Sunday, January 4, 2009

Movie Review: Suicide Club

This is a really promising movie from the start, and though I think it has more than its share of problems, it ultimately left me with the sense of confounded, frustrated intrigue that makes me want to write about something. The basic story is of a sudden rash of suicides in Tokyo. It’s a serious topic, and the parallels to real life are obvious – Japan has the second-highest suicide rates in the world, and events very similar to that depicted here are common. These are on a huge, ludicrous scale in line with Japanese horror films, though – fifty girls at a time throw themselves in front of a train in the film’s opening sequence.

That sequence shows off one of the great choices made, the cinema verite camerawork that blurs the line between documentary and absurd horror. This isn’t the gimmicky handheld style spreading in movies like Cloverfield, but a much more neutral camera eye that, with its slight graininess and locked-off view conveys a different kind of “realness.” It makes the opening gut-wrenching, as it sets up the girls as strikingly everyday. Then it goes into splatter mode, drenching the train in corn-syrup blood. It’s a dichotomy – between the real and the absurd, the filmic and the lived – the movie goes on to play with quite compellingly.

The following hour does a great job of offering a view of what is, in the film’s own parlance, a jigsaw world, where the suicides are suggested as, at least possibly, having causes both concrete and more metaphorical. No punches are pulled in making this a story about Japan’s ongoing social malaise, as everyone in the movie guzzles crap pop-culture in the form of the preteen girl-group Dessert, people sadly hunt for companionship on the internet, kids follow fads without knowing the line between a joke and a commitment, and everyone on the trains looks like they’re about to kill themselves just on principle. There’s a parallel ambiguity to the detective story that pins it all down. Are these true suicides? Is something supernatural going on? A crazed teen fad?

All of this richness is what makes the film’s one hour mark at first galling, then rewarding, as it trots out a barely-developed, malevolent “villain” to take the fall for the ongoing rash of deaths. At first it seems unbelievably ham-handed, a narrative dues ex machina that explains far too much of what has come before. But soon, we realize that the film itself is making this exact point, as it spins back out into chaos and despair. We are quite bluntly being told that there are no easy answers, that, just maybe, the problems being described are far deeper than any mass murderer.

One thing that bugs the shit out of me with this movie, and with a lot of Japanese movies, is that even though one of the film’s themes is the manipulative pull of pop music, it uses some of the most saccharine film music, at some of the most obvious and pappy moments, of any film I have ever seen. It’s so ham-handed it’s almost like Godard’s satire of film music (I forget the name of that one). Further, the film’s closing trades in a few too many of the tropes of Japanese horror, as in its use of children and a descent into surrealism.

It does highlight particular social problems, and ends with a truly unfortunate ‘message’ moment about being ‘connected to yourself,’ as if, despite his earlier trick, the writer didn’t have the will to leave things truly unresolved. But it does retain a (to me) certain irresolvable status, a refusal to settle clearly on any ‘villain’ that reminded me a great deal of the recent “Dark Knight.” Perhaps ironically, while the film from supposedly individualistic America has a great deal to say about the role of law in society, the film from supposedly ‘collectivist’ Japan seems to locate all of the problems it depicts in problems of individual choice, behavior, and psychological orientation. This emphasis may ultimately suggest an exacerbation of the very problems of atomization and detachment that the film seems to bemoan.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

On Apollo, Dionysius, and Batman

In response to Paul's post on The Dark Knight:

The gap between the illusion/"hope" of justice, represented by Dent, and the ugly reality of enforcement and extralegality, represented both by the Joker and Batman, connects to some of the most fascinating issues I've been grappling with lately. It seems related to the Birth of Tragedy, as the division between the Apollonian and Dionysian is in one sense that between a comforting illusion of order and sanity on the one hand, and the brutal confrontation with the fundamentally chaotic nature of existence on the other. It ties in even more closely with a discussion I was recently having with my brother, who is a nascent libertarian. My argument to him (though I didn't put it in these terms) was that, ironically, libertarianism is founded on an assumed Apollonian worldview. That is, you can only argue for libertarianism if you believe that the world is subject to an emergent meta-order that develops from the unrestrained actions of many individuals. My contrary position, as a socialist, is essentially dionysian - that we live in a world and society that are ultimately chaotic, and that the important thing is to construct institutions that combat that chaos.
The Dent/Batman duality puts that division on slightly different ground, since Dent's status as the Lawgiver is both personal and institutional - he represents both humanity as Apollonian, and the forces of the state maintaining order in the face of the Dionysian, which is embodied in the Joker, but which implicitly exists in all of us (even Dent).
These two forces have historically traded off - a book like "A Canticle for Leibowitz" shows the episodic nature of human history, achievement followed by collapse ad infinitum. The solution proposed by "The Dark Knight," one that seems to accord with contemporary socialist thought, particularly Laclau, is that one possible way to eliminate this cycle is to make sure that the Dionysian and the Apollonian remain in balance. This requires that the Dionysian remain fundamentally 'outside' but still imaginatively accessible. This is the point of the end of the film - the best way Batman can help maintain order is to remain ultimately outside of order. All of the bat-imitators, even the bat-signal, are symbols of the integration of chaos into order, and that integration ultimately leaves the ordered universe itself less stable. I’m reminded of the chapter from “Freakonomics” about promiscuity – the point that large amounts of celibacy actually makes sex more dangerous by reducing the number of participants and increasing the risk for each one. Stricter and stricter order leads inevitably to its own cataclysmic collapse.