It’s pretty much an incontrovertible fact that if you say “Can I ask you some questions [about movies]?”, I will say, “Hell yeah!” or some variant thereof. Ergo, an interview with yours truly is now available for your reading pleasure on Only Good Movies! And since I didn’t provide them with a picture, they represented me with the above image of a cat (presumably going “Grrr!”). How awesome is that? So go read, browse, and then come back to tell me how pretentious I sound.
Monthly Archives: August 2010
Last night I learned, tragically, that anime director Satoshi Kon has died of cancer at age 47. Kon was the creative force behind some of my favorite (non-Ghibli) feature-length anime films of recent years, specifically Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003, pictured above), and Paprika, a dream-hopping adventure I saw at MSPIFF when it premiered in 2006. He also directed the thriller Perfect Blue and the complex 13-episode series Paranoia Agent, both of which I have yet to see in their entirety. Suffice it to say that Kon’s life was cut short near the peak of his creative output, and there’s no telling how catastrophic a loss this is to the world of film.
I’ve been meaning to write about Kon for a while; I’m just sad that these have to be the circumstances in which I do it. I wrote a short piece on Millennium Actress a couple years ago; it’s none too insightful or well-written, but it’s a useful jumping-off point, so I’ll reprint it here:
One film whose existence was only made known to me recently is Millennium Actress (2001). From Satoshi Kon, director of great anime like the series Paranoia Agent and the film Paprika, it’s infused with his unique brand of surrealism, but put toward a more coherent purpose: deconstructing the life of a reclusive Japanese actress, as seen through the eyes of an admiring documentary filmmaker. The narrative intermingles her memories of 20th century Japan with images of her film career (including pastiches of Throne of Blood and Godzilla), and concerns her relationship with a political prisoner, who gives her the key “to the most important thing.” As it traces the actress’s struggle to find her lost love, it also examines the connection between real life and the dream lives portrayed in film, leading to a bittersweet finale. Between its multifarious animation styles and compelling subject matter, I find Millennium Actress just as beautiful as the much-praised works of Miyazaki.
This snippet hints at some of Kon’s inimitable strengths: he could blend an acute cultural awareness and a slightly wacky sense of humor with faith in the infinite (and phantasmagoric) capacities of animation. I’ve only seen Paranoia Agent‘s first episode, but even that lone half-hour displays Kon’s extensive talent for unpacking dense narratives with both impressive (sometimes disturbing) visuals and extreme, sometimes painful psychological detail. Although renowned for his forays into dream imagery (most explicitly Paprika), Kon always maintained an intense focus on those dreams’ emotional underpinnings and his characters’ rich internal lives. At the end of a summer so dominated by Inception, it’s refreshing to look at a dream-weaving director whose characters had personalities and a pulse.
Tokyo Godfathers, which I watched a few weeks ago, was a delightful surprise and demonstrated Kon’s sheer versatility. Although much of his work consists of probing, stylized peeks into the psyches of fragile individuals, Godfathers proved that he was equally adept at marrying urban drama with broad comedy. In American films, homelessness is too often the substance of saccharine, Oscar-baity melodramas; Kon, however, sympathetically observes his poverty-ridden (but still dignified) characters – a grizzled, middle-aged man, a flamboyant trans woman, and a teenage runaway – as they form a strange but functional family unit, interacting naturalistically and coping with hardships that range from hunger to tuberculosis to their dirty, hidden pasts.
Kon deftly balances the gravity of their collective situation with the lightness of their madcap chases and slapstick collisions (as when an assassin accidentally prevents one of them from making a potentially fatal mistake). And although the film indulges in a number of anime clichés, they never threaten to constrain it, since it’s always buoyed by its fundamental soulfulness and self-awareness. Tokyo Godfathers is volatile in mood and style, but Kon handles these rapid transitions masterfully. It’s a film that’s integrates cartoonish extravagances with Tokyo’s physical realities, and a must-see for any fan of Kon’s other films.
However, I think Millennium Actress is Kon’s best work, and possibly one of the best animated films from any nation. It’s so alive with the power and history of cinema; how could I not love it? (For Ozu lovers, its title character is also loosely based on the enigmatic Setsuko Hara.) I’m sure Kon’s critical legacy will be hotly debated over the coming years – and as we debate it, we’ll be mourning the future films he could have made. He did leave an unfinished film, The Dream Machines, at his death; perhaps it’ll be visible someday. In the meantime, here are a couple of helpful Kon-centric links: 1) an extensive interview with Kon from around the time Paprika was released and 2) Film Studies For Free‘s round-up of resources and academic papers on Kon. Or else you can hit YouTube and start watching Paranoia Agent.
Addendum: While glancing through this retrospective on Kon’s career, I saw a description of Tokyo Godfathers as “saccharine melodrama.” Clearly I disagree (I think Godfathers is pretty underrated); still, the piece by Grady Hendrix of the New York Sun has a lot of great insights and is very worth reading.
Ah, the DuckTales theme song. In the minds of our generation, it has easily outlasted the series it accompanied with its ultra-catchy “Whoo-oo” refrain. My memories of that series (which ran from 1987-90) are limited mostly to what’s in the opening sequence: Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie would go on adventures with his uncle, the fabulously wealthy Scrooge McDuck; they’d sometimes be aided by Launchpad McQuack or Donald himself; they’d occasionally solve mysteries or rewrite history. I remember watching the feature-length final episode, Treasure of the Lost Lamp, at Club Kid (a glorified daycare) very early in my life.
So: why is this an awesome opening? Because it succinctly and appealingly conveys the nature of the series. DuckTales, loosely based on Carl Barks’ duck-centric Disney comics, was pretty much an old-fashioned adventure serial about the McDuck clan and their various quests – whether geared toward protecting Scrooge’s present lucre, or obtaining more. The opening gets this across through a fast-paced best-of montage, demonstrating the sheer scope of these tales – which, mind you, are not “pony tails or cotton tails.” They’re duck tales, a fact that’s emphasized through most characters (and the town and world in which they live) having “duck” somewhere in their names.
It’s genuinely impressive how many kinds of adventures are on display here: we’ve got dragons, mummies, lava pits, sharks, aliens, tigers, robots, and more. DuckTales was at once all-inclusive and unfocused, skipping from one realm of magic and fantasy to another. Where most such children’s shows confined themselves by setting or genre, it grabbed freely from sci-fi, Arabian Nights, Tarzan, Kipling, Arthurian legend, etc. – basically plundering western literature for all available exoticism or dangerous Others, who became the “stranger[s] juts behind you.”
All this was (from what little I know), more or less, in keeping with Barks’ original comics, which engaged in innocent Tintin-style globetrotting while blending eras and technologies (like “race cars, lasers, aeroplanes”). And DuckTales‘ 100 episodes became a condensed, TV-friendly way to absorb Barks’ many decades of stories. The comics (and DuckTales by extension) are a sort of underexplored mini-domain under the Disney umbrella, jumping into very traditional, vaguely imperialist adventure stories; through this opening sequence, we get a little taste of this. And it’s a duck blur.
Two Saturdays ago, I went with Rebekah of Happy Postmodernists to our local arthouse theater. We saw two movies, both fantastic, and you should go see both of them as soon as you can. The first was Winter’s Bone, the second film from director Debra Granik. It’s a disturbingly realist mystery set amidst the backwoods of Missouri, where 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) must find her meth-dealing father or risk losing the house where she cares for her two younger siblings and catatonic mom. This material could have made for a sappy melodrama, or maybe a pedestrian thriller set in Deliverance country. Instead, it’s a starkly observational masterpiece, ably meshing the perilous investigation and moral uncertainties of a film noir like The Third Man with the everyday drama of raising children and surviving without a reliable income.
The style of Winter’s Bone is just extraordinary: it’s moody without being overwrought and suspenseful without being manipulative. Through Granik’s lens, rural Missouri is a dreary, desolate place, but always totally believable. And while many of the characters may be addicts or pathetic rednecks, they’re always discernibly human; especially memorable are Ree’s loose-cannon uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and Merab (Dale Dickey), the grimy matriarch who obstructs her search. Although they may live in barely habitable shacks, snort coke, and speak with molasses-thick drawls, the country dwellers of Winter’s Bone retain a past and a sense of belonging. In one particularly poignant scene, Ree and her siblings page through an old photo album and see Teardrop and their father as children. It’s details like this that root the film deep within the Dolly family, whose blood is shared by many of Ree’s potential enemies.
At heart, Winter’s Bone is a movie about a place, a people, and most of all a girl burdened by her diseased lineage and bravely facing a painful future. With its teenage detective, Winter’s Bone will probably earn comparisons to Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir Brick. But as Rebekah and I concluded, Brick‘s delicious novelty and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan performance are totally blown away by the laconic but unrelenting power that Jennifer Lawrence brings to Ree. Winter’s Bone is as sharp and harrowing as its title, and in its best moments, its story acquires a semi-mythical quality, as if Ree and Teardrop were characters from forgotten folklore buried deep in America’s heartland. I hope to write more about Winter’s Bone later (and see it again!), but in the meantime, take my advice: it was very, very worth the $9.
The second half of our double feature was, in terms of style and content, on the opposite end of the spectrum from Winter’s Bone. While Ree & co. were so destitute that the idea of a sex life was out of the question, the Recchis in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love take sensuality and eroticism as givens. The film is a luscious, sweeping melodrama about a dynasty of Milanese industrialists led by the sturdy Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his wife Emma (Tilda Swinton, who also co-produced), a Russian émigré. But as corporate dynamics start to shift – Tancredi’s father retires and the son Edoardo steps up to help manage the company – so do the family’s emotional balances, and soon Emma flings herself into an explosive liaison with Edoardo’s best friend, a skilled chef named Antonio.
However, any given plot development in I Am Love is less important than the fleeting emotions and sensory experiences that set it in motion. No pleasure is too small for I Am Love to express cinematically, and taste and touch are given just as much emphasis as sight. Emma’s first real awakening comes when she bites into Antonio’s exquisitely prepared prawn, and the world literally darkens around her as she feels it against her tongue. Later, her orgasm receives just as much attention, as it’s accompanied by shots of the surrounding countryside, a swell of John Adams’ minimalist score, and a cut to the London skyline. The ecstasies of food and sex are manifested through the most lavish visual and musical analogues possible, and it’s to the movie’s credit. Fuck the misguided 3D that’s plagued theaters (and ticket prices) this summer; I Am Love‘s resiliently traditional photography really does pop off the screen.
The broad, magnificent brush strokes that fill I Am Love‘s canvas leave little room for interpersonal intricacies, which is a shame; Rebekah and I were both disappointed that the movie didn’t delve further into the relationship between Emma and Edoardo (and the significance of the ukha, an emotionally fraught, translucent Russian soup). But the film, unsurprisingly, does an enormous amount with body language, conveying enough for a whole conversation with a single motion of Tilda Swinton’s hand. Turning individual sensations into panoramic landscapes, I Am Love is a triumph of expansive artistry that’s even more enthralling on the big screen.
So if you’re in the mood for a great movie experience, don’t settle for whatever bullshit’s just been released (and besides, I Am Love has more to say about eating, praying, and loving than a million Julia Roberts movies). Instead, run to your nearest theater that’s willing to show subtitled films, and watch either Winter’s Bone or I Am Love! One’s a chilling, brutal document of poor midwestern life; the other’s overflowing with fine Italian food and Tilda Swinton’s nipples. Both unquestionably have my seal of approval, and are movies by and about fascinating, well-written women. Take your pick.