Friday, July 22, 2005

New Film: Last Days, Bad News Bears & Wedding Crashers

Prior to his most recent renaissance -- culminating with the Palme d'Or-winner Elephant (2003) -- audiences could have been forgiven for assuming that Gus Van Sant's best work was behind him. After all, it was Van Sant who was responsible for the middle brow irrelevancy of Good Will Hunting (1997), exactly the sort of work that is mistaken for good by people who don't know anything about movies. What's worse, of course, is that this same film made the career of the pestilent Ben Affleck -- a sin for which no amount of good deeds can atone. If that leaves grace as Van Sant's only option, he got close with Elephant, which demonstrated a love of its adolescent character's otherwise unknown in contemporary cinema.

In his latest, Last Days, as much a biopic of the late Kurt Cobain's final moments as Elephant was a picture about Columbine -- that is in everything but name -- Van Sant again tackles adolescence: in this case of the prolonged variety, the twenty-something rock star. As his drug-addled subjects, Blake (the Cobain character played by Michael Pitt) and his hangers-on, drift through a dilapidated Pacific Northwest mansion, which organically showcases the same deterioration as befell Blake's psyche in these "last days," Van Sant portrays lives lacking the emotional compass required for self-preservation. Yet unlike his beautiful, awkward, and in the case of his killers, tragically-misguided teenagers in Elephant, there is nothing but ugliness on display in Last Days. However romantic the character of Blake may be, beauty is not part of the calculus; the universality of Elephant has been replaced with the particularity of Blake, which indeed mediates the discursive power of his tragic end. To have compassion for the characters in Elephant is to draw on our own recollections of our teenage years. To watch Blake and his live-in guests idyll is to witness something to which the majority of viewers cannot relate out of their own experience. At best, pity ensues; at worst, disgust. In either case this is no replacement for a compassion compelled by understanding.

Though Last Days does not therefore equal Elephant in its emotional scope, it does rival the prior work in its aesthetic ambitions. Here, again Van Sant fragments time, replacing an exact inscription of the final 90-plus minutes of his life with a dispersed impression of these "last days." Dispersed, that is, as other characters float in and out of the narrative in order to give shape to his isolation -- gestures of help and abandonment are combined to instantiate Blake's final fate.

Of course, Richard Linklater took the opposite approach in his wonderful Before Sunset (2004), where the duration of the story is replicated in a near facsimile to real time. No similar ambition, however, is on display in his latest, Bad News Bears, a remake of the classic ESPN Classic, The Bad News Bears (1976). While this does not preclude the film from possessing substantial value -- School of Rock (2003) is not exactly ambitious, and yet it remains eminently entertaining -- Bad News Bears is slight nevertheless. Rewritten by the same pair who scripted Bad Santa (2003, Terry Zwigoff) and starring that film's vile Kris Kringle, Billy Bob Thorton, clearly Bad News Bears was conceived as an update of the earlier Bears with a shade of the Zwigoff film. However, Linklater's Bears can not match the unrelenting vulgarity of the Santa picture, which in its sustained lack of propriety achieved its own form integrity and demonstrated a clear (if decidedly bleak) world view. The film's mitigation, in this respect, is in part a function of its PG-13 rating. Likewise, Linklater's own political correctness softens the work's vulgarity: sure we laugh at the wheel chaired-character zipping out to play right field, but Linklater does allow him to make a key out. And of course the pitching sensation is female -- perhaps progressive pre Title-IX, but now, such a characterization is nothing more than comfortably liberal.

David Dobkin's Wedding Crashers is anything but. In this Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn vehicle, women are gullible, if not down-right stupid. This is not a film that proceeds according to the Prizzi's Honor or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels cliché, where it might seem that the men are in control, but where it is genuinely the female characters who are orchestrating events. Here, these "wedding crashers" breathlessly manipulate women through the most-transparently phony gimmicks one could possibly imagine; and even, for instance, when the Gloria character shows herself to be a bit wiser than she first appears, she still falls for Vaughn's B.S.

If this makes Wedding Crashers sound unduly reactionary, the fact is that the picture's impolitic qualities make it a renunciation of contemporary cultural values. The fact is that what's good for the goose has long not been good for the gander. Wedding Crashers is the sort of politically-incorrect work that restores the equation (though admittedly there is a limit to such a renewed equality, provided that it depends on the inferiority of one of the two genders). Still, this is a film whose comedy succeeds because it s taboo. And like Bad Santa before it, Wedding Crashers similarly sustains an integrity of impropriety -- the funeral crasher who appears may be a scumbag, but he's also a genius.

Wedding Crashers similarly succeeds because of the charisma and likeability of its leads, Wilson and Vaughn. Amiable without being admirable, like their characters, they give off the impression of being the life of the party, generous with everyone, even if they have less than laudable ends. Excuse the expression, but these are two guys who can really shoot the shit, and come on, who doesn't like that? They're guy's guys, who are as comfortable in a pick-up football game as they are in their ill-gotten moments of intimacy. In a society that has effectively rid itself of masculinity, there is something deeply satisfying about seeing characters like this on-screen. Sometimes sensitivity is gratuitous. Sometimes what is called for is a good punch in the face. Sometimes you just have to call somebody a "pussy."

Monday, July 11, 2005

Television is not an art

Television is not an art. Television is a medium that engages in the broadcast of art -- in addition to that of journalism, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment -- but it is not an art form in its own right. What semantic difference does this make? It makes some.

First, it must be acknowledged that cinema which is broadcast on television is still cinema. If one was to watch The Bridges of Madison County on television with commercials, as I did for the time, one is still watching Clint Eastwood's work of art, even if the experience of the film is somewhat amended by the particularities of its mode of broadcast. The same is true for any experience other than its projection in 35, even if VHS or especially DVD closer approximates the intended circumstances of its screening. Assuming that it is not recut -- which is characteristic for the pay channels even if it is not the norm elsewhere -- Eastwood's ideas and their implementation are the same; he photographs the same subjects, cuts in the same places, etc. The work is the same discursively as well as ontologically; that is, the four fundamental elements of the medium remain unchanged on the small screen -- which is to say, it is (or can be) the same representation of space, time, light, and sound.

All of this is to say that cinema can exist on television, which surely is the first place that many of us have seen certain motion pictures, be it through broadcast or more often perhaps, home video. Moreover, works like Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982) and Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989) were themselves intended for television broadcast, with abridged formats that would be released theatrically. Few would deny their status as works of cinema, largely one supposes because of their authorship.

Which brings me to an important point: if film is a medium of director's (and theatre, of actor's) then I think we can say that television belongs to writer's. In the parlance of the medium (as in 'of broadcast,' rather than as an art form) the creator of the program -- David Chase with The Sopranos, Alan Ball with Six Feet Under -- is more often than not a writer, who continues to work in this capacity, to varying degrees, as the program continues. This is not to say that a director is always invisible in television broadcasting, but rather that as a default, he or she is. Television style tends to be invisible, and when it is not, a matter for replication from one work to the next. The mise-en-scene is not the thing with television, it is the story and characters.

Stepping back for a moment, this divide between film and television is artificial, admittedly. The basic ontology of a television program is the same as that of a motion picture -- with or without the commercials. (If Russian Ark were the rule rather than the exception, I might pause for reflection; as it is however, the dictates of the commercial break do little to effect its ontology, even though it does influence its narrative arc, which is a subset of its temporal dimension.) When a program does not have commercials, as with BBC programming or HBO, the question is null anyways.

Which brings one back to the essential difference between television and theatrical/home video cinema: the circumstances of its production. Television, because of the amount to be shot, whether its six, twelve, or twenty-two episodes, demands a different speed of production -- and of course, allows the writer far more space to develop characters and various storylines. How many great novels can you think of, after all, which you read in 105 minutes? This same 105 minutes, however, gives the director more problems to resolve than he or she needs: the performances, the blocking, the lighting, the camera movements, the cutting, the soundtrack, et al. Robert Bresson made all of fourteen films in forty years -- including the unmatched Pickpocket which clocks in at a lean 75 -- and still, his corpus rates among the greatest of anyone ever to work in the art form. The Simpsons is on season seventeen, Law & Order, number sixteen (in the first of five incarnations to date).

Naturally, then, television's shooting style lends itself towards a mass-production approach, curiously similar to that of the early studio system. And like the heyday of the studios, television has shown itself to be more than adept in the production of tele-visual pleasures. Consider the abundance of highly-involving programs to appear on American in television in just the past decade: Seinfeld, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, The Shield, The Wire, Nip/Tuck, Arrested Development, and Deadwood, to name only a few. Each of these represent storytelling, character development, comedy, or a combination thereof at their very best, even if they don't rate with the cinema of Eastwood, Lynch, Jarmusch, Linklater, Mann, Scorsese, Payne, and either one of the Anderson's in terms of their mise-en-scene. They do not equal them as works of cinema, but they do provide pleasures of their own. It's not even that they are deficient in their ideas: The Sopranos after all is an extremely ambitious examination of the American-myth gone awry; Seinfeld was a show about nothing that adeptly exposed its manipulation of its audience in the show's brilliant, though less than viscerally satisfying finale -- on second thought, maybe this does confirm at least Seinfeld's final episode as great cinema. Anyways, the point is, these are shows about something (or nothing) which are fully-sufficient in terms of their storytelling, though they often do not equal the organic complexity of cinema's best.

Often, because at times, television does rise to the level of great cinema. Fanny and Alexander and Dekalog are obvious examples. Less so, perhaps is another instance where the auteurs are the writer-directors rather than simply the writers is the BBC's The Office written and directed by the team of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. This is auteurist television, in the classic cinematic sense. Here it is not simply the brilliant comic writing that elevates the work to the status of great, but is, moreover, their handling of the space and time of this dreary setting: those interstices when nothing is happening dramatically; the character's awareness of the camera and its solicitation of performance; the wonderful moment in the second series when Tim takes off his microphone to ask Dawn an enormously intimate question, etc. Form and content are organically fused in The Office. This is great cinema in the classic tradition of the film serial.

Indeed, like the work of Louis Feuillade in the early 20th century, The Office, as is true of all good fictional television, most closely resembles the form of the serial in the manner that it compels the viewer to see what happens in the next installment. With the advent of the television series DVDs, entire seasons can now be consumed at the viewer's pace, as one might read a page-turner. Television has found its vocation in this format -- first-rate storytelling, and more often than not, second-rate cinema. So be it. It's time for Hell's Kitchen, and I don't want to miss a second.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Current Exhibitions: Pioneering Modern Painting / The Fabric of Dreams

The museum equivalent of Batman Begins -- a major summer blockbuster, though one lacking the cache of say a Van Gogh, the Sith of the art world -- Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 (running now through September 12th at the Museum of Modern Art New York) seeks to contextualize the work of these two late nineteenth century giants within their working relationship. At first glance one fears a curatorial straw-man: none of his contemporaries, let alone Pissarro, can match Cézanne's achievement in reinventing the language of an entire medium. After all, the art of Cézanne represents no less than a translation of 19th century science into the medium of painting, providing an important precursor to profoundly subjective literature of Joyce and Proust: in looking at one of Cézanne's paintings, the spectator is compelled to overlook intentional inconsistencies and to combine the work's disparate color fragments in his or her own mind's eye. In other words, the art of Cézanne portends a shifting paradigm in which it is no longer the artist alone who creates the visual object, but rather the artist in collaboration with the spectator, and particularly the eye of the spectator. Visual truth becomes subjective.

Who indeed can match this reconstitution of the medium's mode of spectatorial address? At best, Camille Pissarro is a master of atmospherics and a poet of the melancholy; his is not an original idiom. Still, Pissarro's excellence, such as it is, is on full display in the MoMA's double exhibition. In his Banks of the Marne in Winter (1866), the leaves that have fallen from the trees, the grey skies, and the field that is still green (befitting the earliest days of the season), all combine to create the sadness that marks Pissarro's finest work. On the other hand, when Pissarro's work fully inhabits the summertime -- occasioning not even a cool shadow as he does so well in Crossroads at L'Hermitage, Pontoise (1876) -- it seems little more than comfort food.

If Pissarro is thus a bit uneven, there would seem zero evidence of this in Cézanne's enormous corpus: he is very much the Bresson of painting, steadfastly proceeding according to an individual logic which has touched everything of importance since. Cézanne is not only the father of twentieth century painting, but is almost certainly the greatest single artist in his medium since Rembrandt. None of his peers compare in terms of both aesthetic invention and historical importance... and yet, Pissarro somehow remains a master hanging beside Cézanne. The moral of this is that surely Pissarro is a superlative artist indeed, with touches of grace when his subject matter matches his melancholic temperament. Similarly, Pissarro's work also serves to illuminate Cézanne's somewhat counterintutive high-key tonal register (that is for someone who spent a lifetime painting landscape's, still life's and self-portrait's: Pissarro's is an art of muffled tears, Cézanne's of guttural whelps).

Then again, in contrast to Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles, Cézanne's work seems down right Apollinarian. To me, the real value of the Metropolitan Museum's reconsideration of Matisse's extra-textual sources (on now through September 26th) was its revelation of Matisse as a supreme aesthete, as opposed to the artist-philosopher that I had long assumed, provided his unmistakable preoccupation with line. Speaking for instance of Morocco in connection to one his famed Odalisque's, Matisse noted that he "felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, that divine unconcern, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors." In other words, Matisse's confesses a memory and preoccupation with the visual stimuli of the place. Surface appearances guide Matisse no less than touch does Renoir (which can be seen in his soft, gauzy works), or light and air does Monet. One can see Matisse's eye in this assembly of his work.

Of course, the textiles that are on display beside the paintings clearly did provide Matisse with many of the patterns that he would replicate in one work after another. Indeed, the Met exhibit makes a compelling case for his heavy borrowing of this curious source. However, the true value of "Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams His Art and His Textiles" is less in the details of his debt to these pieces than in the role they play in showing how his artistic mind worked. Surely, the textile was precisely what occupied his two-dimensional imagination. It was the sort of subject that engaged his Dionysian spirit. It seems strange to me to classify Matisse in opposition to Cézanne (and with Renoir no less!), but there can be no denying his interest in the purely aesthetic. In this way, Matisse almost becomes an ahistorical figure, guided by the dictates of his aesthetic feeling and not the broader cultural fources that shape each age's art. Then again, the reflexive results of Matisse's concerns produced an art that perfectly instatiates the self-consciousness of his epoch. As such, Matisse must remain to us one of the defining creators of his generation.

In closing, let me make the following observations concerning the curation of the two shows: both do an excellent job providing context for the particular pieces, whether it is the similar subject matter produced by Cézanne and Pissarro or Matisse's borrowing of the graphic qualities of certain textiles. The MoMA exhibition falters a bit in its lighting, impelling the viewer to search out a passable vantage from which to view the paintings; but otherwise, these are first rate, blockbuster shows, more Christopher Nolan than George Lucas.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Poetic Gesture and Tropical Malady

At the conclusion of Chantal Akerman's feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976), the titular protagonist, a housewife and prostitute, murderers one of her john's. This sudden act of violence shatters the prevailing transparency of Akerman's work: to this point her narrative has been a kind of Sisyphus with spuds, rendering the crippling banality of Jeanne's life in a series of static, one shot-one sequence takes. Her life consists of cleaning her house, preparing meals for her son, running errands, and performing sex acts on her afternoon clients. (As glib as I might make it sound) the underlining point to this objective representation of her routine is quite obvious: to underscore her psychological inquietude and to reveal the fundamental incongruities produced by her attempt to remain a doting mother and provider for her student son.

However, Akerman moves beyond a simple description of Jeanne's emotional state with the concluding murder. Unlike the acts of prostitution which are woven into her daily routine, this violence represents a definitive break from the everyday, in turn providing the film with its political meaning. And yet the preciseness of this gesture's meaning remains unclear: surely it intimates a break from the roles ascribed her, especially after it follows a day filled with frustrations unlike the routine others; and even so, what then is the solution to her alienation outside of the narrative's negation? Indeed, Jeanne's act is not one which unmistakably announces its reasons. There is a strangeness too it, and an openness involving its interpretation. It is, to coin a phrase, a poetic gesture.

The poetic gesture is by no means alien to film history -- it appears time and again throughout history and across cultures. Then again, the sheer profusion of this (often) causally-unconditioned trope in the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul sets a new standard. From the outset of his latest, Tropical Malady (2004), Apichatpong features circumstances that at best defy logic: for instance the opening clamor by soldiers to have themselves photographed with a dead body that they've found, the next sequence's quixotic presentation (in long shot) of a naked man walking in the brush, or the ostensible occupation of the local boy in a factory where ice is cut. To see these actions and events is to witness behavior (and perhaps customs) that has not been explained sufficiently. Again, this is why Jeanne Dielman is so instructive: in spite of the clarity that the narrative presents up to its denouement, there is an interpretative opacity created by so odd a behavior.

Which leads one to the second point involving the so-called "poetic gesture": that it presents behavior which is not commensurate with our understanding of rational action. It is in this capacity that Apichatpong's films show the fullest co-option of this trope. Part one of Tropical Malady ends with a scene of romantic intimacy involving its two gay lovers, where they take turns licking one another's hands. On its own, this behavior is preposterous: this is not a normal expression of physical love and desire, full stop. However, when understood in terms of the film's guiding matrix -- "that all of us are by nature wild beasts," and that it is our "duty" to keep our "bestiality in check" -- the impetus behind such behavior is articulated. Like the concluding card game in Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961), sex is transfigured into an action whose literal reading does not follow causally from the preceding.

What sets Tropical Malady apart as an exemplar of this trope, however, is not simply the presence of irrational behavior, but is moreover the form's facility in lending meaning to the unaccountable. Part two of Apichatpong's film ultimately refracts the first half, consigning new meaning to a romance masked by the protagonists' near ubiquitous smiles. Subtitled "A Spirit's Path," this journey into a folkloric world populated by a shaman with the power to turn himself into animal form, establishes a parallel to the first half, albeit in a phenomenologically unreal space. Whereas part one purported to present an unembellished modern world, though one whose meaning is obscured in the strangeness of the protagonists' behavior, part two is a purely fictional, fabulist world where causality is dictated by the parameters of the narration. Yet, it is through this illusory world the abstruse earlier half is explained: desire, as is present in the preceding romance, invariably leads to the same destruction wrought by the tiger-spirit in the subsequent fable. Through the second-level matrix of the 'Spirit's Path' narrative, Apichatpong sheds meaning on a sequence of outward gestures which are at once obscure and unreliable; in theory, part one could represent a replicated time and space in a way that science makes clear part two does not. However, Apichatpong uses the unreal to give meaning to the real, which is nothing more than the essence of art itself.

However, it is important not to go too far afield from the topic at hand. Part two also succeeds in further instantiating the poetic gesture's operative function: to convey meaning elliptically, just as poetry uses language in the same capacity. As art is itself a step back from reality with the intention of seeing with greater clarity -- as if we are not only seeing through a glass dimly but are likewise far-sighted -- the poetic gesture's purpose is to distance representation from the everyday, to shatter the illusion of mimetic reproduction, and in the process, to compel active critical interpretation. When meaning is not immediately evident within the contours of an action, the viewer must work more judiciously to grasp a work's meaning. This very process is allegorized in Tropical Malady: the strange world of part one is shown to signify broader truths, while the isolated expressiveness of its gestures often fail to sufficiently convey meaning. With the accompaniment of the second part, the unaccountable things of the first again gain intellection. Indeed, part two is the critical process demanded by the first half's ambiguity; that it is in fable where the truth becomes clearest -- not in the less abstract replication of reality described in the first part -- only underscores art's functional remove from the banal.

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.