As I sit here consciously avoiding any and all dairy so I can finally get over this infernal morphing sinus cold that I’ve had for a month, I’m taking the time to ruminate on the three most effective films I’ve seen this past week. And as different as they are they all tread on similar creative ground, that of the abstract and absurd.
I’ll begin with the experience that I look forward to most throughout the year. Those films that when you walk out of the theatre the world seems just a little more alive than it was when you stepped in. Colors are more vibrant, sounds more distinct and scents more aromatic. The world around you becomes almost hyper realistic. The film is Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika.” I show you this trailer (on the next page) safely knowing that the experience is saved for seeing the film itself.
Over the years I’ve been affected by his anime in various ways. In high school “Ghost in the Shell’s” abstract methods had my best friend and I beating our heads and making monkey noises as it came to it’s conclusion. “Perfect Blue” gave me some frenzied chills. “Millennium Actress” I honestly don’t remember that well and “Tokyo Godfathers” was touching in a strange sort of way. The only one to really stick with me until now though has been “Perfect Blue” and I say until now because the frenetic visual storytelling in “Paprika” finally meshes Kon’s love of abstract and bizarre giddiness with a mature understanding of what makes us human. True these elements have been a motif in his other films, but not quite so eloquently devised. Part of the reason why I think it works more potently in this film is that he has decided to deal with his story in the realm of dreams. What better way to explore the inner world of characters and their desires within an abstract frame or better yet, without a frame. Kon’s imagination runs rampant and it’s all the better for the viewer. There are sequences of such grandiose and nightmarish beauty that you can only stare stunned at the screen. And all of it is tied nicely together with Susumu Hirasawa inspiring score. There were moments in this dream world where Kon and Hiraswa’s vision melded so perfectly I wanted to stand up and dance down the street with the parade, or fly through the air with the title character “Paprika” or stand and cheer when one of the main characters side plot comes to a literal cinematic conclusion. This film is worth the price of admission.
Another film that by what I’ve been hearing from friends and reading in reviews makes me wonder if I’ve completely missed the bill on (trying to avoid lame puns) is “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”. Everyone seems to be sorely disappointed by the third installment of this eccentric and borderline abstract series. Me? I loved it. In replacing the rambunctious action driven story of “Dead Man’s Chest” with a far more serious character driven third the filmmakers were scrutinized for making the story too convoluted and hard to follow. There wasn’t a moment in this film in which I felt lost, unless the filmmakers wanted me to. And isn’t that the point? Not knowing who was fighting with who. And did it matter since you knew why each character was fighting? The problem I had with the first was that it was far too standard an action film. Things blew up, they swung swords and an unlikely romance was in the air – yawn! Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush gave the Hollywood safe film it’s only thump-thump of a heart beat. The brilliance of the second film was that it let go of the safety net of typical storytelling and gave it’s viewers a clever and vibrant romp through a darker world, one in which good and evil began to bleed together. Allegiances weren’t what they seemed. The excitement of not knowing what a character would do next returned. By the end everyone was in it essentially for themselves, be it motivated by something selfless or selfish, they were all coming into their own, finding life on the screen that few people find even in reality – chasing after their desires no matter what the cost. And now the third film takes those split alliances, tosses them into the air and lets the wind scatter them about again. With everyone fighting for what they want how can they overcome their adversaries? That is the true conflict in the third film, for each character. And as in the second film the talented writers (Rossio, Elliott) and director (Verbinski) brings everyone together fluidly and logically by the end, tying up all the story lines and thankfully not in the way we exactly hope for. It’s hard for me these days to talk about a great movie without mentioning the score and composer. And Hans Zimmer has finally found an adequate stomping ground for his riffs and thunderings in this post modern action epic, creating memorable themes that equal the strains and melodies of John Williams’ greatest compositions. When I hear the theme for the Kracken in “Dead Man’s Chest” my skin crawls. And finally Rossio, Elliott, Verbinski and Depp have created a character in Jack Sparrow with the complexities of Kurosawa’s yojimbo, Sanjuro, and also in the great Japanese character “Zatoichi” played almost exclusively by Shintaro Katsu. If Katsu was able to breathe life into Zatoichi for so long a time, chances are that Depp could do the same for Sparrow. I honestly hope he chooses to. (A quick side note, I finally got around to watching “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” last week, and was blown away by the moral complexity of it’s two lead characters brought to life by Katsu and the great Toshiro Mifune. It’s definitely worth checking out, but you might want to watch “Yojimbo”, “Sanjuro” and a couple of the “Zatoichi” films so you know who you’re dealing with when you get to this one. Me, I’ve seen almost 20 Zatoichi films and I haven’t gotten tired of them.) For your pleasure since you’ve probably seen the Pirates trailer a million times…
And the final film in my trifecta is Takashi Miike’s depravity ridden “experimental” film “Visitor Q”. I am for some reason continually drawn to watch every film in Miike’s oeuvre. Though I should know better and skip the ones that proclaim themselves to be “taboo-bending” or that can’t show anything from the film in the trailer. I show you this trailer hoping that it will be enough to cause you to avoid ever seeing it (though by bringing it up I introduce the temptation to do so.)
My first problem with a film like this is the ease with which people try to place the label “experimental” upon it. Because it treads into depths that most people have the decency not to go it’s given a category to make it feel far more important than it is. That aside I’m always challenged by what Miike puts on the screen and maybe that’s the point of his more “taboo-breaking” (another pathetic label) films. I’m challenged to think about the worth of the images on the screen; can a subject be braved without putting the audience through such a despicable showing? I think so. Ingmar Bergman dealt with incest in “Through a Glass Darkly” in a much more subtle but just as disturbing, haunting and meaningful way than Miike has chosen to do it. But Miike has his mind set on a vision far more absurd than Bergman did. Considering this film in such terms one could call it a dark comedy, though anyone that would laugh at such a depiction of a family’s falling apart I would arrest on the spot. Since I haven’t said so I will say so now, “Q” is about the disintegrating family structure in the realm of reality television (the first part is easy enough to tell, the second I read on the Netflix cover, and it makes sense in retrospect). And by the point of view Miike takes you can see he must loathe reality television (I won’t argue with him there!) It’s in his desire to exaggerate everything to the limits of absurdity that this film comes crashing down. Does incest, beating ones mother, drug abuse, rape, prostitution, murder, necrophilia, etc. need to be treated with such absurdity and with such an in your face ambivalence? And with a train ride that merely starts with incest you can imagine how far he pushes the boundaries in acknowledging the depravity of the other individual acts. That isn’t to say there isn’t something going on in Miike’s head. One thing I will give him is that, unlike Kubrick’s similarly touchy “Clockwork Orange”, there is no mistaking the tragic deprivations in this film as “cool.” He shows all of it for what it is…sickening and corrupting, a disease that can tear a family apart. To Devil’s Advocate myself maybe this absurdity is the reason why it’s watchable at all. In showing us how he handles these issues perhaps he’s actually telling us how he thinks reality television handles such issues. While there could be some truth in this observation, I’m probably over thinking and giving too much credit where credit is not due. Is it really difficult to disgust someone into thinking a certain way? In the end a balance is found in these character’s lives, a “thank you” is given to the strange visitor but the cost it takes to get there leaves you numbed and hopeless, asking yourself is that as good as it can get (if you get it at all)? One thing Miike does remember is how to be a brilliant director. He shows you the action just long enough so that it burns an image onto your retina and leaves it imprinted in your head, at times after leaving the camera utterly still for a long period, he’ll cut to a shot that shows little or nothing so that the more potent image and action remains in your head, allowing you to think or feel disturbed, I suppose that depends on your stamina. I’ve been moved by Miike before, intellectually provoked and thrilled. The only thing I can take out of a film like this is to be brave when finding my own voice in the world of film making and storytelling, and that if this can make it to a screen out there, my words and images certainly have a fighting chance. For more of my thoughts on Miike and the films of his I’ve seen click this: