Thursday, October 30, 2014

Watch This: The War Room

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The War Room (1993)
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

With midterm elections coming up next week, many Americans are no doubt looking forward to being able to fulfill their civic duty by casting their votes for the candidate of their choice.  For many, this will also mean a much anticipated slackening in the onslaught of personal attacks targeted at said candidates.  With the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous social media feeding these attack campaigns, and what seems like a growing gap between politicians and the citizens they are supposed to represent, it's difficult not to become overwhelmed by the negativity and cynicism, and to forget that there was a time when local and national elections brought with them a sense of hope for positive change.  One such instance was the presidential election of 1992, when Arkansas governor Bill Clinton emerged as the Democratic frontrunner in opposition to Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.  Clinton was elected in a landslide victory as the first Democratic president in almost a generation, and much of his victory can be attributed to the work of his campaign staff, who helped Clinton overcome a sex scandal and galvanized record numbers of young voters.  This unconventional, game-changing campaign was chronicled by filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker in their revealing and entertaining behind-closed-doors documentary, The War Room.

When Hegedus and Pennebaker initially set out to document Clinton's campaign, they were denied access to the candidate himself.  Consequently, they turned their focus to Clinton's chief campaign strategists, Campaign Manager James Carville and Director of Communications George Stephanopoulos.  One could easily argue that the lack of access to Clinton was fortuitous, because the resulting film is a compelling, buddy comedy-like portrait of two opposites, brought together by their shared idealism and belief in their cause.  Carville, nicknamed the "Ragin' Cajun," emerges as the film's real star, a charismatic, passionate, inspiring, witty, and sometimes profane strategist whose incisive dissection of key issues ("The economy, stupid!") keeps the staff focused.  Stephanopoulos is equally passionate and brilliant, but his comparatively low-keyed manner makes him a natural foil to the outspoken Carville.

As the film opens in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, Clinton is still one of many Democratic candidates, and we see the local campaign staff dealing with torn-down signs.  After Clinton has emerged as the frontrunner and added Al Gore as his Vice-Presidential candidate, we see the team debating about sign colors for the Democratic Convention.  Later, there is a heated discussion about the wording of a TV spot.  We see Carville bemoaning what he sees as the press's unbalanced coverage of the two candidates after Bush mentions Clinton's alleged draft-dodging.  "Every time somebody farts the word 'draft,' it's on the front page of the paper," says Carville, and he wants to know why there are so few stories about Bush's broken election year promise ("Read my lips: no new taxes").

Much of the footage seen in the latter half of the film was shot at Clinton's national campaign headquarters, nicknamed the "war room," and there is a sense for the viewer of eavesdropping on the campaign proceedings, a feeling that you are there in the room during these moments in history.  The film employs none of the direct interviews with participants and voice-over narratives that have come to dominate the mainstream documentary style over the past two decades.  Pennebaker and Hegedus, true to their roots in the "direct cinema" movement that began in the 1960s, sought to capture these events as they were happening, with no rehearsal or staging, and the result truly is a feeling of "being there."  This aesthetic lends the film an immediacy and tension that make it easy to forget that we know going in what the result of the election is.  Clinton wins, of course, but this film is not about the result, it's about the process that led to that result.

More than anything, what comes through in these captured moments is a feeling of optimism and pride from Clinton's campaign staff.  On the eve of the election, with Clinton a clear leader in the polls, Stephanopoulos is seen praising Carville and the rest of the team, stating that after the next day people will have better jobs, pay less for healthcare, get better healthcare, and their children will go to better schools.  He is later captured saying that this campaign is the best thing he ever did.  A choked-up Carville can also be seen talking about how they changed the way campaigns are run, and he makes it clear throughout the film how important it is for them to win, not just for Clinton, but for the impact his victory would have on the field of campaign strategy.  It is apparent from these scenes that these feelings are sincere, that it's not just a performance.  They truly believe that Clinton is the best man for the job.

The film is particularly interesting to watch from a contemporary perspective, as subsequent years have shed new light on the allegations of marital infidelity that threatened to derail the Clinton campaign even before the primaries.  Clinton is seen denying the affair with Gennifer Flowers to the press, and key members of his campaign team make it clear that they believe in his innocence regarding these matters.  Clinton, of course, later admitted to a sexual encounter with Flowers.  It's also fascinating to see that many of the key points in Clinton's campaign platform (ending the recession, job growth, universal healthcare, and education reform) are still key issues over twenty years later.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What drips through the filter?

Many of us are aware that our Google searches are tailored to us to a certain extent; what I see when I  google "libraries" probably isn't exactly what you'd see. What we may not have thought about is the extent to which our web experiences are being personalized for us, and what implications that can have on how we understand and interact with the world.

One feature of our online library resources, which we probably don't talk about as much as we should, is that they don't discriminate. If you and I type in exactly the same thing into exactly the same place, JSTOR should show both of us the same data, without trying to guess which articles one of us would "like." It's a more objective, and hopefully more comprehensive, presentation of options.

A good TED talk about the "filter bubble" and how it may be shrinking our world in a not-so-positive way:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Watch This: Hostel

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Hostel (2006)
Written and directed by Eli Roth

The horror film has long been an unfairly maligned genre, despite its popularity among general audiences, and despite the fact that a number of the best films ever made (Nosferatu (1922), Psycho (1960), Dawn of the Dead (1978), to name just a few) fall within that genre.  The splatter film sub-genre, in which graphic displays of gore and violence take center stage, has especially been the target of widespread negativity, and its resurgence in the last decade has been no exception.  This recent wave of gore-centric horror films has been dubbed "torture porn" by critics, and while many of these films leave something to be desired (there is certainly some merit to the claim by the sub-genre's detractors that "gory" does not mean "scary"), one of the films that helped launch this trend, Eli Roth's Hostel, is far more creative, clever, and darkly funny than its subpar successors.  Roth infuses his film with the same combination of genuine dread, gruesome gore, sly commentary, and oddball dark humor that made his directorial debut Cabin Fever (2002) such a joy to watch.

Hostel follows American college students Josh (Derek Richardson) and Paxton (Jay Hernandez) as they travel across Europe with their Icelandic friend Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson).  As the film opens, the three are in Amsterdam.  Paxton and Oli are eager to fulfill every hedonistic desire, but the more sensitive Josh, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, is clearly uncomfortable in this environment, and is reticent to engage in sexual activity, even though Paxton insists that he sleep with a "hot Euro chick" to help him get over his break-up.

They meet a young Eastern European man named Alex, who tells them about a hostel in Slovakia that is filled with beautiful women.  The three friends board a train for Slovakia.  They share a compartment with a Dutch businessman (Jan Vlasak, in a superbly discomfiting performance), who makes unsettling conversation and touches Josh's leg, leading to an outburst of protest from Josh.  They arrive at the hostel, where they are greeted by two beautiful young women, Natalya and Svetlana, who invite them to a spa and a disco.  At the disco, Josh has another encounter with the Dutch businessman, and their interaction opens up questions about Josh's sexual orientation.  Paxton and Josh end up spending the night with Natalya and Svetlana, but the next morning, Oli is gone, as is a Japanese girl who was also staying at the hostel.  A few scenes later, we see Oli's decapitated head on a table in a blood-spattered, dungeon-like room, and the Japanese girl strapped to a chair in a room down the hall.

Josh and Paxton decide to stay one more night, and at the disco, they are both drugged.  Josh wakes up strapped to a chair in the same type of dark, dirty room we saw earlier, where he is tortured and eventually killed by the Dutch businessman.  Paxton, who passed out in the disco's storage closet, makes his way back to the hostel, where he finds Josh is missing.  The local authorities are no help, and after Paxton tracks Natalya and Svetlana to a local pub, they tell him Josh and Oli are at an "art show."  Natalya agrees to take him there, and they arrive at a factory, where Paxton discovers the horrific sight of the Dutch businessman stitching up Josh's internal organs.  Paxton is dragged to another room and strapped to a chair.  Through a combination of luck and daring, Paxton manages to escape his torturer, and after a surreal encounter with a manic American businessman, who mistakes Paxton for a fellow paying customer (the organization responsible for arranging the gruesome killings calls itself "Elite Hunting"), he eventually makes his way out of the building.  Outside, he hears cries for help.  Will he choose to save himself, or will he go back and save the screaming victim?  And how will he make it out of town when so many local people seem to be involved in the conspiracy to lure potential victims to their demise?

While there is all the ample gore and nudity one often expects from this type of film, Hostel's clever narrative structure and formal playfulness make it clear that Roth had far more than just exploitation in mind when he made the film.  For example, Josh is positioned as the film's protagonist in the first half, with his sensitivity, his backstory of heartbreak, and the implication that he may be gay.  However, rather than exploring this dimension of the character, Roth kills him off halfway through, taking a page from the book of Alfred Hitchcock, who famously offed the protagonist of Psycho midway through the film.  The film's creative editing provides a good bit of morbid humor as well.  In one sequence, a close-up shot of a bolt cutter beginning to snip off a Japanese girl's toe cuts directly to another close-up shot of her friend clipping her toenail.  In a later scene at the factory, as Paxton hides on a cart of corpses being prepared for incineration, a butcher begins carving up bodies with a meat cleaver, and the scene is edited so that each cut between shots is matched to the sound of the cleaver cutting into flesh.

Roth also makes a direct link between sex and murder, both of which are seen as the fulfillment of fleshly desires.  Outside of the Amsterdam brothel, Josh says, "Paying to go into a room to do whatever you want to someone isn't exactly a turn-on," but the film suggests that there are indeed many people who would pay good money to do just that, although not in the way that Josh meant.  This idea is further enhanced by the mirroring of the early brothel sequence, in which Josh walks down the hall peering at the silhouettes of people engaged in an array of sexual activity, with the later sequence in the factory, where Paxton passes room after room of bloody victims being sliced, diced, and beaten.  There is certainly an element of voyeurism as both the film's characters and the viewer peer into each room, and during these and other sequences, especially those involving gore and nudity, the camera often seems to mimic a human gaze.

Hostel is obviously not for the squeamish, but there is more going on than just the superficial nudity and gore.  The film is critical of its characters' blind devotion to hedonism, and there is an implicit disapproval of the Americans' blatant disregard for any local culture or customs.  It is a warning to those who pursue worldly pleasures ahead of all else.

The film also hints that the desire to kill is an inherent part of human nature.  As one Elite Hunting customer says about the factory, "Be careful ... You could spend all your money in there."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Watch This: Ugetsu

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Ugetsu (1953)
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

The realm of Japanese cinema still rests in the shadow of its two best-known directors, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.  However, there are many who would rank the great Kenji Mizoguchi ahead of both Kurosawa and Ozu, and one could hardly fault them.  Mizoguchi's technical mastery earned him accolades from his filmmaking peers both in Japan and overseas, and his textured examinations of Japanese society, particularly its treatment of women, have led him to be regarded as one of the cinema's first feminist directors.  Mizoguchi, who died at the relatively young age of 58, directed nearly 100 hundred films over the course of his career, but his best work came in the last decade of his life.  He once said, "It was only when I passed 40 that I understood the human truths I want to express in my films," and the later years of his career are marked by a string of great films like Women of the Night (1948), The Life of Oharu (1952), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and Street of Shame (1956).  His best film, and certainly one of the best films ever made, is Ugetsu (1953), a beautiful, fantastical, and haunting story of ambition and love set during the civil wars in sixteenth-century Japan.  It is also, perhaps appropriately for a post written in the month of October, a ghost story, although it is certainly a ghost story like no other.

The film follows two peasant brothers, the potter Genjuro and the farmer Tobei, both of whom are married and live in a rural village.  Both men are consumed by obsessive ambitions: Genjuro hopes to sell his pottery and become wealthy, while Tobei dreams of becoming a samurai.  Amid the threat of nearby fighting, they set off for the city.  Genjuro soon returns with a sack full of gold and new kimonos for his wife and child, but rather than staying home to enjoy this bit of prosperity with his family, he plans to make more pottery and set off again as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, Tobei tries to enlist in a samurai's army, but is turned away because he has no armor, and he returns home dejected and embarrassed.  Although their wives would gladly trade material wealth for lives of happiness and safety with their husbands, both brothers are eager to take advantage of wartime conditions and chase their dreams.

Soldiers raid their village, but Genjuro's pottery is unharmed, and again the two brothers set off for the city, this time with their wives accompanying them.  In one of the film's most visually striking scenes, they take a boat across a fog-blanketed lake, where an encounter with a passing boatman alerts them to further danger from pirates.  Genjuro's wife, Miyagi, is returned to the shore, but the other three continue on, undeterred by the danger.

In the city, Tobei becomes separated from his wife and brother.  Some time later, he kills a samurai and manages to fool a lord into giving him a house and men to follow him.  Tobei takes his men to a brothel, where he discovers that his wife has been working as a geisha since he abandoned her in the city.  Meanwhile, Genjuro's pottery sells quickly.  One of his customers is the mysterious noblewoman Lady Wakasa, who admires his work and invites him to her castle.  Even at first sight, Genjuro is entranced by her otherworldly beauty, and he is seduced soon after his arrival at her castle.  Genjuro soon realizes that Lady Wakasa is a ghost, and there is an unforgettable scene where Genjuro sees her castles as the charred ruin it truly is.

Toward the end of the film, both men have returned home, and both are forgiven by their wives for their foolish ambitions.  However, there is a surprise in store for both one of the brothers and the viewer, and unanticipated revelation about one of the characters that brings a haunting power to the film's conclusion.

While the film's protagonists are ostensibly the two brothers, it is really their two wives, Miyagi and Ohama, that give the film its emotional and thematic depth.  Genjuro and Tobei are blind to their wives' pleas for levelheadedness and domestic happiness, and the brothers' blind focus on foolish ambition is what leads the two women to their respective fates.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ugetsu is Mizoguchi's seamless blending of realism and the otherworldly.  There is a seamless flow between the richly-detailed scenes of village and city life and the atmospheric, ethereal scenes involving Lady Wakasa.  This is a ghost story that is firmly entrenched in the reality of everyday Japanese life, a quality makes its impact that much greater.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Furniture Keeps Coming

We have received another shipment of furniture. Stop by and try it out.

And also, we are thankful to the SHGA for their donation of a stapler for the front desk.

October DVD Spotlight: Horror Films

It's October, and that means 'tis the season for scary movies!  Reeves Memorial Library will be celebrating Halloween all month long by featuring a select group of horror films from our DVD collection.  Included are classics and campy cult favorites from the silent era up to the present:

Audition (1999)
The Crawling Eye (1958)
The Exorcist (1973)
Hostel (2005)
Nosferatu (1922)
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Psycho (1960)
Saw (2004)
The Shining (1980)

Come to the library and check these out ... if you dare.