Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Julien Donkey-boy


My new infomercial, Virtually Vicki , in which I present the late night cable viewing public with an assortment of quality consumer wares will soon be debuting on both the Lifetime and Oxygen networks. Madame Rose, my publicist, says market research shows that viewers of these networks are more likely to purchase VickiWear and Mrs. Norman Maine collector dolls than viewers of WWF Smackdown . Look for it at 4 AM EDT or 1 AM PDT sometime in the coming months. Frankly, I'm looking forward to getting some of the cases of fine products out of Chateau Maine. I keep tripping over crates of Lesterene avocado/walnut scalp tonic and Spam/pineapple facial scrub; I almost broke a toe last week - a major disaster for a trained dancer such as myself.

Joseph faxed me more information on my upcoming hostess gig at the awards show. The fax was a bit smeared but they seem to be calling me Eminem rather than MNM (I must have that corrected) and the awards are called the Tip-Top awards (I think...) My cohost is to be someone named P. Dippy who used to be called Puff Daffy. It all sounds a bit confusing but I'm sure it will all be sorted out before I have to present myself at the Apollo Theater in New York. They want me to do one of my famous tap (?) rap (?) numbers - I thought perhaps Tap Your Troubles Away would be most appropriate and I headed off to my dance studio to choreograph for an hour or two.

A little while later, winded, but pleased with the time steps and other novelties, I settled down in the home theater. The latest arrival from Netflix was a film entitled Julien Donkey-Boy that I had assumed was a good old-fashioned swords and sandals biopic of the fourth century Roman emperor, Julian the apostate. When the opening credits came up saying the film had been certified as meeting the standards of Dogma '95, I knew the dyslexia had kicked in again.

Dogma '95 is a movement launched by a number of Scandinavian filmmakers, led by Lars Van Trier ( The Kingdom, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves ), which seeks to achieve greater purity in the art form of cinema by stripping away the layers of artifice. Among the tenets of the Dogma filmmakers are that films are to be made on location, rather than on sets. There are to be no visual or sound effects, rather just ambient sound and props that would occur naturally. Music is only to be used if part of the scene in a natural manner. Cameras are to be hand held and immediate in terms of capturing action. Very few films have been made that adhere to all of the Dogma rules (the Danish film The Celebration is the only one that comes to mind) and one of the unspoken rules of the Dogma movement seems to be a willingness to break the rules. This suggests that the whole thing is a bunch of pretentious nonsense aimed mainly at enlivening debate in the European film community, rather than a true form of artistic expression.

Julien Donkey-Boy, despite its certification, does violate a few of the Dogma precepts. Music is used thematically, especially Puccini's aria O Mio Babinno Caro which recurs as a leitmotif throughout the film. There is also evidence of post-production manipulation of the pixilated digital video in which the film is shot. (Cut sequences included on the DVD show the more natural colors prior to this processing.) The film is the story of Julien, a schizophrenic, who lives with his dysfunctional family in a poorer section of a nameless American city. There's no strict narrative plot, but rather scenes of life amongst the family members. It's not possible to tell what is real and what is not as we are sucked into Julien's disturbed mind.

The family consists of Julien (Scottish actor Ewan Bremner in a brave performance); his sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), pregnant with what is implied to be Julien's child; his brother Chris (Evan Neumann), a failed wrestler; his abusive drug using father (German director Werner Herzog), mourning the death of his late wife; and a grandmother (Joyce Korine) who never speaks (is she mute? is she demented? we do not know.) Julien wanders the streets, fights with his family, may or may not murder a child in a misunderstanding, and volunteers his time at a school for the blind. The disorienting hand held camera work, overlapping images, cutting between color and black & white, and use of stills rather than motion, creates a perverse stream of consciousness that allows the viewer a glimpse into Julien's disordered consciousness.

This is not a film for the whole family. Many, who are used to narrative cohesion and easily understood images are going to have grave difficulty with this movie and are likely to turn it off after ten minutes. For some, it will be disturbing because it's too real - kind of like finding the home videos of a family from the wrong side of the tracks and becoming a voyeur. Those, who understand what writer/director Korine is doing, are likely to be fascinated with the attempt to build a world-view founded in the reality of mental illness, not an easy task.

The stand out performances are Bremner as Julien and Werner Herzog as the addled father. Dad, with his gas mask and dictatorial style, is like a Germanic Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet , abusing his children to exorcise his own demons. Herzog brings the same driven intensity to the character that he does to life, at least as evidenced by the films Fitzcarraldo and its accompanying documentary Burden of Dreams . The supporting cast also has their moments, especially Evan Neuman taking out his frustrations in wrestling inanimate objects or family members.

Sequences outside the family highlight the feelings of alienation and uncertainty between reality and hallucination. The family attends church at an African American service, the only white faces in the congregation. We are introduced to a neighbor born without arms who has scenes straight out of Tod Browning's Freaks - he ends up drumming with his feet while his girlfriend dances. Is it real or is it Julien's disordered mind?

All in all, I can't say that I liked or enjoyed the film, and the end promise of another generation born to such circumstances seems a bit tragic, but I did admire it for being uncompromising. Korine took a big bite of the cookie when he made this film. He hasn't necessarily chewed it thoroughly and there are moments that are dumb and incomprehensible. But, for a director of twenty-five with many years before him, he has shown that it is possible to go in new directions with American film.

The DVD contains the film, a couple of cut scenes (one of Julien at the therapist seems too straight forward given how elliptical the rest of the film is) and a brief behind the scenes documentary talking with Korine and his stars. There is also some footage of Korine's schizophrenic uncle on whom the character is based.

Symbolic ice-skating. Garbage can wrestling. Wedding dress blues. Gratuitous cigarette in mouth tricks. Off key mariachi. Black albino. Foot card sharping. Baby napping. Chaos poetry. Brassiere costume. Bus riding.

No comments:

Post a Comment