The title contraption in Howl’s Moving Castle clanks and teeters through the countryside on giant chicken feet. The corpulent body, carpentered out of mismatched old buildings, changes shape with each step, as eaves and turrets and bays and dormers creek apart and collapse back together. From the face, two cannons protrude like telescoping eyes. From the rear dangles a cabooselike tail, fitted with a wooden door. Smoke blasts through chimneys and the odd crevice, as if to remind you that this machine belongs to the era of steam power. But then, the steam is produced by a captive fire demon, and Howl himself is a wizard, so you won’t learn how the mechanism works.
In its merger of antiquarianism and fantasy, artisanship and magic, the castle neatly sums up the art of its creator, Hayao Miyazaki. He is the only major filmmaker left who does traditional, hand-drawn animation–a laborious technique, which in Miyazaki’s use has yielded astonishingly strange and beautiful fables, such as Spirited Away. I recall visiting a theater not long after that picture won an Oscar, to see what reaction the film was getting from its new-found public. The place was crowded with parents who had assumed that a feature-length animation must be a kids’ movie, and who now looked worried. Huddled close to them were clusters of 5- and 6-year-olds, having an experience they will someday struggle to piece together with the help of puzzled analysts.
If you, too, go to movies with small children, then you should know that Howl’s Moving Castle is the story of a senseless war, which reduces cities to rubble and turns landscapes into crimson infernos. More immediately, it is the story of a drab young girl–a milliner named Sophie–who runs afoul of a witch and so is changed into a stooped old woman. This isn’t always as horrific as it sounds. Although Miyazaki lets you feel the indignities of advanced age–the drawings emphasize knotted fingers, beaked nose, bulging eyes–Sophie had never thought of herself as sexually desirable, and so she has lost very little in the way of hope, while gaining in recompense a great deal of craftiness and courage. These qualities prove useful when she takes refuge with Howl, a wizard of Byronic glamour, who has the great merit of being a war resister and the great faults of being vain and superficial. Yes, Sophie is in love with him, but she tries not to be bitter.
Miyazaki has taken this plot from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, adapting it to his own spooky preoccupations without unnecessarily clarifying its meanings. Why, for example, does Sophie sometimes become younger again, just for a few moments? Miyazaki tacitly poses the question and then leaves it a mystery. You can be certain only that her transformations are brilliantly suited to his fluid style of animation. So, too, are the film’s many oozings and meltings: the dissolution of Howl into sticky puddles during a fit of self-pity, or the deliquescence of a haughty witch as she strains, sweating, up a palatial staircase, or the spreading through cracks of that same witch’s servants, a horde of shadowy, threatening blobs. For a filmmaker who so meticulously realizes his fantasy worlds, in both image and sound, Miyazaki is uncommonly drawn to the mutable, and (beyond that) the amorphous.
This is one of the big differences between him and the computer animators. Even though the latter have given us the underwater world of Finding Nemo and the malleable Elastigirl of The Incredibles, the texture of their imagery refuses to flow. They’re better at Ping-Pong balls than puddles; and just as they tend to make hard, shiny pictures, so too do they favor stories with clear-cut meanings.
Take Madagascar. This one you can comfortably show to a 5-year-old–and while you’re at it, you may find its themes worth mulling over, even though they’re acted out by talking animals that have escaped from the Central Park Zoo. The presenting issue of the animals’ well-being–would they be happier in the wild?–gives way very quickly to an edgier question: Are New Yorkers too arrogant and parochial to survive outside their city? Much of the film’s humor comes from poking fun at the showbiz pretensions of Alex the lion (voice of Ben Stiller), the neuroses of Melman the giraffe (voice of David Schwimmer) and the girl-from-the-block attitude of Gloria the hippo (voice of Jada Pinkett Smith). These traits, which the film presents as being appropriate enough in Manhattan, prove to be laughably useless once the animals are returned, unwillingly, to nature. (Only Marty the zebra wants to go back to the wild–a desire that he frames in Marcus Garvey terms, speaking with the voice of Chris Rock.) The twist in this theme–a good one–is that the manners of an effete civilization eventually win out. The New Yorkers have conviviality on their side.
The New Yorkers also know their movie culture, which provides Madagascar with its other major source of humor. Like other recent animated features, such as Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, Madagascar abounds with joking allusions to pop films of the past, as well as evocations (by way of the drawings) of the voice actors’ star personalities. These traits make Madagascar a fine example of the mass-media commodity: self-enclosed, self-promoting and self-referential. But is that any reason to hurl your Adorno at it? The movieness of Madagascar testifies only to its being the work of a studio rather than an author. This is normal, despite the emergence of a few famous animation directors, such as Brad Bird and Miyazaki. In fact, animated features are now the only films actually produced by studios, rather than financed and distributed by them; and for my money, they have become the only genre of big-studio releases that are consistently worth seeing.
That said, I should acknowledge that Howl’s Moving Castle is the work not only of an author, Miyazaki, but of his Studio Ghibli; that its expert translation into English has been directed by Pete Docter of Pixar and Rick Dempsey of Disney; and that the cast of voice actors includes Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and Billy Crystal. It takes a village; just as Madagascar, produced by DreamWorks Animation SKG, required the writing and direction of two individuals, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, assisted by screenwriters Mark Burton and Billy Frolick.
Granted, one of the films is a consumer product, and the other is a wonder. But there’s no need to choose between them. You can have both.
Israeli film, once among the most unwatchable of national cinemas, has undergone a striking improvement in recent years–paradoxically, and coincidentally, just as Israeli society has crumbled. One of the most remarkable of the pictures to emerge, Keren Yedaya’s Or (My Treasure), is now going into US theatrical release, having won the prize for best first feature a year ago at the Cannes festival.
It’s easy to see why the jury liked Yedaya’s work. She excels at the sort of distanced long takes, apparently casual in framing, held without camera movement, that have become the festival world’s International Style. To this coolly rigorous form she adds hot and apparently spontaneous content: the fearless, selfless acting of Dana Ivgy as a high school girl in one of Tel Aviv’s grubbier quarters and of Ronit Elkabetz as her mother, a prostitute of uncertain mental balance who goes in and out of hospitals. Over the course of the film, the girl works hard to save her mother; but since she lacks anyone who can help her save herself, in the end she rescues no one.
A wrenching, lower-depths story in which the most devastating turning points happen almost casually, as if in passing; a close-up study of contemporary social corruption, revealed without editorializing. (You may notice–although Yedaya does not draw your attention to the fact–that the johns are all foreign guest workers. The boyfriends, who amount to nonpaying johns, are all going to and from the army.) If the style of acting were deliberately artificial rather than naturalistic, if the camera roved rather than staying put, I would compare Or with Fassbinder’s work.
So to hell with differences of style. Or is tough, direct and clear-headed. Fassbinder himself might have recognized the affinity, and grunted his approval.
The sixteenth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is about to begin, running at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater June 10-23, and once again I can tell you about only a fraction of the program. This year’s series offers twenty-six films and videos, twenty-two of them New York premieres: shorts and features, documentaries and dramas, touching on the pressing, daily problems of people on five continents. With this much to write about, I’d better choose something exemplary–so let’s make it Videoletters, for which the Dutch directors Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek will receive this year’s Nestor Almendros Prize.
At its core, Videoletters is a twenty-episode television series, made between 1999 and 2004, in which Rejger and van den Broek helped people in the former Yugoslavia to re-establish contact with former friends, colleagues or neighbors from whom they were separated by war. The festival will show six of the episodes, each of which begins with someone setting up the video camera on an ironing board or dining-room table and starting to address the absent person. The speaker may be a young man in the Serbian Republic, tormented by his memories of the war, who hopes to hear from a half-Muslim friend who left the country; or a family in Belgrade may speak to the family in Zagreb with whom they used to vacation; or a Muslim woman may ask someone, anyone, from Visegrad to help her find the bones of her murdered children. Later in the episode, you will see the recipient watch the tape, talk about it and compose a reply. In some cases, the happier ones, you even see a reunion.
In writing about the cinema of the former Yugoslavia, my colleague (and former Nation intern) Vojislava Filipcevic has commented acidly on the filmmakers who convert suffering into spectacle for the excitement of Western European and American audiences. What’s most remarkable about Videoletters, first of all, is that it has been done in the service of the people who suffer and is filmed, in large measure, from their viewpoint. Even more remarkable, the television series is part of a larger project in which Rejger and van den Broek have set up a website, telephone helplines, talk shows and even a caravan of buses equipped with Internet connections and webcams, so that more people throughout the former Yugoslavia can record and post videoletters. For information on how to applaud Videoletters at the festival, or for a program schedule: www.filmlinc.com or www.hrw.org/iff.