This is such a unique film I was not sure into which category I should place
it! At least part of the issue is that the historical figure on whom the movie is based, Franz Kafka, led a bizarre enough
life, at least in literary terms. So the review ended up here.
Kafka the movie has Jeremy Irons as the eponymous writer who encounters
skullduggery in the Prague
of the early 20th century. The movie’s story line assumes that that the
stories Kafka wrote about were based on his actual experiences. Thus, the Irons Kafka is accused of a crime by a pair of unctuous
police bureaucrats (ala The Trial ); makes his way through a bureaucratic maze to reach an otherwise unapproachable
citadel (ala The Castle ); and there encounters assorted experiments on unwilling subjects in order to create
good citizens (ala The Penal Colony ). The film is appropriately moody with vistas of fog enshrouded Prague,
and at times ponderous with vistas of stultifying file cabinets. It has one of the great lines of post-modern motion
pictures: when Kafka confronts the mastermind technocratic overlord over the Castle's experiments to reengineer
humans into good members of society, Irons tells him: "I've tried to write nightmares,
and you've built one!"
There's plenty of good stuff in Kafka
about the individual against the mass, and about the evils of social engineering, something to be remembered in these days
of PC run amok. And of a time when the individual who rebelled against the system was the good guy. What makes this all the
more effective is that the movie Kafka is not your usual hero. He's an insurance clerk with literary skills,
an average man who sees what is going on through the omnipresent fog and behind the file cabinets (in one scene, quite
The plot goes into gear with Kafka searching for a missing friend. Men standing
up for their comrades and all that sort of thing. And it ends with him reconciling with his father. In between, we see
Irons go forward on his quest, overcoming not the usual comic book villains, but instead the forces of dull conformity and
stifling bureaucracy...all things men are likely to face today.
There are some fine performances by Ian Holm, Alec Guinness and Theresa Russell,
the latter as a female anarchist. Defying Hollywood convention, when she is in the clutches of the
nightmare-makers Kafka does not rescue her. Instead, he does something rare in the movies: he understands the truth and
thus liberates himself. The movie ends with Kafka returning home with the knowledge of how his society is really run, and
gaining some inner peace in the face of the inevitable decay of the flesh.
I debated (with myself, who else makes decisions on this website?) about including Barton Fink in Movies for
MRAS. In the end, I decided it's worth watching. Barton Fink is a New York playwright who is also something of an
intellectual and self-proclaimed man of the people--though in the opening scene we see him dressed in a tuxedo and hobnobbing
with the upper crust. His agent informs him that he has gotten the call from Hollywood to be a contract writer for the studios.
Seeing this as his big opportunity to reach those masses he claims are out there, Barton goes west to find his destiny. But
he finds himself confronted with writer's block, megalomaniac studio executives, and a couple of cops trying
to pin a murder rap on someone--not to mention a dame.
Barton Fink defies categorization. It's part film noire, part black comedy, part descent into a modern
Inferno (quite literally at one point). John Turturro plays Barton with a look that seems not unlike someone who just wandered
out of an early David Lynch film. He takes up residence at the Hotel Earle, a shambles on the other side of the Styx from
the glitz of Hollywood in its self-proclaimed golden age. Ensconced among the peeling wallpaper, he plans to write the
defining screenplay of his time...if he could only get some words on paper! The movie then follows Barton as he finds his
muse. He develops a rough friendship with Charlie, the insurance salesman in the next room, played by with good humored
malice by John Goodman. There follows some obvious stuff in which Barton doesn't give Charlie the chance to tell the real
stories he came here to write. He also meets a woman, Audrey (Judy Davis), and seems to fall for her...and at this point I
was ready to drop Barton Fink from the ranks of Movies for MRAs. So much for MGTOW, Barton! Then I really
got what was going on in this joint.
Audrey tells Barton she has ghost written the works of William Faulkneresque novelist W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney),
who spends most of his time in an alcoholic haze. In the seemingly male world of Hollywood, she is the real genius--or at
least so she says. I came to a different conclusion. Audrey is actually another demon in the hell in which Barton finds himself
trapped. It's pretty obvious when you look at the way she is portrayed: fiery red hair, pasty white makeup, a style that is
a little too smooth. When Barton calls on her for help, she seduces him instead, almost creating a fiasco for him at a
script conference with studio mogul Lipnick (Michael Lerner). One wonders if Audrey was the succubus who drained Mayhew's
talents and then claimed them for her own?
With the walls closing in (literally, given the hotel's cheap wallpaper), Barton is rescued by Charlie who disposes of
the demon. Men liberating other men, no doubt. (Charlie has a head for this sort of thing). Barton, now freed from the
blandishments of the female sex, turns out the script of a lifetime. All's it takes is a homicide or two, a conflagration,
and another Kafka-esque meeting with the studio bigwigs.
The movie ends with Barton on the beach, having symbolically
fallen into the pictures. Despite the loss of just about everything, he now knows the truth. It's too bad that it took
the apocalypse to force him to see what was in front of his face right from the start. But still, better late than never.
I did want to take an opportunity here to comment on one scene which seems bizarre, even for a movie which is bizarre
writ large. After his night in the sack with Audrey, Barton goes to the aforementioned script conference sans script.
When Lipnick asks him about the story, Barton tells him that he does not discuss works in progress. In response, Lipnick literally
gets on his hands and knees to thank him for his talents. Did Barton really pull a fast one here? I don't think so. Lipnick's
been dealing with writers forever, and he knows a con job when he sees one. His act was simply that, an act to get Barton
motivated. Maybe he's the real hero of this movie.
I've been meaning to write a review of Memento for some time. It was a matter of finding the right angle. Leonard
Shelby (Guy Pearce) is another protagonist who wakes up in a motel room with amnesia, and murder is involved. Memento
gives this hoary plot a new spin with a device which might have turned into a gimmick but works flawlessly here: the film's
scenes are shown in reverse order to simulate Leonard's special kind of amnesia -- he loses only his short term memories.
What brought on his condition was being assaulted by assailants on the night his wife was assaulted/murdered, or at least
so he remembers. The movie then proceeds to unfold the backstory as Leonard tracks the killers to the climactic conclusion
which is really the start of the tale's chronology. Along the way, Shelby has plenty of opportunities to wax philosophic on the
meaning of life. Yet the movie has a darker undertone involving the obsessions that drag men into oblivion. At one point,
Leonard hires an escort to replicate his wife's last night in bed with him, but he finds out that he can not go home again,
literally or figuratively.
One thing that makes Memento work is that it makes sense. If you watch the scenes closely enough, the
answers are all there. The character motivations can be unraveled, the trail to the real killer is exposed. Carrie-Anne Moss
and Joe Pantoliano, right out of The Matrix, are on hand to give the proceedings a suitably surreality. The movie
becomes a morality play set in a suburban film noir of sunbaked streets, cheesy motels, and flashy if trashy drug
Shelby himself is a bizarre figure, his body tattooed with the clues leading to his wife's killers. (Though you'd think
he would also carry a videocam and tape recorder in addition to his camera for a more complete reconstruction of the world
that dissolves around him every fifteen minutes...) Incidentally, for a former insurance executive, Shelby has a pretty good
arsenal of martial arts techniques!
Much of the movie's interest is in Shelby's voice-over reflections on his world. He sees things, he remembers (sorta)
things, he analyzes what is going on about him. He has flashes of insight, even if only in little memories of his long
gone wife. Truly a thinking man's movie. Once you've gotten to the end, there's an implication that when he pulls the trigger
on another character in the movie's opening it is the endgame of a scenario he has developed to free himself of the forces
which have been manipulating him. Or maybe he is just nuts.
Here's the deal: Memento ought to get men to thinking not so much about where they are going, but where they
have come from, and what they might perceive as opposed to what is really out there. As Shelby's tale unravels, we see the
pathologies which lead men into self-destruction, or in this case, destroying their own options to give play to their obsessions.
Still, Shelby has a choice, sort of, one that comes every fifteen minutes, but then again, so do most men, they simply
have to recognize it is there and seize it.
THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR
There's a scene in in here where two men find out that their world is nothing more than a virtual reality simulacrum.
One man responds by declaring that this means his life is pointless; the other man by realizing the vast new vistas which
he can now explore in the realworld which has been opened to him. Had they made The Thirteenth Floor about this,
men facing a crisis and expanding their consciousness, it might have been a great movie. Alas, it goes in another direction.
It's not a bad direction, but you can see the wasted potential.
The plot is another fusing of film noire onto science fiction, in the tradition of Blade Runner and Dark
City. A man has amnesia, is accused of murder, there's some identity switcheroos, and a femme
fatale. It's not uninteresting, and the movie does provide a twist or two, but not enough to overcome the hackneyed elements.
The film's antagonist (Vincent D'Onofrio) is not especially menacing: the barkeep at a posh hotel-dance emporium located
within a VR simulation of Los Angeles in the 1930s. The protagonist (Craig Bierko) is a scientist who jumps into this phototinted
world from what appears to be Los Angeles of the near and present future in search of a murdered scientist. Then there is
some back and forth between two worlds, the police get involved, Bierko has a fling with the femme fatale who has a secret
of her own. We've seen all that before. What I would have liked to have seen is, as noted, D'Onofrio and Bierko dealing with
the possibilities of their world not being real, taking the Red Pill (to use a metaphor from another movie), and going their
own way. There's a truly stunning scene where one of the characters drives out beyond the limits of the city, stops, gets
out of his car--and sees, really sees for the first time, the false front that is his world.
Another stunning scene is a shot of a taxi driving down the Wilshire Boulevard of the simulated 1930s, pulling back to
show that what is today the concrete and steel jungle of Los Angeles was then mainly an open field. It says something
about the real world being even more disturbing than any science fiction simulation, something that men ought to consider