Tag Archives: Drama

The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and the interns are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory/myth — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  Jefferson supposedly changed the wording to make it seem less crass, without intending to really change the meaning.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way, by repeating the deception.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.

Fury

Fury

Fury (2014)

Columbia Pictures

Director: David Ayer

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf


The problem with this film is that it has a beginning and an end.  Both are terrible.  In the middle there are worthy things.  But the ending is so stupefyingly, implausibly bad that viewers have to walk away embarrassed for having sat through it.  After opening titles that glorify American Exceptionalism, twisting the history of World War II to frame it as a conflict just between the noble but underdog Americans and the Nazis, the film starts by making Brad Pitt’s character out to be an inhuman monster (seemingly equally as bad as the Nazis), and those around him one-dimensional caricatures.  The film then seeks to humanize Pitt’s character, and add dimension to those around him.  The battle scenes in the middle of the film are excellently staged and are thrilling.  Of course, then there is the ending, which is so preposterously staged as to garner sympathy for the Nazis.  The Nazis (in vastly superior numbers) stand around waiting to be shot (really!).  The weapons they are shown marching with suddenly disappear and one Nazi indicates that a small box of other weapons must be rationed carefully.  The movie banks on viewers thinking that Nazi are so terrible that they should completely suspend disbelief at the staging of the final battle scene.  Ughhhh.  Terrible.

While clearly trying to follow on the style of Saving Private Ryan (an arguably even worse film), this ends up being a second (or third) rate version of The Big Red One.  Just compare the endings.  Lee Marvin‘s character in The Big Red One is, objectively, one who stands for something beyond himself.  Brad Pitt’s character stands for empty valor, no more.

Oblivion

Oblivion

Oblivion (2013)

Universal Pictures

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman


The story is really just an amalgamation of plot points from other films: Moon, Total Recall, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Inception, The Matrix, etc.  But the special effects and technical realization of this movie really outshines all those others.  While the plot may not be ingeniously new, it blends known elements together in a way that is cohesive and effective.  Once the viewer accepts the basic conceits of the science fiction setting, every scene is staged plausibly — there are no scenes that prompt guffaws due to trivial yet implausible details.  At the risk of spoiling a plot twist, the film also takes a surprising matter-of-fact view toward cloning and the social interchangeability of clones.  Reviews of the film were poor.  No surprise, really.  This sort of film, though coming from Hollywood, chafes against what Hollywood prizes.  In other words, it is a better film than Hollywood normally permits, and the plot — derivative or not — has a kind of anti-corporate message that is always officially frowned upon even as Hollywood keeps inserting such messages into various films.  There is also some serious, if under-/unstated, questioning of how contrived and fake certain emotions and social institutions can be.  Tom Cruise is the perfect lead, able to convincingly deliver a role that requires a “useful idiot.”  The rest of roles are well cast too.

Sauve qui peut (la vie)

Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man For Himself]

Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man For Himself] (1980)

MK2 Diffusion

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Main Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Nathalie Baye


After a period of making aggressively experimental films and becoming isolated (his own word for it), Jean-Luc Godard returned to making widely shown and distributed films with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (released in the USA under the title “Every Man for Himself”).  Decades later, other works like Film Socialisme were still resembling this film.  That makes Sauve qui peut a landmark within Godard’s career.

The composer Karlkheinz Stockhausen has spoken (Musical Forming: Composing Statistically (1971)) about how “if you are able to compress an entire Beethoven symphony into half a second, then you have a new sound, and its inner microstructure has been composed by Beethoven.”  It would not sound like a symphony, but to human perception would resemble a single tone with a particular timbre.  The individual elements surpass a group, and completely different relationships begin.  Godard is concerned with the cinematic equivalent of that issue of the temporal limits of human perception — though tending toward expansion rather than the compression Stockhausen discussed (and maybe akin to key parts of Blow-Up).  A technique he had developed working with videotape for a television mini-series shortly before making Sauve qui peut had him deploying slow motion effects.  He applies a version of that to film here.  One scene has two of the main characters fighting in a kitchen, and Godard said he decided to show the incident in slow motion to reveal meaning that would not be perceptible at regular speed.  He wanted to show that as they physically fight and fall to the ground — what would happen in an instant in real time — the characters maybe still love each other, something that viewers tend to contemplate as the characters are held in contact as they fall.

Godard biographer Colin MacCabe wrote that men become film directors to meet women, and that quip at one time seemed to accurately describe Jean-Luc Godard, in his early career, but that phase was a distant memory by the the time of his “Second Debut” Sauve qui peut (la vie).  There are strong feminist themes here.  Though Godard emphasized in interviews in this era how a key preoccupation of the film was with workers and their work.  The absurdities, degradation, and obstacles bound up in working are sublimely stylized and symbolized in scene after scene — many of which ponder questions around privilege, exploitation and self-identity.  In the decades immediately following the film’s release, these aspects of work have not changed but perhaps only intensified, making Godard’s oblique insights of what might have been passing sociopolitical circumstance still seem compelling and relevant.  Godard’s films might be many things, but they are certainly not lacking for starkly original images.  This one is a bit more grounded than some of his early films, in that the romanticism and cinephilia is less pronounced, and in place a more nuanced view of the travails of “ordinary” life.

This is yet another astounding film from one of cinema’s truly great and visionary figures.  Count this as essential viewing for his admirers.

Seconds

Seconds

Seconds (1966)

Paramount Pictures

Director: John Frankenheimer

Main Cast: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens


Arguably John Frankenheimer’s best film, Seconds is an eerie thriller with an engaging plot, fine acting (and casting), and appropriately stark cinematography by James Wong Howe.  Frankenheimer was a political person, associated with Hollywood’s left.  Here he uses the previously blacklisted actors John Randolph and Will Geer.  Taking that sort of information as context, Seconds plays with the clash between the conservative American culture held over from the early post-war years, and the rise of the counterculture, asking some intriguing questions without succumbing to overly optimistic triumphalism or naivity, as befell some of the less lasting films of the era that tackled similar topics.  Continue reading Seconds

Werckmeister harmóniák [Werckmeister Harmonies]

Werckmeister harmóniák [Werckmeister Harmonies]

Werckmeister harmóniák [Werckmeister Harmonies] (2000)

Arte (etc.)

Director: Béla Tarr

Main Cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla


Here is a movie that is all about what isn’t being said.  The main character is János Valuska (Lars Rudolph).  In the opening scene, in a bar full of drunks that is about to close, he organizes them to move about like planets to illustrate how a solar eclipse takes place.  From there, he walks about his provincial Hungarian town to perform odd jobs the rest of the night.  Those jobs include attending to his uncle György Eszter (Peter Fitz), a respected recluse who is developing a theory about how Western music was corrupted when Just Intonation was abandoned for the keyboard tuning of Andreas Werckmeister, a Fifteenth Century musical figure who developed a sort of paganistic theory about harmonious order based on planetary movement.  A circus arrives, with a giant stuffed whale and “The Prince,” whose body is supposedly magnetic.  Workers (all men) gather in the town square around the circus, where they light bonfires and mill about aimlessly.  János visits the whale and is fascinated by it.  One of his employers, Auntie Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), is upset by the men milling about and wants “order” restored.  János walks back to the town square to investigate for her.  He overhears The Prince (only his shadow is visible) arguing with the circus impresario.  The Prince wants to be independent to make more money, and demands chaos and destruction — the film omits the term “creative destruction” but the analogy to that term coined by conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter is apparent by implication.  It is also revealed that this out-of-town Prince is agitating the men in the town square.  A group of those men set out as a mob and besiege a hospital, beating the patients and ransacking the rooms, until some of them encounter a naked man standing in a bathtub, at which point they pause, then withdraw.  János eventually tries to leave the town (emigrate?), following the advice of a relative to escape the mob.  Though he encounters a helicopter, and is next seen back in the town in a hospital.

The film is very clearly political commentary about the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Bloc, with The Prince something like Western Capital entering the former Eastern Bloc landscape and enthralling the masses to pursue ends that the locals eventually and belatedly realize are stupid and senselessly viscous.  And yet, the “order” that the visitors disrupt is absurd and insular.  For a film with so little dialog, these implications of the symbolically-heavy visuals is impressively complex and nuanced.

The entire film is shot in 39 long shots/takes.  That aspect is something of a directorial pissing contest whereby each director tries to have the longest shots/takes possible given technological limits (consider precedents like Soy Cuba [I Am Cuba] and Touch of Evil).  Aided by digital camera technology, Tarr loses to Alexander Sokurov‘s Русский ковчег [Russian Ark] (2002), filmed in one continuous shot/take.  There are definitely scenes in Tarr’s film that go on far too long, just for the sake of having long shots.  But at the same time the long shots emphasize a kind of stasis and slow pace of life that is completely at odds with the abrupt chaos stirred up when the circus arrives — many scenes emphasize the difficulty that locals have acting (or reacting) quickly.

Much of the film presents a sustained view of a character — János — seeking to access the wonder of the outside world while naïvely finding himself burdened by the “strings attached” by the outsiders who bring with them such wonder in the form of the circus, and who impose a new set of interests on the locals as The Prince tries to harness and “monetize” the locals’ curiosity, intrigue, and discontent though destabilization.  But the film is not just about that one character.  It concludes with a focus on György Eszter.  In the final scene the uncle examines the whale in the town square, the crude trailer in which it arrived now crumbled to leave its cargo exposed.  He has given up his private theorizing and perhaps will now help to keep his family, friends and the town going, or whatever else is needed under the circumstances; the whale is a thing of wonder but is also meaningless.  In this way he renounces what drove him at the beginning of the film and takes up a new path and new duties, unlike János, who is harmed and ultimately trapped by his desire to pursue things like the enigmatic whale.  Each character begins the film with desires that prove impossible in their implications, but only one of the two characters is willing to give up on what he once held dear and try to forge a new sense of meaning from the circumstances around him.  The political implication seems to be to reject the ruthless onslaught of Western Capital in all its seductive, enticing yet illusory power and instead recognize the need for the townspeople to undertake the hard work of improving conditions for themselves from within the town.

Even wholly aside from the allegorical content and symbolism, the stark, austere images alone make this a memorable film.

This Is 40

This Is 40

This Is 40 (2012)

Universal Pictures

Director: Judd Apatow

Main Cast: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Megan Fox, Jason Segel


Judd Apatow’s movies are very much within the mainstream cultural sphere, but within the necessary constraints of Hollywood, his films often explore the limits of doing what you love and how his characters can’t (or choose not to) enjoy themselves.  Put another way, the characters go through this process of trying to change their desires, to go from being, essentially, adolescent young adults, to mature adults.  C.G. Jung termed this “individuation”, the kind of “second puberty” that happens at age 35-40 (if it happens at all) where the individual is (re)integrated into a social collective — illustrated by Goethe‘s Conversations of German Refugees: Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years or The Renunciants.  (Goethe was a huge influence on Jung, inspiring many of the latter’s theories of analytic psychology).

Reviewer Onethink summarized the film this way in a review:

“Debbie and Pete (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd) live in the American dream: they have a luxurious house, flash cars, two daughters who go to a nice middle class school, they own their own businesses – and the businesses are hip and trendy: she runs a chic fashion outlet, he runs a record company. But not everything is rosy. The businesses are failing. Debbie has deep anxieties about growing old – so she lies about her age and has a personal trainer and begins faddy eating regimes: all the things middle class Americans should do. And, typically for a male Apatow character, Pete has certain maturity issues: is his record company not so much a business as a strategy to still feel young and hip? As parents they are go from the lenient to the draconian. And their fathers bring a couple of variations: both are monstrous, one clinging and dependent, a nightmare image of a ‘failed’ adult, the other aloof and distant, a nightmare image of a ‘successful’ adult.”

The parts about work are interesting.  Miya Tokumitsu wrote the most popular article ever on a magazine’s web site, and later expanded that article into a book, about the trouble with the injunction to “do what you love” for work/career.  Making much the same point more generally, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek frequently states that the injunction of contemporary ruling society is to “enjoy,” that the superego perversely demands that we enjoy that which is really our duty, traumatically and painfully depriving us of free will to choose what we enjoy at the very point a choice is seemingly offered, stigmatizing us.  The characters in This Is 40 seem to have the jobs/businesses they want, or are supposed to want.  But they are forced to make money to support an upper middle class lifestyle.  Is it that they want these jobs, specifically, or want these jobs to support the lifestyle that they really want?  Or do they want a different lifestyle altogether?  Is it that everyone around them wants them to have their lifestyle, forcing it on them?  Is it possible for them to want something apart from what those around them want them to want?

If the central parts of the film are politicized — and why not look at the film that way? — then the conservative view is to dislike the main characters Debbie and Pete, the centrist-liberal view is to sympathize with them, and the leftist view is to appreciate them as unreliable narrators of sorts.  The conservative view would be that these failing entrepreneurs are properly subject to market forces, and any of their failings in the market are their personal failings.  The film is wrong then, in a sense, in sympathizing with the ambitions of the failed businesspeople, who fail because they should — they are failures.  And the characters are unsympathetic because they turn against “traditional values.”  The centrist-liberal view is to value the many varied people in the film, to each their own (a multicultural, identity politics paradise), and the conflict of the characters not fulfilling their promise and expectations needs to be resolved.  The film is correct, therefore, to sympathize with its characters.  Everyone deserves to be happy.  The left view, however, sees the main characters as not particularly likeable, or at least as Onethink says, monstrous in their way.  These are just a bunch of stupid people, as stupid as any, and the challenge is how to educate them to accept responsibility for creating meaning in their lives — even their professed desires may be unreliable or stupid.  This reads the film to the left of the film’s ostensibly “professional” Hollywood perspective, which is centrist-liberal, by saying the main characters aren’t really as likable as they are presented to be.  While Apatow doesn’t go as far in rehabilitating antiheroes as, say, Pasolini with Accatone or Korine with Gummo, then he at least takes a Hollywood movie and cracks open the possibility for this perspective from within it (and he does so with a bit more finesse than, say, The Company Men or just about any “little” Hollywood side-project film with big-name actors but little marketing).

The film has very realistic main characters, and the acting is generally excellent.  Really, there are great, subtle moments from Mann and Rudd all over, helped by very strong screenwriting.  The very dull moments actually help that along — the quirks of hiding from family members in a shared house, obsessions with material things, resort to therapy/counseling techniques.  Some of the peripheral characters are a bit thin and one-dimensional, or implausibly exaggerated.  But these minor characters are mostly present to add humor to the film, setting up jokes and gags.  But this is a comedy, and it probably wouldn’t succeed as being one without those set-ups, however artificial.  And there are mostly white people in this closed universe — not to say that there is something inherently wrong with that, but the restricted experiences of white people form implicit boundaries around the film’s ambitions and perspective.  Give this credit though for a fairly balanced mix of male and female characters with substantive parts, and not just of a romantic type — these female characters engage each other without any males present.

The film’s ending is archetypical Apatow: it is a “Hollywood” ending, complete with facile, happy resolution of the major plot points and conflict, and yet, it actually is not entirely that at all.  The film ends with a bit of a “fuck it all!” attitude, but without any guilt about it.  The two main characters, at least, tentatively accept that there is no one (or no thing) that will provide meaning for their lives, or their relationship.  As their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow) loom larger in the second half of the film, the two main characters Debbie and Pete recognize that their parents can’t be faulted for failing to provide meaning for them — nothing and no one can do that.  Even the angst about selling their upscale house to make ends meet is an admission that having that particular material possession won’t validate their existence.  But rather than wallowing in existential dread, they reform and reassert their couple relationship, and their family structure.  This is what philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “two scene”: the positive existential project to see the world from the point of view of difference rather than identity, “to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.”  This is basically a specific type of individuation.  The ending isn’t the film’s strongest section, but it manages to make a compromise with the happy ending in a way most Hollywood films can’t (think about how As Good As It Gets sets up a premise for an inevitable downer ending, then winds up with the usual happy one anyway).  The small kernel of radicalness in this film is that even though the married couple chooses to stay together at the end, they get there through free will.  They don’t just resign themselves to social dictates.  Instead they overcome the injunction to enjoy what they are demanded to do, and instead make their own choice, which happens to be to maintain a stable nuclear family, even if they aren’t strictly happy as a result — they end up with a space where they don’t have to enjoy their social duties.  This is in contrast to, say, the rather one-dimensional character Desi, who is totally confined to play a particular role, without free will (note how Debbie declines that lifestyle in the film).  Returning to Zizek, he says, “The problem today is not how to get rid of your inhibitions and to be able to spontaneously enjoy. The problem is how to get rid of this injunction to enjoy.”  If there is danger in seeing the film’s ending as radical (think of the questions raised about asserting that a woman shopping is a feminist act), then at least the film as a whole provides enough to make the ending a kind of vector rather than a static point, it occupies the same space as that static point but it points somewhere, from where it was to where it is going.

This is 40 is a much better and deeper film that it seems.  Definitely Apatow at his best.

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People (1978)

Warner Bros.

Director: George Schaefer

Main Cast: Steve McQueen, Charles Durning, Bibi Andersson, Robin Pearson Rose


Action star Steve McQueen plays the lead in this  film adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play about a whistleblower.  There are a few such films around, like The Life of Emile Zola (1937) with Paul Muni.  McQueen portrays a doctor in a small Scandinavian town that is planning to open a hot springs to boost tourism — they practically salivate over their ambitions to be richer and more cosmopolitan than other towns nearby.  When the doctor sends water samples to a distant university, however, the tests show that the water from the springs has been polluted by a nearby leather tanning factory.  He seeks to make this publicly known.  At this point the townspeople turn against him.  The viscous actions of the townspeople might seem extreme — they stage a biased, sham “town hall” meeting in which they deny him the opportunity to speak and then vote him “an enemy of the people”  — if it were not for copious real-life examples that have played out similarly (or worse).  The closest comparison for an individual might be those involving lead poisoning, like the scientist Clair Patterson who was vilified for trying to remove ban lead as an additive for automotive fuel, or, perhaps even the way the lead pipe industry, the tobacco industry, and so many others have acted throughout history.  McQueen is quite good, actually.  Complete with long beard that makes him almost unrecognizable, he plays the lead a bit like a Nineteenth Century hippie (or the equivalent for small town Scandinavia).  The cast playing his immediate family is excellent in their pleading and perilous sympathy, save for Charles Durning, who is miscast as McQueen’s brother, the self-important mayor and chairman of the corporation opening the shot springs — he wasn’t the first choice, brought in as a last-minute replacement for Nicol Williamson.  It is sort of appropriate that this film was scarcely shown upon release.  It may have come along shortly after Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, and some other famous acts of whistleblowing, but vested interests despise whistleblowers.  Just look at the attempts to suppress publications like Hau Hoo’s 現代相似禪評論 [A Critique of Current Pseudo-Zen] (1916) and A.S. Mercer‘s The Banditti of the Plains (1894) — the later having on a few surviving copies, some of which were riddled with bullet holes that testified to the attempts to suppress its availability.  An Enemy of the People isn’t wholly successful.  It has a claustrophobic quality like many film adaptations of stage plays.  But the story is compelling and many of the performances first-rate (Robin Pearson Rose is excellent as the eldest daughter choosing conviction over personal ambition).

Gummo

Gummo

Gummo (1997)

Fine Line Features

Director: Harmony Korine

Main Cast: Jacob Reynolds, Nick Sutton, Chloë Sevigny, Linda Manz, Jacob Sewell


Harmony Korine is the heir to the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, making films that are about sociological premises.  So, Spring Breakers (2013) makes the most sense after reading Thorsein Veblen‘s book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), with its sardonic descriptions of how rituals of the elite (much like spring break for college students) presuppose the means to fund such activities — the poor have to steal (money) in order to acquire that social capital themselves.  There was a review of Gummo by Janet Maslin in the New York Times who wrote that no other film that year “will match the sourness, cynicism and pretension of Mr. Korine’s debut feature.”  But, to me at least, the film is the exact opposite of that, and it was New York Liberals like Maslin projecting their bigotries onto the film.  This is what I though was what was remarkable about Gummo: it forces liberals, etc. to reveal their elitist bigotry and tentatively reveal their oppressive tendencies.  Uwe Nettlebeck (producer of the early Faust albums) made a similar comment in the 1970s about the need to “force the other side to show its true colours; they won’t react in a liberal way as they would like, but in an authoritarian way as they must when things get serious”.

Gummo is most like Pasolini’s Accatone (1961) in taking unsympathetic characters and trying to humanize and find sympathy with them.  It is a difficult proposition.  Korine took 1990s daytime TV trashsploitation and tried to celebrate its inhabitants.  It’s fair to say he’s exploiting them too — its almost impossible to make a film without some kind of exploitation — but he’s also pushing against condescension, taking on what seems on the surface irredeemable.  He also embraces the weird as an end unto itself, as kind of non sequiturs of capitalism that create small pockets of escape.

Oh, and anyone wondering what the title “Gummo” refers to, that would be Gummo Marx, the vaudeville performer who quit his brothers’ troupe before they went into film.

The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain (1973)

ABKCO Films

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Main Cast: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horacio Salinas


Alajandro Jodorowsky is really one the the most unique film directors of his time.  The Holy Mountain opens much like The One Thousand and One Nights (especially Raoul Wash‘s The Thief of Bagdad), with a thief (Horacio Salinas) cavorting about a town.  The town is a bit heavy on religious and military pomp (recalling both Fellini and Costa-Gavras‘ political thriller Z).  There is much other symbolism, including characters modeled on Tarot cards.  But then the thief hops aboard a hook being pulled up a minaret-like tower and enters the mysterious structure.  A cloaked alchemist figure (Alejandro Jodorowsky) disarms the knife-wielding thief and then makes him his apprentice, telling him, “You are excrement; you can turn yourself into gold.”  This, of course, in the premise of modern psychoanalysis.

The alchemist, acting as a “master” (Jodorowsky describes the character as “a sort of hybrid of Gurdjieff and the magician Merlin“), then introduces a montage of scenes describing his other disciples.  These are powerful, wealthy figures, and yet, also the most outrageously surreal representations of society’s worst traits: domination, deception, decadence, exploitation.  He summons them and they ceremonially burn their money and effigies.  They set out on a quest to find the mythic Holy Mountain upon which hermits who know the secret of immortality have supposedly lived for thousands of years.  They plan to capture the hermits and appropriate the secret.

The rest of the film is a surreal vision of an adventure movie, supposedly taking inspiration from René Daumal‘s novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing.  A girl (Ana de Sade) with a monkey follows the master and his disciples.  On the journey, the group is confronted with a series of test to provoke subjective destitution, to surrender worldly desires.  The master convinces disciples to kill him, literally and symbolically (though with a laugh, he is killed only symbolically in one scene despite literal intentions).  The thief winds up with the girl with the monkey.  Although Jodorowsky wanted the film to end in a paradise scene filmed in a Mexican restaurant with a woman (actually) giving birth on camera, the pregnant woman backed out at the last minute, scuttling those plans.  Instead, the firm ends in an equally remarkable way.  The master orders the camera to zoom back, revealing the film equipment surrounding the actors — what is known in cinema as “breaking the fourth wall.”

Much like in Jodorowsky’s immediately prior film, the western El Topo, there is much emphasis on traversing the fantasies of religion (especially) and cultural desires.  Jodorowsky very much makes his films according to Antonin Artaud‘s vision of a “theater of cruelty,” producing shocking, bizarre scenes to derange and assault the senses of viewers in the hopes of making them traverse their own psychological fantasies.  Viewers are meant to be surprised by what they see, to encourage them to cut the Gordian knot of their own ingrained habits of thought imposed by culture (and especially by family).  There is little doubt most viewers have never scene a movie quite like this!  Yet for as much as he breaks down mythic cultural institutions and the illusions that symbolically bind individuals, he refashions mystic processes in an atheistic way.  Here, he is concerned with a kind of frontier justice that fights symbolic problems with symbolic weapons, though later in life he changed his methods somewhat into what he calls “psychomagic”, a kind of “shamanic psychotherapy” — which perhaps can be described as using poetic rituals to self-administer metaphorical fulfillment of desires, to free the people burdened by those desires to engage reality on their own terms.

If there is any other artist work comparing to Jodorowsky, aside from Artaud, it might be the jazz bandleader Sun Ra.  In a documentary, an associate said that Jodorowsky liked to work in areas beyond his knowledge  Sun Ra made an album called Strange Strings in which he instructed the performers this way: “We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge.”  While Sun Ra dealt in Afro-futurism, and especially Egyptian and outer-space mythology, Jodorowsky has a different set of things he draws from, like the Tarot.  They both nonetheless share a very communal, mutually-supportive practice that draws on the strangeness of mythology and exoticism to promote self-empowerment and liberation.  Contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou like to talk about the need for positive statements about the world.  Isn’t Jodorowsky exactly that?

Jodorowsky had difficulty funding many of his later film ideas, with his ambitious attempt to film a version of the sci-fi novel Dune falling apart before shooting began — recounted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  It took him almost a decade before he completed his next feature, Tusk (1980), and it was not until the horror film Santa Sangre (1989) that he really made something with close to full artistic control.  He turned to writing comics and books instead of films when funding was not available.  This seems partly a matter of the idealism that peaked in the late 1960s fading away.  Jodorowsky’s work certainly sits in opposition to everything that the celebrity-driven, corporate, commodified mass culture of the following few decades.

While a dispute with the film’s distributor kept The Holy Mountain from widespread view for decades, it has become available again.  It is quite a film, and its “comeback” has brought well-deserved attention to an artistic method that presents a substantially different approach than the mainstream.  Love it or hate it, this won’t be a film easily forgotten.