Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I guess there’ll always be a taste for the What-Is-Reality? mind-bender, that sub-genre of movies that establishes one set of rules for its fictive universe only to continually undermine those guidelines and leave the viewer pondering what exactly constitutes the fundamental make-up of his world. After all, our certainty in our own reality is unlikely to increase anytime soon and we need films that reflect this precarious sense of our own existence. And while such projects have a built-in tendency to privilege narrative trickery over existential investigation, at their best they can raise important questions about our ambiguous relationship to our surroundings and the ensuing difficulties of perception.

Last year’s Timecrimes was a superior example of the sub-genre and so is Moon, Duncan Jones’ feature-length debut, although the two films could not be more different. Whereas the earlier picture was more concerned with the intricacies of its byzantine narrative than questions of character, Jones’ movie is cooler, sustaining a note of bemused contemplation even as the demands of the plot finally take over. But Timecrimes managed to work in a fairly sophisticated investigation into the ethics of seeing between its obvious genre thrills and Moon is an even headier- and far more affecting – work. Allowing his character(s) to discover their (lack of) reality relatively early on, Jones structures his film around their slow acceptance of their situation, a strategy that ensures that, for all the film’s narrative play, it continually keeps its attention focused at a refreshingly human level.

Of course, human is a loaded word in Moon. Taking place in a near future in which space missions are organized by corporations rather than the government, the film follows Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), an astronaut completing a three-year assignment at a lunar station. Hired by an energy conglomerate, he harvests helium from the moon’s surface to be sent back to earth as an alternative – and highly profitable – power source. But as the mission nears its end, cracks in the astronaut’s mental armor begin to show. Left alone without a working communication system and only the GERTY computer (a HAL-like piece of artificial intelligence who speaks in a similarly dry monotone and indicates his mood through emoticons) for company, he begins to hallucinate. One day, distracted, he scalds himself with hot water. The next, he crashes his lunar rover.

Waking from the crash, he slowly gets back to business, eventually returning to the moon’s surface to discover the wrecked rover and… himself inside. Bringing the other “Sam” back to the station, he places him in GERTY’s care. Before long we realize that we’ve been following each of the two Sams at different times without realizing that they weren’t the same person. Before the crash, the narrative aligned our perspective with Sam 1, after the crash, Sam 2, and now for the rest of the movie, we follow them both. It can take a second to adjust, but once past the central ontological leap, much of the rest of the film is devoted to the process of comprehending the situation (both for the characters and the viewer), rather than any further mind-bending developments. As the two Sams quarrel and then reconcile, they team up to investigate just what exactly is going on and discover that they’re both clones, part of an endless series of “Sams” created by the parent company to carry out the helium harvesting, and set about disrupting the plans of their makers.

But Moon wears its corporate critique lightly, pitching its inquiry more at the existential than the political level. Set against the antiseptic white walls of the station and the gently glowing pulsations of the lunar surface and powered by a finely gradated performance by Sam Rockwell which manages to distinguish between the behaviors of the two almost identical characters, Jones’ is a film that asks, in an age of artificial intelligence – or, really in any age – what it means to be human. Which turns out to be an interesting question considering that the three figures that we see "in person" – the two Sams and GERTY – are not technically live “people”, while the characters that are unambiguously human exist only through radio transmissions, often several years old.

But in the film’s affective highlight, Jones leaves little doubt as to his answer. After re-establishing communications with earth, Sam 1 telephones his daughter through a video device and finds that she is not 3 years old as expected but 15 and that the 3 years he’s lived as “Sam” fail to cover the bulk of the elapsed time since his memory tells him he’s left earth. After his daughter fails to recognize him and ends the conversation, Sam leaves the rover, turns around and, as the giant outline of earth fills the screen, wistfully intones “I want to go home,” a sentiment as natural to a clone as to any “real” human being.

Still, for all the somewhat easy irony of the artificial intelligence acting “human” (an alignment that extends to GERTY as well, who finally exhibits some generous, very un-HAL like behavior), while the technically human corporate heads act monstrously, Moon’s existential inquiries are considerably more complex. For example, how exactly are we to view the relationship between the two Sams (not to mention all the other “Sams” that may have existed or will exist)? They share (mostly) the same memories, but they are clearly two (or more) distinct people.

The confusion is foregrounded early on when Jones tricks the audience into acknowledging both Sams as the same person, forcing us to accept a continuity of personality between the two, before revealing their separate existences and slightly variant personalities. Then in the film’s conclusion, the question of interchangeability is addressed definitively as the Sams work out which will return to earth, with first one and then the other volunteering. Ultimately, as far as the narrative (both that concocted by Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker and by the Sams themselves) goes, it doesn’t matter which of them fulfills which role, so long as one stays behind and one returns. Are we then finally to read the two Sams as different aspects of one person or as two distinct beings? The two iterations of the character are probably too similar to accept the former reading, but the latter seems rather unsatisfactory too. Ultimately, what exactly is lost when Sam 2 leaves his doppelganger behind?

If these questions at first seem too specific to an invented set-up that bears no relation to our immediate situation to merit much consideration, then further reflection shows that they’re clearly worth pondering beyond a purely speculative academic exercise. Apart from any interest they may hold as a potential future scenario, they offer a welcome challenge to our neatly constructed sense of identity, causing us to rethink our own standards of self-definition. If the What-Is-Reality? sub-genre has something valuable to offer us, it’s precisely this disturbance of our relationship to our surroundings (and ego) that we tend to take for granted. And by bringing a human face to this specific line of inquiry - even if it’s only that of a clone - Moon offers a particularly resonant entry in our ongoing cinematic efforts to better understand ourselves.


My review of Quiet Chaos has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Overdue, Late Spring Link Roundup

Catching up with some recent reviews for Slant Magazine and The L Magazine:

New Releases:

The Servant (The L)

Human Rights Watch International Film Festival:

Monday, June 8, 2009


The Conversation aside, I've never been a particular fan of Francis Ford Coppola, even if his films clearly merit a certain amount of serious attention. But I've been thoroughly enjoying his recent self-financed projects, 2007's impressive, but uneven Youth Without Youth and, especially, his latest work, Tetro, which I reviewed for Slant Magazine. Although the latter film abounds in plot absurdities and a certain awkward earnestness, in its gentle but inspired experimentalism, its rich HD palette and the sheer pleasure it takes in its own sense of invention it's an enormously appealing work, one I would be far more inclined to re-watch than The Godfather.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

24 City

Over the past 12 years, Jia Zhang-ke has built his remarkable body of work around the contradictions and absurdities of a China that’s moved from a repressive communism with a struggling economy to a slightly less repressive capitalism engaged in a rapid and total project of modernization in an alarmingly short period of time. Drawing on situations both real and imagined, Jia’s films - particularly his more recent works - revolve around settings which either stand at the crux of the country’s modernizing impulses (the mass evacuations in Still Life necessitated by the Three Gorges Dam project) or are symbolically evocative of China’s new global standing (the world-in-miniature simulacrum of the amusement park in The World), while drawing on increasingly surreal visual juxtapositions to bring home the essential strangeness as well as the human cost of the nation’s re-invention.

Both elements (setting, surreal juxtapositions) are in play in 24 City, Jia’s largely documentary work revolving around the demolition of a massive government factory - formerly charged with manufacturing military aeronautics - to make way for a luxury condo development. Although the set-up lacks the same absurdo-tragic resonance as, say, that of Still Life, as City works its way through the series of interviews (both real and staged) with former workers, children of workers and executives at Factory 420 that constitute the film’s principal content, what emerges is the sense of a workplace as total environment. And while the assembly line was clearly no utopia, the absence of a certain way of life (one in which everything – schooling, entertainment, medical care – is provided by the employer) is a clearly felt loss among at least some of the subjects. Much of the stories the people tell are overwhelmingly sad. One woman outlines the woes that followed after she was laid off from the factory in the early 1990s. Another man reminisces about his mentor who taught him never to throw away any tool, no matter how worn. When, later, he goes to visit this man, he finds an old, decrepit creature with failing memory.

While these interview segments – which Jia intercuts with footage of the factory remnants, snippets of poetry, or simply a few seconds of black screen – gain resonance from the knowledge that these people and their sorrows are real, the director soon complicates our response to the material. For the final few segments he brings in actors to deliver scripted monologues that are seemingly indistinguishable from the unstaged interviews. Although many viewers will recognize Joan Chen in the longest of these sequences – especially after, in the film’s one too-cute meta conceit, she informs the camera that people used to tell her she looked like Joan Chen – there’s nothing else in the segment to differentiate it from the preceding interviews. Still, it won’t do to make too much out of Jia’s formal strategies. He’s always been a director who’s felt free to call on both fictional and non-fictional elements to achieve his ends and, while he’s never combined them so explicitly in a single film, it seems an approach wholly consistent with his methods. Although reality may often yield oddities beyond what fiction can conceive, the reverse is just as often true. Here, Jia takes documentary (which is by no means exempt from falsehood itself) as far as it can go and then supplements it with his own reality. If he doesn’t distinguish between the two, it’s because the distinction doesn’t really matter. Both might as well be true.

Jia is nothing if not a visual artist and, for all the importance of the words spoken in the interview segments, it’s through its images that 24 City makes its impact most deeply felt. Along with longtime DP Yu Lik-wai and Wang Yu, the director crafts a sharp high-def palette, equally suited to capturing the dull grays of the cavernous factory remains and the livid orange of a molten rod heated within its crumbling walls. Jia fills out his film with long, static takes of workers posing or masses of buildings standing on their last legs, giving the viewer ample time to contemplate the drawn faces of the dispossessed or the block-like structures about to tumble to the ground. But it’s in two images in particular that Jia gets to the essential strangeness at the heart of his nation’s history.

The first may be the oddest juxtaposition of them all, a mass of signifiers better understood as surrealist collage than coherent statement. As an old man in the right foreground of the screen talks to the camera about his experience making weaponry at the factory during the Korean War, a game of badminton unfolds on a stage in the background against a mural of an ancient Chinese fortress, the viewer’s eye continually distracted from the shot’s ostensible subject by the activity unfolding in the rear. In the other image, a woman walks across the factory grounds en route to the in-house hospital. As she carries her IV drip in a raised hand, she passes a small military airplane that serves as a reminder of the factory’s past, a past with which she seems inextricably bound up. The younger generation, represented in the film’s final segment by Su Na (Jia regular Zhao Tao) - the daughter of factory laborers who now works as a personal shopper for rich patrons - may be able to adjust, even hope to buy one of the upscale condos being built on the old industrial grounds; for the film’s older subjects, no such luxury exists. The Factory 420 experience may ultimately have consisted of intensive, alienated labor in the service of a dubious cause, but that isn’t to say that in the building’s demolition, and particularly when considered on the individual level, something of value isn’t lost.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Film Link Grab Bag

My only first-run film review this week deals with the disappointing documentary Kassim the Dream about a former Ugandan child soldier who became a boxing success in the United States. Of more interest are two repertory items I covered: The Moon and the Sledgehammer, Philip Trevelyan's forgotten look at a family living a pre-modern life just 20 miles outside of London, which is playing for a week at the Anthology Film Archives, and Tod Browning's comic change-of-pace Mark of the Vampire, screening tonight at Film Forum in a double bill with the director's intriguingly macabre West of Zanzibar.