Saturday, December 17, 2005

Kim Ki-Duk's Bad Guy

Kim Ki-Duk has become one of my favorite directors recently, all of his films I've seen have been good, but it's with 3 Iron and Samaritan Girl that I've seen how great his stuff can be. Those are also two of his most recent films. Bad Guy is an earlier work, from 2001 (though it was just released here this year). It's not as emotionally potent as 3 Iron or Samaritan Girl, but it's still extremely powerful and clearly lays the roots for a lot of his later work, dealing with one of his favorite themes, prostitution.

One of the best things about Kim Ki-Duk's work is the way the films take you on a really sustained emotional journey. The journey that Sun-Hwa is similar to what the main character of Samaritan Girl goes through, but here it's even darker. By the end of the film, she's a completely different person than she was at the beginning, but unlike most movies, her arc isn't something moved forward by her own action, it's more that she's manipulated into a bad situation and just drifts along facing the ever increasing misdeeds done unto her, until at the end the person she was is basically dead.

I love the opening scenes, the casual disdain that Sun-Hwa has for Han-Ki. He clearly sees in her the woman he lost, but she sees only a brute, and his previous emotional trauma, as well as a desire to confront her disdain for him, is what prompts him to kiss her, an action that ultimately leads to a really degrading experience for Han-Ki.

Looking back, seeing Sun-Hwa is clearly emotionally traumatic for Han-Ki. At first you assume it's just the fact that she's a beautiful woman that would attract him, however, it was clearly about trying to recapture what he lost with the woman he once knew. So, being so utterly rejected, he decides to seek revenge. He manipulates the events with the wallet to get her to take it and put her into debt.

It's interesting that his plan for enslaving her relies on her own inherent darkness. Seeing her rip the page out of the book, he knows that she will take the wallet. Though she refuses her own boyfriend's advances, there's clearly a dark streak in her. I think she's caught between her own desire to act in the darkness and society's morals which tell her that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. I'm not saying that at the end of the film she gets what she deserves or wants, rather that in every person lurks a darkness, and Han-Ki preys on it to get what he wants.

Judging from this and Samaritan Girl, prositution in Korea is much more accepted than it is here. I'm not sure about the legality, but clearly it's not as outrageous as it would be here for a girl to go into prostitution. Still, for a college student, it's not the expected path. Watching Sun-Hwa gradually acclimate herself to the prositute life puts the viewer in an uneasy position. The way we've grown accustomed to narrative, she would somehow take the bad fate she's been given and turn it to her advantage, like rally the girls to change things, or fight to get out of the life.

When you first see Sun-Hwa looking so sad on display in the window, you feel bad for her, and the scene where she has her first client is almost painfullly awkward. I found myself wishing that she would just embrace the life she's been forced into, to try to please the clients and play the game like the other girls. Yet, when she finally does, it basically marks the death of the person she was. The critical turning point of the film is when she starts to actively solicit business and is told by a client that she really seemed to like it. In choosing to embrace this life, she has given up any chance of returning to what she was, and that's incredibly sad. The film, though the ending has a feeling of catharsis, is ultimately the story of someone who loses the chance to live a normal life because of the cruel actions of another person. It's an incredibly sad story when you step back and look at it.

Concurrently with all this, we've got the story of Han-Ki. I didn't find his stuff as interesting as Sun-Hwa, largely because a lot of stuff is unclear. Maybe I just missed it, but the whole thing with Dal-Su came out of nowhere. And also, he received so many life threatening injuries, it was a bit ridiculous how he kept coming back. Normally I try to just roll with what the movie is doing, but in this case, it got a bit too much by the fourth life threatening injury. Kim's films create such insular worlds that little things like that can really break the spell of the film.

However, his basic conflict is phenomenal. This is a guy who's clearly once been in love, but buried that and embraced his life as a low rent gangster pimp. He seeks revenge on Sun-hwa because she refuses to see him as a human being. Clearly, he's got some self loathing issues, most notably when he beats his friend. This could be seen as both an extension of his love for Sun-hwa, he doesn't want her sullied by this guy, as well as a desire to punish himself. With his other friend in prison, beating this guy leaves him free to move on.

The scees where Han-ki watches Sun-hwa through the two way mirror are absolutely phenomenal. The black void lighting, only broken by the embers of a burning cigarette, his face reflected in the mirror, watching Sun-Hwa's gradual degredation. I love the way Kim's frame create multiple planes of action. You can watch Han-Ki's face and the action with Sun-hwa simultaneously, in the same way that a number of scenes with Han and his crew are set so that we can see Sun and her crew soliciting customers in the background, two stories happening at once.

Over the course of the film, it's unclear how Sun feels about Sun. Clearly, he has some affection for her, and likely a lot of guilt about what he did to her. Yet, at the same time he sits watching her have sex with other men with little attempt to stop her or protect her. The one night they do spend together is chaste, with her on the floor next to him. There's the beautiful moment where he fixes her hook. It seems that he has little actual sexual desire himself, certainly not since the woman he loved killed herself.

The scene with Han and Sun on the beach is my favorite in the film. I'm assuming there's some sort of memory/dream crossing with reality, since we see the woman going into the water, yet Han makes no attempt to stop her, indicating this is something that's already happened. The music in that scene is phenomenal. Kim uses music sparingly, but he'll frequently use a song multiple times, lending it greater meaning within the context of the story, and his music choice is always impeccable. The scene here when Sun reaches for the glass is stunning because such a small action has so much significance. Sun is finally going to engage violence, seek revenge against the person who broke her, yet she is unable to go through with it. She finds herself held captive still.

The scene leads us to believe that we'll finally get the emotional payoff we've been waiting for all film, but it's quickly undermined and rather than any sort of resolution, Sun just gets carried along on her path. That's the way the whole film goes, there's no specific turning points, just a bunch of choices that eventually lead to Sun's change. It's a stunning physical transformation, the fresh faced girl from the beginning of the movie is completely worn down, with bags under her eyes, hidden only by garish makeup at the end.

That transformation is just one of the stunning visual elements. Kim moves the camera sparingly, choosing instead to create reallly strong still frames. As mentioned before, the stuff with the mirror is fantastic, as is the whole visual design of the street. I love the way the windows are constructed in such a way as to fully commodify the girls, they're on display to be leered at and bought by customers, who view them not as people but as commodities. The contrast between the showy neon streets and the drab bedroom is also effective. You never see the two environments interact, it's like the glamourous outfits and appearances of the outside are rendered moot when it comes time to do the act itself. I love how garish the wigs and color coordinated clothes she puts on are, the implication being that each night she dresses up as something else, designed solely to appeal men, and with each disguise she further loses touch with who she was to begin with.

The other strong visual motif was the pictures. They were used brilliantly when we see her face in one empty picture and a client's in the other. I also like the way it initially seems to be just a visual metaphor but then pays off in the end, giving us some information that completely changes the narrative. And finally, another standout scene is when Sun-Hwa breaks through the mirror to discover Han-Ki, very powerful visually.

The ending of the film is troubling. As I mentioned before, the stuff with the gang and the prison is a bit weak and distracts from the core relationship at the center of the film. Also, this is definitely a film with a few false endings, moments where you think it's over but comes back.

The difficult thing about the film is that the final message seems to be that Sun-Hwa has been irreprably damaged, and as a result, she must continue to be a prostitute. When she goes to the prison and yells at Han-Ki, it's not just the fact that he initially put her in this situation, and caused her a lot of pain, it's that he killed the person she was. This is the last moment of real emotional engagement we see, after this she essentially gives up and consigns herself to a life of prostitution.

When she's out on her own, she ends up having sex with the truck driver, and as a result, she's drawn back to Han-Ki. At first, I thought that they were going to have a relationship, run away from it all and be together, but we don't even get that. Instead, he sets her up as a travelling prostitute, working seaside communities, and though they are together, they're both still completely alone, Sun-Hwa is left to only imagine the life she could have had.

The film is very powerful, confronting the audience with dark events that refuse to give you easily resolution. You want Sun-Hwa to do something, to come alive, but she can't, she's been beaten by the life she's leading, and she can never be the person she used to be again. Han-Ki at first sees in her an innocence and longing for something better, but ultimately ends up bringing her down to his level instead of elevating her. Kim's stuff is always tough, but this may be the darkest yet. In The Isle, at least the two of them were together, and at the end of Samaritan Girl, she may have been through prostitution, but she was ultimately cleansed. This is no such salvation for Sun-Hwa.

The film contains all of Kim's favorite elements: prostitution, prison, water and graphic violence as emotional punctuation. I think he's one of the world's best filmmakers because, like David Lynch, his films aren't easy, there are enigmas, both narrative and moral to deal with and you leave his films needing to discuss and analyze them. They spur more thought rather than leaving everything cleanly tied up. That's why it's frequently in the analysis of the film that the depths are discovered, it's the second and third viewings where you can really enjoy the movie. And Kim is also a stunning visual composer. His frames are composed to tell a story, using visuals rather than words to convey narrative, the wordless emotional connections between people far more important than the vagaries of speech.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

X-Men 230-239

Another chunk of X-Men issues down, and at this point, I'm actually starting to get near the end of the Claremont run. Back in the 100s, it seemed like this run would never end, but now, forty issues away, the once vast expanse of issues now looks shockingly narrow. I've been reading this stuff since August, and it's odd to think that I won't have any more Claremont to read. Now, I could just keep going and read the non-Claremont stuff, but I really feel like the characters are so uniquely his that I have no desire to see what happens to them after he was tossed off the book. Plus, it's pricey and annoying to keep picking up these back issues, so this provides a good logical point to stop at.

Anyway, on to the book itself. This chunk of issues starts with further clarification of the X-Men's current status quo, based in Australia, but because of Gateway, they're able to go anywhere in the world. Having Gateway function as an all purpose transporter weakens the impact of the X-Men's isolation. With him, they're still able to go to the States and check in on the people they left there. The fact that the two four issue storylines in this chunk of issues take place off of Australia means that there's not too much significance to being based there. I suppose the idea was to give them a way to move around as a covert strike team, per their new mission statement in issue 229.

However, the fact that they're a covert strike team trying to hide their identities, yet still wear the exact same uniforms is rather nonsensical. I feel a tension between the demands of remaining the identifiable X-Men and exploring the potential of this new premise, and that tension is never satisfactorally resolved. Ultimately, the book feels basically the same, and only occasionally do they mention that they're a strike team again. Plus, the fact that Psylocke can wipe peoples' memories basically allows them to avoid any legitimate struggle in keeping their identity secret.

230 is largely designed to set up the new status quo, and to do a Christmas story. Christmas stories are usually cheesy, but this one works pretty well, largely because you don't even realize it's a Christmas thing until the end. It's not a great issue, but it certainly does what it sets out to do.

231 is a bit weaker, largely because it's primarily concerned with Ilyana and storylines that were presumably developing in New Mutants at the time. While I commend the attempt to keep strong continuity between the books, this story would probably be more at home in New Mutants. Even though it features Colossus, he's primarily there to react to what's up with Ilyana, rather than instigating things on his own.

The issue sets up the basic conundrum of how the X-Men can help the people they love if they can't even let them know they're alive, however, it undermines that conundrum by making Ilyana believe she had summoned a spirit version of Colossus. So, the entire dramatic point of the issue is rendered moot. This is another thing that Joss picked up from Claremont. Look at the episode 'Ted.' Rather than having Buffy have to deal with the fact that her desire to keep her parents together led to her accidentally killing her mother's boyfriend, they undermine the consequences by having him be a robot. So, the character goes through the emotional experience, but it feels like an emotional cheat because of what we find out later. That's what this issue feels like, an emotional cheat for Ilyana. However, there is some fun stuff in it, most notably Colossus' attempts to act llike a ghost, and I'd imagine that this sets up stuff that will come to a head in Inferno.

The next chunk of issues is concerned with the brood. The original brood storyline while a bit nonsensical set up almost all the issues from the brilliant Paul Smith era. This time, rather than aping Alien, Claremont does a riff on zombie movies, with the X-Men battling the alien among us. I don't think this storyline is particularly successful. It goes over the same territory as the previous story with the brood, i.e. is it ethical to kill them? And Havok goes through the same trauma that Storm did back then.

On the whole, the storyline is just a bunch of events without any really strong character relevance until the end. I did like in the last issue how Claremont upended the intolerant preacher cliche and instead had a preacher's faith rejuvenated through the intervention of the X-Men. There was a very cool moment where Wolverine erupts from under the stage and proceeds to kill a brood, along with a great cheesy line, something like "Ben Franklin said there's only two things certain in life...and this ain't taxes." Brilliant. The ideological conflict Wolverine and Storm have over killing is interesting, and one of the few dividers in their otherwise mutuallly respectful relationship.

The Genosha storyline follows next. Genosha has gone on from these humble beginnings to become a crucial part of X-mythology. They've seriously just been redoing Claremont's stuff for fifteen years now, even Claremont himself is. In this era, he's throwing out a bunch of incredible concepts each issue, that sense of constant invention is part of what makes the book such interesting reading. Anyway, the Genosha stuff has a mystery structure and it takes a while for things to really start up. Like the brood, this storyline is bogged down in a bit too much exposition. It takes a while to get to the real meat of things, though the payoff in the last issue is strong.

The most interesting stuff going on through all these issues is with Maddy Pryor. I think in every one of these reviews I've talked about how she's my favorite character, and that's definitely the case in this bunch of issues. Infuriated by Scott leaving her, Maddy apparently strikes a bargain with a demon to help her find her son. I really liked the dream sequence she has, where Scott takes her apart to rebuild Jean Grey. On a story level, it works great, but it's also a nice meta commentary on what's happened to the character. That's actually a big part of what's cool about the character, she had this storyline starting, but then editorial came along and brought back Jean Grey, abandoning her just like Scott does in the actual book. It's basically indefensible what he does, and if you separate editorial mandate from things, the character should really be punished for the awful choices he made. Luckily, this aspect of the character is finally addressed in Morrison's run, which takes the character in a really interesting direction.

Besides Maddy, the storyline is bit heavy handed with its mutant as slave allegory. The concepts are cool, but as played out, it's a bit too preachy, particularly in the father son conflict with the genegineer. The thing I do like is the ambiguity at the end. The X-Men may have won their battle, but they basically acknowledge that this place is not going to heal easy. It's deeply screwed up and a little victory can't heal it.

Across this chunk of issues, I noticed a lot more pointless captioning from Claremont. During the Paul Smith era, he seemed to check a lot of the exposition, but it's been coming back. I think part of it was editorial mandate, but do we really need to hear it mentioned in every issue that Wolverine has an adamantium skeleton. And too often he introduces the characters and their powers, you should be able to figure them out from what's going on in the action.

So, after a bit of drift, things come back on track with issue 239, the issue that marks the start of the Inferno crossover. I got the Inferno TPB a long time ago, like six or seven years, and read it then, but I don't remember much of it, and at the time I remember being very confused. So, it's still basically new to me. Inferno was apparently designed to be the crossover to end all crossovers, to wipe the slate clean, so things could move forward in the X books. With 239, we see the return of Mister Sinister, a cool looking villain who seems quite menacing. The issue is framed by Sinister playing with statues of the X-Men, lamenting the fact that now that they're dead he'll never have the chance to find these potential worthy opponents.

This issue marks a return to some of Claremont's greatest strengths, with a largely character and relationship based issue. Here, Storm finds out that Jean Grey is alive, prompting to rage at Wolverine who has now for a long time, but didn't tell anyone. I find it a bit ridiculous that they would never have heard about X-Factor and made the connection between that team and the original X-Men. However, it still makes for a good scene when Storm flies Wolverine into the sky and drops him down.

The best part of the issue is Madelyne Pryor and Havok. It makes a lot of sense for these two to come together, both were rejected by people they loved, and they each have a sense of inferiority, that they are the replacements for Scott and Jean rather than legitimate people in their own right. It's got so much twisted potential, particularly when these two meet up with Scott. He'll obviously be furious, but at the same time what right does he have to dictate what Madelyne does considering how he betrayed her. The writing when the two of them finally get together is really strong, both of them know what they're doing is wrong, but they do it anyway.

And on top of that there's some fun stuff with Dazzler and Longshot, who go out to a bar and generally have fun together. Claremont's strength is never in plot based storytelling. Anyone can string together a bunch of events, but he is at his best when he's creating character conflicts and letting them play out. I love the way that these basic relationship conflicts are amplified by the superpowers involved. It's the same thing with Buffy, using the superpowers to turn emotional conflict into earth threatening crisis. So, Madelyne's desire to get her son back doesn't just lead to her going slightly crazy, it turns her into a dark-powered being on a perilous quest for vengeance, a vengeance that will apparently culminate in Inferno.

Judging from the letter columns and promotional stuff in the books, Inferno was heavily hyped, so it would make sense that the previous issues sort of meander along, leading us there. However, if 239 is any indication, Inferno should bring the book back to Claremont's strengths. I'm excited to see how things turn out.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Work of Directors: The Top 21

Having now seen most of the stuff from the second Work of Directors series, I figured it was time to do a summary of my favorite videos from the seven DVDs that have been released so far. I love these discs, since they offer so much quality filmmaking in short doses, really exciting stylistic jumps in both editing and cinematography. So, here's a countdown of the top 21 videos.

21. Radiohead - 'Street Spirit' (Glazer): This video has the advantage of being for one of my favorite songs, a beautiful composition. The video features gorgeous black and white photography and a lot of interesting time lapse stuff. Even though there's cool split screen work, like with the throwing of water and one Thom jumping over a stick that the other Thom is waving, the strongest image is the extreme closeup on Thom Yorke's face. It's an elegaic video, fitting the song it was made for. Unfortunately, Jonathan Glazer's disc only had eight videos on it, this was the only one to make it on the list.

20. The White Stripes - 'Fell in Love with a Girl' (Gondry): This is the infamous lego video, which, like a lot of Gondry's stuff, is a stunning technical achievement. Everyone I've shown to says something to the effect of "That must have been very annoying to make," and that's probably true, but it's worth it. I love how you can see the lego base sometimes in the video, giving you more of a feel that this really is legos, not just a cool effect, because some of the stuff later in the video, like the faces walking away from each other, it's tough to believe it was really an individual bunch of blocks.

19. Johnny Cash - 'Hurt' (Romanek): This is considered by a lot of people to be the best music video of all time, or at least the most serious use of the form. It's a really powerful video, you can see how old and frail Johnny is, his hand shaking as he defiantly pours the cup of wine on the table. My favorite part is towards the end, when he cuts in clips of Jesus being nailed on the cross, the hammer echoing the heavy beats in the music. Considering how soon he died after the video, this feels like a perfect summation of Cash's life, and all the good and bad present therein. I haven't seen 'Walk the Line,' but I doubt anything in it is as powerful as this three minute video.

18. Aphex Twin - 'Come to Daddy' (Cunningham): Chris Cunningham's collaboration with Aphex Twin produced two of the videos on the list. This video is pretty disturbing, most notably the really odd midgets/children with the face of Richard James. The image of the monster coming out of the TV and yelling at the old lady is fantastic and the whole video has a post-apocalyptic disturbing intensity about it.

17. Chemical Brothers - 'Elektrobank' (Jonze): This is Jonze's gymnast video. It features a great performance from Sofia Coppola (who also puts in a really strong performance in Sednaoui's video 'Sometimes Salvation,' she's definitely one of the coolest people in existence today) as a gymnast. The video is pretty cool on the whole, despite some obvious doubling on the actual gymnastic sequences, however it's one moment of perfect music and visual cohesion. About 3/4s through the video, Coppola is in pain, fighting a leg injury and she pauses for a moment, before her face turns to steel and she goes right into a nasty tumbling routine as the song goes into this hard industrial breakdown, taking the song deeper than it had been before. The visual fits perfectly with the music, and this one moment makes the video a total success.

16. Audioslave - 'Cochise' (Romanek): This is another video that's sold on one big moment. The first minute or so is the band going up an elevator, all the while the music slowly building. They reach the singer who's already standing on top of the building and as they get their instruments the music explodes with a nasty guitar riff and the sky explodes with a massive fireworks display. After a minute of buildup, it's a phenomenal release and the rest of the video is propelled by this one stunning moment. The fireworks are all beautiful, but it's really that initial explosion that makes the video work. It's a great example of a director really using the song's properties to make the video great.

15. Bjork - 'All is Full of Love' (Cunningham): Bjork has done a lot of great videos, but I would consider this her best, a story of two robots in love. The most notable thing about the video is the stunning robots that Cunningham created, they look completely real, watching the making of you can see the CG enhancement, but in the video, it's completely believable. The way he used Bjork's face on the robot is stunning as well. The really impressive thing here is the fact that it's such a warm video, robots and Cunningham are both typically cold, but here, you really feel their love and the moment when they kiss causing a shower of sparks is a beautiful note to close the video on.

14. Mirwais - 'I Can't Wait' (Sednaoui): Stephane produces some of the most visually stunning stuff I've ever seen, particularly in his two collaborations with Mirwais. This video has a lot of subtext, in the way it shows all sorts of people 'phasing' out of Mirwais, his identity constantly in flux. I love the constantly changing identity, particularly in the head on shot of the body changing from person to person. It's a great song and the video contributes to its atmosphere with a lot of bizarre surreality.

13. Nine Inch Nails - 'Closer' (Romanek): Speaking of bizarre, this is a video that takes place in a really odd space, that's simultaneously past and future. It's full of so many crazy images, the monkey on a cross, the beating heart, the bald men in suits. It's got a freakshow from hell vibe, and a very dark cool. I love Trent's goggles and the image of his body rotating in the air. I love the editing on the final driving instrumental section Plus, the final image of Reznor swinging through the air, hitting the final notes of the song's melody on a mini-piano is fantastic.

12. Chemical Brothers - 'Let Forever Be' (Gondry): Gondry's work is frequently concerned with the difference between exciting dream/fantasy worlds and the mundane everyday. This video is the best depiction of that, starting with grainy digital video footage of a woman waking up and a bum on the street, then transforming into a gaudy, technicolor fantasy world where she seems to be the star of a Busby Berkley style old Hollywood musical. the transitions between the worlds are ingenious, the visuals here are phenomenal. I love the dancers with giant masks of the woman's head, or the kalidoscopic image of the bum on drums seen four times in one frame. It reads great as her daydreaming during a boring ordinary day, or just as a series of really odd images.

11. Oui Oui - 'Ma Maison' (Gondry): This is an early Gondry video and it's completely nuts. The band is dressed up as bugs, scurrying through underground tunnels, pollinating flowers, and fleeing from a giant foot out to stomp on them. I love the look of the bugs, with huge goggles and helmets. Despite being live action, the video feels like stop motion, and the stunning sets contribute to that feel of a world too odd to be real.

10. Daft Punk - 'Da Funk' (Jonze): This is more a short film set to music than a music video, what with its extensive dialogue, but it's still on the list because the song does a great job of accompanying the action. This is one of the rare videos where Jonze lets down his typical jokey, pop culture referencing style and instead engages in some weightier emotional material. It's a surreal video because the main character is a dog, but that's never commented on. He goes through the city and people disrespect him, but not because he's not human, rather because he's a newcomer to the city and seems unable to function in the demanding environment. The scenes with Beatrice and Charles are painfully awkward at first, then warm, and then tragic when he can't get on the bus. What is the meaning of the jukebox he can't let go of? It's nonsensical, and yet is perfectly representative of the issues that people carry around. He's trying to turn down or let go of that which is holding him back, and yet he just can't, he has to keep carrying it around instead of moving forward.

9. Aphex Twin - 'Windowlicker' (Cunningham): This video is a rare example of something that's both incredibly disturbing and rather funny. The video is a parody of rap videos, starting with the long opening skit featuring two wannabe gangsters using the words "nigga" and "bitch" in every sentence. They encounter two women, but are quickly bumped away by an absurdly long limousine, inside of which sits a dapper Richard James. From there, the video proper begins and it is disturbing. Cunningham draws attention to the depiction of women in these videos by doing a typical booty video, only putting Richard James' face on the women, so their bodies are the same, but their faces are disturbing. This disconnect is really odd to experience. If you thought James was scary on a bunch of midgets, check out this video for something even more disturbing. The real James does some funny tap dance work, and things amp up to him popping the cork on a bottle of champagne and spraying it on the women, an action that may possibly have a double meaning. The video seems to take place in an odd alterna-world, and that's one of its greatest advantages. It's like nothing else I've ever seen and though it's definitely disturbing, once you get past the surface, it's also hilarious in its excess.

8. Kylie Minogue - 'Come into My World' (Gondry): This video is a technical marvel. We start with Kylie taking a walk around her neighborhood, the camera rotating around following her until she returns to where she started and another Kylie walks out of the building. Watching things build to the finale where there's not only four Kylies, but also four of everyone else in the town is amazing, and making things even more stunning is the fact that there's no cuts in the video. It's a dazzling technical achievement and a great example of a video that starts out small, but continually ups the stakes. It's also great for repeat viewing so you can notice the subtle interactions between the different Kylies. The effects are totally seamless and I'm still at a loss for how this was done. And on top of all that, it fits the song perfectly, both lyrically (you're entering another world), and also structurally, with each of the cycles the length of one verse of the song.

7. Cibo Matto - 'Sugar Water' (Gondry): This is the rare music video that requires multiple viewings to really understand what's going on. What at first appears to be a simple split screen two stories set up soon crosses over, bending time and character interactions, with simultaneous forward and reverse action. I love the way Gondry incorporates the song title into the video, first with the sugar/water shower visual pun and also with the writing on the window. More importantly, there's the stunning way the two stories interact and comment on each other, and eventually cross over. Things from the start of the video pay off at the end and it takes a bunch of viewings to really understand the depth of just how tied these two pieces are. And this is another one with essentially no cuts.

6. Beastie Boys - 'Sabotage' (Jonze): This video was actually the whole reason I got the first batch of Director's Label DVDs. I loved it when I first saw it and I still do. It's a fantastically fun video. Clearly it was very enjoyable to make and that joy is conveyed to the viewer when watching it. The costumes are great, I love the 70s vibe. The best moment here is when the body falls off the bridge at a high point in the music, and also the one underwater shot is very cool. The low budget, homemade feel adds to the charm of the video, and the characters' similarity to Division X from The Invisibles doesn't hurt either.

5. U2 - 'Discotheque' (Sednaoui): I'm probably a bit biased because this is one of my favorite songs, but I'd be the first to admit that most U2 videos are pretty weak. However, this one is amazing. It's set inside a disco ball, which means there's a whole bunch of strange colors. The video uses a lot of camera moves where the camera seems to be in a ball that Bono is batting around. The handheld stuff is great, really conveying the feel of the music. That's the best thing about the video, more than any of the individual images, it's the way that the editing seems to mirror exactly the music it's set against. There's the quick zooms for the guitar parts, the long shots for the sustained slow sections and quicks cuts for the "Boom" section. Now, every music video does this to some extent, but very few succeed in creating visual music like this video does, and that's not to say that it's all edting. The images of Larry with the disco ball and Bono and people time lapsed together are both fantastic. Even the Village People homage at the end works, despite the band's apparent lack of enthusiasm for it. Fantastic stuff.

4. Fiona Apple - 'Criminal' (Romanek): This is an odd video, with a lot of subtext to analyze. The whole video has a very dirty, 70s porn feel, with the wood panelled basement and seemingly drugged out malaise of the main characters. However, the fact that Apple looks very young makes the whole thing feel like underground, illegal porn that shouldn't be getting made, and on top of that, the way the video is filmed is to maximize the photo-voyeurism, be it with Apple's red eye in the first shot, or the mechanical pans that give this the appearance of security camera footage. In both the lyrics and the visual content, it's unclear whether Apple is in control of all that's happening, or if she's being taken advantage of. Who is the criminal here? The way the video is shot makes it feel like the viewer is, like we're being privy to something we shouldn't see. I guess the video ultimately is about the contradictions in female sexuality, how it is simultaneously empowering and also something that can lead to subjugation. Trapped in the car, she's helpless, but in the bathtub, she's taking joy in the power she has. A really bold, challenging video.

3. Mirwais - 'Disco Science' (Sednaoui): This is another crazy video that fits really well with the song. I love the heat energy effect that's on Mirwais as the video begins, pulsing to the song's beat. Mirwais as samurai fighting geishas who fire lasers from their nipples is as weird as it sounds, I love the void they're fighting in. Mirwais' acting here is actually really strong, particularly his befuddled expression as the women work on him, and trap him in the cage thing. The high point of the video is the end where Mirwais and the women are engaged in an orgy, covered in liquid which pulses, changing colors, turning them into an indiscriminate mass of heat energy. It reminds me a lot of the 'strip off' scene with Edith in volume three of The Invisibles. This is Sednaoui's best use of the geisha motif, and like Criminal, it's got a dirty 70s porn feeling, which works great for the song, which definitely feels porn like as well. The cutting and camera moves draw out what's implicit in the song, creating really strong visual rhythm to accompany the stunning visuals.

2. Jay-Z - '99 Problems' (Romanek): This video is the most successful use of cutting to mimic music I've ever seen in a music video. The song's heavy beat serves as the perfect accompaniment for Romanek's gorgeous black and white photography. The scenes that he shoots are all aesthetically interesting, be it Jay-Z walking on a bridge or Rick Rubin in a record store, and within this video we even get a little short story about the time Jay was stopped by the cops. Things start to get really interesting during a musical breakdown accompanied by the performance of a dance troupe, which is synched perfectly to the beat, both their motions and the cutting. I admire the video for showing something closer to real urban life than the fantasy of most rap videos. There's still most the same ingredients, scantily clad women, rapper performing, but it's presented alongside images of homelessness and prison life, creating an interesting juxtaposition. The best cutting I've ever seen in a video is at the end of this one, as everything builds to a climax. Jay performing in a cramped club is intercut with dogs fighting, intercut with a church choir, Rick Rubin and Jay getting shot out on the street. The camera movement combined with the editing creates this incredible sense of motion, echoing exactly the feeling the song has at that moment. I particularly love the intensity of the visuals here, it's extremely powerful filmmaking.

1. Daft Punk - 'Around the World' (Gondry): This video is the best video on here because it is the most adept at creating visual music. Daft Punk's songs are notable for the way they layer different instruments on top of each other, adding and subtracting to create the song. So, Gondry echoes this in the visual composition, having a whole bunch of oddly clad dancers stand for each of the different instrumental sections. So, a bunch of people with fake plastic heads going up and down the stairs represent an ascending and descending bass line, while slow moving astronauts represent the drawn out vocodered vocal. So, you visually get to watch the song build up and see hwo all the different parts interact, which is stunning when everything finally comes together. By the end, when all the characters are dancing together it's visually stunning, a tableau worthy of Busby Berkley. Besides their signifiance to the music, all the characters are dressed really cool. Gondry's costumes are a nice mix of kitsch and style. This is truly a music video, a perfect fusion of visual approach and song.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lost (2x01-2x09)

I watched all of the first season of Lost, and though I enjoyed it enough to watch every week, I had a lot of issues with the series, and the constant critical acclaim heaped on such a deeply flawed show grated on me. I didn't watch the second season because I just didn't think the first was good enough to justify the viewing However, having a bit of downtime, I decided to catch up on the second season and see what had happened so far, and if the show was able to truly live up to its reputation. In short, the answer is no, but it is better than year one.

The first scene of the second season was probably the best scene in the whole series. We're down in an odd bunker-type place and all of a sudden The Mamas and the Papas' 'Make Your Own Kind of Music' starts playing and we see a guy going about his daily routine. Great music choice and just a really surreal way to open the season.

The first three episodes of the season are all pretty good, revolving around the opening of the hatch and the discovery of this compound. There's some nice shifting of chronology, building up the tension around the showdown between Jack and Locke for three episodes. This is the kind of thing that probably plays better watching it all in one go, and could seem annoying spread out over multiple episodes. Down in the hatch, they discover a whole bunch of strange stuff, my favorite of which is the button and Dharma Initiative film. The button raises a lot of philosophical issues. I'm sure eventually we'll see what happens when they don't push the button, and already Michael has potentially screwed things up by reprogramming the computer.

The best thing in the entire series is the Dharma Initiative film. Even though I would have liked to see them spring for real 16mm film instead of just doing a filter in post, it's still very cool and raises a lot of questions about what the island is and what this whole Dharma Initiative entails. I always enjoy 'black science,' experiments taken too far, exploring the limits of peoples' mental endurance, and I liked the reference to BF Skinner, of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. So, there's a lot of potential with that.

Unfortunately, there's still a fundamental flaw in the show, and that's its structure. With over 15 main characters, it makes absolutely no sense to spend half the episodes on flashbacks. You may say that they need to spend time on the flashbacks because otherwise they're going to run out of stories to do on the island, however that's pretty ridiculous. If you run out of stories on the island, end the show, or have them get rescued and then you can do all the land-based drama you want. However, at this point, the flashbacks are just a waste of time.

But it's not just the screentime that bothers me, the flashbacks are symptomatic of the show's whole approach to narrative and characterization. A longform narrative, no matter how well planned, is something that has to grow and evolve over the course of its run, and that growth is usually guided by how the characters change as a result of the events they experience. However, rather than choosing to develop the characters through the events they experience, the producers have chosen to do so through these flashbacks, revealing what their lives were like before they got to the island.

This choice is quite idiotic. The first flashbacks episodes for everyone were pretty interesting, but at this point, how many times can we watch a series of awful events happen to characters in the past. How many more bad things are there left for Locke or Jack to go through at this point? But more importantly, in theory, the whole point of the show is to demonstrate how these people's lives change as a result of their experience on the island. For most of these people, whatever bad stuff happened to them in the past should pale in comparison to the fact that they're stranded on an island!

This is symptomatic of two major problems with the series. One is that the island is just too comfortable. Other than the stuff with the Tailaways, there's no real sense of danger or any real sense of deprivation. Everyone has good looking clothes, plenty of food and generally just seems to spend their days hanging around. So, it's like any other TV show. Considering how little this crash seems to have affected their lives, the show might as well be set in an apartment building. Consider finding the hatch. Yes, it's a major thing in terms of fighting this guy and the button and stuff, but other than the one scene with Kate and the candy bar, there's been very little dwelling on the creature comforts it provides. People should be ecstatic at finding the record player, considering they never thought they'd hear another piece of music in their lives. Obviously, this could be overdone, but I think it's worth doing because it's something that only this show could do.

Also, maybe they're saving it for future seasons, but I want things to get a little bit more Lord of the Flies. They're so caught up in their own plots, why not have a food shortage on the island, creating serious question about the viability of supporting more than forty people. This would turn everyone against each other and put the leaders in an uncomfortable position, something that would lead to a lot of dramatic intrigue. But even without going that extreme, let's show a bit of strain for these people, if they just wanted to do a show set on the beach, you've got plenty of it in California.

The other big problem demonstrated by the flashbacks is the fact that the show approaches narrative and character development like a puzzle. Everything is a question, "What's up with the hatch," "Why is Locke so mysterious," and the answers lie somewhere in the past. This is the sort of thing that works well for a film, where you can build a narrative around a central question, resolve it and leave. However, in TV, you end up with a lot of teasing, and a sort of dance with the audience of trying to keep secrets while still holding their attention, and ultimately this dance always falls apart.

A much sounder way to build a series is to allow it to get push forward by character development. Once again, I've got to say, they're on a goddamn island, shouldn't this be changing their lives massively. Yet, there's very little strong character development, pretty much everyone is just the way they were at the beginning of the show, with some of the edge shaved off, as is typical of characters on a longform series. Everyone moves a bit more towards a bland, likable center. Nobody has been heavily altered by their island experience, and that's because the producers are obsessed with showing us where these people have been, and if you're constantly focusing on how someone became who they are today, you're going to forgot about changing them into someone different tomorrow.

The nadir of the season is Shanon's death. One of the major issues never really discussed in the show is sex on the island. At this point, people are probably realizing they're not leaving, and as far as we know, it's been forty lonely days for most everyone on the island. Yet, this is never mentioned, nor are the practicalities of birth control, and such. In six, sex is finally had, between Shanon and Sayid. I believe they got together around episode 18 of last season. Shanon appeared in two episodes before six, and had, I believe, one scene with Sayid. So, this was clearly a deep, challenging relationship. This is the sort of thing where the time spent on flashbacks could be better used showing us some of what's up with Shanon and Sayid, rather than only going to them when something bad happens and expecting us to care.

Joss Whedon frequently used the start relationship, then die motif. However, he usually earned it. When Tara was killed, it was devestating. However, the death of Shanon is just sort of there. Despite the best efforts of that episode to make us care for her, it's not enough. The whole point of making a TV show is long term development, you can't take a stereotype, show some bad stuff happen to her and expect us to be sad when she dies. Pulling a Joss only works if you've earned it through character development. Lost did not earn it in this case.

Enough negativity however, it's clear that this is a deeply, deeply flawed show. Yet, there's still a lot of good stuff going on. I really enjoyed the B plot with Sawyer, Michael and Jin journeying back to the camp. Jin is really interesting, the language barrier makes him inherently fun to watch and Sawyer is the closest thing this show has to a Spike. Mr. Eko is excellent as well, I particularly enjoyed the stuff with him and Locke once they make it back to the camp. Also, episode 7, with the tailaways, was fantastic. I loved the end, which showed how all the stuff we'd already seen fit together in the bigger the picture.

The show falls into a catergory I've mentioned before, deeply flawed, but inherently watchable. The show goes down easy, even as it's constantly frustrating me. I think that's because it has so much potential to be great and yet it never quite makes it. Yet, they always give you just enough to string you along. And even watching it in one chunk, it's obvious that the show moves at a glacial pace. Nothing much happens for episodes on end, and when you don't bother with character development, that's actually a problem.