Thursday, January 31, 2008

Top 12 Hobo Films

I’m not going to pretend that “hobo films” are a genre. I’ll readily admit that it is simply an issue of subject matter. In making this list I have factored in the quality of the film with its hobosity, that is, the extent to which it depicts hobos and focuses on their lives and deeds. Thus, a great film like “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007) may include a hobo with an important role to play, but the movie could hardly be called a hobo film since the focus, overwhelmingly, is elsewhere.

Then, too, there is the question of definition. I’ve played it fast and loose in some cases, but I am keeping to a semblance of order. Technically, hobos travel and do odd jobs when available. For the purpose of this list I’m allowing tramps, who travel without working, and bums, who simply loiter. Vagabonds, vagrants, freeloaders, beggars and drifters are also considered. The two key factors I am using to judge hobo validity are homelessness and lack of steady employment. Dirtiness, drunkenness, destitution and use of hobo slang help, but are not required criterion. Simply being poor (but having a house, family and meager source of income), like Eliza at the beginning of “My Fair Lady,” is not quite enough.

As a side note, I’m celebrating the Film Walrus’s first birthday. One year old, yesterday! I want to thank all my readers (both of them).

First Runner Up: Trading Places

12. The Fisher King (1991)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Country: USA
Gilliam’s loose adaptation of the Fisher King legend, stars Jeff Bridges as Jack, a disillusioned hate-mongering radio host who mishandles an on-air caller about to go on a killing spree. Jack loses his job and sinks into a deep depression. One night after a particularly despairing drinking session, Jack is attacked and beaten by a gang, only to be rescued by a crazed hobo (Robin Williams as Parry). An unlikely friendship develops between the two down-and-outers, despite Parry’s firm delusion that he is on a quest for the Holy Grail. Parry is intelligent and literary, a man who once had a normal middle-class life before tragedy sent him out of his mind. Ultimately, Jack learns that Parry’s decline (and potential redemption) may be inextricably tied to his own.

You can always count on Gilliam to mix expressive doses of fantasy into otherwise conventional dramas. His directorial influence makes this film particularly interesting, wringing a worthwhile Don Quixote performance from Williams. The films owes perhaps too much to Gilliam’s earlier and superior “Brazil,” but “The Fisher King” is still one of his better films and unquestionably higher in hobosity.

11. M (1931)
Director: Fritz Lang
Country: Germany
A wave of child murders is sweeping Berlin and it’s up to Karl Lohmann (backed by the entire Berlin police force) to end the epidemic of fear and death. When the police crack down on the economically-tolerated criminal underworld, even they join in the manhunt for the murderous creep. Finally Berlin’s real power player, the enormous Beggar’s Union, rally to the cry. The hobos mobilizes their numbers to put a pair of inconspicuous eyes on every street corner. Yet it’s a pair of ears that finally finds the first lead, a whistler of “Hall of the Mountain King.” Now marked by the damning “M” (murderer!) chalked onto his back, it is only a matter of time before Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in his most famous role) is caught by the beggars, conmen and crooks. His shrill, tormented confession at an subterranean mob trial brought a new level of psychological depth in cinema.

“M” may not center upon any singular hobo or pseudo-hobo character, but it makes up in quantity what it lacks in specificity. The seedy side of Weimer Republic Berlin is rife with criminal lowlifes and homeless hustlers all of whom seem terrifyingly thrilled to find someone (a child murderer) socially beneath them. Lang’s hobo brigade is a resourceful lot and ultimately a force to be reckoned with, a fact which somewhat ameliorates his blood-thirsty, one-sided depiction of the unwashed masses.

10. 3 Iron (2004)
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Country: South Korea
Tae-suk is a humble, unassuming mute who rides about on his motorbike and leaves take-out menus on people’s doors. The audience soon discovers that this is not a real job, nor does Tae-suk have a real home: he returns after several days and breaks into the houses that have not removed the menus (since the owners are likely to be on vacation). The young man squats for a few days, remaining respectful of his environment and accepting the possible dangers. Clearly a man with natural talent, Tae-suk repairs any broken electronics and does laundry and cleaning for his unwitting hosts. Eventually he meets a girl who joins his unconventional lifestyle and the two silently transcend the growing animosity of the world around them.

“3 Iron” may be the most questionable of the films on this list, because Tae-suk differs quite dramatically from traditional hobo iconography. Though he is a homeless, jobless drifter who survives by his wits alone, he is also young, well-dressed, hard-working, clean and utterly silent. Part of the reason, though, that I include him in my list, is because he updates the depression-era stereotype into a mildly-alienated protagonist fit for a globalized modernity. Some critics bashed “3 Iron” when it was first release for being faux-intellectual, but it has held up admirably as a turning point for director Ki-duk, best known for his brutally savage odysseys.

9. Viridiana (1961)
Director: Luis Bunuel
Country: Spain
Viridiana (Bunuel favorite, Silvia Pinal) is a nun-in-training who is assaulted by the unwanted amorous affections of her uncle (Fernando Rey) during a visit to his vast estate. After rejecting him several times, he kills himself, leaving his modest fortune in her hands. Putting her cloistered Catholic training to use, she sets up a food kitchen and homeless shelter on her new property. Her well-meaning idealism is shattered when the beggars take over the castle, devouring the food, destroying the furniture and even descending into rape and murder.

Bunuel’s trademark irreverence is on display and enough so that the film was banned by church and state in Spain. Viewers were not just upset by the frequent sacrilege, but by the depiction of unashamed cruelty in the wicked poor. Bunuel remained an equal-opportunity insulter, however, and would satirize the wealthy bourgeoisie throughout his career as often as the lower-class. Though this film is short on surrealism and is almost hoboless for the first half, its orgiastic climax remains an unforgettable hobonova.

8. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Director: Preston Sturges
Country: USA
John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a Hollywood director in 1941 with a string of blockbuster comedies to his name and a deep dissatisfaction in his heart. He dreams of making a “serious” artistic film about the plight of mankind to called “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” (later used as the real-life title of a Coen Brothers film), but he knows he doesn’t have the proper perspective. To experience suffering first-hand, he darns a hobo garb and tries to travel the country on his wits alone. After a couple of false starts he teams up with a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns a little about life and love. His controlled experiment soon collapses around him when he is robbed and beaten. The killer dies under Sullivan’s identity while John, suffering from amnesia, takes up the homeless life for real. Sullivan ends up in a labor camp where he and his fellow inmates get through their daily misery by relying on laughter (including occasional screenings of comedies). By the time Sullivan regains his memory and his former life, he realizes that he shouldn’t dismiss the value of well-made lightweight movies.

Despite the self-congratulatory plot (it’s a comedy about the importance of comedies), “Sullivan’s Travels” charmingly puts forth a decent argument on the need for escapism when times are bad. McCrea and Lake make a sweet couple and have plenty of destitute fun in their spotless, tastefully-torn rags. The film features some great train hopping scenes and more hobos than you can shake a bindle at, though it doesn’t take a very realistic approach to life on the road. Like “It Happened One Night,” the film manages to break through the static mansions, hotels and yachts that backdrop most screwball comedies to tell a brisk, country-crossing yarn.

7. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Country: Japan
A middle-aged hobo (Gin), a drag queen (Hana) and a teen runaway (Miyuki) experience an unlikely Christmas Eve adventure in this anime from idiosyncratic director Satoshi Kon. The three discover a baby lying in a pile of garbage and vow to track down the parents using the scant clues found with the child. Fate conspires to complicate things while providing ample room to investigate the diverse backgrounds that have led each character to life on the street. They encounter a mob boss, hitmen, a suicide and much more as they grow nearer to returning the baby, but the real story is their personal deliverance.

Kon crossed national, cultural and genre precedent to create this unusual adaptation, approximately the ninth retelling of an American screenplay that usually took the form of a western (twice with John Wayne). Set within the city limits of a snow-laden contemporary Tokyo, the animation and story will seem unconventionally down-to-earth for viewers expecting the usual sci-fi trappings of popular anime. Kon pares down his style to focus on the personalities of the marginalized homeless community, frequently shrouding his humor and underlying optimism in a cloak of misery and despair. Nevertheless, the virtuoso opening credits, plenty of action set pieces keeps and a frankly ridiculous number of twists keep the film very entertaining.

Special thanks to John Mora for reminding me of this entry!

6. Vagabond (1985)
Director: Agnes Varda
Country: France
French feminist new-waver Agnes Varda scored one of her most famous international successes with this pseudo-documentary account of a vagabond’s last days. The film opens on Mona’s frozen corpse, a meaningless death unknown to the public and unmourned by friends and family. Varda (or some other unseen narrator), knows nothing of her background, but tries to build a loose story by tracing through her final few encounters. Through an episodic patchwork of Mona’s travels and interviews with the people she met, an unapologetic portrait takes shape. She comes across as a freedom-loving, responsibility-hating young woman who prefers loneliness and constant drifting to anything society can offer. She leaves a mark in the minds of those she meets, but rarely a good impression.

Of the films on this list, “Vagabond” is probably the most true to life, though it can also be the most frustrating. Varda refuses to compromise her character’s flaws and Mona can often times be rude, glib, irresponsible, selfish and borderline criminal. She refuses to bathe, let alone work, and keeps to herself despite endless opportunities to open up. Varda never asks us to understand, only to observe, and half-glimpsed insights into her behavior allow the audience to reserve judgment. The people who hover on the fringe of Mona’s adventures, meanwhile, provide context for how people like Mona come about. Not for all tastes, but extremely high in hobosity.

5. The Gold Rush (1925)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Country: USA
Charlie Chaplin plays a luckless tramp trying to gold prospect in Alaska, in this silent-era comedy. Blizzards, starvation and several run-ins with villainous mountain-man Big Jim McKay make life humorously miserable for the hapless hobo. He falls in love with a saloon girl, but finds no respite from his ill fortune. Things go downhill (literally) until Chaplin finds himself in a cabin teetering precariously over an icy ravine.

“The Gold Rush” was a smash hit when it was first released and remains a critical darling, in part due to the film’s amazing 7-act structural symmetry. The film is still funny today and is probably the best showcase of Chaplin’s reoccurring character known as The Tramp. Many of the film’s scenes have entered into the collective cultural conscience, including Chaplin desperately eating his shoe stave off hunger (in his delusional mind it transforms into delicacies) and performing a dance with a pair of forks and rolls (you just have to see it to understand).

4. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
Director: Jean Renoir
Country: France
Edouard Lestingois, a kindly upper-middle class gent rescues Boudu, a freewheeling irrepressible bum, from drowning in the Seine. Edouard’s friends and neighbors roundly praise him for his heroism, but Boudu is rather peeved, only reluctantly submitting to his induction into polite society. He proceeds to wear through his welcome as quickly as possible, eating and drinking excessively, creating monumental messes and seducing every woman in sight. Finally exhausting the novelty of wealth, Boudu finds himself back where he started. He falls into the river during a picnic and is presumed drowned. In truth, Boudu washes ashore, where he exchanges the life of upper-crust society for the life of bread-crust poverty, memorably signified by swapping his coattails with the rags of a scarecrow.

I’ve never been a huge fan of poetic realism or the works of Jean Renoir, but “Boudu” has an honesty and naturalism that can’t be denied. Renoir keeps a wise ambivalence about his characters and his observations about class distinctions don’t preach any elitist or dogmatic messages. Boudu is at once admirably carefree and obnoxiously annoying, chauvinistic and ungrateful. Edouard is well-meaning, but naïve and close-minded. Their clash lacks the explosive insanity one would expect from a Hollywood script (like the US remake, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”), but instead, speaks volumes about personal choice and unsentimental humanity within an 81 minute slice of life. Michel Simon, effortlessly submerging himself into the role of the tactless, shaggy vagrant, remains one of the most vivid hobo depictions in history.

3. Lovers on the Bridge (1991)
Director: Leos Carax
Country: France
See the full review here.

2. Emperor of the North Pole (1973)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Country: USA
The Number 19 Special is a freight train every god-fearing hobo knows not to hop. Stack (Ernest Borgnine) patrols the boxcars, dealing out vicious punishments to freeloaders using an arsenal of hammers, chains and metal rods. Yet when messianic hobo A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) is challenged by self-absorbed upstart Cigaret (Keith Carradine) for the facetious tramp title of “Emperor of the North Pole,” Stack must lock horns with two men more resourceful and determined than he’s ever done in. The speeding arena offers few places to hide from Stack’s piercing gaze and sadistic reprisal, keeping the tension coupled to the rising stakes: from a free ride to a hard-won reputation to the lives of the men involved.

“Emperor of the North Pole” is sure to please any viewer looking for a film overflowing with hobosity. The central premise of a sadistic rail guard trying to kill the dueling drifters who dare to score a free ride makes for a surprisingly gripping feature-length potboiler and an innovative twist on cat-and-mouse dynamics. Much credit is due to Aldrich’s highly-honed action-drama direction, though the film is slightly marred by Carradine’s acting and a few flaws in the script, notably the comedy segments and the closing address. Lee Marvin’s turn as veteran rail-rider A-No.1 and Borgnine’s inexplicably bloodthirsty villain are highlights of this must-see hobo triumph.

Special thanks to Neil Fulwood for tipping me off to this great film!

1. My Man Godfrey (1936)
Director: Gregory LaCava
Country: USA
Rival socialite sisters Irene (Carole Lombard) and Cornelia are competing in a scavenger hunt to find a “forgotten man.” They both stumble upon Godfrey (William Powell), a wry hobo sifting through trash at a riverside dump. Impressed by his dry humor, intellectual air and dignified bearing, Irene hires him on as a family butler. Godfrey meets the cynical maid, who informs him that his new job is a curse, an endless series of chaotic indignities at the hands of wealthy eccentrics. Despite the odds, Godfrey comes to enjoy and take pride in his buttling. Meanwhile the family grows dependent on him (except the scheming Cornelia) and Irene falls hopelessly in love. However, Godfrey’s knack for upper-class civilities is no natural talent, and his mysterious past soon catches up with everyone.

One of the best of Universal’s screwball comedies, “My Man Godfrey” is depression-era escapism at its most optimistic and amusing. Carole Lombard is perfect as the flighty ingénue who talks at a million miles-per-hour and charms her way past any serious subject. The drunken matriarch and her bizarrely sensitive male protégé take the eccentricities up a notch, but it is William Powell as Godfrey that steals the show with his brilliant straight-man performance. Fast-paced wit, outrageous situations and a precisely constructed story arc make this a mesmerizing make this film a sort of screwball hobo fairy tale for the ages.

Got a great movie that you think ranks high in hobosity? Leave me your recommendations in the comments!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Knee-jerk Response to Who Can Kill a Child?

To a giallo fan like myself, a title like “Who Can Kill a Child?” (1976) has an immediate ring of trashy B-horror intrigue. The plot only confirms the potential: British tourists find themselves trapped on a remote island where children have inexplicably slaughters the adult population. I thought my odds were pretty decent of viewing a mildly outrageous cult gem.

There is no shortage of interesting films about creepy children, whether they are hell-spawned, possessed or simply sadistic. It would be a great topic for a list some day. “Who Can Kill a Child,” however, would be left off it.

The film answers its titular question in its overlong and totally tasteless intro. The answer, as a series of exploitive newsreel footage shows us, is surprisingly straightforward: Nazis can kill children. Also disease. And malnutrition. Malnutrition got a lot of them. None of this has almost anything to do with the rest of the movie.

After about ten minutes, the director finally condescends to provide a movie. We are introduced to married couple Tom and Evelyn, two of the ugliest and dullest people ever to stumble through a horror movie, and this from a decade (the 1970’s) not known for beauty and charm. My sixth sense for low-budget horror crappiness began to tingle, preparing me for the forty minutes of sheer boredom that would precede the first actual horror scene.

By the time we find out that the children are evil (I guess it is supposed to be a surprise… so sorry if I ruined it for you) there have already been so many hints that the director must have suspected (correctly) that his audience would be comatose within the first few scenes. There is almost no actual payoff accompanying the revelation, as the children are completely flat and senseless, apparently too drowsy and preoccupied to muster the menace required by the premise. I respect keeping the source and motivation of their violent coup a mystery, but I wish there had been some rhyme or reason for their particular actions throughout the film.

The children are entirely unrealistic, behaving more like an aloof misanthrope’s idea of children rather than an exaggeration or a corruption of the real thing. They are slow, quiet, stupid and uniform. They work in groups without any coordination. They seem to survive without any trouble despite never doing any work. Most egregious of all, they are infinitely uninspiring as sources of fear, shock or interest. Director Serrador can’t seem to make up his mind whether they are supposed to be zombies, rebels or just confused kids who let things get out of control. He makes a few attempts to imply that they are some sort of avenging force, eradicating the adult world that has led to nothing but misery, yet these vague pretensions come off as half-baked.

There is one good scene. For anyone who is interested, I will spoil it now. Tom walks into a barn where the children are playing. A blindfolded girl swings a rapier at a piñata while the crowd laughs and cheers. As the camera tilts up, we see that the piñata is actually an old man. Yeah, it’s kind of sick, but it is one of the few scenes that actually succeeds as horror. After that shot, Serrador clearly has no idea where else to go and wastes the remaining hour of the film having his leads lamely putz from one indistinguishable empty set to another.

It doesn’t help that the lead couple balks at the mere thought of acting and there are very few characters to share the burden (or at the very least, to provide intermittent gruesome slayings). The sun-baked Spanish island has zero personality and the cinematographer has no intention of creating atmosphere where plains of dust and whitewash walls have already failed. The pacing actually feels slower than real-time.

I’m guessing that very few of you out there were in any danger of seeing this film, but I warn you against it just in case. And for those of you who think you would never watch a film called anything like “Who Can Kill a Child,” keep in mind that sleazy distributors will stop at nothing to sell their films, even going so far as to use titles like “¿Quién puede matar a un niño?” to confuse you. “Oh,” you might say to yourself, “that must be a foreign title. Perhaps it’s a masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa?” No. No it is not.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review of The Element of Crime

Danish film director Lars Von Trier has remained one of the most consistently controversial and provocative filmmakers of modern times and can even take much of the credit for an entire movement: Dogma 95. Yet despite cutting a sharp international profile, Trier remains largely an enigma and his films are often difficult to gage or interpret. He is fickle, inflammatory and often silent about his motives, sincerity and meaning. For these reason, many of his films match their maker in mysteriousness and inscrutability, and none so thoroughly as his debut film: The Element of Crime (1984).

Though I called this a review in the title, I’m really writing this as an essay and it is best read by those who has already seen the movie. My goal is to attempt to shine some light on the film, which has previously evaded in-depth critical attention (Peter Cowie’s essay for the Criterion edition excluded). I’ll do some conventional film analysis, proposing some possible readings and interpretations for The Element of Crime by discussing the plot, references and symbolism. The analysis will serve as a springboard for the second part, which will mention the ways that Trier’s personality and directorial style interface with the film itself.

NOTE: The element of crime has a variety of contexts in this discussion. For the purpose of clarity when writing the phrase, italics will be used for the film’s title, double quotes for the book within the film and single quotes for the criminology method described by the book.

The film takes place entirely within a hypnosis-induced flashback and concerns the investigation of a child serial killer, known as the “lotto murderer,” who has been terrorizing Germany. Chief Inspector Kramer has called Detective Fisher back from Cairo (after 13 years exile) to solve the case following the failure of his mentor, Osborne. Fisher discovers that Osborne suspected a man named Harry Grey (who apparently died in a car accident) and was re-enacting his journey using a tailing report from three years earlier when Grey first laid his groundwork for the murders. Using Osborne’s controversial method known as ‘The Element of Crime’ (a dangerous psychological technique for getting deep into the mindset of the killer) Fisher picks up where Osborne left off. During his investigation, Fisher teams up with an Asian prostitute named Kim and moves inexorably closer to the truth… and to madness, not unlike his mentor.

[Image: A series of early double-exposures provides a disjointed account of the murder case so far. In this shot, the fire from an actual car crash is superimposed over a photo of a crash.]

[PLOT SPOILERS next paragraph.]

After determining that the crime scenes are forming the letter H (as seen from a map), Fisher lays a trap for Grey at the seventh and final point that would complete the pattern. While waiting with a young girl selected as bait, Fisher accidentally drops the killer’s calling card, which he had picked up at the scene of the first crime. The girl panics and screams and Fisher suffocates her while attempting to keep her quiet. Some time later, Kramer reveals that Osborne was responsible for the sixth murder and mistakenly credits the final one to him as well. Kim is revealed to be Harry Grey’s former wife, and briefly the wife of Osborne as well. Fisher is left free, but unable to wake from his session of hypnosis. He has, like Osborne, become the elusive murderer he sought to capture and now remains trapped within his own nightmare flashback.

[Images: Fischer’s revelation that Oswald has a child (Top) immediately cuts to the detective pulling up to the latest crimes scene (Bottom). The shots are linked by a curious graphic match in which Fischer’s car mimics the arrival and crash of a toy car (visible at the bottom of the top image.).]

The Element of Crime is told in a cryptic style, full of symbols, allusions, ambiguities and contradictions. The lighting is done with high-pressure sodium bulbs [1] that lend the film an orange tone (quite a bit more intense than sepia) broken only occasionally by highlights of green or blue. The shooting was done exclusively at night, usually during the rain. The narration is in strict monotone that distances the audience from any emotional connection to the characters. The camerawork is highly experimental, with a preponderance of overhead shots. The mise-en-scene is dense and disturbing, full of abandoned buildings, pools of dripping water, dead and dying horses and, everywhere, the decrepit and broken artifacts of decaying post-war Europe. Almost every minor character is bald.

[Image: (Top) A blue light flickers on the ceiling. (Bottom) A TV plays an old video of Oswald attempting to solve the lotto murders.]

Both the plot and the style refuse passive consumption and easy interpretation. In trying to understand what its all about, I’ll expose some of the many references (both to film and to literature) and analyze the symbolic value of three of the film’s reoccurring motifs: water, bungee jumping and primates.

[Image: In this ever-raining, ever-saturated Germany, the sand that spills from Fischer’s leg cuffs will be his only reminder of his life back home in Egypt.]

Within the first five minutes of the film, Lars Von Trier exercises his familiarity with European art cinema. The opening images of a horse thrashing about, replicates a similar shot from Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) [2] and foreshadows the use of horses as a reoccurring image throughout the film. Tarkovsky can be considered as a “European” filmmaker by tradition if not by birth. As the protagonist’s hypnosis begins, the camera makes a slow overhead trip past objects eroding underwater, a homage to a similar sequence in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). This technique (a deliberately paced, birds-eye-view shot that migrates horizontally over decaying vistas) reappears throughout the film and instills an atmosphere of calculated dread and tragic fate, emphasizing the gradual, but meticulous, inevitability with which nature corrodes the works of man.

[Image: Kim lying in a corona of light bulbs. One of many disconcerting overhead shots.]

The opening hypnosis scene also recalls two of Trier’s favorite filmmakers. The strange Cairo-Germany connections within the film are reminiscent of German director Werner Herzog’s The Engima of Kaspar Hauser (1975) that concerns an idiot-savant untouched by civilization and haunted by ethereal visions of Egypt (shot, like the fragmentary images of Cairo in The Element of Crime, on 8mm stock that contrasts with the rest of the film). In Herzog’s next film, Heart of Glass (1976), the equally audacious director placed his entire cast under hypnosis to drain them of affect (like the monotone narration of The Element of Crime) and create a dreamlike ambience. Trier frames his film within the tale of a hypnotized patient to similar ends, blending the rural doomsday in Heart of Glass into the urban menaces of modern noir. Years later, Herzog would return the nod by appearing in the dogma film Julien Donkey-Boy. In interviews [1], Trier is also quick to credit his idol, Carl Theodor Dreyer, who used hypnotism in Gertrud (1965).

Trier’s references don’t extend merely to his filmmaking forbearers. The Element of Crime is littered with dozens of quotes that range from children’s nursery rhymes like “Oranges and Lemons” and “This is the house that Jack built” to serious poetry like Ludwig Uhland’s melancholic war remembrance “I Had a Comrade” (partially recited within the film by Osborne, in its original German) and a section of “In the Greenest of the Valleys” by Edgar Allen Poe (another Trier favorite) that is so obscure that even the Criterion edition of the DVD incorrectly transcribes the quote. Here it is corrected:

“In the monarch thought’s dominion. It stood there. Never seraph spread a pinion over fabric half so fair.”

The brooding Poe poem, taken in full, evokes images of desolation and decay; the remainder of a once-great kingdom brought down by evil creatures. At one point, Trier even has Fisher quoting James Joyce’s modernist landmark, “Finnegan’s Wake.”

These quotes serve several purposes at once. On a purely aural level, they help modulate the tone of the film, adding to the timeless unsettling ambience. There is a hint of Brechtian alienation, not just in the obscurity of the lines, but in the failure to integrate them (except thematically) into the story. One might be tempted to see them as little more than pretentious red-herrings, dropped to give the impression of erudition and sophistication, except that in the hands of Trier, they share equal footing with Mother Goose, TV shows like Kojak (1973 – 1978) [2] and popular sex jokes. Rather, the eclectic sources that Trier draws from seem to represent Western cultural output taken as a whole. Nothing is spared, from animals to art; from architecture to morality. In Osborne’s insane final request to burn all the books in his library and all the papers of his life’s work, we can see Trier’s vision of a collapsing civilization feeding the flames of their Earthly hell with the detritus of their former cultural glory.

However, the apocalyptic reading of The Element of Crime only gets at the feel of the film; a deeper look at some of the film’s reoccurring images is necessary to provide further insight. The title seems to be the single most important key, as the plot hinges upon the titular criminology technique that Osborne has developed. There are several scenes in which a glowing blue television screen plays a tape of old interviews with Osborne. In these interviews, and ones that Fisher has in person, Osborne suggests that crime is like a chemical reaction that can only occur under precise conditions. This is the “element” of crime, the environment in which it propagates like a contagious disease. In Trier’s own words, “The element of crime is the force of nature that intrudes upon and somehow invades people’s morals.”

[Image: Scenes of people shooting or screaming into the darkness form a motif of utter desperation throughout the film.]

Reading the term “element” as literally as possible (one can not overlook playful word games when dealing with Trier), one would quickly conclude that the element of crime is water. Water serves as the principle guiding motif of the entire film, saturating nearly every location. A canal runs by Osborne’s house, the police headquarters’ archive is flooded, the harbor, the ferry, the Dive and the tunnel of love are dominated by bodies of water. Rain pours down over every set in between. The extreme wetness of Germany lies in sharp contrast to the implied dryness of Cairo, where Fisher speaks of the city being entirely “sanded over.”

[Images: The perpetual rain swamps nearly every set piece, including the police archives where Fischer drifts about, discarding documents into the waterfall the pours from the abandoned elevator shaft.]

Water serves as a menacing figure within the film, aligned with the powers that erode and corrode. Far from being a symbol of purity and cleansing, water in The Element of Crime is a taxing and burdensome obstacle filled with filth, wreckage and death (several shots show the real corpses of horses floating in the murky depths). It provides no relief (as Fisher says, quoting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”) and indeed, seems to transmit the murderous tendencies of Harry Grey like a disease. Water is also a conduit for the malaise and fatalism of the locals, whose single athletic activity is a dangerous ritual known as The Dive.

[Image: An abandoned factory completely filled with empty upright bottles...]

The Dive is probably the second most conspicuous facet of the film if one notes how tangential it is to the primary plot. It entails jumping from a giant crane poised above a shallow lake with a rope tied around the ankle. Trier was familiar with bungee jumping (it was first done publicly in 1979 and from a crane in 1982) even at this early date. Like in the film, the real-life leapers were arrested immediately afterwards. [3] Inspector Kramer seems to have an extreme distaste for the activity, saying early on that, “They call it a ritual. I call it crime.” This grey zone between religiosity and illegality plagues Fisher throughout the film, as he follows Osborne’s dangerous path into madness with almost religious reverence. Trier’s fascination with this duality informs much of the film, and inspires him to treat the local who performs The Dive at the end of the film with special attention. The shot shows the jumper from below and savors his plummet in slow motion, imbuing the image with an almost holy aura of despair and finality. As the rope goes taut, the jumpers muscle are jarred violently and a spray of blood is vomited from his mouth. As he bobs up and down, hanging from his ankle, we are reminded of the scene early in the film where a horse is pulled by its hoof from the harbor. In the former scene, the nightmarish image of the thrashing animal flesh is exterminated with brutal precision by a police sniper. The jumper is assailed by the police in his own turn, as Kramer’s men swarm over the lake. They also discover Osborne’s body under the crane, hanging lifeless by the neck in a grim parody of The Dive.

[Image: Before taking the Dive.]

In Trier’s film, The Dive is an act of suicide brought on by the insanity consuming the town. It is a ritual and a crime all rolled into one. The Dive shows the emotional depths of despair to which we can sink as much as it displays the physical heights from which we can fall. It is in The Dive that we begin to see the human element that is so absent in the film’s tone.

[Image: After taking the Dive.]

This reminds me of to mention the most frequently cited complaints about The Element of Crime: its cold, emotionless surface, devoid of humanity and wickedly inaccessible. How is it that ‘The Element of Crime’ can allow Fisher to connect so intimately with Harry Grey and yet the film never allows us to even marginally connect with Fisher? Within the stifling madness of this civilization gone to hell, humanity and emotions have nowhere to grow. In The Element of Crime, mankind is living under the perfect conditions for crime, in a sick world where humans are reduced to their primitive instincts. Man becomes mere flesh. Trier’s camera takes a fetishistic interest in the perspiring skin and ubiquitously shaved heads of the supporting cast.
[Image: Trier (right) makes a bald-headed cameo.]

Nothing is left of “humanity” in this landscape except the basic primal drives of sex and aggression. Harry Grey, Osborne and Fisher are driven to these extremes in sequence, all of them indulging in rough, animalistic sex with Kim (note the blood we always see afterwards) and the murder of young girls. This reverse-evolution towards the unrestrained Id is given a visual metaphor by the primates that appear at the beginning and end of the film. In the opening, we see a monkey perched on the shoulder of the hypnotist, little more than a cliché until it is given relevance by the final image. In the bizarre and ambiguous concluding shot, Fisher opens the lid of a drain and sees a shivering lemur in the bottom of the hole. The sight of the exotic creature ensnared in a terrible impersonal prison, echoes the cries of the trapped protagonist as he begs, to no avail, to be awakened from hypnosis. The animal could have been anything, and a lemur is an unusual choice, especially since the monkey from the opening scene would likely still be available. An astute zoologist will note that lemurs are prosimians, an evolutionary notch behind simians (the order that includes both the monkey at the beginning of the film and humans) [3]. Within the internal logic of the film, mankind regresses backwards to a state before the first glimmer of self-awareness, and thus modern morality. This is the last stop in the tailing report, the final conclusion of using ‘The Element of Crime.’

[Images: (Top) The opening scene, the only one set in the waking world, depicts a monkey (on the hypnotist’s shoulder). (Bottom) The disturbing final image of a lemur trapped in a drain pipe.]

Having made some progress into what the film is about, one is still left with the question of why. For what purpose does Trier lead us through his nightmare vision of a Europe lost within its own physical and spiritual apocalypse? Lars Von Trier’s motives have always been, and likely will always be, suspect. Many critics have dismissed The Element of Crime as simply “art for art’s sake,” an empty exercise in style and imagery. While Trier doesn’t bother to refute, and even tends to enjoy the idea, the accusation is too easy and too lazy. It is an excuse to avoid thinking about the film or studying it closely. It is an excuse for not taking the risk that it might all be a practical joke engineered by Trier upon audiences (not realizing that this is half the fun).

Another common reading is to assume that Trier has no other intention but to provoke; that he is just trying to shock and disturb audiences. This claim is equally useless, failing to throw any real light on the film. Trier suggests a far more compelling word than “provocation” as his goal in his first public manifesto, published to coincide with the release of The Element of Crime on May 3rd, 1984. In a prolonged metaphor about the relationship of directors and their films, Trier suggests that the key to invigorating their artistic marriage is “fascination.” [1] The word seems perfectly suited to describing Trier’s own alacrity for composing images and presenting information. His films sparkle with the intensity of a director who, whatever the end result, loves to make movies.

So why The Element of Crime specifically? Why did Lars Von Trier decided to make that precise film and in that precise style? In many ways, it feels like The Element of Crime isn’t made for audiences: it certainly isn’t particularly easy to enjoy. Instead, the film seems like a highly personal project (as debut films often are), an investigation into what fascinates the young director. In this way, ‘The Element of Crime’ gets us inside the head of Lars Von Trier more so than Harry Grey. It’s all there: the technical craftsmanship that interested him so much as a child (He played with double exposures and dreamed of building a crane from wood [4]), the obsession with Europe and hypnosis that reappears in Epidemic and Europa, the references to his favorite directors and poets, the love of noir, the need for meticulous control of every detail. Trier invested so much of himself in The Element of Crime that it isn’t surprising that it fascinated him while being inscrutable to almost everyone else. Maybe the reason why Trier’s films are always so unusual, controversial and varied is that he’s always making movies about whatever interests him at the moment of filming. Trier is often notorious for his ego, and it must certainly take an enormous ego for a director to think that he is the only audience that matters. As a result, however, his films are much more interesting than those hoping to perfect a blockbuster formula for maximizing viewer demographics.

I continue to hold that it is a mistake to dismiss The Element of Crime as meaningless example of art for its own sake. The references and influences that Trier uses show a high level of historical awareness and a pessimistic engagement with the popular art cinema theme of cultural decay and collapse. Trier’s visual motifs carry with them a host of meanings and interpretations. As a completed film, The Element of Crime is an effective thriller, a technical masterpiece and an engaging exploration of Trier’s enigmatic personality, personal interests and pet themes. In the end, we may not know all the secrets behind the director’s mind, but maybe it is better this way. As long as he continues to be a curious and talented puzzle, he is sure to continue creating fresh and provocative works. The Element of Crime is certainly a promising example of how a director can turn inward, to find influences, references, symbolism and imagery that are fascinating to the individual, and to express these outwardly in creating films that are fascinating for the open-minded.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Work Cited:

1) Bjorkman, Stig. 1999. Trier on von Trier. London: Faber Limited; 274p.

2) Cowie, Peter. 2000. The Element of Crime (DVD insert). Criterion Collection.

3) Wikipedia. May 8, 2006. Bungee Jumping. Lemurs. Available from:

4) Stevenson, Jack. 2002. World Directors: Lars Von Trier. London: BFI; 216p.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review of A Zed and Two Noughts

Peter Greenaway has been one of my favorite directors ever since I saw “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” early in college. His “A Zed and Two Noughts” is one of my all time top ten favorite movies. A couple months back I promised to dredge up an essay I wrote on Greenaway, and I finally got around to re-editing it into an essay/review on “A Zed and Two Noughts.” It is probably best read after having viewed the film, but I’ve stuck a plot summary in the next paragraph just in case.

[Image: A swan-related car accident.]

“A Zed and Two Noughts” is the tale of two separated Siamese-twin zoologists (Oliver and Oswald) whose wives are killed in a swan-related car accident. The two become increasingly obsessed with the decay of dead organisms, the evolution of life and the car’s driver (Alba Bewick), who lost a leg in the accident. As the twins conduct experimental time-lapse photography videos of rotting animals, they begin to look more alike and to withdraw from society. The plot itself is willfully eccentric, and the cast is populated by oddball characters like Venus de Milo (a prostitute, seamstress and collector of bestiality stories) and Van Meegerin (a bizarre surgeon who is obsessed with the Dutch painter Vermeer and amputation).

A strong degree of self-reflexivity can be seen from the very beginning of the film. On the simplest level, Greenaway finds several chances to reference his own works. The insidious, scheming Van Hoyten (a meat-procurer and animal-feeder at the zoo), for instance, is a reoccurring villainous entity in several of Greenaway’s early shorts beginning with “Vertical Features Remake” (1978). The director even hints at his future plans: when the car crash image is dissolved into a newspaper spread, we see an article on the side titled “Architect Dies” which anticipates Greenaway’s next film, “The Belly of an Architect” (1987). Indeed, a meta-narrative network of interrelations is generated throughout Greenaway’s oeuvre and more than a decade after its release, “A Zed and Two Noughts” gained further complexities through its connections with his epic multimedia project “The Tulse Luper Suitcases.”

[Image: Look on the bottom right to find the “Architect Dies” headline that foreshadows Greenaway’s next film, “The Belly of an Architect” about an architect dying of stomach cancer.]

Multiple references to Vermeer also serve as a self-reflexive play on image-making, since Vermeer was the first known artist to use the camera obscura to create photorealistic perspective effects. Complicating the plot is the surgeon, Van Meegeren, who shares his name with a real life artist who brilliantly forged original works and sold them as authentic Vermeers, successfully fooling even professional art historians and experts. Within “A Zed and Two Noughts” Van Meegeren is the fictional great nephew of the forger, and continues his relative’s obsession with deception by staging and photographing living versions of Vermeer’s work.

[Image: (Top) Van Meegeren recreates the dress and piano from (Bottom) Vermeer’s painting, “The Music Lesson.”]

The nature of reality and authenticity comes up a lot in Greenaway’s film, often in the form of unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. The twins engage in a fruitless attempt to understand the evolution of life as a means of bringing meaning to the senselessness of death. By watching David Attenborough’s evolution documentary “Life on Earth,” Oliver hopes to “separate the true clues from the red herrings” and to find some meaning in the demise of his wife. However, as Van Hoyten points out when viewing the documentary later, “He’ll not find it here. This is just a straightforward account. God, it’s all such a dreary fiction.” Greenaway seems to suggest that science is as much at a loss as anything else, a single unsatisfying source of truth in an ever-shifting sea of relative truths.

Time-lapse decay experiments are another way the two men try to understand death, but it already shows a move away from pure science and towards a form of mysticism and ritual. The resulting footage of each experiment is presented in maggot-ridden morbid detail, set to an exhilarating Michael Nyman score and repeated with the regularity of a chapter break or a religious rite. Though the recordings appear to perform some sort of cathartic grief release for the brothers, their success in finding concrete answers is negligible. In fact, the supremacy of science is directly interrupted by nature in the film’s final scene [Spoiler Alert], in which a plague of snails short-circuits their post-mortem experiment on human corpses.

[Images: Some of the many plays on twins, symmetry, B&W animals and decay. (Top) A mirror placed underwater creates two identical angelfish. (Bottom) A stop-motion clip shows the rapid decay of two angelfish (no mirror) being eaten away.]

The investigation and rejection of traditional notions of knowledge, reality, meaning and truth is a guiding principle for Greenaway’s film. In a somewhat unusual and alienating fashion, Greenaway invites the viewer to relate to his characters through a philosophical goose chase and to share in their repeated frustration. Near the beginning of the movie, Oswald references Adam and Eve and soon after clips from “Life on Earth” begins describing the creation of life. The early juxtaposition of two opposing creation stories immediately introduces the friction of truth. The very struggle to understand our roots (historically, genealogically, philosophically, spiritually and so forth) is central to the ambiguity that saturates “A Zed and Two Noughts.” Reoccurrences of the knowledge/reality/meaning dilemma come up over and over again:

1) Venus de Milo proposes a reinterpretation of the Sphinx’s riddle about man, the earliest recorded abstract puzzle.
2) References to Vermeer and Van Meegeren engage with the authenticity of authorship and art.
3) Beta successfully disproves that the brothers’ scientific training is equivalent to omnipotence (by humorously showing that they can’t identify the color of a woman’s knickers).
4) Oliver endlessly questions the disturbing role of coincidences in modern life.

The film is conspicuous in the number of questions and mysteries it poses without ever offering answers. We are deprived of the resolution we have come to expect from traditional films and even the art-house habit of open-endedness is pushed to the limit.

[Image: The brothers discover the dangers of an uninhibited (heh) pursuit of knowledge when Alba’s daughter challenges them to discover the color of a woman’s knickers.]

The structure of “A Zed and Two Noughts” is closer to an elaborate puzzle-box then than a traditional narrative of the 19th century literary mold, which Greenaway vocally despised. The film is not driven by plot or character, but instead, it adopts pre-existing organizational systems, lists and taxonomies. Some examples:

1) The alphabet: the title, the names of Alba Bewick’s children, Beta’s interspersed listing of an animal beginning with each letter.
2) Numbers: the reoccurrences of “26”, particularly in relationship to the number of letters in the alphabet.
3) Colors: Van Hoyten’s unhealthy obsession with black and white animals.
4) The evolution of life: Attenborough’s “Life on Earth,” the choices of animals for the time-lapse experiments, the zoo.

The arrangement and rearrangement of animals by different categories is a running motif, with each character defined by their preferred version of zoo:

1) Fallast owns the zoo as it currently stands.
2) Oliver and Oswald strive to return the animals to the freedom of nature.
3) Alba Bewick owns a gated-off snail-only zoo called L’Escargot.
4) Venus de Milo pens a story about a sexual fantasy zoo called “The Obscene Animal Enclosure.”
5) Van Hoyten constructs an exclusive zoo for black-and-white animals because he is color-blind.
6) Felipe Arc-en-Ciel proposes a zoo of mythological beasts.
7) Van Meegeren runs the zoo/human veterinarian/hospital as an excuse for “scientific experimentation and art theory.”

[Image: Felipe Arc-en-Ciel (wearing white) and Venus de Milo (wearing black) discuss a zoo of mythical creatures while sharing a cell next to a surly zebra.]

This obsessive plethora of living taxonomies is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” which divides animals into categories as such:

“(1) Those that belong to the Emperor, (2) embalmed ones, (3) those that are trained, (4) suckling pigs, (5) mermaids, (6) fabulous ones, (7) stray dogs, (8) those included in the present classification, (9) those that tremble as if they were mad, (10) innumerable ones, (11) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (12) others, (13) those that have just broken a flower vase, (14) those that from a long way off look like flies.”

The similarity in playful, list-style structure is not accidental; Greenaway is an outspoken admirer of Borges work. It is also interesting to note that Borges himself is a key figure in postmodern literature and that his list of animals, similar to “A Zed and Two Noughts,” skirts the boundaries between fiction and reality, functionality and whimsy. Borges attributes the list to a Chinese translation by real-life translator Franz Kuhn though no evidence has been shown to support the claim. Such unwillingness to aid the audience in distinguishing fact and fiction is immediately familiar to fans of Greenaway’s work.

The list/taxonomy format is one way that Greenaway tries to break with traditional narrative form as defined by classical literature. Other methods he employs include:

1) Depriving viewers of the conventional means of relating to characters; they are drained of emotional expressivity, heavily stylized and never shot in close-up.
2) The music is a blend of high and low culture, ranging from the experimental minamalist tracks of Michael Nyman to the child-friendly recordings of “Teddy Bear Picnic” and “Elephants Never Forget.”
3) The story revolves around word-play, coincidences and composition where aesthetic choices are given priority over realistic ones.
4) The composition aims for a symmetrical unity, disregarding the typical “rule-of-thirds” framing.

Greenaway and cinematography Sacha Vierny even exploit the lead brothers for their natural on-screen symmetry. Not merely a stylistic flourish, the effect lends itself to a wealth of thematic interpretations on duality. In both content and subject matter, the film is split into dichotomies:

1) Black and White
2) Birth (life) and Death
3) Growth and Decay
4) Science and Religion
5) Science and Art
6) Zed (the last letter) and Nought (the first number)

[Images: Examples of the many unusual symmetries.]

In the first half of the film the giant blue letters “ZOO” loom in the background, but in the second half we see them from behind as “OOZ.” This reversal echoes Oswald’s comment when viewing the rotting prawns that they are “on their way back… to ooze,” referring to the primordial soup previously described in Attenborough’s documentary. In keeping with this theme, the first times we see the words the foreground holds the variety of life associated with zoos (we see a dalmation, a tiger, etc.) and the last time we see “OOZ” is in the sequence where Venus de Milo is presumably killed off-screen. These oppositions and doubles defy any single unifying “answer” to the film.

[Images: ZOO and OOZ[E], from near the beginning and end of the film respectively.]

Viewed within the scope of British cinema, it is notable that Peter Greenaway rejects objectivity and particularly the documentary realism that Britain is so well-known for, as represented by the David Attenborough documentary. In fact, Greenaway’s first feature length work, the fake BBC documentary “The Falls” (1980, four years before the term “mockumentary” was even coined), openly threatens the format’s legetimacy. The film presents 92 interviews with the victims of a VUE (Violent Unknown Event). Though permeated by a quirkiness completely outside of reality, the director and interviewee’s play the entire premise straight, mimicking the style, tone and supposedly detached observer status of BBC documentaries. “The Falls” creates a reality that is tangental to our own, one that obeys many of the same rules but with frequent bursts of artficiality and ambiguity. For example, although we are given some evidence to suggest that a conspiracy of birds is behind the VUE, we never find out for sure.

[Image: Oliver and Oswald, while three-legged jogging in preparation for a reverse Siamese-twin seperation operation, discover a dalmation killed in a hit-and-run accident (later revealed to be an assassination).]

I don’t think Greenaway’s purpose is to present a pure fantasy for our amusement. As in “A Zed and Two Noughts,” too much time and effort has been put into its internal consistancy while the comedy remains underplayed. The ultimate effect is to highlight the inherit subjectivity and even absurdity in a genre that almost intrinsically claims infallible authority.

Greenaway makes almost no effort to depict social, economic and political conditions as the really are, but that does not mean “A Zed and Two Noughts” is ahistorical or lacking in social conscience. For instance, one could read the character of Venus de Milo as a sort of capitalist critque, particularly in the era of the film’s production, which was then dominated by Thatcherism. A prostitute in more ways than one, Milo treats love, sex, information, art, stroies and material goods as commodities that can be bought, sold, traded and valued monetarily. She has a ceaseless habit of citing how much was paid for penning famous sexual tales. However, in Greenaway’s zoo, Venus de Milo is only the most extreme example of such behavior in an eccentric community that can be seen as a parody of our own society. By the end, even Alba Bewick observes that the zoo has taught the brothers how to bargain, and they bring the capitalist excess to its morbid conclusion by negotiating for her corpse.

“A Zed and Two Noughts” invites a lot of interpretations and ruminations, and the ones that I’ve considered above just scratch the surface. One could spend an equal amount of time just analyzing the visuals. It is the wonderful, imaginative depth of the film that brings me back again and again (I’ve seen the film eight or nine times now) and makes it more enjoyable with each new viewing. For those who love lists, puzzles and general arty weirdness, “A Zed and Two Noughts” is one of the most rewarding avant-garde films around.

Walrus Rating: 10

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXIV

Several musicals in this batch and a lot of perfect scores on the fun meter! Enjoy.

Rocky Horror Picture Show: (Jim Sharman) Little needs to be said about the film that is probably the most popular cult film ever made (contradiction noted). Told in over-the-top musical segments, the story features a pair of naïve honeymooners who find themselves marooned at the castle of Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry in top form). The doctor does some mad scientisting in his spare time, when he not reigning terror upon the innocent, but is soon upstaged by his alien henchmen. A favorite for midnight screenings, costume-wearing and audience participation.
Artistry: **** Fun: ***** Strangeness: *****

The Ruling Class – (Peter Medak) Peter O’Toole plays the 14th Earl of Gurney, an already egotistical member of the English gentry who has developed an acute messiah complex. When his father dies in a kinky case of accidental suicide, the new earl inherits an estate that makes him the unfortunate envy of his extended relatives. Dark British humor (aimed at everyone from religious conservatives to the House of Lords) is mixed with abrupt musical flights-of-fancy.
Artistry: ** Fun: ** Strangeness: ****

The Saddest Music in the World – (Guy Maddin) In an effort to sell more beer to depressed patrons, legless Lady Port-Huntley hosts a single-elimination tournament to find the saddest music in the world. A dysfunctional family of musicians including a Canadian war veteran, sleazy American producer and a photo-sensitive Serbian compete, all of whom have a connection to the hostess. Filmed in silent era style and brief color sequences.
Artistry: ***** Fun: ***** Strangeness: *****

Save the Green Planet! – (Jang Jun-Hwan) A flop during its initial release in South Korea, Save the Green Planet! is a surprisingly successful blend of comedy, mystery, sci-fi and thriller. When insane beekeeper, Byun-gu, kidnaps his former boss, it might seem like a typical case of revenge, however, he persistently tortures the business man hoping he will admit to being an alien invader. Two unorthodox detectives are working the case, but it quickly becomes impossible to know who to root for or what to believe. Jang Jun-Hwan shows a knack for going beyond expectations, redefining what it means to be “extreme” in a cinematic tradition where violence, sex and gore are becoming meaningless clichés.
Artistry: *** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ****

Schizopolis – (Steven Soderbergh) Soderbergh writes, films, edits, composes, directs, stars and generally self-destructs in this Vonnegut-esque solipsistic comedy. As a company drone in a corporation with both a spy and a mole, Munson is assigned to write a speech for a self-help cult leader who preaches the vacuous philosophy of “Eventualism.” He soon discovers his wife is having an affair with a physically identical dentist-version of himself. Also present in the plot is Elmo Oxygen, a popular lady’s man and insect exterminator who speaks in mismatched gibberish (while still be oddly understandable) and is kidnapped out of the main movie by a rival director.
Artistry: ** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ****

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review of Werckmeister Harmonies

A couple years ago at a small get-together I slipped “Damnation” into my DVD player. I had not seen it yet, but I’d heard good things about the Hungarian director, Bela Tarr. No single act that I have ever executed before or since has killed a party dead so completely.

“Damnation” is a lugubrious gondola ride from purgatory into Hades, with a pall of B&W depression laced with apocalyptic doom. I had no idea what to make of it. Everyone else in the room fell asleep or left within the first couple of shots. In the ensuing silence, I watched the film all the way through and began to appreciate it. I vowed to see another of his films… after a couple of years to recuperate and psych myself up for another go.

“Werckmeister Harmonies” (2001), sent courtesy of Netflix, has been sitting on my living room table for about two weeks. Twice I tried to start the film and twice I failed. Watching it after coming home exhausted from work with only handfuls of sleep was simply a disaster. I had learned enough to guess that the conditions one views a Tarr movie in can make it or break it. I’m glad I kept at it until I got it right.

The film is set in an economically depressed Hungarian town. Coal shortages have left the icy village without much heat or light. When a mysterious circus sets itself up in the town square, it isn’t treated as a brief reprieve from poverty and unhappiness. Instead, it is whispered about with disgust, fear and anger. Perhaps it’s because the bizarre gypsies are not the sprightly clowns of a colorful big-top, but the keepers of two monstrous oddities housed in a massive corrugated-steel trailer. One is a “magnetic” prince whose unholy exhortations are fabled to incite apocalyptic riots. The other is whale.

[Images: (Top) The circus trailer arrives in the dead night. (Middle) It opens in the foggy dawn. (Bottom) Janos speaks to the whale as its sightless eye peers out of the darkness.]

Within this hauntingly otherworldly microcosmos is Janos, a slightly whimsical young man whose curiosity and awe are at once refreshing, naïve and doom-laden. He wanders through the town at unidentifiable hours, listening to the rhetorical ravings and oblique harbingers bursting through the tension that engulfs the town. The viciousness and xenophobia of the villagers is directed at exiling the circus, but the movie is no simple exercise is condemning bucolic belligerence. Tarr keeps us on our feet with a rising swell of uncertain symbolism and nightmarish twists.

[Image: Janos, our unwitting Virgil on a voyage into East European hell.]

If I’ve made the story seem compelling, I’ve probably been misleading. The real interest, which makes everything about the movie work on deeper and deeper levels, is Tarr’s amazing craftsmanship. The film is a body-taxing, mind-scouring 145 minutes consisting of only 39 shots. For those of you who don’t care to do the math, that’s about 3 minutes and 43 seconds each. I should immediately mention that this is no exercise in simply proving how long you can keep the camera going (“Rope,” “The Russian Ark”), but a genuine attempt to make every single shot a work of art.
[Images: Never one to chop out the travel between scenes just because other directors consider it boring connective material, Tarr manages to find thoughtful visual variations (characterized by the perfectly choreographed timing of his cast and crew) on even the most mundane of activities.]

The 39 shots of “Werckmeister Harmonies” may make up one of the single densest examples of virtuoso filmmaking available. The cinematography is bleak, but mesmerizing, exquisitely framed and dripping with an impenetrable atmosphere. The camera movement is graceful and yet as restless as the villagers. The editing, what there is of it, is full of visual rhymes and echoes that enhance the sense of mystic unity. Tarr demonstrates his mastery of excruciating beauty, ensnaring us carefully in his blighted town. There are shots in “Werckmeister Harmonies” that overwhelm me with emotions for which I do not know any words.

Yet somehow I remain extremely hesitant to recommend this to anyone. Tarr is undeniably brilliant, but he has rowed so far out to sea that he is utterly artistically alone and dauntingly inaccessible. Other members of the art cinema vanguard like Bergman, Lynch and Jarmusch seem inviting next to the challenge of engaging with a Tarr film. The consensus seems to be that Tarkovsky is the only fair comparison.

I have to admit that much of the film is beyond me, including the relevance of 17th century musical theorist Andreas Werckmeister. I’ve heard several rival theories about the film’s central allegory, delivered with the utmost confidence, and yet I remain extremely skeptical of anyone claiming to have wrapped up Tarr’s whale of a work in a nice, neat little package.

Anyone who wants to see this movie ought to do so at their own risk. I offer my suggestion that you try to meet it halfway and the dubious critical tip (which I am beginning to buy into) that it may one day be regarded as a landmark of the 21st century.

Walrus Rating: 9