July 24, 2014
French filmmaker Vincent Moon has nearly 700 films under his belt. Despite subjects as diverse as music videos for popular bands like REM or a vérité documentary about a “maestra” of natural medicine in Peru, a certain style shines through. His work is patient but still dynamic. He’s very active behind the camera, yet he makes films of raw intimacy. Asked what he tells his subjects before he starts rolling his digital camera, he says, “Nothing. I really trust in the energy of the moment. That’s where it happens, and before is not the right time. I’m not a director in the sense that I tell people to do this or that. That’s something I really don’t like. I just love to leave people as free as possible.”
He has no concern with “breaking the fourth wall” or calling attention to the fact the camera is present. “I would not even say to them, ‘Do not look at the camera.’ I just think that all these interactions between the camera and the musicians and the moment it goes without words in a sense. There are some energies in the air, and you are asked to find the same ones as the people you are recording, and that’s really, really exciting. I love that. I love this momentum of shooting because I come from this huge love of improvised music.”
His camera often moves around to create relationships between images rather than rely on edits. And a dark palette seems to permeate his work, whether he’s working in black and white or color. He does not come from any traditional school of filmmaking. Responding to a query about his influences, he states: “I came late to films, and my influences are just so diverse … I opened a DVD store 10 years ago to do that, watch all the films possible. But a few names, very diverse and important to me are Chris Marker, Peter Watkins, Guy Debord, Robert Gardner, Peter Mettler, Philippe Grandrieux, Antoine d’Agate, Vittorio de Seta and Peter Tscherkassky.”
He never thought of becoming a filmmaker, or that he would make a career of it. Instead, he had thoughts about the possibility of a filmmaker who existed without a base, who just adopted technologies and locations to keep working. He never thought he would become that filmmaker. “I’m just a complete outsider, and that’s good,” he says with a laugh. “I like that. I just wanted to try things my way, and so I’ve been travelling all those years.”
Though he has been credited for revitalizing the music video (check out this New York Times article), Moon does not want to be known as a music video director. He relates more with the genre of ethnographic film. “We are living in a very interesting moment, this kind of like big truth of the anthropological studies and so on,” he says. “I think we are regaining like a certain in-between, a sort of like interesting balance from an ethnographic type of cinema and a much more poetic, experimental approach, and there’s a few filmmakers exploring those things right now, and that’s really, really exciting.”
The extremely opinionated Moon is curious to explore these ethnographic films, which also include Manakamana and the Oscar-nominated and IndieEthos-championed The Act of Killing. However, though Leviathan has been celebrated on IndieEthos and Film Comment, to Moon, Leviathan is a poor example of execution. “I really, really don’t like this film at all,” he reveals. “It’s very poor actually, in terms of experimental research and everything. I don’t like the images. I hate the sounds. I think the mix is terrible … I mean the idea is interesting, but that’s all. I’m very surprised, actually, it’s had a lot of success for what it is. A lot of people have been talking about it. I’m just wondering if that’s really because of its complete lack of such cinema, that such a film, which is completely outrageous, in my opinion, in terms of its research, in terms of experimenting with tools. There is so much more. But that it has such success, maybe it shows there is definitely not much there that is interesting to see.”
Moving one to his talents, he has had many years and examples to fine tune his skills. Making these films is like an addiction for Moon, and there’s no sign of him slowing down. “It’s a sickness,” he admits. “I did 60 films last year, which are not even only short films. There are a few feature-length films, and that’s just ridiculous, completely ridiculous. I’m trying to do this all, and I have to work all the time on those edits and prepare my next project in Brazil, but it’s too much. That’s why I always want to slow down. I think that technology in a sense, obviously, offers you that easiness of work … It’s very easy to film, to record the sound, to edit, to make the phone calls before, to send the emails after. So you do everything yourself, and it can look really great. You don’t need a team or anything working with you these days, and that’s an incredible thing.”
He has made all his films free to view on his Vimeo page and calls it empowering to anyone else who might aspire to become a filmmaker outside the mainstream of the cinema scene. “It’s very, very powerful,” he declares. “We just have to question this, what it means really because I do not think that the film industry is very much excited about such news.” He pauses to laugh. “They are definitely reluctant about such terms, obviously,” he adds about the commercial film industry.
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This is Part 2 of a 2-part interview. Read the first story here:
Plus, a different article with a focus on his visit to Miami can be found at the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist, jump to that article through this headline:
The Vincent Moon retrospective and conversation takes place Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. at The Screening Room, 2626 NW Second Ave., Miami. Free. Indie Film Club Miami has set up an intimate 2-day workshop with Moon on July 26 and 27. Visit www.film-gate.org for more information.
July 23, 2014
Filmmaker Vincent Moon is a man without a home, and as a rootless traveler, he has shot brief but transcendent films that capture the essence of people in places like Peru, Russia and Malaysia, mostly featuring musicians. His filmography almost reaches 700 films— several almost feature-length— and there’s no sign of him stopping, as he seems to be only scratching at an essence that has drawn him to music and film. Having shot many famous bands like The Fleet Foxes, Phoenix and Yo La Tengo for the French on-line video channel La Blogothèque, Moon’s interest in music is actually beyond fame and celebrity. He is much more interested in how people commune with the music on a fundamental and elusive level.
During a phone conversation from Rio de Janeiro covering his many subjects, which also includes Sufis entranced in a musical chant and Peruvians slipping into song under the influence of Ayahuasca, Moon shares an incident that opened his mind to the power of music as a spiritual experience. “I think, like three or four years ago, something happened to me, and I ended up in a ritual in Cairo one night, very sacred, a very sacred ritual, and I knew this because of the way people were playing the music. I never expected that … I didn’t make any research or anything between music and spirituality, let’s say, or rhythms and trance, and when I saw this, it completely changed my way of thinking about this all, and since then I’ve been pursuing this quest of how people live with music.”
Moon brings up the book Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession by Gilbert Rouget. “It’s a very thick book about how tribes would use music to communicate with the spiritual, and there is not one answer to this,” he says.
He notes that as much as he tries to document a variety of musical experiences, not only are no two the same, from region to region and country to country, but they will infinitely vary once they are repeated without his camera present. His search to even try to document it all is impossible, and he has no pretense that he has the ability to create such a comprehensive survey even if he produced 700 million films. “This is not some archival project of any kind,” he says, “just a very localized experience. It happens there, at the specific moment, probably the next day it will not be the same. I do not try to say: This is how it is.”
Moon left Paris in 2008,but he’s not even sure of the exact date. “I think it was six years ago. I just went traveling. I just wanted to change my surroundings.” He has not had a fixed home since.
Recently the Indie Film Club in Miami, who are the people behind Filmgate Interactive, invited him to its home base. They have presented his work in the past and have set up a talk with the filmmaker as well as a two-day workshop for other filmmakers to spend a lengthy amount of time picking the brain of this prolific auteur. Miami may as well be Singapore to him and will also most likely present a musical opportunity for him to document the city. He notes that the only time he has visited Miami was as a child on his way to Disney World. “So that really doesn’t count,” he says.
As a world traveler, Moon has experience putting biased expectations aside and wants to remain open to the city. As far as what band or subject he may shoot for his project “Petites Planètes,” the output of which can be found on his Vimeo page, he remains open-minded. “If you don’t make any research in advance, you have no expectation,” he says. “That’s the key for me to make such films … So really when I go to a shoot, I only have like two or three ideas before but nothing else. I really don’t want to think about the final result, the length of whatever film and so on. We just make a film and see what happens, and then we are all surprised in the best way possible because we have no idea,” adds with a laugh.
You can read more about Moon in my article for Cultist, the arts and culture blog for the Miami New Times:
Also this interview continues in a second blog post, which covers Moon’s influences, his method and why he hates Leviathan. Read it here:
The Vincent Moon retrospective and conversation takes place Thursday, July 24, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. at The Screening Room, 2626 NW Second Ave., Miami. Free. Indie Film Club Miami has set up an intimate 2-day workshop with Moon on July 26 and 27. Visit www.film-gate.org for more information.
It takes a courageous sense of perspective for a filmmaker to get to the place necessary to make a review-proof documentary, and director Steve James deserves all the praise he has so far received for Life Itself. James burst onto the documentary scene in 1994 with Hoop Dreams, a film that has stood up so well 20 years later because the director showed a clear understanding of staying true to his subject no matter how distressing the picture became. With Life Itself, James turns his lens on film critic Roger Ebert during his final days.
A well-known seeker of humanity in cinema, Ebert comes across as the ideal subject for James, ready to open himself up to the film with as much honesty as he can humanly muster. It helps that Ebert’s trust for James began with Hoop Dreams. After all, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic championed the film when it first came out, giving it a four-out-of-four-star rating. To Ebert, a four-star film had to transcend the screen as something more than escapism. He opened his review with a typically bold statement for a movie bestowed with a perfect rating: “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
James has now given Ebert the ultimate payback. The filmmaker employs his perceptive lens to document the writer’s life and the aftermath of his death with an empathy that is both a tribute to Ebert and a gift to those who will see this film. It opens with a snippet of a speech Ebert gave during the dedication ceremony of his sidewalk “medallion” in front of the historic Chicago Theatre. “For me,” he says, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” James has certainly taken this to heart, as he seeks out the person that was Ebert over any sense of grandiose legend.
If there is any doubt of that, James gives us an unflinching scene while Ebert was hospitalized. A nurse uses a gastronomy tube to suction out Ebert’s throat (cancer left the writer without most of his jaw and robbed him of the ability to drink, eat and speak). In a brief but uninterrupted take, Ebert squints and shudders, his lower lip swaying without muscle or bone support. The sound of liquid rushing through the tube mixes with Ebert gasping for air. It’s quick but clearly painful and after the nurse removes the tube, our man slumps over exhausted but gives the nurse a thumbs up. Later that day, Ebert sends James an e-mail that reads, “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees: Suction.”
Ebert understood the role pain plays in appreciating life, so of course he would find a not-so-subtle way to encourage James to include the scene (Ebert is also the guy who wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valey of the Dolls, after all, so he also appreciated anything in-your-face or maybe over-the-top). In a way, James grants Ebert input in a gesture that acknowledges that this film critic knows the value of dramatic dynamism in telling a story. A film that’s supposed to cover a life in less than two hours needs resonant moments like these that may disturb to inform the lighter, more banal moments.
Throughout Life Itself James captures many sides of Ebert. He was a cocky young reporter, but he also knew how to empathize with his subjects at an early age. James does not gloss over the younger Ebert’s penchant for drinking and whoring but gives equal time to his decision to join AA and settle down with Chaz Ebert. His widow also comes clean for the first time that she too was in AA, and that was where she met her husband. It’s a gesture that shows how deep she loved Ebert; she understands presenting her vulnerability stands as testament to the love of her life. She now carries on that affection by managing his website, which continues to put out exemplary film criticism in the spirit of Ebert.
Of course much of the Life Itself spends time on his television work with fellow Chicago film critic and beloved nemesis Gene Siskel. James captures a rivalry full of humor and pathos that grows into a profound affection for the other. But Life Itself stands as something so much more than a movie about a movie critic. Though James spends time going into what drove Ebert’s aesthetic principles as a film critic, featuring insights from the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, this is a film less concerned with film criticism than it is humanity. Even these critics toss off observations about Ebert’s style on a personal level, as if Ebert’s writing was an extension of his persona. That’s the power of having a distinctive voice, that an essence of the author can exist in his words. For that, despite his suffering, Ebert is fortunate to have found a bit of immortality that will continue to touch readers, and Life Itself is a worthy cinematic totem to not only Ebert but the Ebert sensibility that lives on in much of film criticism.
Life Itself runs 118 minutes and is rated R (language and images of R-rated movies and stills). It opens in South Florida on July 11 at O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque, The Bill Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale. On July 18 it opens at O Cinema Miami Shores (which happens to be Roger Ebert day in Chicago). It has theatrical opening dates scheduled through October. Visit the film’s official website for details. Magnolia Pictures provided us with a preview screener for the purpose of this review.
Update: O Cinema has finalized a critics panel preceding Saturday’s 2 p.m. screening. Meet some of South Florida’s film critics (in order of how well I know them, from seeing almost daily to never having met). It starts at 1 p.m., and it’s free (you will have to pay for the film):
Miami SunPost’s Rubén Rosario (miamisunpost.com)
Miami New Times Cultist contributor Juan Barquin(dimthehouselights.com)
Reuben Pereira (filmfrontier.wordpress.com)
Kai Sacco (kaisaccofilm.tumblr.com)
Billy Donnelly (thisisinfamous.com)
Andres Solar (hudakonhollywood.com)
Marc Ferman (keepitclassic.com).
Filmmaker David Trueba talks Lennon and subverting biopics for the sake of characters in ‘Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed’
July 7, 2014
At the end of June Spanish filmmaker David Trueba was in Miami to present his new film Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. I spoke to him via phone to discuss all the prestigious awards the film has won and how both John Lennon and the little known Spanish school teacher who met him inspired the film. The younger brother of Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), David seems incredibly grounded, and he brings that humility to his film craft.
Though it won six Goyas (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) in major categories, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, which Trueba wrote, the filmmaker maintains a healthy perspective on his film beyond the awards. “I try to do the film the way it needs to be done,” he declares, “so the awards for me are always a surprise and encouragement to keep doing what you have to do than compromising to whatever is the current fashion of film.”
He says his main source for inspiration comes from people, an apt detail considering the humanity at the heart of this film, which never feels overshadowed by both the celebrity of Lennon, who is never depicted on screen, nor the ominous shadow of Franco that feels ironic during the heyday of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Trueba says when he learned of Lennon’s presence in the narrative of his country it came as a surprise, and it sparked a curiosity that led to this film. “I’m usually attracted to characters more than plots or histories or anecdotes,” explains the filmmaker, “so in this case, I remember I was on holiday in the South of Spain, in Almeria. It was 2006, and they were presenting a monument to John Lennon, explaining he was there shooting a movie in 1966 [How I Won the War].”
Trueba notes Lennon was at an interesting place creatively, a bit exhausted with the fame of the Beatles and turning to acting to try something different. “He was very isolated at the time,” says the director. “He just finished a long, long tour with the Beatles.” However, the filmmaker never wanted to explore Lennon’s specific experiences in Almeria. He was more interested in presenting it as a backdrop to the adventures of a trio of characters who road trip to meet Lennon.
The travelers are composed of 18-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), who ran away from home after his father threatened cut his mop top; a young, pregnant woman (Natalia de Molina, who won Best New Actress Goya) looking for safe passage to her mother’s house; and the film’s lead: a bald, slightly chubby, bespectacled teacher named on Antonio (Javier Cámara, who won the Best Actor Goya). Antonio is based on a man some hardcore Beatles fans may know as a footnote in Beatles history: Juan Carrion. Trueba explains Carrion’s significance: “He was teaching English with the lyrics of the Beatles, and he just made the trip to get to know John Lennon and ask about some lyrics he couldn’t understand, to translate, and at the same time forced John Lennon to put the lyrics on the albums because he was explaining to him that that was very important to him to motivate young students to learn.”
Trueba’s decision to create a fictional version of Carrion, who he notes only recently turned 90, and has become a friend, comes from the idea that the director did not to feel restrained by a slavish commitment to history, which might undermine his film’s message. “That was just a decision I made from the beginning because I didn’t know the guy,” says Trueba. “I was more interested in the story as a metaphor, and I didn’t want to make a story about this guy and investigate his personal life … and I didn’t want to make a film about John Lennon. I only wanted to use Lennon’s presence to illuminate the characters, the Spanish characters. I’m not trying to make a documentary of him or a biopic of him.”
Real life, however, still informs the movie on other levels. Fitting to Trueba’s interest in the more abstract elements inspiring his movie, the song “Strawberry Fields Forever” has an important presence in the film. It’s as witty as a shop keeper offering Antonio a giant crate of surplus strawberries for his road trip, but also as resonant as the film’s title, which alludes to a lyric in the song. The revelation that Lennon composed the song while shooting How I Won the War with director Richard Lester is a little-known fact. “At the time, [Carrion] didn’t know that Lennon was composing or had composed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Almeria,” notes Trueba, “and even Richard Lester, the director of the original movie they were shooting there. He got in touch with me after seeing the movie. He didn’t know that Lennon composed ‘Strawberry Fields’ during the shooting. That was something Lennon explained before he died in some interviews, so I use all these coincidences to make a stronger and more real film.”
You can read much more of my chat with Trueba on this film and see it’s trailer, by jumping through the Cultist logo below, where I first covered Trueba’s visit to Miami:
Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema through July 17. Visit gablescinema.com for details and tickets.
Update: The movie expands to O Cinema Miami Shores Thursday, July 17. Visit o-cinema.org for details and tickets.
July 4, 2014
Sometime past the halfway point of Begin Again, ex-record executive and occasional drunk Dan (Mark Ruffalo) tells his new discovery, the British singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley), something that could very well be the driving force behind director John Carney’s aesthetic. “Music turns everyday banalities into these transcendent pearls of wisdom.” In both this new film and his highly regarded 2006 movie, Once, Carney, a musician himself, leans so heavy on music for narrative, song lyrics mark moments of transformation in his characters’ lives that transcend exposition.
With Once, Carney brought together a self-conscious yet sincere Irish guitarist (Glen Hansard) and an animated yet awkward Czech pianist (Markéta Irglová). Though they get to know each other in conversation, they actually seem to fall in love through song. The film collected one of the better-earned Oscars for original song in many years because the ballad “Falling Slowly” was, unlike most original song nominees, so much more than accompaniment to an end credits sequence or a musical interlude in the film’s action. It resonated through the film on a narrative level while transcending the traditional narrative of a film. Carney granted the songs in Once, which were written by the movie’s leads, space to move the narrative by allowing them to unfold from the musicians for long sequences, like the equivalent of musical numbers. Once stands as one of the most subtle musicals of the post-musical era.
Eight years later, Carney returns with a film built on a similar formula, this time in New York City and presenting two different stories of love, one of loss and another of redemption, which unfold against a slight critique of the music business. It’s not Once, which was set in Dublin and focused solely on the couple, but it still has elements that will charm many fans of Carney’s previous film. Despite a polish far removed from the low-budget intimacy of Once, at its core, Begin Again maintains the essential formula that made the former film beguiling. Many of the film’s turning points happen via song lyrics. Upon first-listen, Gretta’s music gives Dan renewed hope for his role in the music industry. Gretta also learns of the infidelity of her boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine) a few seconds into hearing a new song he has just recorded.
As much as the film is about this young creative couple in turmoil, Begin Again spends equal time following Dan, a divorcé who has lost faith in contemporary music (an early scene of him talking back to demo CDs and throwing them out his car window is hilarious in its take-down of pop music tropes). More emotionally crippling, however, is how little faith he has in becoming the father his teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) needs. The gap between his ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) has entered a place of ambivalent malaise, as the parents have resigned themselves to making a go of a sense of family for the sake of Violet, even though the father moved out of the house long ago. Gretta becomes less a love interest for Dan than a comrade in disheartened arms. She also has her own sense of cynicism about the world of music, as she has no interest in sharing her autobiographical songs outside of her former collaboration with Dave, who seems on his merry way to pop stardom without her. However, Dan and Gretta share a similar passion for music that will prove hard to keep them from working together.
It’s an easy relationship to buy, as within the film’s first few minutes, both the director’s and actors’ affection for these characters shines through, making the movie an easy film to ride along with and fall for, scene after scene. At the start of Begin Again, the morose, freshly-heartbroken Gretta hesitantly takes the stage at an open-mic night at the coaxing of a less shameful musician friend Steve (James Corden who frequently lightens the film’s mood as perky comic relief). She sings a song that not so subtly alludes to suicide by subway while most the bar’s patrons talk over it. Dan, however, seems captivated, and when the song, entitled “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” arrives at its quiet end, he’s the only one applauding. Just why is revealed in drawn-out flashback sequences, as we learn of both Gretta and Dan’s personal baggage leading up to their meeting in separate sequences. Though these Groundhog Day-like narrative turns might sound gimmicky, it works to keep the film’s sprightly pace and speaks to how important experiences are to the enchantments of a song that comes along at the right time. Though the song is a dreary affair, Dan is ripe to receive it after a rough day where he forgets Violet’s age, gets beat up in front of her for running out on a bar tab and is fired from his record label by his former business partner Saul (a slick and elegant Mos Def). By the time he arrives at the open-mic performance, Dan is primed to get lost in Gretta’s downer of a ditty. Despite the fact that she is only up there lightly strumming an acoustic guitar, he can hear and— in what may be too precious a fantastical representation— actually see an invisible arrangement, as instruments start playing themselves behind her spare picking and silky voice. Dan eventually convinces her to make a record with him, outdoors with the ambient din of New York City as just another element of her songs. Several songs unfold over the course of the film that show Gretta growing as a confident bachelorette while finding her voice. Meanwhile, Dan regains his personal confidence in both the industry and as a father and provider.
If there’s one thing lacking in Begin Again it lies in the strength of the songs, this time written by pop music songwriter Gregg Alexander, former frontman of the New Radicals and writer of hits for the likes of musicians from Santana to Boyzone. Outside of the film’s narrative context, Alexander’s songs come across as a tad saccharine and lyrically heavy-handed. That they work within the film, however, stands as testament to Carney’s filmmaking talent. There’s heart and humor between the film’s two leads, and the dialogue never feels forced. That their relationship never becomes romantic reveals a strength of their devotion to their music project, and the importance of their own private pasts, once again consistent to the dimension of the presence of baggage and experience that informs the music.
Though Carney is working with recognizable actors and high-profile musicians (including a scene-stealing CeeLo Green) celebrity never overshadows the film’s essential allure. Levine’s character never has to do much to be the unlikable louse who breaks his partner’s heart. After their breakup, he grows facial hair, from awkward mustache to full-on bushy beard. As he grows both more obnoxious and distant, the facial hair becomes a grander barrier. Knightley, who also does her own singing, infuses Gretta with a natural, fragile charisma that never betrays the character’s strength as a confident musician.
The director juggles the characters well for the duration of the film, and the complexity of multiple storylines merging never throws the drama off balance. As befitting the abstraction of music as narrative element, Carney prefers working in montage to move the film’s action along. There must be about 10 montage sequences in the entire movie. Even without musical accompaniment, the film’s editing features cuts pregnant with action left off-screen but still resonant in the characters’ growth and behavior, as if every second of character development matters, even the moments off-screen. As in Once, Carney employs handheld camera that never feels jarring. It brings an earthy quality to the film that brings the audience closer to the characters. In the end, it’s all about intimacy and nothing captures it better than shared musical experiences, even if the songs can sometimes sound silly.
Begin Again runs 104 minutes and is rated R (for swearing). It opened in South Florida on Wednesday, July 2, at the following theaters:
For screening information in other cities, visit the following link. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.
Snowpiercer is an enthralling, fast-moving sci-fi action film about a post-apocalyptic world where the few survivors of a frozen planet earth are the occupants of a train. The film starts off in 2031, a failed attempt at curbing rampant global warming is depicted by distant rockets streaking across clear blue skies, the voice of an unseen news anchor providing the background and an ominous symphonic score. Seventeen years later, all that is left of humanity are those who have boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that loops the globe once a year, without stopping thanks to a supposedly brilliant breakthrough in engineering called “the eternal engine.”
The entirety of the film’s action takes place within the train, a long, narrow series of cars, defined by a hellish class system, that gives off a feeling of oppressive, almost claustrophobic confinement, on more than one level. The action starts at the back of the train, where we meet Curtis,(Chris Evans) the reluctant hero with side-kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) as they strategize their escape from the back wagon. Under the counsel of wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and Edgar plot to take over the train and undo 17 years of injustice. The mammoth task soon seems insurmountable as we meet an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton playing Mason, the enforcer of control, keeper of the order and representative of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s inventor/conductor and its de facto ruler, whose sole concern is balance and order inside the moving train. Serving as spokesperson for Wilford, Mason talks at people in the back of the train— and therefore at the bottom of the social ladder— in a forceful tone, reminding them constantly to “keep their place.”
The rule-of-law inside the train, constantly moving at high speeds and bursting through errant snow drifts, makes use of not only heavy force but also information control. Mason is the best example of this mind control, as she exacerbates every statement with a heavy assertion of “… and so it is” with a ritualistic hand gesture. Beyond coercion and the train itself, power also emanates from the hegemonic Wilford through information and thought control. As Curtis and company move up towards the front of the train, they encounter an elementary school-level class of children in session. There, a teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates children on the life and many feats of their train conductor Wilford, and the laughable idea that things might be different by setting foot outside the train.
The visual narrative of Snowpiercer is clearly inspired by graphic novels. The stunning quality of the fast-moving shots in many of the fight scenes feels like an extraordinary page-turner. There is an extended scene once the revolutionaries reach the “water” wagon. Here, the establishment gains the upper hand as the train enters a tunnel and lights go off. The frames, and the action within them, move so fast you’re almost afraid of blinking.
Besides these fast scenes, there are some serene moments that focus on the emotional state of its characters, a prime example is when one of the windows of the train breaks and a single snowflake drifts into the scene stopping door-cracking expert Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) in his tracks. It is no surprise then, that South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong has said he was inspired by the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The aesthetics will please sci-fan fans as much as art house cinephiles. While the film is dark and crowded in the beginning, as our heroes move up to the front of the train they encounter light and what privilege looks like — a lot better in terms of creature comforts but also increasingly more bizarre with every door that they open.
Lest you think Snowpiercer is just another sci-fi, good-time film, there is an enduring quality to it. Its underlying environmental message points to the hubris of human control of its environment. Once you have living, breathing organisms, an ecosystem soon follows. Control of the environment necessarily goes together with coercion and in extreme cases — such as the self-contained train— there is also a political system that is hierarchical, the mantra of Wilford: “Everything in its place.” People, animals, everything is ordained. A rigid class system was developed and enforced via the compartments in the train, which inevitably led to authoritarianism.
The articulation of injustice done to humans and the environment is not subtle but is far more thoughtful than many of the action flicks produced by Hollywood every summer. Director Joon-ho Bong’s depiction of the class system and its ties to political and environmental factors is reminiscent of Robert Reich’s critique of the current American system of inequality. Indeed, this film redeems the best qualities of sci-fi: the ability of entertaining while depicting a satiric, exaggerated picture of the ills of the current times.
Snowpiercer runs 126 minutes and is rated R (expect some disturbing scenes of violence). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is hosting a retrospective of Joon-ho Bong’s films throughout the month of July (see their calendar for details). For nationwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).