Monday, September 27, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Limits of Control redux:

To the best of my knowledge, this piece wound up generating more comments than any other on the old Tisch Film Review site. Along with a defense of Shyamalan's The Happening by this mad man, people seemed to generally hate my assessment of Jarmusch's odd ball hit-man/New Wave homage. I still think the film is a lot of fun, and I had a lot of fun writing this essay (in retrospect, it is perhaps slightly more pretentious than I had intended).

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Opaque – adjective: “hard to understand; not clear or lucid; obscure: The problem remains opaque despite explanations”

Uncertainty, aridity, peace – all things will resolve themselves into these and pass away.
- Kafka

By the looks of it, Jim Jarmusch has committed the cinematic atrocity of the year. Despite a couple of reasonably high profile defenders, The Limits of Control has to be one of the worst reviewed films of recent memory. Even more curious is the vicious hyperbole and acidic vitriol being hurled his way, questioning Jarmusch’s integrity, sincerity, intelligence – as if the simple act of viewing his most recent film has somehow damaged the individual critics psyche in unknown, irreparable ways. Perhaps this is the price one pays when playing the kinds of games Jarmusch seems interested in here. Mysteries abound, and more to the point, remain unsolved, open ended…

1. Mystery:
A mysterious man has appeared, as if from nowhere, to perform mysterious tasks, apparently at the behest of mysterious people. He will go on to meet other mysterious people, interacting with them in mysterious ways, before seemingly attaining his ultimate goal – a goal which, by and large, we are unclear about.

2. Being and Nothingness: In his dismissive one star review, Roger Ebert assumes the persona of Isaach De Bankole’s elusive hit-man spectre in a snarky speculative fiction about a day-in-the-life on the set. His Isaach wonders about what the director and cinematographer will ask him to do, and how long he will have to wait before being done. Presumably unwittingly, Ebert sums up much of the film’s modus operandus, the idea of languidly waiting, of simply being.

3. Repetitions:
“You don’t speak Spanish do you?”; two espressos, in separate cups - not a double espresso; Diamonds, Matchbooks; Unintelligible, yet edible, notes; “he who believes himself bigger than everybody else ought to visit the cemetery”.

4. Point Blank:
As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the film bears a resemblance to John Boorman’s pseudo-psychedelic thriller, with De Bankole assuming the role of Lee Marvin’s carved-out-of-granite perpetual motion machine, a pit bull on a singular mission who’ll be damned if he’s letting go. Jarmusch honors the film, and lays bare his intentions, with an opening credit – the production company that birthed the film has been named after Boorman’s film. But to what end?

5. Godard, et al:
Not quite (not simply) a homage to the French New Wave, Jarmusch instead casts his net a bit wider. Glenn Kenny, as well as Rosenbaum, sense the spirit of Rivette at work in Jarmusch’s puzzle-without-an-answer. There is a bit of Antonioni’s spiritual and spatial ennui, as well as odds and ends from the noir love-letters/deconstructions of Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player. De Bankole’s stone faced non-acting aligns him with a legacy of Bressonian models, while Chris Doyle’s elusive, shimmering cinematography, beyond the most obvious connotation, evokes that other great contemporary DP, Agnes Godard. The other Denis connection? The presence of Alex Descas, Denis’ favorite leading man. The camera ogles the local architecture like it was a Gaudi masterpiece, and there is a diffusive sense of space that Pedro Costa has been exploring in his recent pictures. The narrative (which does actually exist, although perhaps not in the sense that most people would prefer) proceeds in fits and starts, with scenes seemingly motivated by exquisite corpse-like free associations, or, (Kenny again) Robbe-Grillet zero-degree word play. Another association, again involving play – the games/narrative puzzles of Resnais’ early trifecta (Hiroshima/Marienbad/Muriel).

6. Doubles and Doppelgangers:
Having nothing to say - having no point - is different from arriving at ones point in a round-about way. Jarmusch seems to have a handle on his material at all times, and while one can disagree with or dislike that point, or its system of delivery, it is entirely inappropriate to confuse that dislike with idiocy on the filmmaker’s part. Whatever one makes of The Limits of Control, to assume that, like Ebert, every shot and gesture is simply a passing whim is, not to put too fine a point on it, missing the point. Paz de la Huerta’s “Nude” is the quintessential femme fatale, her goal stated and pursued with, um, naked abandon. She is all surface, every gesture simply there, and truthful. She seems incapable of subterfuge, although her existence implies it, and her eventual death is simply inevitable. Her role (and there is nothing else – the lack of depth is (purposefully) comical) requires it. She occasionally reappears as Tilda Swinton, her double/opposite – fully clothed from head to toe (not naked, unfortunately), with pale skin and blonde hair (not dark skin and deeply brown hair). Jarmusch also links them with raincoats – neither functional, one is heavy and thick, the other is totally transparent. Descas and De Bankole could be brothers, and both speak French, although Jarmusch has them interact, perversely, with a translator. The brief cameos by John Hurt (“Guitar”) and Gael Garcia Bernal (“Mexican”) are, despite obvious differences in age and ethnicity, linked by similar garb – the film briefly digresses into trying to redefine bohemia in the modern age – as well as interest in a particular guitar case. There is also a visit by Youki Kudoh as “Molecules”, who provides a dubious scientific explanation for the film’s far-fetched, comical ending. Needless to say, an international cast of actors meeting in terse vignettes and having pseudo-comical interactions, interrupted by the occasional language barrier, should be no surprise to Jarmusch fans.

7. Politics:
Make no mistake – beyond the genre trappings (lovingly violated), Jarmusch has made a boldly political film. I don’t necessarily agree with Rosenbaum’s assertion that Bill Murray’s “American” is a Cheney stand-in (an unreasonably limiting perspective, to my mind), but I do agree that Jarmusch has, for better or for worse, laid out a very specific statement of purpose – a kind of personal declaration/summation. The limits of a very particular kind of “control” become clear, as Jarmusch is railing against a society that no longer values art, museums, film, genre, the act of looking and sitting quietly, waiting, meandering through quasi-defined space, repetitions that become mantra-like – those elusive secular prayers.

8. Repetitions:
“You don’t speak Spanish do you?”; two espressos, in separate cups - not a double espresso; Diamonds, Matchbooks; Unintelligible, yet edible, notes; “he who believes himself bigger than everybody else ought to visit the cemetery”.

Postscript: In the most recent issue of Film Comment, there is an appreciation of the film by Kent Jones, which I very purposefully avoided. And, as it turns out, with good reason – as usual, Jones elucidates difficult material with remarkable poise and a disarming ease. I don’t think there is any critic working right now in English that makes the art of writing seem so incredibly effortless. I worried that the above post would come off as the very snark I was decrying, or even worse, as pretentious. But if that is the case, so be it. While writing about film as a pastime engenders quite a few benefits – reflection, hindsight, sometimes a second or third viewing – it can also be encumbered by all the cultural noise around it. Unless one lives in a vacuum, it is impossible to avoid reviews, conversations, all those opinions both pro and con, and it becomes something of a chore to sift through the avalanche of words and try to remember something of ones initial response to the film at hand. In other words, it is entirely possible that I value The Limits of Control so highly simply because everyone else dismissed it so easily. I certainly hope this isn’t the case – only time, and a few more viewings, will tell. I’ll end with Jones’ words, “Jarmusch’s new film stands alone, within his own body of work and in the landscape of current cinema. It is militant, and it is serene.” I can’t wait to see the movie again.

Triangle redux:

About a year ago I wrote a few essays for the Tisch Film Review, the brain child of a New York based filmmaker and critic. Various factors have conspired to render the site defunct; in the interest of keeping these pieces available, I'm re posting a couple of them here. I've tweaked a few typos here and there, and the pieces are missing illustrations that originally accompanied them. Otherwise, they remain unchanged. Unfortunately, I was unable to save a piece on Jia Zhangke's 24 City, which remains my favorite among anything else I've ever written. It's now lost somewhere out there in cyber-space.

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Three men plan a heist in a shady backroom – loot will be stolen, no one will trust each other, and a cheating wife will be thrown in for good measure (her lover? A cop!). What could go wrong? Or more importantly, how long until something goes wrong? Usually, either the planning of the heist or its inevitable unraveling are the most common narrative conceits on which to hang such a thriller – the cosmic certainty of disaster. But here we have a unique gimmick – the hook is not the plot, nor the various machinations that propel the plot, but the way in which the film itself was made. Three directors perform a large scale exquisite corpse, with Tsui Hark writing/directing the first thirty minutes or so of the film before passing it along to Ringo Lam, who in turn sends it to Johnnie To for the grand finale. If the heist gone horribly awry genre is middling and far too familiar, the opportunity to see three distinctive visual styles juxtaposed together in such a fashion is, as far as I know, entirely unique – most omnibus films function as discrete units, or if there are recurring characters/motifs, will still stop to identify who is doing what at any given moment. Interestingly enough, despite no identification of “chapter stops,” even the untrained eye will have no difficulty distinguishing almost exactly where each director transitions to the next. This is a master class in the practical applications of wildly different, and ultimately wildly opposed, film technique.
Hark’s madman, anything-goes aesthetic has, in recent years, began to show its seams. What was once a wild, razors edge approach to narrative and visual story telling has become simply incomprehensible. Canted angles, unmotivated zooms, frantic rack focuses and bizarre whip pans have worn out their welcome, and revealed a filmmaker and the end of his tether. David Bordwell’s recent post on the legacy of Hark reveals the limits of his tenuous (and now tedious) tight rope act – what was once fresh, unpredictable and dangerous has turned into one Ghost Story too many, with a few Once Upon a Time’s thrown in for good measure. Hark franchised himself too willingly, and the wild inconsistencies of his last great film, Time and Tide, have come to predominate. Perhaps one would be more forgiving without the context of two superior directors – one good, one great – and an interval of increasingly diminishing returns (I’m sorry, for you and myself, for having sat through Seven Swords and Zu Warriors).
Lam comes off slightly better, his slick, horizontally based compositions gliding the action smoothly across the 2:35 frame (he ensconces where Hark fragments). Tarantino’s appropriation of City on Fire notwithstanding, Lam never reached the heights of a Hark (or Woo, for that matter). His success with low budget, low expectation Van Damme fodder seems both a blessing and curse – Lam sidestepped the downfall of more epically minded directors ala Ronny Yu (who went from Bride With White Hair to Bride of Chucky, alas), but never strived for grandeur in the same way as a Woo or Yuen (again, for better or for worse). Here, Lam is allowed a bit more atmosphere, and his penchant for enclosing the frame in geometric compositions is almost Sternbergian. Sleek architecture creates an atmosphere of constant forward propulsion, as various characters move from point A to point B with acute precision, enveloped in chiaroscuro lighting. His episode culminates in a beautiful dance amidst stoic pillars in an amphitheatre-like parking garage – drama is displayed as if one is on a Grecian stage.
Leave it to Johnnie To to integrate wild abandon and cold architecture into something resembling filmmaking. From his first epic composition, with various characters stacked in depth and filling the widescreen frame, we realize instantly the auteur of Exiled, Sparrow and Breaking News (to name just a few). As our good friend Ignatius has pointed out over at The Auteurs, To is left with the task of synergizing these disparate threads, and he comes through with flying colors. After so much spatial fragmentation, To’s sense of space unifies plot, character and theme into a thrilling conclusion, with a late night shoot-out that rivals the finale of Exiled in aesthetic bliss, plumes of muzzle smoke drifting like clouds over stalks of tall grass. It’s a mesmerizing choice, the confusion and discontinuity of the plot evoked in purely visual terms, while To’s camera reveals a larger pattern of spatial configuration that never disorients the viewer – this is geometry as catharsis.
Perhaps unwittingly, To’s segment serves as a final nail in what was considered the Hong Kong New Wave. The second generation of HK action gods turned their eyes towards Hollywood over a decade ago, choosing Van Damme as their conduit to Hollywood fame and fortune. Fittingly, Hark and Lam (along with Woo) eventually made their way back to HK, but the game was up (I hasten to add that Woo’s Windtalkers might be one of his finest achievements, followed closely by Hark’s Double Team, an absurdist action amalgamation of twenty different movies, disintegrated into one ludicrous master stroke – sublime stupidity. Lam never fared so well, and Woo’s triumphant HK return is the laughable, wannabe-pseudo epic Red Cliff). Regardless, a few minor successes were far outweighed by embarrassment after embarrassment. One-too-many Better Tomorrows later, current HK action has disintegrated into self parody, the visceral action of yesterday replaced by slipshod FX (Yuen Wo-Ping gone digital) and increasingly uninteresting pop stars-turned actor (see, for instance Storm Riders). Wing Chun becomes Her Name is Cat, Fist of Legend turns into Black Mask 2; Corey Yuen has gone to work for Luc Besson while Ching Siu Tung choreographs for Uwe Boll and the recently nationalized Zhang Yimou. Perhaps, like most New Waves, the initial burst of youthful energy and vigor where what mattered most – a sense of daring and anything-goes-not-giving-a-fuck aggressiveness. Such smoke and mirrors can only last for so long before one demands something more – and, as if in a face-off in one of his own films, To is the last man standing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

some 'Joe' talk, with plenty more to come:

‘APICHATPALME’ screams the headline from last month’s issue of Cinema Scope – something of a victory lap for the venerable underground Canadian institution, spearheaded by the delightfully surly and irascible Mark Peranson. Certainly, they’ve got as much right as anyone (more even) to triumphantly proclaim the first genuine experimental filmmaker to win a Palme d’Or in who knows how long – along with Denis and Tarr, Peransons’ crew has been pushing Lisandro Alonso, James Benning, Lav Diaz, Miguel Gomes, Albert Serra, Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke and Jean Louis-Guerin long before most of us had ever even heard of them. Champions of the unknown, for sure, and we all owe them a little something for fighting the good fight, as well as doing quite a bit of festival leg work. In other words, if anyone deserves that victory lap, it’s Peranson and Co. The object in question is, of course, Mr. Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul, who’s most recent feature ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ just walked off with (arguably) the most prestigious film prize in the world (that it was awarded by a jury headed by Tim Burton is subject to another essay altogether, rife with speculation as to the worn-out Disney shill/whimsy-as-corporate-trademark/man-child’s private motivations).

So is this the year that ‘Joe’ breaks out? It depends. As with most things, who and what you’ve been reading plays no small part. Weerasthakul is not only on his 5th feature film, but has made a number of digital shorts and gallery installations – and while this might not exactly garner the attention of Entertainment Weekly, it aint’ nuthin’ either. In other words, he’s been a major figure for some of us for quite a while. Conversely, the bestowal of the above mentioned, internationally recognized, ‘wow, that guy is hot shit’ trophy is bound to make just about anybody sit up and pay attention (if only for a minute or two). Peranson dubbed his 2010 Canne’s coverage ‘The Year We Made Contact’, a fitting title that suggests a couple of perspectives – not only that of himself and his magazine, but a more general section of cinephilia at large. And if we haven’t quite ‘made contact’ with the mainstream (something that neither Peranson nor Weerasthakul could give a shit about), it’s a shot across the bow nonetheless. More than a few entities have reported on ‘Toronto Star’ critic Peter Howell’s dismissive thoughts on the award winning director after the announcement of the top prize: Scott Foundas expounds: ‘In a jeremiad so hostile to the very notion of alternative cinema that it could have been bought and paid for by a major studio, … Howell assailed Apichatpong’s film for being “so resolutely uncommercial, even Thais can’t figure it out”… He then went on to tsk-tsk Burton for “one of the most political and cynical moves ever from a Cannes jury,” which evidently “wanted to show how cool and cutting-edge they were” by awarding the kind of film destined to be “shunted off to single-screen art houses” and “play to tiny audiences and miniscule box office receipts before vanishing from the minds of all but film critics and the most adventurous of regular film-goers”. Another year, same as the last – I’m reminded of a long chapter in Rosenbaum’s ‘Movie Wars’, in which he chronicles David Cronenberg’s battle against Harvey Weinstein during the 1999 Cannes Festival; Cronenberg was required to defend himself for awarding top prizes to the Dardenne Bros’ ‘Rosetta’, as well as its non-professional cast, while Weinstein bitched and moaned about the festival not recognizing ‘real films’ (i.e. Miramax product). Pick a side. It seems like nothing changes, other than the titles of films and the ‘critics’ talking about them (remember the ‘Film Socialisme’ flap?). Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure how far an ‘us vs them’ attitude is going to get anyone, although I increasingly fear that mainstream studio product won’t rest until it has steam rolled everything in its path. It’s not enough to be the biggest kid on the block, they want to be the only kid on the block.

So here we are on the quickly approaching eve of another TIFF, where ‘Boonmee’ will be screening (and a couple of friends will be viewing), as well as another upcoming edition of CIFF, also where ‘Boonmee will screen (and I’ll be viewing). I’m not sure how ‘cool’ or ‘cutting-edge’ I am, nor how tiny the audience will be when I finally get to see it. I am positive that the film will ultimately play to ‘minuscule box office receipts’, although it is questionable how quickly the film will vanish from the minds of those who see it. I for one can’t stop thinking about ‘Joe’.