Thursday, 31 December 2009

THE MISSION


Roland Joffé, 1986, UK

Ultimately the missionaries of the European Catholic Church have come to eradicate the Guarani Indians of South America just as much as the slave traders and ruthless Portuguese; but rather than with enslavement and massacres, the Jesuits use the passive-aggressive means of faith and conversion to erode the Guarani way of life. There is cognitive dissonance between the apparent ‘faith’ of the film and what we see: it can create martyrs of the missionaries and claim that the spirits of the dead Indians live on, but this is no consolation for a massacre; it is more like denial of religion’s involvement in genocide - both physical and cultural, as much as mercenary slave traders - and the believing in some vague notion of an afterlife to wave away the horror. The film patronises the Guarani, concerned only with their plight through "The White Man’s Burden", through the angst and sacrifices of its white protagonists. Thus, as movies have always approached the most elusive of societies.
"The Mission" does comes close to something credibly ‘divine’ by casting the jungle as Eden and in De Niro’s salvation by penance and reinvention; but these traits are more to do with the natural generosity of the scenery and narrative’s forgiving Indians. There is little evidence of the friction and likely complex reactions that accompanies religious conversion and scripture. The Guarani simply give themselves over to the Jesuits - that this is ultimately to their only way of survival is muddily conveyed (so as not to mitigate the Jesuit good works), and how they feel about this is never addressed. The Jesuits come and provide legal protection against the slave traders: the true enemy here is greed and political corruption, a merciless growth of global consumerism and expanding plunder; the mission in contrast creates and idyllic socialist Guarani factory of production where profits and workload are evenly distributed and put back into the mission. Again, though this appears to be good works indeed, one can assume that the Guarani had an active social and bartering system of their own, long before the Jesuits arrived. This lack of any real understanding of the natives upon which the drama is invested in is a truly grievous absence.

The story runs smoothly, but any depth dissipates into pretty visual aesthetic; the drama squanders death as sentimental martyrdom. Where we should feel outrage and horror, we are pushed more to the moral superiority and redemption of our protagonists. Indeed, it is martyrdom that validates faith. De Niro as Rodrigo Menoza, begins as a slave-trader and murderer, and when he murders his own brother in a fit of jealousy over a woman, he becomes a missionary, a transformation that carries some weight as a tale of redemption. There is also the sneaking suspicion that De Niro may well be miscast, which is offset by a number of small moments where he coveys so much with his eyes.
In fact, it is in small moments that the film resonates. Jeremy Irons/Father Gabriel wooing the Indians with music, for example (it’s a nice moment, although the allusions to the story of "The Pied Piper" also helps to infantilise the natives). De Niro being manhandled curiously, being forgiven and accepted by the Guanari. Jeremy Irons shouting "Jesus is Love!" as if he is telling De Niro to go fuck himself. The Indian boy who has adopted De Niro wordlessly asking De Niro to fight for him by resurrecting the man’s sword. Irons’ loss of faith in humanity is also interesting enough. But greater insights are not recognised: the moment where the Guarani reminds His Eminence that he too is a King ought to speak volumes, but it does not because the film has barely identified this itself. The natives are children of Eden, generic and lacking character; we learn nothing of their ways or the conflicts when integrating with the Jesuits.

And in this way, the film condescends and ultimately insults. When his Eminence states, in closing voiceover, that it is he that is truly dead and that the Guarani live on, and when the final words on screen are for the missionaries that risk their lives for the Guanari rather than the Guanari themselves, one sees how myriad the ways of colonialist self-importance and pious self-congratulation; not only in the moments of truth in this particular fiction, but also in the post-colonial self-regard of white-man’s filmmaking. John Boorman’s "The Emerald Forest" is scruffier and pulpier film in comparison, but it is more sincerely dedicated to merging white experience into native culture rather than vice versa, and more respectful too. "The Mission" is a pretty film and not without resonance, but its ugliness is in using its true victims as a mere branch from which to decorate it’s white guilt and self-regard.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

THE GREAT SILENCE

Il grande silenzio, Le grand silence
Sergio corbucci, 1967, Italy/France


In "The Great Silence", Klaus Kinski is Tigrero, the fearful embodiment of unbridled capitalism: he sees people, life and death only in cash value, as opportunities for earnings. And a little sadistic pleasure. He goes through the affectations of charm with his psychopathic politeness and manners, but he is also charmless, fooling no one; both fascinating and totally chilling. A bizarre figure with a light voice, dressed like an old woman with a shawl around the head and a fur coat, topped with a preacher’s hat, it is an unforgettable performance. Kinski is measured and restrained (which he is not necessarily renowned for) that conveys effortlessly Tigrero’s soulless, detached nature, watching with amusement the emotions and mechanics of the supposed civility around him as he goes about his business as a bounty hunter. It is just about as far from his compelling mannerisms in "Nosferatu" and breakdown mania of "Woyzeck" as one can imagine. When we first meet Tigrero, he apologises to the mother of the man he has just helped to murder, saying "Try to understand, madam, it’s our bread and butter." And having orchestrated the final massacre, he says indifferently and yet surely with barely concealed relish, "All according to the law." And he is right.

Spaghetti westerns were always chock full of corruption, torture, amorality, random cruelty and absurdity. Many, of course, came to this through the Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood "dollar" films. Spaghetti westerns were the messy punk reaction to the self-congratulatory stateliness and conservatism of the American westerns. They spit "You lie!" to John Wayne and John Ford. But not even the Leone cynicism and strokes of vulgarity could prepare a viewer for the thorough nihilism and bleakness of "The Great Silence". In this vision by writer-director Sergio Corbucci, the corruption of the privileged and the perversion of the law is so thorough that not even the typical lone mysterious super-gun-slinging hero can beat the odds. The conclusion will devastate anyone so comfortable with western convention and heroics. Also, there is no fair play, no code of conduct between gunslingers: quite simply, the bad guys cheat and get their blood money. It troubles, horrifies and deeply upsets.
The snow-caked carraige is one of the wonderful, not-so-typical and slightly otherworldly visions of this offbeat western.


Our hero is "Silence", also a bounty hunter, but one that preys upon murderers, on other bounty hunters, who will never pull a gun first, who is quicker than all and bears a novelty handgun. But when forced into a fist-fight, he’ll improvise too and grab a log to smack his adversary. No, no code of conduct here at all: just cash and survival. A merciless world, although we wrongly suspect some form of primal righteousness will ultimately prevail. "Silence" comes to the mountains of Utah to the town of Snow Hill, where the local justice of the peace and banker Policutt has driven out almost all the townsfolk and put bounties on their heads. If westerns typically promise hot, dry, sun-drenched sweaty scenarios, again Corbucci subverts this by giving us a world covered in snow, whiteness and bitter winds. The vistas are fantastic and the grubby detail exemplary without drawing attention to itself. It’s frequently beautiful, but there appears little real comfort here. It is both scruffy, as most spaghetti westerns are, and often verges on the ethereal. Out of the white, like an angelic avenger, comes "Silence," evidently on his own mission of vengeance against those that cut out his vocal chords as a boy to silence him as a witness to the murder of his parents.

Into this den of bounty hunters and corruption also comes a sheriff, Burnett. It probably undermines our anticipations when he turns out not to be corruptible but well intentioned, yet he is no match for the forces against him either. If you are not corruptible, malleable to money, then you are expendable, it would seem. There are some strong, beautiful women too, carrying around furious grief and demands to avenge their murdered men. How will it all be resolved? In a showdown, of course. But.

The director Alex Cox loves "The Great Silence" and tells - in his book "10,000 Ways to Die"* - of how Corbucci was inspired by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara. The finale of the film taps into the genuine outrage of people having their idols and heroes stolen from them by overwhelming violence and corruption - but it is not only that: everyone innocent in "The Great Silence" suffers, not only our dubious protagonist, so it achieves far more than a narrow tale of martyrdom. As Cox states, "The message of ‘The Big Silence’ … is that sometimes, even though you know you’ll fail, you still do the right thing." And this, then, is how such a film differs so much from your typical western of any strain. We feel Eastwood’s stranger is too canny and resourceful to truly feel he’ll fail; he’ll take chances, sure, but not failure. It’s the same with the Django films, and there is never any chance of failure with Spaghetti Western cartoons such as "Sabata". We never feel like "Silence" is in total command of events. No, but we do feel that Tigrero is.


"The Great Silence" is somewhat a lost treasure. Obviously but not crushingly politicised, alive with genre nuance and subversion, black humour and relentlessly, shockingly bleak. There is also a wonderful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and a rather fine love scene. Due to studio indifference and undoubted horror at the tone and endgame of the film, it sunk into obscurity and it can only be hoped that it will claim its rightful place as a remarkable cult item with a new lease of life on DVD.
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* Alex Cox, "10,000 Ways To Die: a director’s take on the spaghetti western", (Kamera Books, Herts, 2009), pages185-193

Friday, 18 December 2009

SPEED RACER


SPEED RACER: Andy & Lana Wachowski, USA, 2008

Live-action adaptation of Japanese TV anime series "Mahha GoGoGo" (1967).

The anti-corporate corruption message is both a little dense for such a virtual whimsy and is inevitably simplistic and hollow. This is, however, totally in keeping with its Japanese cartoon origins and it is no more or less hollow and simplistic than Romero’s odd anti-YouTube tirade "Diary of the Dead".

Of course, the anti-corporation plot is all to boost the virtues of genuine talent and incorruptibility of the common man and little heroes. The Wachowskis provide the film with no real personable charm, but a full-on cartoonish and family-friendly sensibility pardons all manner of traits that would otherwise be insufferable: a comedy monkey; every scene subject to special effects within every pixel (as it were); broad characterisations where everyone suddenly becomes, if not martial arts experts, then definitely unlikely master brawlers, etc. Again, all this is in keeping with the source material and family-fun adventure. And the dialogue and myth-making, although slight, are better than anything in the Matrix sequels, and the aesthetic is as consummate and otherworldly as anything in "Sin City" or "Watchmen". Why shouldn’t a family/kid’s film look this amazing? No need for darkness all the time, although there is some downbeat substance to the vision of companies squashing individuals with duplicity and thuggery.

The main point: these are the brightest yellows, pinks, reds… the most vibrant colours you are ever likely to see on film. You may feel your retina being ever-so-slightly burnt away by the vitality and florescence of the spectrum radiating from the screen. It may put you off candy for a while. But it is totally immersive and often gorgeous and dazzling during fly-by vistas. Occasionally, there are moments of inspiration - for example, the opening visit to Speed’s childhood where his question paper runs into blahblahblah and he amuses himself by daydreaming himself into a race, one rendered in hand-drawn animation. Elsewhere, there is plenty of cross-cutting in chronology to keep the pacing spikey, sometimes so speedy that you almost lose your footing on the narrative and (again, typical of anime) verging on the incomprehensible. Also, the Wachowskis do know how to shoot an action scene, and the races are often and thrilling enough to stop things from dragging. Speed’s brilliance is never in doubt, so there is little suspense, but the whole enterprise is set upon those tried and tested memes that have carried from the Japanese to the American dream: fulfilling your own brilliance and overcoming all odds and villainy. Both successfully.

Pretty much mauled by critics upon release, time will surely salvage "Speed Racer" as a guilty visual pleasure and an above-average family film. The converse of, say, "The Dark Knight", but that’s not automatically a bad thing. You might have to wear shades to watch it, but if you are in the mood for light entertainment and visual wonder, it is worth indulging.

ONCE IN A BLUE MOON

Written and Directed by Philip Spink, 1995, Canada
Peter Piper is a poor kid, oblivious to having one of the worst hairstyles since the kid in "Elvis! Elvis!" He also doesn’t care about wearing his sister’s cast-offs. And after all, it’s the Sixties and the moon landing is just ahead. But when his family adopt a Native American boy, Sam, the two kids plan a trip to the moon of their own. Subjected to bad fashion, terrible dental retainers and bullying, Peter lives in the shadow of an older brother who died in service, his mother’s Socialism and liberal outlook - which seem to spring as much from desperation and necessity as philosophy - and his father’s silent grief and his various sisters.

A highly endearing, modest little Canadian children’s film that might perhaps baffle younger kids with its social context - which will win over many adults for its knowing observations and hints - but provides much to enjoy for those kids that get it, if only for its smooth jumps into empathy and magic realism. If the sudden leap into fantasy undermined much of Martha Coolidge’s "Three Wishes" domestic build-up, "Once in a Blue Moon" moves with seamless movements from childhood poverty to imaginative interpretation: a power station becomes a base for martians to complete building earth and neatly embodies the detached presence of Peter’s father (the martians and dad wear the same outfits!); an monstrous hand casually supplies tools for Peter to build with; a trip to the dentist becomes a hilarious daydream in which doctors and the military praise robot-boy Peter’s superiority. Peter’s wild imagination is not one that turns in upon itself with destructive consequences, as with Seth Dove in "The Reflecting Skin"; it does not propose mental disturbance as in "Afraid of the Dark". Rather, it is something pure and far more aligned with the American Dream; the moon missions of both the USA and Peter and Sam are paralleled to obvious meaning, most of all the search for wonder and transcendence. But that it incorporates ethnic minorities ~ the adopted kids and the neighbours, most obviously ~ without ever raising the issue of racism offers a generous, optimistic vision of The American Dream. Sam the Indian kid even tells Peter that his father is Elvis at one point. It is concerned with unfairness, but not ugliness.

The film possesses a strong feminine streak, in that it is Peter and Sam that bear the greatest imaginations and the most feminine hairstyles. Peter eventually succumbs to depression when his hairstyle brings him one too many accusations of being a girl ~ and his masculinity eventually becomes Sam’s greatest challenge. Yet men are largely absent under the wealth of strong female figures of all ages, most prominently Peter’s mother and wonderful deaf but resourceful sister. Although benign, Peter’s father is a silent, slightly ominous figure, wrapped in his own grief for a lost son and hiding behind work and a wielder’s mask. Although the feminine is a strong presence, it is up to Peter to fill the blank space that is masculinity.

Cody Serpa as Peter Piper carries the whole story of one boy’s search for identity with a winning, smart performance. Underneath Peter's long-term, pretty clever and amusing plan of humiliation for those that bully him, there’s a wealth of themes. The film has plenty to say about gender, poverty, disability, the growth of feminism, grief and patriotism, as well as the portrait of the artist as a young boy. The turning point is the trip to the cinema, in which displaced Sam talks about his past, and then Sam is humiliated before the whole audience of peers, mistaken for a girl, watched by a giant Hitchcockian eye on the screen. There are also nods to "The Wizard of Oz" and "2001 a space odyssey" which will surely pass over the heads of a young audience. With a brand new conventional hairstyle, signalling a maturity or choice of individuality, the lapses into magic-realism slow down. It is up to Sam to carry on the torch of unashamed childish imagination whilst Peter battles to assert himself. Loaded with little surprises and excellent performances all round, "Once in a Blue Moon" is an intelligent and rewarding entry into the genre, pushing at its boundaries yet still maintaining an engaging modesty. As it has to, it all ends bittersweetly, with the magic realism of life and cinema re-established for the adult world.