Friday, August 27, 2010

LES HERBES FOLLES (WILD GRASS): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos
Director: Alain Resnais
Runtime: 104 min.
Language: French
Country: France
Verdict: An interesting little short story, which like any good short story, makes you wonder.
Genre: Romance, Drama, Comedy

        I’ve been reading Calvin and Hobbes these past few days. Outside of a few glances through the strips in newspapers I knew precious little about the tiny kid and his, well, tiger. A good friend of mine was kind enough to gift me a book, and as I discover this little kid now, I’m almost discovering myself, often with side-splitting humor and often with a strange sense of sadness. I’m seeing Calvin everywhere. I know, I’m a little late to where you already are and what you already felt. Ah, that realization. There’s a great observation from Calvin’s father when he has to assume his responsibility of being the pillar of strength of the family when their house’s stolen. He remarks to himself, and his wife – I don’t think I would’ve been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I had known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed. I think that’s profound. And it also makes me think of the Tom Perotta novel Little Children.
        I wonder if the titular wild grass in Mr. Resnais’ Les Herbes Folles is that little wildness in us that never ever dies. That little child we never outgrow. We might hide him for a while, you know prune him and all, discipline him, but that guy’s never gone right? Maybe we’re all kids who’re supposed to act like adults. I don’t know, and I suspect I’m pretty much ad-libbing my adulthood. I look at Georges Palet (Mr. Dussollier), an old man in his fifties, an old man whose wrinkled features run as if they existed on the bark of a tree, an old man whom you might call handsome, an old man who might be the veteran of many an adventure, an old man you would wish to age like, and I see the little Calvin within him wanting to break out most desperately. Maybe that’s me, or maybe that’s Calvin and Hobbes. Monsieur Palet wants to feel that rush and passion of adolescence once again. He sure does know better, and there are moments in the film when he advises himself to curb his instincts, but then they are called instincts for a reason. These instincts, you can curb them, but they do have a tendency to grow somewhere else. Like wild grass.
        A stereotypical passionate romance, sweeping Titanic-style, is sure a fascination for many. This is kind of romance where you want to be in love, and who it is doesn’t really matter. For others, it is the stuff you want to mock from far away, and yell – Sissy! Might be stuff of sour grapes, or might be a case of hubris. With Calvin you never know which. With Les Herbes Folles and between its daydreaming innocent protagonist and the mocking narrative (or is it?) – from the exaggerated visual style of elaborate zooms and pans to the 20th-Century Fox fanfare – you never really know which. The old man finds a purse near the tyre of his car parked in the shopping mall. He picks it up, and runs through the license and passport, and sees that the person is a woman, and quite probably his age. A little love story probably runs through his heart, there and then, one even he probably he is unaware of. All he knows is that life owes him something. Monsieur Palet is already in love. Wallet in his hand, he looks at two young girls dressed in fashionable clothes passing by, and his adult version is filled with utter contempt. You should realize that Mr. Resnais’ film has the charms and rhythm and wit and observations of a short story. Even the freedom.
        At home Monsieur Palet has a devoted wife. He’s been married to her for thirty years. She’s Suzanne (Ms. Consigny), and when you look at her you almost mistake her for his daughter. She’s aware of his instincts. As the story grows, and incidents pile up, we realize she’s aware of his behavior to bring women home. Is she his wife anymore, or does she see him as her child? I don’t know, but this is an incredibly brave woman, a woman with a large heart, someone I would love to meet and know more of, and she quietly encourages her husband’s pursuits to find reasons to get up in the morning. I think that is a good place to leave you to discover the rest of this short story.
        And a good time to come back to what bothers me most about it all, about Calvin and about Monsieur Palet. About what causes me often to be sad while I read Calvin? And what caused me to be disturbed by Monsieur Palet’s romantic advances towards Ms. Margaret Muir (Ms. Azéma), the woman in the passport. You see, at some level, even Norman Bates was a child, and maybe even Ed Gein. I start worrying about little Calvin, and I worry about a lot of Calvins who exist in my life. Monsieur Palet is lost within his dreams. He obviously has a past, a past he’s quite worried of, but one isn’t sure if the film itself is attaching any importance to it or merely plays it down as unnecessary fear on his part. You know, like when we were kids and when we broke the glass and we thought that was the end of the world. Monsieur Palet is probably stupid. But when does fear start becoming paranoia? When does a soft focus image filled with highly saturated colors and all the brightness in a world where sun shines with great pride become grotesque? I’m not sure if Les Herbes Folles is merely a romantic comedy, or a psychiatrist explaining it to us how the world might appear to a person desperately looking for romance, perhaps inadvisably. You see, he slashes the tyres of her car. His love is almost dictatorial in nature. At first she doesn’t give a hoot in hell about him, but she changes. Out of love, I don’t think so. Out of guilt probably. And then, out of ego. Guilt is a profound emotion, and the causative emotion for many actions and many emotions. But it feels to me such actions and such emotions might have a negative ring to them. There’s just something there that doesn’t feel sound, that doesn’t feel good. This is a romance built upon what we perceive to be negative traits – ego, guilt. There’s something here that feels sad. And make no mistake, guilt and ego are the most basic of all emotions. Calvin had them too, you know. And that is what I’m unable to get my hands around. Neither I guess is Les Herbes Folles. I think, at 87, even Mr. Resnais is ad-libbing. He’s probably saying we all are.

Note: Here is an interesting little interview.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

THE GHOST WRITER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall
Director: Roman Polanski
Runtime: 128 min.
Verdict: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqM1Fjn3qw4
Genre: Thriller

        The Ghost Writer is too contemporary. The ridiculously adolescent paranoia of a Robert Ludlum novel, or for that matter this one here, written by Robert Harris, is perfect entertainment, but preposterous conspiracy theories work well only when the historical events are past enough to be shrouded in an air of mystery. Or still better, the events within the novel are disguised so convincingly and made so specific and self-sustaining, that the realization these events somehow allude to those real events ought to be the reader’s/viewer’s prerogative. I mean, wanting to draw political mileage and thus harboring ambitions of relevance and importance – by disguising Halliburton as Hatherton, or a Condoleezza Rice lookalike – is merely trying to be pretentious, and more importantly greedy to have the cake and eat it too. What you rather end up having, with this kind of redundant disguising and mapping is that the audience already has the memo, and they already know the broad equations, and if your film isn’t smart enough to stay ahead (which The Ghost Writer isn’t, it merely confirms one hour later what we already knew within the first minute), then you’re probably lazy not to look down and see you just stepped on the self-destruct button.
        Mr. Polanski has written the film. That is pretty self-evident in the way the narrative is structured. Mr. Polanski has always had the instincts of the horror genre. His protagonists tend to be alone, and they tend to walk onto an island (literally/figuratively), which typically happens to be the setting of the tale. This setting is the classic horror convention – a set of people walking into an unknown area, and we holding our breath in anticipation of what would jump from off screen as they take every step. These steps are what give the horror genre its chops, and this is the tension that we seek. The horror genre works best in situations of paranoia, where every face and every corner is a possible threat. The Ghost Writer is competent that way. Problem is, you’re pulled right out of that illusion when you see Hatherton. I mean, these are the kind of smug disguises that could be taken to court, and probably sued, and even win the damn thing. It could be argued, you know. And as Kyle Smith (a Republican) says in his justly dismissive review of the film –
Also, you can't have it both ways with sinister international decade-spanning conspiracies. Either nefarious agencies can see 30 years into the future and secretly yank every string from DC to Downing Street, or they're too incompetent to pull off the simple assassination of an unarmed hack on a lonely country road. Not both.
(Smith’s otherwise redundant and uninteresting review could be read here.)

        Most of the other genre stuff is pretty much there. The lonely nights. Sparse population. Unrecognizable men in overcoats. Rains. Suspicious men casting suspicious glances over their glasses. If you say it is corny, it sure as hell is. And intellectual it isn’t. As has always been the case with Mr. Polanski’s politics, it is contradictory and just a step above those pointless tirades hurled against the system. Mr. Polanski, in most of his films, takes us one step further. He places the common man in place of the system, and then shows he is just about as capable. But then, there’s always the paranoia. The conspiracy that causes this common man to be rendered helpless. So yeah, I ask, if you can always find a reason, and often a preposterous one, to hide your guilt and the evil inside of you, and deflect it towards the general direction of the Immoral Enterprise, is it really any good? I don’t know about Mr. Polanski’s beliefs but I guess it was not Satan who was responsible for Eve eating the apple, it was Eve and Adam themselves. Chances are, Satan never even crawled on that tree. Calvin and Hobbes sure is the answer to everything.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

HANYO (THE HOUSEMAID): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Do-yeon Jeon, Seo Woo, Yeo-Jong Yun, Jung-Jae Lee, Park Ji-Young
Director: Sang-soo Im
Runtime: 107 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: I’m sorry I forget, but why was it made?
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        There’s this little rule running inside our heads somewhere, a rule in the book titled The Real Worth of Everything Sold to You, and it says that there is no replacement for smartness. It might be the smug little elitist within us, I suspect, but all of us indulging in observations and analysis, and judgments, do tend to hold a sizeable bias for the one we perceive to be smart. I mean, given two works of art with dramatic truth within them, we tend to instinctively pick the smart ones. I mean, as a reflection of our choice. Smart as in, the wittier of the two. Seriousness, I guess, is usually attributed to middlebrow tastes. One ought to be able to crack a joke, and more importantly take a joke. A sense of humor is often assumed as the mark of refreshing intellect. I think, for the most part, rightly so. So, when I say Hanyo (2010) is a puzzling little film, I don’t intend to attach any kind of worth to it. The film itself is a dull, boring, often monotonous, and mostly pointless. I hate invoking source material (this is a remake of the wonderful 1960 original), especially when a film so clearly wants to present an alternate take, and not simply rehash it.
        But I got to here, because my criticism of the finished movie is almost secondary, especially in the way the film’s problems are caused, and where and how they are caused. The final movie is merely a showcase of all those problems, which better put, are artificialities that so often betray a bend inspired by academics and literature and no bloody observation of real life. Inert, and locked within the artifice of its own world.
        So yes, given that you’re a filmmaker of considerable skill, I ask – why would you choose to pick a smart satire, especially a compassionate one (for those are very rare), and make not just a drama but a melodrama out of it? The best of satire is based on the most astute of observations on life. A melodrama is, more often than not, a contrived setting. This here is the underlying principles of the genres. Erotica is not an issue, because with or without the graphic nudity in question – the 1960 film has understandably none – the 1960 film was much more potent and convincing in its erotica. This film here has all the lust and sexual tension of a porn film.
        So yes, one might argue, why should a satire be considered greater, or say higher in stature, or worthier in intellect to a melodrama? And that is a most interesting question, dear reader, because more than any two genres, the satire and the melodrama seem to be somehow the opposite sides of the same coin. A coin minted out of clichés and conventions. A satire, on one hand, flaunts its usage of these clichés, and exaggerating these generalized notions, creates a very specific work. A melodrama, on the other hand, gives the impression that it is specific, that it is merely a story, but beneath its very thin mask (the mask ought to be thin because a melodrama so often wants to pass messages too), it is only pulling those very clichés and conventions and yes, exaggerating them. Thus, a satire is honest, while melodrama is not, and that is what causes our judgmental reaction.
        The opening sequences, both pre-credits, might just be the key to the eventual tone of the two films, both mightily different in the manner in which they assume the politics of their subject and betraying in the process why the earlier one is a satire (observation) and other is a melodrama (something that passes exaggeration for real life). In Hanyo (1960), the opening shot takes us into a house, through the window, where we meet a husband and a wife sitting in a room while their two kids, a boy and a girl, play in the foreground. It is a typical evening family scene, the sort they sell you in ads and children books. You know, the cozy image of Daddy Mommy Mary and John. Daddy reading a newspaper, Mommy sewing, Mary and John playing on the floor. The archetypical family. Into one of these days, the husband narrates to his wife a rather curious newspaper report - A man in Gimcheon committed adultery with his maid. It sets off a few moments of discussion where the wife talks about the sleazy nature of men, and the man discusses why the housemaid is more the woman running the house than the wife herself. Credits.
        The interplay was within a room, wondering about the world outside the window. In a rather funny way, that was Korea back then, and this movie too, until it was discovered many decades later and realized as the wonderful work it is. That was a world not very different from our own, because, it seems to me, the gender equation within a family never is. We might go back and forth over this patriarchal society of ours, but the truth seems, that the genders co-exist, and within the confines of those walls the situation might best be described not via equations but via paradigms. And I intend to stress the word – coexist. We see it all around us.
        That was what Mr. Ki-Young’s wonderful wonderful film was about, and the opening and the closing shot only ridicule the utter melodrama of the other notions. Notions that are carried around by false films like this Hanyo. And once again the opening shot. This is the Korea of today, and we see a bustling evening in the downtown of some Korean city (I forget the setting, but I’m not sure if it is Seoul). Discos, gymnasiums, eateries, superstores all of them bustling. A woman stands on a hoarding and jumps to the ground and commits suicide. People notice, gradually, and gasp. It is not a newspaper report, but the event itself. That, right there, are the first seeds of melodrama.
        The titular housemaid, a widow, sees this ghastly scene. She is asked to come and be a housemaid in the house of a rich gentleman, whose wife is pregnant. She goes. The husband, whose only character trait seems to be that he lusts on hot women and after having banging them raises his arms in victory and expects life to pin a medal on his chest, well, exhibits his behavior. She gets pregnant, and stuff happens, and more stuff happens. It now occurs to me, as I discuss the plot, that it would take tremendous effort to render such one-dimensional characters as this bunch in such a story as this and still cause the story to happen. I now have a greater respect for soaps.
        So yes, the gender equation constructed here is hopelessly contrived, and worse still is not even an equation. Equations have variables, you see. So I wouldn’t want to go about dissecting the movie’s politics by dissecting the plot, because (a) there’s not much there, and (b) if one doesn’t put much effort in the first place why bother analyzing it. What is a more fruitful avenue is the visual architecture of the film, and understanding why it is the absolutely wrong choice for making any kind of commentary on its subject. Raises also several fascinating questions.
        Much has been made of the severely expensive set – the expansive house. It is like any other big house you’ve come to see in the movies, and I couldn’t really be much affected by it. It never assumes a character of its own, it is never used, and it never impresses itself. I do not remember now if the movie uses tracking shots to highlight the expansiveness, ala The Shining, but what interests me, more than anything, is the difference in aspect ratios of the shots in the two films, and how it is the result of the choice of the family whose story is to be told.
        The 1960 film was squarer, much like most black and white films featuring household stories. IMDb lists the AR as 1.55:1. The present one here, is more widescreen in nature, having ambitions of being grand in scale, and as can be seen from IMDb, the AR is typical widescreen (2.35:1). Oh, I wouldn’t want to enter into the technical discussion about modern equipment, and how they demand anamorphic compositions. What I intend to rather say, is that the larger AR of the 1960 film makes it feel more immediate. More real. Maybe real is the wrong word. Maybe, home is more like it. 1.55:1 feels like home. Feels like television. You see, the whole thing is about the gender relations in a middle class family. Our family. The bourgeoisie. Our little houses cannot sustain widescreen compositions. And that story, the male-female thing, the husband-wife thing, is most closely and most truthfully felt in our house. But the present Hanyo expands the scale. The middle class is no longer the setting. It is the rich it is after. The guys whose houses are so large all those jokes from Coolie No.1 come to mind. Yes, those houses do deserve widescreen, but coming from a middle class background, my question, which I believe is far more interesting and maybe a trifle unsettling, is this – why does such a film about the filthy rich feel so false to me? I say “such a film” because our melodramas, such as Mr. Karan Johar’s films, often employ such aesthetic choices for their stories. Maybe my memory is failing me as I write this, but I cannot seem to recall a true film about a rich person. A rich set of people. A film about rich people always ends up with thriller/insidious notes. Why cannot I see a truthful drama based on them? I see so many documentaries and movies being made on poverty. Movies and filmmakers wanting to make real movies, though I wonder if that comes from primitivism. The rich deserve movies too. I mean real movies. Or is it that there is really nobody who is that rich, and at the end of it we all share those immediate sentiments of middle class. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but seriously, if money was class I think none of us is filthy rich. So yeah, a larger aspect ratio is always the way to go, right?