Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Guy Maddin's distinctive, stylized riffs on antiquated film processes are an acquired taste that I was unable to fully acquire in my earlier samplings of his work. I found the Canadian director's films to be more interesting ideologically than they were as viewing. His style of stressing his film and shooting through edge-warping irises felt to me like pretentious shortcuts rather than legitimate tools of his craft, the flashy pictures put out in front of empty stories to keep us from noticing the man behind the curtain had no clothes. (Such mixed metaphors would not be out of place in Maddin's Cuisinart world, either.) This has all changed now that I've seen Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), newly released by Criterion.

Whether Brand Upon the Brain! is merely the entry point I have been waiting for to grant me access to the Guy Maddin aesthetic or whether it's the long-awaited blossoming of a filmmaker struggling to establish his own style is something I cannot address until I eventually backtrack and pick up the pieces I missed. Regardless, it definitely appears to be a career high, an artistic effort where the artist has found the vehicle he has always longed for and the perfect means by which to execute it. Shot like a silent film, Brand Upon the Brain! is an exercise in pseudo-autobiography, its fractured editing style meant to reflect the fractured memory that is emerging from Maddin's subconscious. Broken into twelve chapters (plus one interlude) and featuring intertitles that appear in choppy fragments, Brand Upon the Brain! plays like it's being beamed in from a distant communications tower, the signal stretched thin, only being picked up in pieces. It's both disjointed and totally linear, like a dream. Or a tale recounted by a sporadic amnesiac.

The story begins with Guy Maddin (played by Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the island of his childhood, sent on an errand by his long-estranged Mother to fix the place up in anticipation of her return. The Maddin family lived in a lighthouse that also served as an orphanage where young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his Sis (Maya Lawson) grew up with the children in their Mother's care while their Father (Todd Jefferson Moore) conducted strange experiments in his lab. Once there, Guy begins to paint the lighthouse white, as if whitewashing his own troubled past, and with each brushstroke, he falls deeper into memory until the audience becomes privy to everything that happened there.

Maddin is clearly an unreliable narrator of his own life, sprucing up his remembrances by refracting them through a prism of old movies and a bygone pop culture of child detectives and Hal Roach comedies. As artistic reference points, one can spot Peter Pan's lost boys, classic Hollywood horror movies, and European erotica. The Maddin island is eventually invaded by the Lighthouse Kids, a world famous investigative brother and sister team that suspects foul play in the unexplained deaths of several orphans from the island. Each child was found with a mysterious mark on the back of his or her head, like someone was burrowing into their brain. Except, even the Lighthouse Kids are not what they seem, as only one of them (played by Katherine E. Scharhon) has come to the island. First she appears in her true guise as Wendy, whom Guy becomes smitten with, but then Wendy dresses up as her brother Chance and begins to have an affair with Sis. Guy is still attracted to Chance/Wendy, but he doesn't know why.

There is much that Guy doesn't understand about the island beyond his budding sexuality. Much of the thematic thrust of Brand Upon the Brain! is uncovering how the child became aware of awful truths. Throughout the film, Guy often faints, unable to process everything he is witnessing, like a victim of abuse blocking out that which is too painful to remember. Metaphorically, we are seeing a mad scientist father who ignores all else in pursuit of his work, a rebellious sister, and a mother who envies the youth she sees in her daughter and yearns to take it from her. Mother is played by four actresses, all representing different ages--Gretchen Krich as the properly aged woman, Clara Grace Svenson and Cathleen O'Malley as de-aged incarnations, and Susan Corzatte as the “present” day older woman. In the horror/sci-fi tropes, Mother and Father are quite literally feeding on these children, and there are also signs of incest, of Mother molesting the young Guy and maybe even Sis. Likewise, Mother does not approve of her children embracing sexuality beyond her, and part of the grown-up Guy's growth in the modern day framing sequence is dealing with what that sexuality may be. The “brand” upon the brain is not just referring to the leaching holes, but the psychological damage left by one's upbringing.

Amidst this swirling narrative--told through voiceover and music, as well as the silent-film intertitles--Maddin creates a deliriously creative world. Father cooks up many amazing gadgets in his lab, including bizarre, almost steampunk-style communicators that carry distorted messages between the family members, including haunting instructions from times past. The top of the lighthouse is like the bridge of the spaceship in a 1950s B-grade sci-fi picture, and Mother watches from on-high like a Disney villainess, her guidance leading her children astray rather than bringing them safely home. Maddin and director of photography Benjamin Kasulke use black-and-white for all of its nostalgic purposes, to invoke the happy and the sad, the good ol' days and the not-so-good today.

Brand Upon the Brain! is demented and demanding, but as an expression of one man trying to uncover the imprint of past experience on his psyche, it's positively exhilarating.

Viewers of Brand Upon the Brain! have a choice of seven different stereo soundtracks to choose from. Three of these are studio recordings, and four of them are live recordings captured during the national tour Guy Maddin took the film on, performing the audio live with an orchestra, Foley artists, a castrato, and using different narrators in different cities. The choice you make will mainly change the narrator, though there are some noticeable differences in the soundtrack with the live performances, most obviously in a different quality to the Foley sound effects and the replacement of the prerecorded boys choir with the solo castrato (the songs are in chapters 11 and 13 on the DVD and worth toggling over to hear the live singing). The possible narrators are Louis Negin (a regular Maddin collaborator and the actor who played Truman Capote in 54) and Guy Maddin himself in the studio; professional weirdo Crispin Glover, poet John Ashbery, musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and legendary actor Eli Wallach live; and showing up twice, the traditional and preferred narrator, Isabella Rossellini, doing double duty in the studio and in the live arena.

If I had to choose, I'd choose one of the female narrators over the males, as the gender switch not only fits some of the thematic concerns of Brand Upon the Brain!, but it also creates an interesting disconnect, particularly in the first-person passages. I changed the narrator with each chapter break when I watched the movie, and it made for a rather fascinating experience. Of all the tracks, the only one I didn't really care for was John Ashbery's, whose speaking style was too stilted and distracting, not fitting with the flow of the film itself.

In addition to the sound options, there are multiple bonus features on the DVD itself, including a theatrical trailer and one deleted scene. The deleted scene runs approximately six minutes and it details a climactic showdown between Sis and the character Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), her very masculine teenage counterpart.

97 Percent True is a new 50-minute documentary examining the unique production. It charts the evolution of Maddin's art and what has influenced him before transitioning into the unique nature of how this film came about, including a rushed development and shooting process, the post-production period, and decoding some of the autobiographical aspects of the movie. Of interest are the color photographs and behind-the-scenes footage of the Brand sets, as well as other narrators from the tour, like Udo Kier and Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Interviewed for the movie are Maddin, Kasulke, co-writer George Toles, editor John Gurdebeke, and composer Jason Staczek, among others.

The last of the extras are two new short films made by Guy Maddin exclusively for this DVD and which spotlight certain members of the production team in Maddin's inimitable way. It's My Mother's Birthday Today is a surreal, five-minute portrait of Dov Houle, a.k.a. the Manitoba Meadowlark, the castrato who performed the songs on the live tour. The nine-minute Footsteps shows the Foley team at work, with some humorous embellishments.

Even if you've been suspicious of Guy Maddin's bizarre point of view before, toss out any worry when it comes to Brand Upon the Brain! - Criterion Collection. It's a delicious malformation of an autobiography, playing with movie iconography and childhood nostalgia in order to examine the seminal experiences that indelibly changed the auteur's psyche. Shot like a silent movie, with multiple versions of the score and narrators to choose from, this crazy hybrid of melodrama, sci-fi, and horror excites more than it confounds, but even the confounding is exciting in Maddin's delirious world. Complete with new short films and a decoder-ring documentary, mark another in the win category for Criterion.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.


Given that I write more reviews than what you see here, below is a list of non-Criterion films I covered in the past month that may be of interest to Criterion fans.


* The Dark Knight. I think this is getting a small release, I'm not hearing much about it. Which is too bad, as it's pretty goddamn awesome.

* Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, a surface-level documentary that hurts the legend even as it seeks to preserve it.

* Hellboy II: The Golden Army, a disappointing second go-around for the big red lug. This review hurt to write, because I had such high hopes for this film.


* Aria, a truly awful reissue of an interesting, experimental movie that, while not entirely successful, deserves better. Includes segments by Godard, Jarman, Altman, Roeg, and others.

* Belle Toujours, an exercise in hubris that seeks to create a sequel to Louis Bunuel's Belle de Jour. "You're better off sticking to the original" appears to be the lesson of the week.

* Blood Brothers, a 1930s remake of A Bullet to the Head, this Chinese film yawns its way toward its conclusion.

* Dirty Money (Un Flic), the final film by Jean-Pierre Melville is a superior heist picture starring Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon.

* Eagle Shooting Heroes, a Wong Kar-Wai produced spoof of wuxia martial arts films that falls a little flat. Based on the same Louis Cha source material as Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time.

* Girl on the Bridge, a unique French romance gets a bad DVD release.

* Inglorious Bastards, the 1978 Italian war movie soon to be remade by Quentin Tarantino.

* Itty Bitty Titty Committee, Jamie Babbit's tribute to DIY activism never finds its satirical groove. Popular fans will be pleased to see Carly Pope and Leslie Grossman in a movie together, though.

* Never Forever, a worthwhile indie drama about a woman falling for the man she's hired to secretly get her pregnant. That's about as close as small films like this get to a high concept, I think.

* A Throw of Dice, 1929 German-English-Indian co-production of a silent film telling one of India's classic stories.

* Times and Winds, a beautiful film about three children growing up in Turkey. Easily the best of this batch.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


There is a remarkable, intriguing moment in Lynne Ramsay's 1999 film Ratcatcher that I either forgot in the six years since I first saw it or that I didn't fully absorb the first time. It's actually the metaphorical hinge on which the film turns at its 3/4 mark, a sub-Arthurian image that changes the world that Ramsay has created, lifting the veil of childhood from the eyes of her pre-adolescent hero, James (William Eadie), and breaking the spell that hangs over his life.

Convinced he is in love with an older girl, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), James returns to the spot in the filthy canal where a group of mean teenage boys dumped the far-sighted girl's glasses much earlier in the film. James is intent on fishing them out for her, but he won't go in the water, hasn't been able to since he and his friend Ricky were playing around there and the other boy drowned. If he can retrieve Margaret Anne's glasses, he will restore her sight; alas, he is unable to drag the spectacles from the water, to complete his act of chivalry. He gives up.

Dark clouds roll in. Ironically, so do government scabs sent in to clean up all the trash that has been tossed around the poverty-stricken tenements where James and his family live. Ramsay has set her debut feature in 1970s Glasgow during a garbage strike that left the town buried in rubbish and pestilence. With the strikebreaking, something meaningful is lost, a moral stand subverted; so is it for James when he can't get at the glasses. The world of fantasy where he and the other children played is being swept away. James' mentally challenged friend, the one-time animal lover and generally good-natured Kenny (John Miller), turns against him, and he also sees that Margaret Anne has returned to the boys who abuse her, the ones who ditched her glasses in the first place. The night before she let James sleep next to her when he had nowhere else to go, but now she is letting the teens have turns with her in a rundown shed.

Nothing looks the same as it did just yesterday.

From its very first frame, Ratcatcher has a haunting quality that isn't easy to shake. Ramsay opens the film on a slow-motion shot of a boy dancing in circles, a lace curtain draped over his head like a shroud. It is Ricky, and he is knocked out of his reverie by a slap from his mother. It's a moment both harsh and comical. Ricky's mother is going to take him to see his father, but he'd rather stay and play, so he runs off. That's when he and James start messing about in the canal, when James knocks the boy down and he doesn't get up again. It's only then that we realize who the real protagonist of this story is.

I mentioned in my last review how Ratcatcher had much in common with David Gordon Green's George Washington, and the main comparison lies in the central events of both movies: one child dying when children are left to play in places where they shouldn't. Green portrayed the poverty of an abandoned town in the American South of the late '80s/early '90s, a kind of wasteland of empty and half-destroyed buildings. Ramsay's 1970s Glasgow has a similar otherworldly look. The garbage bags cover the ground, and the children run across them, toss them around, and break them open in search of rats and other vermin. They play in the dirty canal and in unattended spots along it. This leaves the pre-adolescents and the teenagers of both movies to deal with things they should never have to deal with. Like the children in the Lord of the Flies, they impose their own order.

Not that the adults aren't around, in both movies they are shown struggling, too. The railworkers in George Washington desire better working conditions, just as the striking garbage men do in Ratcatcher. Ramsay's film has a stronger family unit, with James' two sisters, his caring Ma (Mandy Matthews), and his coarse Da (Tommy Flanagan), always half in the bag, always half-asleep. When Kenny falls into the canal, Da jumps in and saves him, committing the act of heroism that James couldn't with Ricky, widening the gap that already exists between father and son. James' Da likes football, James does not, a kind of classic split between man and boy. It was a fight over football shoes after a ceremony honoring his father that sends James running to Margaret Anne, and there is a direct connection between Kenny's rescue and James trying to rescue the glasses.

James is the silent child observer in this movie. He is in between childhood and being grown up, as shown by the adults of his life giving him new shoes that are alternately too small and too big. He sees things he is not supposed to, sneaks into rooms when people are sleeping, touches objects he's not meant to touch. He is definitely witness to the undercurrent of violence that runs throughout Ratcatcher. The roving pack of boys even catches up with his Da, rewarding him for his heroism by attacking the drunken man in the street. James' saving grace is that he is not yet violent himself. What happened to Ricky was an accident, and the strength of his relationship with Margaret Anne is that he hasn't developed enough to treat her as a sex object. When they first meet, the boys have just finished being rough with her, leaving a bloody sore on her pale white knee. James doesn't understand what it means, and when Margaret Anne asks him if he wants to touch it, he places his hand on her thigh instead, just above the blazing red wound. It's a tender moment, and tenderness flows from it. Their relationship is, if not mother and son, then older sister and younger brother. When the other boys push him toward her sexually, he just lays on top of her, enjoying the loving contact. Later, he even helps rid her hair of lice, which his mother had just done for him. It's a kind of honest affection they both seek, and something she particularly does not find when offering herself to the other boys.

The boy wants to peer into the adult world, but he expects it to conform to what he already knows about life rather than he conform to it. It's his searching that leads him to his greatest discovery. At one point, he boards a bus to try to find out where his older sister (Michelle Stewart) is going off to when she's all tarted up. He climbs to the second deck of the bus and rides it to the end of the line. When the driver kicks him off, he discovers he is in the not-yet-opened suburbs where his family has been expecting to move as soon as the town council gives them the go-ahead. In essence, he has found the better life they have been waiting for, but he's gotten there early, before it's been populated. He wanders through the empty homes, exploring this quiet idyll. In one home, he looks out the kitchen window and sees a golden field of wheat. It looks like the field in Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting, Christina's World, full of the same promise and the same ambiguity. The painting has an elusive, dreamlike quality that brushes harshly against its realism, which would also describe the appeal of Ramsay's direction. She has a painterly eye, using nearly still images to create her mood, montage as collage, such as cutting from a violent attack to a crying cat and then to fruit sauce being dripped onto an ice cream cone. The sticky sweetness of violence.

To return home, James must cut through this field. And yet, when he returns to the housing tract after his failed quest to retrieve Margaret Anne's glasses, it's not the same. It's raining, all the doors of the houses are locked, and when he looks through the same window, this time from the outside and peering in, he sees something that sends him running back to the city. We never see what it is. My first assumption was that maybe another family had already moved in, but I think it's just the darkness that has no descended keeping him from actually seeing anything. As Ramsay pans back, there is only shadow. It's a tragic poetry: trying to restore Margaret Anne's vision has instead made him see more clearly, and as any adult knows, the more you learn the less clear things become.

All that's left is to try to find some kind of absolution. James returns home and sleeps amongst his family. When he awakes, it's still dark out, they are all still slumbering. He goes into his mother's room, and in a wonderful little detail flashing us back to an earlier scene, fixes her stockings, covering the big toe that has poked through a tear. He then goes to the canal and throws himself in. Is he getting the glasses? Or is he just cleansing himself of his sins, going through the baptism that took Ricky and then nearly took Kenny?

We'll never know, as Ramsay leaves him hanging there rather than showing us his swim. We do know he's okay, that the family does get their home and we see their pilgrimage there, but then Ramsay takes us back to the still image of James in the water so that it's the last thing we will ever see. It's meant to remind us of that other important image of hope in Ratcatcher, of the little white mouse Snowball on his way to the moon.

For Kenny's birthday, he received a mouse as a present. When the other boys get ahold of her, they play a game of keepaway from Kenny, telling him that his mouse can fly as they toss it back and forth. When James catches Snowball, he returns her unharmed to her owner, tells the boy it's all right, that Snowball will later fly to the moon. It's a kindness that the growing James will later wreck, but a kindness just the same. Thinking he will help Snowball along, Kenny ties her tail to the string on his red balloon, and she drifts off into the upper atmosphere. In the dreamy movie's one completely fantastical scene, Lynne Ramsay follows Snowball on her flight, from the Earth up into space and all the way to the moon.*

So, too, has she tied James to a balloon, and Ratcatcher is the document of his flight out of his cruel world and into something better.

* Compare also to the Laika fantasies in Hallström's My Life as a Dog.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Ever since it was announced that David Gordon Green would be directing Pineapple Express, the next Judd Apatow-produced script by the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, there has been much speculation as to how the director would adapt his realistic style to a stoner comedy full of rude humor and action sequences. Over the last eight years, Green has made four movies, and though each one has moved him steadily closer to the mainstream, he has stayed pretty true to a particular aesthetic, a cross between 1970s maverick filmmaking and 1990s indie auteurism. There wasn't really a question of whether or not he could do it, but a question of how. What would a David Gordon Green comedy be like?

Well, I've seen Pineapple Express, and I think fans of the director will be pleased to see his naturalistic approach brought to bear on a completely unrealistic script, using his eye for realism to lend believability to a screenplay that would fall to pieces under a more fanciful commercial director. Green understands actors, he understands what a moment requires, and like a classic Hollywood director, I think we'll find that neither genre nor style can contain him.

But that's really a review for another time and another venue (and one now available here). As the August 8 release date for Pineapple Express approaches, I thought it would be a good excuse to dig back into my collection and watch Green's 2000 debut, George Washington, again. I had always intended to do a joint piece on George Washington and Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999). The proximity of their release on Criterion DVD caused me to originally watch them very close to one another, and in a lot of ways, they are the same movie even though they were made in two completely different parts of the world. Time permitting, I may still try to cover Ratcacher this week. (Edit: And have done so. Read the review here.)

Anyway, on to George Washington...

First off, no, it's not a biopic of our nation's first president. It's a bit daring to make a movie and call it George Washington and hope your potential audience won't be confused about what they are getting. I know I have a natural tic, which you just witnessed, to clarify as soon as I tell people about the movie. I suspect Green knew what he was doing, though, when he put that title together with the promotional iconography of the film. Despite the film not really being a critique of race relations in America, it does portray socioeconomic problems and how they affect people in the rural South one summer during the George H.W. Bush presidency. Green had to know that the juxtaposition of that name with the faces of his young black actors in his movie would raise an eyebrow or two.

The title is not without meaning in the context of the movie's narrative either. The focal character of George Washington is George Richardson (played by Donald Holden), a 13-year-old boy whom we are told dreams of being President one day. It's a passing mention by the narrator in the beginning of the film, and it doesn't come up again until the end, when the same narrator tells us of George's future plans to save the people of America over a collage of images that include Revolutionary War drawings, Sitting Bull, and President Washington himself. It's the payoff of other points in the movie where we see that George wants to be a part of the bigger picture. Not in some hokey sense where he is going to petition the mayor of his town or even write a letter to President Bush the First (though he does hang the man's toothy portrait on his bedroom wall) and end up on Oprah because of his patriotism; no, it's that he sees something beyond the borders of the rundown town where he is growing up, something he wishes he could join. Call it opportunity or the American Dream, call it the audacity of hope. After the 4th of July parade, George goes to the man who played Uncle San and tells him he was his favorite part of the procession. George isn't speaking to the man in the costume, he sees the icon behind it.

All of the children in the film have similar dreams to George's. For instance, the young girl Sonya (Rachael Handy) who hangs with the older boys is always stealing cars, despite apparently having nowhere to drive. 12-year-old Nasia (Candace Evanofski) dumps her boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) because he isn't mature enough, even though he is a year older than she is, and she tells her girlfriends that if they ever want a good man they have to go look someplace else. Not that the men of the town have much of a chance to aspire to anything more. Most of them work down at the railyard, watching the trains go in and out, but never being able to go themselves. The poverty on display is staggering, the abandoned and rundown buildings almost looking like sets from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie or a post-war picture. All the more heartbreaking to consider that Green shot on real locations in North Carolina, and so these places actually exist.

The kids end up playing in what looks like an abandoned zoo, a surreal setting that ends up being a subtle metaphor. Such is the state of the cage that is meant to contain them. There is a sense of abstraction all around, that these children are stuck in some kind of pseudo-reality. Buddy even dons a lizard mask and performs on a stage at a theatre long since shut down, dramatically reciting a soliloquy asking that God not forget him and his brethren entirely. (When he is spotted by the affable Rico Rice, played by Green perennial Paul Schneider, Rico asks, "Is that the Bible or Shakespeare?" It's a smartass question, but meaningful. Just what kind of drama are you in, kid? Sacred, profane, or somewhere in between?) It's an ironically nostalgic speech, recalling a time when the speaker walked with God and enjoyed his blessings. For a boy Buddy's age, when would these halcyon days have been? Elementary school?

It is, of course, a ministration of God's favorite whipping boy, Job, who refused to give in no matter what maliciousness his Lord visited upon him. It's the indicator that Buddy is the center of things, his finger in the dam that holds back despair. Just as such a heavy speech is ironic coming out of his mouth, it also is ironic that the one boy who doesn't really want to leave, who is content being with his friends and really just wants Nasia to treat him right and not hook up with George, ends up being the catalyst to change everything and make the others consider options beyond what has been given to them.

One day while out playing, George, Buddy, Sonya, and the giant of the group, Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee), are playing in the bathroom at the zoo. They start hazing Buddy, and after Buddy shoves George too hard, hitting the boy's head, George lashes back. For much of the movie, George wears a helmet due to a condition where his skull is soft like a baby's, and he is not supposed to get it wet or suffer any heavy blows. Angry, George knocks Buddy roughly toward Vernon, and Buddy slips, bangs his head, and dies. (More irony for Buddy, alas.) Rather than just tell people what happened, the remaining kids try to hide the body.

How this act affects them is the focus of the second half of George Washington. Both Sonya and Vernon go through a bout of Dostoevskian self-doubt and question the entirety of their moral belief systems. Sonya continues to spin her wheels in the end, but Vernon's soul searching leads to some particularly poignant soul expression. Working with largely untrained actors, it's amazing that David Gordon Green, as a first-time director, was able to get these kids to open up the way they do. Vernon's speech about dreaming of a world where he can be at peace, alone and unbothered, free to do as he pleases, a world where Buddy has not died in a game he was participating in, strikes hard. The way the various wishes rattle off the boy's tongue with barely a pause between them gives the moment an emotional honesty that would not have been present had the actor given it a more "professional" line reading. The strength of his desire is why Vernon is the only one who is able to board a train and get out of there at the end, reminding me of a fictional touchstone in my life, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. In that book, an entirely different George W. takes a train to a better life, too.

The evolution of this movie's George, however, is its own bizarre beast. Shortly after the incident with Buddy, George finds another boy face down in a swimming pool, and despite his condition, George jumps in and pulls the drowning boy to safety, risking his own life. Heralded as a hero, and perhaps seeking to do penance, George dons a cape and Buddy's old wrestling unitard and starts trying to do more good in the world, be it directing traffic or saving another life should the opportunity come along. In some ways, he looks crazy, but in some eyes, including his admirer Nasia (also the film's narrator), it shows that he is a dreamer. Rico sees it, too, encouraging George to endure no matter what people might say. Despite being the town clown, Rico is really the adult version of Buddy, having advised that boy in his love woes, as well as trying to keep his community together by encouraging the rail workers to support their union. (The Quebecois could have used a guy like Rico in Mon Oncle Antoine.) Nasia's sister even dates him, apparently proving the younger girl wrong in that there are good men in their 'burg. (One must assume that Nasia also moves on, since as narrator, she has at least some time, perspective, and a venue through which she can express herself.)

When George Washington came out, David Gordon Green received a lot of comparisons to Terrence Malick. It's easy to see Malick's influence on Green's style--the beautifully composed shots of untouched environments, the disconnected female narrator, and the eschewing of more predictable narrative structures for something more ambling and poetic. Green and his editors, Steven Gonzales and Zene Baker, cut the movie to match the rhythm and pace of a hot summer's day. They capture that lackadaisical feeling of youth, when it feels like there is too much time and never enough to do, that the world has ceased turning altogether. In pursuit of this feeling, Green does end up creating George Washington's one major flaw, a sense of time being out of joint. There are only three days between Buddy's death and the movie's conclusion, and yet so much happens, it seems like many more. Then again, that could actually be intentional. Enough evidence of an elastic, molasses-like passage of time exists elsewhere in George Washington, that this could be Green's final wrinkle to create an overriding aura of separateness.

Having now seen George Washington again and pondered it in relationship to Pineapple Express, even I find myself asking how we got there from here. In all of Green's other films, including this year's staggeringly great Snow Angels, the writer/director is concerned with the same communities of people that form the heart of the American South, examining how they struggle to come together and to get by. I suppose it makes its own kind of sense, then, that his first movie disconnected from his own background, set in California instead, is about people who don't really have that community and amidst all the weed jokes and explosions, form one. Arguably, he's just trading one type of disenfranchised American for another, the Southern problems for a Californian one.

There is one moment in Pineapple Express, though, that is pure David Gordon Green, that even if you forget he is the man guiding the action, reminds you of who is behind the camera. Lost and on his own, James Franco's character breaks down in a park. It's a wide shot, and in the background, we see an odd-looking Mexican girl watching him. She is on the other side of a chain link fence, and she wears a one-piece bathing suit. The camera cuts to her, and the director of All the Real Girls shows us a real girl, the type of girl that is all over the non-movie version of Los Angeles, a girl that could roll with George and Buddy and the gang. It's a detail another director would throw out, but the director of George Washington, even when in a more light-hearted mode (and more power to him), never would.

The Criterion release of George Washington comes backed with three short films, two from David Gordon Green's student days and one by actor Clu Gulager, the gunman who wasn't Lee Marvin in Don Siegel's version of The Killers. Made in 1969, A Day with the Boys inspired Green in terms of its visual style and the way it showed youngsters at play. It's a strange little film, but in terms of imagery, quite interesting.

Green's 1998 film Physical Pinball features several of the actors from George Washington, including Candace Evanofsky. It's a sweet coming-of-age story, shot and scored like a 1970s "After School Special." Candace plays a young tomboy growing up with a widowed father (Eddie Rouse, George's uncle in the main feature) who treats her like a son, encouraging her to fight, work on cars, and hustle at pinball. The setting for this short is fantastic, with the family living in a renovated school bus in an old auto yard. Again, Green creates a wasteland vibe, with cars upturned and hoods standing open. Physical Pinball finds the girl at the onset of puberty, and tells the story about how both her and her father accept her oncoming womanhood in a way that is emotionally resonant rather than being trite or cliché.

1996's Pleasant Grove has a much more direct lineage to George Washington. The relationship of the boy Garland with his dog and the character's soft skull are like rough drafts for very similar scenes with George. Eddie Rouse and Paul Schneider also play early versions of their future characters. Shot cheaply on video and rife with overacting, Pleasant Grove hints at the filmmaking talent but lacks the skill, making it more of a curiosity than Physical Pinball, which shows quite a bit of growth for Green in just two short years. Two more after that and George Washington had come to fruition. One interesting style choice that changed over the years: in this short, there is no other pre-adolescent characters, and so the boy narrates the film himself.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Director Claude Jutra's 1971 period piece Mon Oncle Antoine is a cinematic pseudo-memoir that fits snuggly in the category with films like Fellini's Amarcord or Hallstrom's My Life As a Dog in that it's evocative of a certain time while also capturing the specificity of being a young man of that time. Jutra's tale is dreamy, awkward, nostalgic, and sexy, all words that could be applied to those other films, as well; yet, the setting of a mining town in 1940s Quebec means Mon Oncle Antoine is a story that is entirely unique to Jutra and co-writer Clémont Perron's experience even as they express the great commonalities of growing up.

The filmmakers' stand-in is Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), a quiet altar boy who works for his Uncle Antoine and his Aunt Cécile (Olivette Thibault) in their general store. Antoine is also the town mortician, which creates a dynamic of life and death in his store that is intriguing for his nephew but also a little scary. It's Christmas Eve, and the shop is newly decorated for the occasion, serving as a gathering place for the townspeople just as much as it is a venue for buying goods. Thus, everyone who has gathered to gossip and chew the fat can get an eyeful when the town's wealthiest woman, Alexandrine (Monique Mercure), comes to pick up her new corset. Spying on her in the changing room inspires sexual feelings in Benoit, just as Antoine and Cécile's other charge, the girl Carmen (Lyne Champagne), inspires love.

Story-wise, Mon Oncle Antoine reminds me of the classic image of small-town America as seen in Frank Capra films, or even more odd big-fish-in-a-small-pond international pictures like Local Hero (though Antoine is far more reserved in tone). Beyond the constant good-natured humor and the breadth of individual characters, the movies share a sense of community, where the working-class huddles together in good times and in bad, persevering as one as the times demand. Thus, a certain level of scorn is reserved for Carmen's father, who has abandoned the girl to working in the general store, only visiting to collect her wages for himself. The store being a nexus of the community means Benoit is going to observe all aspects of life, from its minor joys to its minor cruelties. Carmen and Alexandrine aren't just love and sex, they are lower class and upper class, economic polar opposites. His attraction to them both also has the greater gravity of arising within a mortuary. In his playful dalliance with Carmen, they run around the empty coffins while the girl wears a wedding veil. In one stroke, Jutra expresses both the infinite and the finite. Love is forever, but the individual is mortal.

There is a grim determination to a working town such as this one, where the unfairness of the system is accepted because no alternative is within sight. The boss at the mine can refuse raises to his workers, choosing instead to toss store-bought Christmas stockings from a moving sleigh, and no one will say a word, no one will stop their children from grabbing the goodies. The kids need some joy, and so the parents just silently watch the hollow spectacle. It's a wonderful scene, where Jurta and director of photography Michel Brault's documentary style is put to good use capturing the expressions of the young and the old, many of them real people living in the shooting location, Black Lake. Joining another boy in pelting the old man's horses with snowballs gives Benoit his first taste of pride, as the silent disdain for the boss turns to silent affirmation for Benoit's rebellion. (There is an added political element that the boss is English, and the rest of the town is French Canadian, a point only made subtly and likely to be missed if you don't know the history.)

It's not all happiness this Christmas, however; Benoit has harsher lessons to learn. From the start of Mon Oncle Antoine, we have also been watching the Poulin family. The head of the household, Jos (Lionel Villeneuve), is a wandering spirit, regularly quitting his job at the asbestos mine to go into the woods and be a lumberjack, leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves. In any other movie, Jos would be a kind of rugged hero, the one who is not afraid to lash out against a life of inequality, but in Mon Oncle Antoine, he is more of a pitiful figure, a guy who can't commit to any one thing and likely moves on out of cowardice rather than true strength. His grim-faced wife (Hélène Loiselle) is clearly more noble, as she sticks it out and stays behind to take care of the family. Likewise, Antoine and his wife are shown as charitable parental substitutes for the abandoned Benoit and Carmen.

Jos' current walkabout, which ends almost as soon as it begins, seems to bring about a kind of karmic reaction. His oldest son gets sick and dies unexpectedly almost immediately after the old man heads for the hills. When Benoit asks to go along with Antoine to retrieve the body, it completes the cycle of life that we have been witnessing in the movie. In another case of extremes, when we first are introduced to Benoit, Antoine, and the assistant Fernand, they are officiating a funeral for an older gentleman who has just passed. On the other end, we have the death of someone far too young. In this event, Benoit will get his biggest lessons, learning that the adult world is not perfect or free. Death is arbitrary, and the people we think we can believe in will let us down. There are several wonderful literary metaphors employed by Jutra here, most of which I don't want to discuss for fear I'll give away too much. In some ways, the act of Antoine and Benoit going to retrieve the Poulin boy on Christmas Eve reminded me of John Huston's The Dead (a movie in dire need of a DVD release). Huston, adapting James Joyce for his final film, is completely on the other side of life from Benoit, however, and in the death of this young man, our hero is going to discover that youth is not a promise, that it is actually the end of a particular idealism. Benoit recoils when he sees the face of the dead boy, not just because he is seeing a corpse, which we assume he has seen before, but because for a second, the two adolescents look the same. Benoit recognizes himself in those lifeless eyes.

There is a fitting poignancy in realizing that Claude Jurta has cast himself as the conniving, libidinous Fernand. While the humanization of Antoine is one thing, Fernand's betrayal drives everything home for Benoit. In a way, this man is the in-between step, the connection between the idealism of Benoit and the disappointment of Antoine, who reveals his many failings in one drunken rant. Fernand is the rejection of consequence. He is belief in action, trying to get away with immorality, trying to live while rejecting honor. It's how you get from innocent youth to disenchanted old man. It's the director standing in the center of his own picture and serving as an agent of change.

Though my reference to The Dead is largely one to Huston, there is actually a greater comparison to be drawn between Mon Oncle Antoine and the short stories of James Joyce. As I said, Jurta uses a variety of literary metaphors, the kinds of images that would result in some wonderful prose. Benoit on the frozen ground after picking up the Poulin boy, or in the final scenes peering through the Poulin window, or even the understated dream sequence that brings all of his conflicted feelings together in a way that soothes his bruised soul, these are the epitome of cinema: expressing the interior through image alone. While prose would open a window into what is happening inside the boy, a filmmaker like Jurta must find a way to hammer home the same emotional resonance without explaining himself. Mon Oncle Antoine is full of many such images, but the director and Perron also achieve the desired nostalgia through the overall tone of the movie. The quiet of the piece, the unspoken, is heartbreaking. At the same time, by not being overly cloying with the period details, Jurta actually creates a sense of timelessness. The movie could take place in the 1940s, or it could take place now. It's not important. Mon Oncle Antoine is both contemporary and yearning for a time long past, demanding a change in the economic system even while celebrating a noble history.

This French Canadian film is like a time capsule of small-town conditions in working-class Quebec of 1940, filtered through the wide-eyed curiosity of one boy. Helmed by pioneering Canadian director Claude Jutra, Mon Oncle Antoine - Criterion Collection is as universal as it is specific, a drama about life that is enlivened by genuine human comedy that anyone can relate to. Following the arc of events of one Christmas, we see the transition of time and the lessons learned. A two-disc release, the second disc features many informative extras to shed more light on how the film came about and who was behind it. Sure to be a special treat for those who have never experienced the film before, and one that will be just as satisfying over repeat viewings.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Monday, July 7, 2008


A fight breaks out in a posh apartment. Man versus woman. It's violent, and the man is on the defensive. As this is a film, the image cuts to his point-of-view, putting the audience in the shoes of the attacked as he fights back. One of his puny blows connects and knocks the hair right off the woman's head. She's wearing a wig and is completely bald underneath. This just enrages the woman more, and she beats the man down, screaming how she only wants what is hers, and that's a mere $75.

When the fight is done, she goes to a mirror, reapplies her wig, and reapplies her make-up. As the opening credits of The Naked Kiss roll over the top of the scene, its heroine, Kelly--played by she of the statuesque name and gait, Constance Towers--reasserts her femininity. The femme fatale role, one that traditionally sees women using their womanly wiles to assert more masculine control, has been one that has been forced one her--or at least the mark of it has. They can shave her head, but they can't make her less of a lady.

The opening of The Naked Kiss is one of the strangest and most memorable in all of cinema. Written, directed, and produced by Samuel Fuller in 1964, it's a pulpy romp with an abundance of rough edges. Even for Fuller, The Naked Kiss is an odd, grotesque, gritty picture--so much so, in fact, it's almost more interesting than it is good. Yet, like the filmmaker himself, who is feeling his oats as an independent after years of tearing at the seams of the studio system, it has an unflinching sense of self that is impossible to look away from.

Immediately after this beginning scene, The Naked Kiss jumps ahead two years. Kelly steps off the bus in a small town called Grantville under the guise of being a champagne saleswoman. The brand name and slogan of her bubbly is an intentionally lurid double entendre. "Angel Foam goes down like liquid gold, and comes up like slow dynamite." It's the first of many sleazy plays on words that Fuller indulges in, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he uses comic euphemisms as tools to expose the absurdity of puritanical cowardice. My favorite is when Kelly rents a room from the town spinster, and the woman, played by Betty Bronson, commenting on the ornate four-poster in Kelly's bedroom, remarks that most people spend 1/3 of their life in bed. Kelly raises an eyebrow, the look of "Oh, yeah? If you only knew."

Within minutes of landing in Grantville, Kelly cozies up to the local police detective, Griff (Anthony Eisley), who becomes her first client before telling her to get out of his burg. He recommends a brothel across the river, Candy's, where the girls dress in skimpy costumes and sell "bon-bons." Here, David Lynch was taking notes for One-Eyed Jacks in Twin Peaks. In fact, a lot of Lynch's themes regarding the darker underbelly of suburbia could possibly have originated with The Naked Kiss. For Griff, degeneracy belongs in the next town over, not in Grantville.

Except something about the wholesomeness of the suburb, or maybe in the false do-gooder cop's transparency, resonates with Kelly and she decides to settle there and give up the professional life. She gets a job as a nurse in the local hospital working with handicapped children. This hooker's heart of gold practically has magical, redemptive powers. She brings joy and inspiration to the kids, and her worldly wisdom comes in handy when small-town girls get into trouble they are ill prepared to deal with. Griff doesn't trust that Kelly has truly changed, and he's doubly suspicious when she catches the eye of his buddy Grant (Michael Dante), whose family founded the town and lent it their name. Grant saved Griff's butt in Korea, and he's a pretty swell dude, buying gifts for everyone on his fancy European vacations and funding the children's hospital. Even when Kelly confesses everything about her past to him, he doesn't toss her out. Instead, he proposes marriage.

There are times in The Naked Kiss where the storytelling is so choppy, my initial reaction the first time I saw it was that maybe scenes were missing from the print used for the DVD. It's a rough-hewn picture, with Fuller channeling Seijun Suzuki, doing away with pesky transitions or a need for the usual niceties of style that hide the more explicit and illicit details of your usual crime story. In her first scene with Griff, the cop finds Kelly reading The Dark Page, an old novel of Fuller's about tabloid journalism. Beyond being a cute inside joke (we also see the local theatre is showing Sam's previous film, Shock Corridor), it could also be seen as an indicator of what the auteur intends to do with The Naked Kiss. Like the tabloids, he wants to expose the stories that mainstream media is generally scared to touch.

Language is a big part of how the media sugarcoats the evil that lurks within the hearts of men, and Fuller is ready to get his mitts all over those scandalous euphemisms, too. Just about every dark act that he initially obfuscates in safe, acceptable terminology is eventually revealed for what it is, and Fuller drops any pretense and has his characters say it like it is. Thus, we hear words like "prostitution," "abortion," "pervert," and "molester." While perfectly acceptable today, these terms--even these topics--were not openly discussed in 1964. Fuller was three years ahead of Bonnie & Clyde and five before Easy Rider, so the cinematic revolution of explicit content had not yet happened. The Naked Kiss was very much ahead of its time and working outside the system.

Fuller always had a problem with disingenuous, hypocritical authority figures. Griff isn't his first corrupt cop, nor is this his first time digging out the rotten guts of America's governing body. As a metaphor for what ails us, having the descendent of Grantville's founding father be a child molester is not the most sophisticated and artful of constructs. My guess would be that Fuller was tired of playing around, and he was going to present it in the simplest terms possible, an opportunity uniquely afforded to him by the safe haven of a B-genre picture. The title of the film is as bare as it can be. A naked kiss, as Kelly explains, is the kiss of a pervert, the taste of it revealing all the decay and decrepitude he's got buried inside him. This movie is Fuller planting that very kiss on us, breaking down the illusions of American morality. Our heroes are empty wardrobe dummies, medals pinned on a hollow body, a helmet worn on an absent head--just like the totem of the fiancé Kelly's landlady always hoped would return from WWII. (Was that the last time this type of American figure made sense to Fuller?)

The Naked Kiss's subversion of cinematic tradition goes even further with its depiction of Kelly. The redemption of the femme fatale is rare, as she is too upsetting to the status quo for the men to let her survive. In the gender politics of the crime genre (given its near rural locale and that nearly all of the scenes take place in the daytime, The Naked Kiss is decidedly not noir), the male anti-hero can break away from a life of crime and seek a rebirth, and he will be afforded decisive moral actions to achieve this (bad guys will come for him, and he will take the bad guys down). Kelly faces way more skepticism than any of her male counterparts ever would. A fallen woman is not allowed to get up. Who will society believe? Its handsome, rich, male benefactor, or a dirty whore?

Fuller has a greater faith in womanhood and sees the importance of the gender's role in society. It sounds trite, but for him, children are the fountain of society's innocence and the renewable resource by which we can reinvigorate our basic humanity. It's not for nothing that the children that Kelly works with are handicapped. They suffer special damage, need special care. It's all laid out in that bizarre duet Kelly has with the kids, the one that moves Grant with such force that he must sully its wholesomeness by making it the soundtrack of his latest destructive conquest. If the children are broken, then the entire system is broken, knocked to rubble by the over-privileged, self-serving powers-that-be. Kelly is the über-mother, protecting her children and encouraging them to reach their full potential. Despite, tragically, not being able to have her own the key to her salvation is remembering to be gentle, heeding Griff's advice to talk to the little girl who can exonerate her as if it were her own daughter. This is also why the unattended baby in the final shot attracts Kelly's attention even as she turns her back on the rest of the town. Even now that the people of Grantsville know the truth, they are still looking in the wrong direction, and it is up to the woman they've scorned to give the infant its rattle.

Perhaps it's the hard medicine that Fuller is administering that requires the harder delivery. Fearing his audience doesn't want to hear what he has to say, he turns The Naked Kiss into an unstoppable force. Like Constance Towers attacking the smug, self-involved madame, he's going to bowl us over and shove the dirty money in our mouth. Its strength is undeniable, and despite its lack of sophistication, The Naked Kiss is ridiculous fun. It's a tasty juice that's 90% pulp, and it's all the better for being so damn tangy.