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February 2005 Archives

February 25, 2005

Kurt Kren Retrospective


I have been wrestling this week with my ambivalent reaction towards the recent Kurt Kren and Viennese Actionist Film near-complete retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives which I found to be both enervating and exhilarating in equal measures. In retrospect, this inability to reconcile with the artist's body of work seems to stem from Kren's markedly divergent, subjective approaches to filmmaking.

On one side of the argument is Kren's early structural studies that, like Peter Kubelka's metric films, create textural composition through subliminal imagery, visual repetition, and sensorial distillation, resulting in a film that is intrinsically rhythmic, sensual, and experientially pure. Among the most notable in the Early Works and Actions program are the evocatively foreboding, natural compositions of 3/60 Bäume in Herbst (a film that prefigures the stark desolation of Ernie Gehr's Precarious Garden), the morphing, "apparent" animation (achieved through editing and shot placement) geometric, graphic arts studies of 11/65 Bild Helga Philipp, and the anonymous despiritualization of urban spaces (and residents) in 5/62 Fenstergucker, Abfall, Etc.

However, on the other side of the argument is Kren's energized, pulsing, and highly stylized documentation of the Actionist movement that captures disturbingly graphic and often salacious images that straddle the fulcrum between libertine expression and provocative sensationalism, resulting in works that seem exploitive, pornographic, and even literally excremental (as in the Forms and Bodies program short, 16/67 20.September that presents a seemingly interminable looped sequence of a disembodied person relieving himself). It is within this collaborative realm of "artist filming artist" (and in the case of 16/67 20.September, an artist goading/inspiring/provoking another artist) that I find Kren's vision to be particularly amorphous, untenable, vile, and elusive, which seems to validate the personal observation that it is not Kren's technical skill or abstract compositions that I find obtuse, repulsive, or otherwise problemmatic in some of his fims but rather, the selection of certain (artistically nebulous) subjects within his work: a broader aversion to (or unreconciled disaffection for) the Actionist movement - or at least, in the overarching vision of Kren's featured artists that define the materialaktion (essentially, the performance art) - that the filmmaker captures on film.

The intriguing, underlying Actionist concept of materialaktion lies in the presentation - and observation - of the human body, not as an organic form, but as a plastic and deformable (and continuous) surface that exhibits specific and unique material properties when in action or subjected to dynamic motion. Of the two Actionists featured in Kren's films, Otto Mühl (filmed in color) and Günter Brus (filmed in black and white), Mühl's oeuvre - as represented in Kren's films - seems the most artistically bankrupt and irredeemable: elementally saturated, consciously outré, and baroque, his work recalls the atmospherically dense, bacchanalian kitsch of Kenneth Anger without the implicit, covert, sinister ritual. Through films such as 6/64 Mama und Papa, 9/64 O Tannenbaum, and 7/64 Leda mit dem Schwan, Mühl reveals a penchant for capturing the action of the body engaged in primitivistic (and implicitly sexual) behavior, using assorted tactile materials such as chicken eggs, clay, paint, wispy objects like flax and feathers, inflated rubber balloons, and flowers (inserted in human orifices) to depict the human body as artistic canvas or as linear props that define geometry through erogenous vertices (as in the otherwise forgettable 12/66 Cosinus Alpha).

In contrast to the voyeuristic intimacy of Mühl, Brus' work reveals a more estranged and abstract perspective, often incorporating correlative objects and mechanisms (in particular, bicycles) into the composition, but exist apart from the actions of the (human) body. The most indelible short film in the Brus materialaktion series is 10/65 Selbstverstümmelung, a haunting and innately disturbing expression of profound alienation as the artist, covered in a clay-like, deformable medium, performs grotesque acts of disfigurement and self-mutilation, revealing an even more intimate and profoundly unsettling presentation of a body in agony.

Nevertheless, the stylistic constant in what has proven to be a polarizing and aesthetically confounding experience is Kren's metric precision - an intuitive rhythm that pushes the liminal bounds of what is visible and, perhaps more relevantly, challenges the notion of what is filmable and artistically capturable. It is this intrinsic confrontation that is perhaps best reflected in the subtly hypnotic and abstractly dissociative microcosmic landscapes of 4/61 Mauern Positiv-Negativ, an observational study that illustrates patterns of metallurgical surface grain and scale through rapidly alternating positive and negative images, a perceptional material duality that effectively blurs the distinction between void and substance, presence and absence, the tactile and the impression.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 25, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Kurt Kren Retrospective

February 22, 2005

36 Quai des Orfèvres, 2004

36quai.gifFrom the opening sequence of 36 Quai des Orfèvres that shows intercutting parallel sequences between a band of thugs who break into a bar and physically abuse the proprietress and a pair of vandals who pry off a street placard and subsequently emerge in the private room of a bar with other drunken, trigger-happy carousers, Olivier Marchal establishes the film's overarching moral ambiguity and blurred delineation between criminals and undercover police. Ostensibly a professional (and inferentially personal) competition between two seasoned law enforcement agency lead investigators Denis Klein (Gérard Depardieu) and Léo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) as they try to apprehend the perpetrators responsible for a string of boldly executed, daytime armored car robberies by any means possible in order to secure a promotion to commissioner, the rivalry soon escalates into a protracted, acrimonious, and increasingly reckless and unethical power struggle for professional validation, glory, and revenge. Drawing inspiration from the filmmaker's former career in law enforcement as well as a beloved national cinema legacy of atmospheric and highly stylized crime thrillers (that include such eminent filmmakers such as Louis Feuillade, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Henri-Georges Clouzot), 36 Quai des Orfèvres is an accomplished and entertaining film that is bolstered by the impeccable performances of a strong lead and supporting cast that, nevertheless, ultimately suffers from an overly contrived, conveniently structured, and tidy resolution (in particular, an extraneous, tangential subplot that could only have served to set up a set of conditions in place for the inevitable outcome).

Posted by acquarello on Feb 22, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

February 21, 2005

Le Silence, 2004

silence.gifAn apprehensive Olivier (Mathieu Demy) inscrutably stands watch at an outpost on the side of a mountain, cursorily surveying the desolate topography with a pair of binoculars, waving to armed comrades situated on an adjacent clearing, checking the sight on his rifle...waiting for something to happen. The seemingly idyllic opening sequence of natural communion provides an insightful glimpse into the heart of the conflict as the chaos of shots fired and a faint rustling in the brush momentarily betrays his insecurity and allows a wild boar to escape into the wilderness. On holiday in his native village in Corsica, Olivier has returned with his fiancée (Natacha Régnier) to reconnect with his ancestral identity (perhaps resulting from an existential crisis brought on by his impending fatherhood), returning to the simpler life and camaraderie of the hunters who have continued to carry on the centuries-old tradition of his cultural heritage against the tide of inevitable depopulation (and vanishing way of life) in the dying village. Bound by the cultural code of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and independence, Olivier's moral allegiance is tested when he becomes an inadvertent witness to an act of cold-blooded murder. Orso Miret's sophomore feature is an elegantly shot and sincere, but thematically slight and ultimately superficial psychological portrait of guilt, conformity, and personal responsibility. Juxtaposing stylized, oneiric images that reveal Olivier's crisis of conscience against the naturalism of the region's harsh and unforgiving terrain (and further correlating the boar hunt as a social metaphor for natural law), Le Silence serves as a thoughtful exposition on instinctuality, character, and human resolve.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Le Pont du Nord, 1982

pont_nord.gifIntegrating the filmmaker's familiar elements of whimsical, quixotic adventure (Celine and Julie Go Boating), integrated - but unresolved - conspiracy (Gang of Four, Secret Defense, and The Story of Marie and Julien), and liberated bohemianism (La Belle noiseuse, La Religeuse), Le Pont du Nord is an effervescent, ingeniously constructed, and infectiously affectionate paean to the city of Paris. From Baptiste's (Pascale Ogier) hopeful sentiment of arrival after encircling the statue of the Belfort lion in Denfert-Rochereau (a symbol of French Resistance against the Germans) that is reflected in Marie's (Bulle Ogier) literal awakening at a random intersection, Jacques Rivette juxtaposes the theme of rebirth against images of Paris in perpetual state of demolition and construction (a state of constant flux and transition that is similarly captured in Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her) that mirrors Marie's own existential state after being released from prison and an unresolved past of radicalism. Rivette further uses the recurring image of spirals - the serpentine form of a sculptured dragon, the weaving of spider webs (that also reinforces the deceptive, "non-mystery" quality to the film), the characters' labyrinthine pursuit of the contents of a mysterious briefcase carried by Marie's former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), the district map of Paris (that Marie observes to resemble a children's board game) - to illustrate, not only the inextricability of destiny, but also the inherent impossibility of starting over. Set against a shifting and increasingly alien cityscape that, nevertheless, embodies a deeply rooted, cumulative cultural history of resistance and revolution, the film dispels the myth of tabula rasa - a metaphor for a generation's defeated idealism following the May 68 protests - that seeks to propel modernization and progress through flight and ideological amnesia. Nevertheless, Rivette retains the lyrical tone amid the seeming weight of human tragedy through Le Pont du Nord's indelible film-within-a-film epilogue that, like the parting shot in Abbas Kiarostami's subsequent film A Taste of Cherry, serves as a thoughtful document of transience, an affirmation of mundane ritual, and a subtle appreciation of the here and now.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 20, 2005

Deux, 2002

deux.gifA young woman named Magdalena (Isabelle Huppert) retrieves a postcard that had been cast into the wind by her biological mother (Bulle Ogier) from a seaside town in Portugal and discovers that she has a twin sister named Maria. From this seemingly introspective opening premise on identity, connection, and history, Deux diverges into unexpectedly abstract, non-intersecting trajectories that involve a schoolgirl attraction with a fellow classmate, a mother's wartime romance, a serial killer who leaves a tell-tale rose on the bodies of his victims, a lonely woman who adopts a fox as a household pet. Composed of asequential and dissociated vignettes, the film evokes the baroque tableaux of Sergei Paradjanov, the formalism of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and fractured surrealism of Luis Buñuel infused with quasi-religious iconography and Actionism of Otto Mühl (most notably, in the image of disemboweled figures such as ornamental cherubs). Werner Schroeter's latest film is an elegantly operatic, tactile, and voluptuous, but ultimately fractured, opaque, and impenetrable, creating a sensuous and visually dense but also idiosyncratically personal to the point of abstruseness.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated conversation between critic Gary Indiana and Bulle Ogier turned out to be a rambling, disorganized, and incoherent near monologue by Mr. Indiana who seemed far more interested in usurping the spotlight to articulate his opinions on Deux and Werner Schroeter rather than actually interviewing with Ms. Ogier, opening with his expounded personal theory that the relationships between the estranged mother and twin daughters in Deux represented the relational dynamics between Schroeter's recently deceased mother, his late muse Magdalena Montezuma, and Schroeter himself...to which Ms. Ogier could only briefly respond in agreement (before Indiana then launched into a second theory on the meaning of the film). Fortunately, Ms. Ogier was able to provide some personal insight into her oeuvre, such as her continued work in stage and screen both in France and in Germany, which led to her association with Schroeter. Another was how her collaboration with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in The Third Generation led to the development of her character in Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord as a loose sequel to the newly released, imprisoned former activist and revolutionary of the Fassbinder film.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 20, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 19, 2005

Los Muertos, 2004

losmuertos.gifLos Muertos opens to the visually atmospheric and strangely surreal image of an unpopulated tropical forest, tracking sinuously (and disorientingly) through the lush wilderness, momentary revealing the dead bodies of two young people splayed amid the obscuring brush, before returning to the idyllic shots of foliage that becomes unfocused and diffused, imbuing the image with a sense of organic, subconscious somnambulism. The film then takes on a more mundane and naturalistic tone with the shot of Argentino Vargas waking (perhaps from the haunted dream), assembling chairs at a workshop, and eating in silence, before an intervened confrontation reveals that the setting is a rural prison, and Vargas is serving the final days of his sentence for the murder of his siblings. Eventually released from prison, the taciturn Vargas sets out to honor a promise that he had earlier made to a fellow inmate and deliver a letter to the old man's daughter before embarking on his long, lonely journey home. Lisandro Alonso creates an evocatively atemporal and even otherworldly experience through the film's indigenous primitivism. Like the seeming mystery of the dead bodies in the jungle of the opening sequence, the film represents a subversion of expectation, most notably in Vargas' seemingly arrested memories of - and anticipated reunion with - the daughter he left behind (his purchase of candies and a fashionable blouse for her seems to indicate a young girl or teenager and only later does it become evident that she is already a grown woman). It is this process of supplanted expectation that is perhaps alluded to in the film's contextual reference to the titular dead: a laconic and unstructured presentation of images without narrative form, rather like cinematic ghosts, existing outside of time and physical space in the ephemeral, dense, and impenetrable medium of personal memory.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

Ma Mère, 2004

mamere.gifA somber and young man Pierre (Louis Garrel) sits inside a car listening impassively as his barely coherent, self-absorbed father (Philippe Duclos) coldly reveals his resigned resentment towards him as an accident of birth who had caused a premature end to his bohemian lifestyle and sexual experimentation with his wife Hélène (Isabelle Huppert). Brought to a secluded summer villa for a tenuous (and decidedly dysfunctional) family reunion with his seemingly delicate and emotionally opaque mother, Pierre is eager to express his complete devotion towards her in an attempt to prove allegiance to her against the emotional betrayal of his father's flaunted infidelities. However, when the father returns to France on "business" (a implicit euphemism for his visits to his mistress), Hélène's awkward intimacy with the tormented and inexperienced Pierre reveals an even more insidious side to her seeming impenetrability. Based on philosopher and author George Bataille's novel, Ma Mère is an insidious, amoral, depraved, and even darkly comical exposition on filial attraction, sexual initiation, and liberation. Although filmmaker Christophe Honoré presents some indelible and evocative images, most notably in the repeated crane shots of sand dunes that visually reflect Pierre's underlying sense of desolation, the pervasive bankruptcy and perverted search for intimacy and transcendence in the story is so alienated and bereft of hope that the film's recurring themes of religion, sexuality, fanaticism, and obsession becomes inextricably moribund and, like the characters' troubled lives, proves to be a transitory exercise in vacuous, empty ritual.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 19, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Comment Selects

February 13, 2005

The Story of a Cheat, 1936

cheat.gifFrom the casual and personably familiar (and inferentially self-confident) running commentary of the film's introductory behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew, Sacha Guitry sets the infectiously picaresque and disarming tone of The Story of a Cheat. An interstitial silhouette of Guitry's profile provides the clever transition from real-life auteur to fictional character as the bespectacled, middle-aged, self-confessed "Cheat" pens his memoirs at an outdoor table of a bistro that overlooks his former residence - a Parisian townhouse that he would later admit he had won and subsequently lost through the fickle fortune of the cards. Proceeding in flashback as he recounts his youth in the provincial town of Pingolas, the Cheat reveals the unforeseeable and paradoxical set of circumstances that had spared him from accidental death - and unintentionally extolled the virtues of vice - after having earlier stolen change from the cash register in his parents' grocery store and was consequently forbidden by his father to be served freshly picked mushrooms during dinner as punishment, a side dish that inadvertently turned out to have proved lethal for the rest of the family. Orphaned at the age of twelve and divested of his inheritance by calculating, antipathetic relatives who are only too eager to be rid of him, the young Cheat (Serge Grave) soon sets out to find his own fortune, working his way up from as a bellboy to doorman to elevator operator for a series of luxury hotels throughout France before settling in Monaco after the war, striving to lead an honest life by working in the casinos of Monte Carlo as a croupier until a seemingly fated encounter with an enigmatic woman with soulful eyes named Henriette (Jacqueline Delubac) invariably tempts him to return to his old, incorrigible ways. Composed entirely without dialogue and instead, propelled through anecdotal, first-person narration, the film is a droll, infectiously effervescent, and charming satire on greed, opportunism, chance, and destiny. Guitry's briskly paced, reflexive tone is further reflected in the recursive nature of the film, most notably in the Cheat's repeated encounters with his former lovers and also his military comrade Serge (Roger Duchesne), creating a deceptively lyrical, yet insightful and observant commentary on the irrepressibility of human nature.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, 2000

life_fatal.gifIn early 12th century France, a horse thief is captured in the outskirts of a peasant village and brought to the attention of a passing monk in order to receive absolution before being hanged for his crime. Momentarily released from his binding in order to pray, the thief seizes the opportunity to flee from the village before being quickly apprehended and returned to the waiting priest, who then informs the townspeople that he cannot give absolution to someone who is not ready for death. Instead, the monk offers to take the prisoner into his counsel at the monastery and agrees to bring him back for his punishment when he is able to accept his fate. One day, the prisoner returns to the village and solemnly approaches the clearing that leads to the gallows before a seemingly anachronistic on-set mishap reveals that the opening sequence had been a film-within-a-film excerpt from a work in progress on the early life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and his epic theological conflict with theologian Pierre Abélard (a conflict that eventually led to Abélard's condemnation under Pope Innocent II). The nebulous, inexact context of Saint Bernard's reassuring words to the condemned man reveals the underlying essential mystery of Krzysztof Zanussi's pensive and articulate film, Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, as the divorced and childless Dr. Tomasz Berg (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) - the film's standby physician - is forced to come to terms with his own mortality after discovering that he is suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. The film presents a thoughtful contemporary allegory for a culture that is striving to reconnect with its traditional spirituality (and along with the soul searching, the inevitable self-examination that accompanies the process as people struggle to reconcile with its continued relevance in a modern, technology-driven, and increasingly alienated society) after years of systematic religious marginalization under communism. Morevoer, by chronicling Dr. Berg's personal journey of enlightenment, closure, and transcendence, Zanussi reflects the spiritual conflict embodied by Abélard and St. Bernard's inextricable theological conundrum: an irresolvable universal quest to find balance between reason and faith, humanity and spirituality, mortality and eternal life.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 13, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 4, 2005

Debt, 1999

debt.gifA pair of decapitated, naked male corpses are recovered from the bottom of a frigid, isolated lake as a team of police officers processes the crime scene in the hopes of recovering their heads in order to aid in the identification of the victims. Observing the idiosyncratically violent and methodical nature of the crime, the lead detective immediately notes the cursory similarity of the murders to the signature method of execution by foreign gangsters operating within the country - a gruesome reality that can only lead to the probable motive of an apparent turf war that, in turn, could only serve to hinder progress in the apprehension of the perpetrators. The film then proceeds in flashback to reveal implicit themes of new beginning, economic opportunism, and upward mobility: initially, through a shot of a young entrepreneur named Adam (Robert Gonera) overseeing the site preparation of his plot of land for construction (and is further reinforced through the news of his impending fatherhood), and subsequently, through the image of his business partner Stefan (Jacek Borcuch) scaling an indoor rock climbing training wall, envisioning himself within the exotic destinations of his mountain climbing magazines. Armed with a carefully detailed business proposal for an exclusive agreement to distribute competitively priced scooters for an Italian manufacturing company, the partners soon find their plans thrown into upheaval when a seemingly secured bank loan is rescinded for insufficient collateral only days before their scheduled international meeting. With little hope of securing another loan in time for the meeting, Stefan's recently reunited friend Gerard (Andrzej Chyra), offers to act as a go-between for his business associates in exchange for an undetermined percentage of the company profits. However, when Gerard returns with a dubious and financially-prohibitive proposal (undoubtedly engineered through syndicate connections), the partners soon find that they are unable to simply walk away from their persistent and ruthless intermediary. Spare, austere, and elegantly realized, Debt evokes the systematic dehumanization of Darezhan Omirbaev's Killer in the depiction of opportunism, moral bankruptcy, and exploitation endemic within former Soviet bloc countries as people compete for survival in the anarchy and freedom of a new economy. Filmmaker Krzysztof Krauze captures the bleak and interminably cold landscapes of post-communist Eastern Europe that is similarly reflected in the cinema of Béla Tarr and Sharunas Bartas, creating a trenchant and provocative metaphor for the profundity of human desolation in the face of corrupted and broken idealism.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 04, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes

February 2, 2005

Séance, 2000

seance.gifAn unidentified widow (Hikari Ishida) sits in the kitchen of the Sato home bearing a keepsake from her late husband in the desperate hope that her psychic medium, Junko (Jun Fubuki) can somehow connect her to him and help resolve her own conflicted emotions on the prospect of marrying another man. Soft-spoken, deliberative, and perhaps intentionally vague in her seemingly enlightened queries, Junko's role is that of a surrogate psychotherapist, echoing her client's ambivalent sentiment through inverted responses and patient, introspective silence. Nevertheless, Junko's paranormal vocation seems to have been borne more out of listlessness and an attempt at social re-engagement than financial necessity as she impulsively tells her devoted husband, a sound engineer named Sato (Kôji Yakusho) one evening that she is ready to return to work. A subsequent, cursory episode alludes to the reason for her self-imposed exile as Sato searches for a child's beverage training mug, reinforcing the theme of a lost child that has deeply marked - and continues to haunt - their marriage. Meanwhile, in another part of town, the police are baffled by the case of a nebulous and predatory stranger who has abducted a young girl at a playground under the ruse of her mother's illness. Working with a university professor (Ittoku Kishibe) in order to create a psychological profile of the perpetrator, the professor, in turn, convinces the lead detective (Kitarou) to enlist Junko's assistance, providing her with the child's handkerchief in order to aid in the search. A loose adaptation of the novel by Mark McShane, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Séance is a taut, atmospheric, and meticulously constructed psychological study of surrogate guilt, emotional co-dependency, personal conscience, and vanity. Kiyoshi Kurosawa continues to experiment with the distillation, aesthetic infusion, and integral structure of gothic elements into a non-horror genre narrative (most recently, in the sociological drama, Bright Future) while retaining the psychological tension, profound alienation, and metaphysical otherworldliness that have come to define his cinema (and is particularly evident in the Tarkovsky-like barren landscapes of Charisma) in order to create a thoughtful and provocative exposition on transference, spiritual desolation, and sentimental inertia.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 02, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005, Ancillary Film Notes