Sunday, May 29, 2011
What to film and what not to film: when faced with a novel of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's size and narrative complication, director Niels Arden Oplev can't quite navigate this fundamental question. What he does do is find himself in some confusing middle zone between fully fleshed-out and pared down, in which he picks from a hat one narrative thread to zero in on but doesn't quite neglect all the others, instead keeping them there as thin, sensationalized window dressing. As oddly sluggish and convoluted as modern mystery cinema gets, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an icky movie seemingly about corporate corruption and the irresolvable determinacy of history, but it's so sloppily arranged that neither of these themes, or their many implications, are ever really tangibly felt. The story, or at least the one kernel of heaping plot that is emphasized most, is of a left-wing journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) who, after being accused of slander by a corporate tycoon, is hired by a suspicious member of the secretive Vangar family to investigate the enigmatic disappearance of lovely Harriet Vangar (Ewa Fröling) forty years earlier. His accomplice is the super-serious goth chick Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a nifty computer hacker who was only recently digging up information about Blomkvist himself. It turns out that the same corporate head he blew the whistle at is linked to the grisly and immoral Vangar family, which tosses him and Salander into a spiral of violence and intrigue, as they say.
The problem is that the mystery being investigated, almost silly in its endless overload of facts, photos, and long-lost data, is never nearly as interesting as the sexually charged and emotionally tacit relationship of Blomkvist and Salander. It's an example of destructive exposition, spawned by a story whose many divergent subplots and unwieldy build-up of names and faces becomes a liability, a violation to the actual human drama that's being disguised by all the narrative playmaking. (It's no surprise that it presumably works better on the page, in words, than it does in a visual medium.) Underneath it all, there's Blomkvist and Salander, two potentially complex characters dropped into a situation that requires both professional and emotional intimacy. He's a lonely and vulnerable man spotlighted by a media landscape starved for a sensational story - which, ironically, is what Blomkvist makes a shallow living on - and she's a closed-off, vengeful drifter pining for human contact beyond abuse and rape. When they finally do touch, it's a wordless, visceral sexual encounter that ends with an awkward "yep, ok", and it's one of the film's most successful scenes because it simultaneously establishes the inexpressible desire between them and cements the tension they cannot defeat. Remove the obligatory shot of Salander's back-spanning dragon tattoo, which I can only assume is an offhand treat for readers of the book but actually has zero significance in the film, and Oplev has shot one modest scene of interaction between two people that is not bogged down by external narrative forces.
Bear in mind this is a very short scene during a middle part of the film when Blomkvist and Salander are sharing a small house in solitude to work on the case; cushioning it are the overlong episodes that are required simply to set up their meeting. For reasons never made explicit in the film, Salander must have a mandatory guardian passed down from the government, presumably to keep her violent and antisocial impulses at bay. When her longtime guardian has a stroke, she is assigned to a sadistic, scheming new one who takes advantage of her vulnerability, knowing that if she causes any "trouble" he can report her to a psychiatric hospital. Salander, clever and forward-thinking as she is, brings a camera with her to one of their meetings to secretively record his brutal chaining and raping of her, a piece of blackmail that she reveals to him later in her equally horrific act of revenge. Meanwhile, Blomkvist is shown meeting with a cordial Martin Vanger (Peter Haber) to have drinks and discuss his knowledge of Harriet. Martin, whom Oplev seems to think he has developed enough merely by placing him in this one scene of friendly interaction, returns later in the film to showcase a much darker side, kidnapping Blomkvist to torture, taunt, and lecture him about his shady father who honed him as a killer and rapist. Coincidentally, the film also ties up the loose strands of Salander's pathology by linking it via Ron Howard-like flashbacks and a flimsy scene with her hospitalized mother to paternal abuse and a childhood trauma involving gasoline, a match, and a car. What the film is trying to say about all this crushing patriarchal horror and masculine oppression - other than the fact that they permanently stain the victim - is anyone's guess, so they're reduced to unforgivably cheap thrills.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't faithful enough to any of these subplots in terms of screen time or conviction to muster up any tension out of the shifting power dynamics. At their worst, they feel like lazy opportunities to add some muscle to the primarily talky and systematic central drama, which is, admittedly, not even a very compelling subject to fashion a film around, especially since Oplev is not willing to give all the research adequate patience and attention. A quarter of the way through the film, Oplev has already established the small handful of recurring images that define and shape the investigation and indeed continue to throughout its duration: a black-and-white portrait of a smiling Harriet, a shot of her with a group of schoolchildren, and the perspective angle of a man across the yard in a blue sweater who instills fear in Harriet. As the characters struggle to extract the meaning behind the grainy photos, Oplev is happy to just keep showing them, not in the determined, purposeful manner with which Antonioni repeated the same photographs in Blow-Up, just out of a lack of anything else to show. Elsewhere, the guy doesn't seem to mind showing too much: the visual design of the production must have been to get coverage of every scene from every angle and then piece the shots together at random in the final edit. Rather than open up space, this approach paradoxically closes off and disorients it. Like much of the film, it's a decision that overcomplicates the core meaning, making it not quite the propulsive thriller it's intended to be and more of a drawn-out headache.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
It's the one-year anniversary over at Cinelogue, and the occasion has prompted a feature called "Shadows of Forgotten Film". Each writer has chosen 10 obscure films that are deemed essential or underrated based on the criteria that it must be at least 10 years old and have fewer than 5,000 votes on IMDB. My list, which I won't be posting here, is live now at Cinelogue. Also check out my reappraisal of Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos, which is also part of the feature.
The Thin Red Line is the most thoughtful war film ever made because it aims not to make any simplistic anti-war political statements but rather views war from a more cosmic perspective, questioning the epistemology of it and lamenting its effect on nature. Of course, this being a Terrence Malick film, nature has several different manifestations here: the landscape, the internal mind, the collective - in a word, everything. The film's effectiveness becomes clear when its finest segments are not when battles are taking place but rather when they cease. It is there that Malick discovers the endless philosophical weight in the downtime, in the moments of calm contemplation for the banged-up and horrified gang of American soldiers fighting in the remote island of Guadalcanal in World War II. In this surreal landscape of beauty and destruction, bloodied soldiers Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) and Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) debate secularism vs. spiritualism, Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) longs for his wife (Miranda Otto) back home, Captain James Starros (Elias Koteas) struggles maintaining a commitment to combat while also preserving the lives of his brethren, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) loudly asserts his authority over others, and Private Doll (Dash Mihok) desperately tries to conceal his staggering fear. Malick simultaneously shines a light on all of these characters' stories while also democratically treating them as no more important than the landscape they inhabit and indeed part of it.
All of these characters - a richly evocative ensemble that is a testament to Malick's unmistakable and rarely praised skill with actors - have an inner softness to complement their hardened exteriors, just as nature possesses an element of wonder (the trees, the rivers, the dirt, all nurtured by Malick's camera) and an abysmally dark side (the war itself). For a film with such a vast number of A-listers (George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, Tim Blake Nelson, and John C. Reilly all join the fray with small cameos), it is totally absent of a main character, a natural progression for Malick who was already rhyming his many characters' patterns with those of nature in his first two films Badlands and Days of Heaven. It's more apt to say that the entire group of soldiers is a character, and their many passions and grievances cumulatively form one consciousness, an idea that is actualized in the large array of characteristic Malick narrations, the voices of which are never instantly attributable to any specific character. As if acknowledging this very ambiguity, he includes one voice that bookends the film with no actual character equivalent in the film. It's a soft, whispery Southern drawl, full of awe and naivete, and it could be justified broadly as the "voice of the soldier".
The soldiers find their foil in the tribe of Melanesian natives who are seen early on in the film attempting to live peacefully beside the clamor of warfare around them. Pvt. Witt is spending his short leave of absence with them as the film begins, and it is here that Malick explores their sublime group dynamic, at once exposing both the features that make them a singular entity and those that align them more closely with the soldiers. Rather than indulging in any sort of simplistic "we-are-all-the-same" allegory though, Malick's just plainly interested in people and the social functions that cultivate within a group. There is no imposition of directorial control over these scenes; natural encounters simply play out (Witt talks calmly to a radiant mother about the weather, young children do dizzy bat races in the sand, the natives wade around and swim in the ocean) and the symmetries connecting diverse types of people are discovered organically. As in The New World, there are numerous images of people underwater and emerging at the surface as if from the liquids of creation, a repeated motif that underscores Malick's metaphysical concept that as individuals we are always being "born", even in the terrible context of war, where new situations and conflicts force people to redefine their sense of self.
As much as The Thin Red Line gathers an enormous power from the sustained episodes of non-violence that rest on the outer edges of the warfare, Malick proves an adept choreographer of large-scale battle. The primary fight that takes up a great majority of the film’s running time is a spectacularly intimate-feeling American siege up a tall hill. At its crest is a long line of Japanese bunkers, and for quite some time Malick does not reveal any Japanese soldiers, keeping the onslaught of gunfire and bombs abstracted and depersonalized to better reflect the faceless savagery of war. The soldiers ultimately see the enemy merely as the “enemy” rather than as people, and as such the prolonged sequence becomes a Sisyphean struggle, with various members of the infantry (different workings of one mind) dying in their ineffectual bravery. Malick is attentive to the mini-stories of all his characters, watching as Capt. Starros humbly declines the gruff Col. Tall’s orders to launch a full-blown attack up the hill, an adolescent soldier (Nick Stahl) writhes in pain before death, and one overanxious lieutenant (Jared Leto) observes in shock from within a trough of tall grass as his partners sprint up the hill only to be shot down. The entire sequence alternates between short bursts of loud, visceral battle – which feel longer than they actually are given Malick’s unique method of cutting right on the explosions - and quiet interludes of strategizing. War, the film suggests, is a dance between these two extremes, an absolute overload of sharp emotions and high-stakes decision-making.
Despite the acknowledgment of the soldiers’ initial blindness to the similar plight of the Japanese, the film’s not making (at least not aggressively or primarily) any predictable condemnation of militaristic ignorance and blind patriotism. Malick’s heightened compassion holds greater sway, and when the Americans inevitably do reach the top of the hill and attack the Japanese, he’s quick to share the same sympathy for the supposed enemy, lingering on long, documentary-like close-ups of the suffering soldiers. At first glance, this is a rather familiar, even manipulative, “anti-war” strategy: connect the audience to the one side only to suddenly reveal the true humanity on the opposite side, forcefully tugging the sympathies around (this effect was famously employed in Full Metal Jacket and has since been used in Letters to Iwo Jima, among others). But even if perhaps it would have been more in line with Malick’s moral democracy to intercut earlier on between the Americans and the Japanese, the film doesn’t hammer the idea home, letting the succinct emotional reactions of the Americans speak for themselves. What’s most important is that during the subsequent scenes, particularly the masterful attack on the Japanese fort in which the diegetic audio is muted and a series of frantic steadicam shots capture the crushing brutality and then the devastating sadness in one fell swoop, Malick’s distribution of compassion is completely equal.
After fighting ceases for a while, fighting begins again. Such is the nature of war. This time around, Pvt. Witt finds himself courageously walking into a trap of Japanese soldiers and dying. If there’s one character that could be said to be more of a main character than the others, it’s Witt, if only because he most overtly shares Malick’s spiritual, environmentally optimistic worldview. As a result, his scenes often achieve unmatched effectiveness, with the camera peering gently into those bright blue eyes, the kind of eyes that makes Colin Farrell such a piercing enigma in Malick’s next film. When Witt dies, it’s a similarly hypnotizing moment; the soldiers attack, but before we get a chance to have any grasp on the violence, there is an elegant stream of flashback images. Witt’s swimming, he’s smiling, the trees and the Earth are smiling. Somehow Malick makes even death an instance of profound rejuvenation, only to subsequently cut to an absolutely wrenching moment with Penn kneeling over his gravestone, murmuring beneath tears a simple question: “where’s the light now?”
These are the kinds of unanswerables so often muttered by The Thin Red Line’s cast of characters. In quiet internal voices, they plead questions about the origins of war, the two-sided coin that is nature, and the consuming hatred and stubbornness that overwhelm love, often times in the span of one long philosophical tirade. The desire is not to answer these questions, nor even to suggest that they are truly being asked in the vocal sense. They are merely the fundamental crises that rest within the consciousness, unable to really be justified by words. Sure, the film’s resolutely anti-war, but it’s less about discouraging American warfare or lamenting the existence of World War II in global history per se than it is about asking a deeper and more unsettling question about the instigation of violence and conflict in human nature in the first place. And sure, the film disagrees with a great majority of the behavior going on within it but the intention is not to single out individual shortcomings, only to place these shortcomings within the context of the larger rhythm of nature and to wonder why that’s the way it is.
Of course, skepticism about the darkness of nature is also complemented by an enormously reverent and ecstatic vision of nature courtesy of Malick and cinematographer John Toll. The images in The Thin Red Line are not just beautiful; they send a jolt to your system, a realization of the stunning pictorial majesty already inherent in the world. A shot of a leaf, torn-up and gleaming with sunlight and the thick smoke of battle, manages to evocatively telegraph everything Malick is trying to get across about the dichotomous and often collaborative forces of nature, and there’s not just one but countless similar shots throughout the film. This sense of pre-existing wonder, simply “captured” by the camera, underscores the idea that the physical world is a gift, a miracle even, which should not be taken advantage of or destroyed. In such an epic yet intimate and detailed work, it’s amazing how unmistakable this undercurrent is, so much so that it makes the experiences of the characters look almost petty in comparison. But Malick, obviously, is not concerned with dwarfing anything. He wants to see the light in everything, to ask the most vital questions about everything, and that’s what he does in The Thin Red Line.
Monday, May 23, 2011
About four months ago in the introduction to my new "Screening Notes" series, I hinted towards a film I was working on that was getting in the way of watching movies. The good news is that that film is now finished and I'll have more time to focus on writing. Seriously, seeing other films while attempting to dive into your own project can result in some serious cognitive dissonance.
Anyway, because it was such an all-encompassing project that consumed my attention for the better part of five or six months, I'd like to share it here. It's called Bardo, and it's about a composer (the titular character) who is struggling with tinnitus while attempting to finish his final masterpiece. The story is inspired in equal parts by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the former of which faced harsh ringing before finally going deaf and the latter of which had a troubling and tense social life. I worked as cinematographer on the film, but it was really a deeply collaborative effort between myself and three other talented friends and colleagues. The film was shot on 16mm, making it the first time in my life I have actually shot a full project on film. We're all very proud of the finished product and would love to hear anyone's thoughts on it!
Bardo can be found here.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
As the first title card ("Directed by Kelly Reichardt") graced the screen at the end of Meek's Cutoff, the predominantly old crowd at my screening started to unleash a wide range of juvenile sounds from snickers to outright laughter. Around me, dissent hissed: "we've been punked!", "someone forgot to finish the screenplay", and "well, I guess there's no resolution there..." were among the common remarks amidst all the angry hysteria following Reichardt's modest fade to black at the conclusion of her film. It was all a tad, well, childish, especially coming from a crowd made up of people who have presumably seen, you know, a few movies in their lifetime. I couldn't help but feel the kind of strong defensiveness boiling up in my gut that any cinephile might feel after a great piece of art is wrongfully accused. My overriding sentiments (bear in mind this is a twenty-year-old reacting to people anywhere from their 40's to their 80's) were: "what more do you want?", "haven't you ever seen, or heard of, arthouse cinema?", and "aren't you aware that films can and often do consciously end in ways that do not resolve lingering tensions?"
It was all considerably aggravating, not only because it spoiled the bleak, spine-tingling mood of those final moments, but also because from the very beginning of the film - hell, from the beginning of her career! - Reichardt, as tough and unladylike a director as there is in America, and coincidentally one of the best, had made it damn clear that she was not about to provide any easy resolutions for the audience. The dour, self-defeating, and expansive propulsiveness of Meek's Cutoff is signaled right in Reichardt's detached left-to-right pan watching a group of settlers crossing the one and only body of fresh water they experience throughout the whole film. A lifetime of media consumption has taught us, implicitly, that right-to-left movement is indicative of progress, of some sort of positive momentum - see, for instance, old-fashioned video games where a character (say Mario) must traverse a plethora of obstacles and the further the character moves, the better along the player is (a simple concept that was ingeniously paid tribute to cinematically in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003)). Therefore, it's logical to deduce that left-to-right movement must imply degeneration or stagnation, a retreat away from the end goal.
That's exactly what is happening to the haggard and downtrodden heroes of Meek's Cutoff, a tight-knit pack fixing to follow the path of a mysterious, bearded guide named Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who proves less and less trustworthy as the pursuit of water and settlement grows longer and more physically demanding. The particulars of the end goal for the settlers - Soloman and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams), Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), and William, Glory, and little Jimmy White (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson, Tommy Nelson) - are kept under wraps for the entirety of this ultra-simplistic narrative, lending it charged mythical undertones. It might as well be Eden that they're searching for, or the holy grail, because the desperation and care with which they slowly forge a sense of distrust toward Mr. Meek is so profound that it sends a ripple of tension through the whole group. Reichardt, who has now refined her sympathies towards the plights of the underprivileged across three films, is excellent at locating this tension early on and letting it casually grow.
Wisely, Meek's Cutoff saves any true "release" of this tension until the last fifteen minutes, the better to watch it simmer in the ritualistic non-communication of the day's work. To a somewhat lesser extent than Gus Van Sant with his hypnotic Gerry, Reichardt is fixated here on the trance-like, nearly somnambulant rhythms of desert survivalism. The endless creek of the rusty wheels on the settlers' carriages, the plodding crunch of feet against arid ground, and the various sounds of hard labor are all given democratic weight in the film's soundtrack, so much so that they tend to overshadow the soft murmurs of scheming, questioning, and mundane dialogue filling out the background of the mix. It offers a palpable experience of the settlers' increasingly serious troubles in the vast expanse of a very severe and windswept Oregonian landscape. Jeff Grace's stripped-down ambient score, also, is a fitting reflection of the growing unease in these characters, never swelling up but remaining an insistent presence regardless, like the equivalent of a soft and relentless wind.
Typical of Reichardt's cinema is her empowerment of female characters (or perhaps it's more appropriate to simply say her empowerment of Michelle Williams), but it's not so much in any sort of predictable feminist fashion as it is an organic preoccupation with the underrepresented details of women. Reichardt vividly establishes the pre-existing gender hierarchy in the group - the women wake early in the morning when it's still dark to commence chores and remain focused on them throughout the day while the men do the heavy lifting of decision-making and independent exploration just out of earshot - only to undermine it later as the basis for firm decisions crumbles in on itself and Emily must carve her own solution. Her strong will receives its greatest test when the men reel in an enigmatic Native American (whose Apache language is effectively unsubtitled) and are forced to decide what to do with him. Meek, a rampant racist and xenophobe, loudly voices the idea to kill him, while the others, compassionate but nonetheless wary (and certainly xenophobic themselves), suggest they keep him as a more knowledgeable guide to water. Emily is the only member of the group who is willing to fearlessly approach the unnamed Indian (Rod Rondeaux), offering him water, food, and eventually re-stitching his moccasin so that, as she says, he will "owe her something". Williams is silently evocative in the role, her no-nonsense facial expressions cutting fiercely through the shadows cast on her dirty face by her oversized bonnet. In Reichardt's modest decision to single her behaviors out of the crowd, an offhand suggestion of the importance of women in the navigating of the West is unmistakable.
Also unmistakable, albeit nuanced and unfussy, are the political implications in this imposed division of leadership. The settlers, clearly the lower-class surrogates here, have little authority in the actual navigation of the landscape given their naked unfamiliarity with it, but they are nonetheless required to make a judgment about who best to follow: Meek, the equivalent of an unruly politician with his essential understanding of human nature as the manifestation of chaos and destruction, or the Indian, a tried-and-true native of the land with unknowable intentions. This ambiguity propels the drama forward, and the absence of any excess subplots really allows this conflict to be magnified. But Reichardt thankfully doesn't infringe any deterministic message either way, only gestures towards the potential advantages and disadvantages of both options. In a knockout scene towards the end, William collapses from dehydration and exhaustion, and in a presumed attempt to heal him, the Indian begins a native chant. The settlers look on with a mix of confusion, skepticism, and awe, but despite the seeming good-nature of his actions, Reichardt is not merely exposing the privileged ignorance of the settlers. There's also a lingering sense that the Indian is reacting only to mystical instinct and nothing more, or perhaps that he's sustaining a pretend acceptance so that his bloodlust towards the inhumane white-folk remains, for an indeterminate amount of time, unrecognized.
These questions reach their pinnacle in the final scene, and as expected, Reichardt chooses not to answer them, preferring to let the internal strife of the settlers extend to the audience. It's a certainly a bold and "unsatisfying" move that she makes to not resolve the conflicts that dominate her film, but it feels adequately suited to the reality of the situation, which involves a group of settlers wandering aimlessly through the unforgiving clutches of nature. Furthermore, it reinforces the concept Reichardt had been successfully establishing visually throughout: that the landscape is a never-ending vacuum of disorientation and ambivalence. A surrealistic dissolve early on does the trick wonderfully. As the settlers wander off frame in a static wide shot, suddenly a cowboy on a horse seems to step out into the sky from atop the hill in the background. Only slowly do we realize the film is performing an elaborately slow-paced shot-to-shot fade, and any sense of firm perspective is immediately shattered for the rest of the film. In Meek's Cutoff, the Oregon desert is a shifty, claustrophobic space, as much a natural phenomenon as it is a reflection of the torn psyches of the characters.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A meme initiated by Fandango Groover called "A Life in Movies" has been going around and the task is to choose a favorite film from every year since you were born. It's an interesting experiment because I have never thought about films in such a way. Of course I've thought about my favorite films from various years, but never specifically within the timeline of my own life. The only parameter I set for myself was that I couldn't choose more than two films by the same director (or else I could fill this thing up with a small handful of directors). So that's it. Here's my picks:
1991: Slacker (Richard Linklater)
The year I was born was, fittingly, also the year of the film that awakened both my critical interest in film as well as my desire to make films myself. Richard Linklater's Slacker, just barely edging out Kieslowski's Double Life of Veronique for the mere sake of personal significance, proved to me that something extraordinary and original could be fashioned from a small budget and nonprofessional actors, not to mention something plotless and semi-autobiographical. This is still one of the most enjoyable movies I know to watch, simply in the name of snappy philosophical dialogue and elegant tracking shots, and it's an indelible example of a filmmaker so effortlessly establishing a firm sense of time and place.
1992: Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann)
One of Michael Mann's simplest and most poetic films, and in a genre (historical epic) not familiar to his oeuvre, Last of the Mohicans is a fascinating and timeless fairy tale about love, violence, and nature. It's The New World before The New World, with nearly equal levels of woodsy rapture and an added injection of testosterone philosophizing. Every one of the film's action set pieces manages to simultaneously make the violence thrilling and revolting, with Mann's visceral, impressionistic filmmaking at its finest. There's probably some more complex films from this year - Kiarostami's Close-Up would certainly qualify as such - but none are quite as much of a euphoric adrenaline boost, and absolutely none boast the winning feature of intense mid-battle Daniel Day-Lewis expressions.
1993: Naked (Mike Leigh)
David Thewlis' showstopping portrayal of foul-mouthed drifter Johnny is still the most memorable in Mike Leigh's long line of larger-than-life anti-heroes, and it makes most contemporary stabs at a similar kind of brutish figure look tame in comparison. His spit-fire dialogue dominates nearly every scene so that the moments when he stops talking are loaded with immense contemplative power, which Leigh has a way of drawing attention to in his compassionate, probing close-ups.
1994: Satantango (Bela Tarr)
How does one do justice to such an ineffably moving film that is not two or three long hours but in fact seven, and whose every hour is so immaculately constructed that not a minute comes across as uneven? Well, one way to try is to do a series of posts on it attempting to grapple with its imposing beauty, but even then it seems beyond the scope of analysis. This is without question one of the finest works of art of the nineties, and it fully deserves your willingness to cover the windows (as the drunkard doctor does in the finale of the film) and watch it for a whole day.
1995: Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater)
The latter half of this rich and intelligent duo of films (Before Sunset) might be the wiser, more complex of the two, but Before Sunrise is a burst of old-fashioned romantic energy that feels fully genuine and never devolves into fake sentimentality (plus, I have a hard time not lumping them together as one film, a kind of Resnaisian experiment in the fracturing, distancing effect of time on love and kinship). I've never witnessed a more honest and open testament to spontaneous romance, one that is able to capture both the ecstatic energy and the crushing melancholy of it simultaneously.
I don't know if it's just the paltry output of films this year or simply my lack of exposure to a whole gamut of foreign releases (Kiarostami, Panahi, Hsiao-Hsien, Godard, Rivette, Von Trier, and Ming-Liang all released work this year), but I have nothing amazing to say about it. Fargo, widely considered the strongest American film of the year, is in my estimation the Coens' weakest film. Maybe Mars Attacks!?
1997: Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
Between Lost Highway, Ossos, The River, and The Ice Storm, 1997 was a fantastic year for cinema, but Taste of Cherry, as a rigorous meditation on mortality (and, like any good film about death, it's also inevitably about life), is absolutely devastating. I find the "epilogue" - its aesthetic "statement" aside - just a tad too much of a mood-killer to really be useful, but the film proper builds with quiet, sublime intensity, and Kiarostami knows exactly when to stay nondescript with his visuals and when to release something vast and metaphorically suggestive. The shot of Mr. Badii's shadow obscured by falling dirt at a desert construction site is perfection.
1998: The Celebration (Thomas Vinterburg)
Thomas Vinterburg's Dogme creation The Celebration is the epitome of what the short-lived "movement" strived for: a lean, gripping, no-frills production gaining all of its momentum from the rigor of its performances. The tale of an unveiling of secrets at a countryside reunion and the ultimate dissolution of the family in question, Vinterburg ratchets up the tension in grimy, humid interior sequences that give a mansion the feel of a claustrophobic tool-shed.
1999: Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick's final film, much to the feverish skepticism of some critics, is as mesmerizing and tactful as any of his great landmarks and it is attached to a concept that is uncharacteristically humanistic and intimate. The vision of New York City as a neon holiday fever dream is unmatched and Tom Cruise brings to the table one of his finest performances, an accumulation of subtle tensions and grievances that culminates in the notorious and haunting orgy sequence.
2000: Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr)
Quite simply one of my favorite movies - not to mention the inspiration for this blog - Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies somehow manages to one-up even the director's colossal Satantango with its bleakly gorgeous imagery and spare, apocalyptic narrative. It's a welcoming invitation to allegorical reverie, one of the most tantalizing films to dissect even as it maintains a blunt experiential force that belies intellectual detachment. Tarr creates an entire world that is separate from ours yet is figuratively relevant, and that is special.
2001: Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
Lynch's best movie encapsulates every one of his favorite themes - identity, desire, Hollywood, dreams - in a spellbinding yarn that is superficially convoluted but really rather simple and universal. In an attempt to cope with our perceived and often real inferiority, we duck into the idyllic luxuries of our desires, usually in a feverish flight from reality. Naomi Watts makes that transformation palpable and powerful, and Lynch's nightmarish imagery and brooding sound design completely alter one's perceptual basis for processing the world.
2002: City of God (Fernando Meirelles)
The only worthwhile film Fernando Meirelles has made is City of God, a tense and gritty work about the trials and tribulations of violent gangs in Rio de Janeiro that is sandwiched in between a handful of hyperbolic, manipulative, and overwrought globetrotting dramas. What's so poignant about the film is the way that it handles its vast scope - the story spans decades and covers a multitude of touchy subjects - with such intimacy, never drowning under the weight of its many stories and characters.
2003: Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Nowadays, I tend to fluctuate between Elephant and Gerry as my favorite Gus Van Sant film, but I figured that the former should get the billing because of the sheer impact of my first encounter with it. Gerry took a while to really hit home for me; Elephant wrecked me right away many years ago and was probably one of the most aesthetically striking films I'd seen up to that point. Van Sant's rigorous day-in-the-life-of structure is the perfect marriage for this harrowing build-up to high-school tragedy, an aggregation of details so precise and beautiful that when they are extinguished suddenly in the final outburst of violence, it's enormously devastating.
2004: The New World (Terrence Malick)
Having just seen The Thin Red Line (which I'll write about soon), I can say with conviction that The New World remains Malick's crowning achievement (although of course I can't speak for The Tree of Life, which I await like a giddy schoolboy). This is because Malick seems to grow as an artist with each picture, not simply exploring a new theme each time but adding more expansive inquiries to his ever-evolving rotation of concerns, and as such The New World is naturally his most jam-packed yet. It's a film that will speak eloquently to me every time I revisit and it seems that its tale of discovery and renewal is the ideal counterpoint for Malick's polyrythmic stylistic approach.
2005: Cache (Michael Haneke)
A comfortable bourgeois family. A mysterious tape. Violence and voyeurism. These are primal ingredients for a great thriller and they are the ones that are built into the fabric of Cache. But Michael Haneke, a filmmaker of evolving intelligence and subtlety, does not assemble them in quite the way the viewer would expect. The mystery is broadened and made metaphysical rather than concrete, turning the narrative away from sensationalism to psychology and politics. It's an extremely slight and organic maneuver that Haneke manages, but it ultimately allows Cache to be the thought-provoking meditation that it is as opposed to the taut and agreeable thriller it could have been.
2006: INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch)
Heavy anticipation and ultimately heated debate surrounded the release of David Lynch's fascinating digital experiment INLAND EMPIRE in 2006, much of the discourse dealing with whether Lynch's employment of shoddy prosumer cameras was a valuable artistic progression from the warmth of 35mm. It's tough to say, yet, if in the long run the answer will be yes, but certainly for INLAND EMPIRE the decision was extraordinary and unique, allowing Lynch to better adapt to the grimy illogic of his abstract narrative collage. To this date, it still strikes me as the most alarmingly effective use of the digital medium, a strategy that aims not to recreate filmic slickness but to embrace the ugly murkiness of bad pixellization.
2007: There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
There Will Be Blood is undoubtedly a new American classic, its immense cultural influence as a Kubrickian, postmodern western already rubbing off on a plethora of diverse films from The Road to Meek's Cutoff, not to mention spawning an irritating slew of parodies. But Anderson's actual film remains, obviously, the finest of all the spiritual antecedents and imitations, an epic vision of the open West as a corrupted arena of consumerism, a place where the powers of industry - of both oil and religion, which are treated as two sides of the same coin - have sculpted and degraded the pure majesty of the landscape.
2008: Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Most installation artist-to-director transformations lead to stylistically innovative films loaded with so many ideas that they fall apart somewhat as satisfying full-lengths (think Julien Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is periodically beautiful but cumulatively insignificant). Steve McQueen's Hunger is a different story: an unflinching visual poem chronicling the IRA Hunger Strike in British prisons in the 1980's, the film is so assured and complete as a narrative, thematic, and aesthetic statement that it stood up winningly against most conventional "director films" in 2008 (of course, this being a fruitful year with films like Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, The Wrestler, and Still Walking). Hunger is gorgeous, revolting, and mesmerizing all at once.
2009: Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso)
The strongest effort to date from Argentinian minimalist Lisandro Alonso, Liverpool is a moving contemplative chronicle of one enigmatic, seemingly shattered individual that generously allows the eye to wander around the tactile, nondescript compositions. Alonso slips you into an unremarkable world and asks you to take it or leave it. I took it, and the rewards were immeasurable.
2010: Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Frammartino's magical yet plainly down-to-earth and unsophisticated cycle of life essay met my eager eyes at the beginning of this year to knock Martin Scorsese's ecstatically enjoyable career comeback Shutter Island out of its top spot for 2010. Any regret or skepticism now a few weeks away? No, not really. This is an utterly delightful film that has a cosmic sense of humor and acceptance, and its eye-opening command of non-human performers suggests that there must have been something supernatural going on during the production. Perhaps they were slipping church dust into their water?
Be sure to check out Jake's list over at Not Just Movies too!
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Douglas Sirk's lean, straightforward melodrama All That Heaven Allows is built around the tensions between the public and personal self, particularly those that developed in the suburbs of 1950's middle America. The film's main character is Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), an aging upper-class widow whose unwillingness to upset both her college-aged children and her snobbish circle of friends forces her to disobey her own natural feelings of love towards an unfashionable, flannel-wearing nurseryman named Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) who is decades younger than her. A more conservative film of the time might have used the May-December romance as a mere comic sidenote, something to laugh at or see as bizarre, but here Sirk embraces the unconventionality of it, staying true to the sensitive feelings of his protagonists while mocking the petty concerns of Cary's peers. It's a biting, nearly angry satire that sides with intuition and the peaceful non-judgment of nature (literalized in Ron's bucolic country home and simple way of living) over the stern formalities of typical domestic life.
As progressive as Sirk's sociocultural commentaries may have been, the script's actual methods of telegraphing them are so blunt and on-the-nose that the characters might as well just address the camera and say what the movie is about. Cary's country club parties, the ones where everyone wears pastel sports jackets and whispers about other couples on the dance floor, are designed largely to make the superficiality of the adults brazenly obvious, as Sirk manages the frame such that there's always a pair of ladies smirking in the background at Cary's surprising romantic decision. Through most of it, Wyman sustains a cosmetically pouty face that screams conflicted, tugging irresistibly at the audience's sympathies. The tension reaches its climax when Cary invites Ron to one of said parties, waging a socioeconomic divide whose intensity escalates quickly after a drunk club member kisses Cary against her will. Having only scenes before been angrily approached by her son (William Reynolds) and daughter (Gloria Talbott) about the prospect of marrying a yokel like Ron and moving out of the storied family home, Cary's inner conflicts, too, reach their apex.
Screenwriting silliness ends up dominating the heartfelt emotions of the narrative when the exact resentment revealed when Cary introduces her planned marriage suddenly turns to apathy in the beginning of the third act. The self-obsessed children return home to regale their mother with new elements in their lives - for the daughter, a husband, and for the son, a new job - that necessitate leaving the same home they insisted should never be sold earlier in the film. In the blink of an eye, the seemingly deep moral oppositions held by the characters are tossed to the wayside and revealed as merely skin-deep, suggesting that the posing about their father's "legacy" was nothing more than a stubborn ruse to dissuade their mother from marrying someone they had no interest in. Were it not so schematic, the emotions here are actually quite devastating, and in some ways the simple power of a lonely woman trying desperately to break free from the straitjacket imposed on her by her family and friends outweighs the often times hilariously unsubtle manner in which it is fashioned.
There's also, to be sure, a certain charm to the story's clunky ways of delivering its ideas. After all, Sirk decidedly lends the film the aura of a fairy-tale-like parable where the good guys and the bad guys (in this case, agrarianism and modernity) are made larger than life. This bombast is quite strikingly reflected in the film's visuals, its most critical feature and the area through which it achieves a singular heft specific to Sirk's melodramas. The entire film is awash in rich complementary colors, most of which emanate from seemingly arbitrary areas of the frame for the simple fact of stylization. Sirk's representation of Cary's home, a dark, uninviting place (inevitably so since it's the tomb of her husband), is almost noir in its slick, harsh shadows and glowing lamps, often bouncing off of objects in unexpected (and frankly probably unintentional) directions. By contrast, Ron's barn is impossibly warm and lovely (and not only because Ron's sprucing it up throughout the film to make it more romantic), its light sources largely natural, albeit heightened. If Sirk's rendering of suburbia was a cinematic distillation of all the competing emotions and brewing secrets of domestic life, his portrayal of nature utilizes the same approach reversed - all the peace, the freedom, and the love, exaggerated. The ending offers up a tad too much Disney sugarcoating for me to swallow, but it's hard not to at least admire Sirk's romantic vision of natural love and his film's ultimate embrace of rural living, even if both are of the distinctly watered-down variety that only 1950's Hollywood could have doled out so unapologetically.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
So far, 2011 for me has been very much the year of cinematic metempsychosis, which is certainly to say it's been a unique and eye-opening few months of film viewing to be sure. I guess I could say Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void somewhat blandly opened the floodgates at the end of last year with an old-fashioned human to human reincarnation, but ever since I've frequently witnessed the cycle of existence being broadened and redefined. Like The New World and Le Quattro Volte - the former only figuratively evoking these themes and the latter dealing directly with them - Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest Cannes winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is fixated on the idea that life vibrates in everything, as well as the suggestion that our conventional view of a lifetime full of experiences and memories need not apply only to humans. Furthermore, these films offer a perpetual shuffling of consciousnesses. Spontaneously and with reckless abandon, they will switch "protagonists" from human to animal to tree to wind to dust, caring nothing for the Hollywood paradigm that only a person can carry a story.
If Apichatpong's seems the most "Buddhist" of these films from the outset, it's largely because the Thai director has grown increasingly fashionable over the past year, forcing overzealous journalists to fit him inside an exotic box. Truth is, any given set of tenets likely didn't even enter Weerasethakul's purview during his making of the film. What he's after is more personal, a reflection of a highly specific constellation of concerns he has built into his artistic personality throughout his career and life. Uncle Boonmee is a tribute to memory and history, and what's so fascinating about it is that its many histories - personal, cinematic, political, as well as the history of Weerasethakul's own career and that of his titular character - are working in sync throughout the film on a rocky timeline that jolts from present to past to future as if the concept of time is merely of practical use. The particular sequence of events Weerasethakul is unfolding is nonlinear, but not in the sense that it is needlessly fragmented and could be refashioned in a way that makes linear causal sense. Weerasethakul unites his scenes through feeling and the progression that results is a purely metaphysical one.
The crux of the film, as the humorously blunt title makes clear enough, is Uncle Boonmee himself (Thanapat Saisaymar), an old farmer dying from kidney disease in the impoverished and climatically severe northeast portion of Thailand called Laos. This underrepresented region was the setting for Weerasethakul's short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (a prologue of sorts to the feature), and its devastating history of Communist oppression and immigrant exploitation weighs heavily on Boonmee, who regretfully was forced to join Communist forces in a handful of farmland massacres in the 1960s. Boonmee is haunted by these experiences as he steadily approaches his death, and the occasion musters up apparitions of his past lives in a variety of forms. But despite Boonmee's rather ugly past, Weerasethakul views his situation with compassion. After all, from his perspective of life, it would be disingenuous to judge a being based on one of its individual life spans when so many others are available to pull spiritual renewal from.
And that is ultimately what Weerasethakul is doing with the film's abstract form: seeking spiritual renewal in cinematic renewal. Uncle Boonmee is a very modular film made up of different vignettes, many of them episodes from what we can only guess are Boonmee's past lives. The film begins on one in which a bull breaks free from its rope and charges into the woods in the Laos countryside at dusk. The animal's liberation is quite moving, but shortly thereafter its owner appears in the scene to round him up, bringing him back to his farm. Whether Boonmee is in the shape of the animal or the human is left to the imagination, but given his present sense of guilt it is tempting to view him as the bull, especially since so many of the film's other vignettes deal with some form of liberation from social or domestic norms. The best of these is a mini narrative featuring a princess who takes a break from her fanciful ride through the jungle on the shoulders of male servants to admire a luminous waterfall (shades of The Last of the Mohicans). In the manner of a fairy tale, she sees a reflection of her younger self in the water and grows angry at the youthful beauty she believes she has now lost. One of the servants - with whom the princess makes amorous eye-contact a moment earlier - approaches and reassures her that she is beautiful, which has the reverse effect of augmenting her disappointment. The surprising arrival of a talking catfish manages to soothe her pain in an idiosyncratic episode of metaphysical underwater sex.
Weerasethakul shoots these scenes with dreamlike immediacy and an old-fashioned day-for-night effect that bolsters the deep blues and greens in the color palette. In the princess sequence, the film's stylization jockeys unexpectedly between the mannered staging, framing, and visual effects of a 60's costume drama and something more termitic, with loose, documentary-like compositions (the close-up of the servant from the princess's point of view stands out) and a handheld camera that reacts spontaneously to Weerasethakul's odd catfish sex scenario. The princess, floating around in the whirlpool, gives herself up to the fish, at which point the camera ducks under the water between her legs to fill the frame with bubbles. It's the film's most abstract image, quickly turning away from the narrative for a purely formal investigation of the agitated water. That the bubbles gradually come to resemble sperm eggs only enhances the film's all-encompassing love of life, the fact that new lives seem to be crop up everywhere, even in the throes of bestiality. Weerasethakul holds on the bubbles for quite some time, letting a deep underwater rumble dominate the soundtrack, but still I had an itch for him to keep the shot on screen for even longer as it's one of the film's most memorable and entrancing images.
Human-animal sex is not a new subtext in Weerasethakul's work, but here it acquires added prominence and a uniquely comic effect. It's viewed as a passage from human to animal, a transformation from a domesticated entity to something more untamed, a creature without limitations and boundaries, and it's reflected most hilariously in the film's kookiest invention: the monkey ghost. This red-eyed ape, a hulking beast that looks curiously like some bad sci-fi monster from a B movie, first appears in the woods where the bull escapes to. The moment feels like the entrance of the monolith in 2001: all of a sudden a pair of red eyes just emerge in the darkness without context or explanation. Clarification is saved for a scene about 15 minutes later when Boonmee, his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and Jen's son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee, who plays a notable role in Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century) sit on the porch at night. After Boonmee's long-dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears in ghost form at the table - eliciting not fear and uncertainty but a jovial family reunion complete with a photo album - a monkey ghost approaches from the darkness, its eyes at first the only visual indicator of its presence. When it does arrive at the table, it reveals itself as Boonmee's long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). Boonsong admits to wandering into the forest to "mate with a monkey ghost" many years ago, which turned him into one of them for good. Following the slight shock of this revelation, the conversation continues in the manner of a rather prosaic family reunion, with Boonmee asking the simple questions a father would normally ask a son he has not seen for years.
This casual acceptance of that which is unknown and extraordinary is omnipresent in the film, and it has the effect of aligning the more overtly mystical elements directly with Weerasethakul's dry country realism. There is a notion of counterbalance everywhere in the film: personal and political, past and present, archaic (Weerasethakul's conscious integration of older cinematic techniques and 16mm) and modern (the sanitary urban funeral mass at the end of the film, the credit song by Penguin Villa that sounds like Thailand's answer to the Jonas Brothers). Right after the porch sequence, Weerasethakul expels the mystical elements for the subsequent scene, a straightforward afternoon walk through the farm between Boonmee and Jen in which the two of them lick fresh honey from the roof of a bee hive. Moments like this one have the kind of lazy countryside patience typical of Weerasethakul's work. His long takes focusing on relaxation and healing (quite literally in one shot inside the house with Tong tending to Boonmee's kidney disease) allow for a gentle respite from the ghost story, which is not to say that the latter doesn't share the same willful restraint.
The film's political undertones simmer to the foreground in the final thirty minutes when Boonmee, Jen, and Tong enter a cave in the jungle at dusk, obeying an instinct Boonmee had during a recollection of a past life. Their journey through the thick jungle brush is riveting, as Weerasethakul's dense soundtrack communicates the idea that the woods are vibrating with life especially at this late hour (of course, an offhand shot of a pack of monkey ghosts confirms that they are). Once in the cave, as fireflies glimmer off the ceiling, Boonmee relates a troubling story of countryside warfare and oppression, to which the film provides a series of still photographs. The photographs, interestingly enough taken as documents of Weerasethakul's own brief filmmaking history in the region, particularly during the production of A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, feature soldiers inspecting the farmland and eventually men dressed in ape costumes communing with the soldiers. It's a radical hybrid of Boonmee and Weerasethakul's memories and an unexpected aesthetic choice for such a crucial moment in the film, but it pays off beautifully, suggesting that the unity of collective history can provide catharsis from oncoming death.
Additional heft is invited to the death scene in its allusions to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In Boonmee's story, he speaks of monkey ghosts inside caves being spotlighted obtrusively by xenophobic soldiers (obviously paralleling the exploitation of illegal immigrants in the area), an image that recalls Plato's discussion of a group of individuals finally seeing the light beyond the shadows on the cave's wall. Shortly thereafter, Jen wakes up on the cave floor in the morning with Boonmee's dead body beside her. She's positioned halfway in the dark of the cave and halfway in the morning light, and as she sits up her body becomes fully lit. In doing so, Weerasethakul discovers a way to make the death of his human protagonist an instance of uplifting enlightenment, because after all Boonmee has many more lives to live. It's this generosity, this ability to find renewal in the end of something, that makes Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives such a warmly transcendent film. In its lament of the death of Boonmee and even the death of an old way of cinema, Weerasethakul is also looking ahead to the mysteries that lay beyond.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
(DISCLAIMER: This is my final paper for a course I took this past semester called Narrative Ethics. The class necessarily mandates a moral engagement with narratives, an attempt to investigate how moral theories are reflected through stories. As such, I had to take into account extreme points of view and analyze them, so it might come across as preachy or superior. However, I should stress that as much as it's fun to pick apart Tarantino, I think Pulp Fiction is his best work yet.)
The notion of media as an influencing factor on the lives of viewers in America is a topic that has been endlessly debated ever since the advent of motion pictures. The moment the Lumiere brothers pointed their camera at an oncoming train, it caused mass hysteria and fear, the idea that the visual illusion was actually an extension of real life. But it didn’t just start with film; stories, in general, have forever had a curious ability to shape the lives of the participant. Because deeming any narrative an effective one means evaluating a level of participation we have with the story, the very act of consuming narratives becomes one in which we are complicit in the acts of the characters. As a result, this can lead to a certain kind of passivity in the viewer that allows stories to have an almost subconscious authoritative sway.
Filmmaking in the late 1900’s and early 21st century has taken a particularly radical turn towards depicting violence and other matters of human debasement in an extremely graphic, unapologetic manner. As a result, there has been a rise in critical concern about the control narratives have over the morals and behaviors of viewers, particularly young and impressionable ones. The history of this discourse hit a fascinating point after the release of Quentin Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994, a film that picked up where other controversial American narratives like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Clockwork Orange (1971) left off, presenting drugs, violence, and urban crime in a hip and irreverent way that pushed several buttons in the sensitive psyche of America. Of course, there was also an entire counterculture that worshipped the film for its adventurous and fearless spirit, which is precisely where much of the anxiety arose. If so many films have a positive impact on audiences for their joyful and wholesome qualities, did Pulp Fiction represent an instance where the film’s ambiguous attitude towards the story’s depravity and the simple bravura with which it presented this depravity actually negatively impact the moral pulse of the audiences who loved it?
The answer is not so clear-cut, but the question certainly provides a great deal of room for contemplation. There’s no doubting that Pulp Fiction, in light of what a sheer provocation that it is, is destined to have some impact on the viewer. Whether this is a positive or negative one, or somewhere in between, is heavily dependent on several different things: the actual moral stance of the filmmaker and the ultimate trajectory of his narrative, the ability for the viewer to actively engage with the narrative to a point where they can decipher the moral stance at the heart of the film, and all the inevitable contradictions that can arise in the aesthetics and tone of the film. Essentially, the response that a film like this receives hinges massively upon how intelligent and sensitive both the filmmaker and the audience is.
After so many years of study and repeat viewings, it’s become somewhat clear that, at heart, Tarantino has no intentions of simplistically promoting the horrible actions of his characters, that he’s not just presenting a subversive narrative to ape people of their sense of moral grounding and position them in the minds of psychopathic criminals. In fact, if one watches reasonably closely, Pulp Fiction is quite obviously structured as a violent spiral towards ultimate salvation and a sense of existential renewal. If it’s not openly criticizing the acts of its characters – namely Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Ringo (Tim Roth), Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), among many others – then it’s at least suggesting that at the end of the film they have decided to seek a new and perhaps better path, one of righteousness and non-violence. If the startling violence, swearing, and racial slurring is what sticks in the mind of the viewer, it’s only because Tarantino allows the bulk of the film to center around such aspects before exorcising them in the final moments of grace, not because he necessarily prefers those elements and wants them to be the most influential.
Yet it’s also clear that they are the most influential ingredients of Pulp Fiction, and the comparatively meager portion of righteous renewal at the end of the film is but a small side note to the rest of the film’s hypnotic onslaught of depravity. After witnessing an hour and a half of action-packed killing, drugging, boozing, and disrespecting, a viewer is less likely to see the ideological undertones of the final scenes than they are to see them in a strictly narrative sense as a way to tidily and calmly “complete” the story. A young, impressionable viewer in particular – that is, a viewer without a nuanced understanding of filmmaking and simply without such a long history of experiencing narratives – is prone to being swept under the spell of Pulp Fiction’s admittedly gripping narrative momentum, happily lost in the maelstrom of action to the point where they are not actively thinking about the story’s implications as it flies by. As a result, the turnaround of Jules Winnfield, Vincent Vega, Ringo, and Yolanda in the concluding scene of the film is not going to register beyond the domain of a narrative maneuver. Put in other words, the viewer will not see it as anything with a carefully chosen meaning, a meaning that puts to shame all the actions these characters performed earlier in the story.
What they will see, potentially, is how cool and suave Vincent and Jules are when they murder someone for pay, how naturally Mia Wallace snorts cocaine, and how easily Ringo and Yolanda go about executing an intended robbery. This is because Tarantino’s stylistic palette has a way of perhaps unintentionally celebrating the same acts he goes on to subtly condemn later in the film. An enduring issue at the center of this kind of filmmaking is how one goes about cinematically representing behaviors that are not virtuous, and in this instance Tarantino has a hard time not making these scenes seem fun and exciting, if not always rewarding. His swift editing, bold camera movements, and big close-ups that allow the viewer to see the casual thrill in the character’s eyes as they execute another job manage to sometimes feel like the equivalent of a sporting event. In the first scene when Jules and Vincent murder a group of guys who betrayed their boss Marsellus Wallace, the anticipation builds with Jules’ impassioned recitation of a Biblical verse right before he fires repetitively at his human target, at which point Tarantino cuts dramatically between the bloody body and Jules’ seemingly guiltless mug. It’s very easy to see the sickness of the act if one is able to pry themselves out of the film’s immersive rhythms, but if not, the scene comes across as celebratory and justified, as if Jules’ target got the revenge he deserved.
There are other ways, however, that Tarantino attempts to quickly prove that the characters’ behaviors were not as easy and faultless as they might have seemed. In the subsequent scene, Vincent mistakenly pulls the trigger on one of their surviving hostages in the backseat of their car, forcing them to make a decision about what to do with the bloody corpse in broad daylight. It seems like a small effort on Tarantino’s part to provide some sort of punishment to the two hitmen, yet it’s still not too earth shattering a predicament for them. Also muddying up his cause is the generally casual tone with which he presents the scene. Vincent and Jules are so relaxed about their accidental killing – not to mention more concerned about the fact that they might be arrested than about the fact that they just killed an innocent due to a careless mistake – that it’s almost as if Tarantino doesn’t see it as a problem either. Here, in the context of media persuasion, Pulp Fiction verges ever closer to ethically questionable by treating human life as a mere inconvenience to these smug and self-satisfied characters. If Jules and Vincent’s dialogue wasn’t so hip and coolly conversational, the scene might play out as an instant condemnation of their cruelty. But because they are shown as relaxed and fun guys to be around, the intent of the scene is harder to pick out and the negative influence becomes that much more powerful.
To say that Jules and Vincent actually influence the morals of a viewer is to say that their charismatic personas are so desirable that their behaviors are equated with achieving such a persona. For the impressionable viewer, personality and action can merge into the same entity of attraction, such that racial insensitivity, murder, and drug use are perceived as OK because in many instances they are presented as such in the context of the film. Quickly, a behavior or viewpoint reflected through the characters in the film becomes a behavior or viewpoint that a viewer actively tries to incorporate in a real-world situation in an effort to achieve the same kind of fully realized sense of self that Jules and Vincent possessed. The extremity of this adaptation can certainly vary among viewers, in that one individual might only take with them some of the character’s mannerisms or slang words whereas in a much more severe case an individual could even end up murdering someone.
The latter is a situation that has never, to my knowledge, been explicitly documented, at least in the context of Pulp Fiction, but the possibility seems to not be beyond the scope of imagination. All of this depends, of course, on the pre-existing moral compass of the viewer before watching the film as well as their ability to discern the fundamental ethical questions a narrative attempts to engage with. Given the adequate circumstances of a viewer with a firm sense of moral opposition to the uglier behaviors endorsed by the characters, Pulp Fiction reveals itself more noticeably as a film that aims not to negatively influence viewers but to propose a situation where immoral characters find themselves choosing a more honorable route through life, a route that values self-actualization and the avoidance of harm to others. When Jules refrains from shooting Ringo in the final moments of the film and lets him go peacefully, likening the whole affair to the same Biblical verse he used in his earlier killing, Tarantino is framing the whole narrative as a healing device, a way to forgive those who have allowed themselves to behave wrongly.
Thus arises the elusive difficulty of a work like this: even as its narrative poses as a celebration of moral fortitude through the final choices of its characters, it can still contradict itself through the very progression of the narrative. As much as Jules’ refusal to kill Ringo is not represented as “uncool”, the actions that precede this big decision are demonstrated as “cool”. This puts the viewer in a tough situation, perhaps a situation that is itself concerned with ethics: passively let the narrative entertain you as it was designed to and at least consciously let go of the will to deconstruct, or maintain a critical detachment and observe the narrative’s ideological leaps as they occur. If moral footing exists to begin with, both options should result in an identical response whether positive or negative, but if a moral template for reacting to the world is not yet developed, a narrative like Pulp Fiction can run the risk of doing as much damage as a more wholesome narrative can do good.