Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More Awful Places, Oilmen in High Places Kissing Ass, and More Bits and Pieces

Riffing off yesterday's post on Silent Hill and "awful places" cinema, allow me to direct the more cinematically adventurous of you to one of this coming weekend's WRIF (see Saturday post, below) presentation of Jem Cohen's first feature Chain (2004).

Now, this film will put most viewers -- addicted as most of us are to linear theatrical narrative confections -- right off. But to me, it's the latest example of an odd subgenre of science fiction I've been fascinated with which might be the next stage of evolution from cyberpunk: that is, sf which is not sf, set in our very real 21st Century, defined by a way of seeing our strange new world (nothing brave about it). It is also, in its deliberately narcotic manner, an adjunct to "the awful place" cinema, though these "awful places" are awful because of their suffocating banality, sterility, and utterly isolating benign malignance. Their toxicity isn't aggressive or active, and that is the most insidious aspect of their existence.

Chain profers the contemporary international corporate landscape -- the malls, office buildings, food courts, apartment complexes, etc. -- as one interminable, inescapable locale, which in its meditative manner compliments the more overtly hellish no-exit limbos of Silent Hill. Sans any melodramatic content whatsoever, Chain likewise follows two women lost in an undefinable, mercurial gerbil's maze (thanks to Jeff Nicholson for codifying that metaphor via his graphic novel Through the Habitrails, another seminal work in this odd genre). But unlike the nightmarescapes of Christopher Gans's film, Jem Cohen's cinematic nightmarescape is one we all move through daily, in some manner. Its familiarity is what will make the film tedious to many -- "what is going on? Why are we following these two women? When is something going to happen?" -- as the film requires us to steep ourselves, like teabags, in its uncanny rhythms and drift with these two unmoored souls through a world in which they at first seem at polar opposition, only to arrive at "somewhere" (not a place, but a state of being) quite similar.

It's another limbo movie, but the limbo, the 'in-between' of this odd new strain of sf, not the horror movie 'in-between' I was discussing yesterday.

If you allow yourself to slip into it, Chain becomes a strangely moving meditation on two women -- a homeless young runaway (Mira Billotte) and an upscale Japanese company woman (Miho Nikaido) -- cast adrift in what Cohen calls the “superlandscape”: the eerie ‘twilight zone’ of urban malls, corporate offices, fast food venues, theme parks and hotels. Narrative convention prompts us to expect the two women’s paths to cross, but Cohen is interested in something more realistic, eschewing any conventions of melodrama: these women are linked only by their ‘discarded’ status. By its very nature (whether whole, under construction, or in decay), the interminable homogenous landscape confounds any and all human interaction, but it does so by in almost indefinable ways, as the world indeed grinds down some of us.

Finding an abandoned video camera, homeless teen Mira Billotte records a digital diary letter, her eyes glowing pinpoints in the darkness of her temporary basement shelter (looking like a zombie or demon-possessed waif, as in the more overtly apocalyptic horror films of late); it is a video diary we are privvy to, but one she never completes or sends to anyone, a record for no one of her utter inertia. In apparently comfortable affluence, Miho Nikaido seems to be a well-heeled employee of an unnamed Japanese corporation, and as such quite the opposite in circumstances from Mira, but as the films unreels, we see she is utterly cut off from any genuine contact with her corporate employers, emailing her reports (on proposed theme park redevelopments of abandoned complexes) sans any response. The company woman aimlessly shops by day and listens to the sounds (voices, a television, late-night sex) from adjoining hotel rooms by night. At one point, she reflects that her job seems “like a dream,” an idle assessment that proves prescient as she slides (again without melodrama), effortlessly, from illusory affluence to unemployment, sans notice, contact, or confrontation (only an apparently innocent phone call from the front desk, asking if she's extending her stay and how she'll pay for it, tips us off, apparently before her new reality sinks in for her).

Now, this measured approach to narrative, however slight its inflections, is worth experiencing; this is, after all, closer to how most of us live our lives, experience our existence, tread water through our days. Dedicated in part to filmmaker and photographer Chris Marker -- who is still best known in the US for his seminal experimental sf short film La Jetee (1964), a key work in this sf subgenre (and eventual wellspring for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys) -- Cohen’s meditative tapestry of multiple international locales meld into a strangely seamless whole is very much of Marker's universe. Until the final credits, I had no idea the film had taken us literally around the world: Cohen proves her theorem by never revealing the points at which the "superscape" breaks, but rather by making those geographic points of separation invisible. In this, Cohen's conceit recalls not only Marker’s distinctive cinema, but extrapolates elements of Michelangelo Antonioni (specifically the final minutes of L’Eclisse/The Eclipse), Jean-Luc Godard (particularly Godard's unadorned 1960s Paris as the future dystopia of Alphaville), and others. For me, Cohen is expanding upon the fiction of J.G. Ballard, the way in which David Cronenberg has always used urban landscapes -- the sterile Canadian architectures of Stereo, Shivers/They Came From Within, The Brood, The Fly, etc., and most of all that perfect conjunction of the two sensibilities, Cronenberg's adaptation of Ballard's Crash (after all, isn't Cronenberg's Shivers a revamp of Ballard's High Rise?). The closest mainstream studio films have come thus far to Chain is Todd Haynes's brittle environmental 'soap opera' Safe, in which sunny suburban California proves to be a completely toxic environment for adrift Julianne Moore.

But Cohen’s film is unlike any other, and as such worth seeing. It indeed “transforms a mundane world into something strange and new... [with] formidable power [and a] fierce political intelligence,” (so said The Village Voice), and is “an uncategorizable hybrid of social critique, poetic essay and haunted travelogue” (London Daily Telegraph). Ah, but you see, it is categorizable: it's just that we don't have comfortable labels for the various modes of "awful place" cinema, and it's likely most will think me loopy for thus linking a major studio video-game based horror opus like Silent Hill with as dry, unconventional, non-aggressive and hypnotic a tonic as Chain.

But in their way, they are alike, and both lingered in my dreams.

They are tone poems of limbo, companions of our collective cinedreams, however far apart their dramaturgy is and their respective cartography of limbo may seem.

[If you're in the White River Jct. area, take a chance on Chain this weekend; all the info -- time of the showing, ticket price, etc. -- awaits you at
  • the WRIF Website.

  • ___

    HomeyM sent me the following, which was timely given the news I've been listening to of late and was aching to paraphrase here (now I don't have to -- thanks, M!). This from the AOL news service, via AP (we think):

    U.S. Should Consider Taxing Oil Firms, Senator Says

    WASHINGTON (April 23) - The government should consider a tax on oil companies if they make excessive profits amid rising gasoline prices, a leading Republican senator said Sunday.

    Last week, crude-oil prices hit record highs and average gasoline prices nationwide neared $3 a gallon. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said a windfall profits tax, along with measures to stem concentration of market power among a few select oil companies, could offer eventual relief to consumers hurting at the gas pump.

    "I believe that we have allowed too many companies to get together to reduce competition," Specter said. "They get together, reduce the supply of oil, and that drives up prices," he said. "In the short run, it's hard to deal with it for tomorrow. But I think windfall profits, eliminating the antitrust exemption, considering the excessive concentration of power are all items we ought to be addressing."

    Specter is backing legislation that would strengthen antitrust laws on oil company mergers after his committee held a hearing last month examining the growing consolidation of the oil industry. The nation's largest oil companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp., have denied their industry size has affected prices. Last week, crude-oil prices hit record highs and average gasoline prices nationwide neared $3 a gallon.

    Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he believes gas prices "would come down within a matter of days" if President Bush told oil companies that he was going to support a windfall profits tax.
    "But the president will not call the oil companies into his office because he's been too closely allied with those oil companies, and if he does it's going to be a window-dressing conversation,"
    [italics mine] said Levin, who appeared with Specter on CNN's Late Edition."
    04/23/06 13:41 EDT

    This came later in the day from USA Today:

    Updated: 10:49 AM EDT
    Senators Raise Idea of Taxing 'Obscene' Oil Profits

    By David Jackson, USA TODAY

    WASHINGTON (April 24) -- Congress should consider a tax on excessive oil company profits, two senators said Sunday, as gasoline prices in some cities have risen above $3 a gallon. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said on CNN's Late Edition that President Bush should call for a windfall profits tax on the oil companies' "extreme, obscene profits."

    Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., appearing on the same program, said a windfall profits tax is "something worth considering," as well as legislation targeting consolidation of oil companies. Nationally, the average price for a gallon of regular gas is $2.90, a 15.5% hike over the past month, according to the AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. A month ago, the auto club said, the average price was $2.51. Gasoline prices have become the latest problem for the president, who warned Americans on Saturday of "a tough summer" of expensive gasoline.
    Democrats made high gas prices the subject of their weekend radio address, as well as appearances on Sunday talk shows.

    "If $75 a barrel of oil and a $3 average for a gallon of gasoline isn't a wake-up call, then what will be?" said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

    Republican congressional leaders, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., plan to send Bush a letter Monday calling for a price-fixing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, according to Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean.

    Schumer wrote the FTC last week seeking a similar inquiry.
    Bush warned of even higher prices as vacation time approaches.
    Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a Washington-based political report, said there's little that politicians can do about gas prices. He called it a "symbolic issue," allowing politicians to side with the "little guy" (motorists) against the "big guy" (oil companies)."
    04/24/06 07:17 EDT

    Now, what's interesting here is the one candid comment that touches on the political reality -- Sen. Carl Levin's comment that Bush won't act "because he's been too closely allied with those oil companies, and if he does it's going to be a window-dressing conversation" (indeed!) -- vanished within a short period of time. Note no mention of the oil corp. CEO who made news this past week 'voting' himself a record-busting retirement package; it's obscene, and we all know it is.

    This is indeed a political dance we're seeing, all for nothing, that will come to nothing, because the corporate control of our government is so completely entrenched.

    Well, off to my weekly drive north, to White River Junction.

    Per usual, the gas prices will go up between the time I drive to The Center for Cartoon Studies this AM and come home tonight.

    If you're interested in what I'm up to locally, check out
  • The Marlboro High-Speed Internet Access Committee Site.
  • Wish us luck. We'll need it. A lot of work ahead...

    Local casting call for a short film:

    "WDP Films is looking for Actors for an upcoming short film to be shot
    in Brattleboro. Lots of Extras needed, Some speaking parts still available. Looking for All ages.

    Auditions will be held at Nimble Arts Studio in Cotton Mill Building
    Brattleboro, VT, 5pm - 7 pm, Friday April 28th; Please bring head shot and resume if you have one. Film shoots late May

    To schedule an audition time contact Bill 802-257-2223, or via wdpf@sover.net..."

    Just a heads up, primarily for those in the Brattleboro driving area!

    OK, off to breakfast with my son Dan, just home from a two-week jaunt to California. Should be a fun breakfast...