You, the Living – I’ve tried a few times in the week since I saw this Roy Andersson film to describe what it’s about and have found myself wholly unequal to that task. It’s 50 short segments about the loosely interconnected lives of people living in an Ikea commercial world (pale, normal- (as opposed to movie-)looking people, flat, shadowless lighting, boxiness). Some of them want desperately to be understood, or communicate, or fall in love, or play music, though they may very well not be interested in applying any effort towards these goals. There are fantasies of houses that move like trains, B-52 bombers that may very well be real and always the sounds of Dixieland Jazz. It’s beautiful, despite its total lack of aestheticism, funny and sad, and always humane. The #4 film of 2007.
Bright Star – Like The Young Victoria, the other romantic biopic of 2009, it’s a better film than you think it would be. Abbie Cornish is very good as the girl in love with John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw, in a performance just as good, if not better, than Cornish’s). There’s not much surprising plot wise: the young lovers are kept apart, first by misunderstanding, then by society, and finally allowed to come together, though we know it’s too late. The exceptional thing about the film is its cinematography; director Jane Campion and DP Greig Fraser (this is the first I’ve seen of his work) apply every kind of light you can think of to their compositions: candlelight, lamplight, bright sunlight, magic hour twilight, icy winter light, smoggy London light, etc etc and the results are stunning. Pictorialism isn’t often a virtue, but here it works as a nice analogue to the romanticism of Keats’s poetry and the ways he explains the experience of it to Cornish as something that should be felt first and foremost through the senses.
Humpday – Raises an interesting question: does a totally stupid premise for a film become less objectionable if, at the end of the film, the characters realize how stupid they’re being? Does it create a bit of poignancy as we witness these characters, who we’ve reviled for their idiocy for much of the previous hour and fifteen minutes, come to the realization that they’ve been wasting their time, that they actually have nothing to say and nothing to show for their lives? Or is it just irritating that we’ve been subjected to this with the filmmakers knowing full-well how lame their central plot is? I’m on the fence. What I’m certain about, though, is that the direction by Seattle’s own Lynn Shelton is infuriating. She frames every shot, every shot, in close up, her hand-held, constantly moving verité camera wedged right up under her actors noses as if she wants us to count their pores. The effect is suffocating. And not in a way that analogizes the stifling nature of modern yuppie life. In a way that makes you want to scream “Stand back!” at the screen. The film does capture Seattle really well though. The houses are clearly Seattle houses. The people, all of them, talk like Seattle people. The festival that gives the main characters their lame idea is a real Seattle thing too. A friend of mine has had films there for the last several festivals. I don’t think he views it as a grand artistic attempt to justify his existence though. He just likes making porn cartoons. He’s weird.
Tulpan – A much better use of the same core concept (not the porn part, the escaping one world and trying for another world part) is this film from Kazakhstan and director Sergei Dvortsevoy. A young man, a former sailor in the Russian (I think) navy is trying to be a shepherd. It’s his dream to live a nomadic existence on the Steppe like his ancestors. He’s living with his sister’s family and trying to learn the business from his brother-in-law, who unfortunately thinks he’s useless. The local landowner won’t give him a flock or yurt of his own until he gets married (it’s a kind of sharecropper system), and the only unmarried girl for hundreds of miles thinks his ears are funny. And for some reason, all the baby sheep are dying. That’s pretty much it for plot, the film immerses you in its environment (dusty, windy and strangely beautiful) and characters (beautiful as well). There are plenty of stunning images (one of an approaching thunderstorm stands out in the memory), but it feels almost like they occur by accident, or are merely a fact of nature as opposed to images created by humans. The #13 film of 2008.
Still Walking – It’s A Christmas Tale à la Yasujiro Ozu. Koreeda Hirokazu’s film is about a family reuniting for the 15th anniversary of the oldest son’s death. He’d drowned while pulling a kid out of the ocean. There’s lots of food being cooked, family issues being glossed over and not resolved, more than enough passive aggression to go around and always a palpable sense of a family that loves each other, though they may not particularly like each other. The whole cast is great, but the real standout is Kirin Kiki as the mother. Koreeda films the family’s mostly traditional Japanese home much like Ozu would have, though he’s not nearly as strenuously stylized. The camera spends much of the time at tatami level, but occasionally rises to a traditional height. So it isn’t as rigorous an homage as, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière, but the music is definitely Ozuvian and the family dynamic almost seems like a reverse Ozu: in most of his films the family actually likes each other and keeps what issues they might have hidden. An interesting point of comparison is with Tokyo Story, wherein the parents are unwanted or ignored by their children. In Still Walking, it often seems to be the other way around. The #8 film of 2008.
Avatar – Well, the spectacle of it was fun, I’m a sucker for big battle scenes and I couldn’t help but get caught up in these. But it would have been better if it had cut out about 90% of the dialogue. I think it’s weird that the humans in the film had never seen Dances With Wolves. Or had any idea of their own history. Seems to me that the history of the last half of the 20th Century has relegated this kind of naked imperialism to the status of historical relic. Modern imperialists are much subtler, and you’d expect them to be even more so 150 years from now (unless of course, the leftward course of history continues and something like this never happens again). Of course, if it’s supposed to be a historical allegory, then its deviations from and simplification of the history of colonization in America are pretty glaring (it was about a lot more than naked greed for strip mining: international prestige and power politics, homes and land for a growing mass of poor people, often refugees from war-torn and even more poverty-stricken nations, evangelical religious imperatives, etc). Enough to render its critique kinda silly. The film has a couple potentially interesting ideas (the fact that everyone in it has an avatar: the humans’ are technological, the Na’vi are biological and the relation of the Na’vi’s electro-chemical connection with the plants and animals on their planet being analogous to what we’d call god) that don’t really get explored in favor of lame stereotypes of bloodthirsty soldiers (almost offensive, really) and Giovanni Ribisi’s half-assed Paul Reiser impression.