1 February 2012

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On A Search For Relevance: Unique Films Of 2011 That Struck A Nerve

Part of being a master of a craft is the ability to evolve in a way that your work reflects on your era and is relatable to your peers, while also being original enough to be thought of as refreshing.  Notably, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog threw curve balls with their unexpected 3-D releases.  This may well be a sign that 3-D is the way to go, and these two classic directors decided to take the plunge rather than looking on the additional dimension like a grandparent looks on new music.  Both Hugo and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are certainly worthwhile films, though neither really brought anything new to the table. If anything, Hugo, much like The Artist, dwelled in the glory of the past, while Herzog stuck to his standard documentary method.  There were, however, a few movies from 2011 that struck nerves in the contemporary audience, and this list regards three of those films that have done just that.

Midnight in Paris
One of Hollywood’s most standout directors, Woody Allen, never ceases to impress his audiences.  Undoubtedly, Woody proved that he was in tune with his time with many of his early comedies, and he certainly showed that he was ahead of his time with his 1973 hit Sleeper.  In his later career, he proved that he is capable of much more than just witty humor and clever stories with his 2005 dramatic-masterpiece Match Point.  Well, in 2011, the nebbish director pulled out something completely unique; a film that appealed to audiences of every age, Midnight in Paris.  It’s the story of a contemporary American writer visiting Paris with his fiancé, who has the bizarre fortune of traveling back in time to the 1920’s where he meets his literary and artistic muses.  The writer, played by Owen Wilson, seeks approval from his master-predecessors, asking them to read his work and help him to improve.

Midnight in Paris could not have come at a better time, right in the midst of an overwhelming craze in contemporary pop-culture that music-writer Simon Reynolds coined and named his book after, Retromania.  With many youths adopting their style and taste from 20th century generations, Woody Allen recognized the social obsession with the past and nostalgia, so he wrote a movie about it, with a subtle, but direct message: “live in your own time.”  The film is conceptually reminiscent to the part in Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams where an amateur artist meets Vincent Van Gogh, who explains that he is compelled to paint by the world around him.  Ultimately, Owen Wilson’s character decides to return to his own time with the realization that everyone has those people from the past who inspire them, and we all dream of living in their time and attaining their approval.  However, those renowned artists did not become great by wishing they could impress their idols, but by showing their peers something special about the world they currently live in, and Woody – you did one hell of a job doing that, so thank you.

The Skin I Live In
For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Pedro Almodóvar is a different kind of filmmaker - his own kind.  The Skin I Live In is an elusive tale woven together in a bizarre pattern that unravels a mystery, rather than delivering a straightforward narrative.  Rest assured that nothing about this film is straightforward.  The relationships stand in for the meaning behind power relations, the understanding of which may take years to digest.  To put it as plainly as possible, a plastic surgeon’s wife leaves him for his crazy brother.  The brother and the wife are in an accident that leaves the wife deformed, a state which she can’t bear to live in, so she kills herself in front of her daughter, who, as a result, develops agoraphobia.  After an attempted rape by a boy, Vincent, the surgeon’s daughter later commits suicide.  The surgeon seeks out Vincent, and physically transforms Vincent into a woman who completely resembles his former wife.  The surgeon keeps Vincent locked up in a room until he comes to accept that he has become a woman.  When the surgeon’s brother comes to visit, he finds Vincent and has sex with him, thinking that he is actually the woman he once ran away with, but the surgeon comes home and shoots his brother to death.  Vincent plays the role of the loving wife for the surgeon to gain his trust, and finally kills the surgeon and returns home to his mother and lesbian co-worker – who, prior to his kidnapping, was his crush.

What does any of this mean? Good question.  Aside from a mash-up of themes that could, independently, be used as the plot for several novels or feature films, it is really impossible to say that there is one specific thing that ties all these themes together, except for possibly the madness of the human psyche.  In some ways, The Skin I Live In is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but with a different sort of message. As is the case in the novel, Dr. Frankenstein is really the monster because he tampers with life and death, and he disrupts the will of nature, not for any greater reason than his own obsession.  Similarly, the surgeon is the monster of this story.  Where the message departs from that of Frankenstein is the surgeon’s obsession.  The surgeon uses the boy to excuse his actions, since he nearly raped his daughter, so he confidently proceeds with his demented plan.  But what makes this surgeon shallow is that he tries to make his wife out of a man, and despite being able to make Vincent look exactly like his wife, it is still Vincent.  If there is any clear message in this films, it seems to be this: the monster’s fuel is an obsession with outer beauty – and what better metaphorical character to call a monster than a plastic surgeon?

Being hailed as a different kind of action movie, some people were upset that Drive was not more like The Fast and the Furious, but for the most part, audiences were extremely pleased with the dramatic neo-noir film.  Drive won Nicolas Winding Refn the best director award at the 2011 Cannes film festival.  A master of aesthetic, Refn completely consumes his audience with his stylized images and dramatic use of lighting.  With the opening sequence of the film being among the greatest action-thriller introductions in film history, Drive takes a dramatic turn after credits roll.  The subject of the film becomes the insecure attraction between the driver, Ryan Gosling, and his apartment neighbor.  Rather than using cheesy dialogue to convey very little, Refn strips away the dialogue and leaves the audience to bake in the longing that Gosling and his female co-star, Cary Mulligan, feel.

Where Drive really makes its statement about the times is in its utterly hypnotic soundtrack.  Considering Refn’s previous work, it is not surprising that the music was a quintessential part of the film’s aesthetic, as it was in his 2008 film about Britain’s notorious prisoner, Bronson.  Being a European filmmaker, not without Asian-cinema influences, Refn implements mythological elements into his films.  In Drive, Gosling alludes to the tale of the scorpion and the frog who agree to work together to cross a river, but despite the suicidal consequence, the scorpion cannot resist stinging the frog, for it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting.  The relevance of the myth is to show the futility of a crime boss’s hopes for a legitimate business pursuit.  Supplying the funds to support the development of Gosling’s career as a commercial racecar driver, Albert Brooks, who plays the mob boss, Bernie Rose, finds that he has to turn his back on the project due to the driver’s involvement in one of Bernie’s mob schemes, and as the story goes, the crook cannot fight his nature. Ultimately he must sting, plummeting our hero into a frightening and gruesome fight for his own life and the lives of his dream-girl and her son.  Aside from the glorious aesthetic of this film, it also promotes the support of well-made action movies with earnest plot, themes, and characters.

Be sure to catch these classics of 2011, and if you’ve got a blank DVD lying around, pop it in and press record so you can watch these movies again and show them to your friends.

About today's Guest Writer:
Rhys Raiskin studied anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, and he is currently living in Los Angeles, working in the film and music industries and occasionally contributing articles to the Internet. Follow him at @rhys_on.

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