Friday, October 16, 2009

This Week's Movies: Oldboy (2003) and Rembrandt (1936)

As you have may have noticed, I don't write about recent movies very often. I still have occasion to see one from time to time but they don't usually do much for me. It may or may not be their fault, but they lack either the poignancy or sense of spirited elevation from the mundane that I like most about the old classics, many of which may have only obtained these effects themselves with the passage of time. I don't know if this is what the professional critics have in mind when assessing movies, but I find that most of the ones I use as resources for what to see do not think much of most films made in the last twenty years either, and rarely give them their highest rating. So when I saw that Oldboy had earned almost universally enthusiastic praise not just from antisocial geeks but from the kinds of people who get excited at the prospect of a Billy Wilder retrospective, I was very curious to see it despite the indications that it was packed pretty much end to end with cruelty and extreme violence.

One review I read stated that "This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino wishes he could make" which is probably true, though why he, or for that matter even Chan-Wook Park, the director who did make the movie, have desires leaning in this particular direction, is something that eludes me. This is a really sharp, good-looking movie. Except for the more egregious scenes of physical torture (I didn't even find the part where he eats the live squid as disturbing as apparently other people did) I got a pretty big kick out of watching this. The commentary on the DVD, which I only listened to about 20 minutes of, doesn't give a lot of insight into the meaning of or motivation behind what the movie is all about, but there was some interesting technical information, such as the manner in which films are bleached in the final production process, and what kind and how many light bulbs are used to create a particular effect, etc. There are some obvious similarities to the situation in Kafka's The Trial, but in other important ways there are not. There is nothing entirely implausible or incommensurate with normal experience in the Kafka novel, which is the key to its brilliance. Not only psychologically but also in its practical measures it eerily mimics actual life, only with a more attuned sense than most people ordinarily can call on. The machinations of the plot do not hold together so well in Oldboy. Still, a lot of things were done well. I am impressed with how Asian filmmakers in general handle erotic scenes, which have become mostly ridiculous in Hollywood and overly serious/intellectualized in Europe in recent decades.

This film is Korean, and it is my impression, and I am certainly not alone in this, that South Korea--I won't even touch the north here--may be a society that is extremely psychically unhealthy. Stories about the competition to get into the best schools and so on, both in Korea and abroad, are legendary, the fanaticism of the parents, who sometimes send their children overseas as early as 8 or 9 years old so that they might learn English, making their hyperambitious American counterparts seem almost to have a rational perspective on what life is all about. Americans I have known and consider myself to be friendly with who have taught South Koreans have noted that while they are diligent students and test well across the board, they don't detect in them what might be called a love of learning for its own sake, or that they have much of a sense of education in the humanistic sense of development of the whole man or woman (not that many Americans do either, but the idea is still floating around out there in a few places). The Korean educational approach of course has been very successful at producing high achievers in terms of grades, test scores, mathematical ability, etc, compared to our own, so naturally there is some sense among our technocrats especially that we need to become more like them in our approach to schooling and learning. Except for the mathematical prowess, which I do think is impressive and which perhaps we should look at to see what they do, because we have too many capable people in this country who should know more advanced mathematics than they do, something in this approach strikes me as lacking. It certainly is not the answer to our existential problems.

Rembrandt is a very nice, pleasant, pretty little movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. I don't know all that much about Rembrandt so I am not sure if the film captured the essence of the man or not, but if Rembrandt was really anything like the man he was portrayed as here, he was as much as we might want him to be. This movie, which is British, has great stars; Charles Laughton, whom if I am not seeing him for the first time here I can't remember where else I saw him, is legendary among cinephiles, and it is not hard to see why. He may be playing an idealized Rembrandt, but he has a damn good sense of what that ideal consists of; the incomparable Gertrude Lawrence--now this was a talent: being this good means never having to sink to playing earnest (Kate Winslet and your ilk, take note); the absurdly gorgeous Elsa Lanchester. The stylized Dutch-themed sets are of course modeled after the famed paintings. They are beautiful. If the movie doesn't exactly lay out the nature of Rembrandt's genius, it evokes an attitude of appreciation and respect for it that has the air of being somewhat comprehending and of a worthy, affecting but not grovelling spirit.

I am going to share with you a couple of my favorite classic movie blogs, both by women, and both actually quite popular. (Given that I am not popular, and never been popular, you would think I would take the hint and give up--after all, nowadays we barely have time to give to all the popular people that we like--but of course I won't). They are The Self-Styled Siren and this one which is actually done by an 19 year old college student, but one who has an near encyclopedic knowledge of 1930s-50s cinema. She does memes with questions like: Your favorite post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford film or Columbia's 1930s archive is on fire; you can save one film; which is it? The thing is, it is pointless to lament that I didn't know people like this when I was 19, because if I had, I either wouldn't have, or couldn't have, hung out with them.

Classic film blogs--some of them anyway--tend to be more fun than classic book blogs. I guess great books are just too serious and too difficult and too important and too beyond the functioning sensibility of ordinary people to create a plausibly joyous atmosphere in writing about them at the level of intellectual camaraderie I would need to seek. The level of intelligence required to enjoy 1930s Hollywood movies well is of course much lower, but still high enough to exclude most of the contemporary riffraff, which is about all I'm looking for at this point.

No comments: