Porco Rosso (Summer Film Log)

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Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (1992) is one of my favorite films, and I was able to see it last night for the first time on the big screen thanks to Studio Ghibli Fest 2018. Although I’ve seen Porco Rosso maybe a dozen times, seeing its rich, deep, bold animation on an enormous screen felt like seeing it for the first time (I also hadn’t watched the subtitled version in a while).

Porco Rosso takes place in and around various islands in the Adriatic Sea during the thin slice of years between the First and Second World Wars. Italy, like much of the world, is in the midst of a severe economic depression, and is slowly sliding into fascism. World War II is clearly on the horizon. Miyazaki pushes these problems to the margins of his film, conjuring instead a romanticized Mediterranean. However, this romantic space is always under the pressure of a coming disaster—fascism and a new war.

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The hero of Porco Rosso is Marco Pagot (called Marco Rossolini in the American dub). Marco is an ex-military pilot, an aviation ace who fought with honor for the Italian air force in the Great War. He now spends his days drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes on a beautiful deserted island, occasionally taking jobs as a bounty hunter, retrieving hostages and other stolen goods from the nefarious and unwashed air pirates who plunder the ships of the Adriatic. He makes occasional concessions to civilization by taking a meal at the Hotel Adriano, a charming resort run by Marco’s oldest friend Gina. Gina is love with Marco and we come to realize Marco is in love with Gina, but he cannot come out and say this. Marco is a pig.

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Marco is, literally, a pig. He is the victim of a curse that the film never explicitly names or addresses, although a scene late in the film in which Marco essentially survives an attack that should have killed him—an event that gives him a dramatic glimpse of a heaven of pilots—may be a clue to the origins of Marco’s porcine curse. In any case, Marco’s pigman existence is the film’s only concession to the kind of mythical and magical fantasy that otherwise permeates Miyazaki’s canon (with the notable exception of The Wind Rises (2013), which in some ways is a sequel to Porco Rosso).

This isn’t to say that Porco Rosso isn’t a fantasy though. Miyazaki’s world of air pirates and bounty hunters, attractive hoteliers and hotshot engineers, and seaplanes dueling in a radiant sky, brims with an effervescent energy that counterbalances the grim specter of the Great War that preceded the film’s narrative action and the Second World War—and a Fascist Italy—that the narrative’s “real” time must eventually intersect. Ever the lone pig, Marco seeks to fly away from the social and historical forces that would constrain him.

Unfortunately for Marco, luxurious isolation remains an impossibility. The air pirates hire a hotshot American to take out the damned Crimson Pig once and for all. Donald Curtis (hailing from Alabama in the Japanese version and Texas in the American) exemplifies American cockiness. His enormous jaw precedes the rest of his swaggering body, he falls in love at first sight with any beautiful woman he sees, and he’s brash and impetuous. He wants to transition to Hollywood and eventually become the President of the United States! Curtis shoots up Marco’s plane early in the film, but our porcine hero escapes to Milan, where he rebuilds his plane with the help of a whiskered mechanic named Piccolo and his charming granddaughter Fio. Fio redesigns the plane and eventually becomes Marco’s sidekick, traveling with him back to the Adriatic and helping him face Curtis and the air pirates.

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Fio, whose character design recalls Nausicaa of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), is another of Miyazaki’s prominent female protagonists. In some ways she is the secret hero of the film; she takes over the narration at the end, implicitly assuming Porco Rosso’s mantle. Fio has earned Marco’s trust after he is initially dubious of her ability because of her age and his sexism. Fio leads an all-female team of builders and engineers to recreate a superior version of Marco’s plane. This workshop sequence is one of the film’s finest. Miyazaki often foregrounds labor in his films, but Porco Rosso explicitly shows how a complex work—whether it’s a plane, or, y’know, a film—is never the singular work of a gifted genius, but rather the concentrated effort of a team. Miyazaki underscores the connection between the creative process of plane-building and film-making, stamping his studio’s name on Marco’s new engine. (Studio Ghibli was named after an Italian war plane, the Caproni Ca.309, which was nicknamed Ghibli—“Desert Wind”).

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While in Milan, Marco realizes that the fascist secret police are after him. The Fascists in Porco Rosso (who want to conscript Marco—or take his plane) are far more ominous than Curtis. Curtis serves as an actual antagonist for Marco to face, and the fight between the two at the end of Porco Rosso, although violent, plays with a light comic touch. Miyazaki references the “gentlemen pilots” of World War I here. The Fascists, in contrast, are a spectral force lurking behind the narrative, threatening Marco’s individuality and autonomy. The film affirms itself as a comedy that resists encroaching fascism in a conclusion that sees Marco, Fio, Gina Curtis, the air pirates, and every other member of this strange Adriatic paradise working together to escape their approaching air force.

The film’s denouement is a retreat into the romantic Adriatic community, a kind of gauzy, rosy vision of an isolated paradise untouched by war or fascism. The fantasy reminds one of an island from some lost book of The Odyssey, a tranquil paradise unbothered by Trojans or Greeks. Marco—Porco—too feels like a figure from the margins of The Odyssey, a hero transfigured into a pig. The end of Porco Rosso refuses to give us a direct answer as to what happens to Porco. Does he regain his human form? Or, perhaps more importantly, is there a happy ending for Porco and Gina? The film offers a number of clues, some explicit and some implicit, but a first viewing may feel ambiguous for many viewers. However, subsequent viewings reveal a clearer picture as to what happens to Gina and Marco. Why the ambiguity then? Porco Rosso is (apart from The Wind Rises) the Miyazaki film with the strongest historicity. The historical reality of a looming World War II threatens to devour the romance of Gina and Porco—so Miyazaki and the inhabitants of his secret Adriatic world conspire to hide it. Lovely stuff.


How I watched itLast night with subtitles at my local indie cinema with full attention—and then again this afternoon, dubbed, on a large TV (via a USB drive with an .mkv file), with minor attention (I wrote this as I watched) with my daughter, who is home from school (poor dear has strep throat), and who was upset because we (that is, my family of four) were unable to watch the film as a family on Sunday afternoon, as it had sold out, and thus requested we watch it together, just now, which we did. Porco Rosso plays in select theaters one more time, by the way–on May 23rd, 2018.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Summer Film Log)

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) tells the story of Mary Smith, a little girl whiling away her time in the English countryside home of her great aunt before school starts. Poor Mary is awfully bored—until she finds a rare flower called the “fly-by-night.” The fly-by-nights, which only bloom once every seven years, bestow magical properties on their user. Mary’s boredom is quickly cured when a flying broomstick whisks her away (black cat in tow) to a magical world above the clouds. She finds herself at the Endor College of Witches, where she’s taken on as a star pupil by the ominous headmistress Miss Mumblechook and her strange partner in scientific magic, Dr. Dee. They take Mary on a tour of Endor College, a visual highlight of a gorgeous film. The tour culminates in Miss Mumblechook’s office, which doubles as a museum of magical artifacts. Here, Mary—somewhat accidentally, but hey—becomes a biblioklept, stealing the headmistress’s book of master spells. Mary then reveals that her power comes from the fly-by-night flower. The film’s plot kicks into a higher gear here, as it becomes clear that Mumblechook and Dee will stop at nothing to get their clutches on the magical flowers.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first film from Studio Ponoc, a production company founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura, who previously worked as a producer for Studio Ghibli. Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is another Studio Ghibli alum; he worked as a key animator on films like Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008), before directing his own films for the studio—Arrietty (2010) and When Marnie Was There (2014).

Arrietty, while charming, felt like Miyazaki-lite—a small-scale exercise pulled off with aesthetic precision that ultimately lacked the grand emotion that underwrites all the master’s greatest films. In contrast, Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t so much Miyazaki-lite as Miyazaki-mega, a love letter composed under heavy anxiety of influence. The film teems with references to Miyazaki’s oeuvre, and Yonebayashi’s visual style is an homage on par with (if not surpassing) the master.

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The most immediate comparison viewers might make here is to Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), which Yonebayashi’s film clearly echoes visually with its flying broomsticks and its prominent black cat. However, Mary and the Witch’s Flower has more in common (both in its plot, themes, tone, and visuals) with later Miyazaki films like PonyoHowl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away. I’m tempted to produce a laundry list here of specific comparisons, but there are simply too many—Yonebayashi delights in larding his film with characters and images that visually resemble Ghibli characters and images, painted in the bright shimmering colors of Miyazaki’s late period. There isn’t a shot in the film that doesn’t crib, even obliquely, from an earlier Ghibli film. (Hell, even composer Takatsugu Muramatsu’s soundtrack sounds like an homage to Joe Hisaishi’s work for Studio Ghibli).

These Easter eggs are most fun to find when Yonebayashi goes beyond the core films that his pastiche derives from, like when we get a shot of a city in the clouds that echoes Castle in the Sky (1986), or when a gray cat is transmuted into a creature resembling something like the gentle creatures from Totoro (1988), or when Yonebayashi’s frame lingers just a second too-long on a pigman chef who bears more than a passing resemblance to the titular hero of Porco Rosso (1992).

Yonebayashi’s melange of Miyazaki is hardly a patchwork of references though. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is rather a loving synthesis of the master’s greatest tendencies. Calling Yonebayashi a copycat simply will not do—he was a key artisan in Miyazaki’s workshop after all, and we see here the same level of technical craftsmanship that made the Ghibli films so special.

What’s missing from the film though is something harder to define. An auteur relies on a company, a workshop, a cohort of skilled artisans to help the auteur realize his or her vision. All auteurs borrow or outright steal from the artists that come before them, but the great artists conjure those ingredients into something new. They overcome their anxiety of influence and synthesize the masterworks that preceded them with their own visions, inspiriting the material with their own sense of soul. Yonebayashi’s film, as I wrote above, is a loving synthesis of Miyazaki’s most magical moments, but what’s missing is Yonebayashi’s own magic, his own vision.

And yet there’s so much promise in the young artist. Yonebayashi is only 44; Miyazaki was around the same age when he made Castle in the Sky, the first Ghibli film, and frankly one of his weakest. Castle in the Sky is best enjoyed now as a work in retrospect, after having traced the auteur’s major themes in grander works like Spirited Away or The Wind Rises (2013). With Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Yonebayashi composed a love letter to the workshop where he honed his craft, and the film will probably be most remembered (and enjoyed) as an homage to all things Ghibli. Let’s hope that Yonebayashi’s next effort sees the young director break free from the anxiety of influence to offer us his own original vision.


How I watched it: On a big TV, rented from iTunes, with full attention, with my family. My daughter gave it a B+; my son gave it a B-.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (Summer Film Log)

John Wick crashes his black SS Dodge Charger into a motorcyclist.

John Wick infiltrates a Russian mob base.

John Wick is the subject of much worried discussion about John Wick’s legendary prowess as a killer of men, as well as concern for what motivates John Wick to violent action.

John Wick garrottes a Russian mobster.

John Wick places a phone call.

John Wick retrieves his favorite car, a black 1969 Ford Mustang.

John Wick uses his favorite car to assault Russian mobsters.

John Wick’s favorite car is under assault by Russian mobsters.

John Wick sacrifices the driver-side door of his favorite car to assault a motorcyclist.

John Wick continues to use his car to assault Russian mobsters.

John Wick exits his car to enter into hand-to-hand combat with Russian mobsters.

John Wick is assaulted by a yellow taxi cab.

John Wick kicks a Russian mobster’s shins.

John Wick dodges a yellow taxi cab.

John Wick shoots a Russian mobster’s shins.

John Wick pours two neat vodkas, one for himself and one for the Russian mobster boss.

John Wick makes a toast to “Peace.”

John Wick leaves the Russian mob base in his favorite car.

John Wick parks his favorite car in the driveway of his beautiful home in New Jersey.

John Wick reads a birthday card.

John Wick lovingly recalls his beautiful dead wife.

John Wick greets his dog.

John Wick slumps in pain.

John Wick divests himself of weapons.

John Wick showers.

John Wick feels terrible emotional pain.

John Wick goes to sleep with his dog.

John Wick discusses the condition of his beloved favorite car with a mechanic who assures John Wick that he can repair the badly-damaged vehicle.

John Wick visits his secret stash of gold and weapons.

John Wick hides his secret stash of gold and weapons under fresh concrete.

John Wick receives an unexpected and well-dressed night time visitor.

John Wick offers his visitor coffee.

John Wick enters his beautiful kitchen.

John Wick receives polite condolences about the death of his beautiful wife.

John Wick attests that his dog has no name.

John Wick asks his guest not to give him a medallion.

John Wick receives a medallion from his guest.

John Wick regards his own blood on the medallion.

John Wick is warned of dire consequences.

John Wick sees his guest to the front door of his beautiful home.

John Wick gazes longingly at a photograph of his dead beautiful wife.

John Wick is attacked by his well-dressed night time visitor, who uses explosives to destroy John Wick’s beautiful home.

John Wick and his unnamed dog watch his beautiful home burn down.

John Wick sits on the back of a parked firetruck.

John Wick chats with a fireman whom he knows by first name.

John Wick and his unnamed dog walk from New Jersey to New York.

John Wick and his unnamed dog cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

John Wick goes to a hotel for assassins.

John Wick’s presence is announced.

John Wick interrupts a rooftop discussion.

John Wick is reminded of two important rules as well as the the consequences of not honoring the contract explicated in the medallion with his blood on it.

John Wick inquires about boarding his unnamed dog.

John Wick enters a fine arts museum.

John Wick walks through a gallery of marble statues, neglecting to pause and enjoy their beauty.

John Wick is instructed to halt by a mute henchwoman who works for John Wick’s well-dressed visitor of the previous night (the visitor who blew up John Wick’s beautiful home and to whom John Wick owes a work debt).

John Wick is groped by the mute henchwoman.

John Wick meets with his visitor of the previous night and sits with him to look at a large oil painting depicting a battle.

John Wick asserts that if he were to kill his visitor of the previous night, he would do so with his bare hands.

John Wick’s visitor of the previous night declares that he wishes for John Wick to kill his (the visitor of the previous night’s) sister.

John Wick’s visitor of the previous night expresses his desire to lead the Camorra mafia syndicate.

John Wick departs.

John Wick visits an especially secret safety deposit box.

John Wick opens his cache of items related to assassination, including a black suit, a black turtleneck, a pistol, a passport, and gold coins.

John Wick screams in anguish.

John Wick dons his black attire.

John Wick is now in Rome.

John Wick goes to a hotel for assassins.

John Wick rents a room.

John Wick is greeted by an old man who asks if John Wick plans to assassinate the Pope.

John Wick attests that he is not in Rome to kill the Pope.

Jon Wick enters a bookshop.

John Wick enters a secret passageway.

John Wick enters a sweat shop.

John Wick meets with the hotel’s sommelier.

John Wick is fitted for a new suit.

John Wick receives recommendations on gun purchases.

John Wick pores over maps of Rome, both old and new.

John Wick dons his new suit and arms himself with various and sundry weapons.

John Wick enters the catacombs beneath Rome.

John Wick is tailed by his former visitor’s mute henchwoman.

John Wick’s target, the sister of his former visitor who wishes to rule the Camorra mafia syndicate, attends a gala in the catacombs.

John Wick’s target adjusts her makeup in private in a luxurious underground bathroom.

John Wick confronts his target.

John Wick avers that he still considers himself to be friends with his target.

John Wick says the name of his dead wife.

John Wick’s target disrobes.

John Wick’s target enters a luxurious bath and slits her wrists.

John Wick grimaces.

John Wick questions suicide.

John Wick declares that he fears damnation.

John Wick holds his target’s hand.

John Wick shoots his target in the head.

John Wick and his former-target’s former-bodyguard shoot each other repeatedly.

John Wick bum rushes the stage at an underground rave.

John Wick shoots about a dozen security personnel in their faces and heads.

John Wick enters a crevice.

John Wick is attacked and pursued by the henchpeople of his former night visitor, the one who exploded his house and insisted that he (John Wick) kill his (the former night visitor’s) sister.

John Wick shoots various henchpeople with an assault rifle.

John Wick shoots various henchpeople with a rife.

John Wick shoots various henchpeople with a handgun.

John Wick exits the catacombs.

John Wick is hit by a car.

John Wick is attacked by his former-target’s former-bodyguard.

John Wick tumbles down stone steps.

John Wick is stabbed.

John Wick makes small noises from his mouth and nose while he fights.

John Wick arrives at his hotel, where management insists he and his former-target’s former-bodyguard stop fighting.

John Wick drinks a bourbon, neat.

John Wick reveals various plot details to the former-target’s former-bodyguard, who drinks gin on ice with lemon and soda water.

John Wick makes several threats and declarations.

John Wick receives a phone call on a rotary phone.

John Wick makes a phone call on a rotary phone.

John Wick checks out of his hotel for assassins in Rome.

John Wick’s former-visitor, who is now John Wick’s new target, puts a seven million dollar contract on John Wick’s life.

John Wick is now in New York City.

John Wick is the subject of dozens of text messages sent to various and sundry assassins across the world, text messages informing said assassins of the seven million dollar contract on John Wick’s life.

John Wick’s new target puts blood on a medallion.

John Wick is the subject of foreboding discussion about John Wick’s legendary prowess as a killer of men, as well as John Wick’s compelling motivations for violent retaliation.

John Wick is shot in the back by a violinist.

John Wick is attacked by a large man.

John Wick kills a man with a pencil.

John Wick kills another man with a pencil.

John Wick shoots a pistol at a fountain.

John Wick and the former-target’s former-bodyguard casually shoot at each other with silenced pistols in a crowded subway station.

John Wick kills two men on a train platform.

John Wick boards a crowded subway train.

John Wick is stabbed.

John Wick makes small noises with his mouth and nose.

John Wick stabs the former-target’s former-bodyguard.

John Wick deboards a subway train.

John Wick flees sanitation workers.

John Wick hides under a blanket.

John Wick receives medical attention in an underground tunnel.

John Wick visits a carrier pigeon coop.

John Wick makes a man laugh.

John Wick is given a gun.

John Wick laments that he only has seven bullets.

John Wick pops out of a hatch in the floor of the museum he was in earlier in the film.

John Wick makes eye contact with his target.

John Wick shoots all seven of his bullets.

John Wick secures a new gun.

John Wick shoot various and sundry henchpeople in their faces and heads.

John Wick tumbles down stairs.

John Wick fails to admire the beauty of the marble statues around him.

John Wick throws a gun at a man’s head.

John Wick continues to shoot henchpeople, mostly in their faces and heads, but in other parts of their body too.

John Wick visits the museum’s special exhibition “Reflections of the Soul,” which features “the interplay of lights and the nature of self-images” and lots of mirrors.

John Wick and his target and his target’s henchpeople badly damage the museum’s special exhibition, “Reflections of the Soul.”

John Wick stabs the mute henchwoman who had previously groped him.

John Wick exits the museum’s special exhibition, “Reflections of the Soul.”

John Wick returns to the hotel for assassins, where his target is enjoying a glass of red wine with a steak dinner.

John Wick shoots his target in the forehead.

John Wick retrieves his dog, and learns that his dog has been a good dog in his absence.

John Wick walks back to the charred remains of his once-beautiful home in New Jersey.

John Wick feels despair.

John Wick finds a piece of his beloved dead wife’s jewelry in the rubble of the charred remains of his once-beautiful home in New Jersey.

John Wick is summoned by an employee of the hotel for assassins.

John Wick is transported by car, along with his unnamed good dog, to Central Park in New York City.

John Wick learns that he has been excommunicated from the services of the hotel for assassins.

John Wick promises to kill everyone.

John Wick and his unnamed good dog run through Central Park.


How I watched it: On a big television via a streaming service, with something approximating near-full attention, and with several paused interruptions.

Bug (Summer Film Log)

I’ve been meaning to watch William Friedkin’s 2006 film Bug for years but always found an excuse not to until earlier today, when the sky outside was grey and rainy enough for some psychological horror.

Bug’s horror is initially understated, fueled more by queasy tension and psychological drama than gore. Ashley Judd plays the lead, Agnes, who is slowly unraveling. She spends most of her time in a shitty rent-a-room at the Rustic Motel, where she takes drugs and alcohol to cover over the pain of losing her child. The crumpled dollar bills and jar of change we see early on, tips from her waitress job at a lesbian bar, are clearly running low. She can’t afford her cocaine habit. Slovenly and sweaty, her character’s depressed anxiety is neatly summed up in the two seconds she takes to “wash” a dirty plate by running it under the faucet and rubbing it with her naked hand. She then wipes her hand off on her shirt before cracking open a bottle of cheap wine.

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She uses the alcohol not only to tamp down her pain, but also to numb herself against the incessant phone calls she gets from what she believes is her violent husband, an ex-con played by Harry Connick Jr. No one ever responds when she answers the phone.

That phone rings throughout the film, and in some ways it’s an organizing principle. It’s the first sound we here in the film—and the last, if we stick around through the credits (I have a theory about that if anyone’s interested).

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The ringing phone immediately follows the film’s strange opening shot, a tableaux that doesn’t give the viewer any time get his bearings—it’s a strange neon room with a prone body in it. We eventually get there—and the shot repeats after the film’s credits. After that opening shot, Friedkin gives us a long, slow, gorgeous night time zoom in of the film’s primary setting, the Rustic Motel (in rural Oklahoma). The shot—the most open and free the viewer will be allowed to feel for the rest of Bug’s 100 minutes—parachutes us in gracefully to a weird, paranoid narrative.

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Judd’s Agnes finds a partner in paranoid loneliness in Peter, a strange stranger played by Michael Shannon. Agnes’s friend RC introduces her to Peter, who watches the pair party while generally abstaining from drugs and alcohol and conversation. He does however mutter that he’s not a psycho. Shannon initially inhabits his role with a gentle oddity that recalls Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade, but his character’s paranoid potential for violence escalates when Agnes’s abusive ex tries to reenter her life. Oh, and the bugs. The bugs make everything worse.

Based on a play by Tracy Betts (who also wrote the screenplay), Bug’s greatest strength is its smallness. After its expansive sky-born opening shot, the film simply contracts into a claustrophobic small hell. There are only four main players, and most of the action is limited to Agnes’s room in the Rustic Motel, which Peter remodels, slowly transforming the room into a neon hell. Friedkin films Bug in lurid neon noir. The film feels of a piece with Denis Johnson’s novel Angels or Yuri Herrera’s recent mythological crime novels, and it undoubtedly found an admirer in Nicolas Winding Refn. His loose neon trilogy of DriveOnly God Forgives, and The Neon Demon share the same dark but vivid color palette that Friedkin conjures in Bug.

The first third of the film is arguably its strongest. Friedkin lets the plot come to slow boil. The narrative tangles into itself with a lugubrious, nervous energy that eventually boils over in a third act that relies heavily on the strength of maniac performances from Judd and Shannon, as well as Friedkin’s claustrophobic shots and wild lighting. How much a viewer likes Bug depends on how much that viewer allows himself to be entangled into the insanity at its end.

I’m glad I finally got around to Bug, but unlike Friedkin’s early films The French Connection and The Exorcist, I doubt I’ll watch it again. (And none of these are in the pantheon of his 1977 masterpiece Sorcerer, which I have literally made house guests watch with me on at least two occasions). It does remind me that I’ve yet to watch his films To Live and Die in L.A. and Killer Joe, which I will make a point of getting to this summer.


How I watched it: At first on an iPad via streaming service with earbuds very late at night, and incompletely (fell asleep or passed out 30 minutes in). Then, full rewatch via streaming service on a large television, with full attention. 

The Running Man (Summer Film Log)

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Is The Running Man a good film?

I have no idea, but I’ve watched it at least a dozen times in the past 20 years, and I’ll watch it again. The 1987 film is certainly not the singular artistic vision of a supremely gifted auteur; it is not well-acted; the set design is imitative at best and terribly cheesy at worst; the costumes are silly; the music sucks. But The Running Man is zany fun, not least of all because its clumsy satire of a society clamoring to be entertained at any cost is as relevant as ever.  Ironically though, The Running Man’s satire inevitably reproduces the exact thing it aims to critique: a loud, violent, silly distracting entertainment.

The Running Man foreground’s its plot in a (now retro-)futuristic font scroll at the film’s outset:

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Those “high-tech gladiators” (dressed in ridiculous outfits and bearing ridiculous names like “Subzero” and “Captain Freedom”) stalk “contestants on a TV show called The Running Man. The show is hosted by Damon Killian, played by Richard Dawson (who you may know from reruns of Family Feud). Dawson fits into the film better than any other player—indeed his loose, improvisational, menacing charm is part and parcel of an entertainment empire built on attractive deception. He’s the consummate Master of Ceremonies, presiding over every aspect of his media empire. Dawson’s nemesis is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays Ben Richards, a former cop framed for a massacre. There’s a lot of fake news in Running Man, including an extended sequence of digital editing where faces are mapped onto body doubles. Schwarzenegger winds up on The Running Man, kills a bunch of stalkers, clears his name, and becomes a figurehead of the resistance.

Director Paul Michael Glasser (who played Starsky on Starsky and Hutch and later directed the Shaq-vehicle Kazaam) brings a workman-like approach to the film. His shots are often clumsy, and moments that should telegraph horror often come off as funny or just silly, as early in the film when a prisoner’s head explodes when he tries to escape a labor camp. Glasser makes no attempt to rein in Schwarzenegger’s ham. We get scenes where Schwarzenegger tries to imbue his character with a small measure of realism or pathos, and yet his mugging one-liners undercut any character building. He’s a cartoon of a cartoon, which is as it should be.

Schwarzenegger’s campy performance is balanced by María Conchita Alonso, who invests her foil Amber with a soul that belies the cheesy lines she’s forced to deliver.  Alonso has the closest thing to a character arc in The Running Man, and arguably, she anchors the film—she’s a stand-in for the film’s viewer, a normal person who gets swept up into adventure. Yaphet Kotto also stars in The Running Man, but he’s woefully underused, perhaps because his acting is simply too good; his naturalism doesn’t mesh in the film’s campy tone. Other bit players work wonderfully though. Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa try to play it cool as resistance fighters, but the effect on screen is endearingly goofy. Mick Fleetwood would have been about 40 when the film came out, but he looks like he’s about 70…which is how old he is now. (There is a fan theory about this, of course). Dweezil wears a goddamn beret. The stalkers include professional wrestlers Professor Tanaka and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, professional wrestler and opera singer Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, and NFL great Jim Brown. Ventura apparently could not be restrained from eating the scenery around him. He twitches and snarls, and delivers his lines as if he were speaking to Mean Gene Okerlund. It seems if director Glasser simply let his actors play versions of themselves. This is reality TV, after all.

The real success of Glasser’s direction is, ironically, the limitations of his aesthetic vision. The film looks like a TV show, and indeed, the strongest shots approximate TV shows and their live audiences. The Running Man is at its best when blending its satire of cheap Hollywood elements into the film proper, as in the ludicrous reality TV clips interspersed throughout (like Climbing for Dollars), or in the repeated montages set to cheesy wailing keytar jams, featuring a troupe of sassy flash dancers, the camera ogling their buns of steel. Ironically too, the fight scenes between the stalkers and Schwarzenegger’s team are actually the dullest element of the film—they look like bad TV (which is basically what they are). The Running Man wants to satirize the way cheap entertainments distract a populace and cheapen human worth, but it uses the same tools as the cheap entertainments it wants to skewer.

The Running Man is about spectacle culture, and is hence larded with shots of crowds reacting to what they see on screens. The film’s viewer can see the silly crowds cheering the stalkers or booing Schwarzenegger or enjoying Dawson’s charms, but the viewer is also a spectator himself. In the words of Dawson’s Killian, the film strives to “give the people what they want” — which here means an uplifting ending—Viva La Resistance!—a zany horrific comedy that simultaneously critiques and condones our worst impulses And yet the resistance uses the same tools to defeat the oppressive entertainment empire—video editing designed for mass consumption by a spectacle society. It’s Pop Art without the “Art.”

The Running Man is slightly stupid, which is a great part of its enduring charm. Its greatest stupidity is in its attempts to be clever—but again, there’s the charm of it. It’s a film about Bad TV that actually looks and feels like Bad TV. The film is like the less-talented but affable little cousin of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, which came out the same year. Both films satirize an emerging media-driven dystopian culture, but Robocop is actually a good film. The Running Man winks a bit too much (in contrast to, say, 1989’s Road House, probably the best film I can think of that plays its satire so straight that it potentially confounds its viewers).

And yet for all its silly weaknesses and bad hyperbole, The Running Man’s prognosis of American culture is painfully accurate. Fake news, bad actors, a TV president, lives thoroughly mediated by media, degradation of the human condition as entertainment—the Omnipresent Screen as the Ultimate Authority. The Running Man‘s 1987 vision of the future seems more accurate than the future posited in the film I watched yesterday, 1984And yet 1984 captures an emotional truth that The Running Man sets out to crush or gloss over or convert into something artificial, the idea or representation of a feeling, but not the feeling itself. That’s what entertainment does.

How I watched it: On a large television, via a streaming service, with semi-full attention.

1984 (Summer Film Log)

1984

Grim grey double plus unfun, Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1948 novel 1984 is painful to watch. I think I first saw the film when I was in high school, in the mid-nineties, probably after I read the book, and I never bothered to watch it again until this morning. (It’s probably not a morning film). I might wait another 20 years to watch it again.

1984 is about as faithful to its source novel as it could be, capturing Orwell’s grim vision in relentlessly bleak (and occasionally gorgeous) shots of a dystopian post-war London.  The film’s initial “worldbuilding” scenes are some of its most intriguing, including scenes of Winston Smith not fully participating in the Two Minutes Hate, looking for black market razors, prowling among the proles, and generally not fitting in among his peers. John Hurt is perfect as Winston Smith. His eyes convey an intelligent soul in despair, a soul slowly pulsing under a stoic mask that Winston has to wear to survive. Surviving isn’t enough though, and Winston finds his soul ignited by Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). The pair’s illicit love affair is doomed, and the great tragedy of 1984 is their ultimate betrayals of each other and themselves.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is a highlight of 1984, particularly in the rare scenes in which gray gives way to green. The Eurythmics soundtrack is hardly intrusive, and the music they made was quite good, but the film would have done better to dispense with extra-diegetic music altogether. Radford’s direction is remarkably understated; drama evolves from setting and vibe. And even in more direct moments, Radford is subtle, as when Winston scratches out his own thoughts (thoughtcrimes!) on paper. Some directors might feel compelled to underline such moments, drive the thesis in—but Radford shows us Winston in the process of discovering his own thoughts and feelings.

Faithful to its source material, 1984 is in no way a fun film, but it conveys the book’s central message and core humanity admirably. I’ve always preferred Brave New World to 1984—not that the two need to be in a contest—but Huxley’s book, with its zany details and wild contours is simply more engaging. There’s more complexity to its flavors (if not its argument). Sure, 1984 has its strong flavors too, but a big bitter bite with sour notes is not something one returns to again and again.

Screenshot 2018-05-14 at 12.07.42 PM

How I watched it: On a large television, via a streaming service, with full attention.