Power and Gory


Those brave souls who sat through Pasolini’s Salo: 101 Days of Sodom
at this year’s film festival, would remember well each cringe and wince:
It remains one of the most controversial films in moviedom,
notorious for its brutal scenes of depravity and torture, although since
then, special effects have brought realistic gore ever closer to the bone.

Still, as every savvy filmmaker since Hitchcock understands, to evince
terror, one need only suggest, not show violence in the red – well-known
that the viewer’s own imagination and anxieties will do the rest.
It’s one reason why Silence of the Lambs remains the best
of the Hannibal Lecter movies – full of that suppressed, animal energy
lurking beneath the skin of civilised culture. In contrast, the overtly gory
sequel, Hannibal is a mere butcher fest: disgusting, certainly
but hardly a spine-chiller, the infamous cannibal became merely
another monster in the light, stripped of mystery and unpredictability.

The more recent Red Dragon, a remake of Manhunter (1986) seems far
more in sync with the tone of the original Silence, even subtly
offering ‘80s hairdos and film tones to convey a sense of an era
past, a gritty world that nevertheless appears innocent of the inner beast
it breeds. Edward Norton plays FBI Agent Graham, the man who first
puts Lecter away, at the cost of nearly becoming his latest feast.
Retiring early, Graham is called up to help track down the worst
serial killer since the cannibal – darkly named the Tooth Fairy
for his habit of biting his victims (after cutting their eyes out)
in tribute to his hero, the good Dr Lecter. Hopkins, as Hannibal, barely
features in this film; he is a resource, a caged devil the FBI consult
when they run out of leads. Norton’s Graham is played to perfection:
his distaste for the preening Lecter matches the Doctor’s contempt
for his pragmatic intelligence, and he never allows preoccupation
with the chase to let him forget Lecter’s insanity. Graham’s attempt
to outwit Lecter into revealing clues to lead him to his prey
obliges him to tap into his terrible gift: of being able to think like a killer, to
become the demon within in order to hunt one down. Contrary
to Graham’s grim resolve, Ralph Fiennes’ killer is an unloved softie who,
having suffered from an abused childhood and a cleft lip, is drawn
into a schizophrenic possession he fights constantly to overcome.
The movie’s soppiest moments are also its darkest: a blind woman,
oblivious to his disfigurement and criminal shyness, seduces him
and offers, with her heart, an alternative to savagery. His fight
to defend her against his own bestiality lends the film emotional weight,
in sharp contrast to our hero Graham’s seasoned ruthlessness. How this
almost poignant affair concludes hints at the film’s true tale:
Sometimes we try our best to shield the ones we love – and fail.

It’s a theme that recurs in another concept thriller out on DVD, starring
Jodie Foster, whose rare combination of intellect and innocence
lit the screen in Silence Of the Lambs, in her role as Clarice Starling.
In Panic Room she plays a wealthy divorced mum who finds a place
to install herself and her smart-alecky daughter. Thing is the house
used to belong to some paranoid tycoon who built in a hack-proof shelter,
complete with steel-doors, video cameras and ventilation shafts. The
moment mum and kid move in, a bunch of thugs assault the home
to raid the old man’s riches, hidden (where else?) in the panic room.
David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Game) excels in cat-and-mouse
scenarios, as usual, though this one seems a tad miscast. Set against
Foster’s relentless intensity, the bumbling, brute house-
breakers seem more prey than predators, hapless victims fenced
in with a ferocious creature rather than the ones calling the shots.
Jodie is less convincing as a frightened, claustrophobic divorcee
with a smart-mouthed teen, than as outraged amazon, with far more guts
than her tormentors, clearly. In one scene, to fob off the police and save
the dwindling life of her diabetic daughter, she pretends nothing
is wrong in the house (although, by now, the body count is grave).
In another, she takes a sledgehammer to the villain’s head, knocking
him clean off his feet. If the safe-room is a metaphor for women’s plight
imprisoned by a world of brutal men, feminist viewers need not worry:
The lads prove incompetent, reckless or soft : none have the fight,
the brains or – let’s face it – the balls of wonder woman Jodie.

A far more sombre take on man’s penchant for inhumanity
is Das Experiment, a much-acclaimed prison drama from Germany,
and based on the real-life Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971.
(Check it out at www.prisonexp.org). Hard to imagine who’d
sign up for something like this: Two weeks in a prison
as inmate or guard, all rights suspended, cell-beds and bad food
for a fistful of cash. The premise would’ve been most absurd
if not derived from actual events, down to the gradual, inevitable bedlam.
In the movie, Tarek is a down-and-out reporter who is spurred
to the deal by the prospect of a tabloid expose, some scandal or mayhem.
Randomly assigned to be a prisoner, he tests the system to the brink,
beginning with light banter and then downright insubordination,
leaving the guards (observing the rules of non-violence), in deep frustration.
A maverick leader, Tarek’s example makes the other prisoners think
they can get away with anything – he becomes the dynamic factor
in an otherwise stable experimental system. Before long, the authority
of the guards is reasserted – through subtle methods any would-be dictator
might have used – divide-and-conquer, humiliation, invasions of privacy.
Driven (and here the film adds unnecessary background) by the memory
of a bossy father, Tarek outwits the guards and every turn, raises the stakes
by targeting a particularly effete guard – an air steward, already touchy
about his manhood. The film’s premise, of course, is that it takes
so little to push ordinary folks overboard into fascism and violence –
a point made more resonant in native German by the constant reference
to Nazis (down to the blond gay guard, the sadist of the lot). Blood
is soon spilled, as the affronted guards devise ingenious means
to bend the prison’s rules to their own ends, and things go on a downward
spiral. In real-life Stanford, things did not quite result in the scenes
of devastation, rape and murder the film serves up, but the psychological
anguish was very real, as was the spontaneous, inexplicable, illogical
degeneration of the unremarkable guards into brutes. As the adage goes:
Power corrupts (you know the rest). And History’s demonstrated worse:

Poland, World War II – site of some of humanity’s darkest hours
and excesses as grotesque as any in Pasolini’s macabre vision.
Director Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist scours
the eye and ear with images of slaughter interspersed with Chopin
delicately played, as Warsaw is taken apart by careless Nazi fire.
We’ve seen it in Schindler’s List and countless imitators, but none
with Polanski’s detached survivor’s eye, the camera six storeys above murder
in the streets. Adrien Brody’s moody rendition of Wladyslaw Szpilman
smoulders with understatement, suggesting deeply buried feeling,
and the piano pieces underscore the same tonal range. The ghetto grows
around the Jews; his world shrinks to a room, a piano, then nothing.
Inexplicably surviving due to luck and loyal (if ignoble) friends, his woes
prove little more than hunger, loneliness, the loss of his family and music –
a far cry from the infernal conditions of Auschwitz and the death-camps. While
The Pianist is based on real-life events, and lyric in its evocation
of survival in a time of hell (he plays air piano to keep his spirits up), still
the film lets slip a false note. It’s not the casual deaths, nor the notion
that his life is ultimately spared by a music-loving German officer
for whom, threadbare and thirsty, he plays one last, terrified mazurka
(it did after all, occur). Perhaps it’s the speed with which he could recover
from his war-time trauma, return to radio broadcasts without a scar,
suave again, strangely unperturbed. Art transcends, sustains –
The Pianist asserts – and yet it seems Polanski takes one too many pains
to peg Art above all other modes of survival, as if there were some charmed
air around a gifted artist; as if the rest who died left the world unharmed,
were no great loss. Too much cinematic tragedy has been invested
in the fate of just one man, who albeit, is sorely tested.

The Romans long knew that Man is Wolf to Man, yet believed that Art
could lift the human beast above its station, set it free of base confines.
In Nazi-occupied Warsaw, music could be resistance, a fortress for the heart
and soul. But in Maoist China, a taste for culture is part of what defines
the demonised bourgeoisie, could get you lynched by peasant masses.
Luo and Ma, two sons of disgraced intellectuals, are sent for rural
re-education in a remote village, in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,
a film version of Dai Sijie’s semi-autobiographical French novel.
Realising quickly that their education and intelligence could get them
ahead or into trouble among their wardens – all illiterate revolutionary farm
workers – the two young men convert their cultural inheritance into tools
for survival. Mozart becomes a Maoist song-spinner; Balzac, a Commie
from Albania. With their charisma and story-telling skills, the pair fools
the villages into acceptance, and wins the heart of the local beauty.
Sentenced to menial work and mining, they find comfort in her presence
and with the aid of a case of pilfered foreign books, set out to free
her mind of its proletariat shackles , with no small consequence.
Zhou Xun is heart-tugging as the feisty and sensual little seamstress, who,
having realised her beauty and its power and worth, soon leaves for good.
The last third of the film is an elegiac retrospective, ala Cinema Paradiso,
as Ma and Luo (now free, successful men) revisit the neighbourhood
of their confinement, soon to be drowned under the waters of the new
Three Gorges Dam project, and with it, the last traces of an ancient world few
ever understood. Replete with sweeping visuals of mountains and rice padi
terraces cut into steep slopes, set to Mozart’s pensive violins, the movie
is Dai’s bittersweet tribute to a land in which he (and a nation) came of age,
loved, lost and left behind its past with all its harshness, beauty, joy and rage.

This month’s best releases at Video Ezy share many central themes:
man’s capacity for cruelty; confinement; how art empowers, love redeems;
how fear constrains yet might be conquered. They belie the claim
that violence onscreen desensitises, encourages the same:
As Hardy pointed out, if way to better be, it warrants a look at worse.
These films unpack the impulses that drive us to art, music, love and verse,
through observant portrayals that deconstruct – without glorifying – brutality.
They bear witness to the power of cinema – to cage us and then set us free.

(Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise)

Directed by : Dai Sijie
Written by: Dai Sijie, Nadine Perront
Stars: Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Liu Ye
Running Time: 116 minutes
DVD Features: Trailers, Cast/Director Interviews

(Das Experiment)

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by : Don Bohlinger & Christoph Darnstädt
Stars: Moritz Bleibtreu, Justus von Dohnanyi, Maren Eggert
Running Time: 120 Minutes
DVD Features: Theatrical trailer(s), In German, with English subtitles


Directed by David Fincher
Written by : David Koepp
Stars: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker
Running Time: 112 Minutes
DVD Features: Theatrical trailer(s)


Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by : Ronald Harwood based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Stars: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Thomas Kretschmann
Running Time: 150 Minutes
DVD Features: "Story of Survival" featurette on the making of the film, Archival war footage