway sometimes, Rivette, late Dryer - but there really isn't a lot like them. Their mix of high melodrama and very high modernism... their aggressive anti-representationalism - all that inexpressive acting, the artificial sets and backgrounds, mixed, of course, with genuine natural vistas, deep, rich,colorful sets and costumes... their love of ritual and formalized movement: crimes and duels staged as tableaux; dances, dinners, etc., all formalized - like one scene in Doomed Love where the servants, preparing for a dance, come into a room to make it ready, going through it lighting candles, rolling up a carpet in formation - prefiguring the ritualized and formal dance that follows. Brilliant films.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Roundup of Recent Films

I have to get better at this; I have to get better at writing about films, and other things, more quickly. I have been very bad this year. Things are dragging out longer and longer. I have to stop that. If nothing else, I will get back to this - sketching up a draft of notes about some recent films. This post stretches the idea of recent a bit beyond its usual online meaning: a couple months worth of new films, seen in theaters. That period has also included a good number of older films seen in theaters: Jose Luis Guerin and Manoel de Oliveira, particularly. There is always hope something may come of that. Anyway: a few notes on a couple months of films:

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days: The Romanian abortion film, set in the days of Ceausescu's dictatorship. Made in a naturalistic style, handheld camera, something close to real time, following a girl trying to arrange an abortion for her friend. For all the political implications of it, it's really more like a Val Lewton film. A series of threats that don't, in fact, exactly materialize - lots of dead ends, hints and threats, but none come about - and most of the threat is suggested, but stated. The girl walking throught he dark city at night, looking to get rid of the fetus - complete with a Lewton bus - a dog jumping out from behind a dumpster she considers... which I suppose conveys the dread and paranoia, the routine horror, of the period as well as anything could.

Michael Clayton: Mistaken in some circles for a legal drama or a message picture, but in fact, a clean and well made neo-noir. George Clooney as Clayton, fixer at a law firm, broke, in debt to the wrong people, with a history of gambling and other bad behavior, and two brothers, one a drunk, one a cop: it's a classic set up. Clooney sets off to rescue a colleague who goes off his meds at a depo in the middle of a long horrible case - the man eludes him, and trying to get him back reveals all to our hero... I put off seeing it, fearing a Hollywood image picture, but in fact it is another fine genre piece, like so many of last year's films. Not among the very best - second tier - better than Before the Devil knows you're Dead, not as good as No Country for Old Men or The Assassination of Jess James (etc.). Clooney, of course, is wonderful - Tom Wilkinson is called on to ham and does. Tilda Swinton has a thankless role that she somehow pulls to near life (close enough for the Oscar, I se.) Sidney Pollack plays the same guy he played in Eyes Wide Shut, explaining it all to the hero...

Diary of the Dead: another zombie picture, this one presented as a shot on the fly documentary. A student film crew and their drunken teacher drive across Pennsylvania, fighting off zombies, sometimes with the help of people they meet along the way... It's okay - reasonably good zombie film, with silly pretentious blather about technology. Shawn of the Dead was better across the board, and it's hard to come up with more after that...

Witnesses: Latest Andre Techine film, set in 1984-85: a young man turns up in Paris, living with his sister in a hotel, which is really a brothel. He is gay, and soon he meets a nice older guy while cruising - before long the older man is squiring him around town, though without sex. The older man is friends with a couple, Emmanuelle Beart and her husband, an Algerian cop: it isn't long before the cop and the kid are having a wild affair. Then the kid gets AIDS, and things unravel. And go on. Techine does a nice job with this situation - especially after the boy gets AIDS, the other characters take turns accusing one another of things - selfishness, martyrdom. He handles it well - they attack one another, but Techine shows us enough to know that what they say isn't fair - but is a bit fair: none of them know the others as we do; but all of them miss things about themselves. Overall, a solid, well acted ensemble piece.

Be Kind Rewind: I certainly wanted to like this. I liked the last two Gondry films (even if one is a Kaufman film) - this one sounded fun. But in fact - it's lame. It's - what is it? It's strange - a big budget Hollywood extravaganza dedicated to the joys of low-tech filmmaking, low tech art. Though that's just where the ironies start: take the fact that contemporary technology, DV and computers and YouTube, make this kind of low tech filmmaking easy - making a film, any kind of film, on videotape? holy cow - that was work. That's harder than making a film on film!

The Band's Visit: one of the many foreign films jobbed out of a chance to win an Oscar, in this case because it was mostly in English (the common language of its Israeli and Egyptian characters). Not quite the tragedy that excluding 4 Months... or Persepolis or whatever was.  Not a bad film by any means, but basically sentimentalized Kaurismaki, in the desert... Complete with a band, funny clothes... Chet Baker?

Taxi to the Dark Side: Nothing special in the filmmaking, but then again, the subject does not allow it. Almost pure talking heads - but the story it tells is devastating. The story of torture in America, under the Bush administration, taking as its departure point the story of a taxi driver names Dilewar, arrested in Afghanistan and basically beaten to death in custody. From there it moves on to the rest of the sordid mess - Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, etc. And the Bush administration's continued campaign to get torture accepted. In Afghanistan and Iraq the administration behaved as perfect swine: they push for harsher interrogation methods, more intelligence (without much interest in whether the intelligence is any good), while insulating themselves from responsibility. They create the systems and the implication that harsher methods are allowed, without clarifying the rules - so when soldiers on the ground do something like at Abu Ghraib, or what happened to Dilewar, the soldiers take the fall. The administration creates pressures that lead to the soldiers abusing people, but in a way that they are never, officially, taking orders. At this point, noting the essential cowardice of the Bush administration is nothing new, but here it is again.

Still Life: Jia Zhang-ke's film set in the three gorges area of China. The film is split in two - a man and a woman come to town each looking for a lost spouse: he stays and works, she searches around, delivers her message and leaves. I can't really do justice to Jia Jiang ke in 3-4 sentences so I won't bother trying.

Paranoid Park: Latest fro Gus Van Sant - a skateboard kid goes to paranoid park, a skateboard park - bad things happen. What? Van Sant circles the story, around and around, as the kid writes about what happened, thinks about it - nicely done, almost a fugue state, really... Van Sant leaves us with the kid in suspension - what will he do what will happen? Probably not quite a match for Van Sant's other 00's films, but a fine work anyway.

CJ7 - latest Stephen Chow film - he plays a poor man who sends his kid to a good school, though the kid is bullied and not too well suited for it. Then he brings him a toy from the dump which turns out to be an alien from the planet Cute. The film is also very cute, and intermittently charming and funny,but not up to Chow's best. It has a couple moments, yes - Chow is at his best when he's most unhinged, and this one stays pretty securely fastened, but there is a fine dream sequence, as the kid and his alien space dog take vengeance on the brats at school... Otherwise the sentiment tends to overpower the wit, though it is still reasonably entertaining. 

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Baseball Picks

We are getting close to the happiest day of the year - Tuesday, 6 in the morning - opening day! Nihon de! Time for some picks - I did this last year: got most of the AL right, botched the NL completely, but so did everyone, and you could have probably picked teams with a week to go and got none of them right. Given how completely the Mets and Padres choked... so here goes again...

American League:
1) Boston - I have to pick them again. They brought back most of the team; they are reasonably young, so not likely to get hurt by injuries - they're going to be tough for a while. Though as usual, an injury or two to the wrong people and they're out of the playoffs. Losing Zumaya and the Gambler, probably, kept the Tigers on the sidelines last October, and that could happen here... But all things being equal, Boston's going to be near the top.
2) Yankees - pains me to say it, but I suspect they will hang around. See below for more reasons.
3) Toronto - I'd like to see them beat the Yanks - and they could, except they seem to have the worst luck, and unlike the Red Sox (and Yankees, somewhat) they don't have the depth to survive any injuries to key players. That's brought them down the last couple years. I think they have a better team than the Yankees though, and could even break better than the Red Sox, but they need everyone to be healthy and play well.
4) Tampa Bay - one of these years they are going to be halfway decent. Shields and Kazmir might get them started on the road, though they've almost had decent pitchers before. They have a solid array of nice young hitters, but have for awhile: until they start getting people out, they'll continue to stink.
5) Baltimore - can only dream of respectability.

1) Detroit - a murderer's row lineup, a couple prime pitchers - though behind the top of the rotation, things turn sour quickly, and there's not much waiting in the wings. So odds are they win the division, but it's hardly a sure thing...
2) Cleveland - there's no reason they can't maintain last year's success, even get better - they have decent hitters and all, and they are way deep in the pen, with 5-6 effective relievers - though oddly, the least of them get to pitch the 9th... this should be a good race in any case,between them and the Tigers, and I suspect this is where the wild card will come from this year.
3) KC - every year you have to pick someone to make a jump up or down - why not the royals? They were not bad last year - Greinke seems to be back on track; Brian Bannister emerged as a solid pitcher; Gil Meche brought stability... they have some good relievers - and some very interesting young players. If Butler and Gordon build on last year, they might get into hailing distance of being a decent team.
4) Chicago - still a complete wild card. Is Ozzie Guillen crazy? will they figure out who plays and who doesn't? will they have enough pitchers? I don't have a clue. I don't think they can win it this year, but otherwise, I have no idea what to expect. Somewhere between 65-85 wins, I guess.
5) Minnesota - everything must go! I hope Joe Nathan keeps his bags packed. It looks like another trip to the wilderness for the Twinkies, though like most of their disintegrations, this one probably won't last all that long. They still have nice core in Morneau, Mauer (if he can stay on the field), Young, Liriano (if he's healthy) - when a couple more of their young pitchers develop, they could be back in the hunt. Though probably not in time for Nathan or Morneau to benefit, not in Minnesota...

1) California Angels - it's not a sure thing, but they do look strong: deep rotation, solid pen, Vlad, plus Figgins, Hunter, Anderson, and some promising youngsters - they should hang on to first.
2) Seattle - though the Mariners could get there too. Bedard ad King Felix is a nice way to start a rotation; Putz a nice way to end games; Ichiro is Ichiban, and they have decent talent around him, though nothing overwhelming. I think their chances depend more on something going wrong for the Angels, but they could be in the middle of things.
3) Texas - they might have rebuilt quicker and better than I thought - they have a lot of young talent - Kinsler, Hamilton, Saltamacchia [I'm not looking up how thats spelled] - though as usual it's all offensive talent. Odds are probably pretty good that more than one of those guys will, after blossoming in Arlington, will seek their fortunes elsewhere in a year or two, like Soriano, Texeira, etc.
4) Oakland - out with the old in with the new! maybe. Until the new is ready, the A's can look up to the rest of the division. Unless Texas pulls its usual disappearance.

1) NY Mets - Santana helps. They had the best team last year, but ran out of pitching - same as the year before (though they did it in the playoffs in 06). Santana ands Maine though should stay on the field, and that might be enough to win.
2) Atlanta - they have some pitching depth, they have some nice hitters, they have Bobby Cox - they should be all right. They are more likely to vulture someone else's collapse though..
3) Philly - they can hit, but they are in trouble on the hill. They have gone 7 years winning in the 80s - tied for the longest stretch of that brand of mediocrity ever. I think this year they take the record.
4) Washington - actually look like they might have the start of a decent team. "Decent" is a relative term, of course.
5) Florida - they have the best player in the national league.

1) Milwaukee - why not? they were close last year - this year, why not? they have a very god core of young hitters, who could improve this year - Hall was off, Hardy collapsed - why not? if their pitching holds up, they should win.
2) Chicago - about the same as last year, aren't they? there is plenty of room for either improvement or collapse - of more of the same.
3) Cincinnati - another possibly up and coming squad: they need some pitchers to develop,and better innings from Arroyo, they need Cordero to be effective and others to emerge behind him, they need the young hitters to play well. If those things happen, they could content - it's still a weak enough division that if a bunch of them happen, they could win it.
4) Houston - their rotation is hideous. Their lineup though might save them. At least keep them around .500, and from there, who knows.
5) St. Louis - they've been coming apart for the last couple years,though they had 2 good weeks in 2006 and won it all. I don't think they will be in any position to do that again.
6) Pittsburgh - the what - 10th? - team so far that, if their young pitching develops this year, could take a major leap forward. Well - something forward: they don't have much in the way of a team on the field.

1) Arizona - they added pitching over the winter, though their biggest problem last year was hitting - but they have a team of young hitters, who were inconsistent last year - seems to me the odds are good that Drew and Reynolds and Young will all get better - and they should get something out of Upton: so they might be about to start a run of championships.
2) San Diego - still have a great, deep pitching staff - though old; old and mediocre offense, though some of those guys - Kouzmanoff, or however he spells it, say - could step up. They'll take the division if other teams stumble.
3) Colorado - pitching remains a question, but they can hit, catch the ball, and they do have some nice young pitching talent. Might be asking a bit too much to expect them to have full seasons. Odds are they won't be able to play .500 for 145 games and still get to the world series though.
4) LA - can Joe Torre integrate his kids into the rest of the lineup? I'm not sure. I don't know how things will go out there. Could be a contender, could disappear. I'll be boring and split the difference - 85 wins in a strong division.
5) Sa Francisco - they too have some nice pitching. But Benji Molina is their cleanup hitter.

And so: playoff teams?
Boston - Detroit - Anaheim + Cleveland: Boston wins through.
New York - Milwaukee - Arizona + Atlanta: Mets, what the hell. It's a rematch of 1986! Revenge!!!

MVP: I suppose it's A Rod's to lose in the AL. If that happy event occurs - who knows - Manny? Ortiz? Victor Martinez? Ordonez? Granderson? Miguel Cabrera? There's a lot of talent to choose among.
NL: I'll say this year is David Wright's year - the odd thing is that the best NL players are way more interesting than the best AL players - Wright, Ramirez, Utley and Rollins, Reyes, Fielder and Howard, Holliday, Tulowitsky,Braun - the AL has been beating theNL up for a while, but those days may be coming to an end.

Cy Young: AL - Josh Beckett, dammit! NL - hey: the best two pitches in baseball are out there - Santana and Peavy. Santana wins this year.

Rookie of the Year: Jacoby Ellsbury! vs. Justin Upton? I don't know - we'll see.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Is this why they're the RED Sox?

It's sometimes very satisfying being a Red Sox fan. The team has just voted to boycott their trip to Japan if their coaches and staff are not paid. It's easy to snipe at players for the money they get, but it's a bit different when they do it for others - coaches, staffers in this case. MLB can't make the players do much of anything - players have the power to get their money and perks. The rest of the staff is not so lucky - unless the players take their side and push for it. $40,000 may be chicken feed for David Ortiz or Mike Lowell, or even Francona, but it's gotta be a significant chunk of change for the rest of the staff. It's nice to see the players using their leverage for the people around them.

UPDATE: And, nice to see a happy resolution... Still - an odd situation, and gratifying to see the players using their clout to get something for someone else.

Iraq Invasion Anniversary

5 years ago now the United States invaded Iraq. In a month or so we can celebrate the end of major combat operations in Iraq. After that, 5 years of disaster. Trillions of dollars wasted. God knows how many dead. Only 4000 Americans dead! Most of them after "major combat operations" ended of course. None of the excuses for the war proved true - no weapons of mass destruction, no connections to Al Qaeda; none of the promised benefits have come about - the middle east is as unstable as ever, we lost a lot of leverage in dealing with other countries, Iraq itself remains a disaster, repressive, dangerous, not likely to improve on our watch. The US is weaker than it was before the invasion, we've undermined our economy fighting this useless and evil war, we've undermined (to the point of breaking) the constitution, we've debased the discourse beyond the awfulness of the 90s. It's been a bad stretch.

It stands as a testament to George W. Bush - the worst president this country has had, surrounded by incompetent villains, who take pleasure in their villainy (look at clips of Dick Cheney talking about going to the "dark side" to fight terrorism: his smug supervillain act) - but can't do anything right. They brag about their villainy, but it never gets them anywhere, they try to keep it secret but it all comes out, they fail fail fail at everything they touch. Except staying out of jail, most of the time. And finding ways to make money. They posture and preen as if all this badness makes them tough - but attacking Iraq was a pointless and cowardly act of bullying - almost certainly undertaken because they knew that Iraq had no WMD or anything else that could harm us. I don't know if they even care what a disaster it has been since - after all that trillion plus dollars in government money is going somewhere... Ah, what socialists capitalists have become!

Anyway: it's a rotten decade to be an American. Just hope things like that don't last, and get as many republicans as far from power as possible...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Uncanny Games

I have to admit up front - I'm not sure if I am going to see the American version of Funny Games or not. I'm sure it will be controversial - Jim Emerson has a bunch of posts up over the last couple days, (starting here and scrolling up), generally focusing on the reactions. Most of the reviews, and the conversation at his blog, talk about the film's take on violence and entertainment - comparing it to torture porn (either for reveling in violence and degradation, or for withholding violence degradation, nudity), sticking with Haneke's claims that the film is about violence and our reaction to violence.

This is strange, to me. I admit, all that is in the film, and it's what Haneke himself harps on (and harped on back in 1997) - but it's not what I saw in the film, when I saw the original. What I saw then was one of the most effective classical horror films I have ever seen. It gave me nightmares: convincing and genuinely disturbing ones - I am not usually unnerved by films, I was by this one. It worked.

But that aside - the story, the structure of the film, was, I thought, an almost paradigmatic horror film, a classical monster picture like Frankenstein or Dracula. Those great monster pictures, and horror more generally, are driven - maybe even defined - by the idea that our fears, whether of isolation, sex, growing up, death, etc., can be given a form and let loose on the world to torment us in real time. Maybe even more precise than that: that what we fear inside ourselves can take form outside ourselves and come to get us. And this is almost always acted out in the home and the family: something inside the home is incorporated as an alien being that invades the home. It's usually acted out literally, like here - the monster invades the home, the house itself; as well as symbolically - the monster disrupts the family. And - again - almost always through monster that is both a Double and Other: both part of us, like us, our mirror image, an image of a child, parent, etc. - and something alien, other, completely stripped of its normal human form.

It's a structure present in most of the great horror films: Frankenstein (a surrogate and monstrous child, who complicates a marriage, invading a home on the wedding night, etc. [that detail may be in the book, not the film - though the monster certainly invades the home in both the whale Frankensteins] ); Dracula (who replaces Harker, who certainly represents sexuality, desire and so on, who has to be invited in, but when he gets in makes the most of it - violating the integrity of our bodies and minds, another dominant theme in these films); it's there in many of the Val Lewton films - Cat People (the fear of sex releasing a monster); I Walked With a Zombie (the whole plot - the afflicted household, the relationship with the voodoo outside,the way the voodoo is brought in to the house, etc.); even in later films like Isle of the Dead - which does not have a literal family, but it does have a literal house - it posits the threat as something inside: the disease or the vorvolaka - who is, significantly, linked to Karloff's dead wife; plenty of angst about bodily integrity, losing control of our selves as well, in that one); Bava's horror films tend to work this way - Karloff's Wurdalak is paradigmatic - something from the home that becomes it's own double, and returns, becoming, simultaneously, part of the home and an invader of the home.) Eraserhead is another paradigmatic film (the child, the formation of the home, which immediately proves monstrous and destructive.) Rosemary's Baby. There aren't many that don't fit. It persists down to the present, though other kinds of horror have appeared as well: zombie films are not so easy to assimilate to this scheme: but Audition, Doppelganger, The Tale of Two Sisters all fit well enough. So, for that matter do Benny's Video, Cache, as well as Funny Games.

Because Funny Games fits the pattern almost perfectly. Its monsters, Peter and Paul, are unheimlich, as the Austrians might say. They come from inside the home, they are incarnated outside the home, as Others - as embodiments of fears, and then they invade the home, to violate its security, and the bodies and minds of the family. They are, socially, part of the same milieu as the family - same social class, same way of acting: this might have been even more obvious in the original version, with Arno Frisch and Ulrich Muhe playing criminal and father, as they did in Benny's Video. (Though I hadn't seen the earlier film at the time, and Funny Games was plenty effective.) But aside from that - they are also, quite clearly, products of that central fact of the modern home - the television.

That's worth a comment - the role technology plays in contemporary versions of these films. Children, sex, aging, death, the classic sources of the horror, have been augmented by technology, ubiquitous, domestic technology - televisions, telephones (Bava again, in Black Sunday!), computers, as well as things like toys, etc. Familiar technology, that turns against us. Which we get here. Its not the first time horror film monsters stepped out of the television - Cronenberg is fond of the idea; Poltergeist played with the idea; The Ring (and it's 8 million variations), of course. But it's quite rigorous here, and it's not like Haneke is subtle about it - the remote control scene is the most famous scene in the film.

I will, I think, let it got for now. Like I said - I don't know if I am going to see it or not. The first one was quite enough, thank you. But I do think the conversation about it, at least what I have seen has been ignoring the ways this film is an almost perfectly classical horror film. Comparisons to Saw and Hostel are evasions. And questions about whether people will see it as exploitation or critique of exploitation are evasions. I admit that Haneke has pumped up these aspects of the film - I'm not sure why: maybe to emphasize its disruptiveness, rather than its classicism. Maybe just to distinguish it from the rest of his career, because these themes - the disruption of the family, often from within; the specific role of technology as a kind of disease that destroys the home - are pervasive in his work. This one too - what's different is its treatment of violence... Maybe. Either way - it seems to me that Funny Games is less about violence as such than about the monsters that emerge from within our homes to destroy our homes...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Robin Hood

Somehow, I got this far in life without ever seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Errol Flynn movie. How did I do that? It's one of those films that is so often cited, shown on TV, at least clips, talked about, it feels like I'd seen it. And I'd seen enough clips and shots from it for it to be very familiar - but I hadn't seen it. Boy - what a treat. I have been on an old adventure film kick - this, Captain Blood, a bunch of Douglas Fairbanks films, got quite a few more Flynn/Fairbanks etc. films in the queue... They are all quite fine - but this really is a cut above. It looks great, that eye-popping color; it swoops along - it starts quick and nothing gets in the way of the action; it's funny, clever, it mostly makes sense; it's acted with panache all the way up and down the cast - Flynn is superb, as is De Havilland; Claude Rains is oily and dangerous as Prince John, and Basil Rathbone - oh: would make Alan Rickman proud!

Its the template for every action movie to follow - wisecracks and action, secondary plots (love! family! what have you) alongside the action... It's much more effective than some of the earlier takes on the genre. Captain Blood and Fairbank's Robin Hood, especially, take forever to get going: both of them are half set up - it's well over an hour in before Fairbanks even starts being Robin Hood, and even then, most of the Robin Hood stuff is offscreen. Captain Blood is almost as bad, taking forever to get Flynn out to sea. None of that here - this one dives in, wastes no time giving us Robin Hood - and giving him to us in all his glory, swinging down on a vine, crashing Prince John's party with a dead deer... And building to a series of magnificent set pieces: the big party scene; the ambush in the trees; the archery contest, with its famous arrow splitting business; Robin's escape; the big brawl at the end - and that magnificent duel between Flynn and Rathbone. That alone is worth the price of admission - that one shot in the middle: long crane shot starting with the men fighting, they go out of frame and we see their shadows on a huge pillar in the middle of the screen, they come fighting back into the shot on the other side - sweet Jesus, that's a beautiful shot.

I can't get enough of it. I had to buy it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Don't I Get a Saving Throw?

It's been a week for obituaries here - today, Gary Gygax, co-inventor of D&D. The blogosphere pays tribute, revealing some of their inner nerd - me too, I guess, me too. Is that saving throw gag too obvious? So what if it is? it's long since entered the vernacular, at least among certain classes of people - including a good many of my friends.

The truth is, I've never played all that much D&D. I started in college, and my brothers simultaneously discovered the game in middle school. I played at school, but I wasn't an enthusiast about it - even as a gamer, I was more into Diplomacy and Squad Leader. I was a history nerd, not a scifi nerd. I played a lot more with my brothers - though our games were a different kind of thing. The Making Light link mentions the mashup style of D&D - that was us. It was always a mix of war game and Hardy Boys, Bonanza & Gunsmoke, Get Smart, LOTR - in later days, this got out of hand, and we played characters based on William S. Burroughs, Zippy the Pinhead, ran dungeons derived from Borges or Eco, always working in jokes about contemporary politics, our friends, etc. Of course most of these things never quite got past the conception, and maybe writing up character sheets, and heading out to fight monsters but instead getting into a long conversation with a strange old man on the trail... once the dice started rolling, everyone got bored and went to the other room to watch the Braves.

Anyway: I don't talk about that kind of stuff here, but maybe I should. I've never really set down what this blog is supposed to be for - but the template adornments ought to be a hint - it really is a three headed monster composed of Captain Beefheart, Shohei Imamura and the Hardy Boys. The boys tend to get short shrift, I'm afraid. I manage to get around to talking about music often enough; and movies most often (when I get any posting done) - but the Hardy Boys, not so much. The Hardy Boys represent, well - not quite pop culture not quite trash culture - but maybe, nerd culture - or the odd corners of pop culture - or, maybe most of all - a kind of mashup culture, cartoons and paraliterature and YouTube and primitive cinema and Ed Wood and D&D and so on - not just disreputable things, but things that invite you to make of them what you want to. A Madvillain aesthetic. And that was something that D&D did very neatly: provided a means of chewing up and spitting out whatever caught your eye. It was, at its best, improvisational mashups - injokes and incongruous references the point of the exercise.

I don't think we were unique in that approach: I think it was built into the game, especially in the days when Gygax was writing it. "Lamentable Belaborment" spells - or the spell that made you tap and shuffle, heel to toe and shuffle off to Buffalo... made me happy.