Archive for December, 2013

Parental absence looms large over the work of Bergman’s 1951 drama. Hanging in the background of the film, which chronicles a magical and tragic summer between two lovers, are a collection of nefarious adults nursing the wounds of old age.

Moonrise Kingdom

In a way, it’s almost Andersonian. Like the children of Moonrise Kingdom, who escape into a summer haze to read books and explore away from the watchful eyes of spiteful adults, there is a sense that adulthood and dysfunction are inextricably linked. Marie’s parents are both absent in the flashbacks to her fabled summer, her “uncle” alludes to an illicit romance with her mother. Likewise, there’s a subtle suggestion of alcoholism in the character of Aunt Elisabeth, reflecting the instability of home life for the young Marie. Indeed, her tiny home outside “the mansion” mirrors the small shelters Sam and Suzy create in Anderson’s film, particularly given that Marie and her lover Henrik use it as a sort of hide-away for their blossoming romance.

Henrik’s family is similarly de-stabilized. He is a child of divorce, and bears the scars (like so many Anderson characters) of parents who could not teach him the vagaries of love. In fact, his father pays him a stipend to “stay out of the way”, and so he is relegated to the summer house on the coast with his elderly aunt. Like Marie, he is only seen with his extended family, and particularly in the case of his aunt, their relationship is defined in entirely mortal terms. Henrik obsesses over death, particularly the idea of falling into some abyss, and his aunt bluntly reminds him of her intentions to outlive her entire family. Her predictions come true, but also bear the strange fruit of the ominous encounter between the older Marie and her crone-like figure. Dressed all in black, she seems as much a ghostly impression of a withered Marie as the representation of “close[ness] to death” the priest seems to obsess over.

These two characters seek refuge with each other throughout the summer, and naively believe that their relationship will be consummated by the tiny grass rings they share. However, the inner instability of these characters takes on loftier prospects when Marie’s loss of romantic faith transmutes into an assertion that she doesn’t believe in God. As much as anything, this is brought on by the advances of her “Uncle” Erland. There’s a sense that the doubtless belief in love, here tainted by death, somehow besmirches the profound ideal of religious faith itself. Curious, then, that the lack of a substantial “father” for either of the two leads, and the insidious nature of the “false” relative in Erland, further lead these characters astray.

Bergman 1

God, like memory, is all infirmity in Bergman’s work. Look at how tactile memory is for Marie, who can only recall her “past” self by touching Henrik’s diary, sitting in her old room, walking the same path of her summer. When discussing her decade of change with Erland she notes that the experience of Henrik’s loss, her naivety in regards to love and faith, were like “a different person”. Things are not so simple in the world of Bergman, where memory operates like the make-up mirror Marie uses, simultaneously blurring and blemishing the past and present self. Instead, the “role” Marie plays (dancer, David’s girlfriend) moves in parallel to the girl she was before, is transformed by the re-occurrence of her love for Henrik, and emerges as an entirely new character able to “start fresh”. The power of the story rests strongly on the need for re-invention, but also the recognition of artifice and age as an act of preservation in the face of trauma. Henrik’s summer gives way to Erland’s winter, but of course David is attracted to older women. Spring again, and death and life along with it.

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“Take care of your parents while they are alive. You cannot help them from beyond the grave.” – Japanese proverb

Tokyo Story

Alexander Payne’s recent film Nebraska feels like it’s from another era. Part of this is a natural outgrowth of the B&W shooting style, that nostalgic visage of a grainy Paramount logo and the Bill Melendez wide open sky. But there’s also something in the camera technique, the screen-wipe, the oddly still camera. We get the impression life doesn’t move much in Billings, for that matter neither do the people. As luck had it I had just watched Yasujiro Ozu’s fabulous 1953 film Tokyo Story, a picture just as pre-occupied with the dissolution of family under social duress. I was curious about the similarities, but even more-so the way they manage to use the uniquely individual and idiosyncratic to create universal (and in Ozu’s case, long-lasting) statements about human relationships.

Rigid formality plays a large part in Ozu’s film, and in the formative gap between pre and post WW2 Japanese identity. There’s only a single verbal reference to “the war” in Tokyo Story, but the massively industrialized Tokyo reflects the rampantly progressive attitude of the various urban children. Still, each child is expected to play a specific role in regards to care-taking during the parental visit. The parents attempt to split their time between children and various goals (sight-seeing, visiting a show, going for a walk with children) are dispersed amongst the younger adults. Sometimes, as in the case of Noriko, they rise to this occasion. Often, as with the frustration of the grand-children or the cakes dubbed “too expensive” for the parents, the younger adults break from their rigid formality and reveal their inner selfishness.

Likewise, the children of Payne’s Nebraska reflect and subvert the suggested paths of their children in diverse ways. It’s worth noting that Woody and Kate left the town of Hawthorne, bucking a form of tradition, only to end up largely alienated from their children. Think of the scene where the family tours the house Woody built in comparison to the odd, quasi-technological home used by his son David. Likewise, the Korean war vet auto-mechanic raised the “Tom Brokaw of Billings”. No pick-up trucks for these kids. Conversely, Woody’s extended family represents a problematic view of intense devotion to formal family that creates a stultifying atmosphere, particularly in the sequence in which the entire Grant clan sits in extended (flannel) unison.

“I’m running out of time”, Woody states on his hell-bent quest to Nebraska. Sadly, this weight hangs over the parents in Tokyo Story too. Woody and Shukishi both share wild nights of drinking with old friends, but it’s Tomi’s sad recognition that they will likely never board the train back to Tokyo that hits hardest. While much of what defines the world of Tokyo Story hinges on post-war growth, there’s an element of profound melancholy and anguish which haunts these two films. For David, watching the “buzzards” of virtual stranger family members recalls that unsettling moment after Tomi’s death where her daughter demands her clothing. It’s Kate who says that most families usually have to wait for a dead relative to experience family squabbles, but the macguffin of the million dollar ticket suggests the slow, throttling death of American capitalism has turned our families carnivorous. The only significant non-caucasian casting I can recall in the film is the two hispanic men working in Woody’s old shop. We don’t see a lot of “work” being done in the film at all, but unsurprisingly, Woody doesn’t think the mechanic is using the right wrench.

Ozu and Payne bond stylistically over a sort of hushed, contemplative focus on family. Tokyo Story contains a multitude of thoughtful shots of Tomi and Shukishi thinking. Indeed, even after her death his response is to look out on the peaceful scenery around him. A characteristic of Ozu’s work is a sort of loving juxtaposition of scenery, often unused with the broader film, like the images of boats and sky-scrapers, to evoke sensation and place. Likewise, Payne bolsters the skeleton of Nebraska with loving images of travel. Roads are resplendent, still yielding the possibility of journey for the once adventurous Woody. Like the train-tracks of Ozu’s film they continue on indefinitely, and with little regard, leave the feeble behind.

The initial like between the two films that sparked this post came from the still camera used in Nebraska. So many Hollywood films use expansive camera techniques to flaunt the omniscience of storytelling. The camera in Nebraska barely moves, except in the odd Wes Anderson-esque bufoonery, and instead focuses on the stillness of time. Woody’s life, the life of his family before him, is caught in amber. A rich understanding of this world doesn’t make David’s world any easier, and his former partner might not be at his apartment when he gets back to Montana, but it gives him a richer sense of the life his father lived, and the flickering life they can still have together. It’s that still camera, painting the lives of those who would normally be glossed over by fancy filmmaking, that resonates as almost documentary.

While children cannot care for their parents after they are dead, the revelations they make in life echo for years. David’s forlorn travels with his parents in Payne’s film are not always so enlightening, but occasionally they visit great wisdom upon him. Indeed, viewers know Woody is not long for the world. But the powerful moment in which David’s mother describes their family history to him, leering over the graves of their dead ancestors, links him to a history he does his best to avoid. His father, like Shukishi the drunkard, was many men. In Ozu’s film the children are gone the day after their mother dies, back to the train which will continually divide the past and present. Yet for all its cynicism, Nebraska fights this impulse. Children cannot care for their parents once they are dead, but David and Woody can still take that final ride together in their used truck.

Nebraska 1

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Bill Callahan

“Every day I don’t google myself is another beautiful day.”

(In conversation about Dream River, 2013)

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Coverage is a complex thing. I recall quite a bit of discussion surrounding the film Black Swan back in late 2010. Some were fascinated by its gothic tones, some by Portman’s performance, and naturally there was much sensation made over the female/female sex scene midway through the film. Well, mostly on the making out portion. Figures.

In watching the film with some time and critical distance removed, I was shocked at the lack of discussion surrounding some elements of the film that struck me as thoroughly misogynistic. Now, recognize that this is tough ground to tread because some of this is likely embedded in the century old Swan Lake, some is simply a product of the storyline (although that, too, must be addressed cautiously), and some is undoubtedly a failure of direction. Let’s dig in.

Initially, let’s consider the problematic nature of the white/black innocence/passion dilemma. Beyond the fact it pretty woefully conflates Portman’s paleness with the ideal form of feminine beauty within the company (who, incidentally, largely seem to look like her), and the darker-skinned Kunis with a sort of wild, sexualized nature, we’re off to a bad start. You might cry that ballet itself, a “high-art”, suffers from some elitist race problems. Sadly, it seems unfortunate that the film so willingly encourages the motif of the lusty dark-skinned character. It doesn’t hold up as well in 2010 as it might have in the late 1800s.

Likewise, there’s Vincent Cassel’s throughly awful ballet director. Incidentally, I love him as an actor, so it pains me to decry what is a fine performance in a problematic role. Actually, I have fewer qualms with this aspect, as the film seems to portray him as fairly skeevy. That said, his sexual harassment and sexual demeaning of Natalie Portman’s character are unfortunate, but worse belie the fact the film was primarily intended to play to a male audience. It is on Cassel’s instruction that Portman’s character attempts to masturbate, but why, then, does the camera hang over her so longingly? Rather than a sequence which reflects the interior self-discovery the script suggests, the camera focuses on her raised ass. It’s erotic in the sense that it is intended for the viewer, as directed by a man (Aronofsky), under Cassel’s direction within the film itself. Aronofsky, in interviews surrounding the topic of misogyny, highlighted that he thinks the sequence in which Cassel tells Portman to go home and masturbate is…

“That whole scene with Natalie when he tells her to go touch herself, it’s really not that out of line. It’s very aggressive, but he’s just trying to get on with it.”

Um. He also responds “it’s not” to charges of misogyny within the film. Yet it’s hard to overlook when the film blatantly reinforces the power dynamic (embedded in actor-director, in a male dominated industry) of female dancer to male director. It’s echoed in the older relationship between Cassel and the character played by Winona Ryder, and the fantasy (?) one imagined between Kunis and Cassel.

It’s one thing to portray a misogynistic character, but to paint his motivation as not inhumane, but rather that of “an artist” is shortsighted. Aronofsky paints Cassel’s character as simply an instructor who allows Portman to discover her true, adult female self, but ignores the larger societal implications of empowered males leading females through rings of self-destruction, and conflating adult femininity with voyeuristic male sexuality. Portman, overtaken by the black swan of sexuality, kisses her sexual harrasser at the end of the film before dying (?), offering no timely critique of the old, gender destructive story of Swan Lake.

The obvious recourse involves the fact that the movie exists in a heightened reality (at least insomuch as Portman’s interior repression), and it’s tempting to buy in. In that world, the more acute problems of gender politics in the film can be easily washed away. Sadly, the film walks too odd a balance for this simple conclusion. In this way, it ties closely to the film Carrie from 1976. Both focus on the gradual development of female sexuality (although latent in the case of Portman’s character), feature incredibly over-the-top mother characters, and lavish over the male gaze (think the opening scene of Carrie where De Palma feasts over a locker-room of teenage girls). Yet, Black Swan walks a much more grounded path than De Palma’s film. Rather than ushering us into a world in which we understand the supernatural plays a role, Black Swan comfortably subverts our expectations. Did Kunis and Portman have sex? Is Kunis stabbed? Does Portman die? Consistently, the film collapses in on these fantasy sequences to reveal a world that is real, mirrors our own, and is more psycho-sexual than supernatural.

And then there are all the troubling messages about femininity, the body, male power… The black swan / white swan dialectic seems to suggest a whore / saint motif which is wildly outmoded. The lesson, as I can read it, seems to be that if the innocent seeks passion, and achieves it, they will ultimately be destroyed. Fear not! If they do, like Ryder’s character, manage to attain both of these seemingly absolute constructs, they age out and are thrown away. Then, desperately, they throw themselves in front of cars. Then they stab themselves in the face with glass. Does this sort of body self-mutilation, again ushered in by her personal/professional dismissal by a man, not strike us as problematic?

The impetus for this article was largely the sex scene between Kunis and Portman. I couldn’t help but think about it in terms of the recent Blue is the Warmest Color, which has come under tremendous fire for its portrayal of a lesbian love scene, directed by a man, and the seemingly exploitative elements of it. I’ve yet to see the film, but am curious about the connection to the Black Swan sex scene, which I was surprised to find out few had written about together. Mostly, in Black Swan‘s focus during marketing for the film so heavily emphasizing THAT oral sex sequence. I was surprised to find most people writing about Black Swan in relation to another oral sex sequence in (the heterosexual) Blue Valentine, rather than exploring what it means for a man to shoot a scene of homosexual lovemaking between women. As a man writing this, I can’t help but feel I may be falling into the same trap! Suffice it to say than in the scenes of Portman masturbating and making love with Kunis, I felt that as a male viewer I was being manipulated to find them titilating, and worse, pushed to empathize with Cassel’s sexual assault as necessary “for art”.

Black Swan is an exceedingly well made technical feat. At times, even, a genuinely impactful drama. However, melodrama is hardly a license for such a bleak portrait of womanhood, one in which women tear themselves apart, tear each other apart, and are ultimately torn apart at the direction of men. If Aronofsky’s goal was to tell us of all the various trials and gauntlets women must survive then he has succeeded, but I might ask why exactly we need another man, fictional or otherwise, reminding us just how collapsible women are made to be.

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Alela Diane

“When you left me for her,
you left me in the snow.”

Colorado Blue, 2012

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