Pointless Pyrotechnics & Shomin Geki

“Nothing sadder than an aging hipster…” Lenny Bruce

DOMINO

Just before the closing credits, after about seventeen minutes of mind-numbing, soul-rotting, pointless, boring, badly-rendered, unending kaleidoscopic ultraviolence (over really bad screaming guitar {or was it really bad mock gangsta?}), our heroine Domino tells us, via voice-over: “How much is true? Fuck you! I’ll never tell.” The preceding two hours have been a memoir, sort of. With her ‘fuck you’, Domino avoids clarifying any of the conflicting story-lines. She claims that memoir and fantasy have been artistically blurred and that the sacred truth of her on-screen life is privileged.

To which the weary viewer can reply only by quoting Snoop Dogg: “No, cuz, motherfuck you!”

Like most horrible mainstream attempts at witty violence or all–knowing down ‘n dirty street-life, Domino turns to shit, or rather, it’s shittier aspects lose their tiny percentage of fun right about the 75% mark. You know it, you feel it, you recognize that things are going downhill in the noisiest, least credible, most graceless & insulting way. It’s my job to suffer, so I stayed in my seat for those final seventeen minutes. A year hence, you’ll be able to turn off the DVD right at this point and go have dinner. Lucky you.

It must be irksome for director Tony Scott; his brother Ridley not only made two genuine classics (Alien & Blade Runner) and a compelling little entertainment (The Duelists), but got Knighted in the process. Hard cheese for Tony; he has to call his brother ‘Sir,’ and for most the high point of Tony’s oeuvre is that hot sex scene between Catherine Deneuve’s and Susan Sarandon’s body doubles in The Hunger. Or maybe The Hire: Beat the Devil, Tony’s web-cast BMW commercial starring Clive Owen, Gary Oldman and James Brown. Or his adaptation of Tarantino’s True Romance, which for sure has its moments…all of them deriving from Tarantino.

Either way, the guy hasn’t had an original idea in thirty-some years. And what ideas he appropriates, while steadily worsening, keep getting noisier. It seemed for about a year there, in the wake of Pulp Fiction, that hip manqué, pathetically aspirational, morally vacuous counterfeits of Tarantino’s groovy ultra-violence would become the dominant motif of big-studio B pictures—remember 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag or Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels? Domino proves, sadly, that it’s not Tarantino’s style that motivates the older, fatter, more ambitious, less astute, coke-snorting grandfathers trying to make sexy, deafening violence for bored 10th graders. Would but it were. No, far far worse: the stylistic godfather these days is Oliver Stone, especially his Natural Born Killers.

Domino echoes, I mean, rips off, all the visual elements of Stone’s style: loopy camera angles for no narrative purpose, inexplicable (and I mean impenetrably so) plot turns, characters full of weird tics, solarized and flashed film, distorted colors, jump-cuts forwards/backwards in time and a final quarter that makes absolutely no sense.

Wait—I forgot a key trope: an actress of seemingly higher brand value doing her best to wreck her cred by inappropriately taking off her clothes, dressing like a coke-snorting grandfather’s idea of hookerish street-wear, participating in a pandering sex scene and rolling her ass through 360 degrees with every step she takes. (Think of poor Téa Leoni in Bad Boys) The idea of Keira Knightly as ‘hot’ is laughable; her career seems based on an apparently industry-wide nostalgia for Knightley’s double, Winona Ryder. Knightley’s hotness contrasts even more laughably against an astute piece of stunt-casting: the eternally hot, elegantly understating Jacqueline Bisset. It’s curious how Bisset dominates every scene given that she never could and still can’t act. Somehow, with the patina of age/wisdom, Bisset’s become a presence, a welcome force. Her lines, which usually involve speaking contemptuously of someone else in the story, have a ring of truth.

The truly stunning stuntcasting is Mickey Rourke. Since SinCity, which accurately captured his public persona as a city-wrecking, barely verbal King Kong, Rourke’s live-action roles have him appearing weirdly, ah, human. Ten years ago, when he hardly ever got hired, his face seemed fused, melted, and his overly-buff body-posture spoke of eating & sleeping in the gym. Rourke’s bizarrely upright stance enforces the idea of 10,000 crunches a day, until he makes the mistake of playing one scene shirtless. Then the evidence is clear that when clothed, Rourke must be borrowing William Shatner’s corset. It’s kind of sad. As usual, Rourke’s immense natural cool is usually overshadowed by his equally immense creepiness. Still, he never lost his chops, as anyone who saw him as the super-lisping, drag-queen prison prostitute in Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory can attest. The trouble then, and since, is that Rourke inhabited his creepy roles a bit too forcefully. In his ability to un-selfconsciously portray human garbage, Rourke came off as stone insane. But, like Bisset, he’s acquired with the years not only subtlety, but grace. Rourke always—even at his most apparently unhinged – was the most hipster guy in the room. For once, Rourke’s playing a rough and tumble hipster—a likely final incarnation of Teddy Lewis, the jailbird bomb-builder Rourke incarnated in Body Heat twenty-five years ago—and until the film falls apart, he’s the star.

Like Rourke’s chest, Domino suffers from needless steroidal enhancement. Scott and his screenwriters try to inflate a compelling small story into something grander and thus, far more stupid. The real-life Domino was plenty compelling: the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, a bounty-hunting beauty, an addict with a jones for trouble, an OD death at 37…human scale cop-noirs like Narc or Rush prove that grittiness works best when the scale of production is, well, gritty. The real Domino was not hurting for grit, and I’m sure is spinning in her grave as the movie plays. Oddly, Domino most resembles neither Narc or Rush, films you might think were its touchstones. The film Domino most evokes —and never measures up to—is 2002’s barely-seen, totally rent-worthy oddity The Salton Sea, a gritty if somehow not-quite-convincing atmospheric film starring Val Kilmer as a overly-tattooed, gun-toting speed-freak bent on revenge. The cast is deep: Peter Saarsgard shines as Val’s little buddy, and Vincent D’Onofrio steals the show as a desert-dwelling meth dealer who, through excessive tweak-snortage, lost his nose. The resulting two-holed nightmare in his face is as fine a special effect as medium-budget grit can provide. Luis Guzmán, Meat Loaf, Adam Goldberg, model Shannon Harlow, Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermy, B. D. Wong and Anthony LaPaglia flesh out the atmospherics; playing a barely-there, smacked-out femme fatale is blonder-than-blonde Debra Kara Unger. If Knightley ever wanted lessons in presence, never mind hotness, she should give Unger a call.





Portrait of director Mikio Naruse. ©1960 Toho Co., Ltd.
All Rights Reserved.

 

A DEEP RIVER
THE SHOMIN-GEKI

OF MIKIO NARUSE

(Naruse’s films are)…a flow of shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance, but reveals itself to be a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath.

Akira Kurosawa

Through November 17th Film Forum is showcasing the collected works of one of the lesser-known (in America) of the 20th Century’s Japanese master directors, Mikio Naruse. Fascinated by the societal roles and emotional lives of women, Naruse focused on shomin-geki, neorealist tales of the poor and working classes. Film Forum credits James Quandt of Cinematheque Ontario and the Japan Foundation for this 31-film retrospective, for which 22 brand-new 35mm prints have been made. The three I saw: Sudden Rain, Floating Clouds and Summer Clouds, were pristine and luminescent, with detailed, idiomatic subtitles.

The subtitles are key—each spoken word bears weight because Naruse explores the emotional life of his characters through what is never said. Dialogue almost always masks intention, so to find the hidden meanings we must follow every seemingly mundane word. Naruse has a genius for the misdirection in every day speech. Sudden Rain, a quiet masterpiece, presents an ordinary man and wife, neither that brilliant or insightful, both sick of their patterns with one another and both deeply attached, habituated, to the cycles of their world. A harsh grunt, a barely restrained sigh, a small complaint about dinner or tardiness carries the tragedy of years of unfulfilling togetherness and claustrophobia; these compressed moments hit with great emotional force. In keeping with Naruse’s neorealist approach, the dialogue is always conversational, banal in the extreme. The rare flashes of emotions play like physical violence because they so violate the norms of the relationships we follow. Yet in the three films I saw, physical violence was never necessary; the characters did one another plenty of damage with words alone, or by acts of kindness never committed.

As the Kurosawa quote suggests, Naruse frames and cuts with deceptive calm. He seldom strives for self-conscious beauty, and keeps his mise-en-scene prominent. Household appurtenances, a worn dressing gown or chickens under the porch signify the failed desire and over-powering presence of the workaday in Sudden Rain. Summer Clouds takes place in rice paddies and farmlands; Naruse gives every implement a magical power or, rather, he shoots each with a freightedness that speaks to its importance in the farming world. His repeated shots of a young girl diligently, cheerfully, working a gasoline-powered tiller (instead of plowing behind a beast) are memorable, weirdly erotic and strangely joyous. This ablity to infuse the super-mundane with all sorts of potent emotions seems Naruse’ speciality.

Domesticity—its pleasures and confinements—is a key Naruse theme. In every film, two people are always sitting around the main sunken fireplace/stove. Invariably, someone will lean over to fire up a cigarette on the unseen coals. Each time, it seems such an act of quotidian transcendence, a grounded moment in which a tiny pleasure gives respite from the crushing ordinariness of the dilemmas the characters face. Naruse communicates this complicated idea—and others far more so—with such unassuming compositions.

The unassuming nature of his storytelling may well decide your willingness to embrace his genius. I found Summer Clouds too damn understated, even as I understood Naruse’ passion for witnessing the cyclical nature of farm life and the family turmoil that boils up, season by season. There was a bit too much neorealist talk for me, and by the end I was yearning for a car chase or even Keira Knightly in low-riding jeans.

But most of his films—the heartbreaking Floating Clouds, for example—do not seem (so far as an ignorant gaijin like me can discern) to be purely Japanese in their concerns. Floating Clouds follows a woman who’s fallen for the wrong guy; she stays with him through marriage (to someone else) and mistresses. Her devotion brings her little joy and no redemption. That’s about as universal a tale as one could find. Regardless of your interest in the nuances of Japanese family dynamics, or the merciless strictures of the post-war Japanese class system, Naruse’s eye for simple beauty and the trademark restrained power of his actors’ performances, make at least one film of this retrospective a must-see. Once you encounter the inexplicable power of his story-telling, you’ll probably have to see another.

Contributor

David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.

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