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Nashville Scene Remembrance of Things Past

Memories and moviemaking are a heavenly mix in "After Life," one of the year's best movies

By Jim Ridley

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  In my dreams, heaven is a movie theater. Not a video shop with endless aisles, not a megaplex with an embarrassment of riches; just a simple one-screener with a different movie every couple of nights. Some nights I'd see bad movies that carry some kind of fond association--like Dressed to Kill, my notoriously inappropriate choice for a first date with the woman who eventually became my wife. Other nights there'd be movies that haunt me like a favorite tune, because they evoke so piercingly a specific joy--the way Jules and Jim captures the feeling of being young and so in love that the world whirls by in a watercolor blur.

It's not the variety of movies that gives this dream its power. It's the chance to shuffle through an unwinding reel of memories that sometimes involve movies only incidentally, as backdrops for dates, chance encounters, family outings. But what if you had to choose only one movie, and only one memory--would that be heaven at all? Those are the rules in After Life, an overwhelming Japanese film about the promise of life after death and the bittersweet trade-offs it entails.

A fantasy that uses the mundane to illuminate the celestial, and vice versa, After Life takes place in a purgatorial way-station that looks like a high school converted into a traffic bureau. But it's not exactly limbo; it's a makeshift movie studio. Every Monday, about 20 new arrivals--the recently deceased--check in at the lobby office, and in six days' time, they'll be whisked off to heaven. In the meantime, though, they're given one last task: They have three days to select one memory, the happiest or most indelible moment of their lives. The rest of the week, they'll film a reenactment of that moment; that and the memory will be all they carry into eternity. All other memories, good and bad, will vanish.

It's the beauty of the saved memories, and the burden of those that are lost, that makes After Life so affecting. The film originated out of a documentary project by the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose work characteristically addresses death and memory--one of his previous docs concerns a man whose brain damage causes his memories to fade after only an hour. According to Film Comment, Kore-eda began After Life by inviting people to share one moment they'd like to keep forever; he then incorporated some of these people into the film alongside professional actors.

His script follows a deceptively plodding path, charting the daily progress made by each person: a morose husband, a pilot, a grandmotherly woman who was happiest dancing as a child. I say deceptively, because it isn't until the movie's devastating resolution, a crisis of memory that affects two heavenly staffers for entirely different reasons, that you realize how beautifully the director has shaped the movie--he transforms the ongoing rituals of bureaucracy into a metaphor for death and renewal. The afterlife-as-bureaucracy angle has appeared before, in movies ranging from Defending Your Life to Heaven Can Wait. Here, though, the documentary solidity--the grounding of fantasy material in a prosaic setting--becomes a kind of serene poetry.

In some ways, Kore-eda's method resembles that of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who incorporates real events, nonprofessional actors, and even the process of making his films into his fictional frameworks, using the very limits of his medium as a vehicle for finding the truth. While tantalizing us with basic mysteries (why just one memory? who made the rules?), Kore-eda fleshes out his afterlife with tiny, truthful details, down to the comic imprecision of attempting to restage someone's life on film. And he manages to evoke transcendence without leaning on special effects. His scale is human, his wit humane.

The movies I love most are inextricable from memory; they fuse with past feelings, trigger complex emotions, summon unbidden responses even years later. Though one of its themes is the inadequacy of movies to fully capture human experience, After Life does what those movies do: It asks essential questions of your humanity. Days after seeing it, I'm still haunted by the query at its center: What memory would you take, and which memories could you live with losing? Someday, those heartrending questions may have to be answered. For now, I'm just happy I don't have to part company yet with the memory of seeing this wondrous film. --Jim Ridley

Horseman of a different color

Director Tim Burton has never been able to decide whether he wants to be David Lynch or Steven Spielberg. His fetish for heroic oddballs has often led him down the Lynchian path, where the bland normalcy of middle-class life hides monsters and paranoiacs. But Burton has also tended toward a childlike fascination with fairy dust and happy endings, to the extent that he always rounds off the corners on his misunderstood outsiders. As a result, Burton's films have stopped short of being disturbing, meaningful, or truly original. And in the case of Ed Wood--Burton's overpraised biography of a hapless Hollywood hack--his obsessive need to cute-ify the eccentric shamelessly turns real people into weightless cartoons.

At first glance, Washington Irving's classic Sketch Book entry "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" would seem a perfect match for Burton's sensibility. The short story has an awkward, geeky character--the cowardly, superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. It also has a bucolic community haunted by an inexplicable apparition--the ghost of a decapitated Hessian who gallops through the woods as The Headless Horseman. There's even a chaste romance, between Ichabod and a Dutchman's daughter. With little modification, "Sleepy Hollow" could slide right behind Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and A Nightmare Before Christmas as another Tim Burton gothic fantasy.

But Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (author of Seven and an early version of 8MM) have decided to retrofit Irving's story. Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp) has been made into a literal-minded forensic policeman sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of decapitations, which may portend a plot by one of the town's landlords to increase his holdings through foul play. Crane's nemesis in the Irving story, Brom Bones, has been reduced to a token appearance (perhaps because he's played by the vapid Casper Van Dien). The bulk of the Burton/Walker Sleepy Hollow involves Crane's attempt to solve the mystery of who has summoned the spirit of The Headless Horseman--for which he enlists the aid of a pretty, witchcraft-practicing local girl named Katarina Van Tassel (played by Christina Ricci).

Distancing himself even further from Irving's story, Burton has intended his Sleepy Hollow to be an homage to the bloody, cleavage-laden spookfests of the '60s--the products of the British-based Hammer Films. To that end, he has plenty of lopped-off heads flying about, albeit tastefully and practically gore-free. (Sleepy Hollow has a soft "R" rating--there's little in it to disturb a child over 12.) Burton also has Depp and company stiffen up, to give an air of mock seriousness to the lurid tableau.

The Hammer parody works sporadically--sometimes it's funny to hear Depp drone on about science while he's covered in demonic blood, and sometimes his clipped tones seem like a gratingly bad impression of Dave Foley. As for the changes to Irving's story, they're not worth getting upset about; Burton and Walker have changed the details so completely that the film is a wholly different animal. If anything, one wishes that the filmmakers had just gone ahead and disposed of incongruous holdovers like Brom Bones and the occasionally knock-kneed Crane, and instead delved more deeply into the application of reason in a world of superstition.

Instead, they waste time on a complicated murder-for-real-estate scheme that ends up being one of those mysteries that can be solved only by a long speech at the end by the character we least suspect. (Unfortunately, I don't think that part is supposed to be a parody.) Burton also dwells on Ichabod's recurring nightmares--a compelling subject with a conventional payoff. The ghosts of Crane's past--instigated by a religious fanatic, no less--are typical of Burton's limited imagination when it comes to character; his worst nightmare is a man with a Bible.

What Burton excels at is design, and if ever a movie could get by on its look alone, Sleepy Hollow is it. The film is set as the 18th century turns to the 19th, and the drab post-revolutionary garb blends into the ice-blue haze in the air and the long New England shadows. Burton keeps the pace quick and strings together several pulse-pounding (if not especially scary) action sequences. And The Headless Horseman effect--a combination of CGI and the work of stuntman Ray "Darth Maul" Park--is truly stunning.

In many ways, Sleepy Hollow is the most direct, least pretentious film Burton has made since Beetlejuice. But that doesn't mean it isn't infused with Burtonian clichs. In addition to the dire authority figures and the lovable loner with the scarred past, the movie ends as all Burton gothic fantasies do--with a big fight in a tower.

Then, of course, Burton and Walker ditch the ambiguous conclusion to Irving's story in favor of a more heroic happy ending. That's the Spielberg influence. Except that in Spielberg's best movies, the director's obsessions--his yearning for suburban family life and his interest in World War II--inform the fantasy, often making his films richer and more resonant. Burton's obsessions are like a hurdle he can't jump, and they ultimately render his films predictable and plastic--colorful baubles that could've been jewels. --Noel Murray

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