Saturday, February 29, 2020

John Schlesinger | Sunday Bloody Sunday

the cough
by Douglas Messerli

Penelope Gilliatt (screenplay), John Schlesinger (director) Sunday Bloody Sunday / 1971

It is strange that the John Schlesinger film I saw in 1971, at the time of its release, was completely different from the disk of Sunday Bloody Sunday I saw on Netflix yesterday. One scene, in particular, symbolizes how mistaken I was during my first visit to this work.
      Having overslept, and late for her promise to care for the Hodson children and dog so that their parents might escape their noisy British suburban household for a weekend, friend Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), quickly makes herself a breakfast.
     I recall the original as a quiet and calm affair wherein she, almost with great regulation, makes coffee and toast. This time round I realized just how crazed and hectic was that same breakfast of leftover coffee, with cigarette butts strewn around the floor, and a sink full of leftover dishes. In short, Alex seems the last person in the world you might wish to invite over to care for a baby and two precociously aware young girls—particularly since she plans to also spend much of that “bloody” weekend in bed with her boyfriend during a governmental crisis and its quite prescient suggestions of the Northern Ireland Bogside massacre a few months later, when 14 people were shot and killed by police during a march against internment without trial.
       It’s so very strange that I should have seen Alex’s manic rush as a careful and civilized event, accomplished even with great grace when Howard and I, in our second year of our relationship first saw it. Roger Ebert’s opening comments to his 1971 review of the film state something I missed:

              The official East Coast line on John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody
              Sunday was that it is civilized. That judgment was enlisted to carry
              the critical defense of the movie; and, indeed, how can the
              decent critic be against a civilized movie about civilized people?
              My notion, all the same, is that Sunday Bloody Sunday is about
              people who suffer from psychic amputation, not civility, and that
              this film is not an affirmation but a tragedy.

     In fact, the movie begins that way with the almost Dickensian household which Alex is about to care for representing a kind of exuberance of married life. The Hobson’s know of Alex’s affair with the handsome Bob Elkin (Murray Head) and might even secretly approve of their divorced friend’s new-found love; although they say nothing, their children are rather curious and overtly interested in the relationship. Even their over-large pet seems perfectly happy to intrude. Moreover, despite her disordered life, Alex is a good baby-sitter, mostly caring and attentive to the children. If things are not quite right in this world, Schlesinger hints they might almost be “civilized,” or controlled if nothing else.
     Yet, this talented director certainly provides numerous clues that something else is going on. It’s hard for today’s young, perhaps, to recognize just how intrusive was the rotary phone long before the constant pings and musical intrusions of cell-phones. Again and again, the director interrupts moments of love and caring with old-fashioned phone calls and with images of rotary dialing, to say nothing a busy-body phone operator (Bessie Love) who almost makes Lily Tomlin’s satirically obnoxious Bell telephone operator seem like a saint.
     She and Bob seem to be in love, and together they perform briefly as a nice pair of parental substitutes. But the circles of those endless rotary phones say almost everything.
     The social circles they inhabit are much larger than larger than the Hobson’s suburban retreat, as we soon see Bob rush away to London to his other lover, the much-besieged and over-worked doctor, Daniel Hirsch (played with panache by Peter Finch), a role offered first to Alan Bates and Ian Bannen. Bates had other filming assignments, and Bannen was wary of the deep kiss with which he meets his bisexual partner, Bob.

     This is one of the first true films of absolute bisexuality, as Bob, openly admitting to liking sex with both women and men, and with both Alex and Daniel willing to accept the limitations of their loving sexual encounters with him. Both are pained by the temporariness he devotes to them, but both have also been clearly hurt in the past by others. Alex is an unhappy divorcée, and Daniel is a Jewish gay man with a history he cannot reveal to the community with which he is still very much intertwined, shown by a brief encounter with a former lover who is a heroin addict and a bar-mitzvah at which he is constantly questioned as to why he has never yet married, with members of his family hinting that sometimes less is better than nothing.
      Both have chosen basically empty relationships to salve their lonely and empty lives, which their “civilized” circles will not ever truly allow, and the rather self-centered Bob, a rather mediocre “light” sculptor, will never truly permit. He’s on his way to New York where he hopes to extend his flimsy career.

      Bob, in short, is a temporary phantom of love for both the pained Alex and Daniel, a pretty boy they have latched onto just to have some possibility of joy in their otherwise desolate lives. Neither are adept at truly loving, and both are scarred by their pasts. Unintentionally, Alex allows one of her young charges to run ahead with the family’s large dog, resulting in an automobile accident which kills the beast.
      The film ends with Daniel’s personal confession and the beginning of a doctor’s joke, trying to deny his own loneliness—“I am happy, except for missing him”—and ending with the old Jewish joke “Doctor, I came about my cough.” The cough, of course, is everything, the beginning of the end.

Los Angeles, February 29, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

Monday, February 24, 2020

Diego Lerman | Tan de Repente (Suddenly)

an lgbtq domestic comedy
by Douglas Messerli

Diego Lerman and Maria Meira (writers, based on a fiction by César Aira), Diego Lerman (director) Tan de Repente (Suddenly) / 2002

Argentinean direct Diego Lerman’s first feature film, Tan de Repente (in its English version titled Suddenly) is an amazing debut work that has continued to haunt me in the week after viewing it.
     The events of the film do unfold quite “suddenly,” yet the significance of those events unwind in the mind quite slowly as the characters, who at first seem to be mere types, gradually shift into far more complex figures whose early impulsive acts are revealed to be a cover for far more complex issues of sexual behavior and even gender. Ultimately there is a complex sexual fluidity among nearly all the film’s characters which is beautifully and subtly performed by its actors.
      The heavy-set, not very beautiful Marcia (Tatiana Saphir) is quite clearly unhappy with her body and life. She works in a lingerie store, which might be the very worst place to be trapped for a woman of her dimensions who must sell sleek and lithe undergarments. She identifies as a heterosexual who has just broken up with her boyfriend; and we can tell that surely this has not been her first abandonment by the male species.
      Unable to find love she buys a new dress and a pair of sunglasses, consumer goods to replace a broken heart. The clothes are ridiculously in bad taste and the glasses offer only a momentary feeling of self-pleasure. She is, in short, the kind of woman abused by even her own heterosexual friends represented by Toni Colette in P. J. Hogan’s 1994 film Mariel’s Wedding.
      Yet, in Lerman’s film love is right around the corner—no matter how odd that corner is—in the form of two punk lesbians, Mao and Lenin as they call themselves (Carla Crespo and Veronica Hassan). The moment Mao sees Marcia, she is almost desperate to embrace her into the joys of lesbian love—although strangely enough both claim not to be lesbians.
      Within hours these two biker chicks kidnap Marcia and, discovering that she has never ever seen the ocean, ferry her away via various forms of transportation (including a willing truck driver) to the sea and on to Lenin’s Aunt Blanca (Beatriz Thibaudin) who with her wrinkle-lined face and strong traditionally masculine manners (a woman that has perhaps grown beyond sexual desires and identity) that she might be conceived of as a kind of transgender figure. One of the best scenes in the film is when she visits an elderly female friend and they tipple down an entire bottle of liquor.
      Lerman seems to be a bit unsure of whether or not he wants to continue his film a kind of road trip, featuring beautiful black-and-white abstract images of endless highways and their dividing lines; yet, we soon discover that he has determined to turn his always surprising movie instead into a kind of domestic comedy.
      Marcia, now able to leave their company if she wishes, is intrigued enough by the adventurousness and dangerous of the sudden events in her life, that she stays, now actually longing for the sex that Mao provides. The aunt rents them a room in a house that also includes a male tenant, Felipe (Marcos Ferrante) who, quite obviously, is an intrigued gay man. Yet somehow this little gathering is not at all presented as particularly voyeuristic or sexually perverse.
      Although she is a bit confused when Mao leaves her bed, she soon realizes that her friend will return with the pleasure continuing. Felipe may be a bit interested in the lesbian relationship, but politely closes their bedroom door after stumbling upon the scene. Lenin, meanwhile, develops a close friendship with the elder aunt, one that clearly had been missing with her own mother.

     In a sense, Lerman’s film becomes an almost paradisaical view of a mini-LGBTQ community, wherein the members are so entirely tolerant of one another that tensions ease and the sexual danger of the film’s early scenes are quickly converted into a kind of domestic bliss as each member learns to respect the territory of the others.
     The tough Lenin, with the help of her aunt, learns how to cook; the shy Marcia is taught how to love; and the young gay Felipe mostly stands aside in simple delight of the world in which he is now part. Each of them bring a kind of gentle energy to one another, sharing dinners and pleasant conversations.
      The madness of the “sudden” is cooled into a kind of joyous family scene that none of its characters has perhaps ever experienced before.
      One of my very favorite writers, César Aira, wrote the tale on which movie is based; I can only wish that there will be many more to come (he’s written several dozen of such fascinating stories). Lerman has gone on to direct 4 films since this one, and I can’t wait to see them.

Los Angeles, February 24, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Martin Scorsese | The Irishman

the history of evil
by Douglas Messerli

Steven Zaillian (screenplay, based on the book by Charles Brandt I Heard You Paint Houses), Martin Scorsese (director) The Irishman / 2019

On February 19, 2020 I finally gave in and watched Netflix’s Martin Scorsese film The Irishman.

It’s not that I don’t like Scorsese as a director. I’ve reviewed positively several of his films, and I recognize him as a cinematic creator with a wide range of concerns, including the spiritual (as in The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence), dark comedic tributes to film (After Hours and Hugo), somewhat romantic tales (The Age of Innocence and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and, of course, dramas of machismo crime and murder (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino).

It was simply that I knew The Irishman was in the latter category, my least favorite of his film’s concerns—although I also realize they are the most popular among his audiences.

I was pleasantly surprised at how sanguine and emotional was this version of his tough guys, mafia figures, and simple murderers—the last of which, after all, is what Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) really is.

How the regular truck driver Sheeran came to be invited into the Bufalino family (represented by Joe Pesci and Ray Romano) to become someone who “paints houses,” or in Mafia parlance, a man who is willing to spill blood upon the walls of the victim’s home, is never completely made clear; he simply explains it as a way to support his wife and daughters. Obviously, that’s not enough of an explanation. But then, this is a kind of confessional piece, with the audience serving as the priest and priestesses, who are required to absolve him of his numerous “sins,” of which his daughters—particularly the eldest, Peggy (Anna Paquin)—will not.

Scorsese’s film darts back and forth through time, digital restoration allowing it’s three major figures, De Niro, Al Pacino (as Jimmy Hoffa)—Sheeran, through his mob connections becomes a local union head beyond his murdering and bodyguard duties—and Pesci as Russell Bufalino to become young again despite their now seriously senior facial contours. My guess is that this is their last reunion. And Pacino’s Hoffa figure is cremated, which would truly explain his complete disappearance. Concrete decays and might have revealed the remains of his body by now.

Nonetheless, these excellent actors give it their all, storming through history with aplomb and a kind of madness that is hard to explain. In the end, all wind up in prison for periods of time, and the director constantly reminds us through short on-screen biographies, of just how many of the movie’s characters were shot dead or ended up in the clink for the rest of their lives. Being a thug truly ain’t good for one’s health. And even Sheeran isn’t spared, now dying—after serving his own time in jail—in an assisted living home, with no family members willing to even visit him. Only a priest—a stand in for the cinema’s audience—dares hear his endless tales of wrong-doing.

This might seem also to be long requiem for so many of Scorsese’s and even Francis Ford Coppola’s and Michael Camino’s works which finally express not just the masculine pleasures of greed, violence, and chaos, but, I finally perceive, have provided us a history of US evil, as legendary as that might be portrayed to have been. All of the figures in these films end up destroyed by their own propensities—along with their families. And the musical alone gives us a semi-history of the period through our ears.

If there might be a kind of glorification of the male ego and its never-ending attachment in the US to the culture of guns and murder, there is, particularly in The Irishman, a sense of remorse, a statement of extreme guilt, a recognition that even old “house painters” eventually must themselves face the ax of death. Today it appears that some ruthless figures of our society cannot even imagine that they live only a very few years, and their actions mean, ultimately, nothing over time.

I wondered, while watching this film, how many young people even knew who Jimmy Hoffa  was, how many experienced the painful television news report, represented in this film, of John F. Kennedy’s shocking murder in 1963, or even knew how fiercely Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General—far braver than the current Attorney General William Barr—risked his life to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice? This film suggests, not the first, that both their deaths might be tied to the Mafia and to Hoffa’s maneuvering.  

Scorsese is not sensationalizing his criminals and crooks as much as he is as holding them up to the light, forcing us to realize the deep historical relationships our country has had always with murder and violence, our connections with greed and the attempt to control all others. “Them and us” was at the very heart of the early Italian immigrants’ perception when meeting the hostility of numerous ethnic communities that had arrived before them.

If Scorsese’s works are clearly not documentaries, they do represent a kind of terrible historical diary of the evils at the very heart of our society.

Los Angeles, February 22, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

Monday, February 17, 2020

Mikio Naruse | 夜ごとの夢 Yogoto no yume (Every-Night Dreams)

the weak and the strong
by Douglas Messerli

Tadao Ikeda (screenplay, based on a story by Mikio Naruse) Mikio Naruse (director) 夜ごとの夢 Yogoto no yume (Every-Night Dreams) / 1933

Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi created, as I have stated previously, a sub-genre dealing with women suffering financial destitution who have forced to works as prostitutes. Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima) in Naruse’s famed silent from from 1933 is just such a woman, whose husband having abandoned her, has been forced to work at a Ginza bar catering to sailors in
husband, having abandoned her, has been forced to work at a Ginza bar catering to sailors in order to support her son, Fumio (the charming Teruko Kojima).
     As the movie opens, she is returning from a trip of what was evidently several weeks. Although it is never explained where she has been, we clearly perceive that she has probably gone away with a client on a sexual tryst. In her absence Fumio has been cared for by the kind unnamed elderly couple (Jun Arai and Mitsuko Yoshikawa) who also rent her a room, and think of the child almost as a grandson.
     Fumio is delighted by his mother’s return, and asks if she has brought him a present. She apologizes, but explains she will soon bring him another “toy” even though it is clear she has so little money that everything she makes goes for food and rent; she is forced to attempt to borrow on her “salary” from the mean-spirited proprietress of the bar where she works. A seedy denizen of that bar, a Captain (Takeshi Sakamoto) intercedes, providing her with money, but obviously expecting favors in return.
     Like the hostess featured in Naruse’s wonderful film of three decades later, When a Woman Descends the Stairs, it is obvious that Omitsu is a skilled worker, who is popular with the men, but who would also prefer, were few.
     Suddenly into this stew of repressed desires and dreams comes Omitsu’s former husband, Mizuhara, a handsome but frail individual who regrets his previous choices, and is desperate to simply see his son.
      At firs Omitsu, still hurt by his abandonment, absolutely rejects him. She argues that his behavior alone has helped her to be hard and strong; pleading and tears no longer affect her. Indeed, if there is any one “theme” of this film it is her inner strength and her determination that her young son grows up to be an equally “strong” man.
     Yet when, accidentally, Fumio enters the room during their conversation, and she sees the immediate bond between the two, Omitsu displays her own weakness; she still loves the man who has failed her, who can find no new employment. As Mizuhara, himself, puts it, he has “no luck with work.” Most of the available jobs demand hard labor, and his thin, almost sickly frame, immediately disqualifies him from those jobs.
     His wife allows him back into her life if for no other reason that he can play the doting father, and, with few illusions, even if he might wish to be able to free her from her nightly role as a kind of geisha—the only traditionally dressed woman in the jazz-and-dance loving bar. Naruse is particularly wonderful in conveying to us, through the language of the silent screen, just how bifurcated Omitsu’s life is between her precious day hours with her son and her free-wheeling night life.

    The director also begins to build up, through subtle directorial moments, the very precariousness of Fumio’s life, positioning the child, at one point, on a large concrete tube as he watches his father clumsily playing baseball with slightly older children. In this marvelous scene, we not only recognize that Mizuhara is still a child at heart, unable to even participate in the adult world wherein he might protect his son, but also observe, in the strange positing of the child, just how dangerous Fumio’s young life is; and, of necessity, we can foresee that he will suffer some sort of disaster.
     Hit by a car, Fumio survives nonetheless, but he needed hospital care spirals his already poverty-stricken family into a situation from which they can never escape. Since Mizuhara has failed at finding a job, even though he vaguely attempts to find one, it is clear the Omitsu will have to give into the demands of the much-hated Captain.
     Even worse, determining to take his share of the responsibility, Mizuhara commits a robbery, attempting to reward Omitsu with the money not only to live up to his patriarchal duties, but to protect the life of his beloved son.
     If as an immoral woman, Omitsu is string, as a highly moral mother she is even stronger, and will not accept his stolen gains, insisting that he turn himself into police, and serve out whatever sentence they my invoke. Recognizing the he has failed yet again. Mizuhara determines to leave—if for no other reason than to allow Omitsu to support her son in a way that does not involve her in his criminal behavior.
      He leaves her, this time forever, by drowning himself in the nearby ocean, and, even more horribly, with his punishing act of writing a desperate suicide note.
      His wife returns of her suffering son to answer his questions about where his father has gone by angrily declaring him a coward, a weakling, and again instructing her son to grow up to be strong. She will certainly have to be, since she clearly will never find salvation from the life she hates.
      Along with Ozu’s silent works, this Naruse film is perhaps one of the most-loved silent movies of Japanese cinematic history. And one can easily perceive why. Naruse reveals an unforgiving world, not only for women, but for men who cannot live up to how the society might determine to define them. No loving society can ever survive on a dichotomy of the weak and the strong; even the resilient Omitsu knows that, but has no choice but to reiterate the cultural lie. Surely, we realize, Fumio will also suffer for its absurd demands.

Orange, California, February 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).  

Bong Joon-ho | Snowpiercer

brave new world
by Douglas Messerli

Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson (screenplay, based on a story by Bong Joon-ho and the graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette), Bong Joon-ho (director) Snowpiercer / 2013

When Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer first appeared in theaters in 2013, I couldn’t even imagine wanting to see it. I am not a big fan of sci-fi films, and the dystopian elements of it troubled me. Perhaps I’d simply read (and written) too many dystopian fictions. One of the earliest works I published on Sun & Moon Press was Len Jenkin’s brilliant dystopian work, New Jerusalem, and later his fiction N Judah, which also has dystopian elements. My own Letters from Hanusse (written under the pseudonym of Joshua Haigh) is a kind of dystopian satire of sorts.
     Moreover, I’m not a fan of violent warfare films, particularly when they occur on a train bound to nowhere simply circling a frozen world. Besides, hadn’t I already seen just such a film in John Frankenheimer’s 1964 movie, The Train, in which another train speeding through an ideological frozen universe, ends up with corpses and major art works strewn over the tracks. Just as in Bong’s movie, life outside of the train meant certain death?
      Finally, I simply don’t enjoy graphic novels, one of which, Le Transperceneige, was the source of Bong’s work. This, I determined, was simply not my fare.

     Yet after seeing, reviewing, and praising Bong’s newest masterwork, Parasite, I realized I should retrace my steps and see, thanks to Netflix, some of his earlier works.
       I’m glad I did, for if, in some senses, this movie is an absolute mish-mash of genres and ideas, it’s certainly a brilliant one, filled with amazing images (who might imagine a single long train filled with scenes that might echo the Nazi victims of the Holocaust; dark, axe-bearing soldiers that callup Star Wars and the immense armies of the Tolkien films at the very same moment; drugged-out security guards locked away in metal drawers; as well as wonderous aquarium dioramas; a Chi-Chi sushi bar; hair-dressing salons; wild orphic dance scenes; a classroom presentation wherein young students are being indoctrinated into the worship of their own version of a Fuhrer, wrapped around the mad conductor’s determination to plow through an icy world destroyed by a fatal over-reaction to global warming?) as well as deeper ideas, reiterating Bong’s most recent send-up of class differentiations, with a souffle of cannibalism, homosexuality, bisexuality, maybe even pedophilia, and certainly child enslavement. As the mad Minister Mason (the wonderful Tilda Swinton) declares, “Wilford (Ed Harris) just loves children!”
      Our would-be hero, Curtis later admits, in deepest despair: “I know what people taste like. I know that children taste best.”

     The conductor of this mad and narrow vision of the seven deadly sins (I saw the Kurt Weill musical vision of those sins later that same day!), moreover, is a practical being—as he perceives himself—using Darwin’s theories, a bit like the Nazi’s used Eugenics, to justify his attempt to balance his train ride to Hell from growing out of control. Sushi is eaten only twice a year to protect the aquarium from being overfished. And 74% of the train’s current population must be destroyed in order for the others to survive. This is a survival of the fittest gone crazy.
       If the language of those last two paragraphs seems rather clotted with visual and ideological descriptions, it can only begin to capture the feeling of the hot-house atmosphere of Bong’s creation.
     The revolution that the back-train sufferers fulminate—with the handsome Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) hesitantly in its lead, along with his second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell); his beloved friend Gilliam (John Hurt), who having sacrificed his leg for passengers to munch on instead of killing their own children, and who possibly may have been Edgar’s lover as well; Tanya (Octavia Spencer), who is desperate to find her missing children; and the security chief Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) and his Intuit daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung), a girl, did I mention, who is also clairvoyant; among others—is not the first such uprising to take place. Those who finally did escape the train earlier, including Yona’s mother, were immediately frozen a few feet away from the hurling-ahead locomotive, and whose bodies are pointed to every time the train, on its long route across the earth, circumambulates the scene of their attempted escape.
      It also appears that the sacrificing Gilliam may have been among them, but as the revolution comes its terrifying conclusion, Curtis finally forcing his way to the head of the locomotive to have a lunch with the aging and remarkably affable Wilford—Gilliam, now dead, after having warned his young charge that he should never talk with Wilford, but simply and immediately cut out his tongue—almost convinces the young hero to take over his role as conductor of this horrific traveling beast of a machine.
     Curtis is almost convinced, but in the process discovers that Gilliam has also betrayed him, a man having sacrificed so much of his own life still plotting with Wilford to allow Curtis entry into director’s seat. It is almost as if Bong, who often works collaboratively, is admitting his own character to take over the very film he is making.
      Yet when Yona shows Curtis a secret passageway where we witness Tanya’s children being used to help keep the train moving through child labor, Curtis realizes that he must help them escape, kill Wilford and allow the Snowpiercer vehicle to derail. In short, he denies his role as hero, himself, like Gilliam, giving up a limb in the process. This is a film where bodies are gradually chopped into pieces, minds lost into impossible memories. For the elders a kind of before and after that can again be grafted together, and for the young simply a world of mindless obedience to how things are.
       The true hero of Bong’s film is not its macho leaders, but the young, previously drug-ridden Eskimo-conceived Yona, who takes the two newly-released children into the icy cold, while perceiving through their now squinting bright eyes a polar bear, that life may finally have returned to the frozen earth.
       Whether or not they will survive, we cannot truly know. But like Shakespeare’s innocent Miranda—and one must recall that Yona was born on the train and has never been before out of it— she declares in her own manner, as she trudges through the deep snow—“O brave new world!”
       If nothing else she had broken the ice in a way that the train passengers, bound by the railroad tracks which defined its truly limited path across the continents, might never previously have imagined.
       In Snowpiercer Bong has given us a great dystopian fable for all ages.

Los Angeles, February 17, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร (Fokfa nai meuman) (Mysterious Object at Noon)

elephants, tigers, and a boy in wheelchair
by Douglas Messerli

Apichatpong Weerasethakul (conceiver and editor) ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร (Fokfa nai meuman) (Mysterious Object at Noon) / 2000

The great Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film, Dokfa nai meuman (titled in English, Mysterious Object at Noon) from 2000, is study in narrative invention. If that sounds academic, you haven’t seen Weersethakul’s films—and you should! His movies are often described as slow-moving renditions, often with gay themes, of the Thai countryside. But, as critic Dennis Lim points out, in this film the images and story almost stumble over themselves as they shift and resolve into a cultural myth created by dozens of people the director interviewed and watched throughout Thailand.
     The story begins, with a soaring love song playing in the background, as something close to a soap-opera plot is revealed:

Once upon a time…  The accident that night made him long for her… He could not sleep, eat, or even work. Where was she hiding from him? How could she forget that night? He won’t give up the fate…and tried to find her everywhere. But when he finally found her, he almost went crazy…because she was to marry another man.

     This all said over the movement of a fish van with other advertising slogans for “lotus root incense” and for various brands of fresh fish being broadcast over microphones as the open truck hurdles through the Bangkok streets. What was that accident: a literal car crash, or simply a crashing encounter into another person’s life? We are never told. Where are we headed? Where is the movie going, we can only ask?
     And in the back of that van sits a fisherwoman, cleaning her catch, who describes to the invisible narrator that her father sold her to her uncle for money to travel by bus. It’s such a remarkably sordid story that even the narrator can hardly believe it, asking her to contribute the beginning of the story he has just recounted.

     So begins one of the most amazing Surrealist-like “exquisite corpse” tales ever told, as the director and his small crew, with a 16 millimeter camera in hand, rushes off into the Thai countryside to seek others to complete a story that has no real logic or ending. A “crippled” boy (the word handicapped is never used), his nurse, magic tigers, a strange ball rolling out of her skirt, wondrous star-boys, and various other transformations get mixed into a potpourri of near nonsense that, nonetheless, is utterly fascinating in its employment of folktales, and simple imaginative flourishes.
      Dancers perform their own versions of this growing tale, and various deaf girls signing with their hands tell their further versions of Dokfa (the Devil’s Hand), leading us onto a more and more confused tale that is so fascinating that we cannot abandon its illogical logic. This, we quickly realize, is how fiction started, in elaborated narratives that have no real beginning or end. Here we see the heart of the great Icelandic and Norse Edda’s, the heart of nearly all the stories collected by the Brother’s Grim, Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish tales, and, obviously, of the far darker folktales of Asia in general.
      Humans become animals, and vice versa. Magic occurs as the “crippled” boy and his friend encase the stricken nurse in a kind of zip-up clothes bag, and just as suddenly discover she has disappeared. The wheelchair-bound boy just as suddenly seems to arise and walk away.
      Rather than tamping-down this chaotic narrative confusion, Weerasethakul only encourages those he meets to “tell me anything you want to say, real or made-up.”
      The result is almost like a magnificent landscape of his later films, where tigers roam as in Tropical Malady, or, as in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives people move in-and-out of time, relating their experiences with ghosts alongside daily living. There are no obvious gay reveries here, which occur in so many of this director’s works such as Tropical Malady or Blissfully Yours, but the porousness, as Lim describes it, of Weerasethakul’s  process already evinces it (aren’t the star-boys another variation of that theme?), and, in this sense, the first work is already a map of his later award-winning films.
       If you might go into this film feeling a bit disoriented, you come out feeling all the wiser for its communal power of story-telling and the human need to explore our own imaginations. Despite the headlong rush of the director into the radical transformations of his story, there is also something luxuriant about it, a feeling of the reverie that exists in so many of his films. You don’t quite want the story to stop, and, after all, it is a story that might go on forever. I don’t ever want the tale to end. But then, in Weerasethakul’s hands, it never has.

Los Angeles, February 15, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

Friday, February 14, 2020

Tom Hooper | The Danish Girl

i am entirely myself
by Douglas Messerli

Lucinda Coxon (screenplay, based on the novel by David Ebershoff), Tom Hooper (director) The Danish Girl / 2015

Reviewer Christy Lemire begins her Roger Ebert-site review of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl with the very questions I had about this work:

“Can a movie be impeccably made—well-cast and strongly acted, flawlessly appointed and gorgeously shot—yet still leave you cold? Can it do everything right technically without touching you emotionally? Can it offer a transporting experience without changing you one bit? Such is the conundrum with The Danish Girl.”

The film about one of the first Danish transgender sex changes is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Danny Cohen, beginning with a hedge of trees that Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) paints again and again, as well as a lush score by Hollywood favorite, composer Alexandre Desplat.

    Yet the pedestrian director Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables) presents what might have been a very spicy tale with a distant admiration instead of the deep passion Wegener’s sexual transformation deserves. Instead of the real-life transgender film shot by Sean Baker, Tangerine, Hooper fetishizes Einar as he transforms into Lili a bit like the way the journalistic reportage did in their pieces on the hunk sportsman, Bruce Jenner (I remember when his seemingly outsized cock slapped against his running shorts—and shorts were precisely that in those days) long before he transformed into Caitlyn. The media simply presented it as a matter of fact that Jenner had always wanted to become a woman. But why? How does that happen? Certainly not overnight for either the successful painter Wegener or Jenner.
      Wegener, at least in this fictionalized version, was deeply in love with his lesser successful portrait-painter wife, Gerda (Alicia Viklander). The film suggests that they lasted 6 years, lopping off 20 years from their real marriage, the truth of which might have made for a much more compelling story. How many years did Lili remain, as she describes it, “inside” the body of Einar the artist?
      Even more important, the film seems to basically ignore Gerda’s own sexual conundrums. Although Hopper (through writer David Ebershoff's novel) does hint that she helped push the beautiful young artist into his feminine identity, first through a quick posing for her as their ballerina friend Ulla Poulsen (inexplicably named Ulla Paulson in this work) and later, in a somewhat kinky manner, enjoying the fact that her husband/lover observes her new nightgown and later wears it under his suit—with shades of Ed Wood—and, finally, encourages him to make a party appearance as his inner Lili, at the same her personal life, given her many paintings of lesbian women (not just her “in drag” husband) is totally ignored. Perhaps this long-term couple was not so heterosexual as this movie pretends.
     Moreover, both the original book and this cinematic version create imaginary relationships with characters named Hans (Matthias Schonaerts)—who first kissed Einar as a young man—and Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who, apparently knowingly falls in love and kisses Lili at the party, suggesting Einar might have been a homosexual simply confused about who he/she was. Certainly, several doctors he consults suggest as much as well, and are prepared to lock him up as a pervert or simple mental case.
      Many transgender males, however, do not have homosexual tendencies before their sexual shift (apparently Caitlyn Jenner being one of them). If it may be confusing for general audiences, love is simply like that. The lines of sex and love are not easily drawn.
      And, even more importantly, why not explore Gerda’s own later relationship with Fernando Porta or Lili’s connections to Claude Lejeune? Or, for that matter, why shoot a film about a “Danish woman” in Norway? Although both countries have had long relationships, in my experience they are very different.
       This, obviously, is truly a fiction, as film often is. And reasons for authorial and directorial choices in how to present characters are obviously complex and sometimes obscure. But, in this film, Hooper’s choices are at the heart of what makes us unable to comprehend and feel for its figures. The feminine in Redmayne’s performance, despite the beautiful somewhat feminine features of his own beautiful body, seem all to do here with a love of satin and silk, more an issue of cross-dressing rather than the radical sexual operations he undergoes—the removal of his penis and insertion of a vagina—that ultimately killed him. If you want to become a woman to dress up, put on a wig, and makeup, then, I might suggest, you don’t know what a woman is. Lili’s courage and sacrifices become utterly trivialized.
    And why would any director want Gerda to rush to Lili’s death bed, when the very outsiderness of her actions at that time, meant, as reality proclaimed, she could no longer join him, and was not there at the time of his death?
       There are times when truth is more interesting than fiction. As Lili herself says after her first operation: “I am entirely myself.” Too bad we didn’t truly get to know that self.

Los Angeles, February 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

Monday, February 10, 2020

André Téchiné | J'embrasse pas (I Don't Kiss)

by Douglas Messerli

Isabelle Coudrier-Kleist, Michel Grisolia, Jacques Nolot, and André Téchiné (writers) André  Téchiné (director) J'embrasse pas (I Don't Kiss) / 1991

The significant French director André Téchiné has spent his long career, as a member of the second-generation New Wave, exploring alternate human relationships—particularly those that involve gay and lesbian sexuality.
      His 1991 film, I Don’t Kiss, however feels very personal. Like the young almost cocky, certainly self-assured young (20-year-old hero) hero of this film, Pierre (Manuel Blanc), the director himself grew up in the Pyrenees and escaped his traditional educational and parental upbringing to Paris. Today he lives in an apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, which represents the pick-up place of his gay, mostly elderly, figures. Perhaps, like Pierre, Téchiné, at first, was not prepared for what he was about to encounter. He, too, arrived in Paris from the Pyrenees wanting to be an actor and writer—the latter at which he succeeded—and began to embrace gay sexuality.
     The major figure in this film, however, sees himself as an absolute heterosexual, attempting to first seduce a nurse, Evelyne (Hélène Vincent), primarily caring for her aged and not very agreeable mother. Although she is entranced by the sexual prowess of her young, literarily starving, lover, she quickly perceives that he does not truly love her, feeding him money, which he immediately rejects and escapes from the bedroom accommodations she has offered him.
     Pierre is a purist, and even though he finds work at the hospital kitchen working as a dish-washer (a job I once had as well—boring and terribly messy, as you rinse and wash the plates of others) and begins to study drama, he is a horrible failure at both jobs. He can’t act, even when it comes Hamlet’s memorable monologue whose lines he cannot finish, and when he pretends he is ill to skip his dishwashing duties, he is fired.
     Homeless robbed of his only possessions he caries in a canvas bag, he has no alternative but to return to the gardens where he has witnessed an elderly gay man, Romain (Philippe Noiret) pick up a young boy. Shocked by that encounter Pierre quickly exits the car, refusing to return for a ride to his temporary home.
      After a quick trip to Spain with Romain, which Pierre might have suspected would lead to a sexual encounter and the financial remuneration, turns in different direction when his would-be lover picks-up another young man, Pierre escapes his paradise yet again for Paris, returning the the Gardens to become a male prostitute, informing his clients that "I don't kiss, I don't suck, I don't get fucked". The question is, what does he really do, presumably letting them masturbate him or letting him fuck them? In short he has become an entirely passive being, unable to express his own sexuality in any manner.

     Arrested by the police for his behavior, Pierre falls in love with a female prostitute and, soon after, is beaten to near-dear before a rape by her pimp and others, forcing the prostitute, Ingrid (Emmanuelle Béart) to watch. The “Noli me tangere” innocent has suddenly been introduced into a violent gay world.
      His answer is to join the French paratroops, ready to “lean into the void,” parachuting into the night. Yet strangely, upon returning home to visit his brother, he reports that he did not hate the capitol city, but simply wasn’t prepared for it. On his way back to Paris, the former innocent stops at a beach, removing his clothing and entering the sea, suggesting both a cleansing of his past role as a prostitute and an embracement of his male body, an acceptance, perhaps, of a sexuality he has previously refused.
     Téchiné does not quite hint of what Pierre’s future will entail. But we do realize he will not be a passive but active figure in the determination of his future sexual life, wherever that may lead him. Yet “leaning into the void” does suggest that the sexuality he once feared will now be an acceptance of the dark attractions that once so troubled him. Perhaps he will now at least kiss, perhaps even suck and fuck. If nothing else, we know he has now been touched.

Los Angeles, February 10, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).