4/15/03:

A mixed bag today--one quite good and one quite bad. Sarah and I skipped dinner to make sure we'd make it to the first film on time, so I ended up with just a pretzel rod and a soda that I got at the concessions stand. Unfortunately I ultimately ended the festival on a sour note, with a film I had wanted to see when I was originally looking over the program, but thought I wasn't going to be able to fit in. When it got added to the festival favorites, I thought I'd gotten really lucky and snatched up a ticket. It was definitely not worth it. Sarah accompanied me to the first screening, and my friend Dave and his friend Damon showed up for the second one. Another two of Dave's friends also came, but they showed up late and had to leave as soon as the movie ended, so we didn't really get to talk to them much (although we did discuss the movie long enough to discover that they had come away with a completely different impression of it--but more on that later).

Films I saw today: Flower Pot, Hukkle, The Eye

Flower Pot

This is a Mexican short film that played in front of Hukkle. (There had been no warning given that a short was going to be played, so when the Spanish titles came up, I was pretty confused.) It's the story of a frail old woman trying to get a large flower pot up the stairs to her apartment. As she wordlessly struggles with the heavy object, which she has placed on a small wagon because she cannot lift it by herself, the true nature of everybody in the apartment house is slowly revealed. And ultimately her flower pot becomes an instrument for change in the apartment house--a change which at first seems negative, but turns out to be all for the good.

I didn't really enjoy this film. It felt very manipulative and too clever for its own good. The old woman is so forlorn and pathetic, and she and her struggle are so clearly meant to elicit sympathy, that she just annoyed me. At one point a little boy seems willing to help her, but his mother forces him to come inside and eat his dinner. The old woman is left standing in the courtyard of the apartment house, staring in desperately at the little boy, seemingly trying to will him to come out and help her. Maybe I've been hardened by the world or something, but this scene angered rather than moved me. I mean, this woman is trying to guilt a little boy into helping her! If she wants to get the flower pot up the stairs, why doesn't she try harder, or just come out and ask somebody to help her? Instead she just stands there silently, vainly tugging at her wagon and staring with watery eyes at the various passersby.

I also find the conclusion of the film to be highly questionable, both morally and realistically. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) After the flower pot kills the nasty apartment manager, everything seems to turn out fine for everyone. All the residents of the apartment house are much happier, and the old woman now has a thriving garden upstairs on her balcony. All the young children in the house, who were previously a bit of a nuisance, are now well-behaved and are helping the old woman to tend her flowers. It's all a little too neat and cute. It seems very unlikely to me that this man's murder would somehow solve everything. And having this as the moral of your story seems rather dubious. Admittedly, the manager wasn't the greatest of guys--for one thing, he didn't seem to be very prompt about getting work done on the facilities, and when he finally did try to get something fixed, he hired the wrong guy--but his complaints about some of the apartment dwellers seemed to be well-founded, and he hardly deserved death.

Not that the film is all bad. There's a sequence in the middle of the movie that I really enjoyed, when all of the various things going on in the apartment house all come to a head at once. The house is bustling with activity, and as the flower pot is finally pulled slowly upstairs by a rope, the tension rises with it, and breaks as the pot falls. It's a nice, artful moment, almost reminiscent of Hitchcock (Flower Pot is, after all, an examination of the activity inside an apartment house in the middle of the city on a hot day--as is the master's Rear Window). Thanks to clever editing and photography, there's also an interesting moment of uncertainty after the flower pot has fallen. Has it struck someone? Who? What will happen now?

Another thing I found oddly entertaining about the film is the small man who is moving into the apartment house while everything else is going on. He appears to be a midget country musician, he has a disturbingly high-pitched voice, and he is all dressed up in full cowboy regalia. The song playing during the closing credits of the film is obviously his; the voice is unmistakable.

Flower Pot is certainly cute and clever. The problem is, sometimes it's a little too cute and clever. If I had been given a separate voting ballot for this movie, I would have given it a Fair.

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Hukkle

The second screening of this film at the festival was cancelled, and unfortunately that was the screening that I had planned to see. Luckily, the film was added to the festival's favorites program and I was able to see it anyway. And I'm very glad, because this little film from Hungary is revolutionary. It takes the language of film and strips it down to its essentials, offering us an entirely new syntax. Actually, it's rather odd that I've chosen these language-related metaphors to explain Hukkle, for all intents and purposes, this is a wordless film. There is some incidental dialogue, but it's just mumblings in the background that aren't even translated. The only real words come at the end of the film, in a song, and they are really unnecessary (in fact, they are too much, as I will explain below). Even the film's title is barely a word; it's more an onomatopoetic description of a sound (a hiccup, to be exact). Hukkle needs no words, but only images and sounds, to tell its story. Yes, there is sound--this is not a silent film. Silent films had dialogue, anyway, as well as narration, which was written on cards. No, Hukkle is not a silent film; it's more like a rediscovery of the sound film. It is all about using sound and image to tell a story--the very basis of sound film. And yet it uses this basic language of film in a completely new and exciting way.

In both its sounds and its images, the film concentrates on details--the details of ordinary life in a rural Hungarian town. Through the camera and the medium of film, we examine the way animals and people move; the way they sound. Other films leave in the background, or don't even show at all, the things that are the main subject of this film. Hukkle starts with an extreme close-up examination of an animal in a field. The camera then moves up and outward, from the field into the town, to view an old man getting up in the morning. He has the hiccups--as I mentioned above, the title of the film means hiccup--and though the film wanders far afield, it is always continually returning to this old man, and to his constant hiccuping, which never stops, regardless of what insane things occur; it is the strange and steady heart-beat to the film. (And insane things do indeed occur in this film; later on an American jet fighter will zoom in low over a small river for no apparent reason.) The film examines in great detail the sound of him hiccuping, the motion that it causes. He is pouring milk--his hiccups cause him to miss the pitcher. He goes outside (we watch and hear the gate squeak open, the latch turn) and sits on a bench. His hiccups cause the bench to creak and jerk. We see the ants crawling at the foot of the bench, watch how the creaking affects them. Then we hear jars clinking together. Then we see them. They're on the back of a wagon. We listen to the rhythm of ordinary life--of birds singing, of insects chirping, of jars clinking, of a man hiccuping. Normal things of which the movie makes us aware again, in a whole new way. In this opening sequence, Hukkle is teaching how to look and listen again. It is forcing us to give attention to the things we see every day, to look at them in a new light. And despite the everyday subject, the film is entertaining--it is riveting, even. It makes you interested in looking at, and listening to, normal things. You hear the music in them, you see the way they dance.

The wagon rolls by; the rider is asleep, but his horses know where to go. Now we follow the wagon down the road, and leave the old man behind--the film continues in cycles of seemingly random, free association like this. Something passes by what we're looking at, and now we follow that. The camera wanders over, zooms in on something else--an insect, an animal. And we follow that elsewhere. Or sometimes a visual metaphor is made, and the story moves on in that way; the camera zooms in on something round, then cuts to another round object--a pig's ass, as it wanders down the road. At one point, the camera swings over and catches sight of a large bird. Now we seem to be seeing from this bird's perspective; the camera looks down on the town from overhead. Then suddenly, in an amusing, postmodern moment, the film seems to break and slide off the projector. The audience laughed and looked around nervously at this point. But it was just a trick, another association; there is a strip of film hanging up in a doorway, a man walks past it, the movie resumes--we have moved on to a different scene.

The movie keeps wandering on like this, first through mainly rural scenes, where we watch and listen to animals and shepherds and farmers. Then we move inside a clothing factory and watch and listen to the strange dance of sewing machines, and then of farming equipment. And if we watch carefully enough, if we pay attention to the details, a story starts to emerge. Amazingly enough, the story is a murder mystery. Bodies are turning up. A policeman is looking for the killer. He must sort through the details, pay attention to tiny visual clues, and maybe he will discover the murderer. By the end, he has, and if you pay attention, you can, too.

When I came out of Hukkle, I was a little confused. I felt lost, like I'd missed something. I talked it over with Sarah, and she had figured out some things about the story that I hadn't. I thought about it some more, and now I'm writing about it, and I feel I'm understanding it better and better. It's an amazing film. It takes the tools of movies and uses them cleverly and precisely. It uses them in the best and most pared down way. It tells us a story without words, because film is a medium of sound and images. Although, as I mentioned above, it does finally use words at the very end, in a song that practically gives away the whole story, but I think this was perhaps a slight error; the movie should have followed through on its premise and not spoken to us at all. It should have done what all the best movies do--speak without speaking. Tell us its story without actually spelling it all out for us. Let us watch, and listen, and figure out.

But really, what it achieves before this ending is so stupendous that it can hardly be faulted for faltering a bit at the end. Hukkle is a gimmick film, like Trinity (which had basically only three characters), but here, unlike in that film, the gimmick works almost flawlessly. It is handled with expert precision. The best art can take something we see every day and transform it into something beautiful and amazing. It can force us to give new and different attention to something we thought we knew, and make us realize that we didn't know it at all. That's what Hukkle does. It takes what is normally the background of a story--people eating, working, and going about their regular daily lives; animals eating and having sex and just wandering about--and makes it the center of the story, and best of all, makes it totally involving and interesting. It shows us that if you pay enough attention to the background, and to the details, you will see the secret of what's really going on.

A large part of the film is made up of amazing nature photography--the camera follows horses, birds, pigs, moles, dogs, cats, sheep, insects, frogs and fish as they live and eat and burrow and kill and die. There's even some fantastic stop motion photography of plants. There's a beautiful scene where we watch--and listen to!--flowers growing at an impossibly fast pace; it reminded me of the short "Profiles in Science" that I saw a couple days ago.

Hukkle ends up being a film about a lot more than a guy hiccuping. It's about husbands and wives, animals and people, secrets that are right out in the open, murder and love, life and death. And it's a film about film. It's a reevaluation of the whole process of film, a returning to the basic elements. It's impressive and inspiring. It is perhaps a bit flawed in that the story is sometimes not clear enough (some scenes left both Sarah and I baffled), and sometimes far too clear. But more often that not, Hukkle balances these two extremes quite well. And after all, when you're taking the first step into a new world, you're bound to stumble a bit at first.

My Poll Rating: Very Good (This is another film that I'd give an Excellent, now that I've had time to mull it over)

Intermission

I just took a short break here to say goodbye to Sarah, who is not a fan of horror movies, and hello to Dave and Damon, who are (edit: Dave has since pointed out to me that he's not really a fan of horror movies, and I felt obliged to note his objection here), and then it was back into the theater for The Eye. Dave had a couple of other friends coming, but they were late and didn't get to sit with us.

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The Eye

This was my last film of the festival, and was one of the last films, period. During his announcements in front of both this film and the previous one, one of the festival workers said that attendance at the festival had increased by 10,000 this year. That's pretty amazing, and pretty exciting. The festival just seems to be getting bigger and better each year.

Unfortunately, The Eye, a horror movie from the hot new Hong Kong filmmakers the Pang Brothers (there seems to be an uncanny number of brothers in filmmaking these days--the Wachowski brothers, the Hughes brothers, the Coen brothers. Maybe my brother and I should start making films...), was not a good example of that growing quality, and was a poor film with which to end my film festival experience this year. Trinity and Second Name at least had the excuse of being first films, and Beyond Re-Animator at least succeeded in what it was trying to be, even though I didn't like what it was trying to be. But the Pang Brothers have no excuses. They've already made some films, including the popular Bangkok Dangerous (which I didn't particularly like). So they're not novices. And yet still they produced this extremely awkward, clumsy, and ineffectual film.

Which is not to say the film was all bad. The very beginning was rather clever and effective. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) The opening credits start, and then the film seems to suddenly burn and break. The audience sits in shock for a moment, trying to figure out if something has actually gone wrong, wondering what will be done--and then bang, the movie starts up again. "Hold tight--" the on-screen titles tell us. It's a nice little meta-scare; sort of an attempt to bring the horror out of the screen and into the movie theater itself. I appreciated this, and looked forward to what the film would try to do next. And indeed, during the film there are a couple of effective scares, and even a few images that stayed with me afterwards and continued to disturb me. But in general, the scares are of the cheap, loud-noise-just-to-make-you-jump variety, and once you pass the half-way point of the film, they stop being effective at all because you either know what's coming, or you simply don't care.

The main problem with The Eye is that its characters and story events are unbelievable. Yes, it's a supernatural thriller, so you're expected to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. But the best supernatural thrillers make you believe in the impossible events they depict; that's part of the art of the genre. The Eye fails at this task. Also, the movie is very predictable, and the story is very familiar: Our main character is a young blind girl. At the beginning of the film she gets a cornea transplant. Inevitably, as in all films wherein our main character gets a transplant of some kind, the donor of the corneas was a rather strange person. So now our heroine can see dead people. Not only that, she can also see the entities that come to take people's souls to the other side (who turn out to look like pale, transparent guys wearing black turtlenecks and black slacks).

But--and here's my first question--why can she also hear the dead people? Well, okay, that's not even my first question; my first question is, where's Bruce Willis? Wasn't he already in this movie? Except wasn't it much better, and called The Sixth Sense? In The Eye, the audience realizes the main character is seeing dead people almost immediately, so it's really annoying to have to sit around and wait for our main character to catch up--which she does, finally, after much blundering confusion. In The Sixth Sense, the little boy already knows he can see dead people at the beginning of the film, and it's the audience who has to slowly figure out what's going on--this was far more disturbing and effective. But to get back to my original point, why can this girl also hear the dead people? This struck me almost immediately and kept bothering me throughout the film. I know that seeing dead people isn't exactly something that's logical and makes sense. But even fantasy movie worlds where impossible things like this can happen should at least be internally consistent. So if you're going to establish that a woman can see dead people because she's got the eyes of a woman who could see dead people, I ask you, did she get the ears, too?

And, later on in the film, our main character suddenly and inexplicably can play the violin extremely well. Yes, she could play before, but not well; she was constantly out of key. (She had played with an orchestra composed entirely of blind people; I'm not sure if this was intentional, but the scene where she gets kicked out of the orchestra because she has now regained her sight was really pretty funny.) But in this scene, she just steps up and plays a whole damn concerto beautifully, before collapsing. This doesn't seem to have any logical connection to anything else she sees or experiences. There is no explanation for it in the film--no scene in which we learn that the donor of the corneas could play the violin really well, and no scene in which we learn that part of this ability to see dead people includes susceptibility to being possessed by dead people, let alone dead violinists. So now my question is, should the title of this film really be, The Eye...s...and the Ears...and...Maybe the Hands, Too?

And not only is the story illogical and unbelievable, so are the characters. Let me give you one of the most extreme examples: At one point, our main character goes into a restaurant and sees a woman and her child hanging around outside. They appear almost transparent, and the woman starts to lick the outside of the shop window. I'll admit, this scene was creepy, as were a number of the earlier sequences in the picture. The Pang Brothers occasionally manage to create a real sense of unease; that feeling--indispensable to a good horror film--that anything could happen, that a spirit could appear anywhere, that nowhere is safe. The problem is, to make this really work, you have to care about the characters, believe the ghosts are harmful, and you have to not expect the scares. As I mentioned already, a lot of the scares are cheap--something just suddenly jumps out at you. It's the easiest, cheapest way to scare you, and even though it works, it's only effective fleetingly. It doesn't stay with you, and you often feel cheated by it. A really effective scare is one that is psychological, works deep inside of you, and stays there afterward. Dark Water has scares like this. They are mainly absent from The Eye.

But anyway, as I was saying, our main character sees this frightening apparition by the window. After it's gone, a real live woman approaches our main character and says, "So you can see them, too?" Apparently this woman knows the shop owner; she explains his history, and the history of the ghosts, whom she can also clearly see. Then she says, "You get used to them after a while."

Okay, so here's where the movie fails in terms of giving its characters believable, human behaviors. If you're seeing dead people, and you meet somebody who can see them, too, and who, on top of that, seems to know all about it and be quite comfortable with it, aren't you going to want to talk to that person? Aren't you, in fact, going to want to get as much information as you can out of that person? The answer is yes, of course. But what does our main character do? She pays for her food, leaves the shop, and never comes back. She never tries to find this woman or talk to her at all. This never comes up again.

What?

This feels almost like some kind of discarded subplot. There are a number of other parts of the movie that feel like discarded subplots to me, too. Early on in the film, we notice our main character's sister and grandmother are acting rather oddly. A boy who lived in their apartment building committed suicide, and there's some kind of priest or monk hanging around, trying to help the parents of the boy. The sister and grandmother seem to be involved somehow; we see them burning things--among them is what appears to be the credit card that the dead boy's spirit keeps asking for. Why? Are they helping in some kind of exorcism process? The sister says she's going away on a long trip, then suddenly shows up back at the apartment building. When our main character asks her why she's back so soon, she gives a lame excuse that is obviously a lie. What is going on? Later on, we see scenes of the monk or priest apparently performing an exorcism. What's that about? We never learn the answers to these questions. This part of the story is dropped and never returned to, as if the Pang brothers decided to cut out the end of it without also cutting out the beginning.

Of course, what they left in the movie isn't much better. It's predictable and silly. When our heroine meets a loveable boy with a brain tumor at the hospital, it almost immediately becomes apparent that he's going to die, that she is going to see him and naturally assume he is alive, only to realize at a dramatic moment that he is actually dead and she's seeing his spirit. So, about a half an hour after we've figured this all out, it finally happens. That is poor plotting.

Of course, a lot of these problems might be forgivable, or at least acceptable, if the movie were still scary and entertaining. Unfortunately, it isn't. There are a few genuinely scary scenes early on, but by about half way through the film, none of the scares work anymore because you don't care about the characters (they seem silly and foolish, and, as I mentioned earlier, don't act the way normal people would), you barely believe the supernatural events that are supposed to be occurring (can she see dead people or predict their death's, which is it?), and you practically know what's going to happen anyway. I'll admit, the Pang brothers did surprise me in a couple of places. (Warning: more spoilers ahead.) I didn't expect the disaster that occurs at the end of the film (although the fact that there was a surprise ending was predictable--all supernatural thrillers have surprise endings these days). And although I did expect that our main character would end up blind again, I thought the cause would be more horrifying--that she would cut out her own eyes rather than continue seeing these awful things. Instead, she is blinded again by chance and lives happily ever after with her boyfriend. Frankly, I prefer my ending. In a sappy voiceover at the end of the film, our heroine speaks of the "beautiful things" she's seen, and says she's happy for having seen them. But what is she referring to? Most of the stuff she saw was pretty awful. I guess she's talking about her new boyfriend, the psychologist. But their relationship is also hard to believe. He's barely a character, and when he says, in response to a question put to him by his brother, "Yes, she's more than a patient to me," the audience reacted by laughing. He seems ridiculous, a barely filled out "male love interest" stereotype. He's just the concerned guy who wants to help. We know pretty much nothing else about him.

The boyfriend's line isn't the only bit in the movie that inspired laughter. The very premise of the film is ridiculous; when the characters talk about "seeing spirits" it just sounds laughable. Of course, that's because the concept is laughable. So a movie like this either has to run with that, and use it to its advantage (in other words, have the characters laugh at the crazy concepts, and play to the humorous aspects of the situation instead of ignoring them), or pull the audience into its world to such an extent that we believe in these fantastic ideas and no longer think of them as funny. The Eye fails to do either of these.

So the movie is poorly constructed and edited, the story is familiar and predictable, the characters don't act like normal human beings, and the events that occur are ridiculous and unbelievable. And I haven't even mentioned the totally retched music. As soon as music first started playing on the soundtrack, I was horrified, and not in a good way. It's all terrible, melodramatic, overly romanticized, synthesizer music. It's awful, and often quite inappropriate (see especially the romantic piano music playing over the scene of horrible disaster that occurs at the end of the film). And then there's the blind orchestra's out of key music, and our main character's out of key violin playing.

Somewhere around the half way point of the film, Dave and Damon were seriously considering walking out. I was kind of hoping I could just sleep through the rest of the movie. But we sat through to the end, and learned the ridiculous, melodramatic backstory of the girl whose corneas started all this. This character is yet another barely fleshed out stereotype. In flashbacks we learn that she was hated and feared by her community for being able to predict death and misfortune. The townspeople yelled at her and threw things at her. These scenes are supposed to give us insight into her character, and force us to sympathize with her. But they are ridiculously overdone, and shamelessly manipulative. Film is a manipulative medium, certainly, but The Eye is clumsy and obvious about its attempts to manipulate us. It hasn't earned the right to affect our emotions. Or rather, it has lost that right by constantly failing to maintain my interest, as an audience member.

Like many a Hollywood film, this Hong Kong horror movie has eschewed substance, characterization, and creativity in favor of stylish but unimaginative rehashing of plot elements that were interesting about five years ago. So do yourself and your eyes a favor: don't watch The Eye. Watch The Sixth Sense again instead.

My Poll Rating: Poor

Epilogue

It's interesting how different people can experience a film in such a completely opposite way. During the movie, I noticed a girl a couple seats from us who was screaming and jumping constantly--she seemed to be having a great time; or at least, she seemed to be exhibiting the reaction that the Pang brothers must have been hoping for when they made the film. As we were walking out, I heard other audience members complimenting the film. And when we got out of the the theater, we had a chance to talk to Dave's two other friends, who had arrived late to the show, and they had also found the movie very entertaining. Judging from these responses, and by the fact that The Eye was chosen as a festival favorite, I guess a lot of people liked it for some reason.

This kind of extreme disagreement over a film is always disturbing to me. I have the idea stuck somewhere deep in my head that the quality of a movie (and, by extension, the quality of any piece of art) is an objective thing. We each experience films in our own subjective way, but ultimately they are either good or bad. So, either I'm wrong about The Eye, or a lot of other people are wrong about it. This leads to me feeling very insecure about my opinions on movies, and very defensive when someone disagrees with me about a movie. And, indeed, after multiple viewings I often change my mind completely about a movie. My objective theory of art doesn't make a lot of sense, and doesn't seem to hold up under any close scrutiny of the facts (people disagree about art, and movies, a lot), but I just can't seem to shake loose from it.

I was pretty tired after the movie, but luckily Dave was able to give me a ride home. He and Damon and I talked about the film, and about the festival, and about other, better films we'd seen. We all agreed that The Eye was quite awful (which was very reassuring to me). But, despite The Eye and one or two other films, it's been a great festival. Yes, there were a few duds, but you have to expect that. The number of high quality films was really astounding. I enjoyed the festival immensely; I bought the T-shirt, and I'll be back next year!

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Jim Genzano





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