Tag Archives: death

Remembrance of Lives Past

By Andreas (500th post!)

If I want to watch a movie that follows patterns I already know, I can find one at any theater. If I need to see movies I can easily understand, ones that coddle me and flatter my intelligence, they’re all over the place. But a movie that confuses me, intrigues me, and shows me something I’ve never seen before? That would be something rare and ambitious. That would be Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s out-of-this-world Palme d’Or-winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011).

If you’ve read about Uncle Boonmee before, you’ve probably been exposed to a broad plot synopsis. Something like “As he dies of a kidney ailment, Uncle Boonmee is visited by ghosts from his past and recollects his past lives…” But Weerasethakul (also known as “Joe”) is a very playful director, and you won’t get anywhere with Uncle Boonmee if you’re too literal-minded. It’s wrapped loosely around a linear story, but it’s more accurately a series of visually lush riffs on the themes of death, loss, longing, and reincarnation.

Between these vignettes, Uncle Boonmee takes many forms. It’s a video installation, a folk tale, and some fantastic mesh of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. It’s maybe about Buddhism in modern-day Thailand, and maybe about militaristic bloodshed of the 1970s. With its unconventional structure and never-ending ambiguity, the film leaves few options: either marvel at the enchanting imagery, the droll humor, and Weerasethakul’s limitless imagination, or else protest the absurdity and the lack of clarity. It’s an “in or out?” proposition.

But once you step into Uncle Boonmee‘s magical world, you can succumb to its idiosyncratic rhythms. The film starts out at dusk, with a stray ox languidly strolling through the forest, and then introduces the red-eyed Monkey Ghosts, spirits who haunt its margins. With its leafy, gently supernatural milieu, Uncle Boonmee might be an avant-garde cousin of the anime classic Princess Mononoke. Just like Miyazaki, Weerasethakul sees potential friends and discoveries in even every corner of the wilderness.

I’ve only scraped the surface of Uncle Boonmee’s weird, powerful contents. There’s an erotic/comic interlude with a princess and a catfish, a segment consisting entirely of still images, and a finale I don’t think I’ll ever understand. But I don’t need to understand it in order to enjoy it—it’s like listening to a skilled storyteller carrying on in a beautiful alien language. I have little to no idea what literally happens in Uncle Boonmee, but I do have a whole set of powerful impressions and intuitions no other movie could give me, and I wouldn’t trade those for anything.


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RIP Satoshi Kon, anime dream master

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.


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RIP Bruno S. and Patricia Neal

Courtesy of The Auteurs, I learned that Bruno S. (aka Bruno Schleinstein) died Wednesday at age 78. Totally unique in the annals of film history, Bruno S. was closer to being an outsider artist than a conventional actor. (He was also a street musician who had spent a time in mental institutions.) Given all this, it’s no surprise that S.’s best-remembered performances were in films by notably batshit insane director Werner Herzog, namely The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977).

Bruno S. distinguished both films with the addition of his bizarrely alien acting style; in Kaspar Hauser, for example, he convincingly portrayed the feral child found in the streets of 19th century Nuremberg, and in Stroszek, he was the ultimate fish out of water – an alcoholic ex-convict from Germany trying to cope with life in rural Wisconsin. Like Klaus Kinski in numerous other films of the ’70s and ’80s, he was Herzog’s co-conspirator, tuned in to the same frequency of madness and together turning it into raw, throbbing, rule-breaking art.

However, Bruno S. channeled a different side of Herzog’s madness: he was less blatantly aggressive than Kinski, bottling up his confusion and frustration with the outside world (especially in Stroszek) until it manifested itself in distorted, incomprehensible mental patterns. (This is made explicit in this scene, where the semi-autobiographical character of Bruno Stroszek explains how the pressures of American life have mangled his interior consciousness.) In Kaspar Hauser, he had similar complaints, attempting to reconcile himself with the absurdities of “civilized” life. Bruno S. made more of an impact in two films than many actors and actresses have made in dozens.

And finally, I should mention the loss of veteran actress Patricia Neal (1926-2010), a great actress who lit up films from the late 1940s until shortly before her death. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Neal’s performances, but I’d like to highlight one in particular: her turn as a “self-important, neurotic, temperamental female” named Marcia Jeffries in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). In the film, Neal discovers and then promotes the folksy, charismatic country singer Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). When he grows into a psychotic, fascist monster bent on controlling the citizens (and politics) of the United States, however, she takes responsibility and then takes action.

Neal really does an incredible job of matching Griffith’s sheer ferocity with her own all-too-believable terror at the one-man media machine she’s created. Thanks to her, the film has a conscience and isn’t entirely dominated by Griffith’s demoniacal grin and the twinkle in his blazing eyes. So alas, two very one-of-a-kind screen legends have passed. Let’s remember them by watching their movies. (Also, if you enjoy A Face in the Crowd, I also recommend the novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Crowd (and On the Waterfront) screenwriter Budd Schulberg. It’s yet another look at all-consuming ambition run amok.)

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RIP Art Clokey

I just learned from Wikipedia that Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby and a pioneer of stop-motion animation, died this morning at the age of 88. I watched Gumby a lot as a young child and was enamored with its crude but energetic animation style, along with its bursts of metafiction and surrealism (even if I didn’t know it at the time). Although the quality of its episodes was uneven, it was a show unlike any other, and it set the standard for future claymation programming.

Clokey also created another landmark claymation series, Davey and Goliath; though not as outwardly imaginative as Gumby, it was still entertaining in its moralistic, squeaky-clean way, and apparently broke racial boundaries in television. Though frequently (and deservedly) mocked for its sermonizing, one of its many parodies became a great tribute to Clokey’s style in the form of the bitterly satirical Adult Swim series Moral Orel.

I’ve written about Clokey on this blog before, and have a great appreciation both for his talents and for his great effect on the animation industry. It seems there’s a documentary about his life entitled Gumby Dharma; I’d love to see it if it’s available online. As we mourn Clokey’s passing, I thank him for hours of creative, unusual animation I’ve enjoyed over my life.

If you’ve got a heart, then Art Clokey’s a part of you.

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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