Monday, May 17, 2010

Cannes Dispatch #4 - "Outrage"

An abbreviated entry today, as screenings of new films from Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu beckon. More on all of those tonight or tomorrow, but here's a bit about one of the more divisive entries playing this year.

Outrage (dir. by Takeshi Kitano) - In Competition

Midway into Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”, two yakuza thugs storm into a noodle shop for a shakedown. One customer flees immediately as the yakuza sit waiting for the manager, but soon enough another distracted one strolls in, headphones in his ears and Nintendo DS in hand. He remains there obliviously slipping noodles as the thugs head into the kitchen, stab the loudly-screaming man to death with a pair of chopsticks, and take control of the business. It’s a goofy bit of comedy, but there’s something striking about the moment – this anesthetized everyman is so blinded by consumption that he doesn’t see the changes that will affect his world happening right in front of his nose.

Judging from Roger Ebert’s takedown and the general festival buzz, “Outrage” has rapidly gained a reputation as one of the worst competition entries to screen so far. I’m not going to argue that the film is an unsung masterpiece, and my reasons for enjoying the film are for the most part not particularly deep, but I do think “Outrage” is smarter than most people are giving it credit for. Gangster films have often been metaphors for the effects of capitalism, and “Outrage” certainly feels like appropriate as a metaphor for the state of world capitalism right now – which is to say, on the brink of implosion.

The instigating act of “Outrage” is a two-bit scam – low-level hoods running a bar over-charge a patron by a few thousand dollars and threaten to bash his head in if he refuses to pay. He takes them to his workplace to get the cash, which happens to be the headquarters of a rival family. They take control of the bar, and the one-upmanship begins – first grabs for cash, then property, then territory, then international influence. Mergers and hostile takeovers start to consolidate the various families together, but that only turns a gang war into a domestic dispute. In the end, the downfall of the central business comes not from the ineffectual intervention of police and governments, but from within, as risky and unsustainable business practices prove toxic.

Admittedly, there’s a certain Looney Tunes monotony to the ever-increasing double-crosses and reprisals that Kitano continually layers on top of each other, which is one reason that critics may be having trouble taking the film seriously (although I'd venture that its absurd comedy is part of the point). The other main reason is the general lack of any thorough characterization for the main players – aside from a lower-level mob boss played by Kitano himself, the various characters are generally defined by one or two salient traits and little more.

But Kitano has the kind of exquisite formal control that makes the film’s flaws easy to forgive, at least for this viewer. Every shot is carefully crafted to exhibit the symmetry to sleek lines, to catch the play of Tokyo neon light on gunmetal gray and waxed Mercedes black, and to plant disorienting visual surprises - what appears to be an iris shot in one early scene, for example, is created through millimeter-precise placement of a camera between two suited gangsters. This intense visual focus is a joy, and Kitano uses it to depict some inventive and gut-wrenching examples of violence – the traditional yakuza collection of fingers comes in way you might not expect and Kitano’s twisting camera moves and unpredictable cuts manage to make the expected approach of death consistently surprising.

Echoes of greater relevance aside, “Outrage” may just be a genre exercise in high style, but when talent of Kitano’s magnitude is involved, that’s hardly anything to scoff at. As the lone genre entry in an otherwise heavily high-brow competition slate, “Outrage” may go against the year’s prevailing trends, but it’s nevertheless a film that’s worthy of a slot here at the Croisette.
-Raj Ranade

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