25 February 2008

Diary of the Dead

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Written & Directed by: George A. Romero

Grade: B-

One of Stephen Colbert’s best jokes to date came during the “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” affair, when he pointed out, within the infamous video of undergraduate Andrew Meyer being tased by security forces, a student sitting nearby looking bored, not paying attention to his fellow student under attack. “He’s thinking, ‘I wish they’d stop tasing this guy,’” Colbert said, “‘so I can go home and watch him getting tased on YouTube.’”

While Colbert used the young generation’s disconnect from the real world, which they experience through mediated means more than any other generation ever has, as comic fodder, it’s much more serious stuff to George Romero, who earnestly tackles the same issue, and some others, in his latest filmic foray into the zombie genre—his genre—Diary of the Dead.

Though they must have been in production around the same time, as their release dates were separated by only a month or so, Diary of the Dead feels like a direct response to Cloverfield; both adopt a digital handheld aesthetic and use it to capture a monster attack, but the two films have very different intentions. If Cloverfield is the text, Diary… is the metatext. Where Cloverfield is all about immediacy and emotional manipulation—and quite successfully soDiary of the Dead is about the ethics of video documentation and the function of the media.

A group of students, along with their professor (Scott Wentworth), are filming a cheap horror movie out in the woods when news reports start coming in about the dead coming back to life. (Essentially, it’s set on the same day as Romero’s initial zombie outing, Night of the Living Dead, if you can imagine that film as being set in the future, since there are cellphones and high-speed internet connections in this film.) Freaked out, they call it a wrap and hit the road, while the movie-within-the-movie’s director Joshua Close keeps the camera on in order to document their experience—to create a non-fiction monster movie. What we get is that footage, edited and presented by the characters under the name “The Death of Death”.

T.J. Miller, who played Cloverfield’s cameraman, is only confronted once about why he’s kept the camera recording while a Godzilla-esque monster decimates Manhattan. “People will want to see this,” he answers, and that’s that. Close, on the other hand, is treated with contempt by his comrades, confronted again and again about why he’s keeping his camera on. His professor derides his filming as a “document of cruelty,” and, as though refuting Miller’s response in Cloverfield, one of Close’s pals asks him, “who’s gonna be left to watch?”

Romero presents the act of filming as a compulsion bordering on a psychosis, and criticizes videojournalism, as well as its consumers, by arguing that there are times when, morally, it’s time to stop shooting and start helping, to stop watching and start acting. Romero gets to this right at the beginning, when a news crew asks paramedics to move their ambulance because it’s blocking their shot. When a corpse comes back to life, spoiling the correspondent’s report, rather than rush to help the paramedic being mauled she whines that her piece has been upended: “I thought she was supposed to be dead.” We create dichotomies, Romero says, between us and them, when in truth “they” are us.

Romero exposes Cloverfield as a fraud: video, even if it documents horrors in unbroken takes, doesn’t bring us any closer to reality; video only breeds detachment. Cloverfield may be thrilling, but it’s enjoyed from a protected distance. “We were trying to create a film that would be entertaining and, as a by-product of the subject matter, perhaps be a catharsis," Cloverfield producer J.J. Abrams told Time magazine recently. "We wanted to let people live through their wildest fears but be in a safe place.”

But Romero worries about taking this too far; do people process fiction and non-fiction video differently, or is it all just emotional response from a safe distance and an invitation to passivity? Cameras are like guns—both are methods of self-defense (one physical, the other psychological) that are way “too easy,” eventually inuring the “shooters” to the horror of death.

To his credit, Close gets 72,000 hits on MySpace within eight minutes of posting his edited video footage. He argues that citizen journalists like him are essential for providing real information to the public; by showing other people how he and his friends have survived thus far, he argues, they may be able to figure out how to survive themselves. But Close’s girlfriend, Michelle Morgan, notes that with so much information on the internet, the chance for spin is even greater, until all information is reduced to just noise.

All of this complex film and media theory is nothing you can’t easily take from the film yourself, as Romero addresses it all point by point in voice-overs and declarative dialogue. Diary of the Dead is intellectually stimulating, but unfortunately little else. (Less The Death of Death than The Death of Subtlety.)

Romero goes through his criticisms pretty academically, neglecting baser concerns like narrative while doing so; his characters are cardboard and his actors, poor. This is less a story with themes than Big Themes with a perfunctory story built clumsily around them; Romero is content to keep the audience at an arm’s length, transforming the movie theater into the lecture hall.

In fairness, he crafts some effective moments of tension, usually when something is happening off-camera (in line with the idea that we can’t capture anything on video worth capturing?), but for the most part the film plods along, preaching to the audience rather than letting them in to it and then enlightening them.

But it might not be accidental that Romero keeps the audience at a distance. “You’re supposed to be affected,” Morgan says, referring to documentary video, “but you’re not.” It’s self-confirming: the film doesn’t work on an emotional level because it isn’t possible for it to, without becoming a fraud.

By the end, Romero has given up. Who wants to live in such a world, Close asks of his zombie-ravaged dimension, although one gets the suspicion that Romero is talking about our world as well. “All that’s left,” Close says, “is to record what’s happening.” That is, to document the world as it destroys itself, while remaining removed and neglecting to realize that not to act is an action in itself.

Summer Palace

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Directed by: Lou Ye
Written by: Lou Ye & Mei Feng

Grade: B

What kind of movie is Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan): a love story or a political film? From its opening titles’ quote on the nature of love, you’d be inclined to think the former, but ultimately its love story only serves as an allegory for its politics. While it might be an effective metaphor on paper, though, the love story is never quite credible enough to carry the symbolic weight Lou thrusts on it. Summer Palace is pitched on a scale too grand for it to stand.

Set in China during the ‘80s, the film stars Hao Lei—with a disarming smile reminiscent of Linda Cardellini’s—as a girl who leaves her provincial town and her high school sweetheart for Beijing University, where she meets the love of her life, Guo Xiaodong. In a raucous montage, Beijing is contrasted with the drabness of her life back home; well, the dorms may be drab as well, but outside their walls Hao finds colorful lights, people singing, reading poetry, playing sports, listening to music, drinking, dancing and engaging in intellectual discourse. Her misadventures in love and college life are set against a backdrop of social turmoil and political upheaval, all of which tragically culminate in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Think Paris or Chicago over two decades earlier: Lou recreates it with chaos and violence, running crowds and lit fires, but he also hangs back to keep the focus on his protagonist: more important than what’s happening, how does she feel?

Hao burns with a desire to live more intensely, and so at school she concocts an exciting life full of invented drama and invented infidelities. She starts fights and asks to be hit. (Careful what you wish for, dear.) But when things actually do get intense—too intense—Hao suffers a crisis of heart, torn between her past and her future, represented respectively by her hometown and the university; more than one girl’s conflict, however, it serves to mirror the conflict of mother China herself, between its oppressive, Communist past and the promise of democracy on the horizon.

Summer Palace’s first half is told in a fractured style of jump cuts, presenting it as the diaristic enunciations of memory. As we remember our lives in fragments—barely even episodes—so too does the film presents itself, jumpily, in quick flashes. (This is true, too, of the copious lovemaking scenes, which Lou is too confident to shy away from.) Our existence, Lou suggests, is the sum of bits and pieces of our lives, here and there doing this and that. It’s the little things that count: Lou rushes through Hao’s first sexual encounter, but his camera lingers on the post-coital gazes and embraces between partners. But in its post-Tiananmen second half, Lou drops this style, playing it straight. We are in the present, now, and the action unfolds in whole. Summer Palace, meanwhile, burns out, dragging along mournfully without its previously-maintained throbbing sense of apocalypse.

Hao chooses to return home while her smart young friends trot off to Berlin, to experience first hand what life is like post-Communism—a historical example of democracy’s triumph over totalitarianism. Summer Palace seems to turn on the relationship between Hao and Guo—that their brief college affair is built up as the squandered love of a lifetime, never to be overcome. But the romance never comes across as so blazing, and so as the film progresses and we realize they are doomed never to reconcile, just to live their lives burning with yearning for one another, it seems far less important to the audience on romantic terms than it might to Luo.

But that’s because we are meant to take their affair as a metaphor. As Guo got away from Hao, it’s as if the promise of a new future has abandoned China, leaving an empty country, or at least a people with empty lives. The revolution ends, the revolution fails and life sadly marches on, living with the memory of promise squandered. Hao, in a present day scene, asks a suitor for a light, but his lighter won’t work. “You have a lighter,” she tells him sadly, “but no light.” China and freedom seemed to have missed their one chance at marriage. You can start to see why Lou was banned from filmmaking for five years after sneaking this movie into Cannes before the censors got a look at it.

All the explicit sex couldn’t have helped his case, either.


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Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Jafar Panahi & Shadmehr Rastin

Grade: A-

It’s 2005 and Iran is in the throes of soccer pandemonium, as riotous buses packed with chanting fans make their way to a World Cup classifying match against Bahrain. Among the male passengers, young and old, are a number of female fans with football fever, although they’re officially banned from attending public sporting events.

Offisde follows one of these ladies, Sima Mobarak-Shahi, as, disguised androgynously—though everyone sees right through her—she makes her way to the game and tries to sneak past security. Of course, she’s almost immediately apprehended and herded off to a pen with a handful of other captured chicks.

Though set at a stadium and all about soccer, Offside offers only fleeting glimpses of the game; the big match takes place off-screen, watched by the soldiers obliged to guard the women through metal bars, and the bulk of the film is set against drab concrete walls. As something not quite reachable but just quite visible, the stadium serves as a subtle metaphor for independence; it’s described early on as a place of relative free rein in Iran, a place where, as one fan says, there’s shouting and swearing and yet no one calls in the Revolutionary Guard.

Mobarak-Shahi, though quickly stripped of the leading role (it becomes an ensemble piece, women vs. guards), keeps the film grounded with her sweet and achingly sympathetic looks of disappointment and her pangs of immature indignation and injustice. A humble film—conspicuously inexpensive—that bops right along thanks to the filmmakers’ energetic pacing, Offside carefully balances its serious message about Iran’s contemporary culture with humor, particularly a scene in which one of the imprisoned girls, who needs to pee, is brought to a men’s room (because there are no ladies’ rooms) and forced—absurdly, delightfully—to wear a poster as a mask so she can’t read the scatological writings on the stall’s walls.

Offisde is modest in its style and execution, even frequently light-hearted, but that’s not to say that it’s simple-minded; Panahi’s superficially engaging film cleverly uses the plight of the banned women (who’re more strong-willed than the men guarding them) to provide a microcosmic allegory for modern Iran, presenting a country with a crumbling power structure, with oppressive laws but little control over their enforcement. The Iranian people have no discernible respect for authority—the soldiers are harassed and abused by men and women alike, the latter picking at the logic of their exclusion to the consternation of the young guards just trying to do their jobs.

The young (male) soccer fans seem sympathetic to the young women’s plight, but are powerless to help because, well, the army’s got guns. Offside still maintains a sense of promise, though, of an Iran in flux and on the brink of change. The film ends with an Iranian victory in the big game and an overwhelming feeling of optimism. Iranians, equal in their national pride, empty into the streets for a celebratory eruption—the lines between men and women, soldiers and civilians dissolved, if only for a moment. Iran may have its problems of policy, the film suggests, but its people are, by and large, decent and good and slowly, in small ways, working to make their country free.

13 February 2008

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

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Directed by: Alain Renais
Written by: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Grade: A+

It’d be easy to write off Last Year at Marienbad (L’année Dernière à Marienbad) by calling it pretentious, but to do so is like calling it black-and-white, a simple statement of fact that makes no comment on the film’s quality or, more importantly, its meaning. Accept Last Year at Marienbad on its own terms and you can begin to get enveloped in its mysteries—it’s pleasures. At its heart, the film is less grandiose than simply grand, a stunning triumph of technique still unparalleled, unrivalled, even in the decades since its release. Though shot in crisp black-and-white, its story is an abstruse gray—Last Year at Marienbad is a moving puzzle that aims to set cinema free from its literalist sensibilities.

The film is set inside a sprawling, cryptic, labyrinthine hotel that mirrors the film’s narrative maze. It begins with a voice-over, describing the interior of the setting but also the movie itself: “endless corridors succeed corridors,” the narrator says of the film’s infinite possibilities of meaning. “Carpets so thick, so heavy that no sound reaches one’s ear,” he adds, suggesting that though it’s rife with clues, Last Year at Marienbad is an uncrackable mystery.

An ambiguous statue in the hotel’s gardens serves as an apt metaphor for the film, as well; the characters stand around and analyze its different possibilities of meaning, each of which makes enough sense but none of which is perfectly reasonable. Giorgio Albertazzi runs into Delphine Seyrig at the hotel and insists that they met the year before in Marienbad—or was it some place else? She insists he’s mistaken, but he has a detailed account that he goes over and over again, a story that, though told in fractured segments, seems to build to a moment of terrible violence, though said moment is never properly addressed, only hinted at from different directions.

Last Year at Marienbad creates an irrational sense of place and time that the cinema had never before approached. It’s pure dream-logic—characters stand frozen in place, pop in and out of frames, and leap to other locations without missing a beat in their conversations. Albertazzi may be telling Seyrig something in a hallway, and suddenly they’re on a dance-floor, continuing the same conversation. It adds up to film unbounded by the quaint constraints of physical reality and its limitations.

Winding tracking shots soak in the setting’s ornamental detail, including the copious mirrors that create false perspectives—like the film’s story, the visuals are full of false leads. Who are these people? Where are they? Did they really meet a year ago? And who’s that terribly serious looking man, played by Sacha Pitoëff? Seyrig’s husband? Death? Satan? Is his knack for never losing a game of nim a symbol of his power as warden of the imprisoning hotel?

Like its garden statue, Last Year at Marienbad could be read in number of ways, each seemingly valid: the characters might be dead, they might be mental patients, etc. If anything, the film seems set inside cinema itself, at least director Alain Renais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet’s vision of it and its potential. A place where, as is said of the film’s hotel setting, words do not and cannot mean anything. All of the film’s substance is implied through image, the dialogue just a series of red herrings and tautologies. (“Yes, we did meet, or no, we didn’t,” seems to be Seyring’s solution to the enigma posed by the film.)

Fragmented, uncertain, repetitious and frozen in time, the film seems to be full of ghosts, trapped in a static limbo and wandering the annals of memory. Phrases, stories, images, moments and details are constantly repeated in a seemingly endless loop, with the specifics slightly changed and the tone different by just a touch. The filmmakers establish that film has enormous poetic potential and that there’s a lot more room for adventures in cinematic storytelling than other filmmakers usually dare. Unlike the majority of films, Last Year at Marienbad’s obscure structure does not reflect the tendency we have to make sense of our own lives in the logical, narrative terms of cause-and-effect. Instead, it takes as its model the abstract senselessness of our unconscious recesses.