Best of the 2000’s: Discussion #3

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- The following is the third of ten planned online discussions between myself and The Filmist regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.

Topics: Oldboy and WALL•E

MATCH CUTS: Oldboy is definitely a “moral fable” as you describe in your post, and it’s certainly a tragic film, but the darkness also has a hint of comedy. I didn’t find this mixture in any other Park film. What do you think about his decision to blend tones within such a dark film.

FILMIST: There’s a deep thread of understated humor throughout the whole film – the dumplings, and Oh Daesu (Min-sik Choi) before his imprisonment come to mind particularly. It’s an interesting mixture, and one that’s often not caught the first time around.

MC: Yes, because I definitely hadn’t noticed this trend and I’ve seen the film multiple times, albeit not for a few years.

F: You were talking about lyricism the last time in regards to The Assassination of Jesse James, and I think this film is another great example. Park’s blend of faces, patterns and images, figures moving from one side of the screen to the other in a sea of other guys, all moving in and across each other.

MC: Yes, you mentioned mise-en-scene in your piece, a term that sometimes gets shunned by writers (I really don’t know why), and this film is so wonderfully composed. Every scene feels like a tentacle of the Octopus Oh Daesu eats alive – they could wriggle an turn at any time, full of life, yet completely dead.

F: Yes, indeed. It’s almost musical, in a way. I don’t think there’s any other film I can think of – apart from one that we’ll come to later on in our Project – that embodies the phrase “visual music.”

MC: It also plays into the physicality of the lead performance, the brutality and warmth combining for a very strange acting cocktail.

F: Especially in Oh Daesu, who seems to move from one extreme to another at the drop of a pin. I love those scenes right after he’s escaped from the hotel, where he’s feeling his way around the people in the streets, and he comes to those kids playing around under the bridge. He takes the cigarette and inhales – and just gives off this primal grunt, and falls backward.

MC: And then proceeds to test his methods of violence. The film is very clever in this sense, using wit in even the most violent scenes. It’s what lends the comedy a certain type of danger.

F: Yes, indeed. The black humor is almost blue – when the hotel owner stands in front of Oh Daesu with his golden caps, and hands him the card for the dentist just before beginning to pull his teeth out with that pick.

MC: The ending sequence is quite something for me, that last interaction between Oh Daesu and his tormentor, Lee Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yu), there’s a connection between the adversaries that transcends revenge. Woo-jin has connected them in such a disturbing way, and Park shows this through his visuals.

F: That faint air of sadness that Woo-Jin has throughout the entire scene that comes to a head in the elevator.

MC: He’s not your typical villain, in that he comes out and tells Oh Daesu mid way through the film to find out “why”, not just who. This makes Oldboy very complex, that need for recognition, watching someone realize why you are torturing them.

F: The way he looks down at him as he grovels around his legs like a dog – he has a kind of faraway look, a slight smile. And, I think what really carries this forward is his final line to Oh Daesu before disappearing into the elevator: “My sister and I learn to love each other. Can you and Mido do the same?”

MC: Yes, a challenge that Oh Daesu cannot imagine completing. As witnessed in the final scene where he undergoes hypnosis.

F: I still can’t fully decide which implication is more interesting – that he’s completed his hypnosis and goes on living in a relationship with his daughter, or that he doesn’t – as indicated by the smile that we see all through the film, and all that kind of thing – and he remembers everything, but he can’t say anything about it. I seem to switch on rainy days.

MC: The optimist in me thinks the hypnosis has worked, but your could certainly make a case for the cynical side of the ending. There’s so much style in the film that you sometimes forget of the human lives being dissected by the narrative. These people are literally being torn apart by revenge, guilt, and trauma. Probably why the film focuses on pulling teach, stabbing an ear, and slicing with a broken CD.

F: Or, cutting a tongue out with a pair of scissors. Speaking of style, that hallway sequence may get my vote for the most carefully constructed action sequence of these last ten years. It’s – so, beautiful.

MC: Yes, that action scene is something else.

F: Yes, there’s a real kinetic rhythm to the film, with that scene and the two others being the prime examples. And, it also reminds me of just how hard it is to actually make your audience fully believe a character is “bad-ass,” a label that I think has been downgraded recently, but I’m pretty certain Oh Daesu could be categorized under, despite his lack of social skills and brillo-pad hair.

MC: He is certainly one of those characters, all because of the performance. He’s not a muscle bound action hero, but a tormented, conflicted, raging maniac. And we related to him.

F: Yes – and, that’s one of the reasons the ending works so well, because he’s torn down so completely after being on this rampage.

MC: Well, we couldn’t have picked two films that contrast more in style and tone, but yet WALL•E and Oldboy strangely share the idea of isolation, as you mentioned on your site. What gets me about WALL•E, is the pure joy that it gives the viewer. The brilliant, audacious filmmaking aside, it’s got more heart than any Hollywood film in the past decade.

F: There is a real sense of bouyancy throughout the whole thing. Even in the beginning, when we’re presented with a context that, in something like Shane Acker’s 9, would be presented as depressing and even imminently foreboding, we can’t help but follow WALL•E more than the landscape, and be taken in by how at home he seems.

MC: And it’s because he appreciates the little things, even amidst the apocalypse. He’s pure of heart, yearning for something that even he doesn’t understand until he sees EVE. Andrew Stanton and his Pixar team really simplify everything down to the necessities of character. They don’t need dialogue to tell a story, they don’t need conflict to make a robot feel human.

F: It’s purely visual story-telling up until the second hour, and you can really feel the constant influence of Chaplin and, to a lesser extent, Keaton on the whole thing. I mean WALL•E is, in a lot of ways, the Tramp with tractor-wheels for legs.

MC: For sure, we inherently understand him even though there aren’t any words spoken. I also love the attention to the courting process of WALL-E and Eve. What starts out with a laser gun defense, turns to dismissal, then to curiosity, then to devotion. It’s a startling evolution between characters who shouldn’t have this sort of relationship, at least logically.

F: What was surprising to me was how well Pixar had fleshed out the internal logic behind the film, which I hadn’t realized at first. Much like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (ick) there’s a wealth of extra-filmic material that kind of adds to what’s been seen in the film. And, there’s a large deal made about the evolving AI in robots. Not really anything to do with the film as a film, but that was interesting, to me.

MC: Yes, you get that when they reach the Axiom as well.

F: The entire Axiom section of the film is really what takes the cake, for me – despite the overall success in pure, visual storytelling in the first half, there’s a real sudden urgency to the film that pops in, and Pixar’s new emphasis on cinematography really takes the stage. What with Roger Deakins and the constant use of idiosyncratic shapes and lines in the makeup of the ship and the bulk of its passengers.

MC: Yes, the movement within these sequences, the idea of pre-determined lines of movement, breaking these small boundaries begin to destroy the apathy on a very instinctual level. WALL-E brings the AI’s control crashing down, with even the smallest actions of free-thinking.

F: It’s strange – despite the overall originality in the story, this also seems to be Pixar’s most reference driven, although not without cause. The constant references to 2001, and so on.

MC: And WALL•E shares that film’s sense of unmeasured mystery. The opening shots of space, with the Hello Dolly music, is a direct reference to the space stations flying through space. It’s endless out there, but the personal expressions of love are evident, even in this vast hopeless universe. I think one of the truly wonderful aspects of this film is the end credit sequence, the cave paintings, the sketches of the world coming back to life. It’s something that doesn’t get utilized very often, using the end credits to advance the story beyond the film, allowing the audience to get an idea of the impact the film has had on the characters.

F: Oh, indeed. And, it’s even more interesting when you keep in mind that we’re watching what is, essentially, a backward-forward progression of humanity over the course of 700 years. There’s a quite scope to that last scene that I didn’t notice at first, probably due to Peter Gabriel, that bastard. Going back to the film’s visual storytelling in the first half, the way Stanton fleshes out the two characters through pantomime and the slightest hint of audio identity, and the way these things alternate and move around, is masterful.

MC: It’s definitely a lost art, which is probably why we were so taken with it. The idea that the special effects only help and expand the story, definitely out of style in our modern Hollywood. I can’t wait to see how Stanton brings this approach to John Carter of Mars.

F: It’s going to be interesting to see how an animation director makes the leap to live-action, in contrast to a live-action director jumping into animation with the same veracity. Ideally, I think he’s probably the best in Pixar’s stables, and with a real command of his work  – but then, I would have said the same thing about Martin Rosen, and look at how Stacking turned out.

MC: WALL•E ranks up there with me as probably the most intelligent children’s film ever, it doesn’t try and push its message down your throat, just allows you the see the world for what it might become, it’s almost horror film in that respect.

F: It’s certainly one of the better ones of the decade. Also an interesting example of some of the kind of leap in storytelling veracity that we’ve seen a lot of, even among established directors.

MC: This film just feels bigger than anything Pixar has done, like they’ve finally recognized their own importance and influence and decided to evolve exponentially, approaching serious themes in an invigorating manner.

F: I think Ratatouille did the same thing to a certain extent, as there’s a big degree of difference between something as – well, let’s say it, bad – as Cars was and that film. Also, Up – although, I wasn’t as impressed with Up as I was with this film, it really shows that they’ve decided on a new direction to head in, and it’s getting more and more interesting to watch.

MC: For sure, Cars is a blatant dumbing down of the story element behind Pixar’s success. I think Ratatouille is marred by a disjointed script (great beginning and ending, mediocre middle), but with WALL•E and Up, Pixar has taken to these small stories framed by gigantic, expansive universes.

F: Yes, Ratatouille‘s middle does kind of meander without cause for a little while, but it does show the same kind of drive that these latter two films do, I think.

MC: It will be interesting to see Brad Bird develop another one of his original ideas as opposed to taking over a film from another director. Well, no matter what direction Pixar goes in, they will always have WALL•E, which will be the brightest jewel in their crown for a long time.

F: This is true.

Best of the 2000’s: #8

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“The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Andrew Stanton’s WALL•E begins with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, a tune from Hello Dolly that floods the outer reaches of space, paralleling images of staggering mystery with a simple, unassuming audible joy. The music bounces off vast corridors of darkness then down toward Earth’s orbit, breaking through a blanket of motionless satellites. As Stanton’s birds-eye view jettisons downward, the hazy horizon becomes overwhelmed with skyscrapers of trash, waste, and rusting objects of hollow consumerism, a place chalk full of ignored foreshadowing and void of human existence. Yet the music still resonates clearly, and WALL•E, a worker robot built to clean up the earth, emerges in fragments – first his worn tread, then his small hands, and finally his longing face – a daring emblem of personality amidst a desert of lifelessness.

In the dialogue-less opening act, Stanton brilliantly uses WALL•E’s fondness for show tunes and manmade objects to juxtapose the fall of mankind against an expression of playfulness and curiosity. WALL•E explores the city ruins just as he’s done for hundreds of years, touring for trinkets and piling up cubes of trash sky high, fulfilling a programmed duty while improvising and expanding his unique thought process. Through his actions, we piece together the inevitable decline of human existence – mass consumption, global warming, human evacuation – and revel in the quiet destitution of it all. It’s virtuosic filmmaking that relies on the pacing of image and ambient sound rather than special effects or exposition.

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Stanton’s introduction of EVE, the sleek futuristic object of WALL•E’s affection, shifts the film toward moments of slapstick and romantic comedy while expanding the thematic and visual complexities. EVE is a white glowing orb that can fly through the sky at high speeds and decimate any surface with a laser canon arm, and her one goal is to search for new life on Earth. She’s an accidental tourist on a mission she doesn’t understand, but WALL•E sees her as the companion he’s always wanted and needed, an equal worthy of his attention. Even though their initial time together is short, the impact of this meeting unveils layers of consciousness these robots are not supposed to have. This clear desire for connection pushes WALL•E into a grand adventure of impressive action set pieces and daring escapes, all experienced in the hope of locking eyes with EVE long enough for her to understand his devotion.

As WALL•E drifts through the atmosphere, this instinctual need for connection begins to develop beyond his female muse to incorporate every environment he inhabits. This ranges from interactions with other droids to his accidental brushes with humanity. One of the great scenes in the film comes when WALL•E lifts his hand up into river of colorful space dust, finding beauty in the contrast of vibrant color and fascinating texture. The action of touch becomes a common and potent motif throughout the film, whether it’s robots trying to hold hands or humans falling into each other’s arms. Call it an understanding of re-connection, a personalizing of interaction.

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But WALL•E does not envision mankind through a rose-colored lens. The film views space not as the final frontier, but as a potential final resting place for the human race. Bloated by seven centuries of apathy and isolated by technological bubbles, these humans are ripe for critique and vitriol, ripe for the picking. They have mindlessly languished on the epic Axiom space liner without a care in the world, breeding generations of coagulated lost souls unaware of their infinite jaunt into oblivion, happy with the inconsequence.

However, Stanton finds the grace in mankind’s ability to break out of this vicious cycle, focusing on our hibernating need for that same physical connection WALL•E longs for so dearly. The ensuing battle against the subtle control of artificial intelligence, menacing in its clarity and consistency to stay the course, plays into the desperate need for an ideological revolution, something WALL•E has achieved years ago. We recognize modern society’s increasing inaction and lethargy in the film’s nightmarish vision of mankind, and it’s to the film’s credit that we get a second chance despite this horrific outcome.

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In the end, WALL•E inadvertently saves the world by following his heart, framing ecological warnings, social nightmares, and haunting delusions of grandeur through an epic love story between robots searching for a spark. This is best on display during WALL-E and EVE’s hypnotic space dance, a mesmerizing musical number where connection, touch, and interaction take on a deeper meaning as two supposedly lifeless souls teach us how to live again.

- The Filmist’s # 8 choice, Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy can be found here.

WALL•E (Stanton, 2008)

Chaplin, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Godard, Spielberg. For cinephiles, these names instantly recall a lasting and powerful artistic sensibility, a meeting of form and function so influential the footprints of their work transcends film as a medium. The Pixar Animation Studios, a visionary force of artists who have been responsible for countless cinematic wonders over the past decade, belong in this esteemed company. Pixar’s latest animated film WALL•E, about a soulful robot compacting endless mounds of trash on a desolate, human-less Earth, may be their most hopeful and touching achievement yet. The first forty minutes of the film play out like a great silent comedy (as already noted by every worthy film critic), but Earth’s stark landscape of trash heaps and discarded waste makes for an astounding contrast in tones when juxtaposed with the lovely dance of instinct and compassion between WALL•E and EVE. WALL•E seamlessly explores the contrast between want of consumption and the need for emotional contact, a crucial thematic dichotomy in our current artificially intelligent age. By now, Pixar’s skill at constructing stories for children and adults alike has become a worthy and economically successful calling card. But their Lubitsch Touch, their essential artistic element is the consistent realization of humanity everywhere outside the human self, within toys, bugs, fish, rats, and now A.I. beings. WALL•E relishes the beauty within the simplest of experiences, like the touch of a hand, the smell of a flower, or sound of water splashing beneath your feet, graceful moments which seemingly have grown out of style in a world desperately desiring images and feelings not their own. WALL•E, in all it’s wonder, shows the joy in seeking an existence beyond selfishness, consumption, and ego, and the reward of choosing life over mere survival.