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8.09.2012

THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONE

Oslo 31 August
Directed  by Joachim Trier
Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogl
From the novel by Pierre Dreu La Rochelle














"Happy people are morons."You can make a shirt out of those four words, market it like a stance as it makes quite the combustible soundbite. And yet the first time you hear them in Joachim Trier's Oslo 31 August, they're almost tossed-off, arbitrary. It's something Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a professor of literature, apparently once said, maybe in the flame and flippancy of his youth, way before he lucked into his own surfeit of domestic bliss, the mundane comforts of settling into your own skeins, if you will.

Talking later to his friend Anders (Anders Danielson Lie), a heroin junkie out of rehab who might or might not be hastening his oblivion before day's end, he breaks all that down to little more than an index of banalities and complaints on how it has quelled his hunger to write and dowsed their enthusiasm to go out and how they spend their nights mostly playing Battlefield instead, a PS3 first-person shooter that shows up later in the house of Anders' dealer.

Everybody around Anders except for him seems not only to have settled into themselves, but also shrug it off casually, as if it were nothing.  And either Thomas is diffusing his own situation to assuage Anders or he's actually manifesting symptoms of a deeper malaise: a need to trivialize contentment as if it were a weakness, or as if in fear of loosing its potential treacheries, or worse, its potential boredom. Anders does outwardly shun the possibility that  a similar variety of happiness may deliver the release that eludes him. But his daylong, and later nightlong, meander through the town he grew up in is really a way of trawling for its glimmers, for its salve.

The first time we see him, he's filling his pockets with stones and jumping into a lake, hoping to drown himself but failing. That it doesn't feel like a first attempt is a relief. And there's nothing tactile and immediate forcing his hand. But something James Ellroy said about geography being destiny nags at me, and how the rejection Anders is coming to terms with is more than the sabotage his past inflicts on any chance he has at a career, more than his sister worrying about him but from a distance and certainly more than the ex-girlfriend he probably loves more than anything but is now halfway around the world and not returning his calls.

Cleaving less to the nouvelle vogue playfulness of his Reprise and more to a weightless Bressonian austerity, whatever attendant spiritual felicities that come with the appropriation is in the way Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre drape the eponymous city in a magic kingdom burnish, making everything seem to glow from within with a fairy tale consistency: that beguiling bike ride through the night near the end feels like an incantation almost.

But, alas, the limits of enchantment. Anders seems blind to its rhapsodies. Instead he wallows in his memories of the place, eavesdrops on the conversations of strangers, finding an evanescent comfort and joy in the disembodied, the erased, the disappeared.  "I have nothing." he says at some point, and he's not merely being melodramatic. It's a rejection of place that he grapples with, the strangeness that has come over familiar terrain. That whole last resort cure-all mystique of the suicidal impulse frankly never had much traction with me as a fuck-you to the world that doesn't give a shit anyway. And we never really know what happens to Anders after that ambivalent last shot, do we?  But it does make a faint, chilling sense.  There is an intolerable unease of recognition each time those tics of confusion play across his face, each time that smile has trouble forming and even more trouble staying in place. A recognition that here is a man with no footing left to lose, a man whose only hope may be the tender mercy of at last letting himself drop.

8.05.2012

WE ARE BEAUTIFUL WE ARE DOOMED

The Animals
Directed by Gino Santos
Written by Gino Santos and Jeff Stelton

Ang Nawawala (What Isn't There)
Directed by Marie Jamora 
Written by Marie Jamora and Ramon De Veyra


 



















At home he's a tourist. Gibson (Dominic Roco), that is. After seeing his twin brother Jamie fall to his death, he has spoken to no one, except, that is, for Jamie (Felix Roco), who's all grown up and smokes as much pot as he does but is probably a ghost and most likely a hallucination, and is what the title of Ang Nawawala may be referring to. What isn't there, right. He's the void in Gibson's life. He's the void, too, in the lives of his left-behind parents. His father (Buboy Garovillo, underused) has taken to sleeping in his room. And his mother (Dawn Zulueta, radiant) regards everything with an icy remove, particularly Gibson, who is the wrong son who died the way Timothy Hutton was in Ordinary People, only he mitigates his pathos not by slashing his wrists, but immersing himself, much like everyone his age tends to do as a default, in the comfort zones of his bohemia.

The film takes after him, swaddling itself in often intoxicating  artifice:  from the gregarious color schemes and hyper-stylized dress codes to the endless parade of scenester gigs and haunts to the first world problems we wish most of us would have and the reliance on such fashionable youth film tropes as MPDGs. All this reinforces its candied, faintly self-reflexive milieu, its characters defined by their totems, their longings charted in their denials. This is how we shield ourselves from having to deal with the real world sometimes. And  it's as if the film were itself daunted, like Gibson, to confront the anxieties at its core without protective covering. But no matter how festive and bright and exuberant its young noise gets, the sense that it will eventually lose to the ennui it's trying to stave off, to the emptiness it's trying to fill, tinges everything with a gauzy melancholia.  This push-pull between how empowering those totems we exalt in our youth are and how transient that power can be is, of course, the shared tension of all youth films and the most crucial thing Ang Nawawala shares with The Animals.

The class divide is as rampant in this country as the poverty our cinema is fond of making porn from. But it rarely gets tackled full-bore that it counts as one-up for these two films that they do, and with such an assured verve at that. The farthest Ang Nawawala goes in approaching the schism, though, is a montage of people on the streets celebrating New Year's Eve seen from the back seat of a car on its way to a posh party. It's gaze is detached, curious at best.  The Animals is more brazen about it, more arrogant, more without remorse. And it comes to a troubling boil when it hangs the most corrosive burst of aggression on an economically-challenged outsider, which might be better read as a cop-out than a measure of its worldview, even if it makes contextual sense if the latter is what it is.

The Animals is not about wistful hipsters, after all, but rather their diametric opposite, a strain of upper-crust youth with no pop cultural co-dependencies for shaping their selves.What music they have is faceless to the point of anonymous, their fashion extravagant but off the rack. The future bores them, the present is just time that needs killing, debauchery and violence are just things to do. Their cocksure hedonism feeds off their privilege and knowing how high it makes their place in the pecking order and how this is some license to get away with almost anything.

It references Skins about as much as Ang Nawawala references Wes Anderson, sure, and when it soft-pedals in the end, it does blunt its nihilistic thrust.  But there's an authenticity to its depravity, to its bleakness, to how brutal it is for leaving the character with the most to lose from its gruesome turn of events hanging in bliss at the end, that sticks and lingers, despite its lapses. Which is not to say that the bleary optimism of Ang Nawawala is false. It believes wholeheartedly in its own hopefulness. But is also aware of how it can only go so far. You can tell from how the conversations Gibson has with Jamie are the moments that ring truest. Some wounds run deep and take forever to heal. And sometimes the only voices you can trust are the ones in your head.