[2000] Chocolat

Chocolat, upon a first watch, is a charming and relatively harmless love story, albeit slow to develop. Its overt themes, at times, come across as trite wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, and these developments follow oft-overused stereotypes. We’ll notice that Chocolat‘s characters don’t exhibit special traits: enhanced strength or intelligence, troubled exposition or abusive relationship history, exaggerated wealth or circumstance. 2000’s Chocolat earned its Best Picture nomination through strength of motif (mostly) and acting (somewhat). Further, the more one watches films looking for certain motif strains, the more obvious when one immediately and strikingly sticks out. For Chocolat, this motif is magical realism, the tendency for everyday, or inconspicuous, objects to exhibit supernatural properties. The author or auteur will (often) use this technique to foil, or exacerbate, a truly deeply seeded idea, usually one that has a negative connotation. In Chocolat, prescriptively, the use of chocolate is used to exacerbate the concept of hegemony, stasis and resistance to change, and it quite successfully succeeds.

The use of magical realism in a French context is both unexpected and cognitively dissonant. The French, historically, have been associated with amour and whimsy; we never read, see or hear about (or: our media and “history” doesn’t present) the relative orthodoxy of non-Parisian France, pre-telecommunication. A closer look, though, will demonstrate religious intensity skewed heavily toward Catholicism, and that this strain of Christianity overwhelmingly includes older generations: setting Chocolat during a modern reformation period reflected the tyrannical hegemony of stasis. Because overall mood had already begun to shift, Director Lassie Hallström, drawing from Joanie Harris’ 1999 novel of the same name, can cause enough of a “stir” without that “stir” being the sole cause of the action. In other words: Chocolat attempts to unpack a time when order and orthodoxy had been accepted (or forced-accepted) and any deviation was considered immoral. Magical realism attempts to deconstruct this theory and reject the hypothesis through absurdity and fanciful actions: because we, the audience know that the plot is technically impossible, we automatically shift to attempt to realize, “what does this mean?” When executed properly, this effect is powerful; when executed poorly, we get two sequels of The Expendables and four-plus of Transformers. For Chocolat, our beacon for magical realism is Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), a woman with gypsy-like wanderlust and an uncanny ability to produce particular chocolate to suit particular tastes. The chocolat is, of course, a small metaphor within the realm of Chocolat‘s heady magical realism motif. Continue reading

[2000] Traffic

Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is what Crash (winner, 2005) should and could have been if Crash wasn’t a misanthropic and clear and utter disaster.

It’s quite a laugh the timeline of events in that last sequence. Crash had before it five years’ worth of knowledge from a critical and stylistic standpoint from the point-of-view of Traffic and its offerings, which are plenty. And the team behind Crash still managed to offer a too-long and pedantic tale of race and relations that somehow managed to trick The Academy to offer its top prize. Crash fails, in a broad stroke, in the banal presentation of its message; it tells instead of shows. It does instead of is.

Trafficin a word, is anticlimactic. Where Crash throws the “point” in your face, Traffic is mostly back story and denouement. Where Crash tries to push a message, Traffic is deliberately restrained. There are three main story-lines: Michael Douglas’ Robert Wakefield, a conservative judge appointed to head the “war on drugs,” which he approaches in truly a bullish fashion until he discovers that his own daughter (Erika Christensen) is one of the many players in this fight against futility.

As a character, Wakefield is an open and reserved man wanting to understand the nature of his problem, while approaching it with an open mind. We follow him as a man from ruralish Ohio entering the sharp incisors of the Mexican/American drug trade. He questions the demand to the usual supply. More importantly, he questions his motives and ideals when he finds that his daughter is a victim of the cycle. He is no ideologue: a fountain through which many a film auteur has decided to spout “wisdom.” He is, however, an idealist, and in a brilliant piece of screenwriting, more value exists in that one sentence that isn’t said than what is and you, as the audience, can soak in the message. There’s no pandering here. Continue reading

{Second Take} [2000] Traffic

Traffic, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 epic about the War on Drugs, gets a ton of mileage out of telling gritty, taught stories about real people, and letting an audience decide. For an infuriating, maddening issue like the war on drugs, he seems to have prescribed a hard-reset on narrative conventions of genre and heroism. What we get instead feels like a documentary: a film in which every character arrives in frame motivated by circumstance and emotion. Nobody is good or bad, they are simply victims of their environment. Suddenly it’s all understandable – there is no “evil” in this world, there are simply people doing the best with what they have, and sometimes that means taking a bribe, or pushing freebase, or selling out to wealthy criminal. It’s a bold choice to humanize the enemy, rather than vilify him, but I’d say it does the trick.

In his insanely good State of Cinema speech to the San Francisco Film Festival this year, Soderbergh called art “a very elegant problem-solving model.” In the hands of a smart filmmaker, this idea has enormous power – suddenly the medium is no longer about escape or transportation. With this idea, film can even aspire to be more than “life-affirming,” which seems to be the benchmark of absolute quality. As a model for problem solving, film can be life-prolonging. Did Traffic make people think twice about starting or continuing to use or buy drugs? Absolutely. Were lives saved in that equation? Hard to say, but I’m cool with ‘yes.’

I was very frightened by Traffic when I saw it in the theater. I was in sixth grade, and it wasn’t really any of the violence or unsavory characters that frightened me, or even the underaged drug use, but by the choice it left me with. The events in Traffic are emblematic of a problem that defies solution – some days getting worse, some days getting better, but always, always there. My take-away was very personal. I remember thinking that I, myself stood on the precipice of choice, not just on viewing the film, but every day henceforth – to wake up every day prepared to reject drugs, or in one puff to become both victim of and accomplice to a war being fought every day, complete with bloodshed, corruption, and no-end-in-sight. By asking us to make a choice, Soderbergh has taken a major step toward “solving” a problem – with a choice, there can be progress. Continue reading