September 27th, 2009

lotr space station

Zombie kittens from space

Calgary International Film Festival day 2:
  • Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) *******
    In 2006, I came out of Michael Haneke's Caché not knowing quite what to make of it, still wondering whether I hated it or loved it. The three intervening years' worth of percolation have convinced me that it was one of the best films I saw that year. Today I came out of this movie with a similar schizophrenic feeling. Haneke sticks to his usual modus operandi of throwing a lot at the viewer, not giving them time to properly absorb what has happened before piling on just a little bit more. And as usual, he chooses very carefully what he does and does not show. Haneke is the cinematic antidote to that other Michael who directed the latest Transformers movie; not all that is pertinent is telegraphed in one-syllable words. Are you sure you're seeing the whole story? And if not, then what of it? Are you sure there is such a thing as the whole story? Today's experience was like watching only one segment from Rashômon, and relying on imagination to fill in the rest that I can only suspect is there.

    But I am neglecting the incredible crisp black and white cinematography. It puts Broken Blossoms to shame, if such a thing is possible. Consider the opening shot where we slowly fade in from black, to a pastoral scene that becomes ever brighter and crisper. Brighter, crisper until you think it can't possibly get any more so... but still it goes on until finally we are immersed in the film's village setting. Black and white though it may appear, we are as good as being there. Except I don't need to say much more on this score – everyone else already has.

    I'm still recovering from the barrage, picking myself up off the ground. But I have high hopes that it will rank along the aforementioned Caché in the metaphorical Pantheon.

  • Kurôn wa kokyô wo mezasu (The Clone Returns Home) *********
    A man makes a disdainful remark regarding the prospect of treating lung cancer in a person who has been a lifelong smoker. As he does so, he pulls a cigarette from his pocket and places it in his mouth, about to smoke it. Visual irony? Perhaps, and in a different movie, quite likely so. But instead of lighting it up, he makes a motion as if about to remove the cigarette from his mouth, and we cut away. The cigarette is not seen again. Does he actually smoke it? Is he conscious of the image he cuts? Is he just using it as a prop to make his point? Does he do that often? What are the man's intentions? What does the whole charade say about the man as a character? We are only left to infer.

    This kind of peculiarly Japanese subtlety infects the entirety of the film, and the scene is symptomatic thereof, in both good and bad respects.

    After an intriguing setup, we get a (deliberately) meandering and unfocused second act that came this close to losing me, before it was redeemed with a strong finish. Without the finish, I would have been gone – not literally from the theater, but at least in spirit. As perhaps befits a "meditation on the paradox of life and death" (groan), much of the film's middle third takes place in the twilight between dream and wakefulness. Events occur, then undo themselves. A person is perhaps there, but is perhaps not, then perhaps switches places with someone else. Impossible things occur, and there is a disconnect between causes and their effects. Which is all very well I suppose, but if actions have no consequences, and anything can happen, then why do I care what does happen? I felt my interest waning fast.

    Then came a thankfully (and surprisingly) strong third act. It did not erase what came before, but from a point of view more grounded in reality, it was able to shine precisely the needed light on the earlier meanderings. At the very least, we are able to see what the outcome of the middle section "really" was, even if the course of events that brought us there remains fuzzy. And even that is not so bad – after all, it happened to someone else.

    There were a few jarring issues with the subtitles and some awkward translations by someone who clearly did not speak English as a first language. Not horrible, but enough to be occasionally distracting. However, the movie was otherwise quite excellent in its technical aspects.

    Five minutes into the movie, one character is shoveling dirt. Five minutes from the end, he is doing so again. These actions are not "opposites," as happens in the mirror structure of Eyes Wide Shut. But nor are they exactly parallel. Their relationship is more subtle than that: strangely complementary, but defying precise categorization.
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