Month: February 2014

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

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Some movies bend the rules or try to break them. This movie stretches them, squeezes them, then shapes them until it has formed its own set of narrative and visual rules. It is a film that could only be made in France, and even then, only by Michel Gondry. Of course it has cinematic antecedents of its own, almost all Gallic in origin as well; it feels at times that we are watching a three-way collaboration between the great talents of Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jacques Tati. All the same, it belongs to that unique cinematic niche Gondry occupies, one that fellow countryman Jean-Paul Jeunet, frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman and fellow acclaimed music video director and Kaufman cohort Spike Jonze inhabit as well, a distinctively modern cinema of the surreal. But Gondry bests all of them in his ability to take advantage of the full range of imaginative opportunities offered by contemporary cinema. He reminds me of the great Czech animator and director Karel Zeman in his ability and readiness to make use of as many available special effects techniques as possible, and to use them as imaginatively and creatively as he can. And Zeman himself was profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of George Melies, so once again, we return to France.

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Simply calling Mood Indigo a fantasy film is insufficient; whereas Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was seriocomic science fiction romance with fantasy trappings, Mood Indigo is a seriocomic romantic fantasy with science fiction trappings. Gondry’s film intersects genres and synthesizes them to the needs of its themes and storyline, creating a world of its own in the process. It exists in a universe with its own laws that seems to occupy the present day and obviously has a connection with the known historical past, but much of the imagery seems borrowed from the artwork of European science fiction magazines and comic books. Tiny robotic  doorbells scurry across floors, the police ride giant tank-like vehicles that resemble Imperial Snow Walkers designed by Robida, and lovers ride over the clouds in a Jetsons-like sky car manipulated by a crane. A TV chef personally crawls out of the screen to offer cooking lessons and the finished meals seem to be alive, the legs of dancers elongate like those of Reed Richards and they all float in the air in a crowded ballroom, and a mouse (actually an actor in a costume that seems to have been left over from a children’s TV show) that lives in a tiny simulacrum of the protagonist’s own home  behaves like a silent Greek chorus. These are but a few of the wonders that we witness in just the first half hour; the entire film is full of visual invention in every corner of each frame, and the effort put in by Gondry and his crew completely pays off. There is a tendency among modern viewers to grouse about the so-called lack of “realism” in special effects but what they really mean is that think that they should fulfill their expectations of what they consider to be realistic. Our expectations of realism are turned upside-down in Mood Indigo because we never know what to expect; it’s a universe where seemingly anything goes and there’s a new surprise in every scene.

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There is a plot, and I suppose I should discuss it as well. It is less in danger of being overwhelmed by the special effects than being overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of the exceptional cast Gondry has assembled. Romain Duris is Colin, a member of the discreetly charming bourgeoisie, living off a hefty inheritance in a spacious apartment that seems to have been rented from above Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His best friend is the intellectual Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a disciple of pop philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, although his closest confidante is Nicholas (the marvelous Omar Sy, fresh off his triumphant turn in Les Intouchables), his lawyer and live-in chef. Colin spends his idle hours tinkering, his latest invention being a cross between a piano and an automated bartender that mixes drinks according to the notes you play. Colin’s life seems to be perfect, but he finally realizes something is missing in it when Chick announces he is engaged to the lovely Alise (Aissa Maiga); he also needs love in his life as well. He finds it when Nicholas introduces him to the equally lovely Chloe (Audrey Tautou, as beguiling as she was in Amelie, but this time more mature and a touch more sophisticated). They are soon married, but on their honeymoon, the petal of a water lily wafts through an open window. Chloe inhales it, and soon, the flower starts to grow within her lung, imperiling her. Colin is forced to actually go to work for the first time in his life as her health care costs escalate, and he takes a variety of very odd jobs. And as Chloe’s health breaks down, so do the relationships between the various characters.

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Many in the audience where I first saw the film (at the Windsor International Film Festival) were disappointed with the way the film changed direction from the bright, giddy opening act to a more serious, but no less visually audacious middle before reaching a somber conclusion. It did not proceed in the direction that they thought it should, and I assume they would have wished that if, it had at least not retained the cheery ambiance of the first half hour, to have at least tried to revive it towards the end. I’m reminded of the classic Black Orpheus (which despite being made on location in Brazil and having all its dialogue spoken in Portuguese, was made by a French director and production company), which opens with the dazzling and colorful images of the Carnival in Rio, and ends in tragedy for all amidst the squalor and desolation of the “real” city. But there is reason to Gondry’s rhythm. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was about our memories of love, Mood Indigo is about our actual experience of it, and Gondry is not using cinematic tricks and special effects simply as an excuse to show off, but to visualize the actual feelings and emotional states of his characters as they proceed through the entire arc of their relationships. It makes sense that the movie opens in vibrant color, only to have it fade gradually as the running time elapses, much as love itself, no matter how intense or genuine, abates over time. Mood Indigo may take place in a surreal world of fantastic imagery, but it deals with genuine emotions and situations that are part of most people’s real-world lives to begin with. It is a movie about genuine love and commitment, both romantic and platonic, the prices we pay and the risks we take for it, and tragedy, pain and loss are all very much a part of the entire experience. Under these circumstances, I cannot blame my fellow audience members for not liking the outcome of the film; how often do our own romances and relationships manage to completely meet our expectations as well?

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As I said earlier, this is a movie that could only be made in France, and beyond what it has to say about human emotions, it has also something profound to say about French society. Even amidst all the special effects and set decorations imposed on it, the real Paris is always visible and right beneath it, and the film aims to strip social illusions about real life in the city and nation even as it generates visual ones. The true turning point of the film is not when the water lily enters Chloe’s lungs but at the wedding ceremony, when the minister (a hilarious turn by Vincent Rottiers) pompously and solemnly declares at the end of the vows “let us hope they live a life free of work and ill health” (or words to that effect). It is at that point we learn that the real world and its concerns are a part of this universe as well, and the characters will have to deal with them. It is difficult for me, as an outsider, to say exactly what political and social messages the film might be trying to convey, although I’ll do my best at interpreting them. It is tempting for me to say that it is criticizing a French society that has become so dependent on a social safety net that its members are at a loss when they need to find work, but it is more likely that it is critical of a mixed-model health care system that fails to intervene for its most vulnerable citizens, and that there can be no freedom in wealth without security. The depiction of the relationship between the three male leads also has social relevance. Although Colin regards Chick as his best friend, he should really regard the loyal and dutiful Nicholas as being such, especially as the movie progresses and Chick starts to become so obsessed with his favorite philosopher that he forgets he even has friends to begin with. Nicholas, meanwhile, never wavers in his concerns for his friends even when he becomes helpless in aiding them, literally aging years in one day from all his efforts. While some of the movie’s social commentary is open to debate, it is indisputable that the film is critical of the lack of gratitude the upper and middle classes have towards working people and public servants. Considering their efforts on their behalf, the very least they deserve is their friendship.

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I have not read the original novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based, so I cannot say if any social commentary in it has been carried over,  but Gondry has made the bold move of allowing the language of the novel to mold cinematic reality. It is an approach to cinema that very much recalls how French philosophes have approached the subject of language and social reality, and appropriately, both the French intelligentsia and the peculiar celebrity culture surrounding them also comes under critical examination. Although clearly the name “Jean-Sol Partre” is supposed to invoke Jean-Paul Sartre, as portrayed by Phillipe Torrenton, he more closely resembles a cyborg version of Michel Foucault, and his “philosophy” is little more than crackpot gibberish that nonetheless has a very hypnotic draw on his audiences, making him come off as a cross between Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek. As Richard Weaver reminded us, ideas have consequences, even if they make no sense, and the consequences result in tragedy not just for the philosopher’s adherents but the philosopher himself.

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Mood Indigo was my third-favorite film among those I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival (after Gabrielle and The Great Beauty), and hopefully, it will soon get the wide North American release it deserves. It will also hopefully be more representative of what Gondry has in store for us in the future than The Green Hornet, which will instead be remembered as a mere aberration in his career, his own personal 1941 or Land of the Pharaohs. With Mood Indigo, Gondry definitively establishes himself as one of our best and most imaginative directors, someone who combines style and substance to create a cinema that is distinctly his own.

 

Movie Review: The Double

Movie Review: The Double

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The doppelganger myth is a venerable one that has frequently surfaced in literature and occasionally in the movies. The most famous cinematic treatment was probably one of the earliest (if one excludes the many trick films that duplicated their actors), The Student of Prague, and the legend also provided Roger Moore with one of his better parts in little-seen sleeper The Man Who Haunted Himself. Surprisingly, the premise seems to have occurred more frequently on television, possibly because it lends itself to dramatic conflicts that are best resolved in the half-hour or hour long format. Most notable among them are two superb episodes of the Twilight Zone, “Mirror Image” and “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Curious Case of Mr. Pelham” and one of the better episodes of the revived Twilight Zone, “Shatterday,” adapted by Harlan Ellison from his outstanding short story and featuring a fine performance by Bruce Willis. The Double, written and directed by Richard Ayoade from a novella by Fyodyr Dostoyevsky, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, ably demonstrates that the inherent dramatic promise and conflicts in the doppelganger premise are well extendable to feature length, providing one of the best such cinematic treatments of the idea to date. Continue reading “Movie Review: The Double”

Misconceptions about the First 190,000 years of Human History/Paleo Lifestyle

Misconceptions about the First 190,000 years of Human History/Paleo Lifestyle


There are many people that base what they know of the first 190,000 years of human history on Hollywood movies about cavemen rather than any academic research. The reality is that anatomically modern humans lived a hunting and gathering lifestyle exclusively for almost 190,000 years. They did this, not because they were too stupid to invent agriculture or that they had no idea what animal husbandry was, they lived that lifestyle because it was easy. In fact it was so easy a “caveman could do it”.

Got your attention?

Hunters and gatherers did not invent agriculture because it was a better lifestyle. The fact is that agriculture is not optimal for human health and it certainly is not as easy as hunting and gathering. Agriculture has a host of health and social problems that come with it that are extremely negative and the majority of these problems have not been overcome until relatively recently. This begs a question…If farm living is so much harder why would anyone do it?  The answer is relatively simple, necessity. The first people who moved to the agricultural lifestyle did so because of ecological change, change in climate, and population pressures that occurred at the end of the last ice age.

There are myriad reasons why humans did not develop agriculture before or during the last ice-age, but for the most part the ready availability of prey animals and small population densities made agriculture less desirable. Around 12,000 years ago there was a perfect storm of change that forced humans to try something new. That something new was not inherently better than what had come before. The change in diet associated with agriculture probably led to thousands of early deaths and has led to centuries of gastrointestinal problems as human beings adapt to this new lifestyle.

But, but, but….you can’t possibly be suggesting we return to the lifestyle of hunting and gathering. No, that is not what I am saying. We could not return to that lifestyle even if the population wasn’t so large, or even if someone believed it was a good idea. The ecological factors that made it possible for people to subsist easily are no longer present. Vast herds of megafaunal prey animals no longer roam America and Europe and will not again in the near future. Secondly our technological society has finally begun to mature to a point where human beings are better off as agriculturalists than as hunters and gatherers.

This does not mean we can’t objectively look at the differences between the hunting and gathering lifestyle and the agricultural lifestyle so we can understand why humans chose each. There are several advantages to being a hunter and gatherer.


1) Medical- Medicine didn’t magically become better when people started living in villages in fact medical problems got much worse when we started living on top of each other. Diseases that were often avoided because of isolation suddenly became pandemic. To see this in action look at what happened in North America after Columbus. The Native Americans had arrived on this continent as hunters and gatherers in small isolated groups. The trip to North America acted as a natural bottle neck for disease. Very few diseases that infected humans were carried across. These band of hunters and gatherers were isolated from human disease vectors that had evolved in the old world. When these diseases were reintroduced they decimated the agricultural civilizations that had sprung up in North America. Without such killers as measles, chicken pox, even the common cold the population had never evolved resistance.

So, you have all those same injuries and illnesses that hunters and gatherers faced like hunger, broken limbs, etc plus more disease in agricultural society. This lasted until the early modern period and it was often exacerbated by a much larger population vying for fewer resources. Pray if you are ever dropped back in time before about 200 years ago. It is somewhere underpopulated.

2) Society- Contrary to pop culture the strongest person was not always “Boss Caveman”. I may need to remind you these hunter and gathering groups are simply extended or direct family groups consisting of father, mother, children, and grandchildren. Sometimes uncles,aunts  and their children as well. Thirty people is the normal size of these bands. They are not states they are not even really tribal. Bands and family groups. There are no rules, rulers, kings, or serfs and government hasn’t been invented yet. Just because movies tell you that UGH was beating his tribe into submission doesn’t mean that was the norm.
As for WAR?  What war? Can you call a fight between groups that max out at about 60 people a war? It is a conflict more akin to a family feud. Most Hunter and Gatherer groups, we have had the privilege to observe in the modern age don’t go to “War” they count coup of one kind or another. Sometimes they do kill somebody sometimes a people get hurt. That is the nature of being human. When compared to the horrors inflicted by agricultural societies?

I have had people call hunting and gathering societies communist utopias. They were not. They were neither Utopian nor were they communistic. In fact communism as we know it, in which individuals live communally for the welfare of the group, is an invention of agriculture. These hunting and gathering bands are the haven of  the original rugged individualist.

The major advantage to living in large groups for these early people was child rearing. Children survive with more regularity in a settled society. Score one for “It takes a village”.  As the population rises in these settled agricultural communities they soon exceed the normal number of people associated with hunting and gathering. You can support more people on less land with agriculture. Soon you have government and with government comes a type of power humans had never had over each other before. In a hunting and gathering society when the bands become too large and one group tried to dominate another they break apart and go their separate ways. This doesn’t happen for agriculturalists. They are tied to the land or they are dependent on specialized knowledge of others to survive. They can’t run away over the hill and survive without interference from the state.

Yes, we are better off today than 13,000 years ago but it took quite a bit of heartache to get here and we didn’t get here because agriculture was a better choice.

Saying that hunting and gathering is a better lifestyle choice than agriculture until the modern period is not Marxism projected backwards, if anything it is individualism projected backwards. Neither is it a “Noble Savage” fallacy. There is plenty of evidence that life was not always easy no matter which lifestyle you lived. Humans evolved to live a particular lifestyle. We lived in that lifestyle for tens of thousands of years and it was not lack of intelligence or imagination that kept us there it was simply easy…we all get in a rut sometimes.

 Some popular misconceptions about paleolithic man. 

1) Paleolithic Humans were prey for carnivores such as the cave lion, or the short faced bear. and lived in constant fear of their surroundings..false.
Human’s have been apex predators since before becoming anatomically modern. Large carnivores may have been able to kill the occasional human but archaeological remains suggest early humans hunted other carnivores much more often than they hunted humans.

2) Paleolithic Humans lived exclusively in caves…false. Caves were certainly utilized, but humans are very adaptable and probably lived in many different types of structures made from local materials.

3) Paleolithic humans were always dirty, hungry, and disease ridden…false. We dealt with disease above. As for being dirty we can’t really tell from the archaeological record, but we can surmise based on hunters and gatherers that have been studied. Bathing is a fact of life in most of these societies and cleanliness is often ritualized. As for hunger it really depends Archaeological evidence shows that many groups of hunters and gatherers went through periods of boom and bust from year to year, others are more constant in their nutritional intake. It almost always depends on the area in which the people lived and the abundance of food. Looking at skeletal remains of hunters and gatherers verses agriculturalists, hunters and gatherers are often in much better physical shape probably as a result of better diet (Hunters and gatherers actually work much less than agriculturalists so it isn’t from physical labor).

 

For more reading:

Mashall Sahlins’ study The Original Affluent Society goes into detail how hunter and gatherer societies functioned, http://www.primitivism.com/original-affluent.htm

http://www.academia.edu/416145/The_causes_and_scope_of_political_egalitarianism_during_the_Last_Glacial_a_multi-disciplinary_perspective

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.20334/abstract;jsessionid=C9F7CA5045C73D36D8813F2E5237FAB0.f02t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13590840310001619397

ooks.google.com/books?id=eTPULzP1MZAC&pg=PA120&dq=Gathering+and+Hominid+Adaptation&hl=en#v=onepage&q=Gathering%20and%20Hominid%20Adaptation&f=false

And if you want to see a writer go a bit too far with the Noble Savage idea:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201105/how-hunter-gatherers-maintained-their-egalitarian-ways