Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Not Terribly Dangerous Liaisons: Cold, Cerebral Decadence in Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee

*This post contains spoilers about Claire’s Knee*
Poster for Claire's Knee, featuring the titular knee.
The aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France were a decadent bunch, and now they they’re safely dead and can no longer oppress the peasantry, they can serve as a source of guiltless delight for us.  Of the French literary productions of that period, few have exerted such a continual fascination down the ages as Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisions; for some reason it sounds cooler in French).  Let me say right off the bat that I have not read Dangerous Liaisons, nor do I have a good reason for not doing so.  It’s just never occurred to me, while at a bookstore or library, to pursue de Laclos’s book.  But I know what it’s about!  Because it’s become almost a rule of thumb at this point that every filmmaker worth his or her salt has to make an adaptation of the book: Stephen Frears did a 1988 film called Dangerous Liaisons, Miloš Forman did an ’89 film called Valmont, E J-yong did a Choseon-era adaptation called Untold Scandal in 2003, and just last year Hur Jin-ho did a version set in 1930’s Shanghai (future line of inquiry: why are the Koreans so fond of Dangerous Liaisions?)  There must be something eminently cinematic about de Laclos’s book, which is somewhat surprising given its epistolary structure (at least, I’ve never heard of anyone trying to adapt Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa for the big screen [Note: The BBC apparently turned it into a TV series in the early ‘90’s starring Sean Bean of all people]).
Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos, author if Les Liaisons dangereuses.
I’m getting off track here, I want to talk about Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, which I just saw this evening.  I bring up de Laclos’s book because Rohmer’s film strikes me as being Dangerous Liaisons-lite.  So, what is Dangerous Liaisons about? It follows the depraved machinations of the Marquise de Merteiul and her ex-lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, who seek vengeance and amusement by trying to debauch and humiliate two innocent young people.  In Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, the fifth of his six “Moral Tales,” Merteuil and Valmont find their counterparts in Aurora and Jérome, a novelist and diplomat, respectively, former lovers spending their summer at Lake Annecy in eastern France.  Aurora is staying with a divorced woman and her teenage daughter, Laura, whom she convinces Jérome to romance because she thinks it would make a good story.  Jérome, who is going to be married at the end of the summer, half-heartedly charms the young girl while insinuating himself into her family life.  When things with Laura fizzle out, Jérome turns his attention to her newly arrived step-sister, Claire (she of the knee).  Claire is strikingly pretty, if not terribly interesting (Laura is far more interesting as a person), and Jérome develops what can only be described as a fetish for Claire’s knee (as he pompously explains it to Aurora, every woman has a weak point through which one can gain access to her whole person: her hands, her waist, the nape of her neck; the key spot on Claire is her kneecap).  Unfortunately for Jérome, Claire has a boyfriend, a muscular, moronic tough guy named Gilles, and Jérome—a middle-aged man with a career and a fiancée, let’s not forget—sets about destroying their late-teenage relationship in order to gain access to Claire’s knee, for purposes of his own satisfaction and the pleasure of recounting the “conquest” to Aurora.

Now, what’s striking about Aurora and Jérome is how inoffensive they seem for most of the movie.  They may be shallow and pretentious, but Christ, who isn’t? And they’re certainly charming people.  And they’re not trying to “destroy” people like their ancient régime analogues.  But what makes them progressively more sinister is how completely oblivious they are to the harm that their actions cause other people.  They may be jaded adults for whom love and sex are just games, but Laura and Claire, as passionate young people, still take these things seriously.  It’s not a game for them, it’s quite real; and the emotional damage of Jérome’s depredations is going to be real.  But at the conclusion of the film, not only does Jérome not realize that he’s an asshole, but he actually thinks that his successful touching of Claire’s knee (which he facilitated by convincing her that Gilles was cheating on her, which he was, but it wasn’t Jérome’s place to tell her) is actually a “good deed,” because he separated her from an asshole like Gilles.  Jérome reveals himself to be a real smug, self-satisfied prick, and Aurora just chuckles knowingly at him, because she’s no better.

There are still Mertueiuls and Valmonts among us, and although the stakes may not be as high as they were in de Laclos’s time, the jaded and the heartless still take vicious delight in harming the young and the sincere.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand: How to Shoot an Action Movie (And How Governor Schwarzenegger Got His Film Career Back)

Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, we have devoted ourselves to following the fortunes of talented Korean filmmakers as they misguidedly pursue their dreams of English-language crossover success.  So far, we’ve seen Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, a triptych in which Isabelle Huppert plays three different Frenchwomen who travel to Korea and use English as a lingua franca.  Then we watched Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, which depicts the depravity of a troubled family of New England WASPS (we really liked this movie).  And today we have just seen Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first post-gubernatorial leading role, plays a small-town border sheriff who leads a rag-tag band of locals in trying to stop a Sinaloa drug lord who has escaped from federal custody from fleeing back into Mexico.

Now, of the Korean directors who are currently attempting to cross-over into English-language cinema (including Hong, Park, and Bong Joon-ho, who’s English-language Snowpiercer has not yet been released), Kim is probably the most “mainstream,” although I hasten to clarify that (A) mainstream in Korea is better than mainstream in America and (B), I mean mainstream more in the sense of David Fincher or, hell, Steven Spielberg, rather than Michael Bay.  Kim makes crowd-pleasing blockbusters with style and limitless imagination; his genre-hopping career has included the direction of A Tale of Two Sisters (horror), Bittersweet Life (gangster), The Good, the Bad, The Weird (spaghetti western / period piece / war movie / all manner of things), and I Saw the Devil, ostensibly a “chase film” that features some of the most relentless and disturbingly graphic violence that I’ve ever seen.

It’s interesting to compare I Saw the Devil with The Last Stand, as they both feature the same basic premise: a criminal is trying to evade the authorities and mayhem ensues.  In I Saw the Devil, a serial rapist/murderer kills a woman who happens to the be the fiancée of a special agent, who promptly sets about chasing the rapist, capturing him, torturing him, and then releasing him so that he’ll have the pleasure of capturing him and torturing him again; and this repeats itself several times, and the special agent has no regard for any notion of human rights (and to be fair, nobody in law enforcement respects human rights in Korean movies) or for the increasing danger his chases pose to the public.  In fact, the depredations of this special agent are so horrific it becomes increasingly difficult to see him as being in any way superior to the rapist/murderer he’s pursuing.  I Saw the Devil is a deeply morally troubling movie.  The Last Stand, by contrast, dispenses with moral ambiguity to present us with a rousing series of firefights and car chases negotiated between cartoonishly evil thugs and good-hearted, loveably eccentric small-town Americans.

I Saw the Devil.
I’m tempted to take this opportunity to suggest that maybe Kim didn’t think Americans could “handle” the kind of moral complexity of a film like I Saw the Devil; after all, there’s been talk of an American adaptation of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy for years now, but anyone who’s seen that movie knows—and I won’t divulge spoilers here—but they know that there are key plot elements of that film that just won’t sell in the U.S.  But in Kim’s defense, I think he was just trying to make a different kind of movie with The Last Stand, the tone of which places it firmly within the genre traditions that I Saw the Devil was designed to transcend.  The Last Stand is a western, and Kim makes playful use of genre tropes that date back to High Noon (not to mention a bunch of other American movies that I haven’t seen).  Having made a spaghetti western with The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Kim has made a western-western (to coin a phrase) with The Last Stand.

I don’t have all that much to say about Kim’s American outing; I haven’t seen many action movies, I don’t know what the recent crop looks like.  But I do want to point out that Kim—along with cinematographer Kim Ji-yong and editor Steven Kemper—knows how to put an action sequence together.  Let me say that I know enough about American action movies to know that they’ve lately suffered “death by a thousand cuts,” their combat/chase sequences a shaky-cam mess so riddled with cuts that they become almost totally incoherent.  What’s the point of putting together a cool-looking action sequence if you can’t even see what’s going on?  This is a great advantage (one of many) that Kim and his fellow Korean filmmakers (Bong and Park especially come to mind) have over their American counter-parts: they can shoot an action sequence with elegant composition and a minimum of cuts, so that viewers can see it as clearly as possible.  One shouldn’t even have to say of movies that viewers should be able to “see them clearly,” but Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay have so thoroughly chopped things to pieces that this principle needs to be restated.  And so, although I would prefer these Korean directors to leave their Hollywood dreams behind and go back to making consistently excellent Korean movies, it certainly wouldn’t hurt American action movies if artists like Kim Ji-woon continued to shoot them.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Darkness Visible; or, What’s the Deal With Japanese Ghosts?

Upon finally getting around to watching Takashi Shimizu’s seminal Ju-On, I find myself thinking about master horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s assertion that “Japanese ghosts don’t really do anything.” I’m sure we all have a good idea of what a typical Japanese ghost looks like, but just as refresher: the Japanese ghost is a woman, pale as death (which makes sense, because she’s dead), with long black hair (which makes sense, because she’s Japanese), dressed all in white.  Her eyes are creepy as fuck and there’s a good chance she can contort her body at weird angles (the constant breaking and re-breaking of the neck is a frequent feature of Japanese ghosts; they can also spider-walk like Linda Blair in The Exorcist).  And of course this basic ghost mytheme isn’t just limited to Japan: it has found its way into the horror cinemas of Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and, in the form of shitty remakes of horror movies from these Asian countries, the United States.

This is the quintessential Japanese ghost, from the poster for one of the numerous Ju-On sequels.
Now, Kurosawa isn’t exactly correct when he says that Japanese ghosts don’t do anything.  They can definitely kill you.  But the mechanism by which they kill is usually left ambiguous.  The Japanese ghost will creepily approach its victim, the victim will scream, and then we cut to the next scene, with the police investigating the mysterious death of the victim, whose face is frozen into a rictus of terror.  So it seems likely that the Japanese ghost kills by literally scaring its victims to death; it doesn’t need to physically attack the victim, because the implications of its very existence are enough to kill a person (or drive them mad, I should add; they don’t always die; sometimes they just go insane).

The best, most effective horror works by implication. H. P. Lovecraft knew this, as did the other practitioners of the so-called “weird story.” In many of these stories, the hero doesn’t have direct contact with the supernatural (ghosts or demons don’t leap out of the woodwork and tear them apart), but the characters find incontrovertible evidence that these monsters exist.  And this evidence defies the laws of nature; its very existence is obscene and an abomination against reality (in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, he explains quite astutely that the “weird” story only became possible once science had progressed to the point that universal laws of physics had been established; reality can only be obscenely violated once it’s been established).  As for what is being implied, besides the existence of various monsters and nightmares, I think it is best summed up in this analysis of the work of British fantasy/horror/”weird” writer William Hope Hodgson, which I found on Wikipedia, and which is so well-written that I’m assuming it was plagiarized from another source: “Hodgson achieves a deep power of expression, which focuses on a sense not only of terror but of the ubiquity of potential terror, of the thinness of the invisible boundary between the world of normality and an underlying, unaccountable reality for which humans are not suited.”

Humans are a profoundly vulnerable species.  Not only do we have weak, soft bodies (without claws, or horns, or venom) but we have the capacity to think, and with the capacity to think comes the capacity for madness and horror.  There is a thin, transparent membrane of logic and scientific reason stretched tightly over the amorphous, monstrous body of magical thinking with which primitive man first encountered the world.  This is where vengeful, super-powerful ghosts come into the picture; because, from a logical perspective, we know that the dead victim of an injustice is just that: dead; and he or she can no longer harm us.  But the magical thinking that animated the human genius for most of our history tells us that the blood of criminality is rank, and that it rises up to heaven and calls out for vengeance.  And so history becomes the proverbial nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus was trying to awaken.  Every horror, ever violation of the codes of morality can come back to destroy us.  To paraphrase William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past; it is a pissed off Japanese albino from hell, with blood dripping from her eyes, come back to kill you in your bathtub.”

And so this is why Japanese ghosts don’t need to do anything.  They take that which has been effaced by time and criminal deception, and they bring it back into the light of day.  To steal a line from William Styron (who isn’t read anymore), who in turn stole it from John Milton: the Japanese ghost exists to render “darkness visible.” The ghost’s very presence constitutes an action, as it sets into motion the wheels of history and morality (albeit a brutal morality predicated on vengeance and terror).  The ghost is the conscience of the human race, gone mad and out for blood.  This ectoplasmic conscience holds up an appropriate mirror to the potential for psychotic violence and terror which exists in all of us.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I am Sick of these Motherfucking Burmese in my Motherfucking Ayutthaya: The Burmese Menace in Thai Nationalist Historical Epics

Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya (2010).
Burma today is one of the most tragically underdeveloped countries in the world.  Upon independence from Britain in 1948, Burma was mineral-rich and would seem to have had a comparatively promising future.  But the country almost immediately fell apart, with communists seeking to overthrow the nationalist government of U Nu and disaffected ethnic minorities in the East staging uprisings that rage to this day (the Burmese civil war is the world’s longest running conflict).  In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup and ruled the country as a psychotic dictator until 1988 (among the signs of his insanity, a numerological fixation on the number nine, which led to the introduction of Burmese money in unites of 90 nyat (nine being an auspicious number)). 

In 1988, independence leader Aung San’s daughter, the much revered Aung Sang Suu Kyi, returned to the country from exile in Britain to lead its burgeoning democracy movement.  Her party won elections in 1988, but the military decided (a) not to recognize them and (b) that Ne Win was too fucking crazy and was an impediment to the maintenance of military rule.  And so the army overthrew Ne Win and slaughtered thousands of democracy activists.  The new regime called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC, which has to be the worst acronym this side of the Filipino MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front)).  The SLORC renamed the country Myanmar, renamed the capital Yangon, and then moved the capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to a previously unknown village name of Naypyidaw, and continued to prosecute brutal wars of repression against the various ethnic minorities: the Shan, the Wa, the Karen, the Kachin, etc (emphasis on the etc.). 

In recent years, Burma has undergone an apparent transition to a more democratic form of government.  Power has been transferred to a civilian government (composed largely of former military officers who resigned from the army for the sole purpose of claiming to be civilians), Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and her party has entered parliament, and the government has now established cease-fires with most of the ethnic rebels (except the Kachin, whom the military continues to persecute in a war that gets very little international attention).  But the country’s still an underdeveloped mess and its future is uncertain.  In recent months, the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority has faced pogroms from Buddhist mobs; Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to defend the Rohingya, an act of moral cowardice which has pissed off pretty much everyone.

I say all this as a preface to this post’s cinematic observation, which is that the Burmese menace that haunts so many Thai historical films becomes grotesquely ironic when you compare modern-day Burma and Thailand.  Thailand is a bastion of regional stability and economic power when compared to its impoverished, war-ravaged neighbors (specifically, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia).  In fact, one of the leading causes of instability in the post-WWII era in Thailand has been the near constant activity of Burmese ethnic rebels along the Thai-Burmese border.  Over the years, the Thai government has demonstrated varying degrees of tolerance for the different groups (much as they had a deeply inconsistent policy with the Khmer Rouge, who were dangerous and downright psychotic, but who provided a buffer between Thailand and the armed forces of Vietnam).

But if Burma is an irritant in modern-day Thailand, it’s hardly an existential threat (the existential threat to Thailand comes from its turbulent and often bloody party politics).  It is hard to imagine that there was once a time when mighty Burmese armies rampaged through Thailand, waging destructive campaigns that eventually annihilated the great Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767.  The conflicts between Burma and Ayutthaya (often with special attention paid to its heroic founder-king Naresuan) provide the subjects for such nationalist cinematic epics as Naresuan (the first three parts of which run to about eight and a half hours), The Legend of Suriyothai (three hours), the blood bath Bang Rajan, and Napporn Watin’s Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya, an awful movie (which I watched this evening) about the nonetheless fascinating subject of Japanese adventurers in Thailand, circa-1610. In all of these movies, the Burmese are the most evil bastards to ever walk the earth (and the Thais are peaceful and virtuous, and their kings are virtually gods incarnate (may they be ever venerated!).  These representations of Burmese people and the xenophobia they give rise to are so over the top that D. W. Griffith himself would have looked at them and said, “Whoa, dudes, tone it down a little.”

Now, if you want to see a Thai movie with good, humane portrayals of Burmese people, I strongly recommend Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2001 film Blissfully Yours, which depicts the gentle (and gently surreal) romance between a Thai woman and an undocumented Burmese immigrant, all done up in Apichatpong’s beautiful, sui generis style.  It will certainly prove a welcome relief if you’ve watched too many Ayyuthaya chauvinist propaganda films.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How to Depict a Miracle on Film: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet

*THERE ARE SO MANY SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW.  If you haven’t yet seen Ordet, consider yourself warned.*

Before I start to talk about Carl Theodore Dreyer’s great religious film Ordet (1955), I should remind the reader that I have not been a religionist of any sort for many years.  Furthermore, my religious education as a child was indifferent, and all I’ve come to know about religion subsequently has been the result of auto-didacticism.  And so when I see profoundly religious people, like those who populate Ordet, I sometimes find myself perplexed.  Why are these people doing what they’re doing, I wonder?  But then imagination kicks in and I can figure it out.  As the great Catholic writer Graham Greene famously wrote, “Hatred was a failure of the imagination.” And he could have said that of all sorts of misunderstandings; hatred is merely the most extreme example.

Here’s the plot of Ordet in a nutshell: An old, deeply religious Danish farmer, Morten Borgen, living in 1925, has three sons:  The eldest, Mikkel, has a wife name of Inger and two daughters.  Inger is pregnant with their third child.  Mikkel has grown disillusioned with his father’s faith, and although he’d like to feel it again, he can’t bring himself to sustain it (and God help you when a Scandinavian struggles with his faith; Mikkel is like the eponymous hero of the Swede Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas, who has born witness to Christ but can’t bring himself to believe in Him).  The youngest son, Anders, is in love with Anne, Peter the tailor’s daughter, but the tailor subscribes to a different denomination of Danish Protestantism than the Borgens!  And he won’t let any daughter of his marry a heathen Borgen (interestingly, Dreyer lays out very little of the distinctions between the two sects, although Morten asserts that the tailor’s is gloomy and death-worshipping, whereas his is optimistic and life-embracing).  And then finally there’s the middle son, Johannes, who has gone insane after reading too much Kierkegaard (no, seriously) and is now convinced that he is Jesus Christ.

Most of the action takes place over the course of a single, really dramatic day and night.  As evening passes into night, Inger goes into a difficult labor, her baby dies, and she herself becomes dangerously ill.  The sickly Johannes intones to his troubled father, “Did you see him?” “Who?” Asks the father. “The man with the hourglass and sickle.  He came to take Inger’s baby away.” And then Johannes prophecies that Inger herself will die, and that he, Johannes, will resurrect her from the dead, if only his father and brothers believe in him.  Well, sure enough, Inger dies.  Johannes, not feeling the faith that he thinks a messiah like him deserves, flees the house.  Then, just as the family is about to bury Inger, Johannes returns, apparently restored to sanity (when he thought he was Jesus, he spoke in a sick, grating kind of voice; apparently he thought Jesus was an affectless invalid?  Well, now he speaks clearly).  So he may be sane, but he still thinks Inger can be resurrected, if only the so-called believers would actually believe.  And of course his father and brothers don’t believe in him, at least.  Following Inger’s death, old Morten can only repeat, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away.” But wait, what about Inger’s daughter?  Yes, surely the faith of a child can save the day! And she says to Johannes, “Hurry, before they put the lid on her.” And Johannes says, “If it is possible, she will be restored to life when I say the name of our Lord.”

Now, I want to stop right here and say that the whole episode of Johannes’s return at the funeral is deeply moving.  In many ways, Johannes’s flight and subsequent return parallel the death of Christ and His resurrection, for it is only by returning that each can complete H/h-is respective mission.  And, my atheism aside, my eyes glistened with tears and I said, “You can do it, Johannes!” I like to think that I’m not one of those sneering atheists; in my reaction to Dryer’s work, I am reminded of a line by the Romanian-French aphorist E. M. Cioran: “Were it not for Bach, God would be entirely second rate.” Cioran seems to have completely missed the profound dignity of individuals’ engagement with issues of faith; now, granted, there’s not much to be said for the faith of the American evangelical snake-handler or the Salafi misogynist, but think of figures like Simone Weil and Dostoevsky.  But perhaps I’m guilt of aestheticizing religion; my general take on the matter is that religion makes for great drama, as long as you don’t take it literally.  Now, that said, Dostovesky probably would have been happier if he hadn’t been hung up on religion.  And, as long as we’re discussing Russian writers, it was religion that seriously undermined the literary output of Lev Tolstoy and destroyed the work and eventually the life of Nikolai Gogol.  Oh, and it killed Simone Weil who, like Gogol, starved herself to death.  Jesus.

Ok, where were we? Ah yes, Johannes was going to say the name of our Lord.  It is a moment of great high drama.  I would even say it is sublime.  And he says his prayer, and he says the name of Christ, and Inger begins to stir within her coffin.  And then Hulu decided that it needed to stutter to a halt and take a few moments to buffer, and the spell of the sublime was broken, so bear that in mind when I say that the rest of the movie seemed painfully banal and emotionally dishonest to me.  Because once Inger comes to, she embraces her husband, Mikkel, and she asks, “Where’s the baby?” And Mikkel says, “At home.” And then he adds, “With God,” and tells her that he’s now regained his faith.  And that now they will continue with life.  And Inger seems ok with this.  Inger just found out that her son has died, but he’s with God, so it’s fine.  And what’s this “life” of theirs going to look like, anyway?  It certainly seems to me that Inger is just going to go on being a housewife and helping her husband’s family maintain their farm.  She has just been the subject of a miracle, she has returned from the land of the dead, and soon she’s going to go back to scrubbing the floors and feeding the pigs.

I don’t know, I feel like returning from the dead should lead to dramatic changes.  Not just for her, but for everyone.  Because now the Borgens have proof that miracles can still happen, even in the modern world, and that Christ is still working among us.  And maybe there will be some of that (there are numerous witnesses to the resurrection, including the Godless doctor who let her die to begin with).  Dryer never made an Ordet II; he basically ended his movie with the miracle which, from a dramatic perspective, was probably the reasonable thing to do.  But it’s unsatisfying.  The sublimity of the miracle (and what Johannes had to do to make it happen) is eclipsed by its own practical implications: the woman is no longer dead, so she can go back to her day-to-day business.  But as far as miracles go, this is probably the best cinematic representation of them that I’ve seen thus far (unless one considers the telekinesis in Tarkovsky’s Stalker to be a miracle; some critics do).  I guess I want to conclude by saying that even if the religiosity of Dryer’s Ordet is somewhat alien to many of us, it still has much to offer, even to the atheist, just as one need not be a Christian to enjoy Bach.