Talking Head [トーキング・ヘッド] (1992)
Starring Shigeru Chiba, Fumihiko Tachiki, Masaya Kato, Mayumi Tanaka, Natsumi Sasaki, Shinichi Ishihara, Takashi Matsuyama, Yoshikatsu Fujiki
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
A place where one can speak accurately about a movie, if such a place exists, is probably only inside the theater when the movie is actually in progress.
And I thought last week’s review was hard to classify. The above quote buried in the second half of Talking Head sums up the entire premise of the film. If I were going to follow that advice, I would end this review right here. But that wouldn’t make for much of a review, now would it? That takes me to the hard part. Just how do I describe this movie?
It’s not a documentary. It’s not a drama. It’s not action or romance. It’s subtly sprinkled with Mamoru Oshii’s inexplicable humor, but it’s not a comedy either. It pretends to be a murder mystery, but it’s really not. There is no killer really, unless it is Oshii himself who kills the characters for the purpose of advancing the conversation, not the plot. A conversation. That, perhaps, is the best description of Talking Head. A conversation about film, done in the only place one can speak accurately on the subject: during the movie itself.
There is a plot. It would be difficult to speak about a movie without one, so a plot is casually inserted here to provide the framework for the discussion at hand. Fittingly, it revolves around the production of a new anime film called, not surprisingly, Talking Head. It’s stuck in development hell, however, because its director vanished without a trace. It doesn’t help that there are no storyboards or even a script. The unnamed protagonist is a “migrant director” hired by the producer to figure out just what the hell the original director was trying to do, and then replicate it. As our hero interviews the staff, trying to discern the point of the film, the staff begins to die, one after another.
Of course, the plot isn’t the point here. It’s there to illustrate the conversation, and show us what the characters are talking about, such as when the screenwriter is disemboweled, and the director speaks about him “spilling his guts” and why a writer might do so. The weirdest of these moments can ascend to a bewildering hilarity, like the guy who comes back to life as a zombie in order to keep working on the film. He is then revived (at least temporarily) by drinking coffee, which is a far more effective metaphor than any employed during The Humanoid.
It has a great bit where the characters dress as surgeons during the editing process, and I loved the musings on the “absent character,” a character that is always spoken of and has a huge effect on the story, but is never seen. Or conversely, the character that is always on-screen, but is never acknowledged. This concept’s payoff at the end of the film is brilliant.
There is a mountain of intriguing talking points littered through the film. It speaks about the transition from silent to talkies, from black-and-white to color, and a host of other factors to a film’s presentation. It supposedly focuses on animation, but it works equally well about any form of film. It’s more about the art rather than the craft of filmmaking, as much as it is possible to separate the two. As such, anyone who has an intellectual interest in stories of any kind will probably find the themes here equally fascinating.
The movie often delves into the realms of the metaphysical and metafictional. Almost the entire film takes place in one set, naturally a theater. The props are obviously props, and the stage itself is stretched into the seats, which are often in full view of the camera. It’s very weird seeing the characters pile into a van and pretend to drive while it sits in the center of the theater. I also found it hilarious when a character got run over by this obviously stationary van. It’s clearly a pretty low-budget film, but it doesn’t need to look polished; in fact, it shouldn’t. The transparency of its effects only help to illustrate its points.
My experiences with Mamoru Oshii’s films can best be described as uneven, but there is no doubt that he is a giant in the industry. He knows what he’s talking about. His musings on the medium are poignant and thought-provoking. Anyone who wants to think about film, or even stories in general, will undoubtedly find Talking Head to be well worth tracking down.
Of course, if you were buying into the superficial premise of a murder mystery, then you’re going to be bored out of your skull. This is a film for lovers of film, not casual viewers. If there is a real problem, it is that they talk about some pretty complicated stuff, and the subtitles may go by a bit to fast to comprehend it all. But, hey, that’s what the pause button is for, right?