Monday, April 25, 2005

Sin City

After a weekend of reading psychoanalytic theory as research for a paper I’m writing, I happened into Sin City, which could be subtitled “Freud’s Disciples.” Here are just a few examples of Freud's influence in the world created in the movie: count the number of male organs cut off, shot off, or ripped off during this film—castration anxiety. Or, consider how many young women hook up with older (usually protective) men (most notably the 11-year-old who grows up to be Jessica Alba, who wants to sleep with her “father” Bruce Willis)—Oedipal complex.

Here's another idea of a subtitle: “Sin City: A World without a Superego.”

Told in three parts, Sin City’s various plot lines overlap with repeated dialogue; impossible to kill heroes withstanding brutal punishment as they avenge a woman; and gruesome, cartoonish, shockingly comedic violence. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the violence.

Benicio Del Toro’s cop character Jackie Boy makes the mistake of pissing off some hookers, so he is promptly dispatched. Yet his dead corpse, with a gun hammered into his head, continues to speak and mock Clive Owen’s Dwight (ah, yes, again with the Freud—all three of the male “heroes” suffer from psychological turmoil, dreams, hallucinations, and insecurity). So a dead Jackie Boy talking with an object driven into his skull? Gross.

Carla Gugino’s lesbian Lucille is appropriately punished for spurning men (as the character Marv comments, “with her body, she could have any man she wants,” leading to the next logical question, so what does she want with chicks when she could have a man??). Imprisoned (naked) by Kevin, Lucille pulls out her arm to show Marv her missing hand (eaten by Kevin), screaming, “he made me watch!” Grosser.

Kevin himself is killed by a hacked off Marv, who (after watching cops shoot poor handless Lucille) hacks off Kevin’s arms and legs. He then waits for Kevin’s dog to arrive; the animal promptly starts to eat Kevin (who never changes his facial expression or emits a sound). Grody to the max.

Director Robert Rodriguez employs a mix of animation and real actors, filming the entire movie against a green screen; after all, he is bringing a comic book to life. Though many around me laughed as the body parts started flying, I felt rather uncomfortable sharing their glee at the complete destruction of a human body. Laughter isn’t always a sign of happiness, but the mere absurdity of the torture inflicted on heroes and villains alike in Sin City almost necessitates a comedic response. Does this mean, we as humans enjoy violence?

In considering this issue of violence, I pondered as well whether gender might influence a predisposition towards violence. Rather quickly, Tarantino’s marvelous Kill Bill series came to mind—two films that celebrate a heroine evincing revenge on her lover’s attempt to kill her. Part of the pleasure of Kill Bill lies in watching the underdog, a woman, beat the crap out of every man and woman she meets. Women kicking ass is kind of hip: consider Alias and the immortal Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So why do I enjoy women who employ violence as a tool? Deeply rooted anger, aroused by feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization, perhaps. Yet is the relationship between violence and power symbiotic or causal? Does violence perhaps lead to a false power position, difficult to maintain but through fear and intimidation? Do the weak enjoy violence as means to escape, or are they merely fantasizing about reclaiming control of renegade factors in life?

The moral view of the world of Sin City is rather fascinating. Here’s another game: count how many times a male character insists that he never slaps women…and then hits a woman. Or perhaps count the number of times a man justifies murder. In this lies the real heart of the film’s morality, as opposed to its (a) or (im)morality. See, it isn’t that the movie lacks a moral base; rather, the moral base is relative.

As the heroes prove again and again, killing bad guys is okay—and if they are really bad, then torture them for a while first. A priest justifies Elijah Woods’ Kevin eating people as a means to find wholeness: he eats their souls, you see. The women who brutally govern their part of town, offering their bodies for pay but only according to their rules, have established a truce with the cops. They can kill men who break the rules, but if they kill a cop, all bets are off. These characters pursue a moral code of self-interest. From a strikingly teleological perspective, characters operate within an objective moral void.

I expected to hate this movie, guessing that Rodriguez (or more to the point, comic book creator Frank Miller) would inundate me with what I call faux feminism: women deriving power by playing according to male rules: using their sexuality as a false indicator of their own agency when in fact they are only reinforcing the patriarchal objectification of women (boy I love that silly grad-school-speak). But women barely play a role in the film at all, except as instigators for male action.

Sin City is a movie about boys being boys. They fuck, sweat, bleed, fight, and die. The women, dressed in clothing (and jewelery) that no woman attempting to perform great physical action would wear, merely play out the male fantasy: hookers that smell good, with their hair blowing in the breeze, somehow maintaining their innocence in a world of filth (fully integrating yet reinforcing the virgin/whore dynamic). Never for a moment does their characterization ring true.

In this way the film fails where Kill Bill succeeds. Uma Thurman’s Bride/Beatrix, at once a woman, mother, lover, and a warrior, embraces all the aspects of her identity. Her face off with Bill delivers real stakes and the outcome costs her something: she loses a part of herself in the exchange. In Sin City, Clive Owen’s Dwight repeats the line, “she’ll always be mine and never.” Perhaps this is an indication of his inability to full grasp the nature of women, something clearly evidenced in Sin City’s depiction of women.

I didn’t hate this film. Sin City contains a lot of humor, in part due to the self-aware comic book dialogue: for example, “you’re pushing 60 and you’ve got a bum ticker.” Awesome. The film is self-aware in a lot of ways, in fact. Disguising blood with a cartoon look and the use of different colors, like white and yellow, doesn’t lessen the impact of the gore but certainly relieves the audience of feeling complicit in a realistic act of murder. But it delivers on its promise of action, impressive graphics, and depraved pleasure.

P.S. Apparently Quentin Tarantino only filmed one scene in Sin City, despite his director's credit indicating a deeper involvement in the film.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Bride and Prejudice

I’m a Jane Austen fan, as evidenced by the quote that headlines this blog (does anyone know which book the quote is from???). I’ve seen virtually every recent film adaptation of her novels, including at least three version of Emma and two versions of Pride and Prejudice. Also not surprising, Elizabeth of the latter novel is my favorite Jane Austen heroine. She is intelligent, direct, and bold, and she finds an ideal match in a man that challenges her (and vice versa).

So of course the latest Pride and Prejudice adaptation by Gurinder Chadha (somewhat cheekily titled Bride and Prejudice) intrigued me. Yet I’ll admit that reviews citing the film’s unevenness partially contributed to the fact that it took me this darn long to see the movie. As I’ve discussed in this blog before, reviews can be destructive in this way—how dare I let a somewhat uncertain approval of the film by various reviewers prohibit me from seeing the film as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen.

Bride and Prejudice certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen. Influenced by and mimicking the extremely popular genre of Indian films called Bollywood, Chadha’s film likely introduces American audiences to Bollywood for the first time. The fact that she tells her story in English indicates that Chadha made this film for initiated American audiences rather than the Indian audiences that have made Bollywood a phenomenon. Point of trivia: India produces more films annually than Hollywood.

Bollywood films contain music, dancing, and true love. Bride and Prejudice is no exception. In one extremely colorful scene, beautiful girls, shopping on the eve of a wedding celebration, laugh as various shopkeepers offers their wares while singing. Laborers dance in the background. An overhead shot depicts the people below, wearing bright and colorful attire, as an almost too perfectly arranged color wheel.

This sense of things being almost too perfectly arranged might seem a contradiction, but I guess I like my films a little messy. The gorgeous Aishwarya Rai, portraying the heroine of the film Lalita, wears striking and heavy makeup, yet I missed some of the naturalness of her Austen counterpart Elizabeth. She and her sometimes enemy/eventual lover Darcy stare at each other longingly, but the naïveté of their gaze and the repetition of these moments that happen ad nauseum relieve the film of some of its tension and impact.

The trick of Pride and Prejudice (Austen’s version) involves balancing various mysteries and misunderstandings, with gradual reveals informing the reader of the real state of things. In her modern re-telling, Chadha gives away too much too early. About three quarters through the movie, Chadha employs a montage sequence to highlight the love growing between Darcy and Lalita. At first I enjoyed watching the two get to know each other better, seeming an improvement on the novel’s inability to present Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy alone due to the etiquette of the time. Yet then I realized that the film had already completed its goal: Darcy and Lalita were in love. So what was left for Chadha to show me?

Sure, she throws in a few misunderstandings to get in the way of Darcy and Lalita, but these hiccups never threaten the couple to the core. The external obstacles are easily resolved, explained, or overlooked. The wedding scene that concludes the film redefines “anticlimactic.” Plus, I must admit that I missed the scene in the novel where Elizabeth tells off Mr. Darcy’s aunt, in essence the only way her pride will allow her to admit her love. Chadha understands Lalita’s ire but she fails to dig deeper to examine Lalita’s own weaknesses and insecurity.

One brief note about the sexual purity of Bollywood films. An American audience might enjoy watching the ways Bride and Prejudice avoids resorting to the bedroom as shorthand for love; after all, two actors with chemistry can set a screen on fire with only a look. Yet because Chadha acknowledges the love relationship between Darcy and Lalita too soon, a sexual union of some sort (even a kiss as the sun sets) might have indicated some sort of progression for the couple. Lalita, played by Ms. Rai, or “the most beautiful woman on earth” as Roger Ebert likes to call her, certainly is stunning. She lights up the screen, and she evinces the necessary strength required to play Elizabeth. But she and Darcy seem more like siblings.

Rai has intense chemistry with another character, however, cad Johnny Wickham (familiar to hopefully all of you from the greatest movie of last year, Spider-Man 2). Even without the kissing and sex of American films, these two are incredibly hot together. This modern highlighting of the chemistry between Johnny and Lalita adds an intriguing layer to Johnny’s deception and Lalita’s culpability in allowing his seduction of herself and her family.

Less successful modern updating involves Johnny’s betrayal of the family. In the novel, he runs off with youngest daughter Lydia. Likewise, in the film, he still runs off with youngest daughter Lucky, yet he clearly has not yet completed his goal of relieving the young girl of her virginity. Lucky remains oblivious to the sexual risk, not noticing Johnny’s lecherous looks and intent. Like with many characters and events in this film, Chadha simplifies Lucky’s character for expediency.

In the novel, Wickham’s crime is shocking and illegal (so many wealthy young women in the 18th century had fallen prey to charming rakes that the government created legislation to allow punishment of the men—and to protect the fortunes of the wealthy). As Austen presents the situation, Lydia’s reputation will be destroyed if Wickham does not marry her. Yet the greater crime of her selfishness is the destruction of her family’s honor and the absolute elimination of her three sisters chances to marry.

The stakes in the film are not as high, by far. Certainly contemporary sexual mores pose difficulties in updating this plot line, yet Chadha misses an opportunity to expose Johnny’s dishonor in other ways. He could attempt to force himself on the young girl, he could be exposed as the pedophile that he is, or he could dishonor Lucky and therefore the family in a more public way (internet porn could play a role). Now I’m simply fantasizing gross ways to make Wickham evil, but Chadha overlooks the sexual and very public shame implicit in Wickham’s affair with Lucky.

Comparing Bride and Prejudice to its antecedent may be unfair: after all, this is a temporal and cultural re-telling. Yet Chadha’s script lacks tightness, thematic cohesion, and a climactic conclusion. Nevertheless, the film certainly delivers fun, entertainment, and a lot of spirit. The characters are exceedingly likeable, and I expect more than a few audience members will get carried away in the naïve depiction of true love (always leading directly to the altar) celebrated here.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Both Woody and Soon-yi are taking a break from mean ACTING. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Melinda and Melinda

I’m not a Woody Allen aficionado. In fact, I’ve only seen a couple of his movies, and those a very long time ago. That said, after watching Melinda and Melinda the other day, I feel I now “get” Woody Allen, or at least I have a firmer understanding of what he does as a filmmaker. Melinda and Melinda, which to many signals a return to the Woody of the past, seems to me fairly representative of his work.

For instance, I now feel I can discuss things that are Allenesque: mid-angle shots that encourage the audience to notice the details of elaborately decorated Manhattan apartments, highly intellectual dialogue featuring intense monologues, an Allenesque rambling hero, and beautiful New York shown as never before (during one scene, a trash can is prominent center screen, with a white trash bag lining the can—come on, where in New York does one find a trash can with a liner? Clearly a dreamland New York).

The “trick” of this film is that Allen has at once constructed a comedy and a tragedy. The movie opens with two writers at dinner, each pitching a story based on the same premise: a distraught woman interrupts a dinner party and forever changes the lives of those she meets. As they offer their different takes on the premise, each writer professes an allegiance to a comedic or tragic worldview. Allen and his fabulous editor, Alisa Lepselter, construct a tangled web of two plotlines that intersect in various ways: echoing lines of dialogue, copying plot devices, and sharing a main character.

The two plot lines are not confusing when watching the movie; Melinda’s hair is curly in the tragedy and straight in the comedy, so you see it is perfectly clear which story Allen is telling. Trying to recount the story afterwards, however, has caused me some distress. Yet confusion itself is part of the point: comedy and tragedy overlap, intersect, and even change hands. Taking a less academic stance, the interplay between the two storytelling approaches simply makes for fun movie watching.

One character appears in both storylines: Melinda, the woman who interrupts dinner, portrayed by Radha Mitchell. Mitchell is a relative unknown, despite a long list of films to her credit. Most obvious to me was her recent stint as Mrs. Barrie in Finding Neverland, in which her coldness and gentility well suited that character. Here she plays the wild child: the girl men used to love for her crazy abandon, but now her wildness has left her alone, despondent, and completely lost.

Mitchell’s Melinda is not particularly likeable, but when she speaks Allen’s detailed and articulate monologues, I could not help but be seduced, almost trance-like, by her hazy gaze and passionate smoking. Mitchell exudes a fragility that makes her vulnerable but also elusive. This aspect of always being somehow out of reach causes her Melinda, especially the tragic Melinda, to be less sympathetic.

None of the female characters are particularly likeable, actually. In the tragedy storyline, Melinda’s two friends reek of snobbery and empty values (but boy are they well dressed). The pathetic wallflower Laurel, played by Chloe Sevigny, who has given up her own talent to be known as the girl who snagged the most popular boy in school (he’s a drunk lethario, of course), ends up stealing Melinda’s relatively well-adjusted (but for the fact that he is dating Melinda) boyfriend.

I might perhaps give Laurel the benefit of the doubt on the whole “is she trying to steal her friend’s boyfriend” thing but for the fact that Allen never gives her the benefit of the doubt. As other friend Cassie (Brooke Smith) notes, Laurel has every intention of going through with her affair, Melinda or no. Though she seeks advice from Cassie, Laurel has made up her mind long before. Seems a waste of an opportunity to examine how desire, guilt, and friendship interplay. In a film all about overlapping and parallel structure, this seems a more egregious oversight. Instead, Allen opts for the easier (and harsher) silent betrayal. It doesn’t help that Sevigny’s performance is rather uninspired. She lacks energy, charm, and commitment.

A brief note about Cassie, who by all respects is the most stable and wise of the three friends. Her husband repeatedly calls her fat, though in fact she is at least six months pregnant. She takes this as a matter of course. Does no one in a Woody Allen movie have higher expectations of marriage than this sort of cruelty? And what does it mean that Cassie is soon to be a mother? Her worldview seems rather unaffected by her pregnancy, making her physical condition merely a device to allow her husband to be mean.

The comedic plotline affirms the value of love but also in the process destroys a poorly suited marriage. Will Ferrell’s Hobie fears only that he will hurt his wife if he seeks a divorce. So when he finds his wife in bed with her film producer, they happily agree to end the marriage. Interesting note: the film’s trailer includes a scene of Hobie finding her in flagrante delicto, indicating that this scene does not even qualify as a reveal, therefore it doesn’t need to be kept secret. Marital infidelity is a matter of course, you see.

Be it comedy or tragedy, marriage doesn’t come off too well in the movie. A poorly suited marriage not only can be ended but in fact should be ended. Does Allen believe that marriage dooms love to end in despair? Is it the institution itself? Society’s expectations? The mundane routine of daily life? Is passion the only sort of love worth seeking? Does fidelity never offer its own reward but instead merely cuckold the faithful?

One cannot watch a Woody Allen film without noting the absolute extravagance of the characters’ lives. They live in beautiful apartments in Manhattan and throw elegant dinner parties. Yet they work as struggling actors, part-time teachers, and assistant directors—how do they afford this luxury? No wonder they all sit around and worry about their love lives all the time—clearly they have no need to worry about money like the rest of us poor folk.

The dialogue in these films is heightened, almost prosaic. Characters will speak lines like “I’m feeling rather bemused at the moment.” A husband will announce to his wife that he has lost his job because he was drunk at work, and her response is the carefully measured and unimpassioned, “I’m very disappointed and angry right now. Good bye.” Sure, these are the kind of characters who would regularly visit a therapist, but even then would they be this self-aware? Allen’s characters live in a world beyond the problems of ordinary life: they operate at a state of overt or deeply hidden panic.

Perhaps Allen does not want to comment on ordinary life but instead plays out these comedic dramas against a background of intended hyper-elegance. In creating a world of caricature and stereotypes, Allen avoids the demands of realism and can play to extremes. We are not supposed to watch this movie and recognize real life. Rather, consider Allen’s work as a sort of period piece: stylized, poetic, character-driven.

Then when Allen creates a moment of real feeling amidst the chaos—as when Melinda has been wrestled to the ground by her adulterous boyfriend—her look of detached pain hits home. Suddenly I suspected that Melinda, who plays the victim throughout the film, might actually be a victim. For she acts with sincerity in all that she does. She refuses to play the same games as her friends, play acting happiness and career satisfaction. So Melinda is sacrificed for threatening the delicate balance of this false but beautiful world. It is these moments that make the film worth it, moments of sincerity amidst all the faux honesty and plastic luxury.