Thursday, October 27, 2005

Last Days

The last review I did was of Domino, a film I praised for its absurdly quick cutting and constant visual stimulation. So, it's a big jump to this review, of Gus Van Sant's Last Days, a film that is extremely minimalistic, dwelling on the most mundane everyday things to build a unique atmosphere.

Last Days is the follow up to Van Sant's Elephant, a film I loved. Both films feature very little in the way of a traditional plot and are primarily about building a world and feeling that the characters inhabit. Elephant was a bit more focused, since everything led up to a big event at the end. Last Days also builds to something, but it's not as clear or impactful an ending.

It was widely noted in the press surrounding the film's release that the last days of the title are Kurt Cobain's, and knowing at least something about Kurt's life is essential to understanding the film. I suppose you could figure it out, but at no point in the film do they explicitly say that this guy is a huge rock star, or that his fame is likely the reason for the ennui he's experiencing now. I did some reading on Cobain after seeing the film, and it's made things a lot clearer, but the film itself gives you very little understanding of the circumstances of what's going on. Normally I'd say go into a film completely fresh, but this is one where some outside information is helpful. I think it might have been wise to give a bit more exposition on who this guy is and why he's feeling the way he does, but with the film there's a conscious decision to avoid the typical biopic structure, meaning that if you bring the information you need, this can go a lot deeper than a traditional biopic, because it's more about putting you in this guy's headspace than trying to convey objective facts.

The film's got a lot of funny moments, mainly playing on the mundanity of everyday life. I love Blake making mac and cheese and dumping the cheese pack into the water, or when Blake is having cereal and accidentally puts the cereal back in the fridge instead of the milk. Similarly, the awkward conversation with the yellow pages guy and the Mormons are highlights. Particularly with the yellow pages guy, it's unclear why Blake is placing an ad, or if this store even exists, but the scene itself is strangely compelling. It's the only time in the entire film that we see someone coaxing Blake out of his self imposed mental cocoon and out into the real world.

In the entire film Blake speaks about three intelligible lines, most of the time he's just mumbling and we can barely understand him. This is annoying at first, but once you realize that the narrative is irrelevant, it becomes clear that the way he's saying things is more important than what he's saying. The entire film gives you this weird feeling of living this shiftless life, functioning at a distance from the outside world. So, the most powerful moments come when Blake comes into contact with regular people, as in the afforementioned yellow pages scene, or notably the scene with Kim Gordon, who calls him out on his lifestyle. That's the most emotionally affecting scene in the piece. Another really interesting scene is when Blake wanders into the town and goes to the rock club.

I think the film's biggest problem is that, other than Blake, we really don't know who anyone is. In Elephant there was a huge cast, but they all played off of archetypes, here there's just a bunch of random people. It's unclear whether they're in the band or just his friends. One of them looks a lot like Dave Grohl, and I doubt that's coincidence, but the phone call early in the film seems to imply that his band is somewhere else. So, the scenes with these people are difficult to decipher, and generally end up as strands without meaning. You see this guy listening to 'Venus in Furs,' but there's no meaning beyond that. It's just the surface of things. I suppose the point is to show Blake's distance from the people in his life, but it's all kind of unclear.

The film isn't entertaining in the traditional sense, or even something particularly thought provoking, it's more like going on a drug trip, entering this alien headspace for a while. You're not sure exactly what's going on, but there's an odd feeling about everything going on. However, the film is a bit self indulgent and actively confronts the viewer with long shots of essentially nothing, and countless diversions from the barely there main point.

In the end, it's not like everything came together, but the image of Blake's soul leaving his body is striking, and provides an apt conclusion for things. Stuff just happens and we caught some of the end of this man's life. Is the film a success? It certainly acheives what it sets out to do, but I think more could have been done with the premise, without turning it into a conventional narrative. Van Sant's minimalism is so concrete as to alienate the viewer. It's not a good thing when you have to turn to wikipedia afterwards to understand the basic premise of the movie.

But still, it works as a completely unique cinematic experience. I finished the film and wasn't emotionally affected, but I felt different, I remained in that odd state of mind after the film was done, that's a powerful piece of cinema.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Domino has gotten some of the worst reviews of any film that's come out recently, but these reviews were interesting in the way that they seemed to contain a vehement anger at the film, and a film that creates this sort of anger usually means it at least tries something different. The Fog may have gotten worse reviews, but I didn't see anyone claiming it was a nadir of cinematic expression. And all these awful reviews seemed to point out the things that made the trailer so great as the flaws of the film, so I went to see the film, and ended up loving it. This film is a hyper-kinetic pop art object in which narrative and character are rendered completely irrelevant and the shooting and editing of the film itself becomes the primary attraction.

There's a lot of films out there that end up being awful, but are able to string together a great two minute trailer. XXX was one of these, very quick editing, cool looking characters and a lot of excess. Compressed into two minutes, it was a cool experience. Spread out over two hours, not so much. Domino never relents from that trailer pace, the film may set a new record for average shots per minute, there's an unbelievable number of cuts and nearly every shot is moving. This makes the film an incredible rush, and lends an energy to every scene.

This film is much closer to an art film than a mainstream film, in the sense that the joy is more in the construction than the narrative itself. The opening scenes that convey Domino's journey from troubled youth to bounty hunter are the only particularly interesting character work. From there on, the film follows a fairly standard heist plot. If you shoot this differently, it could have the relaxed flow of Ocean's Twelve, or more likely end up as just a conventional thriller that's ok, but nothing special. Domino is a film unlike anything else I've seen, and for that alone I can respect it.

Domino is almost always backed by music, and that music determines the rhythm of the scenes. Even in dialogue scenes, there's almost constant cutting and you end up watching the cutting more than the action. I'm not saying that every film should be like this, I can respect the slow pace of a film like In the Mood For Love, but the medium can do this, and it's riveting to watch the construction of the movie and its total saturation of visual extravagence.

Thus, it's tough to write about the film from a traditional narrative context. The story doesn't convey the experience of watching the movie, it becomes something else entirely. I think Keira Knightley's good in the movie, anchoring everything, but the star is really the style. The opening credits alone are more exciting than most films, with the great spiralling dominoes and crazy 70s music. The movie constantly goes so far over the top, you can't believe it. The Jerry Springer sequence is so ridiculous, you've got to laugh at it. And the quick cutting makes it even more funny, because this ridiculous sequence is being propelled at such speed. The Tom Waits appearance is another bizarre one, and the intercutting with the image of Jesus makes it even more over the top. By the end of the film, I thought there was nowhere left to go, but the shootout in the tower outshone everything else with its sheer excess.

I guess what makes the film so good is that it really uses the medium. You couldn't do this in a book, it's uniquely cinematic. When I was teaching the workshop this summer, I presented the theory that the visual in film should be engaging on its own terms, apart from the narrative. Basically, your shot shouldn't just show the character talking to forward the story, it should show the talking in an interesting way. The best films are the ones that feature a great visual style and narrative.

So, this theory would be a rebuke to the traditional idea of invisible film construction, the idea that the authorial hand should not be present in the film. I think watching a film that is a marvel of visual construction is just as invigorating as watching a well told story. The best films combine the two, and perhaps the best fusion is the kind exhibited by Magnolia, which uses the medium so well, but also tells a story that's brilliant on its own terms.

Domino focuses almost entirely on the visual style part of film, with the narrative occasionally getting lost. Most Hollywood films are all about the narrative, and at this point, it has to be a pretty amazing story to get by with a weak visual style. If the visual style was toned down, Domino wouldn't be a particularly special movie. I've seen a ton of good, but unremarkable movies in the crime genre.

However, by choosing to move completely away from narrative and embrace the visual style part of film so thoroughly, Scott creates a film that's more like a pop art object. You watch the film, but don't really engage with the characters. And yet, the film is so fun to watch, that doesn't matter. When Domino's comrades fall, she picks up two machine guns and fires on some advancing mobsters, choosing to kill for the first time. In a typical film, this would be an agonizing moral decision, and the payoff of the revenge would be the focus of the scene. That's there in Domino, but it's beneath the surface, the focus of the scene is on the visual spectacle of Keira with the guns, and on showing that from as many angles as possible.

In some respects, the film recalls Wong Kar-Wai's mid 90s hyperpop period, and Scott makes extensive use of the so called 'Chungking effect,' messing with the shutter speed. WKW used the stylistic excess of those films to display the emotions of the characters. Scott doesn't really do that here, it's just about the editing, and quite frankly, I think that's enough.

Now, you may say, what about your review of Batman Begins, where I said:

we'd need Batman to be in some physical danger, and we don't get that either, or more accurately, we can't tell if he is because of the way the fight is edited. You have no clue what's going on because cuts are used to convey action rather than the actors actually fighting. The best action scenes rely on us knowing exactly what's going and being able to easily follow things. Look at the lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace, wide shots make it easy to follow the action. Here, it's all quick cuts and then somehow Batman has won, we don't know how. But, that's not just this movie, it's a problem with many action movies today.

So, how do I reconcile that commment with what I'm saying about Domino? Here's the difference, Batman Begins is a staid film that wallows in gray muck. It uses quick cutting, but this follows a traditionally edited film, and is accompanied by boring score. So, the quick cutting doesn't fit into the world the film has constructed. I would argue that for quick cutting to be successful, it has to be tied to music or heavy sound design, making it rhythmic rather than random. Batman Begins isn't a very pop movie, it's a heavy, oppressive thing, and as a result, you want a heavy, brutal fight, not a bunch of edits. Domino is a pop construction, and a result, the editing fits. You don't really care about the character, you're not supposed to, so let's just show things in as cool a way as possible. Batman Begins is worlds away from cool. Also I'd argue Domino's fight scenes, even with the extreme cutting, are still more intelligible than what we got in Begins, and a lot more enjoyable.

All that said, yes, there's parts of the story that don't work. The ironic use of celebrities, as with Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, just isn't funny anymore, and considering the possibilities of the character, the fact that the story is such a conventional action structure seems like a missed opportunity. However, the film moves so fast, you can easily ignore the flaws and just revel in what is onscreen. It's a crazy, hyper-pop film art object that makes fuller use of the medium than anything else that's come out this year.

I'm normally someone who uses critical response as my primary barometer for whether or not to see a film, but in this case, the critics are off. This is a unique and riveting film that is definitely worth seeing. I loved it, and you should see it.