Rubber

[Screenshot]I thought a movie about a sentient tire going around killing people was a pretty oddball premise, and one that had some promise. I got a rather stranger movie than I expected. I’m not even sure whether it’s supposed to be about the tire or the people watching the tire, and the central horror-element plot ends up as a sidelight to a strange but internally self-consistent set of rules governing observers and actors.

All in all, Rubber is one odd duck of a film. It is more than it might seem but also less than the sum of its parts, and the overall effect is of an intriguing experiment which is something of a stew of not-entirely-cohesive ideas. The whole is mostly clever, teetering on the edge of self-indulgence and only rarely falling on the wrong side, but whether it actually ends up “good” in spite of its flaws is a trickier question. Unmistakably it’s doing something different, and throws out some spoofing of the horror genre with a liberal larding of extradiegesis games and a quasi-Dadaist philosophy. Certainly a lot of the actual individual elements have been done before, and the whole is a splattery ball of unblended bits, but there’s a scale between “individual conceits” and “the whole film” at which a lot of the elements seem pretty imaginative and well-done.

On actual technical issues this movie doesn’t exactly shine, and “low-budget” seems to be the phrase of the day. I’m sure there’s some neat trickery involved in making the tire move around, some of which, I assume involves just plain rolling it in from off-camera, but the sets are pretty bare and the acting honestly fairly wooden most of the time — although a good half of the cast has the excuse, perhaps, that their acting is supposed to be terrible.

On balance, it’s mostly worth the watching. It’s not heinously long, it’s occasionally funny, and at its high points it’s actually rather interesting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s great literary classic À la recherche du temps perdu is well-known among those who haven’t read it for two things: first, that it is really fucking long (who is Tom Perdue, and why is it going to take 7 books to find him?), and second, that the enormous hundred-odd-page recollection at the beginning is set in motion by the narrator dipping a madeleine in tea and eating it (I have trains of thought like that too, but I don’t write them down). Among a certain class of intellectual in a certain generation (neither of which I belong to, I think), reading Proust or at least pretending to have read Proust was compulsory. So I borrowed a copy of Swann’s Way (in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation) and set off to be blown away by an extraordinary work of literary genius.

Six hundred pages later, I’m a bit torn. At this point I have no particular desire to read the other six volumes, for reasons which will probably become abundantly clear, but I can appreciate the craft. One thing I can definitely appreciate is Proust’s command of language, which I imagine even comes through well in translation: the structure at both the sentence and multi-sentence level is evocative and well-handles (despite a multitiude of subclauses which often muddles the grammatical structure and makes the reader slow down). On technical issues, this is a beautiful work in a superb translation, rich in sensory detail and in expository whimsy. That’s the sort of thing I like. My problem with it is that this this display of mastery is in the service of very little indeed.

For Swann’s Way (and, as I am given to understand it, the entirety of In Searth of Lost Time) has no actual plot to speak of, but is cast on flotsam and jetsam of memories. The first chapter, “Combray”, was almost intolerable, because it seemed to go nowhere. Things much improved in the second and third sections, “Swann in Love” and “Place Names/The Name”, both of which had a cohesive strand running through them. i’m afraid the rest of the volumes probably more resemble the first section, and its dreamy, pointless ramble through memory. But the last two chapters were very enjoyable indeed.

You might argue that I’m inconsistent: I pan “Combray” for its lack of cohesiveness, and enjoyed The Mezzanine for largely the same reason! That maybe gets to the point of how this book can be enjoyable to people who are not me; those who prefer a ramble through childhood memories of nature and family circles to musings about shoelaces and milk cartons might feel completely opposite to my impression. However, I found disentanging (and trying to derive meaning from) Proust’s memoryscapes to be exhausting. Some of that might be subject matter, some might be the complexity of the sentance and phrasal structure, some might simply be how extraordinarily long the work was. I didn’t find the first chapter enjoyable at all, but I could appreciate the craft.

And, really, the second and third sections are well worth the read.

See also: Wikipedia.

Simon le mage

[Screenshot]Simon le mage (or Simon mágus as it is sometimes called; international collaborations often seem to have two titles in different languages) is a difficult movie, and one that feels a bit like it belongs in a different age. Were it not for the peculiarly modern opening soundtrack (Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, incongruously enough), I would quite reasonably have presumed this film was contemporary with, say,Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which it rather resembles aesthetically. It plays some of the same tricks of pacing and cinematography as Solaris, with wide grand panoramas with an underlying feeling of staticity, and also an unusually long and dull view from the window of a vehicle. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually care for Solaris that much, and Simon possesses its aesthetic without its feeling of mystery. Enyedi tries to infuse the story with a sense of the mysterious, but somehow it all seems nonsensical instead. The resurrection contest is of course the center of the plot, making the other elements seem entirely irrelevant, and more like loose ends than mysteries. As one example, we learn in one scene that Simon’s interpreter has been in disguise, but the fact that she was, and her reasons for being so, are never again mentioned. Most of the story is like this, leaving me to my impression that the entire film may be at a level that I am simply not getting. It is beautifully composed, as mentioned above: even as a deliberate homage, imitating Tarkovsky’s cinematography is no mean feat. Some of the effect is spoiled by the rather imperfect transfer, but that I expect from Hungarian cinematic releases in the US (even when in collaboration with a more prosperous mation, alas). On the subject of the two participating natons, a point of some dissatisfaction: it’s fairly significant when people are speaking Hungarian and when they’re speaking French (particularly in the absurd café scene, conducted entirely in French despite Simon’s complete ignorance of the language), but the subtitles don’t differentiate. Anyone with an ear for European languages can figure it out, but I’d still have liked to see a typeface or color distinction made.

See also: IMDB.

Village au panique

[Screenshot]This was screened at UofL, but I missed it, so I went back and got it on Netflix. It is one weird film. It’s apparently based on a TV series with similar production values and logic. Although nobody comes out and says it outright, I kinda get the vague impression the core demographic for the TV series is stoners; it’s got that blend of low-budget quirk, lack of cohesion, and vague similarity to children’s programming that folks totally eat up when high. The film perhaps shows a greater cohesiveness: there’s a plot, although it’s totally absurd. Nonetheless, I am not entirely sure I ever really engaged this peculiar movie the way it ought to be enjoyed. The animation is very crude, almost certainly deliberately so and intrinsically unimmersive. Most of the characterizations and situations are fundamentally infantile: in fact, I had the impression while watching it that the plot might have come from the story-ramblings of a four-year-old. I always watch a film with an eye to what experience is being delivered, and here the experience honestly felt pretty patronizing and simplistic. Which may be my fault, really! It’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the artistic crudity was somewhat intriguing, but it didn’t seem to really serve too much purpose aside from establishing “indie-cred” bonafides (and being less expensive, I suppose). Other than the deliberately crude model posing and low frame rate, the technical aspects were pretty respectable: voice acting was one-note but servicable, and the sets and models were actually fairly detailed (but easy to underestimate since they were so stylized).

Maybe it would make more sense if I had some familiarity with the underlying TV show. I can well imagine this sort of disjointed, vignette-style animation working well in the 10-minute or 15-minute storylet format. Stretched out to almost 2 hours, the whimsy starts to run a bit thin.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Micmacs à tire-larigot

[Screenshot]I have generally a good track record with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I adored Delicatessen and Amélie, and liked City of Lost Children pretty well. He’s struck me as basically a French Terry Gilliam: gorgeous scenery, dark comedy, and a liberal helping of complete weirdshit. And I like Terry Gilliam (or at least, I like most of what he’s done), so generally the similarity has worked out well for me.

I’m afraid that I reservedly have to pan Micmacs. I’d still take it over any given four or five films by any other director, but it is not exactly the top of Jeunet’s game. There’s a lot of whimsy and comedy, but the basic soul of the work feels like it’s gone missing. Part of the problem from where I stand is that Jeunet, even in lighter works, has always kept me pretty off-balance. There’s a mystery, or a heavy shroud of surreality, or at least some incidental force which suggests much greater depth to the work than is apparent on the surface. But in Micmacs, pretty much all is as it seems, and the entirety of the work is mired in reality. There are early hints that there might be some deeper meaning to the shell-casing and the sketch which are Bazil’s smoking guns, but in the end it comes down to a revenge-fantasy thickly larded with political subtext. Yes, the squalor of the scavengers’ camp (and of poverty in general) is beautiful rather than dreary, and there’s a light touch of surreality over the whole work, but ultimately, it’s too relentlessly tied to real-world politics to really fly the way his previous delightful works had.

But lest I give a false impression of this film, let me reiterate that I actually liked this movie quite well. It’s extraordinary when it comes to settings and tone (Jeunet’s cinematography is generally pretty inspired), and at times quite funny, with the campy rivalry elements played to the hilt and the quirky scavengers given ample room to shine. Even working in a somewhat less-than-ideal space, Jeunet does a lot better with this work than I would trust most directors to. If you like Jeunet’s style, this won’t make you feel like your time’s been wasted; but expect something closer to Amélie than to Delicatessen or City of Lost Children. Visually, it bears much in common with the latter, but tonally, it’s definitely in a much more lighthearted and simplistic headspace.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

This is a work perhaps of a very specific historical context, and coming from outside of that context I may perhaps misjudge key points. The setting is very firmly early nineteenth century Paris, with attendant social structures and conventions. On the outside looking in, it appears to be a culture of vastly misplaced priorities; that’s not the barrier to understanding which it might seem to be, though, since Balzac seems to basically concur with that assessment. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the major characters: while Goriot’s blind devotion to his daughters can still be read as fundamentally teetering between farce and tragedy, I found it difficult to know what to make of Rastignac’s character. It’s still quite early in the story when he applies to his family for the means to ascend the aristocracy, a loan which he cannot realistically hope to repay; social status, it is apparent to the reader (and should be apparent to Rastignac) is not remunerative. It seems like there ought to be a parallel between Rastignac’s financial dependency and Goriot’s daughters’, but this theme is not actually explored, and indeed after the initial application for funding, this seeming stain on Rastignac’s character is never mentioned again.

That presumption that Rastignac had incurred a financial obligation to his family colored my entire impression of the book. The engineered match with Victorine, although arguably unethical on entirely different grounds, seems to be all-to-easily discarded: Rastignac’s ostensible purpose in his social climbing is a financially favorable alliance, which would be indeed fulfilled by marriage to Victorine; by my reading he has a familial obligation to make a greater effort in this direction (yes, I may be unromantic). It is entirely possible I am misreading the extent and manner of family expectations in the nineteenth century, but in a way this crucial character issue undercuts a primary theme of the book. Although the book draws a picture of naiveté slowly turned by the corruption of Paris to cynicism, I’d contend that Rastignac is in fact already corrupt, and in almost the exact same way as the world around him which he has ceased to respect, living high and comfortable on the suffering of those closest to him. Perhaps that hypocrisy was intentional, but I didn’t get an indication of it from the story.

To move on from the themes which I found troubling, the work is stylistically well-crafted, with a delightful mastery of rhetoric, even in translation, and a strong sense of mood and minute eye for detail. Our characters and locations, particularly Vauquer’s boarding house and its residents, are drawn with a deft hand towards their appearance and manners. The aristocrats are paradoxically less well-drawn (which is perhaps another reason why I find Rastignac’s unvirtuous obsession with Delphine troublesome; there’s just not a lot to her character), which may be an intentional means towards exhibiting the shallow vapidity of their characters.

Definitely there is a delicious viciousness to this book, but as the previous paragraphs suggest, I’m unclear on how effectively it’s directed. If we’re meant to identify with the social climber, why is he so unsympathetic? If we’re meant to condemn him, doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the extent to which we can give merit to his own disgust?

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s something of an easy target, if you read his unabridged works. He does tend to go off on a ramble, as was particularly evidenced by Les Miserables, whch at the drop of a hat would launch into 50-page discursions on the convent system or the sewers of Paris or the battle of Waterloo or whatnot. This expository prolixity is in evidence in Notre-Dame as well, but is used more to the point, and less haphazardly. In a significant sense, this work is an extended passionate ode to the architecture and urban design of Paris, with the cathedral of Notre-Dame as its nucleus and the mazes of streets and plazas accreted around it under the jurisdiction of the various factions therein: the Church, the King, the University, the seedy underworld elements: on one level, this book is a love song to a Paris-that-was (or a Paris-that-never-was; I’m not sure how well Hugo’s perception of 15th-century Paris actually coincided with the reality).

Under that all is the actual narrative, a moderately tangled romance of far too many characters with peculiar motivations. Particularly the Phoebus subplot, although critical, is a bit damaging to the character of Esmerelda, whose naïve and unshakable fait in a character who has fairly evidently not earned it seems surprisingly stupid for as practical a character as she had previously seemed. The story as a whole is engaging, though, and woven in among the architectural and urban elements to a degree which makes both neither the story nor the illumination of its setting drag.

It’s probably Hugo’s best work, and skillfully constructed. There’s a major revelation at the end which was probably supposed to be dramatic and worked for his audience, but was rather telegraphed from my point of view.

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.