Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 12/28/02 at AMC 1000 Van Ness, SF, CA

Scorsese’s overblown, lugubrious epic was pretty disappointing for me> Not that it was an abysmal film or anything, just not nearly as strong a film as I would have hoped. I am having a hard time articulating exactly what the biggest problems I had with the film were.

I don’t know if it’s just me (it probably is), but I am finding myself reading great political discourses into a lot of films lately. Gangs of New York clearly addresses itself to issues of what America is and how it evolved into such a thing, all focussed very specifically on the rough world of the city during the middle of the nineteenth century. New York City, the largest, most significant city in the United States is quite often used as an exemplar of American culture, an extreme example, but highly representative. It’s an epic tale that Scorsese has woven from an eponymous 1928 non-fiction account of the period by Herbert Asbury. It’s a strikingly barbarous period, surprising, really, in that it’s only a few generations removed from the present.

Scorsese had supposedly had this project in mind since the late 1970’s, though it was only finally greenlighted for production by Miramax in the late 1990’s and mostly shot during 2000, I believe. So how much of the film directly addresses the current political world into which it was released in 2002 is highly speculative. The issues that Scorsese focuses on, the clash of immigrant cultures with the “Natives” (who are defined as at times only third generation immigrants themselves), the physicality of the New York setting, and the historical situation of the period may reflect on the present and may have some inflection from it. However, I am sure that my “reading” of the film is influenced by my constant awareness of the current “American” situation.

This idea is crystalized in the closing shot, a view from the graveyard across the river back at the city as it changes through time upwards towards the present. The shot simply states that the world depicted in the film is the same world of current times, that these events occurred on the same turf. Inevitably, the shot morphs from the digitally painted 1860’s New York skyline into a skyline that includes the World Trade Center buildings and other skyscrapers as the screen fades to black. The shot does not evolve beyond that to a truly current image, one in which those buildings no longer exist. Is it perhaps that Scorsese is saying that this was an idea that he had that really addressed the very recent past and no longer resonates in the true present?

The xenophobia and “Know Nothing”-ness of the character of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (played so brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) represents a still strong element in American politics. The character is the highlight of the film, complex and sympathetic, perhaps even noble despite his outright brutality and racism.

I can’t get my head around this film the way I would like to. I wish that I had been able to like it better though.

The Princess and the Warrior

The Princess and the Warrior (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Tom Tykwer
viewed: 12/25/02

Tom Tykwer’s follow-up to his energetic 1998 hit film, Run Lola Run, explores similar broad themes to its predecessor, such as love and fate, but does so at a much slower pace. Run Lola Run was fun but potentially gimmicky with it’s pounding disco beat and nearly constant movement. The Princess and the Warrior stars Tykwer’s girlfriend, Franka Potente (the previous film’s title character), and so points of comparison are tempting to make.

In Run Lola Run, Tykwer offered three different outcomes to an initial pivotal moment, which worked as a simple, somewhat humorous glance into the nature of fate and the degree of one’s personal control over such things. In the world of The Princess and the Warrior, the power over one’s fate is not so much a multiple choice test, but is rather vague and dreamlike. The events of both films involve a character’s desperate attempts at attaining money; only in the end do they realize that love or a “loved one” is much more significant.

This movie isn’t bad, but it’s fairly slow and unremarkable. Some of the film’s moments are strong, but the many overlapping connections of “fate” are pretty convoluted and obvious. I don’t really have a lot else to say about it.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/21/02 at Selma Theater, Selma, CA

This, the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie series, seems stronger than its predecessor. The narrative is handled more capably throughout, with even the battle sequences seeming to have more narrative cohesion. Largely, the film is visually stunning. The digital art design transforms the amazing New Zealand filming locations into striking, vast backdrops to the epic story.

The film, like the first, relies of digital design and animation to render the major fantastical aspects of the story. The Ents, the tree creatures, were a personal favorite. They were simply very cool.

The other major animation feat was the character of Gollum. Performed during production by actor Andy Serkis, Gollum was later re-created as a fully digital being, though some of his movements were adapted via motion capture from the actor. As far as a technical feat, Gollum looks good but is still clearly an animated figure. In the narrative, however, Gollum is a key figure, perhaps the true center of the film’s “heart.” The audience is meant to emotionally connect with him and his role in the story which adds more significantly to his “realism” than his purely visual rendering. I thought that this was working pretty well, though the theater audience seemed to find some of his scenes funnier than I thought they were meant to read. Who knows, though?

Despite the varying races of creatures (elves, hobbits, dwarves, etc.), Middle Earth is a very Anglo-Saxon world, lacking in anyone who even looks remotely Mediterranean, eastern European, or much less any other part of the world. The original text is, of course, English, and much of the world is a very northern European vision of an imaginary historical period. I am not sure what to say about this, it just struck me.

Some things seem a little more silly this time around. The elves are so lovingly shot, their “beauty” is almost hysterical. The hobbits pairs seem even more homoerotic. The curmudgeonly rantings of the dwarf, Gimli, as comic relief, are more ham-fisted. And though most of the digital stuff was incredible, occasional shots looked a lot more of what they were.

That said, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is pretty much top-of-the-line digitally-enhanced cinematic fantasy, circa 2002. The experience of it is exciting and impressive, especially in the theater where images loom so much larger than life. It still strikes me as a story lacking in contemporary context, though the references to the rising armies of Sauron somehow resonated with the rising armies of George W. Bush. Even saying this sounds silly, but I noted it more than once.

Human Nature

Human Nature (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Michel Gondry
viewed: 12/18/02

Human Nature is a high-concept comedy with some intellectual trappings. It is also broad comedy with a significant reliance on slap-stick and physical humor. Its split-personality approach seems analagous to its themes about the conflict between animal instinct and civilization and its codes.

Written by Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich (1999) and soon-to-be-released Adaptation (2002) fame, the film mines a territory akin to his other work, absurdity and surrealism, virtually untrafficked by other Hollywood films. The film is director Michel Gondry’s first feature film, and maybe the film’s short-comings all crop up in its execution. Or maybe the material just simply isn’t as funny as it is supposed to be. I hardly laughed at all during it, though I found it moderately amusing throughout.

Trying to paraphrase the general plot of the film makes it sound funnier than it really is. It’s also quite convoluted. Patricia Arquette plays Lila, a woman whose body is covered in fur, escapes civilization to live in the wild. Longing for love, she returns to civilization and meets Tim Robbins, who plays a scientist who abhors nature and is obsessed with “civilizing” humanity. His life’s work is training mice to use proper table etiquite. And Rhys Ifans is a wild man who was raised in the woods, isolated from civilization, thinking himself an ape.

The film’s major subtext is foregrounded, obviously, in the conflict in humanity between the natural world and the “civilized” one. Kaufman and Gondry clearly sympathize with the nature side on the surface, Robbins’ scientist is so repressed and out of touch with himself that he can’t interpret his explicitly straightforward dreams in which his conflicts are played out. Each character is narrates the events in flashback form, with varying degrees of understanding. Robbins again is clearly myopic regarding the facts.

However, there is an aspect of self-loathing in many of the characters and perhaps also in the tone of the film. The film often seems loaded with intentional irony. Do the film-makers truly side with Arquette and Ifans’ characters? If so, much of the film’s rhetoric is also straight-forward and explicit.

Ultimately, I didn’t think that the film was very good. I can’t really say what it was exactly. I think it was just the whole thing. I don’t know. Je ne sais quoi.

Reign of Fire

Reign of Fire (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Rob Bowman
viewed: 12/11/02

This movie looked ridiculous, almost to an amusing degree. I can enjoy bad films as much as the next guy. Maybe I enjoy them ironically, but I can enjoy them.

Directed by Rob Bowman, whose previous directing work included lots of television science fiction and The X-Files (1998) movie, Reign of Fire seems to take its hilariously outrageous pretense very seriously and tries to depict its fire-breathing dragons invading Earth story as realistically as possible. In digging a subway tunnel in contemporary London, excavators unearth (and unleash) a long-hidden ancient dragon. In less than a generation, the creatures drive humanity back to Dark Age lifestyles. The protagonists hole up in an ancient castle in Northumberland. It’s an post-apacolyptic vision with a D & D fantasy twist.

The fantasy aspect to this vision of mass destruction seems to in fact be far more pure “fantasy” than one imbued with significant meaning. I struggle a bit to ascertain some semblance of the subtext at play here. Just what are the dragons meant to represent? Are they some environmental revenge or perhaps merely a metaphorical trigger that unleashes civilization’s weaponry to an ultimate mass destruction? Neither of these ideas holds up under much analysis.

It is unsurprising that much of the discourse of the film seems rather muddled. A good deal of the plot points of the film are equally silly and utterly full of holes.

Despite the film’s inherent silliness and its utter inability to acknowledge that fact, I found this movie moderately entertaining. I might have been my incredibly low expectations that allowed for that, but I have seen far worse (see Brotherhood of the Wolf for example). In many ways, this is a shallow, “by-the-numbers” Hollywood action flick with all the latest digitally animated fantasies dominating the screen. Perhaps this film’s greatest merit is its ludicrous plot.

I also found the weird homage to The Empire Strikes Back extremely corny and hilarious.

Hands on a Hard Body

Hands on a Hard Body (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. S.R. Bindler
viewed: 12/07/02

I had been interested to see this documentary when it came through the Roxie a couple of years ago (or whenever it was) and had since heard good things about it from a couple of different people. It is about a Survivor-like contest at a Longview, TX Nissan dealership in which participants have to stand with their “hands on a hard body” Nissan truck until they are the last one standing. It is an endurance challenge, not unlike the dance contests of the early 20th century. The prize is the truck which they have held a hand on for the roughly 80 hours of sleep-deprived waiting.

The participants are all pretty entertaining characters. The contest has created and attracts a bizarre subculture, the most-amusing of which is Benny Perkins, a winner from a previous year and thus an intimidating competitor in the present competition. Perkins pontificates and philosophizes about the experience to amusing extremes, seeing within the contest all of the “human drama” of the world. The filmmakers rely a good deal on Perkins’ rhetoric to convey the film’s intended significance. And he’s a good subject with his Texan drawl, he’s a veritable Walt Whitman of the standing-with-your-hand-on-a-truck circuit.

The film manages to keep from making too much fun of its subjects, which could have been a reasonable temptation. The contest was filmed in 1995, but at times feels like its from perhaps a decade earlier.

Techncially, the film is weak, though. Working with a low budget and possibly just a single camera, the filmmakers manage to miss every significant dramatic moment, including the final person to drop off. The physical editing and sound also seem particularly unpolished, which is understandable, but the editorial “choices” also seem unpolished. Frequent visual and autitory flashbacks seem to detract from the narrative, rather than to enlighten it.

Despite its technical shortcomings, it still made for entertaining viewing.

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) movie poster

(1930) dir. Lewis Milestone
viewed: 12/03/02

Most of the films that I have been seeing lately are very recent. In fact, the oldest film that I had seen this year only dated back to the 1960’s up til this point. I was interested in seeing Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front as I had just finished reading the book from which it was adapted.

Erich Maria Remarque’s novel is absolutely stunning. I would easily rank it among the best novels that I have read. Shockingly visceral, the book is written (in translation from the German, mind you) in simple, clear, immediate language that effects poetry at times. Both the novel and the film are often described as “anti-war,” which they certainly are, as they depict “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

I had not long before read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and had been taking an interest in reading more about the first World War. I had remembered the gruesome descriptions from history class, and the significance of the horrors of the war on the world of the time. Now, having entered our new century, the second World War seems to have totally eclipsed WWI in the general consciousness (this is purely an opinion on my part — don’t ask me to prove it). Anyways, the period and history had interested me, and the novel of All Quiet on the Western Front I had known to be a “classic,” so I was interested in it.

So, after reading the book, I was curious to see the film, which was released in 1930, right as film was changing its productions from silent to sound. The film has also received great praise; it was the first sound film to win the Acadamy Award for Best Picture (while such an accolade these days seems to stand for nothing, it isn’t necessarily historically a problem).

The film is very good, but comes nowhere near the novel. The novel is more purely tragic and weighted with a heavy sadness throughout. The novel is also incredibly graphic and detailed, yet very personal and, as I mentioned before, even poetic at times. The film has many strong moments. Some of the strongest are dolly shots that pan across the approaching line of the French troops as they are gunned down or blown to bits one by one. They charge the screen and die in a continuous scrolling movement.

The film does a good job at telling the story, though it simplifies the narrative by making it chronilogical. It makes sense for the film to be this way, but it loses the less linear storytelling that gives the novel some of its qualities.

Also, I believe from what little that I have read, that the film originally began shooting as a silent film, and somewhere in the midst of production, they decided to add sound. There are many shots that linger on images longer than typically happens in sound film. Reactions are acted or mimed, with the image held for a more sustained “look” than we are used to seeing. While part of this has an antiquated quality to it, it also has an interesting effect. Silent film was a purely visual medium, and as such, relied entirely on images to tell the story. There is still a power in this.

Well, this is all I will say on this for the time being. Read the book. It is amazing.

Louis Wolheim was excellent as Katczinsky, easily the best performance in the film.

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 12/23/02

It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t watched a single film on VHS all year until I borrowed this video from my nephew. The moment that the movie started, I remembered why I have switched over to DVD so permanently. This video was an old one, so it suffered from quality and degradation issues, but significantly, its pan-and-scan format cheapened the look of it considerably, which I think hurts the film quite a lot. So much of this film was trimmed down (as the pan and scan principles do trim), it looked more like an old Johnny Quest episode than as if it had ever been a theatrically released film.

Also rather startlingly, I realized that I had last seen this film twenty-four years ago (Good God!), at the age of nine, upon its initial theatrical run. Certain aspects of this film had struck me at that time and had stayed with me over the years. As through my university days, I began to take a more coherent interest in the films of Ralph Bakshi, I had been tempted to see it again, but had never gotten around to it. It was only after reminiscing about it with my sister, right after having just seen Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in the theater, that she told me that they had a copy of this film on video at home.

Bakshi had made this film, which comprises the first two books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, as the first of a planned two-film series, the latter of which was never made. At a 132 minute running-time (and actually, the video copy that I had may have been even more truncated than that), compared with Jackson’s two film interpretation of the same material that adds up to something like 360 minutes or something, the film manages to hit most of the major plot points with reasonable success. Still, it’s quite a bit more like a Reader’s Digest version of the tale.

The most interesting aspects of the film are some of the differing techniques that Bakshi employs to tell the story, some of which are quite effective in some ways. Bakshi relies heavily on rotoscoping for motion and design of all of the taller characters. For those unfamiliar with this technique, it was initially developed in the Fleischer studio (home of Betty Boop, etc.). Rotoscoping traces the live action film movements of actors, animating by virtual “tracing,” but enhancing to whatever extent (a modern rotoscoping method was used for Richard Linklater’s Waking Life film).

Bakshi employs different levels of animation on top of essentially rotoscoped images for different effects. It would be good to get a sense of the actual techniques used to create these effects, but I will have to guess at them. It seems that some characters are more traditionally rotoscoped, gaining their movements from the original film footage, but being more traditionally cel animated over the top of that. At other points, some of the rotoscoping seems to show more of the footage through the “animation,” possibly to the degree of almost simply tinting the film which seems like it was shot in high contrast. The orcs and the night wraiths are extremely creepy in their rendering this way. I had remembered finding them scary as a child, and the mental image of them had stuck with me over time.

There seem to be many degrees to which Bakshi utilizes the rotoscoping technique, though it was hard for me to pick out any real rhyme or reason to it. At one scene in a tavern, the actual people’s faces show through the animation/tinting quite strikingly. The opening sequence actually seems as though it is merely shot in silhouette, not animated at all. It seems that the high contrast footage may also have been shot to create the look of old silent film footage, moving a little more jerkily and with a reduced details.

These character renderings play out against a variety of backgrounds. In much of the film, the backgrounds are fully-rendered naturalistic fantasy landscapes. But at times of high drama and also significantly when the perspective changes when Frodo puts on the ring, the backgrounds become downright abstract. Sometimes it seemed like these abstractions were derived from photographic images, but others it seemed purely non-representational.

I have to say that the effect of some of these techniques is still quite spooky. Rotoscoping retains an “echo” of sorts from the naturalistic movement recorded by the traditional filming process, but the process of animating over it mutates it. This ghost-like effect seems apparent in all rotoscoped animation to some degree. By intensifying the contrasts in many of the applications of rotoscoping that Bakshi employs and by using the images to create a dissonant sensation (these are the scary, evil creatures often), the images are disorienting and unnerving. I would easily place this as the film’s greatest strength.

The overall execution of the film suffers from other weaknesses. The “acting” in it isn’t atrocious, but the film’s overall effect is not strong. I do think that it suffered considerably from being a poor and old video copy that also may have been trimmed from its initial theatrical release. And though some of the varying rotoscoping is strong and interesting, some of the traditional cel animation looks cheaper and more poorly executed. And at some points, I wondered whether some of the variances in technique were tied to production’s financial limitations, which I know plagued the film. Were all the decisions purely aesthetic, or were they monetary?

As a student of animation, or an aficionado, or what have you, the film certainly has merit.

Live Nude Girls Unite!

Live Nude Girls Unite! (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Vicky Funari, Julia Query
viewed: 11/26/02

This documentary about the unionization of the Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco interested me from the local angle. It’s a story that I had followed in the local media, and though I have never been inside the place (I have never been in a strip club ever, actually), I have heard a lot about it over the years. Actually, I had always heard that the Lusty Lady was supposed to be “lesbian-run” (which I think was meant to read potentially as “politically correct, of course”) and a place where a lot of girls would get their first strip jobs. It made it sound like a fairly decently-run establishment, and maybe compared to other strip clubs, it is. I was surprised about the working conditions that the film documented. It wasn’t like some Third World sweatshop, but it was hardly a strife-free workplace.

Another thing that I didn’t know about the film was the “personal”, “confessional” aspect of the film. Julia Query, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, is also a stripper at the club and resultantly film’s primary subject. She is a natural focal point being one of the main organizers of the union and one who has a mother who is a well-known nurse who works with other sex workers (prostitutes, in her mother’s case). Query is almost too close to the action (no pun intended) to have good editorial judgment about directing the film, perhaps.

Some moments that arise from the “personalization” of this story are interesting, such as when Query “comes out” to her mother about being a stripper (she is already out to her mother regarding her sexual orientation). There is an ironically exploitative side to this, which Query acknowledges on camera before filming her “coming out” to her mother and the resultant drama. Query is also a stand-up comedian, and she intercuts segments of her stand-up act about her work and story to comment on certain plot twists and developments. Maybe it is not inherently the personalization and autobiography of this that is the film’s weakness, but just in the execution.

Unfortunately, Query herself is not interesting enough to carry the film, though narcissistic enough to try. However, the film’s overall subject is pretty interesting. Perhaps someone with a keener mind for film-making could have eked more out of this material.

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket (1996) movie poster

(1996) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: 11/23/02

I never caught Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket when it first came out. It was originally released in 1996 in the midst of a spate of American “independent” films, of which, for me, it was lost among the others. I meant for some time to finally see it, particularly after enjoying Rushmore (1998). So, I finally got to it.

Like many of those other 1990’s “indie” flicks, this one is a small, character-driven comedy filmed on location in the areas from which their directors hailed. In some ways, its smallness and style don’t distinguish it so much from many other films of that time. But it has a charm and character that are recognizable of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s singiature type characters and world.

I don’t have much else to say about this film, but it was enjoyable.