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The Key to the Fourth World

This week’s pick for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is a film that’s rapidly creeping up on my list of all-time favorites. It’s a keenly observed tale of adolescent love, loss, and resentment that doubles as a sensationalistic true-crime drama and is dripping with bizarre fantasy elements. It’s Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which for my money is better than Dead Alive or any individual piece of the Lord of the Rings saga. Like Jackson’s zombie movies, it’s got a charmingly disturbed sense of humor, and like LOTR, it’s visually powerful, exploiting everything his native New Zealand has to offer.

Best of all, though, these skills are put in the service of a small, human, well-written story. Jackson and co-writer/wife Fran Walsh took the real-life tragedy of the Parker-Hulme murder in unexpected directions, letting us see the world through the wide eyes of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet)—two romantic, volatile girls with an unquenchable passion for Mario Lanza, James Mason, and each other. Heavenly Creatures is overflowing with memorable images, but one shot captures this descent into the girls’ shared universe especially well. This is my best shot:

This arrives at the end of a delirious, gorgeous sequence in which the landscape morphs around the two girls to suit their narcissistic fantasies. It’s when, as Pauline explains, they realize that they’re not just “genii,” but also princesses of the Fourth World (a land which is, naturally, imperceptible to the commoners around them). In this image, Jackson draws the viewer into their folie à deux and we see the sheer, naïve beauty of their fantasy. We see them as they see themselves: symmetrically positioned at the center of rich, private world, one which encompasses all the natural grandeur of the New Zealand coast and then piles on a Weta-animated majesty of its own.

It’s garish and even tacky, yes, but that befits a pair of swooning teenage girls in the 1950s. It looks like a book cover, and in a perverse way it’s the dark counterpart to, say, Dorothy’s first entrance into Oz, or the Pevensies’ first glance at Narnia. But for Pauline and Juliet, it’s their first step on the road to mental illness and murder. (Oddly enough, this “best shot” is more or less the teenage equivalent of my favorite from A Streetcar Named Desire.) My second-favorite shot from Heavenly Creatures also showcases Jackson and D.P. Alun Bollinger’s extremely stylized cinematography, along with that gleefully disturbed sense of humor:

This is probably the most indelible shot in the whole movie. Who could forget the distorted, unflattering extreme close-up on the psychiatrist’s mouth as he ominously utters the word “HOMOSEXUALITY”? It feels like Jackson’s playing a cinematic prank on this quintessential Old White Guy, a man who pretty effectively embodies the widespread bigotry and intolerance of the 1950s. In a lightly satirical way, this puts a fear-mongering representative of the medical establishment in an ugly light, and makes his professional opinion look similarly grotesque.

However much Jackson may mock this psychiatrist, though, Heavenly Creatures doesn’t totally side with the girls, and that’s what makes it so great. It empathetically details their dreams and desires, but never loses sight of their immaturity and selfishness. Juliet’s family may be dysfunctional, and Pauline’s parents may be simple, unambitious folks, but they always have the girls’ best interests at heart. Honora Parker is, above all, a good, loving woman who doesn’t deserve to die. By juxtaposing fantasy and reality, Heavenly Creatures seeks to understand the girls without absolving them, and it gets that much closer to the truth.

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Science and Humanity in The Quiet Earth

Brief autobiographical note: it’s summer and I’m unemployed, so I really have nothing better to do than write movie reviews. Yet my new living quarters (and their lack of wireless Internet) has thrown my film writing tendencies all out of whack. This post is part of my attempt to remedy that and get my criticism groove back. It’s also the beginning of a summer quasi-series in which Ashley and I will discuss sci-fi/horror movies from Australia and New Zealand. Because hey, who doesn’t love cinema from Down Under?

Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth (1985) belongs to that hallowed tradition of “Is there anybody out there?” stories. They’re stories like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and its film adaptations, or the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” They prey on the human fear of loneliness; they ask, what if you were an island unto yourself? The Quiet Earth’s depressed scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence), however, also has to deal with a worsening manmade apocalypse, plus sexual and ethnic tensions.

And just as you couldn’t have The Last Man on Earth without Vincent Price, The Quiet Earth just wouldn’t work if Lawrence wasn’t one hell of an actor. I first saw him as a deranged colonist out for revenge in Murphy’s earlier film Utu. Here, he’s similarly driven off the deep end by a traumatic experience (in this case, thinking he’s the only person alive), but he doesn’t stop at making compound rifles. During the first third of the film, he enjoys wish fulfillment, roleplaying, and cross-dressing, culminating in a press conference (for cardboard cut-outs of world leaders) at which he declares himself president of earth.

Lawrence’s easy slide from lonely desperation to histrionic madness is a good match with the ironic eye of Murphy’s camera, which presents his rapid decline as a function of his empty environment. As it follows Zac’s antics, the film is bipolar, pairing his longing and regret with some dark humor. The mood stabilizes somewhat, however, once the other two characters are introduced: Joanne, a pretty redhead, and Api, a militant Maori. Yes, we have a love triangle, but it doesn’t take over the story; it just complicates matters. As with all of my favorite science fiction, cosmic catastrophes are just a pretense for probing the human psyche, whether in Zac’s psychosis or in his relationships with the others.

Some of the film’s sharpest points are about scientific progress and the potential for disaster. Zac feels guilty for his participation in Operation Flashlight, an international experiment in alternative energy that may have caused “The Effect” and erased most of the earth’s inhabitants. I’m reminded of Lindsay Ellis’s recent post about “playing God” and how “Science Is Bad” in sci-fi movies. While The Quiet Earth’s characters occasionally discuss their situation in these terms, the film’s too smart to just lay out a science = evil equation. In its last third, for example it delves into the interpersonal consequences of Zac’s status as a scientist, both in his culpability and his specialized knowledge, and how it alienates him from Joanne and Api.

By making Zac’s lab a single unit in a broader project headed by a secretive American team, the film also locates its apocalypse within Cold War politics. According to The Quiet Earth, it’s not Zac or science that’s to blame so much as the whole system of West vs. East that makes the clandestine deployment of Operation Flashlight necessary. (I’m reminded of Dr. Strangelove here: “Mr. President, [the Doomsday machine] is not only possible, it is essential.”) During his mental breakdown press conference, Zac proclaims,

I have dedicated all my scientific knowledge and skill to projects which I knew could be put to evil purposes… for the common good, they said.

This isn’t just another disaster movie where a scientist has to hurry and fix what his hubristic experiments fucked up. Embedded in The Quiet Earth’s surface narrative is some very subtle satire about the uses and abuses of science in the mid-’80s. It’s about cost and accountability on personal and national levels. And it’s all the more relevant now in an age of oil spills and global climate change. Murphy, with writer/producer Sam Pillsbury, goes where many other filmmakers wouldn’t, as Joanne and Api observe that the scientific establishment is a boys’ club, and a white boys’ club at that.

This trenchant statement about scientific ethics adds considerably to The Quiet Earth’s power; this is definitely a thinking man’s sci-fi. The structure of the story itself reflects Zac’s desire to understand his situation, as the viewer is fed only enough information to keep them invested in the film, with some facts kept tantalizingly out of reach. Did Operation Flashlight really cause the Effect? If so, how? What does the ending mean? It’s one of those films that has numerous interpretations built into it, because its plot is almost allegorically simple, with the emphasis reserved for smaller, more human moments.

And underlying all of this is Geoff Murphy’s delightful visual sensibility. As you can see, The Quiet Earth is shot in and around ultra-modern ’80s settings; in keeping with the film’s mingling of humor and despair, Murphy foregrounds electronics, mannequins, cars, and other objects that have outlasted their human creators. The city frequently looks like it’s about engulf Zac, who grows paranoid of his silent, motionless surroundings. The fact that the film is set in a land as vast and open as New Zealand only amplifies this effect, which reaches its pinnacle in the film’s final moments. It’s the film’s most famous scene – even used on poster art – but I won’t spoil it here. Go check out The Quiet Earth and experience for yourself that sublime image of the rearranged cosmos.

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One Hour Mark: The Piano

This is a curious image from 1:00:00 into Jane Campion’s masterpiece The Piano (1993). It’s from a performance within the film – a Bluebeard shadow play that’s just been interrupted by several angry Maoris. The main characters are all in the audience, but for the time being all of the film’s attention is devoted to the chaos onstage. And because this is such an intelligent, well-made movie, even a seemingly insignificant frame like this can speak volumes about the film’s positions and ideas. In its context and composition, I’m seeing a lot being said visually here about race and gender roles in New Zealand.

First, and most obviously: Bluebeard. The plot of the shadow play is a pretty clear parallel the film overall, which contains many outdoor scenes saturated with blue; the wealthy colonist Alistair (Sam Neill) is a stand-in for Bluebeard, while his mute wife Ada (Holly Hunter) is “the sweetest and youngest of all [his] wives.” This is overtly a film about gender relations, power play, and self-expression, with this amateurish performance as a theatrical oversimplification of the rest of the plot. So we also have a reality/fiction divide here, especially since Alistair isn’t so melodramatically grotesque and evil.

Then, continuing along these lines, there’s the reaction of the Maori tribesmen, who perceive the performance as reality. The film’s characters intrude on its own sly self-reference, ruffling up the show and destroying the illusion. Look at the heavy paint on the actors’ faces, and compare it to the ritual self-marking of the Maoris (or “Tā moko”). This frame is a great illustration of gender and race dynamically intersecting. These Maoris don’t appreciate the artificiality of the British traditions imposed upon them, and are reacting violently. But the violence isn’t against the British colonists; it’s against the fictional villain Bluebeard, and the intent is to rescue an imperiled woman. So we simultaneously have a colonist/native culture clash and an exhibition of heroic masculinity.

The charging Maori cries out to Bluebeard as he approaches the stage, and how this cry is rendered in subtitles makes this reading even more explicit: “Coward – bite on my club! … Let’s see how this feels up your arse!” The Maori is metaphorically threatening to rape Bluebeard in the mouth and ass. It’s the collision of highly stylized western storytelling with Maori warrior tradition, and when the shadow play illusion is broken up, it has a “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” effect. As you can see, the actor playing Bluebeard is exposed in his elaborate, ridiculous costume with an expression of terror on his face. He’s vulnerable, he’s immobile – anything but the in-control patriarch he was a moment before. Bluebeard has been totally emasculated by the Maori warrior.

This conflict between masculinities plays out in how the image is put together: the British actors, all rendered impotent, stand and stare at the Maori, who’s the focal point despite being blurry and in motion. He is the active member of this tableau. Yet this whole scene is ironic when you consider the fate of the Maoris as a people. (I’m reminded of a movie I saw last year called Utu, which was entirely about Maori attempts to fight British oppression.) I don’t know to what extent Campion intended The Piano as a broader allegory for New Zealand’s colonial history, but it’s easy to read some complex commentary on nationality, sexuality, and gender. In the end, Ada leaves the possessive Alistair for happiness with George Baines (Harvey Keitel) – and George, an outcast amongst the colonists, has the Tā moko. So I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that the ending might be foreshadowed when the Maori warrior disrupts Bluebeard’s façade of masculine power.

On a broader level, The Piano is a passionate, beautiful, heart-breaking film. I love Campion’s work, having seen her early tale of familial dysfunction Sweetie and her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Both ask questions like The Piano‘s: what is a woman’s place in the world? What is her relationship to the men around her? And in both films, as in The Piano, she engages these problems through the lush, potent realm of visual metaphor. As a filmmaker, Jane Campion is a master of exploring female subjectivity.

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Ending the year with international cinema

And now the year 2009 is really coming to an end. Which means another year, another decade past – the first decade of a new millennium. Etc., etc. In this, my last little post of the year, I just want to touch on some of the movies I’ve been frantically watching as December wears on.

First of all, there was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen, which won the Oscar for best foreign film back in 2006, beating out Pan’s Labyrinth. Known in English as The Lives of Others, the film involves Wiesler, a surveillance operative for the Stasi (State Police) in 1984 East Germany, who’s assigned to watch over a potentially subversive playwright.

Das Leben der Anderen is an intelligent film about the  hazards of creating art in a totalitarian state, anchored in the eerily stoic performance of Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler, who moves from being an interrogation-happy servant of the state in the opening scene to someone visibly different in the quietly ecstatic freeze-frame that closes out the film. Through its drab decor and Orwellian anxieties, the film recreates a very recent dark chapter in German history (hell, one that ended just before I was born).

I also watched a pair of films by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand: The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Watched back to back, they tell a lot about the twenty year span between them, as the flirtacious comedy of the first film leads into the sober satire of the second.

The former film follows a group of professors enjoying a weekend in the country while chatting freely about both their frequent affairs and their theories of human history. (One sequence, for example, has Pierre relating how he met Danielle: receiving a “happy ending” during a massage while discussing millenarianism.)

The proceedings have an apocalyptic, Buñuel-esque undercurrent to them; as the title suggests, they seem to be enjoying their decadence at the end of an age. Claude is HIV-positive (though this goes unmentioned in the sequel), Louise feels betrayed by her husband Rémy’s infidelity, and the film’s title derives from the idea that the widespread pursuit of personal happiness signals the downfall of an empire (e.g., Rome or 18th century France).

This harsh edge is amplified in The Barbarian Invasions, which revolves entirely around Rémy’s gradual death from cancer. Set against the decaying medical system in a post-9/11 world, the film reunites everyone from The Decline of the American Empire as they’re gathered up by Rémy’s estranged, affluent son, Sébastien. The satire remains, but tinged with an omnipresent fear of mortality, as Sébastien makes contact with one of the older character’s daughters, Nathalie, in order to acquire heroin to numb his ailing father’s pains.

Arcand certainly likes his comedy black. I still have to see his Jesus of Montreal, about a passion play performed by nonbelievers, but just judging from this duo of films (which have since been followed by Days of Darkness), he’s a filmmaker very aware of the bleak ironies inherent in the sociopolitical climate of North America.

In The Barbarian Invasions, he presents this group of friends laughing about their former lusts for life when death looms so close, pressing them face to face with some toxic truths: that these well-meaning intellectuals have been bypassed by history, with their affairs as ancient and buried as any optimism or innocence they had in 1986. It’s rare to be able to compare such different attitudes in two adjoining films, and I’m glad to have had the experience.

The last film I want to talk about this decade is a very underappreciated classic from New Zealand: Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983). I watched it last week with very few expectations or preconceptions since, well, I’ve never seen the movie discussed anywhere. It’s a fictionalized account of a Maori uprising in 1870s New Zealand, a mere thirty years since the Treaty of Waitangi had handed the islands over to the British colonists.

Unlike so many movies about rebellions against imperialism, Utu isn’t full of speeches clearly delineating which side is right and which is evil. Instead, most of its characters are pretty confused about what’s going on. The motivator for the film’s events is Te Wheke, a Maori who’s also a lance corporal in the British army. After he sees his village razed by his overeager comrades, he has his face ceremonially scarred and begins a massive campaign of revenge. (Specifically, utu: achieving a balance with one’s enemies.)

However, the film isn’t just about Te Wheke self-righteously avenging himself on the Brits. There’s the question of whether violence can be justified – graphically illustrated when Te Wheke interrupts a minister’s sermon on how “those who take the sword will perish by the sword” to behead the minister. Te Wheke also spurs others to pledge their own vengeances, like Williamson, who becomes paranoid and obsessive after Te Wheke causes his wife’s death, and develops a one-man arsenal.

Opposing Te Wheke’s slowly growing ranks of guerillas (who also include Maori wives and children) are the British soldiers, led by the scrupulous, sexually repressed Col. Elliot, the young, New Zealand-born Matthew Scott, and the well-educated Maori Wiremu, who has a deep connection to Te Wheke. And caught between the lot of them is Kura, a beautiful Maori woman intermittently held captive by the British.

Maybe this is why I love this movie: it’s about a small war, but it doesn’t build its story out of sheer historical import so much as the smaller conflicts of its characters. It’s an intimate war, where the main players have personal grievances against each other, and where the ties of land and blood play a larger role than the colonial interests of some “fat German woman,” as Te Wheke calls Queen Victoria.

I’m glad to have seen Utu, and you can bet I’ll be soon checking out director Geoff Murphy’s postapocalyptic follow-up, The Quiet Earth. Between Murphy, Jane Campion, and Peter Jackson, I love Kiwi cinema. Now I’m off to check out Avatar, which might lead to some interesting postings of its own. Here’s to another ten years of great international cinema (notwithstanding the inevitable onslaught of subpar 3D sci-fi epics)! Happy New Year.

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