Yvonne Yu

Yvonne graduated from NYU Tisch with a degree in Film & TV in 2009. When she’s not in a cave animating, she is a media intern at IAM. She grew up in Hong Kong and loves traveling, steak frites, and The Bee Gees. You can find her work at www.vimeo.com/yyy.

Soup Kitchens and Rock and Roll Healings

As Dean “Delicious” O’Dwyer  whips along the streets of Sympathy for Delicious‘s hazy LA, one almost marvels at his practiced nonchalance in the wheelchair. It is hard not to think of Christopher Thorton, the actor playing Dean, whose accident years ago had landed him in a similar situation, prompting him to write the screenplay for Sympathy.

As Thorton did, Dean tries praying and even attends charismatic faith healings out of desperation. Dean’s disability has marginalized him thoroughly: a promising career as a DJ has been truncated, he lives out of his car and gets in line at a gritty soup kitchen run by another unfulfilled character, Father Joe, played by a stooped and woolly-voiced Mark Ruffalo (who also directed the film). Father Joe had envisioned himself building a sustainable “state-of-the-art shelter”, instead he’s stuck handing out temporary solutions due to lack of funding.

Christopher Thornton in Sympathy for Delicious.

Here the real-life comparison ends as the film takes a turn for the surreal: Dean discovers that by touching others, he can heal anybody but himself. This additional injustice is a blow to Dean, and he initially lets Father Joe talk him into lending his “gift” cheaply at the kitchen, where the majority of the guests needs healing in some way. It is an instant crowd draw, but tensions escalate after the two disagree on Dean’s payment in light of the sudden surge of donations to the kitchen.

After falling out with Father Joe, Dean is accepted as a turntablist for a rock band headed by a glamorously skulking front man (Orlando Bloom). He is quickly resigned to the fact that he isn’t actually wanted for his spinning skills; his healing is paraded as a sensational side-show at concerts, the band’s shot at reviving the euphoria associated with rock legends. Dean’s grimy undershirt is replaced by leather chokers and tar-black nails as he pushes epileptics dramatically into mosh pits. When an attempted healing goes awry, he is ejected back into reality.

Sympathy is a contemplative and determined study of the “Why Me?” question, that strange universal fist-shake. The film explores human coping psyches and the possibility of faith and fate. It is dangerous to build a story on philosophical aspirations, not least because one runs the risk of burying the characters underneath the strain of introspection. The results flicker in Sympathy. Dean’s pre-accident life is only ever mentioned in conjunction with lamenting his would-have-been career, and Father Joe’s character and motivations are sadly as obscured as the spectacles through which he blinks. Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis both look like they’re having fun playing slurred rockers, but it feels more like a feather boa-ed, fish-netted game of pretend.

When the film does shine, it is poignant. Thorton and Ruffalo tackle the abstract cleverly by going for the surreal, especially when portraying the rock and roll healings. In one scene Dean asks Father Joe if he could really be healed. The Father replies enigmatically, “entirely possible.” Whether intended or not, it is a candid commentary on the church and how it deals with suffering. Father Joe seems to be speaking in priestly double entendres; he’s implying that whether or not Dean’s body could be healed, his soul always has a chance. The idea brings hope, but oftentimes overlooks the individual pain. In the end, Thorton puts on a courageous face towards understanding the mystery of this pain, and the search is both well-worn and admirable.

A Valediction to the Harry Potter Film Franchise (Part 1), or How the Books are Really to Blame

There are two main camps in the Harry Potter movie-book dispute. On one side are those who’ve read all the books. They routinely talk about having grown old with the characters, referring to bit characters fondly as if they are actually friends. As a result, the films do not agree with them. They’ve never found any adaptation to be particularly satisfying, and each one is fervently picked to pieces for having changed a slight but crucial detail about a character or plot line. Time after time, the theater visit turns into a prolonged bash-fest, effectively casting an Impervious Charm on the ignorant, who, plodding alongside silently, are unable to join the conversation. We will call the inhabitants of this camp the Insiders.

On the other side are those who have for some reason or other never gotten around to reading the books. However, they’ve watched most or all of the movies, and enjoy them as standalone products of escapist entertainment. They find equal solidarity with each other, feeling slighted for not knowing the basic Ravenclaw password system, or having to ask what NEWTS are. Each time, they vow again never to see the next release with Insiders. In the name of consistency, we shall call them the Outsiders. The chasm is deep between the two sides; strong opinions are expressed — sometimes at one’s personal expense.

But the real culprit here is not exclusivity, nor pride, or even nerds, but the books themselves.

Consider the scenario of Insiders at a showing of, for the sake of relevancy, The Deathly Hallows Part 1. Now, they are generous people. They want the adaptations to be good. They are willing to forgive and forget that in the Half-Blood Prince, there was an entire scene that should’ve been there but wasn’t. They want to be able to visually relive the experience. Some of them even understand that it’s based on the book — not a clone. Ah, but they will squirm in their seats, and not only because of the nicely done special effects. The appearance of Bill Nighy will delight them, but they will be fiercely distracted by the fact that his character, Rufus Scrimgeour (and his relationship with Harry), is a terribly watered down version of what Ms. Rowling penned. After that, every small glitch and unlucky omission will disengage them even further, successive Portkeys towards the land of despondence. In more than one instance, they imagine themselves abler directors than David Yates.

For them, there is no suspense, obviously, because they know what happens next. Therefore the scenic in-betweens meant to give a break to the pace, become complete time-stoppers. When the audience turn to sniffles at an untimely onscreen death (and there are many in the Deathly Hallows), they long to but are unable to join in, because they’ve already done their mourning three years ago. Tainted by the knowledge of the books, these people will never know how good the movies really are.

Keep this in mind when you next encounter an Insider and the pleasantries turn into how awful they thought the latest film was: know that you’re the fortunate one in this situation, that you’ve never scheduled your life around a book release (amass essentials, lock self in room), never called yourself a Muggle in serious self-pity, and still don’t know what a Horcrux really is. Your mind is uncorrupted, while they struggle to separate reality from Hogwarts. They are people whose lover has died, and subsequent attempts to live normally and date again have failed because nobody will ever measure up to the standard they have created from biased recollections. Simply humor them and move on, and recognize that the books are the real Dementors in this business.

A dying business it is, too. Pundits say that the Modern Age is trying its best to oust books from our daily lives. They fling statistics at us, blaming information saturation, attention-deficit, even technology. Defenders of the old way eulogize the ability to physically turn pages, to stroke the spine of a well-worn paperback. Do you see a parallel here? Again, the true villains in this quarrel are books! Touch screens and audio books are merely stepping stones towards a certain end. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded and the stagnant. In the words of the great comedian Jim Gaffigan, why read the books? You can watch The Order of the Phoenix in two hours, and still have time to come home and nap.

The Spectacle of Dreams

How many times have we woken up in the morning, the last vestiges of sleep slipping away and thought, “I had the most bizarre dream last night,” then, scrambled to write it down or at least tried to explain it to somebody?

The vast and elusive realm of dreams has long been a seductive source for storytellers: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass immediately come to mind.  So does Maya Deren’s pivotal experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon, her use of symbolic imagery eerily setting the scene for the human subconscious. Dream-inspired narratives often attempt to reflect their progenitor’s puzzling depths, and throughout the ages they have left a legacy of wonderful and strange creations.

The latest puzzler to come out of this genre is Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which has been the center of whirling debate and dissection. Nolan demonstrated his ability to straddle the line between Hollywood and good taste in his last production, The Dark Knight (2008), so when Inception finally came out after months of saturated marketing, it took the talk to a new level. Phrases like “mind-blowing,” “the new Kubrick,” and “highly anticipated” were casually tossed about, people were passionately divided, questions of whether Nolan has overestimated his audience’s intelligence were plumbed, and everybody had a theory of their own to contribute. For the troglodytes out there: Inception is set within various levels of the human subconscious, where the reliably furrowed Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, who heads a team of idea traffickers who enter subjects’ dreams and engage in espionage. Here, they pull one last job where instead of the usual heist, they reverse the process by implanting an idea in their subject (Cillian Murphy) in order to change his mind without him knowing it.

The plot is intricately careening, the beautiful and decorated cast doesn’t hurt, and Hans Zimmer’s music is a crucial complement, leaving teeth marks on the back of our hands as we try not to blink. But did Inception live up to its reputation? Did Nolan’s ideas about the human psyche go over our heads? What — aside from the arid state of current summer blockbusters — really drew throngs to the theater?

It is evident from Nolan’s past projects, such as The Prestige (2006) and Memento (2000) that he knows spectacle and how to use it well. This rather fits as a setting for Inception since spectacle is much of what dreams are, and he isn’t afraid to use technology to further the escapism of this world. There is no doubt that this film comprises what will one day be considered some of the most iconic and memorable scenes on the silver screen: Paris folding over, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gravity-defying hotel fight sequence, and the crashing precipices of Limbo, which in the film is the deepest level of the subconscious. The inventiveness of how the team go about their con is clever, and they look sleek in covetable three-piece suits and goddess gowns. Alpine warring has never looked so cool.

But under the glossy exterior, the relatively flat character development is indicative of the film’s limitations on the whole. Unlike Deren and Carroll’s worlds, where the uncanny flows freely, it seems that in Inception, Nolan is trying to command the rules in what is essentially a chaotic place. He discards reality when it suits his narration, but it feels too easily explained away. Interesting sentences like “you never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you?” are scattered throughout the film, saving breath in the packed storyline but running the risk of sounding like imposed logic. Physics-breaching gymnastics look sensational as a backdrop to the constant action, but it is more gratuitous entertainment than a genuine exploration of the subliminal. The state of Limbo is the most expressive with its improvisational landscape, but it left the audience wanting a lot more. To answer the hype, people went home with more debates about plot points than existential issues to discuss. But is it necessarily a bad thing that Inception is more an Ocean’s Eleven set in a highly original situation than a probing philosophical thriller? Again, what makes Inception a worthwhile cinematic experience?

That is a hard question to answer, considering the diversity and number of opinions on the subject. What solidified Inception for me was (a requisite spoiler warning) the end of the film: when Cobb’s spinning top looks as if it could topple and potentially change our perception of the entire story, it cuts to black. The entire theater gasped, riveted together by the spectacle, and it felt like we were waking up from a crazy dream before it properly ended. And that unifying moment for me is the reason why we go to the movie theater at all.