Running on Karma

Running on Karma is the latest Johnny To film I’ve seen, thanks to SIFF. Like the other To films I’ve seen, it twists genre in intriguing and unexpected ways.
Here’s the premise. A female cop (Cecilia Cheung) encounters a muscleman with supernatural powers (Andy Lau, prosthetically enhanced with a Mr Universe-esque torso) who helps her catch brutal serial killers. A relationship develops between them…
Only what I just wrote doesn’t really tell you anything about the film. It takes too many unexpected turns. What starts out as a martial-arts action film turns into something else entirely.
Before I go on, I’d like to praise the film’s visuals. Instead of the gunplay in the other To films I’ve seen, here we have cartoonish special effects for the action sequences. Everything is bigger than life, and lively in ways that recent American superhero films (Spiderman or the Batman franchise, for instance — I haven’t seen Hellboy — are utterly unable to match). But To doesn’t dwell on the special effects, or make them the spectacular center of the film — they are just there, alongside the usual naturalistic views of Hong Kong streets and Buddhist monasteries, and (towards the end of the film) the mountains of Shanxi. As in other To films, there’s an obliqueness of presentation, a fragmenting of the visual field, and a temporal scrambling due to a fluid use of flashbacks. I’m tempted to say that, while this is an extravagant film, the extravagance is understated. And this is a large part of the affective pull of the film, the way it sublimates both melodrama/tragedy and behaviorist comedy into its cool but unironic mood.
Lau’s character is a former martial arts monk, who left the monastery after facing personal trauma. Now he mostly performs in male strip clubs and at bodybuilding competitions (when he isn’t dodging the Hong Kong police, who keep on deporting him back to the mainland as an illegal immigrant). But besides his skills of strength, he has a gift which is also a curse: he is able to see other people’s karma. When he looks at them he sees images of their past lives, which appear as transparent flickers on the movie screen. He knows when they are going to suffer or die as payback for past sins. The initial reason he helps Cheung’s cop is because she is so obviously a good person, yet she is threatened with imminent death because in a past life she was a murderous (male) Japanese soldier.
The romantic relationship between these characters is never fully expressed. She adores him, but he refuses all her advances. He feels for her, too, but he’s unwilling to let the feeling out. So they never do more in the course of the film than hold hands for a minute. This unfulfilled desire creates a tension: not a swooning, over-the-top melodramatic one, but more like a muted vibration, an unease that is distantly felt, or a distance that itself turns into the film’s subject.
The major serial killer is caught halfway through the film. After that, the linear plot more or less dissolves. Instead we have just the characters’ relationship, something which cannot “develop” dramatically. A deadlock, which the film expresses and expands by forgoing action for long stretches, in favor of inconclusive meetings between the protagonists.
Cheung’s cop ultimately sacrifices herself for Lau’s redemption — after he has been saving her for most of the film. Her death is disturbing, and is repeated several times in the course of the film’s final sequence: but always obliquely, through distance and odd angles, through grainy video footage, as well as through flashbacks that explain what led up to it. To at one point uses what might be called the inverse of a shock cut, as he cuts from a brief image of her impaled head to the pastoral images of one of these flashbacks.
The result is that the cartoony action flick has metamorphosed into a poetic meditation on life, death, and karma. I don’t know enough about Buddhism or Chinese culture to know if the sentiments expressed are anything more than cliche — Yomi says they are total crap — but the concluding sequences worked affectively for me. Whatever sense of peace Lau’s character comes to, this sense remains haunted by Cheung’s absence. Is this just the old story of the woman being sacrificed in order to redeem the man? If so, then it’s one in which the cost of that sacrifice is insistently dwelt upon, instead of being relegated to the background. The entire film is haunted by a sense of missed encounters, as well as by the determination not to accept what nevertheless cannot be averted. So the film is anti-fatalistic in mood (it expresses a determination) at the same time that it depicts a fate which will have its way regardless. How strange and beautiful for this sort of paralysis, this deadlock of will and understanding, to become the overriding mood of an action film.

Running on Karma is the latest Johnny To film I’ve seen, thanks to SIFF. Like the other To films I’ve seen, it twists genre in intriguing and unexpected ways.
Here’s the premise. A female cop (Cecilia Cheung) encounters a muscleman with supernatural powers (Andy Lau, prosthetically enhanced with a Mr Universe-esque torso) who helps her catch brutal serial killers. A relationship develops between them…
Only what I just wrote doesn’t really tell you anything about the film. It takes too many unexpected turns. What starts out as a martial-arts action film turns into something else entirely.
Before I go on, I’d like to praise the film’s visuals. Instead of the gunplay in the other To films I’ve seen, here we have cartoonish special effects for the action sequences. Everything is bigger than life, and lively in ways that recent American superhero films (Spiderman or the Batman franchise, for instance — I haven’t seen Hellboy — are utterly unable to match). But To doesn’t dwell on the special effects, or make them the spectacular center of the film — they are just there, alongside the usual naturalistic views of Hong Kong streets and Buddhist monasteries, and (towards the end of the film) the mountains of Shanxi. As in other To films, there’s an obliqueness of presentation, a fragmenting of the visual field, and a temporal scrambling due to a fluid use of flashbacks. I’m tempted to say that, while this is an extravagant film, the extravagance is understated. And this is a large part of the affective pull of the film, the way it sublimates both melodrama/tragedy and behaviorist comedy into its cool but unironic mood.
Lau’s character is a former martial arts monk, who left the monastery after facing personal trauma. Now he mostly performs in male strip clubs and at bodybuilding competitions (when he isn’t dodging the Hong Kong police, who keep on deporting him back to the mainland as an illegal immigrant). But besides his skills of strength, he has a gift which is also a curse: he is able to see other people’s karma. When he looks at them he sees images of their past lives, which appear as transparent flickers on the movie screen. He knows when they are going to suffer or die as payback for past sins. The initial reason he helps Cheung’s cop is because she is so obviously a good person, yet she is threatened with imminent death because in a past life she was a murderous (male) Japanese soldier.
The romantic relationship between these characters is never fully expressed. She adores him, but he refuses all her advances. He feels for her, too, but he’s unwilling to let the feeling out. So they never do more in the course of the film than hold hands for a minute. This unfulfilled desire creates a tension: not a swooning, over-the-top melodramatic one, but more like a muted vibration, an unease that is distantly felt, or a distance that itself turns into the film’s subject.
The major serial killer is caught halfway through the film. After that, the linear plot more or less dissolves. Instead we have just the characters’ relationship, something which cannot “develop” dramatically. A deadlock, which the film expresses and expands by forgoing action for long stretches, in favor of inconclusive meetings between the protagonists.
Cheung’s cop ultimately sacrifices herself for Lau’s redemption — after he has been saving her for most of the film. Her death is disturbing, and is repeated several times in the course of the film’s final sequence: but always obliquely, through distance and odd angles, through grainy video footage, as well as through flashbacks that explain what led up to it. To at one point uses what might be called the inverse of a shock cut, as he cuts from a brief image of her impaled head to the pastoral images of one of these flashbacks.
The result is that the cartoony action flick has metamorphosed into a poetic meditation on life, death, and karma. I don’t know enough about Buddhism or Chinese culture to know if the sentiments expressed are anything more than cliche — Yomi says they are total crap — but the concluding sequences worked affectively for me. Whatever sense of peace Lau’s character comes to, this sense remains haunted by Cheung’s absence. Is this just the old story of the woman being sacrificed in order to redeem the man? If so, then it’s one in which the cost of that sacrifice is insistently dwelt upon, instead of being relegated to the background. The entire film is haunted by a sense of missed encounters, as well as by the determination not to accept what nevertheless cannot be averted. So the film is anti-fatalistic in mood (it expresses a determination) at the same time that it depicts a fate which will have its way regardless. How strange and beautiful for this sort of paralysis, this deadlock of will and understanding, to become the overriding mood of an action film.

Arimpara

Murali Nair’s Arimpara, which I saw last night at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a strangely beautiful and unsettling film. It takes the form of a fable, about a man — a rural landowner in the south Indian state of Kerala — who one day discovers a mole, or wart, on his chin. In the course of the film, the wart grows and grows, until it becomes a gross, purulent excrescence with a demented cackle and a will of its own.
Arimpara is a mysterious film because of the way it resists simple categorization. Much of the film is naturalistic in style: we see the landowner’s daily life with his wife and his son, his religious observances and enjoyment of nature, and of course his servants, and the peasants who toil for him in the fields. The film conveys a sense of ordinariness, of tradition, of quotidian repetition, and of hierarchical class relations that go unquestioned by the people enmeshed in them.
But the narrative of the growth of the landowner’s wart disrupts this naturalism. At first, the wart is small, and its presence seems only to be a reflection of the protagonist’s narcissism: he spends much time looking at it in the mirror, but he resists suggestions that it should be removed through medical treatment. He prefers to use traditional herbal remedies, which he prepares himself, just as he prefers the traditional way of farming, and refuses to buy a tractor to work his land according to modern methods.
As the wart grows, though, and the landowner’s life falls apart — he’s abandoned by his wife and child, and by most of the servants — the stylistic naturalism of the film gives way to grotesquerie. Finally, in the last twenty minutes or so, the tone becomes one of chintzy horror, with the very low-tech prosthetic effect of the wart rupturing any illusion of naturalism, and the plot careening into body disgust at the verge of the absurd. One is torn between revulsion (at the visceral excess, reminiscent of early Cronenberg, of the wart) and laughter (at the way the film flirts with campy excess, or at least sardonic black humor).
Nair’s visual style of elegant minimalism — his careful frame compositions and his use of shadows — remains beautiful throughout; but by the end of the film, this elegance of presentation has come into total conflict what what is actually depicted within the frame. This dissonance is what drives the film: the horror story seems to be allegorical, while the setting and background work in social realist terms. The film at once moves us by absorbing us into the social setting, and alienates and distances us with its tackiness and artificiality.
I’m not sure I have the cultural context to flesh out the film’s allegorical meanings: the growth of the wart seems to have something to do with the landowner’s traditionalism, his superstitious reverence for the past and unwillingness to embrace the new; and it also seems to have something to do with the class privilege that he takes for granted, and that he has inherited from his much more violent ancestors (we are told several times about a knife, with which his grandfather — I think — both shaved off body hair that displeased his mistresses, and killed peasants who dared to challenge him). But beyond that, I don’t really know (there’s a final metamorphosis, which I will not describe here, but which raises still more questions about the entire allegorical import of the film).

Murali Nair’s Arimpara, which I saw last night at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a strangely beautiful and unsettling film. It takes the form of a fable, about a man — a rural landowner in the south Indian state of Kerala — who one day discovers a mole, or wart, on his chin. In the course of the film, the wart grows and grows, until it becomes a gross, purulent excrescence with a demented cackle and a will of its own.
Arimpara is a mysterious film because of the way it resists simple categorization. Much of the film is naturalistic in style: we see the landowner’s daily life with his wife and his son, his religious observances and enjoyment of nature, and of course his servants, and the peasants who toil for him in the fields. The film conveys a sense of ordinariness, of tradition, of quotidian repetition, and of hierarchical class relations that go unquestioned by the people enmeshed in them.
But the narrative of the growth of the landowner’s wart disrupts this naturalism. At first, the wart is small, and its presence seems only to be a reflection of the protagonist’s narcissism: he spends much time looking at it in the mirror, but he resists suggestions that it should be removed through medical treatment. He prefers to use traditional herbal remedies, which he prepares himself, just as he prefers the traditional way of farming, and refuses to buy a tractor to work his land according to modern methods.
As the wart grows, though, and the landowner’s life falls apart — he’s abandoned by his wife and child, and by most of the servants — the stylistic naturalism of the film gives way to grotesquerie. Finally, in the last twenty minutes or so, the tone becomes one of chintzy horror, with the very low-tech prosthetic effect of the wart rupturing any illusion of naturalism, and the plot careening into body disgust at the verge of the absurd. One is torn between revulsion (at the visceral excess, reminiscent of early Cronenberg, of the wart) and laughter (at the way the film flirts with campy excess, or at least sardonic black humor).
Nair’s visual style of elegant minimalism — his careful frame compositions and his use of shadows — remains beautiful throughout; but by the end of the film, this elegance of presentation has come into total conflict what what is actually depicted within the frame. This dissonance is what drives the film: the horror story seems to be allegorical, while the setting and background work in social realist terms. The film at once moves us by absorbing us into the social setting, and alienates and distances us with its tackiness and artificiality. This conflict short-circuits any obvious responses to the film, and forces us into a sort of fascinated emotional turmoil.
I’m not sure I have the cultural context to flesh out the film’s allegorical meanings: the growth of the wart seems to have something to do with the landowner’s traditionalism, his superstitious reverence for the past and unwillingness to embrace the new; and it also seems to have something to do with the class privilege that he takes for granted, and that he has inherited from his much more violent ancestors (we are told several times about a knife, with which his grandfather — I think — both shaved off body hair that displeased his mistresses, and killed peasants who dared to challenge him). But beyond that, I don’t really know (there’s a final metamorphosis, which I will not describe here, but which raises still more questions about the entire allegorical import of the film).

Zatoichi

Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Zatoichi, is a delightful neo/post/self-reflexive/whatever samurai epic. The character of Zatoichi has appeared in well over twenty films, none of which I have seen. He’s a blind swordsman with superhuman powers (apparently he can locate his opponents, and cut them with precision, by hearing alone). Kitano doesn’t spoof or ironize the series, though he has a great deal of fun with it. (He plays the main character, as well as writing and directing the film). Like all of Kitano’s films, Zatoichi is deadpan, dry, and understated. There is relatively little dialogue. There’s no gross-out dwelling on the violence, though Kitano does display a fondness for ridiculous spurts of blood. Also, as in all of Kitano’s films, there are lots of sight gags (and also, if I can use the phrase, sound gags) based on the manipulation of the formal properties of film (cunning tricks of framing, camera movement, and sound/image synchronization, and the like).
There’s little to say about the film, really, since Kitano’s touch is so light; he remakes the samurai/sword genre in his own image, but doesn’t undermine it or put a revisionist spin on it, or pretend that it’s something more profound than it is. The blind swordsman comes to town disguised as a wandering masseur, wins money at gambling (he can tell by the sound of the falling dice whether the total is odd or even), and almost casually helps to right wrongs, cleanse the town of all its rival gangs, and give justice (or exact revenge) on behalf of a brother and sister who are looking for the killers of their family. (Oh, I almost forgot — the brother is a cross-dresser, and the two siblings disguise themselves as geisha as they search for revenge — but, as with everything else in the film, this is all done casually and without pretension or special emphasis).
Kitano can be compared to Quentin Tarantino; they are both brilliant filmmakers who evidently love and unironically resuscitate/update old trash/violent genres. But Kitano is less grandiose than Tarantino; that is to say, Kitano never gives you that Tarantinoesque sense that he is sitting you down and insistently showing you his entire video collection of cool oldies and rarities.

Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Zatoichi, is a delightful neo/post/self-reflexive/whatever samurai epic. The character of Zatoichi has appeared in well over twenty films, none of which I have seen. He’s a blind swordsman with superhuman powers (apparently he can locate his opponents, and cut them with precision, by hearing alone). Kitano doesn’t spoof or ironize the series, though he has a great deal of fun with it. (He plays the main character, as well as writing and directing the film). Like all of Kitano’s films, Zatoichi is deadpan, dry, and understated. There is relatively little dialogue. There’s no gross-out dwelling on the violence, though Kitano does display a fondness for ridiculous spurts of blood. Also, as in all of Kitano’s films, there are lots of sight gags (and also, if I can use the phrase, sound gags) based on the manipulation of the formal properties of film (cunning tricks of framing, camera movement, and sound/image synchronization, and the like).
There’s little to say about the film, really, since Kitano’s touch is so light; he remakes the samurai/sword genre in his own image, but doesn’t undermine it or put a revisionist spin on it, or pretend that it’s something more profound than it is. The blind swordsman comes to town disguised as a wandering masseur, wins money at gambling (he can tell by the sound of the falling dice whether the total is odd or even), and almost casually helps to right wrongs, cleanse the town of all its rival gangs, and give justice (or exact revenge) on behalf of a brother and sister who are looking for the killers of their family. (Oh, I almost forgot — the brother is a cross-dresser, and the two siblings disguise themselves as geisha as they search for revenge — but, as with everything else in the film, this is all done casually and without pretension or special emphasis).
Kitano can be compared to Quentin Tarantino; they are both brilliant filmmakers who evidently love and unironically resuscitate/update old trash/violent genres. But Kitano is less grandiose than Tarantino; that is to say, Kitano never gives you that Tarantinoesque sense that he is sitting you down and insistently showing you his entire video collection of cool oldies and rarities.

Guy Maddin

The first two films I’ve seen at the Seattle International Film Festival are Guy Maddin’s two most recent films, Cowards Bend the Knee and The Saddest Music in the World. They were both of a piece with Maddin’s earlier work: murky, scratchy mostly black-and-white cinematography, emulating silent film (or rather the decayed state of 75-year-old silent film reels), and kitschy, beyond absurd, hyper-melodramatic plots, with over-the-top oedipal and incestuous fantasies and an obsession with amputation and bodily disfigurement, all played in ridiculously over-effusive camp style, and yet ultimately hyper-emotional, as if the camp were not so much a deflation of the emotion as its protective coloration.
The Saddest Music in the World stars Isabella Rossellini as a Canadian beer baron with no legs (though at one point she is given glass, beer-filled legs as a substitute). She holds a contest to find the saddest music in the world, since she firmly believes that sad people buy the most beer. There are two brothers in conflict (a frequent configuration in Maddin films) who also represent crass American optimism and go-getterism on the one hand, and old European melancholia on the other. (Their father, the mediator between them, stands in for Canadian dourness). Everything ultimately issues in catastrophe, needless to say. The film has rightly been touted as Maddin’s most accessible, which is not necessarily a bad thing, though it doesn’t have the density of some of his other works.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to think that Cowards Bend the Knee is the best thing that Maddin has ever done: which is saying a lot. It’s a silent film (with music), which manages to crowd in ice hockey, hairdressing, prostitution, abortions back in the day when they were illegal, revenge melodrama, amour fou, miscegenation, amputated hands, homoerotic humiliation, patriarchal humiliation, ghosts, Communism, and spermatazoa under a microscope, all in a span of only 60 minutes.
Visually, Cowards is amazing: blurry, slightly out of focus expressive montage, with obsessively repeated images, the fragmentation and multiplication of crucial events via closeups, rapid jump cuts, and zooms, and an extraordinary tonal luminosity in the black-and-white; as well as other things I won’t be able to describe until I see the film a few more times. Maddin gives the effect of shooting an MTV video on primitive equipment; he shows how contemporary digital effects are grounded in the cinematic language and techniques of the 1920s (not just Soviet montage, but Griffith melodramas as well). The result is to suggest, at one and the same time, archaism and the invention of an entirely new cinematic language.
Maddin often uses camp in order to disavow, or provide a cover for, the strongly affective elements of his work. But in Cowards, the camp elements barely work for disavowal; they just add to the general atmosphere of delirium. The more retro and conservative the film’s postures (with its array of Victorian-via-silent-film postures and acting techniques), the more it delves into territory that makes Bunuel seem prudish in comparison.
Cowards, like all of Maddin’s films only more so, is about cognitive dissonance (fusing elements that cannot possibly fit together), morbid nostalgia (a dwelling on the past, precisely in its irrevocable pastness, its fatal unchangeableness which is also, ironically, its constant changedness due to memory loss and physical decay), and the psychology of abjection (in which every impulsion of desire, no matter how slight, is paid for in excruciating rituals of humiliation). It’s something that has to be seen again and again.

The first two films I’ve seen at the Seattle International Film Festival are Guy Maddin’s two most recent films, Cowards Bend the Knee and The Saddest Music in the World. They were both of a piece with Maddin’s earlier work: murky, scratchy mostly black-and-white cinematography, emulating silent film (or rather the decayed state of 75-year-old silent film reels), and kitschy, beyond absurd, hyper-melodramatic plots, with over-the-top oedipal and incestuous fantasies and an obsession with amputation and bodily disfigurement, all played in ridiculously over-effusive camp style, and yet ultimately hyper-emotional, as if the camp were not so much a deflation of the emotion as its protective coloration.
The Saddest Music in the World stars Isabella Rossellini as a Canadian beer baron with no legs (though at one point she is given glass, beer-filled legs as a substitute). She holds a contest to find the saddest music in the world, since she firmly believes that sad people buy the most beer. There are two brothers in conflict (a frequent configuration in Maddin films) who also represent crass American optimism and go-getterism on the one hand, and old European melancholia on the other. (Their father, the mediator between them, stands in for Canadian dourness). Everything ultimately issues in catastrophe, needless to say. The film has rightly been touted as Maddin’s most accessible, which is not necessarily a bad thing, though it doesn’t have the density of some of his other works.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to think that Cowards Bend the Knee is the best thing that Maddin has ever done: which is saying a lot. It’s a silent film (with music), which manages to crowd in ice hockey, hairdressing, prostitution, abortions back in the day when they were illegal, revenge melodrama, amour fou, miscegenation, amputated hands, homoerotic humiliation, patriarchal humiliation, ghosts, Communism, and spermatazoa under a microscope, all in a span of only 60 minutes.
Visually, Cowards is amazing: blurry, slightly out of focus expressive montage, with obsessively repeated images, the fragmentation and multiplication of crucial events via closeups, rapid jump cuts, and zooms, and an extraordinary tonal luminosity in the black-and-white; as well as other things I won’t be able to describe until I see the film a few more times. Maddin gives the effect of shooting an MTV video on primitive equipment; he shows how contemporary digital effects are grounded in the cinematic language and techniques of the 1920s (not just Soviet montage, but Griffith melodramas as well). The result is to suggest, at one and the same time, archaism and the invention of an entirely new cinematic language.
Maddin often uses camp in order to disavow, or provide a cover for, the strongly affective elements of his work. But in Cowards, the camp elements barely work for disavowal; they just add to the general atmosphere of delirium. The more retro and conservative the film’s postures (with its array of Victorian-via-silent-film postures and acting techniques), the more it delves into territory that makes Bunuel seem prudish in comparison.
Cowards, like all of Maddin’s films only more so, is about cognitive dissonance (fusing elements that cannot possibly fit together), morbid nostalgia (a dwelling on the past, precisely in its irrevocable pastness, its fatal unchangeableness which is also, ironically, its constant changedness due to memory loss and physical decay), and the psychology of abjection (in which every impulsion of desire, no matter how slight, is paid for in excruciating rituals of humiliation). It’s something that has to be seen again and again.

Movies and Piracy

The Seattle International Film Festival got underway last night. It’s an enormous event, with something like 250 feature films shown in the space of 3 1/2 weeks. There are lots of things I’m dying to see, from Guy Maddin’s two most recent films to a restored 70mm print of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and the director’s cut (with much restored footage) of Donnie Darko to new films, about which I’ve heard great things, by Pen-ek Rantanaruang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wang Xiaoshuai.
Every year, I buy a Full Series Pass to the Festival. I used to see 40 or 45 films in the course of the Festival. But now, with a small child at home and being busy with preparations for moving across the continent, I won’t be able to manage anywhere near that number.
What especially caught my attention, though, was the following alert sent out by the Festival to all full series pass holders:

NO RECORDING DEVICES AT SIFF SCREENINGS
Due to piracy prevention efforts mandated by the motion picture industry and our film suppliers, recording devices of any kind (including camera phones) will not be allowed into festival venues. This policy will be strictly enforced. At certain screenings film studio representatives may require a physical search of your person or personal property upon entrance to festival venues.   These searches are in no way intended for any materials other than possible recording devices–this includes cellular telephones equipped with cameras.  We apologize for the inconvenience and will take every step to make these searches as quick, efficient and unintrusive as possible. We do not have facilities to hold or secure these items during film screenings. We strongly suggest that you leave any cameras and cell phones with cameras at home or in your car.

This says a lot about the insane levels of paranoia in Hollywood today, and the sickness of their crusade against piracy. Obviously SIFF can only show local premieres of all those hot new indie soon-to-be-releases by allowing the industry to send its goons to conduct “physical searches.” I’m assuming this is less likely to happen at screenings of the obscure Asian art films I’m most inclined to go to, than at screenings of American films that will be opening soon in the theaters anyway.
But I wonder how far they will carry this. Will they make filmgoers strip, just in case they are hiding illicit recording devices inside their underwear? Will they give refunds to banned filmgoers? Will they compensate us for the trouble they cause us?
I’ve said it many times, the current copyright code is so restrictive and so destructive of any possibility of free speech or creativity, that I believe that violating said code, by disseminating copies of music, movies, etc, for free, is a virtuous act of civil disobedience.
But cameraphones? The picture quality is so poor, and the amount of storage is so low, that I wouldn’t be able to capture images & sounds worth pirating even if I tried.
This draconian regulation puts me in a dilemma. My mobile phone is a cameraphone. It can take pictures, sort of. But it is basically a phone. If I leave it behind when I go to the movies in the evening, then when the movie’s over I won’t be able to call for a taxi, in order to get home. This is a problem, since I can’t drive. Buses in Seattle are fine during the day, but the schedule is much restricted at night, and the bus that goes near my house simply stops running after about 7pm. I don’t relish the thought of waiting half an hour for a bus, then taking a forty-minute ride, then having to walk almost half an hour in the dark in the middle of the night.
So I’m bringing my phone with me to every SIFF screening. What will happen? Will I be asked to submit to a physical search? Will I be ejected from films I very much want to see, and that I have paid for, because I refuse to surrender my device? Will I start frothing at the mouth and shouting obscenities, be blacklisted from SIFF forever, and show up on the nightly news?
Stay tuned.

The Seattle International Film Festival got underway last night. It’s an enormous event, with something like 250 feature films shown in the space of 3 1/2 weeks. There are lots of things I’m dying to see, from Guy Maddin’s two most recent films to a restored 70mm print of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and the director’s cut (with much restored footage) of Donnie Darko to new films, about which I’ve heard great things, by Pen-ek Rantanaruang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wang Xiaoshuai.
Every year, I buy a Full Series Pass to the Festival. I used to see 40 or 45 films in the course of the Festival. But now, with a small child at home and being busy with preparations for moving across the continent, I won’t be able to manage anywhere near that number.
What especially caught my attention, though, was the following alert sent out by the Festival to all full series pass holders:

NO RECORDING DEVICES AT SIFF SCREENINGS
Due to piracy prevention efforts mandated by the motion picture industry and our film suppliers, recording devices of any kind (including camera phones) will not be allowed into festival venues. This policy will be strictly enforced. At certain screenings film studio representatives may require a physical search of your person or personal property upon entrance to festival venues.   These searches are in no way intended for any materials other than possible recording devices–this includes cellular telephones equipped with cameras.  We apologize for the inconvenience and will take every step to make these searches as quick, efficient and unintrusive as possible. We do not have facilities to hold or secure these items during film screenings. We strongly suggest that you leave any cameras and cell phones with cameras at home or in your car.

This says a lot about the insane levels of paranoia in Hollywood today, and the sickness of their crusade against piracy. Obviously SIFF can only show local premieres of all those hot new indie soon-to-be-releases by allowing the industry to send its goons to conduct “physical searches.” I’m assuming this is less likely to happen at screenings of the obscure Asian art films I’m most inclined to go to, than at screenings of American films that will be opening soon in the theaters anyway.
But I wonder how far they will carry this. Will they make filmgoers strip, just in case they are hiding illicit recording devices inside their underwear? Will they give refunds to banned filmgoers? Will they compensate us for the trouble they cause us?
I’ve said it many times, the current copyright code is so restrictive and so destructive of any possibility of free speech or creativity, that I believe that violating said code, by disseminating copies of music, movies, etc, for free, is a virtuous act of civil disobedience.
But cameraphones? The picture quality is so poor, and the amount of storage is so low, that I wouldn’t be able to capture images & sounds worth pirating even if I tried.
This draconian regulation puts me in a dilemma. My mobile phone is a cameraphone. It can take pictures, sort of. But it is basically a phone. If I leave it behind when I go to the movies in the evening, then when the movie’s over I won’t be able to call for a taxi, in order to get home. This is a problem, since I can’t drive. Buses in Seattle are fine during the day, but the schedule is much restricted at night, and the bus that goes near my house simply stops running after about 7pm. I don’t relish the thought of waiting half an hour for a bus, then taking a forty-minute ride, then having to walk almost half an hour in the dark in the middle of the night.
So I’m bringing my phone with me to every SIFF screening. What will happen? Will I be asked to submit to a physical search? Will I be ejected from films I very much want to see, and that I have paid for, because I refuse to surrender my device? Will I start frothing at the mouth and shouting obscenities, be blacklisted from SIFF forever, and show up on the nightly news?
Stay tuned.

Kill Bill 2

Tarantino continues to surprise. Despite everything I had read, I was still unprepared for how different Kill Bill 2 was from its predecessor. For one thing, there’s the return of dialogue: slower and less character-revelatory than in Tarantino’s earlier films, but still quite florid compared to Volume 1. For another, the visual sense of Volume 2 is subtler, if less spectacular, than that of Volume 1. Instead of over-the-top bloodbaths orchestrated like musical production numbers, we get a lot of images of emptiness and waiting between the bits of action. Partly its the desert of the Southwest and Mexico, and the way Tarantino adjusts his visual codes accordingly: the vast empty spaces of Sergio Leone, instead of the baroque mise en scene of Vincente Minnelli. These visual differences have to do with a difference in rhythm: the relative slowness of Volume 2 gives it an affective weight that the ice-cold Volume 1 did not have. (I note that Leone’s films also do a lot with temporality). (There’s also the shift from Japanese samurai films that inspired Volume 1, to the Shaw Brothers and other Hong Kong martial arts films that inspired Volume 2: but I don’t know the genres well enough to comment on the effect of this).
We still don’t have characters like those of Tarantino’s earlier films; though David Carradine’s Bill is rather fascinating, and Michael Madsen’s Budd and Darryl Hannah’s Elle are both quite entertaining. Uma Thurman’s protagonist remains something of a cipher; but I think that this is precisely the point of the film. For what Volume 2 is ultimately about — so powerfully that Volume 1 turns out in retrospect to be about this as well — is the transfiguration and utter exaltation of Uma Thurman. She emerges from death, passing through the grave to be resplendently reborn, not once, but twice (well, figuratively, from a coma, in Volume 1; and literally from the grave in Volume 2). She becomes the center of every value, and every affirmation, in Tarantino’s cinematic universe. She’s both the Warrior and the Nurturer; or better, the Shiva-like Destroyer, the Brahma-like Creator, and the Vishnu-like Preserver, all in one. (I await the film in which Tarantino goes Bollywood). Tarantino manages to get away with an ending that situates Thurman as loving Mom, without that negating her capacity for violence.
Tarantino’s exaltation of Uma Thurman is as extreme and loony, in its way, as Josef von Sternberg’s exaltation of Marlene Dietrich. Of course there are differences. Dietrich is the center of visual fascination, the focus of every shot, the one bright figure emerging out of otherwise ubiquitous chiaroscuro; she makes things happen in the films, less by explicit action, than by the sheer magnetism of the spectacle she produces. The dynamics of Kill Bill are quite different. Thurman is to Dietrich, you might say, as Clint Eastwood is to Humphrey Bogart. Thurman shares much of Eastwood’s eerie affectlessness; the spectacle is not herself, her face and body and clothing, but the action — the mayhem — she creates. And Thurman’s affectlessness results in vicarious identification; in contrast to the delirious, spectacular objectification of Dietrich. But Thurman is being exalted here, as much as Dietrich ever was; it’s as if Tarantino were kissing the very ground she walks on (and sometimes through).
All this means that Tarantino scrambles the gender codes of cinematic spectatorship, in a way that hot-action-babes films like Charlie’s Angels emphatically do not.
Now, I don’t want to claim that this is necessarily progressive or feminist; nor do I want to psychoanalyze it (enough people have already written about Tarantino’s having been raised, like Bill Clinton, by a single mother, and how this relates to the Oedipal configuration of the film: kill Daddy, so that mother and daughter can reconstitute their blissful dyad). (For all of this, see B Ruby Rich on the film — link found via Green Cine).
Much as I enjoy the fundamental kinkiness of Kill Bill 2, I don’t want to mistake kinkiness for a political gesture.
Kill Bill is evidently still a heterosexual-male fetishist film (as so much cinema always has been, in Hollywood and elsewhere); but it does perform its rites in a genuinely new, and wonderfully crazy, way. And it may well be symptomatic of how hetero masculinity is currently being reinvented — in terms of how it relates to hetero femininity — after films like Fight Club have pushed traditional hypermasculinity to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum.
Tarantino has always been a hyper-aesthete (which is the reason his films have struck many viewers as morally deficient, whether in their reveling in violence or their casual and all too self-congratulatory play with gender, and especially racial/racist, stereotypes). But in Kill Bill 2 we finally get the affect behind this hyper-aestheticism. It’s an affect that can only be expressed through affectlessness, and a hetero masculinity that can only be expressed through a powerful female protagonist. But in its twisted way, it humanizes Tarantino as much as his previous films (and especially Kill Bill 1) had apparently dehumanized him.

Tarantino continues to surprise. Despite everything I had read, I was still unprepared for how different Kill Bill 2 was from its predecessor. For one thing, there’s the return of dialogue: slower and less character-revelatory than in Tarantino’s earlier films, but still quite florid compared to Volume 1. For another, the visual sense of Volume 2 is subtler, if less spectacular, than that of Volume 1. Instead of over-the-top bloodbaths orchestrated like musical production numbers, we get a lot of images of emptiness and waiting between the bits of action. Partly its the desert of the Southwest and Mexico, and the way Tarantino adjusts his visual codes accordingly: the vast empty spaces of Sergio Leone, instead of the baroque mise en scene of Vincente Minnelli. These visual differences have to do with a difference in rhythm: the relative slowness of Volume 2 gives it an affective weight that the ice-cold Volume 1 did not have. (I note that Leone’s films also do a lot with temporality). (There’s also the shift from Japanese samurai films that inspired Volume 1, to the Shaw Brothers and other Hong Kong martial arts films that inspired Volume 2: but I don’t know the genres well enough to comment on the effect of this).
We still don’t have characters like those of Tarantino’s earlier films; though David Carradine’s Bill is rather fascinating, and Michael Madsen’s Budd and Darryl Hannah’s Elle are both quite entertaining. Uma Thurman’s protagonist remains something of a cipher; but I think that this is precisely the point of the film. For what Volume 2 is ultimately about — so powerfully that Volume 1 turns out in retrospect to be about this as well — is the transfiguration and utter exaltation of Uma Thurman. She emerges from death, passing through the grave to be resplendently reborn, not once, but twice (well, figuratively, from a coma, in Volume 1; and literally from the grave in Volume 2). She becomes the center of every value, and every affirmation, in Tarantino’s cinematic universe. She’s both the Warrior and the Nurturer; or better, the Shiva-like Destroyer, the Brahma-like Creator, and the Vishnu-like Preserver, all in one. (I await the film in which Tarantino goes Bollywood). Tarantino manages to get away with an ending that situates Thurman as loving Mom, without that negating her capacity for violence.
Tarantino’s exaltation of Uma Thurman is as extreme and loony, in its way, as Josef von Sternberg’s exaltation of Marlene Dietrich. Of course there are differences. Dietrich is the center of visual fascination, the focus of every shot, the one bright figure emerging out of otherwise ubiquitous chiaroscuro; she makes things happen in the films, less by explicit action, than by the sheer magnetism of the spectacle she produces. The dynamics of Kill Bill are quite different. Thurman is to Dietrich, you might say, as Clint Eastwood is to Humphrey Bogart. Thurman shares much of Eastwood’s eerie affectlessness; the spectacle is not herself, her face and body and clothing, but the action — the mayhem — she creates. And Thurman’s affectlessness results in vicarious identification; in contrast to the delirious, spectacular objectification of Dietrich. But Thurman is being exalted here, as much as Dietrich ever was; it’s as if Tarantino were kissing the very ground she walks on (and sometimes through).
All this means that Tarantino scrambles the gender codes of cinematic spectatorship, in a way that hot-action-babes films like Charlie’s Angels emphatically do not.
Now, I don’t want to claim that this is necessarily progressive or feminist; nor do I want to psychoanalyze it (enough people have already written about Tarantino’s having been raised, like Bill Clinton, by a single mother, and how this relates to the Oedipal configuration of the film: kill Daddy, so that mother and daughter can reconstitute their blissful dyad). (For all of this, see B Ruby Rich on the film — link found via Green Cine).
Much as I enjoy the fundamental kinkiness of Kill Bill 2, I don’t want to mistake kinkiness for a political gesture.
Kill Bill is evidently still a heterosexual-male fetishist film (as so much cinema always has been, in Hollywood and elsewhere); but it does perform its rites in a genuinely new, and wonderfully crazy, way. And it may well be symptomatic of how hetero masculinity is currently being reinvented — in terms of how it relates to hetero femininity — after films like Fight Club have pushed traditional hypermasculinity to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum.
Tarantino has always been a hyper-aesthete (which is the reason his films have struck many viewers as morally deficient, whether in their reveling in violence or their casual and all too self-congratulatory play with gender, and especially racial/racist, stereotypes). But in Kill Bill 2 we finally get the affect behind this hyper-aestheticism. It’s an affect that can only be expressed through affectlessness, and a hetero masculinity that can only be expressed through a powerful female protagonist. But in its twisted way, it humanizes Tarantino as much as his previous films (and especially Kill Bill 1) had apparently dehumanized him.

Tattooed Life

Tattooed Life isn’t Seijun Suzuki’s best film, and it’s far from his most delirious; but still it’s filled with astonishing visual inventions, in fight sequences and elsewhere, that Quentin Tarantino would die for, and surprising emotional depths that Tarantino would never be able to comprehend. I saw this film originally when Scarecrow Video brought Suzuki to Seattle for a retrospective of his films; and now that it has finally come out on American DVD, I’ve been able to see it again.
In the Q&As after nearly all the screenings at that retrospective, Suzuki evaded nearly all the questions he was asked, disclaiming any artistic intent whatsoever, and saying only that he violated continuity rules and skewed camera angles, turned fight scenes into abstract tableaux, mixed genre signals, presented convoluted plot turns as elliptical asides, created absurdly heightened symbolic color schemes, and so on, because he was trying to keep the audience entertained.
In a way, I suppose, he was telling the truth; for the extravagances of Suzuki’s directorial style — at least in his earlier, pre-1967 films; I’m less sure about his hyperstylized recent efforts like Pistol Opera — seem to be refreshingly free of auteurist pretensions. Suzuki doesn’t take his own dedication to pulp with the self-conscious, self-congratulatory seriousness of (yes, again) Quentin Tarantino; rather, Suzuki’s films are themselves so self-conscious and expressionist and daringly extreme that Suzuki himself doesn’t (or didn’t) need to be.

Tattooed Life isn’t Seijun Suzuki’s best film, and it’s far from his most delirious; but still it’s filled with astonishing visual inventions, in fight sequences and elsewhere, that Quentin Tarantino would die for, and surprising emotional depths that Tarantino would never be able to comprehend. I saw this film originally when Scarecrow Video brought Suzuki to Seattle for a retrospective of his films; and now that it has finally come out on American DVD, I’ve been able to see it again.
In the Q&As after nearly all the screenings at that retrospective, Suzuki evaded nearly all the questions he was asked, disclaiming any artistic intent whatsoever, and saying only that he violated continuity rules and skewed camera angles, turned fight scenes into abstract tableaux, mixed genre signals, presented convoluted plot turns as elliptical asides, created absurdly heightened symbolic color schemes, and so on, because he was trying to keep the audience entertained.
In a way, I suppose, he was telling the truth; for the extravagances of Suzuki’s directorial style — at least in his earlier, pre-1967 films; I’m less sure about his hyperstylized recent efforts like Pistol Opera — seem to be refreshingly free of auteurist pretensions. Suzuki doesn’t take his own dedication to pulp with the self-conscious, self-congratulatory seriousness of (yes, again) Quentin Tarantino; rather, Suzuki’s films are themselves so self-conscious and expressionist and daringly extreme that Suzuki himself doesn’t (or didn’t) need to be.

Ripley’s Game

Ripley’s Game, directed by Liliana Cavani, and starring John Malkovich, is the best film adaptation of any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels that I have seen. I like it far better than Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, based on the same novel; I also vastly prefer it to Rene Clement’s so-so Purple Noon, based on The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Admittedly I haven’t seen Anthony Minghella’s version of the latter; let’s just say that I am unable to imagine a possible world in which it would be any good, and leave it at that).
The film struck me as excellent on its own terms, as well as being quite faithful to Highsmith. (I won’t say much about Highsmith here, except to note that I consider her the greatest crime writer of the 20th century, mistress of a cosmic nihilism, combining cold calculation with even icier passion, that has never been matched).
First of all, because of John Malkovich. Ripley is the role he was born to play. He’s letter-perfect, embodying a combination of chilly amorality and dilettantish aestheticism. His affectlessness is at once creepy and charismatic; the film (like the novel) forces you to identify with him, but makes that identification as uncomfortable as possible. Malkovich as Ripley has the inhuman detachment of a scientist vivisecting insects to satisfy some arcane and purely theoretical curiosity. He barely loses this distance, even when he himself is directly involved and threatened. At the end of the film, when the man he has manipulated and seduced into becoming a killer for hire takes the bullet that was intended for him, Ripley/Malkovich is bemusedly puzzled (but not really disturbed) as to why anybody would do such a thing as sacrifice himself for another.
Second, because of Cavani’s direction. She presents the film, surprisingly but effectively, as more a melodrama than a thriller. The melodramatic sense of oversize emotions cast adrift in a void really works, even though it shouldn’t; and even though the melodrama is understated and implicit, rather than overt. Highsmith’s psychological coldness and creepiness and low affect is far removed from what we usually think of as melodrama, but in a subtle way, this particular story, with its emphasis on the corruption of innocence, lends itself to it.
A word about Cavani. To my mind, she is the most underrated director of her generation (she was born in 1933). She is best known for the s&m/Nazi chic (entirely aesthetically justified, in my view) of The Night Porter; the obsessive love triangle of that film is itself obsessively replicated, with equal success, in such brilliant but little-known films as The Berlin Affair, the incredible Beyond Obsession (a sort of surreptitious remake of Wuthering Heights, with Marcello Mastroianni as a sleazy Heathcliff figure), and the deliriously over-the-top Beyond Good and Evil (the story of the Nietzsche/Lou Andreas-Salome/Paul Ree triangle). Ripley’s Game could itself be considered as a desexualized version of this triangle, with the innocent co-protagonist torn between bourgeois fulfillment with his wife, and the allure of transgression with Ripley. (Not to mention gut-wrenching guilt, which Ripley is entirely insensitive to, but which he feels, and takes a certain morbid delectation in). I should also mention, in a somewhat different register, Cavani’s film about St Francis of Assisi, starring Mickey Rourke (!!!) as the saint — an insane bit of counter-intuitive casting which Cavani nonetheless carries off. Cavani’s films are not very striking visually, but she has a genius for getting the most out of her actors while putting them into incredibly perverse situations, and for pushing the logic of dispropotionate, melodramatic desire to truly outrageous and disturbing extremes.

Ripley’s Game, directed by Liliana Cavani, and starring John Malkovich, is the best film adaptation of any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels that I have seen. I like it far better than Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, based on the same novel; I also vastly prefer it to Rene Clement’s so-so Purple Noon, based on The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Admittedly I haven’t seen Anthony Minghella’s version of the latter; let’s just say that I am unable to imagine a possible world in which it would be any good, and leave it at that).
The film struck me as excellent on its own terms, as well as being quite faithful to Highsmith. (I won’t say much about Highsmith here, except to note that I consider her the greatest crime writer of the 20th century, mistress of a cosmic nihilism, combining cold calculation with even icier passion, that has never been matched).
First of all, because of John Malkovich. Ripley is the role he was born to play. He’s letter-perfect, embodying a combination of chilly amorality and dilettantish aestheticism. His affectlessness is at once creepy and charismatic; the film (like the novel) forces you to identify with him, but makes that identification as uncomfortable as possible. Malkovich as Ripley has the inhuman detachment of a scientist vivisecting insects to satisfy some arcane and purely theoretical curiosity. He barely loses this distance, even when he himself is directly involved and threatened. At the end of the film, when the man he has manipulated and seduced into becoming a killer for hire takes the bullet that was intended for him, Ripley/Malkovich is bemusedly puzzled (but not really disturbed) as to why anybody would do such a thing as sacrifice himself for another.
Second, because of Cavani’s direction. She presents the film, surprisingly but effectively, as more a melodrama than a thriller. The melodramatic sense of oversize emotions cast adrift in a void really works, even though it shouldn’t; and even though the melodrama is understated and implicit, rather than overt. Highsmith’s psychological coldness and creepiness and low affect is far removed from what we usually think of as melodrama, but in a subtle way, this particular story, with its emphasis on the corruption of innocence, lends itself to it.
A word about Cavani. To my mind, she is the most underrated director of her generation (she was born in 1933). She is best known for the s&m/Nazi chic (entirely aesthetically justified, in my view) of The Night Porter; the obsessive love triangle of that film is itself obsessively replicated, with equal success, in such brilliant but little-known films as The Berlin Affair, the incredible Beyond Obsession (a sort of surreptitious remake of Wuthering Heights, with Marcello Mastroianni as a sleazy Heathcliff figure), and the deliriously over-the-top Beyond Good and Evil (the story of the Nietzsche/Lou Andreas-Salome/Paul Ree triangle). Ripley’s Game could itself be considered as a desexualized version of this triangle, with the innocent co-protagonist torn between bourgeois fulfillment with his wife, and the allure of transgression with Ripley. (Not to mention gut-wrenching guilt, which Ripley is entirely insensitive to, but which he feels, and takes a certain morbid delectation in). I should also mention, in a somewhat different register, Cavani’s film about St Francis of Assisi, starring Mickey Rourke (!!!) as the saint — an insane bit of counter-intuitive casting which Cavani nonetheless carries off. Cavani’s films are not very striking visually, but she has a genius for getting the most out of her actors while putting them into incredibly perverse situations, and for pushing the logic of dispropotionate, melodramatic desire to truly outrageous and disturbing extremes.

Masked and Anonymous

Of course it’s ludicrous to discuss Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous as a movie. It only signifies as part of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, as a kind of self-mythologizing metacommentary on his persona(s) and his music.
For what it’s worth, Masked and Anonymous has a barely coherent plot, apocalyptic themes, and gnomic utterances by everyone in the cast. Dylan himself is the enigmatic absence at the center, much as he was in his earlier cinematic opus, Reynaldo and Clara. He sings and plays, and everything in the movie revolves around him, but his actual lines are few and far between, and his actual role in the narrative (such as it is) is minimal and passive.
Now, I’m not one of those Dylanologists, like Greil Marcus and Christopher Ricks, who analyze every line, every tic, every verbal or musical allusion in Dylan’s collected works for hidden depths of significance. It seems to me, when I’ve read such analyses, that they don’t get me very far into understanding the affective power of Dylan’s music. And power the music does have, although intermittently: for every masterpiece like Bringing It All Back Home or Blood on the Tracks or Love and Theft, there’s been a real stinker like Self-Portrait or Street Legal or (sorry, gospel fans and Dylan revisionists) Slow Train Coming.
Masked and Anonymous is interesting for Dylan’s ravaged look — although when he’s on stage, or otherwise opens his mouth, he seems to have weathered his 62 years much better than this look itself would indicate — and in general for the game it plays of making Dylan charismatic precisely by denying us any possibility of an affective connection to him. Nothing is more alluring than the impossibility of pinning another person down: this is what fuels fascination, with a love object or with a celebrity. Dylan just pushes it to an almost absurd ne plus ultra, by being impenetrable to the point of an apocalyptic collapse into a black hole, or some other form of uninterpretable nothingness. There is actually no solution to the enigma, because there isn’t really anything there at all. It’s stupid, but realizing this somehow doesn’t free us from being under the enigma’s spell.
But what does this really tell us about the music, as opposed to the artist’s persona?
(I’m aware, of course, that one can only imperfectly separate the two).
Penelope Cruz’s character in Masked and Anonymous remarks at one point that Dylan’s songs are great because they are completely open to interpretation, they can mean anything you want them to. I don’t believe this for a second; I think that the ambiguities and jokes and mysteries that the Dylanologists enumerate at such exhaustive length are really just smoke and mirrors, distracting us so that the emotional impact of the songs can punch its way through our defenses, and wrench us inside. (And I don’t mean to imply that Dylan has just one emotional tone, either; there’s a great distance between the prophetic surrealism of Bringing It All Back Home, the excruciating intimacy of Blood on the Tracks , and the old man’s jesting apocalypticism of Love and Theft; and the bad albums I mentioned above are themselves failed experiments in generating other affects and moods).
So my final take on Masked and Anonymous is something like this: I enjoyed it, sort of, though not enough to want to ever see it again; I don’t buy its intimations of summing up what/who Dylan really is (and I really don’t care); but I did love how the soundtrack was suffused with versions of Dylan’s songs played by numerous other bands and musicians, in various languages in addition to English, as if the entire world of sound and music had been recreated in Dylan’s image (if that is not too mixed a metaphor).

Of course it’s ludicrous to discuss Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous as a movie. It only signifies as part of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, as a kind of self-mythologizing metacommentary on his persona(s) and his music.
For what it’s worth, Masked and Anonymous has a barely coherent plot, apocalyptic themes, and gnomic utterances by everyone in the cast. Dylan himself is the enigmatic absence at the center, much as he was in his earlier cinematic opus, Reynaldo and Clara. He sings and plays, and everything in the movie revolves around him, but his actual lines are few and far between, and his actual role in the narrative (such as it is) is minimal and passive.
Now, I’m not one of those Dylanologists, like Greil Marcus and Christopher Ricks, who analyze every line, every tic, every verbal or musical allusion in Dylan’s collected works for hidden depths of significance. It seems to me, when I’ve read such analyses, that they don’t get me very far into understanding the affective power of Dylan’s music. And power the music does have, although intermittently: for every masterpiece like Bringing It All Back Home or Blood on the Tracks or Love and Theft, there’s been a real stinker like Self-Portrait or Street Legal or (sorry, gospel fans and Dylan revisionists) Slow Train Coming.
Masked and Anonymous is interesting for Dylan’s ravaged look — although when he’s on stage, or otherwise opens his mouth, he seems to have weathered his 62 years much better than this look itself would indicate — and in general for the game it plays of making Dylan charismatic precisely by denying us any possibility of an affective connection to him. Nothing is more alluring than the impossibility of pinning another person down: this is what fuels fascination, with a love object or with a celebrity. Dylan just pushes it to an almost absurd ne plus ultra, by being impenetrable to the point of an apocalyptic collapse into a black hole, or some other form of uninterpretable nothingness. There is actually no solution to the enigma, because there isn’t really anything there at all. It’s stupid, but realizing this somehow doesn’t free us from being under the enigma’s spell.
But what does this really tell us about the music, as opposed to the artist’s persona?
(I’m aware, of course, that one can only imperfectly separate the two).
Penelope Cruz’s character in Masked and Anonymous remarks at one point that Dylan’s songs are great because they are completely open to interpretation, they can mean anything you want them to. I don’t believe this for a second; I think that the ambiguities and jokes and mysteries that the Dylanologists enumerate at such exhaustive length are really just smoke and mirrors, distracting us so that the emotional impact of the songs can punch its way through our defenses, and wrench us inside. (And I don’t mean to imply that Dylan has just one emotional tone, either; there’s a great distance between the prophetic surrealism of Bringing It All Back Home, the excruciating intimacy of Blood on the Tracks , and the old man’s jesting apocalypticism of Love and Theft; and the bad albums I mentioned above are themselves failed experiments in generating other affects and moods).
So my final take on Masked and Anonymous is something like this: I enjoyed it, sort of, though not enough to want to ever see it again; I don’t buy its intimations of summing up what/who Dylan really is (and I really don’t care); but I did love how the soundtrack was suffused with versions of Dylan’s songs played by numerous other bands and musicians, in various languages in addition to English, as if the entire world of sound and music had been recreated in Dylan’s image (if that is not too mixed a metaphor).

In the Cut

I always find Jane Campion a compelling director, even when her films are bogged down by dubious material, as many of them have been. In the Cut, which flopped in the theaters last year, is no exception.
Start with the worst. The film is based on a novel by Susanna Moore, which I haven’t read; but as a film narrative, at least, it is pretty lame. It’s a not very compelling or tense who’s-the-psycho-murderer thriller, combined with a “descent into the erotic depths” that is totally faux. If Moore’s novel is anything like the screenplay (which she collaborated with Campion on), then it is a calculated simulacrum of “transgression” for readers of The New Yorker that bears about the same relation to the writing of, say, Bataille or Kathy Acker as the singing of Celine Dion does to that of Diamanda Galas, or the exhortations of Tom Peters do to the philosophy of Nietzsche.
Also, as I am scarcely the only one to note, Meg Ryan is totally out of her depth, in a role that was originally intended for Nicole Kidman. Kidman might well have made the eroticism — and the anguish — compelling in a way that Ryan is utterly incapable of doing.
An uncredited Kevin Bacon is wasted in a lame, meaningless role.
And there’s also one black male character whose only function in the film seems to be to add a titillating frisson of dubious racial and sexual stereotypes to the mix. This is a part, I suppose, of the overall strategy of pseudo-transgression: what’s more a taboo object, desired yet feared by the novel’s and film’s presumptive middle class white female audience than a black man?
And yet, and yet… frame by frame, and scene by scene, Campion remains an incredibly brilliant and powerful director. This is partly a matter of composition: the cluttered and fragmented mise en scene, the poetically murky nocturnal lighting, the fragmentation of vision, and the oblique placement of the actors within the frame, all combine to create a grim urban landscape, shot through with an intensity that actors and script are little more than irrelevant occasions for.
But more than this, it’s a matter of what I can only call rhythm. It’s the speed at which shots and scenes unfold, something that’s never constant, but that stutters sometimes, pauses other times, pulls back still other times. Or it’s the way that Campion pauses on an incongruous detail, or conversely, that she pans over such a detail without really giving us time to contemplate it. The reason Campion’s visuals never feel fetishistic is because they never seem to freeze time. Rather, something you can’t quite see is always being unfolded at a speed you can’t quite grasp. The speed is never the “right,” straightforward one, but always oblique to that at which we are accustomed to have narrative develop. It’s not the slowness which so many recent art directors have affected, in lame attempts to emulate Antonioni, but a deeper sense of time folding and unfolding. (This has something to do, of course, with the use of music on the soundtrack: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson’s music here, somewhat like Michael Nyman’s music in The Piano, provides a sort of temporal structure to the film. But I don’t think what I am calling rhythm is only a function of sound; it is also inscribed directly by camera movement or non-movement).
I’m not sure I understand this well enough to give a more rigorous and focused description. But Campion’s films, it seems to me, have a unique way of modulating affect or mood via metamorphoses of duration. And this is what makes In the Cut so powerful and gripping, at least in part, even when acting and plot are completely unconvincing.

I always find Jane Campion a compelling director, even when her films are bogged down by dubious material, as many of them have been. In the Cut, which flopped in the theaters last year, is no exception.
Start with the worst. The film is based on a novel by Susanna Moore, which I haven’t read; but as a film narrative, at least, it is pretty lame. It’s a not very compelling or tense who’s-the-psycho-murderer thriller, combined with a “descent into the erotic depths” that is totally faux. If Moore’s novel is anything like the screenplay (which she collaborated with Campion on), then it is a calculated simulacrum of “transgression” for readers of The New Yorker that bears about the same relation to the writing of, say, Bataille or Kathy Acker as the singing of Celine Dion does to that of Diamanda Galas, or the exhortations of Tom Peters do to the philosophy of Nietzsche.
Also, as I am scarcely the only one to note, Meg Ryan is totally out of her depth, in a role that was originally intended for Nicole Kidman. Kidman might well have made the eroticism — and the anguish — compelling in a way that Ryan is utterly incapable of doing.
An uncredited Kevin Bacon is wasted in a lame, meaningless role.
And there’s also one black male character whose only function in the film seems to be to add a titillating frisson of dubious racial and sexual stereotypes to the mix. This is a part, I suppose, of the overall strategy of pseudo-transgression: what’s more a taboo object, desired yet feared by the novel’s and film’s presumptive middle class white female audience than a black man?
And yet, and yet… frame by frame, and scene by scene, Campion remains an incredibly brilliant and powerful director. This is partly a matter of composition: the cluttered and fragmented mise en scene, the poetically murky nocturnal lighting, the fragmentation of vision, and the oblique placement of the actors within the frame, all combine to create a grim urban landscape, shot through with an intensity that actors and script are little more than irrelevant occasions for.
But more than this, it’s a matter of what I can only call rhythm. It’s the speed at which shots and scenes unfold, something that’s never constant, but that stutters sometimes, pauses other times, pulls back still other times. Or it’s the way that Campion pauses on an incongruous detail, or conversely, that she pans over such a detail without really giving us time to contemplate it. The reason Campion’s visuals never feel fetishistic is because they never seem to freeze time. Rather, something you can’t quite see is always being unfolded at a speed you can’t quite grasp. The speed is never the “right,” straightforward one, but always oblique to that at which we are accustomed to have narrative develop. It’s not the slowness which so many recent art directors have affected, in lame attempts to emulate Antonioni, but a deeper sense of time folding and unfolding. (This has something to do, of course, with the use of music on the soundtrack: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson’s music here, somewhat like Michael Nyman’s music in The Piano, provides a sort of temporal structure to the film. But I don’t think what I am calling rhythm is only a function of sound; it is also inscribed directly by camera movement or non-movement).
I’m not sure I understand this well enough to give a more rigorous and focused description. But Campion’s films, it seems to me, have a unique way of modulating affect or mood via metamorphoses of duration. And this is what makes In the Cut so powerful and gripping, at least in part, even when acting and plot are completely unconvincing.