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This is coherent and stylized which is more than can be said about many
films. Middle-aged Bob working the Home Depot decides on a whim to help
the tormented girl who shares the same diner and happens to be a call-
girl for the mob, only of course he's no ordinary man. Zatoichi-like
powers of perception and just as deadly. The film in fact recalls
Jarmusch's riff on Zatoichi, complete with kindly taciturn hero who
lives monk-like in the midst of a comic-book violence.
This is the American cool that comes from what we infer the lone hero has had chiseled away from him by sacrifice, it's not the Italian cool of Leone or the Japanese cool of Kurosawa. So there is a heavyhandedness about doing the right thing, a churchlike piousness, which when coupled with suavely evil Russians to whom gory justice is served in a myriad ways suggests just the opposite of introspectiveness.
The last third is a complete bust, nondescript shootout, and then just like that show up in Moscow and back home again for the girl to pop up from around a corner and announce that she has "changed her world". Denzel smiles understandingly. Denzel by the looks of it has got a new franchise to toy around with for the next several years that lets him inhabit the same avenger persona as always.
This is about the return to the place of childhood, a woman must return
to Kandahar before the next eclipse when as her sister has written to
her she plans to commit suicide. She is an ex-pat journalist so that we
can have an intellectual view about the contrasts of life whispered
into a tape recorder but all that is flat and uninteresting and the
poetic soliloquies even more.
But I brush that aside. No, why this should be illuminating is because it swoops down in a strange corner of the world and finds intimacy and truth among the absurdity, not for any contrasts the filmmaker can whisper to us but for those contrasts the place can whisper to his camera. This is what Chris Marker did again and again, who is the inspiration behind this, the eye reflecting back. This too what Herzog did, who chased after absurdities because the landscape close to them tilts in revealing ways.
Absurdities abound along the way here; a makeshift hospital where amputees clamor to be fitted with crude artificial legs, the legs dropped from the sky. The rosy afterglow of flat desert is an evocative canvas, the veiled women chill like they always do with that sense of wasted beauty.
But so little here feels stumbled on to, discovered, open; it feels stagy and contrived. A quick look at the background of the film reveals that it was shot, a little more safely perhaps, on this side of the Iranian border. The faces, the dresses, the landscape, all these are probably not much different than over there, but there's no urgency anymore. I won't pretend to know better than the filmmaker of course who lived there but the whole film strikes me as more about culture than reflection, the kind of culture about faraway, oppressed places patrons expect to consume at film festivals in Europe.
Maybe it's his way of saying there are no more vital truths than the absurdity that people contrive about that has a doctor examining an Afghan female patient through a hole so as to not see her face. But there must be, there are.
I'm primarily interested in the air and sculpting of things, cinematic
or otherwise, to have presence, which means I'm not a big fan of
animation and never will be. This is interesting for me, for the way it
has been sculpted above all, unlike mass-produced Disney it gives me
the feel of a craftsman in his workshop doing more personal work.
The titular creatures' occupation reveals as much; tinkering with things for the joy of seeing them work and move. This is what these guys did, tinkered with the feel and contours of the animated world. It reminded me of those handcarved animations the Czechs were doing in a previous life, the imaginary city points to central Europe anyhow; the lovely Krysar might have been an inspiration, seek it out.
In another level this simple approach means these guys haven't yet perfected their storytelling, it's not as snappy as Disney or Pixar who over dozens of films have perfected their formulas to a tee. And something about little innocent critters trembling in their boxes tells me they'd like to grow in that direction, it's as if I could sense that a more cantankerous imagination in some earlier draft was airbrushed in the name of family appeal.
It is the same blueprint of dual worlds they used in their previous films, here above is the world of adult greed and ambition, below the world of fraternity and collective work. In Coraline the imaginative world 'below' was threatening, here completely benign.
A pretty fascinating image closes this, where two of the characters ponder on what gods make their strange universe move while slowly the puppeteer emerges in fast forward who is propping them up, giving soul.
There's a potent exercise that we missed here and would have been worth
contemplating. Studio bosses took this from Schrader's hands,
interested in no more than an easy to understand airport thriller they
could market with one eye towards a haywire Islam and the indecision on
how to deal with it; but they just ruined this in an ordinary way,
forcing a bland "CIA thriller" flow.
This would have been the problem had Schrader first got it right. The real problem I think is that he never delved deep in his material to begin with, and filmed a lot that is just peripheral noise, so it was possible with a few or more tweaks to turn it into a film he wants nothing to do with. So this is ruined the way we have it, or better yet it's pointless, ordinary, which is worse because Welles' projects were frequently ruined but genius still shines through the cracks of Lady from Shanghai.
Refn, who produced, said the film was meant to be an existential journey, which we can take to mean that the film was not going to be about the plot and guns. Now I count myself among the few who really dug The Canyons, because it wove a plot that was just flimsy enough to fail to conceal an actress' real life of desperation in a place, LA, that has always imagined the concealment as dreamy. It pierced through the movie artifice, in the locales, the selection of shots, the way the actors carried themselves, this one never manages to for a moment and that's all in the fabric of what Schrader shot before anyone could shuffle pieces.
But what's the potent exercise?
It's a spy film, meaning about observing, being alert and having to remain inconspicuous as you do, and having to keep the larger narrative in mind as you go through it all and your own self from falling apart; the most powerful offshoot of film noir.
A man, old CIA agent, pushes himself on a journey to bring closure to a spy narrative that started 20 years ago, the narrative could be anything, this one is about Islamic terrorists still on the loose. But his mind begins to fail him on the way. Dementia; but that's of course only for us to see the gradual disappearance of memory and self that fuels the story of retribution, it's not a film on the difficulties of mental illness.
A better film would begin from the middle, maybe the hotel room in Kenya. How much of what he remembers can we trust? It would have no Langley altercations and trips to the doctor and back before the spying could begin. It would ambiguously toy with the knowledge of his having been fired as an agent which is here just handed out. It would not establish ahead of things that the man he's looking to find in Kenya really is the one. There would be just this man, with this narrative in his mind that begins to fade and what happens in those gaps, what kind of life appears, when the spy story with its machinations disappears and there's only wandering?
It would all come down, as actually in the film, to the crucial confrontation in a dingy Mombasa apartment and what kind of man walks out of it again. Schrader guides himself to the notion that he has had so much of his mind carried away he cannot do it, but look at what he films, obvious hallucination. (This is why I say the real problem is in the fabric, this is something Schrader wrote and shot)
So he goes but comes back again when he is reminded again how despicable that violence is, with precious time lost because of an indecision that started from getting one too many blows to the head, from having been so deeply involved in that narrative 20 years ago.
Film noir makers weren't making "film noir", they were telling crime
stories where ordinary people succumbed to a world of desire where easy
money and sex beckoned. Since noir came Godard and since Godard came
Leone, each one removing the idealized Hollywood life a step further,
to get rid of the accompanying moral lines, toying instead with
appearances and form. And since Leone came the 90s and the Rodriguez/
Tarantino generation; they inherited the now old movies as only
"movies" (appearances) and the focus on appearances as style.
So it's now enough to call this noir because it vaguely uses the appearances; a PI (sort of, a photographer), a femme fatale, venetian blinds, snooping around the lavish mansion where the rich wife swims alone. The place is a crude LA. These have permeated pop culture so deeply by now they have been stripped nude of their actual noir context and can be used to signify anything as "noir"; James Ellroy is an example, he writes gritty crime fiction only incidentally set in a time of film noir movies.
So I like here that the fundamental attribute of noir is still nonetheless present, desire and how it fools with our sense of reality. They could have filmed any action fare instead. It starts (as noir often did) with a narrator who can't remember why he just killed. It toys with fate in the boy who miraculously commands fortune to yield the desired story. It has a photographer who gets sucked into the amorality he helps create by photographing it. All three characters entangled with obvious desire.
But these all are treated as merely style. There's a stripper logic applied, a contractual flaunting for hungry eyes, it's in the visuals for one. You'll also see this nowhere better than "Bernini boy" doesn't unlock some hidden significance as Marv thinks, it was merely the brand of the coat. The narrator who wakes up surrounded by dead bodies is only vaguely amused by the story they tell, the story being disposable and only something to get us to the actual killing.
There's nothing behind the image, but this is no longer an insight, it's only the brand of irony, stale by now.
(How far we have come since Testament of Dr. Mabuse from '33 where this unmasking of image, the scene where we peer behind the curtain that conceals Mabuse's voice, was the source of wonder. Noir when it came along a few years later was all about transferring this pervading presence in the whole fabric of the film. It seems only Lynch knows this now, who has meditated on illusoriness since before QT's days at the videostore.)
Several things they tried to do here. One is a Spinal Tap mockumentary
only with a dance DJ in place of the band but it's still the same
lovable idiocy of an ego that doesn't know how to be a calculating
adult. It's fun, an acoustic device knob goes to 11, but this is
undercut by something else they tried to do.
This is the other movie here, about growth and "finding yourself". The DJ starts to lose his hearing. This leads to him losing touch with reality and being shut in his own self and you can imagine that all this talks about drugs and battling addiction. There's a demon of addiction as an actual demon in a furry costume that he hallucinates about who shovels cocaine in his face. The more abstract understanding about losing touch with reality yields the broader insight however.
Now themes of this sort about characters "finding themselves" are usually ordinary and trite, in a general sense anyway. It seems they can happen in a Richard Gere movie where people are pretty and fate benevolent but not in the murk of actual life. There is some of that here, which makes it ordinary, he meets of course the woman who inspires courage so we can have the return to music in a life-affirming way as return to life, but everything about this romance feels like a sleight-of- hand.
As typical as all that is, they did something borderline powerful in the images and notions they wove together. He begins to sense rhythm, an apt image shows him perceiving a flamenco dancer's vibrations in a cup he holds, which lets him once more perceive music but now in a subtler way and this leads to a beautiful metaphor - he 'sees' music around him, how life becomes 'music' once you become mindful, the return to life as alertness about things.
I was reminded of a few things while watching. In the West we have Spinoza's god as the whole cosmos, Einstein would later groove on this because it could be spun to mean the cosmos science turns up amazing facts about, retaining some of the awe about the complexity, but we're not scientists in a lab, we can only pick up a book about that.
The Chinese have what they call the Tao, similar at a glance, a sense of an all-encompassing natural force that pervades everything. What they mean though is the world that perception can encompass, all of the Taoist meditations, there are many and all of them coordinate flow, breath and perception, aim for this, the cultivation of alert awareness and this is a world partygoers and viewers alike can practice.
When he returns to the dancefloor, music is no longer an excuse for ego and spazzing. Listening to the silence he finds more than deafness and void, finds the richness of a world that constantly comes to being and vanishes again every moment, the joy of being able to ride that flow, we see frequencies pass through a laptop screen that he has to match, his feet are strapped to vibrating speakers, into the dancing crowd below.
It's not different music that he plays (well, he gives a spectacular performance). The people consume it as aimlessly (or as deeply, why not) as before when he was a clowning fool, they're probably as stoned as before. It's about how he learns to sieve through his own cluttered mind to find music in the nothingness.
All this is so good in my eyes it deserves its own film, creative life as learning to be mindful of the resonances. I would have this as the Spinal Tap fun and that by the hand of a master fimmaker.
This is characteristically Czech, after that worldview that has been
shaped by centuries of being tossed from the sphere of one empire to
the other and unable to do more than watch, this watching is usually a
whimsy or a mute sadness in Czech films. From this view flows a
disenchantment with power as well as morals and narrative that powers a
lot of the life of representation over there, from independent-minded
cinema right down to porn.
Painting instead of chronicle. The film is actually both, the chronicle only a series of moods about detachment from the world, centered on a weary station master in a remote post in the mountains who can only watch as night rolls down on the passing of things. There's smuggling going on to and from the border, this is how the activities of men are rendered here, as superficial schemes of an uninteresting importance. He is soon fired, takes his watching down to the city where no one cares. The backdrop is the fall of communism around the Bloc but this too reaches us as faint echoes from a TV or radio, there's no motivation for political discourse in any of this, only distance and disenchantment.
This is the treatise, about this man who can wander away from it all as passively as he sat and watched the machinations and how this nearly costs him the one prospect left for love. It's not terribly interesting, the detachment as weariness more than reflection.
The sketch is a bit more so, that's where the film derives all its power from. It's an animated film though it seems real people and locations were used for their nuance as the backdrop to sketch over. The animation is basically a shorthand here that lets the makers accentuate moods with a softer distance that you really have to strive to create with the camera. It worked for me, the dark mountains, mud and thankless vodka around a table with strangers seep into the bone with the rain and chill.
This is an essential glimpse into Greek soul, fundamental in any list
of cinema from here for anyone who wants to know a bit about the
people, in particular the much apotheosized third segment (it's an
omnibus of three stories) but the whole is worth tracing.
An archeology professor, this is the filmmaker, takes it upon himself to unearth with the help of his crew something fundamentally ancient from the earth itself, this happens to be the skeleton of a soldier which sets off its own story of memory and loss, but it points at large to the memory, the internal narrative, of something that rests in the ground of collective soul.
And what does he bring to light? It's the same predicament that Kavafis wrote his poems about and Greeks face when they mull about their place, one of finding ourselves with the burden of so much narrative to placate; memory, history, ancestors.
The filmmaker eulogizes this fixation with something lost and ineffable, a lost son, a rare bird that nests in the ancestral place and pulls us back there, with a solemn air that Greeks will find familiar, the same yearning gives rise to some of the most deeply felt music and poetry from any country (as well as nationalism) but in the long run I find it to be a refuge for despair and selfpity, it's not something I can build a worldview around.
It's in the film; the first segment climaxes with a journey to the mountains, the hermitage where a vision is encountered but this soldier turns the professor back, there is no son to be found there anymore but the father still clings to the image. The second story shows a flame of bygone youth and an old uncle who have both grown roots by the river, unwilling to move on.
(For anyone who wonders where the woe and fixation comes from, do not forget that the historical capital of Hellenism is not Athens, it's Constantinople, and one of the richest narratives around here is about lost homes as recent as our grandfathers' time. Townships scattered around the country, including the one I write this from, are designated as "New" because the "old" ones where refugees came from are no longer Greek.)
But I push all that to the side, it's stifling itself. It's the third segment that makes this worthwhile, rising above mere platitude.
Leading up to it we saw noble characters, the third one is a womanizing louse, another archetypal figure. He also has to face the loss of loved ones (his wife abandons him with the kids) but now it can be seen to be his fault. The spoken word in the first two was theatric monologue, another Greek burden, now the face carries all the sorrow, he only utters two or three lines each one a classic quote around here. And in a brushstroke of crazy inspiration, the hermitage of atonement now becomes a cheap club by the interstate highway in the middle of nowhere, so called "dog" clubs are scattered throughout the country. Greek viewers will appreciate it ironically as a place of trashy entertainment.
You'll know what happens when you see it, the film is a cult item here for just this piece. I saw it recently in a festival screening with people in attendance speaking the lines out loud.
Suffice to say that everything inside the club is of the dazed mind of this man, the cheaply perfumed women, the dingy atmosphere, it's what led him to where he is. Suffice to say that the songs wallow about losing a woman but now we process in a tongue- in-cheek manner because of the place.
It is as ancient as anything else from here; a recently unearthed Orphic inscription from around Plato's time reads "Now you have died and now you have come into being, on this same day. Tell Persephone that Bacchios (Dionysos) himself has freed you." It's the same yearning to transcend suffering that surfaces across religious icons of saints and zeimbekiko dance.
Watch it to see the ecstatic release, the man shedding his own self that he has set fire to and walking away, dying and coming into being now, on the same day. But has he learned anything about what creates his own suffering, has he been truly freed? And this is also Greek.
The film is about memory as the English title states, this brings it
under one of the most vital (and most cinematic) subgroups in cinema,
films about our ability to recall life as illusion and mind rather than
as just a bunch of surrounding facts. So what kind of recall here?
A vagrant middle-aged woman is discovered dead one day, the kind of nameless death that might make neighbors pause for only a brief moment, and this is the first admission here; ordinary life next door can be the center of a rich world. This is done with a little too much obvious caprice for my taste but the essence is the same, we go back to find this woman when she was a sweet young girl with all of life and heartbreak still ahead of her.
I don't know how much is personal for the filmmaker here but much is revealed by simply examining appearances. A vibrant memory, with a hyperactive consciousness that joyously swims through tragedy. It starts like one of those hyper Japanese TV ads, the filmmaker apparently has plenty of experience in those, but as we progress the whole is mellowed and given resonance behind the popup colors. This is the second admission, that life deserves to be celebrated with as much color.
A preeminent formulator of Noh wrote in the 1400s, Zen inspired, that "life is a lying dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside". There's no such effort here to awaken to what creates suffering and to purify, the film is simply taken in by the swirl and sadness of suffering. I was reminded of the lush Powell/Pressburger melodramas from the 40s as well as recent Julie Taymor with her song and dance. Others thought of Tim Burton. To be sure though the fixation with color and artifice is as recent in Japan as anime but as old as kabuki.
So, overwrought and sentimental melodrama on one side, too much so for my taste. Just the same I appreciate the bubbly air that refuses to dwell on misfortune; it's quickly brushed aside for some new heartbreak to come along. Yet it doesn't address its own question about the meaninglessness of life and it's in this deeper way that the absence of awakening resurfaces. The girl is merely buffeted along by attachment and need and at no point, down to her final moments, comes to a realization.
In the list of hearbreaking films ultimately this deserves its own place next to Capra's Wonderful Life. This is, as much as anything else, because the filmmaker leaves his heroine to a horrible life and meaningless end because in the end she's only the figment of a story that he uses to inspire with but that inspiration and change is never allowed to her inside the story. The bittersweet worldview says, suffer as much as you are able to bear, in the end there is release.
The penultimate scene is possibly one of the twenty best shots I have seen in my life, a flow of consciousness that lifts up from her and races through waters. Marvelous work. This is the cultivated awareness of the illusory life the Japanese have known for centuries across Shinto temples, Zen and the Noh stage.
But the maker ends this a scene late for my taste. The last one revisits the home of childhood as the place from which to ascend, paying homage to the well known stairway scene from A Matter of Life and Death by Powell/Pressburger, which just says too much now as it did then.
This was cancelled early, it's unfinished work, so that even after 9
hours of narrative time it feels like only the first few pages have
been turned, but were we any the better for having seen six seasons of
The Sopranos rather than two, did it enrich that much more?
I came to this for Mann, one of the preeminent makers of the alert eye in our time, the finished thing turned out to be in the template of The Sopranos and Deadwood where the actors and word are the vessels for drama. It is complex plotwise and immersive enough because colorful characters articulately snarl at each other but complex expression is not deep intuition, immersion is not concentration.
So it might seem like complex work if you get caught up in the schemes for money and ownership and here is where the lack of resolution will disappoint, it ends just as the stage has been set for conflict. But if you don't get tangled up in it you can discern all that matters.
The racetrack as the stage of drama with desperate souls caught viewing by the sidelines at what they have chosen to have a stake in. The Jewish mobster who wants to buy off the racetrack will win against his rival but at what cost to his soul? Loved ones will perish, it could be a grandson or a horse, so that we finally awaken at what had been valuable all this time.
It's all in the horses and what they exemplify, magnificent creatures that everyone should spend some time with. Many of the characters ignore the horses as anything more than ticket slips that buy them a seat in that arena of spectacle where their presence can be rewarded with the anxiety of winning or losing. To what purpose? So they can carry the drama with them in unfulfilled lives until another scheme the next day.
So this is the insight to leave this with, it's in Mann's pilot and the last episode. The horses race marvelously simply for having the exhilarating capacity to do it, there is no "horse race" for them and only running, doing without ego. The viewers watch from the sides transfixed. Would any of this have meaning for them had they not hedged a bet that imbues the beauty with the anxiety of a win or loss and rewards with drama? Would they be at all there? Would you?
So if you're disappointed that we don't get to find out how any of the schemes pans out (Turo's race fixing, the old man's legal trouble), you become like they are, bogged down in meaningless schemes. Meanwhile what has the capacity to enrich had been right under your nose all this time, simply being there to take care of something for its capacity to be what it is, the woman who arranges the horse caring program for inmates inserts this notion in the small portion we have.
But with the caveat that it will not always be there for you to postpone it. A horse might have to be put down. A show might be cancelled.
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