Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Hatred. Fear. Jealousy. Scorn. Anxiety.

The intellectual often feels these emotions when asked to be a participant of bourgeois society, for the shallow, commercial culture of the global order pleads that he cast away his mind which he so cherishes. It tells him to love his slavery, and take the pleasures of the flesh and the transience of laughter for comforts. In time, he finds such aversions dissatisfying and continues on in anomie. He fights the world through scientific method and literary analysis, hoping that triviality and banality will not infect him, that somehow stupidity and acquiescence will not pollute his cerebral fortress.

But soon, he finds himself forlorn. Loneliness is no longer a sanctuary, but a prison. And as society provides no support for his development, he seeks the thing that is most socially encouraged: a relationship. After observation, it discourages him at first, the lowly state to which women have been forced into. Many of them, through the industrial precision of patriarchy, have been reduced to little more than showing concern for the material comforts of the day. This depresses him. Love, he thought, was one’s last chance. It is the way to integrate into the fold, to no longer be outside.

But he shortens his chances, as many do. If (as many of his kind are), he is a thinker from the middle classes, he may come to shun the hypocrisy, the complacence, the lifelessness of the women of his station. And though the working classes, as he observes, are still imbued with the lifeforce and creativity that drives mankind, they are lacking in traditions, devoid of the elegance which he detests, but secretly admires. Looking further into society, he finds his object: the bourgeois woman. Her qualities show that the petit bourgeois of his class are nothing but imitations of their masters.

His mind, of course, loves this new woman for her well-payed-for education and sense of leisure. From the comfort of her class, the world becomes still for him. It is temporarily no longer a chaos in his thoughts. Yet, there is another wall between him: class boundaries. he could attain his object in mere enjoyment, but feelings of possession take hold of him.

However, she cannot have him, as she is, rather. Upon scrutiny, he understands that what he is facing is a whole system. She does not belong to her class by choice, but by forces, and these influences made and continually reinforce her character. What he loves was made by design. And the small emoluments that sustain him cannot alter her inclinations. To have her, as she is, she must provide what she is accustomed to, or instead risk a change. It is, in a simple term, preservation. And for this, he grows more and more unfit for the world, more willing to change it. Desire drives his dream of overthrow. But the dream of owning factories or investment banks is an inconceivable as the Christ myth to him. And his hatred for the figureheads of patriarchy couldn’t possibly lead him to mimic the very system which chokes out his existence. So he decides to make the world go upside-down. He cannot beat them, and certainly will not join them. He will, rather, make them obsolete.

It is this impetus which I feel drives The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. While my introduction heavily politicizes the film, behind Greenaway’s baroque adornments lies a direction towards the radical. The man I described, in his acumen and uncertainty, is Michael, the Lover. Though he is portrayed as a victim of a raving lunatic’s brutality, his crime is that he sought to upset the order through the sexual act.

He cannot, in this world, engage in free love and have the bourgeois woman he so desires. She is, for the restaurant owner and the higher classes he represents (think of the building’s interior opulence and Georgina’s deluxe, ever-changing wardrobe), part of an exclusive society, in so much as this social unit views her as property, that is, more specifically, reproductive property. Her main function, in the eyes of the husband, Spica, is to abide in his home, represent him and stay faithful to him, thereby preventing her from fornication, and hence, humiliation for him and the further matter of ambiguous parentage.

Michael has a firmly rooted position as a thinker by his actions. While Spica and his minions are gorging themselves, Michael is seen reading (with no coincidence) a book on the French Revolution (subversive ideas are always on loan from foreigners). He probably prefers revolution in its French incarnation and not its Russian one, as he is not quite ready for full equality. And for this breach in expectations, the husband disrupts his book reading (for the model citizen should be frivolous, not brainy), throwing the book on the floor and cursing him.

The husband, Spica, is seen through Michael’s eyes, and not Georgina’s. Western film is often more manipulative than its Eastern counterpart. The Occident is concerned with identification, while the East prefers observation. In the West, Christian concepts of good and evil influence choices in narrative. Michael is good, for he is a martyr. Jesus against Rome. The husband, the bad one, is executed for his sins. And his barbaric behavior and personification of all things evil is represented by his red and black raiment – purely diabolical.

Given the timing of the film’s release, there can be speculation that the thief, the husband, is a stand-in for the UK’s corrupt, Thatcherite dictatorship. This follows the same line as my argument and is useful, but the cultural specificities of the UK and Margaret Thatcher are not. I see the film as expressing the eternal theme of the pre-revolutionary stage: corruption.

Corruption is the by-product of stagnation, when normal, decent democracy must be perverted to keep the ruling classes happy. Life as they knew it can no longer be replenished through legal means, for there are too many barriers. It is here that we see power encroach itself further into private life by means of the state (i.e… wiretapping, deregulation, police repression, the ramping-up of the criminal codes [such as the 10-20-Life policy in the state of Florida], and stricter drug laws). Now, corruption, in the common sense, is seen as a private matter, being that of markets, business, and industry, yet it can be traced back to the state. Once the state, in its Engelian function, fails to keep class antagonism from volatile levels, and starts to support power to the detriment of the governed, then it opens the doors for the abuse of power, by power – for corruption.

The world saw a crucial moment in the 1980’s with the rise of a new Conservatism, seen in Reagan and Thatcher, here in the West, and the subsequent attack on progressive gains, most notoriously displayed during Reagan’s first few months in office, when he gave a crushing blow to the strike of the government-employed, air traffic controllers. In the U.S., the governed were also sold out by the state which protects them from power. Tax incentives given to megacorporations, which then used the new boon in capital to penetrate foreign markets, assisted in the deindustrialization of the U.S., and the mass layoffs in the labor market.

Further encroachments on liberty had to be made, abroad and at home, as Reagan and U.S. power sought to defeat their existential enemy, the USSR. Greenaway’s film was made at the horizon of this victory. For America, and its bulldog Britain, no longer would there be a Red, second world to protect the vulnerable third world. And it is at this stage, when the West could still profess itself as having a destiny, that it can be, to its citizens, admirable. Manifest Destiny (here transposed to the entire globe) was complete, and the U.S. (Britain too) had no more future to sell to its children. And with “smooth” world, and the opening-up of previously unpenetrated markets, the population could experience a new, undreamed of decadence. But with no goal in mind, the need for great diligence and obedience was no longer necessary. Social liberalism can thrive. And the world as it was, was a completed construct. The ousting of “bad guys” like Milosevic and Saddam is not an expeditionary, imperial campaign, but rather, a disciplinary action. No other nation can fall out of line in this fixed world.

Therefore, Michael’s sexual defiance, is more intolerable in this stage in history, than were he to diddle Spica’s wife once the mission had been completed (when it’s time to laissez les bon temps rouler). Such trangressions are expected, but not encouraged, once an era of enjoyment falls upon the earth (such as the world of the flapper and the petting parties of the Roaring 20’s).

The wife, while seeking a more meaningful love, is still part of these historical forces. Helen Mirren, not as personality, but as an object (she is the only woman seen in the nude, the only one that desire is focused upon), is completely necessary. She represents a dying class, one that is about to see its success (world domination). Death, also, is a theme in this film. Richard, the cook, gives a speech on how black foods represent death, and in consuming them one can conquer mortality (from keys to the quiche). And it is around so much death, from Michael’s, to Spica’s, to the hapless employees’, that we must surround ourselves with life. A restaurant, fine dining in particular, is a celebration of life and sensuality (something the English should learn more of). Eating, like sex (seen in the film expressly) remind man of his impermanence, which reinvigorates his sense of life. Only in realizing death can we start to truly enjoy life. The set designers, knowing this, draped the restaurant’s interiors in warm, yonic reds, representing sex, the flesh, and ultimately, demise. It is in this coming end (so quietly suggested in Mirren’s, or Greenaway’s, refusal to let Georgina use the makeup brush – an aging woman belonging to a soon-to-be obsolete class), that the film so lavishly gorges on all things representing life, whether destroying it or attempting to create it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Lakeview Terrace (2008)

Lakeview Terrace (2008)

This was on Starz or one of those movie channels when I got up this morning. I had seen a few scenes from the middle of it before, but never had a chance to view the whole picture. The writing was above par, so I stayed tuned, but it ended in a predictable way based on mainstream American beliefs about race relations.

As one would expect, the picture, though dealing with the race problem, was made by a white guy, Neil LaBute, who has done commercial pictures for fifteen years.

The premise is enough to spawn a mixed reaction: Samuel L. Jackson plays an older police officer who soon grows jealous, or rather hostile, to the interracial couple next door, played by Kerry Washington, who is in fact, in an interracial marriage with a Jewish man, I believe, and the stud-looking guy from Little Children, Patrick Wilson.

Within about thirty minutes, Sammy tells the couple that he doesn't feel right with them "doing whatever they feel like" in his neighborhood. Meaning that he doesn't want to see a seemingly happy black/white couple just prancing around his ville.

Now, right here, at this moment, lie all the film's deficiencies. We are basically witnessing the postmodern miracle: reverse racism. Something, which really doesn't exist in this country, as all the chips are still in the same hands as they were before the Civil War.

Throughout the film, the director posited that Jackson was the main source of the conflict in the film, and I agree that he is, but through its duration, LaBute had no interest in broadening his character to help understand his impetus. He did what is normal for a modern thinker: to make an individual out of his actions. Samuel L. Jackson's actions are seen as having no connection to the world around him, or the world that was around him. He is just seen as someone having crazy ideas that seemingly came from no place. This is what America does to flush out its critics. It calls them madmen, pushes them out by exclusion, and of course, the system remains in tact, but behind the walls, the invaders multiply.

To have a wider understanding of America, one must know that a large reason why the upper class is so successful in keeping power is that they keep us ignorant. The main concealment of knowledge is in the field of history. As long as Americans are encouraged to forget, and "get over it," then the populace can be more easy to control. And this urge to forget has been pushed upon the blacks with the most force. The very race that built this country, literally from the ground up, since before independence, has been told that it has to let go of its grievances, and join into the white system which was basically constructed based upon their degradation. So, still America is doing what it has always done, and can revert to so easily: pointing the finger at the black man, while holding the black woman in the other arm.

Samuel L. Jackson is seen as the bad guy, but his feelings are really part of a specific, generational ideology. Black people his age lived through segregation as children and young adults. They were the last generation to witness America's violent policy of division. And their anger is even more intensified as we moved out of the age of segregation in the 60's, and now are in the era of nationwide, de-facto discrimination. Now, racism is a private matter. The government has left it up to Wall Street and the Fortune 500. It no longer enforces it.

So, a director who is Neil LaBute's age, now about 47, is actually young enough to be uninformed about the past. He is, and I may trademark this, part of the Obama generation. The rise of Barack Obama marked an era of a new rewrite on racial ideology, but it is still one that leaves the blacks out, but only this time it is willing to absorb more of the good ones into its net. Though this term and this theory were being cooked up long before Obama came on television, he preached the message for the layman, and it made it understandable. Today, we are in an era of color-blindness, but the standards that apply to this new, blind judge don't really take black history into account. For instance, if a black person, like Jackson in this movie, still had grievances about the very history that drives social life today, then he would be considered a reverse racist, or called childish (what they've always been calling us), and told to get over it. So how is it possible that such an ideology could have been created but by the very people who have sought to dominate since the Shot Heard Round the World?

But the movie ends, unsurprisingly, with Jackson, the Bad Negro, being taken away, and the otherwise happy, status symbol-seeking mixed couple can be left to their good, productive lives. It may be an improvement that at least a movie can be made about race and still be mainstream, but I think this one points us in the wrong direction (which is really, in the end, a direction that evades criticism and makes it so that whites can still stay on top... of many things), but of course, by saying this, this means that I myself, am a black racist. :P

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Girlfriend: Someone Please Stop the World (2004)

Girlfriend: Someone Please Stop the World (2004)

It started with Vibrator, then Tokyo Trash Baby, now this!

Ryuichi Hiroki, who started out in the pink film industry to learn his craft, is now making some of my favorite pictures from Japan these days. Each of the Hiroki films I've seen deal with people who aren't very much represented in cinema: the powerless, the ordinary, the outsiders. And this picture, like the others, shows how these people can reconnect with society through positive relationships.

The beautiful Aoba Kawai, playing the character of Miho, is very much this type of person. Beneath a pretty exterior, one can see a persistent sadness. Her glum face is very much like the look Aoi Miyazaki donned in Harmful Insect. Her problem in the film is the lack of a relationship with her father (Tomorowo Taguchi), who left the family when she was an adolescent. Drowning herself in her work, as a hairdresser, or surrounding herself with her three roommates, cannot quell this problem. She tries to deal with it on her own, but to no avail.

Miho one day unwittingly runs into the quirky, short-haired Kyoko (whose reminiscent of Mami Nakamura's character in Tokyo Trash Baby, as both are so peculiar), played by Kinuwo Yamada, who asks to take her picture. Kyoko is a professional photographer and Miho is the only person who accepted to model for her photos, in the nude. Miho accepts as a way to release her anger over her father. The two women, completely unalike, slowly bond over their problems with men, and attempt to resolve them. Kyoko finds artistic inspiration in Miho's complexity, and together, they seem to act as a positive and negative part of a whole.

Hiroki's films show a maturity that is direly missing from a capitalist cinema, geared to entice our basest emotions. His work in pinku eiga may have been necessary as he fully understands the role that sex and relationships play in empowering, damaging, even ostracizing individuals. While he has received critical acclaim, despite the appearance of a few DVD's in Region-1, I don't think his films have yet to find a wide audience, just mostly the cyber-fed cinema geeks like myself and festival insiders. But in a way, I almost prefer for Hiroki to work as he does, away from the glaring lights of international stardom. He certainly has no place in the Academy, making national epics or bolstering the egos of a few star actors. His work is more what art should be: personal expression, not cultural/national justification. His characters are ones that I always tend to connect with, people whose personalities highlight the contradictions of modern society.

Japan, at this stage, has acquired many features similar to America, especially in the urban context, and it is this newer form of social relations that Hiroki sees and understands, despite the fact that he doesn't write his own scripts. It is very fitting that a white character, played by Jason Gray, is portrayed alongside the Japanese without much ideological emphasis through the use of cutting techniques or by giving him some exaggerated character traits. What I'm saying is, because at this stage, since Japanese life is not too different from life in other imperialist nations, we see an even deeper similarity in narratives. These young, highly urban characters come with all the sexual hang-ups, family troubles, economic restraints, vanity, shallowness, and ennui of any figure in a modern film from the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, etc...

Chinese film, especially the recent Lost in Beijing, is taking the same route. The way people live determine the way they think, and the way they write and express themselves. With this new connectedness, reinforced by an ever-entangling global financial system, I tend to wonder just how much one country or another can attest to having traits distinct to its "national cinema".

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tokyo Trash Baby 東京ゴミ女 (Tokyo Gomi Onna, 2000)

Ryuichi Hiroki is quickly becoming an international star for his intelligently-written romances. Well, as far as I know, he hasn't written a single film (none of which I've seen), but each one delves into the specifics of urban relationships. This film is a tale of obsession and timidity that seems to accompany the experience of living single in a megalopolis. Miyuki, played by NAKAMURA Mami, is a waitress at a nondescript Tokyo café, who finds it easier to rummage through the trash of a guy she likes rather than talk to him. How she reached this point is not given, but it is certain that Miyuki lives in a world of her own. She's a very cute and quirky girl, but somewhat childlike (not altogether different from the American hipsters). As she collects the guy's trash, a musician that lives on the floor above her, she slowly begins to think that she knows him, and uses his scraps to create an idealized image of him. Writer OIKAWA Shotaro has made a very unique film on how we misunderstand the people we fall in love with, and the portrayal of Miyuki, as a girl who cannot quite fit in, hence her being alone most of the time, is very convincing. Her fixation on the guitarist eventually leads to a meeting at one of his gigs, where her ideal may not meet his reality.

Miyuki acts as a foil to her co-worker, Kyoko, played by SHIBASAKI Kou, a woman who appears slightly older and is more integrated into social norms, hence her daily boasting at work of her rampant sexual encounters. It is strange to say that this is a gem in the film world for its originality: it is a film about normal people in normal situations. No one is exceptional, talented or special. Though Miyuki is the type of girl who one would imagine as the black sheep in a traditional family, being the self-absorbed, creative one, she is presented as trying to reconnect with the world through love, and her persona is not so extraordinary as to negate her existence in a real, ordinary setting. She's the "weird girl" that you went to high school with.

This film was the first entry of six DV features in the 'Love Cinema' series, which also includes SHIOTA Akihiko's Gips, and MIIKE Takashi's Visitor Q.