Monday, March 30, 2009
Making the case for incomprehensibility
Here's my question for the day. Must a movie be comprehensible to be worthwhile? For me, the answer is a resounding "no." If I didn't believe that, I'd never look at another of David Lynch's films. Does "Mulholland Drive" make perfect sense? Of course not. Does it sweep you up in a tidal wave of mystery, menace and eroticism? I think so.
Like Lynch, some filmmakers speak a language all their own. But if they're good -- and that's a big "if" -- they create works of magnetism and importance. I'm not talking about annoyingly esoteric cinema, either. Even popular genres -- Japanese horror, for example -- don't always pander to expectation. Put another way, it's not necessarily a bad thing when a filmmaker makes us feel as if we've awakened inside someone else's dream.
Be clear, though: As I make the case for "incomprehensibility," I'm not referring to logical gaffs or lapses in narrative judgment. I'm talking about films that are at once mysterious and compelling, films that are so radically different from the norm, they expand our idea of what cinema can be. If you're familiar with the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin ("The Saddest Music in the World") or the "Cremaster" cycle by artist Matthew Barney, you already know what I mean.
So, too, with the explosively colorful cinema of Sergei Parajanov ("The Color of Pomegranates"). Luis Bunuel ("That Obscure Object of Desire" and "Un chien andalu") could be a brilliant baffler. Even some mainstream filmmakers -- Alfred Hitchcock in "Vertigo," for example -- have taken the plunge into deeply subjective territory.
The list could go on, but I have another purpose here, and that's to wrestle with "Opera Jawa," a movie I've been wanting to see ever since I first read that opera director Peter Sellars, a man of adventurous taste and unrestrained enthusiasms, spoke glowingly about it. "Opera Jawa" originally was created for Vienna's New Crowned Hope Festival, which in 2006 celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Sellars -- a showman and an artist -- directed the festival and selected films for it. The movie since has played other festivals and has had limited theatrical runs in a few cities. It's now available on DVD.
"Opera Jawa" arrived in my mailbox Friday, a welcome contribution from Netflix to a weekend of big-screen torpor. As you can tell I was not wowed by the 3-D of "Monsters vs. Aliens" nor was I frightened by the gloomy claptrap of "The Haunting in Connecticut," both of which will outdraw "Opera Jawa" by landslide proportions. Revenue generation, of course, is not the point: A movie such as "Opera Jawa" is not for every taste.
Director Garin Nugroho defines a brand of artistic and cultural eclecticism that puts him in a class by himself. He makes use of 'gamelan' music, traditional Indonesia dance and a story from the Ramayana, a touchstone literary work of ancient India. Using contemporary settings -- sometimes with period costumes -- Nugroho tells the story of two men who want to possess the same woman, the beautiful Siti. Nugroho's story about lust and jealousy ends tragically, which I suppose is essential. After all, the word "opera" takes up half the movie's title.
The core story of possessive love would be enough to keep the wheels of any movie turning furiously, but Nugroho augments it with commentary about the way virtues (strength) can morph into vices (oppression), thus breeding all manner of social ills. The movie is full of singing, and although I know nothing about Javanese musical tradition, I offered no resistance, perhaps because the songs are accompanied by mesmerizing dances that are erotically charged or abrupt and menacing. Take note: Artika Sari Devi, who plays the woman at the heart of the movie's love triangle, can move her hands in ways that are far more erotic than almost anything Hollywood -- with its penchant for nudity and near-nudity -- normally serves up.
"Opera Jawa" also makes use of installation art, most notably candles sculpted into the form of disembodied human heads. Have I mention the hanging carcasses? Of course, I haven't. Or the mannequins that look like crash test dummies suspended from ceilings? No, not those, either. They're all part of the climate of strangeness that raises a stream of questions, encouraging us to digest images that are beautifully composed yet full of discordant parts.
Many of the images in Nugroho's film could support dissertation-scale discussions about tradition and its relationship to contemporary art, about the incautious mingling of naturalism and surrealism and about the power of emotions pushed -- at least in the case of the male characters -- to near murderous extremes. Maybe it's better simply to watch, secure in the knowledge that we'll get the drift and that we'll be transported to a new places in our imaginations. We can leave what we don't understand for another day, even if we suspect that day may never arrive.
That's the point, I guess: Sometimes bafflement surpasses the comfort we feel as a movie moves mechanically from point "A" to point "B," particularly if all sense of amazement is lost in the bargain. I don't entirely know how to judge "Opera Jawa." I think that's a good thing, maybe even an invaluable thing. The movie's nothing less than an artistic wake-up call for bruised and battered senses, and that's something that needs little or no explanation.