Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: "Sleeping Beauty"

Ed. N.: This article originally appeared on October 9, 2011, in my series of film reviews for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has been edited slightly for the commercial release.

Sometimes, a work of art is too beautiful to behold but seems a little remote, just out of reach, and not quite accessible. Julia Leigh’s stunning Sleeping Beauty falls into that category of cinematic art.

Lucy (Emily Browning) is a young college student who seems addicted to work of all kinds. She is a high-class prostitute at night and supplements her tuition by also working shifts at a restaurant and doing administrative work in a corporate office. Her most regular client is Birdman, a lonely man who doesn’t ask her to perform anything sexual on him, and prefers her company while he eats his cereal with vodka.

Lucy answers an ad for a night job as a server in an erotic-themed catering company on a freelance basis, with the potential to obtain greater work. The enterprise is owned by a plumy-voiced, exquisite madam named Claire (Rachael Blake), whose soothing demeanour masks the more demeaning aspects of the job. If Charlotte Rampling ever decided to retire from acting, Blake is a surefire replacement, as she has that authoritative, sexy but dangerous voice down pat. Soon enough, Lucy becomes Claire’s “sleeping beauty”, by essentially being knocked unconscious with a sedative in a chamber while rich old male clients have their way with her, but without actual penetration. At some point, Lucy realizes that she needs to know what’s been going on while she’s been unconscious and submissive.

Leigh’s film is undoubtedly inspired by the dehumanizing, cruel edge Michael Haneke brings to the cinema. This is a cold film where we follow the lead character relentlessly but know little of her inner life. What must she be thinking, feeling, saying? She has classmates and roommates, but we don’t get the sense that she has any actual close friends. Browning has a stunning pre-Raphaelite beauty that glows incandescently, and perhaps some of the most perfect alabaster skin ever seen in a film. And yet despite the client’s ability to own her body, she remains as remote and mysterious as a figurine. She is presented in a delicately art-directed chamber that recalls a museum piece on display, but never connects with her clients in any way whatsoever. Perhaps this is Leigh’s point: that owning fantasy is never the same thing as connecting with it.

Ultimately, Leigh has crafted a handsome art piece that, because it rejects conventional narrative form for imagery, might be too difficult for some. As an exercise in cinema, it is exquisitely fashioned, with several unforgettable images that will burn into the psyche. The mise-en-scène is comprised of somnambulist erotic tableaux, and it’s clear that Leigh has a gift for imagery. Browning delivers one of the most daring performances in cinema this year, taking massive artistic risks and laying her body bare (if not quite her soul) showing that she is a serious, challenging type. (Trivia note: the role originally belonged to acclaimed actress Mia Wasikowska.) That being said, the film has a hard edge comparable to beautiful but poisonous flora. There was a lot of uncomfortable laughter at the sold-out screening I attended, myself included. Already notorious for appearing on the Black List of unproduced Hollywood screenplays, this difficult piece requires full attention, and perhaps another viewing, in order to fully digest and decipher its meaning. Leigh’s dialogue is sparse, and she demands that her viewer see beyond the words and images to gather her overall meaning. Although this will no doubt confuse the masses and frustrate mainstream critics, I can already sense that Sleeping Beauty is really a master’s thesis which must be examined in closer detail.

Sleeping Beauty opens in limited commercial release in New York and LA on Friday, December 2.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oscar 2012: New York Film Critics Circle Awards

It’s that time right after Thanksgiving and before Christmas when magazines and other media outlets start naming their “best of the year” selections. That also extends to film critics groups, and their opinions on which films and performances were the most worthy of attention all year. It is also, for less sophisticated or mainstream audiences not privy to artier fare, an opportunity to see what the tastemakers consider the greatest.

Award-winner prognostication is not an exact science, nor is it really an art. It’s more inexact alchemy concocted in a crystal ball and subject to the votes of a group of about 5,000 film industry professionals and the marketing and PR departments hired to influence their choices. In presidential election terms, consider this part of the annual Oscar race the equivalent of the New Hampshire primaries: they may not decide the final outcome, but they at least identify the major players and alert those not named that they have to get their name out there and step up the campaign.

I love awards shows and I love watching and handicapping the races, which produce inevitably and alternatively sensible and baffling choices (I’m still angry that Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain, but let’s debate that another time).

Today, the New York Film Critics Circle (the “NYFCC”) announced their winners. In this piece, I will attempt to analyze the winners and determine if they should clear off the final weekend of February so that they can be in L.A. and, more precisely, at the Kodak Theater.

Best Film: The Artist
Best Film and Best Director: The Artist by Michael Hazanavicius

This silent comedy opened to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and immediately picked up a distribution with The Weinstein Company for the United States. Famed for his impeccable choices in Oscar vehicles, Harvey Weinstein undoubtedly has great plans for making this crowd-pleaser one of the Best Picture nominees, if not the outright winner. Perhaps the big win here might forecast the biggest win of all. Considering that the film also received the most nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, the film has become, as of this moment (always a key operating term in the next few months as momentum is continually gauged), the movie to beat. What’s strange, however, is that NYFCC did not choose its star, Cannes prize winner Jean Dujardin, for Best Actor, which went to …

Best Actor: Brad Pitt in Moneyball and The Tree of Life

There’s an old story circulating somewhere on the Internet (that’s why you should take it with a pinch of salt) that the NYFCC allegedly chose Cameron Diaz as Best Actress of 1998 for There’s Something About Mary just because the group wanted to invite Diaz to their awards banquet to pick up her prize. That story is an insult not only to the group, but also to Diaz’s expert comic skill (she is, in my opinion, still one of the most underrated actors to this day: Being John Malkovich, anyone?). Does this explain why Brad Pitt was chosen as Best Actor? Again: insulting to both the group and the actor, so let's not go there, and move on.

Never quite a critics’ darling, Pitt’s big win here with the toniest of film critics’ groups is a sign that he’s finally recognized by the pundits and not just audiences as a serious actor. It helps that his role in the crowd-pleasing Moneyball includes plenty of big speeches and wordplay in a Best Picture frontrunner. Actors like big showy speeches and he’s got that in spades in Moneyball, which means he’ll have a wealth of scenes to choose from as his Oscar clip. It also helps that by contrasting this with a dramatic but less verbal role in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, he demonstrates how easily he shifts between more commercial fare and artier offerings. When it comes to getting an Oscar nomination, unless he splits his own ballot (actors cannot be nominated against themselves in any one category and shared-film nominations are not allowed), he’ll likely get called for at least a nomination with Moneyball.

Best Actress: Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady

Best Actress: Streep
With her winning turn as Margaret Thatcher, Streep becomes the most-decorated female actor in NYFCC history. There has been much buzz about her potentially winning a third Oscar, but be reminded that such buzz has been brewing in ebbs and flows since Reagan was still president. Affecting a British accent for the first time since that era, this much-anticipated film will now open at year’s end with more fanfare and the tantalizing possibility of at least a nomination for its star. That being said, remember that Streep’s been tapped as a sure-fire winner in the past decade for Julie & Julia, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada and Adaptation, not counting her other extraordinary performances in A Cry in the Dark, Ironweed, The Bridges of Madison County, etc. Streep will likely lock in another nomination – which would make this the seventeenth(!!) in her stellar career – but forecasting a win is something to seriously consider in about two months’ time.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Commercial Art: Getup! for Marriage Equality

The television commercial is a distinct art form in and of itself. We may remember cheesy taglines like “Where’s the beef?” and “My name is Rula Lenska”, but we often overlook the artfulness of ads such as Crystal Pepsi’s “Right Now” campaign from 1992, Apple’s once-aired-only “Big Brother” ad from 1984, and Madonna’s simple but powerful “Rock the Vote” in the early 1990s for MTV.

In the age of YouTube and the Internet, few people are turning into TV than ever before and the commercial must be catchier, edgier and more attention-getting to be truly effective. This usually means gimmicks such as the Old Spice Guy and celebrity endorsements. Sometimes there is no flair or imagination in the ads, and we are treated to endlessly series of smack-talking teenagers playing with handheld technology, college co-eds disrobing in “ironic” (although truly misogynist in nature, just ask Bitch magazine) and Twitter feeds.

Into the category of the artful commercial is Getup’s ad seeking marriage equality in Australia. It chronicles the courtship of a young gay couple from the point of view of one of the men. We see them meet cute in the commercial, go away on holiday together, meet one another’s families, fight, endure family illness and personal crises, and finally end in a marriage proposal in front of family and friends. The expression that no words are needed, and that only a picture will do, is used freely here. There is no dialogue but we know what is going on at all times.

Perhaps the greatest effect of this amazing ad, created by the ad campaign Getup Australia, is to convey the message of commitment and love to personalize the experience, giving it context away from its political aspect. It literally puts you in the shoes of one of the couples and asks: haven’t you ever been in love? Didn’t you look into your boyfriend’s / girlfriend’s / spouse’s / husband’s / wife’s eyes like that? Haven’t you ever seen the gaze returned? Already hailed as the single most beautiful ad promoting marriage equality by no less than the Advocate magazine, it speaks so much without even saying a word. It speaks to the power of the ad that its eloquence and understated elegance say so much more than a thousand words ever can.

They say that art created in service to politics is in and of itself largely a failure. I used to believe in this adage too, and still maintain that propaganda is ideology and not art in and of itself. After seeing this ad, I have never been so happy to have been proven wrong. Watch, and see for yourself.

Getup: it's time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Guilty Pleasure: Verka Serduchka (Верка Сердючка)

Have you ever looked at something completely ridiculous and, against your better judgment, not looked away from it even though you just know it’s the nuttiest thing you’ve ever seen? Some people have no stomach for something like this, but others have a penchant for taking pleasure in completely madcap, over-the-top spectacles and enjoy it without irony. I belong to the latter group, but if you have been reading my blog long enough, you’ll know that I have a mild fascination with Eastern Europe and in particular the Eurovision Song Contest in all its insane glory.

Verka Serduchka (Верка Сердючка) is perhaps the most outlandish music artist the Ukraine has to offer. He first came to prominence outside of Europe thanks to his unforgettable entry in the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest with “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”. A totally nonsensical song in English, German, Mongolian(!) and Russian, the pop-happy dance single is performed by a drag alter ego of Ukrainian singer Andriy Danylko. Given that Eurovision in 2007 contained an unusually large number of hard-rock entries attempting to ape the previous year’s winner Lordi, seeing an accordion-laced dance-pop single in four languages made up of catchphrases and no clear narrative thread or cohesion made for an unforgettable spectacle.

The single and its star were met with considerable controversy in the rather conservative Ukraine, and the selection committee was heavily criticized for sending a drag queen to represent them. Remember that in parts of the former Soviet Union, effeminate men are still the target of homophobia and Russia is in the process of trying to make any public references to homosexuality illegal, which if you ask for my opinion is just – and I am breaking with my higher level of diction here – totally dumbass and a total embarrassment for the entire country, and I hope they get over it soon. Anyway, back to the fun of Eurovision!

Watch the performance and take note of the genius of it.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: “The Descendants”

“I’ve never been there but the brochure looks nice” – Sheryl Crow

“Paradise can go f*** itself.” – Matt King (George Clooney)

That’s a rather sharp retort if I’ve ever heard one, and it sets the tone for Alexander Payne’s long-awaited new film The Descendants, eagerly anticipated since he won an Oscar for the much-ballyhooed Sideways in 2004. Having never understood the appeal of Sideways, I looked forward to The Descendants based on what I consider his previous and far superior works: Citizen Ruth, an appropriately ruthless comic diatribe on the abortion debate; About Schmidt, a frank look at mortality that coerced a career-best performance from Jack Nicholson; and Election, the astute political microcosm and quite possibly the blackest American comedy of the 90s, with a pitch-perfect performance from Matthew Broderick and a career-defining turn by Reese Witherspoon (who has yet to venture into such pitch-black material since trading up to become America’s sweetheart).

Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel of the same name, Payne opens his new film with a shot of a happy, smiling blonde woman on a motorboat in Hawaii. These may turn out to be the last moments of her life. Matt’s wife Elizabeth has been thrown from that motorboat and is in a permanent coma, with a living will that directs her husband to pull the plug on her. We find out that their teenage daughter Alexandra (wonderful Shailene Woodley) had a fight with her mother by calling her out on her affair with a local real estate kingpin (Matthew Lillard), which Matt knew nothing about. The younger daughter Scottie is a willful little brat, given to marking her exits from every room by flipping the bird. Matt is the trustee of a family trust governing the last 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian land. The trust runs out in seven years, so when they receive an offer from a developer to turn the land into a luxury golf course and resort, everyone is pressuring him to finalize the sale, take the money and run. It is by sheer dumb luck that the family has owned this property for centuries and the law against perpetuities is forcing them to liquidate or lose their rights to the land. Given these circumstances, it’s no wonder that Matt is not keen on the idea of paradise.

It would be inappropriate to describe the film as a comedy, since so many dramatic elements dominate the narrative. Similarly, it would be misleading to consider this as pure drama, since the humour is pointed and sometimes viciously funny. It is also not quite right to consider this a family film, since one would not expect you to take your whole clan to take in a film about another family dealing with impending loss and grief (you will want to take them to see The Muppets instead). The tone is pitched somewhere between all three of these, as Payne’s screenplay and direction uphold a delicate balance.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: “Melancholia”

We hear the strains of the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The images that accompany the music are in slow motion. A bride runs through a forest, the tree roots gnarling and catching her train, as if they were reaching out to drag her into a freshly-dug earthly grave. A woman carries a child away from impending doom on a golf course, deep track marks behind her, indicating that the grass is melting away and threatening to swallow them both. A horse seems to stop in its tracks, slowly falling over, at an unseen obstacle. These are the images and main characters in Lars von Trier’s new film Melancholia, and the opening serves as an overture for the rest of the work.

The film is divided into two parts, named after the protagonists Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Part one is Justine’s wedding day, a sumptuous, extravagant event held at Claire’s family’s palatial home and golf course. The reception is a disaster. Their mother (Charlotte Rampling) vocally rails against the concept marriage in her unofficial mother of the bride speech. Numerous other guests find their own way to embarrass themselves. Justine seems distant from her otherwise attentive new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), and finds ways to steal herself away from the reception to take a bath and a nap. We soon find out that Justine is clinically depressed and is struggling to find ways to keep up her glad façade on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Claire, for her part, is obsessively trying to keep things running to a schedule and ends up chiding Justine for prolonging the evening’s festivities, uttering “sometimes I just hate you so much!” more than once.

The second part finds Justine sinking deeper into her depression, and recovering at Claire’s home. In this half, we find out that a rogue planet named Melancholia, which had been hiding behind the sun, is on a rapid collision course with Earth. This is not a mass-hysterical film along the likes of Outbreak or Contagion. It is an isolated study in how a small group of people react to impending interplanetary doom. Claire’s logical but pompous husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) confidently claims that Claire’s obsession with this looming disaster is nonsense, for science tells us that no such collision will occur and life on the planet will continue. Eventually, we see Claire’s paranoia break apart her already-fragile psyche, while Justine seems to recover and grow stronger as the collision approaches.

Director von Trier has been open about his clinical depression, and reportedly came up with the idea for this film while in therapy. Depression is not always manifest in perpetual states of sadness, he (and medical science) posits, it is actually a numbing of the senses, an impenetrable guard against the ability to feel either joy or sadness. The film’s titular fictional planet, much like the classical disease, reflects the way that melancholia can happen upon a person. Sometimes, it can be explained by a lower release of endorphins in a human being. Sometimes, it is triggered by traumatic events. Whatever its impetus, von Trier seems to be saying, it comes upon even the most promising, up-and-coming people, for no rhyme, reason or meaning. You can attach a scientific explanation to it, but like the looming collision between the planets, it will travel at its own trajectory, without regard for human feeling or ideology.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Desert’s Mystery: Everything but the Girl's “Missing”

I don’t often get song lyrics wrong. No, I did not think that last night, Madonna dreamt of some bagels in “La Isla Bonita” (it helps that I grew up speaking some Spanish and knew it was an invocation to San Pedro). I did not believe anyone would excuse themselves so that they can kiss some guy. It used to bother and amuse me that North Americans could not get the words correct to songs in their first language while no one bothered learning anything other than English as a means of communication. This used to annoy me until it happened to me in late 1995.

The British dance duo Everything but the Girl (who I will refer to as “EBTG” from here on out) were known to underground American audiences, but had never achieved mainstream success despite considerable critical acclaim. They had made their reputation as a folk and jazz act to some success in their native Britain but hadn’t broken through outside of Europe. Their 1994 single “Missing” was a guitar single about a woman pining for her long-gone lover, one who vanished without a trace but who more than likely simply changed addresses. She goes to his street from time to time, wandering and wondering what might have been. It’s a mournful confession, the kind of lament you hear in the wee small hours of the morning after a drunken night of introspection. It’s exactly the kind of self-reflective poem or letter you write, re-read the morning after and, in the harsh light of day, throw out in a fit of embarrassment and disgust.

In 1995, EBTG decided to give “Missing” to American house music DJ Todd Terry to remix and play in nightclubs. The resulting work turned the song on its head. The opening slam and staccato rhythm, followed by a lilting guitar pluck, and slithering beat was a call to attention. When that slam first got onto the radio, it made you stop and listen. In the brief acoustic interlude, EBTG lead singer Tracey Thorne announces that she had stepped off the train and was walking down her street. She knows her lover is no longer there, but she’s going to check it out anyway. The beat was sinister and, paired with Thorne’s plaintive vocal, produced musical alchemy. Her little trip down your street was fueled with a mission and a driving force that suggests her quest to find you will not be denied. It’s the sort of single that Adele Hugo would have recorded had she been born a century and a half later and had a recording studio in her room at the asylum.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trailer Park: Dueling Snow White Movie Trailers

In this corner: Charlize
Once in awhile, you can sniff out marketing strategies that have nakedly obvious objectives. They’re designed to go after your hard-earned money and sell you a “notion”, a “fantasy” or a “lifestyle”. And then there’s the occasional strategy that is actually a corporate battle royale played out in public.

Universal Pictures has a revisionist tale on a classic fairy tale coming in June 2012. This is Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Twilight's Kristen Stewart in the title role. The tale is revisionist because it doesn’t just show the titular princess fleeing an evil queen and a contract killer who has been commissioned to bring back her heart in a box. Snow is draped in armour and wields a mean shield.

The evil queen is none other than Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, whose embodiment of the villainess appears to be in the same vein as Sigourney Weaver’s acclaimed interpretation in Snow White: a Tale of Terror. This is a queen who has the power to literally suck the life out of those who get in her way the way those Death Eaters do in the Harry Potter books. It’s a bold fanboy-style epic and a tone that is guaranteed to bring in anyone except for the family crowd. The trailer came out on November 11.

A few days later, a dueling project had its trailer released. Relativity Media has a more comic take on the tale, entitled Mirror, Mirror (no relation to Gregory Maguire’s novel), out in March 2012. This version is a light-hearted version with Julia Roberts sporting not so much an English accent as a peculiar enunciation that recalls nothing more than an American trying to pass off for British. (This is what Carrie Bradshaw once described as having "a case of the Madonnas".) I think she’s directed to sound regal and nothing more. Since she herself is film royalty and an Oscar winner, Relativity has clearly brought out the big guns for their competing project.

The film is not interested in courting the fanboy audience, as it’s a big, fun, cheery version for the whole family. All you have to do to differentiate between the two, if you knew nothing else about them, was to check the lighting. This one’s colour palette recalls Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not Saving Private Ryan. While Theron gets to instill genuine fear while barely containing masked pathology, Roberts lets loose with her trademark laugh and those quips for which she’s known. Since Roberts is first and foremost a movie star and not a chameleonic character actor, she plays a variation of herself, but cut to fit the character. This is not a bad thing, unless you happen to hate Roberts herself. (Also, she clearly had a lot more fun than you and I do in collecting her paycheque.)

In the other corner: Julia
These two studios initially had a handshake deal or gentleman’s agreement to not steal one another’s thunder. After all, it’s not even Thanksgiving and the public has yet to see such eagerly awaited projects as Spielberg’s War Horse and Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But that these studios have forged ahead several months in advance of either film’s opening is a clear sign that the marketing will only become more aggressive as Universal and Relativity fight it out for your hard-earned money. For those of you wanting to see variations on the tale without seeing either film, remember that you can see the excellent new ABC series Once Upon a Time on your TV for free. (How exactly is Snow White suddenly the subject of so many concurrent projects?)

In the meantime, enjoy the trailers and sit back for more aggressive marketing.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Devil Likes to Cross-Dress: “J. Edgar”

Every so often, I watch a film not because it has a strong narrative, or outstanding production values, or the kind of visual power that holds one glued to one’s seat. In fact, sometimes the film in question has several glaring flaws but is made compelling through the sheer force and will of its lead actor’s central performance. Prime examples of not-so-great films boasting exceptional lead performances that rise above their material include James Woods in Salvador, Tilda Swinton in Julia, and now Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood’s latest prestige project, J. Edgar.

The film charts the course of J. Edgar Hoover’s long and controversial career at the FBI, from humble beginnings, and ends with his lasting legacy in the form of a strong government agency and the eternal condemnation of those he has destroyed to get there. J. Edgar charts American law and order in his half-century of influence, from the early Communist scare in the form of political radical Emma Goldman, and ending with the outset of the Watergate scandal. His life is influenced by three key figures in his life: his mother (Dame Judi Dench), his lifelong personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his right-hand man and rumoured lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of The Social Network). We see the agency grow along with his power, and come to view his life’s work as a reflection of his own indomitable, unyielding personality. Directed by Eastwood with his usual deliberate pace and written by Milk’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the film adheres to Eastwood aesthetic and narrative speed so faithfully that the viewer doesn’t notice that a half-century has passed by, condensed into 137 minutes.

Clyde Tolson (Hammer) and J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio)
Here’s where the film can lose its audience. Eastwood’s unhurried style has worked well with intimate dramas such as Million Dollar Baby, Changeling and Letters from Iwo Jima (still, in my opinion, his magnum opus), but by following Hoover around for two and a quarter hours, with intensity and all of the attendant quirks of an unbalanced, repressed man, the effect is of finding oneself trapped in a corner of a house party with a guest who doesn’t understand that just because he’s talking at you, that doesn’t mean that you’re actually paying attention to anything he says. Thankfully, DiCaprio is absolutely compelling to watch as he ages along with the character and starts to look, in heavy makeup, like a strong cross between Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles towards the end of his life. Tom Cruise might have cornered the market on playing intensity, but DiCaprio seems to have taken over that specialty these days. Thankfully, he infuses Hoover with an indomitable steel will that allows him to suppress any true romantic feelings towards anyone (man or woman) to the point that it manifests in thinly veiled contempt for humanity and increasing paranoia. DiCaprio, sporting a 1920s Brahmin accent that becomes increasingly out of place as the twentieth century progresses, continues to demonstrate why he’s fast becoming one of our greatest actors. Otherwise, I’d have left the room long ago.

The film’s art direction and aesthetics arguably enhance and detract from the proceedings. This is a film taking place in endless series of corridors, long hallways and grim government offices, with little to no natural light seeping through the obfuscated windows. The effect is that Hoover was a man so egotistical, that he was so obsessed with legacy, that his entire life has been a big setup for his own death. In that case, to service and burnish his public image into immortality, it appears that he has busily commenced embalming himself early by deadening all of his natural proclivities and making his surroundings into a sarcophagus. It’s rather coincidental and unfortunate, then, that the film proceeds at a pace that would make a funeral march lively in comparison.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Modern Film Classic: “Departures (Okuribito)”

They say you can’t go home again.

In Yojiro Takita’s 2008 film Departures, Daigo Kobayashi has finally realized his dream of becoming a cellist with a major orchestra in Tokyo. The orchestra disbands, and Daigo is in debt by 18,000,000 Yen on the top-of-the-line instrument he purchased when he has finally achieved his goal. Heartbroken and sobered by the limits of his own talent, his wife suggests that they return to his hometown, to live in the childhood home his mother left to him. He grew up in that house, you see, which was a coffee shop his father ran, until he ran off with the waitress and abandoned the family. Daigo’s mother raised him alone and ran the home as a pub. Daigo and his wife, when they settle in, eat at the kitchen bar where his mother once served customers.

He applies to a company that advertises a high-paying job with flexible hours in the “departures” industry. Thinking that the employer is a travel company, he is shocked to find out that a misprint in the ad inadvertently hid the fact that they are in the funeral industry, specializing in “the departed” (oops). The job is to perform the pre-burial ceremony at funerals, which is done with great ceremony and dignity in Japan. Daigo hides his profession from his wife for as long as he can, all the while becoming a skilled mortician, and slowly realizing that the issues he faced when his father abandoned his family long ago are still there, surfacing slowly but surely.

To understand the film’s subtext, it helps to understand that death in Japan is still a taboo subject, not one openly discussed and always hidden beneath the surface. This, despite the fact that funerals are done with great dignity and a sense of theatricality usually reserved for the stage. The fact that the film opens in media res with Daigo washing a female body during a funeral, only for him to discover that the girl is really a transgendered male, further heightens the film’s taboo subject matter. Takita frames the shot, and in fact every funeral, with close-ups and with a decorum that lends respect to each dearly departed.

The funerals in Departures show a variation on the grieving process, at least in Japanese culture. The ceremonies are accompanied by mourners but as Daigo becomes better at his job, he sees how his clients regard their dearly departed. It’s telling that at the end of their lives, descendants not only bid farewell, but they say to those who came before them, “thank you for everything. We’ll see you again soon.” The departure is an opportunity to show true gratitude for all of the hard work and sacrifice of a life’s work, and to thank them simply for being there. That is how one leaves with dignity and grace.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ideal Dinner Party Guest: Mindy Kaling

One of my absolute favourite people on one of my absolute favourite TV series in life, The Office, is comedy writer Mindy Kaling, who plays the self-centered, gossip-obsessed customer service manager Kelly Kapoor. 
Although Kelly is vain and morally suspect, that doesn’t mean that she’s not a comic gem. She’s the awful high school drama queen I always thought was entertaining to observe as a budding sociopath, but was always careful never to anger. When a character returns from sabbatical and asks her what’s been going on in her life, Kelly regurgitates various tabloid headlines. When asked again about what was going on in her life, she retorts, “I just told you!” Never one to miss an opportunity to get what she wants no matter the repercussions, she fakes a pregnancy to the co-worker she’s dating and when confronted on the false pregnancy, is aghast as to why he would be upset. While this behaviour is appalling on a superficial read, it’s made hilariously compelling by Kaling’s impeccable delivery. It’s no wonder that she’s a co-executive producer and writer on The Office.

Kaling comes off as opinionated and charming in interviews, and her quick wit and sharp mind are worlds away from the character she plays. Kaling’s musings marry Jerry Seinfeld’s observational humour with Tina Fey’s wry wisdom, and they are captured in her upcoming collection of biographical essays entitled Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns). Her inspired take on life doesn’t follow the conventional biographical route charting birth to life at the publication stage. Rather, Kaling reveals humble truths about herself, but does so in an irreverent and caustic manner. For instance, having pancakes for breakfast destroys all her productivity for the remainder of the day. This should be made a matter of public record and there should really be infomercials about such dangers.