Monday, December 29, 2008

You, the Living

Roy Andersson's darkly funny, occasionally awe-inspiring You, the Living (2007) takes place over a few days in a colourless city where everyone is miserable for one reason or another. A school teacher breaks down in front of her class because her husband called her a hag, and the husband feels terrible for saying it. A teenager falls in love with the lead singer of a goth band, but the singer doesn't love her back. After nearly thirty years of trying to make sad people happy, a disillusioned psychiatrist tells the camera he now just prescribes pills, "the stronger the better." And so on. It says something about the film's Scandinavian flavour that a bartender calling out last orders before closing time is a structural device.

Andersson is a master of composition. He rarely moves his camera and he never goes in for a close-up. Instead, he guides the viewer's gaze primarily through his mise en scène. In one scene, an odious businessman sitting in a restaurant drones on endlessly into his cell phone ("Quality has never been for the common man"), and his position in the center of the frame, and the fact that he's speaking, make him the obvious focal point. His companion is placed closer to the camera on the left side of the screen, and occasionally turns in the direction of the camera to gaze silently at something off-screen (presumably the rain, which we hear on the soundtrack). A man sitting at the next table is positioned further away from the camera than the businessman, on the right side of the frame, but we're drawn to the movement of his hands as he softly touches the businessman's jacket. As I watched the film, I found that I was more alert to small, seemingly unimportant things happening in the frame, as in one scene where the psychiatrist walks up a set of stairs on the left side of the screen; after he disappears from sight, a door opens on the right side of the frame and some one tosses a box onto a pile of garbage, activating a part of the screen that hadn't previously been the focal point.

The film doesn't have a conventional plot. There are small clusters of scenes that are tied together by a causal chain, as when a different businessman offends an Arabic barber. The barber responds by shaving a line down the middle of his head, and then walks to a nearby café to calm down. The businessman follows the barber and starts yelling at him about an important meeting he has to go to. The barber calmly tells the businessman he'll fix it for free. In the next scene, the businessman walks into a meeting with a completely shaved head, but no one pays any notice. During the meeting, the boss has a stroke and dies. The next scene is at his funeral, and neither the barber nor the businessman is seen again. (However, a female singer who performs at the funeral turns up much later in the film, singing in her bathtub.) More often, Andersson cuts to an adjacent scene. In one sequence, a tuba player practices in his apartment, disturbing his neighbor on the floor below. The film then cuts to a man standing on his balcony in a neighboring building, where he can see both the tuba player and his neighbor. Sometimes the connections between scenes are more elusive. The film opens with a man sleeping on a couch next to an open window. On the soundtrack, we hear an approaching train. The film cuts to a bickering couple sitting on a park bench. In the background behind them is a bridge. Are we supposed to conclude that the train passed on that bridge? To make a connection between the two shots, we need to go beyond the letter of the text, either making an inference or possibly even an interpretation.

Andersson's deadpan style places everything on an even keel. The camera maintains an objective distance from the characters, and the actors are arranged in the frame so that nobody seems more important than anybody else (the scene in the restaurant is a perfect example). Rather than having a plot that builds, the film consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes. The tone is at once absurd and deadly serious, as when a man has a dream where he's sentenced to death for smashing china. As he's dragged to the electric chair, the "victim" stands up in the viewing room and repeats that the china he smashed was two hundred years old. This is only the second film I've seen by Andersson, after Songs From the Second Floor (2000), yet his style is so singular that I wouldn't hesitate to declare that he's the greatest of all Swedish filmmakers.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Weird

A Korean spaghetti western (bokumbap eastern?) set in 1930s Manchuria, Kim Ji-woon's The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008) has to be the emptiest movie I've seen in ages. Don't expect a story, just boring exposition in between shoot outs. This has a thin plot involving buried treasure (very thin), but I quickly lost track of, and lost interest in, who had the map and how all the interested parties (the Japanese army, the Koren liberation movement, a gang of bandits, the good, the bad and the weird) knew to converge on the same spot in the middle of the desert for--surprise, surprise--another big shoot out. The action scenes are incomprehensible with lots of movement and noise but little spatial continuity. Despite the attractive production design and scenery, this doesn't even rise to the level of good flashy trash.

The Fall

Tarsem Singh's The Fall (2006) is a film both enchanting and sad. Like "The Arabian Nights," it tells a story within a story, but that's where the similarities end. The frame story, set in a Los Angeles hospital during the era of silent film, is about a delightful little girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who broke her arm when she fell while picking oranges. She befriends a Hollywood stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace), who's paralyzed from the waist down. He begins to tell her a story about five mythical heroes who, for various reasons, want revenge against the evil Governor Odious. Once he gains her trust, he asks her to steal some morphine for him, he tells her, so he can sleep. Alexandria comes to identify with him as a father figure, but he's a decidedly flawed and ambiguous one.

The film isn't as grim as I'm making it sound. In various ways, the film playfully reminds us that the story Roy tells Alexandria is all in her imagination. When Alexander the Great (Kim Uylenbroek) receives a message, it's written on the same paper Alexandria uses to send a note to one of the hospital's nurses, Sister Evelyn (Justine Waddell), and the masks worn by Governor Odious' soldiers are the same as the one worn by the man who operates the hospital's x-ray machine. At first, one of the story's heroes, the Blue Bandit (Pace), has an Eastern European accent, like Alexandria's father, until Alexandria decides the Blue Bandit should have an American accent, like Roy. Although Roy clearly means one character, referred to only as the Indian (Jeetu Verma), to be a Native American, describing his wife as a beautiful "squaw," Alexandria pictures him as an East Indian with a long beard and turban. It's unlikely that a little girl listening to Roy's story would picture (just to name one example) one scene happening in front of the Taj Mahal, since it has nothing to do with the story, but that's missing the point; the film's imagery--vast desert landscapes, flamboyant costumes by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, shirtless musclemen--is self consciously mythic.

Why did the film get such lousy reviews? Michael Joshua Rowin of indieWire finds it too ostentatious in its "immodest scale and melodramatic excess." Is it my imagination or are reviewers resistant to films of ambition? In a poll of U.S. reviewers published by Film Comment, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy was voted the best film released there in 2008. It's a good film, very modest, but there's not a world of difference between the plot of Reichardt's film and a Trudeau-era social realist downer like Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road (1971). (Nor, for that matter, is Reichardt any more formally adventurous.) Would The Fall be a better movie if Singh had learned a little modesty? Reichardt's film is about a woman in a blue hoodie standing in a parking lot--and like a parking lot, the film does what it's supposed to do. Personally, I prefer movies like the Taj Mahal: grand, ambitious and spectacularly immodest.