Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Village

Here it is, finally. Man, I'm such a tease. It's divided into non-spoilery, then spoiler discussions - so if you haven't seen the film, don't read past part one. (Warning: overall word count in excess of 2,000 words, godamnit. Brevity! must strive for brevity!)

Part one: the non-spoilerish discussion

The best parts of The Village are – as Beth has already discussed - the parts which tap into pre-existing narrative and story ideas. Think Shirley Jackson, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible. Although I bet the producers would hate this comparison, the filmic strategy used is similar to the one employed in The Blair Witch Project – as it picks myths, monsters, and symbols which seem familiar, making the darkness even more resonant. Like the “yeah, I’ve heard this one” urban myth, except that these are (creepy) pre-urban myths which date to the origins of white America.

An assorted grab-bag of the symbols or stories I found familiar: a small isolated community with strict moral or behavioural codes. A fear unknown, mysterious “forces” outside the cultivated fields (suggestive of the early settlers ongoing fear of the Native Americans ). Lost children in the wilderness. Conflict between the village elders and the younger more adventurous generation. Guarding the perimeter of the village. A village wedding, where the whole town comes out to celebrate with wreathes and bare feet. Use of colour as a device to signal inclusion/exclusion or safety/danger. A schoolroom in a small hall with separate wooden desks. The “simple” or “touched” village idiot as the one closest to God who is safe from harm. A central meeting hall where discussions gather concerning the well-being of the town. Lullabies for comfort. Watchtowers and torches blazing at the perimeter. The immorality of money and the moral good of being a farmer and gathering crops from the soil.

And the abundance of familiar-seeming things isn’t because the scriptwriter is lazy or derivative – it’s all in there for a reason, an exploration of fundamental stories and themes in American pioneer or settler myths. Even if ultimately, the direction of the film irritates you? It's still fascinating stuff.

There’s a big section below where I discuss this film. It’s got spoilers. This film is like The Sixth Sense and other M. Night Shamaylan creations – if you know the twists, it really does wreck the film. So don’t read on unless you’ve seen it.

(From here in on, I'm going to call the director "Night". Apparently that's what his friends do, and it's much easier to spell.)

Part two: Here, ye be spoilers

Have you seen the film? No? Then go away.

Okay, the rest of you can stay.

1. Twisting
So yes, there’s a big twist. In fact there’s two: the revelation by Edward Walker to Ivy of the nature of the beasts, and then the audience’s discovery at the end of Ivy’s journey. And both are expertly done, although I think we were meant to guess a bit at the first twist, and whilst lulled into complacency over our mental victory, be knocked for six by the second.

Once the second “reveal” is made at the end, it made some of the things I found irritating about the film make sense. Of course the villagers are mannered, and have a somehow stilted, affected manner of speech. It’s an affectation or ideal of “olden times” rather than the real thing. As a viewer, the first half invites you to take pleasure in the country wedding, the close-knit community, the simple pleasures, the whole Little Town on the Prairie frontier life. Then, any romanticism or nostalgia that the film evokes is completely undermined, as it is revealed not as a film interrogating the lifestyle of the American early pioneer or farming community; but a film interrogating our constructions of that ideal.

Ahhhh. That sound you hear is my satisfied inner theorist, roasting chestnuts with my new buddy Night by the fire.

2. False worlds and segregation

The film also works as a fable about segregation. In the “false” village, everyone stays within the boundaries because they fear the monsters. The monsters are revealed to be the fictive creations of the elders, who put on the red cloaks and the monster costumes. The flags, watchtowers and fires aren’t keeping anything out; because that enemy is already within the village grounds.

Likewise, the second type of boundary is also false: the village itself as oasis from modern society. The elders withdrew from the world because they were the victims of various violent crimes. They wished to create a place free of the pernicious influence of modern life; seeing money and worldly possessions as the cause of much of the grief and violence they experienced in the “real” world. But their oasis proves inadequate when Lucius is stabbed, setting in motion the second half of the film. Arguably, you can read this as evidence that as humans, they brought the potential for evil into the town with them; it’s not modernity or money that’s the trouble, it’s our own humanity.

But this argument doesn’t quite work. The violence and dissension in the village is created by Noah (Adrien Brody), who is also the village idiot. And this I don’t get - why make the would-be murderer the village idiot? Does violence only happen where people are crazy? Lucius suggests at one point that one of the reasons for venturing out for medicine could be to make Noah well. If Noah is the only person who commits terrible acts and Noah is crazy; does this mean that humanity isn’t necessarily so, modern medicine could have solved all the problems by making Noah more rational and less violent? Is sanity rather than some basic idea about humanity the reason for the violence?

To avoid asking more questions than I’m answering: my guess is that Night is perhaps suggesting that although the segregation from “greed” and “money” allows escape from the immediate, perceptible evils of modern society; it also prevents access to the great good of modern society (education, medicine, general enlightenment). If they were less inflexible with their way of life, Noah could be more able to cope and Ivy would probably be able to see. Also remember that the film begins with a funeral of a young boy – and the more I think about this opening, the more significant it seems. When you first see it, I think you’re meant to assume that “they who must not be named” are somehow responsible. The end of the film makes this oddly accurate – as you could argue that in isolating the community and denying all access to doctors and hospitals, the elders may well be responsible for early, untimely deaths of the younger generation that we see in the film.

3. Dichotomies and ciphers

Oh, there’s heaps of dichotomies in this film. You could probably play dichotomy bingo (Beth, I totally think you should design this. I’d play.). Just for starters, let’s get back onto Noah again. We hear a lot about how Noah is safe from the monsters because he is “touched” and somehow childlike, innocent. Yet he turns out in fact to be the source of the greatest violence in the film (the stabbing of Lucius, the skinning of the animals, the attempt on Ivy’s life, etc). Noah as harmless and child-like, Noah as a calculating killer?

Then there’s Love, with a capital L. Love is meant to be the guiding beacon for Ivy on her quest. Walker gives a great speech about how it moves mountains. Love is also the cause of most of the dissent in the film – most particularly, the stabbing. Further, love (and its flip-side: grief) was a major motivator in the decision to build the village itself. Love is a motivator to discover the truth, and it's also used as the justification for concealing it.

And there's billions more. Why red? Why yellow? What is Night as director getting at by casting himself as the security guard at the guard station in possibly the weirdest director cameo ever? And what was the significance of that whole strange little scene between the two guards?

Oh, you thought I had answers for these?

4. Ivy

Perhaps the biggest dichotomy or cipher of all is Ivy herself. Is her blindness purely a means to pulling off the deception at the end, or is there more to it than that? A few thoughts.

Ivy and Lucius are set up as the younger inheritors of the village – his actions establish him as the most assertive leader, and she is the heir to her father’s secrets – yet the film keeps reminding us that she can’t see, and he hardly ever speaks. Are these carefully selected heirs? “You see more clearly than most other people” says Walker; and tells her half the secret; but he tells her precisely because of all the people in the village, she’s the only one who won’t find out the extent of the deception. And we see her perpetuating this half of the lie (with the “magic rocks” to protect her and the two boys from the village); whilst she remains in the dark on the second greater secret. What kind of leader will Ivy be? The film leaves this ambiguous (annoyingly so, because I thought this was easily the most interesting question of the film). All you can conclude, I guess is that she’ll do anything for love – and that could eventually mean either maintaining the fiction, or crashing it down. I wouldn’t take a bet either way on what Ivy will do.

And her name! Her name! A growing living thing? A plant which grows over and hides what lies beneath in the foliage? Perhaps even the pest or parasite it is in some environments, growing on or using other plants to its own advantage? It could be any of these things – as I think could Ivy herself. She will be the saviour or destroyer of the Village, and the film ends before she decides which one she is going to be.

5. The End?

And here’s the interesting thing about Night’s films. They work thusly: you can see them once, and the concluding twist leads you to mentally re-visit and challenge everything you’ve seen previously. Subsequent viewings will never let you see the film in the same way. Call it “Twist Cinema”. At its most extreme, the film asks you to challenge the actual “reality” of the footage you’ve been seeing – think The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. To my mind, The Village is further down on this scale – everything the film has told you has actually happened – the paradigm shift is entirely about context (specifically, the world of the film).

My first question here: once you’ve seen it once, is that it? Due to their nature, are these “view once, then discard” films?

Leading to the next issue – which I won’t call a problem, but I still think it’s a relevant dilemma for this kind of film-making. Because you’re saving up your Act 1 / Act 2 / Act 3 structure for the big shock at the end, your story has to be crafted to fit the shock. Leaving me to wonder whether the film would have been better if Night hadn’t been trying to disguise his hand the whole time. The Village as “surprise cinema” means that characters have to have ridiculously oblique conversations, or leave silences at key points, where otherwise they might have been more forthcoming.

Imagine if the surprise or twist didn’t have to be saved until Act 3. If he’d gotten it out of the way in Act 2, what then? The focus may become what Ivy does after she returns, knowing what she does about the monsters in the woods. What the villagers do, seeing that it’s possible to go out and come back unscathed. A different film, sure. A more interesting film? Possibly. I'd be interested to hear what you guys think.

6. So, Lyn, I’ve gotten this far. Did you actually like this film, or not?

Yeah, look. It intrigued me – clearly. But to me this film is like a lot of science fiction – the ideas are better than the execution, and I don’t feel moved to re-experience it. The film had real weaknesses – the love triangle was a really lame centre to the film, and I just didn’t really believe it. Adrian Brody as Noah was an abysmal performance (or as Fametracker would call it, a performance worthy of an Oscar Recall).

Perhaps most annoyingly, there's a point where Noah is no longer really a character - he's The Plot Contrivance Which Keeps Things Moving. What were the chances that he'd find a costume under the boards? The sneaky dead animals thing? His behaviour ranged from calculating to stupid as the film required, and to me it seemed just lazy. (We need someone to do something irrational to up the tension, or get things moving? Use Noah! He's crazy! He'd do anything! etc.)

Even so - I'll describe my reaction to this film as positive (if qualified). This movie is food for the brain. And how often do you get to discuss ideas to this kind of level in relation to a mainstream release? And I haven't even mentioned the great cinematography which really brought out the colours, and the (I think) revelatory performance by Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy. Overall, call it a win for Night. I’m still not gonna see Signs though, because I can’t stand Crazy Mel Gibson.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Shark Tale

I don't plan to see Shark Tale, the new film from the makers of Shrek. The preview looks horrible - like all the worst bits of Shrek combined. (Yes, and I kick puppies, take their toys away, and then brood about becoming ostracised from society. Discuss.)

But here's what's interesting: Shark Tale isn't even out in the US until early October, and yet it has been released here in Australia.

Has this ever happened before with a major studio pic that anyone can recall? I'm guessing the studio is justifying this by reference to school holidays in Australia or the US, or whatever. But it still seems weird to me.

The Village

I've written about 1,500 words about this, but fortunately for all of you I left the disk at home. I think I'm going to have to post it in installments. Meanwhile, try and see the film. I can't go so far as to give an unqualified recommendation - but even if you're one of the people who is irritated by it, it will irritate you in an interesting way.


Thursday, September 16, 2004

Ten fun facts about Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan

1. Her hair is really distracting. I'm not sure why.

2. She's a maid with a heart of gold who can sass with the black maids and bond with the white maids.

3. She works hard at a thankless job and is rarely rewarded.

4. She is sweet and caring towards poor alcoholic Bob Hoskins, who is clearly wondering why on earth he is in this film.

5. She is ill-treated by evil white women with British accents.

6. She is a single mother, who realises that one cannot be late to the school play of one's child.

7. Naturally, the father does not realise the importance of this fact, further reinforcing how wonderful J.Lo is as a mother.

8. When nasty shop assistants are mean to her, she is assertive and tough back in ways that lead complete strangers to spontaneously applaud her.

9. All of 1-8 happens in the first thirty minutes of the film.

10. I didn't get past the first thirty minutes.


Monday, September 13, 2004

I'm an aunt!

And my new little niece is perfect. But as she is not a film*, she's somewhat outside the scope of this site.

But updates are on the way. I've seen 7/10 of the AFI films.** Has One Perfect Day managed to move from its (perhaps pre-emptive) tenth place finish, you may ask?

No. There's been other not-great films, but none of them has tried product placement with Homer.

*If she were a film, she'd be a small and perfectly crafted gem. With perfect feet and little hands. Adorable when it sneezes. Etc.

**If anyone knows a way I can see (in Sydney) or get copies of Thunderstruck or Under the Radar, leave a comment so that I can email you.


Thursday, September 02, 2004

One Perfect Day - part 2
Things I grudgingly concede you might like / admire in One Perfect Day

1. Kerry Armstrong’s performance. She plays the mother. I didn’t mention her at all in my review because her performance is so out of this world good, that it’s as if she’s in another film, reacting to different material.

2. The actor who plays the minion drug dealer is actually pretty fun to watch. Props to him.

3. Some of the visuals of the directing have flair . . . I guess. To be honest, I found it a bit too MTV (there’s split screen fade in/fade out effects at different points, which tends to bug), but you can’t say it’s boring.

4. There are crickets in one scene. Crickets are always cool.

5. The opening scene in the film is pretty good, and involves Tom and a very risky manoeuvre to record the sound of a train. (insert your own joke about how later in the film I was fervently wishing this had had a messy tragic ending).

So there you go. A few positives to go with the negatives.

And one more dig because I just can’t resist
Most of the mainstream press reviews mention that the film’s promotional material hypes it as “loosely based” or a “modern retelling” of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. In this Greek legend, Orpheus (a musician) goes to Hades to plead for the release his lover / muse Eurydice who has died back into the world of the living. The God of Hell is so impressed with Orpheus' ardent love and his lyre playing, that he agrees to let her go; she will follow Orpheus up to the surface, but if Orpheus turns around on his way out of hell, she will have to return to the world of the dead. Just before he reaches the surface, Orpheus doubts that Eurydice is following him, and thinks he’s been betrayed. He turns around – and realises he’s lost her all over again as she fades from sight.

First point. So there’s a musician, and a girl who dies. For my money, you need a little more to really claim that you’re evoking the spirit of a Greek myth. At least the Coen Brothers were being ironic when they made the Odyssey reference in O Brother; and they actually included quite a few elements from that story. (I am however, grateful that they didn't try and resurrect Elise and/or Kid Sister.)

Second point: But let’s take it seriously for a moment. This means that Tommy (as Orpheus) is journeying into “hell” when he starts exploring the dance scene. Just another telling point about how the director really views the world of dance culture.

Third point. So the copy of the Odyssey that was being read by the Evil Club Owner is most likely a nod at this reading of the film. In which case, it’s even more freaking stupid because the story of Orpheus and Eurydice isn’t in the Odyssey, it’s in Metamorphoses by Ovid. Oh, but I guess all Ancient Greek texts are the same, right? If you're going to wank around with classical references, at least have the courtesy to your audience to get it right.

Okay, I'm done now.


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