Hugo [2011)

It’s hard to imagine that perfection would be possible in 2011.

In this very uncinematic era ruined by technology.

But it takes a genius to produce art from tech.

And it takes an artist to produce art.

Martin Scorsese was well up to the challenge.

As the weirdo I am, The King of Comedy has always been my favorite of his films.

Rupert Pupkin spoke to me in a way that perhaps only the totality of Dr. Strangelove ever similarly did.

But Mr. Scorsese had the brass to undertake a project which should have been doomed if only by its trappings.

Films have tried and generally failed at relative tasks.

City of Ember, for example.

But Scorsese was not deterred.

Not least because he had the magical trump card:  Méliès.

Which is to say, he had the story to end all stories (as far as cinema is concerned).

The big daddy.  The big papa.

Papa Georges.

But first things first…

We must give credit to Asa Butterfield (who looks like a cross between Barron Trump and Win Butler in this film).

Butterfield is no Mechanical Turk.

Nay, far from it.

But automata (or at least one particular automaton) play a large role in Hugo.

And why “Hugo”?

Kid living “underground”?  Victor?  Les Misérables?

Yes, I think so.

And it’s a nice touch by the auteur (in the strictest sense) Brian Selznick.

[Yes, grandson of David O.]

We’re at the Gare Montparnasse.

Torn down in 1969.

Site of this famous 1895 derailment.

train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m up to 1,261.

But we press on…

Because Méliès was about dreams.

And Hugo is about dreams.

les rêves

And Scorsese has been “tapped in” to this magic at least since he portrayed Vincent van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Kurosawa-san’s best film).

I must admit…I was a bit confused for awhile.

Something told me Scorsese had transformed himself into Méliès.

It was only later that it all made sense.

Ben Kingsley.

I mean, Scorsese is a great actor (Van Gogh, etc.), but he’s not THAT great!

But I’m jumping ahead…

Sacha Baron Cohen is very good in a somewhat-serious, villain role here.

I fully expected the immensely-talented Cohen to “ham it up” at some point, but he instead gives a very fine, restrained performance which fits like clockwork (sorry) into the viscera of this exquisite film.

But let’s revisit Sir Kingsley.

What a performance!

The loss of a career (Méliès).

The loss of a previous life.

The fragility of celluloid.

All to end up running a pathetic souvenir shop.

Toys.

Very clever, but still…

Such a fall from grace.

Into such obscurity.

I can only compare it to the trajectory of Emmett Miller (which was so artfully documented by my favorite author of all time [Nick Tosches] in my favorite BOOK of all time [Where Dead Voices Gather]).

The speed at which technology moves has the potential to reduce the most eminent personage to mere footnote at breakneck speed.

It was so even a hundred years ago.

And the process has now exponentially accelerated.

But we are coming to understand the trivialization of the recent past.

We are holding tighter to our precious films and recordings.

Because we know that some are lost forever.

Will this vigilance continue uninterrupted?

I doubt it.

But for now we know.

Some of us.

That today’s masterpieces might slip through the cracks into complete nonexistence.

Consider Kurt Schwitters.

The Merzbau.

Bombed by the Allies in 1943.

Es ist nicht mehr.

Into thin air.

But such also is the nature of magic.

Poof!

Skeletons later evoked by Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu.

Scorsese is a film historian making movies.

And it is a wonderful thing to see.

And hear.

Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre more than once.

As on a player piano.

With ghost hands.

And the gears of the automaton.

Like the mystery of Conlon Nancarrow’s impossible fugues.

I’m betting Morten Tyldum lifted more than the spirit of gears meshing in Hugo to evoke the majesty of Alan Turing’s bombe in The Imitation Game.

But every film needs a secret weapon (much like Hitchcock relied on the MacGuffin).

And Scorsese’s ace in the hole for Hugo is the Satie-rik, placid visage of Chloë Grace Moretz.

Statuesque as water.

A grin.

A dollar word.

The beret.

And the ubiquitous waltzes as seen through keyholes and the Figure 5 in Gold.

Hugo is the outsider.

Scruffy ruffian.

Meek.  Stealing only enough to survive.  And invent.

But always on the outside looking in.

Below the window (like in Cinema Paradiso).

Ms. Moretz’ world is lit with gas lamps.

And you can almost smell the warm croissants.

[Funny that a film set in Paris should require subtitles FOR PARISIANS]

Assuming you don’t speak English.

Tables are turned.

But Paris draws the cineastes like bees to a hive.

THE hive.

Historically.

And that is just what this is.

History come alive.

But another word about Ms. Moretz.

As I am so wont to say in such situations, she’s not just a pretty face.

Though they are faint glimmers, I see an acting potential (mostly realized) which I haven’t seen in a very long time.

The key is in small gestures.

But really, the key is having Scorsese behind the camera.

It’s symbiotic.

Martin needed Chloë for this picture.

And vice versa.

We get a movie within a movie.

And (believe it or not) even a dream within a dream.

Poe is ringing his bell!

Or bells.

“Lost dream” says Wikipedia.

Yes.

It is as bitter a music as ever rained into Harry Partch’s boot heels.

To have one’s life work melted down for shoes.

Rendered.

To click the stone of Gare Montparnasse.

In an ever-more-sad procession.

Méliès becomes the vieux saltimbanque of which Baudelaire wrote.

Such is life.

We never expected to end up HERE.

Astounding!

-PD

Yang Tidak Dibicarakan Ketika Membicarakan Cinta [2013)

By the grace of God I bring you this film review tonight.

Last night I was not feeling well enough to write.

And so I am happy to give you my first review of an Indonesian film.

It is a wonderful piece of cinema and is available on Netflix in the U.S. currently as What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love.

I will just say this.

Any film which includes a character sneezing his glass eye out of his head is ok by me.

Which is to say, this is a pretty strange film.

But it is not strange in an uptight, contrived, David Lynch sort of way.

Perhaps it is the basic situation which makes this film quixotic.

The bulk of the “action” takes place at a “special” school (as it is called in the subtitles).

The beautiful young people at this school all struggle with visual impairment.

There is, however, one very important character who is sighted yet cannot hear.

[We will get to him in due time]

When I tried to watch this film last night, I was not feeling very well (as mentioned previously).

And so in my debilitating moments of bubbling, dull panic I was trying to first situate this film culturally.

There was some blurb about a Dutch film fund.

And the real bit of text at the head of the film which threw me off the scent:  a reference to the Busan film fund.

Knowing Busan, I figured, “Great!  I am watching a South Korean film.”

I felt somewhat comfortable marginally knowing the cinema tradition in which I had just entered.

But as I saw women and young girls in Muslim garb, I began to question.

Indeed, even on tonight’s complete viewing, it was only 3/4 of the way through the film that I realized I was watching an Indonesian production.

Call me stupid.

Fine.

But this is not a cinema (nor a language) with which I have any experience.

It was only when I saw Jakarta on the side of a bus that I felt fairly confident where the story had been set.

So yes, this is an Indonesian film in Indonesian (or dare I say Malay).

The scope and breadth of this language is not altogether clear to me, but it seems that Indonesian is a “register” (in linguistic terms) of Malay.

Being the dunce that I am, “register” seems an awful lot like “dialect”, but I’m sure most linguists would roundly dismiss this generalization.

Perhaps “jargon” is a better synonym for “register”.

In any case, Malay (of one type or another) is spoken by about 290 million people worldwide.

But we will stick to the term Indonesian (as per the language).

Our whole film is in that language (except for one line in Javanese).

Javanese, unlike Indonesian, is not a form of Malay.

It is quite distinct.

But on to the movie!

First we must pay our respects to the highly-talented director:  Mouly Surya.

Based on a cursory search, this would be Mr. Surya (Mouly being far more common as a male name).

Ah…but thank God for research!

Our director, in fact, is MS. Surya.

She is a 36-year-old native of Jakarta.

But really, male or female, this is an obvious work of cinematic art.

What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love isn’t perfect, but it’s frighteningly close.

Which isn’t to say it’s frightening.

It’s not.

But it’s a film which sneaks up on you.

Cineastes may be familiar with the term “slow cinema” which has been bandied about here and there especially in recent years.

There may be some of that here…like when the character Diana combs her hair exactly 100 times.

[I was sure she was going to stop at 88…that number being good luck in Southeast Asian cultures]

Indeed, we are with the character for a seemingly interminable session of hair-brushing at her “boudoir”.

However, that is one of the few times where the “slow cinema” idea has our film run astray temporarily.

Other uses of the technique (an extreme of Deleuze’s “time-image”?) are quite effective and evoke the loneliness of sightless life.

Granted, no two lives are the same.

But the Indonesia pictured in our film is not an economic wonderland.

Quite the opposite.

It is a rather humble school in which students have very basic accommodations.

And as is so often the case, economic struggles exacerbate and compound coexisting problems.

But don’t get me wrong:  it appears that the students portrayed actually have it very lucky in the context of their nation (all things considered).

Arguably the star of the film is Karina Salim.

Her situation is one of ballet lessons…and a doting mother.

That said, her roommate has a family which is struggling economically.

It is a strange juxtaposition.

But let’s focus on Ms. Salim.

Her acting is really fantastic.

Whether she is blind in real life, I know not.

But her portrayal of the character Diana is in the great tradition of pathos which touched on the works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The French adjective pathétique.

In English, we (if I may speak for us English speakers) tend to regard pathétique as descriptive of poetic pathos.

Deep expression.

And that is exactly what Karina Salim exhibits in her delicate acting throughout this film.

Her character, Diana, is right on the cusp of womanhood.

And in a very moving set of sequences, we see her quietly preparing her underwear for the week.

The moment of her first menstruation is a cause for secret celebration.

Indeed, she shares this ascent to adulthood with only her mother…on a joyous little phone call which we overhear.

Which brings us to culture.

We almost feel embarrassed knowing this intimate detail of character Diana’s life.

But American films are so much more explicit in so many ways.

Perhaps we are shocked because the reality of womanhood is rarely addressed in Hollywood movies.

And so we see that Hollywood still has taboos.

In this age in which anything goes, honest depiction of mundane-yet-visceral life realities (such as menstruation) are all but absent (save from a film like Carrie [1976]).

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this particular kind of honesty about femininity onscreen.

But what the hell do I know?  I’m a dude.

So let’s back to the film.

While Ayushita is very good as Diana’s roommate, it is really Nicholas Saputra who is the other star of this film.

His character is a deaf punk rocker.

[Let that one sink in for a second]

Every day he has a different shirt.

The Sex Pistols.  Led Zeppelin (?!?).  The Clash.  Joan Jett.

He definitely has the best hairstyle in the film.

[A strange zig-zag bleach job which I’ve never seen previously]

His character Edo is a social engineer par excellence.

Yes, there is some trickery in this film.

But it is not malicious.

Or if it begins as malicious, it is transformed into something quite beautiful.

[think Amélie]

But here’s where things get really strange.

There is really no decorous way of putting this, but there are a few characters in this film which pop up from time to time…AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE!

There is a rather tasteless meme going back generations that all Chinese people look the same to a Westerner.

[And, perhaps, all Brits (for instance) look the same to a Chinese person]

But, again, there are some characters in this film which seem to be playing out some subplot which escaped me completely.

Indeed, I have so rarely seen anything like it that I can only associate my confusion with that felt by so many in relation to the surreal Howard Hawks narrative in The Big Sleep.

Granted, in our film this is a very minor element.

But it is still disorienting.

Was there some series of edits which mangled this film?

Can I really not tell one Indonesian person from another?

I don’t know.

You’ll have to see it for yourself.

And explain to me exactly what is going on.

For instance, does the blind character Andhika somehow learn how to drive a Vespa around town?

And is he cheating on Diana?

Or is Diana cheating on herself?

Are there two Dianas?

Again, a few scenes completely lost me.

But they do not ruin the general continuity of this film.

If anything, they add a mercurial charm to the whole affair.

And so I wholeheartedly recommend this film which portrays a side of life on which many of us are completely uninformed.

Visual impairment.  Braille.  Hearing impairment.  The difficulty of asking a clerk at 7-Eleven, “what kind of cigarettes do girls buy” in sign language.

And there is beauty in this world.

The appreciation for just a glimmer of sight (however blurry).

And yet, the difficulty of EVERY SINGLE TASK.

Most of all, this is a love story.

Two love stories (at least).

[not counting the extraneous players which pop up here and there]

But it is a very, VERY unique love story.

For me, it is an incredibly moving film because of the acting of Karina Salim and also Anggun Priambodo (who plays Andhika).

So take an adventure to Jakarta.  Capital of Indonesia.  World’s fourth-most-populous country.

While Indonesia is approximately 87% Muslim, this film portrays a diversity of religious devotion.

Indeed, while one student prays, another listens to a radio play (as one would have heard in the days of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [1939-1946]).

Indeed, this scene of overlap…with religion in the background (the praying student) and learning in the foreground (listening to a lesson?  or just a bit of entertainment for the girls who live at this school?) is one of the most fascinating from a visual and cultural perspective.

I cannot pretend to know what is going on in all of the footage.

And so an expert on education for the visually impaired in Indonesia would perhaps be able to elucidate some of the more esoteric aspects of this film.

In the meantime, enjoy!

-PD

A Woman of Paris [1923)

This is a very sad film from Charlie Chaplin.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Not tragi-comic.  Just plain old sad.

Well-made, but full of pathos throughout.

And why is it such an oddity?

Because Chaplin himself is not in it.  At all.

This was his first attempt at being a serious director.

It was almost his last such effort.

But, alas… (as they say)…Chaplin’s final film was also to not feature himself as an actor (but for a cameo).  That film, A Countess from Hong Kong, bears a striking resemblance from the standpoint of title to the film under consideration.

To wit:

A…Woman…of…Paris

A…Countess…from…Hong Kong

The only difference is that the latter film (from 1966) was a comedy.

But back to the heart-wrenching [sic] film at hand.

It doesn’t tear the heart…doesn’t rend.  No, rather, it indeed twists it (like a piece of laundry before being hung out to dry).

And so most of this film is overwrought.  But an auteur like Chaplin is really incapable of making a bad film.  And in the end we are glad we saw it.  Me.  The royal “we”.

Sure, this film is a massive downer, but there is a sweet message to it.  In other words, it is worth seeing.  It isn’t recommended as a pick-me-up after a long day at work, but under the right circumstances it might really speak to a viewer.

It did, indeed, speak to me.

Edna Purviance is a face worth crying for.  We have cried for her.  Yes.  She ran off without any explanation.  If she’d only stayed on the phone a moment longer…

And so Jean (Carl Miller) begins his sad story.  It takes a long time to become this sad.  It is like the impasto-knife mountains of van Gogh…those little timeless blobs of paint which he shaped into miniature Hokusai waves on the canvas.  That kind of sadness…  Layer upon layer.

And the real focal point is Jean’s mother (played by Lydia Knott).  She is the mother who would understand.  An elopement.  The mother who would play diplomat.  “Go say ‘goodbye’ to your father.”

But she is only human.  Having lost everything, she only has her son left.

Our judgment as humans is clouded.  We give bad advice.  Not purposefully.  There is just a limit to what we know.  We have failed to understand certain things.  These are our shortcomings.

And so Jean doesn’t see the pot of soup on the stove.  Jean doesn’t appreciate his mother who does the grocery shopping.  Jean is too young…and he’s lovesick.

We fixate in romance.  We fall…so deep.  In love.  And it seems like a whirlpool pulling us under.

What a blessing to live!  What a blessing to smile.  Yes, I am sad.  But I try to smile.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe tomorrow I won’t be tongue-tied and shy.  Maybe tomorrow the molecules with bounce a different way.  If I am a billiard ball, maybe tomorrow I will glance off the fray at a different angle.  A glance.  Maybe someone will notice me tomorrow.  Not notice me as a freak, but notice me as a kind human being.

It’s all Charlie was trying to say.  Serve others.  Find happiness.  It’s all I’m trying to say.  And do.  I hope the universe will find my efforts humbly acceptable.  In the end.

It’s worth it.  Stay till the end.

 

-PD