Saturday, March 27, 2010

Persona (1966)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.
In a Nutshell: The identities of an unstable actress and her caretaker begin to overlap.

Persona is an avant-garde classic of identity with a beauty and clarity that has endured mere art-house cliché. Ingmar Bergman, famous for the use of overlapping visages, demonstrates the intertwining souls of two tortured women living in solitude. One is Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has inexplicably gone mute, possibly in protest or anguish. Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is certainly skilled enough to deal with trauma patients. But while caring for Elisabet, she finds herself becoming increasingly vocal with her hopes and fears, while Elisabet intently listens. Both relate moments of intense hurt (Elizabet’s unwanted and deformed child) and ecstasy (Alma’s beach orgy), but find themselves numb to more worldly crises. While holed up in a seaside cottage, the two women begin to share an unexplained emotional link where each experiences the other’s memories and dreams.

As a film of abstract imagery, it is simple to interpret on a literal level; the two women share a bond that gives the other insight to their pain. But Bergman explores a more ambiguous definition of identity through his own cinematic illusion, and the subtext that illusion creates. Persona’s opening montage of disturbing imagery experiments with the power these pictures have on the human perception. The sequence pulls back to reveal a small boy viewing it from a projection; an experience solely of emotion. Elisabet and Alma’s identities are result of their own projections, shaped by the roles society has forced them to play (even within Elisabet’s chosen life of role-playing).

It is never explained why these two women become joined or what each discovers. One could infer two sides of the same woman or a singular identity between two entities. But that is still subjective. Even if no concrete conclusion can be attached to Persona, is a film experience in the truest sense. Bergman senses the pull of the film medium and spins his ideas into haunting visual poetry. Like its characters, it refuses to be pinned down, becoming a new movie for each viewer’s reading. A peerless work of art, no matter what persona it takes.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Face of Another (1966)

Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Mikijiro Hira.
In a Nutshell: A man receives a lifelike mask and undergoes a personality change.

How much of our own selves are internal? Would we still be same person in a different exterior? The Face of Another, based on Kōbō Abe’s novel, confronts these questions within grim contemplation. Its main character is a businessman named Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) whose face was horribly burned in an industrial accident. He seethes in bitterness as co-workers and his skittish wife (Machiko Kyō) try to distance themselves. Seeking professional help, he finds the office of the sinister Dr. Hira (Mikijiro Hira) who uses Okuyama to model a lifelike “mask” that hides his deformity. Okuyama’s new freedom allows him to commit crimes and frame his wife for adultery. Unable to forget the world that cast him aside, The Face of Another challenges Okuyama’s true identity as one of self or circumstance.

Hiroshi Teshigahara has a gracefully control over the film’s surreal tone. Lighting and mise-en-scène shift between shots, giving Okuyama’s world an irregular sensation. The frame’s changes convey shifting identities as Okuyama finds his freedom skewering his morality. Scenes of cities feel ghostly even when crowded. Some may find the scenes of Okuyama and Hira pondering the effects of their experiment to be cumbersome. Though enough of the film’s material evolves organically from Okuyama’s experiences to justify their talk. Their Faustian relationship builds to a chilling conclusion where both find freedom from the experiment.

A parallel story tells of a beautiful girl (Miki Irie) who was scarred from U.S. atomic bombs. She accepts her disfigurement, but the scars of war erode her sanity into tragedy. Japan was still recovering from Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the material’s conceptualization. Okuyama’s story works as an allegory to Japan’s wounded anger or of modern urban torment. One could recoil at the choice human nature takes when faced with no consequence, or find it hypothetical at its most extreme. Even if The Face of Another offers no answers, it explores its subject with fascination that will draw its viewer in. A minimalist beauty and uniquely constructed microcosm of its times.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Directed by Spike Jonze.
Starring John Cusack and Cameron Diaz.
In a Nutshell: A puppeteer discovers and exploits a portal into John Malkovich’s mind.

A furiously inventive take on our celebrity-obsessed culture, with a gleeful execution to match its premise. Being John Malkovich takes a manic comic approach to its identity issues, layering depth in its comedy. A self-pitying puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) finds employment in the Monty Python-esque 7½ floor of an otherwise inconspicuous corporation. After finding rejection at the aggressive Maxine (Catherine Kenner), Craig discovers a portal that allows him inside the mind of actor John Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time. This John Malkovich is portrayed by the real deal and exhibits the usual Malkovich-ian distance and personal amusement. It is to the real Malkovich’s credit that he manages a sly riff on his own persona without incessantly winking at the audience. This Malkovich also becomes the epitome of celebrity; everybody knows and adores him, but can never remember why.

Craig plans to partner with Maxine to offer up Malkovich’s portal to paying customers with two issues in the way. Craig has fallen madly in lust with Maxine while Craig’s wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz, having fun trying to be ugly) finds a sexual awakening inside Malkovich’s head. She falls for Maxine, with reciprocated feeling, but only when Lotte is in Malkovich. Malkovich himself becomes aware of the portal and the movie gives the surreal pleasure of Malkovich inside Malkovich. It only gets weirder from there.

Both director Spike Jonze and scribe Charlie Kaufman dole out the absurdity gradually, letting their ideas breathe before rolling out new ones. It is a well-paced farce and all the main players shine in the madness. Craig eagerly manipulates Malkovich for his own gains. But Cusack manages a relatable desperation in Craig, rather than misguided selfishness. Keener and Diaz are equally effective while exploring new territory in gender relations. Both Jonze and the cast play the story straight rather than marveling at their own oddities. Whatever analogy is grasped, Being John Malkovich is a delightful brain-twister of limitless surprise. Rarely has the metaphysical been so fun.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Directed by Víctor Erice.
Starring Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera.
In a Nutshell: A girl becomes transfixed by the film Frankenstein and seeks its spirit.

A withdrawn little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) watches James Whale’s Frankenstein in her post-Spanish Civil War town. One of the film’s most famous moments depicts the monster drowning a little girl before he is burned alive. Later that night, the little girl obsessively asks her sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) about the monster; "Why did he kill her, and why did they kill him later?" only to hear that everything was staged for the camera. But the sister decides to then trick her into believing the monster is real and Ana can summon his spirit to an abandoned barn. The story is total nonsense, but Ana’s sudden consciousness of death has already taken hold. She calls the monster’s spirit, coinciding with a Republican soldier’s refuge in the barn.

Ana’s pursuit of the monster’s spirit conveys her understanding of the world’s lies to a small child. The movie, her parent’s unstable relationship, and the incriminating identity of “the monster” are all deceptions. Once her ruthless father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) discovers the soldier, Ana’s innocent worldview is torn to shreds. No longer can her childhood perception disguise life’s cruelty and Ana retreats to the wilderness. But even nature does not offer solace, its hidden treachery revealed earlier by a father’s dutiful walk with his daughters.

There is a quiet social commentary to Ana’s non-conformity (a jab at Francisco Franco's rule over Spain), but Spirit of the Beehive is more effective in portraying the melancholy of growing up. The golden-hued Spanish landscape (shot by Luis Cuadrado) is both a world of quiet beauty and daunting expansiveness. Ana’s days consist of routine events that director Víctor Erice magnifies to capture a child’s fascination. But it is Torrent who is the centerpiece. Her fragile beauty and solemn expressions create a presence of fearlessness and naivety. Through her eyes, we can recognize a child’s helplessness to the world’s harshness and the power of own distortions. We leave Ana unguarded by her new worldview, unable to comfort herself with imagination. With Spirit of the Beehive, sometimes our earliest lessons become the hardest.