Members of the Funeral: interesting film about a dysfunctional family of self-absorbed isolates

Baek Seungbin, “Members of the Funeral” (2008)

An interesting little gem from South Korea that’s flown under the radar of many movie websites, this film probes the relationships within a dysfunctional family whose members have been brought together, as if for the first time, by the funeral of a teenage boy not related to any of them. The plot explores the psychological histories of the husband (Oh Kwangrok, playing a medical professional in denial about his homosexuality and his need for, and to be, a father figure), his estranged wife (Park Myeongsin, a teacher with frustrated ambitions of being a writer) and their remote daughter Ami (Kim Byeol, a schoolgirl with a fixation bordering on necrophilia), and their separate and parallel relationships with the boy, Noh Heejun (Lee Juseung), a fatherless youngster with a flair for writing and a liking for 19th century English Romantic literature. Through Heejun, the three family members find some fulfilment of their desires, to the extent that they try to control him in ways they have learnt from their birth families and early experiences. With his death, they find themselves flung together unexpectedly and discover that the novel he has been writing about a creepy gay man, a teacher and girl is about them!

The movie’s themes can be creepy and sinister for a comedy which might perhaps explain why the film isn’t better known. The characters are hardly attractive people – teacher Mum is a particularly nasty piece of work (but she’s unconsciously emulating her misogynist grandfather literature professor after all) and the daughter’s facial expressions go from one kind of blank to the next kind of blank and the next – and only Heejun might elicit any sympathy at all from the audience as he goes from one family member to the next. The under-acting is deliberate so as to draw viewers’ attention to the characters’ isolation from one another with only Heejun uniting them all. The notion that people in a family can be so self-absorbed and estranged from one another that none of them knows what the others get up to and can’t recognise themselves or their relatives in a schoolboy’s novel makes for a very dark comedy rich in its observation of alienated individuals and their secret hopes, desires, thwarted ambitions, friendships gone forever and lost opportunities.

Admittedly the film is low on tension and its pace can be slow. Viewers might wonder, particularly with the daughter who spends her spare time in the office of a pathologist (the father of a childhood pal who died young) looking at dead bodies, if the film’s going to turn into a B-grade K-horror flick with the girl and Heejun being chased by the childhood pal’s soul through dark streets and alley-ways. There is very little violence though and the film is more quietly gruesome than horrific. How the plot resolves itself in its weaving, side-stepping way, and what the family members will do when confronted with the truth about their secrets, is the thing that has to sustain viewers’ attention to the end; some viewers might find the jumping around from one character’s viewpoint to another’s a bit tiresome and pretentious. Personally I had no problem, perhaps because knowing the characters’ back-stories and how these fed into their obsessions and attempts to manipulate Heejun for their own gain was in itself intriguing.

From a technical point of view, the film can be a little annoying with parts filmed with a hand-held camera; close-ups of actors’ faces while conversation is going on are often jerky when they should be still. This jerkiness might be intended to add some tension to particular scenes, especially those scenes in which the teacher is criticising Heejun and his writing. The jerkiness seems to emphasise the woman’s enjoyment of unnecessarily tearing strips off the boy.

Quite a likeable film in spite of the often unpleasant issues touched on and well worth repeated viewings. “Members of the Funeral” features some excellent acting performances and first-time director Baek shows some flair for unusual narrative and inventive story-telling, if he can only keep the camera steady!

Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.

The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): the movie with the secret code that cracked success for Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” (1935)

Very loosely based on John Buchan’s novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it’s best if you don’t read the novel first – this movie is an early example, if not the first, of a typical Hitchcock movie. An ordinary, innocent man called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) accidentally gets caught up in events in which a murder occurs and he finds himself accused of the crime so he must go on the run to prove his innocence and at the same time find the real killer and the reason for the killing. Going on the run means chases through a train with a narrow escape on a bridge and running through the Scottish moors with their famously moody and unpredictable weather and picturesque sheep farms inhabited by cantankerous loner crofter characters. There are the usual plot twists: a local helpful aristocrat turns out to be the head villainous honcho for the spy plot that led to the initial murder and Hannay becoming a fugitive, and the dastardly fellow shoots Hannay at close range; fortunately a Bible in Hannay’s coat chest pocket stops the bullet and Hannay is on his way again. Entanglement with a cool blonde chick called Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) – hey, women were definitely not in the novel except as extras! – and some fleeting encounters with women call attention to Hitchcock’s interest in detailing romantic attachments and the status of marriage as it plays out in individual couples’ lives. The film becomes a combination of romance comedy and a light crime caper with some violence and several scenes of slapstick and coincidence on one level, and on another level an interrogation into love and human relationships and their often fearful and deadly consequences.

The Buchan novel is in the vein of a Fleming / James Bond adventure in which the hero, who happens to have technical expertise and some military experience, cracks part of a code and engages help from a friendly politician while on the lam to discover and foil a German spy plot against the British empire. Hitchcock took the general premise of an innocent lone man on the run plus some other plot details from the book and dressed them with his own particular obsessions and cinematic devices to create something very different and original. The plot is lightweight against the novel but Hitchcock compensates for the flimsy and often implausible story-line with memorable and witty characters played by adept actors, a pace that is constant and which builds up the tension across locations in London and Scotland, and the use of comedy to stir up murky and unpleasant aspects of love, romance and marriage. Things, customs and people are never what they seem and Hitchcock delights in showing us the dark mirror twins of institutions we take for granted: characters who supposedly represent forces of law and order are in cahoots with the crooks; and a stranger who impulsively kisses ladies may be a lady-killer, figuratively rather than literally. The sudden and swift changes in the surface appearance of objects and people, and in the plot itself – for example, up to a certain point action that had occurred on-screen so far might switch to off-screen action recounted by a character – keep the film lively and flowing with continual and teasing suspense and tension.

By necessity, Donat carries the film for at least half its running time until Hannay meets Pamela a second time by chance. Hannay as presented by Donat is smooth and unflappable with an unexpected resourcefulness and bravado, especially in the scene where he blunders into a political meeting and is mistaken for a speaker. Once Hannay and Pamela are thrown together by the fake police, they literally stay together, handcuffs or no handcuffs, to the end of the movie as Pamela learns from eavesdropping on a conversation that Hannay has been framed for murder and she decides to help him. As played by Carroll, Pamela is a feisty and daring young miss used to getting her own way though sometimes it backfires on her. At least Hannay is gentleman enough not to take advantage of her when she pulls her stockings down in the bedroom while his hand is attached to hers with the handcuffs! The film’s coda suggests Hannay and Pamela decide of their own free will to stay linked and the handcuffs, which in the 1930’s might not yet have acquired all its dubious sexual connotations, dangle and glitter suggestively from beneath Hannay’s sleeve. Images and ideas of wedding rings, control, closeness and violence dance before your eyes.

Not surprisingly the film opened doors for its lead stars Donat and Carroll in Hollywood: Carroll’s career subsequently thrived while Donat, due to chronic ill health and general dislike of Hollywood razz-matazz, ended up with a more modest acting career that did include winning a Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role in “Goodbye Mr Chips”. As for Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps”, appropriately enough considering its subject matter and the nature of The 39 Steps (different from the novel’s 39 Steps), became his code that cracked access to Hollywood’s resources and actors to make bigger and better movies. How indebted Hitchcock was to this film as his breakthrough to Hollywood can be gleaned from other later films he made which in part could pass as remakes of “The 39 Steps”, revisiting and reinterpreting themes and concepts from that movie.

Milestone of 100 Films reviewed – and thanks to everyone for comments

Hi all,

Wow, I’ve racked up reviews of over 100 films on this little blog site already!

I’ve been fortunate enough to find a lot of great films to watch on free-to-air and digital TV and on DVD! Not all of them have been classic, unmissable films and frankly some of them I watched because I’d heard so much about how good or worthy they were, only to find their reputation as worthy films were blown out beyond over-hype.

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to comment on my reviews. Due to work and other commitments, I can’t reply to you all but I appreciate all your remarks and criticisms. Don’t be afraid to say if a review is inaccurate or misses the point of the film – as long as the criticism is constructive, then good or bad, it’s welcome here. Writing reviews is always a learning experience and the more I know, the better the reviews will be!

By now, most of you have a fair idea of what I like to see. I’d like to get hold of more experimental and abstract films to watch as well as the movies that straddle the mainstream and the art-house. I missed seeing “Taxidermia” on TV some weeks ago and I’m trying to get a DVD copies of Sergei Paradjanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates” and Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: the Iron Man” to see again. Some Bunuel and Jodorowsky would be welcome too!

Thanks again,

Nausika.

Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard): pop culture, the art of film and existential philosophy in one pulp crime film

Jean-Luc Godard, “Bande à part” aka “Band of Outsiders” (1964)

Once upon a time, the French had a knack for making gangster and pulpy crime movies in which they could hang philosophical concepts, especially those of existential philosophy, onto the plot. Such a movie is Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “Bande à part”, often cited as the most outstanding example of the French New Wave of films that came out in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. The main distinguishing features of the French New Wave are present: the use of natural sets or real locations as opposed to fixed studio sets; the use of natural lighting or lighting found in the locations where filming took place; free-flowing action aided by a straightforward plot; and a naturalistic style of acting. Voice-over narration by Godard himself, which forecasts the action to come or describes what a character is thinking, defies conventional linear “show, don’t tell” narratives; a character appears to address the audience directly with a song about modern life; and the movie inserts several playful (though sometimes melancholy or tragic) scenes that reference film-making, popular culture of the time, social and economic change, and the place of the individual in modern society.

The film basically is about three young people in a love triangle who impulsively decide to steal money from a rich couple with whom one of the youngsters live. They talk more or less continuously about how much money there is to steal, and how they are going to do it, and use up a lot of energy and petrol racing around Paris and the banks of the Seine river while planning the heist, but the actual robbery itself takes place late in the film. Along the way, Odile (Anna Karina) dithers between whether she prefers Arthur (Claude Brasseur), a hardened, macho fellow who acts before he thinks, or Franz (Sami Frey) who is more sensitive and less certain of himself. The challenge for Godard is to keep the viewers interested in the doings, comings and goings of these people in a very simple plot, to which a sub-plot, involving Arthur’s uncle who decides he wants some of that money the youngsters plan to steal, has been tacked on almost as an after-thought; and Godard does this successfully by throwing Odile and her would-be lovers into situations that have no connection to the plot but simply rope in whatever ideas and concerns the director has about French culture and society. The plot and sub-plot become secondary to the movie’s themes which themselves enrich the characters and their relationships to one another and their wider world.

There are several scenes in “Bande à part” that stand out, in particular the cafe scenes of which one consists of a minute’s silence, during which time (actually just over half a minute) all sound in the film completely cuts out; the second scene in which the trio play musical chairs at their table and Arthur spikes Odile’s drink while her attention is elsewhere; and the third is the celebrated Madison dance scene in which Odile, Franz and Arthur dance together in line, all three more or less keeping in time and dancing together yet not really together as the music dips in and out and Godard’s voice-over tells viewers what each dancer is thinking. Odile dancing between the two buddies highlights the potential conflict the love triangle poses for all three of them. There is a strange sense of isolation in the scene: the dancers are self-absorbed and not looking at one another, demonstrated in Franz and Arthur gradually dropping out and Odile continuing the dance; the waiters come and go, oblivious to the dancing; and no-one else in the cafe joins in the dance or even watches it. The scene itself is a comment on changes in social relations in French society: most dancing before the 1960’s either involved large groups of people dancing or couples (each couple consisting of a man and a woman) dancing with more or less constant eye contact. Another very significant scene in the movie is the train scene in which Odile sings a poem about modern life in Paris and the cares and burdens ordinary people have to carry: this scene includes a montage of fixed scenes of Parisians in their day-to-day activities.

Other scenes that reference social change and the impact of American culture on French culture include Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of a gunfight death scene from a popular Western movie which one of them will re-enact for real in a hysterically funny and exaggerated if tragic way near the end of the film. There is one very good scene where Franz and Arthur read aloud tabloid headlines about various murders and massacres around the world while lounging on a Seine embankment not far from a busy and noisy factory; the scene looks peaceful and serene but distant sounds of pounding machinery can be heard. The boys and Odile together also run through the Louvre museum in an attempt to break the world record, held by an American; the scene and its playfulness might be a laugh at the respect people have for cultural institutions simply out of conformity to tradition. Then of course the fact the boys imagine themselves the equal of their movie gangster and Western outlaw heroes to the extent that they dare to rob Odile’s adoptive relatives with Odile playing the gangster moll role, and none of them considering the dangers or the consequences that might follow, says something about how much of a hold American pop culture has on their imaginations and what that says about their alienation from the world around them.

As might be expected, the heist doesn’t go to plan and the love triangle resolves in a way viewers least expect with none of the main characters learning any lessons from what they experience. Two of them flee Paris without having to answer for their part in the robbery or feeling any pangs of conscience over three deaths. Some folks may see in the plot’s resolution a lesson in how dangerous second-hand fantasy derived from pop culture may be when applied literally to real life. Even if viewers don’t agree with the way the plot works out or the characters’ interactions with one another – Arthur behaves cruelly towards Odile who all too often is overly submissive and passive – they will find something in the movie that’s fun, clever, playful and enjoyable, something that reminds them of the carefree and innocent nature of childhood. Before it all collapses into tragedy and the reality of being responsible for one’s actions and future life. A movie that’s good to look at, enjoy and make you think about its issues on different levels: that’s “Bande à part”.

M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring: lovely to look at but hollow

Kim Kiduk, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring” (2003)

Presented in five episodes that mimic the yearly cycle of the seasons, this film follows a man’s path from his early childhood through adolescence and youth into middle age. Adopted by a hermit monk who lives at a Buddhist shrine on a tiny island in a lake in remote mountainous country, the man grows up close to nature and learns Buddhist doctrine and contemplation; his upbringing, worthy though it is, fails him when as a teenager he is confronted with sexual and other desires when a girl his age stays at the shrine temporarily to recover from an unknown illness. He elects to leave the srhine to follow the girl into the wider world. He marries her but she later deserts him for another man and he kills her. Returning to the shrine, he attempts suicide but is thwarted by the monk who forces him to repent of his sin. Detectives come to take the man to justice and prison and the monk himself then commits suicide.

The story is beguilingly simple and straightforward with very little dialogue and almost no conversation: nearly every utterance is a statement that underlines some aspect of the action on screen. The cinematography makes great use of fixed shots set at some distance from the actors to show their interactions with objects or the natural environment together with some close-ups, as though to show that, no matter how much humans isolate themselves, their environment and by extension the wider world of human society and relationships will encroach on them. By killing himself, the monk acknowledges perhaps that he has done as much for his disciple as he can and from now on the disciple must be his own teacher and learn from his experiences as well as remember his lessons. The world of the shrine and its surrounds, beautiful though it is – the cinematography emphasises the beauty, colour and vivids moods of nature throughout the year – can’t encapsulate all the man needs to know about life in order that he might more fully appreciate what the monk has tried to teach him.

The cyclical nature of life which  renews itself is emphasised in frequent shots of snakes (an age-old symbol of renewal) and fish, and in an unexpected twist towards the end of the movie when the man has returned to the shrine after serving time in prison: a woman visits him and leaves her baby son behind. She has an accident that is partly the man’s fault and the man is left alone to bring up the child. We can presume that the child as he grows up will repeat the man’s experiences; the challenge is whether the man might be a different teacher, perhaps more forgiving or less forgiving, more inclined to punish or less inclined, based on his experiences, than his teacher was.

Director Kim Kiduk’s narrow focus on the story, with all the action centred in the shrine and its surrounds, leaves out a great deal about the hermit monk and his disciple which audiences have to assume for themselves. The two actually have some interaction with the outside world: they acquire a rooster and a cat during the course of the film and the monk does get supplies from the outside world. During one such shopping trip, he learns about his disciple’s crime from the newspaper wrapping around some food. This narrowed focus, while intended to relay a story of change and renewal (and with it, faith, hope and the possibility of reincarnation), gives very little insight into the motivations and behaviour of the monk, disciple and other characters; in particular, we have no idea why the old monk commits suicide and we are left to speculate on possible reasons ranging from despair to resignation at the disciple’s behaviour.

As a result, there is something empty and unsatisfying about this film and there is an underlying misogyny that is disturbing as well. Though the film offers hope in the form of a new acolyte, it also suggests that the youngster might well follow the man a little too closely in his ways and the man may offer much the same advice to the young ‘un about love, lust and life as his mentor did. The same mistakes may be repeated, the cycle of life and renewal may continue but do humans, can humans, learn from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them, or not to repeat them the same way?

Thin plot and unsympathetic characters invite contempt for “Contempt”

Jean-Luc Godard, “Contempt” (1963)

Partly set among some stunningly postcard-perfect islands rising out of the Mediterranean Sea, “Contempt” is a great-looking film that showcases the young Brigitte Bardot as a serious actor but that’s about all it has going for it. It struggles under the weight of being at once a psychological portrait of a marriage breaking down, a commentary on film-making and film culture, a re-interpretation of ancient Greek myth and an investigation of the position of artists and intellectuals torn between devotion to their art and living in a society that doesn’t share their beliefs but values art as a mere commodity. The movie’s major focus centres on the married couple Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Bardot) in their apartment misunderstanding each other and bickering, and then escalating their fight to the point of separation without ever really understanding why and making themselves miserable. This follows earlier scenes in which Paul, a struggling playwright, is employed by a rich playboy American movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a script for a movie based on the ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey”, with Fritz Lang (Lang as himself) directing, into something more racy and juicy. Paul agrees and takes the money, and Prokosch invites him and Camille to his estate for afternoon drinks. There, the American brazenly flirts with Camille yet Paul barely flickers an eyelid in reaction.

In their arguments, Camille and Paul expose their insecurities and prejudices that suggest their marriage had always been doomed from the start: Camille is sensitive about her lack of education and culture and believes that Paul thinks she’s stupid; Paul persists in arguing in an intellectual way, failing to see Camille might be testing him and setting little traps for him, ignoring her little gestures of conciliation, and bullying her by calling her jealous; she accuses him of selling out to a “film crowd” (which he has done, by taking Prokosch’s cheque); he, for all his belief in his intellectual superiority over Camille, misinterprets her statements, lashes out at her emotionally and never acknowledges that she might be right in some of what she says and that he might be wrong or have done her an injustice. The contempt that Camille develops for Paul is the result of a head-on collision between two mismatched people, one insecure about her new place in a self-absorbed world and feeling unwanted, the other having dragged her into it with no thought for how they can both cope individually and together in that world with its contradictory demands. The tragedy for them both is that, having fought and fallen apart, they become vulnerable to the desires of that world which separates them, forever as it turns out.

A parallel sub-plot in which various characters re-interpret “The Odyssey” as a story in which Odysseus has left his wife Penelope to fight in the Trojan war and then to travel for several years because they no longer love each other, or Penelope has been unfaithful, or Odysseus simply wishes to avoid Penelope, as a counter-weight to Paul and Camille’s marital problems, runs through the movie. The “Odyssey” movie production serves as a convenient coat-hanger for Prokosch, Paul and Camille to offload their feelings and opinions about human relationships without admitting them directly to one another. At the same time they appear to have no great enthusiasm for the movie and only Lang seems to care, even to the extent of continuing and finishing filming after Prokosch and Camille become decidedly “off-screen”. Paul is left alone without any anchor after filming finishes and silence is called for.

The artist having to choose between self-integrity and self-betrayal; people who should be united tearing themselves apart and becoming easy victims of a rapacious world; the idea of a film within a film that mirrors and comments on thoughts, feelings and behaviour expressed outside it; the film world as a meat market where script-writers and directors prostitute themselves before producers: these are hardly original ideas though the easy and subtle way in which they have been combined is original. Bardot and Piccoli are good in the way they bring out their characters’ fears, beliefs, prejudices and misunderstandings of each other and their relationship without over-acting or emotional histrionics. It could be said though that by letting one person (Prokosch) upset their relationship so much, Camille and Paul already aren’t sure of each other’s loyalty: the movie’s opening bedroom scene in which Camille demands total love from Paul and he replies glibly suggests as much.

Palance does a fine turn as the brash, crass American producer Prokosch, throwing his weight around and seducing Camille; he may be evil in the sense of preying on and exploiting Camille’s weaknesses to pull her away from Paul though there is just a suggestion in the petrol station scene that he might be more sensitive and sympathetic to her than her husband has been so far. Had Godard played up this aspect of Prokosch putting on an “ugly American” act to cover up his own fears about being an uncultured outsider in a supposedly more cultured and artistic environment, and shown him to be a potentially better person than Paul, the movie’s themes would have had an emotional fillip that would intrigue audiences, and Camille’s choice might have said something about Camille’s own values. Is Camille as much a sell-out on her integrity as she accuses Paul of being on his?

The structure of “Contempt”, divided in the main between the suffocating insular reality of the married couple’s apartment and the open natural spaces of Capri island, promising freedom and opportunties that Camille grabs, seems lopsided between the minutiae of the couple’s private lives which they pick over like scabs and the real dangers that face them once they are on the film set. On Capri, Paul sees Prokosch and Camille kissing each other but seems not to care; his reaction and behaviour will appear inexplicable to most viewers as at the same time he seems smug or resigned about having sold out on his artistic ideals and isn’t losing sleep over the harm he’s done to them and Camille’s view of him as a sell-out. While Camille, who originally hadn’t wanted to go to Capri, spends time sunbathing and swimming, Paul does nothing. By the end of the film, Paul may still be unaware of what’s happened to Camille and Prokosch but even if he did know, he may not care anyway. Like Odysseus in “The Odyssey”, trying to find his home, Paul is doomed to find a “home” in the film world without values or someone who can provide an anchor.

Colourful with some great visual scenery in both the apartment, adorned in a modern style at the time (early 1960’s), and in the scenes set on the islands, the film is worth seeing once but perhaps no more. The plot is thin and scrappy and doesn’t allow much character development in Camille, Paul and Prokosch who remain archetypes representing aspects of the film’s themes. Viewers won’t feel much connection with the male characters but might feel sympathy and pity for Camille who on the whole is treated badly by the men. As Paul does very little apart from mouthing off at Camille, the theme of the artist’s place in a society not sympathetic to ideals such as artistic integrity is superficially explored. If the film’s opinion is that the values of Hollywood aren’t to be trusted compared to those of art, then Paul is a poor choice of champion for art and the possibility that the film world can be reformed or improved in any way remains remote.

Come to think of it, with all due respect for Godard’s ideals, if Hollywood had made “Contempt”, the story might push a stronger line on the artist’s place in society: it might not reflect the reality in the Hollywood film industry itself but it would put more backbone and integrity into Paul. For a start, he’d tell Prokosch to shove his cheque up his butt …

The Rules of the Game: a good if dated satire of French high society

Jean Renoir, “The Rules of the Game” (1939)

When you hear that a rich French marquis decides to have a huge party at his country estate and invites, among other people, a man who’s in love with the marquis’s wife and a woman who’s been having an affair with the marquis himself, and on top of that hires a rabbit poacher as a new servant who flirts with the wife of the gamekeeper who gets jealous every time another man even looks at her, you know that marquis is just asking for trouble. And trouble galore is what the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) gets in this movie “The Rules of the Game” by Jean Renoir which is a clever satire on the mores and values of the French upper classes on the eve of the Second World War when this film was made. For people reared on films sticking to their genre conventions, this might be a confusing movie: heavily driven by its dialogue and the comings and goings of its various characters, “The Rules …” goes from straightforward drama to comedy of manners to straight-out slapstick in the film’s first climax, and then to tragedy in its second climax, for the film’s purpose of detailing the various upper class social hypocrisies which make up the rules of the “game” and how well people conform or don’t conform  to them – and the price they pay if they don’t.

The movie gets off to a slow start, establishing its main personalities in its first hour: Robert’s wife Christine (Nora Gregor) is adored by hero aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) and in secret by his friend Octave (Renoir himself) while her husband dallies with Genevieve (Mila Parely) behind her back. Robert tries to ditch Genevieve but ends up inviting her to his chateau, La Coliniere, for the weekend. Octave encourages Robert to invite Andre as well. Other significant characters like Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), her husband and Robert’s gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and Marceau (Julien Carette) are introduced early in the film. The camera moves around the sets like a roving eye, looking in at various people who go about their business as if unaware they are being watched. Audiences see significant actors and action in the background as well as in the foreground thanks to Renoir’s use of deep focus cinematography which at the time (1930’s) was unusual in filming.

Once all the invited guests including an army general arrive at La Coliniere for the weekend retreat, the pace picks up quickly and the action becomes live with little room for more character development: various entertainments that include shooting pheasants and hares for sport, walks, a masquerade party, some amateur theatre and games fill people’s time. As afternoon turns into evening and the masquerade gets under way, guests get drunk and exchange spouses and lovers casually, and tempers flare up. Upstairs, Robert and Andre fight over Christine and, in a comic turn that comments on how lower classes regard the upper classes as role models and leaders, Schumacher chases Marceau around the mansion for flirting with his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Both Schumacher and Marceau are sacked and thrown off the estate so they venture out to the estate greenhouse where they see Christine, wearing Lisette’s cape, and Octave planning to run away together. Schumacher, mistaking Christine for Lisette, swears to kill Octave. Octave returns to the house where Lisette talks him out of running away with Christine because of the age difference between them and he sends Andre to the greenhouse instead. Once there, Andre is mistaken for Octave by Schumacher who shoots him.

The way Robert deals with Andre’s shooting (or rather, dismisses it casually) and Christine’s own reaction to it symbolise the rot that pervades French society and its morality as a result of its corrupted leadership that they exemplify. Andre is hardly an attractive figure either: when viewers first see him, he behaves very petulantly when informed on arriving in Paris after a long solo flight that his former love Christine hasn’t arrived at the airport to greet him. So audiences discover early that Andre, perhaps a bright hope and talent for a new France, has been seduced by and into high society. Little does he realise that he’ll be treated like a toy and tossed aside by such people. Robert, Christine, Octave, Genevieve and Lisette, all vacillating between one extreme and another, all unsure who or what they most love and want to stay with, are people who want, or think they deserve, everything both ways, however incompatible these are. They treat love, marriage and human relationships in a cavalier way. Lisette is married but is ready to throw over Schumacher to stay with Christine and be close to luxury and wealth. Robert wants his marriage, his mistress, his property and collection of gadgets, not necessarily in that order, and not caring that the women in his life each want him to give up at least one of the four wants mentioned. Only Andre and Schumacher attach notions of loyalty and morality to love and marriage and they’re the ones who pay dearly for “transgressing” the rules of the “game”.

Renoir’s direction and matter-of-fact narrative which relies on the characters to drive the plot and action force viewers to decide for themselves if the characters are worthy of their sympathy. All these people have some attractive and unattractive qualities. The camera never settles on one particular person who might serve as the “hero” of the film; it moves through the labyrinthine mansion with its corridors, staircases and rooms leading into more rooms to focus on the characters, all players in the “game”. Viewers who have no PC or video-gaming experience might be distracted trying to watch actions in the foreground when there is activity in the background or nearly off-screen demanding attention. The easy camera flow moves through establishing the characters in the film’s first half without inducing boredom while the plot is yet to get off the ground; once the plot’s course is set, the camera then takes in nearly everything that happens at La Coliniere so the place becomes a synecdoche for French society.

Aside from the use of deep focus cameras, “The Rules …” looks dated with a style of acting that varies between natural and theatrical, and a plot heavy with symbolism. With computer games so prevalent now, any experimental edge the film might have had once in positing the mansion as a proto-type “computer game” with its different levels, and the hosts and guests as “players” symbolic of their class, is lost. Particular scenes, such as the hunting scenes, filmed documentary-style, in which peasants flush out prey for the shooters and scenes in which characters express prejudice against Jewish people, refer to issues of historic significance for which modern audiences may need to know some early and mid-20th century French and European history to understand fully. People living in societies where social class is still important in determining a person’s place and how far he or she can advance socially and economically will respond more positively to what the film says about social hypocrisy and in that respect the film still has value as social criticism.

Since “The Rules …” was made, other more recent films based on its plot, ideas or themes such as Alan Bridges’s “The Shooting Party” and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” have been made so it’s no longer even the definitive film of its type – a country estate as microcosm of its society – to see. Still, if you like mysteries, dramas or comedies set in rich country houses that focus on both the wealthy and their servants, “The Rules …” is a well-made movie with characters that are at once vivid, comic and serious.

The War You Don’t See: an incisive and passionate John Pilger documentary

Alan Lowery and John Pilger, “The War You Don’t See” (2010)

Last night (Sunday, 10 April 2011), I caught this documentary presented by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger on the way the news media has presented war to Western audiences on television and in print for much of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st. There’s a particular focus on the UK and US news media’s responsibility in reporting war events and the conduct of war accurately and without bias, particularly if the war is a heavily one-sided war which the US, the UK and their allies have instigated against much weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through interviews with various journalists from the US mainstream news media outlets and the BBC, Pilger shows how far too frequently the news media in these countries have reported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that prejudice Western audiences against the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and minimise or make invisibile the suffering these people undergo. The reporting also serves to hide and advance the agendas of the governments and the interests of the individuals, corpoations and other institutions that politicians rely on for election campaign money and support.

According to some of the promotion for this doco, the emphasis was on the practice of embedding in which journalists travel with the military on assignments and report incidents from the military point of view. The opportunity this gives the military to shape the reporter’s view to the extent that it can decide what the reporter can see or not see, and report in a way that favours the military and its understanding and interpretation of an incident, is pretty obvious. My impression though was that the documentary didn’t spend very much time examining this practice, both from a historical point of view (as in tracing the history of embedment from the First World War or the American Civil War or when it first started) and from a current viewpoint of someone who actually did go on a mission with soldiers, reported on what the soldiers did or were supposed to do, and then had the report vetted by the soldiers or their senior officers before giving it to the news editor.

The documentary did rather better looking at the collusion between the US armed forces and the Hollywood film industry in making war movies since the 1940’s that emphasise American heroism, self-sacrifice, suffering and soldier camaraderie while ignoring the equivalent, often much greater, among the enemy gooks and ragheads; even here though, while the documentary did good work trashing movies like “The Hurt Locker”, it just didn’t go far enough to examine how so close the collusion is that Hollywood film-makers now routinely consult US armed forces personnel in making war movies and tailor scripts to suit the Pentagon’s tastes. Hollywood also must submit all war movies for pre-screening by top Pentagon officials who can order late changes to the movie even at the expense of historical accuracy before the movies can go into cinemas: if this practice were widely known among the public, there would be a huge outcry but Pilger makes no mention of it.

Likewise Pilger’s examination of the heavy bombing of Fallujah in 2004 doesn’t include a brief look at the almost tragicomic series of events, beginning with US troops’ take-over of a school and their refusal to negotiate with the parents of the schoolchildren, escalating through the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries who might have been set up by their employer to the US army’s decision to attack twice, first in August and then in November in 2004. How these events were covered in Western media, particularly the lynching incident which generated fury among the US public, isn’t mentioned. The aftermath of the bombings which include recent reports of an astonishing rise in birth defects in children born in Fallujah after 2004, together with doctors’ warnings to all female residents never to have children, and how these were reported by the BBC and other news outlets is also ignored.

I’m not sure how the Israeli commando attacks on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 merit mention in a documentary like this; the whole drama itself deserves a separate documentary treatment. There was much about the BBC’s reporting of the Gaza flotilla’s adventures that Pilger could have raked the organisation over – the BBC only started taking an interest in the flotilla when it was intercepted by Israeli forces – but the documentary’s focus was mainly on the film released by the Israeli Defense Forces showing the activists on the Mavi Marmara purportedly attacking the commandos before they reached the ferry. The murders of nine Mavi Marmara passengers (one of whom was a US citizen whose death was ignored by US mainstream news media), done execution-style, were mentioned briefly. No mention though of the Israelis’ treatment of all the surviving flotilla passengers, once they were on dry land, which included people being beaten (a Greek man got a broken leg) and being forced to parade before baying crowds: that was very much off everyone’s radar here.

The documentary is very good and Pilger’s interviews of various talking heads are incisive but the film’s organisation, especially in its latter half, should have been tightened and restricted more to investigating the reporting of the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how news journalists and their employers are under considerable pressure from both governments and armed forces to report war events in a particular way that favours continued prosecution of war. At nearly 100 minutes in length, the documentary seems very long (it’s quite dry and heavy on interviews) and the Mavi Marmara incident really should have been cut out as its particular focus on the IDF propaganda clip is irrelevant to the overall subject.

I’m disappointed that Pilger neglected to examine the possible effects of news reporting that favours a pro-war agenda on people and societies. I imagine the effects of such biased reporting can be very far-reaching: among other things, the sufferings of both Iraqi and Afghan civilians on one side, and of the soldiers and their families, are minimised and ignored to the extent that both governments and the public end up trivialising them, especially if some Iraqis and Afghans escape their hell and try to claim asylum overseas; and the reporting itself may encourage governments and the military to believe in their own invincibility and to spread war and destruction into neighbouring countries as is currently happening in Pakistan from Afghanistan under US President Obama’s watch. War becomes a self-perpetuating activity that individuals, the armed forces, corporations and governments come to rely on to justify the money and resources spent.