Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Cries and Whispers

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

There are some movies which I've seen and loved, but only need to see once because they are so emotionally disturbing, the prime example being Requiem for a Dream. Cries and Whispers is becoming another candidate. Despite it being a pretty great movie, the emotional violence inflicted by the sisters were so dead on and so scathing, I don't think I can bare to watch it again.

In choosing a shot for this series, I've realised that in many of my earlier HMWYBS choices, I seem to look for shots that offer a calm, cathartic break from the intensity of the movies - see the dull but cathartic hallway scene from Eternal Sunshine, and the relatively bright shot in Batman Returns. This time around, if I applied the same formula, it would be a choice between the dreamy serenity of the mother in the beginning, and the Madonna and child composition near the end. Both shots indulge in the calm escape of a memory (or a fantasy), somehow an escape from the oppressive red, white and black of the house.

But I had to stay true to the emotional horrors of the film. These horrors come from characters who are emotionally trapped by whatever trauma they experienced as children, and are now physically trapped within their macabre childhood house. The film's signature use of saturated crimson is so powerful - it represents not only their trauma and the pain, but also their passion and sexuality, and, in some ways, the comfort of the womb. I found the power of the crimson was in its omnipresence, and my memories are of images of trauma bleeding in and out.

But for the best shot, I've chosen a shot that is a reprieve from the bold crimson but one which nevertheless shows the emotional damage done by the characters:

In this pretty simple close up, we only see part of Marie's face with her lover's mouth intruding on the right. Her face, a beautiful alabaster framed by sensuous red locks, is a tightly controlled mask that bears the brunt of her lover's tormenting words. His words outline all her character flaws through the features of her face: her eyes with its quick calculating side glances, her mouth full of discontent and hunger, her wrinkles of indifference, the smile lines of her easygoing, indolent ways, and the brow lines of her sneering, her impatience, her ennui. This shot captures her face as it registers with many subtle emotions: playfulness, amusement, anger, pride, hurt, fear, and vulnerability.

In a film about the female psyche, and especially when many have viewed the four central women as "as four aspects of one and the same person", it's an excellent representation of the pressures faced by women, both physically and emotionally. She must act desirable but also subservient. She must look sexual but not too sexual. In some ways, it's a tribute to the strength of Marie that if she seems the victim here, she very quickly turns it back onto her lover, retorting that he himself is the same, and that is why they are so suited. It's the mark of a person who's faced such criticisms (and many others) before, and who knows exactly how to respond with as much venom.

But on a greater level, in a film and filmography concerned with morality and questions about the absence of a god, this shot is also a perfect example of the battle we face within ourselves. In Bergman's modern world, we have either rejected the supreme being or have been abandoned by Him/Her. We're now in our own space with nothing else but that voice in our heads that reinforces all the obsessions and insecurities that we've learned from society. Devoid of some greater force telling us how we should act and that it's all going to be okay, we're left with our own destructive whispers. And in this film at least, our only response is a lonely cry back, heard by no-one who can help.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Last Week in LCC - 20-27 July

Sex and the City - Season 6
Whenever my boyfriend is away for work, I revel in the space and revert to some old habits of singledom - eating whatever I want, playing music at loud volumes and binge-watching television shows. After a couple of nights though, I tend to have enough of the single life and desire some companionship again. That's when I extend the binge watching to catch up with the fabulous ladies of Sex and the City. Some quick thoughts:

  • Carrie's issues with Paris weren't really because of the Russian, or at least he wasn't completely to blame. One thing I've learned as a trailing spouse is that you have to decide to move for yourself as much as for your significant other. Where were her plans for her own personal growth? For her own career? Perhaps it was because of Carrie's usual carelessness, or perhaps it was poor writing (or both), but it was clear that her heart wasn't in Paris so the whole final premise was quite weak. It was just a distraction to get her away from New York City and create some tension among her friends, speaking of which ...
  • I was struck again by how much the show depended on the work of Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis. All 3 of them knocked it out of the park with their respective storylines (cancer, moving to Brooklyn, and adoption issues), and the scenes where they were together (e.g. at Miranda's wedding and learning about Samantha's diagnosis, and in the final pre-Paris scene) were quite magical.
  • I miss Sunday brunch.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Spurred by the quality of the previous film and the positive word of mouth, we saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and were ... quite impressed. No, it's not the best film of the year by any stretch - its characterisations were too broad but I give it kudos for its humour, its CGI, its thoroughly consistent anti-gun message, and it giving Keri Russell a chance, through however small and undeveloped a role, to grace us with her strong yet brittle screen presence. Unfortunately I also fell victim to two of Thailand cinema's greatest drawbacks - the temptation of buying the smallest drink available that happened to be 1.5 litres of coke, and failure to bring warm clothing for the cinema's relentlessly cold air conditioning. I was shivering a bit, not from the suspense of the movie, but from my bursting bladder and lowered temperature.

House of Cards - Season 1
We finally started House of Cards, having not done so out of a lack of time and a fear of getting sucked in. That fear was warranted, because we powered through 5 episodes, which is a lot for us. Kevin Spacey was his usual brilliant self and Robin Wright is the show's secret weapon. I was also glad to see Kathleen Chalfant in there as the Washington Herald's owner - I've always had a soft spot for her ever since The Guardian. I can't wait to see where this goes (and can't believe there is only 21 episodes left until I have to wait for season 3).

Cries and Whispers
This is one film I may never want to see again ... more thoughts in tomorrow's HMWYBS post.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Under the Skin

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

HMWYBS is always a fun exercise because it  allows me a chance to really analyse shots within a film. But this time around, with Jonathon Glazer's Under the Skin, it was also an opportunity for me to really enjoy and appreciate a film that I had not enjoyed the first time around in the cinema. When I first watched Under the Skin, I was with my boyfriend, and having not really read much about Glazer's stylistic choices, we were both expecting something a bit more ... shall we say ... action packed and less cerebral.

For someone who loves film and wants others to enjoy it too, there's a special responsibility I feel when I  pick a film for others to see. Is it the right kind of film for the occasion? Are you both in the mood for this type of film? Are they gonna like it? When the film began with a 2001-esque birth sequence, I knew that this not going to be a standard narrative and adapted my expectations. But could my boyfriend? I felt a mild anxiety that he would just walk out, knowing how much he disliked slow meandering films like this. To his credit he stayed to watch the whole movie, but has since described it as the worst movie he's seen (this year). I, on the other hand, think it's one of the best of the year, a singular movie not like much else available, one that feasts in sights and sounds to create the alienating experience.

Upon watching this again, I had the good fortune of my boyfriend being on a week-long work trip. I watched the movie in the comfort of my own solitude, the eerie silences of the film echoing the unusual emptiness of our apartment. Not only did I not have to worry about whether someone else was enjoying the film, but I was also able to feel a special connection to the alienation and loneliness felt by Scarlett Johansson's character. Like this alien seductress trying to understand the world and the sensory stimuli around her, I too was seeking out the meanings and beautiful shots in this film.

Without a doubt, the images in this film are beautiful to look at, and with Glazer's leisurely pacing it's pretty easy to feast in these images. For beauty alone, there would be many shots to choose from. But from an emotional point of view, there were a few that grabbed me the most, and one in particular. My favourite shot occurs just after the middle of the film, in a sequence that tells so much narratively with perhaps 5 shots. After she has taken the man with neurofibromatosis and fed on him at her house, she walks down the stairs, and stares at herself in the mirror, itself lit like a dark silhouette of herself.

While she never communicates what is going on in her mind, it is clear that she is fighting some moral quandries within herself about killing the sweet vulnerable person she just met. She suddenly hears a noise from the hallway, and looks to see a fly buzzing against the window, trying to escape.

I'm sure this will become one of the definitive "viewing an animal changes someone's perspective" scenes, just like Queen Elizabeth and the stag in The Queen.

The next shot, my favourite, is an extreme close up of her left eye. The white light coming from the glass in the previous shot is reflected in her pupils, and it's a beautiful image.

It's also the pivotal  point for the character. We already knew she had a curiosity with this world's living things because of her examination of the ant at the beginning of the film. Now, having gotten to know all her victims as part of her seduction, she now has some empathy for them. I think in this moment, she relates to that core desire of all living things - the desire to survive. Something, compassion perhaps, develops in her mind and burns in her heart, as loudly as the fly's buzzing and as bright as the light behind the glass. It's enough for her to deviate from her job to unknown consequences. This shot beautifully frames her eyes as the entry point for the external stimulus that leads to her internal transgression.

What makes this shot transcendent for me is that it also captures the magic of cinema itself. Here she is, an individual in the dark, a witness to the story of life before her, a story projected from a light source far away, piercing right through her retina and into her consciousness. That is exactly what I hope to experience every time I go to the cinema.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Batman Returns

This post is part of The Film Experience's excellent Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. 

My very first introduction to Batman was through Batman Returns, however, like for many others, it wasn’t the caped crusader that was the main draw, but the villains. The Penguin was suitably grotesque and villainous, but it was always Catwoman that stayed with me. One sequence in particular was etched in my memory, the famous "kiss" scene between Catwoman and Batman on the rooftop.

It was undoubtedly an erotic moment, one different from all the kissing scenes I had seen before. Here she was, this sex kitten, slowly licking the only exposed part of Batman, from chin to lips to nose. I didn’t even know you could do that! AND THEN HE LICKS HIS LIPS AFTERWARDS! For a budding prepubescent boy, it was a scene that showed that saliva could be involved in kissed, and for a budding homosexual boy, it was a scene that showed that in this scenario, I didn’t desire Catwoman, I desired to be her.

So it was a surprise to me that, upon a further viewing as an adult, this shot, while still titillating, was not my favourite. Of course, my favourite shot still revolves around Selina/Catwoman because she remains a tantalisingly crazy and multi-dimensional character. Unlike the mysterious chaos of the Joker, Catwoman is one of the few villains whose genesis is fully realised. Upon each death caused by either the Max, her boss, Batman or the Penguin, we witness her identity continually fracturing. And, like her costume's disparate jigsaw puzzle pieces visibly stitched together, we also see her attempt to reassemble herself.

My favourite shot comes from a scene that showcases these fractured identities: the masked ball scene. For the other guests, it is an opportunity to put on masks, but for both Bruce and Selina, it is a time for them to just be their normal citizen selves. Or, could it be that they too are arriving in masks, since ‘Bruce’ and ‘Selina’ hide their real, more significant, identities? Either way, it’s a scene in which their multiple identities manifest. For Selina/Catwoman, her fractured identities are starting to fray at the edges. Throughout the film, her identity, like her costume, is constantly ripped, broken and torn during each battle. In this scene however, it is laid bare with the most powerful of weapons: words.

In an amazing performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, we witness glimpses of her fracturing identities flash before our eyes during her banter with Bruce: “It’s okay, I had to go home to feed my cat” – the spinster, “Actually, semi-hard I’d say” - the sex kitten, “I came here to see you” - the object of desire, “I came here for Max” - the unattainable woman, "hahahahaha" laughter - the hysterical woman, “Don’t give me the killing Max won’t solve anything speech” - the vengeful woman, “I don’t know anymore, Bruce” the vulnerable woman, and finally, the kiss – the woman capable of love.

After these revelations, in the arms of perhaps the only person who could understand her, her open face looks up to the sky, searching for a calm respite from the chaos of her multiple personalities.

In this shot, my favourite shot, Selina’s fractured identities are replicated in the jigsaw pattern of the floor. For just a moment, it is held together, centred by her embrace with Bruce, floating in a moment of vulnerability, peace and a touch of sexiness. For just one moment, her circumstances and fractured identities seem to be okay.

Unfortunately, this is fleeting, and in this moment of vulnerability, her own words prove her hidden identity’s undoing. “A mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it” … “A kiss can be even deadlier ... if you mean it”. Both their identities are revealed, a bomb that threatens to keep them apart forever. Not long after, the glass floor that represents her fractured identities is literally blown up by the Penguin’s entrance, and the story of the freaks of Gotham continues.

But this shot remains in my memory, because for me it is the warmest, most humanly-connected moment in a film filled with outsiders, loners who seek some companionship in a disconnected world. In a film that might be titillated by more elaborate action sequences and weirder erotic scenes, it is the moment that represents what all these characters, and perhaps the audience too, most yearn for in this world.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Live theatre is a bit hard to come by in the wicked little town that is Bangkok. There is an abundance of live music, but the ‘shows’ that people come to here are more of the sex variety. So it was with some optimistic hesitation that my boyfriend and I went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the RCA Mongkol.

The night began with a rocky start. Although scheduled for 8pm, we had to wait until 8:20pm before we could even move from the un-airconditioned hall and to an even smaller, but thankfully air-conditioned waiting room inside the venue. We listened to sound checks for about 15 minutes, before being ushered into the performance space. The space was set up like a bar, so that there several rows for sitting and some tables for standing. Luckily we managed to get a seat, because it was another 20 minutes until the band appeared, and then maybe another 10 minutes until the show started.

By this time, we had grown impatient and were ready for something amazing. Hedwig entered the stage, and while her wig was drag-tastic and the music was loud, something was amiss. The sound was warbled and the Thai-accented English was inconsistently intelligible such that we were distracted by needing to read the English surtitles above the stage. This was not looking good…

Friday, 4 July 2014

Happy Independence Day

Happy Friday, happy weekend, and oh yeah, Happy Independence Day America! To celebrate, I present to you this drag-tastic-'whether you like it or not' mini-rendition of America the Beautiful from the current Broadway version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

This last week, I just recently saw an amazing Bangkok performance of Hedwig, and I was hoping to write about it in time for today, thinking that the musical's treatment of the construction of gender and self-identity and Hedwig's search for her manifest destiny was a perfect way to salute the story of America. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men etc... hopefully it'll be ready by next week.