Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mon Favourite Comedian

Here are some facts I wasn't aware of until recently.

I didn't know that Jacques Tati started out as a stage comedian/mime in music halls before he became a filmmaker. I didn't know that Mon Oncle was filmed after M. Hulot's Holiday. I had thought Mon Oncle was in black-and-white. ANd worst of all, I didn't realise how much Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean stole from Tati's Monsieur Hulot.

Both characters elicit laughs through slapstick routines, both speak little, both drive banged-up cars. But while Hulot is a loveable, good-natured and well-meaning buffoon, Bean is an obnoxious, hard-to-like dimwit.

In fact, the similarities came to a head with the last Mr Bean big-screen movie, blatantly titled Mr Bean's Holiday. I don't know if the movie should be seen a s a sort of tribute to the French comedy great, because there's no element of an homage in the film. What it has though, it a scene directly lifted from Tati's Jour de Fete, where Bean shooting past some bicycle racers mirrors the scene where Francois the postman peddles his bicycle past a group of racing cyclists. The raod trip style of the movie can also be seen as similar to Tati's cars-and-highways epic Trafic.

The other difference is that Tati's work has more pertinent meanings rather than mere gags. His colour films spin a thematic thread observing the incongruities of modern living, but not an indictment or criticism of it, mind you. The manufactured city of Play Time is a magnificent, labyrinthine glass wonder that shimmers with a sharpness and sheen reflecting slick modernity, yet encased inside what seems like a child's dollhouse. The film is really an unforgettable experience, and holds up to repeated viewings simply because Tati packs every frame with incidences, occurances and gags. The later Trafic seems to play this up with triple the magnitude, with even more things going on in a frame and faster cuts.

I'm a late discoverer of Tati's comedy, and it's hard not to lose respect for Atkinson's creation once you've learned of its origin. Monsieur Hulot is a walking disaster of dance-like movements and bumbling trajectories, a contradictory mash-up that could probably be called "graceful stiffness." The wooden puppet-like flinging of the arms and strutting of the legs are as light as air, as demonstrated in one of the funniest moments in comedy, the tennis game in M. Hulot's Holiday. I'd rank that sequence up there with Chaplin's boxing match in City Lights.

Comedy is one of the hardest things to do. It's the worst feeling in the world when no one laughs at your gags. It makes me wonder why some people here think it's so easy to be funny. I don't have to mention names but I'm pretty sure everybody knows the culprits, those who think making funny faces and acting like a doofus immediately make them the kings of comedy. Compared to other local offerings of horror, drama, action and other genres, local comedy is probably the most painful thing to sit through. If you haven't already noticed, there's a disturbing and inexplicable trend in local comedies. Be it on TV or in the cinema, a TV show or a movie, you'll definitely find actors in wigs. Then there's always the tasteless toilet humour and scatological jokes, people shitting, vomiting, spitting, excreting all sorts of bodily fluids.

Local comedians definitely need to learn that comedy really is an art, and that it takes class to be truly funny. Perhaps they need some lessons from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mack Sennet, Charlie Chaplin, and of course, Jacques Tati.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Elusive Spark

This might come as a shocker to you. I love films, but I don't really love writing about them.

Take that not as a confession, but as an elaboration. It gets tiring sometimes, writing about films, reviewing them, and trying to figure out the right words to describe things. Watching films and thinking about them, during and later, is where the real excitement lies.

In that sense, I don't and can never understand how some critics and analysts and reviewers can tirelessly churn out review after review, piece after piece. Once in a while, you do get a film that gets you so excited, you just have to write about it. And that can be the most exhilarating thing.

Lucas McNelly at 100 Films recently asked the question "How do you blog?" Or more accurately, "How do you review or write about a film?"

I've known and even sat next to some reviewers who come prepared with a notebook and pen (one of those thingies with a dim lightbulb at the tip), scribbling down thoughts and impressions. Forgive me for being blunt, but I find that a little bit silly. Maybe it's a personal thing, but I believe films being 24 frames per second are like the landscape you see rushing by when you're on a train. But the advent of video and DVD has pretty much changed the way we view films. There's an article somewhere online about this, by David Bordwell or somebody else. I don't remember.

Still, despite that, I still believe that the first impression is everything for a reviewer or critic. Films are, after all, built that way, for a single-pass experience. More so for the reviewer at press previews, which are usually held days before a film is released. And in between the preview and the general release is usually the deadline for the review to be published. No second chances.

What I do is just sit and watch the film. Let it run by, see it for what it is, then take note of how it makes you feel. It's after the movie is over that I start the thinking process. This may take from just a few hours up to a few days. From the first impression, other thoughts will grow and develop about the film. If you liked it, why, and what made you feel so. If not, same thing.

There were two instances when I had to view a film twice, but there was good reason both times.

The first was for U-Wei Hajisaari's Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist). The film was shot on Beta (if I'm not mistaken) and the transfer to 35mm was far from satisfactory. Some scenes were simply devoid of visual details because of that. My initial review was not as very positive one. But later, U-Wei himself convinced me to give the film a second try. The second time indeed yielded more positive things from it, because by then I had kind of got used to the blurry images, which were what got in the way the first time. Of course, I got quite a shelling from some people on a forum for changing my opinion in just a week.

The second was for Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. I had a hard time sitting through it the first time, and I left after the big attack. Then my conscience got better of me, and I felt to be fair, I had to finish the movie. The second time around, I hung around until I knew the attack sequences were over, then I headed into the cinema. Guess what, I lasted for about 30 minutes before I had to walk out again. I did write a review, but that was the first and last time I ever wrote a review without finishing a movie. I vowed never to do that ever again. It's just not right.

(I actually did it again for In The Name Of The King, but it was a short impression, not really a review, for this blog.)

There are some who regard reviewing as something you do as if you're taking apart a piece of machinery, or like a careful scientific study that takes concentrated observation. But hey, reviewers and critics want to enjoy films too. That's why we do what we do anyway. Someone once told me how relieved she was to not have to review a movie again and that she could finally sit and watch a movie without having to think so much.

This is what I don't get. Movies are not made for people to sit and think hard about them while they play. The thinking should come naturally and as a second-nature response. It's like this morning when someone told me she only watches movies for entertainment, and not to think.

My reply was, everyone watches movies for entertainment. No one wants to have a hard time at the movies.

My parting shot: It's only a movie, not a university lecture, for God's sake!

Addendum: More interestingly, Abe Casio, a renowned Japanese critic and author of books on Kitano Takeshi, said that when he watches a film, even on VCR, he never stops the tape. He has a rather special way of analysing films. He draws a difference between "creatively incorrect memories" and careless ones. Meaning, he watches a film once, then writes about what he has just seen, even though some of his descriptions or details may not be accurate. The reason is that Abe believes film is "living and moving" and "vanishing every moment," and that "memory alone enables us to re-experience it." He writes about film as how the audience experience it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fine Movie, Totally Not Fine Situation

Japanese films rarely get a release here except when it's some J-horror or melodramatic romance, like the overwrought Crying Out Love At The Centre Of The World. During that movie, women were sniffing away and tearing at tissues, while I was squirming in my seat, busily scrubbing the soppiness off my skin.

Once in a while, you do get some great stuff, outside of the annual Japanese Film Festival at GSC. Like last year, we had what was clearly the best film in any language, Yamada Yoji's Love And Honour. SOme years ago, when the GSC International Screens was still in its early days, there was Mitani Koki's Welcome Back, Mr McDonald (Rajio no Jikan), which was the funniest, most feel-good film I'd ever seen. That film holds a record of sorts. It was, I believe, the longest running International Screens film ever. It ran for months, during which I went to see it a total of eight times. I loved it that much. Now that I have it on DVD, I watch it at least once every year.

Recently I saw the much acclaimed Fine,Totally Fine, starring Mr Funny Face, Arakawa Yoshiyoshi. It's a rare kind of movie that keeps getting funnier as it goes along, until it reaches a point where it gets you rolling around with a bellyache. It's slapstick, but it's also not quite what you expect it to be. By the end, it is something that's moving, lovely and quite life-affirming.

You can read Todd Brown's review of it here at Twitch.

Then I realised this is one of those films no distributor would bring here, not even GSC. And I started thinking about all the other fine Japanese films that won't make it to our cinemas, that we won't have a chance of enjoying on the big screen.

Yamada Yoji's Kabei (Our Mother) hasn't seen the light of day here, so we can pretty much forget it. I've already got the three-disc limited edition box-set, and yes, it's every bit as great as they say. I thought it would have a chance to be released here since Love And Honour was shown last year, but then this film has no swordfighting nor good-looking pop idols, and is a family drama that runs for more than two hours. Its chance was as fat as a rubber suit.

And same situation too, with Kurosawa Kiyoshi. His Retribution surprisingly made it here, but was riding on the popularity of J-horror. Unfortunately, no one expected it to be so "out there" with its idea of horror. During the press preview, some annoying journalists were giggling like they were watching a comedy. At that point, I knew the movie wasn't going to go down well with the average horror fan here. So, no point in keeping our fingers crossed for Tokyo Sonata, a family drama which is also Kurosawa's first attempt at something outside of the genre that made his name.

Finally, I talked to a distributor and got word that Mitani's The Magic Hour isn't going to come here either. It's "not really that funny and is a bit too long," was what I was told.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Vampire Tapestry

Criterion, Eureka! and Masters Of Cinema are all fighting for the same business, I guess. It's not so much among the three, but more between the American Criterion and the British labels. And when they grapple with each other to get the same customers, boy do we get some really magnificent releases.

Case in point, Carl Dryer's Vampyr. I bought the Criterion two-disc edition before realising Eureka! had an almost similar release. Some extras that are on the Criterion disc are in the Eureka! book that comes with the set, and vice-versa. There's a comparison somewhere online between the two transfers and they're not that much different as well. (During the Amazon UK summer sale, I toyed with the idea of getting the Eureka! set, but thankfully rationale prevailed.)

Dryer's Vampyr is a film that I'd read about even when I was a mere schoolboy. And what I'd read intrigued me so much, it had been almost a crusade ever since, to seek out the film. I remember seeing a badly faded still of the famous Grim Reaper image of the man at the jetty, in a book about horror films (which I'd found and read at the state library only because it had nudie pics from various horror films that "intrigued" me as an adolescent!). In it is described many strange and inexplicable instances, like a man's shadow that gets up and moves away from him.

Indeed, finally sitting down and seeing it for the first time, the film is confoundingly impressionistic, in a good way. Dryer's motive is obvious. This is a film designed to unsettle its audience. Many strange sequences remain unexplained - the shadow with a life of its own, the main character's soul leaving his body, a ghostly ballroom of shadows, a ghost appearing even before the person has died - and the film buckles its own continuity. The axis is crossed many times, and the positions of the characters in a scene are often confusing. But one of the most disturbing moments of the film is where the main character gets encased in a coffin and buried alive.

Having also received Universal's 75th anniversary two-disc edition of Tod Browning's original 1931 Dracula, and having been the proud owner of a copy of Murnau's Nosferatu for a while now, I could finally compare these early vampire films with each other.

My favourite remains Murnau's, because it's a technically marvellous film. The gorgeous use of shadows, and in one unsettling scene, the use of negatives, and Max Schreck's frightening make-up, are all beautiful in a hideous way. Strangely enough, among the three, only Nosferatu shows any fangs. For all Bela Lugosi's fine theatrics (and he's exceptionally good at them, with a very solid screen presence), he doesn't actually sport any fangs. Nor does the old vampire in Dryer's film.

Browning's Dracula is simply the birth of Hollywood horror, establishing the straightforward, clear-cut narrative that builds from conventional suspense and which goes straight for the jugular. It is not interested in horror at a subconscious level, as is the case with most Hollywood horror movies. It's more visceral in its approach, while Nosferatu and Vampyr build on atmosphere and mood, and are much more haunting and memorable, even today. Besides, Nosferatu has one unforgettable scene that's hard to top - of Count Orlock carrying his coffin across town.

What Dracula has, that the other two do not appear to be concerned with, is the sexuality and the sensual nature of the vampire. As one interviewee in the extras on the DVD described, Lugosi's count is Valentino as a vampire - seductive yet dangerous. Ironically, Vampyr is partly adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's short story, Carmilla, which is one of the earliest psychosexual lesbian vampire stories. But the erotic undercurrents of the story is sadly missing from the film.

Over the years I had been collecting vampire films, on both laserdisc and DVD. They include John Landis's little-discussed Innocent Blood, which is a rather enjoyable horror comedy, and George Romero's Martin, a very disturbing psychological study of blood obsession and a metaphorical tale about the death of imagination. Of course, there's also Coppola's excellent, red-drenched take on Dracula, with Gary Oldman as an even more seductive but disgusting vampire count. Neil Jordan's somewhat wispy adaptation of Ann Rice's Interview With The Vampire is mysteriously endearing, with a very disquieting turn by Kirsten Dunst as a child vampire. Then there's Tobe Hooper's genuinely frightening TV series of Stephen King's Salem's Lot.

There are, of course, many other vampire films - From Dusk Till Dawn, Fright Night, Blade - but the ones that remain an interest to me are Kathryn Bigelow's cowboy vampire tale, Near Dark, and one of Viggo Mortensen's early films, The Reflecting Skin. The latter is available only on a very expensive remastered Japanese DVD.

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