Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pistol Opera

In the world of Pistol Opera, there seem to be only two types of people: assassins, and their victims. And among the assassins, the greatest and most feared is Hundred Eyes, who sees everything. The calling card of this killer is a single shot through the back of the skull, piercing the brain in just the right spot to produce a smile on the corpse’s face. A fitting poetic touch for Seijun Suzuki’s immaculately shot and incoherently told film, which turns all violence into a kind of performance art. With death reduced to harmless prettiness, who wouldn't greet it with a grin?

The plot could have been stolen from some forgotten B-movie (in a sense it was, being loosely derived from Suzuki’s own 1967 Branded to Kill); the style would make the avant-garde blush. Good luck making sense out of any of this. We’ve got a female assassin named Stray Cat, ranked No. 3 by an unseen guild. She finds herself the target of No. 1 (Hundred Eyes), who is mowing through the rest of the top-ten assassins, wiping out the competition. For the sake of her own survival, Stray Cat must somehow lure Hundred Eyes out of hiding and defeat the great killer.

People die. Sometimes they reappear. Narrative cul-de-sacs are everywhere. The film periodically stops—not that it ever really builds up much momentum to begin with—for characters to tell us about their dreams. The final shoot-out occurs on a sound stage made up in pseudo-Grecian style, filled with savage slave-mutes wielding battle-axes. Do not ask why. Why does someone drop their pants and start pissing in the street? Why does someone wander the grocery store muttering, over and over, “I’m Blanche Dubois”? Sometimes there is no reason. They’re just fucking crazy.

Yet we should be careful to distinguish—this may be madness, but there is nothing manic about it. This assassination tango is violence devoid of viscera. Viewers expecting the usual kinetic kick of cinematic violence will likely be baffled by Suzuki’s languid style. When someone is shot in the back, they do not jolt or spasm. They merely pause, as if to contemplate the bullet breaking the skin, and then gracefully collapse. When a woman is shot while diving into a pool, the water turns deep red—except directly around her, where it remains a serene, untouched shade of blue. One of the assassins, No. 5 according to the latest quarterly report, is aptly named Painless Surgeon and never loses a drop of blood, even when repeatedly stabbed. For a film filled with so much death, there’s a surprising absence of red outside of the production design (where it abounds in poppy fields and flags).

You can appreciate the aesthetics of Suzuki’s violence, the purity of each gesture and pose. It’s a rare scene that isn’t at least worth a holy-shit-lookit-that double take. But the futility of this violence is also evident in every mannered moment. The position of No. 1 is a dubious prize—all it means is that everyone else is going to be taking shots at you (no wonder No. 1 decides to take out everyone else first). Between the images of mushroom clouds and talk of bloody flags, you can sense an underlying repulsion towards the pageantry of violence, although perhaps not a lucid argument. I’m not saying the film makes sense, but there’s at least a coherent nihilism in its final howling outburst of “Idiot!”

By that point, frustrated viewers may echo the sentiment, but the film is curiously affecting in its maddening way. I’m drawn to the old woman’s strange baroque-poetic description of her dream about a giant goldfish dying on a beach, its scales catching the light of the setting sun and turning decay into a beautiful sight. And then night falls, and the beauty disappears in the dark, and yet, the old woman says, still there is something comforting about living so close to death. Befitting a film made by a 78-year-old, Pistol Opera possesses a benign fascination with death, exploring its beauty and discovering comfort in the banality of its repetition. Suzuki does not tremble before it, possessing a calm mind and steady hand—a painless surgeon draining the blood from the greatest terror.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Millennium Actress

Dense yet graceful, Satoshi Kon’s 2001 anime masterpiece Millennium Actress bursts with sublime possibility. It is both a meditation on aging in film and the timelessness of the medium. It contemplates the power of fantasy to overwrite life even as it suggests all our stories are but our own lives in disguise. The richness of this film comes from its imaginative juxtapositions, which take us from a snowy field to the surface of the moon in a single step (that’s one small step, indeed). With a single tumble, we can fall from a samurai fight into a prison in Kyoto.

Kon blends together reality and fantasy in the story of Chiyoko, a beloved actress-turned-recluse recounting her life to Genya, a documentary interviewer and doting fan. As a young girl in the years leading up to the Second World War, she encounters an artist running from the police. The man gives her a key to hold for him, promising to meet her again the next day. But the promise goes unfulfilled, and she spends the rest of her life clutching that key and searching for the man across a millennia’s worth of film fantasies stretching from medieval Japan to the depths of space.

Yet the core of these stories remains Chiyoko’s search for that one man, uniting the disparate places and times into a single thread. This is a purely cinematic fable, one that makes full use of film’s ability to collapse thousands of miles and years into the blink of a single cut. The boundaries between reality and imagination are buried beneath the layers of stories upon stories. Kon’s game involves making Chiyoko’s memories and films interchangeable. When she pleads, “I’m sure he’s around here,” you don’t quite know if she’s speaking as a character or herself.

Kon exalts film’s capacity for truthful illusion. You can’t tell Chiyoko’s real life from her films because the distinction is irrelevant. True, she spends her life chasing a phantom, but who’s to say this robs her life of meaning? If anything, this is precisely her life’s meaning. Are we any different, those of us who have invested so much of our hearts in following the lives of these ghostly lights upon the screen?

Monday, November 15, 2010


One night, after leaving a bar, Mark Hogancamp would be savagely beaten by five strangers. He was comatose for over a week and awoke permanently damaged, forced to learn how to live again like a child just born. Indeed, he was a child, in certain regards. He had to learn how to write again, how to interact with other people. But most significantly, he had to learn who he was again—his memory of life before the accident had vanished, reduced to a few incomprehensible snapshots of lost moments. It was as if, Mark explains, “they kicked the memories out of my head.”

Marwencol, a fascinating and moving documentary from director Jeff Malmberg, explores Mark’s unique form of self-therapy. Struggling to find an outlet for his grief and anger, Mark constructs Marwencol, a Belgian town during the Second World War populated by Barbie dolls and miniature models representing his friends and family. Mark’s doll stand-in—an American soldier—discovers the town deserted, save for 27 women who avoided the Nazi purges. Unsurprisingly, he chooses to stay as de facto leader of the Barbie tribe, setting up a bar for passing soldiers looking to relax with a beer or two while watching one of the nightly catfights held for entertainment (don’t worry, Mark explains, all catfights are staged).

Much like a child at play with his toys, Mark invests the figures of Marwencol with a great seriousness (you can see for yourself on the film's website, which features a large selection of Mark's work). When he speaks of them, he speaks as if they were real. What happens to them really happens, at least in Mark’s telling. He takes photographs of these miniaturized backyard sagas—entire boxes filled with snapshots chronicling the history of Marwencol—until a neighbouring photographer discovers the man’s unique talent and brings it to the attention of the New York art world, where an eager cult following awaits. Little wonder—the photographs are beautiful. There’s no glibness in Mark’s scenes. The dolls move in the photographs much like real people, with expressive gestures and tragic weight. They live and they die, often violently.

Malmberg has given the film something of a redemptive arc—we follow Mark’s anxiety over his ultimately successful first gallery showing in New York—but the town casts a melancholy shadow. Mark not only invests Marwencol with his trauma, but also his loneliness. He craves companionship so nakedly it can almost be embarrassing (at one point, noting the marital status of a coworker, he sighs loudly, visibly disappointed). The dolls mediate Mark’s romantic frustrations, allowing him to build relationships where he cannot in real life.

In a certain sense, Mark is simply building up a world to take the place of the memories he lost, but the past finds its way into Marwencol, often in surprising fashion. In order to gain intimate access to the rich world contained within the Mark’s imagination, the film clings to his perspective, with the side effect being that we know as little of his past as he does. What does come out is that he was once married (where she went, we never learn), an amateur artist, and a drunk.

Remarkably, Mark has not touched a drop of alcohol since the attack. It’s as if he were a new person built out of the fragments of the old, with pieces missing. “I can’t remember what it tastes like,” he says impassively as he looks at a wall of liquor bottles at the pub where he works part-time in real life. And yet in his fantasy world, a determined gang of Nazis looking for Mark’s bar disturbs the peace of Marwencol. “Gimme a drink!” Mark rages for the camera, telling us how the Nazis cry out—how he once cried out, in his past life—while searching for booze.

So they capture his stand-in, and they torture him. One Nazi leaves a scar on the right side of his face—where he was most damaged after the assault, Mark notes—but he won’t tell. Another character is killed in a church, refusing to squeal. The town becomes a space for Mark’s anxiety over his drunken past to surface, and the storyline reveals a deep fear over this forgotten part of his self. If he were to recover his memory, would he recover his alcoholism as well? In glimpses of Mark’s old art, there is a self-portrait: Mark tied to a wooden post, shirtless, while a woman scars him with a knife. It is disturbingly echoed in the photograph of Mark’s stand-in, strapped to a post in the church, under the knife once again. There is continuity between the two halves of this man, buried however deeply.

Doll Mark is rescued this time, you’ll be thankful to hear (by the beguiling Belgian witch of Marwencol, who owns a time machine built out of the VCR that ate Mark’s favourite porno tape). But there’s something very poignant at work here beyond the fanciful escapes and surprise plot twists—a tragedy acted out with children’s toys, Shakespeare performed by Barbie dolls. At first, the town allowed Mark to imagine himself whole and healthy and loved. In the film’s crushing final moments, we see that this dream of a perfect self is no longer possible, as Mark’s stand-in inches closer to his real scars, both physical and emotional. This fantasy world accumulates sorrows of its own, until it is at last no longer an escape from reality, but rather a mirror of it.