Friday, April 30, 2004

Would you like some chopsticks with that crazy mystical curse?
Asian racism: alive and well at the cinema.

Discussed: Freaky Friday, Shanghai Noon, and Lost in Translation.

[no spoilers beyond basic premises]

Stuck in a hotel room with free movies, I finally caught the recent remake of Freaky Friday, a very well-reviewed film which scored Jamie Lee Curtis a well deserved Golden Globe nomination. The 2003 Freaky Friday follows the same premise as the original Disney flick – a mother and daughter switch bodies for a day, and use their experience to come to a greater understanding of each other’s lives. It’s a very likable film, and you get the feeling throughout that you’re laughing harder than the jokes deserve.

When you’ve got a film involving a ‘magical body swap’, you’ve got to make a fairly important decision – how do you portray the magic which enables the entire story? Liar Liar needed a similar push, and it’s a kid’s birthday wish – with a ‘forces beyond our comprehension’ music cue – which makes Jim Carrey suddenly need to tell the truth for the rest of the film. In Freaky Friday, it’s a little different. The family heads to the local Chinese restaurant. Hearing the mother and daughter argue, the proprietor’s Chinese mother offers up fortune cookies, with a trite little message about empathy. On eating their cookies, the two women experience a localised earthquake which no one else in the restaurant feels. What could that be? They find out next morning when the mind switch has occurred. Eventually, they make the connection with the incident in the restaurant the night before. “It must be some Chinese voodoo thing” one of the characters exclaims.

So I watch the film. I mostly think about how great the two leads were, despite the often silly story. About two days goes by. And then I think – wait a minute. "Chinese voodoo" thing? It’s like they solve the narrative problem of the need for ‘magic’ by referencing the ‘mystical far east’. The Chinese characters are essentially in the plot to make the magic seem more plausible. If I was Chinese, I’d be getting all kung fu on the arses of the writers for putting that in, to throw in another cliché – and indeed, a lot of people have put up their hands as officially offended. Sure, juxtaposing ‘voodoo’ with ‘Chinese’ is probably a little nod to the stupidity of the plot, but just because they know it’s stupid doesn’t make it okay.

(Pop quiz: what are some other films that use Chinese characters to justify strange / mystical occurances? I can only think of Gremlins right now, but I know there was about a billion such films in 1983 alone.)

The worst thing about this kind of racism is how insidious it is – it’s part of the background you’re meant to accept, rather than something the viewer is supposed to interrogate. I never thought I’d say this, but Shanghai Noon has a far more responsible portrayal of race issues of Asians and Americans. Sure the script is ludicrous (I think it’s time for the Emperor’s Imperial Guard to be officially retired from use by Hollywood). Sure, most Asians would snigger at the excessive references to honour, tradition, and kick arse fighting as the cornerstones of Chinese culture. But most of the stereotypes are deliberate – for every Chinese cliché, there’s another five about white people and a few about Native Americans thrown in for good measure. The film only gets around to undermining about half of the stereotypes it throws in – but even so, when the film is using a cliché, it’s an obvious cliché that your brain remarks on, rather than one that you just subconsciously process.

A film that raised a lot of debate about race last year was Lost in Translation. Confession – I love this film. I think it perfectly captured the mood of insomnia, the feeling of being caught in late night hotel rooms, being in limbo. Tokyo was really just a backdrop to the loose association of the main characters. However because of the needs of the story, Tokyo becomes by necessity ‘the other’, ‘the unknown’, which alienates the two lead characters. The people are hard to understand. Perceived idiosyncracies (short people, difficulty of pronouncing ‘r’ in English, karaoke) are underlined. We are never allowed inside the heads of the Japanese characters – without exception, they remain inscrutable, ‘lost in translation’.

Although I’ve found criticisms of the film as racist compelling, I think that ultimately for me it doesn’t cross that line. Again, it has to do with intention – the film is about a failure to communicate, about feeling alienated. To let us into the perspective of the Japanese characters would be to defeat the purpose. The charge that the film gets a bit nasty about the clichés (I’m thinking particularly of the Japanese prostitute) is harder to refute – I’ll have to watch the film again to decide one way or the other.

Hollywood really hasn't come that far since ‘Mickey Rooney as Asian neighbour’ scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There's been inroads for Asians in Hollywood on the action front, but not much progress elsewhere. Asian women are dragon ladies or submissive; both Asian men and women get to fight a lot. They don't get major roles where they're just a concerned mother, or a racing car driver - unless it's in a really minor role, or as a villain. Australian cinema hasn't done much better. The trophy wife from Thailand in Priscilla Queen of the Desert still stands out in my mind as a malicious stereotype in an otherwise excellent film.

For now, though, my demands are simple. No more fortune cookies. No more Imperial Guard. No more ‘grasshopper’. And casting directors, please start noticing that Lucy Liu is not the only Asian actress, and that there are more guys around than Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan – cool as they are. Also, I know many people of Asian heritage who manage to get through the day without holding chopsticks or throwing a punch. Crazy, I know.

Fun links:
Comments on a hilarious casting call for a vampire film involving Asian characters. “[SAI YIN] 20s, unbelievably beautiful, this exotic Asian vampire speaks near-perfect English, and has the martial arts fighting skills of a true master.”

The Unfair Racial Cliché Alert page – not Asian focused, but makes for great reading. I particularly cracked up at this description of Kubrick’s The Shining: “Scatman Crothers dies a noble if unexpected death in the movie, even though he didn't die in the book - these Hollywood clichés are powerful stuff!”

Whilst I like Lost in Translation, I really don't need people like Roger Ebert getting a bit too superior: "When I'm told by people that they hated Lost in Translation, I have to restrain myself from replying, 'You are saying more about yourself than about the film.' " Restrain yourself a little better, Roger.

A really old Fametracker 2 stars 1 slot that pitted Michelle Yeoh against Lucy Liu, correctly noting that Hollywood only has room ‘for one Stunning Asian Woman at a time’.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Falling in love with a movie

It's that moment when you're seeing a film for the first time, and there's just this electric bolt, this feeling that the director is talking directly to you. The film is excellent, sure - but it's more than that. I love films that I connect with emotionally - like the LOTR trilogy. But this needs more - a complete engagement with your mind and your heart, everything. And you realise even whilst you're watching that the film is going to become really significant to your life.

Last night, I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Holy fucking shit. I want to buy this movie valentines cards. I'm holding my memories of it close to my chest, and smiling. I'm thinking about how I'm going to watch it again. I'm wondering how on earth I'm going to be able to write about it. Make sure you don't miss it at the cinema.

Other films that have done this for me:
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir). I'm currently writing about this film. I've been writing about it since I saw it in late 2003 (three times). Thank christ it's out on DVD because I really need to see it again.
Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar). A complete revelation of a film.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Brothers). This one is cheating a little, as I think my enthusiasm has grown with repeat viewings. But, just wow. Captures the essence of 'cinematic joy', in a way that I've only experienced since in Kill Bill, Volume 1. Don't ask me to explain what I mean here. I hardly know myself.
Fight Club (David Fincher). Chills. Meet spine.

and the very first film I ever fell in love with . . . . (drumroll)

Fargo (Coen Brothers). Murders in the snow. The first film I ever watched where I realised a film could be as complex and subtle as a novel. When I'm asked for my favourite film, this is usually my answer. Watching it, I felt like I was in the coolest dialogue with the directors. And I knew it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Mummy (1932)

I’m a huge fan of Ed Wood, the Johnny Depp films which tells the story of terrible director Edward Wood’s friendship with Bela Lugosi. Throughout the film, Lugosi (Martin Landau) keeps bemoaning the fact that Karloff is more famous than him. The joke for the contemporary audience being that although Karloff might ring a faint bell, Lugosi has far more of a household name thanks to the greater longevity of Dracula over Frankenstein. But Karloff has been in a whole array of horror classics, with a whopping 178 entries as a film actor on the IMDB. He's also the original Mummy.

The 1932 Mummy is the film that spawned a genre. It’s always hard to argue origins of pop culture creatures, but many of the tropes of the mummy like their ability to walk (reeeaaly slowly), mind control and hypnotism are Hollywood inventions that date to this movie. Brendan Fraser’s 1999 Mummy owes it a huge debt, signalled in that later film’s use of the same myths and characters (the love story of Imhotep and Anck-Su-Namun was created in Karloff’s Mummy, and much of it was recycled for Fraser’s.) In Fraser's movie, the star is the hero - whereas in Karloff's, it's the monster who has the title and first billing.

It’s a weird little tale about scientific discovery, eerie love, and obsession. The heroine is the kind of actress we don’t see onscreen any more. She’s beautiful, but 30s beautiful, with a cherubic face, and an oddly deep voice. The other characters are basically character actors: The Would-be Hero, The Doctor, The Concerned Father, the Servant, the Egyptologist, etc. All of them get their moments to shine in delivering exposition with a straight face. “Gosh, could that be the scroll? Ever since your father went on that dig ten years ago, and that guy went mad and the mummy went missing, we’ve always wondered what was up with that, now haven’t we?”

These are archaeologists who wear white shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. (why on earth would you wear white?) The history student in me cringes every time someone says: “look! the tomb has an unbroken seal! Quick, let’s break it!” But for all the boys-own adventure, the basic premise sets up the archaeologists as people in search of knowledge. Sure it gets them into trouble in this film, but there’s a laudable (if naïve) drive at work. They also show a fair amount of responsibility when the curse surfaces, in attempting to clean up the mess they've created.

Quibbles? Of course, as with all aged horror films, there’s moments of the ridiculous.
1. The hero’s father dies, and they don’t include a single scene of the son saying “Gosh! that’s slightly sad!” – the plot just rolls right on.
2. It’s hard to emote going insane by laughing hysterically.
3. In possibly the most un-PC film scene I’ve seen so far this year, we find out that the Mummy can mind control the black household servant “because he’s a Nubian, and Nubians are the natural slaves of the Egyptians.” Alrighty then!

Ultimately, Karloff as the mummy just completely transcends the film. Whilst Karloff’s over-enunciation and the preponderance of 'Significant Close-up of Mummy’s Face' shots could really have hampered his performance, he just defies criticism. He moves at an entirely difference pace, with a real grace; a mournful yet powerful figure. The Mummy is a brilliant monster – sure he’s a villain, but he’s motivated by love. We sympathise with his feelings, and admire his tenacity, whilst getting caught up on the ‘wants to kill people’ part. But comparing Karloff’s mummy, and the annoying white-bread-all-American hero, all I can say is – actually? Karloff? you can use me as the vessel for your long lost dead Egyptian bride anytime.

Horror stats
Body count: disappointing.
Gore: zero. Points for an amusing off screen strangled cry, though.
Atmosphere: all kinds of excellent. It’s really more of a spooky love story than a horror flick. Sure it's aged, but what it does, it still does well.
Monster: awesome. Karloff rocks the bandages.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Films I was forced to watch on a bus #3
an occasional series sponsored by McCaffertys / Greyhound

Austin Powers: Goldmember

In honour of the Logies, imagine I'm being interviewed by Gold Logie winner Rove McManus.

Rove: Did Austin Powers: Goldmember improve on a repeat viewing?
Lyn: No.
Rove: But don't you think Mike Myers is funny as Austin?
Lyn: In this movie? No.
Rove: What about when he's Fat Bastard?
Lyn: No.
Rove: Dr Evil?
Lyn: Slightly warmer, but still no.
Rove: Goldmember?
Lyn: Jesus, what an awful character.
Rove: That's a no?
Lyn: Goddamn right.
Rove: Okay then.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Didn’t I already see this? - musing on cinema trends

A comment recently pointed out that I often review a few films at once and talk about how they raise similar issues. It’s something cute that came up on a personality test – I like drawing connections. Spreading out stuff around me and thinking about how it all fits in together. Sometimes it works. And sometimes it just makes me like crazy Russell Crowe from A Beautiful Mind. (Tooheys New cans are red! Red means danger! It’s all coming together!)

Many similarities between films are those which arise because they touch on the big themes of the human condition – love, death, the whole catastrophe. Or they’re films which are riffs on tried and true ‘classics’ – the high school flick, the road trip movie. But then there are the kind of fads where out of nowhere, you’ll see three, four, five films which are uncannily similar. Here are my theories:

1. A smash hit in an unlikely genre will reinvigorate that genre. A good example - documentaries are like, so in right now, ever since Bowling for Columbine proved that a documentary can earn real money at the cinema. David Poland recently theorised that documentaries often get an easy run from critics, as its tempting to just find them interesting rather than think about whether it was done as well as it could have been. Probably true – if you look at the top ten films at rotten tomatoes from 2003, seven of them are documentaries. I’ve seen four* and really enjoyed them, but even I think this general ranking of documentaries is disproportionately kind. Regardless, you can now expect that at your local trendy independent cinema, at least one of the films showing will be documentary. (My old friend Passion will probably do this for Biblical movies, although it’s too early to tell if it’ll be a mainstream wave).

2. Filmmakers ride the prevailing mood, which right now is escapism. Zombie films are everywhere, as are nostalgic reruns of old horror classics. (remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, remake of Dawn of the Dead, Jason v Freddy, and in production: Predator v Alien and more Omen and Child's Play / Chucky flicks.) People are after films that scare them, but they don’t want anything that resembles war movies or terrorist flicks. This is also fuelled by #1 – as the current plethora of remakes and rehashes are off the back of some spectacular low budget success stories. But the reason for that success is that a lot of punters are using the Cineplex as an escape. The time is ripe to make US$80 million worldwide off a film that cost you US$10 million to make, and stars a bunch of cheap retread actors from TV teenage dramas.

3. Outright copying. A Bugs Life and Antz came out within a year of each other. Given that full length animation has been around for what, seventy years? - how is it that in the same year, two animation companies decided ants were the It subject? The two Alexander the Great pictures currently in production (Oliver Stone will probably beat Baz Luhrmann to the punch) are another example. This probably happens when someone is pitching their idea around all the major studios – it’s out there, and even though only one person can win the bid, everyone else gets to hear about it and think – ‘great concept! let’s do exactly the same thing, but change the names!’ I’d also put the wave of ‘Shakespeare remodelled as high school drama’ films in this category.

4. Current events inspire art, and sometimes they’ll inspire art that feels like it’s circling similar ground. For example – the sudden popularity of the reality TV genre, which spawned a bunch of films commenting on reality TV (EdTV, The Truman Show). I don’t think either of these films was a copy – they were very different - but they were both picking up on a trend with currency. The Iraqi / refugee plight would be one that really developed this last year: Osama, In This World, and Marooned in Iraq.

5. Republican / Democrat / Christian / Jewish / Scientologist / Nazi / Alien / God inspired machinations to brainwash us all. Insert your crackpot theory here. It’s not like it’s impossible for a film to be effective propaganda in the information age, but it’s certainly easier to be laughed at for it – hello there, Battlefield Earth! But it can be more subtle than this. For example: if many filmmakers have left leaning sympathies, and pro-tolerance is the big theme in the left, then the emergence of five or six pro-tolerance films shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. But it’s another step to start suggesting that Tom Clancy films are funded by the Republican movement in an effort to increase general paranoia about terrorists.**

I’m sure my learned readers can think of a bunch of other theories. I'd especially like to hear the conspiracy theories. (but shh! call me back on an outside line!)

* Bus 174, Friedmans, Winged Migration and Spellbound. I would have seen five, but I completely screwed up the session times for The Fog of War a few weekends ago. Merde!
** I totally made this one up. Sounds convincing though, don't it?

Monday, April 19, 2004

Monster and Bus 174

[No real spoilers - and anyway, these are true stories, and I dispute whether you can 'spoil' this kind of stuff. "The ship sinks in Titanic? You ruined it for me!" - etc.]

When you tell a story about a murder or a crime, the place you start your narrative says a lot about your agenda.

Monster is the tale of Aileen Wuornos, notorious female serial killer, and it starts right at the beginning, anecdote style, with the voice of Aileen (Charlize Theron) telling you about her childhood. Through a series of still photographs, and re-enactments, we’re told about her broken family, and the indications are already there that this is a girl who started out with big idealistic dreams. Life doesn’t prove that kind. Aileen works as a highway prostitute, and kills a client in self-defence (a point the film presents unquestioningly, but I understand there's a bit of doubt as to whether Aileen was really attacked). But after this first (perhaps justifiable) death, Aileen just keeps on killing – out of a terrible powerless rage, out of a need for cash, and in her desperate need to keep her new girlfriend who is one of the very few people who has ever shown Aileen kindness.

Bus 174 is a Brazilian documentary, currently on a very limited release. It tells the story of a notorious hijacking which took place in Rio, where a single man with a gun held up a bus for a long siege, which culminated in tragedy. But like Monster, after setting the scene, we travel back to the beginning, seeing the life of Sandro, who as a boy sees his mother being stabbed to death, and becomes a street kid. Sandro grows up living a life of addiction, desperation, and incarceration in some of the worst conditions imaginable in prisons.

Neither film excuses the consequences of Aileen and Sandro’s acts. I read some reviews about Monster which were concerned that Aileen was made a hero, or that the film’s sympathies were with her. Bullshit. The strength of Monster is that it makes you understand a little of how she became a killer. The film doesn’t endorse her choices, but makes you understand the motivations and fears which fuel her decisions. Bus 174 has an even wider canvas – the whole police system and the prejudices of Rio society come under the microscope. Sandro led a powerless life, where he had to cope with prejudice from the world related to both poverty and race. According to one sociologist who was interviewed, Sandro went from being the powerless person, to being the protagonist in a narrative of his making. He wanted the world to listen. For the hours of the siege, he was finally a speaker with the attention of the powerful. It would have been intoxicating.

Both films link crime to poverty, and both films suggest that if you start to experience violence as a victim, you’re more likely to use violence as a perpetrator in efforts to feel ‘powerful’, as the only way open to you to claim power. If understanding this is ‘sympathising’ with the criminals, then I think we could all use a bit more of this kind of sympathy.

Links, etc:

Official site of Bus 174 - read the director's statement, which talks about how the film came about.

Rotten Tomatoes has a list which rates films by year on how well they are reviewed. Bus 174 is the #1 film of 2003 with 100% positive reviews. It's an incredible film, but it hits you like a truck. Capturing the Friedmans was a walk in the park compared with this one.

The Hooverdust review of Monster - I agree that the violence merited an R rating rather than the MA it recieved. (I felt bad for kind of sniggering about it, but the person behind me gasped in the first murder scene, with quiet exclamations of 'oh no! oh! this is - oh no!'. Maybe she was a fan of Charlize's, and thought this film would be just like The Legend of Bagger Vance?)

And more one lingering question: Monster in particular privileges Aileen’s narrative over the narratives of the victims – it’s her story, not theirs. I can see how if you knew one of the men who died, this would be hard to take, as if the person who took the life of your loved one becomes more important to the media than the victim. Then again, this always happens with violent crimes. I can’t name a single person who died in the Port Arthur massacre, but I remember Martin Bryant. I wouldn’t know the names of any of the students at Columbine, but I remember the names of the two shooters . . .

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Films I was forced to watch on a bus #2
an occasional series sponsored by McCaffertys / Greyhound

Subliminal Mesages McCaffertys is trying to send me by showing Liar, Liar and The Borrowers as a double feature

Jim Carrey is John Goodman. They span similar genres: broad slapstick (Carrey's Ace Ventura, Goodman's The Flinstones), kiddie flicks based on book franchises (Carrey's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Goodman's The Borrowers), arthouse showboats (Carrey has the Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Goodman is a Coen Brothers regular), animated (Carrey in the being developed Over the Hedge, Goodman in Monsters Inc and The Emperor's New Groove.) Goodman's role as the hammy evil villain of The Borrowers is about to be followed up by Carrey as hammy evil Count Olaf in Lemony Snickett. Face it - add a couple of kilos to Carrey, and you've got Roseanne's husband.

Lawyers are evil. Seriously. EVIL! They lie both to small children, and to children who are very small. They kick small puppies. They want lots of money. Never, ever trust a lawyer.

Children are cute. And when small children are particularly winsome and adorable, they can tell us a lot about what our priorites should be in life. Particularly when they have easily tousled hair. Small children never lie and 'lying for any reason is bad'. Take that, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

It's awesome to be short. If you can't be short, it's best to be proportional, or to hang out a lot with short people to compensate.

A scorched earth policy is best when dealing with rodents, minature people, or a randy boss who sleeps with you and makes you miss your son's birthday party.

But what happened next? Just in case audiences don't quite believe you, the best way to finish a film is with a happy little 'a year from now' montage which shows just how functional and great everything is once the set has been mopped up from the finale. I mean, whatever. What are these for? Jim Carrey is going to get back with his ex-wife in Liar Liar? The Borrowers will still be very, very short? Glad that was cleared up for me.

Easter traffic is really bad. This one probably wasn't subliminal.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Capturing the Friedmans

This documentary by Andrew Jarecki tells the story of the very ordinary Friedman family. Comprising a husband and wife, and three sons, the family seems a cliche of normal suburbia. Eldest son David takes lots of home footage, and the early footage of the family is completely unremarkable in the usual way of homemade family videos - small kids playing, beach shots, shaky hand held camera effects.

The family's lives all changed when after a police sting operation, father Arnold Friedman was detected receiving child pornography. The police eventually confront him and search the house. They discover evidence that Arnold led computer classes for local kids. Amongst items confiscated was a list of names of those who attended the classes.

What happened next depends on who you believe. If you believe the police, they conducted routine interviews which found an astounding number of children who described horrific and ongoing abuse at those computer class sessions, perpetrated by both Arnold and the youngest son Jesse. If you believe the Friedmans, the investigation asked leading questions, and mass hysteria was born, despite the lack of any actual physical evidence that abuse of any kind had occurred. Charges were leveled at Arnold and Jesse. And out of habit, or some mad impulse of recording it for posterity, David continues to keep the home video cameras rolling as the family unravels under the pressure.

It's impossible not to play the game of 'what really happened'. But it's equally impossible to conclude anything - the film doesn't go into all the evidence, all the witnesses. We only see the people who agreed to be interviewed - which consequently slant the film. We can't know how much truth there is to either side. Of course, you come out with your own theory, which makes for lengthy (and in my case, still ongoing two weeks later) discussions via email of the film after viewing. The film also works as a case study of the effects of the justice system. How the police apply pressure, and the legal options used (or not used) by the family. Community reactions. Whether 'innocent til proven guilty' ever actually works in practice.

In the end, this film turns out to be really about the destruction of a family. How do you react when your father is accused? or your brother? Are you entirely free of suspicion? How does that suspicion manifest? The documentary juxtaposes present day interviews with the family or with other involved people, and David's home footage, which gives you an incredible insight on how these people reacted under the pressure, and how they're still trying to justify certain reactions or decisions to this day. And yet, the contradiction - for all that intimacy, you still just can't be sure, either way.

And strangest of all is watching the grainy home footage, of a family doing ordinary things, arguing about passing dishes, going to the beach, or celebrating a holiday or a birthday. Just like your family. Just like mine.

Interesting links:
The official site of the film.
The latest news on Jesse Freidman.
A Slate article, written on the release of the DVD. Apparently material from the DVD suggests even more strongly that the Friedmans were innocent - Slate asks why the film didn't use the damning evidence in the movie. Good question, although I'd answer as above that the real point of the film is looking at the fate of the family.

This film has really got me thinking / investigating. There's a lot of other 'mass hysteria' child abuse cases, some with online campaigns of people claiming the innocence of the accused - the Fells Acre scandal is an interesting (and pretty upsetting) example. You can read more generally about it on this PBS site, which has a lot of interviews with experts about the practice of interviewing children in these types of cases.

Can anyone think of cases Australia has had like this?

(This film is Andrew Jarecki's first feature. Look forward to more stuff from this guy in the future.)

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Films I was forced to watch on a bus #1
an occasional series sponsored by McCaffertys / Greyhound

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
A review in ten alternate title suggestions.

1. How to lose the will to live in 1 hour, 55 minutes.
2 How to create yet another goddamn film about making a bet that you will / will not fall in love with some random person.
3. How to create a 'romantic' 'comedy' where both the leads are actually quite annoying and unlikeable.
4. How you actually start wishing the video would morph into the video from Ring that will kill you in seven days, because at least that video was interesting, and on balance the trade-off of not watching Lose a Guy and dying horribly in a week, is worthy of consideration.
5. How I've never liked those films where you spend your time wincing, and the comedy is simply 'oh no! she couldn't possibly! Oh wait! there she goes! she's done it!' kind of humour, which isn't actually funny. (Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler: take note.)
6. How to confront the universal truth that any film done badly is depressing, but when a romantic comedy chick flick tanks, it's somehow the worst experience of all.
7. How I would prefer dental surgery, drinking Tooheys New, a Saturday at work, or cleaning out my oven to watching this film again.
8. How this film manages to walk the tightrope of being bad, but not quite bad enough to top previous McCaffertys viewing gems such as Nutty Professor II: Meet the Klumps, My Favourite Martian, Two Weeks Notice (three times) and, the all time winner - Bicentennial Man.
9. How Kate Hudson can insist as many times as she wants that she's talented, but we all know that she's only got a career because she's Goldie Hawn's daughter.
10. How to make Lyn start to think - 'you know, leaping from a moving bus . . . surely there's at least a chance it won't be fatal.'

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Embracing the mystery
The Barbarian Invasions, Big Fish and Goodbye Lenin!

[warning: spoilers for all three films. Read on with caution.]

There's a lot of films about children and dying parents around at the moment, and I'm going to discuss three: The Barbarian Invasions (Canada), Big Fish (US), and Goodbye Lenin! (Germany) - henceforth known as Invasions, Fish, and Lenin respectively. These films are all very different - but they have a lot of overlapping territory with each other despite the fact that they're from different parts of the globe.

Take Invasions and Fish. Both films focus on a son, estranged from his father, who returns with his young fiancee / wife to his father's deathbed, mostly to please the requests of his mother. The father's outlook and philosophy is more outlandish and generous, whilst the son has led a far more conservative life, with a high level education, a highly paid job (with a sort of economics / Wall Street flavour) and the recognition of his peers, if not his parents.

This premise sets up an examination of how children's lives are shaped by reactions against their parents. One character from Invasions describes lying on the driveway to prevent her father (divorced from her mother) from driving away after scheduled Sunday visits. She says that when she marries, it will be for life: 'I won't let that happen to my children'. The sons' lives are so different from their fathers for that same reason - a reaction against the uncertainties and vagaries of their parents lives, making their own life focus on order, logic, and a very distinct moral perspective.

How can such parents and such children find common ground? That's a big question in both Fish and Invasions. Old hurts and resentments explode. Simple disagreements escalate into 'I'll never speak to you again' - a terrible thing, said to a father you know is dying. But when the pettiness is put aside, it's easy for them to rediscover how alike they really are. You suspect the sons have never stopped loving their fathers, whatever they say to the contrary, but it manifests here as love with an edge of desperation because they know they haven't much time left.

There's also shared ground between Invasions and Lenin. Both films involve a son moving heaven and earth to create a 'haven' for their precariously ill parent. In Invasions, money is no object - the son constructs his father his own ward in the hospital, arranges for his friends to fly in, and creates a whole little world in the hospital, like a pocket of nostalgia. In Lenin, the son reinvents the family home to be exactly as it was before the Berlin Wall fell, so that his mother won't feel upset or excited, and suffer a relapse into a coma.

How and why the sons expend this effort has several possible explanations. Early in Invasions, you feel that much of the money that gets thrown around for test results and hospitals is more the son making a point - sending the message: 'I can spend money because I'm successful, this is my duty as a son, and I have never failed in my duties . . . unlike you did as a father.' But just what the son is prepared to do escalates throughout the film - his choices for his father become of greater risk to himself, or show a greater understanding of what it is his father actually needs. In Lenin, the conspiracy the son mounts doesn't require much money, just impressive attention to detail, time and effort.

The message that really resonates in both films is how much children will do for parents when the pressure is on. A kind of desperate, limitless love where no avenue will be unexplored, even when the situation is hopeless. The extravagant, time-wasting ploys are also a way the sons can feel like they're doing something, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The diagnosis is grim, but although they can't do anything about the disease, they will accomplish absolutely everything else which is in their power, in an effort to feel a small amount of control.

Finally, Lenin and Fish have their own similarities - both films involve the perpetuating of 'fictions' over truth. The stories parents can tell you about your childhood or their own lives are important to us in understanding how we fit into the world. When a parent dies that source of knowledge of who you are is diminished. In Fish, the father will only talk about his life by telling fantastical stories, some of which may have some approximation of 'what really happened' buried within. For the son in Fish, it's a very real fear that his father will die before he can know who his father really is - and by extension, the unspoken: 'before I can know who I really am'. But when he insists on the truth, his father continues to tell him the fantasy.

But aren't these lies? asks the son. No, says the film - if the fictions tell you more about your father than the truth, then aren't the fictions actually more true?

Pondering this, turn to Lenin - where much of the film concerns the son's efforts to create an unchanged world for his mother, where the Berlin wall is still up and communism the driving political force of East Germany. But even as he attempts to maintain this facade for her, he discovers that during his life, his mother has been engineering fictions of her own, as assumptions he has about his family begin to unravel. Against the backdrop of these political and personal fictions, the film is also a gentle fable about how media can be manipulated to obscure political realities, and sell pretty much whatever you want.

Lenin probably leans towards preferring the truth, whilst Fish celebrates the 'emotional truth' of fiction. But both films recognise that all the stories, and the acts perpetuating the stories, are motivated by love.

I found all three films upsetting, but uplifting. There are no eleventh hour cures in these films, as in life - but my overwhelming thought at the various ends was 'what a great way to go'. Deaths happen with a sense of resolution, of community - of reaffirming the important people in your life, and having them present at the end. Loose ends are either tied up, or impishly knotted. There are gatherings of friends, an embrace of the widest definitions of 'family', reunions, reminiscing and nostalgia.

Mostly, it's about accepting all the ends and beginnings that a death brings a family. The children must learn to let go, and acknowledge the bits of your parent that are in you, that will live on. And for the parent? it's about 'embracing the mystery' - a line from Invasions which could easily have been said in any of the three films. Finding your own kind of grace.

Monday, April 05, 2004


I'm writing about something else entirely, but in the meantime, I seem to have had an insightful discussion about Hellboy with Doug, over at his site.

(Which is probably in part payback for this other time that I posted on his site pretending to be him having a conversation with me and . .. anyway. At least he didn't make me wear lots of black latex as a punk goth nightclub singer in this conversation, which just shows you he's a better person than me.)

As it turns out, I have indeed been excited about Hellboy since forever. Well, maybe not 'forever' so much as 'about five months ago', when I read about it on Greg's Previews. Greg broke the news that despite studio pressure, the director stuck to his guns in hiring Ron Perlman over way more bankable stars such as Vin Diesel.

If everyone lived in this world, Guy Pearce would have played Daredevil instead of Ben Affleck.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Clancy of the Overflow: The Movie

Coming soon to a cinema near you. (Man, director Simon Wincer has sure made some awful films, but he has worked a lot with horses, so I guess that counts for something.)

The poem is about a certain kind of nostalgia about the 'bushman' and 'horsemen' of the glorious past, when men were real men, etcetera. It's interesting that they think there's something here that will catch people's imagination. My three guesses:

1. They think the time is ripe for a more nostalgic, positive spin on the bush, since the post-apocalypse style Ned Kelly wasn't exactly a massive hit. It will also sell well overseas, because it's the kind of cliched Australia that people want to see. (It's like McLeod's Daughters, but with blokes!)

2. They'll make Banjo Patterson a character, so it's like a 'bumbling city journalist striving to be a writer strikes up unlikely friendship with gifted horseman' kind of buddy film.

3. The whole film will be a treatise on the old v new, city v country, encroaching modernism, creaky plots about 'change' and resistance to said change, etc. I feel tired just thinking about it. You've never really lived unless you've slept under the stars! What do you mean, you don't know how to ride a horse? This new-fangled vehicle thing will never really take off! (and so on.) Sigh.

The Man from Snowy River was, I hate to admit it, my childhood obsession aged from about eight to about twelve. I haven't watched it in years. I'm too scared to confront the fact that it's probably really crap - although I think the scenery and the music might still redeem it a little.

But what makes the Man, and the Clancy adaptations interesting, is that they are being adapted from such slight subject matter, leaving lots of room for embellishments. You could make this almost any film you wanted, if you were adventurous enough.

My Clancy of the Overflow film? I'd love to see something not realist, but kind of hyper-real. The poem has become a legend of mythic proportions - so make a film about myths. I don't really want to invoke O Brother, Where Art Thou? because I talk too much about the Coen Brothers as it is - but I think that's the tone of what I'm getting at. Perhaps someone from their 'dingy little office' decides they've had enough of their life, and goes traveling to try and find the great Clancy, who works out to be kind of like Godot. (he was just here! you missed him. Maybe if you hang around for a while . . .)

The whole point of the poem is that it's someone who idolises Clancy - it's not about being Clancy, it's about wanting to become Clancy. So make the film from that external point of view, like an early depiction of fan mail. Someone journeying to find The Coolest Guy, like Ever! - but the reasons they find Clancy compelling say far more about the dissatisfactions of their own life than they do about Clancy, if 'Clancy' even exists.

And how cool would it be if it became a journey along which a whole host of characters from Paterson, Lawson, or other writers of the era, surfaced along the way? - like the shotgun wedding story, or the loaded dog. Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk, who caught the cycling craze! The bizarre postal system. The 'weeping Wongadilly where the weeping willows weep.' The Man from Snowy River could grab himself a cameo. That story about the priest. And then finally, when we meet Clancy, it's one of those moments where the climax of the film is just not what you expected at all. I would love it if Clancy leaned back at the campfire, poked a stick at the embers, and said thoughtfully; 'you know, I've never really liked horses. At all. And I don't think horses like me. And don't get me started on these bloody cows.'

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