Princess Mononoko


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Nature's Way
In this epic Japanese animated film about a war between humans and animal gods for control of an enchanted forest, nature is not merely a setting. It is a living being. It breathes and feels. Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki alternates images of calm and ferocity with a single-mindedness that suggests religious fervor. If you can give yourself over to the film?which might be hard considering its epic length and defiantly Japanese themes?it can induce an awed, trancelike state.

The tale starts in a remote mountain village in the late 16th century. Young Prince Ashitaka (dubbed in the American release by Billy Crudup) is one of the last of his tribe?an ancient woodland race believed by the rest of Japan to be extinct. While riding his trusty deer out in the woods one day, he is chased by a wounded boar that turns out to be one of the forest's protector gods. The beast sprouts thousands of wriggling pseudopods that suggest gigantic maggots, then chases Ashitaka back to his village. The prince pleads with the demon for forgiveness and is ignored. He finally kills the monster with his bow and arrow; in the process, he suffers mysterious wounds on his right arm that suggest cancerous lesions?wounds that fester when he feels destructive impulses.


With the blessing of his tribe, most of whom are elderly, Ashitaka leaves the village and journeys to the more modern and corrupt world at the base of the mountain, hoping to discover the source of the curse that turned the boar into a vengeful monster. Along the way, Ashitaka encounters human and animal groups who are working at cross-purposes.


The Tartara clan is a hardy band of workers and soldiers headed by the female warrior Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who is revealed to have been the source of the musket shell that wounded the boar Ashitaka killed in the film's opening. Eboshi is more than a boar-killer: she's a visionary businesswoman in a world run by men. She founded a lucrative iron foundry and trading post at the edge of a lake, and staffed it with marginalized members of society, including young women liberated from brothels.


To secure the land around the fort, Eboshi and her army drove the boars out of their rightful habitat and up into the mountains, where they have come into political conflict with a rival herd of magical beings?giant white wolves led by the god Moro (Gillian Anderson). Moro has an adopted human daughter, Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes), who has rejected her own civilization and its selfish, vicious ways. Of course Ashitaka becomes smitten with her. The first time he sees her, she's sucking iron-poisoned blood out of her canine mom's musket wound; she boldly returns the prince's stare without bothering to wipe the scarlet from her face.


Eboshi builds a beneficial but uneasy alliance with another human leader, a scheming monk named Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), who leads a resourceful army of samurai. Together, they hope to track down and slay the elusive supreme forest god, a deer with a man's face, and give the emperor the god's severed head, which is rumored to makes its possessor immortal.


Great Tolkien's ghost! I've only scratched the surface of Princess Mononoke's dense and detailed world. Ashitaka is a likable guide and surrogate, but there's only so much he can do to untangle Miyazaki's universe. He's an outsider whose understanding of the various political and philosophical alliances barely exceeds ours. His physical power, though great, is limited as well. The accursed blotches on his right arm enable him to dismember and decapitate enemies easily. But in the end, he's just one mortal; he can no more halt the tragic course of events than a single felled tree can stop an avalanche. Besides, the director makes it clear that even if nature survives the coming showdown, the conflict will leave scars that can't be healed.


Though Princess Mononoke's characters are conceived in archetypal terms, representing particular aspects of humanity or nature, they're not cardboard. They're eccentric, complicated and amusing (particularly Jigo the monk, a classic scuzzball trickster). And unlike most cartoon directors, Miyazaki doesn't try to hook us with clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Eboshi is portrayed as a strong, clever, inspiring leader, Jigo as a victim of his own desire for the emperor's approval. The forest gods are as stubborn and naive as they are charismatic and noble. The prince and princess are ingenues?would-be lovers separated by fate and culture?but they have distinctive edges, and motives that remain hidden from everyone (themselves included).


There are a dozen other significant characters, and their actions occur within a puzzle-box layering of contexts: history, folklore, theology, environmental parable. To make things tougher on the audience, the most significant events occur beneath the narrative. They're allusive, emotional, philosophical. There isn't a dull or unoriginal composition; certain images manage to be beautiful in their own right even as they express the film's ideas. The maggot-infested boar-demon slithers through the grass with a cobra's zigzag velocity, yet his squat, rounded shape evokes a spider; he is nature, vengeance and death rolled into one. A mortally wounded boar that's too proud to die staggers uphill through a mountain forest, gushing geysers of dark red blood?the personification of nature crucified by man. In long shots, the forest has the hazy stillness of a Japanese watercolor; when a tiny human or group of humans appears far off in the distance, the faint movement in a placid frame disrupts and threatens nature's perfection even as it reminds us of humankind's smallness.


Except for Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, a film of similarly grand ambitions and challenging methods (and, to a lesser extent, Michael Mann's The Last of The Mohicans, which Miyazaki quotes), there is no comparably rich vision of humankind's war on nature in recent American cinema?not in live action, not even in ecologically conscious Disney cartoons like The Lion King and Tarzan. The latter are visually inventive and often powerful, and they respect the cycles of life and death. But in the end, they're stories of individuals?and both the characters and setting are isolated from civilization's destructive forward march. Princess Mononoke is different. In Miyazaki's film, as in The Thin Red Line, humans and animals clash and the natural world pays a price; when trees are toppled, it's a provocation, an abomination, like a closeup of a throat being slit. But both films never let us forget that nature, even in retreat, is unimpressed by our self-importance. It knows that if it dies, we die. Nature is a rock humanity dashes itself against.


Miyazaki has visited these themes before?in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Porco Rosso and Kiki's Delivery Service. The studio he helped found, Studio Ghibli, makes animated fantasies for adults that deal with big subjects?war, industrialization, evolution, the pain of memory, the fear of what the future will bring. Mononoke fits in that tradition, but it has more scope, and it's the most uncompromising, mysterious film Miyazaki has made?an intimate epic that borrows from Yasujiro Ozu's meditative stillness one moment and Kurosawa's muscular dynamism the next.


Will American audiences warm to it? Beyond the art-film and anime crowds, I doubt it. I haven't seen the subtitled version, but I'm told that this dubbed edition, with mythic-cryptic dialogue by comic writer Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), makes the film colloquial without misrepresenting its Japanese texture. No matter: plenty of viewers who were attracted by Miramax's promotional campaign and critics' recommendations will find the film impenetrable. And at two-hours plus, it is probably too long. (I was so enthralled that I didn't mind the running time; others will.)


Another complaint that will be levied against Miyazaki is that his characters are too archetypal and lack depth. Such a charge would betray ignorance of what the film is and how it works. Miyazaki's tale is an allegory wherein ideas and images take precedence. Judging it by the standards of American cartoon features would be embarrassingly wrongheaded?as wrongheaded as applying the standards of typical live-action Hollywood features to cosmic personal statements like The Thin Red Line, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Being John Malkovich. It's true that many recent American animated features are less sprawling and imperfect than Princess Mononoke. But remember, great recent Disney films?and competitors' efforts like The Prince of Egypt and The Iron Giant?operate at a more modest level of ambition; they hew to formats American audiences (and American animators) are comfortable with. I can't think of any recent American cartoon feature against which Princess Mononoke can be judged and found lacking, because there's nothing else like it.


Which isn't to say its concerns should be dismissed as philosophical or foreign. Though set 500 years ago and half a world away, its relevance can't be denied: All around us, nature is dying. While conceding that damage done can never be undone, Miyazaki ends the film on a hopeful image?but it, too, is tinged with sadness. The filmmaker isn't saying, "It's not too late." He's saying, "Let's hope it's not too late." The difference between those sentences is the difference between agitprop and fairy tale?between cautionary fable and art.


 


Last Night
directed by Don McKellar
The first feature directed by Canadian actor-writer Don McKellar is also built around the Apocalypse. McKellar is familiar to arthouse regulars from his appearances in numerous films by Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and others; he's a smallish, slender, dark-eyed actor whose woodwind intonations and nervous mannerisms suggest John Malkovich with a dash of Woody Allen. He's also an accomplished screenwriter who wrote the two best musical dramas of the 90s, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, both directed by François Girard.

Set during the last evening before the world ends, Last Night is not as emotionally intense and intricately structured as his work with Gerard. But it's smart and funny, and although its early scenes herald a deadpan-wacky intellectual comedy that isn't going to work, McKellar takes the story in unexpected directions. He's not a great director, but he understands pacing and performance, and he's confident enough to guide us through a variety of moods, seemingly incompatible, which mesh with unexpected ease.


The cast of characters is led by Patrick (McKellar), a sarcastic and lonely young man whose wife, a kindergarten teacher, died a few months earlier. Confounding received wisdom on how to start a commercial comedy, McKellar starts with Patrick visiting his parents, who are celebrating Christmas, complete with turkey dinner and gift exchange. Patrick's hypersensitivity and impatience, coupled with the unflappable whitebread reactions of his middle-class parents and sister (Sarah Polley), prepare us for a prickly relationship comedy. But we soon learn that this is not Christmas. It's the last night on Earth; Patrick's parents have decided to pretend it's Christmas because that's their favorite day of the year.


The first scene introduces a recurring theme: faced with extinction, large portions of humanity might react by embracing familiarity and fantasy instead of destruction. The young yuppie wife Sandra (Sandra Oh, in a rich and touching performance) is a female Odysseus whose car was destroyed during a routine trip to a grocery story and who's systematically working her way home; she and her husband will await the end together, then kill each other at a minute to midnight in order to assert control over their destinies. Duncan (Cronenberg, in a wry turn as an actor) is a gas company bureaucrat who takes comfort in calling each one of the company's customers and reassuring them that they'll have gas service right up until the end. Patrick's best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) has covered the walls of his bathroom with a magic-markered list of sexual fantasies so dense it resembles a hieroglyphic narrative; he's been spending the last few days welcoming various women (and some men) into his bedroom, then crossing off the dreams they fulfilled. (The list includes "foursome" and "getting a blowjob from a pregnant woman.") Patrick insists he wants to be alone when the end comes, because in all the ways that matter, his life is already over.


I was charmed by most of this movie even though I found it difficult to relate to. Fear of death is the ultimate boundary-crossing theme, but McKellar's world is build around jokey Canadian assumptions of how people would behave in these circumstances. McKellar has said Last Night is at least partly a satire on the Canadian reputation for niceness at all costs. That went over smashingly in Canada, where the movie won three Genie awards this year (that nation's equivalent of the Oscars), but to Americans, it's probably the least interesting aspect of the story.


I kept thinking that on the eve of destruction, people wouldn't be as reserved?even comfortably numb?as they are here. There's some looting and violence and impulsive coupling, but not as much as you'd expect. Of course, in the film's scenario, the human race has known the end is near for a good six months, so they might be tired of lashing out.


But the grace notes are striking. Patrick's elderly female relatives watch home movies of their now-adult offspring and observe that little kids haven't lived enough to understand the meaning of death; as one of the women finishes speaking, the tv shows a closeup of a girl's smiling face, at which point the footage runs out and the screen goes black. Duncan's phone messages to gas company customers thread McKellar's patchwork canvas together like an Altman device?the roving sound truck in Nashville, the pesticide-spraying helicopters in Short Cuts. A briefly glimpsed tv news report informs us that 600 music fans are celebrating the end by taking part in "the world's largest guitar jam," and the clip shows an immense crowd all strumming the chorus of "Takin' Care of Business"?which, come to think of it, could be an alternate title for Last Night.


Framed
Spoiler warning #1: The horrific final act of Boys Don't Cry is seared into my brain; I can't remember the last time onscreen violence in a mainstream movie upset me so much. (Don't read this item if you haven't seen it or aren't familiar with Brandon Teena.) It's not so much the savagery as the banal evasiveness that enfolds it: The eldest brother furtively asking his mother where Brandon is, not bothering to hide the yellow cleaning gloves on his hands or the screwdriver in his left palm; the mother pretending not to see the yellow gloves and screwdriver.

The detailed account of Brandon's rape is excruciating but necessary; it illustrates the idea of rape as a means of punishment and control more clearly than any major American release since The Accused. And the climactic double shooting is just as profoundly affecting. Writer-director Kimberly Peirce subtly links the murder of Brandon and the shooting of his female friend, a young single mother whose toddler staggers away from her fallen body, shrieking inconsolably. One murder became two because there just happened to be another easy target in the room. The message is clear: violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people is not a special kind of violence that deserves special understanding. It's a crime against everyone?and if not eradicated, it will spill over into so-called "normal" society.


Spoiler warning #2: The first rule of this Fight Club item is: Don't read it if you haven't seen Fight Club. The second rule: Ditto.


Last week, a friend asked me about a previous Fight Club item, in which I mentioned a scene between the Narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a bus; I noted the irony of the Narrator making a skeptical remark about a hunky male underwear model on the poster when his best friend, Tyler, looks like one himself. The Narrator's remark gains resonance when it is revealed that Tyler is not real.


That bus scene feeds into one of my pet theories about Fight Club, which is that the Narrator is gay and doesn't know it. In one of the brutal duke-out sequences, he declares, a la Raging Bull, that one of his opponents is so pretty that he must be destroyed (in lieu of being fucked, since that would be gay). The Narrator is fascinated with the male body and images of macho beauty; Tyler is his idealized self-image, a fusion of straight and gay sexual iconography. When the Narrator finally does go to bed with his girlfriend, he must psychologically project himself not just out of his body, but out of the room. In other words, the Narrator knows he's supposed to sleep with women, but he finds the act so repellent that he must invent a persona to do the deed on his behalf.


I repeat: There is much more going on in this film than its detractors claim.


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