The horror…: “Session 9”

October 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

How interesting it would be to conduct a study in which audience responses to 2001 low-budget horror film “Session 9” are grouped according to whether or not a viewer has previously seen “The Shining” and then compared. It’s always nice to approach a picture respectfully, appraising it on its own terms knowing full well, of course, that no movie is an island, or at least that very few are. Artworks are born these days into a complex post-modern referential lattice wherein a creation can draw upon scores of influences some of which the creator(s) may not even be aware. But this film, “Session 9”, directed by Brad Anderson and featuring not one but two alumni of the “CSI” TV series – David ‘Sunglasses and Canted Neck’ Caruso and Paul Guilfoyle – has too much in common with the 1980 Kubrick classic for the similarities to be a mere coincidence. For a start, both films run on the premise of a large, ostensibly haunted building with a tragic history having some strange parapsychological effect on one or two or all of the core characters and by turns everyone that comes in contact with them or the building. If the commonalities stopped here there may be very little need to even bring up “The Shining” at all. But in addition to the ‘haunted house as psychological battleground’ theme, there are strong whiffs of domestic violence, uxoricide and filicide in “Session 9”; the wife of the film’s iteration of Jack Torrance is called Wendy; there are elements of paranoia, psychosis and multiple personalities (think Tony) which makes sense considering the central building once housed a psychiatric unit; the line between voices of actual ghosts and voices of the subconscious is distinctly blurred; both films pay particular attention to the passage of time and use title cards and looming establishing shots accordingly; disorienting and claustrophobic depictions of a physical space are used to brew fear by way of unfamiliarity; the very last word of “Session 9” is ‘Doc.’ While some of these examples might seem a tad nit-picky, combined with each other their significance simply has to be a little more than purely happenstancial.

“Session 9” depicts several days in the professional lives of five men who comprise an asbestos elimination crew that has been handed the possibly impossible task of stripping a sprawling, long abandoned Victorian-era hospital – Danvers State Hospital, namely – of the noxious fibre in a mere week. Headed by Gordon, played by Brit actor Peter Mullan – Mullan who was so watchable in Jane Campion’s 2013 miniseries “Top of the Lake” –  and managed by Caruso’s Phil, the outfit is a tense one from the get-go, partly on account of Hank (Josh Lucas) having pinched Phil’s girlfriend and partly because Gordon just seems off, and this tension plays a considerable part in creating the ominous sense that violence will almost certainly occur, if not at the hands of spectral forces then at the hands of one of these humans ruffians. Early on, as is the case with “The Shining,” the building’s unsettling history is briefly outlined – with special focus on the case of Mary Hobbs and the tragedy that befalls her – by Mike (co-scripter Stephen Gevedon), who then conveniently stumbles across material pertaining to Mary Hobbs and spends the remainder of the film diligently listening his way through nine sessions of recorded audio when he should actually be peeling asbestos from ceilings, hence the film’s title. In reality, this kind of confidential material would have been incinerated or at least gotten rid of once the hospital was shut down, but this is no realist tale and accordingly the film needn’t be judged by this. There is clearly meant to be some parallel drawn between what happened to Mary Hobbs (as per what Mike hears on the tapes) and what is slowly happening to the asbestos crew. How directly these two interact, however, is a bit of a mystery.

Now, it’s one thing for a film to reference another, either as a gesture of reverence on the parts of the filmmakers or from a more academic/canonical standpoint. Is it possible, though, for a movie to outsource its horror beats to an older, superior colleague, which is to say: for those who have seen and been affected by Kubrick’s “The Shining”, if “Session 9” turns out to be acutely scary or just chronically unsettling is it because it recalls/invokes the earlier film in a weirdly Pavlovian way? When ‘Tuesday’ appears starkly in the middle of the screen, backed by a relic of a building somehow reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, is a unit of terror being uploaded from some store of cinematic memories and played back in a new context? How much of “Session 9” is actually scary on its own merit? Which is a silly question, silly because it is unquestionably silly to assume that someone who has never seen a horror film in their life would not be frightened watching this. Every film should be judged on its own terms, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, there is a creeping sense of mediocrity about “Session 9” which does not help dispel the idea that it is deeply indebted to another movie. This mediocrity is most evident in the last fifteen minutes during which director Anderson and his editing team show how lacking in faith they are is in the film’s powers of suggestion and inception that they feel compelled to confirm – by way of the fractured ‘brain spasm’ expository technique so common to low-budget indie thrillers – that the character who is most clearly losing his marbles throughout the film is in fact the character that ultimately loses his marbles and submits to murderous urges. What a disappointing thud it is, realising that the mystery was never really that mysterious and that the tapes that Mike so religiously listens to are narratively deceiving though thematically consistent; McGuffins really. This depends, of course, on if you consider the building to be haunted or whether you think there is simply something about the physical space that trips a switch in the susceptible character’s brain.

Perhaps, the one thing that renders “Session 9” distinct from the baroque symmetry of “The Shining” is its flat, digital look, as though it were shot partly on one of those pro-sumer cameras which it very well may have been. In some ways this only works to enhance the clanking claustrophobia of the dilapidated setting – which is a positive –, and also injects into the film the kind of verisimilitude that forces the atmosphere of dread to traverse the screen and cross over into our world, for the duration of the movie at least…also a positive. But rather than embracing the stark, stripped feel of the visuals so as to construct a certain mood – as is the case with “Primer”, “Pi” or “Following” – Anderson aims for some sort of psychological grandeur to which the film’s form simply cannot do justice, like a man stepping into a baby onesie or a baby adorning a labourer’s overalls. The low-fi look makes the film’s foray into psychotic expressionism seem like an amateurish stretch, as though it were made by students who desperately wished to prove their ambition, perhaps too soon. Alternatively, the unfulfilled narrative ambition on display might give the impression that the filmmakers either lack resources or lack the technical skill to realise their vision. The latter is much less likely seeing as the number of filmmakers capable of technical virtuosity seems to greatly outnumber those with the gifts required to elevate mere virtuosity to the level of notable art.

“Session 9” is considered by a considerable few to be one of the better if not one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Watching it, it is easy to glimpse the makings of a great film seeing as it bears elements of a certain Kubrick film that has been mentioned here ad nauseam, as well as hints of Carpenter’s “The Thing.” But it seems as though the things which could have made this film truly great are too closely tied to the reasons for its various failings. “Session 9” is like an isomeric mixture: the best parts are the worst parts and vice versa.

 

PS: Happy Halloween!

The horror…: “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”

October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

It may not be as widely and religiously paraphrased as those two straitjacketing maxims ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘write what you know’, but consume enough film criticism (both amateur and otherwise) and the act of cheating one’s audience will surely be decried and advised against in due time if not frequently. Of course, the idea of a filmmaker wilfully betraying the implicit trust of a film’s audience might initially appear mean and in poor faith, but if this is an absolute sin, how many passable, good or even great pictures could be considered successful simply on the back of unfair narrative practices? To use an obvious, almost blah example, could the untimely, almost cynical killing-off of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” be called cheating? Much has been said about the general expectation – at that time in the history of cinema viewership – that Janet Leigh, being a recognisable name, a star, and the clear narrative and emotional focus of the first half hour of the film, would be expected to remain a significant narrative and emotional focus, or at least visually present, for the remainder of the film. Had she been portrayed by a no-name performer, Marion’s death would almost certainly not have been one quarter as scandalous as it turned out to be. And even with the knowledge that Janet Leigh was not quite the drawcard that an Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor would have been in that role, she was a big enough screen presence such that it would have been perfectly reasonable for an audience member to expect, even subconsciously, that she should not suddenly cease to exist, or that if she did, that she do so with a little more dignity and glamour. It’s undeniable that Hitchcock predicted the impact that the sudden screeching death of a Hollywood star would have on an audience’s psychology, an audience who – by decades of perhaps inadvertent, perhaps calculated conditioning – had come to place their entire sense of security in that of their leading ladies and leading men. Hitchcock knew this, and he exploited it, and boy did it cause a stir. And while the seismic cultural shockwaves were not always received with positivity, “Psycho” was an overall sensation, not to mention it’s being an enduringly effective thriller; it was the Master of Suspense taking his habit of audience manipulation to its logical extreme.

Running wholeheartedly with the idea that narrative deceit, that is to say, manipulation which is not a result of a viewer simply failing to heed or notice ‘hints’ and ‘clues’ present in a film, is not an absolute no-no and can in fact be a desirable theatrical experience, giallo maestro Lucio Fulci crafted, with 1971’s “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, a film whose cinematic form seems to flirt fitfully with the psyche of its central character Carol Hammond, played by Audrey Tatou lookalike Florinda Bolkan. The result is a pleasantly giddy murder mystery with an ending whose expository clunk might annoy whilst, at the same time, a small area in the navel flutters from the knowledge that the film has been one devious, mendacious ride. Like most of the best giallos, this film, about a young woman from money and influence whose homicidal dream about a neighbour/debauched party girl manifests itself stab-for-stab in a real killing for which she categorically denies any responsibility, feels more like a thriller than a horror picture because of its at times consummate craftsmanship to the point of sleekness and its weirdly elegant mode of genre filmmaking. From the very first image, it is clear that this picture will not adopt the apparent observational neutrality of something directed by Rohmer, opting instead to drift in and out of fantasy, misperception and blatant falsehood. In fact, it’s possible that Fulci decides to not simply drift but to wholeheartedly fashion his cinematic language in such a way that it is entirely in service of one particular character’s selective memory, scheming, hopes and dreams, and very possibly their self-delusion and even psychosis. It’s a bold move; one which, as implied earlier, could, probably did and probably still does leave many viewers feeling violated and unsatisfied.

So is “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” a horror picture and if so, from what exactly is the horror derived? In some ways it doesn’t quite adhere to modern concepts of horror cinema which feature either the traditional supernatural entities or humans that seem to be supernaturally malicious. By its end, this particular Lucio film deviates from most giallos by way of its very tight body count and sets itself apart from most horror films by the nature of its central crime, by the very fact that it has a central, inciting act as opposed to running on the palpable threat of an unpredictable series of acts. What may very well be presented as the fairly straightforward whodunit that it very well happens to be is dragged into the realm of horror by revelling in the mindscape of someone deeply fearful, deeply anxious and prone to terrible violence as a result of it, however momentary the violence. Not to compare it unduly to what many consider the quintessential modern horror film, but “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” in a way prefigures the manner in which filmic language is used to suggest character psychology as being the predominant narrative perspective in “The Shining.” As is the case with that movie, one can only wonder how often – if ever – Lucio Fulci presents ‘objective’ reality in “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”, that is to say, the kind of omniscient reality that audiences are privileged with when, for example, dramatic irony is being utilised. It seems that the horror in Fulci’s picture is not really the murder with which the film commences but Carol’s experience of it, her memories, her nightmare, her realisation, her self-deception. This being said, the film has a very shaggy quality about it as do most giallos what with its seedy, pulpy tone and the use of sometimes poorly synchronised dubbing of the kind common to Italian films from that period. In addition, some of the performances feel like one-take compromises and there is a distinctly tits-and-ass feel about it, which is probably not coincidental seeing as it was distributed by American International Pictures with its unabashed dedication to motion pictures with exploitative elements. This shagginess is perhaps the one element of the film which might allow a viewer to grudgingly accept, in hindsight – or realise in the moment – that the images and the sounds that Lucio presents are questionable in their trustworthiness. By the same token, it’s probably also the reason that the formal consideration applied by Fulci to “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” might go unnoticed by the casual viewer or disregarded by the cinephile. Not that either Fulci or the film itself seem to two shits about it.

“Gone Girl”: out of his sight and out of her mind

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Gone Girl”, to this mind at least, offers up a half dozen or so truths, confirmations or suggestions, however one chooses to see them. Mostly, though, it offers up a film that one might be afraid to heap plaudits upon lest repeat viewings prove it to be less than it initially seemed. But, for the current moment, let’s agree that this is one hell of a studio picture.

The news that Gillian Flynn’s blockbusting literary thriller had been optioned by some Hollywood movie factory and was bouncing around pre-production purgatory was already well known when these eyes first fixed gaze upon those fast-turning pages. On completion of the book, it felt evident that the act of translating this pop semi masterpiece from one medium to another would  be an unstably tall order if not one destined to end up someplace between disaster and travesty. Even the eventual knowledge that the novelist and screenwriter were one and the same did little to abate whatever degree of trepidation existed. The fact that David Fincher would be at the creative helm did not either. With the shame of the wrongly sceptical unbeliever, it must thus be grudgingly acknowledged that Flynn, in distilling her own prose into an evidently well-oiled screenplay that makes for a damn slick picture, has clearly been paired with a director whose approach could not be more simpatico with her rhythm and tone as a writer, or at least the rhythm and tone of this particular novel of hers, the one after which the film in question takes its name. With “Gone Girl”, David Fincher, who over the last two decades has gained – whether consciously on his part or not – a reputation for being the polar opposite of loose and sloppy, remains the technically consummate filmmaker of near Kubrickian fastidiousness that both his devotees and decriers love to love and love to begrudge. Right from the montage of shots that open the film, establishing its sociogeographic context as GFC-era (presumably) Midwestern USA, namely Missouri, there is already a sense that a shrewd creative intelligence is at work, both behind the camera and in a diegetic sense.  Sure, the techno-grunge leaning that seems to come through in many of Fincher’s touchstone pictures, so aggressive yet so sleek, is not necessarily employed in this his most recent work. The overall hue of the visuals is fairly neutral as opposed to icy or acidic, and the manner in which the never flatfooted camera moves is functional, daresay modest. As for the shot compositions, they are relatively straightforward, crisp and seemingly free of anything even nearing excessive subtext or visual thematics. All in all, there is something calculatedly, stylishly everyday about the way Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth choose to visualise the morbid soul of suburbia and heteronormative small town America, and with this choice the director proves – if he hasn’t already –  that he is as beholden to his material as he is to his craft. More crucially though, had he not done so prior to this point – particularly with his perhaps over-lauded “The Social Network” – Fincher’s expository efficiency highlights the possibility that he may in fact be Hollywood’s prime teller of motion picture stories, despite his being known for style and atmospherics. Even with regards to the aforementioned 2010 Sorkin-scripted picture, the sense of it being a touch slight, of it being too much of a psychologically reductive summary, is inseparably tied to the unprecedented narrative precision for which it was understandably [over]praised.   While other studio-based filmmakers may be unmatched in their iconoclasm or psycho-emotional power, Fincher may be the only of his industry contemporaries capable of adapting Gillian Flynn’s novel to the screen while retaining and placing front and centre the narrative puppetry responsible for the source material’s very potency. Money could be bet and won on the assertion that a filmmaker like Wes Anderson, Tarantino or the Coens would have fashioned a film with a personal vision stronger than that displayed in Fincher’s version, but the art in ‘Gone Girl’ is in its ability to manipulate the machinery of plot and story, and while Quentin and the Coens are themselves masters of fucking with time and audience expectations, their noticeable idiosyncrasies would have muddied the waters to detrimental effect in a way that Fincher’s invested but dispassionate approach does not. This leads to the next fact/confirmation.  This film’s employment of voice-over debunks – as do some many films throughout cinema’s thus far short history – the rote declarations of followers of Syd Field and other self-proclaimed screenwriting aficionados who state that the technique is the refuge of the lazy wordsmith, lazy like Wilder at his best, Kaufmann, Kubrick, Godard, Malick, Truffaut, Schrader…and many other lazy, lazy idlers. What makes “Gone Girl” noteworthy is not just the persistent appearance of voice-over but the boldly matter-of-fact presence of Amy Dunne’s questionable stories and insinuations. So strong is Amy’s presence as an unreliable narrator in the novel that something would have been lost – perhaps everything – if Flynn did not retain this particular device in her screenplay in some shape or form, voice-over being her choice, and had it not been so effectively married to the visuals in the editing suite. It might not be chillingly earnest like Travis Bickle’s similar diary narration in “Taxi Driver” or bear the novelty of being from beyond the grave and thus fittingly, fatalistically omniscient like Joe Gillis’ narration in “Sunset Boulevard”, but if there is a screw loose in Fincher’s hyper-efficient picture, it’s not this. One sequence in particular displays the pure artistic balls the “Gone Girl” camp possesses. It is a prolonged stretch of pure exposition so exhilarating in its construction that it may very well wind the viewer simply because of its sheer commitment to filmmaking that may be considered counterintuitive and against ‘better judgement’. The sequence’s effectiveness is almost due precisely to the fact that it openly defies a film culture which stresses the avoidance of plainly provided narrative information, not only quite possibly committing a cinematic crime, but quite possibly getting away with it so deftly that one cannot help but be impressed. That being said, said sequence bears close similarities to others found in earlier Fincher efforts, namely “Fight Club”, so it seems that the director is simply putting to effective use one of his personal trade tricks.

Then there is Ben Affleck whose being cast as Nick Dunne is a bit – to quote Kim Dickens’ Detective Rhonda Boney – ‘meta’ and whose performance is emblematic of a key element of the film’s success. Firstly, Affleck’s casting feels a touch knowing, if one considers his public persona as compared to buddy and co-Oscar-winner Matt Damon who, with his polite, socially responsible demeanour and his self-deprecating turns on shows like “Entourage” and “30 Rock” is kind of the widely-loved ‘good guy’ that Nick Dunne (and Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne) struggles to be and would benefit from being. Similarly, Affleck as a public figure has never quite seemed to receive the courteously warm reception that Damon seems to enjoy, which is not to say that he (Affleck) strikes people initially as a ‘douchebag’ in the way that Bradley Cooper might, but that it is only as a respected director that Ben Affleck’s star has risen again somewhat, though as an actor he still doesn’t inspire much of a wave of goodwill and presumptuous affection. Maybe there’s an element of glibness about him; almost as though he doesn’t do quite enough to earn his A-list status, which isn’t true. Whatever the reason, news of his casting in this film certainly failed to excite yours truly, yours truly must admit. However, the prudently loose-limbed performance that Affleck brings to the screen in “Gone Girl” counteracts and in doing so complements director Fincher’s coolly disciplined mise-en-scene, dispelling the whiff of anti-charisma that may have unfairly hung about the actor and mirroring the way in which his character in this film reinvents himself, or at least his public persona, to some extent. It’s not a bravura piece of acting necessarily, but the everyman ‘humanity’ (read: underwhelming ordinariness and resultant sense of disappointment) he manages to inject into so tight a narrative machine which in turn helps make this silver screen iteration both thrilling and affecting must be credited to him as well as his co-stars, particularly Carrie Coon whose role as Margo Dunne – though not as involved in the movie as in the book – is quite frankly vital, and Dickens as Boney, whose integrity and clearly strong values are only just kept in check by studied professionalism, not to mention Tyler Perry’s spot-on portrayal of (fictional) celebrity attorney Tanner Bolt. Which brings us to Rosamund Pike and the most thought-provoking quandary that bubbles to the mind’s surface once the credits have rolled on “Gone Girl.”

Rosamund Pike’s turn as Amy Dunne may be considered – on the one hand – perfect, or it may be appraised as being terribly misguided on the parts of the actor and her director. The difficulty in determining which is the more accurate assessment is probably due to the fact that both iterations of “Gone Girl” may be viewed – perhaps even simultaneously – as (a) a work of realism narrated by a fanciful and quite possibly psychotic individual (psychotic in the clinical sense, not the generally misunderstood sense), (b) a satirical social commentary of sorts – or at the very least a dark comedy – whose outright garishness and absurdity ratchets upwards as the narrative progresses, with melodramatic intent, or (c) a largely literary exercise in which the medium becomes aware of itself i.e. the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, the two married writers, morphing into or revealing itself to be a story about writing, narrative and character. From the first moment Rosamund Pike appears on-screen as Amy Dunne, she has a calculated look about her, something self-consciously performative in the way that she carries herself. This sense is not eased by the very knowing voice-over narration Amy provides, which seems to carry through diegetically as she interacts with Nick and the people around her, the manner of her speech that is, not the voice-over. David Fincher’s pictures admittedly tend not to contain deeply naturalistic, mumbly performances. Rather, there always seems to be just a hint of theatricality, almost as if to remind viewers that they are not partaking of a slice of reality but a slice of a cinematic interpretation of reality. So, while the acting in “Gone Girl” is very much director appropriate, Pike’s is slightly more heightened; her speech and behaviour slightly more mannered. It could be that Amy as a person is simply like this. She is the daughter of two writers who created a series of children’s books about an exceptional, multi-talented girl called Amy whose real-life counterpart could not help but compete with, or at least try to. It’s not too difficult to imagine how this would mindfuck any child into personality disorder territory, and there is a strong implication that Amy at some point ceased seeing herself as anything other than a character and her life a narrative. Now, whether this would twist someone to the point that they, after years of matrimonial disappointment (to put it lightly), would conspire to do what Amy ultimately does is hard to know for sure. But considering that the human brain is itself a largely misunderstood, twisted mass of neuronal jelly, it probably is capable of anything as long as anything adheres to the laws of physics; so in this sense Amy Dunne’s actions are not wholly implausible. The thing about Rosamund Pike’s performance is this: was portraying Amy as an icy, outwardly crafty braniac uptown mannequin who is supremely aware of her actions a superior creative choice to – say – playing Amy as a victim of her own psychological hang-ups, which is to say on a plane of realism more in-keeping with most of the other characters in the film? Well, the more one thinks about the overall feel of the film, where it begins and where it ends up, Pike as Amy Dunne is the one consistent element, the one thing that would work to convince audiences that the insanity which eventuates is not out of the blue; she is the foreshadowing of darkness at the film’s outset and the promise of darkness to come as the movie closes out with a shot of her ‘crazy’, rested head.

But before the word ‘crazy’ is bandied about any further in reference to the character of Amy, perhaps the wrath she feels towards Nick is somewhat justified. Well, maybe not the way it manifests but the feeling in itself. The rage that is evident in both the novel and the film is one that seems to be directed at complacency; the complacency of a culture in which it is perfectly fine to douse oneself in cologne and fine-tune one’s storytelling skills prior to a hot date while it is equally acceptable to smell like sweat while lazing about at home after having convinced aforementioned hot date that you’re…extraordinary. It seems as though Gillian Flynn, in writing the novel and scripting the film, has found a way to explore how important or at least how pervasive narrative and character are in ‘everyday’ life and especially in relationships; how even the dullest marital union is a creation of sorts and how, as a result, it is everybody’s responsibility to maintain the image, to keep the plot rolling along and prevent the storyline from stagnating. Maybe it’s a total coincidence on Flynn’s part that Amy and Nick are both writers, and that their initial meeting and flirtation involves them flexing their wit, assessing each other’s smarts and revelling in their presumed perceptive abilities, but what better way to dramatise the narrative of a relationship that to have both parties be writers, and laid off ones at that? If Amy’s diary entries are to be trusted in the slightest,  one would have to admit that the trajectory of their courtship and eventual engagement is very written; the kind of story many people would love to script for themselves, complete with a cloud of frosting sugar in a dark alleyway as the setting for the classic first kiss. If Amy’s memory of this event, and their romance in general, were to be confirmed by an objective, omniscient entity, it would have to be said that both Nick and Amy were very aware of the story of their romance. To side with Amy, if Nick has it in him to dazzle her, why is it that when they pack their bags and move to Missouri he goes from being “Tender is the Night” to TV guide, especially considering how much of an effort she apparently makes to remain ‘literary?’ It’s enough to make anyone do what Amy ends up doing, right? The point in saying this is that David Fincher, on the basis of the film he has directed, on account of his opting to have Amy reach into the audience and attempt to wrench clumps of sympathy from viewers hearts by way of her very direct narration and her knowing presence, may very well be siding with Amy, not that he has anything against Ben/Nick, but that Amy’s grand plot, deranged as it may be, has more than a lick of honesty about it. Plus, Fincher has long been known to entertain the plights of the sick and the perverted (the media machine included, though an analysis of “Gone Girl”s take on the politics of press and public image should be sought elsewhere), like a psychiatrist who is comfortable delving deep into dangerously complex minds because they have the thick, safe rope of professionalism and clinical judgement tied tightly around their waist. They have their medicine; Fincher has his cinema.

Brief impression: “Modern Romance”

October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

Albert Brooks’ 1981 directorial effort might appear to be, on first viewing, about a man called Robert who can’t seem to make up his damn mind about a woman called Mary: about whether he wants to keep seeing her or whether he thinks they are just too damn incompatible to keep seeing each other. But on further analysis, that is to say ten to fifteen minutes spent thinking about the movie two to three days after having seen it for the first time, it becomes clear that Robert, embodied by writer-director Brooks, is in two minds from the very get-go, and that each one is pretty well made up, the only problem being that they are in stark opposition. In fact, the very foundation for much of the comedy in this film is Robert’s rapid oscillations between these two minds, or rather, the multiple minds he seems to be in with regards to most things in life. So fleetingly does he flit from one to the other, they might as well be simultaneous, which is precisely the crux of his state of crisis. Within single statements, single sentences, Robert repeatedly, dizzyingly contradicts and undercuts himself with an almost confessional naturalism on the part of Brooks, and the character portrait that results is one not of an individual who can’t make a decision per se, but one who can’t choose which decision to stick with, because if there’s one thing that Robert can do it’s to have an opinion or a take or multiple takes on something. It may very well be that having two contradictory minds shields him from having to pick a side and own up to any one decision, which is to say that Robert is highly insecure. This is precisely what makes him such a captivating on-screen presence, his contradictory nature that is, not necessarily his insecurity. In addition to Brooks’ expressively non-expressive face – and a pleasant one at that – the character of Robert doesn’t come across as hand-wringing and ineffectual but rather as very actively rash and self-absorbed. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing someone to love, it may be somewhat possible to simultaneously want and not want a person, but it’s probably a little harder to have them and not have them. At some point a choice is required.

What truly makes “Modern Romance” uniquely captivating, though, is that Mary – while not as obviously neurotic and excruciatingly needy as Robert – is deeply complicit in their yo-yoing pendulum of a love affair, perhaps because she is helplessly drawn to him, or perhaps because she is just as helplessly confused and in two minds as he is. Which leads directly to a key question, the question being: is ‘Modern Romance’ mostly a film about a man and his peculiar assortment of insecurities, is it about a couple and their inherent attraction to each other despite how terrible they might very well be for one another, or – as the title would suggest – is it a film about sex, love and commitment in (at the time) contemporary USA, the key word being ‘contemporary’? The truth is that Brooks’ picture is a bit of all three, but maybe in varying doses at different points along its runtime. On the strength of Robert’s pungency and nervy charisma as the film’s key protagonist and the fact that a viewer simply cannot escape his mindscape due to the fact that the film seems to continually adopt or at least imply his point-of-view and state of mind, ‘Modern Romance’ is something of a character study, though not a particularly incisive one. If the aim of a character study is to analyse and understand the inner workings of a character, the film is not emphatically successful as one if at all. Yet the insistence on Robert’s repetitive, one-note mode of thought and his apparent lack of insight is a clear move to exploit his neuroticism for comedic effect, which implies that the objective is not necessarily to understand why he is the way he is, but how the way he is influences the choices he make, in particular those pertaining to romance. Then there is the idea of the film being a kind of peek into the romantic life of a heterosexual couple in 1980s LA. Whether or not one considers Mary and Robert as being representative of an average mid to upper-middle class white couple on an archetypal level, or as being a couple representative only of themselves and as real as any that one would meet at a party or people-watch in a park, ‘Modern Romance’ is probably digested most easily as a love story with acerbic undertones: boy dumps girl, boy fears he has made a terrible mistake, boy bulldozes his way back into girl’s life. In this mode, it is a terrific piece of entertainment with a unique enough bent to ensure that audiences inundated with one lacklustre romantic tale after another will find themselves a little shook up.

Then there is the third approach one can take with this film, which is to view it as part of a wider movement in post-50s cinema which couldn’t help but obsess over the existential crisis facing ‘modernised’ mankind, at least in the West. As was the case with European films of the late fifties and sixties that examined the psychic pain individuals are burdened with when a society adopts new mores and values without necessarily retiring older, perhaps even contradictory modes of living and thinking, a handful of pictures from the New Hollywood era similarly dealt with the relative failure of the counterculture as not just a movement but as a wider cultural sea change; not simply its inability to completely debunk and replace traditional values that it considered oppressive and non-progressive, but the way in which even those who whole-heartedly embraced “free love” and the like were unable to successfully put these values into practice without drowning in angst and jealousy. This of course makes ‘Modern Romance’ sound a great deal headier that it actually is when the truth is that it is more in keeping with the works of Paul Mazursky al-a ‘ Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ which is not to suggest that either film is exactly fluff.

What happens when a society decides to offer a greater degree of choice to the individual, a society which has up to that point dictated the ways in which men and women are to ordinarily relate with one another, how love and sex are to operate, and how permanent ‘permanent’ is? Where a man was once expected to find a decent woman to call his wife – and vice versa, get married, procreate and stick with her till he or she died, modernity arrived along with the slogan that ‘God is dead’ and the assertion that each individual is a sovereign, sentient entity with the right to choose and the responsibility for their own fate. For many, this is a liberating idea which it very well should be, on paper at least, but for just as many – perhaps the very same many – this new approach brings with it a burden that sees many of these many retreating, ironically, to the comfort of prescribed thoughts and lifestyles (not to say that the counterculture itself wasn’t highly prescribed, though the drugs certainly weren’t.) Why exactly Robert Cole is so insecure – as mentioned already – doesn’t appear to be the central concern of ‘Modern Romance,’ but rather, how being granted – by modern Western society – the relative freedom to choose what shape and form his love life will take causes him more pain than it does pleasure. For someone as insecure as Robert, and for that matter Mary, there is perhaps nothing as confusing and terrifying as feeling the need to commit (whether as a result of traditional inculcation, fear of loneliness or personal belief) whilst being offered the choice of being utterly non-committal in favour of ‘free love’ (which one might opt for due to indiscipline, fear of commitment, sex addiction or personal belief.) Maybe in an earlier time or in a different culture more suspicious or less tolerant of transitory romantic practices, Robert would simply be forced to marry Mary, stay married and become quietly resentful. Does ‘Modern Romance’ seem to be suggesting that some modern folk just aren’t modern enough to pursue sex and romance without guilt and/or the feeling that love isn’t real until drawn up and signed, but not traditional enough to make it last in a traditional sense? Whatever it’s suggesting, it obviously finds it funny; painfully funny.

Brief impression: “황해” aka “Hwang hae” or “The Yellow Sea”

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

For someone increasingly stumped by the improbability of seeing a rushing stream of brilliant films of widely varied styles coming out of a particular country, “The Yellow Sea” comes as a very sobering reaffirmation of the likelihood that every river can in fact run dry or that every river at least has a bank, not least for the fact that this film is considered a legitimate example of the general excellence of South Korean ‘art’ or ‘auteur’ cinema, especially of the successful fusion of mainstream and arthouse sensibilities that seems to be a hallmark of sorts of the best that that national cinema has to offer. In fact, Thierry Fremaux, when announcing the inclusion of “The Yellow Sea” in the Un Certain Regard slate of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, called it a ‘beautiful film.’ But the most egregious part of Fremaux’s proclamation is not the fact that Na Hong-Jin’s follow-up to his very fine debut “The Chaser” is not categorically beautiful, but that the Cannes festival director felt it necessary to highlight the film’s beauty, whether visual or otherwise, in light of an official selection that featured films like “The Tree of Life”, “House of Tolerance”, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, “Oslo, 31 August” and “The Kid with a Bike” to name a few – even “Melancholia” and “Drive” – all of these films whose own particular brands of beauty will be remembered long after “The Yellow Sea” is all but forgotten; modern-day masterpieces to be sure, far more exquisitely photographed and deeply assured in their artistry. Of course, the fact that he made special mention of the film in question is not necessarily proof that he holds it in any higher esteem than its festival contemporaries, but it is a striking assessment if only for the fact that “The Yellow Sea,” which starts not terribly, becomes progressively and alarmingly more mediocre as its runtime clocks along.

For anyone familiar with “The Chaser,” seeing the establishing five or ten minutes of its successor makes it clear that Na Hong-Jin is deviating from the somewhat clean, relatively steady approach he adopted with his first picture, a crime thriller/chase picture – like “The Yellow Sea” – about a pimp who realises that he may have uncovered the identity of a serial killer. The critical success of that first film – not to mention the way it ran away with the local box-office – may be due in part to Hong-Jin’s display of his ability to expertly combine the perversely offbeat sensibility that seems to dominate Korean art-house cinema with a less opaque approach to narrative and mood, not dissimilar to the mainstream-art-house balance that countryman Bong Joon-Ho achieves with utter mastery, only, “The Chaser”  swings just a touch closer to the mainstream or at least does so more frequently, which is not a bad thing. The point is, where that film managed to be narratively and formally straightforward while retaining a level of unhealthy fascination with its already morbid subject matter, this new movie is not at all a nice, even mixture, like whole blood as it exists in arteries and veins, but a spun-down product with cells at the bottom and plasma floating on top after it’s been centrifuged. Of course, plasma and red blood cells are utilised individually as transfusible products, but for whole blood to be of functional value, the various components need to blend into a cohesive whole, which is sadly not the case with ‘The Yellow Sea’ (the blood analogy is apt seeing as there is so much of it splattered all over this picture.)

Perhaps it was a very conscious desire on the filmmaker’s part to create a more visceral aesthetic with his second picture, the kind that nauseates and oppresses in service of a specific overall effect. Despite “The Chaser’s” horrific content, there is a certain ‘fictional’ sheen to the visuals that would allow for a viewer to easily distance oneself, at least on a deeply emotional level. It’s very much a movie, “The Chaser.” As for “The Yellow Sea,” right from the get-go there is an acid yellow hue to the shadowy, high contrast images which are themselves shot handheld, shaking ever so slightly all the time, hovering right within characters’ personal space, perhaps in hope of baring a bit of their souls or documenting every telling wave of emotion that passes across their faces. It’s the kind of overbearing grungy “realism” that won’t rest until the viewer realises how goddam dire things are for the protagonist, the protagonist in this case being Gu-nam (played by Ha Jung-woo), a Joseonjok, or ethnic Korean living in China, and one not living very well at that, struggling to meet his growing gambling debts as a taxi driver while his wife, who has travelled to South Korean for work and has apparently forgotten him, continues to not make contact, which in turn convinces Gu-nam that she is being unfaithful to him. Luckily, Gu-nam finds himself hired to travel to Seoul in order to carry out a contract kill for a fellow Joseonjok gangster, in exchange for a decent sum of money (and the chance for Gu-nam to hunt down his wife and her presumed lover.) Now, a brilliant director like Andrea Arnold who also adopts this kind of dirty realism aesthetic and almost obnoxiously so – which is why her films can have a polarising effect – does it with commitment, and with a certain discipline. She also doesn’t pepper her rough-hewn, tough-minded films with incongruous elements like washed-out fantasised/remembered sex sequences. Why not? Because this would render her realist aesthetic disingenuous, unless she thought deep and hard about the inclusion of the aforementioned sex scenes and developed an approach which would effectively facilitate their inclusion in the final cut of the film. Hong-Jin does the former, peppering “The Yellow Sea” with images that are presumably meant to represent Gu-nam’s painful romantic nostalgia/murderous melancholy, but the director simply slips this kind of expressionistic element into a film which is not only arthouse-shaky, but will quickly become mainstream Hollywood action-shaky, without any evident awareness of the aesthetic incongruence at play. It becomes a Tony Scott film, but whereas a picture by the late director and brother of Ridley (whose greatest personal achievement – Tony’s that is – may be his executive producer role in “The Good Wife”) would whole-heartedly adopt the hyperkinetic approach, “The Yellow Sea,” or rather Hong-Jin, seems attracted to the idea of being both down, dirty and quiet and sleek, fast and loud. Hell, there’s no reason why these two aesthetics can’t somehow find a way to tango: case in point, Johnnie To’s marvellous 2013 crime flick “Drug War.” And let’s not forget Jacques Audiard’s even more brilliant “The Beat that my Heart Skipped” from a few years back. These films know how to scrap with agility and some sort of grace.

So as not to imply that ‘The Yellow Sea’ is a failure from beginning to end, the chapter of the film – yes, it is broken up into a few chapters – that depicts Gu-nam’s attempt at killing the Korean businessman he has been contracted to whack, is evidence that Na Hong-Jin has a decent store of directorial talent and that Ha Jung-woo is one hell of a performer. Spanning roughly twenty, thirty minutes, this narrative block displays mordant humour and observational patience in both the shooting and the editing, allowing Ha Jung-woo to expertly embody a man submerged in a bog of desperation and survivalist amorality. It shows in his hesitancy, but also in his jumpy, bird-like persistence. This period marks the movie’s high point but also its descent – almost without warning – into a depressingly rote gangland thriller complete with frequent, overly-terse phone calls servicing half-baked exposition, wildly photographed scenes of violent mayhem which would have been far more horrifying if approached with some restraint, and car chases cut together so frantically yet so half-heartedly that they begin to feel artless. And to top it all off? Silly little art-house flourishes every so often. At the end, what is left is a glass of unshaken orange juice which, when consumed, is at one point unsubstantially thin and at another, an unpleasant mouthful of pulp. How disappointing.

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