Monday, July 29, 2013


Not many actresses or actors take their fans out to old school hip-hop parties, mail them rare French movies or invite them in to their home for dinner but that’s what sets Alice Houri apart from everybody else. I recently caught up with her (via email) to discuss last years' The Rabbi's Cat (an animated film that she lent her voice to), Claire Denis' latest, the importance of short films and Americas growing appreciation for (good) French cinema.


PINNLAND EMPIRE: What was it like doing voiceover for The Rabbi’s Cat? That was your first time working on an animated film, right?

ALICE HOURI: Yes it was my first time working on an animated film and I really enjoyed it. It was a famous comic book before becoming a cartoon. It was full of humor (Jewish humor!) so I was honored to participate in the movie.

PE: Do you see yourself doing more voiceover/cartoons in the future?

AH: I would love to do more.

PE: Are cartoons/animated films becoming more popular within French art house & indie cinema?

AH: I don't really know if animated films are becoming more popular in France (The Rabbi's Cat, the book, was already famous in France). What I know is these kinds of films are expensive to make so for the art house/independent cinema, money is the main problem...

The Rabbi's Cat (2011)

PE: I still have not seen Face La Mere (there’s only one small clip on the Internet). Can you tell us what it’s about?

AH: Face La Mere is a short film about fisherman. We shot it in Sete - a little town in the south that use to be a big fishing port, but not anymore. The profession is dying. It’s really hard to keep the independent way. Sete is now becoming a touristic place and the fishermen have to fight hard to's sad.

PE: In the last couple of years you’ve acted in a few short films - Do you think short films are a way to work out techniques & ideas for future full length films or do you feel some stories just don’t need to be that long?

AH: Short films are, traditionally in France, a way to access long movies. Like a visit card. So on one hand it's a way to work out techniques and ideas. A way to develop your own universe. And on the other hand, it's hard to tell a story in a short time frame. That's the difficulty of the exercise.
US Go Home (1994)

PE: It seems that films about youth & "coming of age" are more common in French cinema than anywhere else (400 blows, Small Change, Murmur Of The Heart, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Zazie Dans La Metro, A nos Amours, US Go Home, Something In The Air, etc). 
You’ve acted in a few films on that subject yourself (US Go Home, Nenette & Boni, Du Poil Sous Les Roses). Why do you think that is in French cinema?

AH: Well I don't think films about youth and growing up are a French specialty. The subject is universal: Dakota Fanning, Shirley Temple, Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore, etc. The Kid by Chaplin is my favorite. It’s the most poetical look at the topic of childhood

PE: French-based films are starting to become more popular over here in America (Amour, Holy Motors, Carlos, etc). Is this a surprise to some French people? How does it make you feel?

AH: It’s kind of a surprise and maybe there's a sense of pride for some French people to see that some movies have succeeded in America. You know, here, we humbly call this industry "the French exception". I think your country is amazing because you have a long tradition of cinephilia and films like Holy Motors find a larger public there than in France. But at the same time a movie like La Vie En Rose was a huge success (and it's not the same public at all). Woody Allen says he's more famous in France than in his own country. To be recognized here first you have to find the glory in America.

Holy Motors - Leos Carax (2012)

PE: You’re a cinephile so I know you saw a bunch of movies in 2012. What were your favorite films from last year?

AH: The best film I’ve seen lately is Tey made by Alain Gomis. So poetic. I loved it!

PE: What films are you looking forward to watching this year?

AH: I don't know - The next Djinn Carrenard, Kechiche, Claire Denis, Farhadi…

Blue Is The Warmest Color - Kechiche (2013)

PE: Speaking of the new Claire Denis - what was it like working with her again, even if it was a small part?

AH: I was touched to work with Claire (last time I was 15). It was kind of nostalgic. But my little scene in Les Salauds was cut at the end! I'm very curious to see this next opus! It will be done on Saturday...

PE: Now that Vincent Lindon has made two films with Claire Denis is he considered part of the "family"?

AH: Yep I think Vincent Lindon is for sure part of the family. They seem to love and respect each other really deeply

PE: In the future do you ever see yourself moving away from acting completely to become a director or would you like to do both?

AH: I would like to work as a director, actress or scenarist…

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Leviathan / Pacific Rim

As I sat watching Pacific Rim, feeling partially numb as I just learned of the George Zimmerman verdict less than an hour earlier, I was strangely reminded of Leviathan (2012) - the experimental indie documentary about the fishing industry and the dangers of being a fisherman. In Pacific Rim, a 3D science fiction/Godzilla homage about giant military robots (controlled by humans) that fight off equally sized monsters from destroying planet earth, we see quite a few battles between the robots (the good guys) and the giant monsters (the bad guys) that take place in the middle of the ocean. These battles in Pacific Rim, enhanced by the 3D factor, reminded me of the feeling I got when I first saw Leviathan where I felt like I was right there on the boat with the other fishermen in the middle of the ocean risking my life to reel in net-fulls of fish.

Without getting too abstract, it’s pretty obvious that both; Pacific Rim & Leviathan are slight reworkings of the age-old tale of "man vs. nature". In Leviathan, the man (the fishermen) vs. nature (the dangerous environment around them) aspect is pretty obvious while in Pacific Rim it isn't that obvious right away. The giant creatures (or Leviathans) that terrorize the planet in Pacific Rim are believed to be aliens transported from another dimension but at one point in the film its hinted that the creatures could be evolved deformed beings from all the years of pollution and toxins found in the sea (the creatures always come out of the water before they attack a city). Water is obviously an important factor in both films. So while the robots in Pacific Rim represent man (they're operated by humans) the giant monsters represent nature being that they're a product of water.

I wanted the movie (Pacific Rim) to be about humanity, about how we have to learn to trust one another because in the end the only thing that will save the world is the world, nothing and no one is going to come and save us. The idea is that we are all inside the same robots – Guillermo Del Torro

Although I personally believe there’s a lil' bit of B.S. in that quote, at least Guillermo Del Torro put SOME thought in to the story

Leviathan & Pacific Rim have quite a bit in common. Although each film caters to a different audience, I'm still surprised no one has made the connection (they were both major releases within their respective markets this year). Each film is shot utilizing some of the latest technology in filmmaking. As I already mentioned - Pacific Rim is shot in 3D for IMAX while Leviathan is shot with a bunch of small digital water proof cameras (strapped to the fishermen) in order to get as close to the action as possible (I'm sure this technique has been done before in film but it seems like Leviathan is one of the first to gain some real notoriety). Although indie & art house cinema has dipped in to the 3D realm with recent stuff like Pina & The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (both films coincidentally made by German directors from an older generation), 3D is still more of a staple within modern studio/big budget cinema whereas digital filmmaking is more commonly associated with independent filmmaking. That's not too say that damn near all studio films today aren’t shot digitally, but with the exception of Michael Mann (and probably a few more studio directors I'm forgetting) indie/art house filmmakers were the first to really utilize and embrace digital filmmaking because of its accessibility (Bernard Rose, Spike Lee, Hal Hartley, etc). When you think of indie cinema you subconsciously imagine a guerrilla filmmaker running around with a small camera shooting from the hip.

Leviathan (1989)
Another interesting connection between these two works, besides water and the ocean, is that if you were to take all the elements from Pacific Rim and all the elements from Leviathan (2012) and mix them together in a blender you'd end up with the 1989 Peter Weller/Ernie Hudson sci-fi epic also named Leviathan (the movie some of you probably thought I was comparing Pacific Rim to when you read the title of this entry)

I don’t mean to turn this write-up in to a cliché David vs. Goliath/indie cinema vs. big budget studio cinema thing. Drawing a parallel between these two movies may even seem pointless to some of you. To compare the budgets alone between Pacific Rim (almost $200 million) & Leviathan ($43,000) is pretty fucking laughable. But in my opinion Leviathan managed to do what Pacific Rim really couldn’t fully accomplish (at a FRACTION of the budget) which was to make the audience feel like they're right in the middle of the action. And Leviathan managed to do this without the use of 3D or special Christopher Nolan IMAX cameras. Yes, Leviathan is a documentary film but it’s also, if you'll allow me to reach just a little bit, an action/adventure film - lives are at risk, there's danger around every corner, harsh weather, man versus mother nature, etc. This is the kind of film that would make Werner Herzog jealous (you could even go so far as to say that there are traces of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Incident At Lochness in Leviathan). Just the basic set-up of Leviathan alone sounds like a John Carpenter movie from the 80's; a group of fisherman stuck together on a boat in harsh weather conditions.

There was A lot of physical pain. Being crushed by the magnitude of nature, entangled in it. Feeling fully alive and an inch away from death – Verena Paravel (co-director of Leviathan)

Leviathan / Pacific Rim

Not since The Perfect Storm and that half hour in Forest Gump has there been a film that shows the dangers of being a fisherman at sea. But the difference here with Leviathan is that it's very real. I still don't consider it to be this perfect ground breaking film that everyone is making it out to be but it was an honest attempt at trying to do something new in film and possibly push the art forward. And although Pacific Rim was really bad, I imagine Guillermo Del Torro also set out to make a boundary pushing film in terms of special effects. I put an emphasis on special effects as opposed to overall cinema being that the script/dialogue in Pacific Rim is pretty awful. Del Torro's latest is quite a paradox at times. Putting the special effects and technology aside, this movie managed to be the simplest yet most complicated story ever. On one hand the film deals with parallel universes and mind melding while the script has some of the most simplistic dialogue ever. It’s the type of dialogue found in a script written by a 16 year old boy who still plays with action figures. I also don't know if I'm supposed to take Pacific Rim completely seriously or not. Is the campiness intentional, in the vein of Paul Verhoven (Starship Troopers, Robocop,etc) or does Del Torro honestly just not get it and thinks people will take all the ridiculously corny moments in Pacific Rim seriously?

Sensory overload is another huge issue with Pacific Rim. I felt like an old man while watching it. The movie was too loud, I didn’t know what was going on half the time, the camera work was a little too chaotic and overall it was just too much. Watching Pacific Rim felt like listening to the audio of a trash compactor half the time (the numbness I was feeling from hearing George Zimmerman being found not guilty was soon replaced with a mild headache thanks to Pacific Rim).

Leviathan / Pacific Rim

Leviathan is also a Paradox. I honestly didn’t see what the big deal was the first time I saw it. Actually I was a bit disappointed. I remember thinking; "THIS was the great film that everyone has been praising so highly?!" Not to say that it was bad or anything but the way everyone was talking about it (with the exception of Chris Funderberg) made me feel like Leviathan was gonna be a game changer. I've now come to the realization that Leviathan is a pretty important modern film in terms of both; filmmaking & storytelling, yet it’s still slightly overrated. 

This is the closest thing to a 3D movie without actually using 3D technology. Putting a conch up to your ear is one thing but because of the up close & personal filmmaking style in Leviathan you really get the ripples & crunching of the waves, the blowing of the wind and even the sound of the knife used to gut the fish plugged directly in to your ears. But on the other hand, Leviathan is very boring at times. Yes some parts of the film straddle the line between being hypnotic and boring, but other parts are just undeniably boring to the point where it almost puts you to sleep (ironically, one of the most memorable scenes in Leviathan is an uninterrupted straight-on shot of a fisherman watching a fishing reality show, nodding off, fighting sleep).

Pacific Rim was one of the most anticipated films of this year but in all reality it's just a SYFY channel movie with an amazing budget. I understand movie dialogue is becoming a lot simpler in film in order to cross over in to other countries and appeal to more people but the script to Pacific Rim would seriously have you believe this was the first time Guillermo Del Torro picked up a pen to write a script. Simple is one thing, but Del Torro kinda insulted the audience’s intelligence in some parts. However, he does give the audience credit in other areas making Pacific Rim the paradox that I dubbed it earlier.

If anything, Leviathan serves as proof that indie and/or art house cinema can appeal to anyone and it isn’t always artsy, elitist or strange. Think about it - with all the sensationalized outdoorsy reality shows on television today, how could Leviathan not be enjoyed by the average non-cinephile/movie nerd? Leviathan's only downfall is that there's absolutely NO direct dialogue or voice-over narration in the film. This doesn’t bother me, although it doesn’t exactly help how boring the film can be at times, but to people not up on experimental/non-traditional cinema, this aspect could be very off-putting. And Leviathan still has a strong connection to art house cinema and doesn't alienate the crowd it was initially made for - art house heavyweight; Claire Denis was the first person to view a rough cut of the film and give criticism on it (I wouldn’t be surprised if Verena Paraval & Lucien Taylor were subconsciously inspired by Denis’ L’Intrus) and Leviathan also draws many similarities to Godard’s Film Socialisme.
But even with all of their flaws, films like Pacific Rim & Leviathan are needed to balance each other out (especially for a guy like me who is more prone to watch serious depressing art house stuff).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


If Drive is like cocaine...then this is like really good acid - Nicolas Winding Refn (Brooklyn Academy Of Music, 2013)

Jackie Brown. Trouble Every Day. Dogville. The Brown Bunny. Inland Empire. These are all GREAT modern films (in my opinion) that were initially hated, dismissed, misunderstood and/or underrated partially due to the fact that they came after such popular & highly acclaimed works that were intimidating acts to follow (Pulp Fiction, Beau Travail, Dancer In The Dark, Buffalo 66 & Mulholland Drive, respectively). Only God Forgives will probably see the same fate but the difference here is that it will probably remain hated & misunderstood for a long time.
Normally I hate movie reviews that constantly reference the filmmaker's previous work over and over but its kinda difficult not too with this one. Drive & Only God Forgives exist in the same violent, synthesized, neon-lit, redish tinted, criminal underworld. I honestly loved this movie very much but I don’t see people instantly falling in love with it like they did with Drive (sure Drive had it's detractors but generally speaking that movie is loved a lot more than its hated). 
On more than one occasion at the screening last night there were moments in Only God Forgives when the audience would laugh at a scene that was CLEARLY supposed to be taken seriously so that should tell you guys something...

While Drive was directly influenced by the styles of Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese & Takeshi Kitano (all filmmakers who have more than a few strong similarities & connections between each other) Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film draws inspiration from sources that don’t exactly go together. Only God Forgives is a cross between the world of Stanley Kubrick (the polarizing hallway shots, people staring intensely at stuff, bold colors & odd moments of silence) and the world of straight to VHS/late night cable action movies from the early 90's that usually featured; Jeanne Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, a pre-Crow Brandon Lee, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa or some combination of those four actors (the plot, the overuse of slow-motion, the kickboxing/martial arts angle, the lone white guy in Asia, etc). Personally, I think what Refn did here was great. I grew up on those bad action/martial arts films as a kid and today I love cinema that falls under the "art house" label so the combination of these two cinematic worlds is pretty awesome to me. But my perspective and taste is unique. Most people don’t place Stanley Kubrick & Dolph Lundgren on the same pedestal like I do so they're gonna have a tough time getting through Only God Forgives.

Only God Forgives - Refn (L), The Shining - Kubrick (R)
Stanley Kubrick isn't the first & only filmmaker to shoot hallways in such an intriguing way but I think you all get the point I'm trying to drive home in the images above. Nicolas Winding Refn even used Eyes Wide Shut Cinematographer; Larry Smith for Only God Forgives (Smith also shot Fear X & Bronson). 

That glossy/high art/sleek Michael Mann influence that I love so much is still evident in this. Only God Forgives is darkly lit & gritty yet at the same time smooth & sleek just like Thief, Manhunter & Collateral. The way Michael Mann shoots bars & night clubs in Miami Vice, Collateral & Heat is seen in Only God Forgives as well. Refn kinda blurs that line between "good guy"/the cop & "bad guy"/the criminal just like Mann usually does in his work - The relationship between Ryan Gosling/"The Criminal" & Vathaya Panssringarm/"The Cop" in Only God Forgives is pretty similar to the relationships between Deniro & Pacino in Heat or Johnny Depp & Christian Bale in Public Enemies. There's this strange fascination/respect between the criminal and the law. All throughout Only God Forgives Ryan Gosling looks at his nemesis ("Chang") with curiosity, fear & intrigue.
Nicolas Winding Refn also draws upon those little moments that often go unnoticed in Michael Mann's work. In Miami Vice there's a brief moment when Crocket/Collin Farell stares off in to the sea when he should be paying attention to the interrogation his fellow cops are giving to an informant...

Miami Vice - Mann (2006)

There's tons of moments like that in Only God Forgives where Gosling is staring off at something with this blank intensity which can be traced right back to Kubrick as he's the king of that intense stare shot...

Only God Forgives - Refn (L), Eyes Wide Shut - Kubrick (M), Manhunter - Mann (R)
There's also an obvious touch of Gaspar Noe (another filmmaker heavily influenced by Kubrick, yet closer to Refn's generation) in Only God Forgives from the opening credits to the violence we see all throughout the film (Gaspar Noe actually helped on the production of this movie for a few days and is listed in the credits). If Only God Forgives doesn't exist in the same universe as Drive, Collateral or Eyes Wide Shut, it definitely exists in the same universe as Noe's Enter The Void in terms of dreaminess and atmosphere.
But Kubrick, Mann and Noe aside - this is still very much a Nicolas Winding Refn film: Random violent outbursts, awkwardly quiet yet viscous antihero main characters, a synthesized film score and extremely slow moments. Refn even reused a lot of shots found in his older films within Only God Forgives...

Only God Forgives / Pusher 2
Only God Forgives / Pusher
Only God Forgives / Bronson
If you're like me and followed Nicolas Winding Refn's career prior to Drive you'd know that instant success is something pretty foreign to him, outside of the Pusher trilogy, so it isn't surprising that Only God Forgives has been getting negative reviews. This new film fits right in with just about all of Refn's pre-Drive/post-Pusher work - Fear X (2003) caused Refn to go bankrupt and forced him to make a film he didn’t really wanna make (Pusher 2) just to get out of debt. Valhalla Rising (2009) was falsely advertised as some kind of gladiator/fighting movie when in fact it was a slow, trippy, atmospheric art film which didn’t sit too well with a lot of movie goers who were expecting something else (although the film does maintain a small cult following that I am very much a part of). Bronson (2008), another recent cult film, was an instant hit with angry men who love violence and yelling, but other than that it split everyone else down the middle. It took me almost two years to even consider Bronson an "ok" film. Nicolas Winding Refn's career kinda mirrors that of Donald Cammell (White Of The Eye, Demon Seed, Wild Side, etc) except a lot less tragic and on a slightly larger scale. 

In the film Ryan Gosling plays "Julian" - a gangster son of a femme fatale named "Crystal" (played by Kristin Scott Thomas with the attitude of Donatella Versace mixed with Naomi Campbell in a blonde wig). 
After Julian's brother; Billy is killed at the order of "Chang" (a badass Thai police officer with a love for Karaoke) Crystal wants everyone responsible for Billy's death to pay. She seeks out her younger son Julian to take care of it but given their complicated mother/son relationship (along with the horrific crime Julian's brother committed to begin with), Julian initially refuses to take her orders. But after a series of events he suddenly changes his mind and challenges Chang to a fight in order to settle the score.

If you loved Drive there's no guarantee you'll enjoy Only God Forgives. Even the music, once again scored by Cliff Martinez, is a lot darker and less pop-sounding this time around.
Although slightly more sinister and even more quiet, Ryan Gosling's performance is somewhat similar to the character he played in Drive.
This is a pretty dark film. Chang is one of Refn's cruelest characters (he prefers a sword to a gun), there's multiple scenes where people get their hands and/or arms chopped off or cut in too at the drop of a hat and there's some SERIOUS incestuous undertones between Julian & Crystal. A lot of hype has been made about Kristen Scott Thomas' portrayal as the bitchy villainous femme fatale because she doesn't normally portray these kinds of characters but after her recent performance in Love Crime I don't find her portrayal as Crystal that far fetched.
Besides Crystal, all the other characters in this film barely speak (no, seriously). The spacing between the dialogue in Only God Forgives is so far apart at times that when someone finally does speak (usually delivering two or three words in a strange unemotional way) it almost catches you off guard. Once again, this is another aspect I found to be interesting but it's understandable if others aren't in to it.

Vathaya Panssringarm's portrayal as Chang was the most fascinating to me. If there's ever been a "badass" he's certainly it. In on scene he allows the father of a murdered underage prostitute to beat his daughters' killer to death. Then in an unexpected switch he cuts off the father's hand as punishment for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute in the first place (this is a very eye for an eye kind of film). It should be noted that even though Vathaya Panssringarm is listed as Chang in the credits, no one ever actually addresses him by his name at any point in the film which adds to his mystique. He just kinda glides through the film as a sword wielding angel of vengeance...

My enjoyment of Only God Forgives is kinda bitter sweet. I loved it but I like feel once people see this when it opens (on Friday) I don’t think I'll be able to openly praise it without constantly hearing: "REALLY? You liked THAT?!" I'm sure there's a few folks out there who'll love it like I did but not many. 
This is a pretty existential story buried underneath a violent gangster movie yet it's understandable if some people find this film very flawed. There's quite a few random moments that may have some people going; "...huh?" (strange hallucination sequences, random karaoke scenes and aggressive moments that are totally uncalled for) plus the overall motivation of the characters is a little questionable at times.
But for some strange reason I loved almost everything about this movie. I just don’t know if I have the energy to defend it so I'm gonna quietly love it by myself like I do with Terrence Malick's recent work.
If you have the same kind of love for Showdown In Little Tokyo as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey and aren't bothered by the kinds of plot holes found in Michael Mann's films because they're so cool (something I struggle with) then chances are you'll enjoy this. However, if you like constant dialogue and for movies to make sense then you may wanna stay away from this.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Cloud Atlas is an interesting case - Not since Michael Mann's Public Enemies have I seen a movie get so much hype and then suddenly disappear in to thin air as if it never happened upon its release. Normally when that kind of thing happens to a film its rediscovered years later and becomes a "cult classic" but something tells me The Wachowski's latest sci-fi tale wont see the same fate.
Last year when I made my second appearance on the Inside The Phoenix podcast upon returning from the Toronto Film Festival I could tell Warren Anderson (a contributor to this site) really wanted to get in to this movie but I chose to watch Takeshi Kitano's Outrage sequel instead. Had I known Cloud Atlas brought up all the issues in this write-up, written by first time PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor; Chris Robisch, I would have certainly watched the epic sci-fi adventure over Kitano's violent art house blood bath. I'm sure I wouldn't have liked the Wachowski's latest film but it would have brought about some serious dialogue for Warren's podcast.
But in all honesty I don't think I know ONE person, besides Chris (a fellow turntablist/cinephile/Inglorious Basterds hater), whose seen Cloud Atlas so I don't feel that bad.

This is an excellent read and I've been sitting on it for quite some time.


I finally buckled under the surmounting pressure building within my Sci-Fi addicted brain. I knew there would undeniably be some disappointment. Films that are so heavily hyped rarely satisfy my inner-nerd. Even with these misgivings towards watching it I decided to sit through Lana and Andy Wachowski’s unnecessarily long film, Cloud Atlas. My initial fears were justified. At times it was boring and extremely convoluted, as it made loose connections to stories that were supposedly inextricably linked. However, this wasn’t the real problem. In fact, I was mostly unsettled by the film’s message, as it attempted to present itself as anti-racist while wrapped in deeply racist ideologies. 

Antiracist While Perpetuating Racism

It really is hard to take any film seriously that wishes to promote anti-racist story lines like the character Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a white ally overcoming a white supremacist perspective to ultimately join the abolitionist movement, while simultaneously bombarding the audience with uncomfortable depictions of white actors made-up to look Asian. It seems completely counter intuitive to combine anti-racist sentiments with racist imagery, and this is precisely why the film’s narrative fails miserably.
My main contention with the film was not so much the racist “yellowface” displayed by white actors—which has already been written extensively about on sites like Racialicious.

Why did the directors choose to incorporate "Yellowface" but not "Blackface" into their film? Apparently they only find one to be racist

Nor was it the Orientalist semiotics and countless stereotypes interwoven into the supposedly anti-racist message.

is your room too blank and bland?
with the flip of a switch the Wachowskis will project their favorite Orientalist images on to your walls, floors and ceilings. The future sure is racist!

Racist stereotype: Orientalist Imagery coupled with Asian women as a sexualized objects can be found throughout the film
Racist Stereotype: the character simply called; "Mexican Woman" (Doona Bae) is a racist representation of Latina identity, flattening Latina-ness to elderly women with non-, or limited, English speaking capabilities.
The Wachowskis white imagination certainly went all out on this one by also making her the stereotypical sweatshop worker

It wasn’t even the way that the Wachowskis' used their racialized-makeup as cutting edge—I mean this is like one of the main special effects and story devices employed by the filmmakers and is utilized like Eddie Murphy in a fat suit.

"I'm cutting edge, Mr. Anderson!"
"What he said!"

No. None of these got under my skin as much as the way the film presents a combination of the above offenses with racial mixing. Lana and Andy attempt to convey this message through actors crossing racial boundaries. The idea of crossing the color line takes place not only in their relationships, but also by actors taking on the role of different races. By blurring these lines through a combination of ways, such as dawning “yellowface” or other racialized faces and having narratives of racial mixing, the directors are blending two very different elements dangerously close together. The Wachowskis constantly infuse their narrative of race mixing with the actors shifting races, presenting the act of crossing racial lines through an increasingly problematic, complicated, and uncomfortable lens creating numerous racist outcomes. The worst of which forces the audience to believe that  white actors in “yellowface” should be viewed with the same amount of acceptance as interracial relationships and multiracial families.

I'm pretty sure any ethical human being knows that interracial relationships and multicultural people...
...are not the equivalent to racist "Yellow-face" representations

Had Lana and Andy decided to use numerous actors of color as opposed to the race shifting methods in their film, the message of blurring racial difference through mixing would not have been lost in such troublesome racial politics. As a Chicano and Anglo male, I am open to narratives in film that discuss bi- and multi-racial identities—especially, when most films create distinctly rigid racial boundaries and continue the same-old discussions of racial purity that have plagued countries like the United States for centuries. However, the Wachowski narrative of multiracial people being the ultimate solution in race-relations can be viewed as an equally racist and offensive trope.

Not Really Breaking Barriers:
Trading One Racist System For Another

In response to the mounting criticisms surrounding the film Andy Wachowski explained to the Huffington Post, “[t]he intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity.” Lana went further with the intent to move “beyond race” by stating:

“[T]he book has a bigger perspective. The book suggests that there is a humanity that is beyond our tribe, our ethnic features. A humanity that is beyond our gender. A humanity that unites all of us and transcends our tribal differences. As long as we continue to build these intractable and insurmountable walls between us to make these distinctions, we will continue to have intellectual apparatus that allows us to make wars and that allows to dominate, exploit and destroy others."

While the sentiments of Andy and Lana, as well as the book present an altruistic desire to move beyond race into a future humanity that eradicates the national, racial, and gendered social boundaries that keep us apart, the film fails to convey this message. The reason being, their film skips an extremely important process within confronting difficult subjects like race and racism. Their focus on smashing down barriers rather than first establishing a bridge between races makes it impossible for a real sense of connection to take place. In reality, the Wachowskis force colorblind perspectives on to US and Global audience members who exist in societies that have yet to truly develop bridges capable of manifesting a dialogue between races. Such a premise does not create a world where future allies listen and embrace the complexities and differences within our shared humanity. Instead it chooses to ignore, silence, and make people of color invisible reinforcing those walls that they want to tear down.

The Utopian vision that the Wachowskis' wish humanity to achieve, is reached through racial mixing—at least that is what the film implies. This is evident in the final scene of the film where an elderly Zachry (Tom Hanks) sits by a campfire telling stories to his and Meronym’s (Halle Berry) multiracial grandchildren. This moment acts as the concluding paragraph to the film’s thesis of racial mixing, which is defined as the ultimate solution to humanity’s racism problem. The images of mixed race children during the finale, creates a sense that this is humanity’s future. Love surrounds this family as the chaos of the past, the differences that are portrayed throughout the movie no longer matter. It is the presentation of peace and harmony within this future moment that leads me to the conclusion that these children are the manifestation of the mixed race savior. However, one might not be aware of how this concept recalls a historically racist ideology found in Latin America.

This may seem like a foreign concept to citizens of the West, as the racial ideologies in the United States have historically been based upon racial purity as a means to maintain white supremacy. The rigid racial boundaries were (re)enforced by antimiscegenation laws dating back over 300 years ago and finally being repealed in 1967. As a result the logical response to racism in the West has been the deconstructing of racial boundaries by promoting a multiracial ideology. However, in the early 1900s the ideology of Mestizaje (race-mixing) was promoted in Latin America to structure racial hierarchies in a different but equally racist fashion.

The idea was founded on scientific racism, a pseudo-science that provided justification for colonization, the enslavement of Africans, white-supremacy, and the eugenics movement—not to mention the Holocaust. The findings within scientific racism would always convey the superiority of whites and the inferiority of people of color. Some examples of studies are based on reflexes, cranium size, athleticism, and intellectual ability among other things.

Leo gave a pretty thorough overview of a form of scientific racism in that Tarantino film about racism that turned out to be way racist - the irony was not silent

The popular belief in the United States was that mixing made the supposed superior race inferior, while countries in Latin America somewhat reversed the idea of scientific racism. This alteration viewed mixing as a pathway to providing superior traits into the supposedly inferior indio and African populations. Influential scholars, like José Vasconcelos, advocated for an ideology of Mestizaje (race-mixing) to populate Latin American countries, whitening them in the process, and creating The Cosmic Race With countries like Mexico having difficulty increasing European immigration, The Cosmic Race worked as the solution to unifying people under a national identity. Since whiteness was still seen as superior, the only way to unify the nation was through mixing the existing European population with indigenous and African peoples. As a result, the mestizo (mixed person) was thought to be the savior of these nations.From its very foundation, the national ideology of racial mixing has been based upon a racist notion of eliminating the perceived inferior qualities of the other. Beyond that, it was thought that blending races would purge racism from society, but the fact remains that racial inequalities, colorism, and various forms of racism still exist in Latin American countries today.

Its interesting to think that the directors chose to place the final scene of Meronym (Berry), Zachry (Hanks) and the multiracial grandchildren in space. Was this the Wachowski's symbolic shout-out to Vasconcelos' Cosmic Race?

The result of the Latin American ideology was the creation of a racial hierarchical system that was based on the mestizo (mixed person) being the superior race and, much like the in the United States, Indigenous and African peoples were placed on the bottom—this is likely an intellectual apparatus that Lana did not account for when she defended her film. This historical reality complicates the film and directors' premise quite a bit as their perspective neglects to see the limitations of placing all of your hopes into the mixed-race saviors, especially when one considers that hybridity has had little impact on the realities of racism and race-relations in the United States.
Andrea Smith provides greater insight into the problems of the mestizo. According to Smith, this ideology constantly “situates Indians and Europeans in a dichotomy that can [only] be healed through mestizaje" making it appear as though real solutions cannot be found without erasing difference. Such a perspective seeks to eliminate the beauty of cultural, racial, and ethnic distinctions to make humanity into a colorblind society that does not embrace the multiplicity of identities that make it special. Moreover, this ideology categorizes the “Native identity...[as] primitive” and the mestizo as “sophisticated."  While Cloud Atlas does not touch on the relation between Native and European identities Smith’s words are still relevant, as they suggest a hierarchical system just as discriminatory as racial purity. With this in mind, it is clear to me that the film's premise can be a dangerous one. It can result in racist ideologies that lead to the erasure of indigenous peoples. While not entirely the same, it does hearken to the genocidal practices that eradicated the indigenous populations of the Americas. Smith provides a counter argument to the idea of racial mixing being the ultimate solution to racism and race-relations. If we are to consider the Wachowskis' premise we must educate ourselves on how it has been used in the past, as well as presently in places outside of the isolated western ideologies that Lana and Andy borrow from.

Andrea Smith's article; "Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism" and other amazing articles can be found in the above book...

Unfortunately, the directors seem ill equipped to grapple with the complexities of race in any meaningful way. Instead they opted to trade one racist ideology (racial purity) for another (the mixed-race saviors). While their intentions might have been to dismantle the racialized systems of categorization I must say that the end result merely perpetuates that which it seeks to destroy.  In regards to race, it is imperative not to begin the conversation at the eradication and erasure of entire cultures by promoting colorblind mentalities. Rather, any discourse on race should start by first hearing the different voices in communities of color and embracing difference. Not merely accepting it and asking it to disappear. I get that Lana and Andy want us to exist in a post-racial society, but we cannot get to such an end game without first having some very tough discussions today—discussions that were entirely absent in Cloud Atlas.

Friday, July 5, 2013


Humour is like violence. They both come to you unexpectedy, and the more unpredictabe they both are, the better it gets - Takeshi Kitano

It takes a special kind of talent to play the same character over & over again and at the same time not be redundant or have your fans get sick & tired of it. Takeshi Kitano has been doing this masterfully for DECADES. Beneath the random deadpan humor and moments of violence within his world is a unique, one of a kind brilliance that's tough to describe. Most modern Japanese filmmakers tend to draw inspiration from other older Japanese filmmakers (Kurosawa, Ozu, etc) or from influential American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino who ironically gets a lot of his inspiration from modern Japanese filmmakers, causing a strange lil' paradox. But I feel like a lot of Takeshi Kitano's inspiration comes from Robert Bresson (the emotionless, deadpan performances) along with his own own personal life. Sure there's elements of vintage Scorsese in his work (the exploration in to the world of organized crime, corrupt police & gritty violence) and he's sited Kurosawa as a direct influence, but it’s mostly Bresson & personal stuff...

In Fireworks one of the characters takes up the hobby of drawing after he's been paralyzed and we see his skills develop as an artist as the film progresses. That artwork (Takeshi's own real art) is featured heavily throughout the film. Kitano's artwork is also featured in his romantic drama; Dolls. In Sonatine, the main character has constant visions of committing suicide. In real life Kitano was involved in a motorcycle accident that left half of his face paralyzed. He was quoted as saying the motorcycle accident was an "unconscious suicide attempt" as he was suffering from depression in the mid 90's. Both of these personal events (painting & the unconscious suicide attempt) go hand in hand; Kitano took up painting during the recovery from his motorcycle accident...
Glory Of A Filmmaker

I use to think the motivation behind Takeshi Kitano's performances in his Yakuza-related films was just apathy. To a certain degree that is the case but it goes a little deeper. Films like; Sonatine, Violent Cop, Boiling Point and recent stuff like; Outrage & Outrage Beyond feature emotionless main characters roaming through life with the occasional violent outburst. The only time they show emotion in these selected films is during an act of violence. Sure there may be occasional laughter but it’s usually at the expense of someone else as they're being beaten or killed. After watching Fireworks for the first time I realize that Kitano's characters are severely depressed which would explain their solemn/emotionless faces and violent outbursts. That apathy I mentioned earlier is brought on by depression. The characters Kitano plays are indifferent towards life. They really don’t care if they live or die. In just about every one of Kitano's prominent Yakuza/gangster/cop drama films is a scene of him with a gun pointed at his head and he either doesn't care or is daring the person pointing the gun to pull the trigger...
Violent Cop
Boiling Point
Outrage Beyond
Notice all the shootout scenes in Sonatine. Kitano stands completely uncovered among all the bullets whizzing by with no emotion on his face shooting back almost like he wants to get shot...
or notice the lack of emotion on his face whenever one of his characters is getting ready to kill someone...
Violent Cop
Violent Cop

Based on the previous category its a given that Kitano's films feature brutal deaths and plenty of blood. Just the titles of some of his films alone should give off that impression; Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Outrage, etc...

Violent Cop
Violent Cop

In the film world Takeshi Kitano is mostly known for playing one of two roles; He's either a corrupt & jaded police officer sick of chasing down criminals or he's a jaded Yakuza underling sick of killing people and taking orders. Both prototypes are in their late 40's through their early 60's and have come to the realization that there's nothing beyond the life they are use to so they accept it and mope through life occasionally killing or beating the hell out of someone to make themselves feel better when all it does is bring on more depression & sadness that I mentioned earlier. Kitano's films during the late 80's through the 90's shares a connection with Michael Haneke's Austrian films like The Seventh Continent & 71 Fragments... in showing how robotic & formulaic our lives can be and how we don’t question anything and just accept it. Both Kitano & Haneke essentially showed the pointlessness in some of the everyday things we do in life. What’s also interesting is that whether a cop or a yakuza - the characters Kitano plays are shitty, dislikeable people yet I still find myself caring about and emotionally invested in them. Not since Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant and Ray Liotta in Narc have I actually cared about a crooked, shady and/or volatile police officer character. But Kitano's quirky humor and deadpan delivery makes them either likable or at least intriguing and worth investing your time in.

Part of my fascination with Takeshi Kitano as a person comes from the lack of complex Asian American characters with some kind of emotional depth in modern American films (or just the lack of Asian American characters in film all together). He just seems like a unique individual. Among American audiences Takeshi Kitano is mostly know for starring in the crossover cult film; Battle Royale and, if you'll all allow me to dust this one off, Johnny Mnemonic. He also collaborated with American actor Omar Epps in the gangster drama Brother. Given Battle Royale's crossover success (at least in the cult movie world) and Quentin Tarantino's hard-on for Kitano's films, I'm surprised his other work didn’t draw much attention in America. Not that he needs the validation of American movie audiences at all (he's practically a legend in Japan). It’s just that his work shows a more complex & unique type of Asian character that we (Americans) aren't really exposed too that often. Even as just an actor - Kitano's ability to play an antihero or a likeable villain could be utilized in American films today...
Johnny Mneumonic
Battle Royale
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

There's more to Takeshi Kitano than shootouts, murder, corrupt police & yakuza. In Japan he's actually more known as a comedian (he hosts a weekly variety show). Although I may not be a fan of some of these films (Dolls & Getting Any to be specific) I still can't ignore his lighter side. Although problematic, a film like Dolls shows his melodramatic side whereas Getting Any & Takeshis' shows him tackling a different style of comedy (slapstick). Personally I don't think wacky slapstick humor works for him but he made an attempt at stepping outside of his comfort zone, while stuff like A scene at the sea & Kikujiro show his ability to work with children...
Getting Any?
A Scene At The Sea

Another thing Takeshi Kitano gets away with is the cliché use of the beach. Anyone who knows anything about art house cinema should know that the beach and/or the ocean has always played a major role (The Seventh Seal, Beau Travail, Tree Of Life, To The Wonder, etc). No matter how violent or intense some of Kitano's films may be, at some point we're gonna find ourselves on a beach usually coupled with a death or a suicide (Both Fireworks & Sonatine end with a suicide on a beach and Outrage ends with one of the main villains getting killed near the beach). Given all the violence in his films, a scene at the beach feels like a breath of fresh air after all the chaos we've witnessed...
A Scene At The Sea

The cinema of Takeshi Kitano is an acquired taste. His films are sometimes described as boring and I really can’t argue with that (with the exception of all the isolated moments of violence). There are moments in his work where the camera doesn’t cut when it typically should and things just get hypnotic for a brief moment (emulated today by filmmakers like Nicholas Winding Refn in Drive & Bronson). His type of dry, monotone, random humor isn’t for everyone and not all audiences have the patience to see the complexity of some of his characters that could easily be described as unintruiging. But for me his films (er...MOST of his films) work. If you're a fan of Bresson, old Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and very dark humor then I highly suggest you explore the world of Takeshi Kitano.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...