Monday, December 22, 2008

Some thoughts on 2008, with an eye towards the year to come:

When all is said in done, there are quite a few reasons to believe that virtually no films where released in 2008 - at least none as important as current affairs: between the death of film criticism, a tanking economy, and perhaps the most important presidential election of (most of) our lives, it was easy to overlook the multiplex. Unless, of course, that multiplex was playing the Dark Knight, the second most popular film of all time (if one judges such things by box office gross; and lets face it, most do).

Most pertinent to myself is the ongoing debate as to the state of criticism. At the risk of boring non-specialists with the details, lets just say that a combination of crumbling print empires and their decreasing classified revenues, philistine movie executives pandering to a younger demographic with disposable income, and, by implication, an increasingly disenfranchised movie going public that would just rather stay home, has all lead to an irrevocable decline in the conversation surrounding film as art. But perhaps it’s too easy to make such broad justifications – after all, as several recent releases have shown, notwithstanding The Dark Knight factor, people seem more than willing to come out to theatres, assuming there is something worth seeing. Regardless of quality, or what this critic might think, people are turning out in droves for Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Frost/Nixon and Gran Torino, as well as, to a lesser degree, Doubt. So we might amend the above to read something like ‘audiences don’t go to movies anymore, unless they do’, ‘the studios don’t make films for adults, except when they do’, and, with regards to critical analysis, ‘critics don’t matter, except when they do’. As we steadily approach awards season, those critics that the studios usually shun suddenly start getting their quotes plastered all over the place, the studios looking for affirmation that their product can deliver the goods to a discerning crowd (the crowd that, lets remember, doesn’t usually exist, at least before November).

So what does this all mean? Simply put, there are too many opinion pieces out there and not enough, well, criticism. After spending all year bemoaning the state of the art, we are suddenly relevant again, but instead of taking full advantage of it, we've just started repeating ourselves. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen at least four different op ed pieces on the current slate of WWII/Holocaust dramas that have been/are set for release from the studios, as well as a slew of accolades for most, if not all, of the above mentioned films. But I must admit that I am ambivalent for two reasons: one being that, as I see it, good criticism has been on the decline for a while, not just in the wake of recent job loss, and two, that the remaining old guard has easily slipped into the role of studio adjunct publicist. What else to make of the myriad number of top ten lists and critic’s association awards that have already started making the rounds? Chock full of films that most of us won’t be able to see for several weeks, if not months, they don’t serve much of a purpose beyond hyping product that already has substantial marketing in place, as well as the usual banal Oscar short listing. I, for one, don’t see much point in predicting what’s going to win awards that, beyond the uselessness of such an endeavor, doesn’t do much to critically grapple with the films in question (I might add that the above mentioned flood of Holocaust overkill pictures essays all include films not already in release (Valkyrie), and some not even set for release before the end of the year (Good, Defiance), essentially giving free publicity to films invoking a trend the various critics are supposedly bemoaning). With this in mind, I’m not particularly saddened by a few industry stool pigeons loosing their lively hood. I also hasten to add that the list just posted by Slant Magazine goes some ways toward avoiding most of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned, instead focusing on, you know, actual films.

I’m not suggesting that critics don’t actually like or care about the films they choose to place on their lists, but I am suggesting that what they have to choose from exists only within clearly delineated parameters, parameters more often than not set by studio publicity machines. As usual, Roger Ebert’s annual top ten list is a pretty clear indicator of enthusiastic, if unremarkable, middle brow taste. Barring a few legitimate American indies, like Ballast and Shotgun Stories, the presence of the usual Miramax Oscar bait prestige dominates. To reiterate, I’m not suggesting that Ebert doesn’t actually like the films that he is endorsing, only the fact that what he is promoting is so limited in scope as to be laughable (I might add that several of the legitimate independent films he lists will also be screening during his next Ebertfest, suggesting that his promoting of such films is also promoting his film festival and, by extension, himself). By way of comparison, the most recent issue of Art Forum offers several top ten films of the year lists, one by the incomparable James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. Mr. Quandt is largely responsible for organizing the first major traveling retrospective of Robert Bresson, as well as retrospectives of Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura and OshimaNagisa, and major articles on Pedro Costa, Edward Yang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In other words, the guy is smart. But when blogger Girish Sambu posted some preliminary thoughts on Quandt’s list, he immediately invited some incredulous comments about elitism and esoteric festival pandering – the idea being, as far as I can tell, that if something is unavailable in the American market place it is not only useless to talk about it, but it is also an affront to good taste. Never mind that Quandt could teach us all a thing or two about the art of film. But his choices aren’t available as commodities (at least yet), and that offends and scares some people. (just a few days after I typed these words, the collective group of critics over at the Onion published their own top ten lists. Basically a variation on the IndieWire system, in which films get ranked on a points system, these supposedly cutting edge taste makers eschew anything and everything not scheduled to open in NY/LA by years end, despite the fact that they are, essentially, a product of the Mid West. To further cement my skepticism, several critics mention films that they saw at festivals, but only those festival films (The Wrestler, Che, Benjamin Button), that have some currency as upcoming releases. The point being, again, that most critics, whether willingly or not, limit themselves to the role of publicist. Even more insulting is their “crosstalk”, essentially a few thousands words patting themselves on the back for not seeking out more adventurous fare during 2008).

I would also direct you to a recent lambasting of NY Times critic Manohla Dargis, in an article from the Los Angles Times that is clearly designed to damn her with faint praise. Scoot on over and read it for yourself – to my mind, the fact that she has no interest in playing the publicity game is all the ammunition some people need to suggest that she just simply doesn’t like movies, life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. Never mind the fact that her own recently published top ten list clearly indicates not just good taste (obviously a subjective judgment on my part), but a general optimism with regards to the state of the art form. This is clearly quite a leap from the cranky curmudgeon that Patrick Goldstein paints her to be (it is equally fascinating to watch Goldstein try to simultaneously critique Dargis while attempting to not appear entirely as a studio mouthpiece, an effort in which he fails quite spectacularly).

* * *

This was, by design, to be an introduction to what would have been my top ten films of the year, an undertaking I subscribe to only in as much as it fulfills a certain pedagogic function. With that in mind, I’m instead going to hype a handful of films that I’m particularly excited to see, some already set for some kind of distribution, however limited, and some that might premiere only on dvd or never at all. At the risk of succumbing to the very thing I’ve been decrying, I can only say that virtually none of these films are going to receive a fraction of the advertising or print that accompanies the average release from TWC, Miramax, or Sony Pictures Classics.

Right off the bat, I’m happy to see that Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” hits the Music Box late next month, as well as Soderbergh’s “Che” and Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” at the Landmark. Here are some more to keep your eyes peeled for:

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) – as far as I know, the film is already set for some kind of distribution, but when it will hit our local screens is another matter entirely. I wasn’t particularly satisfied by Assayas’ last film, Boarding Gate, but he remains one of my favorite filmmakers and a major player in the international scene. This is the first, but not the last, of my most anticipated features listed by James Quandt in his top ten list.

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) – perhaps cinema’s most opaque, quixotic visionary, any new film by Denis is a cause for celebration. Her film “Trouble Every Day” never saw the light of day here in Chicago, and has never been released on dvd. Her last (and best) feature, The Intruder, enjoyed one single screening at the Film Center before getting dumpoed onto a shoddy dvd by Wellspring, just before they went under. Lets hope the same fate doesn’t befall her most recent film, which is garnering effusive praise from everyone who’s seen it.

Hunger (Steve McQueen) – this played most recently at the Chicago International film Festival, after making the rounds at Cannes, Toronto and Berlin, picking up accolades as it went along. I was immensely sorry to miss the CIFF screenings, but very happy to hear that they all sold out. Apparently, there are some people out there that take critical acclaim seriously enough to try something new. No word on if the film will reach our shores: despite the virtually universal acclaim, the film failed to generate much business in limited runs in NY and LA, making its further distribution decidedly… undecided.

The Hurt Locker (Katherine Bigelow) – the director of Point Break, Near Dark and Strange Days has, by all accounts, made the toughest, and most daring, of the Iraqi War docu-dramas. As near as I can tell, everyone who sees it loves it, but the recent spate of war related commercial flops (do I need to reiterate the list?) makes it less and less likely that the film will see the light of day. It would be a shame if it went straight to dvd, as the chance to see a Bigelow film on the big screen hasn’t come around much recently.

RR & Casting a Glance (James Benning) – two recent works by a great filmmaker, and one of the few contemporary experimental directors who has managed to garner a (small but loyal) fan base. By all accounts, Chicago Filmmakers is working hard to show both of these films, although the chances of it happening in the next few months are slim. Considering how long it took his last couple of features to make it here, a few months would be mercifully short.

Frontier of Dawn (Philippe Garrel) – after the relatively crowd pleasing Regular Lovers, Garrel has apparently drifted back into inconsequence. His previous film’s (minor) success got his new one into competition at Cannes, but it seems that no one was watching. Lets hope we get a chance to see it and decide for ourselves.

Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso) – it took Alonso’s last film, La Muerto, about three years to arrive at Facets Cinemateque. By all accounts, his newest feature is even better, and I, for one, would love to see it. Any distributors reading?

United Red Army (Koji Wkamatsu) – Quandt’s take: “as a first hand account of leftist infighting and auto-immolation, it readily joins Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan and Godard’s La Chinoise.” I’m sold.

Lorna’s Silence/le Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) – advance word is that the Dardenne’s are repeating themselves and that their newest feature is somehow old hat. I’m personally of the opinion that they are modern masters, and therefore look forward to the opportunity to judge for myself. I’m also particularly distrustful of industry insiders who seem to think that they’ve got their finger on the pulse – of commerce, perhaps (or maybe not, considering the stupid decisions being constantly made), but not the film community.

Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain) – the film about a Travolta/Saturday Night Fever obsessed murderer in Pinochet’s Chile. The pop and the political collide in what is already a derisive love-it-or-hate-it proposition.

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel) – Martel is a singular directorial voice; her only other two features, La Cienaga and The Holy Girly, reveal a unique talent keyed to the low key desperation and solitude of contemporary Argentina’s bourgeoisie that is structured by claustrophobic, geometrically severe compositions and free floating, opaque visual metaphors. The film involves a vehicular homicide and a woman who can’t remember what she may or may not have done. Sounds intriguing, no?

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) – several Welles’ scholars (a particularly touchy bunch, given the damage they’ve had to repair to his misunderstood legacy) have given the film a clean bill of health. I maintain that Linklater is our generation’s key humanist filmmaker, and any new work is not only a cause for celebration, but likely to put a smile on one’s face. Despite its (reportedly) crowd pleasing disposition, the film has yet to garner any North American distribution.

Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo) – a new film by the director of “Woman is the Future of Man” and “Woman on the Beach”? Yes, please.

Pontypool (Bruce McDonald) – from what I’ve read, the film is about zombies (but not really), that infect other people not through physical contact or bodily fluids, but through spoken words. That’s right, language itself is the infecting agent. What sounds like an ingenious micro-budget indie is picking up fans everywhere it screens, and it sounds a bit like a cross between Primer, Dawn of the Dead, and a particularly perverse reading of Lacan.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (John Gianvito) – full disclosure – Glabe Klinger’s Chicago Cinema Forum hosted a screening of this film just a few months ago at the Film Center, and I was unable to attend. There’s little chance of this evocative ode to past pioneers in civil liberties getting screened anywhere besides the Film Center or Chicago Filmmakers, but maybe I’ll get a second chance to catch up with this one.

Adoration (Atom Egoyan) – Egoyan’s last few films have left much to be desired, and if the review in last month’s Cinemascope is to be believed, this films is his biggest misstep yet. Still, a minor and flawed work from an interesting, and sometimes great, filmmaker is always welcome.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Two Documentaries that are changing narrative expectations:

“Most of us begin with a cliché – not always, but most of the time – and that’s fine, but you have to look at it from all sides and clarify it. So you start with the idea of discovery… Then you ask yourself, but why? It will inhibit the viewer’s imagination instead of opening it up… and so you renounce, slowly. Then one fine day… one fine day you realize that it’s better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of… reduction, only it’s not a reduction – it’s a concentration and it actually says more.”

Jean-Marie Straub, quoted in Pedro Costa’s “Where lies your hidden smile?”

Two recent films that are revitalizing/reconstituting/rethinking/recontextualizing the place of narrative in contemporary documentary film, and deserving of placement along side the pantheon – essayists like Dziga-Vertov era Godard, Marker, late period Kiarostami, Costa, Zhangke, early Weerasethakul - Deborah Stratman’s “O’er the Land” and Rosalind Nashashibi’s “Bachelor Machines Part 1”.

* * *

Beginning with a long quotation on the nature of heroism (by a Lt. Col. William Rankin - a real person, although I wasn’t sure of it until later in the film), then moving to a forest strewn with carefully placed and obviously staged smoking debris, then segueing into a group of Revolutionary War re-enactors, “O’er the Land” starts out of the gate with a series of allusions and paralleling rhymes, virtually demanding its audience to put two and two together. The artfully arranged debris, coupled with another kind of staged event, that of reenacted warfare, seems to juxtapose two kinds of audiences: a paying public that is watching another public watching a staged recreation of historical events that Stratman catches on camera. Next is a series of shots at a high school football game, and we see a tightly choreographed marching band performing, as well as cheerleaders and the players themselves (along with yet another implied audience). Stratman refuses to orient us with any kind of tangible information; there are no dates, times or places, nor do there seem to be any recurring “characters” or a single train of thought. But we have a quotation from a celebrated military man, the aftermath of some destructive event, and the uniformity of various costumed groups – the fake military garb becomes synonymous with the football jersey or cheerleading outfit, and the civilian garb takes on some of the associations of military dress. In effect, one becomes less sinister while the others become more so.

But before we can settle too comfortably into some assumptions about what the film is showing us, we continue to receive more visual information. An RV dealership comes onscreen, accompanied by voice over describing the unfettered freedom such a vehicle can provide. The voiceover is trying to sell a lifestyle on wheels, without borders, free to roam. We then cut to a US Border Patrol station, with an ominous sign warning us that the national threat level is currently “orange” (I’m a little rusty on my Homeland Security propaganda, but if memory serves, orange is relatively low). A Border Patrol truck drives around, describing the various tracks left behind from people crossing into the U.S. illegally. Certain indentures into the ground indicate who is crawling, or what kind of shoes they are wearing, or if someone is on there knees and elbows in an attempt not to leave tracks. We also see the Border Patrol guys covering up the tracks that their trucks leave, in a weird kind of symbiosis (the trackers not wanting to be tracked?). In one of the film’s few close ups, a raging river churns up dirt and mud in its powerful current, suggesting the difficulty and sheer physicality of crossing over into the U.S. It is an interesting rejoinder to the guard’s seeming nonchalance, as well as a stunning juxtaposition with the previous section’s RV dealership – apparently, a lifestyle of unfettered freedom and unlimited travel only extends to a certain few. There is a jarring cut from the raging water to a calm night sky, and as the camera holds on this picturesque composition, a voice over begins. We get a detailed description of a soldier (Rankin’s words, as it turns out - a long passage from his biography, being spoken by someone else) parachuting from a malfunctioning jet miles above the Earth’s surface. It is a harrowing account - he speaks of velocity and g-force in such a way as to make the dangers immediately palpable, and describes parachuting through a thunder storm. But it is a disembodied voice – no archival footage or photographs - just words and images of a cloudy sky. In the film’s most stunning sequence, Stratman’s camera travels to a machine gun festival. And it is exactly what it sounds like. Throngs of people line up to check out weapons, run an obstacle course, shoot at random burnt out cars and trucks, do target practice, and traverse what looks like a series of huts and shacks, shooting at everything in sight (except other people, I might add). While bulldozers and cranes clean up the destroyed objects, a voice over describes the festival as a last bastion for gun rights and constitutional freedom. There is a final, haunting epilogue to the sequence, as men with flamethrowers put on an exhibition for a rapturous audience. Echoes of Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness” abound, as great swaths of orange engulf the screen, and burning embers float peacefully back to Earth against a tranquil night sky. It is evocative, certainly, of a kind of abstract beauty, but also apocalyptic in its destructive fulmination.

* * *

Men speak without subtitles – that we understand what they are saying is not so important as is the tone of voice, the vocal inflection that indicates conversation, orders, argument, or joking. Various men constantly look offscreen while speaking – they might be the only one in the frame, but they are not the only one in the room. There is no non-diagetic sound, and the occasional intrusion of music establishes, partially, the mood and tenor of a scene. What we have here is a contiguous sense on space, extending beyond the parameters of the filmed frame and suggesting an entire parallel world. The point seems clear: it is an acceptance of the camera’s, and the filmmaker’s, limitations, and a suggestion to the audience that we actively engage in what we are not being shown (certainly, this is Bressonian to the extreme).

This notion of accepting the limitations of technology and genre informs the narrative as well (although narrative, in this context, might be better described as fractured, minimal, or even maximal, depending on one’s personal predilection). A series of 25 scenes, complete with fade to black intermediaries and with a brief, elliptical prologue, suggests any number of possible permutations – that we are seeing only 25 possible moments out of any number of theoretical scenes, that we should read the scenes linearly, like a book, or even that the scenes have been selected at random, haphazardly. What seems most immediate is that we must reconfigure our relationship to the narrative documentary and create our own interpretation, relying on sensory impressions that rhyme, to be sure, but do not necessarily congeal. There is no thesis, and even to suggest that the film is about isolation and mechanized impersonality is to impose a personal reading, and is not supported by “facts”. Such is the radical agenda of Rosalind Nashashibi’s poetic documentary.

Much like “O’er the Land”, “Bachelor Machines Part 1” does not orient us with any contextual, factual information. The filmmaker’s website, along with an accompanying dvd booklet, gives us some specifics, that these sailors are on a cargo ship “sailing from Southern Italy to Sweden via Portugal, Britain, and Ireland.” But other than supplying a clue as to what language these men are speaking, it is arguable that such information is entirely inconsequential, even disruptive to the film’s abstract diegesis – the film ultimately stands outside of such concerns, instead offering a glimpse of another world that is simultaneously strange and familiar. The first scene following a brief prologue is a simple composition, but it does much to inform the viewer conceptually; a long metal pole with some hanging rope cuts across the frame from upper right to lower left, intersecting an image of the sun setting behind clouds. The pole remains fixed, the camera along with it, while the postcard ready image bobs and weaves with the natural movement of the ship. We are immediately oriented to the physical sensation of standing still on a moving object, and recognize that the camera is, for all intents and purposes, going to be fixed along side us. Indeed, the only images we get outside of the ship are occasional nighttime detours into large cargo holds or shots of the sea or sky as seen through windows and portholes.

Much of the film is spent prowling long, empty corridors, and visually, the symmetry of isolation recalls Kubrick or Ackerman. Several critics have commented on the “anthropomorphic” nature of some compositions, where the ship itself seems to take on a face. Onion City Festival programmer Patrick Friel mentions this in the festival’s accompanying program, and obviously others have picked up on it as well. But, for this viewer, these graph-like, symmetrical compositions come across as cold metal geometry, impersonal and imposing. At one point, while filming what looks to be an argument, a crew member stands up and slides a door closed in front of the camera. The image lingers after the shot has changed - what was once an image of people has been replaced, superimposed, obliterated, by a simple, austere flatness. If anything, the cumbersome, bulky metal textures of the ship encourages a disconnect between flesh and blood people and this environment that envelopes them. Another interpretation: this disconnection as metaphor for advanced globalization in our modern era of capitalism; the inseparability of man and machine.

* * *

I’ve grown increasingly wary of the notion of “narrative” in the last few months. As our most recent presidential election has illuminated, much of people’s decision making process was contingent upon accepting this or that narrative and rejecting the, presumably opposite or incompatible, other (David Bordwell has a fascinating entry on this subject here). But aside from buzz words, more often than not opaque and aloof themselves, these particular narratives obfuscated more than they illuminated, with both parties presenting simplification in lieu of complexity. It might seem odd then, or even counter intuitive, to present these obviously abstracted films as a rejoinder to the simplified notion of narrative that is increasingly presented to an increasingly receptive populous, weaned on serial television shows to look for a beginning, middle and end in a predetermined chunk of time; narrative closure as bite sized emotional edification. But whatever these two films lack in factual specificity, they more than compensate with the demands and rigors placed on their respective audience: the necessity to glean metaphoric and dialectical relationships in Stratman’s piece, which invites the pondering of violent incursions into land, sky and the mind; and the devastating emotional isolation of Nashashibi’s mysterious and evocative conjuring of oceanic travel as a journey into the unknown.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A brief text on Synecdoche, New York, just for fun:

The creation of the need, and the desire, to see things again is part of the method of Sans Soleil, and also, perhaps, its real subject. What Marker means to communicate to us is the solitude of the film editor at his machinery, his reverie over the footage he’s shot… the scenes he watches over and over again. He wants to explain… how images are replayed as memories, as obsessions, and as the troubled dreams of travelers.

The creation of the need, and the desire, to see things again is part of the method of Synecdoche, New York, and also, perhaps, its real subject. What Kaufman means to communicate to us is the solitude of the film writer at his machinery, his anxiety over the words he’s written, the words he reads over and over again. He wants to explain how memories are replayed as images, as obsessions, and as the troubled dreams of artists.

Sans Soleil seems… to be generating its own questions in the audience, like: Where are we now? Is this a film about Japan? About Guinea-Bissau? These stupid questions (which are also the sort we might ask of a bad, incoherent film), strangely, help pull us along through the movie: we keep following the subject, feeling that it’s almost in our grasp if only the speeding images would slow down a bit, if only those passages that look and sound like summations would allow us to linger before they rush us on to new information, new syntheses. And the stupid questions turn out to be the right ones. Sans Soleil is the diary of a return, a return which induces – naturally – retrospection, reverie, the need to account for the distances travelled in coming back: a review of notes from other places…

Synecdoche, New York seems to be generating its own questions in the audience, like: Where/when are we now? Is this a film about America? About Charlie Kaufman? These stupid questions (which are also the sort we might ask of a good, incoherent film), strangely, help pull us along through the movie: we keep following the subject, feeling that it’s almost in our grasp if only the speeding ideas would slow down a bit, if only those passages that look and sound like summations would allow us to linger before they rush on to new ideas, new syntheses. And the stupid questions turn out to be the right ones. Synecdoche, New York is the diary of a constant present, a present which induces – naturally – retrospection, nausea, the need to account for the distances traveled in standing still: a review of ideas from other places…

Several random thoughts:

We might consider Synecdoche, New York an essay film, not a narrative film.
Charlie Kaufman wants to be Woody Allen.
Charlie Kaufman is smarter, and more interesting, than Woody Allen.
If the act of creation is fear of a blank page, then Synecdoche, New York is the largest blank canvas Kaufman could find. He must fill it up.
He is afraid to fill it up.
Kaufman craves rejection and fears recognition
Kaufman craves recognition and fears rejection

(The above italicized texts are from a Terrence Rafferty article on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil in Sight and Sound magazine, autumn 1984. My variations on his words, and how they relate to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, are in the non-italicized font.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

24 City

“…given that there are different ways of writing History, your film should really be considered more as an archaeology of cinema in Foucault’s sense, not in the usual sense of an archeology that examines traces from the past to establish the factual genesis of things, but one that uses different moments and monuments as the basis for constructs that may seem questionable. It deals with essential relations even though these are not found purely in the world of anterior facts, like a sequence of events.”

“Cinema has this archive aspect because it’s about recording. That’s why, you say, there ought to be equality and fraternity between reality and fiction in cinema. Because it’s both things together, cinema can bear witness. Even independently of the war news, a simple 35 mm rectangle saves the honor of reality, you say; every film is a news document. Cinema only films the past, meaning what passes. It is memory and the refuge of time.”

Youssef Ishaghpour in conversation with Jean-Luc Godard

“An experienced event is finite – at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it”

Walter Benjamin on Proust

“…we backed away from that moment again and again, circling it, stalking it, until we had it cornered and began to tame it with words.”

Ian McEwan, “Enduring Love”

In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one.

Abbas Kiarostami

The cinema is particularly well suited to notions of remembrance – the act of filming is in fact the capturing of moment, a kind of embalming; a film is, at the very least, a record of its own making, particular to that time and that place. Most importantly, it is something that we can return to, revisit, rewatch (and now rewind). We think of newsreels, the home movie (now the home video), the snapshot, a family album consisting of fragmented shards of experience. This is personal, yes, but also a part of history – a history not (only) of dates and facts but infused with the experiences of those who have passed through it and remember. I think this is what Jonathan Rosenbaum is referring to when he says that Jia Zhangke “has been able to create works of historical relevance partly because he considers this theme from the vantage point of a socialism that, far from being theoretical, is part of a complex lived experience.”

24 City is Zhangke’s latest chronicle of a country in transition, recounting roughly the last 50 years of Chinese history through personal interviews with former workers at a military factory, designated “420”, that is being torn down to make way for a new, state of the art living and recreational facility – the titular 24 City. But far from a recounting of dates or numbers, it is a personalized recounting, as each interviewee digresses into stories of girlfriends, mentors, parents, their travels, etc. Hanging over the proceedings is the ominous presence and structuring absence of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, the gradual shift towards a free market capitalism, and modern dislocation.

The film features 8 or so interviews, with recurring punctuation between each segment – the screen will fade to black and Zhangke will play a pop song or display text on the screen. We also see the occasional scene of the factory being demolished and the construction of 24 City (the name 24 City is derived from a popular poem about the city of Chengdu, where both the factory and the new development are located). We sit through several interview segments before Zhangke’s formal strategy becomes clear – that is, we are gradually, with each successive interviewee, traveling forward in time, inexorably marching towards present day, a place were memories and the “now” finally catch up to each other and begin to intertwine. The first interviewee recounts tales of his foreman, a tough man who demanded that the workers use their tools until they were ground down into nothing – there could be no waste. The retired worker becomes nostalgic for the past and laments that he has not visited his elder in some time. We follow him to the foreman’s home and witness their encounter – two elderly men, reunited after decades, their way of life vanished and their usefulness gone. It is a bitter sweet moment, and the palpable sense of solidarity belies any criticisms of an oppressive Communism. We then see a woman on a bus who recounts tales of growing up with her mother, also a factory worker, and their inability to travel to their maternal grandparent’s home. This is the first, but not last, mention of a geographical isolation that ruptures the familial unit. The woman laments the impossibility of travel, but also that the size and demands of the factory, coupled with economic depression and lack of jobs, compelled workers from all over the country to travel to Factory 420. We also hear the tale of woman who, while on a ship en route to 420, looses her child while the ship is at port for a designated rest period. Despite a frantic search period, the boat cannot, or will not, deviate from its time table and departs, the child now lost (forever?). This action is justified in as much as we are told that the factory was doing very important work, supplying military armaments to the front line against “American Imperialists”. One can only assume that this is happening during the Korean War, when China was providing arms to North Korea, although there are also some allusions to the Sino-Japanese War as well. Part of Zhangke’s strategy is this withholding of detail; things are not spelled out, nor do we ever get a date or reference on screen. His intention seems, reasonably enough, to record the passing of time from specific personal experiences, recounting the macro through the micro.

A man seated at a bar speaks about growing up in the factory – due to its immensity, the grounds had their own school, shopping, movie theatre, etc. The children did not often mingle with the townspeople, and when they did it was usually to fight. He begins to speak of first love and his eyes turn away from the camera as he drifts away into a silent repose – a memory unable to be articulated in words. We gradually come to our last two interviewees, and the film has completed its trajectory into the modern. A young television newscaster recounts his few days of work in the factory; the back breaking tedium and repetition is too much to handle and he leaves, despite the disappointment to his parents. A young woman speaks about her mother, and that witnessing her working conditions brought her to tears. Her dream – to save enough money to buy her parents a condo in the new 24 City (the young woman is a “personal buyer”, a shopper for rich women who are too busy, or lazy, to purchase things for themselves).

Perhaps I’ve gone to long without mentioning that three of the eight interviews that make up the bulk of the film are actually reconstructions using actors (Zhangke regulars Lu Liping and Zhao Tao, as well as superstar Joan Chen.) I must confess that the recreations blend so seamlessly with the actual interviews that, with the exception of Joan Chen’s segment, I couldn’t tell which was which. This has led some commentators to reject Zhangke’s entire project, the notion being, I assume, that he has tipped his hand and that we must view the entire film as a fiction. This is a simple and easy way of sidestepping the entire point of the film, at least in as much as what I take the film to be about. You’ll forgive the long quotes at the start of this piece but it seems important to at least attempt to grapple with the complex issues of film, history and cultural memory/identity. As the 20th Century’s most popular art form, how can we not recognize that movies play an integral part in how we construct a narrative of the past, present and future? Joan Chen’s interview segment involves her recounting her arrival at 420 and the bestowing of her nickname, “Little Flower”. Of course, Little Flower is the 1980 film that made her name as an actress, so Zhangke is dabbling in a kind of mobius strip that circles back on itself continuously: an actress playing a woman named after a character made famous by the actress. As a narrative conceit the idea is perhaps too cute, too self consciously winking at the audience. But Zhangke has been blurring the line between “Fiction” and “Documentary” for some time now, and he is aware of Chen’s own complicated relationship with China. Her character is the only one to blatantly mention the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, although not by name – she casually recalls family members returning from the countryside where they had been relocated only to find that their home was now overcrowded. Chen herself began her acting career in propaganda films after being “selected” for the job. The point being that, far from some idiotic notion of cinematic “quoting” or similar nonsense, Zhangke is incredibly interested in teasing out that thin line where filmed narratives threaten to supplant our own identities and personal narratives. In a very real sense, most of our ideas on World War II and “The Greatest Generation” have been formulated for us by films. Our knowledge of late 60’s radical uprisings comes from Godard et al, while the birth of our nation and the forward march of expansion has been laid out, quite explicitly, by Griffith and Ford.

It’s interesting to me that critics have read the film as a paean to communism and, conversely, as an ode to capitalism and modernization. Zhangke has no interest, I think, in either extreme, and it is to his credit that no party line is established. Instead, we see people living, with all the complexity that comes with it. We see faces, gestures, emotions – the solidity of the human, not the opaqueness of facts and figures. The camera is locked to a face, and we come to know it in the time that it is on screen. Much as Zhangke’s The World is about the state of modern communication, linking us together as it simultaneously enables increased isolation, it is also, like Still Life and 24 City, about a kind of literal and metaphoric displacement. The Three Gorges Dam is a marvel of human engineering and ingenuity, but that might be little comfort to an estimated one million people forced to relocate while their home are flooded; similarly, the sleek steel and glass structures of 24 City might be beautiful, and even become a home to the people who can afford it, but this might be little comfort to the thousands of people who no longer have a job at Factory 420. The forced relocations of city dwellers to the countryside is now reversed – the ideologies are different, but the human cost remains the same. A great leap forward indeed.

In the most recent issue of the essential film journal Cinemascope, critic Michael Sicinski lays out a fascinating deconstruction of the recent Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. He makes several comments that strike me as particularly relevant to the film at hand. I’ll quote briefly: “with (director) Zhang Yimou at the helm, the entire world fell in line, panel by panel. This, in a sense, was the ideal endpoint for the display as a whole, since if one theme could be said to predominate, it was, of course, the total and unproblematic absorption of the individual into the anonymous mass.” He continues, “When we watch Yimou and his cultural assembly line, it is vital that those masses appear as remote as possible, lest we grasp the late-capitalist punchline. Those are the faces of production; their congealed labour power surrounds us every moment of the day; we are little more than anonymous, identical nodes of congealed consumptive power…”. Jia Zhangke gives these sweeping historical, political, and economic tidal waves a name, a face and a memory – we must rail against anonymity. Truly, the personal is the political, and we would all do well to remember that.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The First Transition Week 4: M

Rightly considered the ultimate serial killer film, as well as one of the best police procedurals of all time, Fritz Lang’s M is perhaps the greatest thriller ever constructed. But neither genre designation goes much way towards actually appreciating what Lang has constructed. While his famously acerbic world view was already firmly in place, M goes further than any other film of the period (or any period, for that matter) to create an atmosphere of dread, fear, paranoia and, by film’s end, a kind of existential terror at not only the unknowability of evil, but the banality of it as well.

It’s a common misconception of silent films that assumes a certain kind of static and stage-like imagery, and that the sound film introduced a fluid and mobile camera. This fallacy has finally been redressed, thanks largely in part to the release of a number of silents on dvd. In fact, the end of the silent era saw a complete mastery of camera movement and visual expression, while the birth of the sound film introduced a whole slew of technical and aesthetic problems, resulting in largely (yes) static camera set ups and infrequent camera movement (see the relatively recent special edition of The Jazz Singer for a truly banal movie going experience – a historical marker, to be sure, and not much else). Lang would side step both problems with his first sound film, and M is both a stunning example of Bresson’s sound dictums (certainly, Lang would have influenced him) as well as a breathtaking use of visual trickery to accomplish what we would now call tracking (dolly) shots, or long takes that would nowadays be rendered with a steadicam. Lang would eschew much of the opulence and pageantry with which he had made his name in the Silent Era, but it would be incorrect to assume that M represents any kind of “dry realism”. There are bold stylistic choices on display in the film, but most are in service of a dark, depressing, and contemporary story – in other words, no elaborate castle sets, papier-mâché dragons, studio constructed forests, flying cars or rocket ships, etc. It’s a modestly scaled stylization, tempered more towards brooding than opulence.

The most innovative feature of M is Lang’s devotion to sound design. There is a constant use of sound queues preceding the introduction of an event or person. Indeed, the beginning of the film is aural, as opposed to visual - we hear children’s voices over a black screen, the actual image of children singing and playing appearing a few beats afterwards. They are singing one of those grotesque songs about death that they can neither fully understand nor appreciate – one of Lang’s dark ironies. As mothers complain about the “awful song”, one mentions that “as long as we can hear them (the children), we know that they are safe”. Offscreen, a cuckoo clock begins ringing, a sound that segues into school bells clanging as children leave class for the day. We are then introduced to the killer in a series of visual and aural gestures – we hear a whistling (the killer’s, as it happens, in a recurring aural motif that signifies his arrival at any given scene and that will ultimately provide the means for his capture) as the camera settles on a public notice warning about the murders. A profile appears, imposed over the posting, and the voice speaks. It’s a fascinating choice, creepily effective, and suggesting, at this point, that not only can we not bear to look at such a monster, but that such a person can only exist in shadows (of course, the end of the film will suggest the exact opposite, the murderer-as-helpless man child - another of Lang’s ironies. It certainly helps that Peter Lorre’s puffy, soft cheeks and big round eyes create the sensation of observing an over-sized ten year who thinks he’s just pulling the wings off of flies.).

The first murder scene, much like the killer’s introduction to the film, is designed and executed entirely through visual suggestion. Lorre walks around town with a little girl who is bouncing a ball. They stop, and he purchases her a novelty balloon from a blind man. We cut back to one of the mothers from the film’s beginning, who can no longer “hear her child playing” (the inversion here is important – the lack of a sound queue alerts the audience to an absence). As she frantically calls her daughter’s name and asks neighbors if they have seen her come home from school, Lang cuts to brief shots of an empty attic, stairwell, a dinner plate, and then finally, to a shot of the girl’s ball rolling away and the balloon ensnared in power lines. The novelty balloon, which has the shape of a small, cartoonish person, is, visually and symbolically, being strangled by the horizontal power lines. Much of the scene’s effectiveness stems not only from the geometric design of these relatively empty spaces, spaces that the girl should be occupying, or the symbolic extensions of the child rolling or drifting away into nothingness, but also from the sound design – or, in this case, the lack thereof. Up to this point, we’ve been virtually bombarded with noises of all kind, and these two brief sequence shots match their visual void with an aural one - this aural void representing the silencing, as it where, of the victim.

After the revelation of the murder, Lang begins the next scene with a close up of a posting about the missing girl – a man’s voice reads the text aloud as the camera slowly moves back to reveal, gradually, a huge crowd of people gathered about. Their loud murmuring, which grows louder as the camera reveals more of them, carries over into the next scene of men gathered around a table, arguing with each other as to the identity of the killer. As fear and anxiety grows throughout the community, ordinary citizens begin to accuse each other. Meanwhile, in an increasingly desperate manhunt, the police force begins cracking down on ordinary criminals. As the plot thickens, we begin to see how Lang’s techniques inform the basic plot: more than a simple technical device, Lang’s use of sound produces (at least) two distinct effects 1. as with the first murder scene, the preceding of an event with a sound that introduces it creates a sense of predetermination, not unlike the viewer being drawn towards some kind of inevitability. It’s a kind of cosmic dread which Lang will use consistently through his career, and it permeates an increasingly fearful populace, fueling their hysteria. 2. The use of elaborate sound bridges to link the criminal and the public official into an intertwined co-existence. These sound bridges, coupled with Lang’s use of parallel editing, are incredibly important in suturing the two disparate sectors of societal power into one entity – criminals and cops become one, for all intents and purposes. The point is not to contrast the two groups, nor even to suggest, banally, that the public officials are just as bad as the criminals (or vice versa, that the criminals are actually good at heart). In Lang’s universe, their groups are exactly the same, functioning with, roughly speaking, the same moral and financial systems. Lang will cross cut between the two groups discussing what exactly to do about the monster: the criminals are upset that their business is being disrupted by an increasingly frustrated police force, while the police force is angered at the public’s complete inability to assist them – no one can remember details correctly, different people give conflicting accounts of various events, people give them idiotic false leads by accusing each other. Lang positions both groups as powerful entities that operate beyond society - In other words, they each have a complimentary agenda that is only minimally concerned with the “good of the public”.

In the film’s final moments, with things presumably “returning to normal”, Lang leaves us with the bitter notion that a normal, functioning society inherently breeds criminals; he also makes us wallow in the aftermath of our judgment upon them. In the wake of staggering economic depression and the rising power of the Nazi party, Lang’s fixation on murder, mob rule and powerful criminals seems particularly incendiary (the Nazis would ban the film in ’34). It’s a popularly held notion, post- Kracauer, that Lang’s Mabuse films presaged, if not outright predicted, the rise of Hitler. J. Hoberman writes: “Mabuse was employed to epitomize the postwar period of political instability, social turmoil, and crazed hyperinflation. In the person of Mabuse, Lang gave Germany’s breakdown a single cause.” But, as Hoberman goes on to suggest, Lang’s films are often more about paranoia and disorder than fascism, and the weak populace that falls helplessly into the grip of a child like madman seems less an indictment of Hitler (who would not be voted into power for a few more years) than a more generalized condemnation of a failed society. It is a world view that Lang would import wholesale to our shores after fleeing the Nazis and invading Hollywood. Not by coincidence did Land help create what we now call film noir – his bleak cynicism and world weariness in the face of man’s seemingly limitless capacity to inflict horrors upon each other fitted neatly into America’s post-war depression.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Rivette's Out 1:

Much like my thoughts on Playtime from some weeks ago, this piece was originally intended to be finished and posted much earlier in the summer. As usual, personal obligations obliged me to put it on the backburner. So, for better or for worse, here it is now, only 5 months or so late. Also, this piece is dedicated to those who shared in the adventure – Jake, Sara, Miguel and Ignatius.

As the Summer season of Hollywood blockbusters limps to a close, it seems an adequate time to reflect on a truly momentous event, the likes of which trump any of the over hyped, over marketed and over discussed “product” of the last few months. It’s been a little over one year since a group of Chicago cinephilles gathered around a holy grail of cinema – Jacques Rivette’s nearly 13 hour masterpiece from 1970, Out 1 (this main title is often followed in print by “Noli me tangere”, a subtitle which never actually appears on screen during the film). Screened as part of a (incomplete) Rivette retrospective at the Film Center, Out 1 bears little resemblance to any other film ever made – this distinction is an intrinsic part of the film’s vitality and contrarian notion of what a film constitutes, in direct opposition to the kind of churned out factory dreck we’re constantly subjected to. Ironically, given the film’s fascination with dread, paranoia and the disintegration of communal relationships between friends and lovers, it was a resoundingly positive communal experience for the audience. Further irony: Rivette was arguably the key chronicler of a post May ‘68 cultural malaise in Parisian society, a culture transitioning from Godard’s playfully confused optimism of solidarity to a fractured, hostile climate of intellectuals self destructing in increasingly conspiratorial narratives (for his part, Godard largely abandoned France after ‘68, leading to a ghost period with the Dziga Vertov Group, which is largely ignored even now, much like Rivette’s work; two phantom oeuvres constituting a kind of alternate film history). Jonathan Rosenbaum has described the key motif linking all of Rivette’s work as “collectivity vs solitude”, which could readily be described as the aftermath of that failed revolution world wide. Rivette’s marginalized status even during the height of the New Wave’s popularity no doubt extended not only from his film’s lengths and improvised natures, but also a certain lack of fashion; that is, he wasn’t overtly political at a time when political filmmaking was all the rage (however briefly). His 1968 feature “L’amour fou” didn’t do much to help his reputation; it is as doom laden and unreasonably long as Rivette’s other early works (it’s also another marginalized masterpiece). It is then perhaps fitting that, in retrospect, this spectre of a filmmaker might wind up telling us more about that particular time and place than those presumed to be more “with it”. Appropriately, we’ve just recently marked the 40th anniversary of May ’68.

Like a lot of Chicago film buffs, I discovered Out 1, and Rivette in general, through Jonathan Rosenbaum’s unabashed cheerleading. In the summer of 1999, I tore through two Rosenbaum collections, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics. The two books each contained an essay on Rivette, respectively “Work and Play in the House of Fiction: on Jacques Rivette” and “Tih-Minh, Out 1: on the Non-Reception of Two French Serials”. Rosenbaum’s intro to the latter essay speaks for itself:

“What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent "top ten" list, I'm equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal -- unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn't simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can't be said that either film has received much attention in France either -- or elsewhere, for that matter. Yet both are major testaments to the joys of spontaneous filmmaking and the complex adventures these entail, for their viewers as well as for their makers.”

I can look back now and see that the genesis of virtually every idea I hold about film connoisseurship and its relation to politics and society was contained in this brief opening salvo. That something could be pleasurable and unavailable made no sense to me at the time- it seemed not only counterintuitive but just plain stupid: why not release films that people might want to see? The vast web of interconnected causal factors that work to marginalize undesirable works or ideas would eventually come to light, at least for this once naïve, perhaps now to cynical, viewer. I might add (cynically) that many years after Rosenbaum’s essay neither work is any more available than it was back then (nor is the rest of Rivette’s output; not one of his first 9 features is available on DVD in the US, although I have a crummy vhs copy of Celine and Julie Go Boating, his 6th film). But (optimistically) while I bemoan Out 1’s still marginalized status, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that even one screening of this mysterious film monument is a step in the right direction, and ample proof that criticism of Rosenbaum’s kind can and should perform a pedagogic function above and beyond the strictures of the Sunday leisure section.

Rivette’s first feature, “Paris Belongs to Us”, could be said to lay the template for Rivette’s early work – improvisatory, cobbled together, low budget and in black and white, with a rare feel for location shooting that defamiliarizes while retaining a semblance of realism, a network of characters that interact in sometimes recognizable, sometimes bizarre ways. I’ve never seen his second feature, The Nun, based on a Dideroit novel and which I understand was something of a bid for respectability, perhaps comparable to Welle’s “The Stranger”. Most Rivette enthusiasts don’t speak very highly of the film, but I would imagine that it’s worth a look. L’amour fou comes next, a searing account of a theatre director trying to stage an adaptation of Racine’s Andromaque while keeping his leading lady sane. Eventually, they both succumb to a kind of madness, culminating in an extended sequence of them hold up together in an apartment, destroying it and themselves in some kind of purging orgy of self laceration (a gossipy aside: apparently this scene was inspired by an actual event, Godard breaking down after a lovers quarrel). It should not be surprising that the scenes are played broadly, if not necessarily for laughs, and that Bulle Ogier’s Claire comes through with a new found clarity and purposefulness, while the director, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, descends further and further into madness. Such is Rivette’s vision of artistic creation and destruction: a dialectic of confused emotions. Rosenbaum writes:

“Rightly described by Dave Kehr as Jacques Rivette’s “breakthrough film, the first of his features to employ extreme length (252 minutes), a high degree of improvisation, and a formal contrast between film and theater,” this rarely screened 1968 masterpiece is one of the great French films of its era. It centers on rehearsals for a production of Racine’s Andromaque and the doomed yet passionate relationship between the director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his actress wife (Bulle Ogier, in her finest performance), who leaves the production at the start of the film and then festers in paranoid isolation. The rehearsals, filmed by Rivette (in 35-millimeter) and TV documentarist Andre S. Labarthe (in 16), are real, and the relationship between Kalfon and Ogier is fictional, but this only begins to describe the powerful interfacing of life and art that takes place over the film’s hypnotic, epic unfolding; watching this is a life experience as much as a film experience.”

The last sentence of this brief review seems necessary to understanding the importance of Out 1, this notion of “life and art interfacing”, “epic unfolding” and a “life experience as much as a film experience”. Inevitably, when one speaks of Out 1, they are immediately questioned as to why one would subject themselves to such a “task”, the presumption being that spending that much time with a work of art is a waste of precious time. Critic Robin Wood equates this notion to a capitalistic determination of film-as-commerce, i.e., if time is money, then anything that takes up that time must prove itself worthy of our monetary expenditure. He also mentions that, pace the film’s avant garde aspirations, that such a length is not even justified by an epic narrative, ala The Deer Hunter, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, etc. Wood writes: “the “unjustified” length of the film(s), then represents an act of cultural transgression. The question, “why this length?” should immediately provoke a reciprocal one: why the standard length?” His point is clear: the standard length of films is largely determined by business considerations, as well as an underlying assumption that films should be more “entertaining” than say, a novel, or anything that requires more than one sitting to consume. I should add that any of the time based mediums, theatre, opera, even dance recitals, are subject to this tyranny of assumption based thinking; the novel, under the assumption that few people will read one from cover to cover in a matter of hours, gets a little more leeway with regards to length, yet people still balk at the notion of a “long” novel, presumably something over 800 or 1000 pages. But part of Out 1’s significance is this notion of a life experience – spending so much time with a certain set of people, fictional or otherwise, creates a new kind of understanding and complicity that is impossible to create using shorthand. I’ll let Rosenbaum briefly describe the film’s structure:

Each of the serial’s eight episodes is titled as a relay between two characters, suggesting a chain of successive links: “From Lili to Thomas,” “From Thomas to Frederique,” “From Frederique to Sarah,” “From Sarah to Colin,” and so on. The explanation of who these people are is much of the story–and because their identities keep changing, we’re often confounded. Lili (Michele Moretti) and Thomas (Michel Lonsdale) are in separate theater groups, each preparing plays by Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Unbound. Thomas is the director of his state-run company; Lili’s is an independent, directorless collective. Frederique (Juliet Berto) is a solitary working-class flirt who cons people out of money. Sarah (Bernadette Lafont) is a novelist working in a country house near the ocean (and an old pal of Thomas). Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud)–a deaf mute who communicates with a harmonica–begs for money in cafes until a member of Lili’s collective, for no stated reason, hands him a slip of paper with an enigmatic message, and Colin, alone in his furnished room, undertakes to decode it.”

Each of these sections take up about an hour or so a piece, using incredible long takes with a usually mobile, but sometimes static, camera set up. The film begins with two different rehearsal scenes, and my limited understanding of theatre history perhaps hampers any full understanding of the proceedings, but it is clear that narrative is not particularly relevant here. The actors writhe about, scream, and in the case of the Prometheus group, involve converging on a mannequin done up in a bizarre costume. These seem to be avant garde acting exercises, and Rivette’s connection to underground theatre has been well documented. Admittedly, these are the most difficult scenes in the film to sit through, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind their duration. In other words, if these scenes were arranged differently, or were shorter and/or longer, the film would still function in much the same way. Nevertheless, is it our position to chide the filmmaker for a perceived inconvenience, or is it an audience’s job to try, instead, to understand why the artist has placed a particular scene in a particular place?

Of the various story threads, several are quite interesting, even if the never eventually add up to an adequate resolution – resolution and closure being so important to our notion of narrative, and one more thing that Rivette is determined to undermine. The two theatre groups eventually abandon their rehearsals and become involved in a mystery involving someone who has stolen money from them. Michael Lonsdale, his large, bulky frame suggesting simultaneously a sedentary yet spry figure, will eventually be revealed as part of the conspiracy that plagues Jean Pierre Leaud’s Colin, and yet it is a conspiracy that means nothing to us: we don’t know the rules, the players, or the consequences. Juliet Berto has never been better than in Rivette films (see also Celine and Julie Go Boating); by contrast, I’ve never felt that Godard knew what to do with her and her particular brand of energy (specifically, he renders her quite bland in La Chinoise). Her interactions with her various marks are highly enjoyable, not in the least because she seems to be having so much fun herself. Eventually, Berto’s part of the narrative is interrupted by her character’s abrupt murder. Jean Pierre Leaud is typically charming. His early scenes, blowing a harmonica loudly into people’s faces until they give him their change, are hilarious. And it’s just another case of subterfuge when his deaf-mute character begins speaking quite clearly. His obvious romantic interest in Bulle Ogier’s café/bookstore/radical character leads to much conversation, but nothing else, and his increasingly dark obsession with unraveling a mystery cum riddle that might not even exist seems a reasonable counterpoint to the audience – sitting there in the dark, wondering what to make of all of this. Bulle Ogier and Lonsdale will eventually make their way to a sea side villa, where another mystery, involving a missing man and a locked room, come to light. Critic Jonathan Romney has put it quite succinctly: “Out 1 is magnificently uncontainable: too many characters to track, too many connections between them, too many blind alleys, and, above all, too much contradiction.”

What then, you might ask, is the point? Certainly, you wouldn’t suggest a film that doesn’t mean anything? A film that takes an entire day to watch? That is willfully, even perversely, anti-narrative, and that ends pretty much where it started? As critic Fred Camper mentioned after the screening to an incredulous fellow viewer, one who couldn’t believe what he had just sat through, “Out 1 is like all the great films – it is trying to make sense of the world we live in”.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The First Transition Week 3: City Lights

Only Chaplin has known how to span a third of a century of cinema, and this because his genius was truly exceptional

Above all, certain situations can only be said to exist cinematographically to the extent that that their spatial unity is established, especially comedy situations that are based on the relations between human beings and things… If slapstick comedy succeeded before the days of Griffith and montage, it is because most of its gags derived from a comedy of space, from the relation of man to things and to the surrounding world. In The Circus, Chaplin is truly in the lion’s cage and both are enclosed within the framework of the screen.

Andre Bazin

* * *

Nothing sucks the joy out of comedy quicker than trying to quantify, describe, explain it. It would take a better critic than myself to convince you that Chaplin is great without boring you. And yet, I try. The hubris… The point is not the film’s humor (of which there is plenty, perhaps more than one person can handle), but how that humor is achieved. Call it the mechanics of comedy if you will. Chaplin’s Tramp bumbles around the city, falling in love with a blind girl and finding a rich drunk (labeled “the eccentric millionaire” in the film’s opening credits) and realizing that he can parlay the drunkard’s gifts of cash into a better life for his blind muse. That’s about all there is of the film’s plot, and yet the process of getting from point A to point B, etc is one of such endless invention and grace that the critic is daunted in his task. The film is constantly shifting incidents around in a careful modulation of scale – one can only imagine that such an ability is innate, as if handed down from high above and gifted to only one man (Keaton and Lloyd not withstanding). Gags begin small, even telegraphed (someone standing close to water is predestined to take a spill), but grow gradually in scope, eventually encompassing an element of time as to cement the (im)possibility of what we are seeing. The Tramp mistakes a piece of party streamer for a noodle and proceeds to chow down – a mild gag, placed amidst a dozen others (most more complicated in their choreography) during a nightclub scene, and yet Chaplin fully commits to it. After what seems like several hours of chewing, we realize that Chaplin is actually eating this stuff. There is nothing hidden in an edit, no time ellipses to assure the performer’s comfort or to elide the fact that someone is just spitting the stuff out. It is a comedic process born of a fidelity to the realism of a time based actuality.

Bazin’s notions of realism have been much commented upon, and are undoubtedly some of the more important formulations in film criticism. But no where do they seem (to me) more important than in the comedy genre (and the action genre as well, the two being basically similar in their construction, if ultimately differing in what kind of response they hope to elicit – either way, both genres are interested in a kind of physical exhilaration). When Chaplin climbs over a rail to perch precariously on a ledge while peering into a window, that is him in actuality. The choreography of groups of people becomes that much more impressive when, as in the above mentioned night club scene, dozens of performers are involved in simultaneous gags that blend with and evolve organically into the next – the swapping of chairs, the lighting of cigars, accidentally lighting a woman’s posterior on fire, drunkenly dancing with a stranger – all arranged in a kind of expanding tableau. It seems to me that the classical Hollywood musical could not exist without Chaplin (and certainly not something like Tati’s Playtime).

City Lights is a fascinating companion piece to Hawks’ Scarface, and an outstanding curatorial choice on Rosenbaum’s part. If Scarface offers an ironic fulfillment of the American Dream as nightmare – money, power, possession of objects, all leading inevitably to violent death – then City Lights is its ironic counterpoint. The Tramp, a beggar with nothing but his pride, is a nobody (with regards to capitalistic achievement) yet the film is full of joy and hope, all leading inevitably to an affirmation of life. Not for nothing is the “eccentric millionaire” portrayed as suicidal, deprived of friendship and starved for human connection (Chaplin’s next film, modern times, is equally concerned with human relationships being disrupted by modern commerce/ mechanization, and Monsieur Verdoux is considered by many to be an explicit critique of capitalism). In an era of economic depression, we see in these films an implicit critique of a capitalistic economy that equates human happiness with money, as well as an inherent belief in human goodness. A valuable lesson, and one we would do well to remember in our current state of economic affairs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The First Transition Week 2: I Was Born, But...

It’s taken some time, and much reconsideration, to dismiss (clarify?) some of the more prevalent misconceptions of Ozu’s work. We can forgive most of the early generalizations: that his films have no camera movement, that his stationary camera is always placed low to the ground in an imitation of a sitting position, that his films deal with family issues and middle class malaise, that he is so inherently Japanese (as opposed to say, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa) that his films are inappropriate/inaccessible to Western audiences and therefore rarely seen (Ozu was in fact quite enamored with American film, and it is generally accepted that Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow” was a primary inspiration for Ozu’s “breakthrough” film in the West, Tokyo Story; furthermore, to suggest that his films were “typically Japanese” neglects all sorts of social levels – where these unrepresented peoples “less” Japanese?). Early formulations on Ozu’s work were, obviously, largely shaped by a certain inaccessibility, with infrequent distribution in the West and gaping holes in between the works that were seen (critics were missing the connecting tissue, as it where). A quick perusal of my Ozu dvds confirm most of the above assumptions – the liner notes for Criterion’s Good Morning describes the film as “a wild card in his career… where he (Ozu) sees the world through children’s eyes” (in fact, Ozu is considered by many to be the best director of children in film, an opinion based on the dozen or so films he made from children’s points of view). The liner notes also make a broad assumption about the key motifs of the 50’s and 60’s, where his films were all about “the attempt by an aging parent to marry off a dutiful daughter…” Critic Michael Atkinson admits that “it’s a cliché now to posit Ozu as the “most Japanese” of that nation’s great directors, but it still seems true” while reinforcing himself the cliché that Ozu’s films are “zen-like”.

Now, with his reputation firmly established and more than a few works of intrepid scholarship (Donald Ritchie, frequently credited as Ozu’s key proponent, has revised much of his earlier formulations, see also Bordwell, Burch, Rosenbaum and Wood), several traveling retrospectives and a general tendency towards archival screenings, as well as the decent amount of films readily available on home video formats, we novices, the uninitiated, can finally come to grips with a large and varied body of work. Far from suggesting that I’m some sort of Ozu expert (I’ve only seen seven of his 50+ films), I am, instead, extremely excited to delve into that oeuvre.

I Was Born, But… seems only atypical if measured against the above (hopefully adequately refuted) presumptions. In actuality, it is a key early work that shows a director in total command of his visual vocabulary and social commentary – in short, it is a masterwork. The Yoshii family has moved out to the suburbs of Tokyo, presumably for the father to be closer to his boss and work (David Bordwell explains the term batsu: a clique of co-workers who also socialize in other aspects of life, forming a kind of familial unit based entirely around company life and the gradual accumulation of more status). The two Yoshii sons quickly become entangled with the local bully and his little mob. Hoping to avoid a fight, the sons skip school and forge an assignment, only to have a teacher report back to their father that they were not in class. Eventually forced to return to school, the Yoshii boys (with the help of an older delivery boy) vanquish the bully and take control of the little gang. From their new found position of power, the boys are shocked to see their father bowing (subjugating) himself to the boss (who’s son is the tiniest member of the gang). While viewing home movies one evening, the Yoshii boys see footage of their father acting like a clown for the boss’ amusement. Angered by their father’s embarrassing play-acting, the boys go on a hunger strike. The next morning, they eventually succumb to hunger and break bread with their father. Familial unity has been restored. And yet still there is unease.

My efforts at plot synopsis are hopelessly inadequate to confer even part of the humor, sensitivity and subversive nature of the film. I Was Born, But… is essentially an examination of social power struggles. The father’s position at work is constantly juxtaposed with/commented on by the sons’ struggles with the local bully. In the children’s world, order and regimentation are based on quantifiable, tangible abilities – size, strength, speed. When the Yoshii son’s realize that they can’t best the bully, they make the logical conclusion to find someone bigger than themselves (the older delivery boy) to fight fort hem. But the father’s world is ruled by status and money – abstract ideas to these small boys who are convinced that, since their father is the “greatest”, he should grovel to no one. Ozu positions both ideas, concrete/intangible, into a kind of dialectic of power – a position articulated by an astounding sequence that segues into an astonishing camera movement. In the school courtyard, a large group of boys are (arranged in what looks like a military formation) doing their morning exercises. As the formation carries out its movements, Ozu gets some laughs from a boy who just can’t seem to stay in step with the group, turning left while the others turn right and so on. The boys are then arranged into a single file line, and as they turn to march off screen to the left, the camera begins a lateral tracking movement to the right. As it tracks, the scene cuts (almost seamlessly, an astounding technical achievement); the camera now moves across a row of men seated at desks in an office. We pass a series of these men before the camera stops and tracks back the way it came, resting momentarily on a man struggling to stay awake. It lingers for just a moment before restarting its path towards the boss’ office. The young boy who so amusingly could not keep up with his fellow students is now linked visually to the tired office worker – what was for a moment funny is now, retrospectively, a depressing projection into the future of this boy/man who will never be able to follow in step with his surroundings. Furthermore, the scene links the notion of rigid formation and following orders from the school yard to the office, a dire trajectory for the Yoshii boys. Later in the film, as the parents lament their own failures and wonder aloud if their children will succeed where they have not, we think back to this defining scene in the film and realize the full weight of what the children are struggling against. Paternal authority haunts the school yard, the play ground, and the office. Indeed, the unease at the end of the film, despite the reconstitution of the family, is the underlining sense that the powerful social dynamics of the capitalized world have been laid bare. If nothing has really changed, there is in fact, a sense that the boys have willfully accepted the need to subjugate oneself in order to survive (as the father tries to explain, with increasing frustration, that the boss is the one who pays him and allows the boys to go to school).
Critic Gabe Klinger filled in for Rosenbaum on this screening (Rosenbaum was attending TIFF) and made some cursory introductory remarks culled mostly from Rosenbaum’s essay entitled “Is Ozu Slow?”. I offer here some of what Gabe read aloud, as well as a bit more context from the essay itself:
“Stockhausen has the following to say about what he calls Japanese timing: "Where timing is concerned, the European is absolutely mediocre. Which means he has settled down somewhere in the middle of his range of potential tempi. It is a very narrow range, compared with the extremely fast reactions that a Japanese [person] might have at a certain moment, and to the extremely slow reaction that he might show on another occasion. He has a poor middle range compared to the European." Stockhausen also implies that this distinction is in danger of being effaced or at least eroded by the Westernization and Americanization of Japan. This is a delicate matter, because we know from the persuasive arguments in Shigehiko Hasumi's book on Ozu, Yasujiro Ozu (available in its entirety only in Japanese and French, though the beautiful final chapter, "Sunny Skies," can be found in David Desser's 1997 collection of critical pieces devoted to Tokyo Story published by Cambridge University Press), that Ozu's work also reflects to some degree the impact of America on Japanese culture. But because Hasumi is a Japanese critic looking at American influence and I'm an American critic looking at Japanese elements, we see things with a somewhat different emphasis. In any case, I would like to suggest--and this is my second hypothesis--that the fast reactions in Japanese spectators implied in Ozu's filmmaking practice often correspond to standing and walking, and that the slow reactions implied in his filmmaking practice often correspond to sitting.”

He goes further regarding, specifically, I Was Born, But…

“… this is a film in which social behavior and social conditioning are at least as important as reflection, and the issue of speed is relevant to all three activities. Early in the film, after the boys skip school out of fear of getting beaten up and have their lunch in the field, one of the brothers reminds the other, "We're supposed to get an A in writing today." Soon afterwards they both stand up to finish their lunch on their feet, an action which implies, as much else in the film does, that getting ahead in the world requires alertness and motion, both of which are usually more obtainable from a standing position.”

He concludes his essay with:

“One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that speed is relative--all the more so in a film where coexistence and relativity are central to the style as well as the subject. For this reason, we can't answer the question, "Is Ozu slow?" in a single way. The work is too rich and too varied for such a question to have any meaning. Indeed, it's part of the function of the greatest artists to dissolve such questions, or at the very least transform them into other questions. For what finally matters most in Ozu is not how slow or fast he is but how slow or fast we are in keeping up with him.”

You can read the entire essay here – I would recommend it, as Rosenbaum’s analysis of the above mentioned tracking shot clarifies and enhances my own thoughts on the matter

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Burn After Reading (or before viewing)

“There is also… a way of reacting to a crisis – perhaps this way belongs to a later phase in which hope and will have been put aside. I refer to the impassive reflection of the absurdities which become the accepted realities of daily life, as well as the emblems of its disorder. The projection of these absurdities according to their own logic produces an art of impenetrable farce, farce being the final form, as Marx noted in one of his Hegelian moments, of action in a situation that has become untenable.”

Harold Rosenberg

* * *

“Keep an eye on them until it all makes sense.”

The camera zooms down through the heavens, breaking through blue skies and clouds, descending upon a Google Earth version of Washington D.C. It’s a god’s eye view that uncomfortably suggests that the Coen Bros. are descending down from their vaunted seat in the critical elite, members of the pantheon about to bestow wisdom upon us mere mortals. We will learn that what they have to teach us is this: none of it makes sense, it’s all a cosmic joke of idiotic, self serving hubris, greed, misunderstandings, and rage. So why not just sit back and enjoy the ride?

* * *

“What did we learn here?”

(pause) “Not to do it again?”

(longer pause) “But what the fuck did we do?”

The Coen’s have always dodged accusations of being pop-nihilists; pick a label - that they are self-consciously hip; glib, sarcastic, condescending, anti-humanist; their films are populated by caricatures (and (un)usually grotesque ones at that); that they are anti-intellectuals who talk down to their audience while, simultaneously and paradoxically, flattering them. To all of which we might now add, with Burn After Reading: they are officially anti-film.
How do I begin to describe a film populated by idiots (a “league of morons”, as is oft quoted in the film) that engage in dubious and ill-advised affairs (sabotage, subterfuge, blackmail, breaking and entering, adultery, alcoholism, murder) in the midst of a lugubrious, twisting plot that gleefully leads nowhere – the lack of closure at the end of No Country that seemed (at the time) to mean so much has now been transformed into a joke itself – an entire film in which the plot and characters are one huge, unprecedented macguffin, coupled with a denouement that unabashedly acknowledges that we’ve all just been sold a bill of goods. To which a defender might suggest: but that’s the joke, don’t you get it? Yes, I suppose it’s all very clever. But what does it all mean? Or does it have to mean anything at all? Perhaps not, unless one actually seeks edification and engagement with works of art. It is confusing to me, the whole thing. Why make films at all? Genre deconstruction? Perhaps; and yet it seems to me that Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men operate all too smoothly within genre parameters to acquire such a label (not to mention unabashed homages like Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy, or a simple remake like The Ladykillers). No, it seems to me, at least, that the Coen’s tackle a subject/genre to both mock it and prove their mastery of it (and in the process patting us on the back for being clever enough to follow along – we confirm our own mastery over the material through them).
And what of their much vaunted technical prowess? It’s certainly not on display here – there is such a lack of visual distinction that one is forced to wonder how much they’ve really leaned on Deakins (or Sonnenfeld before him). DP Emmanuel Lubezki seems to be filling in the blanks, especially after his work with Cuaron, Malick and Mann. Most of the film’s humor comes from the Coen’s cutting on an action or a face, abruptly ending the shot just before or after it might usually end. It creates a certain amount of tension, to be sure, and they get some ok comedic mileage out of Pitt and Clooney, but the idea gets old quickly and they don’t offer much of anything else. Otherwise, it’s pretty standard film grammar, full of shot-counter-shot and matching eyelines. When in doubt, the Coen’s frame something symmetrically or hold the camera in a fixed position for just a beat or two after a scene has ended, in effect leaving the character stranded in a kind of negative space that exists purely for their discomfort (and our sour satisfaction) . The actors all seem game – much like Woody Allen, another highly mediocre and over praised critic’s darling, A-list stars keep falling all offer themselves to be in a Coen Bros film. There must be something there, some perception that one is going to work with a master and/or really push the boundaries of one’s craft. But Clooney is relegated here to steadily repeated punch lines (“I should try to get in a run” used almost as frequently, and with equally diminishing returns, as “We’re in a tight spot here boys!” or “I’m a Dapper Dan man!” or, to go back to earlier examples, “It’s for kids!” or “It really tied the room together!”). Pitt fairs somewhat better, as he seems to have wandered in from an entirely different film, and yet even he winds up regurgitating the same lines over and over again (repeating the name “Osborne Cox….” ad naseum, the presumption being that hearing the word “cox” repeatedly is amusing) and is summarily dispatched in yet another violent-scene-as-punctuation that the Coen’s have become so adept at. If you think your audience might be getting bored, or if you just need a quick shock tactic, spray some viscera on the wall (arterial spray also gets a work out). It’s indicative of their world view that the one character who actually acts like a human being gets shot and hacked to bits with a hatchet. So what’s it all about?

Critic Glenn Kenny (someone who, I might add, I admire quite a bit) offers this:

“Complaining that the Coen Brothers can be a little too smart-alecky is like bitching that de Sica was excessively humanistic: more than a little obvious, and completely beside the point. They am what they am, and putting aside the proposition that there's some moral/ethical prerogative to privilege humanism over smart-aleck-ness, how well you'll appreciate/enjoy these filmmakers' works depends on how readily you're willing to key into (which doesn't necessarily mean agree with) their perspectives.”

He makes at least one good point: we don’t need to agree with it. And do we frequently "key into" perspectives with which we disagree? I might add that, while it’s not particularly fashionable to suggest that there is a kind of moral/ethical prerogative: if there's not, then what’s the point? And what are we fighting for in November? Instead, we find ourselves with Rosenberg's notion of circular, self perpetuating farce. What does it mean if we look into the void and simply shrug? That sounds an awful lot, to me at least, like giving up. Perhaps that's the Coen's contribution to our modern dystopia - permission to acquiesce.