Wednesday, June 29, 2005

New Film: Tropical Malady ~ 2005's best to date

As we approach 2005's midpoint, there has been no better picture to receive its American theatrical premiere this year than Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, which opens today at New York's recently-christened IFC Center. The 34 year-old Thai auteur's third feature to garner significant international attention, Tropical Malady exceeds its predecessors in virtually every respect, showcasing a form that provides a potential new direction for art cinema worldwide. Apichatpong splits the narrative of Tropical Malady into two parts: the first is a gay romance focused upon a soldier and a small-town young man, while the second is a fable concerning another soldier's hunt for a shaman with the power of transforming himself into animal form.

If it sounds as if Tropical Malady is therefore comprised of two distinct short stories, the brilliance of Apichatpong's form rests in the interdependence of these discordant tales. On its own, part one (or part two for that matter) is a relatively pointless exercise in its subject matter: in the case of the first, the nascent romance of a same-sex couple concluding in an oblique gesture of physical love followed by the descent of one of the two into a dark forest. However, when taken with the second part, Apichatpong imbues his narrative with an entirely different meaning. Importantly, the folkloric second half self-consciously references filmic past through its recourse to intertitles, which in turn accentuate the section's antiquated fabulist narrative. This second part is juxtaposed with the modern narrative of part one, which depicts Thailand's hinter-regions as containing elements of the old and new in equal measure. Most examples of international art cinema, circa 2005, are no more than what Apichatpong depicts in this earlier section: man in a world which is in the process of modernizing, both in terms of its infrastructure, and more importantly, morally.

Yet, Tropical Malady defiantly undercuts the logic of part one, and in the process, modernist cinema: Hou Hsiao-hsien, this bitch-slap is directed at you. With part two, Apichatpong allegorizes the romantic coupling presented in the earlier half, arguing for the inherent compatibility of sex and death -- as such becoming the latest advocate of Bataille's conflation of the two. The all-smiles romance of the first part is revealed to be phony and transient, assuring a destruction symbolized by the stalking tiger. Indeed, it is worth remembering Apichatpong's opening quotation as a signifier of the meaning meted in part two: "all of us are by nature wild beasts... Our duty as human beings is to be like animal trainers... keeping our bestiality in check." This applies no less to the lovers than it does to the soldier and shaman -- and after all, it appears preceding the first part anyways. The pursuit of desire leads to the destruction signaled in the second half.

In fact, the meaning of the folkloric second half is to explain the oblique opening salvo, which in spite of its transparent form, offers a vision of society that is shown to be deceptive when refracted by its parallel half. (Consequently to call it "phony" is to do it a slight disservice: part one is the mirror image of part two, even if it is unintelligible without the second.) Similarly, a narrative concerning a hunter in search of a shaman that features intertitles, primitive illustrations, and a logic with no grounding in phenomenological reality becomes true in its revelations concerning human behavior. Again, part two is the interpretative matrix for the first. It also advocates a new kind of art cinema that dispenses with a default realism that is not only wanting, but fundamentally deceptive in its presentation of life's details: all cinema is selective in its narration; the stuff of fable is every bit as capable of clarifying life's crises, so long as the human condition remains immutable, as Apichatpong's adaptation of fable suggests.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Taste of Tea & A Few Cursory Notes on Current Japanese Cinema

Among the new titles at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, Katsuhito Ishii's The Taste of Tea (2004) deserves nothing less than to become a major cross-over arthouse hit. Why? Ishii's film is exactly what everybody always says they want their film-going experience to be: something new and different. While The Taste of Tea, easily one of the funniest films I have seen in the past year, consciously references Japan's cinematic past -- namely the works of Yasujiro Ozu and particularly The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) -- it does so in order to define Japanese experience here and now. Ishii, who according to the program notes directed the animation segment in Quentin Tarantino's splatter-riot Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (which I detested, by the way), refracts Japanese experience through recent pop culture, creating a set of characters who possess cartoonish qualities of their own, at times dress in superhero costuming, and who in a few cases are themselves manga illustrators. Yet, if Tarantino's first Kill Bill delights in a dehumanized violence of a sort that comes from thorough participation in video culture, The Taste of Tea -- like the second Kill Bill -- manifests a genuine sympathy and generousness towards each of its characters, allowing Ishii's film to transcend the post-modern trap of self-satisfied irony. There is a warmth mingling with all this absurdity, making the experience of The Taste of Tea something more than pop-culture masturbation.

Beyond Ishii's post-Superflat work, Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated opus, Howl's Moving Castle, and Hirokazu Kore-eda's richly allegorical, high-concept Cannes prize-winner, Nobody Knows (both 2004), likewise mine similar adolescent territory, though offering far less pop-infused takes on modern Japanese life. Each of these films shows an emotional depth that is all-to-often a casualty of our ironic zeitgeist, which is not to say that Japan isn't as guilty as the rest of us in this respect: Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001) remains the most horrifying cinematic experience I've had all decade, and represents one of the few times in which I have found myself genuinely concerned with the impact that a film might have on its viewer's. Having said that, Japanese cinema at its best, as opposed to Ichi, seems to be experiencing a renaissance, if these three works are in any way representative. In fact, for all the hoopla surrounding recent Iranian, Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean cinema, I'm not so sure that there's any richer center of filmmaking today than Japan, especially when one also considers the work of Kitano, K. Kurosawa, Aoyama, and Oshii, to name only a few. Here's hoping that this thesis can be tested by all of us before what seems to be another "golden age" passes.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

New Film: 5x2, Batman, and Miranda July (as well as a corresponding look into the future of motion picture distribution)

Opening in limited release last Friday, Francois Ozon's 5x2 (2004) confirms the director's place at the forefront of France's latest generation of filmmakers. Structured in five separate segments ordered in reverse chronology, 5x2 begins with a couple's divorce proceedings and then moves backwards, concluding before the "2" were together. As gimmicky as this might sound, Ozon's structure assures that its viewers will react differently to the film's two protagonists than they might have were the same events arranged chronologically. In other words, suspense becomes a matter of psychological revelation rather than the traditional mechanisms of cause and effect. Nevertheless, Ozon eschews lucidity. When an opportunity to clarify previously narrated actions does arise -- either in terms of what actually happened or in why a character may have behaved in such and such a way -- Ozon refuses to comply.

Batman Begins plays by very different rules. In Christopher Nolan's origins narrative, the future contours of the Batman persona are psychologized to painstaking -- and painful -- extents. Jung is the explicit point of reference here, in everything from Bruce Wayne's motivations to the villainous archetypes that populate Gotham.

Yet, if Batman Begins suffers from an overdetermined application of psychoanalytic theory, this is about the only level where it proves lacking. Otherwise, the fifth installment in the Batman series soars on the basis of Christian Bale's incomparable Capped crusader -- he deserves to be a huge international star, Nolan's crisp (if a little too montage-friendly) direction, and his and David S. Goyer's witty script. It hardly seems possible, but Batman Begins demands a sequel, whereas the year's other blockbuster source narrative, The Revenge of the Sith, succeeded only in mercifully guiding its audience back to its Episode IV starting point.

Of course, Batman Begins is your prototypical event movie, monopolizing multiplex screens as it creates a panic not unlike the one that grips the Narrows in Nolan's pic. On the other hand, 5x2 is destined to a limited national release before it appears at only those video stores which are a bit more subtitle friendly. Closer in fate to the latter than the former is Miranda July's feature film debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, which christens the new IFC Film Center (at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Third Street in Lower Manhattan)this coming Friday. The winner of numerous prizes at both Sundance and Cannes, July's film reimagines Hal Hartley, exchanging a y-chromosome for an x. This is to say that Me and You... does not exactly cover new territory in its postmodern universe, though undoubtedly it will be welcomed as a fresh indie alternative to the dog days of the blockbuster season, which surely it is.

More than anything else, July's film demonstrates a tenderness for its characters, which the director democratically extends over her entire cast. In this way, July avoids the pitfall of the narcissistic actor-auteur -- that is to set his or her own character above their supporting players, intellectually and/or morally. Yet, it is not even this admirable characteristic that might be the film's greatest virtue, but rather Miranda July's own performance, which exudes a charm that is rare in any type of cinema, let alone a postmodern one that so often succumbs to bad faith (think the Coen Brothers).

Unfortunately for July's film, it does suffer a bit for its timing: Me and You and Everyone We Know possesses a mildly-creepy pedophiliac tenor. Now we're not talking Michael Jackson here, but in the days following the verdict you get my point. With that said, there is narrative justification for July's benign adoption of this trope, which it would seem redeems any hint of something uglier (which is only that, a hint). In the end, sex is never the motivation.

So what is the box office potential for Me and You and Everyone We Know? That of course remains to be seen, though surely it will not be hurt by its multiple prizes and what I suspect will be very good word of mouth. Both certainly are essential for any financial success that it may experience, as they are for most indie and mid-major motion pictures. As long as films of this scope -- and of 5x2's -- continued to be produced, they will depend greatly on the power-broking of the festival circuit. Likewise, your Batman Begins' will continue to be impervious to critical appraisal as their inherent cultural traction combined with obscene ad budgets will solidify their statuses as events.

Does this mean that film distribution is static? No, but in my judgment the future will not be characterized by a leveling, but rather by amplification of trends already current. Admittedly it was a Thursday afternoon screening six days after its premiere, but there were only nine other people in the Quad Theatre with me to see 5x2. Of these, at least three were senior citizens, meaning that they would have paid $7 max. That leaves, at most, seven people who paid the full $10. How can a theatre in Greenwich Village maintain the sort of overhead it does with such meager audiences? The answer is that it can't.

Now while the tendency might be thus to decry the injustices in the distribution process, this inviability might just pave the way for greater viewing opportunities for everyone -- not just those who live in the dozen or so US cities where one can expect to see your 5x2's. In my mind, on-line distribution is an inevitability: as long as there is a demand for art films, distribution will exist at some level. What on-line distribution affords is a minimal amount of overhead and a maximum audience. While the technology may or may not be there for all films to be made available thusly, it is going to happen because it is far and away the most economical system.

Consequently, one should expect the same thing to happen in film that has already happened in the music industry: increased fragmentation. As filmmaker and critic Chris Petit once speculated, in the future art films will be shared by e-mail. At the same time, for those more ambitious independent filmmakers, in my estimation, film festivals and critics will become even more important, as their roles as guides to the vast cosmos of independent film crystallize.

For those persons truly interested in the art of cinema, these are all good things, even though it shatters notions of cinema as a communal experience. Then again, when was the last time you interacted with someone you didn't know at a movie theatre? Of course one of the broader implications is the increasing isolation of recreation, but this isn't a factor that will shape the economics of film distribution. It's the cost efficiency of this system that will rule, which for anyone, who like myself may one day wish to make films closer to Ozon's or July's than to Nolan's, is a good thing. And for anyone who just likes to go to movies and pass a few hours experiencing visceral pleasure and eating popcorn, you know what, as long as there are millions of others who continue to share this desire, this will not change either. In fact, theatrical distribution may just become (or remain, I suppose) the prestige-guarantor for entertainment-first works, serving as little more than a tool to sell film downloads or DVDs -- however it will work -- just as festivals and critics will do the same for smaller films.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Miyazaki, Shintoism & Ecology

Commencing yesterday and running through the 30th of this month, New York's Museum of Modern Art presents Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata: Masters of Animation. The retrospective's centerpiece will be the North American premiere of Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Miyazaki's latest, which will subsequently receive a limited national release starting June 10th. (For Minneapolis readers, the film will open on that date at the Uptown Theatre.)

As no great fan of animation, let alone animae, I will admit that I think of Miyazaki as something of an exception. His best films manifest many of the same qualities as the very best of the classical Hollywood system: that is, they succeed in addressing multiple audiences at once, both as organic works of art and as entertainments in their own right. Spirited Away (2001), for instance, is targeted at ten year-old girls, seeking to remedy their principle anxieties, while operating as a parable for the economic crisis for older viewers. Then again, those not within the former demographic are likewise given a glimpse into the young female's psychoses. It is in other words an art that operates on numerous levels, separately addressing different viewers.

Another instance of dual and even multiple address in Miyazaki's work is in its salience for culturally Japanese and non-Japanese audiences. In any context, Spirited Away is a fantasy. However, for the Japanese viewers, it is a fantasy mitigated by Shinto metaphysics. Spirits are everywhere in the work, as kami are everywhere in nature. When a creature enters the spa with a horrendous odor, it is the product of a spirit. Chihiro, the ten year-old protagonist, judiciously cleans the monster, ridding the spa of this terrible spirit. In this way, not only does Spirited Away manifest a Shinto causality, but further upholds one of the religion's four affirmations: the importance of physical cleanliness. To bath in Shinto is to participate in an important purifying ritual.

Another of these affirmations is the sacredness of nature, which is a concern that the filmmaker often returns to throughout his corpus. In films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Princess Mononoke (1997), this Shinto belief is fused with an ecological allegory that condemns reckless industrial civilization, and particularly its employment of nuclear weaponry. That Shinto has so easily coopted environmentalism surely accounts for the latter's prevalence in recent Japanese cinema -- beyond Miyazaki, major works include the Shinto-titled Himatsuri (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985), Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1990), and Charisma (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1999), among others.

Beyond Japanese cinema, where ecological concerns flow from Shintoist thought, environmentalism has become, arguably, the chief religious art of the modern world. The cathedrals of the medieval world have been since replaced by public spaces that call attention to a transgressive industrial past. Another recent MoMA exhibit perfectly articulated the religious intimations of environmentalist art. Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape offers a view of contemporary urban landscapes reappropriated after their industrial dereliction. As the program notes, "nearly every significant landscape designed in recent years occupies a site that has been reinvented and reclaimed from obsolescence or degradation as cities in the postindustrial remake their outdoor spaces." In other words, these new designs represent a sort of contrition toward a misused Mother Earth, often maintaining the scars of their industrial abuse as if a continual reminder for generations ahead of the industrial era's grave sins.

But more on that later: in a film review of mine to be published next month, I further articulate the reasons for evaluating environmentalism as a religion. If you are unable to wait that long, I would recommend Michael Crichton's speech to the Commonweath Club.

As for the current film program at the MoMA, or for Miyazaki's art more generally, it almost goes without saying that it is essential, whether or not its respective religious intimations are of any interest to you. I mention these only out of what is otherwise critical slight: to understand Miyazaki's work in particular, I would argue, it is necessary to understand it within its Shintoist rubric.