29 January 2008

Bleu, 1993

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:54 am

Polish director Krysztof Kieslowski’s last films comprised a trilogy. Bleu, Blanc and Rouge, the French tricolor — liberté, egalité et fraternité. Bleu begins with a car crash that kills the woman’s husband and young daughter. She tries to free herself not just from her memories but from all involvement with life. But she can’t do it: the present and the past keep impinging on her. The blue glass beads from a ceiling ornament reflect sunlight onto her face, reminding her of her child — and of the music her husband, a famous composer, had left unfinished.

bleu blue light

Or, as had been rumored, was she really the composer? She destroyed the unfinished manuscript after he died, but a copy survived. Here, as at last she finishes the piece, we see her pen and its shadow, as if another ghostly hand were helping to inscribe the notes on the page.

bleu music score

Surface, reflection, depth, rising from the blue into the blue.

bleu pool1

27 January 2008

Hairspray (1988)

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 4:46 pm

hairspray white dancers

hairspray blondie

hairspray divine

hairspray black dancers

hairspray waters

16 January 2008

Does Atonement the Movie Betray the Book?

Filed under: Fiction, Movies — ktismatics @ 8:43 am

I previously wrote a short post about Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Yesterday I saw the film version, which for the most part renders the book faithfully. The cinematic version diverged significantly on three points from (my memory of) the book, each of which I regard as a significant distortion of the original.

Firstly and most trivially, the “bad guy” is American in the book but English in the movie. It’s not enormously important to the story, but when McEwan made this conscienceless opportunist and war profiteer an American he was, I thought, adding to the political subtext. Robbie, the tragic hero, is lower class and hence expendable, both in the romantic intrigues of the upper class and in war — this is explicit in both the book and the film. But the opportunity to convey McEwan’s commentary on possibly dishonorable American motives in WWII is lost.

Secondly, when I read the book I thought the first half, which takes place entirely in the protected world of the aristocratic English countryside, was rendered more completely, compellingly and realistically than were the parts set in wartime France and London. In the book these latter scenes felt more wooden, 2-dimensional, contrived. In the movie, by contrast, these wartime scenes were presented surrealistically and spectacularly, even to the point of overwhelming the first half in terms of sensory and emotional intrusion on the viewer. This surreal spectacle might have made more sense if we were meant to be perceiving these events from beyond the grave as it were, from the perspective of those spectral characters who dominated this part of the story. But we come to find out that, whereas the teller of the tale actually participated in the English countryside part of the story, she was fabricating the wartime narrative as a romantic wish fulfillment of her own. In that sense the second half really was less real to the storyteller. It manifests certain unconscious longings to be sure, but the sense of walking ghostlike through a nightmare wouldn’t have been her perspective as the contriver of a happily-ever-after scenario.

Thirdly, the end of the movie betrays, I believe, the end of the book. The book is called Atonement for a reason: it’s about the storyteller’s lifelong attempt to atone for a wrong she committed as a young girl. In the book the atonement is deferred until it’s too late, not just in the failure to make things right for those who were hurt by the original betrayal but also in the failure to bring justice and punishment to those who benefited from it. One is left with the sense of the girl having always managed to evade the consequences of her moral failing, her bad conscience never keeping her from enjoying success and acclaim, never provoking her to exercise the extreme bad taste of ruining rich and powerful people’s reputations. In the movie, by contrast, the atonement succeeds in the end. Through her power as a storyteller the girl, now an old woman, enwraps the tragic victims of her wrongdoing in a painful yet ultimately satisfying reconciliation. Sure it’s fictional, but it’s what she can do, it’s her responsibility to make things right for them as her last creative act. She bestows upon herself a heroic sacrificial mien in the film, whereas in the book she rejects this self-delusion.

I regard each of these three deviations from the book as unfortunate. It would have been good to see an American bad guy. We moviegoers have become accustomed to seeing war scenes as surrealistic spectacles, to the point where we’d probably be disappointed if we were to arrive at a real war scene and not see an anomalous merry-go-round spinning around on a sepia-toned, overexposed beach. To see a more obviously staged war scene would have disrupted our cinematic expectations far more than the admittedly wonderfully realized scenes shown to us in this movie. We want our atonements to succeed, and it’s disturbing when we fail, which we so often do even when we persuade ourselves of our own moral rectitude. Each of these three cinematic deviations from the book is, I think, a conciliatory gesture to the movie-going marketplace, to American sensibilities, to those Hollywood insiders who vote on the Oscars. It’s an act of bad faith, even a moral failing, perpetrated presumably for art’s sake but more likely for the sake of money and acclaim.

12 January 2008

A Corpse in Eastern Promises (2007)

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:58 am

[I previously posted on this movie, but my erstwhile collaborator encouraged me to write a portalic piece about it. I’m working from somewhat old memories, so I have no quotes or screen shots to illustrate the idea.]

Russian mobsters must like to carve up bodies, because they do a lot of it in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. The knife, not the gun, is the weapon of choice. We watch two men’s throats get slashed: are the gaping red wounds emblematic of castration, or perhaps the carving of a vagina into men for whom the loss of manhood is more important than the loss of life? Or maybe the horizontal gash across the larynx is a double of the mouth — open, breathless, silent. Nikolai Luzhin gets tattooed with the gang’s markings: it’s part of a symbolic transfer of allegiance, from the family of one’s birth to the mob family. Most importantly for the story, though, the tattoos make it possible for a rival gang to mistake Nikolai for his boss’ son, who bears the same permanent markings of identity inscribed in his flesh. The tattoo isn’t just a marking of identity; it’s a medium of communication – or in this case, of intentional miscommunication.

Early in the movie we watch Nikolai snipping off the fingertips of the first throat-slashing victim so that the body cannot be identified – again, carving up the body prevents the communication of identity. Not until much later do we find out that the body did carry information, but the message isn’t borne in the flesh of the corpse. When the police pull the body out of the Thames they discover that Nikolai has written a note to his boss and stashed it in the body’s coat pocket. But his boss isn’t a mobster; it’s a Scotland Yard chief. It turns out that Nikolai isn’t really a Russian gangland thug; he’s an undercover agent of the British police.

We saw Nikolai convey a message on paper before. Early in the movie he screws a whore, presumably to demonstrate his manhood but mostly to pleasure the mob boss’ voyeuristic son, but afterward he writes a note on a holy card and hands it to the young woman: it’s a contact that will help her escape the mafia’s clutches. And we know that another young prostitute’s diary has fallen into the hands of Anna, a nurse who attended to the delivery of the Russian girl’s baby. The diary names the mob boss as the father of the girl’s child — a written testimonial that he raped a minor, evidence that can put him away.

This is the way we do things in the West: we write things down on paper and tuck these notes into the pockets of our clothing; we speak to one another or we choose to remain silent. In a word, we are civilized. The Easterners don’t just keep silent; they cut each other’s throats. They don’t just write messages; they tattoo them into the flesh. They are a barbarian horde inscribing their rude corporeality into Western culture. By means of a floating corpse, its throat cut and its fingers snipped, doubly silenced through bodily violence, but carrying in its pocket the pen-and-paper communique of one civilized man to another, a message at once so fragile and impermanent and yet ultimately so powerfully dominant, we are transported through the portal between East and West.

In Eastern Promises Cronenberg extols the strength of the Western symbolic order. The Russians are corrupt: they aren’t shown as being in decline but rather as never having risen above the direct, corporeal, beastial expressive register. Nikolai’s manliness in the Russian mob world is all physical, almost iconically so, pointing backward to some primal image of man. But at the same time it’s feminizing, subjecting him to bodily mutilation and perverse voyeurism by the leaders of the pack. As a Western man Nikolai is kind, just, subtle, more androgynous in a traditional sense but more powerful and masterful than his Eastern self.

10 January 2008

A Toy Rabbit in Ikiru (1952)

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 6:42 am

Kanji Watanabi is Section Chief of the Tokyo Public Affairs Department. His job is to stamp each piece of paper that passes across his desk to indicate that he has handled it. He’s not supposed to accomplish anything in this job: whatever needs doing is by definition somebody else’s responsibility: the buck passes from department to department until it finally gets lost in the paperwork.

ikiru office

Very early in the film Kurosawa shows us Mr. Watanabi’s stomach X-ray, revealing a cancer that will kill him in six months. This revelation changes Watanabi’s life. Actually it brings him back to life, since he’s been all but dead for the thirty years he’s been a minor governmental functionary — before, during and after World War Two. But now that he’s alive, what should he do? He comes across a ne’er-do-well “novelist” in a bar who takes him out on the town: gambling, night clubs, women, a new hat. But for Mr. Watanabi that’s not living. He can’t bring himself to go back to the office, so when he leaves the house every morning as usual he wiles away the hours just walking around town. He tries to tell his son about his death sentence and his existential crisis, but the son is too worried about the father squandering his inheritance on loose women to listen. Toyo Odagiri, a girl who works in the department, tracks down the Section Chief to get him to stamp her letter of resignation. Attracted by her youthful vivacity, Watanabe attaches himself to Toyo, taking her to tea, on walks, to dinner. She confesses that she had a nickname for him: The Mummy. He’s stunned, then he laughs: yes, you’re right, he tells her.

For several nights this goes on until finally she tells him “no more.” He tracks her down at her new job at a factory – it hardly seems like a more appealing option than the city bureaucracy. She sends him away, then reconsiders – once more, then that’s the end. They go to the tea house (again), where after some desultory and silent sitting he proposes they take a walk (again). Toyo can’t stand it any more; she tells Watanabe she thinks he’s a creep. Keep your old man’s infatuation, she tells him, but leave me alone. No, that’s not it, he insists. He mutters and stumbles in his usual way, until finally:

“…in other words, why are you so incredibly alive? You’re just so alive. That’s why I’m envious. This old mummy envies you. Before I die I want to live one day just like you do. I’ll live that way before I die. Until I’ve done it, I can’t just give up and die. In other words, I just want… I just want something to… I want to do something. But it’s just that… I don’t know what. But you do know. No, maybe you don’t, but you… No, tell me how I can be like you.”

“But all I do is work and eat.”

“And what else?”

“That’s all. I mean it. All I do is make these little things.” Toyo takes from her purse a toy white bunny. She winds it up and it hops across the table toward Watanabe. She grabs it and does it again. “Even making these things is so much fun. Making them, I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan. Why don’t you try making something too?”

Watanabe is disconsolate. It’s too late. Besides, what can he possibly make at the Public Affairs Department? Then, suddenly, he’s struck by something. Maybe it’s not too late for me. Yes, I can do something there – if I have the will. Grasping the toy rabbit in his hand he leaves Toyo in the tea house, a man possessed of new resolve.

ikiru bunny

And sure enough, he finds the will to push one small project through the governmental bureaucracy: a city playground, built on reclaimed land over what had been an open sewage cesspool. Mr. Watanabe has to hand-carry the paperwork from department to department, all the way to the Deputy Mayor himself, in order to get the project budgeted and the work accomplished. He dies one snowy night in the new park — the policeman who saw him before he died said he had looked so happy sitting there on a swing, singing softly to himself. The Deputy Mayor tries to take credit for the playground – re-election is coming up, after all – but the neighborhood women come to Watanabe’s wake to light incense and mourn the man who they know is the one responsible.

The windup toy rabbit that Watanabe carried away from the teahouse was one among countless others, indistinguishable and trivial – not unlike the post-war Japanese industrial workers making cheap consumer goods for world markets. Watanabe was insensate, non-communicative, inert — as if he had died in the War, enshrouded like a mummy in the tomb that Japanese society had become for those old enough to remember the old glories and aspirations. The toy rabbit was the portal that reanimated the corpse that Watanabe had become, transforming his mindless and trivial labor into something meaningful. Within the alienating and depersonalized bureaucracy Watanabe was able to find a way to make something. It may have been a small something, but it wouldn’t have happened without him. The toy rabbit was the portal from structural determinism to personal agency, from the death of the old self-contained and stagnant Japan to its revitalization as active participant in the modern world.

8 January 2008

The Image in All About Eve (1950)

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 7:15 am

[Here’s another movie portality piece I wrote last week. I have two more to put up: one for Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and another for Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.]

The movie begins with Eve Harrington being handed the coveted Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement in the theater. Addison DeWitt, critic and star-maker, introduces Eve in voice-over narration:

“Life goes where she goes – she’s been profiled, covered, revealed, reported, what she eats and when and where, whom she knows and where she was and when and where she’s going. Eve. You know all about Eve. What can there be to know that you don’t know?”

All About Eve Sarah Siddons Award

The rest of the film tells what we don’t know about Eve – how she got to the top, which is mostly by climbing over the backs of everyone who has helped her, everyone who had been her friend on Broadway, not least of all Margo Channing. DeWitt tells us that “Margo is a great Star, a true Star; she never was or will be anything less or anything else.” As the story begins Margo is on top and Eve is nobody. But Eve wants to be somebody. More to the point: Eve wants to be Margo.

Eve gets her first chance to meet Margo after an evening performance. She stops on the stage and faces the empty seats. “You can breathe it, can’t you,” she says to Margo’s friend Karen, “like some magic perfume.” Immediately Eve insinuates herself into Margo’s life, becomes her personal assistant, moves into her home. Flattered at first, pleased to be taken care of by an adoring fan, Margo comes gradually to mistrust Eve. Margo’s fiance Bill chastises her for being jealous of a stage-struck kid. Margo is incensed.“Stage-struck kid?! She’s a young lady of qualities. And I’ll have you know I’m fed up with both the young lady and her qualities! Studying me as if – as if I were a play or a blueprint! How I walk, talk, act, think, eat, sleep! It so happens there are particular aspects of my life to which I would like to maintain sole and exclusive rights and privileges!”

Margo means Bill, of course, and she’s right – Eve has designs on Bill, who is a successful Broadway director being courted by Hollywood. Toward the end of the film Margo undergoes an identity crisis. She confides in Karen: “More than anything in this world, I love Bill. And I want Bill. I want him to want me. But me. Not Margo Channing. And if I can’t tell them apart – how can he?” “Why should he,” Karen asks Margo, “and why should you?” To which Margo replies: “Bill’s in love with Margo Channing. He’s fought with her, worked with her, loved her… But ten years from now Margo Channing will have ceased to exist. And what’s left will be… what?”

Margo decides she’s going to find out what’s left, stepping out of the spotlight in order to give the conniving Eve the chance she’s fought so hard for. You get the sense that Margo has no idea what it means to be herself without the image — she seems prepared to exchange the role of Star for the role of Wife:

“Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted… and, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed — and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings — but you’re not a woman… (Margo smiles at Karen) … Slow curtain. The end.”

Of course Eve takes advantage of her big chance, even to the point of seducing Karen’s husband the playwright in order to corner the market on his talents. As Margo starts trying to become herself, Eve becomes… Margo. It’s not Margo the woman that Eve has been studying like a blueprint but Margo the image, Margo Channing the Star. And now, as recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award, Eve has been transformed into the image.

The image is the portal in this movie. Margo tries to separate herself from that image, while Eve discards everything about herself in order to become the image. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God. But that wasn’t enough: Eve wanted to be even more godlike, and so she ate the forbidden fruit. Eve gained the image but lost the substance. At the end of the film Eve, already grown cynical and disillusioned, returns to her apartment while the after-award party goes on without her. Phoebe, another star-struck acolyte, has finagled her way into the apartment. Eve is distressed at first, but immediately gets used to the idea of someone idolizing her, taking care of her, imitating her. In the last scene of the movie we watch Phoebe, draped in Eve’s gown, holding Eve’s award, watching herself in the mirror. But it’s not herself she sees reflected back at herself in infinite replication: it’s the image.

All About Eve Last Scene

UPDATE: To illustrate the continuity of image-as-portal across cinematic history, Dejan sent me this screen shot from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The dark-haired woman, suffering from amnesia, glimpses the image of someone else in the mirror: it’s an old movie poster of Rita Hayworth. The dark-haired woman decides that her name is Rita; she later becomes a film star (or was she already a star?).

mulholland mirror

7 January 2008

The Other in Solaris (1972)

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:16 pm

[I know, I know, I said I was done with Ktismatics. But this isn’t really a Ktismatics post — it’s a sort of demo for a possible new collective blog focusing on movies. Maybe if two or more people write the posts then the diversity of perspective gets interesting, and the pressure on any one blogger (me, for instance) to write posts is alleviated. I’m particularly interested in cinematic portals: objects/places/people that occupy two realities at the same time, allowing transport between the two.]

It’s the planet itself that’s portalic in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I haven’t read the novel on which the film was based, so I can’t really say whether the Solaris that Tarkovsky created is true to Lem’s vision. You could ask the same question about the planet Solaris: does it accurately capture humans’ memories and fantasies, or do the humans adapt themselves to Solaris’ representations? Solaris makes fantasies real. Kris, the psychologist sent to the space station to investigate reported anomalies, goes to sleep, dreams about his dead wife Hari and voila! he awakens to find her, alive, in the room with him. She’s not really his wife, of course; she’s a replicant created by Solaris, her substance made not from atoms but from neutrinos. But Solaris isn’t a robot-manufacturing facility; it’s a living being, a seething sea of intelligent goo. Presumably this living planet is allocating parts of itself to materializing the cosmonauts’ fantasies.

solaris hari

Why is the planet doing this? It’s hard not to think of Solaris as a physical extension of the human unconscious: I imagine something, and the planet expresses my imagination materially. The humans try to distance themselves from their uncannily replicated “guests,” visibly struggling to reconcile desire with repulsion. The cosmonauts try to kill the guests, but the simulacra always regenerate themselves, and we interpret this perpetual resurrection as the power of the unconscious, the eternal return of repressed desires, which are also our deepest dreads.

But what about the guests themselves? Hari, though not really human, is the most vibrant character in the film. She’s trying to build a self out of Kris’ fragmented memories. At first she’s barely self-aware: she doesn’t know if she even looks like herself. But gradually she “remembers” more about her past – how can that be? Presumably being confronted by a physical manifestation of Hari triggers more of Kris’ memories, which then find their way into Solaris’ simulacrum of her. She comes to realize that she died ten years ago, that Kris didn’t really love her then, that she killed herself because of it. Kris acknowledges as much: I didn’t love you then, but I love you now. Is it the guilt at being complicit in her suicide that makes him love her now; or is it because now, as a physical representation of his censored mental represention of her, this resurrected Hari manifests only those parts of her that he used to love? Again, though, we’re thinking about her from his perspective.

Why does Hari want to kill herself again? Is it because she did it before, in real life, and it’s part of her destiny, or her DNA, or Kris’ image of her as already dead? Is it because she realizes that her uncannily undead presence torments Kris, that if she stays he will end up killing himself because of her? Again, though, all these ideas of motive come from our human subjectivity. We are confronted with the problem that she isn’t real, that she’s a projection of human fantasy, and that she has to react as a projection might react.

Just because she isn’t really human doesn’t mean she isn’t real. She is a manifestation of Solaris, and Solaris is real, an embodied intelligence. But Solaris is so different from us, so entirely other. The planet is trying to make contact with human intelligence, and it does so by making itself intimately familiar to the humans it encounters. But Solaris’ projection into human awareness works all too well: contact between human and Solaris is reduced to contact between human and human, which ultimately devolves into a solipsistic encounter of the human self with its own memories, fantasies, transferences. There is no relation between self and other this way. Maybe that’s why she kills herself: in trying to make contact she’s lost her own Solaristic identity without really taking on an autonomous human self; she’s only a projection of another. Or is that too just a projection of how we would feel if we were in her shoes (though she never does find her shoes)?

solaris planet

Maybe that’s not what Solaris had in mind. Maybe these were experiments that Solaris was conducting on the human visitors: probe their memories and fantasies, simulate other humans on the basis of these mental representations, then observe how the humans respond. And by becoming the simulation, Solaris learns from the inside what it feels like to be human – or nearly human.

We never really find out what Solaris is thinking. The astronauts seem completely incapable of making contact, of projecting themselves out of themselves and into the other. They bombard the planet’s surface with X-rays, presumably to see what’s inside the impenetrable surface of the other. Later they transmit their own human electroencephalagram outputs electronically to the planet, as if they’re trying to implant their human consciousness directly into Solaris. They observe the guests the planet generates, and later they observe that the liquid surface of Solaris is beginning to generate islands, but they never try to understand these manifestations as anything other than the materialization of their own fantasies. They never come to any understanding of Solaris as a sentient other.

I suppose that’s the question Solaris leaves us to consider: do we ever encounter the other on his or her own terms, or do we always transform the other into a reflection of our own selves? And can we ever stop this sort of solipsistic reflection about the other from within our own heads and consider what it’s like to be the other to the other, to be encountered only as the reflection of the other’s fantasies and fears and not on our own terms?

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