Anthony Bourdain: Windows to the Stomach and Soul

 

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My introduction to Anthony Bourdain was with the first ever episode of No Reservations. It took place in France, and thinking back, it was as morbid a foreshadowing of Bourdain’s mental issues as one could ever think up, to the point where I shudder remembering the details of it as I write it here. Belying the jovial title of the episode, “Why The French Don’t Suck”, the episode is incredibly dark for something meant to explore the joys of a country’s culinary delights. But it was meant to be dark. It was an introduction into exactly what kind of chef and yes, storyteller, Bourdain was.

It wasn’t enough that “Tony”, as many people including strangers call him, was a celebrity chef and obsessed with discovering new foods in new lands. He wanted to teach us about it. Us, the stubborn, closed-boxed, isolationist, snobby, and anti-cultural Americans who make a sour face at almost anything that doesn’t fit into the embarrassingly small mold of what we consider “good eats'” (shout out to one of Bourdain’s best friends, Alton Brown). This required being much more creative than your average foodie. How do you get children to eat food they scoff at? Make it a story, play a game, distract them with anything, literally anything else. No Reservations became a revolutionary show because it was as much a food show as it was a TV-drama. What crazy place is Tony going to get into trouble in this time? Who are the interesting people he’s going to meet in this country? It was like watching Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones was a drunk, wise-cracking uncle who also worked as an executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles.

Anthony Bourdain was not one to make a soft and welcoming entrance. In his first ever TV episode, he succumbs to several hallucinations after having drips of pure absinthe and bites of pitch black blood sausage in a barely lit dim basement bar called “Cantada II”, and sleeps being haunted by demons in the same hotel room in which Oscar Wilde stayed during the time of his death. The camera shifts side to side, the lights flicker, and Bourdain wonders himself, trapped in the bed, in an echoey voiceover, whether he too will live his last waking moments here.

The episode was a remarkably artistic and weighty beginning to a show dedicated to food and culture. Every episode thereafter became the chapter of a narrative, with Bourdain as the central character charting his way through countries and meeting people who had their own stories to tell. The camerawork and editing on the show was as important as the food and conversations. Unlike many food shows where I mostly long to see perfectly seared scallops or thin white noodles resting in a steaming broth with crisp pork bellyBourdain’s shows were unique in their ability to captivate me with everything outside the contents of a plate or bowl. I wanted to know the people, I wanted to watch him in a canoe sailing down the Amazon, I wanted to see him speaking to a local Burmese activist about political turmoil.

The entertainment factor for Bourdain was as much about the story he wanted to weave regarding a country as it was about the food. In an episode on Iceland, a tourism commercial for plays, with a narrator speaking in romantic terms about the beautiful sunsets and lush golf-courses and incredible docks and seaside restaurants. As soon as the commercial finishes, it cuts to Bourdain inside an ice cave in the middle of a blizzard freezing his ass off and chattering his teeth. Bourdain always strived to be relatable, that was his thing. He was in a different land, surrounded by things very different from those that we have in America, and he acted not as a tour guide for us, but an ambassador.  He always had a great reason why we should step outside of our enclosed boxes, regardless of whether it was comfortable for us or not.

Americans naturally have a hesitation and skepticism towards things we aren’t used to. Whenever Bourdain talked about food, he would address it the same way a guy tasting a burger at your local pub might. Simple but effective terms. He had a bitterness and disdain for many food critics, considering their approach to be elitist, cryptic, and worst of all, inauthentic.  They dressed in designer clothes and sat behind a table and daintily picked at and picked apart a dish going into their textbook terminologies for what flavors complement one another and what weird French word describes that particular taste between sour and tart that English has no equivalent for. Bourdain sat in a streetside hut. Plastic table. Plastic chairs. Cold beers. Across from the freaking President of the United States, and shoved all sophistication and decorum to the side, slurping noodles obnoxiously from a hot broth bowl with pork belly. “This is killer”, President Obama says. The only analysis one could ever need to suddenly crave a good bùn-cha.

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Bourdain’s tireless desire to get Americans to understand a world they, for the most part, shut away from, went much further than cuisine. He knew that food was intrinsically tied to history and politics of a nation, and thus, and most importantly tied to its people. Tony never minced his words when visiting developing countries which the United States utterly destroyed with its murderous foreign policy campaigns. His castigation of Henry Kissinger is well-documented. From No Reservations to Parts Unknown, it was clear that Bourdain’s shows aimed to recognize humanity above all else. To recognize the destruction we experience and the spirit that endures. His episodes in Libya amidst the Benghazi fiasco, Myanmar amidst the Rohingya pogrom, and Turkey amidst the mass protests of Erdogan’s re-election balanced the reality of a tumultuous political fire with the fire that cooked lip-smacking local foods and a fire within the nation’s populace that upheld their hopes.

It was incredibly ironic that a show like Parts Unknown was on CNN, because it sought so hard to tear down every wall of mystification that cable news programs put up when speaking of other countries and cultures. There wasn’t a reporter with a microphone poorly explaining in oversimplified and theatrical terms why the country was in a state of unrest. Instead, it was regular people, sharing food during iftar after a day of fasting who spoke about their personal experiences and beliefs in the direction of the nation. They were having a conversation not a debate. They didn’t always agree with each other, and we, at home, didn’t always agree with them, but everyone listened, and everyone shared a meal.

When I watched Anthony Bourdain, I got the sense of a person who was deeply devoted to the idea that food would make the world a much smaller, and better, place. He understood very well the political and social divisions that existed between countries, but he also knew that food was one of mankind’s cardinal pleasures. No Reservations and Parts Unknown are two of the most incredible shows I have ever witnessed because they held the food show to a higher standard. Anthony Bourdain challenged himself to teach us and challenged to learn and believe that wherever in the world we may be, we will find someone just like us, and if we’re lucky, it will be on the side of the road, sitting in plastic chairs, at a plastic table, with a cold beer, and eating something that’s killer.

 

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A Place Both Wonderful and Strange… TWIN PEAKS (SEASON 2)

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The majority of TV is constantly at the mercy of viewership statistics above all else. Blame the producers, show-runners, focus groups, whoever.  Blame business. Blame the fact that the television industry is called an industry for a reason. Assessing viewership in quantifiable digits reduces the audience’s perception of a show into a binary: watch or don’t watch. It says nothing about the way they feel about a particular episode or whether the people who do watch, no matter how few, are dedicated to the show. This circumstance is most tragic when it affects shows that dare to push the boundaries of the medium. For run-of-the-mill sitcoms and formulaic dramas which follow patterns that are easily accepted and digestible by viewers, statistical performance is predictably good; from the get-go, their audience is automatically delivered on a silver platter. But what about shows like Twin Peaks?

In the first part of this series, I talked about Twin Peaks: Season 1 and its ability to bait-and-switch its audience into falling in love with the surreal characters to the point where the major plot becomes secondary to a charmingly weird examination of small-town Americana. It’s a challenging show, one which mixes genres we never imagined could be mixed, and one which tests our tolerance for television as an art form rather than a form of instantly gratifying entertainment.

Perhaps it was too good to be true.

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The first season, comprised of only seven episodes including the 2-hour pilot, was followed by the show’s much lengthier Season 2, consisting of 22 episodes. Amidst the filming, the expected fallout between creatives and businessmen plagued the production of the show. Lynch’s approach began to test the patience of the showrunners, and his surreal intents which aimed to take his audience on a completely uncharted path of narrative experimentation was completely at odds with the way the accountants, financiers, and executives tend to think of television. To them, bold was bad, audiences were stupid, and anything which might require even an ounce of thought on the part of the show’s viewership meant that it was too ambitious and pretentious. Lynch left to direct his feature film Wild at Heart midway after losing the reigns on the show. With Lynch gone, the show never stood a chance.

While the residual effect of Episode 1 remained for at least half the season, by Episode 15 (once the Palmer murder was seemingly “solved”) it was very clear there was something missing. The show became a standard cop drama, ridding itself of the ambiguity of evil and identifying an obvious enemy in Dale Cooper’s (Kyle McLachlan) former FBI partner Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). Earle is the typical sadist you’d find on any darker episode of Law & Order: SVU; A one-note “mad genius” who uses cliché metaphors like chess pieces to signal clues and taunt detectives and who’s main gripe was blaming Dale Cooper for the murder of his wife Catherine. Cooper was even given a love interest in Special Agent Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) to try to get viewers hooked into the romantic angle of the show.

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Of course, the studios and the producers were going to win the battle in the end. It became a rather embarrassing mark on their decision-making because the dips in ratings for the show occurred at the exact same moments when Lynch’s influence over it waned. The more conventional the show became the more people tuned out. But in classic narcissistic style, the showrunners shifted the blame towards’ Lynch’s initial vision. The producers believed that they tried to “save” Twin Peaks but Lynch had made it so weird that it was too little too late. Twin Peaks was canceled.

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Yet, the original spirit of Twin Peaks lived in Lynch’s two self-directed episodes, which sandwich the season and tie together the timelines of Dale Cooper and the terrifying Killer BOB, a supernatural demon who haunted Laura near the time of her death. This character is one of Lynch’s most ingenious creations and provides an anchor for the show to never get too far away from its horror-fantasy elements as well as a path for Lynch to take once he managed to pull the reigns back into his control in Episode 22. With the show having drained Twin Peaks of its intrigue in Lynch’s absence, Episode 22 of the season brings us back full circle to the Pilot episode of the show in Season 1. The strangeness of the show comes to a summit when Dale Cooper discovers the entrance to a parallel dimension, consisting of two areas called the White Lodge and the Black Lodge. They center themselves as the cause for everything that occurred before, as to say that everything we once believed about the town, it’s people, and Laura’s murder is not even scratching the surface of what is truly going on. It’s a remarkable point in the Twin Peaks saga, and it turns Season 2 from being a lesser entry into an important if less eventful and artful bridge between Season 1, Season 3, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

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READY PLAYER ONE: Remember When….

 

 

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

One of the mollifying aspects of nostalgia, which has taken a strong grip on American culture of late, especially as we all cope with exponential advancements of technology and the constant bombardment of media from streaming services, is that it provides a recess from the fast-paced media-driven craze of today’s world. It allows us to dive back into a time when everything just seemed quieter. It’s rather ironic then that Ready Player One is so high-octane and exhausting. The movie is a pop-culture junkie’s version of snorting three lines of cocaine. For some, that’s a high. For others, it’s another instantly gratifying entertainment that provides no lasting value. I feel somewhere in between these two extremes.

The film’s most interesting aspect is in its mythologization of James Halliday, the OASIS’s creator. His character essentially mirrors the way nostalgia has evolved in internet culture. It starts off as a fond personal memory of cultural markers which shaped us, especially those “nerds” such as Halliday, as adults.  But once internet culture got a grip of nostalgia it turned into something weird and malformed. Its personal weight started to lessen. It flattened into a 2D stream of a million different “references” whizzing by your eyes with each click. Halliday’s OASIS is filled with his favorite media references when he was a kid, but they’re so vast and they exist in such quantity and velocity within the game that they don’t register as anything other tokens of remembrance. The OASIS, as a virtual reality program, is the physical written and produced manifestation of an “Only 80’s/90’s Kids Will Remember This!” meme that you see re-posted on Twitter every day.

READY PLAYER ONE - Dreamer Trailer (screen grab) CR: Warner Bros. PicturesThe underlying darkness of the film’s social commentary occurs as we, along with the central characters, discover the clues that tie together Halliday’s life. His obsession with his own past, the pop culture remnants of his childhood as well as the devastating regrets he had as a person, descends into unhealthy levels as more is revealed. At the end of the film, after Wade wins the game, Wade Watts is transported to Halliday’s childhood bedroom, where he speaks with him. It’s not enough that the film suggests Halliday was so possessed by a long-gone past that he downloaded his own conscience into his video game (Wade asks, “you’re not a hologram are you?”), but that Halliday also keeps a younger version of himself alongside for company.

The lack of fulfillment in Halliday’s life forced him to retreat to an era where he felt he was his best self, his happiest self, so much so that he kept that version of himself near him at all times. In small doses, these moments of escape provide mental balance and a harmonious re-connection to where we came from. But the further we are dedicated to constantly holding onto what used to be, in pop culture, politics, social ideas, anything, the less we find ourselves dedicated to progress. In the end of the film, Wade decides to change the way the OASIS works. His final statement declares that people need to spend time outside and in the “real world”. This is as deep a cut as Spielberg has possibly ever made on American society.  Spielberg’s ability to elevate the shallow and lazy self-satisfied geekdom of the novel into an actual discussion of nostalgia’s effect on human memory and its toll on us, is what makes him one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

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Beyond Fear… Love: TWIN PEAKS (SEASON 1)

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Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Le passion de Jean d’Arc is considered by many people to be the moment when cinema became a form of art, but it took a while to realize it. There was a much delayed positive academic reaction to the film that was a result of cinema being accepted, several decades later, through serious critique and eventually canonization, as an art worth examining. While cinema has achieved its heightened status over time, television has always been somewhat stuck in a rut. The idiot box, the mindless entertainment unit, where any space not taken up by sports and general news broadcasts, is reserved for cartoons to be watched by children after they’re done with their homework, laugh-track heavy sitcoms to fall asleep to, and background noise to accompany more productive activities. Even the shows which were deemed as culturally significant and of somewhat of higher quality such as All in the Family, M*A*S*H, or Seinfeld remained chained to an inescapable structural formula that all of their visual technique and narrative creativity had to abide by.

So, imagine my disbelief upon seeing a show like Twin Peaks. A show that goes so far beyond the pale of what one could have imagined being greenlighted by any network in 1990 let alone a milquetoast broadcaster like ABC. Imagine a show that even close to thirty years after its first episode aired, is more bold, revolutionary, and radically original than anything television has done in that time.

While the mysterious murder of small-town sweetheart Laura Palmer forms the emotional crux of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, much of the show’s first season concentrates heavily on world-building of a quaint town drenched in inconspicuous traditional American aesthetic. The frosted donuts, the sweet cherry pies, the hot cups o’ joe, the diners and roadhouses, the varsity jackets and motorcycles. These are the images that remain with the viewer long after each episode fades to black. Lynch and Frost’s original conception of the show was a sort of bait-and-switch for the audience and the show’s producers. The murder-mystery would be solely for the purpose of hooking the viewership in. The rest would be an examination of the strange and peculiar individuals residing within the town.

Laboring to understand the world that Lynch builds, especially in his films, is an arduous, and many times fruitless task. He doesn’t do us any favors here either, but the inclusion of FBI Agent Dale Cooper, assigned as the lead on Laura Palmer’s murder case, gives us a cipher to discover the world of Twin Peaks. We learn about the town just as he does, and his occasional tape-recording of interactions and observations as messages to an unknown person named “Diane” is a rope Lynch throws to us every once in a while so we can find our way out of the narrative abyss. But there are no easy answers, and the tension consistently builds without letting any real clues lead to tangible results. The conversations are circular, repetitive, the characters frustrating in their non-sequiturs and cryptic non-answers, and the town as a whole, lightly vibrating with a mystic energy that is only hinted at in the first season through a few terrifying images.

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The strangeness of the show’s aesthetic, however offputting it may be, is never there for the sake of it. Unlike Lynch’s more unrestrained projects Inland Empire and Lost Highway, Twin Peaks’ surrealism is still tied to a narrative. Lynch, a master of toying with audience expectations, strings many future moments back to events that at first seem disturbing in their jarring shifts in tone. One of the most memorable is the Log Lady, who’s on-screen introduction is one of the funniest moments in the show (Agent Cooper asks Sherrif Truman “who’s that lady with the log”… Truman plainly responds “oh, that’s the Log Lady”). It’s not until later that we start to really witness her importance to Cooper’s investigation and the meaning of her vague and puzzling stories. Cooper himself encounters weird dreams, of a short dancing man, Laura Palmer herself, an empty room backdropped by a red curtain, and a terrifying psycho with long gray hair who comes and goes in nightmares around the town.

The show’s distinct mix of soap opera melodrama and abject horror is what sets it apart from almost anything else on mainstream television. It’s an unconventional and un-subtle style that Lynch first used to full effect in his 1986 landmark thriller Blue Velvet and then made a signature in much of his later works like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. The outlandish love-triangles between high school students and awkward comedic hijinks highlight the less savory parts of what constitutes TV culture in the U.S. but they’re juxtaposed next to some of the most artistically radical directorial choices, creating a vision of hokey Americana seen through a trippy post-modern lens. It allows the show to play as an art piece as much as a gripping mystery.

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Twin Peaks merits as a work of art lies in the way it transforms images and innovates structurally. There are so many visual techniques utilized in the show (the crossfades, intercutting, obscured shadows, blurred images, sharp zooms) that were, at the time, considered highly inappropriate outside of indie cinema halls. The pushing of the boundaries was also not eased into. Lynch unleashed the cinematic tricks he cut his teeth with straight from the Pilot episode (later titled Northwest Passage), which is the single greatest episode of TV I’ve ever seen. The ending sequence of the Pilot, a terrifying nightmare of disjointed images and sounds that Laura’s mother experiences, is in itself probably the most radical TV has ever been up until that point (and arguably up until today, even). Two hours long, the episode can be considered a TV Movie, and a work of cinematic art that was much respected by audiences and provided damning evidence that network executives had heavily underestimated their viewership’s openness to experimentation and challenging material. They didn’t take the hint though.

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The episode is also a brilliant foreshadowing of how much more complex and intricate Lynch attempts to build the mythos of Laura Palmer, and her existence in Twin Peaks. The character serves as a direct opposite figure to Dale Cooper in the first season, and while Dale’s discovery of the town is our guiding spirit to the same, his investigation into who Laura Palmer really was is Lynch’s own journey to discover his character. Lynch sets up Laura as an all-American Homecoming queen, a winner of the Miss Twin Peaks pageant, trophy girlfriend of the star football player at her high school, from a good family. Even the ending credits of the show scroll on a framed picture of Laura, hair glowing, eyes bright, immortalized. The following episodes, after the Pilot, systematically knocker her down notch by notch. That she was far from angelic in her last moments and instead was ultimately taken by an obsession with the demonic. She recites strange messages like “fire walk with me” and “do you want to get to know Bob?” The nightmare her mother experiences at the end of the Pilot might be connected to something.

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The first season, only 7 episodes, builds a town that includes all of Lynch’s favorite themes. Backstabbing and conniving soap opera melodrama with a twist at every turn. Teenagers in intimate conversations over their world which has suddenly become unpredictable and dangerous. Incredible evil caused by men who seek nothing but the destruction of others for their own selfish gains. Love. Fear. Lynch decried the trend of movies and TV being completely straightforward and understandable. He believed that works of visual art should be comprised purely of feeling, and those feelings should illicit something inside the viewer. His beliefs of what the visual medium should be guided the creation of the most brilliant television show in American history. A show both a representation as much as a reflection of us as people. Every moment of Season 1 carries us through pure feeling. It’s a surreal dream, anomalous to everything that existed before it. For the first time, television became art. But we are just now realizing it.

Favorite Movies of 2017

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I guess you could say spending New Year’s Eve getting screened in the Middle East by United States Border Patrol officers is the perfect ending to the political experience of 2017. At least I got some champagne and dessert afterwards.

Part of the flight, I re-read one of my absolute favorite pieces of film criticism ever written; Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bela Tarr’s Satantango. It reassured me that the great cinema is not something that should be assumed to be lost on most people. That there is always an audience for a great film no matter how unwieldy, ambitious, or downright unappealing in appearance it may be. Rosenbaum is always great at scanning cinema and all its aspects of writing, directing, production, distribution, and consumption through the lens of a “power of the people” mantra. It’s a political philosophy which prioritizes access regardless of demographic models and it undoubtedly needs to be made more aware of because of the sectarian means by which cinema (and culture in general really) is showcased in America. So this too was a perfect capping of 2017.

This year, I continued my habit of the past couple years of just saying “fuck it” to trying to watch new releases just for the sake of watching them. Selectivism over volume, hurrah. Out of the dozens of remakes, sequels etc. that got churned out at the detriment of much more interesting material that could easily have taken it’s place, I saw but a few (War for the Planet of the Apes and BladeRunner 2049) and they were both rather underwhelming, especially in comparison to their own predecessors.

Looking at my Best of 2017 list, there is a dearth of American movies (also possibly due to the ambiguity of Hollywood vs. UK produced film). The three that end up on there are all, unsurprisingly, original films, one a major blockbuster by a well-known celebrity director, and the other two, small indie films by relatively new filmmakers. These movies are becoming rarer in a distribution cycle which is slowly and surely being overtaken by whatever sells in China, Hollywood’s largest market. Outside of Star Wars which remains quintessentially, an American-exclusive loved franchise entity, everything else from Marvel to DC to Fast & Furious to Monster Movies to whatever the hell James Cameron comes out with next is going to be seen by more Chinese paying customers more frequently than any other nationality of movie-goers on Earth.

But I consciously hoped to allow this list, like the ones I made in the past, be a representation of the diversity of cinema that is still existent in the nooks and crannies of cinema-halls in the U.S., if you care to search and look for them. Movies are always going to be there even with Netflix and Chinese-centric marketing models because there are always artists who are going to be making them. If not in the U.S, then elsewhere. It’s a huge world, and it’s connected closer and faster than ever. Fascism and nationalism are rising, but so is everyone’s desire to see things outside of their own box. Maybe 2018 will be about that.
Anyway, here’s the list of my Favorite Films of 2017. (click on the title of each film to be taken to a full review of the film) :

  1. The Other Side of Hope | dir. Aki Kaurismäki (Finland)
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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

2. The Florida Project | dir. Sean Baker (U.S.A.)

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The title of the film is taken from the developmental code-name for Walt Disney World, and its no coincidence because the film lies entirely within the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth”. From rainbows and Disney gift-shops to rich tourists passing by getting scammed by Mooney and her mother Halley into buying stolen park passes, the title becomes a rather darkly comedic joke, juxtaposing the lavish and carefree living of American families on their way to a magical vacation with a community of people barely making ends meet.

3. The Killing of a Sacred Deer | dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (U.K.)

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which can be considered Lanthimos’s first dive into genre cinema, plays on the same sort of premise set by James Wan’s Saw series. A sociopathic teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, who deserves every award for this) sets the rules for a game wherein the central character, a surgeon named Steven, (Colin Farrell) must make an unthinkable sacrifice to save himself and others.

4. Let the Corpses Tan | dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani (France/Belgium)

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“You remember those Looney Tunes cartoons where Taz comes ripping through a jungle in a giant whirlwind and everything is just tearing and flying? That’s how I imagine Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani were in the editing room when they edited their latest film, a rapid-fire pulp-drama of blood and fury, Let the Corpses Tan.”

5. Clash | dir. Mohammed Diab (Egypt)

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The conversations that Diab strikes between his characters are wild enough to make our heads spin, the confusion of who is on who’s side is unclear enough to frustrate our ignorant and uneducated Western minds. I could tell, from the first 10 minutes of the movie, until its conclusion, that Diab’s film works both as a stark social commentary for an Egyptian filmgoer and a mocking satire of America and Europe’s feeble attempts to try to “pinpoint” the good and the bad of the Arab Spring. The film systematically obliterates our binary point of view when discussing tensions in the Middle East. Diab purposefully populates the back of the police van bit by bit with different groups, initially daring us to pick the good guys. Like the Western-educated rube I am, I fell for it.

6. Dunkirk | dir. Christopher Nolan (U.K./U.S.A.)

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

7. Vazante | dir. Daniela Thomas (Brazil/Portugal)

 

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Shot in a stunning black-and-white, there is a clear influence of Terrence Malick and other visually poetic directors that laces every frame of the movie. Centered around a Portuguese slave-trader Antonio and his new child-bride Beatriz, the film takes a unique approach to studying a historically dark and violent time for the South American continent. What would have undoubtedly been turned into an exploitation tale filled with torture and sex if Hollywood were to get their hands on it, instead becomes a quite understated (but still emotionally affecting) film.

8. Kedi | dir. Ceyda Torun (Turkey)

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Kedi is still overall light-hearted, featuring several sequences of “go-pro” style camera tracking shots that give ground-level point of view shots of the cat’s journey through human-dominated habitats. The film is fun, and it plays perfectly to our unmitigated need to place human characteristics and traits onto non-human animals. A sequence where one of the cats chases after a mouse plays like the tunnel scene from the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive. The mouse peeks in and out, aware of the cat’s presence but avoiding being seen. It’s thrilling, it’s quirky, it’s exactly the type of thing that gets a million “likes” and “clicks” and “retweets”.

9. Endless Poetry | dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chile)

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In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view.

10. Brigsby Bear | dir. Dave McCary (U.S.A.)

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

 

Best “Past Discoveries” of 2017:

The Turin Horse | dir. Bela Tarr (Hungary, 2012)

I Stand Alone | dir. Gaspar Noe (France, 1998)

Twin Peaks (Season 1) dir. David Lynch (1991)

The Panic in Needle Park | dir. Jerry Schatzberg (1971)

The Sopranos (Seasons 1-6)| (1999 – 2005)

Night and Fog | dir. Alain Resnais (1956)

The Spirit of the Beehive | dir. Victor Erice (1973)

The Werckmeister Harmonies | dir. Bela Tarr (2000)

The Forbidden Room | dir. Guy Maddin (2015)

Shin Godzilla | dir. Hideaki Ano & Shinji Higuchi (2016)

 

Small Stature, Powerful Punches – Aki Kaurismäki’s THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

 

 

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The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

There is a term in boxing called “pound-for-pound” whereby a boxers rank is determined by his physical achievement in relation to his size. The best pound-for-pound fighters do the most with the least and while their stature may be small, the power and heart they exhibit during a fight outweigh it. If there is a stylistic equivalent to a pound-for-pound fighter in movies, I can’t think of a more fitting title-holder than Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Since the beginning of his career, his cinema has been defined through a simplicity in style, dialogue, and emotion that is delightful and rich for some, but distant and opaque for others. It features lighting that can best be described as sparse and dialogue that is curt and aloof, most of it to comic effect, but also revealing deep insights into the character’s lives and emotions. I spoke much about Kaurismäki before here, and why I felt his movies not only do the most with the least, but why his idiosyncratic style is difficult to absorb at face value and not as easily digestible as his Western European counterparts, but yet, behind the coy and jokey design his films are draped with, he is a filmmaker with immensely bold and important ideas.

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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

Much like another 2017 film, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless which uses a parent’s divorce and missing child as an allegory for life under Putin, Kaurismäki utilizes a refugee story and a businessman’s redemption to channel politics, economics, and culture within Finland.

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Khaled is a Syrian immigrant, whose first appearance in the film is at the opening series of shot, with him slowly peeking his head out from under a pile of coal and casually walking away, caked in soot. His journey to Finland was anything but clean, and in one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, he recounts the entire journey to a Finnish immigration officer. “I didn’t choose to come here” Khaled simply says at the end. He is looking for his sister who is the only family member left alive after a bomb massacred the rest of them in Aleppo. “ISIS, Kurds, Syrian government, USA, Russia, Hezbollah… it could have been anybody.” Many monster movies in Hollywood fashion the tagline “Whoever wins, we lose.” Khaled, and many other Syrians live that reality every day, and it’s not cool or exciting to watch. This is probably the most a Kaurismäki character has ever talked in one setting, but it indicates the importance Kaurismäki hold for the words of refugees, and for the director to break his style of undescriptive dialogue for this character, speaks volumes about his moral compass as a filmmaker.

While Khaled tries to find his footing with no money nor identification, the other central character in the film, a cold business investor named Wikstrom, who is recently divorced, buys up a restaurant and its staff with a large sum of money he won in high-stakes poker. He is incredibly savvy in the business world, and cutthroat as well. We realize from the beginning, after they arbitrarily come across each other on a deserted road in the first 10 minutes and promptly part ways without a word, that both Khaled and Wikstrom are destined to meet up once again. The dichotomy of these two characters is that between an established, wealthy national citizen and someone who has just arrived and is scraping by. They also represent the old and new visions of the director with Wikstrom’s restaurant venture providing the light-hearted brevity we have come from know and love of Kaurismäki’s cinema, while Khaled is the cipher for a new path of political commentary he is embarking upon.

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Wikstrom knows the lay of the land when it comes strictly to business, but he is not savvy to the political climate of the nation. When his workers ask for a high salary, he retorts they will get “union wages… whatever they are.” He is also easily duped by them in a hilarious sequence where the front-end host sweet-talks Wikstrom into a couple of extra Euros. He then steps out and signals to the other two employees a look which says “yeah, he’s a sucker” and the waitress promptly goes in to pinch a few easy bucks from him as well. Wikstrom’s uptight business attitude belies his vulnerabilities to dealing with people, and contributes to his complexity as a character and sets up for his encounter with Khaled.

That Wikstrom would find Khaled sleeping near the dumpsters outside his restaurant, get into a fist fight with him, and promptly offer him a job may be a naïve idealist dream, but it does make one thing clear, Kaurismäki refuses to brand people in his films as good or bad. In fact, the only characters in the film who end up being one-sidedly evil (because that’s the only factual and realistic way to portray them) are the Neo-Nazis who tussle with Khaled several times throughout the movie. In a comedic film, the presence of these figures feels like a jolt to the system. Kaurismäki’s inspiration here seems to come from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In that film, the Jewish barber is inherently a comedic character, but in one sequence, he is being lynched at a streetlight by Nazi sympathizers. It’s a terrifying scene because it is sandwiched between comedic hijinks. Even the event itself is poised as a “funny bit” with the Nazi’s not being able to tie the rope properly and Chaplin falling down and bonking one of them on the head. Kaurismäki recreates a similar mix of terror and comedy when the Nazis follow Khaled outside near an alley and attempt to pour gasoline on him and light him on fire when a homeless man smashes a beer bottle on one of their heads and sends him for a loop.

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Racism themes are treated in Hollywood with tear-jerking patronization and an ironic silencing of actual minority voices by posing it as a “both sides issue”. They are also hilariously considered brave and moving and are automatic awards hogs, like Martin McDonaugh’s disgustingly bad Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kaurismäkis is a welcome antidote to the trivialization of these important topics, and his ability to create moments of such great power and emotion, and an unmistakable clarity in right vs wrong, from unassuming and often detached characters and situations inherent in his style is what makes The Other Side of Hope a remarkable achievement and the must-see film of 2017.