Friday, July 31, 2009

Devotion to the sacred Heart of Darkness: novelist Albert Sánchez Piñol journeys back 100 years to reawaken the mystery of the world

Steamship routes circa 1900

The artwork that envelops Penguin Canada’s recent editions of Cold Skin ($18) and Pandora in the Congo ($18) feature spare images that represent distinctive, exotic locations, a lighthouse overlooking a seductively gloomy sea of mist in the first, the talon-like roots of some massive tropical tree in the second. The images loom over the titles, and are cradled in darkness. I wanted to applaud Daniel Cullen’s cover designs because they immediately made me intrigued by this pair of novels from an author I hadn’t heard of, and, most importantly, they did so by evoking something extremely rare in contemporary fiction, promising stories of places in the world still shrouded in shadow, of mysteries lingering within under-explored and little understood landscapes. Which is precisely what these wonderful new books offer us.

Albert Sánchez Piñol

Translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan and now available to English-language readers, Cold Skin, originally published in 2002, and Pandora in the Congo, originally published in 2005, are the first works of Catalan author Albert Sánchez Piñol, a former anthropologist whose fecund imagination feeds upon models from what feels like a very long century ago. Yet somehow his stories read not in slightest like the sort of postmodern pastiche common to other recent incorporations of genre into literary fiction. He’s not subverting older narrative forms so much as shaking them back to life and imbuing them with significance for a new, smaller world. These are serious novels of adventure and strangeness, written with a serious focus on deeply engaging plotting and precise description, and on rendering the fantastical as something chillingly real. The stories, unsurprisingly, are set in the same time period as the sort of popular novels they recall, those of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad especially. To remind us how mysterious our world can be, how conducive to wild imaginings, Sánchez Piñol takes us back to a moment when even the most technologically advanced and powerful societies were not so confident, and certainly not so convincing, in their claims as to what the rest of the world is made of. I ate it up like candy. Except this candy is nutritious!—it entertains the hell out of you, but also resonates intensely with the frailties of the human psyche and the ongoing precariousness of colonial pursuits.

“We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love.” As Cold Skin begins its nameless narrator is about to arrive on the small Antarctic isle where the rest of the novel will take place. He has taken the job of weather observer and is contracted for one year. The rhythms are incantory, guiding us ominously in toward our destination, imparting upon us in just a handful of words great distance and time and arduous travel. “We had our first sighting of the island at dawn. It had been thirty-three days since the dolphins fell away sternward and nineteen since the crew’s breath first expelled clouds of vapour.” The narrator is accompanied by the ship’s captain and some crewmembers to carry his year’s worth of food and books to his new abode. They encounter the only other man on the island, the lighthouse keeper, but he behaves strangely and may have gone insane. Nevertheless the ship needs to continue on its route and leaves the narrator there.

Cold Skin is a short novel, and things get weird fast. The narrator discovers the terrible secret of this lonesome place: a race of amphibious creatures who attack only at night. He’s soon forced to make an uneasy alliance with the lighthouse keeper in order to fend off the creatures. The lighthouse keeper holds one of the creatures captive, a female, whose eerie allure gives the novel its title. Bestiality becomes familiar in this uncivilized place, and jealousy and desire rise up out of the murk. I won’t tell you just where this all goes, though its image-vocabulary, themes and motifs are rich enough to spill over into Sánchez Piñol’s follow-up.

Pandora in the Congo is twice as long as Cold Skin, and while it departs from its predecessor’s lean, claustrophobic approach, it is in many ways more ambitious while still focusing on young, ostensibly pacifist heroes with few attachments—orphans of one sort or another—and adventures in hostile places that engender unsustainable or unattainable strange love. As the First World War looms, Londoner Tommy Thomson makes his first forays into a literary career, albeit of a not very distinguished sort. He becomes a ghostwriter for a crude, racist old bastard, more a brand name than a legitimate author. He makes a pittance and works like a slave to crank out pre-plotted pulp tales of heroic Europeans in savage lands. But a series of coincidental deaths lead Tommy to realize that there are is in fact a longer chain of would-be ghostwriters than he thought, and that he, being the final link, is simply the most deftly exploited: the ghostwriter’s ghostwriter’s ghostwriter’s ghostwriter. He then takes another, seemingly more noble ghostwriting gig, working for a barrister who represents a man accused of double homicide while working as a cook for two aristocratic brothers exploring the Congo with a team of black African slaves who do all the heavy lifting and then some. He’s to interview the accused and novelize his story, the idea being that by making his Congolese adventure into something compelling and sympathetic the barrister will go to trail with the public on the side of his client. It’s in doing these interviews that Tommy’s adventure really begins, though it is very much a kind of adventure by proxy.

Tommy narrates Pandora in the Congo from a perspective of 60 years, though Sánchez Piñol is careful to minimize the editorializing of hindsight, letting us develop our own understanding of how the novel’s complex webs of treachery speak to the modern world. There are exceptions of course, but I’d argue that they enlighten us more than they condescend: “active collaboration in evil was a matter of a concession as simple as holding out your hand… that hand was the essence of the twentieth century.” Culpability is endlessly ambiguous here. Tommy writes hateful trash, but he does so only because he’s employed by the trash’s true author. He later writes a great adventure novel that he only hopes is in the service of a good cause, but he could just as easily be completely deceived. The man whose story Tommy writes—the man has the curious name of Marcus Garvey—commits horrific acts while journeying through the Congo, but he does so under strict orders from the men who employ him. Such moral quandaries only balloon as the plots continues to take its marvelous twists.

Illustration from H.M. Stanley's In Darkest Africa (1890)

Besides the rich white Europeans and poor white Europeans, besides the black slaves being worked to death and the black slaves employed to help exploit their own kind, there is an additional people roped into Tommy’s narrative, an underground race of humanoids who, like the creatures in Cold Skin, quickly become the Other for which violence and domination are deemed the only appropriate response. As in Cold Skin, a female from this race becomes the centre point of a battle between various male desires, including that of our narrator. The novel’s narrative threads are laid out with the caveat that nearly all of them are relayed by someone other than the writer of the words we read. They are interpreted, digested, possibly tainted, possibly lies. Our narrator seems himself to be reliable, but he can only narrate what he’s told. In the end we’re overwhelmed by the impossibility of stories being the creations of a single author, and here is where he catch a glimpse of the philosophy of Sánchez Piñol himself, who openly employs the styles and trajectories of the novels he’s presumably admired. Let’s not get too concerned with tracing or judging the indefinable labyrinth of sources for our tales, Pandora in the Congo implies, but rather surrender to the conviction of the telling we’re given. It may be the only lasting consolation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The long goodbye: pop culture collage + politics + genre deconstruction + divorce = Made in USA

When Paula Nelson wakes in her dormatorial hotel room in some place called Atlantic-Cité she finds at her door a dwarf with high blood pressure who knows her from some shady dealings in their past. Their arrivals here, it would seem, were prompted by the same thing, the suspicious death of one Richard Politzer. But before their relations become unduly friendly Paula beats the dwarf unconscious with a lovely shoe—a blue one, as requested by the dwarf—and the talismanic appearance of his blood becomes Paula’s entrance into an adventure where reality and fiction blur. She soon meets the dwarf’s nephew, a novelist named David Goodis, and his companion, who sings folk songs in the bathroom and whose last name in Mizoguchi. Soon she’ll meet a sinister young man named Donald Siegel and a police inspector named Aldrich. She’ll visit a bar where a very young Marianne Faithful sings ‘As Tears Go By’ a cappella, and a spa where Daisy Kenyon and Ruby Gentry are being paged. As she sinks deeper into mystery she’ll be directed to streets with names like Preminger and Ben Hecht.

If any of this means anything to you, you probably cherish classical Hollywood, the Japanese masters, detective fiction, or the rich cultural palate of the hip 1960s in general. (You’ll also note that the picture is affectionately dedicated to directors Nicolas Ray and Sam Fuller.) The ravenously referential postmodernism of
Made in USA (1966) offers a superb example of what once tied Jean-Luc Godard to his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan especially. Though where Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ spun out for nearly 12 minutes on a effervescent wave of irresistible border town melodics and expressive guitar figures, Godard’s long-lost feature is a less inviting, more difficult mélange of imagery, homage and intertext. Made in USA came at the end of a frenetic creative period launched explosively with Breathless (60). Godard had already divorced Anna Karina, and Paula Nelson would be her final role for him. He was becoming increasingly politicized and this would be described as his final attempt at a genre picture. But Made in USA is only a thriller in the most notional sense. So unconcerned with thrills, its shot mainly in front of nondescript walls, and its violence is rendered quite literally as cartoons.

The script was based, though uncredited upon its original release, on Richard Stark’s terse crime novel
The Jugger (65). But Godard, never very interested in conventional narrative models at the best of times, giddily changed the gender of its protagonist and took from his source material only the most skeletal framework—though when you think about it Made in USA is only a marginally more liberal adaptation of Stark than the haunted, dreamlike and lyrical Point Blank (67), vaguely based on The Hunter (62). Fact is that the Stark novels featured an antihero from another time, where these films are so very much products of the 1960s. Among the virtues of Godard’s film is its value as an artifact that speaks to the present. The dead Politzer, whose strident political provocations are heard via a cache of tape recordings, was a communist still intensely bitter about recent French colonial misadventures and newly enraged by Vietnam. Godard’s dream of cinema as a progressive art form is conveyed most openly by the unapologetic, sometimes absurd merging of politics and pop culture, revolutionary esprit in creative life being aligned with like struggle in the war of ideas and policy. So in this sense the title of the film is almost a joke, a punk rock robbery where the vestiges of Old Hollywood’s glory days and American iconography are lovingly sewn into a quilt, only to be battered and sullied beyond recognition. It makes for dense viewing at times, but the carefully staged chaos can also be exhilarating.

Made in USA is clearly a different experience when the viewer shares a modicum of Godard’s cultural knowledge base. In Criterion’s terrific new DVD of the film they even provide a video essay that functions as a sort of Coles Notes explaining each of the film’s most important references, as well as another featurette rife with insightful comments and helpful history from Godard biographers Colin McCabe and Richard Brody. Yet, rather surprisingly, the context that McCabe and Brody provide us with deepens our ability to read the film’s emotional undercurrents just as much, if not more, than its intellectual ones. As I watched Made in USA I was struck by how strangely touching certain moments seemed. Strange because so much feels cryptic and cool as can be. Yet Karina’s performance, already very fun and seductive—and so well dressed—is imbued with an elegiac weight, which transmits in one melancholically adoring close-up after another. Politzer, after all, was once Paula’s fiancé, and when she first speaks in the film she’s sleepily recalling the time when she was once “the mirror of his desires,” the virtual embodiment of his dreams. Politzer’s voice, it begs mention, was provided by Godard himself. Paula’s interests in investigating his death are too layered to fully comprehend, but on one very direct level she’s come to say goodbye to him, to meditate on the cause they once shared, and this ostensibly cerebral collage piece leaves us with the impression of having watched something once so ambitious and impassioned slowly fade to black, like the horizon vanishing behind Paula as she’s driven away from that place called Atlantic-Cité.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Iraq into fragments: The Hurt Locker and the explosive vagaries of heroism

It is an action movie, and we’re accustomed to having the spectacular violence that is the genre’s lure delivered with a more or less clear hierarchy of values. The suspense and catharsis of the set pieces depend on our rooting for one side over another, for one sensibility or approach over another, to generate that extra charge. But among the more peculiar virtues of
The Hurt Locker is the lingering ambiguity as to where it assigns greater value within its conflicting codes of conduct.

The setting is US-occupied Baghdad. The central characters are Explosive Ordinance Disposal techs, a small team of men with strict lines of protocol geared toward the dismantling of Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, which have been responsible for half of all US casualties in Iraq. It opens with a scene in which likable, professional, quietly heroic men, exuding solidarity, do their jobs with precision and conviction. By the scene’s ending, the most heroic of them dies. Another man comes to take his place and everything about him seems designed to prompt our disdain. Compared to the dead hero this replacement seems reckless, cocky, unsupportive of the others. In short, he acts like a cowboy, an anachronism from an era of war narratives in which machismo is flamboyantly prized. We wait for his comeuppance. We keep on waiting.

Written and produced by Mark Boal, who was himself in a Baghdad bomb squad back in 2004, and who’s credited with the story for In the Valley of Elah, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose films, such as Point Break, have shown an affinity for rites of masculinity and furious rushes of adrenaline, The Hurt Locker is at once imminently recognizable in its genre tropes, character types and emphasis on cultivating tension, and truly odd in its structural looseness and inconclusive morality. Like some shotgun wedding between Don Siegel and Claire Denis. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) swaggers into the movie without making any great effort to ingratiate himself to anybody, and in the thick of a palpably fraught assignment tosses off his protective gear and even his headset. He feels inhibited not only by the items designed to save his life—helmets are for pussies—but by the burden of having to actually communicate with conscientious colleagues Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who each have only a handful of weeks to go and are eager to end their tour in one piece.

Surely this arrogant lone wolf has no place in a serious story about getting through war alive, yet he gradually becomes emblematic of something primordial, a way of being that exists beyond shifting attitudes toward heroism or political correctness. He’s the existential man of action, trusting honed instinct above all and rewarded for his faith with the fact of his survival and an impressive number of trophies kept under his bed, pieces from every bomb that could have killed him kept reverentially in a cardboard box. We can argue with a character like James but we can’t argue with his results, and we all know that there are people like him who, despite our misgivings, have saved lives. Renner’s performance radiates exactly the sort of inarticulate confidence that drives someone like James, as well as the inner desperation that arises from the understanding that you might only ever feel alive, might only ever feel that your existence has any meaning, when forced to make a life-or-death decision in a matter of seconds.

Bigelow is clearly right at home in this sort of movie, a creative problem solver and an apt pupil of the best, most thrilling and most coherent action sequences of the 1970s heyday. A few scenes are overcooked, such as the one where Eldridge flips out while playing a video game and talking with a well-meaning army shrink, but most are lean and vivid. Her use of handheld camerawork is tightly focused and nerve rattling, with special attention always paid to the geometry of gazes shared by the central characters and the many onlookers, often casually dressed Iraqis who may or may not be complicit in the planting of the IEDs at hand. They are unknowable, and no apology is made for this.

Iraq in Fragments, arguably the most insightful movie about the conflict thus far, was founded in a multiplicity of perspectives, The Hurt Locker generates strength through narrow singularity. It protagonists do not pretend to understand their elusive enemy nor the general citizenry of the country they’re occupying, and I think they can be forgiven for placing far greater priority on the more pressing concerns of effectively executing their specialized task. And in this sense the characters are very much like their director. Bigelow has made a truly extraordinary movie by putting all she’s got into depicting the urgency of each moment with as much compelling intensity and complexity as possible, and wisely leaving the figuring out what to make of it all to the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Guns, germs and steal: Richard Stark's Parker novels return, still nasty after all these years

Point Blank, based on Stark's The Hunter

He has several aliases but only one name, no detectable heartbeat, and, so it seems, not a single significant weakness. Money is typically his sole motivator. He’s quirkless and calculated, a logician efficiently eliminating obstacles. He beats women, occasionally, mercifully, killing them. Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark’s long-running series of lean, mean mystery novels, isn’t flamboyant or indulgent enough to be a monster, exactly. He has no ideology, no longing for power. (If politics ever entered his mind, he might call himself an anarchist.) A thief by trade and a murderer only when necessary, he claims not to like killing people. A consummate professional, essentially—and in this sense an anachronism held over from Depression era crime, as his author’s confessed—and his professionalism may be the only aspect of his character we could consider redemptive.

Though I knew some of the films adapted from them, including the masterful neo-noir Point Blank (1967), and I’d often heard them praised by discerning fans of the genre, it took me a long time to get around to the Parker novels, partially because many were hard to track down, partially because I couldn’t quite fathom how they could be compelling for readers who weren’t just sadistic voyeurs. But the University of Chicago Press has recently underwent a campaign to get Parker back in print in affordable and handsome editions, and I dove in. And now I get it.

Donald Westlake, aka Richard Stark

Richard Stark was the most successful of numerous pseudonyms attributed to the celebrated novelist and screenwriter Donald Westlake, who died last New Year’s Eve at the age of 75. The first Parker novel was intended as a one-off, a sort of experiment, but his publisher accurately predicted that it would be a hit, and many more swiftly followed. Chicago has so far reprinted the first nine. Let me tell you about the three I’ve read.

The Hunter (62), Stark’s debut and the source for Point Blank, introduces Parker in a state of uncharacteristic destitution, walking along a clogged freeway into Manhattan. He spends the first chapter reconstituting himself, quickly building capital through a day’s work of fraud and shopping. He’s come back from the dead, or close enough. He visits Lynn, the wife who supposedly killed him—the book’s first half is in one sense a divorce parable—and will soon pay a visit to the fellow criminal who set it all up. What drives Parker here is pure revenge, a force that renders him—again, uncharacteristically—vulnerable. “He wanted Mal Resnick—he wanted him between his hands. Not the money back. Not Lynn back. Just Mal, between his hands.” Of course, given a little time, he’ll want the money, too.

Point Blank

The Hunter’s more self-consciously hard-boiled than later Parkers I’ve read, emphasizing Parker’s rage, his ripping the filters out of cigarettes, his adversary’s nervous stroking of their moustaches. A pang of sexual desire is described as “a knife twisting low in his abdomen,” though Parker strictly abstains from humpy-pumpy while working. But when Lynn winds up dead and Parker needs to dispose of her body he completes the act with a telling, prophetic gesture. In slashing her face he’s being icily pragmatic, making her death less likely to be made public, but he’s also eliminating the visage of the only woman that ever possessed him, and rehearsing the erasure of identity that he’ll later seek for himself with an equal lack of sentiment. After he settles the score with Resnick and single-handedly extorts the national crime syndicate.

By the time of The Mourner (63), Parker has bought himself a new face and fully resumed his routine of performing one or two big heists a year and otherwise retiring to some resort under a false name. By now the distinctions in the Stark style are maturing fully: the vivid descriptions of spaces, the Nabakovian wit, the audaciously elliptical structures that toss the reader into the midst of the action without context and, most fascinatingly, the detours into ornate biographical sketches of secondary characters who slowly emerge as pivotal to the plot.
Parker’s hired by the father of a lover to steal a statue, one of many originally sculpted to accompany a fifteenth-century French tomb, but a well-planned job is interrupted by a separate group of criminals who may or may not be after the same thing. Parker forges an uneasy alliance with Menlo, a fat, oddly charming bureaucrat from a tiny Eastern European country under Soviet control. Like Parker’s current employer, Menlo’s a voluble romantic, and much dry comedy arises from the contrast between Parker’s taciturn nature and the rambling narratives these others casually unleash. More silent than all of them however is the titular statue itself, a brilliantly conceived symbol of precisely the sort of emotional release to be found nowhere in the world Parker inhabits, and an ostensible treasure whose owner ironically never even registers its absence.

Made in USA, based on Stark's The Jugger

The Jugger (65) begins with Parker being visited by a cheerful leprechaun from his past just as he turns to the obituary page of the local rag in a hotel room in Sagamore, Nebraska. Parker’s here to investigate the suspicious death of Joe Sheer, an old comrade who retired in the town, and the leprechaun, who goes by the name of Tiftus, is just one of several opportunists who crop up with the hope of unearthing Sheer’s ostensible buried treasure. Taking Parker out of his milieu and having him on the scene basically to solve a mystery, chart his way through a labyrinth of greed, and assess some possible damage to his alias’ reputation, The Jugger is a virtually perfect little crime story, a rural noir with character to spare and an alignment of theme and action that’s both classical and inventive. It was also the first one I read, doing so in anticipation of the belated theatrical and DVD release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in USA (66), in which the Parker character’s embodied by Anna Karina—surely the only casting that actually stands a chance of one-upping that of Lee Marvin. I can't wait to finally see it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tokyo gall

This triptych sets each of its tales within the titular Japanese capital, but unlike similarly conceived recent tributes to Paris, New York and Toronto, the filmmakers arrive on the scene to reveal far more perverse invention than touristy affection toward their host city. Here, here!
Tokyo!, now available on DVD from Liberation Entertainment, is no more a cohesive masterpiece than your average omnibus feature, but, helmed by two mischievous Frenchmen and a Korean—talk about courting contentious international relations—it is bold, strange, fun and occasionally thought provoking.

Transplanting Gabrielle Bell’s graphic novel Cecil and Jordan in New York to the other side of the planet, Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ finds a typical Gondry self-appointed creative genius hoping against the odds to make it big in the big, crowded city with his ramshackle, no-budget apocalypse disaster flicks—screened with smoke machines for that twee theatrical edge. The real protagonist here however is the fledging auteur’s girlfriend, played by Steven Segal’s daughter Ayako Fugitani, who by contrast is a sort of non-being, a person with no significant ambitions of her own. She eventually seems to vanish altogether in a surreal twist that’s best discovered in the moment. I enjoyed the film, but I couldn’t help but question Gondry’s subconscious motives and the ostensible inventiveness of creating this character of a Japanese woman who only finds herself by being transformed into the perfect object of servility.

Most memorable by far is Leos Carax’s ‘Merde,’ the director’s first film in a decade and a wildly caustic bit of politically hostile monster movie chaos. Everyone’s favourite nutcase Denis Lavant, who I'd like to nominate for an Oscar, crawls out of the Tokyo sewers like some demented offspring of a violent, racist French leprechaun and Harpo Marx driven insane by painful cataracts and years of living underground. In an opening sequence of inspired anarchy he terrorizes the local citizenry by gobbling cash and flowers, stealing smoking cigarettes and then tossing the burning butts into baby carriages. He’s finally captured and put on trial, defended by one of the only people on earth to speak his language—though once everyone knows what he’s saying this only serves to make the creature even more unsympathetic. He’s condemned to death, but monsters never die easily in the Japanese cinema, nor do martyrs of its bureaucratic processes (see Oshima’s Death by Hanging for the climactic sequence’s basis). Sequels are promised. Shit!

‘Shaking Tokyo,’ directed by The Host’s Bong Joon-ho and starring Tokyo Sonata’s wonderful Teruyuki Kagawa, is as obsessed with apocalypse as its predecessors, but is as sweet and sensitive as ‘Merde’ is grotesque and outrageous. Taking the national xenophobia under fire by Carax into a much quieter place, the film concerns a hikikomori—Japanese for shut-in—who’s solitary life of reading, shitting, sleeping and building orderly walls of pizza boxes and toilet paper rolls is interrupted by the possibility of love with a pizza delivery girl in danger of becoming just as reclusive as he is. The narrative naturally lends itself to a predictable climax of classical emotional liberation, but Bong, with great help from the tightly wound but finely expressive Kagawa, does a lovely job of making the journey distinctive and compelling.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Flesh for fantasy vs. naked lunch: Food Inc.

Movies make us hungry. They can also make us disgusted. They can bypass rational thinking and make us desperate to eat things we normally wouldn’t stomach. They can take the consumption of food and render it either into gastronomical pornography or body horror. Primo and Secondo whip up a spectacularly succulent feast in
Big Night; the man in the white suit cracks eggs over his mistress’ naked flesh in Tampopo; Divine eats shit in Pink Flamingos; Harrison Ford works a glazed donut and sunglasses into hot sex with Lena Olin in Hollywood Homicide; Bob and Doug McKenzie drown in beer in Strange Brew; the little zombie girl feasts on her own mom in Night of the Living Dead. Make your own list, the point is that moving images of eating prompt responses in us that other media can’t, and that’s the primary reason why, despite lame graphics and excess compression, I feel compelled to recommend the straight-ahead activist Food Inc. so highly. There are other, more thorough methods of gaining this information, but few possess the promise of inciting such immediate action from such a potentially large audience.

Helmed by TV history doc veteran Robert Kenner,
Food Inc. comes out swinging, with every well-calculated punch directed at the corporate takeover of American food—and, by extension, our food—and what all evidence points to as a rigorously enforced policy of closed doors and diversion tactics that usually manifest in a veneer of pastoral serenity. Images of sunrises, freshly painted barns and happy, healthy cows grazing across a lush expanse of grass are a beard for, among other things, Frankenstein factory farming, shamefully lax disease control measures, seed patents and, obviously, appalling cruelty to animals, not to mention humans, since labour exploitation—there are allegations of big food in cahoots with US Immigration—is key to industry mechanics. The fact that so much in Food Inc. seem shocking to audiences is slightly baffling to me, given that little of this is breaking news. (I actually heard someone in the theatre tell their friend, “I can’t finish this,” referring to what, if my nose was correct, must have been nachos and some substance dubiously advertised as cheese.) But Kenner and company do such a sturdy, if too concise, job or laying out and updating the essential arguments, an approach surprisingly low on scare-tactics and big on plainspoken testimony from those inside the industry and out, that I can only hope the shocked will feel empowered to make needed changes in their diets, votes, and consumer habits.

Significant groundwork for
Food Inc. was done in recent books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Both authors feature prominently in Food Inc., with Schlosser introduced while ordering a burger and fries—his confessed favourite meal—from a diner. To be sure, the primary concerns of these authors aren’t centered on making us feel bad about wanting sugar, fat and salt. In fact, they make it plain that we’re hard-wired to crave the stuff. The question is about how those cravings are monitored and fulfilled, and what our most accessible and seemingly affordable options are doing to our bodies, the results running the gamut from obesity to an epidemic of diabetes to sudden death. Such was the fate that befell a two-year-old whose mother is now a tireless food safety activist and who also appears in Food Inc. to outline the infuriating difficulty in getting health standards enforced.

As the opening voice-over informs us, food production has changed more in the 40 years than in the previous 10,000. Supermarkets no longer have seasons. Chickens are forced to grow so quickly that their bones are too weak for them to walk. There are only 13 abattoirs in all of the US, meaning that an untold number of animals might be contained in a single patty, animals eating corn-based byproducts they’d never ate until recently, animals wading in their own shit, which follows them all the way to your plate, inviting an ongoing stream of E. coli outbreaks. Cheapness makes the products alluring, yet a Latino family interviewed explains that they have to spend a huge portion of their income on their father’s diabetes medicine rather than on basic vegetables, and indeed, a head of lettuce costs more than a cheeseburger. So yeah, something feels a little wrong here, and you have to give credit to Kenner for not only avoiding hysteria but for closing the film with some digestible advice. He also features interviews with old school holdout farmers—some real characters begging for a movie of their own—who prove that there is indeed another way to do this, though to (re-)institute it requires massive change. Are we hungry enough?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Al the names: multi-monikered Italian horrors bathe Barbara Steele in blood, wall Lucia Bosé in stone, dub everybody into other languages, badly

Visiting the local video store with a fresh hankering for horror I discovered a number of recent DVD releases showcasing a subgenre I’ve previously neglected to dig very deeply into: the Italian horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Which inevitably leads to a lot of castles, a lot of Barbara Steele, and a lot of lousy dubbing. I’m fine with the first of these attributes, positively delighted about the second, but not so big on the third. I’ve watched an unhealthy number of movies in my life and learned to groove with a great many conventions that initially put me off, but lousy or excessive dubbing, whether in low-budget chillers or in the films of Fellini, Pasolini or Pontecorvo—the Italians apparently have an endless tolerance for this—has always had a numbing effect on me, washing whole movies with a layer of technical artifice and incongruity that keeps me from investing as fully as I’d like to. I’m not sure if any of the films below helped to cure that entirely, but watching people get whipped, dissected, bitten and burned alive does go some way toward distracting one from such niggling annoyances.

When listing the commonalities between the bulk of Italian horror films, I should also add alternate titles, of which there are usually a good half-dozen for every film. I’ll try to stick to the ones most commonly used. Previously available only on an ultra-crappy disc, Nightmare Castle, aka The Faceless Monster, aka Lovers Beyond the Tomb or Amanti d’oltretomba (1965), has been restored and newly released by Severin. Deliciously perverse and intriguingly ambiguous, its narrative of infidelity, bad science and cursed legacies proves richer than its recycling of gothic tropes might imply. There are two central locations, the castle of the title and its adjoining greenhouse, the first being a place of decrepitude and rot while the second is fecund and sensuous. It’s in the greenhouse that Lady Muriel Arrowsmith (Steele) trysts with her stable hand David (Rik Battaglia). But it’s in the castle dungeon that the lovers, chained to the wall, are forced to endure the torments of Muriel’s scientist husband, Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Muller). Echoes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover abound, but erotic or class transcendence is swiftly squandered in the name of jealousy, sadism greed.

Having disposed of his wife, Stephen can only inherit Muriel’s fortune by marrying her mentally ill sister Jenny (again, Steele), whom he takes in and begins to model after Muriel with a hint of the necrophiliac drive of Vertigo’s Scotty. Jenny takes to the game so well that she begins dreaming of meeting a lover in the greenhouse, and uncovering the truth about her sister’s demise. As directed by Mario Caiano and scored by a young Ennio Morricone, Nightmare Castle is pleasingly thick with monochromatic gloom and doom and benefits tremendously from Steele’s effortlessness with swinging from positions of power to unease and terror. Those huge eyes hold so much.

Unfortunately, neither Steele’s talent nor her strange beauty are able to help She-Beast, aka Revenge of the Blood Beast, aka Satan’s Sister or La Sorella di Satana (66), now available from Dark Sky Films. Written and directed by British filmmaker Michael Reeves, it starts promisingly with a riveting expository prologue about a community gathering to torture and kill a witch—clearly echoing the prologue of what perhaps remains Steele’s greatest achievement, Mario Bava’s legendary Black Sunday, aka The Mask of Satan or La Maschera del demonio (60). It then quickly succumbs to a wildly uneven contemporary tale of British tourists on holiday in Transylvania, a place where nearly all the locals are impoverished inbred dolts and staunch communists, spouting lines like “Privacy breeds conspiracy!” and “I have petitioned the government for new wallpaper.” The main problem here is really just that She-Beast can’t quite decide if its horror or comedy, though anyone watching can clearly determine that it should have opted for the former—the high-speed, Keystone cops gags are woefully limpid.

A far better investment in Central European vampire lore arrives in the shape of Legend of Blood Castle, aka The Female Butcher, aka Bloody Ceremony or Ceremonia Sangienta (73), slyly directed by Spanish veteran Jorge Grau and now out on a new disc from MYA. No Barbara Steele this time around, but instead we get Lucia Bosé, who some of you might recognize from Death of a Cyclist (55), which was released last year by Criterion in a special edition. In a sense, Blood Castle is a story of marital renewal, albeit of a sinister and myopic sort. In this heavily extrapolated retelling of the story of Elizabeth Bathory, Bosé plays the Countess with surprising texture and sympathy, despairing for the aging of her flesh while her husband only gets excited by watching his falcons rip apart their prey, and by the unfulfilled possibility of sex with peasant girls. When he dies and returns as a vampire, the couple discovers a new kind of partnership in which he finds pretty virgins to kill and drains their blood for the Countess to bathe in, an ostensible formula for rejuvenation that Grau does little to make seem like more than a delusional effort. The real Bathory was said to have been responsible for over 600 deaths before being sealed up behind a brick wall for the rest of her life. Bosé doesn’t get quite that far, but her reign of terror is still pretty impressive, thanks especially to Grau’s graceful camera work, hampered only by some pretty clumsy editing and a few rather dated looking zooms.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lunatic fringe: Duncan Jones talks about sending Sam Rockwell straight to the Moon

We first catch sight of Sam Bell working the treadmill, pale and beardy as a muskrat, sporting a T-shirt that reads “Wake me when it’s quitting time.” Sam’s the sole human inhabitant on the lunar landscape, an on-site foreman and crew combo for a project that’s single-handedly rescuing Earth from its energy crisis by mining the local geology for deposits of solar power. (A clever gag has him grooving at one point to ‘Walkin’ on Sunshine.’) He’s on a three-year stint that’s nearly reached its terminus. The station is modern, at once buzzingly bright and cocoon-like, but also grimy with isolation, a disheveled bachelor pad more remote than the Unabomber’s. Other than occasional prerecorded messages beamed to him from his wife and toddler back home, the closest approximation to company is a boxy robot named GERTY, whose little screen offers a series of emoticons in lieu of facial expressions and converses with Sam in the not especially comforting tones of Kevin Spacey.

The loneliness is thick, the food all comes in baggies, and the night never ends.
Moon is the antidote to space opera explosion movie. The frontiers it traipses upon are internal as much as extraterrestrial. Sam’s ostensibly gleeful last days on the moon are thwarted by an accident he has while driving his lunar land rover. He already seems to have been suffering from hallucinations before the crack-up, and now in his weakened, perhaps paranoid state things become only more confusing. Sam overhears potentially conspiratorial murmurings between GERTY and ground control, and he starts to see double—as in another Sam. Embodied by the wonderful, still underused Sam Rockwell in what is essentially a one-man show, Sam Bell begins to question all his assumptions about his life on the moon, his purpose there, and the very fabric of his perceived reality. If there was someone to form a union with, maybe he could go on strike. Then again, maybe there is someone…

Director and co-scenarist Duncan Jones cut his teeth making commercials, but it’s probably more pertinent that he studied philosophy before graduating from London Film School. Extrapolating on the work of Daniel Bennett and Peter Singer in applied ethics, Jones wrote an independent study thesis titled How to Kill Your Computer Friend: An Investigation of the Mind/Body Problem and How It Relates to the Hypothetical Creation of a Thinking Machine, which sounds very much like a dry-run for some of the ideas percolating in his feature debut. To be sure, it is ideas, and the emotional prompts they house, that imbue Moon with its richest features. The story itself may not seem fully propelled or resolved in any conventional sense, but the way revelations unfold—and, strangely enough, the way certain relationships develop—are what make this trip highly rewarding.

Moon director Duncan Jones

When I spoke with Jones he seemed energized, full of praise for Rockwell, and very friendly and easy to engage in discussion about all the notions and emotions lovingly poured into Moon. If he was slightly less enthused about discussing the fact that he’s the son of David Bowie, that’s pretty understandable, but I couldn’t resist asking one question. I think you’ll see why.

JB: For such an intimate film,
Moon addresses an impressive number of contemporary anxieties. I’m thinking not only about environmental and genetic science concerns, but also about our dependency on telecommunications to verify our sense of what’s real and what isn’t. Did you set out to tap into these anxieties or did things just kind of turn out that way once you started fleshing out the premise?

Duncan Jones: The idea of long-distance relationships was very much a conscious one. My personal life at the time was burdened with a long-distance relationship and I wanted to channel that emotional material into the film. But the idea of social networking and using technology to communicate with people in a way that’s less direct that actually meeting them, that was more subconscious—though it’s something people seem to feel a real connection with.

JB: Your film caused me to reflect on how nostalgia-generative technology has become. We now have so many ways of archiving virtually every form of communication available to us. It’s as though we don’t necessarily have to nourish our relationships if we can get some morbid emotional fix by replaying their greatest hits.

DJ: Absolutely. I must admit that when I look through my own archive of emails I see an awful lot of old message from ex-girlfriends. We’re able now to sort of carry so much of our history around with us this way.

JB: I do the same thing. Makes me think of that Smog song where Bill Callahan sings about “getting off on the pornography of my past.”

DJ: [Laughs] That’s a great line!

JB: Another critical motif in
Moon addresses the ways in which the culture is geared toward making absolutely everything disposable, including individuals.

DJ: Planned obsolescence, sure. That’s definitely there in the subtext. But in contrast to that, we also wanted to get across the value of humanity, how every individual counts—no matter how these individuals are brought into the world.

JB: Well, as I was watching
Moon there was this knee-jerk part of me that was wondering who I was rooting for, only to realize that I didn’t want to see anything bad happen to any of the strange individuals who crop up.

DJ: And I think that’s how the characters end up feeling. They become like brothers, antagonistic but finally wanting to help each other.

JB: There’s a clever series of red herrings for sci-fi aficionados in
Moon’s early scenes. You set a tone of comfortable familiarity by openly invoking such influential films as 2001 and Solaris, only to go in quite a different direction, particularly with the way you develop GERTY, the robot that so immediately recalls 2001’s HAL 9000 but whose own trajectory proves quite distinct. I wonder how you felt about the ostensible burden of influence one assumes when trying to make a thoughtful science fiction film.

DJ: Because I was so in love with those films the only burden I felt was to get it right. If I was going to pay homage I wanted it to be clear that I’d truly appreciated and absorbed the source material. We wanted to utilize these references to films we love, yet it was integral that we create something original, that we give the audience a new experience. What makes it work, I hope, is the personal stuff we brought into it, again, the long-distance relationship that I was going through, or the idea of meeting yourself and how would you get along. I’ve always been deeply intrigued by this thought experiment, by the question of whether or not I would like myself. If I met myself as a younger age, for example, I know that my younger self would have problems with me now, and I’m almost certain that me now would be frustrated by the younger me.

JB: I think this is also where science fiction can lead us back to older narrative archetypes, those involving doubles, this notion that a double is inherently suspicious, that there isn’t room enough for the two of us. Philip K. Dick was especially visionary in this regard. Were his books important to you either growing up or as you were developing

DJ: I was a huge Philip K. Dick fan growing up. I was also a big J.G. Ballard fan. His approach to taking what’s almost a contemporary setting and then adding a single little twist that turns it into science fiction is something I’ve always admired.

JB: And he had such a talent for crafting these utterly unsentimental tales that nevertheless provoke an intense emotional response.

DJ: It just breaks my heart that so many of his best works have already been optioned for films, because I’d love to do one!

JB: Before we run out of time I did have one inevitable dad question to ask.

DJ: Ah well, go on. You can have one.

JB: When we look back on your father’s breakthrough single from 40 years ago and compare it to
Moon, there’s an intriguing symmetry of motifs: the lone man isolated in space, missing his wife, dependent on tenuous communication with the distant earth. Were you thinking about ‘Space Oddity’ at any point during the conception of Moon?

DJ: I totally understand the question and I know it might be impossible for people to believe, but I really wasn’t. It’s just a very strange piece of synchronicity. I was brought up by my dad, my parents having gotten divorced when I was very young, and I was probably surrounded by an awful lot of the same things that were interesting him when he was still roughly in that same creative period, so I’m sure it had a massive effect on me. But when I was writing
Moon none of my dad’s work was what I was thinking about. It was my own personal situation, my wanting to work with Sam Rockwell, and talking about all these great science-fiction films from the 70s and 80s. That was really the root of it all. The rest just has to do with what planets you tend to orbit, I guess.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Everything old is Nouvelle again: the French New Wave hits the Cinematheque Ontario

Bande à part

Ever since this past New Year’s Day I’ve been in a state of more or less perpetual amazement over the realization that 1959 was 50 years ago. Has it really been a half-century since Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, since Charles Mingus unleashed the tripartite assault of Roots & Blues, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, since Ornette Coleman revealed The Shape of Jazz to Come? Or since the first audacious, invigorating, iconoclastic crash of the Nouvelle Vague, this thing that Nigel Andrews once declared the “greatest criminal enterprise in cinema history?” The entropic upheaval of the world renders so many things aged, quaint and useless so quickly, so why is it so hard for me to believe that these landmarks have receded so deep into the past?

The 400 Blows

There are shards of time, colossal events that we automatically read as part of that grand Other we call history (sometimes even while they’re still happening). The lunar landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, shit, even the invasion of Iraq seem somehow to be much more enshrined by history than Antoine Doinel’s frozen gaze as he stands perched at the end of his line on that lonesome beach. Something happened in American music—a topic I’ll be getting around to later—and in French film that not only changed history but also changed how we view it. The French New Wave had a winning combination: it was rigorously fun and smart. It allowed us to look at the movies not as something disposable but as as an ongoing story, referring critically, affectionately, explicitly, irreverently to the medium’s past and its accepted formal and structural inclinations—and thus breaking with them, too. They ran wild with heady literary pretensions, a pivotal investment in youth culture, a taste for at times radical political discourse and, most especially, with new technology that gave these filmmakers—many of them critics—a new freedom. The best of the movement remains so dynamic to those familiar with it, so startling to the newcomer, that it seems to live and breathe still as an ongoing event. And with a few key figures still living and working, the waves wash up around us still, however becalmed they may now be.


À Double tour

Paris Belongs to Us

Vivre sa vie

Shoot the Piano Player

Tonight, the Cinematheque Ontario launches what is probably their most anticipated summer program,
Nouvelle Vague: The French New Wave, Then and Now. There are over three-dozen titles screening, among them the essential classics, but also rarities. Crowds will rightfully flock to screenings of the most popular and definitive films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—The 400 Blows (1959), Breathless (60), Jules and Jim (61) and Bande à part (64)—but I’m really excited to revisit Jacques Rivette’s magnificently labyrinthine, conspiracy-riddled Paris Belongs to Us (60), which feels in some sense like a prismatic reflection of the other films happening simultaneously, as well as The Nun (66), which I missed during the Cinematheque’s recent Rivette retrospective. There’s also Elevator to the Gallows (57), Jean Eustache’s Bad Company (63), Godard’s rediscovered Made in USA (66), and several Claude Chabrols—including À Double tour (59), which features a jaw-droppingly sexy Bernadette Lafont flrting with the milk man from the window in her underwear and a delightfully slovenly, drunken Jean-Paul Belmondo in my new favourite eating scene of all time.


There’s also something called Méditérranée (63), a 45-minute work made by Jean-Daniel Pollet with a lot of help from Volker Schlöndorff. It features images of medical equipment, barbed wire, seascapes, curving corridors, bull fighting, decaying ruins, Venetian canals, and a Greek party! Much of it accompanied by a portent-heavy score and captured in brooding lateral tracking shots like we’re surveying the aftermath of some stray apocalypse. There’s also a presumably helpful ongoing voice-over narration, and since I’ve only seen it without subtitles and my French is for shit I have absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to be about. I can’t wait to find out.