Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fantasia 2013 - Sunday, July 28th

Here are some brief impressions on the three films I saw on Sunday, July 28th:

The Killing of America
The sensationalist title of this botched documentary should give you a fair idea of the problems within. First of all, the film constantly, and very annoyingly, refers to the United States as “America” in a shocking display of unrestrained chauvinism. And while it does not speak of the “American” society in flattering terms, it is very much an effort in self-centered bellyaching, and a very superficial one at that. Evidently, the film makes it a point to denunciate the rise of violence permeating the country. However, it never delves deeper than the acts of violence themselves, choosing instead to chronicle the exploits of random shooters and serial killers in a bid to shock and disturb the audience. The archive footage is nicely researched and the talking heads often have interesting thoughts to share, but no attempt at synthesis, or deeper comprehensive analysis is ever attempted by the filmmakers. In fact, The Killing of America doesn’t even deserve the title of “documentary”, being in actuality nothing more than a seedy report on mindless killings.

Spanning nearly two decades, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, the film is a non-chronological collection of archive footage accompanied by a stern voice-over that condemns violence in a non-specific, nearly dogmatic way. It indiscriminately explores the murder of politicians and that of anonymous laymen, eventually branching into the realm of sexually deviant serial killers in a bid to include as much examples of wanton violence as its runtime allows. So, if that strikes your fancy, you will be happy to relive the Kennedy assassination, the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life, the Manson family murders, the John Gacy and Ted Bundy affairs… all in sordid details, with slow-motion replays to help you locate the shooters in the crowd. It’s all quite informative, in a blandly encyclopedic way, but it won’t allow you to gaze at the roots of the problems. Instead, violence here is mindlessly put in a showcase for us to absorb as a simple fact of life, and not the complex sociological reality that it is.

Playing the killers' game by showcasing their crimes.

There’s a quick summary of the film’s rationale near the end, and it says that the abundance of guns, the limited power of attorneys and the revolving door prison system are to blame for the increase of violence in the U.S. Quite a blunt statement to make, especially since it is the very spectacle of violence that gives it credibility. At some point, the film focuses on a serial killer claiming that “he did it all to make a name for himself”, which is what the film does for him in a never-ending cycle that thrives on violence while superficially condemning it. It’s actually quite perplexing to see people struggle and try to make sense of the increase of violent crimes as they simultaneously become more and more publicized in the media. Here, it seems to be a nearly cannibalistic instinct that drives the filmmakers in their depiction of violence. On the one hand, we have a scholarly voice-over telling us that “violence is awful”, but on the other, we have a handful of glorified, intensely scrutinized murderers overlooking mounds and mounds of anonymous victims. Seeing this, it’s not so hard to understand how an individual chooses to belong to the most glamorous of the two categories. And so does the film answer its own riddle about the genesis of violence, not in its endless preaching, but in its very nature, in the spectacle of violence that it stubbornly creates.

The treatment of the archival footage on hand is made without subtlety or concession to good sense. There is ominous music throughout and the voice-over remains stern and authoritative, as if lecturing to students about the dangers of substance abuse. There’s actually no earnest attempt made at understanding violence here. There’s no investigation of the JFK shooting aside than to say that it can be attributed to the phenomenon of “rising violence” as a whole. This is not only simplistic, but also irresponsible from a documentary perspective. Giving the viewer the impression that Kennedy was killed in a wanton act of violence underplays the deep political implications that this murder actually has, creating a vague “social” problem where the entire foundation of democracy is at stake. The issue of racial violence is similarly truncated to befit the narrow needs of the screenplay. Resulting from centuries of abuse articulated around a complex relationship of victimization, this issue is portrayed as a simple fact here: “there is racial violence in America and it is bad”. Actually, the very idea of “violence” is far too wide a topic to tackle in such a cavalier way. Violence is the result of numerous parallel realities, all with their own intricate implications. But then again, I doubt that the filmmakers here were really interested in the complexities of the issue, just in its raw power as spectacle.

*1/2   Some decent archival research narrowly saves this unrefined, redundant and superficial variety show about “violence in America” from total oblivion.

L’amour braque
Loosely based on The Idiot by Dostoyevsky , this raucous gangster romp features all of director Zulawski’s trademark quirks: beautiful women, hysterical acting and intricate camerawork, all combined to create a desperately honest depiction of madness. As honest, at least, as commercial genre cinema will allow it. Starring a young Tchéky Karyo, who grinds his thespian teeth as a baby psycho, and a sublime young Sophie Marceau, indescribably beautiful as the film’s pivotal character, the film also bears a certain historical importance. And it seems poised to prevail as an artistic artifact, protected as it is by the glossy veneer of theatrical nobility cast over the mundane genre inclinations from which it proceeds.

Fresh from a successful bank robbery, framed with manic zeal by the director, megalomaniac crook Micky heads for Paris in order to reclaim his girlfriend Mary from a bunch of high-end crooks, soliciting her help in fomenting a revolution against them. But on his path lies simpleton Leon, whom he meets on a train never to be estranged from him. Fact of the matter is, Leon falls for Mary not soon after meeting her, thus creating a love triangle that will have dire consequences for all involved, with the characters’ newfound criminal empire and their very lives in the balance.

A tragic love triangle as the quintessential 
expression of unchecked passion.

While it remains a cheap gangster film at heart, there is some lasting imagery here, not the least of which is Sophie Marceau’s angelic face (or sculptural body). The picturesque quality of Parisian landscapes is perfectly exploited thanks to Zulawski’s inquisitive, and highly volatile camera, which keeps things moving at a brisk, sometimes extenuating pace, infecting the narrative with the madness of passion at every turn. With Micky and Leon’s love acting as cathartic fuel for an impending tragedy, punctuating the story with hysterical outbursts of emotions, the director’s mise-en-scène is appropriately kinetic. Thus, the camera moves swiftly to uncover the scenery, capturing the speed of vehicles as effortlessly as that of characters, painting intricate portraits of the exhilarating lives of enamored gangsters. After all, no criminal empire is really solid that is built by individuals who would rather fall prey to their own emotions. And thus, Zulawski pursues his exploration of unrestrained passion thanks to his unrestrained mise-en-scène, which in turn helps dynamize some mundane narrative elements.

Despite its humble roots, the film is imbued with a certain sense of nobility thanks to its numerous references to theater. The fratricidal love triangle between Micky, Mary and Leon has deep tragic undertones, with the setting of the final confrontation (the luxurious apartment home to Micky’s ring) being reminiscent of the medieval keeps of Shakespearian tales. There are also explicit references to theater, especially when it comes to that unforgettable scene where Marceau threads the board for just a moment, in a bid to outdo Isabelle Adjani’s hysterics from Zulawski’s earlier classic Possession. Theater is actually a catalyst for the characters’ unchecked emotions here, and the constant recourse to hysterical over-acting very much helps depict their unbridled passion for each other, and for life in general. And it is quite liberating to see it all unfold, as if there was real freedom at the tip of our fingers, ready to be grasped with a simple abandon to our heated ardour and pugnacious love for anarchy. And what better object to stimulate that ardour than nineteen year old Sophie Marceau…While Karyo has a far larger role, on his way to becoming a bona fide genre icon, it is she who remains the main attraction. It was her that drew me to the film, and it is for her that the film was made. Let us not kid ourselves about that fact. Inasmuch as Bardot was Dieu créa la femme, so too is Marceau L’amour braque, a passionate testament to the director’s love for the young woman and a nearly mystical consecration of the power of her beauty. Which brings us to the bitter expression of my jealously for that crazy Pole, whose reigning leitmotiv is the overwhelming power of passion. Well, it’s not hard to become obsessed with passion when one does what he wills is with the world’s most beautiful women… At least he’s not as fuck-ugly as Roger Vadim…

***   This fast-paced, fiercely passionate gangster film is glossed ever by the veneer of theater and the brilliance of that rough gem, Sophie Marceau.     

This minimalistic road movie starts off quite slowly, relying far too much on star Justin Rice to deliver entertaining eccentricities opposite of stern, uptight Leo Fitzpatrick. Luckily, it picks up steam once supporting characters are introduced, and its bittersweet portrayal of lawless freedom becomes more and more complex. There are some laughs to be had here, but they are always tainted by a certain undercurrent of tragedy. But beyond the laughs is something much greater : the materialization of the ancient dream of nomadic freedom, and the nearly reassuring exaltation of domesticity as the remedy to existential angst.

Dirty Fred and Bruho are two lost souls, free-thinking anarchists to some, despicable thugs to others. They do not hold jobs, or contribute to society, convinced instead that the world is coming to an end thanks to the rarefaction of petroleum. That is why they roam the countryside as if in a zombie film, breaking and entering into country houses in order to gain shelter and supplies for their continuing trip. That is all they do, with Fred providing all the witty remarks and sexually repressed Bruho (kind of a mix between Some Guy Who Kills People’s Irv and Storytelling’s Marcus) kicking the shit out of stuff, and especially cars, which he considers responsible for the impending apocalypse. Luckily, their group eventually grows bigger as they recruit a lonely fat kid and an open-minded young woman to partake in their activities. Encountering these people will force them to grow out of their comfortable shells and become something akin to human beings.

Fred and Bruho: Living just at the fringe of normalcy, wishing in. 

Let’s be straightforward here. While the film benefits from a very intriguing premise, its wit is too dull to make it a real classic. There’s no shortage of honesty or emotional accuracy in any of the characters, but their philosophical ramblings feel a bit hollow, and their dramatic evolution, from directionless bums to enlightened human beings, is quite familiar. Plus, Justin Rice is not a particularly strong lead, half-heartedly delivering his crunchiest lines and generally lumbering around the scenery. In all honesty, superior drunken cynics are a dime a dozen in recent American cinema. Luckily, there’s no pompous pretension here, not in the straightforward screenplay, nor in the subdued, theatrical mise-en-scène. There’s just the life-affirming story of two slackers lost in the picturesque New England countryside. At the center of it all is a simple dream of freedom, hailing from the early days of American literature, and then there is the antagonistic dream of domesticity against which it comes at odds. The “pre-apocalyptic” tag one would wish to impose on this film is a pure marketing stunt for there is no real novelty here. There is just plain, old honesty, and the unadulterated desire to tell a simple tale about simple people in the most straightforward manner possible.

It would’ve been hard for me not to identify with Leo Fitzpatrick’s character here, an angry and reserved hermit who would rather vent his frustrations on abominable cars, than to come to the realization that he merely needs a girlfriend to thwart his angst. But the confrontation of actual wants and needs remains far more complex in reality than what the film presents in its effort to bare down the narrative. There are no simple freedom vs domesticity binaries in real life since neither can be effectively traded for the other. Hence, the high point of the film may not be the satisfying, but simplistic ending, but rather the first forays of the lawless foursome in the life of home-invading drifters. Learning the trade together, and indulging in careless games of shoulder-punching, the four characters emanate a powerful feeling of camaraderie, which warms us down to our soul. After all, isn’t agency what we all strive for? It’s hard to say… especially for imperfect human beings such as ourselves. But then again, the film is all about humanity, hence about individual outtakes on life and the uneasy balance that it creates between us. That is why the title is plural, and so too are the emotions and interpretations resulting from the viewing of this film. All in all, a straightforward, but deeply meaningful effort in indie road movies.

***   While it lacks the sharp wit necessary to make it a classic, this minimalistic road movie has enough humanity and emotional honesty to keep you interested throughout.