#0015 AUTEUR! AUTEUR! - There's no reason why this guy shouldn't be the next Todd Solondz, or if there are indeed two of them, the next Farrelly Brothers. This is proof that you only need a cheap DV cam, a half-decent computer and Final Cut Pro to make something funnier than, say, anything that calls itself a comedy these days. Worst of all, I'm sure they're Canadian. (posted 08:16pm EST | 06.20.02)
#0014 SOLDIERS OF GOD - John Woo's Windtalkers took a critical beating last week, and opened at #3 in weekend box office totals, easily beaten out by Scooby-Doo, which must be depressing if you're John Woo, or Nick Cage, or Navajo. The consensus was pretty obvious - Elvis Mitchell (N.Y. Times), Roger Ebert, and David Sterritt (Christian Science Monitor) all made a point of saying, in Sterritt's words, that Windtalkers' story of WW2 Navajo code talkers was "a great subject for a movie, but Hollywood has squandered the opportunity." Ebert wishes that the producers had gone "the indie route" with "a low-budget Sundance-style picture".
Normally, a bad film on a historical subject doesn't make that subject radioactive, untouchable to anyone who might hope to re-visit the subject. As bad as Pearl Harbor was - and it was really, very bad - it's not as if there won't be another film about December 7th, 1941. It may take awhile - there was a twenty-year gap between From Here to Eternity and Tora! Tora! Tora!, and a thirty-year gap before Michael Bay's film (you might, if you wanted to be dismal about it, point out that each successive film was worse than the previous one, but that's another subject) - but audience memories are short, those of Hollywood executives only slightly longer, but hardly eternal. After all, they keep letting Sylvester Stallone make movies, don't they? Hell, even Michael Cimino can get a second chance.
But it does seem like it'll be a long time before the Navajo code talker story becomes the basis for another film, even if Windtalkers ends up making back its budget. It's not like the film was really about Navajo soldiers, as much as it was a conventional Hollywood war flick filled out with a few of Woo's particular obsessions. The reviews make it plain enough: "another war-film cliche"; "paying homage to all the tired conventions of the genre"; "retailing war-movie formulas"; "an oddly old-fashioned film"; "awash in battlefield sentimentality and platoon cliches"; "fiddling around with some of Hollywood's oldest conventions".
Indeed, it's depressing when you realize that Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach have ended up in your standard Hollywood combat squad, a mix of just plain guys from every region of the U.S.A., each one delineated with one salient character trait: homesickness, bigotry, sexual bravado, a pathetic but touching devotion to the wife back home. You just know that the poor bastard that tries to hand off his wedding ring to a buddy "in case anything happens to me" is going to buy it the next time the bullets start flying. The Japanese are numerous and faceless, and get mowed down in satisfyingly large numbers, despite the fact that, as Roger Ebert points out, "since they are defending dug-in positions and the Americans are often exposed, this seems unlikely."
Ebert is also the only reviewer to wonder why the Marines would risk two valuable codetalkers in front line service where capture or death was likely, instead of using them like flesh-and-blood Enigma machines, handling long-range strategic signals. Once again, historical truth has been subsumed to the director's prerogatives, and Ebert imagines that the codetalkers are sent into the front line "because (Woo) wants to show everything in the heat of battle."
Personally, I was struck once again by the fact that, almost alone among his peers, John Woo is probably the most Catholic director working today, certainly since Abel Ferrara effectively disappeared from the scene. He makes a point of making both Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach Catholics, if lapsed Catholics with dark memories of the church; Beach's character even has a little tale of abuse at a mission school to share. Of all the reviews I've read, it's (amazingly) only J. Hoberman of the Village Voice who takes the time to note this, calling it the film's "most suggestive plot twist" and pegging it as the point at which Windtalkers is most like a John Woo film.
Alone among religions, Catholicism is about agony, both physical and spiritual. Christ's suffering, most particularly at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane, is the most dramatic and humanizing passage of the New Testament gospels. War, and war films, are about agony, physical and spiritual - or at least they should be if they're halfway honest - and Woo has been making war films for most of his career, even if Windtalkers is the first film recognizably set during a war.
While the Protestant churches have moved away from Christ's defining agony in favor of revelation, evangelical fervor, or a reductive system of defining moral worthiness, the Catholic church has remained in touch with an obsession with understanding and seeking empathy with Christ's agony. It's why - and few people really understand this, even including Catholics - the church is on some level relishing the current scandals of priest pedophiles as a chance to be tested, to experience agony as an institution, as an aggregate body, to experience renewal and redemption at the end of a painful test. That testing is essential to the men in John Woo's films, who usually end up in pairs, one character Christ-like, the other Judas, though the precise role is often left ambiguous right to the end.
In Windtalkers, the roles switch during the film, as Adam Beach's cheerful, guileless Navajo radioman seems set up for Cage's Judas-like betrayal, the unofficial order that he's to kill Beach if there's a chance of the Navajo being captured. In the end, though, it's Cage who becomes Christ-like, sacrificing himself and dying with a "Hail Mary" on his lips, breathing his last during the final line: "now and at the hour of our death."
As a Catholic, I wish Windtalkers had been a better film, much as a Navajo probably wishes the same thing. As it is, the best recent war film remains Terence Malick's virtually pagan Thin Red Line, and with Hollywood wholly committed to revisiting the dusty stylebook of WW2-era flag-wavers, it's unlikely that will change anytime soon. (posted 02:04pm EST | 06.17.02)
#0013 - CHEER BELGIANS! - Reviewed Strass, a Belgian Dogme film, this week. A remarkably nasty piece of work, basically an extended hate letter to those legions of soul-twisted, mindfuck acting teachers all over the world. They do exist, gathering flocks of faithful followers as they go, who go on to grimly wreak havoc with the fragile egos of young actors, turning timid but budding exhibitionists into hopeless, bedwetting neurotics.
I remember a production of "Dracula" in college, where it was a month before we actually attempted a scene from the play, time that the director needed to do his wholesale rewrite of Bram Stoker. We filled the rehearsals with "exercises", most of which the director had learned from his particular guru - Stephen Rumbolo - whose name is forever burned in my mind. Most of the exercises involved some kind of violation of personal space, and as the youngest member of the cast (playing Dr. Seward, the oldest except, of course, for Dracula), and fresh out of Catholic boy's school, my reactions ranged from embarassment to outright mortification.
One day, the director announced that we should pair off, and quickly pushed us into couples - I ended up with one of the two female cast members though not, alas, the prettiest. He then told us to immediately tell our partner a secret, something we'd normally only tell our closest friend. "You can't hesitate. Say the first thing that comes to your mind." My partner smiled to herself for a second then whispered in my ear:
"I give really, really great blow jobs."
I was, to say the least, a bit speechless. There was, or at least it seemed to my 18-year old self, a hint of a come-on in this confidence. I tried not to think about it for too long, lest I give the impression that I was considering it, which I suppose I was. In any case, I didn't find my partner attractive, at least compared to the other actress in the show, a woman who went on to have a small role in one of my favorite films about Richard Nixon. I actually had a crush on the stage manager, with whom I went out on two horribly awkward dates after the show closed. (I was just out of Catholic boy's school, did I mention that?) In the end, the only confidence I could muster in return was a rather lame "I'm afraid of growing up." My partner seemed disappointed.
Getting back to Strass; I didn't get a press kit for the film, so I ended up having to do a quick web search for info, and came upon a Montreal site with a bulletin board discussing the film - in French, of course. I ran it through Google's translator, and ended up with this eloquent little gem, which sums up the film better than anything I could add:
"Excel! Cheer Belgians! Once more, you leave us the heavy ambient political straightness. Your glance goguenard on the world and your freedom of tone fill me with joy. And what a actors (to be begun with that which incarne the central rowdy character of film!) By way of unconditional of the emission Striptease, I in redemande." (posted 10:38pm | 06.13.02)
#0012 - GOD IS IN THE DETAILS - A refreshingly cranky piece in Salon today by Robert Winkler, a nature writer, complaining that Hollywood movies can't seem to understand the intricacies of birdsong. A battery of technical advisors are on hand to advise on every detail of a movie, he complains, but "bird songs are often inserted without regard to whether the birds would ordinarily occur in the locale, season and habitat depicted in the film."
Winkler's knowledge of birdsong is impressive, and his list of complaints gets into details that only begin to hint at how long he's stewed over the willful disregard for ornithological truth:
"In Eyes Wide Shut, it's the dead of night as Tom Cruise walks up to the gates of a Long Island mansion, the scene of an orgiastic costume ball. Inexplicably, a blue jay - by no means a bird of the night - calls three times. Defenders of Stanley Kubrick's moviemaking may invoke artistic license, but is this just an excuse for biological illiteracy?"
I can sympathize with the writer's frustration, as can anyone obsessed with any of the millions of subjects through which movies make lightning raids in search of props and setting. But I think he overstates the proficiency of movies when he assumes that "...in period pieces the architecture, furnishings, costumes, props and customs of the day are painstakingly researched. Sets constructed to mirror actual places are so accurate we believe they are real."
I've gone into spluttering fits when characters place the needle on a record I know wasn't released in the year of a movie's setting, and don't get me started at all those WW2 films where German troops drive post-Korean war U.S. tanks; low-slung M26 Pershings or Vietnam-era M60s thoughtfully painted with swastikas and iron crosses in Afrika Korps desert camouflage. And you should hear my wife scream when some detail of 19th century domestic life - servants' reponsibilities or furniture from an entirely different kind of home or class - is bungled. The point isn't that movies get some things right and willfully ignore others; it's more of a feat that they get anything right at all, when you consider the constraints of budget, time, and the peculiar whims of any of the vast cast and crew involved. Still, I would love for Winkler to get his wish, "the day when Hollywood adds 'bird-song specialist' to its roster of technical advisors." (posted 09:38pm | 06.13.02)
#0011 - IT'S GOOD TO BE THE KING - Ate breakfast this morning while listening to "The King's Films", a Radio New Zealand documentary on the films of King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia. On his official website, Sihanouk recalls that his love of film began while he was a student at the French Lycee of Saigon, where he discovered a passion for French and American films "starring Jean Gabin, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo...". This reminiscence, made for the 5th Festival Mondial de la Video in Brussels, recalls that his ambition, upon completing his studies, was to become a filmmaker and actor, or maybe a "professor of French, Latin and Greek in a high school in my country". A fervent but reasonably qualified ambition, not dissimilar to that cherished by countless film school graduates all over the world. The next sentence, however, isn't so common:
"After becoming King of Cambodia in 1941, I had the means to produce films."
Sihanouk made his first film, Aspara, in 1966, and continued making films, two or three every year, until 1969, when the war next door in Vietnam compelled him to turn his attention to affairs of state. Sihanouk had renounced the throne in 1955, becoming premier and, later, chief of state. As the war in Vietnam began to escalate in the early 60s, Sihanouk played a dangerous game, allowing Vietnamese communist troops to infiltrate his country and set up supply bases while taking U.S. military aid to fight communist incursions. In 1963 he renounced U.S. aid, accusing the Americans of underming his government. The economy began to decline and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops made further incursions into Cambodia, while Sihanouk made films like Cortege Royal, The Joy of Living and Tragic Destiny.
still from The Joy of Living (1968)
In the spring of 1969, the U.S. began bombing Vietnamese communist strongholds in Cambodia; Sihanouk hung up his director's beret (literally - an affectation he had adopted from his beloved French auteurs), and changed course again, restoring diplomatic ties with the U.S. In August of that year, he made Lt. General Lon Nol premier, and less than a year later the General deposed Sihanouk and set up a right-wing regime that immediately went on the offensive against the communists, aided by U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Sihanouk threw his support behind the Cambodian communists who gained enormous sympathy from the people, thanks to the brutal occupation by the Vietnamese and increased American bombing. The war became a civil war, and by 1975, the communists - now Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge - had taken Phnom Penh and overthrown Lon Nol. Sihanouk was retained as a figurehead and imprisoned in his palace while the Khmer Rouge set about a now-infamous genocide of their own people.
The Radio New Zealand documentary leaves Sihanouk at this point, "cooking Italian food in his little hut". In fact, he had fled to Beijing in 1979, before leading a guerilla faction that fought the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, one of many. The 1987 Paris talks led to the 1991 pact, signed by all of the major factions, including Sihanouk's, that officially ended the civil war. The former King promptly denounced the Khmer Rouge, allied himself with Premier Hun Sen's Vietnamese-backed government, and was rewarded with his former post as head of state. Two years later, in 1993, a new constitution re-established the monarchy, and Sihanouk was King again after almost forty years.
He had returned to directing a year earlier with My Village at Dusk. His filmography shows that Sihanouk had re-invented himself as a social realist with a streak of magic realism, in contrast to his 60s films, which were full of court pagaentry and the decadent life of Phnom Penh sophisticates. His new films (Peasants in Distress, An Ambition Reduced to Ashes, Heir of a Defeated Secessionist, An Apostle of Non Violence - the titles alone hint at Sihanouk's desire to re-invent himself as something of a wise but tragic hero) are about village life, the horrors of the civil war and the Khmer Rouge, and quasi-mystical tales of Buddhist forbearance. In Sihanouk's own words:
... it does not serve any purpose to fight against Fate; an unbounded ambition does not hoist you up to the helm but rather takes you down to a tragic end; love is often more strong than political calculation."
Looking over Sihanouk's political career, an optimist would hope that this is what we call "hard-earned wisdom". The Radio New Zealand documentary isn't as kind, describing Sihanouk's films as tedious, stiff, badly-written and badly-acted, the latter mostly due to Sihanouk's policy of casting himself and various palace courtiers. The aim is obvious, a re-telling of "The Emperor's New Clothes" story in a sexy 60s southeast asian go-go setting. Excerpts of dialogue included in the documentary are truly dismal-sounding, all rote exposition and vapid, overblown sentiment. Western experts and observers of 60s Cambodia - one of them sounded like Time art critic Robert Hughes, but I didn't catch his name - describe premieres where attendance was mandatory, and film festivals held mainly to celebrate Sihanouk's latest work. Even more damningly, soldiers wounded in battles with the Vietnamese were keft in the field, to be filmed for scenes in Aspara, instead of being immediately evacuated for medical attention.
The only praise they have is for the music - also written by Sihanouk, whose talents as a musician are apparently more considerable than those as writer, director or actor. The Hughes-like voice in "The King's Films" admits that he often finds himself humming the king's melodies to himself. (You can listen to samples of his work on Sihanouk's site, and a CD is apparently available. I actually wouldn't mind getting a copy.)
"The King's Films" tells a great story, but it's a bit impressionistic, and it wasn't until I did a bit of research online that I realized that the King is still making films, and that they actually have something of a following. Several of the more recent titles are available on VHS, and in April of this year, Sihanouk donated his film memorabilia to the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "The films of King Sihanouk focus on the country of Cambodia by showcasing its history, people and culture," said Library Director Linda Mehr. "It's a wonderful service to the film industry and to the country of Cambodia that we are able to preserve this piece of their history through film." There is still, apparently, no shortage of people happy to tug at their forelock in the presence of kings, even in Hollywood. (posted 10:38pm | 06.09.02)