Friday, June 26, 2015


This is a quick bit I wrote about seeing SHUTTER in a theater upon initial release.  I hope to write more extensively about it in CRAZY ABOUT MOVIES.  The coherence or lack thereof of it all is relative.

                                    Of course, even before entering the theater, I knew that going to check out the latest J-horror film Shutter would involve putting up with fifty 10-14 year olds shrieking out fake screams of terror, making snide comments at the screen loud enough for everybody in the theater to hear, and texting and talking on their cell phones throughout the picture.  This is just an extension of school, or the mall, or a friend's basement.  The idea that the cinema could be a place housing art as important as any museum doesn't occur to kids this age.  Of course, it doesn't occur to most adults either, and in combing through about twenty online reviews of this film I see it doesn't even occur to many people who are paid  to write about the movies for a living.  Too bad; if most films are given a chance they certainly repay the effort.  Shutter definitely does.

                                    The film begins with the wedding reception of a young American fashion photographer, Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane (Rachel Taylor).  The shallowness of Ben's personality is telegraphed immediately, the very first time he speaks - he tells the wedding guests, "Thanks for coming, let's all eat some cake."  His character flaws are the linchpin on which the whole picture hangs, so this is important.  Immediately after the wedding and consummation the couple whisks off to Japan, where Ben has a gig,  for a combination of work and honeymoon.  While driving on an isolated country road at night Jane hits a young woman, but no trace of her can be found afterwards, even by police search teams.  In due course a strange white streak of light starts showing up in Ben's photographs.  His assistant suggests this looks like 'spirit photography' in which the spirits of the dead show up in photos, usually looking for revenge.  As it happens, the assistant's ex boyfriend runs a well known Japanese magazine devoted exclusively to this subject.  When Ben and Jane visit him he says the spirits that show up in these photos often do so because of'unrequited love', which will eventually turn out to be the case here.  The mysterious girl whom they hit on the road is Megumi, a translator with whom Ben had an affair on an earlier assignment in Japan.  He just wanted a fling, but she was looking for much more, and when he dumped her she  started stalking him. Ben's friends Bruno and Adam  - American expatriates who live in Japan - got involved. It all ended very tragically, and now her ghost is back for revenge. 

                                    Although this is allegedly a 'horror' film, that is a superficial classification.  There really isn't a single truly scary moment in the entire picture.  My personal opinion is that it is no longer possible for any film - not just this one - to scare audiences in the way that, say,Psycho could when it was a new type of cinematic experience.  So in order to have our cinematic hunger gratified we have to look for other things.

                                    I've always felt that the existing body of films from the past can provide us with a way to participate actively in a new film,and that is either through obvious direct visual quoting or through a scene that at least awakens a memory in us of a prior film, even if this is not the director's actual intention.  One example in Shutter : the characters see images in photographs of things that were not physically present in the time and place of the photograph.  This immediately conjures up the scenes in The Omen where the exact same phenomenon prophetically occurred.And, of course, the truth and/or falsity of what a camera can capture has been a cinematic peroccupation since Blow Up.  And an image that Kubrick played with in The Shining - that of  a woman who appears to be sexy and beautiful from the front but who is revealed in actuality to be a decomposing corpse when we see her from the back - shows up here as well.  And these are just three examples that I caught in just one viewing,in a theater with sixty screaming kids around me throwing popcorn.  And I don't think it really matters very much if the director (Masayuki Ochiai) has the specific intention of quoting or referring in this manner, or not.  If he does, fine; if he doesn't, it speaks to the power of the images in their own right and for their own sake.  And it jostles the viewer's imagination into making connections for itself.

                                    We hate to dabble in cliches, but as directed by Ochiai and photographed by Katsumi Yanagishima the poetry of the images is breathtaking.  Aerial views of both New York and Tokyo are outstanding (and the natural beauty of Mount Fuji too).  The visual style is very cool, very steely and detached, very ice blue in tone.  I mentioned Blow Up earlier, and I think the way the hipness of 1960s London was portrayed there is a very definite influence on the way a sort of international, boundaryless hipness of today - personified by the sensational Maya Hazen in female  mode and by the near brilliant James Kyson Lee in the masculine example - is done here.  Ochiai, like Michael Mann, has the gift of being able  to speak volumes of  exposition without dialogue.   As an example, Jane's jealous nature is communicated twice by facial expressions, reactions she makes to how Japanese women approach Ben, with crystal clear clarity without a single word being spoken.

                                    This film is really about things like, How much should you know about your spouse's background?  What is the nature of stalking?  Of taking justice into your own hands?  And finally it's about the blending of cultures into a true kind of internationalism.  Again, a lot of this is visual.  The Tokyo skyline could just as easily be the skyline of an American city.  The young Japanese professionals throughout all speak English and dress like Americans, just as Ben and his friends move easily and fluently through the Japanese language and customs.  Not overtly political at all, but definitely functioning in a manner as to indicate we're all going to be moving deeper and deeper into Global Village mode as the twenty first century advances.

                                    Shutter is pretty capable moviemaking.  Don't believe the (negative) hype.

COPYRIGHT 2015 by Peter Quinones, all rights reserved.  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Thomas Crown Affair

Some time over the next three years or so I hope to throw together a book of essays on some films and publish bits and pieces of those essays here; it's a slow process due to a busy life of denture problems, diabetic snooze-off issues, et cetera.  You know how it is.  Oh and my stuff is copyrighted, and my lawyers are junkyard dogs.

The Thomas Crown Affair is about identity, the self and personal freedom.  I know what you’re thinking – is it a mainstream, middlebrow selection of Hollywood made entertainment or is it an 800 page treatise by Derek Parfit?  The former, of course; and I know that a lot of people involved with the movies seem to think that, because they went to film school, they’re somehow qualified to delve into the deepest and most profound questions human beings face.  Be that as it may, I’m not here to explore this kind of issue; rather, I’m just pointing it out.  I have no ready answers.
In her great essay Notes on “Camp” Sontag quotes Genet (“the only criterion of an act is its elegance”) and Wilde (“in matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style”).  I have a tremendous amount of sympathy with this general point of view, which probably accounts for my enthusiastic appreciation of The Thomas Crown Affair.  This film – this delectable, gorgeous portion of fluffy nothing – eventually does show itself to have some substance under all of its magnificent style, however; the problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that it takes a lot of reflection to get to it.  I had to watch the film four or five times to understand Thomas Crown himself.

            Before we get to the heavy stuff, let me on a lighter note make mention of the fact that the film makes two contributions to a concept I’ll call the Hitchcockian Planfuck.  Here’s the first: Karl (Yaphet Kotto), one of the bank robbers on the team Thomas Crown has assembled, is unable to locate a usable pay phone, in a large bank of them, with which to call in to Crown for the last set of instructions before the heist.  Now, we know that in a Hitchcock picture this type of thing is going to contribute decisively to the overall sideways tilt of things – but not here!  Here we get a bit of slick semi comic relief.  When Karl finally slides into an available booth after sweating the situation out a bit, Thomas Crown calls him!  Yeah, sure.  A quick explanation is given – Crown, the master planner ever prepared, has the numbers of all the phones in the bank. Even accepting that, how does he know which booth Karl is sitting in?  How does he know which one to call?  There are no cameras. Already this is a clue to Crown’s godlike imperviousness to human frailty.  Hitchcock, consequences; Jewison, a temporary distraction, even an amusement.  (Notice: as Crown, in his office, speaks to Karl on the phone the camera looks down on him from above, an objective shot.)
            The second minor alarm Hitchcockian Planfuck occurs not long after, and it concerns Erwin, the getaway driver, played by Jack Weston (I beg your pardon to digress a moment – was there ever an actor more perfectly cast than Jack Weston is in this role?  Answer: No!)  He’s got all the pilfered loot in the getaway car (a Ford wagon with wood paneling on the side), heading off to the dropoff point, when, on a narrow street, he gets stuck behind a truck of eggs making a delivery – Minahan The Egg Man.  We hold our breath as he beeps the horn frantically and a cop on horseback comes along.  After a brief moment of “suspense”, Minahan moves his truck and Erwin is free to hit the Mass Pike, escaping with the dough as planned!  Mission accomplished - no interruption of Thomas Crown’s impeccably crafted plan here!  But Jewison has a neat trick up his sleeve awaiting.  As Erwin drives onward we ourselves assume the point of view of the driver in a car behind him, following him, with a prominently displayed hood ornament; said ornament is major in the end. 

            Initially I’d like to stay on things thematic and story related before addressing things cinematic and film related.  In that regard, then, one of the themes of The Thomas Crown Affair is freedom, but freedom of a very specific kind – the freedom that comes from money.  Crown has wealth beyond most people’s understanding – with the exception of lawbreaking he can do whatever he wants.  In fact, he made a life decision in the temporal zone before the fiction of the film – to disappear, vanish, wipe the slate of his identity and existence clean.  This knowledge doesn’t really come to us, the viewers, until we are well into the motion picture, and it takes place when he has a brief moment with his executive assistant, Sandy (Biff McGuire).  Even then what he has in mind isn’t perfectly clear.  Trustman’s script isn’t heavy on forthrightness.  Motives are murky.  If you’re like me you’re watching this film thinking What the hell is this guy doing?  Why is he staging bank robberies?  This movie makes no sense at all!  Crown’s persona is ice cold – he leads Vickie on, using her to foil the cops, manipulating her emotions – why?  The answer is that he falls in love with her, hard, but not quite hard enough. 
            This film is also about audacity – both on the part of the characters as well as that of the filmmakers.  Look at what we’re being fed – Vicky Anderson and Tommy Crown know how to play the Ruy Lopez, imagine that!

Excerpt from the essay “The Thomas Crown Affair”, copyright 2015 by Peter Quinones.  All rights reserved.