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Distant Relatives: The Toy Story Trilogy and The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Robert here, closing out the first season of my series Distant Relatives, (where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through theme and ask what their similarities/differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema) with a two part special.

The meaning of life

It may seem like a cheat to compare a trilogy of films to a director’s entire collected works. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard to find elements in anyone’s filmography that happen to match up to the Toy Story films which cover a wide array of human (er, toy) emotion. But it’s not just random or occasional moments or themes that we’re talking about. When I see the Toy Story films, I see a primary emphasis on the two concepts that Ingmar Bergman explored though his entire career: the quest for meaning in life and the sorrow of being parted from those we love (one might also say the silence of God is in there but I find it to me more of an offshoot of those two motifs, more on that later). Indeed if Ingmar Bergman were a modern animator the Toy Story films may very well be what his output would look like.

But let’s talk about quests for meaning and the importance of relationships in today’s animated films. These are ubiquitous themes. The heroes of films like WALL-E, Shrek, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, How to Train Your Dragon, Up all find themselves on a quest that will bring a new sense of purpose to their rather humdrum lives. In the process they make a new connection or rekindle an old connection with a friend, spouse, family member, etc. The relationship helps them complete their quest, and the quest reinforces the relationship, all together bringing a new sense of meaning to all involved.

So what makes Toy Story special? Two things. First, in the Toy Story films, all three, the quest isn’t reinforced by coming together, the quest is coming together. No one is trying to save the world, rescue a princess, defeat a villian, cook a meal, quell a dragon, or protect a giant bird. No one is trying to assign new meaning to their lives. They’re simply trying to hold on to their current meaning by coming together (consider the quest of the characters in The Seventh Seal to simply return home, or the children in Fanny and Alexander to rejoin their family). Secondly, without grand designs, the characters of Toy Story tend to ask heavier questions. The kind you’d find in an Ingmar Bergman film, like “what is my purpose here?” “am I fulfilling it?” “what would it become if the being whose love gives me meaning ceased loving me?”

When somebody loves you, everything is beautiful...

In Bergman’s films this “being whose love gives meaning” takes on two forms. The first is God whose presence characters like The Seventh Seal’s Antonius Block or Tomas, the preacher from Winter Light search desperately for, hoping that it will lead them to some sense of light. The second is a spouse or partner. Bergman, who was married five times, made several films including Scene From a Marriage and Shame (as well as writing the great Liv Ullman film Faithless) about the dissolution of a marriage and the meaninglessness into which both parties are subsequently thrown.

The role of god/partner is filled in the Toy Story films by the toys’ owners. No, Andy is not a god, but he is a higher being. he owns the toys. They live in a world of his creation. While the toys don’t exactly worship Andy, they do occasionally suggest that they should accept his will for their being, such as Woody’s insistence that they resign themselves to the fate of the attic. But Andy and the other kids don’t require any faith in their existence. They’re flesh and blood. And in this way they fulfill a somewhat spousal role, not in a romantic sense, but in that they encompass the great love that the toys hope to find in life, and once found, they consider themselves fulfilled (or at least should be). But there is another dynamic going on here. As quasi-owner, playmate, and provider of love, kids will see a very parental relationship between Andy and his toys. However, although the toys get autonomy between playtimes, there is no eventual emancipation. Quite the contrary, it’s the owners who eventually move on leaving the toys as empty nesters. Imagine that, all the love you desire from parent, partner, and god pent up in the impulsiveness of a child.

Parting is such unendurable sorrow

Which is why the characters of Toy Story live in constant fear that it could all end tomorrow. And if it does, what does that say about the meaningfulness of the entire experience? There is, in the world of Ingmar Bergman and in the world of Toy Story, no greater sorrow than the separation from a loved one. When Jessie the Cowgirl is discarded by Emily or Lotso by Daisy it’s enough to throw someone into a state of perpetual sadness or evil, like the unfeeling sisters of Cries and Whispers. When Woody sees the newer better looking Buzz Lightyear arrive, he fears for the outcome experienced by Scenes from a Marriage’s Marianne (played by Liv Ullman). Replaced by a younger model. Through no fault of your own. You just aged. You just were. And it was not good enough.

Even worse is the possibility that what you always perceived as love was in fact ambivalence. That the presence of chaos and meaninglessness is your fate. In Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, Harriet Andersson’s Karin has a mad vision of a spider god, a Deity not of love but baseness, staring at her with if not uncaring, utter contempt. There is no god to provide you with love. God is a spider. God is Sid. The presence of a character like Sid in Toy Story is the (shocking for a child’s movie) recognition that chaos and darkness exist. That just as easily, yoy could have been Sid’s toy. Like the mysterious perpetrator who goes around mutilating animals in Bergman's (underseen but great) The Passion of Anna, Sid mutilates his toys with no real purpose but his perverse pleasure. And to witness those mutant toys is like Max von Sydow witnessing his “mutant” neighbors in Hour of the Wolf. It’s the realization that you are in the presence of a truly evil creator. Life loses meaning. Chaos reigns.

CONTINUE TO PART TWO How does one regain meaning in a world like this: By assuming power? By taking a place of honor in a museum? By defeating the evil Emperor Zurg? Travel to heaven and hell and back.


Distant Relatives: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Dogtooth

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

After weeks of Oscar movies I thought we'd get a little esoteric. But don't worry, you don't have to have seen either of these films, you just have to enjoy sex and violence like the rest of us.

There's lots of sex in your violence

Who doesn’t love violence and sex? We go to the movies and cheer at every explosion and gunned down bad guy. Our heart races at the excitement of the fight. And vanquished villains are best celebrated by beautiful men and women, the actors we idolize, stripping down for a love scene, strategically filmed. We watch fantasy up on the big screens where blood is often minimal, skin is plentiful, and the world makes sense. And what happens when when the fantasy ends? When we’re presented reality the fun ends pretty quickly.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom is notorious as possibly the most disturbing cinematic experience ever put on celluloid. The film follows a group of Facists who kidnap about twenty youths and take them to a beautiful villa for several months of sadism, abuse, mental and sexual torture, and eventually death (that’s not really a spoiler, you’ll not be expecting a happy ending). The film has resulted in censorship, bans and arrests throughout America, Euorpe and Austriala yet has been championed as a work of art by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat.

Dogtooth doesn’t quite have this reputation yet but it’s working on it. While being banned isn’t likely, its Academy screenings have already developed a delightful place in Oscar history with viewers booing, walking out and in at least once case, threatening resignation. The film is a view into the world of a Greek family, where the parents have isolated their children (to the point where they make up new meanings for common words) into a surreal existence. As the children, now adults, become increasingly sexual and increasingly aggravated at the fear of their own reality, events spiral out of control.

Horror films

So we have two films about the older generation secluding and abusing the younger that expect us not to look away. And to what purpose we ask. Is Pasolini presenting us with Facists who do the most horrible things imaginable to convince us that Facism is bad? Is there a purpose at all to the family in Dogtooth whose existence we can’t begin to believe ever possible? Furthermore, how can two films repel us by presenting sex and violence as reality and yet be so unreal?

Consider the modern horror movie where the difference is split. The violence is presented in gruesome realistic detail as part of the adrenaline rush of the genre. These films dare us to keep watching even though they promise to show us unpleasantness simply for the scare of it. But the sex is still strictly fantasy; developmentally arrested men and blonde bimbos tussle beneath the sheets unaware that their only purpose in the film is to be exposed and then executed. But it’s okay since they’re not real people with real feeling and lives. They’re just window dressing.  Films like this are routinely criticized for their dehumanizing and objectifying of human beings.

Real People

Perhaps by non more than Salo and Dogtooth, films that strip sex of all seduction, romance, or anything sexy and present people as nothing more than commodities to buy, sell, trade or kidnap as utilitarian means to the end of appeasing the all-powerful sex drive. As a comparison of Facism with Capitalism so extreme it deals in the sale of human objectification or as a comment on isolation from corruption to the extent it turns basic human sexuality into natural perversity and eventually self-destruction, Salo and Dogtooth suddenly seem like they’re saying something very real in their unreality.

Then again perhaps that’s not what either are about. These two films particularly have had critics and scholars puzzling over various interpretations. But if they are, what are we to take from them? If we’ve ever lusted after an objectified body (and who hasn’t?) are we as guilty as them as the maniacs in Salo? Do we they suppress ourselves into unhealthy resistance like the family in Dogtooth? When it comes to sex and violence we are always victims of and participants in the society that births us. So we retreat back into the Hollywood fantasy where the glistening perfect bodies tangle among each other like bullets forming a crossfire where our heroes never get hit. Sex and violence are fun again, we can enjoy unreality presented as reality and eschew the reality of Salo and Dogtooth presented as unreality


Box Office Blather: Rango, Poetry, Gods/Men, Robbers

Bereft of inspiration today, Nathaniel turns to box office, the thing everyone else talks about elsewhere on the interwebs. Endure it! I have questions.

Top Ten
01 new RANGO $38
03 new BEASTLY $9.8
04 HALL PASS $8.8 (cumulative: $26.8)
05 GNOMEO & JULIET $7.2 (cumulative: $84)
06 UNKNOWN $6.5 (cumulative: $53)
07 JUST GO WITH IT $6.4 (cumulative: $88.1)
08 THE KING'S SPEECH $6.2 (cumulative: $123.5)
09 I AM NUMBER FOUR $5.7 (cumulative: $46.4)
10 JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER $4.2 (cumulative: $68.8)

Because I am finally free of Oscar season time constraints, I'll let you choose which new release from this week and next I should watch next to remount the "right now" movie horse. Obviously I need no push to get to JANE EYRE (Fassy! Mia!) so I left it off the list. Which other one should I write about?



Also how sad is it that a movie no one seems to like at all (Just Go With It) will now be one of Nicole Kidman's highest grossers in many years? The world -- and by world I mean movie theaters. Duh! -- would be an infinitely better place if this and Rabbit Hole ($2 million) switched cumulative grosses. Imagine the ripples in Hollywood moviemaking if female-led dramas with tremendous performances won default ticket purchases and sexist lazy comedies had to earn Oscar nominations to win any attention at all! Heh.

Other new releases: Take Me Home Tonight ($3 million), Happythankyoumoreplease ($35,000) and Uncle Boonmee reviewed ($27,800) which had a great first weekend take for a difficult movie that waited 10 months to capitalize on its Cannes hoopla. It should easily outgross Apichatpong Weerathesakul's biggest US market hit which was Tropical Malady (2005) which didn't earn that much until its fifth week in theaters.

Top 10 Foreign Films This Year (Thus Far)
01 BIUTIFUL w/ Javier Bardem $4,200,000+
03 OF GODS AND MEN $818,000+
05 7 KHOOM MAAF $268,000+
06 EVEN THE RAIN w/ Gael García Bernal $230,000+
07 IP MAN 2 $182,000+
08 WHAT WOMEN WANT w/ Gong Li and Andy Lau $123,000+
09 THE HOUSEMAID $117,000 +
10 POETRY $114,000+ don't miss it!

Asian hits of 2011

So happy that people are noticing South Korean's actressy cinema (#9 & #10) post Mother (2009).

At the subtitled speciatly box office we continue to see that if you want to make any money at all it helps to be a Bollywood feature (even with zero media attention you can earn money. See: #2,4,5). The second easiest way to sell tickets is to have a beloved star in the lead role.

Of Gods and Men's terrific opening and Even the Rain's pretty solid one suggests -- at least to this foreign film Oscar enthusiast -- that they should not have waited for a nomination for release. If there was this much interest despite snubs, imagine how much extra sympathy press they would have gotten had they already had "hit" status and then got snubbed. Of Gods and Men obviously didn't need the Oscar buzz to sell tickets and Even the Rain always had Gael García Bernal and instant recognition factor (Christopher Columbus related) going for it... Meanwhile, below this top ten lay the remains of other Oscar snubbees who waited to see how the Academy would treat them before sticking a toe in the US market: Argentina's Carancho ($39,000) German's When We Leave ($19,000) and Romania's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle ($12,000). The biggest foreign flop this year has to be Ong Bak 3 right? The first film in this Tony Jaa muay thai trilogy was a major art house hit earning nearly  $5 million stateside and $20 million worldwide but the novelty wore out fast and/or they waited way too long to capitalize on interest and/or the sequels weren't very good? For the record I suspect it was a lethal combo of all of the above. I enjoyed the first one a lot and couldn't stomach the second which flopped in the US but it surprised me how long it took for them to make a sequel. For a year there in the mid Aughts I totally thought Tony Jaa was going to be the next international action star but then... crickets.

Heartbeats cast: Dolan, Schneider and ChokriIn other news, just because I like the film quite a lot, Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats has earned $18,000 to date but is still in theaters and available on demand. I feel like this would have done much better had his debut film I Killed My Mother had a real release in the States to build awareness of the new auteur. (I still read conflicting reports about whether or not it actually ever opened in the US and if it's that hard to know...).

On the subject of teeny tiny grosses, Germany's crime drama The Robber, which I didn't particularly "like" but which was unquestionably exciting and well-made on a technical level, has earned $5,000. It's already lined up for an English language remake (possibly with Andrew Garfield) and while I can see them trumping the film on an emotional engagement level, I think they'll be hardpressed to duplicate this one's technical virtuosity and cumulative white knuckle effect. It is scary intense.

Here's the trailer for The Robber which actually does a good job of not giving the movie's best moments / surprises away.



Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Editor's Note: This review was originally published last year. Uncle Boonmee is now in theaters, ready to capitalize on its big win at Cannes... uh...10 months ago; way to strike while the iron is hot, distributors! If you're just getting a chance to see it for the first time, The Film Experience would love to hear any reactions.

Uncle Boonmee can recall his past lives. My memory is hardly as uncanny. Recalling or describing Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the Cannes Palme D'Or winner and Thailand's 2010 Oscar submission, even a few days after the screening is mysteriously challenging. Even your notes won't help you.

This is not to say that the movie isn't memorable, rather that its most memorable images and stories refuse direct interpretation or cloud the edges of your vision, making it as hazy as the lovely cinematography. You can recall the skeletal story these images drift towards like moths and you can try to get to know the opaque characters that see them with you but these efforts have a low return on investment. What's important is the seeing.

What's wrong with my eyes? They are open but I can't see a thing.

Most synopses of the movie will only embellish on the film's title. And while Uncle Boonmee does reflect on past lives, he only does so directly in the pre-title sequence as we follow him in ox form through an attempted escape from his farmer master, who will eventually rope him back in. The bulk of the film is not a recollection -- at least not from Boonmee himself, but a slow march towards his death while he meditates on life and the film meditates on animal and human relations. His nephew and sister in law, who objects to his immigrant nurse, visit him. So too does his dead wife and another ghostly visitor on the same night, in a bravura early sequence that as incongruously relaxed as it is eery and startling.

The film peaks well before its wrap with the story of a scarred princess and a lustful talking catfish and then we begin the march towards Boonmee's death, perhaps the most literal moment in the movie. And then curiously, the movie continues on once he's gone. If it loses much of its potency after Boonmee has departed, there are still a few fascinating images to scratch your head over when he's gone.

The bifurcated structure that Weerathesakul has employed in the past is less prevalent this time.  Uncle Boonmee plays out not so much like two mysteriously reflective halves (see the haunting Tropical Malady which I find less accessible but actually stronger), but rather like a series of short films that all belong to the same continuous chronological movie, give or take that gifted horny catfish.

Surely a google search, press notes, academic analysis or listening to the celebrated director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerathesakul speak (as I did after the screening) would and can provide direct meaning to indirect cinema. But what's important is the seeing.

Vision is frequently mentioned and referenced in Uncle Boonmee, whether it's mechanical as in a preoccupation with photography or organic. But like the ghost monkey with glowing red eyes (the film's signature image) says to Uncle Boonmee early in the film, "I can't see well in the bright light." It's the one exchange in the film that I wholly related to and understood. I'm not sure I need or even want to understand, to attach specific meaning to these confounding stories and images. That's too limiting. I only want to see them. Weerasethakul's movie is best experienced in the dark, with the images as spiritual guides. They fall around you like mosquito netting as you walk slowly through the Thai jungle. B+


Now Playing: Demonic Tony, Cancerous Javi, Brave Sibel

A brief snapshot of new releases (links go to trailers) because even though I always pretend the cinematic year doesn't begin until after the Oscars, the studios don't agree. 


The Rite ~ is there any legendary name actor more in need of a career makeover than Sir Anthony Hopkins these days?  Another character who the marketing department can pretend is Hannibal Lecter for the ads. That was 20 YEARS AGO! Move on. This one is about demonic possession because that horror trope never gets old. True story: during the trailer I was like "cat alert!" as I love my cats in the movie but then the trailer implies that cats are of the devil so I can't be having this movie.



The Mechanic - In which Jason Statham is too cool to look at explosions (twice in the trailer alone!) and Ben Foster tags along for the assassin-laced ride. Ben actually does look at an explosion in the trailer; Jason has much to teach him.


Biutiful - You can now see what all the fuss is about. This film is nominated for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film and Bardem plays a Job... I mean Uxbal. He has cancer but what else can go wrong in his life? Alejandro González Iñárritu, Master of Miserabilism™, needs more than disease to bring a man down! He is a merciless god.

From Prada to Nada - a Latina spin on Sense & Sensibility.

Ip Man 2 - in case you saw Ip Man 1. I didn't. I'm saving myself for the Tony Leung Chiu Wai version of this same story which is still filming I believe. This version about the martial arts guru stars Donnie Yen.

Kaboom -Indie auteur Gregg Araki returns with another pansexual trippy oddity. Will Thomas Dekker be Araki's new James Duval or Jonathan Schaech? Araki hasn't settled on new muses in quite some time. He's been muse-hopping for the past few efforts (Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face and now this.)

When We Leave - Germany's Oscar submission from this past fall is also getting a micro release. The fine actress Sibel Kekilli (Head On) returns to US theaters in this story of a Turkish Muslim woman who breaks from tradition, leaving her abusive husband, to raise their child alone. Quite horrifically, her own family sides with the husband. Much heartbreak ensues. Sibel is predictably strong and won the German Oscar but my god this movie is sad.

Sibel Kekilli loves her family in When We Leave. They don't love her back.

127 Hours rehydrated by those six Oscar nominations adds over 800 theaters, in its last ditch attempt to be the breakout hit people initially thought it might be. The King's Speech, gaining confidence from a very impressive gross and a very impressive nomination tally, adds over 800 screens too. Blue Valentine, which is better than either of those films but only managed a Best Actress nod, adds 400 screens. A warning to those who are eager to see it: you will be very angry that Ryan Gosling wasn't nominated for Best Actor.

The Season of the Witch and Another Narnia Movie lost about half their screens this week so... if you've been dying to see the latest scraggly Cage weave or the latest in leonine CGI, have at it.

What will you be seeing this weekend?
Besides the SAG Awards on Sunday. Yes, we'll live blog it. 



5 Days 'til Nominations: FOREIGN FILM FINALISTS

Actually 5 days and 19ish hours but who is counting?

Gael García Bernal in "Even the Rain"

Today's Topic: Foreign Films
One has to wonder why Oscar has a finalist round that's only announced one week before the nominations. Like the visual effects nominations finalists, which get narrowed down to practically the shortlist before the official announcement, it seems unneccessarily sadistic like "omg you're going to be nominated. NOPE!" But for now 9 countries remain from the original 65*. They are....

  • ALGERIA (Outside the Law) prev record: 4 nominations, 1 win.
  • CANADA (Incendies) prev record: 4 nominations, 1 win.
  • DENMARK (In a Better World) prev record: 7 nominations, 2 wins
  • GREECE (Dogtooth) prev record: 5 nominations. Greece has yet to win.
  • JAPAN (Confessions) prev record: 12 nominations, 1 win. Japan won Honorary Oscars before the category became a regular institution.
  • MEXICO (Biutiful) prev record: 7 nominations. Mexico has yet to win.
  • SOUTH AFRICA (Life Above All) prev record: 2 nominations, 1 win.
  • SPAIN (Even the Rain) prev record: 19 nominations, 4 wins.
  • SWEDEN (Simple Simon) prev record: 14 nominations, 3 wins.

So, no country will get to be a first time nominee this year.

Ulrich Thomsen and screen son in Golden Globe winner "In a Better World"

Star Power. Spaniard Javier Bardem and Mexican Gael Garcia Bernal (who have flip-flopped countries here) are both regular fixtures in this category, frequently starring in submissions and on Hollywood's red carpet. Danish star Ulrich Thomsen, is less globally famous, but he's a very familiar face in movies subtitled and otherwise.



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