Embracing the Sentimental During Difficult Times

I love “The Wizard of Oz” and think it deserves to be considered a classic of American cinema. This week, one of my professors showed the ending of the film to my class to make a relevant point during lecture. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I remembered how I actually did cry the first time I saw it. I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but the message that nothing can replace the ones you love is very moving. The way the lecture hall had people audibly sniffing after the clip ended let me know I wasn’t the only one that found the movie powerful.

After the video ended, my professor addressed the class by saying that although the scene is “cheesy” it was still insightful for the purposes of studying witches. My mood soured when I heard her say that. “Cheesy”? The fact that the movie came out in 1939 at the end of the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II makes it unsurprising that it was a box office hit. In my English classes, I learn about how history provides relevant context to literature that allows the reader to understand texts more deeply. In therapy, I have learned that a useful coping mechanism when emotionally distraught is to pretend that you are somewhere far away physically from your problems so that you do not become so emotionally attached that you are incapable of working towards solving them. What better way for the people living through such brutal times to be given a glimmer of hope, than to be transported to a magical wonderland that shows there’s no better place to be than home, with their loved ones who make struggling in life worthwhile?

I wonder if my professor didn’t like The Wizard of Oz or just was self-conscious about including the G-rated movie in lecture. The way she talked about it made the film sound more out there than it really is, in my opinion. Compare Oz with the song “Pon Pon Pon” by Japanese singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. She has said what drove her to become a singer is to make other people happy. This can be seen by how her first performance was a charity event called “One Snap to Love” in 2011 to raise funds for victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. On the English-language Internet, I’ve heard people speculate that she made such an over-the-top music video for her debut single in order to cheer up the people of Japan as the nation started to repair and mourn after the massive devastation of the earthquake. The lyrics are really sweet, full of optimism and vitality as it calls people to become vulnerable by exploring where they live and joining hands as one in order to take life by the horns. The music video, however…

is full of surreal imagery as Kyary dances around a psychedelic room fulled to the brim with cute junk and faceless backup dancers. It’s wacky and colorful and way over-the-top. If my professor was weirded out somehow by the ending of The Wizard of Oz, then I’m sure she would have a cow watching this. But I for one almost teared up when I realized the context that this wild music video was released in because at the end of the day it tried to inject life into desperate times full of death. Let the people struggling decide what’s too weird to appreciate.

Deconstruction Means “Freddy Got Fingered” and “School Days” Are Good, Actually

I grew up being exposed to gross-out comedies, so even though I can’t remember specific movie titles, the opening sequence to “Freddy Got Fingered” feels extremely familiar and tired. It’s almost laughable how lame the movie’s beginning is, and I was concerned this bad movie wasn’t going to reach a level where it was so bad it became good. I’m not surprised that there is debate over whether or not the movie is parody. However, I’m convinced this is intentionally left unanswered because the movie is satire. The man-child cartoonist called Gord who is unfortunately the protagonist of the film put my concerns to rest 30 minutes in, right when he begins to spread pain and suffering on a wider scale in his quest to have his cartoons adapted into a TV show.

Gord (Tom Green) storms an animation studio by force, bypassing security and harassing a secretary in an effort to meet the TV executive who runs the company (Anthony Michael Hall). When informed that the executive is at lunch, the public nuisance goes to the restaurant and harasses diners until he finds the person able to turn his dream into a reality. While this is off-putting to Hall’s character at first, he immediately listens when Gord begins to sell his comics.

Gord being given the chance to pitch his work despite being a terrible writer and a threat to society. Source: IMDB

This is amusing to me only because Gord had a hard time finding the exec after running into many men who look and are dressed like the one from the animation studio. The fact that Hall is just one of many blond-haired, blue-eyed men eating at Movers and Shakers restaurant is transparent criticism of the lack of inclusion in Hollywood and, by extension, powerful institutions in America. The way the TV executive turns away in disgust from Gord’s ridiculously unprofessional proposal but automatically turns around again to give the desperate cartoonist a chance when Gord starts to beg to sell his cartoons suggests that influential people in the media are more open to giving opportunities to some people more than others, even when it is undeserved…

In this scene, Gord is giving up on his cartoons at the same time Green is giving up on his movie. Source: IMDB

Despite his generosity, the TV executive is not blind to how talentless Gord is. He tells the artist that while the art of the comics is good, the stories and humor behind them are awful and would never sell. This pushes Gord over the edge, making him pull out a gun and lament that his characters are losers so he is a loser. He threatens to kill himself right then and there, which is shocking and completely unexpected if not for how this situation would be played straight in a normal comedy movie with the hero getting the job and the girl at the end. It is extremely funny to me how the stepping stone of Gord’s career is when our protagonist declares he needs to die, because this is the most illustrative way possible for Tom Green to scream about how much he clearly hates gross-out comedy movies and explains why the 90 minute run-time is used to push tropes of the genre to their most grotesque and absurd limits in order to make a point.

The infamy of “Freddy Got Fingered” reminds me of the reputation of “School Days”, an anime that I think wasn’t intentionally satire but ended up criticizing the short-comings of harem animes anyway. The formulaic show is based on a video game where a painfully average young man named Makoto suddenly finds himself becoming the most eligible bachelor in his high school after creating a love triangle. The video game has many endings determined by how well you navigate having multiple girlfriends, and the majority of the outcomes are good. However, “School Days” is infamous for its few bad endings that depict the absolute worst possible consequences of someone playing with the affections of a group of people.

Makoto easily guilt-tripping Otome, the third girl he’s cheating on, in order to keep their relationship a (poorly kept) secret. Source: MyAnimeList

The value of this criticism I think is highlighted in the anime when Makoto goes from being too shy to talk to an attractive girl in the first episode to having romantic encounters with three girls in one day by the end of the show. He is warned by his latest conquest, Otome, that problems will arise if the fact he is seeing several women at the same time becomes known. He tells her what he has already told his other girlfriends, that she is as responsible for the delicate situation as he is and that she should just let things happen. The anime adapts the worst possible endings of the game and illustrates that in real life it would take someone to be extremely narcissistic and emotionally abusive to sustain a harem like in anime.

I think these two works were poorly received because fans of these comedy genres weren’t expecting the deconstruction of the tropes they have come to love. The shocking violence and overall bad taste is only believable as the work of professional writers if the intention is to show how ridiculous the cliches expected from viewers are. It is difficult to make a parody or satire of something, especially with film, without being mistaken for the real deal, but as someone who thinks they’re in on the joke I think I have the right to laugh along.

Why “Ringu” Started a Hollywood Trend

I was surprised to learn that Hollywood loved Japanese horror films so much in the early 2000’s that it made America remakes of the most successful ones. I’ve seen “Ringu” and “Ju-On: the Grudge”, two of the most famous Japanese horror films here, and started thinking what about these movies could have captured American audiences so much. From the outset, it’s clear that Japanese horror loves a good villain, like Sadako and Toshio, the same way American horror does, like with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. All of these characters were born human but gained supernatural powers over time. Toshio from “The Grudge” and Jason Voorhees from “Friday the 13th” are more sympathetic villains because (spoilers) they were abused by their families before their death and want revenge for how they died, while Sadako from “Ringu” and Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” are scary from the start of the movie because unbeknownst to the viewer, they killed innocent people while alive before dying and taking on demonic powers that allow them to seek new victims in the afterlife. The motivations of these villains aren’t unfamiliar to American audiences.

At the same time, I’m not surprised “Ringu” made Hollywood sit up and take notice. The movie blends supernatural horror and psychological thriller to weave a complex plot about Reiko, a journalist and single mother, on the hunt for the mysterious entity killing teenagers across Japan via VHS tape. Not only is the movie entertaining because the mysterious case keeps you guessing who is behind the murders, but it is innovative on an artistic level as well. The movie puts the literary archetype of the vengeful ghost from Japanese literature into a contemporary setting. This is represented by the ghost behind the murders adapting to modern technology in order to haunt more people. Released in 1998, the movie captures this unease with how past horrors will exist in society after the turn of the millennium, a concern that I’m sure is relatable to developed nations like America. Additionally, the film provides social commentary on the changing role of women in Japanese society by having Reiko neglect her son more and more as the case goes on while Sadako kills more and more people. It is a pessimistic movie in that it puts women attempting impossible “double shifts” as professionals and homemakers on the same footing as past horrors developing alongside society in the future. I can’t tell if the movie is sympathetic to Reiko’s struggles to be a good mom, but this parallel plot raises the stakes of an already horrible mystery.

What I think cements “Ringu” as an instant classic is Sadako. She doesn’t have to appear much to make a grand entrance after seeing her infamous VHS tape and her increasing body count. The VHS tape almost looks like a bizarre art film but in reality has clues that let Reiko find Sadako, making the ghost’s capabilities and motivation unknown. The scene where Sadako finally reveals herself is horrifying because it juxtaposes the strange footage of her VHS tape with the deaths of her victims, suggesting she is in control of the afterlife in addition to her existence on Earth, letting her bend the rules dividing the present from the past and art from real life. She conveys her great power and anger without saying a word. By confirming Reiko’s worst fears of who could be killing without leaving a trace, the movie combines the best of psychological horror with the paranormal, an achievement that is essential viewing for any horror fan.

“The Assassin” and Pacing in Action Movies

Despite being about an actual assassin, “The Assassin” nearly put me to sleep. The film is based on a classical Chinese text from the 9th century titled “Nie Yianning”, a notable entry of Chinese fiction’s famed ancient martial artists, and is rendered beautifully with stunning cinematography and gripping premise. Yet its pace leaves a lot to be desired.

The film stars Shu Qi (“Journey to the West”) as the titular assassin Nie Yinniang, who has been trained for years and has become a superb killer sent to murder corrupt government officials. Qi is badass and kind of terrifying in her unwavering resolve as the assassin, appearing just enough in action to illustrate her skills without getting too attached to believe she is a sympathetic character. Yinniang reaches her limit, however, when the next target she is sent to kill is the nun who raised her. She does not complete the task, and as punishment is sent to kill the governor of the far Weibo province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). The plot development of the movie, while slow, still manages to establish the premise within the first 30 minutes, which kept my expectations high at the start. The catch? Tian Ji’an is her cousin who she had been arranged to marry. Drama of the stickiest order ensues as Nie Yinniang takes up her next mission.

I can’t stress enough what a feast for the eyes “The Assassin” is. The cinematography of the Chinese landscapes are absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. The lighting is exquisite as well, making the gold of the rich main characters shine in a way that adds to the luxurious sets and costumes. The shots of the uninhabited mountains transports the viewer back in time, another stunning element paid careful attention to in order to bring to life this historical drama. Some of the visuals foreshadow the plot as well, like when a blood-red sky at sunset is reflected in a lake, contributing to the mise-en-scène as well.

Unfortunately, the editing does not allow the screenplay to breath, making you feel every minute that passes by while watching this movie. There is far too much exposition, especially at the beginning where the assassin is given her orders to kill, only to then attempt to kill the following shot. Instead of feeling like a detailed chronicle of the assassin’s life, it often feels terribly redundant. Additionally, the shots themselves are way too long. Despite being a martial arts movie, the movie seems more preoccupied with the mundane aspects of daily life than the fighting itself. You literally watch people sit, eat and sleep while stuck with the same forlorn expression for the entire time, making you wait for any plot development (of which there is too little). This adds gravity to the characters, but in an unoriginal way as if they were all in a Western playing mysterious sheriffs who blew into town to restore law and order. To be sure, the editing wasn’t all bad. There was an effective switching from black and white to color in order differentiate the past in flashbacks from the present. But this does nothing to quicken the pace, making important developments feel understated and inconsequential, like when Governor Tian’s interesting origin story is delivered through a boring monologue.

Overall, “The Assassin” is a solid piece of film that feels more like a recorded play than a movie. There is a limited number of sets that the camera stays stationary on the majority of the time as monologues and exposition are dished out like nobody’s business. If you love historical pieces, this will surely delight. But damn, is it boring.

“Last Days in Vietnam” and Responsibility in Documentaries

The Vietnam War continues to be fresh in Americans’ conscious as one of the last conflicts of the Cold War, and “Last Days in Vietnam” does a detailed job in preserving the war’s memory by featuring interviews with American and Vietnamese people who lived through it. The film brings history to life, but its lop-sided coverage of the war shows the dangers of documentaries engaging in political issues.

The conflict is a very sensitive matter, which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War since it was a brutal satellite war for America to forward its imperialist interest in maintaining superpower status. The documentary does not get the perspective of the opposition to American forces. All the interviewees have ties to the United States, either as members of the American armed forces or as Vietnamese refugees who escaped to our country.

This does not mean there was no value to the film. To hear the first-hand accounts of the American men who actually fought the war was gripping, especially their very human emotional struggles as they dealt with the impact the conflict had on civilians who lost their homes and lives. The archival film footage of bombings, evacuations, military exercises and the like made vivid the clear descriptions of the Vietnam War I read about in history class. The tragedy became much more comprehensible by showing the individual people and actions it takes to mount a war in the first place. But the lack of perspectives outside of the forces with America makes the documentary a simple and concise history of only the mainstream American narrative of the war. To not have this view counterbalanced with that of the Soviet-allied forces makes the loss American forces hard to understand. There is no focus on the achievements and developments on the Soviet side that led to their success. Only the work of the American forces is then appreciated.

The documentary is very good on a technical level. At the beginning, I was deceived into believing that the incredibly conventional editing of the documentary would contain an incredibly conventional story. Instead, the intricate and chaotic nature of war strategy plays out in the most visually literate manner possible. However, if the viewer does not have a nuanced education on the Vietnam War, this film could do them a disservice by only presenting one flawed view of the conflict, and even then not focusing on the Vietnamese people who were most impacted. While chronicling America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, at no point does the documentary dive into historical analysis, leaving me wanting more. I’m sure the interviewees have strong views on the war that could have been shown in a balanced way to the benefit of the viewer’s knowledge without getting mired in politics.

I don’t consider the limited scope of the documentary a fatal flaw. To include the Soviet side would be to extend the documentary far past its hour-and-a-half running time, and would expect a movie to be as authoritative as a vetted history textbook. However, the lack of self-awareness in its obvious bias is concerning. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors. Those who truly respect history must resist this vantage point.

Black Comedy and the Role of Ratings

In my experience, black comedy is edgy by nature. Since the most common theme I’ve seen explored in the genre is death, I’m not surprised what makes black comedies so unique for me is how they force me to laugh at things I wouldn’t laugh at otherwise while still being in good taste. I watched the films “Heathers” (1988) and “The Truman Show” (1998) back-to-back in order to catch up on some highlights of the genre, and found another element it experiments with to great effect: the expectations we have of a film based on the age of the main characters. I only knew the basics about the protagonists of both of these films, so the dissonance between its subject matter and its treatment of said subject blindsided me so much I had to write about it.

All I knew about “Heathers” was that it was about the most popular (and mean) girls at school. This is a a well-trodden premise, and I was worried at the beginning when the basic high school stock characters were established that the film would be a straight-forward high school drama. And yet something feels off; the characters of the movie are more cruel and crass when dealing with sensitive issues than I can ever remember seeing when I was in high school. I found it hard to believe that even in the 1980s young people could be so nasty. Then, the film hits a turning point when the least-mean popular girl Veronica (Winona Ryder, “Stranger Things”) tries to do the Heathers’ bidding by talking to the mysterious JD (Christian Slater, “Mr. Robot”), who has been watching and smiling at her from a corner of the cafeteria while the Heathers wreak havoc all of lunch. At this point I got worried. Another high school romance? But then the movie shows its true colors.

JD pulling a gun on bullies literally out of nowhere in “Heathers”. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database

JD gets harassed and called a “fag” by jocks because one of the most popular girls in school just talked to him, a prime example of the absurd logic bullies use to target others. He in turn brandishes a gun out of nowhere and shoots them (with what we later learn are blanks). What?

This scene is a prime example of the unique power of black comedy by being subservive on two levels. For one, suburbia is known for having low crime-rates, which makes them appealing to move to in the first place. This establishes the magnitude of how dangerous JD is to this community from the very first time we see him, and it is both fricking hilarious and fricking horrifying at the same time. But on a broader level, this disrupts our expectations of what a high school movie is like. It is a good introduction of the very dark and twisted view of high school presented in “Heathers”. I had zero idea the film is rated R, but I wish I had.

I had the complete opposite emotional reaction when watching “The Truman Show”. It is unexpectedly sweet and tender at its core, following 30 year-old Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey, “Bruce Almighty”) on a quest to find his high school crush who he loved but had whisked away, as he realizes something is very off about his hometown. I did not expect such a touching driving force for a movie about a man who is the star of a crazy successful reality TV show with everyone knowing it but him.

One of the darkest aspects to the film, in my opinion, is the idea that we do not really know the intentions of other people because we do not know what we do not know. It made me sad to think that Truman, who is kind, has intimate relationships with those he considers loved ones that are actually all actors. A notable example is when his closest friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich, “The Americans”) holds back tears after Truman says he is his best friend. I felt that.

After seeing that Jim Carrey was the lead and that the film was about a 24/7 reality TV show, I was concerned that “The Truman Show” would take a turn for the grotesque regarding sexuality and violence. Yet surprisingly, there is not any sex or violence. When Truman’s sexuality is addressed, it is to show how artificial his marriage to his wife Meryl (Laura Linney, “Sully”) is. When Truman is shown to have a habit of buying ambiguous magazines “for the wife”, I assumed it was porn. But instead, the magazines are shown to be full of close-ups of women’s faces, which he uses to construct a portrait of his love interest in high school whom he still misses dearly after so many years. It is sweet and shows a pure and romantic side to Truman that makes him a very sympathetic hero.

Meryl promoting hot cocoa to the camera after her husband Truman shares he believes his world is a lie in “The Truman Show”. Source: YouTube

In contrast, his relationship with his wife Meryl is dull and full of repetition, with scenes of them together focused on mundane daily marital life like saying goodbye before going to work or uniting at the end of the day. The fact Meryl is only acting like his wife is palpable, but she never misses a beat despite her regular advertising of sponsors’ products. But the injustice that Truman faces by having everything he knows be fiction is brought to the forefront when he finally confronts Meryl that something is very fake about their city and that he must go follow his dreams of travelling. She becomes visibly panicked, no doubt well-aware of all the anti-travel messaging he received to keep him on set, and tries to dismiss his ideas. And out of nowhere she pulls out hot cocoa and offers to make him some as she advertises the specific brand. While it is funny that she would stick to the script at such an inopportune time, it is also very depressing to see how she and all the other actors on the show value their professional relationships with Truman over their personal relationships with him. This makes his genuine, albeit short-lived connection with his love interest Lauren (Natascha McElhone, “Californication”) so charming. They are able to recognize their chemistry in spite of all the obstacles between them, making the movie a lot more heart-warming and fairytale-like than I anticipated.

When I found out the film was rated PG, everything clicked into place. The 1950s-inspired clothes and decor lent a sense of authenticity to the sanitized world that is supported by sponsors and the average Joe watching. I’m glad I didn’t know that, however, so I could feel firsthand how disarming it was for Truman to take to heart the idyllic artificial life his show’s creator Christof (Ed Harris, “Mother!”) made in an effort to shield him from the real world’s horrors. I would have expected the family-friendly PG rating to detract, not enhance the movie centered on the unfiltered human experience. And yet by showing how unnatural it would be to live in a world that is monitored and approved by the masses, the plot rises from science fiction thought experiment to social commentary, with a lot of heart added to the mix.

In conclusion, I found it very refreshing to see age groups redefined in “Heathers” and “The Truman Show” through the use of comedy. The movies take the stereotypes of the teenage bad boy and the wholesome adult everyman to extremes, which lends itself perfectly to critique the societal norms that allow these figures to emerge in the first place in an original and memorable way.