Thursday, March 24, 2005

You Have 30 Seconds to Leave the Cinema (I Stand Alone)

Yesterday I watched the film I Stand Alone by director Gaspar Noe, the man who brought the world Irreversible, one of the most intense and technically brilliant films ever made. I was a bit underwhelmed by this, and I think the reason for that might be the expectations I had going into the film. I saw Irreversible over the summer and it blew me away. I was expecting a really brutal film, and it delivered on that account, but after I got over the intensity of the film what was really astonishing was the use of the medium. The film is a series of about eight long take scenes, each about ten minutes, all linked together seamlessly via editing. There are no cuts in a 90 minute film. Noe uses this device in a variety of ways, and each sequence of the film is dazzling. The opening 'Rectum' scene has the camera moving all around in such a way that you're disoriented, and the quick flashes of violence leave the viewer feeling really uncomfortable. You really get the sense of a descent into hell, which is heightened by the music.

In the infamous ten minute long rape scene, Noe just puts the camera in one place and lets you observe how awful this violent act really is. In most films, extreme violence like that is cut away from, sort of taking you off the hook and you have an idea of how bad it is, but you don't get to witness it for yourself. What the film does is first present you with an act of revenge without context, the beating with the fire extinguisher at the beginning of the film. When I first saw that, I was really disgusted, but then after you see the awfulness of the rape scene, you understand what they were feeling, and want the characters to take that revenge. But, by removing the revenge from an emotional context, you can understand that the act of revenge doesn't do anything, it just causes further problems and leads to all the character's lives being destroyed.

Noe's movement of the camera is unbelievable, going outside and inside, and moving in ways I've never seen a camera move before, particularly in the scene where Alex is walkng down the red tunnel. The party scene is another unbelievable sequence, as Noe's extended take gives you the feeling of walking around the party yourself and getting a sense of the scene. It's not like this party was being staged for our benefit as the viewer, it's like we happened to wander into a party in progress. That shot was so complicated Noe ends up using a take where Vincent Cassel first calls himself Vincent, then remembers his character name and says he's just kidding. The actors are amazing in the movie, which was largely improvised.

Then, Noe uses an unbroken take towards the end of the film to convey the warmth of the relationship between Alex and Marcus. By observing a regular day for them, you get a real sense of how good things were, which makes the beginning of the film even more tragic. Time does indeed destroy all in this world.

I Stand Alone is definitely a film you should see before Irreversible, if only because after watching Irreversible, it can't measure up in terms of shock value. But, in a lot of ways it's more disturbing. Irreversible is about fundamentally good characters who have awful things happen to them. I Stand Alone is about an awful character who maybe gets a happy ending at the end of the film. It's tough to engage with a film whose protagonist is so distasteful, and this man clearly is. Even though we know his background, it doesn't make him seem any more human. He's someone who exists in his own bubble, deluded by memories of his daughter and the life he once led.

The film uses voiceover in an interesting way, to really put you in the head of the character, and it's not a nice place to be. He's racist and homophobic and prone to urges of extreme violence. I thlink what's so tough to take is the fact that he seems on the surface like a fairly ordinary guy, but the further you get into the film, the extent of his psychosis is revealed.

I didn't really enjoy the film, and I think that's partially because you have no anchor, nothing outside of this guy to latch on to. He's the only character who's really developed, and he's a difficult character to engage with. In addition, I think the pacing of the film is a bit too slow. After the incidents with his mistress, the Butcher basically wanders around for 45 minutes, before we get to the meat of the film in the last 20. Those last 20 minutes were great, but I wish the film had spent more time there, and less on him just going around Paris, being annoyed. I guess another problem might be this film touches on similar territory as Oldboy, and I think Oldboy made the situation more interesting and complex than it is here.

While this is nowhere near the technical tour de force that is Irreversible, it's a very well made film with a lot of interesting cinematic techniques. He does frequent zooms punctuated by a loud noise that are unsettling and keep you on edge. My favorite moment of the film is when a title appears stating "You have 30 Seconds to Leave the Cinema," and proceeds to count down those seconds. Strangely, it doesn't take you out of the film, as most extra-textual devices do, but instead deepens the suspense and leaves you wondering, what could possibly live up to this title. Unfortunately, what does occur pales in comparison to Irreversible, so the title seems unwarranted. That said, it is a great, really emotional scene, and disturbing too. My favorite scene was the Butcher trying to comfort his daughter, as the Pachabel Canon plays in the background. The ending of the film gives him an oddly happy ending, and I liked that fact, since it leaves you very unsettled. Regardless of the film's virtues, I felt really uncomfortable watching it, so I'll give it that.

So, Irreversible is basically about the ways that the world destroys good people, while this film is about a bad person who somehow finds a piece of good within the world, though as we see in Irreversible, when the character reappears, it doesn't last long. Even though I didn't really connect with I Stand Alone, I can respect what Noe was trying to do, and I think he succeeds. However, the film is so visually oppressive, with crushingly dull colors, I found it tough to take. Irreversible may have scenes of awful extreme violence, but it also is shot in a really exciting way, and has some beautiful scenes. ISA is a really well made film, but the production design isn't particuarly interesting, and without a strong emotional hook, or cool looking environments, you're left with just the awful life of this character, which may have been exactly the point.

Review Roundup

While I was still on break, I watched Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys. Linklater is one of the best filmmakers working today, but this film wasn't very good. All of his other movies have been set in either the present or the recent past (the 70s of Dazed and Confused). While I don't think he can only do movies about the present, Waking Life was certainly an interesting exploration of an odd world, but I think a Linklater film requires characters who exist in a world with relevance to the viewer. All of his other films have relatively universal themes, but The Newton Boys is a caper movie about bank robbers. You can't really relate to this, and the 1920s setting is further alienating. The movie has a lot more plot than your typical Linklater, and the film just doesn't quite work. You don't really care about the characters and things just go along, with no effect on the viewer. It's admirable to try something different, but this was a much too conventional film for Linklater. It didn't have any kind of personal touch.

I also saw Gone With the Wind. Now, this is an undisputed classic, and even today, 66 years after its original release, it's still a spectacular, visually dazzling film. In the film, there's a sense of discovery about the medium, like this film was trying to go beyond everything that had come before in terms of dazzling visuals. In this sense, it's tied to the art cinema of years later, when crafting impressive visuals is as important as crafting a coherent narrative. Despite being a four hour movie, not that much stuff happens, the narrative is really a showcase for visual splendor, and the film succeeds on that level. It's not a perfect film, there's issues surrounding race relations and some of the acting suffers from the typical overwroughtness of Hollywood studio era filmmaking, but by the time you reach "Frankly my dear I don't give a damn," it's pretty much impossible not to be impressed by what this film accomplished. The great films are always the ones that push the boundary of the medium in some way, and that's what this film did.

I also saw To Live by Zhang Yimou, the man who directed Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Road Home. To Live is an earlier film, and to my mind, a much weaker film, or at least one that's less accessible to a Western audience. All his other films that I've seen are more about people than specific ties to Chinese history, with the arguable exception of Hero, but that's so visually rich, you can get by without knowing the history. To Live is all about the rise of communism in twentieth century China, and it falls into the trap of a lot of movies that cover a big chunk of time. This film goes from the 1930s to the 1960s, and even though a lot of stuff happens, I don't get a sense of consistent character arcs. It's more the world changes around the characters than the characters doing stuff to change their lives. So, I felt sort of removed from what was going on, and as the tragedies piled up, you eventually become numb to the bad stuff. This film was clearly meant for a Chinese audience, whereas someone like Wong Kar-Wai is making films that can appeal to pretty much anyone.

To Live could actually almost be a Chinese Gone with the Wind, since both films show the turmoil that a civil war causes for civilians, and the various trials they undergo. I think Gone With the Wind works better because it has a stronger emotional hook. You really care about Scarlett, and understand what she's going through, while the people in To Live change so much over time, you get the sense that they are just blank slates for whatever chunk of plot has to come next. While a film can succeed even if you aren't emotionally attached to the characters, To Live could not because it wasn't interesting enough on its own terms, it needed character hooks to make it work.

I also saw the film Blanc from the three colors trilogy. This was an odd film, a dark comedy that wasn't particularly funny, it was more about the absurdity of life. This felt a lot like the stereotypical art film, not much happens, it's set in Eastern Europe, doesn't really have a plot. There were some cool shots, particularly the wedding scenes, but on the whole this one didn't really work for me. I liked Bleu, the first of the trilogy, much better. And another strike against this film is Julie Delpy barely gets anything to do, seeing her on the box I assumed she'd have a bigger role, but that's more a fault of the marketing than of the film itself.

Related Posts
Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology (12/7/2004)
Dazed and Confused (3/23/2005)
Richard Linklater Day (7/22/2005)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Dazed and Confused

Today, I watched Dazed and Confused, the excellent film from director Richard Linklater. Linklater is one of the most interesting directors working today and is one of the biggest influences on the stuff that I've done. Linklater is notable for maintaining an independent voice even when working on big studio films, such as School of Rock and this film.

Dazed was made after his breakthrough film, Slacker, an independently financed film that put him on the map. Slacker is a non-narrative journey through the city of Austin, stopping off just long enough to hear what each character has to say, then moving on. Waking Life is structurally very similar to Slacker. After the success of Slacker he was given the opportunity to make a higher budget, more mainstream studio film, an opportunity that proves the death knell of many people who have made a great independent film. It's very easy to make a bad, or at least more conventional, less unique film when given this opportunity.

Luckily, Linklater actually improves on his first outing and crafts a really art cinema version of the teen comedy. The film drifts through a bunch of seperate character's lives, with the narrative being passed along from character to character in the same manner as in Slacker. The film doesn't really have a plot, it's just a bunch of stuff that happens, but it works becuase the film isn't about character so much as about capturing a period of time. Linklater does a great job of giving the film a 70s feeling. The soundtrack is great, and the production design make sthe film feel authentically period. However, he also touches on universal themes. So, while the film is set in the 70s, it's also timeless.

Linklater has such a great ear for talk that he's able to make some twenty unique characters in minimal time. Just from what people say, we can understand everything about them. He has an ear for minute details in dialogue that give the film a lot of realism. And, because he doesn't have to service a narrative, the dialogue is always natural, not subordinated to the demands of a story. Dazed and Confused has much more in common with French New Wave and 60s art cinema than it does with any other teen comedy ever made. Even though the film was advertised as a drug film, I think it works more as just a great art film within a traditionally commercial genre.

I like the way the film simultaneously inspires nostalgia and condemns it. To go all this effort to recreate his high school years clearly indicates that Linklater has strong love for those times, and wants to share that love with others. The success of the film is pretty much dependent on the viewer feeling on some level that high school was a great time, and wouldn't it be great to have another go at it. But then at the end, he upends this by having Pink reject this very nostalgia, and say that he's only killing time before he can leave. It's a great embrace of the odd relationship I think everyone has with high school. When you're there you can't wait to leave, but after that, there's always a part of you that would love to go back there. It's wise that Linklater has the character say he wants to leave, even though Pink ten years down the line may just be saying "Wow, those were the best years of my life."

Related Posts
Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology (12/7/2004)
Richard Linklater Day (7/22/2005)

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Music I've Been Listening To

In the ongoing journey through life you encounter many things, and in my recent journeys, I've been listening to some new albums.

Daft Punk - Human After All: Discovery by Daft Punk is one of my favorite albums of all time. It's a brilliant concoction of music that simultaneously sounds like it's from the 70s, the 80s and the future. It walks the line of campiness, but never strays too far. 'Digital Love' is one of the greatest songs of all time. So, understandably I had high hopes for Daft Punk's new album, Human After All. I have sort of mixed feelings about the album. On the one hand, it's great fun to listen to and has some excellent tracks, notably 'Robot Rock' and 'Human After All,' but it's also disappoiinting since it doesn't even approach what Discovery did. If this was just the follow up to 'Homework,' I would probably like it a lot more since I wouldn't be expecting that much. But Discovery is such a great album, I can't help but feel disappointed. A lot of the tracks have very cool elements, but they're not played with in the same way previous Daft Punk songs were. There's not enough variation. But, remove this from its context, and it's a really nice techno, and one I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to, and probably will far into the future. I think I just have to admit that Discovery is something of a standalone creation, and enjoy it for what it is, rather than seek more of the same.

Gwen Stefani - Love, Angel, Music, Baby: Speaking of Discovery, that's an album that did a great job of sounding simultaneously retro and very now. And with her solo album, Gwen Stefani pulls off the same, with the greatest 80s album never made. Now, I liked some of No Doubt's stuff, but other than a few tracks (Hella Good, Hey Baby, It's My Life), they didn't really grab me. But, after hearing the opening track off this album, 'What You Waiting For,' I was intrigued, and I got the rest of the album, and it did not disappoint. I love the 80s sound, but a lot of tracks from the 80s just aren't that good, this album gives you everything you would want from an 80s song, but also brings it subtly into the present day. This is one of the few albums where the singles aren't the best tracks on the album. 'Rich Girl,' which is pretty popular on radio right now, is probably the worst track, and even at that, it's still great. The album has an incredible pop sound and is just so fun to listen to.

This is an album where pretty much every track is great. 'What You Waiting For' is a great energetic opener, and after a couple of weaker hip hop type tracks, she busts out the first 80s ballad, 'Cool,' which reminds me a lot of Yazoo's 'Only You,' but also stands on its own. The use of synth in this song is beautiful, it belongs in a Wong Kar-Wai film. 'Bubble Pop Electric' with Andre 3000 is pretty bizarre, but lives up to the title with some bubbly pop. It's a smart, fun song. 'Luxurious' uses the same sample as 'Big Papa,' but it puts it in a different context and makes it work. This leads into a four song run that is perfect. 'Crash' continues the car as sex metaphor, the lyrics may not be groundbreaking but the song works. 'Real Thing' is an update of New Order, featuring a cameo by them, and it may be the best song on the album. Gorgeous guitar work, great vocal, it works. 'Serious' also deserves props. Then, 'Danger Zone' is hard hitting synthpop that just owns. It's a track that begs for an extended remix, since it's got an absoultely killer riff, and great use of bass. The last track's the only real dud, sounding like a reject from 'The Love Below,' but that doesn't stop this from being one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. Good pop music is an art, and with this album, Gwen proves she's a master of it. Retro without being dated, it's an album that seems effortless. This really is a must listen to album.

Doves - Some Cities: Another great album from one of the best bands at work. 'The Last Broadcast' is one of my favorite albums of all time, so I was hoping for an equally great followup and the Doves pretty much deliver. I don't think it's quite as good as Broadcast, but with each listen it's growing on me. They do some really interesting things on here that pay off quite well. There's an odd vocal processing on Snowdon that's great and makes the track. 'The Storm' goes for an almost trip hop feel in the middle, and that really works. 'Black and White Town' and 'Sky Starts Falling' are great rocking tracks and 'Almost Forgot Myself' has a nice upbeat melancholy. 'Walk in Fire' is a great track, but sounds a bit too similar to 'There Goes the Fear,' and the middle of the album slows down a bit too much. That said, it's still an awesome album and a worthy followup to The Last Broadcast. I'm really looking forward to seeing them live on my birthday.

Related Posts
Daft Punk (2/17/2005)
Doves Live (5/21/2005)