Netflix Instant Gratification Journal #2

*Twentynine Palms (119 min; 2003): The big problem with writing out a reaction to as tightly conceived an 'art' film as this is one of summary - I always feel like getting too deep into matters of concept somehow detracts from the reader's desire to actually see the film, as if they could more or less imagine something along the lines of what I'm describing. Writer/director Bruno Dumont himself has described this work is especially broad terms, as both a horror movie and (paraphrased by a festival attendee) "experimental film in articulating sensation without narrative through abstract, dissociated forms," although I nonetheless suspect my spoiling the ending in another paragraph won't help anything.

This was Dumont's third feature, and his English-language debut; its reception was cool, though he'd picked up a good deal of acclaim for his French-language works (especially 1999's Humanité, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes). Its 'plot' concerns the interactions (or lack thereof) between two lovers, David and Katia, who're driving through the desert toward the titular California city. David is a photographer, on assignment scouting locations, and he appears to have taken Katia along in hopes of having a romantic working holiday. Neither of them are potential legends of emotional sensitivity, however, and the trip in about as badly a manner as one can imagine. By which I mean their vehicle is rammed by a truck, the occupants of which rape David, who then shaves his head and knives Katia to death in a frenzy back at the hotel room.

Oh, but more on that later. For most of its runtime, Twentynine Palms is content with providing long takes of desolate scenery, dispassionate studies of near-communication and inevitable strife between the lovers, and countless visual compositions keyed toward the theme of isolation - no option is spared, from bodies drifting at opposite ends of a large swimming pool to nude forms sneaking pallidly to lounge against massive rock formations, the latter scenario maybe capable of passing as an erotic reverie until Dumont makes damned sure to hold on the blinding sky for several frames too long, the characters make their second reference to burning and a 'cute' argument over whether to leave evokes prior struggles between the two, with their eventual departing laughs swallowed by the windy expanse of the desert/time.

So yes: one thousand captures of isolation in union, with a photographer as the male lead. Katia doesn't even seem to speak English very well, though we're never 100% sure if she simply chooses to force the English-dominant David to address her in (subtitled) French. There's lots of sex going on too -- frank, unglamorous fucking, often dabbed with David's frenzied goose honks of passion -- but both partners are always lost in their own worlds. Some critics have claimed Dumont constantly makes sex seem unpleasant, while others seem convinced that he frames it here as the only true human connection; he strikes me as more taken with all-consuming pleasure tantamount to self-absorbtion. Witness how there's virtually no eye contact between the lovers, with so very little touching until after the event has passed; a scene with David attempting mutual satisfaction with Katia while underwater winds up every bit as awkwardly comedic as you'd imagine.

After a while, though, the comedy becomes less intentional. Seemingly every little passage of happiness between these two -- from an off-road drive in the sand to a happy frolic with friendly dogs -- concludes with some kind of deflating moment or horrible mishap, or at least an undercutting visual flourish, enough so that the film takes on a setup-punchline structure I'm not sure is intentional, given the build of intensity Dumont is otherwise managing, solemn as stones. It doesn't help that some of his metaphors are screamingly obvious, literally so in the case of a passing driver getting annoyed with Our Heroes as they try to cross the street, eventually howling something along the lines of YOU ASSHOLES, THIS IS OUR STREET!! And the less said about a high-volume orgasm-as-pain-or-maybe-a-cry-of-horror-at-the-impossibility-of-connection-toward-the-heart-of-a-fallen-world sequence... er, maybe it's not so bad you can imagine the movie on your own?

But then again, what do I know? Knife-kill finale. Around then I started to wonder if Dumont had more of a sense of humor than I was giving him credit for, until I realized how tightly-wound his film was with bleak portent and recurring image; a common complaint I've read is that the violence 'comes out of nowhere,' but I witnessed all sorts of vivid anticipation of waiting danger, from the aforementioned shouting driver to countless images of bulky vehicles whooshing past with booming sound effects, right down to five or so minutes of Katia fleeing in horror from oncoming cars in the midst of the void of severed humanity (aka the evening sky), after damaging David's vehicle while trying to drive and witnessing a small animal getting crunched under heavy wheels.

Shit, Dumont even tosses in a smug bit of misdirection by having the thugs rip Katia's clothes off before raping her boyfriend instead, follows a vehicular rear-ending with person-to-person sodomy, and then gives the rapist an orgasmic yowl obviously meant to evoke David's own erogenous exclamations. The mark of sex as vessel for potential love or terrible violence! David! Don't shave your head! Katia said she thought that one marine at the ice cream place looked good with a shaved head but you wouldn't, and the rapist had a shaved head too, and I think this all symbolizes something profound about the agony of romantic longing in an uncaring world prone to random, destructive violence! Put the knife down, David! Don't you go die in a final extreme long shot out in the desert with a police investigator walking slowly away in a metaphorically charged manner!!

Ah, I'm sorry. But it all just seemed so sophomoric by the time it was over. It is a nicely-shot thing, almost hypnotic at times. I don't think I'd call it quite abstract, but Dumont's aspect of sensation is well-charged. It'll also no doubt thrill those who walked out of Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl hoping the 'conclusive bladed mayhem' gambit would become a trend in 21st century French-directed cinema. Could it be... the New French Extremity?

*Kai Doh Maru (45 mins; 2001): Back in the day, one of the common complaints about anime from 'mainstream' sources (movie guides, etc.) was that nobody seemed to know how to structure a proper story, the implication being that Japanese animators were particularly given over to valuing badass visuals over coherency for some reason or another.

Some of that was true. Some of it also was a tricky tendency among theatrical filmmakers to stuff too much content into limited running times. But much of it -- perhaps not unrelated to the stuffing instinct -- boiled down to a lot of early anime releases being OVAs, which hailed from a fan-targeted environment that valued the ready-to-purchase disposibility of short works, enough so that 'adaptations' of manga were often intended as little more than treats aimed at readers who wanted to see all their favorite scenes 'brought to life.' Which is another way of placing badass visuals over coherency, granted, but at least a purposeful one!

Anyhow, Kai Doh Maru reminded me of old OVAs in that way, except aimed at presenting the highlights of a folktale concerning a Heian Period youth with impossible strength who fought demons and became a famed retainer of the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu of Kyoto. This version also plays with the telling, changing the hero Sakata no Kintoki to a young girl merely raised as a boy, and cooking up both romance with Minamoto and a rivalry with an Oni-possessed childhood friend who doesn't realize Kintoki's a woman and really would rather stick around here forever.

I'm pretty glad I looked that up, since the show itself does nothing to hook in the viewer; several long stretches of dialogue do little but refer to what I presume are historical goings-on, and director Kanji Wakabayashi seems intent on letting the characters simmer at the archetypical level while layering on the visual impact (he later directed an episode of Masaaki Yuasa's visually restless 2006 television project Kemonozume). It sometimes looks nice - a b&w prologue adds some scratchy body to the characters to fine effect, and the washed-out colors of the primary action seem poised to give the show some sort of scroll-like feel.

Unfortunately, they also seem intended in part to dial down the detail to the point where Production I.G.'s circa 2001 CG environments won't look quite as basic as they otherwise would, and the project ultimately sinks into the dreaded category of a technical show-off piece that doesn't retain much of value after the technicals don't show off so well anymore. Maybe I just don't respond so well to old CG as I do to the 'charm' of shopworn '80s tricks? You can't revive the past, I suppose.