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Archive for August, 2010

Amelie

The world is full of, above all else, details, facts, truths. Anything we can know is one of these. On August 25th 2010, I woke at 7:10 AM with a stuffy nose. I fumbled around in my room for 5 minutes because I could not find my glasses. I ate a piece of toast which I put into the toaster with a heat setting of 7, burning the toast. I brushed my teeth before I ate the toast, and forgot to brush again after. I like falling asleep to the sound of a clothes dryer in motion, steeping my tea for over 1/2 hour, and leaving all the lights off except for one when I am home alone at night. These are things about me that are true and accurate. But, they are not very interesting, are they? Or, are they?

This 2001 film, “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain”, might say otherwise. Amelie opens with a narration of unrelated events; the temperature on a certain day, the fact that a waiter forgot some glasses atop a table, and other quirky minutiae. But one of these events is significant to us, the movie watcher. A sperm and egg are about to meet, and give rise to a process that will eventually produce Amelie Poulain, the hero of the film. We see that, of all the things that happen in the universe, even this most important event is indeed part of a set which includes all of the others. At this thought, I find myself asking “so, why is the conception and birth of Amelie, or any of the other events that center around her or the story of this movie, significant to me, or to anyone else? Generally, how do we determine the facts, events, things, or relationships that are valuable to us?” The movie provides its answer to this somewhat weezlingly dry philosophical question by saying, “shhhhhhhhhh. Watch the beautiful film that I am. I won’t tell you the answer. I will show you the answer. And you tell me if it feels right.”

Amelie is raised by her anti-social and shy (but loveable) father; she eventually moves out to live by herself, and starts working at a local cafe as a waitress. She “cultivates a world of small pleasures”. Little things that alleviate the loneliness that is a creeping feature in the back of her life. Like running her hands through bags of grain. Or skipping stones in a canal. Amelie lives in relative comfort but is ultimately all by herself; and this eventually becomes the only thing that really matters to her. One day, after spending the night in a train station, when she arrives too late to catch the line home, she first sees Nico. She sees him, and alongside him, a glimpse of a world beyond the small pleasures. A world of big broad strokes of fulfillment and connection. As it turns out, Nico is very much like Amelie. He too is an oddity, when it comes to the things he likes. He spends his free hours tweezing torn up pictures out from under subway photo-booths, re-assembling the pictures, and placing them in his scrap-book. Or taking photo-graphs of various foot and hand prints in cement. Or recording the various types of odd laughter he hears. If he had just looked into her eyes at that moment, he might have seen the world of joy that Amelie desires. But he is distracted.

The story drives forward, centering on this romantic possibility. But I won’t ruin that piece for you. I’ll say a little bit more about what it’s like to watch this film. I don’t think I can communicate the joy that this movie promotes. Like its themes, the movie focuses on the small things. Everything director Jean-Pierre Jeunet decides to show us on-screen is whimsically lovely and colorful, and fascinating. The objects that Amelie keeps in her house; the fruits and vegetables of the local grocer. The suitcase that flies off of Nico’s bicycle as he speeds away. There is this feeling; we are being urged to wonder at reality again, in a way that young children do. Everything is clear, and fresh, and fascinating! And, these small joys layer on top of each other, until you really do enter that state of wonder, in the world of Amelie.

This spirit of wonder is the films answer to my earlier question, I think. The world is full of isolated facts, some extraordinary, and some utterly mundane. But there is this wonder in all of them; and it is up to us to apply that wonder to the things that cause us to melt into a puddle. To go with our gut, get out in the world, and find wonder and connection, period. I could be wrong. Watch this movie friends. The themes I tried to flesh out a little bit here, if it is even a fair analysis, are only a few of the ones offered up. This movie is a feast, and joyous one at that :).

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Lord of the Flies

There are only a few other movies that make me as deeply sad as Peter Brook’s 1963 film “Lord of the Flies”. But sometimes I can have a melancholic temperament, so I keep re-watching it. Fortunately, there is more to this movie than the ideas conveyed through it. It is also a visual feast. It is one of my all time favorites for just this right balance between visceral and intellectual effectiveness it achieves, and also for very satisfactorily translating William Golding’s novel (one of my favorite books) to film.

The movie opens with a slide show, of pictures of a British public school. Very civilized activities are occurring. We hear a tutor read Geometry and Latin lessons, a group of relaxed people watch a cricket game. A boy’s choir sings the hymn Kyrie Eleison (lord have mercy), and is politely applauded. But then, tribal-sounding percussion takes over the soundtrack. There is a war on. There are explosions, massive bomber wings fill the sky, and the picture of one plane going down, flashed after a picture of a group of school boys, is the last shot we see. A piercing cymbal crash.

Buzzing flies. Ralph awakes, lying in the jungle of a tropical island. It was his plane that crashed. He is marooned with about thirty other boys, mostly younger than him. He meets a boy who is given only the nickname Piggy. He is a tubby boy, and a very intelligent boy. Ralph and Piggy form a sort of bond, a tentative alliance, while swimming in the ocean, comforting themselves after the trauma they have just come through. They have arrived in a tropical paradise. Indeed, the Puerto-Rican locations where they shot this film are absolutely gorgeous even in crisp black and white. And then they find the conch shell, the object that will be used throughout the film to symbolize the echoes of the boys’ past life. Indeed, sounding from the blown conch is the call to nobility, to order, and right morality. This shot took my breath away: we see the conch drift in on the surf, waiting, as if it had been placed there by God. When Ralph plucks it from the ocean and sounds the call, the other boys come to him, respecting the authority of the deep tones that come from within the shell.

That authority is immediately challenged. Some of the boys who gather on the beach for a council are part of a choir; They are led by Jack. He is a fearsome child, full of all sorts of unrest. He leads his choir of black cloaked angels, singing “Lord Have Mercy, Kyrie Eleison!” across the pristine white beach. Joining up with the other boys, he immediately starts quarreling with Ralph and Piggy, seeking control, and the freedom to do exactly as he pleases. After he and Ralph and another boy named Simon determine that a signal-fire must be lit from the top of a mountain, Jack asserts, “Got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English! And the English are better than everything. So we’ll have lots of rules. And when anybody breaks them…”.

Jack is the one who starts to break them. He has arrived on the island with a cloaked lust for blood. He encounters a squealing piglet in the forest. At first he holds the knife to its throat, and can’t bring himself to kill it. He does much more than that later. He and his choir take on the rule of hunters. They return from their hunts shocked at the violence they are committing, all splattered with blood. One day Jack takes his crew hunting instead of attending to the fire. A boat sails by; the crestfallen look on Ralph’s face, and his anger when he discovers that it was Jack who dropped the ball, are so wonderfully expressed on James Aubrey’s face, the untrained actor cast as Ralph. But Jack has decided that he will take not another scolding or corralling from anyone else ever again. He splits off from Ralph’s tribe, taking most of the others under his sway. He wants to have “fun”. He will not play by the rules anymore. He becomes a “savage”; he covers his body in strange dyes, masking his appearance. The choir boys look like frightful demons now. They beat each other for fun, they don’t worry one bit about keeping the signal fire going, or about getting home.

Things on the Island do not turn out very well for any of the boys. It is a good island when they arrive; there are a great deal of fruit trees, a healthy population of wild pigs. If only they could work together, if only they could live “sensibly”. Or so Piggy says. Piggy has the deepest faith in “the rules” of any of the boys. He is always making reference to his auntie, or to the old world back home. In boring detail he describes the etymological origin of the name of his home-town, Camberly. He frequently uses the excuse of his “ass-mar” for not doing anything risky, on account of his auntie not approving. “Grown-ups sit down and have tea and talk things out” he says. Oughtn’t the boys behave like adults?

But indeed, I think Piggy, that the world is full of adults. Unfortunately, as we learned from the title sequence, those adults are just as much at each others throats as the boys on the island eventually become. The Island is destroyed in the end. The fool, the beast, the Übermensch, the unrestrained id in Jack cannot hold himself back. The boys that Peter Brook and crew recruited to act in this film are just spot on. None of them were professional actors, so some of the performances feel a bit awkward. But little boys are awkward and surprising. The facial expressions of Ralph and Jack in particular are to celebrated for their realism. The pain at the loss of innocence, and the emerging inner brute are right there for us to see. The darkness of man is not just a sad, albeit livable fact. The burning of the island in the end is final; if not for a horribly ironic deus ex machina, all the boys would have died. The launching of a nuclear arsenal is a final decision. One that any of us might make, if only on accident. After all, even our defacto hero, Ralph, ends up committing a horrible atrocity. Barring our own deus ex machina, things will not turn out all right. So this film would suggest. I need to drink some tea. I’ll give some to Ralph, cheer him up a bit :).

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Jindabyne

Jindabyne is a film about family bonds not easily broken…no matter how hard we might try.  This 2006 Australian drama takes place in the small town of Jindabyne, a quiet little town where everyone seems to know about other people’s business.  It stars an ensemble cast led by Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney.

This film is an honest portrayal of people on the edge, driven mad by the mundane routine of everyday life.  Gabriel Byrne plays Stewart, a former Race Car Driver who now runs a Car maintenance shop and is married to Laura Linney’s Claire.  They have one young child together and their marriage seems fine from the surface.  Stewart and Claire are the centerpiece of a group of couples that spend most of their free time together.  They are all tied together in some ways and each relationship is layered with different intricate difficulties and unique personalities.  The Men (Stewart, Carl, Rocco, and Billy) leave for an annual fishing trip, and the Women (Claire, Jude, Carmel, and Elissa) hang out with each other during the weekend.

As the men leave we know a little about the characters, and all of them seem to be not quite happy with their life situations.  Claire has an obvious mistrust for Stewart’s Mother, who has come into town to help watch their child.  Claire also seems to be having some medical issues that she is trying to hide from everyone.  Jude is a middle-aged alcoholic who has never really dealt with the loss of her daughter.  Carmel is the local elementary school teacher who ties these two families together as both of the children under their guardianship are in the same class.

The film opens with a crime, we are not shown the length of it at first but eventually are let in to the fact that a murder has taken place and the body has been dumped out by the river.  The Men’s trip quickly turns from whimsical and escapist to morbid and terrifying as Stewart finds this body floating in the lake that they were planning to fish in.  The Men debate over what to do, and soon realize that no matter what the girl will be dead and decide to tether her to a branch and fish for a day before returning home from their vacation.  This choice sets off the action for the rest of the film.

When the Men return home much is made of their decision to leave the dead body instead of immediately reporting it to the authorities.  The Men themselves seem to be confused on why they did what they did.  When they are fishing they seem drunk off of the beauty of the landscape and lost in how mystical the woods and forest can be.  This is an idea that is alluded to across all mediums of creativity.  Stories such as Robin Hood or A Midsummer’s Night Dream draw on this idea of freedom and a powerful life force existing in the woods.  There are often shots from the point of view of a far off observer of the men in the forest, hinting at another presence that is supernatural in these woods.

Whatever the reason for their choice the consequences are wide ranging.  The news makes headlines in the papers; people trash the men’s workplaces, Aboriginal people call it a hate crime due to the nationality of the men being white and the murder victim being Aboriginal.  The perspectives here are interesting to see, as the men don’t understand why it is such a big deal for them to have done what they did.  However the women, Claire in particular, cannot live with the decision their men have made.  Claire begs to know what happened from Stewart, however he is all too willing to brush it under the carpet, like everything seems to be in Jindabyne: A town with many secrets.  This issue brings these up, and the couples are forced to deal with the demons of their past.  The issues and wrongdoings of the past are never explained, merely referred to.  This serves to show the audience that there may not even be a true recognition of these events, merely the harsh and broken feelings that were the result.

The film also powerfully depicts the Grand Canyon between Men and Women.  I would have really enjoyed seeing this with a Female to see what she thought of the men’s decision as I found myself consistently siding with the male.  My bias became so obvious that I began really disliking the female characters and all of the choices that they were making.  I just wished that they didn’t make such a big deal out of nothing.  In many ways this took me into the perspective of the men, I had the same frustrations they did.  I experienced the same spectrum of emotion, which is a great deal to say about a film.

The scene that perfectly sums this film up for me occurs at the beginning.  Stewart is with his son, teaching him to fish at a lake by their house.  He catches something that ends up being an old clock, and Stewart informs us that old Jindabyne is beneath the Lake, washed over when a new Dam was put in years ago.  In Jindabyne, the past is a murky place, a place no one dares go.  However every once in a while, something rises to the surface.

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