Closer (2004)

Dan: You act as if the heart were something simple. A diagram…

Larry: Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood!

“Closer” is one of the most brilliantly-written films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a film where the characters’ lives revolve around using sex to hurt each other, but aside from a rather humorous “conversation”… (I won’t spoil it) there isn’t a sex scene to be found in the film.

With perhaps the exception of Julia Roberts, the ensemble was cast very well. Here, next to seasoned character actors, the superstar’s acting comes off very hamfisted.

Each character has different ways of getting off. Dan (Jude Law) is self- deprecating, cynical and passive-agressive, “What’s so great about the truth? Try lying for a change. It’s the currency of the world.”

Anna (Roberts) is passively morose, When she says, “Don’t stop loving me. I can see it draining out of you. It meant nothing. If you love me, you’ll forgive me,” you feel either that Roberts’ heart is simply not in it, or that the Roberts’ idea of indifference is that it is entirely devoid of emotion. Indifference is an emotion, and when people feel it toward other people, they can’t help but give the impression that they are still human beings somewhere underneath. Here, there’s no human in her being.

Alice (Natalie Portman) is… well, we can never really be sure (nor, I think, can she), “Lying is the best thing a girl can do without taking her clothes off. But it’s more fun if you do.”

Dan tells her she is “disarming”. More importantly, and perhaps ominously, he tells her “disarming” is only a euphemism.

Larry (Clive Owen) is as gasoline poured on a fire. His tone is casual yet brutal, delivered with force, but he sounds indifferent to those into whom he leans, “Thank you, thank you for honesty. Now fuck off and die, you miserable old slag!”

Based on a four-person ensemble stage play, the four prinicipals rarely, if ever, interact with anyone else. Many films that rely on dialogue for exposition fail to engage, usually because the dialogue is poorly written. Bad dialogue tends to describe everything that is going on (as if the director has no clue how to tell it through action or visual metaphor). Well-written dialogue often exists perpendicular to the action, or, at least, as in this film, describes what the characters are thinking—not what they are doing.

This film deftly avoids the “all-in-one” plot and, instead, centers on a single element: the way in which Dan, Anna, Larry and Alice each use language to hurt each other. I say language instead of action, because we have none of the tired cliches of so-and-so catching their wife/girlfriend in bed with their best friend, etc. Life isn’t usually like that.

People often use language like a sword to cut others down and, in the process, they feel exhilarated.

The greatest power of this film is the way in which it utilizes implied action. Larry, questioning Anna, reconstructs a scene we never see—having sex on the couch with Dan. When Anna seems more depressed than guilty or excited about it, Larry seems, for a moment, disappointed that there aren’t more lurid details to satisfy his voyeuristic fascination.

The film is about masochistic voyeurism and the shallow nature of how these characters aren’t really in love with anything but their own depression.

Closer • Directed by Mike Nichols • Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language. • Released by Columbia Pictures • DVD distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Kôkaku kidôtai 2: Inosensu (2004)

Writer/director Mamoru Oshii creates a future where technology and nature collide in Go Fish Pictures’ GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE. Photo credit: ©2004, Go Fish Pictures.

In his review of Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, “8 1/2,” Roger Ebert wrote:

A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.

Mamoru Oshii has transcended the boundary of strict narrative. The conventional westerner will pay attention to the laborious, and at times detached, dialogue that is typical of sci-fi and noir. One might hear a line about dog food, and mistakenly think the characters are actually discussing dog food.

Visual and auditory metaphor, often lost on Western audiences, is choreographed as carefully in this film as it was in Fellini’s “8 1/2”. In one instant, you can actually find yourself counting the lines in the painstakingly animated woodgrain on a door sill. The pacing of the film gives you time to revel in these details that make this world believable in the same way that Isao Takahata’s attention to character in “Grave of the Fireflies” makes that world believable and, more importantly, a world to which we can connect, despite its idiosyncrasies.

I caution the viewer to regard “Ghost in the Shell 2” not as anime, but as pure cinema. In the way that Ebert discusses the power of cinema to explain things that can’t be explained in words. The average viewer might perceive the pseudointellectual asides as the center of the narrative thread, missing all the imagery. It’s easy to get fixated on the dialogue without realizing that, in a film so visually stunning, it is impossible for dialogue to be anything but superfluous. Kurosawa’s “Dreams” is a perfect example.

Consider the very essence of the message of the film: What is the nature of being? Shakespeare used class conflict as a stage on which to challenge the audience to think about the difference between seeming and being. There is a certain philosophical irony in the lifelessness in the eyes of the gynoids in a particularly heightened action sequence where one of them, I will not spoil why, attacks the others. Voices are heard from certain cyborgs, but the mouths do not move. Movements and moods are evolved directly from the painstakingly deliberate choreography of Japanese Kabuki and No theatre.

I don’t want to go into detail about the particulars of the plot. Again, in a film like this, plot exists almost exclusively to give the audience something to do in between zen moments that force you to just sit and contemplate—so rarely a priority in western culture.

There is one compelling attribute of the plot that involves distorting the line between reality and virtuality. This device is incorporated throughout the story in different ways, but I found one sequence particularly fascinating: Togusa and Batou find themselves in a déja vu moment bizarre enough to confuse Salvador Dali.

A woman sitting next to me noted that she found the CG animations very distracting. “Ghost in the Shell 2” conveys a message in multiple levels, and if you are distracted more by the dialogue than you are the visuals, perhaps the projectionist matched the audio track to the wrong film. If you are disappointed by the distraction of certain visuals, perhaps you haven’t considered that, possibly, distractions exist for a purpose…

This commentary was originally written following the US theatrical release of “Ghost in the Shell 2”, September 17, 2004.

Kôkaku kidôtai 2: Inosensu (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) • Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief language. • Released by Dreamworks SKG & Go Fish Pictures

American Psycho (2000)

Initially, I felt that the irony of Patrick Bateman’s existence made most sense if it were all in his head… but then I realized the greater irony, and the greater social statement, would be that he did do it and no one cared.

Granted, ATM machines don’t read “FEED ME A STRAY CAT”… so there’s always this possibility that some of his experiences are psychotic hallucinations.

However, satire generally bites most when it’s rooted in truth, even if it occasionally wanders off into surreality. The truth is that Bateman walks in social circles where, if he did actually kill these people, there are a variety of reasons no one in his circle would notice, or believe… much less care.

There’s a few hints of this… as when the attorney doesn’t believe him because he thinks the confession was a brilliant joke. When he realizes Bateman isn’t joking, he reacts in a way that suggests that he would prefer not to know any more.

When the realtors selling Paul Allen’s property behave in a manner that suggests they’ve covered up the incident to avoid negative publicity. Exclusive societies can be like that. Note how they insist that Bateman stop asking questions and leave.

Then, of course, there’s the recurring theme that the Vice Presidents, including Bateman, are constantly confused for one another… Roger Ebert observed it best:

It is their uneasy secret that they make enough money to afford to look important, but are not very important. One of the film’s running jokes is that Bateman looks so much like one of his colleagues (Jared Leto) that they are mistaken for each other. (Their faces aren’t really identical, but they occupy empty space in much the same way.)

It is, indeed, a film about the kind of men who project confidence but deep down are horribly insecure. Having designed business cards myself, the irony of the “card envy” that goes on between the VPs was immediately and hilariously apparent to me… Except for the font, the paper and the name, each card is identical in design to the next, and identical in cost. They all have the same title.

It begs the obvious question: How important can these “Vice Presidents” be if there are dozens of them, each one just young enough to suggest not one of them has had any prior professional experience to give substance to their title?

The title “Account Executive” immediately comes to mind. It looks nice on a business card. Occasionally, it makes a prospective client feel important. That’s about it.

It’s not that they can’t afford to have better cards. The very idea that one of them could think of something before the others is devastating to their individual egoes. More than anything else, they have a perverse fascination with the mechanics of posturing. Not once does it seem to occur to Bateman’s peers that, essentially, they and their business cards are all equally worthless.

As maniacal as Bateman seems, one has to marvel that he is constantly analysing the superficiality of his existence, which is to say that he’s more aware of it than any of the other Gordon Gekko wanna-bes. Bateman finally is confronted and crushed by that truth, at the end. It makes more sense, to me, that the murders are real and thus Bateman’s existence is meaningless… than for Bateman’s existence to be real and the film meaningless.

In a way, I’m reminded of the headstrong stupidity of Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Godard’s “Breathless”. He talks the talk, as many young adults do, without realizing the implications of his thoughts. It’s only incidental that he manages to kill someone and become as dangerous as he fashions himself to be.

In life, as in this film, “insanity” is a relative term. Every other VP at the firm thinks and talks like Bateman. That they haven’t applied their business philosophy in their personal life is all that differentiates their insanity from his.