Stephen reviews: Talking Head (1992)

talkinghead_1Talking 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.

talkinghead_6There 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.

talkinghead_3It 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.

talkinghead_4The 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?

5 comments to Stephen reviews: Talking Head (1992)

  • This sounds (and looks) like something I would enjoy. Good pull, I like when you surprise me with something completely off the radar.

    • Stephen

      It surprised me, too. I went into this one totally blind and had no idea what was going on for the first half of the film.

      It was fun to piece it all together without any advanced warning, so I was kinda against spilling the beans in the review. But if someone is actually looking for a murder mystery thriller, I felt they ought to get fair warning that it won’t be what their looking for.

      • Yeah, that’s a constant dialogue I have with myself about reviews. I can’t tell you how many rough drafts of my reviews start out with something like, “I went into this movie blind, and that’s how you should too!” That discovery process is one of the true joys of watching random movies, and I also hate to shatter that for people. I had a serious mind to write the entire review of Forgotten Silver as if it were a real documentary, because that discovery was such a fun one for me to make when I saw it for the first time around the LOTR days.

        BUT I figure anyone reading reviews is reading reviews because at some level they want to be informed about the movie they’re reading about. It is a balancing act, though. You have to say enough to intrigue readers, but not too much so that they feel like there’s no purpose in seeing the film. It’s hard because sometimes the most intriguing aspects to discuss are spoilers, but I try to avoid that unless it’s absolutely necessary.

        • It was kinda funny that while I was working on this review you put up Forgotten Silver. The films seem nothing alike, and yet very similar in their twisting of fact and fiction. They’re polar opposites in that regard. Forgotten SIlver is a fake film pretending to be real, while Talking Head is sort of nonfiction pretending to be fake. They would make for an interesting pair.

          I do remember having a hard time convincing a friend of mine to watch Spinal Tap, because he really did think it was a straight documentary. I had to basically spoil it for him just to get him to see it. Not that I didn’t know what it was going into it my first time…

          • Yes, I do think they would make for a good, discussion-inducing pair.

            I also thought Spinal Tap was a real documentary for a long time before I saw it. Hearing that it was a fake documentary was what pushed me over the edge to watch it, and boy am I glad I did. Easily one of my favorite films, and Christopher Guest’s later movies Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind are near-equal favorites of mine. I love a good fake doc!

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