Friday, November 30, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1969)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Werner Herzog
Cinematography by Thomas Mauch
Original Music by Florian Fricke
Film Editing by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus

Starring
Helmut Doring 
Paul Glauer
Gisela Hertwig
Hertel Minkner
Gertrud Piccini
Marianne Saar
Brigitte Saar
Gerd Gickel
Erna Gschwendtner
Gerhard Maerz
Alfredo Piccini
Erna Smollarz
Lajos Zsarnoczay
Pepi Hermine

In a bleak land, a man in a suit barricades himself into his office. The man in the suit ties another man to a chair as a hostage. The hostage just snickers to himself  as though he's playing some prank. Outside the gated  building which contains the office, a group of seven or eight people demand the release of the hostage. One woman demands that she get her shoe back which, I guess, she left inside the gated building. I get the impression that she lost it in some kind of rush to leave the building, but I'm not sure. The protesters throw stuff at the building and jeer and make jokes. The man in the suit threatens that he'll do something terrible to the hostage. The overall impression is that this is some sort of institution for the insane, maybe the criminally insane, but it's never entirely clear. One is left with a "lunatics running the asylum" vibe, but things become even stranger.

For one thing, the place isn't portrayed as being in any particular geographical locale. It's a German language film, yes, but no references are made to German cities or history or society or politics. The movie seems to take place in some desolate region where the institution is the only human outpost for miles and miles. No clear reasons are given for the uprising (if that's what's going on) of the inmates (if they are in fact inmates).

The institution is possibly meant to be self-sufficient. There's a barn with chickens, pigs, and animal feed. There are also plants, possibly a garden. The institution is surrounded by a barren, rocky landscape with only a few dead, twisted trees sticking up out of the ground. The institution seems to be isolated from any kind of larger civilization. However, there is a road running by the place, and at one point a woman driver stops to ask for directions. Maybe the institution isn't some isolated human outpost in a desolate world at all. Maybe it's just the people at the institution who've come to see themselves as apart from the world.

The rebellious inmates tease each other, have food fights, and torment a pair of stick-sword wielding blind men. The two blind men even duel each other with their wooden swords. It made me think of the blind swordsman Zatoichi--and then it hit me: did Zatoichi ever fight another swordsman who was blind? I still need to find the answer to that.

At one point, the inmates try to journey across the rocky wasteland, but they seem discouraged, and go back to the institution.

Potted flowers are lit on fire. A car is made to move in an endless circle with no driver at the wheel. Chickens and pigs are killed for fun and not for food. The inmates threaten to burn down the gated building, the barn, the whole place.

The climax of the film comes when one of the characters decides to just run away from the institution, until they encounter a dead, twisted tree. This character confronts the tree, accusing it of pointing rudely, and refuses to budge from the standoff until the tree stops pointing. I was left with the impression that this character and that tree were going to be in some sort of stalemate for all time if that's what it takes.

To say that Even Dwarfs Started Small depicts a world gone mad is not helpful. Yes, I had those words on my mind throughout the movie, but what happens on screen also seems to suggest that certain kinds of  conflict, by their very nature, demand the consent of all parties. If someone decides they no longer believe in the overall situation, then they might just be able to leave, to run off into the horizon. But you would probably have to be insane to do that.

All of the actors in the movie are dwarfs. The world of the movie seems too large for the people who inhabit it. It's as though all the people who were bigger than the dwarfs died and left them with a world filled with buildings and technology built at a scale beyond convenient use. It's a scale with a certain kind of cruelty involved, and maybe that's the source of the madness which engulfs everyone.

Even Dwarfs Started Small begins with an interrogation scene which suggests that, at some point, a larger authority of some kind eventually intervened and squashed the inmates's rebellion. But the movie never returns to this opening scene. We are left with a framing device where part of the frame has been obliterated. It's as though the madness of the inmates has even reached back through time, to the beginning of the movie, and obliterated the intervention of the authorities. Madness confounds all cause and effect. There's no reinstatement of the status quo, and one is left with feelings both exciting and unsettling.

Even Dwarfs Started Small trailer:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: FRAGILE MACHINE (2005)

Produced by Aoineko 

Art, Animation, Direction, and Music by Ben Steele
Story by Ben Steele, Darren Dugan,Cliff Hockersmith, John Pickney
Music by John Banks, John Hockersmith,Cliff Hockersmith, Ben Steele, Jay Steinberg

Voice Cast:
Xi as Leda Nea
Molly Pickney as Goho/Mary Nea



"If a technological feat is possible, man will do it. Almost as if it's wired into the core of our being."
                  ---Major Motoko Kusanagi in the movie Ghost in the Shell (1995)   

" Only her soul is real."
                  ---narrator in the movie Fragile Machine (2005)



There's a cyborg woman, alone in her high tech apartment. She looks like a cyborg, that doll-like appearance familiar to anyone who's ever seen the anime Ghost in the Shell, but it's kind of hard to tell. This is a computer graphics movie, and so all of the human characters look like she does: cyborg dolls, simplified, stylized, maybe even mass-produced. Are they products or people or both? This woman is named Leda Nea, and she sits up in bed, and contemplates the futuristic metropolis she is part of--once again, similar to Motoko Kusanagi, the Major, from Ghost in the Shell. There are some children's toys in the apartment, and this is a departure from Ghost in the Shell: the Major was a committed loner, a hyper-individualist who wanted to transcend her own being, confound the categories of male and female biology and gender identity, slip the bonds of collectivist military/corporate/bureaucratic culture, and explore the new depths and new heights of a transhumanist existence. Leda Nea has children's toys but no child. The implication is that she is quite alone and, in another difference from the Major, not by choice. She once had a little daughter, but now she's gone.


We see a shimmering ultimate dream city built out of computer graphics and  photographic references of cities from the real world (looks a bit like Los Angeles, maybe some shots from Tokyo and Seoul)--a mixture of the real and the digital inhabited by doll-like video game avatar-people. The city has been constructed by the impenetrably named Göln Remedios corporation as a combination city state/executive headquarters/work site/massively scaled social engineering experiment. Göln Remedios built the city to be one with the company, and all who work there are both citizens and employees. Göln Remedios's main business concerns seem to be robotics and AI, but now they have embarked on a new venture: the merger of artificial and biological systems. The virtual people who live in this city seem to already be cyborgs in the sense of being humans whose lives are dependent upon high technology, and their uniform, doll-like appearance may even be meant to suggest some kind of assembly line/vat grown origin for the city state's population as a whole. The company has everyone under intense surveillance: visual, audio, biometrics--every man, woman, and child has been rigorously quantified down to the ATCG units of their genetic makeup. GR has an entire population as a pool for experimentation, and it wants to take robotics, cybernetics, and AI to the next level. They want to locate the human soul, in situ, extract it, and insert it into an artificial robot body. The company wants to achieve the impossible synthesis of science and spirituality, magic and technology, and, in the process, give birth to a new being and a new conception of nature. To that end, they choose an experimental subject: Leda Nea, who is revealed to be a scientist working on something called Project Zero for GR.

Leda Nea receives a new dictate from the company. She will report to a laboratory facility, sign a legal release form (in a mostly digital, heavily cyborged future, you know something sinister is afoot when your bosses have you sign an actual piece of paper . . .), and be subjected to bizarre and horrific experiments which will rip the soul from her biological body and put it into a robot body.

The process by which the company plans to remove her soul is rather vague: do they mean the soul as a poetic way of referring to the central nervous system? Or is the company actually trying to capture the irreducible spirit that is spoken of in religious and metaphysical traditions? Is it both? Is a "soul" electricity, chemistry, fluids, neurons in unique configurations? Or is there something more, something transcendent, transpersonal, some spark of divine mojo-substance? Maybe it's none of these things, just a fantasy. We're talking about a movie, after all. But the movie insists on its own reality, and that fictional reality seems to posit the soul as all of the above: CNS, spirit, nerves, brain, blood, electricity, chemistry all bound up together in a fantastic braid of consciousness, spirit, and being.

GR, in the grand tradition of such sinister megacorporations as Yoyodyne, Soylent Corporation, Umbrella Pharmaceuticals, Tyrell Corp, Weyland-Yutani, Cyberdyne, and Omni Consumer Products is about to unleash a disaster of biblical proportions. What, exactly, is the business plan here? Oh, that's right, they're going to spearhead new markets in soulular extraction processes. Gotcha. Gonna make bulk cheddar in that arena, no doubt. But then again, is GR's plan really so insane when measured against the cancerous infinite growth fantasies of predatory real world corporations?Why not soul extraction? A soul deserves better than such an imperfect vessel as the human body. In fact, you could say that putting a soul inside a custom-designed robotic body is doing God's work by building a more perfect temple for the spirit. And, now that I think about it, once the process itself is perfected and passes into the public domain, you'll probably see the birth of "organic" and "indie" soul extractors and "artisan" and "hand-crafted" robot body boutiques. I'm already looking forward to this future!

The dark arts of soul extraction, as portrayed in the movie, resemble some kind of Frankenstein meets Torquemada by way of Bush/Cheney Era torture policy and Jack Bauer kind of torture: stripped naked, Leda Nea is hooked up to wires and tubes and violently shocked. Leda flails about a padded cell (visual reference to the chamber where the Eva Unit goes berserk in Neon Genesis Evangelion), unable to dash her brains out, and thereby end her suffering, she has no choice but to have her soul removed and loaded into a robot body that's strongly reminiscent of  the sex bots from that Bjork video All Is Full of Love.

Leda Nea, in her new robot body, is isolated in an Edenic garden prison where she tries to escape and is pursued and killed by sentry robots only to be reborn as a vengeful spirit complete with Tetsuo-esque psionic powers of mass destruction. Leda Nea obliterates the city but, in an intriguing twist, she does not annihilate the technological basis of GR's city state. Rather, she seemingly heralds a new kind of life-form: bizarro serpent-angels stitched together out of robot body parts and powered by sparks of the divine essence.

Or something like that. Fragile Machine takes a turn for the apocalyptic, but instead of total destruction of the techno-order, it's more like a synthesis of spirit and robo-technology. The surreal imagery of the gravity-defying  robotic serpent-angels is something to behold as they twist their way through the clear skies above the drowned city which is now being reconstituted as a new civilization at movie's end.

Fragile Machine is a spiritual science fiction apocalypse--a fantasy of how a corrupt world ends, and a new world is born from the heart of a transcendent savior entity. The corrupt world is identified with mindless conformity, rule by transnational megacorporations, and the ruthless quantification of and experiments upon human life. Like many apocalyptic mythologies, it sets up a number of dualistic conflicts: Leda Nea is a rebellious woman opposed to the cold, oppressive masculinity of the GR scientists and their drone sentries; a lone individual battles the colonial corporate citizen; plants and animals are at war with robots and technological infrastructure; and, most importantly, the irreducible soul or spirit is portrayed as being in conflict with the pitiless, Orwellian systems of surveillance, quantification, and corporate-capitalist processes of standardization, mass production, and profit driven economies of scale.

These are all familiar themes found in many science fiction films, TV shows, comic books, animation, and literary works. What's interesting is how Fragile Machine uses these dualistic oppositions to portray a new synthesis of technology and spirit. After all, this is a computer generated movie. Although the production is quite small and independent minded, it still uses hardware and software developed by large scale corporate entities, so it is interesting that the movie's thematic progression reflects the physical means of production: a synthesis of independent moviemaking vision and corporation-derived tools results in a movie which suggests the monstrous edifice of GR may only be redeemed if it is put at the disposal of a single, autonomous soul with a transcendent vision. It's an intriguing mixture of the religious motif of apocalypse with stock elements of dystopian science fiction.

 You can also think of it as a mash-up of different tropes and visuals from different strains of science fiction: cyberpunk, dystopia, transhumanism, Asimov's Laws of Robotics, stories of robots becoming sentient, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and various anime and live action works such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, The Matrix, Robocop, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark CityNeon Genesis Evangelion, and, of course, Metropolis and Blade Runner. The movie wears its influences on its chest, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is the kind of movie where the more you get the influences behind it the more you can get out of it, I would say. This is appropriate to the spiritual dimension of the work, as well. Think of this movie as a sermon in the church of cinema, a kind of theological commentary on various themes in the "sacred texts" of science fiction movies, TV shows, literature, comic books, and animation.

 It also incorporates the aesthetic values of CG videogames and cinema--Final Fantasy, Parasite Eve, Resident Evil, and even Xenogears all come to mind. Fragile Machine is the cinema of people who grew up with immersive videogaming experiences--people who fully recognize the artistic qualities of videogames, and derive as much satisfaction and influence from gaming narrative products as more traditionally minded filmmakers would from Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu, Resnais, Imamura, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Leone, Kubrick, early Coppola, Scorsese, Carpenter, and/or Romero.

Fragile Machine is definitely a visual spectacle, incorporating destruction and violence, but it does not wallow in the mayhem like some movies and games do. It's digging for something deeper by attempting to articulate a spiritual/metaphysical vision that, paradoxically, seems to grow out of the advancement of seemingly non-spiritual, non-supernatural information, engineering, cybernetics, AI, and robotics technologies. The movie seems to portray the infusion of spirit into technology which results in a being which is both spiritual and technological in nature.

As a skeptic, I resist Fragile Machine's dive into the supernatural, but on a purely aesthetic level, I admired the eclectic mix of science fiction and apocalypse. I don't think the movie is meant to push some sort of religious agenda. It's a movie first and foremost, at most a sermon in the Chruch of Cinema, and a dazzling make believe story. But I would be intrigued to see Aoineko and collaborators tackle more of a hard sci-fi story that doesn't lean on the supernatural elements as much.




10 Minute Version of Fragile Machine:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: SIGNS OF LIFE (1968)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Werner Herzog
Cinematography by Thomas Mauch
Music by Stavros Xarchakos
Edited by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus and Maxi Mainka

Starring
Peter Brogle
Wolfgang Reichmann
Athina Zacharopoulou
Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg

Sometime during World War II, three German soldiers recovering from injuries are assigned to light duty guarding an ancient fortress on a Greek island. The ancient fortress is full of stone faces. The trio of soldiers finds themselves with nothing of consequence to do. One of them is a scholar of ancient Greek, and spends his days deciphering the writing inscribed on old stones. Another one amuses himself with trying to exterminate all the cockroaches infesting the island. And the third, Stroszek, decides to get married to a local Greek woman. The three soldiers and the Greek woman create among themselves a wonderful little community. You wouldn't even know this was a WWII picture if it weren't for the military uniforms. These four spend their time loafing, drinking, eating, and idly fantasizing about insignificant things. Nothing much seems to happen until Stroszek loses his mind.

Stroszek goes mad when he is confronted with a vista of windmills while on patrol duty assigned to him as busy work. Maybe he is possessed by the ghost of Don Quixote. Stroszek decides to seize the ancient fortress and threaten to blow up an ammunition storage house located on the grounds. The German army, shocked and confused by all this, tries to figure out how to contain the situation.

Signs of Life is the strangest World War II movie I have ever seen. But maybe it's not really a World War II movie as I usually think of it. On the DVD commentary track, director Werner Herzog says that he wanted to make a film featuring Germans who served in World War II not because they believed in the Nazi ideology, but because they faced execution if they did not serve. Removed from the situation of having to fight for Germany, the three soldiers behave in much the way anyone would if they were tourists on vacation in the Greek islands or some other breathtakingly beautiful place.


So why does Stroszek go mad? Maybe it's something to do with how the war has already worked its way inside him, into his soul. This madness of war has perhaps combined with his resentment, shame, and anger towards the state of his native Germany, and so he seizes the fort and puts himself in opposition to his own army. Like Don Quixote, he becomes a man without any particular national identification, but rather someone who seeks to go beyond the limits of an oppressive social structure, and to seek unlimited adventure free of the restraints of reason and reality. Madness liberates Stroszek even if his rebellion is ultimately doomed to failure. For a little while, at least, he is totally free to be the master of his own vision of life and heroic struggle.

Signs of Life is one of those movies that you could call deceptively simple. It's not very long, just barely an hour and a half, and it seems to tell a very strange story in a straightforward way. Stroszek's madness is the most dramatic thing that happens, but many of the early scenes of the movie show the idle good times of the three Germans and the Greek woman as they live on the fortress grounds. These early scenes invite the viewer into the lazy, enchanted rhythms of their lives in a way that reminded me of the beach interlude in the Japanese gangster film Sonatine.

In Sonatine, yakuza seeking to escape the fallout of a violent gang war take refuge on a little used stretch of beach where they begin to relax and play childish games and stage silly dances. The hardened thieves and killers seem to shed their old lives and revert to a more innocent state. The old ways reassert themselves when an assassin shows up to kill one of their number.

Signs of Life also involves a similar disruption of an idyllic state. Three men and one woman thought they could, maybe, escape the harsh realities of a world convulsed with mass slaughter. Maybe they could have, but then one of them woke up to a strange spirit of rebellion, and the idyll was no more.


Signs of Life trailer:



Saturday, November 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: HUNGER (2008)

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen
Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, B.S.C.
Film Editor Joe Walker
Production Designer Tom McCullough
Sound Designer Paul Davies
Original Music by David Holmes with Leo Abrahams
Produced by Laura Hastings-Smith and Robin Gutch

Starring 
Michael Fassbender
Liam Cunningham


1981. Maze Prison, Northern Ireland.

Night: there's a protest in the streets, people banging the asphalt with pot lids.

Later: morning: there's a middle-aged man in a house on a quaint little street in Ireland. His dutiful wife makes him a heart attack breakfast, and then he goes out to his car, gets down like he's doing push-ups, but, no, he's just checking under his car for a bomb. No bomb. He looks up and down the street. Presumably, he sees nothing. He gets in his car, drives to work.

This middle-aged man is a cop of some rank. We see excerpts from his day having to do with his job which mostly involves beating imprisoned Irish Republican Army soldiers with his bare knuckles, but we don't see much of the actual beatings until later. The man's knuckles are bloody, raw. He stands outside in the snow, sucking down cigarette smoke, his uniform shirt showing visible sweat stains. He seems to be carrying a terrible anxiety within him that could break out at any moment. Maybe that anxiety fuels his violence.

When you're angry, you don't feel anxious. But what about those moments where there's no one to beat? What happens when you're alone with your anxiety, maybe even your guilt? He's less a cop, and more of a prison guard/torturer. But this man is no villain, no fascist pig, no incarnation of evil. He is a human who is being worn down by his job, by the ongoing stress of being a violent agent of state power. He is, in the bold moral perspective of the film Hunger, just as degraded by the oppressive tactics of the British government as the imprisoned Irish Republicans using their piss and shit as tools of protest inside their cells.

This is all a set-up, in a sense, to dramatize the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, but it is more than that.

Yes, this movie is on the side of the men in the cells, but it also shows how state violence degrades its agents and perpetrators, and how murder is unleashed on both sides of a bitter, intractable conflict.

That middle-aged man? Well, (SPOILER WARNING) he gets a bullet in the brain from an IRA assassin. His violent death is not presented as a victory. This man, prior to his death, was shown as a torturer, as someone who did horrible things to helpless human beings. But he was also shown to have a wife, an aging mother, and inexpressible guilt, fear, and anxiety feeding into borderline paranoia. This character is not sanitized, nor is his death presented as something to be cheered by a safe, comfortable audience in a theatre, or sitting before a laptop or flatscreen TV. His death is portrayed as cruel and irrevocable.

When you watch Hunger, you will most likely come away from it profoundly impressed by the level of violence and filth, and by the rawness of actor Michael Fassbender's performance as hunger striker Bobby Sands, a historical figure I was totally ignorant of before watching this movie. Bobby Sands, in conventional storytelling terms, is arguably the protagonist of the story, and yet he does not appear onscreen for almost a half hour. This isn't a long movie, either. It's 96 minutes, so that's basically an hour and a half of movie plus the end credit roll.

During that first half hour, the Maze Prison is established as a hell on earth, except it is a hell created by human beings, not gods and devils. The guards and police officials supply the violence, torture, and interrogation, and the prisoners cover the walls of their tiny cells--two men to a cell--with layers of shit. They eat only a little bit of the food provided for them, and then they throw the rest in a corner to rot. The prisoners sculpt their mashed potatoes into funnels to channel jug-loads of piss back out onto the floor where the guards patrol. As an audience, we are treated to these tactics of protest, but we are also shown the other side, the clean-up. Some poor bastard has to put on disposable protective gear, splash cleaning fluid all up and down the piss-flooded hallway floor, and then mop it. Every now and again, maybe once a month, the prisoners are dragged out of their cells, deloused, given new clothes, and a guy with a pressure-washer has to go into each cell and spray that shit off the walls.

My absolute favorite scene was the one where the policeman on pressure-wash duty goes into a cell and sees a repugnant, yet sublime, shit spiral on the wall, and, before he starts to clean it off, he actually lifts up his safety visor to behold the thing with his own eyes. In that moment, I felt bad for that guy. It didn't matter that he was on the side of the oppressor. Here was a human being forced to do a terrible job. A human being who doesn't make much money, and would probably rather be with his wife or girlfriend or his friends at the pub. But instead he has to pressure-wash layers of human feces from the walls of a hellish prison.

But in that moment, too, there is some kind of weird communication of an artistic vision. Because it's not just a wall smeared with shit in that moment. This poor, confined soul took the time to make a terrifying spiral out of his own shit. The prisoner transformed his gesture of defiance into art. The police on clean-up duty sees that, when he lifts his safety visor. It's just one of those things that has to be seen with the naked eyeballs. I'll bet the smell got inside his helmet, too. This was an aesthetic experience that could never be had in any gallery.

When Bobby Sands is introduced into the story, he is portrayed as a fighter, and the movie goes to great lengths to show that his hunger strike is a conscious, tactical, and strategic decision. His logic is that if he is willing to show both sides of the conflict his willingness to die that this will galvanize the Irish Republican resistance fighters, and force the Thatcherite British government to recognize the IRA as a political entity, and not just a criminal organization.

 His strike is taken up by others within the prison. So he's not alone in laying his life on the line. The movie doesn't shy away from asserting that Bobby Sands's decision to give up his life also results in the willing deaths of other hunger strikers. Bobby knows this, and acknowledges that he believes in the necessity of having men die to pursue the ultimate political ends of the IRA.

Bobby is challenged by a compassionate priest who visits him, gives him cigarettes, and valiantly tries to talk him out of his protest. This scene, this confrontation between Bobby and a priest (played by Liam Cunningham) is masterfully staged and acted in a way which I will not reveal. It represents a jarring departure from what has gone before, but you just have to see it for yourself. I admired director Steve McQueen's choice in how he stages this confrontation.

The technical side of this production is masterful throughout. Notice how there's almost no conventional musical scoring on the soundtrack. Rather, McQueen and his collaborators use realistic sounds pared down to their essence to create the visceral reality of each scene, whether it is a brutal beating of naked prisoners by a gang of armored cops, or a lonely cop taking a smoke break in the snow. In one key scene, the only soundtrack is the insistent back and forth of human voices in a large, empty room. Naturalism is the key to every element of the technical design of this movie. Even the hallucinations of a human mind breaking down from starvation are rooted in grim, physiological reality.

Bobby Sands is the protagonist of this movie, but he isn't presented as a Hollywood historical hero like El Cid or William Wallace. Sands's death is not portrayed as a transcendent sacrifice. There is no stirring music, nor propaganda montages of the people rising up to throw off the yoke of the oppressor. It is a realistic, and horrifying portrayal of what happens to a starving human body. But it is contextualized by the overall brutality of the Maze Prison, where inmates and guards alike are dehumanized on the front lines of a tragic, and drawn-out struggle.

Hunger trailer: