“Ploy”

In my never-ending quest for movies that my friends have neither seen nor even heard of, but which have a subtle yet profound effect on me, I spent a recent evening pondering the complexities of ‘Ploy’ (2007). Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, whose ‘Last Life in the Universe’, starring Tadanobu Asano and featuring a cameo by Takashi Miike, is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years, ‘Ploy’ is about people whose calm exteriors belie a deep current of self-doubt and unhappiness. Wit and Dang are a middle-aged couple returning to Bangkok from America on the occasion of a family funeral. While recovering from a 20 hour flight, Wit sits at the hotel bar during the early hours of the morning, where he meets Ploy, a 19 year old girl who says she’s awaiting her mother’s arrival from Stockholm. Wit takes an interest in Ploy, even inviting her up to his room where he and his wife Dang are staying. What ensues is the slow yet dramatic unveiling of Wit and Dang’s discontent with their seven year marriage. Bedroom drama then mixes with dream sequences as Wit and Dang come to terms with their true feelings about themselves and each other. All the while, Ploy may not be as innocent as she first appears. When I first watched this film, quite frankly, I didn’t like it as much as I hoped. Curiously, this movie grew on me as I thought about it more and began to appreciate how the different layers of narrative and characterization fit together into a rather ingenious plot and sub-plot. Perhaps it’s just the intellectual in me talking, but this is one of those unusual movies that I liked more the more I talked and wrote about it. In the final analysis, whereas I thought I was going to give ‘Ploy” a mediocre review, I now find myself thinking that I may have to watch it again.

“Death As An Usher: Berlin, 1933”

I visited Minneapolis for the first time in little more than four years, where I once worked for the University of Minnesota. One of my favorite spots on campus was the Weisman Art Museum, which has opened new gallery space since my last journey to the Twin Cities. While there’s much to be said about the eclectic works on exhibit, one stands out in my mind above all others. Jerome Witkin’s piece is a three-panel, mural size painting inspired–if that’s the right word–by the horror of the Holocaust. At first glance, the work appeared as horror-fantasy, evoking the hauntings of a strange world inhabited by peculiar people and strange beings. However, it was as I gazed deeper into the third panel (pictured here) that my blood began to run cold. What was at first farce slowly turned into a morbid perversion of humanity: the usher’s Hitlerian mustache, sinister grin, and piercing flashlight; the girl, now dead; and, the man-sheep dragging victims into the darkness. As I stood there alone, I felt engulfed by the world of this trilogy. Like the movie theater depicted, calamities and man’s inhumanity are often sealed off from the light of day; they happen in places far removed from the “outside world,” and when you’re caught there, no one can hear you scream.

[photo credit: David Martínez]

Didn’t Know That My Mom Was In An Important Docudrama

Didn't Know That My Mom Was In An Important Docudrama

A little known fact about my mom, Marilyn Martinez (neé Lewis), is that she was part of the cast in Kent MacKenzie’s ‘The Exiles’ (1961). In fact, I didn’t find out about this until just a few weeks before she passed away in August 2010. My mom casually mentioned this to my wife Sharon while she was staying with us. When I learned of this, I immediately looked up the title and found it had been released on dvd just a few months earlier in November 2009. According to the product description: “Originally completed in 1961 but never released theatrically, The Exiles is a rediscovered masterpiece that lay dormant in the archives for over 45 years. The Exiles chronicles one night in the lives of young Native American men and women living in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles. A formally wealthy neighborhood of decayed Victorian mansions and skid-row apartment buildings. Gritty, realistic and far ahead of its time made in a period when Hollywood films featured Native Americans as noble savages. Using a script created exclusively from recorded interviews with the participants and their friends, the film follows a group of exiles – transplants from Southwest reservations – as they flirt, drink, party, fight, and dance.” My mom said she enjoyed participating in making the film, especially since she got to “act with her friend, Yvonne,” who’s also the film’s protagonist. My mom also liked the director, who she thought was a nice man “with a British accent.” As for why my mom never mentioned this part of her life before, she explained that when her parents saw it, her mom (my grandmother) reprimanded her for smoking, which she does as part of her character’s role. Consequently, my mom felt ashamed and, I guess, because the movie was never officially released, she simply forgot about it in time. With regard to how she felt about the finished product, she said that she liked seeing her friends and her neighborhood, including her apartment, however, she thought the story was a little too dark, that their lives weren’t like that “all the time!” Still, my mom looked back fondly on her brush with film stardom. She was an independent woman working for Max Factor, who had met the man she’d marry, a handsome former Army Ranger named Martin Martinez. Unsurprisingly, the same day my mom told me about her filmmaking experience I ordered a copy from amazon.com As I waited for my purchase to arrive, we had to get a room at a nursing home on the Gila River Pima-Maricopa reservation southeast of Phoenix, AZ. Called “The Caring House,” it was a state-of-the-art facility where my mom got the 24hr nursing care she needed then. It would also be here, surrounded by people from our community, where she would finally see ‘The Exiles’ for the first time in nearly fifty years. She passed away about three weeks later. Today would have been her 80th birthday.

[photo credit: David Martínez]

The Daimonion Whose Name Is ‘Technology’

I had never been in a plane before and I will probably never go up again. I felt foolish sitting in the sky with hands folded; the man beside me was reading a newspaper, apparently oblivious of the clouds that brushed the window-panes. We were probably making a hundred miles an hour, but since we passed nothing but clouds I had the impression of not moving. In short, it was unrelievedly dull and pointless. I was sorry that I had not booked passage on the good ship Acropolis which was to touch at Crete shortly. Man is made to walk the earth and sail the seas; the conquest of the air is reserved for a later stage of his evolution, when he will have sprouted real wings and assumed the form of the angel which he is in essence. Mechanical devices have nothing to do with man’s real nature–they are merely traps which Death has baited for him.

Once upon a time humans knew the names of the powerful spirits that inhabited the natural world around them, and treated them with great circumspection through prayer and ceremony. Modern humans have largely either forgotten these names or relegated them to the pages of folklore and fantasy. They, or rather I should say we, have replaced prayer with theory, and ceremony with consumption. Consequently, the powers that have dwelled deep in the earth since the beginning of time have become mere playthings for people who care more about money and status than with peace and stability. How many wars must we fight, civilizations leveled, or lands poisoned before we are finally satisfied that we have enough wealth and security?Image

Are We Alone? Does It Even Matter?

“Unlike in my hometown in Gunma, the nights in Tokyo were bright, making the stars in the sky sparse. I had looked up at those stars as a child and dreamed of going there someday.

“But I now knew that was an impossible dream. With the developments in space travel all but stalled in real life, I couldn’t believe that the age in which civilians could take a casual trip to space would come before I died of decrepitude. Traveling to another planetary system at speeds surpassing the speed of light was physically impossible, and the probability of an interplanetary visitor attempting first contact virtually nil. The human race would likely continue to be bound by Earth’s gravity, only to die in obscurity without having learned of the existence of multitudes of intelligent species.”

–Hiroshi Yamamoto, The Stories of Ibis

I suppose for most the fantasy of traveling from planet to planet is motivated by the spirit of adventure, discovery, and the belief in the ongoing evolution of the human species and the irrepressible progress of technology. For me, space travel isn’t about any of that. It’s about the dream of getting as faraway from humanity and ordinary life as possible.  I don’t fantasize about returning to Earth as a hero, but rather of immersing myself in the infinity of space, leaving the weight of society and the doldrums of modern life behind, just a tiny point in the starry distance. However, please don’t misunderstand me. What I’m describing isn’t an elaborate death wish. On the contrary, it’s a desire for re-birth, one that can only be achieved by wrenching myself free from the pull of Earth’s gravity, and to not only soar beyond the clouds but beyond the solar system and into the unknown, where one’s name and personal history are erased. Where such a trajectory ultimately leads, I have no idea. Discovering, let alone conquering, new worlds isn’t part of the fantasy. Only the journey itself.

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It’s Raining Sharks!

It's Raining Sharks!

In the tradition of ‘Them’ (1954), ‘The Swarm’ (1978), and ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ (2011), Syfy and Anthony C Ferrante gives us ‘Sharknado’ (2013). A movie so bad it’s actually fun to watch. The acting is two-dimensional and over the top. The special effects, although done with state of the art CGI, are as hokey as anything seen in a 1950s drive in monster movie. Best of all, there’s no message, just a lot of action and highly improbable twists and turns. However, it could have been better if the filmmakers had turned their hints at extreme violence into an actual display of artistic mayhem, such as one can see in the work of Dario Argento or Yoshihiro Nishimura. Instead, Sharknado settles for a less offensive form of cartoon violence. Still, this movie was a nice break from the usual cooking, pawn, and vampy socialite shows currently clogging basic cable.

Vexille: 2077 Isolation of Japan

Vexille: 2077 Isolation of Japan

Having grown up with Kimba, Speed Racer, and Gigantor, it took me a long while to appreciate the maturity and sophistication of anime. It was more than campy characters and saccharine story lines, not to mention super robots and leggy heroines of unimaginable proportions. From Akira to Princess Mononoke and Vexille, the latter of which I watched tonight, anime is at its best when it combines fantastic worlds with profound but accessible themes regarding the fate of the earth and the growing impact of science and technology. As we become more dominated by gadgets and circuitry, at what point do we cease to be human? And can a machine-based intelligence achieve symbiosis with organic life? Lastly, how will the earth react to our high tech foolishness? As much as I enjoy American comic book movies, i.e. the Marvel franchises, Japanese anime for me will always be a source of inspiration and philosophical insight that westernized super hero movies and their pedestrian platitudes can never achieve.