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Milk run

It’s so rare that you get to watch a single surrealist coming of age movie featuring a lactation scene, I don’t quite know what to make of a day in which I got to watch two. Although when you think it over, a lactation scene is a fairly obvious bit of symbolism for coming of age, so maybe it’s not so odd after all.

Gozu didn’t actually strike me as being as mysterious and weird as the reviews implied, once I’d had a night’s sleep to contemplate it. Minami, the young yakuza who’s ordered to kill his mentor Ozaki and who serves as our surrogate in the languid descent into surreal erotic madness, is a virgin. He feels out of place in Tokyo and he feels out of place in the rural Nagoya. He rejects a couple of offers to initiate him into manhood, including and probably most significantly the opportunity to metaphorically become a man by killing Ozaki. In the end, the transfigured Ozaki makes a man of him in the most primal of ways — the birth scene signifies Minami’s rebirth as well as that of Ozaki. Final significant scene: three toothbrushes sitting side by side in domestic harmony.

See? That makes sense, doesn’t it? A lot of the underpinnings are conveyed in quick sidelong lines of dialogue, but they’re there if you look for them. When the Nagoya yakuza Nose asks Minami if he’s ever killed someone, Minami says no. And at the time you think it’s because he doesn’t want to admit it but in retrospect it seems not entirely unlikely that he’s telling the truth. I consider the context of the movie as well: the average Miike yakuza character is a kill-happy icon of violence. Minami doesn’t even engage in an act of violence — until the antepenultimate scene with his yakuza boss, and there is he becoming a man again.

OK, so it’s an exceedingly surreal flick. (Think David Lynch; then factor in the lack of common cultural referents.) I’d be lying if I said I was certain of my interpretation. Still, I think it’s a solid approach towards understanding the movie, and while Takashi Miike’s movies are always lunatic exercises in excess he is also a consummate craftsman. He uses his camera with too much certainty for me to accept that there’s no underlying spine to Gozu.

How about I ♥ Huckabees? Same movie, really. Jason Schwartzman plays Minami, except he’s named Albert Markovski this time around. His yakuza mentor, his Ozaki, is…

You know, it’s not the same movie. My mistake. There is a lactation scene, though, and poor Albert does progress from being a (ruthlessly parodied) callow young poet-activist to being a reasonably functional human being. Meanwhile, Jude Law’s Brad Stand progresses from being a callow young sales executive to being, likewise, a human being of functional demeanor. Coming of age, see?

Where Gozu uses sex as the driving elements, I ♥ Huckabees uses philosophy. It works but I think the latter choice gives up the possibility of really primal depth; philosophy is great and important and it certainly held my interest, but sex is sex. Philosophy has few if any fluids.

I really loved what Russell did with the screen; like the rest of the American New Surrealists (Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze) he’s impatiently pushing beyond the conventions of what you can do in the movies. Cool stuff, with non-figurative cuts between scenes and visual representations of the philosophical musings of the characters. I also in general loved the performances. Jude Law and Mark Wahlberg both especially shined; they both get the agony of their characters out onto the screen with beautifully understated acting.

Still… I left the theater with my breath still bated. I think Russell was trying to do two things: he was telling a story about people becoming mature — everyone in the movie, just about, undergoes that transformation — and he was satirizing the culture of protest and the philosophy which he used as a tool to tell the story. I think that latter choice weakened the film; I think that once you’ve deflated the pretensions of the philosophers you’ll have a hard time basing a transformative experience on their theories. In the end, Albert Markovski essentially says “You were all only half-right, but I used what you taught me to transcend my limitations anyhow.” Which is optimistic, I suppose, but not entirely satisfying.

Not to say I didn’t like the movie, but when you’re seeing two surrealist coming of age movies (both with lactation sequences) in one day, it’s only natural that one of them is going to be better.

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