Blindspot: “千禧曼波” aka “Qiānxī Mànbō” or “Millennium Mambo”

May 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

Twenty minutes into Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s electro-scored 2001 pseudo-Wong Kar Wai pastiche (pseudo as in ‘seemingly, but not at all’), I’m convinced that Millenium Mambo is not the most ideal introduction to a filmmaker who is revered in the cinephile world to the point of being considered – by some – to be our greatest living filmmaker. This series I am embarking on should one day provide sufficient context with which I can/may judge such a haughty, hyperbolic appraisal, but for the moment, or more specifically, in the instant that this picture cuts to black and the credits begin to roll, I am convinced that this man Hsiao-Hsien has – in the last quarter of a decade – almost certainly made something that I will see and whole-heartedly adore (based on his general aesthetic, his pacing, his framing), but that this his meditation on youth…or time…or romance…or all three…or none at all, Millenium Mambo, is just not it. Starring the open-faced and stunning Qi Shu as Vicky, a young Taipei bar hostess in the grip of a serious case of post-millenial ennui and a very Gen Y brand of entitled aimlessness, Millenium Mambo is thematically comparable to an Antonioni picture whose characters aren’t able to articulate even to themselves why they may be so dissatisfied with everything, which is to say that there is precious little to intuit in the faces, the movements, the essences of Hsiao-Hsien’s characters, and that whatever little there may be in the way of motivation isn’t readily apparent. These individuals are defined not by words or plot-propelling actions but by the most fundamental modes of behaviour; by the way that they hold themselves when alone versus while in the presence of others; by their decision to pull out a cigarette and smoke it, when they choose to smoke it and how deeply. Honestly, the smoking in this film makes it something of a throwback to the aloof sixties and anxious seventies. On the surface, Vicky has every reason to hate her immediate situation (torn between a frankly diseased relationship with a head case DJ boyfriend and an older gangster suitor; being dissatisfied with her line of work etcetera), but her inertia is almost masochistically silly. Yet this is not so much a slight against the film as it is a slight against the character of Vicky in whom the director and his writer Chu Tien-wen nonetheless invest a generous amount of patience and interest, which they have every right to do whether or not you or I find her as compelling an entity as they do. As previously implied, this film seems to eschew story (almost aggressively so) in favour of mood and spatial intimacy, and with the druggy, roving, saturated image Hsiao-Hsien and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin achieve with what seems to be a fairly long lens, Millenium Mambo concocts the oppressive sense of longing for something unknown and undefined but almost certainly better than what is presently at hand, which may very well describe Vicky and her fellow characters. And perhaps myself as a viewer and beholder.

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Benets

May 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

My once good friend Benets has this place in Tangier; an apartment that isn’t all that cosy, that has a pair of bedrooms sized like halls and a balcony that overlooks a skyline of cracked still-cracking walls and peeling paintjobs, domes and lanky minarets. We rest our elbows on the stone balustrade and run our eyes along clotheslines that span buildings, bridging windows, hard to tell from telephone lines or lines strung up for reasons long forgotten. We drink our drinks, he scotch and I port. We admire the remains of Spanish-run days and of the sun, and then we move inside to take ease on his leather settees, in the evening heavy and cool.

‘Couldn’t you just eat this view?’ he says to me.

I tell him I doubt it could fit in my mouth even if I tried. I take the two-note noise from his throat to be some sort of a chuckle.

‘Scotch?’ he says sitting up and holding a position.

‘Port.’

‘Port? Still?’

‘It’ll do me, Benets. I don’t mind port.’ We call him Benets to his face.

Benets grunts his way out of the hollow in the settee made by his ass. The patter of his loafers peters off into silence, but I know he’s only a little way off, by the coat stand pouring what he wishes was a scotch and what I’m hoping is just port.

I look out towards the balcony at the purple sky and I see a pair of minarets peeking over the railing. Below, between the uprights, I can see the rest of Tangier and it looks glorious as far as the bay. Has a rundown charm even in silhouette. I pull back my focus and fix it on the womanly curves of the balcony’s plinths. My gaze washes over the whole thing, balustrade and all, and I think – in a fit of melancholy – that I haven’t a thing in the world to stop me throwing myself off of it.

‘What was that?’

It’s Benets.

I say, ‘what was what?’ surprised that my thought could have somehow been made word.

Benets is back with scotch on the rocks in one hand and port in plain glass in the other, wearing an uneasy face.

‘I didn’t get everything but I don’t think I liked the gist of what I think I heard, Moss,’ he’s saying as he struts to his spot on the settee.

‘Benets,’ I laugh, ‘I didn’t say a thing.’ I really want my port and want it in me now.

‘You didn’t?’

I laugh. ‘No.’

Benets sits the glasses on the glasstop table but doesn’t sit. Gives a one-note chuckle.

My breath is cordoned. His gaze lacerates me, but then its edge blunts and his face softens and he picks up his drink and seats himself stiffly; glances at me and then away.

I watch him suck on the tan booze, see ice hit his lip and melt a little. He groans (perhaps from pleasure), elbows rested on his knees. Leaning forward I slide the petite glass my way and lift it and knock back a drop; my eyes they never leave him.

‘Must be so nervous I must be hearing things,’ he says to the darkening outside. To the crystal glass at his mouth.

I pitch in by clearing my throat and sipping more port. Benets asks if I ever hear things when I’m nervous.

‘No,’ I say. ‘But my bowels they go funny sometimes.’

Benets says, ‘that’s not so odd.’

I don’t feel quite settled where I’m sitting, like my ass is in the clouds. I ask him what’s gotten him so unnerved; if it’s not just the wedding.

‘Bah…! Anouk’s a big girl and so am I,’ he says.

So as not to laugh at this slight misspeak I roll booze round my mouth. But I find that I’m really not that amused.

I say, ‘maybe the bigger the girl the bigger the nerves. Is that something people say?’

Benets silently shrugs.

‘I’m not nervous,’ he says with sudden verve, after an extended post-shrug silence. ‘Do I look nervous? Maybe anxious, but that’s a different thing to nervous.’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘I hope it’s just anxiety and not nerves.’

Anouk, Benets’ bride to be, hasn’t an anxious bone anywhere anyplace. She’s a French expatriate whom Benets met on a boating trip, the kind well-off folk take to remind themselves how well-off they are and how much less well-off they could be. They talked as they sailed from Boumerdés but that’s all I know of how they encountered.

My first encounter with Anouk was at a newsstand, on the cover of a magazine. She would later disarm me with her deathly sense of humour and her dissertation on the benefits of being underweight. Benets is crazy about her and I think I am too. 

The laces draped over the French doors leading onto the balcony beat softly in the tepid sundown breeze as though fanning Benets. I watch Tangier blacken all around him, watch the laces fall still again, still as he stands. For whatever reason, I get up and amble here, amble there. I eventually stop and stand.

‘I wish there was some way I could say thank you,’ I say.

‘You could just say it.’

‘Been saying it since yesterday, since the airport.’

‘And you think I don’t think it’s enough.’

‘Enough. Such a shit of a word. Is it ever enough for anybody?’

I feel like a hatstand he’s hung his gaze upon. And then I feel naked when he reclaims it and casts it upon the view from the balcony. All is silent for not too long. I’m briefly amused that the glint of the city might outdo that of the stars.

Now past my amusement, I give a quaint laugh. Benets doesn’t ask ‘what?’ as I’d hoped. I step forward once, twice, till we are in effect level-shouldered. I clear my throat of muck. ‘I’m still trying to figure out the catch,’ I lightly say with a hint of a put-on chuckle.

Benets quarter turns and I can see, in the glass he’s holding, a thin film of gold clinging to the rocks now reduced to mere hailstones. His look is blank as he says, ‘what catch?’

‘Feels a little like winning the lottery. Being your best man.’

Benets stares at me. ‘You want out.’

‘Alec,’ I declare. ‘Alec. Please. Not at all. I’m just saying.’

‘I’m just listening.’

‘It’s only – it was odd that you found me, is it not? Hell, remembered. What were the odds?’

‘You forgot me.’

‘If I ever did I can’t recall when. All due respect, but how could I forget? I’d hear your name around…the names of the women you were with…blah, blah. I’d read it in the paper and think to myself I knew that guy. A tower your namesake…Then I’d remember how we were friends once.’

‘You say once as if it’s permanent. I’m not so changed, Moss, just not so stupid, and broke. For sure not broke.’

‘No.’ I feign a smile. ‘It’s just — this is the kind of good thing that doesn’t happen in forever.’ Suddenly, the melancholy.

‘In forever.’

He has this way of stating questions.

‘Maybe I exaggerate.’

‘Come outside with me for a sec.’

In the darkness of the night on the balcony we are without drink and it all seems so very honest. Far, as far as the bay, I see something queer on the water and think it would be nice if it were the sail of a yacht that was out for a late stroll.

Fifteen floors underfoot on a two-way street that should be a one-way, two cars duck each other like ex-lovers in a grocer’s aisle. I choose to follow the one on my right with the one dead taillight that’s readying for a left turn but then slows at a junction for a stop sign. Benets chooses to rest his chin on the hair-darkened arms he’s lined up on the balustrade, like a child gazing down, taken with heights.

‘If you leapt,’ he says out of nowhere – and my ears prick – ‘that’d be it.’

I consider the drop with a welling pulse and it is truly quite a drop. ‘So much time to think.’

‘If you leapt you wouldn’t be thinking.’

‘No. But two-thirds down you’d begin.’

‘Huh,’ he says. ‘I wonder what of. Maybe,’ he continues, ‘all the things you’d be leaving behind.’

‘Maybe for some,’ I say despite my suddenly leaden throat, ‘all the things you don’t have to leave behind.’

Benets’ brows collide and his forehead creases and he frowns. ‘You don’t have to. Then why do you?’

‘No no. You leap because there’s nothing to leave behind. Because you don’t have love or money or a daughter or a son or something to fight for, and you don’t have a clue about anything.’

I notice my lungs have emptied and that I am without breath. But I let air leak slowly in as though I don’t need it so much.

Slowly Benets’ lips ease and his forehead skin smooths out and his brows tease apart. Now he is upright and his hands are nestled in his pockets, hidden from this cheeky breeze, this breeze that carries with it the rumpus and spices of Casa Barata, the thieves’ markets. I can almost hear it, the heckling and friendly insults.

‘It’s a sad thing,’ says Benets, ‘that you had so much to gain.’

I’m thinking it’s a sad thing that I still do.

‘A sad thing,’ he says,’ but a good thing. Somehow.’

I look at him.

‘—you know?’

 *

Two days before the wedding, Benets throws himself from the balcony and drives his skull into the ground. People can’t believe that he fell, how on earth he could have fallen, how drunk he must have been. I can’t believe it either because I know for a fact  that he threw himself.

He is survived by a few things ¶.

 *

I was meant to spend the next five days celebrating a marriage. These I end up spending wandering the thieves’ markets or lying in bed reading, in my bedroom in a four-star chain motel. This is when I’m not being summoned to the police station to confirm answers to questions that I’m certain I’ve already been asked.

I know no-one, none of the other guests, certainly not anymore if once upon a time I in fact did. And, from what I hear, none of them are eager to stay much longer in Tangier.

But for me this is free time that I could never pay for out of pocket, and I find that I’m unable to complain, but for the tragedy.

Five days later, I board the return leg that Benets paid for and I fly back to where I’m from, with the knowledge that he chose me to be his best man but ended himself before I had the chance to do him the honour.

 

¶ Benrhine Systems Inc., currently down 0.38 per cent on Bloomberg, the presidency of which is soon to be filled by one of a number of very worthy candidates; 714 100 in-car GPS systems worldwide, two million units of a now discontinued line of android smartphones, roughly 8300 sets of security gates installed in stores all along the west coast of the United States and spreading, the IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems of the entire fleets of two international and seventeen regional airlines, the patronage of a well-known Perth-based oil exploration company; Benets Towers in south Seattle, home to 86 offices and 115 residential units including a penthouse featured in Luxury Home Magazine last year; two ex-wives, both of whom remember him as a good man but a bad husband, and barren; nearly three dozen ex-lovers (a love affair being arbitrarily defined as having lasted more than a month), most of whom would describe him as a decent man and a good lover, but incompatible with commitment; a Cessna Citation Sovereign business jet, and a Cessna Corvalis TTX that he was learning to fly with, which looks avocado green in the right light, usually late in the evening; two godchildren; homes in 5 out of 6 major continents numbering 8 in all, homes being properties that do not earn rent in the owner’s absence – his personal property investments number in the tens and fetch tens of millions; a weeping, head-turning beauty of a fiancée who I suspect will never again betray her vow to never invest herself, her time or her heart in people, fickle people.

The horror…: “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night”

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

1974 belonged to Bob Clark, the same way it did Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his cross-hook combo of “The Godfather II” and “The Conversation” that very same year. Of course, no one can and should ever discount the fact that milestone works from Fassbinder, Polanksi, Casavettes and a whole host of greats also hit the cinematic landscape at this time, but 1974 really did belong to American writer-director Bob Clark (in his own independent way) who released two bona fide gems of the horror genre within the same twelve month period: the most notable precursor to Carpenter’s “Halloween” – Black Christmas” – and “Deathdream” aka “Dead of Night.” To cut directly to the chase and save the preamble for later, these two independently made horror films are striking for their attention to character and performance, quite possibly made clearer when one considers that horror films as a whole have a tendency towards the archetypal if not the stereotypic, and a greater focus on mechanics and raw function than on nuance. Watching “Black Christmas” years back, the generosity afforded both the characters on the page and the actors on the set strongly emanated from the screen. While the spine-tingling threat of a killer is painted with low-budget virtuosity from the get-go (utilising the kind of POV shot that would later achieve greater fame in Carpenter’s “Halloween” for the smoothness and assurance of its glide), on equally clear display is Bob Clark’s interest in the social and emotional dynamics of the sorority house on which the unseen killer has set his sights. Now, while he – Clark, that is – may have invested so much time in creating brief but telling portraits of the film’s main characters in order to establish a degree of human cost to the massacre that is about to occur, films as great as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have been able to effectively inflict very affecting violence on characters that are largely spare, daresay ‘functional,’ in the way that they are drawn. But the thing that writer-director Clark does with his characters in “Black Christmas,” with his actors specifically, is inject a certain loose-limbed freedom into the performances which may or may not heighten the intensity of the kills, but which would most certainly be joyous for a viewer who craves but doesn’t expect to see such character nuance in an American independent horror film. Well, it turns out that what Clark achieves in “Black Christmas” he also achieves in “Deathdream,” his Vietnam era – quite possibly anti-war – ‘zompire’ (or ‘vambie’) movie.

In the opening sequence of “Deathdream” private Andy Brooks (played very curiously but somewhat perfectly by Richard Backus) is shown being gunned to death while on duty in Vietnam, only to turn up on the doorstep of his family’s home in suburban Brooksville, Florida (where the movie was shot) to the ecstatic relief of a delusional-from-fear mother, the mildly sceptical surprise of a collectedly impatient father, the stunned acceptance of his sister, and the varied responses of everyone else that he once knew in his seemingly close-knit hometown. Mentioning that he is somewhat changed would be a superfluous downplaying of the events that unfold in this barebones picture, but it would also be unnecessarily evasive not to acknowledge that “Deathdream” is a (perhaps knowingly) obvious exploration of the effect that war has on the social fabric of a family, a community, a nation. But it may also raise the question: ‘is there – [was there] – something about the Vietnam War in particular that makes it – [made it] – especially toxic on a social level?’ Lynn Carlin as Christine Brooks is probably the most archetypal character in the film, the kind of movie mother who seems to love her son more than she does her daughter in a weirdly doting way that hints at Freudian-via-Greek Mythology sexuality. If one were inclined to add an extra layer of supernaturalism to the film, they could claim that Christine’s pathological belief that Andy is alive somehow contributes to the juju or what-have-you that ends up zombifying him. In sharp contrast to her is John Marley as Andy’s father, Charles, himself a WWII veteran who seems to have been already prepared for the loss of a son, only to be ironically thrown by the fact that his son is not only returned, but changed. One of the film’s sharpest lines comes when Charles’s frustration at Andy’s zombie-like taciturnity and newfound ability to murder a small animal he once loved dearly as a pet comes to a head. When he returned from his blood-soaked military service, Charles states, he might’ve changed a touch but not even close to Andy’s level of dysfunction and sociopathy! It’s interesting to consider the slew of post-Vietnam films released in the seventies and early eighties, pictures predicated on the idea that Vietnam ruined servicemen and servicewomen somewhat irreparably, and to then compare these to the post-war American film landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. It might be fair to assert that post-WWII American cinema was more focused on new threats (those of possible future nuclear warfare, communism and the Cold War) than it was on decrying the horrors of WWII. While noir filmmakers found ways to express the fatalism and nihilism that the war’s dance with depravity/death-by-millions may have injected into the American psyche as a whole, there isn’t an overwhelming sense in those pictures that WWII destroyed a generation so much as aged them prematurely, by decades. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that that war had a degree of moral justification, at least in a way that Vietnam couldn’t take a torch to. Consider, then, films as mainstream as “Taxi Driver” and “The Deer Hunter” which directly draw causative links between Vietnam service and the psychoemtional decay of their central characters. Perhaps there was a sense that the war waged in French Indochina, due to the ambiguity of its aims and its questionable justifications, killed everyone who served in it (at least from an American perspective) be it physically or psychologically; either way, whether you returned home in a casket or multi-medalled in the backseat of a car, you were dead, dead to your old self and those you once knew and who once knew you. This may all sound overly hyperbolic, but this is exactly the source of drama from which Clark and his collaborators appear to have drawn while making “Deathdream” and making it work like a well-restored old engine.

The hints of knowing villainy underlying Andy is at first a little disconcerting, as though Buack’s performance is misguided, and for a while it might feel this way. Andy almost appears to take perverse pleasure in quietly disturbing those that are trying so hard (to varying degrees) to accommodate his return, whether by attempting to surreptitiously rehabilitate him or by openly accepting that he is broken but at no fault of his own. The speech he makes to the family doctor, Dr Allman, suggests that Andy is somehow punishing if not simply spiting the society that forcefully sent him off to die. It’s only when this scene is contrasted with the film’s closing moments that the true anguish at the core of the film’s ‘protagonist’ comes to the fore, hauntingly expressed on a remarkably well made-up face that must surely stand as one of the most effective instances of creature cosmetics in the independent horror canon if not further afield. Andy, like the best film fiends, is as much a victim of himself as are the people from whom he drains blood, a victim of his newfound bloodthirst, of the guilt he might feel for playing a part in a potentially unjust war and the concurrent rage he feels towards the nation that would think to place him in such a position. Like Travis Bickle and company, Andy is painfully confused and conflicted, and the fact that he – like them – reconciles these emotions by developing a destructive and misanthropic worldview, rife with contradictions, is precisely what makes him so unpredictably dangerous, and unexpectedly, sympathetically sad.

From a monster mythology standpoint, “Deathdream” is wholly unique, hence the neologisms (zompire and vambie) used earlier. Like the titular character in George A. Romero’s downright vampire masterpiece “Martin,” Andy is not the elegantly invincible ghoul of the Dracula lineage but a surprisingly wretched and decidedly human species of undead, one who obtains his sanguine sustenance by messily killing people and injecting himself with blood like a junkie, which may mean that “Deathdream” is some sort of a precursor to Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” if not a direct influence. Is Andy a vampire, or is he a zombie? Like most vampires he is a blood parasite who seems to hunt at night. But, like Martin, he is not particularly affected by sunlight, and the lifeless, automatoid way he behaves and moves (often swinging menacingly back and forth in a rocking chair in a way that resembles Sam Neill’s character in Zulawski’s “Possession”) imply that he is a walking dead man. While overall evidence might skew more towards him being a vampire than a zombie seeing as zombies tend to lack any appreciable level of sentience, the fact that Andy’s ghoul-lineage is not as plainly clear as the vast majority of creature-feature horror films is part of what makes “Deathdream” so damn distinctive. Maybe Bob Clark decided to focus on a different kind of entity driven by pain, alienation and a sense of being wronged by the society for which they were willing to sacrifice everything: the Vietnam Vet.

 

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