The Shatterers of Illusions

I wrote a blog post recently about my moviegoing rules. I’m not a particularly disciplined person with a strict regimen that I follow everyday, but I’m quite anal when it comes to cinema and going to the theatre.

If there is one thing I truly believe in, it is the power of cinema. I know this sounds contrived and high-handed, but it is true. I’ve always loved movies since I was three and get super duper hyper when I hear of a new blockbuster or a new film from a favorite director. I always sit in front of the screen, immersed in stories that make me laugh and cry and scared and thrilled. No other artform does that for me.

When I go to the theatre these days, I find myself a soldier in a losing battle against the shatterers of illusions. These are the people who make my fantastical trips substandard and disappointing. I’m talking about the loudmouthed uncle who yaps with his client about settling on a price for something, the romantic couple making fun of the characters onscreen as they make out, the baby who can never shut up and the fat kid with a bright new phone tweeting away about how cool the movie he isn’t watching is.

David Edelstein ranted about this problem on Vulture a couple of days ago, but I wonder why he’s complaining about it now. The devolution of film audiences around the world has happened for a while now, especially after the entry of smartphones, which ensure that even if you keep your phone on silent, you can still be a bloody nuisance. How has this happened? Why don’t we value a break from reality through the movies anymore?

Flavorwire responded to Edelstein’s rant by saying that my generation has grown up with screens in their hands all the time and that they’re used to multi-tasking between different things. I agree to this and the whole lowered attention span syndrome (which I admit to having, although I can still read books unlike a lot of my peers) aspect of it, but there’s something else that I want to bring up. Today’s audiences don’t respect movies anymore.

The generation that grew up on Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Goodfellas and Brazil, adult films (a label since attributed to porno flicks), are the parents of my generation. What that means is that most of the movies they go to are with their families, which is why most of today’s blockbusters are PG-13 and targeted more at children (and the children of today are the parents of tomorrow. Sigh).

Today’s generation on the other hand go for the blockbusters because of the gee-whiz action sequences which every bona fide summer movie has to have. Any other scene which involves character development, story and relationships bores them. So they whip out that device which instantly gratifies them with constant entertainment no matter where they are.

The other contribution to this loss of respect lies with the cross platform availability of movies. Up till the 1950s, movies were limited to theatres. Then the television arrived, and then in the late 1990s the PC was born. And then came smartphones, and now streaming and Smart TVs and VOD are available. When you can watch Ben-Hur on your 4-inch screen and are comfortable with it, why would you think that watching World War Z on a forty foot screen is extra special, especially when you can stream it in a couple of months on that 4-inch screen? The value of the big screen spectacle has certainly diminished as a result.

What about talking during a movie? I don’t really have an answer to that one, except the people who do it are a bunch of assholes who have lost the senses of wonder and consideration that make them human. I combat these miscreants with my shushes and shut UPs, but how much more can I wage such a war on my own.

And babies? Keep them at home will you.

I must confess though that I’m no text-free saint myself. I can empathize with people who take a peek at their phones – when your phone buzzes in your pocket, your attention is immediately split between the movie and the possibilities as to who might have messaged you. And you cannot ignore this split mind until you attend to the phone, which you must do so that you don’t miss out on the movie. But that is still no excuse for doing it.

Theatre chains like the Alamo Drafthouse are extremely rare, but they have the right concept about changing moviegoing culture. If you have an experience where you are unceremoniously thrown out in front of dozens of people for using your phone in a dark hall, you’re bound never to do it again. Additionally, I propose a solution that could benefit audiences around the world: the interval.

The interval is a break during movies to allow for audiences to use the restroom or get snacks or whatever they want. It exists in India and used to be present in the US. Yes, it goes against my fundamental principle of watching movies in one go, but it is a way for the audience as a whole to have their cake and eat it too. Ignore your phone until the interval, then use those fifteen minutes to deal with whatever needs to be dealt with.

Or maybe this is a problem that should be dealt in different ways across different cultures. In Indian societies, being derided for one’s behavior in a crowd is quite embarrassing and can shut people up straight away. Maybe that’s why the Alamo simply throws out its irritating customers, because Americans are okay with being shouted at and not caring about it (“It’s a free country!”). Why not simply ensure audiences have their phones switched off as they enter the theatre, just like an airplane? Oh right, it’s kind of extreme isn’t it? What if it’s only temporary? Such repeated behavior can become habitual. Or not.

When I grow up, and if I can afford it, I will build my own private movie theatre with a huge screen and fifty to seventy seats. And I will sit wherever I want, and eat whatever I want, and be immersed completely, without the glow of a smartphone or the echo of a whisper of the person sitting next to me. That would be true bliss.

Slightly edited for grammar because of the Freshly Pressed highlight!

Godzilla Texting

Attribution: GODZILLA BY ~AKMCCLELLAND-JR, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0

Crazy Monsters and Scary Sprites

SB official cz.jpg from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

While watching Spring Breakers, it’s very easy to see Harmony Korine behaving in a fashion similar to James Franco’s character Alien in the film by shouting at the audience (taking off from a (sort of) iconic monologue from Alien):

“Look at my shit! Look at this shit y’all! I got-I got bikinis, every motherfucking color! I got machine guns, AK-47s in the house! James Franco, rolling round in them cornrow grills, CORNROW GRILLS! Vanessa Hudgens actin’ all slutty y’all! Disney be fuming in the MOUSE HOUSE!”

You get the idea. But I wonder whether Korine would ever tell us to look at his story because it gets lost behind all the visually kaleidoscopic pizzazz and the hyperactive craziness of it all. And yet the pure fuck-you attitude Korine channels grabs you by the balls and never lets go. I actually got a hard-on watching it.

Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Hudgens and Rachel Korine play four bored college girls searching for a life changing experience to quell their boredom. They yearn to join the hordes of college students engaging in all kinds of debauchery in Florida during spring break, but they don’t have enough money. So they decide to rob a diner, and do it with pink backpacks and mini shorts. After heading over to St. Petersburg and having spiritual endeavors like getting drunk and grinding on guys and snorting coke off other naked girls (quite the hard R film), the girls get arrested, and get promptly bailed out by Alien (“My real name’s Allen, but, truth be told, I ain’t from this planet y’all.”). Oh, and then things become about Franco’s relationship with his gangster mentor and there’s a turf war, but Korine isn’t really interested in that.

This is one of the most pulsating and electrifying movies you will watch all year, but it has the emotional resonance of a Skrillex concert.

It’s easy to see what Korine is doing with the girls onscreen: everyone has a dark side, even cute young women who skip around in bikinis and adlib Britney Spears songs at random. Only Gomez is given some kind of a backstory, while Hudgens and Benson are surprisingly menacing as the fearless and violent duo of the group: look at the scene where they get Franco to fellate his own guns or when they re-enact their robbery. These girls are aware of the meta-ramifications of their roles and go all the way with shedding their family-friendly Disney celebrity images.

And yet what is Korine finally saying with these young women: is Spring Breakers feminist in the way the women come out high and dry in the end and are stronger than the gangsters they encounter, or is it anti-feminist in all the sexually explicit imagery and debauchery that all the girls engage in during the party season? Or is it exploitative in how it subverts the good-girls-gone-bad plot and turns it into a bored-girls-gone-bad-and-then-maybe-turn-good? Or is the bikini chicks-with-guns imagery just to get dicks in seats? Korine gives us no answers.

And then there is Franco, doing his own bravura performance and lifting the film to another level of trashy cool. Alien brings to mind a wilder and badass version of Saul from Pineapple Express, had he come from Florida and grown up with rap and gangsters. He treads the fine line between bohemian and cockroach, with scrawls for tattoos and dreadlocks that seem to be carefully attended to when we’re not looking at him. His rapper drawl is an invitation to roam the neon streets of Florida in the dark and do the wrong thing (here’s his inspiration for the role).

But with him again, Korine remains ambiguous as to who he really is. Why did he bail out the girls in the first place? He clearly doesn’t want to have sex with them immediately, and he even lets them leave if they want to (when this happens, it feels like when contestants exit Survivor). Maybe it’s for companionship, or for a sexy entourage, but Korine doesn’t care.

Andrew O’Hehir in his review said: Is making something that is pointless and incoherent as an aesthetic choice somehow superior to doing so because you don’t know better? In practice, is there any difference?” There isn’t any, and what it comes down to is Korine playing around with these trashy elements sans a grand design. The provocativeness of the material coupled with the unique visual language of the film makes for an interesting visual experience, but it’s provocative to get people to watch it. This is one of the most pulsating and electrifying movies you will watch all year, but it has the emotional resonance of a Skrillex concert. The cool rhythm stays, but when there are no lyrics, does it really matter? 

Cannesathon #2: The Lost Weekend

Attribution: The Lost Weekend by jon rubin, CC-BY-2.0

Don Birnham’s (Ray Milland) life can be likened to The Bottle that defines his life: at first he could sustain himself with a couple of drinks down the bottleneck, but then he couldn’t control himself as he cascaded down to the comfortable middle, where he swirled around until that one bender, that one weekend that pushed him all the way to the bottom, when enough was enough and he wouldn’t have a drop more. That was his lost weekend, four days down the rabbit hole of desperation and desolation until he could finally see the light on the other side.

The Lost Weekend is the kind of film that you would expect as a counterbalance to a society plagued by the Prohibition and then World War II one after the other, we  know that alcohol and depression don’t mix well together. Throw in a couple of gangsters and a femme fatale and you’ve got yourself a noir. Its plot is extremely minimalistic, almost like a flow chart, as it follows Birnham through each step down into the drunken abyss, the reverse of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The people that surround Birnham are either strangers to him, or they know him too well, like his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his favorite bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva). Or they believe in a side of him that he doesn’t believe exists anymore, like his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman). It’s a setting that reeks of the odor of the cheapest rye (the only kind that Birnham will have, both out of necessity and because he’s not an alcohol connoisseur, he’s a drunk bum), the world of the alcoholic, a world of shattered dreams and no self-esteem.

This is one of the first films to accurately depict the life of an alcoholic because its based on author Charles Jackson’s real-life lost weekend. Notice that Birnham only drinks booze in the film (even in the flashbacks), nothing else, nor does he ever eat anything. The pain that we feel for him stems from the familiarity of it all, the vicious circle that he goes through again and again, unable to find a way out, his life defined by that addictive high. Is he even aware of the things that he does to get some more booze? Even if he did, does it matter when the bottle, his one true savior that whisks him away from harsh reality puts him back in Paradise, as encapsulated by the scene where he discovers his spare reserve lying in his ceiling light, the light projecting the bottle as an otherworldly being, a savior that really leads him to his doom? The doom that we see him go through brings the film closer to horror than to drama (see: phantasmagoria).

Although the film doesn’t get preachy, we all know it’s anti-alcohol; the alcohol industry reportedly offered Paramount Pictures $5 million to not release the film. This tone is reflected in the ending, where Birnham finally comes to his senses and decides to give up drinking. The idea of such an ending is logical: had Birnham gone through the weekend and remained an alcoholic, it would have been much too bleak, but the few events that get him to that point don’t provide enough of an impact considering how far he had already fallen. Nonetheless, it’s a minor gripe.

The core conflict that feeds Birnham’s need for alcohol is his writer’s block, but what’s interesting is that in the book it stems from his troubled bisexuality. On hindsight, the latter is the more powerful conflict, but not the one that is easier to resolve. It also feeds into the whole stereotype of the troubled writer that takes to alcoholism, or is it the stereotype that makes the backstory more plausible?

Ultimately, this is a brave and unflinching film for its time and it brings to mind similar films of varying degrees of addiction, specifically Leaving Las Vegas. And it totally deserves the praise it got back in the day.

Film: The Lost Weekend
Year it won: 1946 (Grand Prix du Festival International du Film)
Director: Billy Wilder

Cannesathon #1: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

When I walk on the street and I’m terribly bored, I like to play a game where I single out strangers around me, especially older people, and think about what their lives are like. If I passed by Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in this fashion, I would be able to surmise that something horrible happened to her in the past, but has since moved on and has forgotten about it. But her body betrays the pain that still lingers within her soul, pain that her mind has tried to erase. And then we pass each other by, and she’s gone.

Now, I would never really get the chance to meet Otilia, because she lives in 1980s Romania, still under the iron grip of Ceausescu. Where you can’t go anywhere without your ID card, where there’s no market except a black market, and where abortions are illegal. But Otilia’s friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) needs one, and quickly. Because as the title tells us, she’s been procrastinating for a while.

In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, we observe each and every step of the abortion process: getting a hotel room, collecting the money they need and making contact with their underground surgeon, Mr. Bebe. Bebe, as played by the fantastic Vlad Ivanov, could have easily been portrayed as a slimy old lecher with spiky white hair, but instead we see Bebe as a normal man stuck in the same boat with the girls, making ends meet. Except he has a special skill. I wonder what his day job is.

Roger Ebert called Otilia and Gabita “the two most plausible characters I’ve seen in a while”, and this applies to the movie as a whole. The situation has pure melodramatic elements – a bleak Communist society, an illegal abortion that looks doomed to fail at the outset and the lengths Otilia has to go to help her dim witted friend – but the film never falls into treating the characters with heavy tragic weight, it sticks to being detached and objective in its observation of the events that happen. The girls treat this day like pulling a bandaid off a wound. Sure, it’ll hurt, but it has to be done. It’s a way of dealing with pain that pervades the film. Otilia asks Gabita after the abortion:

“Does that hurt?”
“Stings a bit. It hurt when he put it in.”

Notice the phrasing of that last line. It’s the same way Otilia feels at that moment, but the line is treated like all the others, there’s no dramatic punch to it.

The film also comes dangerously close to becoming a revenge story. As Otilia leaves the hotel to go to her boyfriend Adi’s house to meet his family, the receptionist calls her and hands over Bebe’s ID card, he left it behind. Now Otilia has his full name and his address, why doesn’t she go after him and claim revenge? Simple, because real life isn’t like Kill Bill (it’s also possible that Bebe left a fake ID card at the hotel so that he could sever any connection with what he did). A more exploitative movie like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would have headed in that direction (but then Lisbeth Salander doesn’t need coincidence to facilitate her revenge).

Just as Ceausescu claims possession over the people of Romania, so do Gabita and Adi encircle Otilia in their own self-interests. Gabita wants to deal with the abortion as minimally as possible and gets Otilia to do all the heavy lifting, and makes decisions that affect her the least. She makes mistakes perennially, without thinking twice, and she will continue to make many more of them in the future, but Otilia can only help with the ones she makes in the present. When they think back over the other abortion surgeons they were aware of, Gabita points out that they chose Bebe because he was cheaper. If abortions were legal in Romania but much more expensive, Gabita would probably still choose Bebe to perform her own.

Adi on the other hand is insistent that Otilia come to his house in the evening, bringing the question of her love to the fore. He doesn’t care whether he does what she wants, he only says what she wants to hear and goes about doing his own thing. Otilia knows these things, but she just wants to get on with her life. She could easily burst into tears and scream at the world, but what good would that do her?

Cristian Mungiu directs a masterful film by treating his subject matter realistically and with an ear for natural dialog that makes this very close to a documentary. The camera is like a fly on the wall, and Mungiu intentionally doesn’t bother to make his characters be seen with perfect lighting and framing. Ira Glass said that the two key elements for storytelling are to have a set of events follow one after the other and to have a point at the end of the story, a climax for all the previous events to have meant something. 4 Months, 3 Weeks… has the first but not the second because real life doesn’t have sudden epiphanies or emotional crescendos. Instead, the girls decide never to talk about what happened ever again, it’s already a distant memory for them. What’s there to talk about?

Film: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Year it won: 2007
Director: Cristian Mungiu

The Leprechaun

There he stands,
Feet planted firmly in the soft snow
The snow that never melts,
That glitters and glows.

His body as stiff as that of a stiff
Or of a member of the British Royal Guard
His eyes unblinking, unwavering
Gazing into infinity and beyond.

The snow stole his twinkling Irish features
And left him with the dullness of old age
A beard as white as the flakes around it
Seemingly borrowed from the wisest sage.

At times his placid life is turned upside down
By the shakes and jerks of the giants outside
Showering him with confetti that usually adorn his feet
Nothing can move him, oh yes they’ve tried.

His pots of gold are now gone
So have his friends too
The Leprechaun stands alone
In his plastic prison, not about to be let out anytime soon.

Attributions: Leprechaun… by robad0b, CC-BY-SA-2.0