Respect: Tower (2016)

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Image via wattsbw2004 (Flickr)

I spent a lot of the running time of Tower wondering: why make this film? A terrible mass murder happened 50 years ago, and in the reporting of the outstanding Texas Monthly journalist Pamela Colloff, definitive records of the events already exist. So why film one of those pieces? And why animate it? And why drag the survivors through it one more time?

In retrospect, I can put a lot of those questions to the side. My suspicion of director Maitland and his team has given way to a kind of grudging respect. Though his treatment of this dreadful subject is a little showy, the extended animated sequences make it seem far more real than straight re-enactments would have, and he takes you inside a mass shooting in a way that no other film I’ve seen has. (The obvious comparison is with Elephant, which is a lesser film by comparison.)

Most importantly, Maitland’s focus is squarely on the survivors. The ultimate point is the correct number of times for this story to be told — Colloff or not — is however many times the survivors are willing to tell it. This film witnesses their suffering and bravery, something they were largely denied at the time. That alone makes it worthwhile.

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No budget, no genre, no problem: Chronesthesia (2016)

Chronesthesia

Image by glix (Flickr)

I found lots to like about Chronesthesia.

The high-concept premise seems like a gimmick at first, but it earns its big climax and all the editing trickery along the way. The ‘mental time travel’ idea is both a way into the story and an effective means of pushing it forward.

The characters are well-realised people, from youngest to oldest, and their conversations feel authentic, whether they’re meeting cute or arguing, whether or not they’re generations apart. You really feel an emotional investment by actor/director/editor/writer Weal in all of them, even in the smaller supporting roles, and he deserves extra credit for that, especially as he is the star of the film and in nearly every scene. It could so easily have been a straight-up vanity project. Perhaps he realised the quality of the talent opposite him and decided to give them room to do their thing.

Wellington looks marvellous. We already knew that, but Duncombe’s cinematography shows it off in style. Because this is a no-budget film, I also have to mention the sound quality, which is impeccable.

This is a rare film that takes mental illness seriously, to the point that large chunks of dialogue explore its effects on and place in society. A character with mental illness is treated with consistent respect, despite at times being a potential danger to the people around him. Not just a plot device after all!

The only thing I would change is the title. Being a New Zealand film, and hence a product of British English, it should be ‘Chronaesthesia’. But I’ll give them a pass if it gets them an American distribution deal.

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The audacity of hope: Tanna (2015)

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Photo by sydneydawg2006 (Flickr)

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is obligatory, so let’s get that out of the way.

But no, really, Tanna is a lot like Romeo and Juliet. Except it’s set in tribal lands in Vanuatu, where residents have rejected money, Christianity, democracy, and t-shirts, instead choosing a traditional life. And this story really happened, only a few decades ago.

And instead of going all in with the tragedy, it ends with hope — the hope that if you look at the consequences of certain customs, and see how tragic they can be, you can find another way. The hope of charismatic and thoughtful leadership, with speeches backed by action. The hope that minds can change.

It’s so easy to be cynical about such sentiments. You hear them so often from politicians and they so rarely amount to anything tangible. But that’s truly how Tanna made me feel! I would never want to live the way the Yakel do, but I think we can all learn something from them, or at least be reminded of how we are capable of learning.

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Desert island dudes: The Red Turtle (2016)

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Image by chaitanyak (Flickr)

A very interesting test.

Here is a film that looks stunning, boldly limits itself (there is no dialogue) but still succeeds narratively and thematically, and tells a moving and memorable story.

A quarter of the way through, the protagonist flies into a rage and commits a surprisingly cruel act of violence. The other characters in the film forgive him for this, and he attempts to atone for what he has done.

But can you, the audience member, forgive him? Can you accept that act, or put it to the side, and enjoy the rest of the film on its own terms? Can you look at him go on living and loving without shaking your head and tutting?

I’m kind of on the fence, which probably means no, I can’t forgive him. Even though it’s all a fantasy, and even though I was genuinely touched by the lifelong love at the film’s core.

You should forget all this and just see it. It’s worth seeing. Then let me know what you think.

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Manifest destinies: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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The church. Image via drmvm1 (Flickr)

Altman’s thoughts on the American Dream, so fully realised in Nashville, are also central to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In their efforts to find fortune at the frontier, Beatty’s McCabe and Christie’s Mrs. Miller are two sides of the same flawed coin: one a projection of self-belief with few smarts to back it up, the other jaded (and drug-addicted) but knowledgeable and streetwise. Their manifest destinies lie not in ever-expanding fortunes but at the end of a gun wielded by a more ruthless and powerful man, and at the end of an opium pipe.

The American Dream theme goes beyond the business partnership at the film’s core. Sheehan, proprietor of the local tavern, is a committed small-timer, quick to cosy up to any man who acts a little bigger or smarter than he is. All the women in the film are ultimately objects, but within that limited scope of their possible lives, they find value in themselves and in each other. There’s even a moment in which the town’s only black residents, having just joined in a community effort to put out a fire, shuffle hastily away as raucous celebrations begin. Better not stick around in case things get ugly.

And as a whole, McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels cobbled together, as though Altman didn’t quite get all the shots he needed and had to improvise in the editing. But whatever limitations were imposed on his production — whether by the weather, the studio, or the disgruntled star — ultimately serve to improve the film as an artistic statement.

I recall being enchanted by this film when I first saw it, despite its deep sadness. And I found it just as enchanting on a second viewing — not only for the perfect marriage between Vilmos Zsigmond’s images and Leonard Cohen’s music, but also for the lighter touches. The town drunk dances sloppily on a frozen pond. The barman muses about how best to groom his beard. Everyone’s got to kill time somehow.

That’s the way it goes. You work and you kill time until your number’s up, and along the way, you try to find some beauty in it all. Some meaning. This film has both, in spades.

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A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

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Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.

***

So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.

***

The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.

***

I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

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Chaos out of chaos

Fluffy Chaos (via xdxd_vs_xdxd on Flickr)

Fluffy Chaos (via xdxd_vs_xdxd on Flickr)

I used to write in a journal every day, except I called it a diary. ‘Journal’ seemed too American. I, a stubborn an impressionable 16-year-old, was proudly aligned to British English after the influence of my crusading older brother and my Received Pronunciation-tinged mother. Both have either said or written the words ‘don’t forget your roots’ to me in the years since, usually in relation to a point of language.

(For some reason, ‘journal’ is acceptable to me now, and seems more appropriate than ‘diary’. Perhaps I have become Americanized, despite the best efforts of my kin.)

The storm of angst in my teenage head poured out into those Word documents at the end of each day. As I became more and more reliant on my journal to make sense of my thoughts, and of my burgeoning selfhood, I took to writing in it first thing in the morning, during free periods at school, and after dinner — whenever some frustration in my head demanded the indulgence of my complete attention.

The first few years of entries are often unreadable and fall largely into two categories: 1) angry screed against authority figure, or 2) hopeless pining for crush. Confrontation was too terrible to contemplate, and the idea of actually telling a girl how I felt about her was even more mortifying. Thank goodness I had my journal. Without it, I might have exploded and started a war by now.

I remember taking great pride in some of my entries, such that I wished I could share them with other people. But that was simply out of the question, as likely as walking down the street naked. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to keep my journal all to myself; to revel privately in my finer paragraphs.

Sometimes, even early on, I would address my future self directly, and as an authority figure. Don’t fucking write this off as the stupid fucking ramblings of a fucking teenager, etc. (I swore as much as possible.) I have to admire my committed defence of my thoughts, just as I would admire a carefully considered rebuttal of climate change, no matter how blind it were to the truth. I seem to have known exactly how immature my thoughts were, and sought to preempt criticism by firmly stating that my experience was nonetheless valid: that there was order in the chaos of my mind.

*

When I got into my first proper relationship, aged 22 and living in a foreign country, my journal faded into the background of my life. For years it had provided me with a non-judgmental space in which to bash out how I really felt about something. Now I was spending a lot of my time with another person, and often confiding in her, rendering the journal obsolete — except when I wanted to analyse our stuttering relationship, which occasionally brought me back to the keyboard. Fuelled largely by the fear of losing her, these entries were laden with far more painful frustration and inadequacy than the pining of my teenage years.

But these occasions were irregular. I feared she would discover my journal, and that was unthinkable, so I kept away from it as much as possible, only returning when things got really bad. You could chart the good times in our years together by the gaps in my journal.

She did eventually read the journal — without my permission — and was aghast as the tide of negativity swamped her. It didn’t matter, though. The relationship was already lost.

*

Since meeting my current partner, my journal entries have become even more sporadic than they were during that earlier relationship. The main difference is that I have less time to write in it. She refuses to waste any opportunity for a new experience, leaping out of bed on sunny Saturdays and planning a hike or some other outing, or planning a minute-by-minute itinerary for our holidays.

After some initial resistance, I have been swept up in her zest for exploration. Weekend trips away often transpire in a chaotic flurry of activity: of last-minute packing; of wrangling other family members; of board games and large meals and swims in the sea. My participation began as a somewhat grudging attempt to connect with her, coming as it did at the cost of the hours I used to spend sitting at home, but I now go willingly. Getting out and doing things gives me more satisfaction than staying in and thinking about them.

But what of the difficult times? In my previous relationship, the worst of both of us was privately poured out and dissected in my journal. The openness I share with my partner makes that analysis redundant. We aren’t perfect communicators, but where possible, we figure things out together.

I remember it all much less clearly than I used to when I noted and discussed everything I did in my journal. But the moments themselves are more vivid, like a sheer curtain has been pulled away. It’s a trade-off I happily accept, and my hope is that as we grow older, we can keep our experiences alive by filling the gaps in each other’s memories.

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