Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Classification Review Board decision on Irreversible not reversed

The CRB has refused to pay any attention to Fred Nile, or the Australian Family Association, because their submissions were out of time. If only we could all use this argument. "I'm sorry Fred. I'd listen to your rant about how crap gay men and emancipated women are, but it's 2004 and you're extremely outdated."

A good decision, but not so much a victory for the fight against censorship. It would have been cooler to read a release about how the CRB backs artistic integrity and supported their original decision which allowed informed adults to make the choice whether to see the film. This "too late!" finding at least means the film can still be shown.

Freedom! - 1
Fred Nile - 0

As for the Australian Family Association . . . it's not particualarly on topic, but I went to check out their webpage to see who the hell they are. The AFA don't like cloning, and they write essays where certain concepts are described using quotation marks, as if they're something that requires problematic labelling.

As in: Senator Greig is a passionate promoter of "gay and lesbian rights" and has spoken openly about his own homosexuality.

It's amazing how insidious a sentence can become through the use of humble little quotation marks.

(Interestingly, their "webpage" has no mention I could find of any "stance" on Irreversible, let alone the "fact" they tried to ban it.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Ten Reasons Why I am So Insanely Excited about the new Murray Whelan Telemovies that they will never live up to my Bloated Expectations:

1. David Wenham stars as Murray Whelan (of the Melbourne crime series by Shane Maloney). The sound you just heard is two of my obsessions colliding to create a vacuum with sufficient pull to swallow the entire galaxy.

2. John Clarke (The Games) is writing the script. Okay, make that three obsessions.

3. Mick Molloy as Angelo Agnelli - a masterstroke of casting which is probably only trumped by the casting of Wenham as the lead. I mean, he even has that 'same letter starting both his names' thing going!

4. Sam Neill is directing, and also acting. I love you too, Sam! Other cast members include Bruce Spence, Robyn Butler (Mrs Welcher of Welcher and Welcher), Steve Bisley, and Justine Clark.

5. They're only making the first two books at this stage (Stiff and The Brush-Off), but there's another three to go, and provided Maloney keeps writing and the show is popular, this could be the best TV franchise, since, forever.

6. The books are funny. Seriously. They bring the funny. They have funny to spare. When there's too much funny, they throw in a plot-tastic twist, followed by some more funny. And - even better - as funny as they are, what really keeps pulling you back for another installment is that Murray's voice and character are so likeable and compelling, you just want him to keep chatting to you. Perfect subject matter.

7. It would be appropriate for Wenham, when playing Whelan, to have that scruffy disorganised 'Diver-Dan'-ish look, which is so my favourite look for him - as opposed to the 'anorexic heroin addict with mullet' look of Gettin' Square. Don't get me wrong, it was amazing to see how Wenham can completely strip himself of charisma when required. But Murray has his own kind of haphazard charm, and Wenham will be perfect for it.

8. We can all dress our Faramir action dolls into 80s suits for the 'Murray Whelan' accessory set.

9. Finally, some decent local content, because it's been such a drought since After the Deluge (pun intended). Hey, Wenham was also in that film! Coincidence?

10. It's so important that we continue to tell Australian stories, with meanings specific to Australians. Wenham seems to frequently return home to Australia to do local projects, and I completely love him for it. And this is despite the fact I'm sure he could make at least three times the money if he stayed to work in the US. You rock, David.

1. I hope they keep the setting as 'Melbourne in the 80s'. It'll push up production costs to have the dated look, but it means so much to the books.

2. Only 90 minutes per telemovie, apparently. That's not long. There's a lot to fit in. If they cut bits like Murray dressing up as a whale on stilts, I'll be sad.

There's no info out about dates yet. You can read the Channel Seven press release here. There's some more information on the Film Finance Corporation page , and even an entry on the IMDB.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Casting the first Stone
a.k.a Matt v Matthew

[Scene: some trendy Hollywood Bar]

Matt Stone: Hey, you seen the bathrooms around here?

Other guy: No . . . say, you look kind of familiar.

Matt Stone: It must be my crazy trademark hair. I'm Matt Stone, co-creator of Southpark.

Other guy: No way dude! My name is Matthew Stone!

Matt Stone: Get out!

Matthew Stone: No, really! I co-wrote Intolerable Cruelty - which confused people, because it's the first film the Coen brothers directed that they didn't also write themselves. To make matters worse, most people thought I was you. So I'm either the third illegitimate Coen brother, or I'm a cartoonist from Texas.

Matt Stone: Texas? I'm from Colorado.

Matthew Stone: Whatever the hell hick state you're from, dude. You think I keep track?

Matt Stone: Ooo, you think you're some hot shot because you worked with the Coen Brothers? I was in Bowling for Columbine.

Matthew Stone: I thought that was Trey Parker?

Matt Stone: No, it was me! I'm also currently directing an animated political satire. You might think it's like my animated series Southpark, or my political satire That's My Bush - but it's actually a totally different, new, crazy project that's really challenging me creatively.

Matthew Stone: Is Trey Parker co-directing?

Matt Stone: Yea- hey! shut up. And . . . I was the lead in Orgazmo!

Matthew Stone: Okay, that was totally Trey Parker.

Matt Stone [deflates]: Fine. I admit it. My career's not that stellar.

Matthew Stone [suddenly sympathetic] Dude, it's okay. All the Coen Brothers freaks just didn't get Intolerable Cruelty. To make matters worse, I just co-wrote a screenplay about Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas Ranger who has to protect a bunch of cheerleaders who witnessed a murder.

Matt Stone: You're kidding me?

Matthew Stone: I wish.

Matt Stone: [awed] Wow. That sounds like something I would write.

Matthew Stone: Maybe we should join forces? Perhaps together we could have one amazing career!

Matt Stone: And transcend the careers of Trey Parker and the Coen Brothers combined?

Matthew Stone: Let's do it, friend. We can write amazing comedy set-pieces involving lighting farts, a pre-nuptial agreement and an athsma puffer. Comedy will never be the same.

[they high five, except that Matt fakes out at the last second and punches Matthew in the stomach.]



Thursday, March 25, 2004

NEWSFLASH: Life of Brian getting cinematic re-release

Someone commenting here totally anticipated this, about two weeks ago. Take a bow Kate - when you suggested that future TV broadcasts should screen Passion alongside Life of Brian, you were only underestimating everyone's enthusiasm to bring this idea to fruition!

So now the two films will share the big screens at the multiplex. Hopefully some enterprising cinema will put it on as a double feature, perhaps serving hot cross buns between films.

Is this for real? - A bunch of films that mess with your head.

(Discussed: Torrance Rises, the works of Christopher Guest, The Blair Witch Project, Fargo, and the backwards fish dance movement)

I recently saw a selection of Spike Jonze shorts through the resfest film festival. All of it was great, but the most substantial inclusion is a short documentary titled Torrance Rises - a look at the Torrance Community Dance Troupe which first featured in the Fatboy Slim video clip for Praise You. For those living under a rock who haven't seen it, the video looks cheap and shoddy, and shows a terrible amateur dance group in the middle of a shopping mall. Passers-by look bewildered. There's spirit hands, wooden stepping side to side, star jumping, and the highlight is the solo routine, where the leader breaks into a kind seizure like beat-boy rap 'moves'.

The documentary Torrance Rises introduces us to this group and their leader Richard Koufay. It follows the journey of the group to the MTV awards, where they've been nominated, and will perform at the ceremony. There are serious discussions as to whether they should have 'train movements' instead of 'aeroplane movements' in the live perfomance. "But we can't", says Koufay. "We've done the plane movements. And to do train movements would be to go . . . you know, backwards. Trains came before planes."

Watching the dancers zoom around like little planes, then get into circles for their little backwards fish swimming movements, before they assemble in a line to wave their arms up and down in cascading motions, the thought, 'surely, this isn't for real' occurs more than once. But it's brilliantly done - provided you haven't been told, or know for sure, there's this lingering doubt in the back of your mind. Koufay takes us to see a friend of his who shares his apartment block. "Tell these guys about the crazy stuff we get up to!" he says. "Uh, no . . ." says the guy uncertainly. End scene.

Spike Jonze is Richard Koufay - it's actually him in the Praise You clip, and he accepts his award for choreography completely in character. It made me feel less stupid to see that most people in the audience has similarly bemused or bewildered expressions (hey, is that guy . . . serious?)

This got me thinking about other productions that have played this game with audiences. Obvious contenders are Chris Guest's mockumentaries: This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. But not really - because they are obvious, with recognisable actors (Eugene Levy, Parker Posey) returning for each installment. Maybe when Spinal Tap first came out it was a bit more of a puzzler, but certainly not now.

The Blair Witch Project would be another - and it plays the 'documentary' game for scares rather than laughs. The creators came up with a whole mythology, and masses of supporting photographs, interviews and documentation for the film's internet site, to convince people of the film's reality. Aside from a great marketing gimmick, it added to the horror - the back story convincingly reflecting an ancient evil lurking in the woods, the idea that the footage you're watching shows the real terror of those involved.

Then there's the 'based on a true story' game - conceding that you're watching a film, but trying to convince you that the underlying story is true. Fargo starts with the solemn phrase: "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred." The majestic music swells, then we enter a diner, where the immortal dialogue between William H Macy and Steve Buscemi begins:

Jerry: I'm , uh, Jerry Lundergaard -
Carl: You're Jerry Lundergaard?
Jerrry: Yah, Shep Proudfoot said -
Carl: Shep said you'd be here at 7.30. What gives, man?
Jerry: Shep said 8.30.
Carl: We've been sitting here an hour. I've peed three time already.

(exactly as it occured? the viewer starts to wonder.)

In a very Coen-esque turn, the 'reality' of the film took on its own urban legend, in a sad little story you can read here.

Generally, books have done this kind of thing longer than films, and arguably done it more successfully. It's easy enough for a writer to pose as almost anything - autobiographer, historian, or some other personna. It's a bigger task for a film director to try and film something as if it's really happening. But in either case, there's always a bit of a backlash when readers or audiences realise they've been had. The Coen Brothers apparently made themselves unpopular with those reviewers who didn't pick the joke, and wrote seriously about the 'tragedy'.

Myself, I love being taken for this kind of ride.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Like I want Fred Nile to decide what I watch . . .

Irreversible may get banned. And this is after it's already been shown in a whole bunch of cities.

This possible development is discussed in this SMH article. The article quotes from Fred Nile's press release of 19 February which you can find here.

Here's some of my favourite bits of Fred's rant:

"Many women, even film reviewers, were sickened by this 9 minutes of brutal sodomy." - It's the phrase 'even film reviewers' that cracks me up.

"The high impact of the violence in this film was so great that large numbers of people walked out during screenings, despite being warned of the content in advance."

Well . . . yes. People walk out of films they don't like - perhaps the films are too scary, or too violent. People also walk out of shitty David Spade movies. They walk out of Harry Potter. Is this a reason for banning stuff now?

Fred's not even consistent with his approach to film violence. As a fun little comparison, here's Nile's review of Passion.

His main emphasis is that the violence in Passion is historical: "I know that some reviewers have been shocked by the violence in the film but the violence, as would normally happen with a Mel Gibson film, is absolutely accurate . . . [on the whipping scene] In action the thongs cut the skin while the balls or bones created deep contusions. The result was significant haemorrhaging and considerable weakening of the vital resistance of the victim, et cetera. Usually 110 strikes were made with the whip."

So according to Fred's Passion article, violence is okay if it's realistic, even if it upsets people. But in Irreversible, the fact that it upsets people and is therefore high impact is sufficient to merit a ban. Pretty much every review of Irreversible says that the rape scene is so hard to take because it is prolonged, graphic, and has a stationary camera angle - you're forced into a point of view and can't look away. These elements sound like they contribute to a realistic depiction of a rape. But if you're Fred Nile, I guess film realism is only good if it's Biblical. Or something.

Just to be clear - I have personal issues seeing the kind of violence which appears in both these films, which have affected my own personal decision not to watch either of them thus far (although I'm way more likely to see Irreversible, because it's making a point about violence within narratives, and isn't trying to convert me.) But arguing that either film should be banned? lame. Just lame.

By all means Fred, don't buy a ticket yourself. But don't even think about affecting my right to buy a ticket and get massively freaked out. If I want to cry like a little girl and hide under the seat, that's my problem.

(Fun fact: Monica Bellucci stars in both Passion and Irreversible. She must be gunning for the 'freaky films which make people flee the cinema' niche.)

Monday, March 22, 2004

Fisticuffs over Films

I know I said I'd stop posting about The Passion, but I just have to blog about the world's most awesome rap sheet, up for your perusal at The Smoking Gun:

". . . the Davidsons left the theater and began debating the movie, which led to an argument about 'the mentality of each other's parents.' Melissa, 34, then 'jumped on Sean, and they started fist fighting.' While she suffered injuries to her left arm and face, her 33-year-old husband 'had an alleged scissor stab on his hand and his shirt was ripped off.' "

Annoyingly, the officer who filled out the form leaves off the vital details. Which of the couple was defending Mel's honour? Maybe they both liked the film, and were in fact arguing about the finer points of the cinematography? Did the anger start as one of them sat in the cinema muttering "die, die already, will you?"

In general, this story actually makes me feel oddly relieved. See, it's not unusual to have really heated arguments about a film! Well okay, maybe everyone doesn't do it, but getting over the line marked 'crazy' involves being arrested for assault.

The closest I've come to a film related assault involved Alien Resurrection, my sister, a few beers (consumed by me), a comedy routine (performed by me) relating to Winona Ryder's performance, followed by my ill-timed realisation that she was actually really enjoying it and I was Really. Pissing. Her. Off. Just as well there were no knives present.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Mel Gibson to direct another religious film
(Did I call it, or did I call it?)

OK, so this article from the SMH is mostly about Mel Gibson's stance on the Iraqi war.

But then there's this bit:

"Meanwhile, Gibson said in the interview that he planned another religious film.

He wants to tell the story of a Jewish rebellion nearly 200 years before the birth of Christ, which led to the festival of Chanukah.

By making that film Gibson might answer his critics who have branded The Passion as anti-Semitic."

I don't personally know this story, but it sounds interesting, and is certainly an unexpected choice on the part of Mel (even if 'another religious film' was entirely predictable). Is it biblical? Research, perhaps in order.

Meanwhile, my top five bible stories I actually think would be cool to see:

1. Ruth and Naomi. My favourite bible story, and whilst it's been echoed in a number of contemporary films (Fried Green Tomatoes) I don't think it's ever actually been made. Director: Kimberley Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), because she works well with characters trying to find their way, and I really want to see her do another film.

2. David and Goliath. It's a classic, it would involve awesome fight scenes and it would be interesting to see what they did with the homoerotic subtext (which to my memory was practically text rather than subtext, but it's been a while, and in fact I might be thinking of entirely the wrong story). This one would be great for Mel to direct, because he could indulge in a spot of violence on the side.

3. Creation - the Milton Paradise Lost version. Director - Jean-Pierre Jeneut (City of Lost Children and Amelie), or failing that, Tim Burton.

4. Jonah - elements of this story showed up in the recent, brilliant Master and Commander. The whale could come off kinda silly, so in my version you wouldn't actually see much of it other than an impression of bulk and darkness. A guy plagued by bad luck encountering the miraculous. Director - Spike Jonze.

5. Noah's Ark / the flood. I reckon this could be just the creepiest film ever. Telling everyone they're going to die. Building your boat, with everyone thinking you're just a doomsday cultist. Then the rain coming down - and watching everyone die, perhaps feeling just a hint of grim satisfaction that you were right. All the mountains and trees slowly edging underwater. Big problem: the animal thing would be hard to do with any realism. Director - David Lynch or Jane Campion.

Stories I dread:

1. Joseph and that f**king Dreamcoat.

2. Moses and the Ten Commandments. When so many movies have been made about it already, it's like flogging a dead horse. Cinematically, it's the coolest - all those plagues, the parting of the red sea, etc. But it's time to stop.

3. Birth of Jesus. It's just kinda sappy and a bit uneventful as stories go. And if a film was made about it, you just know there'd be donkey chases with pregnant woman, or something . . . just, no.

4. Cain and Abel. I see this being done as a really crappy thriller / psychological film, Jerry Bruckheimer style. Promo tagline: 'Brotherly love has never been so deadly.' (I like what Neil Gaiman did with Cain and Abel in the Sandman series . . . but that's more appropriation than adaptation, if that makes sense.)

5. Any bible story, if done as a Dreamworks or Disney animated version.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Heath Ledger: probably not This Year's Hottest New Star
Rezec v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 04 S.O.S. 924.

As an ex-law student, my interest in the law hasn't been completely drained out of me by years of drudgery in either education or employment. And judgements about films are always fun. This awesome little case allowed all three judges to discuss Heath Ledger, and therefore merits your attention.

The story: Most film posters or advertisements use pull quotes from newspaper critics raving about how great the film is. "A must see!" "Two thumbs up!" etc. A good strategy, if you can find critics who say nice things about your films that are quotable. But what if you can't? Two Sony employees of the advertising division decided that it was easier to create their own Ern Malley - film critic David Manning of the Ridgefield Press. Although the paper is real, the man is not, and his words were entirely the creation of the Sony advertising employee. Amongst David Manning's statements: of A Knight's Tale, he said "Heath Ledger is this year's Hottest New Star!" Of The Animal, "The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!" And of Invisible Man, "One hell of a scary ride! The summer’s best special effects."

(Can I just say - if I was going to create my own quotes, I'd be a little more creative. "Heath Ledger is a beacon of light in a universe of uncertainty". "A ride which is scary, then introspective.")


Newsweek uncovered the 'scandal' - it must have been a slow week for actual news. Sony immediately fired the people involved and pulled the ads. But Sony's problems aren't over, because some film viewers filed a lawsuit under the Californian Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law, and the Consumers Legal Remedy Act seeking a variety of remedies.

Sony atttempted to strike out the action, using a provision against 'strategic lawsuits against public participation' (or SLAPP suits), essentially arguing that they were protected by free speech, and that the lawsuit wasn't trying to vindicate any legal rights, but was instead just interference with Sony's ability to pursue Sony's own interests. And it's this point - whether the action can be dismissed at this early stage -which the judges were considering.

On 27 January, a majority of the bench of three judges concluded that Sony's strike-out action has no merit. You can read the judgement here. Although the films that Sony releases are protected by free speech, as are film reviews, the fake advertising statements are commercial by nature, and hence not protected in the same way. The majority commented in conclusion:

" . . . as a practical matter, Sony's position would shield all sorts of mischief. For example, a film could be advertised as having garnered 'Three Golden Globe Nominations' when it had received none. An advertiser of a biography could use the word 'autobiographical' even though the subject of the work had nothing to do with its creation and had renounced it from the beginning. And a newspaper or magazine could promote itself to customers who run ads by grossly inflating its circulation numbers."

I suppose there's a few fair points there. But now for the opening paragraph of the dissenting judge, Ortega J:

"This is the most frivolous case with which I have ever had to deal. Imagine the great contribution this case will make to our quality of life and to justice in America. Why, it may eventually protect us all from war, pestilence, famine and death. A new day will dawn from which time no one will ever again be fooled by a promotion touting a movie as the greatest artistic accomplishment of the ages. From that day on, all persons will be able to absolutely rely on the truth and accuracy of movie ads. No longer will people be seen lurching like mindless zombies toward the movie theater, compelled by a puff piece. What a noble and overwhelming undertaking. The only losers will be those poor souls who do not go to the movies. But, such is life. Someone always gets left behind."

Where do I send the fan mail?

Ortega J asserts that the lawsuit has no foundation - the statements themselves are a mix of opinion and hyperbole, and "the fact that David Manning is not a film critic for The Ridgefield Press is of so little significance as to have no effect, as a matter of law, upon a reasonable consumer."

And I think this is the better stance. Sony got caught, looked very stupid, and got bad publicity which was absolutely deserved. A lawsuit just seems ridiculous, and I question the motives of those who've brought it. (Do they actually have witnesses who'll say "I saw First Knight because of that one line review, so give me my $10 back"?) But at least Ortega J got to vent in a relatively spectuacular fashion.

"Easily the best judgement I've read all year!" - Erich Stevenson, Balmain Bugle.


Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Mon Oncle and Jour de Fete
Two films by Jacques Tati

"The fact that about 40 technicians have to wait patiently while a dog condescends to relieve himself on a lamp-post gives me great financial responsibility" - Jacques Tati.

Never heard of Jacques Tati? Neither had I. But there's currently a film festival of his work on at the Chauvel in Sydney. After a friend suggested going, I found that someone has created easily the coolest website for a director I've ever seen - Tativille. I was officially intrigued, and caught a double feature on Saturday night.

Mon Oncle
In essence, this is a film about old versus new - the 'country' uncle Monsieur Hulot coming into contact with the Arpels, his sister's 'city' family, including an officious brother in law, a repressed nephew, and Hulot's sister who is absorbed with her very, very modern house. The visual style of this film is audacious and amazing - strong, bizarre images which seem hotwired to your subconscious.

A good example of the part the visuals play in the story, is the different houses of the main characters. The Arpels live in a very modern, entirely white house with lots of buttons to push to do unnecessary functions, porthole windows, minimalist furniture. The garden is different coloured pebbles with stepping stones, a small pool with an improbable fish fountain, an automatic gate, vines which grow symmetrically up the walls. It's like modernist hell.

Compare this to Monsieur Hulot's house - a great old rambling mansion which has been subdivided into several apartments. Each time Hulot arrives or leaves his house, we see the long ritual of his traversing in and out, down stairs, up stairs, and a series of windows allows us to see him greeting his fellow neighbours as he makes his way.

The Arpels have a ritual of turning on or off their fish fountain every time someone rings the bell. Hulot's ritual is adjusting his window so that it's open just at the right point to shine sunlight on the canary in the opposite apartment, which starts to sing every time it's in the light. Hulot has a bicycle, Arpel has a shiny new car. This is the kind of non-subtlety that pervades the film, but it works.

Much of the film concerns Hulot visiting the Arpels, often spending time with his young nephew who is starved for fun in his sterilised environment. Whenever Hulot visits the Arpels' world - be it their house, or Monsieur Arpel's factory where Hulot is briefly employed - chaos quickly follows. Even though there's dialogue, the humour is entirely physical and visual - and most of it relates to Hulot's inability to navigate his way through the bizarre modernist house with its absurd bells and whistles. A climax of the film is a dinner party held by the Arpels, during which Hulot's attempts to disguise something he breaks result in increasing catastrophe.

There were a few general themes which cracked me up. Tati doesn't seem to much like people who work. One of my favourite characters in the film was a street sweeper, who in a very minor role, keeps popping up in the periphery of the street scenes in Hulot's village. He always has a broom poised near garbage on the street, but always finds something to distract him from actual work. It's a cute visual tease, as you sit there thinking - almost! he's going to clean it! Wait . . . no, no there he goes talking to the guy in the car.

Finally, there's a moment at the end of the film that's genuinely touching, and suggests that we could all of us stand to have a bit more of Hulot in the way we see the world.

I'm sure it's a complete travesty for me to say that this film could have been about ten to fifteen minutes shorter. But you should consider this criticism in light of the fact that I was slightly hung over.

Jour de Fete

This is a much shorter film, less accomplished than Mon Oncle, but still pretty entertaining.

The 'Fete' of the title is a traveling fair which rolls into a small French town. Part of the fete includes a short film shown in the town square about the US postal service, who use helicopters, skydive, and jump motorcycles through fire. They're prepared for anything those US postmen! It's enough to make Francois, the cycling town postman, worry about his job security, and with the 'encouragement' (or manipulation?) of the local townspeople and the guys who run the fair, he decides to pull up his socks professionally.

Guy on a bicycle, small country lanes. If you thought that the humour would involve him ending up in a river, having close encounters with cows, cars, and fellow cyclists - yes, well, you'd be right. But these lengthy slapstick sequences are a lot funnier than you'd expect given their predictability. My personal favourite was the sequence where the very intoxicated Francois tried to get on his bike but keeps getting tangled up in a fence. But it was all great, even when you could see the punchline cycling its way laboriously over the hill towards you.

In summary, here are the lessons I learnt from Jacques Tati:

1. Bicycles are inherently funny.
2. Small kids are cool. They derive most of their amusement from the misfortune of others.
3. Small dogs are possibly even cooler.
4. Progress in any form, particularly in the workplace, is bad.
5. Small country towns rock, but only if they're French.
6. A person walking into a stationary object is possibly the funniest joke of all time.

Friday, March 12, 2004

In Cold Blood

I watched this film last night, and it was amazing, even though in early scenes I thought I might need to punch out the guy doing the soundtrack (Quincy Jones). Fortunately I got more into the groove, and at key moments the soundtrack cuts out altogether, leaving you all alone with the shallow breathing and random actions of the two men who engineer tragedy for no reason at all.

One scene is particularly staying with me - one of the killers, the night of his execution, is leaning by a window. Light from the window, cut through by rivulets of water on the glass, is reflected on his face so that his whole face appears to be weeping. It's a stunning image.

I was up til 2am re-reading my copy of Capote's 'non-fiction novel'. It started raining sometime during the night, and I woke up to hear it beating down. Still half-asleep, I felt terribly sad without knowing why.

(Death penalty thoughts are still in progress. Next on the viewing log: rewatching His Girl Friday and The Player. Still trying to locate: a copy of I want to live! - looks like I'll have to actually buy it from the US.)

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Walking the walk . . . of fame

Sydney will become a little bit more like Hollywood, if one of the Lord Mayoral candidates gets his way. Sydney's George Street will get a walk of fame stretch to honour Australian film stars, in a pitch to revive the fortunes of a stretch of road. Apparently, this is how we get 'tourists and families' to hang out in George Street. (I thought that was what gelato shops were for?)

How will they do it? Let's look at their obvious inspiration - the Hollywood walk of fame.

A prospective star honoree must fit into one of five categories: motion pictures, television, radio, recording, or live theatre. It is possible to get nominated in more than one of these categories. Some guy I've never heard of has five stars. The fact that I've never heard of him is a perfect illustration of the fleeting nature of this sort of 'fame'.

Some of the stars on the walk become occasional cultural flashpoints. People put flowers down on John Lennon's star every year on the anniversary of his death. Michael Jackson fans gather in vigil around his star every time he's in legal trouble (and how nice for them that this is becoming a more regular outing).

Not everyone who's famous has a star. A potential famous person (famee?) must be nominated - and anyone can nominate - but then someone has to front up with $15,000. (It's at this point you might notice that the 'official site' of the walk of fame is run by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.) You also have to commit to an official star unveiling ceremony, at which people are suitably grovelling about your talent, and you are 'overcome' by all the 'kind words', etc.

It obviously takes a certain kind of famous person to accept this 'great honour' - Kirsty Alley has a star, but no Woody Allen. Recent inductees include Drew Barrymore and Britney Spears.

So how will this pan out in the Australian context?

My best guess is that it will be just like the so-called Australian Writers Walk around Circular Quay. This series of plaques which dots around the stretch from the Opera House to the MCA on the other side, is supposed to be a tribute to Australian writers such as Banjo Patterson, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack London.

Gosh, I hear you think. Surely those last two aren't actually Australian? - and no, they aren't. But the writers walk includes overseas writers relevant in some way to Australia - maybe they wrote a really terrible novel about Australia (D.H Lawrence), or visited here on a lecture tour once, and said mean things about the harbour (Mark Twain). That's apparently enough to get you a spot on the Writers Walk. Sure, the manifesto plaque employs the argument that it's a tribute to writers who've depicted Australia - but it really just seems like they wanted to be less 'provincial', needed more 'big name' authors, didn't feel arty enough til they had some references to the British canon. Every one of the spots that went to a 'James Michener' could have been filled by an exciting established Australian author, or an interesting emerging author - every last one. Just thinking about it, I feel my inner Australian Literature student geek bursting with fury.

My first guess therefore is that Keanu Reeves, George Lucas, and Ewan McGregor will get stars on the walk. Never mind that none of them could give a toss about Australian stories in an Australian setting - they're big names, they sold big films, and they have tenuous links to Australia. A big tick.

My second guess is that the walk will favor those actors that did a little work in Australia, then went overseas as quickly as possible to get famous there. Don't get me wrong - I love the work of all of the Australians currently on the international stage (especially Russ - if you count him as Australian). But actors like Kerry Armstrong, Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelson, Alex Dimitriades, Claudia Karvan, Deborah Mailman, Aaron Pederson, and Rachel Blake had BETTER damn well be recognised alongside their more internationally renowned counterparts. Just because the US says some of our actors are good, doesn't mean the others aren't.

My third guess (hope?) is that Australians will approach this whole walk of fame thing a little differently. I think it would be awesome if Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton could get a star. A joint one. Or maybe adjoining stars - after that IF awards sketch, it's kind of disturbing to think of them together in that way . . . There could be a stretch of stars devoted to composers of film scores - like David Bridie - where the buskers could hang out. Cinematographer Russell Boyd should get one. The Connelly-Anderson documentary team.

But the most exciting place to be will be the Hugo Weaving star - where drag queens, men in dark glasses, elves with pointy ears, sleazy businessmen and the blind may all converge to worship in harmony. This walk of fame thing might not be so bad.

Who do you think should get a gold star?

Monday, March 08, 2004

When too much Passion is barely enough
Robert Manne weighs in . . .

. . . and typically, I find a lot to like. Read the article from The Age here.

He has a very interesting idea of the camps in conflict: conservative Christians v cultural liberationists. I also think he's seen the film, which gives him a hell of a lot more legitimacy than I have.

As a pluralist, Manne doesn't condemn Gibson for making a film Christians will want to watch. His disquiet seems focused on the impact of the film, and its part within anti-Jewish rhetoric.

But I agree with him about Hitchens - there's something so extreme about Hitchens' stance that makes you draw back from it a bit (if you're curious, the Hitchens articles are linked off my last post on Passion - very in charcter for the self styled iconoclast.) I get the feeling Hitchens would personally burn each and every reel of the film if given half a chance. Not only is this an insidious film according to Hitchens, it was made with insidious motives, and everyone who sees and enjoys it is morally bankrupt. Oookay.

(I had more commentary here - but seriously, I've said all I need to say. It's frustrating, because I don't think I've really nailed how I feel - but time to let it go.)

Friday, March 05, 2004

Death Penalty at the cinema
a plea for help on this cheery little subject

I'm currently thinking about films that involve the death penalty.

On my list:

Monsters Ball
Dead Man Walking
The Green Mile
The Man Who Wasn't There

Cannibal the Musical / Shanghai Noon / Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves / Pirates of the Caribbean / O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which all have the old 'rescue the guy with a noose around his neck' trick)

Interested in suggestions for:
War films (ie: executing deserters, not just shooting some poor guy from a helicopter).
Historical films (ie: crucifying! - suggestions relating to The Passion of the Christ not particularly encouraged. Spartacus?)

Does anyone get the death penalty in The Shawshank Redemption?
Has anyone seen The Life of David Gale? (which sounds weird, or greatly misunderstood - I'm not sure which)

Please use the comments function (below) if you can think of any others, or for any other rant you feel inclined to share - thanks.

And . . . what an interesting resource! - The Prison Film Project - an analysis of prisons and jails in cinema. You can tell these guys are better than me because they can list films from the 1930s. They won me over as soon as I noticed the inclusion of Alien 3, which is set in the future on a penal colony planet. All the inmates are imprisoned for life, but living a kind of bizarre monastic existence. A sci fi view of the prison system - I've never thought of it that way . . . (tangent alert!)

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Power and the Passion
A discussion of The Passion of the Christ.

Warning: this is not a film review, and I have not seen the actual film.
Spoiler: Jesus gets crucified. (Oh no! I ruined it for you!)

This is probably the first time in my life I'm going to state my objections to a film which I have no intention of ever seeing. But there's something about it that's compelling me to write. Not divine inspiration - that's Mel's line. But the volatile combination - film critics feeling like they have to state their religious affiliations before they can make a comment. A massive box office taking for a director's vanity project. The potential resurgence of religion at the cinema. It's created the most fascinating splurge of thinking and writing about cinema, with people trying to articulate why they're unsettled, or why they're inspired.

Many people, I'm sure, have found or will find this film inspiring. Don't take this as a criticism of you. This article is really my way of arguing through my reasons why I don't want to see the film. Keep in mind that unlike certain conservative Australian senators, I'm not trying to ban this film sight unseen - I'm just trying to articulate the problems I have with it. (Sight unseen! Well, if you disagree with me, there's your ammunition right there.)

In the end, not seeing the film is the only form of protest I can have against Gibson's ubiquitous marketing strategy, which has been phenomenally successful (more on this below). The word of mouth has been intense, and despite the largely negative reviews, the film is rating through the roof. If my dollar goes down for this film, I feel like he's won. I'm toying with thoughts about buying a ticket for some other film in a multiplex and sneaking into a session of Passion instead. Yes, I'm sad.

A little about me: I'm not Christian, however my parents were Anglicans and I was brought up attending church. I decided it wasn't for me at about age 14. Regardless, I've always seen great value in religion in general, Christianity in particular. Sure I don't believe in it, but most of the impressive community support networks, charities, people who live giving and ethical lives, are connected to a religion in some way. The way I see it, even if you lose the lottery of the great hereafter because there isn't a God, it isn't time altogether wasted. However, this means that I'm not considering this film as a member of the faithful. I'm analysing it on other grounds - such as Gibson's claims that it is historically and biblically accurate, and any merit it has as an actual film.

And now, a little about Mel Gibson. Normally I wouldn't give a shit about the religion or personality of a director, but here it's part of the selling point. He's Catholic, and a particular kind of Catholic: a conservative offshoot which split off from the rest of the Catholic church after Vatican II. He believes he's divinely inspired, or at least that making this film for him is an act of faith. He put down $25 million of his own money to make this $30 million film, which is essentially a director's vanity project. And don't doubt Mel's motivations - he's made them perfectly clear. "I'm not a preacher, and I'm not a pastor," he said. "But I really feel my career was leading me to make this. The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize."

Although 'vanity project' sounds like criticism, think about Mel's achievement for a second. He made a film on his own money, based on his convictions of its importance. Despite all the criticism I'm about to heap on it, this is really a good thing. Independent, small, and risky productions on tricky subject matter always find it hard to get made. Although you can argue that this movie was always a sure bet given the potentially huge target audience (conservative US Christians - a big group), it's still a kind of heartening thing. Other than the fact I hate everything about the film, I admire Gibson for sticking to his guns.

OK. Now for the subject matter.

The film's title indicates that the film does have a narrow focus. Just like the 'passion plays' performed over the centuries, Passion concentrates on the last hours of Jesus - the trial, Jesus carrying the cross up the hill, and all the events at the crucifixion. It's not meant to be a broad all-encompassing picture of his life, but rather, a reminder that Christ made a real sacrifice and suffered when dying for the sins of humanity.

Jesus suffers. Pain. Then some more pain. Then some slightly different pain, for some more. As I haven't seen the film, I'm going to quote Jeffrey Wells . Jeffrey hated the film, and goes so far as to point out that most critics if anything are understating the violence:

"He is punched or kicked at least 27 times at the hand of Jewish goons before being taken in front of Pontius Pilate. Then, at Pilate's order, the Roman goons tie Yeshua to a stone post and wail like beasts with whips and a cat o' nine tails with jagged metal tips, causing bits of flesh to be separated from his body with each blow, about 103 times. Then he's hit another 4 or 5 times during his recovery period, and then whipped and punched 54 times as he tries to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem towards Golgotha. His face is spat into 3 or 4 times . . . [fellow movie critic] Corliss also says that during this final journey Caveizel's Christ "falls three times, which is fine for Catholic fidelity but wasteful and redundant as movie drama." He actually falls down six times. And of course he's nailed to the cross, and right after this is flipped over face-down as the cross is turned over so the protruding nails can be hammered flat. Then he' s hung on the upright cross until dead, naturally, and then is stabbed with a long spear in the right side of his abdomen, which results in a geyser of blood and water anointing the Roman soldier with the lance."

It's interesting that Margaret Pomeranz - much beloved Australian movie critic who admires Kill Bill and Fight Club, found the violence in this film completely unpalatable. But both these films use violence to different ends. Fight Club is exploring the whys and wherefores of violence, drawing potent conclusions about masculinity and modern society. Kill Bill is just having fun - Tarantino's violence is cartoonish. During every fight scene, even though limbs were flying everywhere, it was like every violent act had inverted quotation marks around it. Gibson's violence is centre stage. It is meant to be real. Read again that paragraph above about the number of times Christ is abused in the film. And ask - really - what is Gibson trying to achieve? What it is about Gibson's faith, that this is what he wants to emphasise?

(a side note: the rating of Gibson's film shows a real hypocrisy in the ratings boards of Australia and elsewhere. Passion got an MA rating, Kill Bill got R - yet critics are fairly unanimous that Passion is by far the more graphic and violent. Roger Ebert of the US suggested that if anyone but Christ had been on the cross, the film would have been treated much differently by the censors. Not that this is Gibson's problem - it's just a nice illustration of the randomness that is censorship in Australia today.)

There have been many charges that the film is anti-semetic. Gibson's argument that it's all 'true' because it's drawn from the Gospels is mere evasion. Gibson has ignored all theological developments and classical studies, which have really changed the way people read the Scriptures (for example, there are a lot of historical reasons why at the time of writing the Gospels - written many years after the events they describe - the writers would find it tactical to emphasise Jewish involvement and underplay the role of the Romans). Another example is the depiction of Pilate as a weak leader who is manipulated by an angry Jewish mob. Compare this with other historical texts - Pilate was apparently a thug, and had a sufficiently powerful position that it was highly unlikely he could be swayed to any action by a Jewish mob. As one wit put it (and I wish I could remember where I read this), instead Aramic, the dialogue should have been in Latin, since it's an interpretation of the death of Jesus which is most accurate for a church of the Middle Ages.

The four gospels all tell of Jesus' death - and Gibson has cherry picked all the parts that have anti-Jewish statements and dubious Jewish characters. There is a line that only appears in one of the gospels - where the Jewish mob takes responsibility for killing Jesus and says something like that any guilt from his death will be 'on our heads and on our children.' Only in one Gospel, yet it's in the film. Gibson bowed to pressure and removed the subtitle, but the line is still in there, even if it isn't translated.

There are also incidents from the film that have no basis in the Gospels, but emphasise the role of Jewish people in Jesus' death. In one scene, Romans must be incited by the devil to go after Jesus. Jews don't need any encouragement from the devil to be similarly bloodthirsty. The cross on which Jesus is hung is made in a Jewish Temple. No basis in the Gospels for this either. (Edit: the latter scene was in the draft script made available for critique by the committee discussed below, but has apparently been removed from the film. A good thing! although the fact that it was ever considered is still pretty disturbing.)

I guess none of this is really major - but combine it with Gibson's often evasive statements about his opinions on Jewish guilt, and even the Holocaust - and it's enough to make you wonder. Gibson's father has infamously stated that the Holocaust never happened, together with other inflammatory anti-Jew statements. Gibson certainly hasn't done a good job of establishing beyond doubt that he differs from this assessment. When asked by one interviewer whether he believed Jews died during World War II, he responded 'a lot of people died'. True, but missing the point - no one else was ruthlessly singled out for extermination, men women and children alike. It took a really fluffy interview with Diane Sawyer for him to come out more firmly (timed just after his more shady comments had made a real stir in the US media. Publicity! I love it.) - you can read about it here.

Concerns about anti-semetic material were brought up early in the film's development. The anti-defamation league reviewed an early draft of the script in consultation with the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in April, 2003. "The committee unanimously agreed that the screenplay reviewed was replete with objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism." You can read the ADL report here. The Catholic priests involved ended up publishing a set of guidelines about passion plays in general - where they discuss the flaws of the Passion, and point out the dangers inherent in a production such as this one.

How did Mel react to this advice? he claimed that the committee was stacked by Jews (untrue, many were Catholic, just not Gibson's kind of Catholic) and claimed that the script had been stolen or otherwise obtained unlawfully (also untrue). What a hero. As one of the members of the ADL committee deescribed:

"After questioning our panel's motives . . . they claim, we obtained the script illegally. This is wrong: Gibson's company, Icon Productions, knew we had it, and Mr. Gibson personally expressed interest in hearing our views. Then, they accused us of leaking the confidential report. Now, anyone with even an ounce of logic should see the problem: the only way the report could fall under the category of confidential would be if it were part of an agreement with Icon productions. They are the ones who requested confidentiality--which, of course, means that they knew we had the script. Finally, we at least were faithful to that agreement. The notice that the script had anti-Semitic elements was first made public not by the ad hoc committee or the ADL, but by Mr. Gibson and his associates, who went on record as denying the charge. Of course, it was they who made the charge public in the first place."

I'm not sure how true this last part about who went public first is - but if it was Gibson, what a brilliant move. Claiming that your film about Jesus is being unfairly blasted by a Jewish committee? - more free publicity! still love it.

Aspersions against the film's accuracy and Gibson himself aside, there are many critics who don't think the film is deliberately anti-semetic. However, many make the distinction that the film provides fuel for those who are, or that it lends itself to such interpretations - Abraham Foxman is quoted in the Sawyer article linked above, saying that he believes that the film "has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, to reinforce it." This is in part because this is not a film about love, or the achievements of Christ - it's a film with a focus on hate, pain, and death. A viewer who sits through two hours of Christ's suffering could well be looking for someone to blame. And no matter what Gibson claims about us all sharing the guilt, the events of the film lend themselves towards a different conclusion.

Compounding all my problems with this film is the marketing - which really trumpets that this is the real thing, rather than just one man's interpretation. The idea that this is the 'truth' makes people more susceptible to accepting it unquestioningly, rather than unpacking it as one man's interpretation. One man who has picked and chosen what he wanted from between the four gospels, one man who has decided that Satan looks like an androgynous woman - thanks for that by the way, Mel!

This film will be really influential on young Christians who see it. Due to its popularity, it's also going to be seen as the Christian mainstream, the sheer numbers of attendees reflects that many people are taking it to heart. I don't think this film should be mainstream at all - it reflects Gibson's fairly out there religious beliefs. But Gibson's film will shift the way people think about the Bible, Jesus, and God. An Australian political analogy is that it's the same kind of thing as Pauline Hanson's policies or ideas suddenly being hailed as the next best thing for the right. This analogy really works for me - because just as I'm not Christian, I'm not a Liberal voter, and yet I can still see that Gibsonism or Hansonism is a big conservative shift for either group (your mileage, obviously, may vary on this point).

Ultimately, I have such a different idea about faith. To me, the most impressive thing Jesus (supposedly) did was in the compassion and understanding of his teachings. In this film, the positives of the life of Jesus are secondary at best - particularly, its notions about tolerance and understanding - brief flashbacks between the main action of torture. The film boils Jesus' life down to a message with a real 'or else' embedded at its heart. I don't want to find religion through an idea that someone has made a great sacrifice for me - I wouldn't want it to be based on a kind of scared, guilty appreciation. But I think this is in many ways the key to being able to appreciate the film. If you have faith already, this film will viscerally add to your idea that 'Jesus suffered'. But for the rest of us? I guess that's the question.

There's a moment in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, when Christ on the cross is being tempted by the devil. He sees the possibility of another life - of surviving, of becoming a normal family man and not a leader, marrying Mary Magdalene, having children, being a father himself. I remember a lot of dissent from church groups over this film - because of its suggestion that Christ had sexual thoughts, or that Christ had 'human' tendencies. But I found it incredibly moving, the idea that Christ was tempted by humanity - to avoid the suffering, fade into the background and noise of human life. Sure it's scriptually baseless, and a lot of Christians disagreed with this interpretation - but it's this aching loss of potential life, rather than any immediate physical suffering, that resonated for me, and moved me to tears.

This is not a film review of Passion, but I guess it's worked out as a manifesto of why I'm going to avoid it. Gibson's film just sounds like a gore fest - a litany of suffering. And I don't need that in my head.

Further reading:

Box office statistics: for those who care. Passion has had the sixth biggest opening weekend ever in the US - making $83 million in one weekend, which was 62% of the total box office for that weekend. It opened on a Wednesday - and if you count the five day opening tally (ie: Wed to Sunday), it is the third highest ever, only behind one of the Matrix flicks, and Spiderman. All this for a $30 million arthouse flick about religion. An amazing achievement, no matter how critical I am about the film. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more religious themed films now that it's been proven commercially viable. You can read it's box office takings in the US here.

There's a good discussion of Gibson's religious background, his father's notorious Holocaust denials, and the film by Gerard Henderson, published in the SMH.

Christopher Hitchens has weighed in (all fresh after his infamous but convincing articles bagging out Mother Teresa), with article titles such as 'Schlock? Yes. Awe? No. Facism? Probably.' See also his article 'I Detest This Film with a Passion'. "Yesterday, as the movie opened, a Pentecostal church in Denver, Colorado, put up a big sign on its marquee saying: "Jews Killed The Lord Jesus." Nice going."

Jeffrey Wells, to whom I'm indebted for counting the lashes - or the sounds of the lashes. Ick. "I don't care what Gibson had in mind, or how much in awe he claims to be of Christ's example or teachings. There's "art" a'plenty in this thing, but not enough grace. Whatever he was after, something got hold of Gibson and turned his film down the wrong alley."

Margaret and David on the SBS Movie Show. David: "There will be many different reactions to this film but, as a lapsed everything, I found it difficult to endure. Subtlety is not a word in Mel Gibson's lexicon, and he has made the most relentlessly violent film I've ever seen - horrendously violent."

David Poland has an excellent discussion of the anti-semetism. "Gibson's anti-semetic turn is one of omission, not commission. And it will be too subtle for most people to really articulate, though I suspect that they may feel it"

Note however - one of my favourite critics from the US, Roger Ebert, supports the film. A great review. Importantly, he says that his appreciation is based on how Gibson illustrates a key point of Christian doctrine. He chooses to take it, I choose to leave it - but his praise is still worth reading. "What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of. That his film is superficial in terms of the surrounding message -- that we get only a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus -- is, I suppose, not the point. This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion."

And if you don't think Gibson has made enough of a return on his $25 million initial investment? Never fear - there's always the offical website for licensed 'Passion of the Christ' products. Support Mel - buy a decorative nail pendant!

It will be interesting to see what Gibson does with all of his profits for the film. Given that he's spent a lot of time talking about how he made it as an act of faith, I expect any day now to hear what projects he's decided on to best spend the vast amount of money he has personally made. (Some pundits estimate that Gibson will make more from Passion than Peter Jackson will make from the LOTR franchise - because Gibson will get the lion's share of the profits, and his film cost more than a third less than any of the LOTR films). Maybe he'll start a new production company to churn out Biblical themed movies? Perhaps this is only the beginning. Next stop: Sodom and Gomorrah.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?