Stranger Than Fiction (US, 2006)

Stranger than reality

This mildly amusing postmodern piece of frippery, with a stellar cast, the posits mildly anarchic Maggie Gyllenhaal character falling for the totally anodyne IRS exec (Will Ferrell). Why!?! Readers please point me to a movie where an interesting man falls for a boring woman.

That aside, this is barely a romcom as the laughs are muted (mostly concerning Dustin Hoffman’s lit prof.) and, as I said, the romance is er laughable (as in unbelieveable). However it scores a hit on the Bechdel test, so it isn’t all bad but I’ve decided to start counting how many protagonists are male as well.

Bechdel test: Pass (2/2)
Protagonist: M (0/1)

Paprika (Japan, 2006)

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Shamefully this didn’t get cinematic distribution in the UK but the buzz about it, and Satoshi Kon’s other films, such as Millennium Actress, made sure it was on my DVD rental list. However I was a bit disappointed; visually it is as stunning as the other films I’ve seen by him, but I found the postmodern play on movies and ‘world is a dream’ a bit hackneyed. It was difficult to forget other films, such as Millennium Actress and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), when watching it and so it appeared derivative.

As derived movies go though, and of course that describes virtually the whole of Hollywood, this is brilliantly done.

JCVD (Belguim, Luxembourg, France, 2008)

Haggard but acting

Haggard but acting

It’s very difficult for action heroes to get thespian credibility; Sylvester Stallone got some for Copland (1997) but I can’t imagine Keanu Reeves ever receiving a nice sounding gong. Jean-Claude van Damme lives, as a movie star, in straight-to-video land mostly. He surfaced most prominently in John Woo’s first Hollywood film Hard Target (1993) but I’ve heard little of him since; of course he’s continued to make movies.

JCVD is little more than postmodern fluff, he plays himself caught in a hostage situation in a beseiged Post Office in Belguim, but is worth a watch. Most extraordinary is the scene were, with no narrative motivation, Jean-Claude is elevated above the fracas to bear his soul to camera in a long take. Blimey! Doesn’t he pull it off.

Sex and Lucia (Sexo y Lucia (Spain-France, 2001)

Postmodern tragedy

Postmodern tragedy

Director – Julio Medem
Producer – Fernand Bovaira, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Script – Julio Medem
Art Direction – Montse Sanz
Cinematography – Kiko de la Rica
Music – Alberto Iglesias
Cast – Paz Vega, Tristan Ulloa, Najwa Nimri, Daniel Freire
Running time 128 mins.

Narrative, and shifting identities, are themes that run through Medem’s films which, along with his striking visual style, have contributed to him being seen as an arthouse auteur. Indeed, it is tempting to go the whole auteur hog and use biographical details of Medem’s life to try and make sense of his films. Although he is a Basque filmmaker he had not made films specifically about the region until his most recent film the documentary La Pelota vasca. La piel contra la piedra (Basque Pelota. Skin Against Stone, Spain, 2003). His films have, however, have dealt with the Civil War (eg Vacas, (Cows),1991) so it is worth noting that his father was German; a particularly important nationality in Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998). But as our perspective on narrative we shall focus on the postmodern narrative of the film.

Postmodern films, amongst a plethora of other things, highlight their own existence as a medium, not in the modernist (or Brechtian) purpose of alienating audiences from the text, as in Vivre sa Vie, but in order to question the notion that anything can have definitive meaning. The title sequence of Sex and Lucia (in Spanish the title, Lucia y El Sexo, draws attention to the character before the libido), appears as if it is being typed – using traditional typewriter font – on a word processor, and a central character is a novelist, the fabricated nature of the film is immediately emphasised.

In mainstream cinema we expect the narrative world (diegesis) presented to be logical, in its own terms. The cause-effect chain of narrative is crucial in creating a convincing canvas on which events are acted out. In Sex and Lucia it soon becomes clear (?!) that the events we are seeing may be a fabrication – a dramatisation of Lorenzo’s novel. Or, it could be that Lorenzo is writing a novel based on his experiences, which we are shown in flashback. In addition, of course, we are aware that we are watching a fictional film peopled by characters. Whether the film is simply an example of postmodern frippery or a profound statement about the human condition (or somewhere in between) is for the audience to decide:

Medem may have disrobed most of the cast, leaving their bodies exposed, but the plot remains as guarded as a virgin with a chastity belt. That’s why Sex and Lucía is so alluring. (Marta Barber Miami Herald, Friday, August 9, 2002 – http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/movie-1115429/reviews.php?critic=columns&sortby=default&page=1&rid=753034)

Or:

“Sex and Lucia” is a beautifully made piece of unwatchable drivel. (Ian Waldron-Mantgani http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/movie-1115429/reviews.php?critic=columns&sortby=default&page=1&rid=318987, accessed, October 2003)

Those who are unconvinced by the contrivance of narrative can, at least, enjoy the craftsmanship of the filmmaking and the performances of the cast. In addition pleasure can be gained from the film’s use of the  symbolic code:

•    The moon (the daughter is called Luna), representing female sexuality, is graphically matched (via editing) with a light (Lucia) and a pregnancy test
•    The phallic lighthouse is juxtaposed with a hole that both Lucia and Carlos/Antonio fall into (Lorenzo starts the film by telling Lucia he’s ‘in a hole’); this hole is also at the end of Lorenzo’s story where it takes us back to the middle of the narrative
•    Lucia’s orgasm is followed by Elena giving birth

The postmodern aesthetic is also present in the film’s form as Medem explains:

the movie was shot using CineAlta Hi-Definition 24p. It was incredible. This was the third movie in the world using this format. Since Lucia was escaping from a tragedy, she escapes that beautiful island that she steps on. And suddenly those characters have the right to do with that island whatever they want; for example, with the light. Also, when I went to the island with the camera, I forced the light. This overexposed light that almost blinds you, it’s like the characters erasing themselves and starting from zero, so they can start again. That’s the idea I had when I was shooting with my small camera when I first went to the island…

Every story, in a sense, is a search. You’re searching for the reason for that story to exist. There’s always a destiny. (http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_Medem_Julio_020711.html, accessed October 2003)

Although the film claims, at its conclusion, that stories can change halfway, this obviously isn’t the case with film. The elusiveness of the narrative virtually requires a second viewing but it may remain an enigma, or a chimera according to taste, even after close study.

Millennium Actress (Sennen joyû, Japan, 2001)

The past mingled with movies

The past mingled with movies

This movie flirts with postmodern frivolity but transcends it with a thoughtful, bitter-sweet meditation of memory, life and the impossibility of perfect love. Movies offer the illusion of the latter and the eponymous lead  spends her life seeking her Mr Right who she bumped into twice when a youth. By the end she realises that all she is in love with is the chase.

The conceit of having the interviewers of the actress, at the end of her life, appearing in her ‘flashback’ memories is brilliantly conceived and executed. And we get a smattering of the history of post-war Japanese cinema on the way. The wonderful mixture of wit and visual beauty seems to be characteristic of writer-director Satoshi Kon; I’m looking forward to Paprika (2006).

Fallen Angels (Duo luo tian shi, Hong Kong)

Can't connect

Can’t Connect

This is probably my favourite Wong Kar-Wai film. I love its portrayal of urban alienation and Chris Doyle’s cinematography is sensational. WIth its companion piece, Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam, Hong Kong, 1994), Fallen Angels offers a vision of Hong Kong as a hyper-real landscape on the brink (of Chinese takeover). Hong Kong, as a place that is defined by business, is the definitive postmodern environment and the surface glitz of the films’ imagery emphasises this aspect of the place. However, the ‘lost’ and ‘longing’ characters, humanise our understanding of late 20th century existence.

I’m Not There (US-Germany, 2007)

The real Dylan cannot stand up

The real Dylan cannot stand up

This is an incredible rendering of Dylan’s life up until the ’80s. I’m not sure what sense it will make to those unfamiliar with this genius but watching the numerous seminal moments being re-enacted, with the original singing on the ‘track, made a riveting experience. Only the Gere as Billy-in-Pekinpah’s movie didn’t really work for me. And, as the Sight and Sound reviewer suggests, changing Dylan’s word’s in Judas moment in the Free Trade Hall didn’t make sense.

Casting six different actors in the role seems not to make sense but it works wonderfully. From the 11 year old black lad with Woody Guthrie’s guitar to Cate Blanchett’s Dont Look Back turn, all the players embody the Dylan-enigma with panache. Another pairing of Heath Ledger with Christian Bale and here Bale can, too, show what a fine actor he is.

It’s difficult not to love the movie if you love the music – there’s stacks of that – but this is more than postmodern playfulness. Maybe there’s trend as the last two postings have found something interesting in postmodern representations.