Eternal Snapshots of a Soulful Mind

A blue gondola cascades gently down a waterway in Venice. It crawls in languor, the afternoon sun immersing it in all its glory. As it rolls along under a stone bridge, Alan Lightman rests on his back, gazing at the blue sky, lost within his mind. He blinks. He finds himself in Bern, Switzerland, 1905, at the zenith of twilight. ‘It is a quiet time of day. Shopkeepers are dropping their awnings and getting out of their bicycles. From a second floor window, a mother calls to her daughter to come home and prepare dinner.’ Just as he sees the two colleagues who are coming home from the Patent Office, he blinks again. He is back at the gondola, but no time has passed. As Lightman imagines Einstein’s Dreams, so do I imagine Lightman’s own.

Such is the distinctive quality of Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams (1992). It does not concern itself with a specific plot; it instead depicts different conceptions of time that appear as dreams to Einstein, who appears at regular intervals with his working partner, Michele Besso. No variation of the different paths time can take is excluded, including such prominent examples as “sticky time”, “mechanical time” and “time in fits and starts”. Lightman eloquently paints each variation with an ethereal and surreal texture. He does not concern us with the scientific possibility and theoretical probability of these wondrous concepts. Instead, he explores the real world implications and human reactions to different timescapes.

In a world where the center of time exists:
‘And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let do. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the view of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.’

The writing is simple, the images are indelible. A tortured Einstein roams the streets of Bern, formulating his new theory of time, but Lightman pays little attention to his titular character. Instead, through Einstein, he depicts our interaction, infatuation, relationship and obsession with Time as well as our desires and the consequences that spring from it. Snapshots at faceless individuals gaze upon the fragility of human existence, a tale woven with the barest of threads, worn at the edges, glowing in fits and starts, overseen by the tick of the Grand Clock. A proto-Groundhog Day scenario takes place with each chapter, as the citizens of Bern are manipulated under the rules that govern each new concept of time, thus making the city a prominent figure in these vignettes.

As we struggle to control this ever elusive group of nightingales, Lightman forces us to consider the possibilities that emerge from twisting pretzels with the sand of the hourglass. But for Einstein, on an early morning in June 1905, history has not been made, and time moves on.

Einstein statue by maveric2003, CC-BY-2.0

Half-Awake

Bleary-eyed, puffy cheeked,
Half-awake, the other asleep
A war is waged, the neutral zone
No Man’s Land, you’re all alone.
Thoughts are made, and then are lost
Like smoke rings.
Or rain drops.
Time is a sieve that deceives,
A second is an hour.
The countenance turns dour,
Under the unwavering line that lies ahead
Lying in wait, but the lolling head
Lolls around, searching for a pillow,
Drops of drool shine under the glow
Of lights that burn for eternity,
As if sailors lost in the crashing waves
Would be saved by the all-encompassing sight
The Eye of Civilization, resplendent in its might-

Blink, back to reality
The eyes close on their own now.
All-nighters lead to insanity
Unless you have the real know-how.

The key is to avoid it at all costs,
No matter what they say
For ’tis simply a measure against time already lost
A last-ditch effort, better than to pray.

The Mesmeric, Hypnotic ‘Only God Forgives’

Refn and Gosling team up for a nightmarish trip through a gorgeously depraved Bangkok

Few films have left my head swirling in confusion and ambivalence as much as Only God Forgives has. I have seen it twice because after the first I wasn’t sure whether it is one of the best films of the year or a piece of ‘pretentious macho nonsense’ and ‘preposterous designer revenge pulp’. To be able to penetrate as deeply as it does, as divisively as it does, is itself an achievement, one that director Nicolas Winding Refn knows and embraces.

It begins with a deus ex machina, the death of Billy (Tom Burke), older brother of Julian (Ryan Gosling). They own a Muay Thai fight club that doubles as a place to sell drugs. During the five minutes we see Billy, he whacks a pimp with a bottle on his head, smacks around women and kills a 16 year old prostitute. He’s got problems.

Billy’s death is precipitated by the involvement of a mysterious Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the judge, jury and executioner of Bangkok. Chang is more than just a man; he operates, just as the film does, on the spiritual, fantastical and real worlds. A God in his realm, he metes out his own justice by chopping off limbs with his sword and singing his gospel through Korean pop songs in empty nightclubs.

The aforementioned event forces Julian along the most well-documented path of the gangster: revenge. He proceeds with blank indifference, perhaps he’s secretly relieved. But Julian is stuck in inertia, unable to do anything, tormented by his violent past. The kind of inertia that induces an impotence that he cannot shake off.

While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok.

His inability to take care of business brings Julian’s psycho mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) into the mix to avenge her firstborn. She’s aggressive, foulmouthed, unapologetic and fierce, and Thomas approaches her character with a wicked relish. Crystal and Julian have a passive-aggressive relationship where she alternates between demeaning him (in arguably the best scene of the film, when he brings his Thai girlfriend for dinner) and then asking him for help, but Julian remains stoic, always ready to light one of his mother’s cigarettes when she needs it.

While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing his perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience. Here is a Renaissance painting for the 21st century, not just in how beautiful it looks (every color in this movie makes me feel like I am seeing them for the first time), but in how Refn expects us to treat it.

Traditional art forms like paintings and sculpture offer images that are open for interpretation by whoever views them, primarily because their creators aren’t around to provide the definitive explanation. In the film, dialogue is kept to a minimum and silence speaks louder than words, and the images, some phantasmagoric, that appear force you to figure out for yourself what’s going on. Using the dream mechanics of Inception, Refn designs this nightmare and we fill it in with our collective consciousness.

This filmmaking style, hypnotic, trance-like, meandering, is diametrically opposite to everything we watch today. In fact, its divisive nature recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, but while that film was critically lauded, this work of art has been rejected by critics and audiences alike. Everything has to be spelt out for us and repeated again and again in current cinema, including subtext. The ones that are most critically appreciated offer a balance that make audiences feel more intelligent at having grasped this “hidden meaning” that ascends them to a higher level of awareness. Only God Forgives retains the purity of cinema sans linguistic exposition, it doesn’t stoop to mundane narrative levels. While most viewers were bored to death by the repeated takes of Gosling staring out into space blankly, I found myself using what I knew about him to piece together what he might be feeling. An ordinary film would have choked us with blatant exposition, here there is space to breathe and ponder.

While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing his perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience.

For every sequence of artistic impressionism, Refn caters to our baser instincts with extreme violence. The violence itself isn’t stylized apart from the obligatory slow motion because it doesn’t need to be. It’s a break from the mental workout of its unconventional cinematic language. This arrangement is almost like that of a symphony, and the film is like listening to Beethoven in a world saturated with pop music, AutoTune and Justin Bieber.

This is a gorgeous looking film (did I say that already?) drenched in red and blue neon, floating through the grimy streets of crime-ridden Bangkok, with characters that speak with their bodies more than their words, set to the tune of Cliff Martinez’s pulsating electronic score. While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok. My instincts were right: cinematographer Larry Smith was a longtime Kubrick collaborator. Maybe, like many of Kubrick’s films, hindsight will give Only God Forgives the acclaim it deserves. Not that Refn cares.

Attribution: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Overblown Incoherence of ‘Pacific Rim’

Even with million-dollar rocket boosters, this 60-foot behemoth gets pulled down by its own weight

The first giant robot I saw was Bumblebee in Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and it filled me with a huge sense of awe: the way its gears, nuts, and bolts clicked together to become perfect combination of transport vehicle and total badass, its sleek metal glistening in the light and the sheer weight with which it interacted with the world. But upon seeing the mountainous Jaegers (German for hunter) of Pacific Rim, I feel detached and lost, even though these robots have men and women on the inside (so what does that say about them?). Maybe it’s because the equally massive Kaiju (big, ugly monsters, Japanese for strange creature) can simply rip them apart as if they were made of plastic and not metal. Or maybe we hardly ever get an accurate sense of scale.

The idea for Pacific Rim is simple: giant robots fight giant monsters. But around it is the kind of flaky, half-baked plot that surrounds recent summer blockbusters. In the near future, monsters emerge from out of the Pacific, through a hole in spacetime called ‘The Breach’. They don’t like Earth so much and destroy cities, and none of the usual bullets, bombs and artillery work against them.

To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own, rambles Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam trying to establish himself as a bonafide action star) in the obligatory world building introduction (honestly, District 9 is a classic sci-fi film simply because it doesn’t have this kind of world building tool), and the Jaeger program is born. The Jaegers are operated by two pilots via ‘a nonsensical Hollywood sci-fi concept’ called ‘The Drift’ where their minds fuse together (excuse me as I try to grasp how the fusing of minds moves heavy machinery).

In the script written by Travis Beacham and director Guillermo Del Toro, he of the fantastic Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth, one of these pilots is Raleigh Becket, the customary handsome Caucasian male action hero, who quits being a Ranger after his brother dies in one of their battles. He’s approached by his old boss Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, charismatic as ever) to carry out a last ditch effort to save the world with trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as his partner. Aided by Australian, Russian and Chinese soldiers, Pentecost plans to close The Breach once and for all. Let the CGI extravaganza begin.

There are three real problems with the film that envelop it in a miasma of ennui. The first is that it aspires to be more than a robots vs. monsters flick and instead tries to be an operatic epic about the collective might and resolve of humanity as it thwarts villainous forces that threaten its existence. What this means is that there’s less imagery where robot arms transform into chain swords to slash blue tongued monsters in half and more of Elba, Hunnam and Kikuchi trying to get along.

Pacific Rim is an exercise in repetition to generate awe: the monsters start looking the same (different variations of ugly), the combat tactics become well-known (Jaegers punch but they don’t kick), the battles are hard to follow and the stakes don’t get higher (the end of the world is kind of as far as you can go). Shane Black, the master of the action flick, said, “If you make everything go at 100 miles per hour from the outset, it loses any impact or meaning. I mean, if a flying truck lands on the bonnet of your car, it should be shocking and scary. But if stuff like that is happening constantly throughout the film, it becomes mundane.

Where Del Toro scores with the collective might of humanity is with his international cast and international location (Hong Kong). Other critics have called this blatant targeting at the international markets for more box-office moolah, but I’m relieved that one Hollywood blockbuster chose not to end in a fight to the finish in a metropolis with all the skyscrapers tumbling down. He also manages to keep things light with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are the proverbial odd scientist couple and a wicked Ron Perlman as a no nonsense Kaiju black market dealer. If only Becket and Pentecost could smile a little while they saved the world.

Whatever may be the case, the bottom line is that this shiny new toy is filled with rust on the inside.

But the promise of well-rounded and diverse characters is replaced with perfectly packaged one-dimensional characters who remain ciphers throughout, the second problem of the film. The only reason to take away from the action scenes is to build character, but instead we see the same character trait/flaw brought out again and again…and again. Pentecost’s nose bleeds (terrible secret!), Becket reminisces about his dead brother, and Mori wants to avenge her family. I was upset that the characters survive at the end through a last-minute cheat, but I should have known better. Even with impossible odds, Hollywood values sequels over common sense.

But are the core problems of Pacific Rim more meta in nature? Have we become used to seeing the same flimsy blockbuster characters over and over again that we frown at meeting new ones that are just as flimsy? After a couple more rifts cut through the ocean floor around the world and more Kaiju fight with more Jaegers, will I love Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori even more? Or is this Transformers vs. Godzillas representative of the commercial potential of remaking the same thing over and over again until a franchise is developed (Godzilla is being rebooted as a franchise as we speak)…

Whatever may be the case, the bottom line is that this shiny new toy is filled with rust on the inside. It upsets me that I’m in the minority on this one, or maybe I’ve become bogged down by a disappointing summer slate filled with more misses than hits. I’m afraid the future holds only more sequels, threequels and franchise overkill. And more crazy combinations that involve millions of dollars in CGI pixels.

Attribution: Pacific Rim- Gipsy Danger by ~Mind-Vision, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0