Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

AI WEIWEI:  NEVER SORRY           B                     
USA  China  (91 mi)  2011  d:  Alison Klayman            Official site

China is the unseen elephant in the world today, a Goliath that is opening many economic doors that were once closed, creating modern economic growth through targeted capitalist ventures while retaining tight clamps on the nation’s citizens through the rigid social conformity of the Communist Party.  While the success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics gave the world a glimpse of China rarely viewed before, it’s a secretive nation mostly closed off to the outside world.  Since the Tiananmen Square political fiasco of 1989, China has arrested and/or suppressed all opposition voices effectively eliminating any public dissent.  Within this framework of censorship, people are expected to live and thrive in the modern world.  Much like the arrested filmmakers of Iran, Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, artists are censored in China as well, where several are also jailed on political crimes, such as the blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng who after being imprisoned for 4 years was released to house arrest and made a daring escape to the United States embassy in April 2012, or the 2010 Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a professor and Chinese literary critic and co-author of Charter 08, a declaration for democratic reform signed by artists and activists, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison December 2009 for inciting subversion of state power, installation artist Wu Yuren was arrested in November 2010 for protesting the demolition of an artist’s neighborhood including the forced displacement of residents, but was eventually released a year and a half later, or Tan Zuoren, an environmentalist and literary editor sentenced to five years in prison for inciting subversion of state power, largely for his writings on Tiananmen Square.  Perhaps the artist best known throughout the world, whose notoriety likely prevented his arrest, is Ai Weiwei, one of the designers and artistic consultants of the Bird’s Nest Stadium (Full resolution) used during the Olympics for the opening and closing ceremonies, and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, actually disavowing those Olympics due to the forced displacement of so many citizens.  Something of a performance artist, he videos himself dropping and breaking invaluable antique pottery from ancient dynasties that he views as no different than the government smashing and ruining the lives of ordinary citizens through displacement policies.  A big, burly man with a mischievous smile, he’s a conceptual artist active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, and social, political and cultural criticism, writing two articles daily on a political blog until it was shut down by Chinese authorities in May 2009. 

Director Klayman is a freelance journalist who lived in China from 2006 to 2010 producing radio and television stories for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” turned first-time director, though it’s questionable how much autonomy she exerts, never delving into difficult or uncomfortable questions, giving Ai Weiwei free reign in what amounts to his own personal forum.  Seen setting up various art installations throughout European art museums, these are large scale projects, some that will fill an entire warehouse, always with overt political overtones.  What’s immediately curious to the viewer is why others are imprisoned, yet perhaps the most vociferous government critic anywhere in the world lives in a fortress, by Chinese standards, and remains free to travel abroad.  Ai is seemingly driven by the failures of the past, particularly his father’s generation which succumbed to the repressive regime of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong).  Ai’s father Ai Qing was educated in Paris, writing books of poetry and several novels, but was arrested several times in China for his leftist activities opposing Chiang Kai-shek, eventually joining the Communist Party in support of the war effort against Japan, becoming a Party literary editor, where the voices of his generation were among the most fiercely outspoken artists and activists in Chinese history, where there was no government muzzle on their highly independent views until his arrest in 1958 during the Anti-Rightist Movement, a prelude to the Cultural Revolution.  Denounced as regressive and not allowed to publish for twenty years, he and his family were forced into re-education camps.  Ai himself was one of the young Chinese elite who spent a dozen years studying in New York City during the 80’s, where he was particularly impressed by the Iran Contra trials on television, where the government’s actions were actually questioned in public hearings before the nation, something unfathomable in China.  While he got his start as an artist in the East Village, his experiences in America (which included a fascination with blackjack tables in Atlantic City) also awoke his activist oriented tendencies, which translated to his overall views on China when he returned in 1993 due to his father’s ailing health.   

Joining various artist collectives, Ai had his hand in various art and architectural projects, becoming fascinated with the power of the individual, how the progressive views of one can stand up against the rigid social injustice and intolerance of the collective, which is reflective in his art as well as his newfound interest in blogs.  Profoundly influenced by the Tiananmen Square massacre, having experienced uncurtailed freedoms in America, Ai became that lone voice against the immovable wall of government, which after it makes decisions is immune to change or reconsideration, even through the legal process, which Ai expertly documents through his own persistence.  When fellow artist Tan Zuoren was on trial, he traveled to the region to testify on his behalf, but instead he was awoken in the middle of the night in his hotel room and beaten up by policemen, some of which is captured on a live cellphone feed, where he was detained and eventually hospitalized, requiring surgery due to an inflammation to his brain from a blow to his head.  Not only was he not allowed to testify, but the police refused to acknowledge what happened.  Perhaps the most moving segment is his response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where nearly 70,000 people died, including many schoolchildren whose school buildings crumbled from poor government construction.  Despite being forbidden by the police, Ai becomes obsessed with learning the name of every child that died, enlisting many volunteers to assist him, where after an exhaustive search over the course of a year he was able to publish over 5000 names on his blog at the one year anniversary, which accounts for why his blog was immediately shut down afterwards, forcing him to join the legions on Twitter.  Ai created a colorful wall of backpacks in a public Munich art display that spells out “She lived happily for seven years in the world,” a quote from one of the mothers whose child died in the earthquake.  Ai has a taunting and provocative nature that almost begs the authorities to arrest him, which they happily do in April 2011, keeping him secretly detained without a word of his whereabouts to his family, where he was subject to incessant interrogations before being released on bail 3 months later.  The film crew was obviously caught off guard by the arrest, having already returned to the States, as the movie ends with his release, unable to reveal any more updates.  While the dynamic force of his personality is admittedly overwhelming and his artworks inspiring, it’s apparent that for all the scrutiny and accountability that he expects from others, his own life is hardly a model of transparency, where there are still many unanswered questions, as he tolerates little intrusion into his own privacy.   

Thursday, September 27, 2012

End of Watch

END OF WATCH          B-                
USA  (109 mi)  2012  d:  David Ayer  

Television and the movie industry have been at odds ever since the widespread convenience of owning televisions in every American household became a reality in the 1950’s, where for literally decades television has been in a catch up mode following behind the latest technological and artistic advancements which separate the two mediums, but in the last decade, certainly since the advent of cable channels which don’t edit language, violence, or sexual content, television has actually been leading the way when it comes to the popularity of cops shows, consistently utilizing better scripts, actors, and quality of content.  While occasionally films rise to unprecedented heights, such as HEAT (1995), SE7EN (1995), LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997), THE DEPARTED (2006), or ZODIAC (2007), they are countered by The Sopranos (1999 – 2007), The Wire (2002 – 2008), The Shield (2002 – 2008), Dexter (2006 – present), or Southland (2009 – present), all of which in a dozen or so episodes annually play out like an extended mini-series, where the dramatic interest is sustained over a considerable length of time.  Certainly it is the substantial success of these shows that is pushing the development of this adrenaline-laced style of film, from the writer of TRAINING DAY (2001) and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001), resorting to a Starsky and Hutch (1975 – 1979) portrait of likable cop partners, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), sent out in their squad cars on a daily basis to catch the bad guys, all set in the hyper-kinetic and crime-infested world of South Central Los Angeles.  It’s a gritty portrayal of cops on the beat, expressed through constant motion with quick edits, continuously frenetic hand-held camera movement and a machine-gun style of profanity-laced, rapid fire dialogue, often finding humor in the ridiculous predicaments they get themselves into, where they specialize in patrolling the worst ghetto neighborhoods.  If much of this feels contrived, like the lawlessness of the Wild West, it attempts to use the pervasive presence of violence to amp up the tension, creating a poisonous atmosphere of gangbangers, malicious killers on the loose, and even the drug cartels from the Mexican underworld, as unlike the daily grind of real cops where the routine can become suffocating, much of it spent in the mindless task of filling out paperwork, these are cocky gunslingers looking for action, where every hour of every day is spent seeking out new adventures.

Gyllenhaal and Peña work extremely well together, where you get a good sense of increasingly developing interior character, as both can be goofballs often playing pranks on their fellow cops, where their swaggering attitude differentiates them from other teams of partners, often singled out for their efforts in the field by their more hardened commanding officer Frank Grillo, bringing a military SWAT team style to their everyday practice of policework.  This two man tandem have a reckless feel about them, where they’re still young and just starting out, where their confrontational practice of rubbing elbows and getting in-your-face with notorious outlaws and gangsters seems too edgy, likely not the practice of officers with longevity on the force who exercise more restraint.  These guys come off as Reality TV cops, each with cameras pinned to their vests watching every move they make, where Gyllenhaal in particular is always talking to his camera in man-on-the-street interviews or pointing it in someone’s face, where what’s on the screen often parallels this raw police footage, often feeling unedited and rough-edged, a cop cam providing a stream-of-conscious viewpoint.  In typical Hollywood vernacular, the bad guys are given picturesque names that describe their personalities like Big Evil (Maurice Compte), Wicked (Diamonique), or Tre (Cle Shaheed Sloan), the latter a hot-headed, two-time felon who prefers taking the risk of standing up to cops rather than backing down, actually going toe-to-toe with the shorter, but more bulldog-like Mike (without badge and weapons), which actually earns his respect, where fighting cops barehanded, win or lose, is “gangsta.”  And therein lies the problem here, as the film is more interested in establishing visceral, in-your-face action sequences than delving into the mysteries or social dynamic of this deeply entrenched, poverty stricken world around them, though Tre does express his concern that black neighborhood gangs are being pushed out by Hispanic gangs.  This movie elevates cops to the status of sheriffs in the Wild West, always seen as noble heroes, where the moral line is never crossed or in question, as people are instead good guys or bad guys.  Unlike BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), for example, the audience learns absolutely nothing about growing up in the South Central neighborhood where every day is a moral dilemma. 

The film has a token use of women, where the one-dimensional Anna Kendrick is Brian’s girl, whose best scene is a PULP FICTION (1994) dance tribute, while Natalie Martinez as Mike’s wife has a fiercer attitude, where they are written into the script as a softer counterbalance to the feverish intensity of the streets where these guys are close to action figures.  Overly reverential towards the police, giving them a stature in the community they don’t deserve, as LA cops are notoriously abusive and corrupt, this film never questions their moral actions or duties, giving instead a fairly adolescent and somewhat fantasy view of what it is to be a cop.  So it’s the script, written by the director who spent his teenage years in South Central, that ultimately falls short, failing to connect gangsters and drug lords to the world from which they came, instead exploiting their nastiness as hideously murderous and grotesque, often making them larger than life foul caricatures, even as several of the gangsters onscreen are played by actual LA gangbangers.  The near screwball comic timing of these two knuckleheads in the patrol car can be outrageously funny, accentuating their close rapport throughout, often making fun of each other’s distinctively different white and Mexican cultures, as it’s their personalities that really carry the picture, along with a few of the gangsters, especially Tre and Big Evil. The director maintains a fluid and kinetic flow throughout, turning much of this into an exhilarating thrill ride, but that’s hardly the life of a real cop, as these two prima donnas flaunt their cowboy personas in the face of their fellow cops, not exactly endearing camaraderie or admiration.  The director also uses horror elements to accentuate fear, like walking into dark and empty corridors just waiting for something to jump out at them, where despite their arrogance, he uses these two officers as innocents walking into the lair of the beast, continually discovering something they haven’t anticipated.  While the film’s aesthetic is gripping and tense, where danger lurks around every corner, this is also a trigger happy exposé on how cops disregard humanity and destroy community relations while ironically spending a lot of talk about loyalty and heroism.  These guys are military style killing machines that routinely trample on the rights of others, busting in with guns flailing, continually pointing their guns in people’s faces, making threats, attempting to match the hostility of their adversaries, all of which represents a very short-sighted view of policework, much of which depends upon the cooperation of local residents, never once considering the long term harm of their actions, as inhabitants of any neighborhood, rich or poor, would soon loathe their disrespecting commando recklessness.             

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés)

BELOVED (Les Bien-Aimés)           B+                      
France  Great Britain  Czech Republic  (135 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d: Christophe Honoré

Christophe Honoré, a regular early contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma and an established novelist before he became a filmmaker, has developed into a remarkable cinematic storyteller, as his films are layered with meticulous novelesque detail.  A film dedicated to Marie-France Pisner, who died April 24, 2011, one of the screenwriters and actresses in Jacques Rivette’s landmark film Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont ... (1974), and an actress in Honoré’s own DANS PARIS (2006), which remains arguably his best film, and the first of his films where out of the blue one of his characters will break into song, much like the surprising use in MAGNOLIA (1999), which he uses to tender effect in a telephone conversation between lovers, a moment that rises to magical heights.  By now, he’s written several musicals, exploring the dynamics of a three-way relationship in LOVE SONGS (2007) and the pent-up passion in a Sirkian youth melodrama in LA BELLE PERSONNE (2008).  Honoré’s films tend to leave audiences sharply divided, and his use of songs as an extension of the narrative is no exception, as he doesn’t accompany songs with traditional dance numbers, or a lively choreographed sequence, but instead delves into the downbeat psychological mindset of the character, often submerged in anguish, lost love or grief, where musical numbers are used in the exact opposite manner of one’s usual association, which is happy and upbeat, such as Demy’s THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964).  There’s even an umbrella sequence in this film which takes place in the howling wind and rain where the umbrellas are about to be blown away, and instead of the vivid kaleidescope colors, the frame is dark and dreary.  Honoré has been consistent in his career in exploring matters of the heart through non-conventional means, where MA MÈRE (2004) remains as unconventional a film as you’ll ever see, but also a film that makes terrific use of a recurring musical motif, the song “Happy Together” by The Turtles.  Music has always been one of the best attributes of an Honoré film, from the bone-jarring rock music used to disorienting effect in 17 TIMES CÉCILE CASSARD (2002) to the punk music that sets the stage for a moody and introspective assault to the senses in DANS PARIS.  In nearly every film, grief is a major element for the prominent characters, where his films show unusual levels of depth and complexity by intensely exploring how love is like memory, never disappearing, forever etched into the fabric of our lives.

One of the real treats of this film is seeing Catherine Deneuve work with her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni (who’s been in every Honoré film since LOVE SONGS), where one cannot help recalling Jacques Demy’s bliss-drenched THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967), where the main attraction is the adorable sisters, blond Catherine Deneuve and her older sister, brunette Françoise Dorléac, at ages 24 and 25, both stars from their teens, as this is the only time they ever worked together onscreen.  Deneuve has worked with her daughter before in André Téchiné’s charming MY FAVORITE SEASON (1993), also more recently in Arnaud Desplechin’s dysfunctional family portrait, A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008), but this is the first time they’ve worked together in a musical, and their scenes together are simply stunning.  Mastroianni, especially, as Véra, the daughter of Deneuve’s character Madeleine, is at the heart of the film, as her emotional turmoil reflects the anxiety of the era in which she grew up, the late 80’s and 90’s when the world was coming to terms with AIDS, where the terrifying idea of love is as under attack as the human body.  Ludivine Sagnier plays Madeleine as a young girl in the years before she had a child, where this film spans four decades from 1964 to 2008.  In the fashionable 60’s, Madeleine is strikingly attractive, catching the eye of an equally handsome and ambitious young Czech doctor, Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), very much in the mode of the Daniel Day-Lewis character from Philip Kaufman’s historical romance THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1968).  Completely offscreen, in a blip of the eye, they fall in love, get married, move to Prague, have a child, and get divorced, before she’s seen later in Paris.  But Jaromil returns to Paris years later, maintaining an on-again and off-again relationship throughout her life, even after she’s married to François (Michel Delpech), supposedly a stabilizing influence in her life.  Véra, meanwhile, develops an infatuation with two different men, one with fellow Parisian Clément (Louis Garrel, who’s been in every Honoré film since MA MÈRE) that’s already over by the time it hits the screen, and another with an American exile in London, a drummer named Henderson, played by Paul Schneider, from David Gordon Green’s ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003) and Jane Campion’s more recent BRIGHT STAR (2009), where the tempestuous confusion in their relationship is fraught with difficulty. 

As Madeleine transforms into Deneuve, Jaromil is amusingly played by Czech director Milos Forman, adding plenty of warmth and humor into his character, as he’s simply delighted to be around his ex-wife and daughter whenever he can, often making trips to Paris to revitalize his relationships.  Part of the appeal of this film is the use of actual locations in Paris, Reims, Prague, London, and Montreal, where Honoré uses his traditional cinematographer Rémy Chevrin and original music from Alex Beaupain, both of whom have worked with him on and off since his first film.  Chevrin’s hand-held camera work is simply superb, both in capturing the bustling energy from the world outdoors and in some of the most extreme close ups ever captured.  Beaupain’s songs are not to be compared with the legendary Michel Legrand, as none are particularly memorable, but they do feature the delightfully charming Ludivine Sagnier singing “Je peux vivre sans toi” Je peux vivre sans toi - Les Bien-Aimés (Extrait) - YouTube (3:03), or Clara Couste as a young Véra singing "TOUT EST SI CALME"- Les Bien Aimés Fi (2:39), an ensemble piece which interestingly features older characters of both Véra and Madeleine interacting in the same shot with younger versions of themselves.  In perhaps the scene of the film, Véra has the bar band experience of her life as she meets Henderson for the first time, the drummer in the British band that’s singing the 1956 Bo Diddley classic “Who Do You Love?” Thousand - Who Do You Love - Chiara Mas (2:58) in English, later heard again in a French refrain that is decidedly more downbeat Les Bien-Aimés - Qui aimes-tu? (2:44).  Perhaps more than any other director working today, Honoré continues to work on riffs off the French New Wave, often expressing the ebullient energy of youth in vibrantly colorful street sequences, but also the downside of this blissful and breezy existence, exploring the personal introspection and brooding nature of lost and adrift people who feel disconnected from the world around them, becoming painfully heavy at times, where the psychological torment can literally suffocate these characters, some of whom never recover.    

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Premium Rush

PREMIUM RUSH                   C+                  
USA  (91 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  David Koepp             Official site

This whole city hates you.       —Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon)

Shot on the busy streets of the Big Apple, this is a pure exhilaration movie in the realm of THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001), where they are currently filming the 6th sequel to that one, though this features the hyperkinetic rides of notorious New York bike messengers, showing not only their frentic weaves and quick turns on a dime, often shooting through red lights and wrong way traffic, but in an inventive stroke, also expressing the adrenaline raced thoughts that cross the cyclist’s mind as they approach a particularly dangerous oncoming impact, where the rider often has to choose between the lesser of 3 or 4 evils, usually each one resulting in a horrible accident.  Occasionally the rider will get lucky and sail through, such is the life, continuously living on the edge, taking chances mere mortals would never dare try.  While there are 1500 bike messengers in downtown Manhattan, no self-respecting messenger could really star in a film unless they ride a fixed gear (one gear) bike with no brakes, claiming “breaks are death,” a mantra repeated throughout the movie, which means he never coasts but is constantly seen churning his legs in a mad love affair with cycling.  Of course, a common theme expressed throughout is that all the citizens of New York collectively hate these riders with an all-consuming passion, as they recklessly and irresponsibly dart away from the scene of the crime while cars collide, people are knocked off curbs, or packages and groceries end up strewn all over the street, all due to their manic maneuvers darting through some of the most congested roads anywhere in the world.  The film’s saving grace is it’s friendly, good-natured attitude about the whole thing, where much of it plays out like a cartoon, where it’s supposedly all in good fun.  Nonetheless, the mayhem they cause is never addressed, other than to get laughs, where even the injuries suffered onscreen never appear real, as they’re up and riding within minutes afterwards, taking even more reckless chances than before. 

The draw to this movie is Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as Wilee (aka: Coyote, though he actually plays the Roadrunner role), whose wry smile and everpresent snarky attitude is perfect for this movie, though to be honest, it’s the trick shots, a neverending stream of incredible stunts, and visual effects that carry this movie, where nobody is really paying attention to the acting, or even the story, for that matter.  The director films this movie much like a Kung Fu television episode (1972 – 75), where the unsuspecting protagonist is subject to an avalanche of disgruntled evil intent, where a thoroughly corrupt cop, Detective Monday (Michael Shannon) who’s in over his neck in accumulating gambling debt to the Chinese mob, apparently addicted to a mahjong style poker game called Pai Gow, is his constant nemesis and relentless pursuer, a sadistic man with a demonic passion to get what he wants, which in this case is a lottery ticket believed to be worth $50,000, but of course, is thwarted at every turn (like the coyote), which only makes him more deliriously frustrated and angry, spending the entire movie in a diabolical rage.  Add to this some street cop on a bike (Christopher Place), another mope who tries to get in on the action but is continually outclassed by Wylee, who not to be undone, is also wired and in constant contact with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), another messenger who’s getting kicked out of her apartment under mysterious circumstances while yet another fellow messenger, Wolé Parks as Manny, is trashtalking Wilee about who’s the fastest messenger while secretly trying to steal his girl.  While all this road rage is dominating the nonstop action, there’s a story within the story about Nima (Jamie Chung), an attractive Asian girl who turns out to be Vanessa’s roommate, seen converting $50,000 in cash to a Chinese Hawala lottery ticket, apparently run by Chinese gangs, as the intended recipient refuses to accept cash. Her story is heartbreaking, adding a tone of melodrama to the frantic pace. 

From the outset, the crazed detective takes on various disguises in an attempt to intercept and steal the lottery ticket, using his actual police identity to manipulate the system and curry favors throughout the entire ordeal, where he’s constantly attempting to run Wilee over in his Lexus car, where the frenzied chase scene parallel to the elevated subway tracks is reminiscent of THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971).  The director keeps changing the time sequences, usually moving backwards, altering the chronology of the film, often repeating the same time sequence but from a different character’s perspective, keeping the audience off balance while also using GPS navigational devices blown up on an animated map of New York City, where the route changes are constantly updated and outlined like a MapQuest entry.  To those with no geographical knowledge of the city, this is simply distracting, but it’s all done in fast action, keeping the pace of the film on constant acceleration.  Some of the obstacles the cyclists must outmaneuver are beyond description, but calling them daredevils is too benign a phrase, perhaps having a death wish might be closer.  Some may be particularly drawn to this video game style of filmmaking, as everything is broken down into an adrenal rush of excitement, as from the director’s viewpoint, little else matters, which makes this something of a fun but forgettable film.  A more amped up soundtrack might have helped, as it starts out appropriately enough with The Who’s "Baba O'Riley," heard in the studio The Who - Baba O'riley (5:07), or live in concert The Who- Baba O'Riley1971 Official Video Video [HQ] (5:19), a perfect choice for the film, but there’s nothing afterwards that offers the same euphoric giddiness.  For unadulterated exhilaration as a replacement for your morning coffee, why not try two much better choices of pure cinematic bliss, both masterfully edited with astonishing musical choices, a bike video featuring one of the stuntmen seen in the movie, Danny MacAskill's ride from Edinburgh to Dunvegan, Scotland " Way Back Home" (7:43), and the other is Guy Maddin’s deliriously inventive The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin  (6:08), an expressionist, avant garde, machine-gun montage of 800 edits.  Both are supreme examples of sheer joy and elation.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Night on Earth

NIGHT ON EARTH                   B                  
USA  France  Germany  Japan  Great Britain  (129 mi)  1991  d:  Jim Jarmusch

I’m sorry I sound calm. I assure you I’m hysterical.
—Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands)

Jarmusch captures a rhythm of the night in five different international cities over the course of a wintry evening and night, following the exploits through the experiences of various cab drivers, where what begins in a whimsical manner in Los Angeles eventually turns colder and gloomier in points further East.  Jarmusch expresses plenty of painterly detail with his urban landscape shots, finding lines of palm trees, lone street lamps and solitary business establishments like hamburger stands or used car lots, featuring signs that appear to be art deco eyesores, with plenty of empty spaces and neon-lit streets, creating a sense of isolation and loneliness, using marginal characters whose stories are unfamiliar to moviegoers, continuing themes of displacement and alienation.  It’s a collection of five vignettes, where each segment is about 25 minutes long, all taking place on the same evening in different cities around the world, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki.  Jarmusch wrote the screenplay in about 8 days and the decision to film in certain cities was largely based on the actors he wanted to work with.

Using Tom Waits songs as bookends, sounding very much like a 1930’s Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil cabaret song, “Good Old World” opens the film with the music before we see anything, Night On Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991) - Part 1 YouTube (15:00).  The enclosed space of a taxicab allows various speech patterns to develop, each significantly different as the evening wears on, followed by slowly emerging personalities.  This is a minimalist theater of non-action, as there are no thrills and spills, little suspense, yet plenty of well-written, personally insightful dialogue that explores the four corners of the earth.  For the most part it’s well acted, though on occasion certain roles appear strained.  Shot by Frederick Elmes, who worked the camera for three mid-70’s Cassavetes films, also two decades with David Lynch (1970’s to 1990), the opening sequence accentuates the quirky individualism of LA, seen as an artificial wasteland of fast food joints and eccentric personalities, where gum-chewing tomboy Winona Ryder (never comfortable in the role) is an unconventional cab driver continually lost in her own funk, a women who sets her sights so low she may as well not have any ambition at all.  When Hollywood casting agent Gena Rowlands (who spends much of the time on a cell phone) gets into her cab, she’s a bit taken aback by her overly aggressive nature, thinking she might be perfect for a difficult role she’s thinking of, exerting youthful angst in nearly every sentence she utters, but Ryder prefers to keep her life uncomplicated, where easy street (in LA) is a life without aggravations or stress.

The transition to the streets of New York City is something of a shock, as the blustery winter cold is a reality check, where Giancarlo Esposito, from Spike Lee’s SCHOOL DAZE (1988) and DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), is a revelation in what is easily the most enjoyable segment, where the guy is a laugh riot throughout, where the sheer force of his continually likable personality dominates the segment.  Unable to hail a cab, literally exposing cash dollars to prove he has money for the fare, yet cabs pass by in droves leaving him stranded on the street mumbling to himself.  Finally when a clunker arrives in a permanent start and stop mode, we realize this is the taxicab from Hell.  Inside is Armin Mueller-Stahl, a driver who can barely speak English, who acts like this is his first day in the United States, looking around the city wide-eyed as if he’s never seen it before.  But the guy is such a horrible driver, out of sheer desperation Esposito is forced to take over the wheel.  However, on route he sees his sister-in-law, Rosie Perez, otherwise known as the mouth.  If Esposito was funny, Perez is hysterical, a non-stop battering ram of verbal insults using the F-word with utter relish, throwing it back in everybody’s face, where this may be the performance of the film, as her energy level is simply off the charts.  After awhile, once they’ve settled down, they actually start enjoying one another, where the “real” cab driver may as well be an alien from another planet, as he is so starkly strange and different from them, as are they to him.  A running gag on differing perspectives, this segment is a joyous romp, like a wild trip through the wilderness.       

Once in Paris, the highly indignant cab driver Isaach de Bankolé (with a band-aid over his eyebrow, something never explained), an émigré from the Ivory Coast, takes offense at the drunk yet blatant stereotypical caricature coming from two black guys in the back seat, supposedly in the employ of highly placed diplomats from Africa, yet their broad-based racial profiling of black Africans borders on repulsive, yet they think it’s hilarious, enjoying every snide remark that continuously belittles others.  Isaach contemptuously throws them out of the cab, leaving them on a deserted corner in the middle of the night, refusing to accept any more abuse, eventually picking up Béatrice Dalle, a blind passenger who defiantly wants no sympathy for her condition.  When Isaach starts questioning her obvious limitations, suggesting blindness must make her life difficult, she counters with insults about his obvious mental limitations which must deprive him of a fuller life.  While their back and forth conversation is testy, it’s always surprising, where both actors find fully realized characters in a brief amount of time, where Dalle especially couldn’t be more delightfully feisty.  The two segments of passengers are an interesting contrast, as Isaach grew thin-skinned at the crudely insensitive suggestions of the former, where it turns out he was the instigator of callous remarks with the latter, yet rather than growing furiously temperamental, like Isaach, at what were obviously superficially silly remarks, Dalle deftly handles herself with utter nonchalance, growing annoyed, as if she’s heard it all before, but making fun of his obvious limitations.  It’s an interesting play on race and preconceived notions, made all the more appealing by the passing Parisian landscape where the lights over the river look particularly impressive at night. 

The sequence in Rome is an endlessly rambling monologue from Roberto Benigni as the cab driver, where easily the funniest part is right at the beginning when in a thick Italian accent he ridiculously attempts to sing the Marty Robbins cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” Marty Robbins - The Streets Of Laredo - YouTube (2:49).  This gives you some idea of what kind of loony character he is, where once he picks up a priest, Paolo Bonacelli from Francesco Rosi’s CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (1979) and Antonioni’s THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD (1981), he starts right in and can’t stop himself from unleashing an excruciatingly detailed, sexually tinged confession of his earliest childhood sins in graphic detail, revealing every thought, every scent, every gesture, and every glance, a motor-mouthed display of delusional, self-serving confession, making a reality TV show out of it, where it has nothing whatsoever to do with seeking religious penitence, but becomes an exhilarating ride of an endless stream of near masturbatory verbiage.  While the priest attempts to dissuade his efforts, suggesting a taxicab is an inappropriate substitute for the church, but Benigni only gets more impressed with the idea of having such supreme luck to pick up an actual priest in his cab, ignoring the obvious medical affliction of his passenger.  This is another example of the two being on separate wavelengths, where an actual church official instills no sense of respect, honor, or interior contemplation, but is treated no differently than the whores he chases down on the street, where the driver always remains affable and friendly to everyone, but is too caught up in his own world to ever actually listen or hear what anyone else has to offer, where he will forever remain beholden to himself only, stuck inside a self-deluded prison of his own making, literally a stranger to the world around him.      
The sadly poetic final sequence is a brilliant tribute to the Kaurismäki Brothers, set in the frigid snow of Helsinki, where the depressive looking driver is appropriately enough named Mika (Aki’s brother), played by Matti Pellonpää, who appeared in 18 Aki Kaurismäki films and 7 of Mika’s.  This final episode carries with it the weight of finality, as it’s literally replete with the miserablism and doom that pervade all their films, turning Helsinki into the literal shithole of the world.  A night wouldn’t be compete without listening to a trio of drunken revelers boast about their world of woe, misfits one and all, each one more wretched than the next, where a well-lived life seems to be a collection of heartbreaking experiences, which gives one’s miserablist existence some weight.  This miniature perfection of storytelling, which completely captures the darkly comic Finnish state of mind, is told in two segments, where the drunken guys moan and wail about the pitiful life of their third partner (Aki) who is passed out in the back seat, a man much deserving of his semi-conscious state, who is the most drunk after suffering “the worst day of his life,” which they feel is like a badge of honor Night on Earth, Helsinki - Part 1 YouTube (7:32).  After hearing their tale of woe, there’s a brief pause, then Mika suggests with complete sincerity, “Things could have been worse.”  When the burden of proof is suddenly on his shoulders, he has them crying like babies within minutes, where they’re soon calling Aki’s life “so full of shit…some people have real troubles.” Night on Earth, Helsinki - Part 2 (13:18).  With the mood turning on a dime, Jarmusch has captured the essence of the fickle nature of humans, loyal to the very end, until they find someone new.  Showing the world with a comic-tinged winter glow, there’s a melancholic sadness about the bleak nature of existence, where misery really does love company, as a new day begins again with Tom Waits bringing home the finale with “Back in the Good Old World” Tom Waits - Good Old World YouTube (9:42).  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dance with a Stranger

Ruth Ellis, barmaid, the last woman hanged in England, 1955

David Blakely, race car driver

 DANCE WITH A STRANGER              A-                
Great Britain  (102 mi)  1985  d:  Mike Newell

If you marry her, she’ll drive you down to her level as she’s incapable of rising to yours.  —Carole Findlater (Jane Bertish)

I keep hoping that you’ll change, but you never do.  —Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson)   

A blisteringly intense examination of class differences, where on July 13, 1955, Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be executed in England, hanged for what can only be considered a crime of passion, as she readily admitted her guilt, so this was never a case of guilt or innocence, where her public crucifixion in the press was largely due to the prevailing attitudes of the times which condemned and disapproved of her lower class circumstances.  Apparently, they couldn’t hang her fast enough, as the trial started June 20, 1955, and she was hanged July 13th, a mere three weeks later.  Her real crime, according to the press and much of British society, was attempting to enter a higher class level of society for which she was considered unsuitable and deemed unfit.  Her controversial execution led to a tidal wave of public outrage which eventually led to the abolition of capital punishment.  Director Mike Newell was noted as a television director, where this stylishly powerful earlier period piece remains his best effort.  It marked the debut of British actress Miranda Richardson in the role of Ruth, a powerful presence as a Jean Harlow-style platinum blond who simply walks away with the picture, scintillating throughout, perhaps reminiscent of Fassbinder’s spellbinding portrayal of women in THE STATIONMASTER’S WIFE (BOLWEISER) (1977), THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979), or LOLA (1981), each using a different lead actress, or the earlier Bette Davis rendition of the film OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934), a scathingly bleak and unpleasant slide into the lower depths of society.  The tough script by Shelagh Delaney, who won an Academy Award for A TASTE OF HONEY (1961), is a surprisingly gritty and complex psychological examination of her circumstances, feeling authentic throughout, without a false note, where Richardson’s uncompromising portrayal is a revelation, seemingly driven by primal forces, where her shrill tone of near manic hysteria is balanced by her beauty and sirenesque sensuality, definitely a man pleaser, where once she’s got her hands on you, she doesn’t easily let go.  The film explores the corrosive power of sexual attraction as possession, where you’d have to go to Ôshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976) to find a couple that goes to greater extremes.  Ruth Ellis is a Soho nightclub barmaid in London, where she’s part manager and lives with her 11-year old son Andy (Matthew Carroll) upstairs on relatively meager earnings.  She’s used to making the rounds, dancing with customers, and encouraging men to order plenty of overpriced drinks, where her familiarity with the opposite sex belies her cynical sense of cunning and manipulation, where men are objects to be used, not enjoyed.  

The club is frequented by London’s financially elite when they’re out slumming in Soho, looking for available girls, which is how Ruth meets David Blakely (Rupert Everett), a superficially shallow yet ridiculously handsome man who also happens to be an upper class playboy, a moody, self-absorbed alcoholic who envisions himself racing at LeMans, brought there by another race car aficionado, Desmond (Ian Holm).  While David’s drinking doesn’t exactly enhance his racing skills, his roving eye for the ladies is perhaps his real skill, as he already has a girlfriend (later his fiancé) that is more along the lines of the kind of girl you bring home to mother.  However, within moments of seeing each other, David instantly hits on Ruth, who is willing to overlook all the immediately recognizable, disreputable attributes, as despite his class arrogance and obvious drunkenness, the guy is easy on the eyes, thinking perhaps he can be her wild card out of poverty and lead her to a better life.  The two begin a scandalously torrid affair, where all his friends constantly remind him of his sense of privilege, where this girl simply doesn’t fit, making her the butt of all their jokes, which is why Ruth despises them all, and hates David when he doesn’t stick up for her.  But that’s not going to happen, as David is simply incapable of thinking about anyone other than himself, arriving at her door at all hours of the day or night expecting immediate attention, completely disregarding her son, or anything else for that matter.  Fast cars, booze, and women is all he cares about, but he’s hooked on Ruth, as she routinely drops everything to be with him, where their love/hate relationship, often exaggerated in movies, couldn’t be more believable, often parading other women in front of  her, constantly whining about the wretched state of their miserable lives, but going to bed together apparently solves everything.  During several of the arguments, where physical abuse gets involved, Desmond steps in, as he’s madly in love with her as well, but uses his deep pockets as a potent weapon, offering her whatever she needs, which is really manipulative code for that’s what he’d like her to provide him.  Nonetheless, as Ruth consistently leaves Andy alone, a heartbreakingly sad aspect of the picture, Desmond becomes a surrogate father figure, as there’s literally no one else filling the void.  

Richardson is simply astonishing in a gut-wrenching performance, while Everett plays an equally damaged soul. The movie becomes an ongoing display of character flaws, as both Ruth and David are viciously selfish individuals, where there’s little sympathy for either one, where David is used to just taking and getting whatever he wants, irrespective of the consequences, while Desmond is more of a socially repressed weakling, who never acts on impulse, but is all about manner and routine, believing what Ruth needs is some stability and consistency in her life, trying to provide a safe haven for Ruth and Andy, hoping to possess her, but Ruth quickly betrays him, perhaps best expressed in an exquisitely beautiful shot in the London fog, where horses are being led down the street by lamps lit by fire, where the scene is reminiscent of Jack the Ripper, as the two inseparable lovers retreat to a dark alleyway and have sex like dogs on the street, not even bothering with any hint of respectability.  These acts of desperation only grow worse, where out of considerable social pressure David spends time with a fiancé from his own social class and stops seeing Ruth, which literally drives her mad with jealousy.  She makes inappropriate appearances in his social circles with disastrous results, where in their eyes she is making a fool of herself, but in her eyes she is fighting to hold onto what’s hers.  Beautifully shot by Peter Hannan, where his overly saturated colors of the nearby countryside are a sumptuous relief from the claustrophobic and shadowy world in London, a near colorless existence filled with an air of melancholic bleakness, where Ruth can be seen singing the title song at the club without a hint of expression on her face, where she’s a lifeless imitation of the lively and confident woman that opened the film Dance with a Stranger - Miranda Richardson - YouTube (1:27).  Oblique angles often frame the shot, while mirrors are prominently featured, perhaps reflecting the interchanging role between them in the escalating psychological obsession, a pitiful degradation of the human spirit, where the performances of both appear tortuously tragic, often expressed by the harrowing saxophone lead from the moody period score of Richard Hartley, where Ruth is so damaged that the only kind of man she can respect is the kind that continually abuses her.  In a world of dangerous impulses, it’s the psychological imbalances that are continually left unattended, resulting in one of the most hauntingly cruel depictions of human tragedy. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


DAMAGE                   B                                                                                 
France  Great Britain  (111 mi)  1992  d:  Louis Malle

Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.   
 —Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche)

This is another international collaboration for director Louis Malle, this time a French-British film production mostly shooting the film in London, with one day shoots in both Brussels and Paris, using a source novel by Irish-born, British novelist Josephine Hart, adapted by screenwriter David Hare, who went on to pen THE HOURS (2002), where Nicole Kidman won the Best Actress Academy Award, and THE READER (2008), where Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Academy Award.  If exceptional female performances are the common denominator, this film is no exception, featuring two extraordinary performances.  The male lead, however, is played by classically trained, British Shakespearean actor Jeremy Irons as Stephen, whose icy cold sense of upper class routine and emotionally stern formality is at the heart of the film, as he’s a near impenetrable force.  An extremely successful physician, he’s become a member of Parliament whose future is on the rise.  His all-supporting and long-suffering wife is Miranda Richardson as Ingrid, who’s especially good in a rather ordinary role, initially seen as more of a mother and team player than an individual in her own right, but her tumultuous scenes near the film’s end literally steal the picture and won her a Best Actress nomination.  However, it’s Juliette Binoche as Anna Barton that carries the film throughout, as she’s what adds fire and unpredictability to the otherwise darker solemnity of the film, as she’s not part of the British upper crest, but an outsider with a mysterious past.  The other extraordinary element is the music by Zbigniew Preisner, Kieslowski’s longtime composer, adding psychological introspection, where his music only adds depths of complexity, continually creating a haunting and lonely sense of isolation and tension.  From the opening sequence when the leads meet, they rarely use words, but the look says it all, as the two can’t take their eyes off each other even though she’s the girlfriend of his son Martyn, Rupert Graves, just making a name for himself as the new editor of a political paper. 

Despite the obvious conflict, Stephen rushes full speed ahead into the arms of the forbidden fruit, where Anna fully embraces the idea, where their physicality is off the charts, where she nonetheless continues her “normal” relationship with Martyn as if nothing has happened.  This torrid affair is the focus of the film, where her submissiveness to his every need ignites a flame, where she literally melts in his arms, compliant as butter, and he enjoys the newly discovered excitement that has been missing from his life, which otherwise adheres to an aggressively strict routine.  His official world of order and control leaves little time or space left for passion or frivolity, a missing ingredient in his own family life, but what he brings to this duplicitous affair is obviously what Anna needs, as she’s happy with Martyn, perhaps even in love with him, but it’s his father that she seems to need.  When Stephen suggests they run off together, she stops him dead in his tracks, telling him he’d lose everything that he has, and all for what?  “Something you already have.” Nonetheless, their obsessive drive to meet anonymously, not to talk, but strictly for sexual bliss is reminiscent of LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), especially the self-destructive element, as Stephen is literally pushing himself over the brink.  As an aside, Binoche walked off the set at some point during the shooting when actor Jeremy Irons was getting a bit too *aroused* during one of their lurid sex scenes.  Incredulously, Martyn announces his engagement to Anna, where Ingrid is a bit suspicious because she knows so little about Anna, who may as well be a stranger, someone she’s not comfortable with, as she doesn’t fit in.  Fanning the flames of uncertainty, Anna’s childhood is equally as puzzling, as her brother committed suicide at age 16, a devastating loss and someone she continues to feel intimately connected with, perhaps replacing the emotional void with inappropriate sex with a father figure.  In another surprise, Anna’s mother shows up for the engagement party, none other than Leslie Caron as the internationally unsettled, four-times-married mother, Elizabeth, whose mere presence seems to make Anna revert to an unhappy child who never got along with her mother.  But Elizabeth’s personal revelations come as something of a surprise, as she openly admits Martyn looks exactly like her brother.

With this, the emotional connection is veering into disturbing territory, where as Elizabeth is leaving, she tells Stephen in confidence that he should not stand in the way or come between this couple in marriage, basically telling him to step aside.  Stephen is floored that she noticed, a bit embarrassed and ashamed, thinking he was hiding everything so expertly.  There’s an eerie scene when the family and prospective in-laws are in bed in this enormous mansion, but when everyone’s supposedly asleep, Anna waits in the hallway for Stephen, where they move quietly to another room.  Afterwards, however, as they return to their respective bedrooms, Stephen’s precocious young daughter Sally (Gemma Clarke) sees them come out of the room together as she’s getting a drink for herself, a bit startled at what she sees.  This scene in the darkness has an element of fear and horror, where the dubious nature of what they’re doing is only amplified, elevating their need to lie and create a cover, a doubly troubling situation that’s only getting worse.  This can only go on for so long, as nothing this brazenly morally contemptible can be rewarded in the end, so it continuously feels like an accident waiting to happen.  The danger is expressed more through dark and shadowy atmospheric tones, as Anna is always dressed in black, and always answers to Stephen’s call, where to her it makes sense to marry Martyn in order to have Stephen.  The melodramatic hysteria of shameless sin reaches epic proportions, where the tension is ratcheted up for the ultimate discovery, as something’s got to give, resorting to Hitchcockian means to resolve the conflict, where instantly, in a split second, everything changes, most all of it for the worse.  Exposure is humiliation and disgrace, where Ingrid’s idea of moral accountability is right out of the Roman era where dishonored soldiers would fall upon their swords in disgrace.  The turbulent finale is a whirlwind of twisting fates, most all of which feel like the agony of defeat.  The agony and the ecstasy story of sexual obsession comes full circle, but there’s an interesting coda at the end, as if in tribute to the final freeze frame shot in François Truffaut’s remarkable introductory contribution to the French New Wave, but it has a doomed noirish voiceover tone, “It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world.  I traveled... until I arrived at a life of my own.  What really makes us is beyond grasping.  It's way beyond knowing.  We give in to love... because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable.  Nothing else matters, not at the end.” 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

India: Matri Bhumi

INDIA:  MATRI BHUMI                 A                       
Italy  France  (95 mi)  1959  d:  Roberto Rossellini

On arrival one feels euphoria. The first surprise is the crowds. One sees tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, forming an endless river which has nevertheless not destroyed the vestiges of the past that Moslems, Persians, and English colonisers built.

As the story goes, sometime after the film was shown at Cannes in 1959, none other than Henri Langlois, noted French film archivist, lent the sole copy of this film to another artist, a sculptor or a painter, where the film languished for decades, believed to be lost, until a surviving relative discovered the film and eventually returned it to the Cinémathèque Française, where they were able to partially restore a badly faded film which had already begun to decompose.  The resulting film remains badly faded, where especially the natural shots of lakes, rivers, forests, and sky formations of this highly personalized documentary on India are particularly washed out, leaving the viewer to only imagine what all of this must have looked like initially, as the visuals in this mostly rural setting look enticing.  An inevitable comparison might be made to Louis Malle’s epic 6-hour pictorial bonanza Phantom India (L'Inde fantôme) (1969), where Malle himself offers his own gentle narration to one of the most colorful and astonishingly beautiful films ever made.  Unfortunately, due to the bleached out colors of this film, this comparison is blatantly unfair, but for what it’s worth, Malle’s film is more non-judgmental and observational in tone, offering quiet, understated reflections, asking the viewer to become immersed in the journey, while Rossellini’s is laden with personality, opening with humor yet becoming utterly somber by the end with a blending of narrators who each offer unique views of their lives, becoming a unified voice molded into one, much like Terrence Malick’s narration of collective voices in THIN RED LINE (1998).  Rossellini can be a tough nut to swallow, as he's loved by the auteurists (Rosenbaum and Fred Camper), but can be philosophically oblique, bordering on pompous, occasionally veering towards the arcane by the end of his career.  His Italian realist films are easier to comprehend because of their more understandable social settings, but later in life he became spiritually challenged, as if time left him fewer opportunities to complete his relationship with the Eternal.  This film however, is highly accessible to people of all ages, as animals are as prominently featured as humans, which is one of the themes of reincarnation, that we are all one.   

Opening with the sprawling mass of humanity that greets visitors in the immensely populated city of Bombay (now Mumbai), India, Rossellini moves into the rural areas where we will find what he calls the “authentic” Indian people, which may not be translated correctly, though the translation was privately subtitled by Rossellini biographer and film scholar Tad Gallagher, but this was one of the few unintentionally discordant or contentious remarks heard in the film, as one wonders if urban dwellers are any less real or genuine, but perhaps a clue is to think of people unspoiled or changed from their ancestral heritage.  The narrator also concludes that due to the dozens of religious affiliations and tribal groups coexisting within the Indian culture, that it is a tolerant, as opposed to intolerant society.  Again, this strikes the viewer as being the idea of an enamored visiting tourist, as this thoroughly disregards the inherent social injustices of the outlawed yet firmly entrenched caste systems that date back thousands of years, creating sub-castes of people who are considered less than human, and overlooks as well India’s violent warring history with their neighbor Pakistan, which goes back to the late 40’s when each obtained their independence from Great Britain, making this, along with similar long standing disputes with China and Nepal, one of the largest land-boundary disputes in the world.  The result has been a huge military build up, increasing aggression and hostility on both sides,  suggesting a stubborn refusal to seek peaceful political solutions and reflects a glaring religious and cultural intolerance.  However, to be fair, in the late 50’s when this film was made, the disputes between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region had not yet escalated to the point of dueling nations taunting each other with nuclear threats, which reached its heights in the late 90’s.

This film however reflects the lives of ordinary people and has an affectionate charm in the first person narration, opening with an elephant handler, who works with several other man-guided elephants logging trees in the forest and hauling the wood on their tusks or carried behind on chains to a specific destination.  Initially one thinks of man’s exploitive use of these giant animals, but the narrator reminds us they only work 3 hours early each morning, as it gets too hot for them after that, requiring full-time care for the rest of the day from their handlers who must coddle them, pamper them, bath them, feed them, walk them, cajole them, then feed them again, which leaves them time for little else.  His love of the animal is translated to the viewer, as we see him splashing and scrubbing his animal in the river, where he has a thoroughly charming way of describing elephant behavior, including one besmitten elephant couple that needs their space.  This parallels his own human behavior when he spots an attractive young girl from a traveling puppet show that arrives in town, and he brings his elephant to feast on a tree behind her house where he can get a good look at her each day, that is until all vegetation from the tree has been eaten. The narrator’s gentle charm and easy going manner reflects a harmony with the natural world around him and with his newly discovered love.

The film then uproots us from this delightful elephant reverie and places us in the middle of a giant dam construction project where the new narrator, whose family unit resembles that of the last narrator, beams with pride just to be able to participate in such an enormous undertaking.  But it has a cost, as 190 men have lost their lives working on this project, a small amount when compared to the number of people who would die from flooding if the dam were not built, but there’s a pervasive feel of disconnection to modernity, best expressed by the immediate shift in music, wonderfully written throughout by Philippe Arthuys, which has transformed from the celebratory traditional village music in the opening segment to an eerie experimental sound design, much like the dissonant electronic music from Antonioni’s RED DESERT (1964), which accentuates man’s alienation to the world around him.  But while this narrator affirms his part in the building process, pick by pick, step by step, stone by stone, a human chain working in solidarity until the construction project is complete, the camera gazes at a funeral ceremony where the deceased is burned on a wooden pyre, or catches the couple in a humorous marital spat which is nearly Chaplinesque in its wordless body language and its intentional lack of translation, as his wife is furious at being displaced, as they will have to move to his next job assignment.  In contrast to the opening segment, this shows how modernization and human progress separates man from his natural world, leaving him more exposed to face the future alone.

We’re back in the jungle in the next segment, when an elderly man has already retired, whose manicured rice fields are farmed by his sons, allowing him solitary retreats into the jungle, the only place where he can contemplate his place in the order of things, where he understands the sounds that emanate from a pair of courting tigers nearby, but also the danger at living in such close proximity.  When the noise from tractors at construction projects nearby scare many of the animals out of the jungle, one of the tigers is wounded by a porcupine it is unnaturally forced to hunt, causing it to even attack humans,  as in desperation it can no longer stay away at a careful distance.  The villagers meet and decide that for their own protection the tiger must be killed, but the elderly man is revolted by the thought of killing any living creature, as under his spiritual belief of reincarnation, all creatures are descendants of one another and are all brothers, and rises early in the morning and attempts to smoke the tiger out of its familiar territory and force it to move further away where it will remain unharmed. 

The warm, playful humor that has been present in the narration throughout suddenly veers into a solemn tone, as dangerous heat levels can also take its toll on human lives.  A man with a cutely dressed monkey that he carries tied to a chain on his shoulder passes out and eventually succumbs to heat stroke in a walk through the countryside, leaving the monkey, still chained to the man, to fend for itself as the vultures swarm high above the body and gather ever closer.  This is simply stunning footage, as the helplessness of the monkey wordlessly escalates.  We later see it in town still carrying a long chain, without any explanation of how it escaped, but we do see how the monkey is ignored by nearly everyone except children who are fascinated that it continues to perform tricks even without its master.  The futility of its future becomes evident, even if not shown, as it is spurned by the wild monkeys for having a human smell, as the camera follows other monkeys jumping furiously through the trees, making spectacular leaps, something a monkey still carrying a chain around its neck could never do, suggesting that when the interconnecting bond between humans and animals is broken, death, the ultimate chain we carry around our necks, is inevitable.