THE INVASION

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I think it was bad reviews that dissuaded me from watching this film at the time of its release – this despite my sense that Oliver Hirschbiegel (DER UNTERGANG/DOWNFALL) is pretty much a genius.  I’m glad I didn’t listen to the reviewers this time!

Based on a 1955 novel by Jack Finney, INVASION is the fourth notable adaptation of the famous story about the Body Snatchers – aliens who attack people in REM sleep, transforming them into emotionless zombies.

INVASION works on so many levels, it’s a shame the snotty critics panned it as they did, back in 2007.

First of all, it’s about the only movie I ever saw (besides maybe EYES WIDE SHUT) in which Nicole Kidman is a good actress. This due to the fact that she’s in chase sequences where she has to stay calm so that the aliens (who have no emotions) wouldn’t recognize her. Now there’s nothing that Kidman does better than a wax museum face: this is because she can’t really act, she can only FROWN. Also, Nicole’s characters have to neurotic, as this is the best wy to disguise her  limited emotional range.

And then we have the more-than-inspired casting of Veronica Cartwright as dr. Kidman’s patient, plagued by a sadistic  husband. From her early appearance in Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS across her turn as Lambert in ALIEN, Cartwright’s always played these conventional women in emotional disarray. What the hysteria brings to the fore are the unconscious conflicts in the other characters (the arrival of the birds, the attack of the alien, etc). Veronica is thus one of those ”girl who cried wolf” faces you can never forget. She is cast ideally in THE INVASION as the Cassandra who will set dr. Kidman on the road to self-knowledge.

But on to sociological matters. One of the reasons I like Hirschbiegel is that he’s the type who will marry crass action sequences with philosophical debates. There are so many laborious scientific and philosophical explanations in the dialogue, you wonder how the movie was ever released to American audiences. The discussions vary from interesting to funny, but the common thread is that the aliens want to remove human emotions from society.

This is precisely the updating that the Body Snatchers story needed in the 00s. In the 1950s film, the aliens were a metaphor of anti-Communist paranoia. In Philip Kaufman’s 1970s update, they were the fear of technological bureaucratization. Then Abel Ferrara brilliantly turned them into the American militaristic complex, which was growing profusely in the 1990s.

In modern-day America, we have reached the apex of all these developments. The USA has become a melting pot of militancy, bureaucracy and paranoia that the three previous directors envisaged in their films.

But the agenda of the aliens, this time round, isn’t bad – they want to calm humanity down, creating a sedated socialism. Wars do not happen, everyone has enough to eat and all the public services run smoothly. The biggest problem of the alien society seems a creeping sense of boredom. Other than that, it is a much nicer world than Kidman’s world of ”emotional management” in the midst of uncontrollable, market-driven individualism.

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The picture above may lead you to believe that BLACK SWAN is one of those multiple personality disorder movies, with a psychoanalytical plot, great character acting and a positive message about the power of self-healing. These used to star ”quality American actors” like Joanne Woodward, or Sally Field. You’ll also be temped to classify the SWAN in the Moebius narrative genre (e.g. INLAND EMPIRE), where the multiple personality disorder refers to the multiplication of ”reality” itself. In the histrionic relationship between Nina the ballerina (Natalie Portman) and her possessive mother (Barbara Hershey), one hears echoes of gay camp classics e.g. MOMMY DEAREST and CARRIE. And the sordid competition games at the ballet house unmistakably point to the greatest classic of  ’em all, ALL ABOUT EVE.

BLACK SWAN is all of those things, and none of them, at the same time.

Though he borrows a lot in the currently popular Mannerism mode, Arronofsky makes the film his own by  moving the camera along the lines of Tchaikovsky’s SWAN LAKE as though the music and the lens have merged into a synergic embodiment of the heroine’s relentless emotion. Arronofsky had already attempted this in the impressive REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, but that movie lost vitality because of its moralizing on the perils of drug addiction.

In BLACK SWAN, Arronofsky apparently matures, leaving any pretense of social commentary or psychological depth, going for the pure visceral agony, and ecstasy, of body horror, music, narcissism, and ultimately, a celebration of the Drive, where the white swan’s suicide literally does mean perfection.

What is this concretely, readers, without the academic language?

While in an earlier psycho-melodrama, we would be encouraged to think critically about the possibilities of transcending all the psychopathology, in BLACK SWAN, that psychopathology is the only way to go – everything else merely a fragmented mirror. Only at that point where she recognizes that she is, and has always been, the black swan, does the heroine overcome the doubling and fragmentations of everyday life. Her suicide is exemplary, not as transcendence, or sacrifice, but as embodiment.

 

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2

I was never very attracted to the central idea of HARRY POTTER: a college for black magic. But in this great new sequel, unexpectedly get a Christian Harry Potter – with a human face!

This happens in the crucial moment of Harry’s death. Harry discovers he has been infected with a part of Valdemart’s black soul, so that to rid the world of Evil, Harry must die together with Valdemart.

So Harry dies, and his soul in the Heavens pontificates to the Old Wizard about his further options. Following the series’s Gothic line, and the influence of George Lucas, you’d expect something like the ending of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – in order to reincarnate, Harry must accept the Dark Side, and then we get another sequel in which he is drawn back to the Good Side, and so on, ad nauseam.

Instead, the Old Wizard tells the surprised Harry that he still has free will. If he wants to, he can choose to climb on the train back to earthly life. And this concept – that God is such pure love, you even have free will after death – is much closer in spirit to Eastern Orthodoxy, than any Gothic religion, with its guilt, predetermination, and eternal punishment.

Were this given against the backdrop of a classic fairy tale, it would of course be sentimental crap. But there is enough misery, bloodshed, and even creep-out horror (note the snake attacks) to counterbalance the sense of forgiveness, telling kids clearly that the world isn’t a pretty place, that suffering won’t be avoided, but that you still have a chance if you can embrace your own free will.

In addition, HARRY POTTER puts to shame the newest so-called ”arthouse” effort by Wim Wenders, whose PINA 3D disappoints by being visually conventional. POTTER’s brilliant art direction recalls Andrei Tarkovsky in the most pleasing way, without being either overly dramatic or stupidly hyper-realistic. I had to ask myself, why should this NOT be considered poetry? Only because it wears the ”commercial” label on its sleeve, while Wenders likes to call himself an ”artist” and an ”auteur”, but fails to deliver on the most basic photography level?

While in PINA 3D people talk endlessly about the human condition, desiring, loving, hating, and so on, until the babble becomes an ”art statement” (YAWN), POTTER has such delightful concepts as a magic spell that replicates objects endlessly, or Harry collecting tears out of his dying teacher’s eye, which will enable the wizard to see his own future reflected in the teacher’s tragic fate.

RANGO


 

One has to wonder whether Rango the lizard’s sheriff badge is, in fact, a Communist star, for I believe that we have here the first American Communist animation of the 21st century. ”Communist” is not to be understood in the old fashioned sense of the word, but as a hint of a possible new Communism. Since this ”new Communism” hasn’t been defined yet, I’ll be content saying that we’re talking about  a certain creative vision beyond the existing horizon of the current political and economic system.

Rango ends up becoming a sheriff in this decrepit village of the Wild West, where a capitalist toad is denying the citizens access to water. As he undergoes an existentialist identity crisis, Rango learns that a lizard is judged not by his thoughts, or words, but by his deeds. He gives up on the quest for his ”true self” and accepts his role as the sheriff, who will reinvent the world’s water supplies.

There are a number of great things about this set-up. First of all, RANGO succeeds in becoming the first American 3D animation that looks
different from other animations; this is no small feat in a world populated by Disney-Pixar clones. ILM’s character design is close in tone to the creature tavern from STAR WARS – adult satire teetering on horror. The puppets lean towards Jim Henson’s Muppets, which means they have fluid facial traits, allowing for believable stretch & squash. With everything covered in dirt and grit, RANGO’s visual style harkens back to the realism of the early George Lucas. Shortly, the film is successfully three-dimensional despite, or contrary to, its 3D gimmicks.

But more importantly, RANGO brings us closer to the concept of a truly adult animation, where it’s possible that there won’t be a happy ending, the emotional register is wider than happy-sad, and the directing style may be deemed avant-garde in that it (mostly) ignores the Hollywood default, going for non-linear  narratives like FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, or MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

This has limitations, of course, because we’re still dealing with an American picture. For example – while you expect the whole time that Rango is going to die in the end, he never really does, and there is an existentialist cop-out ”explanation” from the owls that “he could die any time soon”. You also have to wonder how (on what basis?) Rango never succumbs to the temptation of becoming like his capitalist bosses, choosing immediately, without a moment’s reflection, to transform into a Communist lizard. In its treatment of episodic characters, the film never gets nasty enough to disturb us, instead of just titillating us with the promise of subversion.

 

THE ILLUSIONIST/L’ILLUSIONNISTE

The world critics of THE ILLUSIONIST go on about ”melancholia”, ”nostalgia”, and ”emotion’, as if addressing some Walt Disney production. In fact, the critics are taking precisely the nostalgic perspective  that the film abandons as a premise.

The critics’ response is a part of the film’s satirical targeting. Ostensibly a story about the departure of Magic from the world, THE ILLUSIONIST is all about the fact that THERE IS NO MAGIC IN THE WORLD TO BEGIN WITH, while all pain, sadness and misunderstanding come from people’s stubborn belief in the Magic.

Chomet’s artistry lies in the way he captures this existential error in the subtle nuances of character animation. Not by breathing life into dead things – rather, by bringing dead things back to life. Paul Welles once said, ”animation is reanimation”.

As Tatichef (the Illusionist, based on Jacques Tati) walks the streets of Edinburgh, Chomet paints a detailed canvas of all the ordinary people crossing his path. Their movements are stifled, awkward, the movements of zombies. Consumerism is starting to flourish in the 1950s setting, and everybody seems to be looking for Magic, coded by rock’n’roll and the glimmering white coat that Tatichef’s adopted daughter desires.

Meanwhile, between all these planned movements, we see an incredibly rich portrait of human quirks. Every single frame in this movie breathes personality. It’s as though in their pursuit of the Magic people have forgotten the ”real magic” – their own character! Illuminated from within by the unpredictable light of the Scottish skies, the world shows its amazing singularity.

I suppose if I was in a sufficiently theoretical frame of mind, I would say that THE ILLUSIONIST observes language with the same suspicion that you sense in Jacques Tati’s other stories. Misunderstanding largely seems to come from spoken language, and the film’s pantomime – which reveals the glitches, the errors and the repetitions in movement – accesses the human condition far more directly.

SURVEILLANCE


SURVEILLANCE
(directed by Jennifer Lynch, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond)


Two FBI agents, Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond) and Sam Hallaway (Bill Pullman), arrive at a local police station in the Santa Fe desert to investigate a series of murders. They interrogate three Witness|eyewitnesses: Police officer Jack Bennet, the meth-addict Bobby, and Stephanie, an eight-year-old girl, whose family was murdered by two figures dressed in jumpsuits and latex masks.

The ‘’surveillance’’ of the title does not exclusively address the functioning of the government. Although she does criticize the American police with a wry sense of humour, Jennifer is primarily interested in character psychology. This is where the director’s unique aesthetics departs from that of her father.

As the surveillance commences at the police office, we come to realize that the witnesses are lying because they want to outperform their partners. Unlike Frank Booth/Dennis Hopper of ‘’Blue Velvet’’, the killers are not driven by abstract evil. Instead, they seek confirmation in the gaze of the other, whose acceptance guarantees their survival.

In this way Jennifer makes the disturbing statement that  functioning of desire enables surveillance. In our desperate craving for love, we betray our vision to accommodate the invisible gaze – what we perceive as the expectations of others.

The visual style of the film supports this. For example, the placing of the camera on both sides of the two-way mirror in the interrogation room, which suggests that the FBI agents conducting the surveillance are being watched themselves. The way certain lines in the dialog unexpectedly point to the events that unfold later in the film. This creates an omnipresent gaze, beyond linear space and time. Or Jennifer’s trademark slow motion hallucinations: an especially brilliant one shows the murderous couple experiencing agony as they try to make love, seeing past each other, unable to communicate.

 

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

LET THE RIGHT ONE is a Swedish art house film that premieres in the Netherlands at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival. It’s an odd mix of social satire, Gothic fairytale and psychological horror with borrowings from the vampire film heritage. The film tells the tale of young Swedish boy Oscar’s coming of age through his romance with Eli, a dark-skinned vampire girl.

Using a distanced camera, Kubrick-style symmetrical compositions, and barriers in the form of omnipresent boxes, Alfredson shows an oppressive Swedish society. Warmth is sorely lacking in human relations. Family scenes are presented in ”Peanuts” format so that you never see the faces of the parents. Characters turn their backs on each other. Communication unfolds almost exclusively through mediation (the Morse code, the walls). Bureaucratic regulation mechanisms enforce a stifling uniformity. The film’s ghostly polar light, combined with a dirty gray-yellow palette, creates the image of a depressing socialism, lacking any social cohesion.

Trapped in rectangular interiors, people end up literally ”boxed”. 

Red accents (seen in human blood or budding flowers) suggest castration anxieties typical for coming-of-age narratives, but also, the attempt of life to drip through the bureaucratic depression that is contemporary Sweden.

In the film’s most grotesque scene, a man watches impotently as the vampire girl attacks his best friend. In the next wide-angle shot, we see him occupying a flat full of cats. Another neglectful slob from the local Swedish tavern causes his girlfriend to commit suicide. An impotent father sits at the table with (what is presumably) his gay partner. Their relationship is so poorly articulated that the son can only stare in bewilderment. Plentiful evidence, readers, that your average Swede ain’t no SUPER TROOPER anymore.

A bachelor’s life in modern socialist Sweden.

But what caused this social quagmire? As always, it runs in the family.

On the one hand, the film blames the demise of traditional society, what the academic theorist would call The Death Of The Father. This is best seen in the figure of the vampire girl’s dad. The poor guy neither performs as a role model, nor is he a good provider. He tries to feed the vampire by killing young men, compulsively repeating the symbolic act of castration; he fails miserably, and the film draws a lot of deadpan humor from the way society’s regulation systems thwart his attempts to find the privacy that would allow him to finish the job.

Conversely, the mothers in the film all seem unable to take over the father’s function. The Swedish boy’s mother is overly concerned about his well-being, preferring to blame her gay husband’s absence for her own shortcomings as a parent. She apparently caused the boy’s excessive feminization, which brings him in conflict with highschool bullies. An episodic female character is presented as the classic witch from ”Hans and Gretel” – she even burns, literally, for being frigid to her partner. The film subtly suggests that the dysfunctional fathers might come as a reaction to hostile mothers.

Having painted a dreary portrait of modern Swedish society, the film tries to offer a queer solution, one that would transcend the limitations of existing social and gender codes. This quest for psychological completeness is neatly symbolized by the appearance of the Rubik cube, with Oscar persistently unable to get an unifying color match.

The queer part of the story begins when Oscar falls in love with Eli. Being from an undefined exotic place – most probably Turkey – she livens up Oscar’s depressing existence in the heavily regulated “European fortress”. But in contrast to equal American productions, Oscar won’t just solve the Rubik puzzle. Instead, he will have to embark on a Siberian train journey into the big white Unknown. Whether he comes out a girl, a boy, or a vampire, remains an open question.