17 May 2008

Pink Flamingos

I just don't know what's got into me lately. My choice of films is increasingly more transgressive. Perhaps it's a male monopause. Perhaps it's stress from work. Perhaps I overworked. Perhaps I'm bored of films that show the problems and complexity of middle-class people or those experimental films that want to appear more clever than they actually are. So yesterday I picked up John Waters' Pink Flamingos and it proved to be one of the most enjoyable films I've seen this year.

Of course I'm sure a lot of people who have heard of the film will probably think that I've gone out of my mind, choosing to watch this epitome of trash (which of of course has been banned in many countries) rather than a complex French film full of complex symbols, deep emotional subtlety, and multilayered plotlines. Somehow Pink Flamingos with its simple plot and the incredibly flat yet grotesque characterisation of Divine, Crackers, and the Marbles, turns out to be a breeze of fresh (well, quite stinking actually) air. It's purely irreverent and angry, and its prime target is (like Funny Games in my previous blog entry) the middle class. I really like the scene when Divine and her "son" go into the house of the Marbles and lick everything to put the curse on them. Of course a lot of people will certainly think this is bad taste. But it's precisely what John Waters sets out to do: to transgress what the bourgeois deems proper. If their identity project is to create a clean, proper human, Divine and her clans are simply the opposite, as they want to be 'the filthiest people in the world'. Her politics is simple: 'Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit.'

Of course, needless to say, this is not my personal politics. But this film is perhaps a good index of how middle-class lifestyle has entrapped people, becoming more like a norm that imprisons the public. Pink Flamingos in this case can be considered a carnivalesque play that enacts an imaginary, yet wistful scenario.

However, there's one scene that I don't like. It's the scene when Crackers and Cookie have sex and a couple of hens die in the process. Despite my liberal outlook, I personally don't condone violence, especially when it's done to people or animals who are unaware of what's going on. This is the same argument I would use in paedophilia and domestic violence, when the victims are underaged children who are not aware of what this might have damaged their mentality in the long run.

10 May 2008

Funny Games

Are you bored of those slasher films in which annoying teenagers are victims like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer? Do you want to see 'normal' middle-class people being killed instead, not because they are loud and talk like American kids, but simply because they are just normal they should deserve to die? If you like this idea, I recommend you watch Funny Games. Directed by Michael Haneke in 1997, the film addresses the issues of bourgeois complacency and fragility -- complacency because they think that everybody should be like them, fragility because it's in fact so hard and difficult to uphold that facade of bourgeois perfection without realising that it's all just a game. Haneke did a perfect job in turning the whole thing around and surely making viewers feel ill at ease about their own bourgeois conditions.

The premise is simple: one family goes to their second home during a holiday and lets two guests in their house out of pure bourgeois courtesy. They are, however, unaware that these guests will invade their territories and play a series of violent games that lead to a tragedy. The invasion of these guests is significant: they are not robbers wanting to steal their money, but are purely there to take revenge on this family, simply because they are perfectly middle-class and seem to fit in so well with social rules. In fact, they are what the ideal family should be like: two loving parents, one pleasant boy, and a lovely dog. They seem to be well-off enough to have a second home and arrange to play golf with their neighbours. It's this complacent condition that is perhaps oppressive, especially as it sets a rule for other people who are 'different' to follow suit. Perhaps it's this reason why they should die ...

What is interesting about this film is that Haneke seems to be reticent in giving details of this family (who are they, what work does the father do, etc.) and the two guests. We don't know where they're from and what they say in the film should be taken with a pinch of salt. I guess these two guests function somehow like 'avenging angels' in the modern era who control our fate and serve as perpetrators of poetic justice. But what's chilling about all this violence is that the middle-class family deserves to be punished simply because they exist. The moral of this story is perhaps this: don't be too perfect because you just make people around you jealous and uncomfortable (as you set the rule where other people need to follow). Poetic justice has changed: it's not being good or evil in the traditional sense that counts, but being too perfect and becoming a stepford family are perhaps the evils of the twenty-first century.

The film uses surreal techniques at times (such as the actual rewinding to undo an event and the asides by one of the guests) to let us know that it's highly ironical and self-reflexive and this elevates the status of the two guests as 'God' or 'the director'. In this way, Funny Games is aware of its own status as a film and the audience is exposed as a group of conniving participant-cum-voyeurs, with whom one of the two guests occasionally talk. Of course it can't be denied that most of the viewers are quite likely to be middle-class and this film will function like a slap in the cheek of the audience themselves. Perhaps, when I come to think about it thoroughly, the whole film is one of Haneke's own funny games.

05 May 2008


Madeinusa is an interesting film from the Latin American continent that touches on native Peruvian Indians. When I say 'interesting' I mean that it chooses to portray the natives from a different vantage point: it does not show how these people are oppressed by the State but how they as well can be corrupt and fall prey to their own desire.

Madeinusa is a name of our female protagonist who grows up in Manayaycuna, a small town that is not even on the map. However, what perhaps distinguishes this film from other films of overt political nature is its choice to portray the village not as an idyllic place, but a rather underdeveloped space where the mayor manages to have his own daughter elected the Virgin in the annual Easter procession and where Christianity has made an indelible mark at its most superficial. We are led to believe that perhaps these Indians in the Andes do not really understand the true message of Christianity but practise it as a kind of superstition. In the film we see these interesting rituals and processions, such as Jesus being blinded, symbolising his temporary death, and Madeinusa herself dressed as the Virgin.

Perhaps this is why the director Claudia Llosa is under attack from various fronts, especially those who disagree with her biased representation of the Indian natives. But this criticism should not blind you to the film's merits, especially if we try not to see these people as oppressed Indian natives but as a human. They are victims of their own desire and this victimised state is clearly put on show during the carnivalesque three-day Festival where there is no sin as Jesus is dead. We see the corrupt Mayor who tries to rape her own daughter and the daughter herself, who is clearly desirous of leaving this small oppressive town and can't help but feeling excited when there's a man from Lima who happens to get in her way.

Taking this perspective, I think the dimension that the director chooses to tackle these village people is not only racial, but sexual and social. Madeinusa is not oppressed solely because she is a native Indian, but also because she is a female and because she is a daughter. Also worth pondering is that her desire to flee the village is perhaps 'made in USA', the country which supports the ideologies of freedom and individuality. The complexity of this representation is perhaps why we should consider that the film's merit actually outweight its criticism.