Goodbye Dragon Inn

Goodbye Dragon Inn is Tsai Ming-liang’s most minimalist film. All of Tsai’s films chart heartrending emotional disconnections with beautiful, motionless or slow-moving long takes. But Goodbye Dragon Inn pushes this to something of an extreme, as if Tsai were trying to see how much could be said, and felt, out of how little.
The movie chronicles the last screening in a decrepit, soon-to-be-torn-down old-style (big) movie theater. The film being shown is Dragon Inn, a classic King Hu martial arts film from the 1960s.
It’s raining hard outside, and part of the theater is flooded: a motif that is repeated in most of Tsai’s films.
There are very few patrons, and most of them aren’t paying attention to the film. Men cruise one another, moving from seat to seat, or pissing in adjacent stalls in the bathroom, or passing one another in narrow corridors somewhere in the theater’s innards. But nobody ever connects, nobody picks anybody else up; there just doesn’t seem to be any sexual spark.
Other patrons lounge in the seats, feet up on the seats in front of them, loudly chewing nuts or other snacks.
The ticket-taker, who who has a club foot, cooks her dinner in an electric pot, walks through the theater, picks up trash, cleans up the bathrooms, and goes to visit the projectionist, who is absent from his booth. (We presume that she likes him, but that the feeling isn’t reciprocated).
There are no more than six or ten lines of dialogue in the entire 81 minutes of the film (aside from the dialogue and narration of Dragon Inn itself, which we hear in snatches). In the absence of talk, there’s an extraordinary concentration upon duration, and upon bodies.
Duration: Goodbye Dragon Inn makes us feel the passage of time, the density and weight of its moments, one added to another, while nothing happens, or what happens happens with extreme slowness. There’s one shot where the ticket-taker comes to the projection booth, and sits there waiting for him to return (which does not happen). She is motionless, and the shot is also motionless. Lots of cigarettes are heaped in an ashtray, and another cigarette, on the edge of the table, is still burning, the only sign of life. So we know that the projectionist is around somewhere, even though we don’t see him. Finally the ticket-taker gets up and leaves, and finally there’s a cut to the next shot.
There’s also the moment when Dragon Inn ends; the lights in the theater go up, and the few remaining patrons leave, except for (what looks like) one old man who remains in his seat. (I say “looks like” because it’s an extreme long shot, showing the whole theater from the stage, and it’s hard really to tell). The camera holds on this scene of near-emptiness, the movie theater emptied of cinema, for what seems like a long time, until Tsai finally cuts to some final shots of the ticket-taker and the projectionist separately cleaning up and going home.
These shots are fascinating — and not in the least boring — they are filled with a kind of tension, precisely because there is so little to see. Drained of activity and of change, the shots solicit our gaze. Instead of looking at action sequences, such as those that fill Dragon Inn, we find ourselves looking at something that is normally invisible, normally hidden by the very facts of action and movement: the passage of time itself.
But what’s truly mesmerizing and intense about Goodbye Dragon Inn is the bodies present in the theater. The men pass each other in an arrested dance, scarcely exchanging a word, making gestures that are withdrawn as soon as they have been sketched out. The club-footed ticket-taker painfully limps her way down corridors and up and down stairs; even when we cannot see her, we hear the clip-clop of her slow passage. These people scarcely seem to have any more life within them than do the celluloid figures in the film they are not watching; their only substantiality comes from the way Tsai’s camera dwells on them, projects them in turn to us. (Indeed, two old men, who seem to be the only audience members actually watching the movie, are the very actors who starred in Dragon Inn some forty-odd years previously). Tsai points up both the ghostliness of cinema, and the way that cinema nonetheless substantializes, and physicalizes, what it projects as two-dimensional shadows.
Goodbye Dragon Inn is not without humor (which comes from the incongruity of its characters’ non-connections), but mostly it expresses a discreet and poetic melancholy. Film is commonly said to preserve what otherwise dies and vanishes; but film in the classic sense is itself now in decline, as it is increasingly displaced by the new multimedia, as well as by new forms of consumption (multiplexes of small theaters instead of the old movie palaces, not to mention videos and DVDs viewed at home). Tsai seeks to memorialize this decline itself, as if what film most beautifully preserved were its own slow process of decay.

Goodbye Dragon Inn is Tsai Ming-liang’s most minimalist film. All of Tsai’s films chart heartrending emotional disconnections with beautiful, motionless or slow-moving long takes. But Goodbye Dragon Inn pushes this to something of an extreme, as if Tsai were trying to see how much could be said, and felt, out of how little.
The movie chronicles the last screening in a decrepit, soon-to-be-torn-down old-style (big) movie theater. The film being shown is Dragon Inn, a classic King Hu martial arts film from the 1960s.
It’s raining hard outside, and part of the theater is flooded: a motif that is repeated in most of Tsai’s films.
There are very few patrons, and most of them aren’t paying attention to the film. Men cruise one another, moving from seat to seat, or pissing in adjacent stalls in the bathroom, or passing one another in narrow corridors somewhere in the theater’s innards. But nobody ever connects, nobody picks anybody else up; there just doesn’t seem to be any sexual spark.
Other patrons lounge in the seats, feet up on the seats in front of them, loudly chewing nuts or other snacks.
The ticket-taker, who who has a club foot, cooks her dinner in an electric pot, walks through the theater, picks up trash, cleans up the bathrooms, and goes to visit the projectionist, who is absent from his booth. (We presume that she likes him, but that the feeling isn’t reciprocated).
There are no more than six or ten lines of dialogue in the entire 81 minutes of the film (aside from the dialogue and narration of Dragon Inn itself, which we hear in snatches). In the absence of talk, there’s an extraordinary concentration upon duration, and upon bodies.
Duration: Goodbye Dragon Inn makes us feel the passage of time, the density and weight of its moments, one added to another, while nothing happens, or what happens happens with extreme slowness. There’s one shot where the ticket-taker comes to the projection booth, and sits there waiting for him to return (which does not happen). She is motionless, and the shot is also motionless. Lots of cigarettes are heaped in an ashtray, and another cigarette, on the edge of the table, is still burning, the only sign of life. So we know that the projectionist is around somewhere, even though we don’t see him. Finally the ticket-taker gets up and leaves, and finally there’s a cut to the next shot.
There’s also the moment when Dragon Inn ends; the lights in the theater go up, and the few remaining patrons leave, except for (what looks like) one old man who remains in his seat. (I say “looks like” because it’s an extreme long shot, showing the whole theater from the stage, and it’s hard really to tell). The camera holds on this scene of near-emptiness, the movie theater emptied of cinema, for what seems like a long time, until Tsai finally cuts to some final shots of the ticket-taker and the projectionist separately cleaning up and going home.
These shots are fascinating — and not in the least boring — they are filled with a kind of tension, precisely because there is so little to see. Drained of activity and of change, the shots solicit our gaze. Instead of looking at action sequences, such as those that fill Dragon Inn, we find ourselves looking at something that is normally invisible, normally hidden by the very facts of action and movement: the passage of time itself.
But what’s truly mesmerizing and intense about Goodbye Dragon Inn is the bodies present in the theater. The men pass each other in an arrested dance, scarcely exchanging a word, making gestures that are withdrawn as soon as they have been sketched out. The club-footed ticket-taker painfully limps her way down corridors and up and down stairs; even when we cannot see her, we hear the clip-clop of her slow passage. These people scarcely seem to have any more life within them than do the celluloid figures in the film they are not watching; their only substantiality comes from the way Tsai’s camera dwells on them, projects them in turn to us. (Indeed, two old men, who seem to be the only audience members actually watching the movie, are the very actors who starred in Dragon Inn some forty-odd years previously). Tsai points up both the ghostliness of cinema, and the way that cinema nonetheless substantializes, and physicalizes, what it projects as two-dimensional shadows.
Goodbye Dragon Inn is not without humor (which comes from the incongruity of its characters’ non-connections), but mostly it expresses a discreet and poetic melancholy. Film is commonly said to preserve what otherwise dies and vanishes; but film in the classic sense is itself now in decline, as it is increasingly displaced by the new multimedia, as well as by new forms of consumption (multiplexes of small theaters instead of the old movie palaces, not to mention videos and DVDs viewed at home). Tsai seeks to memorialize this decline itself, as if what film most beautifully preserved were its own slow process of decay.

The Forest

The Forest (literal translation of French title: The Silence of the Forest), directed by Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio, is supposedly the first-ever feature film from the Central African Republic. (Bassek ba Kobhio is Camerounian, and made several films there, including an excellent deconstruction of the myth of Albert Schweitzer, Le grand blanc de Lambarene). It’s a powerful, but strangely divided movie.
The first half of The Forest works as political satire. Gonaba, the protagonist (played by Eric Ebouaney) has idealistically returned to the CAR after getting an excellent French education, because he wants to help improve his country. But what he has found instead is corruption, stagnation, empty concern with pomp and ceremony, and all the other political ailments of so much of contemporary Africa. He’s concerned with injustice — opposing the racist contempt in which the majority of the CAR regard the Biaka people (the so-called “Pigmies”) — but also pompous, condescending, and colonialist-minded (his girlfriend tells him she likes him because he has “the body of a black man and the mind of a white man”).
All this changes in the second half of the film, when Gonaba flees into the jungle and joins a Biaka community. He arrives thinking he will teach them to read and write French, thus raising them up to equality with the rest of the country. But instead of teaching them, he learns from them: he “goes native,” joining their group, being initiated into their ways, and marrying (and having a child with) a Biaka woman. In this portion of the film, the satirical knowingness of the first part totally dissolves. Instead we get a Rousseauian vision of “noble savages.” All the Biaka roles are played by Biaka people who are not professional actors, and much of this section of the film displays, in almost an “ethnographic film” manner, their customs and rituals.
Eventually, Gonaba is forced to leave and return to “civilization”: but we are meant to feel that he learned a more honest and authentic way of life from the Biaka.
The trouble with this is, of course, that the idealized vision of “noble savages” is itself a European racist and colonialist point of view: it’s just the flip side of the dismissal of “savages” as primitive, ignorant, and not-quite-human. The “noble savage” view, just as much as the flat-out racist view, effaces the social and individual reality of the people thus characterized. And usually, as in this film, it uses the vision of “noble primitives” merely as an enabler for the “civilized” person’s self-discovery.
So it’s strange, and more than a little distressing, to see an African film that, after critiquing the Euro-colonialist mindset, ends up adopting that mindset itself. I wish I could convince myself that the filmmakers were self-conscious about this irony; but I can find no evidence that this is the case.

The Forest (literal translation of French title: The Silence of the Forest), directed by Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio, is supposedly the first-ever feature film from the Central African Republic. (Bassek ba Kobhio is Camerounian, and made several films there, including an excellent deconstruction of the myth of Albert Schweitzer, Le grand blanc de Lambarene). It’s a powerful, but strangely divided movie.
The first half of The Forest works as political satire. Gonaba, the protagonist (played by Eric Ebouaney) has idealistically returned to the CAR after getting an excellent French education, because he wants to help improve his country. But what he has found instead is corruption, stagnation, empty concern with pomp and ceremony, and all the other political ailments of so much of contemporary Africa. He’s concerned with injustice — opposing the racist contempt in which the majority of the CAR regard the Biaka people (the so-called “Pigmies”) — but also pompous, condescending, and colonialist-minded (his girlfriend tells him she likes him because he has “the body of a black man and the mind of a white man”).
All this changes in the second half of the film, when Gonaba flees into the jungle and joins a Biaka community. He arrives thinking he will teach them to read and write French, thus raising them up to equality with the rest of the country. But instead of teaching them, he learns from them: he “goes native,” joining their group, being initiated into their ways, and marrying (and having a child with) a Biaka woman. In this portion of the film, the satirical knowingness of the first part totally dissolves. Instead we get a Rousseauian vision of “noble savages.” All the Biaka roles are played by Biaka people who are not professional actors, and much of this section of the film displays, in almost an “ethnographic film” manner, their customs and rituals.
Eventually, Gonaba is forced to leave and return to “civilization”: but we are meant to feel that he learned a more honest and authentic way of life from the Biaka.
The trouble with this is, of course, that the idealized vision of “noble savages” is itself a European racist and colonialist point of view: it’s just the flip side of the dismissal of “savages” as primitive, ignorant, and not-quite-human. The “noble savage” view, just as much as the flat-out racist view, effaces the social and individual reality of the people thus characterized. And usually, as in this film, it uses the vision of “noble primitives” merely as an enabler for the “civilized” person’s self-discovery.
So it’s strange, and more than a little distressing, to see an African film that, after critiquing the Euro-colonialist mindset, ends up adopting that mindset itself. I wish I could convince myself that the filmmakers were self-conscious about this irony; but I can find no evidence that this is the case.

The Last Train

The Last Train, by Alexei German Jr. (the son of the Alexi German who directed the utterly brilliant and nearly incomprehensible Khroustaliev, My Car), is a sublime film. It takes place during World War II, among German soldiers on the Russian front. The protagonist, a German doctor, arrives at the front in the bitterness of winter, as a blizzard is starting up, and just as the German troops are withdrawing. He is a man without family or friends, and a personality that is massively uningratiating; he is essentially alone. As the German withdrawal proceeds, he’s simply forgotten about and left behind. The film has almost no plot, aside from that. It’s shot gorgeously, in black and white Cinemascope: sometimes in deep focus, sometimes not, and sometimes with wide-angle or telephoto lenses. Most of the film takes place in the snow, with different shades of white predominating; sometimes snowfall or fog nearly blanks out the picture. Sometimes shots ring out, and people fall down dead. Other times the doctor and other characters engage in grotesque, absurdist dialogues or monologues. In any case, people move slowly in the snow and in the cold. The soundtrack is dominated by nearly ubiquitous coughing: it would seem that all the characters have colds, or incipient pneumonia, or worse (if there is such a thing as worse). Everyone is doomed. There is no redemption or salvation at the end. Sitting in the theater, chilled by what I saw and heard, I entirely forgot that outside it was sunny and 80 degrees.

The Last Train, by Alexei German Jr. (the son of the Alexi German who directed the utterly brilliant and nearly incomprehensible Khroustaliev, My Car), is a sublime film. It takes place during World War II, among German soldiers on the Russian front. The protagonist, a German doctor, arrives at the front in the bitterness of winter, as a blizzard is starting up, and just as the German troops are withdrawing. He is a man without family or friends, and a personality that is massively uningratiating; he is essentially alone. As the German withdrawal proceeds, he’s simply forgotten about and left behind. The film has almost no plot, aside from that. It’s shot gorgeously, in black and white Cinemascope: sometimes in deep focus, sometimes not, and sometimes with wide-angle or telephoto lenses. Most of the film takes place in the snow, with different shades of white predominating; sometimes snowfall or fog nearly blanks out the picture. Sometimes shots ring out, and people fall down dead. Other times the doctor and other characters engage in grotesque, absurdist dialogues or monologues. In any case, people move slowly in the snow and in the cold. The soundtrack is dominated by nearly ubiquitous coughing: it would seem that all the characters have colds, or incipient pneumonia, or worse (if there is such a thing as worse). Everyone is doomed. There is no redemption or salvation at the end. Sitting in the theater, chilled by what I saw and heard, I entirely forgot that outside it was sunny and 80 degrees.

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.