Sunday, February 16, 2014

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: the most uncomfortable two hours of my life.

My usual modus operandi for writing these little blog pieces is as follows:

1. Watch the film in question, giving it my full attention, and thinking critically about what I can say about it as I watch it.
2. When I feel ready to write about the film, be it immediately following the viewing of the film or a few days later, put the film on for a second time and have it on in the background while I write so as to remind me of scenes/moments/thoughts I want to comment on.

I shall not be holding to this strategy for today’s film, and the reputation of the film in question is more than enough to tell you why.

The story unfolds in 1944 Fascist Italy, where several powerful men, accompanied by some aging female prostitutes and young men that they have decided are their guards, kidnap eighteen young teenagers and take them to an estate.  What then proceeds is a non-stop sadistic (fitting, as it was based on a story originally penned by the Marquis de Sade) horror story, as pain, rape, humiliation, and eventually torture and murder are in store for the unfortunate teenagers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I wear it as a fucking badge of honor that the one and only time I saw this film was in a theater.

Why?  Well, back when I was borderline obsessed with getting through the 1001 Movies list, Salo was unavailable on DVD.  Or VHS.  Nowhere could one find a copy of it at a reasonable price, and I wasn’t about to pay two hundred bucks for an out of print laser disc copy from ebay.  Turner Classic would hardly air this film. 

And then the Dryden, as it always does, came to the “rescue.”  In the summer of 2007, they had a screening of Salo.  What was slightly unusual about the screening is that the Dryden took greater pains than normal to warn the audience about the nature of this film, and had a strict “No one under 18 admitted” policy.

So, because Salo graces the pages of 1001 Movies and I had no other options, I traipsed out to watch a film I knew would horrify me.  Fantastic.

The Dryden is not an enormous theater.  It seats 500 and has two sections, an orchestra section and a balcony.  The screen itself is moderately sized; it’s not a giant screen in the slightest.  I mention this because I nearly always choose to sit in the orchestra section to feel closer to the film.  Because the screen isn’t enormous, if I sit in the balcony, I feel too far-removed from the film to have that immersive movie theater experience. 

Although I hadn’t seen Salo before that night, I knew its reputation and before I sat in my normal spot (back row center orchestra), I paused.

Did I *really* want to be close to THIS particular film?


Balcony it was.

I physically distanced myself from this film before I had even seen it, and god, I’m glad I did. 

What do I remember of Salo?  I remember sitting in that darkened movie theater and cringing.  Physically cringing.  I didn’t go quite so far as to put my hands in front of my eyes, but I did start pulling a turtle and trying to hide myself in my hoodie, my body curling in on itself as a defense mechanism.  I grimaced, I tried to turn away, and then it eventually became a question of simply making it through the movie.

I remember never having felt so goddamn uncomfortable while watching a movie.  This was a level of discomfort that no war movie, no bizarre experimental film, and no film that has anything to do with pets (all of which are my least favorite kinds of movies) had ever put me through. 

I remember it finishing, the lights coming back on, and thinking, “Thank god.  Time to get the fuck out of here.”

I do not remember the exact plot, and I’m fine with that.  I do not remember all the details of all the scenes of sexual humiliation, and I’m fine with that.  I do not remember character’s names, and I’m fine with that.

I am perfectly fine with never seeing this movie again.  Ever. 

Hell, even reading a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia was too much for me, and I wound up only skimming it. 

I mean, what else am I supposed to say about a movie where a girl is punished for crying by being made to eat human poo? 

The other film I think of when I think about films dealing with humiliation is John Waters’ Pink Flamingos.  That’s another film that I don’t enjoy, but I’ll say give me Pink Flamingos over Salo any day of the week.  At least Pink Flamingos is rife with camp and tongue-in-cheek attitude that lessens the feeling of horror.  Sure, it’s obnoxious, but at least it has an intent of comic outrageousness, and that coats the humiliation just a bit, making it easier to get through.

Pasolini is so damned unapologetic about what he puts up there on the screen in Salo that it feels as if he is purposely torturing the audience as well as the cast of characters.  There is no attempt on his part to “make it go down easier.”  Nope, he’s saying, this material is hard, and I’ll be danged if I make it easier for you.

Salo is getting a low score for me, but I’m not giving it the lowest possible score, and here’s where, oddly enough, I feel like I need to explain why.  (Funny, me explaining why it won’t actually get a one out of ten.)  Because, as repugnant a film as it is, I don’t feel as though it’s repugnant just for funsies or by accident.  There is intent here, and there is anger here, and there is passion here.  Underneath all the horrible scenes set to film in Salo, Pasolini has a message about corruption and power and perversion.  It’s not pretty to sit through, but it’s undeniably there.  What’s more, it’s well-constructed film.  Awful, yes, but Pasolini knew what he was doing in terms of cinematography.  There’s a reason that this is called “an art film,” because it honestly looks like art.  Sometimes horrible, horrible art, but art nonetheless.  So I must give Pasolini his due and admit to Salo, despite its awfulness, is well-imagined awful and made with the intent of being awful and with purpose.  (I’m giving the side-eye to films like Vinyl which seem to have absolutely no intent whatsoever here…)

I mean, if nothing else, I can appreciate that the above shot is pretty. 

Did I have to see Salo before I died?  I’m not sure.  Frankly, given the enormous reputation of the film in film circles and the immediate reaction the film gets whenever anyone brings it up in any conversation, I begrudgingly admit to being glad I’ve seen it, if for no other reason than I can meaningfully participate in said conversations.  Do I need to see Salo again before I die?  HELL NO.

Once was more than enough.

Arbitrary Rating: 2/10.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lost in Translation


Lost in Translation
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi

I need to say this straight off the bat: I can’t write a normal review of Lost in Translation.  Expect precious little of what’s to follow to be my typical attempts at any sort of analysis of the filmmaking techniques, production design, or story symbolism.  Apologies if that’s what you wanted.

Right. On with it then.

I’ve only seen Lost in Translation twice; once, in 2004 after it came out on DVD, and just a few days ago for the 1001 Movies Blog Club.  Despite the decade since I last saw it, I vividly remember that initial experience.  It was late at night, I was a little tired, my then-boyfriend-now-husband had gone to bed, and I sat down to watch this film that my friend Dyami had been gushing over.  I really enjoyed it – I knew I would – but as it came to a close, I remember being overcome by incredible emotion.  I remember sobbing my way through the final scenes, then continuing to sob rather uncontrollably for at least another thirty minutes.  Something in this film had touched a nerve, a very raw nerve, that the lateness of the hour and my tiredness only exacerbated.  In seeing it for a second time, that nerve was not quite as exposed, but still there nonetheless.

Bob Harris (Murray) is a middle-aged washed up movie actor being overpaid to promote whiskey in Tokyo, Japan.  He forgets his son’s birthday while his wife FedExes carpet samples to his hotel room.  Charlotte (Johansson) is a college grad who majored in philosophy and now finds herself married to a photographer (Ribisi) and without any idea what to do with her life now that she’s tagged along with him to Tokyo.  Both Bob and Charlotte feel completely alienated by not only Tokyo but their lives, and this is enough of a commonality for them to strike up an unlikely friendship.

Bill Murray is so wonderful in this film, and I remember, at the time, that it was such a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL in the media.  Everyone, and I do mean everyone, was all “holy F*%@ Bill Murray can actually act and express emotions and everything!”  He was nominated for his one and only Oscar for his role as Bob Harris, but something I’ve been thinking about is that no one should have been THAT surprised.  Frankly, Murray’s filmography for the ten years prior to Lost in Translation was building up to this, a perfectly seriocomic role.  In my opinion, it all starts with Groundhog Day in 1993, then goes on to Ed Wood with Tim Burton in 1994, then most significantly on to Rushmore in 1998 and The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, both with Wes Anderson.  The fact that Murray was specifically choosing work that defied his early slapstick routines (he also managed to be in a Shakespeare movie before Lost in Translation) was apparent.  Since Lost in Translation, he has continued his relationship with Wes Anderson, becoming in some ways a grand duke of the indie film scene, and has also cultivated a relationship with Jim Jarmusch of all people.  I give Murray all the credit in the world for clearly seeking divergent film roles, because he is just wonderful when he tones down the stupid comedy and allows the sadness to peek through.  I’m not surprised at all that a generation of younger filmmakers have wanted to use him in their work. 

I don’t often write about it on my blog, but back in 2004, I was in a PhD program doing biochemistry research.  I was utterly miserable, but I hadn’t yet realized I was miserable.  (It would take another 18 months for me to finally face the issue and leave the program, moving on to something that DIDN’T take a jackhammer to my sense of self-worth.)  Like Charlotte, I was in my early to mid-twenties and I felt adrift.  And that night that I watched Lost in Translation for the first time, this film was an enormous trigger that managed to convey some of the hopelessness and lack of direction I was drowning in.  Although I still could not completely admit it to myself at the time, now with 20/20 hindsight I have no doubt that the minor breakdown this film gave me was because I identified a bit too much with the emotional message here.  When I watched it just a few days ago, the tears at the end were caused not by a current sense of angst in my life, but of remembrance; recalling just how emotionally draining and numbing those years in the lab were, recalling just how pathetic I felt then, how utterly useless and ineffectual I thought I was because my experiments never worked (not once, not ever, not even the goddamned controls did what they were supposed to do), how much of a failure I thought myself.  Quite frankly, this film isn’t the easiest thing in the world for me to watch, not because it’s bad or horrific, but because it has a way of pulling all those old emotions out to surface. 

Which is definitely a bit of a testament to the film, because I was working in a biochemistry research lab and Charlotte was in Tokyo for a few weeks.  Not exactly the same thing.

It’s very difficult for me to be objective or analytical about this film.  This is a much more subjective experience for me, as I just watch this and feel.  I feel Charlotte’s depression as she tries to tell her friend she doesn’t know who she married only to have the friend blow her off.  I have also had a friend during this time in my life who was a bit like Bob Harris, someone who, although a generation apart from me, I connected with and who I got along extraordinarily well with and who made me forget, albeit for short periods of time, how much sadness I was really hiding.  Although an argument can be made, depending on your frame of mind, that Coppola pushes the relationship between Bob and Charlotte to the brink of sexual tension, and I honestly do not think that I ever had *that* kind of relationship with my friend, I relate yet again to understanding the feeling of respite caused by an unlikely friend. 

This movie.  This movie was my early to mid-twenties.  The deep seated denial that I was sad (I wasn’t supposed to be sad, I was in biochemistry PhD program for crying out loud), the feelings of hopelessness and uselessness that almost consumed me, Lost in Translation brings it out in a beautiful, sadly poignant way.  On the surface, my story is not at all like Charlotte’s, but Sofia Coppola knew what she was doing, knew that her particular story of cultural alienation could really strike far deeper. 

This is not a movie I can watch lightly or “have on in the background.”  I’m in a much better place now than I was ten years ago, but the experience in the lab was a bit emotionally scarring and I still struggle with some of those feelings of loss of self-worth (and I have a feeling I will always feel like something of a failure).  Lost in Translation is a film that reminds me of that phase of my life, for better or for worse, and while it makes me happy to know I’m not there anymore, this movie has a way of reminding me just how painful those years were.

For the record, I think this movie is awesome.  It just strikes a bit too close to home for me to watch it with any regularity.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10, and apologies if you actually wanted me to talk about the movie rather than whinging on about myself.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams

Upon checking Spike Jonze’s filmography, I somewhat shamefully realized that the only other feature film of his I’ve seen is Being John Malkovich.  Now I rather love Being John Malkovich, but the heaviest criticism I lay before it is that it’s a rather cold film.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there’s nothing wrong with cold films (*cough*Stanley Kubrick*cough*), but Being John Malkovich THINKS it has a heart when in reality, any heart that’s there is pretty darn small.  In the near-fifteen years between Malkovich and Her, I am astonished at how much heart Jonze has managed to grow into.  Because Her is a film absolutely overflowing with heart, for acres and acres, miles and miles.  The last thing anyone would call this film is “cold.”

Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) – what a great character name – works as a personalized letter writer for a company in the not-too-distant future.  He sees an ad for a new operating system with artificial intelligence that tailors itself for your own personal life and, on a whim, he purchases it.  Upon installing it, the OS announces its name is Samantha (Johansson), and Theodore realizes that this artificial intelligence is the real deal.  He and Samantha quickly become very close, developing a deep emotional bond that soon turns into a romantic relationship.  This isn’t an anomaly; Theodore’s close friend Amy (Adams) installed the same OS and became best friends with hers.  Theodore and Samantha go through all the normal relationship ups and downs, but can a relationship with an OS really stand the test of time?

Like his typical work, there are lots of little futuristic twists and oddities and quirks in Her, but unlike Being John Malkovich where the oddities ARE the film, the oddities in Her are ancillary.  Strip away the fact that Samantha is artificial intelligence, and what you really have in Her is a relationship film.  That’s what it is, pure and simple.  Theodore is broken and damaged following a divorce from a woman he deeply loved, and with Samantha, he finds the courage to open up to someone new.  He goes through all the various explorations of this, to hesitating and pulling back when things get really serious, to pain when he thinks that he is being left once more, to getting a bit too petty over silly things.  Samantha isn’t perfect, either; she is overzealous on occasion, she needs a bit of coddling every now and then, and as she grows as a “person,” (OK, as an AI OS) she changes and wonders about the relationship just as much as Theodore.  This, to me, is what makes Her so utterly brilliant.  Jonze takes something that, on first whisper, sounds utterly absurd, and makes you, as an audience, invest every last emotion you have into this relationship.  The relationship is real and honest and flawed and beautiful, and so help me if it didn’t reduce me to tears on more than one occasion.  I wouldn’t hesitate for a second putting Her up along with some of the great cinematic romances of all time, not least of all because the brutal honesty with which it is portrayed is far more palatable to me than most silly fairytale romcom “romances.”  (and infinitely more enjoyable than Jack and Rose.)

When I’ve mentioned Her in conversation with my real life friends and acquaintances, most of them responded with some variation of “that movie sounds so weird, he falls in love with his COMPUTER wtf?”  One of the things I loved about the movie, though, is that Jonze removes pretty much every negative connotation about “falling in love with your computer” in his near-future world.  Theodore hesitatingly starts telling people that his girlfriend is an OS and no one bats an eye.  “Cool, bring her along!” they say.  There is no stigma about “dating your OS” in Her, and while that’s quirky, it’s also brilliant.  It’s part of Jonze’s MO to get you to buy into the concept, so he removes the barriers.  In fact, the one character in the film (other than Theodore himself) who shudders at the idea of Theodore dating Samantha is Theodore’s ex-wife, and frankly, don’t we expect that?  Wouldn’t we automatically anticipate our exes to be judgmental of the new people in our lives? 

Apart from the pure shot of emotion that Her serves up on a glorious platter, I adored the production design.  The film is set in the future, but it’s a recognizable future.  This isn’t a sterile, silver-clad, no-collar jumpsuit sort of future.  This is a “in ten years’ time” sort of future.  A “this is where we’re on track to turn into sooner than you think” sort of future.  Twombly’s job – writing personalized letters for people who are too busy to write themselves – is an interesting extrapolation of our current culture.  Theodore lives in Los Angeles, and the film was shot there, but carefully.  Additional scenes were shot in Shanghai, and the blending of current LA with a feeling of foreign oddity (signs are not hidden, so occasionally there is a neon sign in Chinese in the background) makes the city seem recognizable and completely strange, all at once.  There is a softness to the future in Her that is reflected in the architecture, all curves and pods and clean without feeling sterile.  The softness nicely underscores the heart of the film, the focus on the strong connection between these two people (because really, Samantha has the heart of a person). 

And god help me, I loved the sets and costume designs.  Everything is flushed in reds, oranges, yellows, and creams.  Nearly every scene has some swath of the red-orange hue that is the film’s trademark, a color which yet again feels warm and soft and rife with emotion.  All the characters are dressed as the natural progression of today’s hipster designs.  There are high waisted wool and cotton pants, oversized cardigans, and leather shoes.  Because we see Theodore the most we begin to assume that this is his personal aesthetic, but when we do occasionally see other human characters, they are dressed nearly identically.  It’s a great prediction of what we might be wearing in ten years; no denim, few belts, but still the same type of silhouette.

Her is a wonderful little futuristic sci-fi romance.  What an odd combination, but because Jonze focuses first and foremost on the “romance” part of that description, the film has an emotional anchor that positively bleeds with truth.  This is Jonze injecting his typical quirkiness in a smart way, around the edges of a story that we can all relate too. 

Even if it is “guy falls in love with his computer” movie.

Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10. Exactly the sort of movie I love.