Friday, August 31, 2007

"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Review :: Sunshine

In the pantheon of great science fiction, there are only a few truly great films. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris, Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner: these are the types of films that define the genre and they are the benchmarks against which all sci-fi films, especially those with a philosophical bent, are measured. Executed well, a science fiction film can nearly transcend the medium; executed poorly, a science fiction film can fail spectacularly. Danny Boyle's Sunshine does neither and falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes: it's not a brilliant flick but neither is it a disastrous one. Those like myself who were expecting Boyle to deliver another groundbreaking film of Trainspotting or 28 Days Later-like proportions will likely be disappointed by Sunshine since, unlike what he did in those films, Boyle does not really bring anything new or all that compelling to the board here other than a few interesting visuals. That said, Sunshine is an enjoyable and often exhilarating film that, if you are willing to suspend an almost unreasonable amount of disbelief and just go along with it, can prove quite entertaining.

The premise of Sunshine is simple enough and at first blush seems too ridiculous even for hardened sci-fi veterans. The sun is cooling; the earth is freezing; humanity's last hope is a crew of eight sent to deploy a "stellar bomb" into the sun, which will apparently somehow solve the problem. While it may sound like a ridiculously bad disaster movie, it is somewhat more intelligent than might be expected. The exposition is handled in the film's first few minutes, allowing Boyle to settle back and craft what turns out to be, at least until the action heavy final act, an effective if somewhat conventional isolation drama. The crew faces all of the expected challenges: equipment failure, human error, interpersonal conflicts, morally ambiguous life and death decisions and, of course, an almost obligatory intercepted transmission. All of these elements are woven together by Boyle to form a tight, well-structured narrative that at the very least resonates on all the right emotional levels. Even in the most extreme situations, the choices that the characters make feel like the right ones and not like mere plot contrivances.

However, while it is reasonably intelligent and quite a lot of fun, Sunshine fails to be what it really wants to be. Boyle, probably too conscious of the great films that have boldly gone before him, has attempted to make the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. Philosophically minded sci-fi is a tricky bag. What made 2001 so effective was its brilliant marriage of realistic technology and pure visual poetry. Even though he tries very hard to achieve it, Boyle never manages to arrive at this marriage like Kubrick did: inevitably, both the science and the poetry of the film interfere with each other. The poetry of Boyle's images is crushed beneath our unwillingness to believe what we are seeing and the images just don't make much sense from a rational point of view. For instance, in the final act there are several visual distortions and some editing techniques that are, as far as I can tell, supposed to be taken as representations both of madness and of the spatial and temporal implications of approaching the sun and its gravity. However, aside from some moments of real visual beauty, what is happening on screen is never quite clear - is this really happening or is this a metaphorical representation of a distorted mental state? This uneasy combination of science and poetry means that Sunshine often feels a bit conflicted and that it ultimately fails to overwhelm like good science fiction should. It packs punch but lacks elegance.

Sunshine is not a bad film. It is very competently directed, very well acted and it looks very good. It just isn't a great film. I really like Danny Boyle - Trainspotting is probably one of my favourite movies and I thought 28 Days Later was a brilliant reinvention of the zombie genre. Like 28 Days Later, Sunshine is at its best when it is played like a parable about human nature. Perhaps if Danny Boyle had foregone scientific plausibility entirely and attempted to make a work of pure poetry, like Darren Aronosky's under appreciated film The Fountain, he might have made a better film. As it is, Sunshine is entertaining and interesting flick that, though it aspires to it, falls short of true greatness.

experto crede: a casual recommendation

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bergman Marathon :: The Seventh Seal (1957)

"Say anything you want against The Seventh Seal. My fear of death—this infantile fixation of mine—was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous. When I finished the picture, my fear went away. I have the feeling simply of having painted a canvas in an enormous hurry—with enormous pretension but without any arrogance. I said, 'Here is a painting; take it, please.'"
— Ingmar Bergman, (1971)

In The Seventh Seal, a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, in one of his earliest roles), and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return from the crusades to find medieval Sweden teetering on the brink of apocalypse. The plague ravages the land, the church scours the country with doomsday rhetoric and zealotry, and the common people live in squalor and fear. Block, like his country, faces the dark night of his soul as Death (eerily personified by Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim him. However, Block, though not surprised that Death should find him, is suffering a crisis of faith and so, wracked with doubts about life, death and God and seeking a stay of execution just long enough to find some answers, proposes to Death that they play a game of chess in order to delay the inevitable.

The Seventh Seal is a much more complex film than Smiles of a Summer Night; it is personal and yet mythic, harrowing and yet somehow cathartic. While neither Bergman nor the knight seem to really arrive at any of the answers that the Knight seeks, both of them seem to find some comfort along the way. While The Seventh Seal is not necessarily an atheistic or sacrilegious film, it does lean towards a a sense of frustrated agnosticism and, emerging out of this frustration, towards a sense of burgeoning humanism . The only real comfort Antonius Block ever finds during his journey is in the company of other people, such as the troupe of actors that eventually travel with him. These actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), along with their infant son Michael, seem to form Bergman's own version of the holy family, reconstituted in The Seventh Seal as common, earthy people, free from the vulgarities and pretenses of organized religion and politics. Like Petra and Frid in Smiles of a Summer Night, Jof and Mia seem to represent Bergman's ideal. The two films, in fact, end in similar fashions, with both happy young couples living freely and simply in nature while at the same time possessing a sobering insight into the condition of humanity.

Bergman is a master a human sympathy and he is able, seemingly out of the air, to conjure within his audience feelings of intense affection, startling terror, honour, anxiety, disgust and love. Max von Sydow, tormented by doubt, is at once both Bergman and the audience. However, almost every major character in Bergman's films are rich and human and so, depending upon the scene, audiences find themselves effortlessly identifying with each major character, now with the anxiety of Antonius Block, now with the cynicism and world-weary honour of Jöns, now with the the soft sensuality of Mia. In fact, the only major character unable to arouse sympathy at all is Death, a character without personality or temperament. He merely is and, like he himself says, is "unknowing." On top of all this, and enhancing the actors brilliant performances, is that fact that the film is utterly beautiful. Its stark and iconic images, its subtle and gentle camera moves, its steady and soft editing all combine to create a visually stunning experience. There are no extravagances here; the artifice is almost invisible, allowing the characters to simply be.

It is really quite possible to go on at great length about The Seventh Seal. Its tightly allegorical structure, its political and religious anxieties, its rich and metaphorical characters, all of these can inspire pages and pages of commentary. What resonates so timelessly, though, are the raw and basic questions that the film asks and, unlike most films, attempts to answer.

experto crede: an undeniable masterpiece

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bergman Marathon :: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

(As most people with even a passing interest in film already know, the legendary Ingmar Bergman recently passed away. It seems obscene, but I had never before seen a Bergman film. With his passing, and by way of tribute, I have decided that it's about time that I catch up with this auteur. This review will be the first of several reviews, or rather miscellaneous notes and comments, on several classic Bergman films. Whenever I begin to explore a new filmmaker, I like to begin close to the beginning in order to get a sense of the artistic trajectory of his or her career. Smiles of a Summer Night was one of Bergman's first international successes, so I will begin here.)

Smiles of a Summer Night is about love, sex and society and how the three interact, complicate or complement each other, and about what (if anything) can bring happiness to more-often-than-not unhappy people. Like most great films, there is no true precision when it comes to identifying the generic label of Smiles - it is a drama, a comedy, a period piece and a comedy of manners. It is all these thing, and it is seamlessly so. The film follows four perhaps mismatched couples as they try to understand their lives and their desires, all of whom find themselves exposed to each other and vulnerable during one weekend in the country. In its depiction of the dark waters of human emotion, Smiles of a Summer Night is not quite uplifting, not quite depressing, but gently straddles the line between the two, leaning sometimes towards a breezy sense of romantic ennui, sometimes towards a renewed sense of life and lust. None of this is to say that Smiles lacks focus, as if it cannot quite make up its mind about what it wants to be or say. Rather, the film seems to be saying that the enjoyment of love, sex and society is complicated and perhaps even foiled by imposed issues of class and morality and the anxieties, pressures and neuroses that are created by both.

Like Stanley Kubrick will later do, Bergman seems to suggest that much of society - with its rituals, rules and highly wrought codes of manners - is essentially sterile, mostly devoid of life and vigor. These rituals, instead of facilitating human enjoyment only seem to frustrate it. Smiles of a Summer Night, however, is not nearly as fatalist or as nihilistic as Kubrick's films. Bergman's bourgeoisie drift about, plagued by doubt and regret, seemingly content and yet haunted by past infatuations (like the character of Fredrik Egerman), they plot and scheme in order to get their own way (like Desiree Armfeldt and the Countess Malcolm), they are tormented by the strict morality imposed upon them by society and religion (like Fredrik's son, Henrik). It is the lower classes, the maids and the butlers who, like in so many Shakespearean plays, manifest a careless bawdiness and an innocent carnality, who live outside the strictures of polite society, who give themselves over to warm sensual pleasures, it is these who get any sort of enjoyment and fulfillment from life and yet even this enjoyment is coloured by a slightly melancholy tint of realism, by the awareness that life and love are rarely perfect and so one might as well make the best of it.

The internal conflict between the rituals of society and the desires of the flesh is vividly encapsulated in the character of Henrik, Fredrik's conflicted son who cannot find peace in the strict religious life he has chosen for himself. In one scene, Henrik, vexed by his own self- and church-imposed virtue, prepares to commit suicide while from a window he enviously watches the uninhibited Petra the Maid and Frid the Groom flirt, giggle and dance. Henrik, in spite of himself and his rigid sense of morality, is in love his his father's young virgin wife Anne (whom Fredrik, still in love with a former mistress, has not yet made love to). At the moment of despair and suicide, however, Henrik is saved by a chance turn of events that leads him, not only to a personal revelation, but also into the arms of Anne, who, young and eager and sexually ignored by her husband, has apparently been in love with him all the time. Mutually disregarding social convention, the new young lovers elope, leaving Fredrik not so much angry at the betrayal as simply bewildered that he has misunderstood love for so long (a betrayal, it is probably important to note, that goes against law and not flesh, since the marriage of Anne and Fredrik had never been consummated).

But perhaps the quintessential scene from Smiles of a Summer Night is the final one, in which Petra, while literally rolling in the hay, playfully forces Frid to swear that he will marry her. "Swear by everything you hold sacred," she demands, to which Frid happily replies, "I swear by my manhood!" Bergman, at least on this film, seems to have settled on lusty, rustic, full-bodied sensuality as the ideal pleasure in life. Here, on the outskirts of society, sex and love and playfulness combine to create a warm, earthy ideal in which men and women, without the pretense of ritual and convention, simply enjoy one another. I don't think that Bergman is saying high society needs to get off its high horse and play in the dirt; I think that he may be saying that the dirt isn't really all that dirty and should be raised up too.

With Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman created a sly, slightly subversive look at polite society. It is a parable of love that just barely refrains from being didactic. The film actually resembles several of Shakespeare's own comedies: a certain carnivalesque atmosphere presides over the entire film, conventions are upset, jealousies are aroused, duels ensue and, in the end, everyone ends paired together as they should be. Even this early in his career, Bergman shows real artistry and he finds a why to make what is essentially a very "talky" movie seem dramatic, compelling and quite exquisite. Since this is the first Bergman film I have seen, I do not yet have a body of work against which to compare this film. Perhaps I have misread several of Bergman's concerns; if I have, that's all part of the fun of discovering new landscapes. However, this much I can say: based on viewing this film, I am very much looking forward to exploring more of his work. The human heart is a fascinating thing, and getting to know an artist's understanding of it, regardless of whether or not you agree with him, is always an intriguing and compelling project. One could do a lot worse than spend some time with Ingmar Bergman.

experto crede: a strong recommendation, especially for those looking for comedy or romance with a slightly philosophical bent

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lord of the Flies (excerpt)

(I'm reading Lord of the Flies at the moment. I had read it years ago in high school and had forgotten most of it. It is apocalyptic and savage, a howling microcosm of human society and the evils that tear it apart from within. Enjoy.)

Simon stayed where he was, a small brown image, concealed by the leaves. Even if he shut his eyes the sow's head still remained like an after-image. The half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life. They assured Simon that everything was a bad business.

"I know that."

Simon discovered that he had spoken aloud. He opened his eyes quickly and there was the head grinning amusedly in the strange daylight, ignoring the flies, the spilled guts, even ignoring the indignity of being spiked on a stick.

He looked away, licking his dry lips.

A gift for the beast. Might not the beast come for it? The head, he thought, appeared to agree with him. Run away, said the head silently, go back to the others. It was a joke, really - why should you bother? You were just wrong, that's all. A little headache, something you ate, perhaps. Go back, child, said the head silently.

Simon looked up, feeling the weight of his wet hair, and gazed at the sky. Up there, for once, were clouds, great bulging towers that sprouted away over the island, grey and cream and copper-coloured. The clouds were sitting on the land; they squeezed, produced moment by moment, this close, tormenting heat. Even the butterflies deserted the open space where the obscene thing grinned and dripped. Simon lowered his head, carefully keeping his eyes shut, then sheltered them with his hand. There were no shadows under the trees but everywhere a pearly stillness, so that what was real seemed illusive and without definition. The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leap-frog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood - and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition. In Simon's right temple, a pulse began to beat on the brain.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1954. 151-2.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Review :: Inland Empire

I'm not sure that it's actually possible to review David Lynch's Inland Empire in any traditional way. Anyone who has seen either Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Dr. (2001) understands that Lynch is operating on different levels of experience and story-telling than perhaps any other living director and knows that his stories, which are often deeply involved with issues of identity and sexuality and the psychological turmoils that often accompany both, are esoteric, arcane and yet resonate deeply on an unconscious level. Inland Empire continues Lynch's unique style of exploration into these themes. Yet while it is elegant, startling and beautiful to behold, it is so spectacularly bizarre, so impenetrable and it's length is so utterly taxing that it will baffle even the hardiest of cinephiles. By comparison, Inland Empire makes Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. seem like nearly conventional narratives. Shot entirely on consumer-level, hand-held DV cameras and filmed in a surrealistic almost home-video style, Inland Empire is Lynch's most experimental film since his debut film Eraserhead (1977). All of this means that I can't really see anyone enjoying this film other than an already established Lynch fan (which, I should state for the record, I am) or a open-minded connoisseur of the avant-garde and experimental. For those that do brave these murky waters, though, Lynch provides an experience that is utterly unique and rather unforgettable.

The plot of Inland Empire, as far as there is one, revolves around the character (or characters) played by Laura Dern, who starred for David Lynch in both Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990). Dern plays Nikki Grace, a reasonably famous actress struggling to stay recognized is youth-obsessed Hollywood. Already, Lynch seems to be teasing us with meta concerns, as Nikki appears to possibly resemble Laura Dern herself. Nikki is told by a strange visitor (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) that she (Nikki) is about to star in a new movie, something even Nikki does not know yet. The visitor is of course correct and Nikki excitedly takes the part. As production of the movie begins, though, Kingsley Stewart, the film's director (Jeremy Irons) tells her and her co-star (Jeremy Theroux) that the movie may in fact be cursed and that it is actually a remake of a film that was never released. Cryptically, Stewart tells them that the previous production had "discovered something inside the story." From here, Inland Empire very rapidly discards all notions of coherence and becomes a series of increasing distressing and beautiful abstract images which seem to revolve around Laura Dern's multiple characters. For instance, the character of Nikki Grace seems to slowly lose her identity to Susan Blue, the character Nikki is playing in the movie. If this sounds like a simple case of "meta awareness" or what have you, don't be fooled. While the movie does play with such notions and raise these questions (is this a movie-within-a-movie situation, a dream-within-a-dream, or are we perhaps watching a movie about the movie we are actually watching, like Adaptation) it does so only partially, only enough to suggest the possibility. Whatever is happening in Inland Empire is rather more complicated than just this, though, and involves, among other things, an unidentified woman, Polish gangsters in another era and a surreal sitcom about talking rabbits.

The logic of Inland Empire is nearly inscrutable, at least according to the traditional conventions of film structure and narrative. It is Lynchian logic. It is the logic of dreams and nightmares, in which every character can be the same character (not only metaphorically but literally) and in which places, events, repeated words and, in the case of a film, shots and angles, are pregnant with arcane and yet tautly emotional meaning. In this kaleidoscopic Lynchian dream, the narrative is fractured; it is unclear whether or not the many events and "things that happen" are independent of each other, parallel, overlapping, simultaneous or perhaps altogether hallucinatory. And yet, while it is "fractured," it is entirely unified in its own way according to the madness of its method. The disparate elements form an emotional tapestry that, if it does not make sense, at least loudly resonates on a visceral level. Lynch himself is very cryptic about the movie and when asked what is it about, which is perhaps the wrong question to ask about this film, Lynch has typically responded that it is "about a woman in trouble, and it's a mystery, and that's all I want to say about it." Perhaps a more helpful hermeneutical hint, though, is this. When touring with the movie, Lynch apparently often began screenings by first quoting a passage from the Aitareya Upanishad. The passage is, "We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe." If Inland Empire is a dream, though, whose dream is it? Is it Nikki's or Susan's? Lynch's? Or is it ours, the audiences? Lynch plays with all of these possibilities, I think, but deliberately and a little frustratingly refuses to give us an answer.

I'm really not sure what else to say about the movie. I could comment on the actors' performances, which are all remarkable, especially Laura Dern's (her performance is made even more remarkable since, as she freely admits, she had no idea what the film was about when they were making it), but almost inevitably, and this is not to say anything against the actors or their abilities, the performances in a Lynch movie often become only another technical feature bringing about Lynch's vision. As I scramble for a way to close this review, I think that the final thing I should say is this: Inland Empire is definitely not for the average moviegoer. It is not even for the average art house cinephile. It sounds pretentious, and perhaps it is the height film snobbery to say it, but Inland Empire is a work of pure abstract art and will be enjoyed only by a few adventurous, and slightly confused, souls. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, all its impenetrability, it possesses a compelling grandeur that is quite remarkable. I don't know what Inland Empire is or what it is about, but I feel like it's important and I know that I want to experience it again.

experto crede
: a strong, but very qualified, recommendation.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

No Country for Old Men (excerpt)

(A friend lent me a copy of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and I just finished reading it. In many ways, the book is a eulogy to the bygone American zeitgeist, a nearly but-not-quite hopeless epitaph to a short-lived moral vision and sensibility that once clearly defined right and wrong. I loved every word of McCarthy's stark, gruffly lyrical prose. Enjoy.)

He turned and looked at me. And I thought he looked a lot older. His eyes looked old. He said: People will tell you it was Vietnam brought this country to its knees. But I never believed that. It was already in bad shape. Vietnam was just the icin on the cake. We didn't have nothin to give em to take over there. If we'd sent em without rifles I don't know as they'd of been all that much worse off. You can't go to war like that. You can't go to war without God. I don't know what is goin to happen when the next one comes. I surely dont.

And was pretty much all that was said. I thanked him for his time. The next day was goin to be my last day in the office and I had a good deal to think about. I drove back to I-10 along the back roads. Drove down to Cherokee and took 501. I tried to put things in perspective but sometimes you're just too close to it. It's a life's work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong. And that is somethin I dont want to be wrong about. I've thought about why it was I wanted to be a lawman. There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everybody back into the boat. If I've tried to cultivate anything it's been that. I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes. And whatever comes my guess is that it will have some power to sustain us. These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of Texas towns with green hard and bones in their noses speakin a language that couldnt understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you'd told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way. And it don't tell you nothin about how it's fixin to get, neither. Part of it was I always thought I could at least someway put things right and I guess I just dont feel that way no more. I don't know what I do feel like. I feel like them old people I was talkin about. Which aint goin to get better neither. I'm bein asked to stand for somethin that I dont have the same belief in it I once did. Asked to believe in somethin i might not hold with the way I once did. That's the problem. I failed at it even when I did. Now I've seen it held to the light. Seen any number of believers fall away. I've been forced to look at it again and I've been forced to look at myself. For better or for worse I do not know. I dont know that I would even advise you to throw in with me, and I never had them sorts of doubts before. If I'm wiser in the ways of the world is come at a price. Pretty good price too.

McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 294-6.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Sailing to Byzantium" by W. B. Yeats


That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school by studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Trailer :: No Country for Old Men

In case you haven't decided which movie to be excited about this year, I'll tell you: you should be excited about No Country for Old Men. Some filmmakers inspire pure confidence. You just get excited and a bit tingly thinking about what they are capable of creating. The Coen Brothers are like this. The first Joel and Ethan Coen movie I ever saw was Fargo. I was young, and I admit I didn't get it like I do now, but I knew I loved it. Since Fargo, the Coens have pretty much stuck with their own brand of comedy, creating films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and one of my personal favourite comedies, The Big Lebowski. With No Country for Old Men, though, they seem primed to return to the world of modern noir and American neo-gothic, to the stark and blood-soaked sensibility with which they launched their careers when they made Blood Simple way back in 1984. I could hardly be more excited.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Review :: Rescue Dawn

(Movies based on actual events are always a bit tricky. Werner Herzog already made a documentary about Dieter Dengler, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) and if I were interested in the facts about this story I would watch that. I approach movies like Rescue Dawn as a work of art; that is, I think they stand on their own and as complete works regardless or in spite of history.)

Though the movie takes place just prior to and during the Vietnam war, and so could probably be called a "Vietnam movie" and shelved proudly alongside films such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn is not a movie about Vietnam. It is not a cathartic experience, not an attempt by the filmmaker to exorcise personal demons or to find the meaning of the conflict. It is not a modern political parable or a thinly veiled piece of pro-American rhetoric. Rescue Dawn is more mythic than all of these concerns and, at the same time, is so much more simple than them. The film is about human endurance and hope, about the ability to persevere is the midst of suffering. While it is biographically about one man, Dieter Dengler, it is mythically about humanity itself and its conflicts both with itself and with the savagery of nature.

Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a US fighter pilot who on his first mission over Laos is shot down, hunted, tortured and taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, all before America even officially declares war with Vietnam. While in the prison camp, Dengler encourages the other inmates to rekindle their hope and plot their escape, no matter how impossible or hopeless the situation may seem. Breaking out of the camp is only half the problem, though; huddled deep within the Laotian jungle, the camp is virtually inescapable. As Dengler's close friend Duane (played exceptionally well by Steve Zahn) says, the jungle is the prison. When Dengler and the inmates finally do escape their captors, their real challenge of survival begins. Nature, much more so than even their torturers, is the real antagonist in Rescue Dawn.

The relationship between man and nature is one of Herzog's strong fascinations, as anyone who as seen Aguirre: the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo could tell you. In the Herzogian milieu, nature is terrifying; saying that the prison is the jungle is tantamount to saying that the jungle is hell: there is no escape. Herzog's nature is savage, ferocious, terrifying and nearly omnipotent, a dark demon brooding not only over but inside mankind and waiting to swallow him up, much like Conrad's Congo in Heart of Darkness or Milton's Hell within Satan in Paradise Lost. The terrifying image in Aguirre of Klaus Kinski, his soul claimed by the jungle, drifting up the river alone, mad and raging, is the iconic Herzogian image of nature. In Dieter Dengler and with Rescue Dawn, however, Herzog seems to have found a way out of the dark jungle depths and into a new vision of humanity and nature. It is not hard to imagine how, after years of characters succumbing to nature, Herzog found the image of Dengler so compelling. Unlike Aguirre, Dengler walks out of the jungle essentially himself, having undergone no maddening transformation. With the character of Aguirre, Herzog created a myth of nature and man; with Dengler, Herzog deconstructs the myth and creates a new one, one in which a man need not become an animal and lose his soul to the jungle.

In a movie about a man overcoming Herzog's former vision of nature, the actor playing the man would need to be quite remarkable. And he is. Christian Bale's performance as Dieter Dengler is nothing short of perfect. It is nearly sublime. Bale, who has already proven himself so many times, delivers what could be his career-best performance, out-shining his former brilliances in American Psycho and The Prestige (in both of which he was very good). The depth of humanity and sincerity in his performance in Rescue Dawn is remarkable. Forget Tim Robbins: if I were to be imprisoned, I would want to be imprisoned with Christian Bale. Steve Zahn also, who I'd never really seen before in a dramatic role, delivers a startlingly brilliant performance as Dengler's emaciated fellow prisoner Duane who slowly finds his hope rekindled by their friendship. Men who live daily in their own shit have no secrets from each other and Bale and Zahn capture that vulnerability and courage brilliantly. The two actors are utterly convincing in their roles and the intimacy and intensity of their friendship is fierce and unforgettable.

Herzog knows how to tell a story. Even with a plot as seemingly simple as "they escape from prison into the jungle," Herzog finds a way to infuse the entire film with a slow and menacing intensity, whether it be through deliberate, uncompromising photography or through conspiratorially whispering nearly every line. It is refreshing to find that there is still a living director who can hold his breath and deliver a deliberate film, one methodically paced, one with relatively few extravagances and one which is never boring, never dull and always remarkable, always breathtaking.

Under Milk Wook by Dylan Thomas

The Justine Dream Test video got me interested in Dylan Thomas again. I found a great website from which you can stream the entire BBC production of Under Milk Wood, The Life and Work of Dylan Thomas. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in poetry and drama, Dylan Thomas' or anyone's. Thomas had a way of beautifully juxtaposing images and words and of evoking emotions and feelings in a ways that reminds me of T. S. Elliot. I think the best way to listen to Under Milk Wood is in the dark when all you can hear are the rich, deep voices. Enjoy.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Video :: Justine Dream Test

I first found a link on to this video by experimental artist Clayton Cubitt. It's mesmerizing, beautiful and a little distressing but I thought I'd throw it up here since I love it. I especially love the ambiguous voice-over, which comes from a BBC production of Under Milk Wood, a radio play by Dylan Thomas about listening to people's dreams.

It's deliberately blurry, but if your bothered by nudity than you might want to skip it. YouTube pulled it for a little bit when someone complained but I guess they decided it was safe for public consumption. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Video :: A Gentlemen's Duel

Sometimes, amongst the all the useless and inane bits of information that float abstractly through the ether, you come across something on this wild, wet wild innertube that is genuinely creative and entertaining. I found this on youtube and thought it was great. Enjoy.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Review :: Waitress

(It's hard to review Waitress without mentioning Adrienne Shelly's tragic death, especially since there is a tendency among critics to overpraise those who have died, or at the very least to overlook their possible failings. I'm trying hard to keep this in mind as I write this review.)

When it comes to films, I've never really had all that much faith in labels, categories and genres and have typically found that those movies which are so easily categorized - your romantic comedies, your slashers, your techno-thrillers - are usually quite formulaic, dull and most likely intended for mass consumption. Your average rom-com, for instance, is often very formulaic and it usually holds very few real surprises. It obeys the rules and laws of the story-telling conventions that audiences are used to seeing. These formulas are not necessarily bad things; they are, I think, the shapes of modern myths, the stories that a culture tells itself over and over, either to reinforce a certain belief or, perhaps, to delude itself into believing a pretty fairy-tale.

In the world of romantic comedies, these myths are quite powerful and are proven again and again by the repetitive nature of the genre. You expect characters to behave in certain ways; you anticipate their flaws and feel warm and fuzzy when they overcome them and finally find true love. Waitress, however, subverts these familiar conventions. It never does so in a rudely obvious or pretentious manner, though; rather it is sly, sweet and intelligent in all the right ways and is perhaps the more heartwarming and emotionally authentic movie experience you could hope for in 2007.

Keri Russell plays the enchanting Jenna, a pie diner waitress who dreams of one day escaping her emotionally stunted husband, Earl, played by Jeremy Sisto. When to her dismay she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she meets Dr. Pomatter, played perfectly by Firefly's Nathan Fillion, a married man with whom she begins an awkward yet entirely affectionate love affair. Like most rom-coms, the movie sets itself up as a "true love" story in which the characters must overcome greats odds and obstacles in order to be with each other. The characters of Jenna and Dr. Pomatter are so perfectly suited for each other that you can't help falling in love with them and hoping for their success. Rather like last year's The Last Kiss, though, Waitress is not the "chick-flick" it initially appears to be or that it is marketed as; it in fact subverts, or at least deliberately ignores, the conventional prince-charming fairy tale and replaces it with its own fairy tale, one that is mature and heartwarming in ways that most rom-coms never even imagine.

I don't usually talk too much about individual actors in a review since I'd rather devote time to talking about the the whole picture than about the individual components that compose it, but I do want to make a quick note about the two leads, since they are both very, very good. Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion flex dramatic muscles that I didn't know they had and both deserve much more recognition than they have perhaps so far received, especially Fillion who, though he is well known within genre circles for his work on Firefly, is not necessarily known in the mainstream where he proves with Waitress that he rightly deserves to be.

Waitress appears to be the type of movie that many moviegoers, especially guys without dates, would generally avoid, which is a great shame. This is a genuinely beautiful film and it deserves to be seen by anyone who has even a little bit of film appreciation.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

New Korn Album, Untitled

Just a quick note. Korn's new album, Untitled, is out. I'm not going to review it (I don't like reviewing music... I'm not very good at it) but I am going to say that I like it. It continues their sound evolution that began with See You on the Other Side two years ago. They are still the low, mean, drop-D thugs they always were, but they are now a bit more creative, mature, and (dare I say) wise than they used to be. Untitled seems to move away from the emotional savagery and catharsis of their previous work and into more obviously artificial territory. That's not to say that the these new songs are in any way false or less authentic but rather that with this album the band seems more aware of themselves as creative artists. It's growth and it's good to see.