Friday, July 22, 2005

Mysterious Skin

Because Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin has such a small release, I thought it might be a nice movie to review. Also, the film happens to be darn intriguing. Way more interesting than the overly self-aware Me and You and Everyone We Know, which seems to be getting more press. As I’ve mentioned before, I like messy movies—films that don’t try to answer every question and that leave gaps from which art can emerge. This movie, written and directed by Araki, sure fits the bill.

Unfamiliar with the director’s work, I knew only that the movie is rated NC-17 and examines childhood sexual abuse. Loosely constructed, the main plot revolves around two teenage boys in small town America, connected only by their mutual abuse by the town baseball coach.

Brian (Brady Corbet) does not remember the abuse but knows something unusual causes him to black out and suffer spontaneous nosebleeds in times of stress—he decides aliens must have kidnapped him. As his memory gradually returns, Brian realizes that another little boy was present during the incident and thus initiates a search for Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to learn the truth about his past.

As Neil, Gordon-Levitt, that kid from Third Rock From the Sun, delivers a powerful performance that will erase all memory of his geeky character from the sitcom. Portraying a gay prostitute, Gordon-Levitt’s characterization is sharply defined, erotically charged, and deeply disturbing. As Neil’s best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) notes, Neil has an empty hole where his heart should be.

Slowly paced and featuring a stark lack of action (not necessarily a pejorative comment), the film personifies the boredom of small time life. Yet even when Neil moves to New York, the film fails to take off, in large part because Neil changes little throughout the movie. Sure, he finds that prostitution is more dangerous in the big city, yet he continues to sell himself (a brief stint at a sandwich shop notwithstanding). Neil reacts more than he proacts; he may have moved from a small town to a large city, but he remains the same cipher, upon whom others impose their own interpretation of who he is.

Another contributing factor to the slow pace and lack of action in the film derives from the fact that Brian does not discover his connection to Neil until half way through the movie. At this point, Neil has already moved to New York. So does Brian catch a bus and rush to New York to meet the boy that may have all the answers? Nope. He waits several months until Neil returns home for Christmas. Similarly, Araki takes his time in telling his story, slowly drawing the audience into the small town (and small world view) of the film’s characters.

Araki fails to develop his secondary characters. Consider Neil’s friend Wendy. I mean, who is she? What does she gain from her friendship with Neil? Heck, what are her career aspirations? But Wendy appears only in connection to her relationship with Neil.

Neil describes the moment he and Wendy became united for life, but honestly, the scene makes little sense. Neil tortures a mentally impaired child while Wendy silently witnesses—this is the scene that encourages her to bond with Neil for all time? But Araki takes little time to delve into Wendy’s motivations or reactions: seemingly, her primary function within the film is to utter the plaintive plea to Neil, “you’ll be careful, right?” Not that Neil ever changes because of her concern.

Like Wendy, other secondary characters in the movie receive short shrift throughout the film. For instance, the other woman in Neil’s life, his mother (an underused but lovely Elisabeth Shue), echoes Wendy in her empty and repetitious dialogue. Yet her mantra focuses on her ownership of Neil, “you’re mine and I love you.” This is disturbing in a film in which men repeatedly pay Neil to possess his body—everyone seems to want to control him, while he remains decidedly out of control.

The women surrounding Neil desperately offer their love and understanding, yet he remains emotionally distant and persists in his destructive lifestyle. Is his mere existence enough for these women who apparently need little by way of personal connection, intimacy, or empathy? But the female characters are not the focus of the film; they merely to tell us more about the male characters around whom the story revolves.

Somewhat less wasted is secondary character Eric (Jeffrey Licon), who portrays the faithful friend (first to Neil, and then to Brian). To be honest, he’s the most interesting of the lot: honest about his desire for Neil, sympathetic in his knowledge that Neil will never return the feelings, and compassionate towards incredibly awkward Brian. Eric evidences hints of a three dimensional nature, yet the script merely glances as him, using him as a tool to bring Brian and Neil together.

Their eventual reunion does not disappoint. Neil describes in frightening detail the night he helped the coach molest Brian. Araki shows tremendous self-control and restraint in his filming of this scene, avoiding the pitfalls of hysteria or easy compassion. Rather, Neil reveals himself to be his most robotic as he relates his most cruel action—one encouraged by an adult who stole from Neil all his humanity.

Araki films the movie from a detached perspective: we observe the characters but are never invited to enter the world from their point of view. This can be a bit awkward, as it reinforces the coldness of the experience (and almost makes us complicit in the objectification suffered by the abused boys).

Araki doesn’t shy away from the horror under the surface: it is palpable while it lurks and potent when exposed in the final scene. Araki avoids a pat or clichéd ending, but this means the audience leaves the cinema carrying the burden of the boys’ suffering: Neil’s lack of soul and Brian’s complete anguish. Powerful stuff, and brave filmmaking.

Friday, July 08, 2005

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick and I don’t usually get along: A Clockwork Orange terrified me in ways I have yet to fully process, and Eyes Wide Shut bored me to tears. So I wasn’t exactly looking forward to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for my postmodern film class, but it turns out the movie is pretty awesome. And I use that word purposefully to take full advantage of the root word “awe.”

When I wrote about Spielberg’s confidence directing War of the Worlds, I had no idea what I was talking about. Kubrick’s daring with a film that contains very little dialogue, impressive technology, and some incredibly trippy visuals (movies like this make me wish I do drugs) startled me. Also consider that I was sitting in a classroom alone on campus at 10 p.m. A movie like this can mess with your mind.

2001 examines humanity’s relationship with technology, starting with the origins of man and ending with a journey to Jupiter to encounter alien life. As a feminist, the film offers few entry points for analysis. As my teacher commented when he came to claim the DVD, there aren’t a lot of women in this movie.

He ain’t kidding: the main actors are all men, with women participating in certain scenes for brief moments only. For instance, at one point, Dr. Floyd talks with his young daughter (and yes, she’s played by Kubrick’s own daughter), apologizing for missing her birthday. Shortly thereafter he visits with a few old friends, including a woman named Elena whom he apparently knows socially.

Despite the fact that Dr. Floyd speaks to his daughter with the same careful, professional tone he uses with his co-workers, Floyd’s interaction with her cheered me a bit. This scene adds a touch of normality to a foreign, sterile setting. Floyd, you see, is waiting at a space station for his destination flight to the moon. Yet in talking with his daughter, he reveals himself to be a typical dad, possibly in trouble with Mom for his career-obsessed ways, trying to connect with his daughter.

The other “prominent” female character, Elena, sits with Dr. Smyslov and two foreign women. These latter two women barely speak, and when they do, they employ a foreign language. Elena, however, chats freely with Floyd, though it is Smyslov who challenges Floyd about the rumors of an epidemic on the moon. Elena’s relationship to Smyslov is unclear, though she seems to defer to him for anything but small talk. She proves herself to be elegant, gracious, and articulate, but otherwise fails to impress the audience with any sort of distinction.

Other than that, female actresses appear as flight attendants or silent passers by. During one scene, Floyd gives an inspirational speech about his project on the moon, but, dang it, I can’t for the life of me remember if there were any women in the room. Oh wait, later in the film, Dr. Poole’s parents chat with him on his birthday: again an attempt to show normalcy amidst an entirely abnormal situation.

As a feminist critic, I can usually review a movie portraying only male characters because in some way women will play a role, even if only in how the men talk about the women they know. Sometimes it is their absence that gives the film great meaning. So what does it mean that a film that concludes with a birth, including a journey through a birth canal made of an electric light show, gives so little thought to the role of women?

The female characters who appear in the film tend to add a sense of domestic peacefulness: their presence amid a cold, clinical world softens the moment. Yet they do not appear as decision makers—rather, it tends to be men who act.

The climactic actions in this film portray a character touching the mysterious black monolith and suffering the results. 2001 poses questions about violence, power, technology, and simple curiosity, filtering these issues through a masculine point of view. I can’t help but wonder what additional layers a female perspective might have added—or would a female in the same position make the same choices and suffer the same fate? Both are interesting options. But I’m not Kubrick—I don’t get to choose what story he wants to tell.

Truthfully, I little considered the lack of female characters while watching this movie because Kubrick’s luscious visuals so enthralled me. It was like I was in a sort of trance, unable to move my eyes from the screen. In some ways I shared the shocked look of the character Dr. Dave Bowman as he traveled through the light show canal, unable to close my eyes or turn away.

Kubrick’s imagination populates this world with delightful images of spaceships of all size and shapes, playful and eerie music, and bold camera angles. He evidences tremendous control of his film, especially with respect to pacing. Kubrick takes his time, toying with the audience’s anxiety and expectation. Events are carefully plotted, characters speak with precision, and the entire design demonstrates an impressive attention to detail. The movie isn’t scary: rather, it is deeply unsettling (way creepier than a scary movie).

Most unsettling, however, were the deep thoughts this film prompted in my own mind. I suspect each person watching this movie will take something different from it, but I came face to face with my deeply rooted anxiety about the meaning of life. Watching Dave and Frank on the space ship traveling to Jupiter freaked me out. Running in circles, viewing meaningless and repetitive computer screens, acting at the mercy of a computer’s will—the purposelessness of life stood in stark relief.

The film exposes a harsh idea that though we suspect we are in charge of our own lives, someone else in fact makes the decisions for us. I don’t mean this in a Matrix type way; rather, we choose to allow ourselves to be incapacitated, like the hibernating men. Perhaps this is an extreme view, but the film imposed a feeling of dread, as if there was no escape from the mundane parts of life.

I could take this farther, drawing a metaphor between the film and the never-ending routine of domestic or professional life, but perhaps the simple fact that the film made me feel not only strong emotion, but also suffer through deeper questions about the basis of my hopes for life, justifies the consistent acclaim enjoyed by the movie all these years.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

War of the Worlds

I’m not gonna give this movie too much attention, but since it is one of the biggest films of the summer... Considering that I’m seriously contemplating buying one of those “Save Katie” T-shirts, watching War of the Worlds on opening weekend was not at the top of my to-do-list. Why give Tom Cruise any sense that he is at all relevant?

That said, my friend wanted to go, and I’m a nice person. And truth be told, the first hour or so of this movie is really well done. Sure, seeing Tom Cruise work on the docks is a bit laughable, but his performance is certainly satisfactory, if not exactly nuanced. Spielberg maintains such a tight control over his actors and the actions of the film that I was truly glued to my seat. Taking his time to develop his characters and to introduce the aliens, Spielberg evidences incredible confidence as a director. Incorporating images reminiscent of 9/11, Spielberg also evidences bravery.

The set-up situation: Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier is a less than enthusiastic father with an angry teenage son and a cute, outspoken daughter (and yep, Dakota Fanning is quite good at being terrified). Josh Friedman and David Koepp’s screenplay avoids clichés for the most part. Miranda Otto as Ferrier’s ex appears only momentarily, but she evidences genuine concern for her children rather than the usual bitchy/shrewish behavior of an ex. Ferrier himself struggles against overwhelming fear and confusion for much of the film; fighting to maintain his composure to save his and his children’s lives, Ferrier reacts as a normal guy in an extraordinary situation.

The film lost me about half way through—right about the time Tim Robbins shows up as Ogilvy, a man who demonstrates serious mental strain. Despite the fact that Spielberg employs typically successful horror devices—a killer searches for his prey, a child hides behind whatever object is handy, two men fight while trying to maintain the secrecy of their hiding place—I got bored.

In addition, during this scene with Ogilvy, three aliens wander into the basement hiding place, looking at random objects and going through some photographs (!). Until this point, we had only seen giant tripod machines from which the unseen aliens zapped terrified humans. Unlike Roger Ebert, I found these tripods rather frightening in an Imperial Walker kind of way. But seeing the aliens themselves in the basement removed some of the horror. After all, what we create in our own mind is always ten times as scary as what the greatest technical genius can devise.

Ogilvy’s role in the film remains ambiguous. He acts as merely another threat when perhaps he could have challenged Ferrier. For much of the movie, Ferrier re-acts rather than pro-acts. Ogilvy challenges his passivity: encouraging a “go get ‘em” attitude toward the aliens. Ultimately, Ferrier makes a decisive action with respect to Ogilvy, but their previous dialogue remained relatively one-sided, with Ogilvy chiding and Ferrier ignoring. Cruise’s character too easily avoided facing the harsh truths of Ogilvy’s rants. Shame to waste Tim Robbins like that.

From this point on, the movie simply failed to recapture me. I started asking too many questions for which there were no answers: what was the ultimate goal of the aliens? Why did those vines grow everywhere? Why spray blood all over the place? And most upsetting, how is it that the final shot of Boston reveals a rather pristine, undamaged street?

All these gripes aside, though, the movie is certainly entertaining in a fun-scary kind of way, even though there are few surprises and fewer opportunities for a deeper conversation about thematic implications or personal connections. Like the final shot of Boston, the movie puts the audience through the motions but ultimately leaves us relatively untouched.