Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I've been putting off writing about Exotica, I think partially because I like it so much, and partially because I think it is a difficult movie to write about for an audience who hasn't seen it. To some extent this is a function of how thriller-like the plot is. The end of the film has that kind of "ah ha" feeling that typically one only finds in a well done murder mystery, and while there is a murder in Exotica it is not solved and the resolution to the film has little to do with it.

I was thinking a bit about why Exotica is such a compelling film to me. I think there are a few elements it brings together in a pretty unique way. The first I think is the humanity and complexity of the characters. Some of my favorite movies (Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game) are my favorites because the characters defy typical characterization and stereotyping and reveal their humanity and complexity. While in any other war film Von Rauffenstein might be portrayed as the cruel german officer, in Grand Illusion the reality of his character and the sacrifices he has made out of a sense of duty to a no longer existing world evokes our sympathy. Exotica is full of those kinds of characters -- people who when we first see them we think "Oh I understand this person," but as we see more of them and the true complexity of their lives becomes apparent we are forced to re-evaluate them and their relationships.

There is a tendency in film and in life for us to immediately categorize people based on our first impressions and minor easily seen elements of who they are. Film makers often successfully use this as a tool -- we don't need to know the details of Han Solo's life preceeding the Star Wars, because the moment he swaggers onto the screen we know exactly the kind of person he is. (Maybe that's why people were so enraged by the "Han shot first" change because that action defines the character so much.) It is not that quick characterization by impression/stereotype is a bad thing, but I think it is a tool and it tends to be over-used. Characters who are -- like those in Exotica or Grand Illusion -- compelling, complex, and expectation defying, end up being much more human.

A few years ago I was at an airport awaiting someone. I passed the time standing near the sliding doors watching my fellow waiters. There was a man in a suit who particularly caught my eye. For whatever reason I looked at him with disdain and engaged in the typical stereotyping and assumptions about the wormy looking guy in the suit. I wouldn't remember this at all if it hadn't been that the person he was meeting arrived before mine. She was a woman in her early 20s, maybe his daughter maybe his niece, who knows. She walked through the doors and saw him and burst into tears -- in that kind of way that makes everyone around shrink with embarassment. The man I had so recently been mentally writing off (probably to feel better about myself) stepped toward her as everyone was stepping away, hugged her, and held her bawling onto his shoulder, with a look of incredible sympathy and love -- while embarassed Minnesotans stepped past staring disapprovingly. The feeling that I had in that moment of seeing my assumptions challenged and shown to be petty, unfair, and false -- that is the kind of experience that Exotica and its characters offer -- the reminder we need of the complexity and humanity of those around us.

It is frustrating to write so generically about the experience of seeing a movie, but the puzzle-like nature of the film demands it. To discuss how our thoughts on the individual characters change is to give too much away, but I think that is another aspect of the film that I find so compelling. I have a tendency to really enjoy fiction and film with a game or puzzle-like structure: Twin Peaks or Lost or The Book of the New Sun. Exotica is pretty unique at least to me in that it combines that kind of structure, mystery, and an "answer" with a film that is about suffering, relationships, and human nature rather than about aliens or monsters or the end of the world. It is not often that on second watching a drama you find yourself hoping to find clues. The film which off the top of my head is most similar is probably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but with Exotica the mystery is not one of puzzling out an event: "what happened?", but rather one of character -- of trying to understand the characters: "who are they?"

Maybe it's the bringing together of those two things that I really love in film that made Exotica so suddenly a candidate for my list of favorite movies. It happens to combine a way of humanizing characters that tends to exist in sprawling unfocused character studies, with a tightness of plot, and puzzle-like nature which tends to exist in movies that involve cardbord characters uncovering clues to some artificial mystery.

There are a lot of other things to love about the film. Visually it's incredibly beautiful and full of little details. It's funny how some movies that are really focused and well structured tend to be focused on their subject matter to the exclusion of anything else. Exotica is not one of those movies -- the re-occuring and subtle presence of the "exotic" whether in the shape of lovers, culture, pets (parrots both real or fake), or race provides rich and complex fodder for thought. The visual symbolism of mirrors, both normal and one-way is thoroughly explored, as is the interactions between money and relationships. Beyond the characters we come to intimately know there are those who remain opaque and yet just as interesting. Harold in particular stands out in my mind as a fascinating and important character despite his 5 minutes on screen. Everything from his clothing and the place where he lives to other character's conversations about him ("I don’t think that I like my dad when he’s around you." "Your dad doesn’t like himself when he’s around me. But that’s okay. That’s part of what friends do to each other.") suggests a complicated and important character. He may not be one of the characters whose depths we are plumbing, but the film makes it clear that those depths are still there. The complexity, sadness, and messy solutions to the tragedies of life are not limited to the characters the film is focused upon.

I could go on and on, but it remains a difficult film to talk about without ruining it for those who haven't seen it. See it, and let me know what you think. Ultimately the lesson that stands out in my mind is one of the complexity of humans We are surrounded by others whom we write off constantly and arbitrarily in our everyday lives, but the reality is that we are all humans, flawed,damaged, and lonely; constructing relationships and rituals -- often beautiful, disturbing, strange, or all three -- to deal with our pain.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Thief of Bagdad

I have a tendency to watch a lot of depressing, or at the very least serious, movies. The Thief of Bagdad is an exception. It's an adventure, over the top, riddled with plot holes, big budget, fun. The movie is is a remake -- I'd guess one of the first -- made in 1940 based on a silent movie from 1924. The characters, settings, and plot have been further liberally borrowed from (Disney's Aladin will be the most apparent example to modern viewers). As children we watched both the 1924 version and the 1940 version (we were pretty confused by the fact that there were two). Watching it as an adult though there are some elements of discomfort particularly to do with race.

Watching older films is interesting partially because of the insight into the culture and worldview of the time. This has a tendency to feel uncomfortable to us most when it applies to race. We don't mind seeing a world in which people see religion or strangely enough even gender very differently, but when it comes to race it tends to provoke a reaction. The Thief of Bagdad is nowhere near the embarassment level of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it is still there. The titular Thief of Bagdad -- Abu, played by the indian actor Sabu, is really representative I think of the roll of the "person of color" as sidekick in a lot of early cinema (and literature for that matter I suppose). He is the loyal, sexless, man-child -- the noble savage. The white man's fantasy of a servant who wants nothing but to help.

The Ahmed, Abu, Princess interactions reminded me of the similar situation in Casablanca with Rick, Sam and Ilsa. I think what seems so strange in both cases is that Sam and Abu clearly have a relationship with the hero's love interest, but it has been so drained of any kind of possibility of anything flirtatious or sexual that it seems unrealistic. The utter absence of anything sexual feels unnatural. The princess is supposed to be this incredible beauty who for both Ahmed and Jaffar one glimpse of her means falling in love forever. Abu sees her and registers no reaction whatsoever even as Ahmed is instantly and permanently head over heels. He is utterly sexless and innocent-- when he finds manages to outwit the genie and secure his 3 wishes he spends the 1st on sausages. Hunger being his only appetite is a recurring theme in the film.

The story begins with a flashback, Ahmed has been blinded and Abu has been very appropriately transformed into a dog (an incredibly cute and well trained dog). Having transformed him Jaffar says, "Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog!" I can't imagine that the symbolism could have been lost on the audience -- particularly at the moment when the curse is lifted and there is Abu shaking the water from himself like a dog and still wearing his leash and collar. Before thinking to remove it he calls to his master to make sure he is ok (Ahmed also doesn't seem to think to remove his friend's collar and leash). I suppose Jaffar's temporarily transforming Abu into a dog is not so bad when you consider that Disney permanently transformed him into a monkey.

In the end though it is Abu who does all the real work of the hero. He's the one who helps Ahmed meet the princess, he's the one who guards her as a dog, he's the one who outwits the genie, steals the eye, wishes Ahmed to Bagdad, rescues Ahmed from certain death and kills Jaffar. And yet Ahmed is the one who ends up with the kingdom and the princess.

The final scene is a coronation/wedding -- all three are beautifully dressed though Abu is clearly uncomfortable with any clothing at all. Ahmed is speaking about how he is going to send Abu to schools so that he can become wise and be made Vizier. Upon hearing of his planned civilized future Abu escapes on his magic carpet to go "have some fun". The happy go lucky, loyal, non-threatening native doesn't really want any power or influence. He just wanted to make his master happy.

The other major non-white character in the film is of course the Genie. He is very different from the genie in the Disney movie, and perhaps if Abu is the white fantasy of the loyal, unthreatening servent, then the genie represents their fears. After all when Abu frees him he attempts to kill him. Abu asks him, "How can you be so ungrateful." To which the genie replies "Grateful? Slaves are not grateful. Not for their freedom!"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The cover of dvd copies of The Passion of Joan of Arc feature a close up of Joan's face. It is an extremely apt image to represent the film, as much of the movie consists of close-ups on her face, and the power of the movie lies in her and the other actors ability to evoke nuanced and powerful emotion without the words to suplement it. There are a lot of things that I could write about with regards to this film, but I think the thing that struck me most is how alien the culture in which is takes place is to us.

The experience of watching The Passion of Joan of Arc as a modern movie-goer is disconcerting at first. It is a silent movie in the true sense of the word, no music was originally composed or selected for it. The way it is shot feels disjointed. As Roger Ebert points out in his review:

"There is a language of shooting and editing that we subconsciously expect at the movies. We assume that if two people are talking, the cuts will make it seem that they are looking at one another... ...Almost all such visual cues are missing from ``The Passion of Joan of Arc.''"

I found myself initially wondering if I could get into the movie -- it felt too different, alien in it's age and style, not to mention the unfamiliarity of the story. It is a testimony to the strength of the movie and the performances of the actors, particularly Renee Maria Falconetti, that I ended the film utterly enthralled and on the verge of tears.

Though we can definitely engage with the film our experience of it -- particularly that of watching a historic movie that was made in a period which is now historic itself remains disconcerting. It is difficult to figure out what is a product of the period the film takes place in and what is a product of the era in which it was produced, but in the end I suppose that is not a delineation that necessarily needs to be made for the film to be interesting or powerful.

Dreyer threw out the screenplay he had been given and used the transcripts of Joan's actual trial. The end result is a pretty incredible insight into a worldview that is incredibly different from ours. The judges' questions are tangled theological questions that would have any of us -- even the most religious -- utterly confused. The most famous question is one of the judges asking Joan if she is in a state of grace. This might seem innocuous to us, but to them it was a key question, and her answer was the only answer that wouldn't have immediately led them to declaring her a heretic. They didn't care that she'd led brilliant military victories against their allies or been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. They cared that she claimed to have had visions. They cared that she wore mens clothing. These were people to whom religion was the most important thing in the world.

It's an amazingly different environment than ours. As the trial continues you realize that while the trial certainly wasn't fair by any standard, it also at least in the eyes of the judges wasn't a sham. It was really important to them to know whether Joan was a heretic or not, and at least one of the characters seems to genuinely care for her. It is a testament to the subtlety of the acting that you can tell that some of the judges deliver their, "I have great sympathy for you Joan." genuinely and others do not without the aid of tone of voice.

Of course Joan if anything takes religion even more seriously than the judges. It is the most important thing in her life -- she lives for it. In the face of all the torture the two moments that come closest to making her break are the moments when she is offered the possibility of attending mass or recieving communion. The sense of longing in her eyes as the priest holds the host in front of her is that of a person who hasn't eaten for a month.

We live in a very different world now -- regardless of individual belief religion is no longer a matter of trials and burnings at the stake, and holding someone back from communion is no longer an effective form of torture.

I recently went to a mass at my brother's church St. Mark's. The service happened to be the feast of Corpus Christi in which they parade the host around the church glorifying it. It is not a commonly celebrated service, and it definitely felt strange. Like the film the mass was an echo of a time when people's understanding of the world was fundamentally different. There is a tendency for people who are interested in tradition to only maintain those which are comfortable, or to allow traditions to be transformed so that they fit with our modern worldview. It was refreshing to see a community not do that, to see them performs a service which feels unfamiliar and which gives us an insight into the way people percieved the world hundreds of years ago. For the space of the mass we could almost be standing next to Falconetti's Joan. She would be staring at the paraded host with that longing that at least to me feels so alien. But at the end of the service we walk out into the sunlight and into our world in which a woman won't be burned alive for wearing men's clothing or answering theological questions incorrectly.

The historian in me wonders what people will regard with a similar sense of wonder and alienation when they look back on us from 600 years from now. If I had to venture a guess it would be our faith in the truth of our economic world. I have a tendancy to be very critical of tradition or at the very least mistrustful of it. All too often the traditional is merely a way of adding a fake sense of legitimacy and permanence to things that lack both. In watching The Passion of Joan of Arc I was reminded of how experiencing the past whether through film or tradition can also be a powerful reminder of how dramatically worldviews can change, and how the truths we see as so obvious may in reality be seen as strangely in another time as we see the belief's of Joan and her judges.

A Dry White Season

A Dry White Season is sort of a strange movie to write about. The direction is ok, even the writing is only ok, and yet because of its historical setting it has a gravity and emotional impact (at least for me) that few movies do. Historical movies often annoy me because I think that attempting to recreate a moment in history is an easy way to artificially inject significance. People remember the events and consequently the film-maker doesn't have to actually engage the viewer and make them feel or think -- they can just evoke certain events to achieve emotional and intellectual engagement from the audience.

With a movie like A Dry White Season that issue is further complicated. When it was released apartheid South Africa was still very much a reality and the film was a challenge, a protest film. I would imagine that a large part of the goal of everyone involved was to bring the realities of apartheid to people's attention. Apartheid is over and the problems facing South Africa are an entirely new set, so how does the movie hold up?

My answer is: surprisingly well. The main thing that has amazed me every time I've seen the movie is that it is a very potent reminder of the lessons of state control of information/propaganda to be learned from apartheid South Africa. I would argue that there has never been a state that has more successfully controlled the information its citizens had access to than apartheid South Africa. The reason, as is immediately apparent in A Dry White Season is not that they were better at it than other similar regimes, but because the people having the truth hidden from them wanted it to remain hidden. I suppose it is pretty obvious that it is easier to lie to someone who wants to believe the lie. Parents are often the worst offenders for that -- believing obvious lies, because accepting the truth would be so much more painful. White South Africa is an example of a situation where a whole society and constituency falls into that trap, and the results were, and are, terrible. A Dry White Season is a good reminder that it is important to not accept easy, comforting lies particularly when they come from those in power.

There was one particular thing that I had not noticed on previous viewings, but which struck me as predictive of the violence that has followed the end of apartheid. There is a moment when the camera zooms in on Wellington, a practically non-existant character with maybe two lines. His brother has been murdered by the police, and his father has just been taken away to his death for looking into it. He closes the door after the police and turns back toward the camera, his 6 year old face seething with rage and frustration. The kind of rage and sense of injustice that makes you as the viewer think, "This is the face of someone who will grow up to be a killer." For a film made in 1989 that momentary hint of future violence seems remarkably prescient. There is a whole generation of Wellingtons -- abused, disenfranchised, undereducated, and filled with rage. The end of the injustice of apartheid has not meant the end of the rage and violence it engendered.

If you haven't seen it I highly recommend the movie, the directing is nothing spectacular, the acting is good though nothing spectacular, but the story, setting, and insights it offers make it a very powerful movie.