26 August, 2010

Was it the same cat?

So here's the thing.

One of the highlights of my week is my regular visit to the film society. Every Monday night, they have a free film screening, and I try to go to those screenings knowing nothing about the film I'm going to see - not even its title. Sure, I check the year's schedule when it's initially released, and look for particular must-see films that I take care not to miss (this year, I've got the screenings of OSS117: Cairo: Nest of Spies, Swing Time, The Motorcycle Dairies, To Have Or Have Not, and Some Like It Hot marked in my calender), but other than those films, I try to walk into each film society screening with absolutely no idea what I'm about to watch. These days, every film you see is so promoted and spoiled and discussed that before you see a film your expectations are already well-formed. So it's nice to watch a film with absolutely no idea what to expect, and to just assess each film on the quality of film-making in front of you. Sometimes this lack of expectations can be surprising and thrilling (discovering that we're about to watch a Korean adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses - a novel that I really enjoy - or unexpectedly seeing the name of a favourite actor in the credits); occasionally it can be disorienting, demanding effort just to work out what it is that you're watching (it once took me a good fifteen minutes to realise that week's film was a documentary). Occasionally, a film may be dire, causing me to wish I had read up about the film in order to know in advance to avoid it. But other times there are films that I might have skipped because they sound awful in the writeup, but in fact prove to be an exhilerating experience. The key thing is that I have no idea what to expect.

Of course, sometimes you may just have a nothing response to a film. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, the film was a French documentary called Back to Normandy and, to be honest, I didn't care too much for it one way or the other. The filmmaker had, thirty years earlier, worked on a film based on a true crime from the 1830s where a young man murdered his mother, sister, and brother. The film had been shot in the region where the crime had actually been committed, and many of the local residents had been cast in the main roles. In this film, the filmmaker revisits the region and interviews many of the people who acted in the film, as well as showing us clips of the previous film and giving some background to the original case. And as I watched this film, my response sadly was "why does this even exist?" It seemed to have no purpose or reason for being. The writeup on the film society website talked very high-mindedly about how "the director’s sidelong, subtle approach has teased out modern-day parallels to the issues that surrounded the Rivière case," but if so, the approach was too subtle for me. I saw no real parallels, just a bunch of brief interviews that never seem to go anywhere.

Had I read up about the film before the screening, I would at least have been forewarned about the very first shot in the film - a closeup, fully-on-screen image of a pig giving birth. There are many things that I enjoy seeing on the big screen, and a few things I do not enjoy seeing. A pig giving birth would most certainly fall in the latter category. I did not need to see that. I would have been quite happy to never see that again. Later on in the film, we watched a pig getting a blow to the brain with a hammer, then having its throat cut and its guts removed. It was too much for at least one person, who I saw quickly leaving the cinema at that point, but I stayed. After all, I made it through watching the pig birth - the least I can do is watch how bacon is made.

But what they showed of that farming operation seemed very similar to what we imagine a traditional pig farm looks like, how they've probably operated for many many years. Certainly the pig farm I found myself watching the following night seemed very different. I'd been rewatching the TV version of the radio documentary This American Life over the previous week, and had coincidentally reached episode 6, "Pandora's Box," which featured a story about how the efforts of genetic science to breed particular characteristics into pigs has radically changed the process of pork production. There were images of the crew undergoing an extensive sterilisation procedure prior to entering the pig farm, because the pigs were so vulnerable to contamination. There were the expected images and issues - pigs in pens on metal floors, people questioning whether they could continue to eat pork having seen how it's produced these days, people discussing whether the supposed improvements introduced by genetic science have been advantageous. And then, all of a sudden, there was a closeup, fully-on-screen image of a pig giving birth. For the second time in two days, I found myself watching a pig giving birth. I ask you, what are the odds of that? When was the last time you saw something like that in a film?

Earlier that same night, I'd been watching Battle Royale, a Japanese film I'd heard a lot about. The film was about a group of schoolchildren who, under an officially-sanctioned programme, are kidnapped, put on an island, and then forced to kill each other under a only-one-person-survives-or-you-all-die system. The film was suspenseful and interesting, but I felt it was rather a disappointment. The explanation for how this bizarre situation arose didn't make any sense at all - exactly how picking one class at random from all of the country and forcing them into a fight-to-the-death would manage an out-of-control youth population just isn't clear, especially since the kids don't seem to have any prior knowledge of the existence of the Battle Royale that might motivate them to moderate their behaviour. The film definitely seemed like it was trying to say something, but I was never entirely clear on what exactly that was. Was it a commentary about how the older generations often view youth culture as something threatening? Perhaps, but if so that's a line that is abandoned pretty much as soon as the introduction ends and the battle begins. Is it some kind of Lord of the Flies situation? But there's a difference between that novel, where the inherent savagery of human nature is brought out without external influence, versus this film where the kids are only killing other kids in order to avoid dying themselves. I don't know that it's a big revelation to learn that, if forced into a kill-or-be-killed situation, some people would rather choose to die, others would kill reluctantly, and a few might enjoy killing. I'm also not sure what's gained by exploring that idea. So it was an interesting and enjoyable film, but frustratingly its message was so muddled that I couldn't help thinking it was just an excuse to justify a film where lots of under-age kids commit bloody and gory acts of violence against each other.

There was one scene that I found particularly interesting. A group of boys had banded together to try to fight back against the adults who captured them. One gives orders. "You, get some fertiliser. You, find some molasses. We're going to build a bomb." Shortly after, of course, all of them are dead, killed at the hand of the psycho who voluntarily came on the battle for fun. But I found it interesting because, while we obviously hear references to "fertiliser bombs" every now and then, I've never really understood how fertiliser ever actually gets used to make a bomb. But now I have (just a little bit) more information on the subject. Apparently molasses, a syrup formed during the refining of raw sugar, are involved in the process somehow. Just how, I have no idea (and I'm not going to look it up on Google for fear of accidentally ending up on some watchlist), but apparently those two substances somehow interact when combined in some way to create an explosive device. Who says movies aren't educational?

An hour later, I was watching the TV show Leverage. That week the show, an fun if inconsequential show about former criminals who perform heists to redress wrongs committed by other people, had our heroes trying to recover money stolen from various characters, only to discover that the stolen money was being used to fund the activities of a militia. Two of our heroes are captured by the militia but escape, before realising the significance of the strange smell at the militia camp. "Fertiliser and molasses. They're going to build a bomb."

Now I realise references to fertiliser bombs, if not common-place, are certainly not unique. And given the fact that I'm a guy, and guys like shows with explosions in them, it's quite possible that I might get a coincidental reference to fertiliser bombs in several programmes in a short space of time. But such references always focus on the fertiliser component of the bomb. I cannot remember the last time I ever even heard the word "molasses," let alone referenced in the context of trying to make a home-made explosive. To get two such references in the same night must be at least improbable.

The following night, I sat down to watch another Asian film, this time from Korea. The film, called The Host, was an enjoyable movie about a creature that mutates after chemicals are dumped into the river. The creature wasn't absurdly huge, running rampage and knocking over the high-rises of Seoul, but nor was it small. The thing was about the size of a truck, and could easily catch and hold people inside its mouth. The film itself was well-made, by a director (Joon-ho Bong) whose work I've discovered over the last year and with whom I've been quite impressed so far. His films seem to cross a wide variety of genres, but are always skillfully made and deliberately constructed, and this film, essentially a modern take on the classic Asian monster movies, was no different.

Finishing the film, I started to watch a new episode of Mad Men, the excellent drama about an advertising company in the 1960s. In one of the more memorable moments in the episode, the show's main character, Don Draper, goes out for a night on the town with the firm's financial officer, Lane Pryce, getting drunk, and then going to the movies. Now, I thought they had gone to see Godzilla, but it seems it was actually Gamera they were watching (my knowledge of the 60s-era Japanese giant monsters is evidently pretty poor). In any case, an on-screen appearance of a classic Asian monster movie (in a show like Mad Men, of all things) immediately after watching a modern-day variant on such films is definitely noticeable.

Now, I realise all these coincidences are meaningless. There's no significance to it. And, as a friend of mine said, when you watch as much television as I do, occasionally you get coincidences. (Indeed, I remember one night last year where, on two different programmes, I heard Europe's "The Final Countdown" played on a ukulele and a brass band. How improbable is that?) But it actually doesn't happen that often - that's why each of these coincidences in and of themselves were noticeable. When you get that many instances in such a short space of time (and remember, all of these took place in the space of three days), where different documentaries and movies and television shows, produced over a period of ten years in a total of four different languages and all different genres, all happened to be watched by myself in the same short period of time, where they all had distinctive elements that resonate with each other, that is unusual. It's not just a coincidence, it's a coincidence of coincidences.

Or perhaps it's not a coincidence. Perhaps someone somewhere is trying to warn me and prepare me. Who knows, perhaps one day we'll be attacked by a giant mutant pig giving birth to smaller mutant pigs. If that ever happens, I'll know exactly what to get from the garden-supply store and the wherever-the-hell-you-get-molasses-from store in order to destroy the monster.

Or perhaps it just means I watch too much television. Gee, I hope not.

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