June 21, 2015

Selma

   Thinking about Selma today, and all the choices director Ava DuVernay emphatically avoids making in her Martin Luther King biopic. The intelligence and nuance she brings to her film are undeniable.
   I find many biopics to be marred by a certain cheapness: the “greatest hits” style storytelling, where you cherry-pick the highest and lowest moments of the subject’s life, creating an easily digestible trajectory; living, breathing people reduced to mere heroes and villains, with little affordance of ambiguity; and supporting characters that inject occasional doses of humor into the film but often derail its tone.
    Nothing DuVernay does is ever on the nose. The film focuses only on one period of King’s life: the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which King and his fellow leaders organized in 1965 to bring attention to the overwhelming number of black people being denied the power to vote. Selma takes an established fact and implores us to see it as something beyond a success, taking us into the exact machinations of the political process, and the complicated tangles within the black community that led to it.
    My elementary school-level US education may not be much to go on, but I was only ever taught to see MLK as a saint. In Selma, while you never doubt the fundamental righteousness of his vision, King is never deified. You see his savviness about using the media, how he was prepared to sacrifice the lives of innocent people to achieve a larger goal, and how he depends on his wife for emotional support even while he is not entirely faithful to her.
    Equally important are the portrayals of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace. Despite Johnson’s reluctance to push for federal legislation that would allow black people to register to vote, you see that it wasn’t motivated by ignorance but also a resignation about bureaucratic/political processes that dictated how much he could push through. Likewise, while Wallace may have allowed the police to brutalize 500 peaceful black protesters, when you see him refer to the town’s head sheriff as a “white trash cracker”, you realize he’s not a racist bigot -- he’s a bigot, period, and that’s what is clouding his vision.
     For lack of better phrasing, I also appreciated that Selma never forgets it is a work of cinema. The soundtrack choices are often pointed, such as the use of ethnographic recordings of workers in Selma singing. I especially loved the cinematography, which made frequent use of the actor’s profiles and often cloaked figures in shadow. (There is a stunning scene set behind bars where practically the only light you can see is the dim, fading light in MLK’s eyes.)
    What is so painful about watching Selma is that it’s impossible to not think of recent headlines running parallel to the film. A scene of the Alabama girls being bombed in their church immediately links to the Charleston church shooting, and scenes of peaceful protesters being brutalized by policemen only brings to mind the horrific videos of policemen brazenly flouting protocol and killing or manhandling black civilians. I heard so many sniffles throughout the theatre during the film, but I only hope that people’s emotions didn’t stay in the theatre, and that the film started an actual conversation.

June 10, 2015

The Line Hotel

 The Line Hotel in Koreatown, Los Angeles.










Commissary @ The Line Hotel


Commissary, a restaurant at The Line Hotel.

 



 Clam chowder and bok choy.



March 7, 2015

Elem Klimov's Come and See

Watched Come and See (『炎628』), a 1985 Belarussian war film. No joke, it was as hard to watch as Resnais' Night and Fog (so much that I'd put off seeing it for about a decade.) The film opens with a young teenage boy from a small, war-impoverished village digging in sand for an abandoned rifle so he can join the army to fight against the Nazis. He (and the audience) has no way of preparing for all the horrors he will face, as he faces one atrocity after another without ever being able to make sense of it all.

If, like me, most of the war films you've seen are from Hollywood, everything about the film will stun your senses. None of the elements you cling to in an American war film are present here: the soundtrack is by Mozart but is jarringly overlaid with the persistent drone of a jet, or the buzzing of flies. The long takes don't show off the fluidity of the scenes or the action, but instead show how suddenly and uncomprehendingly cruelties are forced upon people. The protagonist goes on no honorable soldier's "journey"; he simply survives, moving from one demolished village to the next, abject horror etched permanently on his face. Characters are shot in close-up, but look straight into the camera, allowing not empathy but instead making you feel almost accused.

All of this makes the film almost impossible to watch. And yet, it made me think, what good is there in making a war film that is amenable to the audience? I'm sure Hollywood war films are considered educational, but what is the value of a war film that reduces ideologies to a good side and a bad side, creates action scenes that offer an adrenaline rush and makes us cheer on the annihilation of human beings? It's so easy to dismiss these films as entertainment, but it's interesting how certain morals are always upheld in American films while others get a slide.

American Sniper

Went to a screening of American Sniper last night, a biopic of US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle directed by Clint Eastwood. As someone who views the US military with skepticism, and is also not religious, I couldn't fully appreciate Kyle's motivations for joining the Navy, or see the virtue in his continuing to fight even after so much death and carnage, both on the US side, and the Iraqi side (him being personally responsible for the deaths of over 160 people).

At the same time, I can see how audiences could cheer on Bradley Cooper as he picks off enemy after enemy with precision (literally killing it at his job), and admiring his character's unwavering stance on protecting his country and honoring God's will. (I'm sure this is what has led to explosive box office in the States.)

The story is told solely through Kyle's experience, and you see little evidence of him considering the larger repercussions of war. When Kyle returns to Iraq for a fourth tour of duty despite the protestations of his wife, his main motivation is to avenge the death of a comrade. Some may see this as honorable, but I saw it as a forced myopia that allows soldiers to keep doing their job. This is enforced by stray storylines of soldiers becoming despondent when they start questioning the aims of war, leaving the army, or even committing suicide.

These contrasting reactions are made possible by the opacity of Bradley Cooper's central performance. I'm trying to figure out how much of it was intentional; I feel like a more skillful actor could have been more emotionally transparent, even while playing a shellshocked, taciturn war vet. When the protagonist is a big, wooden hunk of a person, it rather takes away from the watchability of the film, but it also allows viewers to project their own ideas of war onto the film.

Despite these points of interest, I was disappointed by how pedestrian the film is overall. Many scenes are staged with a surprising lack of originality: the obligatory boot camp montage, where the recruits are called "ladies" and hosed down with ice-cold water; the way you know a soldier is going to die when he says, "I bought a ring for my girl". So few Hollywood films manage a fresh interpretation of the war movie.

So yeah, while I didn't particularly enjoy the film, it certainly has the ability to generate interesting discussions.