Roger Ebert, the gray eminence of Chicago film criticism, has weighed in on Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), Brillante Mendoza's latest work, presently in the Competition section of Cannes, and his verdict is not kind:
Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.
Ah, but the episode with The Brown Bunny ended happily, didn't it? I remember Ebert calling that "the worst film in the history of Cannes" (Ebert shares this curious ability with George W. Bush of moving goalposts and standards upwards, downwards or sideways as it suits them) and of Vincent Gallo responding by putting a hex on his colon. Ebert (in a curious lapse of good taste) compared the experience of viewing Gallo's film to viewing his own colonoscopy (he favors the latter). Some judicious pruning of the running time (about twenty-six minutes' worth) and a few diplomatic exchanges later, the two kissed and made up.
I haven't seen Kinatay; I plan to, definitely; can't comment otherwise on the merits of Ebert's argument against the film. I think I can comment, however, on the merits of Ebert as a film critic--that he's the great champion of middle-of-the-road taste, with a finger very much on the pulse of what mainstream America likes or dislikes. Far as I can see he's got the best track record of any celebrity film critic when it comes to predicting box-office hits; either that, or he's liked so many movies that a boxoffice hit would actually have to work very hard to escape his approval...
And it isn't the conventionality of his taste that galls me as much as the sheer cluelessness he sometimes displays. His review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), for example, makes much of the physical violence visited upon Christ but makes no mention of the theological violence visited on the biblical text the movie is supposedly based on (the movie, incidentally, is more closely based on the writings of the anti-Semitic Anne Catherine Emmerich).
He writes of Gibson's picture: "if it grosses millions, that will not be because anyone was entertained," ignoring the possiblity that people will watch it 1) to see what all the fuss is about, and 2) to confirm their extremist view of Christianity. He adds: "The filmmaker has put his artistry and fortune at the service of his conviction and belief, and that doesn't happen often." No it doesn't, but money and attention (I can't quite say 'artistry,' not in Gibson's case) poured into a project isn't an ironclad guarantee that a movie will be good, as I've tried to say not just once but twice.
So; Kinatay is attracting more than its share of controversy--all the more reason for me to want to see it (aside from the fact that I've been following Mendoza's career with considerable interest). As for Ebert--haven't much use for the man, or his writings, or anything he has to say on Filipino films, or any film in general. Far as I'm concerned he's The Great White Middlebrow of American Cinema, and I can't afford to be too bothered by the fuss he's spouting through his blowhole.
And the latest--Kinatay wins Brillante Mendoza a Best Director award at Cannes.
Terry Gilliam handed Mendoza his award. Given the microphone, he had this to say: "First of all I would like to thank the selection committee, who are responsible for bringing my films here for the past three years. And now with an award for Best Director, I would like to thank the Jury. And of course I’d like to thank my producer; thank you for the trust and faith in my films. I’d like to thank also a very committed staff and crew. I’d like to share this award with my daughter, Angelica, who has always been my number one critic and to an actor I really respect, Coco Martin. Thank you all for embracing my kind of cinema."
Anyone who's read anything I've written or followed this blog knows what I think of awards, Oscar, Cannes, whatever--that they're mostly political gestures, subject to compromise, and that they have nothing to do whatsoever with the winning film's (or losing films') artistic merits.
That said, I do recognize the fact that winning an award grants a filmmaker (and the country he represents) certain advantages, even bragging rights. Mendoza has every right to enjoy the moment, at least momentarily; he's done every Filipino filmmaker who has ever dreamed of winning a major award (or deserved to win a major award but failed to snag one) proud.
On to (relatively) lighter fare--have not yet seen Pixar's new movie, but so far I'm thinking Henry Selick's Coraline is the best animated American feature this year. It possibly has the best opening of the year, of a pair of hands cutting up and sewing together a stuffed doll--shot in such a way that you can't help but be reminded of a serial killer cutting up and sewing together a human body (shades of Kinatay!). Forget the Saw or Hostel franchise, this is horror conveyed metaphorically, with a real sense of lyricism.
I'd always felt some kind of respect for Selick--A Nightmare Before Christmas was a thing of beauty to look at, whether one is watching it on 2-D or 3 (even the way the 3-D effects are handled--sparingly, with a nice understatement--puts it head and shoulders above similar productions). Watching it for the first time or fifth, there are always details to discover or cherish, every time (Is that a cat's tale the mayor is twisting to sound the alarm? Is it just me or is Santa in this picture a self-righteous, malevolent jerk?).
It's a cold piece of work, however, with no real sense of drama, or pain, or suffering, set in a fantasy neverland where holidays aren't just holidays, but discrete worlds (cute idea but, at least in my opinion, barely exploited). Whereas Gaiman's story provides Selick with what he badly needs, a solid narrative with a genuinely affecting emotional core---basically Coraline, feeling neglected by her parents (they're busy finishing an important project), faces the possiblity of losing them once and for all. Combine this with Selick's impossible attention to detail (the final shot for example, a breathtaking glide from back yard to the front that takes in Coraline's entire world, which basically looks like a massive tabletop model of a house and garden) and vivid imagery (the most memorable of which is the simplest: a pair of black buttons sitting on a woman's palm--and everything those two buttons imply). The very best children's literature (or cinema) is based on very real childhood traumas, as Maurice Sendak, the Brothers Grimm, or Hayao Miyazaki will tell you. Coraline is a not unworthy new addition to that short, exclusive shelf.
Been trying to teach the art of storytelling--well, am doing my best, it's my first time. After introducing such wondrous concepts as conflict, characterization, structure, point of view, tone and mood, I ended the mini-course with two examples of the art (Warning: plot of both Le Plaisir and Rear Window discussed in close detail).
The first is "Le Modele," the final segment of Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir (1952). The young men and women (men more than women) protested at having to watch a black-and-white film, protested further upon learning they had to watch a black-and-white French film, with English subtitles ("if you don't want black-and-white and subtitles, stay out of places like this, then" I replied).
The film is roughly fifteen minutes long, I pointed out; more reason for Ophuls to be as economical as possible with the time allotted. The way, for example, he shoots the two lovers' first meeting as a single wordless shot--the camera follows Jean the artist (Daniel Gelin) as he runs up some stairs after a woman (Josephine, played by Simone Simon), pans left to a different set of stairs, catches Jean and Josephine coming down said stairs, arms entwined ("We don't need to know what Jean said to Josephine," I said. "This is a story not about how they met, but how they broke up"). Or later when Jean and Josephine walk down a riverside and Jean insults Josephine for the very first time--we hear her shrill response, then the soundtrack drops their dialogue, taking up the narrator's voice as he moves onwards ("We learn that they're unhappy; we don't need to hear the actual argument," I said).
I pointed out the use of irony. "I'll kill myself," Josephine says playfully at least twice, which may be why when she says it a third time, Jean can't take her seriously. "I can't live without you" Jean declares early on, something no one thinks to remind him of having said, some three months later.
Also pointed out Ophul's use of point of view, spectacularly demonstrated by the shot that takes up Josephine's eyes as she climbs a flight of stairs (her shadow, already ghostlike, flashing on this landing and that), walks to the window, shoves it open, and steps out (the sequence obviously inspiring Stanley Kubrick (an ardent Ophuls admirer) to stage a similar POV shot of Alex swanning out a window in A Clockwork Orange (1971)).
I next showed Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock's supreme exercise in point of view. I pointed out Hitchcock's method of characterization--we know thanks to a tracking shot that Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photographer laid up with a broken leg (this without a word of spoken dialogue, just the picking out of specific details). We know all about Stella (Thelma Ritter), her job as insurance company nurse, her husband, her comically cynical view of life from her own words (characterization through monologue). We know about Lisa (Grace Kelly) long before we see her, thanks to Stella and Jefferies' discussion of her faults and virtues (characterization through dialogue, or secondhand sources).
I pointed out that almost everything we see and hear are almost exclusively confined to what Jefferies can see and hear; that we see his neighbors in long shot when Jefferies looks out his window with naked eyes; that we see them in medium shot when he uses his binoculars, and that we see them almost in closeup when he uses his long telephoto lenses.
I pointed out the use of contrast, particularly the lyrical music played over the soundtrack while Lisa is being assaulted (possibly my favorite thriller setpiece in all of Hitchcock); I also pointed out the most disturbing detail in the whole film, the look of adoration Jefferies throws Lisa when she comes back from a particularly dangerous mission. "Throughout the entire movie, he's ignored her, insulted her, taken her completely for granted," I said (a student told me he couldn't keep watching because "the guy's crazy--beautiful girl like that, smart, and rich too, and he don't appreciate her").
"And now, look at him! That's the look of a man in love, folks. She's risked her life for him and this excites him, arouses him.
"He's what we call an adrenaline junkie. Danger turns him on. Worse, he's dragged Lisa and Stella into his way of thinking (that Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is guilty), shown them what a thrill it can be to take risks, court danger, even bend a law or two.
"This is all going to come back to him in a big way, of course, and soon. Only next time he won't be enjoying it as much."
And he didn't. But they did, and in a big way, of course.