Caught in a Trap. Films reviewed: Shutter Island, Punishment Park, Last Train Home

You walk into a theatre, sit down, relax, stretch your legs, maybe eat a bit of popcorn, maybe nibble at some candy you smuggled in, and get set for sitting in one place for 90 minutes, 2 hours, maybe two and a half hours.

You don’t know the people in front of you, the people behind you, and very likely some of the people sitting right beside you. The lights go out, it’s dark, and you’re in a room full of strangers… so why doesn’t that bother you? Why doesn’t it make you feel claustrophobic to be trapped in a movie theatre? I think it’s because you’re not trapped there, and you chose to go there, and you’re there to enter an open space projected on a giant screen – it’s that huge opening to a world, looking through a looking glass, through a crystal ball, down a rabbit hole – you’re opening something for a little while, you’re escaping – maybe that’s why they call movies escapist – it’s just the opposite of being trapped somewhere.

I think that’s part of the attraction of movies – getting inside of a place you can’t visit physically, being a guest in a different world for a short time.

But the movies you see are sometimes about people caught in a trap. Here are a few movies about people caught somewhere but can’t seem to get out.

In Shutter Island, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese, US Marshall Daniels takes the ferry to a remote cliff-covered island with an old lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s 1952. There’s a hospital-cum-prison for the criminally insane there, and it’s a place that, it’s said, once you’re inside it, there’s no way to escape. But a woman who committed a terrible crime has escaped, so Daniels, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffallo) are called in to solve this unexplainable mystery. And Daniels has a secret goal of his own – to try to find out what happened to the man who brutally murdered hiswife and three children, and seems to have disappeared. Was he hiding on this island? And what really was going on in that old lighthouse?

Once he arrives there, Daniels is gradually stripped of his symbols of power as a Marshall – he is forced to give up his gun, his badge, his shoes, even his suit, and is soon dressed in a the white clothes of the orderlies there. But he begins to suspect that the psychiatrists have been slipping him drugs, and begins to have realistic hallucinations of his own. As one character he meets tells him, once you’re here they can decide you’re crazy, and anything you can say to them will just prove you really are crazy. It’s a deadly trap – an island with no way out, and hospital that’s said to conduct terrible experiments on its patients. He’s also haunted by memories of liberating the Dachau concentration camp in Germany – one psychiatrist at the hospital feels like a Nazi to him

I don’t want to give away the plot – and it’s a twisted one, approaching Mulholland Drive proportions – but the movie left me more or less satisfied with the various plot turns. It isn’t a great movie, but an entertaining one – though 2 ½ hrs long. The scary hospital scenes and the dramatically towering cliffs were really effective, though the brittleness of the video it was shown on left me a bit more chilled than I would have liked – I prefer the warmth of film over digital’s nails-on–the-blackboard feel.

The anti-psychiatry themes of imprisonment, despair and cruel and despotic psychiatrists persecuting patients are strong in this film at first, but fizzle away in the convoluted plot. DiCaprio’s performance was not bad, but I still see him as a kid trying to play a grown up, and he doesn’t convince me. He keeps squinting his eyes and scrunching up his forehead to look perplexed – I guess that’s what they call “acting”.

So, not a terrific film, it’s no Taxi Driver, but it wasn’t bad either; you can see it as a Hollywood dramatic-thriller and leave it at that.

I saw a very unusual but very good film last week, that I had never really heard of, even though it was made in 1971, called Punishment Park, directed by Peter Watkins (who also made movies like the amazing biopic Edvard Munch).

It’s a fake documentary about a group of anti-war protestors who are put on trial by a panel consisting of corporate head, a politician, a judge, a suburban housewife, a union worker – basically The Man — versus activists of different stripes (a feminist, a pacifist, a black-power activist, and some violent militants).

After a long tribunal consisting of diatribes and shouting matches between the two sides – (with some of the defendants being restrained or even gagged for talking out of turn) they are all sentenced to absurdly long prison terms – or given the option of choosing three days in Punishment Park.

The European documentary filmmakers are allowed to record all this for their TV stations, and to follow them to Punishment Park – a bizarre obstacle course in the middle of the desert, sort of an Outward Bound, but to the death, or a proto-reality show – a “Survivor: California” – where they have three days to cross the desert until they reach an American flag on a pole. The protestors and activists are followed by armed police and soldiers chasing after them with automatic weapons. So they are caught in a trap to which there seems to be no escape.

The whole movie really looks like a documentary. It was shot on an almost square aspect ratio of 1-1.33 (the way TV news footage used to look), with the European filmmakers observing this odd American event off-camera, but staying detached as documentary makers tend to do. Watkins eventually brings himself into the story when he finally notices the absurdity and severity of the punishment – and his sees his own crew at risk. If you get a chance to see this amazing movie – hopefully it will play again at the rep cinemas — don’t miss it, it’s as compelling and a propos in 2010 as the day it was made.

Last Train Home, a Canadian documentary, directed by Fan Lixin, about migrant workers in China, follows an everyman couple in their annual pilgrimage from their sewing machines in a factory in the east to their family farm in the west. Once a year, at Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), they take a train ride from Guangdong all the way to Sichuan – it’s their only chance to see their teenage daughter and younger son.

China’s population went from 20% urban, 80% rural in 1980 to nearly a 50-50 split over just 30 years. Fan Lixin captures the enormousness of this huge, migrant population, (estimated between 100 and 300 million people) as it rushes, en masse, home for the holidays. Scenes like the ones in Guangzhou station, with a human flood of people trying to catch a train or even to get their bags on board, are great; he also caught the mood of the crowds during the massive, three-day power outage that stranded hundreds of thousands of people a few years ago.

We don’t learn that much about the migrant couple he follows except that their lives seem dingy and miserable and alienated; they even speak in a Sichuan dialect incomprehensible in eastern China. Their annual visit home is the one time they can spend time with their family. Ironically, bad relations arise between the parents (who never see their kids, but are devoting their lives to them so they can study and escape life as a peasant), and the kids themselves (especially the angry daughter) who feel they’ve been abandoned. They’re caught in the double-bind of trying to escape the farm but feeling trapped in the city.

A lot of Chinese movies in the past dealt with educated former city dwellers who had been sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution — movies like Jia Zhangke’s Platform or Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams – and long to move back to the big city again. In those films, cities are wonderful and interesting, while farms are boring and backbreaking and pointless. Life is miserable in the yellow dirt. Cities used to be the beacon of hope, farms just a bitter life to escape from.

Last Train Home, on the other hand, contrasts the polluted, miserable life in the cities with a bucolic green and beautiful view of the countryside – a sort of back-to-the-farm, idyllic vision of rural life. The viewer glories in breathtaking scenes of snow covered terraces in Sichuan, and quiet days on the farm filled with pretty insects. Cities are only for hard work (we never see the couple during their free time in Guandong), while farms are places to stand quietly and contemplate their natural beauty.

Aesthetically, you wish for more country scenes and less of the miserable, polluted, and crowded cities you’re forced to watch for most of the movie. And you wonder why anyone ever left the farm.

But Last Train Home does give a largely unseen glimpse into the family lives of Chinese migrant workers.

– Daniel Garber, February 24, 2010

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