The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep movie poster

 

Michel Gondry is a treasure; endlessly inventive and thankfully prolific. His music videos (especially Björk’s "Bachelorette" and The White Stripes’ "Fell in Love With a Girl") and films (Human Nature & Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are all personal favorites, with "Bachelorette" and Eternal Sunshine both moving me deeply.

But I found myself a tiny bit unsatisfied with The Science of Sleep, despite its flood of original imagery and enthusiastic performances. For a movie that concerns the blending of fantasy with reality, I think the problem is that there’s too much reality. Stephane (Gael García Bernal) experiences a smooth continuum between his waking and dream life, which his mother explicitly acknowleges as an actual condition, in other words, a mental illness. In the cold light of his mother’s diagnosis and his often hurtful behavior towards his crush Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Stephane is less of a charmingly eccentric dreamer, and rather a sad case that could probably not have a successful relationship without medication.

Caché (Hidden)

Cache Hidden movie poster

 

An art-thriller directed by Michael Haneke, of whose previous films I’ve only seen Le Pianiste (The Piano Teacher). A major theme is that of video image-making (a main character is a television host) and surveilance. The interest in video images brings to mind the films of Atom Egoyan (Calendar, Felicia’s Journey), and perhaps even the search for meaning (that may or may not even be there) in photographs in Blow Up.

The point of view of the "camera" is crucial; sometimes the image we’re watching is revealed as that of an actual video camera within the film. After we learn the first static shot is actually a film-within-the-film, we constantly suspect later static shots until the camera moves. Sometimes, we are the camera.

A digression: I recall from my college days that the academic term for a sound heard in the fictional context of the film (as opposed to, say, the score) is "diegetic," but how does one refer to a film or video image seen by characters within a film? Movies ranging from Citizen Kane (the newsreel sequence) to Starship Troopers (the fascistic tv commercials) feature moving images in the world of the film, so there must be an academic term.

Caché famously features an enigmatic final shot, supposedly revealing a clue to a major unanswered plot point. So even though I knew to inspect it closely, and the mere location depicted obviously tells you what to look for, I still couldn’t spot it. Later, someone told me what to look for and I watched again. And sure enough, there is it, beautifully choreographed right in plain sight. Hint: check out some action that moves from the top left of the screen down to the bottom left.

Yo La Tengo

 

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York City

New York (or should I say Hoboken) institution Yo La Tengo performs a live score to several of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé‘s underwater documentaries. Interestingly, English subtitles indicate the films were apparently not silent in their original form, with narration and perhaps scores of their own. So not only is the audience’s experience of the films filtered through a spoken-French-to-written-English translation, but also by Yo La Tengo’s contemporary score.

Most of the films concerned the mating rituals and birth cycles of sea creatures ranging from octopi to mollusks. A rare intrusion of a human hand is seen during the dissection of a pregnant male sea horse. Without seeing the films in their original form, it’s hard to judge if they were clinical or artful in tone. Only one film was clearly intended to be abstract: a series of images of vividly colored liquids crystalizing, evoking the “Beyond Infinity” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Yo La Tengo’s musical interpretation transformed nearly every sequence into a dreamlike, non-literal cinematic experience.

I’m curious… was the band influenced by the original soundtracks? To what degree was the performance planned and/or improvised?

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada movie poster

 

Three Burials joins Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as one of my few highly-rated westerns. Like Dead Man, its tone meanders from the darkly comic to the melodramatic, and is at times almost unwatchably gruesome. Which does nothing to explain why I liked it, I know.

Special mention to Barry Pepper for taking what must be one of the most thankless roles in movie history: his character is a onanistic racist brute, beaten, dragged by a horse, forced at gunpoint to disinter a corpse, bitten by a rattlesnake, and not the least of which, spends a good part of the movie with his pants down (come to think of it, so does Dwight Yoakam).

From Here to Eternity

From Here to Eternity movie poster

 

From Here to Eternity is famous for a lot of reasons: Burt Lancaster’s and Deborah Kerr’s hot clinch on the beach, the mere presence of Frank Sinatra, and, like a lot of canonical classics, its own fame. But, gradually, it dawns on you: what it’s really about is the utter inconsequence of our lives. Constantly overshadowing the many plot threads is the inevitable appearance of the Japanese overhead. And once they arrive, all the personal and professional troubles, the affairs and crimes, everything, becomes irrelevant.

Mask (Director’s Cut)

Mask movie poster

 

I vaguely recall seeing Mask when I was a kid, but only recently learned A) it was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and B) there’s a well-regarded director’s cut available on DVD. The film is very unconventional for the genre of disabled-person-beating-the-odds. Roy, doomed to die from Craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, loses his friend, his girl, and dies in his sleep never fulfilling his dream of traveling Europe. And yet, it is nevertheless moving and even uplifting. I think one reason is the sympathetic matter-of-fact presentation of a biker gang, a group often maligned or at least treated condescendingly by Hollywood.

Thank You for Smoking

Thank You For Smoking movie poster

 

A wicked contemporary satire, distant cousin to Lord of War, if a little less urgent. The level of public anxiety over Big Tobacco isn’t terribly high at the moment, but the larger theme of corporate and governmental spin is a timely one. Also like Lord of War, it kicks off with insane energy: one of the best opening title sequences I’ve ever seen, followed by flurry of pop-up infographics, freeze-frames, and ironic subtitles. Too bad that after the first half hour or so, it settles down into fairly straightforward family melodrama.

And now that’s what I call e-cards.

Lord of War

Lord of War movie poster

 

I initially dismissed Lord of War when the trailers and posters first appeared. In other words, it got caught in the crude mental filters that routinely handle my first-pass “ignore” of all the crap that flows through my eyes and ears all day every day. But when my regular email newsletter from Amnesty International endorsed the film, it seemed possible this was something more substantial than National Treasure.

And it is. In an impressive marketing slight-of-hand, Lions Gate marketed it as an action comedy. But like Syriana, Lord of War is actually a very strongly-felt topical film loosely based on actual events. It has a more human and darkly comedic tone than Syriana, which often felt like a very consciously-constructed intellectual puzzle. But on the other hand, Syriana’s strict focus is perhaps a virtue; Lord of War’s several dramatic plotlines involving the main character’s marriage and wayward brother don’t always sit very well against the larger themes of entrenched human violence.

For another Nicolas Cage treasure hidden in plain sight, I recommend Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men.