Sunday, October 27, 2019

Black Korea

Wasn’t Bong Joon-ho described as the Korean Spielberg at one time? That sounds about right. But maybe with a little bit more of an edge (and more violence and sex). I’ve never liked Spielberg. For me his name has the connotation of technical proficiency, white suburban families, and an imagination reduced to narratives that play it safe. Recently someone asked me what my favorite Spielberg movie was and I said 1941¹.

     Bong is a similar case because even his best film, The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho), doesn’t really do it for me. Yes, it’s visually inventive and wonderfully immersive in its own world. And yes, its characters have realistic qualities that make me care about their family, especially Song Kang-ho. But so what. Beyond pointing to strengths or weaknesses, the only reason I watch movies and write about them is because I’m in search of the best films—my favorites. And I doubt Bong or Spielberg will ever make a film that I fall in love with.
     Bong has been an interesting case to study. He belongs on my list of best directors of the twenty-first century, even if it’s at the bottom. And speaking of Korean directors, that list should also include Kim Ki-duk. I haven’t bothered googling the subject, but my preliminary efforts seem to result in:

·         Joseph Kahn
·         Charlie Kaufman
·         Michel Gondry
·         Apichatpong Weerasethakul
·         Steve McQueen
·         Carlos Reygadas
·         Kim Ki-duk
·         Bong Joon-ho
·         Jonas Åkerlund

     I’ve gotta be missing someone.

     Parasite (2019, Bong) is one of those movies that seem to have it all. It’s original. It has a message, which seems similar to what Us (2019, Jordan Peele) is trying to tell us, but executed in a more subtle and resonant way. And we get a family with a patriarch played by Song Kang-ho that drives the narrative, and compellingly provide a nuanced portrait that is both sublime and devastatingly earnest. Also it won the Palme d’Or this year.
     As much of an aversion as I have to films with a message, Parasite gets it right. Also I can’t recall the last time I found myself surrendering to a film dealing so prominently with cellphones, social media, and other technological features of the modern age I usually go to the movies to get away from. But what really hooked me into Parasite is its moral ambiguity, and depiction of lying as casual common practice and the rehearsed performances that arise out of a result of this.

     As a confessed auteur snob I was excited to see Bong return to making a Korean film, but also elated to discover how well Parasite fits in his body of work. Specifically, Parasite embodies Bong’s talent for defying audience expectations. And this isn’t just about plot points. It’s also the tone, which is probably what really sets his vision apart. Bong always parcels out bits of morality and circumstance that keep you reevaluating how you relate to his characters, what you would do in their place, and finally, where these new revelations mean the plot’s heading.
     Then in a more general way, there’s his rain trademark. At the very least I know rainstorms play a huge part in set pieces in Memories of Murder (2003, Bong) and The Host. But Parasite out does any of his previous efforts in this regard. I’ll just say the rainstorm in Parasite occurs right when Bong’s got you trapped in his web and then he hits you with an onslaught of provocative, genre storytelling that shapes the film into its final form. Aside from that there’s also a funny bit that involves a cellphone with a slo-mo camera, a homeless man urinating, a water bottle, and a bucket full of water. Yes, Parasite is probably one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
     Bong is also an expert at foreshadowing as a narrative tool. Maybe foreshadowing isn’t the right word for what I’m trying to say here, but it’s more like when he plants a seed and then gets the most out of it he can while the story unfolds. In Parasite for example, consider the rich mother buying her son an Indian arrow. The first time KI-WOO (Choi Woo-sik) enters the Namgoong-designed house, we see the rubber suction cup-tipped arrow stuck high up in the wall as the housekeeper removes it. What at first seems insignificant is developed into gargantuan: the teepee, the headdresses, the motif of playing make-believe but I don’t want to spell it out here so as to avoid spoilers.

     In closing, Parasite is powerful, defies genre categorization, exceeds at clever, intricately plotted storytelling that produces a range of effects in the results of its unraveling; and finds director Bong at the height of his talents. And like The Host the title’s meaning is elusive even after you’ve seen the movie, but in a good way. As a devout fan of the importance of family in filmmaking, Parasite proves a miracle in the truths it embellishes and the ways it leaves you to understand your own definition of the word.

¹From a historic point of view I think 1941 (1979, Spielberg) is fun because it stands along with Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Coppola) and Heaven’s Gate (1980, Michael Cimino) as these giant movies greenlit because of the status of their auteur directors and remain monuments of excessive budgets, length, and scope, yet still somehow work and don’t deserve the stigma that’s followed them. But also I think 1941 might be Spielberg’s only comedy? And I really do think it’s funny.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Light Sleeper

The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers) seemed auspicious with hints of Dreyer, but wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. After Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan) I realized how great Anya Taylor-Joy can be. But I’ve also grown in my appreciation of period English dialogue lately, like finally getting around to reading Shakespeare’s historical dramas for example. So I decided to give The Witch another try. Anya Taylor-Joy was every bit as captivating as I’d hoped. The seventeenth century New England dialect was a real treat. And I found the atmosphere and pace entrancing and suspenseful. But still, the whole thing felt kind of flat.

     So with this cinema addiction I have, the thing is I’m always holding out for that high that lives up to the exhilarating satisfaction I’d found that first time. Every few years I find it again. My point is that I find movies that seem to have a lot going for them, and it’s hard to come to the decision that if I either love or hate a movie, and I don’t love it… well. Like Midsommar! It has such a cool look and setting. And Florence Pugh is amazing in it. But…


     The Lighthouse (2019, Eggers) is like if Herman Melville made Clerks. And I mean that in the worst possible way. Don’t get me wrong, I love the books Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, up there with the best stuff I’ve ever read. And I’ve been reading a lot of mid nineteenth century English, which is one of the features that drew me to The Lighthouse. And particularly the Dafoe character’s period Maine dialect and the way he delivers it is the best thing going for this film.
     In many ways The Lighthouse is also the perfect alternative for those sick of the Marvel flood. It’s in black and white, shot and framed in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio, with a cast of two. I’ve always been a huge fan of Willem Dafoe, and everything about his performance in The Lighthouse fits this role perfectly. So if the movie didn’t really do it for me, I’m sure glad I got to see Dafoe in this.

     The Lighthouse has great atmosphere, just like The Witch. But this time its sound design is expressionistic industrial like say Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch); except a little more aggressive and less subtle.  Although in general comparing The Lighthouse to Eraserhead or Guy Maddin would be lazy. There just aren’t too many black and white surreal movies that carve their niches so far off the beaten path.

     I’m not saying this is one of my favorite movies by any means, but I am so happy a movie like this got made. It was fun, odd, cohesive, and exactly the type of work that utilizes entertainment as art.

Sunday, October 20, 2019


What do I remember about seeing Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer) 10 years ago in a theater? Not much, except that foremost it seemed unique at the time for being a gory horror comedy with big name actors released by a major studio. That and the surprise Bill Murray cameo.

     It’s not surprising that a big studio made Zombieland. It’s fun, clever, and has heart. But is it cinema?

     As a big fan of the screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and particularly those of Lubitsch, Cukor and Hawks, I also find myself asking if Zombieland 2: Double Tap (2019, Fleischer) is a screwball comedy disguised as a zom-com? To begin with, Emma Stone could be the Katherine Hepburn of her generation—Hepburn being likely the most talented actress of the screwball genre. Like Hepburn, Stone isn’t conventionally sexy, but on-screen something magnetic about her proves she can be. It’s part of that something that makes her a star. Yet I doubt she has the capacity for Hepburn’s skills when it comes to broad and physical types of performance. Or maybe that just comes down to popular styles having evolved.
     The chemistry between COLUMBUS (Jesse Eisenberg) and WICHITA (Stone) forms the arc of Zombieland 2’s narrative. And that chemistry is strengthened by the addition of Zoey Deutch as MADISON. At first I wondered why Madison’s stereotypical Paris Hilton blonde ditz with pink Juicy Couture tracksuit feels like it’s from 10 years ago, before realizing in the Zland universe the apocalypse occurred 10 years ago. And a shallow stereotype is a staple of the screwball genre, so I’m not detracting from the addition of her character. She might be the best thing going for Zombieland 2.

     There’s also the quick pace, wit, and irony of the dialogue. Zombieland was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who also wrote Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller) and both of their respective sequels. The style to be found in these movies is crafted around a meta, first-person v.o. filled with sarcasm and pop-culture references. Is Deadpool our modern equivalent of the type of comedy that would have been written by the Algonquin group of the 1920s? If that seems like a stretch, consider the lack of esteem those movies had with their contemporaries—the Manhattan highbrow literary set.

     So after the broad comedy, fast pace and witty dialogue, there’s the theme of family, which gives form to the narrative, but is also where things end up feeling like generic Hollywood sentimental crap. Seriously, the zombies aren’t really that big a part of this movie y’know? They get killed so quickly, and like they’re just there and the movie’s never about what to do about them other than survive. So back to where I started, if you’re looking for a smart, fun, screwball comedy, you’ll find the entertainment you’re after. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Unholy Three

Growing up I didn’t watch any horror movies. When I was in high school, one night I was hanging out with this rich kid I worked with at a grocery store and my little brother and we went to the movies. The rich kid wanted to see Scream (1996, Wes Craven), and I remember thinking it would be lame. But the Drew Barrymore cold open prologue blew me away—and still holds up better than the rest of the movie. In its day, I was hyped about Scream.
     For many years after that the only other horror movies I saw were the wave of “attractive high school teen ensemble” knock-offs that followed: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Disturbing Behavior (1998), and Urban Legend (1998). Can I help it if at that age raging hormones clouded my aptitude for being capable of discerning quality filmmaking?

     At last I had gone from buying tickets to see a horror movie because of a hot actress to having a date and seeing a horror movie because of the time honored tradition of scary movie as date night. And it was out at the movies one of these nights when I saw The Ring (2002, Gore Verbinski), which remains my favorite horror movie.
     Eventually I saw all the horror movies I could. There’s maybe no other genre as rich and with as many categories and sub-genres—from silent German expressionism to possessed pets. Yet the only horror movies I’ve found exceptionally well made and returned to repeatedly are the masterpieces The RingAudition (1999, Takashi Miike) and Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis). Okay and The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick). And early Cronenberg!

     When House of 1000 Corpses (2003, Rob Zombie) was released I was a huge fan.  And something about that movie made you want to see more stuff like the classic monsters from Universal in the 30s and 70s slashers like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper); or, if you loved Bill Moseley in it as much as I did, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, Hooper). But then The Devil’s Rejects (2005, Zombie) got caught up in a genre that’s come to be known as torture porn, and traded spooky frights for depraved terror. And 31 (2016, Zombie) is the worst movie I've ever seen.

     I’m writing this after having seen 3 From Hell (2019, Zombie) screened last night in a theater. Despite having low expectations based on Zombie’s diminishing output, curiosity compelled me to give it a chance. The 80’ high screen in the multiplex helped hold my attention, but I left disappointed. Why did I go?
     If House of 1000 Corpses is playful and almost cartoon-like, and The Devil’s Rejects is bleak and disturbing with an increase in realism, then 3 From Hell falls somewhere in between; although what’s problematic is how it feels like the look Zombie's aiming to achieve is excessively stylized. It’s as though he tries to hide his screenplay’s flaws with as many bells and whistles possible. You’ll often hear directors talk about how a close-up loses its effect if over-used. Rob Zombie wouldn’t be one of those directors.
     3 From Hell is shot mostly hand-held, with long lenses, zooming and tracking its subjects in close-up. There are also scenes of violent assaults patched together with freeze frames. And the movie may set a record for the length and amount of slow motion shots. What at first seems like Zombie has developed new techniques ends up feeling misguided or even desperate.

     The premise itself is never even close to being believable. I wonder if Zombie was going for a look as excessive as the narrative? There’s a scene where OTIS (Bill Moseley) holds a prison warden and his family hostage when a clown knocks on the door, then proceeds to perform his act. Where did the clown come from? It’s never mentioned. And yeah I get that it’s just a movie, but I question the choice of including incidents like this one that indulge in such bits of absurd surrealism when it's the final part of a trilogy that never has before.

     Without Sid Haig, all that’s left of the Firefly clan are Otis and BABY (Sheri Moon Zombie). It seems that Baby is supposed to be the star of 3 From Hell. And I get that she’s played by Rob Zombie’s real-life wife, but how does she get top billing over Bill Moseley? Baby isn’t nearly as enjoyable as Otis, although she gets some characterization in her prison scenes where we learn she “gets in people’s heads,” as we also get in hers courtesy of an anthropomorphic cat ballerina who dances in the snow; obviously this harks back to Zombie’s white horse visions from his Halloween 2 (2009). But at this point I’m just beating a dead horse.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Color of Money

I was still in middle school the first time I saw a Dolemite movie, or more accurately a scene from one. The same older kids who I’d met through skateboarding and who got me into The Simpsons and Melvins had The Human Tornado (1976, Cliff Roquemore) playing on a t.v. at someone’s house, and the indelible impression of Rudy Ray More getting caught in bed by a white sheriff with his white wife and escaping by jumping down a hill naked followed by a freeze frame as he’s in mid air, on screen text that says “instant replay” and a v.o. dialogue hilariously expounding “so y’all don’t believe I jumped check out this good shit.”
     And that scene remains the crowning jewel of the Dolemite films. Taken as a whole the movies themselves suffer from low-budget production values and bad acting, but what they possess is authentic streetwise dialogue crafted with a sophistication of raunchy wit.

     It’s been at least twenty years since I’ve seen a Dolemite movie, and I’d rather preserve the high esteem I have of them instead of risking the danger of discovering they really aren’t as good as I remember. But there was a time in the mid aughts when I found a Dolemite website and streamed files of his comedy albums for free. His stand-up act is pure genius and benefits from lacking the extraneous elements of his movies.

     Dolemite Is My Name (2019, Craig Brewer) is the first comedy I’ve gone to see in a theater this year, and while the movie does have its funny moments, ultimately it lacks depth and feels like a movie-of-the-week. It’s also the first Netflix movie I had an opportunity to see in a theater, which is something I’d hoped for and very thankful to having been able to take advantage of.
     The screenwriting duo who wrote Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton), Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, also wrote Dolemite Is My Name. And if Burton’s Batman (1989) was my favorite movie as a kid, then Ed Wood has to be my favorite Burton film as an adult—now that’s one dark fucking movie. Or is it? Because Ed Wood is also sweet, kind, full of empathy, romance and admiration for its characters. And that’s what makes it so powerful is that mix of feel-good schmaltz and the fading dying Lugosi shooting junk in his veins without a friend in the world except Eddie.
     Dolemite Is My Name shares the narrative structure of Ed Wood: naïve amateur passion goes all in to make a movie Hollywood has no interest in and succeeds. The big problem with Dolemite Is My Name is that there’s no dramatic conflict whatsoever. Every time an obstacle pops up, it’s so quickly and effortlessly overcome that it feels artificial. There’s a line when the Rudy Ray Moore character finally gets his movie in a theater through sheer tenacity and DIY ingenuity and tells his fellow cast and crew friends “Don’t nobody worry about what happens ‘cause tonight is a victory already.” Sadly, the whole movie never feels like there’s ever any reason to worry about what happens. There’s always a quick and easy fix for everything. Like the scene where Dolemite and friends have just gotten their movie distributed legitimately and are reading the baleful reviews in the next day’s newspaper just like in This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner), has no weight because whereas we feel uncomfortable with the failure and shame of Spinal Tap, here we know that they made their Dolemite movie on their terms for their audience and it’s selling; so what feels like the end of Spinal Tap here is money and fame for the Dolemite group.

     And with such an amazing cast, Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t so much find comedic gold, as it features credible performances. Do I buy Eddie Murphy as Dolemite? Absolutley. But he’s nowhere near as funny as he is in say, Bowfinger (1999, Frank Oz). Wesley Snipes is great too. But is he funny? Okay the exception might be Mike Epps—the funniest supporting actor in black movies over the past 20 years.

     The only funny parts in the movie are when Murphy performs the lines from Dolemite’s act, which leaves me to conclude that the best thing going for this movie is its historical aspect. The whole thing feels like a made-for-t.v. documentary reenactment. So, while the costumes and hair & make-up are terrific, and the real Moore was funny with an inspiring life story, the movie itself doesn’t really seem worthwhile beyond that. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Precautions on Zipper Use

Precautions on Zipper Use

On vacation, carrying a second-hand roller bag, my ritualized carrying-too-much approach started to impose negative consequences as the bag began to degrade. Day one saw the top handle detach from the bag's body. The last day, pulling a zipper closed, the part I was pulling came off in my hand.

Obviously, once we were on the train, I needed to look up zippers so I would know what their parts are called. I was more or less hoping for a zipper enthusiast site, something like Ian's Shoelace Site, but for zippers. What I found, however, was a full-on brand experience brought to me by YKK. Turns out the part that was in my hand, and no longer attached to the zipper, is called the "pull-tab"! Mission more or less accomplished.

But once you get locked into a powerful vein of specialized information, it can be difficult to pull yourself away, and that's how I ended up on a page entitled "Precautions on Zipper Use". As a clumsy man, with a penis, I'm well aware of at least one major zipper precaution that I would recommend, strongly, to anyone who finds themselves described in this sentence, but that precaution, involving tucking and double-checking, was not to be found on this page, and that lack is literally the only thing wrong with the page.

From "Rough Slider Operation" to "Proper Laundry Procedure", this page will likely teach you more or less everything you need to know about zippers and will almost certainly leave you muttering "STOP. SAYING. 'ZIPPER'" after a while. Some of the warnings will be familiar to the real zipper freaks amongst us—who doesn't at this point know that you rub a candle on a sticky zipper to thereby introduce a lubricative coating?—but it's nice to have everything compiled into a single (re-)source, so you know how to wash, iron, protect, and use your zippers and the fabric around them. Plus the art is really cool. Here's a taste.

(Some art from Precautions on Zipper Use. Note the extremely cool box-outline that shows what the important part is.)

And here is some of the text. I particularly like the style here. It's masterfully clear, and it's so dry it might as well be being narrated by Fred Willard.

Pulled Out Elements

Trying to forcibly close the zipper of an overfilled bag will cause element and tape breakage due to the excess load on the elements.
Reduce the burden by reducing the content of the bag and by bringing both sides of the chain close to each other before closing the zipper.

Fabric Caught in Slider

A slider may catch the fabric, hampering its operation.
Avoid forcing it to move or it will worsen the problem.
Slowly move the slider while pulling out the caught fabric.
Please allow enough room for the slider to move smoothly when sewing the zipper onto the fabric.

Anyway, zippers are good and cool and should be treated with care and respect, whether they are true YKK zippers or not. Please, if you are a real citizen of our fair Reviewiera, act always in accordance with the teachings revealed unto us and curated into our consciousnesses by the good folks responsible for Precautions on Zipper Use.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

After Hours

It wasn’t until 2005 that, to my joy, I discovered the works of Takashi Miike. These were the days of dvd; and with Miike, very often dvd-r. It began with Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001), which are still his only masterpieces. Both of those films are perfect and deserve their own essays if I were to do justice in describing them. And Ichi the Killer has always been one of my favorite movies of all time. But what of the rest? There’s a lot to see. And I’ve spent many years going through them. Even just recently going back to the video store—Miike is the strongest argument in favor of the vanishing video rental house vs. online streaming—I was floored and amazed by my first time seeing Graveyard of Honor (2002).
     Graveyard of Honor is a bleak nihilist tale of an exiled Yakuza disintegrating into oblivion and the woman he takes with him—themes familiar to Miike’s work. Like Audition, Graveyard of Honor establishes a serious dramatic tone and holds it. This is a strength of Miike: his body of work ranges from pitch black serious drama (typically embodied in the genres of crime or horror) to zany, ludicrous  B and even children’s movies (even at the opposite end of this spectrum again there are crime and horror entries).

     The last decade also marks Jeremy Thomas coming on board as a producer for some Miike films. Thomas’ name has always caught my attention because of what projects it’s been attached to: Bad Timing (1980, Nicolas Roeg), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983, Nagisa Ôshima), Eureka (1983, Roeg), The Hit (1984, Stephen Frears), Insignificance (1984, Roeg), The Last Emperor (1987, Bernardo Bertolucci), The Sheltering Sky (1990, Bertolucci), and Naked Lunch (1991, David Cronenberg) are but a few.
     Thomas has been the producer on Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)—my first time seeing one of Miike’s films in a theater and in 3D (of course the joke being that most of the movie is slow long scenes of dialogue in zen gardens with no real reason for shooting in the format?), Blade of the Immortal (2017), and First Love (2019). And for the time being not only has Thomas been collaborating on prestige Miike projects, but also ones that have received theatrical distribution here in the US.

     First Love is advertised as an action/love story about a boxer and a girl (apology if that’s being heteronormative with my nouns) with some stolen drugs on the run from the yakuza. This not only sounds like run of the mill Miike subject matter, but worried me as a premise similar to so many other True Romance types that it might not have even been worth my time. But was I glad that I didn’t miss the opportunity to see this in a theater.
     While I will admit First Love comes nowhere near the genius of Ichi the Killer or Audition, it maintains a consistent dramatic tone with excellent pacing and is genuinely suspenseful. And it also, in its own way, continuously defied my expectations. So, without spoiling anything, I really can’t say much else about the plot.

     The ensemble cast is the strongest part of First Love. The two teen star-crossed lovers the film centers around, again being vague to avoid spoilers, kind of exist apart from the dozen or so Rogue’s gallery of underworld figures that populate the narrative. The ensemble is so perfect because just as I began to realize how much I’d fallen in love with all of them, I also realized how there were so many but not too many. And okay, when the credits roll at the end, over the text there are portraits of each character and it made me giddy smiling at whatever magic made them all so individually entertaining and memorable.
     In order of my personal favorites I’ll just really quick mention a few. Seeking revenge against the perpetrators of an attack on her dealer boyfriend, JULIE is a volatile force of exceedingly menacing rage with an indomitable charm who’s  delightful every time she’s on screen. And in Miike’s dark world she faces the threat of danger from a Chinese thug who demands her at gunpoint to get naked, “bottoms off only,” which results in her spending nearly the whole movie in knit wool booty shorts, barefoot, and wielding the biggest crowbar they make. Then there’s ONE-ARMED WANG, who I’ll resist describing—yeah those two easily.
     And Ichi the Killer himself Nao Ōmori stars as a narcotics cop with a Beatles mop who carries the movie with a performance that early on, in rumpled trench coat, really establishes the crime genre with his weathered veteran who’s lived in this world long before we arrive on the scene.

     Maybe it’s just me but I feel like there’s a kind of Yojimbo-Fistful of Dollars thing (something that’s derivative of something that was actually inspired by it, does that make sense?) goin’ on where First Love’s female lead MONICA feels like The World of Kanako (2014, Tetsuya Nakashima), which felt like it was trying to imitate Miike in the first place.

     So First Love isn’t as insane as other Miike, but it’s exceptionally well executed. It’s like a late work of his displaying maturity and the proficiency of his craft. And though it lacks the disturbing sexual violence of Ichi the Killer or Dead or Alive (1999, Miike), that’s fine. I mean Miike has charted some truly deranged territory, that he’s proven, but First Love feels a little more friendly towards a wider audience. But it does have Miike’s trademark Japanese absurdist cutesy fun in a few bits. For instance, what has to be the film’s most memorable moment: let’s just say a small robot puppy, an elderly woman knocked unconscious, candles on a birthday cake, and I’ll leave it at that.
     Another quality that keeps me coming back to anything Miike is his eye for filming Japanese urban locations (and how often he does). And as settings for his Yakuza movies, these spots are vital. In First Love though there’re also a lot of scenes shot with a straw filter gel over the fixtures—basically a yellow cast over a shot, like in the boxing ring, the restaurant, the Triad lamp shop hideout, the hospital ct scan, etc…  Again, I’m no Miike scholar (but they exist, i.e. Tom Mes) but it’s worth mentioning the Triad’s role in First Love because so many of Miike’s films depict Triads in Japan or Yakuza exiled in China—The Bird People in China (1998, Miike)—or similar variants.

     In closing, as a huge fan of dark movies, in particular the crime subgenre of gangster movies, and having praise for Takashi Miike as one of the most endlessly fun and thought provoking master filmmakers whose work I’ve ever come across, I have to say I was surprised and thankful at how enjoyable First Love is.

Friday, October 04, 2019

The King of Comedy

The first time someone described my taste in movies as dark, I got defensive about it. The exact words used were, “You know, the kind of movies you like—dark.” At first I wanted to say no, wait, I’m normal! But now, many years later, I’ve come to accept it. I do like dark movies the most. As a fan of drama, darkness is something I require to fully engage in with a work of fiction. There’s a line in Moby Dick that reads, “That man who has more joy than sorrow is not complete…”  And looking back on the movies that have mattered most to me, they’re all dark. While the ones that aren’t have dark elements.
     The first movie I was obsessed with was Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I saw it multiple times in the theater. I collected Batman bubblegum trading cards and action figures. My mom took me to wait in a long line to see the Batmobile. I’d cherish any opportunity I had to leaf through a Batman coffee table book a kid on my block had. This same kid I remember urging me that I had to see Beetlejuice (1988, Burton), which marks my induction into auteur fanaticism. And okay, Batman isn’t that dark of a movie, but it’s pretty dark for a 9 year old.
     Jumping ahead to my senior year in high school, David Lynch had replaced Tim Burton as my favorite director. But the transition makes sense because they’re both artists who create dark worlds. And hey there’s also the coincidental sandworms link. If you’ll indulge me in an historical pop culture digression, recall that Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch) featured a soundtrack produced by Trent Reznor, featuring original songs by his band (along with songs by Marilyn Manson and others) and released on Reznor’s own label. And in my miserable small town senior year in high school, 1997 was nearing the end of MTV’s dominance over youth culture. Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were ascending but the kids I hung out with worshipped Tool, NIN, Marilyn Manson, Korn, and Limp Bizkit. So the Lost Highway soundtrack was a huge deal. (JNCO jeans and Limp Bizkit are my worst memories of the late ‘90s.)

     But the ‘90s were also an era of a black comedy renaissance in indy film. I couldn’t get enough of films like Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995, Todd Solondz), Happiness (1998, Solondz), In the Company of Men (1997, Neil LaBute), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, LaBute), and most importantly my discovery of Woody Allen. The first Allen film I saw (and in a theater) was Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen). And the mid to late nineties arguably represent his vintage years because of Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Celebrity—all rated R, uncommon for him, and all very dark.
     To briefly return to David Lynch’s significance as a dark filmmaker, I have to include David Cronenberg as being equally important for me. During my life those 2 Davids have been the masters of personal, challenging, original, dark cinema. And to wrap this all up and get to the part where I actually talk about Joker (2019, Todd Phillips), I’ll just say that reflecting on the characteristics of films by Lynch and Cronenberg is rewarding to find how vastly they differ. For one, I love how Cronenberg’s work from early on is so serious. When I get in the mood straight horror (no comedy) sometimes I can’t wait to watch early Cronenberg.

     Joker is foremost a comic book origin story that succeeds as a character piece. The setting is established superbly—sleazy early ‘80s NYC.  But most of all the film is exceptional in its intricate relentless contrast of tone between comedy and tragedy (or more like horror).

     The opening scene encapsulates the essence of the tonal contrast with JOKER (Joaquin Phoenix) in front of a mirror in a dressing room molding his mouth in an expression morphing back and forth from Thalia to Melpomene.
     When I say I like dark movies, I have come to understand what kinds and why I respond to them. But I also know my boundaries. Joker pushes those boundaries. Joker makes me uncomfortable and even scares me at times. But I enjoy it because it never forgets that it’s a comic book. The film scares me because it depicts a specific type of other: the person who wants to be famous or adored by crowds; who becomes unhealthily obsessed with celebrities and/or fantasizes about confronting politicians; who incites riots; who plans acts of terrorism; who gets so desperate he or she has nothing left to lose. And though I’ll make the distinction that Joker is a comic book and not a satire or political allegory, I will say it’s uncomfortably close to the current climate of society’s mass shootings in, of all public places, movie theaters. What scares me is the thought of someone identifying with the violence as a means to fame and knowing that those people exist. Also though I’m afraid of clowns (and circuses—all those animals in captivity is sad).
     Yet just at the moments I am scared, a joke makes me laugh spontaneously. Then I start distancing myself from Joker and saddened by his illness, his violence, then laugh again. Joker relies on zingers, and pratfall type jokes for its unexpectedly placed laughs, which I enjoy because it’s not like you’re laughing at the violence itself but at some Vaudeville shtick.

     The familiarly nasty 42nd street of the ‘80s with its porno theaters, graffiti subway cars, and muggings provides the perfect setting for  Joker’s development, but also safely distances the terror from the present. Phoenix’s emaciated body and gaunt face display method dedication but also an added layer of depravity, enhanced with a habit of desperate chain-smoking; his hair when dry is a pathetic style similar to Anton Chigurh’s; and his polyester wardrobe is depressing, especially that maroon vest and slacks outfit [shudders of revulsion].
     To close I’ll say that I very much enjoy Joker. And even though it makes me extremely uncomfortable, its dark content never feels gratuitous or exploitative. Also, there are few movies that so heavily and consciously utilize the contrast between the smiling mask of comedy and frowning mask of drama.

     One very minor complaint I feel begrudgingly compelled to add is that after about the fourth time I saw the device where a character is reading something and we only see parts of a page to get a fragmented sense of the whole I felt like I'd had enough. Y'kow? A couple of times it's okay, but c'mon don't over do it.