‘In the Bedroom’ Bares the Human Soul Like No Other

The trap has nylon nets called ‘heads.’ Two side heads to let the lobster crawl in. And inside, what’s called a bedroom head holds the bait, and keeps him from escaping. You know the old saying: ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd?’ Well, it’s like that. Get more than two of these in a bedroom and chances are something like that’s gonna happen.

In the Bedroom (2001, directed by Todd Field) is a film that encapsulates several things within one well-maintained tragedy. On the surface, the title refers to the “bedroom” or interior of a lobster trap. When catching them, no more than two lobsters can be held in the trap compartment. If a third is added, they start to become violent and attack one another. Tom Wilkinson’s character, Dr. Matt. Fowler, describes this in a fishing boat off the coast of Maine. This description becomes a metaphor for actual violence as well as emotional chaos between the characters.

After a looked-down-upon love affair between Fowler’s son Frank (Nick Stahl) and Natalie (Marisa Tomei) ends in an unexpected, horrendous twist, he and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) struggle against and with each other to come to terms with everything that has happened and the future of their family. The performances are all unbelievably good and heartfelt. The pacing is slow at times, but completely engaging all the same. It’s a movie that should take its time in order to unravel very carefully, which it does.

What sounds and looks like an intimate movie about love and relationships becomes something much more complex and disturbingly honest. It bares the human soul at its most conflicted, its most determined, its best, and its worst. The thing about this movie is that as dark as it may be, once its over, you never expected it to take you on the journey that it eventually did. Even though it came out ten years ago, the journey is worth experiencing again and again. All other tragic dramas should take note.

‘La jetée’ (1962) and the Power of Words and Images

He says something. She doesn’t mind, she answers. They have no memories, no plans. Time builds itself painlessly around them. As landmarks, they have the very taste of this moment they live, and scribbling on the walls.

I rewatched one of my favorite films since school the other night – La jetée, a 28-minute French film from 1962. Director Chris Marker tells the story of time travel in post-nuclear Paris almost entirely through a series of still photos. (There’s one scene with just a few seconds of motion.) In under 30 minutes, the plot unravels a Paris in ruins, with the survivors divided up into a hierarchy. One group is experimenting in time travel to the past and present to improve their situation; the others are lab rats. The protagonist proves a successful candidate for their experiments, but his past, present, and future collide in an eerie tragedy. In my very first film class, my professor showed us this movie to teach us the power of words and images, how they can stick with you for a lifetime, how you can tell a story without flashy gimmicks or superfluous material.

Whether it’s the French version with subtitles or the English voice-over version, it is one of the most poetic things I’ve ever come across. While it most obviously inspired the Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys, watching it recently made me think of how it must have inspired other recent films; Christopher Nolan’s Inception came to mind the most. The sweeping string orchestra soundtrack, the imagery, and the distant but observant narration all come together to make romance out of dystopia and sci-fi. While it’s been done since and also before the film came out, watching it always feels like watching something brand new and revolutionary. So many filmmakers and storytellers choose overkill to get their story across, but La jetée remains there in the film school archives, just waiting to be watched, just waiting to remind you how to tell a story and how to tell it well.

Favorites Revisited #3: ‘Rachel Getting Married’ and The Honest Film

For reasons that I can’t always articulate, Rachel Getting Married is heavenly to me. So imperfect that it’s perfect. So brutal that it’s beautiful…These are just a few of the conflicting phrases that come to mind when I watch this movie. I’d like to think that any complaint you might have about the film, I could find a reason to say: “Yeah, but THAT’S what’s so great about it!” Try me.

I watched it for the umpteenth time with my mother one night. The film deals with – to say the least – family troubles, so I thought she would appreciate it, or at least find it moving. Though she sat through the movie patiently, her final thoughts were: “It was just…weird. It made me uncomfortable.”

And really, that’s what’s so great about it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s so honest and anti-what-we-think-a-movie-should-be that it makes us uncomfortable. A majority of the people I know described the first thirty minutes as “slow…and weird…not a lot happens.” This is also (see, I told you I could do it) another reason why it’s great. Director Jonathan Demme takes the audience completely out of its element by making it feel as though you’re not even watching a movie, but rather, you’re watching all of these lives take place. And they’re laid out just as they are – all the fighting, the ugliness, the lack of communication, the resentment, and everything else that most families don’t want you to see. (Because that would be…uncomfortable.)

I read that Demme confessed somewhere that Rachel Getting Married was filmed with Dogme 95 in mind. For those who don’t know, Dogme 95 is – in short – a film movement initiated by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in 1995, with the intentions of stripping films of their “Hollywood.” (You can read the official rules  here.)

By its very nature, filmmaking is a deceptive and artificial process. And I don’t even mean in terms of story or characters – just the basics: lighting, sound, special effects, etc. These are some of the very things that von Trier and Vinterberg wanted to eliminate with the Dogme 95 movement. And why? To focus on one thing only: the story.

Thus, if you watch accredited Dogme 95 works, you’ll see that they’re very raw-looking. Jerky camera movements because it’s all hand-held, and no special lighting or fancy effects. But you can say one thing about them (or, most of them, since I’m personally not a fan of whatever “Julien Donkey Boy” is, for instance): You’re completely involved in the story and its characters.

Rachel Getting Married reminds me of an upscale Dogme 95 movie. They have a better camera, awesome set design and locations, and more well-known and acclaimed actors. But that doesn’t mean the essence of Dogme 95′s honesty isn’t there. There’s not much artificial lighting, most of it (if not all) appears to be hand-held camera, and overall the main focus is on the story and the characters. Not much else.

And both the story and the characters are heartbreaking, imperfect, conflicting, and contradictory. But they’re real. My favorite scene in Rachel Getting Married is when Anne Hathaway’s character, Kym, is spilling her guts out to her family. Kym made a horrible mistake that tore her family apart a few years ago, and she can’t seem to make anything right, or apologize enough. She asks, “Who do I have to be now?” This quote keeps popping into my head as I write this. Because what does film have to be now? What more can it be?

I believe we’re at a place in film where everything has been done. So many limits in technology, effects, and plots have been breached that maybe we can’t take it anymore. We still want creativity and entertainment, but maybe we want those things on smaller scales and budgets, and within realms that we recognize as our own. Maybe we want movies that don’t feel like movies, but like real life instead.

The mainstream public might not have noticed it ten years ago, but I think the Dogme 95 creators were really on to something here.

Favorites Revisited #2: Revamped Camp (or, Why You Hate ‘Marie Antoinette’)

Here’s why there are more people who hate Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” than those who love it – You don’t know what it is.

I’m not trying to be condescending here, but it’s the truth. Whenever I hear someone go on about why they didn’t like the film, it’s along the lines of: “What is this movie, with no story and bare minimum dialogue and 80s post-punk music over an 18th century setting and cakes and macrons everywhere? It must just be a movie aching for a Costume Design Oscar.”

I’m writing this post to tell you that the movie is none of those things. Well, I mean, those things are definitely big parts in the movie, but that’s not what it is. I’ll tell you what “Marie Antoinette” is – Camp. It might be obvious to some, but more often than not, I think people are confused about what the film is trying to do or be. But trust me, it’s easier to like it when you look at it for what it is: aesthetic-centered, revamped Camp set in 18th century Versailles.

Don’t believe me? To keep things brief and avoid long-winded-ness, I’ll list some points from the Encyclopedia of Camp – Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”:

1. To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

5. Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content. Concert music, though, because it is contentless, is rarely Camp. It offers no opportunity, say, for a contrast between silly or extravagant content and rich form. . .

38. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

And finally…

13. The dividing line seems to fall in the 18th century; there the origins of Camp taste are to be found (Gothic novels, Chinoiserie, caricature, artificial ruins, and so forth.) But the relation to nature was quite different then. In the 18th century, people of taste either patronized nature (Strawberry Hill) or attempted to remake it into something artificial (Versailles). They also indefatigably patronized the past. Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.

I would like to let these definitions speak for themselves and draw their own connections. I believe Coppola’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a 1980s post-punk rock Material Girl is the essence of modern Campiness drawing on the past – as Camp tends to do (see #13). And the past of Versailles was almost too perfect to serve as the Camp backdrop.

That’s not to say that Coppola’s film is cinematically irrelevant. (And for me, this is where it gets touchy.) Of course one of the main purposes of the film is to be pretty. That’s Coppola’s whole film outlook – prettiness, shots through blades of grass, and Kirsten Dunsts lying outdoors in rustic white nightgowns. That’s what Coppola does. She cares about the beauty aesthetic. She chose film over the practical digital camera for Lost in Translation because digital wasn’t “romantic” enough. She wants to portray beauty and pretty things. Sorry, not to generalize here, but the men I’ve talked to don’t necessarily love this because they’re not used to it. Because 98% of the films we see are and have been made by men, not “girly” women like Sofia Coppola. Hell, who are we kidding? They’re hardly made by women period. But this aesthetic outlook should not be undermined in terms of art. Coppola said it best herself in her own defense: “You’re considered superficial and silly if you are interested in fashion, but I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.”

But back to Camp in particular – I think this whole explanation of what the film’s going to do is laid out right in front of us from the very opening shot. A French maid puts on Marie Antoinette’s shoes while the Queen sits amongst tables of cakes. The last we see of this shot is Kirsten Dunst licking cake off her finger and looking straight into the camera – breaking the fourth wall – with a devilish schoolgirl smirk. There it is. Right there. The whole film’s purpose revealed to us in one moment, and we missed it or forgot about it.  “The joke’s on you,” Sofia Coppola seems to say. The joke’s on you.

Favorites Revisited #1: ‘Eternal’ Dream Film

After a 4 AM conversation with friends about the creepiness and wonder of dreams, I’ve been thinking about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all day.

Though Gondry’s masterpiece (yes, I’m saying that) is not about dreams – but rather, memory – it’s a very dream-like film. I also have to credit Charlie Kaufman, of course. Those impeccably erratic flashbacks are worthy of envy…and ultimately frustration, as one attempts to accomplish a similar thing in one’s own script and can’t seem to find the same success (Ahem.)

Regardless of how the film might seem over-enthused by now (but definitely not overrated), I have to say that if you haven’t seen it – you need to. But chances are, you have seen it. In that case, I think you should watch it again. Seriously, you’ll love it even more each time.

For me, there are a few scenes that really get me whenever I watch it. Scenes that don’t seem as important or as powerful to anyone else. Like when Joel (Jim Carrey) forces his memory back to his childhood on a rainy day. His adult world and his childhood collide in one instant, and it starts pouring rain in their living room. Cue the Jon Brion piano music and I’m overwhelmed with emotion in an instant. I can’t place why, exactly, but it’s kind of like the strangeness of dreams. Like the feeling that you’ve had this dream before but you don’t remember actually having it. Or the way you know a person in your dream even though they look completely different or have no distinguishable face at all. It’s that kind of a feeling with Eternal Sunshine. An unexplainable dream-like connection. Gondry and Kaufman – how did you ever pull it off?