Monday, April 30, 2007

Review of Last Life in the Universe

Pan-ek Ratanaruang’s “Last Life in the Universe” (2003) is one of those movies I will probably come back to every once in a while. It has a quiet melancholy and unobtrusive presentation that is pleasant and thoughtful without sliding too far down the slippery slope into indie-art boredom. It’s a Thai film, and I’m not very familiar with the country’s national cinema, but it has an accessible “good-natured, modern, alienated youths” core that will be recognizable to most viewers.

The film stars Tadanobu Asano as Kenji, a fastidious Japanese librarian living in Thailand who fantasies about suicide and seems always on the verge of reaching the concrete reality. His reasons, as he explains, lie more with the emptiness of his lonely existence (metaphorically symbolized by a children’s story about a sad little lizard that wakes up and realizes he’s the last lizard in the world) than because of financial or emotional hardships.

Through a series of circumstances he meets a young Thai female escort, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), on the very night that tragedy strikes her sister, Nid. Kenji is afraid to stay in his house because a yakuza crime has occurred there and some bodies are starting to smell, so he eventually ends up staying for several days with the free-spirited and accepting Noi. Though they have trouble speaking each other’s languages, they get along; Kenji cleans up Noi’s terribly messy apartment, while she makes him loosen up.

The leads have a charisma that doesn’t require much development, dialogue or drama, but invokes our compassion through the basic ordinariness and honesty of their performances. Their relationship is built more on a mutual need for company than sex, angst or expression (three things noticeably, and perhaps thankfully, absent from the film). Viewers should not enter expecting the typical romantic comedy treatment of love with quirky humor, perfect hair, the gay friend, a contrived misunderstanding that stalls the relationship and a big public display of overt love that reunites the couple in a blissful ending.

Ratanaruang directs with a surreal inflection that leaves me with mixed feelings. Several moments of “is it magical realism or is it a dream sequence?” are slid casually into the narrative. One scene bothered me with an inexplicable use of semi-gaudy CG (Noi’s house appears to spontaneously clean itself in a whirlwind of debris) that lacked the sincerity required to have emotional impact. Two other scenes, in which Noi is spontaneously switched with Nid, reminded me vaguely of “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), but without any real meaning or commitment. Perhaps the best touches are Kenji’s early death fantasies and their substitution with reunion fantasies at the very conclusion. Nothing is quite clear about the ending (don’t worry about spoilers, everyone has to see the scenes to decide for themselves), but the emotional progress feels uplifting even while the fantasy, when it is revealed to be only fantasy, is a harsh slap.

These slaps, which Ratanaruang doles out with the sage restraint of a compassionate yet strict parent, also appear at other times: when we suddenly learn more about a character, their past or their inner thoughts (so often hidden) or when something completely unexpected happens with almost no warning (one non-spoiler example is the title appearing about 35 minutes into the film!). These are good shocks, never depended on for carrying the story or holding our interest, while still being capable of transforming the mood generated by cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s beautiful photography. Doyle (“Chungking Express” (1995)), meanwhile, finds unforced images of aesthetic delight in relatively simple exteriors and unassuming interiors.

The main flaw with “Last Life in the Universe” is its basic unoriginality. While it does have a minor twist or two on the unlikely-romance/modern-alienation indie-art paradigm, not much is new. The film feels almost like its flying on auto-pilot over long-ago charted land and nothing much happens to really subvert our expectations or bring fresh insights to light. In the hands of a lesser cast and crew the material would be unmemorable, empty and almost trite, but the performances, direction and cinematography are a redemptive combination.

A nice inter-textual touch that must be mentioned: one scene ends with a character saying, “You’ve seen too many yakuza films” before a cutting to an “Ichi the Killer” (2001) poster near where Kenji is shelving books. “Ichi” not only stars a blonde Tadanobu Asano (Kenji), but is directed by Takashi Miike, who has a cameo at the end of the movie… as a yakuza boss.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Review of Short Night of the Glass Dolls

Imagine you are found lying prone in a park. As you come to your senses, you realize that you are utterly paralyzed, unable even to blink, breathe or twitch. You are mistaken for dead. You watch in horror as you are taken to a hospital, your vitals are read and come up blank and you are then transferred to a morgue. Only your anomalous body temperature and absence of rigor mortis gives the doctors any clue that you are not yet ready to be buried. Will it be enough to save you? As you scream within your head to be acknowledged as alive, you cast back into your memories. How did arrive here? How did you come to be this way?

This is the horrifying position that Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is place into during “Short Night of the Glass Dolls” (1971). Giallo director Aldo Lado takes the “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) device of a man narrating his story from the recent afterlife and gives it a tense and compelling twist, relating a mystery through flashbacks even as the protagonist creeps ever closer to a hellish fate: an autopsy while he is still conscious! The key to Gregory’s future, so he believes, is lies in his past.
[Image: For the proper effect of traveling into your past, zoom in on this picture and then hold up your monitor to your face while rotating it.]
Several days earlier Gregory, a reporter in communist Prague, had met Jessica (Barbara Bach). After quickly falling in love, he promises to help her escape to the west, but Jessica suddenly disappears without any warning. Angry at the police’s lack of progress or commitment, Gregory begins an investigation of his own and soon new bodies are piling up.

“Short Night of the Glass Dolls” has one absolutely incredible premise. Where it bogs down is in the flashback mystery investigation that crawls along dryly as one red herring and minor leads stretches into the next. Similar to Lado’s other well-known giallo, “Who Saw Her Die?” (1972), the one-man investigation with its interviews, false starts and rising conspiratorial opposition plays out like mildly entertaining filler material. The problem is that Lado treats it like its well worth our time (as opposed to a skeleton from which to hang an elaborate story, gruesome deaths and tense action pieces) and has a rather sincere love of realistic gumshoe tactics like exhaustive determination and footwork. We do witness two murders/attempts that involve fairly pedestrian falls, but most of the deaths take place off-screen.

The full story, once revealed, leaves us begging for more. There is a surprisingly patriotic message to be found in the heavy-handed finale, that works due to surrealism if not realism (or explanation). It’s tough to deny that the ending is powerful, but I was left wishing the full 92 minutes had the same impact.

[Image: The next time you see this room, it will have a lot more crazy.]

The acting isn’t bad, with Jean Sorel putting in a good turn as the handsome protagonist. As a real, legitimate actor it’s kind of a shame that he lies comatose for about 1/3 of his performance, but what can you do? Barbara Bach fares fine as the love interest, but she’s more a pretty MacGuffin for driving the plot than a real person. Gregory’s friend and investigative ally, Jacques (Mario Adorf), is difficult to take seriously with his white-suit-over-magenta-shirt and dubbed voice with an accent that can’t make up its mind between German, Irish or English.

Lado’s direction is not exceptional and it isn’t hard to see why he never made it to the ranks of Argento, Bava, Fulci or Martino, although it does have moments of insight. Pacing and editing aren’t really Lado’s weapons of choice, but one edit worked for me brilliantly: A hospital scene ends with doctors discussing Gregory’s body and the chilling possibility of dissecting it in front of a medical class. The camera slowly zooms in on Gregory’s feet, visible in the background, before cutting to a matching flashback shot of his feet when he was alive and, indeed, having sex. The death/sex juxtaposition has rarely been so efficiently, and so ironically, posed.
[Images: Mastershot, zoom and then cut on graphic match. Death to sex in under ten seconds.]

Some visual elements that stick out in memory are the POV shots that appear throughout the film, staring up at the ceiling into the faces of doctors or the spinning crystals of chandeliers. Another scene (shown in a previous screenshot) takes place with the nourish lighting of window blinds taken to the ultimate extreme. Eloquently long shots and glutinous pans over the Prague cityscape do help pass the time, although this could just be my bias towards all things Czech. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is also there to stir the mood, but this isn’t his best work.

As regular giallo watchers will know, or those who read the Film Walrus, there are often fun connections between great paintings and giallos. I enjoy pointing them out when I catch them or making them up when feel like it. “Glass Dolls” has a quite explicit example (for those with sharp eyes or good memories), but I’ll save it for the end since it constitutes a spoiler of sorts. Let’s get the Walrus Rating out of the way first:

Walrus Rating: 6.0
(An impressive directorial debut that many will probably think better of. While definitely worth seeing, it is just as certainly second tier.)

[Images: If only Gregory had looked a little closer at the painting above the fireplace (click the image to zoom in). Is art imitating life or vice versa?]

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Review of American Astronaut

"American Astronaut" will play at Splice tomorrow (4/28/07) at 2pm. It will be the final Splice for the year and my last (sniff) as your president. Enjoy!

Space is a lonely town. That’s the tagline to Cory McAbee’s “American Astronaut” (2001), a combination of science-fiction, western and musical informed by noir sensibilities and art film alienation. The overt genre mixing, low-budget, nearly spoken-word offbeat lyrics and ultra-dry humor made sure that the film never blasted out of cult obscurity and onto the public radar (it grossed $38,000 upon release), but McAbee’s film shows a brave idiosyncrasy and inspired eclecticism that makes it a personal favorite. I only wish he could have picked a better title, one that insinuated the originality and insanity on display.

In the near future, the “American Astronaut” of the title is Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee again, looking like Hugh Jackman), a Nevadan space-trader who smuggles rare goods to those in need. The film starts off on the asteroid Ceres, a rundown watering hole where grisly space-cowboys come to get drunk and compete in a popular dance contest. Samuel rendezvous with the Blueberry Pirate to exchange a cat for a “real life girl” contained in a suitcase-size music box. The girl is just the first acquisition in a bizarre trading game that could get Samuel rich, but could also get him killed. That’s life when you’re trying to make a buck with Professor Hess on your rear jets.

Professor Hess is no ordinary maniacal villain; he’s our obnoxiously immature narrator who frequently reminds the audience and all those who will listen that it’s his birthday. His motivations are explained during a silent slide-show that is amusingly frustrating, but it all seems tied to his perverse reverse-logic and strangely “familial” relationship with Samuel. Most relationships in McAbee’s future have all but broken down, with sexual politics upturned in surprising ways, families either split or resentful and friends existing somewhere in the gap between greed and vengeance. The performances are so brave and bizarre that it’s downright endearing, and sells lines that would be too silly, awkward or unintelligible for most “serious” films to pull off.

Despite a budget that would seem to make filming impossible, McAbee creates an impressive visual style almost unheard of: a mix of high-contrast B/W noirism with touches of western iconography and an almost naïve sci-fi setting that harkens back to Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and other 1930’s comics. Harsh spotlights and other cones of single-source hard light illuminate the minimal stages, cramped cockpits and barren landscapes in a way that oddly evokes both seedy nightclubs and old horror movies (it was probably cheap, too).

[Image: An immortal future-cliché of the sci-fi western: the lone wolf looking at the spaceship against the desert sky.]

The music, courtesy of McAbee’s own Bill Nyman Show, is admittedly eccentric and might not appeal to everyone’s tastes. The alt-rock instrumentation ranges in tempo and contains sly undercurrents of wit, as when old fashion western musical cues slide into the mix during a miner's tale or when Egyptian-style tunes flavor a series of sand dune images that are actually the vaporized remains of spacefaring ruffians. The largely untrained voices convey a variety of borderline nonsense lyrics including an ode to vowels, a narrative space odyssey and a sexually explicit serenade. The casually spoken-word delivery and surprising rhymes keep everything off balance while establishing a musical identity that defies comparison.

McAbee’s storytelling abilities are often at the mercy of his image-crafting and spontaneous musical riffs, but the episodic narrative possesses its own outsider charm that protects the non-sequitur distractions and bumpy pacing from being an insurmountable flaw. The action takes its time and stretches the short running time in last third, but the writer/director wears his temporal disjunction on his sleeve. During the screenwriting workshops where McAbee worked on the script and shopped around the idea, nearly everyone told him he had to cut a five-minute standup joke that appeared not far into the film. To McAbee’s credit, the joke scene remains and provides one of the most memorably absurdist exercises in audience expectation.

The ending is undeniably anti-climatic, but in a way that fits with the mood of intergalactic ennui. There’s a Jim Jarmusch-style eye for dark humor that can spot the inherit boredom and emptiness in the lives of its human-oddity cast while still elevating the unpredictable dialogue to cult quotability. How do we interpret Samuel’s alarm clock that repeats, “What did your father teach you? What did your father teach you? What did your father teach you?” until it is deactivated by the correct response: “My father taught me to kill the sunflower.” The computer finishes its automated routine with deadpan sincerity, “Congratulations, Mr. Curtis. You are now awake.” And why should the trigger-happy Professor Hess (wielding a raygun no less) be narrating to us with NPR monotony and signing off with, “and oh yeah… it’s my birthday!”

Walrus Rating: 8

Oh, and one last question to ask yourself after seeing the film: Is it possible this could have inspired TV’s “Firefly?” Hmm…

Friday, April 27, 2007

How Do I Review?

This essay is long overdue. Very early on with the Film Walrus, I intended to give an account of who I am as a film critic and how I go about reviewing films. I had trouble coming up with a good format to frame the discussion and kept putting it off.

Recently my friends Mad Dog and Magus reminded me of my omission when they started the the Grump Factory, an up-and-coming pop-culture-eclectic blog that included introductions and provided direct insight into the writers’ goals and views. A second reminder came today, when I received an essay back from one of my classes: History of Modern Art. I found myself agreeing with the mid-level grade, but disagreeing with all the reasons. In written comments the grader attacked my choice of thesis, my choice of examples, my use of a numbered list and a word that he didn’t understand (but which was used correctly). Almost none of it identified what was actually wrong with the paper: the lack of inspiration, the lazy formal analysis and the general absence of historical contextualization.

It made me think: How would I grade the paper? How do I grade art in general? I do it all the time, even if unconsciously. More relevant to this blog: How do I “grade” film? What matters to me in a film when I am writing a review or deciding on a score?

The Grump Factory may sneak out of the last question by refusing to give number/letter ratings, but my borderline-OCD/computer-science-oriented genetic make-up insists that I score, rank and list movies with compulsive excess. Oversimplification is very dangerous, such as when an entire movie is reduced to a number, or worse, a Boolean thumbs-up/thumbs-down status (Ebert has stated in multiple interviews that the review is more important than his hand, but he still perpetuates the system). Hopefully this essay will help show the complexity of reviewing a film, and encourage readers of any review to look beyond the numbers, thumbs, stars and letter grades.

To me, one of the key tricks is to take lots of factors into account. Judging a movie on only one or two elements comes off as ignorant (you leave out a lot), short-sighted (what if you change your mind on one of those main points?) and useless to others (they will probably have different preferences and hang-ups). You can never harm a review by taking into account too many elements.

As usual, two of my goals are honesty and self-awareness. I will list aspects of film and how important I think they are to my rating of a film with some details about my philosophy towards each element (some overlap is inevitable). None of these ideas are set in stone and I try to remain open-minded and capable of change. I do not necessarily want to believe the same things in ten years that I believe now. Growth can be a good thing.

Subject Matter

Not generally that important within some basic limits. I like to think that a movie about anything can be excellent or terrible based on how the film is done. That being said, I obviously have natural bias towards subjects I am already interested in. Lacking a predisposition on my part, I feel it is often the duty of the writer/director to convince me that I should be interested in their subject matter.

I prefer characters and plot to non-narrative modes, but even that is not a strict rule.


This can be fairly important in terms of my personal taste, my purchase of films and my rewatching habits. However, as with subject matter, I feel strongly that anything can be done right and I’ve found movies I love in every major genre. I have a preference for sci-fi, noir, horror, mystery, giallos and art films and a tendency against westerns, romantic comedies and teen sex comedies. Drama, action films, adventures, biographies, period pieces, documentaries, experimental works and many others fall on pretty neutral ground.

In general, I try to take genre standards into account with the numbered ratings. I try not to compare apples and oranges when ranking films or determining relative number scores. That being said, my personal bias for or against a particular genre probably affects my ratings by as much as a full point.

I do not require a film to be easily codified by genre and no movie will lose points purely because it defies genre-labeling or mixes genres.

Technical Craftsmanship

Extremely important. The skill in terms of editing, set design, mise-en-scene, composition, framing, movement, staging, cinematography, lighting, sound, music and all other technical aspects are of great interest to me. They need not be any particular type (for instance, minimalist mise-en-scene can be as good as dense ones, long takes can work as well as fast editing), but I am a believer that the formal aspects of a film should compliment and augment the other elements: story, theme, style, mood, etc. Craftsmanship does not have to involve high production values.


Very important. There is little worse than a film that is completely generic. Style does not have to be extremely overt or fully consistent, but I like a film that has a dynamic atmosphere, a compelling method of storytelling and some originality in terms of look and feel. Style can make a familiar genre, plot or convention seem fresh again.


Almost completely unimportant. A $100 million CG-enhanced, celebrity-packed widely-released film has almost no intrinsic advantage in my book. Even low-budget films can establish an intriguing visual and aural atmosphere without needing loads of cash. Money can make a film look good only if used right, which requires craft and style. I also feel that the look a film does not necessarily define it, and excellent writing, acting and originality can overcome financial lack.

Writing (Story & Dialogue)

Important; often extremely important. My personal taste usually tends towards engaging stories with clever plots. Oft-told stories are not an automatic failure, but need to prove themselves in other ways, while I see originality as a nearly instant advantage. Sequels are required to contain quality in their own rights. Remakes are under obligation to improve or reinterpret the original and will usually have a disadvantage in my book. Plot holes are bad, but non-sequiturs and ambiguities can have their place if they are intentional. I try not to nitpick plots, but frequent or foundational problems in the story are inexcusable. I also feel that dialogue should be realistic for realistic films and should generally make sense within the internal logic of the film. Depending on the film, conspicuous wit, linguistic dexterity or even silence may be well-suited.


Usually very important. Much like the writing, realism is important for realistic films. Acting is often the most important quality of extremely realistic films such as family dramas or biographies. However, ideas about realism change over time. I tend to be a big fan of alternative acting modes and appreciate expressionism, melodrama, hyperbole, restraint, dehumanism and any other acting mode done well and with purpose.


Not very important. A movie can be any length it needs to be so long as it remains good throughout. The only caveat is that a lousy movie is made worse by length, and more responsibility lies on the director to ensure that all his material merits the final cut. I tend to think that efficiency is a worthwhile trait and I will often note if a film could have been trimmed down to make other elements (such as pacing or story) flow better. Length remains a difficult area for many critics to overcome.

I judge the value of films based on their full length. I try to consider not just how much I like the ending, but how the overall film worked.


Average importance. I find that it is very important to synchronize my personal mood with the pacing of a film to best appreciate it. I can tolerate very slow films and very fast films, so long as they are interesting and well-made. Pacing (especially slow pacing) is often a hang-up for many viewers and so I try to remain open-minded. Establishing a pace unintentionally unbefitting of the style, mood, genre or plot can be devastating. This is one area where I feel consistency can be important, in either “velocity” (steady pace throughout the film) or “acceleration” (steady change in rate throughout the film) or “rhythm” (deft alternation of two or more rates). Pacing should not be confused with mere editing rate (number of cuts).

Historical Context

Somewhat important. I try to take historical context into account, but it can rarely change my rating of a film by more than a point. I treat movies from past time periods as though they were in their own genres with their own conventions, rules, themes and preoccupations. I judge old films with such things in mind, but sometimes historical context can’t save a film where hindsight knows better.


Slightly important. I attempt to remain open-minded in terms of ideology and I think many philosophies, opinions and standpoints and interesting and worth consideration. Even those I don’t agree with can be committed to film capably and insightfully. It saddens me that currently more than 45% of votes for “Fahrenheit 9/11” are 1s and 10s, when I doubt any professional film critic could argue either rating successfully.

Objective intentions aside, I am unlikely to give even the best neo-Nazi recruitment video a very high score and so clearly some ideological value does underlie my opinions.

Whenever possible I like the ideology to be a minor element of the film and I think too much focus on it can be distracting and/or preachy.

I am also against antagonism towards the audience (for instance, shocking material used as a weapon to make the audience uncomfortable or sick without redeeming artistic or thematic merits) and breaches of ethics (killing animals needlessly, causing physical harm to another person, violating privacy or personal rights, etc.)


Very unimportant. I have almost no need to connect emotionally with fictional characters or stories. When it happens and it works, all the better for the film. I think an emotional connection between a film and a viewer can be powerful and valuable, but it is often unreliable and untranslatable between viewers. I try to communicate my specific emotional reaction to a film in the review, but I leave that out of the final score and focus on judging whether the acting, writing and other elements were successful and fair in generating the emotions.

Sense of Humor

Ranges wildly based on the level of reliance a film has on comedy. For straight-out comedy, sense of humor is extremely important and so the film must appeal directly to what I think is funny. There just isn’t any objectivity when it comes to humor. Also, I tend to be pretty demanding on comedies, especially those that prey on lowest common denominator taste’s of audiences without even trying to be good movies in other respects.

Shock Value

Ranges wildly based on the level of reliance a film has on shock. A film which exists only to shock can not score very high. Shock, like emotion, can have an important place in film, but should not be leaned on to carry a movie. Shock value usually dates quickly and so I don’t trust it as a sign of lasting quality.


Can be important depending on the case. At its best, kitsch can reverse almost all the elements I’ve listed, making “bad” become “good” and creating pleasure out of former disadvantages. Kitsch is best when it occurs unintentionally.

Auteur Status

Very unimportant. Even new movies by my favorite directors are judged by the same standards as always. Points don’t carry over between films.

Other Opinions

Hopefully fairly unimportant. I try to decide my rating before I look at the ratings of other critics our sources to prevent myself from being subconsciously biased. However, I do think discussion of films and exposure to other opinions is important and can vastly improve the appreciation of a movie.

Personal Taste

Extremely important. Almost every review will contain a great deal of personal taste even if I try to be objective, so I won’t bother to deny it or choke it out. I do try not to score a movie more than two points away from where my most objective formal analysis would place it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Review of Taboo

Nagisa Oshima (best known for his controversial work in the 1960’s and 1970’s) returned in 2000 for “Taboo” a tale of jealousy and fatalism in the late samurai period. Sozaburo Kano is a beautiful young warrior recently admitted into a samurai militia group along with Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano), who is immediately smitten. Tashiro isn’t the only one and under Captain Hijikata (Beat Takeshi Kitano) curious eye, an ever-expanding number of men fall under Kano’s spell.

Oshima’s talent as well as his New Wave experimental tendencies are on display within the film. The cinematography in particular is beautiful; rich with atmosphere and something between danger and eroticism. The films starts out dominated by gold light and crisp textures but shifts menacingly into dark hues of blue and black as the film progresses, culminating in a finale of moonlit fog and fear.

The story takes on a slippery, brooding perspective as the narrative slips between third-person observation, first-person inner monologues (pulled from Hijikata’s uncertain mind) and omniscient intertitles that seem to echo social structures (rumors, code of conducts and so on). The unconventional combination makes the audience unsure whether they are being hit over the head with all the facts or being kept utterly in the dark about the truth.


Even with my second viewing, the ending is difficult to interpret and might make or break the film for some viewers depending on whether they prefer contemplation or clear-cut closure. As best as I can tell, Kano’s beauty has always been a burden for him but also a source of power over others. His gentle good-looks mask a cold-blooded nature and a lust for violence aimed at his suitors whom he secretly resents. Something Hijikata says at the very end may imply that he was abused as a youth but this could be me applying an overly-simple Freudian model

In the disturbing finale it appears that Kano has arranged, with infinite craftiness, to murder all his obsessive lovers. Even more disturbing is the implication that Kano can only love those who reject him: the officer in charge of taking Kano to the brothel and quite possibly the repressed Soji Okita, too.

In the final moments, one is left to believe that Soji returns to kill Kano, presumably ending the cycle of jealousy and intrigue. The final shot shows Hijikata cutting down a cherry blossom tree with his sword, an image of beauty and destruction. The beauty/destruction dichotomy is ultimately one of the central themes, epitomized in Kano’s disarming, seductive character and the image of the severed tree. A further Freudian reading (which I am still not sure is appropriate to this context) might be that the final moment is a symbolic (self-) castration in the wake of Kano’s revealed Machiavellian schemes and imminent death.

Walrus Rating: 8

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Review of Night and Fog in Japan

Nagisa Oshima was the seminal figure of the Japanese New Wave, a director whose political passion, unwillingness to compromise and artistic experimentation is akin to his French contemporary Jean-Luc Godard. However, he has also been a director easily forgotten by present day viewers due to his then-topical concerns and the fact that his taboo-shattering agenda has long-since been co-opted and commercialized by more entertainment-minded shockmasters like Shinya Tsukomoto and Takashi Miike.

Despite this, I find that his films are still relevant today and provide insights into a filmic history of resistance to mainstream traditions and studio censures that I recently discussed in a Japanese Directorial History series. Nagisa Oshima refused to fade out quietly and returned thirteen years after his last major work to make “Taboo” in 2000, proving that he was a talented voice that still had something left to say.

As a tribute to Oshima I will be reviewing “Night and Fog in Japan” (1960) his most influential film from his early career. Tomorrow I will review “Taboo,” his final film to date.

“Night and Fog in Japan” takes its name rather explicitly from the Alain Resnais French documentary short “Night and Fog” which in turn takes its name from Adolf Hitler’s directive to kidnap and kill political activists under the cover of “night and fog.” The name is apt for the film, which concerns a large group of political activists.

Oshima himself was a member of the Japanese Youth Movement, but became disillusioned by its failure to procure any real change, particularly the prevention of the government from signing the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960. His film takes place not long after this event and is set primarily at the wedding of two student activists, surrounded by their friends and former protestors. Initially quite celebratory, the evening turns nasty as more guests arrive, accusations start flying and the full truth about the last few years is revealed. Dozens of flashbacks are used as the various characters tell their side of the story with a fair amount of Rashomon-inflected bias and rationalization.

The plot itself is far too complicated to give in detail here, and will be difficult to grasp for almost any viewer on the first time through. The cast of characters includes more than twenty major players whose intertwining pasts, conflicting motives and mounting resentment make the story as obscure as the “Night and Fog” title suggests.

Through the flashbacks several mysteries are posed. One concerns a possible spy who allowed a captured political prisoner to escape. Lesser mysteries concern the disappearance of one character and the suicide of another. Though they serve to keep the viewer engaged, in the chaos of accusation, lies and misinterpretations at least one of the major mysteries is left unsolved.

Oshima makes it plain how the revolutionary movement failed, ultimately positing that it destroyed itself through a combination of compromise, hopelessness, power struggles, lack of dedication and selling out. The wedding that is the films core (as well as another recent wedding) is revealed as hypocritical farce and a retreat into bourgeois comfort. Notably, it takes place during a protest that none of the guests are attending. As we come to learn the characters’ background we see the fragmentation that exists within the movement: student vs. worker, student vs. faculty, individual vs. party, pacifists vs. violence advocator, nihilists vs. hopefuls and social climbers vs. social outcasts.

Critical interrogations of the youth movement and the 1960’s at large are not particularly rare, but Oshima excels for at least three reasons. First, his film was an entire decade ahead of its time, already willing to turn a skeptical eye on a period of activism that most directors only cast back to with the jaded hindsight of the 1970’s. Secondly, his enormous cast presents an Altman-esque coverage of vying perspectives, creating one of the most thorough and exhaustive accounts of a turbulent and complicated subculture. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Oshima made the film’s form as revolutionary as his content, once again putting him in the good company of Godard.

The most overtly avant-garde aspect of the film is Oshima’s sequence shooting (one scene, one shot) which uses dynamic camera movement and focus pulls to follow the action. Shots enter into flashbacks after moving into close-ups on the narrating character and ominously end on images of darkness and fog. Lighting is kept realistically dim or incomplete in some scenes but casts harsh spotlights into absolute darkness in various surreal sequences.

While some criticism has been aimed at the sometimes sloppy framing (owing to the moving camera and long takes) and the obscurity of the plot, I think the film still stands on its own today. The story is engaging, the character interplay is executed with tragic precision and the camerawork makes for an interesting diversion even divorced from its political context. The ending is a perfect fit, a narrative and thematic spit-in-the-eye at the revolution that let Oshima down.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part XI

The Draughtsman’s Contract – (Peter Greenaway) A multifaceted riddle, The Draughtsman’s Contract challenges viewers to solve a mystery whose clues are hidden in the landscapes being drawn by an upstart artist. Uncovering the twisted agendas of all the players (including a suspiciously active statue) reveals an intricate web unlike any spun before.
Artistry: ***** Fun: ** Strangeness: ***

Drowning by Numbers – (Peter Greenaway) Three generations of women named Cissie drown their husbands. They sequentially offer the coroner sexual favors to cover their tracks while the surrounding community becomes increasingly suspicious. Throughout the film a variety of original, obscure games (my favorite is “Sheep and Tides” but “Hangman’s Cricket” is easily the most complicated) are played and attentive audiences can spend multiple viewing finding the consecutive numbers 1 through 100 hidden throughout the scenes.
Artistry: *** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

El Topo (The Mole) – (Alejandro Jodorowsky) A lone gunman forces his nude son to bury his teddy bear and a picture of his mother in the desert. When they return to their village they find it wiped out and vow to eliminate the fetish-ridden banditos who did the deed. Trading his son to Franciscan monks for a woman, El Topo is seduced into searching out and dueling the four great gun masters, a surreal adventure that spans several years. After being betrayed by lesbians, El Topo is rescued by a clan of deformed mountain-dwellers who incorporate him into their messiah mythology during his multi-decade slumber. Upon awakening he fulfills his prophetic duty only to bear witness to terrible tragedy. Origination of the midnight movie and still one of the best cult films after more than 35 years.
Artistry: ***** Fun: **** Strangeness: *****

Elements of Crime – (Lars Von Trier) A hypnotized detective recalls his disturbing investigation of murdered lotto ticket salesgirls in a German-esque post-war Europe. Wading through a thick atmosphere of orange and turquoise, the detective finds that his method of getting into the killer’s head may be self-destructive for both himself and his blind, discredited mentor. Just about the densest mise-en-scene ever arranged and some of the most profound Boschian imagery committed to celluloid make Elements of Crime a visual masterpiece, despite its pessimism, sexism, nihilism and suffocating mood of spiritual/physical decay.
Artistry: ***** Fun: * Strangeness: *****

Eraserhead – (David Lynch) Lynch’s first film remains a landmark of avant-garde experimentation. Henry Spencer is a timid man in an eerie minimalist nightmare filled with ambient noise, stark landscapes and inscrutable symbolism. When his unwanted child turns out to be an inhuman monstrosity, his life goes into freefall. Beautiful in its B/W photography and industrial wasteland set pieces, Lynch manages to turn the psyche inside out and create a world where everything from identity crisis to sexual insecurities to half-forgotten dream imagery takes physical form and lingers in the crackling darkness to haunt our lives. Ambiguous to the core, Eraserhead us to decide such existential queries as whether a deformed, diminutive singer living inside a radiator foretells redemption or insanity?
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

Monday, April 23, 2007

Review of The Case of the Bloody Iris

With a cumbersome English translation title like “Why Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on the Body of Jennifer?” it’s no wonder that the British release re-titled this giallo as “The Case of the Bloody Iris.” Not that the bloody iris is a particularly important clue, but since the twisty plot consists of about 99% red herrings, it’s about as representative as any other adjective-noun combination that appears in the film.

“The Case of the Bloody Iris” (1972) starts with a woman being murdered during a tense elevator ride up a towering apartment complex. After the first person on the scene of the crime (a nightclub performer) is also murdered, the police take a serious interest and begin interviewing anyone who might be related, including the victim’s landlord (Andrea played by George Hilton), employer, photographer and neighbors. Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) is a model who moves into the 2nd victim’s apartment and has begun to fall in love with Andrea even though he’s the prime suspect. The plot doesn’t quite hold water despite all the red herring swimming around (I love mixed metaphors), but the story remains thoroughly engrossing all the way through.

The film stars the handsome George Hilton (best remembered in the “Sartana” spaghetti westerns) and the luminous Edwige Fenech (a giallo favorite), which is sort of the less-talented giallo equivalent of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Their relative fame ensures they won’t die in the first half of the film, but the script wisely keeps this from being a disadvantage by playing up their chemistry and making it clear to the audience that they are not disposable (a rare honor for any giallo character).

[Image: The world’s only Piet Mondrian style sex scene]

The rest of the cast is just the right level of bad to be entertaining without ruining the experience. The police commissioner in charge of the case is hilariously inappropriate, aggressively accusing everyone of being a murderer, physically harassing innocent suspects, drinking hard liquor on the job and making sexist, racist and homophobic comments completely inexplicably. At one point he pockets a victim’s mail, possibly an important clue, because he wants to add the rare stamp on the envelope to his collection. How he keeps his job is a mystery. Even better is his dim-witted gumshoe (apparently the only other detective on the force) who is recognized as an undercover cop by nearly everyone in the film, including random extras. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s blonde roommate walks around making ditzy non-sequiturs (like, “I can’t stand orgies. I get motion sickness.”) and failing woefully at leavening the mood. The role screams, “I will be brutally killed before this movie ends” so loud that she’s lost her voice by the time she’s finally done in.
Giuliano Carnimeo direction is surprisingly good, with almost every scene filmed in an expressively unusual way. After the opening murder, the film takes a while to really kick-start, spending a conspicuous amount of time with a brilliantly flamboyant and obnoxious photographer (looking and dubbing like a poor-Italian-man’s Woody Allen). Carnimeo is never too stuffy to join his (essentially extraneous) character in training his lens on the female cast members. It’s clear that the director wants to get his money’s worth from Fenech and her outrageous parade of revealing 70’s outfits (ranging from a paint-on leather jacket to a green vest over an orange blouse) is certainly memorable.

Once the narrative momentum picks up, the camera finally has more to do than dolly around voyeuristically. In “The Case of the Bloody Iris” no minor prop (typewriter, bottles, bathtub faucets, etc.) is too insignificant to be used as an odd deep focus framing device.

The staging is actually quite good with a mix of wide-angle close-ups and long distance arrangements on large, inventive sets (an automobile junkyard and trendy-nightclub/wrestling-ring combo amongst them). One of Carnimeo’s scariest concepts comes from his motif of arranging murders in highly public, brightly lit areas (a crowded elevator, a busy street) where the characters (and viewer) would usually feel safe.

Though not the best giallo, this thriller is sure to be a safe bet for fans of the genre and doesn’t have any major faults that make it hard to watch. The performance/presence of the leads is easily above average and the mystery is satisfactorily convoluted and fun. The red herrings aren’t even frustrating (simply confusing when considered retrospectively) and the images are distinct and potent enough to rank amongst the mid-level works of the more famous giallo directors.

Walrus Rating: 6.5

[Image: one final gratuitous Edwige Fenech shot]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Top 100 Film Noir

After reading this years AFI ballot for greatest films, I realized it was high time for another list of my own. As with all my lists, they are very fluid and change as I see new films, rewatch old ones and evolve my taste.

So I now present my top 100 Film Noirs, using a fairly broad definition and without regard to time period. Click here to view and/or download the full list which includes all the contenders, subgenre information and ratings for visuals, elaborateness, wit, irony and tragedy (the five things that matter most for noir!).

Top 100 Film Noirs:

1. Blade Runner (1982)
2. Barton Fink (1991)
3. The Matrix (1999)
4. The Big Sleep (1946)
5. Blood Simple. (1984)
6. Dark City (1998)
7. L. A. Confidential (1997)
8. Miller's Crossing (1990)
9. Night and the City (1950)
10. Touch of Evil (1958)
11. The Element of Crime (1984)
12. The Long Good Friday (1980)
13. Out of the Past (1947)
14. Diva (1981)
15. Memento (2000)
16. Laura (1944)
17. Fight Club (1999)
18. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
19. The Usual Suspects (1995)
20. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
21. Chinatown (1974)
22. Rebecca (1940)
23. Alphaville (1965)
24. Se7en (1995)
25. Vertigo (1958)
26. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
27. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
28. Brick (2005)
29. The Third Man (1949)
30. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
31. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
32. The Red Spectacles (1987)
33. High and Low (1963)
34. Bob the Gambler (1955)
35. Bound (1996)
36. Double Indemnity (1944)
37. Lost Highway (1997)
38. Suture (1993)
39. Rififi (1955)
40. The Killers (1946)
41. Branded to Kill (1967)
42. Sonatine (1993)
43. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
44. Mystic River (2003)
45. Taxi Driver (1976)
46. In a Lonely Place (1950)
47. Hollow Triumph (1948)
48. Murder, My Sweet (1944)
49. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
50. The Aura (2004)
51. The Big Heat (1953)
52. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
53. The Naked Kiss (1964)
54. Sunset Blvd. (1950)
55. The Narrow Margin (1952)
56. Kontroll (2003)
57. Mildred Pierce (1945)
58. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
59. The Singing Detective (1986)
60. Panic in the Streets (1950)
61. Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
62. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
63. The Quiet American (1958)
64. The Last Seduction (1994)
65. Nightmare Alley (1947)
66. Zentropa (1991)
67. The American Friend (1977)
68. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
69. The Big Combo (1955)
70. Red Rock West (1992)
71. Point Blank (1967)
72. The Long Goodbye (1973)
73. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
74. Angel Heart (1987)
75. Spellbound (1945)
76. The Woman in the Window (1945)
77. The Limey (1999)
78. Insomnia (1997)
79. Hard Eight (1996)
80. The Samurai (1967)
81. Gilda (1946)
82. Scarlet Street (1945)
83. Atlantic City (1980)
84. D. O. A. (1950)
85. Criss Cross (1949)
86. Elevator to the Gallows (1957)
87. Body Heat (1981)
88. Pickup on South Street (1953)
89. Gun Crazy (1949)
90. Following (1998)
91. Dead Reckoning (1947)
92. Force of Evil (1948)
93. Whirlpool (1949)
94. Get Carter (1971)
95. Experiment in Terror (1962)
96. Gattaca (1997)
97. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
98. Violent Cop (1989)
99. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
100. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Suggestions and savage argument encouraged.

Review of Possession (1981)

Sometimes it can be quite difficult to review a film that is very close to your heart. One must try and separate the nostalgia from the contemporary appeal and the personal reaction from the critical analysis. With “Possession” (1981) it is doubly hard. Until recently is has been both hard to find (the director’s cut Anchor Bay DVD is out of print and relatively rare) and even then it is not exactly easy to watch ("challenging" might be the nice way to put it). Although Mad Dog and my oldest sister share the fervor, this is definitely not a film for all tastes. It's been described as alienating, disturbing, uncomfortable and interminable. These reactions are valid; I suspect they are also intentional.

My goal with this post is to give a review of the film along with a fairly in-depth critical reading centered upon the themes of marital division and sexual confusion. Since this is meant to be readable by both those who have never seen the film and those who have had the honor, I will keep the spoilers to a minimum.

What exactly is “Possession?” It’s an art-film/drama/horror hybrid from Polish exile director Andrzej Zulawski made in West Berlin in 1981. It stars Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani. Adjani was in a career slump due to a reputation as ‘difficult to work with,’ but “Possession” earned her a surprise Cesar (French Oscar) and the top acting prize at Cannes. By the decade’s end she’d have three more Cesars, cementing herself as perhaps France's most lauded actress. Watching her committed performance, far outside the boundaries of where most actors dare to venture, it is not hard to see why this was a turning-point in her career.

A plot summary is necessary, yet I don’t want to give certain key elements away. While not necessarily a twist-type movie, there is nothing quite like the shock of seeing “Possession” without knowing the full story.

Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) are a married couple already on the brink of divorce as the film begins. Mark returns home after a mysterious trip abroad (we see him being paid with a suitcase of cash by a government organization) only to discover that in his absence Anna has been conducting an affair. Anna’s friend Margie has been taking care of their son, Bob, but refuses to tell Mark the name or address of the interloper. After several fights Mark eventually discovers that an obnoxious ‘guru’ named Heinrich is Anna's secret lover and the two have a confrontation. In a secondary subplot, Mark is also astonished to discover that Bob’s teacher, Helen (also played by Adjani), looks identical to his wife. Soon Anna disappears again and this time even Heinrich doesn’t know where she’s gone. Mark hires a detective to find her and the terrible truth is gradually revealed.

What is missing from any cursory description is the intensity that makes both the drama and horror of this film so evocative. On the drama side, Mark and Anna’s split is represented on several layers. Most overtly is the white hot intensity of the acting, delivered almost entirely in screams and gestures that tear through the actors’ entire body. On a scale from 1 to 10 in acting pitch (not quality), with “Pickpocket” (1959) as a 1, “Goodfellas” (1990) as a 10 and “Lust for Life” (1956) as an 11, then “Possession” rates a 26.

Mark and Anna are shouting at each other by the opening five minutes. After the opening ten they are fighting in public. Within half an hour they are physically beating each other with unrestrained ferocity. The level of frustration, rage and insanity only continues to rise. Zulawski expertly selects props (blanket, electric knife, meat grinder) and actions to augment the performances and add to the anxiety during their sparring matches.

In one surreal sequence we see Anna arguing vehemently while stuffing laundry into the refrigerator. The capstone example is a flashback, possibly the film's most famous scene, with Adjani alone in a subway station carrying groceries. She delivers an uncomfortable, explosive, full-body performance as the consequences of her unhappy marriage overtake her. She undergoes what at first appears to be a seizure, shattering her groceries against the wall and jerking about as though possessed (hence one meaning of the title) in a single, tortuous long take.

Most of the fights occur in the apartment shared by the family. The camera places us directly into these battles, in the awkwardly confrontational situation of a third-person in the room who desperately wants to escape the presence of such seething fury. Few films save Mike Nichol’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973) or perhaps the films of John Cassavetes have ever exposed the dark side of relationships turned sour with such brutal intimacy.

The tension and electricity of the performances is inhuman, and it becomes quickly obvious that we are not really watching ‘realistic’ acting, but something far more extreme. Yet despite the excesses on display the camera records the events with unflinching and unflattering coldness. The tone is deadpan serious, and thus hard not to find a bit comical. This had the added advantage of bolstering its cult appeal and allowing interpretations ranging from artistic enjoyment of the authenticity and audacity to amused marvel at the hyperbole. To quote Mad Dog, “Possession is one of the only movies I like genuinely as much as I like ironically.”

[Image: Neill delivers one of the film’s most impossibly sincere lines: “You know what this is for… THE LIES!” before slapping Adjani]

Before ending my discussion of the performances, I must mention the brilliantly, outrageous Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) who plays Adjani’s self-possessed second lover. The director designed him based on every quality he disliked, and Bennent comically recalls every egotistical male who believes he’s reach the pinnacle of sophistication and sex appeal through his own recipe of mysticism, training, drugs and fashion. He makes a sharp third point in the love triangle; his ability to stir hatred a perfect compliment to the couple who never run out of anger to vent.
In terms of style and themes, Zulawski does an excellent job showing the destruction of a relationship through the breakdown of communication. The characters are isolated, inarticulate and unable to make contact with each other either physically (in person, by phone, through others) or emotionally. The marital breakdown is externalized, too, within the setting. Zulawski camera often lingers on the foreboding Berlin Wall, ever present outside the windows. However, whether Zulawski intends the fractured marriage to be a metaphor for the Germany’s political divide or vice versa, remains debatable.

Further, Bruno Nyttan’s cinematography balances the many apartment-bound scenes with a paradoxical combination of division and claustrophobia, often isolating the rival spouses with a shallow depth of field. A crisp close-up on one lead is thematically composed with the other in a deep-staged out-of-focus position. The characters seem to inhabit planes of their own, often further sub-framed apart by doors and other strong verticals (see also the mirror-lined café corner in the second screenshot).

In the film’s latter half, the terrible aftermath of the marital discord earns a final, horrifically potent symbol.

With little space to move around and often little more than bare walls to use as background, Zulawski still endows each set with a unique ambience. The native hues and contrasting palettes of the family’s blue-tinted apartment and Anna’s private yellow apartment creates unsettling atmospheres and oppositions. The director uses his minimalist locales to good effect, but goes beyond the existential emptiness so easily and frequently employed by filmmakers critical of modernity’s sterility. His compositions sustain fear, estrangement, tension and madness with equal adroitness.

For a two-hour Polish art-film about the dissolution of marriage, Zulawski manages an impressive visual dynamism. The camera is constantly moving, although often in unexpected ways. In one transitional shot the camera dollies right to follow Anna as she enters her apartment, but rather than follow her in or cut inside, the director reverses the motion and dollies back to the empty car she arrived in for no apparent narrative purpose. Another scene involves an elliptically rotating crane shot on a hemispherical spiral staircase.

The cuts are nearly exclusively hard and conspicuous, making use of high contrast and unexpected changes in location. Rarely is movement given a clean entrance or clean exit, so the viewer feels forever thrown into the action as it happens and without closure.

The actors are also on the move and not just with the expressive gesticulations mentioned earlier. The staging and blocking shows remarkable finesse, such as one memorable scene in which Anna arrives home to find Mark rocking back and forth in a chair. As they begin to fight, the wide-angle lens exacerbates Mark’s swinging sensation towards and away from the camera. The focus puller struggles to keep up. Again, the audience feels the uncomfortable proximity to the private bickering.

Another example of conspicuous staging is a version of what Giallo Fever lovingly calls “the ‘Tenebre’ shot” after the 1982 giallo that uses it so effectively (although it is not the originator). In such a shot, a character in the foreground moves aside to reveal another character behind them, commonly used to get a quick shock/distress reaction as we realize the killer is about to strike.

Near the end of “Possession” there is a scene where the two leads have sex on the kitchen floor, exchange whispered ravings and then plan a desperate course. The ‘reveal’ occurs after Anna has briefly blocked the door to pick up her purse. Rather than a killer, we see their child, Bob. We still have the shock/distress effect but the reason is more psychologically nuanced. The irresponsibility of the characters’ behavior dawns upon the audience anew. We realize that Bob’s trauma at the hands of these parents (who conduct themselves far outside the limits of social norms or mental sanity) is spreading out waves of further trauma.

In fact, much of the film deviates from conventional depictions and readings of sex and sexuality. Heinrich, for instance, has an unusual relationship with his live-in mother and mentions at one point that he has a previous family that he left behind somewhere. Included in Heinrich’s personal mysticism is a strange pre-occupation with his body. He almost always has his shirts open to reveal his chest and runs his hands over himself as he moves about in a manner reminiscent of bad interpretive dance.

One can read Heinrich as a man more in love with himself than the women who serve as conquests; food for his ego. His fluid, bizarre staging (at one point spinning down a staircase with his hand above his head) and excessive self-love combine briefly with the set design of his own apartment in the scene where Mark fights Heinrich: In the screenshot below, Heinrich is about to kick Mark in the head. Note the strange graphic match with the photo on Heinrich’s wall, neatly referencing his narcissism and obsessive physicality.

Heinrich’s social and sexual deviance from societal norms is fully matched by Anna and Mark, who have numerous issues of their own. Anna’s migration from Mark to Heinrich and beyond shows a search for sexual and emotional fulfillment (explicitly stated at one point) while Mark’s involvement with Anna’s look-alike, Helen, begins to weaken his grip on his own sense of fidelity, relationships and reality.

[Image: Helen, played by Adjani now with green eyes and brown hair]

Like the theme of split relationships, the issue of sexual confusion is not just manifested in the content of the “Possession,” but the form as well. Throughout the first half of the film an atmosphere of tension (sexual and otherwise) pervades the slower moments. At these times, intensity still glows in the eyes of the actors, but no violent physical events provide an outlet for the energy. Deprived of any solid idea on where the film is heading, there is a certain fear that almost any violation of acceptable norms and behaviors might occur on a moments notice. One visual motif that plays upon such tension is an uncomfortable wide-angle arrangement with a character (visible in the background) gripping a naked torso in the foreground.
[Images: How do we read these shots? The backs we see belong to Bob, Anna and Mark (from top to bottom).]

We see this shot three times:
1) When Mark finds his son covered in filth and takes off his shirt to clean him.
2) During a rare moment of marital calm as Mark tenderly puts his naked wife to bed.
3) Before Mark and Anna have feverish sex on the kitchen floor.

The composition seems both sexual and possessive (possibly even violent) although the context varies radically. The repetition of such an unusual camera shot in situations that are difficult to read and harder to predict induces anxiety and ambiguity in the audience as they try to assess the meaning and motivation in the gaze and grip of the characters. In each case there is a loaded anticipation/fear as we await what will happen next. Further complicating our understanding of these moments is the loss of gender specificity from the cropped rear view of the foreground figures.

The audio work also instigates a systematic ambiguity; here between sexual pleasure and pain, a dichotomy that epitomizes the couple’s attraction/repulsion issues. Pleasure and pain is linked through the frequent auditory motif of moaning. In one of the first instances we discover Anna is a ballet instructor and witness her strictly teaching a group of young girls. Anna ruthlessly grips one girl’s outstretched thigh and holds it in place for an uncomfortable period as the child emits choked cries. The combination of the physical contact between the two women, the extreme close-up and the rising moans makes the shot feel strangely sadomasochistic.

During the subway scene that follows shortly after, Anna makes rhythmic cries that are difficult to read until the conclusion of the scene. In the climactic example, Mark pursues a grunting sound into an unknown house and walks in on his wife in a shocking situation, but whether her cries refer to pleasure or pain remains ambiguous. The final shot of Mark and Anna together involves Anna emitting a cry while on top of Mark that seems to quite explicitly combine the pleasure/pain dichotomy. This constant play with our interpretation of sound, places us within the system of sexual chaos central to “Possession.”

The music is composed by Andrzej Korzynski and goes a long way towards establishing the proper mood of tension and alienation. Certain pieces return to accent key moments or punctuate the dialogue, though usually with a subtlety not found in the rest of the film. The music never bridges the hard cuts (which might have served to ‘heal the cut’ so to speak), but rather kicks in simultaneously with the new shot to throw us that much more off balance. The combination of music and sound in the disturbing, uncertain finale elicits an intellectual query (we aren’t quite sure what is going on) as much as an emotional response.

Finally, I want to put a shout-out to the special effects designed by Carlo Rambaldi. According the DVD commentary he worked with almost no time or money, but his stunning results are impossible to ignore. Interestingly, Rambaldi has a direct connection to my precious Italian horror hobby. He did special effects for less than 25 films, but managed to work on personal favorite gialli by the three great Italian horror masters: Mario Bava on “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (1971), Lucio Fulci on “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) and Dario Argento on “Deep Red” (1975). Rambaldi also did the effects for “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982).

[Image: A final-act pink sock… now it all makes sense!]

Walrus Rating: 10