Friday, April 30, 2010

100. Australian director Andrew Dominik’s US film “The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford” (2007): A psychological maze

confess that this movie made me fall asleep after the first half hour. When I woke up, certain images from the film persisted in my memory (Roger Deakin’s play with light and shadow of the approaching train), nagging me to view the film once again from the start. To my surprise, on my second attempt, I found it to be one of those rare films which do not provide much evidence of good cinema in the early sequences while it provides such evidence much later on. And this is a rather long (2hr 40min) film. However, the film gradually entices the viewer to keep watching with the filmmaking competence improving as the film keeps un-spooling. By the end of the movie, it is quite likely that a patient viewer will not feel cheated by the director Andrew Dominik but instead admire his work that is a cocktail of delicate performances, suitable music, and admirable cinematography.

Long titles often summarize the plot of a film. The killing of the outlaw Jesse James is miniscule to the long tale of psychological games between various characters in the film. Here is a case of fictional biography (what an oxymoron!) authored by Ron Hansen and written for the screen by the director Dominik. While the assassination itself forms the fulcrum of the film, Dominik divides the film at that juncture. First he presents the buildup to the assassination and the second part is the reaction to and the aftermath of the event. Much shorter than the earlier one, it is the second half that truly makes the film come alive.

One would usually associate the word assassination with leaders, political or religious. Here is a tale of an outlaw who killed human beings as he would kill snakes (shown in the movie). Yet ironically he captured the hearts and minds of an entire nation. Here is a tale of a robber of banks and trains. Dominik and Hansen present a revisionist view of the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), an outlaw wearing clean clothes and a typical family man. The viewer is made to empathize with the dapper Jesse James, the moody Jesse James, the loving Jesse James who gifts a gun to his would be killer…The clouds in the film have a touch of Terence Mallick’s cinema as much as the absurdist visuals of a man taking a bath in a bathtub in the middle of a field. This is not surprising as Dominik is stated to be a fan of Mallick’s Badlands and Mallick in his turn thanks Dominik in the credits of the latter’s The New World.

The film appears to be tale of a fan and a larger-than-life hero. A hero has to be a loner—he not one of us lesser mortals. It is therefore no wonder that Dominik/Hansen’s outlaw sits alone brooding in a backyard close to snakes that he is about to kill to make a point. It is no wonder Dominik/Hansen’s outlaw is one that his own blood brother Frank (Sam Shepard) gradually distances himself from a normal sibling relationship. The filmmakers take great pains to sketch the toll of the evil deeds of the outlaw on himself while journalists and fans think of him differently. The bounty on his head does not help the disintegration of a normal mind that sees enemies and turn tails among his buddies. The repressed anger and frustration comes out on screen as Jesse shoots at a fish in a frozen lake. It is no small wonder that Brad Pitt won the best actor award at the Venice film festival for the role.

he unusual merit of the film is the hero Jesse James in part recognizing his would-be assassin Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), much in advance of his death. He not only quick with his gun, he is quick on the uptake. The silent pact of a Jesus and a Judas is insinuated between the all-knowing outlaw, who after going to the church with his family uncharacteristically keeps his gun away to dust a painting on the wall, and the eventual killer. One could argue that this "Jesus" of the American wild west needs a "Judas" to keep his notoriety alive. The many confrontations between the hero and the fan add up to a cat and mouse game that is captured delightfully by the camera, a twitch here and a look there, and the game is up. Even the Mallick-like nature shots by the impressive Roger Deakins add an underscore to the visual details of the battles between coward and hero.

One of the defining lines of this psychological film is when Jesse James (Pitt) asks his fan and eventual killer Robert Ford (Affleck): “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Sometime later the fan replies after introspecting “Heaven knows I would be “ornerier” (sic) if I were in your position.” To reduce the film to interactions between hero/anti-hero and coward would be incorrect as the characters take on different hues in each sequence just as the clouds captured by Deakins and Dominik in the movie are ephemeral, changing colors and shapes with time (note the poster of the movie above).

The script goes into top gear after Jesse is killed. Casey Affleck’s character was so far shown in the movie as a fan of 19 going on 20, looking for a chance get rich with the bounty money. The disintegration of the “coward” is more interesting than the disintegration of the “hero”. The first part had shown an assassin hero-worshiping his victim, with homosexual overtones of even sleeping in his bed before the kill. The second section shows him as a heterosexual and exhibiting signs of a courageous man confronting a balladeer (Nick Cave) to correct him on his facts. The scenes of the re-enacted assassinations are lovely studies in human psychology. Affleck’s Oscar nomination for his performance was well deserved.

Over the years I have been amused to find fine Australian talent migrating to USA to make movies. Andrew Dominik is not the first. One recalls Peter Weir who could never recreate the magic of Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Last Wave after crossing the Pacific. Big budgets and Hollywood’s rules seemed to stifle him with some of his latent talent emerging in Dead Poet’s Society. Bruce Beresford is another Aussie director whose work in Australia (such as Breaker Morant) was a tad better than the Oscar winning Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. It is equally true of a slew of actors Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, et al. Or the case of the amazing Australian cinematographers Russell Boyd and John Seale, who have both made a mark in recent times with new technology rather than the creative surges evident in their early Australian works. It is no wonder that Dominik chose Australian musicians, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, to lend a fabulous musical score, over American musicians.

In retrospect, this American film, shot in Canada, with all the Australian talent behind the camera, is different from other regular American films. Two remarkable directors, the Scott brothers—Ridley and Tony—have partly bankrolled the film. Evidently they had confidence in Dominik to make a rather unusual American film. Revisionist films have been made in the US but have never been highlighted by most film critics. A particular film that I would put in perspective is Abraham Polonsky’s less-fictional biography Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) with Robert Redford, Katherine Ross and Robert Blake. Unfortunately, the talented Polonsky was blacklisted by the McCarthyists. Dominik need not have such fears as his film only looks inside minds of men and women, not the politics of bounty-killing.

Dominik has made an interesting film. I wish the mettle of the latter part of the film was evident in the earlier parts to make a viewer sit up from the beginning of the film. And last but not least, enjoy the unobtrusive music that adds to the richness of the film. A more pertinent evaluation of the film would be to focus on the word "coward" than the word "assassination" in the title of the film. If one reflects on the movie, it is basically a study of hero worship rather than of heroism or of cowardice. It is also a study of how the larger population reacts to heroes and what the journalists write about them. For a while the assassin is the hero for many; later he is not. Arguably, the film is not just about Jesse James or Robert Ford. It is about us.

Author's note:  As this is is the hundredth movie discussed on this blog, I thank all the readers who have written to me with useful comments or words of encouragement.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

99. Japanese director Yojiro Takita’s “Okuribito” (Departures) (2008): Amazing grace of handling dead bodies

Many viewers would be touched by the tale of an aspiring cellist, who accidentally becomes a mortician (an undertaker or a funeral director, to some) when he loses his dream job with a symphony orchestra. Many would even be stupefied by the ingenuity of the filmmakers to pick up a seemingly unique subject such as “encoffinment” as a subject for a feature film. Many others would be in awe of the Asian traditions that respect the dead, the elderly, and the institution of marriage until (and beyond!) “death do us part”. Many others would be equally intrigued by the Asian traditions that consider associating any profession relating to the dead as being somewhat demeaning and not worthy of public stature.

Director Yojiro Takita’s film is loosely based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical book The Coffin Man, which was subsequently adapted for the screen by the scriptwriter Kundo Koyama. While Takita and Koyama need to be complimented on deciding to bring to the big screen a heartwarming tale of a disappearing tradition of subcontracted morticians in Japan, there is the strange overpowering element of music that is pivotal to the somewhat mysterious organic development of the movie’s plot and in all probability this is obviously disconnected to Shinmon’s original tale. As I was intrigued as how the duo of Takita and Koyama added the powerful element of music to the tale, I stumbled on a detail available on the Internet that the lead actor in Departures, Masahiro Motoki, was a member of a band before he took to acting and that the film Departures was a direct outcome of the actor reading Shinmon’s book. Evidently, Motoki had much to do with development of the final Takita-Koyama collaborative effort.

The film is overtly an essay on the art of taking care of the dead under the gaze of family members and friends. It is also a film that details the dressing of the dead body while covered by sheets and the application of make-up on the corpse to make it resemble the best living memory of the dead person, all the while ensuring that there is no disrespect to the dead and living present in the room. Yet the movie offers much more entertainment and reasons to introspect than these facets of the script that could be attributed to Shinmon’s book. A sub-text of the film deals with reverse urban migration, of going back to the villages as urban employment becomes unpredictable and unstable under recession. Much later in the film there is mention of salmon returning upstream from the oceans to die. The metaphor becomes one of the many Shintoist references where life’s patterns can be understood by studying nature. Here is a movie that attempts to improve life and marital compatibility by having a closer look, not at death, but at the dead.

There is somber black humor—a lovely dead girl is discovered by the morticians to be a transsexual during the embalming; typos in advertisements hilariously bring the world of morticians close to that of travel agents; and the viewers are shown a coveted meal of an octopus, disappearing into the waters of a canal because those who were to devour it realize it the sea creature is still alive and then decide to release it into natural freedom. Dead or live octopus, the film is replete with comparisons of the dead with the living and vice-versa. It is not without a connection when later in the film an elderly mortician, a widower, speaks like a sage—“The living eat the dead, unless they are plants”—as he cooks a puffer roe, the size of a poultry egg, surrounded by live indoor plants and an image of his dead wife who he fondly remembers.

Takita’s Departures won the coveted Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Grand Prize at Montreal Film Festival apart from some 30 other awards. This would not be surprising for anyone whose hearts rule their minds. If one looks closely at the honors the film has garnered, these are basically for the director, the actors, and the sound technicians—all well deserved. Yet the mainstay of the film, for me, was the music composed by a talented Japanese called Joe Hisaishi, violinist and composer, who transformed parts of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Brahms’ Wiegenlied, and Bach’s Ave Maria as the basis of his own musical compositions for the film Departures. Joe Hisaishi is a stage name that the composer chose to indicate his fascination for the US composer Quincy Jones as Hisaishi is close to Quincy in written Japanese. Now Hisaishi is a name to watch for in film music as his music already has played a role to the success of at least three recent films—Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and restored sound version of 1920’s silent Buster Keaton’s The General. And surprisingly not one of the thirty plus awards has gone to the talented composer.

A keen viewer of the film will recall the scene in the film where the cellist finds a jagged stone next to his cello with the musical notes of a piece called The Wayfarer. I can only guess the piece of music relates to Mahler’s The Wayfarer, a song of grief sung by the singer waiting for the beloved. The film has a subplot of the cellist turned mortician coming to terms with disappearance of his father when he is quite young, but already showing flair to play the cello. When the cellist finally gets to meet his father after harboring hate towards his missing parent for most of his life, he finds out his father is dead with just a cardboard box of possessions to leave behind. He has to embalm his dead father, with his dead fingers clutching a symbolic smooth stone. The viewer is never told why the father left his wife, while we can guess that the father whose gifts to his only son ranged from written musical scores and stones, both rough and smooth, was in remote touch with his son, while the son takes time to put the pieces together. Finally, why did the filmmakers choose the cello over a violin or a viola for the lead character's favorite musical instrument? Avid filmgoers might get a likely answer to that question by viewing Fellini's under-rated classic Orchestra Rehearsal (Prova d'orchestra) made in 1978.

This Japanese film can be lauded for its many virtues—a fascinating subject that is ecumenical (as it shies away from being typically Shinto or Buddhist, while one of the dead has a Christian/Jewish name, Naomi), endearing performances from the lead actor Masahiro Motoki and Akira Kurosawa’s stock actor in later films Tsutomu Yamazaki (Kagemusha and High and Low), beautiful adaptation of western classical music, and finally an uplifting theme of how any job can elicit respect of others if done well. It is no wonder the Oscar voters loved it, as this Japanese film meets many of the values that Hollywood traditionally celebrates.

Yet after the watching the movie, I wondered if any of those who thought the Japanese film was unique had ever seen a brilliant Iranian mockumentary film called Bitter Dreams (Khab-e Talkh) (2004) which deals with a parallel story of “encoffinment” of dead Muslim bodies in Iran. While encomiums are well deserved for the director and scriptwriter of the Japanese film Departures, the gaping holes in the story makes you wonder how this film could beat its co-nominated French film Laurent Cantet’s The Class in the eventual Oscar race in 2009. The film never explains the sudden exit of the cellist father from his life though both his parents never remarried, and his mother retained his father’s music record collection. The film never explains the need for the implicit father-son communication through rocks, smooth and jagged, even though rocks occupy an importance in Shintoism. The film never clarifies why the jagged rock came wrapped in the notes of The Wayfarer. The film never explains why the octopus that was to be eaten is freed, when the same individuals eat and enjoy dead chicken. There is mention of death being a “gateway” in the film but there is no discussion of afterlife in the film. For me Departures could have more fulfilling if the trio of Takati, Motoki, and Koyama had developed the film a wee bit further developing the suggested Shinto imagery in the film of birds realigning their positions in formation flight, of stones, and of salmons. It would then have not just won the hearts of the viewers but also their minds. Then the deaths would truly be “food for thought” of the living.

P.S. The Iranian film Bitter Dreams and the French film The Class have earlier been reviewed on this blog. A trivia for those interested: Takati, Motoki, Hisaishi and Yamazaki are all December born!! Do they also think alike?