Monday, March 27, 2006

The Worst Police Officer New York's Ever Had


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I'm something of a late bloomer when it comes to my cinephilia. My family never had cable television, we didn't have a VCR until well into the 1980s, and throughout high school I only went to a few movies a year, usually of the sci-fi blockbuster variety. I was much more interested in computer games and music during my teen years, and I was practically oblivious to Frisco's diverse and thriving film culture. Ironically, this city boy had seen precious few non-Hollywood films until attending a small liberal arts college that offered free film and video screenings to students as partial compensation for living in a small Midwestern town with few cultural offerings attractive to its would-be-sophisticated student body. Suddenly I had easy access to screenings of films totally off my radar screen: Drugstore Cowboy, L'Enfant Sauvage, My Twentieth Century, Alice in the Cities, etc. I enjoyed going to see films I knew nothing about beforehand, but to be honest few of them floored me. I was still much more interested in music, including the healthy campus band scene.

Every weekend could be counted on to provide at least dorm party or house party featuring one or more of the many rock (or punk, metal, noise, funk, or jazz) bands made up of students. It seemed as if there were almost as many bands as there were students, but my favorite was the Shepherd Kings. What they lacked in traditional charisma or virtuoso musicianship, they more than made up for in creativity and eagerness to do absolutely anything to make their shows entertaining. Every show was an event that culminated in a whirlwind of purgative screaming, insane robots, amplified feedback, mass chaos and destruction and some kind of material, whether animal or vegetable or mineral, interacting with (okay, usually "thrown at") the audience. But along the way the Kings played a selection of well-crafted songs with titles like "Radiation" and "Jacques Cousteau". I always looked forward to a driving death march called "Lieutenant Bad", clearly inspired by the Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. Here's a link to an mp3 of a live recording of the song, which in 1997 was released on CD by Gourmandizer, a now-defunct indie label:

"Lieutenant Bad"

I suspect I get more out of listening to that than people who've never seen a Shepherd Kings live show might. I've probably heard the song a hundred times and I still can't make out a good portion of the lyrics being shouted in tag-team fashion by Jason Elbogen and Mike Kraus. I've pieced together that each line ticks off another debased transgression of "a corrupta police officera" (I want to say that bassist Jack Simpson was in my Latin class, but I could be misremembering, as I never knew any of the band members very well personally), including "breeding disease", "dealing angel dust", and being "dirtier than the streets". It's true that Johnny Breitzer's drumming is anything but metronomic, and it may help to be able to visualize what his playing style actually looked like. I'm sorry I'm unable to provide that image.

I'm not sorry, however, that today's Ferrarathon finally prodded me to see my first Abel Ferrara film, a decade after the Shepherd Kings played their last note, and after seeing the likes of Ed Gonzalez and Zach Campbell praise the director almost from the beginning of my entry into full-fledged cinephilia in the late 1990's. In writing about Bad Lieutenant it's tempting to model my form on that of the song, and list the countless transgressions of the Harvey Keitel character (referred to in the film only as "LT") in the approximate order they appear in the film. First: when he drops his kids of at school, he snorts some coke as soon as they've gotten out of the car. Then: we see him run into a fire trap apartment building, perhaps to chase down a perp? No, it's to score drugs from one of his regular dealers. Next: he stops a convenience store hold-up, but only to order the shopkeeper out the door and submit the robbers to a shakedown. Etc. Is there a single shot of LT in the film in which he isn't pictured doing something immoral, illegal, or at least grossly irresponsible?

It was an intensely disturbing film for me to watch. This is really a genre I try to avoid: an absolutely humorless character study, in which the character is inexorably descending into a drug-filled pit of Stygian torment. I usually just find them depressing, and compounded with my squeamishness around images of graphic self-destruction through substances (a reaction that kicked into high gear quite often during this film), it's really no wonder I'd put off seeing this for so long. The lead character's unchecked misogyny was extremely uncomfortable, too. If it wasn't for Ferrara's extremely stylish (though never over-stylized) direction, I wouldn't have been able to bear the film and its subject matter at all. Shot after shot won me over with its conjuring of a heightened reality. And some scenes conveyed a drugged-out unreality; at one point LT tenderly kisses his dealer's mamá after receiving a cash bribe big enough to make his gambling debts seem potentially far less disastrous. It feels for a moment like it might be a turning point for LT; the woman speaks only Spanish to him but exudes a maternal grace that seems like it could spark his salvation. But no, the very next scene is an expressionist nightmare; strung out on something clearly taken just after leaving the dealer's apartment, he staggers down the stairwell like Cesare let out of Caligari's cabinet.

The other aspect of the film that made it all worthwhile was, strangely, the ending. Yes, MAJOR SPOILERS are on their way. I've never been a Catholic or an especially religious person, but I found something very moving and beautiful about LT's nihilistic "redemption". The key scenes are the ones between LT and his fellow cops; at a grisly crime scene they're more interested in talking about their National League pennant bets than in doing their jobs or really dealing with the death and lawlessness surrounding them. Later, LT shows that he's spiraled much further out of reality than his fellow officers have, when he accuses the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball of being "a racket" in practically the same breath. First the Church is corrupt and a nun's rapists unworthy of the high bounty placed on their heads, then baseball is so fixed that the Mets must keep winning in order to force a game seven and raise more advertising revenue. It makes perfect sense that such a corrupt cop would see everything as a racket. So why does he keep putting his money on the Dodgers? Two possible reasons: either he is in such a self-destructive cycle that he wants to lose his bets and ultimately his life. Or, he doesn't really believe in the fix after all and wants his fellow substance abuser and traitor to New York, Darryl Strawberry, to hand him salvation with a Dodger victory. Either interpretation has fascinating repercussions for the end of the film; if it's self-destruction LT wants, it's self-destruction LT gets by mainlining heroin and parking his car in front of Trump Tower after sending his lifeline on the next bus out of town. But if the baseball Championship isn't fixed, then perhaps neither is Catholicism, something LT finally seems to admit just before the famous appearance of Jesus at the end of the film.

Whether LT is motivated by faith or by a suicidal urge, or by a twisted combination of the two (I tend to think it's this third option), I found something appealing about the neatness of the ending that I don't usually get out of most films of this genre. It works because LT is so clearly a fictional creation, where so many substance abuser movies focus on real or reality-based people. Somehow it's cathartic for this character who was never really portrayed as fully human but more as a personification of the most selfishly depraved human tendencies, to be able to be released from his abject existence. I won't go so far as to say I found the end uplifting, but at least it was a kind of relief. I really don't expect I'll ever want to see Bad Lieutenant again, but I'm very glad I saw it this once.

And I'm excited to try out more of Ferrara's work. Like Michael Guillen I hope Mary is among the titles announced as part of the 49th SFIFF tomorrow. And I definitely plan to explore more of the director's filmography with aid of this Blog-a-Thon. Ms. 45 and New Rose Hotel seem like the most likely next candidates for me to track down.

One last note: in one scene of Bad Lieutenant two children are watching a cartoon on television. A song plays: "We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again." The cartoon is the Fifth Column Mouse and it was directed by the most underrated of the great Warner Brothers cartoon directors, Friz Freleng, creator of Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, the Tweety and Sylvester team-up, Bugsy and Mugsy, the Pink Panther and a huge animated legacy. Despite sources to the contrary, I understand 2006 is Freleng's centennial year, and I haven't heard a peep about it from anywhere other than my mouth. Would anyone be up for a Friz Freleng Blog-a-Thon sometime between now and Freleng's August 21 birthday?

Friday, March 17, 2006

24th SFIAAFF Preview, Part II


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Every film is a cultural document, packed with signals that reflect the identity of those involved in its creation. Arguably, it's these signals that make films interesting to watch, though sometimes we can lose sight of this and get caught up in the mechanics of narrative or filmmaking technology, as if these are elements that can be wholly extracted from issues of cultural identity. A festival with a geographic, cultural, and cross-cultural focus like the SF International Asian American Film Festival (which opened last night with a sold-out screening of Eric Byler's Award-winning AMERICANese) can help remind those of us who might otherwise wear cultural blinders to look at film through a different lens. No wonder it's such a popular festival in a city like Frisco, where so many residents have traditionally had roots in more than one identity group that it's as if the whole city is a cross-cultural experience.

I couldn't help but use this lens to view a film like Grain in Ear (playing Saturday Mar. 18 at the Kabuki and Sunday Mar. 19 at the Pacific Film Archive) as a portrayal of immigrants, in this case a Korean woman and her young son trying to survive as outsiders in a Chinese coal mining town. Certainly the feelings of isolation and anguish the film portrays are not unique to immigrants, and director Zhang Lu's framing of the film as one about "terrorism" works. It's not what came to my mind while watching the film, though. Rather I watched how the kimchee peddler protagonist Soon-hee's attitude toward her Korean identity and the stereotyping it provokes in her neighbors (not so much her literal neighbors, the genial prostitutes who befriend her young son, but the closed-off larger community) shifts in the film. Early on she meets another Korean-Chinese who seems like a rare opportunity for human connection in an unfriendly town. But this connection only sets off a chain reaction of downwardly-spiraling calamities that culminate in the film's remarkable final shot. This shot has been mentioned in every review of the film I've encountered as notable because it's the only tracking shot in a film filled with static-camera shots. After the building feeling of being held back by a camera lens proscenium, we finally move forward into the action and for me it triggered a strong emotional response. Zhang is almost as sparing in his use of close-ups on the actors' faces; the few that appear are reaction shots to off-screen violent acts, and their presence is crucial. I get the feeling he understands how Brecht's "distancing effect" works a lot better than I do.

Two other films recalled my own limited experience living in an unfamiliar country and dealing with my own cultural baggage. In 1999-2000, while I was working at a high school in Northern Thailand, I took the opportunity to play budget tourist in as many nearby countries as my teaching schedule allowed. I only spent a few days apiece in Phnom Penh and Singapore, so I particularly value the deeper inquiries into life in two very different capital cities provided by the Burnt Theatre and Be With Me, respectively. Both films straddle the line between fiction and documentary. Be With Me (playing Saturday Mar. 18 and Tuesday Mar. 21 at the Kabuki) is categorized by the SFIAAF with the fiction films in the International Showcase, and somewhat resembles the deceptively placid narrative filmmaking style of Tsai Ming-Liang. But unlike some of the films made by Tsai's imitators, Be With Me is unforced in its taciturn motivations. At the nexus of the film's three interlocking stories is a real Singaporean, Theresa Chan, a blind and deaf teacher doing some of the same kind of work we see Fini Strauberger do in Herzog's Land of Silence and Darkness. She's devoted to her work and to typing her autobiography, expressed through subtitles representing an inaudible "voiceover". Her typewriter, the letter a security guard sends writes to a woman he's shy to meet, and the text messages sent between a pair of teenagers discovering their sexuality, make for a tidy set of nonverbal communication motifs.

The Burnt Theatre (playing Tuesday Mar. 21 at the PFA and Wednesday Mar. 22 at the Kabuki), on the other hand, was placed in the SFIAAFF's Documentary Features category. It shows the struggle Cambodian actors are faced with daily in light of the irony that the Bassac National Theatre survived the Khmer Rouge that singled out artists in its horrific genocide, but the structure fell victim to a 1994 fire that has left the artform's few surviving practitioners without a proper place to perform. Still, the theatre's wreckage remains a destination for the artists, many of whom live nearby in one of Phnom Penh's most impoverished shantytowns. The three films I've seen by director Rithy Panh have increasingly blurred the documentary-fiction distinction. S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which played the 2004 edition of the festival, eschewed documentary conventions like the talking head, the omniscient voiceover, and archival footage. Yet it was most disturbingly memorable for the way it utilized re-enactments: Panh asked former prison guard interviewees to demonstrate the practices they used to terrorize political prisoners. He uses his actor subjects in the Burnt Theatre to go a step or two further, mixing "fly-on-the-wall" documentary footage with dramatized scenes. This sometimes creates a disorienting effect, as in a scene in which one of the actors returns to the theatre triumphant that he'd found work, only to be shunned by his colleagues, disheartened by his willingness to sully his craft by acting in a karaoke video. Is this scene drama or documentary, or perhaps a combination? And how about one of the final moments, in which one of the troupe calls a radio station to request a song and tells the DJ his profession: "early retired actor." It's clear that a number of the film's scenes are staged but as the film progressed I grew less certain which ones. One documentary aspect of the film remained, however: the nearly ubiquitous pounding sound of a Malaysian corporation constructing a humungous casino near the theatre is a reminder that in a globalizing economy, commerce easily trumps aesthetics.

I hope reading these descriptions doesn't make the SFIAAFF seem overly concerned with serious films about serious subjects. My previous preview post highlighted a pair of films that are as close to pure fun as cinematically possible: Citizen Dog and Linda Linda Linda. And tomorrow afternoon's James Shigeta tribute film the Crimson Kimono (3PM at the Castro), while it breaks ground rarely sown subsequently in regard to certain American racial issues, is also purely entertaining as a noir-ish detective movie. Though I'm perhaps most excited about the Heroic Grace II films wrapping up the Berkeley run of the festival with a nice sample of work from four different influential martial arts directors. Chor Yuen's Clans of Intrigue and Korean director Chung Chang-wha's King Boxer play March 24th, while Chang Cheh's the Boxer From Shantung (assistant-directed by John Woo) and Lau Kar Leung's Dirty Ho play March 25th. If the four ShawScope prints look nearly as good as the print of King Hu's Come Drink With Me shown at the SFIAAFF two years ago, the PFA is going to have some happy audiences next weekend.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

24th SFIAAFF Preview


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The blog-friendly publicity department of the SF International Asian American Film Festival, which runs from March 16-26, kindly let me attend its press screenings over the past couple weeks. I was able to fit four into my schedule.

Wisit Sasanatieng has just been named one of the "three most important Thai directors" in a poll on His new film Citizen Dog, like his directing debut (still shelved from any US release) Tears of the Black Tiger, takes its gaudy color palette from the film posters, programs, hand-painted promotional stills and other ephemera that remain from the 16mm film production era of the Thai movie industry which lasted until the early 1970s. But instead of the genre pastiche that Wisit's previous film was, Citizen Dog is loosely structured through the cast of eccentric Bangkok characters country bumpkin Pod encounters while stumbling through a series of jobs hoping to defy the prediction his toothless grandma cackles at him as he leaves the family farm: "If you get a job in Bangkok, you will surely grow a tail!"

Luckily Pod (played by Mahasamuth Boonyarak, who I was not surprised to learn is actually a bass player in a rock band; he's got something of a pop star look) is quite unlike the rest of Bangkok's citizens. He's set apart from the crowd in an early sequence in which he's shown moving about town in crowds of people all singing the film's theme song, some quite soulfully, while he glances around at them quizzically. (Another memorable musical sequence comes in the form of a recitative rap song explaining Granny's reincarnation as a gecko clinging to Pod's lamp.) He also has a singular, unrequited devotion to Jin (Saengthong Gate-Uthong) a quirky cleaning woman he meets while employed as a security guard. I suspect this romance thread in the film, along with Pen-ek Ratanaruang's dryly bemused voice-over, is the origin of the many comparisons to Amelie Wisit's film has garnered. The time we spend with Jin reveals her to have an instinct for romantic self-sabotage similar to Amelie's. But from Pod's point of view, his romantic goals are thwarted not by his own lack of confidence but by the craziness of Bangkok and its absolutely bizarre residents. And indeed the unexpectable flourishes of the writer/director's imagination are the real selling point of Citizen Dog. Read all the plot synopses of this film you want beforehand, but I'm certain there will still be plenty of surprises for you when you actually see it. There's just so much crammed into the running time that no synopsis could cover it all without practically rewriting the screenplay. As of yet without a US distributor, Citizen Dog plays the Castro Theatre March 17 and the PFA March 18.

Linda Linda Linda is perhaps even more fun. It's another in the current cycle of films exploring Japan's teenage subcultures, but unlike my experience watching Kamikaze Girls, Go or All About Lilly Chou-Chou, my interest never flagged and I never sensed director Nobuhiro Yamashita reaching for a sentimental or "shocking" cliche. He drops the audience into the very richly detailed galaxy that is Shibazaki High School counting the days to the upcoming school festival and the accompanying rock and roll talent showcase held in a gymnasium-cum-stage. It took a few scenes for me to find my bearings, but soon after I did I was completely won over by these characters. Kyoko, Nozomi, and Kei need to find a vocalist for their Blue Hearts cover band, and to spite a former bandmate they pick the Korean exchange student, Son. They're not exactly striving against all odds to learn catchy Ramones-esque songs like "Linda, Linda", but rather there's a realness to their struggles competing for practice time at the school's pop music club room, dealing with hopeful and ex-boyfriends, and, for Son especially, figuring out how to fit in. By the end of the film you may just have to struggle not to get up and dance along in the aisles (not only is it a fire hazard as we've all been reminded by Sarah Vowell, but it also blocks the view of your fellow moviegoers. So restrain yourself.) Linda Linda Linda plays Friday, March 17 at the PFA and Wednesday, March 22 at the Kabuki.

The other two I saw were among the films passed over by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television in its selection of China's latest Oscar submission in favor of the Promise, which failed to be nominated.

Despite uprooting the setting from Austria to pre-Communist China, Xu Jinglei's Letter From an Unknown Woman is actually more faithful to Stefan Zweig's 1922 tale of romantic obsession than Max Ophuls' revered 1948 version. But perhaps it's most interesting to read Xu's film politically, as Jiang Wen's intellectual playboy character is surrounded by symbols of Westernization, transforming the heroine's infatuation into a manifestation of what might have been called "capitalist thought" after 1949.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol tells the grippingly true story of a Beijing journalist who travels to the remotest corner of Tibet where the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, is being wiped out by poaching. The film's plot is filled with ethical ambiguities that hooked me in as tightly as a classic Hollywood noir or Western can. It's refreshing to see increasingly layered films like this one coming out of mainland China's film industry.

Though both films are set for US distribution, only Kekexili: Mountain Patrol has its Frisco theatrical release dates: April 21-27, right in the middle of the Film Society's film festival. If you're like me and you tend to be locked into festival mode at that time, avoiding the arthouses like the Lumiere and Act I/II, make an effort to see the film at its March 20th Kabuki screening.

Of course, Landmark would schedule its most enticing calendared programs for the weeks when another major festival, the SFIFF, will be running. Following Kekexili: Mountain Patrol at the Lumiere will be Carol Reed's 1948 the Fallen Idol April 28-May 4. The Act I/II will get the Confomist that week instead. The rest of the current Landmark calendar, I have to say, doesn't inspire me much. I've already seen the Devil and Daniel Johnston (at IndieFest 2005) and though I'd definitely recommend it to people who wish they knew a bit more about this Daniel Johnston guy they keep hearing about, I'm unlikely to prioritize a repeat viewing.