12 January 2010

Treeless Mountain / Avatar revisited / Up in the Air / Valentino: The Last Emperor

A few days ago I watched So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain. One of the things I caught on to in 2009 is that Korea has a pretty strong film scene. I don't know why it seems so surprising but there it is. This movie is about these two young sisters whose mother seems to have been beaten (?) and abandoned by her husband. The mother takes the two children to their paternal aunt's place and leaves them there so she can go searching for their daddy. She gives them this big piggy bank and says that whenever they're good their aunt will give them each a coin to put in the pig and when it's full that's when she'll come back for them. The core of the film is the longing of the girls. Their aunt is hardly the alcoholic monster she's made out to be in some of the reviews but she isn't ready to take care of children and she's not particularly nurturing. There's a neighbor woman who has a son with Down syndrome and there's something really magical about her. I really thought this movie was beautiful and I really identified with it. I know that ache well; from childhood but also from adulthood. It's shot beautifully. There's something kind of magical about the dress the smaller girl wears through much of the movie. I disagree with Manohla Dargis's assertion that there isn't anything inherently interesting about the lives of children. I mean, I felt like this was one of the most compelling depictions of a child's life I've ever seen, perhaps because it's unsentimental and unpatronizing. I feel like this winter is calling on me to get all Ozu and Ozu-esque in my film consumption. I think this film and Still Walking have both lit a spark for me to go back to Ozu, whom I've always neglected in favor of the more glamorous Mizoguchi. A

My boyfriend's trip to LA ended up canceled at the last minute this weekend so we took the opportunity to go see Avatar, which I had seen an advance screening of and which he hadn't seen at all. It's not quite as powerful as I thought it was the first time and the imagery is a little kitschier than I remembered it but I still think it's a strong movie. In fact, the cheesy dialogue bothered me less this time, although I remained impatient with the clumsy exposition. I think so much of the criticism of this movie is so absurdly absurd I'm not sure I'd even know how to address it. I think that all the racial groups who think it's about them, and there seem to be very many, are missing the whole point of this movie. I mean, this is right out of Joseph Campbell. It's a hero myth about leaving a corrupt civilization and returning to something more in line with what are often regarded as our inherent values. I don't think the Na'vi are portrayed as "noble savages" like the criticism goes. I mean, these stupid academics know what a Bildungsroman is. The fact that they dismiss everything in terms of marxist sociology and identity politics only reinforces Camille Paglia's indictment of the state of the American university. How easy and lazy is it to look at a text and be content to call it reactionary in terms of identity politics and leave it there. I think it's great that he couched a condemnation of the Iraq war and the values that got us there in a familiar myth. He condemns imperialism and takes issue with the war on terror in a manner that in these times where everyone is trying to conform seems very bold. I really think these criticisms that the film is racist illustrates clearly what Naomi Klein wrote about in her book No Logo: people have been so concerned over the past few decades about identity politics and social issues that they haven't even paid attention as everything they had was swiped out from under them. So here you have a movie that's trying to use a fairy tale to tell us how we're making our own graves and betraying our own values and destroying our planet and all that and all we can do is focus on whether the use of a tribal dance is a slight against Polynesians or whether the story was robbed from this movie or that. Good grief. It does share common elements with those other films because the stories are based on the archetypes that Joseph Campbell spent his lifetime studying. They're the same sorts of stories we've been telling since the storytelling ape started telling stories. Furthermore, whether this movie is or isn't like Dances with Wolves is completely irrelevant since this is a superior movie. I feel like people are lazy and shallow sometimes and this constant demand for something new is part of that. Like we can't be bothered to appreciate or reassess something that is familiar to us, except that people spend so much time watching movies and television shows that you could basically recite the dialogue to without having seen the movie if someone gave you a two sentence description of the premise. B+

Last night we went to see Up in the Air, which is another in a string of overrated Hollywood movies. It surprises me how weak the year has been for Hollywood. I actually liked this movie to start with. The first half, I guess. I thought at one point, "This movie is really about right now, just like Summer Hours. This might actually be really good." Then halfway through, it chickened out and went and hid under its sister's skirt. It makes sense, psychologically, that this movie is so popular right now because that's where we are as a country. We really feel bad about where we've gotten ourselves but we aren't ready to own up to it or handle the situation like adults. We want to go home and we want to return to sentimental truism approaches to life and we want to wander off into wish-fulfillment land and hope that we or the world or what ever will heal by the time we've done our wandering or spent whatever coins we have to show for the past thirty years. Of course, it won't heal because we aren't prepared to admit that Ronald Reagan was wrong. That life isn't all Gordon Gecko playing around in some gigantic McDonaldland Playland. I thought the bit where he walks away from his speech was phony. I thought a lot of the second half was phony. I liked Vera Farmiga and I thought Anna Kendrick seemed like another dogfaced Anne Hathaway clone. I don't get where all the hype about their performances comes from. I thought Vera Farmiga was good and Anna Kendrick was fine, if a little boring. I feel like the image of America I'm seeing lately is one of dithering whiners. I guess I need to take this insight and turn it against myself. Aside from the fact that the movie lost its teeth partway through, I also think it held back from seriously addressing the dominant issue. For how little there is there, it just didn't seem like enough fun. C

Finally, last night we watched the documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor and I found it captivating. I should have been annoyed at the excess because it's so against what I believe in but it really intrigued me. I don't know what it is about fashion movies that I find so interesting. Who knew former Soviet bloc nation Bulgaria had a princess that pals around with and serves as a muse for Valentino? I had no idea they still had royalty there and it kind of surprises me that a country in Bulgaria's position puts up with that kind of extravagance. There's really something epic about the decadence in the film and when it all ends because of the global domination of financiers, it really seems sad. It's another example of what Naomi Klein and Gore Vidal have been warning us about. Of course, one wonders why he sold his successful company in the first place but it probably paid for one or more of his jewel encrusted villas... Regardless of who pulled the string that shut the curtain, it's another great portrait of the end of an age. B+

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