Sunday, December 31, 2006

2007 BERLIN & BEYOND—Der Fischer Und Seine Frau / The Fisherman and His Wife

Veteran director Doris Dörrie's Der Fischer Und Seine Frau (The Fisherman and His Wife) reveals its fairy tale moral in its subtitle: Warum frauen nie genug bekommen (Why Women Never Get Enough). Or as beleaguered husband Otto (Christian Ulmen) comes to understand about his ambitious wife Ida (Alexandra Maria Lara): "A sacrifice for women is a pause between two wishes."

Where Matthias Glasner's The Free Will plunges its audiences into the cold depths of the sea, Doris Dörrie allows her audience access to sparkling sunlight on frothy wavecaps. Her rendition of this classic Grimms Brothers fairy tale is insouciant and irreverent and, most importantly, thoroughly entertaining. This pop parable casts a couple of wisecracking fish in an aquarium as narrators who inform us they were once a man and a woman who—after three years of marriage—stopped loving each other. That failure of communication transformed them into tategoi ("maybe fish") in a distant pond. Their spell can only be broken by a couple who remain in love after three years. Thus their keen narrative interest in Ida and Otto.

Paraphrasing the festival program capsule, Dörrie's tale begins when Ida, a twenty-something fashion designer, backpacking through Japan, meets Otto (Variety's Eddie Cockrell describes him as "a kind of German version of Paul Giamatti") and studly Leo, the "Flying Fish Doctors." Otto and Leo are scouting for koi fish to resell to rich German collectors, and Ida tags along. Naturally, an erotic triangulation ensues in which both men are attracted to the go-getting young Ida, but her aggressive tendencies favor passive Otto over confident Leo. She even proposes to Otto. Soon, they celebrate their budding love in an avant-garde styled Japanese marriage ceremony that gives Björk and Matthew Barney a run for their money before settling into domesticity in Munich. Otto seems perfectly content to be a house husband, minding a baby and his koi in their cramped quarters, while Ida longs for more. A bigger house. A yard for the kid. A room of her own. Her own fashion line. Just as Ida and Otto's meet cute is a rapid infatuation of two perfect strangers falling in love, I was reminded of Coco Chanel's comment that only perfect strangers can fall in love because only strangers are perfect. That Ida then emulates Coco Chanel makes perfect sense. Beginning with scarves colorfully knitted to look like koi fish, Ida progresses to stunning outfits that make a big splash all the way to Japan. Ida's ambition and self-made success, writ large in a riot of color, estrange her from husband and child and seems to ask if modern woman can dare to want it all? Our wisecracking fish narrators begin to suspect their hopes will be dashed as Ida and Otto begin to fall out of love with each other before the three-year deadline. It's miserable to never have what you want and to never want what you have.

Dörrie is hardly coy about her visual and verbal puns. Koi, we are reminded, means both "fish" and "love" in Japanese. And the film's opening montage superimposes schools of fishes onto urban traffic. Later, when Otto becomes outraged that Ida is painting their apartment koi-orange, he visits his hippie mother who—you guessed it—lives in a koi-orange apartment. Hardly subtle but wholly humorous.

The Fisherman and His Wife is enrichened by Rainer Klausmann's crisp lensing and saturated with Katharina Ost's bold, colorful costumes. The film's music is eclectic, ranging from rancherias to The Talking Heads, frequently subtexting events on the screen to comic effect. The one song noticeably absent being The Marvellettes' "Too Many Fish In The Sea." There's short ones, tall ones, and—in this case—fun ones.

Illustration by Kay Nielsen. Cross-published at Twitch.

2007 BERLIN & BEYOND—Der Freie Wille / The Free Will

As is often the case, it was Dave Hudson's report from the 2006 Berlinale to The Greencine Daily that alerted me to Matthias Glasner's Der Freie Wille / The Free Will. The film walloped him hard at an early morning screening and has been running neck to neck with Requiem as his favorite film of 2006. The Berlinale's prestigious Silver Bear for artistic contribution to cinema was presented to Jürgen Vogel for co-writing, producing and starring in The Free Will and he picked up another award at the Chicago International Film Festival. It is, unquestionably, his courageous performance as Theo Stoer, a convicted rapist struggling to rehabilitate, that—as Variety's Derek Elley states it—sustains this "tough verismo love story." Vogel's performance is matched beat for beat by Sabine Timoteo as Nettie Engelbrecht, an abused young woman who becomes romantically entangled with Theo. Their mutual woundedness—one might say their mutual indebtedness—delivers the hardhitting and nearly unbearable pathos of The Free Will.

At first the film's title seems a deliberately disturbing misnomer. Charlie Prince meditated on this when the film had its North American premiere at Tribeca. "It's unclear to me," he wrote at Cinema Strikes Back, "if the title of the film The Free Will is meant to be an open question or a sarcastic contradiction of what is presented on screen." Worrying the conundrum, Prince argues that—given the film's title—one has to ask whether Theo has "free will" to control what he calls "the beast" within him and stop committing such heinous acts? "[I]t is hard to believe the director intends to condemn the character for committing these horrible crimes of his own free will," Prince conjectures, "to me it seemed like he was portrayed as up against a force within him that was beyond his control, a potentially controversial assertion."

Prince's concerns are philosophically apt and it is to the filmmakers' credit that these concerns are poised for consideration. The Free Will honors its audience's intelligence and sophistication as few films on this subject do. Leaning on Wikipedia's guidelines, the general definition argued by some theists regarding the role of free will in relation to the existence of evil is that God allows evil to exist so that humans can have freedom of choice, to do good or evil, so that they are whole beings, and not mindless machines. In other words, the general premise is that good and evil are products of free will. Thus, there can be no good nor evil without free will. Concomitantly, to remove evil would be to remove free will, which would also remove all good or—as the song fears—"If I exorcise my devils; my angels may go too." To remove all evil becomes a hazardous proposition because it likewise removes all good; a hazard that one might even categorize as evil. Consequently, free will becomes necessary as a divine manifestation of God. Or so the argument spins around and around while one munches the maligned apple.

Variously, one could argue that free will is—if not impossible then at least partial—and that the choices a person makes are determined by one's inherent nature. In the case of Theo it meant he willed himself to be good, he "wanted" to be, he "tried", but that doesn't necessarily mean he "gets" to be good. And this is perhaps what is most disturbing about our sympathy for Theo and Nettie; it's really more an empathy with their struggle to do the right thing when the right thing might not be who they are or what destiny has in store for either of them. Clearly it doesn't. We all can relate to that a little bit, I think. In this respect, Theo's conflict is much like Henry's in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Ripley's in The Talented Mr. Ripley where our sustained engagement with their plight becomes something of a morbid fascination with the inevitable. We wish against the inevitable. We try with choice even as we succumb to the fateful twists of individual tragedy.

Theo's anguished efforts to tame the sexual violence within him is rendered poignant by the world's commodified resistance to his best intentions. In other words, we're taught not to be violent, even as the world—indeed the universe—rages ubiquitously around us. Or worse, seethes underneath seemingly normal and complicit interactions, as David Lynch is fond of glamorizing. We're taught to control sexual impulses even as we are bombarded with sex as a commodity. Sex sells everything, Joni Mitchell sings, and sex kills. Theo is desperately struggling to stifle impulses within him that are tempted out by everyday life: by sexy underwear ads in deserted subway stations that assert—larger than life—fascist representations of desire. He tries to ignore young women even as they seem perpetually around him, alone, challenging his beast with their unsuspecting vulnerability.

This is why The Free Will is a challenging piece of filmmaking. It strips complacency away layer by layer to expose bare fears. Another concern it poses is that—as author Lawrence Durrell states it—understanding does not constitute a cure. No amount of rehabilitation or therapy can disguise basic instinct when it is as raw and driven as Theo's or—for that matter—Nettie's. When Theo kept saying, "I can't do this. I can't do this", my heart leapt into my throat, out of pity, out of fear, out of disgust, out of anger. Once again the basic dilemma is presented as a failure of will which is perhaps not as free as continually suggested. The scenario feels rigged.

Yet another of the film's provocations is its dalliance with the uncomfortable premise that there is an inarticulate dynamic that attracts abusers and their victims to each other to work out their fates through each other. This belies a complicity that denies the horror of random violence. Not that we accept random violence but we can digest it more readily. We can somehow accept it as a fact of
life. But we remain horrified by the gravitational dictates of fate that draw individuals willingly into harm's way. Somehow the fact that Theo does not rape Nettie, that he tries so hard to have a normal relationship, is fundamentally more abusive to her than, let's say, the rape of Alex in Gasper Noé's Irreversible, a film to which The Free Will is often compared. Alex's rape is a spectacle of cosmic determinism. The abuse that Nettie suffers is more profound because that determinism has been resisted. Again, they both try, they both want, and they both don't get.

The tension of this dynamic is rendered in one of the film's most revealing scenes where Theo and Nettie "meet cute" in their own way, she not liking guys and he not liking girls, and so they take it to the martial arts mat to work it out. Their mock punches progress into articulated honest aggressions and defenses.

As powerful and important a film as I think The Free Will is, I wouldn't be able to call it one of my year's favorites. I'm ambivalent about its length but moreso about a certain staged conflict Theo endures when he breaks into and enters the apartment of a potential victim. The scene rang completely false for me and pulled me out of what—until then—had been a prolonged grandeur. That Theo was able to break into her apartment without waking her up or her hearing him or anyone noticing him just seemed completely out of character with the way his violence had been demonstrated beforehand. I even found myself chuckling over the notion that, perhaps, German women are just really sound sleepers and don't notice when stalkers break into their apartments, remove their covers and slip into bed beside them. Perhaps I'm just an envious insomniac. But that's really just a minor bitch in a film that is searing for its refusal to endorse any easy exits. In the end the film suggests that our only true free will is to remove ourselves from the arena of choice. A slice of life bitter for human veins to accept.

Cross-published at Twitch.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

2007 BERLIN & BEYOND—The Evening Class Interview With John Arellano

Ingrid Eggers, Program Coordinator for the Goethe-Institut, admitted that in previous years the Festival has had their trailer created by European companies. This year, however, Berlin & Beyond decided to go local and secured the participation of animation students of the Cinema Department of San Francisco State University. Directed by Raquel Coelho, with an original sound track by Marlon Torres, the festival trailer sports creative animation by Yi-Chia Mu (Betty), Peter Alan Davy, Romero Alves and John Arellano, who also served as editor. John and I sat down on the steps of the Goethe-Institut following the press conference to have a quick chat.

* * *

Michael Guillén: John, you and your cohorts have created a clever festival trailer for Berlin & Beyond this year. How did that come about? How many animators were involved?

John Arellano: There were four animators. Then we had Raquel Coelho, the director, she's the new animation teacher at San Francisco State. She came from Tippett Studio. She's worked on a lot of major feature films like Happy Feet, which just came out recently. She was a big help and the driving force behind [the festival trailer project]. We had our own soundtrack guy, Marlon Torres, who made our own score. Basically, we handcrafted all the models and shot it with a digital camera, compiled it in a program and that's how you got what you saw.

Guillén: How did you come up with the concept? The sequence I enjoyed was where the map gets chopped up, fed into the character, and comes out in speech scrolls. That was cool.

Arellano: There was a lot of storyboarding. About 65% of the whole project, I'd say, was planning. Lots of planning. What we did was, we took the soundtrack, made it into a large sound wave, printed it out on 40 sheets of paper, had each frame designated for each millisecond of sound, broke it up into sections, and then we just sat in a big group and started shooting ideas around on what we wanted. In the beginning there's this German city so I had to go to the library and find a lot of books that had good pictures of German architecture, Berlin specifically, and we had this idea for the puppet communicating some kind of cross-cultural barrier. For the map we wanted to show something where we were kind of breaking down the borders between cultures with animation.

Guillén: It's a very effective trailer. I love animation. You guys have done the Festival a good turn. What about your personal background? Is this your first piece to have up on a big screen?

Arellano: This is my first piece that's been out there, yeah. We're happy with the way it turned out. [If you like animation,] every year in the Spring we have the animation finals. It's a film festival for the San Francisco State animators. All the seniors' final projects are going to be shown.

Guillén: It'd be fun to cover that. Please give me some advance notice as that draws near. Well, thanks very much for taking a moment. Again, congratulations. You've done a good job.

2007 BERLIN & BEYOND—Line-up

The 12th annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival, presented by San Francisco's Goethe-Institut, will once again be venued at The Castro Theatre commencing Thursday, January 11 and running through Wednesday, January 17, 2007. A two-film recap will take place on Saturday, January 20, at the Point Arena Theatre. The schedule is already up on-line so I'm not completely jumping the gun with some early recommendations; but, I wanted to get something up on The Evening Class before heading out to 2007 PSIFF. Berlin & Beyond will be in full swing by the time I return back to the Bay Area and I'm glad I'll be able to at least catch its second half.

At the press conference earlier this month Goethe-Institut Director Ulrich Everding contextualized the festival's presence in San Francisco and introduced both the festival's animated trailer and Program Coordinator Ingrid Eggers, who—in turn—synopsized this year's fare.

Berlin & Beyond opens with Andreas Dresen's Sommer Vorm Balkon (Summer In Berlin), which rectifies Dave Hudson's stated suspicion at The Greencine Daily that "most Americans will probably never even hear of, much less see" Summer In Berlin. At least San Franciscans will, thanks to the Goethe-Institut. Not only that, but director Dresen will be on hand to introduce the film and take part in the opening night festivities. I sincerely regret missing that event.

A week later, however, Berlin & Beyond will wind down with veteran director Doris Dörrie's latest feature The Fisherman and His Wife, her comedic tribute to the Grimms fairy tale, co-presented by the San Francisco Film Society. Though the Goethe-Institut hasn't been able to pin Dörrie down on whether or not she will be gracing the Festival, I'm confirming my participation in the closing night party, should anyone really care.

Berlin & Beyond proudly recognizes the achievements of debuting filmmakers with the MK Award for Best First Feature. The award carries a $5,000 cash prize and is given to a filmmaker whose work is a debut narrative feature, exhibits a unique artistic sensibility or vision and deserves to be seen by a wide audience. This year's recipient is Birgit Möller's Valerie, and both director Möller and lead actress Agata Buzek will be on hand to receive the honors at this U.S. premiere. The other contenders in competition were Mirko Borscht's Combat Sixteen, Stina Werenfels' Going Private, Matthias Luthardt's Pingpong and Florian Gaag's Wholetrain, all of which will likewise be screened at this year's festival, each introduced by their promising directors. Combat Sixteen is a U.S. premiere; Going Private and Wholetrain are West Coast premieres, and Pingpong has been on the festival circuit and is included, in fact, on the PSIFF roster.

Along with being a U.S. premiere, Combat Sixteen is featured as part of the Festival's panel discussion on celluloid brutality. "Film and Violence", which will be held at the Goethe-Institut and co-presented by The Film Arts Foundation, examines Combat Sixteen, Detlev Buck's Tough Enough, Andres Veiel's The Kick and Matthias Glasner's The Free Will as representative of films where violence—whether sensational and graphic or subtle and implied—is used as a narrative tool to communicate directorial messages. German filmmakers Mirko Borscht and Andres Veiel will join Bay Area filmmakers and producers Nancy Brown and Kevin Weston and moderator David Liu to tackle this timely topic.

Movies about music and movies with music are a strong highlight at the festival this year. Industrial music, an early garage band, and an obscure hiphop break dancing movement are the focus of a trio of documentaries: the U.S. premiere of Blixa Bargeld's Einstürzende Neubauten, the West Coast premiere of Dietmar Post and Lucia Palacios' Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback, and the U.S. premiere of Nico Raschick's Here We Come, winner of the Kinofest Lünen Audience Award 2006. Directors Bargeld, Post, and Raschick are all expected to attend. In honor of Mozart's 250th birthday, the Wiener Mozartjahr 2006 in Vienna commissioned 28 Austrian directors to create a 60-second movie about Mozart and the result—Mozart Minute—documents the project as part of the festival's Short Film Program I. Florian Gaag's fast-paced Wholetrain about the European subway graffiti writer subculture likewise boasts an amazing original soundtrack featuring new and exclusive performances by hip hop legend KRS One, as well as Freddie Foxxx, O.C. Afu-Ra, and El Da Sensei. Gaag is expected to attend. To round out the musical focus, Berlin & Beyond—in conjunction with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival—are co-presenting Manfred Noa's 1922 Nathan Der Weise (Nathan the Wise) with Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Restored by Filmmuseum München, Nathan the Wise will be introduced by the museum's director Stefan Drößler, who will be available for a special Q&A in the mezzanine of the Castro Theatre. The film's German intertitles will be read in English.

Along with Rob Davis at Errata, I feel compelled to champion Heidi Specogna's powerful and disturbing documentary The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez. Although this documentary has screened recently at a couple of Bay Area film festivals, Berlin & Beyond offers a 35mm transfer that promises to be one of the best projections yet and co-director and cinematographer Rainer Hoffmann will be in attendance.

Three of the Festival's films are family-friendly, including Wolfgang Murnberger's charming coming-of-age tale Lapislazuli, co-presented by the Consulate General of Austria, Los Angeles. Continuing a festival tradition, Bay Area high school students will be admitted free to the film's Friday, January 12, 1:00 screening at the Castro. Teachers are requested to telephone 415/263-8760, no later than January 10, for reservations.

So there you have the basic line-up, details of which can be sifted from the Festival's website. Preview recommendations to follow. Cross-published (in past tense) on Twitch.

Friday, December 29, 2006

2007 PSIFF—The Evening Class Interview With Peter Ketnath

Though not exactly an interview gained at the Palm Springs International, I'm using this phone interview with Peter Ketnath—the German actor in Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures—to launch my coverage of PSIFF. Along with Café Transit, Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures is one of two Global Lens entries that were picked up as official submissions into the Academy Awards Foreign Language category, which credits not only Susan Weeks Coulter's eye for solid foreign films but confirms the Initiative's distribution strategies for providing exposure to less-well-known directors. After following through on Alice Braga's recommendation and catching Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures at its Global Lens screening earlier this year, I contacted Peter Ketnath in Berlin to talk about the film and his future projects. Subsequently, Peter also provided some additional comments via email which I've incorporated into our conversation.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Congratulations on your strong performance as Johann Hohenfels in Marcelo Gomes's Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures, for the film's successful festival run to date, and most recently for its being chosen as Brazil's entry into the foreign language category at the Oscars.

Peter Ketnath: Yeah, that's right. Thank you very much.

Guillén: Will you be attending Palm Springs? Or if it makes the Oscars, will you go?

Ketnath: I haven't thought about it yet too much. I think we will go there, yes, if it's selected.

Guillén: It appears you have primarily done German television. How then did you become involved in this Brazilian feature?

Ketnath: Marcelo Gomes, the director of the film, wanted to have a German actor to bring a German point of view—a different kind of reality—to the film. They have a lot of blonde actors in Brazil, but, he definitely wanted to have a German actor in the film. So he made some research here in Berlin, in Köln, and let it be known that he was searching for a German actor who [spoke] a little Spanish or Portuguese. I was indicated by an actress who is Brazilian who lives here as well in Berlin. [Gomes and I] met at the Berlinale [and maintained] email contact. He told me about the script, about the story, and I loved it very much. I thought it was really interesting so, finally, I made a test here in Berlin [in] my old car driving around the outskirts of Berlin, saying some lines of Johann, and I sent it to him. He [wanted] me to make the movie. Then I had some problems to get the free time because I was involved in some projects here but I managed to cut everything off that I wasn't so interested in and went to Brazil and made the film.

Guillén: How is it that you can speak Portuguese?

Ketnath: My wife is Brazilian. We met here in Berlin five years ago. I traveled the first time to Brazil with her in 2001. She's from Salvador so we stayed there three months. I really loved the simple Brazilian people that I knew in Salvador. That was my introduction to the Portuguese language. I didn't speak as fluently as now but it was okay. It definitely [helped] to get into the movie.

Guillén: I was actually turned on to Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures through Alice Braga; I assume you know her?

Ketnath: Yeah, I know her, sure.

Guillén: How did you and Marcelo develop your characterization of Johann Hohenfels?

Ketnath: I started preparation here in Germany on my own. I read some books about adventure—you know the guys that climbed Eiger Nordwand? [Have] you [heard] of that famous mountain? Very difficult passage to get through. They were contemporary figures [of Johann]. They were even honored by Hitler—but that was not very important for my inspiration—but, I liked the spirit that drove these people.

I had conversations with my father [about] his father's generation. My family was completely destroyed during the Second World War. I have some Jewish ancestors as well. Everybody grew up either without [a] father or with a father who wasn't there, who didn't come back. It was interesting to have a story told about a German guy who fled shortly before the war broke out [who] could achieve a different destiny. That was somehow the key to enter the world of Johann.

I bought some items of that time from second-hand markets and brought them to Brazil—some old books and even some army medals, stuff like that, [cigarette] lighters—I actually brought some real clothes of the epoch, of the time. Marcelo was a very generous and open director so he wanted me to also create part of the dialogue and ideas for the scene, how to construct Johann, you know? I worked pretty much here [in Berlin] and we shared email and when I came [to Brazil] he was in the final round to cast Ranulpho. He selected João Miguel. I was really happy to have him for the film because I felt it was important to have him in the film. Then we [had final rehearsals] in a four-week preparation workshop, like a theater piece. After the four weeks we had a complete performance of the film on stage and then we moved to the Sertão and we started shooting. Even then we changed some things. It was really like an auteur film.

Guillén: One of my favorite scenes in the film is when you pick up the female hitchhiker and you and Ranulpho (João Miguel) begin to compete for her attentions. This scene reminded me of the relationship between the two men in Sergio Machado's Lower City (Cidade Baixa) where Alice Braga's character comes between the two men. How do you understand Johann's relationship with Ranulpho?

Ketnath: The friendship between Johann and Ranulpho is one of delicate, but universal qualities. It's two "losers" thrown together and in the end it's not important anymore who is who. It could take place in any place of the world where people project their wishes and give them names. They're just human and share this in every aspect of their lives, of their short time together. Just trying to survive the day. I thought of Johann as being a cosmopolitan person, always foreign in any place, and always at home at the same time. I know from traveling—I've traveled a lot myself—you have really close contacts but at the same time when it's over, it's over. You have a friendship which is evolving by the given circumstances but after 11 days, it's already gone in a way. Each follows a different destiny.

Guillén: Was their personal interaction representative of the interaction between Germany and Brazil as nations?

Ketnath: Somehow it is because I think German people like Brazilian people in a very general way. I don't know so much why that is. Maybe it's because of this paradise aspect that Brazil has? We've always had immigration from Germany to Brazil. At the same time, the Brazilians think of Germany as a sort of perfect country where everything is working and everybody has money. Of course it's not that simple but I think it still works this way. Both countries are interested in a friendly relationship to each other and [there are] various cultural projects supporting this.

Guillén: Was this your first time to work with João Miguel? What was it like working with him?

Ketnath: I thought it was wonderful. I think it was [his] first feature. He did just theater work before. So he was sometimes a bit insecure about the effect, the way the scenes would come out on film. We had some difficulty in the beginning caused by our different acting techniques but, during that preparation period, we built up a strong confidence for each other because we knew we needed each other and whatever would be good in the part would be good in the film.

Guillén: What was it like for the two of you to work in the caatinga forest of the Sertão?

Ketnath: João already knew the Sertão. I think he actually lived there in a more coastal region. For me it was actually like desert. I know desert from even the U.S.A., from Arizona, I was in Mexico, I was in North Africa. [The caatinga forest] is just a different aspect of desert. I wasn't too surprised personally.

Guillén: I noticed on your website that the co-writer of Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures, Paulo Caldas, will be directing you next in his directorial feature Deserto Feliz? What's that film about?

Ketnath: That's about a girl of minor age [who] comes from the Sertão. [She has been] sexually abused by her stepfather and she seeks her way out through prostitution. She lands in Recife, which is like a decadent capital of Pernambuco, which had this sex tourist boom in the '90s. Nowadays it's more in decline, it's more decadent. Culturally, artistically, powerfully, [Recife is] very ambitious but it's full of poverty and misery and [is] rough. She survives as a child prostitute, a boyzinha, which runs a high risk of disease and abuse. She lives in a small flat together with some other girl prostitutes. I play Mark, a traveler, obviously a sex tourist, [though] not a cliché. They meet each other and they somehow fall strangely in love with each other. She falls more for him [at first] and then they have a time that they spend in Berlin—we don't know if it's real or if it's just her fantasy—and [the story is] sort of sour. It doesn't come out too happy but it lives from the way the film is done. It's in post-production in its fifth rough cut. It's really good. It's really strong and it's really working out. It doesn't show sex. It doesn't show what you would probably think of if you heard about a minor prostitution subject and sex tourism. It's a bit driven off the cliché. We actually made a deal here [in Berlin] with a production company to co-produce the film and we will try to [enter] it in the next Berlin Film Festival. That would be great for the film.

Guillén: It certainly sounds like it would be. Who is the young actress who is playing the child prostitute?

Ketnath: Nash Laila. She's 18 but has the features of a 14-year-old girl. She's a young, fresh actress who has done some theater. This is her first feature. [We] had a special chemistry that improved through the characters. I'm really happy about both those directors [Marcelo Gomes and Paulo Caldas]. They're both from Pernambuco, both from Recife, and you know Karim Ainouz maybe? He's also part of the crew. He did Madame Satã and now his second feature is called O Céu de Suely [The Heaven of Suely or Suely in the Sky]. Have you seen Amarelo Manga [Mango Yellow]?

Guillén: No, I'm not familiar with that film though I do know Ainouz's films. It's wonderful that you've been pulled into this wave of young Brazilian talent that's hitting the international film scene. Are you planning on becoming the German actor in Brazil?

Ketnath: I'm just open, you know? The German television market, for example, isn't too interesting actually for me from the artistic point of view. It's just a way to survive in terms of money.

Guillén: Have you acted in German features?

Ketnath: Yes, I've done some features for the German film schools and academies that never made it to the screen. I've done one feature—I don't think it was released in the States—And Nobody Weeps For Me / Und keiner weint mir nach (1996) by Joseph Vilsmaier. He did Stalingrad (1993), which was respected in the U.S.

Guillén: I'll have to hunt that down. I certainly did admire Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures. I thought your performance was charismatic. What's up next for you after Deserto Feliz?

Ketnath: Right now I'm doing a German television production, a television crime movie, and I have accepted a small "special participation" in a Brazilian TVGlobo telenovela [Pé na Jaca], shot in Paris. My character Jean Luc is a decadent French lord, married to the main character of the novela, who kills himself out of disgust (a good and definite exit of the novela; I think TV gets you killed, in a way). Through that I have been offered to do a film which I don't know too much about yet, but it's going to be another feature film. It's going to be from Rio de Janeiro so I wanted to know how those people from Brazil work. They have the studio system there and they have a lot of money. I'm also writing a script to be one day realized in Brazil and also Germany and may follow up on an idea of the Teatro Castro Alves in Salvador de Bahia to work on a piece together next year—a definite thrill to realize a theater work in Portuguese. It's interesting to do eclectic, diverse work. Do you understand?

Guillén: Oh absolutely. It keeps you alive as an artist. Well, Peter, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I look forward to seeing Deserto Feliz and possibly Cinema again in Palm Springs and—if it makes it to the Oscars—perhaps we'll meet in Los Angeles?

Ketnath. Okay. Thank you as well, Michael.

Cross-published at Twitch.

2006 LISTS—My 10 Favorite Girish Drawings

As anyone who writes about film online knows, Girish Shambu's eponymous blog is the water cooler for discussing film. His site is the fulcrum of democratized film criticism. One of my first five links to The Evening Class, I continue to frequent Girish's blog on a daily basis out of sheer interest but also to humble myself. Just when I think I know anything about film, all I have to do is read Girish's erudite posts and the ensuing commentary he solicits and inspires to remind myself that the learning curve is constant, and how appropriate that is when it comes to informing oneself about film.

But along with all the informed and inspired writing, Girish characterizes his site by offering up his own unique drawings. I've grown quite fond of them and decided—since lists are all the rage these last few days of 2006—that I'd choose my ten favorite Girish drawings and gallery them here on The Evening Class. This was more difficult than first imagined and anyone who's intrigued should really give themselves an idle hour to peruse his archives to take a look at what is becoming one of his strong self-expressions, along with his gift for camaraderie, his educational skills, his jazz musicianship, his film writing and his art.

I like his non-figurative object drawings the best. With crisp, clean lines Girish captures the simple essence of form. I guess it should be no surprise, then, that I was first drawn to the implements of that capture: a fountain pen, a detail of a fountain pen, and the whittled stub of a pencil. These three images are intriguingly intertextual, implying not only writing but drawing.

His textured instruments come next; first a scaled guitar, then a striped sax. I've never heard Girish's music but these drawings imply a sense of pattern and texture. Which leads me to add that another resonance to Girish's blog is his frequent allusions to music, which serve to complement his meditations on film.

Next, come the lamps. One a kerosene lamp and the other a lava lamp. They reference his ability to illuminate in various ways.

Next, a wine bottle limned by shadow. One imagines two glasses and an animated conversation tucked away in some urban watering hole.

Finally, a rising sun and a palm tree composed of circles. They're comparable in design for me and insinuate each other. The circular energy of the sun is within the tree. Endendros, the Greeks would call it, the life at work in the tree, that which animates and provides life force. I'm reminded of that beautiful portrait Caravaggio has of Dionysos, supine, Asian, autumn-colored grape leaves in his hair, and a glass of wine in his hand. In the wine, concentric rings, generating from his sheer energy. That Dionysian enthusiasm is everywhere present in Girish Shambu's output: in his writing, music, conversation, and drawings. We all feel it. Like vibrations in wine.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

2007 PSIFF—Foreign Language Submissions to the Academy Awards

The Palm Springs International Film Festival has announced their 2007 program online. What first caught my attention about PSIFF was their reputation for screening all of the official submissions for Academy Award consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. They have announced (and will be screening) the following 55 submissions, which I've hyperlinked to the festival's capsule reviews, which incorporate their own links to the film's official websites:

9th Company (9 Rota) / Russia / Fyodor Bondarchuk
After the Wedding (Efter Brylluppet) / Denmark / Susanne Bier
Ahimsa: Stop to Run (Ahingsa-Jikko mee gam) / Thailand / Kittikorn Liasirikun
American Visa / Bolivia / Juan Carlos Valdivia
Avenue Montaigne—Orchestra Seats (Avenue Montaigne—Fauteuils d'orchestre) / France / Danièle Thompson
Banquet, The (Ye Yan) / Hong Kong / Feng Xiaogang
Before Flying Back To Earth (Pries Parskrendant i Zeme) / Lithuania / Arunas Matelis
El Benny / Cuba / Jorge Luis Sánchez
Black Book (Zwartboek) / Netherlands / Paul Verhoeven
Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, The (Ang pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros) / Philippines / Auraeus Solito
Blue Cha Cha (Shen Hai) / Taiwan / Wen-Tang Cheng
Border Café (Café Transit) / Iran / Kambuzia Partovi
Bosta / Lebanon / Philippe Aractingi
Chariton's Choir (I Horodia tou Haritona) / Greece / Grigoris Karantinakis
Children (Börn) / Iceland / Ragnar Bragason
Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures (Cinema, aspirinas e urubus) / Brazil / Marcelo Gomes
Curse of the Golden Flower (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia) / China / Zhang Yimou
Days of Glory (Indigènes) / Algeria / Rachid Bouchareb
Dreams (Ahlaam) / Iraq / Mohamed Al-Daradji
Falkenberg, Farewell (Farväl Falkenberg) / Sweden / Jesper Gansladt
Family Law (Derecho de familia) / Argentina / Daniel Burman
Forever Flows (Nirontor) / Bangladesh / Abu Sayeed
Golden Door, The (Nuovomondo) Italy / Emanuele Crialese
Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba) / Slovenia / Jan Cvitkovic
Grbavica / Bosnia-Herzegovina / Jasmilla Zbanic
Hula Girls (Hula Gâru) / Japan / Sang-il Lee
Ice Cream, I Scream (Dondurman Gaymak) / Turkey / Yüksel Aksu
In Bed (En la Cama) / Chile / Matias Bize
King and the Clown (Wang-ui namja) / South Korea / Lee Jun-ik
Kontakt / Macedonia / Sergej Stanojkovski
Libertas / Croatia / Veljko Bulajic
Lives of Others, The (Das Leben der Anderen) / Germany / Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Love for Share (Berbagi Suami) / Indonesia / Nia di Nata
Lunacy (Sílení) / Czech Republic / Jan Svankmajer
Madeinusa / Peru / Claudia Llosa
Maroa / Venezuela / Solveig Hoogestejn
Migration (Basain) / Nepal / Subash Prasad Gajurel
Monkeys in Winter (Maimuni prez zimata) / Bulgaria / Milena Andonova
Nomad the Warrior (Kochevnik) / Kazakhstan / Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Talgat Temenov
Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) / Mexico / Guillermo del Toro
Rang De Basanti / India / Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Retrieval (Z Odzysku) / Poland / Slawomir Fabicki
Someone Else's Happiness (Een Ander zijn Geluk) / Belgium / Fien Troch
Ten Canoes / Australia / Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr
Thieves and Liars (Ladrones y mentirosos) / Puerto Rico / Ricardo Mendez Matta, Poli Marichal
Tomorrow Morning (Sutra Ujutru) / Serbia / Oleg Novkovic
Ton of Luck, A (Soñar no cuesta nada) / Rodrigo Triana
Vitus / Switzerland / Fredi M. Murer
Volver / Spain / Pedro Almodóvar
Water / Canada / Deepa Mehta
Way I Spent the End of the World, The (Cum Mi-am Petrecut Sfarsitul Lumii) / Romania / Catalin Mitulescu
Wedding Chest, The (Sunduk Predkov) / Kyrgyzstan / Nurbek Egen
White Palms (Fehér tenyér) / Hungary / Szabolcs Hadju
Yacoubian Building, The (Omaret Yacoubian) / Egypt / Maravan Hamed
You Bet Your Life (Spiele Leben) / Austria / Antonin Svoboda

Of those 55 I have already seen 12 (The Banquet; Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures; Curse of the Golden Flower; Days of Glory; In Bed; The Lives of Others; Lunacy; Madeinusa; Pan's Labyrinth (1, 2, and 3); Ten Canoes; Volver; and Water). I've hyperlinked those where I have either reviewed the film, interviewed the talent, or transcribed a Q&A. I might mention that in the works and soon to be published on The Evening Class are interviews with Peter Ketnath (of Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others).

Of the remaining foreign language submissions, I'm intending to see 15 of these films at the Palm Springs International: After the Wedding (on Blake's earlier recommendation); Ahimsa: Stop to Run; El Benny; Black Book (thanks for the heads-up, Brian!); The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (finally!); Blue Cha Cha; Bosta; Family Law (unless I catch it on Comcast's On Demand first); Forever Flows; Maroa; Monkeys in Winter (really looking forward to this, Marina!); Nomad the Warrior; Rang De Basanti; Thieves and Liars; and The Yacoubian Building (on Michael Hawley's recommendation). I just want to make sure you all realize I listen to your comments and suggestions!

Along with those 15 screenings I will, of course, be catching a whole other set of films at PSIFF relating to Mexican cinema that are part of their Cine Latino series (in anticipation of a roundtable I'll be moderating with Sergio de La Mora, Johnny Ray Huston, and B. Ruby Rich on the state of Latino cinema, to be published on The Evening Class in the relatively near future; I'll keep you posted). Also at Palm Springs I'll be catching an archival screening of the Czech classic Marketa Lazarova, among various other random "must sees" here and there. You can imagine that having to choose among so many wonderful titles is near to maddening! You have to factor in competing time slots, the distance between venues, when you might get a chance to eat, a chance to sleep, a chance to visit with friends, what films you might never get a chance to see ever again, and which might achieve distribution or—at the least—an appearance in upcoming Bay Area festivals. It's grueling and I've spent nights anguishing over the schedule and I love every moment of it. I admit it; I've become a festival addict.

A few on the foreign language list I'll be catching later next month at the San Rafael Film Center's "For Your Consideration" sampling, notably Ahlaam, Kontakt, and—one I'm surprised not to see on the PSIFF list—Story of Pao from Vietnam.

Naturally, the rest I hope will be picked up at Bay Area festivals to come, namely the Asian-American International Film Festival and the San Francisco International. I've heard a few rumors but I'm not at liberty to divulge. Hunger is, after all, the best spice! Though how one can speak of hunger after a banquet such as this borders on the gluttonous.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

ASIA SHOCK—The Evening Class Interview With Patrick Galloway

Following his Codys book store reading I invited Patrick Galloway and his wife Shirley up to The Fifth Floor for drinks and discussion. Patrick cozied up to his Bombay Gibson and me to my aged Macallan.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Patrick, earlier this year San Francisco had its Hole in the Head festival, which is our fright or extreme festival, and Todd Brown—my editor at Twitch—encouraged me to cover it for his site. It was probably one of the most difficult writing assignments I've ever had. I didn't really know how to write about these films. You, on the other hand, obviously enjoy these films so much and—as I was reading Asia Shock—I was reminded that enjoyment is the obvious prerequisite to writing about dark cinema.

Patrick Galloway: Yeah, and channel that into writing. If you intellectualize it too much, you get locked up.

Guillén: Exactly. That's what I appreciate about your book Asia Shock. It has a conversational feel, as if you're sitting down with a film buddy and just discussing the film. Further, the films aren't sacrosanct to you. They can be made fun of. You don't have be too serious about how you approach them and yet you have some keen insights.

Galloway: I try to do a stealth film scholar maneuver where I'm writing in a conversational tone but I'm trying to give the reader some information that they didn't have before. I try to do it in a way that doesn't feel academic and dry. At least that's what I try to do.

Guillén: You've succeeded in that. Your basic description of the Asian mastery of dark cinema reminded me of a conversation I'd had with Holehead's director Bruce Fletcher regarding why Japan, for example, heads the pack in extreme visions. Why do you think Asia has their finger on the pulse of this, as you call it, "meta-genre" of dark, extreme cinema?

Galloway: I actually address that more in my first book, the Samurai film book, when I discuss Japanese culture and the fact that it's always been a very repressive culture in certain ways. People are constrained to follow the class systems, but there have always been pressure valves built into Japanese culture. Such as drinking sake. There's an ancient expression in Japanese culture: "No rank over sake." Once you sit down with a man and start drinking sake—he could be a samurai, he could be a farmer, it doesn't matter—and they still do that to this day. The salary man in Japan will go out after work, they all get blotto, it's almost like an obligation. In fact, in many cases in Japanese business if you're a teetotaler it could actually hurt your career because it's so important to let their hair down at the end of the day. Manga and film, theater and books, are other areas that have always been sacrosanct in Japanese cultures as areas to explore the furthest reaches of your imagination without being hindered or censored, which is very different from this culture, which is based on a Puritanical model where you are actively prohibited from thinking certain thoughts and feeling certain feelings. That's why you get such extreme films coming out of Japan, because it's one of those pressure valves. Okay, I may have to kowtow to my boss to an extreme degree or may have to almost kill myself to get through my exams, but when it comes down to just seeing a movie, I want to blow my mind. It's an understood social convention.

Guillén: In the grouping of national cinemas represented in Asia Shock, I noticed Malaysia was absent. Are you familiar with the horror that's coming out of Malaysia?

Galloway: Not so much. Where I live I'm kind of isolated. I'm in a small town in Oregon and I have to rely to a certain degree—and this is in the book—upon movies I can obtain. I'm not really plugged into the festivals because there's not any festivals near where I live. I realize I need to start making more efforts to get up to Portland or Seattle or get down to San Francisco.

Guillén: At the same time there's something to be said for admitting your situation and how you've circumvented that problem of exposure, i.e. online dvd rentals through outlets like Greencine. That's probably, truthfully, how most people are accessing this material. One of the most helpful facets of Asia Shock are your recommendations on how people can find these movies.

Galloway: That's what's important for me. From the beginning I wanted to write about films that people could see. That's one thing that gets remedied. If I can get a hold of this film, someone else can, and that's a plus to my mind. [Rather than] writing only [about] films that are only going to exist on the festival circuit and then go away, I write about those that may be valuable to a certain degree but if the person that's reading can't see that film, that could be frustrating as well.

Guillén: Absolutely. And you inspire your readers to make the effort to find these films. As I mentioned on the way here, I've seen maybe 15 of the 61 films you profile in Asia Shock and Twitch has undoubtedly reviewed most of those, and offered the trailers, and offered the production stills; they're kind of manic about all that. Branching away from Asian, are you as interested in the genre elsewhere? For example, do you like Dario Argento's Italian horror?

Galloway: Oh absolutely, yeah. I'm a big Argento fan. I haven't seen as much Italian horror as I'd like to. I guess I'm just drawn more to Asian cinema as a national or as a regional cinema than I am to [others]. Actually, I have to qualify that because I'm very interested in Italian cinema of the '50s and '60s. I'm interested in French cinema of the '50s, '60s, '70s. So it depends on what I'm looking for. If I'm looking for horror or samurai films, of course that's only going to be Japanese. It's a very locked-in genre.

Guillén: You've done the Samurai book. You followed up with Asia Shock. Is there something in the pipeline that's coming up next?

Galloway: I have two book projects that I'm pursuing. One is going to be Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves 2, because I only just scratched the surface of samurai films with the first book, which I consider kind of a primer and which I've actually gotten some flak for with hardcore fans as it being merely a primer. So I want to write the second book to offer the intermediate course. The second book will be Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves 2: Deeper Into Samurai Films. We're going to pick up where we left off in the first book and start going into some films that maybe you haven't seen or heard of. A lot of people have heard of Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, or a lot of films that are in there, but we're going to go a little deeper now. Maybe make you work a little harder to get these films; but, again, all the films I review will be obtainable so that people can see them.

Guillén: Would you ever cover wuxia?

Galloway: I'm not as drawn to that particular genre personally and, again, we discussed about how you write about what you love and the voice will come through in the work. I've seen a few of those films and they were kind of fun but they don't really hit me here at a gut level. I've told people that, frankly, I think I'm reincarnated from a Japanese person in another lifetime. Especially in that period of the samurai. Something just resonates so deeply for me when I see these films. I feel like I'm coming home. It's a strange thing because ... I didn't know anything about Japan [when] I started watching these films. So I don't know where this feeling is coming from but it's very deep, it's very real, and that's what you also pick up on [reading the books].

Guillén: Yes, it's quite engaging. Your enthusiasm comes across in the original meaning of the word—entheos, the god within—in your case, a dark god within. Obviously to write this book, you had to watch a lot of movies, more than what you've included?

Galloway: Oh yes. I'd say I've watched at least twice as many films as are in the book.

Guillén: Are there, let's say, five that you didn't include that you wished you had?

Galloway: No, no. The thing is I developed a criteria that [the film] had to be shocking to a certain degree just on general principles in a unique way. But it also had to be really well-made and have something to say. Finding films that meet both of those criteria is a lot harder than you might imagine. I saw a lot of films that were very shocking and gross but really weren't very well-done and I didn't really have anything to say. I saw some films that were excellent films and great movies but just weren't terribly shocking. My mandate was Asia shock and I think I say it in the beginning of the book, it's more of the grotesque rather than the merely gross.

Guillén: You mentioned Herschell a little earlier in your lecture. In terms of a contrast—American Shock—is there any American film that grabs you?

Galloway: So much of American Shock cinema is—how shall I say it?—when I think of something like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, it's kind of cartooney. Whereas there's a certain measure of reality—I guess I would say—in a lot of these extreme Asian films. It's like there's a seriousness and an earnestness that's there that kind of gets jettisoned in American shock cinema. Simply because, again, I think it's the puritanical underpinnings of our culture. Somehow we can't fully give ourselves to that kind of material to the degree that I see in Asian film.

Guillén: Another point you articulate so well in Asia Shock is how Asian ambiguities—what you termed aimai—are explained away in American remakes.

Galloway: Absolutely.

Guillén: Which remains one of my main complaints against American remakes of Asian film. I've seen maybe one remake—The Grudge—that I thought came anywhere near its Asian predecessor.

Galloway: It's funny you should mention that because—when I was practicing my speech earlier—I was going to mention when I was discussing The Ring and its remake that most of the American remakes I've seen of Asian horror films have been rather poor. The one exception is The Grudge, which was adapted from the Japanese film Ju-on: The Grudge. The reason [the remake is] superior is because they hired Takashi Shimizu—who was the director of the original—to direct the remake and it was shot in Japan. So you have those two very vital elements there. All they did was bring in American actors, pull out the Japanese actors and pop in the American actors, and that's why that continuity makes that remake so much better; but, that's not the norm.

Guillén: No! For example, one of my favorites in this whole genre is Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I adore him. You chose Pulse as the example of his work, which is probably my least favorite of his pieces.

Galloway: But he is multi-genre. He doesn't just do horror or supernatural.

Guillén: So it was the haunted technology in Pulse that you were going for?

Galloway: That and also—of the films I'd seen of his; I've seen several other of his films too—for me that was just the most effective in that genre. I liked Cure as well; but, I was going for the supernatural. Have you seen any other films he's done that are purely supernatural?

Guillén: Séance.

Galloway: Okay. I haven't seen that one.

Guillén: Séance freaked me out!

Galloway: Really? Is that an earlier one?

Guillén: It's an earlier one, yeah. How about animation? Would you ever study Japanese animation?

Galloway: Well, to be completely honest I'm not as drawn to that as many other of my contemporary writers on Asian film. I've seen a lot of anime and I have some anime in my film collection; but, it's not something I would particularly pursue. Just live action film is where it's at for me. With the samurai thing, taiga dramas which are like t.v. dramas in Japan are very popular with a lot of samurai film fans; but, I'm not drawn to that as the pure samurai film. Probably because the golden age was during the '60s and all the taiga dramas are being put out now so they're very contemporary, shot on DV and things like that, which ruin it for me.

Guillén: Well I, for one, am grateful that you have a genuine passion for the samurai films and Asia shock. I congratulate you on the publication of both volumes. Right now, I'm going to let you enjoy your Gibson.

Galloway: Well, join me with yours!

Cross-posted at Twitch.

ASIA SHOCK—Patrick Galloway's Codys-Stockton San Francisco Bookstore Appearance

Patrick Galloway appeared at Codys-Stockton downtown San Francisco to promote the Stonebridge publication of Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema From Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand. In one of the best-mounted book readings I have ever experienced, Patrick utilized a laptop and Apple's Front Row software to talk about Asian films by—imagine!—showing his audience Asian film clips! Though he was sweating bullets at first because the technology was betraying him, an attorney wandering through the bookstore overheard his consternation and stepped in to rescue the day. As Joe Campbell has written all over the place, a hero has allies he doesn't even know he has!

Patrick started out by telling us a little bit about himself. He grew up in San Francisco and got his B.A. at San Francisco State in English Literature. In the late '90s he worked in the boom and then—when it went dot.bomb in 2001—he went through some "changes" and decided to focus on his writing. His first book was Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook, also published by Stonebridge.

Assuming that someone might wonder why a person caught up in sword films would likewise be interested in bizarre, extreme Asian cinema, Patrick read from the book's foreword by way of explanation: "Ever since I can remember I've loved the dead. Not literally, you understand, but conceptually. From an early age, my imagination and curiosity have run to the morbid, the depraved, to desperate acts with guns and knives, to people in the woods with plastic bags and shovels, to dark secrets behind the boathouse, to things unearthed that play havoc with the living—that sort of thing. As a teenager I read The Exorcist, The Omen, The Amityville Horror, Poe, Lovecraft, and King, and I wrote my own twisted little tales. And, of course, horror films were a perennial pleasure. Years later, when I discovered Asian film, I found not only a lively tradition of macabre cinema (particularly in Japan), but one far more extreme and outrageous than anything I'd experienced before. Rivers of blood! Mountains of corpses! There seemed to be no limits placed on the Asian filmmaker's vision, no boundaries in terms of topic or depiction. Everything imaginable was on the chopping block, so to speak. How gratifying to find two things I loved, morbid tales and Asian cinema, coming together so beautifully. This book is an expression of my appreciation for the Asian films and filmmakers who opened my eyes to what horror is really all about." (2006:7)

Jumping to the tail end of his foreward, Patrick continued: "Asia Shock represents a personal journey. It was not my intention to write an exhaustive discussion of Asian dark cinema and this is certainly no all-inclusive omnibus. My aim was to look at a lot of films and write about what I considered the standouts, films that had more to offer than just blood, films that explored the grotesque rather than the merely gross. It is my hope that I've come up with some good insights and shed some light—but not too much light. The darkness hates the light." (2006:8)

The theme of the book, Patrick stated, is that—when it comes to "dark cinema"—nobody does it darker than Asian filmmakers. The book grapples with why that is, employing a little cultural anthropology; but, most notably, Patrick has watched a lot of movies to compare and contrast between Asian cinema and, say, Hollywood cinema. He read another section to define "dark cinema": "This book is an exploration of what I term 'dark cinema.' Dark cinema is a meta-genre that embraces the macabre and disturbing, shocking and profane, dire and devastating extremes of the contemporary film experience. Dark cinema encompasses the horror genre, but extends to exploitation film, black comedy, psychological thrillers, and police procedurals (the kind that investigate a string of abominable crimes), as well as certain types of art house fare. The common denominator? The darkness. In my scheme, darkness essentially equals death, and there's no escaping the cold shadow of that scythe-toting, bony-finger-beckoning cowled one—it extends over all the films on offer in Asia Shock, a region of dark corners, nightmares, cruelty, insanity, imprisonment, murder, and revenge. There's also a good deal of gore, ghosts, curses, cannibalism, voodoo, disease, zombies, demons, necrophilia, rape, psychosis, all manner of torture, and bulging bin bags of body parts. Along the way you'll encounter human pork buns, a haunted cell phone, the odd corpse in a wall, a bit of tongue amputation, a cursed videotape, someone hung from hooks, and the occasional unpleasant medical experiment. Fasten your seat belts, folks." (2006:9)

Patrick joked that he arranged the eight chapters of his table of contents by basing them on phases of life. After the introductory chapter, there's "Family"—where you begin life in the questionable embrace of family—eventually entering "Society" at some point wherein you encounter frightening "Technology". Then things start to go really bad and you experience "Confinement" and "Psychosis", possibly even go through a bout of "Possession", and finally you go to "Hell". His audience laughed.

Structuring his reading so that he could show a film clip to represent each chapter and, thereby, work his way through the book, Patrick likewise chose clips representative of the different national cinemas: some Japanese films, some Korean films, a Hong Kong film and a Thai film. All in all, there are roughly 60 films reviewed in Asia Shock, either fully or by sidebar.

Before screening the clips Patrick asked his audience if they had any questions or comments? If they wanted a mint?

His first clip was from Takashi Miike's Fudoh: The Next Generation. Miike is a Japanese filmmaker who has quite a following and is one of the more extreme filmmakers you're ever going to experience. Fudoh: The Next Generation is based on manga, which is a Japanese comic, except that Japanese comics are very different from what we consider a comic book in our culture. Manga covers every topic you can imagine, from fluffy bunnies to extreme gore and violence. If you want a shortcut into extreme Japanese cinema, Patrick suggested, look for a movie based on Japanese manga.

This story concerns the yakuza, basically the Japanese mafia, a 100-year-old organized crime syndicate and concerns a young fellow named Ricky Fudoh whose father is a yakuza boss. Unbeknownst to Dad, Ricky's helping Dad out through his own gang of teenage assassins; in some cases little kid assassins. They're running around and knocking off all of Dad's enemies. In the proffered clip we follow the new kid in high school who's a very tall guy with long hair who's very tough and has been watching Ricky. He wants to know what Ricky Fudoh is up to because every time Ricky makes a phone call on his cell phone, somebody gets it. He confronts Ricky in the high school hallway and Ricky is defended by one of his teenage girl body guards. Just to prepare us, Patrick cautioned, she has multiple talents, namely shooting poisonous darts from a certain part of her anatomy. Enough said.

For the "Society" chapter Patrick shared a clip from Fruit Chan's Dumplings. Chan made a short version and a full-length version of Dumplings. Patrick has only seen the short version and that was enough for him. Dumplings features the "lovely and talented" Bai Ling, the Chinese actress who has done some big budget films like Wild, Wild West and Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (and who I last saw dancing provocatively on a tabletop at the Kabuki Café during the S.F. International). But in this film Bai Ling speaks in her native Cantonese and plays a character named Aunt Mei who lives in a tenement in Hong Kong. She's kind of a witchy woman who has "powers." Her big product is she makes these fabulous special dumplings that middle-aged women come around and enjoy. They have wonderful, restorative power that make the women youthful and more attractive to their husbands and, in some cases, fertile. Unfortunately, the main ingredient of these dumplings is—you guessed it—human fetuses. Patrick's featured clip showed Aunt Mei going to her connection in a hospital in mainland China and then interacting with one of her female clients.

There was an actual incident that happened back in 1995 where a provincial hospital was caught distributing fetuses for nutritional purposes. This hospital was actually featured in Dumplings. Patrick was quick to qualify that he didn't mean to imply that this was standard operational procedure in Chinese hospitals. It was just one isolated incident reported in the newspapers. Fruit Chan just wanted to run with the idea.

For the "Technology" chapter Patrick chose a clip from Ringu. Confident that most of his audience knew the film—if not its original Japanese version, then the Hollywood remake with Naomi Watts—Patrick admitted that his experience with American remakes is that Hollywood invariably wrings out any unique qualities. All ambiguities are completely erased and completely S-P-E-L-L-E-D O-U-T and Ringu and its American counterpart The Ring are no exception. He writes about both versions in his book. His chosen clip featured Hiroyuki Sanada, an excellent Japanese actor also featured in The Last Sumurai where he kicks the living shit out of Tom Cruise with a wooden sword. In the '70s Sanada was in a lot of action martial arts films. He was a member of Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club, which was a group of stunt men and martial artists. But he turned his back on the action movies by age 25 to become a serious actor and did very well for himself.

Reminding his audience that the premise of Ringu is that people get a haunted video tape that they watch only to die five days later, Patrick admitted the "kooky premise" nonetheless works. They get killed by an evil she-ghost named Sadako with long hair who was thrown down a well. So you get to see her often crawling out of a well, as in the clip.

Moving on to the "Confinement" chapter, Patrick chose a Korean clip from Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy and encouraged his audience to get a hold of anything Park Chan-Wook has done, particularly JSA (Joint Security Area), a tense political thriller which takes place on the border between North and South Korea. Of course, Park Chan-Wook is well-known for his "revenge trilogy"—Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. The star of Oldboy is Choi Min-sik who Patrick characterized as the Laurence Olivier of South Korea but then tweaked that characterization by adding on Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando as well. Oldboy is Min-sik's film and the impact of the film is largely due to his performance.

The film's premise is that a regular salary man is abducted and locked away in a private prison for 15 years with nothing but a t.v. to keep him company. One day he's—just as mysteriously—released on a rooftop of a building in Seoul not far from where he was abducted. Oldboy's objective is to figure out who did this to him and why and then to, of course, get his revenge. The guy who did do this to him wants this too for some strange reason that unfolds throughout the movie. The scene Patrick elected to screen is when Oldboy wakes up on the top of the building. He hasn't seen another human being for 15 years. He's only had a t.v. for company and he sees another fellow on the roof (clutching a poodle) who appears ready to jump off.

Moving to the "Psychosis" chapter, Patrick offered another Korean clip from the film Say Yes. It's a lesser-known title from Kim Sung-Hong featuring veteran actor Park Joong-Hoon who's been around since the early '80s. Joong-Hoon is an interesting-looking guy. He's got an odd-shaped face. He used to do a lot of comedy but recently has transitioned into more serious roles and, Patrick quipped, it doesn't get more serious than the role in this film, which aligns neatly with the psycho hitchhiker genre. Joong-Hoon plays the psychotic hitchhiker who gets picked up by a young couple and proceeds to torment them through more and more heinous degrees. First he puts them through all kinds of changes, threatens their lives, and actually tries to kill them or seems like he's trying to kill them. He works the boyfriend and then allows himself in a public place to be severely beaten by the boyfriend but, of course, this is all part of his plan. Because then he places assault charges on the boyfriend to use that as leverage, saying, "Okay, I'll drop the charges if you let me travel with you." Okay? He wants to be the traveling companion of this young couple that he's already been tormenting. As you can imagine, the boyfriend isn't too keen on this arrangement but Joong-Hoon is insisting upon them all having dinner together to discuss it. This clip begins with the strange threesome arriving to dinner.

Even though that particular scene is fairly conventional for films of this sort, Patrick promises that Say Yes ratchets up. Its tension and violence go off the scale and is almost hard to watch.

The "Possession" chapter is a short one, featuring only a few films; but, one of them is a Thai film called Body Jumper, which refers to a ghost that can jump from one body to another. In this case the ghost is something called the "Pob", which is a traditional ghost from Thai folklore. It's what you call a liver-hungry ghost. This is a ghost that, yes, eats your liver. What's great about Asian ghosts is that they're not these floating spectre-like ghosts; they're very real. They can kill you. That's what makes them far more vicious. Body Jumper is actually a horror comedy and—though difficult to track down as Thai films frequently are—worth the effort.

In this story the basic premise is that there is a group of young college students who are all friends. They go off on a trip to the provinces. One of them, a pretty young girl named Ker, becomes possessed by a Pob. A Pob traditionally is an old crone with claws and a nasty thing—which it eventually becomes by the end of the film—but, for a lot of the film the Pob is possessing a pretty girl named Ker and she just runs amok eating men's livers. Her friends gradually figure out what she's up to and, in the screened scene, they follow her to a disco where she's found her latest victim. She's going to eat his liver but she's going to try a different way of getting at it that she hasn't tried before.

The last chapter is the "Hell" chapter and Patrick felt there was no better clip to represent the chapter than one from a 1960 Japanese film called Jigoku (or Hell). Recently released by the Criterion collection after being difficult to track down for many years, Jigoku is a groundbreaking film in Japanese horror directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, who is often considered the Granddaddy of Japanese horror cinema. Nakagawa, however, was prolific and could do all kinds of genres. He worked in the '40s, '50s, '60s. Notwithstanding, he really had a way with the old scary stuff.

So, again, 1960. If you think about what was going on in even indie cinema in this country, probably the goriest thing you could come up with would be Herschell Gordon Lewis's 2000 Maniacs where you get a woman's arm chopped off by an axe. There is more crazy, wild violence and horrible humans in five minutes of Jigoku, Patrick insists, than all of 2000 Maniacs. Jigoku is an hour and 40 minutes long. The first hour you spend with the main character, a young college student, and a number of other characters who have all transgressed the laws of the universe and they're all going to go to Hell. They all go to Hell at the same time, in fact, which is an interesting point in the movie. The last 40 minutes of the film you spend in Hell watching these people get tormented. The main character Shiro is played by Shigeru Amachi, a fine actor who was in a number of Nobuo Nakagawa films.

In this scene he's just learned that he has a baby daughter. His girlfriend's also in Hell and has told him he has a baby daughter. At the very beginning of the clip his daughter is floating down a river of blood on a green lotus. Then you see Shiro running around looking for her.

Noting the screams of the characters in Jigoku, Patrick commented that—while writing his book on the samurai—he realized no one can scream like a Japanese actor or actress. He's never heard another group of people on the planet with such bloodcurdling screams.

To finish off his program Patrick offered a preview of the Korean horror blockbuster The Host.

Cross-posted at Twitch.

02/04/07 UPDATE: Pam Grady reports to The Chronicle on Asia Shock.

Wired's Chris Baker asks Patrick to share his Top 5 Most Deliciously Appalling Moments in Asian Shock Films.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

THE ESSENTIALS—The Evening Class Interview With Molly Haskell

Continuing my inquiry into on-air film reportage and its particular contribution to film culture, I contacted Molly Haskell who graciously agreed to an interview. As her website attests, Molly is an author and critic whose education included study at the Sorbonne before settling in New York. In the '60s at the height of the Nouvelle Vague, Molly worked at the French Film Office, writing a newsletter about French films for the New York press and interpreting when directors came to America for the opening of their films. She then hired on at The Village Voice, first as a theatre critic, then as a movie reviewer; and went from there to New York Magazine and Vogue.

She has written for many publications, and has published From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies (1973; revised and reissued in 1989); a memoir, Love and Other Infectious Diseases (1990); and, in 1997, a collection of essays and interviews, Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists. I approached her, curious about her collaboration with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies ("TCM").

* * *

Michael Guillén: Molly, you've been writing about films for a spell. Initially, working at the French Film Office in the '60s where you wrote a newsletter about French films for the New York press. You've reviewed films for The Village Voice, New York Magazine and Vogue, just to name a few, and have published several books on the role of women in film and the response of women filmmakers. Now you're reaching a whole new audience by co-hosting "The Essentials" with TCM's Robert Osborne. What precipitated the exploration into on-air television commentary? How did that opportunity come about?

Molly Haskell: I've done some interviews for programs about pre-code women and commentaries for dvds so I've actually appeared before the camera more than once. I guess Turner Classics had seen me do a few of these and felt that I could pass. [Chuckles.] So they approached me. The idea was they had this series called "The Essentials", which is essential viewing for people interested in movies. They'd had different hosts. I think they have a different host every year or so. Of course, Robert Osborne is their stand-by. He's the public face of Turner Classics. So they thought it'd be nice to do it as a conversation. So that's how it came about. They enlisted me and they sent me a list of—I didn't actually choose . . . the 30 films that we did aren't necessarily my all-time favorites—but they sent a list of 60 and I chose 40 and then they whittled it down to 30. That's what we came up with.

Guillén: I was wondering how the selection process worked. What differences can you distinguish between written film commentary and on-air commentary with regard to what you derive from the experience?

Haskell: I consider myself primarily a writer and, of course, when you write you can write—even when you're doing … well, I guess captions would be different—but, when you're doing an article or a review, of course, you can write at some length and express subtleties and reservations. On-air you really can't, even though this is considered a long time frame by television standards. I guess we talk before the film for about four or five minutes and then a minute or so after.

To prepare for this I spent the whole Fall last year looking at the movies. I would look at maybe a movie a day and make notes and then our producer would call each week and get my thoughts. She, in turn, framed that as four talking points; what she considered the major themes of mine and Robert's reactions to the movies. Initially, she was going to send us each the others' comments [but Robert] thought it would be better not to know what the other was going to say to make it more spontaneous. I think I would have rather had it the other way around. I like to know what the other person's going to say because he has such a different take. He's got this wonderful information and very high-level gossip—who was considered for what role—but sometimes [he would say], "Did you know that?" and I'd say, "No, I didn't know that." I mean it's really interesting when he does that but if I had maybe known he was going to say that, I would have still felt I didn't know that [but] maybe had further thoughts on the subject. I'm a little more analytical and he's a little more informational. It works but sometimes it works better than other times.

I also think I'm much better if I like a film than if I'm neutral towards it. Television is a performance and I'm not a polished performer, even though once upon a time I wanted to be an actress. I think if I were to do more of it, I would hone the performance better but it's hard to express thoughts. That's the real stumbling thing at the beginning is—if you have a lot of thoughts—to try to synthesize them or reduce them to a sound bite, which is basically what you have to do. I've watched people who are good at this. There's a lot of energy going into it all the time, a punch. Roger Ebert is basically a print critic and he learned the art or craft of television reviewing. As you suggested, it really is a whole different craft because it is performance, it is synthesizing, it is bite size bits of information, and it is punch. Of course in writing you do have to shape and emphasize and do all that, but in a more leisurely and a little more amplified way. It's very different. A lot of the people who are very successful at it are people who have gone into television fairly early on or maybe even done radio. That's a little bit the same thing.

Conversations are quite different from simply facing the camera—that's another distinction that has to be made—just facing the camera and reading what you've written on the teleprompter. That I have not mastered. [Chuckles.] It turns out that every time we go to the camera to do the intro, Robert ends up doing that. I didn't have any coaching. I think I might have mastered that if I'd had a little. But it was done in a very intense way. It was three days in Atlanta, actually two and a half because they decided to see if we could do 30 films in two and a half days and let the crew go a half a day on Saturday. So 30 films in two and a half days is pretty concentrated. Ten films [a day]. That meant we would talk for 20 minutes. We didn't have any retakes or stops and starts. Then I would consult my notes and we'd go to the next film and do 20 minutes on that one. It was a fairly pressure-filled performance.

Guillén: That makes me think of all sorts of things I hadn't even considered. Like costume changes!

Haskell: That was the most fun part of the whole thing. [The wardrobe] had to be something that would go with the set and would go with what Robert was wearing and all that. They had a wonderful wardrobe person who had quite an eye. She collected all sorts of things, which I'm still wearing. They gave them to me. That was a big bonus.

Guillén: Sweeeeet! I think you're being a bit humble, though, because one of the things I truly enjoy about your "performance" on "The Essentials" is your calm, measured and mannered approach in contrast to—let's say—Roger Ebert and his on-air performance, which tends to be more argumentative. TCM's general approach to movies tends to be appreciative rather than critical. Even with a one-star or a two-star movie, Osborne culls out aspects to appreciate in a film. "The Essentials" tends to be four-star movies but even there the two of you articulate appreciations rather than arguments. For example, in last night's broadcast of Sunset Boulevard, I really liked how you mentioned Hedda Hopper's brief but compassionate performance.

Haskell: I love that too. I'm basically an enthusiast and so is he. At one point somebody thought—somebody at Turner, I didn't talk to them directly, but I heard about this indirectly—that maybe it would be more interesting if there was some tension between [us] and [we] disagreed. People are so used to that format of two critics disagreeing. I said, well, that's absurd. First of all, you've got this thing called "The Essentials", which are films you think people should see. You're not going to start badmouthing them. I don't think that goes over too well. I agree with you. When you're trying to get people to look at movies and appreciate them, to just sit there and badmouth them is not great. You can have differences of opinion on degree of enthusiasm and that kind of thing and if you bring enough different kinds of perception and insights to bear, then it's going to be a rich program anyway. I'm glad you feel that way. I also think that's a more appropriate way of doing it.

Guillén: So what is your main hope for "The Essentials"?

Haskell: Well, I'd love to do it again. I don't know if they'll have me do it again or not. I love that channel, period. I would like to see a few more less-well-known films. I would like to do a few more that are in genres that I really love like film noir and screwball comedy, and directors like Lubitsch and Sturges. There's a whole lot of films I'd love to do. I'm better when I have a film that I love. I find more to say about it.

Guillén: I'd love to see you doing some interviews. In Holding My Own In No Man's Land you've conducted some very fine interviews. Would you be interested in that?

Haskell: Less so. Because my talents are more critical and analytical than interviewing; but—if it's somebody that I like a lot and am interested in—I'd love to do it. It would all depend on the subject. I've always made that my policy even in writing. There have been opportunities to do star interviews that the people haven't interested me. I feel I'm very good when I have to create something out of whole cloth or create enthusiasm out of whole cloth. For me it has to be genuine, which is maybe another way of saying I'm not a performer as much as a critic, I guess.

Guillén: That leads me to ask you, out of all the hats that a person who writes about film can wear—film critic, film reviewer, film commentarian, film historian—which fits you best?

Haskell: A little bit film critic and historian, I would say. I've taught and I love teaching film. I like research. I love going back to old movies. It's just a way of examining our history and where we came from and where women came from—all of that—so I'm more of an explorer than an up-to-the-minute reviewer. I don't really like having to write week after week. When I've done that, I've found that there's too much pressure and too many films that I didn't have anything to say about. I love writing about when Criterion is doing a dvd package of the Rohmer films, writing about Rohmer. So I love writing about film and talking is always easier. Actually, even though I say I'm not a performer and I'm not this and I'm not that, I actually love talking about movies. That's why I like teaching. It's less lonely and less neurotic in a way than writing. It seems more congenial when you're talking to somebody and somebody wants to hear what you have to say. If you're actually conversing, then you're getting another point of view. So I've tremendously enjoyed the times when I've been asked to look at a whole bunch [of movies]. Like I did a Theda Bara box set to finally get to see Theda Bara films, which had not been available and think about them, and think about what she represented.

Guillén: I've really appreciated what you've done as a film writer, but I'm at the same time thinking, "She would have been a good actress! She would have been another Rosalind Russell or Eve Arden."

Haskell: [Laughing.] Well, Rosalind Russell, okay. I don't want to be the foil. I want to be the heroine. Eve Arden was always the best friend. I want to be the star, of course. Everybody is the star of their own movie; the movie that they play in their inner life, right?

Guillén: In your contribution to Andrew Barker's Variety piece, you note that all the front-runners for this year's Oscars are incredibly violent and male-oriented and then wonder "if films that don't interest female audiences can win Oscars." That made me think about the demographics of film reception and if there's a gendered difference between the films being seen currently at the multiplex and those being appreciated on, let's say, Turner Classics?

Haskell: I do think so. Look at Apocalypto! They'll be very few women at that. When you look at all the good performances this year, they've all been mostly by Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. They're all English. There are really so few good roles for women. Even the serious American movies are father-son movies. They're just so weighted towards the male and to masculine themes. Then you have Volver and The Queen and all these European films that are the only ones that deal with women. And, yes, I think it's just so obvious when you look at almost any year of your classic Hollywood films that the balance is so much [male]. There are still more great male stars. Turner just published a book on the 50 leading female stars of the studio era and one on the 50 male stars and I did an introduction to each one. I was struck by how many more kinds of male stars there were, because you could have people like Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, the female equivalent would be the best friend at best. So it was a much wider margin for male performance than women, but even so the women had equal salaries and almost equal roles in those eras.

Guillén: Is there any advice you could give to young female film writers?

Haskell: A great thing is to look at these old movies. It's pretty discouraging for women to look at Hollywood now and think this is where I want to be and this is what I want to write about. Even independent cinema's not that great. Turner wants to get a younger audience. This is what is really needed. This is why I'm so interested in film history, because it provides all sorts of emotional support and revelation about the possibilities for women that existed—even in a legally and professionally narrower world—still how much gumption and spirit women had in what they could do. It should be almost required for young women to go back into film history. There's a kind of willful amnesia on the part of the young. Sometimes they don't want to know what's been great in the past—it's sort of intimidating—but, at the same time, I don't think it is. I don't think it should be intimidating. It can be instructive and liberating.

Guillén: Well, thank you very much, Molly. I appreciate your taking the time. Thank you for your fine work and your wonderful thoughts this morning.

Haskell: I enjoyed the conversation!

Cross-posted at Twitch.

01/01/07 UPDATE: Great Variety discussion between Molly, Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader, and Brazilian critic Jose Carlos Avellar. Via Girish.