…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “mental health in film

Repulsion


Repulsion‘s first few minutes might be mistaken for a Godard film. A young Belgian woman named Carole (Catherine Deneuve) works as a manicurist. After work, her effortlessly chic self walks the streets of London to softly energetic non-diagetic jazz music, guys both working class and skinny tie-wearers (Jon Fraser) hit on her. She often looks like she’s daydreaming, her voice evinces little excitement. Instead of Carole’s politics, director Roman Polanski‘s more interested in the psychological conflict, which, in Carole’s case, is barely seen by the other characters until it’s too late.

Polanski doesn’t explain Carole’s building insanity in ways others have – relationship complexes, haunted histories, addictions. Instead, she notices a crack on a kitchen wall. Her sister’s (Yvonne Furneax) boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) calling her ‘the beautiful younger sister,’ a throwaway comment that Carole interprets as a menacing sexual come-on. A night after he stays over for sex, she sees him shirtless and her sister asks her how she slept the morning after. She then takes those little things and associate them with nightmares, as I imagine most people in a state like hers do.

It’s easy to say that instead of being silent, Carole should say how she feels. However, the film’s  shows how words are inadequate since the other characters are reductive towards her. A customer tells Carole she’s in love – all problems are male related. Her boyfriend’s friends call her a tease. Also, her little acts of verbal resistance against her sister aren’t heeded. Her sister’s dismissal won’t help her talk about the terrible things she dreams about. I can’t settle on her real problem –  fear of men, an idle mind, wanting to be alone. In other words, the other characters often think of a quick word or solution for her, and these quick solutions don’t help her slowly progressing dementia.

At first underwhelmed by Deneuve’s deadpan line delivery, easily enough an aspect of her character. She then thrills her audience as she responds to the walls of her apartment, or attacking men as if she’s a sleepwalker, using candlesticks and books like I’ve never imagined anyone doing. It’s hard to understand her in the first scenes of the film, but she perfectly fleshes out a new breed of character in horror film. She’s a monster within the victim in a genre that mostly shows the monster as external and separate from the victim. Deneuve’s Carole is groundbreaking in this and many other aspects, an integral part of Polanski’s vision of the macabre.


Nell


ph. Twentieth Century Fox

In his look back into the 90’s, Nathaniel R called this movie underrated. To find out if he’s right, the gods of TV fortunately had it airing at midnight. On a religious channel. I shit you not.

The titular Nell (Jodie Foster), gets discovered by the small town’s Dr. Jerry Lowell (Liam Neeson) after her mother’s death. The childlike feral virgin has unformed relationships with the outside world. Because the South needed another stereotype, she is awkward and has a distorted Dixie-like twin language that Jerry tries to learn and adapt as he camps outside Nell’s cabin. She can either be an institutional prisoner or an oddity splashed all over the media. She is unable to articulate her paranoia of a sexual threat, whether it be Jerry himself or the horny hicks who talk about her in a pool hall nearby.

Dynamics get more complex as Dr. Paula Olsen (Natasha Richrdson RIP) wants Nell to be locked up in a ‘caring’ institution, and she camps out near Nell’s sanctuary to prove she’s right. Again, there’s this lingering possibility that Nell can become Jerry’s lover. Paula even suggests Jerry to ‘educate’ her because, as a phobic, Nell has to ‘face her fears’ – to that we say, ‘please don’t.’ However, Paula’s presence partly directs Nell asserts herself to the role of Jerry’s surrogate child. Which, by default, Paula becomes Nell’s surrogate mother, and you know where this leads.

We fortunately don’t see the worst case scenario, and besides these lingering threats, the story’s mostly about two lonely people who try to communicate with each other. That the story leads me to these different tangents and alternate fates shows that the script isn’t insipid. Nonetheless, it was a queasy journey before the end. And here’s hoping that Trey Parker or Seth McFarlane hasn’t made fun of this movie yet.


Sling Blade


ph. Miramax

The male characters in the Southern small-town setting of Sling Blade are different yet the same. Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) is a slow-witted man who’s out from the ‘nervous hospital’ after being there for twenty-five years. His friend Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) is just a boy – he reads books but we never see him go to school in most of the film. Their friend Vaughn is an owner of a stable dollar store, his homosexuality an open secret to the small community that is ambivalent in accepting him. Frank’s mother’s boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) is an abusive alcoholic who has aspirations in the music business.

Frank’s mother defends Doyle by saying that ‘he’s had a hard life,’ a statement that applies to all four guys. Specifically, in the first three examples, they have shitty father figures. With the ‘same difference’ that these four guys have, the film paints a social pattern. This movie is only a public service announcement for those who will see most movies that way. What separates this fictional community from lesser movies is that it doesn’t ask for outside help and takes care of its own problems.

Or that Thornton, also the movie’s director, didn’t choose to portray the plot points by changing the tone of the movie through non-diagetic music or heavy editing. What happens in the movie gets normalized through long takes, etc. It’s strange when Karl and Frank talk about something that is bound to happen again. I’m not sure if that prepares me as an audience. What happens, nonetheless, is still shocking when I finally see it.

The performances of the two leads, Thornton and Black, are an acquired taste, arguably dated, but I got used to them eventually. For Thornton’s Karl, there’s mannerisms, check. Catch phrase, check. And we’ve had a lot of ‘special’ male characters in that decade. Forrest Gump, Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Geoffrey Rush in Shine. With any character like Karl, it takes a lot of commitment to be entrenched in a character like that and it’s hard to judge choices like his. And Black at first seems less animated for an abused child, but the one scene in the climax proved that I spoke against him too early. He was just getting warmed up.


Away From Her


ph. Warner

In one the first scenes of “Away From Her,” Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) puts a pan on a freezer. There’s no music to put this action in context. Fiona’s obliviousness and her husband Grant’s (Gordon Pinsent, voice of God) confusion add to the mix of what I felt as an audience. Do I react in shock? Burst in inappropriate laughter?

After that scene in the kitchen and other after that she is aware of being hit by Alzheimer’s and its consequences and warns Grant about the latter. At times she walks within a room like a ghost, mourning lost memory without crying over it. There is a repeated shot of her looking lost in her vast snowy backyard. The minimal use of the film score, the lack of overwrought crying scenes. Mostly, this movie’s approach is about what’s not being given nor shown nor heard, letting the audience react in their personal way.

I’m thinking of other actresses that might be able to pull of the character, Canadian ones. Mary Walsh would rock the skiing scene. But Julie Christie is a solid statue as Fiona and doesn’t let go, as they say. No one can do elegance like the kind she puts into her character.

That sounds a little dreary to many of you, but there’s some verbally aggressive yet sometimes comic anger from the characters, especially the women. Fiona gives Grant the worst goodbye ever. Miss Montpellier (Wendy Crewson) condescends to him. Kristy gives him a torrential speech about the obliviousness of men, out of character for archetypal customer service characters. Marian’s (Olympia Dukakis) is just rough yet likable. The men get in on the action too. Grant comments on seeing his wife in the aged home, and Fiona’s new boyfriend Aubrey (Michael Murphy) can do so much with a look.

You can look at the film as Grant’s world crumbling just as much as its implied gender dynamics. He’s learning about women and female anger and unwritten institutions of womanhood that he’s been oblivious to. Through Fiona’s degenerative condition, Fiona, Grant and the supporting characters in their lives are feeling the end, and therefore things must be said and revealed.

It’s also a ‘Canadian story for Americans’ narrative, which shows especially in Marion’s words like ‘Kamloops, BC’ ‘Canadian Tire.’ The whole room knew where Kamloops is. There’s also the retired hockey commentator who gives some of the best moments of the film.

The only flaw of this movie is when Grant uses a metaphor to describe Alzheimer’s, like light switches in the house turning off one at a time. Then the film shows their house and the lights turn off the way Grant has described. I believe in showing or telling by not both. The rest of it is a story about loss with comic relief, surprising for director Sarah Polley’s reputation.


Reductive Reviews: White Ribbon


ph. SPC/Magnolia

Spoilers ahead.

Six million Jews had to die because a father sexually violated his own daughter? Because a twelve-year-old son of a preacher man had his hands tied to his bedpost for masturbating? Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” and his divisive worldview is putting me on the fence. (The Blu Ray and DVD of this movie just came out. Omar Moore came out with his review, it will be only a matter of time when Nathaniel Rogers’s DVD review will be out. I hope what I say will just be as good as theirs)

An old man (Ernst Jacobi) narrates the story of a small German town where he used to teach. His rendition of the story, in unproven fragments, might ‘clarify some things that happened in this country.’ I might as well put the bit of historical context that I know that may give to this review. Since the movie brings up national metaphor, the movie, therefore, can’t just stand for itself now.

Germany isn’t a small town. I’m reading Steven Bach’s biography of Leni Riefenstahl, and he paints Germany as this nation of pluralism and there’s an impression that it’s been like that ten years before the time frame of the  movie. The country’s a literate, Protestant nation, so anyone had access to any information and opinion in the spectrum. It would possibly be more conservative in the rural areas, but they couldn’t have had a bigger influence on urban politics. What ‘happened in this country,’ in my understanding, was that somebody eliminated diversity and unified the national voice. I feel as if Michael Haneke’s film doesn’t really allow for this difference and therefore misses the bigger picture. If you don’t agree with me on that, at least agree with me that dictatorships don’t all happen because of a country’s citizens. The movie certainly gives that notion that everyone willingly lets someone pull their strings that makes them do horrific crimes.

Besides, Western critics and audiences overuse ‘film as national metaphor’ as the measuring stick in watching foreign films that it’s a bit infuriating that Haneke will actually take that bait and make a movie for that purpose.

However, I can’t say that Haneke’s worldview is totally wrong. No matter what you think of it, he makes his argument as effective in first screening. Individuals have awful pasts, and the contemporary understanding of what’s ‘good’ is to not let past injuries affect us and be nice to other people. Besides, a criminal gets more derision as he reveals either say, a bad upbringing or racial persecution. However, ironically, we’re human.

Cruelty is a virus, in the words of David Edelstein, and its effects can manifest in different ways. First, that the victim will treat their parents’ cruelty as a badge of discipline, proudly handed down like an heirloom. I get the ‘you kids get it easy’ thing, those adults dissociate themselves with the abuse they received. We see that in the movie too, with the typical ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ punishments.

The second possibility is that some of the younger characters might forget about what’s been down to them and will do acts of cruelty without knowing its source. The children don’t know what they’re capable of and they’re bettering their parents in the worst way possible. This period piece shows the horrific and hints at its effect. “Code Inconnu,” set in contemporary Europe, shows the same soupcons of cruelty inflicted from one person to the other. “Funny Games” and “Cache” prove how terrible acts are already being performed in the contemporary era. But if the children 1910’s Germany would bring what they brought decades later, who knows what our generation is capable of?

Lastly, why is the teacher as a young man (Christian Friedel) not in on what’s going on?

I’m probably one of the few people who likes the pacing and narrative arc of the film. Plot point, another plot point, then nothing happens, then another plot point. Coming into the film I was expecting a big denouement but Haneke didn’t give that to his audience. It’s the same thing with history. We, I believe, try to shape a series of events into narrative. The books teach us of a big war and the peace that’s supposed to come after. However, events in any given time are just as horrific, climactic or anticlimactic as the next. Look at the 1970’s, 9/11, G20. In a time of gimmicky endings, the most shocking and refreshing ending is revealing that the movie is simply a documentation of certain events that happen to a person or group. The best narrative arc is no arc.

The acting in the film is marvelous. When the doctor confronts Frau Wagner (Sussana Lothar), she fights back. Any other actress would have said her speech with a tinge of meanness, or would even bellow it out. Haneke’s always been a man of simplicity and lets the actions and words out as fast as it needs to. Lothar, in her performance, tells the truth. The Academy isn’t creative enough to give her an Oscar nomination. If there’s gonna be that abortion of a remake for “Wizard of Oz,” Lothar is a dead-on lookalike of Margaret Hamilton and she should play the Wicked Witch of the West.

Of course, is the cinematography. Roger Ebert suggested that colour would have ruined the movie. I disagreed at first, but then the titular white ribbons wouldn’t have been as menacing. And B-roll has never been so beautiful.

Lastly, I see the same anemic Christmas tree in every German movie I’ve seen (“I Shot My Love“). I don’t know if it’s my decadent superstitious hypocritical Spanish Catholicism is creating this culture clash, but next time, pick a leafy tree. You Germans gotta stop punishing yourselves, that’s the problem all along.


Image: Taxi Driver


(Am I the only one who thinks that Travis Bickle threatening to karate chop someone is less harmful and more lovably dorky? ph. Warner)


James Mason: Bigger than Life


(ph. Fox)

I forgot to tell you that the TIFF Cinematheque is playing a retrospective of James Mason, for some reason. They’re sexing up their program this summer, calling their Pasolini retrospective “Summer of Sex, Swords and Seduction, while calling the Mason one “the original Smooth Talker,” which he is.

Mason in his movies is either having troubled relationships with people younger than him (“Age of Consent”), enduring physical pain (“Lolita”), getting mixed up with terrorist rhetoric (“Julius Caesar.”) or having an addiction that hurts his job (“A Star is Born”). Those are the best trademarks any actor could have, better trademarks than ‘pretty and crazy’ or ‘mostly does Westerns’ like those in his generation. ANYWAY, he uses two and two halves in Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger than Life.” Ed Avery (Mason) encounters anomalous pains that will kill him in a year. He thus has to take cortisone indefinitely to stay alive. He starts to abuse the drugs and says weird things towards the people in his professional and domestic life.

It’s a melodrama with a male in the centre, and there’s the duality of him feeling emasculated yet feeling the need to take on ‘female’ roles like raising his son. His jobs, teaching and answering phone calls for taxi services, are female dominated work – he’s surrounded by them while operating the switchboards. He eventually speaks out about those jobs and the threat of the pains makes him feel emasculated, while faced with the pride that he can’t ease the burden on himself and let his wife work. He can’t handle all of this and his family is what’s affected the most. He even treats his son with psychological abuse. In essence, Ed is putting too much on his plate. Or, a really early version of “Breaking Bad.”

Someone with a sense of humour would watch this film and wouldn’t understand why he’s such an upstanding citizen and then the drugs come and that audience will say ‘There you are James Mason, we’ve been waiting for you all along.’ An interesting reaction for what is arguably Mason’s best performance.

The movie’s an acquired taste. The melodrama goes hand in hand with the extremes of his reactions to the drugs that can put audiences off, no matter how realistic they could be. And there’s the ending. But unlike the juvenile tendencies in “Rebel Without a Cause” or the noir hopelessness of “In a Lonely Place” – which I do like better by the way – “Life” is Ray’s most socially conscious film.