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nathan's reviews view profile

no plot  
12345678910
on June 3, 2004 - 10:57 PM PDT
  of Eureka (1981)
1 out of 3 members found this review helpful
 


Well, there is a plot, but it's not the point. What matters here is the psychology of Hackman's character -- and the character of Hackman's character. Roeg indulges in all his flights of metaphysical fancy to create a baroque portrait of a man whose drive puts him on top of the world -- and beyond.
Ambiguity and Innuendo  
12345678910
on August 18, 2003 - 3:53 PM PDT
  of Belle De Jour (Criterion) (1967)
8 out of 9 members found this review helpful
 


In this Rorschach-ink-blot-of-a-film, Catherine Deneuve portrays a virginal newlywed with a troubled past. In a series of momentary flashbacks we are privy to her childhood molestation. These intercut her gradual movement from her "cloistered" social position to her new-found work at a high-brow Parisian brothel. The transformation would seem highly suspect, but Buñuel manages to explain it while leaving some viewers room to dismiss it.

Severine's (Deneuve's) childhood abuse seems to have two basic influences on her adult life. First, she is uninterested in sexual intimacies with her husband of one year. Second, her fantasy life is filled with episodes in which her husband facilitates and, sometimes, witnesses the domination and degradation of his wife.

The first of these fantasy interludes opens the film. This sets the whole work on unreliable footing. One is never sure whether what is transpiring on the screen is "really happening." Later this doubt serves to minimize the shock of some of the more unpleasant episodes. Initially, however, the viewer is caught unaware. One accepts the actions on the screen as diagetically "real."

The viewer is thrust into a position analogous to that of Severine. This opening sequence, the other fantasy sequences in the film, and the film's conclusion all allow one to entertain the possibility that none of what one sees on the screen is anything more than a dream or fantasy created in Severine's mind. Buñuel grants us the option of denial and escape from what might otherwise be a disturbing reality.

Alternately, by relegating only the most obviously "phantasmagorical" interludes to the realm of a "dream" or delusion, Belle de Jour becomes a portrait of a series of "social ills." There appear to be no obvious cures beyond the path Severine embarks on (psychological escape). Responding to Buñuel's "Rorschach" in this manner opens some complex issues, many of which are eloquently stated and then painfully unresolved by the film.

A short time after the momentary flashback that introduces us to Severine's childhood molester, a second momentary flashback captures the young Severine's rejection of the social conventions that have provided the context in which she has been abused. Repeatedly asked to accept the wafer during communion, she resolutely refuses. The implication is that Severine wishes to reject the myriad of ills being perpetrated on her. The molestation is the most concrete; the Church, the most symbolic.

Another telling pairing of interludes occur approximately one third and two-thirds of the way through the film. In the first instance, before she has fully explored the possibility of working at a brothel, Severine asks her husband whether he has ever been to "those houses." At first he politely misunderstands her. Then he describes briefly his experiences with prostitution. She shrinks at his brief description and the episode ends.

Later, after Severine has been thoroughly indoctrinated into various non-vanilla aspects of human sexuality (at least as "strange" as her unsettling fantasy life) by way of her work at the brothel, she reaches a new level of insight into herself, her sexuality and her husband/marriage. She says to her increasingly sexually satisfied husband that she feels like she is getting closer to him and that she is understanding him better and better each day. What she doesn't say to him (but what is clearly underlying her transformation) is that her time spent in the brothel is bringing her closer to her husband, who is ignorant of her "day job."

It is in this transformation that the film may be most interesting. Buñuel seems to suggest that a natural outcome of childhood sexual abuse is both an inability to engage in "vanilla" sex acts and a predilection for other sexual interactions. At the same time, Belle de Jour implies that one "solution" to such a situation is embrace non-traditional/"norm"al/middle-class sexuality. The inability of the thoughtful viewer to easily dismiss Buñuel's portrayal of this situation creates a complex, challenging Rorschach test that, as usual, says more about the viewer than about Buñuel.
no original language track  
12345678910
on June 9, 2003 - 10:33 PM PDT
  of The Heroic Trio (1992)
3 out of 8 members found this review helpful
 


Note that while the video transfer is pretty decent, there is no original language track. All that this DVD has is the English-dubbed soundtrack.
mighty mixed  
12345678910
on May 5, 2003 - 4:33 PM PDT
  of Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
0 out of 1 members found this review helpful
 


_Mighty Aphrodite_ struck me as interesting but disappointing. Interesting because something seems to have changed in Allen's repertoire at this point -- one might have thought "for the better." The work as a whole, however, doesn't manage to fulfill the promise of its more successful parts, and his subsequent output may confirm that direction.

There is a new realism apparent this comedy. For example, Miro Sorvino is one of the most forwardly buxom casting moves (of a sympathetic role) Allen has ever made. This new highlighting of things sensuous is reflected throughout the film.

Though his comedy's have often dealt with the idiosyncrasies of human sexuality, they have done so in a playful, neurotic, superficially flippant manner that belittles rather than confronts the anxieties many of us feel about bedroom gymnastics. Mighty Aphrodite is a partial break from that tradition. Sure, the wise-cracks are still there. But the humor has become tinged with an acknowledgment of reality. Dramatic (in addition to comedic) twists hinge on condoms, AIDS, and "weird sex" (now treated as not always as just a punchline).

The film presents other welcome shifts from traditional Allen fare. For example, the "first date" between Allen's boxer friend and Sorvino's character is perhaps the most realistic depiction of an awkward getting-to-know-you situation that Allen's oeuvre offers. It's hokey, but largely in the way that such situations actually are hokey. The scene is almost embarrassing to watch because it is played with such earnestness -- an uncommon occurrence in a Woody Allen comedy.

Overall, however, the notable elements in Mighty Aphrodite can't salvage what is, at heart, a faulty composition. Probably the most disappointing part of Mighty Aphrodite is the tidy ending. Allen ties each story line into a package with a cute red ribbon and sends the viewer on her way. This is probably the most nauseating cop-out in his work since the ending of the otherwise inspired Hannah and Her Sisters (one of my favorite Woody Allen films). He would later say that the Hannah ending was a mistake. Apparently he didn't learn the lesson.

Aficionados will enjoy this film like they do most of his films. Those expecting a traditional work from this prodigious craftsman will not be disappointed. But following in the wake of the well-constructed Bullets Over Broadway, this next effort -- while enjoyable -- is haphazardly constructed and unlikely to become a favorite with general audiences or with longtime fans.

Much has been made of Woody Allen depicting himself as the doting father of an adopted child in Mighty Aphrodite in light of the legal and public relations battles between he and Mia Farrow a couple of years ago. Suffice to say, this is such a minor plot device that it warrants little comment.

Similarly, the non-affair Allen's character in Husbands and Wives has with the college co-ed was exploited by the press as a reflection of Allen's "improprieties" at the time. There was so little similarity between the two situations, one wonders whether the people drawing the comparisons understood -- or even saw -- the film.

But many critics notoriously attribute more reflection of the real world to Allen's work than is readily present. Witness the widespread contention that Crimes and Misdemeanors depicted the amoral character of the 1980s. The film primarily focused on a larger, question, answered with a negative: Is there a moral order to the cosmos for those who cannot commit a leap-of-faith and believe in one?

An analogous misconception appears to have brewed around this film. Simply put, Mighty Aphrodite spends little time exploring Allen's feelings towards adoption. The film concentrates on adult affairs of the heart and speaks (implicitly) of adoption and fatherhood (mostly) through omission.
Derivation?  
12345678910
on April 28, 2003 - 4:24 PM PDT
  of Get Shorty (1995)
2 out of 3 members found this review helpful
 


Economic life in the 1980s and the 1990s were characterized by a rise of the financial terror called "derivatives". Somewhat similar in concept to "futures," derivatives are essentially "bets" made by investors with regard to how financial markets will behave in the future. With futures, one might "bet" that the price of wheat will be at a particular place six months from now--and make an investment based on that hunch. A wrong hunch and one can loose big.

With derivatives, the betting gets more complicated. For instance, one might bet that the price of wheat when divided by the change in the exchange rate of the dollar to the yen will be greater than the square of the German inflation rate when that rate is growing at a greater pace than the wholesale price of oil being sold by non-OPEC countries. Or something like that. In reality, derivatives are substantially more complicated. And the suggestion is that many of the people creating them (and most of the people buying them) don't really understand how these investments will fair.

There have been numerous stories of various municipalities loosing their working capital, pension funds, and so on, due to the unpredictable and incomprehensible nature of these investments. Orange County is one example.

In art there are derivatives, too. These are similar to the derivatives of financial markets in only two major ways. First, both share the same word (derivative). Second, both are dangerous if not handled properly. Get Shorty, now playing locally, is at least a partial example of this danger. Get Shorty isn't a bad movie. But it is frightfully derivative.

Sometimes a piece of art is useful not because it is a particularly notable work but because it reminds us of (or introduces us for the first time to) other, better creations. Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty is just such a film. In its derivation it underscores the quality of the films it draws from while inadvertently failing to deliver their pith.

There are two principle films from which Sonnenfeld's film (adapted from a novel by Elmore Leonard) takes its cues. First, we have shades of Altman's The Player, right down to the crowning glory of a struggling-outside-the-mainstream-movie-maker with an Altman-esque goatee. Here we have a double-derivation. First, Sonnenfeld is making a direct reference to The Player's creator. Second, the constantly self-referential nature of each of the stories becomes an integral part of the plot device. In The Player the plot pivots around a murder whose story becomes the possible basis for a future film--and the discussion of which becomes the a means for the characters in the film to deal with a murder that has actually happened.

Get Shorty uses the interplay of part of it's plot and a discussion about the same series of events by the characters in the film (in the context of creating a movie) to similarly move the story along. Whether one prefers The Player's use of this device to Get Shorty's may be a matter of personal taste. In Altman's film, most of the characters are unaware of the interplay occurring. The audience is the main confident and insider into the parallels between the action on the screen and the movie ideas being discussed by the characters.

In Get Shorty, everyone is in on the interplay. And, when one of the characters is slow to catch on (for example, in the interrupted discussion between Zimm and Palmer the evening of their first encounter), this lack of savvy becomes the source of a joke. If one prefers the more complex interaction of the audience with the film elicited by The Player, one is bound to be disappointed by Get Shorty's appropriation (and watering down?) of this device.

The other major recent film from which Get Shorty derives many of its elements is Pulp Fiction. It appears that John Travolta may have gone from being typecast as teen idol to a cuddly gangster. Not a bad move, but there are many instances in Get Shorty where he seems to be reprising his Pulp Fiction role rather than charting new territory.

The similarities in casting are mimicked in the similarities in musical selection. Here again are powerful sounding rock-and-roll tunes underscoring the major events and mood shifts of the film's narrative. Unfortunately, Sonnenfeld (or whoever he hired to select the songs for the film) doesn't possess the keen, dark musical sense of humor (combined with an impressive breadth of sources) to pull off the "hip score" trip in the manner Tarantino achieved.

The direction, the gangsters, the dialogue and the music all strive to reach the kind of synergy Pulp Fiction created but consistently fail to do so. What we are left with is a decidedly less ambiguous discrepancy between the source and its derivation than when examining the manner in which Get Shorty draws on The Player. Undoubtedly, Pulp Fiction--flawed as it may be when contrasted with Tarantino's masterpiece, Reservoir Dogs -- played this game much better.

---

Of course, it has been have pointed out to me that some interesting items regarding this film aren't considered in my account of the work not in it's relationship with other films (what I term "derivation"). First, and most striking, are the ways in which Elmore Leonard's novels and Tarantino are all intermingled, to the point where calling one derivative of another is pointless: Get Shorty was based on a Leonard novel, Leonard admires Tarantino, Tarantino speaks of the influence on him of Leonard's novels, Tarantino's Jackie Brown is based on a Leonard novel, etc, though Leonard is arguably the father of the relationship. Second, as is apparent from those who have explored Hong Kong cinema, Tarantino's "best film" (Dogs) is terribly derivative, vis, Lam's City on Fire.
Politics and Passions  
12345678910
on April 28, 2003 - 4:17 PM PDT
  of Wild Reeds (1994)
5 out of 6 members found this review helpful
 


Set against the domestic tumult in a rural community torn by the disintegrating French presence in Algeria during the early 1960s, Wild Reeds is an anecdotal portrayal of the events of a small town in southern France. The focus is upon four children, through whom the tribulations of international politics (via a foreign war) -- and the lives of the townspeople of varying ages and occupations -- are reflected.

Maité, the daughter of the local leftist schoolteacher provides an axle around which the film's characters revolve. Her mother's plight is a key instance in which the political upheavals of the international social system are reflected through the events of daily life. In the film's opening sequence, a soldier asks her to assist him to go "AWOL" and avoid returning to the war against the colonial liberationists in Algeria. She declines to assist him. Whether she is unable or simply unwilling is unclear. But she does confess to having helped similarly positioned soldiers previously. When he dies in battle shortly thereafter she has a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized, leaving Maité alone. Politics deprives Maité of her mother.

Serge (who vies with Maité for the attention of her best friend, Francois) is politicized by the death of his brother whom Maité's mother refused to help. Henri's life is similarly politicized by the brutal killing of his father by liberationists in Algeria. The result: he dislikes leftists. That prejudice, combined with his inability to develop the proper attitude to succeed in secondary school even by the age of twenty one, bring him into direct conflict with Maité's mother (his teacher, who also runs the local Communist Party headquarters) and, by association, with Maité.

In a telling interlude, Henri is criticized by Maité's mother for writing disparaging remarks about the indigenous people of Algeria in a French composition. She says, "What do you know of the Algerian people?" implying that he does not understand their plight and should therefor not be criticizing their efforts at liberation.

Of course, what he knows of the Algerian people is that they killed his father. And all she (apparently) knows of the Algerian people is second-hand knowledge about what she deems a typical part of the international proletariat. I choose to read this situation as an indictment of war no matter what the reason (a position I find meritable though difficult). But one might easily see it as a dismissal of traditional progressive politics -- especially if one ignores the obvious sympathy for the human condition at the heart of Wild Reeds.

Teenage sexual experimentation is one of the chief elements Téchiné introduces into this politicized "drama of adolescence". More running time is devoted to this material than to the overt political elements in the film. And though the treatment of the subject is frightfully sympathetic, the ruminations remain largely inconclusive. One can readily surmise that "coming of age" is a confusing, furtive process. What is less clear is how such tribulations relate to the rest of one's life.

At precisely the moment when the story could have opened up to explore the relationship between awakening sexuality and adult identity, Téchiné diffuses the query. Shortly after his first sexual experience with another boy, Francois (Maité's best friend) queries the quietly homosexual shoe-shop owner about the path this older man has taken -- and how he got from adolescence to middle age. The older man says that he cannot remember what it was like to be young and confused - - and dismisses the boy.

Similarly, Wild Reeds never offers an insight into the mystery of the relationship between life-choices made during adolescence and the rest of one's life -- and leaves the viewer as befuddled as the characters on the screen. The effect is deliberate but the meaning can seem frustratingly unclear. Which makes experiencing the film remarkably similar to experiencing adolescence. Kudos.
It's a Jungle in There  
12345678910
on April 28, 2003 - 4:15 PM PDT
  of Jumanji (1995)
4 out of 5 members found this review helpful
 


In the thirteenth century, a Sanskrit scholar named Sakya pandita Kunga Gyaltsen created a boardgame called "Rebirth" based on the Buddhist conception of the cosmos. In it, players role a die and move around the board through various kinds of incarnations. The goal is to reach nirvana, though the odds are that one will continue to be reborn in less hospitable climes.

By way of the gifted creater of some of the more sophisticated "children's" books in english, Chris Van Allsburg, we now have a major Hollywood film starring Robin Williams (with nary a funny line) that centers around a boardgame that could be "Rebirth"'s distant cousin.

In Jumanji the results of a toss of the dice become a larger-than-life reality. You landed on a square in which a hunter is called upon to hunt you? It's not your symbolic playing piece that takes the bullet. It's you. And the hunter isn't some picture on a playing card. He's flesh and blood--and deadly serious. From this simple context, Jumanji chronicles the events of a single game of Jumanji. There is some weird witchcraft afoot in new England in 1969. The first role of the dice brings a swarm of bats into the room where the game is being played. The second role removes a player from gameroom and traps him inside the game, in a phantasmagorical jungle. And so on.

A very interesting concept, Jumanji has trouble working as a film. It's too frightening to be a "kids" movie. At the same time, it refuses to pursue the truly creepy character of the material and settles into episodes of generic Hollywoodisms. Was that car chase lifted from Smokey and the Bandit? But the story is intriguing and the plot ripe with metaphoric implications.

Once begun, the players lives are ruled by "random" rolls of the dice. They must continue to play or be trapped forever by monsters they have unleashed by their initial curiosity. How much of our "real" lives are similarly ruled by events we have as much control over as we have over a role of a pair of dice? And to what extent are our lives played out like a game of Jumanji? Begun perhaps through curiosity or boredom (or naivete or politeness or ?), we enter so many of life's interactions somewhat blindly. Yet, as in Jumanji, our every engagement may promise endless, largely unfathomable repurcussions -- until we have no choice but to participate in horrific situations that we have unwittingly created.
Poetry, Politics and the Postman  
12345678910
on March 18, 2003 - 7:31 AM PST
  of Il Postino (1994)
8 out of 9 members found this review helpful
 


In 1970, Salvador Allende, after three unsuccessful attempts, finally became president of Chilé. He was, arguably, the first democratically elected Marxist to ever become a head of state. He began to implement the ideas of his Popular Unity platform and quickly became a target of the imperialistic tendencies of international business. The first major international accumulator of capital to grow wary was the American-based ITT corporation. By 1973, through their enlistment of the US Central Intelligence Agency, international capital was able to subject Chile to a violent military coup (in which Allende was killed). Aided by the United States, General Pinochet's bloody military dictatorship pandered to the interests of foreign investors for sixteen years. Allende's murder sent a resounding message around the world: mess with the interests of the rich and "we" will kill you.

The poet of the proletariat (as well as of the lover and beloved), Pablo Neruda, had been nominated for the same, "communist" party ticket but bowed out once Allende (a seasoned politician) expressed an interest in running for the presidency that fourth time. As fate would have it, Neruda died the same year that Allende was killed by American-backed forces. What would have happened had Neruda become president is open to speculation. His political attitudes, the social milieu in which he lived, and his achievements as a poet (Kenneth Rexroth--the father of the beats--once called him "almost certainly the leading poet of his type") are a matter of record.

Michael Radford's Il Postino (The Postman), now playing in Arcata, draws from this real life intermingling of left wing politics and poetry, while taking some liberties with the facts surrounding Neruda's life. These liberties belie a radically different agenda from that embodied in the life and work of Pablo Neruda. Drawing from--and occasionally diverging radically from--Antonio Skarmeta's novel Ardiente Paciencia (Burning Patience), Radford presents us with a set of scenes drawn largely from Skarmeta's book set within a somewhat altered scenario. Skarmeta's book was set in Chile prior to and during the Allende presidency. Il Postino takes place on a small Italian island, during and after Neruda's fictitiously composed exile there.

The film takes a cynical stance regarding the ability of the inhabitants of a rural fishing village--and, perhaps, of the film's audience--to understand political issues. The stance implies that working towards social equity is not worthwhile.

Prior to Neruda's arrival in the narrative, we are introduced to Mario. Early in the film, he goes to a movie theater. The newsreel Mario sees depicts the arrival of Neruda, recently cast out of Chile, at an Italian railway station amid protests aimed at convincing the Italian government to let Neruda stay. This newsreel forms a microcosm of Il Postino's attitude both towards the working people in the film and towards those who view the film.

The black-and-white images of the newsreel at first appear to mirror the simplistic voice-over accompanying the images of Neruda walking through a train-station full of protesters. The verbal narrative paints a dichotomous picture of Neruda's political consciousness and those of the newsreel's expected viewers. We, the newsreel implies, will view Neruda as an eccentric (perhaps even as a subversive) for his political views. At the same time, his notoriety as a poet (and, even more so, as a celebrity) will be what matters to us most.

Never mind that Neruda speaks eloquently of our plight as exploited individuals. Pay attention to "Neruda, the poet of love"--and to his romantic aura. But just as black-and-white images are really composed of varying shades of gray, the film subverts itself by pandering to an a- political/apathetic/right-wing understanding of the social world while unintentionally demonstrating this bias to us at the level of a sub-text.

This attitude of post-modern indifference to matters of politics and economics is a frightfully pervasive, implicit, rightist theme underlying many interludes in the film. An initial example occurs with the characterization of Mario's boss, Giorgio.

Giorgio runs the local post-and-telegraph office. Neruda is coming to town and will be receiving bags of mail each day that need to be delivered to his semi-remote home. Giorgio needs an individual to make a single, arduous special delivery every day. With un-acknowledged shades of DeSica's Bicycle Thieves (sic) in the air, Mario is granted a job paying "just enough to go to the cinema once a week" in light of the fact that he owns a bike.

The telling exchange between Giorgio and Mario occurs during their first encounter. In introducing the new postman to the standards of his office, Giorgio states plainly that while he is a "communist" he expects to be called "sir". This kind of ironic utterance is echoed through three or four similar scenes throughout the film.

On the surface, the humor is undeniable. Beneath that, however, lies a contempt for attempts to achieve social equity. The implication is that perhaps the most we can hope for from a movement for social justice is a good laugh based on its hypocrisy. But Radford suggests that we can expect more.

The "more" is not the political reality of being exiled embodied in Neruda's plight. This is part of the statement that the film makes. And it is certainly a necessary plot device inasmuch as it explains why Neruda is in Italy. But the "more" we can expect from social activism exposes itself more subtly.

One result of progressive political participation Radford presents is the untimely death of our beloved postman. Towards the end of the film, through a series of flashbacks, we see the recently politicized Mario attend a "communist" rally. When the rally is dispersed by the police, a small riot ensues. In the tumult, Mario is killed.

One is left with the feeling (expressed by Mario's wife), If only he hadn't gotten involved with radical politics! If only he hadn't gone to that rally on that fateful day! And so on. These views are expressed in the presence of Neruda, so she refrains from directly blaming him. But the implication is there, since Neruda inspired many of Mario's beliefs. And Neruda is visibly shaken with a kind of remorse mixed with disillusionment.

Of course, if it wasn't for "that poet" Mario might never have married the woman he fell in love with. This tension is at the root of the dichotomy Radford constructs. On one side of the balance, all these ideas about equality and democracy expressed by Neruda are either ridiculed or portrayed as dangerous. On the other side of the scale, we find Neruda the poet of love. It is this side of his pursuits that are heralded. Whether in the romantic love he and Matilde shared or in his ability to communicate the state of romantic ecstasy in verse (that permits others to find their own paths to such a destination), Neruda's actions are vindicated when unattached to concern about political, social and economic domination.

There are problems with comparing a film to the book from which it was derived. In most instances, I prefer to view the film as an independent creation and attempt to appreciate it on its own terms. But with Il Postino, examining some of the ways in which the film differs from its inspiration, Ardiente Paciencia (Burning Patience) offers insight into the films implicit argument against social awareness. There are many variations between the two texts. For example, as already mentioned, they are set in two different countries during two different periods of time. I'll describe just two indicative variations between the two works.

First, in the film, Neruda is portrayed as entirely uninterested in continuing contact with the people he has been living with--whose lives he has touched--once he departs from the fishing village. He stirs things within the hearts of the villagers, plays matchmaker for Mario, inspires the name of the new couple's child, informs Mario's political and aesthetic sensibilities--and then fails to write to or publicly speak of his Italian interlude. As one of the most cynical characters in the film comments, when a bird is done eating, it flies away.

In the book, however, Neruda remains much truer to the spirit of camaraderie he expressed about--and imparted to--the people of the small village near where he lived. Even in his absence, he still thinks of Mario. In the film, Mario turns to making a recording of characteristic sounds of the fishing village to send to Neruda (as a way of reminding him what he has left behind and how intensely Mario still feels for him). In the book, Neruda writes to Mario, sends him a Sony tape recorder, and asks Mario to make just such a recording because he is missing the village so much.

The film creates an implicitly two-faced radical intellectual who appears to live by an out-of-sight-out-of-mind principle. Without faulting the film for not faithfully adapting the book to the screen, this particular re-arrangement of the plot serves to further undermine our faith in the character of Neruda and the ideas of communalism he personifies.

Another telling discrepancy between the book and the film involves Mario's death. In the book he doesn't die. He grows old with his family, experiences the transformation of Chilean society under Allende (before the violent halt), and outlives Neruda. His politics and his love of Neruda do not kill him. These parts of his personality set Mario free.

Both of these inversions (who writes whom and who dies) demonstrate the underlying subtext present throughout much of Il Postino. I have little problem with a screenwriter altering a book however much to create a meaningful, independent film. But the manner in which this film reworks the book that inspired it serves to denigrate the potential for even mildly venerating work for social justice.

The message: Speak of metaphors about the sunset. Watch the sea's rippling waves. But pay no attention to the fellow removing the money from your pocket that you have earned. You're better off exploited than working for change.

The problem: Neruda's possible nagging doubts towards the end of his life not withstanding, I find at the core of Il Postino an undermining of the aspirations of all people (such as Neruda) who spend their lives working for justice.
Oliver Twist Gone Mad  
12345678910
on March 14, 2003 - 9:44 PM PST
  of The City of Lost Children (1995)
14 out of 18 members found this review helpful
 


There is a cynicism at the heart of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marco Caro's City of Lost Children that exceeds anything that transpires on the screen. The follow up film by the directors who first hit the international film scene with the macabre Delicatessen (and its tales of post-apocalyptic, proletarian, famine-inspired cannibalism), City opens soon in Arcata. It tells the story of science run amok in a society constructed along the lines of Charles Dickens writing about the underclass in Terry Gilliam's nightmarish Brazil.

Brazil focussed on the insecurities of a shrinking middle class in an ever-increasingly bureaucratized, self-destroying industrial world (and concluded that the only means for a "happy ending" consisted of the protagonist's absolute decent into insanity). In contrast, while it buys into much of the same metaphysical premises (and post-modern art direction) of its cousin, The City of Lost Children concerns itself not with dysfunctional members of its bourgeoisie. Rather, City brings to the fore the fringe elements of such a society: the street performers, the recluses, the terminally impoverished, the homeless, and the lost children.

With the inscrutable logic of a dream, Jeunet and Caro unfold their deliberate tale. Children are being kidnapped from the tenement neighborhood adjacent to the docks in an apparently large industrial city. These abductions are carried out by a legion of previously blind minions who have been fitted with a primitive sight-for-the-blind device, in return for their child-procuring services. The children are being shepherded to a large off-shore facility for what seem to be an odd series of medical experiments focussed on the abductees' dreaming processes.

Just why those conducting the experiments have such an interest in dreaming forms the crux of the tale. These scientifically-minded individuals can't dream. What at first might appear to be a dig at science, clearly isn't. At least, not in such an obvious manner. Rather, late in the film, the manner in which this off-shore outpost was created -- and the arrival of its inhabitants -- slowly becomes plain. At the heart of these matters is an absent scientist with a good heart who has lost all recollection of what he created. His creation has become an instigator of macabre social practices -- in order to fill a void the scientist hadn't realized would be there.

It all smacks more than a little of a nuanced re-telling of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. But in this instance, the monster consists of multiple "people". And rather than inflicting mayhem directly, a vast social order grows out of this monster's frustrations, in which those least able to defend themselves (poor children) are also, ironically, the most apparent key to the cure to what ails this impersonal beast. The "cure" doesn't work, but why should it?

Looking into the dreams of children, manipulating them, and trying to recover some lost humanity in the process proves fruitless. Ironically, these same dream spaces prove the undoing of the monster(s). A film can be likened to a dream in some important ways (though it obviously differs from one, too). If City is the dream space we share with these talented French filmmakers, one is tempted to wonder what transformations are worked on the audience through the experience of the film. It is here that the cynicism of City becomes apparent.

The cold, metaphysically mechanized world Jeunet and Caro create mimics our own in its relentless cause and effect. No two events, no matter how disparate, occur unrelated. But at their core, narratives progress without regard to human intention. Well-meant acts turn sour. "Chance" capriciously dictates the culmination of events far more vociferously than even the most deliberate actions. Heroism and villainy result more from circumstance than from kindness of heart or deceit. The monsters of City reach the horrible conclusion that humanity was never nor ever will be theirs. City's people have no effective agency. The viewer is confronted with the disarming notion that her life and her world are not of her own creation. And Jeunet and Caro work hard to convince us that, try as we might to be otherwise, we are but an audience in this life.

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