The Man Without a Past

The Man Without a Past (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aki Kaurismäki
viewed: 04/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I saw this film as what will probably be my only venture out to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. I would love to have seen some more films but my schedule isn’t working with the festival’s schedule this year. It’s a shame, because I would love to have gone to see more films, but that’s the way it goes.

The Man Without a Past is a sweet-natured, simple comedy, somewhat absurdist and intentionally off-beat. Shot almost entirely in Helsinki and largely down at the industrial waterfront of the city, Kaurismäki paints a picture of the world of the financially marginalized in Finland’s capitol. It’s not a “realistic” portrait, not one steeped in a naturalism or even a faux naturalism, but rather a portrait that teeters on the surreal, reckoning of the lighter side of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch perhaps. I’d only seen one of Aki Kaurismäki’s other films, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), but I get the impression that his narrative style might well be aligned with those directors more than not.

The film follows the character of M, played by Markku Peltola, who develops amnesia after being severely beaten upon arriving in Helsinki. He builds a life among the slums of the city, living in a shipping container near the industrial waterfront. There is a gentle quirkiness to the people that he meets and the life that he develops, inflected with a sort of disgarded music soundtrack of obscure American rock and roll from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s (I am guessing at its period).

The story is almost naïve-ist in its tone and content, evoking humor from small moments and strange juxtapositions. Kaurismäki ‘s portrait of the people that live on the outskirts of the city of Helsinki and Finnish society in general shows them as good-hearted and decent, odd but kind. The film is sort of “softly” political, in that regard, though not confrontational at all. There is a great simplicity to it and an easy charm, perhaps there is a sense of naïveté in not just the film’s tone but the film’s construction. If so, it is one that is quite appealing.

Roger Dodger

Roger Dodger (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Dylan Kidd
viewed: 04/19/03

This cynical dark comedy sort of succeeds despite itself. If it succeeds at all, it certainly does so despite it’s direction and cinematography, which I had read was bad but was personally really awed by its badness. The hand-held camera work felt like a bad night on ER at best, a style that has many critics, but one that can work when the material really seems to mesh with it. In this case, the cinematic style seemed totally out of whack with the narrative. Some shots are positioned from behind plants or across the room, I guess to give the impression of evesdropping on the speakers. This also seemed like an unnecessary and clumsy approach. The overall impression that it offered seemed to muddy the film’s tone, which really detracted from something that could have been much better.

I don’t know what I have to say about this film that hasn’t been said elsewhere, since I largely agree with the major commentary. Namely, Campbell Scott carries the film on his back, the sleazy, misogynist, loathsome back of his character, the titular Roger. The script is very bleak but funny. It almost seems that this material could have been handled in a different vein, this could have been a truly hilarious comedy.

The film’s attitude towards Roger muddied toward the end. Most of the duration, he is suggested to be a sexist, elitest know-it-all, who is largely a rather well-built facade. His 16 year old nephew, Nick, is a sweet and innocent pupil for an evening as Roger introduces him to his understanding of sex and the process of getting sex. Nick ultimately shuns Roger’s world and his interpretation of it. However, the film ends after a refresher course, halting on a freeze frame of Nick’s expression, just as he realizes that Roger has set up Nick once again with a pretty girl. The open-ended-ness of this frozen shot seems to imply the question in the audience’s minds: what has Nick learned from Roger? Also, the style of the framing suggests a humor about the ending. Was there some redemption or quality to Roger’s advice?

I was not sure.

The film takes place largely in one or two nights in Manhattan. There is a sense of the city in the film, though a dark and still hard to place sense, I would say. We are shown Manhattan through Roger’s eyes, and so perhaps this is all we see of New York City as well, a place over-darkened by cynicism and bad cinematography.

Little Otik

Little Otik (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Jan Svankmajer
viewed: 04/04/03

Little Otik, Jan Svankmajer’s latest semi-animated Surrealist film, tells the story of a childless couple who create a child and its resultant monstrosity by roughly hewing a figure of a baby from a scraggy tree stump. The child’s hunger overgrows all else, turning their “baby” into an insatiable beast who ends up devouring their postman and many of their neighbors.

Svankmajer focuses a great deal on food and the process of eating throughout the film, lingering the camera on family mealtimes and particularly on the less apetizing aspects of the act. The central metaphor of the barbarous creature that their “child” becomes seems perfectly explicit. Though what is the significance of Otik’s origin? He comes from nature but is made utterly unnatural by the action of his human “parents.”

Svankmajer, for those of you unfamiliar with the director, is an animator who relies largely on pixilation, using three dimensional figures, sometimes puppets and sometimes “natural” objects. The effect of this is that the object often has natural photographic depth and lighting, yet moves with a clearly other-worldliness. In Little Otik and in the last film that I had seen of his, Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), the bulk of the film is simple photographic narrative, with small portions comparatively small sections of animation.

The film is based on a Czech fairy tale . I don’t know how well-known the original fairy tale is (I was not familiar with it myself), but it does seem to follow many traditions of fairy tales. The more traditional version of the fairy tale is told in parallel with that on the the main, photographic narrative. It is animated in a stylized 2-D technique as it is read by Alzbetka, the precocious ten year old heroine of the film.

His 1988 version of Alice in Wonderland is hands-down his best work (Alice) and his Faust (1994) is particularly interesting as well. Little Otik is a good film, but not as strong as his best.

Far From Heaven

Far From Heaven (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Todd Haynes
viewed: 04/12/03

Todd Haynes’s homage to the 1950’s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, is an interesting cinematic experiment. In a sense, it bears some resemblance to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 grand homage of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film, Psycho. Van Sant took homage to an utterly “psycho”-tic level, in re-creating a nearly shot-for-shot remake of arguably one of the most recognizable films ever made. Haynes’ tribute is more of a melange of Sirk than re-make, but the film’s art design borrows heavily from its models as do many of the framings and narrative approach. Taken outside of such a tribute, the film would be utterly anachronistic to a modern audience unfamiliar with the films of Douglas Sirk.

Haynes’ film not only evokes a visual style and mise-en-scene of the classic American melodramas, but also imbues the narrative with the repressed restraint of the movies of that period. The “dramas” of Far From Heaven, about inter-racial romance and homosexuality, are far racier than the 1950’s would have allowed. Their treatment, however, is handled in the restrained and in-explicit manners of that time. The romance is chaste and the sexual interludes are far more implied than detailed as is like to be the case in a typical contemporary film. It’s an interesting conflict of the somewhat more edgy and modern with that of a period in which references to such “transgressive” subjects would not have been so clear-cut.

Sirk’s films are often considered subversive in their treatment of their bland American middle class worlds, loci of surface beauty, but perhaps troubled deeper within. Haynes’ position, commenting on a period explicitly located in the past, is informed by Sirk’s approach but seems easier.

Having heard a lot about this film before having seen it, I wondered how the film would be resolved. Given the subject matter and the probable adherence to the style of the period, happy endings seemed unlikely for the protagonists. I wondered how much Haynes would employ distancing devices or whether the film would be absolutely “true” to the style of the 1950’s. Really, the main point of disjuncture comes when Dennis Quaid’s character uses the word “fucking,” in expressing his stress over his “treatment” for his homosexuality. This is clearly not something one would find in a Douglas Sirk film.

The other thing that struck me was the use of oversaturated color in this film in attempt to mimic the look of Technicolor. At times, the effect is good, but it seemed to lack the true vibrance and artificiality of Technicolor. The art design seemed to try almost too hard to mimic its sense of the art design of the 1950’s Hollywood film. The art direction was almost iminently self-aware, something that seemed to place itself at the foreground of the film, at least in my experience of it.

The Happiness of the Katakuris

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 04/05/03

Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris could easily rank among the more unusual films that I have seen in recent times. A mixture of black comedy, pseudo-horror, and musical, the film was once (somewhere that I do not recall, quite accurately referred to as “The Sound of Music meets Motel Hell.” I actually fail to come up with a terse quip that nails the film so splendidly.

Miike seems to be quite the hip “underground” filmmaker of late. I don’t think I know enough hip people to qualify that assumption. He seems to produce films prolifically, that’s for sure. This is only the second of his films that I have seen, I watched City of Lost Souls last year, which was dramatically different than this film, though also pretty interesting. I don’t know that I have gathered enough experience with his work to get much of a picture of him in total.

One thing that struck me as particularly strange in this film, aside from the pop video singing asides that really seemed to emanate from nowhere, was the strange use of stop-motion animation. The film opens with a sequence that seems unsituated with the bulk of the narrative, but one that seems a metaphorical parallel perhaps? A woman eating soup in a restaurant, pulls up a weird, winged creature on her spoon. The creature pulls out her uvula and eats it, then flies off and is attacked by a crow (I think). There is more to this, but it was a week or so ago that I saw it, so I apologize for not detailing the events more.

Later in the film, out of seemingly nowhere, two live action sequences transform into claymation again. These animated sequences seem to take over in places that would have called for perhaps more complex special effects. In the first, two characters are fighting, dangling from a cliff, and in the second one Mt. Fuji erupts and pours lava down over everyone and everything. The transformation from live action to animated clay figures (whose somewhat resemble the Celebrity Deathmatch style and design) is jarring and largely unaccounted for. The break with “reality” is clear and pronounced, yet the narrative (clearly broken from a knowable reality) never wavers.

Much of this film, from the musical sequences to narrative developments, sound as bizarre to re-tell as they do to experience. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is its unadulterated weirdness. I think the weakest thing about it is it’s more basic comedy aspect. The acting and cinematography is almost tv-bad. The acting definitely is as bad as a very bad sit-com, and there is this constant awareness of the over-acting. This may tie into Miike’s aesthetic, some trashy quality of “so bad it’s good”.

Still, for pure weirdness sake, this film has much to offer.

Full Frontal

Full Frontal (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 03/29/03

This film, which seems like Soderbergh’s flaccid attempt at regaining some “indie” credibility now that he has become one of Hollywood’s “made men,” having garnered a directorial Oscar for Traffic (2000). Having discovered that his sensibilities for filmmaking seem to thrive in mainstream production, perhaps he felt that he had to get back to lo-fi basics and try shooting with a somewhat Dogme95-inspired approach.

The fact that Soderbergh made a set of rules (“The Rules”) for all his Hollywood buddies who participated in this film (rules like doing their own make-up, getting and caring for their own clothes, and driving themselves to filming locations), seems sort of Dogme-like, though in application to the biggest, overpaid moviestars on the planet, including Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. There is a sense of pretention in the attempt at forgoing the pretentions of a big Hollywood production. Shot largely on digital video and with most of the celebs working for “scale,” the film tries to pretend that it didn’t come from a big studio.

The film itself reads almost like Robert Altman “lite,” featuring a number of intersecting narratives and a myriad of characters. There is a whole self-reflexive “film-within-a-film” thing going on, too, which I had a hard time fathoming the nuance of. All this said, the film is not awful. It’s not very good either, though. I’d be willing to posit that even a pretty hardcore fan of Soderbergh’s would cotton to this film particularly. Though, based on its marketing, you might guess that hardcore Soderbergh fans (how many of those can there be?) would be the only ones really interested in seeing this.

I have to say that after Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), and The Limey (1999), I was thinking that Soderbergh was the most under-rated director in Hollywood. His rating rose up and now he may be one of the most over-rated. His actual quality may have stayed the same overall, but this little vanity project, trying to make a quick film on the cheap, isn’t his metier.

Auto Focus

Auto Focus (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Paul Schrader
viewed: 04/01/03

Back in film school, I TA’ed a Critical Writing class that did a small survey of the films of Paul Schrader. He was the professor’s choice, not one that we had any input on. Previous to this, I had seen only a couple of his films, and really didn’t have much of an image of him as a director. After working with his films American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Patty Hearst (1988), and Affliction (1997), I don’t know that we came to a specific image of him as a director then either. He does have some persistent themes, often focusing on deviant sexuality (and by deviant, I mean his own inflection of the deviance) and featuring strong religious themes (often more in observation of characters who shed once powerful religious views).

In this sense, Auto Focus seems apt material for Schrader. In Bob Crane, Schrader has a protagonist who meets both of the above mentioned criteria. Schrader poses Crane at the beginning of the film as a good Catholic family man with his wife and three kids, living in a world not unlike that of the Donna Reed Show (a program that is mentioned more than once as a place that Crane got his start in television.) Though Crane’s life is shown as some idealized early 1960’s sit com, he already has a predilection for pornography, something transgressive in his world as well as something for which his wife chastises and shames him. It is the first signs of the sexual addiction that will prove to be his downfall.

Schrader portrays Crane’s downfall into the lurid world of extra-marital sex very much the way that other movies that deal with other “addictions” do. At the beginning of the film, Crane is utterly a teetotaler, but after very innocently being introduced to his vice at a party, he quickly cannot seem to live without it. Crane meets up with his Iago-like friend/fiend, John Carpenter, a home video pioneer, who abets Crane in documenting his sexual exploits and introduces him the world of promiscuous sex.

There is a lot of material here ripe for some classical analysis, significantly, related to the self-reflexive aspect of the material. The filmic documents that Crane obsesses over show him to be a true filmmaker. His wife at one point notes that all he seems to do is shoot films and edit them. Perhaps, though, there is some denigration of the video medium. There is almost a sense of mockery prevalent in Crane and Carpenter’s conversations about their avid excitement over “new” (now highly passe) technologies. But Crane is highly associated with the filmmaking /documentary process. It is interesting to note that Crane is even ultimately bludgeoned to death with a tripod.

For me, the film was interesting and reasonably well-made, but not something overly enjoyable. It was like many of Schrader’s other films in that it clearly has a lot going on and is at times quite interesting, but really lacks that je ne sais quoi that would make it a great film…or perhaps even a very good film. This is ultimately a question of taste, I suppose.