Sunday, May 27, 2007

Four and Twenty Black Birds

Warning: Extreme Spoilers Throughout (but its an old movie so I don't feel bad)

Just as Mother Goose coated her children’s poems about death, poverty and child abuse in a saccharin sweet display of colorful language and rhyme, Tarsem Singh painted The Cell in the colors of fantasy. But fantasy this story is not, nor is it science fiction. It is, in a poetic medium, a telling of personal battles and the realization of obsession, good and ill. Tarsem shows, through a thickly painted canvas of visual luster, how any obsession can put one at risk to lose their sanity. It is defined only by circumstance and environment who shall prevail, and who shall fall prey to madness. It is this method that many authors have used in the past to make their strong statements easier to digest and easily ignored by those who wish not to digest them at all. In the end Tarsem states quite firmly, ‘nothing risked, nothing gained.’

Although the film is filled with visual symbolism, the most powerful images are not necessarily the most poignant. Many who have viewed the movie easily can recount the segmented horse, trapped in a glass guillotine though still breathing. However, many of these “in-your-face” shockers are presented in a manner intended to shock the audience, to leave a residual image which begins the thought process with a healthy "what the fuck does that mean?". It is Singh’s way of introducing you to a world that operates on entirely different rules than that which we are used to. It is not unlike the Wachowski brother’s use of the “Bullet Time” to show you in the first several minutes of the film, The Matrix that, in their world, time bends and distorts at the will of those who would command it- and "it looks really cool." The most prevalent symbols in The Cell, however, tie the world together, linking it all to the torture of a small boy Carl Stargher. Some are obvious, like the consistent use of water, and others are subtler, like Singh’s use of color and the birds.

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” -Shakespeare, Macbeth (II, ii, 59)

Water is often used as a literary and, in film, visual tool to signify cleansing. The metaphor in The Cell is not much different. For the character of Carl Stargher, water represents not only that which cleanses him, but those things that bring him pleasure and pain. Suffering from Waylon’s Infraction, a rare (and imagined) form of schizophrenia that eventually places the patient into an irreversible coma, Carl’s seizures are triggered by water. Catherine, the psychiatrist working on his case, points out the irony that most schizophrenics are calmed by water. They like the feeling of weightlessness, which is accurate to the condition.

The film is filled to the brim with aquatic visuals. We are presented with the most obvious, the cell itself, where Carl drowns his victims after 48 hours of wet/dry torture. She is then left in a scant three inches of water, a symbolic representation of his wanting to be cleansed, although no longer feeling that he can be totally clean. His next victim is first seen by the audience sitting beside a fountain. Carl’s schizophrenia was triggered during his baptism when his abusive father held him under the river water far too long, almost drowning him, and by no miscalculation. When we enter into Stargher’s world via the psychological contraption presented by Catherine’s research team, we land with the doctor in a sewer puddle, finding later large pools with walk ways. Even the FBI agent Peter Novak who is in charge of finding the missing girl, enters Stargher’s world falling headlong into a puddle in the dirt of an empty farm field. Visual references are made to floating in water, although Catherine is actually floating in air. Carl Stargher’s car is even described as being ‘Aqua Marine.’

In the end of the film, Catherine listens as Carl confesses to drowning a bird when he was a child to save it from his father, who he was sure would kill it anyway. The climax of the film jumps back and forth between Catherine ‘freeing’ Carl Stargher from his mental prison by drowning him in a pool, and Peter Novak freeing the final victim from the water filled Cell. This stark juxtaposition strongly illustrates the author's and director's ideal that torture is no greater or lesser be it mental or physical, that Carl was as much a prisoner of his own pain as the girl was of Carl's machinations.

Carl’s confession by the pool in what the director came to call “Light World”, or Catherine’s world, was not the first of this kind in the film. At an earlier junction Peter in a back door manner confesses his obsession with his job to Catherine, indicating that he, like Stargher was once terribly abused. The only other reference made to this confession is an easily missed line later in the film. While in Stargher’s world, Catherine becomes “lost” and Peter enters the killer’s mind to help her find her way out. In an attempt to delay and seduce Peter, Catherine whispers, “Did Daddy hurt you?” This serves as the only confirmation of Peter’s innuendo earlier in the film. The studio's decision to cut the more detailed scenes which made this information more evident and emphasized its relevance, I feel was a grave mistake, as they illustrated how quickly and easily Peter was lost to his own inner turmoil showing that while he sets himself apart from Carl in a righteous manner, the final admission that he and Carl are both ultimately human is undeniably important. Although Peter is an excellent agent, he is a closed off person and it is this breaking down of superficial walls between good and evil which allow him by the end to be more reachable and touchable, so that ultimately, he too is freed.

A minor use of the pain aspect of the water symbolism is Catherine’s first patient in the film, Mr. E, a young boy who witnesses seals being killed on a beach while boating with his father. The trauma of the event is enough to propel him into a coma. Enter Catherine. Her primary goal with Edward (Mr. E) through the small encounters we, the audience, have with him is to encourage him to go sailing with her. The watery adventure will serve as a cleansing for the boy and help him to break through the fears that he has been so tragically paralyzed by.

“Blue is true
Yellow’s Jealous>
Green’s forsaken
Red is Brazen
White is Love
And Black is death.”–anonymous

Singh uses colors to express the emotions of the film as skillfully as Van Gogh painted 'Starry Night'. The above poem is not far off from the meanings of Singh’s colors. Blue does represent truth, justice and protection. Yellow is fear, jealousy, hidden emotions. The combination of red, white and blue are meant to be innocence. White and brown together are healing. Black, red and gold represent power. White, however, is the key color in the film. It comes to mean several different things when standing on its own. Anonymity is one meaning, cleansing and healing another. It means power and strength. When we first see Catherine, she is in the desert of Mr. E’s mind dressed in a white gown bedecked with feathers. Her second pilgrimage to Mr. E also has her dressed in white indicating that she is there as a caring friend and a healing doctor. Throughout the film white also shows vulnerability. 

In Stargher’s world, Carl, (the boy manifestation of the man) is dressed in a red and white shirt and blue jeans, the innocent side of Carl Stargher. Later, when we, along with Catherine, witness the abuse first hand, he wears a green and white shirt signifying that he is vulnerable and feels forsaken, or denied of love. Catherine is almost never dressed in anything but white, brown and shades of grey and blue. She is the nurturing character, representing healing, love, and truth. She altars from this only when she is pulled deep into Stargher’s world and allows herself to lose control of the situation.

At this point in the film he dresses her in red and black. By taking her out of her white clothing, he separates her from his victims who he bleaches until they are white like porcelain dolls. He shows that he feels a form of power that she exerts over him. For a time during the climax, Catherine is even dressed in a black, red and gold warrior costume as she inflicts upon Stargher Christ like wounds with a cross bow and her sword. But she does not prevail here. In fact, she cannot bring herself to kill Stargher this way. She instead reverts to the Red and white gown of the Madonna, a Virgin Mary-like figure, to ease Carl’s pain. The red indicates, in this instance, the power that Catherine feels in her self, by not becoming like Stargher. The white of the gown showing her love for the boy within Carl, showing that she does care and that she does wish to heal the pain that he has suffered. All of this is a message that Carl needed to hear, and the kind of person that Carl Stargher had been missing in his life since his birth.

It is no accident, either that all of the police ‘suits’ are dressed in shades of blue and grey with the exception of Peter Novak, who, until the final scenes of the film, is continually dressed in Brown and yellow, with only a white undershirt hidden beneath. Peter Novak’s character is driven by an obsession to save. He cares nothing for anyone else in the film but the salvation of Carl’s last victim. In truth, what Peter is trying to save is himself. He is acting out the hero that he did not have as a child when suffering his own abuse, and trying to save himself from the insanity of thinking that one of his cases as a DA did not die because of him, that it was not his fault. He confesses most of this to Catherine by the fountain, though the realization of his own salvation does not come until much later when he sees Catherine as something greater than just a child psychiatrist. Because she helps him to do what no one else willing does, which is find the girl.

There is a deleted scene that can only be viewed on the DVD. In that scene Peter talks with his partner Ramsey who relays to him that they got the bad guy, and he can’t kill anyone else, ever. He feels that this is enough heroism for them and wants to go home and kiss his wife and feel like he did a good job. The scene was deleted for time constraint and pacing reasons, but should have been left in to show Peter’s obsession. Getting the bad guys is not enough, he must save the victim as well. Catherine helps him do this, and by doing that helps Peter to heal inside. The evidence of his personal healing is seen in the final scene with Peter. He is wearing a white shirt and blue pants, showing that he has made a transition into a healthier person from one who needs healing and is in a sense jealous of the other police for their ability to be apathetic, and jealous of Catherine’s ability to care.

“Birds of a Feather will flock together.” – Minsheu

A simple proverb that we all learn as children, Minsheu’s bit of wisdom fuels the character relations of the film. Bird’s become a solid metaphor when Carl tells Catherine of the bird he rescued as a child. It was injured and he wanted to save it. It is quite obvious through the display of Carl’s childhood trauma, that he too is injured. He suffers from a crippling inability to function within society on several levels. We are introduced to Peter’s character early on, as he confesses his personal trauma within the first fifteen minutes of connecting with Catherine on film. His injury too needs healing. Catherine, however, does not serve as only doctor and confidante. It comes out later in the field as Peter is trying to coax her out of Stargher’s world, where she has become lost, that Catherine’s brother was in a coma for several months before finally dying. It is revealed that Catherine too needs healing, that she seeks her own salvation in the ability to coax others to health, especially coma patients. Not to be overlooked, however is the point that all three characters feel that they were unable to save someone, be it a wounded bird, a kidnapped girl, or a sick brother.

Birds appear throughout the film. A seagull leads Catherine to Mr. E. A vulture accompanies Stargher as he tortures Peter Novak. Three humanesque birds, mouths open to beg for nourishment serve as a guide deeper into Stargher's mind. Catherine’s world has a pure white peacock. Darker references to birds are made as well. Stargher’s mother is portrayed with a similarity to a black bird. Carl’s basement is filled with dolls, some of which have bird’s skulls for heads. Stargher’s more terrifying manifestations are marked with a spread wing bird on his forehead made from scales, rhinestones, or scab-like skin. Catherine, too, as mentioned earlier, dresses in a white gown the bodice of which is made of feathers.

By bringing the character’s mutual weaknesses to light, Singh makes their common traits more notable. Each has an obsession in some form, and until they can bring that obsession to rest, none of the three can truly be healed. Peter Novak’s obsession to be saved vicariously through those he saves, and Catherine’s need to do the same parallel Carl Stargher’s need to be saved from his own haunting childhood trauma and from himself.

So much more could be stated in regard to the layers upon layers of visual symbolism that Tansem Singh so expertly painted upon celluloid, but to do so would takes many more pages. The three main symbols, the water, the colors and the birds, are visual feasts of pain, healing and mutual understanding. They serve as Singh’s map, a form of yellow brick road to lead the audience to the understanding of his misunderstood villain, Carl Stargher. He does not at any point condone Stargher’s actions, but does through illustration make us see how a man could come to a point of doing the things that he had done. While each character suffers in their own way and chose their own path, we find that they are not too different. Peter, Catherine and Carl are all seeking someone who will listen, love and respond to them in some way. Tarsem Singh, although highly criticized upon the film’s release for creating a feature length music video, understands better than most directors the need for extreme lighting, visualization and characterization to prove a very unpalatable point.

Added Notation(explained in footnote):

The horse is a very poignant symbol within the story as well. It represents guidance. Catherine rides a horse which takes her to Mr. E in the beginning. The live horse then becomes a chess piece or a statuette. This reference to chess, in which the Knight (most often denoted as a horse) has a limited range of movement, and of course, only one turn at a time. The solidity of that horse then indicates that Catherine has come as far as she will be allowed by Mr. E. Her turn is over.

Later the horse trapped in Stargher's clock-room shows an acknowledgement on Carl's part, if only on this subconscious level that Catherine has only so much time to "dissect" him. That the horse is still alive while dissected is a creative allegory for exactly what Catherine is doing...taking him apart while he still lives. The forcefulness with which the dissection takes place and young Carl's need to save Catherine from the glass blades is an indication of the danger she is facing in doing this, and a comment on the invasiveness of her presence and intentions.

This essay is admittedly a few years old. I was reminded of it by a recent conversation and posted it to direct that person to a more articulated explanation of some of my points regarding this film. The notes regarding the symbolism of the horses were added to help flesh out the conversation which was recently held.

I hope I have not bored too many of you.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Money Never Sleeps

"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit." -Gordon Gekko, Wall Street, 1987

The irony that this statement should be written into a film which is now being optioned for a sequel is so overwelming that I must roll giddily upon the floor with maniacal laughter. No, truly...I must. The idea that a film made twenty years ago, which won 7 of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and was written and co-directed by Hollywood's most reputed cynic should now be picked up to be made a sequel is, quite truly, the living breath of that very quote. Oliver Stone completed his story. There was nothing of any importance left to say of Gordon Gekko at the end of the film Wall Street...indeed, by the end, who should care? The figure of Gordon Gekko was, and to this day remains, a disgusting reflection of the financial gluttons that pervade our society breeding like maggots in the carcasses of the poorly invested and trusting--or as Gordon would claim, gullible.

Savor, for a moment, the ironic title of the sequel as well: Money Never Sleeps. Indeed, twenty years certainly seems to speak to the unweariness of the All-Mighty Buck.

Only a power five company like 20th Century Fox would agree to a film that not only will see a man sentenced to over 25 yrs in prison, freed (perhaps on good behavior?) but would then make a sequel which poses him as the story's protagonist. Yes. Hurray, Capitalism. What greater hero can a company like theirs have? Gordon Gekko certainly declares what should be their motto, as they've proven it to be already: “I create nothing. I own.”

How true.

This realization of Oliver Stone's own commentary is neither written or directed by Stone, nor will it be. In fact,other than producer Ed Pressman, the only person with ties to the original who seems to be returning is Michael Douglass to portray the money-monger Gordon Gekko once more. The script this time is slotted to be hashed out by Stephen Schiff, writer of True Crime (1999), The Deep End of the Ocean (1999), and 1997's Lolita with Jeremy Irons. All three films are, in my opinion, on the low end of good, just above mediocre. Even their headlining stars only elevated them so far. Argue if you like. Point out their award nominations and wins. You won't change my opinion. Kim Basinger won an Oscar for wearing a fancy dress and staring vapidly. I'm sure that took considerable acting skill. A History of Violence took home 26 wins out of 27 nominations (2 of which were Oscars) and in my opinion it is the worst film that Viggo Mortenson AND Ed Harris ever did. A pitfall in their careers. Taking "Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III " and "Milk Money" into account, respectively, that says a lot. They were what they were and made no pretenses otherwise. Yet it must then also be stated that I am not working in the film industry, so I feel no need to kiss anyone's ass to sing the glories of a redundant and trite script, therefore "What do I know?" I know that William Hurt has quite an absurd view of Philadelphians, granted he had the only amusing line of the film as well.

Why make the effort to gripe over an inevitable sequel? The pure audacity of it, that's why. That the DISTRIBUTER of the film would think they have any right to claim that the CREATORS of the film didn't finish the story, that we as an audience would even CARE to see more. It is, in essense, an absolute demonstration of greed. At least when an audience sees Jerry Bruckheimer's name on something they a) expect nothing less than a testosterone driven, explosion laden, two hour chase scene littered with absurd sexual references and b) at least one sequel. He doesn't sell his films as anything but what they are, the saturday matinee schlock entertainment that sells toys and offers up a date film for high schoolers.

I must...must point out that while Wall Street has become a film classic in the past twenty years, it was released to only mild approval and in comparison to the mega-million dollar blockbusters that 20th Century Fox is now accustomed, it was fairly meager in earnings. However, wouldn't a 20th anniversary DVD release be a better way to earn more dough off the film, rather than tarnishing its integrity by adding a sequel? The chances of having the "success" of "2010" is limited, and honestly...who watches "2010"? The pioneer film "2001:Space Odessey" is still everyone's favorite. Didn't "Aliens" 3 and 4 prove that enough is enough? Even the second was hemmed and hawed at before its release. Need I say more than "Matrix" 2 and 3?? Do not most people roll their eyes at the very mention that "a sequel is in the works"? And yet the studios keep making them...and like lemmings we keep going to see tired gimmicks recycled from the first film and to inevitabley exit the theatre saying "it was good, but the first one was better." To serialize an action series is one thing, but a drama?

Put this in perspective: Would films like "Citizen Kane", "Sunset Blvd.", "Taxi Driver", or "The Shawshank Redemption" benefit in any way from a sequel? The studio's excuse is to claim that Gordon Gekko isn't dead, just in jail. Well each one of these films has a main or supporting character who isn't dead yet and could also be the subject of some stretch of the imagination. How lively it would be to see a thirty years aged Travis Bickle, American Hero reunited with his trick-lovely girl-child obsession, Jodi Foster. The very idea makes one's skin crawl with the lack of originality and creativity which studios like 20th Century Fox are slowly sucking out of the mainstream Film Industry faster than a starved anemic vampire.

In true Hollywood fashion, the sequel will not even offer up any semblence of moral growth and story development. In fact, not only will they continue to glorify Greed as an acceptable attribute, they will do little to altar their anti-hero beyond age. Even Douglass, who seems to be in on the ground floor of this cinematic abhoration was quoted by the NY Times as saying, “I don’t think he’s much different. He’s just had more time to think about what to do.”

Even to set aside the obviously Capitalism driven motives for the production, as an artist and writer I must protest the very nature of this "continuation." Any story must have purpose behind it and if there is no development of the characters- especially the focal figure- then it results in a story flatter than an unrolled crepe. Even Spiderman has developed as a character over the course of his epic three film series - and this is a comic book hero translated to celluloid! If Stephen Schiff, 20th Century Fox, and Michael Douglass can offer us no better than a repeat of Gordon's predatory greed, then as Gordon said: "It's all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation."

And once again the words of Carl Fox (played by Martin Sheen) will ring as truly wise advise: "Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others."

Business is the purchase and sale of goods or services with intent to make a profit. With an annual revenue upwards of $24Billion USD, I think it is a safe assumption to make that 20th Century Fox (and its Mother company News Corp) is hardly floundering as a corporation. Money Never Sleeps shows no sign of being made for its artistic merit or value, making it the sister-whore to a conversely high quality film. Money never sleeps, but Fox...I think its better to let this one rest.

Friday, May 4, 2007


Saturday, April 28, 2007 at 10:15
Hungarian police investigate kitten murder in film
Budapest (dpa) - Hungarian police are investigating a film director after an animal-protection charity reported him for drowning a kitten in a scene from a recent prize-winning film.

The Herman Otto Animal and Nature Defence Association reported Zoltan Toepler after he admitted that a kitten really died in the scene from his film "Alszent" ("Hypocrite").

A statement by the association said the animal had been killed with the greatest possible suffering to achieve "the desired effect," and called this a serious crime against society.

The association said that according to Hungarian law, animals could only be killed for acceptable reasons, such as incurable illnesses and academic research.

It also pointed out that animals could only be killed by drugs, as this caused the least suffering.

Toepler released a statement in response to hate mail, including death threats, he received after the complaint came to light.

The director said that while the animal had been killed, he had received the footage from an outside source.

"I didn't drown the kitten, but when a colleague showed me the footage, I said this must go in the film," he said. ""When I asked where the footage came from, I was told that it was a sick animal incapable of living that was put down."

"I would judge those who torture feeling creatures, but not the cameraman who filmed it," he continued.

The film, which Toepler made under the name Nicolaus Myslicki, won a special prize at the 2007 Hungarian Film Week for best experimental short.

Members of the film-week jury said in statement on the event's website that they would withdraw the award if it could be proven beyond a doubt that the animal was killed simply for the sake of the film.

Source: The Europe Channel
The film: Hypocrite - warning: it contains the death scene

I came upon this article a few days ago, while scanning over various recent news on the Independent Film front. It was certainly not what I had expected to see. The boundaries of Art and Good Taste are frequently challenged by controversies of varying natures. I'm sure many of us can recall the upheaval over the "Piss Christ" installation, or the more recent "Chocolate Christ." Religion, is a touchy subject no matter what the forum, especially one so subjective as Art. "Hypocrite", however, crosses a different boundary. The simple inclusion of a two-minute segment of film, which makes us witness to the drowning death of a kitten,leads us to question our humanity, and most certainly the filmmaker's. It pokes at a sensitive place on our underbellies reminding us of the frailty of life, and the cruelties of which mankind is capable.

Unfortunately over the past few days I've been unable to find a translation of the subtitles and script of the film "Hypocrite". It would undoubtedly shed some light as to the filmmaker's purpose and/or meaning in showing the drowning of a kitten...but then, maybe not. Whatever his intention, when the Judges of the film festival awarded it "Best Experimental Film", under the misconception that they were watching a special effect and not a real drowning, they seemed to find his idea profound. It must have been the Idea that won the award, because anyone watching this film would question the technical merits of it as it looks like little more than a home movie with subtitles and then suddenly the tragic murder of a baby cat. I am desperate to know the script's translation, if only to understand the film's title, how the death scene has any relation to the two men in the beginning....oh...and why the kitten had to die. It seems to me that there are any number of ways for a point to be made without incorporating murder.

I must point out, that each person I've spoken to about this film has asked to see it, and indeed the link is included above. So for all the horror that is proclaimed over this inhumane act...we ironically play hypocrite and still watch. Perhaps this is part of the artist's idea, not unlike the collaborative film by Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, Natural Born Killers, which simultaneously mocks society's obsession with immorality and "sin", and entreats the audience to favor the villains of the story by writing them as they protagonists. Perhaps the low Hungarian murmurings in the beginning are invitations to watch this horrid deed...and though it is two minutes in length- a very long time in film- we watch...both mesmerized by the act and anticipating some salvation, though we already know it will not come.

Beyond the moral issues of including such a scene, there is the debate of whether this scene was filmed specifically for the movie: meaning he deliberately murdered a kitten; or, if his claims are true that this was an animal put down from sickness that someone somewhere perversely thought should be filmed for posterity. Regardless of WHY the kitten was drowned, the truly troublesome matter is WHY someone would chose to film its death?? This isn't a singular incident, of course. Several years ago a company made FAR TOO MUCH money from a series of videos called "Faces of Death". I was quite dismayed to find that some friends of mine had bought the set...and spent much of the night they sat watching it hanging out in the kitchen and drinking. Yes, I'd far rather destroy my own liver and reduce my mental capacity...and even still in that drunken state I did not and would not find such a thing entertaining. These videos featured everything from people eating monkey brains directly from their skulls while they were still alive, to execution videos of criminals and POWs, and even less tasteful still alleged rape and snuff films.

The truth is...death fascinates us.

Death fascinates us as much as it repulses us and frightens us.

Am I condoning the manner of death used? No. Am I condoning the filming of that death? Absolutely not. I am merely expounding the storming cloud of thoughts spawned by this article. If this footage was made specifically for this film then yes, I think the filmmaker should be hung out to dry and charged with whatever is within legal bounds. If this is a piece of footage that he came upon and made use of....then I must withhold judgment, as I do not know what the dialog preceding the segment is. Although I must say, the title gives me pause and I can only imagine that whatever the idea presented has certainly gotten a few people talking.