Monday, March 10, 2014
( 11:27 AM ) posted by Setsuled
When someone is said to be simply "under the influence" the assumption is that the person is drunk or feeling the effects of some other drug. Yet in John Cassavetes' 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, alcohol or any other external, mind altering substance seems the least of the many forces acting on the woman's psyche. The film's an effective portrait of two normal people, crazy in probably fairly normal ways, living in a normal, insane way.
We never get a concrete diagnosis of what makes Mabel (Gena Rowlands) act in ways that lead to her being notorious for "crazy" and "loony" among her family and her husband's co-workers. Which is fitting since similar personalities probably go undiagnosed 99% of the time. Nick (Peter Falk), her husband, never knows for sure what he's dealing with either.
For some reason, they don't have a bedroom. The kids sleep upstairs and they sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. A big sign on the bathroom says, "PRIVATE" so maybe it's just the lack of crucial, basic psychic boundaries that makes Mabel seem all nerves. She's manic most of the time--we see at the beginning of the film she does get the house to herself briefly, having sent the kids off to stay with her mother so she and Nick can have a quiet night alone. Nick works construction and expectedly is called downtown that night to fix a broken water main. So Mabel drinks a bit and listens to opera before deciding she needs company and wanders out to a bar.
A guy she flirts with watches in disbelief as she downs a whole glass of cheap gin with ice. At all times in the film she seems overflowing with excessive affection for everyone. She invites the guy back to her place. He rapes her--when he half carries her inside because she's falling down drunk, she seems shocked that he starts kissing and fondling her and tells him to stop. But judging from how offended he seems to be in the morning at the suggestion she's married he's probably convinced himself that he had a right to do what he did. Which is no less crazy than her persistently calling him "Nick" in the morning, though his craziness is sadly the more culturally acceptable.
The guy's gone when Nick comes home with the guys from work and, in my favourite scene, Mabel, seeming fragile and affectionate, makes spaghetti for everybody. She, her husband, and the workers have a wonderfully shot and performed, extremely naturalistic dialogue over the table.
I think if you want an accurate portrait of what it was like when a bunch of New York construction guys sat down to a meal made by the wife of their foreman in 1974, you couldn't do better than this film. I particularly liked Nick's hazy opinion about there being "something in the air" when you start seeing a lot of kids in the streets.
Peter Falk is incredible in this film, a badly shaven little bundle of anger threatening to boil over all the time. There's a scene that maybe goes a little too far when Nick takes the kids to the beach after Mabel is sent to a sanatorium--Nick angrily drags the kids about with the idea of having a good time. The idea of someone with anger issues not seeing applying this much force to having a relaxing outing is a valid insight but I think even someone like Nick would become aware of how counterproductive his actions are at some point.
There are some other false notes in the film--a scene where Mabel tries to get strangers to tell her what time it is when she's waiting on the corner for the school bus seems obviously intended to show Mabel's craziness but one comes away wondering more why none of these people can't simply glance at a watch and give Mabel the time. Another problem is that in some party scenes later, when Mabel comes back from the sanatorium and seems no different from when she went in six months earlier, it's awkward of course but the inability for anyone to come up with small talk seems tremendously unnatural.
Mostly it's Falk's and Rowlands' uncompromising performances that make up for this. The final scenes of the film are brutal and brilliant as we watch a strange, dangerous see-saw of madness.#
Sunday, March 09, 2014
( 12:29 PM ) posted by Setsuled
An actor can express a lot by doing and saying very little. One of the most effective performances in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 2003 film Cafe Lumiere (珈琲時光, "Coffee in daylight") is the father of Yoko (the protagonist) played by Nenji Kobayashi who in several scenes just sits quietly, tensely, never actually saying anything about his daughter's unexpected pregnancy but we never need to wonder how he feels. This is just one aspect of the film which recalls the work of legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, to whom the film was intended as tribute on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. The themes explored are not as heartbreaking or brilliant as those explored in Ozu's best films but Cafe Lumiere does successfully speak with some of Ozu's cinematic language.
The film begins with a distinctly Ozu shot, a low angle shot of a trolley on a hill.
Except for occasionally in some of his early works Ozu's camera famously never moved unless it was on a train or boat, it was always positioned at the same elevation--as though from the point of view of someone sitting--and his films featured very few close-ups.
Hsiao-Hsien's camera tracks sometimes, slowly, and there are a couple close-ups but most of the film is composed of static shots, usually at about waist level of the actors--not from Ozu's sitting position.
From what I read this morning--I haven't seen any of Hsiao-Hsien's other films--these techniques aren't unique to his Ozu tribute film and it seems likely the director's whole career was profoundly influenced by Ozu. Cafe Lumiere also replicates Ozu's tendency to compose shots of squares within squares:
Though the film is the modern 16:9 aspect ratio--more rectangular than the old fashioned square shape of Ozu's films. Also like Ozu, a lot of the film is long takes of characters going about daily chores, doing seemingly inconsequential things. In Ozu's films, this gives one the peculiar feeling of being part of the household. In Hsiao-Hsien's film it's somewhat colder, as though we're watching security footage. Partly because it's a while before we come to learn much about the characters and what motivates them, partly it's because the music is much more sparse and neutral in tone.
Ozu's films tend to have scores that are more effusive--a woman going about household chores seems to be part of a symphony, Setsuko Hara smiling and riding her bike on a sunny day gives you the impression of the joy the young woman feels in being surrounded by the beauty of nature. But the music in Cafe Lumiere is part of the plot as Yoko (Yo Hitoto) is obsessed with a real life Taiwanese composer, Jiang Wen-Ye, and we see her attempts to track down a cafe in Tokyo Wen-Ye used to frequent. The more subdued score of the film is partly composed of his music and the rest seems to be an homage to it.
But if the film's a tribute to Ozu, why all this about a Taiwanese composer, especially since it doesn't seem to have much to do with the main story? I think it's because Ozu's a Japanese director and this is a Japanese film but Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese. Wen-Ye was from Taiwan but he established himself as a composer in Japan so I think Hsiao-Hsien felt he needed it as an "in".
I would have advised him against it except for the fact that there's not much else to fill out the rest of the film. Ozu's films used common people as subjects and explored relatively common issues but he used them to say remarkable things--Tokyo Story makes a tremendous comment on death by telling the story of a death that's not particularly extraordinary. Late Spring makes a devastating criticism of tradition by not seeming to criticise it at all. Cafe Lumiere portrays a young woman who doesn't seem to realise yet how having a baby will dramatically change her life. And that's it. It's a common situation used to say something also common.
There is an interesting bit in the first half of the film where Yoko talks about a dream she had of a woman finding her baby has been exchanged for a false baby made of ice. Yoko learns from her boyfriend that this resembles a changeling myth from Europe and he gives her a book which she's surprised to find resembles her dream in every detail. This is never explained--like the performance of the man playing her father, Hsiao-Hsien wisely just lets the thing exist without resolution.#
Saturday, March 08, 2014
( 12:09 PM ) posted by Setsuled
I'm one of the few people I know who doesn't like to binge watch television shows. For one thing, I don't like giving up so much of my day to one thing, and another, one of the great things to me about television series is that the reality they create lasts longer than a movie's. Instead of something you watch one evening, television shows are like a comrade you have over the course of half a year or so. It's not surprising, though, the same people compelled to watch ten hours of one show tend to balk at the idea of sitting through a three hour movie--episodes are designed to make you want to come back a week later. When the next episode is available a few seconds later, it's like lighting a match with a flame thrower.
Now, though, Netflix is releasing new shows to cater to binges. The fourth season of Arrested Development actually tried to capitalise on it by making the whole season a single plot which, for the reasons I outlined above, was probably a bad idea. Yesterday, Netflix released the entire sixth and final season of Clone Wars.
And, yes, I've only watched the first episode, so don't expect from me a review for the whole season like you'll probably find on other blogs and sites. Which is another thing about delivering a whole season or series at once--people talk about it for a week or two, maybe, then it's yesterday's news.
Anyway, it was really nice to see the show again. Those who haven't seen it are probably pretty perplexed by all the love this Star Wars prequel related series gets. This has been part of the reason the show has felt so delicate--having it come back after Lucasfilm's gone over to Disney, who obviously wants to expunge the prequels from history. It felt miraculous seeing the title pop up at the beginning.
The improved shading on the cgi models is here again from season five. I loved this pair of tentacle headed Jedi sisters. I guess they learned from the Twi'leks that dames with tentacles on their heads are always a crowd pleasure. Also, I love this returning Separatist General cybernetic spider alien.
There's a lot of layers of implied story looking at this guy--for one thing, he's like a spider but not agile and skinny like spider people usually are in fantasy. He's like Paulie from Goodfellas, big and slow moving and commanding. And the fact his whole left side is made up of robotic parts implies some horrendous injury. Of course, it continues the concept of organic life forms turning into machines--like General Grievous and Darth Vader.
And the writing is good--it continues that wonderful, relentless adventure serial feel of the series. I compared it in my mind to two other shows I've been watching lately, Breaking Bad and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.--I'm really not sure why I'm still watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.--Tuesday's episode was so badly written, so full of the unearned, overplayed pathos and the meaningless escapes from death that give comic book style stories a bad name. But I'm going back next week because I'm eager to see Lorelei.
Anyway, I thought about an interview I read with Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan where he said the show was designed from the ground up to be about change. This is the opposite of an old a paradigm that's being widely rejected in this renaissance of television--gone is the idea that at the end of every episode everything should go back to the way it was at the beginning of the episode. Unfortunately, the third season Breaking Bad violates its own mission statement a bit by artificially forcing Walter and Jesse back into a partnership. But it demonstrates exactly why the old model is inferior--the characters stop acting like themselves, they cease to be the characters people are interested in. It doesn't make sense for Jesse to ruthlessly pursue his own cooking or for Walter to offer him a partnership to shut him up, etc.
Clone Wars, despite occurring between two movies of established story, has nonetheless managed to remain vital the whole time. There are badly written episodes, but for the most part it's a sterling example of what really works about the new model--plot is completely subservient to character instead of the other way around.
Twitter Sonnet #603
Blank clamshell satellites blink at money.
Friday, March 07, 2014
( 4:33 PM ) posted by Setsuled
One cannot always predict the ways in which murder will prove to become a distraction. 1955's Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) is a brilliant combination of satire and film noir.
Two lovers accidentally kill a cyclist on a lonely road. Maria (Lucia Bose), who'd been driving the car that struck the cyclist, insists they leave the man to die. She's the wife of a wealthy, socially prominent man and she's worried dealing with the cyclist will reveal her relationship with the man who was with her when she hit the cyclist, her lover, Juan (Alberto Closas).
The two were childhood lovers but Maria, seeking security for her future, married the wealthy Miguel (Otello Toso) while Juan was fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
Juan is a prominent university mathematics professor. Distracted by a fit of worry while a student is demonstrating on a blackboard her ability to solve a problem, he tells her to go away, inadvertently flunking her unjustly, which provokes a student rally to have him fired.
Maria, meanwhile, begins to suspect a musician, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla), a favourite wit at the society parties she attends, knows something. This was my favourite part of the film as I think it said something not only about how paranoia works but about the nature of artists and the nature of the fear they provoke in authority.
Rafa begins to drop hints to Maria that he knows of some damning act perpetrated by her. He improvises a song on piano in front of her he calls "Blackmail". But for a long time, Maria never knows with absolute certainty whether Rafa actually knows anything at all or if his insight into human nature and ability to express it creatively isn't simply holding up to Maria an evocative mirror.
Both Maria and Juan are tormented in their ways but in true noir fashion the external forces that they fear threaten them are nowhere near as effective as the torment inflicted by their own minds and accidents. The movie is almost like a nightmare version of the "idiot plot" style comedy, films like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies of the 30s where the comedy is reliant on everyone misinterpreting everyone else in crucial matters that lead to greater and greater upset. Only the absurdities in Death of a Cyclist pave the road to a much darker place.#
Thursday, March 06, 2014
( 1:49 PM ) posted by Setsuled
On day two of being stuck in my apartment waiting for plumbers I'm starting to think just aren't going to show up. On Monday, I came home to find a notice on my door telling me that all building residents can expect work to be done on March 5th and March 6th. "[B]etween the hours of 9:00 am to 5:00 pm to perform Jetting on all mainlines of all the drains. We will be entering your home to ensure that there each tub and sink will be cleaned up after the jetting. We will have our professional teams follow the plumbers to clean up any residue that is backed up."
The notice proceeds to tell me to get all my personal belongings out of the kitchen and bathroom sink areas, to make sure my pets, if I have any, are stowed somewhere out of the way, and that I shouldn't try to interfere with the workers. So all they're asking is that I reorganise my apartment and give up two complete days so they can show up briefly at some point. It's a good thing I don't have a job to go to. As it is, I had to skip school this morning, fortunately just the bullshit health class and nothing was due to-day. I've spent most of the time inking comics or playing chess.
By the way, in case you're wondering at the progress of the continually delayed Casebook of Boschen and Nesuko #3, I finished all the pencils several weeks ago but have to ink twelve pages yet and colour around twenty. It's true, I've had a long list of abnormal distractions since I started working on these twenty four pages in, fuck, September 2013, but mostly it's just that I'm not good at doing comics and school at the same time. I'll make a conservative promise and say #3 should be ready some time before June. Well, at least I'm not making you wait in your homes for it. Then during summer, barring anything unexpected happening, I'll do the last approximately fifty pages of the comic and finish it by September.
After inking two pages to-day I played two games of chess with one of my Russian friends, Natasha. She lost on time both times--they were fifteen minute games with one second increment, meaning you get one second added to your clock every time you move. She was clearly winning on both games and I felt bad winning on time, especially since I had completely not been paying attention to the clock.
It occurred to me the U.S. is almost on the verge of war with Russia. I wonder if it would make much difference in my Second Life chess club, if I would still see the same Russian players. Maybe during wartime the Russian government would tighten restrictions on Internet access--they're already facing unprecedented obstacles making their propaganda machine work thanks to the information age. But somehow I imagine I'd still see the same players showing up to my club. I imagined Natasha Rostova in War and Peace at home playing chess with a French civilian, also at home. But that book already does enough to convey the absurdity of war. Ironically, the Napoleon described by Tolstoy would find his analogue in Putin. "Oh," you might say, "but Napoleon was a genius and Putin is an egomaniac clown." To which I'd say, read War and Peace, and you'll see Tolstoy's insight into just what sort of man thinks it's a good idea to conquer other countries is rather timeless.
While I was playing chess, I received a call from Time Warner telling me my bill was past due. Apparently actually going to the Time Warner building and waiting my turn to talk to a human being face to face to change my credit card information accomplished absolutely nothing.#
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
( 12:35 PM ) posted by Setsuled
If you're going to commit murder, better make sure you're not seen by . . . The Cat! Oou, you say, The Cat? Like John Robie from To Catch a Thief? No. So Catwoman? No. Some other superhero, perhaps like The Shadow, lurking in the darkness to manipulate evil doers with supernatural hypnosis? Nope. I'm talking about the protagonist of 1961's Hammer horror film Shadow of the Cat who is . . . a cat! Just a cat. A house cat. Called Tabitha. Although it is unintentionally funny at times, this, incredibly enough, was meant to be a straightforward horror film.
Shadow of the Cat outlines its intentions by starting off with the murder victim reading aloud Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". She's murdered by her brother Walter (Andre Morell) to ensure that her second will, which leaves all her money to him, is the one found and not her first, which leaves most of her estate to her niece.
For some reason, after Walter realises his sister's beloved cat had witnessed the murder, he becomes obsessed with hunting down the creature. Perhaps shots of Tabitha's face are meant to indicate a vengeful hatred for Walter and his conspirators.
Though I think those of us more familiar with cats pretty consistently recognise the "I generally don't give a fuck but I'll pay attention in case there's food" look.
The conspirators are killed off one by one. One by drowning under very specific circumstances where the cat is on a log in the swamp and the guy falls in. Another time the cat jumps on someone who gets knocked down the stairs. This is followed by a shot of the cat playing with yarn and the score gives us some triumphant melody.
The film is rather an enormous miscalculation. An attempt to create a real sense of menace results in a real sense of adorableness. But on the plus column it is pretty adorable.
Twitter Sonnet #602
Disconnected candied hands return late.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
( 3:59 PM ) posted by Setsuled
The choice is between love and violence, between giving in and meaningless death. The primary conflict of 1958's Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament) reminded me of the dwarf Alberich at the beginning of Das Rheingold who, continually rejected by the Rhein Maidens, forswears love in order to claim the Rheingold. Maciek, the protagonist of Ashes and Diamonds, isn't pursuing wealth though, as a guerrilla fighter against the Communist regime assuming control of Poland after World War II, one could say he's fighting against a system that theoretically devalues material wealth. But he falls for a barmaid. Nothing complicated, nothing romantic, just something small, simple, and human. He finds himself in a very noir-ish existential crisis in this beautifully shot film.
Zbigniew Cybulski's sensitive, naturalistic performance as Maciek reminded me of James Dean or Marlon Brando so I wasn't surprised to read later that both were influences on the makers of Ashes and Diamonds. But while Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One were about youth chaffing under the artificial American 1950s nuclear family model, Ashes and Diamonds portrays a similar young man in the context of a real rebellion and a more visibly turbulent political and social atmosphere.
Waclaw Zastrzezynski plays Commissar Szczuka, a prominent figure in the incoming regime whom Maciek and his fellow Home Army soldiers fail to assassinate at the beginning of the film. Two workers are killed instead but somehow Szczuka senses the attack was meant for him.
Maciek and his comrades find themselves at the hotel where Szczuka is staying and Maciek manages to talk himself into getting a room close to Szczuka by commiserating with the desk clerk who, like Maciek, is from Warsaw.
The desk clerk, along with the rest of the hotel staff, seems to have no beef with the Communists. Several prominent members of the party are holding a banquet at the hotel and we see later the staff becoming enthusiastically involved in the celebration.
This is enough to cast some doubt on Maciek's mission. Szczuka himself is portrayed sympathetically--we watch as he fruitlessly attempts to locate a son from whom he was separated during the German occupation. We learn that, like Maciek, Szczuka's son had joined the Home Army.
And, as I mentioned, Maciek falls for the barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska).
She doesn't seem interested at first, not visibly reacting to his broad flirtations at the bar. So he's surprised when she shows up at his invitation to his hotel room later.
It's not clear if Krystyna has political leanings one way or the other. She and Maciek have mostly superficial, daydream conversations, but one has the impression she senses Maciek is caught up in some kind of real serious trouble.
In addition to the performances, the film is served magnificently by its dark expressionist cinematography. There's a somewhat broad but very effective visual in a scene where Maciek waits beneath a staircase to assassinate Szczuka and the light through the stair paints several distorted spirals behind him.
Monday, March 03, 2014
( 9:49 AM ) posted by Setsuled
Well, I didn't make it to level 10. If I'd been a little more committed, maybe I could have. Maybe when I was younger. It's hard for even a game I like to hold my attention for more than a few hours nowadays. But this was the nicest MMORPG I ever played largely because it had a lot in common with Bethesda's single player RPGs.
This is my Nord character, Sichilde. I'd wanted to name her Kriemhild but the name was taken. Considering I only had her for one day I guess it doesn't really matter. But Sichilde was the name of an ancient Queen and I used it for a World of Warcraft character.
Even on a short term beta event where the objective ought to have been to see as many of the game's features as quickly as possible I was still compelled to explore and linger in areas. The hallmark of a Bethesda game is the great sandbox, landscapes that present endless variability with new caves, tombs, and forts to explore that aren't necessarily part of the main quest.
I got sidetracked by one cave where the ghost of a spy turned people into vases and candles and other objects. There was nothing in the game's writing that equalled The Secret World but this bit was kind of funny. Although there are side quests in The Secret World, though, there's nothing like the complex tangents a Bethesda game can lead you on. I played Morrowind for years and I bet there are still unique places in that game I haven't seen.
Speaking of Morrowind, the second starter area for the Ebonheart Pact faction takes place in Morrowind, the landscape looking like a more graphically advanced version of the landscape from the twelve year old game.
I loved what looked like rice fields. I love how the Elder Scrolls games tend to have farms and farmers in them going about their business.
The elven architecture was pretty, looking vaguely Asian while also reminding me of Morrowind's expansion pack, Tribunal.
Before going to Morrowind, my character started in Skyrim which, in terms of graphics quality, looked about identical to the recent single player game of the same name.
So I'm actually tempted to buy this game. If only it weren't for the subscription fee.
Anyway, here are some photos of the seagulls and some of the things that washed up after the storm.