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A PhD in Horribleness

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009 03:41 PM
On the Viewer - 18 1/2 Philadelphia Film Festival: Saturday, October 17th
 by Fëanor

I have to admit, despite my misgivings, the 18 1/2 Philadelphia Film Festival was pretty well organized, ran pretty smoothly, and had pretty decent attendance at all screenings. There were a few signs of discord, however; the requests by the film presenters to please become a member of the Philadelphia Film Society sounded a little desperate. And the following correction, contained in one of the newsletters sent out during the festival, struck me as pretty telling:
At the request of many festival-goers, a few days ago in our newsline we broke down our line-up of films into sub-categories, much like the we [sic] have done in the past, to make navigation through our Program Guide simpler. Unbeknownst to us, some of the titles of these categories, including Danger After Dark, are actually proprietary to our previous festival partners, TLA Entertainment and Philadelphia CineFest, and are not official categories of the Philadelphia Film Festival. We apologize for using these category names as well as any confusion it may have caused.
I imagine this discovery (assuming it honestly was a discovery of something of which they were previously unaware) was quite a blow to the Film Society. Not being able to use the Danger After Dark name must be particularly galling, as that has always been one of the festival's most famous and popular film categories.

Anyway, although I posted reviews on Twitter as I came out of each film, I thought I'd also do some more in-depth reviews here, organized by day. So here's my report from the first day. (The festival actually began on Thursday the 15th, but Saturday was my first day of participation.)

Stingray Sam
One of the great things about film festivals is they give you the opportunity (and/or excuse) to see weird little movies like this one. Stingray Sam is a sci-fi Western musical serial written by, directed by, and starring Cory McAbee. As the opening theme song of each episode immediately explains, Sam is not a hero. In fact, he once robbed banks with his partner the Quasar Kid (Crugie). They were eventually captured, but both he and the Kid were subsequently released from the prison planet of Durango, along with all their fellow prisoners, when the entire prison system went bankrupt. However, the release came with the understanding that at some point in the future any and all of the ex-convicts could be called upon to do some public service for the authorities. Since his release, Stingray Sam has become a lounge singer on Mars, a planet which has been turned into a kind of washed-up Las Vegas or Reno. One day the Quasar Kid shows up and tells him the time has come to pay back his debt to society. Sam is happy where he is and is not particularly interested in paying back his debt, but the Kid won't take no for an answer, and soon they're off on an intergalactic mission to save a sweet little girl who's been kidnapped by a selfish, idiotic, arrogant aristocrat named Fredward.

Along with a silly kidnapping adventure, Stingray Sam also delivers some amusing social satire. The film is set in a future where the gender of your child can be chosen by pills, and thus the upper and lower classes nearly died out because they all wanted male babies. But a pair of scientists found a solution to this problem: use genetic material from two men to create an embryo and place it inside one of the men. There's no explanation for how the man is then able to physically give birth, but apparently they've been doing so successfully for some time now. The plot of the film is set into motion because a carpenter chooses to have a girl instead of a boy.

Each episode of Stingray Sam is only about 10 minutes long, and there are only 6 or 7 of them, so it's a short, fast film. Each episode also includes one song (all quite silly and entertaining), and the entire movie is narrated with just the right tone of pompous ridiculousness by David Hyde Pierce. It's a fun, wryly funny film, and the ending is even rather touching, as Sam finds himself getting a bit attached - in a very sweet, fatherly way - to the girl he's rescued (and indeed, it looks like from the cast list that in real life the two actors are father and daughter). I recommend the film. And lucky for those of you who missed it at the festival, you can click here to download the whole thing in iPod-compatible format.

A Town Called Panic
I followed up the silly, funny Stingray Sam with the even sillier and funnier A Town Called Panic. This is a stop-motion animated film from Belgium based on a popular Belgian TV show. All the characters in the film are played by little plastic toys. Our heroes are Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. They all live together in one house, next door to a farmer named Steven. When Horse's birthday comes around, Cowboy and Indian are horrified to realize they've forgotten to buy him a present. They quickly order some bricks with which they hope to build him a barbecue. By chance, they order far too many bricks, and this mistake is the catalyst for a series of increasingly odd and hilarious misadventures, including a constantly delayed romance between Horse and the town music teacher, attacks by thieving merpeople, and super-strong mad scientists roaming the snowy wastes in a giant snowball-throwing penguin robot. There is simply no way of knowing what will happen next in this film; it's just one wacky, delightful surprise after another. I can't say it's an important work of cinema, or that it has any deep, powerful meanings, but it is such a wonderful concoction of fun and silliness that I really cannot recommend it highly enough. I'd call it my favorite of the festival. I intend to find a copy of it ASAP so I can show it to poppy.

Rembrandt's J'Accuse
I don't always love Peter Greenaway's films, but they're always unique and fascinating. This documentary about Rembrandt's famous painting, known as The Night Watch, is no exception. In fact, it's perhaps even more fascinating to me than his average film, as Rembrandt is one of my favorite painters, and his Night Watch has special meaning for me because it's through that painting that I really discovered Rembrandt - not to mention it's the subject of one of my favorite King Crimson songs.

Greenaway wrote, directed, narrates, and even plays the part of prosecutor in this film. He opens it by pointing out that we live in a very text-based society where everyone is taught to read, but very few people are taught to see. Thus the great majority of the population is visually illiterate, meaning, unable to interpret the true meaning of the images they see. Right off the bat I found myself quarreling a bit with his arguments. I don't think it's quite fair to say that words are valued over images in our society. Everyone knows images are powerful, and every day we stare at images on TV screens, computer screens, phone screens, and advertisements on buses and billboards and so forth. I think it's less that we're not taught to interpret images, and more that we're not taught to interpret, period. Our culture could definitely benefit from all of us looking harder at both the words we're reading and the images we're seeing.

But Greenaway quickly moves on from this point to another one: that the painting The Night Watch, if looked at carefully and interpreted correctly, can be shown to contain an accusation of murder. Throughout the rest of the film, Greenaway takes us through 30 separate clues hidden in the painting and describes what they really mean.

But Greenaway's analysis of the painting feels less like an educated interpretation and more like a wild conspiracy theory. He tells us this character looks like a devil, this one is shorter than that one, and that one looks like a male dwarf disguised as a female child. He tells us this one is holding a right-handed glove, even though his left hand is bare (it looks like a left-handed glove to me). He tells us this one is holding a coffee pot referring back to an earlier scandal (I don't see any coffee pot in the painting). But what does any of this mean? Certainly none of it is proof of murder. They're all odd details, and there is a kind of accusatory bent to them, but they don't add up to much as far as I can see. Greenaway also tells us that the painting once contained two other characters who are important to the story, but that part of the painting was cut off and has never been found. But then how is he showing it to us? How does he know what it looked like, or that those two people were even in the painting? He spends a lot of time explaining certain things, but seems to avoid explaining the really important ones. He does offer incredibly specific details about the people in the painting, and speaks of their murder plot as if it's fact, but none of the really damning details or facts are contained in the actual painting; he brings them out of thin air without any explanation for how he knows them. Is the murder a well known historical fact, and Greenaway's point is just that the painting includes an accusation, and it's this accusation that destroyed Rembrandt's career? Perhaps. But then why not mention that?

Greenaway includes what appear to be well-acted and filmed dramatic reenactments of the events the painting is supposed to be about, but then talks over the actors as if his narration is far more important than the dialog he had his actors recite. Why even film the reenactments if you're not really going to use them? The movie as a whole is certainly intelligently written, often wryly funny, and occasionally convincing, but it's also odd, pompous, and quite frustrating.

I ultimately found myself unconvinced by Greenaway's theory. In fact, by the end of the film I was no longer sure if he even believed in it himself. Is his real point perhaps that we are so visually illiterate that he can twist what we're seeing with his words until we believe even the crazy lies he's telling us?

Red Cliff
I'm not usually a fan of John Woo's films (they're usually too cheesy and melodramatic for me), but when I saw he was doing a period war epic with wushu elements, starring Tony Leung, I couldn't resist. The story's villain is the ambitious General Cao Cao (whose name is rather unfortunately pronounced "Chow-chow," a fact which made me snort the first time I heard the name spoken aloud). Cao Cao bullies the Emperor into supporting wars against any who would oppose him. But once he is strong enough, Cao Cao intends to overthrow the Emperor, as well, and take control of China. The noble Generals of the Southlands cannot let this happen, and so, even though they are outnumbered, they resolve to join in an uneasy alliance against Cao Cao and make their last, desperate stand at the fortress at Red Cliff.

The movie is quite long, a bit slow at times, and, as I expected, a bit melodramatic. The editing is also occasionally confusing, leaving it unclear as to where and when we are, and whether the soldiers we're looking at are the heroes or the villains. But the movie is nowhere near as melodramatic as other films of its type, and it's quite well made in pretty much every other way. The characters are interesting, and their careful planning, strategy and tactics are clever and fascinating. The battles themselves are exciting; the special effects impressive. In a particularly thrilling battle sequence in the first half of the film, it's revealed that the generals have the superhuman abilities typical of legendary kung fu warriors. This was probably my favorite part of the movie, and I wish we'd gotten to see more of this type of fighting. But as it is, the other war scenes were nearly as well done. There's the strong feeling throughout that we're looking at ancient legends and myths playing out before our eyes, which gives the action a sense of weight and power - a feel of the archetypal. Still, as impressive as these mythical battles are, they would not work if it weren't for the fact that Woo continually brings things back down to the personal, human element, and thus keeps the action emotionally effective.

I can't call Red Cliff a great film, but it is as strong an entry in the epic wushu war genre as I've ever seen.
Tagged (?): Art (Not), Cartoons (Not), Comedy (Not), John Woo (Not), Movies (Not), Music (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Peter Greenaway (Not), Philadelphia Film Festival (Not)
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