In Heaven, Everything Is Fine: Eraserhead (1977)

What can one possibly hope to understand when writing about a film as complex and openly enigmatic as David Lynch's art house masterpiece Eraserhead.  Admittedly, the first time I viewed this film it was on quite a small screen one that did not aid to the possibility of understanding the layered symbolism at play nor was I able to truly appreciate the ways in which Lynch creates a mise-en-scene so incredibly evocative and absolutely surreals as to serve as a standard for many a filmmaker to follow.  Surely he is borrowing from the likes of Carnival of Souls and other B-movies of years gone by, but Eraserhead is also a precursor to so much of what would occur within body horror and phenomenological horror for decades to follow.  I would never have considered a film like Eraserhead to be an "ideal" big screen viewing, however, I had the great fortune of encountering it is such a way and came to immediately realize that it is precisely what one could hope to gain from seeing something in such a setting.  It is a moving and stirring picture that while far more unsettling than what Tom Gunning probably has in mind, still proves to be a work that exists within the notion of "cinema of attractions," here almost becoming knowingly aware of the ways in which viewers engage with cinema, using jump scares and non-linear narrative in a way that would not come into its most fruitful for at least five more years and in most of those instances by pure accident.  Usually, when I encounter or more recently reencounter early works I am able to pick up on some of their flaws, although always finding myself erring on the side of forgiveness, a fact attributed to my love for Jarmusch's sloppy but endearing Permanent Vacation or Kubick's sporadic yet scathingly focused indictment of war that is Fear and Desire.  It is a rare feat however for a filmmaker to approach their initial works with such fervor and focus, an attribute I would be more apt to direct towards the New Wave Directors, or someone like Wes Anderson whose Bottle Rocket is still the highest achievement of his critically and popularly well-received career.  Eraserhead is cinematic expression at its most intimate, proving that such a focused and personal narrative can translate beautifully (if abjectly so) without really meaning anything of certainty to those not personally attached to the director.  Eraserhead is a glimpse into the mind's eye of one of cinema's most evocative and provocative directors and those who have the chance to see it in a large scale setting should do so without hesitation.

Eraserhead focuses rather specifically on the experiences of Henry (Jack Nance) a wandering young man whose life appears to lead him around what is simultaneously a warehouse and his place of residence.   Henry who is apparently a graphic designer, is subject to bouts of paranoid encounters and visions of haunting surreal formats, whether it be an unusual longing and fear for the neighbor across the hall from his apartment, one whose stares and constant providing of information cause Henry to feel incredibly unsafe.  When Henry is informed that his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) wants him to come to her family's house for dinner, the degrees of paranoia grow in Henry's mind, leading to the bizarre encounter at the household when Henry meets Mary's parents Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates) and the smiling, oaf of a man Mr. X (Allen Joseph).  The enraged Mrs. X pulls Henry into a side room and demands that Henry admit to engaging in intercourse with Mary, because she has recently given birth to a child and believes him to be the father.  Henry suddenly transports himself to a world where he is living with Mary and their "infant child" the disturbingly deformed bodiless being the whines incessantly, leading to the already mentally unstable Mary to leave Henry to take care of the child all on his own.  This immediately spirals out of control as the infant becomes sick the moment Mary leaves, possessing rashes all over his face and spewing out various fluids uncontrollably. All the while, Henry's connection with reality breaks as he begins to see visions of The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) singing to him and as well as watching her trample what appear to be less developed versions of his and Mary's already deformed child.  In the wildest section of Henry's visions he imagines his head exploding off and falling into the street only to have a child grab his head and take it to a factory where the cerebral cortex of his brain serves as a stem of eraser for men.  Awaking from all of this the maddened Henry takes a blade to the child in frustration assumedly destroying it for good, although it is uncertain as his reality is far too convoluted at this point to be certain of anything, instead, we only know that the disturbed Henry continues to seek solace in the presence of The Lady in the Radiator.

When one searches for theoretical scholarship on Eraserhead, it is most commonly tied to phenomenology in that it is suggested to be a film influenced by personal politics and individualistic endeavors.  As such, Eraserhead can be read as a variety of things, but considering the amount of information provided by Lynch on the film it is worth wholly considering the metaphors within his own admittance of it resulting from his fears of fatherhood.  Indeed while the film does consider Mary's own issues with the child, it is a responsibility thrust upon Henry who is clearly not only inept at dealing with the newly brought about child, but also manages to accidentally make it sick and eventually kill it in a decidedly more active manner.  Henry is assumedly a manifestation of Lynch's own fears ones that are both a suggestion of his own fears of ineptitude with a child, as well as a clear commentary on his burgeoning loss of freedom that invariably emerges when one is faced with adding a life into the world that is purely dependent on another for help.  Of course much more of this exists in a surreal space for Lynch and all is not to be taken literally for to do so would be to stifle things like The Lady in the Radiator as extending to multiple forms of meaning and theoretical possibilities.  I mean thinking about the fact that she is assumedly a small figure living in the radiator of Henry's (and possibly Mary's) apartment that is a projection and point of looking for Henry is incredibly complex and fascinating, although she extends well beyond this issue.  Indeed, her stylized look and Cold War dress sharply contrast her swollen face in an incredibly stirring and decidedly perplexing way.  Furthermore, as phenomenological as the film may be it is easy to see other narratives emerging within the film, indeed my post screening discussion with a few friends resulted in readings ranging from a positing that the film is a Catholic slanted understanding of pro-life issues (I would say a larger statement on abortion anxiety, although problematic in its masculine issues) while others found it to be a burgeoning post-modern text on shifting notions of masculine identity.  All this is plausible and no less possible, even in the phenomenology ideal placed upon this film, because when considering fatherhood and identity these other issues and a lot more come to the forefront, Lynch just proves with Eraserhead to be a pioneer.

Key Scene: In Heaven, everything is fine...

I am waiting with baited breath for the alleged Criterion release of this film, it has HD prints available, but only in the non-region one context. As such patience is of the essence with this viewing, unless, of course, you are afforded a chance to see it on the big screen.


Only This Much Shadow Left: The Day I Became A Woman (2000)

I am going on the record as saying that were I afforded an unlimited amount of time, brain power and ability to master an understanding of cultural mores and language that I would wholly spill my time into understanding all things related to Iranian cinema.  While it is not my primary focus or even one of my sub-research interests as I become more invested in my academic endeavors I am quite certain in my assertion that it has produced some of the best films in the past two decades, hovering almost entirely around the wonderful offerings of Abbas Kiarostami.  However, he is far from the only director working in the country and others have produced keenly meta-cinematic works that manage to consider the state of identity in Iran both on a literal and metaphorical level, all lending in some degree to the impossible, yet perfect, blending of the realist and allegorical tradition of this countries cinematic output.  I adore these works, A Moment of Innocence and Close-Up being two notable works, however, upon the discovery that there existed a film by an Iranian woman that had achieved equal status demanded its being sought out, or more accurately introduced to me by a professor, and the result was nothing short of an evocation on art and the nature of the self when it is in contrast to competing notions of what one should do in a society whose history is a maddening conflation of contradictions as well as rich and proud history.  The Day I Became a Woman is the poetic and magical work by Marzieh Meshkini and it is nothing short of pure cinematic perfection.  Told in a tripartite narrative, this film manages to cleverly navigate tenuous boundaries of temporal and spatial existence to show that perhaps not everything is as idyllic in a country whose global exoticization, paired with a particularly tense relationship with the "western" world has resulted in a cinematic experience so inherently unique that to place another layer of non-normative identity upon it causes it to take on an ethereal and outright moving quality.  If cinema truly has the ability to move beyond the real into another layer of understanding, The Day I Became a Woman is the backbone to such an aesthetic argument.

Clearly divided between three stories, The Day I Became a Woman begins with the experiences of Haveh (Fatemah Cherag Akhar) a girl on the island of Kish who has just turned nine years old, therefore making her subject to the wearing of traditional chador (Islamic headdress for Iran).  Confused by this demand, enforced by her grandmother and own mother, Haveh simply wants to spend the day playing with her friend Hassan (Hassan Nebah).  While she cannot put off her becoming woman she is able to bargain for an extra hour of play with Hassan that is limited by his having to complete homework, thus resulting in her having only time to share an exchange of a lollipop with Hassan before being placed in the chador and carted off by her mother.  The second story centers on Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui) a young woman who is shown competing in a bicycle race with other woman on the island and while she seems content with simply riding with the pack when a her husband approaches on horseback demanding that she give up racing and return home, the panicked Ahoo continues to ride forward never stopping or appearing to consider giving up.  Indeed, as her husband and other men from her tribe approach demanding that she stop, Ahoo drives forward blowing past all the other women in her race, however, when the tribe gets their leaders involved, including some of Ahoo's brothers, their blocking of the road prevent her from moving forward, becoming a thing in the background of another riders line of sight.  The third portion of the story focuses on Hoora, or Houra (Azizeh Sedighi) an elderly woman landing in Kish in hopes of doing some extensive duty free shopping.  Houra, complete with a series of strings on her fingers to remind her of the items she needs, begins accruing furniture and appliances at an alarming rate, her source of money is confusing to all involved.  Yet when she completes her list, save for one item on her finger which she cannot recollect, she is not quite ready to leave, therefore she sets up her wares on the beach in a sort of house without walls much to the elation of the boys she has hired as help and the confusion of two women who have approached on bicycle, purportedly having just finished the race involving Ahoo.  Regardless, Houra has the boys build her a raft that allows her to float her goods onto a ship in the distance skyline, all the while the newly chador donning Haveh looking on with an enigmatic look that suggests both despondence and curiosity.

Time, space and identity are all clear themes within Meshkini's stunning film.  However, to some degree, these are also central issues in pretty much every film, although uniquely so to Iranian cinema and its bizarre world of hyper-censorship.  I, however, am fascinated with the ways in which Meshkini uses movement to suggest something transitory, if not constantly liminal.  The figures in her film seem to be caught in an impossible space between the world of representation and the reality the viewers are living.  Take for example, the innocent, yet highly sexualized sharing of a lollipop between Haveh and Hassan.  The continuity in this shot is off, but it would appear to be a choice on the part of Meshkini, as the two are now split off from the world, the cutting of the scene never showing the two children (or new adults?) in the same frame, it would break censorship, yet through a stroke of delightful precociousness, the two share in an intimate encounter, overlaid by suckling sounds on the overdub soundtrack that moves between the diagetic and non-diagetic simultaneously.  The two move in impossible ways because to depict them in a normal encounter would be to face off against strict censorship.  Incidentally, even in its cut off manner, censors still suggested that Meshkini remove the scene altogether.  Ahoo's movement is perhaps most evocative, because the constant shots from the forefront of her biking towards the screen invoke the same sense of terror that occurred in Arrival at the Train Station or the Klans ride in Birth of a Nation.  However, what is impending and fear inducing, is instead a shared encounter between Ahoo fleeing an oppressive past and the viewers, assumedly the women encountering the film.  The intercuts of Ahoo's peddling feet and the clomping of horses chasing the rebellious Ahoo suggest a movement both transitionally, but also metaphorically as she becomes animalistic in her flight from illogical oppression, but more importantly, an unseen predator.  Finally, it is worth quickly noting Houra's own movement which is decidedly more aided by the mechanical, whether it be her landing in the space on a plane or the aid of her extended wheelchair/pushcart, Houra represents a figure whose movement is figuratively disembodied and requires the help of others.  Her female identity overlaid by this and a desire to consume all that she never had speaks to immobility of women in the space of cinema and culture in wild and transgressive ways.  Again it is worth noting that the film was made within censorship restrictions, but manages to knowingly contradict them at every opportunity.

Key Scene:  The lollipop scene is seriously one of the most complex of cinematic encounters I have ever witnessed and this is in a film full of visually transgressive commentary.

The DVD transfer is not great, but aside from a Korean region 3 DVD it is the only option and it looks phenomenal regardless.  As such buying a copy is a MUST.


Life Is NOT A Malfunction: Short Circuit (1986)

I am wholly aware that there are some incredibly absurd movies that made their self aware during the 1980's, indeed, I have even gone so far as to review many of them, almost always with loving admiration or an unhealthy attachment, especially if said films involve things like cocaine smuggling ninjas or satellite based aliens consuming orgy minded suburban parents.  These movies were weird and did not necessarily acquire anything beyond the obvious cult status associated, however, Short Circuit is a film that has managed to retains most of its respect and was decidedly successful upon its initial release could out do every other film in its notes of the absurd.  Indeed, Short Circuit is perhaps the most bizarre film to come from the 80's not in that it exists alone, but that it was so successful.  Between some wonderful smirking by eternal heartthrob The Gutt, one of the more curious performances of Ally Sheedy's career one can pick apart its obvious attractions.  Everything else is completely an enigma though, notably the bizarrely Orientalist spin on the major foreign character within the film, not to mention a decidedly confusing and ethically problematic take on robotics, sentience and human bonding.  I assume this film is intended to be comedic, however, I could not begin to unpack the ramifications and implications of approaching such movie with an awareness that it is chuckling at such deeply social woes.  In contrast to Ally Sheedy's involvement in say WarGames, one almost thinks that Short Circuit is in bad taste, and I would certainly make this claim were it made in any other year than 1986.  It is in this unabashed push towards complete absurdity that one is able to truly appreciate Short Circuit, because what one paper should come off as complete and irreverent politically incorrect satire manages to take on a knowing level of self-awareness, wherein each glance of humor on the part of Steve Guttenberg and moment pun-infested dialogue manages to say everything about an era where excess and decadence were simply a fact and any point of lack or oppression was ignored or made to be a point of frustration.  In the very choice to ignore any palpable reality Short Circuit reconsiders the ability and execution of satire.  It is bad, it is wildly problematic, but it is also delightful.

Short Circuit focuses on the American governments most recent attempts at launching a series of former Cold War robots, known collectively as the S.A.I.N.T. program, as service industry robots.  This appears to be an ideal situation as the precision and focus affords the robots to do both very general tasks as well as specific, detailed endeavors.  Yet, when an intense lighting storm hits the factories, one robot is electrocuted a la Frankenstein and breaks free from the space.  In doing so, the war division of the government goes wild fearing that the number five division of the robot will destroy everything in its path, as the lightning resulted in an overriding of its circuits and reverting to its former Cold War programing.  To make matters worse the robot is equipped with a laser capable of destroying any item nearly instantaneously.  The robot becomes a point of fascination for its creator Dr. Newton Crosby (Steve Guttenberg) who sees this "glitch" as a movement towards a higher degree of sentience, particularly with Number 5 rewires his own switchboard to assure his livelihood.  Eventually, Number 5 travels far enough to meet with food truck entrepreneur and lively twenty something Stephanie Speck (Ally Sheedy) who immediately assumes the robot to be a form of extraterrestrial life, becoming visibly upset when it proves to be the far less exciting government weapon of mass destruction.  Yet, realizing that Number 5 truly desires to become "alive" Stephanie takes it upon herself to teach and train Number 5 while also helping to avoid his own disassembly, or, in human terms, death.  All the while, Dr. Crosby and his wise-cracking Indian assistant Ben (Fisher Stevens) attempt to track down Number 5 with the most advance positioning technology possible.  Eventually, they are able to track down the robot and discover him deep in training with Stephanie, as well as attached in a manner that is noticeably more than platonic.  However, Crosby and Ben realize that Number 5 is indeed advanced and capable of self-control, so much so that when the government eventually attacks Number 5 it proves to be a decoy created by the very robot who has become hyper-sentient.  The film closes with Number 5 assigning itself with the name Johnny 5 and becoming the pal of Crosby, Ben and Stephanie, assumedly planning on undertaking a series of new journeys, a fact shown in the multiple sequels that followed.

I am currently pinpointing my research interests within the field of film studies and, as I have noted earlier, this includes South Korean cinema.  However, realizing that just having a regional focus does not entirely suffice for the deeper I delve into school, I have decided to also focus on the ways in which gendering and body politics emerge within films about beings that are non theoretically human, including things like cyborgs, robots and dolls which become sentient.  As such, much to my surprise and elation, Short Circuit very much fits within this new vein of research, especially in regards to the gendering of Johnny 5, who moves from being a purely servile non-human other to that of a war based threat to eventually being a thing of fraternal and pseudo-sexual interest to at least two characters in the film.  In theory, Johnny 5 should not be a figure with a specific gender, but it is rather clear from the onset that viewers are supposed to define him as masculine, whether it be a result of his phallic like laser or his male-inclined vocal pattern, his gender is fixated within the masculine, making its creation by Dr. Crosby and the American government all the more ethically curious.  Indeed, his very war like identity suggests an entrenched notion of war as sexual aggression wherein each element of warfare finds its ties to the male phallic privilege, perhaps most famously explored in Kubrick's uproariously funny Dr. Strangelove.  Here it is becomes more heady intellectually, because if Johnny 5 is indeed a phallic extension of the government, he too is one that is anthropomorphized, suggesting a desire that war not only be a sexual act, but one that in the process "gives birth" to new entities that are vaguely human but still less than in the important factors.  The levels of control and privilege that emerge in such a scenario are complex and fascinating and could certainly extend on to consider other films within this genre.  The fact that Stephanie has a pseudo-romantic encounter with Johnny 5 takes on a reverse-Pygmallion element, although she is not the creator so again it is a bit more confusing.  There are also a ton of ways in which to consider how gender is performed and how a viewer is to understand that Johnny is supposed to be masculine, all tying to an assumption that a non-human body could still exist within a gendered dichotomy.  It is also no small coincidence that Wall-E is clearly based on Johnny 5.

Key Scene:  Johnny 5's quest for knowledge through reading the encyclopedia from front to end is both hilarious and deeply curious from an ethical standpoint and is dealt with in a near perfect way.

This is a solid rental through and through, although it is cheap enough on DVD that buying it might prove equally inexpensive.


You've Read Too Much Trash. You're A Dreamer: Vagabond (1985)

If the old biblical adage holds any truth, the meek shall indeed inherit the earth.  However, what happens when the earth has nothing left on it within which to give those without?  In the stunning, moving and, ultimately, disconcerting Agnes Varda film Vagabond it would seem that she is suggesting that the meek in such a setup can only become that which refuels the earth.  As such, it is not the meek that inherit the earth, but the exact opposite.  This surprisingly religious reading on my part is not completely ungrounded, because as a filmmaker Varda constantly reminds me that not only is she worth taking seriously on every account, but that she is also worth considering alongside, if not above, the likes of her New Wave compatriots, often making similar films with a far greater success.  Vagabond, while not her masterpiece, I reserve that appropriation for the stirring and visually evocative Cleo from 5 to 7, nonetheless, reflects what can be possible within the language of filmmaking while also constantly reconsidering how to use said language to constantly revive a lulling medium.  The narrative of the film is not wholly non-linear, however, it is also not nauseatingly straightforward.  One can read into the variety of factors affecting how a person deals with making a film and what personal experiences one pulls from and incorporates into their films, but I know I have said this previously when I discussed another moving film by Varda, One Sings The Other Doesn't, there is a lot to be said about how beneficial Varda's obvious and open feminist politics come into how she composes her film, whether it be the obvious elements of using a female in the protagonist role, or focusing the narrative on divergent voices, a few that are usually mocked or made to be silenced, even working on these very acknowledgements within the process.  The diagetic merges with the non, the other merges with the self, in fact, Varda is obsessed with confronting dichotomies and it is perhaps most blatant here in Vagabond a work that considers the most most problematic of all divides, at least philosophically speaking, humanity versus the natural world.

Vagabond begins where it ends depicting a woman laying dead in a ditch, at this point unnamed, although she is later revealed to be known simply as Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire).  Considering her clear, as the title suggest, vagabond status, an unseen narrator explains that it is her desire to recreate the moments that led up to Mona's death which begins the narratives winding recreation of Mona's experiences both through the documentary style narration of those Mona encountered, as well as the presumedly real experiences of Mona.  Along the way Mona meets a variety of people, whether they be brief, chain necklace wearing lovers, or well-meaning prostitutes, always seeming sure of her constant movement whilst avoiding settling down, particularly for engagements  that involve a romantic element.  Occasionally individuals, such as a goat herding family attempt to over exert their assumptions about her place in the world by forcing a home and job upon Mona, only to have the rebellious young woman reject the labels in favor of a pursuit, to use her words, of "music and grass."  Yet, Mona is not incapable of finding friendship, this occurs most clearly in two occasions, the first with Madame Lanier (Macha Méril) whose academic pursuits and desire to save trees somehow intersect into a bizarre attempt to shelter Mona, who takes up her lengthy car ride as a pseudo-bonding experience that also affords her the luxuries of high end food associated with the various conferences and events academic affords Lanier, however, the reality of Lanier's world cannot intersect with Mona's carefree style and the two must part ways.  Other instances wherein Mona meets people, as is the case with Tunisian migrant work Assoun (Yahiou Assouna) the customs of culture cause a divide, wherein Mona does want to stay but prescribed gender assumptions make it impossible.  Perhaps the most fascinating of engagements in the film come in the way of Mona's point of admiration through the eyes of Yolande (Yolande Moreau) who sees Mona's vagabond life as a form of romanticism and unbridled freedom.  Yet even this is destroyed when Mona's carefree attitude directly conflicts Yolande's financial safety.  In the end, Mona is left to fend for herself and in a moment when all things are against her, even in a disturbingly bizarre sense, and it is in this ultimate form of lack that her body can no longer survive.

I began this review with a biblical reference which was more of a passing thought in its initial inception, however, as I begin to consider the ways in which the film works it reminds me of two more travelogue  films with far more religious implications.  The first is Robert Bresson's heart wrenching Au Hasard Balthazar, wherein a donkey comes to represent what is easily the greatest Christ reference in the history of cinema.  The second is the hyper-provacative and wildly irreverent reconsideration of Catholic dogma that is Luis Buñuel's The Milky Way.  The latter existing in a state of complete temporal and spatial non-linear composition, while the former is about as linear a film as one could ever encounter.  In between these two is Varda's Vagabond and deservedly so because it is about where it could stand in terms of its spiritual considerations.  Far more philosophical in its endeavors, Vagabond asks very earnest questions about what role freedom and groundedness play in a persons mobility.  I have a tough time thinking of a more morally free character in the history of cinema than Mona, excluding the anti-rule abiding individuals of existential film noir films, however, these are always in opposition to a corrupt world of crime.  Here, the corruption of the world comes through their attempts to enforce societal understanding upon Mona, often at the expense of gendering her and her presumed domesticity, so much so that Mona herself longs to work in a space as a caretaker, even excelling beautifully when given the opportunity.  The act of care, however, is contingent upon social assumptions that to do so means to follow very strict rules.  Indeed when she gets an aging aunt drunk on brandy, it is deemed morally corruptible, despite it being clear that the Aunt is the happiest she has been in ages.  To be free is to have no burden, but it is also a point wherein a person can offer anything because in doing so they have nothing to lose.  Indeed, this takes on a degree of spiritual consideration as one looks at notions of homelessness, charity and expectations.  There are individuals throughout the film who attempt to help Mona, but often their actions are contingent on their own expected reward.  It is no accident that one of Mona's most earnest encounters comes through a passing engagement with a prostitute, making her far more a Christ figure than anybody might want to openly admit.

Key Scene:  The scene in which Mona drinks brandy with the aging aunt is sweet and pure cinema in its most realized sense.

Criterion box set.  Buy this, it is one of their best offering, despite not having the adoration some of the other collections seem to possess.


Two Men Eat, One Man Dies: The Housemaid (1960)

I had been made aware of The Housemaid well before finally coming to watch it, although had I been bit more patient I probably could have seen the bluray that is to be imminently released as part of Martin Scorsese's World Film Heritage Project which is being mounted by Criterion.  Due to research for a project though viewing was of the necessity and its availability on Hulu made it all the more justified.  I, of course, had already seen the somewhat loose remake of the film by director Im Sang-soo, but had long been trying to find an inexpensive way to see Kim Ki-young's Korean classic.  Often mentioned in  both intensive analysis of Korean melodrama, as well as the more broad surveys of the country's film, The Housemaid has been aptly described as the "before and after moment" in Korean cinema.  While it is far and away a different and in some ways better film than Psycho, I am comfortable suggesting that this providing the same sort of film/viewership dichotomy shift but in a way that proved far more evocative in terms of the trajectory of both Korean cinema specifically and the larger East Asian filmic output in general.  Were one to go purely off of the visual stylings and narrative choices in this film it would be hard not to immediately think of Hiroshi Teshigahara's stunning and visceral Woman in the Dunes, yet this equally engaging, if not decidedly more abrasive film arrived to cinemas four years earlier.  I find The Housemaid particularly worth one's time because it is as near perfect a genre hybrid that will ever exist, in so much as it is a combination of the deep-seeded psychological intensity both present in horror and melodrama, usually for entirely divergent reasons.  The Housemaid is scary, but not in the jump scare kind of way or in the ways in which the slasher films of the eighties proved to be, instead working from a frame of reference where the human existence is a thing of inherent frustration always managing to result in the greatest of psychological fracturing.  Furthermore, given the film's entrenchment in horror and melodrama the narrative is visually preoccupied with the idea of the body as something that is to be placed upon with force sometimes physical, but always cripplingly emotional.

The Housemaid, despite its rather suggestive title, focuses on the experiences of a man simply known as Piano Teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) whose teaching music at a women's factory is barely managing to keep his family from falling from their tenuously attained middle class status.  The Wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) attempts to work from home as a seamstress, but her constant bouts with sickness have troubled her ability to do so, made doubly challenging by taking care of their daughter Ae-soon (Le Yu-ri) who appears to have suffered bodily affects from polio, as well as a son Chang-soon (Ahn Seong-gi) whose precociousness borders on diabolical.  Needless to say, Piano Teacher finds his job burdensome, all the more so when he is made the object of misguided affection by countless students, one whose whimsy leads her to write a love letter that causes her expulsion and eventual suicide out of shame.  Moving along with his plans of achieving a higher status for his family, Piano Teacher begins offering piano lessons from home, wherein one of his vocal students Miss Cho (Um Aeng-ran) leaps at the opportunity.  Working in a surprisingly invasive manner, Miss Cho establishes herself as a dominant force in the house, despite only appearing for the piano lessons, when it is revealed by Piano Teacher that he is now hoping to obtain a maid, Miss Cho calls upon her chain-smoking friend, who becomes known specifically as Maid (Lee Eun-shim).  Moving into the space, the Maid is associated more with destruction and mismanagement than nurturing and anything remotely indicative of domestic work in a traditional sense, indeed her inability becomes a point of frustration for Wife and to a degree Piano Teacher, yet when it is revealed that the student who confessed her love to Piano Teacher is dead, both Miss Cho and Maid use it as an opportunity to blackmail him, leading him to "accidentally" have sex with Maid and causing her to become pregnant.  This pregnancy comes simultaneous to Wife also becoming pregnant, causing a divide in the family for expectations and a decision to force Maid to procure an abortion.  This jealously results in Maid becoming vengeful and attempting to kill their children and eventually does convince Piano Teacher to consume poison.  In a final twist, the film moves back in time and suggests the entire set of events to be a series of day dreams only to be compounded by yet another unusual narrative choice in the closing moments of the film.

Given my recent movement in academic research towards gender and embodiment in cinema, both in traditional genres like horror, as well as newer, more unconventional examples, mostly related to non-human/robotic bodies, I have tended to read recent films with this lens upon each text.  While, I will admit it has proven to be an overextension in a few cases, with something like The Housemaid body is not only worth considering, but is absolutely essential to the narrative.  Take for example Ki-young's decided fascination with the disabled body in the film, his choice to included Ae-soon is at first suggestive of problematic exploitation, however, on second consideration one understands that in both melodrama and horror the disabled figure often represent the point of suffering and even decided anger in the case of the latter genre.  Here, Ae-soon, is not the point of ultimate suffering, because individuals like Piano Teacher exist in a state of han, or notion of suffering based on unfair oppression, a term unique to Korean culture and usually evidenced in a larger collective notion.  Many Korean thrillers pull the idea of han to invoke a knowing subtext related to elements such as colonialism or class-based oppression, these ideas are popular in works like Mother or the Whispering Corridors franchise.  Here han is a decidedly privileged feeling and what is often embodied physically, instead becomes something reappropriated for a privileged individual to feel as though he is suffering, despite being well-to-do and only responsible for his own terrible decisions.  Furthermore, body becomes a class-based signifier as well, wherein the rats that appear throughout the film, both evidence a breaking from hegemonic and socially prescribed structures to something deem unsavory and indicative of the lowest of classes, in that rats represent the sewers and streets.  I say this to suggest that the very rats that Maid kills represent her own attempt to destroy her classed body, yet when it is her ability to convince Piano Teacher to commit suicide via poison, it becomes rather clear that he too is capable of embodying a rat. Of course, body works in other ways throughout the film, just as psychoanalysis, Marxist class ideals and many other readings would, it only speaks to The Housemaid as a rich cinematic text.

Key Scene:  The water spiting scene is great, but there is also a scene that falls apart on itself, here literally, due to the lack of a complete copy being available.  In the context of the scene and its suggestion of a psychotic break, it would appear as if the loss of these few frames was predestined from its inception, working in a similar way to Bergman's Persona.

I plan to obtain this as part of the World Film Heritage box set, but it is also available on Hulu, so viewing is subject to multiple options.


The Dead Stay In Our Heads Because We Loved Them: Monsieur Lazhar (2011)

Simple cinema is seemingly a thing far gone from movie making, wherein a post-digital understanding of the world has resulted in what could aptly be describe as visceral overload.  While works like Fight Club and Inception have cemented themselves as deserved contemporary classics, even if a bit problematic in the narrative department, their reconsideration of the forms of filmmaking have become a thing to recreate, an endeavor which has more or less proven poorly executed.  Simple cinema when set up against the aforementioned films would lead one to assume that my relationship to the movie is one without any degree of profound consideration, simple suggesting mediocrity.  This is absolutely not the case, simplicity is perhaps the most audacious thing a person can aim for in a film and is equally the most difficult to execute with any assured success.  I think of works like Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar or the surprising restraint of something like Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner when discussing this idea.  The story is allowed to breath unfold and move to a space of deep introspection for all those who engage with its products, both of these films proving that when purity and perfection are pursued even the simple can become monumental.  I would argue that the same emerges in a work like Monsieur Lazhar, one of the foreign breakout films of 2011 and the wonderful production from the play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere and the direction of Philippe Falardeau.  Dealing with nothing short of one of the deepest, most troubling issues in human existence, the film exudes a certain poetic realism that affords any viewer a constant movement through the range of emotions whether they be unbridled joy or devastating sadness, but after all, this is the human reality and one often shunned by popcorn cinematic escapism.  I know that this film received an unprecedented amount of praise from critics and faired quite well in the indie/art house circuit, which is fine and well, but Monsieur Lazhar possesses such an earnest approach to what troubles both young persons and adults that it becomes required viewing for everyone willing to sit down and read a work involving subtitles.

Monsieur Lazhar is set in the oppressively cold space of Montreal, where a group of students begin their day at school anew and the young Simon (Émilien Néron) being tasked with preparing the milk for his classmates breakfast.  Upon retrieving the necessary amount he approaches the classroom only to discover that his teacher has hung herself leading to chaos emerging in the space of the school despite an attempt to quell the panic by the principal Mme Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx).  In the midst of trying to find a new teacher one Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) emerges, inquiring about the opening.  Though initially dismissive, Vaillancourt hires Lazhar in hopes that the instant presence will help the classroom return to some degree of sanity.  Lazhar immediately takes control of the class in a very professorial manner, establishing high academic expectations for the students, much to their chagrin, excluding one student Alice (Sophie Nélisse) that finds his teaching style engaging, made all the more so by his being from the farm warmer locale of Algeria.  Indeed, it is Lazhar's former life in Algeria that makes for an intriguing narrative twist for it was not him, but his late wife who spent her life as a teacher, become the victim of a terrorist attack after speaking out for the rights of women.   Burned in an apartment fire, along with her children, this death has led to Lazhar moving to Quebec in hopes of attaining refugees asylum.  Regardless of this issue, Lazhar becomes a point of admiration, even if begrudgingly, for the students and one of desire for a fellow teacher Claire (Brigitte Poupart), who repeatedly makes sexual advances towards him, despite his clear disinterest and awareness of her exoticization of all things foreign.   Considerign that the students are only receiving occasional guidance from a school appointed psychologist, the death of their former teach by suicide constantly threatens the camaraderie of the classroom and when confrontation finally does occur, after a few violent outbursts it proves to be a moment of catharsis for not only the students but Lazhar himself who had been suppressing his own loss.  Despite receiving refugee status, the knowledge by the bureaucracy of the school of his non-creditions, leads to Lazhar being forced to step down, but this is not before one final day in which he delivers to his students a fable in hopes of teaching them a final lesson, also learning himself in the process.

I was fortunate to see this at a screening embracing French and francophone cinema here in Columbia, which included the presence of the very gracious and humble Danielle Proulx who advocated for the films message over any sort of pretense regarding her own experiences acting.  I find this a great way to consider this film, particularly since it is so loaded with notions that one's identity is predicated on a paradigm of constantly shifting frames of reference, including but not limited to gender, race, class, nation and age.  As I know I have mentioned on this blog before, intersectionality is the frame of theoretical thought that considers these layers of identity and the ways in which such schemas affect ones privilege or oppression in a society.  While there are far more inquisitive and experimental works considering this issue, I am unaware of one quite as minimalist and simply stated as what occurs in Monsieur Lazhar, again the notion of simplicity not implying a lack of depth or detail.  One only needs to consider the space of the school in the film to see how varied identities are colliding in unusual and often problematic ways.  The most obvious is, of course, the film's title character whose movement from Algeria to Quebec only affords him two points of previous privilege that of masculinity and French language, all other points of privilege are challenged when he must be constantly reminded of his difference, particularly in regards to cultural understandings, never mind the implications that come along with his own refugee status.  Lazhar, however, is not the only person with intersections of identity, take the students for example, reflecting a surprisingly diverse group contingent on gender, race and class, even making specific note of nationality in the student introductions, Lazhar must constantly shift his understanding of the world to appropriate it to each students needs, whether it be one whose single mother often overlooks after school teaching or another whose parents are overly protective and unwilling to allow her shades of rebellion. Furthermore, he must constantly realize that even when his mother tongue is comforting a continual speaking in such language could prove dire to at least one student.  Other issues such as women's employment, exoticization of the other, post-colonial history and global politics emerge in this film, all while also managing to attack the very perplexing issue of suicide.

Key Scene:  The closing fable will move you in a profound way, unless you somehow manage to ignore the entire movie up to that point.  However, even if that were the case the delivery by all the performers involved, paired with perfectly composed dialogue will still deeply resonate with even the most stone-hearted.

While this movie, undoubtedly, benefits from a group screening, it is available on Netflix Watch Instantly and is quite deserved of your time.


I Can Never See A Patient Walk Out Of Here, Never: The Men (1950)

The social issue film can often prove to be a contentious space of filmmaking one that delves into narrative misdirection by either focusing too deeply on one issue or grazing over the subjects in very troubling terms.  When you add the subject of disability into this particular construct things become even more frustrating in their lack of proper execution, a genre that suffers heavily from exploitation of characters, while also proving a place for actors to assure Oscar wins for being able bodied in a disabled role.  Essentially, while I do find Daniel-Day Lewis' performance in My Left Foot to be absolutely astounding, I am also aware that this role could have been provided to a truly disabled individual and achieved a tangible reality.  All this aside, I find it a considerable challenge attempting to locate films that focus on disability without it becoming an act of overt, privileged sympathy or a space for actors to grandstand in hopes of receiving accolades.  The Men, the film known for launching the career of Marlon Brando, does have moments where his Stanislavsky influenced method acting does result in broken glass and growling on the then still evolving actor, however, considering that it manages to situate itself almost entirely in the space of a Veteran's Affairs office, it takes time to delicately touch upon the identity, and more importantly, the embodying of a disabled self.  Wherein other works on this subject purposefully shy away from acknowledging issues of self and other, able and disabled, The Men constantly makes this a reality, lingering on the immobility or struggled movement of the bodies whose legs, while still present, are entirely inoperable.  Taking on even more layers, the film notes how longing and gendered desire factor into the disabled self and how even when dealing with a person struggling with disabilities a moments hesitation can carry dire consequences.  Furthermore, were these all not justifications enough to adore this movie, which is stunningly shot and compose, it includes a young Jack Webb rocking a beard and at one point drunkenly reciting Shakespeare and these are pretty much the very things that compose my dreams.  The Men is a masterpiece in social realism that deserves mention in the same space as To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Men centers on a group of soldiers who are shown engaging in combat, specifically Ken (Marlon Brando) who are injured while in the line of fire.  Ken is indeed shown writhing in pain as he slowly loses feeling in his legs.  The narrative then jumps to Ken in a dark room of a hospital bemoaning his very existence, refusing to even acknowledge a possibility of rehabilitation and projecting anger at the world around him.  Ken, of course, is not the only member of the hospital, which is full of other disabled veterans, all overseen by the optimistic and stern Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane).  The other members of the hospital include the horse gambling aficionado Leo (Richard Erdman) and the soft spoken Angel (Arthur Jurado) whose particularly agility despite being a paraplegic has earned him the title of Tarzan.  Furthermore, the group includes the leader of a Disabled Veterans Activism Group named Norm (Jack Webb) who approaches the issues of his specific community with unwavering optimism.  Between advocating for his patients continually working in rehabilitative therapy, Dr. Brock also attempts to lecture the families of paraplegics in the issues they will face once reintroduced into a non-disabled friendly world.  During one lecture, Dr. Brock is approached by Ellen (Teresa Wright) who purports to be a former girlfriend of Ken, admitting to having followed him to various hospitals only to have him refuse to meet with her, clearly ashamed of his disabled body.  While Dr. Brock initially sides with Ken's choice, he seems to realize that Ellen could prove to be the exact point of inspiration necessary to push through physical therapy.  The angry Ken appears dismissive at first, but when Ellen proves persistent, he agrees, hoping that he can make it through enough therapy to stand on his own during their wedding.  This challenge is also faced with the loss of patients to death and a continual awareness of the ways in which disability is severely limiting.  It is not long after their wedding, that Ellen has a moment of hesitation when Ken becomes frustrated, resulting in his leaving in a fit of rage, becoming AWOL in the process.  Through dedication on the part of Dr. Brock and some stern decisions on the part of Norm, Ken is able to have a last minute wake up call returning to Ellen and accepting her as a beneficial force in his life.

The way in which this film works with disability is fascinating in both a historical and theoretical framework, attempting to deconstruct the ways in which both intersect in the world.  Given that it is situated in a veteran's hospital affords it, in the context of 1950, a decidedly masculine twist, taking on feelings of lack and castration which are drawn upon, when the various characters forced those with privilege and ability to acknowledge their lack.  Indeed, when individuals like Ellen and other women invade the space it is almost out of curiosity and desire in a point of similarity, as opposed to unrestrained desire for the privileged able body.  The camera seems equally curious to consider how one desires the disabled body, resting on the fit and attractive body of Brando as he swings across parallel bars or simply lies in his bed severely immobile.  Brando can be desired and gazed upon in a unique way that would not quite work in the ways it would in later films, here lacking the desire of drag or queerness, but instead being a hyper-masculine figured incapacitated.  More contemporary works on this subject, mostly in the documentary sense seem to have reappropriated the masculine through sports, indeed a place where many disabled men are able to find their maleness again, thus finding shades of normalcy in the process.  This notion is perhaps most evident in the captivating documentary Murderball.  It is not small accident that Ken comes to rediscover his legitimacy through playing sports with his fellow patients, thus again asserting masculine prowess.  Yet, The Men seems hesitant to make this the ultimate answer to how to deal with disability, also offering outlets through embracing intellectualism as does Norm, whose quick mind and wit seem to be his method of confronting his lack.   For both men, however, failure still arises and their lack is still a reality, the closing moments of the film move into a decidedly melodramatic space, wherein Ken awakens to his, to borrow a term from Linda William's bodily sickness and it is his acceptance that Ellen is a force of aid that he moves to a new awakening.  Ken will always internalize his paraplegic self, but according to The Men, those willing to help should not be ignored, particularly those doing so out of the deepest feelings of love.

Key Scene:  Jack Webb drunk reciting Shakespeare.  Perfection.

Buy this movie, it should be more widely seen.


Holes Are Interesting, There Are Books About Holes: Cosmopolis (2012)

I am astounded by the amount of negative feedback mounted agains this, David Cronenberg's most recent filmic offering.  Well...actually I am not entirely astounded, but more so begrudgingly understanding in the derisive attitudes directed towards the piece.  Existing in an ethereal space that is both within the confines of the alienating cinematic stylings made famous by the Canadian auteur, while also managing to deconstruct the very relationship technology and space has to film output, Cosmopolis is far from Cronenberg's most viscerally engaging work.  Beginning and ending with some decidedly upbeat music from composer Howard Shore, one would almost immediately dismiss it as a work by the director whose use of the body as a space of cinematic violence has become a trope of sorts within his career, causing one to immediately compare other works that incorporate such themes and imagery as being always in contention with his, usually superior, offerings.  Suffice it to say, Videodrome, Existenz and many other Cronenberg works proved to be well ahead of their times, the two former pieces proving as, if not more, enigmatic as was the case during their original release.  While I would not go so far as to suggest that this is on par with those two films, I do think people are under-appreciating the winding, if decidedly monotonous styles of this film, which for all intents and purposes is focused on one young man's limo ride through a city.  Yet, Cronenberg who is ever prescient in his cinematic endeavors seems to use this car as a larger metaphor for the individual attachment to society by way of technological detachment.  Existing in a space of the heightened simulacra on a level of starkness compared only to Cronenberg's own work, or perhaps the more jarring work of Lars Von Trier, Cosmopolis constantly demands that the viewer move beyond what is portrayed in the foreground of a scene, to scrape away at the layers of depth within a moving image, at times even needed to dig deeper to find something in the very skin of the film itself.  Cosmopolis is about penetration, both in a literal and metaphorical sense and while it may seem as though Cronenberg is a filmmaker whose movies are primarily for his own enjoyment, it is rather obvious that he expects viewers to engage with the films on a tangible and textual level wherein simple observation bears few results if not absolute indifference, but a focused eye and mind can see something both poignantly disturbing and decidedly prophetic.

Cosmopolis centers on the day of Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) a son of a wealthy mogul, who has had his own success in the stock trade, thus spending much of his time simply cruising about the city and trying to get laid, either by his former fiancee or by many of the various women he encounters.  When told by his security guard that he ought to consider limiting his travels in lieu of an upcoming visit by the president, Eric stubbornly refuses and demands that he be taken across town to receive a haircut.  Along the ride, Eric meets with various acquaintances, whether it be tech gurus like Michael Chin (Philip Nozuka) and Shiner (Jay Baruchel) or people with whom Eric has had past sexual relationships, often re-consummating the relationships as occurs with Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) and Kendra Hayes (Patricia McKenzie).  Ultimately, however, Eric seems most intent on recreating a relationship, purely one of sexual means with his ex-fiance Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon) who is decidedly uninterested in his advances.  When a local religious leader and spirited social activist dies, a moment of civil unrest arises, all while Eric idly passes the time in his car, drinking, pontificating and at one point even receiving a prostate exam.  Eventually, the constant burden of having to worry about his security guard Torval (Kevin Durand) being extremely cautious with his whereabouts leads to Eric tricking him into deactivating the lock on his gun and killing the guard.  This shift allows Eric to move more freely about the city even enabling to finally get his haircut although it requires the opening of a barber well past business hours, a moment wherein the barber and Eric's driver share in stories of their past days as taxi drivers.  This moment proves to be the last of Eric's encounters, before he finally meets up with Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti) a hermit and hypochondriac that has purportedly spent the entirety of the day trying to kill Eric.  When in his sights, Benno fails to kill Eric, but instead of fleeing Eric climbs the stairs to his apartment and enters into his house, only to be confronted by Benno, the two sharing in a perplexing and winding confrontation before Eric assumedly succumbs to his fate, sitting facing the camera as Benno utters a few words, the screen fading to black before any shot is fired.

I want to reemphasize the way in which this film is seemingly working on a layer below the tangible, wherein, the to use a term in corporeal cinema, the skin of the cinema has been penetrated.  There are moments in Eric's limo where it would seem like the CGI is being executed in a very poor manner, making it quite clear that the outside is different from the interior, I would argue that this is not poor filmmaking, but a directorial choice on the part of Cronenberg to show Eric's movement from complete technology based detachment to the real which moves towards complete attachment to it in the closing moments of the film when the now less certain Eric enters the space of Benno's gross and filthy apartment, complete, no less with a mound of broken computer monitors.  It would seem to be in this bookended nature of the film that Cronenberg is tackling the issues of how a social understanding of the world fueled almost entirely by that which is attainable through social outlets.  The movement in and out of individuals within the space of Eric's vehicle represent the transitory and desultory nature of communication in this age, right down to what appears to be a cinematic recreation of a booty call.  Eric cannot seem to understand the physical barriers confronting his ability to travel the town during the presence of the president, because his world does not exist outside of the car and, therefore, he cannot physically understand such a thing as a barrier, a metaphor that perfectly extends to the seemingly unlimited amount of access he is afforded purely as a result of wealth.  Indeed, he is shown rather early in the film attempting to buy the Rothko Chapel, a space purportedly made for the community, which Eric hopes to possess for himself through financial means.  This acquisition without physically viewing an item takes on yet another layer of online identity as Eric can now consume the world from the comfort of his car computer, never being forced to deal with a grounded understanding of things.  Even events of heightened intensity are dealt with in a detached manner, watching a riot occur from the safety of his walled in car/computer, much as was the case with watching the Occupy Movement or in more violent examples the uprisings in the Middle East.  It is fitting that when he does finally leave his car and computer space it is to get a hair cut an act of physical destruction that leads to the further, assumed physical destruction of his body in the closing moments of the film.  The computer has allowed a person access to pretty much anything they could desire on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, yet the feeling of destruction and, ultimately, death must be felt in the flesh and in the real.

Key Scene:  It should be no surprise that the best scene in this film involves Eric receiving a prostate exam while talking to another woman.  Aside from Robert Pattinson knocking this scene out of the park in acting terms, it also takes on a wonderful layer of metaphor and psychosexual politics.

This is watch instantly on Netflix, however, it is worth obtaining on bluray, the lack of popularity has led to it dropping in price considerably, which both a shame and a benefit to those looking to obtain a copy of the film.