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

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Thursday, March 09, 2006

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani?

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani? posits a future world in which a suicide plague can only be controlled through noise rock. Noise rock, as the name suggests, is an acquired taste. More than that, though -- it's a taste that's difficult to describe or defend to people who don't have the ear for it. To most people, artists who fall into the noise-rock category (i.e. Merzbow) are merely crafting ear-blistering feedback, white noise that annoys. The appeal in such an extreme form of music, in my eyes, lies in its cathartic element. There's little that can make you feel better about your bad mood like the sound of someone bashing the hell out of his guitar strings, screaming his guts out or using atypical instruments to make sounds that shouldn't exist in this dimension. Director Shinji Aoyama (Eureka) understands this quality, and for his latest film he's gone ahead and literalized the idea.

Imagine Suicide Club and Electric Dragon 80,000V having sex on Sominex and you've got an inkling of both the plot and tone of Aoyama's mindbender. In 2015 A.D., there's a viral infection sweeping the world that induces suicidal thoughts in its victims. Tadanobu Asano and Masaya Nakahara star as noise artists whose music might subdue the virus. It's a strange and fascinating premise, much like the music within it, and out of it Aoyama spins an entrancing apocalypse scenario whose surface placidity belies the chaos in its heart.

The title is the last words of Jesus Christ (in Aramaic, no less), and that sense of having been forsook suffuses Eli. It's that rare breed of end-of-the-world films which really gives the sense of a world ending. Masaki Tamura's accomplished cineamatography aids immensely in this; his careful compositions give the sense of a world disappeared. The story, as such, proceeds slowly and unsurely, like a toddler trying on new shoes, and this too aids towards the eerie stillness that gives this film its effect -- it's a collection of incidents rather than a story proper, with scene after scene of people burying themselves in minutiae as they wait for the virus to come for them too. (If it's an apocalypse, it's one of self-annihilation rather than the ruinous outside forces that usually crop up in this genre.) The distractions, though, prove to be more beneficial than could be expected.

Aoyama spends a lot of time showing the people in his film at work (mainly the two musicians), and there's a point to that. Lurking within the framework is an exploration of how one proceeds to live in the face of horror (this, also, was the main theme behind Eureka). It's about having a reason to keep waking up in the morning, whether it be the way sunlight shines through the curtains or the contentment in making soup for others to enjoy. There's catharsis in the music, but the real import is how it inspires those with open minds to look for the quiet beauty in the everyday. That's another angle to explain the appeal of the music: When you finish listening to it, suddenly the world seems so much quieter and more peaceful.

With all that's good in this film, it's almost a shame to note that Aoyama almost blows it. As a director, he's on a level to which few can aspire; as a writer, though, he's strictly average. A more curmudgeonly person than I could note that Aoyama keeps his characters as ciphers not to make them more universal but because he's just not very good at character work; similar comments could be made about the sparse dialogue. Nevertheless, the film agreeably coasts most of the way on atmosphere despite unevenness. Then, though, it keeps coasting past its proper ending (Asano's performance in a field). Then it coasts past another wonderful closing image, then another. Every time Aoyama finds a great spot to end Eli, he chooses to keep going in search of more. I would hope that he's trying to find the absolute perfect ending, but he never gets there. Instead of adding to our understanding of the story, the last fifteen minutes merely reiterate everything already seen and reinforce epiphanies already reached. It's almost enough to make one dislike what has come before.

What really makes Eli worth the time, though, is the music. Both lead actors have musical backgrounds (Asano, in addition to being one of Japan's most popular actors, plays very loud guitar in a band Mach 1.67 with Sogo Ishii, director of Electric Dragon 80,000V; Nakahara is one of Japan's premier noise-rock artists) and both clearly enjoy the ability to cut loose on camera. The film's best scenes show the process by which the extreme sounds they make are born. There's an immersive quality in these scenes, one that often eludes most proper documentaries about artists. Whether you enjoy the end product or not, it's often fascinating to see how much work goes into what often sounds like untrained, aimless feedback. (There's one scene in particular involving Asano, a violin bow and a metal rod that produces extraordinary results.) As a film, Eli is an ambitious but not entirely successful work; as an artistic documentation, it's stellar. An ear for the extreme, though, is probably necessary.