Thursday, May 25, 2006

Casablanca, or On Reader Requests

Casablanca was made half a century too early. As a thinly veiled slice of puritan sermonising, it would be right at home in the pantheon of Reaganite action/murder thrillers where romantic love, and its implicit sexual dimension, instantly corrupt and damn; only whereas a Stallone or a Bronson might look with lust upon a woman only to see her horribly murdered (oh, you poor fellow, having to watch that!), Casablanca sets its sights really high. Like, Holocaust high. That's right: if Ric Blaine acts upon desires of the flesh, the Nazis win.

Oh, we get to watch him go through the wringer, sure enough. As Blaine, Humphrey Bogart (whose job, in most movies, consists of standing beside harsh lights so as to cast a menacing shadow; acting ability is neither here nor there when you've got a profile like this guy) gets to cry, reminisce, wallow in the depths of alcoholic self-pity: the while nine yards. On that note - where's Mickey Rourke when you need him? At least then we'd know the performance wasn't afraid to lie in the gutter for a while: with Bogey, you get the sense that, sure, he'll get sauced up and snap a little, so longs as his suit never gets ruffled. Bogey's not an angry drunk, or really even a melancholic drunk, so much as he's a neurotic, maudlin-for-show, can-you-see-my-Method-soul-imploding drunk. He's Morrissey in a bowtie.

And why's Bogart so bent out of shape? Why, it would have to be over a dame. Ingrid Bergman, as if it matters, gets to do breast-owning duty, her entire raison d'etre being to serve as muse for Paul Henreid's tortured revolutionary. If Ilsa stays with Ric, she'll be happy, and he'll be happy, but Laszlo won't be happy; and if Laszlo isn't happy, he won't have the energy to fight the Nazis; and if Laszlo can't be bothered getting up in the morning, Hitler gets to eat your children.

Are you getting this? Is Casablanca making itself clear? The entire Second World War was decided, this movie is telling us, by flipping a coin to decide which well-to-do white guy got to stick his dick in Ingrid Bergman.

Oh, but don't feel bad for Ric. With Ilsa gone, he gets his pick of clearly besotted Frenchman Captain Renault ("If I was a woman, I would be in love with Ric", he tells us; as if Casablanca was a place where that sort of distinction mattered!) or proto-Carl Weathers chocolate love-muffin Sam - who, when Ric's at his deepest despair, has the gall to make a pass at him. (Drinking yourself to death? Sitting up late at night waiting for some skirt, some fish, to wander back into your life? Sam would like to suggest you get in his car and drink some more while he drives you far away from all this. Sam, you're a sweetie and all, but there's a time and a place).

Wasn't this a time before subtlety? Aren't we told Postmodernism hadn't even happened yet? Instead of wasting our time with Casablanca, director Michael Curtiz and his cadre of misogynist thugs might as well've just extended the (already overlong and didactic) intro to two hours of title cards: WOMEN WILL WEAKEN YOU; YOU CAN HAVE FREEDOM OR YOU CAN HAVE LOVE, BUT YOU CAN'T DO BOTH; ROMANCE IS DEATH.

Hell, Curtiz and Bogart could've taken their singular lack of an interesting, non-repugnant message, written it on a note, put the note in a bottle, thrown the bottle in the sea, and then gazed with longing restraint into each others' eyes as their little lack-of-narrative rowboat drifted slowly out to sea, never to return.

Now that would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Friday, May 12, 2006

As counterpoint to that last missive, I've been thinking about times when student film gets it right, and how cool that is. You may well never see these films - being far too demure to put any of my stuff on here (which, obviously, is the only thing stopping it ALL being here), these selections from the past 5 years' filmmaking are, for one reason or another, pretty hard to get hold of. (I've tried to restrict myself to one film per crew, excepting some other gems). But you're missing out...

Hellbent, Ryan Jackson

Many student filmmakers will lament that "if only they'd had longer": that their stories are so BIG they couldn't possibly be done justice in 5-12 minutes. Consequently these films end up feeling unsatisfying and half-formed, and offering this criticism to the tortured artist will only serve to vindicate their malformed self-image as Auteur Of The Huge.
Hellbent, though, is the only student film I can think of that actually manages to make good on this spirit. While completely self-sufficient and satisfying in and of itself, Hellbent is very clearly a small story set in a larger universe; and, more impressive yet, by the time the credits roll, you're desperate to go back.
Jackson (no relation) packs his breakneck dash to the 5min finish line with such a visceral charge, so much ugly, gutter-breathed life, you just can't wait to see what might be next. From the bravura opening shot (Jackson spent the summer before the shoot building his own crane, and the fact that he only used it once just adds to the film's singular charm) to the defiantly me-opposing end credits (thank you, Mr. Keenan), Jackson - aided and abetted by James McKnight's feverishly assiduous editing - makes every second count.
What immediately grabs - and what lasts - about Hellbent is that it's a surprising rarity in student film: not just the most unashamedly exploitative grindhouse b-pic to come out of its climate, but - I can't believe it myself - the only unashamedly exploitative grindhouse b-pic etc. Jackson knows what he likes, and he does nothing but. And in a climate of films that try to be so much and end up with so little, this sort of thing deserves to be celebrated.
If only he'd had longer...


[up] [up] [down] [down] [left] [right] [left] [right] A B A B Start, Kirawat Sahasewiyon

Documentaries about videogames are easy to come by. Watchable documentaries about videogames, somewhat less so; watchable documentaries about videogames by film students? You'd better ask Pope (his Thai given name) Sahasewiyon.
Starting as a densely packed tour through the medium, UUDDLRLRABABS soon evolves into Sahasewiyon, avid gamer, exploring the somewhat unchartable terrain of videogame violence, visiting along the way cases he feels to be emblematic of a growing insanity within the gaming populace. Now's probably a good time to mention that - as evidenced by his body of work - Kirawat Sahasewiyon is one of the most uniquely bizarre people you will ever meet. (I once had a conversation with Pope where I felt faced by a choice between clinging to sense, or abandoning myself to his way of thinking. I confessed this to him, and he told me, "I'll thow you how deep da wabbit hoe goeth". God bless that man).
The entire picture feels like the closest a mortal will ever get to taking an excursion into Sahasewiyon's deeply sane, deeply unique mindset. Brightly colored, frenetic, finding brilliance and genuineness within imperfection and artifice, and all tied together with an innate narrative cohesion, a collection of narratives - stories of obsession, of geeking and of violence - are played out using avatars from the games they reference. This masterstroke alone would make the film worth viewing; add the bonus of a one-time trip into a mind that's truly one in a million, and it's really too good to pass up.

Fever, Nicole Mony

A had a drama teacher who used to say: "first you try to make 'em laugh; then you try to scare 'em; then you get to the good stuff". Fever exists right on the cusp between those second and third options. Out of an archive full of mediocre slashers and paint-by-numbers serial killers (can we just have no more of these guys, please? Anywhere, ever??), Fever manages to define itself with a delicious, lyrical, pervading unease - only it's a sibling drama.
Making excellent use of her location, Wellington's Rose Gardens, Mony crafts a fearful excursion through landscapes both literal and narrative that are thorny, stormy and threatening. The meat of the plot plays out only in conversational reference: it's held together and relayed atmospherically, tonally, by darkening weather, thorny rose bushes, distant thunder.
It's as if our two protagonists - the performances suggest that Mony went out on a major student-film limb and actually paid attention to the acting - are at war not just with one another, but with the elements themselves, fighting darkness, rain and a hostile landscape to be queens of all they survey. It's scary. It's good stuff.

Au-To-Ma-Ton, Jason Howden

Visually in a class of its own, Au-To-Ma-Ton is the perfect example of a small story well told. Dialogue is minimal; indeed, of the two characters, one spends a third of the film played by a plaster statue.
There's a childlike simplicity to Howden's story and its telling: his preoccupation with fairytales and storybook tropes seems almost at odds with the sophisticated aesthetic of the picture, which takes its minimalist claustrophobia to baroque extremes. The penultimate shot may - debatably - be evidence of Howden biting off more than he can chew, but in a story of such artful excess within such admirable economy, this is more than forgivable.

Pivot/What Are You Gonna Do With That Axe, Jane?
, You Jae Lee

Inscrutable, indecipherable, pretentious, and quite possibly misguided and stupid. This is a film nobody should have tried to make: like its subject matter, it's almost certainly the misbegotten child of too many self-indulgent forays into art theory. However, there exists the possibility that for all the Lynchian gameplaying Lee subjects us to, this machine is that rare exception that really does boast a God within.
Even the story confounds. Is it a musing on destructive art? Is it a simple story about a woman who misses her dog and/or is worried her boyfriend is having an affair? (Is he even her boyfriend?) Is someone, at some point, brutally murdered? Nothing is made clear; everything is irrelevant and yet seems like it might be vital in deciphering Lee's cryptic offering.
The trouble here is that Axe (or its vanity extended edit, Pivot, for thoughts on which notion see above) really, quite plainly, does not suck. It's visually daring, sometimes striking; the movie isn't pervaded by a recluctance to play by the rules, so much as an utter disregard for the idea that there might be rules. Sometimes this results in cliche; from time to time, it presents images that hit you right in the gut.
It's quite likely that Pivot/Axe is pretentious shit. Given the milieu from which it emerges, and some of Lee's other work, it's anyone's guess as to whether there is any point to this, or whether it's a joltingly visual slice of nothing; all fancy footwork covering a lack of substance.
But then again, it's possible that it's - go on, say it - frustratingly, misguidedly fantastic.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Things I Never Need To See In Another Student Film.

I like student film. This is lucky, because as caretaker of the archives for New Zealand's most prominent film school, I see a lot of it. In student film, the raw and unrefined clash awkwardly with the primally brilliant and the precociously savvy. It's exciting and fun.
However, both my occupation and my enthusiasm, I feel, render me more qualified than anyone on this earth to assemble the following list. I present now, Things I Never Need To See In Another Student Film. (For bonus points, head over to film dot tom and see how many of them I managed to include in my own tenure at film school...)


1. A Character, Immobilised In A Chair, Having Violence Done To Them.

For some reason, this is the single most common motif of student film: a hapless sort (usually male) is tied to a chair by (often masked) captors, and has unpleasantness performed upon him. Said unpleasantness may take the form of psychological taunting and/or threatening, but in the vast majority of instances is an only mildly imaginative act of physical insult, which may or may not be fatal but will undoubtedly involve much yelling and screaming. As may well be expected, a shocking twist is often provided in which this process is revealed to be a repeating cycle, the movie's chosen unfortunate being only the latest victim in a series of assaults that form some sort of twisted game or ritual.
The overwhelming popularity of this scenario is inexplicable: of the eleven classes whose work I have catalogued, almost every one contains (usually multiple) instances of this scenario. I say "almost" only because my cataloguing is as yet incomplete; classes whose work remains Out There In The Aether may well be holding onto it for fear that if I get it, their names will be added to the list of People Who Have Made Violence-In-Chair Movies.
The easiest solution I can offer is that anyone who goes to film school can be expected to have at least a passing familiarity with Reservoir Dogs. An unconscious desire to replicate that picture's most infamous sequence could explain the vast amount of shockingly similar material; but that doesn't do it for me.
For one thing, film students as a collective actually revere Quentin Tarantino a lot less than you might expect: if the scenario were yanked from an Aronovsky movie, a more solid case might be made for plagiarism, but as it is, anyone who wants to reference Tarantino is more likely to just lay down Tomoyasu Hotei's Battle Without Honor Or Humanity as the backing track to a hyper-violent experiment in Michael Bay Editing.
I'm more likely to pin this scene's prevalence on some shared, unconscious interest in the juxtaposition (I'm serious here) of the kinetic and the immobile, the prone captive and the inescapable theatricality of the captor suggesting a brutal, ritalin-psychosis interpretation of the relationship between filmmaker and audience. All budding artists want to affect the whole damn world; when students' first film involves The Chair Scenario, it says something rather disturbing about just what kind of effect they want to have.


2. But What Will We Do With The Body?

It's rare that a class will make it through a year of film school without making, between them, at least one "blackly comic" movie revolving around the scenario of recent (often accidental) murderers and their tribulations in disposing of the corpus delicti.
Usually, these movies will explore the absurd meshing of pathos and practicality inherent in such a situation (cf. popular motion pictures such as Very Bad Things, Shallow Grave and, arguably, Deliverance). The tone will be pitched on a continuum somewhere between Psychopath Drama With Snickering and Absurdist Comedy With A Corpse. Often there will be humorous riffing on just who might be least likely to find themselves in this predicament: you're much more likely to see the dumping-versus-dissecting debate taken up by a pair of unpopular high school kids or demure suburban ladies than, say, two seasoned mobsters. (Hitmen, while by no means absent from the student film universe, are mercifully thin on the ground - particularly in comparison to their prevalence on the commercial-art-film circuit).
This scenario seems more popular with scriptwriters than it does with directors: projects concieved by their eventual executioner tend toward the showily visceral, whereas the perceived treasure trove of potential Wryness that is the Body Disposal Movie will always beckon to the scriptwriter desperate to prove themselves the next Tom Stoppard. However, your humble tour guide here confesses remembering that at one time in the mid-1990s, variations on this scenario enjoyed a spate of popularity among sitcom writers wanting to appear edgy - for a time rivalling "it's Thanksgiving and they're all stuck in the one house and forced to air their grievances" for the title of Most Popular Stock Plot.
And how many of the writers for Roseanne can you name today?


3. The Elderly: Delightful!

From the examples given above, it may seem like film studentry is a field dominated by the post-adolescent male obsession with grievous bodily harm. It is.
However, student film doesn't have to be all murder and mayhem. A good way to make this point is by making a damn good movie with characters in it; not such a good way to make this point is by making a movie about how geriatrics are actually lively and sprightly and full of beans and your grandmother listens to Fat Freddy's Drop and you might think that life ends at 50, but here's a glad-to-be-grey posse dedicated to growing old disgracefully!
At first, the huge volume of aren't-old-people-charming movies vaguely bugged me because it seemed patronising and glib. The vibe you get from these pictures is that people really wanted to make a movie about hedgehogs or donkeys, but old people were the easiest-obtained docile animal a crew could corral before the camera.
But what really leaves a nasty taste in your mouth after watching an accumulation of these movies is the way they all seem to be created according to the exact same principle: in response to facile Scorsese knockoffs by people who can't spell Scorsese, the only alternative is to be so damn Charming that your movie sets itself apart as a Charming statement on how very Charming old people are, not that the statement itself matters, as long as it's delivered in a way that is, unequivocably, Charming as a motherfucker.
Which is not the case. The opposite to "Bad Movies United In Their Nihilistically Bloody Attempts At Stylishness" isn't "Bad Movies United In Their Stylishly Charming Attempts At Effervescence".
It's "Good Movies".


4. Tool

It frustrates me when I'm archiving a movie and it has copyrighted music in it. It frustrates me because it illustrates, on the part of the filmmaker, either serious unimaginativeness and limited taste (it's very rare that I'll come across a copyrighted song that isn't widely known; not only is it always extremely popular musicians, it's usually their best-known singles that get used, somewhat damning the "unique personal connection" argument before anyone's even made it); more commonly, it suggests that this filmmaker is the sort of person who'll get very serious and earnest about how they reckon culture belongs to everyone and how if a song is this important to them (see above) they'll be damned if they'll let, y'know, Teachers or Copyright Law or Festival Organisers (damn those proxies of the Hegemony!) tell them what they can and can't do with it.
And that's just great, Charlie, but the fact is, if you use Stinkfist in your movie, you can't do shit with your movie. Because copyright law is bigger than you, no matter how open your third eye is, so all you're doing is making life difficult for Muggins here who has to archive your movie and can't use it in any promotional materials or external showings; I'm always finding places I could use well-made material so that everyone would see how great your movie is, but oh, sorry Jack, nobody's ever going to see your movie, because you couldn't figure out a way to get your point across without using fucking Stinkfist in the pivotal scene.
And as you may've gathered, I don't use the example of Tool at random. I like Tool. But no other band can hold a candle to them for sheer numbers in the Plagiarised By Film Students stakes. Whereas professional filmmakers just have to use Angel by Massive Attack (Or If Sad, Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah), student film seems to resonate much more at the harmonic level on which reside such notions as "Hooker With A Penis is deep" and "lyrically speaking, Aenima is not an asinine song". Both of the above are things I enjoy, but then, I also really like Orange Chocolate Chip ice cream, and I've never seen that in a movie. And that wouldn't even invalidate you from festival play!
Good music used inventively is never going to go out of style. While I take issue with, say, using Stinkfist or Angel as mood-build pieces - as First Tracks, these songs are already essentially mood-build pieces, so to co-opt them for the exact same purpose isn't so much reclaiming culture for your own narrative purposes as it is nicking someone else's chops - I'm the first to admit that imaginative use of well-sourced music can elevate your movie to high art. But with respect to everyone who feels like their movie just has to use the most popular songs released by the best-known bands of their time: Try Harder.
If you have to break copyright, at least do it in a way that's a little imaginative. Here's how bad it gets: in a relatively good movie I was cataloging recently, the climactic sequence features the main character's descent into an electro-nootropic hell of some sort. On the soundtrack, cosmic arcing sounds and far-off menacing buzzes reinforce the (rather admirably atmospheric, actually) visuals. This impresses the viewer for about ten seconds, or as long as it takes to realise that the filmmaker is so fucking lazy that he's just dropped an extract from the several-minutes-of-artistic-noise from the end of Aenima into his movie.
Really. Stealing someone else's music and not doing anything new with it is bad, but stealing someone else's sound design because you couldn't be bothered doing your own? You might as well just put the camera in front of one of those damn plasticine-models-fuck-in-pools-of-excrement music videos and go off and make a cup of tea.


5. Flatmates

I submit that there never needs to be another piece of fiction made whose premise contains the notion of "flatmates" ("room-mates" to you world-ruling types). In case that's too easy, what I mean to say is that if you cannot make your movie without expunging any trace of the notion of "flatmates" from the Essential Elements, I want you to stop making your movie.
An allergic reaction to both the Stylish Action/Thriller genre and the Coffee-And-Cigarettes genre, the Flatmate genre intends to waggishly thumb its nose at the extremes of both: ridiculing badly-made examples, while providing a counterpoint to the well-made. Scoffing at the notion of Style, the Flatmate exponent will promise that his movie delivers naught but two guys sitting on a couch and it's at once (1) as stylish as any film needs to be; and (2) charmingly guileless and earthy (though, of course, he won't use those words).
Similarly, the Flatmate movie seeks to dethrone those mythical latte-sipping beret-wearers who synarchically rule our culture though nobody ever actually knows any of them in the real world. By attacking the stereotype of the haughty intellectualist, the Flatmate filmmaker will assume the role of urbane poet-of-the-people, his bearing suggesting that he is the first person in the history of the world to combine an enjoyment of movies with a passion for sport. His movies are dripping with this presumptuous arrogance, their scripts endless variations on the theme of, "did you know that afro-wig-wearing Rugby-drunkards are actually really fun guys? Of course you didn't, because I'm the only filmmaker in the history of the world who's keeping it real". (Not thst Rugby-drunkards aren't fun, you understand: I just don't need to be told it like it's some sort of revelation to the world of cinema that Sports Are Fun Too).
On the rare occasion that the Flatmate movie manages to sidestep this miasma of sports-and-beer-are-actually-amusing bullshit, it will instead fall into the pit of "we have interesting conversations in our flat; what if our life were an absurdist comedy/horror movie?" These movies are marked by sets whose walls are lined with posters for mediocre movies and Lord Of The Rings, procured by one of the filmmakers' friends who works at a cinema. The plot will basically serve the same function as that of a porn movie, only instead of shambling awkwardly between sex scenes, the Flatmate movie shambles awkwardly between reheated conversation that obviously sounded really good the night before it was written, or possibly scenarios borne out of said conversation.
The third act will see either the ubiquitous Wacky Flatmate do something Really Wacky, or the protagonist Sink To Wackiness. Hilarity will not ensue.
Why the Flatmate genre is particularly spurious and worhy of retirement should be obvious: it's a bottle genre. The Flatmate movie takes "write what you know" to obscene levels of mundanity never dreamed of by anyone who advocated the principle: visually, tonally, narratively, the Flatmate movie is stuck within four drab-colored walls between which nothing ever happens. Nobody's life is so boring that it needs a Flatmate movie to lift it from the doldrums. Nobody is so boring that the only movie they can think to make is a Flatmate movie. I guarantee: there are better movies for you to make.


6. [Name Withheld]

There's two or three actors round town. They're not very good. They're not much to look at, and, more importantly, they can't act to save themselves. Obviously, they've been bitten by the acting bug big-time, because if they had any damn sense, they would've quit long ago.
And I just keep seeing them in student films. One in particular has been in about a half-dozen films in the past three-odd years, never putting a jot of characterisation or energy into a role. I'd be embarrassed for him, but I'm much more angry that he's wasting my time by being onscreen. I alternate between feeling badly for the poor directors who've had to work with him, and getting pissed off that they wouldn't really work this guy, eke a performence out of him. Because this isn't fair. If I wanted to see ugly people who couldn't act, I'd go to a play!
Your movie is not worth these kind of compromises at the casting stage. Your movie is not worth taking a knock and casting a hack in the main role on account of they didn't have work that week and they bought you a beer. Your movie is not worth casting an actor in a pivotal role when they have no charisma whatsoever, someone who'll bring zero energy to the role and sink everyone around them. Your movie has a tone and a spirit all its own, and it deserves actors who will work with you to find that tone and guide the project to be everything it can be. And your movie deserves for you to work your fucking ass off for the actors, rather than just trusting that they've been onstage a couple times, they'll know what to do when the cameras roll.
If you disagree with the above, your movie does not deserve to be made.