Saturday, September 10, 2005

3 Iron

3 Iron is a film by Kim Ki-Duk, the Korean auteur behind The Isle, and the annoyingly titled Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. Both of those films were really interesting, challenging films. Kim's films are notable for their minimal use of dialogue. The Isle's main character is a mute, and in Spring, there is very little dialogue.

3 Iron raises the bar, showing us a love story where the main characters never speak to each other, and one of them never speaks at all. This is the sort of thing that could be gimmicky, and at times seems a bit constraining, but when the two main characters are together, it's achingly beautiful. Tae-Suk is quite similar to a bunch of Wong Kar-Wai characters, in the way that he inhabits other people's houses as sort of a vacation for himself. If he had a voiceover going over the action, he would be pretty close to the mute in Fallen Angels.

However, Kim is much more interested in minimalism, his shots don't call attention to themselves, and he almost never uses non-source music. In this sense, his goal is to immerse the viewer in the world of the film, not using any techniques that could puncture that illusion. Much like Hard Eight, this film is more about creating an atmosphere, a feeling, than anything else. When Sun and Tae-Suk are together, there's a feeling of safety, and it's wonderful to watch them figure out the boundaries of their relationship in the first scene, as he takes care of her, and she opens up to him.

Being a Kim Ki-Duk film, there are some scenes of violence, though nothing approaching the extremes of The Isle. The scene in which Tae-suk fires golf balls at the abusive husband is almost cathartic because of the silent approval Sun gives to teh action. The scene in which Tae-suk's golfball ends up causing a car crash is more troubling. By this point, I was fully behind the characters and their relationship, to the point that I could think only of the potentially negative consequences this would have for them, rather than about the person who is dead in the car.

I love the way Tae-suk seems to speak through music, the songs he plays providing the only expressive sound during the middle section of the film. The songs themselves were great, but they also functioned well to establish the atmosphere of safety and love that exists between the two characters. It brought me back to the similar scene in Irreversible, where Alex and Marcus lounge around their apartment with a song playing in the background that creates this feeling of utter bliss.

But, the world soon intrudes upon Tae-Suk and Sun's relationship, and this is quite jarring. The very act of speaking seems cold and unreal compared to the wordless passion of our two main characters. The prison scenes are probably the best example of this.

From there, the film splits off in two directions. I found Tae-Suk's prison scenes very interesting. Throughout the film, he's trying to stay below society's radar, and just move from house to house without being noticed. Now, he seeks to become essentially invisible, and through that process once again be able to go back with Sun to the life they once had, and avoid the problems that the world creates. The use of perspective shooting here was phenomenal, building the idea of Tae-suk as an almost superhuman force.

Then at the same time, we see Sun's utter despair, only to witness her reborn when Tae-suk finally does appear. At the end, she speaks, and though her husband thinks she's talking to him, now it seems that words have become her way of communicating with Tae-suk, without her husband knowing. Some of the moments here were just heartbreakingly beautiful, most notably the shot of Sun kissing Tae-suk, even as she is being hugged by her husband. This is a perfect visual representation of the way that she has found a way to hide him within her everyday life. It's such a good image, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Kim started with that image and the rest of the project grew out of it.

Then there's the ending of the movie, which like The Isle, gives us an ambiguous image, one that we need to apply our own meaning to. The shot before the last, where Sun is backing into Tae-suk, searching for him, and eventually finding him when they reach the wall, is another phenomenal one.

Then the closing leaves us a bit unclear. We see her messing with the scale earlier in the film, but that wouldn't explain why their weight comes to zero, and then the closing quote sets up a basic choice, with its words about the ambiguity of reality and dreams. The question is did he ever really come back, or is this all just in her head? Both make sense, and I'd actually lean more towards the dream explanation.

It seems to me that this man represents to her the freedom she can't have, so by imagining herself living a life wth him, behind her husband's back, it provides an escape that keeps her happy. She loses herself in these daydreams and memories, this one great experience making her happy enough to open up to her husband again.

But, I don't think you really need an answer for the ending, regardless of whether it's real or not, it tells us how the experience she's gone through during the film has changed her, and standing on the scale at the end, she's not weighed down by her problems, she's able to transcend them.

I think this is Kim's best film, largely because it's the most emotionally involving. You really care about these people, in a way you never did for the characters in Spring or The Isle. And from a filmmaking standpoint, the control of the frame and storytelling here is incredible. Kim is able to make you feel exactly what he wants you to feel and that's quite an accomplishment.

So, I loved this, and now I'm on the look out for more Kim, perhaps Bad Boy and Samaritan Girl will be my next DVD pickups.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Engine

Now that I'm back at school, it also means that I'm back to my job here, lab consultant, which entails sitting in the computer lab and helping people who need help. In practice this means I get paid to do my school work and mess around on the internet. So, this is a great job, however sometimes, during a long shift, I run out of stuff on the internet to do, and so was the case yesterday when I was about two hours in, finished with my school work and just sitting there. Luckily, something emerged and the entire year of computing work has been made much brighter. That something is Warren Ellis' new forum, The Engine.

Ellis is the writer of a bunch of great comics, and some not so great ones. From 1998 until 2002, he ran The Warren Ellis Forum. I got on bored rather late, sometime in 2001, but while I was there, there were some good times. I guess there were some constructive aspects of it, I heard about a bunch of interesting comics, as well as learning better the full potential of However, I found it most interesting viewing as a social experiment. Ellis ran the place with no concern for free speech, or balanced discussion of his work. Anyone who posted something negative about one of his books, even if it was within a review that was positive on the whole, was attacked by either Ellis himself or one of the gang of regulars who fully supported him. More than anything else, I think that was responsible for Ellis' rise to prominence around that time, if you heard him talking about his books constantly, you'd be more likely to check them out. I know I read everything Ellis did during the forum era, but haven't read anything he's done since, the work hasn't changed a whole lot, it's just that I didn't get the advertising.

The entire concept of the forum was mindboggling to me at first. Here was Ellis, one of the biggest writers in comics, reading every single post of this forum and frequently replying within minutes to a post. It seemed like he never left the place except to sleep. It was definitely cool to be able to converse with him, and on the whole, it was one of the best web communities I've been a part of. So, I was sad to see it go.

Anyway, fast forward to the present and Ellis has brought back the forum in a new form, this time as The Engine, a place for creators to talk with fans about original comics work. I think that's actually better than the frequently rambling WEF, and there's a ton of potential here, especially as an area in which to promote my comic. It brought back a lot of memories reading through the messages yesterday, and I'm glad to be getting in on the ground floor of this one. I suppose part of me really wants to be in Warren's inner circle, I was too late to make it there last time.

And if nothing else, this will provide hours of quality reading while I'm working in the lab.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hard Eight a.k.a Sydney

Yesterday I watched PT Anderson's film Hard Eight for the second time. He ran into a lot of studio trouble when making the film, most notably with the title, he wanted the film to be called Sydney, but the studio insisted on Hard Eight. But at this point, Anderson had only done some PA work, so he didn't have the clout to control his own film. Now, he had done some shorts before, but for someone who'd never done a feature, Hard Eight is a really well made, restrained debut, though watching it at the time, I seriously doubt most people would see the potential for something like Magnolia coming from this guy.

But, to the film itself. The most striking thing in Hard Eight is how slow paced the film is, I don't think it's boring at all. but it's a film that's much more about getting you into an emotional space than conveying a narrative. Befitting its lead character, the film is almost tired, and any action seems to require a lot of exertion. Most of the film consists of dialogue scenes, and there's not that much music, though what music there is, is great. The film's aspect ratio is 2.35:1 and Anderson uses the full frame, frequently playing dialogue scenes in single take long shots that distance you from the characters, and reduce the tension that could be present in some scenes.

The reason for this is because the film's main character is someone who almost never expresses his emotions. Sydney just appears at the beginning of the film, and for the vast majority of its run time, his motives are unclear. We see his relationship with John, but don't get a real sense of what the man himself is like. The only things we know about him are the way he treats people, specifically the respect he gives Clementine and the disdain he has for Jimmy. So, rather than try to tell us who this guy is and what he's really feeling through filmmaking techniques, Anderson maintains the ambiguity by playing things very low key and just allowing the events to play themselves out.

That's not to say this is a film where the technique is invisible. Anderson's eye for a great frame is evident right from the start, and I was frequently struck by how he uses framing to create suspense, as in the scene where Sydney drops his keys in the car, and is hunched down looking for him, but the camera stays looking out the window, making us think that Jimmy is going to attack him there. However, he subverts this expectation by cutting and having Jimmy smash through the other window. Anderson makes great use of the lights in Las Vegas and Reno, their garishness a contrast to the low key human characters. He also has some great tracking shots, foreshadowing the astonishing stuff he would do in later films.

Anderson is one of the very rare filmmakers who I would consider equally brilliant as a writer and a director. Most people are either directors who write, like Wong Kar-Wai or David Lynch, or writers who direct, like Kevin Smith. Anderson is so good at both aspects of the process that you can't imagine anyone else directing his script, or him directing a film he didn't write. Hard Eight is like this as well, the film consists of mostly dialogue scenes, with very little overt stylization or action, and yet through the filmmaking, he creates a mood that really defines the film, and makes it completely different from the countless other neo-noirs that emerged in the late 90s.

The film's greatest failing is ultimately its lack of scope, especially in comparison to Anderson's subsequent films. It's an expertly made film that does everything it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do isn't that unique or ambitious. That's why I wouldn't put the movie on the same par as a Magnolia or Boogie Nights.

Looking at the film in the context of Anderson's later work, there's a few things that stand out. One is the cast. Philip Baker Hall gets the spotlight here and gives a phenomenal performance. His acting is all in the way he carries himself, watching him you know he's been through so much. John C. Reilly also does his first work with Anderson here, and he's not quite as good as in his later roles. He's solid overall, but there's a few lines that just felt unrealistic to me, he really comes into his own with Magnolia. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a one scene cameo and he's pretty solid, though I seriously have to question the mullet. And Melora Walters turns up very briefly at the end, her performance with only a couple of lines was apparently good enough to inspire Anderson to bring her back for Boogie Nights, and subsequently to the best role in Magnolia.

Other than Anderson regulars, I loved Gwyneth Paltrow in this movie. This is the only movie I've seen her in that's set in the present, and it was nice to see her divorced from mannered styles of acting and instead do something more grounded in reality. She's great here, nicely conveying the false persona she puts on to attract clients, and then subtly letting her guard down around Sydney.

In that respect, this film touches on a core Anderson theme, and that's how lonely people can turn themselves into new families, families that are frequently more loving than their 'real' families.. Here, Sydney acts as a father to John and Clementine, helping these two struggling people become self sufficient. This family clearly means more to him than his biological family, who he hasn't seen in a long time. That same dynamic turns up in Boogie Nights, when Jack brings together a collection of loner misfits and turns them into an extended family that works on the films. When Dirk bottoms out at the end of the film, he doesn't go back to his mother and father, he goes back to Jack and Amber, and they take him in again.

Magnolia is the ultimate extension of this theme, as people struggle to form new bonds as a result of the awful families they had in the past. Claudia ultimately finds solace in a reconstructed family with her mother and Jim, and Frank and Linda become more family than they'd ever been, united by the loss of Earl.

And in Punch Drunk Love, we see Barry struggling to live with his family. Though, you'll notice I haven't referred to that film much. I only saw it once, about two years ago, so I bought it off Ebay, it should be here in a couple of days, and I'll review it once I see it, having become an expert on Anderson. Though both PDL and Hard Eight lack the outrageous ambition that made Boogie Nights and Magnolia landmarks in cinematic history, at least for me.

So, Hard Eight stands as a wonderful mood piece, that captures the lives of a few people passing through Sydney's world. And at the end, he finds himself back where he began, with blood on his hands, and the knowledge that no matter what he does, he can never completely atone for what he'd done.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Song of the Week: David Wrench 'Sodium Lights'

Welcome to the first addition of an exciting new feature on Thoughts on Stuff, and that's the song of the week. Here, following the lead of MP3 blogs like Fluxblog, I will be presenting a song that I've been liking this week, with a link to download it. So, out of respect for my ancestors, this week's song is actually one that was featured on Fluxblog.

David Wrench - Sodium Lights

I don't know much about this artist, but I'm looking to find out more having heard this brilliant track. It reminds me a bit of Moby, but he is both more rock and more far reaching in the scope of instrumentation than Moby's stuff. I love the instrumental crescendo at the beginning, leading to the subdued first verse. Then the song slowly builds, adding layers of keyboard stuff, and increased emotion to the vocal, until it explodes into dance mode at the chorus, the peak of the song until the insane keyboard instrumental part that hits around 3:20.

The song combines two of my favorite genres, orchestral rock and dance, with liberal use of odd synth effects. It's the rare electronica song that has this emoitonal a vocal and that fusion is what makes the song so effective.

So download this and check it out for yourself. It hit me on the first listen, but definitely give it a couple of tries if it doesn't take on the first listen. And I'll be looking for more Wrench, because this is the sort of song that hits so many of the things I love about music.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Joss Whedon Q&A

So, today here at Wesleyan alum Joss Whedon was appearing to screen his new film, Serenity and do a Q&A afterwards. So, this event is at 7:30, most of your Wesleyan films events don't start until fifteen minutes or so after the listed time, and it was nowhere near full at the last event they did with Joss, but I figured I'd get there early just to be sure. So, I have dinner and get there at 7:10 and there's a massive line, stretching around the building. Apparently freshmen have not gotten the memo on the whole fashionably late thing, so I'm a bit nervous, but figure I should get in. And the line winds it way along and I'm getting close when one of the workers comes out and says "You're probably not going to get in, you can wait if you want, but it's not looking good," but I've heard that one before, and I figure they're just trying to weed out the people who don't really want to be there anyway. However, we don't move forward much more, and eventually the guy comes out and says that they are filled to capacity, and we would not get in.

So, I was quite annoyed at this point, and I sort of lingered around the door, talking to one of the people I know who works there, but he said that they were completely full. However, he did say I could come back in two hours and see the Q&A. This was not the best turn of events, I did want to see the film, but if I had to miss one thing, the film itself or the Q&A, I'd rather miss the film, because I can see that in a month, while this Q&A is a once in a lifetime thing, or twice I guess, since I already saw Joss when he appeared here back in Spring of 2004.

That Q&A was one of the best events I've ever been to, coming right as I was finishing my first viewing of Angel, becoming caught up as they prepared to air the final four episodes of the series. I was so into Joss' work at that point, it was amazing to hear him speak about Buffy and Angel and the worlds he had created. Hearing him talk about the process of creating a story was inspiring and relatable, I really understood his claim that the stories you end up telling are the ones that just won't shut up, they force themselves to be told somehow.

And I guess for him, Firefly is one of those stories, but I think the series was just starting to get good when it was cancelled. And because they had shown Serenity right before, the vast majority of questions here were about that world, and the film. Unfortunately I got a couple of spoilers for what happens in the movie, but most of the questions people asked were equally true for the series as they were for the film.

I'll commend the fact that people didn't ask really obvious, boring questions, but I think there was a bit too much of a focus on the Western elements of the film, four people must have asked which Western movies and tropes were a major influence on him. I feel like if you have someone who has created so much original stuff, it would be more interesting to hear about his process than just to go over what influenced him again and again. I'd imagine these were people who'd just seen the film, not any of his series, and as a result didn't have a big picture view of his work. Side note, it's very annoying that these people got to see the film instead of me who has seen all three series, but I guess this means I've got to show up earlier next time Interestingly, there were virtually no Buffy questions, I guess people felt that would have been looked at as sort of backtracking.

During the big Q&A there were a few interesting questions. One person asked about the reason for Joss' fixation on adolescent female heroes who commit violent acts and even he seemed at a bit of a loss, claiming that "my therapist and I are working on that." Even in the limited stuff I've done, I can see a lot of connected character types that come up almost subconsciously. When you're a writer, there's a way you see the world, and Joss clearly sees these type of female characters as important, something that's reflected in the work.

But the really interesting stuff came up after the big Q&A when Joss was signing stuff and fielding individual questions. Just as in the last time he was here, the crowd of people gradually diminished until only people who really knew his work were left. One really interesting thing he said was that when he came here to Wes, he made a conscious decision to focus on film and devote all his energy to that. He stopped doing anything that wasn't related to either watching or making movies. That's something I'm really happy to hear, because while I haven't done the total cut off, I can't think of the last really fun thing I did that wasn't somehow related to a work of fiction. I think he felt like you need to completely know film if you're going to make it, and wiht each new film you see, it's easier to understand what works and what doesn't work in cinematic storytelling. Martin Scorsese said the same thing, he used to watch two or three movies a day, so did Richard Linklater, so clearly this is the sort of devotion that one needs to become a filmmaker, or at least it doesn't hurt on the journey to making films.

I asked him the much rumored Spike movie. And he said that it required so many creative people to make, it was difficult to line up, and that they needed to make "a few more connections" before it would happen. He did say that it would take place after the end of Angel and would clear up some of the issues that people still had. I guess the biggest issue would be, do they live or die, and if there's a movie, that would imply that at least some of them survive. So, it is still in the works, but it's a matter of finding the time and bringing people together to make it happen.

The other really fun thing was when he was talking with someone about Runaways, the comic. He said that he still goes to the comic store every Wednesday and buys more books than he should, including Runaways, Powers and a whole bunch of Ultimate Marvel stuff. But, he was talking with someone else about Runaways and was just so enthused about it, talking about how great issue eighteen was, and how he and Bendis fought at Marvel to save it. I haven't read the comic, but it was so cool to see that a creator of so much phenomenal stuff was still a really passionate fan of fiction, and able to talk like someone you might run into at any local comic shop. The other thing he spoke about really passionately was Veronica Mars, saying it was the only show where he felt honored that it was called "the next Buffy." That's a show I need to check out, because everyone who watches it seems to completely fall in love with it.

Another interesting bit was when he talked about how people had criticized Firefly for ripping off Cowboy Bebop, but he had never seen the series. That's something that stood out to me when I saw it, Firefly definitely feels like it could be set in the same universe as Bebop. I'm sure there's a bunch of fanfic crossovers available on the internet. And as a fan of both series, it was cool to hear Joss mention the criticism.

He talked about a bunch of other interesting stuff, but that's what stood out the most to me. I get the feeling that Joss has so many great stories to tell and I wish he had more time to tell them all. I'd love to see him getting a TV series going, preferably on somewhere like HBO, without the constrains of network TV, or to just do some quick movies based on original stories, or an original comics work, just something to get more of his ideas out there.

So, it was an enjoyable time, he did about two hours of Q&A, and was always really entertaining to listen to. I don't think it was quite as mind blowing as the first time, because I knew more what to expect, but I could still listen to him talk for as long as he's willing to.