Sunday, October 20, 2013

Nightmares and dreams

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

This is David Poland’s reaction to Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II: “I never did respect Roth's work.  Now, if he and I crossed paths, I would refuse to shake his hand.  I would extinguish the fire if he was burning, using something quicker than urine, but I'm not sure that I wouldn't consider it karmic payback for him.”

Sometimes I think I need to power up my own style. Roth is kind of an easy target though. It’d be more satisfyingly perverse to get verbally medieval on the perpetrators of Shrek III. But I guess I just lack those hormones, because I can’t recall any movie sending me into such a hissy fit. So, I would shake Roth’s hand for sure. I wouldn’t kiss his hand though, if there’s any kind of line there.

I quite liked the first Hostel, which I thought worked fairly viably as an allegory of bull-headed American imperialism trampling all over the world and getting its come-uppance. Not to mention that it was genuinely nerve jangling. The sequel isn’t as effective in either regard. Once again, the premise is a group of American backpackers boozing and screwing their way across Europe, lured off track to a remote Slovakian town, where it turns out they’re destined as raw meat for international high-rollers who get their kicks from torture and killing. This time the victims are girls rather than guys - a predictable switch that merely aligns the movie more drably with the age-hold women in terror genre.

The other main change is that we’re shown more of the perpetrators – a real off-putting bunch, all of whom I’d guess vote Republican. In Roth’s wittiest move, the client we see most of is played by Roger Bart, a campy presence in The Producers and Desperate Housewives; the casting doesn’t really come off though. Otherwise, there’s much of the same stuff we saw in the first film, some entertaining parodying of the importance of contracts in business, a few really nasty images, including the one that set Poland off, and another turn-the-tables finale that although well executed, doesn’t pack much of a punch. And not much to think about afterwards. It comes with the “Quentin Tarantino presents” opening title and is certainly a less self-conscious example of the grindhouse mentality than Tarantino’s own Death Proof, but that’s not really a compliment, merely an observation.

The Golden Door

Emanuele Crialese’s Nuovomondo, released here as The Golden Door, is a film of modest but satisfying revelations. In the early twentieth century, a poor Sicilian farmer decides to take his family to the New World in America (partly influenced by postcards that depict money growing on trees, and vegetables as big as people). The film is in three parts: the start of their journey in Sicily; the fraught sea crossing; and then, on arrival, the crushing, insensitive bureaucracy of Ellis Island.

The last section is the most gripping, meticulously setting out innumerable humiliating rituals (presumably historically accurate). Viewed against current American paranoia about border security and illegal immigration, this section stands as a persuasive implied criticism of the country’s disrespect for its own heritage. Much of what comes before feels largely familiar, but Crialese has a knack for arresting images that capture the family’s extreme disorientation.

The film’s main narrative flourish comes through a character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a woman of uncertain past traveling alone; articulate in English and alert to nuances (at times implausibly modern), she’s ideally equipped for a new life, but forced into compromise by the sexual politics of the time.  It’s hard to make sense of the character, but I think that’s deliberate – she embodies a complexity that the Sicilians (almost totally unschooled in abstract thought, it seems to me) can’t grasp, and yet intuitively know to be a necessary resource for their successful evolution. 

Brand upon the Brain

Brand upon the Brain is perhaps the most accessible entertainment so far from the wacky Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin, although it doesn’t sound like it if you list the ingredients. It has no dialogue, telling the story through a combination of intertitles and an eccentric voice over read by Isabella Rossellini, and is shot in grainy, beat-up looking black and white. The plot involves a man called Guy Maddin who comes back to the lighthouse (and former orphanage) where he spent his childhood, unleashing a flood of memories of the olden days: suffice to say he didn’t come from a normal background. It’s a flurry of paranoia, voyeurism, sexual displacement, cross-dressing, devil-worship and penny-dreadful monster-movie stuff, drenched in Oedipal implications.

Maddin’s movie, like all his work, is only superficially kooky and primitive. This is as intricately crafted a film as you’ll see all year: the flow of images never takes a break, and the narrative is equally as breathless. It’s very true to the general spirit of silent movies (a period of cinema history that Maddin reveres), but very modern both in some of the imagery (such as the casual use of nudity) and the complexity of the underlying layerings. I haven’t generally been all that enthralled by Maddin’s work (frankly, with several of them I couldn’t even figure out why I was meant to give a damn), but the traumatic whimsy of Brand upon the Brain really pushed my buttons.


It worked pretty well that I went right from Guy Maddin’s film to Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, another remarkable fantasy. This is a work of anime, with visuals that alternately evoke both kindergarten cuteness and sleek, techno-savvy sexiness, and it’s vaguely reminiscent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, if Lynch had inhaled several cases of bubble gum and decided to embrace primary colours. A futuristic dream-monitoring device has been stolen from a research facility, placing the boundary between dream and reality in jeopardy. Paprika, the dreamland alter ego of one of the female scientists, gets on the case, along with a visually varied group of collaborators.

Paprika fits comfortably into the apparently bottomless well of meta-movies that constantly challenge their own reality, but it’s too bouncy to succumb to that genre’s frequent self-importance. Given the current state of digital technology it’s probably no longer accurate to say that such a film – despite its parade of wondrous creations – could only have been rendered through animation, but as you watch it you realize the frequently rather depressing heaviness of big-budget attempts at fantastic realism.

It also has a nice, unforced angle on the frequently evoked parallel between dreams and cinema – of all the preoccupied cops in movies, this has the first one I can recall whose angst is rooted in having chosen law enforcement over film-making – and a warm-hearted approach toward the human heart (if you think the guy in Knocked Up got the girl against heavy odds, you should see what plays out here). I don’t watch a lot of Japanese anime – if memory serves, it’s only been Steamboy and a couple of Miyazaki movies this decade – but I have to admit, every time I go there, it’s worth the trip.

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