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.

 

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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.

 

DIARY OF THE DEAD


The mainstream had vanished, now there was only us: bloggers, packers, kids. The more voices there are, the more spin there is. The truth becomes that much harder to find. In the end, it’s all just…noise.

DIARY OF THE DEAD joins the landmark films of the 00s, e.g. David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, John Carpenter’s CIGARETTE BURNS and Michael Hanneke’s CACHE, in which film (and hence, reality) runs on automatic pilot, because the film-maker as well as the audience are being controlled by a third entity. As one character in the movie puts it, ”I don’t want to make this movie, but I can’t stop the script”.

To see what a great director George A. Romero still is, compare DIARY OF THE DEAD with last year’s dud CLOVERFIELD. CLOVERFIELD was shot without a cut, stretching credibility to an absurd point. All throughout the movie, one couldn’t figure out how the protagonists managed to run their video camera while being chased by Godzilla. You ended up not caring about the characters, or the film as a whole.

The noise in this typographic design reveals the film’s key theme: there’s no reality outside of the recording.

Conversely, Romero builds suspense on the unexpected cuts, interruptions or noises that occur because the cameras run out of power. In a crucial scene, the main character is recording zombies in a hospital. The camera’s battery runs out in the middle of a scary attack. The viewer is instantaneously made aware of his addiction to the video signal, his desire to continue watching. On the other hand, the cut confronts us with the fear that if the video signal was interrupted, we would perish as well – even though the signal would eventually continue.



Another example: in this shot a character is looking into the mirror, which reflects numerous surveillance monitors; he is being recorded by another character in the movie; the camera tilts to the left, and he’s recorded by a third character… the point of view shot constantly shifts in DIARY OF THE DEAD. This creates the frightening impression that our already-fragmented identity can only be held together by cameras.

Steven Shaviro put it succinctly in his ultimate take on the film:

Though the female protagonist sarcastically suggests that, if her boyfriend does not videotape an incident, then it hasn’t happened, in fact everything that happens belongs to the realm of images on screens — regardless of whether or not his videocamera is around to capture it. It is not that the world has become unreal to us because we always view it mediated through cameras and screens; but rather that, since everything in the world has proliferated imagistically and virally, by contagion, in the way zombies proliferate and communicate their own condition to others — that therefore cameras and screens and computers are in fact the only tools we have left to cope with the world and its realities. This goes along with the shift from a situation where everyone watches images on television, to one where everyone owns a camera and actively captures/produces images.

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.

ELECTORIAL PUBLIC RELATIONS

Obama’s a bit like THE DARK KNIGHT’s Joker, readers: you’re never quite sure what his grin MEANS.

I’ve been thinking about political PR, an issue of enormous importance in this age of image-mediation.

And I have to tell you, Obama’s Public Relations sucks. Not only does his voice sound like he doesn’t believe in his very own promises, Obama’s Joker-like grin is also WRONG. I get this creepy feeling, as though being stalked by the Cheshire cat. The message transmitted should be direct and powerful, instead, it’s ambiguous and meek. The ”Nutty Professor” attire that I caught Obama wearing, I guess as a way of saying that he, too, attended the Leftist University, doesn’t really do it for me. It’s one of those worn-out statements, like George Clooney’s coat in CHILDREN OF MEN, that make socialism look last season. In any case, I wouldn’t want to fall into the embrace of this Joker; especially because he seems all-too often like  a black girl so desperate for acceptance she’s painted herself white.

By contrast, Sarah Palin comes across as a healthy butch top, a crass version of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara; the crucial ingredient are her cheeks, full and bright, suggesting health, robustness and Nashville. The figure most closely resembling Palin on the musical scene would be Shanya Twain – ”It don’t impress me much”. For in this sort of PR, readers, you want to tell the voters that you’re one of the people, that they can count on your toughness, that you’re determined as Hell, but when it comes to family, you’re still the pure, kind-hearted local girl who just happened to make it big.

(Some commentators in the blogosphere remarked that Palin’s impossible marriage between the married wife and tough girl stereotype indicates she’s America’s most successful cyborg politician. And there is something to this view, readers, for Palin’s performance recalls Walt Disney characters – she’s too cute and too pretty to be real, approaching cartoon registers.)

Another famous Republican vehicle demonstrates that the right-wing adulation of ”family values” functions as a disguise for the establishment’s perversity. I’m talking about Mc Cain, who walks around in a semi-mummified condition akin to Marlon Brando’s performance in THE GODFATHER, and Cindy, whose resemblance to Michelle Pfeiffer must be on purpose. McCain’s PR is telling us that he’s a cruel but reliable maffia overlord, while Cindy’s youthful cheeriness must mean she’s popular with the rent boys. In other words, when you have the power, you can be a decent prostitute.

 

WALL-E

The problem with Pixar is that they always teeter on the verge of brilliance, but never make it. There are pressing commercial demands to be met. In this case, Pixar caters to the consumerist guilt of fat Americans, who will go to WALL-E so they may ”engage” with the film’s politically correct ecology. One according to which the energy problem comes not from economic exploitation, but from the failure of the general population to recycle.

What’s nearly brilliant about WALL-E is the way it uses the language of animation (first discovered by Charlie Chaplin) to create a complex choreography. There is very little talk, except for some coy buzzing and bleeping. The film unfolds through pantomime, making good use of the mise-en-scene to create an allegory of the Apocalypse. In some special moments, when the director drops all pretense of story, movement and sound accomplish a total synergy.

Then in a move which felt avant-garde for a big studio like Pixar, the early scenes are shot by a candid camera (as in reality TV), suggesting not so much audience voyeurism as an omniscient Machine-Camera. This is later supported by the reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Hal, the robotic control freak from 2001:A Space Odyssey. The trick never gets as subtle as it did in independent films, but for a mainstream animation, it’s pretty daring.

The second, ”environmental” part of the movie is a rather weak parody wherein the humans of the future appear as half-paralyzed slugs living on a spaceship. This is where the 1950s Americana comes in, readers, for Pixar’s brand of social critique is a subliminal advertisement for 1950s consumerist bliss. It’s very important that Americans should feel that their country still stands for a middle class Paradise in the midst of the Iraqi war.

Set design draws on the obsessive scavenging of the 1980s and of course, it re-brands Lucas’s STAR WARS and Spielberg’s EXTRATERRESTRIAL abundantly. Yet the parody neither made me laugh nor did it get me to sweat over issues: as it turns out, humaneness will triumph in the end and the exiled people will return from the City in the Clouds to Mother Earth. Wall-E shall overcome his Oedipus complex, be reborn, and the story of Adam and Eve shall recommence.

Among the many opportunities missed was a bleak ending (which the makers originally intended) with WALL-E completely losing his hard disk and his memories of being human. With such an ending, the film would have stayed truer to its origins in 1980s apocalyptic science fiction.