Promises

Dirs. B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro, and Carlos Bolado, 2001
Poignant documentary that sets out to understand the Israeli/Palestinian issue
through the eyes of seven children from both sides, some religious, some secular, all living 15 minutes from each other, but, as the film points out, worlds away. After spending time with each kid (ages 9-13) and providing some context as to their economic background, family life, etc. the filmmakers then engage in two involvements–taking one Palestinian kid, Faraj and his grandmother past Israeli lines and to the site of their old village, the one the grandmother was forced to flee from and what has since been razed; the other is arranging for the two secular Israeli twins to come and play with Faraj and his friends (shades of the fabled WWI soccer match in the trenches).
All the children are well-spoken and articulate, and speak with a maturity that comes from living in a war zone. That is save Moishe, the rather plump Jewish kid living in a right-wing settlement; he seems very slow and talks as if his prejudice is giving him a sinus infection.
He got me thinking about the settlements. You could almost make a parallel between the settlements and the cookie-cutter McMansions that are eating up all our natural space, and not just in the architecture and the economic status of the homeowners. Both seem to be built up in the middle of, and to ward off, fear; the Jewish settlers’ fear of violence is way more tangible than sunny CA, but the whole design is the architecture of isolation and separatism, not unlike the “white flight” that leads to bland SoCal houses, large SUVs, and families huddled inside oversized family rooms, worrying about blacks or Hispanics breaking in, where they will sodomize the children and cause their property value to plummet. Moishe’s utter refusal to have anything to do with the people just a few chain link fences away remains unchanged; Mahmoud, who lives in Jerusalem proper and can travel freely, is just as blinkered on the Arab side. And though the ultra-orthodox Shlomo is much more worldly and articulate, he winds up saying the same thing, only more in the abstract and with a smile on his face.
I began to wonder what would happen if all the motorist checkpoints were taken away. Would it lead to more violence, or would it slowly lead to assimilation?
Lastly, though the filmmakers do a competent job with limited funds (all shot on video, and sometimes not even good video), the only false note is hit when the camera cuts from the crying Faraj (who knows that no matter how fun the day was meeting actual Israeli children his own age, once the camera crew go home, the problems will start again) to a weeping B.Z. Goldberg, who has been the kids’ on-screen go-between. They should have held it just on Fazad; as it is, Goldberg seems intent on letting us know how torn up he is (and how much we should be).

Your Friends and Neigbors

Dir. Neil LaBute, 1998
A depressing bit of cynicism from one of America’s main Miserablists
(Todd Solondz being the other), my friend Olivia lent me this one to check out (all she would say at first was “Well, Catherine Keener kisses Nastassja Kinski in it, so watch it.”). In the Company of Men left me cold, despite the huzzahs from critics (as if feeling “bad” after a film is aesthetically better than feeling “good”). YFAN takes six characters with varying degrees of unlikability, and watches them fuck each other, then fuck each other over, with nothing decent in any of them to grab a hold of or of which to mourn the passing. If you can get past the foul language and the mood, which surprised middle America, the characters aren’t even written well. Ben Stiller’s “intellectual” is of course too “wordy” and “thinks too much;” Keener’s bisexual character is icy and unpleasant. And Jason Patric might as well have “asshole” tattooed on his forehead (of course he tapes himself talking dirty during sex; of course he calls women cunts; of course he goes off in rages; of course his “best fuck” was anally raping a boy in high school, etc. etc.) And to have Amy Brenneman’s character to end up with Patric in the end is completely forced, a writer’s conceit.

Naqoyqatsi

Dir. Godfrey Reggio, 2002
Gentlemen and good ladies of the court, I present to you Exhibit A
in this capital punishment case against Postmodernism.
Godfrey Reggio is, based on this film and 1991’s Anima Mundi, almost completely artistically bankrupt. I got the sneaky suspicion after watching the latter last year at Philip Glass’ “Shorts” concert, that Reggio is not even a filmmaker, but an editor, and not a coherent one. The third and perhaps final installment on the “qatsi” series that never needed to be a trilogy is a dull hash-up of stock footage and iconography. You could take a random assortment of famous 20th century people, places, and things, apply random After Effects filters to them, string them all together and play some Philip Glass over the top and you’d have this film. If, as Greil Marcus says, MTV is “the pornography of semiotics,” then this is a Red Shoes Diary marathon, not even offering a bang for your buck.
I know it’s a lot to even expect a message or even an idea from a Reggio film, but at least Powaqqatsi was visually interesting. The cheapness of the effects are apparent, and any shot that looks nice is the work of somebody else.
My friend Jon has never liked Reggio, and disagrees with me that at least Koyaanisqatsi is good. If Reggio makes any more films, I may have to give Jon his due.
(And what’s up with the poster: “America Is Test Driving the Future”? Perhaps the marketing department thought that the film was just a collection of commercial footage. Oh, wait…)

Manji

manji

Dir. Yasuzo Masamura, 1964
Nicely rediscovered and released by Fantoma DVD, this is a tale of whacked-out obsession based on author Junichiro Tanizaki‘s novel. I’ve seen another film based on a book of his: “The Key,” which came out around this time, directed by Kon Ichikawa.
Kyouko Kishida plays Sonoko, a upper class housewife who begins an obsessive lesbian affair with a fellow student at her art college, Mitsuko, played by Ayako Wakao. Two complementary men (Mitsuko’s creepy fiance and Sonoko’s wimpy husband) provide the complications, though Mitsuko is the stormy center. From the get-go, the acting is set on level 10, and the action is reduced to a series of claustrophobic chambers, similar in feel to the anti-social level of “In the Realm of the Senses” and any number of S&M films from Japan (like the most wonderful “Wife to Be Sacrificed”). With the constant refrain of lover’s suicide, there’s no way this film could get translated for the west. And while death is a usual way out for lesbians in most films pre 1980, Manji’s lunacy goes beyond that, and in fact, Masamura has little to say about lesbianism per se.

Sonoko has an attachment to Mitsuko more along the lines of “Death in Venice”–Mitsuko as unobtainable art object and beauty personified, who attracts (and destroys) men and women alike.
Pretty funny all the way through, and I’m not sure how much was intentional.
The DVD transfer is okay. Full Toho-scope ratio, but there’s a strange blue-green pall to the film (though reds and whites look fine). There’s a brief 30 seconds where a really awful print has been used to, I assume, fill in the gap missing from the original negative.

Possession

Dir. Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
My friend Chris came over for his first viewing of Zulawski’s monsterpiece, my third viewing. Chris greatly enjoyed it, as did I, and after hearing the commentary track, I don’t know if I’m closer to really figuring this film out (for example, how to interpret all the Catholicism once you know that Zulawski is an atheist?). I do know that very few American actors would go as far into madness as Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani do here, especially Adjani, whose wild-eyed looks burn a hole in the screen. (“You have no right to film people’s souls!” she reportedly told Zulawski during filming, “This is psychological pornography!”). When Hollywood actors play “crazy” they’re always winking at the audience and/or worrying what their Pilates instructor might think.
What Chris brought up was the wider geopolitical metaphors of the film, which I have yet to really unravel (but which were still there in La Fidelite, a fact no reviewer that I read seemed to even grasp). Set as it is in a divided Berlin, with gloomy shots of the Wall, and with its whole story about separation, loss, madness, doppelgangers, and an apocalyptic close, Possession is about inner and outer worlds ending in much the same way that Don McKellar’s Last Night does.
Possession (of what? of whom? and to what end?) is probably still way ahead of its time, and is the cinematic equivalent of poking a fresh wound with an infected finger, but it’s one of my favorites.

La Fidélité

Dir. Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Inspired after listening to the audio commentary on the Possession DVD, I felt the urge to watch Zulawski’s most recent film, which has been sitting on my shelf since I bought it in Taiwan last year (and still not available in the States). Of course, I didn’t expect it to match the bugout weirdness of Possession, but it had something going on, one being a discussion about tabloid culture and capitalism. The plot has Sophie Marceau (a respected young photographer) marrying an upper-class man she respects more than loves, and fighting off the urge to sleep with a much younger working-class paparazzi photographer. The two central words of the film are “Fidélité” (of course) and “Verité”, both of which are explored in the personal and in the realms of commerce, and how the latter undermines the former. Marceau’s character’s life is intruded upon numerous times, her most private moments made public, but she too is guilty of this, working for the same tabloid press as the young photographer (and for the Murdoch-like goon that may or may not be her true father). How media, and the mediaization of our personal lives, destroys us is one thing the film explores; how to escape is another matter. The film is apparently based on a novel by Madam de la Fayette, but I didn’t know this going in. Zulawski also uses a lot of quotes from Auden throughout, and a brief glimpse of the John B. Root film “Principe de plaisir” on a TV. It bears watching again, as it was complex in its characters and plotting–a second viewing would reveal more of its structure, I believe.

Once Upon a Time in China

Dir. Tsui Hark, 1991
Just borrowed a lot of DVDs off Jon, as Mr. Monkeypants is going to Japan for a few months. This is one of them, and this is the first time I’ve actually seen this movie, though I’ve read about it several times. Jet Li made a name for himself as martial arts master/folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, the same character Jackie Chan plays in Drunken Master 1 and 2. Bad guys exist of two levels: the low-down dirty gang, and the Imperialist pig dogs from both Britain and the U.S. (all played, as usual, by strange looking white men with beards). The film concerns itself a little with this uneasy period in Chinese history, when the West was making its presence known, and conning Chinese to come to America to find gold. Kung-fu can’t beat the Western guns, but Wong does well by using an umbrella and other props. Mostly, though, there’s oodles and oodles of absolutely top-darts fightin’, all choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, not as much wire-work as I’d thought, and great camera work by Tsui Hark and whoever was cinematographer (the credits list six people). Culminates with a classic fight atop a set of bamboo ladders, ripped off most recently in that Musketeer flick.

Nice DVD, too. The film transfer is crisp, the print looks unworn, and the extras feature brief clips of classic footage featuring the earlier version of Wong Fei-Hung, played by Kwan Tak-Hing (who made something like 70 films as the character, still bustin’ heads way into his 70s). The fighting in these originals look slow and stagey, but the historical factor makes it enjoyable. The DVD also comes with a nice booklet outlining the history of the character and some general kung-fu/Wu-shu facts. I hear there’s a version that’s six minutes longer, and a DVD that has English audio commentary, but this one is fine.

Twenty-Four Eyes

This Saturday I managed the catch the last film of the Susan Sontag-curated “Classics of Japanese Film” series at the LACMA.

TWENTY-FOUR EYES
A devastating study of nearly two decades in the life of a teacher who comes to a small island in the sea of Japan and the twelve students (hence the 24 eyes) in her care. Starts off idyllic, but soon the War in Manchuria, then the Pacific War comes to disrupt the lives of everyone. Director Keisuke Kinoshita works the audience with this classic melodrama, and I would say half of the theater was reduced to blubbering tears, especially near the end where
Apparently, all of Sontag’s choices have had either a subtext or a context of anti-war sentiment, and Keisuke Kinoshita’s “Twenty-Four Eyes” struck chords with many in the audience, especially the war fervor that grips the students as the film develops, the accusations against the teacher of being “unpatriotic” , the grim economic future that ruins the educational chances of many of her students, the indoctrination through the schools. You could almost feel the audience bristle after some of the more anti-war lines, none of which I can remember now. The film was shot and framed beautifully, and the most horrific of realities understood through the most economical of shots (as the war progresses and the island have lost all their first generation of youth, we have a brief scene of younger teenagers (I assume something like 15 or so) being groomed and sent off to die as kamikaze pilots. It’s a chilling scene of war madness, but Kinoshita doesn’t give us music cues or scenes of villagers talking about what was happening; he just lets it play out (he also didn’t have to explain it to his audience in the ’50s.)
Ten years ago we would have watched this and thought abstractly about war and the toll it took on the Japanese. Now we see the film and it’s like gazing into a mirror, and beyond that, the abyss.
Unfortunately, the film is not available on video or DVD as far as I know. Here’s hoping you can see it sometime in the future.

Stan Brakhage Dies

More evidence that if the Iraq war starts, it’ll be complete chaos.

Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Iranian-backed militia moves into northern Iraq Several hundred soldiers belonging to an Iranian-based Iraqi militia have set up a secret military camp deep in northern Iraq, in a move likely to alarm Washington.
The fighters, who include many deserters from Saddam Hussein’s army, slipped into the opposition-controlled north from Iran late last month.
They have now established a series of military camps inside Kurdish-controlled territory, including a major base at the foot of a mountain, near the village of Banibee, decorated with flags proclaiming “Allahu Akbar”, or God is most great.