Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Four Movies I Just Can't Watch

There are some movies that I just can't sit through, even if you paid me to. Granted, some of them I've already seen, but I'd sooner scrub a toilet than sit through them again. Unlike books, which are relatively easy to censor as a reader - just skip a few pages, skim the contents briefly - films demand that you sit through the entire scene, cringing or scanning your own lap or squeezing your eyes shut. Horror movies, for example. Can't stand them, let alone those belonging to the torture porn genre (why do people want to watch shit like that? The real world is fucked up enough that it doesn't need Human Centipede visuals). Neither am I a fan of gross-out comedies - there's something so viscerally unappealing about watching human beings wallow like animals in bodily fluids, and this is coming from someone who didn't bat an eyelid throughout the tampon scene in Catherine Breillat's Anatomie de l'enfer (2004).

Besides these too-obvious genres, there are several films that I can't watch/rewatch, even though I kind of want to. Kind of, but not really.

1. American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)

This one is pretty straightforward - that pivotal curb-stomp scene scarred me for life. Up until watching American History X I had remained blissfully unaware of this completely fucked up way of torturing/killing a human being. I think the reason why it's so particularly nasty is that it utilises our everyday environment in an unbelievably cruel and imaginative manner. And the human head is so fragile, and it has so many teeth, and the concrete is so unforgiving - OK, it's making me nauseous just thinking about it again. Stop.

It was billed as a film about skinheads, redemption and Edward Norton, so I wasn't expecting anything too graphic when I popped the VCD in (yes... a long time ago) and pressed play. I think the rest of the movie was pretty good and there were some funny moments in the making-friends-with-the-black-guy-while-in-prison subplot, but frankly I can't remember much of anything beyond that mind-searing, brutal scene. Ugh. Still feeling sick.

2. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)

This one is my parents' fault. When you have a sensitive, high-strung four or five year old who suffers from anxiety and abandonment issues, you might not want to screen a movie about a little boy being inadvertently left behind by his parents in the middle of WWII. He ends up struggling to survive, being exploited by an American asshole, almost dying of starvation and watching his one real friend get shot right in front of him. A great movie for kids.

I remember just being utterly destroyed by Empire of the Sun's gloomy scenes and the idea it introduced - children could be accidentally separated from their parents, and nobody would care! Thanks to Christian Bale's acting debut, I started having nightmares about being similarly abandoned, from which I would wake sobbing and dry heaving. My mother tried to comfort me after I recounted one of these dreams. Patting my back as I choked on my tears, she said, "We wouldn't leave you behind!"

 I replied, crying afresh, "You didn't want to, but you couldn't help it."

3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

This one annoys me, because I really want to see it, but the book was such a downer I'm not sure if I want to watch it play out in front of me. (Sidenote: wow, Scarlett Johansson is really everywhere! As long as she doesn't try singing again.) I read the book by Michel Faber and it was a page-turner for sure, but one that was pretty hard to stomach.

Some of the worst scenes involve the alien's scarred, mutilated body, the attempted rape (oops, spoiler) and the truly horrific scenes of obese, castrated, tongueless (I think?) men destined to be prime rib or whatever for rich aliens. The book really beats you over the head with the roles-reversed metaphor - yes, I get it, industrial meat-raising practices are bad and evil. But on top of the heavy-handed moralising, it adds a bleak ending that makes you go, I slogged all the way through these pages for this?

I've read that the movie is less graphic than the book - more atmospheric and arty, I suppose - but I'm not willing to risk it. Not even Jonathan Glazer can tempt me.

4. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

OK, I actually just watched this. It's so beautiful, I love the golden smog and Shanghai skyline settling gently over the LA exteriors, it's amazing that no blue was used throughout and the actors are all very good. Even the Arcade Fire managed to hold back on the annoying twee-ness and contributed a decent soundtrack. I can imagine film students of the future analysing Her to death and writing hundreds of pages just on the look of it alone. Loved that adorably foul-mouthed little alien, too. 

But I don't think I can make myself sit through it again, because listening to Theodore Twombly's monologues about his divorce and the mistakes he made with his wife was just too much. It was like listening in on someone's therapy through thin walls. Like so many online commentators have pointed out, Her comes across like it's Spike Jonze's belated response to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, a touted photograph of their marriage prior to breaking down. Not so cute anymore, huh?

If Her had been a he-said, she-said retort - something a little more mean-spirited, angrier - it would have been endurable, but the movie is a sincere apology, a melancholy acknowledgement of how 'we grew up together' and the utter loneliness of walking away from that connection. It's super uncomfortable to watch, especially when bloody Joaquin Phoenix goes all out to make it believable. I mean, I already believe it's true! Stop making me feel your pain, goddammit.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Caviar - The Good Times Are Over

I think barely anyone (except my old classmate Alan and me) remembers Caviar, a one-and-a-half hit wonder out of Chicago circa 2000. For a band that was all over Top 40 radio roughly fourteen years ago, it's pretty amazing that YouTube barely has any trace of their music.

I don't know how to classify them - Spandau Ballet moves to the midwest? ironic pop-rock leavened with sampling? - but really, who cares. They're lots of fun and they don't take themselves too seriously. Without any external aids my natural temperament pulls downwards to dark-blue morose, so when life gets too heavy it's nice to kick back and sing along to playful lines like "She's American as 3.1416/hand on my throttle/leave the city behind/there's not a lot in the bottle, not a lot on my mind". I love that, it always makes me smile. (OK, so it doesn't take a lot to amuse me - I've been known to crack myself up at work and double over laughing while my superior teenagers watch, bemused).

Wherever the individual members of Caviar are today, I hope they're taking life easy - riding in summertime cars with the top down, not a lot on their minds.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sunset for Sybarites

An evening storm brewing on Bang Niang beach in Khao Lak province, Thailand. One of the worst-hit districts during the 2004 tsunami, but you wouldn't know it today. Fell asleep every night to the crashing waves and woke up to the light patter of raindrops on the villa's pool. The Casa de La Flora was all white walls, natural wood, open spaces and clean lines - a Modernist vision set against the wild Andaman Sea and sky. Horrifically expensive, except now in the off-season. But worth it.