Sunday, March 31, 2013

Thematic Wanderings: Intercultural Workout

Been Netflixing all Easter Sunday, and then it began to natter at me if cultural barriers will persist in dogging certain acclaimed works. It's just something that I have witnessed in various corners of the internet, where some often well-articulated writers/podcasters have disparaged certain works in ways that while containing gripes that may very well contain their own sense of validity, seem to lack additional insight as to why said works seems to connect so well with others. And while even considering such a jumble of subjectivity, it stands to reason that context is at times more than necessary for some viewers to bridge gaps that cannot otherwise be bounded over. Even I could be considered guilty for similar transgressions (perhaps Iron Sky would have worked for me if it didn't take such a singularly foreign view of american politics) when something that speaks clearly to a regional audience is bought here, only to garner detraction.

Which brings me to one of the main questions that has been nagging at me for years; With emerging, and expanding foreign markets for film, and the easiest access to foreign genre film in history, just how much have we collectively begun to gather a specific level of expectations based on what we consume as viewers in our native culture? In the last twenty years alone, we have seen a sharp climb in production and story quality in other markets, and one of the more interesting side-effects of this, is a clear need on the part of certain reviewers/commentators, to require an almost strange amount of objectivity to their subjects. While on one hand, this can be seen as a reasonable point of argument, there is also this evidence of possibly a lack of cultural/historical knowledge creating great gaps where some would expect more universal clarity. It's a discord that is possibly inherent in these accelerations of access and exposure.

Something is bound to be lost during this time, and can only possibly be remedied with patience, and work. But could within the age where all are content creators, be this place where such understanding could in fact be reached without so much of the expected derailment by way of the atypical failure to grasp simple language and cultural. We are all within our respectively shifting places in the global enthusiast community, and while it is expected that subjectivity will remain a human constant, it still fascinates me when a colleague expresses dismay at something that  reaches others in ways that transcend the mere distraction. So when films that come from other parts of the world, where there have yet to be greater amounts of understanding between cultures, it is only natural that certain themes and concerns will fail to make a dent in the minds of even the most attentive viewers.

Which leads it all in an almost "chicken or egg" scenario, where filmmakers are far more capable of making works that center well within a regional framework, and are brought over to be re-examined by cultures still a gap removed. It's almost paradoxical how we (meaning previous generations of strange cinema conisseurs) were once able to appreciate the works of foreign filmmakers with more openness, and encouragement once upon a time, regardless of a dearth of budget, or resolute comprehension. Flash forward to today, and such notions are almost completely flipped by these very same viewers. I do not propose anything in a way of a series of solutions, but it is something one couldn't help but notice. But could it possibly be that many of us have traded in some elements of wonder for an unspoken model of approval? This may be completely off base, but one cannot help but see this as a possible trend coming forth as more fans find themselves becoming reviewers, when it can also be said that arts such as film defy constructs despite having cul-de-sacs of narrative safety.

But I will state this as an ever curious lover of nuance, it sometimes takes as much work from us as it does from the artists.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kubrick At LACMA: A Kaijyu's Spark

Spent yesterday afternoon, finally taking in the sprawling Kubrick exhibit currently taking residence at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and felt a need to share a few images and thoughts.

Despite the fact that this blog's initial function was to explore elements of film and pop culture more in line with more niche subgenres and  concepts, there's no denying the influence of Stanley Kubrick in nearly all corners of my artistic and written life. My first Kubrick film was 2001, where it grabbed hold of a 5 year old ball of curiosity, and never sought any reason to let go. I vividly remember seeing Spartacus with family soon after, and then the ads came about for The Shining, the winter we lost John Lennon, as well as my parents going their separate ways. My first, forbidden taste of A Clockwork Orange came via late-night cable in Texas during a vacation stay with some folks in Houston. So many pieces of personal history, intertwined with the deep impressions his sights and sounds left within me, and perhaps ideas far beyond what a kid could possibly comprehend. Even when I didn't understand it, I couldn't help by replay the emotions on display endlessly.

The name. The images. The aura. It didn't have to make intellectual sense so much as emotional, and somehow his films got to me in ways noone else had. I felt his films initially, and to have this before growing older and sophisticated in my processes in order to better grasp the chaos and beauty on display.

I liken his works to a gateway. One with great consideration for new creative angles, and a yearning for familiarity to take a vacation, whilst not running away from some of the more troubling aspects of the human animal. An obsessive vision that dared me to seek out, rather than merely take in. To question, rather than merely accept. Most importantly, to embrace film as a collection of daydreams, nightmares, and contemplations on who we are, and where we are as a species.

I feel like as a whole, we are transformed by artists who find themselves capable of reaching to others in their own unique language. Kubrick remains that primary voice in my head that reminds me to not only listen to my instincts as an individual, but to better listen out for those speaking unique, but resonant languages. That the tribes exist, and that they work to bridge despite our reptilian ancestry.

His works are also a reminder of our current frailties, and that it is possible to spend a little time in the shoes of those which we do not understand, without judgment, or division. And that perhaps previous world models, for all their pragmatism, might not have been the most human, let alone humane.

Which is why I cannot help but find hope in films by international names such as Chan-wook Park and others. It is this unerring drive to get at the heart of the modern human by way of imagery and sound that Kubrick laid out a path for more powerfully than perhaps any filmmaker in the history of the cinema. It is important that we continue to explore the possibilities, regardless of language, culture, or background. The paths are as infinite as David Bowman's ultimate dive into the unknown, all Kubrick did was illuminate this revelation.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

State Of The Kaijyu: Springtime For Monsters!


Mending from almost two weeks worth of airbound illness, and more than eager to be back in the cockpit. There are many more worlds of weird, and fun to explore, so keep those backpacks filled with essentials, things are continuing on all fronts..


Beginning to see my way through some major life trajectory changes, and as a result, posts will likely remain this sporadic for the time being. But don't let this be a hint of an oncoming closing of gates. In fact, much of what is in the real life planning has everything to do with the writeups shared here, and elsewhere. It only felt right to pull up a few stakes in the name of taking the best advantage. Living in a new location has been enlightening beyond words, and in that regard, it feels more than time to do more in the living department. Knowing how this will impact future writings, this decision seems all the more invigorating.

After all, a great deal of what makes the Kaijyu especially fun for me, is the bridging between strange visual culture intermingled with the social world at large. And it wasn't in any way a planned theme that eventually became something of a backbone here. It like so many things formed in the doing. And now that I feel like I have some focal point to work with on these pages, it feels quite appropo to study outwardly in tandem with various weekly screenings/events/editorials, podcasts, etc. Blogging is essentially a means to keep the abilities fresh, and to hopefully expand them. There is a great need for immediacy with these pages, and there are times when it simply won't do to force out a writeup simply for the sake of itself. Believe it, or not, there are weeks when many films/shows are viewed and are never reported on. Often this is the case simply because the subjects themselves exhibit very little to muse or expound about. - Which makes one wonder if many creators find themselves in a similar predicament; unable to find the inspiration necessary to provoke ideas, tortured by an almost pathological need for work to be done. And while it is true that even the most lackluster work is capable of eliciting some laugh, accidental profundity, or even wholesale rage, it is a very particular series of patters that one must find in order to pack a post with a fitting response.

Here's to a future of strange discovery! It's bound to be an illuminating voyage.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Stoker (2013) Movie Thoughts

The instability of the opulent Stoker family is brought to a head after the death of the family's patriarch. With the family's one daughter, the quiet and fairly unusual India(Mia Wasikowska), and the emotionally fragile, previously distant mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) now confronted with a reality that their loss has left in its wake, a deeply rooted tension. In the days of mourning to come, surprises come in the form of a long-never-known uncle (Matthew Goode), who has apparently come after years of being out of country, living the busy life of a jet-setter. And yet despite all this, nothing has ever been alright apparently. And they are about to get a whole lot worse as the extended-staying Uncle Charlie seems to not only have a bevy of terrible secrets, but the ladies of the house seem inextricably fascinated by him. And thus is the framework of Stoker, the US feature debut by the one and only Chan-Wook Park, who's films in South Korea have become relatively famous for not merely their visual panache, but of his attraction to some of humanity's most disconcerting behavior.

Taking cues from Hitchcock, and perhaps even Lynch, Park's big western first is an all-stops-gone hallucinogenic tribute to the classic Gothic Horror/Psychological Thriller, with mostly solid results. With a majority of the film centering on the life of the young India, we are immediately granted audience to her less than social tendencies, as well as her increasingly murky choices. Where most murder mysteries derive their juice from placing our protagonist in a place where the clues lead us to the guilty party, Stoker gets great mileage from playing us against ourselves as we are left willy-nilly with India & Evelyn, wondering where the proverbial shoes will drop. Within the first 30 minutes alone, the household, and all close parties from various corners of the family have been established as prime players in a mystery that isn't here to play nice. We are forced to fumble about in hopes of sympathy with our female leads as the ever-bizarre Charlie seems primed to close in on the estate, with deadly intent.

 Not sure I can go much further in discussing the film without elaborating a little on one of its shining elements; the character direction. For a piece that is pretty much a closed circle psychological game between three people, there is a surprising amount done in areas that perhaps screenwriter, Wentworth Miller (Under the name, Ted Foulke) might have gone light with. And in a work that is so packed with such visual punch, it's refreshing to again see Park grant his actors room to become characters that quietly burn deep where necessary.

As we are often witnessing the tale through the eyes of India, Wasikowska is a genuine find, as a unique girl wandering through a most awkward time of her life, and in need of some better grasp of this new world sans father. Already markedly quiet and strange, she is an embodiment of an era when the young are at the apex of their budding sexuality, which is flirted with from the getgo, especially via the uncle she never knew. And then adding a dash of inspirational ennui, the film is also a skewed "coming of age" tale, where our lead seems eager to find her path, but is finding herself endlessly stifled by perhaps her own inexperience. And she is already considered a pretty talented young lady. Whether it be playing the piano, or even painting, there is an ongoing question as to where this gilded cage is about to break. And in the guise of a classic mystery tale, with tropes ala Nancy Drew, the movie is unafraid to make us into voyeurs, thereby making us as suspect as anyone else. And Wasikowka's performance is that note perfect elaboration of that ambiguousness. We both pity her, and fear for her. But it simply isn't satisfied with stopping here, which is more than noteworthy.

Goode's Charlie is perhaps the film's most slyly challenging role, as the surface implies a lot less than is delivered in his expressions. While clearly something is in no way right with this guy, there's also this playful bent being taken with him as he slowly entrenches himself into the lives of the Stoker ladies, and it is a game that we discover has been long in the planning. His specific brand of malice is only matched by his unrelenting creepiness. (that damned stare)There is even this often crude sexual play that's at work early on that is subtle in its hilarity if one is looking for it. Park and Goode are aware of this particular mechanic, and play it to almost absurd extremes right off the bat. Park and Goode seem to know that this is all in the name of a larger series of swerves that come racing along in the third act. He's virtually a wolf in wolf's clothing, and that's especially tricky to play with.

And then there's Kidman's Evelyn. Even in a role that can be considered a distant third, there is a class and almost beautiful sense of the sad in her role that makes for a surprising punch come later. This is a woman who's entire marriage prior seems to have been another one not unlike a cage. Whether she be the wife of a wealthy fixture of the community, or a distant mother with one heck of a gulf to fill, there's a massive amount of tension to Kidman's presence that is hard to ignore. Even as the camerawork and lighting highlight what looks to be cosmetic work done in the real, it only adds to the whole by portraying a person imprisoned by her choices in life. A great deal of the storytelling again leaves us unsure whether to sympathize or not, and by design it is a potent choice. There is a speech near the finale that feels bare in ways we rarely see from such high profile names, and it delivers a much deserved gut punch to the proceedings.

So how did this one US debut come to be the almost complete home run that it is? Was surprised to discover right off the cuff that Park had powerful support as his prime producers on the film were none other by the Scott Brothers, Ridley & the late, great Tony. As staunch visualists, this is the kind of support few directors could ever dream of attaining, and Park goes for broke at nearly every opportunity, allowing the often thrilling cinematography by Park regular, Chung Chung-hoon to be seamlessly be intercut and weaved by way of often poetic use of CG. With the virtually isolated southern setting, and the surrounding green seemingly ready to envelope humanity regardless of the Stoker home and its enchantments on display, there is a neverending sense of deep unease that infiltrates every single scene. Even when certain elements such as India's classmates, local law enforcement and their behaviors, and the almost Twin Peaks-esque countryscapes give off the vibe of a world divisions away from our own, it is difficult to deny the hypnotics on display. And even when character decisions in the latter half range from puzzling to ludicrous, and character ages seem more than a little off, a sense of playful, coupled with an extreme, almost Kubrick-like confidence makes up for it in ways that may very well linger in the dream spaces for weeks.

It's very rare when the common themes of an artist from another culture is capable of translating themselves seamlessly in another language, and yet Stoker makes a case for that rarity with often cold, deceptive ease. Up to this point, many of Park's most effective works consider society's most frightening possibilities as great tests. His films tend to explore some of the darker characters, and asks why they may indeed require a stage of their own within of our general fabric. Not unlike cinematic rabblerousers such as Harmony Korine (who enjoys an interesting cameo here), he refuses to moralize or judge, and is more interested in the questions they pose than in any simple declarations. And even if the script isn't always up to the standards of the technical here, there is so much to consider about the American experience that is brought to the table. Finding beauty within the horrific is perhaps best expressed in visual arts such as museum works, and cinema. And for a film more about simmering, difficult notions rather than graphic gore, there are volumes of terrifying loveliness to be found in Stoker..