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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Jonah looms large

Jonah Lomu Global Sports Forum Barcelona

Jonah Lomu at the Global Sports Forum in Barcelona, 2011. Photo by Global Sports Forum (Flickr)

I don’t much care for TV news now. But when I was a kid, I would be in front of the TV every night at 6:40pm without fail. That was when the sports news was read by Clint Brown, or Bernadine Oliver-Kerby, or Peter Williams, or whoever was in the chair that day.

Sometime in 1993, at the back end of the sports bulletin, there was a brief item about a loose forward from Wesley College named Jonah Lomu. Low-angle footage showed him rampaging to the try line from about half way, first bulldozing his opponents out of his path, then skinning them with speed incongruous with the number 8 on his back. I was eight years old and thought to myself, “Bloody hell.”

A couple of months later, again at the end of the sports news, he appeared once more. “Jonah Lomu from Wesley College continues to make waves in the Auckland first XV competition.” Or something like that. It was like an action replay of the earlier item: Lomu gets the ball around half way, Lomu charges through his hapless markers, Lomu sidesteps the fullback, Lomu outruns the covering defenders. Lomu scores.

A year or so later, after a barnstorming performance at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994, Jonah Lomu was in the All Blacks. A year after that, following his famed exploits at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he was the biggest star in the history of rugby union. Of course I watched all that in rapture, even if that 1995 final didn’t work out the way I (or Lomu) would have hoped.

The next time I really paid close attention to Jonah Lomu was during the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens tournament. This was long before the days of managed workloads and sabbaticals for All Blacks, even for critical first-team players like Lomu. He showed up for the tournament with his normally sleek black hair dyed brown and braided (at least, that’s what my memory of the live telecasts tells me). The new hairstyle made him look older and rougher, more a tank than the speeding bullet of old.

Lomu’s role in the team was no longer that of ‘superstar’. The NZ sevens hero of ’96 — the guy I would run outside to imitate in the back yard — was 20-year-old Christian Cullen, and Lomu worked more to set up tries for his younger teammate than to score them himself. In one match, against an opposition so helpless they might as well not have turned up, Lomu threw an American football-style pass from the left touchline to the right-hand side of the field, where Cullen cantered in for another five points. I sat there, mouth agape, as replays confirmed Lomu’s feat. How could he do that in a rugby match? Surely there’s some sort of law against it?

Before the tightly contested final against Fiji, the broadcasters showed a package of Lomu sevens highlights from the previous year, when he had that familiar jet black crop of hair. They then cut to Lomu live, braids returned to that classic Lomu hairstyle, playfully sidestepping a Hong Kong Sevens mascot with a huge smile on his face. With his hair so short and his grin so wide, he looked like a schoolboy. New Zealand won the match and the tournament, almost single-handedly because of Cullen, but Lomu lingered in my mind: the cool guy who would chuck the rugby ball from one side of the field to the other, and who would muck around with the mascot before a huge final. Everything in his stride. (You can see snippets of the American football-style pass and the pre-final cavorting in this highlights package.)

One more memory. In 1997, my mother, who was almost entirely indifferent to rugby, somehow secured us tickets to a highly anticipated Blues vs Hurricanes Super 12 match at Eden Park. These were the days of the great Blues: Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Olo Brown, Robin Brooke, Carlos Spencer, Joeli Vidiri, Lee Stensness, Brian Lima, Adrian Cashmore, and Jonah Lomu. But the Hurricanes had Christian Cullen and a talented young winger named Tana Umaga. The match was one of the great Super Rugby games, ending 45-42 to the Blues. I think even my mother got a bit caught up in the spectacle.

That — 1997 — was the year after Lomu was diagnosed with the kidney disorder that would dictate much of the rest of his life. He spent most of the Super 12 season off the field, and he failed to score a single try. But he was in the team for that Hurricanes match. The media was full of doubts over whether he would ever be the same Lomu again, both speeding bullet and tank. There was plenty of speculation among the public, too, about whether we’d seen the best of this great All Black. So whenever he received the ball, there was a hush of attention around the stadium. But he didn’t do a lot with it. Normally, he’d just take the tackle and secure the ball for the next phase, rather than trying anything Lomu-esque.

Then, at one point in the second half, the ball was thrown wide to him, deep in the Blues’ territory. With a slim chance to beat his marker — Umaga — on the outside, he suddenly blew past him and sprinted forty metres upfield. It seemed to happen in an instant: one moment he was sizing up his marker, the next he was being tackled in the opposition half. What had we been thinking? Of course he still had it. He might not be quite so damaging any more, but he was still Jonah Lomu.

*

We all knew he didn’t have long. But dead at 40? So soon after yet another busy slate of promotional work at the 2015 Rugby World Cup? I guess he wasn’t the type to give much warning.

The truth is that Jonah Lomu has only intermittently been a part of our lives for over a decade now. His status as rugby-s first global superstar ensured media and promotional work around World Cup time, but for every four years in-between, there might only be the occasional news item about his private life or his treatment; the kind of news item that appears well before 6:40pm in the nightly bulletin. Now that he’s gone, he will be the first item, and the second, and the third.

Almost every New Zealander knows one Jonah Lomu moment, which involves Mike Catt. Others, especially those of us in our early-to-mid thirties, might remember quite a lot more. Lomu was our hero, in the sense that Achilles was the hero of Greece: he did things that none of us would ever be able to. I find it hard to believe that someone who loomed so large during my childhood is dead. Bloody hell. At least we have our memories, and we’re charging through them now, crashing into them, sidestepping them, sprinting past them, as we try to keep the legend alive.

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Selling the Infinite

CONTACT (1997)
directed by Robert Zemeckis

INTERSTELLAR (2014)
directed by Christopher Nolan

I have some admiration for films that push beyond the limits of human inquiry and try to depict what we cannot possibly know. The obvious yardstick is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its JUPITER AND BEYOND THE INFINITE sequence, which demonstrates that in the hands of a skilled auteur, the foundations of science can be used as a jumping-off point for a totally captivating flight of imagination.

Interstellar movie singularity black hole event horizon

Interstellar is the latest big-budget film to step outside the scientific canvas and into the realms of theory. The much-maligned ‘book thing in space’, as one friend called it, may be overly emotionally wrought but it is impressive for its commitment to its central ideas:

  1. The event horizon of a singularity may conceal a five-dimensional tesseract in which the usual laws of the universe (as we understand them) do not apply.
  2. Gravity can be harnessed as an instantaneous fifth-dimensional communication tool.

Because Nolan’s vision is founded on deeply researched scientific principles, rather than on a screenwriter’s rabbit from a hat, it is compelling enough to feel as though it might be true. It also needs strong visuals to bring it to life, which it has in spades given the budget — although the shots of the singularity before Cooper crosses it are considerably more impressive and kind of a shame to leave behind.

The other key ingredient is a lead actor who can sell something so fanciful. Fortunately, Nolan has Matthew McConaughey, one of the better A-list actors of our time (now that people are taking him seriously again). McConaughey — and the script — lay the ground work throughout the film for the broad emotional payoff in the tesseract as Cooper finally reconnects with his estranged daughter Murph in an entirely new medium. We have seen Cooper and Murph’s previously tight bond unravel in clearly defined stages over the course of Interstellar; after all that, you can feel Cooper’s desperation, and the tears streaming down McConaughey’s face feel wrought from deep psychological pain.

Contact 1997 wormhole black hole event horizon

McConaughey has been there before, of course — well, he’s nearly been there. He played Palmer Joss, the love interest and theologian rival to Jodie Foster’s scientist lead Ellie Arroway, in the superior Contact. Zemeckis’ film is heavier on philosophical debate than Nolan’s more family-focused opus, though it is no less earnest. And when it finally takes a trip down the wormhole, it follows the same tack as Interstellar in using it to address the protagonist’s deepest psychological trauma — in Arroway’s case, the death of her father when she was a child.

The science behind the wormholes in Contact is mostly unexplained and far more speculative than that in Interstellar, and therefore less sound. The script, adapted from a Carl Sagan novel, seems content to leave Arroway — and the human race — as the unknowing beneficiary of alien intelligence. In some ways, this is better; rather than muddying our view with intangible theories and concepts, Zemeckis just presents the wormhole experience and lets it wash over you. However, it leaves you with less to mull over afterwards. (And fewer clickbait thinkpieces that attempt to explain what really happened.)

Where Contact‘s journey beyond the infinite surpasses Interstellar‘s is in its visuals, which are more striking and head-trippy even though they were completed nearly twenty years before, and in its lead actor. McConaughey portrays Cooper’s emotional crescendo just fine, but Foster throws herself into the green screen with all of her considerable acting might. The climax follows nearly two hours of build-up, during which we are invited to question whether we have more in common with Arroway’s dedication to empirical evidence or Joss’ religious conviction, and indeed, whether the difference between their respective faiths is so great. And when Arroway disappears beyond the void, she is frantic, sceptical, lost for words, and in rapture. She is caught between her relief of grasping what she had long yearned for and her desire for the experience not to end. She makes the unfathomable bright lights real.

The effects are wonderful, but it’s Foster that sells it — every moment of it. Later, she delivers a stunning monologue when trying to explain her experience to a Senate inquiry, holding the crowd (and viewer) spellbound regardless of whether or not they believe her. It goes to show that with good dialogue and a great actor, you can make almost anything seem possible.

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John Key, the waitress, and ownership

John Key not sorry for being a man t-shirtIn case you’re not already aware, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has acknowledged apologising to an Auckland waitress for repeatedly pulling her hair on several visits to a local cafe, describing the incidents as “in the context of a bit of banter that was going on”. It is also however in the context of Key previously pulling this girl’s hair and this girl’s hair, and in the context of Key wearing the above t-shirt during the 2014 NZ election campaign — which was when the cafe hair-pulling incidents took place.

When you pay your $4.50 in a cafe, that gets you ownership of a frothy drink to consume, and temporary use of the vessel it’s served in. It doesn’t entitle you to any kind of hall pass to treat the cafe staff as you please. You don’t temporarily own them, or any part of their body.

When you’re elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, that gets you stewardship of the nation’s legislative system and representation of the nation’s people and interests on the global stage. It doesn’t entitle you to ownership of the nation, or any of its people. You cannot go about the place doing as you please just because you’re Prime Minister. You are a servant of the people, rather than having them in your power.

If you’re a man, you are the beneficiary of centuries of patriarchal dominance in society — especially if you’re a white man. Your experience of the world is different from that of women, who have been oppressed for centuries and continue to be oppressed in obvious and subtle ways. (Take a look outside the gender binary and the oppression gets even worse, as it also does for those who are not light-skinned.) A penis doesn’t allow you to treat women in a way you would not treat men, or to exert ownership over them in any way.

There’s a different kind of ownership. It entails owning up to your mistakes and vowing not to repeat them. It entails respect for yourself and for those you meet. It entails owning your masculinity consciously, even though centuries of patriarchal dominance mean you’re rarely reminded of it — certainly not in the way women are reminded of their oppression on a daily basis. It entails a responsible approach to one’s place in society, especially if you’re at the very top of the pyramid. And it entails taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

In New Zealand, John Key is now a central part of the narrative of ownership and entitlement by the rich, by the powerful, by white people, and by men. That narrative needs to change. I might once have said it needs to change from the ground up, that the culture of male entitlement and abuse of power is best addressed at home, at work, and — yes — in the local coffee shop. But perhaps a top-down approach is better, especially while the topic is hot. Some ownership of the issue by NZ’s most powerful man, and one of the most cultishly supported figures in NZ’s political history, would be welcome.

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