Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

13 June 2008

Four Movies, One of Which Pissed Me Off Incredibly

So after watching The Jazz Singer, I rented the Al Jolson biopic, unremarkably titled The Jolson Story. And after liking Anton Corbijn's Control so little, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed The Jolson Story. As it happens, the plot of The Jolson Story (i.e. the story of Jolson's life) begins identically to The Jazz Singer. Jolson's father is a cantor at the Jewish synagogue and little Asa Yoelson runs away from his family to be a singer and changes his name to Al Jolson. In The Jolson Story, though, the parents are supportive after about five minutes of wrangling. Soon they are being used only as a device to tell us where Jolson is touring and how long it has been since he left home as a little boy to sing.

There is lots of blackface performance in this movie, as well (in 1946 no less!) but it feels less offensive since it is a historical story and Jolson, of course, performed in blackface in reality. But The Jolson Story also totally fudges with history, renaming Jolson's wife (for reasons I can't quite figure out). But the movie ends with Jolson and his wife getting divorced and for this I really liked the movie. It didn't go all the way to Jolson's death (he was still alive, anyway) for one, but I appreciate the filmmakers for having the guts to end a film with a kind of show-must-go-on attitude that treats Jolson's divorce without sentimentality.

I also watched Danny Boyle's zombie flick 28 Days Later..., which I thoroughly enjoyed. I know everyone else has already seen this movie, so I guess I don't need to talk about it, but I thought it was great, of course, and loved all the performers involved: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris. I kind of wish Boyle had used Naomie Harris in Sunshine, a picture I loved, but which noticeably lacked black people in its vision of the future (unlike, say, Solaris, a movie which isn't nearly as good, but cast the brilliant Viola Davis in a great role).

Anyway, I totally dug this movie. I loved the zombies and how fast they ran. I loved that zombies were created by a virus and not magic or the devil. I loved the puking. And the screaming. And the way the movie is shot, of course. I have remarked before about Danny Boyle's intense visual style and it works extremely well here.

The extremely well-reviewed film from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Săptămâni şi 2 Zile), which won the Palme d'Or last year finally came out on DVD this week. It never did come to Tallahassee's independent/foreign movie theatre, so I've had to wait until the film's DVD release to see it. I liked it a lot. It's the story of a woman who decides to help her friend get an abortion in Romania in 1987, behind the Iron Curtain, where such procedures were illegal. It's a riveting but simple film with a straightforward plot but plenty of twists and lots of drama. It is slightly indebted to Spielberg in its tactics for building suspense, but I liked it very much all the same. It is politically smart, emotionally powerful, and really drove home to me the importance of freedoms we probably should not take for granted in the west such as freedom of reproductive rights and the freedom to move around a city without constantly being asked to show identification. Definitely worth watching. It's nowhere near the emotional ride of, say, The Lives of Others, but it is a different kind of film, depending more on material circumstances than emotional connection for its dramatic effect.

And now for the film I hated: Michael Haneke's Funny Games. It is ostensibly a horror film, or at least a kind of scary movie akin to, say, What Lies Beneath. I have even heard comparisons to this month's The Strangers. But Haneke's movie is a political statement before it is anything. The film started by pissing me off. It begins with Tim Roth and his wife Naomi Watts playing various cds of classical music in their car as they go to their summer home. The wife asks the husband to guess what is playing on the cd player and he can't guess which piece by Händel she has chosen. These are people who are, obviously, far too snobby for their own good, the movie seems to say. As the film proceeds, the family is tortured and eventually murdered by two effete, obviously upper middle class young men who may or may not be gay (the audience I saw it with--college students--didn't seem to have any doubts). Haneke never directly shows us an act of violence committed against the family, though. The camera is always out of the room or focused on something else when someone is murdered or injured. We only see the results. This is, one supposes, a critique of the USAmerican obsession with violence in our media. I was bored. And then I was infuriated. Haneke taunts us with our own complicity in the violent acts occurring on screen. The killers goad us, talking to the camera as though we are conspirators. We are constantly reminded of our own viewership, our positons as scopophilic witnesses to this family's pain. This is hammered into us as we watch the killers taunt their victims. So much so that I yelled "fuck you" to the screen at one particularly ridiculous point in the movie.

Funny Games also seems to believe that this middle class family deserves to be destroyed. That they've earned this punishment simply by being rich, by feeling secure, by following bourgeois rules of decorum and politeness. They deserve to die because they have a cute little kid, because they teach him how to sail, because they enjoy golf, because they want to barbecue with friends. And this assumption goes unquestioned by Haneke. And call me irredeemably bourgeois, but I disagree. The middle class is not completely and totally without value. There is at least some modicum of value in, say, loving your kid and not wanting him to die or respecting your neighbors' privacy or being friendly to people you don't know all that well. Why are these things to be ridiculed? Why are the people who abide by these societal laws to be tortured and slaughtered? I'm supposed to enjoy this? The whole thing made me furious, and I seriously debated getting up and walking out of the theatre. Fuck this movie.

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