March 19, 2007

The Science of Sleep

Posted in Movies at 9:57 pm by ndsmith

This new film, also known as La Science des rêves, from Michel Gondry is what cinema is all about. My only regret is that I did not see it on the big screen. In this film, Gondry continues his playful investigation into the mechanics of the brain and its role in imagination,  fantasy and even real life. This fascination is apparent in his earlier effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Indeed, The Science of Sleep trades on some of the same subject matter: the vicissitudes of love, the way that desire is an impediment to desire and the destabilization of narrative by incorporating the real and the imaginary.

Indeed, I think this is really the essence of film. Recent movies like Memento, Being John Malkovich (interestingly, Gondry also worked with Charlie Kaufman, directing the much less spectacular Human Nature) and Waking Life have demonstrated that the space of film narratives is not physical reality, but some strange mixture of physical and psychical reality. In other words, film is a story of the imagination. We come to see the characters not as flesh and blood actors in a drama of people, places and events, but as interconnected consciousnesses in a drama of desire, fantasy and fear. The reason I think that these narratives tap into the essence of film is because they exploit the nature of the medium. Whereas the written word forces us to produce the images and events, whereas theater displays real, flesh and blood actors on a stage, whereas visual art is static, film inserts itself directly into the imagination of the viewer. When we watch cinema, we become as it were passive recipients of someone else’s dream sequence.

The Science of Sleep is exactly that. In it we are brought into the psychological world of Stephane, a Mexican born artist who is living in Paris working as an intern for a calendar publishing company. The film’s narrative moves seamlessly between his dream-life and his waking life such that even the most absurd and catastrophic scenes do not seem out of place. What is wonderful about the effort of Michel Gondry to blur the lines between physical and psychical reality is that he never wavers from his course. Indeed, at the end of the movie one really must wonder: which is more vital to the well being of our characters, their dreaming life or their waking life?

I am reminded of the old story about the beggar who dreams every night that he is king and the king who dreams every night that he is a beggar: one wonders who is the happier?

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March 4, 2007

Jesus Camp-a review

Posted in Life, Movies, Politics at 1:35 am by ndsmith

Just watched the documentary Jesus Camp. Anyone who grew up with an evangelical Christian background–actually, anybody who cares about the social state of this country–will find this movie is disturbing. It is intensely personal, highly critical, at times touching and artistic. It is a caricature of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States and like all caricatures intensifies certain features of the movement at the expense of a realistic representation. Yet it is not for that reason false.

I used to go to a summer camp that was organized for the purpose of instilling, not to say indoctrinating, a fundamentalist Christian world-view. There is enough in the movie that I recognize as an accurate depiction of the disturbing impact of fundamentalist religious beliefs on children that I would not call this movie a fabrication. I know that people like Bill O’Reilly think that this movie–along with the recent Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi–are paradigmatic examples of a left-wing conspiracy to discredit and undermine well-meaning conservative Chrstians by highlighting the most extreme elements of the movement. But the fact that anything like the events portrayed in Jesus Camp actually happen (even if only in this unique situation) is disturbing in itself.

June 5, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Posted in Movies at 9:59 pm by ndsmith

Sophia Coppola's new movie is worth seeing. I was impressed by how many historical moments she weaved into her 80's teen-angst stylized rendition of the Hapsburg princess-cum queen of France. The movie was shot on location in France with a good helping of Versaille, and the small chateau "Petit Trianon" which was renovated and given her. This definitely lent a historical sensibility despite the obvious modern style. But what is perhaps most provocative about this film is the way that Coppola reinterprets the life of Marie Antoinette, the classic scapegoat of the collapse of the French monarchy. In Coppola's eyes, Antoinette is a well-meaning, if childish, idyllic princess played by Kirsten Dunst whose practically impotent husband Louis-Auguste, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the real folly of the French monarchy.

The images of decadence in the French royal household, from the wonderfully malevolent mistress of Louis XV, to the gambling, champagne, clothes, shoes and more pastries than you could feed an army, are all rendered in this temptingly sumptuous "Pretty in Pink" meets "Clueless" montage, complete with a fantastic soundtrack. One has to wonder what Coppola is suggesting with this obvious parallelism. I am reminded most of Modonna's self-portrait as Marie Antoinette in her performance of "Vogue" for the MTV music awards.

One thing that must be said for Coppola's portrayal is that, true to the tastes of her subject in the film, she rigorously ignores any broader view of the historical situation in France, or the horrific downfall of the French royal families in the terror that followed the revolution. Instead, this depiction is entirely confined to Versaille, where only a couple of (very moving) scenes depict any interaction between the nobles and the commoners. It has become clear, at the movie's end, that the kingdom is lost, but there is no real sense of what this means. Instead, we find ourselves isolated, in a bubble of teenage giddiness–and maybe even teenage existential angst.

This is only Coppola's third film, and I would say that she has clearly demonstrated her capabilities in the craft of film-making. Her movies are heavily symbolic, moving and beautiful. But in this one, like the others, there is a sense that so much more lies below the surface, so much that the director is simply not willing to dive into. Perhaps it has something to do with Coppola's fascination for actresses, like Dunst, who themselves do not carry a real depth of character. This is painfully obvious in one scene where Dunst is supposed to have collapsed in agony under the pressure of not being able to bear a child. The camera artfully follows Dunst into her room with a close shot. But there is nothing there. No feeling.

I will say this, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the greater part of the movie is spent in suspense and tension over the incapacities of the royal couple to produce an heir to the throne. When these minor difficulties are finally overcome, Antoinette does produce a "son of France"–who will never be its king. Indeed, what preoccupied all of the nobles, and the pamphleteers at the time, was minor in comparison to the real impotence of the king of France to curb the hunger and poverty of his own people. Which is to say, that clearly the fall of the French monarchy was a symptom of a much larger problem then a couple of young, naive, rulers. And perhaps Coppola has captured this truth for us.