Thursday, 22 October 2015

Inherent Vice by Paul Thomas Anderson

Well, now I have seen the film adaptation by director Paul Thomas Anderson of Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice.

The film follows the story of the book rather faithfully, but cuts a lot of it. This is of course inevitable in any film adaptation, but in this case it becomes somewhat of a problem. The cuts make the film very incoherent. The book was already rather incoherent, but the film is far worse in that regard.

I have read the novel and still found the film very hard to follow, far more so than the book. One can only imagine how confusing the film must be for someone who hasn't read the book.

Sadly, the thematic concerns seem to be somewhat lost in that general incoherence, Pynchon's argument weakened due to all the cuts.

The problem really is that Anderson's direction doesn't shed any new light on the story, or do anything really creative with it, he just re-tells it. And so with all the cuts, you lose a lot in the translation to film, yet don't really gain anything. There's really nothing here that wasn't done better in the book.

It's sad, for the film is well-made otherwise. The very look of the film is wonderful. It is shoot on grainy and colour-saturated filmstock, so that it looks like it was made in the 70s. The acting is truly excellent throughout the entire film. Even minor roles are strongly cast. This makes many of the individual scenes and jokes come off successfully.

So despite the film being a bit of a mess as a whole, it is often an entertaining mess. If you see it without any expectations to understand the plot whatsoever and just go with the flow, it will be a fun but confusing experience. I do however miss the substance of the book and all the wonderful material that was cut from it.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a animated film by Isao Takahata, co-founder alongside Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli.

It is based on a Japanese Folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Like the folktale, the story of the film begins with a Bamboo cutter discovering a small girl inside a glowing bamboo stalk. The Bamboo-cutter and his wife, who have no children, raise the girl as their own child, believing her to be a princess sent by Heaven. The girl grows supernaturally fast, and has a happy childhood in the countryside. She develops a close friendship with a boy named Sutemaru.

The Bamboo-cutter then discovers gold and expensive clothing in the bamboo, the same way he discovered the girl. He believes this to be a message from Heaven, to use the gold to give the Princess a life as a rich noblewoman in the Capital City (probably Kyoto). Therefore, he constructs a mansion in the city and moves the family there. But this proves to be a mistake, as the Princess, now named Kaguya, can't adapt to the restrictions and artifice of life as a noblewoman.

The story is a wonderful fairy tale, told with lyricism and a dreamlike ambience.  Indeed, the division between reality and dreams at times break down. Yet there is also some humour weaven into Takahata's rich narrative tapestry.

The characterisation is strong. Kaguya is especially a very sympathetic character. One feels with her throughout the entire film, including every emotion from ecstatic joy to deepest depression. And like his friend Miyazaki, Takahata admirably avoids making of his characters into traditional evil villains, despite having a message to impart.

The animation is utterly beautiful. It has an unique watercolourlike style, looking like no other animated film that I know of.  The animation often subtly changes to convey the mood of a scene, when for example Kaguya is distressed, the animation gets more rough.

The music is also wonderful, with composer Joe Hisaishi again proving that he is one of the greatest film composers of our time. The voice acting is also excellent, with a strong lead performance from Aki Asakura as Kaguya.

This film is an ecstatic celebration of life and it's simple gifts, especially nature, family and friends. The conflict in the film comes from the forces that prevent Kaguya from living her life in accordance with these values.

Foremost of these are the cruel demands of a femininity that ultimately requires her to lose her natural, free humanity and become the possession of a man. These demands are portrayed with an almost visceral horror, as Kaguya's teeth are blackened and her eyebrows plucked. Much of the film is about Kaguya's struggle against these patriarchal norms in order to retain her freedom and dignity. The feminist message is clear.

As Kaguya's journey to the city also is a journey to a different social class, the film also touches briefly on class issues. In a significant scene, Sutemaru and Kaguya meet again in the Capital city, in which her wealth and his continuing poverty is contrasted.  It lays bare the injustice of a society in which a few live in idle luxury, while most people live in poverty and are sometimes even forced to steal in order to survive.

But Takahata also sends the message that wealth, luxury and status are not necessary for living a good life, perhaps even inimical to that goal. There are other, simpler things that matter. The film makes a sharp contrast between Kaguya's poor but happy, natural and free childhood in the countryside and her dour, unfree and artificial life as a rich noble in the city. This may sound banal, but is a message worth hearing in this increasingly consumerist age.

Kaguya is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is beautifully made, and is ultimately a very life-affirming experience.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner

Woyzeck is a play by German playwright Georg Büchner (1813-1837).

It is a simple story of a a soldier, Franz Woyzeck. He loses his sanity due to cruel treatment he receives from his captain and a doctor. The Doctor uses him for deranged experiments, like making only eat peas for three months. Woyzeck has an unmarried relationship with a woman named Marie, and they have child together. When he discovers that Marie is cheating on him with another man, this is the final humiliation. Woyzeck kills her and then apparently drowns. Whether he killed himself or it was an accident is left to interpretation.

The play was unfinished at the author's death and is in a very fragmentary state.  Scenes begin and end abruptly, and their order in which they are supposed to be is very uncertain. Matters weren't helped much by the difficulty in deciphering Büchner's handwriting and the physical decay of the original manuscript.

What does emerge through the murk is however a work that is far ahead of it's time. This is one of the first works of fiction to look at the psychological and especially social causes of crime.
Woyzeck's insanity and murder is for Büchner the product of the soldier's awful treatment by his social superiors.

There is of course a strong criticism of class society implicit in this. Woyzeck is the ordinary proletarian, who is in the end a victim of an unequal society.

The portrait of the Doctor, and his truly sickening experiments, is an early warning against the potential for medicine and science to have a dehumanizing effect. A portrayal of the very forces that would later produce Mengele.

There is an truly excellent operatic adaptation by Alban Berg, called Wozzeck. It is one of the true masterpieces of modernist music.

Woyzeck is a truly great play, astounding in it's psychological depth and prophetic in it's social criticism. It is unfinished, but it accomplishes more than most finished plays do.