Friday, 8 March 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Nine


25/02/2013 - 03/03/2013

 

Meanwhile [Hal Hartley, 2011]: The title is an in-joke; a reference to one of those occasional on-screen punctuations that Hartley has used in prior films to link scenes, usually for comedic effect; think 'A MONTH MAYBE TWO MONTHS LATER' from The Unbelievable Truth (1988), for example.  However, it seems particularly well-suited to this film and its central character; this man who moves purposely (though without purpose) from one scene to the next, from one appointment to another.  As the film progresses, we learn that the man also lurches from job to job, woman to woman, trying to make things work.  The irony being that his ability to fix inanimate objects, or to offer some kind of moral or philosophical guidance to the people encountered along the way, in no way correlates to his own ability to do well, or to make successful his own slow and seemingly uncomplicated progression through life.  In this sense, the title alludes to both the transient nature of the central character and the transitory nature of the plot; a picaresque series of short vignettes, structured episodically, in which our "hero" stumbles into the lives of various characters during the course of 48 hours and assists them, either physically, or through providing some practical words of wisdom that help them to find their own peace against the clamour of existence.

Throughout its slim, sixty-minute duration, the film - which strikes me as one of Hartley's best and most original works - returns to several of the director's major themes, including the presentation of a character out-of-step with the modern world, but in such a way that his own unique perspective gives way to an almost heightened critical perception.  Whereas most filmmakers would use such a character to exaggerate a particular socio-political dilemma (though the financial crisis is alluded to) - making his eccentricity or Holy Fool like simplicity a flaw or a disadvantage - Hartley's protagonist seems closer, in motivation at least, to the alien anthropologist of the cult Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth.  He - like the central character of the film in question - is an observer, in a sense out of time, but still able to see beyond the limitations of a situation; to solve problems, even if the character - this protagonist - doesn't necessarily understand those problems himself.



Me, Myself & Irene [Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2000]: The style of humour wasn't for me.  I'm not really into the whole "gross-out" thing, unless it's done with some finesse.  A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway for example can use provocation for something greater than adolescent shock-value; eliciting laughs from his audience while at the same time making us question our own implicit role in the exploitation of his characters, or in the abusive attitudes of the world in which they exist.  See a film like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) for instance.  It's not that I think the Farrelly brothers' are worthless.  On the contrary, I did enjoy their earlier films, Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Kingpin (1996), while Stuck on You (2003) strikes me as their most mature film (or at least "mature" without abandoning their particular sensibility) as well as a fairly sharp satire on Hollywood exploitation and the role of celebrity (or the "cult" of celebrity) in the age of reality-television.

However, while the more gratuitous aspects, such as Carrey sucking milk from a new mother's breast or a close-up of a defecating dog, might recall the spirit of transgression found in the work of John Waters, it also bring to mind the cheap attention-seeking of a film like Freddy Got Fingered (2001).  It's unfortunate too, because the film is directed with some intelligence, with the use of locations throughout suggesting the split personality of the central character; his divided mind expressed via the punctuation of scenes in which he rides his motorcycle 'cross country, traversing a landscape divided by roads, rivers, train tracks and bridges.  That the final confrontation takes place on a bridge is also significant; the symbol of the bridge, which links two separate states - two territories - allows the character to reconcile the two sides of his personality as they meet, literally, in the middle.  This approach to the staging of scenes or the mise en scène is far more interesting than many would suspect given the requirements of the genre or the talent involved.  I only wish I could've connected more with the humour of the film, to appreciate it, as intended. 


 

Prometheus [Ridley Scott, 2012]: The film is certainly flawed.  The script and the casting seem to be the biggest problems.  Large parts of the plot are nonsensical.  It's almost as if important sequences were removed from the final cut in order to maintain pace.  I would also suggest that the film suffers from its attempts to relate the action back to the original Alien (1979), creating hollow echoes of scenes already over-familiar or unnecessary to the more organic or authentic intentions of the film.  Prometheus could have survived well enough without this continual need to pre-establish the events of the earlier film; focusing instead on the more relevant story of these characters questioning the nature of their existence or our place within the infinite complexities of the universe.  It is this aspect of Prometheus - the pursuit of answers - that seems to me to be the most successful and the most rewarding.  The mythical quotations, such as the greater associations of the title, which suggest the creation of life, the quest for knowledge and a reminder of the philosophical suppositions of the English author Mary Shelley, whose landmark 1818 novel, Frankenstein, carried the pertinent subtitle: 'The Modern Prometheus'.  There, as well as here, the question is effectively about creation; the origin of the species.

Like the tragic monster in Shelley's book, the scientists in Prometheus come face to face with the engineers of our existence.  However, instead of receiving answers to their initial enquiries, they discover only a vengeful 'God' disappointed with the failure of his creations.  Stripped of its awkward narrative connections to Scott's earlier work, Prometheus is really a film about characters in search of the truth; a hypothesis on the ideological concept of "belief", both in the theoretical and scientific sense of the word, too often lost within this mess of narrative overindulgence.  However, beneath the plot-holes and the innumerable inconsistencies, Prometheus is also a film centred on the subject of children and their parents.  More specifically perhaps, about fathers and daughters; something that is evident in the psychology of the characters played by Rapace and Theron; two daughters haunted by the insecurities and ambitious of their own respective fathers.  If the film is to be looked at as a precursor to the original Alien, then it is in this particular use of themes to provide subtext, rather than in its more conventional and arguably less successful storytelling approach.



Saw: The Final Chapter [Kevin Greutert, 2010]: I found the film to be mostly without merit.  An empty reiteration of the same stock-characters, twists and narrative conventions already well established in the six prior instalments.  The traps aren't clever anymore, just cruel, and with no real chance of survival for any of these characters, the franchise edges ever closer to the contentious "torture porn" tag, which suggests, through the connotations of the term, that the film has no real value beyond providing the audience with a titillating exhibition of gore and degradation.  The first two films, although badly made and gratuitous in their brutality, at least tried to be inventive.  There was an initial modicum of consistency in the justification of this "Jigsaw" killer; his reasons for targeting potential victims and a point being made on the value of life, which questioned the mentality of an audience more attuned to the spectacle of human suffering than to the more affirmative joy(s) of living.  By this point, the filmmakers seem to be making things up as they go along; producing films simply to validate the continuation of the franchise; no longer interested in maintaining the same spirit of the character or even a sense of permanence between the "chapters."

Having said that, one scene is intelligent and almost justifies the existence of the film, as a whole.  It is a scene close to the beginning of the story.  Three young people connected to a hideous torture device and encased within a glass booth in the centre of a public space.  As they jostle and struggle against the machine and attempt to navigate the physical and psychological torment ahead, a crowd begins to amass.  This is the audience; submissive, mindless and voyeuristic.  The action continues behind the surface of the pane, like a projection on a cinema screen.  The audience, thrilled and disgusted, are compelled to capture the event on their camera phones, as if unable to take in such brutality unless seeing it play out as a miniature motion-picture; the natural refraction of this screen within a screen, creating distance, makes the spectacle less real.  In doing so, they become accomplices to the crime itself; condoning it through the act of viewing and becoming further complicit in the suffering of these characters by perpetuating the very worst indignities of the modern-age as nothing more than a talking point for the banalities of social media.  In this one fleeting instance, the filmmakers deconstruct what it is that makes these films a success; the bored curiosity and inherent bloodlust of their intended audience!  It's the moment when the 'Saw' franchise finally goes "meta", which is a great; although the result is arguably more Freddy's Dead (1991) than Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).


 

Pitfall [Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962]: From the near-silent opening sequence - in which the late-night escape of an unnamed coalminer and his young son is captured with all the brooding intensity of a classic Hollywood noir - to the cold uncertainty of its final images - those mountains of coal  against the stark white sky, the dogs that watch with quiet hesitation, the face of the young boy at the crossroads of uncertainty, etcetera, etcetera - Hiroshi Teshigahara's first feature, Pitfall, remains one of the most challenging and unforgettable films of its period.  Like the director's subsequent film, the similarly stark and atmospheric Woman in the Dunes (1964), Pitfall is a work defined by its use of the landscape - the contours, the space, the texture of things - where the struggle between characters and their attempts to survive (in whichever sense of the word) the harshness of their environment or a hopeless situation, is exaggerated; made "existential" almost by their position within the world itself.

The village where the film takes place is a genuine ghost town; a place where things have died or stopped working, imbuing the land itself, the spirit of it, with an eerie ambience that makes the more radical shifts into the supernatural seem practically plausible.  Had the film taken place in a more cosmopolitan environment, then the audience may have questioned the initial appearance of these ghosts or the very idea of this village as a kind of 'living' purgatory, existing, somehow outside of the realms of reality, or suspended in time.  With its bold combination of different techniques and storytelling devices, combined with Teshigahara's extraordinary way of seeing the world as if seeing it for the very first time, Pitfall is a bleak and unforgettable experience that follows closely in the same tradition of filmmakers like Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, specifically the films Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L'Avventura (1960). 



The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [Marcus Nispel, 2003]: In the original film, the implied motivation of the narrative - the facilitation of it - carried some subtle echoes to the war in Vietnam.  There was a sense of an occupied territory; a divided country (politically or ideologically) in the image of America at war with itself, and in the presence of these liberal-minded suburban youngsters lost in the wilderness, inescapably brought face to face with the very worst kind of brutality - this savagery - and completely oblivious to their own position as unwanted intruders.  For the antagonists at least, these victims - no matter how innocent or sympathetic to the audience - were the real trespassers; a genuine opposing force.  In this particular interpretation, the original film by Tobe Hooper could be seen as an attempt to confront a motion-picture audience seeking only mindless entertainment with the true visceral horror of the war itself, albeit, in an oblique, allegorical approach, similar to what Wes Craven had attempted in his earlier shocker The Last House on the Left (1972).  This remake, which replaces the low-budget 'grindhouse' aesthetic of the original with a slick, commercial sheen, retains the 1970s setting; however, from the perspective of the present day, the political subtext of the narrative is now more visibly redolent to our own collective recollections of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The visual tone of the film is suitably arid - lots of dusty browns and rusted ochre; the colours of the desert - while the sight of the film's main setting - the Hewitt residence - looks almost like a military bunker; an imposing block of concrete surrounded by decaying pasture.  Similarly, the film's pre-Saw/pre-Hostel emphasis on prolonged human suffering (torture, both physical and psychological), seems to capture something of the period; the presentation of this abuse carrying the same emotional weight as the still shocking images of atrocity later seen at Abu Ghraib or even Guantanamo Bay.  As ever, the role of the exploitation movie is essentially to hold a mirror to society, reminding me of a great quote I once saw attributed to Joe Dante: "if you want to see where we are as a culture at any given time, just look at any horror movie produced during the same period."   As a remake, the film probably lacks the authenticity of the original, but it was still fascinating, in its own way.