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.