Dark City

It should not be too much of a surprise that Alex Proyas is turning to literary adaptations and moving away from sci-fi. He is currently in pre-production from Paradise Lost, an action movie based on John Milton’s Christian epic poem dramatizing the war between God and Lucifer. Later he’ll be directing Dracula: Year Zero that seems to about the historical and mythological origins of the first vampire. The Greek director’s 90s output (The Crow, Dark City) was informed by classical and religious texts coated with slick and anachronistic sets – a style similar to Terry Gilliam’s, if less dependent on occasional Monty Python humour.

Critics and fans have had a lot to say about Dark City (1998), a neo noir science fiction film about John Murdoch, an amnesia-stricken citizen of a world run by soulless aliens called ” Strangers”.  Here are some of the ideas being thrown around:

Plato’s Cave

Theologian Gerard Loughlin explains the popular theory that Murdoch’s journey is an allegory of Plato’s Cave.  See his book Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology (pages 46-8) for the full passage.

In the time before the story of the film opens, Murdoch is like most of the city’s other inhabitants, prisoners who do not know they are prisoners in a city that is the projection of the ‘strangers’ […] Each night at midnight, the city stops. It is then that the strangers transform the city through their collective and mechanically augmented will power, raising and lowering city blocks, rearranging roads and rail tracks, and changing the memories of the city’s inhabitants.

Proyas adds the inconstancy of identity to Plato’s story: everyone’s memory is everyone’s memory, swapped and shared collectively every 24 hours. Loughlin continues:

Murdoch’s journey out of the city-cave is assisted by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), producing the memory cocktails that are nightly administered to the city’s sleeping inhabitants. Like Socrates to Glaucon, Shreber carefully explains to Murdoch the means by which the shadows are cast. In order to learn the secret of the city, Murdoch does not ascend above it, but it led beneath it, into its bowels. Nor is he simply the prisoner become Glaucon, he is a Glaucon who comes to realize that Socrates’ tale of an upper, more real world, is itself a shadow, a forgery.

(Glaucon is the one listening to Socrates tell his allegory, as documented by Plato in his The Republic) Instead of being given an educational role, it seems that by the end of Dark City Murdoch has simply replaced the Strangers. He pretties up the place, but it’s still a fantasy, now his own fantasy. Blinding sunlight has washed out the darkness and water has filled the deep space void that surrounds the city – but is his life any more “real” than it was before, or his soul more permanent?

In this way the film has a conventional ‘happy ending’, that is nevertheless disturbing, since John Murdoch’s newly enlightened world exists only as he wills it, based on childhood memories that are themselves illusions, without originals within the city-cave.

Protein Structure and Plato

Gnostic Knowledge

Keoni Chavez of Screened.com wrote about Dark City, Inception, The Matrix, and Christian Gnosticism, the belief  that a being called a ‘demiurge’ created the material world, an illusion in the path of true divine illumination and salvation. You can see where this is going:

In each of these films, there is a baseline universe that is hidden to those without the proper knowledge of how to access it. In Dark City, control is achieved through “tuning”, a way to influence matter through the power of the mind. In The Matrix, the running computer simulation that informs the title of the movie is so convincing that special effort must be made to overcome the illusion and see the world for what it truly is. In Inception things are a little reversed: reality is fine, but through proper training, one’s dreams can be shaped into worlds as real-seeming as anything.

Even if normal, continuous reality is unattainable (as in Dark City), the hero’s task is to find other planes of reality or other planes of being. Murdoch has to escape from the trap of the memories he holds to be his own. In that sense he has to lose himself, transcend the individual to come to an understanding of the city’s collective consciousness. Not surprisingly, he draws closer to the Strangers’ “hive mind”, where there is no individual soul or memory but a shared pool of knowledge – memory in a communist state.

God as Everything

A blogger I used to follow had a fascinating idea about the ultimate point of human existence, and, while this may sound outlandish and unrelated t0 Dark City, think of it as an extension of Proyas’ explorations of knowledge and reality:

A rock is a rock, but it also embodies the concept of ‘rock’. For ease of visualization, a concept can be regarded as a singular point in some vast hypothetical space. There are millions of these conceptual points in the human consciousness.

But, the writer reminds us, human consciousness changes and grows through time. Gravity was not a known concept five hundred years ago, yet it existed outside the space of human knowledge:

Now if one were to consider all of these concept-points that exist but are not yet perceived, the night sky fills up with countless more stars […] Now we visualize what appears to be the sum total of all knowledge.

Spinoza believed God to be the sum total of physical laws that described the universe, and the writer comes to a similar conclusion:

I argue that this sum total of all conceptual points and connections is God […] If all of these conceptual points were to be perceived by one consciousness there would still be one unknown concept: nothing. This consciousness would not be able to perceive the concept of nothing, because to completely understand nothing you must know no-thing. The remedy to this problem is simple, however. Create a machine that accumulates knowledge, then delete everything in this conscious network. The aforementioned machine can then re-accumulate all knowledge into a conscious network again.

And, the final argument (one that would make an excellent premise for an Alex Proyas movie):

I further argue that this machine that re-accumulates knowledge is what has come to be known as life. Our universe is its operating environment.

Shoulda seen the crowd we got together for the séance last weekend.

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Twisted Endings

French Canadian cinema tends to produce at least one or two critical darlings a year that do well at the Quebec box office while winning awards at festivals around the world. One of these films, Incendies is doing well, at least by modest Canadian standards. Dennis Villeneuve’s drama swept the Genies (Canadian film awards) and even got an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The Toronto Film Festival has been screening it at the Lightbox almost daily for a couple of months, a pretty good indication of Incendies‘ warm reception, if not its financial success.

Worth noting is that Villeneuve is not tackling nationalistic subject matter. He’s not making Paschendaele or Score: A Hockey Musical. He’s not even discussing events taking place in Canada like he did in Polytechnique, his last feature. Incendies is based on Canadian-Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad’s play about a brother and sister uncovering their mother’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war. The story begins in Montreal where Nawal Marwan slips into a coma, leaving only a cryptic letter pointing her children homeward. It’s a detective story but not a very talky one. Villeneuve loves his long steadicam shots and orchestrates scene with an eye for visuals, not an ear for the dialogue, which is precise, Spartan or dull, depending on your sensibilities.

Two wrongs make a right, right? Hockey is losing its grip on young people across Canada; the musical has been a dying genre since MGM lost its mind after 1960. How could this go wrong?

So while Incendies is not about Canada, it touches on what is often referred to as “the immigrant experience”; a pretty empty and patronizing phrase that suggests there’s a unifying truth behind the disparate backstories of the hundreds of thousands of newcomers that start new lives in Canada. At the opening of the film Marwan’s children know next to nothing of their cultural and biological heritage. Her daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) tries to step into her mother’s shoes by travelling to her homeland. Though I hope most Canadian immigrants are not escaping from lives as horrible as Marwan’s, there is something in this movie that speaks to the confusing process of discovering the skeletons in your parents’ closets and the disorientation the children of immigrants go through when coming across unexpected secrets, like a missed step in the dark.

But let’s not turn this into a Canadian public service announcement: Incendies‘ main focus is the desperate struggle between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon from 1975-1990. French Canadian company micro_scope co-produced with France’s TS Productions and Phi Group.  Until the film’s very end, Marwan’s flashbacks are astoundingly realistic.

The Spoiler of What Spoiled the Story

Marwan spends much of the film searching for the illegitimate child her brothers gave to an orphanage. After the murder of her uncle’s family, Marwan becomes an assassin for the Muslim faction (I think) and assassinates the Christian warlord responsible (I think he’s from the South Lebanese Army).  She is taken to one of the notorious Khiam prisons in the south of Lebanon, where a professional torturer named Abou Tarek tries to break her spirit by raping her. In a self-consciously shocking plot twist, it turns out her child was taken from the orphanage to become a sniper for the regional militias, eventually becoming a feared torturer and rapist.

Is he called Abou Tarek? It seems I keep talking a lot about King Oedipus in this blog, but this time Villeneuve leaves me no option. It turns out that Marwan was raped by her own son and her twin children’s step-brother is also their father. As if this were not enough, Incendies concludes by Marwan speaking beyond the grave to her children – including Tarek, who is now a bus cleaner in Montreal. In her letters she stresses the enduring love she feels for them, no matter how they turned out, and while the tone is supposed to be redemptive and even heart-warming, my insides remained cold and queasy. This would be, I think, the equivalent of Sophocles writing an epilogue in which Oedipus smiles and reflects on the happy memories (bar incest) he has of his mother/wife Jocasta.

"We'll always have Thebes."

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the ending unwelcome.

Christopher Bell of IndieWIRE:

 The result is so overly-shocking that the real surprise is the audacity of the filmmaker to commit to such a thing—to reference an early capsule review of ours, it’s more or less lifted from a soap opera.

Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice: (again with the soap-opera comparison)

Nawal’s travails are more in the vein of a Latin American soap opera than Greek tragedy, and Jeanne and Simon’s climactic, genuinely god-awful discovery plays like artistic sleight-of-hand rather than the profoundly tautological revelation it aspires to be.

Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail:

The conclusion of Incendies feels more ingenious than convincing. It’s designed by the artist as puppet-master for worthy didactic reasons. The problem becomes awkwardly obvious in the final flurry of voice-over letters that conclude the film in an unearned shower of healing and reconciliation.

In drama, less if often more, especially if your story includes civilians being burnt alive in buses and children hiding from snipers in urban rubble. Incendies is genuine and forceful until it reveals the emotional manipulation that remains effectively screen behind any resonant work of art.

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Hanna, Fairy Tales, and Homeschooling

Once in a while a film comes along that redefines your expectations, that does something new with a lot of old things, a work of art as inspired as it is flawed. Good or bad become almost empty judgments. Some messes can only be made by geniuses. Maybe Joe Wright got lucky, but let’s hope not. Hanna may not beat the competition, but it’s a rare movie that changes the rules of the game.

Consider what some critics have been saying:

Bland title, beguiling movie. Hanna is far from perfect but, courtesy of star Saoirse Ronan and director Joe Wright, it’s one of those imperfect pictures that manages to command and hold our attention straight from the opening frames. –Rick Groen

Of course the movie re­minded me of “Kick-Ass” (2010), the action fantasy about a deadly young girl. I like “Hanna” a good deal more, because in its quirky way, it has something to say, a certain wit and a command of the visual poetry of action. –Roger Ebert

Wright’s earlier credits, including two mannered period pieces, may not have suggested this was his cup of tea. But now that he has found a groove, maybe he can rescue American action movies from the wasteland of boring spectacles and keep the focus where it belongs—in speedy timing and giddy payoffs. –Eric Kohn

And those who were not so positive:

Hanna is contrived, pretentious and not worth seeing even for the perverse pleasure of watching first-rate talents make second-rate fools of themselves. Hanna is an incomprehensible pile of gibberish with great credentials. – Rex Reed

Kick-Ass is mentioned in a lot of the reviews, sometimes to elevate Hanna to comparison or to equate both films as the same overly-stylistic heaps of junk. Here’s my take. Even if we leave character and story aside, Kick-Ass comes up short in inventiveness of genre subversion. Of course, there is a 12 year-old girl kicking ass, and none of the heroes have super powers. The trailers scream “No Powers? No Problem” and then add one qualification: you have to be an expert in martial arts to be a masked vigilante. I felt like Lionsgate was selling me sparkling fruit juice instead of champagne. Their argument that somehow teenagers in suits could become superheroes (again, with martial arts training) is similar to claiming Batman is just an ordinary guy (with lots of money and Himalayan martial arts training).

In Hanna our hero is super-human. Saoirse Ronan’s lone wolf is the product of the same vague biogenetic mutations that created Captain America and Spiderman. While Hanna’s strength and agility supply the action scenes, there is a lot more going on genre-wise. It’s a revenge thriller, fairy tale, and extended Oedipal narrative rolled into a bewildering – and yes, sometimes pretentious – yet simple tale of adolescence. That’s a lot more than I can say for Kick-Ass, which starts out in teen comedy and then switches lanes into a blood-soaked opera of retribution without emotional or intellectual payoff.

Homeschooling

She knows the facts and yet she doesn’t know the world. Wright juxtaposes Hanna’s disturbing capacity for murder with her naivety. Sophie (Jessica Barden) schools Hanna in normal teenager-hood and family interaction (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng are the very convincing parents). As critics have said at greater length and in better prose, this contrast deepens the heroine’s conflict in her own search for trust and identity.

You can read Hanna’s isolated upbringing as a parable for helicopter parents. Erik (Bana) is a protective and loving father who hates to part with his daughter, an inevitable stage of parenthood. He even stumbles over the word “sperm” when teaching Hanna about whales. All parents should shield their children from the dark, deceptive sexual world outside the cabin; the question is when do you let them go? Those are pretty profound questions for a film involving a German assassins in beach shorts.

The Ice Queen

The original fairy tales in the brother’s Grimm often featured an evil mother figure oppressing pitiable heroines. More often than not the stepmother was the villain (Snow White, Cinderella), partly because she could embody all the nasty aspects of abusive motherhood without being the natural mother. The father is, in contrast, a saint or a dead saint, but in both case powerless to stop the stepmother’s assault on the heroine’s freedom.

For all his lethal abilities (exhibited in one very long Joe Wright take) Erik is powerless against Marissa (Cate Blanchett), an amalgamation of CIA inquisitor, Narnian ice witch, and evil queen-stepmother tropes. Wright fetishizes the character’s menace well: tracking shots of the sharp, stylish high heels, closeups on the perfect white teeth and grey, cold, trench coats that sap any warm femininity out of Blanchett’s appearance.

Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s screenplay suggests not too subtly that Marissa’s lack of empathy is a result of motherlessness. When Hanna’s grandmother finds the CIA woman in her home she asks her why she never had kids. “I made certain choices,” Marissa replies (along those lines), screwing a silencer onto her handgun. The implication that Marissa is sterile or too career-oriented for family would piss off Judith Butler but it’s great for the cinemagoer who would not have expected an action film to complicate feminist principles further than cutting disposable bimbos in and out of the plot.

Blonde Oedipus – Spoiler Alert

Erik eventually tells Hanna that he was not her biological father, that she was artificially conceived in a laboratory supervised by Marissa. One of many loose ends is the questions of Hanna’s parenthood, though while I watched the final encounter between Ronan and Blanchett I wondered if a twist was coming. Was Marissa the mother? Was Hanna’s entire journey away from the cabin the Freudian narrative of the child pulling away from one parent and reconciling its hatred to the other?

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud wrote:

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our childhood wishes.

His colleague Carl Jung proposed the Elektra complex for girls, the exact reverse. Hanna shoots Marissa with an arrow and tells her: “I just missed your heart”, an echo of the opening hunting scene wherein she takes down a deer. There’s a lack of emotion in Ronan’s face when she stares down at Marissa, who, oddly, smiles. The retribution seems to already have been replaced by Hanna’s sense of deep satisfaction; maybe the satisfaction that Hanna has severed ties to both parents (both dead).

Moments where the credibility is flimsy only make the Bildungsroman (stories of adolescent development) readings appear more credible. Why did Erik suddenly decide to allow Hanna to join the rest of the world? His only explanation is the one he gives at the moment of his death: “Kids grow up.”

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Talking to Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. You can also find this interview on The Varsity website. If you like this, subscribe on the right!

Critics occupy an odd and often awkward position between the audience and the artist, playing both observer and judge to the latest cultural output. Asking the right questions – and adjusting your idea of objectivity from text to text – is a fine line to walk. The Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey returns again and again to Goerthe’s criteria: “what is trying to do? Does it do it? Does it matter? The last question is obviously the most tricky.”

It’s refreshing to dissect the dissector, to ask questions to the person with the job of anticipating our questions. Lacey is candid and unpretentious, able to see the merits of Hobo With A Shotgun and the shortcomings of Abbas Koriastami’s arty Certified Copy. He pauses to stare at the table before readying his words and then begins anew, hand moving across the surface. The spiked sprout of white Beckettian hair above his forehead and the red-rimmed glasses complete the image of slightly hip thoughtfulness.

“We’re not academics, we’re not in the business of scholarship. There’s an evaluative aspect of our job. When it boils down to it, we say whether something is good or not.” Nevertheless, he looks up to thinkers he calls “heroic critics”. “When I came to U of T, Frye and McLuhan were still here. They were social philosophers who made the role of the critic more attractive. They were creative critics.”

Lacey took only one film course – Bart Testa was his TA – when he did his English BA. In 1979 Testa helped him land a job as a rock critic at the Globe, a position he held until 1993 when the late, great Jay Scott passed away. Rick Groen took over and Lacey helped pick up the slack. Now they divide the reviews between them, and Lacey readily admits “it’s an ongoing learning curve.”

Neither is it a job that needs an obvious set of skills or knowledge. “You could spend a lot of time learning Japanese cinema, or even Japanese cinema from the 50s, but that doesn’t have much to do with your day-to-day job. You have your 3-5 stories thrown at you week-to-week on a regular basis.” In the early 90s he was given the genre pictures, the leftovers other critics didn’t want to take. That type of art is a whole different animal from the (self-)important art film, and takes a different set of tools to pass judgment.

“I don’t know what my standards are sometimes,” laughs Lacey. An unsure critic is often the best kind of critic. “Standards shift from film to film. There’s no cookie cutter model or moral grid that I use. I’m reviewing Certified Copy, and it’s interesting but less substantial than Koriastami’s Iranian work. Hobo With a Shotgun is a well-done spoof of a genre film. Jason Eisner, the director, has a great eye for the subject, the editing, the humour.”

David Pike, The Varsity

If going against critical consensus has consequences, Lacey shrugs them off. “You can give a negative review of a film well-regarded by elite critics. But if I dismiss Copy, it’s not going to ruin my life. I’ll get called bad names. It’s easy to get away with being anti-highbrow.”

Lacey’s influences include the usual suspects: Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Pauline Kael, David Kehr, David Bordwell (“always very useful”), Jay Scott and music guru Robert Christga of the The Village Voice. He quotes his colleague Rick Groen: “It’s true everyone’s a critic, but a critic isn’t everyone.” However, the internet has arguably made a critic out of everyone with an IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes account.

“You used to have to read the local critic to know what was good. I think the gatekeeper role is over. You don’t have authority anymore just because you have the job. It’s more honest, in a way.” There’s an ambivalence in his voice, as if the future holds both good and bad.

“There used to be a hierarchy in journalism. Some newspapers would publish the consumer report, basically an unambiguous judgement. Other were entertaining in themselves, taking the art at a distance and try to look at it in terms of wider cultural forces.” Publishers are leaning to the report. “They want smaller pieces with more evaluative statements.”

I mention how the print version Globe is starting to like a website. “The big push is to work graphics and charts into the text, but this isn’t the same as actual critical discourse. The film enthusiast doesn’t lose out; the internet can take you to some very sophisticated criticism. You’re not trapped in IMDB forums. But we’re not, I think, moving in a high-end direction.”

As to the state of film-making itself, Lacey has a nuanced outlook. “There’s something interesting happening. Hollywood cut back from around 160 to 148 films a year. Emphasis is more on tentpoles and sequels and all of this would seem to counter the idea of making medium-sized dramas and art films. But Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech – each made over $100 million. So audiences are looking for alternatives.” This may actually be because of changes in media distribution. “When there’s a glut of alternatives, people might be looking for something smarter. The internet could be producing a smarter, more discerning consumer.”

If North Americans are flocking to see dramas, why aren’t Canadians going to see Canadian films? “The problem is the thinking that box office is the same as profit. Passchendaele made four million but it had a twenty million dollar budget. That’s an abject failure by any objective evaluation, but people called ‘high performing’. I would like to see the Canadian industry operate like it did in the 90s, when we scored at international festivals with cheaper art films and didn’t go for pseudo-commercial projects like Score.”

When asked about his favourite period he says French historical films from the 40s and 50s are a continuing revelation. “Melville, Renoir – I keep going back to them. You see lost skills, lost methods of acting, of filming a scene.” He smiles, maybe coming to the node of what criticism means for him. “I think the hardest part is telling myself that one film is never exactly the same as the other. It’s a question of sharing that experience with the reader, to try and get different people to see different films.”

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Sci-Fi Going Corporate?

Greg Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau is maybe best described as sci-fi-lite. It raises issues of free will, fate, and the conflict between personal happiness and professional success, only to reconcile the contradictions nicely. It should not come as a surprise that Matt Damon’s character David Norris leans towards love over career at the pivotal moment, but there’s still food for thought.

Nolfi’s ideas and representations are interesting partly because they aren’t particularly original. In Bureau life is run by angels dressed in three piece suits and fedora’s, bland professionals who are more conscientious than decidedly evil or good.

Terrence Stamp in all his eurovillain greatness

Look at the man above. He’s Thompson, an “agent”, one of the men trying to stop Norris from pursuing Elise Selas (Emily Blunt). At the most basic level, Thompson is Agent Smith(s) from the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), the fabric-weaving Fraternity from Bekmambetov’s Wanted (2008), and Conducter 71 in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946). They are the referees of our world, challenging our existential desires to be in control of our actions, our futures. Adjustment Bureau most closely resembles Life and Death, where David Niven’s character (David Niven = David Norris maybe?) fights a legal battle with heaven to stay on earth with the woman he loves. In both films angels are dutiful subjects of an enormous and puzzling bureaucracy, slightly Kafkaesque but not overwhelmingly good or evil. Pressburger reinvented heaven in 20th century terms: reception desks and log books for the recently deceased, secular courts, and the same human propensity for clerical error and inefficiency.

Hugo Weaving to the power of x

Why does Fate tend to look like an investment analyst or Wall street banker? It’s remarkable that Nolfi and the Wachowskis went for such a commonplace look (though the Bureau‘s agents could be referencing Mad Men) considering how fantastic their powers are. You have to wonder if agents always dressed like this or simply imitate the dress codes of the elite of each generation. In Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) the Conductor where’s the elite clothing of his society, the French nobility during the Enlightenment.

Christopher Nolan thought along similar lines when conceiving Inception. A.O. Scott of The New York Times was right to observe how “pedestrian” the content of the dreams were. The subconscious, which could have taken any form, was conceived as men in suits in armoured SUVs, shooting at each other. More Fleming than Freud.

In the New Yorker David Denby complained that the dreams did not look like dreams but “different kinds of action movies jammed together“. Like Nolan, Nolfi is clever without being too original: he continually refers back to our common cultural understanding of what looks cool and assured. There’s less time spent reflecting on choice, destiny, etc  in Adjustment Bureau than running around Manhattan, some of it to the Britpop nostalgia of Richard Ashcroft songs. That’s fine  because Nolfi succeeds in making an enjoyable experience. He has no mandate to be thought-provoking.

You could nail Inception and The Matrix for not fully pursuing the interesting philosophical and existential questions they raise, but you would miss the real point of their type of science fiction. Some films are meant to be enjoyed as fast-paced and easily digestible thrillers.

In the post-Star Wars age, I don’t think science fiction is going to be nearly as visually inventive or removed from our symbols and styles. Even our superhero movies have taken a more realistic turn. Superman and Spiderman are out (for the time being); Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are in love with technology and commercial intrigue; Ironman is a love song to rascally capitalism.

Expect more men in suits, less Bladerunner or Brazil-ian dystopia. While the dilemmas will remain as interesting, the environments will probably become familiar and sleek, the villains more like executives at Goldman Sachs.

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Eden of Exploitation

Although I wouldn’t call the adventures of Americans making B-movies in the Philippines a dry subject, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a joyride of a documentary, breezing through talking heads and endless clips of guns, girls, and gore with one adoring and one ironic eye to exploitation films. Writer/director Mark Hartley is quickly establishing himself as the top archivist of cinematic trash, chronicling Ozploitation (Australian genre filmmaking) in Not Quite Hollywood (2008).

Turning his gaze two dozen degrees northward, Hartley starts in the mid 1960s, when the domestic Filipino film industry was churning out over 350 titles a year. Kane W. Lyn, an American G.I. who had made the tropical islands his home, partnered with director Eddie Romero to attract overseas investment. The country had everything you could want for economical production: cheap labour, dense jungles, and available exotic women. Lyn and Romero sold horror flick after horror flick to American drive-in audiences with what critic Mark Holcomb calls the requisite three B’s: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts.

After cult producer/director Roger Corman saw one such masterpiece, Beast of the Yellow Night, he visited the Philippines and his New World Productions oversaw a decade of astonishing qualitative, if not quantitative, output. Notable for mediocre film history was the desperate-women-in-prison genre, which Corman updated in Big Doll House (1971), Pam Grier’s breakout role.

In interviews Grier and her co-stars suggest the girls-gone-wild film empowered women in cinema, giving black actors roles they would not have found in the Hollywood system. I find this a stretch, a moment when Hartley is looking too hard for a redemptive angle. Did Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage pave the road for Ripley in Alien? Maybe, but turning abused objects into gun-spraying killers is a pretty limited arc for feminist liberation. As director John Landis says: “They took control. But they’ll show you their tits!”

Well, at least Hartley shows both sides of the argument. What he tends to hurry over is the mutually exclusive relationship Corman had with the country’s brutal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. New World was truly exploitation filmmaking, using reckless stuntmen happy to get five pesos even if it meant breaking limbs. Marcos volunteered the use of his army, especially ironic in films like The Hot Box (1972 – one of Jonathan Demme’s first) sporting revolutionary, anti-fascist messages.

But apart from an unnecessary sequence on Apocalypse Now’s troubled shoot (better see Hearts of Darkness: Apocalypse Now for the full story) the doc sticks to its trashy subject, capturing a unique moment in place and time before multiplexes and Star Wars. Now our bad taste comes in big budgets too.

You can also find this article at The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto.

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Small Town Murder Songs

My first remarkable reaction during the opening credits Ed Glass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs was “hey it’s Peter Stormare, the silent wood chipper guy from Fargo!” He’s not so silent, so blonde, and so criminal. But he is still in a movie about a crime in a tiny rural community. Instead of Brainerd, North Dakota, we have Greyfork County, somewhere in Mennonite land, Ontario.

Stormare plays Walter, a police officer who has to deal with the community’s first murder. A stripper’s body is found by a lake, and the London, ON hotshots (yes, this is a very small town) move in to supervise the case.

Walter is an outcast from his Mennonite family, the target of the community’s snide remarks, and the errand boy for Detective Washington’s  (Ari Cohen) investigation. Despite an underwritten character, Stormare lets you see the bottled rage behind the thick moustache, the frustrations of a born-again Christian trying to be good and turn the other cheek. You see his self-delusion, his attempts to justify actions, and to forget the vague violence of his haunting past.

He is further tested when his ex-lover’s boyfriend emerges as the prime suspect. Though Rita (Jill Hennessey) is not exactly a classy dame, it is hard to divine what she sees in Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), a greasy waste of breath with bad teeth. Why does she so adamantly defend him? What did Walter have with her that draws him back to her house despite all the risks it carries for his job?

 

Ed Glass Donnelly: Rising talent?

While Glass-Donnelly ponders his characters, he does not shed a lot of light on them. Clocking in at a slim 75 minutes, the film hands out moments, some that capture relationships brilliantly – Martha Plimpton’s Sam telling Walter about her day at the diner – and others that leave more to be desired – Officer Jim’s teasing of his capital-r Rebellious teenage daughter. Like the beautiful shots of pastureland and migrating geese, these are postcards that make one sigh and think “aah, Ontario… aah, Canada.”

These moments would be served better as pauses to a gripping, hard-boiled narrative, which STMS is not. There are too many slow-motion montages and not enough personality-enhancing dialogue. We see Walter, badass that he is, mollify a guard dog with a branch as the indie folk of Bruce Peninsula says something about living the good life and having a wife and kids.

My impression is Glass-Donnelly treated this as an exercise, a stepping stone in his promising career. While there are the grains of depth and story, there is a little too much self-conscious style injected over so small a film – the inter titles quoting Mennonite proverbs come off as amateurish, not profound.

I think eastern Ontario is ready for a home-grown film noir, a brilliant crime drama that captures rural people, their accents and daily interactions. If you want a Gothic mood with not too much explanation, then STMS will be an hour well-spent. If you wanted something more, a Canadian Fargo or Dirty Harry, then, well, at least it is a little over an hour spent.

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Filed under Canadian, New Ones, TIFF 2010