Monday, April 28, 2008

Review of The Bloodstained Shadow

I’ve learned that giallo films can fall into three basic categories. Two have equivalents in all genres: (1) films that are awesome and (2) ones that suck. The third category (and this is where my original research will soon make me a household name) is unique to the giallo and can be loosely termed (3) “gialli that suck except for the murders, music and last fifteen minutes.” I can safely put “The Bloodstained Shadow” (1978) in category #3.

Stefano (Lino Capolicchio of “The House with Laughing Windows”), a professor of some unspecified discipline, meets Sandra (Stefania Cassini of “Suspiria”), a beautiful antiques dealer or something, while returning to his rural Italian hometown following a long absence. (I swear they meet inside a train, but are shown disembarking from a boat…) Upon arrival he is met by his brother Don Paolo, a priest, who catches Stefano up on the local gossip. Read: bald-faced exposition. That very night, amidst a terrible storm, Paolo witnesses a murder in the village square. He isn’t able to distinguish the killer’s identity, but whoever is sending him threatening letters for the remainder of the film apparently didn’t get the memo.

[Image: Stefania Cassini has to shoulder pretty much all the sexiness alone as “The Bloodstained Shadow” has a fairly limited cast and an almost dignified business-before-pleasure attitude.]

Don Paolo has, by this time, already introduced us to the main suspects during his rundown of the local color: a wealthy homosexual child molester, a sinister doctor and a medium who conducts late-night séances. Obviously these characters are far too suspicious to be the real killer, but director Antonio Bido goes through the motions anyway. It would help if Stefano were actually given any clues to move his investigation forward, but the audience is mostly left to solve the film by relying on the usual giallo truisms.

[Image: (Below) I never realized piano lessons involved so much creepy physical contact.]

Stefano and Sandra do make an unusually ineffectual pair of amateur detectives, and their pseudo-realistic sleuthing incompetence is interesting in itself. Stefano isn’t part of the giallo occupational triad (cop, reporter or insurance claims investigator), but actually behaves like what he is: a concerned schmo in a small town plagued by murder fever. No one else seems altogether bothered by the plunging population, so he might as well take a crack at it.

Stefano is physically average (his inability to lift or push heavy objects comes up several times), always unarmed, emotionally shy and mentally less impressive than his academic degree would suggest. Every once in a while, he goes into a trance and recalls an obscure childhood trauma. Oh, I forgot to mention that he thinks the murders are tied to a similar strangling that he vaguely remembers from when he was just a boy. No reason that I mentioned that just now. No reason [whistles unobtrusively].

[Image Missing: Stefano was apparently so bland that I forgot to take any screenshots of him. He doesn’t appear to be significantly visible in any of about 50 still I made. Oops.]

Having protagonists that are relatively normal makes them more relatable, but it’s offset by the particularly awful dub and it hardly overcomes the film’s pacing problems and uninspired bulk. The lack of liveliness and originality in the delivery of the story made me guess that Bido was a fairly inexperienced director, and indeed he was. There is a lot of material getting shamelessly borrowed from the gialli of the then-fading golden age, but let’s call it a homage. Still, his film deserves to be placed in category #3, where it must not be ignored by fans of the genre.

[Image: “The Bloodstained Shadow” features one of the least stealthy killers of all time, constantly knocking things over and attracting attention to his presence nearby. Fortunately for him, the victims just dart their pupils at the sounds and then investigate, typically unarmed. No one calls the police, locks their door or runs away.]

Let’s take the music first. Composer Stelvio Cipriani has whipped up a scrumptious batch of Euro-synth delicacies performed to perfection by Goblin. Cipriani proves that there’s no instrument that can’t be improved by some synthesizer distortion, not even bells and pipe organs. The arrangements are eclectic, with hints of everything from classical to disco (done Goblin-style, naturally) and nary a throw-away in the entire film.

The murder scenes aren’t wildly creative, but they do each have their own flavor. The opening credits play over a grainy close-cropped slow-motion slaying that sets a pleasantly unreal tone (not really maintained), finishing with a contrastingly crisp and neatly-framed image of the corpse. Probably the most memorable kill involves an old lady who gets wheelchaired into a fireplace. A later assassination attempt sees Jesus literally coming down off the cross to bust some skulls, but the falling crucifix misses its mark.

Bido fumbles occasionally, but is able to lift his hap-hazard camerawork and editing out of mediocrity. Occasionally it feels like his visual sense wears itself out in short sprints and is left panting for air through the stretches between. The interior set design isn’t much to speak of, perhaps due to budget constraints. That said, the Venice locale makes excellent exterior atmosphere and regular installments of aesthetic effort do pay off for the director.

[Images: Giallo directors just can’t resist taking advantage of Venice’s old-world ambience.]

I especially like one motif he uses during scenes of “where is the killer” tension, in which he rapidly cuts to a statue’s face and then jump cuts even closer. It kind of works as a scare by faking us out with inanimate expressions that are often wickedly out of place. It has especial graphical resonance in the context of Stefano’s trances, in which he sees similar flashes of a crying boy’s face.

[Image: Inward jump cuts; a welcome alternative to Italian genre cinema's love of zoom shots.]

The film’s best scene occurs at the very end. [SPOILERS until end of paragraph]. The twist plays out in strict accordance to two cardinal giallo rules: (1) The priest is the killer (2) unless there has been any implication that the priest is the killer before the final act, in which case he is just a red herring (thus any evidence of his guilt is paradoxically proof of his innocence). In this case, the thoroughly sympathetic and apparently victimized Don Paolo is, of course, the murderer. The contrivances that make this work are somewhat fishy, but not wholly impossible. Once unmasked, he has a vision of administering the Eucharist to a row of his kneeling victims. Bido’s beautifully cross-cuts between the black-clad shattered Paolo and his white-robed dominating doppelganger scored to a triumphant synth-hymn.

Despite unmistakable evidence that “The Bloodstained Shadow” is just a soft echo of the classics from the early 1970’s, I still find it quite pleasing and watchable. I’d really only dissuade viewers from trying it as a giallo gateway, as anyone already happily familiar with the genre is likely to be fond of it for the very reasons that make it clichéd and derivative. As a low-budget European thriller more generally, I would even award it the official Film Walrus Zirconium Medal for Conspicuous Distinction in the Field of Slight Above-Averageness.

Walrus Rating: 6.0

[Image: Item that does not belong in a tabernacle #3615, goat head.]

Friday, April 25, 2008

Iceberg Arena: The Mysterious Events in the Woods; Ambience, Ambiguity and Feminism in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Innocence (2004)

Katie sometimes complains that I’m too much of a glutton for ambiguity, and its true that I’d probably rather have an unresolved ending than one that is overly pat, violates common sense or play out with painful predictability. Combined with my love of atmosphere, often at the expense of plot development, I’m an easy mark for art cinema. These two elements are central to today’s Iceberg Arena, bridging the art house tradition from Australia’s 1975 international success “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to France’s 2004 sleeper hit “Innocence.”

Both films are literary adaptations that concern all-girls schools (almost no male characters in either) and feature nature as a prominent narrative and thematic component. They are both non-traditional mysteries that linger over moments of ethereal beauty and rely on a tension whose source and intent is maddeningly difficult to trace. The two works relate the indefinite interior realms of the heart and mind to the primordial potential within nature and myth. Their use of directed ambiguity keeps the viewer anchored and invested with the story, while asking them to think more about the implications than the final answer. Both films stay with the viewer long after the screening, and though they may initially cause frustration, I’ve known several occasions where people changed their opinion upon later reflection.

In “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” a selective all-girls finishing school at the turn of the century takes a field trip to Hanging Rock, a towering stone formation in the Australian wilderness. The girls are warned not to go exploring, and so they spend most of their trip pleasantly idling away the daylight with detached repose. Bored and irresistibly drawn to the uncanny monolith, four girls scale Hanging Rock despite their orders. They are led by Miranda, the most beautiful and distant of the students, and they are strangely affected by the mountainside. As the field trip ends, their reserved mathematics teacher, Miss McCraw, notices that some of the girls are missing. She goes searching for her charges, but neither she nor two of the girls are ever seen again. The remainder of the film follows the search efforts and aftermath, with particular focus on the way that the incident gradually seeps into and corrodes the formerly comfortable school, its remaining students and the anxious staff.

[Images: Miranda slips up the slope with three other girls in tow.]

Much like the lost girls and a pair of local lads that spied on their fateful hike, the camera itself is drawn back to Hanging Rock again and again. Cinematographer Russell Boyd assists immeasurably in bringing out the intangible magnetism of the site. Rather than playing on deep shadows and dark recesses the film features an afternoon glow in which the sunshine seems suspended amongst the unassuming trees and weather-smoothed boulders. He favors observational long shots, often with unusual framing or hazy, indefinite shapes (like tall grass or tree trunks) left out-of-focus in the foreground. There are frequent digressions away from the characters, in which Boyd and director Peter Weir indulge in brooding nature photography set to haunting passages from Romanian panpipe and classical piano.

[Images: Some examples of the inimitable camerawork born from the Boyd/Weir pairing.

“Innocence” also focuses on the members of a women-only education facility, but its primary unsettling setting is on the school grounds themselves while the time period is more contemporary (possibly even futuristic). The school consists of five “houses” where the girls board in a largely self-governed manner. There is also a central manor where they take science and dance classes. The buildings are connected by unpaved electrically-lit paths through lush forest where the children are allowed to play and swim, but are prevented from leaving by imposing stone walls. The activities of the enclosure are much more overtly odd than “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” New students (age 5) arrive in coffins carried in through underground tunnels. The freshmen arrivals are given red ribbons, while the older girls chronologically span the rainbow up to violet (age 11). We learn that the oldest girls disappear the day before the arrivals and much of the film’s intrigue lies in discovering the truth behind this and other peculiarities.

While “Picnic” could be said to concern what happens after an inexplicable tragedy, “Innocence” take place entirely before an anticipated revelation/tragedy, one that we can constantly sense, but whose precise nature eludes us. “Innocence” makes use of audience assumptions, allowing our imagination to run wild with thoughts of organ harvesting, concubine slavery, plague quarantines and whatever other unfortunate twist we can conceive. The director abstains from tipping her hand or hurrying the assured and intelligent pacing.

It’s clear that some menace, however indefinable, taints the idyllic and nearly carefree existence of the innocent children. Once again the cinematography is key in shaping our impressions. Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic rarely gives us odd angles or aggressive camera movement, but cinematographer Benoit Debie emphasizes the otherworldliness of the outdoor scenes with highly-saturated, vivid greens and conservative lighting that lets darkness pool in the lines and seams of the mise-en-scene. Unmotivated shots of the landscape are used less frequently than in “Picnic,” but they have a similar rhythm and pregnancy of symbolism that makes them disproportionately powerful (especially a leitmotif of frothing water). These moments participate in a gradual maturation of the narrative that is sympathetic to the girl’s plight to the point of protectively hanging back from the ominous truths prickling our curiosity.

[Images: Benoit Debie’s green-black contrasts.]

An important part of the ambience in Hadzihalilovic film comes from the densely layered non-musical soundtrack. Thick room noise mixed with faint buzzing, humming, rumbling and occasionally insect sounds and rain patter allow even the quietest scenes to take on moods and tensions that undermine any sense of ease. The effect is more subtle than “Picnic,” where the music adds a fondness even during disturbing events and a nostalgic tone even though the perspective is in the present tense. In “Innocence” the sound emphasizes space and emptiness; it seems always to cloak an eminent danger that is silently stalking its prey.

“Innocence” leans heavily on European fairy tale iconography like dark woods, young children, dubious caretakers, butterflies, burning pyres, old-English manors, rowboats, etc. One reoccurring image that is particularly evocative has a young girl in white Victorian finery walking down a forested path at dusk. Though the sequence might remind us of anything from a Grimm’s fable to a sentimental postcard, Hadzihalilovic adds a disconcerting touch: modern electrical lighting that dangles from the branches.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” samples its potent mixture of lingering fear and ancient mystery from the friction between native aboriginal mythology and imperialist English culture. (This theme had been explored by Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout” several years earlier and would be addressed more directly in Weir next film, “The Last Wave.”) The upright, proper boarding school with its polished silver and porcelain tea sets, carefully manicured greenhouse and smothering attire of gauzy white dresses, gloves and bonnets are in stark contrast to the harsh volcanic rock.

Weir’s handling of the clash between “civilized” logical Victorian life and the primitive, unspoiled, unfathomable landscape goes deeper than just graphical presentation; the psychological impact of the natural monument clearly unhinges its visitors. The surviving students and staff react with the predictable range of hope, doubt and fear, but some experience such unexpected complications as longing, obsession, hatred, jealousy and suicidal depression. Oddly, it is the ill-fated girls whose reactions are depicted the most favorably, although their final hours of contented exuberance include overtones of sexual awakening and naturalistic pantheism which would not have been socially acceptable.

Both Weir and Hadzihalilovic seem to invite feminist readings. In “Picnic,” the disjunction between wild natural beauty and tamed civilized beauty contains an implicit critique of Victorian repression, as represented by everything from the verbal restrictions to the tight-fitting corsets. What makes the disappearance so distressing is the way it taps a timeless freedom that defies not just social conventions, but physical reality.

If it were boys who had gotten lost it would fit into their expected gender role as pioneers, explorers, dare-devils and conquerors. It disturbs the locals that a quartet of young maidens go traipsing through nature, not as some manly territorial quest or proof of courage, but on some anonymous voyage of discovery and oneness. That they should deprive their would-be male rescuers of any restoration of normality is a double affront. It may be that what haunts the survivors most potently is not the memory of the pretty youths, but the spirit of primordial abandon that still emanates from Hanging Rock. It’s as if the girls, finding even their corporeal bodies to be too repressive, discarded them like they do their shoes.

[Image: (Bottom) One of the two deeply concerned boys who witnessed the girls climbing up Hanging Rock. His determined, obsessive search for any clue will only yield partial harvest.]

There are still problems with any feminist analyses of “Picnic,” most noticeably the inaccessibility of the girls as fully-realized characters (they are described with detached idolization as Botticelli portraits and goddesses, but rarely allowed nuanced self expression) and the somewhat archaic and unquestioning implication that women are intrinsically more in tune with nature.

[Image: Miranda in the foreground with her roommate Sara in the background. Sara’s crush on Miranda is a subplot that could fuel a whole other essay.]

I find “Innocence” to be slightly more modern and provocative in its interrogation of gender politics. The near-total absence of men (more so than even “Picnic”) leaves more room for exploring the roles and relationships of women. There are three divisions within the enclosure: the children, their two teachers and a support staff of elderly crones that manage the cooking, cleaning and maintenance. Each of these factions offers plenty to ponder, especially in light of the ending (which won’t be spoiled here).

The children are largely happy, self-disciplined and free within certain limits, but those limits, the secrecy and the method for funding the facility, etc. compromises any idea of pure benevolence. The two instructors, Eva and Edith, struggle with self-doubt. They are initially hard for the audience to read. One scene shows Edith scientifically sticking pins through butterflies, a symbol for the children. Eva is generally strict and maintains inexpressive poise, but has a tearful breakdown at one point that is never elaborated upon. Both are predominantly kind and caring towards the children, yet whether they are happy themselves is unknown. The grim and shabby maintenance workers offer another challenge to interpretations, since they seem at times to toil voluntarily though there are hints that they are being punished.

Hadzihalilovic decision to not take a definite side is wise. There would not be nearly as much to talk about had she led the audience towards one concrete conclusion or if she channeled the good and evil into segregated vessels. Her handling of the extremely young cast is notable, showing true self-awareness for real world power structures (the relationships between viewer, director, child actresses and their parents). I wouldn’t expect someone married to Gaspar Noe (notorious enfant terrible and cinematic shockmonger) to show such sensitivity and tastefulness on issues like child nudity and exploitation, but she does have a definite gift. The empathy and deference Hadzihalilovic has for her actresses is evident in the film and in the brilliant decision to have one of her youngest stars (age 9?) provide the DVD commentary wherein she innocently (and insightfully!) “explains” the film.

I’m really torn between these two features, both of which easily qualify as personal favorites. They are model examples of how to combine ambiguity and atmosphere, cinematic virtues that challenge the viewer to simultaneously think and feel. Intellectual experiments and sentimental fluff both actively engage the viewer, but neither of them fully addresses the complexity of the audience, who may balance a variety of goals like emotional identification, aesthetic appeal and mental stimulation. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Innocence” are examples of films that provide an entertaining distraction from everyday life, while simultaneously deepening our understanding of it. They share so much in common, both in subject and tone, and yet they have such distinctive deliveries and specific preoccupations. The stories are unique enough that no one should fear that watching one would somehow spoil the other.

I guess I have to quit stalling and make up my mind. Current winner: “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” Still, that’s no excuse to pass over “Innocence.”

[Image: The winner.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Epilogue

Of the handful of mini-projects I’ve launched for the Film Walrus, Poor Little Animated Shorts has been one of the most fun. I learned a lot in a fairly brief period, gotten to see a couple hundred interesting shorts (it helps when the average run-time is only 7 minutes) and discovered more than a dozen new directors to follow up on. I hope it has been good reading/viewing for all of you (chase down some of those links/DVDs if you haven’t already). I may continue to present more sets in the future, but for now I’m taking a break.

My apologies to any artist or movement that I’ve grossly overlooked (including most foreign countries). Sorry that for all my CS love, I didn't include any machinima. I'm personally pretty fond of speedruns, but I that might have been a little too nerdy.

Although I’m familiar with their work, for reasons of personal taste I intentionally omitted Tomasz Beginski (recent, technically impressive CG), Bill Melendez (Peanuts specials), David Fleischer (Popeye), Terrytoons (Mighty Mouse) and anything related to Christmas (think stop-motion Rudolphs, Chipmunks outwitting Pluto and so on).

Oscar Fischinger (pre-Fantasia musical visualization) was skipped over because I couldn’t find a spot for him. Norman McLaren definitely deserved a spot on the list (I did plug two of his shorts in the “Cat Came Back” review), but I couldn’t choose. Many great sources of animated shorts were relegated to a single entry when they deserved more, including Tex Avery, Disney, Pixar and the whole of Soviet/Russian output (I really wanted to include “The Old Man and the Sea”). Many shorts were left out because of my own ignorance or lack of time in a field that is almost impossible to keep up with.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Platinum Edition

This set of shorts includes, respectively, the top rated films according the animation industry, international critics and popular vote.

Title: What’s Opera, Doc (1957)
Director: Chuck Jones
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: On Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2 DVD or online here.
An abbreviated version of Richard Wagner’s opera “The Ring of the Nibelung,” this short is purportedly the industry’s most highly regarded cartoon, topping the animator poll “The 50 Greatest Cartoons.” Elmer Fudd plays a Viking on the hunt for a rabbit (Bugs Bunny) who disguises himself as the Valkyrie Brunnhilda atop an obese equestrian to woo and eventually break Elmer Fudd’s heart, with tragic consequences. Jones admits to lavishing the project with far more time than usual, evident in the operatic visual extremes and the emphasis on pictorial humor and timing over wordplay and slapstick gags.

Along with “The Rabbit of Seville,” also by Chuck Jones/Warner Brothers, this is one of the great send-ups of opera, managing to earn both low brow and high brow appeal through its fun exaggerations and clever grasp of staging and music conventions. It remains one of the best known and most beloved cartoons of the golden era.

Title: Tale of Tales (1979)
Director: Yuriy Norshteyn
Time: 30 minutes
Availability: Masters of Russian Animation: Volume 3
“Tale of Tales” is a multi-layered allegory which touches upon national history, personal introspection and universal fairy tale tropes. Norshteyn, considered one of the greatest Soviet animators, structures the film as a series of interconnected memories which merge, recede, nest and shift in a fluid series of symbolic and nostalgic passages. At least three main stories are distinguishable: the tale of a childlike grey wolf in post-war USSR, a young artist at the beach with his fictitious creations and a festival on the eve before the WWII draft goes into affect. The art is a dreamlike collage of painted photographs, exquisitely detailed drawings and decorative landscapes peppered with cutouts creatures. Norshteyn demonstrates a brilliant sense of lighting, making scenes shimmer, glow and sink into shadow with expertise and instinct. His music is a similar collage of classical, tango and poetry.

Soviet censors freaked out when Norshteyn first submitted his work, worrying frantically that the film contained all sorts of social and political hidden messages. They were largely barking up the wrong tree, failing to understand (or perhaps understanding all too well) that the power of “Tale of Tales” came from its spellbinding humanist honesty and emotionally reflective tone. It has since grown to be regarded as one of the landmarks of short cinema and has been voted the greatest animated film of all time by international juries in 1984 and again in 2002. Other masterpieces by Norshsteyn include “The Hedgehog in the Fog” and “The Battle of Kerzhenets.”

Title: The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)
Director: Frederic Back
Time: 30 minutes
Availability: On DVD or online here.
Based on the popular story by Jean Giono, “The Man Who Planted Trees” is narrated by a traveler who happens upon a silent shepherd in desolate foothills of the Alps. When, as young man, he first meets the quiet, recluse, he is impressed by his stoic determination to carry out a self-proscribed task: to plant 100 acorns in the treeless valleys every day. The narrator revisits the site every few years, with absences during the first and second world wars to which the shepherd remains oblivious. After decades have passed, the entire region has become a lush “natural” forest which is declared a national park and celebrated by the local officials, tourists and immigrants who never know about the man who steadfastly planted trees. The art style has a water-colored warmth to it that flows like wind and water and fits well with the environmental themes and good-natured optimism. Originally made in French, Christopher Plummer provides the English narration.

“The Man Who Planted Trees” has long reigned atop the IMDB shorts list and quite deservingly so. The green, humanist themes occasionally border on melodramatic, but the sweeping allegorical charm is quite genuine and moving while the deft skill at story-telling is so realistic that for years many believed it to be a true story. A beautiful film, it should be required viewing (or reading) for all ages.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Guest Edition

Trying to covering a reasonable scope of the animated shorts available is not a healthy task for one person to attempt alone, so I dragged in a couple friends to help. It’s the Film Walrus’s first ever guest collaboration!

Two key areas where I have a rather limited knowledge are anime and music videos. I knew Mad Dog (John Mora), a veritable anime expert, would be perfect for handling the former. Folker (also known as my brother Patrick) is a musician and music blogger and he graciously agreed to write a review of his choice of music videos. I had originally suggested "Fell in Love with a Girl" by the White Stripes because of its interesting use of Lego stop-motion and CG, but I much prefer his own selection, “Agenda Suicide” by The Faint.

I didn’t plan it this way in advance, but it turned out I was already familiar with today’s three choices (frequent association with the authors does tend to do that) and I have to say that I think they are all highly worthy animated shorts. As usual, enjoy!

Title: Magnetic Rose (1995)
Director: Koji Morimoto
Time: 45 minutes
Availability: Available on the DVD “Memories”
In the not-too-distant future, a space debris salvage team gets an SOS signal in the form of an opera song from an abandoned zone of space with dangerous magnetic fields. They locate the origin of the signal, a collection of debris in the shape of a rose. When they investigate further, they find the debris actually hides an opulent mansion, presided over by a retired opera singer (based on the famous diva Maria Callas). As the rescue team begins to be terrorized by illusions and mind games, it becomes clear that the cause of this SOS may be something supernatural...

This is one of those rare animated shorts that manages to escape the animated short “ghetto” and become something that can compete with full-length features. Simply put, Magnetic Rose is one of the best animes I've ever seen. This is due in no small part to the impressive staff that worked on it. Koji Morimoto (Animatrix) is no stranger to shorts, and shows he can excel at convention as much as experimentation. Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) wrote an incredibly dense, efficient screenplay. Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop) creates an indelible score that mixes saxophone, opera and Gregorian chant. The result is a truly haunting and masterful short.

Title: Noiseman Sound Insect (1997)
Director: Koji Morimoto
Time: 15 minutes
Availability: Availabile on R2 DVD or on Veoh here
In the futuristic city of Cahmpon, a scientist creates an artificial life-form made up of “noise,” which he dubs Noiseman. Noiseman is a capricious, selfish creature, however, and overthrows its maker to begin using his machines to enslave everyone in the city, giving him all their delicious sounds while turning them into helpless ghost-like creatures. A member of a biker gang and his female friend manage to break the mind control and try to stop Noiseman from completing his scheme.

It's not a stretch to say that this short is bizarre. The plot barely makes any sort of coherent sense, but the artistry at work is exhilarating. Cahmpon comes alive via some very sophisticated CG composite fly-through shots, giving it a totally three dimensional feel while remaining aesthetically 2D. Color and music are blaring at all times, with animation supervised by Masaaki Yuasa (Cat Soup) and a techno soundtrack by the legendary Yoko Kanno. Noiseman Sound Insect is more representative of Morimoto's frenetic, weird style, and it's a wild ride.

Title: Agenda Suicide (2002)
Band: The Faint (director unknown, made through Saddle Creek)
Time: 4 minutes
Availability: Free for download from the band's website, but available in what I hope will be higher quality on the Agenda Suicide single.
The Faint are a dance-rock band, a sort of New New Wave thing. Continuing the New Wave tradition of writing dancy pop songs about dark subject matter (i.e., OMD's "Enola Gay" or Nena's "99 Luftballons"), "Agenda Suicide" is a song fairly clearly criticizing the typical 9-to-5 lifestyle: "As I lay to die the things I think / Did I waste my time? / I think I did, I worked for life," with the refrain, "All we want are pretty little homes." Things begin with a man waking up, taking some pills with his coffee, descending into a subway, and ascending into an office. At work, the man is pointed and yelled at by a presumed superior in what feels an abusive manner. Authoritative figures talk in screens in the background of a long line of people, and time feels omnipresent. The man seems suspiciously bored and removed, and on his ride home, he sees several people jump in front of his subway. When the next day starts, things are much weirder. People seem to fall down and/or die for no reason. Human heads are replaced with those of elephants'. The man occasionally phases slightly in and out of static. Ultimately, at the bottom of a structural nightmare, he steps in front of a subway and splinters into pieces.

The status quo appears bleak and the mood is grim. All the while, things keep moving, colors flash, text rushes by, and other people move around in a drone-like fashion. The subway and the office are often seen as a sort of architectural schematic; we see the lines of their outlines and form but no detail. The video is mostly CG with rotoscoped actors grafted in for people and photos overlaid for certain other objects. The photographic images are all black-and-white, and everything else uses fairly simply color schemes (with a lot of rather ugly orange).

Clearly, the Faint do not look fondly upon the regular live-work-die philosophy. This video was banned from MTV.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Review of Who Wants to Kill Jesse?

Czech New Wave films are often praised for their humor, but they are rarely considered laugh-out-loud comedies. Instead they tend to be dark, pessimistic commentaries on human nature and self-interest (“Loves of a Blonde,” “Firemen’s Ball,” “Closely Watched Trains”) or absurdist, anarchic attacks on political corruption and oppression (“Daisies,” “Cassandra Cat,” “The Joke,” “The Report on the Party and the Guests”). Getting some of the humor (or even perceiving the presence of humor) requires knowledge of East European history and Czech culture which not everyone possesses. No so, “Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” (1966).
Peter Hames, in his book The Czechoslovak New Wave (2005), my bible on the movement, never even mentions “Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” That’s particularly unfortunate given how well it fits into one his main theses: that the Czech New Wave was even more free and innovative than the French Nouvelle Vague, because of their willingness to break with realism. That difference doesn’t hold for all cases (Godard used documentary techniques for very imaginative ends), but it does account for the divergent styles of the two cultures. The French saw tactics developed by Italian Neorealists as valuable influences within the Western European cinematic tradition, while the Czechs sought an escape from the taint of Social Realism mandated elsewhere within the Eastern bloc. Furthermore, fantasy provided a means to disguise opposition to the communist regime, especially after the heyday of the Prague Spring when the government cracked down on open dissent.
“Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” was made in 1966, during the nation’s peak of creative experimentation and international recognition. “Daisies,” one of the movement’s most radical films, came out the same year. “The Shop on Main Street” had just taken the 1965 Foreign Film Oscar. “Closely Watched Trains” would win the prize in 1967. Perhaps “Jesse,” a dolled-up B-movie at heart, probably got lost in the shuffle of prestige pictures, though its casting of Czechoslovakia’s first Playboy model, Olga Schoberova, could certainly have filled theaters seats.

[Image: Olga Schoberova, the Jesse of “Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” She was the first Czech model/actress to gain international attention, in an era before Czech models virtually became a cliché (see Paulina Porizkova, Eva Herzigova, Veronika Zemanova, Daniela Pestova, etc.). Here she is on the cover of Playboy’s March 1964 “Girls from Behind the Iron Curtain” edition. Go forth, Olga, and gather me search engine hits.]

Enough background. It’s plot summary time:

Dr. Jindrich and Dr. Ruzenka are a pair of scientists who are not-quite-happily married. Jindrich, a timid and mildly bumbling engineer, is unable to come up with a solution for fastening heavy objects into place. His strangely idle staff use the company safe as a snack bar and tease Jindrich with a comic book serial called “Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” about a busty wonderwoman who invents antigravity gloves to do what Jindrich only dreams of.

[Image: (Top) Jindrich at work. (Bottom) This frame shows us two important things: 1) How to write “Antigravitational Gloves” in Czech and 2) that Jesse has at least one other non-glove item of clothing that defies gravity.]

Meanwhile, Dr. Ruzenka and her all-male staff are having much more success pioneering a machine that can visualize dreams and a serum that can exorcize them. They demonstrates its usefulness by banishing a cow’s gadfly nightmare, decreasing its stress and insomnia and presumably increases its milk yield. The onlookers in the room recognize that the scientists have thought too small; the power to manipulate dreams could have implications much wider than dairy output. Amidst the excitement of the success, only a few people notice all the flies that seem to have mysteriously materialized in the room…

[Images: Bovine sleep studies. Was there ever any question how far behind the US was in Cold War research and technology?]

That night, after toying with some calculations for real life antigravity gloves, Dr. Jindrich sinks into a fitful sleep. He finds himself joining forces with Jesse and trying to evade the gadget-grabbing villainy of a pistol-wielding cowboy and an evil version of superman. Seeing him toss and turn in his sleep, his wife makes the ill-advised decision to inject her miracle serum into Jindrich (experimental medical procedures must have been much laxer back then). The next morning Jindrich wakes up next to the world’s sexiest side-effect (Jesse, played by Olga Schoberova), much to his wife’s dismay. Worst still, the crooked gunslinger is in the bathroom and Evil Superman is tearing apart the kitchen. The cartoon exiles battle for the techno-gloves while the dueling doctors go to court, and things get rapidly out of control as this fast-paced Prague-romp steps into high gear.

Director Vaclav Vorlicek (Three Wishes for Cinderella) walks a fine line, making a paragon and a parody of B-movies at the same time (“The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” and “Slither” are in the same vein). Like the best in the genre, his ideas come so fast and fun that you never question their validity except to laugh at the delightful absurdity. A machine that can transform dreams about beer into dreams about milk? A comic book come to life with its mishmash of cartoon archetypes? Jindrich’s staff (all women between the ages of 18 and 25) building anti-gravity gloves in the space of a single afternoon? None of this is ever questioned within the film’s confident logic.

[Images: What strange alchemy is this that transmutes beer into milk? That’s Vladmir Menski in these shots, a prolific Czech character actor who appears in many of my favorite New Wave films like “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders,” “Cassandra Cat,” and “Loves of a Blonde.”]

There’s a surprising quantity and variety of jokes packed into the film’s 70 minute runtime. The style of humor starts with the type of understated foibles characteristic of Czech comedy and quickly grows into elaborate sight gags and cartoon violence. Broad laughs are scored by Evil Superman biting into plumbing, pulling a neighbor through the wall by the telephone cord and taking a time out from the wanton destruction to play some ominous classical music on a piano.

[Images: Evil Superman is equal to any task, be it busting through walls or busting a groove.]

A clever running joke involves comic book dialogue, which is always rendered in speech balloons even after the character break into the real world. The speech bubbles can be wiped, erased or shattered and tie into several gags, as when an illiterate boy doesn’t realize the he’s just been cussed out by the villain or when a courtroom camera can’t record a comment because the 2D caption is at a 90 degree angle.

[Images: A knife-throwing rampage proves deadly for a rash speech balloon.]

There are also plenty of political potshots, though “Jesse” is hardly as grave or vitriolic as something like “The Report on the Party and the Guests.” The very idea that the government should get involved with manipulating the populace’s dreams works as a critique of the control-mentality of the Soviet Union and its satellites and touches upon issues of censorship, propaganda and brainwashing. The invigorated ink intruders quite explicitly assert their right to life, at one point declaring the “freedom to dream,” though this hardly stops the bureaucrats, politicians and scientists from seeking to erase them.

[Images: (Top) Evil Superman about to get cremated alive. His response: “Very refreshing. How much?” (Bottom) Jesse getting pulled apart by two trucks during one of several situations involving her getting tied up. Robbe-Grillet would probably be a fan.]

Corruptibility also gets a gag or two, as in a prison scene where Jindrich comically bribes the guard with bills hidden all over his body. Perhaps the best example of wry political criticism occurs when Jesse is being drawn and quartered by two enormous trucks. A sympathetic onlooker asks, “Can’t she just be re-educated?”

[Image: Jindrich spends his time in the big house working out the mathematics of the magic mittens. He escapes to rescue Olga, but sneaks back into his cell later to finish serving his time.]

Then, too, there is a more traditional trading on gender politics for humor. Jindrich and Ruzenka’s marriage is setup with all the familiar middle-class clichés, but manages to get a few laughs by taking it in such unusual directions. Ruzenka is more than a little jealous when she catches her husband dreaming compromising images (actually, he’s trying to untie Jesse after she was roped and whipped by Evil Superman), and she later tells him in a much-applauded court statement that, “If you’d been dreaming of your wife, you wouldn’t be here.” Of course, she’s not really any less susceptible to fantasizing, and soon develops a crush on Evil Superman.

[Images: (Top) Ruzenka prosecuting her husband in court and (Bottom) giving Evil Superman a bubble bath.]

“Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” has quite a bit of artistic merit as well, at least within the context of a low-budget B-movie. Jindrich’s dream sequence is particularly impressive, with trippy black and white set design in which brick textures and spider webs are drawn onto cardboard walls. The use of animation layered over live-action predicts similar techniques in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (even the titles sounds similar) though its more conservative here; all the characters are played by real actors but the motion lines, explosions and speech bubbles appear. Most of the effects are undeniably low-fi, but no less funny for being so.

Vorlicek shapes the action to simultaneously suit the cartoon tone and limited resources, like during a rooftop chase and a lecture hall battle involving a lot of rulers. In the second half of the film the tone turns darker in keeping with the nightfall. There’s a Grand Guignol series of extermination methods lit in gothic splendor and an outdoor race over chiaroscuro cobble reminiscent of “The Third Man.”

[Images: Is it going to far to read the chase through the sewers as a humorous homage to “The Third Man?"]

Overall, this was exactly the type of film I stay on the lookout for: art-pop B-movie bizarreness with original ideas, solid delivery and yes, a high degree of Czechness. You can rent this through Netflix thanks to those ardent archivists and diligent distributers at Facets. I bought my own copy online the same night I saw it.

Walrus Rating: 9.0