The plot is a molasses coat hook, a cobweb parachute, a steam shovel made of butterflies. The story won’t hold up in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika–nor should it, this being an animated psychoanalytic sci-fi thriller–and so you hold on to what you can, which above all is your first impression of the title character. She comes before you as a Tokyo girl with bobbed hair the color of spice, a flirt who plants lipstick kisses on her business cards, a motorbike rider and night-cafe talker with a wardrobe that can change in the blink of an eye. She crosses rooftops by flashing from one neon sign to the next, as if every famous face were hers. But back on the ground, if anyone pays her more attention than she wants, she escapes by simply fading from sight.
Paprika is the young woman of everyone’s dreams; or rather, to take the movie’s plot as literally as it allows, she is a psychiatrist who somehow can enter people’s dreams at will. It’s a lot more fun than sitting in a chair and listening to patients drone, though also considerably more dangerous. By the end of the movie, nothing less than the whole waking world will be at risk; but whatever impossible complications this wonder-doctor may encounter during her very intimate, boundary-dissolving interventions, those first, high-flying images of her will carry you along. Paprika stays in your mind as pure freedom and pure exhilaration.
That can’t be said of the straitened character for whom she serves as the inner self. The Paprika whom people meet in their dreams is a projection–maybe even a wish fulfillment–of the unsmiling Dr. Atsuko Chiba, a pale and angular woman who invariably wears a suit and keeps her hair pinned up. Unlike her magical alter ego, Dr. Chiba doesn’t romp through the night sky. She deals with the day’s business as experienced in a corporate tower: troublesome colleagues, a blood-chilling boss, political interference with her research.
But even though cold, controlled Dr. Chiba dwells in the world of the reality principle, she nevertheless faces problems that go beyond the mundane. A device for mind infiltration has vanished from her lab, having been stolen, perhaps, by a dream-terrorist; and as if that’s not bad enough, her institute’s chief of research has suddenly gone insane. You will not be surprised to learn that these two events are related. After the chief lifts his arm in an imperial salute and marches about stiff-legged while spouting nonsense–like a Dadaist in the Café Voltaire, you’d think, bent on world domination–he falls into a sleep from which he cannot be awakened. With her computer, Dr. Chiba taps into his mind and sees that he’s dreaming of a parade, with confetti (though nobody’s around to throw it) and music (performed by a band of marching frogs) and a float on which the chief sits enthroned, surrounded and cushioned by thousands of dolls.
Is this the chief’s own dream? Or is somebody sinister dreaming it for him?
The answer, of course, is number two; and you won’t need to steal an experimental psycho-gizmo to figure out who’s the culprit. Despite Paprika‘s continual melting of one narrative into another–despite its hypnotic swirl of stories within stories–Kon preserves the predictable outlines of each of his genres, including the one that explains whodunit. If you are the sort of moviegoer who insists on being surprised by a plot, then you may be disappointed that you can identify Paprika‘s mastermind by sure and familiar signs. But surprises abound everywhere in this movie, not just on the level of “Who made that happen?” I’m not sure I know why anything happens in this picture; but I’m confident that as you tick off the conventions, Kon will keep startling you with their new and mysterious possibilities.
In fact, Hollywood clichés turn out to be integral to one of the two main categories of dream that Kon proposes in Paprika–the good category. Throughout the film, Dr. Chiba/Paprika is engaged in treating one Detective Konakawa, a square-jawed, mustached he-man straight out of a thousand hard-boiled police procedurals. The curious thing about Konakawa is that his dreams are a collage of American-style films: a circus picture, a Tarzan adventure, a spy thriller, a police procedural (of course). Konakawa keeps insisting to Dr. Chiba/Paprika that he doesn’t like movies and never watches them; but an expert psychoanalyst recognizes denial when she hears it. The cure for Konakawa’s crippling anxiety must lie in the kind of collective dreaming practiced in movie houses.
This kind of dreaming is shared, but it’s also democratic and voluntary and unfolds over time. (First you watch a circus picture, then you watch a Tarzan adventure.) The other kind of dreaming in Paprika, the parade dream in which the chief is trapped, is also shared, but in the wrong way. It’s dictatorial, coerced and locked into space. Instead of scenes succeeding one another, objects pile up in one place into a mad, random accumulation. The trappings are celebratory–like so many parades, this one pretends to be marching toward triumph–and yet there’s a horrific mirthlessness to it. So much of the jumble consists of toys, as if your joining this procession (or being joined to it) were a matter of infantile regression.
But in Konakawa’s movie dreams, there’s always a tinge of adult regret, and the whiff of grown-up sexual desire.
If all of this sound complicated, I can tell you that Kon’s source material, a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, is said to be even more convoluted. You can, if you like, simplify still further by watching Paprika just for the pictures, secure in the knowledge that you’re getting the best damned delirium your moviegoing dollar can buy. (True to his love of genre, Kon bases his drawings on a classic style of comic-book graphics–then compacts and intensifies, as if pressing ten frames into one.) If you’re feeling ambitious, though, and want to interpret and not just dream, you can watch Paprika as a cartoon feminist Civilization and Its Discontents, and Kon will reward that reading, too.
How might the movie be watched by its own resident psychiatrist? I suppose that depends on whether you ask the outer Dr. Chiba or the inner Paprika. They sometimes disagree–but that’s another swirl in the story.
To savor the full irony of the Israeli documentary 9 Star Hotel, you need to know something more than director-cinematographer Ido Haar tells you. He’s a practitioner of direct cinema, committed to whatever evidence his lens and microphone might capture; and so he plunges straight into the horrid absurdity of his story, assuming that his primary audience needs no instruction about its setting. Everyone in Israel is familiar with the new city of Modi’in, a vast project being constructed midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem according to a master plan by architect Moshe Safdie. But for those who could use the information, I quote from the city’s promotional brochure: “Ever since the establishment of Israel, the country’s leaders have dreamed of reviving the ancient Jewish town of Modi’in, a symbol of Hasmonean heroism and of the conservation of the Jewish and national identity of the people of Israel. The establishment of the city of Modi’in in the 1990’s was the ancient Jewish dream coming true.”
9 Star Hotel records a few details about some of the laborers who pour concrete, hammer lath and lay stone for this dream. They are young Palestinian men who have no jobs in the occupied territories but no permits to work in Israel. So they live in shanties hidden in the hills and dodge three distinct security forces every day, going back and forth from building Modi’in.
You see them from a distance as the film begins, two or three at first, then as many as a dozen pouring down a grassy hillside at dawn. From afar, they seem a part of the landscape. But then the camera is suddenly in their midst as they hurry through a pine forest, each lugging a knapsack or duffle bag, and then dash across a highway. You hear their heavy breathing, and the lookout’s warning about police patrols. Not for the last time in 9 Star Hotel, the image becomes a jerky assemblage of pavement, sky, somebody’s back, then the temporary respite of tall grass. At this stage, early in the film, all you know of the characters is this collective blur. But after some shots of the construction site, the scene changes again to the men’s encampment. They cook tomato stew in the communal pot. They retire to their shelters: a hive of wooden crates, covered variously in plastic tarps and salvaged draperies. They chat deep into the night about the homes they’ve left, their families, their memories; and so these official non-persons take on names, characters, individuality.
As you come to know these people, you may wonder: How invisible are they? Surely drivers on the busy highway must see them; Haar shows you scenes of the men running across traffic. Sometimes Israeli children see them, too–as when the men come across three Jewish kids in a field outside Modi’in, who cadge some construction materials for play. And even though Haar recorded no interactions between the laborers and their foremen, somebody on the building site must have looked at these people long enough to hire them. Everybody sees–but nobody chooses to notice, except for the cops who are charged with running the men down.
Thanks to Haar, though, you also notice. You find out where these men bathe, which songs they sing, how much they earn, what happens to them when they’re sick or injured, what they think about the Israelis. (A hint: They’re not big fans.) You stay with them through the long nights of watching headlights pass on the distant highway, and through days on end when it’s raining and there’s no work to be had, so they just hole up, useless, in their boxes.
Why did these frustrated, hunted men trust an Israeli to camp out with them and bring along his camera? Maybe it was a way to keep their spirits up. You see throughout the film how they sustain themselves through joshing, bull sessions, scavenging, reminiscence. Perhaps they found one more outlet in Haar, who gave them a way to show themselves. It’s the least they could want–but more than the promoters of Modi’in are willing to allow.
9 Star Hotel is having its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York, through June 5.
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Emmanuel Bourdieu’s excellent drama Poison Friends is now opening in Los Angeles, which is, ironically enough, the Promised Land for its clique of James Ellroy-obsessed Parisian college students. Led, or rather dominated, by the dark and swaggering André (Thibault Vinçon), this cluster of friends believe in literature as only the French still do, and so are enthralled by André’s brilliant, sadistic insistence that they abandon it altogether.
Bourdieu’s strength as a director precisely matches his instincts as a screenwriter: He loves to watch groups interact. Poison Friends is alive with the nuances of young people getting along, or not, as they learn from one another. It also shows the shifts in the group when André makes good on his ideas and breaks decisively with writing. He discovers what his friends don’t want to know: that only a particular section of French society makes an idol of literature. Outside that charmed circle, it seems, there’s garbage on the street, and somebody’s got to pick it up.