Wednesday, March 25

Considering "Kirschblüten - Hanami"

I have a friend who says he can imagine nothing more depressing than an old married couple sitting opposite one another and having nothing to say. They've been together too long and know everything about the other. They simply can't surprise or interest each other anymore, so they sit in silence. The only reason they're still together is because they know no alternative. They've become too enmeshed in the ruts of their lives and trying to change anything at this point is simply too difficult.

I've found something more depressing still: a couple which has spent decades together and yet one still fails to begin to understand their spouse. That is the beginning of Cherry Blossoms - Hanami. Rudi and Trudi have raised three children together and shared their lives for years. In this time, Rudi has become comfortable with his life, comfortable to the point of resisting any change or deviation, even visiting his grown children and their families in Berlin. His wife's love for Japan and its culture, especially the butoh dance, is completely outside his comprehension, so he ignores it. It's not that he doesn't love her. He very much does. It's just that Japan is too different, too far from his Bavarian home.

Still, people, even those as unyielding as Rudi, are capable of change, of understanding. It may take a death to propel Rudi into regions unknown, but it is still possible. Cherry Blossoms - Hanami is, in fact, driven by death. Rudi's impending death is announced by two doctors at the beginning of the film, and it is Trudi's death that drives the final half of the movie. Suddenly without the wife he depends upon for so much, Rudi realizes how little he knew her, how much he had missed, and makes a trip to Japan to see the cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji and all those things Trudi only dreamt of visiting herself. He is terrified of the foreign land at first, its lights and rush and press of people, but given time, he becomes more certain in his ventures outside the apartment. With the help of a young orphan girl, he begins to discover the beauty his wife saw in the culture and land.

It all drives to a single scene and dance of perfect beauty. To try and describe it would make it sound ridiculous or sentimental, but it is neither of these things. DiCaprio and Winslet on the door in the Atlantic in weren't this intimate. McGregor and Kidman singing "Come What May" to end Moulin Rouge! weren't this tender. In a word, the scene is perfect.

Beside the already heavy themes of love and death, Cherry Blossoms - Hanami touches upon family as well. Rudi and Trudi's family is not a perfectly happy one. The children have their own lives and want to be free to live them without their parents' interference. There is resentment against Rudi, and none of their children are willing to do much more than fulfill their most basic responsibilities to their parents. There is compassion and love there, too though. They are complex relationships, and I think it's a sure sign of this film's brilliance and the dedicated work of all involved that none of these scenes rings false. Not one feels less than authentic.

Yu, the orphan girl, is the only part of this film that bothers me. Society's misfit who reveals the greatest truths of life in their simple ways? It's a type that irritates me. Then again, I may just be too into philosophy which insists on describing life and death and all that in its own dense, complex language. Yu and Rudi's relationship does reveal one great truth, though. What language do the German grandfather and Japanese teenager share? The same one the young German and Turkish women share in Auf der Anderen Seite: English.

Sunday, March 22

Considering "Auf der Anderen Seite"

My political theology professor has a joke about German intellectuals. Talking with a friend after a lecture by Karl Rahner on the immanent Trinity at a conference in Regensburg, the friend says, "I was disappointed. I thought Herr Professor Rahner was more intelligent than that."

My professor is taken aback. "I thought it was pretty good," he says. "What did you think was wrong?"

"Nothing in particular. I just understood it all."

Germans, you see, think the only intelligent ideas are those which are so hideously complex that they are nigh impossible to understand. I guess I'll have to add the French, Turks and Filipinos to this list of ridiculous nationals because film competitions in all their countries handed out major awards to Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven.

On the basics, I understand what happened. Parents and children had fights, left one another, only realizing later, some times too late, how much they loved each other. People looking for another missed them by seconds or by glancing in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Some people died by accident. It's about revolution and love, life and death, family. What it ultimately wants to say about these things, I have no idea. Absolutely none. Things happen, and the story moves on. People sacrifice for others, and then somone else does something mean and nasty. None of it seems to mean anything, yet I do not want to easily dismiss it as some exercise in nihilism. The director, at least, seems to knows what he's doing. He carefully frames his shots to include exit signs as often as possible. There are Koranic and Biblical allusions. A guy quotes Goethe. It all must mean something so much effort has gone into it.

Still I cannot completely keep back concerns about the complexity. I have no bias against complex things. They stretch the mind more than some simple Jack Chick fable and make repeat readings more rich. The Edge of Heaven, however, is obtuse to the point of impenetrability. There is nothing interesting or compelling in it enough that I would want to spend two hours in front of it and probably another six to begin to come to grips with what it might possibly be saying. What if all the allusions and references and suggestions of depth are just a shield to protect the fact Akin actually has nothing to say? Maybe it's all just a colossal joke to see who is fooled enough to invest the time for a meaning that simply does not exist. Even if I were convinced by all the critics who put this on their top ten lists for 2008, is it worth the effort? Will my life be that more rich for finally understanding this film? Call it the Mulholland Dr. effect: Overwhelming complexity equals neither depth nor meaning.

P.S. Almost all the details in the opening joke are made up. I have no idea who gave the lecture, what it was about, where it was or even whether my professor was there. The only thing I am sure about is the punchline. Forgive me, but I thought the details made it sound better than "So a German friend of my professor tells him that he didn't think this lecture by some German theologian wasn't that good..."

Friday, March 20

Boys in Eyüp

The peak of the photographic medium, for me, is the candid shot. Photography can get no better than permanently imprinting upon 35mm of negative that moment of ridiculous absurdity or instance of perfect beauty that was taken straight from daily life. At its best, photography should put us in a state of wonder at life itself by making clear those precious moments we miss. I like portraits and landscapes, Diane Arbus and Ansel Adams, and all them just fine, but give me Henri Cartier-Bresson and his street photography any day.

By its nature, candid photography is impossible when the subjects are consciously aware of the camera, so it has always frustrated me when I pulled up my camera only for my friend to put on a funny face and strike a pose. Anybody can take that shot, and they do. Just check out Facebook. So it surprised me when I snapped the above picture and more than a few others like it while walking in the Eyüp neighborhood of Istanbul. These kids are not only posing for a shot, they're actively trying to get my attention. What could be more unnatural? A squirrel chasing a dog, I guess, but I digress. Partially, at least, I was humoring the kids, but there's more. There was a vitality and energy in their flailing that impressed me. The picture is not that great compositionally, but I think I caught some small sense of their fun with this shot. The boy whirling around and his friend looking on, bemused, from ahead, there's a unique sense of play there. And that makes me happy. Beside, even Cartier-Bresson's subjects were sometimes aware of the camera in their face, and those shots are still amazing.

Monday, March 16

Considering "Fix"

Seeing a movie is an experience mediated by the environment in which it is seen. Popping in a DVD at home and tucking into the couch with someone you love on a Friday night is a completely different experience from balancing a laptop on your knees during a trans-Atlantic flight and watching some low-quality rip you downloaded is a completely different experience from heading to a midnight release with all the cosplayers. With this in mind, Fix may very well have been the best movie experience I had for the entirety of the Spokane International Film Festival. Not to take anything way from Fix but Revanche is a better film and Kirschblüten - Hanami gives it a good run for its movey. But those films weren't screened in the the Magic Lantern Theatre which has no more than 50 seats and their directors weren't in attendance. Pair that experience with two shorts, one produced completely in Spokane and the other a hilarious piece about some potheads trying to get their dignity back after being robbed and pistol whipped, and Fix was the best time I had at the movies so far this year.

It's really unfortunate that no major distributors picked this up for a nationwide run, but I imagine their marketing departments are thanking them for that. Fix simply cannot be encapsulated in a two-and-a-half-minute trailer there is so much packed into its 93-minute run time. It's a comedy of characters and personalities. It's a drama about the relationship between brothers and depicts drug use as honestly as possible. It's a madcap adventure which propels its heroic trio, the felon Leo, his brother Milo and Milo's girlfriend Bella, all across Los Angeles from Beverly Hills to Venice Beach to Watts in search of $5000 to pay for Leo's upcoming rehab stint and to keep him out of a three-year prison sentence. Focusing on just one of these elements would exhuast a trailer, but it wouldn't honestly present Fix. Try and bring them all in, and no one will know what to make of it.

There is a lot to endear Fix (it's amazing soundtrack and rich, saturated color palette rank especially high for me), but this movie is carried all the way on the strength of its actors and actresses across the board. Shawn Andrews, as Leo, obviously, and most deservedly, gets the greatest attention and credit. He has the most screentime and makes the most of it, charismatic and desperate as the situation demands it and never less than engaging. It's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role or capturing his kinetic portrayal without the handheld camera. By no means, however, does this discount the efforts of any others in this film. Olivia Wilde's Bella and director Tao Ruspoli's Milo are perfect, understated foils to Leo. They're grounded and still keep pace with Andrews without falling into the temptation of overacting to match the him. The many, many supporting characters are more than adequate, too. The bored housewife of a Hollywood producer, the eccentric trust fund kid with delusions of boxing, the cultured chop shop owner, and the lawyer who could out insane Les Grossman from Tropic Thunder are brilliant in their own ways, and I wish they all could have had twice the screentime they received.

The real joy, though, was when Tao Ruspoli, the director, came out for questions at the end. With tact and remarkable patience he put up with a woman who wouldn't stop trying to convince him to set his next film in Spokane. He spoke about his relationship with his brother and the personal inspiration for Fix. When I asked what it was like to work with Olivia Wilde before she was cast in the lead role for Tron 2.0 and "made it," he said they were married. Cool guy. Very cool. I shook his hand afterward. At the end of the festival, it was announced that he had received the award Most Promising Filmmaker. I hope the people who own studios realize this and begin pouring funding his way, actually get him some national distribution. I want to see what else this guy can do.

Wednesday, March 4

Considering "The English Surgeon"

Searching for the essence of a doctor, I believe Socrates would arrive at something along the lines of "one who heals." Continuing with this classical philosophical thread, we could create a syllogism. All neurosurgeons are doctors. Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon. Thus, Henry Marsh is a doctor, one who heals. His devotion to healing is exceptional, going well beyond what we may reasonably expect from doctors, and this is the subject of the documentary The English Surgeon. Since visiting Kiev in 1992 and discovering their appalling medical practices regarding the brain, he has made regular pilgrimages to the capital of the Ukraine to do what he can for the people. He makes diagnoses. He performs surgery. He brings bits actually designed for the skull instead of the over-the-counter carpentry pieces his Kiev-counterpart Igor Kurilets is otherwise forced to work with. He brings hope.

For his efforts, Marsh is celebrated. Kurilets refers to him as "King Henry" once early on. Marian Dolishny, a poor villager from western Ukraine, invests all of his hope and money in Marsh in the hopes of a cure to the epileptic fits which keep him from holding a job and foretell an early death. Marsh's visits to the Ukraine mean a lot to people whose medical system is so screwed up that patients must pay double if they don't want to wait two weeks to arrange an appointment for a critical head scan.

Still, Marsh questions the good he does. He delivers this beautiful line before departing London. "When push comes to shove we can afford to lose an arm or a leg, but I am operating on people's thoughts and feelings...and if something goes wrong I can destroy that person's character ……forever." It may not be rocket science, but it is brain surgery. It is kind of difficult, and the consequences for mistakes are extreme. Marsh himself is wracked with guilt for a surgery he fails on one of his first visits to Kiev, leaving the young girl Tanya significantly worse than before and hastening her death. At the end of the documentary, Marsh visits Tanya's family and her grave. He has no appetite, but the entire family is gathered together for as fine a meal as they can muster. The mother is nothing but grateful for Marsh's work. She holds neither grudge nor resentment.

I understand that mistakes happen. I understand, too, that surgery is a difficult practice, never offering a guarantee of success. Like Tanya's mother, I admire Marsh for his attempts and can forgive him for his failures, though he can't forgive himself. Even if he can't always fulfill the hope his arrival incites, Marsh does good. Still, I have difficulties with Marsh. It may be presumptuous to question this respected surgeon who has worked his profession decades longer than I have even been alive, but I have problems with the length to which he draws out his reliance on hope. Sandwiched between Dolishny's awake surgery and the visit to Tanya's family, Marsh meets a young woman who comes for a second opinion after complaining of minor symptoms. He takes a brief look at the scans and tells Kurilets, in English, that she has six months. No surgery or treatment is possible, but Marsh convinces him to tell her nothing in Ukranian. It's better to live with hope he says. It was the emotional peak of the movie for me despite following and preceding such intense scenes. Watching her sit passively, cheerfully, while the doctors discuss whether to tell her the truth in a language she doesn't understand is heartbreaking. Let her know of the inevitable and allow her to prepare for it? Hide the truth and protect her from the terror of inexorable death? I feel Marsh comes up with the wrong answer.

Even if I'm right about this though, it is a small failure in such a life and career. The successes still stand on their own. The failures leave no mark upon them.