Demonstrable Love

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2013 by hopecruz

After the screening of Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, Short Term 12, a soft wave of applause echoed throughout the theater as not one person got up to leave during the credits; a testament that the very core of its essence won’t easily unclench your heart. At its core is a story about extraordinary love and compassion having the immeasurable power to heal the deepest emotional wounds.

GraceThe story centers on Grace (Brie Larson), the twenty-something, above and beyond dedicated lead supervisor of a short term foster care facility for kids who have been displaced by abuse and neglect.  Grace’s enormous heart, infinite patience, endless worrying, constant vigilance, and authoritative discipline provide the safe environment for an array of kids displaying a gamut of at-risk behaviors such as violence, drug use, and self-harm. Despite her self-possession and exterior calm, a painful past begins to boil to the surface to devastate her future when she learns of an unexpected pregnancy. Something from her past haunts her and doesn’t let her believe that she would be a fit parent, despite all proof to the contrary. The arrival of a self-injurious 15-year-old girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose troubled present mirrors Grace’s past as a victim of domestic abuse, doubly shakes her seemingly assured foundation, forcing her inner world to unravel while becoming increasingly and personally invested in helping Jayden.

Cretton delivers a perceptive, unsentimental, well-crafted drama that grows out of close observation and character. He conscientiously navigates the deeply entrenched and insidious emotional beliefs that play out in Grace’s life, and her charges, in limiting ways. Watching won’t always feel comfortable. At times it will feel like attending an uncomfortable therapy session that’s just about to make a giant breakthrough, but progress ebbs when facing tough demons makes the possibility of a fruitful future seem impossible. He deftly offsets bleak moments like these by blending serious and sensitive issues with a touch of humor and delicate emotional precision, ultimately creating empathy and compassion to make us care about each character’s fate.

RUNNINGThe opening scene is a good example of fusing sensitive subjects with humor. On a clear sunny day right outside of the facility’s front entrance, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Grace’s co-worker and adoring boyfriend, regales his co-workers with an embarrassing “sharting” incident that happened to him. As he recounts his story while eliciting laughter from the group, a scrawny, pale, redheaded kid named Sammy (Alex Calloway), wearing only long john bottoms, suddenly bolts through the door shrieking while running across the lawn. Unflinchingly, the staff members put down their coffee and dash after him until tackling him to keep him from escaping the facility’s grounds. Sammy begins yelling out obscenities, while Grace calmly looks him straight in the eye and tells him to just let it pass. Right off the bat, you can tell that crises are non-stop and unpredictable inside Short Term 12, but Grace demonstrates that she has the fortitude and emotional wherewithal to keep up and handle them, just as her name implies.

Short Term 12 is fraught with numerous tense, stark, unpredictable moments, but thanks to Brett Pawlak’s vibrant cinematography, the texture of the film is awash with warm, optimistic tones, giving a sense of hope. The texture is an important representation that all the young residents are living for something better to come, as Grace and her staff do whatever it takes to erode the poison that have plagued their lives, and show them they are all worthy of love.

grace and sammyGrace and her staff certainly have their work cut out for them. How do you penetrate the steel fortress these kids have built around their hearts to protect themselves? It’s no easy task to connect and develop trust with kids who have been let down by family members who were supposed to love and protect them. Deep compassion and love allows Grace and her fellow supervisors to get down in the trenches with these kids during their darkest hours; to be present with their pain to help lift them up.

A smart, tough, angry resident named Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to age out of the system, is scared to make his way out into the world. During his last week he acts out in several ways as a way of coping with the fear. Mason reaches out and lets Marcus express his feelings and pain in a more constructive form—a rap he penned to purge the pain caused by his dreadful upbringing by his mother who made him sell drugs at the age of 10. Deep torment resonates in his voice as the camera slowly zooms in on his pained face. The final words “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life without knowing what a normal life’s like,” will solemnly linger. Mason doesn’t even know what to say, but it’s not about knowing what to say; it’s about being there, letting him know that he cares. All Marcus wants, it turns out, is to have his head shaved. Grace and Mason realize that this seemingly small request is a huge offset to his past that will create hope for his future.

Cretton takes great care to focus solely on these kids and their road to healing. He doesn’t focus on the parents of these children. You may think that fleshing out some antagonists would create a more dynamic or dramatic plot, but Cretton wisely chooses not to. Why? If you focus on the monsters, you humanize them.  All we need to know is that these kids have been detrimentally harmed in some way, and all that should be focused on is their healing; to weaken the hold of the monsters that still harbor their mind.

dancing 2It may seem that Short Term 12 is swathed only in grim, depressing moments. It definitely has plenty of those, and they come with thunderous unpredictability, but it also has a lot of rich, funny, loving moments, accentuated by the visceral cinematography, as they move in nuanced cadences celebrating life’s richness. A perfect example is the brilliant montage sequence capturing the tender moments of Mason’s foster parents’ 30th anniversary, accompanied by the popular Mexican folk song Cielito Lindo, whose lyrics emphasize the power of optimism:

Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,
cielito lindo, los corazones.

People are dancing, laughing, playing, and jumping inside a bouncy-house. Just before this sequence, Mason makes a heartfelt speech to commemorate his foster parents’ love, and thanks them by saying “everything good in my life is because of you.” It’s a potent scene that forges the powerful effects that love perpetuates.

Short Term 12 is a true revelation; a film not to be missed. It’s a huge lesson in communication and love. A lot of demons will be wrestled, and the biggest message to take from it is that our past cannot be outrun, just like Sammy’s runaway attempts represent. The more we run away, the bigger the monster gets, but Short Term 12 is a place where everyone is in support of helping one another thrive by working through issues, and promoting healing and empowerment. Cretton lets us into a world full of ups and downs and unpredictable surprises. The biggest surprise comes at the end, which forges the idea that the possibility of a better tomorrow lies in the horizon. It’s always nice to be surprised!

Cut Your Own Path

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2013 by hopecruz

liam jamesPerhaps we’ve all had to endure the trials of being made to feel inferior by someone some point in our life, but the only reason we did is because we let them.  In the endearing coming-of-age film, The Way, Way Back, brilliantly co-written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, this is what awkward 14-year-old Duncan, perfectly, sweetly and tenderly played by Liam James, finds himself trying to overcome when forced to spend an entire summer with his mom at her boyfriend’s, Trent, beach house in Cape Cod. Duncan is an amazing kid; he just doesn’t know it yet, and it certainly doesn’t help matters when Trent deliberately and constantly tries to undermine Duncan. That all begins to change when Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the hilarious, carefree manager of Water Wizz water park, who helps him emerge from his awkward shell when he offers him a part-time job.

The Way, Way Back is exemplary of superb storytelling; a simple tale without any hocus-pocus gimmicks overwrought with special effects. It’s uplifting, opens up your heart, and touches your soul. There are countless reasons why you will fall in love with this film. One of the most obvious is the feeling it evokes. It feels like sitting down having a cup of coffee with a good friend and connecting in a deep, affecting, and honest manner. A warm feeling saturates the soul while watching. This is namely due to the conscious decision of leaving cold, heartless technology out of the picture. Aside from a couple of iPhones subtly implanted in two scenes, the rest of the film basks in the inviting presence of people acknowledging one another by communicating face-to-face.

Even a warm wistful hint of nostalgia will tug at your heartstrings; it’s almost like watching a movie set in the ‘80s, when life wasn’t complicated with the influx of social media. This is especially felt in the scene when Duncan first meets Owen while watching him play Pac-Man on a classic arcade machine. Pac-Man here stands in for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as the social network relic of days long gone, inspiring seemingly minor chit-chat while Owen tries to conquer the first level, but on a deeper level actually sets up the film’s entire theme about having the courage to be yourself rather than follow the path of unquestioning conformity. As Duncan looks on, he states “You know there’s a pattern right?” Owen wittily imparts his playful wisdom about how following patterns takes away from life’s challenges that help one learn and grow. Allowing Duncan to take over his last turn, Owen shouts out, “Hey! No pattern on my quarter. Cut your own path!”

This turns out to be the film’s entire message, of having the courage to etch your own way in life by being yourself and not allowing anyone to make you feel bad about it because you didn’t do it their way. Liam James does an amazing job playing Duncan; his expressions brim with so much emotion that you just feel like hugging him. Duncan may be introverted, reclusive, and shy when we meet him, but in all his awkward glory, he is lovable because he is genuine and pure of heart. The only problem is that Trent and his mom fail to see it since they’re so wrapped up in their own world.

The prologue scene clearly sets up Duncan’s challenge. It opens with a black screen as you hear a car driving along a road. Then you hear Trent, embodied by Steve Carell, the-way-way-back-carrepeatedly call out Duncan’s name to check if he’s sleeping. When Duncan says no the first image fades-in on a close-up shot of Trent’s eyes reflected from the rear view mirror, which gives the uncomfortable vibe of being scrutinized. With a squint in his eye, he proceeds to ask Duncan, “On a scale of 1 to 10 what do you think you are?” Awkward silence hovers thickly inside the car cabin, but Trent pressures Duncan until he reluctantly blurts out a 6. Then a medium close-up reveals Duncan, looking flustered and miserable riding way, way in the back of an old Buick station wagon while his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) are fast asleep. Trent assesses Duncan’s reply and without reserve resumes telling Duncan, according to his cold estimation, that he thinks he’s only a 3. At this precise moment we realize Trent is Pam’s pompous boyfriend, but Duncan seems to be the only one aware of this off-putting personality trait. Obviously Trent wouldn’t hound Duncan if his mother were awake, so he takes advantage of that fact and smugly adds salt to the wound by elucidating how socially inept he thinks Duncan is.

It’s difficult to fathom Steve Carell playing such a self-important prick; he’s played the antagonist before, like Gru in Despicable Me, but even that character had a lovable streak. Here you just want to drop kick Trent so hard on top of hot asphalt so his bare bottom singes. You’ll dislike him so much, which is a huge testament to Carrel’s spectacular and convincing job at portraying an overbearing Type A personality. When we get a sense of what Trent is like, we understand what Duncan is up against, having to put up with his professed promises of trying to be a family, conformist rules and patterns, and shallow showcases of purported responsibility for an entire summer. Whether Pam is oblivious or selectively blind, all Duncan can elect to do, being a kid with no clout, is bite his tongue and try to get along with Trent.

All the elements in The Way, Way Back strongly embody the soul of its theme. The strongest of these elements are the characters themselves. Except for Trent and maybe on a minor scale his daughter Steph, you actually want to meet everyone else; they feel as real as your next door neighbor. Each character is brilliantly fleshed-out and interesting, but most importantly each reinforces the idea that being yourself is good enough. It’s like each character is saying “this is who I am, take it or leave it.”

One of the funniest and most colorful characters in the whole bunch is Betty, played by the ever talented Allison Janney. Perhaps you’ll remember her as Ricky Fitts’ rather awkward, mostly silent mother from American Beauty (1999), where her talent was grossly underused. Here Janney uses the full force of her talent and gives a side-splitting performance as a fun, booze-loving gal who says the most off-the-wall comments from every unexpected corner. You can’t help the urge from laughing when you hear her, out of the blue, say things like “My titties need color.” Then there is her son Peter, played by River Alexander, who she constantly hassles, in only that loving way a mother can, about his severe lazy eye. Although, a minor role, Peter turns out to be the most confident as he makes his way through the world not worrying about what anyone thinks about him, despite his mother’s declaration that his eye makes people uncomfortable. Rash and Faxon even write themselves into the script as Lewis and Roddy, two off-beat employees at Water Wizz. Lewis’ character is especially endearing as the self-pitying, perpetual employee who hates working there and whose greatest aspiration is to become a storm chaser. Indeed it’s the summation of all the quirky, awkward yet genuine traits that make each character lovable. You love them, flaws and all, because they don’t put up any pretense.

The Way, Way Back hits every emotional chord with keen precision, about having the courage to be yourself in the face of those who try to make you feel bad about not fitting into their mold. The choices Duncan makes in order to find contentment and be the best him possible are noteworthy lessons that most adults, who think they have all the answers, can learn from. You’ll find yourself laughing and crying throughout this heartfelt ride that’s worth every penny for its price of admission. You’ll honestly walk out with a refreshing sense of self just as Duncan does when he carves out his own path. Just as he etches a path towards happiness, The Way, Way Back will etch its way into your heart.

He’s Only Human

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by hopecruz

fruitvale 4Fruitvale Station, directed and written by Ryan Coogler, dramatizes the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who was fatally shot in the back by a white police officer, Johannes Mehserle, at the eponymous BART station in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day 2009. The film opens up with actual cell phone footage caught by one of the many bystanders inside the train witnessing the mounting tension and heated commotion occurring on the railway platform between unarmed New Years revelers just trying to get home, and hotheaded cops roughing them up for no good reason just before Oscar is shot in the back. Coogler makes no illusions about how the film will end. Knowing the harrowing and inevitable outcome from the onset sets an awful sense of dread deep in the pit of our stomach. We know death awaits a young man’s life; a young man who woke up one day and didn’t know it would be his last. After watching the actual footage, the film regresses 24-hours before the shooting and follows Oscar’s life, sporadically intercut with point-of-view flashbacks of his past, as he lives out his final day leading up to his tragic death.

Coincidentally, Fruitvale Station opened  on  the same week as when George Zimmerman received a ‘not guilty’ verdict for shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a coincidence that reinforces the fact that we are nowhere near a post-racial era even in an age where President Obama has been elected twice. Racial inequity plagues America like a disease because of stereotypes perpetuated by ignorance, fear, and the overwhelming distorted representation of African-Americans as criminals, drug dealers, or gang members by the media. Nonetheless, Coogler, who’s an Oakland native, has made a film that is free from political polemics. He does shed light on a prevalent social problem, but he does not try to answer why Mehserle shot Oscar Grant. Intention is not the focus of the film. Instead he poignantly and respectfully tells Oscar Grant’s story by allowing us to see him as a human being just like the rest of us, with all the good, bad, and ugly; a young man who had dreams, family and friends who loved him, and whose life was senselessly cut short.

Oscar, sensitively and exceptionally played by Michael B. Jordan, is no angel when we’re introduced to him. We learn he’s not completely responsible, has been fired for being chronically late for work, has cheated on his girlfriend, sells drugs, has an impulsive temper, and has served time at San Quentin prison. He’s human and he’s flawed, but on the flip side he’s also a doting and devoted father to a cute 4-year-old daughter named Tatiana, played by Ariana Neal, an adoring son to his mother Wanda, played by Octavia Spencer, and an overall caring, goodhearted, compassionate, and decent young man who even helps out his sister pay her rent when he doesn’t even have enough to pay his own.

Having absolutely no conception of his untimely death, Oscar goes about his day running errands to prepare for his mother’s birthday gathering with his extended family later that evening. One of his first stops is to buy crabs at the supermarket where he was recently fired from. In this scene we see Oscar trying to help a white woman who appears to be completely baffled by buying the right type of fish to fry. When Oscar offers to help her she quickly sizes him up and dismisses him by keeping her gaze fixed down on her cell phone while texting, as if he were a nuisance or derelict begging for money, hoping he’ll just go away. Nonetheless, Oscar’s goodhearted nature and charm persist until the woman softens up toward him and accepts his help. This plot point is one of the first attempts Coogler makes to show the undercurrent of racial divide. It’s there and it exists, but Coogler is not ramming a political message down our throats, he’s merely showing that Oscar is a good guy who likes to help others. In this scene we also see Oscar make a genuine plea to his former manager to get his job back. When the manager denies him a second chance, Oscar’s temper flares up, but he does come to realize that his irresponsibility of constantly coming to work late cost him his job. Nonetheless, with no job and bills and rent to pay, Oscar is desperate. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so he promptly calls a friend offering to sell him weed.

While waiting at a meeting spot for his friend to arrive, Oscar has a flashback of his mother visiting him in prison a year ago. For a few minutes we are subjectively placed in Oscar’s mind. Recalling this event from his past places him in a position of deep introspection where he realizes all the choices he’s made have not improved his life. During this visit, his mother Wanda serves a heaping mass of pure, unadulterated tough love. She tells Oscar that she will no longer come to visit him in prison. She’s tired of him constantly getting in trouble and setting a bad example for his daughter. Wanda reveals that Tatiana keeps wondering about why her daddy would rather be away on vacation than spend time with her. Finally she points out that his constant bad decisions are going to cost him the people he loves as she gets up and walks away, not looking back as several guards detain an angry and out of control Oscar. Deep in thought, the emotional and painful pang of his mother’s rejection snaps him back into the present where he realizes selling drugs is not a path he wants to follow anymore if the risk is losing his family. This is a pivotal moment when he realizes he has to change and atone for all his mistakes.

Coogler’s unflinching focus keeps us connected to Oscar. He casts our gaze at Oscar’s surroundings and inner struggles to survive and provide for his family in a low-income community that doesn’t really present him with opportunities to advance, but rather fruitless minimum wage jobs to toil in. By spending time with Oscar, we see him as any other human being who struggles in life; who has great potential, dreams and aspirations, but are harder to come by in the context of his social surroundings. What Coogler achieves by building the details of Oscar’s last day and keeping the focus on his humanity, is overturning the fear-mongering impressions swayed by the media. Coogler transforms the superficial impression of a statistic into a full-fledged human being; a human being whose potential was wasted and dreams were deferred because the only thing the BART officers who detained him saw was a black thug. So as we connect with Oscar throughout the film, Coogler simultaneously builds the portent of doom that leads us to the fatal shooting we saw in the beginning.

In the final act, Coogler recreates the fatal incident we witnessed on the grainy cell phone footage. Its gritty and chaotic portrayal occurs swiftly, demonstrating how fruitvale 3rapidly racial profiling spins a situation out of control, leading cops to impulsively react with unwarranted aggression and hostility. Oscar’s life was cut way too short because of the hasty criminalization of his skin color. I’m not sure what the cure is for people who’ve been Clockwork Orange[d] into a life of racist fear and hatred, but what Coogler attempts to do in Fruitvale Station is break through the thick, opaque pane of stereotypes in order to clearly see Oscar as a man, father, boyfriend, brother and son who meant so much to many people, rather than a mere common thug and drug dealer. Coogler provides a powerful, emotional, and harrowing human story behind an impersonal headline. In the end, we’re heartbroken by the tragedy of a young man’s life cut short due to racist fear and hatred.

 

The Masks We Wear

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2013 by hopecruz

“Most people don’t know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, it’s very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to. As an artist, I feel that we must try many things – but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad – to be willing to risk everything to really express it all.”  ― John Cassavetes

A myriad of unconventional low-budget independent films sprang up as an alternative to Hollywood in the late 1960’s. Liberating sexual attitudes, protest against the Vietnam War, rise of civil rights movements, and the assassination of significant social leaders created the heated milieu of that time. This turbulent reflection of American disquietude triggered numerous breakthroughs. One notable breakthrough was the rise of independent films as a means to identify with an audience’s shifting interests. At the time Hollywood risked millions in producing epic films to compete with the rising popularity of television, but the investments did not pay off, and Hollywood found itself in financial crisis. With Hollywood oblivious to what a new audience desired, innovative filmmakers began to breakdown the limited boundaries that marked mainstream movies, and provided a mass market of independent films that forged a raw, naturalistic style of filmmaking resembling documentaries. At the forefront of this movement was John Cassavetes, an American actor, screenwriter, and director (and yes, father of Nicholas Cassavetes who directed The Notebook, in 2004). With the Motion Picture Association of America previously easing its restrictions, it was now possible to portray far more explicitness in language and sexual relationships, an opportunity that Cassavetes took full advantage of in his 1968 film, Faces.

facesFaces is the film that forever changed the face of cinema; it was the antithesis of Hollywood that paved the road to independents seen today. The film has no plot. It’s more of an exploration of modern-day relationships. The main focus is the dissolution of a fourteen year marriage between an extremely unhappy Los Angeles couple, Richard and Maria Forst, played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin. They’re a couple who takes their middle-class lives for granted and eases their discontent with copious booze and adulterous affairs with a prostitute named Jeannie, played by Gena Rowlands, and a gigolo named Chet, played by Seymour Cassel. Using cinéma vérité techniques such as natural lighting, unobtrusive direction, realistic acting, and real locations, Cassavetes was able to achieve raw psychological depth that gained insight into the frailties of these characters. The film is difficult, and at times painfully tedious to sit through. Not because it’s boring in any sense, but because it almost feels like a stinging slap across the face as we endure watching long takes of loud, obnoxious, and insincere middle-aged suburbanites make complete fools of themselves by excessively pouring alcohol down their throats and endlessly ranting trivial tirades. It’s like we’re the only sober ones locked in a room with them, eavesdropping on their drunken antics. They all seem to be hurtling towards their own self-destruction just to evade stripping their souls bare, or confronting one another about their problems. They wear masks to deflect the awful reality of their lives; to hide their weaknesses and vulnerabilities; to appear in control even though they have lost all grip.

Since there was no script, Cassavetes gave his actors sufficient information about their character personas, and the only direction the actors received was to improvise and allow the hand-held camera to capture the natural unraveling of a scene. The goal was to capture all the characters’ intimate details to identify them as real people with real problems, not Hollywood caricatures. Unsteady, unflinching, and uninhibited – the camera penetrated the characters’ lives through the use of tight, unnerving close-ups. Close-ups exposed their fears and insecurities by accentuating detailed nuances of their faces, such as sagging eyelids, quivering lips, and tired gazes. These fine details revealed the truth about them; the overwhelming sadness, loneliness, insecurity, and unhappiness they bear daily in their fractured and disconnected lives.

Cassavetes also used Method Acting to show the rawness of his characters’ world. While watching the film you may find yourself thinking the acting really couldn’t work any other way. The way the actors delved deeply into their roles is very apparent, and the erratic behavior they displayed is instinctively justified by their established personas. If we see a character acting like a complete jackass by excessively drinking, obnoxiously laughing, and whirling around like the town idiot, we easily comprehend why and casually accept it. The realism extracted by Method Acting is amazing. Actors were picked for their ability to portray realism rather than for their glamour and star power. A credible atmosphere was built upon the foundation of actors whose conviction and devotion revolved around authenticity. This resulted in scenes that unraveled so naturally that you almost feel like you’re in the room with these people, bearing witness to their stifling misery, manias, insecurities, and flaws.

If you’re able to sit through Faces and watch the gut-wrenching drama of these characters’ lives unfold, you’ll find that Cassavetes’ improvisational and cinéma vérité techniques pay off to show the blunt realism of dysfunctional relationships and marital problems. Chet, the gigolo, explains toward the end, that everyone wears a mask and longs for intimacy, but is too afraid to let their guard down. In the very final scene, Maria can no longer uphold the façade that Chet speaks of. She finally reaches her tether and unveils the mask that’s hidden her pain for so long. A dichotomous mixture of feelings, both aching and numb, arises as her face emits a pained countenance when she tells her husband Richard that she does not love him. The close-up of Maria’s face, especially her eyes, express that she is fed up with her life – a life emotionally disconnected from other people.

111Faces is a terribly uncomfortable film to watch, but at the same time you won’t be able to turn away. John Cassavetes has given us an honest and brutal portrayal of marital discord surrounded in suburban malaise. It’s a film that demonstrates exactly what the director wanted to achieve without Hollywood’s limiting restrictions. His artistic vision integrated the use of cinéma vérité, which went against the conventions of script and structure, and allowed scenes to unfold naturally as the moment-to-moment slices of life wrung out the truth about the imperfect lives of middle-class Americans. The result is an unflinching and penetrating character study, and when the storm of cacophonous laughs, hysteria, inane jokes, and drunken antics settles, the only thing left are the jolting words, “I hate my life, I just don’t love you,” ushering a truthful calm that unveils their masks.

Patriarchy’s Haunting Resonance

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2013 by hopecruz

 In the mid and late 1980’s, Fifth Generation filmmakers, who were post-Cultural Revolution graduates from the Beijing Film Academy, sought to make films that critiqued the deep-seated traditions of Chinese culture. Their films mainly focused on achieving psychological depth via the exploration of Chinese values and sensibilities. Zhang Yimou, a Fifth Generation graduate, became one of the most highly praised directors for his visually stunning and allegorical period films. In his 1991 film, Raise the Red Lantern, he delves into the overbearing microcosm of patriarchal rule in China during the 1920s; a world where women have no voice, their existence is rendered ineffective, and are entrapped sexual vehicles intended to produce male heirs.

The story follows the strong-willed, 19-year-old Songlian, brilliantly played by the gorgeous Gong Li. Due to financial hardship following her father’s death, Songlian is Gong Liforced to drop out of college and decides to marry Master Chen, played by Jingwu Ma, a rich 50-year-old lord who already has three wives, or mistresses, as they are often referred as. Yimou specifically demonstrates a masterful command of narrative by the evocative effects and use of sound. He deeply delves into the complex realm of feudal society and brings it to life with the skillful integration of resonant sounds stirring a vast, gray palatial household. Echoing footsteps, massive creaking doors, extinguishing lanterns, the aggravating beating of foot massages, and operatic reverberations, hauntingly bring repressive feudal society to life.

foot massage One persistent and powerful sound within the narrative sphere is the rattling beat of a foot massage. The foot massage is a significant connotation of a system involving rewards and penalties within a patriarchal household. As the plot unfolds, it becomes imperative to be the chosen mistress to spend the night with Master Chen because it elevates their rank, and gives them power, no matter how minor, within the repressive walls of the palace. The reward for being chosen, of course, is a sensual foot massage that is pleasing to the receiver, but aggravating to the other disadvantaged mistresses, as they must endure the persistent rattling beats that drill their ears. A vital scene where this sound is employed is when Songlian visits Meishan, played by Saifei He, Master Chen’s third mistress, to play a game of mahjong. While playing they can hear the distant beating of a massage instrument coming from the second mistress’s quarters, played by Cuifen Cao, as her soles receive the honored foot massage. The piercing sound aggravates Songlian as the focus is clearly directed at her reaction. She harbors resentment because not being the recipient poses a great threat to her status. Early on the second mistress braggingly tells Songlian, “If you get one everyday, you will be ruling the household!” So as the second mistress basks in Master Chen’s favor and receives the privileged massage, the rest live jealously in her shadow. This scene significantly foreshadows how Songlian will manipulate the Master with a false pregnancy in order to win his favor and receive the reward.

Another important sound, both diegetic and nondiegetic, is the gentle melody of the flute. The first time we hear the flute’s melody is when Songlian rummages through her suitcase and finds her late father’s flute. As she handles the instrument with great finesse, the melody heard in the backdrop of the scene indicates Songlian’s subjective recollection of her father, a man who represents the complete opposite of the degrading feudal system she finds herself in. Her recollection of the past reminds her of her own strong-willed identity and privileged education. This is where the flute becomes a symbol, or in other words a dangerous threat to the patriarchal social order. A woman possessing a flute is seen as a transgression. It is explained that only men play the flute; therefore, Songlian poses great threat as a bearer of an instrument that symbolizes profound scholarly knowledge. Songlian’s possession of a flute, which notably resembles a phallus, allows her to assume the same power and knowledge that men do.  This is why in a later scene the Master tells Songlian that he has burned the flute – an action that emasculates Songlian’s strong will and reduces her to a subservient concubine. Nonetheless, the flute takes on other thematic meanings – love, longing, hope, and desire.  The scene where Songlian hears the off-screen sweet-flowing melody of the flute traveling throughout the vast corridors of the palace evokes a sense of serene calm. Again, it reminds her of a happier past. When she finds the source of the sound – the handsome young Feipu, played by Chu Xiao, the Master’s eldest son – she finds herself mesmerized by the echoing acoustics. Once they come face-to-face, we instantly sense their drawn connection induced by this simple instrument. Her attraction to the sound signifies her attraction and desire toward Feipu. Of course, this desire can never be explored under the tyranny of a barbaric feudal system. The sound of the flute is Songlian’s only link to her happier past, yet tragically, the man playing the flute, who evokes desire within her, represents a future that can never be embraced.

the endYimou skillfully guides us through the depths of his spatial visuals and narrative through the use of evocative sound. The sounds of the beating foot massage and the flute are both used as connective devices within the film. The sound of the foot massage makes a correlation with the struggle for power between the mistresses, and the flute subjectively connects us to Songlian’s past. Yimou’s film ultimately serves as a scathing criticism of female subjugation under the social structure of feudalism. Nonetheless, being the optimist that I am, I interpreted the final scene of Songlian’s silent pacing as a defiant transgression. By pacing back and forth in the courtyard and refusing to stay confined, I see it as the first steps toward subverting the feudal system that unrelentingly stripped her of her identity, even if she won’t see it topple  in her own lifetime. Sometimes silence is more powerful than sound.

Simple Superb Silence

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on June 5, 2013 by hopecruz

tramp 2The classic 1931 comedy, City Lights, directed by Charles Chaplin, one of the greatest masters of slapstick, is a simple tale of two loners who find each other, lose each other, and find each other once more. An amazing factor about this precious film is Chaplin himself, a vertically integrated genius who wrote, directed, produced, scored, and starred in the classic gem. Considering that City Lights was made four years after the advent of sound, when talkies have long replaced silent films, is noteworthy. Chaplin remained faithful to the silent tradition, with the exception of a musical background and a few sound effects. Not surprising at all considering that what made him a successful screen actor was his slapstick antics, including elaborately choreographed fights scenes, chases, and comical confusions. His talent clearly rested on his clever, dazzling pantomime, which dialogue would have severely stunted.

The iconic scene in City Lights is by far one of the most memorable in film history. It demonstrates the power and beauty of silent films. It’s the scene when the blind girl, brilliantly played by Virginia Cherrill, and The Tramp are reunited after his release from prison, and her vision has been restored. Once the girl discovers that The Tramp, who she always mistook as a wealthy gentleman, is the benefactor who paid for the operation to restore her sight, we instantly feel the scene’s emotional power swell up within us. In the scene she recognizes him by feeling the texture of his hands, which we witness in a sweet, tender medium close-up. Every element is perfectly in tune, especially Chaplin and Cherrill’s superb acting and facial expressions, which emit a humbling honesty. As Cherrill’s character realizes the truth, an intertitle reads, “You?” Then the slight tilt of the camera follows The Tramp’s hand up to his mesmerized face.  A close-up focuses on his nervous expression — nervous at the thought if the girl will return his love or not. He lovingly asks, “You can see now?” With a pause she replies, “Yes I can see now.” Finally, a fade-out of The Tramp’s gleaming face leaves us with a hopeful longing that his love will be returned. Touching beyond belief!

Is true love blind? You’ll find yourself asking if the girl could ever return The Tramp’s unconditional love. Does she love him for who he is, a kind, good-hearted, and generous soul, or does her newly restored eyesight  merely see a tattered vagrant she could never bring herself to love romantically? The magnitude of silence in this film is profound. It leaves a discussion for interpretation widely open and says more than any spoken words could ever express. Chaplin’s pantomime and treatment of The Tramp was handled with great finesse. Even if the girl does not return The Tramp’s love, we still love him for his humor and humanity. Chaplin’s decision to preserve the silent tradition for this film was the right choice. Silence marks City Lights as a hallmark in the age when sound was dominating.

A Transcendental Experience

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on June 5, 2013 by hopecruz

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality.”
   Emily Dickinson

Film is not strictly confined to linear plot narrative. Film is a transcendental experience; an experience is felt. Darren Aronofsky has given us just that – a sensible experience that transports us into higher consciousness. The Fountain, Aronofsky’s 2006 cinematic opus, is a flowing poem of rich visceral visuals; an overflow of intense emotions that manifest and explore our Earthly fears of mortality. Do not expect a clear-cut narrative; expect free-flowing auditory and visual poetry.

The plot coils backwards and forwards in non-chronological order via a triptych narrative blend of spirituality, fantasy, and science fiction. In order to keep the viewer terminally illfrom becoming lost in the nebula of abstract images and elusive plot points, Aronofsky builds the film around a central story. A neurological scientist embarks on an obsessive and desperate quest to invent a cure for death in order to save his beloved, terminally ill wife, Izzi, played by Rachel Weisz. Although, this logical narrative is the flagship of the film, there are two other parallel stories propelling The Fountain. Hugh Jackman, who plays the neurological surgeon, Tom, also plays a New Age astronaut, Tommy, and a 16th century Spanish conquistador, Tomas. All three incarnations of Jackman’s characters have the same goal: discover a cure for mortality.

Aronofsky’s primary theme is clear: that while there may be no escaping death, there is an ever-lasting freedom if we let go of our fears and take a faithful plunge into the temporal joys of life.

How does Aronofsky achieve a sense of the now?

One way is clearly seen through his transitional edits. The film seems to have a life of its own; a certain cadence and rhythm. A breath if you will. Aronofsky’s seamless and smooth edits form an organic process. You can feel the fade ins and fade outs like a natural inhalation and exhalation. This process fuels our soul with breathtaking air that propels us through the experience of the film. We are not just watching, but becoming part of the experience. Immersed within the film’s realm we can feel the pangs of our own heart rising and falling like the crest and trough of a wave. This is a true indication that we are being moved by an experience and not solely by an intellectually plot-driven story.

If the edits are the breaths of life, like oxygen, the musical score is the blood that transports those breaths. Clint Mansell is the genius composer behind the haunting minimalist score. In a sense, dialogue is superfluous. If all that was playing in the background was Mansell’s musical accompaniment, we would not miss a beat.  The entire story would still be put in the context of its theme: life is transitory; love is boundless; death is freedom.

finish itThe Fountian induces an in-depth introspection about the spiritual and existential answers we seek regarding life, death, and love. Tom, the neurological surgeon, must come to terms with death and his own mortality. His wife paves the way for his grieving process by bestowing him with a significant gift – a calligraphy pen, ink, and parchment. “Finish it”, she says, referring to him writing the last chapter of her book, but also alluding to living his life without fear and having faith that death is not the end.

Do not limit your experience by trying to put The Fountain in a neat box. Intellectual thinking limits us just as knowledge fools our obstinate hero into thinking death can be cured. Those we love will die. What can we do? Nothing. Accept that death is a natural process of life. Whence we came we go back. Besides, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. The Fountain ends with a question.  You want the answer. Fine. Finish it!