Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Gone with the Wind Part 2

This post is part of The Film Experience's wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, and continues from Gone with the Wind Part 1.

Part 2 is not my favourite part of the movie - the story drags on and the addition of Scarlett's child drags the movie even more. Even though her death acts as a catalyst for Rhett leaving Scarlet in the movie's famous ending, it is not even the most affecting death. That honour goes to Melanie, and her final farewell to Scarlet is the cathartic end to the most enduring, functional and satisfying relationship of the whole movie. For me, Melanie encapsulates all that is good in the movie, and once she dies, the manners and honour of the old South are truly gone with the wind.

This was the surprise revelation for me upon this rewatch, and I found myself cheering loudly whenever Melanie revealed her awesome self, such as when she plays along with Rhett when the policemen come to arrest her husband. While Scarlett takes action and creates waves around her, Melanie remains the calm moral centre of the film.

When Melanie sees Scarlett and Ashley in an embrace later in the film, I always feel it's a betrayal more of Scarlett and Melanie's relationship than anything else. How dare Ashley get between these two strong women! So it is always such a relief when Melanie not only accepts Scarlett in for Ashley's surprise birthday party, but also defends her. This scene has my favourite shot:

After trying to implore her guests to receive "our Scarlett", she gives up and just leads her straight to Ashley. But not before quietly giving the best side stink-eye in the whole film to one particularly haughty guest. Surrounded by beaded dresses (lust and desire), expensive frills (wealth) and made up hair (social class), her look is rather dowdy and demur, but right in the centre of her dress and the frame is her heart of gold, shining brightly for all to see. It is beautiful and pure, but also hard as any metal. And it is one that will let no-one give shade to those she loves.

This shot captures a small and quiet moment, overshadowed by Scarlett's entrance and the end of the sequence when they reach Ashley. And yet, it is one that fills me with such joy and admiration for Melanie, who herself is always overshadowed by Scarlett. Here's to the quiet ones with the hearts of gold!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gone with the Wind Part 1

This post is part of The Film Experience's wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

The 1939 film that my family watches is not The Wizard of Oz (which I love), but Gone With The Wind. It was one of the first English-to-Vietnamese literary translations that my mother read as a child, it was one of the first films my sister downloaded when she signed up for an iTunes account, and it is one of the very few 3hr+ movies that I can sit through in one sitting, even if the movie itself helpfully gives us an intermission break.

Perhaps this was because in our matriarchy of happily settled refugees in Australia, the story of the perseverance of Scarlett O'Hara during the civil war has more resonance than a girl who would rather return to boring Kansas than stay in the wonderful land of Oz. Perhaps we saw something real in the endurance of strong women during the struggles of war. In a similar way, my favourite shot for this first half is clearly this shot:

As a kid, for all the intriguing melodrama of Scarlett's love life, it was this shot that remained in my mind because it brought home the huge scale of the casualties of war. It was one of the very first images of war (fiction or otherwise) that I had seen, and it was a rude shock to see such realism amongst Scarlett's personal dramas.

The shot begins as a mid shot of Scarlett walking through the town and eventually zooms out to show all the wounded lying across the tracks. The sequence ends when the camera finds the Confederate's flag. I prefer this shot in the middle of the sequence because, as part of the slow zoom out, with the devastation of war building throughout the sequence,  there comes a point where, for me, I no longer want to see any more. But I also cannot turn away. I am reluctant for the camera to zoom out any further and reveal even more casualties. The relief comes when the zoom finally finishes and I see the tattered Confederate flag - there are no more dying men to see.

In today's cinematic landscape, we might see a similar zoom out that shows thousands of men fighting and dying, but we know that that is mostly CGI. There's a palpable realism to this shot, one that rises above the pretty dresses and interior soundstages that dominate the film and grounds the melodrama of the film within a real, resonant historical context.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Last Week in LCC

Somewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere
This post is a bit late since I have been on holidays in Taipei and Sun Moon Lake. Taiwan is a beautiful country, and its scenery and history is this 2014 film’s best feature. The beautiful photography of the Taiwanese countryside, mountains and islands (and men) props up an otherwise earnest but uneven film. It's no wonder that the film has been used as a bit of a tourism ad for Taiwan:

Somewhere tells the story of a road trip between two friends on the road to self-discovery. One is a director who is still grieving for his recently deceased father, and the other is running away from an impending wedding. The story uses contemplative narration, flashbacks and fantasy sequences to create an enticing atmosphere of melancholy, longing and self-evaluation, but all of these techniques cannot hide the fact that the script leaves many ideas unresolved, including the underlying homoerotic relationship between the two leading men. I’m also yet to fully figure out the role of paternal figures in this film, and how it may be a commentary on the relationship between Taiwan and China. Perhaps I will explore this in a later post. The second best feature of this film is the love of food, and the communal aspects of family cooking (side note: I tasted some of the best beef noodle soups in Taiwan, second of course to the Vietnamese pho).  For me, nothing brings back memories of my childhood like the smell of my mother’s pho, “thit kho” and curries, and this film portrays that sensory memory with great understanding and reverence.

Million Dollar Arm
Perfectly disposable fish-out-of-water sports drama for an overseas flight. Neither a laugh-out-loud funny comedy or a hysterical-sobbing drama in which your reaction will annoy your fellow passengers. Jon Hamm has considerable charm and does his best with a rather pedestrian script, but it’s the India aspects that make the film interesting.

In Memoriam
We lost 2 big Hollywood stars in the space of 2 days – Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams. I can’t say I’ve been a huge fan of Lauren Bacall or her movies – the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s were never my favourite genre, and I’ve always preferred my B&B to be Bogart&Bergman than Bogart&Bacall. But there’s no denying her worldwide popularity and contribution to cinema.

Robin Williams, on the other hand, is more contemporary for me and my friends. Our generation grew up with him as Hook, Mrs Doubtfire, the Genie, Jumanji and particularly for me, he is always Mr Keating from Dead Poet’s Society. Not only did the film introduce me to the screen charisma of Ethan Hawke (who would later bloom in the Before series) and Josh Charles (who would later enthral me as Will in The Good Wife), but also to Mr Keating. Despite any warranted criticisms of over-sentimentality, Mr Keating spoke to many quiet shy schoolboys in high-school English class, introducing us to carpe diem as the worms slowly ate away at our forebears, to the honour of standing on our desks, the freedom of finding our own verse, and the dignity of leaving for the good of the group. I sound my barbaric yawp to you, sir. RIP.

Suddenly Last Summer

August 12 is Mother's Day here in Thailand so it's a strange coincidence that Suddenly, Last Summer is the next movie in The Film Experience's wonderful Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, and also a coincidence that my choice for best shot includes the crazy mother figure of Violet as she tries to shoo away the vultures picking at her dead son's estate ...

This shot is a point-of-view shot from the perspective of Violet's nephew, who is raiding the closet of Sebastian, Violet's dead gay son and the subject of what happened 'last summer'. Throughout this scene, the camera soaks in the details of Sebastian's room - male nude sketches, Grecian statues of male torsos, masks and skulls, and books and artefacts. It's a room filled with human culture, death and beauty, a refined (but also macabre) respite from the all-consuming plants and Venus-fly traps outside .

I chose this shot because it's an overt example of the 'male gaze'. In this shot, through the perspective of the nephew, we see two mothers talking about their children - one is aware of the harshness of the world and protective of her son's legacy (however crazy and sociopathic both of them may be), the other simple to the world and unaware of how her daughter is being played in Violet's game. And in the centre is Montgomery Clift as Sebastian's present surrogate, Dr Kukrowitz, his face lined with the same shadows as the mask beside him, and his body positions in the same as gay martyr St. Sebastian behind him (this is the other reason I like this shot - for the layers of symbolism put into the art design to overcome the Hollywood Code). For the nephew, all the harms, manipulations and injustices are playing out before him, and yet I think perhaps his only interest may be the fine white silk suits he has plundered from Sebastian's closet.

If the male gaze here is the surrogate for the audience's and society's own perspective, then the filmmaker with this shot brings into question where our interests lie. In the previous scene outside this room, Violet described to Dr Kukrowitz how her son saw the face of God as the innocent baby turtles were attacked by the birds on that day at the beach. Is mankind also like the birds? Are we too like the nephew here, not appreciative of beauty and compassion, only plundering the earth and ourselves for our own selfish wants and needs? As the plot progresses, these characters are shown to the extremes and the plot becomes very dramatic so that it's harder to put ourselves in their positions. But early on in the movie, it's a good question to ask.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

MH17: Limbs akimbo like skydivers in reverse.

Today was Australia’s national day of mourning for the MH17 crash victims. Many Australians were coming home on board the flight from the Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur, and many others were coming to Melbourne for the 2014 International AIDS Conference. It is always a tragedy when there is a senseless mass loss of lives, but the tragedy feels greater when it involves a whole cohort who were working together to make the world a better, fairer and healthier place.

As you grow older, you hopefully experience more of the world, and that big bad outside world that seemed so huge when you were little starts feeling a bit smaller. And conversely, the more people you meet – friends, acquaintances, lovers, new family members – the bigger your world gets. In today’s age of globalisation, mass media and technological interconnectedness, the rest of the world is literally just a click away and the outside world and your world begin to collide. And a finger pressed against a trigger a world away feels like it hits you right at home.

In my own childhood, getting on an airplane was a rarefied privileged experience – first when our family was being repatriated and I was leaving Vietnam for good, and then as a dream to fly around the world. I didn’t fly overseas again until I was in university, and any fears of disaster were overshadowed by my youthful blindness to risk and my excitement for travel. As the years have progressed, the fears slowly increased – perhaps I had more to lose each time. And yet I keep on travelling - more to gain each time perhaps, and fears overshadowed by what's waiting at the destination – be it a new country or city to visit or live in, be it the friends and family I can catch up again, be it reuniting with the love of my life again, even just for a weekend.

In the hours before the news reports came in of MH17’s crash, I had been saying goodbye and good luck to some friends and work colleagues from APCOM, the HIV/AIDS organisation at which I am currently working. They too were flying to Melbourne for the AIDS conference. Some were flying direct, others through Singapore, and others through Kuala Lumpur. One colleague was excited to catch up with activists from around the world, and to again savour in the sights and sounds (and men) of Melbourne. Another was excited to visit Australia for the first time (will I see a kangaroo he asks), but nervous at presenting for the first time in front of a huge audience. He was still there in the office, 2 hours before his flight, refining his speech and taking in all our feedback. When he waved goodbye to us through the glass and hurried onto the motorbike taxi, he had that same excitement and optimism we all have when we travel, whether or not fear overcomes us.

When I think of the families and friends of the victims of the crash, and how they must feel, I think of my feelings at the thought of losing these friends and colleagues who I have only known for 4 months. It’s a small fraction in comparison, and my heart aches at that calculation. Ironically, in times of sadness and hopelessness, I turn to one of my favourite scenes of all time, which happens to take place on a plane:

Monday, 4 August 2014

Last week in LCC - 27 July - 2 August 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I finally had the chance to see the Grand Budapest Hotel on the weekend as part of a ... meetup. (These are meant to be socialising events to connect people who are new to a city. Lo and behold, I ended up in a conversation with 5 other Australians. We're everywhere!)

I can't say I'm a Wes Anderson agnostic - I definitely like his style and was very moved by The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom - I just don't think his films are particularly great or anything. I get that his films are beautiful to look at, that there's a meticulous detail and love of spaces, and that there can be a poignancy to the nostalgia of the lost worlds he recreates. But for me, his hermetically sealed worlds can be a bit too cutesy and lacking in depth to become great. That was definitely the case with the Grand Budapest Hotel. Nothing more than a B+ for me.

Demolition Man and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Perhaps as part of celebrating Sandra Bullock's 50th birthday, I managed to catch these two of her older films on cable throughout the week. Sandy didn't have much to do in Ya-ya except be the straight centre for the craziness of the Maggie Smith and Ellen Burstyn show. But in Demolition Man, she just steals the movie with her comic timing and screen-presence. You could say that Sandra's somewhat robotic acting skills are perfect for this dystopic world, but I think she performs the role with just the right balance of android-ness and sassy personality. She's also helped by a rather funny script: "He's finally matched his meet. You really licked his ass."


I've finally started watching this cartoon and just needed to pose the question: is it odd to be mildly turned on by an animated character? I guess if it's okay for femme fatales, Sailor Moon and Disney Princes, then it's okay for this spy spoof. Apart from Archer's fine muscles, this cartoon also has some finely drawn characters, verging on caricature, but entertaining none-the-less. I can listen to Jessica Walters throw barbs all day long.