Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the fourth feature film by Hayao Miyazaki, drops the rote fantasy structure of the director’s previous two movies while foregrounding his distinctive brand of gentle surrealism.  Interestingly, the film’s plot doesn’t revolve around conflict, and there are no attempts to turn any of the characters into heroes or villains.  Though Miyazaki’s first feature length work was the excellent, action-packed Castle of Cagliostro (1979), it seemed that he had mostly lost interest in the adventure genre by the time he made Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), where the adventure movie plots seemed to exist mostly because the director needed some sort of recognizable frame to support his gorgeous animation.   Totoro eschews the conventional plotting of Miyazaki’s early work in favor of an immersive, relaxed pacing that evokes the wonder and confusion of childhood in a way that very few family films even attempt.

Totoro’s plot is very simple.  A father and his two daughters move into a new countryside home in order to be closer to the hospital where the girls’ mother is recovering from an (unspecified) illness.  While playing outside one day, the younger girl, Mei, wanders into the forest and winds up on top of a large, bear-like creature.  When Mei asks the creature what its name is, it lets out a series of roars that she interprets as “Totoro.”  Eventually Totoro makes himself known to Mei’s older sister, Satsuki, and he winds up helping the girls through some potentially scary moments in their lives.

And that’s about it.  There are none of the expected scenes of adults telling the girls to stop making up stories, and no scenes where angry townspeople misunderstand Totoro and try to harm him.  There are no moments that seem designed to amp up the melodrama or manipulate the viewer into having a heightened emotional response.  Though Totoro is aimed more directly at children than any of Miyazaki’s previous work, it seems to trust the intelligence of the audience more than those earlier films did.  Aside from an annoyingly saccharine ballad that plays over the opening and closing credits, there is nothing in Totoro that feels like a generic example of filmmaking for kids.

By keeping overt plot mostly out of the way, Miyazaki ensures that there is plenty of room for his finely honed sense of charm to dominate the proceedings.  Satsuki and Mei are spirited and likeable in the way that real-life children often are, and their sisterly bond seems genuine precisely because it is so understated and well-observed.  Totoro’s appearances are fairly sparse, but Miyazaki makes them count; his most memorable scene occurs at a bus stop during a rainstorm, where he is delighted to share the girls’ umbrella.  The furry creature’s friends, such as a many-legged half-cat/half-bus, are imaginatively conceived and impressively realized.  But the oddball, fantastical touches share equal screentime with enjoyably quirky characters like the neighbor boy who is so shy around girls that he becomes speechless when he is in their company.

Perhaps My Neighbor Totoro is a bit too slight to be considered a truly great film.  At times the film’s aimless plotting and lighthearted tone make it feel almost too gentle to be really special.  Miyazaki could perhaps be accused of soft-pedaling the mother’s illness; nothing has been done in the animation of the character to even make her look sick, and it basically just turns out in the end that she isn’t doing so badly.  Then again, the point of Totoro is not to show a family in a dramatic, life-and-death situation, but to show how an imaginary friend/teddy bear/Totoro can help kids deal with everyday stresses.  Miyazaki’s fourth film may be a relatively minor work in the grand scheme of things, but by turning away from traditional good-and-evil action and focusing on small charming details, the great animator has made a major breakthrough in his own aesthetic and has finally fully honored his unique voice.

UP NEXT  Kiki's Delivery Service

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Edvard Munch

NOTE:  I have been dissatisfied with the quality of the last several Masterpiece Tests.  My feeling is that the rigid structure of this series of posts – breaking the films down into the seven different categories (beauty, strangeness, unity of form and subject matter, tradition, repeatability, viewer engagement, and morality) proposed in Paul Schrader’s “Canon Fodder” essay, one by one – is to blame.  As a result, I’m changing the format of the Masterpiece Test posts.  I’ll still attempt to assess the films based on the seven aforementioned criteria, which will hopefully be evident even if some of those factors aren’t literally mentioned by name.  Ideally, this will eliminate the awkward repetition of points that demonstrate more than one criterion, and make for a smoother read overall.

Year of Release  1974
Country  Sweden/Norway
Length  174 min.
Director  Peter Watkins
Screenwriter  Peter Watkins (in collaboration with the cast)
Cinematographer  Odd Geir Saether
Editor  Peter Watkins
Sound  Kenneth Storm-Hansen, Bjorn Harald Hansen
Costume Designer  Ada Skolmen
Makeup  Karin Saether
Cast  Geir Westby, Gros Fraas, Kare Stormark, Alf Kare Strindberg, narration by Peter Watkins

The biopic is at once one of the most popular genres of film (with awards-giving bodies, if not necessarily with critics or audiences) and one of the most problematic.  People’s lives aren’t stories, but many filmmakers have attempted to force the shapeless trajectory of their subjects’ lives into the square hole of three-act narratives.  The sheer machinations of plot necessarily smooth out the contradictions that make many “great men” fascinating in the first place, while often vastly simplifying (or virtually omitting) the subject’s relationship to his society, his contemporaries, and his family.  Landmark events and personal relationships are given too much or too little weight, leaving many of these movies feeling awkwardly paced, manipulative, and inauthentic.  Conventional narrative is simply not suited to capturing the lives of famous or important people, but only a handful of filmmakers have come up with new methods for delivering biographical material.

For most of his career, British filmmaker Peter Watkins has been concerned with ways of dismantling what he refers to as the “monoform” (“the internal language-form used by TV and the commercial cinema to present their messages”).  Along with Kevin Brownlow (director of 1965’s It Happened Here, a documentary-styled piece of speculative fiction that imagined what Britain would look like if the Nazis had won WWII) Watkins pioneered a type of docu-drama that blurred the line between documentary and fiction.  Watkins’ breakthrough was The War Game (1965), a disturbingly plausible look at what would happen if a nuclear bomb dropped in England.  As Watkins’ career has gone on, he has moved increasingly further away from such manipulative monoform devices as emotion-stoking background music, rapid montage editing, and three-act narrative structure.

Edvard Munch (1974) is simultaneously Watkins’ first biopic and his first major break with the monoform.  While previous Watkins works like The War Game and Punishment Park (1971) draw their power from their focused outrage, there is no denying that much of Watkins’ early work is didactic and stubbornly humorless to a fault.  The grim tone of Privilege (1967) is almost laughably out of proportion to its pop music milieu, while The Gladiators (1969) is single-minded to the point of being banal.  The far more dynamic Munch is a watchable median between Watkins’ early didactic work and his later, more difficult material, which is often easier to respect than it is to watch.  (In fairness, I’m basing this assessment entirely on 2000’s La commune, a 6-hour exploration of a little-known piece of French history, but 1987’s The Journey, a 14-hour look at various civilization’s reactions to nuclear technology, hardly sounds inviting).  Edvard Munch is a radical and ethically sound biopic, but its avant-garde qualities serve to make the experience more gripping rather than to shut the audience out.

Where many biopics tend to suggest that the key to understanding their subjects’ extraordinary lives can be found in a single monolithic event or a significant relationship with another person, Edvard Munch instead overwhelms the viewer with contextual information that simultaneously makes the titular artist’s work easier to understand while allowing the man himself to maintain a dignified air of mystery.  Watkins’ narration occasionally pops in to make the viewer aware of the passage of time, and to flatly announce certain historical details (ranging from child labor statistics to developments in the art world to the birth of Hitler) that may or may not have any direct relevance to Munch’s life.  The film does include the expected staging of various important events from Munch’s life, but these are often broken up by scenes that either don’t include Munch or that feature him so far in the background that lead actor Geir Westby essentially becomes an extra.  Munch also has fairly little dialogue in the film, as if to suggest that he might simply have been a product of his times.  It seems equally likely that the great artist’s work could have been inspired by his tumultuous home life, his frustrations with women, his repressed upbringing, the influence of his socially progressive bohemian friends, the work of other artists, or the attacks of art critics, each with varying degrees of consciousness or unconsciousness.  Compare this lifelike complexity with the simplistic Oedipal urges that fuel the protagonists of Oliver Stone’s W (2008) or Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), two recent examples of the monoform biopic.

It is unlikely that any two viewers would come away with the same interpretation of Edvard Munch, or even that an individual would have the same experience with it on multiple viewings.  Like contemporaries such as the great essay filmmaker Chris Marker, Watkins seems less concerned with imposing his own interpretation on the material than in getting at a greater but harder to define collective truth.  Watkins employs several stylistic techniques in Edvard Munch that are literally designed to prevent the film from succumbing to any one explanation.  He collaborated on much of the dialogue with the cast of non-professional actors, who, when they weren’t reciting things that there real-life counterparts said verbatim, were invited to write or improvise their scenes.  Watkins also used an innovative and dynamic editing technique that involved splicing bits of random footage, with no apparent relation to the dialogue or narration that it accompanies, at a number of points throughout the film, as if to suggest memories or thoughts that might be unconsciously influencing Munch’s developing artistic direction.

Of course it is essential for any film about a visual artist to possess a strong visual style, and Edvard Munch succeeds fully in this regard.  Odd Geir Saether’s cinematography initially seems a bit flat and grainy, like the work of a style-less craftsman doing functional work with subpar film stock.  But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that he has found the perfect middle ground between documentary plainness and painterly expressiveness.  In the sequences where characters are directly addressing the camera, they look equally like talking heads in a documentary and subjects of a Munch painting, fully justifying the potentially awkward intrusion of contemporary documentary techniques in this period piece.  The film also has a wonderfully tactile feel for the actual act of painting; the scenes where Munch scrapes away details from his in-progress works are perhaps the most riveting sequences of artistic creation outside of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956).  Saether’s camera work brilliantly finds the middle ground between Munch’s stylish eccentricities and the plain reality of everyday Scandanavia.  At one point in the film, an art critic sites the frequent use of red skies in Munch’s canvasses as an example of his “insanity,” an opinion that the film quietly contradicts in separate scenes by filming actual red Norwegian skylines.

Edvard Munch passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  From high art to B-movie pulp, with Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Report: The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns

The Corner is a long, challenging, depressing story about the plight of one drug-ravaged West Baltimore neighborhood.  The 543-page nonfiction novel rarely strays from its central Fayette Street location, and only follows a handful of people, but authors David Simon and Edward Burns go so deep into the specifics of their subjects’ struggle with poverty and drug addiction that readers can perhaps be forgiven for putting the book down for weeks or months at a time.  (I read the book on and off for nearly a year and a half before finishing it, and read several other books in the meantime).  The book’s structure scarcely makes it more approachable; it is divided logically into four chronological sections, but then broken down into very lengthy chapters and sub-chapters that sometimes seem to begin and end at arbitrary points.

The Corner doesn’t qualify as “light reading” by any stretch of the imagination, but its difficult aspects stem from Simon and Burns’ honorable determination to give a voice to the voiceless and to put a human face on a part of the United States that has been almost entirely ignored by the rest of the world.  Simon and Burns (who went on to be the head creative forces behind HBO’s The Wire) stand alongside Dickens and Chaplin as perhaps our only major chroniclers of poverty.  Even if The Corner weren’t so eloquently written or so agonizingly powerful, it would still have journalistic value on a purely informational level.

But The Corner has much more to offer than simple statistics or abstract arguments about the plight of those involved in the drug trade.  Simon and Burns center their study on the McCullough family, whose members are each struggling with the narcotics market in their own way.  Patriarch Gary was once a promising renaissance man with an entrepreneurial spirit.  But a series of harsh setbacks in Gary’s personal life led him into an endless spiral of addiction, and a revolving series of petty crimes to support it.  Gary’s estranged wife Fran goes in and out of addiction throughout the book as well, the pressures of her environment frequently overwhelming her most sincere attempts to get clean.  Fran and Gary’s fifteen-year-old son DeAndre is a small-time drug dealer whose difficulties fitting in to life outside of Fayette Street (his legit fast food job falls apart quickly) and easy access to drugs ultimately lead him to follow in his parent’s footsteps.

Simon and Burns follow the story of the McCulloughs in riveting, sometimes sickening detail.  The first few pages of the novel include a map of the area where the novel takes place (as if this were The Lord of the Rings), which makes the story more intimate, vivid, and relatable than it otherwise would be.   Following along with the map, the reader can easily understand where the recreation center that DeAndre and his friends play basketball is in relation to the corners where they sell drugs, or where the scrap yard that Gary steals materials from is in relation to the old home where he once showed such promise.  It’s easy to imagine roughly where any of the novel’s major figures is and what they are doing even in sections of the story where they aren’t mentioned, and this sense of intimacy makes The Corner all the more moving and powerful.  Emotional highpoints such as the (surprisingly life-affirming) section where DeAndre’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Tyreeka realizes that she has the strength to raise their newborn child, despite DeAndre’s unreliability and her own young age, succeed largely because readers will understand exactly where the characters are in relation to each other.

The Corner is not entirely without faults.  Simon and Burns’ devotion to detail can be distracting, as when they report tirelessly about the specifics of the recreation center’s basketball program.  And while the book goes into minute detail about the lives of the junkies and dealers, the other forces that effect the characters’ world (such as politics and the police force) are only dealt with in the abstract, which retroactively makes The Corner feel lacking compared to The Wire’s full-bodied look at the ways that circumstances conspire to keep the poor separated from the wealthy.  Some of the novel’s essayistic passages contain its best pure prose, particularly the second chapter’s passionate yet well-reasoned argument for legalizing drugs, and a late-book screed that gives the lie to the idea that someone from Fayette Street could pull themselves up by the bootstraps and succeed in the “real world” if they only tried hard enough.  But most of the sections that comment abstractly on poverty and drug laws feel like they could use the vividly personal touches that take up the rest of the book.  Fortunately The Corner is mostly filled with powerful personal stories that honor the lives of the real people that they discuss while making larger, thought-provoking points about the many ways that we’ve all failed the less fortunate among us.