Tuesday, April 30, 2013

(Some of) The Warts of War: Sidney J. Furie's The Boys in Company C (1978)

(The following is my term paper for Vietnam in American Film, one of my last classes at Emerson College.)

Inaugurating what would quickly become a decades long fascination with the subject, Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978) was the first Hollywood feature film about America’s military involvement in Vietnam to emerge after the end of the war. Radically different in tone and narrative than John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968) – one of the few Hollywood combat films made during the war as well as the last American film to depict the war in Vietnam before Furie’s film – The Boys in Company C follows a geographically diverse group of twentysomething recruits through their first tour of duty as members of the Marines from August 1967 to January 1968 (Hyams 200). Instead of aiming to arouse the patriotic fervor common to World War II Hollywood films, Furie opts for a more critical view of the military operation. In doing so, however, he continues to borrow a melodramatic language that places emphasis on sympathetic individuals rather than problematic political realities. Even as the film offers an indictment of militaristic arrogance by targeting its satire at inept superiors, its ultimate sentimentalization of the exploited soldier’s experience ensures that it stays within the realm of melodrama and never wrestles with more fundamental systemic questions.

A close look at the context surrounding The Boys in Company C’s production and release reveals the unique place it was to hold in the national consciousness, a place both embraced and complicated by the film itself. Produced primarily by the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest Company (a studio often associated with cheaper, riskier movies), shot on location in the Philippines, and featuring some actual members of the military, not to mention the fact that the film was the first to muster up the bravery to fictionalize a still touchy subject, the production had several superficial indicators of artistic ambition and grittiness. Then, the film’s marketing campaign emphasized that its main characters were “the craziest group of men this country ever sent off to war,” implying a sense of irreverence missing from the gung-ho patriotism of World War II films (Maslin). This sense was confirmed by reviews, which identified the film as a “frank, hard-hitting drama” (“The Boys in Company C”). To a certain degree, it’s obvious that the climate surrounding the film was one of both surprise and hesitance towards a new representation of war “that wouldn’t have been possible in a movie of the early 1940’s” (Ebert). However, this surface novelty proves not radical enough in the face of a particularly problematic war in which the U.S. government’s mistakes were of greater importance than those of the individuals involved in combat.

The film’s concern for people over politics is announced right from its opening scene, a credit montage introducing the audience to the five central characters as they prepare to enter boot camp, saying their final goodbyes to friends and loved ones. Each character represents a different shade of 1960s Americana. Middle-class high school stud Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens) is pragmatically consoled by his father as he prepares to exit the car: “you’re doing the right thing, get the service out of the way.” Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw), an urban drug pusher clad in a flamboyant striped shirt and straw hat, fields concern from a buddy regarding how Tyrone’s absence will impact his drug access. Wide-eyed loner Alvin Foster (James Canning), who has aspirations to become a combat journalist, is enlightened on the seriousness of the war by an experienced elder. Italian-American pervert Vinnie Fazio (Michael Lembeck) tries in vain to sneak in one last shag in plain sight with his disinterested girlfriend. Bearded, guitar-strumming hippie Dave Bisbee (Craig Wilson) is nearly dragged away from his car at the end of the scene, a muffled “make love not war” tossed into the wind as his final message to the civilian world.

Friday, April 12, 2013

An Evening with Sami van Ingen

On the surface, the three films shown by the Balagan screening series on Monday, April 1st in Cambridge, Massachusetts to celebrate the work of Finnish artist Sami van Ingen – Texas Scramble (1996), Deep Six (2007), and Fokus (2004) – don’t seem to come from the same filmmaker. “We wanted to show some of the different sides of Sami’s work,” explained programmer Mariya Nikiforova when probed about the diversity of the screening. Her simple answer hinted at even further realms of variation within van Ingen’s twenty years’ worth of work unexplored by this particular program. Indeed, these three films alone embody lyrical, diaristic, self-reflexive, deconstructive, anthropological, personal documentary, and structuralist impulses.

Texas Scramble, the first film in the program, is the most conspicuous outlier of the three. The film opens with an onscreen text taken from Buddhist verse that proves the poetic guiding logic for van Ingen’s otherwise seemingly free-associative structure: “what we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday/our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow/our life is the creation of our mind.” The quote hints at motifs of circularity, renewal, repetition, and memory, and van Ingen proceeds to build these ideas into the film’s fluid form, which behaves according to visual echoes, rhythmic matches (both sonic and pictorial), and subtle loops. Over the course of 21 minutes, a diegetic memory starts to set in. Camera movements, shadows, and reflections seem haunted by previous parallels, mirroring human memory and the phenomenon of déjà vu.

The psychological curiosity and frenetic movement (always suggesting the presence of a human behind the camera) of Texas Scramble is worlds apart from the naked formalism and clever self-reflexivity of Deep Six. Cannibalizing a sequence featuring a logging truck barreling down an empty highway in Sidney J. Furie’s 1998 action thriller The Rage, van Ingen displays an almost fetishistic interest in movement and speed for its own sake. The footage quickly sheds any trace of narrative baggage as van Ingen shifts the CinemaScope image out of alignment to reveal dark frame lines, approximating the effect of an old television set skipping out of proper calibration. Playfully, van Ingen uses a spacious format touted as the most complete viewing experience only to violently disrupt any sense of unabated immersion in the spectacle. In the end, this formal breakdown is tied to the fate of the truck, whose piles of timber come crashing out of the truck bed on a particularly narrow turn.

Fokus, the final film in the program as well as van Ingen’s most widely shown work, shares with Deep Six an interest in obsessively teasing out latent moods and ideas in previously existing material. In this case, van Ingen recycles fifty-year-old color footage taken by his grandmother at her wedding ceremony in India. Van Ingen was not yet born when these images were shot, but he did spend his youth in Southern India due to his father’s heritage, and as such the film represents an effort to parse deeper into his ancestral history and cultural inheritance. Using an optical printer, van Ingen enlarges and slows these images to put them under intense scrutiny. Sometimes this results in discoveries that could only be made under such careful viewing circumstances: wedding rituals and processions start to take on a level of absurdity, while hierarchies of power within the ceremony are pulled into sharp, unsettling focus. Other times, van Ingen defamiliarizes – if not completely obscures – these images beyond recognition so that they crumble into a mass of earthy, colorful film grain spreading like lava across the screen. Van Ingen’s rising-and-falling low-frequency drones further encourage the contemplative atmosphere.

It’s obvious that van Ingen’s an eclectic filmmaker capable of working expressively with a number of experimental approaches. Balagan’s recent program likely only scratches the surface of an oeuvre that hopefully contains further variations on the disparate textures, structures, and meditations presented here. Fokus and Deep Six share obvious technical affinities, but that is to say nothing of their differing thematic impulses (one being a formal exercise in spectacle and the projection apparatus and the other being an excursion into familial history) or the fact that they do little to shed light on a film as mysteriously intimate as Texas Scramble. Thanks to Balagan, at least we can get a glimpse of this Finnish talent’s cluster of interests.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Breakers (2013) A Film by Harmony Korine

At various junctures in American history, since the inception of the national phenomenon around the late 18th century, the so-called "American Dream" has meant radically different things to different generations. Here's a cursory timeline: originating as a concept associated with frontier life, westward expansion, and Manifest Destiny, the catch phrase then took on a new dimension with the coming of a societal infrastructure. At that point, the dream had something to do with the possibility of being free, of living one's own life. For immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, this meant a chance at a steady job in an urban center. For slave laborers, the dream rested entirely on the hope of some future sense of equality. As the building blocks of capitalism took hold at the dawn of the 20th century and led to the full scale blossoming of a competitive market economy, the concept of upward mobility came to prominence. All of a sudden, freedom was taken for granted; the possibility of ascending a social hierarchy held even greater value. The American Dream, evidently, is a liquid concept, always vulnerable to the vagaries of history, politics, economy, geography, etc.

Flashing forward to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, we see the national nomenclature bandied about in a way that would leave Abraham Lincoln reeling in confusion. In the film's kaleidoscopic reverie of 21st century debauchery, the elasticity of the American Dream is manipulated according to the perversions of a popular culture hungry to distort the ethos as a way to justify its own pursuits. Before launching into an ecstatic lecture about his abundance of meaningless material goods, a corn-rowed, vice-loving money-maker known as Alien (James Franco) posits that "This is the fuckin' American dream." Translation: freshly sexualized skinny girls in neon bikinis, automatic weapons, pricy body spray, and blue Kool-Aid are the American Dream. Fair enough, insofar as these factors belong to this particular individual's definition of upward mobility. Without hesitation, however, he mutters his next statement, which is of even greater significance: "This is my fuckin' dream, y'all." The flippancy with which he equates a historically loaded concept with an individual interpretation of it is indicative of the larger solipsism that defines the twentysomething way of life sketched out, engaged with, and abstracted in Korine's latest, and it's also the lens through which the film chooses to evaluate this generational alcove, for better or worse.

At its core, Spring Breakers has a relatively formulaic plot: four naïve college girls – Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) – want nothing more than to attend Spring Break in Tampa Bay, so they rob a diner to muscle up the funds. When they arrive at this assumed oasis their idealized expectations are simultaneously met and complicated. It's a coming of age story, in a nutshell. Korine's interests, however, have less to do with storytelling than with generational anthropology, a penchant that becomes increasingly clear whenever one of the girls – first Faith, then Cotty – grows disillusioned with the vacation and Korine elects not to follow them back home but rather to remain submerged in the beachfront festivities. The film identifies Tampa Bay as a locus of contemporary pop culture's hopes and dreams, and thus the girls who remain there by the conclusion of the plot are representative of the film's idea of individuals who most fully embrace their own willfully alternate version of the American Dream.

On the surface, Spring Breakers' version of Tampa Bay has a slick, weird sort of beauty. This is one aspect of the film that Korine has been arrogantly vocal about, but while his repeated efforts to align his film's aesthetic with Miami Vice (2006) come off as more than a little puffed-up, he is accurate in some regards. Neon lights, casually captured skylines of murky pastels, and figures dwarfed by minimalist panoramas are all cosmetic parallels with Mann's crime-ridden beach world, but in all other respects the film's primary visual reference point is the modern hip hop music video consumed by the same sort of alcohol-and-marijuana-fueled adolescents who once valued MTV's comprehensive coverage of Spring Break locales as the full expression of the zeitgeist. Vibrant colors, endless partying without a clear sense of the occasion, gratuitous Genital Angles, cheap beer cans, and anonymous body-grinding – all committed to high-definition video with a ridiculously high frame rate and paper-thin depth of field – constitute the film's frenzied look. Korine assimilates this familiar style and subject matter to get on the same wavelength as the pop culture he's representing, only to then infiltrate the underlying misogyny, racism, and soullessness of such imagery.

The girls' uncontrollable desire to go on spring break emerges out of a lifetime of being exposed to this eye-catching frivolity. For them, the American Dream means being able to attend this 24-hour party every year, to "find [themselves]" and "never leave." Of course, the onus to recognize the absurdity of this ideal is on them, but the film nonetheless formulates their integration into this milieu as that of a victimizer/victimized relationship. In one of Korine's more heavy-handed gestures, repeated shots of the girls huddling together as if piglets gravitating towards their mother's teet – as well as the intermittent motif of emotionally detached phone calls to mothers and grandmothers – creates an aura of innocence and purity around these characters. The presence of girly-girl regalia (hot pink bikinis, hair dye, and nail polish), too, not to mention the proliferation of Britney Spears on the soundtrack, suggests a hyperextension of premature adolescence, a specter of 1990's/early 2000's cultural furnishing dangling over into the present.

Korine contrasts this sense of childishness with a looming danger never fully grasped for its deadliness. Especially when Franco's character enters the plot, the film brims with cocaine, marijuana, binge drinking, near-rapes, and a plethora of assault weapons. (The sound of a machine gun being cocked reverberates at nearly every scene transition in the film's second half.) Spring Breakers' best sequence features Alien serenading the girls with Spears' "Everytime" on his pearl white, open-air grand piano, an awkwardly touching moment that Korine intercuts with shots of the main characters flailing around machine guns at an afternoon rager as if party streamers. The film continues to deal in similar dialectical maneuvers throughout, but never with quite such provocative gusto.

Naturally, once Alien is introduced as an exotic Other and a representation of the kind of absolute pleasure-seeking carelessness these girls aspire to, Faith, a religious believer who refuses to participate in the robbery that sets off the narrative, bails, while Candy soaks his macho bullshit up. (There's a not-too-subtle trend here that has to do with character naming...) At this point in the film, the remaining girls willingly and uncritically submit to borderline violent masculine domination, but it's also the point at which the film drifts increasingly from an ostensible reality, using more and more cues (a layering of interior monologue and exterior sound, the growing melodrama of the plot, absurdist set pieces, even more menacing neon) to imply the fracturing of the real. As Korine portrays a surreal version of the present moment, he also keeps an eye ahead, conjuring up a nightmare of the sadder future that may await these girls if this way of life persists. In this framework, the film's final scene – introduced by a surround-sound Franco prescriptively intoning "it's all a dream, y'all" – is the harrowing net result of this descent, a garish massacre echoing at once the racial division of the Civil War and the bloodbath climax of Alien's beloved Scarface (1983). If Korine's fanciful omen winds up being at all accurate, the American Dream will have undergone a near-complete reversal of its initial promises. Uses of freedom can be dangerous. Deadly lines can be drawn between people in the name of social climbing.

Spring Breakers’ most ingenious ploy is its use of Disney starlets, products of the same pop cultural machine that Korine lays bare for all its soul-crushing vapidity. The double-edged irony here – of plummeting towards empty exploitation both diegetically and non-diegetically – is never off the film’s mind. In premonitory fashion, Hudgens has embraced her character's bad girl persona offscreen since working on the film, while Gomez is supposedly emphatically "NOT Trying to Shed Her Disney Image" (pardon the source), and to the extent that these particular post-release reports foretell the paths these young actresses will take in the grander scheme of things, Korine's film comes across as almost supernaturally tapped-in to the zeitgeist. Indeed, Spring Breakers may find its place in the canon less as an especially great film (though it is a defiantly good and unusual film, at least in the context of other current multiplex titles) than as a strangely fascinating cultural phenomenon, a movie that – like last year's Magic Mike – hijacks a hot topic not for cynical cash-grabbing but rather for genuine curiosity. Korine has succeeded in making a film that mirrors the flashy surfaces of his subject while arousing little of the vicarious pleasure associated with such an approach.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantasies of Restoring Order: On China Gate and The Ugly American

In the context of Hollywood Vietnam War films, Samuel Fuller’s China Gate (1957) and George Englund’s The Ugly American (1963) represent two distinct poles: the former is a B-movie less concerned with social and political statements than with melodrama and spectacle while the latter purports to be an important, liberal-minded Big Statement movie about the political involvement of the United States in Southeast Asian affairs. Unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s historical patterns for representing foreign Others, both films, though superficially dissimilar, spring from the same mindset and ultimately function in nearly identical ways. Erecting simple-minded dichotomies of good vs. evil (literalized as Not Communist vs. Communist) and moral behavior vs. barbaric indifference (diplomacy vs. War), they effectively trivialize the realities of the American involvement in Vietnam, reducing the particular experiences of Vietnamese people to broad melodramatic strokes while opportunistically distorting American political and militaristic action. By virtue of their different stylistic and narrative approaches, however, they take different paths to produce this problematic effect.


China Gate opens with a quasi-documentary montage parroting an American newsreel that hastily summarizes the French involvement in Indochina around the time US troops began infiltrating the region. Strikingly contradictory in tone to the rest of the film (though the movie as a whole is no stranger to tonal inconsistency, as the musical interludes will attest), this expository prologue is ostensibly designed to lay a foundation of verisimilitude to the forthcoming narrative, as if to indicate that the ensuing events will be located within a very real historical milieu. Of course, this quickly reveals itself as a patently absurd concept. As the montage settles into staged footage of a young Vietnamese boy and his dog being pursued by a bloodthirsty Communist and the narrator remarks upon the dangerous divide among the Vietnamese people, the speed with which the gulf between the supposedly authentic and the melodramatic is leaped is extraordinary. Fuller’s attempt to inject pathos atop journalistic authenticity is clumsy to say the least, and it momentarily, if not permanently, derails the film’s contrived sense of authority on its subject matter.

Shortly thereafter, China Gate attempts to extinguish the ludicrousness of its opening minutes by applying a sense of “grittiness that is generally absent from polished Hollywood high-budget films [of the 50’s]” and introducing its subject: Sgt. Brock (Gene Barry), an American mercenary in a multinational group recruited to destroy a Communist arms depot near the Chinese border (Gordon 3). Having abandoned the Asian son he had with a Eurasian ally named Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson), Brock is identified as a racist early on and thus the spectator’s alignment with him is challenged. This raises the central narrative question of the film: will Brock overcome his racism or will he be defined by it? It goes without saying that, because Brock is an American and because the film is “less about Cold War politics per se than about the American culture of which they were a reflex,” either outcome will be reflective of national identity (Berg and James). Therefore, in order to stabilize the spectator’s moral alignment with the subject, the film will have to present Brock righting his wrongs.

Because racism is raised as a narrative problem, tolerance is formulated as a virtuous quality, making Lucky Legs the film’s core embodiment of the good and moral. Communism, meanwhile, is presented as a kind of accepted evil; its sympathizers are either barbaric (eating dogs, or, worse, little children), scheming (luring the soldiers into deadly traps), or prone to base impulses. In this light, although Lucky Legs lives up to her name as a woman capable of using her sexuality as a tool for manipulation (one prurient image that scans the length of her body is presumably designed to illustrate the visceral effect she has on those she manipulates), the fact that she is doing so in the service of tolerance and anti-Communism allows her to retain an essential goodness. Such a characterization is what leads to an impression of China Gate as “violent anti-communist propaganda" (Rev. of China Gate).

It becomes clear that in order to stabilize the spectator’s alignment with the subject in the context of this starkly delineated moral universe, Brock must assume the positive qualities of Lucky Legs. As is typical of Hollywood melodrama, the film’s narrative problem is coded into a heterosexual romance. As such, Brock and Lucky Legs’ near-constant bickering about vaguely outlined romantic woes and their controversial offspring through the first two acts of the film clarifies that the narrative problem is unresolved; conversely, when Brock climactically apologizes to Lucky Legs for his behavior – a move that kick starts the spectacular action of the film’s final act – all order is restored. As Marsha Gordon puts it, “interrogation and violence almost inevitably climax in an acting out of desire between men and women” (Gordon 6). No matter that Brock’s apology seems fueled as much by erotic lust as by self-realization; the lasting impression, in a narrative sense, is that he has accepted the errors of his ways in the first two acts of the movie. Through the convenient wonders of plot contrivance, he is now tolerant of his Asian son. He has successfully moved “between the spheres of the hyper-masculine and the heterosexual/domestic,” a trait that defines Fuller’s combat films of the 1950's (Gordon 1).

Despite this seemingly uplifting reversal, however, the resolution of China Gate also must offer a casualty. The death of Lucky Legs at the Communist arms depot where the film spends its final half-hour is a way of cementing the evils of Communism and punishing the subject for his wrongdoings while simultaneously reaffirming a sense of American patriarchal virtue, and by extension stabilizing the spectator’s moral alignment with the protagonist. Brock’s escape from the Communists in an airplane is a literalization of the higher realm of understanding to which he has ascended, and the concluding shot of him walking away from the Vietnamese rubble clutching the hand of his Asian son is – notwithstanding the decrepit scenery and the somber Nat King Cole score – an emblem of victory against Communist evil, racism, and wrongheaded attitudes in general, as well as the culmination of “the making of a ‘real’ man and a ‘real’ father from the scraps of a war-torn soldier“ (Gordon 13).


Like China Gate, The Ugly American – based loosely off of a novel by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer – also immediately compromises its bid to be taken seriously, this time by cloaking South Vietnam as the fictional “Sarkhan.” The presence of Marlon Brando, the proliferation of political dialogue, the integration of drawn-out, “frighteningly realistic” Vietnamese riot scenes, and the very fact that the film is adapted from a distinguished novel are all indicative of director George Englund’s aspirations to seriousness. However, this odd re-titling of a geographical region comes across as a critical red flag in assessing the film’s mark of authenticity (Rev. of The Ugly American). Looked at another way, this slight dodging of reality may in fact be an even more elevated stab by Englund to assign sociopolitical importance to his movie, as if subscribing to the idea that by sidestepping specificity the material gains additional, universal relevance.

Driving the film's talky, didactic drama is Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite (Brando), a mustachioed scholar whose smartly articulated stance of racial and political tolerance in an early courtroom scene suggests a liberal compassion that is complicated once he is sent to Southeast Asia as a diplomat to assist in the building of a “Freedom Road” to Sarkhan’s northern border. There, he is confronted with a complexity amongst the Sarkhanese citizenry that not even he expected, and it is this profusion of viewpoints and allegiances that ultimately forces him to fall back on knee-jerk hostility and ignorance. In a more daring move than the A-B character trajectory in China Gate, The Ugly American begins by presenting a protagonist who appears sophisticated, morally exceptional, and kindhearted only to show him descending into unflattering qualities when his intellectual authority is challenged in new surroundings.

J. Hoberman summarizes the film’s title as an American who, upon entering a foreign country, either “exaggerate[s] the mindless conformism and conspicuous consumption that presumably characterized life at home—or else they ‘isolate themselves,’ take refuge, as a turtle retreats into a shell.” MacWhite falls into the first category of this definition. As his “sublime ignorance of local realities” reveals itself, he dons increasingly prim and well-tailored suits, gets escorted in limos around Sarkhan, and returns to his hotel to spit objectifying one-liners at his wife. When a rioting Vietnamese populace storms MacWhite’s limo at the airport in the latter half of the film, it acts as the most crushing blow to the character at this low point in his progression. It’s also, given the scene’s documentary veneer (hand-held cameras, diegetic sound), a moment of recognition of such an obvious manifestation of mounting local anger that it steers MacWhite towards a desire to uncover the truth, to more comprehensively understand the Vietnamese political situation.

Of course, the film assumes that this desire alone is enough for the spectator to begin feeling sympathetic again towards the protagonist. MacWhite uses a far less hostile and more inquisitive tone in his second extended conversation with Deong (Eiji Okada), an old Sarkhanese friend who is now fighting for national independence from Imperialist efforts (a position that MacWhite conflates with Communist sympathies). He also spends the final act of the film marked by an expression of puppy-dog innocence, a face that screams apologetic compassion. These surface characteristics simplistically pry the audience’s sympathy back towards MacWhite even as his founding dramatic question (is Deong a Communist or not?) and his defining narrative goal (to build a “freedom road”) crystallize his narrow-minded approach to diplomacy throughout the film.

Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, the progressive authors of the novel, sought out George Englund according to the understanding that he was a director who was “dedicated, skilled and who knew something of the world outside of Southern California,” but The Ugly American’s final stab at a critique of American ignorance is only a small gesture towards the hope for a deeper domestic understanding of foreign affairs, not exactly the parting gift of an educated, critical activist. The authors also briefly describe the finished product as “a colorful and very forceful movie,” and their euphemistic one-line review gets at the core of The Ugly American’s offenses: it forces a statement upon the viewer about global awareness and tolerance (which MacWhite ultimately embodies by the film’s conclusion) without sufficiently thinking these positions through (Burdick and Lederer).


-Berg, Rick and James, David E. “College course file: Representing the Vietnam War.” Journal of Film and Video. Volume 41. Issue 4 (Winter 1989): 60-74. Print.
-Burdick, Eugene and Lederer, William. “The Ugly American Revisited.” Saturday Evening Post 4 May 1963: Vol. 236. Issue 17. P. 78-81. Print.
-Gordon, Marsha. ““What Makes a Girl Who Looks Like That Get Mixed Up in Science?” Gender in Sam Fuller’s Films of the 1950s.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 17. Issue 1 (2000): 1-17. Print.
-Hoberman, J. “Believe It or Not: J. Hoberman on the Ugly American.” Artforum April 1991: 27-28. Print.
-Horton, Robert. “Sam’s Place.” Film Comment. Volume 32. Issue 3 (May-June 1996): 4, 7-9. Print.
-Rev. of China Gate, by Samuel Fuller. Monthly Film Bulletin. Volume 24. Issue 276 (1957): p. 87. Print.
-Rev. of The Ugly American, by George Englund. Variety Movie Reviews. Issue 1 (1963): p. 101. Print.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Like Someone in Love (2012) A Film by Abbas Kiarostami

Not unlike Abbas Kiarostami's previous film, Certified Copy, the director's latest, Like Someone in Love, hinges on one character's casual misunderstanding of the identity of another. But where Certified Copy uses this slip-up as a way to plunge into an extended play of artifice, all the while moving deeper and deeper into a realm outside the "real," Like Someone in Love allows the repercussions of this act to percolate into an everyday setting. In this film's version of Tokyo, role-playing (conscious or unconscious) is part of the texture of life, not an elaborate self-reflexive game imposed upon the setting by the filmmaker. Yet while the two films are ostensibly after different things on the surface, they're flip sides of the same coin: the interrogation into the concept of representation in life and art teased out by Certified Copy lays the groundwork for Like Someone in Love's drama of subtly shifting characters forging increasingly melodramatic scenarios within their own quotidian routines.

To a large degree the film's thematic concerns and off-kilter mood are crystallized in its first shot, already a subject of repeat fascination for critics. What at first glance resembles a merely functional establishing shot of an upscale bar in Tokyo gradually reveals, through the shot's lengthy duration, its destabilizing geometry and startling absence of a specific human subject. There are plenty of people in the shot but close inspection proves that none of them are responsible for the intimately recorded female voice heard on the soundtrack, exclaiming of some partially revealed backstory of romantic frustration. The assumption, then, must be that this is a shot from the girl's perspective, but when a woman who has previously been jabbering on the right-hand side of the composition suddenly nudges her way into the foreground of the frame looking slightly to the right of the camera's gaze to start talking to this off-screen character, suspicions of POV are extinguished. The scene eventually settles into a relatively standard shot-reverse-shot setup, but this uncanny reordering of information throws us immediately off balance. Confusion over the source of our perception and the subject of our gaze, as well as over the very contours of the physical space, is a fitting foundation for this study of lives tossed askew by false impressions and vague resemblances.

The source of the mysterious offscreen voice is Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a female escort called upon by an anonymous member of her agency to keep a lonely retired professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) company on this particular evening. Because her grandmother is temporarily in the city, Akiko tries her best to dodge the gig, but her boss shows little sympathy, arguing that an abbreviated visit would be worse than no visit at all. Akiko is frustrated by her boss's pushiness, and in a significant editorial gesture, Kiarostami holds on a reaction shot as her shouted rebuttal – heard rather than seen – stirs bar patrons from their conversations; order has momentarily been disrupted due to a breach of social cool. By showing only the roomful of people, Kiarostami emphasizes that the response to Akiko's fleeting breakdown of self-control holds more weight than the act itself. Throughout Like Someone in Love, such a seemingly minuscule violation of the uninterrupted flow of life is exactly what the characters try desperately to avoid. Revelations of truth, displays of vulnerability, and honest expressions of emotion are to be brushed under the rug.

Feeling embarrassed about raising her voice, Akiko then gives in to the agency's callous exploitation. Thus, the drama ventures out of the bar and into a taxi – a familiar social arrangement in Kiarostami's world – where the film's most damning suppression of feeling takes place. In the process of listening back to progressively less hopeful voicemails scattered throughout the day from her grandmother, Akiko spots her waiting patiently beneath a public statue by the train station, the camera's angle just outside the window exposing the narrow but impervious barrier separating the two by no more than 50 yards. Akiko begins crying. She asks her driver to circle the block a second time. She looks away. The car continues on. It's a devastating moment that permeates the remainder of the film with a sharp feeling of loss, coming about as close to outright melodrama as Kiarostami will go.

The fluid choreography between public and private personas established by this dense opening act is taken a step further by the subsequent progressions of the narrative. When Akiko arrives at her destination after a nap, a long shot from her client's window shows her sandwiched between satin shades emerging from her taxi exhausted and distraught, fixing her hair and gathering her things for her upcoming job. Moments later, she is invited into the man's room with a smile on her face, looking dazzling and alert. She has shifted from a private to a public self, and one wonders to what extent her role-play is conscious or merely an unconscious routine underwent for the sake of professionalism. Regardless, the moment before registers as a brief emergence of Akiko's authentic self compromised by the fact that, unbeknownst to her, she was being watched. Like Someone in Love presents an urban space of constant social surveillance where any disruption to a given façade is bound to be noticed.

It is because of this partly paranoid, partly hereditary understanding that the film's characters engage in the experience of fantasy. Akiko and Takashi's sojourn together can be understood as such; in a contrived relationship that variably resembles that of a grandfather and granddaughter, a father and daughter, a husband and wife, and a prostitute and her client, the two sit down for amiable small talk, Takashi offers a special meal, and Akiko tucks herself into bed for the night, doling out half-hearted erotic permissions from beneath the covers. During Takashi's overzealous build-up to dinner, he throws on the titular Ella Fitzgerald song, whose lethargic rhythms and romantic melodies manage the rare blocking out of the outdoor traffic noises that otherwise insistently govern the film's soundtrack as a reminder of an external world both threatening and unavoidable. In this instance, both characters have fundamentally succumb to fantasy, to the artificial realm arguably occupied by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell for the majority of Certified Copy's back end.

Atop this already awkward relationship a third character is added: Noriaki (Ryo Kase), Akiko's anxious, suspicious fiancé, the man bitterly referred to in the offscreen phone call that opens the film. Noriaki's first appearance onscreen, forming an imposing road block on Akiko's path to her sociology class, does little to correct the negative impression already collected around him, but soon he approaches Takashi, practically invites himself into the car, and exposes a gentler side. Assuming Takashi is the husband to Akiko's visiting grandmother, Noriaki pleads for the grandfather's informal marriage vows and Takashi complies with the role, if not the request. When Akiko returns, she is silently caught off guard but the convenient role-play continues; all of a sudden the three of them resemble a lopsided family. Still, this newfound unity is marked by superficiality. In the car, Noriaki (Ryo Kase) shows Akiko a crumpled postcard advertising another young call girl he thinks looks like her, echoing an earlier moment when Takashi claims a likeness between Akiko and the subject of an oil painting on his wall. (Both instances speak humorously to the considerable differences in each man's toolbox of cultural reference points.) These reductions of the particular to the general, of the personal to the iconic, emerge as ways to avoid facing up to reality. They are part of the larger social deceit that these characters perpetuate.

Like Someone in Love marks Kiarostami's second fictional filmmaking venture outside his native Iran, and the film's Japanese setting makes his characteristically withholding, unobtrusive tactics look especially Ozu-like. But there's a deeper reasoning as well behind the director's choice of Tokyo. For a study of fractured social identities, Kiarostami has picked a culture that is steeped in formalities and standardized behavior. Every time Takashi enters his apartment, the film’s fluid rhythm is momentarily stalled for the small quotidian gesture of taking off his shoes and donning slippers. At one point, Takashi relates to Akiko by asking about her hometown, noting upon hearing her answer that it explains some of her mannerisms. In this film, characters must act in accordance with these inherited identities or else risk ruffling the orderly surface of society. Ironically, however, these acts of fitting into an expected model of behavior pile up until Akiko and Takashi no longer emanate individual cores of identity and become mere wisps of narrative abstraction. On the contrary, Noriaki, allowing a barely concealed jealousy to balloon into impassioned anger by the end of the film, becomes increasingly and disconcertingly palpable.

As is typical of Kiarostami's wise approach, the film neither bemoans the ontological issues it raises nor celebrates the anarchic polar opposite, which of course is embodied by the maniacal Noriaki. Instead, it expresses a profound solitude for the state of social affairs, a viewpoint manifested by a strange non-sequitur in the film's final act. When Akiko is waiting on Takashi's steps for the old man to return, yet another offscreen female voice emerges, this time speaking according to a distinctly different, more expressive acting style. At the end of the woman's speech, which lucidly tells of fond memories, unforgettable experiences, and hitherto suppressed feelings, Kiarostami finally reveals the source of the voice: an elderly woman speaking from within the space of a tiny window framed outside by a larger doorway. In this urban environment, a genuine display of emotion such as this – or such as Noriaki's startling last-minute expression of rage – is equated with either isolating oneself from the world peacefully or existing within it and causing chaos.