Thursday, December 31, 2020

Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)

Quest Status: 726 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #809

Grave of the Fireflies continues the thematic thread that has run through all of my selections for this month: the existence of painful memories in the recent past that must be faced and, hopefully, transcended. In Grave of the Fireflies, the film takes place after both of the main characters have died, looking back on the final days of their lives as Japanese children trying to get by without their parents in the final days of World War II. The memories of this era in Japan are irrevocably tinged with shame and anger, but these memories are becoming fainter as each year goes by. History classes in Japan today focus primarily on the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war, with little to no mention of Japan's role in the war and their reasons for fighting. The fact that the US won the war means that our education system is less hesitant to discuss it, but with the European side of the war taking precedence over the Pacific front, many Americans' knowledge of the war with Japan is also limited mostly to the atomic bombings.

Because of this, I assumed that Grave of the Fireflies would also touch upon these well-known tragedies. However, despite being set in Kobe, not far from Hiroshima, there isn't a single mention of the atomic bombing in the film. Instead, the film focuses on two siblings: Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi), a ninth-grade boy, and Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), his preschool-age sister. After a firebombing destroys their house and fatally injures their mother, and with their father off fighting in the Japanese Navy, the two children are forced to fend for themselves in the unforgiving final months of the war. The constant ridiculing of their distant aunt leads them to set up house in a bomb shelter, but the scarcity of rations forces Seita to steal in order to feed his sister. It's a story of childhood lost: the failed attempts of children to take care of themselves when they are deprived of all parental and societal support.
As many other reviewers have noted, watching Grave of the Fireflies isn't going to lift anyone's spirits - despite its hauntingly beautiful final scene. It was produced by Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, but the vision that writer/director Isao Takahata presents is much harsher and more realistic than the fantasy worlds that Ghibli is famous for. Its unflinching view of the cruelty of wartime life might seem uncharacteristic for an animated film, but it is more successful in capturing the look and feel of 1945 Japan than any live action film could likely have been. And while it doesn't make any blatant comments on the war itself, it is clear that Seita and Setsuko die from neglect - in a society where even children were expected to understand the dire circumstances that their country was in and find a way to contribute to the war effort. The most telling moment is when the childrens' aunt reprimands little Setsuko when she asks for some rice to eat, claiming that the two aren't worthy of proper food because they aren't fighting for the nation. This is the true price of war - the ruined lives of innocent children who have no one looking out for them and no real conception of the danger that surrounds them. Even so, Grave of the Fireflies also gives weight to the fleeting moments of joy that the two children share in their final days - like the fleeting light that the firefly gives off before giving way to an untimely demise. 

-- 274 films remaining---

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)

Quest Status: 725 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #652

"The only present that might exist is the one in my mind. It's the closest we come to the absolute present."
If asked to categorize Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, most would call it a documentary. Even so, it might be best categorized as a subjective documentary, a work in which the filmmaker makes connections between events that are then brought together to form a new expression of ideas. In this case, Guzmán brings together the concepts of astronomy and archaeology. Both are studied in Chile's arid Atacama Desert, where the sky is more clearly visible than anywhere else in the world and the remains of humans from over 10,000 years prior remain perfectly preserved. This makes it a paradise for both astronomers and archaeologists from all over the world who hope to study the past - both distant and not-so-distant.

As numerous experts tell us in the film's opening section, both astronomy and archaeology are gateways to the past. But Guzmán, the director of The Battle of Chile, a three-part chronicle of the 1973 military coup d'etat against the Marxist government, has more than astronomy and archaeology on his mind. His primary concern is the paradox that Chilean society embraces the study of the distant past in the Atacama Desert, but reviles the study of much more recent history in the same location. This vast desert was the site of numerous concentration camps during the 1970s period of military dictatorship in Chile, with many political prisoners eventually killed and buried in mass graves in the desert. When the wives and mothers of the victims started banding together and combing through the desert for bodies, the military dug up the bodies in bulk and (supposedly) buried them at sea. But despite the military's efforts, a small group of women remains dedicated to scouring the desert for whatever remains are left.

Guzmán achieves a delicate balance between his two topics, revealing how a number of the victims' children have become prominent astronomers. Clearly, he is not the only one who sees a connection between searching for humanity's origins in the stars and searching for closure in the sand. He combines a small, carefully-selected base of interviews with sublime juxtapositions of celestial imagery and haunting views of the desert to drive his immensely profound ideas home in the most simple terms possible. There are few political assertions made here. Rather, Guzmán urges us to examine the painful events in our collective past. Why do we gaze endlessly at the stars for hints of the world's prehistoric beginnings, but avoid examining what happened in our own country's recent history because "it's in the past"? No matter how painful this recent history might be, summoning up the courage to face it clears the air and benefits everyone - regardless of where they might fall on the political spectrum. This is Guzmán's simple plea to Chile and the world - and Nostalgia for the Light is his stunningly concise and effective vehicle for expressing it.

--- 275 films remaining---

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Caché (2005, Michael Haneke)

Quest Status: 724 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #214

On the surface, Michael Haneke's Caché is a mystery film, a psychological thriller about surveillance - the feeling of being watched by an unknown entity that can see your every move. However, its central mystery is never solved, with Haneke pulling back layer after layer and making the mystery progressively more complicated and disturbing - ultimately refusing to satisfy viewer expectations like most other mystery films. The result is a master class in creating and sustaining tension. The creepy atmosphere that Haneke creates never lets up; there's always a sinking feeling that the unknown stalker is hiding just around the corner, just waiting to be revealed. There's plenty of tension in earlier Haneke films like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, but also a breaking point where that tension explodes into violence. In Caché, by contrast, little violence is shown on screen. And even when it is, it only results in the creation of further tension and uncertainties.

What is certain is this: Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) are being harassed by a stalker who sends high-quality videos of their apartment shot from the outside, filmed by someone close by but never seen. The videos are also accompanied by bloody drawings that seem to recall an incident from Georges' childhood which is never revealed fully. In any case, the incident involved a young boy, Majid, the son of Algerian immigrants killed in a 1961 massacre in Paris. Georges' parents had intended to adopt Majid after the death of his parents, but six-year-old Georges used lies and intimidation to have Majid sent to an orphanage away from their family. As an adult, Georges still can't face up to this incident from his childhood. He can't even tell his wife about it. Nevertheless, he is forced to reckon with the past when he suspects Majid of sending the tapes.

The first half of the film unfolds much like you would expect a French thriller about sophisticated upper-class Parisians to unfold, with the characters going about their daily routine, arguing with each other, having dinner with friends, and avoiding going to the police for fear of alarming their son or acknowledging to themselves that there is a serious problem. But when Georges refuses to tell his wife who it is that he suspects of sending the tapes, it causes a serious rift in their relationship. From this point on, he is filled with indignation towards Majid for causing him to remember his cruelty as a child and thus disturbing his comfortable existence. When he meets Majid (Maurice Benichou), the man who he had wronged so many years ago is gentle, soft-spoken and doesn't seem guilty, but this doesn't stop Georges from taking out his anger on the man once again.
Toward the end of the film, Majid's son (Walid Afkir) confronts Georges and asks him how it feels to have a man's life on his conscience. Clearly, Georges doesn't feel like he had anything to do with ruining Majid's life. Or maybe he just refuses to admit it. Regardless, Haneke's question isn't just for Georges - it's for all French people, or anyone descended from those who systematically murdered and oppressed their colonies' subjects. Can you live with yourself for feeling that your life is more important than the descendants of enslaved or colonized people who live low-rent existences because they weren't able to have the same opportunities as you did? Ultimately, it's irrelevant who sent the tapes. The refusal of people like Georges to face up to the modern realities of a colonial past is the real crime on display in Caché, causing the buildup of a repressed collective guilt resulting in a toxic silence that putrefies society. But, as the film's enigmatic ending suggests, the younger generation is standing witness and won't be as willing as their parents to accept the crimes of their ancestors as a necessary evil best left swept under the rug and forgotten.

--- 276 films remaining---

Thursday, December 24, 2020

REWIND: The Tenant (1976, Roman Polanski)

TSPDT Rank #338

Initial viewing: 10/11/2013

After losing his wife, Sharon Tate, in the grisly Manson Family killings of 1969, Roman Polanski seemed to unravel--his subsequent films becoming progressively darker and filled with brooding anxiety. The Tenant follows this pattern, although it also recalls two earlier Polanski films with which it forms an unofficial “Apartment Trilogy.” In the first, Repulsion, a timid young woman’s apartment is invaded by a man who tries to rape her; in the second, Rosemary’s Baby, a pregnant woman fears that her neighbors are plotting to take her baby away from her. The Tenant, however, deals with a sense of fear which is much more difficult to pin down--not to mention much stranger and disturbing.

For one thing, rather than having the main character be a woman in peril, Polanski plays the main character himself. His character, Trelkovsky, is a quiet Polish immigrant looking for an apartment. Although the one he has his eyes on was the site of a suicide attempt, the apartment’s owners hardly seem to eager to show the apartment and immediately treat him with suspicion. From here on, the premise starts to get really strange: as soon as Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, people in the neighborhood start informing him of the previous tenant’s habits - a cup of hot chocolate in the morning instead of coffee, Marlboro cigarettes instead of Gauloise Blues, and slippers after 10 pm so as not to disturb the neighbors. He is aggressively encouraged to adopt these habits of his own, gradually causing him to feel that his identity is being threatened.

But what exactly is the source of this anxiety? As a Polish immigrant himself, who had lived in both America and France, Polanski would certainly have understood the feeling of being an outsider in a foreign identity - with one’s reputation always one step away from investigation and suspicion. But the idea of forcing someone to become a different person is another question entirely. One answer is that a death leaves a void which those left behind feel compelled to fill in some way. A look at Polanski’s personal life might suggest that the experience of losing his wife made him want to fill the void that she left behind.

That the dialogue is spoken in English, despite being set in Paris, only accentuates the film’s undefinable sense of discord. The effect is disorienting - the street signs and storefronts are all in French, but the actors all sound like Americans. All, that is, except for Trelkovsky and one of his fellow tenants, a woman with a Eastern European accent and a disabled daughter. At one point, we see the woman and her daughter forced to don robes and masks as the neighbors violently prod them in the street like animals. 

It’s impossible to see this and not think of the Holocaust, medieval witch hunts, or other such atrocities. But like many other scenes throughout the film, the simple sense of uncomfortable uncanniness overwhelms any literal analysis. For example, when Trelkovsky begins dressing in drag in his belief that he is “becoming” the former tenant of his apartment, it’s not the effect of seeing Polanski in women’s clothing that’s so disquieting, it’s that he seems to fit so well among the intricately designed sets and really become another character. And the moment when he examines himself in the mirror and whispers with palpable dread, “I think I’m pregnant,” is like no other in the history of cinema.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Irréversible (2002, Gaspar Noé)

Quest Status: 723 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #705

Every review of this movie should start with a warning, so I'll get that out of the way before we go any further. This movie is not for the faint of heart. It contains a 10-minute rape scene and a scene of graphically violent bludgeoning, but these two infamous scenes are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the raw emotional impact that Irréversible has on the viewer. This impact comes primarily from the fact that the story (a fairly standard rape and revenge story on the surface) is told in reverse: starting from a place of gut-wrenching ugliness and working its way gradually up a breakneck downward spiral... until we find ourselves in a place of beauty, tenderness, and possibilities that seem so close, but are actually impossibly out of reach.

Irréversible was my introduction to Gaspar Noé, the French director behind some of the most provocative and incendiary films of recent decades. I had known of him for a long time, but could never work up the nerve to watch this film - his most acclaimed film by far. Not being a big fan of Christopher Nolan's gimmicky Memento (another reverse chronological order film whose success reportedly secured Noé the funding for this film), I doubted that the same trick would work in service of material which I had heard to be nearly unwatchable in its extended cruelty, no matter how cleverly applied. And indeed, for the first 40 minutes of Irréversible, I found the reverse storytelling clunky and predictable. The exaggerated fury of Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) in their search for the lowlife pimp who raped Marcus' girlfriend Alex (Monica Belluci) seems calculated to make the story clearer to to the viewer - who may find it difficult to follow in reverse.

But just as the rape scene is as unbelievably horrifying and crushing to watch as advertised, Noé's storytelling and moral concerns turn out to be much more intricate and multilayered than expected. Watching her glide through a party after her unimaginable ordeal, Alex's ravishing beauty seems so fleeting and precious, although it's lost on her childish boyfriend. Belluci's performance is incredibly courageous and dynamic. We feel her humanity and warmth just as strongly as we feel her pain and defiance in the rape scene. As we continue to the turn the pages backwards one at a time, a picture comes into view - one of people as flawed as they are full of life. That we realize how easily their fragile existence can be irreversibly ruined is Noé's jet black stroke of genius.

My first viewing of Irréversible left me reeling with a deep sadness that I couldn't shake. I had to put some distance between myself and this movie before coming back to write this review, at which point the rawness and psychological brutality had partially faded from my memory. Because of this, I ended up rewatching a film that I initially wasn't sure I could make it through even once. With the benefit of hindsight, what stood out to me most was the film's structural ingenuity. I'm a sucker for a films that can be broken down into clear and strategic structures, and Irréversible definitely fits that bill. It consists of 14 scenes with the extended rape scene situated dead center, splitting the rest of the film into what came after and what came before. The scenes in the first half of the film are marked by dizzying handheld camerawork that lurches up and down and twirls around like a Tilt-a-Whirl (those with motion sickness or epilepsy, beware). The intent is to aggressively disorient the viewer, shoving the characters' blind rage and the senselessness of their revenge in our face. The rape scene, however, is filmed in an interminable long take while the camera remains static, frozen in the face of this brutality. The cinematography gradually stabilizes as we work our way back to the beginning, although the sensation of the rape and its aftermath remain ever-present and foreshadowed (so to speak) by countless throwaway remarks and casual acknowledgements of danger. Because of this, Irréversible has a crushing emotional impact but also a brilliance of structure and technical innovation that help to make it unusually disconcerting and hard to shake.

--- 277 films remaining---

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke)

Quest Status: 722 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #699

I've always been meaning to get into the films of Michael Haneke, but...

No, I won't go there. Sure, I had only seen two Haneke films (The Castle and the original Funny Games) before this one. But let's put that aside. After watching The Servant, I saw The Piano Teacher in my watchlist and was irresistibly drawn to it, although I knew little about it. The little I sensed from the poster and a few scattered comments across the internet about control and sadomasochism were enough to intuit that it was the natural next step after the frustratingly vague but endlessly disturbing insinuations of The Servant.
And indeed, this is the next step. Rather than masters and servants, The Piano Teacher focuses on the power dynamics between teacher and student. In a world where most people no longer listen to classical music, the existence of those who perform it becomes  cutthroat and unforgiving. Enterprising students practice can for eight hours a day while their parents prod them to go further - and for respected professors like Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), a cold and frightening virtuoso teacher, it can never be enough. But Professor Kohut has problems of her own. She lives with her mother in a tiny Vienna apartment, her every move thrown under abusive levels of scrutiny despite being in her late 40s. She seems to have little to no sexual experience, stealing away to sleazy porno shops to vicariously experience what is always out of reach to someone as inaccessible and devoid of feelings as she is, while performing acts of self-mutilation and dreaming up masochist fantasies to punish herself for her perceived sins.