Rightwing Film Geek

2003 TOP 10 — Number 4

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CITY OF GOD (Fernando Meirelles, Brazil)

CITY OF GOD won multiple Oscar nominations (including script and director) and is taking advantage of the publicity with a minor theatrical re-release, at least in Washington and so I imagine in some other markets too, giving people who missed it (and shame on you) another chance to catch it. (Though its video release just got pushed back a few months, and not for the first time, now to June.)

And that additional chance really should be taken advantage of, because of the four movies among my Top 10 that are in foreign languages, the two from Europe will not be to everybody’s taste, I acknowledge. But the two films from Brazil — CITY OF GOD and BUS 174 — are movies that I’d heartily recommend to anybody, even people who rarely see foreign-language flicks. BUS 174, as I’ve said, begins with the form of a “Cops” episode, while CITY OF GOD is basically a gangster film. One of the most dazzlingly directed, most powerful and brilliantly structured gangster films ever (think GOODFELLAS … and yes I do intend that comparison; CITY OF GOD *is* that good). But a gangster film, so it’s well within most people’s comfort zone (as IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON are not) if they would just go see it.

The title does not refer to St. Augustine’s theology, but to the name of a Rio de Janeiro favela, which, in the course of the movie’s sprawling 20-year, dozen-character scope, breeds an army of killers, drug lords and thieving children (the three categories by no means mutually exclusive). It begins with several teens in the 1950s, and follows their story for about 30 minutes until it ends with a police crackdown following a massacre at a whorehouse, after which the three central characters — Clipper, Goose and Shaggy all take three different routes — religion, respectable poverty and crime. But then CITY OF GOD shifts focus and we see this sequence has been there primarily to get to the heart of the emotional situation among some younger children on the fringes. These kids survive into adulthood to provide the engine for the main plot — principally Rocket (the somewhat bland central character who nibbles around the edge of the gangster-drug lifestyle), Ze Pequeno (who never really grows up but comes to run the favela as a teen by sheer ruthlessness) and Benny (the entrepreneur who’s down with murder, but only instrumentally and so is a restraint on the psycho). The children have become the men.

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It’s as if, on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” director Fernando Meirelles had been a contestant for “Authors” and had to do “LOS OLVIDADOS in the style of Martin Scorsese.” This is a good thing, by the way; the hyper-caffeinated style in CITY OF GOD is just breathtaking and entertaining as all get-go — the orange-clay look of the 50s segment, a bravura one-shot dissolve through the history of a single room in the favela over decades, the repeated freeze-frames, a 360-degree stop-motion shot, the great sequence of Benny’s “leaving the life” party. And it’s not all that Old Razzle-Dazzle. Mereilles understands the importance of counterpoint. In the midst of Benny’s party, which is basically all hurtling, exhilirating “flow,” the shot I most remember (maybe more than any other single shot in a movie this year) is the scene’s one moment of “ebb.” Mereilles holds for several seconds, but it feels like an eternity, on the face of Ze Pequeno (think the Joe Pesci character in GOODFELLAS), as it dawns on him that all his machismo isn’t getting him the thing he wants most. And as the dance floor lights flash, the opening bars of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” swell up (oh … hoh-hoh-hoh …). The look on the face of actor Leandro Firmino da Hora, a nonprofessional like most of the (terrific) cast, says everything and nothing at the same time.

But CITY OF GOD is more than an empty exercise in cinematic fireworks. One of the keys to seeing what it is about is to notice how few of the significant deaths (and there are a *lot* in this movie) come deliberately from an expected source. Neither Ze Pequeno nor Ned the vigilante kills the other, though their feud is what drives the last hour of the movie. Probably the most-memorable death is a botched attempt to kill someone else. Your downfall is never what you expect, precisely because you’re on guard against that. But life forces so many unthinking and habitual actions on us that we can never quite know what will turn out to have been the important ones. “Life can be lived forward, but can only be understood backward,” Kierkegaard said. One’s character and a polity are defined by what they take as ordinary and taken-for-granted, *not* what is self-consciously agonized over. That’s the reason for the initially deliberately misleading gaps in the narrative (e.g., we’re at first cued to think a massacre at a brothel is the work of the police).

Although most of the central characters meet the fate you expect, the film becomes richer on second viewing (the classic test for a great-vs.-merely-good movie) because you see each man sow the seeds of his doom, but he’s never cognizant of it and Meirelles does nothing to make *us* cognizant of it on first viewing. But (and here’s the movie’s genius), in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. One of the great strengths of CITY OF GOD, and what allows it to do this, is that it creates a real sense of a teeming world beyond the edges of the screen.

For example, there is a bus conductor whom we see for a moment at about the midpoint but are casually told “it’s not time for him to enter the story yet.” But he becomes the central engine for the third act. The amazing screenplay juggles a huge number of characters and incidents without ever losing focus or getting confused. One central character is killed by someone only seen on the periphery in three or four moments (which the film re-plays and thus re-codes for second viewing). Survival in CITY OF GOD is at one and the same time unpredictable while living it, while seemingly perfectly predictable in hindsight or with perfect knowledge (which as limited mortals, we don’t have; and even apart from that, most of our actions are habitual and not self-consciously thought-through).

citygodphotog.jpgThe ending, and the fates of the two or three characters may seem arbitrary, but in some ways that’s the point — the life of sin leaves so much ruin in its wake that the sin that comes back to haunt you isn’t the one you’d been looking out for (see also, MENACE II SOCIETY), nor necessarily is it the worst sinner that suffers most (ditto). This “fickle finger of fate” theme common to gangster-drug movies — that kind of lifestyle, shall we say, does not offer security and stability as one of its benefits. Or as the hit man in Wong Kar-wai’s FALLEN ANGELS put it: “someone else decides who lives or dies.”

There is one harrowing set-piece involving some child thieves (think the Travolta-Jackson apartment invasion at the start of PULP FICTION … only instead of college students, they’re kids of 8 or 9). It might sound craven to use children as symbols of innocent vulnerability, but by the point in CITY OF GOD where this happens, nobody watching the movie could be under any illusions about these kids’ innocence — and Mereilles has these kids turn up later at some rather important points. Still, the scene goes on for a while while Ze Pequeno recites Ezekiel 25:17 and the tears start to flow. It’s not gory exactly (in fact, for a film shot as much brio as CITY OF GOD, there’s no fetishizing of blood or gore that I recall). But it’s not for the psychologically squeamish — I saw about a dozen people walk out at this scene in my three viewings of CITY OF GOD.

Plus I knew I was seeing a work of genius when the flashback began with a soccer game and everybody can dribble and move like a mofo, but the goalkeeper absolutely stunk. THAT’S Life In Brazil for you.

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February 8, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

2003 TOP 10 — Number 5

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IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)

Now, to the capsule I’ve been dreading having to write since I started this blog. Where to begin? With the 9-minute unblinking, unbroken shot of the anal rape of Monica Bellucci, with her face in closeup before the rapist smashes it into the concrete? With the homosexual S&M club called The Rectum (and don’t think for one second there aren’t 100 references to anal sodomy and worse in the dialogue)? With the early sensual attack on your ears by the music — a loud hum cycling up and down monotously like a sine curve? With a camera that, for the first 50 minutes, never stops moving, and spends much of that time spinning, like the strobe lights at a disco? Or with an overall narrative trajectory that actually gets more depressing as the subject matters becomes more palatable?

Just sitting through this film is in some way an act of masochism, as its existential “success” depends on getting your mental ass kicked and feeling drained and wiped out by the film’s sensual assault (CQ) in its first 15 minutes. People with any capacity to be turned off a priori by the subject matter of fictional images will HATE this movie. And they should. And you know who you are … why are you still reading?

So … why did my friend Scott Tobias link to my site by calling me the only Catholic moralist who loved IRREVERSIBLE, which 95 out of 100 sane people will find morally indefensible? Precisely *because* it is morally indefensible. Or rather, because it depicts a universe that has turned to shit (CQ), because it depicts both sin and its wages unblinkingly, because it ruthlessly removes and/or undermines every bit of hope. In short, because IRREVERSIBLE is an 97-minute taste of Hell. And in Hell, there is nothing but hell.

I first saw both IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, a couple of days apart. These two very dissimilar French-language films were my two favorites among the movies I saw there that year, and it was as though they commented on each other and were providentially intended to be seen together. They both present a world of sin, La Cinema De Boue, but in the latter film’s world, there is grace (see upcoming capsule at #3) and in the former’s there is not. An irredeemable vision of an irreversible Hell is not the greatest achievement one can discharge, but I have never seen a film discharge it better than this one.

irreversibleknife.jpgThere is no question that IRREVERSIBLE is nihilistic, but it is not a nihilism of the Western-preferred variety — what Allan Bloom called “nihilism with a happy ending.” This is the real, nauseating thing. The fact that so many people hate this film and that its notorious rape scene has prompted mass walkouts since its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival almost validates the film to me. Or maybe you should dismiss me on the grounds that my single all-time favorite film is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, basically from a brawl and a murder in the bowels of the homosexual S&M club to how the murder came about to the motivation for it (the rape scene) and then the previous relationship between the three principals — basically girlfriend (Bellucci), boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and best buddy (Albert Dupontel). In MEMENTO, the backwards-chronology story structure, and the way it constantly recoded what we had earlier seen, was used to put us sympathetically inside the head of a man with no memory. But in IRREVERSIBLE that same recoding is used for almost the opposite — and completely pitiless — purpose. It makes a story that, told in chronological order would be just a straight downward spiral, absolutely heart-breaking, because even when the three principals have happy or normal moments, we know they’re doomed, see the mistakes they’re making, are powerless to stop them.

irreversibleparty.jpg The true kick-in-the-gut scenes are actually not the notorious ones in the film’s first half, but the sedate ones in IRREVERSIBLE’s second half. Seeing a woman as beautiful as Bellucci all aglow in the final moments retroactively raised the stakes on what we had seen — any decent man would want things to come out differently. When Cassel acts like a drug-toking teenager at a party, we share Bellucci’s frustration with him — and on 2nd viewing, even more so because of the revelation at the film’s end, which makes the portrayal of the Peter Pan Syndrome in Cassel bite harder. So you get frustrated at him, and cheer her as she walks out of the party. Then you remember what you’ve just seen happen “next.”

In one of George Will’s greatest columns, he printed some of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics (though he had to use print-euphemisms like “p–sy” to satisfy Newsweek) to make the point that one of the ways that cultural extremity advances is that people, in interest of maintaining decorum, will talk about it in vague euphemism and thus be false about it. Catherine MacKinnon once made more-or-less the same point on an ABC News special, that engaging pornography required her to engage in it herself in some sense, using words like “ass” (she noted the immediate snicker from the audience) and thus reinforce pornography’s effects. And to bring this back to IRREVERSIBLE, the film’s structure effectively torpedoes this problem of extreme subject matter. But IRREVERSIBLE goes beyond not being pornography, rather it’s the very opposite. Noe systematically denies the audience even the pleasures, however morally dubious, of pornography.

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Consider the start of the final dramatic scene, a nude Bellucci and a nude Cassel are curled together asleep in bed. It is the closest thing the film has to a turn-on scene (it’s bathed in a warm, golden light, and the two actors, lovers in real life, have an easy rapport and affection). But before it can do anything for you, Bellucci says she had a dream of a long red corridor (we wince) and there are several lines referring to revenge and some playful slaps between the two (wince again). In fact throughout, the film has 100 foreshadowings and allusions throughout to the events of future past.

Then look at the two most notorious scenes in IRREVERSIBLE. Our first view of the beautiful Bellucci is of her battered body, and while our second view is more conventionally tittilating (she’s walking away from the camera in a skimpy dress), we know better than she does the fate we’re helplessly following her toward. The rape scene itself, people walked out on it because they sensed its unredeemed sadism. But making sadism unredeemed is far more moral than aestheticizing it in the name of Good Taste, making it like the rape scene in the film of TESS, which, in the name of Good Taste, made the act look like having a wart removed. IRREVERSIBLE’s rape scene has to, in conventional dramatic-arc terms, go on for far FAR too long, in order to make its point — which is to take the logic of extremity past the point of any possible pornographic pleasure. Good.

In the same way, consider the descent into The Rectum, where dozens of men are committing every conceivable manner of sexual degradation. But between the dark lighting schemes, the redness of the little light that is there, and the camera twirling upon itself as it darts through the club, so we never even have a sense of which way is up — between all these things, we can never get a good look at any of the nudity or sex. Oh, we get a fleeting glimpse of this and that, but almost as soon as we figure out that, e.g., “this guy’s masturbating,” we lose sight of him, lose any ability to be turned on by what we’re seeing, and thus get more frustrated. The lighting only becomes dimly adequate for when the action becomes as unerotic as imaginable and for one glimpse of a character that turns the movie inside out (though you might not realize that on first viewing). From the Rectum sequence, we remember clearly only the mind-bending camera work, the monotonous hum of the music, and images that even if we’re of a mind to remember with a smile, we can’t. By giving us too much of the rape and not enough of the S&M club, Noe gives us a major achievement — a film with outre subject matter that cannot be consumed as tittilation.

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So relentless is Noe in denying his audience and characters any hope or grace that he even undermines the logic of revenge and self-defense that motivates Cassel and Dupontel in their hunt for Bellucci’s rapist in The Rectum. The man they kill is not the guilty party — a fact that it’s tough to see without a second viewing (mull over what you think *that* might mean). But … he *is* a rapist, and the men surrounding him egg him on in his threat to sodomize Cassel. Until Dupontel saves him. And then goes too far in what is one of the most blood-curdling images I’ve ever seen that, like the rape of Bellucci, goes on for far FAR too long — about three fire extinguisher plunges into the face too long. Yes, it’s a fake face, but still, it’s one of the few things in The Rectum we see very clearly at all. Dupontel’s murder is committed basically as an innocent bystander stopping a rape, which makes problematic a minor detail in the rhyming scene of the rape of Bellucci. Other than the two principals, it’s the only thing in the earlier scene for the entire nine minutes.

But is there a point to it all? Absolutely. The pattern of the scenes basically follow a slide of basically increasing degeneracy. The film’s credo, stated at the beginning and (unfortunately and redundantly) the end, is “Time destroys all things,” which isn’t very profound as a moral but does tell us that the film’s end-to-beginning events represent a decline. And what is time destroying? In chronological order (thus the reverse of IRREVERSIBLE’s presentation): children and family, affectionate (if unmarried) sex, adolescent sex talk, party animal promiscuity, rape, prostitution, revenge, consensual gay sex, homosexual rape, and (finally) sexualized murder.

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Or in Catholic terms, from the natural to the unnatural. From the co-creation of life to anonymous fist-fucking. And Noe draws this comparison in many other ways between the first and last scene — the music degenerates from Beethoven’s Seventh to that siren-like hum; the lighting scheme goes from full and bright to dark and dank; we see the pinwheel shape that, embodied in the camera, made the Rectum scene so punishing, only now in the form of a water sprinkler on a verdant lawn. From life to death. Before going to absolute white, the film even spins and looks straight up for the only time. And so, in the beginning there was light. But at IRREVERSIBLE’s beginning, the camera is doing so much spinning that we can hardly know which way is up, as though even the structure of the universe is disintegrating. I’m not just referring to The Rectum, but also the apartment block next to it where the film’s first scene takes place — the spinning camera is seemingly free of even gravity and so a coherent cinematic space never emerges. But it all ends with two ugly people we don’t know¹ musing about how there are no bad deeds, just deeds. Beyond good and evil.
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¹ They’re actually characters from Noe’s earlier film I STAND ALONE, but unless you know that, there’s no way to tell or figure it out.

February 8, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment