The Counterfeiters (2007, Austria, Stefan Ruzowitzky)
An episode of Hogan's Heros played for dread.
The concentration camp setting is no joke, of course. Yet, TC comes dangerously close to being a typical prisoner of war movie. In this genre, the challenge to defeat the enemy on the battlefield is transposed into the challenge to sabatoge whatever work the prisoners have been enslaved to perform for their enemy. The historical specificity of The Holocaust is only relevant in TC to the extent that the prisioners are not captured soldiers determined to engage in some form of combat, still "professionally" prepared to die fighting, but are regular people trying to figure out how much they can undermine their captors and still survive. The historical circumstance of the film - a true story based on a memoir - is too real, too serious, and too horrible to disrespect. Yet, TC almost abstracts from it entirely to deliver an general moral dilemma about colaborating with evil in a life-and-death situation.
The film is to be applauded for avoiding any sort of sentimental solution to this ethical problem. This is to acknowledge that the protagonist is a genuinely complex character, a real person in an all-too-real situation who tries to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis as he perceives them. As he perceives them. There's the rub. The film is actually quite weak with regard to developing the perspectives of the other characters. They are reduced to over-simplified "positions" in relation to the main man. The conversations between the group as a whole should have been longer and much richer, more involved and more involving in every way. The fact is, not just nice beds and decent food did these specially skilled labourers receive. They had luxury enough to generate civics among themselves. They were given the time and the space, the opportunity, to engage in extended and meaningful political strategizing. This is not to suggest that they could have achieved some sort of united front. It is rather to say that the screenplay does not do justice to them being unable to do so. It does not enter deeply into the debates that necessarily would have ensued.
In short, TC is rather "Hollywood." As such, it does a disservice to the history of the wretched souls in the concentration camp outside the walls of the counterfeiting compound. Yes, it is very emotionally gripping at the end when the counterfeiters are confronted by their emaciated liberators and have to prove to them that they too are enslaved Jews. But this encounter would have been happening all the time in the consciousness of the counterfeiters, as a matter of conscience that conditioned their arguments over what to do. Nevermind the altruistic principles informing the idealistic young communist. My point is not ideological. It is existential. TC is superficial with respect to the larger fact of The Holocaust as it must have determined the psychology of the counterfeiters. A remarkable story and worth telling. The screenplay of TC does not tell it profoundly enough.
I should disclose that part of my problem with the screenplay had to do with the sub-titles. Translation of any kind is an art in itself and sub-titles present the additional challenge of being transient on the screen. How much to simplifiy? You want to capture the semantic spirit of the dialogue but it has to be a managable amount of text. A number of times I found the sub-titles in TC too long to process. It didn't help that the type was small and - inexcusable - the stuff was littered with spelling errors; seriously, the worst I've seen with the possible exception of a few old Japanese films.
This difficulty was exacerbated by the excessive jump-cutting. Considering the story is a solid drama based on intense character conflicts and not a lot of action, I found the editing style of TC jarring and inappropriate. Not that it's a full-blown, hand-held Blair Witch Project (never saw it), but it is needlessly skittish. The director attempts to generate tension visually rather than simply allowing the eye to fix on humans engaged in struggle. The story is essentially language-driven so train the camera accordingly and let the narrative speak for itself.
These objections registered, the story is - duh! - just too real, serious and powerful to disrespect and I was thoroughly absorbed in it. One thing I found corny, though, when their overseer comes back for the hidden money after the rest of the Nazis have gone - jive. As if. He would have squirrelled away his treasure in installments over time, skimming off of successive print runs to secure his accumulating booty in his own home. Even if he only had one opportunity to make a single cash grab, he would never of had the privacy to locate a hiding place for it right under the noses of everybody involved. This was a lame dramatic device to enable the protagonist to confront the opportunistic bad guy.
And since I'm being picky, the whore with the heart of gold at the end, come on. She hooks up with him the first time after he has won big at the table. The next night after he (intentionally, I have no problem with this moral catharthis) loses everything at the table, she find him on the beach to console him. BS! She would have crossed him off her list and given her attention to winners with money to spend.
Sorry that you saw such a poorly subtitled edition of the film; getting into a film's groove is tough enough with life's many distractions, adding bad subs to the list is hardly optimal for viewing pleasure.
I suspect that I liked the film a bit more than you. I will, however, grant you the weakness of the hooker with a heart of gold finale, which seemed completely gratuitous and incongruent with the tale that preceded. The film's jittery camera work never bothered me, but rather I saw it as a necessary outgrowth of the character's own uncertain lives, and as a curious contrast to the exactitude required in the work they were doing. Further, to say the film does a disservice to the poor wretches who lived in the concentration camps, I'd have to say that this is part of the film's point. These folks, due to their expertise, did not lead the lives of typical concentration camp victims, and the guilt they felt upon seeing this at film's end I found profoundly affecting.
I was quite captivated (sorry!) by these character's morally ambiguous stories. I thought director Ruzowitzky did a fine job of capturing (someone stop me, please!) the claustrophia of the setting, as well as conveying the moral complexity of these characters' choices. Lastly, I have to note that I really dug that the "good guy" turned out to be a communist. Too bad that a little more of the story couldn't have been devoted to telling his side of the tale.
Audition (2001, Japan, Takashi Miike)
David Lynch dipped in soy sauce. Yuck!
Actually, this film is much, much worse than anything by Lynch that has ever offended me. In the first place, everything by Lynch has not offended me and the ones that I like temper my dislike of the ones I dislike. But even what I dislike is more interesting and subtle than this crass crap. I mean, Lynch has style, I'll give him that. This movie is just cheap shit. Even before all the nasty business started to come down, I found the framing and the lighting simply ugly. At first I accepted this as appropriate for the mood of the story but eventually I started to fiddle with the contrast and tint buttons. Of course, the clunky visual compositions would turn out to be the least of my problems. Story started out alright. I was engaged by the conceptual juxtaposition of the protagonist being modern enough to decline the option of traditional match-making but "too" modern in using a casting session to survey romantic prospects. Given the title of the film, I anticipated that this would be explored in depth. Didn't happen. The thing deteriorated into a stupid shock-fest, replete with excessive psycho-sexual grossness, hack reliance on intuitive flash visions and especially bogus movement between dreams and reality. Low-grade manipulative film-making posing as neato-keano surrealism. Not even genuinely gripping as suspense or horror. Just heartless button-pushing in order to wallow in the fantastically sordid. Or am I supposed to regard it as feminist because the killer freak is a woman slicing up men for a change? No way. In fact, the film is just one more castration anxiety projection of the black widow spider. And perhaps most insulting of all, the narrative justification for all the sensationalism. Yet another abused child. Fuck off!
Since I suffered through this, it means something to me to tell you that - thank Christ - I did it alone. I had to get up before 6:00 this morning to get Jacob out the door for a one-day three-game exhibition baseball tournament on the lower mainland. Having done that, I figued I'd watch some In Treatment before getting Max to soccer, but was overcome by matrimonial guilt, so saved Gabriel Byrne for Monica, as it were. Thought I'd look at a pretty asian actress in the meantime. Dude, if a film is gonna get as nasty as this one got, please, give me a heads up. I'm not talking about bad art now, (although ultimately I am); you know, I need all the guidance I can get when it comes to Max (too late for Jacob, he'll be Son of Sam when he grows up). I'm just glad that I watched Audition alone.
Ben, on this one we enjoy considerable disagreement. Here's my original review, back in the day:
"Takashi Miike is the Tasmanian Devil of contemporary filmmakers. While still a relatively young man (as the years pass, this becomes a depressingly easy descriptor to apply), Miike already had more than 30 big-screen, television and direct-to-video directorial efforts to his credit by the time Audition was released – and it was still well before his 40th birthday. Tellingly, Miike’s films (Dead or Live, Ichi the Killer) move at the same frantic, frenetic pace as the man himself, and despite their apparent recklessness, the movies capture the complexity of modern life in resplendent Technicolor nightmares.
Audition is the perfectly paradoxical movie experience, one that leaves me grasping for superlatives while simultaneously gasping for breath. It puts me in a difficult spot as well, because you need to be warned about the film’s subject matter, yet to reveal too much is to dilute the film’s effectiveness. The film’s focus is on the peculiar relationship formed between the middle-aged widower Aoyama (played by Ishibashi with a spud-like confused resignation) and Asami, a mysterious woman he is drawn to and becomes involved with.
One of the beauties of Audition is that it appears to allow us to fall back on our comfortable assumptions, that this nice man and good father deserves to find his perfect mate, then throws them back at us like a thousand poison-dipped darts. The key to unlocking Miike’s agenda is in the film’s transitional phase, between the initial subdued character study and final duck-beneath-your-chair horror, where we apparently learn the “villain’s” back story (I say apparently because one can make an argument that the bulk of the second half of the film take’s place inside the distempered mind of the male protagonist). This information centres on Asami’s painful childhood history, forcing a re-evaluation of the film’s point-of-view, and necessitating a re-jigging of its apparently regressive thesis. Suddenly, the film’s implicitly paranoid meditation on the changing role of women in a society that remains gender-regressive must be assessed in a new light. However, while never less than riveting, the results are often more than we can stomach. While admiring the means Miike uses to get our attention, I often found myself looking at the startling cinematic compositions through hands raised in horror at what I was asked to behold.
Audition is not easily reduced to simple discussions of good and evil. Since the supposed villainess (played with chilling effectiveness by Japanese fashion model Eihi) is a fractured and damaged victim of terrible abuse, we can comprehend the apparently incomprehensible, and forgive the obviously unforgivable. It looks like we are asked to empathize with the victimized widower, but not without considerable misgivings and apprehension. As he is such a quiet and apparently humble man struggling to find his footing in a dating world that has long since passed him by, we mistake his misogyny for benevolence. He does, for instance, surreptitiously gather information about her as well as subject her to an audition for the role of potential spouse.
Takashi Miike is to filmmaking what Extreme Sports are to recreational sports – he goes further, faster, and more furiously than just about any of his contemporaries. Miike doesn’t simply push the envelope, he blows it apart at the seams. All of which is preface to the obvious disclaimer: while I hold his work in high esteem, Miike’s films are clearly not for everyone. If your tastes lean toward tasteful Masterpiece Theatre/Merchant-Ivory-type productions, Miike is not going to be your cup of tea. If, however, you like early Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper or George Romero, you will enthusiastically embrace the milieu that is Miike."
Into the Wild (2007, USA, Sean Penn)
I am going to begin with a theoretical discussion but this should not give the impression that ITW did not move me emotionally. It did. In fact, I was quite affected by it. I will reflect on this momentarily but for now I will simply state that ITW is the best film from 2007 that I have seen so far; you know, from the bunch you have lent me, No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton. I will also preface the next paragraph by saying, when I am stimulated to think theoretically, I am appreciative of that stimulation. This is to acknowledge that ITW is socio-philosophically meaningful.
What makes a hermit be a hermit? I can think of three main orientations. The first is that of the religious mystic out to connect directly to God without any sort of social mediation. The second belongs to the absolutely individualistic pragmatist who aims to survive without the assistance of human technologies to the highest degree achievable. The third is associated with misanthropy so sincere it is usually taken to be indicative of mental illness. Indeed, the other two have also often been condemned as crazy. Considering that these orientations are distinct from each other only categorically, that they tend to intertwine in actual psychologies, hermits have generally been labelled as insane regardless of their motives. And at least since the advent of Romanticism, the three orientations have self-consciously overlapped conceptually, often consolidating into an idealization of Nature. It is also easy to dismiss hermits as hypocrites given the basic impossibility of their purported project, which necessarily proves to be partial and temporary and sometimes just stupidly fatal. From the point of view of materialist socialism, the challenge the hermit sets for himself is misguided, to put it mildly. The worthwhile critique of existing society posited by Romanticism quickly devolves into a near-nihilistic negation of civilization as such in the form of wilderness worship. The hermit is merely a concentrated expression of this dead-end, ideologically illuminating only because of the extreme atomism involved.
The narrative structure of ITW jumps between the time leading up to Alaska and the time in Alaska, no doubt, to craft a drama that avoids being a non-drama. Of the three "classic" themes we teach in highschool, both Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Himself can be a little dull on the dramatic front, so ITW is crafted to allow for some interactions with other people. Stylistically, this might seem like a valid approach and stylistically it is. Conceptually, however, it is a cop-out, a failure to take head on the hermit issue. Of course, the responsibility is to tell the protagonist's story from beginning to end, to give a genuinely whole biographic picture, to provide all the so-called back-story that historically conditions the final hermit chapter. But the story-telling decision not to deal with this chronologically but rather to jump between the two time frames, this is not just stylistically expedient. It signals a lack of nerve when it comes to the central topic of his hermit-ism and the option of subjecting it to at least some line of criticism.
This brings me to the fact that the film is based on a true story. In the closing credits, the film-maker Sean Penn thanks the real family for their cooperation in the making of the film and goes even further to acknowledge their bravery in doing so. No doubt. The parents of the protagonist are portrayed in a very unsympathetic light, their transformative anguish notwithstanding. So I agree that it took courage for them to endorse the film, (same for the book that inspired it, I suppose). At the same time, their son is presented as a Christ who redeems them of their sins, who ultimately forgives them for their transgressions against everyone, especially himself. I can accept this as far as it goes; that is, as it pertains to the particular psycho-dynamics of their family. I can even get with this to some extent as it expands to address the class standing and bourgeois values of his family that he casts off like Siddartha, which is to say I admire the Romantic critique of capitalism as far as it goes. But at bedrock, ITW is just too reverential of the protagonist and him being based on the tragic real life of Christopher McCandless is an excuse that also only goes so far. On this score, Wikipedia tell me that a documentary has been made about McCandless and the Denver Film Society tells me that documentarian Ron "Lamothe asks us to consider whether the facts of McCandless' life are as compelling as the opportunity they provide for subverting, as much as celebrating, the romantic paradigm he has come to embody."
Turning from critical theory to my emotional response, I had no idea ITW was based on a true story until the end of the movie. Many days prior to viewing, I had head from Monica that it was sort of a Grizzly Man thing, i.e., an adventure in the great outdoors the comes to a bad, sad end, but I had no reason to think that it was not entirely fictitious. Fifteen minutes prior to viewing, I heard from Jacob that it was a survivalist tale and since Max likes reading these, I invited him to watch ITW with Jacob and me, (Monica was at the theatre). Watching it with my children, male children no less, definitely influenced my experience of it. The only askance criticism of Alex Supertramp in the film is his total non-communication with his parents and with my kids on either side of me I really felt this in my bones. Concurrently, I could perceive that both boys, even the younger one, could relate to Supertramp's quest to go it alone and be true to his soul. They had to grapple with his rejection of - not weath in the abstract - but creature comforts down on the ground. And all of us had to deal with the problem of such a socially-conscious and personable guy, really attractive in so many ways, walking away from other people, including us in the audience. By the time the still photo of the real McCandless came up, we were pretty broken up.
A bit too much Eddie Vedder music, a bit too much cinematographic beauty, a bit heavy-handed in the juxtapostion of the city and the countryside, and the sporadic voice-over from the sister was awkward and irritating (as voice-over is wont to be) - but all in all a remarkably graceful film. Authentically sensitive and often endearing, there are moments of naive profundity in the dialogue and performances of quite dignity. The lead brought more range to the characterization than I suspected he would from the outset and Penn managed to avoid the trap of turning the biography into a heroic travalogue. The artistic stength of ITW resides in this, in my view. For all of his obviously Romantic sympathy for Chris McCandless, Penn does not mythologize Alex Supertramp.
I just want to issue a special award to Hal Holbrook. Never mind that he's "Hal Holbrook" and an octogenarian and all that. He turns in a killer performance. Guy fucked me up even before the big farewell scene. One of those cameos that just raises the level of everything lucky enouch to be associated with it.
I finish by reiterating my opening comment about this being the best film from 2007 that I have seen. Although I ultimately cannot sign on for the Romanticism of the film, it touched me and made me think and it did so with respect for both its subject matter and its audience.
Long before I lent you my dvd of the film I told you this was my favourite film of 2007, so I am glad to see we are back on the same page. Needless to say, I concur with almost everything you say here. I was very attached emotionally to the film's romanticism, even while I was critically attacking it intellectually. Holbrook delivers a stellar performance, while Emile Hirsch is a revelation in the central role. More importantly, Sean Penn's work as a director cannot be lauded enough. His film is a touching and honest tribute to one questing vagabond, to this beautiful if ill-prepared and starry-eyed pilgrim soul, part Thoreau, part Kerouac, and Penn does a commendable job of capturing, honouring and questioning McCandless's journey. And yet, it is not a fauning tribute, as Penn takes a more moderate approach to the protagonist, presenting McCandless as neither a heroic nor a tragic figure, but as a charismatic, single-minded, flawed and wounded individual trying to find his place in the world. Penn clearly sees a lot of himself in the character, just as Krakauer (the author of the book upon which the film is based) did before him. And I must confess that I fall into the same camp. Watching the film was an intensely intimate and personal experience as a result.
Having already read Krakauer's book, I knew exactly what was coming, yet Penn (and Hirsch) made every moment a revelation nonetheless. I can think of no higher compliment than to point out that while I always knew what was coming, this did nothing to lessen the film's impact; by the end, I was completely devastated.