Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, The Blues
Does the world end with a bang or a whimper or something more paralytic? Will it end in an apocalyptic conflagration, or will the processes of modern life—the alienation at the core of any industrialized media-driven society—be the insidious force that leaves us open mouthed but stifled, desperate to scream and unable to produce any sound, including a whimper?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (now playing at the IFC Theatre) was released in Japan in 2001; Miramax Pictures bought the US rights. As with Ringu, the intention was to make an English language version. Miramax brought in Kurosawa himself and when he was unable to produce a script they approved, ran through various North American horror savants, including Wes Craven. Nobody could scratch it; Pulse remained untranslatable. Hence this late release in its original form.
Ringu proved an easy remake. The premise was simple: a demon climbs out of your TV. Once that’s established, all the story needs is something for the characters to do while we wait for the demon to reappear. When the demon reaches out from the screen, Ringu and The Ring are both scary. When she’s not, neither are. In Ringu/The Ring, the occult, the supernatural and the undead exist to scare, only. In Pulse, which frightens and unsettles deeply and lastingly in a frog-in-slowly-heated-to-boiling-water kind of way, they exist to serve Kurosawa’s profound themes. Don’t get me wrong – the ghosts in Pulse are plenty scary. And Kurosawa neither exploits these horror old realiables nor treats them with contempt. Despite his gift for unparsable metaphor, Kurosawa’s entrenched in genre, besotted really. He likes the rigor, the time constraints, the necessity that something happen, that the scary shit be scary. He seems to regard horror genre conventions as strengthening restrictions, like the rules for sonnets. While he may terrify by directly addressing some formerly unrecognized core phobia (as with 1997’s Kyua (Cure)) or creep you out by nourishing to the suffocating point your own sense of existential pointlessness (please see frog, etc. example above), Kurosawa uses perfectly rendered genre tropes as the delivery agent for his cinematic poetry. With Pulse, he takes a step into something more modern, more grounded in European art cinema than in recent Japanese horror-surrealism.
Think of Takashi Miike. He abandoned the polished 35mm saturated color and composed frames of high-end horror after Odisho ( Audition, 1999). He turned to anarchic, low-budget DV shoots with madhouse special effects, finding there a more primal expression of the contemptuous, blood-soaked misanthropy that fueled Audition. Miike ran out of patience for the discipline of genre; his films became less satisfying as a result. Kurosawa has gone deeper not into gore or special effects but into cinema itself; framing, camera movement, the hidden emotions of mise-en-scene. His special effects seem almost willfully low-budget, but they have great power. Plus, they’re scary.
Pulse is a ghost story. Ghosts, apparently via the Internet (remember, this film was released in 2001, when the Internet’s connect/distance schizophrenic essence seemed more metaphorical, and less simply How Things Are), come spilling out of their realm and over-run earth. Or perhaps their sudden appearance in large numbers reminds the living how alienated and spiritually empty modern life has become, and the living are, if you will, giving up the ghost. Humans vanish, kill themselves or turn into a splash of ashy shadow on the wall. Without much blood, and with nothing like the deadpan mutilations of Cure, Kurosawa generates plenty of horror. Horror in the Edgar A. Poe sense, wherein the world has changed forever in some hideous, unstoppable way, and the only choice is to flee. Or maybe the world hasn’t changed: maybe the comforting illusory norms of everyday life are vanishing like the dreams they are, and only the horrors of existence remain. Either way, the consequences are equally inescapable. Kurosawa, like Poe, wastes little time/energy explaining how or why this came to be. Nor does he ever clarify the processes more exactly than, say, Poe does in Masque of the Red Death. Bad stuff is happening and it’s only getting worse—what to do? Kurosawa’s characters start out befuddled and end up dead or permanently on the run. The smarter ones start out stupefied with alienation; they know there’s no escape nor any such thing as human connection and they don’t bother trying. The dumber or more romantic ones are too dumb to understand that they’re already spiritually or physically dead, and so persist in trying to live and connect. That persistence, that purely animal will, seems to be the only saving grace.
And if this wasn’t a horror film, whose work would these struggles, these themes, remind you of? It’s no accident that for Pulse, Kurosawa has found an extraordinary, understated visual style, a mélange of Blow-Upera Antonioni and late ‘60s Godard. Visually, Pulse is most reminiscent of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard’s 1967 meditation on the emptiness of conversation and the crushing banality of new high-rise suburbs slowly encircling Paris. As in 2 or 3 Things, Kurosawa’s characters can barely stand to gaze upon one another when they speak. The off-hand, realist beauty of the frames, and the combination of terror and sublimity that Kurosawa finds in blank modern structures also evoke Godard. As does the constant hum of either traffic or computers —a hum that signifies human activity while it lasts, and the reign of the dead when it stops. And Kurosawa is the first filmmaker to really understand how Godard uses red in the frame (JLG: “I don’t show blood, I show the color red.”) In almost every shot, some everyday red object screams a warning, reminding everyone of their fast-dwindling mortality.
Though it’s clearly the best film of the year, Pulse ain’t quite perfect. Because its power derives from the depth of its mood, anything that breaks that mood wrenches us disappointingly out of the story. Incredibly, even as the population of Tokyo dwindles to five or ten, characters still leave one another with those fateful words: “I’ll be right back.” Scream didn’t make two hundred million dollars for nothing; we all know that when a character says: “I’ll be right back,” that’s the one thing they won’t be. And as a master of the genre, Kurosawa should have known better.
Be Here To Love Me
–A Film About Townes Van Zandt
You can teach me lots of lessons
You can bring me lots of gold
But you just can’t
Live in Texas
If you don’t have a lot of soul
At The Crossroads
(& he oughtta know)
Late in Margaret Brown’s multi-layered documentary of the all-too-short life of tortured genius Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Townes says, in his elliptical, flatly-intoned, wry, brilliant, captivating, halting, all knowing/all confused manner: “I want to write a song so good nobody can understand it, not even me.”
He’s not subjecting us to that famous and sometimes insufferable Texas deadpan, nor is Townes mocking himself. He’s stating the proposition clearly. Van Zandt sought, and knew he sought, to use words to go beyond meaning, beyond rationality, to pure feeing, pure emotion. Those who experience his music for the first time in this film will recognize that he got closer to it than almost anyone. Certainly, in my book, closer than almost anyone else white…in this, as in his high-caste, elegantly penniless family background, his inherited melancholy madness, his maddeningly underappreciated and tragically limited output, his movie-star charisma and irresistible charm, his offhand but bottomless emotional pain and his genuinely astonishing lyrics, Van Zandt’s story contains many parallels to Gram Parsons’. One significance difference is that despite Van Zandt’s predilection for heroin, he—in the immortal words of a Texas contemporary—was “always too broke to get a habit going.” Van Zandt had to settle for alcohol, a shitload of alcohol, and occasional bouts of straight-up insanity.
Margaret Brown is a Brown graduate and the daughter of a song-writer. The film’s down-home surface and sophisticated structure demonstrates her unusually soulful and sensitive intelligence, a nasty sense of humor almost on a par with Townes’ and a more poetic than prose narrative style. Having clearly listened to Townes obsessively (the few who know his music can’t listen any other way), she’s picked up from his music the story-telling power of the resonant silence. Very few current documentarians have any idea how or when to shut the face, to stop explaining or to get out of the way of their material. Brown never inserts herself, she explains very little; there is no third-party voice-over. Narrative explanation is organic; it comes from interviews or Van Zandt himself. After Townes or her various interviewees encapsulate the universe in a sentence or two (these songwriters do have a gift for brevity), Brown lets their words linger, holding the beat with what proves extraordinary discipline. It’s quite moving.
Like any filmic biographer, she’s stuck with the footage that exists. Townes’ life is shaped by what can be shown. The story ranges from his boarding-school yearbook (where he’s captured with a glue-soaked sock in his mouth, high as a cooter) to footage from Townes’ first wedding to a number of hypnotizing live performances. Some of are heartfelt and indescribably moving (Townes with a guitar on somebody’s porch) and some are heartbreaking in how wretchedly Townes was misunderstood and underestimated (Townes being interviewed by an comatose and irritated Ralph Emery on a hideous Nashville talkshow). Townes came of age in a fervent Texas songwriting scene: Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Willie Nelson (who, dueting with Merle Haggard, took Towne’s Pancho & Lefty to Number 1 in the ‘80’s), Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kinky Friedman…all of ‘em are routinely hilarious and insightful, save Guy Clark. He comes off as a self-aggrandizing asshole; he always has to me. Guy wants to be the star, but it ain’t his story. He seems competitive with Townes, all too aware that the cameras aren’t there for him. Certain moments might have better been left out – given the sensitivity with which she chooses her material, it feels exploitative of the director to let Clark mouth off. But then, Clark’s another of those drunken charming Texas bastards, even at his most assholic.
Given the circumstances, letting Guy step all over his dick seems a small mistake. It’s a tribute to Brown’s consistent tone that Clark’s obnoxiousness feels out of place. Her only other indulgence is inserting lovely backwoods, shot-across-the-dashboard road-footage to illustrate a few points Townes makes in conversation or in song. These are the only externally-enforced moments—all the rest derive from the story itself. The road-footage comes off as hokey, but it’s easy to see the necessity. Brown had some cool words that needed to be heard and no visuals to go with them.
Be Here To Love Me is a rare accomplishment: a first film directed with tenderness and grace about one of America’s great artists whose work is tragically under-appreciated. For once, a film about an artist is the film the artist deserves. There’s twenty five Townes’ songs and once you hear the guy talk, never mind sing, you’ll run out and buy every record he ever made. Both the story and the method of its telling deserve your support. Be Here To Love Me is playing at the vile Angelika, but what can you do? Go see it today.
ContributorDavid N. Myer
David N. Meyer would do the Madison, if only he had the opportunity.