2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004
From the 42nd New York Film Festival: The World
The ever-increasing sprawl of modern China is Jia Zhangke’s concern in The World, his first film officially approved by the Chinese government. False-IDs, confiscated passports, estranged family, unfaithful lovers, and unsatisfied dreams are the stuff of the world, where Chinese youth are surrounded by the realization of globalization but without the means or understanding to come to terms with the possibilities and drawbacks of global freedom. The film is named after its central location, the World Park theme park in Beijing, which allows visitors to walk around scaled recreations of famous world landmarks-Manhattan, St. Paul’s cathedral, the Egyptian pyramids, and an Eiffel tower a third the size of the original standing out in the Beijing skyline. Exhibiting scantly clad women dressed in rotating national costumes and guarded by a cadre of male provincial immigrants, the park allows one to “See the World Without Ever Having To Leave Beijing.”

Gone is the urban malaise of the teenagers in Jia’s masterfulUnknown Pleasures, his characters are now in their 20s and facing the reality of career aspirations-the emphasis on human beings as upgradeable commodities. The characters wander around the World Park unhappy with where they are in life; most are from the provinces and moved to Beijing to realize grander dreams, only to find the people of Beijing obsessed with the possibilities of the world out there. In lieu of the ability to travel, the city has built a representation of global landmarks, but for Taisheng (Taisheng Cheng) and his girlfriend Tao (Tao Zhao) the park does nothing to squash their urban restlessness. Taisheng, a guard at the park, is a sad portrait of Chinese young adults. Guiding provincial family and friends into the metropolis only to have them come up disappointed with life’s results, Taisheng pushes Tao to sleep with him as an expression of love. Taisheng’s focus on Tao as a physical object aligns him with the capitalistic impulses that are heavily criticized by the film, where the company payment over a worker’s death carries more weight than the death itself, and a man’s last will is merely a list of his outstanding debts. Unsatisfied with the results of his aspirations in Beijing, Taisheng has gravitated to the Park as it represents his abstract hopes of being successful and happy somewhere else; what doesn’t work at home must work somewhere else in the world.

Tao, though a dancer/model for the World Park and thus an intrinsic part of China’s capitalization, is the hope of The World. She tries wholeheartedly to bond with a Russian dancer despite their inability to communicate with each other, and though their relationship later is corrupted in a way that seems to evoke Soviet and PRC relations, Tao’s desire to connect is a glimmer of hope on the Chinese urban-scape. Likewise, she is the only character who is content with staying in Beijing. She remarks to Taisheng that all she has is he, and if he cheats on her she will kill him. Her dedication to forming a permanent relationship and life in Beijing, without any pretenses or desire to travel or move or engage in capitalistic opportunities (man she is offered a chance to sell herself to a business man) makes her the most pure and hopeful of the young Chinese adults in The World. She, more than anyone else, seems abstractly aware of the changes in the landscape of China, as the country more and more entwines itself with the rest of the world and reveals to its population the existence of an “out there” which currently represents a near impossible dream. Tao’s awareness is blessed in the film, which is mordant with its splintered friendships, discontented adults, and an urban population that seems bewildered at what to do in this new world emerging between the rhetoric of the state and the represented idealizations of the West.

The idealized landmarks at the park are a wickedly clever find for Jia, who exploits them to their metaphoric max (apparently none of the Park’s creators have read Beaudrillard). The false dreams the park represents attracts expatriates and provincial hopefuls who nevertheless find the place unfulfilling. In lieu of monetary success, many attempt at human connections, and in the film’s most humorous moments Jia skewers a culture beset with cell phones, which let people keep track of one another to an unprecedented degree. The young adults of The World flit around in false-freedom, and keep their phones off in a vain attempt to be untracked and uncontrolled. Paradoxically, Tao sees the cell phone as romantic, for whenever she is text messaged the film slips into cheap Flash animations depicting the freedom of travel and the possibilities represented in communication over distances. Human connections can arrive when least expected. That the despondent adults turns off their phones to try to be free but Tao eagerly receives communication is part of The World textured and complicated engagement of modernism in urban Chinese life.

Perhaps it is in the association of the Park with media representation that it becomes so important to The World’s failure to congeal its vital socio-political discourse with a working narrative into a sharp, well-defined work. A visitor remarks at how similar the recreated Eiffel Tower is to the original, but when asked he remarks he’s never been to Paris. Tao and Taisheng take a “magic carpet ride” over the world through a cheesy video blue screen exhibit at the park. The power of images as burdens of representation for a distant culture extends from the Park to the cinema, where in a deep irony Jia’s film is quasi self-condemned. Though The World is an important film for its strong willed socio-political content, its power to claim its representation of modern China as an accurate one is hobbled by the idea of the World Park. In the same way a visitor will look at a landmark in the park and make an assumption about what it means as a representation for its parent nation, one will similarly look at The World and make intrinsically flawed judgments about the state of China.

The problem of this intriguing self-criticism is that The World is seemingly at its most powerful when it is moving heavy metaphors around (no metaphor in film history could be more visually immense, physically heavy-handed, or amazingly unexpected as the very existence of the World Park) rather then when it is exploring the minuscule and barely narrated human drama swamped by space of Jia’s ambitious mise-en-scene. But with the criticism of these broad cultural representations Jia in fact emphasizes the smallness-in importance and in aspirations-of his pathetic, emotionally disinclined waifs of characters. In this way, even the little pieces of their lives-the petty relationship fights; the free feeling of traveling even if it is a predictable ride-in retrospect assume a delicate, basic importance which is speaking just for humans rather than “for China.” The subtle emphasis of the people who wander in front of these gigantic monuments rather than on the monuments itself is what gives The World a soul. What it does not give it is a total as cohesive, or coherent as it needs to be to effectively deploy its vital ideas.

From the 42nd New York Film Festival: Tarnation
Jonathan Caouette has known he is gay for a long time, so his film Tarnation is a different kind of “coming out” experience. Caouette’s film is a quasi-experimental documentary about his family and his life growing up, and it is not a historiography so much as an expressionistic montage of trauma, filtered through memories, abuse, drugs, dreams, and repression. Facts are loose but vividly rendered in Caouette’s film, and presumably in Caouette’s memory. Half-way through the work the no-nonsense, third personal clinical titles which contextualize most of the film’s footage, used instead of spoken narration, report that Caouette experiences the disorder known as depersonalization, where the world appears dreamlike and at a distance. Since the same can be said for the film and its insight on Caouette’s experience growing up with a mother who jumped in and out of psychiatric hospitals for decades and was administered untold amounts of shock therapy as a child and young adult, Tarnation appears more feverish recollection than factual revelation. And it is its combination of fever-dream aesthetic told through distorted, decayed, hyper colorful montage and real evidence of Caouette’s past in the form of photographs and home videos that lends Tarnation its exhaustive immediacy, immediate authenticity and simultaneously extreme subjectivity.

The filmmaker’s expulsion of his past can be searing simply in the footage itself; there are, for example, two uncomfortably long and uncomfortably resonating clips of home video footage that nearly bookend the film, one being an 11-year old Jonathan acting out with complete conviction the part of an abused, pregnant housewife who killed her husband, and much later footage of Jonathan’s mother Renee after a lithium overdose damaged her brain, when we watch Jonathan coolly stand back with the camera and catch a never ending moment of her terrifying dementia on film. Tarnation is liberally structured around this kind of reality-TV distanced authenticity, which Caouette structures with self-written but highly elliptical (not to mention questionable) title cards, disseminating the narrative through the extended montage that makes up most of the film. His montage-brief video clips of himself, photographs tracking his childhood, loving but often deranged home video of his grandparents-is put through every editing and visual trick in the book, and out of iMovie pours a crash course in being an abused child, growing up gay, being a performer, coping with family, coping with abuse, and perhaps most importantly coping with an upbringing of whose memories have been forever distorted.

No one in the film, including Caouette himself, ever really stops to ask questions, and confronted with the rare question people like Caouette’s mother or grandfather almost physically attempt to extricate him or herself from the scrutiny. Moments of overt self-consciousness creep in far too often as well, and many moments beg the question “who exactly is shooting this footage?” as many scenes, especially of Caouette himself, seem dramatically staged. Again, one must be reminded that this is no documentary; the film’s experimental approach to an upbringing and familial history rubs the line away from fact and fiction and the filmmaker’s obvious decision to keep this self-pursuit an expressionistic experience instead of a fact-finding mission is highly evident in Caouette’s deeply disturbing application of formalism. So Tarnation, which opens as if a dream of Caouette’s about his mother’s tragic destruction during her youth, comes off less an examination of a past full of problems and instead a highly distorted but highly illustrative expelled memory, ripped from Caouette’s mind and spit onto the screen in its weird, distanced traumatic immediacy.

From the 42nd New York Film Festival: The 10th District: Judical Hearings
What comes across strongest in The 10th District Court: Judicial Hearings is the ease of which humans are able to mar their own characters simply be speaking out loud. Raymond Depardon’s film is a rigid documentary somewhat like a French Judge Judy (a quality that severely dissipates its impact and ability to take seriously), capturing a number of petty criminal hearings in front of the same female judge. Editing out much of the content of each hearing, and using identical coverage and framing for each defendant, Depardon makes his decisions as an editorial documentary filmmaker apparent, even when the overarching motivation for the collection of cases is lacking.

Pickpockets, drunk drivers, drug dealers and other accused comes and go in front of judge Michèle Bernard-Requin, who seems at times, wry, amused, and exasperated listening both to the defendants and their representing attorneys. Surprisingly, one of the best and strangest moments of the film comes from this latter category, where a defense lawyer rambles on about he in his personal life he too has had similar problems of crossing the line from love to hate, to defend his client from charges of domestic abuse.

The film is often quite amusing both in the judicial deadpan of the judge and the near poetic vindictiveness of the prosecuting attorneys, but the film’s main entertainment is in the way the defendants always want just a bit more time to explain themselves, and in doing so reveal hypocrisies, personal idiosyncrasies, character defects, and massive miscomprehension of their actions, their thoughts, and the law. Depardon’s choices are amusing at first, but the parade of defendants grows wearisome as character after character sabotages their initial innocence by speaking “honestly” about their accused crimes. Some variation would be nice, especially someone able to use oral eloquence to their advantage for once instead of biasing the court against their word. Depardon’s film lacks the ambition or pretense to say it is a failure, but its scope is so limited and its court hearings so monotonous that it makes it hard to recommend beyond its initial laughs and insight.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Milk Plus: A Discussion of Television

Well, we have not done one of these for a while, and since we are now a couple of weeks into the new 2004-2005 television season, it seemed kind of appropriate. This new season I've already started following a pair of new shows on ABC, Lost and Desperate Housewives. So if anyone wants to discuss the new television season, here is your chance.

BTW, all my fellow Farscape fans, we can rejoice. Sci-Fi network is going to air the two-part miniseries, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars beginning this Sunday (10-17) at 9pm EST. You can download a trailer here (Quicktime required). I almost wet myself watching it.


Silver City

Why, oh why, did I not listen to Jonathan Rosenbaum? Hmm, I blame it on my case of auteurism; it sometimes leads to me to do some crazy things, like go to movies I know are probably going to be bad. Its not that Silver City did not show some signs of potential, and Sayles is just too good of a writer and director of actors to make a film completely devoid of interest (he is also one of the few, relatively mainstream directors to tackle such thorny issues as race and class), but Silver City, a rather clumsy fusion of film noir and political activism, is no Lone Star. Like that earlier film, Silver City is centered around an investigation, an investigation prompted by the discovery of a mysterious body. In turn that investigation dredges up many dark secrets in the local community, a community represented here by a tapestry of interconnected characters. Specifically, Silver City is set in the closing weeks of the 2004 Colorado gubernatorial campaign, when the leading candidate, Dickie Pilager, the bumbling scion of a prominent, Republican family (clearly a Dubya stand-in, here played by Chris Cooper), accidentally hooks the body of a migrant worker while filming an “environmental” spot. Suspecting some sort of political dirty trick, the conniving campaign manager Chuck Raven (aka Karl Rove, played by Richard Dreyfuss) hires a PI, a disgraced former reporter named Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) to investigate (i.e. intimidate some potential political enemies). However, O’Brien begins to ferret out the truth, leading to a quagmire of corruption, industrial safety violations, environmental pollution, and the exploitation of illegal, migrant workers. So what went wrong?

1. When we speak of the great actors who have worked with Sayles, like the before mentioned Chris Cooper or David Strathairn, we will not be adding the name of Danny Huston. Since Cooper is pretty much wasted doing an impression of our current president, Huston, who can charitably be described as bland, is left to anchor the film. When ex-girlfriend Nora (Maria Bello) describes Huston’s character as “intense,” I almost laughed. While I can see Huston doing great in the role of a milquetoast (and to be fair, the film does utilize this quality, since O’Brien frequently finds himself way over his head), a former crusading journalist, turned sellout, turned back to a crusading investigator is somewhat beyond his reach.

2. No one who has ever watched a Sayles film can ever say that he is particularly subtle when it comes to making his political points (come on, two of the main “bad guys” are named Pilager, a family which made its fortune gouging miners and shoveling shit, and Raven), and here he is no different (case in point, the boring scene where Kris Kristofferson’s sinister developer Benteen explains to the dimwitted Dickie his conception of progress). Going hand in hand with this lack of subtly is a tendency towards being schematic; certain characters are clearly inserted into the narrative simply as an expositional talking point or representative of some sort of political POV (or both). Sayle’s saving grace is that his characterizations, even in the smaller parts, are usually quite interesting, and the personal storylines that are intertwined with the political themes carry equal weight. However, unlike such Sayles films as Matewan, Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, and Lone Star, I can barely point to an interesting supporting character (the one exception would be the colorful Mexican-American chef, played by Sal Lopez, who assists O’Brien with his investigation) and the personal storylines are far less interesting and far less integrated into the political storyline (the political storyline itself seems kind of jammed together, as if Sayles decided to combine his expose on the plight of migrant workers with a Bush-surrogate satire). I mean, who cares whether or not Huston and Bello get back together, the hook that the personal storyline hinges upon (their complete lack of chemistry does not help), and which really has no relation with main political storyline (I guess Huston “redeems” himself and wins back Bello, but compare this with the events of Lone Star)? In addition, Sayles desire to interconnect all the disparate characters can lead to some truly bizarre and unnecessary relationships, such that romance between progressive journalist Bello and an oily lobbyist in bed with the Pilagers, played by Billy Zane (that entire relationship left me saying, “huh?”).

3. I guess after Casa de los Babys, Sayles decided not to write an interesting part for a female character in his next film, which is a damn shame since he is usually so good at it. Most of the female characters barely register, in fact, one of the main female characters is never actually seen. The one exception is Daryl Hannah’s character, Mady Pilager, the family black sheep; it is a cliched, inconsistent role, but at least it is half way interesting, more so than the fawning Bello. However, it is nice to know that Sayles and Tarantino are both contributing to Hannah’s mid-career renaissance.

4. Usually, when watching Sayles’s films, I get a very clear sense of place such as the Appalachians of Matewan; the bayous of Passion Fish; the dusty prairies of southwest Texas in Lone Star; and even the coastal Florida town in Sunshine State. In Silver City, the wide open spaces and mountains of Timberline County, Colorado are somewhat anonymous. Much of the film is apparently set in or near Denver, but the film does not dwell among the people of the local community soaking in the details (a la Limbo). In addition, though the natural scenery is often beautiful, I personally felt that Haskell Wexler’s photography was often quite flat and uninspired.

There is not a whole lot more to say. Jonathan Rosenbaum points to the aesthetic poverty of the film, and I can not help but agree. There really are no surprises, either in terms of style or narrative (the most annoying aspect of the film are some sub-Godardian intertitles containing Pilager’s campaign slogans), though contrary to Rosenbaum’s opinion, I found the film’s ending to be appropriately cynical. Still, though Rosenbaum cites the plethora of left-wing political documentaries that have preceded Silver City, I think viewers looking for (fictional) drama centered around a political campaign should look to such classic 60s and 70s films as Nashville, The Candidate, or Medium Cool.

Sunday, October 10, 2004
From the 42nd New York Film Festival: Woman is the Future of Man
Hong Song-soo’s small, unassuming comedic film, wonderfully titled Woman is the Future of Man, is slight in the way Tsai Ming-Liang’s film Goodbye, Dragon Inn or Ohayo by Ozu Yasujiro is slight. All three retread familiar themes and narratives by their respective filmmakers, and use an exact, refined visual style that is unfussy and deceptively simple. But these things do not make any of these films any less great, and Woman is the Future of Man is a quiet, sad film whose surface simplicity deeply reflects the sorrow congenital in its characters.

Though the narrative is clean, Hong’s film is actually fairly playful in its chronological structure. It begins with Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) returning from America to visit an old friend of his from school, Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae), who has acquired many of the things in that denote the life of an adult, having married and bought a house. Though seemingly grown up-both men are university graduates, Mun-ho being an art teacher and Hyeon-gon a film director-a meeting between the two reveals the simple-minded maturity of the two men and their ineffectual abilities to understand women and thereby be satisfied with life.

When Mun-ho momentarily steps out of a café the two are eating at, Hyeon-gon with ridiculous sincerity hits on the waitress by asking her to audition for his film. She turns down his advances and his glance wanders out the window to a beautiful woman standing in the middle of the street. The film cuts immediately to what turns out to be a flashback of Hyeon-gon’s relationship with Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a), whom he seems to have dated primarily for sexual reasons even though she fell hard for him. Leaving for America, Hyeon-gon promised to continue the relationship but in fact carelessly abandoned her.

In the first of a number of delicate rhymes which speak to Woman is the Future of Man’s gentle circular structure, Hyeon-gon leaves the café to do an errand and Mun-ho hits on the waitress by asking her to pose nude for him. Denied like his friend, Mun-ho’s gaze rests on the same woman outside and the film flashes back to his naïve, aggressive attempts to sleep with Seon-hwa after Hyeon-gon left. When Hyeon-gon returns the subject of their shared sexual partner comes up and the two decide to travel to find Seon-hwa. Both men trying to revise a relationship they idealized and misremember, and both men are weakly and passively competing with each other to reclaim their memories of a woman they thought they understood and forgot, but whose essence now eludes them. Barely able to copulate and getting increasingly drunk throughout the film, the two men are faced again and again with their inadequacies and overconfidence in their growth as humans.

The two men go about it differently, in accordance to their personalities. Hyeon-gon is petty, insecure, over-dramatic, and childishly exploitive; Muh-ho is adulterous, a liar, dreams of banalities like job security while hitting on his students, and is completely ignorant about woman (“I didn’t know women shaved their legs,” he remarks after sleeping with Seon-hwa). Seon-hwa herself is not a simple character, and Hong’s generous ambiguity in her motivations for again and again having these lousy male relationships is echoed by Seong Hyeon-a’s performance, which varies strangely from passive to enthusiastic to cynical to rational. The trio of performances drive the subtle distress throughout all the relationships about the film, from which erupts a seemingly endless amount of attempted sex, hardcore drinking, miscommunication, and generally petty behavior that can be seen as either banally disturbing or unexpectedly laughable.

Woman is the Future of Man is a sorrowful, funny, and deceptively undemanding film on man’s vague, idealized dreams of a complete life. Looking at each other critically and building their own inadequacies out of competition and indeterminate goals, Mun-ho and Hyeon-gon rush forward thinking they have somehow grown beyond the mistakes of their youth. Halfway through the film Mun-ho tells his friend in a bit of revenge what Hyeon-gon had never known, that Seon-hwa had been devastated from the breakup and thought he had been “an animal.” The realization comes a shock to the man, and though clearly time has passed, there has been little self-realization, clarification, or development of character.

It is Hong’s light touch, efficient shot coverage (using plain camera pans, clean compositions, and group symmetry), and his cast’s dead-pan ability to just barely converse with each other that lends his film the humor which relieves its near-pathetic thematic focus. Reminiscent of Ozu’s Ohayo where children questioned the point of the meaningless greetings and light banter of adults, the characters of Woman is the Future of Man seem to talk around each other, leaving both trite and important questions unanswered, and their supposed intellectual sharpness deadened by permanent reminiscence, drunkenness, and sexual preoccupancy. The surface simplicity of Hong’s film is actually its strong point; the ease of comprehensibility makes its subtly shine through all the stronger, and makes its combination of natural humor and pathetic unhappiness a rich, fascinating subject.

From the 42nd New York Film Festival: Keane
Indebted to the singled-minded aesthetic protagonist dependency of the Dardennes brothers (Palm D’or winning Rosetta, and 2003’s The Son), Keane latches onto the mentally disturbed head of William Keane (Damian Lewis) and attempts to wring as much compassion as possible from his sad situation. Whether or not Keane has always been disturbed is an interesting ambiguity in the film, which is written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan. Keane’s daughter was abducted in the New York Port Authority bus terminal and the trauma has either manifested a mental disturbance or pushed a disability to such an extreme as to make the man barely able to live day-to-day existence.

Keane opens with its protagonist mumbling to himself in the bus terminal, trying to go over again and again in his head the pure logistics of his trip with his daughter that could allow such an abduction to take place. Kerrigan’s film is at its strongest in its opening minutes where the immediacy of the film’s well tested aesthetic-keeping Damian Lewis’s head in close-up throughout and following him as he moves and speaks rather than capturing exactly where he is moving or to whom he is speaking-dismisses exposition and encourages ambiguity. It initially looks like Keane is financially independent through disability checks, so he does not have to work and instead has the leisure to dedicate himself to his traumatic wandering.

It is amazing and powerful that this man, who in appearance is a disheveled, white, middle-class man terrified over the abduction of his daughter, is stalking through the terminal talking to himself like all those random crazies who inhabit New York. Kerrigan seems to streak across a racial and social line and reveal not just how anyone can end up in such a wretched physical and mental state, but he also seems to be breaking a norm of showing who these people are, rupturing the self-taught technique of overlooking and distancing from such anonymous “crazies” by making his protagonist from the same race and social background as audiences are used to from watching Hollywood’s output.

As Keane progresses the arc of Kerrigan’s film takes more shape and disappointingly discourages this cinematic challenge, as well as this ambiguity. Keane is in fact at the lower rungs of poverty, and lacks the ability to internalize his grief. Weeping and paranoid, the man uses drugs and alcohol to distant himself from his vague quest of solving his mixed burdens of guilt and grief. When he coincidently meets a mother, Lynn (Amy Ryan), and her younger daughter (Abigail Breslin) at the hotel he is staying at, the movie assumes a weighty inevitability that neither Lewis’ fine performance or Kerrigan’s attempt at aesthetic consistency can relieve.

It is all a matter of time until Keane restagse the abduction with the young girl, and Kerrigan’s desire to humanize this impoverished “crazy” reduces the film’s haunting, dark potentials of pedophilia and re-abduction. With the exception of the cocaine use Kerrigan paints Keane as an all too-sympathetic victim and thereby the film has little to do of interest while Keane gradually insinuates himself into the family so as to get closer to the facsimile of his daughter to attempt a warped self-healing. Now forced to talk to other people rather than converse with himself, the realization that Keane can internalize his grief with little consequences and his ability to keep it together reflects that his disability most likely due to trauma and a collapse of a support system (he is divorced from his wife and doesn’t speak to his only brother). Even with this reveal, Kerrigan continues the film down the predictable road of narrative fulfillment rather than the thematic exploration easily available through his chosen technique of close, personal, humanizing filmmaking. While the film is successful in eliciting compassion for its lead, the job is not a difficult one, and Kerrigan makes it far too easy.