Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Red Road (Arnold, 2006)

Sitting in front of a bank of monitors, able to monitor suspicious activity all over the city, Jackie succumbs to the temptation that many of us would no doubt have if we found ourselves in the same position. She begins to use her pseudo-omniscience for personal ends. A man and a woman sneak away for a quick sexual encounter behind a city building, unaware of the camera fixed on their moment of supposed intimacy. Jackie watches quietly with interest and for a moment we suspect that she may even be aroused by what she sees. And then she sees the man’s face. She thinks it is someone from her past. As she moves her camera to follow her target, she loses him temporarily and settles briefly upon … a sly metaphor crossing the road and escaping into the night. What it is exactly, I will not reveal, but it effectively tells us what we need to know about the man that has captured Jackie’s attention. Or at least how she perceives him.

Jackie’s voyeuristic occupation keeps her at a safe distance from the general hubbub and bustle of the city. As we learn more about her past, we discover why this particular vocation would be especially desirable. Using modern technology, Jackie is able to help people to avoid trouble before it starts. And yet, we also see that there is a part of her that craves intimacy and companionship. She smiles warmly as she observes the old man walking his perpetually ailing dog and also at the cleaning lady dancing raucously in a room she thinks no one can see. She has illicit sexual encounters with a regular partner, but these trysts are about as personal as a regular check-up at the dentist. It is startling when she leaves her privileged position in order to take a more direct approach to the situation at hand. As much of the film consists of Jackie watching surveillance video, there is a great deal of silence. This is contrasted sharply with the loud Oasis sing-a-long at a party Jackie crashes for her own purposes. Is it because the party takes place at a position outside of the range of her camera’s view? Or perhaps it is because she cannot bear the idea that this man has the freedom to enjoy the company of friends and celebrate.

Red Road is the first in a trilogy of films by different directors tied together under the heading of Advance Party. Basically, the films will be tied together by a shared set of characters that have been created by Danes Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. A set of rules has been crafted to guide the project; however, despite Lars von Trier’s apparent participation, this particular set of rules is decidedly non-dogmatic, asserting only that the films must take place in Scotland and that all characters must appear in all of the films and be played by the same actor throughout. It remains to be seen how Red Road will be informed , complemented, enhanced or contradicted by the two films to follow. However, as a stand-alone effort, it is a captivating, effective piece on the topic of pain, intimacy, revenge and healing.

In the lead role, Kate Dickie gives an extraordinary performance as a woman who is easily identifiable but ultimately somewhat difficult to wholeheartedly embrace. Jackie is a woman who both demands control and has difficulty maintaining it and Dickie smoothly and admirably navigates that contradiction. Director Andrea Arnold has the distinction of making her feature film debut already with an Oscar to her credit (for the short film, Wasp). Red Road shows that Arnold is likely to live up to that early promise. Her film offers a complicated and provocative portrait of a female protagonist without being overtly feminist. It is also bluntly sexual without being exploitative. After keeping up rapt in attention for the duration of her film, Arnold’s conclusion comes across as a bit too pat and tidy. Still, Red Road is successful at offering fresh perspectives and rhythms that may well be the harbingers of an extraordinary career.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Naruse, 1960)

The title can mean at least a couple different things. Ascending the stairs can serve as a metaphor for the aging process. Our central character, Keiko, is merely thirty years of age, yet already a widow. In order to have a comfortable life for herself, she serves as a hostess at a bar that upon a cursory glance could be mistaken for a brothel. Although the female staff members are not officially ‘on the menu’, it is clear that their main task is to satisfy the male clientele with their charm and femininity. Having lost her husband, Keiko is now past the age when many women begin a life of marriage. In Keiko’s story, director Mikio Naruse suggests that the opportunities for women to fit into Japanese society are limited to a very narrow path – much like the narrow stairs which lead to only one destination. A woman may take a husband and live off of his wealth, or she may make her own way in a career that will most likely still involve satisfying the ego of a wealthy man.

Another metaphorical implication of the title may call attention to the way a woman ascends in social status. This aspect of the title’s meaning is ironic. As evidenced by the film, Keiko finds herself ‘ascending’ into a destination that she does not desire. On more than one occasion, she is offered an opportunity to attain financial comfort and security; however, these options lack those things that she most desires – namely control over her own destiny, and, perhaps more urgently, love. Although the topic of whoredom is never explicitly discussed, it permeates the subtext of the entire film. The favors Keiko offers and receives are invariably as romantic as a financial ledger. With each flirtation between man and woman, we must ask ourselves what each party has to gain. Even when Keiko seemingly negotiates an arrangement that is dispassionate but workable, her social position is only as sturdy as the man whom she has given control.

Naruse’s film will be pleasing to those who prefer a restrained and unadorned style. He is fortunate to have a strong, convincing lead in Hideko Takamine who is convincing in each and every moment she appears on screen. She is a woman who carries with her a lot of emotional baggage and yet clearly still strives to live happily and vibrantly. There is hope within her that she will discover something wonderful at the top of the stairs. And yet she is intelligent enough to observe the lives of those around her and foresee where she is most likely heading. Very little about Naruse’s style is particularly memorable, as he seems to have pitched himself towards efficiency rather than artistry. Because of this, the film occasionally has stretches that can seem obvious because we know the basic trajectory long before we arrive. Still, the tale is told well and with integrity, leading up to a climax that could prove emotionally powerful to some viewers. I found that my own response was something closer to detached appreciation rather than passionate investment. Still, the film is worth the journey in order to experience an articulate expression of a recurring societal issue.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Paprika (Kon, 2006)

Every bit as disorienting as Inland Empire, David Lynch’s collision of fiction and reality, Paprika is an exhilarating experience that basically contains all that is good about Satoshi Kon’s previous projects and combines them into one potent feature. From Perfect Blue, we have a central heroine whose identity is fractured. From Millenium Actress, we have concrete reality merging with the reality of dreams and memories. And from Paranoia Agent, we have a sly social commentary about a society that has been driven insane by modernity.

After one viewing of this delightfully slippery film, I offer a plot synopsis at my own peril. But, basically, the situation is as follows. A group of psychotherapists has developed the DC Mini, a device which allows patients to capture their own dreams and view them later when they are awake. As the film begins, we enter into the midst of a recurring dream that a cop is having which involves chasing a mysterious figure down a hallway and being unable to prevent a murder. The dream is an abstraction of the case that he is currently working to solve. Problems arise when it is discovered that someone is using the technology to enter the dreams of all those who are hooked up to the device. By manipulating dreams, this ‘terrorist’ - as they call him - is able to eventually create delusion that impact reality. The dreams of different people begin to merge and build dangerous momentum. Soon, the barrier between dreams and reality disappears altogether, leading to extraordinary sequences where the background is constantly shifting and characters may enter paintings, films or television programs and instantly become a part of a whole new world.

Yes, there are explicit references made to the illusory world of cinema. Films, after all, are always some sort of dream – an imagined series of events that may aid us in understanding the events of our waking lives. However, the real profundity in Kon’s film is the way that he links our dream world to our online world. The internet, Kon suggests, is a place where many of our repressed desires may come to life. As in our dreams, we may take on different identities or we may indulge in unusual fantasies. We may be emboldened to say or do things that we might not otherwise allow to see the light of day. The key difference, of course, is that unlike our dreams, this online activity is shared and public. As the influence of the technology grows and people spend more and more time in their ‘second lives’, this collective fantasy must inevitably have real world consequences. Our dreams may not be ours alone, but rather open and available for others to invade and impact.

Paprika is a complex film, layering ideas upon ideas, all the while remaining capable of shifting directions at any given moment. However, it not a film that is unnecessarily frustrating or unfocused. Kon allows rest periods in between the extraordinary visual assaults for us to process what we are experiencing, and there is always a sense of forward momentum, even if sometimes we feel that we are barely able to keep up. Pressed into a ninety-minute feature, Kon is not able to indulge in the kind of digressions that made Paranoia Agent occasionally difficult to fully absorb. Paprika is Satoshi Kon meeting and exceeding our highest expectations and delivering his best work yet.