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.

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.

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.

Spider

Spider (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. David Cronenberg
viewed: 03/17/03 at Lumiere Theatre, SF, CA

David Cronenberg’s new film Spider reminded me a good deal of another film that I had seen a couple of years back, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997), so much so, that I began to wonder if they were both adapted from the same author. This turned out not to be the case. The Butcher Boy was adapted from a novel of the same name written by Patrick McCabe, and Spider was adpated from a novel by Patrick McGrath. In both cases, the novels were adapted for the screen by the original authors, though Neil Jordan shared a screenwriting credit on his film.

These items are more pure coincidence really. The parallels, if there really are any, are in the narrative’s plot lines. (I will warn you that I am getting into spoiler territory here, so if you don’t want to read the film’s plot twists, turn back while you still can.) The films linked in my mind by depicting the interior world of two mentally ill boys who end up becmoing murderers as their psychoses dominate their personalities.

In both movies, the world of the film is aligned very much with the mind of the protagonist, offering a something of a first-person perspective/interpretation while seeming initially as objective. Not explicitly “narrated” by the protagonists (there is no voice-over in either film, I believe), each film begins with a more naturalistic representation of the narrative, giving the viewer the impression that the world of the film is objective and believable. Eventually, though, the viewer is forced back to realize that the narratives have not been reliable, that at some point one is forced to recognize the delusional state of some of the content and that this confusion lies within the protangonists’ understanding of reality. This break, arguably, shifts the narrative back into a more traditional third-person omniscient perspective, seeing more than what is viewable by the protagonist, knowing more than is possible for the protagonist to know.

In Spider, the cracks in the believability of the narrative only start to show near the end, just before they are shattered in the climactic revelation at the end. It’s almost classically Freudian. Dennis “Spider” Clegg views a duality in his mother’s personality (depicted as almost a virgin/whore stereotype), which he envisions as an entirely different people. Only after succeeding in killing the “tart” does it become perfectly clear, to both “Spider” and the viewer, that both characters (each played by Miranda Richardson) are one and the same person. “Spider”‘s split is not of his own personality, but with his comprehension of the personality of his mother.

All in all, I thought that the film was pretty good, though a bit slow. I would definitely recommend Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, though, which I thought was utterly amazing.

Talk to Her

Talk to Her (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Pedro Almodóvar

viewed: 02/28/03 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

I thought that this film was excellent. I have been totally stymied on trying to write about it. There is a lot of interesting stuff in it, particularly the way that care and devotion easily transposes into creepy obsession. The relationship of two men and their comatose female objects of desire. The fantastic, surreal silent film section really stood out. Talk to Her is pure Almodóvar, in the more mature, art house-friendly, Oscar-friendly stage of his career, but arguably among his best work. Well worth seeing.

Russian Ark

Russian Ark (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aleksandr Sokurov
viewed: 03/03/03 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Russian Ark follows a surreal trip through time and the Hermitage museum in St. Petersberg, Russia, a dream-like meditation on Russia that documents the splendor of The Winter Palace. Narrated from a first-person perspective (the camera vantage tours the museum via steadicam), the tour also follows another displaced onlooker, the character of a 19th(?) century French marquis, played by Sergei Dontsov. The marquis critiques the museum and its objects, as well as the character of Russian culture. Numerous historical figures, spanning the four centuries of the museum’s existence, roam the galleries as well.

The narrator, who mumbles his broken thoughts, is never seen by the camera (the camera’s steady strolling gaze represents his own view). He is also never seen by most of the other characters save the Marquis, who also has a fluctuating invisibility to the events and people they are witnessing. They stroll quite like ghosts through the museum, which is filled with numerous other resurrected figures of history. There is little explication, as the intended viewer is perhaps thought to have a better grasp on Russian history than I do. Though it does seem that Sokurov envisions The Hermitage as a vessel (read: ark) to carry Russian culture and history through the centuries.

The film’s notoriety arises from its technical achievement (the film was shot in one unedited, flowing 96-minute take), a conceit that is employed at times to striking effect. The opening sequence, trailing a group of 19th(?) century revelers as the make their way into the Hermitage through back passages and narrow stairways, has a dizzying, dreamy sensibility. And at it’s best moments, the film feels much like an amusement park ride, one in which the viewer flows along a predestined track, drinking in all the spectacles but with no control over the event. That said, it is clearly not a “thrill” ride.

More a stream-of-consciousness essay than typical film narrative, Russian Ark slides between fantasy and document. Unfortunately, for one member of my party who attended this film, the stream of consciousness was not maintained…and he slept through the bulk of the film, even snoring briefly. The film is challenging in this sense, truly, which is too bad because I found it very interesting on the whole and have found myself thinking of it considerably since seeing it.

My son’s Russian day care caregiver, who didn’t like the film, told me that the translation was awful. I certainly felt that knowing more Russian/Soviet history would have helped considerably in comprehension, but I had to experience it with the faculties that I have, poor as they are. This lack of understanding probably added a lot to the induction of sleep for my companion and for me in the experience’s overall surreality.

Quai des Orfèvres

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) movie poster

(1947) dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
viewed: 02/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I really don’t take advantage of some of the real perks of living in San Francisco as much as I should. We have such fantastic repertory cinemas that play such cool and interesting movies that I should never have to find myself standing in some megaplex theater debating which of the latest Hollywood crap to see. It’s a crying shame. And it’s a shame that I feel this most poignently when I do actually make my way to the likes of the Red Vic, the Roxie, or jewel of the city’s cinemas, the Castro Theater. Its well-noted beauty and excellent slate of films really should entice me more frequently. It makes me want to alter my viewing habits entirely.

I hadn’t actually heard of Quai des Orfèvres before reading about it in the paper last week when the film debuted at the Castro. It sounded cool, especially since I have liked director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and had also been interested in seeing his 1953 film The Wages of Fear. The paper described it roughly as a sort of French noir film, shot on location in Paris only shortly after the end of WWII.

The world of the film is indeed shadowy and suspicious and is filmed with a polish not unlike its contemporary Hollywood B-fare of the time. Its style and look sort of accentuate the ribald and explicit nature of the language of the film, something one might expect in pre-code Hollywood perhaps, but certainly not in a post-war film. I don’t know how much of a misnomer it is to dub this film as noir.

It features an interesting, world-weary Inspector character, played by Louis Jouvet, back from his tour of duty in Africa with an adoptive son (which seems potentially quite metaphorical) and an colorful portrait of the operations of the the French police. There is a lot of interesting stuff here: the wonderful burlesque theater backdrop (with innumerable amusing background goings-on), the lesbian photographer/family friend (and her portrayal, which was both more explicit and sympathetic than one might expect from the time period), and the nighttime shots of the wet Paris streets, only a couple of years after the occupation (as noted by the SF Chronicle, as I mentioned above). The world of the film, which is replete with such interesting details, seems to address itself to the nature of post-war France through this tale of folks who are presumably not living on the right side of the tracks, so to speak.

The bigger picture seems less concrete to me than many of the smaller details. It’s one of those kind of things where I think that I will remember images and things from this film, down the road, while I might forget most aspects of the narrative itself. That is pure supposition on my part, of course.

24 Hour Party People

24 Hour Party People (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Michael Winterbottom
viewed: 02/08/03

24 Hour Party People is an interpretive document of the music scene in Manchester, England, spanning the “birth of punk” to the “death of rave culture.” The film’s approach is largely narrative, with actors embodying the “roles” of most of the key figures, but the film utilizes its primary subject, Tony Wilson, producer/promoter/personality (played by Steve Coogan), as both a central figure in the narrative and also as non-narrative commentator on the events depicted. The narrative isn’t particularly cohesive, as the film was conceived originally as being more a series of vignettes or something, focusing on two major groups, Joy Division and the Happy Mondays. The film’s use of direct address and narrative disjunctures adds to its lack of continuity and attempts for a pseudo-avant-garde aesthetic.

To its credit, I don’t think that the film attempts to give anything but a highly subjective, “interpreted” version of events. It’s sort of Tony Wilson’s almost stream-of-consciousness rant in semi-narrative form, which might be an admirable acknowledgement of the impossibility of a “definitive” film on such a subject.

For my money, though the film was entertaining, its lack of cohesion seemed a weakness. But that is my opinion. I also was more interested in the earlier story about Ian Curtis and Joy Division than about the Happy Mondays.

It’s funny that I have seen such a number of films that attempt to digest this time period, even though they focus on different parallel sub-cultures (The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) with its eponymous subject, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) regarding the skate scene in 1970’s Los Angeles, and The Filth and the Fury (2000)). I guess that middle age is settling in on this generation, and the retrospect has engendered a need to document and contextualize the significance of their energetic youth.

Ratcatcher

Ratcatcher (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Lynne Ramsay
viewed: 01/06/03

Funny thing about the best movies that I have seen that I try to write about. Often I sit to write about them and find myself almost completely dumb, speechless.

That can’t bode well for writing about film now, can it?

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s first feature film, Ratcatcher left me almost exactly so dumbstruck. A description of it truly does it no justice, as it is in many ways incomparable. In short, it is a film about a boy, living in the Glasgow slums in the 1970’s with his family. The actors are largely non-professionals, which adds to the film an aspect of realism, by which I mean its kinship with such styles as Italian neo-realism, etc. It’s a stark portrait, in which I found myself constantly dreading the looming disaster, which might be enough to put off a viewer that wasn’t up for a film that might be termed a “downer.”

The cinematography is stunning. Ramsay has a background in still photography, which shows itself in long lingering close-ups of the faces of her characters and in the evocation of “place” in gritty establishing shots. It’s amazing the way that the film shifts into more surreal states while remaining almost entirely in the “real” world, eventually evoking a dreary but affecting dream of some sort, elevated almost.

See? I really don’t know what to say about this film, which I think is probably one of the best films that I have seen in years and as interesting as any that I have seen in that time.

The film’s images have filled my head all day. The final shot of the canal, the image of the cornfield through the window of the new housing development, the bathing scene. I hesitate to give any plot points away because I enjoyed the blindness of knowing the film’s next moves.

Highly recommended viewing.

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.